Emmett Jones didn’t know where the noise was coming from, or exactly what it was, but he’d never heard anything like it before in the End Woods. The sound reverberated among the darkening trees that surrounded him—a low-pitched, constant hum punctuated with something that sounded like an intermittent clicking. This was not a gentle noise. It sounded almost, well, malicious.
At seventy-eight, Emmett knew his hearing wasn’t what it used to be, but he also knew that this sound was just not right. He looked around the woods, trying to identify the source. The trees on either side of him were tinted with shadows. From this spot, the evening sky had been reduced to a single indigo line which cut through the canopy, mirroring the rugged track at his feet. He hadn’t paid attention to the time, but it was now just past sunset. He had no flashlight. When the last of the light was gone, it would be impossible to see. His eyes were already struggling in the gloom.
His dog, Sandy, was up ahead—an energetic yellow Lab. He looked at her and felt some comfort to have her with him.
He picked up his pace.
Every evening he walked this track with Sandy, so they both knew it well. This was the old access that hunters used—just two ruts worn from years of tires passing through. Locals called it Miller’s Track, for reasons nobody remembered now, not even Emmett. Grass grew between the tire ruts. It was the only thing remotely resembling a road out here.
Normally, Emmett’s walk went like clockwork. He always left an hour before sunset and came home in twilight. But earlier this evening he’d stopped to watch the sky turn orange above the treetops, and he must have watched it a bit longer than he’d thought. It happened sometimes now. He’d lose entire mornings, and afternoons would occasionally disappear as though they’d evaporated. For Emmett, time had become a malleable, changeable thing.
The hum continued, rising and falling like a strange, long thunder. The clicks echoed against the trees. The sounds seemed to come from every direction at once. Could it be a machine? Was someone doing work out here? At this hour?
“Hello?” he called out hopefully, in spite of the fact that he rarely came across anyone in these woods. There weren’t many people on the island, after all, and there weren’t many people who came into these woods, especially at this time of day.
Up ahead, Sandy appeared as a pale spot among the shadows. He loved that dog. She was almost too much for him, really, with her endless need to be outside and moving, but he believed she kept him young, kept the fire in his belly. She needed him. It was important to be needed.
She’d been sniffing around for a bit, but now she stopped, looked off to the left, and growled.
“What’s out there, girl?” he asked. His voice was strong but gravelly.
Everyone told Emmett he was a feisty old man, and he always took it as a compliment. He didn’t ever want to be the kind to sit back and die. It was like the poem said, the one he’d copied out and pinned to his cork board at home. Do not go gentle into that good night. He kept busy. He still worked part-time at the hardware store because he liked to see people. He cared for his garden and fruit trees with a kind of obsessive joy, and he made jams and jellies from the bounty. He tinkered with old radios in the garage to pass the time. He’d never married, never had kids. He’d had a series of dogs, though, and had long ago come to the conclusion that good dogs like Sandy were all the companionship a man needed in this world.
When folks on Gull Island asked Emmett what kept him going, he always talked about these evening walks with Sandy. He’d seen other people his age become stuck in the house with bad knees and hips. For Emmett, that would be a fate worse than death. He always said, “When I’m too old to walk, I’m too old to live.” And he meant it.
Now, as quickly as the noise had started, it stopped. The woods were deathly silent. There was no evening birdsong. There was no rustle of little critters in the brush.
He didn’t waste any time. He began walking as fast as he could, almost running—or as close to running as his weary legs would allow. There were two possibilities in his mind. Either he was being a silly old man, or he wasn’t. He didn’t much care. Either way he wanted nothing more than to get home, to sit in his armchair with a good book before the rest of the darkness fell. There was something new and not entirely normal in these woods tonight, and for the first time in his life he felt uneasy out here.
“Come on, Sandy,” he said, walking past her. “Let’s go.”
She didn’t budge. She sniffed the air at the edge of the track. When Emmett looked back, she turned and looked at him as if to say: Can I? Can I go into the woods?
“Leave it,” he said in his most commanding voice. “Come.” He slapped the side of his leg firmly, and she followed. Right away she outpaced him, returning to her spot a few yards in front of him.
The End Woods held all sorts of wildlife. He used to hunt here, in his younger days. There were rabbits, grouse, and ducks, but also deer and beaver and the occasional fox or raccoon. It had always amazed him how well these woods hid the fact that you were on a small island in the middle of Lake Michigan. Here the shoreline felt far away.
Nevertheless, there was no animal out here that made a noise like that.
Up ahead, Sandy took a few steps off the track to the left, toward the trees.
“Hey,” Emmett said sternly.
She stopped moving forward but stood and sniffed the air defiantly.
It could be a coyote, he supposed, as he paused alongside her. There were certainly plenty of coyotes out here. Many referred to Gull Island as “The Coyote Hunter’s Paradise,” with hunters coming from all over the Midwest. But Emmett had never heard a coyote make a noise like that. What he’d heard was not a growl, not a howl. It was definitely a hum and a deep, sinister clicking.
He squinted as he looked into the trees. There were no coyotes that he could see, but of course the light was dying. They must be out there. He hated those damn pests. They got into trash bins, bird feeders, and pet food. They took chickens, ducks, cats, and even small dogs. Back at his own property, just about two miles down the track now, he had fenced off a large area years ago to protect his garden and his fruit trees.
Sandy growled again, still staring into the dark quiet woods.
Somehow, the silence was now worse than the noise had been. He approached Sandy and patted her side. “Come,” he said, continuing on. She followed.
He was starting to feel more than just uneasy. Maybe it was his mind playing tricks on him, but he was scared. Maybe this was how it started, when old folks’ aged brains began to see everything as a threat, when simple things caused great confusion. He’d always dreaded losing his mind. Perhaps this was it. Maybe tomorrow he’d have trouble remembering the small things, like this walk tonight, like that god-awful noise.
As he hurried down the track, he thought of the coyotes. Of course, it was unlikely for a single coyote to go for Sandy. She was a good-sized dog, about sixty pounds. Coyotes were smaller, between twenty-five and forty-five pounds. If there were several coyotes out there, then sure, they might gang up on her. Or if a coyote were rabid. There had been some trouble with rabies on the island lately. Last summer a rabid coyote attacked a tourist on a hiking trail.
It was because of the coyotes that he never let Sandy run off alone into the woods. Yes, he thought now, trying to reassure himself, it must have been a coyote. Or more likely it was several. That’s why the noise sounded strange, because it was a pack. Yes, that was it.
He hurried on.
Sandy walked further along the trail ahead of him, where she always liked to walk. It felt right to have her up there.
Everything was okay. They’d be home soon.
Suddenly, Sandy took off to the left, and he lost sight of her entirely as she disappeared among the trees.
“Sandy!” he shouted.
There was a rustle of undergrowth. He stepped to the edge of the track and stared into the woods, but he still couldn’t see her.
“Sandy!” he yelled. “Sandy!”
Just a moment later, she came bounding out from the trees a few feet away, running directly toward him, tongue flapping. She stopped in front of him and looked up. Her tail was wagging cheerfully.
A person could not help but smile to see a dog that happy. She was beaming. He patted her and laughed with relief. “Good girl. You stay with me.” He reached into his pocket for the leash, but she turned and ran forward along the track again. When she paused and looked back at him, checking impatiently to see if he was coming, he followed. They were only a mile from home when he heard it again.
Hmmm. Hmmm. Cli-click.
He wondered if it was following them.
Sandy stopped and looked off to the left. The entire woods seemed to fill up with that hum and click. Sandy began barking with more urgency, and she walked forward.
“Sandy, heel!” Emmett yelled. He pulled the leash from his pocket and got ready to attach it to her collar.
But she ran straight into the woods.
He heard branches snapping as she ran deeper through the brush. He was already moving after her, without thinking, into the shadows. He stepped as carefully as he could. Here and there he held onto the trees to keep his balance. It wasn’t easy to move quickly—it was like an obstacle course, really—but he went as fast as his legs would carry him.
Out here, in the thickness of the trees, what little light that was left made for a strange and murky blue world. Emmett’s eyes struggled to adjust. It was the middle of August, and the trees were still thick with leaves. He could no longer make out the sky at all. It got darker the deeper he went. And that dreadful humming and clicking continued. It was louder now. He stopped and looked straight ahead, trying to spot Sandy’s pale coat. There was nothing out here but the dark lines of tree trunks. He looked around. Which way had she gone?
Her bark came from somewhere up ahead to the right. It was a feral, angry bark. That wasn’t like her, and it was troubling. He yelled out her name and began moving toward her.
The humming stopped, and there was another sound, like quick footsteps in dried leaves.
Something else was out there with them. Something running. And it was coming in their direction.
Sandy let out a high-pitched yelp, and everything went quiet again. There was no rustle in the undergrowth. There was no barking, no terrible humming. The woods were deadly still, without so much as a breeze in the trees.
“Sandy?” he called out, his voice faltering slightly. “Sandy? Come here, girl. Come here.” He was aware of the change in his own voice. He sounded like a man who was pleading, rather than commanding.
The silence was terrifying. He slowly scanned the area to see if he could spot anything moving in the trees around him. He looked for coyotes. It must be coyotes, he told himself again, although it was getting harder and harder to make himself believe it. He bent down and picked up a stick, ready to throw it.
“Go away! Go away!” he shouted as he waved his arms.
He knew this was how you were supposed to scare coyotes away. Throw a stick. Make noise. Appear large. Don’t turn your back. Don’t run. He stomped his feet as he walked. He kept moving, looking for Sandy.
It seemed that there was something up ahead—an empty area with fewer trees. There was a slightly brighter, dusky light up there. He walked as quickly as he could now, to get away from these dense trees and out from under the heavy canopy. Anything could be hiding in the shadows.
He found himself in a clearing. In the dying light, he could make out a fallen tree in the middle of the open space, with low ferns and shrubs nearby. The woods made a dark circle around him. Even the trunks of the trees were barely visible among the shadows. He stood there for a moment, watching the darkness.
The sound of the hum and click began to grow slowly again. It was heavy and deep. This was no machine. This was no pack of coyotes. He couldn’t tell himself stories anymore, just to make himself feel better. This was something much worse.
It was getting closer. Where was it coming from? He looked left, then right.
“Sandy?” he whispered.
There was no sign of the dog. Nothing showed through the dense canopy beyond the clearing, not even small fragments of the dusky light. The noise came even closer. Was it at the edge of the clearing? He turned around.
Something shifted in the undergrowth to his left. There was a loud crack, like a tree branch breaking. He turned to face whatever it was, holding his stick high. He would not be taken down by some dumb, hungry animal in these woods. He would beat the crap out of it if he had to.
His heart was beating fast. His breathing was shallow.
There was nothing to be seen in that direction but the blue-black shadows of the brush. The sound continued, as though it was coming from everywhere.
He scanned the trees again, and that was the moment he realized that he’d become disoriented. Which direction was Miller’s Track? How would he find his way back?
“Sandy?” His voice was shaking. “Sandy?”
The fading light was starting to cast dark shapes in the gloom. Then he heard branches quickly breaking again.
Something was running. Whatever it was, it was heading in his direction. He gripped the stick tightly, trembling.
It hit him hard and fast, knocking him to the ground. It was on top of him, pinning him down. He fought fiercely, pounding it with his fists, the stick having fallen to his side. It was no coyote. There was no fur. It had arms. Its skin felt thick and tough. It was too strong. It was too big. It was smothering him. He couldn’t even fill his lungs enough to scream.