A Forest, or A Tree

Four young women go on a camping trip. Things slowly begin to go wrong.

 

 

It was just the four of them, four girls alone in the forest.

“Everything is dicks,” Elizabeth said. She gestured at the gnarled gray trunks rising bare-limbed into the shade of their own canopy. “I mean, look around. Dicks, dicks, dicks.”

“You’re so insightful,” said May. She unwedged a water bottle from the side of her pack. “And so foul-mouthed.” Elizabeth had talked most of the way up the mountain. May was pretending she didn’t mind.

Birds muttered in the trees. Piper plodded back from looking over the ravine’s embankment to where the river pounded below. “I’m done walking,” she said. She dropped her bag and flopped to the ground. “This is a stupid hobby. Don’t tell Ailey.”

“Flowers.” Elizabeth pointed to the daisy Piper was tucking into her hair. “Flowers are actually fancy, colorful penises. I mean, how weird is it that we smell them? On purpose?”

Piper scrunched her face and let the flower fall from her hand. “You’re messed up.”

“Nature is evil,” Elizabeth said. “It’s not my fault.”

“Nature is not evil,” May said. She soaked a bandana with her water bottle. “Nature is nature. Evil is just a story.”

“Duck rape,” Elizabeth said. “Ducks rape other ducks all the time. That’s not evil?”

“Oh my god,” Piper said, “this is the worst conversation. I don’t want to know any of this stuff. Can we have the trees and flowers and nature and whatever without the ruining-it-all part? And also no more walking?”

May wrapped the wet bandana around her neck. “We have to sleep in these woods tonight, Elizabeth. Under all your penises.” The other girls were pink with exertion and sun, but May’s skin didn’t pinken adorably. She was dark, unfreckled, and felt slimy with perspiration. She wondered how the white girls stayed looking so pert.

“Don’t even get me started on fruit.”

“Nobody said fruit,” May said. “We aren’t getting you started.”

“Oh my god, don’t,” Piper said.

Ailey traipsed down from a rise, GPS held talismanically before her. “Guys,” she called.

“Here we go,” Piper said. “Anyone else on my side? No more walking?”

May shrugged and sank to the ground next to Piper.

“It’s weird,” Ailey said, trotting down the slope to them. “We aren’t where I thought we were.” She studied the GPS’s minuscule screen, then looked up as though the forest might offer advice.

“It’s pretty here,” Piper said. “I bet it’s a good place to camp.” She raised her eyebrows at May.

“Yeah,” May said obediently. It was pretty. The undergrowth was leafless, sparse, dry twigs and branches hatching together and turning the forest hazy. Ancient cedars pillared into the sky. There was something awful, May thought, awful in the original sense of the word, about looking up. Something about the stature and the patience of the old trees made her feel small, just one story in an endless cycle of nearly identical, pointless stories.

“I thought we’d go upriver,” Ailey said, fiddling with the GPS. “There’s a peak pretty close. Seriously, this thing is being weird.”

Peak, Piper mouthed at May, eyes wide with horror.

Elizabeth approached the ravine’s edge. She held on to a sapling to lean out over the void. Piper squealed, “Don’t, oh my god!”

“We’re not lost, are we?” May asked.

“No,” Ailey said, “it’s . . . wrong. Like, it says we’re . . . well, it doesn’t matter. We’re in the right place. We found the river. We know how to get back.” She gestured at the other girls. “Let’s go.”

Elizabeth scrambled a few steps down toward the river. Piper and May exchanged dubious glances.

“Why not camp here?” Piper said.

Ailey stared. “We’re almost there.” She crossed her arms.

Ailey was in the Mountaineers. Ailey was In Charge.

“Almost where?” Elizabeth called from her perch over the river. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. That part of the middle of nowhere is probably not much different from this part.” Something loosed under her shoe and she slipped, cursed. The sapling bent but held.

Elizabeth was Ailey’s best friend from high school. Elizabeth had provided a running commentary all day of potential disaster, mishap, and urban legend seemingly designed to prevent any possibility of peace.

Piper, Elizabeth’s current roommate, had taken responsibility for  worrying about snakes, worrying about voiding her bowels outdoors, and worrying about potential overlap between the two. Piper had shown up at Ailey’s apartment that morning wearing Converse sneakers. Ailey made her buy boots at a Wal-Mart on the way out of the city.

May wasn’t sure why she’d been invited. She liked Ailey. They’d met at a mutual TA’s awful kegger. The TA was drunk and getting creepy, and May had noticed and dragged Ailey away for a made-up emergency that required both of them to hide in the downstairs bathroom and then leave out the window. They’d been lab partners the following semester. Ailey had told the story about the window escape on the morning’s long drive, and made it seem like something they’d done for fun. Like a joke or something. Maybe only May had noticed the TA’s weird intensity, how he had cornered Ailey in his cheerless, abandoned dining room with a hard, intentional look. Maybe May’s compulsion to push the dining room door all the way open and rescue Ailey had been misguided. Maybe Ailey really did think the two of them had snuck out of the party because why not? Anyway, they hadn’t exactly been besties or anything. Only the shared, strange night, and then a semester sharing a lab bench.

Maybe May was just there for color.

Nobody except Ailey had ever been backpacking before. But probably they’d all be fine.

Eventually Ailey capitulated and they pitched two tents in a ring of enormous cedars. Elizabeth stretched her arms toward their crowns. “Nature’s glorious phalluses.”

“You have dick on the brain,” Ailey said. “Go find firewood.”

Piper spread out on the ground between the two tents. “My tummy hurts,” she said.

May and Elizabeth dragged armloads of sticks into camp and Ailey sorted the pile, snapping branches against her knee. The sun hadn’t begun to set, but their little camp in the trees was dusky and cool. There was plenty of firewood, so they started a fire early. The river noise mortared the empty space between the trees.

“We should tell scary stories,” Elizabeth said.

“No we should not.” Piper lay next to the fire, head on her pack. “We definitely should not do that.”

“You’re right.” Elizabeth eyed the sky. “We’ll wait till dark.”

“Also nope.”

“Okay, what about, like, creepy stories?”

May unlaced her boots. God, it felt good. “Aren’t scary stories a requirement when you’re camping?”

“They are not,” Piper said. “There’s no requirement.”

Ailey patted Piper’s shoulder. “Okay, the rule is: If Piper says stop you have to stop.”

“No means no,” said Elizabeth.

“I already said no,” said Piper. “No clearly does not mean anything to you assholes.”

“Oh come on, Pip,” Elizabeth said. “We’ll be nice.”

“What I do,” Ailey said, “is I figure out why the story can’t happen to me. Like, the Babadook doesn’t live in my basement because both my parents are alive. See? You neutralize it. You can basically always find a reason why you’re okay.”

Piper crossed her arms over her chest, an angry sorority sarcophagus. “I’m covering my ears.” She made no move to do it.

There was a pause to allow Piper’s disapproval to smoke away. A breeze clattered long fingers of underbrush, a quiet tick-tick-ticking over the river’s constant rumble. Overhead, high in the canopy, leaves hissed.

“So, I heard this story,” Elizabeth said, leaning forward. “About some kids out in the woods. They kept hearing—”

May groaned. “I saw that subreddit last week too. It was stupid. Why would a rapist hide in the woods? It doesn’t make any sense. If he’s looking for victims, he’d be better off . . . anywhere, pretty much. The internet is a liar.”

“Just cause it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s automatically untrue,” Ailey said. “It must come from somewhere.”

“Yeah,” Elizabeth said, “like the girl who was playing the elevator game in that hotel in LA, and then they found her dead in the water tower. Like the game worked or something.”

“Stupid stories,” May consoled Piper. “They’re just memes.”

“You’re memes,” Piper said. “What does ‘meme’ even mean.”

“Like, cultural ideas.”

Ailey scoffed and leaned back on her palms. “Every idea is a cultural idea.”

“Memes are cat pictures,” Piper said.

“They’re supposed to be an idea that, like, hits something primal. It’s important to people, somehow. Cat pictures or whatever,” said May.

“So they’re basically just good ideas,” Ailey said. “That’s what you mean.”

“Maybe it’s how we do mythology now,” May said.

Piper waved a hand at the canopy. “What is it about cat pictures? What’s the primal idea there? Cute cats?”

May sniffed and rolled her eyes. “I don’t pretend to understand white people.”

“Ooh, reverse racism,” Elizabeth said. “Plus I know for a fact you liked those pictures I posted of my mom’s kitten, so.”

Piper groaned. “I think all the turkey jerky gave me gas.”

“My condolences,” said Ailey to May, who was Piper’s tentmate.

They sat in the quiet, the rhythm of the river holding them.

“So I saw this story,” Elizabeth said, and Piper groaned again. “No, no, it’s not scary. Not really. It’s just some legend. It seemed like it might have been made up, but I couldn’t tell, and I ended up doing a bunch of research.”

“By research,” Ailey said, “do you mean going down a click-hole?”

“That’s not research?”

“I think it’s interesting,” May said, “how stories get changed around on the internet. People making up legends. Like Slender Man—people got obsessed with it, and that made it almost true. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t an old story. People got into it and that made it as real as, I don’t know, Santa or the Virgin Mary. It makes me think all stories are real at some point. There’s something that’s so compelling we have to tell the story over and over again. Like we’re trying to refine it.”

“Right,” Elizabeth said. “Exactly. I wanted to know where this one came from. Have you heard of Stick Indians?”

“That sounds racist,” Ailey said.

“Stick Native Americans,” Piper said. A trace of sunlight flickered over her closed eyes.

“They call it Stick Indians. I didn’t make it up.”

“Repeating things doesn’t make them not racist,” May said. She hadn’t meant to say it so vehemently. She glanced around their circle to see if anyone had flinched, and relaxed her shoulders.

“Okay, so,” Elizabeth said. “Someone posted this story—it was obviously a story, it had characters and a plot and whatever; real stories aren’t that well organized. A bunch of kids were out camping and were hassled by this tree monster. Whatever, it was dumb, but I hadn’t heard about Stick Indians before.”

Now Piper watched Elizabeth, interested. Ailey poked at the fire.

“Anyway. I looked around and there wasn’t much info. A couple old websites with Yakama Indian legends, but all the sites had basically the same story, and you could tell it was copy-pasted. That first site I saw referenced some books I couldn’t find on Amazon, but I later I saw the same titles in a couple different places. Enough to make me think the books might at least be real.”

“You could try a library,” Ailey said. “Like, where actual research is done.”

May snorted. “You’re such a snob. You just said like five minutes ago that the internet isn’t automatically false.”

“I’m a tactile-experience snob,” Ailey said. “I like the real world. I don’t hate the internet.”

“You definitely don’t hate Instagram,” Elizabeth said.

“See? I don’t hate Insta.”

“Aww,” Piper said, “she has a cute nickname for her BFF.”

“My cousin has a dog named Hashtag,” Elizabeth said. “But guys: Stick Indians—that’s what the Yakama people say, apparently, so it’s not racist and don’t yell at me—they’re, like, leprechauns or sasquatches or fairies—”

“Um, vague?” Ailey said.

Piper laughed. “They’re either huge or tiny, and they’re evil or maybe they’re good, so anywhere in there, go ahead and pick something.” She pressed a hand to her belly. “Ow.”

“Fart it out,” Ailey said. “You’ll feel better.”

“It’s not like I’m trying to keep it in over here.”

Elizabeth gave Piper the side-eye but kept talking. “Yeah, exactly, everything’s really vague about what they actually are. But the idea is they’re forest spirits who look like trees. Troublemakers. They fuck with travelers. They protect the places men shouldn’t enter.”

“See,” Ailey said to Piper. “You’re safe. It’s only a problem for men. For once.”

“Prostate cancer,” May said.

“Dude, my uncle had prostate cancer and it was hella my aunt’s problem,” Ailey said. “She was exhausted all the time.”

“Okay, you win.”

“They have flutey voices and make whistles and snaps to try to lure people into the woods,” Elizabeth continued. “You aren’t supposed to whistle at night or the Stick Indians will get you.”

“Huh,” May said. “That’s a Nigerian superstition too, I think. Same thing. Don’t whistle at night or the evil spirits blah-blah-blah.”

Elizabeth’s voice took on a storyteller quality, oracular. “At night, the Stick Indians creep up to people’s tents and push a stick through the flap and poke the people inside. Think about it: You’re sitting, it’s right before bed, you’re minding your own business, and all of a sudden this branch comes sliding into your house, all silent and slow, and just pokes you.”

“Are you seriously telling us a scary dick story right now?” May said. “Push a stick through a flap? For real?”

Piper rolled to her side and wheezed, giggling.

“I’m starting to worry about you,” Ailey said.

“No, no, it’s really fucking scary!” Elizabeth said. “Think about it! Like, dick or no, it’s creepy as fuck.” She waited until Piper stopped snorting, then continued. “Some of the legends say the Stick Indians guard the gate to the underworld. Or else they patrol the sacred parts of the forest, where nobody is supposed go.”

“Oh, okay,” May said, “I know this story. ‘This is their space, not ours, beware.’ That sort of thing.”

Ailey said, “Lots of scary stories are like that. Humans encroaching on everything, ruining it all. Like everything belongs to us.”

“Bullshit,” May said. Again, it came out more forcefully than she’d intended. She moderated her tone, didn’t want to be that girl. “I don’t like those kinds of stories. For a bunch of reasons. For one, I don’t think humans are evil by nature. We don’t ruin everything. We’re just animals doing what animals do. And for another, I can’t tell you how many times in the universe a black person was told that they couldn’t do a thing because it didn’t belong to them. Bullshit. It’s not race, it’s all humans. We belong in whatever environment we can get by in.”

“Well, okay, good point,” Ailey said. “Like, where would we be without civil rights people saying fuck the whites-only nonsense. But I don’t think humans should be able to take whatever they can. We have an unfair advantage.”

“What makes it unfair?” May said.

“I don’t know. Intelligence? Tools?”

Elizabeth said, “Octopuses use tools but they don’t fuck up the ocean.”

“I don’t know, then, but it’s something.”

“Just because we can get by in a place,” May said, “doesn’t mean we should shit all over it. But I hate the idea of not being allowed. Who gets to decide? Usually it’s men.” She spread her arms. “And we’re doing fine here, aren’t we? How many dudes told you it wasn’t safe for a bunch of girls to go out into the woods alone?”

Piper laughed. “Uh, my boyfriend and his roommate.”

“My dad,” Elizabeth said. “Never mind that he’s known Ailey for years and she does this shit all the time.”

Ailey said, “The first time I went camping with a couple girls from Mountaineers, my mom was like, ‘You’re probably in more danger at a frat party than in the woods. Call me when you’re home.’”

“So we’re agreed,” May said. “Telling people they can’t do something just because someone else thinks they shouldn’t is bullshit. And men suck.”

“Dicks,” Elizabeth said.

Ailey lifted her water bottle in acknowledgement. “Dicks,” she agreed.

 

May woke feeling like bees were swarming in her head She was so tired her face hurt. Something had woken her, and she tried to decide if she cared what it was.

“Shit,” Ailey said, outside the tent.

Through her sleeping pad May felt the ground hard beneath her hip. Exhaustion squeezed her skull. Next to her, Piper finally slept.

Sticks clattered.

May rubbed her face, sighed. The sound of zippers—sleeping bag, then tent—grated against the quiet morning, the river-roar and muted chip-chip-trill of birds. The air outside was cool and thick with moisture. She paused to pull on her boots. The way blood rushed to her head when she finally stood made her irritable.

She squinted. “Who made the mess?”

Ailey had a handful of firewood. The rest of it was scattered over and around their campsite, an explosion of branches and twigs. It looked like a game of pick-up sticks for forest giants. Something must have hit their firewood pile hard to send it flying so dramatically.

Ailey looked pained. “The wind?” she said. “I don’t know.”

“It didn’t seem windy,” May said. “I didn’t hear anything. I was up most of the night, so.”

Ailey lifted a forked, scaly branch from inside the stone ring of their firepit. “Trouble sleeping?”

“Piper,” May said quietly. Ailey made an apologetic grimace.

The two of them gathered the scattered wood. It seemed like more than could possibly have been left over from the night before. The pile nearly reached May’s knees.

Piper rustled and groaned inside her tent. “She got up a lot,” May said to Ailey.

“Shit. I hope she’s not too tired to hike.”

Piper looked fine, though disheveled, once she was sitting by the firepit. Ailey dismissed the idea of making a fire for breakfast—she’d brought a camp stove to heat water for coffee and oatmeal—but even the memory of fire was enough to draw them close. Without discussing it, Ailey and May had kept to themselves the strange disarray they’d woken to.

Piper took a cup of coffee and held it, not drinking. “I think I ate something weird,” she said. “I’m okay now, or better than last night, at least.”

“I bet it was the diner yesterday morning,” Ailey said.

“My money is on the entire pound of turkey jerky she ate,” May said.

“Sweet, sweet sodium,” Piper said. “It’s my weakness, okay? I have a problem. But I learned my lesson. I’m clean now. Cold turkey.”

“Boo, pun,” Ailey said. May hissed. Piper made a little bow.

“Someone made a pun?” Elizabeth said from inside her closed tent. “Before breakfast? Jesus Christ almighty.”

“Get up,” Ailey said, “There’s coffee.”

“Coffee,” Elizabeth repeated, voice rough with lust.

Around the unlit fire they ate packet oatmeal and handfuls of dried fruit. Piper didn’t eat, just held her cup stared dozily into it.

“I want to get going pretty quick,” Ailey said.

Piper wedged her full cup into the dirt. “Dammit,” she muttered. She scurried into the bushes, pulling a packet of tissue from one pocket as she disappeared.

Elizabeth watched her go, face scrunched. “What’s up?”

“I think she’s sick,” May said.

“Ooh. Bad luck.”

Ailey packed the cooking gear. When Piper came back, Ailey said, “Are you going to be okay?”

Piper flopped to the ground. “I dunno. Yesterday I was like, I’ve never pooped in the woods, this is going to be such a new and exciting and terrible thing, I wonder if I’ll be able to even do it. And now pooping in the woods is like”—she gestured absently—“oh, that again? I’m a pro.”

“Do you feel okay? Can you hike?”

Piper closed her eyes. The morning sun through the trees dappled her shoulders. “I’m so tired.”

“Should we go back?” Ailey said. Her voice was tight.

Piper shook her head without opening her eyes. “I’ll just stay here,” she said. “Forever.”

They were all quiet for a moment. May felt everyone else’s tension in her own skin. “What about,” she suggested, “if we hike around today and come back here tonight to camp?”

Ailey’s jaw was set. It was clear—anyone who knew her would know—that she didn’t want to deviate from the plan. But Piper looked miserable. May couldn’t imagine forcing her to keep going.

“At least we wouldn’t have to go home early,” Elizabeth said quietly, to Ailey.

“And hey,” May added, “we can leave our tents and crap with Piper, so we won’t have to carry as much.”

“Base camp,” Elizabeth said.

“I like that idea,” Piper said. “I like the idea of not moving.”

Ailey looked thoughtful.

“Wait.” Piper opened her eyes. “I’ll be here alone?”

“Don’t worry, Pip,” Elizabeth said. “Nothing bad ever happens in the woods during daylight.”

 

She was wrong; bad things happened. Early in the day May tripped and landed hard, tearing her shirt and badly skinning her palms. Then Elizabeth dropped her digital camera into the river, and though it wasn’t expensive it also hadn’t been backed up for months. Ailey’s GPS was unpredictable. It worked well enough to get them where they were going, but it put Ailey in a crap mood. It was hot, and biting flies followed them, and they had to stop frequently for water and to catch their breath. They were headed to a waterfall, something dramatic, but the easier route Ailey had originally planned would have taken too long. So they were going the steep way, and would make it back to Piper before sunset.

When they got to the waterfall, Elizabeth and May made a bigger fuss over it than it deserved. Elizabeth made them pose for a picture she took with an imaginary camera, and then she threw the imaginary camera in the river. They sat on a rock and ate a late power bar–and–string cheese lunch.

At least the hike back was downhill.

They followed a ridge arcing away from the river. Gaps between branches showed glimpses of a valley tumbled with boulders. Wind hassled the pines.

“What’s that?” Elizabeth said. Her brow was furrowed; she looked out and down through a clear spot on the side of the ravine. “Is there a road down there or something? I think I hear an engine.”

May joined Elizabeth at the vista. “Could be a plane.”

“No road,” Ailey said. “It’s probably just a weird echo.”

“Maybe there are other hikers down there,” Elizabeth said, and Ailey shrugged.

When they trudged into base camp, exhausted and thirsty and ready for dinner, Piper didn’t greet them.

“Hello?” Ailey called. “We’re back.”

One of the tents rustled. The girls looked at each other, and Elizabeth took a step away.

“Hey,” Piper called, delayed and strange.

May dropped her pack and unzipped the tent. “Hey,” she said, “you good?” She stuck her head into the tent, then recoiled. “Ooh, girl, if that smell was inside you no wonder you weren’t feeling well.”

“I’m sick,” Piper said, still sprawled in her sleeping bag. Her voice was small and grave. “I’ve been throwing up all day.”

Ailey crouched by the tent opening. “You look pale,” she said. “Are you okay?”

“Fuck!” Elizabeth yelled. “Holy shit!”

May jumped to her feet, looking around. “What?”

Something was crashing away through the bare undergrowth, a slim dark shape fading among the other slim dark shapes of the forest.

“It was right there,” Elizabeth said. “Holy shit.”

May squinted. “A deer?”

“I’m sick,” Piper said to Ailey. “I think I need to go to the hospital.”

“Fuck,” Ailey said.

“It was huge,” Elizabeth said. “It was right there.”

May crouched down again, squinting into the woods. She asked Ailey, “How long would it take us to get down to the car?”

“Four hours. At normal speed.”

Elizabeth said, “If that was a deer then I’m Mother fucking Teresa. It was a moose. At least. But, like, a starving one.”

Ailey and May looked up at the sky. Already the anemic light came slanted from the west.

“Guys,” Elizabeth said. “Did you see its horns? Antlers. Like it had huge fucking trees on its—”

“Shut up for a second,” Ailey said. “Piper’s really sick.”

“Yeah,” Elizabeth said, “But—okay. But did none of you see the . . . thing, though?”

“It was a deer,” May said flatly. Elizabeth scowled at her.

They huddled around the ashes of the previous night’s fire to confer. It was too close to dark, the route too steep. “It’s better if we wait till morning,” Ailey said. She’d taken over the administration of Piper’s illness, and had moved her sleeping bag in next to the sick girl, relegating May to Elizabeth’s tent. May had not complained. “And maybe you’ll feel better with some sleep, Piper.”

From her sleeping bag in the zipped-open tent Piper grunted, too miserable to respond.

 

May panicked awake in the dark. For disorienting seconds she wasn’t sure why she was cold, nor why the world was so slippery and unstable. And she wasn’t sure why she had woken, except that it was urgent.

When it happened again the scream was dangerously close to May’s ear. It was more of a yell, low-pitched and open-voweled; not the helpless keen of something lost but assertive, purposeful.

“It’s back,” Elizabeth bellowed. “It’s here, what the fuck!” And then there was a slick weight on top of May, and an elbow found her gut and shoved out a yelp.

“What the fuck!” Elizabeth said again, almost in May’s face. Her sleeping bag thrashed. A flashlight infused the tent with light from outside, and for a moment May saw Elizabeth’s face, frightened and pallid. Trapped, May tried to wiggle her sleeping bag away from the other girl.

“What is it?” Ailey called, nearby. “What is it?” There was the sound of a zipper in the quiet, river-washed dark.

Knees, weight on May’s stomach pressing out her breath. She would be bruised in the morning. The tent zipper tore open and freed Elizabeth. The tent rocked. May struggled out of her bag and felt for her flashlight.

“What is it?” Ailey repeated over Elizabeth’s fuck fuck fuck. Her flashlight bobbed and shuddered and then made loose, frantic sweeps. “Elizabeth, what?”

“It was here,” she said. “The thing, the . . . the deer. The moose.”

“Elizabeth.”

May crawled out of the tent, flashlight on, and floundered with her boots. “What’s going on?”

“It was here,” Elizabeth repeated. She whipped the flashlight’s beam in a circle—she must have wrenched it away from Ailey—illuminating the stark columns of tree trunks and the quivering arms of lower branches. “It was there. Right there.”

Ailey spoke quietly. “There’s nothing there now.”

“The deer?” May said. Her flashlight beam joined the sweep, but what were they looking for? “Girl, you’re freaking out. You stepped all over me.”

“If it’s a deer, it won’t hurt us,” Ailey said. “Even if it’s a moose. You scared it away.” She took Elizabeth’s shoulders in her hands. “It’s okay,” she said, “you’re fine.”

“No,” Elizabeth said. “No, it’s not—it was . . .” She panted. “You don’t know.”

None of them wanted to go back to their tents, so they started another fire. Ailey checked on Piper and then the three of them sat, cross-legged, in the glow.

“It wasn’t a dream,” Elizabeth said, “because I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep last night either, and I wasn’t sleeping now.”

“I was,” May muttered.

“I saw it.”

“How?” Ailey said. “From inside your tent?”

“No,” Elizabeth turned, scanning the circle of light cast by the fire. “It was the outline. The shadow.”

“Hon,” Ailey said, “it’s dark. You need light for a shadow.”

“I know!” Elizabeth snapped. “I don’t know why I could see it. I just could. I wasn’t dreaming!”

May crossed her arms and leaned them against her knees, hands stuffed in her armpits. Her skull felt hollow. She was so tired she didn’t care what was going on, if Elizabeth was crazy from stress and sleep deprivation or if there was another explanation.

“Okay, you couldn’t sleep.” Ailey sounded like she was persuading an animal out from hiding. “I wasn’t sleeping, either.”

Elizabeth looked over both shoulders at the dark balusters of the forest holding up the night. “Did you hear those noises?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Snapping. Animal sounds.”

Ailey shook her head. “All I heard was the river. But we are in the woods.”

Elizabeth groaned and dropped her head into her palms. “That’s not what I mean.”

 

Piper couldn’t keep water down the next morning. She would only get up to stagger into the bushes, where May could hear her retching. Pale and disinterested, she didn’t complain and rarely moved. She was like a creature gone into hibernation, conserving herself against pain.

Ailey was In Charge again, having been certified—whatever that meant—in wilderness first aid. May listened to her inside the sick tent, quietly harassing Piper to try to drink. More whispering, rustling, and then Ailey ducked out to join them. Ailey sank to the ground next to restless Elizabeth, who sat with her back to the fire. They both looked as tired as May felt, though May was the only one who had gone back to sleep. Eventually. “I think maybe it’s appendicitis,” Ailey whispered, conspiratorial. “Or really terrible food poisoning. She can’t walk, though. It’s bad.”

“I’m not staying here another night,” Elizabeth said.

Ailey held up a hand. “Shh,” she said, “I don’t want Piper to worry.”

May matched Ailey’s tone. “What should we do?”

“Someone has to get help,” Ailey said. “We have to figure out who.”

“Me,” Elizabeth said. “I’m fucking going.”

“Okay,” Ailey said, “your opinion is registered. I get it. Let’s talk through this.”

“Ailey, you know how to get around in the woods,” May said, feeling generous, though she also didn’t have much of a choice. She dreaded the idea of being left behind with Piper, propping her up as she squatted, straining, over a hole in the dirt, or holding her hair back, smelling the sour-sweet smell of illness and pain and shit and bile. “You should probably go.”

Ailey shook her head. “I can show anyone how to use the GPS. And it’s not hard to find your way out of here. If you head west you’ll hit the forest service road eventually.”

“Okay,” May said. “Well, if it counts for anything, sick people freak me out.”

“I’ll stay,” Ailey agreed. “I have survival skills. I can take care of Piper.”

May felt her body loosen, her mind clear, better than caffeine. “Okay,” she said. “Okay.”

Elizabeth stood. May realized Elizabeth’s bag was at her feet, already packed. She was only waiting to escape.

 

“I’m scared,” Elizabeth said.

Silver evergreen columns shot upward, bare, stories high, their crowns crowded against the ceiling of cloud. Overcast deadened the occasional pipe and rattle of birdcalls, and the wind undulated the tops of trees. The dark sky made the greens of moss and ferns in the undergrowth seem fluorescent and unreal.

“I can tell,” May said. She felt better on the move, knowing she was doing what she could for Piper and Ailey. “It’s okay. We’ll be out of here soon.”

“I’m the only one that gets it,” Elizabeth muttered. May rolled her eyes.

They trekked down into a little ravine, where everything fell still. Moss muffled the rock walls on both sides; water drained in rivulets over the rough surface and the patter sounded like a chewing mouth. It was beautiful, May thought, but not in a pleasant way. Dramatic was a better word.

“It’s like,” Elizabeth said, “I’ve read enough legends and myths. I know how those stories work. I can tell when—” She whipped her head around. “What was that?”

“It was a bird,” May said without stopping. “Or a squirrel or an antelope or an elephant. It doesn’t matter, Elizabeth. We’re fine. Piper’s the only one in danger.”

“There are things in the woods that don’t want people here.”

It wasn’t worth arguing. If Elizabeth wanted to believe in crazy, then fine, as long as it kept them moving.

“I mean, Piper gets sick, and then I—”

“Elizabeth,” May snapped. “Appendicitis. It’s not a curse, it’s a coincidence. This shit happens. Bad things happen all the time. You read too many subredditsThose stories aren’t real.”

Elizabeth whipped around again. She pointed, right into May’s face. Her eyes were swollen and red. “‘All stories are real at some point.’ You’re the one who said that. Even stupid fake stories have something real in them.”

May backed up a step. “Hey, okay, but scary stories are just supposed to scare you. That’s all they’re about.”

“You said it yourself,” Elizabeth hissed. “People have told this story for centuries. There’s a reason. A moral. ‘Keep out.’ There’s something to be afraid of. In the woods.”

“Look,” May said, “let’s go, okay? We both want to get out of here.”

Elizabeth sucked breath between clenched teeth. She looked a little deranged. May stepped in front to lead the way.

There was no trail, per se. Deer tracks cut through the heaped undergrowth here and there, making their way easier. It was green everywhere—thick, luxurious, luminous green, with the occasional slash of red leaves bleeding in contrast. Moss fogged rocks and dead trees. Branches draped lichen like hair. They passed into a stand of deciduous trees, birch maybe, all of which canted to the left, as though the land had abruptly dropped out from under them on one side. Wind shushed the leaves.

“It’s been following me,” Elizabeth said quietly. “It’s been following me since last night.”

May didn’t turn around. She didn’t need to. They would get out of here, and Elizabeth would stop freaking out. “We have to keep going,” she said.

They stopped in a little clearing at the edge of a ridge where trees were uprooted, knocked flat by some winter cataclysm. The bleached skeletons of the trunks staggered drunkenly off the edge of the slope. “Check the GPS,” May suggested. “I think I remember this part. Down along this ridge, right?”

Elizabeth’s mouth was a hard, pale line. She fished the orange knob of plastic from her pack. “This way,” she confirmed.

“See?” May said. “Almost there.”

Elizabeth looked over her shoulder, downhill. “Ailey said the road we came up on runs along the other side of that hill.” Elizabeth nodded toward the bank rising at the far side of the slope they stood above, split at the bottom by a hissing creek. “We could cut across.”

May snorted. “Uh, she also said it’s crazy steep, which is why we started where we did. You remember how it was driving here? The road ran at the bottom of a damn cliff most of the way up. Let’s go the way we came. It’s only another hour or something.” She tucked her thumbs under her backpack straps and turned away.

Elizabeth started more slowly, watching down the incline toward the creek.

The clouds heaped over each other until they lost their lustrous silver and turned pewter and then coal. May tried not to imagine what it would be like to be stranded and sick in a tent in driving rain. It was early enough in the day; all four of them would be off the mountain before the next morning. Ailey had said someone would come for them right away, on horses or ATVs as far as they could, with a litter for Piper and a whole team of people to carry it.

“Do you hear that?” Elizabeth asked.

May stopped, turned back halfway. “Hear what?”

“The humming.” Elizabeth scanned the rubbly slope below them, expression blank as she strained her hearing. “Or maybe whistling. Like an engine.” Her gaze snapped to May. “There’s someone on the road.”

They had to keep going. “We have our own car,” May said. The keys were zipped into her pocket. “We aren’t trapped. We just have to get to the car and drive for help.”

“Maybe it’s a ranger,” Elizabeth said.

“Even if it is, we couldn’t to do anything until we get down to the road. They wouldn’t even see us.”

“There! Hear it?”

May listened, eyes upturned. “I don’t know,” she said, “it sounds like some weird echo. The wind. Seriously, we’re almost back, we just have to keep walking.”

“We could be out of here in minutes if we went over that hill. It’s right there.”

May sighed. “We would be at the top of a steep-ass cliff with a road at the bottom of it and no way to get down. And we’d still have to walk to the car. And I don’t even hear anything. You’re making this way more complicated than it needs to be.”

Elizabeth said nothing. She turned in a slow circle, looking up into the dark pillars of the forest rising above them. The wind pushed the treetops in lazy, bobbing circles.

This time Elizabeth followed immediately when May set off, and stayed close. May could see the way the other girl twitched at birdcalls, the wide-open flashing of her eyes. Fear did wild things to people. And exhaustion. She shouldn’t hold Elizabeth’s panic against her.

Something crashed nearby. Both girls startled, and May yelped. The bushes uphill shuddered. May saw long, slim legs, long, gaunt lines of a body, a rising crown of branching antler.

“No!” Elizabeth yelled. “No!” Then she bolted over the edge of the ridge.

May heard scree tumbling, rocks crack-clattering, and the rumble of cascading gravel. “Elizabeth!” she yelled. “It’s a deer!” The thing in the underbrush, the deer, leapt off in the opposite direction, rustle and crackle and thud.

Elizabeth was running, arms up to keep her balance, stones dancing and leaping around her feet. It took less than a minute for her to reach the creek at the bottom.

“Elizabeth!” May shouted. “Wait!” She checked over her shoulder. “Elizabeth, it’s a fucking deer. Come back!”

The distance made Elizabeth the size of May’s finger, small enough to squash. Tiny Elizabeth picked across the stream at the bottom of the ravine. May saw her stumble in the water, then crawl out on the far bank.

“For real?” she muttered. “Really.

Elizabeth scrabbled up the loose incline. May stayed put. The thing in the forest rattled off into silence. May watched until Elizabeth disappeared into the trees on the far bank, and then turned back down the mountain.

Elizabeth had the GPS, along with its locating beacon. May had the car keys. And now they were alone, but probably they would both be fine.

 

She waited a long hour, and then started the car. “Sorry,” she said into the humid, oppressive air. And: “I’ll come back.” Elizabeth had the GPS. Elizabeth had it, and they both had the coordinates of where Ailey and Piper were. And Piper was sick.

There was no cell signal, not anywhere, and the road was deserted. There weren’t even road signs. The sky was low and scowling, but holding back, holding its breath—there was no wind. Motionless, gravid, and a sense of being watched.

May stopped at the first little grocery she saw. It was half–boarded up but it had an Open sign in the window, and maybe something moved in the dim inside, but the door was locked and there was no answer at her knock. Behind her, a crow lighted next to a puddle in the parking lot, its reflection playing against the glass door like a mirror. It dropped a twig from its beak.

She drove endless minutes, checking her phone for bars. None of the other structures tucked into the woods seemed alive. Some of the buildings tumbled in at the roofline, others were barricaded with junk. She stopped once where an old truck sat in a driveway, and banged at the door of the trailer until her knuckles hurt.

Back in the car. The sky was darkening, the storm shoving closer to the ground, but no rain yet. In the dark fur of pines she saw a glint of light. A big house, set back, A-frame roof glowing golden at its windows.

Its narrow driveway wound into the woods. May felt her pulse in her skin. Maybe she’d get to take a shower today. Maybe whoever owned this house would be awesome, and the emergency personnel would come and take her information and the GPS coordinates, and then she’d be tucked into a bed with cocoa and pillows and cable TV.

The driveway was long. Overgrown branches dragged thick fingers along the windows like nails. Despite the neglect, the house the driveway spilled out in front of was ostentatiously nice. Celebrity nice, and gloriously lit. Nobody left this many lights on if they weren’t home.

Her boots thudded the porch boards. She pushed the doorbell. She pushed it again, and when nothing happened, she knocked. Her knuckles ached from the knocking she’d done before, so she used the side of her fist instead.

Somewhere in the house a small dog barked. No one came to the door. May’s head began to throb. Inside, upstairs, there was a muffled bump of wood against wood.

Frustration burned between her vertebrae. She banged harder, this time on the glass. She wanted to kick the door. “Hey!” she yelled. “Is someone home? Goddammit!”

Overhead, on the face of the house, something slid and clicked. A woman’s voice rang out. “Go away!”

“Hey!” May scrambled down the porch steps to find the origin of the voice. “Hello! I need help!”

“I’m not alone in here,” the woman’s voice said. The little dog barked again, louder through the open window.

May looked up. She felt her arms at her sides, waving, like they were flapping, like she would take off and fly up to the pretty, pale, middle-aged brunette who frowned out the open window at her. “I need help! My friend is hurt! She’s sick!”

The woman bared her teeth. May felt the distance between herself and the stranger up there. She matched the woman’s expression without thinking, a bone-smile of defeat. “My friend is dying in the woods and I need help,” she shouted. Screamed, really. She’s white, May wanted to add, she’s a little blonde and freckled white girl. But she didn’t say it. She didn’t want to have to say it in order to get into this big stupid fancy house.

“I’m not alone,” the woman yelled again. “And I have my husband’s guns. Go away!” The window slammed shut.

A small breeze carried a scatter of raindrops. One landed in May’s eyelashes. She blinked it away. The clouds seemed to pile on top of the incline behind the house; far up, for a moment, May thought she saw a dark human shape spidering across the scree.

The porch light went out. In the hush May could hear a wind begin to shake the hillside. She watched it crawl down over the trees toward her. It reached the yard and its landscaped saplings; they tossed their skinny arms; they bucked their backs; they shook their heads. The wind slapped a handful of rain into her face.

No, she thought. This is ridiculous.

She turned her back into the growing wind. The great house before her showed no evidence of its inhabitant. May wondered how the lady had turned the porch light off from upstairs.

Beyond the door was a warm-lit, high-ceilinged living room, all hewn wood. Everything in there looked expensive. In the nearby open kitchen May could see a landline phone in its charging station on the granite counter.

Another gust chugged down the hill, this one bringing the resolute thrum of hard rain.

The phone was close enough that May could see the numbers on it. She reached for the door, tried the knob without really thinking. Her breath caught when the latch turned and the door swung inward.

Why would it be locked? It was midday, despite the dark skies, and there was nobody around to lock out.

At the back of the living room there was a set of stairs, opposite the kitchen, where she could keep her eye on them. The phone was cordless. She could take it to the porch.

She breathed through her mouth, rocked her boots silently heel-to-toe as she pushed into the cozy light of the house. A gust of wind rattled the kitchen’s big picture windows and the French doors, which led to a paved patio. It was dim and green outside, a deep-water aquarium. She checked the silent stairs. No dog, no crazy lady. The windows pulsed again, clattered with rain.

Her heart was somewhere between her stomach and her ribcage, a fat soft throbbing bullfrog. The granite countertop had a few pieces of mail, a catalog, a dish with crumbs on it. May wrapped her hand around the phone handset. It made a quiet bip as she lifted it from its station.

A whump of wind again on the side of the house made her jump as she turned to creep back to the porch.

She felt the crash instead of heard it, the pitch of shattering glass. And then a great dark figure, a gaunt and branch-crowned bestial silhouette the details of which her eyes could not negotiate, stepped through the broken French doors and into the kitchen. It made the house seem suddenly crowded, as though a landslide had carried a grove of black trees into the living room.

Her forearms stung, and May registered with wonder the fine red lines that appeared there. Flying glass, it must have been.

Feet banged on the stairs, and there was screaming but not from May’s throat, May was too stunned to scream, too caught out with the phone in her hand and the darkness that had demolished the French doors and slipped into the cozy living room. The room thrummed with wind. From the corner of her vision May saw the woman on the stairs, and yes, she did have a gun, the kind you’d take hunting for deer, and she held it stiffly and wild-eyed as it swung its aim across the downstairs. May was backing away, the lady’s screaming pushing her toward the open front door, which the wind was slowly arcing closed.

The great shape, the long-legged blackness and its great reverent leafless crown, stepped, set its hooves, stole forward. Its legs like boughs, its silhouette a thatch of dark fingers of void woven together. The room smelled of ozone, of crushed leaves. The storm swept through the living room, a physical punch of wind resounding against the kitchen cupboards, sweeping May’s hair off her neck.

The backyard trees bowed, thrashed, banged their elbows together.

The woman was screaming down the stairs, the gun sweeping over May and the rest of the room, and May couldn’t imagine she could possibly be a target with that magnificent, awful thing drowning the light out of the room between them. She stepped back again, felt the phone in her hand, wondered what 9-1-1 would do about . . . this. What kind of help to ask for. And what use was a gun? The lady was looking at her and shouting incoherent threats and terror, the long cold nose of her gun pointed high.

It—the thing, the creature, if it was even truly there—lifted its dreadful, awful crest and looked at May with no eyes.

Her back was against the front door. It must have swung closed. It must have shut in the wind as she backed toward it. She felt the knob, felt the catch of its lock.

The gun sounded, a powerful blast muffled by the house and the storm pummeling everything, and with the violence of the sound everything fell instantly still. Everything vibrated at the same imperceptibly high frequency. Everything felt the storm holding its breath.

Whose story would this be, May thought: hers, or Piper’s, or Ailey’s, or Elizabeth’s?

The thing, the creature, the blackness, shivered with the wind. It turned itself toward her slowly, like a question.

“A Forest, or A Tree” copyright © 2019 by Tegan Moore.
Art copyright © 2019 by Samuel Araya.

citation

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