My wife edged closer to me as we stared down at the Hunter. He had just emerged from the crawl space underneath the garden hut.
"You've been hearing the sounds for how long?" he asked, pulling himself into a sitting position.
"Hard to say," I replied. "Maybe three, four weeks? Mostly it's twigs snapping, like footsteps. Last night was the first time I heard the whispers. That's when I decided to call you. Is it what we thought?"
"Yes," he said, nodding. "Free-range children. Quite a large brood, too, judging from the space they've excavated under the hut. Their typical dens are much smaller. This may be a communal gathering point."
"God Almighty!" I blurted out. "I knew they were active in this area, but -- do you have any idea where they're coming from?"
He stood up slowly, brushed the dirt from his coveralls, and pointed west. "I followed their spoor through several properties in that direction, but it doesn't tell us much about their point of origin. Hold on, though, let me show something that might help."
He bent over, reached under the hut, and pulled out a wad of paper scraps and other litter.
"There could be some clues in this stuff," he said. The mass of detritus included numerous Bazooka Joe gum wrappers, three partially eaten Big Hunks and one tattered issue of Cricket.
"The Bizbees," my wife said immediately. "They live in the direction you pointed. Their daughter, Sedona, she got in huge trouble at school for copying stories from Cricket and claiming she wrote them."
"Sounds like an intelligent, dominating personality," the Hunter replied. "She may be the group leader."
"What are the options here?" I asked. "I don't want some brazen little twit honing her plagiarism skills in my backyard. Do we need to set some traps?"
"The term I prefer is 'detention unit' and no, we're not there yet," said the Hunter. "For now, I'd suggest making this area less hospitable. Line your perimeter with some cactus or other thorny plantings."
"I'll go to the nursery next week," I said.
"No," he corrected, "You need to start today. If Free-range kids get too comfortable in the outdoors, they sometimes lose all sense of domestication. I've heard reports of feral packs roaming around neighborhoods in the Midwest. We don't want anything like that to happen here."
"Such a lousy feeling," I said, "Always looking over my shoulder, wondering if they're watching us. How long do we have to live like this?"
"Quite awhile." He paused. "I don't believe in false optimism. This trend is still on the rise. A year ago, I was only getting one or two calls a week. Now, it's every day. But it'll work out in the end. America is strong. We survived the '70s. We can get through this."
"What about security cameras?" my wife wondered. "Pictures are the best evidence, and then we could go over to the Bizbee residence and settle this once and for all."
"Think carefully," the Hunter cautioned. "The equipment will be a major expense. Then you'll have to spend a lot of time scanning through the recordings. But if you choose to go that route and get conclusive proof, you must definitely call me back and I'll act as a facilitator."
"Why is that necessary?" I asked. "I'm not afraid of the Bizbees."
"That's your naiveté talking," he answered. "What you're suggesting may seem routine but it can have unexpected, tragic consequences."
"Can you be more specific?" I queried.
"Know this," he said, "And trust in my firsthand experience. When Free Range parents feel cornered or threatened, they may react with ferocious hostility. Their bite is extremely painful. And sometimes fatal."
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