Bittersweet Holiday

an excerpt



Prologue

June 1989



"What were you whispering to Tony about?" Oleg poked his older brother, Pavel, and ignored the glare Pavel sent him.

"Nothing that little boys need to know." Pavel was only three years older than Oleg, but he always acted so superior because he knew it annoyed Oleg. If there was one thing Pavel loved to do, it was tease his little brother.

"I'm not a little boy. I'm ten years old. Ma lets me go to the store by myself," Oleg bragged.

Pavel snorted. "Who cares? Tony and me went somewhere the other night that you're too scared to go."

"I'm not scared." He puffed out his chest, seemingly ready to forget about all the trouble Pavel had gotten him into before by using that same line about being scared.

Oleg stood there while Pavel studied him, judging whether he was old enough to share such important knowledge with. Oleg knew better than to fidget or pester him again because Pavel would walk away and never say another word about it if Oleg didn't stay silent. It was his way of teaching Oleg patience...also he knew it was difficult for the boy to be quiet for long periods of time. Just as it looked as though Oleg would break, Pavel sighed.

"Fine. Tony and I rode out to The Pines the other night."

"Pavel, we're not supposed to go there, especially at night," Oleg reminded him. "Ma and Pa don't like that place. They say it's evil."

"They're old. They're supposed to say that." Pavel dismissed their parents' worry. "We went out there and we saw something." He hid his smile when Oleg leaned in closer.

"What did you see?"

He knew Oleg had heard all the legends of the Jersey Devil--a monster that lived in The Pines. People had been seeing the creature for centuries. Maybe he shouldn't be encouraging Oleg to go looking for the beast, but he couldn't help it. He didn't really believe his brother would go out there in the dark. Plus Pavel didn't believe in the Jersey Devil or any other monster. Shrugging, Pavel got a cagey look on his face.

Oleg reached out and punched him. "Come on. Tell me," he whined.

"You could always go out and see for yourself." With that statement, Pavel wandered off to grab the basketball from Tony's hands and the older boys started shooting hoops.

"Did you tell him about going out to The Pines?" Tony asked a little later as they took a break from the basketball game.

Nodding, Pavel chuckled. "He's probably trying to talk the rest of his gang into going out there one night."

"You know I'm usually up to playing tricks on those little bastards, but sending him out there might not be the best idea." Tony looked uneasy.

"There's nothing out there, Tony. You and I both know it's just stupid hearsay." Pavel dribbled the ball between his legs.

"Whether you believe or not, there is something strange out there, Pav, and little kids shouldn't be wandering around alone anyway."

Pavel huffed. "Fine. I'll keep an eye out and if they go, I'll follow them. Does that make you feel better, worrywart?"

"Not really," Tony muttered, but he was wise enough not to push it.

****

Standing outside the house, Pavel watched as Oleg climbed out his window. Okay...he was impressed that his brother had decided to go against their parents' wishes about staying away from The Pines. His comments about not being old enough probably helped push Oleg over the edge into choosing to break the rules.

He grabbed his bike from where he'd hid it in the bushes so Oleg wouldn't see it. He followed as Oleg pedaled like crazy through his subdivision to where his friends waited for him.

Pavel stood just beyond the circle created by the street light and watched as Oleg and his gang assembled at the corner. Quincey, Warren, and Tad nodded at Oleg when he rode up.

"Where's Abel and Braden?" Oleg asked once he caught his breath.

"They'll be here," Quin told him. "They live the farthest away and it's harder for them to sneak out."

That's true, Pavel thought. Of the six, Abel and Braden's parents were the ones who paid the closest attention to their children, which made it difficult for them to leave the house unnoticed. His gaze went to where Tad was. There was something about the quiet boy that drew Pavel's attention. Maybe it had to do with the fact that Tad didn't really have anyone who gave a shit about him.

When Tad's mother decided to abandon her family, his dad started working longer hours at the factory and drinking himself into a stupor when he was at home. Tad spent more time over at Braden and Abel's house than he did at his own place. Pavel didn't blame him. At least Braden's parents cared about what happened to him.

Right when it appeared they had decided to give up on them and head out, the brothers rode up. No one said anything, just nodded. Oleg took the lead since it was his suggestion to go. Pavel followed as close as he could without them seeing or hearing him.

As they rode closer to their destination, Pavel felt his muscles begin to tense. It was as though someone--or something--watched them approach, and he could admit to himself at least that he didn't want to see anything out in the darkness that night. He'd never admit that to Oleg or anyone else though if he were asked. Being the older brother meant he had to pretend to be brave, even when he didn't feel it.

"We should be getting close," Oleg called back to the rest of them. "My brother, Pavel, told me about this spot where we can find the Jersey Devil."

"What if I don't want to meet the Devil," Braden muttered, and Pavel agreed with Oleg's friend.

They reached a clearing just another mile down the road. Leaving their bikes lying on the grass, the group of six boys wandered around, swinging the beams from their flashlights all over the place. Pavel propped his bike up a little further away and followed them.

"What happens if we see it?" Braden asked Tad softly.

Tad shrugged. "Probably piss ourselves and run screaming back home to our moms."

Pavel snorted then muffled his laughter. He had a feeling Tad was right about that.

Stopping, Braden stared at Tad who stared right back.

"What? You know as well as I do, none of us are going to hang around to chat that thing up." Tad shook his head.

"Get over here, you two," Abel called to them, then waved them back to where the others were gathered.

Once they were all there, Oleg grunted before he said, "I think my brother's full of shit."

Yet there was something out in the woods, no matter what Oleg said. The weight of a gaze burning into Pavel's back as he moved around had been there from the moment the others had stepped into the clearing. The sensation got stronger as he stood there, listening to them talk amongst themselves.

The forest went silent around them, and he didn't like that. One time when he'd gone hunting with Oleg, he'd told him that when the forest creatures go quiet, it meant there was a bigger predator out hunting.

He tried to call to them, wanting to urge them to get as far away from this clearing as they could. Nothing came out. It was like something had wrapped a hand around his throat and tightened its grip, keeping him from alerting his brother to the creature's presence.

Pavel fought against something he couldn't see and it seemed as though the darkness just got deeper and thicker. If there had been any moonlight, it was being swallowed by the growing blackness.

The only light breaking through the leaves was from the flashlights as they shoved each other, laughing loudly to cover their own discomfort. Pavel wanted to leave, but he couldn't just abandon his brother and his friends in the dark. Just in case there was something out there.

Suddenly the crack of a twig disturbed the relative quiet of the night. Braden jumped, then whirled to shine his light in the direction of the noise. What they all saw caught in the beam was an image that would stay with them for the rest of their lives.

It was a creature Pavel had never seen the likes of before. It had the head of a horse and was huge. Leatherlike wings stretched from its shoulders, and eyes that seemed to be lit from within glared at the boys in the clearing.

When it screamed, Pavel swore it sounded like someone was murdering it. He covered his ears, not having to worry about a flashlight. The others yelled and darted around. Holy fuck! The legends are right. There is a monster living in The Pines. He still couldn't move. All he could do was watch as the Devil danced with his brother.

The creature moved with lightning speed, circling them for a moment before dashing into their midst, then away. Suddenly, Oleg glanced up to meet its red eyes and froze. The creature slashed at him, causing him to cry out. The other boys were yelling and scrambling all around him.

Abel grabbed Oleg's hand and dragged him toward the road where they'd left their bikes. They were shoving each other out of the way because no one wanted to be at the back of the group in case the creature chased them.

None of them looked behind them, just pedaled as fast as they could to the corner where they'd met. From there, they split up to head back to their own houses without saying a word to each other.

Once they were out of the clearing, Pavel found he could speak again, but still couldn't move. His stomach roiled in fear as the creature lumbered toward him. This is it. I'm going to die, but at least Oleg and Tad got out of here. I can live with that.

He closed his eyes as the fetid breath of the Jersey Devil washed over his face. Swallowing his fear, he forced his eyes open. He'd greet his death with courage and honor.

The Devil snorted then growled, "You sent them here. You'll bring them back for me when the time is right."