I'm an avid archer, have been for years, but I don't go shooting in the woods anymore.
I grew up in a sprawling city down in Florida, far away from anything that even half resembled wilderness. The most interaction I had with forests was a hiking trail through some young trees behind my old elementary school.
We moved to Virginia a few years back, and the experience changed. The Northern Virginia area is a weird mix of urban and rural, with larger cities like Arlington backing right up to hundreds of miles of forest. From my apartment, I can drive twenty minutes in any direction and be surround by either high rises or old growth forests.
The club I joined when we first came here bordered on one of these forests, tucked into its own plot of woodland reserved for meandering archery ranges. The neighboring national park boasted hiking and bike trails, a lake for canoeing, and a campground or two, but I never had much reason to go any further past the park entrance than the club. Sixty acres is plenty when all you want to do is practice your aim.
It's also just enough to get you good and lost before dark.
You can laugh, but the terrain's all steep hills and woods, with only a thin trail carved out for archers. It's great practice for hunters, but if you've misjudged the light you've got left or just don't know the trail well enough, it's easy to lose your way. We used to tell people that no matter which way you went, you'd hit civilization, so they shouldn't worry too much if they got turned around - but we also warned each other to not start the trails late in the afternoon, and to never go alone unless you knew your way around.
When I'd been around for some time, the club came to need some instructors and someone to show new folks the ropes. I'd become familiar with the ranges, so I volunteered. It required a lot of personal time, in particular because not many people liked to volunteer for the tournaments. There was always something that needed to be done, and eventually I started working registration instead of shooting.
It was in the early afternoon as one of the tournaments was winding down that an elderly man returned from the ranges, red-faced and sweating from the early August heat. I was concerned, of course; many of the men who joined the club tended to be older, and the demographic skewed towards the poorer folks in the area. There were more than a few heart conditions that went untreated because of a surplus of pride, a dearth of money, or both. He seemed to recover once I handed him a bottle of water and he caught his breath, however. He sat back in one of the stained, repurposed chairs in the clubhouse, dragged off his hat, and fanned himself with the brim. His white hair stuck up in odd patches, darkened a little with sweat.
After a moment, I turned the knobs on the ancient wall-mounted air conditioner, hoping it would grant me a favor and kick on. It didn't, of course. What little air it blew smelled of must and was no cooler than the air occasionally blowing in through the front door. The little clapboard clubhouse was a furnace, but at least it provided shade.
At last, he broke the silence. "You got Todd's number?"
"Yeah." Todd was one of the longer-standing members of the club, heavily invested in bringing it into the twenty-first century, and I previously had collaborated with him to update the website.
"Tell him we've got a problem down by target thirteen."
I sighed, pulling out my phone with a shake of my head. Target thirteen on the 3-D range was the life-sized foam alligator by the creek bed. Sometimes the water rose high enough that the stupid thing looked like it was actually submerged, and archers complained frequently about its positioning. Without looking up to verify, I asked, "Is it swimming again?"
"Different problem," he answered shortly, but not unkindly. I raised my eyes to see him dragging one flannel sleeve across his forehead, leaving behind in its wake a streak of sweat and dirt. "Tell him John says. He'll know what it's about."
That irritated me. I didn't like being left out of the loop; I'd put in enough time with the club that I felt in that moment as though I somehow deserved an explanation. These good old boys, though, I thought bitterly. Looking back, I wish I'd just left well enough alone.
Despite my desire to press for more information, I sent Todd a short text: "john says problem on 13" and nothing more. His reply of "o.k." was more immediate than I would have guessed; after all, he was out on the course himself and usually ignored his phone until he was done. It elicited a curious "huh" from me. I looked up to let my companion know that Todd had gotten the message, but he was already standing to leave. He scratched at his white thatch of hair before putting his hat back on, then headed out the door into the stagnant afternoon heat.
I followed, watching his retreating back and silently entertaining the feeling that something seemed off about all this.
"You didn't turn in your score," I reminded him before he got too far. He didn't slow, and only half-glanced back to reply, "Didn't finish."
It was only after he climbed into the cab of his truck and drove off across the gravel parking lot that I realized he hadn't been carrying a bow.
Shoots tend to last from early in the morning until well into the afternoon, so by the time Todd strolled into the clubhouse later that day, deeply engaged in teasing his wife about her miss on the 23rd target, I had forgotten the incident from earlier. Truth be told, it hadn't stood out much to me at the time: shit happens on the ranges. A "problem" on a target could be anything from an uprooted stake to a deer carcass, so I had immediately turned my attention to other matters once I'd passed the information along to Todd.
Now, he turned to me, still laughing, and rapped his knuckles on the table where I sat. "Hey, you going to be here for a while? I dropped my phone out there this morning. Can you let Mark know to look for it when he goes out again?"
"Sure," I answered, then immediately glanced up at him, confused. "This morning?"
"Probably, yeah." He didn't look at me as he turned to help his wife break down her equipment.
"You got my text about thirteen, though, right?"
He didn't pause in his work, but I noticed him frown slightly at the mention of the target. "Nope, sure didn't."
"Someone has your phone then," I said, scrolling through the sent messages on my own to show him the conversation. He set the bow aside and read through the texts, then replied, "Oh, yeah - sure. Guess I forgot."
I caught his wife watching with the same tight frown, but when I met her eyes, she looked away under the pretense of looking for something in her bag. No longer concerned with packing up, Todd picked up his bow and took off outside, heading for his truck. There, he produced a heavy-duty flashlight from the cab, then exchanged a brief conversation with a couple of cheerful, burly men just coming up from the range. I couldn't hear what was said, but their laughter died quickly, replaced by frowns and tightened grips on their bows. Together, the three of them strode off into the woods, in the direction of the path that led down to the midpoint of the 3-D range - target 13.
I turned back to Todd's wife - a slender woman named Karen - and raised my brows in a questioning way. She shrugged with a forced smile and commented dryly, "Men."
Seeing that she would have to remain waiting for Todd to return, I grabbed my own bow and took off at a run, ignoring her protests and hoping I could catch up with the guys and find out just what the hell was going on.
I thought they'd tell me to go on back to the clubhouse; there was a certain pervasively negative mentality in the club about women, and I had often been on the receiving end of jokes about my monthlies, my emotional stability, my strength, and so on, but when they heard me jogging to catch up, none of the guys said anything at all. They exchanged glances as though silently debating whether to make me turn back, but seemed to come to a consensus. To this day, I don't know for sure if it was because I had finally earned my keep with them, or because they felt safer with more people.
I think it was the latter. Either way, I wish they'd sent me back.
The "path" was more of a "shortcut", and not a well-kept one. I followed them down the hill towards the creek, slipping only once and grabbing saplings with my free hand to keep myself from taking a more severe tumble. Though a slide down the hill usually resulted in boisterous laughter from onlookers, particularly when it left a muddy trail down the backside of the unfortunate victim's jeans, today none of the men said anything.
I sensed a tension here, a nervousness that I had never experienced before from such a hardened group of people. One of them travelled extensively to hunt exotic game, and another had served two tours in Iraq. I didn't think anything could rattle them, but they were rattled now.
When we reached the creek, I was surprised to see nothing there. No deer, no beer cans, nothing. The alligator lay submerged up to its feet in the muddy water, and around it were dozens of footprints from the archers who had come and gone. The only strange thing I noticed was Todd's phone sitting on its back. I picked it up and looked it over, then held it out to Todd with a shrug. He didn't seem to want to take it, but when he did he immediately opened the camera application, and for just a second, I thought he wanted to take a picture. Instead, he opened the gallery and swiped through the photos.
Then swiped back to the most recent, and passed the camera to one of the other men.
"Bullshit," he said disbelievingly, scowling, and I moved to look over the other guy's shoulder as he, too, had a look at what the phone contained.
It was taken like a bad selfie: two extraordinarily pale teenagers, peering into the camera, neither smiling. At first, I was annoyed; it meant kids from the campground or the local houses were sneaking onto the range and screwing with the archers. It took me a moment to notice that the men seemed more disturbed than angry - and that the eyes of the teenagers in the photo were completely black.