Chapter 3: Lost in the Woods
“Kwado, how many times do I have to tell you to wipe your feet at the door?” Magatha said without looking up. “Don’t think you’re going to track mud all through my kitchen.”
Kwado huffed and shuffled back to the doormat so he could wiggle out of his boots. His mother was bent over the table, mixing dough for a strawberry pie. He briefly wondered how she never failed to notice when he did something out of place. Was there some sort of mandatory sixth sense that mothers developed after their first child?
“Don’t stand there and pout about it,” Magatha said.
“It’s not that.”
Sensing something was off, Magatha paused and looked up at her son. “What’s the matter, dear?” She set down her rolling pin.
Kwado shrugged and looked sideways.
Magatha wiped her hands on her apron, leaving two streaks of flour. “That old drunk Finnigin bothering you again?”
“He just left,” Kwado said, “but I never pay that old goat any mind. He’s all bluster.”
“Oh, what a fresh mouth on you today,” Magatha said with a giggle. “But you’d do well not to underestimate that louse. The man’s got a mean streak as long as the Wynie River.”
“Who’s got a mean streak?” Gordy asked as he entered the kitchen with his newspaper folded under one arm.
“That fool of a drunk came by to harass poor Kwado again,” Magatha said.
Gordy walked over to his son and clapped his shoulder. “Aw, don’t let Finnigin get to you, boy.”
“It wasn’t Finnigin,” Kwado said. His parents paused, noting the uncharacteristic annoyance in the boy’s voice.
“But I thought you said he came by.” Gordy eyed Magatha, and she came around the table.
“Kwado just said so.” She came up on the other side of Kwado, dwarfed by his size.
“He did come by,” Kwado said.
Gordy scratched his head. “Now I’m right confused.”
“There was a girl here,” Kwado spit out. “Before Finnigin.”
Gordy shared a look with Magatha that spoke volumes. The years raising Kwado had been filled with love and joy, as any family should be. They had done their very best to keep him sheltered from the inevitable taunts of the village children, but Gordy always knew this day would come.
Kwado saw the sympathy oozing from their eyes and it aggravated him. “Not like that. Her name was Bethany. She came by to…to ask me to come to the dance tonight.”
Magatha’s face lit up like a shooting star and her mouth broke into a wide grin. The larger her eyes got, the broader Kwado’s own smile became. She grabbed his hands in hers and shook them. “Oh! This is marvelous!”
“Really?” Kwado said.
His mother suddenly transformed from a fifty-four-year-old farmer to a screaming teenager. Her excitement was infectious, and soon Kwado found himself screaming along with her. “Bethany, you say? I think that’s Farmer Jessup’s daughter. Oh, there’s so much to do to get you ready. We’ve got to get you something proper to wear, and a bath—oh you’ll definitely need a bath before the dance—and that hat, really, Kwado, you can’t wear that ridiculous thing to meet her.”
“So I can go?” Kwado said.
“Of course you’ll go,” Magatha said, already scurrying toward the parlor to fetch some clothes from the wardrobe.
“Absolutely not,” Gordy said.
Neither of them had noticed his mounting disapproval, a statement etched in the deep lines of his forehead. He shot a glare at his wife.
“But Gordy…,” Magatha said.
“The village festival is no place for a troll,” Gordy said with an air of finality.
Kwado felt like someone had simultaneously punched him in the gut and squeezed his heart.
“How can you say that?” Magatha said. She returned to her son’s side and rubbed his arm in condolence. “Look what you’ve done, hurting the boy’s feelings so.”
Gordy blinked and jerked his head back as if he’d been slapped. “I hurt his feelings? Well, better it be his father, who loves him, than some cruel teenagers looking to set him up for a prank.”
“You can’t know that’s what the girl was on about,” Magatha said.
“Why else would she drag herself out here and toy with him?” Gordy said. “Mark my words, something stinks about the whole situation.”
Kwado bunched up his fists and fought back the tears clouding his vision. “The only thing that stinks around here is you!” he shouted, pulling away from his ma and stomping out of the kitchen.
Gordy and his wife stood there stunned. In all his years, Kwado had never so much as raised his voice to his parents.
“Kwado,” Gordy called.
“Leave me alone!” Kwado shouted. He tried to slam his bedroom door, but it bounced off a book he had left lying on the floor that morning. He growled and pushed it out of the way with his toe. “The big ugly troll will be in his room, where you don’t have to worry about anyone else seeing him!”
This time the door closed all the way.
Gordy looked over to Magatha for support, but the gaze that met his was as stony as a basilisk. “Why would you give the boy such false hope?” Gordy asked.
“He spends all day and night cooped up in this farm,” Magatha said. “We’re always talking about how we wished he had some friends his own age, and here one comes along. So what do you do? You bark at the boy.”
Gordy’s cheeks flushed. He opened his mouth wordlessly then clamped his lips shut and shook his head, turning around and leaving through the kitchen door. He let the door slam behind him, leaving Magatha standing in the kitchen alone.
“Men,” she grumbled and headed through the parlor. Magatha knew her husband only wanted the best for their son and that he would do anything to keep the boy out of harm’s way. They just had different definitions of what that meant these days. She knocked lightly on Kwado’s door.
“Go away,” Kwado said. His voice had lost all of its bluster.
Magatha opened the door and stepped inside. Her son kept his room fairly orderly, with small stacks of penny dreadfuls on his wardrobe and all of his clothes neatly put away. He lay on his side, facing the wall, with a blanket she had knitted last spring draped over his body.
“Now I already told you there’s no time for moping,” Magatha said.
Kwado stiffened and rolled over to face his mother. She could see he had been crying. “But pa said…”
“Pa went for a walk,” Magatha said with a wink, “so you’d best get moving quick-like if we’re to make it to the festival before he gets back.”
When Gordy Vance got upset, the only thing that could settle his nerves was a good run. He would throw all of his anger and frustration into it, moving as fast as his legs could carry him until his vexation subsided. That night his feet swept across the ground with such urgency that he was seconds from breaking out into a sprint worthy of a marathon runner. As he sped past low-hanging branches and overgrown brush, he complained to himself.
“I’m the bad guy. Seventeen years of turning the other cheek while every farmer and his sister laughs in my face, and now I’m the bad guy? How could she say that after all these years?”
Gordy was so frustrated he felt like shouting. And he might have too, except every fool of a Westfaller within earshot would no doubt hold it against his son. Why give them more ammo when they had reams to spare? Any other farmer in the village could get away with an oddity or two. Billy O’Finly had his gambling addiction. Finnigin was widely known as the village drunk, a condition which only seemed to worsen after the incident at the troll cave. And Peters…why, the man wore women’s undergarments for crying out loud.
So why was it that, should it be Gordy that dared to do anything out of the ordinary, he would be haunted with it for years to come? Shout in anger, and by the end of the day the rumors would spread. It would be, Did you hear Gordy was out in the woods howling at the moon? He was not about to give them the satisfaction. If keeping his trap shut and pushing down his frustration was what it took to keep the idiots off his son’s back, then so be it. What were a few more strands of hair lost?
Even the imaginary taunts were enough to make Gordy’s shoulders tighten up. “Like any of those inbred nitwits know what they’re talking about,” he grumbled.
Kwado is a good kid, he thought. He might be big and green, but in his heart he’s just a teenage boy. Why shouldn’t he be able to experience the same childhood as the rest of the villagers’ children? What offensive act has he ever committed other than being born a troll?
His adamant denial over the dance suddenly echoed in his mind. Gordy’s swift gait slowed to a crawl until he found himself staring at his feet and standing in place. A wave of guilt encircled him. To think, after all this time of protecting his son from the cruelties of society, it was he who had delivered the hardest blow to the boy. He realized this with an acidic clarity that made him feel about three inches tall.
Well, you blew that parenting moment, Gordy, he told himself with a shake of his head. It did not matter that he was only trying to keep the boy safe, nor that he loved him dearly and truly. The only thing that mattered was that when he was confronted with the fear of Kwado being put into a situation that could bring emotional pain, Gordy had not risen to the challenge.
But that was the thing about parenting, a critical lesson he had learned early on. It was never too late to right your wrongs. No father had all the answers, and he was bound to fall flat on his face from time to time. The important thing was to get back on the horse and try again. He nodded firmly. That was exactly what he intended to do. If Kwado wanted to go to the festival, then so be it. Gordy was going to march right back to the farm and deliver the good news.
Right after he figured out where he was.
Tall knotted pines towered over him at all angles, the color of their bark blotted out in inky shadows from the rising full moon. The forest floor was hard to make out, an expanse of twisted clumps and tangled roots. Gordy’s sweaty skin suddenly felt very cold in the evening breeze. In his anger he had not realized how fast and hard he had been moving, straight off the path into the bowels of the Hollow Woods.
This whole time he had been preoccupied with the fools in Westfall, and here he was, king of the pack. No sane Westfaller would dream of entering the Hollow Woods after dusk. It was widely known that the forest became a haven for all manner of dreadful creatures once the sun went down.
He scanned the trees for anything even remotely familiar. He grasped at the images racing in his mind, trying desperately to retrace his steps back to the village, but it was one giant blur with his thoughts centered on mulling over the villagers and his son. Before he knew it, he was running again, desperate to find a familiar landmark.
A crow cawed in the branches just overhead, and he flinched sharply, skidding to a halt. The black bird saw his movement and flapped off deeper into the woods, its cawing echoing off the hollow trees all around. It had a dizzying effect on Gordy. He closed his eyes to steady himself.
No sense getting all worked up and hyperventilating, he thought. It’s the fella with a sensible head on his shoulders who makes it out in the end.
After a few more deep breaths, he shook off the tension in his arms and turned his gaze skyward. Tangled branches blotted out most of his view, but between their fingerlike tips he glimpsed the Star of Acadia. A surge of relief washed over him. All Gordy needed to do was follow the direction of that star, and sooner or later he would make his way back to either the village or the main road!
He would have cried out with joy then and there if not for the sudden sound of strange men speaking in the dark. Without even realizing what he was doing, Gordy crouched low and scanned the trees fearfully. Something about the way the men spoke made his body tense up. Firstly, he recognized none of their voices. Secondly, no honest man, Westfaller or Dugenfeler alike, would be sneaking about the woods at night.
Except you, he thought.
That was right. He was foolish enough to wander this deep into the forest. Who was to say this was not just some other hapless farmer who had been trying to steady his own nerves?
Gordy loosened up a bit, feeling silly, and moved toward the voices.