Earlier in the day, long before word about Leigh reached her father, Mark had become certain that the terrible thing had not really happened. In fact, he’d begun to believe it hadn’t happened before, either.
"The little shit's lying!"
"Hey! You're scaring him!"
"I don't give a shit!"
"Let's just hear what he has to say."
"I only want to know where Leigh is! You get him to tell me or, I swear to god, dammit! I swear to god!"
"Walter, stand back! I'll talk to him."
"I'm gonna talk to him!"
"Step back! Right now! Step back and calm down! Jesus Christ! He's my son!"
The shouting stopped, and the two men stared at one another, both quivering and ready. Their faces were starting to sweat and seed their loose collars with the beginnings of a slick. A heat carried from the two men that would’ve fogged the rolled up windows of a car.
Mark’s father was very careful, but firm. "I'm going to talk to Mark. You just listen, and don't come any closer. I swear to god, you don't go near him."
Across the porch, sitting on the squeaky spring bench, was Mark, a boy just ten years old. Chubby and bespectacled, he watched Leigh's giant father slowly drift back, his hold loosening on his dad's sweatshirt. The murderous certainty of the man's gaze frightened Mark, his eyes minimizing him like a predator.
"Okay, Mark," said his father, coming closer. His edge had not dulled, though. He sat down next to Mark, one arm steady on his shoulder, to comfort the boy; the other outstretched, miming the boundary between them and Walter, who was now standing ten feet back. "Mark, we know you were with Leigh. You've got to tell me what you know. You've got to tell me everything. It's extremely important. Do you understand?"
"Okay. Do you know where Leigh went?"
The boy shrugged, said nothing.
"Answer him, Mark!" hollered Walter, with a stamp of his foot. Little things, all over the porch, tinkled and rattled, as if in applause.
"Shut up, Walter! Just shut up and let me do this!"
"Forget him, Mark, he's not gonna hurt you. I promise. I'm not gonna let him anywhere near you, Okay? Just answer my question, Okay? Do you know where Leigh is?"
With the eyes of two grown men on him, the boy could only shrug gently, once again. "Not really," he said.
The old Elementary School had a dark playground. So dark, that it seemed no child's business to be there alone. Even on a sunny day, the light was hoarded by the tall rooftops on either side of it, and the crooked, wicked fingers of the Chinese Elms criss-crossing over the swing sets and the carousel.
Out a side door came a boy named Mark and a girl named Leigh. Each were carrying a net for collecting discarded equipment. Speckling the concrete, all over, were the rubber balls kids tossed aside when the whistle was blown. Leigh was definitely upset about something, and stomped away from Mark, the heels of her pointed shoes clapped off the concrete, swinging by the ends of her bare toes. Leigh was pretty and quick, slim as a reed, with dark black hair hanging down to just above her shoulders. The boy watched her the way a pet might watch its master - attentive and adoring. He held his net in both hands, and it drooped over his legs and feet.
Leigh noticed him dawdling. "You gonna do something, or what?" she yelled.
Mark was jolted into action. "Yeah! Yeah!" His sudden jog across the playground was more a waddle. Leigh snickered, rudely.
Mark was embarrassed. Just minutes before, he had been beaming with delight when his name, and Leigh's, had been called together. She was his favorite girl in the entire school, not just the fifth grade, and he was certain she would like him. Unfortunately, this was starting out so poorly, he was nearly panicking.
He hurried at his work, snatching up the red kick balls, scratched whiffle balls, and small foam footballs that littered everything, hoping she would appreciate how hard he tried. Before too long, though, he heard her exhale a lungful of breath, irritated. He spun about and found her watching, tapping her left foot impatiently, like a teacher about to demand an answer. "You should go down there." She then pointed down the grassy slope that separated the playground from several paved courts below. There was a slide running down the middle of it. "Both of us don't need to be doing this up here."
Mark nodded obediently, and hopped into action. When he reached the slide, he jumped on and tried to ride it standing up. He lost his balance and fell on his rear, slipping all the way down on a heap of brown, wet leaves that some child had shoveled on it as a joke. His considerable weight made him clumsy, and the old slide had dented inward where he’d landed. Just a moment later, there was a metallic cough as the concave spot popped back out with a loud shot. He didn't have the right sort of body for such bold antics.
Leigh heard his grunts of pain, and walked over to see what happened. She was just in time to watch him picking dirty leaves off the seat of his wet pants. She rolled her eyes. "Are you Okay?" she asked, annoyed, not concerned.
"Yeah! Yeah!" he shouted, and started to jog away. He snatched up a ball, as if nothing, at all, had happened.
A few minutes crawled by as the two children got most of the collecting done. Mark hung his bag on the old fence that lined the track and field. He filled it up until there was simply no more room left, racing back and forth until he was sweating and out of breath. Leigh, still up on the playground, became upset, again.
"What are you doing?" she yelled. "We're not supposed to take them in like that!"
Mark turned about. "I know! I was just gonna bring'em over to you, so you can put some in your bag!"
"You should'a just picked up the ones on the other side! You got all the close ones, and now I have to go do it!"
Leigh bounced down the grassy slope like a doe. She looked graceful, almost weightless, to him. She had taken her shoes off, and the way she moved made Mark's heart swell. He stopped just to watch her. He was breathing heavy, his glasses sliding down the bridge of his sweaty nose. As she got closer, though, he saw how angry, and red, her face was, just like when her aunt would pinch his cheeks and embarrass him in front of his family. Mark realized that he should be really careful, now. Really, really careful.
"Just give me your bag," he said. "I'll get'em all."
"Don't bother!" Leigh snapped. She grabbed a big, red ball from the top of his bulging net, and put it in hers. Mark stood there dumbly, not sure what to do.
"I'll go get some of those," he said, and pointed at the other end of the pavement.
"No," Leigh insisted. "It'll take you, like, a week. I'll go!" She then ran off, once again, lighter than air, like a wind-blown leaf. Mark just watched, like he always did. He realized, now, just how stupid he'd been. He was the last boy on Earth she'd ever like.
That's when it started to happen, again. That bad thing. That awful thing that Mark did, and only Mark did. He'd gotten away with it once before, if that had really happened, but he doubted he could do it, again. Suddenly, though, that didn't matter, anymore. The black hole made it not matter. It did something to Mark.
Leigh finished up and stomped back over to him. He looked so dopey, with his mouth hanging open and his tongue bulging like a dog's. It made her think of what a cartoon did when it fell in love - its heart beating out of its chest, its stupid eyes rolling in their sockets.
"What are you looking at, lardo?" she spat. He didn't answer her, though, and she got this weird feeling. But it was weird in a way that she couldn’t quite place.
"What is…?" she partly said, never finishing the last sentence that she'd ever say out loud. There was a loud CRACK just above them, and then something was hanging over Mark's head. Leigh looked up at it, but couldn't speak.
At first, it looked like little more than a tiny black dot of grape jelly twirling, but fixed in place. She couldn't look away from it. It was fantastic. Bedazzling. It just spun and spun, and got darker. Soon, it was darker than anything she'd ever seen, as if the thing was painted in a new shade of black that was far beneath black.
It crackled again, the sound of a big electrical spark, and suddenly it was twice as big, twice as mesmerizing, and a million times more frightening. She felt a scream swell up inside her that was so big, it got stuck coming out. Her throat vented only a thin, little squeak.
The barrette in her hair rattled and tore loose, then it just disappeared. A small tuft of her scalp went with it, and a trickle of blood ran down from the spot, some pooled in her left ear. Her face froze from the sudden pain. Then the blob in the air crackled again, and grew bigger with a belch, still winding like a tornado. Her eyes boggled in their sockets, stinging like they were just splashed with acid. She clamped down her eyelids, but that didn't help. They were forced open and her eyes leaped from their sockets and dangled by the ends of the wormy cords that connected them to her brain. Then, they snapped off and disappeared into the tumbling, dark hole, too.
It was a blessing when the rest of her up and went, because the pain ended, forever. And so did Leigh. When Mark's daze, finally, let up, he quickly remembered everything that had happened. Soon, he was just a terrified boy, screaming and helpless, running home faster than his thick legs had ever allowed him, sweaty and squishing together at the thighs.
Mark's father listened to him very closely, never interrupting him. After the story was finished, he leaned back on the bench, silent and pensive. Leigh's father said nothing, at first, but underneath those eyes, fury swelled up like a bruise.
"Is that it?" said Walter, his voice starting to boil. "Is that what you're claiming happened to my girl? She got sucked up into a fucking hole?"
Mark couldn't look him in the face. Those eyes. Those terrible eyes of his.
"Son, what about that thing you said?" his father asked. "I thought I heard you say something about getting away with it, again. What did you mean?"
Mark suddenly seemed even more frightened. "I guess…I…"
Walter gasped. A revelation. "Wait just one fucking minute. I think I know what he means. He means those Gerski boys, doesn't he? They disappeared, too. Jesus Christ! What the fuck is going on here? What's he talking about?"
"I'm gonna find out, if you just shut up and stop scaring him!" snapped Mark's dad.
"What is wrong with your fucking kid! Where is my daughter? What did you do?" Walter stomped toward them. Mark's father jumped up to his feet and put his hands up.
"Get back, Walter! Just get back, right now! I'm not kidding!"
"Who's fucking kidding? I'm not!"
"This is not getting us anywhere! Just look at him!" Mark was shaking and twitching, hugging himself. He squeezed his sides with his crossed arms. He looked as frightened as a field mouse with one twisted foot caught in a mousetrap on the kitchen floor.
Walter was overheated, panting in huge bear breaths, but as he calmed down he began to understand and stepped back to where he'd been watching from. Mark's father turned back to his son and sat down, again.
"OK, Mark. Do you have more to tell us?" The boy's shivering face looked away from his dad, off into a comforting place somewhere in the small, suburban copse of trees just off the porch. He just wanted to listen to the birds. Strange, how he’d never wanted to before. Now, he thought he’d do anything to be left alone, and do nothing else, forever.
"Come on, Mark. Explain yourself."
Joseph and Tighe Gerski. Everyone has known such boys as these. You've seen their aggressive tactics. Noticed the vengeance with which they played against children younger and smaller, like they were driven by some old vendetta. You may have even earned a sour look from them if you rode past their house and interrupted one of their violent games being waged in the middle of the street. Mostly, though, you only knew of them.
The Gerski boys were simply biding their time until adulthood, when their rebellious habits of snatching cigarettes and cans of beer, wherever they could find them, would become unnecessary, and they could withdraw from the world completely. They had made a partial retreat, already, into the large woods that separated their town from the next one over. Deep in there, they'd created their own municipality.
At the center of their little world was a tree house without a rope or a ladder. Why would it need either? That would only encourage the interest of others. They were happy enough struggling up through the spiny branches, with only a few stabs and cuts as a consequence. Though the tree house had been around longer than the Gerski boys, they had claimed it for their own. The area surrounding it was riddled with junk they'd stolen from other children: hula hoops, jump ropes, bikes, tricycles, big wheels, plastic guns, action figures and dolls. All now scattered about their territory, filthy and broken, tortured in a manner the boys felt more deserving of their owners. Had they their way…
Very few knew about the forest haunt, and those were mostly kids who'd stumbled across it while wandering the woods on idle afternoons. One such kid was Mark. Several days later, a search party of adults would come upon it and find nothing left here of the brothers. They would move on, never suspecting that the site was as close as they would ever get to finding them. As for what was believed to have happened to the boys, the theories that would be conceived by local storytellers, for years to come, would never come close, in ludicrousness, to the truth.
It was one of those weekends when no one was around. Labor Day was Monday, and just about every friend Mark had was away, visiting some sunny place far from the overcast sky of Eastern Pennsylvania. Mark took advantage of a warm day to take a walk around the hilly neighborhood, sticking to the streets that were the most ablaze with autumn colors. After a while, he found himself stepping off the sidewalk and slipping into the woods from a dead-end street, a place where his town seemed to abruptly end and a seamless boundary of trees began. Mark didn't worry about getting lost, boys his age never do, and the impetus of discovery drove him even as he shivered, bare-kneed, in his sweater and shorts.
The day was not so warm, anymore, and not a quarter of a mile in it began to feel as if the autumn had sneaked a windy hand down the back of his shirt, and it made him irritable and distracted. So much so, that he nearly missed seeing the tree house off in the distance. Missing it would have been easy to do with his bad eyes and scuffed up glasses, which he'd yet to complain about to his father. He bent down to pick up a stick, leaning against a tree trunk with one arm and snatching the branch up with the other hand. Then, as fate would decree, there it was, a boxy shape, the same color as the woods, looming in the side of his eye.
Nothing about the tree house implied occupancy to Mark, and he rambled over to it, taking big, careful steps over fallen trunks and dead branches. He was surprised when he came to the junk-filled open space that the Gerski boys had cleared around their hideaway. He was nervous, but he heard nothing to scare him off. He came out and walked under one overhanging corner, but saw no way up to it that wouldn't leave him a bloody mess. He stood there for about a minute, curiosity niggling, and came to the conclusion it was not worth it. He raised the stick he was carrying up high, so he could smack it against the trunk, but stopped himself when he saw the hand of Tighe Gerski reach out and tap the ashes off the end of his cigarette.
Mark froze. Now he heard them. Now they were talking. Although the voices didn't carry well enough to be understood, it took Mark only a few seconds to put together just whose territory he'd blundered into. He was suddenly living the most tense moment of his life. Mark turned around slowly, not breathing, not blinking his eyes, with his right arm still holding up the stick to swing. He took an experimental step toward the junk pile and, to his relief, it was as quiet as can be.
Now, feeling confident that he could traipse off as daintily as a hare, he started tiptoeing through the hoard of stolen junk - stretching over a girl's bicycle with a crushed basket on the handlebars, then skirting around a rusty, red wagon filled with coloring books, dolls, and teddy bears. Everything was wet, filthy, and ruined. Freedom seemed assured, until, feeling uncomfortable sitting Indian-style for too long, Tighe Gerski pulled his legs out from underneath him and caught a peek of Mark sneaking away. At first, Tighe just stared at him blankly, as if he were uncertain that the boy was really there.
"Hey, asshole!" Tighe hollered. Mark's shoulders jumped up to nearly the height of his ears, and he stopped dead in his tracks. The next thing that he heard was two THUDS, close together. The brothers had both dropped down from the tree house, a height of maybe twelve feet. Mark was still facing away from them when they came up casually from behind him.
"Turn around," said Tighe, pleased and mean. Though he was the younger brother, this felt like this circumstance was his to take control of. This made Joseph extra pushy, and he grabbed Mark and forced him to turn. It would have been easier to just walk around the boy.
"Drop this shit," Joe said, grabbing the stick out of Mark's hand. The Gerskis were eleven and thirteen years old, several generations of difference to a scared boy of ten, and Mark stiffened up like his spine had fused together. Joseph whacked the boy's bare leg with the stick.
"Ah!" Mark yelped, with a wince. If it hadn't been so cold, he would have barely felt it.
The older boys snickered. Tighe seemed to be enjoying himself the most. "Got trouble runnin', lardass?"
"Boom-baba-boom-baba-boom-baba-boom!" shouted Joseph, and both the Gerskis laughed. Their dirty-blond heads of hair were full of grassy knots. It looked like they'd been out in the woods for days. Tighe stepped closer and gave Mark a shove. The boy tipped backwards into a cardboard box full of muddy junk. It simply exploded underneath his weight.
"Shit!" shouted Joseph, and he bent over and grabbed Mark, yanking him to the side. "Move it, kid!" Mark rolled off onto some sticks and weeds, his back stinging from a jab to the spine. Joseph snatched up a frisbee and started tossing some small toy cars that had spilled out of the box into it. He threw a mean look at his brother. "Why'd you do that, dickhead?"
"Yell at this kid's ass, Joe!" Tighe poked Mark in his muddy rear with the stick. "Looks like he shit himself!" The boy scrambled frantically to his feet, his eyes were red and tearful. The younger Gerski followed Mark and continued to prod him. "Think he's gonna tell his dad on us, Joe?”
"Just get outta here, kid," Joe demanded. He seemed more angry with his brother, though. He finished gathering up the toy cars, and dumped them in the next soggy cardboard box over. Behind him things had gotten strangely quiet. When he turned around, his brother pointed at Mark with the stick, puzzled by how the boy was just standing still and staring off into nothing.
"Somethin's wrong with him, Joe," said Tighe.
"The fuck did you do, idiot?"
Tighe shrugged. "I don’t know. What's wrong with him?”
Tighe poked Mark in the chest, the stick made a dimple an inch or two into his flesh. There was no response. "What do we do?"
The Gerskis never did get to the bottom of the mystery. A more startling force than curiosity interrupted them. Tighe was the closest, and he was the first to feel the cold, compelling power that it was. He looked back and forth from it to Mark's indifferent face.
"Joe?" said Tighe.
"I see it, too, Tighe."
"What is it?"
"I think we better leave. Like, right now."
"Right now, Tighe."
"Okay, Joe. Jeeze."
The hole crackled and became as large as a garbage can lid, and the stick Tighe held was yanked out of his hand. While he should have been running away, like his brother had told him to, he stood staring into the vacancy, transfixed. Joe was about to flee, but held back.
"Tighe! Come on!" he hollered. He almost yelled at Mark to get a move on, too, and he was opening his mouth to do it, but then some intuition told him Mark was not in peril. "Tighe! Jesus! What are you doing?" Joe ran for his younger brother and it felt, just slightly, like his feet were lifting off the ground. He grabbed his brother's shirt and pulled, but there was far more resistance than just Tighe's weight fighting back at him.
Then SNAP! The hole's pull expanded another order of magnitude, and Joe's younger brother was off the ground, being choked by his shirt's collar. The fabric cut into the eleven-year-old's throat, and his eyes and tongue bulged. Tighe reached out and fumbled for something to grasp, and their arms tangled around each other, their hands squeezing like vices. Joe dragged them both backward, straining until every muscle in his body felt like it was being sheared off by a hot blade.
The older boy's shoe found something solid jutting out from the ground and he pressed his foot against it. It was the spine of a mountain bike Tighe had buried in the dirt, wheels first. He'd had some idea about running a rope from it, up to a high branch on the tree, and making a zip line. It hadn't worked, at all.
While the arch of his tennis shoe was bending painfully on the bar, he somehow got his hands around the boy's underarms and pulled his struggling brother closer. The harder he fought the pull of the black hole, the harder his shoe pressed into the aluminum bar. The bar was soon cutting the life out of that foot, altogether, until it was crunching bone and killing all sensation.
When the worn tread of his shoe gave away, his leg shot underneath the bar where it caught at the hump of his knee with a sickening CRACK. Joe’s body jerked up from the ground and inched toward the black hole, his leg bending and snapping in the wrong direction, as if his knee were a rusty hinge. The skin on the back of his thigh began to tear. The pain was so overwhelming, so all-consuming, that Joe never even noticed when his grip on his younger brother gave out. Tighe was loosed, screaming, into the void. Within moments, the Gerski brothers were no more. The woods grew silent. As if pretending that the boys had, simply, never been there.
Walter, somehow, made it through Mark's tale without speaking up. When the boy was through, he couldn't meet the man's eyes. After a minute more, Walter upset the silence with a clap of his hands, as if ending an informal meeting.
"Okay," he said. "I'm gonna go look for my daughter, Mark. But if I find her…when I find her, if…if she's not 100 percent perfect, if she's hurt, at all, I'm gonna kill you Mark. Do you hear me? I am coming back and I am gonna KILL YOU."
Leigh's father turned away and pounded off the porch. Mark shivered, frightened and cold, even with his father's arm around him. Neither of them spoke, neither knew what to say. They were completely in the dark. They found themselves unprepared. No television show had ever had an episode like this. Eventually, though, someone had to speak.
"Tell me what really happened."
"I did tell you."
Mark slipped out from under his father's arm, and sat up straight on the bench. His thoughts dwellt on Leigh's dad for a moment, on what he said he'd do to him. Strangely enough, he was not afraid of the man. He soon came to realize that he had probably nothing to fear from him, or anybody, that wanted to hurt him, really.
"Who decides when people die, Dad?" Mark asked.
His father was instantly alert. "Did someone die, Mark? Is that what happened?" The next words were nearly impossible for him to say. “Tell me, did Leigh die?”
The boy shook his head, ignoring the questions. "Who decides when people die?"
The man took a deep breath, knowing that, at the very least, this was a question that he could answer. "God decides, son. You know that. Nothing's changed."
Mark nodded, and smiled. "Okay. That's good.”
His father looked confounded. "Why, Mark? Why is that good?"
The boy relaxed, all of the tension in him released into the ether. "Because, if God decides, then, it must be right. I mean, it has to be right. I think I get that, now. Whenever things happen, it’s gonna always be right. No matter what. From now on."