The book wasn’t really stolen, Lee reassured himself. He had taken it down from the dusty shelf, intrigued by the title, and when he realized what a treasure he had found, he spirited it away to his room to read more carefully. By the time he was on page three, he had decided he wanted to keep it, and he penciled his name onto the inside cover: Leandro A. Martin, in the looping, adult cursive he had learned in school. His father wouldn’t mind.
Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, With a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. It sounded magical, and it was. The book was filled with tales of strange animals spotted by lumberjacks and pioneers all over the country, for instance, the Hugag. It looked like a moose, except for its legs, which had no knee joints and prevented it from lying down at night to sleep. There was also the Splinter Cat, which drove its prey out of their treetop homes and into the open by ramming its head into the trees, splintering the wood into thousands of pieces in the process. Or the Squonk, which wandered the woods, crying incessantly because it was so ugly.
But the best by far was the Funeral Mountain Terrashot. It was a huge animal with a casket-shaped body supported by thin, wobbly legs. Enormous herds grazed near the tops of mountains, living peacefully until the population grew too large. Then they marched down the mountains in one long line, making for other ranges they could see in the distance. But when they reached the hot desert sand at the bottom of their mountain, they couldn’t take the heat and exploded. Nothing was left of their procession but a line of casket-shaped holes in the sand, like unfinished graves.
Lee read the account of the Funeral Mountain Terrashot over and over. The Funeral Mountains were not so far away. Certainly, they were closer than most of the other fearsome creatures’ habitats. Maybe the Terrashots had even spread into new territories since the book had been published, finally crossing the dangerous sands. Maybe there were Terrashots nearby, living in the mountains Lee could see from his bedroom window or on his walk to school.
He showed the book to his brother, but Paul only laughed. “These are made up,” he said. “Do any of these sound real to you? And if they were, we’d have seen them in the zoo.” He flipped to the front of the book. “God, Lee, you’re such a little jerk. It tells you on the first page that they’re are all made up.”
Lee nodded, but he wished he could ask his father, just to be sure. He would definitely know—and if Paul was right, if they were made up, then Dad would know why they were important enough to have a book about them even though they weren’t real.
Every so often a letter would come to them, censored but with just enough left to be sure that it really was Dad writing. Lee would only have one chance to read it before his mother took it. She kept a box of Dad’s letters in her room and cried over them whenever she added to it.
Paul told him that they had to let Mom keep the letters to herself. Well, if she could do that, then Lee could keep the book to himself. It was as good as a letter, anyway. Dad hadn’t written it, of course, but his fingers had touched these same pages. He probably knew all the Fearsome Creatures by heart. Maybe he had even seen one—or more—of them when he was younger. Lee would ask him when he got home. He wouldn’t risk it in a letter, not when his response might be taken by Mom, or laughed at by Paul, or even censored by the United States Navy.
So Lee kept the book. He read it to himself each night before bed, and he waited. It was easy enough to wait, even with the war still on. Paul, who loved to drive Dad’s car, complained about gas rationing, but Lee didn’t really remember what things had been like before scrap collection or ration stamps. It all just seemed normal. But as the spring went on, the radio reports all said the same thing: the fighting was almost over in Europe. Suddenly, everything was a waiting game, and the world was suffused with a feeling of bated breath. They only needed to hold out a bit longer, and it would all be okay. And sure enough, V-E Day came and the town celebrated, just like the rest of the country and the rest of the world. But Dad was in the Pacific. Victory in Europe wouldn’t bring him home.
It was early in the morning, two weeks later, when the doorbell rang. They were in the kitchen having breakfast, and they all knew who it was and what it meant. The coffee mug slipped from Mom’s fingers, and though it didn’t shatter, it sent a pool of muddy brown liquid over the table. Paul went to answer the door. Lee sat frozen, holding a half-peeled orange, and when Paul came back with the telegram, the fruit suddenly smelled rancid and looked like guts spilling out from under waxy skin.
Paul handed the telegram to Mom. No one said anything. She left the room without reading it, and Lee heard the door to her bedroom slam shut. He could feel Paul’s eyes on him, waiting for him to say or do something, but Lee was locked in place. He would never move again; he would spend the rest of his life holding this disgusting orange.
A moment passed.
“Lee,” said Paul. “Lee, it’s about Dad.” Lee nodded.
“He’s not coming home.”
Lee bit his lip and nodded again.
Paul crossed the kitchen to where Lee was sitting and put a hand on Lee’s shoulder. When he spoke again, his voice sounded strange, as though there were something caught in his throat or trying to force its way out of him.
“Do you want me to drive you to school?” Lee shook his head.
Lee usually walked to school, and he wanted to walk today. Paul left for the high school before Lee set out, and Mom was still hidden and silent behind a closed door. So no one saw that he was carrying nothing but his copy of Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, and that he walked in the wrong direction.
He hadn’t been intending to. He had been planning to walk to school, as though the world hadn’t just gone horribly wrong. But at the end of the street he turned right instead of left, and then he kept going. The day was already warm, and the heat wafted up off the road, making Lee sweat. He clutched the book to his chest and kept walking.
Beyond the town there were stretches of farmland: orchards and fields that shone green in the sun. When he realized that his legs were tired and that he didn’t know how long he had been walking, Lee sat by the edge of the road in the shade cast by a fence.
His feet hurt and he was thirsty. Every so often a car passed by, but no one seemed to notice him. He balanced the book on his knees and thought that he should be crying, but no tears were coming. He felt as though he was still waiting, as though nothing had actually changed. Because the telegram wasn’t what he had been waiting for. He would feel like this forever, as though he were holding his breath.
He raised his head and looked off into the distance. He could see the mountains. They looked just as far away as they did from his window, though he had been walking for hours.
Opening his book to page nineteen, he stared at the illustration of the Funeral Mountain Terrashot. In the picture, a group of people standing in front of a Conestoga wagon watched, amazed, as a terrashot exploded before their eyes. A long line of the creatures extended to the foot of a nearby mountain.
Lee closed the book, stood up, and kept walking.
Eventually, the farms began to thin out, and their manicured green gave way to a sandy desert brown. His tongue felt thick and dry in his mouth, but Lee was only thirsty, not hungry. He felt sick at the thought of food. He might never eat again. The sun was high in the sky. The mountains still loomed in the distance, but Lee thought they might be closer. They must be closer. He’d been walking all morning.
Cars were still passing, infrequently, and Lee kept to the side of the road as he walked so as to stay out of their way. They sped ahead and on into the desert.
But one car didn’t. It passed him and then pulled over, stopping a few yards ahead. As it slowed down, Lee recognized it: Dad’s Plymouth.
Lee walked over to the driver’s door. Paul had rolled down the window and was squinting into the sun at him. “Hey, man,” he said. “Get in. We’ve been worried about you. Let’s go home. Where are you going, anyway?”
Lee realized he didn’t know. He looked at the car again. It gleamed in the sun. He supposed it was Paul’s car now, not Dad’s anymore, and the thought broke whatever thing inside of him was holding back the tears.
He started running.
He didn’t run further down the road, or in the direction he had come. He ran away from the car and the pavement and into the dirt of the empty landscape. As he cried and the blood pounded in his ears, he could just barely hear the slam of the car door and Paul’s heavy footsteps behind him. They were their own two-creature procession through the desert, except that it hadn’t started because there were too many of them. It had started because there were too few.
Paul caught up and grabbed him around the waist. Lee kicked and struggled but it did no good, not while he still held tight to Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods. He needed his arms, and, still crying, he let the book fall to the ground.
He couldn’t get away. Paul was too much bigger, and now Lee had lost the book on top of everything else. He stopped fighting and let his brother’s wrestling grip turn into a hug. He didn’t return the embrace. He didn’t say anything as Paul squeezed him so tightly that he couldn’t breathe.
Paul released his grip, then picked the book up off the ground and handed it to Lee. Neither of them said anything as they walked back to the car, but when they reached the road, Lee turned to look behind him. There was a square impression left in the ground where they had been, a book-shaped hole in the sand.
—Susan Augenbraun is a writer and museum professional. She holds a degree in history from the University of Chicago and lives in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York.