The mercury had climbed steadily all week.
Dawn came to Willow Forge and, creeping alongside it into the new day, came the inescapable threat of the thermometer reaching record highs. The heat, and that damned dry wind, certain to bring yet more discomfort to the town and it’s residents. A fifth consecutive day of sweltering under the sun, clothes slick with sweat, the arid air making it difficult to breathe.
In truth, the nights had been even more uncomfortable to endure than the days. Even as the skies had blackened into darkness, bringing relief from the glare of the harsh sun, the good folk of Willow Forge found sleep or respite from the oppressive heat difficult to achieve. They awoke each morning, if, in fact, they had slept at all, with a listlessness and lethargy that shadowed them throughout the following day. Working proved difficult and even the simplest of tasks, like running to the store to grab a few groceries or calling to check on a neighbour, left people tired and cranky as the unrelenting heat swiftly replaced all efforts at productivity and physical exertion with tiredness and fatigue and draining the civility from those attempting such everyday activities.
A quietness lay over Willow Forge; a stillness had passed into its people. The heat smothered the sounds of commerce and industry, normally vibrant and bristling with energy, reducing them to tired echoes which the dry wind hurried away.
A few miles outside town, four bicycles lay abandoned by the side of a dusty track. Their wheels and frames slowly covered by a fine dust kicked up from the parched path, like dirty icing sugar lightly sprinkled on top of a home baked cake. The mud on the bicycles, now baked hard by the sun, becoming yet another shallow memory and bearing mocking testimony to cooler, wetter, more comfortable days. Wheels spun lazily, each revolution slowing imperceptibly as the hot wind blew lightly over them. Baseball cards taped to the frames caught on the spokes of each slowing dying rear wheel adding a “snick….snick……….snick” as percussive accompaniment to the scratchings of crickets amid the whisper of the tall grass.
Four figures trudged wearily away from the tangle of bicycles towards a line of trees. The tallest of the figures, his ginger head a good six inches above his companions, led the way through the field. He swung lazily at the grass with a stick, clearing a path through which the others would follow. The journey from Willow Forge, though short, was mostly uphill and despite the exhilaration as the wind whipped at their faces and cooled the sweat on their youthful bodies, had drained them of energy. One by one they entered the sanctuary provided by the trees. The Boy was the last of the four to step into the shade and cool and to leave the glare of the sun and the heat of the day behind him.
They made their way to a small clearing where, earlier that year, they had placed large stones in a rough circle around a pit for a camp fire. They came here often, as often as they could, after allowing for the needs of schooling, homework and their parents’ demands to help with household chores. This was their place. Their camp. Their domain.
The Boy reached into his backpack and produced two cans of soda, throwing one over to Ginger. The Boy snapped the ring pull, the hiss of the can as it opened loud and alien among the tranquility of the woods. The Boy gulped greedily at the beverage, the sound of the second soda being opened by Ginger just audible over the noise of his own drinking. Refreshed, The Boy wiped his hand across his mouth before passing the part empty can to one of his companions.
“Look there.” Ginger pointed towards the shadows with the stick he’d used to beat down the grass. His other hand held the knife he’d been sharpening the stick with; a knife he had stolen weeks earlier from his father’s toolbox. Ginger’s father had been furious at the loss, raging as he’d searched his workshop and truck for it before grudgingly making a trip to Bennett’s Hardware on Main Street to buy himself a new model with a better, longer, keener blade. Ginger had searched for the knife all afternoon with his father, longing for the delicious moment when he could retrieve it from its hiding place in his bedroom cupboard.
Ginger’s companions peered into the depths beyond their clearing where sunshine, filtered through the canopy of the trees, cast shadows that danced and flickered as the branches moved in the breeze. A breeze that was beginning to strengthen and build.
Ginger stood, stick and knife in hand, and moved towards where he had gestured. The others stood and followed him. The rich carpet of leaves and vegetation muffling the sounds of their movement. An occasional sound disturbed the quietness as a foot snapped a twig whilst overhead the branches moved against each other.
A large bird lay on the ground, it’s head tilted to one side, one eye staring up, it’s chest slowly rising and falling with each laboured breath. The bird’s feathers, dark and glossy, gently lifting with each movement, the tips flicked and teased by the growing breeze. It’s eye opening and closing as it watched four figures approach.
“It’s a crow.” The Boy squatted to inspect the bird.
“What’s wrong with it?” Asked one of his companions. “Is it hurt?”
“Not sure. I don’t think so. I think it’s too hot.”
The Boy cupped his hand, pouring some of his soda into the well formed by his closed palm. Bright orange liquid fell from his fingers as he dripped the soda into the birds’ beak. The crow struggled and tried to stand on legs that were too weak, too tired to bear its bodyweight. It flopped back onto the mossy ground.
“Leave it. It’s dying.” Said Ginger.
“It’s just thirsty and tired. We have to help it.” The Boy bent over the crow continuing to coax the weakened bird to take the soda, buoyed by his initial success.
“Look. It’s drinking.” Smiling, The Boy turned to look up at the others.
Ginger knelt beside him and stared hard at the bird before suddenly pushing The Boy to the ground. Letting out a cry of surprise, The Boy sprawled among the dirt and leaves before scrambling to his feet.
“Why’d ya do that?”
“I told you to leave it.” Ginger rose to his feet and, turning from The Boy, addressed the others. “C’mon, let’s go.” They looked at each another, alarmed and scared by the unexpected altercation between Ginger and The Boy; this was not how they had anticipated their bike ride and adventure in the woods turning out.
“I said we’re goin’!” Ginger snapped.
The two companions took one final, confused, regretful glance towards The Boy. Then, decision made, they grabbed their packs and hurried after Ginger leaving the shadows and half light of the clearing behind them. Above them, the canopy shifted and groaned as the wind licked hungrily at the branches. Grey clouds were gathering, breaking up the blue of the sky and dulling the brightness of the day. The first thick beads of rain fell to the ground where the parched earth greedily sucked them down.
The Boy rubbed dirt from his soda sticky hands. He looked down at the crow. Gingers sharpened stick pinned the bird firmly to the dry earth. Its eye, now lifeless, stared up at him as dark feathers danced in the wind.
In the distance, his companions had reached the track. The Boy watched as his bicycle was lifted from the pile and thrown to one side. The rain came fast and fell on his bicycle; washing the dust from it, revealing the layer of mud below, its sun hardened surface melting under the deluge.
The Boy looked again at the crow. In death the bird appeared smaller. Its feathers, glossy black and slick with rain, clung tight to its body. Its beak now filling with rain as the dead bird finally took the drink which The Boy had offered.
Rain thundered through the cover provided by the trees to pool in the dirt beneath his feet. The heavy drops splashing fresh mud onto his dirty sneakers, the cheap fabric further darkening as rain soaked into them. His clothes were drenched, his thin tee-shirt and torn jeans sticking to his body.
All light was now gone from the day replaced by darkness as shadows lengthened, writhing and gyrating as their shapes grew from the depths of the woods. They grabbed and reached for The Boy as the wind whispered darkly to him through the trees. “Come to us. Let us be your friends.”
The storm raged overhead and thunder roared its approval. The first flash of lightening streaked across the sky, briefly illuminating The Boy as he stood alone in the clearing. He shook in rage and fear as the rain lashed against his body and the storm danced in wicked fury around him.