#forest child
sadiahakim 2 months ago
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What a peaceful vibe here! 馃挄馃尰
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lichen-thr0pe 8 months ago
Nine year old me pretending the leaves are quicksand :
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the-good-neighbors 19 days ago
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wandering-wolf 4 months ago
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insomn1agrl 2 months ago
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Think I like you best when you're just with me And no one else
Kristen, come right back I've been waiting for you To slip back in bed When you light the candle
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oromatuja 5 months ago
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little-witchys-cottage 2 years ago
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A cottage by a lil babbling brook now that's a dream come true
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kit-wildbloom 12 days ago
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corishadowfang 9 months ago
Forest Child - Original Fiction Big Bang
My piece for @originalfictionbigbang!聽 I was paired with聽@cecilsstorycorner, and they created an amazing illustration for the story; visit their blog to check it out!聽 (Link)
Summary: Nobody goes into the Forest at the edge of town.聽 People say you鈥檒l go missing if you do--that鈥檚 what happened to Mary鈥檚 Uncle Ian, after all.聽 But after briefly entering the Forest on a dare from some friends, she realizes there might be more to it than she thought.
Trigger Warnings: Child abuse as a major story theme; some instances of body horror and general horror elements; brief instance of alcohol-induced anger towards the end.聽 If you think these will be triggering, then please stay safe and skip this one.
Story is under the cut.聽 Or, if you鈥檇 prefer, you can read it on the Google doc here.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淟ook at this!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary, much like the other students near her, started at the sudden exclamation. 聽She鈥檇 been drawing, absorbed in trying to get a bird鈥檚 wings just right, and hadn鈥檛 even noticed one of her classmates excitedly bouncing into the room with something cupped in his hands. 聽Now the boy proudly presented the item鈥攁 small stone鈥攖o a group of surprised fifth graders.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽One snorted. 鈥淭hat鈥檚 just a rock, Blake. What鈥檇 you do, pick it up during recess?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚t鈥檚 not just a rock,鈥 Blake protested. 聽鈥淟ook closer.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Several of her classmates glanced at each other, as if deciding whether or not it was worth risking the embarrassment. 聽Mary found she didn鈥檛 really care much about the risk, and so she leaned forward, squinting a little. 聽鈥淚s it glowing?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Blake beamed. 鈥淵eah! 聽It鈥檚 easier to see if it鈥檚 dark.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Someone shouted, 鈥淕et the lights!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The student nearest the door flicked the lights off, and suddenly everyone was crowding closely around Blake and his find. 聽The rock glowed a very faint purple, the color spreading out across Blake鈥檚 hands.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary鈥檚 fingers itched to draw, and she scooped her sketchbook into her hands, fumbling for a purple pencil.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲here鈥檇 you get it?鈥 someone asked.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淔rom my brother,鈥 Blake said, and then, in a conspiratorial whisper, 鈥渁nd he found it in the Forest.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary鈥檚 pencil skittered across the page. 聽鈥淗e actually went in?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淯h-huh! 聽He wouldn鈥檛 tell me how far, though. 聽Said he saw these weird glowing lights and felt like they were drawing him closer. 聽Before he knew it, he was suddenly standing underneath eerily dark trees, with something moving in the undergrowth. 聽Ran out of there as soon as he realized! 聽The stone got caught in his shoe, so he gave it to me.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淩ight,鈥 said one of their classmates. 聽鈥淚 bet he just painted a rock with glow-in-the-dark paint.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚t鈥檚 true!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary asked, 鈥淐an I see it?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Blake clutched the stone tightly, giving her an almost-suspicious look. 聽After a few moments he relented, tipping the stone from his hand to hers.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary stared at it for several moments, running a finger over the stone and watching as the purple glow painted the tip. 聽She scratched at the surface with a fingernail.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淗ey!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淣o paint鈥檚 coming off,鈥 she said, and gave the stone back to Blake. 聽鈥淚 think it鈥檚 real.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淪ee?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 still think you鈥檙e lying,鈥 one of their classmates said. 聽When Blake opened his mouth to retort, she continued, 鈥淥r your brother鈥檚 lying. 聽Nobody goes into the Forest.鈥 聽She paused, then amended. 聽鈥淲ell, nobody goes into the Forest and comes out. 聽That鈥檚 why people keep disappearing around town, right?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Blake opened his mouth, closed it, and then frowned thoughtfully. 聽鈥淲ell,鈥 he said slowly, 鈥渢here鈥檚 one way to find out.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A few moments of silence passed before someone hissed, 鈥淒ude, seriously?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou can鈥檛 really be thinking about going into the Forest, right?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚f you go missing, do I get your stuff?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚鈥檓 serious,鈥 Blake said. 聽鈥淚 mean, come on! 聽Hasn鈥檛 everyone thought about going in there at some point? 聽You guys are just scared.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary鈥檚 breath caught, and she clutched her sketchbook to her chest. 聽The town was filled with stories of the Forest, most of them some degree of frightening, but the ones she most remembered were the ones told by her Uncle Ian, a man she mostly remembered for his soothing voice and exciting tales.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淪ometimes it just looks like a normal forest鈥攎aybe a little darker than average, but nothing out of the ordinary. 聽But then鈥攖hen you see these things at the edges. 聽Great big, monstrous things that look like they鈥檇 tower over the trees if they stood upright. 聽Birds with too many eyes, covered in glowing feathers. 聽Things that might鈥檝e been deer, at one point, but are so covered in moss and vines that they look more plant than animal. 聽And the lights鈥攖hose are what get you. 聽Bright colored things that hop and bob and mesmerize anyone who stops to look. 聽If you鈥檙e not careful, they can lead you into the woods without noticing. 聽And then鈥攂am! 聽You鈥檙e trapped there. 聽You become part of the Forest.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚s it real?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲ell, see, lots of people around town don鈥檛 think it鈥檚 real. 聽They think someone鈥檚 inside the Forest, doing something to make all those people disappear. 聽But you and I? 聽We know better.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Before she really had time to consider what she was saying, she breathed, 鈥淐an I go, too?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The class went quiet. 鈥淵ou?鈥 one of her classmates asked. 鈥淚sn鈥檛 your dad, like, really strict?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚-I鈥攚ell. 聽We don鈥檛 have to tell him!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淕etting rebellious, huh?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚-I鈥檓 not! 聽I just鈥擨 just don鈥檛 want to worry him, that鈥檚 all.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Blake snorted. 鈥淪ure,鈥 he said, 鈥測ou can come. 聽Anyone can come. 聽We鈥檒l go to the Forest this Saturday around lunch. 聽Anyone who鈥檚 not a chicken can meet up there.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The lights flicked on.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Everyone whipped towards the front of the room.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Their teacher watched them with a skeptical look. 聽鈥淪o,鈥 she said dryly, 鈥淚 hate to interrupt your weekend plans, but I have a class to teach. 聽And besides that, none of you are allowed to go anywhere near the Forest unsupervised. 聽It鈥檚 dangerous. 聽I鈥檓 sure your parents have all told you this already.鈥 聽She gave Mary a pointed look.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary shrank in her seat.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Blake tried, 鈥淏ut we just鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淣o buts,鈥 their teacher interrupted. 聽鈥淚f I hear any more of this, I鈥檒l have to inform your parents. 聽Clear?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary caught her breath, and found herself blurting, 鈥淧lease don鈥檛.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Someone murmured, 鈥淜new she鈥檇 back out.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary flushed.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Her teacher just gave her a long, tired look that, if Mary stared at it long enough, might鈥檝e been read as sympathetic. 聽Then she said, 鈥淧ull out the homework from last night.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Class passed in the usual manner, but Mary found her mind drifting, a nervous, fearful excitement bubbling in her chest at the thought of stepping foot in the Forest. 聽No one鈥檚 ever gone too far in, she thought. 聽Nobody鈥檚 come back to talk about what鈥檚 in there. 聽What if I鈥檓 the first? 聽It could be like鈥攍ike an adventure! 聽I could draw pictures of all the strange things in there, and people would talk about it forever.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Maybe it鈥檇 help stop people from disappearing, too. 聽Like Ian did.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The intercom came on, startling Mary out of her thoughts. 聽鈥淕ood afternoon. 聽Baseball practice has been cancelled tonight due to rain鈥︹
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The rush of students shoving things in their desks and packing their backpacks overrode the sound of the intercom. 聽Their teacher shouted, 鈥淲ait until announcements are over!鈥 to very little success.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary sat at her desk silently. 聽She closed her sketchbook, slowly, ignoring the nervous tension ticking through her shoulders.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The announcements ended with, 鈥淭eachers may now dismiss their students.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淣ow you can go,鈥 their teacher said. 聽鈥淎nd Mary?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary looked up at her.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Her teacher sighed, looking resigned. 聽鈥淵ou know the drill.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary nodded, tugging her backpack on.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淪ucks to be you,鈥 someone said.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Another shouted, 鈥淪ee you later, Mary!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Blake said, 鈥淪aturday, if you still want to come.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary gave him a weak smile, but didn鈥檛 dare reply with her teacher still watching.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The school emptied and went quiet. 聽Mary walked slowly to the office. 聽She hated this part; hated the waiting, hated that she couldn鈥檛 go and play with her friends after school, hated the tension that built in her chest as she sat in those hard plastic chairs. 聽But she knew Papa wanted to check on her grades, and make sure she made it home safely, and that he was really just worried about her wellbeing, and so she tolerated it, settling into one of the chairs to wait. 聽She didn鈥檛 know what to draw, this time, but the conversation about the Forest was still buzzing through her skull, and so she found herself playing with one of her bird sketches, adding eyes and strange, curling plants.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Her homeroom teacher showed up a few minutes later, looking as tired and disgruntled as always. Mary gave her a weak smile and went quickly back to drawing.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The entryway doors opened.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary鈥檚 shoulders rose, just a little.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa looked intimidating, sometimes; she didn鈥檛 know if he meant to be, but he always had this serious, stern look on his face that made her wonder if she鈥檇 done something bad. He studied her carefully for a few moments and, seemingly satisfied with his findings, turned towards the teacher. 鈥淗ow was she today?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Her teacher flattened her lips. 聽鈥淪he was fine, Rick. 聽As usual.鈥 Her teacher seemed to hesitate a moment, and then continued, 鈥淪he talked about going to visit the Forest with some friends鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary sent her a panicked look.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥溾攂ut I put a stop to that and explained why it wouldn鈥檛 be a good idea.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa said nothing, but he did turn, slowly, to look at Mary.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She couldn鈥檛 quite meet his eyes. 聽鈥淚-I didn鈥檛鈥攚e weren鈥檛 really going to鈥攊t鈥檚 just, Blake鈥檚 brother found this rock, and鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淭hank you,鈥 Papa said, curtly, and it took Mary a moment to realize he was talking to the teacher and not her. 聽鈥淚鈥檒l make sure she understands not to go there.鈥 聽He reached for Mary鈥檚 arm, grabbing it tightly as she tried not to flinch backwards. 聽鈥淐ome on,鈥 he said, dragging her to her feet. 聽鈥淚t鈥檚 time to go home.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淩ick,鈥 Mary鈥檚 teacher called.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa paused.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 don鈥檛 think these meetings are necessary anymore. 聽Ian disappeared years ago. 聽Mary hardly seems to remember it. 聽It certainly hasn鈥檛 affected her grades or performance. 聽What might affect her is being unable to spend time with friends outside of school.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa didn鈥檛 answer for several long moments. 聽鈥淭hank you for the input,鈥 he said, 鈥渂ut I鈥檇 like to keep up with this, for now.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary鈥檚 teacher made a disgruntled noise. 聽鈥淚 agreed to this as your friend, and out of concern for both of you, but Rick鈥擨 understand you鈥檙e still grieving, but you have to move on鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚鈥檓 fine,鈥 Papa said, 鈥渁nd my daughter鈥檚 fine. 聽We鈥檒l keep up the meetings.鈥 聽And then he was dragging Mary, again, out of the school and to the car.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Their town wasn鈥檛 particularly large; it had a few small convenience stores, the school, a gas station and a diner. 聽Beyond the edge sat the Forest, equally small, but strangely separate from everything. Mary tried not to look at it, slipping her sketchbook slowly into her backpack. 聽Papa didn鈥檛 say anything to her, but she could see the furrow of his eyebrows in the rearview mirror, and so she turned her head to look, firmly, out the window, and tried hard not to think about the pit in her stomach.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽They pulled into the driveway too quickly, and Mary fiddled with her seatbelt, unbuckling it slowly.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa stepped out of the driver鈥檚 seat and slammed the door.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary flinched. 聽She found herself caught between moving quicker and dawdling.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa decided for her, opening her door roughly and catching her arm; she鈥檇 just barely gotten free of the seatbelt when he dragged her free, corralling her up the stairs and into the house.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽It was very quiet, for a while. 聽Papa turned to look at her slowly, expression downturned, and Mary found herself desperately trying to fill the space. 聽鈥淧apa, I鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲hat have I told you?鈥 Papa鈥檚 voice was low, rough, just on the edge of angry. 聽鈥淵ou don鈥檛 go to that Forest. 聽You don鈥檛 even think about going. 聽You understand?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa鈥檚 grip was too tight around her arm. 聽She pressed on his hand a little, trying, 鈥淧apa鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa grabbed her other arm, his hands still too tight, and shook her roughly. 聽鈥淒o you understand?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary swallowed and nodded.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淭his is for your own safety. 聽That Forest is dangerous.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚-I know, Papa.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou鈥檇 best remember it.鈥 Papa let go, finally.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary didn鈥檛 rub at the handprints on her arms, instead holding her hands tightly at her side. Papa liked to keep her in his sight鈥攚anted to make sure she never got into trouble鈥攁nd she knew, if he was already mad, it鈥檇 be a bad idea to leave before she was dismissed.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽His eyes softened, just a little, and the tension eased out of Mary鈥檚 shoulders. 聽鈥淕o change out of your school clothes,鈥 he said, 鈥渢hen come down for dinner.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She nodded, then hurtled down the hall to her room.
聽聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 ~*~
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽-Mary almost considered not going to the Forest on Saturday. Almost.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She didn鈥檛 want to make Papa worried鈥攐r get scolded again鈥攂ut the Forest was still a fascinating subject, filled with mysteries she was aching to solve. 聽Something inside her tugged her towards the tree line, and a part of her desperately wanted to follow that pull, even if it meant getting in trouble with Papa.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽But she couldn鈥檛 just walk out the front door. 聽She鈥檇 have to sneak out; Papa didn鈥檛 like her going anywhere without him.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She worried her lip, debating. 聽He usually likes to come and check on me if I鈥檝e been in my room for a while. 聽Her door didn鈥檛 have a lock, so she couldn鈥檛 keep him out. 聽Her eyes darted to her dresser. 聽She slid off the bed, opening a drawer and pulling out some clothes. She shoved them underneath her comforter, arranging them as best she could to make it look like she was just sleeping underneath. 聽It didn鈥檛 look much like her, but she hoped it would be enough that Papa wouldn鈥檛 notice she鈥檇 slipped out.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She hesitated before moving to her window. 聽If I do this, she thought, then I鈥檒l be disobeying Papa. 聽If he finds out, I鈥檒l get in a lot of trouble. 聽She glanced nervously at the door. 聽He doesn鈥檛 have to know, she decided. 聽I won鈥檛 be in the Forest that long. Just long enough to try and see something cool.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary gripped the bottom of her window and worked it open. 聽It made barely a sound, and she hesitated for just a moment longer, glancing uncertainly at the door. 聽Then she grabbed her sketchbook and a pencil and slipped out the window.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Her feet hit the ground with a quiet thump. 聽She stood there, eyes screwed shut, half waiting for someone to come by and yell at her. When they didn鈥檛, she opened her eyes a little.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She was outside. She was outside, and Papa didn鈥檛 know, and no one was saying anything.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary just suppressed a giddy laugh, her shoulders shaking a little. 聽She was out! 聽She was going to the Forest! 聽She was going to see things no one had seen before!
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She just barely remembered to pull her window closed before darting away, sock feet slapping against the ground as she hurried towards the edge of town.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The other kids were waiting there already, hovering near the tree line. 聽Mary lifted her free arm to wave, shouting, 鈥淗ey! 聽Hey, wait for me!鈥 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲e didn鈥檛 think you鈥檇 show up,鈥 one of the kids said鈥擧enry, she thought.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淥f course I was coming,鈥 Mary said, skidding to a halt, lifting her chin and trying not to show her nervousness. 聽鈥淚 want to see what鈥檚 in there, too!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Blake snorted and turned towards the Forest. 聽鈥淪o,鈥 he said, 鈥渨ho鈥檚 going in first?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽All of them swiveled to stare into the darkness between the trees. 聽They remained very quiet, and in the silence, Mary strained her ears, trying to see if she could hear something from within the trees. 聽She caught no birdsong, no rustling of the undergrowth鈥攏othing.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 think Blake should go,鈥 someone said.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲hat?鈥 Blake protested. 鈥淲hy me?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淏ecause it was your idea. 聽What, too scared to go in now?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 am not! 聽I just鈥擨 just think someone else should have the chance. 聽You know, since I already have that cool stone.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淒on鈥檛 be such a baby鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚鈥檒l go.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary hadn鈥檛 even entirely realized she鈥檇 spoken until the group turned to look at her. 聽She clutched her sketchbook a little closer. 聽鈥淚鈥檒l go,鈥 she repeated, more firmly this time.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Blake recovered first, looking at the other kids and saying, 鈥淗ear that? 聽She鈥檒l go.鈥 聽He turned to give her a scrutinizing look. 聽鈥淪o?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary turned back to the Forest. 聽For a moment, it felt like it was just her and the trees, the group of students fading to background noise behind her. 聽A breeze stirred the leaves and ruffled her clothes. 聽The darkness stretched in front of her, deep and thick enough that she wondered if she鈥檇 feel it when she stepped inside.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and took a step forward. 聽Then another. 聽Then another. She hesitantly stretched out a hand, and didn鈥檛 stop walking until her palm brushed rough bark.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Her hand rested against a normal-looking tree, the bark chipped and peeling away, a couple of bugs skittering out of holes in the wood.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary鈥檚 shoulders relaxed marginally. 聽She turned back to the others, who were still watching warily from the Forest鈥檚 edge. 鈥淐ome on!鈥 聽She hurried into the trees.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The darkness deepened, and she slowed a little. 聽She wondered if the trees were the ones blocking out the sunlight; she squinted at the tree tops, but couldn鈥檛 see well enough to tell. 聽The darkness made her shiver, but she stuffed it down, calling, 鈥淗ey, why do you think there aren鈥檛 any animals here?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淒on鈥檛 know,鈥 Blake said, closer to her ear than she鈥檇 expected. 聽She yelped and jumped, scrambling to keep her sketchbook from falling. Blake snorted; in the dim lighting, she could just barely make out a dryly amused expression. 聽鈥淏ut we need to find something cool.鈥 聽He moved towards one of the trees, feeling around the trunk curiously.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚sn鈥檛 coming in here enough?鈥 one of the kids asked. 聽鈥淚 mean, we all did it, right? 聽It鈥檒l be something to talk about at school.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淣o,鈥 Blake insisted. 鈥淚 want to find something else like my stone.鈥 聽He reached up and tugged on a branch. 聽It came free with a crack, and he stumbled, almost falling off the root he was standing on. 鈥淪ee anything weird about this?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The kid leaned forward. 鈥淒ude, it鈥檚 just a normal branch.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽He tossed it aside. 鈥淭here has to be something.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The bushes rustled.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary jumped, whipping towards it. 聽The leaves shifted, and for a moment, Mary thought she could see a flash of eyes. 鈥淯m. 聽Guys?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Blake and the others didn鈥檛 pay attention to her, moving towards some ferns and cautiously shifting through them.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The bushes rustled again. Hesitantly, Mary inched towards them.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The thing inside them moved. 聽It flicked its attention to her, and for a moment, the creature seemed to glow, two sets of eyes blinking up at her.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary started backwards.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The thing disappeared into the undergrowth.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary braced herself against a tree.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A branch creaked overhead, and something whispered through Mary鈥檚 ears, more impression than sound, almost forming words that sounded like, What is it?
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The whisper echoed with the rustling of another bush, with a brief flutter of bird wings overhead, or with the quiet creek of the trees:
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽What is it?
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽What is it?
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽What is it?
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淕uys,鈥 Mary asked, voice sounding unusually loud, 鈥渁re you the ones saying that?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲hat are you talking about? 聽Hey, do you think this leaf is glowing, or am I just imagining things?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Humans, the whisper voice said again.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Humans.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Humans, danger.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Breaking, breaking, breaking鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Something landed overhead.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary whipped towards it, stumbling away from the tree.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A faintly-glowing bird perched on a branch. 聽Flowers wove through its feathers and gathered on its back, leaves raising like plumes on its head. 聽Its glowing eyes flickered as it leaned closer. 聽It opened its beak, and the whisper-voice pressed, more insistent, into her mind, words a flurry of quiet trills and a ruffling of feathers: I know you.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary鈥檚 mouth opened and closed several times as she stared at the bird. 聽It took her a moment to realize there had been confusion in the voice鈥攖he bird鈥檚 voice?鈥攁nd that made her still.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A sharp crack sounded behind her. 聽Blake yelped in alarm, then shouted, 鈥淣ope! 聽That won鈥檛 work!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The bird whipped towards the noise almost as quickly as Mary did. 聽It let out an ear-splitting screech, and Mary rushed to cover her ears. The bird took flight, swooping low over the others鈥 heads, nearly brushing Blake鈥檚 hair.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A low rumble went through the Forest, shaking the ground. 聽The trees suddenly seemed like they were leaning in, closer, closer, pressing until the branches dipped too low. 聽The whole Forest suddenly came alive with noise, and between the rustling leaves, the buzzing, the hoof beats, Mary could barely make out something that sounded like words:
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Breaking breaking breaking get out stop breaking leave go leave leave leave鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲hat is that?鈥 someone whispered.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Another turned and sprinted out of the Forest.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Blake didn鈥檛 move right away, standing frozen, staring blankly into the trees.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淏lake,鈥 Mary hissed, starting towards him.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Something split from the shadows. 聽It reared, dark, above Blake. 聽Glowing patches seemed to ripple across its back, and its mouth stretched just a little too wide as it roared.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The sound shook Mary, and for a moment she wanted to clamp her hands over her ears, the pressure beating deep inside her mind. 聽Her legs shook and she wondered, very suddenly, if she should鈥檝e snuck out at all.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Blake seemed to break out of his stupor finally. 聽He screamed, sprinting away from the strange, shadowy beast.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary鈥檚 legs moved without her conscious input; she turned and followed Blake, hurrying out of the Forest and breaking into the sunlight. 聽She stumbled, then fell, losing her sketchbook upon impact. 聽Her palms scraped the ground, tearing up grass and dirt. She scrambled back to her feet, and then started running again, and kept running until she could scramble back into her room鈥檚 window.
聽聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 ~*~
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽-Mary couldn鈥檛 get what she鈥檇 heard in the Forest out of her head. 聽The rest of the day, she wandered around in a daze, a part of her half-focused on the creatures that had emerged to terrify her and her classmates, the rest focused on the strange words.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽I know you.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou鈥檙e distracted,鈥 Papa said, and it started her out of her thoughts.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚-I鈥檓 fine, Papa!鈥 she said, forcing a grin.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou should be focused on finishing your homework,鈥 he said. 聽His scowl deepened, and he said, 鈥淵ou should have finished that Friday night. 聽Or earlier today, when you were in your room.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚-I know, Papa.鈥 She leaned over the paper, but her mind drifted. 聽She found it hard to focus on math equations when her mind still pounded with the words, over and over again. 聽I know you, I know you, I know you鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淧apa,鈥 she asked before she could think better of it, 鈥渨hat happened when Uncle Ian disappeared?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa stiffened.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚-I just鈥攄id he disappear because, um鈥斺 聽Because something in the Forest spoke to him? she wanted to ask, but couldn鈥檛 quite get the words to form.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚鈥檓 not going to talk about him,鈥 Papa said, voice harsh.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚-I, I鈥檓 sorry. 聽I didn鈥檛 mean to鈥斺 聽She trailed off. 聽鈥淚 just wanted to know.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa was silent for a long moment. 聽鈥淕o finish your homework in your room.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary knew better than to argue. 聽She just nodded, scooping up her papers and scampering to her room.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She knew Papa would check on her, eventually, to find out whether or not she鈥檇 actually finished her homework. 聽She tried to do it, but her attention kept slipping, flicking back to the window and the Forest, not quite visible, beyond.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She didn鈥檛 want to go back to the Forest. 聽Not really. She was still curious about what was inside, but her adventure with her classmates had given her a scare. 聽But鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(I know you.)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽I left my sketchbook there, she thought. 聽I should go back and get that, at least.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She didn鈥檛 acknowledge what would happen if Papa came to check on her and she wasn鈥檛 there. 聽She just slid out her window, hurrying across the town in bare feet, trying not to worry too much about how dark it had gotten.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest was just as dark and silent as always. 聽She noticed a dark shape, pages fluttering a little, on the slope.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary hesitantly lifted her sketchbook. 聽It鈥檇 sustained some wear and tear, the pages covered in dirt, the cover torn a little bit. Mary brushed off what she could, fingers gently running over the pages. 聽She clutched it to her chest. 聽I should get back, she thought, before Papa notices that I鈥檓 gone.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest loomed in front of her, dark and imposing.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(I know you.)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary bit her lip. She shifted a little on her toes, glancing furtively down the hill. 聽After a few long, agonizing moments, she took a few cautious steps towards the tree line. 鈥淗ello?鈥 she asked, her voice coming out as more of a squeak. 聽She cleared her throat, then tried again: 鈥淗ello? 聽Is, um. 聽Is anyone there?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The trees creaked ominously, but nothing answered.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary fiddled with the edge of her sketchbook. 聽Maybe whatever it was is mad, she thought, because we were breaking things.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽After a few moments of debate, Mary murmured, 鈥淚鈥檓 sorry for breaking things. 聽I won鈥檛 do it again. 聽I just had a question.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽For a few moments, she didn鈥檛 think anything would answer. 聽Then a low breeze stirred, and with it, a quiet, almost imperceptible murmur: Human human human back danger back they鈥檙e back they鈥檙e back.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲hy are you here?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary jumped, whipping around, trying to figure out where the voice had come from. 聽It didn鈥檛 sound entirely human; it felt almost as if the words had been pressed into her mind, formed between the low wind and the steady creaking of the trees. 聽鈥淲ho are you? Are you that bird?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The breeze picked up. Something flickered between the trees. 聽鈥淚 have been called many things by many humans,鈥 came the voice again, making Mary鈥檚 head ache faintly. 聽鈥淵ou would not understand most of them. 聽Your people do not have a name for me.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淎re鈥攁re you the Forest?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest didn鈥檛 answer.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary caught her voice. 鈥淵ou can talk,鈥 she breathed. 聽鈥淗ave you ever talked to anyone before? 聽Nobody鈥檚 ever said anything about that!鈥 聽She took a half-step forward, suddenly excited. 聽鈥淚s it because of magic? 聽Can you鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The wind picked up, blowing past her so strongly that it almost knocked her back. 聽Something growled from the shadows. 聽Danger, a cacophony of voices seemed to whisper. 聽Breaking breaking breaking鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚-I鈥斺 聽Mary鈥檚 voice caught in her throat, and she backed up a little, not quite leaving the edge of the trees. 聽鈥淚鈥檓 sorry. 聽I d-didn鈥檛 mean鈥擨 won鈥檛 do it again.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淗umans say many things,鈥 the Forest said, 鈥渁nd rarely do they mean them.鈥 聽The murmur quieted, fading to low chittering sounds, then silence.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary鈥檚 shoulders hunched a little, and she couldn鈥檛 help the guilt that bubbled in her chest. 聽鈥淚 just had a question,鈥 she murmured, 鈥渁bout something you said.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest didn鈥檛 speak, but she thought she might have heard the fluttering of wingbeats overhead.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary steeled herself and said, 鈥淵-you鈥攜ou said you knew me. 聽B-but I鈥檝e never been here. 聽How?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest was silent so long that she didn鈥檛 think she鈥檇 get an answer. 聽鈥淚 don鈥檛 know,鈥 came the quiet response, like a whisper of a bug against her ear.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淥h.鈥 聽It was almost disappointing, and she felt a little silly for even trying to ask. 聽鈥淥kay.鈥 She took a couple steps backwards. 鈥淚 guess鈥攖hat鈥檚 all I wanted to ask.鈥 She started to leave, then paused. 鈥淚鈥擨 really am sorry. 聽We just wanted to see if what we鈥檇 heard was true. 聽Honest.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest didn鈥檛 respond this time.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Guilt flickered in her chest for a moment. 聽I wouldn鈥檛 like it much, she thought, if someone hurt me.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(Papa never apologizes.)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The guilt solidified into something a little more solid and actionable. 聽She squared her shoulders and, an idea forming in her mind, made her way back to town.
聽聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 ~*~
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽-Mary stood outside the Forest with her backpack slung over her shoulder, decked in her overalls and heavy boots and her coat. Papa hadn鈥檛 noticed her sneak out the window, and she hoped he wouldn鈥檛 come looking for her just yet. 聽I won鈥檛 be long, she thought. 聽I just need to do this.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest was very, very quiet. 聽Mary squinted, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn鈥檛 see more than a few feet into the trees. 聽鈥淯m. Hello?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She waited a little while for a response, but when she didn鈥檛 get one, she let the backpack slip to the ground. 聽She unzipped it and pulled out one of several water bottles, hesitating at the Forest鈥檚 edge. 鈥淯m. 聽Is it okay if I come in?鈥 聽When the Forest didn鈥檛 answer, she took a deep breath, and stepped forward.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Darkness shrouded her, and she blinked. 聽The dim lighting made it difficult to see, but one hand reached out to brush the trunk of a nearby tree. 聽She twisted the cap off the water bottle, opening it with a quiet crack. 聽She poured the water onto the roots of the tree, humming a quiet song to herself as she tried to look further into the woods.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Something rustled behind her. 聽She jumped, then held her breath, but nothing moved again.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She finished pouring the water and darted back into the sunlight. 聽Her chest rattled with a few deep, shaky breaths. 聽After a few moments she bent, grabbing the next water bottle and hurrying into the Forest.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She鈥檇 made it through three bottles and was well onto the fourth when that same strange impression of a voice asked, 鈥淲hat are you doing?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary was so startled that she lost her hold on the water bottle. 聽She tumbled backwards with a quiet oomph!
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Things stirred inside the trees; vague shapes she couldn鈥檛 identify, tall gangly things that looked like they were bent out of shape, the gleam of eyes that were clustered too close together for comfort, the twitching of tree branches that seemed to move all on their own.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary took a shuddering breath. 聽Her hands shook a little, but she managed to keep her voice steady as she said, 鈥淲atering you.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She didn鈥檛 think she was going to get a response for a moment. 聽Then the voice came again, brushing around her like a breeze: 鈥淲hy?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淏e-because! Um. 聽Because I want to make up for the other day.鈥 聽She stood and brushed off her overalls. 聽The bottle was empty, now, so she stuck it underneath her arm and listened to it crinkle.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 did not require reparations,鈥 the Forest said, in the hurried footsteps of animals, in the quiet whisper of the leaves.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淥h.鈥 聽Mary bit her lip. 聽鈥淲ell, I鈥檓 going to keep watering you, anyways. 聽Is that okay?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest didn鈥檛 answer.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary nodded decisively. 鈥淥kay. 聽I鈥檓 going to get more water. 聽Um, please don鈥檛 do anything to me?鈥 聽She started back towards the Forest鈥檚 entrance, then paused. 鈥淥h! 聽Um, by the way. 聽My name鈥檚 Mary.鈥
聽聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 ~*~
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽-It became a routine, of sorts.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary didn鈥檛 know how much she owed the Forest鈥攚asn鈥檛 sure if she鈥檇 repaid it after giving it a few water bottles鈥攁nd so made a game out of bringing it things she thought it might be able to use. 聽She planted some seeds, near the edge; stole bird food out of the feeder; brought table scraps for some of the animals. 聽She made sure to stay close to the Forest鈥檚 edges, always wary of going too far. 聽(Of going missing, and of no one coming to find her. 聽She wondered if Papa would grieve like he did for Ian. 聽She wondered what that would look like, with no one else around.)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽It was fun, almost; it felt like she was getting away with something exciting and new. Papa would pick her up after school, and she鈥檇 wait a while, then duck out the window and run to the Forest, some new item stuck in her bag, ready to see if it was something that it would like.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest didn鈥檛 really say anything, but that was alright; Mary had plenty of words for the both of them, and would often talk to herself鈥攁s much to keep her nerves down as to explain things.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淜evin said he could fit three whole golf balls in his mouth, but I know he鈥檚 lying because his mom would yell at him for putting even one in.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 found a feather today! I think it was from a blue jay, but I didn鈥檛 see the bird. 聽See, see, I put it in my hair.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淜athrine says that you can keep frogs as pets. 聽I want one, but Papa says that we can鈥檛 have pets.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A breeze brushed across the back of her neck. 聽鈥淲hy do you keep coming back?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She stiffened, her hands twisted in the grass as she tried to plant some flower seeds. 聽鈥淗uh?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Lights blinked faintly in the darkness. 聽Something moved a little, still too coated in shadow to accurately make out. 聽鈥淢ost humans stay away. 聽Why do you return?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary fidgeted with her pants. 聽She rocked back on her heels, careful not to sit. 聽鈥淒o you not want me to?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A long, long pause, before the Forest answered, 鈥淵ou do not do harm. 聽You can stay.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary grinned, and surprised herself with her excitement when she chirped, 鈥淥kay!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽An animal (a deer?) started, jumping away into the undergrowth. 聽A couple of birds took flight, letting out odd, tinny cries. 鈥淏ut you did not answer. 聽Why do you return?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淥-oh. 聽Um.鈥 聽She worried her lip, suddenly feeling very much like she had done something wrong, somewhere, and couldn鈥檛 quite figure out what it was. 聽鈥淲ell. 聽It鈥檚. Um.鈥 聽She shrugged, looking at her feet. 聽鈥淚 just want to,鈥 she finished quietly.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽When the Forest didn鈥檛 respond, she hurried to say, 鈥淯m! 聽I like鈥擨 think you鈥檙e very cool! 聽And, uh, and I still owe you for鈥攆or what happened. 聽And鈥攁nd you listen.鈥 聽She trailed off, hands wrapped around her legs.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽For a few moments, nothing moved. 聽Mary wondered if she should start heading back; time always moved strangely in the Forest, and she found she could end up staying here for hours instead of minutes, if she wasn鈥檛 careful. 聽(Papa had almost caught her climbing in her window, once, and she鈥檇 sat on her bed frozen, expecting to be scolded, or to find her window locked from the outside, or鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa had never said anything, but she hadn鈥檛 gone out for a few days, to be safe.)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A bright glow caught her attention.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽One of the strange birds had hopped down from its perch. 聽It ruffled its feathers, bouncing closer, head tilted towards one side.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary caught her breath and held it.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The bird moved just a little bit closer.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary, hesitantly, reached out to pet it.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Its feathers were unusually soft鈥攕ofter even than the blankets that were piled on the couch at home. Up close, she could tell that the bird had what looked like flowers twined through its down, long stems twirling round and round its body. 聽Mary fingered one of them, but didn鈥檛 pull, gently running one thumb over a petal. 鈥淚 need my sketchbook,鈥 she breathed, and got up so quickly that she startled the bird into flight. 聽鈥淯m! 聽I鈥檒l be back!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Her cheeks ached from grinning as she sprinted down the slope.
聽聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽~*~
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽-鈥淗ey, Mary, I鈥檓 having a birthday party this weekend,鈥 Helen said, coming up to her with a grin.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淎 birthday party?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵eah! 聽You should come.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary鈥檚 grin faltered a little. 聽鈥淥h. Um. 聽Papa doesn鈥檛 usually like me going places without him.鈥 聽But I go to the Forest, don鈥檛 I? 聽She tried not to think about Blake or the others, sitting not that far from her. 鈥淏ut maybe I can ask!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Helen nodded, appeased, and Mary tried to ignore the nervous excitement buzzing in her stomach. Maybe Papa could come, she thought. 聽Then he wouldn鈥檛 have to worry, and I could still go and hang out with my friends.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽When Papa came to pick her up after school, she asked, 鈥淗ey, Papa? 聽Helen鈥檚 having a birthday party this weekend.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚鈥檓 sure she鈥檒l enjoy that.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淪he invited me to come. Can I go?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa studied her for several long, agonizing moments. 聽鈥淵ou鈥檒l have homework to do,鈥 he said carefully.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚鈥檒l get it all done Friday night!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou never get it done that early.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淏ut I will! 聽You can watch me. 聽Or, or you could come to the party, too. 聽I won鈥檛 get into any trouble, Papa. 聽I promise.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou鈥檙e a child, Mary. Trouble is all children get into.鈥 聽He shook his head. 聽鈥淣o. 聽I don鈥檛 think you should go.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淐ome on, Papa, please. I never get to hang out with my friends.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou spend time with them at school.鈥 聽Papa grabbed her arm, roughly, and dragged her to the car. 聽鈥淵ou can go when you鈥檙e older.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淗ow much older?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa didn鈥檛 say anything.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 really won鈥檛 get into trouble,鈥 Mary said, something tightening in her chest. 聽She didn鈥檛 know why this bothered her so much, but she found herself pressing, 鈥淚t could even just be for a few moments! 聽I just want to鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淣o, Mary. 聽I want you safe. 聽Where I can see you. 聽This discussion is over.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淓veryone else gets to hang out with their friends.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou aren鈥檛 everyone else. 聽I don鈥檛 know why any responsible parent would let their kids run around unsupervised鈥攏ot when so many people go missing.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Before Mary had really had time to think about what she was saying, she muttered, 鈥淛ust because Uncle Ian disappeared鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淒on鈥檛 talk about him!鈥 Papa roared.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary shrank. 聽Her heart thundered in her chest. 聽Very suddenly, she was aware of the fact that they were still in the school parking lot, and that people had stopped to stare at Papa鈥檚 outburst.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa seemed to realize this, too, because his attention swept around the observers. 聽He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. 聽鈥淵ou鈥檙e not going,鈥 he growled. 聽鈥淭hat鈥檚 final. I don鈥檛 know why you鈥檙e putting up such a protest. 聽It鈥檚 unreasonable.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽All she could do was nod, even as something tightened in her chest.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淕et in the car.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽I don鈥檛 want to, some part of her thought desperately, but she listened, anyways, sliding into the front seat and trying not to hunch her shoulders.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa got into the driver鈥檚 seat. 聽He started the car, and they pulled away from the school, the worried faces of Mary鈥檚 classmates disappearing behind her.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Something welled in Mary鈥檚 chest and clogged her throat, but she bit her lip and shoved it down, some part of her understanding that crying would probably make Papa angrier right now.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚鈥檓 doing this to keep you safe,鈥 Papa said, breaking the silence. 聽鈥淵ou understand that, right? 聽I can鈥檛 risk you disappearing like鈥攍ike others.鈥 聽He stumbled over the words, and his voice was strained, like he was trying hard to keep it level.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚-I know, Papa.鈥 Her voice cracked, a little, and she didn鈥檛 quite dare look at Papa to see how he reacted.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa didn鈥檛 say anything more鈥攏ot even when they got home鈥攁nd Mary hurried to her room, shutting the door.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She hadn鈥檛 even had half a second to think about what she was doing before she was scrambling out her window. 聽Running to the Forest was almost second nature, now, and she found herself sprinting up the grassy slope before she鈥檇 really had time to think about it. 聽Her eyes burned, and her vision blurred, a little, as she hurtled between the trees. 聽She nearly collided with a sturdy trunk; her hands flew out to brace herself against it, and she just stood there for a few moments, shaking, tears flowing down her cheeks. 聽She stayed quiet, scrubbing at her eyes as she tried to get the tears to stop. 聽It鈥檚 stupid, she thought. 聽I shouldn鈥檛 be so upset. 聽It鈥檚 just a birthday party.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵our face is wet.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary started, despite herself. 聽She pulled away from the tree. 聽鈥淵-yeah.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲hy?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary rubbed her eyes fiercely. 聽鈥淏-because I鈥檓 crying.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淐rying?鈥 聽The Forest鈥檚 voice trailed off into a breeze, the word picked up by various creatures inside. 聽After a few moments, an answering murmur came: sad upset overwhelmed too much emotion鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou are hurt.鈥 聽It wasn鈥檛 a question, and there was something almost angry underneath it.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary flinched backwards, because for a moment all she could hear was Papa鈥檚 voice, and she hadn鈥檛 come here because she wanted to be yelled at again鈥 聽鈥淒on鈥檛 be angry. Please.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The whole Forest seemed to suddenly go quiet. 聽鈥淵ou are hurt,鈥 the Forest repeated, and this time it sounded vaguely uncertain, 鈥渂ecause of anger?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚鈥檓 not hurt,鈥 Mary said stubbornly. 聽鈥淚t鈥檚 stupid.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淢ary,鈥 the Forest said, and for a brief, fleeting moment, she was reminded of Uncle Ian, gently soothing her after she鈥檇 fallen and scraped a knee, just before picking her up to tell her a story.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(Papa had told her stories too, once. 聽When had that stopped?)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽When the Forest spoke again, its voice was back to normal, and she could believe she鈥檇 imagined the whole thing. 聽鈥淚t is understandable,鈥 the Forest said. 聽鈥淗umans often hurt others when they are angry.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淗-he鈥攈e just wants to keep me safe. 聽He鈥檚 just worried.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淏ut you are still hurt.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 don鈥檛 want to talk about this,鈥 Mary said quickly. 聽鈥淚 just鈥擨 don鈥檛 want to think about it.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest went silent again.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary stayed silent, pressed against a tree, until something fluttered near her foot. 聽She blinked, lifting her head.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A bird had fluttered closer. 聽Its faintly-glowing feathers illuminated the ground around her.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Something shifted in the undergrowth. 聽A creature that vaguely resembled a fox emerged from the bush, lifting its head to press against her hand. 聽Mary鈥檚 fingers curled into the animal鈥檚 fur, and it curled up against her. 聽Mary giggled, the sound wet, as more animals emerged, gently pressing against her. 聽鈥淭hank you.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A low hum went through the Forest as a response.
聽聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽~*~
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽-The Forest asked, 鈥淲hy do you talk to me?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary stopped pouring the water for a moment, startled by the unexpected question. 聽鈥淚, um. 聽Do you not want me to?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The nearest tree creaked. 鈥淚t is simply strange. 聽Humans do not often talk to me.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She wasn鈥檛 sure how to take that鈥攁s a reprimand, as a statement, as a question. 聽She tried to answer, anyways. 聽鈥淲ell, um. 聽It鈥檚 because I like having someone to talk to.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou do not have humans to talk to?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 do!鈥 she hurried to say. 聽鈥淚 have Papa, and the kids at school, and lots of other people! 聽But, um. 聽They maybe don鈥檛 listen as well? 聽But it鈥檚 okay! 聽I know they鈥檙e just busy and have lots of other things to worry about and I鈥檓 just a kid who makes them worry and causes trouble and鈥斺 聽She paused for breath, and found she wasn鈥檛 sure how else she could continue, so she just fell silent instead.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest waited.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary whispered, 鈥淚t鈥檚 lonely, sometimes.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The trees creaked. The wind echoed between them, making the whole Forest sound strangely hollow.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary asked, 鈥淚s it lonely for you, too?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Birds fluttered overhead; vines twisted a little around the nearest tree trunk. 聽鈥淚 have never talked to anyone before.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚s it because of the stories? 聽Because if it鈥檚 the stories, then鈥攖hen I can make them stop!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A wingbeat fluttered near her ear. 聽鈥淚 do not know the stories,鈥 it answered. 聽鈥淚 have never had need to talk to anyone before.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淥h. 聽How come?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淓verything within my borders is connected. 聽The trees,鈥 the trunks leaned forward, 鈥渢he birds,鈥 one rushed overhead, 鈥渢he stones,鈥 a couple pebbles bounced down the path. 聽鈥淚 can see, and hear, and feel everything that is connected to me.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淓ven me?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淣o. 聽You are not a part of the Forest.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary tried not to think about how strangely empty that made her feel. 聽鈥淏ut you know I鈥檓 here. 聽You can hear me.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵es. 聽Through the ears of the birds, and the mice, and the deer. I can see you through the eyes of the ants and the rabbits and things humans have no name for. 聽I can speak through the voices of the wind, and the leaves, and the stones, and you will hear because of your presence within my boundaries. 聽I am many and one at once; I have no need to talk to others.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淥h.鈥 聽Mary scratched a finger in the dirt. 聽鈥淏ut, um. 聽Then. 聽Um.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest waited, silent save for a bird call, somewhere in the distance.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary chewed her lip, then took a deep breath. 聽鈥淭here are stories about people disappearing when they come here. 聽I thought maybe, um鈥攎aybe you were taking people because you were lonely? 聽But if you don鈥檛 need to speak to anyone鈥攁nd it鈥檚 silly, anyways, I鈥檓 being dumb, because if people disappeared then you would鈥檝e taken me and Blake and it鈥檚 just a silly superstition, anyways.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Something soft brushed against Mary鈥檚 legs; when she turned, it had already disappeared, eyes gleaming in the undergrowth. 聽鈥淪ometimes,鈥 the Forest said, 鈥渢hings from the Outside enter my boundaries.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary cocked her head.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淪ome find their way out. Others stay, and become a part of the Forest.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淏ecome a part of you?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵es.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淏ut, um, how does that鈥攈ow does that work? 聽Do they build homes here? 聽But then why don鈥檛 they come back to see their families? 聽Dad had a friend鈥攈e thought he came here. 聽They never found him.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淣o,鈥 the Forest answered, in a long burst of wind that was more like a sigh. 聽鈥淵ou do not understand. 聽They become a part of the Forest.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary frowned.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 can show you.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Some warning rang in the back of Mary鈥檚 mind, then; some instinct that told her that she should leave, that she would not like whatever she was about to see. 聽But she didn鈥檛 move, her legs too stiff, her eyes wide as she stared into the too-dark depths of the Forest.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The undergrowth rustled and shifted. 聽A nearby tree creaked and cracked, loudly, and it took Mary a moment to realize it was turning, the roots tugging free of the ground and shifting. 聽Small lights flickered from the grass and popped around the tree鈥檚 trunk. 聽A large, bulbous growth had formed on the side of the tree, half-covered in bark and moss; the layers peeled back slowly with a cracking, snapping sound to reveal what lay underneath.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The thing might鈥檝e been human, once. 聽It looked vaguely human-shaped. 聽The arms were twisted above its head, almost completely subsumed by the trunk. 聽A large branch curled through one shoulder, sprouting several large, faintly glowing flowers. 聽The legs had elongated into something that almost resembled roots, toes breaking through shoes that had half-decayed. 聽Moss patterned the lower portion of the person鈥檚 face like a beard. 聽Its eyes were half-lidded, glowing white and pupil-less in the dark.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A jumble of emotions Mary couldn鈥檛 quite parse apart fluttered in her chest.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Then the maybe-person鈥檚 mouth moved, and spoke in a voice that rasped with disuse. 聽鈥淭his is what I mean,鈥 it said, and the words seemed to be echoed by the birds, by the leaves, by every single thing around them until Mary felt too hemmed-in. 聽鈥淭hey are transformed by the Forest. 聽They become a part of me.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Suddenly it felt like the unnatural darkness of the Forest had lifted, and Mary couldn鈥檛 help gaping. 聽Each tree seemed to have something else attached to it鈥攁 deer skeleton, threaded through with vines, or a fox that still seemed mostly alive but was covered in mushrooms, or nothing more than a vague face that had been trapped in the hollow wood. 聽The mouse that skittered across the ground carried fungus on its back; the deer that pranced, just in view, had antlers that had twisted out of shape, greenery growing along its chin and neck, legs too long and too many. A many-eyed thing blinked at her, long claws trailing through the undergrowth.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary didn鈥檛 know when she鈥檇 surged to her feet, nor when she鈥檇 started running, nor when her breath had gotten caught in her throat. 聽All she knew was that she needed to get out, out, out, back to light and safety and away from that thing in the tree鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She burst into daylight, tripped, and fell, skidding across the grass and scuffing her palms. She lay there a few moments, shivering, hiccupping, waiting for something to step out of the Forest and follow her.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Nothing did. 聽When Mary pushed herself onto her knees, the Forest was as silent as always.
聽聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽~*~
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽-The man in the tree wouldn鈥檛 stop staring at her.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She saw it whenever she blinked, or looked in a mirror, or caught something out of the corner of her eye. 聽She couldn鈥檛 stop seeing it, those glowing eyes boring deeply into hers. 聽It made her chest clench, and her breath shuddered.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淢ary,鈥 one of her teachers said, voice just on the edge of concern, 鈥渁re you doing alright?鈥 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary looked at her teacher, and for a moment, she thought his eyes were glowing. 聽She blinked, and it was gone.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(I know what happened to the missing people.)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary forced a smile and said, 鈥淔ine!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 can call your father. I鈥檓 sure he wouldn鈥檛 mind picking you up if you鈥檙e not feeling well鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淣o!鈥 聽Mary took a deep breath, then continued, 鈥淚鈥檓 fine. I don鈥檛 need to worry him.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The teacher didn鈥檛 look convinced, but he let it go.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The day passed in a haze. One moment, she was sitting in class, staring at a worksheet. 聽The next, the end of day announcements came on, and she was wandering down the hall towards the office.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa came to pick her up and speak to her homeroom teacher. 聽She couldn鈥檛 really focus on what they were saying; she kept staring at Papa, wondering if she should tell him. 聽(I know what happened to Uncle Ian.)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa tugged her towards the car, and she didn鈥檛 protest, allowing him to usher her into the seat. Ask, a part of her whispered. 聽Ask me what鈥檚 wrong. Please. 聽I need to talk about it.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Don鈥檛 ask, another part of her hissed. 聽I can鈥檛 do it. 聽I can鈥檛 say anything. 聽I don鈥檛 want you to be mad at me.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She didn鈥檛 even realize how silent the ride home had been until they pulled into the driveway. Papa pulled her, roughly, from her seat and dragged her into the house. 聽He shut the door, but didn鈥檛 let go of her arm.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Oh, she thought. 聽He鈥檚 noticed. 聽He鈥檚 going to ask now.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淢ary,鈥 he said, and for the first time she noticed how hard he was working his jaw, and how harsh his voice came out. 聽鈥淥ne of my coworkers said they saw you running out of the Forest yesterday.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary鈥檚 heart dropped like a rock into her stomach. 聽That鈥檚 not what I wanted to talk about, she thought, desperate. 聽That鈥檚 not how I wanted this conversation to go.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲hat did I tell you,鈥 Papa asked, 鈥渁bout going to the Forest?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary knew she was supposed to say something, here, but she froze, Papa鈥檚 image overlapping with that of the man in the tree.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 told you,鈥 Papa growled, 鈥渘ot to go back there.鈥 聽His voice lifted, rising to an almost hysterical pitch. 聽鈥淚 told you not to go to the Forest! 聽You could get hurt! 聽Do you want to disappear like all those others? 聽Is that what you want? 聽To disappear and leave me alone?鈥 聽He shook her, roughly, and her head spun.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Maybe it was the disorientation, or Papa鈥檚 words, or the desperate attempt to get attention off her. Maybe she just didn鈥檛 know how to keep it in anymore, because she blurted, 鈥淚 know what happened to Uncle Ian.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa suddenly went very, very still.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淗-he鈥攖he Forest鈥攊t鈥檚 magic. 聽He became a part of it. 聽He鈥檚 still there.鈥 聽Mary looked at Papa desperately. 聽鈥淚鈥檓 sorry.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa didn鈥檛 move for several long, long moments. 聽When he did, it was to hit her, sharply, across the side of her face. 聽Mary would鈥檝e fallen, had Papa not still had such a harsh hold on her. 聽鈥淒on鈥檛 talk about Ian,鈥 he shouted, and he hit her again. 聽鈥淗e made his own choices. 聽It鈥檚 his own fault he鈥檚 gone.鈥 聽And again. 聽鈥淚 won鈥檛 let you make the same mistakes.鈥 聽And again. 聽He was crying, now, his voice near hysterical. 聽鈥淚鈥檓 doing this for your own good.鈥 聽He hit her again. 聽鈥淒on鈥檛 go back to the Forest. 聽Don鈥檛 go back there!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淧apa鈥斺 聽Her head throbbed. 聽She was crying too, she thought, but her world was spinning, and she was having trouble focusing. 聽鈥淧apa, please鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She woke up on the floor, with the house dark, and Papa gone.
聽聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽~*~
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽-Mary hadn鈥檛 intended to go back to the Forest. 聽Not really; not after seeing鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Eyes glowing, moss coating its chin, Mary wondering desperately if this was how the Forest knew her鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽But she was tired, and lonely, and hurt, and she no longer knew where else to go.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The route to the Forest seemed longer than before. 聽She wondered, absently, if Papa would notice that she left and come after her.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(Did it matter, if she didn鈥檛 come back?)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary dragged herself up the slope; she shook, a little, her heart thundering in her chest. 聽She pulled herself inside the tree line, but didn鈥檛 make it very far before she collapsed, curling up against the trunk of the tree.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest was silent. That was good; Mary wasn鈥檛 sure what she would鈥檝e done if something had come to see her.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She stayed curled against the tree, shaking and silent, for a long time. 聽鈥淚s Uncle Ian here?鈥 she whispered.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest didn鈥檛 respond, save for a quiet wind that, if she listened closely, she thought might鈥檝e whispered Ian鈥檚 name.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚t鈥檚 just鈥攈e went missing. 聽Like a lot of people. 聽Him and Papa were really close. 聽They used to tell me stories鈥擨an was really fascinated about the Forest, you know. But then he disappeared, and Papa stopped telling stories.鈥 聽Mary pulled her knees to her chest, but it couldn鈥檛 quite stop her shaking. 聽鈥淲hy?鈥 she whispered. 聽鈥淲hy do you take people, and鈥攁nd鈥斺 聽She couldn鈥檛 quite bring herself to say the words; she didn鈥檛 know what she might鈥檝e said if she did. 聽鈥淐an you let them go?鈥 Mary asked instead. 聽鈥淚-if Uncle Ian were鈥攊f he came back, then maybe Papa would change back, too. Maybe he鈥檇 stop鈥斺 聽She broke off, a fractured part of her brushing against another thought she didn鈥檛 really want to have. 聽鈥淧lease let him go. 聽Please.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest was silent for a long moment before something gentle brushed her shoulder. 聽鈥淚 can鈥檛.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲hy not?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淭hey are interconnected to my magic. 聽They are part of the greater consciousness. 聽I do not know if their consciousnesses can be unwound.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淥h.鈥 聽Mary leaned heavily against the tree. 聽鈥淒o you think,鈥 she asked tiredly, 鈥淚 could become part of it, too?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest went still.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 don鈥檛 know what to do,鈥 she whispered. 聽鈥淧apa鈥檚 always angry or worried or鈥攈e鈥檚 not happy. 聽A-and I don鈥檛鈥攈e scares me. 聽I don鈥檛 want him to scare me, because I know he loves me, but he does, and it鈥檚鈥! 聽And I keep thinking about the鈥攖he person in the tree, and I can鈥檛 sleep, and Papa won鈥檛 listen because he鈥檚 just mad that I went into the Forest, and I鈥檓 tired! 聽I don鈥檛 want to go back, and I don鈥檛 want to think about鈥攁bout what happened to Uncle Ian, and I don鈥檛 want to be alone anymore.鈥 聽She didn鈥檛 know when she鈥檇 started crying, but once it started, she couldn鈥檛 stop. 聽She shook and heaved, great shuddering sobs rattling her chest and she pressed herself against the tree trunk. 聽鈥淚f I disappear into the Forest,鈥 she whispered, 鈥渢hen no one would mind. 聽Papa would be sad for a while, but then he wouldn鈥檛 have anything to worry about anymore.鈥 聽Her words died out slowly, and she just sat there, a heavy sense of exhaustion weighing down on her chest.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The silence went on for a little longer. 聽Then, in a voice so quiet she might not have heard it, had it not been magic: 鈥淚 hurt you.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary curled up tighter.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 hurt you,鈥 the voice repeated, and it sounded so strangely human that Mary couldn鈥檛 help thinking about the person in the tree again. 聽鈥淚 am sorry. I am sorry, I did not mean鈥擨 only wanted to explain鈥擨 should not have showed you that.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary shrugged, shoulder scraping the bark. 聽She winced, but didn鈥檛 move away.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚f I hurt you,鈥 the Forest asked, 鈥渨hy did you come back?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary didn鈥檛 know how to answer that for a long moment. 聽鈥淧apa hurts me, too. 聽But he does it because he cares. 聽I鈥擨 know you didn鈥檛 mean it.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淭hat does not make it okay.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Why do you sound so human now? Mary wanted to ask, but didn鈥檛, almost afraid of the answer.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(A part of her wondered if it was because of the people who were a part of the Forest鈥檚 consciousness; if they gave the Forest a way to understand what humans were like. 聽She wished it had worked a little sooner.)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲hat can I do?鈥 the Forest asked, the trees creaking.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淛ust let me stay here. Please?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest didn鈥檛 respond, and Mary took that as an affirmative. 聽She stayed, curled against the trunk of a tree, until faint sunlight started to peek through the tree line.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She knew she should leave, then. 聽She didn鈥檛 want to.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(Didn鈥檛 want to go back. Didn鈥檛 want to stay. 聽Didn鈥檛 know what she really wanted anymore.)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Eventually Mary stood, her legs stiff. 聽She hesitated just inside the tree line. 聽A part of her thought of turning and running deeper; going so deep that she鈥檇 be lost in the Forest forever.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(She wondered if that was the reason so many people went missing; if they had just gotten so tired of living in the town that they鈥檇 decided leaving for the Forest was better.)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽After a few long moments of deliberation, she took a step back into the sunlight.
聽聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽~*~
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽-Mary made it back to her room as the sun was coming up, tumbling into her bed and falling asleep almost as soon as she鈥檇 hit her pillow. Papa came to wake her up barely a moment later. 聽He didn鈥檛 say anything; he just ushered her along, shoving her school clothes at her, driving her to school in silence.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(Mary didn鈥檛 want to go, but she didn鈥檛 want to stay. 聽The car felt suffocating with its silence, and she practically held her breath until they reached the school building.)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The whole day seemed to pass in a sleep-deprived haze, but that was alright; it meant she didn鈥檛 have to think about Papa so much, and about his reaction and what it meant.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽But she did think about the Forest, her mind twisting in useless circles as she tried to make sense of her feelings.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(She liked the Forest. She liked that it listened, and she liked the mystery, even if it scared her. 聽But she didn鈥檛 like that it took people, and that they ended up like the thing in the tree, and that maybe there were other people out there like Papa who鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽But the Forest had been upset to find out it had hurt her, and it had apologized, so maybe鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa never apologized.)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She hiked back out to the Forest after school, tired but determined, and set foot into the tree line with a mission in mind.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest spoke, much more quickly than she鈥檇 anticipated, the ferns lifting to brush her legs, lights flaring in the darkness. 聽鈥淵ou鈥檙e back.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵-yeah.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou did not have to come,鈥 it said, 鈥渋f I made you distressed.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚-I know,鈥 she said. 鈥淚 wanted to.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest didn鈥檛 say anything to that, and Mary gathered herself, trying to find the words. 聽鈥淲hat is it like,鈥 she asked finally, 鈥渄eeper inside?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest was silent for several long, long moments. 聽鈥淎re you sure you wish to see?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary steeled herself. 鈥淵es. 聽I want to know if鈥攊f there鈥檚 anything鈥擨 just need to know.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 hurt you last time. I do not wish to hurt you again.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary smiled, despite herself. 聽鈥淚-it鈥檚 okay. I鈥檓 choosing to do this, this time.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淭hat does not鈥斺 The Forest broke off, and Mary was struck again by how strangely human the sentiment was. 聽鈥淚f it is too much, then please say so. 聽I will guide you back out.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淥kay,鈥 she said, voice shaking a little.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Carefully the trees pulled back, inching along the ground, dragging their roots from their places until there was a long, grassy path into the darkness. 聽Lights flickered along the edges, guiding Mary inward.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽For a moment, Mary remembered the stories about those lights, and how following them could lead to a person getting lost forever.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽But she also knew that the Forest wouldn鈥檛 mind if she chose to turn and walk out, instead. 聽Slowly, hesitantly, she edged forward, walking carefully along the path.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The pathway was bright, lit by brightly glowing balls of light that kept the darkness in the rest of the Forest at bay. 聽Trees and stones and animals continued to move out of her way, extending the path further and further into the Forest鈥檚 center. 聽She wondered if she could keep walking and come out on the other side.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(She wondered if Papa would come looking for her, or if he鈥檇 just stay in his empty house and grieve.)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The trees stopped moving, and Mary stepped into the center of a large, dark clearing. 聽She blinked, trying to peer through the darkness, willing her eyes to adjust.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Lights flickered in the clearing, a rainbow of blue and pink and yellow, flooding the grass and the trees with brilliant, fractured hues. 聽The long strands of grass shimmered with dew, waving in the slight breeze. 聽A massive tree grew in the center of the clearing, trunk twisted so that it looked like it was made up of dozens of smaller trees. 聽Bird nests filled the upper branches, protected by a thick canopy of leaves. 聽Tiny hatchlings peered out of their nests at Mary, feathers still dull, but scattering small bursts of light as they ruffled their downy wings. 聽A larger bird flew overhead, gliding towards one of the nests and perching to feed one of the chicks.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Something emerged from the trees, and Mary gasped as a large stag walked towards her. 聽Its antlers looked like gnarled branches, chipping apart in areas to reveal bursts of color. 聽Its neck seemed too long, its legs too spindly, and when it huffed, it breathed mist. 聽Mary was almost afraid, until a doe and fawn stepped out behind it. 聽The fawn looked much like its father, if a little more proportionate, but had a pair of extra legs it bounced on. 聽It jumped towards Mary, curiously lifting its head and nuzzling at her hand. 聽Mary giggled, stroking its velvety fur.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淏eing part of the Forest is not always death,鈥 the Forest said, and it took Mary a moment to understand it was coming from the stag. 聽鈥淭here is life, too. 聽One is given power and care through life, and when they pass, they become a part of the Forest again, to help support life. 聽It is the way of things.鈥 聽A pause. 鈥淏ut I should not have shown you the man. 聽It distressed you. 聽That was wrong.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary knelt, scratching the fawn under the chin. 聽鈥淵ou didn鈥檛 know. 聽You, um. You hadn鈥檛 interacted much with humans before.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚t was still wrong. I should not have hurt you.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A bird fluttered near her, and the Forest shifted, voice coming from it, instead of the stag. 聽鈥淚 do not always understand human morals,鈥 it said, 鈥渂ut I understand harm. 聽My concern has always been whether or not harm has been done to those that are a part of me.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵-you said that鈥檚 why you chased us out before.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵es. 聽I allowed you to stay because you did not cause harm. I should not have then caused harm to you.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary stood. 聽A couple more birds fluttered around her, stirring her clothes and making her giggle. 聽鈥淚t鈥檚 beautiful,鈥 she admitted. 聽鈥淚 wonder if that鈥檚 why people stay here, sometimes.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest went quiet, suddenly. 聽鈥淭hey get lost,鈥 it said after a long, long moment.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淭hey can鈥檛 find their way out.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淪ometimes. Sometimes, they are lost in their minds, rather than in the physical world. 聽They stay here and do not leave.鈥 聽A pause. 聽鈥淚 do not want that to happen to you.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淏ut you can always guide me back out. 聽Right?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵es.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淎nd鈥攁nd you can guide others out, too?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A pause. 聽Lights flickered, lighting up a path. 聽鈥淚f they choose,鈥 it said finally.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淕ood. Because鈥攂ecause I don鈥檛 want鈥擨 don鈥檛 want people like Ian to go missing anymore.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest stayed silent for a long time. 聽Mary didn鈥檛 mind; she let the silence grow, absently petting the fawn until it felt like things had grown too late. 聽Then she stood, letting the Forest guide her back to the edge, lights flickering along the path.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest stopped her briefly with a whisper of, 鈥淢ary.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽She cocked her head.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou are always welcome here,鈥 it said, 鈥渋f you need refuge.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary smiled, a small thing that felt more real than anything she鈥檇 given over the past several days. 聽鈥淥kay.鈥
聽聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 ~*~
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽-Mary hadn鈥檛 really meant to talk to anyone about the Forest鈥攁t least, not until she had a better plan. 聽She didn鈥檛 know how to explain what she鈥檇 learned (didn鈥檛 think anyone would listen), and so cautiously hoarded the information to herself, going back to the Forest when she could in order to speak to it and learn more.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽But then it was the weekend, and Papa was having people over from his work, and they鈥檇 gotten into the adult drinks and gone red in the face and started hollering and laughing in the living room. 聽Mary knew that she wasn鈥檛 supposed to go in there鈥攚asn鈥檛 sure she wanted to, really鈥攂ut she鈥檇 heard one of Papa鈥檚 friends say, 鈥淎ll those stories about the Forest are bullshit. 聽Mark went in a couple days ago, and he came back out, perfectly fine.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary paused, hovering close to the doorway.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淢aybe he just鈥攎aybe he just got so lost that he came out the other side.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淣ah, nah, I鈥檓 telling you鈥攈e said he saw these colored light things.鈥 聽The words were slurred, but Mary couldn鈥檛 help her grin, and she pressed her hands tightly to her mouth to keep from giggling. 聽鈥淪aid they led him right out.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa said, 鈥淵ou shouldn鈥檛 tell such stories.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淥h, come on, Rick, lighten up. 聽It鈥檚 all in good fun.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou shouldn鈥檛鈥攜ou shouldn鈥檛 talk about stuff like that.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Something in Papa鈥檚 voice made the hairs on Mary鈥檚 neck stand on end. 聽She peered cautiously around the doorway.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa was leaning forward in his recliner, bottle clasped in his hands, his expression distant and haggard. 聽鈥淚an talked like that,鈥 Papa said. 聽鈥淚an talked about that all the time, about his鈥攁bout how the Forest was magic, and how he鈥檇 go see it one day. 聽Nobody believed it. 聽People just鈥攋ust fucking ran away. 聽But Ian believed in those stupid fairytales, and he wouldn鈥檛 stop looking. 聽He believed them so much it killed him.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽One of the men laughed, and slapped Papa鈥檚 shoulder, and said, 鈥淩ight, a story鈥檚 what killed him.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa shoved the man鈥檚 arm away. 聽鈥淗e wouldn鈥檛 leave it alone! 聽He kept鈥攈e obsessed over it until鈥攗ntil there was nothing left. 聽He鈥檚 dead, now. 聽Maybe if people didn鈥檛 talk about those damn stories鈥斺 聽He shook his head and took another swig from his bottle.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary stepped into the living room, and without truly pausing to think, she said, 鈥淏ut they鈥檙e true, Papa.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽All eyes were very suddenly on her. 聽She quailed under them, suddenly wondering if she should run back to her room.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淟ook at this!鈥 one of the men said, pointing at Mary. 聽鈥淜iddo鈥檚 going to join us! 聽What鈥檝e you got to say, kiddo?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa stared at her, a dark look on his face.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(Mary remembered telling Papa about what happened to Ian. 聽Papa had been so angry, then. 聽She wondered if it鈥檇 be different now, with friends around. 聽She wondered if it mattered.) 聽鈥淚-it鈥檚 true, though. 聽The Forest鈥攑eople disappear because they become a part of it. 聽But it鈥檚 not trying to! 聽It鈥檚 because of the weird magic stuff.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲eird magic stuff,鈥 someone repeated, laughing.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵eah! 聽It鈥檚 not all scary, though. 聽Some of it鈥檚 really pretty, too. 聽A-and we worked out a way to maybe keep people from disappearing? That鈥檚 what those lights were. 聽I talked to the Forest about it the other day, and鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou went back to the Forest?鈥 Papa asked.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The room suddenly went very, very quiet.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary took a hesitant step backwards. 聽Papa鈥檚 scowl had deepened, his eyebrows so low that they cast his eyes in deep shadow.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa stood. 聽He stumbled, a little, and nearly dropped the bottle.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary scrambled back further.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽One of the men said, 鈥淗ey, Rick, maybe you shouldn鈥檛鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 told you,鈥 Papa said, low and quiet and fierce, 鈥渘ot to go back to the Forest.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary鈥檚 eyes darted towards the door.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淟ook at me!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary whipped towards Papa, who had come much, much closer than she鈥檇 expected. 聽鈥淚-I鈥檓 sorry.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Something sharp stung her cheek. 聽She fell and sprawled across the floor, hands scraping roughly against the wood.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淩ick, hey!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淲hy did you go back there?鈥 Papa snarled, and the way his face contorted made him seem more like the not-human from the Forest, rather than the Papa she鈥檇 known as a child. 鈥淚 told you not to.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚鈥檓 sorry!鈥 Mary said, scrambling backwards.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa lifted his hand again.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽One of his coworkers caught it, hissing, 鈥淩ick, I think you鈥檝e had a little too much鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淟et go of me!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary scrambled to her feet and ran.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa roared behind her, but she didn鈥檛 look back, crashing through the door, sprinting bare-foot through the darkening streets. 聽She wove through the houses, and after a while she heard an angry shout of, 鈥淢ary!鈥 from behind her.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa was chasing after her. 聽Papa was far away, now, but he could catch up quickly.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(What happens when he catches her?)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(鈥淚 will give you refuge, if you need it.鈥)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary stumbled from between the houses and onto the field, the Forest looming dark and silent ahead. She hurried up the slope, chest rattling, breathing heavy, scrambling up, up, up, one hand reaching frantically for the trees.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Heavy breathing and footsteps sounded behind her, and she鈥檇 just made it to the tree line when Papa grabbed the back of her shirt. 聽She stretched an arm, frantically, towards the Forest, but Papa dragged her backwards, lifting her like a disobedient cat. 聽鈥淲here are you going?鈥 Papa asked, shaking her, and it hurt. 聽She fumbled for his arm, and she shook her again. 聽鈥淗uh? 聽You think you鈥檙e going back there?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary choked on a sob. 鈥淗elp,鈥 she said, and it was more a sob than an actual cry.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淗elp?鈥 聽Papa snarled. 鈥淚 am helping you, I鈥檓 keeping you from ending up like Ian. 聽You should be grateful, but you never know how鈥攏othing but trouble. 聽We鈥檙e going home. We鈥檙e going home, and then you鈥檙e going to鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A harsh wind echoed between the trees.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa stopped.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary dangled, the tips of her feet touching the ground.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽(鈥淗e has caused you harm,鈥 something that sounded eerily like the Forest whispered in her mind.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽He鈥檚 protecting me.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Is he?)
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵ou aren鈥檛 helping me.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The world went very quiet, and it took a long moment for Mary to realize she鈥檇 said anything at all. When Papa responded, his voice was low and dangerous: 鈥淲hat?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary swallowed, but continued, one hand reaching to grab Papa鈥檚 arm. 聽鈥淵ou鈥檙e hurting me,鈥 she said. 鈥淎-and I know it鈥檚 because you鈥檙e scared, but鈥攂ut鈥攂ut I want you to stop hurting me!鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚鈥檓 trying to keep you safe.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淭hen why do I feel safer in the Forest then with you?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa鈥檚 face contorted into a snarl. 聽He shook her, roughly.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary grimaced, her head spinning, one hand silently reaching back towards the Forest. Something brushed against her fingertips.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa growled, 鈥淲e鈥檙e leaving. 聽You are not to come back to this Forest. 聽You are not鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽And then the Forest spoke, long and low and rumbling, like it was shaking the very earth. 鈥淲hat are you doing?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa froze. 聽His grip loosened, just enough so that Mary could drop to the ground, coughing and sputtering.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Rough hands鈥攁lmost like wood鈥攇ently touched Mary鈥檚 arm.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa鈥檚 voice came, low and broken and uncertain: 鈥淚an?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary blinked up, and for a moment she saw Uncle Ian鈥檚 face as it once had been, soft and friendly with a twinkle in his eyes. 聽Then it shifted, a little, and she noticed the rough, cracked edges of his face and the bushes along his back. 聽He lifted Mary carefully and turned towards Papa, face contorting into a scowl.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The trees leaned forward ominously. 聽鈥淵ou have done harm to the child.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa took several steps backwards, eyes too wide. 聽鈥淚鈥檓 protecting her,鈥 he said. 聽鈥淚an, I鈥檓 making sure she doesn鈥檛 get hurt. 聽I鈥檓 trying to keep her from ending up like you.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淭his is not protection,鈥 the Forest rumbled; Uncle Ian鈥檚 chest reverberated with the words, and things moved behind him, large and dark and intimidating, gnashing teeth and snarling loud enough that the cries seemed to blend together.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淪ometimes,鈥 Papa said, but his voice was wavering, 鈥渟ometimes you have to hurt people to protect them. 聽Ian, you have to understand. 聽Sometimes鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The wind roared through the trees, moving so quickly that it stirred Mary鈥檚 clothes and nearly knocked Papa off his feet. 聽鈥淣o,鈥 the Forest said. 聽鈥淵ou have done her harm.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa鈥檚 expression contorted, into something angry and feral and frightening. 聽鈥淲hat do you care?鈥 he snapped. 聽鈥淵ou鈥檙e not really Ian. 聽You鈥檙e not really here. You鈥檙e just some sort of鈥攕ome sort of crazy hallucination. 聽Just a bunch of trees.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淚 have many names, and none at all,鈥 the Forest boomed, and it sounded like the thunder of falling stones, of countless animal cries and the crash of waterfalls. 聽鈥淚 have been here since time began, and even before. I have seen humans far stronger and braver than you. 聽I have seen love, and life, and death and pain. 聽I have survived throughout the ages, and I shelter those who would take refuge within my trees. 聽And I will protect my own.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽A creature lunged from the depths of the Forest, massive and snarling ferociously, covered in bark-like armor with long claws that stretched like shadows towards Papa. 聽He scrambled backwards, panicked, as it swiped at his chest. 聽More appeared, wraith-like and warped, a mass of long fangs and claws and eyes.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Ian鈥檚 fingers curled tighter around Mary, and she lifted a hand to grip his shoulder.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Papa looked at Mary for a moment, then to the wall of darkness that snarled at him. 聽He stumbled a step back, and then another, and then turned and bolted back to the town.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The creatures stayed where they were for a few moments, waiting until he was out of sight until, one by one, they moved back into the trees.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淎re you alright, Mary?鈥 the Forest asked, Ian carefully setting her back on her feet.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary hiccupped and shook, but she said, 鈥淵-yes.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽The Forest did not answer, and she found herself admitting, 鈥淣-no.鈥 聽She sat, and hugged her legs to her chest, and tried not to think about how much her neck hurt. 聽鈥淚-I can鈥檛 go back. 聽I can鈥檛, I can鈥檛, I can鈥檛.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淭hen stay here.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary鈥檚 head whipped up, but she had no one to look at, save the empty expanse of the Forest. 鈥淚-I don鈥檛鈥擨 don鈥檛 want to end up like鈥斺
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Ian stretched out a hand, slowly, and reached to gently touch the space above her heart. 聽Light flickered through his fingertip, warm and bright and alive. 聽鈥淚 cannot stop that from happening, if you choose to stay here permanently,鈥 the Forest said, and for the first time it sounded pained. 聽鈥淏ut I can give you refuge, when you want it. 聽I can guide you to the edges, so that you won鈥檛 be lost for so long that I overcome you. 聽I can provide you with a piece of my magic, so that even if you travel, you will have my protection with you. 聽But,鈥 and its voice went whisper-quiet, 鈥渙nly if you want it.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary touched Ian鈥檚 hand, gently. 聽鈥淵ou鈥檇 look after me?鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽鈥淵es.鈥
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Mary grinned, then laughed, and though the tears still stung, they didn鈥檛 feel quite as bad anymore. 鈥淥kay.鈥
聽聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽~*~
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽-Most of the time, nobody goes to the Forest outside of town.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽There are stories, though; of a young woman who lives within the Forest, who can do strange magic and plays tricks on travelers, who has traveled through the world herself. They say that she was the daughter of someone who lived in the town, once, and that her parents died, or moved away and left her there, or were stolen away by the Forest itself so that it could have their child.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Sometimes people claim to see her鈥攁 wild-haired woman in hiking gear or a mismatched dress or heavy winter clothes, sitting in the trees or talking to animals or yelling at travelers when they get too close. 聽She鈥檇 guide people out of the Forest, sometimes, and those people talked about the fantastic things they saw within鈥攁bout fairy lights, and unusual creatures, and shifting trees.
聽 聽 聽 聽 聽 聽Most people don鈥檛 believe the stories鈥攁 forest is just a forest, after all. 聽But every so often, someone gets curious enough to go to the edge and look in. 聽And, when they do, they sometimes find her grinning back at them.
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cecilsstorycorner 9 months ago
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My part for the @originalfictionbigbang, for the wonderful story Forest Child by @corishadowfang! Highly recommend going to read the story, it鈥檚 a semi-quick read, but it鈥檚 very good, hits that perfect sweetspot of spook and emotions that I love so much.
I drew this all the way back in like...February, so it鈥檚 a tad behind my other art, but I鈥檓 not actually too bummed about how this aged! Naturally there are things I鈥檝e improved since this that I鈥檇 do differently if drawn now, but I still don鈥檛 dislike it!
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sweetsvnguine a year ago
kinda rude that i can鈥檛 just become one with the moss i find in the forest
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forest-child14 3 months ago
I wish to flee into the forest and become one with nature but ffs I live basically in the city and I鈥檓 a woman. How am I supposed to be the forest child if I can never go in the forest?
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lichen-thr0pe a year ago
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ashahgrady 10 months ago
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I always end up coming back to my forest children.
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wandering-wolf 5 months ago
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darkstar113 5 months ago
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oromatuja 3 months ago
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little-witchys-cottage a year ago
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I vibe with snufkin
He embodies the strange and free forest child that I long to be.
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flowerpatchedheart 9 months ago
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willowflowerr a year ago
there鈥檚 just something so absolutely right about being in the forest
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