The wind was brisk, the atmosphere of the day crisp and biting.
A cool winter storm was approaching, but one not easily seen through the thick cover of woods that surrounded the small clearing on the property, where a small white house sat, with neat red shutters framing the window front.
Despite the size of the approaching storm, in comparison with the size of the house, it always weathered well.
Such was the nature of the strength of the family within.
It was a house small in stature to be sure, but huge in the amount of love that was often housed there.
Love for and by the woman ruling it. Love for the life led, even though it was often hard-won. But most importantly, this small house housed a love for all the children it often sheltered with a warm welcoming embrace of the surrounding wooden arms of its walls.
Inside the small house, often a long ways from spotless, it reflected a very lived in appeal to all who entered. It was a small environment, one which often teetered on the edge of loosing its grasp on an ever evolving robust atmosphere of lively activity of those it protected, yet somehow it always maintained.
It was a house often strewn full of book bags, an occasional empty glass, homework folders askew, while colored markers spilled out on almost every conceivable table top, as well as empty wrappers of the snack food of choice.
It was a wonderful home, always filled to the brim with the warm delicious smells of freshly cooked meals, scented candles and the more earthly smells of fresh grass tracked in from outside.
Never quite, unless empty, which it so seldom was, the house constantly hummed forever with the sound of a washer in the background, on a never-ending battle to complete the duty of clothes washing which needed to be seen too on a daily, almost hourly, basis.
The TV sat idle with a paused favorite program just waiting to be viewed, flashing an array of bright, inviting colors across the walls of its living room, covered with picture markers of time’s very progression in the form of children, as they grew throughout the years.
And in every picture, all the children were smiling.
That, in itself, said so very much.
Outside, a trampoline filled the front yard, as did a picnic table, three large dog houses, which sat neatly in rows, and a litter of balls of various origins, just waiting to be stepped on…
Basketballs, footballs, golf balls, and soccer balls at various times were all given an equal amount of attention by the four children that played there, however it was baseball, at the moment, that held their rapt attention.
A game was being played and a very important one at that.
Only at this point, the children were smiling little, as it was indeed a very serious game.
That said so much as well.
The imaginary bases were loaded, the count full and the lead hitter was up to bat and had just slammed one hard, to the left, and much to her chagrin…
Slade, a growing boy of nine, with short sandy brown hair just shy of falling into his deep brown eyes, stood quietly petting the huge Golden Lab at his side, as the two remained just on the clearing’s edge.
They stared into the surrounding forest, where the baseball lay, waiting patiently, in the shadows, almost beckoning them to come retrieve it. There, in the darkness it sat idle, in a huge pile of orange and brown, brittle leaves, just this side of a downed rotting log.
With the red threads of its stitching tilted up, the baseball almost appeared to be smiling mockingly at them.
Alyvia tilted back her baseball helmet, and rested the bat on her pink jacket covered shoulder. She looked at her brother with all the patience of her eleven years. Flipping the ends of the pigtail, of her light brown hair over her shoulder, she screamed, “Slade—Are you gonna get the ball or not?”
Unfazed by his sister’s scream, Slade tilted his head first one way then the other, staring at the white scuffed baseball lying plainly in view. The dog mirrored his motions, however she whined deep in her throat.
Jacob, the oldest of the bunch, with his thirteenth birthday just around the corner, took this distinction to heart.
Inside, mom was the boss, but here, on their private playground, when it was just him, his younger brother and his two cousins, he knew he ruled the roost.
He was the boss, and he played the part.
Jacob tucked his right-handed baseball glove under his arm, shaking his head from side to side; to perfect that perpetual messy look he always shot for, with his sandy brown hair, and narrowed his bright, piercing blue eyes at his younger cousin, “Slade! You and Alyvia are about to have to head home. Your mom wants you home before dinner. Get the ball, boy, you can do it—you know, it’s that round white looking thing that we have played with for the past hour. Can’t be that hard to miss.”
Jacob, when in extreme situations like this, had his mother’s don’t-make-me-come-over-there voice down pat.
And he wasn’t afraid to use it.
“Yeah.” Slade tossed back a mumble, still staring into the think of the trees. He rubbed his blue jean coated arm sleeve underneath his nose, wiping it. “I see it.”
Alyvia tucked the bat under her arm and clapped in mock encouragement, “That’s a good boy—now fetch boy, fetch!”
Yet still he did not make a move towards the ball.
“No.” Slade only narrowed his eyes, and shook his head, ever so slowly, not bothering to look back at his sister, seemingly unable to take his eyes off the ball, “I don’t think so.”
Neither, for that matter, could May, the dog at his side. Although every muscle in her body quivered in anticipation, in need to get that ball, something held her at bay and kept her sitting still at the boy’s side.
May whined in confusion, staring at the ball…
Not sure, herself, for her reasoning. All she knew, at that point, was going in after that ball, leaving the children alone was a mistake.
And a big one indeed.
The storm up above rumbled closer by way of burgeoning storm clouds. The air vibrated, charging with electricity of the approaching storm and the wind howled as it determinedly pushed it ever closer.
Something ever closer.
May’s eyes narrowed, and she scanned the forest before her, but saw nothing that should concern her so. She tilted her head, listening with her ears, but could hear nothing out of the ordinary, and in that regard there was little to fear.
But it was what she smelled, that gave her cause for concern, although she had no idea why. May’s ears slowly slid back, pressed tight against her head as a strong burning smell had her instinctively rolling her nose in revulsion, blowing hard in a defensive response.
And if there was one thing May didn’t like, the big Lab thought, it was being put on the defensive.
A growl began deep, rumbling low, almost like a whisper from the base of her chest.
It came out almost, as if it were a warning issued.
One which would go unheeded.
By both those she was trying to protect and those she was trying to protect against.
“Slade, if you make me come over there, I am so going to get grounded because of what I do to you!” Alyvia stomped her pink Nike clad foot on the white square cushion of home plate. She narrowed her deep brown eyes, staring hard at Slade’s back, wondering, just how much trouble she would get into by her aunt if she chucked her bat at her brother…
And hit him with it.
He was, after all, her brother. And didn’t that mean she could hurt him if she wanted to?
If not, Alyvia thought, sniffing, it should.
Alyvia bit her lip in contemplation, but in the end, shook her head, deciding against it with a sigh of disappointment.
Slade was using her brand new softball glove and if she hit him and he bleed all over it, she would never forgive herself.
Seeing the growing tension in the two older kids on their playground, Brandon, the ten-year old stepped up to try to ease the growing tension.
“Forget it.” Ever the pacifier, never one to encourage an argument, but one always quick to step in and settle it, Brandon called out as he casually flipped his dark hair out of his brown eyes, and wrinkled his freckled peppered nose as he sniffed, standing up. “I’ll get it.”
“Thank you, Brandon.” Jacob said pointedly, glaring at Slade’s back, only to turn his eyes to his cousin standing so very girl-like on home plate. He couldn’t help but to toss out with a smirk of pride in his voice. “So who’s trained the better little brother now, huh?”
Jacob was still smiling at her, and almost snarkly too, when Alyvia threw her bat at him.
“Hey, what was that for?” Jacob screeched, dodging out-of-the-way, just in the nick of time. He glared at his cousin harshly and he didn’t think that he shook his head to fix his hair, detracted from his glare at all.
Not at all.
Alyvia merely smiled, looking down at the nails on her hand, painted a pretty pink. “Cause you didn’t borrow my softball glove.”
“I’m left handed!” Jacob growled at her, teeth clenched. Gah, she drove him crazy sometimes. “I didn’t need your stupid glove. I have my own.”
“Boys,” Alyvia said with a roll of her eyes, and a crossing of her arms. “Are so very literal.”
Brandon tossed his brother, Jacob, his catcher’s glove, as Jacob proceeded to charge the batter’s mound in his blind fury. The tossed gloved halted his progress however and served as a well-timed delaying tactic to be sure.
Hey, whatever works, right?
Brandon motioned to Jacob, with his hand, to give him a minute and ready to do what his cousin Slade wouldn’t, so they could get on with the game…
That being, get the ball, you know, before blood was shed.
Brandon jogged over the dusty mound of third base in his prized Dallas Cowboy’s jacket that he had just gotten that year for Christmas, heading towards the side of the clearing which served as foul territory.
A windy rift of chilled air lifted his bangs off his forehead and the very air around him growled.
The strong burst of air sent the dying winter leaves dancing on end, before they took flight into the air. He moved quickly forward, sure of foot, his destination firmly in mind and he felt the coming depression of the approaching storm dance in tingles across the back of his neck.
He slapped his hand there, scratching in eerie irritation just as he looked up to the sky, now an intricate web of flashes of lightning streaking across the sky.
Brandon rubbed his neck, and he dropped his gaze, thinking how funny it was, that his neck didn’t feel cold.
But it did, nevertheless, crawl.
Brandon shivered in his nifty new jacket, as he trotted towards the shadows of the forest. It was the cool weather, nothing more, he told himself, while approaching the darkness of the woods at a steady, sure pace of one who knew exactly where he was heading.
His eyes scanned the trees in a rapidly growing anxiety that seemed to come out of nowhere.
He had lived in these woods his whole life and he knew there was nothing in them to be feared.
But the shadows loomed, imposingly over the brightness of the clearing, reaching for it, for him, with blackened, bent fingers.
By the time Brandon reached the boundary that separated the clearing of the property from the denseness of the surrounding forest, he froze, jerked to a stop by Slade’s hand.
Brandon gasped, startled at the movement by the younger boy, so lost in is thoughts was he, that he instinctively slapped at Slade’s hand in response, “Hey!”
His heart now racing in his chest.
But any further protest were cut off by Brandon as May rose from her seated position at Slade’s side, hackles raised high and began to snarl at the thickness of the trees before them, lips curled, teeth barred.
At quite simply…
Brandon’s heart rate increased.
“I don’t think you should go in there.” Slade whispered out of the side of his mouth, cutting his eyes up slightly to glance at his cousin, before jerking them quickly to stare back into the darkness.
“No.” Brandon shook his head slowly, now just as entranced as Slade, staring intently at lone white baseball in the thick of the woods. Just waiting for them. It was the only spec of brightness, almost glowing white, like a single star in the heart of the forest’s shadow. “I don’t think so either.”