There’s a boy in the woods, they say. A boy somewhere between the ages of seven to nine, with matted brown hair and pale skin and the most ferocious set of teeth you’ve ever seen on a human in your whole goddamn life. He walks on all fours and is covered in dirt; gnats stick to him the way moths stick to porch lights late at night. He’s disgusting and dirty and probably diseased.
They want you to come get him.
“What?” William Campbell leans his weight into the granite kitchen countertop and presses his cellphone closer to his ear. “I’m sorry, I must have heard you wrong. Can you repeat that?”
“There’s a boy, Will, in the woods just off 946. They’re sayin’ he’s feral. And they want you to come get ’im.”
There are a lot of things Will could say in response to that. It’s six a.m., though, and his coffee hasn’t even finished brewing. His co-worker has just called him, talking about feral seven-year-olds. He’s not thinking straight. He thinks he might be dreaming, actually. So he says, “Why me? I’m not even at the center yet.”
Joe laughs. “You’re the best in the biz, Campbell. Everyone knows that. Animals love you.”
The smell of coffee slinks up from the pot, and, as if it’s a catalyst for intelligence, or an antidote for stupidity, Will’s brain finally clicks into place.
“Joe. We’re animal control. Where’s CPS?”
There’s some awkward shuffling on the other end of the line. In the background Will can hear thirty or so dogs yapping away. Clearly none of them got the memo that it’s only six in the morning and a Sunday. The end of Will’s weekend is supposed to be spent watching Survivor reruns and checking up on the animals outside. He planned to clean out the chicken coop, restock the rabbits’ hay, and make a quick trip into town for some new garden fertilizer. He needs groceries too, come to think of it. His coffee stock is in a pitiful state.
“I dunno where CPS is,” Joe says finally. “Asked them the same thing. They said they needed us. You, specifically.”
The coffee machine hisses and growls, and Will snags a travel mug from the wooden cabinet overhead. The one he chooses is tall and black; stamped onto its side are the words Yoda Best Animal Control Officer, with a smiling depiction of Yoda beneath. Joe got it for him last Christmas. He was so excited over it, Will didn’t have the heart to tell him he’s never seen Star Wars.
“You goin’ or not?”
Will is known as the best in the business for a reason. Once he’s presented with a problem, he doesn’t give up until it’s solved. He doesn’t like leaving things open-ended, not because he’s a perfectionist but because, if he doesn’t close things, he gets curious. He wonders about all the what-ifs. He wants to know as much as he can stuff inside his meager, human brain. Plus, he’s always been bad at saying no.
A seven-year-old child in the woods isn’t really a job for animal control. It’s barely a job for CPS. What this kid probably needs, Will thinks, is a clinical psychiatrist and the arrest of whoever let him get lost out there. But Will is already pouring his coffee into a travel mug, and the question is already nagging at his brain: Is there really a feral kid out there? So he says,
“Yeah, sure, I’ll go.”
When Will arrives at the site Joe directed him to, he’s surprised to find a handful of trucks and cars parked alongside the road. 946 is a small road. It winds through one of the thicker parts of Sam Houston National Forest, snaking under dark canopies of foliage and strategically curving around rivers. Not many people travel on it, and there’s barely room to park along the rocky, brush-filled shoulders.
Will finds a spot for his Jeep behind a firetruck-red Toyota Highlander, grabs his supplies from the backseat, and steps out.
Summer in Texas is like a sauna. Sticky, slick humidity presses in on Will as soon as the door slams behind him. He pulls his cap lower over his forehead and struggles with clumsy fingers to hitch his tool-belt around his waist. He’s not sure he’ll need it, but it holds all his supplies: the rolled-up leash for dogs, metal tongs for opossums, a variety of cat treats, a half-full water bottle, and the retractable Ketch-Pole that Joe fanboyed over the first time Will showed it to him. All the tools are well-used and familiar, scratch-marked and sun-faded from long afternoons spent coaxing out wild, angry animals.
What tool is he supposed to use on a human?
He doesn’t have time to come up with an answer. A second after the belt clicks into place, a lady with black, frizzy hair comes trudging out of the woods.
“Hi!” She greets him with a smile and shaken eyes. “You must be Mr. Campbell.”
“Will, please,” he says. He sticks out his hand, and the woman—Marley Dewitz, according to the park ranger badge stitched to her vest—shakes it. “You…ah…you called?” Will adds.
“Yeah, he’s out this way. Follow me.”
He does. As Marley guides him through thick foliage and underbrush, the trees cluster in tighter, branches and vines eventually having to be snapped to be passed. The road disappears behind them. Will’s senses are overtaken by the smells of grass and dirt and sweet pine, and the sound of cicadas chirping high above. Sunlight filters through the branches, bleeding splotchy gold onto the ground beneath his feet. It’s pretty. It’s also, aside from the cicadas, utterly silent. Marley doesn’t speak, and the tension in the atmosphere weighs on Will oppressively.
For the first time, he feels nervous. What exactly is he going to find when they get to this kid? He’s seen his fair share of animal horrors: a dog’s neck stuck in a wire fence and bleeding; a horse shying away from the lightest touch because of the thick, abraded wounds marring its back and ribs. But this is a human.
“All right, we’re here,” Marley says. She pushes aside another branch, and Will follows her through.
The clearing is small and bushy. Moss clings to the dirt, soft as a carpet under Will’s boots. There are other people there, hovering around the edges as if this is summer camp and they’ve all gathered for ghost stories but are too nervous to sit yet. Will sees two more park rangers at the perimeter, their tan vests matching Marley’s, and then two people he doesn’t recognize. At first his mind goes to “parents?” But when they step aside to let him through, he catches sight of the clipboards in their hands, the walkie-talkies hooked to their waists, and realizes they’re reporters or detectives. Or CPS. Are they CPS?
A low, guttural growl from the center of the clearing grabs his attention. Will turns, and his eyes fall on him.
He’s small. Hunched over on all fours, like they said. He bares his teeth at them all, and Will is surprised to see that they’re sharp—unnaturally sharp. Like shark teeth implanted in a human. They can’t be real, he thinks, but they wink and glimmer in the sun, and they don’t look fake either.
Dark brown mud, nearly black, streaks the boy’s arms and legs. He’s wearing clothes, but barely. His t-shirt is torn at the hem, a mangled strip trailing like a tail behind him. His shorts are pocked with holes, as if moths have been eating away at them. It’s impossible to tell what color the clothes were before they became soaked in mud, grass stains, and something else Will suspects is blood. The boy’s hair is brown, like they said, and filled with so many rats’ nests, nettles, and burrs that brushing it out won’t even be an option. It’ll have to be cut off and regrown.
The boy’s eyes contrast with all of that. They’re bright, wide, and startling blue, like the sky. When they turn on Will, they narrow. The deep, guttural growling starts up again.
“Careful about getting too close,” Marley says from beside him.
Will flinches. He’s forgotten she’s there. He’s forgotten anyone is there besides the wild boy sitting in the center of the clearing.
Marley doesn’t seem to notice Will’s flinch. “He’s got his leg stuck in that snare,” she continues, “so he can’t go more than four feet any direction. But he’s been trying to bite us all for the better part of an hour. Totally freaked out.”
The boy shifts, and Will spots the thick rope snaring his left ankle. It’s gnarled and disgusting, and the loop around his leg is stained a horrible brown color. Beneath it his ankle is red and covered with fresh cuts that bleed sluggishly. It must be painful.
“He doesn’t speak English,” Marley interposes. Her eyebrows pinch together. “I don’t think he speaks at all, actually. He…he barks.”
As if to prove her point, the boy stops growling. His eyes dart from person to person in the group, all gathered to observe him, and he barks. He really barks. Not like a child imitating a dog, but like a real dog, with a sonorous bark that echoes off the trees and sends the crows above them scattering.
As they scream and shriek, Will stands in the middle of the clearing and stares. There really is a feral kid out here.
“Do you think you can coax him into coming back with us?” Marley asks tentatively.
“To the cars?”
“Yeah. CPS is going to drive him down to Huntsville Memorial, but we can’t get him to cooperate.”
Will takes another good look at the boy. He’s squatting in the dirt now, legs beneath him and palms in the moss. The low, growling noise is still vibrating in the back of his throat. It crosses Will’s mind that he sounds a lot like a coffee machine.
Then the boy barks again, this time at the two people Will suspects are CPS workers, and Will nods. “Yeah, I can do it, but get everyone else out of here. I don’t want him distracted. Go start the cars or something.”
As the others dutifully start filing out of the clearing, Will takes a step closer and kneels down. The boy’s eyes flick warily back to him.
“Hey there,” Will says quietly. “Did you get lost out here? Pretty far from civilization, yeah?”
The boy doesn’t speak, only growls. When Will scoots a foot closer, he shrinks back and hunches his shoulders.
“I’m not gonna hurt you,” Will says. It’s default—what he always says when an animal’s acting scared. He can’t remember ever saying it to a human before. Then again, he can’t remember ever seeing a human like this before either. Today is a day of firsts.
His eyes lower to the rope still taut around the boy’s ankle. Now that he’s closer, he can see the twisted fibers digging into the boy’s skin. It looks like he tried to claw or bite it off, but with little success. Now, every time he moves, the fibers dig in further and he winces.
“Is that rope hurting you?” Will asks. Another reflexive question that he doesn’t expect an answer to, but it works well as a distraction. The boy is so focused on Will’s words that he doesn’t notice when Will shifts weight onto his front foot and slides closer. The moss helps, muffling his boot’s shuffling in the dirt.
There’s still about six feet between them. Will scoots his foot forward again.
“Come on, then. Easy, buddy. I’m not gonna hurt you. We’re gonna get the rope off your foot and take you back to the hospital where they—”
Before Will can finish, the boy lunges for his leg.
Will yelps, springing backward as sharp teeth and wild eyes come tearing toward him. They stop two feet short, the rope yanking on the boy’s leg and tugging him back before he can get close enough to land a bite.
But it’s close enough for Will to see the terror in the boy’s eyes, for him to glimpse freckles hidden under the dirt and mud, and for a shimmering strand of hair to catch his eye. The rangers were wrong, he realizes as the boy barks bitterly and sinks back to the dirt, defeated. The kid’s hair isn’t brown, it’s blond. Blond like sunshine. It’s just been coated in so much mud that it’s unrecognizable except for that one strand.
Will sits back, catching his breath after the scare, and watches as the boy whimpers and plucks at the rope. He’s much closer now, only an arm’s length away. If Will wanted, he could lean forward and touch him.
He doesn’t. Instead, he brushes the dirt off his pants and returns to his crouched position.
“That wasn’t very nice,” he huffs. “If you want that rope off, you’re going to have to behave.”
It takes a second for the words to register. They’re quiet, for one. Mumbled, rushed, barely audible over the hissing cicadas. For two, he didn’t expect the boy to respond. Marley told him he couldn’t—that he barked instead. That apology, though, was definitely not a bark.
“You can talk?”
The kid doesn’t answer, but it’s too late. Will knows he can speak now—knows he can understand.
“What’s your name?” he asks, determination and curiosity returning tenfold. “I’m Will.”
The boy stares at the rope and says nothing.
Will inches closer. “Why are you out here?”
“People aren’t supposed to put traps out here. I’m sorry you got stuck.”
Still nothing. He’s close enough that the boy could bite him if he tried again.
Will lowers himself to a sitting position in front of the boy and, after waiting to make sure he won’t attack again, places his hands in his lap. This is how he’s been trained. Let them see your hands; it’s less threatening—encourages them to relax.
“Why don’t you speak?” he asks.
“Dogs don’t talk.”
Will’s heart plummets into his stomach. Worse, it sits in his stomach and lets the acid eat away at it, bit by bit, as the boy’s words sink in.
Dogs don’t talk.
His eyes slide to the rope. He knows how snares are supposed to work. He’s freed dog after dog, deer after deer, animal after animal from them. He knows the knot is supposed to be looped like a noose so it will slide tight over the animal’s leg or head. It’s supposed to be adjustable, a sort of one-size-fits-all knot. But the knot around the boy’s ankle is tight and sturdy, and the ends wrap around each other in a complicated tangle that Will has no clue how to decipher, nor untie. It’s no wonder the boy can’t get himself out. It’s also, undoubtedly, not a knot made by hunters laying a trap. This knot was tied by someone purposefully around the boy’s leg.
Gooseflesh ripples down Will’s arms.
“You’re not a dog,” he says, ignoring the sudden dryness in his mouth. “You’re a human. Who told you that?”
“I am a dog.”
Will blinks. He’s so out of his depth here, it’s not even funny. He looks over his shoulder for Marley, a CPS worker, anyone, but she must have gone back to the cars with the others, because no one is there.
“Will you let me untie that rope now?” he asks, then reconsiders. “Actually, I think I’ll have to cut it.”
The boy’s gaze darts to his. He doesn’t speak again, but his eyes are wide and terrified. It’s easy to read what he wants to say.
“I’ll be gentle, I promise,” Will says.
He fishes in his belt for the metal tongs. Normally he’d use a pocket-knife to cut rope like this, but he doesn’t tend to bring knives with him on animal-rescue missions. Still, it’s no big deal. The tongs should work just fine. If nothing else, he should be able to wedge them inside the knot and loosen it.
He pulls them out, and the boy growls.
“Hey, hey. I’m not gonna hurt you.” When the boy gives him a dubious look, he shifts tactics. “Look. I’ll cut down here, instead of at the part around your ankle.” He gestures to the long strand linking the boy’s ankle to a tree. The boy says nothing, but he stops growling, and he doesn’t attack when Will moves toward the rope, so Will figures he’s at least somewhat assuaged his worries.
Once he’s got a section of the rope in his hands, he starts to saw back and forth, back and forth, with one side of the tongs. The boy flinches and shifts away, but it doesn’t matter—Will’s far enough from him that the rope doesn’t pull.
Eventually, after a few arduous minutes of sawing, the rope breaks and the kid’s set free. Immediately he scrambles as far from Will as possible, but he doesn’t leave. He stays sitting at the edge of the clearing where the moss meets the trees, staring at the severed rope.
“What?” Will asks.
It’s at that moment that Marley comes bursting back through the trees. She enters the clearing, and before Will knows it the kid is darting over to cower behind him. He sits so close Will can feel his breath, warm and panicked, on his back. He even breathes like a dog, Will thinks, stomach turning.
For a moment the three of them stare at each other.
“You got him out,” Marley says, and the silent comment is there: He’s not attacking you.
“Yeah, I guess I did.” He thinks he’s a dog. Someone left him tied up here on purpose.
For a moment the only sound comes from the boy, panting furiously behind Will.
“Welp. Let’s get him back to civilization, shall we?”
He won’t go with the CPS workers. He won’t go with Marley or the other rangers. He will, however, climb into the back of Will’s old, rusted Jeep. He curls up into a ball on the leather cushions and refuses to budge when the CPS workers try to coax him into their sedan.
“You don’t mind, do you?” Marley asks, after the kid growls at her for the sixth time. Her eyes suggest desperation.
Will’s always been bad at saying no.
The kid comes with him. He sits in the back passenger seat and stares out the window as the forest whizzes by. He hasn’t spoken since they left the clearing, which would be fine, except Will is curious. He wants to know about the teeth and the hair and the rope, wants to jam the pieces together in his brain until they make something resembling sense. At the same time, as he glances at the kid in his rear-view mirror—taking in the dirt, the wild eyes slightly sunken, the sour stench, and that one strand of startlingly blond hair—he thinks maybe knowing would be worse. Maybe that’s the stuff best left to CPS, one of the reasons he chose animal control over dealing with humans.
The last text messages he exchanged with Joe are still pulled up on his phone, resting on the dashboard. He’ll have to get back to him once he reaches the hospital.
JOE: did you get the kid
WILL: Yep. Omw to Huntsville Memorial in a min.
JOE: what? he bit you?
WILL: No, I’m driving him. He wouldn’t go with the others. They’re following me there.
JOE: you find out how old he is?? where are his parents? what’s his name?
The voice from the backseat startles him, and the car lurches forward as he presses the gas a bit too hard.
“Yeah?” Silence follows, and he adds, “You can talk, you know. I don’t mind.”
Hesitantly the kid says, “Why’d they keep calling me feral? That’s not my name.”
“You’re not feral. You’re human.”
If the kid disagrees, he doesn’t say so. Instead he turns back to the window with an unrecognizable look on his face.
“How old are you?” asks Will.
For a second he doesn’t think the kid even heard him. He’s staring out the window, watching the trees and countryside fly by. Occasionally they pass an open road that cuts the tree line, and the kid leans closer to the window as if he wants to stick his head out and sniff the new territory. Will can’t imagine what he’ll be like when they make it to the city; it’s like he’s never seen the outside world before.
“Fifty,” the boy finally answers.
“Fifty?” Will snorts. “That’s funny, bud, but I don’t think so.”
It’s not until they reach the city—not until Will pulls his Jeep up to Huntsville Memorial Hospital’s entrance and watches Marley, the two CPS workers, and three nurses fight to drag the struggling kid inside—not until the kid turns back to stare at him one last time, his blue, terrified eyes looking like a kicked puppy’s—that Will realizes he was counting in dog years.
Puppy-dog eyes have a horrible power. They sear into your brain and mess things up in there, like some sort of disease. At least, that’s what Will thinks ten minutes into his drive back home.
Survivor is waiting. His rabbits and chickens still need to be fed. He needs to stop at Walmart and pick up coffee and fertilizer. Yet here he is, plagued by a sense of wrong, wrong, wrong as he makes his way down the highway. The feeling is prickly and tight around his chest, like a rope. Like a tether. He knows what it’s attached to.
Will does not deal with humans. He’s not anti-social, he just likes animals more. They’re softer, more innocent, even when they’re wild.
A car honks beside him, whizzing past, and he realizes he’s slowed down. The tether is yanking him, pulling him back toward sterile rooms, fluorescent lights, and one dirt-covered child who looked at him with scared eyes and wanted him to stay.
He wonders what the boy is thinking in that hospital room right now. He wonders if the others found out he can talk. He wonders if he’s scared or lonely. He wants to know his name.
Will does not deal with humans, but he’s curious, and he can’t say no to the tether’s pull.
He exits the highway and turns around.
This excerpt is from my novel-in-progress TETHERED, which follows protagonist William Campbell as he’s called out to rescue a seven-year-old boy who thinks he’s a dog, and then can’t seem to part with him. I originally started TETHERED as a short story for one of my classes at university, but about halfway through the first two thousand words, I knew the story was bigger than what I was going to give to my peers. I turned it in as a short story, and when the possibility of it becoming a first chapter arose in workshop, I knew the deal was sealed.
Just as the kid—whose name turns out to be Noah—tethers Will, this story tethered me. I became a sucker for the found-family dynamic between Will and Noah, and the remaining questions—who left Noah tied up in the woods, and why?—prompted me to expand the story into a novel to find out.
As the story progresses, Will takes Noah in, teaching him not only how to be human again but also that not all humans are bad. Meanwhile, the people who left Noah in the woods threaten Will in the form of a note. Will’s ex-college roommate and Chief of the Huntsville Police, Essam, assures him the threat is empty, they’ll be fine. And they are—until they aren’t. When the threats turn violent, Will has to face the fact that Noah may not be his forever, and that their tether may be forced to snap.
Katherine Buttacoli is a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate student at Stephen F. Austin State University. She grew up in a small town in southern Texas, and has been writing ever since she was old enough to spell.
Embark, Issue 18, April 2023