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I was nine when it happened.
I grew up in a small town of about 800 people, along the south side of the Rocky Mountains. Our town was surrounded by forest, and during the summer it was the location for our greatest adventures as children. The older kids would accompany us, either for entertainment, or at the very least a sense of responsibility to keep us from a bear’s jaws. I wish it had been a bear’s jaws.
When I moved to the town I was only six years old, and thankfully transitioning from the city life of Vancouver to the rural life of the mountains was easier because of that. My mother introduced me to our neighbor Alex, who was already seven. We instantly bonded, he was brash and daring, and could always convince me to join him on magical quests through our yards chasing dragons and monsters. He always insisted on making me the damsel in distress, but I’d always make sure I still got one of his duct tape and cardboard swords in case I too needed to vanquish a beast. A year later we started to play in the forest. First only at the edges, darting in and out of trees, making sure our houses were always in view.
It was because, I was nervous at first, my mom had always warned me about bears. Then during his short visits home, my dad would tell me frightening stories from his logging job. Stories about vicious mountain lions and spiders that could kill you before you even noticed their bite. It was this nervousness that kept us on the fringe of the forest for the first few months. Then there was the snow and the danger of falling into a tree well, and slipping on the slick ground of the fresh melt.
By the end of spring though, I could tell Alex was getting antsy to enter the forest. I finally complied, on the condition we went with the other kids. I think he was a bit jealous, it had always just been us two playing, but his curiosity about the forest’s depths won him over.
The first time we went in, it was bright and sunny, and light filtered through the leaves into soft green hues, dotted with areas of inky black shade where the leaves and branches were too thick to let the early summer sun through. We were playing tag, and had been given sixty seconds to hide. I had played like this with Alex, and immediately found one of these inky spots so that I could scramble up its tree. In a few moments I was mostly concealed at the bottom branches, the pine needles and rough bark scraping at my knees and hands.
I heard a scramble above me and looked up to see one of the older kids little sisters. She was only three branches above me, and held a finger to her lips. I nodded, and looked back out into the clearing.
I held a bated breath as I heard giggling approaching us. Watching silently from the branches, I saw that most of the kids had already been found, but if I had counted right at the beginning, there were still three of us hiding. I would have been able to keep my spot too, but at that moment a drop of sap fell onto the back of my neck startling me and causing me to lose my footing.
In a long second I was lying on the spongy forest floor, a bit roughed up but okay. The eyes of the groups eldest widened and he jumped back, before quickly moving to my side and helping me up. I was fine and ready to help find the last few.
It only took us a minute to find Alex, he had hidden only two trees away, and he blamed me for making him move when he saw me fall. I just punched him in the arm.
Half an hour later though, due to my silly sense of honor to not share her position, my group had not found the girl. Because it was getting dark, the leader began to call out for her, and I quickly brought them to the tree we’d been hiding in.
“She’s a couple branches above where I was,” I pointed up to the west side of tree, before cupping my hands to my mouth and hollering up. “Hey! Game’s over! Come on!”
There was no response, only the light swaying of the tree’s branches in the evening breeze. The older kid, the one who was her older brother, quickly started climbing up, and there was a thick silence while we waited for him to return. The heavy branches and the quickly dimming light left us blind but for the occasional rustle high above us. In a few minutes that felt like hours, the boy dropped down, landing easily on his feet, jacket noticeably stained in the same inky sap that had fallen onto my neck. I couldn’t help but feel jealous about his landing, despite myself.
“She’s not up there, I circled the whole tree.” He turned to me, “She probably thought you would rat her spot out once we walked away.”
He counted us off, there were eight of us in total not including him. He pointed at Alex and I, and then towards the oldest person. “Take the kids home, if it gets dark I don’t wanna get in trouble for getting them hurt. The rest of us will go find her.”
I looked to Alex, nervous he would talk back, but in the setting sun and the tense air around our group, he for once seemed frightened into submission.
As our guide led us back in silence, the echoed calls of the group faded away, leaving a chill down my spine that I knew was from more than just the insetting brisk air that night time brought. I rubbed my hands at my sides, and jumped at every rustle as we headed home. In the corners of my eyes it seemed like the shadows were distorting, and the very forest itself seemed to be turning pitch black.
Once I was in sight of my house the sun had nearly set, blood red hues intermingling with flat yellow, creating a sickening sight. I bolted from the group to my doorstep, ignoring the startled call from the older kid. The world felt like it was moving in slow motion as I approached, and every color, every feeling was so vivid that I felt that I might just cease to exist with each step. Images were twisting in my mind, and I felt a heavy sleepiness unlike anything else I had ever experienced.
I remember reaching for the doorknob as the world faded to black, only hearing the pounding of my own heart.
I woke up two days later in a hospital room with a strangled gasp. I had been stuck in a world of pulsating night terrors, and it took me a few moments to come to attention. A doctor must have heard me, because suddenly there was a large hand on my shoulder, gently keeping me laying down as a reassuring voice told me that everything was alright.
I cracked my eyes open, not remembering closing them in the first place. My parents entered my vision first, smiling at me. I turned to the hands owner, a larger man in a white lab coat.
“What’s wrong with me?” My throat was dry and sore, and my voice came out hoarse.
My mother slowly approached me, still smiling. “Oh sweetie, it’s alright. You got scared, and sometimes when people get scared they have something called a panic attack. Because you’re so little, your heart had some trouble keeping up, and you passed out. It’s like falling asleep but not on purpose.” Her voice had that odd child like lilt she used when she thought I didn’t understand her.
“Oh.” I would have said more, but the doctor turned to my parents and began talking about medication. In a few more minutes he and my father left, and my mother took some day clothes out of her purse. I realized that I only had a hospital gown on.
My mother sat down on the bed next to where I was laying. She wrapped an arm around me affectionately and pulled me close to her. “Oh sweetie, we were so scared. Thank god you’re alright.”
I said nothing, still unsure about what had happened. It would only be in the following weeks that the nights memories would slowly return to me.
My mother must have taken my silence as fear, and she spent the next few minutes consoling me, before helping me get out bed and changed out of the gown. I was unsteady on my feet, and for the first minute it seemed the world was swaying slightly, but I recovered quickly.
Once I was dressed my parents rushed me through checking out, and I could see their anxiety to get home. There were noticeable bags under their eyes, and my father seemed to yawn after every other sentence.
The trip home was silent, the hospital I had been staying in was in a nearby town, about an hours drive away from home. I watched the trees, trying to spot wildlife as I often did on long car rides. When we had gotten home my parents allowed me to go to Alex’s, but only on the condition I didn’t overexert myself. I didn’t know what an exert was, or how one would over it, but I agreed readily.
Alex seemed overjoyed to see me, and was quick to hand me a sword to play. It only took a few swings before he began to fill me in on what I’d missed.
“They didn’t find her, you know,” he said as he waved his sword at me. I responded by putting up my shield and thrusting my sword back.
“Yeah, they’ve even had big search teams out in the woods. They think it was a bear or sumthin’.”
I nearly corrected him on his pronunciation, but I knew it wasn’t really the time. “Did they see a bear?”
“No, they couldn’t find anything, Tim says she probly’ disappeared.”
Tim would say anything if you would listen.
“Anyways, now my mom n’ dad say we can’t play outside in the woods anymore.” He shook his head, and I giggled because he looked like my dad when he grumbled. “What’s so funny, doncha’ know what that means?”
I took advantage of his outburst to stab his chest with the tip of my sword. He gave a wonderful fake cry and dramatically sunk to his knees, looking to the sky. “The fair princess has killed the brave knight that was gonna save her. No!” He let the end of his ‘no’ trail on for a few seconds before collapsing on his side and laughing, his previous anger forgotten.
“So what does it mean?” I asked, after he had stood back up and our giggles had subsided. “It means,” he said with a dramatic sigh, “ that we can’t play in the forest anymore. ”
“Oh,” was all I said. I could tell he was upset but the forest had given me the creeps and deep down I was quietly relieved.
Several more weeks past and no child was allowed to enter the forest. I heard that a few of the older kids had snuck in anyway, but they were teenagers and I guess that means that they could handle themselves. I didn’t mind, I was content to play my games with Alex, but he seemed angry. When he spoke of it he acted as if it was this great injustice that was being performed only to upset him and no one else.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when he showed up on my doorstep that evening. He woke me by flinging rocks at my second story room. I open my window groggily, and he beckoned for me to come downstairs while raising a finger to his lips.
I complied, but I was confused about what he wanted. When I opened the door I saw he was holding a flashlight in one hand and his cardboard sword in the other. For a moment I thought he wanted to play with me in the night, which I thought was silly but at the same time it did seem pretty cool.
As I slowly closed the door, cringing when it creaked, he reached out for my hand. As I held it out, he put the flashlight into it and began pulling me towards the road in front of my house. Still thinking he just wanted to play I followed him. Instead of turning towards his own house, however, he turned towards the forest.
Confused I pulled my hand back, “No wait, there’s a bear out there.”
He turned to glare at me, “If there was a bear out there they would have found it.” He paused before stamping his foot against the dark concrete, ”I’m tired of waiting to play in the forest.” He reached out to pull me again, “I bet you she just got lost.”
Unconvinced I pulled back further, “If she was just lost they would have already found her. I don’t want to get hurt just so we can play hide and seek in the woods.”
“Don’t be such a baby, once we find her everybody’s going to know we’re the heroes. Our parents will probably even let us play out on our own.”
I was frightened and didn’t care for being a hero, but Alex was pretty much my only friend, and I didn’t want to lose him. “Fine,” I conceded.
“Good,” he handed me a pack of batteries as well. “Just in case the flashlight dies.”
He held up his sword daringly, and we slowly approached the forest’s edge. We had strayed here for so long that the first half kilometer in was like trekking our own backyards. Once the trees had covered our house, he waved his hand ahead of me, my signal to turn on the flashlight.
As we progressed slowly, the darkness of the woods was barely illuminated by the weak light. My arms were covered in goosebumps as the cold air licked up my spine.
After what felt like hours, though I now believe it was only minutes, Alex stopped and motioned at the ground.
“It’s that weird sap they found in the tree.” His voice was barely a whisper, pointing at a stain on a fallen branch.
“Weird sap?” I breathed, looking at the oozing black smudge, feeling something nudging a memory in my brain.
“Yeah,” his face was a bit pale, and I was almost relieved he was frightened as well. “The tree you were in was covered in it. They couldn’t tell what tree it was from though.”
I gently hit his shoulder, “Stop tryin’ to scare me.”
“I’m not lying,” his voice came out as an annoyed whimper. He stood back up, and returned to holding his sword heroically. He then raised it above me, and opened his mouth to say something, only to turn a shade paler and drop his sword.
“T… turn around.” His voice was mumbled and I could tell he was trying to not move his mouth.
I had thought he was still playing with me and trying to get me scared, so I did so quickly only to freeze as well.
In front of us was something black, it looked like a goopy mess of maple syrup that had been dyed to look like oil. I didn’t want to startle it, and had the flashlight shined at the forest floor, making it difficult to make out any feature other then two large white eyes, empty of feature, staring directly at us from the creature.
There was a heavy moment of silence before I whipped back around, grabbing Alex’s hand and yelling for him to run. I must have snapped him out of his daze, because it wasn’t long before his pace started to match mine.
The thing had been blocking our way home, and we had little choice but to run deeper into the forest, into areas that we had never been to before. I doubted any other human really had.
I could hear creaks of branches above me, and when I looked up I saw the moon was blotted out by an unseen force. The darkness had indeed grown, but I hadn’t noticed it in my panic.
We ran for several minutes, until even our adrenaline couldn’t sustain us. It ended quickly, as Alex tripped ahead of me and I heard a crash and a nasty sounding crack. I stopped, fearing the worst, and shined my light on Alex.
I only saw him for a few seconds. His eyes were wide and he was looking above my head. Around him there were fragments of some kind of white wood, or at least that’s what I thought it was in the short time I could see it.
Then Alex was swallowed by a dark shroud and all my flashlight illuminated were two large white eyes, only a foot from my face.
Fatigue forgotten, I turned around to the now unoccupied path and fled.
I reached the edge of the woods more quickly than it had taken to move into them. I had been able to follow our trampled path, and the under brush had been stomped down by us and no longer could inhibit me.
I bounded down the small hill and then down the short street lane to my house, pulling the door open and closing it with a slam, before locking it and running to my parents room.
I collapsed on their bed, and over the next few days I would lead a search party through the path Alex and I had made. We would find a small clearing concealed from above with purposely intertwined branches. In the clearing my mother would cover my eyes, but not before I saw dozens of skeletons, all identified as missing children over the last sixty years.
My eyes were only drawn to one though, a smaller nondescript one, hanging from a cedar tree, perfectly put together with a cardboard sword clenched in hand.