June 24, 2021

I braced myself as I pressed the gas pedal. My black sedan seemed to sense my trepidation and hesitated before it lurched forward through the intersection into Wishanick Woods, a place I had avoided for most of my life. A place whose history was one of folklore, the kind which caused intelligent people to speak of absurdities as if they were matters of fact. And still, the daftness of such matters were never farfetched. My community had loved horrors that defied imagination, terror was reality, precaution a reflex, and fear, a characteristic of supreme intelligence.

As a child the serum of youthful curiosity hadn't been enough to cure that supreme intelligence and provide my friends and I the audacity to breach the boundaries of Wishanick Woods. Some days we would ride our bikes right up to the border of our neighboring town. Our neighborhoods were divided by a stretch of highway and a breadth of poverty. As cars zoomed past us, we were held at bay by a myriad of factors incalculable to our young minds. There, at the edge of Wishanick Woods was a sign that feigned hospitality. "Welcome," it said, "to the Wishanick Woods." We knew to decline what to most would be an invitation. Instead, we were satisfied with surveying the landscape for signs of familiarity.

There we sat straddling our bikes, three, sometimes five in a row, searching for something good in a place where the evils were a birthright. The inhabitants of Wishanick Woods looked like people, neatly resented, polite and attentive. Beneath their unassuming exterior, however, was a latent energy that matched the pulsed of their community. Its beat was a language that said, "Stay away."

One day, as we stood there wondering about our estranged neighbors, a gray minivan rolled past us, the occupants smiled. There was a silence between us as the van rolled into the gates Wishanick Woods. The people possessed smiles, smiles like ours. We had found the hope that we had searched for.

Their smiles were like seeing a friends breasts, we suspected they had them, but to see actually see how beautiful they were changed our entire outlook. We rode home on our bikes pretending as if we didn't see them but the more we evaded the topic, the more pronounced they became in our memories. As children futures meant possibilities, however, the older people get those possibilities turn to probabilities governed by the past. I told my mother that the people at Wishanick Woods had smiled at us.

"Now you listen to me." She said wielding her finger like a sword, her words a royal decree. "The world is filled with people who laugh at jokes aren't funny. Some people even smile when they're not happy to see you." She grabbed may chin and stared into my eyes, her face overcome with austerity. "Don't you ever go into that place."

Most times I would defy my mother out of a sheer sense of invincibility and juvenile rebellion but the town of Wishanick Woods had instant mortality poured into its concrete. Legend was that many had gone missing while crossing through the dainty town.

"Chopped him up and poured him in the sidewalk." Chucky said about his uncle who had tried to use the town as a shortcut.

"My mama said that all shortcuts lead to hell." Andy added.

Chucky and I looked at each other as if to say, "Yeah, whatever." Andy's mom was a religious zealot, everything was a pathway to hell.

I attempted to muster a chuckle at the thought of Andy's mom. She never wore bras. "Focus." I told myself. I could not afford to be dismissive of danger. I switched off the soft croon of Rhiannon Giddens and listened as my tires sneaked across the asphalt. The houses on Picnic Road were ridiculously ordinary, they sat far way from the street with large yards outlined by gray sidewalks and driveways. As I reached the end of Picninc Road my headlights shined directly into a house that sat adjacent the road. I had the urge to kill my headlights—I decided against it.

I hooked a right onto a road named Plantation, the main road, the irony was not lost on me. The scenery had not changed but my chest had tightened like a vice. I reached into my console to retrieve my inhaler but it evaded my fingertips. I looked down into the darkness and in that moment a figure appeared, just feet away from my bumper. My heart skipped a beat as I slammed on the brakes. The figure shielded its eye from the glare of my headlights.

It was a man, dressed in slacks and a T-shirt, he showed me his teeth. The gesture seemed to pain him. He stepped aside, out of the beam of my headlights and adjusted his eyes to peer into my car. I gently pressed the gas. As I passed him he went to tip his imaginary cap but was halted by the sight of my face. He looked like he had seen a ghost. I watched through my rearview as he watched me disappear. I inhaled as deep as I could. Where the hell was that inhaler?

I pulled over to the curb and turned on the overhead light, quickly, so as not to disturb. Disturb who? The inhaler was not in its usual place, only my cell and a package of Tic-Tacs. I figured that it must be in the glove compartment. I had unfastened my seatbelt and reached for the latch when I heard a rap against my driver's side window. I turned to see a forced smile beneath a muskrat of a mustache.

"Sir," said the mustache. "Out of the car."

Every bone in my body told me to defy the order, hightail it, take my chances on the run, "You won't catch me copper!" But I was stricken with a familiar we sensation, that hopeless human naivete. I switched the car off.

There were rules for encountering aggression in the wild. With bears I'd heard that one was supposed to cause a racket, with dogs I was told to remain as clam and as still as possible. Perhaps that would help. I relaxed my ligaments and relieved my muscles of all motility. As I did, another man approached. Their postures were readied, led by chests that flaunted polished silver.

In a split second, I was in a whirlwind. Skillfully, I was removed from my seated position and thrust on the torrid hood of my car. Seized by their grips, my mind struggled to record the places their hands had probed. A hand rested between my legs. I heard myself gurgle a protest.

The two men questioned me so fast that I was sure to stumble. For that, however, I was prepared, trained by overprotective elders, inquisitive sisters, and meddling minors. I waited patiently for my opening as they ping-ponged me with questions.

"What are you doing around here, boy?" asked muskrat man.

"You casing the joint?" asked the other.

"You don't know about this place?"

"This is a nice car, you a drug dealer?"

"A rapper?"

"Where ya from?"

"You some type of peeping tom?"

When they ran out of steam, I patiently answers each one of their questions, in succession.

They went silent for a moment, stewing in their lividity, "Smart ass." Muskrat's partner remarked. Again, my body was maneuvered with both and unprecedented skill for abuse and with an inordinate measure of indifference for my wellness. I found myself prone, my head pinned beneath the open car door, a knee cleaved my shoulder blades. I remembered where I was. I remembered the takes of terror and the warnings of my elders. My chest constricted as I fought the urge to invoke my humanity, as I fought the urge to say the words of the condemned, "I can't breathe."

Panic crept into my veins and lit like a fire in the bowels of my being, preparing my body for the rigidity of defense. I wanted to push back against my attackers but I knew that would be seen as an act of aggression. I forced myself to relax as they tightened their grips and heaved their weight atop me. I felt myself slipping into the silk shroud of darkness.

"Daddy?" A voice sat at the periphery of my consciousness. An angel calling to the back of a fading season. The voice was as sweet as I remembered. "Dad."

I opened my eyes and peered through the opacity of suffocation. There, they were, a boy and a girl that were once a huddled hump of flesh that lay asleep in my back seat. They had been roused by my dance upon the brink of destruction.

We were on our way to their grandmother's house. I thought of Little Red Riding Hood—a lesson ignored. These were not dogs, they were wolves in human clothing. Tricked, by the wolves in the Wishanick Woods, that's what my story would be. One in a long list of tales told while kids stood at the edge of the city limits wondering if it were true. Despite what supreme intelligence told them, they would always possess a hopeless human naivete.

"My, grandma, what a firm grip you have."