He was a young, strikingly handsome guy. A little intense, maybe. His dark eyes were small and rimmed in pink, which made them appear fragile and too sensitive to light. His ears drew your attention first, standing out like dark antennae against his pale face. A shock of black hair divided them.
Those eyes and ears were always, always scanning. You could try to sneak a con on him, but he’d always see your tell. He’d always hear the lie fogging the spaces between your words.
You could try it. Use your slickest story. Pull out your most magnetic smile. You wouldn’t be three words in and he’d already be looking right past you to something more interesting. Something more real than your sorry spinning.
I swear, that Jim knew everything. He just didn’t care about most of it. He stuck to the here and now and only spent energy remembering the important things, the true things. The things he could see that no one else could. The calls he could hear before dawn, far under the earth.
He told us about those calls. Over and over he told us, but we didn’t believe him. We laughed, even. That Jim, we said, there he goes with that stare, telling those stories of brush-piling brownies and slinking spirits and shape-shifting such and nonsense. We didn’t know how to look deeper. We didn’t know how to be quiet to listen.
But you know as well as I do now that reckoning is what comes knocking on a fool’s door. And fools we were, we opened that door.
It was just a Tuesday night, free of portent as far as we could see. The four of us were following the railroad tracks out past the rusted-out chicken houses. We’d only had a few beers. Maybe some shots, but that’s all. Ed was waving his pistol around, getting loud about the creatures that were probably in the woods ahead. He said that he was free to do whatever he wanted with any earthly part of any land he wanted because God had given it to him. We just laughed. That was Ed doing Ed’s thing. It didn’t seem harmful.
I don’t know where he came from. He never hung out with us. He somehow just knew where we would be. Jim came around from behind me and stood still and silent in front of me. His eyes burned deep into mine. I raised my foot to take a step. He shifted to block me. Keeping his head low and his eyes locked onto mine, his shoulders moved ever so slightly toward me, willing me to back off.
The others laughed, but I knew. I knew to turn around and go home. He wouldn’t fight me. He was here to warn me and the consequences would not be delivered by Jim.
I can’t tell you why I ignored Jim and my own gut to comply with the expectations of my friends. Habit, maybe.
When you look at the woods from the road in the daytime, there’s not much to see. Fences and clearings get closer and closer by the year, stranding the opossums on the throughway and sucking in the fast food foam and plastic to cover the moss and trillium. The county is even talking about razing the whole thing for one development idea or another.
But in the small hours of a cold night, the woods seem endless. Endless and humus black and full of unfamiliar murmurs and rustlings. As we walked, our words grew sparse and our breath grew shallow. We were almost smart enough to pay attention for a moment, but the moment passed.
I heard her whisper in my ear. I kept walking, widening my eyes as if that would draw in more light for me to see what was ahead. If I ignored her, maybe she would go away.
“Hey, stop rubbing my ear!” Ed said, elbowing the friend closest to him.
“I’m not touching you!”
Ed stopped and crossed his hand over to his holster. He scanned once, drew fast, and pointed the barrel somewhere in front of his path.
“Ed? That’s a tree.”
“Yeah, Ed. Pretty sure it’s not rubbing your ear.”
“Shut up,” Ed hissed. A flash of illuminated smoke curled around the tree and dissipated. “Did you see that?” I did, but I wasn’t about to admit it. Below our feet, the earth rumbled. We all admitted to hearing that.
The tree shivered. I felt a softly furred animal’s back sliding under my hand, brushing my leg, and then slipping into the darkness. First one, then two, then dozens of tiny, faded lights spiraled around the tree. They blurred in my eyesight as if they were miles away instead of the few yards in front of me. “Put the gun away, Ed,” I said.
Ed shot twice into the heart of the tree. I couldn’t tell if the roar in my ears was from the gunshot blasts or from the earth beneath us. The tremors knocked us to our knees. The ground was moving and taking us with it like unwilling passengers. I looked down at the curve of the earth, down its body to see the glisten of brightly patterned scales, carrying us along with purposeful undulations.
Then the motion stopped. And the silence swallowed us. Another chance. If we could just be quiet and listen.
Her eyes were on fire as she stood over us. She flowed like the river itself, lit from within with leaf greens and sun golds. I was slack-jawed at her beauty and all I could think to do was mutter, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Jim stood by her side, staring at us, seeing everything from the green reflected light of his eyes. Unblinking, he locked onto each of us in turn. The first one ran back out of the woods. Then the second one. When he held his head low and locked onto me, I didn’t want to run.
“She’s so ugly!” Ed said. “She’s all gnarled and craggy and she smells like dirt!” He pointed his pistol at her.
Jim’s teeth flashed as he dove for Ed’s chest, knocking him back so the shot fired into the sky. The earth rumbled below us as an enormous scaled head turned toward Ed, opened its jaws, and pinned him between rows of gleaming teeth. The head turned back, enveloping its catch and pulsing it down its throat. I rolled off the gigantic serpent, scrambled to my feet, and ran and ran.
The next time I saw Jim, he was reaching to catch a frisbee. He walked it over to me, studied my face to see what I was hiding, and dropped the disc at my feet, daring me to pick it up. He knew and I knew, but neither of us spoke about it. I feigned disinterest, then dove for the disc. He was already on it, snatching it away to drop it once more.
No one laughed as quietly or as deservedly as Jim. He saw everything. He heard everything with those black and white striped ears.