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The Witch of Wildthorne Wood

BY CARRIE A BROWN

Propping open the door with her hip, Reika ushered Simeon inside.

“You’re so bossy,” he said, sliding past her with a wolfish grin. “If it wasn’t your birthday, I would not be doing this.” He gestured with a nod to the large pile of firewood in his arms. “Consider this your birthday gift,” he added, unceremoniously dropping the wood in a heap near the stove.

Reika patted his soft cheek. “Don’t worry youngling, it’ll be your birthday soon. . . Bubbe?” She called though she knew it was pointless, the cottage was in near darkness, telling her that her grandmother hadn’t been back since being called to aide a birth that morning.

Reika lit a couple of large candles and tried to stifle her disappointment. What had she expected? Hannah Maisel was a healer first and everything else, including family, came second. Today Reika was fifteen, officially an adult, and really she should start to act like it! Today her childhood ceased; tomorrow she started her healer’s apprentice. She would no longer complain about her grandmother’s lack of attention. Not out loud anyway.

Placing the candle on top of the old table with a creek, her eyes found her birthday gift. A beautiful iron pestle and mortar. The burnished metal seemed to glow in the warm candlelight, making her feel all fuzzy inside.

“Still think that’s a weird present.” Simeon shrugged following her gaze.

“Not for a healer.” She loved the way that sounded.

“What’s that?” Simeon's long legs leapt from the table. “Ooh, maybe it’s a belated card?” he picked up what looked like a scrap of paper from the floor.


Curiosity had Reika snatching the paper from his hand in an instant. “Let me...” Reika stilled, two words, just two words were written on the paper:

Help me

Automatically, Reika sniffed at the paper, the way she had seen her grandmother do many times. Two distinct smells emerged: damp soil and old tree bark.

“Where are you going? Simeon asked, voice laced with confusion. Without realizing it, she had packed her satchel and was heading for the door.

“I. . .” A gentle tug pulled her back, but instead of acknowledging her friend, Reika grabbed her pestle and mortar instead. “I have to go,” she said hastily running out the door.

It was as though an invisible force propelled her forwards. She ran and ran, hearing Simeon panting hard behind her. Coming to an abrupt halt, she heard her friend gasp in horror. “Reika we can’t…”

Closing her eyes, Reika considered the merits of simply forgetting the letter and going home. But, she knew in her heart that wasn’t an option. Healing blood thrummed in her veins, answering the plea for help was her duty. She sniffed the letter once more, just to be sure. There was no doubt. This was the place.

Wildthorne Wood.

Tales told around campfires and spread throughout the kingdom told that a witch lived in these woods. An old hag that delighted in feasting on any child that was unlucky enough to stumble into her territory. Some said her power came from the moon, others said it derived from the young blood she devoured. No one could be sure of truth from myth, but a combination of legends had resulted in the witch being nicknamed Mama Moon. The very sound of which strengthened both childhood fears and parental threats.

“Getting a note like that, well, it sings in my blood. I can’t ignore it,” she said with a gulp, turning to face him. “Listen, you go back, find Bubbe. Bring help, just in case I-- ”

“Like hell,” Simeon said, lacing his fingers with hers, and pulling her into the waiting darkness.

Hard twigs crunched underfoot as Reika held the letter with unsteady hands, letting it guide them which way to go. “At last!” A husky voice sighed.“I thought you’d never arrive!” Branches groaned and creaked and Reika felt the cold air of something swooshing amongst them.

Although her vision had adjusted to the dark, she still couldn’t find the source of the noise. “Who are you? What do you want?” She called into the night.

A small woman somersaulted before them, landing with a precise thud. Her long blonde hair, although matted, cascaded around her, reminding Reika of the honey she poured into her morning porridge. “I thought that was kinda obvious?” the woman said, leaning to stroke a large white cat that had emerged from behind a withering tree stump. Reika watched as the cat nudged the woman’s bare legs with a purr.

“Has Mama Moon trapped you?” Simeon stepped forward, evidently eager to help the pretty little woman.

A burst of wild laughter erupted, a noise impossibly big for the petite frame.

“This Simeon,” Reika took a deep breath, stilling the realization in her bones. “This is Mama Moon,” she said, hearing her friend gasp beside her. Still, she kept her eyes fixed upon the dangerous creature before her. She might look as sweet as honey, but the flicker of mischief in her green eyes was enough to tell Reika that was where the comparison ended. “What do you want?” She asked.

“Has good old Bubbe not taught you any manners, Reika Maisel?”

A shot of ice ran up Reika's spine at the friendly way the witch spoke her name. But swallowing her fear, Reika spoke as calmly as she could manage. “The note said ‘help me’, so again, what do you want?”

The witch tutted “One would expect a warmer greeting from one’s daughter.”

The world spun. Tears danced in her periphery. Yet Reika found herself chuckling, it sounded hollow even to her own ears. “My mother is dead,” she hissed, repeating what Bubbe had told her, what she now could feel was a lie. “Come Simeon,” she added, reaching her hand out to her friend who now seemed completely frozen.

“How rude!” The witch clicked her tongue, flashing pointed teeth that sparkled like starlight. “Well, dear Reika, today is the day I gave birth to you.” The witch took a step closer. “Maybe I’m turning soft, but I wanted to give my darling wee baby a gift.”

Simeon straightened at the witch’s choice of words, at last he was reacting. At last he seemed to awaken to the register of the danger they now found themselves in. Although Reika knew the witch spoke true, that she was indeed her mother, this was no reunion, this witch, mother or no, would not be giving her a gift. Reika pushed the wave of sadness from her mind, instead it stuck hard in her throat hurting with every swallow. In a million daydreams this was not what she had imagined.

“See, I do need your help. Tomorrow when your apprenticeship officially starts, so too will the Maisel curse. The unquenching urge for a child’s blood and bone. You can fight them as dear Bubbe chooses to do, or simply let them be.” Reika took a step backwards, nudging with her eyes for Simeon to do the same. He didn’t take much persuasion and cautiously followed suit. “You're just like me, Reika. I know it! Come, be with me, and at last- let us be together!”

Although the witch sounded just as confident as before, Reika sensed a desperation in her tone, cackling under the surface, like the still hot embers of a dying fire. “I am nothing like you,” Reika said.

The witch resumed her composure with ease and when she spoke again, there was not a hint of her earlier desperation. “My gift to you is the gift of knowledge. See dear Bubbe never told me, and she won’t tell you either. If you choose now, freely before you commit to being a healer, she can’t bind you, confine you in these blasted woods. In here you’re always waiting, needing, craving the blood, the snap of bone.” She took another step closer. Reika took a step backwards. They danced a dangerous dance. “You wouldn’t have to wait, to stumble across what you desired; you would be a free huntress, free, to provide for us both.”

“I will never choose this. I will never choose you,” Reika spat.

“Reika,” Simeon warned. Heaviness seemed to fill the air, and although Reika had sensed it, it spoke volumes that Simeon, a boy with no powers had detected the change. “We need to go. . . Now,” he said.

“Of course you can go! Didn’t I say you could?” A small whirring and clicking noise sounded. Talons as sharp and long as knives sprang from the witch’s fingernails. “Just make sure to leave my gift.” Licking her lips, she turned her full attention to Simeon. “It was so good of you, dear daughter, to bring me a meal. Mama is just so hungry.”

They ran as fast as they could, stumbling and bumping forward with desperation. A cackle closed behind them. Reika got a sense the witch was toying with them, a cat playing with its food.

Behind her, Simeon let out a shriek, followed by a groaning thud. She was back beside him in an instant. “Reika! Help!” He cried. The white cat had him pinned to the ground, claws gouged deep into his face.

She tried and failed to pull the cat away with its tail. Another cackle sounded. Skidding to her knees, Reika pulled and pulled, but the cat stayed rooted in Simeon’s face. The coppery tang of blood filled the air. “Use the pestle and mortar,” the cat whispered with a rasp. Reika stared in shock. “Now! It’s your only chance! Throw it down on the ground!” The cat hissed, at last withdrawing its claws and scampering away.

Ignoring Simeon’s whine and her own growing panic that the witch was drawing nearer, Reika fumbled her satchel open, and threw her pestle and mortar down with a thunk!

Nothing happened.

Another cackle, closer, louder.

‘We need to run,’ Simeon said, scrambling back to his feet.

A small pop sounded, no louder than the ring pull of her grandmothers ginger ale. But Reika watched in amazement as her pestle and mortar grew and grew and grew. “My pestle and mortar,” she whispered when it had last stopped growing. “But why. . . A ship. . .” She gasped in realization as to what her prized present had now become. Clambering inside, the ship began to hover off the ground, impatient as she was to leave. The rocking made it difficult to pull a bleeding Simeon aboard. She cursed loudly about his ridiculously lofty height. A sudden icy breeze stroked her skin. “No,” she screamed, as she felt the firm pull of the witch at one of Simeon’s legs.

Sweat pooled on Simeon’s brow as he hung on with fingertips and determination alone. The witch gave a roar of delight. “No child goes home from my woods.”

Home.

With a jerk, the ship shot forward. Shocked, the witch let go and Reika at last heaved Simeon aboard. “When we're home, I am telling your mother to ration your food!”

She heard the groaning of tree branches, as the witch gave swinging pursuit. The time for playing was evidently over. The pestle moved at a steady pace, but Reika knew it wasn’t enough to outrun the witch. What they needed was to get out from the thick of the woodland. Instinctively, she reached for the pestle that sat idly on the side of the ship. Although she told herself it was crazy, she began to paddle against the currents of the increasingly cold wind. “Higher,” she commanded, and the ship steadily obeyed, then stopped with a frantic sway. Metal against metal sounded. Scratching and screeching against the now rocking ship.

“That wasn’t very polite, daughter,” the witch scorned, leaping further onto the struggling ship. Reika tried to push the witch off, but the ship’s movement had thrown her off balance. One large taloned hand reached fully over the side, grabbing, clawing. Reika felt the stinging burn as one of those talons sunk deep into her arm.

“No,” Simeon shouted, and drove the oar into the witch’s pretty face. It struck true and either because of the sheer force or because he had caught her by surprise, cursing colorfully she fell with a deafening roar. Dropping the oar inside the ship, Simeon took Reika in his shaking arms. “You’ll never take her,” he yelled into the darkness. “Never,” he whispered.

Free of the extra weight the ship rose above the trees and flew smoothly into the clear starry night. Neither of them spoke as they sat on the cold floor of the ship, the moon the only source of light, and coasted across the night sky.

“Reika!” her grandmother’s welcoming shouts told her she was at last home, as the ship descended rapidly with a bump.

Spitting them both out on the path. Reika stared in wonder as the ship and oar morphed back to her pestle and mortar with an even tinier pop. Had it all been a dream? She wondered. But she now knew the truth. “I- I saw Mama,” she said, turning at last to face her grandmother.

“She’s gone, my darling.” Her grandmother joined her to sit on the dusty path.

“Is it true?” Reika whispered against her grandma’s warm embrace, unsure which part she was really asking about, she simply had too many questions.

“As a new healer there are three tests, and this was your first.” Her lips were cool as she brushed a kiss against Reika’s forehead. She moved to stand with a grunt and for a moment Reika thought that was all her grandmother was going to say. “Come inside, I’ll tell you all the family secrets.” Her grandmother added noticing Reika’s disheartened look. Her thick hips sashaying as she strode. “You’ll be in need of a strong drink first, of course,” she shouted over her shoulder, giving Simeon a scathing appraisal. “Both of you,” she concluded with a sigh.

Reika took in Simeon’s blood splattered face. He was a mess. He was hurt. Guilt prickled her belly. This was all a stupid test, one he had no part in, one he should be sheltered from. “Listen, you go back and-”

“Like hell!” Simeon said, stretching out his dirty hands to help haul her up.

Side by side, they strode back to the old cottage, prepared to face the healer’s tales, lies, secrets of the past and the future and more than ready for a strong drink or several.

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Carrie A Brown is a fiction writer from the North of England. She has an MA from Northumbria University. Recently, she was longlisted by Penguin Roundhouse UK for their inaugural WriteNow event and short listed for a Creative future literary prize. A lover of flash fiction, Carrie has a preference for twisted fairy tales as well as Gothic literature. she is currently working on her debut YA fantasy novel. Twitter @Carrie_A_Brown

The Smell of Wet Fur

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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?”


“Yeah, definitely.”


Only once he left did I notice my pulse thundering in my joints and the warmth in my face and neck.

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“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.

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Alexandra O'Neil writes in her spare time between her day job and procrastinating. She likes reptiles and archery. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Molotov Cocktail and Soft Cartel. Twitter @alex_o_writes

Who Sees is Also Seen

BY SR HUGHES

who see is also seen

She sees them on the fringes of the wilderness, where derelict neighborhoods blur into the trees. Where vines pull at wrecked facades like lover’s limbs, murmuring come back to the earth with us, come back to the earth and sleep, where branches breach broken windows seeking sunbeam alms, where new life sprouts out of old. She sees them there, right on the edges, at the places where civilization falls, where nature rises.


They adorn themselves in bone. They hood themselves in buck’s skulls, cow’s skulls, bull’s skulls, wolf’s skulls. They wear necklaces of teeth, phalanges, tarsals. Their fingers gleam in ivory rings, claw-tipped, leather-skinned. They might be human. They might not be human.


She sees them sifting. They pick through the carcasses of downtrodden houses, through the ruins of recession. They scavenge wrecked cars and collapsed garages. They rummage through garbage-strewn overgrowth, through litter, through trash, through the left-behinds, the forgotten, the discarded.


They garb themselves in bloodcloth, bright red. Cloaks and shawls and capes and sometimes just stained hoodies, all crimson, all claret, all scarlet and carmine. They wear the shade as uniform, or perhaps as vestment.


Their limbs are long and thin. Their bodies, attenuated, elongate. Their skin is sundark, moonkissed, leathered and tough. Sometimes they peer up at her window with skullsockets, with black holes gaping in bone.


She does not see their eyes. She does not see anything behind their skull masks.


Perhaps there’s nothing there to see.


But when she gazes into those pits, into those gaps in the bone, she shivers. She feels seen, watched, and known. She feels chosen. She thinks what it might be like to be chosen, to be seen and watched and known. She wonders what it’s like to be noticed, to be picked. She fingers a crucifix necklace, the body of a chosen person nailhung on a cross. She doesn’t want to be chosen. She doesn’t want to be noticed. She doesn’t want to be seen or watched or known.


Today, they’ve gathered. They hold ranks at the treeline, crouched in brush, waiting.
She locks the doors. She turns off the lights.


She sees them.


She is seen.

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S. R. Hughes is a Queens-based writer of dark contemporary fantasy, horror, and other Weird fictions. He's been previously published in Sanitarium Magazine and The Wild Hunt (as Spencer Rhys Hughes). He's also been featured on several podcasts, and wrote the first season of The Hollow podcast. He does not venture into the wilderness. Twitter @thershughes

The Offer

BY MADISON MCSWEENEY

The day spring turned to summer, Lily wandered, barefoot, to the edge of her father’s property, where the field met the woods. Once there, she heard a chorus of tiny voices calling from the weeds. A woman no taller than a dandelion walked out to greet her, dragonfly wings glinting in the sun. Others hid within the brambles; together, they told Lily of the otherworld, and offered to bring her there to live with them.

A voice from behind her broke the spell. “Lily, come back here!” She whirled around at her mother’s call and ran back towards her house.

Summer dragged on, and Lily was curious. She came back every day to hear the faeries make their case. They begged. They pleaded. They bribed. They told her of the wondrous things that awaited if she would only follow them. But Lily always shook her head, for she knew if she went with them now, she could never come back.


“Don’t make me choose,” she’d say.

And the faeries would always whisper, “But there’s no other way.”

School started, and she was bored. Every morning at the rise of the sun, she was herded inside and drilled under fluorescent lights, to be released only at sunset. She couldn’t visit the faeries as often, and she feared they would tire of waiting for her. But whenever she ventured to the edge of the field, they were there.

“Come with us,” they’d beg. “Just for a little while – if you don’t want to stay, we’ll let you leave.” But she always turned from them, sighing: “I have homework to do.”

The school year ended, and Lily was free. She ran through barren fields as the winds engulfed her, dancing underneath low-hanging clouds and bruised skies. She climbed the trees that lined her gravel driveway, eating sour apples and scraping her legs on rough bark. She swam in the nearby lake, plunging into the depths where the sun didn’t penetrate, her bare feet grazing prickly seaweed and algae-slicked stones.

But though the wonders of the summer distracted her, she still returned to where the fairies waited. There, they continued to make their case. And when she replied, “No, I’m having too much fun,” they were angered.

“You fool!” they hissed, their voices like cicadas. “You’ll regret this—you’ll regret this when these days are gone and done!” After that, Lily stayed away for a long time.

But when the last day of summer came, she was weak. Her looming return to school—to routine and drudgery—left a lump in her stomach. That night, after everyone had fallen asleep, Lily crept out of her bed and walked to the edge of the field. As always, the fairies were waiting; this time, they didn’t need to beg or plead.

A woman no taller than a dandelion walked out from within the weeds, her dragonfly wings glittering in the moonlight. She extended her hand. Lily accepted it, and followed her into the otherworld.

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Madison McSweeney has published horror, science fiction, and fantasy in Rhythm & Bones Lit, Deadman's Tome, Unnerving Magazine, Women in Horror Annual 2, and Dark Horizons: An Anthology of Dark Science Fiction. Her poems have appeared in Cockroach Conservatory Vol. 1, Lonesome October Lit, Bywords, and The Fulcrum. She lives in Ottawa, Canada. Twitter @MMcSW13

Two Point Five Wolves

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.
Anything dangerous?
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.

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Bob Schofield is a writer and illustrator from New Orleans. His work includes The Burning Person, The Inevitable June, Moon Facts, and more. Currently he’s living in The Netherlands. In his next life he hopes to come back as a whale or beautiful tree. Twitter @anothertower

Revival Forest

BY BRADLEY SIDES

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At Mr. Eddie’s first attempt to lead a group session, the balding man of thirty-something decided to remain seated when he too softly introduced himself to the small group of fatherless boys who everyone believed simply couldn’t “move on.” The boys, none new to the awkward and faux sympathy of strangers, snickered and jabbed one another in the sides, pointing. They’d seen and heard it all before, they thought.


As five individual grievers, they never really existed. Their fathers all dead from the explosion at the factory. None of the boys were mentioned separately in the paper or even in the classrooms they frequented. They became “the boys.”


Before, they only knew one another as faces. In the after, they, the boys, were friends. Best friends. Best friends put together by the most unusual of circumstances.


The first time they met as a group, their school counselor, Mr. Casey, lectured them on grief. How it was normal to think they heard voices. How it was not uncommon to imagine things. How it would all fade with time. But, six months later, it was clear the old man was wrong. And so was the next counselor. And the handful of others who followed until Mr. Eddie arrived.


Mr. Eddie, with his rosy cheeks and damp forehead, spoke in that musty basement at Freedom Hall United Methodist Church about the voices the boys heard. He, unlike the others who’d lectured them before, didn’t begin with grief, or imagination, or healing. Instead, he talked about the voices from the woods. What they could mean. What their fathers were trying to tell their sons. The boys quieted down and listened. Still, mostly. They could already tell he was different—not from them, but from the others who had come before him. It was his closing sentence that convinced them of this. “I hear them, too,” he said.


Two of the boys, Kade and Kody, twins who had earlier in the week gotten their driving permits, quickly wiped at their cheeks.


Ray and Donovan laughed—but it was to prevent them from doing the other thing.


Clay, for the first time in any session, looked up from his phone.


Mr. Eddie stood from his chair in the small circle and clasped his hands. “Thank you for coming,” he said, a little too abruptly, before turning his attention to straightening up the room. He asked the boys to put their seats back at the tables so the old folks could play cards the next morning. They did without complaint.


Mr. Eddie held the door for each of the boys as they slowly filed out of the cold room. Then, he flipped the light switch.


He sat with the boys outside the door, waiting on the mothers to arrive. The wind from the forest whipped past them. Mr. Eddie and the boys sat with their eyes closed, focused on what swirled around them. “You really hear them, too, Mr. E? Or were you just saying all that?” Clay asked quietly, twirling his phone in his hands.


“No, I hear them,” Mr. Eddie said, opening his eyes and looking up at the stars. “But nobody listened to me either. I just stopped talking about it.”


“That’s what everybody wants us to do, too,” Clay said, tucking his phone into his jeans pocket. He extended his hand for a fist bump as the lights from the approaching car grew brighter.


The other boys sat solemnly, waiting. But they followed suit when their times came. “Bye, Mr. E.,” they said, their fists tapping against the man who believed them—the man who, they believed, was like them.

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At Thursday’s meeting, Mr. Eddie still did most of the talking—at least at the beginning. Provoking and prodding, sure. His position required that much. But the silence was overtaken largely by his own admissions. His father died six months ago. The explosion. He’d heard him since the morning it happened. The father wanted Mr. Eddie to join him in the forest. To visit, his father claimed. He sipped coffee between his words, and the steam fogged his glasses.


The boys listened. And nodded. They whispered to one another. Mr. Eddie could tell their experiences were the same.


“Do you, Mr. E.?” Ray asked. His voice shook as he spoke.


“Do I what?” Mr. Eddie asked, taking off his glasses and cleaning the lenses with the ends of his untucked shirt.


“Do you ever go?” Ray asked. “You know, to the forest?”


Mr. Eddie shook his head and took another sip. “Do you?” he replied.


The boy looked down.


Clay’s phone was out, but only from habit. “Why?” he asked. “Why don’t we?”


Donovan squirmed in his chair. His legs stirred, turning one way and then another.

“Because what we are hearing isn’t even real, my dudes. Isn’t that why we’re here?

Everybody thinks we are nuts. People are just being nice about it because we are basically orphans,” he said.


“We aren’t orphans,” Ray said.


“We basically are. Our parent died,” Donovan said.


“Yeah, one parent. Our dads.”


“Whatever, man.”


The boys turned to Mr. Eddie—the man they, for whatever reason, trusted. He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t think any of us are lying about what we are hearing. I think something spectacular is happening. Why, though, I don’t know.”


Kade and Kody mumbled back and forth—growing louder as they conversed. Kade eventually raised his hand, and Kody leaned back into his chair, tossing his hands in the air in resignation.


“Yes, Kade,” Mr. Eddie said, pointing with the coffee in his hand.


Kade cleared his throat and let out a deep breath. “We’ve been to the edge of the forest,” he said. “We’ve seen our dad.”


Kody stared at the floor, but he nodded when he felt the eyes fall on him.


“We saw them all,” Kade continued, his voice becoming low and paced. “They were begging us to join them. To visit, you know. They were reaching for us. They were calling us by name. Chanting. Or something like that. And they all knew us. Not just our dad, but all of them.” He looked up.


The other boys sat still. Frozen. And quiet again. Lost amid their thoughts, their dreams—and, even, their nightmares.


Mr. Eddie went to Kade and squatted in front of him, but the boy didn’t move. He couldn’t. Mr. Eddie grabbed Kade’s shoulder and squeezed it.


“Did you go inside?” he asked.


Kade sat still, refusing to answer.


“We ran home, Mr. E.,” Kody admitted.


Mr. Eddie slowly stood and walked to the center of the circle. He rubbed his chin and grunted. “I think we have a plan for our next session,” he said.

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On Tuesday, one week after their first meeting, the boys arrived, as they had, to find the basement door open. The smell of coffee brewing inside floated out to where the mothers dropped off their sons. The lights warmed the chilly evening’s air. Each of the boys waved goodbye as their rides faded back down the ill-lit roads from which they’d come. Only Ray lingered, but he, too, gave in and joined the others.


“Alright,” Mr. Eddie said, standing confidently in front of the boys. “Let’s go.”


The boys nodded and quickly jumped to their feet, following their leader. As Mr. Eddie stood at the door, he handed each of the boys a flashlight. “It’ll be dark soon,” he said. They walked out the door and into the approaching night toward the woods that housed their fathers.

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In the twenty minutes it took to reach the boundary that held the voices, night arrived. The flashlights shined ahead, illuminating the peeled trees’ bark.


“Do you hear them?” Mr. Eddie asked, stepping closer to the first tree.


The boys nodded, but they remained quiet.


“I asked you a question, boys?” Mr. Eddie asked again, his voice booming. “Do you hear them?”


The boys collectively cleared their throats and shined their lights toward the trees.


“Yeah, Mr. E.,” Donovan said, answering first. “I hear ‘em.”


“Me, too,” said Ray.


Clay followed with the same.


And, then, were the twins. “Us, too,” they said.


Mr. Eddie laughed. “Of course you do,” he said. “You do. I do. Everybody does.” He put his hand on the tree that separated the living from the dead.


The boys backed away from Mr. Eddie, keeping their light on his face.


“I don’t think so, Mr. E.,” Clay said, reaching for his phone.


He focused the video recorder on the man he trusted.


“They are scared,” Mr. Eddie said. “They just want their sons back. That’s all they—”


The boys stood behind Clay as it happened, him holding them back with his free hand.


A swarm of arms reached from behind the tree and pulled Mr. Eddie inside. Viciously. Hungrily. He went into the land of the lost fathers.


“I told you,” Kade said quietly.


Clay clicked off the recorder.

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The boys didn’t have time to turn around before they heard the nearby leaves crunching under the weight of shoes.


“It’s our boys,” said Carolyn, the twins’ mother. Like the other mothers, she walked past the boys with lanterns and chairs. “Don’t look at us like that. We come out here at night to visit after we drop you all of.”


“I thought you didn’t believe us,” Clay said to his mother.


“But we want to,” Carolyn interrupted. She looked around at the boys. “Where’s your counselor?”


“We aren’t exactly sure where he went,” Kade said.


Clay got out his phone, but he changed his mind and put it away.


The boys sat in the grass, under the soft glow of the light, and waited with their mothers.


Then the wind began to stir.

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Bradley Sides is a writer and English instructor. His recent fiction appears at BULL, Occulum, Rose Red Review, Signal Mountain Review, Syntax & Salt, and elsewhere. His nonfiction can be found at, among other places, the Chicago Review of Books, Electric Literature, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is at work on his debut collection of short stories. Twitter @Brad_Sides