The forest looked deep and charming as Oliver made his way toward a young girl on the path ahead of him. He watched her from a distance as she climbed over a fallen log. It had just begun to rain when he started following her home and neither of them had a coat or umbrella. Oliver could feel a huge storm coming. There was no way she was going to make it home before it hit. As lightning struck just a couple miles ahead of them, she stumbled back and fell in surprise. As quietly as he could manage, Oliver approached her and spoke in a calming voice.
“Hey, you alright?” he asked.
Her brown eyes watched him anxiously as he picked up her books, cleaning them off on his uniform. She stood on shaky legs and reached for her books.
Oliver knocked her hands away gently. “No it’s okay, I got them. Here take my sweater.”
The young girl shoved her arms through the over-sized sleeves and whispered a brief thank you: “I have to get home before my gran worries.” More uncertain of herself, she asked, “Can I have my books please?”
As Oliver handed over the books, he watched as she snatched her books from his grasp and hurried back toward a path. He could see from her puzzled face and shaky hands that she had lost the correct path to get home. She looked between him and the collection of worn-away paths in front of her.
“Which way are you headed?” he finally asked.
“Shady Lane,” was her reply.
“It’s that second path from your left.” The girl nodded her head and starts toward the path without another glance at Oliver. She was almost out of the clearing when she turned and ran back to ask:
“Where can I give your sweater back to you?”
“You can bring it to the school but–” Before Oliver could finish, the girl ran off again with her answer. She looked spooked by something. “I’m Oliver, by the way!” he hollered after her.
Taking his own path home, Oliver later met up with his friend Ben from school on his way. They spoke pleasantly about school sports, school events, school girls and he was prompted to bring up the girl he encountered earlier.
Oliver asked, “Do you know that girl who walks home alone toward Shady Lane?”
“I know you shouldn’t be concerned about anyone who lives near Shady Lane,” Ben replied sharply. “Why do you think it’s called Shady Lane?”
“You’re probably right. I just thought something was strange about that girl. Her eyes were so big and watchful. Not like normal, but like they could swallow the moon if she stared at it too long. And her hair was so long, it could have touched her knees.”
Oliver was going to go on when he saw recognition cross over his friend’s face. He lunged at Oliver, grabbing his shirt. “Now I know who that is! Stay away from that freak. People will only start to talk about you too. The kids at school call her grandma a witch.”
“Don’t say things like that that aren’t true, man?” Sure, Oliver had heard rumors but he never tried to pay them attention. He didn’t think he should pay attention now either. I’ll just ask her after school one day, he thought.
All week, Oliver had not seen the whimsy girl with the big eyes. Not at school and not in the forest on his way home. Had she missed an entire week of school? Oliver was concerned about her, for a reason his boy heart was too young to understand yet.
After school, Oliver met up with Ben and asked: “Do you know where on Shady Lane that girl lives?”
Ben gave a heavy sigh. “I thought I told you to leave her alone, to stay away from her.”
“You did, but she hasn’t been in school. So you’re going to help me see if she’s okay,” Oliver replied.
In spite of all the head shaking and whining, Oliver finally convinced Ben to lead him through the woods toward Shady Lane. Before the pair made it to the group of paths, they could hear loud voices coming from the clearing ahead. The two crouched low until they were close enough to see people gathered in the large clearing. Immediately, Oliver spotted the fawn haired girl fallen over on the ground. Ben was more concerned about the three larger boys that stood around her, taunting her.
“I told you people pick on her,” he whispered harshly to Oliver.
From beside a tree, one of the boys stepped closer to the girl and said something inaudible to the boys hiding in the brush. Another of the three boys darted backwards before swinging something at her. Oliver was on his feet and moving toward the group before Ben could grab him to stay. The next came up beside her and reached for her arm. The last boy moved to block Oliver from the scene.
“There’s nothing to see here unless you want to be down there with her,” said the large brute.
“Oliver,” Ben cautioned, for the other young men had also placed their attention on Ben and Oliver’s intrusion. Hopefully she can get away if they’re looking at us long enough, Oliver thought.
The girl made little noise getting to her feet unsteadily. Her poor, small frame showed bruising on her arms, a scrape on her knee and chin, and short nicks all over her hands. Her eyes were swollen from holding back tears and her hands were balled into fists. Oliver’s face must have shown his relief when she stood up, because the ringleader spun around and trudged to her, picking up dirt and throwing it in her general direction. Much of it did not hit its mark but a rock made its way into a pile and it hit her cheek, leaving a long scratch next to her nose. The boy grinned with crooked, yellow stained teeth, casting shadows more empty that those of the trees surrounding them.
When the ringleader and his followers started towards her again, Oliver and Ben chased behind but they didn’t move. The two looked down to see that their feet and legs were indeed moving. And so was the ground! Like a treadmill, the ground below their feet was moving against them, preventing them from getting to the girl’s aid. The three young men ahead of them, though, were walking at a regular pace with nothing against them. Intrigued, Oliver and Ben stopped their pursuit and looked on to see what happened next.
On the opposite side of the clearing, the girl raised her head to look right at Oliver. She offered him a sheepish smile before turning her gaze to the three that approached her. Her large dainty eyes seemed to change, they sharpened and became darker. At her sides, both of her fists unclenched and the entire forest shook. Like a speaker next to one’s ear, wind rushed through the trees in heartbeats and the ground around the three boys gurgled. Suddenly, holes opened up and began to swallow their feet. The other two were able to hop around and avoid it but then another gust of wind forced another of them into a bush. The bush retracted its leaves to expose its hard branches and twisted around the boy as he tried to fight free.
After watching both of his friends be planted into the ground and eaten up by a bush, the ring leader ran for his life. He tried to at least. Another wave of wind was released through the trees and Oliver and Ben were enrapt in horror as the last young man began to change. His feet were firmly planted, quite literally, into the ground in front of her. He crouched forward from pain from his face and bent backward from pain in his legs. He tried to scream but something prevented the sound from escaping. All that could be heard was similar to the sound of branches falling. From the center of his throat and chest moving out toward the tips of his fingers, the young man was turning to bark; becoming a tree. That’s what Oliver and Ben thought.
Slowly, the tree began to thin and shrink to the width of a yard stick and the same height as the girl. Oliver and Ben looked to each other for permission to get closer. Both boys were genuinely scared now. The boys finally approached the girl who gently seated herself on a nearby rock.
Oliver was the first to say something, “Did you kill them?” Ben nudged him muttering, “You can’t just ask people those things. We’ll end up like those three.”
She shook her head, “The bush, or the little bud, or the new tree would all be dead if that were the case. Those are their new bodies so they can’t hurt other people.”
“What if other people want to hurt them, like cut them down,” Oliver pressed.
“Then I guess they will have to be protected. I’ll have to protect them.” She glanced up at the rest of the trees and closed her eyes against the sun coming through the leaves. A smile crossed her lips.
One last breeze passed gingerly through their hair like a whisper. Leaves from all over the forest floor swarmed her, clouding the boys’ view of her. The cold, damp leaves that had fallen to the ground clung to her and became a warm, humming green. Taller she grew, her long hair stretched to the sun and touched the top of the forest. Her branches towered over the others and her roots sewed themselves in and out of the earth. Oliver could feel her awaking the rest of the living beneath them. She came to stand in the center of the clearing, in the middle of the branch, the bud, and the new tree. A branch above their heads dropped two of its flowers for the boys. Ben clenched his tightly for good luck while Oliver pressed his face into his and it kissed his nose. When he looked up, in some strange way, Oliver could see the girl smiling at him.
As the two boys were allowed to leave the forest, they knew the consequences of telling anyone what happened to the four kids that never left the woods that day. Rumors were not only half true, they were incredibly and dangerously deceiving. They’d be sure not to spread the truth about this one.