The forest is alive with nodding treetops. They’ve come to a consensus. Each of them agree to throw their branches up into the air, to cast their pinecones into the night. Each of them creak as they bow to one another. Their trunks bend, their leafs curtsy. They dance. We have a good view from our place on the prairie. We watch the current cascade through them. It looks like an evergreen chorus line, especially when the trees kick up their skirts, and something comes rushing out.
The fog spills into the prairie, weighs down the grass, and whites out the great oak that towers over us. It chills my palms, splits my fingers, and sifts through the gaps. The wind makes a cape of my coattails. Then it sweeps my shins. It damn near knocks me on my ass. The fog consumes the three of us until we’re nothing but silhouettes.
There’s a pastel blue ghost where Rachel once stood. She must have pulled her cardigan over her head to keep herself warm. She says, “Marco.”
John flicks his wrist. There’s a click as his tripod sprouts legs before him. He says, “Polo.” A pair of antennae sprout from John’s profile. Those must be the new night vision goggles he was so keen on, a tax return well spent.
I spin around in time to catch the fog roll off the cliff. I watch it become a cloud. I watch it descend into the valley below. It wastes no time blotting out the light pollution. Now we’re cut off from the rest of the world.
With the sky beneath us, the stars come out to play. Each one flickers on, bringing depth to the cosmos. My eyes adjust in time to see the grass swaying in the moonlight.
Rachel shivers beneath her makeshift hood. She cups her hands into a pair of binoculars and sets her sights on the forest. She says, “Was that supposed to be him?”
I shake my head.
Rachel shrugs with open palms. She says, “Well then he’s not coming.”
I make a tsk-tsk motion, “Not with that attitude, he’s not.”
Rachel points her binoculars at me. She says, “And just what kind of attitude am I supposed to have?”
I didn’t think my words through. That was just a stock phrase I use whenever someone was the slightest bit negative. I say, “The kind of attitude that’s open to intrigue and adventure.”
Rachel spins around. She gives the prairie the cold shoulder. She says, “Adventure? I’m freezing my dick off out here.”
I scan my brow for some kind of rebuttal. I’ve got nothing. I click my tongue to imply a thought process that’s yet to kick in. My words come out in an ellipsis.
Rachel turns to the evergreens, the emerald chorus line, settling on their side of the dance floor. She says, “Yeah, we’re not going in there. There’s bound to be a gingerbread house at the end of that path, and I don’t know about you boys, but I can’t stomach gluten.”
She’s just full of zingers tonight.
Peering over the cliff, I say, “There’s no need.” This is as close to the edge as I’ve gotten in all my eighteen-years. I shift my center of gravity as far back as it will go. Rachel must think I’m trying to dodge a bullet.
I say, “We’ve got this beautiful view of…” I pause when I realize the clouds have settled in, “Of…of where the city used to be.”
Rachel stomps her way through the frost. She has no qualms with standing at the edge of the cliff. “Okay, let me just nip this in the bud.” She raises an accusatory finger, “You didn’t bring me out here to have one of those awkward ‘did you want this to be a date’ conversations, did you?” She drives her finger into my chest.
I stick my hands up, “Did you want me to bring you out here to have that conversation?”
Rachel squints like she’s having an ice cream headache. She shakes her head, “Wait, we’re not actually having that conversation, are we?”
Wrapping an imaginary string around my hands, I say, “No, we’re having a conversation about that conversation.”
Rachel raises her chin. “What’s the difference?”
“Well,” I tongue my cheek to bide myself some time, “one conversation is rhetorical, while the other conversation is the actual conversation.”
Rachel sucks in her bottom lip. She sighs, “I want to be clear, you didn’t just bring me up here to make out with me or anything, right?”
I nod, “No. We’re here to track down a local legend.”
“I’ll make out with you bro.” John chimes in as he pops the lens cap off his camera. He’d set up a perimeter of tripods and infrared lights. He had been a busy beaver while we were distracted.
“Thank you.” I bow to John ever the gentleman.
Rachel crosses her arms. She says, “I’m cool, if it’s all M to M.”
I tilt my head back to take in the night air. The stars are so big and bright they seem to show through the dark side of the moon, through the waxing crescent moon. It’s just a sliver in the sky, but it’s the reason for our expedition.
John says, “You don’t know what you’re missing.” He slides his arms over my shoulders. John says, “He’s much softer than he looks.” He spider walks his fingers up my neck, “You could just nestle up in these broad shoulders and sleep through winter.”
His night vision goggles graze the back of my neck. In the game of gay chicken, John always wins.
Stepping forward, I say, “Anyway, that’s not why we’re here.” I toss John the last duffle bag with the rest of his goodies. Turning to Rachel I say, “We’re here to show you some local color.”
John fishes the last few infrared lights from his bag. He says, “And that color is black.”
Rachel crosses her arms. Her cardigan sleeves dangle at her sides. She’s got the fashion sense of a substitute teacher. She says, “Honestly, I thought we were gonna sneak a few beers, talk some shit about the townies, maybe pass a joint, but you guys are serious, aren’t you?”
I nod with a cock sure grin that flatlines the moment her back is turned.
John says, “Serious as a stiffy on a day old corpse.”
We turn to him. John shrugs.
Rachel blows into her palms, then rubs them together. She says, “Let’s say this Crescent Moon Man all the townies keep yammering about is real. What reason would he have to show himself to the likes of us?”
I point to the trees still swaying in the breeze. I say, “To keep the townsfolk from trespassing into his domain.”
John turns his goggles to the cliff. He says, “To keep Pilgrim Valley down in the valley where it belongs.”
Rachel shakes her head, “If he’s the legend you all make him out to be, wouldn’t showing himself just make the Poltergeist Paparazzi come out in droves?” She circles one of our tripods, traces the rim of the infrared light. She says, “Why step out into the open? Why not wait for someone to get bold and wander into his turf?”
John raises his goggles. His eyes are framed in red raccoon lines. He says, “Because the Crescent Moon Man demands tribute.” He tilts an infrared light under his chin, without realizing that no one can see the beam. He says, “He’ll come because he’s parched.”
John takes a step toward Rachel.
“He’ll come because he has an insatiable thirst for bodily fluids.”
John takes another step.
“He’ll come for our tongue juices.”
He steps into Rachel’s comfort bubble. She waves his breath out of her face.
John says, “And the only way he can suss them out, is to make out with each and every one of us, and by ‘us,’ of course, I mean you specifically.”
Rachel gives that a single sideways nod, as if to toss the thought onto a heap behind her. She says, “Well, I hope he brings a blanket.” She slides her arms back into her cardigan.
John and I exchange looks. Boy Scouts are supposed to be prepared in all things. Here we were with night vision goggles, thousands of dollars in recording gear, a field of light stands, and no blanket. John lowers the goggles back over his eyes to hide his shame.
Rachel turns her attention to me. She says, “So this is your Friday night? What do you get out of it?”
I open my arms to include the prairie in the conversation.
I say, “It’s kind of like fishing. We bring our lure out to a quiet place away from the townsfolk. Sometimes we get a nibble, a silhouette here, a shadow there. Sure, it’s not the big fish we’re looking for. Sometimes it’s not about catching anything. Sometimes it’s just about gathering our thoughts. We leave the valley in the valley, and when we return we tell stories about the one that got away.”
This thought had waited a long time for me to articulate it to someone.
The arch of Rachel’s eyebrow dips. Her smirk evens out. It could be mistaken for a smile. She says, “That makes sense, in a sad kind of way.” She lowers her eyes, looks down and away, then right back. Was that a chink in her armor?
I say, “Sad is when you surround yourself with people and feel more isolated than you would at home. When debauchery is a competitive sport. When the strength of the herd stifles your desire to explore. That shit is sad.”
This thought had been waiting even longer to get out.
John shakes his head and rubs his goggles like they were extensions of his temples. He says, “Holy hyperbole Batman.”
Rachel gives that a nod.
Pacing around her, I say, “What would you rather be doing?” It occurs to me that I’ve positioned myself between Rachel and John.
Rachel shifts her gaze over the cliff, to the town beneath the fog. She says, “I’d rather be sitting somewhere with a hot cup of coffee. Someplace where my anatomy isn’t freezing off. We could find an all night diner, one that the truckers don’t know about yet. I’ve got something to jot down in my dream journal.”
“What is that?”
“I’m not sure if I should tell you.”
I tilt my head to John. He keeps flipping the viewfinder of his camera open. I say, “If you’re afraid of John listening in, he can wait on the other side of the cliff. He can fly. He’ll be fine.”
John casts his goggles upon me before returning to his task.
Rachel’s smile is out of sync with her eyes, like she’s happy to be sad. She says, “No, it’s another one of those conversations we’re not having.”
“But we’re already having it.”
“No.” Rachel raises a finger, “We’re having a conversation about the conversation. There’s a distinction.”
There’s no way I can argue with such air tight reasoning, but I have to keep the conversation going. I say, “I’ll tell you about the dream that I keep having.”
John says, “Is this the one where I fly in through your window dressed like Peter Pan?”
I shake my head, “As great as you would look in tights, no, this is another dream.”
I lower my volume to cut John out of the conversation. “Last night I dreamt that my teeth were falling out. They weren’t loose. I wasn’t wiggling them. They just shot out, like grain from a silo. There were more teeth than even I had in my head. They spilt over my hands like coins from a slot machine. I was drowning in bone pellets by the time I woke up.”
John nods, “Oh yeah, I forgot it was national hyperbole day. Thanks for the reminder.”
His hearing is much better than I’d anticipated.
Rachel rolls her eyes. She says, “I know what your dream meant. It’s a little bush league as far as dreams go. Teeth always symbolize change. It sounds like you’ve got a big one coming, or at least you think you do.”
Rachel smiles with a raised eyebrow. Her expression straddles the line between mockery and a come-on.
I lean forward to say, “What kind of change?”
Something rustles through the pines. The trees go from nodding to head banging. They flail their arms. Their branches swing back and forth. The ballet of the forest has become a mosh pit.
The evergreens lift up their skirts and flash their trunks. A flock of pine needles blow into my face. A few make it up my nostrils. The breeze is back and stronger than ever.
A compost heap comes rolling out of the woods. Its made of leafs the color of paint chips, hollowed out beehives, and brown evergreen branches. The heap tumbles toward us until it comes to an abrupt stop. The wind herds it to the lone tree in the middle of the prairie, to the towering great oak. It stands as tall as any water tower. By day, its shadow turns the prairie into a sundial. By night it casts its shadow on the moon. Its crown can be seen from the woods to the outskirts of the valley. Its bark has gone white. Its empty branches did little to shield it from the sun. They stretch out like wires plugged into the constellations.
The compost heap orbits the great oak, looping around it like a guard on watch.
Pine cones roll through the grass. They bounce up to take their place in the spin cycle. They’re joined by balled up spiderwebs, cocoons, and squirrel skulls. The forest floor yields to the magnetic pull of the great oak. Chirping crickets take orbit. Wriggling mice take orbit. Squirming snakes take orbit.
The brown funnel rises into the night’s sky, a flickering shield around the tree. It disappears behind the moon, an optical illusion brought on by the spinning motion, an animation seen through the slits of a zoetrope. One-second the moon is hundreds of thousands of miles away. Then it’s within throwing distance. The strobe effect makes it seem like the lunar phase is happening before our very eyes. The moon no longer reflects the sun’s rays. It generates its own.
John rips his night vision goggles off and wipes them on his shirt.
This second gust has brought a deeper chill with it. It’s far more ambitious than its predecessor. A jolt travels from my shoulder, up the hairs on the back of my neck, then shoots out the other.
Rachel stuffs her hands up into her sleeves. She backs herself into my coat, into me. We’d be spooning if we weren’t standing upright.
John scrambles to his video camera. He fixes it on the whirlwind before us.
My lips quiver. Smoke spirals for them. My breath has taken shape.
Rachel’s shoulders rise and fall at a quickening pace. She says, “Just what is this Crescent Moon Man supposed to look like?”
“Some people say he’s a deformed. Some kind of mutant albino. The theory is that a set of inflamed calcium deposits protrude from both his cranium and his mandible.”
Rachel snickers, “I love it when you talk all medical to me.”
I rattle off the first few medical terms that I can think of. “Ulceration, biopsy, colonoscopy.”
“Now I’m a little worried about your ass.”
The whirlwind rises. The spinning compost ring weaves through the branches. It strips the leafs and peals the bark.
Rachel’s arm bumps up against mine. She leaves it there.
I say, “Some people say he’s a creature, a cryptozoological cousin of the abominable snow man. A horned beast, with a white mane, and an elongated underbite.”
Rachel’s teeth start to rattle. She says, “What do you believe?”
The forest pulses to the rhythm of the breeze. Evergreens gyrate, rub up against each other. Sap trickles from their brows. Their dance has gotten dirty.
The whirlwind uproots the grass around the tree. Frost sprays into the air.
My breath quickens to match Rachel’s.
I say, “I think he’s a vengeful spirit, someone who walked into those woods and never came back. Some poor sap who got left at the alter. This would explain why some say he wears a tuxedo and a bow tie. I think he went for a walk and something got to him along the way. That’s why his face is long. Its forever wailing in agony.”
Rachel shakes her head, “I think you’ve just described a McDonalds mascot from back in the 80s. You know the piano guy with the big moon face–”
“He’s nothing like Mac Tonight. Don’t ever say that.”
“But the suit and the bow tie–”
“The Crescent Moon Man couldn’t be any more different.”
“How is he different?”
“Well, for one he doesn’t wear sunglasses.”
Rachel chuckles. Her laughter travels through her shoulders and into my chest. I watch her breath rise.
She says, “What would you do if you actually caught him?”
“If we caught the Crescent Moon Man?”
My hands are getting restless at my sides. They find their way to Rachel’s elbows. Dare I let them find her shoulders?
Rachel leans into me. She says, “Yeah.”
I shrug, “Catch and release, I guess.”
She says, “Ever the good fisherman.”
The wind shifts. It ripples through the grass, weaving back and forth. The blades zigzag at our feet. I watch Rachel’s Converse stagger back in between my boots. Her shoulder blades dig into my chest. Now we’re shivering in unison. Her teeth are chattering so hard that I can feel them in my bones. I want to rest my head on her shoulder and feel the vibration pass between our cheeks.
John twists his metal antennae for a clearer view. He mutters, “Guys, I think we’ve just gone from ghost hunters to storm chasers.”
With John’s focus on the vortex, temptation makes its case. Rachel would be much warmer if someone were to embrace her. If someone were to interlock their fingers with hers, stretch her arms out, and get the blood circulating again. If only someone were to lean forward to slide their chin beside hers, maybe they could stop all that heat from escaping. Her forearms look cold. What would be the harm in rubbing them?
Rachel’s knuckles graze my palms. Was that an invitation or just the wind?
John’s camera rocks back and forth on its perch. He wraps his arms around the tripod before it can topple over. Then he steps on its legs. The whirlwind beckons the light stands forward. They obey. Infrared bulbs roll into the grass.
The whirlwind rips twigs from the tree. They rain down on us. John takes the brunt of them unfazed, until a branch snaps off and impales the ground beside him. He scurries backward with a delayed reaction. Brushing the twigs from his goggles, he shouts, “Big foot’s low hanging ball sack. That thing nearly gave me a vasectomy.”
Rachel peaks up at me over her shoulder. She says, “Do you think he needs our help with, you know, the stuff?” Her gaze lingers, long enough for her eyebrow to lower, for her half smile to flatten. Her lips remain parted. They are so close. By her expression, you’d never know she had just asked a question. We share a look of mutual recognition.
“No, not really.” I say with a tone that doesn’t sound like an answer.
Rachel nods without lowering her eyes. She’s nodding at something, but not what I said. Then she returns her gaze to the great oak, the whirlwind, and the moon.
Her hair blows into my eyes. Wild strands find their way into my mouth. I try to spit them out without drawing attention to myself, without giving her cause to widen the gap between us. Her hair has bonded with my chap stick. I endure it, if only to breathe her in for a moment longer. She smells like vanilla and apricot. My feelings for her are no longer a decision I can make. My nose has decided for me.
An updraft lifts the whirlwind past the treetop. From a distance, the swirling mass could be mistaken for leafs.
There’s movement in the branches. Squirrels flee down the trunk. The vacuum sucks at their tails. Birds dive from their nests. They flutter off in a drunken formation. Some of them don’t make it out. They flap their wings and watch their eggs get scrambled by the vortex.
John zooms his goggles out as far as they will go. He says, “Are you guys seeing this shit?”
The bun of Rachel’s hair tickles the edge of my chin. I tilt my head away, afraid to reveal my proximity. The bun follows.
The whirlwind consumes the great oak, bringing it to life. The branches rise and fall like wooden tentacles. They tap the moon and scrape the ground.
Rachel lets her hairline rest on my throat. Heat rises from her head. It spirals up my neck and settles at the underside of my chin. I was freezing. Now I’m starting to thaw.
Rachel’s arms sink. She lets out an irritated sigh. Glancing over her shoulder, she says, “Really? Come on.”
Rachel grabs my wrists, pulls them around her waist, and crosses them in front of her. She sets my hands on her shoulders, rubs her hands together, then sets them on top of mine. I’m not sure, but I think that this might be taken as permission to hold her.
Rachel looks back. All the sarcasm has been washed from her expression. I almost don’t even recognize her.
“This is a good look for you?” I say without thinking.
Rachel lowers her eyebrow. She says, “What an apt thing to say.”
She raises her chin to graze my nostrils with the bulb of her nose. We share a long slow breath. The cartilage at the tip of my nose starts to melt.
There’s a flash followed by an explosive crash. Thunder echoes throughout the prairie. The whirlwind makes lumber of the topmost branches. Their charred ends whoosh around and around, bleeding splinters.
John bears down on the camera hoping all his weight will straighten the shot. With the great oak in his viewfinder, he says, “That’s right, keep it sexy for me you gorgeous son of a bitch.”
Rachel’s lips hover over mine in a slow circular pattern. She’s aligning with me, preparing to dock. I can feel her phantom motion with my eyes shut. The space between us closes. We kiss. I taste her bottom lip, work it back and forth between my lips. I apply a little light pressure. I trace the edge of her upper lip, brushing along without ever touching down. We push away to realign, like magnets searching for the right polarity.
Our mouths open and we exchange tongues.
There’s a long drawn out creak punctuated by a sharp snap. It sounds like an old door falling off its hinge, like a dock being torn out to sea, like the mast breaking off of some great ship.
I peak through my eyelashes in time to watch the branches break off, to watch their ends explode into so much sawdust. They float up to join their brothers in the whirlwind. The great oak has been reduced to a series of amputated nubs, a rod begging for more lightning.
The branches collide. They rip each other in half, then right down the middle. The sticks multiply with each collision. They shoot out only to be sucked back into the vortex. The bigger pieces spin around the outer ring, while the smaller ones twirl toward the center.
The twigs come together in a cloud of wood, a brown school of fish, pooling their resources. They weave in and out in electron patterns. Their ripples move through the central mass, but its shape remains the same.
Larger pieces get sucked in from the outer ring. Two logs fly toward the cloud only to hover beneath it. Two more fly up to join them. A pair of branches spin around the top only to settle on opposite sides. They’re joined by a second set of branches, just as long but not nearly as thick as the first.
Now the mass is a scarecrow in the sky, a herky-jerky marionette, a straw man with a crescent moon for a head.
John cries out, “Oh sweet mother of fuck, you guys need to see this.”
Rachel does the opposite. She spins around to embrace me, drives her hands into my coat, and under my shirt. They feel chilled against my skin. They trace my spine. She digs her talons into the meat of my back. Her fingers diverge, wandering into the creases of my ribcage. My hands get lost in her waistband, not sure of if they should go up or down.
Thunder crashes. My eyes open in time to see the lightning line run down the trunk of the great oak. Sparks fly from its base. Then it fractures in two.
John cups his hands around his mouth, “Timber!”
The pieces don’t crash and they don’t fly up into the sky. They rise and fall like horses in a carousel, spinning with the rest of the debris. The laws of physics be damned.
The zoetrope effect is even more intense with the two halves of the trunk in play. The moon bobs up and down in the sky. The pieces pass behind it like its floating in our air space.
The straw man has been fleshed out. It now looks like the lower half of a men’s room sign. It dangles beneath the moon. One of its branches rises ninety degrees. It swings toward John. He’s frozen behind his equipment. His eyes shift from the whirlwind to the viewfinder, then back. Whatever he sees through his camera, through those infrared lenses, it has his mouth hanging wide open.
Twigs move down the branch like a colony of ants. They hang over the edge, sculpting themselves into the skeletal columns of a hand. Its fingers extend into long wooden claws. All but one close inward. The remaining finger points to John.
The crescent moon turns in the sky. It reveals its curved edges, its sharp tips, and the impossible slope of its concave face. The moon’s true nature becomes clear. It is no sphere. It’s a shell. There’s a hole where its dark side used to be. All that remains is the crescent edge.
There’s a pair of craters inside its hollow center. Craters no human eyes have ever looked upon. The moon tilts forward to cast its gaze down on us. A third crater yawns open. The lunar surface stretches to accommodate it. The moon looks like a ceremonial mask, bellowing at the valley below.
John looses his footing and with it his camera. He falls flat on his back, crab walks away from the sight bearing down on him. His goggles bounce with each panicked breath.
The Crescent Moon Man hovers over us. Its body churns like a swarm of locusts. Its head flickers like an oil lamp.
Rachel guides my hands under her shirt. She leads them from the small of her back, to the place where her skin is still warm. We trace the silk straps, the wires, the floral patterns together. She guides my fingers beneath her bra, cups my hands, and squeezes. I’m more than happy to let her lead. When she exhales, her voice rises in timbre. Then she eases my fingers just a little bit higher.
If there’s an entity, with an optical illusion for a head, floating right above us, she hasn’t noticed.
Emphasis on that word, “If.”
My mind has a way of perceiving only what it can anticipate. If there’s a motorcycle in my blind spot, I’m not going to see it, because I’m not looking for it. If there’s a wrecking ball swinging into my path, I’m not going to hear it, because I’m not listening for it. If there’s a twist in the plot, I’m not going to get it, because I’ve missed the setup. Only so much can pass the test of perception. Even less gets written into memory.
My mind can’t comprehend both of tonight’s revelations at once. Each is too incredible. Neither was anticipated. Either the moon just became sentient and repurposed the great oak into a body, or Rachel broke her vow not to make out with me. There’s only room for one event in my head. Right now, Rachel is making the superior argument.
The Crescent Moon Man bobs up and down in my blind spot, while Rachel is in both hemispheres of my brain, unpacking her things, settling in.
When she licks my tongue, that wooden silhouette looses its form.
When she massages my chest, the moon ceases to move.
When she traces my abs, the great oak seals itself right back up.
When she slides her hands beneath my button fly, the whirlwind blows away.
It was all just a trick of the light. The mind saw a pattern where none existed. Bodies in the trees? Eyes on the moon? Please. It’s funny how, the subconscious is always trying to put a face on things.
With Rachel’s well placed hands, my eyes become unnecessary. The sense of touch wills out. With our mouths locked in a kiss, taste and smell come in at a close second. The remaining senses can take a back seat. They can go to hell for all I care.
The volume lowers in my ears. The clitter-clatter of sticks, the creaking of the branches, the rustling of the leafs. It all fades. The metallic clang of the tripods, the bursting of the light bulbs, the shrieking of the woodland creatures. It all fades away. The howling wind has lost its voice. It’s died down to a hum of white noise. It’s almost pleasant.
The Crescent Moon Man has made his point. He’s done all the damage he can do. It’s time for him to hit the old dusty trail. He shuffles off the edge of the cliff, taking his compost to go. He descends into the valley to make some new friends, to cut a path through the monochrome township, to do some redecorating.
No matter. My mind is on the contours of Rachel’s back, on the way she straightens when I touch her sides, on the way she tightens when I graze her stomach, on the smell rising from her neck, pungent and dizzying. I’m watching for the moment when her lips part. I’m listening for the exhale.
When John says, “Uh…guys? Where did the moon go?” I barely even hear him.