By Brea Viragh
Riley Mandelbaum rode her bike past the woods every day on the way to school. Soaring conifers and maples, gigantic oaks and Douglas fir. When it came to the woods, her mother warned her to never stop, never pause, and most importantly, never go in. Riley had no problem obeying the rule. The words were ingrained in her memory, a mantra to all young folks.
Never stop, never pause, never go in.
Simple and effective. Except for those times, of course, when it wasn’t.
Riley considered herself a good girl. She didn’t get in trouble during school hours and was rarely reprimanded at home. Which meant she followed her mother’s warnings and steered clear of the forest tree line. It wasn’t for fear of getting lost. Just as the warning was not just repeated in the Mandelbaum residence.
No, they were ubiquitous. The town hall boasted a banner above the white stone pillars with those same words engraved and in bold for all to see.
Never stop. Never pause. Never go in.
Babies were taught the phrase at their mother’s knees, reiterated again and again until it stuck. Sometimes Riley thought about other areas, and if they had the same issues as her town.
That Monday in May, as Riley and her cousin Sean jockeyed together on twin two-wheeler bikes toward the four room brick enclosure, was as delightful a day as they’d had in a long time. After weeks of rain and a slew of untimely deaths within their community, the clouds parted and bestowed them all with those sweet rays and a little bit of optimism. All of it combined in the perfect cocktail for spring growth, although the trees needed no help. Grass may grow and flowers bloom but weather had no effect on the forest. The trees had a will of their own and bowed to no man.
And that day in May, Riley disobeyed her mother and brought her bike to a halt, the back of her neck tingling. Each fine blond hair stood on end. A fissure of awareness even as her subconscious urged to run. There was danger lurking.
“What are you looking at?” Sean skid to a stop beside her and tried to follow her gaze while shielding his brow with a hand.
Riley continued to stare at the woods, seeing several feet between towering trunks and nothing more. Deciduous skyscrapers. “I thought I saw something.”
“You’re crazy; there’s nothing there.” Sean smiled, revealing a gap. “I’ll give you five bucks if you go in.”
Riley shook her head. She could think of several other horrible things she would rather do than go into the woods. “No thanks.”
Everyone always said: the trees were more than alive. Community elders scared children by repeating the tales, an oral legacy of nightmares. Each time a person died, the forest absorbed the energy from the body and used it to grow tall. Riley understood how the circle of life meant energy was neither created nor destroyed but simply redistributed.
These woods took everything.
Loftier than a normal forest, they grew until the tips of each branch reached toward the sky and bloomed together. Vibrant leaves blocked the light and their depths grew shadowed, obscured. Trunks were large enough for eight grown men to link hands and circle, although no one attempted the feat.
Only the foolhardy traveled through those thickets, and those who did were either lost to them all or found months later rambling about the darkness.
Ominous, unnameable things lurked there, Riley knew, and she always made sure to keep her eyes on the path.
“I’m serious!” Sean insisted. “Five bucks if you go in and stand there. I’ve got the money.”
To show his faith, he reached into the blue and grey checkered backpack behind him and pulled out a crumbled bill. His cheer was evident as he unraveled it, holding the money out for her to inspect. “See?”
Already they lingered too long. Riley’s skin itched from their proximity to the vegetation as though eyes traveled her and drank in every inch.
“No way. Five isn’t enough.”
“You think I’m playing? I’ve got more! I’ll show you.”
She was unconcerned with the money and waved her cousin away. “Something is in there.”
“Yeah, of course! It’s the forest, dummy. There’s all kinds of animals and bugs and shit.” Sean took great pleasure in cursing when they were alone. Away from the prying ears of adults ready to raise the whip and knock the manners into him.
“I know there are animals in there,” Riley asserted. “But I’m not talking about animals.”
“Do you mean, something else?” Sean wiggled his fingers as his mouth formed an oh. “Spooky things. Woo!”
“Stop.” She’d never hit anyone in her life, but the taunt had her fists clenching.
“Maybe you think the bogey man is in there hiding. Or Bigfoot. Or maybe all those kids they said disappeared back in the 1980’s.”
“I didn’t say it was the bogey man,” she responded.
“You’re afraid. Scaredy cat, scaredy cat!”
“I’m not afraid!”
The boast was unfounded and they both knew it. Riley turned to the woods again as shadows reached toward them with spiny fingers. Too close for comfort. She felt the slip of ghostly fingers along her spine and knew it was time to leave.
“Then just go up and touch one of the trunks. You don’t even have to go all the way inside. Bring me back a leaf and you get the money. Pretty sweet deal if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you. And if it’s such a big deal then why don’t you do it?”
He wouldn’t, Riley mused even as Sean shook his head. Though he went through great pains to act tough, even her cousin knew better than to break the commandment.
“Nah, I’ve already done it once.” Sean dove his hands in his pockets, keeping the bike steady with the toe of a black Converse Chuck Taylor.
“You’re a liar.”
“I am not! When Reuben came into town last summer, he wanted to know what made the tress so big. Said the trees by him were slender and kids swung from the branches.”
Riley shivered. “Impossible.”
“We went to the edge by the lumber yard and I totally went in,” Sean claimed. “It was easy.”
“Ah, now I understand why you’re a drooling moron. I wondered if it had something to do with the trees or if you were born that way.” Riley chuckled at her own joke, gripped the handlebars and wished to be on their way. “Poor Aunt Julie.”
“Oh, ha-ha,” he said dryly.
“Even if what you say is true, which I doubt, there’s no way you would do it again.”
Sean hated nothing more than being called a coward, even if it were implied. “You want me to prove it?”
Riley crossed her arms over her chest. “Absolutely.” She gestured with her chin and told the voices in her head to be quiet, fighting against the warnings on a loop. Get away, get away, get away now.
“You think I’m not man enough to go over there and bring back a leaf?” Sean pointed toward the forest. “I totally am!
“Yes, I think you aren’t man enough,” Riley said with a smile.
“Fine! I will.”
Sean let his bike drop to the ground and Riley watched the dirt give way. Sean was older than her, a family appointed guardian though she would have preferred making the fifteen-minute trip alone. Sean had the superiority of age and the cockiness of a street brawler backing him with moral support.
Today, despite his teasing, she was glad for the company. And happy to see him start toward the wall of trees.
“Good!” she called after him.
Long legs that usually ate up the ground continued toward the woods in halting strides.
Long, straight blades of grass fell before his might, crushed.
The closer he walked, the slower his steps. A wave of angst had goosebumps erupting over her arms and Riley stopped herself from yelling after him. Sean would be fine, probably. Maybe.
She went so far as to open her mouth, the words catching in her throat and sticking.
There were watchers, she decided. Glittering eyes staring back at her, the trees watching their every move. It was unnatural the way they grew and formed a puzzle work of wood and green. Forests should not absorb the dead faster than nature allowed. Not like these did.
Nature should not take and take until there was nothing left to bury. No earthly remains for the families to mourn over.
Riley often wondered, at night when her imagination took over, if the souls were trapped inside the trunks. On the inside looking out. She hated the forest. Her poor grandfather with his antique spectacles and penchant for making dream catchers may be forever staring out from behind the tree’s peeling husks.
Never stop, never pause, never go in.
Sean made it to the edge of the timber and craned his neck up, David and his Goliath. The ant in front of a tidal wave. He paused at the tree line and after a moment of breathless waiting, turned.
“I don’t have to prove anything to you!” he shouted, coming back at a jog.
Riley said nothing, the knot in her stomach releasing in time with Sean’s pounding footsteps.
He scurried back, nearly tripping over his loose laces. “I’m secure in my manliness. In the fight between man and nature, man won.” It was more of a grumble than an actual statement, an under the breath declaration as he closed the distance between them and bent to retrieve his bike.
“Sure, whatever you say,” Riley commented with relief.
“Man won,” Sean repeated to himself. He regarded her, squinting against the sun. “You won’t tell anyone?”
“Of course not.”
Sean squared his shoulders. “Like I said, I’ve been in there before. I just didn’t want to be late for class. You know how Miss Isenhower gets when we’re late, and I can’t afford any more marks on my worksheets.” He hopped onto the bike, adjusting his seat. “You coming?”
“Yeah, of course.” Riley purposely released her fingers from the handlebar only after her tendons began to ache, unable to realize how tightly she grasped the plastic. Indentations riddled her palms in a network of zigzag patterns as a result.
“Keep up, will you?”
Sean took off as fast as his feet could pedal, leaving her behind with her worries for company.
What should she have done if he decided to go through with the dare? Riley pondered if she would have had the strength to follow.
The voice in her head urged her to follow the rapidly retreating sight of Sean’s back. No good came from lingering.
Riley glanced over her shoulder a final time and almost missed the deathly pale arm that shot from between the leaves. And waved.
Photograph by Lisa Bonowicz