By Elliot Johnson
The children were always told to stay out of the forest. The reason why changed
from family to family: witches, werewolves, faeries, any kind of monster really. No matter
the culprit, the point was clear. Children who entered the forest never returned. Jack’s
mother never bothered making up a creature. He was simply told to stay out of the forest
“or else.” He had learned long ago not to ask what “or else” meant. That was enough to
scare him into obedience, for the most part. Nights like tonight however, made even the
terrifying forest seem like a safe place.
His mother had locked him out of the cottage, punishment for some fault she had
conceived. This wasn’t the first time she had done this, and Jack had gotten used to
leaving blankets and food hidden in the cellar behind the cottage. He walked quietly, not
wanting to risk alerting her to his hiding spot. As he got closer though, he saw the cellar
doors were firmly held together by a sturdy lock. Kneeling in front of the doors, he
tugged on the lock several times in vain. He groaned and dropped his head against the
door in despair. It was going to be a long, cold, hungry night.
Sighing, he stood up and looked around for somewhere to sleep. There weren’t
any great places around the cottage for shelter, and the neighbors would never listen if
he tried to go to them. He’d seen it happen to other children in the past. They were
scolded for lying and returned to their parents; and the wrath of the parents was never
worth trying to break free of their grasp. Jack shivered as a cold breeze blew past him. It
would only get colder as the night went on.
He glanced over to the forest, considering. It was thickly wooded, enough to
protect him from the chilling wind, and there was a chance he could forage something
edible to fill his aching stomach. His mother’s threat of “or else” rang through his head.
But he thought that if he was careful and returned before dawn, she would never know.
And if he stayed near the edge, he should be safe from any monsters rumored to live
among the trees.
Gathering his courage, he made up his mind and strode quickly into the woods.
As he passed over the perimeter, a shiver went through him. He rubbed the back of his
neck nervously, considering turning around and just waiting by the front door. But the
wind picked up at that moment, roaring by him with no sign of letting down anytime soon.
It seemed to be pushing him further into the forest, but he brushed the though off as
paranoia. Luck seemed to be on his side, as he quickly found a blackberry bush
overflowing with ripe berries. After he ate his fill, his luck continued; he found a tree
nearby with roots that curled out of the ground to create a perfectly sized nook that Jack
could fit inside of, protected from the wind.
He spared a glance at his mother’s cottage, watching as she put out the candles
one by one. He let out a breath of relief, and crawled into the nook. His knees hugged to
his chest, he closed his eyes tightly and tried to think of what he did today that caused
him to be locked out. It was pointless, once she got in these moods there was nothing
that could be done right in her eyes. He hated living here, hated her; but he had no
where else he could go, no way out. Tears slid down his face as he muttered a quiet
“I wish I could leave.”
A bright flash illuminated from within the forest, and he quickly jolted upward to
look for the source. A young girl was standing between two trees, her bright white dress
contrasting sharply with the shadows around her. She stared directly at Jack, her eyes
boring in and making him feel exposed. Yet something about her felt safe, even familiar.
It reminded him of the hugs his mother used to give him, before his father died and she
began taking her grief out on Jack. He hadn’t felt that feeling of warmth and security in a
long time. He was so caught up in reminiscing that he didn’t notice the girl moving, until
she was suddenly right in front of him. He jumped to his feet quickly.
“You can, you know?” she spoke softly.
“Who-what are you? What are you talking about?” Jack put on a brave face,
trying not to let his panic show.
The girl frowned slightly. “You can leave. You have no obligation to stay. You
owe her nothing,” she whispered, just loud enough for him to hear.
He took a beat to process her words. “You’re talking about my mother? I’d love to
leave, but I have nowhere to go. She’s all I have.”
She looked at him curiously. “She does not have to be. You can join us,” she
gestured behind her to the depths of the forest. “We can help you. We can keep you
safe from her.”
Jack swallowed nervously, remembering the stories of creatures in the forest.
“What, you mean you and all your monster buddies? I bet you’d love to keep me safe, in
your stomachs,” he scoffed.
At that the girl chuckled, “Monsters! I had forgotten those silly tales our parents
would tell us. I promise you, there are no monsters here in the woods.” The mirth
dropped from her face and she looked gravely serious. “They live out there instead,” she
pointed towards the village. Jack knew exactly who she meant.
“Then who are you? Who do you mean when you say us?” he questioned. She
stared into his eyes again, that same feeling of warmth and safety returning.
“Look at me closely Jack. You know who I am. Who we all are.”
He pondered her words, trying to place her face. He realized that he had come
across her several years ago in the market. She was much thinner then, her skin mottled
with bruises. The girl he saw back then didn’t carry herself with the same confidence as
the girl in front of him. When she disappeared, her father screamed in rage for weeks
before drinking himself to death in the tavern. Jack considered all the others that had
vanished, seemingly taken by the forest: Aiden, whose brother used him as a personal
punching bag; Sally, whose parent’s never even noticed her disappearance; Tom, who
was beaten with words in place of fists, and countless others from before Jack’s time. All
abused, all disregarded in favor of the adults who failed them.
“If you are who you say you are, why did you take so long to reach out to me?
Why haven’t you helped the others out there that are still suffering?” Jack accused.
“Our power only stretches as far as the forest, and we can only help those that
wish it. It is an unfortunate caveat.” She looked downtrodden as she spoke, her head
hanging to her chest.
“Powers?! You said you were human!”
She quirked an eyebrow at him. “I only said we are not monsters. I never claimed
we were entirely human.”
“I am sure you have many questions, and I am willing to answer what I can. But
first you must decide. Will you join us or not?”
Jack glanced back at the cottage that he was raised in, the only home he had
ever known. He remembered the good times when he was very little, and his father was
around. He knew in his heart though that things would never be like that again. Nothing
of this earth could bring back his father, or erase the way his mother had treated him for
so long. He turned back to the girl, who waited with her hand outstretched. He
considered her, whether or not she was telling the truth. It was entirely possible that she
was leading him into the waiting arms of hungry monsters. If she was being honest
though, this could be his only chance to escape. He inhaled a deep breath, then sighed
out all his reservations, and took her hand. As they walked deeper into the forest Jack
realized that he didn’t care what happened next; he had finally found the courage to
leave. For the first time in a long time, he felt at peace.