by Graham B.
Four teens go out to the woods and run headlong into the mysteries of the forest.
The trees had their autumn colors, with splashes of yellow and orange, but in the firelight, their leaves looked almost blood-red.
"Thanks for not calling the cops, Wyatt," said Kyle.
Dana cuddled closer to Kyle and rubbed his back, smiling ruefully at him. The night had brought a chill, but the fire warmed the company. Wyatt scratched his grizzled white beard and twiddled his maroon jacket.
"I can't rightly remember when I last had company," said the old man. His blue eyes swept past Dana's. "Nice to have company, even if it was breaking into my cabin."
The four teens were seated on logs near the fire with Wyatt in front of his cabin, beers in hand - except for Sasha, who had a joint. Sasha took a drag, flicked her blond hair out of her eyes and cast a contemptuous glance at the trees.
"At least we got out of town," she said. "Away from the bullshit."
The skinny youth sitting next to her watched her anxiously.
"Are you okay?" he said. "Do you want my coat?"
Sasha rolled her eyes.
"I'm fine, Michael. Why don't you get me another beer?"
Michael scampered to the cabin.
"What were you saying?" asked Dana.
"Well, like I was sayin'," said the old man, "The trees are alive. And I mean that they are alive. They think. They feel things, like love, anxiety, anger."
"Come on, old man!" said Kyle.
"They feel it all," said Wyatt, firmly. "And hate! They feel hate! I know it! Been a forester for near forty years. And they talk to each other."
Kyle turned a bored look toward Dana. He started to say something, but Dana pinched him. Wyatt didn't notice.
"And what do they say?" asked Sasha, almost succeeding in keeping the mockery from her voice.
"The same things we say to each other, but the wind is their voice!"
Michael arrived with two Amstel Lights in his hands. He handed one to Sasha.
"Uh, you going to open that for me, sweetie?" said Sasha.
Michael took the bottle from Sasha, prized the top off, and handed it back to her. She took a long pull. Michael watched every move.
Dana's gaze wandered outside the firelight to the trees.
"What else do you know of trees, Wyatt?" she asked.
"Oh, well I could tell you a story..."
"Well, look at the time!" said Kyle.
"But-" said Dana.
"Yes, and I have a long day tomorrow!" exclaimed Sasha.
"Well, come back any time," said Wyatt, a bit mournfully. "Like I said, I don't get much company out here... 'cept those trees!"
"I can't imagine why," muttered Kyle under his breath as they walked to his Forerunner. "Seeya, old-timer!"
The teens piled into the truck, and Kyle gunned the engine. Dana looked back and saw Wyatt standing alone next to the fire, watching them. The Forerunner's taillights washed him in ruddy light before they sped away from the clearing.
"Whew!" said Kyle. "What a crazy old coot! Mike, next time pick an actually deserted place for us to party, willya?"
"Sorry," said Michael. "Was it okay for you, Sasha?"
"It certainly wasn't boring!"
"Well, I thought Wyatt was sweet," said Dana.
"You think everyone is sweet," said Kyle. Dana leaned over and kissed him, getting the faint whiff of beer. "Now, how do I get out of here?"
The trail took a few switchbacks along the mountain, then seemed to double back. After ten minutes, Dana grabbed Kyle's arm.
"Didn't we pass that turn?"
"Crap, we're going in circles. Hold on..."
Kyle swung the truck around. The trail had become unrecognizable in the darkness. He made another turn, and saw only trees. In frustration, Kyle stomped the gas. There was a flash of maroon and a thump.
"What was that?" said Sasha.
Kyle stopped the Forerunner.
"I hit something, probably a deer! I'll check it out."
He opened the door and Dana grabbed him.
"Be careful, Kyle!"
Kyle nodded, and got out. Dana watched as he walked from the front of the truck to the rear, then suddenly froze.
"What is it?"
Kyle slowly gestured, and the rest of the teens got out and joined him.
Wyatt lay next to the gravel road, his head unnaturally twisted. His sightless blue eyes, faintly lit by the truck's taillights, stared into the woods.
"You hit Wyatt!" cried Dana.
"It wasn't my fault!" said Kyle. "He was just... there!"
"I'll call 911," said Michael, reaching for his phone. He dropped the phone to his side. "No signal here!"
"We have to take him to the hospital!" said Dana.
"Now hold on a minute!" said Kyle. "Let's think!"
"Think about what?" said Sasha.
"He's gone!" said Kyle. "There's nothing we can do!"
"Kyle, what are you saying?" said Dana.
"If he were still breathing, maybe. But there's nothing!"
"We have to do something!"
Kyle grabbed Dana with both hands.
"Listen, what would happen if we got the cops up here, and they smelled beer and weed on me? It'll be goodbye to my scholarship! I'm not gonna throw everything away over a hermit!"
"Listen!" he hissed. "He lived all alone. We'll be gone, and nobody the wiser!"
"I don't know about this, Kyle," said Michael.
"I don't care what you think, Mike!" said Kyle. "Get in the truck!"
The trees closed in as they made their way down the mountainside. Some of the branches whipped the windshield and left reddish leaves swirling in their wake. Suddenly, a huge white object loomed ahead, and Kyle slammed on the brakes.
A fallen tree stretched across the road.
"This wasn't here before," said Michael. "Is this the way we came?"
Once again, the teens exited the Forerunner. Dana took out her phone and activated the light. A dozen feet into the forest, she saw the tree's roots, torn up and jutting into the air like hands clawing out from a grave.
"Maybe we can go around?" she said.
"Yeah, I got four-wheel-drive," said Kyle.
They got back in, and Kyle began to delicately circumvent the uprooted tree. They had almost made it when the right front tire jumped, and there was the sound of grinding metal. Kyle stopped. He got out and walked around to the offending wheel.
"The axle's broken," he said.
"What does that mean?" said Sasha.
"It means we walk."
"Are you kidding?"
"You think we're gonna get an Uber out here?"
The four teens began walking, Dana and Kyle side by side, followed by Michael and Sasha. Michael fussed over Sasha, offering his coat, which she refused.
"Why are those two together?" muttered Kyle. "She treats him like shit and he takes it."
"Well, he's in love," said Dana. "Every word from her is music to him. In her own way, she loves him back."
"I would never take that shit from a girl."
"Really?" said Dana, giving him a playful shove.
"Not you! You treat me right."
A lonely sound interrupted, a howl.
"Is that a wolf?" gasped Dana.
"Don't worry," said Michael. "They stay away from humans. They only go after prey - and livestock."
"I don't like this place," said Sasha. "And I hate all these trees."
Wyatt's words drifted into Dana's thoughts.
And hate! They feel hate!
Now, Dana noticed the trees, colossal shadows looming in every direction. The wind blew, making the leaves rattle.
"Let's go," said Sasha.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," said Michael.
"Don't tell me what to be afraid of!"
The group hurried their pace for a time until Dana heard a thud, followed by a cry of pain.
Sasha sat on the ground, holding her ankle. Tears gushed from her eyes and glistened in the starlight. Next to her, something protruded from the trail.
It looked like a root.
"Sasha, are you okay?" said Michael.
He tried to help her to her feet, but she screamed in agony when she put weight on the leg and sat down again. Dana hurried over and gently touched the ankle, eliciting gasps from Sasha.
"It's broken," said Dana.
The howl echoed again, closer.
"They're coming," said Sasha.
"Nothing's coming," said Kyle. "You can't walk?"
Sasha shook her head.
"We'll get help, okay?" said Dana. "The main road is not far."
"We'll flag down a car!" said Kyle.
The howl sounded - even closer. Michael stepped into the woods, then came back holding a sturdy branch.
"Go," he said. "Get out of here. I'm not leaving Sasha."
Even in the darkness, Dana saw furtive movement in the trees.
"They're here," said Sasha. "The trees called to them."
"What are you talking about?" yelled Kyle.
"Get out of here," said Michael, hefting his branch.
Sasha grasped his hand and looked up at him, her eyes wide.
"We'll be back," said Kyle. "Good luck."
He grabbed Dana's hand and rushed her away. From behind, Dana thought she heard the patter of paws across fallen leaves. She heard Michael's voice, raised in a shout. A smack of wood on flesh. Another shout. Growls. Then a scream. They were around the bend before she heard more.
"Oh my god, Sasha!" said Dana.
Kyle kept moving, then stopped.
"Do you hear that?"
"Hear what?" said Dana.
Then, she heard it - the rumble of an engine.
"A car!" said Kyle. "We're near the road!"
He turned off the trail.
"Is this a good idea?" said Dana between gasps.
"We need to get down faster!" said Kyle.
Branches whipped at their faces, but Kyle didn't slow. The trunks had become more numerous, and they were now blocking passage. Dana wondered how trees could grow so close together. Kyle cursed and began angling past them.
"This way!" he said. "The road is just past these damn..."
And he was gone.
She rested her hand on the cold trunk of a tree and reached forward into the darkness.
Dana jumped and fell backwards from the sheer cliff. Kyle's cry of terror was cut off by the sound of a wet thud.
All sense left Dana. She ran blindly, more branches clawing at her, brambles cutting her shins, her blood pounding in her head. She ran through the cold night, through stands of impassive trees. Then, she tripped. Dana fell forward and landed on something hard.
The road! She picked herself up just as lights transfixed her like a deer, and she heard the squeal of brakes as the car shuddered to a halt.
"Oh dear, what happened to you?"
A woman had exited the car's passenger side. She looked to be in her seventies, with white hair and horned-rim glasses. She took Dana gently by the arm and led her to the car.
"You're hurt!" she said.
"What's going on, Millie?" said a male voice.
"She's hurt, George!" said Millie.
Dana's lips trembled, and a sob escaped.
"Don't try to talk, young lady," said Millie.
She ushered Dana into the back seat.
"I-I'm bleeding everywhere..." whimpered Dana.
"Never you mind that!" said George.
He stomped on the accelerator. The rest of the trip was like a dream. Outside, trees whipped by, branches reaching out, reaching for her.
They hate. And they talk to each other.
Then they were gone, replaced by street lights, buildings, billboards. Then the hospital, a nurse dressing her cuts, a doctor shining a light in her eyes. Dana was placed in room with a view of the hospital's courtyard. As she rested between cool, clean sheets, Dana couldn't even think about Kyle's face. Or Michael's. Or Sasha's. All she could see were Wyatt's unblinking, blue eyes. She felt numb and hollow, like she had left a part of herself back in the forest.
She turned toward the window, and her breath caught deep in her chest.
Outside in the courtyard, an enormous oak tree towered above her window in a riot of full autumn dress. As she watched, a wind blew through its huge branches and rattled the blood-red leaves.
Word count: 1998