Everybody ate breakfast together at the kitchen table—followed by coffee, tea and biscuits. It was a quiet, early affair.
Then Eva sat down for chess with Godwin, which was a regular tradition at Bane House. Eva knew little of the game.
Godwin was so obsessed with the play―he even insisted visitors bring him a challenge. She was glad to oblige him.
Toward the end of it―Godwin had just finished pushing a pawn to the other side—when Eva replaced it with his Queen—and the piece suddenly turned silver.
Gasping―she touched it—but it reformed into marble. Smirking—she thought she was imagining like she did.
Seven leaned in, rubbing her back.
“So who is winning?” he inquired.
“Godwin is totally kicking my butt.”
“It’s only because I play everyday,” Godwin remarked—pushing another pawn across. He loved the feeling of a win.
Thunder boomed in the distance.
“Is it always this stormy here?”
“Usually,” Seven said, pulling back from Eva now—rememembering that their every embrace risked exposure to Faye.
The thunder then died out again.
“It’s your move,” Godwin said, but Eva suddenly felt sick―and cupping her mouth, she excused herself—up off to use the washroom. She skipped away lightly.
Seven stood up to follow her out, but then he changed his mind. He sat.
“Quite the mortal you got there,” Olin quipped dryly, winking from over at the counter—where he was eating bloody steak. Odds of him being polite thinned.
“Thank you.” Seven knew the drill.
“I’ve got a date tonight you know … With that Alterman girl.” He winked long.
“Really? I thought that you had something against human beings at all.”
Olin sneered at the gibe, coiling up. “She’s changeling … She’s a lot like us.”
“Are you trying to say that she doesn’t know what she really wants …?”
Olin shook his head. “She sheds her skin for me only. She knows what she wants and she shows her true self to me.”
Seven felt taken aback—for such a tender moment was so rare with his brother. But he was not surprised to find out something was different about that Alterman girl—for her family had always seemed a bit off to him—every bit def iffy.
Godwin nodded from behind the counter. “We found out last fall that the Altermans had more in common with us than we ever knew. Go figure, after all those years. It’s always last you suspect.”
“Isn’t it difficult to love someone like that?” Seven asked Olin. “Just like you.”
“It’s wonderful. She’s a different woman every time I see her. A charm.”
“Sounds familiar,” Godwin grumbled.
“But really not so different in the end,” Seven said. “Than a human girl.”
Marietta started collecting the dishes. “So what is on your agenda, Seven?” she asked. She knew better.
“I thought we might take a hike.”
“You and Eva? What about Her?” she said, scowling at the woods out the window. She knew better what it entailed.
Seven shrugged. “We got through the night alright—so I’m sure that we’ll be just fine.” But he was wrong, so very off.
“What if She’s waiting for you …?”
“I didn’t bring Eva all the way to French’s Forest not to show her where I used to spend my life … You remember those days right? When you couldn’t get me to stay indoors—even for just one night?” He knew that would settle it all.
“How could we forget …” Godwin chimed in, arms crossed, beaming—as Olin nodded, recalling. They cast back.
“Okay―if your mind is set on it—then I will pack you a picnic,” Marietta said, setting about her task. She strutted.
“Just remember … Never stray from the Ruddy Stroll,” Godwin warned in turn.
“We will be careful.” Seven smirked.
Eva returned and finished the game.
When they were done, Godwin gave her a grand embrace, before heading off to take a morning nap. Truth was weary.
Olin bantered with Seven while they got ready to go. He was a blunt fellow.
“Whatever you do,” Marietta whispered as she hugged Eva close. “Do not ever dare hold his hand outdoors.”
“Um … Excuse me? I don’t …”
“Please, dear―let me explain …” Marietta said, clearing her throat. “We try to keep to ourselves … Out of the gossip mill around here … But as you might guess … As you might very well imagine.
“A settlement like this becomes a festering ground for rumor. I can just imagine now what they would say to see the Bane boy back from the city with a new girl dressed like—well … You,” she said, gesturing to Eva’s attire. “How girls dress in the city … It is so slutty looking.”
Eva blushed, looking down at the plunging neckline of her dark blouse—side-slit, mid-thigh length skirt―and black stockings. Her dress was not overly revealing—but she guessed that Marietta’s standards were different by generations.
“So the neighbours should not ask any questions. I have called them each up and told them you are just friends.”
Eva frowned, now quite insulted.
Once they were outside, setting off on the trail, she brought it up with Seven—who tried to diffuse the affront at once.
“It’s just Marietta being her usual control freak self. Imagine growing up with that. At least you had the absence.”
“It is so embarrassing, can’t you do anything about it? We’re grown human beings … We should all be peaceful …
“We should be able to hold each other’s hands if we are in love. Are you afraid of standing up to her or something? Don’t you want her to know you love me?”
“No—no … No … It’s not that at all, babe … We just have to humour her—okay? She means well, I promise you … She will warm up. Give her ten years.”
“Come on … She’s never going to know …” Eva said, grabbing over at Seven’s hand. She was so frustrated.
He pulled back. “Yes, she will …” he said—then sighed, composing himself. “She will see it in my face. It is just for this one weekend—okay? Please babe.
“Honest hun, I will be right here by your side the entire time—alright? Do it for me? Do you understand I love you?”
Eva shoved him. “Fine—jerk.”
“Okay—jerk. Be that way then.”
“Okay—asshole. But I love you.”
“I love you too. You know I do.”
“But this is a sign we will not last.”
“Wait … Never say that, not ever.”
“But I can’t help how I feel Seven.”
“You’re just being stubborn today.”
“Well I will try to love you forever.”
So they followed the Ruddy Stroll for some time, enjoying the birdsong and babbling brooks. It was nature tripping.
Languidly laying all about the way the wood rolled—the path took them on a scenic slide through paradise. The Forest had not yet lost all of the warmer trappings of fall—and light dustings of snow in places reminded them that they were indeed only at winter’s doorstep.
Blue skies and fluffy white clouds betrayed no ugly underbelly of the long nights soon to come. It was Shangrila.
But Seven knew it was only a wonderland until the sun went down—when spirits of every ill ilk came out to play—when interdimensional chaos ensued. The terrible underbelly awaited.
Still yet, it did feel good to be home—and he could hardly believe how every old memory was now resurfacing to him—putting him back there. He recalled it all.
They came to the old Harrington lot, where the Ruddy Stroll ran along the highway a dozen yards, before it forked back toward the Payne and Miramar.
Just then Sheriff Tony Trollope pulled up. He was a gruff, tough fellow.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said—flipping up the shades on his dark glasses. “If it isn’t Seven Bane in the living flesh … How have you been kid? It’s been ages.”
“Just fine Tony … Long time … You still been keeping an eye on the family for me? All old promises as good as gold?”
“Twice a day, just like always …
“I know they appreciate it much.”
“It’s all in the job—kid. My duty.
“I pull up until Marietta flicks the lights twice … 10 am & pm, five days a week—beginning and ending every shift.
“Then sometimes on the weekends I swing by for some tea and to catch up. They’ve been telling me all about your adventures in New London and Old York.”
“That’s good. I think I’m finally happy where I am now—after all those years of being so lost … So very lost.
“I have to say, those are some hard hours. You sure you’re not working too much? I can’t have you down and out.”
“It’s just through Christmas. I gotta build up the nest-egg, you see … Simone’s expecting now. It’s all over.”
“Wow! No way? Congratulations!”
“That’s wonderful,” Eva interjected.
“Tony—this is my girlfriend, Eva.”
Tony nodded, tipping his hat her way. “Ma’am, I can say too much, too soon. Please just know this man is good.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Eva intoned.
“Feeling’s mutual,” Tony drifted off.
“So a boy or girl …?” Seven reset.
“We don’t know yet … It was a surprise, to be honest … It seems surreal, but it was a real great gift from God. We feel really blessed for all of it.”
“Listen, Seven … I’ve seen that Alterman girl going around with your brother there lately … I must say …”
Seven rubbed his chin. “So I heard. But don’t worry. Things will work out.”
“Well, her family asked me to keep an eye on them. Not because they don’t trust your brother―but because Aly has a history of seizures. They’re concerned …
“Plus with the coyotes being worse this year―they really shouldn’t be tramping all around the Forest all night long. It’s not safe for anyone out there—yourself excluded, of course—and maybe Old Man Morrissey. The woods are wild.
“You’re the only one I never worried about, no matter how long you’d been reported missing,” he said with a chuckle, shaking his head, still in amazement.
Seven chuckled. “I spent a lot of time out there—but Olin can take care of himself, without a doubt.” He shrugged.
“Well I found them down at Evyl Falls one night last month—and I warned them about testing fate when the river was racing. But damned if—just like I saw coming—I didn’t catch them out there the following week—when even Old Boathouse was closed for inclement weather.”
“Well—I’m sure you know how young lovers are,” Seven offered. “I know that they appreciated your concern—but Olin knows his way around French’s Forest just as well as me. He’s a big boy.”
“Just tell him three things for me,” Tony insisted. “Be safe—stay alert—and above all … be a gentleman,” he said, winking. Of course Olin could never at all.
“Of course …” Seven said right off.
“Listen, Seven,” Tony said—flipping down his shades again. “We’ve got a black bear on our hands here, a few miles down … It’s been keeping us on our toes. The boys are calling him the Old Hellbear.”
“Oh my God,” Eva exclaimed aloud.
“Not to worry, love … He’s on the other side of the river. We’ve had our eye on him all week, waiting for a tracker from the city to come up. Not too long now.”
“Should we turn back? We were just going to do the loop through the woods—and have a quick picnic. We can stop.”
“No, you’re fine. You know these woods better than I do … But do you have a cell phone just in case? I can call you if we lose track of Hellbear for any reason. I’ll keep you in the loop on it all.”
“Sure, of course. Here’s my number anyway. Ring me up next time you pass through Old York … I’ve got a few pubs in town that I want to introduce you to old man. Ever heard of New London Dark? I think you will like it.”
“Never tried that brew. Sure thing, kid. Nice to meet you, Eva.” He winked.
“You as well, Sheriff.” She waved.
“Please … Tony,” he insisted.
“Oh …” he said—slowing as he pulled away. “Do me a favor and stop in at the Alterman’s on your way home? They haven’t been answering their phone all morning—and I haven’t had a chance to stop by … I’m sure everything is fine.
“Warn them about our big furry friend? I don’t want people to panic.”
“Sure thing!” Seven said—waving him away. Bears barely even fazed him.
They watched Tony roll off down the highway. He was a good fit for the Forest.
They took the Ruddy Stroll back into the woods―walking on for awhile without speaking. Eva was slightly tense from the thought of a bear creeping between trees.
The day was already beginning badly—and Seven found himself wondering if the walk was really a good idea after all. But it was too late to deliberate now, so he just kept one foot ahead of another on the path as it unfolded, training on trust.
After fifteen minutes or so, when they rounded a sharp corner, Eva thought that she saw a dark mass moving between the trees in the distance—and she clung to Seven suddenly. He had no heart to break her hold even though she had jolted him.
“Seven … look …” she said, but when she pointed where she saw the beast go by, the thing was already gone.
They stopped for a few seconds to catch their calm, but soon decided it was just the jitters—and so they continued on.
He let her hold his hand for a bit—beginning to think that everything was going to be alright—when suddenly the skies darkened—and clouds rolled on in.
The breeze cooled—whistling eerily as it thread through the cracks and crannies of the crooked trees calling out.
Eva shivered—and Seven put his arm around her waist for comfort. The chill had fallen like a wall. Faye was nigh.
“Feels like Death just blew in …” Eva’s voice curdled, shudders running up her spine. This was her final Forest trip.
“Forecast said it would pass over,” Seven said reassuringly, squeezing hand.
But before the rains could end, they would begin. The couple tried to wait it out under a tree―when Eva again spotted something passing through the woods, a hundred yards off. This time she jumped a foot up, screaming at Seven to look out.
“Did you see that?” she said. “In the bush there … It looked like a … a … bear … Oh my god, Seven—it looked like a bear. What are we going to do? Babe?”
“Now calm down. Are you sure?”
But then he spotted it as well, as it plodded beyond a distant stand of trees.
It sat up on its hind legs just then—massive and menacing. It snapped its head around, staring right in their direction. They saw now why ‘Hellbear’ was a fitting description, down to tooth.
“What should we do?” Eva said—breathless. Her heart beat hard in cage.
“If anything we play dead—but just hold … on …” he said, needing to think.
The bear soon lost interest in them—starting to roam away—deeper into the woods. It was a black bear, less hostile.
They began back, better safe now.
Seven dialed Tony out of precaution.
“Goddamn it,” Tony said. “There must be two of them then, because we just finished trapping one up here. Thanks kid, get straight home. We’re on our way. Remember you can play dead.”
So they kept up the pace for the first little bit, just to make sure enough space was kept between them and Hellbear—before slowing down to a slightly more relaxed gait, in order to catch lungs back.
But a dozen yards along, they suddenly heard an awful wailing sound. The bear was following behind them now, ambling along on all fours down the road.
“Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God,” Eva rang out, beginning to panic.
“Let’s keep moving, he doesn’t see us yet,” Seven said—but Eva would not budge. She stood frozen in her footsteps.
The bear stopped then―once more rose up on its hinds legs—continuing to wail like the winds of hell where burning.
It started frothing at the mouth as if it were raving rabid―and clawing at its face with a fervor as if it were of madness.
“Seven—what the Hell is going on? What the fuck is that? What the fuck?”
“Let’s go … We don’t want to find out, come on …” Seven begged—pulling her, but she shoved him back, unmoving.
“Seven—STOP IT!” she yelled, eyes turning green. “YOU MUST STOP THIS!”
“Eva why …” Seven said distracted, not noticing the color change in her eyes.
“What if it’s in trouble,” she said—casting her gaze back, as if in the trance of a motherly attentiveness, of evil doting.
“EVA!” Seven snapped at her, but she was unblinking. “EVA!” he barked.
Then Hellbear started to tear fur and skin from its face—blood streaming down―revealing silver skull beneath flesh.
Eva gasped―fainting into Seven’s arms. Her conscious mind could not hold.
Seven lowered her to the road―even while struggling to contain his own burgeoning panic. Witch had landed.
Hellbear cried like a banshee, skinning itself alive, until it was just a silver skeleton of a bear, standing on the road in a pool of blood, a demonic frame.
Then its feral lament turned to laughter—and Faye’s voice began singing:
‘Lucky …! Lucky …!!! Lu-u-u-cky!!!’
Seven grabbed around for the smelling salts. Instinctually he knew what to do. He knew he needed Eva to wake.
‘Lucky …! Lu-u-u-cky … … …!!!’
He brought Eva back to consciousness—and after her eyes fluttered open, the sick singing suddenly stopped. The air was unnaturally cold.
He looked up, but Hellbear had disappeared. He was not sure it was real.
Eva’s first words were: “You saw it too―right?” She looked drained to death.
He hated deceiving her―but in the fleeting moment, he rationalized that it would be easier on them both if she believed she were simply seeing things—and that this was all just another one of her visions. The truth would be too much.
So out of a sudden reflex, he said:
“Saw what, babe? It’s just us here. You fainted out of the blue, so I think we should get you home and call it a night.”
“But … The bear … The horrible …”
“What bear, babe? Just relax now.”
(Author’s Note: If you are enjoying The Silverskin, you can buy the full 400 page Revised & Expanded 10th Anniversary edition paperback here. Forever Yours In French’s Forest, Rian Torr)