Simon’s flashlight burns out somehow, so I give him mine.
As night falls, the pines and oaks gather closer together like green blinds. The scouts and I have surely walked at least a half mile into the woods. Luke, tall and pale, says something with his back to me. I turn the volume dial on my hearing aid fastened close to my collar and ask him to repeat himself. “Should we start heading back to camp?” I look around at my friends. Simon nudges his glasses on his nose and shrugs.
I see black-haired Reuben roll his eyes while he snaps bubble gum in his teeth. “Don’t be a baby, we’re fine,” he says. The other dozen scouts murmur in agreement, one exclaiming seconds after that he sees a snake. I think it’s Arthur.
They keep scouring the trees and grounds with their lights, watching for anything that gleams back at them. Thomas is the only scout who brought a backpack. It sags with the weight of all we’ve scavenged: some railway bolts, foggy glass bottles, shells, stones, a terracotta bowl, a newspaper, a pewter matchbox, everything encrusted in dirt and coarse sand. Peter, our smallest scout, has caught three toads and a salamander by now. I don’t know how he found them since it’s getting colder. The boys and I are all swallowed in our sweaters.
We pause to let Arthur tie his boot laces and collectively take a few more paces before the other scouts straighten and freeze. I scan their faces, all of them turning to stare back into the woods from where we’ve come. I sign to Simon, What did they hear? and he clumsily signs back to me, telling me there was a whistle. Faint with distance. Our troop leader is signaling us.
We stand together in silence, waiting. Then Simon signs to me again.
There are three whistle blows. Three. That means it’s urgent. I nod. We run.
Our lights throw frenzied shadows ahead of us. Luke barks something over his shoulder, likely asking if we think something’s wrong. Reuben answers him, but the wind in my ear phones eats his words. I fall back, counting the heads of the scouts, making certain everyone is following. As I run, my foot catches on a heavy root. My knee buckles. I crumple. My chin hits the dirt.
I peel my eyes open. My teeth ache.
I gather myself up and frantically twist the dials on my hearing aid. I peer through the gaps in the trees and fear twists in my gut like a sharp screw. The scouts are gone. A scream crawls up my throat.
“Hey!” I wait for any sound in my hearing aid. No answer.
“Hey!” I call again. Only static.
It’s much darker now. I’d fainted. And I don’t know for how long. They left me.
I pat my pockets for my flashlight, but remember I lent it to Simon. Training tells me to stay where I am. They’ll come back for me. But it’s so much darker now. I’m cold. Nausea sits like a sour fruit in the back of my mouth. If I start walking, I reason that they’ll find me sooner.
So, I go, tree by tree, holding up my hands to keep the branches away from my face. The moon paints the woods acid green from where it hovers. I count to distract myself. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Everywhere I turn, the night moves with me, like looking at a mirror in a dark room–even when it’s too dim to see it, it still imitates, still stares like a lidless eye. That’s what the night is here. It’s watching me.
I think of the deer and the cats out here. Rabbits, bats, toads.
They’re more scared of me than I am of them, though. I’ve been told that.
Tree by tree. I forget where I stopped counting. I go back to one Mississippi. Two Mississippi. If I had my flashlight, I would be able to see if there are animals around me as I walk.
Three Mississippi. Four Mississippi.
Luke taught me that many nocturnal animals have things like mirrors in their eyes–a tapetum lucidum.
Five Mississippi. Six Mississippi.
It’s what makes their eyes glow in the dark.
Seven Mississippi. Eight Mississippi.
And Reuben told me some predators can be identified by the color of their eyeshine.
He said if you see yellow eyeshine at night, it’s already too late.
I don’t think coyotes get frightened very easily.
In the leaves in front of me, I see a strange shape. I step closer and the shade of the canopy parts just enough so that the moon spills over it. A dead raccoon. Laid open. Smashed and knotted in the grass and twigs.
Red. Very red.
I cover my mouth and throw myself at the nearest stand of trees. The branches tear at my sweater and hair. Static roars in my hearing aid as I run, every shadow mimicking my flight through the woods. I go as far and long as I can until I can’t suck enough air into my lungs and finally slump against a tree, trembling, aching. My heart smacks against my ribcage. I rummage my memory for every scrap of scouts training on survival in the wilderness. I’ve learned what fruits are edible, how to prepare water for drinking, how to navigate with star patterns, but no one prepared me for how afraid I’d be. I can’t build a fire if I’m afraid. And I’m terrified. Terrified that I’m one Mississippi away from being smeared across the forest floor like strawberry jam.
My pulse wanders and I try to choke down my panic. I hear something with my hearing aid–just above the white noise and my own shuddering breath in the phones pressed into my ears, there is a howl.
My heart stops.
I stare flinchingly into every dark and hollow space between the pines and feel a hundred invisible eyes upon me. I get to my feet, square my back against the tree, and wait.
They don’t assemble themselves into words in my hearing aid, so I don’t know if they’re human or animal sounds. But if I can hear it, it means it’s close. I will myself to move and follow the forest’s natural pathways, letting the glades and slopes of the grounds guide me. My progress is a crawl, but the sound continues and intensifies. Its odd tenor catches in my hearing aid with sharp rings of feedback.
The woods unfurl into a clearing. I halt at its perimeter to study it for any signs of movement or dwelling, but a scream pulls my attention toward an enormous hole in the ground at its center. Its mouth is wide, its rim blurred with leaves and roots and the places where rain has worn the earth away. My body prickles with an electric fear as I approach. I test the ground with my shoe and lean carefully over the edge so that I can peer down into it. Cowering at the bottom, in the deep, deep dark, is a boy, seemingly my age, who looks up at me through a mask of mud.
“Hey! Are you okay?” I say. The boy doesn’t speak, only continues to circle the pit with his face raised to watch me.
I call down again, “What’s your name?” I wonder if he’s one of the scouts.
Again, he doesn’t answer.
But then he signs to me.
He signs with dirty hands: Help me, I’m stuck.
Relief and wonder flood me with color. He signs with well-practiced ease, like he’s known sign language for a long time. None of the other scouts sign this well.
I sign back eagerly, I can get you out! He nods, his face twitching to allow a grin.
I lower myself onto my stomach, reach down into the hole, and offer my hand. He echoes my shape, holding up his hand toward me, each of us stretching ourselves so greatly we might tear ourselves or tear the world. He paws at the slick walls of the pit with his other hand and his feet. Our fingers dance just past each other in the dark until he finally grabs hold of my wrist with a leap.
I grit my teeth, pinch my whole body together to raise myself to my knees, and then I pull him up at last. We embrace, both breathless. He shivers while I hold him, shaking so hard I think he might shatter. I slip off my shoes to give him my socks and pull off my sweater to cover him. He accepts them, signing thank you. He uses the back of the sweater to wipe the black mud from his face and then leers at me.
The night has become a mirror again.
The boy is me. A copy of me. I look at his eyes and his eyes are mine.
He lunges at me, his long fingers snatching at my hearing aid, pulling the cords, tearing the phones from my ears, ripping the box from my shirt where it was pinned. I fight him, but he’s so much stronger than me and turns my hands back, nearly breaking my wrists, and wrestles me down into the oak leaves set ablaze by the sallow moon. Screams pour out of me as he drags me across the ground, even as I pull at the earth with my palms and heels. He shoves me toward the hole and I tumble in.
I fall. Fall for some time.
One Mississippi. Two Mississippi.
I land with a splatter. The force crushes the wind out of me and I moan, my voice silent to me. My legs and arms sink into the mire as I squirm. The boy looms over me in the pit, standing at its edge. He pins my hearing aid onto the sweater he’s wearing now. Moonlight flashes on its silver face and burns stripes into my vision. He turns the volume dial and I cry at him, howl at him, claw at the mud and roots. He smiles with bright teeth, his eyes gleam yellow, and before he leaves me, he signs to me: Good night.
Hayden McGough writes in the margins. He is deaf and living in Indiana, where he is well-acquainted with all things queer and weird. Find him on Twitter @haymcgough.