A project still in progress…

The Night the Falager Came

I wish I could forget that night. I wish I could forget any part of that night. I wish that I had just listened to my sister and stayed home. “The woods are no place for a first-grader,” she told me. None of the other boys in our pack were staying home, though. I had to go! But Lizzie’s words kept repeating in my mind: “There are critters living in the trees that steal your shoes! The creepies under the rocks and crawlies in the bushes take turns hiding in your pockets and fogging up your glasses. None of these hold a candle, my dear brother, to the one thing you should fear in those woods.

“When you zip up your tent, make sure your food is locked up tight! Roll yourself up at the bottom of your sleeping bag and hope that you brushed all the food off of your teeth. For if there is even ONE graham cracker crumb to be found, you will attract… the Falager!”

As my dad turned our truck onto the old dirt road that lead up the mountain I tried to fill my head with nicer thoughts. I remember we packed a tent, two sleeping bags, a first aid kit, glow sticks, lots of wood, a whistle (that I’m wasn’t allowed to use), tons of snacks, a few fishing poles, and 14 1/2 worms. I caught the worms. Dad said he would teach me a great trick for keeping them warm.

We kept driving down that long dirt road forever! The further we got from the highway the closer the sun got to the ground. The shadows from the trees grew out in front of our truck like lanky, dark fingernails. As the light skipped between the trees and bushes I felt a funny feeling in my stomach; like a bunch of mice running around looking for a place to hide. My face started to cool down and my heart began to jump a lot like a big toad.

“Are you alright back there, Danny?” my father asked as he glanced up at me in his rearview mirror.

“Y-yes, sir,” I replied. It was mostly true.

This would be my first camping trip as a Cub Scout. I knew some of the other Cub Scouts in my den from school, but there were so many other boys! They all like the same stuff I do, so we have lots of fun. Our den meetings always end with games and running around; popping balloons with our rumps, racing in the field, tackling each other to score neckerchief slides, or anything Mr. Miller can come up with.

My mind drifted ahead to the campsite in anticipation of the excitement that waited. While I was dreaming of the toasty, chocolaty mess that my dad promised, our truck began to slow down. We were approaching the ranger’s shack – a tumbledown structure with a torn screen over the window and fewer shingles on the roof than the number of kids in our pack. The closer we got the more anxious I felt. The sun was winning a race that my dad did not even realize was occurring.

Dad pulled the truck next to the shack and cut the engine. That’s when I heard it – I remember it was the first time in my life – nothing. That’s it. Nothing. I heard nothing. No cars, no radio, no dogs, no birds, no kids, no… nothing. I could feel the right-over-left, left-over-right movements of my tummy turning itself into a mighty, squishy, square knot. I almost wet my pants when the truck’s overhead dome light tried to blind me. The shrill dinging of the open-door indicator was a welcome break from the eerie silence.

“Alright, buddy, let’s go check in.” My dad climbed out of his seat and shut the door. I reached for my seat belt buckle but could not bring myself to unlatch it. I wrapped my stubby little fingers around that web of polyester strands as if it was all that kept me bound to the earth. As he reached for the handle I slapped the lock down into the door. Thinking I was playing a game, my dad just chuckled. He moved his jaw up and down, his tongue flapping around inside his mouth as inaudible words escaped into the dusk.

“I can’t,” I whined. I scarcely remember hearing the words I spoke. What I do remember is the steady “Boom… boom… boom…” resonating between my ears with each leap of the toad. He must have been scared, too, because he would leap harder and faster while I was becoming more anxious. I did not want to upset my dad, but he just could not see the shack for what I saw. Something about it was not right.

“Danny. Let’s go.” He waited a few seconds before reaching into his pocket. He must have found the car clicker because I heard the beep of the horn and then the door unlocked. That’s when the door on the ranger’s shack burst open. A great blur of fur and teeth bolted for my father. I opened my mouth to warn him of the impending danger, only to find myself betrayed by my own throat; the air that would become a scream was trapped within me. My eyes burned from the water that welled and the air that punished me for not flushing it down my cheeks.

I remember the paws that slammed against the window on either side of my father’s head to be so massive that I thought only one would be needed to smother me. The great beast’s gaping maw shot for my dad’s face; dozens of jagged teeth greeted me as a plump, sandpapery tongue flopped around his face. The monster was going to torture my dad by savoring his flavor him while he was still alive! How brave my dad was to spare me a bit of pain by breaking into a fit of laughter only to keep from crying. He was a goner and he didn’t even know it.

Dad pushed against the glass with all his might – the animal pressed against him to maintain the torture – and contorted his body until the two were face to face. The peals of laughter only served to replace my concern with confusion. As I watched my dad scratch behind the massive animal’s ears an unfamiliar voice rang from the ranger’s shack.

“PORKCHOP! Dangit, boy, get offa him!”

The beast froze like a hunter’s prey, hoping that if he just stood still he would not be seen. Again, the voice called out. This time with the inflection a scorned mother uses to call her son when he neglected to have his heinie in the house before the street lights came on; the one she saves for the rare occasion when she calls him by first, middle, and last name.

“Pork. Chop. Get over here!” The monster heaved against my father to gallop back to the shack. Through the cloud of tawny hair and dust I was able to see that the beast was actually a dog! I had no idea what kind of dog he was – just a giant, ugly, brownish, blackish, orangish mongrel. As the dog approached the ranger he dove onto his side and slid to a stop at the feet of the portly fellow; his herculean tail immediately found a rhythm in pounding against the earth.

` “I’m sorry if he gave you a scare, li’l guy!” the ranger shouted at me. He bent down to scratch the eager dog’s belly and was greeted with the repeated thumps of Porkchop’s hind leg against his arm. He looked up at us. “It’s alright,” he continued, “Porkchop’s just a big ball of dumb. He just wants some love and play and a good snooze in a sunny spot. You can come outta there now!”

Still wiping away the slobber with his jacket sleeve my dad turned around and smiled at me. He opened the door and offered me his hand, “C’mon, Danny. Let’s get in there.” Shifting gazes between the beast, the buckle, and my father’s hand I weighed my options. I could get out and risk being swallowed whole by this tongue with a pulse or give up now and tell my dad that I wanted to sleep in my own bed. Oh! I forgot that dad promised marshmallows at the camp! Marshmallows… death… bed… slobbers and teeth and painful deadness… When you are eight years old marshmallows always win. Always.