A light, cool breeze caressed the edges of a seemingly impenetrable forest. It stood like a green wall at the borders of a grassy clearing. In the middle of the clearing, a large, mostly painted farm home stood all alone. The home’s construction, built by the hands of the skilled craftsmen of a nearby town, was nearly complete. The design was a modification of common styles of the era – a combination of farm and country home. The structure and roof were complete, as was the fastening of hundreds of side boards around the house. All the windows were fixed into place, with only the eastern most side of the home still in need of its final coat of white paint. Constructions tools sat in toolboxes and on benches with the look of careful organization only those who work with their hands practice. Three black shutters still needed hanging on the second floor bedroom windows and the steps to the porch weren’t to be found. A large wooden porch, screened by a handrail and slats, encompassed the entire perimeter of the first floor. Years from now, the style would become more commonly known as a Cape Codder.
Although it was just past midday, there were no signs of a work crew today. The last few punch outs to the project were to be completed by the owner, who intended to move in at the end of the month. It was peaceful, yet eerily quiet – a large, vacant house rising up on the crest of a small hill. Like a lordly castle overseeing its surrounding peasant village, the white home seemed to sit confidently over its domain. The grass yard was high near the edges of the woods and lay flat near the edges of the home – trampled by a countless number of boot prints. Already complete and painted a dark red with white trim, a small barn stood alone in the western corner of the lot. A small oak tree had been planted just behind the barn, but in front of the dense forest that boxed the house in on three of its four sides.
From the middle of the green wall of trees at the back of the property line, a lone man emerged. He wasn’t running but looked hurried and unrested nonetheless. He turned and looked
over his shoulder several times, back into the woods from he came. He did not have the look of someone who was waiting for a companion to catch up. Rather, his pace and demeanor suggested he was concerned about someone or something that had been following him.
As he walked out onto the field, now in full sight, it became apparent that he had been in the woods for some time. His face was smudged with streaks of dirt and his hands were caked dry with mud. Soil clung to the skin in between his nails and fingers. His clothes, while not tattered or torn, hadn’t been changed in several days. Green and brown stains covered his overalls and the leg bottoms had more brown than blue. He stopped briefly and placed his hand into his pocket. For a moment, his hand searched frantically throughout the large overall pocket, as if he had lost whatever he had been carrying. But just as quickly, his hand found what it had been looking for and silenced its hectic movement. He removed his hand, leaving the contents in his pocket behind, and began walking towards the home again.
This wasn’t his home, but it was the safest place he knew. He had been careful during his two days in the woods to make sure no one knew he was coming here. Even his own brother, who would soon be moving into the new home, didn’t know he was here. At times, he had been chased and at times he had been watched, but the man was confident he had reached the property unnoticed. Still, time was short and the ragged looking figures in their dark cloaks were coming. Of this, there was no doubt. He had to move quickly and return to the woods. Once he was back in the woods, he would be loud this time as he moved. He would draw their attention on purpose, maneuvering far from his brother’s home, taking the dark figures with him.
He picked up his pace, not quite a jog now, and looked to the corner of the property lines. The oak trees had all been planted and the symbols had been etched into them. The barrier was up – unseen to the naked eye – but there nonetheless. He had felt it as he exited the woods and crossed the invisible line drawn between the oaks. It had felt like an insect buzzing around his ear, yet somehow the sound seemed to come from within his own head and body. Then, just as fast as he noticed it, the sound went away. Even though the feeling was internal and most people wouldn’t notice it as they crossed it, it created a powerful, nearly impassable barrier. It was a Safe Zone – the only one for hundreds of miles.
The man angled towards the side of the house on purpose. He wanted to keep the house between him and the woods on the far left side. That was the direction from which he had seen the cloaked figures last. He didn’t think they were nearby – not yet at least. But to be safe, he didn’t want them to see him sneaking around to the front of the house.
As he reached the corner of the home, he rested his back against its wood side and took a deep breath. He scratched his unkempt, black beard and brushed his dark, black hair from his forehead. This was the first real moment he took to rest in days and it felt good. He pondered the idea of sliding his back down the side of the house and resting his bottom on the ground for a few moments.
Would he be able to get up?
No. If he sat now, he would sleep.
He would rest later. His mission was almost complete.
Pushing off the house with back, he trudged to the front of the home, and knelt down. The decking and railing that ran across the entire home like a giant crib pushed out further at the front to create a raised porch. With a little luck, his brother would enjoy many peaceful nights on this patio, rocking the setting sun away while he whittled on some piece of stone or wood. His son, would sit next to him, learning the craft while his wife prepared a late super for them both. That was how the man pictured things for his brother – or perhaps, hoped, was the better word.
As he reached the corner of the enlarged patio, he stooped down to all fours and tried to creep underneath it. It was so low that he instead had to crawl on his elbows, each lunge forward harder than the next. Within a few moments, his entire body was underneath the porch, his feet
easily five or six feet from the edges. It was dark and the ground underneath was nothing but wet mud and rocks. His elbows and knees were soaked now and he could feel the weight of the mud starting to stick to his body.
At last he reached his destination. The man almost hit his forehead on the box as he approached it, but his eyes had finally adjusted to the darkness under the home. He fumbled with one hand and opened the clasp of the container. It was metal on the inside, but it been tarred several times over on the outside to make it weatherproof.
He didn’t know how long it would remain underneath the porch – but he knew the box would stand the long test of time if needed. Protected from the weather in large part from the house itself, the triple coating of tar he had put on it ensured its contents would remain safe from the elements.
He bumped his head on one of the porch floor boards as he slipped his stomach up to reach into his pocket. He cursed lightly and laughed. He had done the same thing when he had placed the box here a few weeks earlier. He had wanted to tell his brother what he was doing and where he was hiding the contents of his pocket, but knew it was best if he didn’t know. He had almost told his own son, Mason, when they went fishing together at Felton’s Lake the week prior. The boy, only eight years old, could undoubtedly keep a secret. But, he could not bring himself to burden the boy.
Not yet at least. His time would come.
The man pulled the stone from his pocket and held it up to his eyes. Even under the patio, in the dark mud pit he lay in, the stone still retained some of its luminescence. He gazed into the stone, and turned it end over end. It was smooth, cut perfectly square and about the size of his palm when fully extended his fingers. It carried within its edges and deep within its grain, speckles and streaks of green, yellow, pink and purple. In the middle, a singular red dot, like the eye of Jupiter, swirled in small circles.
At Mack’s Trader & Supply or even one of the jewelers in Utica, it would hold no value. It was a piece of The Adder and it was one of the most valuable stones on Earth. It would be safe here – at least for his lifetime. He was confident of that.
He placed the stone into the container, closed the lid and clasped it shut. The tarred edges of the lid stuck firmly to the interior edges. The man pushed mounds of dirt around the edges of the box and packed it in with his hand. He hit his head once more on the floorboards. This time he laughed louder than he meant to. He covered his mouth and tasted the mud on his hands by accident. He snorted through his nose as he held back an even bigger laugh.
His job was done and he felt release – perhaps even something like happiness for the first time in a long, long time.
The man crawled backwards from the patio, now his entire front was covered in dark mud. Small globs of wet dirt and rocks dropped from his chest and legs as he stood up and brushed himself off. It was nearly six miles through the dense woods to get to his house, but he knew the way well.
The man turned once more and looked back into the woods on the far side of the house, somewhat hiding behind the slats of the porch railing as he did. Deep into the woods he stared as the wind burned his unblinking eyes. At the edges of his vision – at the very edge of the furthest he could see – there was movement in the woods. He was sure of it. His mind and eyes drew the outlines of several dark figures, and then, they were gone again.
They were close again though – he was sure of it. He turned towards the woods on the opposite side of the house – the one on his side. Using the home to screen the line of sight from where he thought the cloaked figures walked, the man used the last of his energy to jog back into the cover of the woods. As he entered into them, he felt the energy from the barrier wash over him for a moment.
After a few more steps into the woods, the tired, muddy looking man, disappeared from sight.