The stories below were chosen as Honorable Mentions in the April Writing Challenge.
Abbie Claire Boozer
The forest stood before her. She had heard tales of its strange power and the strange creatures living within it, but she had never been a believer in those old wives’ tales. And yet… a sudden twisting in her stomach almost made her turn back. No, she thought. I have to do this. And with that, she passed through the wall of fog that always separated the forest from her small village.
Her leather jacket, which usually made her nice and toasty, suddenly made her shiver. It felt cold up against her skin. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and branches nipping at her heels. She walked faster, not quite at a running pace, but faster than a casual stroll, no doubt. She got to the center, where the dank forest opened up and light shone through from the treetops. It was so peaceful in such a terrifying, majestical, sensational way. She rubbed the index card in her pocket; the words, usually pristine and perfect, were slowly wearing away because of the friction her fingers caused. She took in a breath and waited. They were coming. Those monsters she never believed in were coming.
Golden eyes peeked out at her from behind a bush in the forest. She slowly turned her head towards them, cautiously making sure she wasn’t moving too quickly, the fear of being pounced on racking her brain. A growl emanated from the throat of the animal. It stepped to her, and she whimpered in fear, and tears sprung to her eyes. Once it came out of the shadows of the brush, she realized it was not a regular animal. This creature was what the old wives had mentioned. It was the king of them all. The Golden King. It looked like a lion, with tiger stripes, but instead of being an orange-ish tang, it was pure gold. Its eyes, its fur, and its nose. Everything. It came up to her and sat down. She felt herself crying, the tears streaming down her face. She let out a noise that didn’t count as a word, more like a cry for help.
The Golden King looked her up and down and did something unexpected. It spoke to her.
“You are here to come to us. To explain to the world what we are. Why we are here. Are you Amelia Caldwell Jackson?”
Amy stared at the King. The creature had just uttered words perfectly audible to her, and she didn’t know whether to be happy or terrified. She nodded slowly and pulled out her index card.
“H-Here.” She thrust her hand out to the sitting lion-creature, who took it in his paw. Soon a whirlwind of gold flew up, and the lion turned into a teenage boy, her age, with stark gold hair and golden eyes. Her wide eyes got impossibly wider, and she took a small step backwards.
“Don’t move,” he growled. He literally growled. It came from the back of his throat and had tremendous power. He put out his arm slowly, revealing lines etched into his skin that resembled the stripes on the King in his animal form. They weren’t scars, but weren’t tattoos either. They were a part of his skin, like an uneven tan that was so proportionally perfect. She took it back and stuck it back in her jacket pocket. The King stared at her oddly, cocking his head and raising an eyebrow.
“You needed a daughter or son of the eldest year from my town. I’m the oldest child, aged 18 years. The old wives said they’ve seen you in the night and want to know why you and your…friends lurk around our town.” Amy formed the sentence that had been thoroughly practiced in front of her mirror at home. The King grinned and let out a chuckle. It sent shivers down her spine.
“Your town has drawn a particular interest to me for the past 18 years, actually. 18 years, 7 months, and 27 days. It started the day you were born. You have a power. We would like you to join our forces.”
Amy stood awestruck in the forest. She looked up and realized people sitting in the branches of the trees who must have been creatures as well before they shifted forms. She pulled out a pendent and held it out to the King.
“They said to give this to you. The old wives. They hoped this would end the lurking.”
“Nothing will stop me and my friends until you join. You would be such a good help to us. C’mon, Amy.” Amy looked up at the King. He had changed once more into a lanky boy who looked to be around 10 years old. She gasped.
“Jake…” she whispered. The King changed back into his teenage form.
“Ever wondered where little Jake King ran off to? Why he suddenly disappeared into the night? ‘Why would someone kidnap little Jake? It’s such a little town. He’s here somewhere.’ It’s been 8 years, Amy. And you didn’t even care.” Jake stepped close to her.
“I didn’t know who you were, I—”
“I lived next door. No more dwelling on it, though. Join us, Amy. Please.”
“I can’t, I really can’t, and I need to help my family.”
Jake gripped Amy’s arms, shaking her. “For God’s sake, Amy, this will help them!” he shouted. A few of the younger kids, the shape shifters, slid into the shadows. Amy felt a few more tears come to her eyes. Jake let go of her, and she quickly wiped her eyes.
“What can I do? I can’t do anything.”
Jake laughed. “Can’t do anything? Think really hard. Try to turn into something. Anything.”
Amy shut her eyes, squeezed them tight. Alright, let’s be a tiger or something. A tiger. Like Tigger. Tigger the tiger. She opened her eyes and realized her line of sight had shifted downwards a number of inches. She looked at what her hands should be, and instead saw glowing red striped fur. Just like Jake’s. The same stripe pattern, but instead of being a lion, she was a majestic tiger.
“Wonderful. Now that you can do this, will you please join us?” Amy shifted back to herself, her leather jacket feeling alien to her.
She looked Jake dead in the eyes, back to the farthest edge of the forest, back to her town, then back at Jake.
Jake smiled at her.
“I knew you’d do it. Now you should probably wake up.”
She jolted up in bed, the meeting with the creatures of the forest waiting at her feet.
The forest stood before her. She had heard tales of its power and of the strange creatures living within it, but she had never been a believer in those old wives’ tales. And yet…a sudden twisting in her stomach almost made her turn back. No, she thought, I have to do this. And with that, she passed through the wall of fog that always separated the forest from her small village.
The air was frigid as she broke through the mist barrier, and she had suddenly wished she brought a jacket with her on this endeavor. Tripping over unearthed tree roots and swatting mosquitos away from her face practically every five seconds, this journey was already proving to be more difficult than she had anticipated.
Just as she thought she could see the light at the end of the tunnel…er forest…the light began to move, and suddenly, it wasn’t sunlight anymore — it was two yellow eyes, glowing down at her from the head of a creature she had never experienced before. The wolf-looking animal seemed friendly at first, but as she made a move to go around the beast, he whipped his head around towards her and let out the most ear-piercing shriek the girl had ever heard. This noise was worse than that of fingernails on a chalkboard, or the sound of styrofoam rubbing against itself.
Her eyes widened and, for a second, she was frozen solid in her spot. Right as the animal was about to pounce on her, she scrambled away and up a hill of green grass. The hill was no match for the beast, though, for it followed her up to the top and clawed at her with its claws. As if out of nowhere, two other beastly animals joined their friend and latched on to her flesh. She kicked, and she screamed, and she did everything in her power to loosen the deathly grip on her ankles, but it was no use.
Ready to admit defeat, the girl’s limbs went limp and she uttered three little words: “I don’t care.” Because she didn’t care. She had been terrified of this forest for 17 years of her life, and today she had finally gotten past that fear. There was nothing left for her to be afraid of, nothing was taunting her in the back of her mind, and so she didn’t care if she died or lived. She had braved her biggest fear, so her fear of death no longer existed.
But, just as she said those words, the animals unlatched their claws from her skin and wandered back into the forest. That’s weird, she thought. But the peculiarity of the situation didn’t seem to phase her at all because she just got up, wiped off her skirt, and continued her walk through the dark.
She couldn’t help but feel as if she were sent to this forest on a mission, like she was supposed to be searching for somebody, but who?
The girl pushed through low-hanging vines and trampled over fallen leaves, but she could not find whoever it was that she was supposed to be looking for. She turned the corner and was greeted with the beady black eyes of a vulture finishing up its last meal, which evidently consisted of what looked to be the remains of the last person who had dared walk these woods.
Summoning all of her strength, she kicked the bird right in its side and turned and ran in the opposite direction. She willed her legs to move faster, but they felt like lead and she could hear the scavenger’s wings flapping wildly behind her. She ran as fast as she could until she ran right into a rock wall. It was a dead end.
The girl turned around and realized she was face to beak with this winged predator, and, although she didn’t want to, she let a few salty tears slip from her eyes. The bird didn’t do anything except stare and breathe down her neck. More tears fell from her eyes now, and she accepted the reality that was her fate — she was going to die in these woods whether she wanted to or not.
While she didn’t have control over the newly accepted information, she did have control over how she handled it. She decided right then and there that how she would handle death most certainly wouldn’t involve tears. Tears showed a kind of emotion that was reserved for people in her life that mattered, and this hideous creature definitely wasn’t deserving of that emotion. “You’re not worth it.” She mumbled and just like that, the bird flapped its wings and disappeared into the fog.
Recovering from her second encounter with death, she walked a few miles deeper, knowing it would only be a matter of time before another grotesque vision emerged from the depths of the trees.
After what felt like hours (and after she had decided she wanted to turn around and go back home) she realized she had absolutely no idea where she was going. She was utterly lost in the dark world of hell-sent creatures. She felt like a tourist in Panama City during spring break — completely clueless and surrounded by beings that couldn’t even comprehend their own names.
Sinking to her knees, the girl looked up into the sky and let out a cry for help. “Help! Help me, please. I’m lost and I’m scared. I have no idea what to do or where to go. Just get me out of here!” For the second time that day, tears cascaded down her cheeks, only this time she made no effort to stop them.
She was about to get up and continue wandering aimlessly through the dreaded creations of nature when the fog seemed to part right before her eyes. The clouds above her lifted and the creatures that had nearly taken her life just moments before, now stood in front of her with blank expressions on their faces. Only, they were different.
The wolf-resembling monsters were now just the girls that she passed in the halls. The ones that were constantly glowering at her from behind their fake eyelashes and always knocking her books out of her hands with their long, painted fingernails. The fingernails that resembled claws.
The disgusting vulture now had adorned the appearance of her ex-boyfriend. The one that had cheated on her. She realized now that the bird wasn’t feasting on the previous wanderer, because there was no one before her. He was tearing apart her heart and her skin, right in front of her eyes.
A sudden realization dawned on her. She was sent in here to find someone — she was sent to find herself. To do that, she would need to not care what those wolves were saying about her; she needed to block out their shrieks of laughter and torment. She needed to realize that he wasn’t worth it. With his ravenous, beady black eyes and sultry smirk, he wasn’t worth the heartbreak or the tears or the nights spent screaming at her bedroom wall because he had made her go completely insane.
As light resurfaced beneath the clouds and her vision was cleared, she realized she was not sent into the forest to find a person and extricate him or her from the darkness. She was sent into her mind to find herself and banish the darkness completely, and all she needed to do was ask for a little bit of help.