"Holly, hurry up."
I scrunched up my nose at the tall birch tree next to me. It wasn't that what the tree had said was untruthful; it was just unfair. I had been staring at the same map on my phone for almost twenty minutes. But every time it looked like something new might load and finally free me from this prison, the screen would crash. That didn't make it my fault I'd be stuck wandering the woods around Lake Superior's northern shore forever.
Some leaves above my head laughed at my plight, and I stopped messing with the phone screen long enough to glare up at them. "You know, this isn't helping anything."
The leaves laughed more, and I heard a low rumble from the heart of the tree, as well. That was the annoying thing about hearing trees speak. You'd think there would just be you and the tree, but really it always felt like there was a large audience about. Even with that, this whole experience was making me decide phones were much more annoying.
The map had appeared on my phone three days ago, while I was sitting at my desk in my Minneapolis office, minding my own business and ignoring the saucy gossip about new post-COVID company changes by the water cooler as well as the annoyed comments the trees outside the office were making at having to see more human faces again. I'd had to Google something quick, but when I unlocked my iPhone, it was open to Maps, with directions to an "Unknown Location" pulled up.
Thinking it was odd, but probably just a technical glitch, I'd put my phone away and hadn't thought about it again until the same "glitch" happened later, when I needed directions to pick up a friend in Woodbury. In the end, since the map kept spazzing from her address to the "Unknown Location," we'd had to agree to meet at a Cub foods I knew about in the area.
Through the next couple of days, the map kept pulling up the Unknown Location coordinates, stalling my phone for sometimes hours at a time. Streetview wasn't available, when I tried Google maps, and it didn't seem like there was a Google Earth location that matched, either. The guy at Verizon also didn't know what to make about it. He'd offered to schedule an appointment, but I didn't want to relinquish control of my phone for even a second. Trading it in didn't feel right, either, although I did consider it. In the end, I waited until Saturday, then decided I would just go to the location and see what was there myself.
Yeah. Looking back, it seemed pretty stupid. But hey, I'm a grown woman who talks to trees when I need advice. All the ones near my house seemed pretty gung-ho that this was the right move. Plus, I'd practically grown up around Lake Superior. It was the big vacation destination for my family, so I felt pretty comfortable about my navigation skills, even without Maps to back me up.
But now I'm here. I got out of the car to stop at a beach. Only it was a bit of a walk from the parking lot, and my phone had started going crazy. Maps had suddenly switched from Driving directions to Walking directions, and I'd figured that I'd come this far. So I followed them, and wound up someplace I couldn't even see the lake.
Nearby, an old pine tree rustled her needles at me. "You should head due North, dear. That's the best way to get back on track."
"On track to what?" I asked. "How do you know where I'm headed?"
The birch tree's leaves rustled in amusement again, but the old pine just scoffed and waved a few branches in its direction.
"Never mind that young thing. There's only one place you could be headed up here. You're going to see Him, aren't you?"
"Him." The rest of the forest grew quieter. "I believe he appears to your kind as a moose."
"Is he, like, a guardian of the forest or something?"
The birch leaves laughed again.
"He's rather... hard to describe." The pine rustled her needles on only one side. "This way it North, child. You should hurry. If He has called you, you must hurry."
All of this was starting to feel a little too Grimm Brothers for me. Why had I decided to do this on my day off seemed like even more of a mystery than what the pine had meant. I was sure I had no business with a moose.
Still, something compelled me to keep going and see this through. To, well, whatever it was. So on I went. This time, though, the pines I passed seemed to guide me. Any time I would falter or look around too much, one would rustle its pines to keep me on track.
I'd been hiking for about two hours when I finally came across my first sign of the moose-protector-guy. There was a natural clearing in the trees, and a ring of bright purple flowers decorated the center.
I didn't know how I knew this was because of the moose, but I just knew.
It was another half hour before I came across another surprise. This time, it was a call from my mom that my phone could let come through even though it claimed I had no service whatsoever.
"Hi, honey. Are you busy?"
"Nope. Just out for a walk."
"Ah. I heard from my maple that you were summoned."
I stopped in my tracks. It wasn't surprising that my mom had heard from her maple. That tree was potentially the largest gossip in all the twin cities.
Oh, and my mom was the one who'd kind of nurtured my ability to talk with trees. She'd had the same ability, although she never shared whether it was something she'd inherited and merely learned about or if she had acquired it somehow. Considering several instances that had happened through the years, including the reason my dad left her, I didn't really put it out of the realm of possibility that she might have gained the skill somehow. For what end, I didn't know. What I did know was how surprised she'd been when I had overheard her complaining to the maple about my measly math test score in fourth grade.
"Mom, do you know something about who I'm being summoned by?"
"Well, of course. But I'm sure you'll survive. Just keep your wits about you and remember what I taught you. You'll do fine."
"Can't tell you that. It's something you need to see for yourself."
I felt myself seethe, right down into the pads of my fingers. Not a new sensation in a conversation with my mother. "Mom. How are you connected to all of this?"
There was a pause on the other end, which only confirmed the validity of my question. It was just like when I was fourteen and found out she'd rigged the perfect scenario to let me think I was sneaking out with her car keys. Of course, she knew. She just wanted to get me more practice driving without having to do any work toward it.
Then, right before I could speak again, a small bit of static crept into the phone connection, and mom spoke again without any prompting.
"Well, Holly, we simply don't have time to answer that question."
"It sounds like you're about to cross over into the Other Forest. It's older there, so the phone will drop."
I turned in a circle. I was still in the exact same spot I'd been in when the phone call had come through.
I completed my scan of the area around me and turned back to North. Only it wasn't just a direction and possibility ahead of me, and I immediately fell backward with a small cry. Standing right where I would have walked next was a moose.
"Hello." He began. But the voice was not that of a human or of a tree. It was something wrong, somehow. Like a creature scratching at it's own lungs and pulling them out through the mouth to make any kind of noise. It was that, mixed with the unnatural sensation of listening to three leaves at a time. The moose's voice seemed mixed, like it wasn't fully his own and took effort to pull out.
I caught myself from falling and stood straight, staring the moose in the eye. His head was stooped a little, to be level with mine.
"Holly Anderson...." He continued, the s in my last name rasping. "I have waited long for you to come to me."
We had a stare off, while I digested his odd words in that unsettling voice and found the will to make my own words come out. "Who are you? Why did you know who I am, and why were you waiting for me?"
"Simple." The moose walked around me. "My name does not matter to you. Not yet. For now, I am simply Moose. Your mother promised you to me."
"Wait... What? Like some old faerie tale trade?"
It seemed like Moose nodded. "Yes. Her firstborn in exchange for the ability to commune with nature. A fair trade, no?"
"Um, no. In case neither of you checked, it isn't the middle ages anymore. You can't just trade people."
Moose laughed, then. A truly horrifying raspy sound that echoed on his teeth and reverberated against the chill northern lake air. "Your kind did such far after the middle ages." He still walked around me. Appraising me, I now realized. "Here, time is still. Rules are different."
Something about the way he drew out the last three words made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Anger at my mother saturated my next words. "What do you expect of me?"
The moose came back around to my front before speaking. "You will live with me here in the Other Forest. For three years, or until the work I plan is done."
It seemed kind of pointless to argue for my office job while standing face to nose with a spooky talking moose in a forest that didn't appear on Google Earth. But... three years was still a long time to dedicate myself to something that was not my problem.
"What exactly is the work you plan on doing? And can I refuse?"
"There is a storm coming. In that storm I see myself, and you. You will not refuse."
"Oh yeah?" I didn't do well with people telling me what to do at the best of times, but now the Moose was acting like some kind of prophet, too.
"All you love will disappear if you do not help me."
Moose looked around at the forest. Other Forest, I guess, even though it looked like the same kind of northern boreal forest I'd grown up playing in.
As soon as I had the thought, the implications of what Moose was saying sank in. "So, the forest will die if I don't help you?" Moose nodded. "But help you do what?"
"Return me to human form."
What?! I suppose it really shouldn't have shocked me that Moose had at one time been a human, what with all the other stuff I'd discovered. But for some reason, it still did. Who had changed Moose into a Moose? Who had he been before he was a Moose? How did this save the forest?
But there was no way I was getting answers to all of my questions. It seemed pretty clear from the evasion regarding his name that Moose was going to keep me on a need-to-know basis. In his eyes, I was some kind of servant or sidekick. Helpful but not a real power player.
So I asked the question I thought was most important, especially if there was no way out of this servitude contract. "And how, exactly, do we turn you back into a human?"
Moose regarded me with brown eyes that, on a normal moose, would have looked baleful. His had that same shape but there was too much cunning in them to do anything other than make me question what I was seeing. Then, without another word, he turned and started walking away, in what direction would have probably been East.
"Hey! I need to know what I'm signing up for here. I'm not going to have to do anything crazy like kiss you or knit you a shirt or something, right?"
Moose snorted. It was the most normal sound I'd heard him make. "You did not sign up for anything, and you cannot un-sign up for it, either."
"That doesn't answer my question." And this one seemed pretty need-to-know to me, the person being conscripted to helping.
"Tell me what you hear."
For a moment, it was just the two of us walking. Well, Moose was walking. I was doing more of a fast-walk mixed with a jog to keep up. Neither of us seemed to make a sound against the needles and underbrush. In fact, I barely heard any noise at all, and not just from us.
"It's silent." I reached out and tapped a tree to be sure, but nothing happened. "I can't even hear the trees."
Moose was silent for another stretching moment before he spoke again. "Now, what do you see?"
I looked around. Really looked. The forest still looked the same, but there were a few differences of color. Things looked brighter here, like they were covered with a fog back in my forest that I had never been able to notice before. But.... "There's something missing."
Moose shook his shaggy head from side to side. "This is an old place. Not as many creatures live here, and those that do usually choose to stay hidden." He fell silent again, and I was just about to ask about the change in color or if what he'd just said was why I couldn't hear the trees, when he began to speak again. "Before you can help me return to myself, you must first find your place in this world outside of time. You must learn to live here, and in so doing, learn to live as yourself."
"I already do that."
Moose snorted again. Since I didn't want to think he was that skeptical of my opinions, I wondered if maybe he was just allergic to something. "Do you? Truly?"
I opened my mouth to reply only to shut it again. It was obvious this could be a back-and-forth all day. "So then, where are we going now?"
"It will be getting dark soon." Moose looked up at the sky. "I will take you to my home. It will be your home as well--for now."
We walked in silence the rest of the trip. I tried to get used to the sound of silence, which I realized I'd never truly experienced before. There were always trees around, making some kind of sound. Even if it was the sound most people could understand, leaves rustled. Twigs fell. Birds or squirrels ran around the branches. But here, there was nothing.
It also gave me some time to digest the direction my Saturday had gone. I should have known the coordinates had something to do with my mom, and I was kind of mad for not going and confronting her in person before just following them on this fool's errand. I wasn't the kind of kid who had grown up wanting to be a superhero, and I didn't necessarily want to be signed up to rescuing a forest and a man trapped in a moose body in some secret witchy pact made before I was born. But I also had no idea how to get home, and growing up hiding a few secrets had taught me how to play along until I could find an opportunity. What I'd do with that opportunity, I really didn't know. A part of me was hoping I'd wake up back home with a massive hangover on Sunday morning.
But for now, I traveled in silence beside Moose. And when we arrived at his hidden castle alongside the shore of Other Forest's Lake Superior, I took that hope to be home upstairs and to the bedroom he told me had been set aside for me. And it was to dreams of childhood on a similar yet distant shore in my head that I finally found solace in the most normal of human experiences: sleep.