Once upon a time, there was a young boy named Jimmy. He didn't think he was anything special, but he was more special than he thought he was. He could do something no other person could do: he could really talk with animals. He didn't know how he'd gained the ability. It wasn't something he'd been born with. Maybe the accident he'd been in had made his head work differently than before. Whatever the reason, he looked forward to waking up and telling his parents about his newfound ability. How amazed they would be.
“How is he, sir?” a nurse whispered to a doctor, nodding in the direction of the little boy in the hospital bed. The little boy didn't move and had a bandage wrapped around his forehead.
“Jimmy is still unconscious,” the latter whispered back. “He needs the sleep to help him heal. It's a miracle that he survived the accident. I can only imagine how he'll react when he discovers that his parents are both dead and he's an orphan.”
“Maybe we can postpone that information?” the nurse whispered.
“But for how long?” the doctor whispered back. “He's going to ask about them eventually. You know how I am about lying.”
The nurse nodded. “We won't lie to him. When we think he's strong enough and ready to hear it, we'll tell him the truth.”
The doctor sighed softly. “Maybe you should do that. I think I'll be too scared to.”
She smiled and shook her head. “I've been beside you in the operating room, sir. I've seen you completely focused and doing complicated surgical procedures without any hesitation. You're the bravest man I know.”
“Is that just to make me feel good or do you mean it?” he whispered.
“Both,” she whispered back.
Jimmy wasn't quite sure where he was.
The last thing he remembered was sitting in the back seat of his parents' car, seat belted, looking outside as they headed home from the movie.
The movie was Disney's “Aladdin”. It hadn't been in the movie theaters since 1992 and now it was being re-released. His father and grandfather had gone to see it in 1992 and had really enjoyed it. This time around, Jimmy was glad he was able to enjoy it, too. The big blue genie was just so funny.
It had been cold outside and Jimmy could see snow falling. Maybe there would be enough to play in in the morning. He had hoped so.
But then a pair of big bright lights suddenly appeared in front of their car, too close to avoid.
Then silence. And more silence.
And darkness. And more darkness.
Then the darkness slowly started to fade, turning to pale gray. Like being awake before the sun rose, watching the night sky go away, replaced by the rising sun.
Jimmy could tell that he wasn't sitting in his parents' car anymore. He was sitting on the ground, instead, surrounded by a circular bed of daffodils and tulips. What in the world was he doing here? He should be with his parents. They would probably be home by now.
Something hopped past. Too quickly to see exactly what it was. Then a few more hopped past. This time he could see them. They were bunnies. They reminded him of Thumper from Disney's “Bambi”.
“Hi, Thumper!” he called to them.
The last of the bunnies stopped, then turned to look at him. It looked puzzled. Then it hopped towards him, until it was a few feet away.
“It's okay,” Jimmy told it. “I won't hurt you.”
“Who are you?” the bunny asked.
“I'm Jimmy,” the boy said.
“How can you talk with me?” the bunny asked. “Humans can't talk with us.”
Jimmy shrugged. “I don't know.”
“Maybe because you're new here,” the bunny suggested and seemed about to hop away.
“But where is here?” the boy asked. “I've never been here before.”
“This is the Endless Forest,” the bunny said.
“Do you live here or are you just passing through?” Jimmy asked.
“We live here,” the bunny said.
“Just bunnies like you?” the boy asked.
The bunny shook his head. “Plenty of animals. Bunnies, foxes, wolves, eagles, owls, bears, to name a few. It's the only place where we're safe.”
“From who?” Jimmy asked.
“From the hunters,” the bunny whispered. “They come with their sticks. They shoot at us and they try to kill as many of us as they can. We hide as best we can. Some day, though, we'll probably all be killed.”
“That's terrible!” the boy said, shocked. “Why would they do such a horrible thing?”
“Because they're human,” the bunny said. “Like you.”
“I wouldn't hurt you,” Jimmy said.
“Then you're the exception,” the bunny said. “Look, I have to leave. They're waiting for me in the bushes.”
“Will I see you again?” the boy asked.
“Maybe,” the bunny said. “If we're still alive.”
“Before you go, could you tell me your name?” Jimmy asked. “I called you Thumper, but that's probably not your name.”
“It isn't,” the bunny said. “I'm Ha'ru.”
“Haroo?” the boy asked.
“Close enough,” the bunny said and hopped away, disappearing into the bushes.
Jimmy heard what sounded like thunder and looked up. He couldn't see any dark clouds, though. Was it going to rain? He felt the first drops falling on his face and hands. Yes, that was rain.
Was there somewhere he could stay dry?
He looked around, but didn't see anything that was big enough for him to hide in.
The rain was falling harder and he was getting soaked.
Then he found a shallow dry pit under a bush. He wiggled under the bush and lay there, listening to the rain.
I wonder if I'll ever be able to go back home, Jimmy thought.
“Blood pressure 130 over 90,” the nurse said as she removed the cuff from Jimmy's right upper arm. “What could be causing the increase? He was just 120 over 80 only an hour ago. No, wait, it's gone back down again. That's never happened before.”
“Maybe he had a bad dream?” the doctor asked.
The nurse shrugged. “Maybe we should ask the resident psychologist. She might know how to deal with this. With your permission, sir?”
“You have it,” the doctor said. “In the meantime, I'll stay here and monitor him.”
The nurse nodded and left the hospital room.
What could possibly be going through your head that would change your blood pressure both up and down? What in the world are you thinking about? What are you dreaming about?
That psychologist can't get here soon enough. I'm out of of my depth, here.
The rain had stopped.
Jimmy crawled out of his hiding place and sniffed the air. It reminded him of how he smelled after taking a bath.
He wondered if Ha'ru would come back or if he had to be on his own for now.
There was a rustle in the bushes and Jimmy smiled, thinking it was the bunnies returning. Or at least one of them.
But, instead, something much larger and darker stood there, looking down at him. Something with a body like a horse, but with antlers like an elk.
“Well, what are you staring at?” it asked him. “Haven't you seen a moose before?”
“Only in pictures,” Jimmy replied. “Are you really a moose?”
“Of course, I am,” it said. “Why else would I look like this? Say – aren't you a little young to be out here on your own?”
“I'm trying to find my way home,” the boy said. “I was in a car and then woke up here. I was hoping that Ha'ru would come back. I liked talking with him.”
The moose paused and tried not to stare. “You're human.”
“And you can talk with us,” the moose went on.
Jimmy nodded again. “I don't know how I do it. I couldn't do it before. Before I was in the car, I mean.”
The moose backed up a little.
“Please don't go,” the boy pleaded. “I don't like being alone in this forest.”
The moose paused, looking thoughtful. “Maybe Gaia knows what to do about this.”
“Who is Gaia?” Jimmy asked.
“She's in charge of everything here,” the moose said and lowered itself as much as it could. “Climb on. I'll take you to her.”
The boy scrambled up onto the moose's back, sitting just behind its head.
“Hold onto my antlers,” the moose said and stood up. “Still there?”
“Still here,” Jimmy said. “Is this going to be fun?”
“It's always fun when I run,” the moose said and galloped away.
As they raced along pathways through the forest, Jimmy asked, “Do you have a name like Ha'ru does?”
“You can call me Mammut,” the moose said.
“It was nice meeting you, Mammut,” the boy said.
“What's your name?” the moose asked.
“I'm Jimmy,” the boy said.
“Nice to meet you, Jimmy,” the moose said.
“Blood pressure is up again, a little higher than before,” the nurse said to someone as she returned to Jimmy's hospital room.
The doctor saw a woman behind her. An older woman with short dark and silver hair. This was the resident psychologist.
“It's been awhile, Nina,” the doctor said.
“Indeed it has, Duncan,” the psychologist said and sat down on the opposite side of Jimmy's hospital bed. “What seems to be the problem, besides the blood pressure fluctuations?”
“They don't seem to have any health-related source,” the doctor explained. “We've made him as relaxed as possible while he's sedated.”
“Which is why you thought it might be dream-related, Cheryl?” the psychologist asked the nurse.
“If were in my laboratory at the university, I could do a little more,” the psychologist said. “But maybe still not enough.” She lifted Jimmy's left eyelid, shined a small pen-light at it his eye, and then did the same to his right eyelid and eye. “Rapid Eye Movement. Otherwise, everything seems normal enough. When do you think you'll wake him, or do you expect to keep him sedated for the time being?”
The nurse and doctor looked at each other.
“The problem is: Jimmy doesn't know about his parents,” the nurse said. “They both died in a car accident. He was the only survivor.”
“You aren't planning to lie to him, I hope,” the psychologist said, frowning.
They shook their heads.
“But how much can we tell him, without causing any major problems?” the nurse asked.
“The human mind is infinitely able to defend itself,” the psychologist said. “It can also rewire itself in ways we can't begin to understand. Put upside-down glasses on a subject and the mind rewires itself and vision returns to normal. Reverse the glasses again, and the subject goes through the process a second time.”
“You think his mind is defending him right now?” the doctor asked.
“I wouldn't doubt it,” the psychologist replied, standing up. “Call me before you wake him. I want to be here.”
“Understood,” the doctor said. “And thank you.”
At the center of the forest was the biggest oak tree that Jimmy had ever seen. It looked like it reached right up to the sky, like the beanstalk in “Jack and the Beanstalk”. Would there be a castle up on one of the clouds? He hoped so.
In front of the tree was a pond. A woman lay next to it, her eyes closed. She had long green hair, green eyes, and wore a green dress that reached down to her bare feet.
The moose cleared his throat. “Excuse me,” Mammut said. “I hope we're not interrupting.”
“That depends,” the woman said. “What do you need?”
“Another human has arrived in the Endless Forest,” the moose said.
The woman opened her eyes, blinked a few times. She sat up and looked at the moose. “Where is the human?”
Jimmy waved. “I guess that's me.”
“A child?” the woman asked and sighed. “They keep getting younger. All right. Dismount.”
“I don't know how,” Jimmy said.
“Same way you climbed on,” Mammut said and lay down as low as he could.
Jimmy slipped off. “Thank you for the ride,” he said to the moose.
“You're welcome, Jimmy,” the moose said, standing up again. “Do you need me?” he asked the woman.
She shook her head. The moose turned and galloped away.
“You're Jimmy?” the woman asked the boy.
“I'm Gaia,” the woman said. “Follow me.”
She led him to the lowest section of the tree, where the trunk seemed grow right out of the ground, with huge roots spreading out in all directions except where they stood. She knocked on the trunk. A door appeared and opened.
Once they were inside, the door closed and disappeared.
“Are we really inside a tree?” Jimmy asked.
“Indeed we are,” Gaia replied. She crouched in front of him, checking him out much like a doctor would. “You seem to be in good shape. I can't see why you would end up in the Endless Forest. Maybe a mistake happened. Maybe you're here too soon.”
“Does that mean I can go back?” he asked. “Back to my parents? Back home?”
A bright flash suddenly covered Jimmy's face. He instinctively covered it, trying to protect himself from getting blinded.
“Make it stop,” he complained. “It's too bright.”
Then the flash disappeared, almost as suddenly as it had appeared.
“That's better,” Jimmy aid. “What was that?”
“Someone's checking to see if you're all right,” Gaia said. “Apparently, they're satisfied.”
“Does that mean I'm okay?” he asked.
“It means that you have to decide whether to stay here in the Forest, or go back where you came from,” she said. “Which would you rather do?”
“I want to be with my parents,” Jimmy said. “I want to go home.”
“I'm afraid that you can't be with your parents,” Gaia said. “Not anymore.”
He started to cry. “No! Don't say that!”
“I can't lie to you, Jimmy,” she said. “Mother Nature can't lie to anyone. Not even to herself.”
“I want them to live!” he said. “Make them live again!”
Gaia looked thoughtful again. “Do you really want that? No matter what the cost was?”
His tears slowed. “What would it cost?”
“There are two options,” she explained. “Either you get to live … or they get to live. You can't have both. Not in your world.”
“Where could I have both, then?” Jimmy asked. “Here in the Forest?”
Gaia nodded. “If that's what you really want.”
“I really want it,” he said.
Jimmy's hospital room was filled with more people than it had ever been filled with. All of them trying to figure out what went wrong and how to prevent it from continuing. But nothing they did did any good. He just lay there, his eyes closed.
Only this time he was smiling.
“At least he's happy now,” the psychologist said. “Wherever he is, he's happy.”
As they left the tree, Jimmy thought he heard his name being called. He saw his parents running towards him, arms outstretched. He ran toward them, crying with happiness, and hugged them both.
“You're okay again, you're okay,” he told them. “Everything's going to be back to normal now.”
His parents looked at Gaia. “Thank you,” they told her.
She inclined her head. “Thank your son. It was his love for you that brought you here. You're very lucky, the two of you.”
As she spoke, there were sharp, loud noises. Almost like thunder, but the sky above the tree was clear.
Gaia's expression darkened. “They have come back. I warned them not to, but they wouldn't listen.”
Animals arrived soon after, frightened and looking for somewhere to hide. Ha'ru hopped over to Jimmy and snuggled against him. Mammut walked over to him. Both were trembling, asking for comfort. He petted them as best he could.
“There's nothing to be afraid of,” Jimmy told them. “Nothing at all.” He looked at Gaia. “Is there?”
“Not as long as I'm here,” she said. “You are safe as long as you stay near or inside my tree.”
“What are you going to do?” Jimmy's mother asked Gaia.
“What must be done,” the latter replied and departed.
Just a few minutes later, there was silence. Absolute, total silence. The sky turned pitch black and they heard a sudden clap of thunder like a very loud bomb blast going off much too close to them. Silence returned. Then the sky cleared again until it was blue with fluffy white clouds here and there. After another few minutes, birds began to chirp and sing, tentatively at first, then more confidently.
Gaia reappeared. “You won't have to worry about the hunters anymore.”
“What did you do?” Jimmy's mother asked her.
“What had to be done,” Gaia replied. “It is my job to defend the natural world and defend I will against all who threaten it.”
“Does that mean it's lunchtime?” Ha'ru asked.
Gaia smiled and laughed softly. “Are you ever not hungry, my furry friend? You and all the other bunnies?”
“Sometimes,” he admitted. “Thankfully, not often.”
“May you never change,” she said and turned to face them all. “Let the feast of celebration begin. The Endless Forest and all who live in it will be safe forever.”
And they all lived happily ever after.