BY BOB SCHOFIELD
A woman is forced by circumstance to move back in with her parents.
She has not seen them in many years.
She is incredibly anxious, but she has no choice, no other options.
After avoiding it as long as possible she finally throws her hands up, and uses the last of her money to buy herself a plane ticket.
Within hours she is suspended over a glistening ocean.
But when the cab pulls up at her parents’ house, there’s nothing there but trees.
Not just her parent’s house, the entire neighborhood, every last block, every lawn and stop sign, all of it has been replaced by trees.
There’s no one around. Not a soul. Not a sound.
Nothing but a massive, overgrown forest, sprawling in every direction from the cul-de-sac.
How can this be? the woman asks herself.
Have I come to the wrong place?
But no, this is where she grew up.
The towering trees are new, but the lay of the land is familiar.
The sound of the brook near her backyard is familiar.
That steep hill she struggled to bike up as a girl is familiar.
She expected a tense homecoming, but she was not expecting this.
Unsure what to do, the woman steps further into the trees.
Branches part around her like a curtain.
She drifts through spaces that had once been her family’s kitchen, living room, her parents’ bedroom, her own.
But there’s no trace of these rooms now, only memories of arguments and misunderstandings.
What now?, says the woman. I came all this way. I can’t turn back. And even if I wanted to, who would take me? Where would I go?
I’ll just have to push a little deeper, she says.
Just to be sure nobody’s home.
She walks for hours. The only sound is the leaves on the ground crinkling under her feet.
Is anyone or anything else out here? she wonders.
Could there be bears here? Could there be wolves?
Soon it’s so dark the woman can’t go any farther.
She makes a big pile of leaves and lies on top of them and looks at the stars.
Wow, she says, taking in the view.
The sky above is alive with starlight. It pours over her. She is small and the sky is large and somehow the forest around her is larger still.
This is not what I imagined coming home would be like, says the woman. Maybe it’s not entirely terrible after all.
And as she says this she sinks into a deep, restorative sleep.
That night the woman wakes up to find a large elk standing over her.
Its face is inches from her own.
She catches her reflection in its eye.
The face is her face, only different, flipped upside down, blown up like a balloon.
The elk stares at her like she’s an alien.
The elk lets out a big steamy breath.
Gently, almost apologetically, the woman raises a hand to pet the elk.
Then someone nearby clears their throat, in that way that’s always meant to get someone’s attention.
And the elk darts into the bushes.
Hey! Wait! yells the woman, rushing after it.
She leaps over logs and stomps through bramble.
Stray branches whip against her face.
Finally, she catches up with the elk, standing silent under an old tree.
The woman hangs back, where the elk can’t see her.
The elk looks in one direction, then the other.
Then two skinny arms shimmy out from its neck.
They reach up to either side of its head and twist it off.
There’s a man inside it.
Then the elk’s hindquarters detach, and a second man reveals himself.
He straightens, groans, and stretches with one hand on the small of his back.
Then he turns to the first man and starts berating him.
He’s gesturing angrily at the elk head and off in the direction they came from.
Meanwhile the woman is inching closer, careful not to make a sound.
She’s desperate to hear what they have to say.
But before she can, one of them throws his hands up in exasperation and the pair stomp off sullenly through the trees.
But the woman is undeterred.
She keeps following them. She’s moving like wind, like some kind of alpha predator.
She trails them for what feels like miles.
Finally, the two men in the elk suit enter a moonlit clearing, full of wild animals.
Every beast of the forest is present, seated in a loose ring of aluminum folding chairs.
They’re talking amongst themselves. Some are sipping coffee. Others are scrolling through their phones.
A water cooler sits off to the side in the tall grass.
The animals wave to the men in the elk suit as they approach.
Then they reach up, and pry their own animal heads off.
And the woman, crouching nearby, is shocked to see that she recognizes many of the moonlit faces underneath.
They are people from her old life. They are former neighbors, old teachers, old bosses. She sees friends she lost touch with. She spots an ex-boyfriend or two she honestly never wanted to see again.
They’re all here.
Everyone she grew up with, an entire community.
Everyone she hasn’t seen since she moved away.
They did not leave, or vanish, or get replaced by trees.
They’re all right here.
And the woman is so relieved by this.
She’s so excited to see these familiar faces, after wandering for hours in these terrible woods.
The woman rushes into the clearing.
She runs right into the circle of people in animal suits.
She’s smiling so big and wide that all her front teeth show.
And she says, Oh my god I’m so relieved to see you all! You have no idea what I’ve been through. I’ve been out here all day and there was nothing around and I thought I was losing it.
But the people in animal suits don’t say a word.
They’re struck dumb.
Their mouths hang open.
They look up at her, pained, horrified.
They exchange nervous glances amongst themselves, like, Oh god what are we supposed to do now?
Then the bushes behind her start to stir.
The look they give the woman turns from horrified to pleading.
But she doesn’t know what’s happening.
I’m sorry, she says. Did I do something wrong?
Now there’s a growling in those bushes behind her.
I didn’t mean to disturb you all.
And, as one, the congregation puts their animal heads back on and sprint away into the far off trees.
When the woman turns, she sees two people in wolf suits standing behind her.
The wolf suits are worn through, patched in places, splattered in mud or dried blood or maybe both.
They toss their wolf heads back.
And the faces beneath them look like hers, only different.
They’re smiling so big and wide all their front teeth show.
Oh my baby, oh my darling, says the woman’s mother, stepping towards her. It’s so good to see you.
Why didn’t you let us know you’d be getting here so early? says her father. What the heck is wrong with you, kiddo? We could have arranged a proper welcome. We could have met you at the airport! We would have met you at the road, right where the old house used to be. Right where the trees begin. We could have each taken one of your hands, wrapped it in one of ours, and led you through these lonely, tangled woods.
Instead we have to meet like this, says her mother, gesturing to the upturned folding chairs, the trampled grass, the abandoned water cooler. Above them, a limp banner hangs between two branches. It says Welcome Home in all different colors.
You ruined the surprise my dear, the woman’s mother says. You scared off all your guests.
Then she boops the woman on the nose just a little harder than necessary.
Her mother laughs.
And her father laughs too.
And the woman opens her mouth to laugh alongside them, because she doesn’t know what else to do.
But no sound comes out.
Because their forepaws are already wrapped so tight around her.
Squeezing so hard she can’t get air.
And the two wolves lift their girl up, high overhead, like she weighs nothing at all.
And bear her backward, through the tall trees, toward the place they’ll call home.