A question to you writers out there: Do you ever write stories that when you're done writing them, you go back to read them, only to find that you don't remember ever sounding as articulate as what you thought? I felt that way recently about a story I wrote and I sat there going, "who wrote this? Because this is leagues above what I feel I normally write? Did some spirit inhabit my body and write these beautiful words, because it wasn't ME."
Or maybe I'm just crazy?
Anyway, enjoy this story, it was really fun to write!
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“What are you doing by the woods? Don’t go in without me. You don’t know the land yet. You wouldn’t want a bear to eat you, would you?”
River peered into the woods, but couldn’t find the strange shape she had just seen. She was pretty sure bears were the least of her worries. She didn’t have time to worry about the strange event for long, because her mother put her to work covering up the logs and saw mill with a blue tarp. Breakfast was granola bars and chocolate milk, and then it was twenty miles of bumpy road out onto the main highway.
The nearest town was fifteen minutes away, and River used the time to peer into the dark woods out her window. She saw now shapes, and the trees didn’t feel as forbidding as the ones where they lived.
“Here we are.” Said her mom as she pulled into a roadside diner. It was a long dingy white building, with red fabric awnings over the windows that were tattered at the ends and had a thick layer of grime on top. River wrinkled her nose.
“Do we have to stop here?”
“It’s where your Uncle Mike would eat. C’mon, I’ll get you a milkshake.”
River wasn’t sure if the milkshake would be all that good, and she trudged after her mom. The inside was cleaner than the outside, and crowded. The red booths were filled with families, while the counter was filled with men that reminded River of Santa Clause if he were a lumberjack wearing caps and cowboy hats.
Taking a seat at the end of the counter, swinging her legs as she took in the scent of eggs, fries, and burgers. Her air was filled with the sound of knives and forks on plates, food being chewed, and a four-year-old throwing a temper tantrum. River rubbed at her abused ears while her mother went to go talk to a waitress.
“You the new kid?” The man next to her spoke, his long yellow-white beard parted and braided into two separate pieces. River nodded slowly, eyeing him. He was thin, with deep wrinkles and deeper brown eyes. He had egg stuck on his beard.
“My mom and I just moved.”
“My mom and I just moved.”
“I know. You moved onto Selden’s land.”
“The man who owned the land before you did. But that was twenty three years ago. I’m Mark Sutter.”
“River.” She held her hand out, and the old man took it, his hand rough, hard, and cold. River shivered, and Mark let go, picking up his coffee cup.
“Your mama know how build a house?”
“Yeah. She’s really smart. She can shoot a gun too.”
“A gun ain’t gonna help you, kid. Don’t wander too far into the woods out there, that’s how Selden lost his three kids.”
“Did….did a bear get them?”
“Don’t know.” Mark took a sip of his coffee, staring at her over the rim of the thick white mug. “Some people say it was ghosts that took ‘em.”
“Well, it was probably a bear. They’re big out there where you live. ‘Cept they didn’t find no bodies or bones. Weird, that.”
“River, did you make a friend?” Her mom had walked up, her smile bright.
“This is Mark Sutter.”
“Hi, I’m Sarah Freeman.”
“Nice to meet y’all.” The old man shook her mother’s hand and then stood up, whipping his beard. “I gotta get goin’, but I live about ten miles for you. Just take a left on the fork at the river bend, instead of the right. Always happy to help.”
“Thanks Mark, I appreciate that. You wouldn’t happen to have seen or met my brother, would you? He was up there building a cabin about a week ago.”
“A man huh….” Mark ran a hand through his beard. “I did see a red truck driving by last week, but I don’t know if I saw it leave or not.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
Mark nodded his head and walked out, and River twirled her seat to face her mom, who took the old man’s seat.
“Mom, Mr. Sutter said that the man who owned the land before us had three kids and that they got taken by ghosts.”
“Oh please.” Her mom laughed as two milkshakes landed in front of them. “He’s just trying to scare you. You really need to stop believing everything you hear.”
“Did anyone see uncle Mike?” River changed the subject. She didn’t want to fight with her mother.
“They didn’t see him here recently. But maybe he didn’t stop in town on his way out. I’ll call his phone before we leave.”
The phone call didn’t lead to anything but his voicemail, and after getting some lunch at a café, they headed back to their land. River jumped out of the car and stared into the woods where the three children had supposedly be taken by ghosts. Or eaten by a bear. She didn’t like the idea of either of those things happening to her. The forest around her was busy with life, and didn’t feel as threatening or creepy as before, and as the days passed by, the feelings disappeared completely.
The forest became more welcoming, felt less threatening. The trees seemed to watch her not with hate, but with curiosity now, and the shade didn’t seem so dark or gloomy. With the help of her mother River was able to stake out places she knew, and how to make markers so she could find her way back. The gentle, wide creek turned out to have fish, and she spent her time trying to catch them with a net. Some days she was successful, and other times she found herself as wet as the fish she was trying to catch.
Sometimes she heard laughter in the woods, the kind that wasn’t her own, but she didn’t find any more childlike footprints, or strange dark shapes loping in the shade of the forest, and shrugged it off. If they were ghosts, they were only ghosts of children her age, and that didn’t seem so scary.
The cry was loud and piercing—it was the cry her mother used to call her home. Dropping the stick she’d been digging in the sand near the river bank, River ran barefoot through the now well worn path. Through the ferns and trees River saw her home and grinned. In the three weeks they’d live there, her mother had been hard at work, and Mark Sutter had even come to help out. Now their cabin had a roof, and the dirt, rocks, and sticks that had littered the ground had been cleared. It was home.
“Mom? Where are you?”
“At the front! Come here!”
River ran around the side and then gave a whoop. The door had been installed. Her mom was standing beside it, a paint can in her hands.
“You ready to paint this door?”
Together they painted the door a dark purple, and then stood back to observe their handy work.
“Tonight, we sleep and eat indoors, kiddo.”
River stepped inside the sparsely furnished cabin and grinned. Light flooded in from the large windows, the stone fireplace between the two windows stood ready for use, and stairs leading up to the two bedrooms was freshly polished. Home.
“Mom, I’ll go get some really nice pine cones for the fireplace!”
“Alright, but don’t go too far, it’ll be dark soon.”
Grabbing her backpack River slung it over her shoulder, along with her pocket knife, and head out, barefoot and heart light. The woods around her were familiar, friendly, warm. She had a place in the world they had moved into. She was being accepted, and River couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. She ran through the familiar old pines and oaks, keeping her eyes out for pinecones. There were none.
Frowning she peered deeper into the woods. She could go a little further than normal without getting lost. Taking her pocket knife out she carved into a pine tree, three sideway slashes that marked her way. She entered the new section of woods, and after a bit of search found an area loaded with pinecones. Behind her she heard a giggle, and River froze, her hand hovering over a pinecone.
“Hello? Are you there?” she called out, but only the sound of blue jays alighting from a tree greeted her. Picking the pinecone up she straightened, looking around slowly. Out of the corner of her eye she thought she saw something dark between the trees to her left.
“This isn’t funny!” She cried. “If you’re going to laugh at me, at least do it to my face!”
She waited for several minutes, but no response came. Picking up the pinecone she backed away slowly. Something other than the trees and animals were with her, she knew it. The memories she’d forgotten on purpose came rushing up. Tiny feet around the tent, strange shadows in the woods, feelings of being watched. As quickly as she could she ran back to the tree she’d left her newest mark, but her relief at the sight was short lived. Below the three slashes was a white hand print, as if it had been painted on. It was smaller than hers. Behind her she heard the sound of footsteps crunching leaves and twigs.
River stood frozen, holding her breath. No matter how much she wanted to scream or run, nothing happened. The footsteps were small, and then there were more. She stared ahead, where the familiar path that led to her home waited for her. She was close to it, close to safety, and she couldn’t do anything.
The footsteps had stopped, and she closed her eyes. River could feel them standing right behind her, though she wasn’t sure how many, or who. Maybe it was the ghost children. Maybe it was a mountain lion. Maybe it was her imagination. Someone giggled, and she could feel their breath on her neck.
“Turn around.” The voice was childlike but tight, like some one who was talking in between coughing.
“She’s afraid.” Said a second, tight voice. It was older and sounded like a boy.
“She shouldn’t be, she’s one of us.” Said the first voice. “Hey, River, turn around.”
Her body reacted faster than her mind did. River spun before she could think better of it, terrified to see what was behind her. No one was there. There were no children, no animals, no disturbed leaves or twigs other than the ones she’d stepped on.
“Coooowwweee!” Called her mother. Shaking, River ran to the sound, ran to safety. The moment her bare feet landed on the soft, freshly turned dark soil, she felt safe.
“River did you find enough pinecones?”
“No, I….” Her voice was hoarse, and she coughed. “I didn’t find many.”
“Too bad. Come inside, the sun’s setting and we need to get this fire started.”
Tightening her hands on her shoulder straps River backed away from the woods, keep her eyes on the rapidly darkening woods. They were watching her, she could feel it. She heard the crack of large branch, the rustling of leaves, and in the looming darkness, by the side of a tree, she saw a face, a strange face her mind couldn’t quite accept.
The face wasn’t human, but it was. It was…River ran inside. It wasn’t a ghost. But it wasn’t human either.
Whatever it was, it had horns on top of its head.