"Beyond the Forest" is one of the April Writing Challenge entries that was chosen to be a featured story.
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.
Noraina’s stomach twisted again. The forest was shockingly normal. Tall, dying trees, hiding away the sunlight from above, like every other forest she had been in. Nonetheless, she felt something quite wrong. She stood for a moment in the silence, taking in the simple beauty, and trying to identify the strange feeling, when she realized that she was, in fact, standing in silence. There was not a bee buzzing around her head, not a mouse skittering across the forest floor, not a single bird singing. She shuddered. She could not even hear the far off sounds of her village behind her. It was as though the wall of fog had been the wall marking the end of the Earth’s life. She supposed this was true, as the forest went on forever, and nothing was beyond her little village, or so the stories told her.
“Beth!” Beth, short for Bethany, had been a common name in the Old Ages. Noraina thought it was the most beautiful name she could possibly choose when her seven-year-old self had saved the small dog from a life in the streets. Now, she shouted the beautiful name again and again, her voice echoing unshakably loud in the quiet forest. As she called for her pet, she realized that whatever had scared the creatures of this forest away had just as possibly scared Bethany back home too. But now, she was too far in, she must have walked a mile, and if she was going to adventure into this forest, she was going to have at least somewhat of a story to tell to her friends. The fact that she had walked into the forbidden forest would impress them more than pulling a hundred thousand Old Age euros from her pocket, and then saying they were usable again. Besides, she reasoned with herself, she may not have gone back home. I had better make sure she isn’t here before I leave. So, she continued.
Noraina walked, and walked, and walked, for what seemed like ages. Finally, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a round object sounding a loud tick, tick, tick. In the Old Ages, it was called a watcher, or a clock, she couldn’t remember which. Either way, as long as she kept winding the side, it continually told her what time it was. It was an antique collector’s dream, and she was an antique collector if ever there was one. Ever since she was a child, she remembered going to her father, and begging to hear stories of the Old Ages. But as she continually walked, her stomach still tight, her watcher counted the minutes, and eventually hours, and now even her fond memories of stories were becoming sickening.
Noraina had started to grow very bored and had resigned herself to the fact that she was not going to find her dog. Her stomach had grown even tighter, and she started to think that her sickness was more than just nerves, as she wasn’t nervous anymore. So, she lay down on the forest floor and frowned at the dryness of the dirt on her head. She looked up, and saw something peculiar. The trees were all just as dry as the floor, brown and shriveled, looking as though they were about to topple over. In short, they looked about as good as she felt. But why are all the trees dying? She thought it through, and finally had an answer, but it was an answer to an entirely different question. Perhaps this is what scared the people before, and what the old wives tales come from. Maybe it’s just the lack of life here that scared them away. It seemed as reasonable an answer as any, and when she turned on her side, she started to see a break in the trees. This spurred her on, despite how sick she felt, and she leapt to her feet.
She knew now what her aim was — she had to see what was beyond the forest. For all her life, she had been told that the forest spanned forever and ever. Her village, the small world they lived in, was the only place where people had ever lived. But, if that was true, what was beyond the break in the trees?
As she walked, she grew more and more tired. But she had to know. She was this close. Finally, just after her watcher read that it had been over three and a half hours since she entered this place, she reached the break. As she had walked, she had not allowed herself to look at what was past the break, as she had wanted to give herself a surprise and make the walking worth it. She stepped forward, and raised her eyes to look beyond the final brown, dead trees.
Even Noraina’s never quitting, crazy imagination had not prepared her for this. As she looked out, she saw a line of dull grass, finally fading into a grayish black ground. The sky was orange, the heat unbearable, and her gut told her that this went on for miles. She turned around, and threw up what was left of the meal she ate before setting out. Everyone had lied to her — it was supposed to be forest going on, nothing more, but this was a blank slate. This was a burned ground, an orange sky, and a sickeningly dirty smell. This was destruction, and this had been right under her nose for fifteen years.
Unable to look anymore, she stepped over her mess and ran. She ran, making herself dizzy, until she couldn’t see even the tiniest hint of the break in the trees anymore. She walked from then on, feeling sicker and sicker, stopping and throwing up three more times before she finally met the fog again. Without looking behind her, she walked through. She stumbled on until a man found her walking aimlessly, and walked her to the healers. Noraina closed her eyes and did not open them for a day.
When she did wake, she woke to a woman staring accusingly at her.
“You went into the forest,” was all the woman said.
“I know because you have radiation sickness. The only way for you to get radiation is to go into the forest. That is as far as the radiation reaches.”
“Radiation?” Noraina could barely talk, her mouth felt like cotton and her tongue was as heavy as lead.
“It’s something that makes you sick, as you found out. How far did you go? How deep into the forest?”
“It ends.” The memory flooded back to her, of a dry wasteland that she had never been warned of, or even hinted at. “I walked to the end, and everything was dead. Even the grass. And the sky was strange, and the ground was dry.”
To Noraina’s surprise, the woman didn’t even blink. So she asked her about it. “Why aren’t you surprised?”
“Because I knew already.”
“Knew about what? Why was it like that? Do you know?”
The woman looked down at her. She was not accusatory anymore, only sad. “You breathed in more poison out there than if someone decided to gas you. You are dying.” Despite her sad look, she said it in a tone that told her she was not sorry at all. “I suppose the dying deserve to know the answers.”
Noraina swallowed and tried not to start freaking out. I’m not actually dying, she’s just pranking me so she can tell me whatever she needs to tell me. Noraina decided to ignore the fact that that explanation did not make any sense whatsoever.
“My name is Tahlie, by the way,” said Tahlie, “and I have other patients, so I’m going to have to make this quick. Everyone says that we are the only people on Earth, our village the only one ever to exist, right?”
Noraina nodded, to which Tahlie responded: “Wrong. Totally, completely wrong.” Noraina blinked, but did not interrupt. “Up until fifty years ago, people lived everywhere on the globe, farther than your little mind can imagine.” Noraina ignored that insult. “Until, a sickness spread. It killed millions, and people tried to escape to wherever they could. But, a small independent town of no more than forty people lived inside the edges of the forest, and for some miracle, we weren’t touched by the disease. But, under agreement by the entire town, we kept that quiet, lest the sick try to escape to our safe haven and spread us the disease we had avoided so well. So, as others outside died, we continued on safe in our homes. Wars broke out among the last surviving outside, people gone mad from the world they had lost. The devastation to the land and the radiation that you experienced was from a nuclear bomb exploded some forty-nine years ago. Before that bomb we call the Old Age, and the time after the New Age. Since that bomb, we have heard or seen nothing more from anyone outside, and if anyone is alive, they are living as quietly as we are.”
Noraina was growing more and more tired at this point, and her muscles ached, and she knew it must be from the radiation poison.
“We knew that if anyone were alive, and were to come in, we would possibly be sickened, and would die. So, we made up stories for our young, such as you, to keep them inside the forest and away from anyone that could be left, and also to protect the children from growing up with the knowledge that any moment the sickness could emerge and kill us. We thought it a fresh start, and a safe way to keep living.”
“I’m so tired,” was all that Noraina could say.
“I bet you are, that’s what happens to the dying. Every once in a while someone does what you did, and I have to tell them the story and help them pass on painlessly. Sadly, the only technologies that could have saved you were destroyed in the wars at the end.”
“You are very blunt,” Noraina mumbled.
“Yeah, people take it better that way,” replied Tahlie. “You should sleep now. But, before you do, I have to ask, was it a dare?”
“What made you go into the forest?”
“I saw my dog run off into it, but she wasn’t in there. I think she’s safe now.”
“I think she is, too,” said Tahlie. “I think you are too. Go to sleep, my dear.”
Noraina did sleep, and she only woke once to Tahlie whispering to her, “I found her, your dog Beth. I asked your friends what she looked like, I found her, and she is safe now, with your mother and father. They love you very much. Goodnight, Noraina.”
Noraina did not wake again.
Lanie Elvin is fifteen and spends most of her time with her nose in a book; otherwise, she is watching British TV shows or comic book movies. English has always been her strong suit, and she started writing in about 6th grade. She mostly writes short stories but has also dabbled in poetry. She wants to pursue writing, and she will continue teaching others about the Bible, which she has done since childhood.