Jason whipped around, the crackling hum of wind made him fear something. It must've been death in general, or maybe just the idea of it. The sun was long gone, and the sliver of a pale orange moon was glassed over with blue dust, liquid moonbeams easing through the burning cracks of the sky. His little brother, Oliver, was just seven years old, and clutching on to Jason's arm as if though his life depended on it. And maybe, just maybe, it did. Rosie, the hyperactive dog, was slouched over, hunched into a skinny ball of fur. They were late, and they didn't quite know why.
All they knew was how they had gotten there in the first place. Oliver had ran ahead, giggling hard, and slipped into the woods, sly and sneaky. Jason had trailed behind with a group of older kids. Soon everyone was scattered and he was left alone, planted in the middle of two rotting oaks. The shady atmosphere was darkening, and the thrill of stepping into the dark woods was becoming irresistible. Not that Jason really cared about finding Oliver, he just knew he had to find this pest, this insolent little mischief-maker who could set Jason off like an alarm, with just a reproachful pout or a satisfied smile of "you lost". Rosie was with Olly, as she was very protective over the giddy little boy and young dogs liked the exercise of chasing moving things and since Oliver was always moving, well, Rosie was always following.
They were both slow and small, and their level of energy limited. Jason soon found his brother propped up against a tree, half asleep, the dog sprawled on his lap. He slung the speckled beagle over one shoulder and pulled the whining Oliver to his feet, and off they were, taking the long way home.
Now they were lost. Of course. They didn't know anything about these shady woods, all they knew was that beyond the crevices and curves of the trees, beyond the woods themselves, there was a strict woman named Sheila Crawford. A woman who was waiting for her two little boys and their dog to come scuttling home so that she could scold them. She was not worried, oh no. She was angry, furious even, at Jason, at Oliver and even at the poor Rosie.
Oliver had never liked the dark.
"We're going to stay here forever and ever, right." His voice was high-pitched, hesitant and he was so very gullible he almost believed the ridiculous words that were coming out of his own mouth.
His brother didn't respond, he didn't see the point in doing so. He just sighed, painfully, his shoulders trembling in frustration.
"Of course. You got us here, I'm going to get us out, and you'll be pitied while I'm punished."
For some reason, Oliver found this comment absolutely hilarious. He burst out laughing, gasping for air in between fits of throaty giggles. He snorted, purposefully and It took Jason every speck of his tolerance, which was rather low, to resist shaking the little brat. He just stood still, absolutely still, stiff as a stick, lips pursed and nostrils flaring.
"Mummy prefers me" sang the seven-year old in between his conundrum.
"You are an obnoxious, little devil and one day I will be laughing at you so damn hard, you'll forget you have ears" retorted the older of the two-boys, a smug self-satisfaction thickening his voice. "Now we have to go home "
And with that, the boys, reconciled, trudged through the skeletal array of trees, wandering from dead end to dead end, lit by only the quavering strands of the moon. They heard a whine, a throaty growl, a gurgling sigh, a melancholic whisper that seemed to be coming from the doe-eyed beagle.
"Rosie seems upset, I guess I'll carry her" muttered Jason, extending his arms.
"Where's Rosie?" Oliver was serious, his big watery eyes unblinking, uncoloured.
"Crap! You have got to be frickin' kidding me! Seriously?! What the hell!" Jason was all over the place, fists clenched, teeth grinding.
Oliver had already scampered from tree to tree, blubbering and hissing Rosie's name.
"Rosie! Rose! Rosalind! Juju! Blah blah! BLAH!!!!!" The weary little boy crumbled to the ground, sobbing and kicking the earth, his salty tears melting into the soil.
It started to rain, the icy ropes of water spiralling down from the low, hovering clouds. A faint scent of ash weaved through the air, and for some reason, Jason found that worrying. The odour grew stronger, till it was all he could think of, crawling between his curled toes.
Petrified but calm, he addressed the huddled Oliver:
"Olly, we have to go" his voice was soft, soothing and Oliver, although devastated and drenched, felt a pressing urge wash over him. Sleep creeped towards him, quickly and silently, and his heavy eyelids started fluttering shut. Without a word, Jason slid one hand under Oliver's knees and cradled him close, humming a lullaby till the boy fell asleep.
Goosebumps slithered down his arms, and his shoulders hunched, the weight of Oliver sinking into him.
Soon, he stopped to rest, panting as he gazed at the stars, their corners nibbled by black light. Suddenly, he saw a light, silky, fiery red, or maybe it was magenta, snaking toward him. Oliver saw it too, felt it burn beneath his closed eyelids. The light enveloped the boys and the oddest sensation came over them. Oliver felt as if though all his dreams were overlapping one another and sliding out of his mouth, forgetting him. Jason felt it too, his soul was pouring out of him, and he crumpled into the light, like a withering leave, feeling it merge into him. He fell back, breathless and dazed, the stars floating like golden breadcrumbs. In between them all, he saw the thing that he feared the most, and he stared at it for a while, for a very long while. He grabbed it, his knuckles white and he hollered:
"I've caught you! Death! I. Am. Alive."
And although his brother lay limp beside him, inhaling nothing and exhaling everything, he knew that they were both somewhere in those woods, lost, chasing after their souls.