BY ALEXANDRA O’NEIL
There is a man at the edge of the woods.
I squeeze the brakes on my handlebars and my bicycle grinds to a stop on the dirt trail. I squint, peering at the figure over the sea of tall, golden-dead, late-summer grass. It’s a boy, not a man. I recognize the hold of the shoulders and the wavy dark hair. Martin is facing the forest, unaware of my presence.
I look ahead of me, then behind. The dirt track through the meadow is empty. To my right, the lake a quarter mile away. To my left, the forest and Martin. The meadow stretching on either side, dotted with the occasional short bush. No one else was willing to risk the leaden, stormy skies – not even Dad. We are alone. For a moment, I chew on my lip, watching Martin stand motionless. I drop my kickstand and walk through the grass. The stalks whisper against my jeans, a hushed scolding.
“I’m glad to have you home, Melanie,” Mom wrapped her arms around me and pressed her face into my neck. “It will be a nice vacation for you.” Her hair smelled of oranges; gray was beginning to overtake the brown. A vision of what my own crown would look like in a few decades.
I gently pulled back and held her at arm’s length, smiling and taking care to crinkle my eyes. “I’m happy to be back for a bit. I need a break.”
Mom returned my smile and then Dad was there, giving my shoulder a quick squeeze before he grabbed the handle of my suitcase. “Great to see you, sugarbun. Let’s get going and try to beat the rush hour traffic.” His stomach and neck looked softer than I remembered.
The conversation during the drive to the house was careful, tentative. They approached me like I was a wounded animal, extending words instead of hands. They skirted subjects they knew I didn’t want to touch, sticking to safe questions about friends and classes.
Mom twisted around in her seat to face me. “Did you have any problems with your job about coming up here?”
“No.” I didn’t tell her that the restaurant fired me after I called out too many shifts in a row.
“Good, good.” She was happy for me, hopeful. “Lots of our friends’ kids have taken semesters off, haven’t they, Frank? The Jacksons, the McAllisters, the Walkers. Some are taking a year to get back on their feet, find themselves.”
I rubbed at my eyes until fireworks of color exploded against the backs of my lids, so I didn’t have to look at her.
“Are you feeling ok, honey?”
I mumbled, “Just tired from the flight.”
The traffic backed up and Dad stopped talking. Bulldog mouth pulled down into a frown, he hunched over and tightened his hands around the wheel of the Civic until his knuckles blanched.
The house had changed in two years. A neatly mulched flowerbed hugged the porch. The house sported a fresh coat of beige-brown paint, and the garage door was not red the last time I saw it.
“The place looks nice,” I said.
“We had to find things to do once our little bird had flown the nest.” Mom reached back and patted my knee.
Within the first week, we had settled into an easy routine. I helped Mom in the garden or with chores, and most nights we prepared dinner together. I went biking on the trail at the large nearby nature preserve with Dad when he got home from the office, if the weather permitted. I chipped away at the stack of books Mom put in my room. I tried my hand at self-indulgent poetry, thinking it would help me process and heal, but its shittiness made me feel foolish.
Mom and Dad convinced me to start going to church with them for “structure” and “spiritual renewal.” As I tried to get comfortable on a pew that was just as angular and unyielding as I remembered, Mom pointed everyone out to me. Parents of old friends, women close to my age, a few people who moved to town after I left. Then she aimed her finger at a father and son a few rows over.
“Martin and Bruce Shea,” she whispered. “They came here from the town over on the other side of the preserve, about a year ago. Trouble. Stay away from them.”
Mr. Shea’s straw hair was thin, his blue eyes watery. His paunch hung over his belt buckle. He was sallow, translucent – soft and brittle at the same time. Martin’s golden skin and wavy walnut hair didn’t look like they came from the same gene pool. His lips were bowed, tinged slightly pink. His button-down fit his slim frame just right. Several years younger than me, late high school maybe.
Martin caught me staring. He winked one of his dark eyes, and I felt a jump in my lower stomach. I turned back to the front.
The preacher came out to the pulpit and I tried to stop fidgeting on the pew. There had been something sad in that wink, something conspiratorial. I know you’re talking about me.
I stop halfway to Martin and tug at the sleeves of my sweater. I am the tallest thing between the woods and the trail. My bike seems far away. I grind the toe of my sneaker into the ground and glance up at the big slate bowl of sky. Then I remember that lonely wink, and I keep walking.
Mom and I packed dirt around her freshly-planted bubblegum peonies. “Why are the Sheas trouble?”
Her mouth thinned into a line and for a moment she didn’t answer. Brushing dirt from her hands, she sat back on her haunches. “Folks know the boy isn’t Bruce’s.”
“How could you know that?”
She waved a hand. “You can see it in the way they act around each other. Like they’re in-laws. They also look nothing alike.”
I bit my tongue.
“I only ever saw Bruce smile when that boy wasn’t around.”
“Where is Mrs. Shea?”
“Gone. Died soon after they moved. Suicide.” She picked her trowel back up and slapped at the soil. “There’s something strange going on there. Don’t get any ideas, Melanie.”
Sitting there in the sun, it felt silly to have blushed over this poor boy, motherless and the gossip of the town.
"Have you spoken to Darrel any? Since… you broke up?”
“No.” I stood. “I’m going to take a shower.”
Dad and I went on a late-afternoon ride through the preserve’s meadow. I glanced over at the woods. Maybe I thought I saw something, some movement. Maybe I heard a scrap of birdsong, or maybe it was just by chance.
Suddenly I was scared and cold. I was running through the darkness, tripping over roots, screaming and sobbing. Branches reached down to whip my face and catch at my hair with their fingers. Echoing voices murmured indistinctly, calling my name, pronouncing words I couldn’t understand. This vision cleared when I veered into the grass and nearly tipped over. Dad was ahead of me, and didn’t notice. After dinner, while Mom was showering, I told him what I saw.
“We used to camp in those woods when you were little, don’t you remember? You sleepwalked one night and woke up alone, took us a little while to find you. You must have been ten or eleven. It traumatized you, I think. You were hysterical. We stopped going after that.”
“Traumatized me so much I suppressed it, apparently.”
That night I dreamed of the forest. I dreamed of walking under black limbs, pearl moon peeking through the leaves. Martin was there. He winked at me, no sadness this time, only guile, and disappeared into the shadows of the foliage. I tried to follow, but the growth was too thick, the night too dark.
In the morning, I slipped away to see the woods. I biked to the trail and waded through the tall grass, right to the edge of the tree line. Closing my eyes, I breathed in the smell of dirt and living wood. Birds chirped to each other, and something scurried through the undergrowth. The forest itself was alive, every rustle of leaves a breath. I wondered why I was ever afraid of such a peaceful place, why I ever forgot it.
I did not remain long, I didn’t want them to notice I was missing.
I stand next to Martin and examine him from the corner of my eye, moving my head as little as possible. He squints into the forest, concentrating, hands in his pockets. He rolls a lollipop around in his mouth. He doesn’t acknowledge me.
I follow his gaze. First the trees up close, the rough pattern of their bark, the individual leaves. Then peering into the universe of quiet life deeper within, trying to see what he sees. A breeze sighs from the darkness in the heart of the woods, bringing the scent of damp earth and greenery. Martin closes his eyes and inhales. He takes the lollipop from his mouth with a soft sucking sound.
“I love these woods. There’s a…” he lifts his chin and lets the wind comb its fingers through his hair, “a life to them. A voice. Only some people can pick up on it.” Finally, he looks at me. He licks his lips; his mouth and the tip of his tongue are stained red. “I bet you can. You look like you can.”
My face and hands tingle. “I do,” I whisper.
I was disappointed when Martin was not at church the following Sunday.
While Mom and Dad took their Sunday afternoon nap, I left a note telling them I went for some fresh air and biked out to the woods. This time I walked past the tree line, stopping before the sunny meadow disappeared behind me. It was still and calm there, under the canopy. It baffled the wind. I breathed the forest’s scent. I pictured the little molecules of dirt and tree and flower flowing into my lungs, into my bloodstream, filling me up. A dead leaf crunched.
I slid my eyes over to where the sound came from and saw a doe, dappled with a patch of sunlight. Her belly was large and swollen. I watched her nibble and tiptoe around the underbrush. I remained completely still until she ambled back into the forest, tail twitching. I sat cross-legged on the soft soil, listening to the birdsong, staring up at the latticework of limbs and leaves overhead. By the time I returned home, several hours had passed.
Mom and Dad were frantic, and their panic was quick to morph into anger once they realized I was safe. Telling them that I needed space to “deal with stuff” pacified them, but only just.
I kept dreaming of the forest and seeing Martin there. Sometimes I didn’t find him, sometimes I did. Sometimes he slipped his fingers under the hem of my shirt as he lowered us to the forest floor, leaves and grasses our bed. His breath tickling my face, then my stomach. More often than not, I woke flushed, sweating, and faintly embarrassed. He’s too young, I barely knew him.
Swallowing so loud I’m sure he can hear it, I ask, “Does it bother you? What people say about you?”
Martin returns his attention to the woods, taps the lollipop against his teeth. His shoulders roll up in a shrug. “I got used to it. My mom didn’t though. We moved to try to get away from it, but shit sticks. Eventually, it wore her down. Made her this… shell.” Tilting his head back to the gray sky, he says very calmly, “You’d think the gossip would have taken a break after my dad came home and found her throat opened up, but you’d be wrong.”
I gasp, and he gives me a smirk. That red tongue peeks out between those red lips again. Then the smile softens, fades away. He puts the lollipop back in his mouth.
“She didn’t mean to cheat. She was seduced.”
“It’s ultimately your choice though, isn’t it? To be unfaithful?” I should feel ashamed, but I don’t; perhaps it’s a desperate bid to keep his attention on me instead of the trees. I wasn’t normally desperate. Maybe his carelessness is rubbing off on me already.
He gives me a piercing look that makes my navel buzz. He speaks around the lollipop, “Not always.”
For a moment longer, he searches my face, and I begin to feel bit floaty. The overcast sky paints everything in a strange hue, gives his brown eyes a hint of gold like sunstruck honey, darkens the red stain on his mouth. He bites down with a loud crunch that makes me jerk. Martin pulls the white stick from between his teeth and tucks it neatly into his pocket. It’s such an intentional and conscientious gesture, so at odds with his previous irreverence, that I raise my eyebrows.
Noticing this, Martin waves at the trees. “This place has dignity. There are things living in those woods that deserve respect. Old things.” His voice has a weight that was lacking when he spoke about his dead mother.
I watch his hair lift in the rain-heavy wind, and I wonder if he smells like the dimness in front of us, earthy and alive and wild. I shift closer. “Like what?”
A corner of his mouth quirks. “It would ruin it if I told you.”
Dad and I woke early to surprise Mom with breakfast in bed, only to find that the pancake mix in the pantry was damp and moldy. While Dad made the eggs, I took the Civic to the grocery store down the street. The store had a cold, bright, early-morning emptiness.
Empty except for Martin, who turned from the one open register, bags in hand. His face lit up when he saw me. My own smile was immediate, reflexive.
“Hey! You’re Melanie, right?”
“Yeah!” I wondered how he knew my name, but the words seemed stuck in my throat, caged behind the wide grin peeling back my lips.
“Word gets around here fast,” he said.
He shifted his bags to hold them in one hand and extended his other to shake. “I’m Martin. Nice to officially meet you.” His grip was firm, but not crushing. “What are you doing here so early?”
Breaking eye contact, I took a subtle peek at his haul. Pounds of raw meat and bags of candy, chocolates and lollipops. His forearm corded with their weight. “Making breakfast. We’re out of pancake mix.”
Three people came through the automatic doors. Martin’s eyes flicked to them, then back to me. “I’ll leave you to it then. See you around?”
Only once he left did I notice my pulse thundering in my joints and the warmth in my face and neck.
“You’ve seen the things in the woods?” I stage-whispered.
“Of course I have. I’ve been to all sorts of forest parties.”
I giggle in a way I never have sober. “What goes on at these forest parties?” I slip my arm around his.
“Lots of things. Circle dances by torchlight. The burning of incense. Orgies under the full moon. Slaughtering young, pure black livestock. The occasional human sacrifice.”
Feigning a shudder, I press a hand against his chest. “Tell me about the monsters in the woods.” I hope that he will take me into the shadows under the branches, where some of the things I’ve dreamed about might happen.
Those golden-brown eyes slide to my face. “The human mind cannot comprehend them,” he says wryly. His nostrils flare, like he’s smelling me. “You got lost in the woods once. You saw something. Tall as a house? Legs like tree trunks, six of them. Foggy yellow eyes. A crown of antlers. It stank, like a long-hibernating bear. One that slept in a soggy den?” A smirk crawls across his face as he speaks.
I have dropped his arm. “Stop.” Another gust comes; this time it is cold, cutting through my clothes.
“You saw it, and it saw you.”
“This isn’t funny.”
“I’m having fun.” He takes my wrist with wiry tightness, a snare. Then his smile slips and is replaced with rueful seriousness. “Melanie. These woods will have what they will have.”
Everything darkens, the sky all at once so thick with clouds that day turns almost to night. Through the gathering gloom his eyes remain clear and bright. His hair flutters in a strong rush of wind, two twists rising up and up and sharpening into curved, solid horns.
Sucking in great, wheezing lungfuls of air, I try to yank my wrist free. His grip tightens, fingernails sinking into my skin. A stench I instantly recognize hits my nose, the smell of wet fur, like a drowned dog, bloated and rotting. Little flames are leaping in his eyes now, and my scream comes out as a rough wheeze. His head tilts back and his jaw opens as wide as a snake’s, so wide all I can look at is the spirals of needle teeth coiling down into the glowing core of his throat. Even as I lean back he drags me close and then those awful jaws snap over me like an iron maiden, like a bear trap.
For one single, sustained moment, I can feel each fang in my flesh, hot blood running down my chest, the chill breeze nipping my legs through my jeans, and a small, heavy ball of sadness for the lonely boy from the woods.