Innocent Doubt – By T. A. Fenner
A muffled beep sounded from the hip of Jacob’s overalls, drawing a heavy sigh from the tiny hunter. He slipped a hand inside the pocket and pulled free an army-green wrist watch.
His brother’s watch.
Jacob stared at the timepiece as his thumb traced its circular edge. Dave… After a hard swallow, Jacob checked the time.
‘You be sure to get back here by one o’clock,’ Mother had said when she ushered him out the door. ‘It’ll do you good to get out of the house, get some fresh air, and… well, just to do something.’
Jacob gave the watch a little squeeze and then slipped it back inside his pocket. He hoisted his feather-light rifle off his lap and rolled up to his feet to steal another look over the entirety of the forest.
In the musty thicket, rabbits scurried about the ground, mowing down the last hints of green before the frost consumed them all. Squirrels danced across the treetops, darting through the clumps of dying leaves as they foraged for winter. And birds knifed through the air in a ballet of twists, swoops, and dives.
They all looked so… happy.
His thoughts drifted to his rifle. If he wanted, he could have his limit in less than a minute. Five if he decided to take his time. He and Dave had taken great care to acclimate the forest to their presence and the sound of gunfire, so when they wanted to actually hunt, the critters wouldn’t run. They’d just go about their business, allowing the boys to go about theirs — even if it meant cutting a few of them down.
But his heart just wasn’t in it, not today. He had tried, several times in fact, to make a kill. Just a single squirrel would’ve made Mother happy. But every time he locked onto a target, his finger wouldn’t pull the trigger.
Jacob slung the twenty-two over his shoulder, collected his empty game sack and headed towards home.
At the forest’s edge, Jacob took one last look into the shadowy labyrinth of trees, bushes and valleys. For all its life and motion, it somehow seemed empty, hollow. A deflating huff escaped Jacob’s lips as he turned to begin the long, lonely trudge home.
Jacob retrieved the watch and glanced at the time. Over thirty minutes had passed, doubling the time it normally took to exit their favorite hunting spot. At this rate, it would take him another forty to traverse the hilly lane leading to the house. He’d be late, very late. He’d probably get into a whole heap of trouble. Maybe even earn a few whacks from Mother’s favorite paddle.
But Jacob didn’t care. He was in no hurry to get home. Not now. Not ever.
He returned the watch to his hip pocket, then pushed his way through the thick, shoulder-high weeds until his boots crunched onto gravel.
Jacob eyed the long, empty lane in both directions, before turning towards home. Not that he expected anyone to come driving his way. No one ever comes to their house, not unless they have to. But something in him always made him look.
He slogged along, kicking random hunks of rock out of his way before hopping over one of the many crevices carved deep into the gravel by heavy rains.
He and Dave used to have a blast damming up the crevices, making small pools in the middle of the lane for tadpole homes (which the landlord didn’t much appreciate). Sometimes they’d take out some toy soldiers and pretend they were on safari in the Amazon, crossing deadly torrents, killing crocodiles and giant snakes, and dodging cannibal warriors. David used to come up with all kinds of stories, turning every playtime into an adventure, each one better than the last. Beyond everything else, storytelling was David’s most special gift.
I miss you so much, Jacob thought, sniffling back some runny snot.
Jacob shook his head and tried to think of other things. But with each step, his mind drifted back to his big brother — to the pranks and all the games they played, the hunts and adventures, and best of all, the quiet moments they’d shared, revealing their inner most thoughts, fears, and feelings.
Jacob slowed to a stop. His hand slipped in and out of his pocket. With both hands, he cradled his brother’s watch near his stomach. Jacob’s legs wobbled for a second, then he dropped to his knees. His breath grew short, ragged. He clasped his hands around the watch and held it to his forehead as tears streamed down his face.
“Why God? Why? You could have taken anyone. Why him?” Jacob’s pleas choked away, as the pain of his brother’s death coiled in his throat. “You’re…you’re probably not even real.”
A soft wind whipped up, blowing away the gritty smell of gravel and replacing it with the supple, sweet scent of late blooming lilacs in the valley. The lilac soothed his aching throat, allowing him to finally take in a deep breath. After a few more and a sniffle or two, Jacob returned to his feet and reluctantly trudged on.
The tears may have been gone now, but they’d be back once they got to the funeral home. The second he got back to the house, they’d head into town and take part in the horrifying ritual of people crying over Dave’s body. Jacob had seen such a ceremony last year right after his thirteenth birthday. Grandma had died and they all went to see her body. Mother made Dave and him go up to her casket, even though they had never known her, and say a little prayer. But Jacob didn’t pray. The dead body grossed him out too much to pray.
Jacob didn’t want people hovering over Dave, being grossed out like that. Didn’t seem right. They should just bury him; let him go up to heaven. To play games and pranks with the angels.
The valley wind grew strong, whipping in Jacob’s ears as he stumbled once more to a stop. His shoulders went limp, causing the game sack and rifle to slip off and fall to the ground. Jacob threw his arms out wide and looked to the sky. “God, tell me he is with you! Please!”
The wind gusted, twisting the treetops and Jacob spun about, searching the skies.
“God, I can’t…I can’t do this. Please!”
The wind stopped in that moment, as if someone had flipped off a switch.
Jacob lowered his arms and blinked hard as he looked about the still trees. Questions coursed through his head. Did he just see what he thought he saw? Was he crazy or possibly dreaming? Did God actually hear him?
After a few seconds of listening to the calming buzz of insects, Jacob decided it all had to be a coincidence, just a lucky (or perhaps unlucky) bit of timing. God certainly didn’t make the wind stop simply because Jacob asked Him to.
“It was nothing,” Jacob said, sneering skyward. “Just a little wind.”
Jacob collected his rifle and sack, slung them over each shoulder, then stomped onward up the next hill in the lane. As he moved, he teased himself over and over for acting like such a fool, for being such a superstitious ninny. By the time he reached the top of the hill, he let out a belly laugh and said, “I’m such an idiot. Believing in such nonsense. They should lock me up in the loony bin.”
He kicked another boulder, rocketing it down the hill until it plunged into the ditch.
An all-white rabbit leapt from the spot, launching from the tall grass to the center of the lane in a single bound.
Jacob paused for a moment, contemplating whether or not to blast the thing dead, to empty his rifle into its flesh until nothing remained but a bloody pile of mush. But instead, he cocked his head to the side and said, “A little early for your winter coat, isn’t it?”
He expected the rabbit to dart away as rabbits often do at the sound of a human’s voice. But it sat there, staring at him with the blackest of eyes.
Jacob decided to have a little fun with his new, fuzzy little friend. Using a slow, deliberate step, he sauntered toward the rabbit. “Tell me there, Mr. Fuzzy. Does God really exist?” He paused his advance, raising a cupped hand to his ear as he leaned over to listen. “Oh, he does, does he?” Jacob fanned out his hands and waved them about like a preacher leading a sermon. “Well then, he should be able to prove it, right? If you would be so kind, please ask him to make the wind blow again?”
Jacob’s cocky smile vanished when a gust of wind burst up the lane, leveling the tall weeds like an invisible rolling pin until it punched Jacob in the chest. He flew backward and slammed onto his back against the course gravel. Stunned, but his wits still about him, he pushed himself up, only to be flattened once more by another gust of wind. Leaves whipped all around, swirling like a flocks of birds avoiding a predator. The trees above twisted and bent, followed by the sharp cracks of wood exploding under extreme stress.
Shielding his face from wind and debris, Jacob whispered, “This can’t be real. It can’t be.” But as the wind howled louder, he could think of only one thing to do. “God,” Jacob called out as loud as he could, “if you’re real, if you truly exist, please stop the wind.”
And like before, the whipping wind faded in an instant, leaving nothing but the buzzing of insects and the fragrance of lilac.
Jacob lowered his trembling hands. The trees above him had been stripped of every leaf, all of which now blanketed the ground around him. After checking for injuries, Jacob leapt to his feet and launched into a dead sprint for home, but he froze after his first few steps.
Resting in the middle of the lane, in exactly the same spot as before, rested the white rabbit. Why didn’t it bolt during with the wind? It’s lucky it hadn’t died in the excitement as stressed animals can sometimes do. But its little head stood tall, its body pulsing with rhythmic breath as if nothing had happened. As if finally acknowledging his presence, the rabbit slowly twisted its head and angled a single eye to Jacob.
Jacob considered running around the creature, maybe even diving into the ditch and cutting across the field to avoid it. But something in its stare held him in place. Nothing sinister, the opposite in fact. Something in the dark pool of its eye. Jacob couldn’t quite make it out. A reflection perhaps? Something familiar, but lost. A hint, maybe. Whatever it was, he knew he had seen it before.
The rabbit wriggled its nose, twitched an ear, then hopped gingerly into the brush.
From that day on, and for many years after, Jacob visited the forest as often as he could. He even bought the land from his parents when the time had come in order to keep the lands available to him. But he’d long since turned in his rifle for a pair of binoculars, for the only hunt left in him is the hunt for another glimpse of the white rabbit.
Inspired by true events
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