Month: July 2018 Page 2 of 4

Maple Syrup

When I was 11, my dad and I tried to make our own maple syrup. (I don’t know how he convinced a rebellious girl on the verge of tweenhood to embark on such a project, but somehow, he did.)

So one chilly, February morning, we woke up early and went out to the large maple tree in the backyard. Setting up the tap was easy – Dad drilled the hole, and we hammered the spile in together. Within minutes, clear sap was dripping into the soda bottle we attached underneath.

“Check the bottle each morning,” Dad said, with a smile, “and write down how much we collected.”

“It’s the coolest project ever,” I told my friend, Shelby, on the bus to school. It felt good to put her in her place – she was always bragging about how she lives on a farm. “Dad lets me feed the pigs and milk the cows,” she would say, flipping her hair. “And he pays me for it. I basically have a job, and I’m only twelve.”

But her dad was a total weirdo. Mine was cool, and gave me cool projects to work on.

Anyway.

On the morning of February 27th, I approached the tree as usual – skipping in the snow, humming Walkin’ on Sunshinethrough the heavy scarf around my face. I walked around to the tap, and peered in.

I gasped.

The bottle was halfway filled with dark, reddish liquid.

Not clear sap.

I ran back to the house. “Mom! Dad!” I yelled. “There’s something wrong!”

Dad followed me out into the backyard, not looking very concerned. I don’t blame him. Last time I pulled him out here, it was because I found “monster footprints” in the snow.

Also known as raccoon footprints.

“The syrup is dark now,” I said, pointing rapidly at the bottle. “What happened? Did we ruin it?”

To this day, I don’t think I’ve seen my dad so shocked. His face went white, matching the surrounding snow, and his mouth hung open. “It’s – it’s fine,” he stuttered, pulling the bottle from the tree. “But I’ll bring it in and take a look at it.”

He detached the bottle, and brought it inside. I followed. “Go get ready for school. I’ll take care of this.”

“I am ready.”

He sighed. “Go, uh, get me the encyclopedia from my study, will you?”

As I walked down the hall, Mom’s whispers to him echoed towards me.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.” A sharp inhale. “It smells metallicy. What do you think?”

“I’m not sniffing that!”

“Okay. Fine.”

“I knew this whole maple syrup thing was dumb. The tree is probably diseased or something. Don’t let her near it!”

“Okay, but –”

“And get the rest of it out of the basement! I don’t even have enough space for laundry anymore.”

I walked back into the kitchen with the encyclopedia, and they fell silent.

“I’ll drive you to school,” Mom said, grabbing her keys and shooting a glare at Dad.


When I got home, they seemed even more stressed.

“Michaela,” Dad said, sitting me down, “don’t go near the tree, okay?”

“Why?”

“We – uh – just don’t, okay?”

Apparently, my dad didn’t understand the concept of forbidden fruit. Now that he said it, I had to go back to the tree.

So after my parents went to bed that night, I snuck out of my room, grabbed a flashlight, and ran into the backyard. It was bitterly cold, and the icy wind blew through my pajamas as if they were made of tissue paper. But I soldiered forward, until I was standing underneath the maple.

As the beam of light fell over it, I saw a long red streak staining the bark, emanating from the spile.

As if it were bleeding.

I touched my fingers to it. They came away wet and red, and a chill coursed through my body.

Blood?

Is that what that dark stuff was, earlier?

I walked around the tree, my flashlight bouncing off the bark. As I did, I realized – there was a deep crack that ran horizontally across it.

But it was too long, too perfect, to be a natural crack.

I poked and prodded the groove with my fingers. The bark shifted and jiggled. I jabbed my fingernails in it, and pulled, until a large panel of bark fell away.

It hit the snow with a dull thump.

And I screamed.

Stuffed into a cavity of the trunk, still and lifeless, was the carcass of a pig. And in its belly was a small hole –

Where the spile had been attached.

I leapt back from the tree, screaming. The beam of my flashlight caught on the snow. And in it, there was a fresh set of footprints, leading up to the tree…

But none leading away.

I sprinted across the snow. I locked the door behind me.

And then I glanced out the window.

In the darkness, I could make out a shadow, climbing down from the branches of the maple tree.

Missed Call from: Me

hate talking on the phone.

All those awkward pauses, not knowing how to end it… And the risk of talking to someone for over an hour?! It’s terrifying! So I keep my phone perpetually on silent, and figure if it’s important, they’ll text or leave a voicemail.

So on Sunday evening, while I was doing the dishes, my phone was silent on the couch. When I picked it up later, to check the time, I found that I had a missed call at 7:24 pm. But what I saw next made my heart start to race.

The missed call was from my own number – (352)-xxx-xxxx.

Is that even possible? I thought.

I did a quick Google search. “Some scammers can impersonate your phone number, to make you more likely to pick up the phone,” the webpage read. “To prevent it, go to…” Ugh. I closed my laptop, tossed the phone on the bed, and took a shower.

When I got out, I checked my phone.

There was another missed call from my number –

And a voicemail.

Probably just a message from the scammer, I thought. Are you satisfied with your internet? Do you need a new dishwasher? I dialed in to voicemail, and listened closely.

Thump!

The first thing I heard was a dull thump, echoing through the earpiece.

Then, the next 25 seconds were static – a low hum. And I could hear some sort of clicking in the background – faint, barely audible. Click, click, click.

At 25 seconds in, I heard a distinct rustling sound – and then the static started to fade. It didn’t disappear, but it faded slowly into a soft hum.

At 27 seconds – intermittent blips of voice, cut with static. I couldn’t make out any words, but it sounded female. And the tone sounded relatively normal – I don’t think she was screaming or crying, but I’m not sure.

And then – at 35 seconds –

“STOP!”

This word was clear. It was shouted, loudly and firmly, over the static. I couldn’t tell if it was angry or afraid – with such a short clip, it was hard to tell.

But I did know one thing, without doubt.

It was my voice.

The voicemail ended there. I dropped the phone, and just lay there on the bed, trying to make sense of it all. Probably just a weird glitch, I thought, draping an arm over my face. And was it even really my voice? I mean, hundreds of men must sound like me, right? –

The phone flashed.

A text.

I grabbed it. The phone slipped in my sweaty fingers as I tapped away, brought it up –

The text was from my number.

And it was only four words, all in caps:

DON’T OPEN THE DOOR

Well that’s ridiculous, I thought. What does that even mean? Of course I have to open the door sometime! Tomorrow is a workday, and –

The air-conditioning kicked in. A low hum filled the room.

Click, click, click.

High-heeled footsteps, out in the hall.

And then –

Thump!

A sharp knock, at my door.

The Escape Room

Last weekend, I went to an escape room.

Our company wanted to send the three of us interns for “team-building” and “camaraderie.” But because they’re cheap as fuck, they booked some dingy one in the middle of nowhere.

“Your cellphones, please,” the lone employee – a woman named Meredith – said, extending a plastic bin. “This is an immersive, team-building experience. No texting allowed.”

With a few grumbles, we plopped our cell phones in the bin.

“Here you are,” she said, swinging the door open. “The Medieval room.”

While Kate and I filed in, Derek stood on the threshold, staring at the blinking red light in the corner. “Is that a camera?

“Here he goes again,” Kate whispered to me, snickering. Derek was crazy like that – always thinking his phone was tapped or the government was spying on his emails. Because, you know, the life of has-been frat bro is just the most fascinating thing ever.

“That’s just for surveillance. Or in case of emergency,” Meredith explained with her unwavering smile.

Derek shot her a glare, then slowly stepped into the room. The door swung the door shut; the lock clicked behind us.

The room was small and windowless, as most escape rooms are. Stone wallpaper covered half the wall; the other half was covered in sky, complete with a crudely-painted dragon. Banners hung from the ceiling, and a suit of armor stood in the corner.

“I’m fucking starving. Let’s get this over with as fast as we can,” Kate said, running over to the bookshelf. “Each of you take one. Flip through it, see if anything falls out.”

Derek got lucky. After a few minutes of wildly shaking a Bible, a slip of paper fell out. He picked it up and read: “Take the painting off the wall, and God may save you all.”

We removed the painting. Behind it was a coded message, and Kate found its cipher taped to the underside of the table. It all went smoothly, clue after clue, until we got to the suit of armor.

Put on the suit of armor, and you’ll become a charmer.

I looked at it – a beautiful thing, made of engraved pieces of metal. It looked surprisingly realistic for escape-room décor. “They… really want one of us to wear it?” I said.

Derek shrugged. “I’ll do it.” He stepped forward and yanked the helmet off the stand. Kate and I helped him get the plates over his shoulders, the bands over his arms. Finally, I placed the helmet on his head.

“You look great in that, Derek,” Kate said, with a hint of flirtation in her voice.

“I can’t see anything, and it’s hot,” he complained, ignoring her. “How long am I supposed to wear this thing?”

“No idea,” I said, shrugging. Kate was already on her hands and knees, combing the floor for clues that might have fallen out.

Five minutes went by. Then ten. We didn’t find anything, and Derek’s complaining grew louder, more hurried.

“Can you guys take it off?” he said, his voice muffled through the metal. “It’s tight, and itchy, and something is poking into my stomach –”

“Fine, if it’ll quit your whining,” Kate said. “Marisa, can you help him?”

I walked over and grabbed his helmet.

I pulled.

And pulled.

“It’s, uh… it’s not coming off,” I said.

Kate ran over and started tugging on one of the leg plates. But it was no use; it was like the suit of armor had somehow locked itself shut.

I could hear Derek’s panting breaths echo inside the metal, feel heat coming off the armor. “Get it off! Get it off!” he yelled, the armor clattering as he writhed and thrashed.

“Stay still!” Kate shrieked, as he accidentally kicked her in the head. “We can’t get it off if you’re moving like that!”

I ran over to the door. “Hey, we need help in here!” I yelled.

No reply.

“We need help! Open the door!” I pounded on the door with all my strength.

“Get it off, get it off!”

Pop.

Kate finally pulled the helmet off. It rolled to the ground with a hideous, echoing clank.

“Derek? Derek, are you okay?”

His face was red; his black hair was wet, sticking to his forehead. “Just get the rest of it off!” he yelled.

Now that the helmet was off, it was like the armor had somehow unlocked itself. The pieces quickly popped off, and when it was done, he collapsed onto the floor. “My stomach… it burns,” he muttered, wiping the sweat of his face on his sleeve.

“Okay, okay, sssssshhh. Let’s see.” Kate gently lifted his shirt.

We gasped.

Across his stomach were red imprints, as if something had been pressed hard his skin. Forming letters, forming words.

CHECK THE CLOSET

I bent over, grabbed the chest plate, turned it over.

“Oh, my God.”

There were the fourteen metal letters, sticking out from the surface. Backwards, so when pressed against skin, they’d leave the message.

“That’s sick.”

“We’re leaving. Now.” I walked over to the door and pounded on it again. “Hey! We don’t want to play anymore! Let us out!”

Kate turned to the camera, its red light blinking in the corner. “Hey! Can you hear us?! Let us the fuck out!”

Five, ten, twenty minutes went by.

No one came.

Derek stared blankly at the red light. “What if – they want to keep us in here? To watch us, to record us –”

“Stop it with the fucking conspiracy theories, Derek!”

“But he’s right – if the camera’s for surveillance, why haven’t they come and saved us by now?”

She stared at me, nostrils flaring, but didn’t say a word.

“This isn’t an escape room. It’s some sadistic game.” Derek was standing up, now. His young face looked at least a decade older, the lines of panic cutting deep. “We have to get out of here. Kick the door down, if we have to.”

“Or we could check the closet,” I said.

“No! We are not giving into their fucking game!”

But I was already pulling the door open.

They ran over. The closet was about six feet deep, twelve feet across. It was pitch black, save for the light that spilled in from the main room. And as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw the message painted on the walls, in bright red paint:

‘How can I escape this room?’, you wonder

Here’s the answer: six feet under

I looked down. The floor… it wasn’t carpet, or wood, or anything else. It was dirt. And there, glinting in the light, leaning against the wall –

Were three shovels.

Kate began to sob; Derek awkwardly put his arm around her.

“The only way out… is death?” Kate said. “Is that what that’s supposed to mean?”

I stared at the message. A shrill ringing filled my ears; my vision swam and shimmered. Six feet under… six feet under…

I grabbed a shovel.

Kate scoffed. “So what, Marisa, you’re just going to give up, and dig your fucking grave now?”

I didn’t dignify her comment with a response. I just started digging.

I hit the first body after only two feet.

Kate began screaming. Derek hid his face, forcing down vomit.

Shreds of plaid cloth caked with dirt and dust. The waves of decomposing stench hit me like a truck; but I pushed everything away and kept digging.

A foot later, I unearthed a clump of long, dark hair.

“Stop digging,” Kate sobbed. “Please, stop.”

But Derek grabbed the next shovel and started to help.

It took us three hours to finish. By the end, we were starving, exhausted, and weak. Kate was lying on the floor, in a half-faint, half-asleep way; Derek looked like he was about to pass out.

But we found it.

At about six feet under, the shovel clanged against metal.

And on that metal was a doorknob.

It took several tries, but I was able to lower myself into the hole and kick it open. And when I did, I dropped through the opening – and into a damp, cold tunnel.

“Come on!”

The rest of them followed. After walking through muck and sewage for an hour, the tunnel opened to the outside. We found ourselves standing on the street, a few miles down the road from the escape room.

We flagged down a car and made it to the police station.

But by the time they made it over there, no one was there, save for the decayed remains we found in the closet.

And the “surveillance footage” was gone.

Daddy, There’s a Man Behind You

Right now, I’m sitting in a hotel in NYC. And let me be straight with you guys: I hate it here. There’s a siren every five minutes, a dog barking next door, and some guy on the sidewalk ranting about bedbugs.

That’s why I decided to Skype with my family tonight. After mistyping the WiFi password a hundred times and making the bed again after checking for bedbugs (yeah, that guy got to me,) I finally gave them a call.

Immediately, I felt better. I heard all the sounds of home: our terrier barking, Samantha squealing with delight, and Baby Theo babbling up a storm. Their noise drowned out the cold, crazy sounds of the city, and I smiled.

“Here, let me put Samantha on,” my wife, Ginny, said. “She misses you so much.”

She walked out of frame, and Samantha’s head poked up over the table. “Daddy! Daddy!”

“Hi Sweetheart!” I made a frowny face. “Poor Daddy has to stay alone in a hotel tonight for work.”

“Silly Daddy, you’re not alone,” Samantha said, giving me one of her big, toothy grins. “There’s a man standing right behind you!”

I froze. “What did you say?”

“There’s a man behind you!”

I whipped around. But the hotel room was empty – all I saw was the bright lamp, the empty armchair, the comforter in a tangled lump.

“He’s hiding now,” she giggled.

“Samantha, what are you talking about?”

But she just laughed and smiled. “You’re being silly, Daddy!”

“Put Mom back on.”

Ginny ran back into view, a large glob of spit-up on her T-shirt. “Danny, I’m trying to feed Theo,” she said. “What was so important that –”

“Samantha said she saw someone standing behind me.”

“Oh, dear.” Samantha shook her head, as she bounced Theo on her lap. “Sorry, I forgot to tell you. She’s been going on and on about some imaginary friend recently. I already asked Dr. Marks about it; she says it’s totally normal, just a phase…”

My heart began to slow. “She had me scared there for a second!” I said, starting to laugh.

“Oh, I know. She scares me all the time with it. Talks to herself in the playroom, tells Theo about him… it’s crazy.” She snorted. “Did you ever think kids would be this… weird?”

“No. No, I didn’t.”

“Alright, well, I should get back to it. Talk to you tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

I closed the laptop with a click. Out the window, cars whizzed by, streaks of red and white against the blue of dusk. I looked around the empty room, at the beige carpet and the pulled curtains; it finally looked inviting, now that my heart was full.

I got up and walked towards the bed. The comforter was crumpled in a heap, pushed to the corner of the bed, and the sheets were wrinkled and pushed. What a mess, I thought, reaching for the comforter.

I froze.

Wait.

After I checked for bedbugs…

I re-made the bed.

I took a step back.

And that’s when I noticed – sticking out from the edge of the comforter –

The shiny, black tip of a shoe.

How to Resurrect a Sister

WARNING

If the ritual is not performed correctly, serious side effects may occur. For example, you might bring the body back, but not the soul.

Like Pet Sematary? I shuddered, lit the candles, and began to read.

“O, Name of Deceased — uh, Natalie Wysocki — hear my call.”

The trees rattled; the shadows shook over the forest floor.

“Come out, from the depths of the dead.”

With a strong gust of wind, several leaves blew across the dirt, and into the ravine.

“Come forward, into the land of the living.”

Her death was my fault. I brought her out there. I just thought a hike would be a good distraction from our mother’s recent death. But she ran ahead of me, peered into the ravine. And leaned over a little too far…

One of the candles blew out. I struck a match, and set it to the wick; it flickered, fluttered, and then went out again.

Now say, in your own words, a message to the deceased, imploring him or her to join you.

I had written down a million things that I wanted to say. But in the end, all of them were too formal, too stiff. So I cleared my throat, sat up straighter, and said what came to mind.

“Natalie, please come home. I love you. And I want you to know that I forgive you, for…”

For what? There were too many things to name. Stealing my Barbies at seven. Stealing my boyfriends at seventeen. Lying to our mom constantly, telling her everything was my fault. She was the kind of person that, when everyone told me she’s in a better place…

I didn’t quite believe them.

“Natalie, I forgive you for everything.”

Everything — yes, even that.

When you visited Mom on her deathbed. Alone. And somehow convinced her to change the will. No, Mom wanted it that way, you said, when I accused you. She always planned to cut you out, ever since you divorced Greg.

“It took a long time, but I forgive you. Because above all, you’re still my sister, Natalie. You held my hand through the toughest times — through my divorce from Greg, through Mom’s death.

“You are mine, and I am yours.”

The ceremony has ended, I read, from the glow of my smartphone. Wait for the deceased to find you, and make sure their body is free of spirit-inhibiting substances, such as salt and water…

I didn’t bother reading the rest. I stood up, blew out the candles, and waited.

Five minutes went by.

Then ten.

Then twenty.

That’s when the tears started to fall. If your loved one does not come to you within a half hour, it may mean too much time has passed since their death, the text said, printed at the bottom. If needed, please call a grief counselor at 1-800…

I flung the phone into the dirt and began to sob.

But then I heard it.

A soft splash, from behind me.

From within the ravine.

“Natalie?”

Splash, splash.

It echoed up the rocks, off the trees. I scrambled to the edge. “Natalie!” I cried. “Is that you?”

Silence.

I retrieved the phone, and turned the flashlight on. The white light illuminated strands of grass and shards of rock, jutting out from the steep sides. The rest was in dark shadow. I shifted the flashlight, leaning over further, looking for something — anything — that seemed out of place.

But it was too dark.

I had to go down.

Turning my body, I lowered one foot onto a protruding rock. I grabbed a thick root, caked with dirt, to my right. And, slowly, I began the descent.

It seemed like forever before I felt the cold water, the smooth rocks underneath my feet. I wiped my forehead, and shone the flashlight around me.

Yes.

There, standing in the stream, was a dark figure. A white dress hung off her bony figure, dirty and crumpled.

“Natalie!”

She didn’t turn around.

“Natalie!” I ran towards her. The water splashed out around my feet, hitting me with cold spray. I flung my arms around her and began to sob.

She didn’t hug back.

“I missed you so much,” I choked.

She didn’t reply.

“Natalie?” I pulled away.

She gave me an unblinking stare. “It’s so cold down here,” she said, her voice empty and hollow.

I took off my jacket and wrapped it around her. “I know. But we’ll get you out of here, and get you warmed up back at home, okay?”

“Why did you do it?” she shouted. But her gaze was focused over my shoulder, somewhere slightly behind me. “It hurt so much.”

“Natalie — I’m so sorry — but you’re safe now. Come on, let’s get you home.”

“No, please!” she whimpered.

And then she broke away from me. She ran downstream, kicking up icy water behind her, wailing and moaning.

“Natalie!” I ran after her, slipping over the rocks. “Come back!”

But she didn’t get far before she fell to her knees, right there in the middle of the stream. “No, please, it hurt so much,” she cried, her face tilted up towards the sky. “Don’t put the fire on me, please, I beg of you —”

A gut-wrenching scream. She convulsed and spasmed in the water. I ran over, throwing my arms around her —

But I jumped back, with a yelp of pain.

Her body was hot.

Scalding hot.

Tendrils of steam rose up from the water. She thrashed and convulsed, shrieked and screamed. I was sobbing, crying her name —

“Demon!” she screamed. “Get away from me!”

And then I realized.

You might bring the body back, but not the soul.

Her soul wasn’t here.

It was in Hell.

Splash!

And then she was still. Quiet. Cold. I collapsed in the water beside her. “I’m so, so sorry,” I said, tears rolling off my cheeks and dropping onto hers.

She didn’t blink.

I pulled her slowly out of the stream, and onto the dry shore. I smoothed my jacket over her, and cradled her head in my lap.

And then, on top of the pain, a terrible fear settled in me.

Because I knew, whatever hell Natalie was in…

Was the same place I’d end up.

“When you told me about the will…” The tears fell hot and fast. “I knew I’d never be able to pay off my debt. Never give Brady the life he deserved.”

Come over here, Natalie! Look!

Oh, wow!

Can you see the stream at the bottom?

Yeah, I think —

Thud.

My hands collided with her back.

Thud.

She hit the floor of the ravine.

Thud.

My feet hit the dirt, as I ran as fast as I could.

“I was just so mad.” I rocked her slowly in my arms. “I didn’t think it through. I didn’t realize… life without you would be so hard. I didn’t know I’d miss you so much.”

I let out a shuddering breath.

“I didn’t know how much I loved you.”

The stream gurgled. A soft breeze blew through the forest, rustling the trees high above. We both lay there, on the river bank, still and cold as the water dried off of our clothes.

And then she blinked.

Looked up at me, with those beautiful blue eyes.

“Natalie?”

She broke into a smile.

“I’m so, so sorry — please, I —”

She pulled me into a tight hug.

“I’ve already forgiven you, a long time ago.”

The Lights in the Woods

Our trip to Vermont was not going as planned.

Instead of spending the night in a quaint little bed-and-breakfast, like I’d hoped, we were sleeping in the car. On a desolate road in the middle of East Jabib. On one of the coldest nights of the year.

“I just didn’t think—”

“That hotels would be booked solid on the Saturday after Christmas?” I snapped.

“Nicole, come on. This was supposed to be fun.”

No, you idiot. This was supposed to be a last-ditch attempt to save our marriage.

“Look, we’ll sleep here in the car, and in the morning we’ll get one of those mushroom omelets you like at the diner in town.” He leaned the seat back, hitting me squarely in the elbow. “Goodnight, Nicole. I love you.”

I mumbled a response. Then I lay across the backseat, pulled the covers over me, and stared out the window.

If I wasn’t so mad at him, I might’ve enjoyed it. We were parked on a narrow road, smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forest and the stars. In the distance, five amber lights glowed, all in a line—probably streetlights from the town.

No, wait—

There weren’t five.

There were six.

Huh, that’s odd. I could’ve sworn there were only five.

I shrugged, lay my head on the armrest, and closed my eyes.

***

I jolted awake.

The crick in my neck ached. The car was freezing cold. All was quiet, save for the sporadic hoots of an owl and Brandon’s snores.

Oh, sure, he was sleeping peacefully.

I glanced out the window. It was totally dark outside; the amber lights had been turned off. That’s weird. Usually streetlights stay on—don’t they? I thought. Or maybe sometimes they go off… oh, I don’t know. I reached for my water bottle, in the cup holder up front.

Huh?

Through the windshield, there they were—the seven amber lights, shining even more brightly than before.

I glanced back to my window. Pitch black. To the windshield. Lights on. Back and forth, over and over, but it was clear. The lights were on.

But then—

Why couldn’t I see them through my window?

I leaned in close. No—there was some light coming in, through the top and upper corners of the window. But the middle was still black—a dark silhouette, that looked kind of like…

A person?

No, there was no way.

But then I blinked—

And it moved.

I jumped back. “Brandon!”

He snorted, and mumbled “what?”

“There’s someone out there!”

“Probably just a raccoon…”

“No, Brandon, this is serious! Turn on the car!”

“Okay, okay, easy!” I heard the click of the keys, the rumble of the engine. The headlights blinked on, flashing the forest with white light. I pointed to the window. “Brandon, look, someone is—”

“I don’t see anything.”

I turned to the window, ready to shout him down—

Nobody was there.

I began to laugh—a nervous laugh of relief. “Oh, I can’t believe that. I actually thought someone was standing at the window, staring in. I must have been dreaming! Oh, what a…”

The car lurched forward.

“Uh, Brandon? What are you doing?”

“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said, his voice shaking.

“What are you talking about?”

“Look at the window, Nicole!” he yelled.

There, in the middle of the window, was a patch of fog.

Not on the rest of the glass. Just in one, small, circular area.

Almost as if —

Someone had fogged it up with their breath.

“No, no, no…” Shaking, I climbed into the passenger seat.

We shot down the dark road. The shadows rolled across the trees, across the deep footprints in the snow. And the amber lights seemed brighter, closer—were we driving towards them? There were more of them, too… at least a dozen.

“Don’t worry,” Brandon said. “Whoever’s out there—I’ll protect you.”

The anger bubbled up. And suddenly, the reason I couldn’t stand him anymore—the reason our marriage was failing, that I had buried deep inside myself—shot out. “You’ll protect me? Like you protected me on 4th Avenue?”

“Are you still mad about that?”

“Of course I’m still mad about it. You ran, Brandon. There was a gun against my ribs—I thought I was going to die—and you. Ran. Away.”

“I was getting help.”

“And what if he shot me, huh? You would’ve just let me bleed out on the sidewalk, alone?” There were at least twenty of the lights now—some so bright, they looked as if they’d cross the forest’s threshold any second.

But if they were streetlamps…

How come I didn’t see any roads?

“But he didn’t shoot. And he wasn’t going to.” Brandon took a deep breath in through his nostrils. “You know, it was your fault for wearing one of those expensive Kate-whatever purses! That’s the whole reason he targeted us!”

“Really, Brandon? You’re going to blame me for being mugged?! You were a coward, and you know it!”

“I wasn’t a coward, I was just being logical—”

The car screeched to a stop.

A branch lay straight across the road. Or—it was more like a small tree, that someone had ripped straight out of the ground.

My heart stopped. “They blocked us in?!”

Brandon jerked the steering wheel, and started to turn the car around—

No.

Two people had come out of the forest, and were standing behind the car. Each one was holding a pole, and at the top there was something orange, light, flickering —

“Are those… jack o’lanterns?” Brandon said.

To call them jack o’lanterns was an understatement. Atop the poles were fleshy orange things, carved with faces, but they were far scarier than any jack o’lanterns I had ever seen. One had the face of a man, contorted in pain, mouth wide open in a scream. The other was even worse: a grinning woman, with pointed teeth and flickering yellow eyes.

They weren’t streetlamps at all.

The two figures marched forward, towards the car. As I glanced at the forest, I saw more of the amber lights coming towards us, shining through the tangled trees. Several… dozens… no, many more than that. Some far away, just orange dots among the murky shadows; others right upon us, floating over the asphalt. And some dark figures, slithering through the underbrush, not holding a lantern of any sort.

“Just drive over it!”

“No. We’ll get a flat. Then we’ll really be stuck.” He unclicked his seatbelt. “I’m going out there.”

“Are you insane?!” I screamed. The low hum of a chant came through the windows, muffled and low. “There are dozens—maybe hundreds—”

“I got to prove to you I’m not a coward, though,” he said, with a sad smile.

“Brandon, no—”

Slam.

He stepped out into the darkness. As soon as he did, the figures froze. They seemed to stare at him, heads tilting towards him, though I couldn’t make out their faces in the dim light.

He grabbed the base of the branch, and tugged on it with all his might. It slid towards him, opening up a small spot of road.

That’s when something like a shiver rippled through the crowd. And then, all at once, they started racing towards him.

“No,” I screamed, pounding the glass.

“Go!” Brandon yelled. They were closing in—just a few feet from him, now. “Drive!”

I shook my head.

“Nicole, please!” One of the men grabbed him by the shoulders, and pulled him towards the darkness. A few more paced towards the car, their jack o’lanterns floating inches from the window.

No—not jack o’lanterns.

Or, at least—

Not the kind made out of pumpkins.

“Drive!” Brandon screamed, as they pulled him into the forest.

I jumped into the driver’s seat, and put my foot to the floor.

***

We buried an empty casket.

They never found the body. And sometimes I think it’s better that way. Something tells me that the body wouldn’t have been… recognizable. And seeing the man I love, broken up like that, would break my heart all over again.

And if he’s still alive…

Well, that means he became one of them.

And that’s even worse.

So, please, take it from me. If you’re driving on a desolate, wooded road, and you see some orange lights through the trees—

Say a prayer for Brandon Wright.

Then get the hell out of there.

The Forest: A Video Game

“Can we play a game?”

“Which one? Minecraft, or—”

“The one we got at the garage sale.”

Oh. That game. The one with the badly-drawn trees on the cover, that was hanging out in the FREE bin at the end of the sale.

But a boring game is better than one of Peter’s tantrums, so I popped the CD in.

And waited.

And waited, and waited, and waited.

Finally, the scene loaded—but it wasn’t pretty. We were standing in the middle of what appeared to be a forest. The trees, which were identical clones of each other, had leaves that stuck together in big, stiff clumps. A low-resolution dirt texture was mapped to the ground, and the render distance was terrible—beyond a few steps, it was all just black.

And then the webcam light went on.

Was this some kind of virtual reality game, where it was recording our movements, or something? Either way, I didn’t really want the camera recording us, and—

Suddenly, it blinked off.

I shrugged, and turned to Peter. “Where should we go first?”

“Right! Right!”

I jiggled the mouse, so we were facing right, and pressed W.

We walked through the virtual forest. But as the minutes went by, everything stayed the same. The same weird trees, the same dirt, even the same rocks—two small ones and a big one, flitting by every ten seconds. I was just starting to get bored, when the dirt fell away, and the world beyond was pitch black.

“Whoops! The game broke, buddy.”

“No, it didn’t!” he said, grabbing the laptop from me. He marched the character forward, and as the trees faded back into view, I realized we had just been standing on top of a really big hill.

“Hey, it’s like the woods behind our house. You know, when we go down the hill, and then there’s the stream and the boulder?”

“You mean the butt rock?”

“Peter, don’t call it that. That boulder has been there for hundreds of years; it’s a relic that reminds us of how time is fleeting, and—”

“But it looks like a butt.”

I groaned, and took the computer back.

I could only see a few steps ahead of me as I stumbled down the hill. But slowly, the trees started to thin a bit, and the ground began to level out.

And then I saw it.

A stream, snaking across my path.

And behind it—

The vague outline of something large and round.

I mashed down on the W key. The scene bounced as my character jogged toward. Peter was squealing with delight, but I wasn’t listening. Because I knew.

I stopped, and there it was: a large boulder, with a huge crack running down the middle.

The butt rock.

My heart started to pound. The mouse slipped under my fingertips.

“How’d it do that? So cool!” Peter said, grinning from ear to ear.

I circled around it, just to be sure. But it was identical to the boulder in our backyard, down to the very last pixelated lichen. I walked around it again, and again, until I was dizzy. It must be coincidence, right? There was no way—

“What’s that?” Peter asked.

“What’s what?” I said, trying to hide the quaver in my voice.

“That dark thing.”

“That’s the crack in the rock.”

“No, the thing sticking out of the crack.”

He was right; there was something sticking out of the crack, small and dark, near the forest floor. I walked closer to the boulder and panned the camera down.

Stubby things, stained dark red.

It couldn’t be, but they looked just like…

Toes.

Snap. I closed the laptop, and jumped out of my seat.

“No! I want to keep playing!” He clung to my arm. “Please?”

“This game isn’t appropriate—”

He started screaming. “You never let me play anything fun! Never ever ever!” He got up and stomped on the floor. “Let me play!”

“Peter, this isn’t—”

Let me play!

I slowly opened the laptop, and held up my hands in surrender. “Okay, okay.” I grabbed the mouse, turned the character around, and started in the opposite direction. Back up the hill, back into the ugly, uniform forest.

Except, this time, it wasn’t so uniform.

The trees grew thin. The ground faded from dirt to grass. The rocks grew smaller and smaller.

And the distance wasn’t black anymore.

There was light, golden and bright, shining through the trees.

My heart sank. I pounded the W key, running closer, hoping it wasn’t what I thought it was…

A house came into view. A small colonial, tan with green shutters, with a fire pit on the patio, and a toy truck in the grass… All rendered into pixelated, blocky forms.

I crept towards the window. Slowly, shapes faded into view from behind the virtual glass. A person, seated at a table, next to a smaller figure—a little boy…

“Dad?”

Peter’s eyes were no longer on the computer screen.

“Who’s that in the window?”

Don’t Stop on Route 33

There’s a stretch of Route 33 that goes over Shenandoah Mountain. It’s one of the most beautiful roads in the country—some parts cling to the side of the mountain, with gorgeous view of the valley below. Others snake through deep, lush forest, scattered with deer and all kinds of wildlife.

But, if you ever see a car broken down on the side of it—

Don’t you dare stop.

Connor and I first saw it on the way to his parents’ house one evening. A silver Accord, parked askew in the grass. The flashers were on, blinking in the blue dusk. And stuck in the back window was a piece of paper, scrawled with the words HELP! BROKE DOWN.

But Connor didn’t slow down.

“Police patrol the area all the time,” he said, swerving around it. “They’ll be just fine.”

I scoffed. “Oh, no, I know what this is about.” I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him. “Getting to your parents on time is more important than helping out someone who’s stranded on the side of the road. That’s it, isn’t it?!”

“No. As I just said, Vee—if they actually need help, they’ll flag down an officer.”

“Why are you being so terrible?! They broke down! They need our help!”

“If they really broke down, Vee,” he said, yanking the steering wheel, “why did they just pull out behind us?”

I turned to the mirror.

No—Two white lights, swinging onto the road.

Thud.

I was thrown back in my seat, as Connor put the pedal to the floor. We flew through the darkness; branches scraped at the car, and the wind howled.

“I knew we should’ve waited ‘til morning,” he muttered under his breath.

“Connor, what—”

“Bad people hang ‘round here at night.” His voice was barely audible over the roar of the car. “Dad’s always talking about ‘em, but I never believed him. Thought they were tall tales, you know, to scare me into not taking this road. It’s a dangerous road, with the curves and all.”

“Bad people? What do you mean?” The headlights disappeared behind a bend. “Like cults? Or serial killers? Or—”

“Maybe both,” he said. “Just know all the victims are found the same way: in the middle of the woods, completely naked, with slashes across their throats.”

I shuddered, and my mind began to race. What if they catch up with us? What if they get us? What if—

But then I saw it.

A narrow road, splitting off from the right side of the highway, climbing up into the forest.

I glanced in the mirror. The headlights hadn’t reappeared yet.

“Turn, there!” I said. “And then cut the lights. They’ll pass us right up.”

Connor hesitated. “I don’t even know where that goes,” he said. “Didn’t even think there was an exit for another twenty miles, at least.”

“Just turn!”

He jerked the steering wheel. The seatbelt cut into my chest, as we veered off, braked to a stop.

And then waited for the Accord to pass. Two, five, then ten minutes.

But they never came.

“Did we lose them?”

“Must have,” he said. “Let’s go.” The car rumbled to life. He turned sharply towards the trees, then backed up—

A shadow caught in the headlights.

Silver metal and glass.

The Accord.

Lights off, still and silent, parked right behind us.

I screamed. Connor cursed under his breath. We swerved back onto the road, heading deeper into the forest. “If this is a dead end, then—”

Thunk!

We went flying. Dirt and trees and sky all whirled together. I shut my eyes, screaming, clinging to the door.

We hit the tree with a loud crunch.

“Veronica!”

“I’m fine,” I groaned. “Just hit my head, but—”

Crunch!

I whipped around.

Crunch!

The Accord was ramming into us, over and over.

“Get out!” Connor yelled.

I swung the door open, and tumbled out of the car. We stumbled through the forest, back in the direction of 33. Branches clawed at my arms; rocks bit into my feet. Tears were running down my face, and it took everything in me to silence my sobs. “I can’t do this,” I heaved. “I can’t—”

Slam.

I whipped around. Someone was stepping out of the Accord—a tall, pale figure with wild hair, illuminated in the flickering light of our dying headlights.

“Where is it?!” Connor huffed. “Where’s 33?! We didn’t drive that far away. Where the hell is it?!”

But he was right.

There were only branches, dirt, darkness.

Route 33 was gone.

It was as if the forest had swallowed us up, and severed us completely from the outside world. Behind us, the figure advanced, the sharp crunch of footsteps echoing off the trees.

“I’m so sorry,” Connor said, his voice faltering.

But then I saw it. A light—smeared and blurry through my tears, shining through the trees like a beacon of hope.

We stumbled towards it. The trees got sparser; the underbrush grew thicker. Patches of blue sky peeked through the branches.

“Oh, thank God!” I gasped.

It was a flashlight.

And beyond it—

The uniform of a police officer.

Unfortunately, by the time we led the officer back to our car, the silver Accord was gone.

But, fortunately, Route 33 didn’t actually disappear. We must’ve just gotten disoriented in the darkness. She told us it’s very common for people to get lost in these woods, even during the daytime.

After filing various paperwork, she safely drove us to my in-laws’ house. The four of us had a great dinner, too much dessert, and lots of laughs. “Want to take a walk?” I asked Connor, after things had settled down. “I think I need to walk off all that ice cream.”

“Sure,” he said, taking my hand.

We took a short walk around the block. It was fully dark, now, and the stars twinkled high above. A cool breeze came in from the west, fluttering through my hair.

And in the moonlight, something glinted across the street.

“Connor! Look!” I grabbed his arm.

“No—”

Parked on the street was a dented, silver Accord.

Patterns in the Birch

Have you ever seen a bunny in the clouds? Or a face on the moon? Or a creepy grin in that dried-up splatter of tomato sauce on the kitchen floor?

That’s pareidolia.

Our brain sees faces in random patterns. Call it evolution, insanity, or whatever you like—but it’s an instinct ingrained in all of us, from the very day we were born.

And that’s exactly what happened when I found myself staring at a birch tree, waiting for Jake to finish up his lunch.

“Jake! Look!” I said, pointing to one of the black marks on the white trunk. “Doesn’t that look just like an eye?”

“Not really.”

“What? It’s totally an eye! There’s the pupil, and the eyelid—”

“Looks more like a bird to me,” he said, through a mouthful of tuna. “Or a bat. The wings, the round little body. Those points could even be fangs!” He grinned. “Maybe it’s a vampire bat.”

I rolled my eyes. “It’s totally not a vampire bat.”

See, that’s the thing about pareidolia. Everyone sees something different; it’s like a Rorschach test. While you see a cute kitty on your morning toast, your boyfriend sees the perfect likeness of Alice Cooper.

“I’m done,” Jake said, crunching up the paper bag and throwing it in his backpack. “Let’s go.”

We continued to hike up the hill. The birch trees surrounded us, the pale trunks contrasting sharply with the yellow leaves of autumn. And the black eyes etched into the bark seemed to multiply, the deeper into the forest we got.

“Shouldn’t we be heading back?” I asked, as I applied more bug spray. “It’s nearly four—the sun’s going to set soon.”

“Aw, come on, don’t be a party pooper. Just a little further.” He took out the pamphlet, and fluttered it in my face. “I want to see this kickass waterfall.”

But it took at least thirty minutes for us to find the waterfall. And when we did, we were both disappointed; the recent dry spell had reduced it to little more than a trickle. “It was worth it,” Jake said, trying to convince himself more than me. “Totally worth it. It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Teresa?”

“Really beautiful,” I replied, rolling my eyes behind his back.

After a tedious five minutes of taking photos, we finally turned around. My legs ached, and I scratched wildly at a bump on my arm; but at least we would be back soon. As we stumbled down the hill, the eyes seemed to watch our every move.

“Woah, wait a second,” he said, stopping dead on the trail.

I groaned. “Jake, come on. We need to get home.” It was nearly five-thirty, now, and the forest darkened with every passing minute.

“Look at that tree.”

I looked up, and squinted in the shadows. Among the sea of white and black and orange, nothing looked amiss. “What are you talking about?” I said, glancing from tree to tree. “I don’t see any—”

No.

There, a few feet off the trail, was a pure-white birch tree. All the black markings were gone: no eyes, no birds, no bats.

“Maybe it’s like, an albino birch tree or something?” I said, ignoring the chill down my spine.

“Then how come we didn’t see it on the way up?”

“I mean—I was looking at the ground most of the time. I didn’t want to trip. There are so many rocks, and—”

My eyes flicked back to the trees, and I faltered.

Now several of the birch trees were white.

“Jake?”

We both gasped.

Before our eyes, the black markings wriggled and twitched. They scuttled down the trunks, across the forest floor.

Towards us.

“No, no, no,” Jake whispered.

A low chittering burst through the darkness. The crunch of leaves, the snap of twigs, and a sickening clicking sound.

“Run!” I screamed.

But I already felt the prick of their legs on my ankles. The touch of their smooth, round bodies; the itch of their long antennae swishing against my calves.

We ran as fast as we could.

The chittering grew louder, into a shrill scream. Don’t turn around, I thought, an intense itch flaring up my legs. Just focus on running. Focus. Focus—

Eeeeeeeee!

I turned around.

The insects—or whatever they were—had coalesced into a dark shape. Wriggling, writhing, twisting in the gray shadows of the forest. A shape with wobbly legs. A throbbing chest. A lumpy head.

A human shape.

Around us, the trees paled, as more of the things spilled out into the trail. “Just keep running,” I huffed. Just. Keep. Running. But the image of them crawling up my legs, under my shorts, and all over my body, didn’t budge.

“Are we almost there?” I shouted.

“I—I don’t know!”

The trail was now a shifting, rippling mess of black. And the shape… it was growing larger by the second.

But then I remembered.

“Wait, Jake! The bugspray!”

I reached into my backpack, pulled out the aerosol can—

And aimed at the ground.

Pzzzzzzssshhh!

Shrill squeals in response. The black sea parted, and we ran for our lives.

It felt like hours had passed when we were finally out of the woods, huffing and puffing in the dying sunlight. “What were those things?” I said, collapsing against the hood of the car. “Beetles? Or—”

Jake shook his head. “Let’s just get out of here.”

We dove into the car. I thrust the keys into ignition.

And through the windshield, in the shadows of the forest, I could just make out the figure. As we pulled out, it turned its head—watching us.

I mean, it didn’t really look like a person.

But pareidolia is a powerful thing.

The Wall in Grandpa’s Backyard

“Never go over the wall.” My grandpa sat in the rocking chair, massaging his bad ankle through mud-stained jeans. “This isn’t the safest area of Florida. Especially at night.”

“Okay.”

“Also, be careful with that. You could take your eye out.”

See, that’s why my nine-year-old self didn’t take him seriously. He was always warning me about various “dangerous” things. Don’t swim in the deep end of the pool; you could drown. Don’t run so fast; you could trip and break your neck.

So when—one night—I heard a voice on the other side of the wall, I wasn’t scared.

I had been playing alone in the backyard, sitting in the grass between the orange trees, when I heard it. A woman’s voice, low and soft, echoing over the concrete wall at the end of the backyard.

“Hello?”

Being the curious kid I was, I immediately ran over to it. I wouldn’t climb over—even though I didn’t believe Grandpa, I didn’t want to make him mad—but there was no harm in taking a peek, right?

I stepped up on the old stone fountain, reached for the top of the wall, and hoisted myself up. And then I peered down.

Underneath the intertwining oak branches and Spanish moss was only darkness. I squinted, trying to make sense of the shadows flitting across the dirt floor. Maybe I had imagined it—

“Hello?”

The voice rang out in the darkness, up through the trees.

“Hello!” I called back.

I heard a rustling sound, and the soft thump of footsteps. “Who’s there?”

“Amanda,” I called down.

“I’m Elizabeth.” The shadows shifted, but I still couldn’t quite make out the figure below. “And I need your help, Amanda.”

“Sure! I can help!”

“I’m thirsty,” she said. The wind picked up, and the branches swayed, scattering the shadows below. “So very thirsty.”

“I’ll get you some water!” I said, without second thought.

“Oh, that would be so wonderful, Amanda.”

I jumped down, scampered inside, and fished a bottle of water from the fridge. Grandpa didn’t even notice; he was watching some boring World War II movie on TV, rubbing his bad ankle all the while.

I stepped back up onto the fountain. “I got you some water,” I called. “Do you want me to throw it down?”

“Oh, well… it might hit me. Maybe you can come down and give it to me?”

I paused. The warm Florida air blew over my face, and there was a strange smell: sour, like when Dad’s meat freezer in the basement broke a few years ago. “I can’t. I’m not supposed to go over the wall.”

I was met with awkward silence.

“Hello?”

“Please, I’m so thirsty,” the voice said, again.

I looked at the rough concrete. Maybe I could pull myself up a bit, reach down, and hand her the bottle of water? I swung a leg up over the wall, and with a grunt, pulled myself into a sitting position.

Slowly, I leaned down, and reached my hand through the canopy of branches.

But nothing took the bottle of water.

“Hello?”

Silence. Not even a footstep, or a rustle, from the underbrush below.

“Hel—”

Something yanked my ankle.

Hard.

I jerked forward. The water fell to the ground with a sickening splat. My hands flew out, gripping the edge of the wall—

Ch-ch-ch-ch.

A chittering sound, almost insect-like, emanated from the underbrush. Large, dark figures emerged from the shadows, swarming towards me in jerky motions. I screamed, holding on to the wall for dear life, but my fingers were slipping—

“Amanda!”

Two rough, strong hands grabbed my shoulders. In one motion, they yanked me back over the wall.

“What did I tell you?” Grandpa shouted. “Never go over the wall!”

“But there was a woman,” I said, through sobs, “and she said—”

“No buts!” He dragged me back inside, and sat me down on the couch. “No matter what you heard—what you think you heard…” He propped my leg up on the ottoman. An angry red mark had appeared—the imprint of four long fingers and a thumb.

Fingers so long, they wrapped around the entire circumference of my ankle, and then some.

“Grandpa, what were those things?”

He didn’t reply.

Instead, he slowly rolled up his pant leg.

There was a white, shining scar—

Of long fingers wrapped around his ankle.

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