If you ever need to find James, chances are that he is somewhere by the Oaks near the ditch that crosses the field by Kimberly’s house. And yes, Kimberly is probably with him. They are childhood friends, and you can say that they are best friends, but don’t assume any farther than that.
And they don’t have nicknames. So don’t call them by some cutesy, rhyming couple name like “Jim and Kim” or “J and K.” They really don’t appreciate it, and as you can imagine, they’ve heard it a million times.
Kimberly’s parents own the field through which the ditch traces its path, but the land is mostly unused. There is a small storage shed closer to their house, and Kimberly’s dad had once built a treehouse somewhere in the middle of the field on one of the few trees that aren’t in the Oaks or the Pines, but it is in disrepair nowadays. That was when Kimberly was eight, and she is 17 now. An adult, of course, just like all 17 year olds.
James is almost 17, but a birthday is a birthday, so he’s still 16. Kimberly likes to tease him as soon as her birthday arrives, because for three months, she’s technically a year older than him. They’re still at the age when growing another year older is a good, exciting thing, after all.
There’s a patch of forestry on the south edge of the field. The ditch cuts through the trees, dissecting them into what James dubbed the Pines and the Oaks. On one side of the ditch, there are mostly pine trees. On the other side, oaks. It’s strange, James thinks, but Kimberly doesn’t think it’s strange at all that the trees happen to be separated like this.
On the side of the ditch is the path they travel down almost every day (weather permitting, of course) to get to the Oaks. In the Oaks, they’ve set up a makeshift club house. The four columns at the corners are old fence posts that they found in the field, but the rest of the club house is made from fallen tree branches and whatever else they can find lying around in the forested area of the field.
James and Kimberly started building the club house when they were 14, and it has been an off and on project since then. They are older now, and it seems like less of a “cool” thing to do, but it serves as a decent form of entertainment, especially after James got the idea to dig a tunnel that will go out under one of the walls and into a pit, which he will also dig. They will then cover the top of the pit with branches, and then leaves, and then mud, until it looks like any other part of the ground.
James is excited about this idea. Kimberly isn’t.
“Let’s just put a roof on this thing and finish it,” she says.
“If I’m going to have a club house attached to my name when I turn 17, I at least want it to be the coolest club house in town,” he says.
Kimberly sighs. She figured he would say something like that. “I hope you have two shovels,” she relents.
He does back at his parents’ house, but that’s a far walk. “I’ll bring them tomorrow,” he says.
“Our progress is stalled again until we have shovels.”
“That’s fine. We can go exploring.”
The ditch exits the patch of forestry a few hundred feet past where their unfinished club house is. It travels another couple hundred feet on Kimberly’s parents’ property, and then veers sharply to the west, and right past that is where the property line is.
“I wish that old man wasn’t so mean,” James says as they exit the Oaks. He can wish, of course, but the old man that owns the adjacent property is, in fact, mean. He’s an angry, crotchety old man that’s never said a nice word to Kimberly or her parents in the 15 years they’ve been neighbors. When he goes into town to pick up his weekly loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter, he doesn’t speak a word to anyone. He just pays and leaves. Everyone in their small town knows this, which lends more validity to the claim that he isn’t a very pleasant old man.
They walk closer to the property line. There’s no fence, but there’s a stick with a bright pink plastic flag on it demarcating the boundary. Kimberly won’t even go near the stick. She’s not afraid of the old man, but her dad told her to stay away from the old man’s property, and she’s a good girl (or so she tells herself), so she listens. Most of the time, anyway.
James respects that Kimberly listens to her parents, but as for himself, well, he wants to explore the patch of forestry on the old man’s property. He’s always been able to see it from the Oaks and the Pines, but he’s never been able to go there. For that reason, he calls it the Redwoods. Obviously, they aren’t actually redwood trees, but James is fascinated by the real redwood forests out west and has always wanted to visit, but it’s too far away.
Sometimes, James gets bad ideas. On occasions, he keeps those ideas to himself. Most of the time though, he shares his bad ideas with Kimberly. The last time he had a bad idea, he and Kimberly had nearly drowned trying to float a homemade raft out onto the lake a few miles down the road. That’s a different story, though, and despite any previous shortcomings associated with his ideas, he can usually somehow still manage to convince Kimberly to go along with them. She is his best friend, after all. His partner in crime.
Today, James gets a bad idea.
“Let’s come back out here at midnight and go explore the Redwoods,” he says.
Kimberly ponders his suggestion for a second, trying to decide which reason to settle on in the very long list of why they shouldn’t do any such thing. “What if the old man catches us?” She would’ve tried to appeal to James’ sense of understanding by saying that her parents would be mad if they found out she left the house after her curfew at 10, but they are out of town that night on a business trip for her dad’s job, and James knows this.
“He’s an old man. He probably goes to bed at like eight o’clock.”
As usual, she knows she’ll have to give in. “Meet at my house at 11:30 then?”
Kimberly still thinks it’s a bad idea, but she’s waiting patiently for James at 11:30, just like she said she would be. He shows up five minutes late with two shovels and a flashlight in his hand.
“Gonna drop these off at the clubhouse on the way there,” he says, lifting the shovels. “Hope you have a flashlight. I could only find one.”
She nods, pulling one out of her pocket. It’s a small flashlight, but she flicks it on, and it throws a surprisingly powerful beam of light. James still laughs though.
“Don’t you have anything bigger?” he asks.
“Just this and a lantern. I don’t know where my dad keeps the other flashlights.”
“Hey, that might be handy. Bring the lantern,” James says. He doesn’t ask very nicely, but Kimberly goes to get the lantern. James doesn’t always speak with the nicest words, but she knows that’s just how he is when he gets excited. Her father even told her once that the only reason he lets her go out so much is because he feels better knowing that James is with her. He says that he can tell that James is very protective of her, almost like an older brother that sometimes playfully picks on his younger sibling, but if anyone else touches that sibling, he’d beat that person to a pulp.
Kimberly agrees with that assessment, but she’d never tell her father why – that James cold clocked some guy at school because that guy spread a rumor that Kimberly slept with him. Of course Kimberly didn’t sleep with that guy. She barely even knows him. High school kids are just mean sometimes.
James and Kimberly trudge along the trail by the ditch. It’s dark out, but the moon is three-quarters full, so they don’t need to use their flashlights yet. They’re each holding a shovel, using them as makeshift walking sticks. It takes about 15 minutes of walking at that pace to reach the Oaks.
It’s really creepy there at night, Kimberly decides. She pulls her flashlight out of her pocket and holds it with the power button resting under her thumb. She doesn’t turn it on, but she feels better knowing that it can be on within an instant if she needs it. She doesn’t tell James that she’s a little scared, though.
“The Oaks are so different at night,” he observes. “We should camp out here one night and build a fire.”
Kimberly thinks that’s the worst idea she’s heard all day; even worse than the idea that James came up with that led to her being exactly where she is right now. She doesn’t argue though. “Yeah, maybe so.” She just hopes he’ll forget about it.
They reach the club house and drop off the shovels. James realizes that he needs to find a good, sturdy branch to replace the shovel as his walking stick, so he borrows one from the pile they’ve gathered to use for club house building supplies. Kimberly is glad to have her hand free though, because now she can hold the lantern in one hand and the flashlight in the other.
The sounds of the Oaks at night are only slightly different than during the day. Dexter is hooting somewhere, but that crazy owl does that sometimes at two in the afternoon, even though owls are supposed to be nocturnal. They don’t bother Dexter when they see him during the day, and in exchange, Dexter doesn’t bother them. He just stares with his big, mysterious owl eyes, and occasionally, Kimberly and James stare back. Kimberly noticed the feather pattern around Dexter’s eyes that make it look like he’s wearing glasses, and that’s how Dexter got his name. James thinks it’s a name fitting of a smart kid that wears glasses, but it works for an owl pretty well too.
Before they exit the Oaks, they decide to turn their lights off. If, by chance, the old man is awake, it would be easy to spot the lights in the open field. They’d wait and turn the lights back on when they get to the Redwoods.
They exit the Oaks and, for the first time, pass the pink-flagged stick and continue toward the trees off in the distance. James really likes to explore, so he’s visibly excited. Kimberly really likes to explore too, but she really likes it to be daytime while she’s at it. However, she feels a little excited. She’s a good girl, after all, and right now, she’s breaking the rules.
They see the old man’s house far off in the distance, and James says, “Definitely a good idea to leave the lights off for now.” Kimberly nods.
The Redwoods are farther away than they thought, but the trek is worth it. It takes about 10 minutes to walk there, but the walk is made longer because they have to pay attention to where they are walking. To get to the Oaks, there is a safe, reliable trail. To get to the Redwoods, there is no trail, and there could be ruts to trip over and sprain your ankle, or heck, even a hole to fall in. James leads the way, because he is a man, and that’s what men are supposed to do. Even 16 year old men.
Once they reach the edge of the Redwoods, the old man’s house clearly out of view behind the trees, they flick on their lights. Kimberly holds up her lantern and causes the trees to cast hundreds of shadows in every which way. She immediately regrets this, and turns the lantern off. Way too creepy.
James laughs at her. “The shadows aren’t going to hurt you.” She knows this, but she feels better with just her little flashlight casting its straight beam of light only in front of her.
“There’s not as many trees here as I thought there’d be,” Kimberly says without a hint of disappointment. James agrees silently with a nod, but Kimberly doesn’t see it because her gaze is affixed on the tree trunk in front of her.
“What is this?” she asks. She doesn’t mean to question what the object is, though. It’s obviously a worn, old shirt hanging over a branch. Her question, rather, contains a hint of wonder as to what the shirt is doing there, and James knows this, because they’ve never seen the old man – or anyone else for that matter – venture out to the Redwoods.
“I wonder who brought this out here,” James says. It’s supposed to be a rhetorical question, since obviously neither of the two of them know, but as they turn to walk farther into the trees, they’re met face-to-face with a hardened-looking, middle-aged man that wears the fiercest look that either James or Kimberly has ever seen.
This man may be older than they are, and he may appear mean, but both James and Kimberly know that this man is not the old man that owns the property. This man is someone else, and strangely, they both wish that it is the old man instead.
“Uh…hello, sir,” James says. It comes out meek, though, and Kimberly grabs at his shirt sleeve, tugging gently, as if to say “don’t tell him hello, let’s just run!”
The man doesn’t return James’ greeting, though. The man isn’t concerned with cordialities; rather, he is more concerned with the fact that someone – no, two someones – have seen his face. His face is on the evening news, and his face is plastered in newspapers, because he is a wanted man. James and Kimberly don’t know this, but he knows it, and now he knows that he can’t let these kids escape.
The man reaches out to grab James, but James is quick, and he nimbly dodges the hand. Kimberly doesn’t need to yank at his sleeve anymore, because now they’re both on the same page. They want out of there – now.
They both turn and run as fast as their legs will carry them. What the man wants with them, they don’t know, but it can’t be anything good, and that is all the motivation they need.
They break free of the Redwoods and head straight for the Oaks. They were careful walking toward the Redwoods, but now they aren’t even looking down as they run. The Oaks are the goal; that group of trees is the only thing they need to see.
“Get back here you little shitheads!” the man yells from behind them.
Kimberly wonders how close the man is, but doesn’t dare turn her head to see. She is actually pretty impressed with herself, given the circumstances. James is a faster runner than her, but she is matching him stride for stride. Or maybe he is matching her so that she won’t get left behind.
“I’m going to beat your asses into the dirt when I catch you!”
James knows with absolute certainty now that this is a bad dude, and he quickly hatches a plan in his head. There are two shovels back at the club house. Great for digging holes, also great for smacking the shit out of a low-life scumbag that wants to do harm to him and his best friend. They’re already outrunning him by a bit, which he chalks up to the fact that they’re young and healthy, and the man chasing them appears as though he’s seen better days.
James turns to Kimberly and whispers, “The shovels, we need to get the shovels.” He hopes she’ll understand his intentions, but at the very least, she’ll understand where he’s going to lead her.
They enter the Oaks about 10 seconds ahead of the man. It’s a pretty decent lead, but James has seen a lot of movies. James knows that a lead like that means nothing if Kimberly trips or if he suddenly gets a cramp. He knows they have to take care of this guy. Make it where he can’t chase them anymore.
The club house is right there. James has never been so happy to see it, but as he slides to a halt, he comes to a horrible realization: the shovels are gone. Vanished. Disappeared.
No, it’s impossible. He looks again, but they’re obviously not where he left them. Kimberly looks confused, but James doesn’t have the time to explain. He goes to grab her wrist and shouts, “Run!” But as he reaches out, he stumbles, misses, and falls forward. It’s like straight out of a movie. He can’t believe he fell, but he knows he doesn’t have time for disbelief, so he goes to get up, but his lead on the man is lost. James is now planted on the ground directly beneath the man that he’s been running from. The look on the man’s face is of exhaustion, but it’s laced with sinisterness. James can almost feel the evil aura coming from this man, and he is terrified of it.
“Get out of here, Kimberly!” he screams. It’s futile, though. He knows she won’t leave him there.
Kimberly is crying, but she doesn’t realize it. She’s still holding the flashlight, but her lantern has fallen out of her hand and is lying on the ground. If only they hadn’t gone to the Redwoods. If only she would’ve said no to one of James’ bad ideas for once. She feels like she’s going to throw up, but that’s one of the last things she wants to do at a time like this.
“Neither of you are getting out of here alive,” the man says. James and Kimberly both know that the man intends on making those words come true.
Kimberly, through her tears, sees something behind the man, but it’s too dark for her to make out what it is. “What’s that?” she says.
“Right, like I would fall for the oldest trick in the book,” the man says.
Kimberly and James recognize the sound immediately. The man is startled though, and turns to look, but instead of being faced with Dexter, there is an old, gray-haired man standing there gripping two shovels together with both of his hands. He’s already mid-swing, and by the time the man has turned around, there is no time to dodge. The old man’s attack connects with the side of the younger man’s head, and he is instantly knocked out cold. He falls to the ground next to James, and not skipping a beat, James jumps up and runs over to Kimberly.
“You…you’re my neighbor,” Kimberly says, bewildered at the old man who is now standing there, holding the two shovels and looking like a prospector.
The old man doesn’t acknowledge Kimberly’s remark though, and instead opts for the more important route of conversation. “You kids okay?”
James looks at Kimberly, who then looks back at him and nods. “We’re fine,” James says. “Thank you.”
“Good. You kids shouldn’t be out this late, you know.”
“We’re sorry,” Kimberly says.
“You also shouldn’t have been on my property,” he says. “But don’t say you’re sorry. I know you are.”
James and Kimberly don’t know what to say, so they remain silent.
“I’ll stay here and watch over this fella. You kids go call the cops.”
“But what if he wakes up?” James says.
“I’ll be fine. Now go. Skedaddle.”
The kids nod and run back to Kimberly’s house. James dials 911 and the cops take no more than 10 minutes to arrive. Three of them show up, but in two separate cars. It’s a small town, after all, so they usually don’t have a whole lot going on.
James leads two policemen out to the Oaks while Kimberly stays back at the house with an officer. She’s scared, and the cop understands and wants to comfort her, so he stays behind.
The man is still out cold when they arrive, but the old man is nowhere to be found. The shovels are lying on the ground though, so James points to them and says, “That’s what the old man knocked this guy out with.” The police handcuff the man and drag him and the shovels back to their patrol car.
James is worried about the old man, though. Where had he gone?
“Don’t worry, kid. We’ll stop by his house to make sure he’s okay,” the biggest of the three cops says. Both cars take off, and Kimberly rushes over and holds James, crying in his embrace. James is scared too. He knows he won’t sleep tonight, and he isn’t looking forward to telling his parents or Kimberly’s parents what happened. Word will get around if they don’t, and they are in big trouble either way.
They sit there silently for 15 minutes, when suddenly, there’s a knock at the door. James looks through the peephole, and it’s the cop that had stayed behind with Kimberly. He opens the door.
“Yeah, uh…” the cop says. “You kids said that old man saved you, right?”
James nods. “Yeah, I’d be dead if it wasn’t for him.”
“Kid, I don’t quite know how to say this, but that old man…he’s been dead for at least a week. We found his body in the lounge chair in his living room.”