The golden light of an early sun glinted into the room from the empty windowpane. The rays, seeming solid yellow from just outside of the window socket, flickered, meeting with decades of dust, then settled brokenly upon a cube of space in the middle of the room. If eyes were not looking for it, the cube would not be there—a mere distortion, covered by the dense, fetid air.
But there it sat, all the same, patiently awaiting foolish company.[
Raven-haired and pale, even in the mottled gold light, the woman wove her way through the brambles to the precious brown lumps at the bases of the trees. She carefully chose her plunder, pressing a trowel into the ground to take the soil along with the mushrooms that would provide her food and shelter for the next week. She whispered to the soils and the trees as she flitted to the next copse, her eyes flickering to the shadows and the canopies of the leafy giants.
Once in a while, the woman stared into the blank air where debris and pollen floated, lit like lightning bugs in the sunshine. Her lips twitched as she contemplated empty spaces, slowly moving her head this way and that, as if to see a glint or a shimmer not entirely present to the naked eye. After each tense moment, she hmm’d to herself, apparently satisfied in her verification of reality. She moved quickly and purposefully, choosing steps near tree branches or outstretched vines on which to place her spindly feet.
“You decide,” The blonde head of a young woman popped out of the brush near a gate, “I don’t care.” She stood from a crouch and cast her plaited hair over her shoulder, then hiked up her skirt and pulled it, practiced, into a giant knot, exposing her legs to three inches above her knee. She threw a glance back at the division of the barely-there track into the forests before squinting into the eyes of a being she’d known since birth. The boy tousled his hair, an old habit that resulted in spiking the dark tresses slightly, then he leaned into a tree, rubbing his neck and raising his brows at the choice before him. He carefully avoided her probing gaze, feigning indecision. He suppressed a crooked grin, turning to pick up a backpack.
They had done this dozens of times, exploring the grassed and treed haunts around their town, since they were young, with their moms imploring them to “go play” while they chatted small town gossip. It had morphed into exploration as soon as Gemma could drive. The difference about today was this piece exactly: the boy drove.
“I don’t know, Gemma.” He sighed heavily, “I guess… left?” He recomposed his face into a quizzical expression, positioning the backpack and looking into her face. Her eyes narrowed, and she nodded solemnly. She looked at him, nonplussed, before shaking her head knowingly. She turned and plodded to the right track, immediately plunging into the foliage.
The boy roughed his hair at the top of his head once more, chuckling light and low before following her into the dark.
He cupped his hands around his lips, pulling in a great breath before exhaling a call into the quiet.
“Gus!” Gemma hissed at the boy as he laughed into the mottled light around them. Three ravens squawked angrily, fluttering out from nearby branches. Gemma worried after them, as one of them seemed to dive out of sight abruptly when it hit the air around a tree branch.
“What!? Freedom!” He gestured wide to the space around him. “Isn’t it nice for once to have no idea where we’re going?” She glanced flatly at him, catching a mischievous look in his eyes. He swept to her left, pulling a stiff arm up from her side and pulling it around to his left side so that he sidled up to her close. He rested his right arm around her shoulders and sighed. “You know we’re going to see that site.”
Gemma rolled her eyes. “Yep.”
“I can’t pull one over on you anymore? And here I was having so much fun winging it,” Gus put up air quotes around the words, winking. She raised both eyebrows with a grimace and shrugged out of his raised arm, pulling ahead of him as the foliage pressed in.
“It’s better if I let you try.” She said simply, flashing a stuck-out-tongue over her shoulder.
She baited the silence a few moments before she gave in to the routine, asking officially, “Okay. What’s the story, Augustus?”
Ready for the capitulation, he nearly cut off her effusion of his name. “My brother and his friend told me that a hiker got in a bad way out here and went crazy. I guess he was trying to stay alive until he was found, but somehow it went wrong. Derek said it was a bloodbath.”
“Huh, too bad. I think we’re running right along the highway here.” Gemma rolled her eyes and gave Gus a pointed that’s-hard-to-believe look before nonchalantly swinging under a branch to the next clear step. Ghost stories, perfect.
“Gemma, can you even hear the highway?”
She stopped for a moment to listen closely. She caught the sight of another raven in a nearby tree, eying her warily. Eying her warily. She blinked and reopened her eyes to nothing but the rustle of branches in the tree. “I guess not,” she shook her head slightly, brow furrowed. “I know this area, though. The highway is close…”
“Creeped out now?” Gus smirked, all dimples and self-assuredness.
“Gus, we venture into the forest for the silence. I’m supposed to find it creepy now?” A shiver that had nothing to do with the sounds of the forest trickled down her spine.
Onyx colored eyes peered out again from near branches.
“Gemma!” A voice called.
Gemma jumped, looking around. Gus beckoned to her from yards away, having wandered in a different direction.
“It’s over here! I think this is where it happened.”
Gemma pulled on the plaits in her hair to undo them, unexpected nerves, as she moved to Gus’ side at a clump of trees.
Beyond the trees was an area devoid of foliage. The clearing was half a football field in diameter and nearly perfectly round, bordered by a small, dilapidated cabin directly across from the two interlopers. The center of the clearing was punctuated by a stump and firewood-sized branches, each split and nearly exactly the same size. They were strewn haphazardly about the stump, as if they had been cut and simply left to fall. The stump itself was a maroon hue, and it spread this maroon hue irregularly among the haphazard wood pile.
Gus half-whistled low, taking in the sight and pushing past the brush into the clearing.
Far-off calls of birds trilled.
Gemma squinted to the cabin. The light skimmed over the eaves and trim, giving it an irregular, sunken appearance, odd shadows falling across parts of the front, no doubt from unseen branches and other features.
She stepped through the growth as Gus did, diverging from his path to take careful steps to the small house. Up close, the windows were non-existent—sockets in a sad façade. The doorway yawned grotesquely from its space between the two empty windowpanes. The darkness pulled again, something intriguing about the way the light broke once it crossed the threshold. How does it do that? Gemma’s hand was outreached, grasping for the knob—
“Don’t!” A hushed voice, harsh and urgent, caused Gemma’s hand to jerk back from the door. Her blond ponytail smacking her shoulders, she looked around, alarmed, for the source, and her gaze alighted on a new set of black raven’s eyes, not four feet from her. The bird held her gaze, cocking its head to keep her attention.
“That’s definitely it. I think I found a finger.” Gus’ voice broke the silence and Gemma’s gaze once again, as she looked over into his face, fixed with a familiar impish grin. He reached out and took the knob, twisting it open almost before Gemma could register his presence next to her. Gemma glanced back at the spot the raven had been, again catching only the movement of branches, before following Gus into the small space.
A cube of air shimmered in anticipation, the sun’s broken rays upon it.
Gus ventured further into the room, putting his shirt over his mouth and nose, “Oh my—something died in here for sure.”
Gemma wrinkled her nose, turning her head slightly to catch a glimmer in the room. She glanced back through the window to check its source.
The face of a raven-haired woman peered back at her in utter horror. Gemma gasped and jumped, grabbing the front of her shirt. Her eyes were pinned to the woman.
The pale-faced woman mouthed, “No!” pointing to the center of the room past Gemma at the shimmer she had just been considering.
Gemma’s voice was high and not strong enough to carry, “Gus…”
He turned to look, mouth and nose still covered by the collar of his shirt, and jumped, cursing. He moved quickly now, ready for confrontation.
“Wait, Gus! Stop!” Gemma stayed him with a raise of her palm, moving closer to the shimmering air in the center of the room, a sudden longing to find out what was in the space overriding the warning of horror—erasing awareness of the woman’s presence altogether.
The closer she got, the further the golden rays splintered into obscurity, until she stood, nearly in darkness, inches away from a cube, not there unless one was looking at it. The air moved like mercury and glass, one minute shimmering and solid, the next, blending with the unnatural shadows behind it, ephemeral.
The change in light wasn’t the reason for the feeling trilling down her spine. From the box, with its alternations in appearance, came the sensation of delight, ever so slightly tempered with something savoring of metal and sin that turned with the color.
“No,” the harsh whisper barely registered as Gus and Gemma drew closer to the ephemeron. “No!” The tattered lady, with her raven black hair and pale, horror-stricken face had come through the door. She crossed quickly to the quivering air, waving through it as though it could be dispersed like smoke. She fell to the ground, convulsing, an eerie wail escaping her throat. Gus and Gemma stood entranced, the yearning unaltered by the scene before them.
The woman lay still after a minute, then sat up stiffly. Gemma and Gus stood unfazed, contemplating the light’s bending, as the woman stood and went outside the small cabin and into the center of the clearing.
She grunted, a sharp sound not unlike a protest, searching for a moment for a piece of unsplit wood, before taking the axe and balancing on one foot at the maroon-stained stump. The sound of a sick squish and a peel of laughter broke into Gus and Gemma’s minds. They returned to the door and watched as the woman stood a lower leg, knee to foot, carefully on the stump. She wobbled dangerously as she rent the bloody piece in two, squealing in delight as the pieces fell haphazardly around the stump. She fell to her knee, ax still in hand, awkwardly kneeling against the stump. Before the two could realize what they were seeing, she reared the axe high in her left hand and coming down with another thud-squish.
Gemma was the first out of the cabin, “Close the door!” She screamed at Gus as she ran to the center of the clearing. She reached the woman in moments. “Oh my god. Oh my god” she murmured, hands fluttering around the woman and her severed limbs where she lay on the ground, the sound of her laughter at odds with the horror on her face. The crimson was pooling beneath her as Gemma pulled her belt from her waist. “Gus…” She looked around, unable to find him.
Suddenly, she heard quick steps and felt weight against her back, pushing her down next to the laughing woman. She yelped, trying to push back and turn face up. Gus’ face was inches from hers, the light in his eyes shifting from ephemeral to solid, light to dark, there and not there. Her heart stopped cold—his face was at once full of fervor and stoic as he tried to claw past her.
“Gus, what the hell!?”
He was silent, still fighting her hands as he attempted to reach the axe near the woman. He grabbed a handful of fabric, ripping at it as an animal tearing at a restraint. Gemma glanced at the woman, shaking and turning ashen beside her.
She looked around, trying to find something to use as a deterrent. Only the axe was in reach.
"Gus..." She said warningly, barely able to hold him out of arm's reach of the tool. She grasped and swung it with the blunt end outward, catching Gus’ shoulder. He paused at the blow, then resumed coming at her with the same intensity. "I don't want to hurt you..."
She closed her eyes and swung it again, a sickly thud coming from where she struck him in his head. His hands twitched before he slumped. Gemma screamed, her face wet with unregistered tears and blood.
"Gus!" She whispered his name, her hands this time fluttering to the already growing bump on his forehead. She clumsily moved two fingers to his neck and felt the drum-drum of his heart beat answer.
The woman and her grotesque mask stared blankly into the sky above the clearing, pale and raven-black in the pool over her blood.
Gemma averted her eyes, panic seeping to the surface of her thoughts. She glanced at the cabin, then out at the forest, the memory of the map they used to find this place flashing through her mind. The highway is close.
Gemma stumbled as she rose, kicking sticks and debris, before she yelled an unintelligible cry into the forest beyond the clump of trees by which she and Gus had first entered. She gulped and tried again, “Help.” This time her voice came high and soft. She retraced their steps at a sprint, straining to hear any sign of the cars in the quiet of the forest. Tears streamed down her face. She could feel the shock of the house, the foul presence, the old woman, Gus… threatening to overwhelm her.
Gemma stopped, breathing deeply into the expanse of the silence. It was so quiet. So, so quie— The sound of traffic barely registered, but it was there. Gemma’s breath quickened again, building to yell and flag down someone—anyone—who could help her. She stumbled as her eyes alighted on the flash of fast-moving vehicles through the brush. Her voice caught in her throat as she pushed through the clump of trees into a large clearing.
The light skimmed over the eaves and trim, giving it an irregular, sunken appearance… and she crept toward it, watching the golden sun breaking to black around its edges.