I look up to see the sun begin to hide behind the comfort of the horizon as the sky changes to an orange hue. I wish I had a horizon to hide behind. From my spot up on the hill, no one could bother me for a few miles and I wouldn’t have to worry about them. I enjoyed doing this whenever life became too much to cope with and I needed to take a step back to breathe. I can’t do that at my home with my mother’s constant fake smiles that try their best to conceal her red, swollen eyes. She’s been crying a lot since it happened five months ago. I’ve cried a fair amount as well but I prefer to numb the pain in other ways, because what good does crying do besides make you feel even more miserable?
My watch says it’s turning 7 pm, which means it’s time to head back to reality. I can’t be outside past dark anyways, especially not when I’m near the woods. The town council as well as every adult in existence has warned today’s youth about the dangers of wandering too close to the woods. I never understood the reason why, and neither does anyone else. The few unfortunate people who decided to let their curiosity get the best of them suffered the consequences adequately. They never came out. The only one who did come back out was declared crazy and locked up in a mental asylum. I hate the woods, and I’m all too happy to stay away altogether.
I arrive at my house just in time. The red bricks and white door, the huge weeds growing in the front yard which was once perfectly manicured, the permanent darkness in one of the windows, it all holds too many memories. I hate it but I also don’t have anywhere else to go and Mother refuses to move away as it is all she has left of him. I walk in as the aroma of meatloaf and mashed potatoes fills the air and my mother stands there trying to be as motherly as she can. Dinner is eaten in silence, followed by a good night and a kiss on the cheek. As the routine goes, I walk upstairs and hide away in my room for the rest of the night.
Going to school is a whole other set of problems. I don’t know exactly what they say about me, but I can imagine. “Look there goes the kid who lost his brother and all his friends and has been depressed ever since.” They aren’t wrong, but no one knows the whole story. I just wish they would forget about everything and stop with the sympathetic smiles and special attention. I’m late to first period, but it’s okay because all the teachers are too scared to give me a hard time. Sometimes I wish they would.
I’m eating my lunch in solitude when a girl comes and sits in front of my barren table. I recognize her. Celia.
“Hi,” she says
“Hello,” I reply, trying not to be rude.
“Eating lunch.” Oh god, can she leave?
“So am I. Let’s eat lunch together then.” She decides before settling in.
It’s not that I don’t like Celia, I just don’t know her very well. But like I said before, people talk and everyone has heard the talk about her. She’s been labelled as “weird”, “desperate”, “eccentric” and others. I know better than anyone else that high school gossip is meaningless and originates from a few people who decide your identity for you, but it’s hard to ignore it.
She strikes up a bunch of conversations with me. After dodging the first few, I decide to give in and begin to talk freely with her. To my surprise, but not really, I find her quite different than what people say about her. Her constant energy is a break from my familiar world of grayness.
We become quick friends after that day. She understands what it feels like to have everyone talk about you like they know you, when they don’t. She doesn’t ask many questions. She just gets it. We even went to my spot on the hill. She’s the only other person who knows about it now.
Today is a typical summer day with the sun still blazing at 5 p.m. Me and Celia are sitting on the spot on the hill when she looks back and notices how close we are to the woods.
“Haven’t you ever been curious about what’s in there?” She asks excitedly.
“No, I prefer to leave well enough alone.” I respond promptly, hoping that would be the end of this conversation.
“Let’s just step one foot in and see if some monster eats it off or something.” She says.
“Are you insane? We’re not supposed to go near there.” I reply shocked that she would even consider that.
“Stop letting them brainwash you. I’m going in there, try to stop me.” She says and giggles as she runs towards the dark woods. I run towards her as fast as I can to stop her, but she’s too far ahead of me. Before I realize it, I’m in the woods.
I notice it as soon as I enter. It feels like some sort of barrier and suddenly you’re in this new world where nothing is familiar, or comforting. It also drained all my energy and all I’m left with is this empty hole in my chest, burning it’s way straight through me. I think Celia feels it as well because this is the first time in weeks where she isn’t smiling widely or talking my ear off. She almost looks sad.
“We need to get out of here.” Celia says quietly.
“Yeah, you think?” We turn around to leave and return to our normal uneventful lives when the strangest thing happens. There is no exit. All of a sudden, we’re in the thick of the woods with menacing trees everywhere towering over our heads. Shit.
The next few moments are a blur. I wake up groggily, with my arms covered in leaves and dirt from laying down on the ground for too long. It takes me a moment to recenter myself and remember how I got to this terrifying situation. When I do remember, my first thought is Celia. I stand up, dust myself off, and look around for any sign of her.
“Celia!” I yell frantically. I get no response. “Celia where are you?” I try again. My heart is pumping twice as much blood right now. Dead silence. Then, a rustling sound in the bushes. How cliche. Of course, some creature was probably going to emerge and eat me alive. And that would be the end of me. My entire life ended, because of one step too forward into the woods.
However, when I whip my head around and see what was causing the rustling, I wish some creature could have ended my life instead.
It takes me a while to comprehend exactly what I’m staring at. I’m still groggy from passing out on the ground. I notice a familiar sharp nose, the same almond eyes, the crooked teeth since I never cared for braces, and even the scar on my right arm from falling down the tree house. I’m staring at myself.
“What are you?” I’m taken aback. It just stares at me. Before running away. I chase after it. I almost lose sight of it, but I hear laughter and find the creature again. Suddenly, I’m in the middle of a field. I recognize it immediately. How could I not? After all, this field has haunted my dreams countless nights, and even when I’m awake. I could never erase this field from my past. I see the impostor of me running in the middle of the field, chasing something. I know exactly what. When I see my little brother, I almost faint. I don’t notice it but the tears welled up in my eyes begin to blur my vision. I feel like there’s a rope tied around my neck the way I choke up and can’t breathe. I can’t bear to look at his innocent face bursting with so much hope, so much happiness.
The creature says “I’m gonna find you” in a playful way and the little boy runs away laughing. Oh my god I loved him, I think to myself. The little boy starts running towards the woods.
“Stop!” The thing that looked like me yells in a piercing shriek. The little boy continues to sprint towards the woods, never shaking that smile off his face, thinking it’s still a game. I hear the rest of the screams as they play out in front of me, pretending that I forgot exactly how it happened even for a second. Five months ago, I was playing with my brother, Daniel, in the field. Our father had recently left out of nowhere, leaving my mother in more of a mess of tears than a human being. Daniel was all I had, and I was all he had. We always had each other. That is, until I couldn't stop him from stumbling backwards into the woods. I begged him to stop, that I would let him win if he would just stop running. But he always was stubborn. The woods took him, my brother. He didn’t deserve it, but I certainly did. Maybe that’s why fate wanted Celia to lead me into the woods as well. I always knew the universe had a strange way of ending things. Maybe this was my karma.
All the emotions that I’d worked so hard to suppress rise to the surface like a shaken bottle of soda. I’m sobbing in tears at this point. I feel like I can’t take anymore when all of a sudden, I see Celia. She looks different, lifeless. Suddenly she collapses to the ground and I realize she is lifeless. I don’t know what she experienced, but something tragic must have happened while I was reliving the past for her to die.
“No, Celia!” I scream so loudly, the birds in the nearby trees fly away. I’m sobbing into my hands and I feel like a pipe has burst inside me. The creature that looks like me comes and sits next to me crouched over Celia’s deceased body. It stares at me and looks into my eyes, although it feels like it’s looking straight through me at the same time.
“Oh. Look what you did.” It says ever so calmly. I’m outraged.
“What I did? I didn’t kill Celia. Tell me what you did to her right now!” I struggle to get the words out of my throat, and I’m unsure if the creature can even understand me with how much my voice is trembling.
“First you killed Daniel. Now Celia.” It responds in a steady tone and cocks its head.
“No! I couldn’t save them!” I manage to say in between sobs. “I tried so hard. I wish it would have been me instead.”
“Your best wasn’t enough. They’re dead because of you. It’s your fault.” I loathe the creature for saying those words to me, but I can’t pretend that I don’t tell myself those exact words to myself every single day.
“Stop, please. I didn’t kill them. I didn’t kill them. I didn’t kill them.” I close my eyes and ears and chant that, hoping I can convince myself. When I open my eyes, the creature is gone. All I’m left with is the silence of my own mistakes. Thank god. I need to think. I need to get out of here.
I think I’m beginning to understand the rules of these woods. It makes you relive your worst memories until you give in. But I won’t. I’ll get out of here. I’ll do it for Daniel, and Celia, and all the other victims of these horrendous woods. And I’ll keep my sanity too.
I walk hopelessly around the woods, hoping to miraculously find a way out. This must be what it feels like to be stuck in a desert. All you can see for miles on end is a stretch of trees. They all begin to look the same after a while. Sleep. I need to sleep. Although I’ve lost all track of time, I assume it’s the middle of the night. I find a decent group of trees that seem safe enough to lie down for a few hours. I lie down and try to think about what I’m going to do tomorrow, but I start snoring as soon as my body hits the ground.
I wake up to the sound of birds chirping and sunlight soaking me. It could almost be beautiful if this wasn’t such a wretched place. Tragic. When I sit up, I look beside me and almost run away. It’s Daniel. He wakes up and stretches.
“Jamie! I’m hungry, aren’t you gonna make breakfast? I want pancakes.” Daniel says to me. It was the first time I’ve heard his sweet voice in so long. I never noticed how much of a person you could possibly miss until it all hits you at once.
“Y- Yes of course. You know I’d give you anything, Daniel.” My voice shakes. I reach out to touch his cheek, but he dissolves into thin air. I gasp. I don’t know why I’m surprised, but I guess that we’d all like to give in to our dreams once in a while, even if they’re always taken away eventually. I need to focus. I can’t be distracted by whatever tricks the woods try to play on me. The phrase “it’s your fault” plays on a loop in my head, no matter how much I try to distract myself. I can’t shake off the feeling of guilt and it feels like a thousand pound dumbbell weighing on my body. I need to find food. I try to find a bush of berries or anything to keep me energized until I can escape this awful place.
After a while I see it. A bush filled with juicy red berries. My mouth begins to produce saliva and I walk towards it like I’m being hypnotized. I didn’t realize how hungry I was. I’m about to pick one off the bush when a tall man blocks my path to the berry bushes. The man has dirty brown sneakers, worn out jeans, and a t-shirt with multiple stains on it. I’d recognize this man anywhere. After all, how could you not recognize your own father?
“What are you doing here?” I say, stunned. I never dealt with my feelings about my father leaving. When he did, my main focus was comforting my mother, who was more than devastated by the loss. Between looking out for Daniel and my mother, I didn’t have time to decide if I was angry or heartbroken.
“I wanted to talk to you. I’m sorry for leaving your mother.” The man says. I stare at him with a blank expression since a million thoughts are racing through my mind and I can’t decide which emotion to feel. “I’m sorry for leaving you and your brother.” I’m about to say “It’s okay” when he interrupts me.
“I didn’t mean to leave, but you didn’t have to kill him.” My father says.
“It’s your fault. It’s your fault. It’s all your fault.” He starts repeating and progressing towards me.
“Not you too! Please leave me alone!” I scream passionately. I fall to the ground in a heap of tears. “I didn’t kill him! I didn’t kill him! I didn’t kill him!” I don’t know how much more I can bear. Maybe it is all my fault, and the woods are only showing me the truth that I was too much of a coward to realize. No- I didn’t kill him. I would never do that to my own brother. How could I? But then why didn’t I do more? Why didn’t I save him? Why isn’t he alive anymore? Oh my. I’ve known it since the day it happened, but never wanted to say the words out loud. I never wanted it to be the truth, because I don’t know if I can handle the thought. It’s all my fault.
Apparently, you can faint from crying too much. When I wake up, my face is drenched with salty tears and my eyes hurt like I just got into a fight- and lost. I don’t know what happened, but I’m in a different position than I was when I passed out. I am at the edge of the woods again. I could see the breaking in the trees and my spot on the hill just in front of them. I grow excited. I’m finally making it out of the forest. I get up wobbling and stumble towards the exit of the woods. I brace myself for leaving this place, which is odd since there is nothing that I want more. I exit the barrier that I passed through when I entered the woods. However, this time, I don’t feel any different. I don’t feel as if the weight has been lifted, or the hole in my chest is suddenly filled. If anything, the hole seeped straight through me and there is a crater in its place. I had many things I wanted to do when I left the woods, but now I can’t remember any of them. I don’t know where to go, or what to do. I don’t know anything, and I can’t think of anything either. The only thing that matters is what I’m thinking right now. The thing that spread to every corner of my body like a cancer and won’t leave. There’s only one thought that matters anymore.
“It’s all my fault” I say, with a crooked smile.