Oskar and Cole were tweaking on meth when the shit went down. Oskar’s mom had organized a private search party, fully expecting we’d find them flanked by trouble. We hunted for the boys round-the-clock for two full days before giving up. Cole’s mom said, If they wanted to be found you’da found ‘em. We knew she didn’t give a damn but she had a point.
The boys emerged from the woods a day later, clear-eyed and hungry. When they were ready to talk they said the town was going to change, although they couldn’t say how. But they’d known it as soon as they reached the heart of the grove and spotted the amber fingers on the white birches lit up a cold neon green. Foxfire fungus, we said, full of ourselves.
We interviewed them separately and they both claimed that seconds after seeing the eerie glow a rust-colored light split the sky in two and it sucked them both in. They couldn’t say how they came back to us, only that the mushroom and green apple scented wind from the rotting birches foretold change.
We were skeptical; we knew those boys’ mischief. Cole’s mom clucked and said what
we’d all told ourselves, Those boys been doin’ too much crank.
We’d been asleep at the hour the boys swore the events had transpired. But we read that it hadn’t stormed that night. And the moonless sky had produced no heat lightning.
Now the town was on edge.
For weeks we watched both boys closely. We had to admit they seemed changed. The sores on their bodies cleared. They weren’t so pale. Their eyes weren’t moving a mile a minute. They smelled of fresh cut grass. Oskar’s mom cooked them schnitzel and sauerkraut and buttered noodles. They ate every morsel and asked for more.
Cole borrowed the community push mower and went door-to-door offering to trim our lawns for free. Oskar applied for a paper route and got the job. Every week around dawn we heard the thwack of the New Glarus Post Messenger Recorder hitting our front doors. Cole’s mom whispered, Wait a month or so, we’ll see.
We searched for signs the boys were taking drugs again but there were none. After six months they were still clean and hard-working. They weren’t doing meth or any drugs. But aside from their behavior, as far as we could tell, the town hadn’t changed.
A year after the boys emerged from the woods a gusty wind encircled the town, the air braided with the pungence of mushrooms and green apples. We followed its path and hiked ten miles northwest to Mount Hebron, where we stumbled upon an old water storage tank flipped on its side. A corroded section had crumpled and created an entrance. One at a time we climbed inside. We knew at once it was the boys’ refuge though to us it felt stifling.
Small plastic bags were strewn around the bottom. It stank of rust and sweet smoke. A
waterlogged H. P. Lovecraft poetry collection was open to the poem, “The Ancient Track.” Scrawled in permanent ink along one wall of the hideout were the words, Please make it stop.
We climbed from the tank without disturbing the contents. We didn’t know if the boys might return and we didn’t want them to learn we’d uncovered their lair; we wanted to protect them.
We followed the winged seeds of the rotting white birches as they were carried on the wind toward New Glarus. As we rested beneath the moonless sky we smelled the intensifying earthy, sweet air. And we’d wait, wondering what would happen to the boys when the town changed.
Jan Elman Stout writes short stories and flash fiction. Her work has appeared in Literary Orphans, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, 100 Word Story, and elsewhere. Her flash has been nominated for the Best Small Fictions anthology in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Jan is Submissions Editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. She is currently working on a flash collection. Jan can be reached on Twitter at @janelmanstout.