Our home lay in the heart of the suburbs, far removed from any real nature. You had to drive half an hour to reach the nearest swath of true wilderness: a preserve called Lucy’s Playground. No one seemed to know how it got that name.
During lunch one overcast Saturday, I turned to my son, Tim, and asked, “What would you like to do today?”
He looked at me with eager eyes and responded excitedly, “Bird watching!”
That was his latest obsession. For his birthday just a few weeks prior, my wife and I had given him a pair of little binoculars, and he was always running around the backyard spying on robins and crows. Several times he’d expressed a desire to get out of the suburbs and find what he called “real wild birds”. I knew exactly where he wanted to go that afternoon.
A half hour later, he was running ahead of me down the dirt trail that led into the heart of Lucy’s Playground Nature Preserve. It was a crisp, windy, early spring day, but our path was protected from the cold breeze by parallel berms on either side. The mounds limited our vision, but Tim didn’t seem to care. His binoculars were glued to his face as he scanned the misty sky for the dark speck of a bird.
I joined him in his search, and was surprised when, ten minutes into our expedition, we’d not only seen nothing, but heard nothing either. There was only the roar of the wind as it skipped over our sheltered road and the occasional rustle as it battered the uncontrolled growths that peaked the embankments.
“It’s very quiet,” Tim commented, echoing my own observation. But it seemed he spoke too soon, for as the words left his mouth, a noise overcame us.
It was the cry of a bird, a low whistling almost like a drawn-out whimper. It sounded once, filling the air with its echo, and I looked to the sky for its source. The gray-blue of the atmosphere was devoid of any wildlife. There was only the wispy, halfhearted stirring of the blanketing clouds as the cold swept unchecked across the wilderness. “Must be hiding in the brush,” I concluded. “What kind of bird do you think it was?” I added, glancing back down at Tim—but my boy was gone.
“Tim?” I spun about, my call drowning away in the vastness, then I caught a flash of color, the sleeve of a jacket about to vanish over the top of the embankment. “Whoa there,” I warned, reaching up to catch the wandering child before he could make it too much farther. “Stay on the path—”
The jacket collapsed as my hand closed over it, and I realized it was empty, caught on a sickly, twisted excuse for a tree. Chilly fear gripped me, that special kind that only a parent can know. I scrambled to the top of the berm. “Tim, you come back here right this instant!”
From my elevated vantage point, I had a clear view of the landscape. The path meandered drunkenly around invisible pools and moss-coated rocks, every once in a while intersecting with another, similarly irregular trail. Nowhere, however, did I catch sight of my son. I tried desperately to remember what color shirt he’d been wearing under his brightly colored jacket, but I was almost certain it was the perfect shade of muddy green that would make spotting him amidst the brambles impossible. “Tim!”
My heart turned to ice as I stumbled down the other side of the slope, thorns and branches grabbing at my clothes. I’ve lost him! I panicked. I’ve lost my son!
I made a mad, foolish dash across the uneven terrain, treacherous ground that was never meant to be tread on by man. I tripped on malicious stones hidden beneath the knee-high grass and sank into ankle-deep pits of mud. All the while my gaze pivoted to and fro. My throat grew hoarse from repeated, desperate cries. At last, my pace slowed to a defeated stop, and with a sick feeling I reached for my cell phone, praying that I’d get a signal.
Never had the brief span of half an hour felt so long. I cursed the distance that separated the preserve from the civilized world. By the time Bill showed up, armed with walkie-talkies and flashlights, dusk weighed heavily over the land.
“Carl’s on his way, too. Lily’s riding with him.”
“Some of the park staff are out looking right now,” I informed Bill. My voice was soft and gruff from all the shouting I’d done. “They’ll call my cell if they find him.”
A few minutes later, Carl and my wife strode down the path. The equipment was handed out, and we split up, fanning out across the morass of sickly vegetation. We weren’t alone. In the distance, I could see the lights of the park workers as they combed the farther reaches of the preserve. Now and then I caught the faint echo of Tim’s name being called, but the wind masked most noise. In my heart I feared our search would be fruitless. What course of action would we take if tonight we turned up empty-handed? The thought of my boy alone in the unsheltered cold overnight provided all the warmth and energy I needed to keep going, even though my feet were sore from kicking against so many rocks and my ankles delicate from one too many encounters with rodent burrows.
Then the air changed. Something buried deep in the core of my brain predicted what came next, but in the quiet of the night it still came as a shock. A single, ghostly whistle sounded, the same cry that had preceded Tim’s disappearance. Where exactly it came from I couldn’t tell—in front, behind, or anywhere in between. For some reason it filled me with black dread.
The walkie at my hip crackled, and Carl’s voice came through, distorted by static. “I think I found something. Don’t get your hopes up, it could just be a deer trail. I’m going to follow it and keep you posted.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, reminding myself to keep my hopes low, but certain that Carl’s discovery could only mean good news. Deer trail, I scoffed. There’d been no sign of wildlife in this so-called “wildlife preserve”, not even the twitter of a lonely songbird. The only hint that anything lived here apart from the rampant flora was that strange cry.
Perhaps it was just the shade of night corrupting my memory, but now that I thought about it more, I wasn’t convinced that the sound belonged to a bird. On both occasions, I realized, there’d been a pathos beyond the grasp of the animal kingdom, something almost…
I was being ridiculous. There were, after all, species of birds that could mimic human sounds. Besides, what did it matter? I needed to focus. There’d be plenty of time for zoological speculations once Tim was safe at home.
The walkie sizzled to life again, and Carl’s voice came through. This time, however, he sounded…off, like he was trying to control himself and barely succeeding. He sounded, put simply, scared.
“Guys, I’m in trouble.”
The walkie crackled, and then it was Bill’s voice. “Where are you? Flash your light.”
“I can’t,” came the choked reply. “I dropped my light when I fell in, and now it’s sunk.”
“I think it’s quicksand. I…I’m sinking. Guys…oh crud…help me, I’m sinking!”
“Alright, stay calm,” ordered Bill. “We’re coming to find you. Just stay still and keep talking. Can you see our lights?”
We quickly established the general direction that Carl had wandered off in. Beyond that we could only proceed slowly, listening to Carl’s static-choked voice as he tried to guide us. I could tell from the increasing irregularity of his breathing that Carl was running out of time.
But then his tone changed. The gasps of desperation turned to relief, and from his words we learned that someone had finally found him.
“A-alright…I got a grip, now pull me out.”
Lifting my walkie from my belt, I asked, “You got him, Bill?”
“It’s not me. What about you, Lily?”
“One of the park staff, then?”
There was a loud, gravelly, sucking sound, followed by what must’ve been Carl’s shivering breaths. “Th-thanks…thanks. I-I…” There followed a span of breathless silence, and when the walkie came back to life, there was a note of uncertainty in Carl’s voice. “Bill? Where are you?”
“Not entirely sure, but nowhere near you.”
Static reigned over the line as Carl apparently held the button down on his end, not sure what to say. I thought I heard a quiet whimper, but that could’ve just been the interference. “Carl, are you alright?” I asked. No answer.
I was aware that the flashlights of Lily, Bill, and myself were converging on a point about fifty yards ahead of me. I slowed my pace, afraid of falling into a similar trap as Carl. Bill’s voice came to me, this time in person, carried by the wind instead of the radio waves. “Carl? Can you hear me?”
I paused a moment to catch my breath. The air here seemed thin and fleeting; I blamed the chill. As I stood with my head bent against the breeze, a noise reached my ears: a wild crashing and snapping of grass and twigs. I quickly brought my light up, and caught a brief glimpse of something dark and lanky. In the next moment I was knocked to the ground, pinned down by a heavy, slimy mass. The thing, whatever it was, struggled with me for a few seconds before I managed to throw it off. Once more I brought my light to bear, and—
He was covered in mud and leaves and blades of grass. Grains of dirt and small stones clung to his clothes, which in turn clung to his soaked skin. All in all, he was barely recognizable, partly because of his filthy coating, but largely because of the transformed look in his eyes, which stood out like glowing orbs against his muddied skin.
“I-it’s you,” he stammered before throwing his hands over his face and falling to his knees.
Getting over my shock, I radioed Lily and Bill. “I found him. He’s alright, I think.”
“You found him?” came my wife’s confused reply.
“Yeah, he’s right here.”
“Just listen,” interjected Bill, and we all fell silent.
My walkie-talkie still crackled with static, and in the background I heard the stuttering rhythm of what sounded like frightened breathing. Then I noticed…
“Carl,” I asked the shivering pile of mud before me, “where’s your walkie?”
Carl lowered his dirty hands to stare at me. “I…I must have dropped it when I…when it…”
“Who pulled you out, Carl?”
Before he could answer, it happened again. An otherworldly sound blossomed through the night, and stronger than ever I detected something almost—but not quite—human. The “not quite” seized my soul with terror, and I shouted into my walkie, “Nobody move! Stay exactly where you are!”
I could tell by their distant lights that Bill and Lily obeyed. The lights of the park workers, however, continued about their search. They weren’t operating on our frequency; they couldn’t have heard my warning. I watched with a cold knot in my stomach as one of the lights wavered, then took off in a peculiar direction, as if its bearer was running after something.
“Everyone stay put,” I repeated. “I’ll come to you.” I grabbed Carl by the arm, feeling the slime and grit ooze between my fingers, and led him cautiously first to where my wife stood, paralyzed by unease. She was visibly relieved to see me. Next we made our way to Bill, who seemed less scared but just as bewildered.
“What’s going on?” he demanded.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but I’m ending the search for now. We’ll call the police and start again in the morning.”
“But what about Tim?” said Lily.
I had to force the words out of my mouth. I hated the thought of abandoning our boy for the night. “He’s used to the outdoors. He…he’ll be fine. Besides, what good would it do him if we all ended up like…” I glanced subtly at Carl, who seemed not to be paying any attention to our conversation. His wide eyes scanned the dark horizon, looking for something. My walkie-talkie still buzzed with activity, and I switched it off. “We’ll all do better with some sleep. Come on.”
The police made quick work of the search. Partway through the day they found the swath of marshland where Carl had his mishap. They dredged it, but with no results aside from a flashlight and a walkie-talkie, both dead. Near the other side of the preserve they found a body—not Tim’s, much to our relief. It was one of the park staff. Their foot had gotten tangled in a patch of thorns by a steep-banked creek, and thus dangled, had been unable to keep their face out of the water.
The final report came early that evening. Careful inspection of the embankment along the main path had turned up a small crevice between a pair of lichen-covered boulders. It was there they found Tim, his skull cracked open by the unforgiving stone.
“We nearly missed it,” admitted the officer as he delivered the grim news. “The grass had nearly covered it up, and we’d never have spotted it if one of my men hadn’t flown off suddenly. Nearly fell in himself.”
I held my sobbing wife close as he added, with a curious look in his eye, “I’ve never seen anything like it. One minute he was cool as could be, the next he’s running like…” The officer’s eyes grew wide, his pupils shrinking in their caramel irises. “Like the devil was chasing him.” He stood there in front of us for a few seconds before muttering, “My condolences.” The hinges of our front door squeaked as he left, and he paused at the sound, a visible tremor snaking its way down his spine. A similar sensation assaulted me, and I knew exactly what the officer was thinking. He’d heard it, just like Tim, Carl, that poor park worker…who knew how many others?
I only returned to Lucy’s Playground once after that, alone. I went to the spot where the police had found Tim, realizing as I stood atop the berm that it was the same vantage point I’d used during my first, cursory search. To think that he’d been there the whole time, buried beneath the grass at my feet, possibly alive. I imagined him lying there between the rocks as he clutched his cracked binoculars, too weak to call out to me, hoping I would just look down.
With a heavy sigh I started back toward the park entrance, but paused. A long, low whistle drifted down the trail behind me as the wind rustled my hair. I slowly turned to stare down the empty path, my mind too numb for fear. Very well. I’ll play. Then I ran, deeper into the desolate wilderness where no bird sang, to whatever end Lucy had in store.