The sun was barely peeking over the treetops, leaving a golden trail as Parker passed the backyard gate. It wouldn’t peek for much longer. It would fade away soon, replaced by the solid black of night, and a cool feeling in the air. And Mr. Green would be here soon.
The ground was mushy beneath Parker’s sneakers, the dirt giving way as he padded along. It had rained this morning; he remembered looking out the window at breakfast, watching the dark clouds float over the backyard. Dad said it would rain all day, and he worried the crops would drown. Parker worried that Mr. Green wouldn’t show.
But then the rain had slowed, and it left only a crisp fog that spread between the tall trees. This was Mr. Green’s favorite kind of weather. Parker thought he liked it too, even if sometimes it sent shivers down his back. He tried to tell himself not to be afraid. That’s what Mr. Green always said, that it was so silly to be afraid of little things like that.
The wind blew a little harder, and Parker kept moving down the familiar path. He walked carefully around the broken car with the smashed front bumper. It had been left in the woods for weeks, maybe months now. Who would drive through the forest like that? The road here wasn’t even a road, just a clearing. No wonder they’d slammed into a tree.
The forest floor kept sinking beneath his feet. It must have rained so much, it was almost like the whole woods was one big mud puddle. Parker didn’t mind it, though. This meant no one else would be out here; no one who could ruin his fun, or steal his new friend.
Up ahead, a great big tree was waiting for him. Its huge, gnarled roots had been pulled from the ground and turned upside down, pointing up at the sky.
As he got closer, Parker watched a long-fingered hand creep around the bark on middle. Its shiny skin was pale as the moon and looked slimy, like it had seeped right out of the wet ground.
Parker came to a sudden stop. Mr. Green slunk around the front of the tree, his head nearly brushing some of the upturned roots.
“Are you alone?”
Mr. Green asked silly questions like that. Had he ever brought someone out to the woods like this? Dad, or Brandon, or even baby Grace? Of course he hadn’t. If he brought Brandon, Mr. Green would probably end up liking his brother better, like Billy Williams down the street. And then Parker would have no friends but Grace, who wasn’t really a friend at all, only his sister.
“Yes,” Parker replied simply. Mr. Green didn’t like long answers. He didn’t like it when Parker talked too much; about school, or the dog, or Brandon.
Mr. Green pulled back his thin red lips and smiled. “Good boy.”
Parker waited. Mr. Green didn’t like to be rushed, either. Just like when Dad would yell at him for asking too many questions. He didn't want to make Mr. Green mad.
The sun was almost gone now. It had disappeared beyond the treetops, and Parker could feel the dark around him. It felt colder than before, like a chill sinking deep into his muscles.
“Par-ker,” Mr. Green crooned. He always said his name like that, all long and sing-songy. Brandon liked to say it quick and harsh, and Dad only ever said it like he was so tired. Grace couldn’t say it at all.
“I have a very special present for you.” Mr. Green put on a bright smile as he spoke.
Parker wasn’t sure when the last time he had gotten a present was. Dad had worked in town on his birthday this year. All his clothes were hand-me-downs. Even his red sneakers, which Dad had promised were new, really came from the Thompsons next door. He was glad for a friend like Mr. Green.
“Okay,” he said, and the air around them seemed to get even cooler. “Where is it?”
Mr. Green smiled wider. Parker could see the tips of his pointy teeth. They were whiter than his skin, and sharp enough to poke him, probably. He wondered how they got like that. After he first met Mr. Green, way back in September, he’d gone back home and tried to rub his teeth with a knife from the kitchen, but Brandon had stolen it away and told him that was stupid.
“My friend has teeth like that,” he’d said, but Brandon had replied that he didn’t even have any friends.
“Your present’s back home.” Mr. Green looked over his shoulder into the woods. Parker looked at the stringy bits of hair left on his smooth head and wondered if his own hair would ever get like that too. All tangled and black, like long dark threads. “Will you come with me to get it?”
Dad would be home in a little bit, Parker thought. He would make a late dinner and check on Grace. Then he’d go upstairs and talk to Brandon, who was probably playing games in his room. They would talk about school tomorrow, soccer tryouts, working on the farm. Then, finally, he would go to Parker’s room. He would open the door and see the unmade bed, which would make him mad, because he told Parker to clean his room that morning. He would start to say something, but then he would realize Parker wasn’t there at all. He’d go back to Brandon, who would say he hadn’t seen his brother since dinner. Then Dad would go downstairs, but there would be no one else in the living room, or the kitchen, or the leaky basement. There would only be Dad, and Brandon, and Grace, and Nelly the dog.
Parker thought he could almost make out Nelly barking now, but still she felt so far away.
“Yes,” he heard himself decide. “I’ll come.”
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