Enjoy an excerpt from Kevin M. Folliard’s “Home by Dark,” featured in our upcoming anthology ON TIME.
“Be home by dark,” Bill’s mother said. The screen of the front door blurred her smile.
Bill waved and pedaled his chrome bike downhill. Forested hills loomed over the edge of town. Bill swerved around corners, jumped curbs.
Neighbors sipped afternoon cocktails on front porches. The sun lingered over scores of evergreens. Houses cast long shadows across bright green lawns. A familiar voice called Bill’s name. Preston Rodgers, his best friend since second grade, perched on the low branch of an oak tree.
“Where you off to, Billy-Boy?” A jester’s grin stretched Preston’s cheeks. Oversized ears poked his mess of straw-colored hair.
Bill glided to a stop. “Just a bike ride, I guess.”
“Sweet.” Preston swung from the branch, plopped on the ground, and flicked an ant off his arm. “Stop by on your way back. My brother and his friends got fireworks. They’re gonna set some off in the alley behind the supermarket.”
“Cool. I’ll swing by if I have time. I’m supposed to be home by dark.”
Preston cocked his head. “By dark? Billy-Boy, it’s Saturday.”
“Whatever.” Bill blushed. “I just have to check in. See ya.”
Bill stood on the pedals and launched himself forward.
Preston’s elfish smile widened. “Little Baby Billy-Boy, checking in with Mommy.”
“Screw you.” Bill tried to laugh it off as he pedaled down Preston’s block, but his face burned with embarrassment. He took a sharp left under the shady green canopy of Fourth Street. Tall colonials hugged the woods and loomed like dark sentinels. Rich people houses, according to Preston.
A grizzled groundskeeper trimmed hedges in front of a brick mansion. He glared at Bill over rust-crusted garden shears. Bill slowed, glared back, and pressed on.
A brown sign with gold lettering read “Nature Walk: Open Sunrise to Sunset.” Bill popped his front wheel onto the black tar path and bulleted through the opening. Green foliage feathered his bare arms and legs. Beams of sun filtered from the west. Insects hummed, and birds warbled.
Bill grunted up the steep incline. The path led to a rocky lookout over town. Bill pedaled against gravity. His lungs strained. His chest pounded. Muscles burned. Finally, he gave up and walked his bike the remainder of the way up.
Someday, I’ll be strong enough to pedal all the way to the top. He caught his breath at the summit, propped his bike against a white ash, and sat on the graffiti-painted gray bench. Penises and curse words scrawled up the backboard. Bubbly red letters sprayed out “No H8.” Black pen marks etched “Joan N Rick 4EVER!”
Where are Joan N Rick now? Bill wondered.
The sun dipped toward the hills. Evergreen tips tinged as orange and pink spread across the horizon.
“It’ll be dark again before you know it,” said a man.
Bill jumped with surprise. A familiar-looking man in a sweat-soaked gray shirt and black gym shorts chugged a water bottle. He had a red backpack, dirty blond hair, a scruffy face, and gray-green eyes like Bill. “You really should get home.”
Bill nodded uneasily. “I will. There’s time.”
“Not as much time as you think.” White scars crisscrossed the man’s arms. He had a weary look in his eyes as he took another long swig of water. “The forest preserve closes after dark. Nothing good happens after dark.”
“So?” Bill shrugged. “You’re not the ranger.”
The man returned his empty water bottle to his backpack and sat next to Bill. “Listen, Billy. I don’t want to scare you.”
“I’m not here to hurt you. But unless you leave now, it’s going to take a lot longer to get home than you think. We just don’t want Mom to worry, okay?”
“Okay,” Bill said. The man’s expression reminded Bill of his Uncle Marty who was always stressed. Uncle Marty was a cop, and Bill wanted to follow in his footsteps, but Uncle Marty always warned him it was a tough job.
You have to deal with the worst of the worst every day, Billy. It takes a lot out of you, Uncle Marty said. But when you help someone, even just one person. That makes all the difference.
“Do I know you?” Bill asked the hiker.
The man gave a sad smile. “You will.”
A loud crack echoed off the hills. Bill stood and surveyed the town. Another series of pops and cracks rang out. He sprinted to the rocky ledge and eyed the distant supermarket. It had to be Preston’s brother and their friends, lighting off fireworks.
Bill turned to find the bench empty. The hiker was gone. Only rustling leaves graced either side of the path.
Another firework burst. The sun was disappearing behind the hills. Bill grabbed his bike and pumped back to the path, downhill. He glided faster and faster. He slowed his descent when he came to turns, kept to one side of the path. He was sure he would pass the hiker on his way down, but he never saw him.
The sky beyond the canopy turned purple as he reached the bottom of the hill. He headed back toward the Fourth Street entrance, hoping that if he hurried, he could swing by the impromptu fireworks show, before it got broken up, and still make it home by dark.
Bill’s bike thumped over a tree root that cut into the path. He swerved and crashed. His knee skidded along cracked concrete. Skin shredded. He curled over onto his back, winced, and bit his lip. Blood gushed into his palm as he applied pressure.
Dizziness swam behind his eyes as he struggled to get back up.
A strange vibration overcame him, tremors that started in the ground and entered his bones. As Bill examined the canopy, his vision doubled and tripled, branches split and swirled like ghosts. The clouds above them rushed through the air like crashing waves.
The branches shook. Leaves withered. Wind whipped down the forest path. Branches snapped.
A terrible aching sensation crept through Bill’s limbs. His head swam.
Then, the strange sensation vanished.
The once paved path had given way to dust, dirt, fissures. Trees had burrowed into the blacktop. Branches and brush had overgrown.
A chill had crept into the air. Yellow leaves dotted the previously vibrant green canopy.
Bill hissed with pain and held his knee. Blood seeped onto his palm. He stood and tried to walk off the pain in a circle.
“Hey Billy-Boy.” Preston appeared between the trees. “You hurt?”
Preston looked different, taller, lankier. His impish face longer, his chin squared off. His sandy brown hair had darkened a shade.
“I’m all right,” Bill said. “You guys lighting off fireworks here now? How’d you get here so fast?”
“Fireworks is kids’ stuff,” Preston said. “Come on, follow me.”
“I have to get home. My mom wants me home by dark.”
“Gimmie a break. Come on.” Preston laughed and motioned for Bill to follow him through the shady brush.
“My bike though.”
“Leave it,” Preston said. Cool breeze rustled golden leaves.
The sky darkened to gray dusk as Bill followed his friend through the woods. Can’t hurt to see what Preston’s up to. Besides, he shouldn’t ditch Preston in the woods alone so close to dark.
They entered a round clearing. Other teens were starting a bonfire. Over the trees, the sky glowed violet, and in the opposite direction, stars twinkled into view.
Kevin M. Folliard is a Chicagoland writer whose fiction has been collected by The Horror Tree, Flame Tree Publishing, Hinnom Magazine, and more. His recent publications include “Halfway to Forgotten,” featured on The No Sleep Podcast; the Short Sharp Shocks!Halloween tale ”Candy Corn”; and his 2020 horror anthology The Misery King’s Closet. Kevin currently resides in La Grange, IL, where he enjoys his day job as an academic writing advisor and active membership in the La Grange and Brookfield Writers Groups. When not writing or working, he’s usually reading Stephen King, playing Super Mario Maker, or traveling the U.S.A. You can learn more about his writing at www.KevinFolliard.com!