Charlie parked his pickup in the small lot next to the park, which was little more than a playground, lit only by a solitary streetlight erected between it and the lot. Charlie exited his pickup, walked into the park, not being surprised at all to find himself alone.
The floor of the playground was covered with a thick layer of wood chips. Charlie walked to the center, turned back to verify nobody was following him. All he saw in the distance were lines of houses in the subdivision, interior lights beaming, looking to Charlie like lamps in the wilderness. He couldn’t see anybody outside; for all he knew, Charlie was alone in the chilly air of this October night.
He turned and walked past the slide, the swings, the wood chips giving way to manicured grass, then a row of wild grass and brush reaching his knees, until finally he reached the edge of the forest. Unlike his experience finding the park, Charlie felt confident that he was going in the right direction as his hands pushed back the low-hanging branches in his way. Of course, he realized — I’m on foot now, not driving; my feet know the way.
He remembered the last time he had visited Mike’s tent, over a year ago, the night before his friend left for college. They were quiet that evening, somber; there was no talk about their future plans, as they both silently realized that after fifteen years of friendship their futures were about to take them down very different paths.
Charlie remembered thinking there was one thing he needed to know on this night of ending. So he asked Mike if he ever believed all that stuff he wrote about, vampires and werewolves, those kind of things (he remembered, pulling a vine that had stuck on his leg). Mike had shrugged, inhaling again on the joint Charlie had passed him. “Yeah, until I was about ten. Then I asked my dad about it one night, and he just laughed.” He’d almost sounded bitter at the memory, as he passed the joint back to Charlie.
So why’d you keep writing the stories, Charlie’d asked. “Don’t know. In a way, they just seemed so real.” Charlie nearly tripped over a fallen log in the darkness, but kept walking into the growing darkness. Like–psychologically real, like these monsters represent our fears somehow (Charlie had read about that in a magazine).
Mike had stood up then, his lean body pacing in the dark wood around his tent. “Nah, not like that. I mean, like there’s things we don’t know about, but we know are out there. Superstition, I guess you call it. Things that don’t make sense. So you go looking for answers. That goes on all the time, things happen to you which you can’t explain, so you make up some explanation which makes it all make sense. Human nature, I guess. Well, back then, coming up with all these monster stories made the world make sense. You hear a bump in the night–it’s a monster stalking outside your window. You’re suddenly afraid–you can sense it out there, waiting for you to drop your guard.”
But you knew they were just stories, right? His foot splashed into a narrow stream — Charlie remembered filling a canteen here, must’ve been twelve at the time.
“Well, that don’t make no difference, really. Because all you got are these random events, and this story which explains them all–so you tend to believe the story, even though your know it can’t be true. That’s what makes the story so good–it’s not real, but it’s realer than anything else you have.”
Off to his left — yes, Charlie saw the underbrush and tree limbs giving way. Well, you’re stories were pretty good, Mike.
“Yeah. I liked coming up with them. You know–”
With a final dismissive push from the trees, Charlie stepped into the clearing. Erected between two trees, just as he remembered, was Mike’s tent.
“–sometimes I think back on them, and I kinda wish they were real. Know it sounds weird, but those stories always seemed better than real life.”