Wicked: The Sound in the Woods
By S. J. Hinton
William James Smith was called "Billy" by all his friends, and was a
popular boy in school. He delighted his instructors by doing his
homework and getting it back to school on time, and they had nothing at
all bad to say about him. Neighbors knew he lived nearby mostly because
they occasionally saw him roaming around outside his house, but he
mostly seemed engaged in doing various chores, and they characterized
him (without knowing really why) as being "helpful." He seemed to even
be largely well liked by his classmates, most of whom admitted he kept
a great deal to himself.
Only his "friends," those of whom he named such, had any idea of what
Billy Smith was really like. For the most part, they didn't like the
side of Billy they often saw and could do nothing about. Later in life
he would have been characterized as a blank-eyed sort, the fellow you
remembered from school from the rumors about him when you heard he'd
been killed by police fire after shooting several people from a water
tower. He seemed to be fearless, which was more a function of simply
having no concept of the consequences of his actions. The only things
that seemed to scare him were insects. He hated them.
Right now, Sam Matheway was trying his best to talk Billy out of
dropping a leftover Halloween pumpkin off an overpass near their
houses. Billy ignored him as he calculated when to drop the pumpkin on
a passing car for best effect.
"I think I'll try for a pickup truck," ruminated Billy slowly. "If I
hit the bed, the pumpkin'll explode all over the place."
"Just don't aim for the windshield," pleaded Sam. "That could get
Billy hardly looked up. "You're such a pain, Sam. What are you worried
about? Somebody gonna see you and tell your Daddy?"
Sam's dad was a policeman in Sigil. He didn't have a lot of power, but
his position commanded respect from most of the town. There were only
four full-time policemen in Sigil, and one of them was female.
Sam shook his head. "That's not exactly what I'm worried about," he
Billy laughed. It was a cruel sound, high and cold. "Get over it," he
hissed. He aimed the pumpkin and let go.
It missed the truck, glancing off the rear bumper, and splattered on
the concrete. The car immediately following the truck, however, swerved
to miss the exploding mass and grazed a car in the other lane. Both
screeched to a halt.
The boys ran like they were pursued by devils. They didn't stop or
even slow their pace until they reached the park.
The park was really a playground built in the sixties and rebuilt in
the late seventies. It boasted all the usual equipment, plus a real
fire engine - albeit sans motor and pumps - and a fiberglass and sheet
metal rocketship. The park had been there, near the Golden Oaks
subdivision between Locust Street and Wilmer Drive, nearly as long as
anyone could remember. It was an eyesore with the sand almost washed
away and weeds growing through the sidewalks, but it was a part of town
history. That made it important. Jeb Ffolks used to tell a story about
the Mayor of Sigil and a deal with the Devil made "at that very bench
in the corner" back when the Mayor had been nine or ten - that was old
Thomas Oaks, the Mayor in sixty-nine.
Yes, history made things important. Even old, decrepit things...
The boys paused near the fire engine, and Sam was shaking his head
back and forth. "Oh God! Oh darn, darn, darnitdarnitdarnit!"
Billy just laughed again. "You call that cussing?"
Sam scowled. "You stupid idiot, if I get in trouble-"
Sam held up a hand. "Shhh!" he hissed, then: "Did you hear
Sam quieted, then shook his head again. "No. I didn't hear
"It was like - like buzzing or something. Like locusts, but not." He
gave a visible shudder. "I hate locusts." But his tone betrayed more
uneasiness than dislike.
The park was bounded on three sides with streets and houses. The
fourth side was overgrown to the fence, then disappeared into a dark
wood. Although everyone knew the trees only covered about two city
blocks, it was called The Woods and had been said to be haunted by
every child growing up in Sigil.
Billy was staring off vacantly toward the woods. He seemed not to be
quite aware of his surroundings, and began to walk slowly toward the
"Billy," said Sam slowly. "You're making me nervous."
Billy didn't respond. Step toward the trees, and another step. He was
about fifty feet from where the weeds and brush presumably concealed
Something rose up behind Sam. He felt it and turned suddenly,
"You're both wicked, wicked little boys!" accused the old woman in a
harsh voice. She was wearing a tattered shawl and her breath smelled of
something going bad and breath mints. She grabbed Sam roughly by the
"Let me go!" he squalled.
"Not you," she huffed. "You're a bad boy, too, but not like the other
one." She sniffed, pushing Sam aside as if he no longer was of
consequence. "The other one!"
"Don't touch me," warned Billy. He tried to look mean, but his voice
sounded more scared.
"You're the one who dug up Missus Appleby's roses, and tied the two
cats' tails together over Hannah Connely's clothesline. You're the one
who stole little Marsha's lunchbox." The old woman was really starting
to get worked up over this. "Such wickedness must be punished!"
Sam didn't understand. He didn't know any of the people she was
talking about, and suspected that Billy didn't either. The old lady was
crazy as could be, and she sounded like she could get dangerous.
"Run!" he shouted at Billy. He took off, and didn't wait to see if
Late that evening, once his father had come home, Sam was called into
the living room from doing his homework. His father had changed out of
his uniform and sat in jeans and a loose cotton shirt, a cola in his
"So, how'd your day go?" he asked cheerfully.
Sam frowned a little. His father was unnaturally cheerful, and his
mother was well in the background with a severe expression on her face.
Not that his dad didn't have a sense of humor, but Sam had learned long
ago that a very outward expression of some mood by his father usually
meant something extraordinary.
"Okay," he said carefully. "Everything's fine."
"Uh huh. And how about after school?"
Sam caught on. Somehow his dad had found out he was with Billy. "I met
Billy, and we went to the park."
His father nodded. "That's all?"
Sam looked closely at his father, trying to gauge the thoughts behind
those eyes. "Well, we fooled around some. Then some old lady spooked
us, so we left."
Sam's mother cleared her throat and went into the kitchen. His father
nodded his head in an absent-minded sort of way.
"Well, there was an accident on the loop today, right where it crosses
Broadway," his father mused carefully. "That's not far from the park,
Sam nodded slowly.
"It happened right around four-thirty. That'd be pretty close to the
time you were at the park, your mother tells me." He took a drink from
his soda. "Did you and Billy hear or see anything about that
Sam swallowed. "Like what?"
"Well," his father looked him in the eyes. "Like two boys who looked a
lot like you and Billy, who dropped a pumpkin onto the loop from the
"Dad, I-" he clamped his jaws shut. There was nothing more to be said
on his part until he knew better where his father wished to take
His father sighed. "I guess there was something that happened today
that you forgot to tell us about, then?"
So Sam did, in a gush. He felt terrible about it, and he was sure his
father knew that, and it felt so much better to admit what had
happened. When he was done, his father sat very still for a
Finally, he spoke: "Your birthday's coming pretty soon. For the time
being, you're grounded. That's no special privileges, no phone, no
hanging out with friends. If you need something or have to go
somewhere, either your mother or I take you." He nodded slightly. "If
you keep your nose clean, we'll see if you'll free for your birthday.
Furthermore, no contact outside classes with Billy."
Sam's heart sank a little, but he looked straight at his father's
eyes. "Yes, sir."
It could be a lot worse, he thought to himself.
"Meanwhile, I'll be giving Billy's father a call tonight to see what
he has to say about the matter."
It just got worse, thought Sam. Billy'll think I snitched on him right
"Okay, that's about all for now," finished his father. "You about done
with your work?"
His father called Murdoch Smith, Billy's father, about nine. He
apologized profusely about the late hour, asked about family and
business, and finished up with whether Mister Smith kept up with the
hobbies his son kept. Murdoch, for his part, knew something was up from
the very start.
"A policeman you hardly know personally isn't going to call you up at
nine at night and ask questions about your boy unless there's something
about," he said later. Murdoch's mother had been Irish, and
occasionally the accent played with his words.
"To be honest, Officer Matheway," he remarked to Sam's father. "I'd
meant to call someone anyway. When Billy came home today he was a white
as a sheet, saying some crazy woman attacked him and your son in the
park, saying he was evil and needed to be punished." He paused for a
deep breath. "Billy claims she followed him at almost a dead run all
the way from the park, then hung around outside for at least half an
Sam's father rubbed his chin. "Did you or your wife see this
"We were both out, so no. Billy says Sam'll confirm she stopped them
in the park, though." He paused for an instant. "Funny thing, though.
Billy told me of the things she accused him of, crazy woman. She
mistook the boys for someone else, and talked of things that happened
at least twenty years ago." He laughed a little nervously. "She might
just be more than a little insane, this woman."
"Okay," replied Sam's father professionally. "If you're concerned,
we'll file a complaint about it. I'll even go over to the park tomorrow
and see if I can find her. Would that make you feel better?"
"Yessir, it would," he agreed. "And as for the boy, be sure that he'll
not be doing such mischief again."
"I'm sure of it," replied Sam's father. "But keep in mind he was lucky
no one was hurt, no real property damage, and no one wants to file a
charge. Let him know that." And he hung up.
Sam woke up about two after midnight, feeling apprehensive and sweaty.
He wasn't scared exactly, but he was very nervous. He lay in bed
several minutes waiting for his heart to stop pounding, his bedsheets
pulled high up around his neck (he almost smiled at the memory of the
joke about monsters not being able to touch sheets). Finally he gave up
on calming his nerves that way, and reached up to flick on the reading
light above his bed.
That's when he thought he heard it. Very low, almost below the audible
range, he more felt it than heard it: Not a buzzing, no, but almost a
humming. It sounded very like an insect near his ear.
But it took several more seconds before he was convinced the noise
came from outside the house. It sounded far off, which he was sure it
was, but carried very well over a great distance.
And it reminded him of Billy's comment yesterday: It was like - like
buzzing or something. Like locusts, only not.
Sam meant to mention the noise that morning at breakfast, but felt too
silly to do so. He became certain he'd dreamt it all.
In spite of which he was preoccupied and listless much of the day.
Part of the problem was that he was tired, but the rest was because his
mind kept trying to sort out what had happened.
He ran into Billy right after lunch. Since he was sure his father
hadn't paid anyone to watch him, and he considered lunch to be a school
period, he took the chance of talking to his friend.
Billy looked as tired and preoccupied as Sam, maybe worse. There were
dark circles under his eyes and he looked - well, bad. He was pretty
spacey, too. He barely noticed when Sam first sat next to him.
Eventually, he said: "Did you know I didn't run right away when you
left me in the park yesterday? I tried to stay and face up to that
Sam licked his lips. He felt a chill along his spine. "What did she
Billy smiled, but there was little humor. "Nothing. Not really. She
kept saying I was an evil boy, and threatened me."
Sam whistled. "She said she'd hurt you?"
Billy shook his head. "No. She's some kind of voodoo priestess or
something, or she thinks so. She said she'd curse me, and then I'd see.
She'd punish me and keep me from hurting anybody."
Privately, Sam thought that might be a very good idea. Out loud he
said: "Did your dad say he was going to do anything?"
"Your dad called last night," replied Billy. "He said he'd look for
that woman, and keep her from doing anything." He looked at Sam. "He'll
keep his promise, won't he?"
Sam gave it careful consideration. "He's always kept his promises to
me," he said finally.
Billy nodded, but remained silent. He became unfocused and seemed to
stare off into the distance. Sam became a little worried.
"Billy?" he asked timidly.
The other boy slowly turned to face Sam, looking very distant and like
he was trapped in a daydream. "Huh?"
Billy frowned, deep furrows appearing on his forehead.
"No," replied Sam. "Something's bothering you."
Billy didn't seem to hear. His lips moved as he whispered something
over and over, and Sam strained to hear. He could barely make it out at
last, and his blood felt chilled at the words.
"Can you hear it? It's like someone humming."
Billy disappeared that night. No one had any information that led to
It appeared as though he finished his homework in a distracted way,
took a bath, and then went to bed. Sometime between ten that night and
four in the morning he got up, went out the front door, and walked
away. There was no forced entry, no signs of a struggle, and no
The old woman that accosted Billy and Sam at the park was never found.
No one even recollected seeing her at any time, although several people
had seen the boys running at the park the day of the pumpkin
Sam's dad stayed away from anything having to do with the
investigation because of Billy and Sam's relationship. He didn't want
to chance someone saying he was emotionally involved with the
investigation. He did participate in the search for the boy, though,
and even appeared on television asking anyone for information leading
to clues as to the whereabouts of the boy.
On the Saturday following the disappearance of Billy, Sam was fooling
around in the backyard. His father had decided not to enforce Sam's
punishment after what he felt his son had been through.
Sam was working on a homemade bow he'd carved from a length of ash
when he thought he heard it: A low sound coming on the still air. It
sounded like a familiar voice at first, but when he strained to hear,
it became a distant and barely audible humming.
It was late afternoon, with the sun riding low in the sky and night
coming on fast. His father was still at work, and his mother had
stepped out to drop off some baking at school for a cakewalk the PTA
was planning. There was nothing to keep him from investigating...
He began to walk, following more from a sixth sense than from any real
idea of where the ghost of a noise originated. Down Winningham to
Broadway, then along Broadway toward the loop he went, head bowed and
ears straining against the background noise of traffic and the city. He
concentrated so much he was barely aware of how close the cars passed
Eventually he came to the park, and paused for only a moment to strain
his ears. Then he began to progress slowly toward the woods. There was
no sense of fear or even apprehension, only a strong urge to press on
and see. He felt he had to see the source of the noise. It was
When he came to the overgrown fence, he found rusted posts and broken
down wire - the fence had disintegrated over the years and that
dissolution had been hidden by the masking undergrowth. It was
difficult going in places, but he forced his way through at the expense
of a little skin.
He paused again on the other side, where the brush thinned and the
faint humming became louder. He thought he heard a whisper of voice
from deeper in the tangled growth: "You're a bad boy, too, but not like
the other one. Wicked, wicked boys!"
"Who's there?" called Sam. He wasn't feeling nervous in the least,
much to his surprise. "Who's talking to me?"
"Wicked, wicked boys! Such wickedness must be punished!"
Sam had begun to feel a little frightened, now. "You don't scare me,"
he lied. "Just leave me alone!"
More determined than ever, Sam pushed through the last of the brush
into a small clearing.
It was dominated by an old oak tree, at least six feet across and
taller than the surrounding trees - it's top was camouflaged by the
surrounding foliage. Branches as large in diameter as some of those
surrounding trees sprouted from the huge trunk only a few feet above
Sam's head. The ground was littered with damp leaves at least a foot
deep, and the remains of an iron fence surrounded the base of the
The humming stopped as soon as Sam came into the clearing, and he
looked quickly about in the hopes of catching its source before it
could fade back into the greenery. He found nothing until the dripping
branches above attracted his attention, and he looked up.
The remains of a treehouse perched precariously in some of the lower
branches, being there a hundred years from the looks of it. The
branches looked sickly and wet, dripping discolored water to the ground
As he examined that structure from the safety of the ground, Sam saw
what he took to be a sleeping bag hung from one of the branches. A
jacket was thrown across another nearby branch, and he thought it
looked like one he'd seen Billy wear recently. Without further thought,
he began to climb the tree to recover the item.
He reached it without accident and pulled it from the branch. It was
torn a little, dirty, but Billy's all the same. He was sure of
"Billy?" he yelled. "Billy! Where are you?"
A slight movement in the branches and the resumption of that odd
humming was his response. The slight noise stopped as soon as Sam
changed his position, and he could see nothing from the tree.
Then he realized the thing he'd assumed was a sleeping bag wasn't. It
looked like it was made of something shiny and flexible - a plastic
wrap or maybe vinyl. It was mostly a dirty white color, shading to
almost brown at the ends, and it was slightly transparent.
And, as he looked at it, it moved.
Not much of a movement, not at all. An obscene sort of wriggle,
really, like something boneless was rippling in the stuff.
Sam peered closely at the thing. Then, seeing nothing, he leaned
across to look more closely.
That's when the branch broke.
Sam fell across, throwing his weight in an attempt not to fall to the
ground. He fell across the odd object, draping himself across it, and
he felt it move under his weight.
It was smooth, warm, and felt like a thin shell of some plastic. He
turned his head, and found himself looking into the thing.
And something inside looked back.
Screaming, Sam threw himself off the branch and fell through leaves
and snapping branches onto his back in a bush. It broke his fall, but
he felt something wrench in his left ankle as he hit the ground. He
ignored it as best he could and ran painfully back the way he had come
to the park, then out to the street.
Sam's neighbor, Mister Johnson, found Sam limping along Broadway and
offered him a ride home. He told Officer Matheway at the front door
that he was concerned Sam might be in shock. Maybe Sam had gotten into
a fight? Sam's father said he'd probably call a doctor.
Sam eventually told his father he'd found some stuff belonging to Billy
in the woods. The next afternoon, Officer Matheway brought a jacket
back to Murdoch Smith, who positively identified the jacket as Billy's.
Nothing else was found at the site.
"You didn't see anything weird?" asked Sam. "You didn't hear
"No," replied his father. "Like what? What else did you see or hear
"Nothing," said Sam. "I thought I might have heard something, though.
Maybe Billy's voice, but I'm not sure."
His father sighed. "Okay. But don't talk about anything like that
unless you're sure. We don't want to upset folks anymore than they
But I am sure, Dad, though Sam. I know what I saw. You won't believe
it, though, anymore than anyone else.
His ankle was just strained, and mended well after a few days. He
didn't hear any more strange sounds near his house or from the woods,
and he believed his Dad when the man said he'd seen nothing other than
the jacket. That only confirmed that Sam would never tell anyone what
he saw that day.
Not even when his mother insisted he talk to a psychologist. Sam just
acted normal and talked to the man about anything except what he'd seen
that day, when he fell across what must have been a huge cocoon: One
that writhed with boneless life, and hummed softly to itself in the
damp murky wood. When he'd looked through that transparent covering
into the wet and pulsing interior.
And looked into the horrified eyes of what had once been Billy
"Wicked, wicked boys! Such wickedness must be punished!"