The Forest

John woke up with a dull headache, not knowing where he was. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he smelled the cool, dewy leaves around him and heard the trees laughing with the wind and a symphony of crickets buzzing in his ears. Even in the darkness, the forest was very much alive.

He was not supposed to be alone in the forest. The car. The food. The girls. Panic swelled in his chest as he looked up beyond the canopy only to find a cloudy night, no moon or stars to guide him. 

“He’s awake,” a thin voice whispered behind him.

He turned around to face a young girl, short and thin, no older than 14. Her yellow long coat shined with the faint light of her torch. Next to her, a tall, young man offered him a bottle. The torch light carved harsh shadows on their pale, otherworldly faces.

“You must be thirsty,” the young man said. 

John stepped back. “Who are you? Did you bring me here?”

“I’m Ari, and she’s Lyra. Please don’t be afraid. We need your help.”

“Is somebody hurt?” was John’s first reaction, and he wondered if they knew he was a doctor. “If I help you, will you let me go?”

The kids looked at each other for a second.

“Yes, someone’s hurt. We promise you—after you help us, you will be free.” Ari handed him the water again. “Please. You must be thirsty.”

For a minute, John thought of his options. He could run away but he’d spend the night exposed to the elements with no food, water, or tools. Or, he could go with them and hope they’d keep their word.

Resigned, he took the battered plastic bottle and drank as he followed them. The damp, rotten leaves were soft underfoot, but the uneven ground was difficult to walk on in the dark. Time dissolved in the fog, suspending him in a black hole where each step became a battle, turning the flesh on his legs into cold lead, making him shiver.

“Can we stop for a minute? I need a break,” John asked, out of breath.

The children did not turn back. “We’re almost there, keep going,” the girl urged him.

Cold sweat dripped from his forehead as he failed to lift his left leg and fell on his side, trapped in the threshold of sleep, still awake but unable to speak. When they heard him fell, the kids turned to see him on the ground.

“Sorry about this. We hope you’re not in pain,” Ari said as he struggled to pick John up to carry him. “But look, we’ve arrived.”

The brand new morning found them as they arrived to a circular clear area with a ring of trees with rugged, dark trunks and interspersed with red and yellow leaves. The fog receded as the sunlight spotted the ground. 

Carefully, the young man sat John down against a tree and the young girl kneeled beside him. He smelled blood on her fingers as she painted a long, red streak on his forehead. 

“I dreamed about you a fortnight ago. I saw you drive through the forest with the mark of a healer on your forehead.” Behind her, dozens of stern, pale figures dressed in white emerged from behind the trees singing a song he didn’t understand. “You have your war, and we have ours. Our forest is dying, but healer’s blood will save our sacred trees.” 

John could only open his eyes in terror to see her faint, sorrowful smile as the cold, sharp blade on her hand cut his wrist. The figures sang louder and louder as blood pooled under him. For a moment, he sensed the tree come alive again—he felt an unbearable thirst, a pain outside his body, threads of fine roots of every tree and shrub and grass connected in a secret language he could finally understand. 

Closing his eyes again, he dove deep into his memories to return to their old apartment, to Delia playing with her dolls, to Violet’s lips and her impossible warmth, where he felt most at home.

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Liked what you read? Here are other stories I think you’ll enjoy: The Birds | “Secrets? I love secrets”


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