A 2022 San Francisco Writers Contest / Young Adult Finalist
He drove his truck right off the end of it!
He was running from the law and should have known where he was going. He’s probably the only one who knew these woods that well back then. He rounded that last turn in pitch black darkness. And then it happened. Earl was never heard from again.
“Are you kidding me? Are you saying that Earl is underneath this giant slab of granite we are sitting on right now?” Sally’s eyes were wide as saucers. Her neighbor Billy had told her the story of Big Rock, and the man who never made it home. Earl.
Billy and Sally were pals. Every day, the two walked home together from their school at the end of the street. They had to walk right past these woods. Billy helped Sally carry her backpack on the walk sometimes. She had a bad habit of filling it with more stuff than she needed.
She had that backpack with her as they sat on Big Rock. They were deep in the woods, almost a mile from home. This was a time when there weren’t a lot of houses in these parts yet. You could walk forever and not see another person, or another house. These were dense woods, with tall pines that were thick enough to hide behind. It gets dark real fast out here.
When it was time to come home for dinner, Sally’s Mom would use this large lead pipe to beat loudly on a horseshoe shaped metal bell. It’s what they used in the old west to call the riders and herders in from the fields. It made an unmistakable metal on metal sound- like the worst steel drum you ever heard. Everyone within earshot knew what that sound meant.
Children in this neighborhood roamed far and wide, down to Hodges Lake and up to Big Rock. You could get lost out here. Parents didn’t worry so much then. The kids ran free.
“It’s starting to get dark Billy, maybe we should start walking home.” Sally was feeling a little uneasy sitting on top of a dead man, and she was a little afraid of the dark.
This was her first time at Big Rock this late in the day, and she knew better than to be out here. “Mom will be mad if she finds out we were out here this late Billy. We should go.”
“Well then don’t tell her Sally. We can head back in a minute.”
Farther down the dirt path toward home there was a creek they had to cross. Near the creek some older boys had built a secret underground fort, but everybody knew about it. They literally dug an underground dirt igloo. It was made of Georgia red clay. Then the boys stuck sticks, and rocks all inside and around it to hold it up good. Billy and Sally had been told to never go in that underground fort. Ever. But they had to pass it on the way home. Billy brings up Earl again as though Earl might be listening.
“You know that dead man Earl, they say he liked to eat children. He waits until the sun goes down, and then snatches them from the woods and hides them underground.” Billy was amusing himself now making Sally squirm. “I don’t need to hear all that Billy. I don’t like that!”
Sally stuffed her fingers in both ears and turned away. She stood up and got a little woozy. She didn’t realize how high up Big Rock really was. They had climbed up from the lower edge where it disappeared into the ground. On all fours they had crab-walked all the way up to the tip of the giant slab of rock. It was about two stories high where she stood. She backed away from the ledge. Down on all fours again, she slowly crab-walked backwards down the giant slab of granite, slipping on loose rocks and pine straw. “Come on Billy! I am not kidding! We need to go!”
The tree frogs were starting to wake up. Their sharp chirps echoed and multiplied across the woods. A few lightning bugs glowed rhythmically in the trees.
Sally had been looking down the whole time as she went backwards like a crab on all fours. Slowly she maneuvered the dips in the stone, and cracks that broke her slide.
“Billy! Come on!” Almost to the bottom, she stopped and knelt forward on the stone. “Billy?”
Biiiilllllllllyyyyyyy, where are you?!!” She thought he was teasing her at first. But it was too quiet in the woods for it to be funny. Way too quiet. The sun was dipping low now. Barely a sliver of light could be seen poking through the trees.
“Billy?” “This is not funny!!!! If you don’t come out, I am leaving you here in the dark!”
Not much of a threat since it was Sally who was now alone in the dark. She ran the story of Earl back through her mind.
He was running from police on a dark summer night. He was a bootlegger, and he had a souped-up car that was designed for wild rides in the woods.
This was a regular run for Earl, and he could lose any policeman in these woods. He hid out here, had a moonshine still out here, and had set traps out here too. Some say that some of those traps still exist. That you could accidentally step on one and be trapped like an animal. And then Earl would show up.
“Ok Billy, that’s it. I am walking home now.” She started a brisk walk that broke into a run. She wondered why her mom had not rung the big bell. It was almost dark and usually that metal sound rattled through the trees right about now.
Sally was mad at Billy. She huffed and puffed his name all the way to the creek. How dare he leave her alone out here. She stopped to catch her breath. The creek was just up ahead.
She pictured Earl bouncing around in his truck, dodging trees and boulders and twists and turns along this path that was once a road. She looked back and knew Big Rock was behind her.
Big Rock used to be twice as big, but half of it broke off and fell on top of Earl and his truck. When Big Rock broke in half that night, Earl was buried alive. So, the story goes.
Big Rock extended out at an angle, and you really could drive a car right up it, even now. But that was a ridiculous thought. Sally didn’t want to believe there was a car under there with a dead man in it. She shuddered like a big fever chill had come over her.
Sally didn’t have a flashlight with her but felt like she had enough late light to make it home. She stared ahead mapping the path in her mind. She hears a crush of pine straw under foot. Then another one, and another one. And it stops.
“Billy? Is that you?” Sally’s body was in full fight or flight mode. She glanced around but the fading light made it hard to see. The woods are so thick. She picked up her feet and walked gingerly toward the creek. She stopped. Again, the crush of pine straw under foot, then another step, and another.
Her hair stood up on the back of her neck. There was a sudden chill in the breeze, and it felt like something brushed up against her. She turned around and around and around again, looking and looking to see what had touched her. There was nothing there.
“Mommmm!!!!!” Sally cried out. “Billllyyyyyyyyyyy!!!” The footsteps again, but this time sounded closer.
She held tight to her backpack. She knew there was a pocketknife in it, but she didn’t want to stop to find it. Sally took off in a full board sprint. She was like a small locomotive plowing up this little dirt path as fast as she could. The gurgle of the creek could be heard up ahead. Once she got there, she would need to leap across the ravine. She had jumped it before.
The underground fort was coming up on her left. She could hear small limbs breaking in that direction, and larger, closer footsteps, like a large man or maybe Bigfoot she thought. Or worse, Earl!