“Have you girls ever heard of The Jersey Devil?”

Bill, the old gay guy that lived with his really old mom across the street from my dad, took my sisters and I on a nature walk. The water level of the river that cut through the Pinelands was low, and the tangled, noduled roots of the shoreline trees were exposed, emaciated tentacles. There was no sun in the muddy end-of-summer sky. Bill’s sweater was bright pink; he was conspicuous. I tried to move quickly through the nature crap to get back to Dad’s. The mud’s suction gripped my white Shelltops and held me back. Bill tried to entertain us with information about the plants and animals and history along the way.

A small shack made of white stones, with a caved-in rotted roof, stood on an embankment surrounded by the sparse trees. We climbed up through the gnarled overgrowth and entered the house through the toppled wall. Vines crept through the wood floor and mortar. A fireplace comprised the one intact wall.

“Sit down girls,” Bill’s lisp contrived over the S’s like a snake. His eyes and pasty face narrowed. In the shadow of the fireplace, his pink sweater was darker.

We spun around to find a dry place to sit, the woods visible all around us. There was no noise in the still forest. My sisters and I sat on the half-wall made of cracked, painted stones.

“Have you girls ever heard of The Jersey Devil?” Bill asked us in a low voice.

My shoes dangled, I banged them on the stone to get the mud off, watched to see how much dirt fell: anything but listen to a story that made being outside of the city any scarier or more threateningly exposed.

Bill continued, “This one room shack was the home of the Leeds family and their twelve kids. Mrs. Leeds, infuriated with her husband for impregnating her again, offered Satan her thirteenth child.”

The leaves began to rustle, tried to flutter away. My bangs did not sway off my forehead. My hands were clammy on the cold, damp stone. The air was cooling down; it was getting late.

“With the help of a midwife, a beautiful child was born. As Mrs. Leeds’ raged and cursed the heavens, her other children tried to hide,” Bill gestured to a broken corner, “crying, afraid of their mother’s devilish prayers. Almost immediately, the baby began to change, brown leathery wings ripped through the new skin of his back, a tail that started as a nub was six inches long after an hour and tufts of course hair sprouted. His eyes turned yellow, his nose to a muzzle.” Bill’s face contorted as he gestured the shape of a muzzle with his hand, teeth bared in disgust.

“The baby’s screams turned into feral roars as he began to understand his disfigurement compared to his twelve siblings, huddled and healthy wide-eyed country children. He despised their perfection; the monster flew out the window. Never able to return to his family, he lived alone in the woods and watched them. The Jersey Devil is alive today, stalking and eating children that remind him of his sisters and brothers and the life he was forced to forfeit. Sometimes he hides in the shadows of little kids’ rooms and pretends to be human.”

Bill gestured to the fireplace, “The devil still returns here at night to cook the children he caught, to consume their perfect, simple, human lives. He drains the blood while the child is still …”

I slid off the crumbling wall, almost splashing old grime onto the cuffs of my jeans.

“Take us home now,” I said. “My dad’s gonna be mad when I tell him you told us scary stories. Besides, none of it’s true. You don’t know anything.”

Bill smiled, his thin lips curved over his pointy teeth, “Oh, I know. I know because it’s MY story. I was there, crying in that corner under that table. Poor, pretty little girls,” Bill mocked, “scared of a little story? Well this story is real.”

“We don’t believe you,” I replied, my quivering chin jutting defensively.

“Just a warning, don’t come into these woods at night,” Bill pretended to look honest.

“Well, it’s almost nighttime now,” I said, my sisters stood behind me.

“I know, and Mother will be worried about me if I’m not home soon”, said Bill as he began leading us away from the broken-down house. “Mother and I are the only Leeds left. I am her twelfth child, I would have been the youngest, the baby, but father couldn’t stop. Now Mother loves her baby the most, her chosen one, her Devil.”

The darkness was becoming flecked with newly awoken fireflies.

We trudged ahead, following Bill’s voice through the shadows, “Mother’s comfort in her tired, country life were her prayers to Satan; so when Satan granted her his child, Mother thanked her savior and did anything he commanded. Father was hacked into pieces, and one by one, Mother left her eleven ‘normal’ children out like sheep for her Jersey Devil; she’d send them on a chore alone, knowing they’d never come back. Mother kept me; mother loves me.”

My sisters and I held hands as we were enveloped in the night and trailed Bill blindly. We’d been walking for a while. Blackness began to choke me. I had no idea where we were or where we were going. I didn’t think it should be taking so long. A light flickered ahead: finally home.

Bill bounded up the embankment. The dilapidated stone cabin stood before us, a fire raged in the fireplace.