by Russell Fee
Seen on a map, Highway 13 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula cuts through the Hiawatha National Forest from Nahma Jct. to Wetmore with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. Seen through the eyes of a six-year-old boy from the back seat of a ‘59 Rambler, Highway 13 was a flat run of endless road through trees, trees all around and everywhere, trees as if the world was made of nothing else.
A hot wind, full of grit from the road, blew through the open windows of the car, smothering his face. His younger sister lay sprawled next to him, her feet periodically pedaling against his ribs, demanding more room for herself on the seat. They had made only one stop over an hour ago so his father could buy a case of beer. The twenty-four bottles of Schlitz rattled on the floor under his feet, sounding like a chorus of scolding nuns. He was tired, bored, and had to pee.
But it wasn’t any use complaining. He had tried until his mother had turned around, her arm stretched over the back of the seat, her finger inches from his nose and yelled, “Enough. Not another word. Not one. Do you understand?”
Eventually though, things got a little better. His sister fell asleep, and, a few minutes later, his father pulled off the road onto the shoulder and stopped.
“Stay in the car with your sister. And don’t wake her,” his father ordered. “Your mother and I are going to check out a campsite. We’ll be back in a bit.”
He watched his parents walk down the path to the campground until they were swallowed by the trees. That’s when things got quiet. So quiet that he noticed the silence; so quiet that he could almost feel the hush around him.
He was about to howl to banish the sensation when a horrible odor wafted through the car, choking him. He made a fist to punch his sister for farting, when out of nowhere there appeared at the window two huge opal eyes staring at him from beneath a thick knotted brow peaked on a grooved weathered face surrounded by coarse, thickly matted, mud-colored hair. The boy froze at the visage and his heart would have hammered from fright but for the warmth in the eyes and the thread of a smile stretched along the creature’s thin lips.
The face rose above the window and an enormous arm reached down to the floor where it grabbed the case of beer and pulled it out of the car. Then, with three strides of a loping gait, the creature and the beer were in the woods and gone.
Afterwards, time stood still for the boy, so it could have been mere minutes or more than an hour until his parents returned.
“We’re not camping here. We’re moving on,” his father announced, opening the car door.
“But Dad,” the boy stammered before his father snapped, “I don’t want to hear your complaining. Remember what your mother said. Not another word.”
As the car rolled onto the road, the boy bowed his head, not in contrition but to gaze in wonder at where the case of beer had been.
Russ Fee is the author of the award-winning Sheriff Matt Callahan mystery series. The second book in the series, A Dangerous Identity, won the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Star 82 Review, Bright Flash Literary Review, and Hemingway Shorts, the Hemingway Foundation’s short story contest magazine.