A Tale of the Woods

[The following is a short story written and submitted by me to the NYC Midnight 2018 Short Story Contest. Hope you enjoy!]

My name is James Wood Jr. and for most of my adult life, nothing important has ever happened to me. For about the last thirty years I have lived in a nice quiet town of Paragould, Arkansas. This town is the perfect place to tuck your head down and meander through day to day activities. I know most people say that about their small towns, but I guarantee Paragould wins every time.

It was the town where my father was born. The Colonel is somewhat of a hero in this small, hick town. “Jimmy, you must be pretty proud of your daddy,” people will say to me on the street. Which, I am. I am very proud of him; at least, professionally. The Air Force occupied his life, leaving little time for the rest of us. He was never around and when he was, he’d never talk about his work.

Then, on December 29, 1989 my life took a different direction. It was Friday and I had just stepped in the door, still covered in grease from the many trucks I spent all day maintaining. It never ceases to frustrate me to see the absolute lack of care people show towards their vehicles. Here I am, driving the same ’78 Jeep J-10 pickup that I have been driving around for ten years. Sure, it’s bright silver body is beginning to dim, but she still runs almost brand new.

The phone was already ringing when I stepped in the door. I was in no hurry to get to the monotonous ringing, so I slung my jacket on the kitchen chair and made my way to the phone hanging on the wall. Right before I got to it the answering machine picked up so I decided to see who it was before getting sucked into another long Friday afternoon conversation with Mrs. Williams from down the street. “Jimmy? It’s dad. If you are there can you pick up? I don’t want to leave you a message.” He sounded old. The man had turned ninety this year after all. It was more than that though. From the time I spoke to him back in August on his birthday to now, his voice seemed to have aged one hundred years. There was a shake in it and he was struggling to get the words out.

“Hey dad,” I tried to sound as casual as possible as I answered, but the tone in my father’s voice had struck a chord in my mind. “You caught me as soon as I was getting home. I was…”

“Son, I need you to listen,” he interrupted. I was used to the dismissal of things I had to say, but actually interrupting was new. “I need to see you.”

“Well, last time I checked you cannot drive. Plus, I don’t think the home you’re in will just let you up and leave.” I was a little put off by his interruption, both to my conversation as well as the start of my weekend.

“This is important. I can explain when you get here. We are having a New Year’s Eve party on Sunday. Friends and family are welcome.” His tone had changed from one of worry to hopeful.

“That sounds riveting. You know, I have responsibilities here. Plus, maybe I already have New Year’s plans.” I didn’t have either this weekend but I was not about to reveal to my ninety year old father that his fifty year old son was still just a homebody.

He stifled a laugh. “In Paragould?”

“It’s got to be just as exciting as a nursing home party,” I volleyed the insult back. It got us both laughing, which was a nice change of pace.

Then the serious tone returned to my father’s voice. “Please come.” There was no more discussion. I promised I would be there but I would not be arriving before the party. “I understand. I just don’t know how much longer I have. The signs are pointing to the end and I need to tell you something before it happens.” I could not get him to say anymore over the phone. I went to bed that night at a reasonable 8pm and was up early in my J-10 and headed to Melbourne, Florida.

The drive from Arkansas to Florida was long, very long. I wasn’t really in the mood to listen to the radio. The stations I could find were just overplaying Janet Jackson’s new song, “Miss You Much.” There really was not much to see along the drive either.

I tried to stay clear of big cities. I had my fill of city driving back when I was in college and immediately after. Back then I had big dreams of being a big shot reporter. I kept running into the exact same problem over and over. Nobody wanted to hear the truth. I would dig up a story about a big business contaminating water supplies or smuggling unknown resources from overseas. No matter the story I would get shut down. People would rather read gossip columns and ignore true, life altering stories. Over and over I’d pitch the truth, and each time I was met with resistance. Finally, I decided give up trying to get others to see.

I even tried to pass the news on to my own father. I’d call late at night, admittedly after having a few drinks, and rant about the truths I had uncovered. He would listen and I would gain hope. Then, “Jimmy, you’re a great story teller. You should write a book.”

A book? How patronizing. If I wrote a book it would end up being published as fiction. Nobody would take it seriously. I needed a legitimate news source to pick up the stories. He would only laugh and tell me to get some rest. It was after many of these kinds of conversations that I finally gave up my pursuit of exposing the lies and I moved back to Paragould. I decided I’d take a bland job and plunged myself into mechanical work.

So I passed the time by thinking back over all of the times my father was not there for me and gripping the steering wheel until my knuckles turned white. He sounded kind of out of it. I remember being young, maybe seven or eight, trying to get my father to be excited about some project at school. He would sit in his over sized chair and read the paper while I’d call his name over and over, waving a paper above my head, but the man, although physically in front of me, was not there. Mom would always say he had a lot going on. She defended him until the day she died; and I have spent my entire life trying to get my father’s attention. It’s probably why I agreed to go along on this trip in the first place.

I wondered if his mind was beginning to slip as I pulled my J-10 into the parking lot of the Life Care Center of Melbourne, Florida. I parked it between a couple of cars clearly belonging to the doctors or administrators who oversee the facility and walked inside.

The drive had taken even longer than I had anticipated. It was a quarter passed ten on New Year’s Eve. There was a party in full swing at the nursing home facility. I figured by this time most of the residents would have turned in for the night. I walked to the front desk and asked for my father’s room. The woman sitting there smiled pleasantly and pointed me down a hall. “He won’t be in his room. He prefers to be around the other residents. You’ll find him in the common area at the end of the hall.” I fought the urge to reply in a shocked way that the man actually wanted to be around others.

Our eyes met as soon as I walked through the door frame. My father, the Air Force Colonel, bound to a wheelchair but sitting no less straight. His dignity was not even hurt from the cone hat placed upon his head with “1990” written in bold, silver lettering across it. There was a proud twinkle in his eyes, mixed with something else. Was he sad? I dismissed the thought and walked though the colorful streamers and balloons which were hanging down from the low ceiling.

I finally spoke as I came up alongside my father. “Hey, Dad.” He smiled in response and took my hand in both of his. I could tell the strength was depleted. The grip he had was almost gone.

“I am so glad you came. Can you help me to my room?” I nodded and I came around the backside of his chair and wheeled him as he gave out commands. Some things never change. Still in charge and down to business.

We sat in a dim room, decorated much like the rest of the nursing home. It was definitely quiet. “Son, what I have to say is of vital importance and I am sorry I have waited so long to tell you. To be honest, I was afraid. I feared what may happen if anyone found out I was trying to uncover the truth. I know you are going to want to ask questions, but please let me say all I have to say.” Then my father began his tale.

“It all started with Roswell. The United States government really dropped the ball with that one. They had hoped to keep it covered up from the beginning, but as you know, news spread. Sure, they were able to paint it as a hoax, and the general public believed them. However, not everyone did. I’m not just talking about those in our country either.

“Russia became suspicious, along with many other countries. World War II had ended just a couple years before and we were smack in the middle of the Cold War. Many of our enemies suspected extraterrestrials and feared what we may do with the tech we found. In response to the rumors of the Reds, sorry, the Soviets infiltrating, the government began many secret programs.

“They allowed the civilians to know about some of these programs, but never the full intention. Shoot, they didn’t even let us know of the full intention. One of these programs was called the X-20 Dyna-Soar program. It stood for Dynamic Soarer. The entire program, which ran from October of 1957 to December of sixty-three cost six-hundred and sixty million dollars. That’s a lot of money just to scrap a program.

“The actual ship was made from what we called René 41. It was made from tampering with the ship which was found at Roswell, although we didn’t know it at the time. Those of us who worked on it thought it was beautiful. Originally there were seven of us on the inside. Gordon, myself, Thompson, Rogers, Armstrong, Knight, and Dana. Since we were working on a secret program we thought we should have a code name. We took our initials and formed “GWT RAKD.” We pronounced it, “Goat Racked.” We thought we were pretty clever. NASA and the Air Force told us the X-20 Dyna-Soar was being developed as protection from the Russians. It would be developed to soar undetected through the sky, and eventually even be capable to fly into space.

“By the middle of sixty two, Armstrong and Dana left the program. They never discussed why but we all suspected something big. We began to wonder if it really was the Russians who were the issue. Then, Albert Crews came onto the scene. Something was always off about the man. He seemed to know more than we did about the program and was quick to shut down any questions we had about the details of what we were doing.

“So many things went wrong in testing and we could never figure out why. The program was shut down somewhat unexpectedly. Everyone gave conflicting reasons why.

Then, in sixty-seven, Rogers died. He had reached out to me before he died to warn me again about Crews but I shrugged it off. I just wanted to move on with my life and forget about that wasted three years. After Rogers died I received a file labeled, “GWT RAKD.”

“I know the program and my friend’s death is because of Crews. He’s the connection. And I have been seeing him lately. He shows up outside my window. He stands in the hallway. I know it seems strange but the man has not changed a bit. Twenty-six years and no change on his face. I think he is after me and trying to make sure I do not pass on this information. I’ve added more to the file that you should read. It’s time for the truth to be told. You have to find your fire again and get it out there.”

He concluded and I didn’t know what to think. Between all his pauses, the story had taken quite a while to tell. It was now close to midnight. “I think you are tired.” I placed my hand on his.

“No!” He pulled back and sat up even straighter. “You must believe me!” Then he gasped and he began to sputter. “He’s here.”

I turned in the direction where my father stared. There was a male nurse in the doorway. Behind the man I could hear the others still awake at the party beginning their countdown to midnight. The nurse just stood there, his head cocked off to one side. My father spoke slowly and his voice shook. “It’s up to you now,” he said as he placed the file in my hand. Then his hand fell and my father died. Everyone else was still cheering as they greeted the new year. As they cheered, I wept.

“He was very sick; it was his time.” The nurse, the man my father had called Crews, said in a cold manner.

“He seemed to think you were someone else. Do you know why?”

A smirk spread across the man’s face. I could have sworn I saw a yellow glint in his eyes. “I have absolutely no idea,” he replied and turned to leave.

“I know who you are.” I spoke in just above an indoor voice. I did not want to disturb what remained of the party. “More importantly, I know who I am, and I know what I must do.”

He turned to face me once more and smiled. The look was so cold my heart skipped a beat. “Good luck,” he said and continued out the door.

The fire was reignited. I would once again seek the truth, and I would start with the truths handed to me in the file by my own father, James W. Wood.