Ryan Howard faces his own cowardice and learns the importance of real friends.
Ryan did a lot of running at first. He likely burned more calories in this single night than in his entire life, but there was nowhere to run that wasn't the same as all the rest. Cover was scarce. In every direction there were only the naked bones of the trees. Above, the sky was dark, dark gray.
Ryan couldn't move. The needles were all over him, needles and spiderweb. If I just wait here, maybe Dad'll come find me.
He had tried to change. Susan didn't like the boys who sat quietly at lunch or looked both ways when they crossed the street. Mike didn't think the guys who tucked their shirts in or were on time for class were cool. Ryan wouldn't be eating any more lunches or crossing any more streets or tucking in any more of his shirts or going to anymore classes now, though. Not if the devil found him first.
But Renée told him he could do it. In her soft, simple way, she had said, you can do it, Ryan Howard, and she smiled. Why couldn't he believe?
Mike had told him the Thing in the Woods was big and black as night, with leathery wings crisscrossed with pulsing veins. Susan told him it had fangs like a wolf and was always hungry. Hungry for what everyone said it was hungry for. Wayward travelers. Lost people in the woods. Him.
The shadows moved with the trees, slipping over the mounds of dry, brown needles and tufts of grass. Every sound was a sigh of hunger, every movement that of a ghastly limb.
Ryan was crying now. Susan didn't like boys who cried, but he had to. The tears streamed down his freckled, plump cheeks and soaked into the collar of his undershirt. His clothes were all sweaty and smelly, sweaty like gym class and smelly like pine needles. The sap and spiderweb stuck everything together like glue.
He saw himself at home now, reading comics, playing games, doing homework. Anything to distill the image of the devil eating his neck. He couldn't stay there, where he was, doing nothing.
One step, two steps. Crack. Rustle. Tweeeaaak. Ryan stopped, looking around cautiously, fearfully. Another step. He had to make it. He had to do this on his own. There was no safety in these woods with the devil.
But it would be so much easier if he wasn't alone.
He didn't know if he was going in the right direction. He used to hear the night birds, chipmunks, and other things in the dark, but now there was nothing but the silent noises, the groaning of the trees as they reached to ensnare him, the scraping of the leaves as they skittered about him, the far-off thumps and creaks and snaps that had no logical causes. They implied presence but did not reveal it. No, the devil was too crafty for that.
I can, he told himself. I can I can I can I can I can!
And then he could feel Renée.
He slammed his eyes shut, huffing and heaving as he barreled through the thin underbrush. Snaps, cracks, twists, rustles, groans, creaks, thumps. The sounds were fading now. Going, going away. Though he stumbled, he did not falter. He rose again.
Then Ryan Howard opened his eyes and he saw the schoolyard. Mike and Susan weren't there. But Renée was there.
She smiled. “You did it.”
And Ryan Howard believed.