by Jim Towns
It was only a few days before Christmas, but Seth had known all along they’d have to come back to that spot in the woods someday. They’d all known it, really—but no one had ever talked about it, until now.
It had been more than forty years since the accident, and the memories of being young and playing with his childhood friends taunted Seth from across the gulf of decades. He still lived in the same small Pennsylvania town of Ft. Snowdon he’d grown up in, having moved back after college and learned the plumbing trade from his dad. He’d taken over the business when the old man retired, and done pretty well for himself. He and his wife Leanne had two daughters: Meg was still in high school and Dana was doing her second year at his alma mater Penn State. Their marriage had gone through a rough patch the last year, but they’d been seeing a counselor lately and things were getting better.
His childhood friend Tom Patransky was now the Ft. Snowdon Utilities Supervisor, which wasn’t nothing. It was he who’d found out the City had authorized clearing out Saw Mill Creek and its neighboring woods, so a developer could build a condominium community starting January 2nd. But Tom had lost touch with the others over the years, so he’d reached out to Seth for help getting the word to the others.
John Boyer was easy to find. His parents had bought a place down in Florida and he’d taken over their old house on Anawanda Drive. His phone wasn’t working when Seth called, so he’d driven by after work. John hadn’t changed a bit of the house’s décor from the way it was in their childhood, and the same avocado-colored refrigerator, white shag carpet and fake wood-paneled walls greeted Seth when John brought him inside. John had moved from job to job over the last couple years, and was now currently collecting disability from a ladder fall he’d suffered while working at the local big box hardware store the previous Christmas. Seth hadn’t missed the stacks of empty beer cans piled up on the screened-in back porch.
Of course Bill Williams wasn’t going to be a challenge to locate, either. In the early hours of September 10th 2001, Bill’s car had been T-boned by a garbage truck as he come out of the Armstrong Tunnels in nearby Pittsburgh, and he’d died instantly. The collision had been the headline of the Snowdown Dispatch-Telegraph that day, and there had been statements of condolence from local officials, and plans for a memorial service. But of course the following morning the planes had struck the Twin Towers and Flight 93 had passed over Western Pennsylvania before crashing in Shanksville, and everyone forgot about Bill Williams. He was laid to rest quietly the following week in a private service.
Seth had saved Greg Graff until last. Seth had been closest to Greg up until the time of the accident, but soon afterwards they’d drifted apart. Maybe it was just the natural course of two boys growing up and following different interests, but more likely it was the fact that Greg had been Mike’s big brother and Seth was the one most responsible for Mike’s death. So naturally Seth viewed reaching out to Greg with a certain amount of trepidation.
He’d finally opted to do it through social media, and had sent Greg an article about the upcoming development for the woods above Saw Mill. He wrote they were all going to meet soon, to finally deal with what had happened back in ‘78. Greg’s terse answer had come through almost immediately:
WHEN AND WHERE?
That was everyone still alive.
The winter of 1978 was what winters should be like, but weren’t anymore. There was snow, yes—plenty of it. But no blizzards that shut down the entire Eastern US. It had been cold, but the temperatures had stayed well above the dangerous negative-digits. Thus far, the days in December had been pleasant despite the chill—the sun regularly rising each morning to melt polite patches of white all over bucolic Ft. Snowdon.
Seth, Tom, John, Bill and Greg were all in the third grade that year, and (with the exception of Bill, who had Mrs. Lowell) they were all in Mr. Endover’s class. Endover was a fun guy and it had been a memorable year so far. They were studying the Civil War in History class, and slogging their way through fractions in Math. The boys’ respective family dinners regularly took place between five o’clock and six, and most evenings were spent either at Boy Scout meetings or basketball practice. This left roughly two-to-three precious hours every weekday immediately after school for goofing off: riding bikes or listening to records or playing with toys… and Seth had recently gotten the jackpot for his birthday, which was right after Thanksgiving.
Rex Baxter was all the guys’ favorite show. It was on every Wednesday at 8PM, and after a year or two they’d started making action figures of Rex and the various vehicles he used to fight bad guys. The figure was a marvel: all the limbs were poseable in a variety of action stances. A wheel on his back let you wind up his right arm for his trademark Aikido Chop. And of course his left arm (the one he’d lost in the rocket sled accident that began his career as a spy hunter) came off to reveal the secret mini-rocket, which Rex used at the end of almost every episode. Shrunk to size, the action figure’s rocket was a tiny dagger-shaped piece of red plastic that sat on a coiled spring inside its plastic arm. It was released by a little button near the elbow, and the miniature missile shot surprisingly far and with pretty decent accuracy—which the boys would soon learn all-to-well.
It was the Tuesday before the Christmas break started. The five of them: Seth, Tom, John, Bill and Greg, had met up outside Bill’s house around four o’clock, as planned. But today their gang had a sixth: Greg’s mom had made him bring his little brother Mike along, because she said the plumber was coming over and she didn’t want Mike bothering him (Greg’s dad had moved to Akron for work two years before, and hadn’t found time to come back to visit since). So when they all trooped down to the end of the dead end street where the woods began, it was with little Mike trailing behind.
There was the usual horseplay: swinging on the rope swing out above Saw Mill Creek (little Mike was too scared to do it), and the requisite threats to push each other into the muddy run. Earlier that month John had made the mistake of mentioning that he thought Becky Boyer was ‘pretty okay’, and the others were still enjoying giving him grief for that single halfhearted utterance: today Greg threatened to carve John and Becky’s names in a tree with a heart ‘round it, and there was much scuffling and cursing and laughter.
There was a small clearing in the woods—not really even a clearing, just a bit of ground perhaps eight feet by eight—where a tree had blown over, so as to make an open space amidst the dense woods and undergrowth, complete with the jagged stump of the dead tree standing in the center like some kind of pulpit, or podium.
As the boys reached the space, still jockeying and giggling and making lewd noises, Seth went immediately to the stump and, taking off his backpack, pulled out his precious action figure. The boys spent a good ten minutes talking about the latest episode of the Rex Baxter show wherein Rex had been sent to Tibet on a mission, only to encounter the Yeti. As there was no Yeti action figure for Seth’s Rex figure to fight, various suggestions were offered as to what other toys could be used as a surrogate.
During the entirety of this discussion, little Mike was eyeing the figure with a queer gleam, like a starving man staring at a great plate of food. Every once in a while his small arm would reach out, only to be jostled aside as the bigger kids had their more mature conversation about Abominable Snowmen and robotically-enhanced spy hunters. Once or twice he even asked if he could hold the figure, but the shrill raised voices of the others drowned him out.
It had happened very quickly: Tom Patransky had made a comment about Becky Boyer that alluded to her having some kind of kinship to the Yeti, and there had been a kerfuffle between he and John which had taken Seth and Tom and Greg to break up. In that moment, Mike had stepped forward to the stump and triumphantly seized the Rex Baxter figure. Seth could remember John saying something and nodding over his shoulder, and he could remember turning to see the younger boy holding the toy up to his face, fiddling with Rex’s removable arm. He’d told him to stop. He remembered telling him to stop. But even as he left the group and took a step towards Mike with the intention of seizing back his toy, Mike had figured out how to twist the figure’s forearm off to reveal the tiny rocket. Seth took another step—it had all happened so agonizingly slowly—and even as he did, Mike’s little finger tripped the tiny lever and the spring launched the rocket, which shot directly into his open mouth.
There was a still moment. One of the other boys laughed at how ludicrous it was. Seth had stopped in his tracks, already wondering how he was going to get his rocket back if Mike swallowed it. But it was Greg who’d first noticed the odd look on Mike’s face—a worried expression that crunched his eyebrows together. And then Mike’s hand let go of the figure, and clutched at his throat.
The race back to the house was a blur in Seth’s mind—the four of them each holding one of Mike’s arms, or a leg—slipping up the snowy muddy trail back to the street. It was only maybe two hundred yards, but it seemed like it took forever, and all the time Mike’s face was turning more and more blue as the breath wheezed out his throat.
When they finally reached Bill’s house there were hectic moments as Bill’s mom, once she was told what happened, tried unsuccessfully slapping Mike on the back to dislodge the missile. She then ran next door to her elderly neighbor, leaving all the boys alone for a horrid few minutes standing over Mike as he lay gasping for breath on the rug of the William’s front hallway. It was the neighbor who, taking one look at Mike’s face, immediately called the ambulance.
The paramedics arrived. The boys were told to keep back as they worked. They stripped Mike’s shirt off and inserted some kind of tube down his throat, like a vacuum. Then they lifted him onto a stretcher and rolled him out the front door and into the ambulance. In a cacophony of flashing lights and belching sirens, it pulled away and sped to the hospital—leaving Seth, Tom, John, Bill and Greg all standing there in the front yard with the neighbor guy. Calls were made, and parents came to pick them all up, except for Greg, whose mom had gone directly to the hospital.
Greg stayed at Bill’s until his mom came to retrieve later that evening. When she did, she told him that while he’d still been alive when he got to the hospital, Mike’s brain had been cut off from air for too long, and he’d fallen into a coma. The next few days were a surreal journey, as they all had to go back to school. News of the accident had made the local news, and each of the boys felt the eyes of the other kids—and even some of their teachers—staring at them with pity, and with judgment.
By Friday it was clear that Mike was brain dead, and would never reawake, so he was taken off the ventilator and his body was allowed to die.
That afternoon, Seth made a solitary trek into the woods to the open space and, searching around a bit, found his Rex Baxter figure where Mike had dropped it. He held the cold plastic man for a little while as hot tears ran down his face and his throat burned—then he took his small Boy Scout camp shovel from his backpack, dug a hole as deep as he could manage, and buried it.
This morning, Seth stood in the parking lot of the Ft. Snowdon United Presbyterian Church drinking a Venti coffee. The old neighborhood was still as quiet as it had been forty years before—more so now, with every third car or SUV driving by being a hybrid. He was early, and he knew the others were on their way, but now that it had come to it, the anticipation was getting to him. He had to urinate, but there was no place handy to relieve himself. He was just beginning to consider jumping back in his car and shooting down to the grocery store to use their restroom, when an old Cutlass pulled up—the material on its interior roof hanging down like a Bedouin tent. Seth watched as John negotiated his prominent middle out from behind the wheel and huffed his way towards him.
“Bastard cold, in’it?” his breath was a cloud around his head.
“Cold enough—digging’s gonna be a bitch.”
Even as he spoke, Tom pulled up in a Suburban, hopping out. The years had been kind to him: he was a little paunchier, but he’d kept most of his hair, even if it had turned to grey.
“We gonna do this, or what?” he said, clapping his gloved hands and zipping up his polar fleece. The enthusiasm the man brought to everything, even a dark deed like what they were about to do, always amazed Seth.
“Just one more.” John nodded as and old rusted Chevy V8 pulled into a slot a few spaces away. The throaty engine of the muscle car revved a moment, then died. Its occupant sat in the quiet car for a good ten seconds before getting out, and when he did they all saw what the years had done to Greg Graff:
He had ended up being the tallest of any of them by a deal. While age and comfort had filled out the other three, Greg remained skinny as a rail—in fact his face had a caved in, skeletal look around the eyes that was a little unnerving, as the bones in the skull pressed against his weathered flesh. His head was shaved, and as the others watched he pulled on a watch cap and lit a cigarette, puffing for a moment before coming over. When he did, Seth could see that his eyes, once bright blue, had become grey and cloudy.
He looked at them one by one with those eyes, not shaking hands—instead taking another drag on his smoke—before grinning:
“Been a bit.”
The tension between them all eased a fraction, and handshakes were passed around. Seth went ‘round to the back of his truck and pulled out a shovel, a spade, and (with some care) his old backpack from 3rd grade, which he’d found in his attic two years ago. While he was shielded for a moment from the others, he let out a deep breath: so far so good.
It was a surreal parade of middle-aged men who trekked into Saw Mill Woods that day. It felt to Seth as though no time at all had passed since the Tuesday afternoon in 1978, and yet that day seemed like it was from some other epoch of the Earth, unfathomably distant.
The wood itself was largely unchanged. The trees were older, of course, and much of the underbrush had either died off or been cleared at some point. And of course it felt smaller. What had been their Sherwood Forest as children now seemed barely the size of a few lots. They could clearly see the backs of houses on the far side of the trees only a few hundred yards away. They’d made it only a few dozen feet when Seth had to pause to piss on a tree.
“Five to one we get arrested by the cops before we’re done.” Greg remarked.
Tom said: “If they show up, I can explain. I know most of them.”
“Of course you do.” Greg started moving on again.
The four of them ended up having some difficulty locating the clearing, and were forced to backtrack a bit to find another path that had always led to it. It was John who finally spotted the weathered remains of an old stump jutting just a foot or so out of the ground. A few small saplings had sprouted up in the clearing, camouflaging it so they’d walked right past it the first time.
Without a word, the four stood in a small circle, all of them staring at the leaf-covered forest floor.
“It’s here?” Tom asked. Seth nodded.
Someone asked “Which side?”, but Seth was scanning the ground and searching his memory. He’d been doing a similar mental search for a good week now, trying his best to recall where he’d dug the hole that day over four decades ago.
“Don’t tell me you don’t remember…” John’s face at a look of dismay.
“No, I do—” Seth could tell that the group’s already tepid enthusiasm for their endeavor was waning. Right or wrong, he had to make a decision.
“There:” he pointed at a spot about three feet from the west side of the stump.
“You’re sure?” Greg’s eyes were locked on him.
Seth shrugged. “I’ll start digging.”
– – –
Thirty minutes later the four stood staring down at six separate holes at their feet.
“This is asinine… I can’t believe I’m doing this.” John muttered, causing Tom to glance up at him sharply:
“You only dug for like six minutes, big guy.”
“I got back issues.”
“You got ball issues…” Greg said, and the others, even John, had to laugh.
“Wait… here:” Seth pointed at a small depression in the ground about a foot from the first hole they’d dug.
“You really think? It’s right next to the other one.”
But Seth just grabbed the spade back, and jabbed it into the frozen ground. It was hard going, and despite the cold he was getting hot after even just a few tries, before the tip of the tool clanked on something that wasn’t dirt.
The four looked at each other.
Time and the damp of the ground had been unkind to Rex Baxter.
The figure stood on the low stump, locked in one of his iconic action poses. The material of his flight suit had rotted in many places, and much of the paint on his head had flaked off, leaving his face a dull, featureless peach void. When they’d pulled him from the ground, Tom had tried to thumb the switch to make his Aikido Chop work, only to find the gears were frozen.
“Man he seems tiny.” John observed, and the others nodded.
“I found it!” Seth remarked, and held up the little piece of forearm that attached to the body, covering up his missile system. With great care, he reattached it to the figure, and to his surprise it clicked into place with ease.
He stepped back, and the men stood a moment staring at the decrepit little toy in silence, until John finally broke it by saying:
“Man, that was a cool show.”
The others nodded.
“It’s on reruns on one of those streaming channels now, anyone watch it?”
The rest shook their heads. From inside his fleece, Tom pulled out a flask and, taking a sip, passed it to John, who downed a gulp.
John handed it to Greg, and Greg held it a moment before drinking, staring at the tiny man they’d all come here to exhume. Seth noticed he took only the most modest of sips, before turning to him and holding it out. As he went to grasp it, Greg pulled it away just a bit. The two locked eyes.
“Long road to get here, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Seth said. “And rough.”
“Yeah.” Greg handed it to him, and Seth poured a few ounces of scotch down his gullet, feeling it warm his chest. He screwed the cap back on, and tossed it across to Tom, who tucked it away.
“Okay, let’s finish this.” Seth fumbled with the old zipper of his childhood backpack and, once open, pulled out a bottle of lighter fluid and a box of waterproof camping matches.
“Who wants to go first?” Seth asked, and very quickly John raised his hand. Seth passed him the bottle of lighter fluid, and he popped open the cap.
“I wish I hadn’t had that stupid fight with Tom about Becky whatshername.”
“Thanks…” John paused. “If we hadn’t done that, maybe—I don’t know, I’m not good at this kinda thing.”
“You’re doing just fine,” Tom said.
“Anyway, everything was different after that, and I wish it didn’t happen. For Mikey, and for the rest of us, too.” John’s voice cracked a bit at the end, and he reached out and poured a deal of lighter fluid on the action figure, then handed the bottle to Tom.
Tom took a bit to start: “I guess I feel the same as John… it was us that caused the commotion and you, Seth—and Bill and Greg here… I mean you guys were my best friends and I guess I just wish we still were. Seems greedy…”
“No. It’s not.” Greg’s voice made them all look up, and Tom sniffed and wiped his nose, and poured his share onto Rex Baxter.
It was Seth’s turn now. He’d practiced this in the shower the night before, and on the car ride over—but now he couldn’t remember a thing. His throat was sore, the way it had been the day he’d buried the figure in 1978.
“It was my toy. It was my responsibility,” was all he could manage, as the tears came all-of-a-sudden, and he poured a bunch of the pungent fluid onto the action figure. Seth found he couldn’t look Greg in the eyes, so he just reached out blindly with the bottle, until he felt Greg’s skinny fingers take hold of it.
They all waited for Greg to speak.
“You’re all idiots.”
The other three glanced at his bony face.
“You’ve spent all these years feeling bad about what happened to Mike, and I get that. It was awful. Before he died, Bill and I went out drinking one night at the Old Fayette, and he tried telling me it was his fault, because his mom didn’t call 911 right away, but went for that old geezer. And I told him what I’m telling you. He’s a douche for thinking he’s responsible for what some dumbass kid did.”
He paused, and the others said nothing as they waited for him to go on.
“Look, I’m no better. I spent years thinking if only I’d kept a better eye on Mike, or if I’d just known the Heimlich or whatever… or why didn’t those bastards who made that piece of crap stop and think ‘hey this little missile thing might choke some kid’… and I’d pass out with a smack needle in my arm or in a jail cell for trying to steal someone’s VCR… but at some point after Bill got T-boned and the planes hit the towers and all those folks died I came to the simple, dumb solution that bad things just happen, and sure sometimes it’s somebody’s fault, but really, mostly, a lot of it is just bad luck, or bad timing—or both. And that’s just the way it goes.”
Greg extended a slender arm out and emptied the remainder of the lighter fluid onto the toy on the stump:
“So let this be the end of that. It wasn’t our fault, and it wasn’t TV’s fault, and it wasn’t the fault of the people who made toys for kids… it was bad luck. Soon this whole woods’ll be houses for rich asshole yuppie couples, and then… finally… this won’t be a place of sadness anymore. That’s all I need to say.”
Seth swallowed painfully. “Let’s do it, then.”
He pulled four matches from the box, and handed each of his friends one. Then he struck his on the striker side of the box, and the others lit theirs off his flame. The four shared a brief glance, then as one they dropped their matches on the stump, and stepped back.
In a flash, Rex Baxter was engulfed in immolating fire. His decayed jumpsuit went up first, sparking and tinting the flame green with the unknown chemicals it was made from. Then, very quickly, the empty head caved in upon itself. One of the legs melted in two and buckled, and the figure toppled over on its side and lay there burning on the stump. A trail of acrid smoke rose as the last bits of his plastic body blackened and melted, and then all that was left were the toothed wheel on his back that controlled his arm, and a few tiny rusted screws.
“That’s that,” Greg said. “You guys have a Merry Christmas,” and he turned and walked away up the path.