BY BRADLEY SIDES
At Mr. Eddie’s first attempt to lead a group session, the balding man of thirty-something decided to remain seated when he too softly introduced himself to the small group of fatherless boys who everyone believed simply couldn’t “move on.” The boys, none new to the awkward and faux sympathy of strangers, snickered and jabbed one another in the sides, pointing. They’d seen and heard it all before, they thought.
As five individual grievers, they never really existed. Their fathers all dead from the explosion at the factory. None of the boys were mentioned separately in the paper or even in the classrooms they frequented. They became “the boys.”
Before, they only knew one another as faces. In the after, they, the boys, were friends. Best friends. Best friends put together by the most unusual of circumstances.
The first time they met as a group, their school counselor, Mr. Casey, lectured them on grief. How it was normal to think they heard voices. How it was not uncommon to imagine things. How it would all fade with time. But, six months later, it was clear the old man was wrong. And so was the next counselor. And the handful of others who followed until Mr. Eddie arrived.
Mr. Eddie, with his rosy cheeks and damp forehead, spoke in that musty basement at Freedom Hall United Methodist Church about the voices the boys heard. He, unlike the others who’d lectured them before, didn’t begin with grief, or imagination, or healing. Instead, he talked about the voices from the woods. What they could mean. What their fathers were trying to tell their sons. The boys quieted down and listened. Still, mostly. They could already tell he was different—not from them, but from the others who had come before him. It was his closing sentence that convinced them of this. “I hear them, too,” he said.
Two of the boys, Kade and Kody, twins who had earlier in the week gotten their driving permits, quickly wiped at their cheeks.
Ray and Donovan laughed—but it was to prevent them from doing the other thing.
Clay, for the first time in any session, looked up from his phone.
Mr. Eddie stood from his chair in the small circle and clasped his hands. “Thank you for coming,” he said, a little too abruptly, before turning his attention to straightening up the room. He asked the boys to put their seats back at the tables so the old folks could play cards the next morning. They did without complaint.
Mr. Eddie held the door for each of the boys as they slowly filed out of the cold room. Then, he flipped the light switch.
He sat with the boys outside the door, waiting on the mothers to arrive. The wind from the forest whipped past them. Mr. Eddie and the boys sat with their eyes closed, focused on what swirled around them. “You really hear them, too, Mr. E? Or were you just saying all that?” Clay asked quietly, twirling his phone in his hands.
“No, I hear them,” Mr. Eddie said, opening his eyes and looking up at the stars. “But nobody listened to me either. I just stopped talking about it.”
“That’s what everybody wants us to do, too,” Clay said, tucking his phone into his jeans pocket. He extended his hand for a fist bump as the lights from the approaching car grew brighter.
The other boys sat solemnly, waiting. But they followed suit when their times came. “Bye, Mr. E.,” they said, their fists tapping against the man who believed them—the man who, they believed, was like them.
At Thursday’s meeting, Mr. Eddie still did most of the talking—at least at the beginning. Provoking and prodding, sure. His position required that much. But the silence was overtaken largely by his own admissions. His father died six months ago. The explosion. He’d heard him since the morning it happened. The father wanted Mr. Eddie to join him in the forest. To visit, his father claimed. He sipped coffee between his words, and the steam fogged his glasses.
The boys listened. And nodded. They whispered to one another. Mr. Eddie could tell their experiences were the same.
“Do you, Mr. E.?” Ray asked. His voice shook as he spoke.
“Do I what?” Mr. Eddie asked, taking off his glasses and cleaning the lenses with the ends of his untucked shirt.
“Do you ever go?” Ray asked. “You know, to the forest?”
Mr. Eddie shook his head and took another sip. “Do you?” he replied.
The boy looked down.
Clay’s phone was out, but only from habit. “Why?” he asked. “Why don’t we?”
Donovan squirmed in his chair. His legs stirred, turning one way and then another.
“Because what we are hearing isn’t even real, my dudes. Isn’t that why we’re here?
Everybody thinks we are nuts. People are just being nice about it because we are basically orphans,” he said.
“We aren’t orphans,” Ray said.
“We basically are. Our parent died,” Donovan said.
“Yeah, one parent. Our dads.”
The boys turned to Mr. Eddie—the man they, for whatever reason, trusted. He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t think any of us are lying about what we are hearing. I think something spectacular is happening. Why, though, I don’t know.”
Kade and Kody mumbled back and forth—growing louder as they conversed. Kade eventually raised his hand, and Kody leaned back into his chair, tossing his hands in the air in resignation.
“Yes, Kade,” Mr. Eddie said, pointing with the coffee in his hand.
Kade cleared his throat and let out a deep breath. “We’ve been to the edge of the forest,” he said. “We’ve seen our dad.”
Kody stared at the floor, but he nodded when he felt the eyes fall on him.
“We saw them all,” Kade continued, his voice becoming low and paced. “They were begging us to join them. To visit, you know. They were reaching for us. They were calling us by name. Chanting. Or something like that. And they all knew us. Not just our dad, but all of them.” He looked up.
The other boys sat still. Frozen. And quiet again. Lost amid their thoughts, their dreams—and, even, their nightmares.
Mr. Eddie went to Kade and squatted in front of him, but the boy didn’t move. He couldn’t. Mr. Eddie grabbed Kade’s shoulder and squeezed it.
“Did you go inside?” he asked.
Kade sat still, refusing to answer.
“We ran home, Mr. E.,” Kody admitted.
Mr. Eddie slowly stood and walked to the center of the circle. He rubbed his chin and grunted. “I think we have a plan for our next session,” he said.
On Tuesday, one week after their first meeting, the boys arrived, as they had, to find the basement door open. The smell of coffee brewing inside floated out to where the mothers dropped off their sons. The lights warmed the chilly evening’s air. Each of the boys waved goodbye as their rides faded back down the ill-lit roads from which they’d come. Only Ray lingered, but he, too, gave in and joined the others.
“Alright,” Mr. Eddie said, standing confidently in front of the boys. “Let’s go.”
The boys nodded and quickly jumped to their feet, following their leader. As Mr. Eddie stood at the door, he handed each of the boys a flashlight. “It’ll be dark soon,” he said. They walked out the door and into the approaching night toward the woods that housed their fathers.
In the twenty minutes it took to reach the boundary that held the voices, night arrived. The flashlights shined ahead, illuminating the peeled trees’ bark.
“Do you hear them?” Mr. Eddie asked, stepping closer to the first tree.
The boys nodded, but they remained quiet.
“I asked you a question, boys?” Mr. Eddie asked again, his voice booming. “Do you hear them?”
The boys collectively cleared their throats and shined their lights toward the trees.
“Yeah, Mr. E.,” Donovan said, answering first. “I hear ‘em.”
“Me, too,” said Ray.
Clay followed with the same.
And, then, were the twins. “Us, too,” they said.
Mr. Eddie laughed. “Of course you do,” he said. “You do. I do. Everybody does.” He put his hand on the tree that separated the living from the dead.
The boys backed away from Mr. Eddie, keeping their light on his face.
“I don’t think so, Mr. E.,” Clay said, reaching for his phone.
He focused the video recorder on the man he trusted.
“They are scared,” Mr. Eddie said. “They just want their sons back. That’s all they—”
The boys stood behind Clay as it happened, him holding them back with his free hand.
A swarm of arms reached from behind the tree and pulled Mr. Eddie inside. Viciously. Hungrily. He went into the land of the lost fathers.
“I told you,” Kade said quietly.
Clay clicked off the recorder.
The boys didn’t have time to turn around before they heard the nearby leaves crunching under the weight of shoes.
“It’s our boys,” said Carolyn, the twins’ mother. Like the other mothers, she walked past the boys with lanterns and chairs. “Don’t look at us like that. We come out here at night to visit after we drop you all of.”
“I thought you didn’t believe us,” Clay said to his mother.
“But we want to,” Carolyn interrupted. She looked around at the boys. “Where’s your counselor?”
“We aren’t exactly sure where he went,” Kade said.
Clay got out his phone, but he changed his mind and put it away.
The boys sat in the grass, under the soft glow of the light, and waited with their mothers.
Then the wind began to stir.
Bradley Sides is a writer and English instructor. His recent fiction appears at BULL, Occulum, Rose Red Review, Signal Mountain Review, Syntax & Salt, and elsewhere. His nonfiction can be found at, among other places, the Chicago Review of Books, Electric Literature, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is at work on his debut collection of short stories. Twitter @Brad_Sides