When Gray didn’t work the night shift, he took over bedtime duty from his wife, tucking in Dylan and telling him a story.
Gray sometimes got carried away, veering into realms not wholly age appropriate. Tales of changelings and tricksters, of witches who slip through keyholes and shapeshifters with eyes like yellow coins. Dylan was just eight.
They lived well outside of town. Behind the house was a field of straw, and beyond that the land rose, hills to mountains, screened by green-black forests cut through with logging roads and game trails. At night coyotes moved into the field. For hours the pack would yip and cry, sounding like they were just outside the house.
Against that chorus, Gray helped Dylan move through his nighttime routine: brushing teeth, selecting pajamas, saying goodnight to the dog. Finally, Dylan crawled under his covers, Gray settled into the chair beside the bed, and they listened to the coyotes through the open, black square of the window.
“Dad,” Dylan said. “I want to hear about the coyote-men.”
Dylan nodded, his small face illuminated by light angling in from the hall.
“Well,” Gray said, “during the day, they keep to the trees. They can mimic our voices, and they look like us, but they have fur growing under their skin.”
“They’re clever,” Dylan said. “They trick kids into the woods.”
“With candy or money.”
“Or by promising to show you things, or tell you secrets, or by calling for your help.”
“And if they get you—” Dylan’s voice was breathless, excited but with a nervous edge “—they eat you.”
Gray nodded solemnly. “You’d be lucky if they did. Otherwise, they take you, raise you as their own. You forget who you are, where you came from. Your family. You become one of them.”
“You forget who you are,” Dylan repeated the words softly, thinking.
Rising from his seat, Gray pulled the window shut on squealing runners. “Remember, keep away from strange men and don’t stray into the woods by yourself.”
Gray was serious about this. He’d heard stories — real ones — about the people living under the canopy, in converted buses and ramshackle compounds: survivalists and runaways, addicts, militia men.
Sometimes Gray and Dylan went together, though. Gray bought a Honda dirt bike secondhand and they would motor up into the hills, the two-stroke engine singing, Dylan riding behind, his arms looped around his dad. They discovered the burnt ruin of a cabin, a charred black kettle. A wizard’s face carved into a stump. An abandoned Buick at the end of a weed-choked road, windows crusted with pollen, the tires rotting away.
One day they brought lunches and sat on a shelf of the mountain, on the upper slope of a clear-cut that granted them a view down into town. The sun was warm on their necks. While they ate, the wind died and the pines stopped rustling. Dylan wanted to see how long they could hold their breath. The world record, he informed Gray, was over twenty-four minutes. They counted to three, inhaled deep, and held. Seconds ticked by. Within that silence Gray could hear only the faint hum of the world.
There was something about that eerie non-sound that unnerved Gray, or perhaps it was the sight of his child without air. He exhaled. “That’s all I can do.”
Dylan protested, “Dad, you didn’t even try.”
Years ago, before Dylan, Gray and his wife had another baby, a girl. They never spoke of her now. Dylan had no idea he’d been preceded by a sister who was light-haired, brown-eyed, like him. It happens, the doctors said, though it is rare. One baby in thousands just slips away. Like warm air through an open window. It was a tragedy, there was no explaining it. They assured him there was nothing he might have done, but Gray couldn’t bring himself to believe that. The night their daughter had gone from them, he sensed something wrong. A stillness, like that same faint hum, somehow empty and full at the same time. He rose from bed and went to her, but reaching the nursery, froze in the doorway, transfixed. For reasons he didn’t understand he was terrified of that dark room, the awful silence. It was just moments, that delay, before he went to her, bending over the crib, but perhaps those were moments that might have counted.
On their way home, dusk falling, Gray switched on the headlamp. Bull pines rose on either side of the gravel road. They came around a bend and the pale shape of a man stepped out. Gaunt, with a wild beard, eyes squinting against the headlamp. In the weird light, it was hard to tell–was the man trying to wave them down, or grab them? The slender arm that reached out looked long as a tree limb. Gray nearly wrecked but corrected and, twisting open the throttle, sped past the man and down the slope. Dylan gripped him so tightly it was difficult to breathe.
Neither of them said anything to Dylan’s mom. They ate dinner, watched TV, called it a night. Tucking Dylan in, Gray sat on the edge of the bed, the well of light spilling in from the hall.
“Oh, Dad,” Dylan said, hushed, afraid. “We saw one.”
“He was going to—”
“No,” Gray said gently. “That was just a man.” He took Dylan’s hand. He wanted to tell him he was safe, but the words caught. No one is ever safe. Looking at his son’s bright face, he felt, as he often did, like a big child leading a small one.
“Go to sleep,” Gray said. “Don’t worry, I’ll be here.” In the field, the coyotes began to cry. “I’ll watch out.”
Keith Proctor’s stories can be found in The Colored Lens, Novel Noctule, The Gateway Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.