Jeremy was standing at the kitchen sink when he heard it - a bloodcurdling scream that erupted from the forest and shattered the quiet August night. Jeremy abandoned the glass of water in midair and dashed across the slick tile floor. As the glass crashed into the sink, he found the dining room table leg with his little toe. He yelped and stumbled into one of the chairs, sending it scraping across the floor. Tangling his foot around another chair leg, he tumbled over it and finally plunged to the floor.
Down the hall, a door squealed on its hinges, and Dad's voice boomed from his room.
"What's going on out there? That you, Jeremy?"
"Nothing," Jeremy said through clenched teeth. He cradled his little toe. "I was up getting a drink, and I tripped over a chair."
Dad grunted. "You hurt?"
"No." Jeremy pushed away from the floor. "Just stubbed my toe a little." He limped down the hall to his room. After all the teasing he had endured over the screech owl incident, he wasn't about to say anything more about the night sounds of their new country home. What could they expect out of a thirteen-year-old city boy, anyway? It wasn't his idea to move out to this uncivilized country.
The night was still outside his open bedroom window. Not even a cricket chirped. He crawled into bed and pulled the covers over his head. He'd feel better if a car would drive by, or a helicopter would fly over. But not many cars traveled that rocky dirt road, and nothing in this empty farmland would rouse the interest of a helicopter pilot.
He threw the covers back and gasped for air. It was too hot to stay under those covers, and whatever he heard out there was probably gone by now anyway. He rolled over and closed his eyes. It was probably some stupid farm animal.
Finally, exhaustion pushed back the still hot night, and he dozed. No more had he fallen asleep, but the night came alive with another hideous scream. This time he was certain it was a terrified woman.
He threw back the sheets and leaped from the bed. "Mom?" He cried as he darted across the room and threw his door open.
Dad's sleepy voice growled from their room again. "What is it this time? Another screech owl?"
"No." He hesitated. "I guess I must have been dreaming. I thought Mom screamed."
"Go back to bed, boy. Your mother is fine. I told you not to watch those scary movies before you went to bed."
Jeremy stood by the door. Was it possible that Dad didn't hear the scream? Had it been a dream? Of course not. He hadn't been asleep in the kitchen. Something was out there in the night - and it wasn't any farm animal. Of that he was certain. Then what?
He slowly pushed the door shut, and then on second thought, pushed it open a little. Maybe next time they'd hear it. In any case, the open door would make escape a little faster. He crept back to his bed and crawled under the sheets, drawing them up under his chin. He stared out the black window. No moon - no light. What was out there? Could it be a Bigfoot? Did the hairy monster wander the wild Arkansas forest as well as the wilderness of the northwest? Could the monster get into the house? He slipped out of bed and closed his bedroom window. The heat would be easier to bear than the night sounds, anyway.
Jeremy didn't get much sleep that night, and he was up in time to eat breakfast with Dad before he left for work. Dad stared at him over a cup of steaming coffee, his eyes red rimmed.
"You'd better not watch television before you go to bed tonight. Why don't you and Dustin go down to the creek today and catch some fish for supper? When I was a kid, I didn't waste a good summer vacation day watching television."
Jeremy rolled his eyes. "Oh Dad, there aren't any fish in that creek worth catching."
Dad sipped his coffee and grimaced as he swallowed the hot liquid. "Dustin fishes there all the time. He catches fish. Maybe you should ask him to show you how. Don't be thinking you're smarter than him just because you come from a big city."
There wasn't any point arguing with Dad. Dustin was a lot of fun, but he was nothing but a country hick. Anyway, the only fish in that creek were slimy catfish - and Dustin could have them all. Oh, what he'd give to meet the boys down at the mall. Country living was boring with a capital B.
All the same, when Dustin came over that morning, they each grabbed a pole and headed for the creek. Anything beat staring at the walls. Without cable, there was nothing to watch on television.
The thick green water of the creek served as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, but the shade of the old oak tree provided relief from the hot sun.
Jeremy threw his line into the water and leaned against the tree trunk. He glanced at Dustin, who was sprawled out in the weeds.
"Do you think there's such a thing as a Bigfoot?"
Dustin gnawed on a blade of grass thoughtfully.
"I cain't say they ain't no such thing, but I ain't never seen one." He rolled his head to the side and eyed Justin suspiciously. "Ya think ya saw one?"
Jeremy felt his face get hot and looked away. "I heard something last night. It sounded like a woman screaming. Only it wasn't a woman. I'm sure it was some kind of animal. I just don't know what."
Dustin was quiet for a long time, and when Jeremy chanced a glance at the boy, he was smiling. Dustin pulled his line from the water. "Come on. I'll show you something I found this morning."
Jeremy reeled in his line and anxiously followed Dustin through the underbrush along the creek bank. Finally Dustin stopped and kneeled, pointing at a track in the mud beside the creek.
"Here's what made that sound."
Jeremy knelt beside Dustin and stared at the track. He'd seen a lot of tracks like that in the city, only they weren't that big. He glanced at Dustin skeptically.
"A cat? How'd you do that?"
Dustin snorted. "A big cat," he answered, ignoring the inference. "A cougar."
Jeremy felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck. He glanced around the underbrush nervously.
"Should we be out here? I mean, isn't it dangerous?"
Dustin stood and shrugged. "Mostly they hunt at night. Anyways, they're as skeered of you as you are of them. If you worry about everything that might hurt you, you'll never get to enjoy the country. Jist be careful and never go out alone at night."
Good advice - even for the city. He glanced around the forest with new interest. What else was out there? What would Archie say when he wrote him about the big cat? His gaze went full circle and came back to Dustin. Maybe his new country friend wasn't so uneducated after all. There was plenty here to learn, and think of the stories he'd have to tell when he saw his city friends again.
He gave Dustin a brave grin. "I wasn't scared, I just wondered what it was. You reckon we'll ever see one of those cats?
Dustin shrugged again. "I ain't goin' lookin' for one, if that's what you got in mind. Jist remember, they're wild animals. They ain't likely to bother you if you leave them alone, but sure as you foller them, they'll figger you're up to no good. Then they kin git mean." He tipped his head to the side. "I gotta pet baby raccoon. Ya wanna see it?"
"Raccoon? Sure." Now that was something worth writing home about.
This story can be purchased in the collection of short youth stories "YOUTH YARNS."