Daniel stood before the woods, but they were different now. The trees wider and richer, their tops towering into the night sky. The whirr of stars could be heard over head as they spun through the heavens, diving down to dance among the upper boughs of the forest.
The night hummed with the melodies of the copse. Chirps, hoots, scurryings, everything had a noise. The slopping through underbrush as squirrels tucked in for the night. The blunt snapping of twigs as bears lumbered toward their dens. The howl of wolves from deep in the trees, their nightly shifts just beginning. And of course the leaves. The wind walking amongst the branches, trailing his mischievous hands along every trunk and stem, stirring the woods with the rustling of his passing.
Daniel stepped in, savoring it all. Everything had its place here, predator and prey, creature and critter, the brush and those that belonged. It all fit together. But not like a clock. It wasn’t cold or calculating. Daniel breathed in the sweet, green air, ripe with the taste of life. No, this was less organized, less determined. Everything had a place here, but it was not fixed. It ebbed and flowed, changed with the wind and ran with the animals. It felt. It adapted. It grew. And in that, every part of the forest knew what to do.
But what about him? Daniel looked at his hands, pale in the light of the starry sky. Where did he fit? He brought nothing to the forest. Squirrels skittered away from him as he walked. The bears eyed him with suspicion. And the wolves viewed him with disdain. Doe, beaver, snake; born of water, earth, or air it didn’t matter. He was not welcome here.
Then a clearing in the trees. He could see out for just a moment. A house. Its lights brazen attempts to sustain the day instead of accept the turn of time. Out front there was a couple, but they didn’t have faces. No, they had faces, they had all the faces. The Kilroys with their nice shirts and fancy dresses. The O’Hares, both men standing with their characteristic frown of discomfort. The Wongs, D’Croixs, Smiths, Smouldersons, Parks, Lees, Vereauxs. Every family that he’d stayed with flashed before him, their bodies growing brighter and brighter until it was blinding and the light exploded throwing Daniel back.
Dazed, he sat up on the damp forest floor. The house had disappeared along with the ghostly couple. The night was still. He belonged no where, to no one and nothing. He pulled his knees to his chest in the darkness. Being afraid of loneliness is unlike any other fear. If one is afraid of the dark, day will come. If one is afraid of heights, they can stay on the ground. But if one is afraid of being alone, there is no guarantee of company.
And so Daniel sat in the dark of the forest, hoping to not be alone. But no one came, nothing stirred. All was still. Too still. Daniel noticed the animals had stopped. No more chirps or hoots. The rumbling of the turn of the stars had ceased. Even the wind no longer passed overhead.
Then a light. It glared from a great distance between the tree trunks before disappearing again. Daniel stood up, walking towards it. There it was again, a powerful light that burned silhouettes onto the backs of the oaks and elms. The forest did not like it. This was something different, of an otherly nature and yet Daniel was drawn to it. The light shined out for moments at a time before vanishing into the folds of the woods. But as he walked closer, the bigger it seemed to get until it was enormous.
It led him to the top of a hill. The white, brilliant light whispered out from below where the ground seemed to move, shifting. Daniel, allured by its nature, approached the edge of the source. It came from beneath the ground. No, not the ground but the surface of some pond. The water churned and undulated in alien patterns, its color a spotted black with patches of what looked like scales.
The draw was stronger than ever now. The light shone again, muted this time as it lurked beneath the ebony liquid. It wanted him. Not just any one, it wanted him. He put out a hand and the water coagulated, its surface congealing until the emaciated resemblance of a hand slugged from the depths to match his own. Daniel wiggled his fingers, disgusted and curious at the same time. The hand of pitch mirrored his actions.
Like me, he thought.
The light flashed again, somehow illuminating through the dark liquid. The phantom hand opened its palm. Daniel moved to take it, but hesitated. A voice, small as if calling from across the entire forest spoke to him. A girl’s voice. He didn’t know what she said for it was too quiet to understand, but it made him pause. The black hand urged him forward, but yet again the voice cried out, closer this time. Daniel knelt there, hand poised over the pit of luminous tar, deciding.
No. It hurt to say it, but he pulled back from the edge, his hand to his chest. Something was amiss here. The hand of the pit seemed disappointed, drooping down as Daniel stood up to go. But it was not done.
The light exploded from the bowls of the pond, blasting the forest around Daniel into stark, white brilliance. It was then he saw he was not in a pit, but a crater. He didn’t have long as the hand writhed and wriggled and lashed out at his leg, taking hold of his foot with a grip like no other. Daniel screamed as it dragged him into the bright, black pool. The world was swallowed up as the strange undulating thing of liquid seeped in around him and the last thing he heard was that voice, that small voice calling to him once more.
Daniel’s head snapped off the pillow and he thrashed the covers off his bed. Penny, squawked, startled out of her makeshift nest as they both tumbled to the floor with a thump. Daniel’s chest heaved, his mind still telling him he was surrounded by that black, alien tar. But he wasn’t. He was here, in his room, not even in the forest.
Penny hopped up on his chest and gave him a questioning look. “I just…” Daniel said, trying to catch his breath. That had been horrifying. “I just had a nightmare.”
Penny wrinkled her tiny, avian brow before fluttering back onto his bed. Daniel got up and sat next to her. His hands were shaking and he gripped his knees trying to keep them still. It was only then he noticed how bright the room was. He glanced at the window to see the sky growing light, the edges garnering a rose-gold hue.
“Sorry if I woke you up,” Daniel said, rubbing his eyes. His body was still tired, but there was no way he was going back to sleep just after whatever that had been.
Penny yawned a little bird yawn and shrugged. It was morning anyway, she seemed to say.
Footsteps outside. Daniel paled. He must have woken up the Blairs.
He turned to Penny, “You gotta go.”
Her eye lids were drooping and just gave him a cocked head as a question, but a knock on his door made her stand bolt upright.
“Daniel,” it was Mr. Blair. “You alright?” The door began to open. Penny didn’t need to be told as she fluttered to the sill and dropped out of sight just as Mr. Blair’s head came around the door. The rest of him was dressed in a gray night robe with patterned navy pajamas as he crossed to Daniel’s bed
He knelt down beside him. “You okay? I heard you shouting from downstairs,” Mr. Blair said.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Daniel lied.
Mr. Blair didn’t seem to buy it. “Nightmares?” Daniel nodded. “Want to talk about it? That always helped me.” Daniel wadded the blankets in his hands, not answering. “If you don’t, I understand,” Mr. Blair said with a smile. “But if you ever want to talk, either of us are more than happy to listen.”
He got up and took the door, closing it behind him. But just before it shut, he poked his head back in. “Hey, you hungry? I was just making myself some breakfast.”
“Oh,” Daniel stuttered, “I don’t want to…”
“It’s no trouble,” Mr. Blair said, “Just as easy to make it for two as for one. Come on.”
Daniel climbed out of bed and followed the soft tread of Mr. Blair down the quiet morning stairs. The kitchen seemed peaceful in the waking hours. A large one with an island in the center, pots and pans suspended from a rack, it felt so calm if only perhaps in contrast to night’s events.
“I already got the bacon out,” Mr. Blair said, “can you get the eggs for me, please?” Daniel opened the fridge. It was packed with leftovers from the night before. The guilt wrung his heart anew as he pulled the eggs out from the mess of last night.
“Thank you very much,” Mr. Blair said. He sliced open the package of bacon and laid several strips into a sizzling hot pan. Soon the whole kitchen smelled delicious.
He pulled a cutting board out of a drawer and looked around suspiciously. Curious, Daniel watched him cross to the pantry. The potatoes lay in a bin near the ground. To Daniel’s surprise, Mr. Blair snuck his foot under a potato and flipped it up into his hand as if it were a soccer ball. He did it with three more before coming back to the sink and rinsing them off.
“She doesn’t like it when I do that,” Mr. Blair said, his back to Daniel as he washed off the last spud. “But seeing as we wash them anyway, I don’t see how it does any harm.” He turned around, “I hope hash browns are okay?”
They were more than okay. Mr. Blair whipped up a batch of eggs, bacon, and potatoes like Daniel had never had. Mr. Blair simply smiled and slid his half finished plate over when Daniel looked at his own empty one, still hungry.
“My wife will be here all day,” Mr. Blair said. “Today’s an off day for her and if there’s any place you want to go, just let her know.”
“I think,” Daniel said, feeling full and content, “I’ll just stick around here for a while.” Mr. Blair nodded, taking a sip from his coffee. They’d moved to living room after having finished breakfast. Mr. Blair didn’t say much, he just seemed to be enjoying the morning as they both watched the emerald trees outside brighten with the oncoming day.
“My my,” a voice said behind them. They both turned to see Mrs. Blair standing with her arms crossed, a bemused expression on her face. “I didn’t expect you two to be up so early.”
“I, uh, couldn’t sleep,” Daniel said.
Mrs. Blair’s sternness melted slightly, “Was the bed okay?”
“Yeah,” Daniel said, “it was just…different.”
A look passed between the Blairs that Daniel didn’t understand.
“Well,” Mrs. Blair said, “did you two have breakfast?”
“I rustled us up something,” Mr. Blair said.
“Alright,” Mrs. Blair said. She turned to Daniel. “If you ever get peckish, feel more than free to help yourself to anything in the fridge.” She moved off into the kitchen when Daniel called after her.
“Wait, Mrs. Blair,” Daniel said, a little embarrassed, “What does ‘peckish’ mean?”
She smiled. “Hungry. If you’re hungry, dear.” She began to leave when she added, “And there’s no need to call us the ‘Blairs,’ you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Daniel said, ready for the stern treatment. Mrs. Blair looked the part: tall, thin, long black hair with a touch of gray. She embodied discipline. Daniel had survived worse. This wouldn’t last forever, he reminded himself, he just had to endure it.
So he was surprised when she said, “None of that neither. You need anything, you use our names. You can call me Pamela.”
“And call me Charles,” Mr. Blair said. Mrs. Blair—Pamela— left for the kitchen and Charles leaned over, his manner conspiratorial. “You don’t have call us that, if you don’t want. Pam and Charley work fine.”
“Um…” Daniel said, flustered.
“Don’t let my wife intimidate you,” Charley said with a grin, “She’s tough on the outside by soft as a fresh chocolate chip cookie underneath. Which by the way, if you can tempt her to bake you some…Mmmm.”
Daniel gave a hesitant smile, “That does sound good.”
Charley smiled as his watch beeped. “Oh, that’s me. I gotta get ready for work.” He stood up and stretched his back. “Oof, they don’t make me like they used to.”
“And how was that?” Daniel asked, amused.
The answer came from the kitchen. “With hair, for starters,” Pam said, poking her head out.
“Now that’s unfair,” Charley called back. “He didn’t have to know that.”
“You’re right,” Pam said with a completely straight face, “let him think you were always bald.” Charley gave a dramatic huff before heading upstairs leaving Daniel chuckling on the couch. “I’m afraid,” Pam said, “he’s a bit sensitive about that.” She stepped back into the kitchen, but her hand popped out a moment later to wave him in. “Come on. I need some help with this bread. We’ll make it for dinner tonight.”
Daniel joined her and they began mixing and preparing the dough. Charley stepped in to say good-bye before leaving. He nodded to Daniel with a smile before walking out the door. Pam had Daniel beat the eggs, mix in the flour and butter while she proofed the yeast. The entire time they didn’t speak. At first Daniel thought it was just the way she was, but he noticed she would open her mouth to say something, then bite it off before she even began. He recalled what Charley had said last night, about trying to give Daniel space. They didn’t want to pressure him to talk if he didn’t want to which sounded great, but that meant possibly staring down an entire morning of silence. Again.
The possibility of repeating last night made Daniel squirm inside. It had been so uncomfortable. That and the guilt that had trailed him after dinner. He didn’t want that again, but…
He sighed, glancing at Pam. She seemed determined not to bother him. Other than tell him what to mix and how to knead the dough, she hadn’t said anything to him.
Daniel licked his lips. “Um,” he said, his voice sounding dry. She looked up from her batch. “Um,” Daniel repeated, swallowing. The paused felt like minutes as he struggled to say something. “Dinner was really good last night,” he finally managed.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Pam said, turning back to her work, although the corners of her mouth hinted a smile. “There’s plenty of leftovers in the fridge and if you’re going to have any, I’d have at before Charley comes home.” Pam shook her head, “The man eats like a starved horse after work.”
They didn’t talk much after that, but both Daniel and she relaxed a bit. She set the dough in a bowel and covered it, saying they needed to let it rise. Daniel was just about to ask how long that would take, he was beginning to enjoy himself, when there was a soft click against the kitchen window. They turned to look, but nothing was there. Pam turned back to Daniel, but he kept an eye on it over her shoulder and sure enough, Penny flew back into sight. They made eye contact and Daniel gave a slight nod towards the backyard. Penny understood and flew off.
“Um,” Daniel said, “I was wondering. Would it be okay to check out the woods?”
“The woods?” Pam said, washing flour from her hands. “I don’t see why I can’t show you some of the—”
“Actually,” Daniel said, “can I just see it by myself? Alone?”
“Oh,” Pam said. Her jaw tightened, but her voice remained neutral. “Of course, just stick to the trails and be back before it gets dark, alright?”
“I will, I promise,” Daniel said, already heading for the back door. “Thanks, Pam!”
He closed the back door behind him and turned to greet the scintillating forest air. Penny fluttered down next to him as he approached the woods. He stopped just short of the tree-line, however. The pines loomed up into the sky and he couldn’t help but recall his dream from that night.
Penny hovered around in front of him, her head cocked to the side.
“I’m alright,” he said, trying to push the recollection aside. “Do you remember where…” he gestured at her, “this happened?”
She thought for a moment before giving a hesitant nod.
“Lead on,” Daniel said and followed as she darted into the forest.
The air became cooler as they entered the green canopy. The echoes of bird and animal calls became distinct within the wooden enclave. The trunks of trees rose like pillars, rising with herculean strength above them. It all seemed so much bigger from the inside. From his house, the forest had looked large, impressive even, but from within it took on a much vaster atmosphere. Daniel suddenly realized how easy it might be to get lost in here. Thankfully, just as Pam had said, there were plenty of trails blazed into the dense foliage.
“How far away do think it is?” Daniel said as they started walking. Well, him walking, she flying.
She looked at him expectantly. “Oh, right.” He dug his phone out and held it up for her. She hovered in the air, typing.
Aniutt wo mo;s
Daniel frowned, raising an eyebrow. “Try typing without flying around. It might be easier. Here,” he craned his neck to side, “sit on my shoulder.”
She hesitated before gliding over and trying to settle onto his right shoulder, accidentally smacking him in the face with a wing. “Ow,” he said.
She gave him a look that seemed to say, What did you think was going to happen?
“Fine,” Daniel relented, holding up his phone. She pecked away at the screen for a moment.
I meant, it’s about five miles.
“Five miles?” Daniel asked, looking down the trail they were on. This was going to be a long walk. “Alright then,” he sighed, “we’d better get moving.”
On they trudged through the forest. It wasn’t hard. The trail was well maintained for the most part, the underbrush hadn’t overgrown much, and the ground was mostly flat. He passed the time, watching the trees and animals they met along the way. Actually it was mostly trees. Now that he thought about it, after almost an hour of walking, he had yet to see a single other creature in here. Fauna were often skittish around people, he knew that, but the complete absence of any animal begged an ominous feeling. The woods had gotten quieter, too. The calls they’d heard before were now distant, echoes of echoes from across the forest. Daniel became keenly aware of just how alone they were out here. He felt exposed, as if eyes were watching them from a secluded spot out beyond the trail.
“Let’s take a break,” Daniel said. He sat down on a large rock. It felt good to take the weight off his feet. Penny landed next to him and gently poked his hand. He set the phone down in front of her.
I think we’re close, she typed.
“Alright,” Daniel said. He turned to her. “How did you get out here, I mean, when this whatever it was happened?”
I don’t know, she typed. The last thing I remember was having a picnic with my family.
“Picnic?” Daniel asked.
There’s a meadow around here somewhere, she typed. We liked to go there during the summer.
“Sounds nice,” Daniel said. Penny didn’t respond. “Penny?”
She shook herself. Sorry?
“I said it sounded nice,” Daniel replied. “You okay?”
Yeah, she typed. It’s just hard not to think about them.
Daniel turned back to face the trail, its winding length stretching deeper into the woods. “I know the feeling.”
Suddenly there was a flash of movement. Daniel jumped off the rock and Penny took flight at the sudden noise. Dozens of birds exploded from the shrubbery, squawking and crying out in alarm. Had he startled them? Penny was a bird so she couldn’t have done it. And yet Daniel had been sitting still and what’s more he hadn’t been anywhere near the birds.
The startled flock ascended into the trees, but Daniel kept his eyes locked on the spot they’d flown from. Penny landed at his feet. She tilted her head.
“I don’t know,” Daniel said, narrowing his eyes. The bushes were still, the grass and shrubs underneath only shifting with the wind. He stood there a minute, just watching, but there was nothing to see except the greenery. “Come on,” Daniel said, getting back on the trail.
Daniel couldn’t shake his uneasiness as they walked. He kept flinching at the slightest rustle in the foliage, the barest sound in the forest. It all felt like they were being followed. He even asked Penny to fly up into the canopy to see if she could spot anything and of course she couldn’t.
He knew he was probably being paranoid, but the sense of being watched wouldn’t leave him. He needed to focus. He shook his head, instead trying to bring up what they knew about what had happened to Penny. It was practically nothing. She had been out with her family and then mysteriously woken up as a bird. A beautiful bird, but that didn’t tell them anything. And of course magic was involved in this somehow.
Daniel sighed. What did he know about any of this? Here they were sauntering through the forest looking for who knew what without the slightest clue of what they were doing. And just then his stomach growled. Great, now he was hungry, too. He could be sitting in the Blair’s kitchen right now, what was he—Ah!
Daniel had tripped and fell face first down an embankment. He tumbled end over end for several feet before coming to a bruised and sore stop at the bottom of a hill. Daniel sat up, his neck stiff, but nothing seemed to be broken, he was just a little battered. He looked back up the hill and was surprised by how steep it was.
Penny landed in front of him, wearing her bird smile. “Oh shut up,” Daniel said. She poked at his pocket and he took out his phone.
I tried to get your attention, but you didn’t seem to notice.
“Yeah,” Daniel said, groaning as he stood up, “I got that. How much further till we get there?”
That’s what I was trying to tell you, she typed. We’re here.
Daniel rubbed dirt from his eyes and looked around. The hill he’d tumbled down wasn’t alone. It was joined by another right beside it. And another. And another.
“I don’t know,” Daniel said, turning in place to survey the rest of the scene. “Something about this place…”
Follow me, Penny typed, I’ll show you where I woke up.
Daniel pocketed the phone and sprinted after her as she flew further down hill to a small, level patch at the bottom. She landed in a bit of soft grass and pecked the ground. Daniel knelt beside her, trying his best to see any differences between it and the surrounding area. The constant growl of his stomach wasn’t making it any easier.
Penny nudged him. Well? She seemed to ask.
“Well…” Daniel said, rubbing his chin. Shoot, he had nothing. It all just looked like forest grass and bushes. Granted it was in a clearing, but that was nothing special. He turned to her, “What did you do right after you woke up?”
The phone again, although she seemed reluctant to type anything. I… she began then gave him a stern glance. You promise not to laugh if I tell you, okay?
“Yeah…?” Daniel said. “Why, what did you do?”
I kind ran around in circles for a while, Penny typed. I went a little crazy. When Daniel didn’t react, she added. You don’t think that’s funny?
“I don’t think any of this is,” Daniel said. “You woke up as a bird for who knows why. That would terrify me.”
Daniel did his best to study the rest of the area around where she’d awoken, but again to his disappointment and frustration, there was nothing remarkable about the place. He even dug under the soil a few inches just to be thorough, but the story was no different.
“I’m sorry,” Daniel said. “I just don’t see anything.”
Penny sighed and Daniel felt the day settle down on him. The deep shadows on the side of the hill made him remember how late it was getting. “We’d better head back,” he said. “Don’t want my foster folks thinking I’ve been eaten by bears or something.” Penny relented, perching on his shoulder as they crossed back to the hill Daniel had entered down. “Hey, maybe we can find that meadow you were telling me about,” Daniel said. “You know, the one your family went to.” He turned around, “Do you know what direction it is from…” but he trailed off.
The clearing was laid out before him, the far side growing darker in shadow as the sun began to set and that’s how he noticed. He stood on the side of the hill he’d fallen down and next to it was another. And another. And another. They formed a rim around the clearing they’d just been in which wasn’t that big and that’s when he’d realized where they were.
It wasn’t a clearing. It was a crater. The one from his dream.
Penny fluttered around in front of him, raising a miniature eyebrow.
“I know this place,” Daniel said, his mouth suddenly dry. How could it be the same? There was no pool of dark liquid at the bottom of this one, but given the dying light, the similarities were becoming unquestionable. “I was here,” Daniel said. “In that nightmare.”
Penny landed at his feet and looked between him and the crater and back at him, her small avian face deep with concern.
“I’ll be okay, just…” What was that on the other side of the clearing? Small divots in the dirt going down the opposite side of the crater. Daniel ran down hill without saying a word, Penny in tow. He raced across the bottom and up to where the disturbance in the ground was. Yes, they were small depressions in the ground as if something had been bounced down the hill. Daniel’s stomach growled again, but he ignored it, trying to think. What were these? Something told him there were important, but he couldn’t figure why, much less what they were.
He cast a glance at the opposite ridge, gauging the time until it would be completely dark. And that’s when he saw the same pattern in the dirt on the other side. His brow furrowed. Why would there be two sets of these prints? It was so strange.
Then it hit him and he clambered back down to the center of the crater. Penny flitted around him, annoyed that he wasn’t saying anything, but he couldn’t spare a moment for that. Instead, he began rifling through the dirt at the base of the crater. Those marks on the other side, he had made them when he’d tripped and tumbled into the crater. So if those marks where over here too, that meant, someone else had also fallen in. There were also no marks leading away from this spot. It was a long shot Daniel knew as he dug through the dirt, but maybe whoever it was—
His hand caught something. Soft, cold, a part of it hard and dense. He grabbed hold and pulled as hard as he could. A pale hand emerged from the dirt. Daniel froze. The man was still here. His palm was cool and he didn’t seem to react as when Daniel tugged on his arm. Daniel swallowed as the thought struck him. He dropped the hand. The man was dead.
Penny clung to his shirt collar, peeking out from behind his head. A dead man. Daniel took a step back, eyes wide. This was too much, he needed to get home. They needed to leave. Daniel turned to sprint to the other side of the crater, back to the trail, back to the house. Anywhere away from here. His feet dug into the soft dirt as he scrambled up the side as fast as he could. His stomach growled in protest, having been empty all day, but his mind was in overdrive, they had to go.
Another growl. Not now, Daniel said, some still rational part of his mind getting annoyed. Another growl. But it wasn’t from him. It had come from atop the ridge. Daniel raised his head, a cold sweat breaking out as he saw it.
They had been followed. There, crouching on the cusp of the crater, teeth bared, its body larger than Daniel would have ever believed, covered in black-silver fur, was a wolf.
Enjoyed the story? Support Steven Cousler!