Point Pleasant, WV, 1965
The boy’s classmates teased him because he still slept with his favorite stuffed animal, a spotted dog with droopy ears, even though he was now twelve. It began at Toby’s sleepover birthday party. It was only 8:30 when the boy called his father to pick him up after Dylan, a spiky-haired miscreant, noticed one of the ears drooping out of the boy’s rolled-up sleeping bag, tugged until the dog flopped out, and then paraded around Toby’s enormous family room, chanting rhyming couplets about the boy’s babyhood.
The boy liked the comfort of something in his arms at night. He thought but didn’t say to them: Why does it matter what it is? Maybe it could be something more grown up, a monster truck, a hunting rifle, a girl; but who among us has that?
The teasing got to him, though. He was ashamed to sleep with the dog even in the privacy of his own bedroom. The dog lay on a shelf in his closet, one ear drooping limply into space, one eye gazing always at the boy. He stopped sleeping at night. He tried a pillow, a balled-up sweatshirt, his backpack. He tried imagination. He tried lying on his back. He gathered bags under his eyes, concerned questions from his mother, hallucinations in his periphery.
One evening in November he was walking home from the park, huffing out puffs of air and imaging they were various creatures against the darkening sky. He heard a whisper in the trees and stopped. He listened and decided it was just the river gurgling a block away. He could see the lights on the bridge.
No, he thought, there’s something different. Not the river, but not a whisper, either; more like a hiss. But steady, like breath.
He laid his basketball against the curb and entered the woods. He followed the sound as it filled his head, until he stood before the bridge. There was no traffic. A dark lump the size of his rolled-up sleeping bag hung beneath the span. The boy walked onto the bridge. The rhythmic hissing pulsed with his heart. He knelt where the object hung from nearly invisible strands. He lowered first one leg and then the other off the side of the bridge and into the warm sac. Once completely inside, he found what he was looking for.
He hugged the caterpillar, and slept.
Jeremy Wenisch is a software tester who lives with his wife and their books in Princeton, West Virginia, and writes fiction darkly inspired by folklore. His short story, “The Sleigh Bells,” appears in Whistling Shade.