Woohoo! Spring break! Here’s a first (and I do mean first! Just wrote this in one sitting this afternoon) draft of something I;m working on. Definitely has its problems, but getting it out there the first time was my main goal today!
Candace and I were closest friends, in that way you can only be friends with someone you met when you were too young to know what friends meant, and simply grew into it together. We had lived in the same subdivision, gone to the same school, played tee-ball on the same team. By the time we were eleven, when everything changed, we were mostly inseparable. Our houses, you see, were separated by a relatively dense band of woods where the subdivision had yet to bulldoze and develop. By the time we were old enough to be left out alone, we traipsed through the woods between our houses, eventually making the woods our own private kingdom. We built forts and trekked along soggy creek beds. We explored fallen logs, created hidden caches in rotten stumps, and climbed far higher into trees than our parents would have allowed. It was a haven, and we had our castle in that fort. It was really just a collection of interwoven sticks and leaves leaned against a fallen tree, but in our minds it swelled with stone walls and brilliant banners. There is a romance to sunny woods that you can only fully appreciate as a child, dancing between the fiery spots of sunshine and the chill shadows of leafy branches.
And then, when she was eleven and I was ten and a half, bad things happened. Candace’s mom had been sick for a long time, and I heard the whispered words of cancer floating between our homes. I watched as her mother, my second mother after long days spent in their living room, lost her hair, her vibrancy, her health. Her skin faded and sagged, showing the deep signs of fatigue after an arduous fight. Her eyes grew dim and sad. It wasn’t long before I stopped seeing her mother, though I could hear movement in the bedroom, someone shuffling and adjusting the machines the hospital had sent over.
I remember the phone call late one night. I was still too young to understand that a call so late inevitably meant bad news, and so I simply rolled over in mild irritation at the sudden alarm. I remember my dad sitting on the edge of my bed, shaking me awake to deliver the bad news. I remember the numbness and the fantasy I felt, as if I was still dreaming and Candace’s mom was just a short walk away, sleeping peacefully herself. By the time I awoke the next morning, the illusion had caught hold and I packed up to meet Candace at the fort.
She was there, reinforcing my own delusions, but her swollen red eyes shattered all of that. I felt my own tears pricking my eyes as I sat down next to her, trying to be strong and feeling completely vulnerable. Death had visited me, and I was wholly unprepared to respond. We sat together, neither of us speaking, not knowing in our brief span of life how to really deal with something like this. Eventually Candace did speak.
“I’m cold,” she whispered. It was not particularly cold even though it was late fall, but she was still wearing her pajamas, mud stains and all. I later found out that she had been sitting by that fort since dawn, despite her dad’s concerns. At the funeral, I noticed how distant and broken he appeared, which made me angry then. Now, being old enough to understand, I realize he was a man whose whole world had been crumbling in slow motion, and was now in shambles. He could barely grieve, nonetheless be the father he had been before.
That winter, Candace spent a lot of time at my house. We laughed and went on with life, but sometimes she looked distant and pained, as if someone were whispering hurtful things into her ear. Those moments would pass, but she would remain lost in her grief. I was too young to really understand, though I did my best to be a great friend to her even during those times. Spring broke and we tore back into the woods, ready to feel the dirt beneath our feet again after what had felt like an eternal winter. The first thing we did was dig a hole for the time capsule we made over the winter. We had filled it with toys and letters to the future, all tucked inside a coffee can. Candace and I dug a deep hole, beginning to feel like our old selves again, and then we found it.
We were used to finding arrowheads and pottery scraps in the woods, but this was different. It was, we initially thought, merely an oddly shaped stone. But, then we saw that whatever it was, it was some sort of carving. There was a face on the top, with two wide and bug-shaped eyes dominating most of it. The nose and mouth were simply lines etched into the stone. From there, a large, round belly protruded under the jaw. Finally, the whole figure rested on two angular feet. On the side, we could barely make out etchings that seemed to be arms, ending in long, branch-like fingers. It was one of the coolest things we had ever discovered, and we probptly placed it in a place of honor in our fort. She became the queen of the fort, and we spent our days completing wild, fanciful quests for her.
Eventually, I noticed Candace did not go home when I did in the evenings. My mother would call for dinner, and she would smile dimly and wave, her eyes never meeting mine. And I noticed that she arrived well before me on the weekends, carrying a crumpled paper bag with her lunch for the day smashed inside. I thought it was odd, but there were many times I wished for more hours in the day to dive into the woods, so it never struck me as a bad thing.
Candace’s birthday fell early in the summer, and that day I woke up as early as I could to get out to the woods. I rushed to get dressed, scribbled a note to my parents on the fridge, and then sprinted into the woods with the first pink of the sun in the sky. I had planned on spending a little time alone getting the fort ready for Candace, cleaning up the broken limbs and maybe putting some strings of flowers along the walls. I had borrowed a banner from my mother that read “Happy Birthday” in bright primary colors, and I intended to hang that as high as I could reach. But, when I reached the fort, Candace was already there, sitting with a woman. Sitting with her mother.
I stood, frozen in my tracks as Candace’s mom softly stroked the girl’s hair. I was not sure what was going on, and I felt the hair on the back of my neck begin to rise. Something was wrong. The woman’s back was to me, but I could see the peaceful, if terribly distant, grin on Candace’s face. However, I began to notice that everywhere that perfect hand touched my friend’s skin, the skin darkened, turning ashen and gray before returning to normal. Something was very wrong.
“Candace?” I found my voice, and watched as my friend’s eyes widened in alarm as they shot to me. In that same instance, the woman’s head snapped around, fixing me with an icy glare. I saw, at first, Candace’s mom looking at me, her hair long and flowing and her eyes bright again, but then it shifted. Then I saw, for the briefest of seconds, the tortured cancer victim looking at me with drawn eyes and pale skin. The image flickered for a moment between these before dropping altogether.
I spent a long time trying to come up with rational explanations for what I saw, and many therapists explained it away in ways so convincing, I almost believed them. But what I saw does not make sense. Where there had been my best friend’s mother only seconds before, there now stood some…thing. It was tall, shaped like a person, but with dusky grey-brown skin that matched the trees behind her. Its face was almost human, but not right. Instead, I recognized the same, wide-spaced, round eyes from the statue staring at me. The eyes were black, almost bug-like, and in that moment full of rage. Her mouth was a lipless scar across her face, and her body swayed below a sharp-cut jaw. The arms were long, but not with branch-like fingers. Instead, claws snapped against the underbrush, cutting through whatever stood in her way. The thing that took me years to understand, however, was her stomach. It was large, round, and distended in an awkward way. Compared to the slender, tree-like quality of the rest of her body, it stood out like an unsightly knot in her trunk. It would take me undergoing the same phenomenon to identify that unusual bulge. She was pregnant.
The mouth opened and she screeched at me before charging. I dropped the supplies in my hand and ran with my own scream. I tore through the woods, into my home and straight to my parents bedroom. My screams had already woken them to a state of alarm. My dad checked me out, trying to find any injuries, while my mom simply pleaded with me to answer. I’m certain my jumbled account made even less sense than this at the time, but they still understood that some of my abject terror was related to Candace and the woods.
When we got there, Candace’s dad was running up, looking even more distraught than usual. Candace was gone, as was the woman. I was a tearful, sobbing mess looking with paranoia at every bush. We searched and searched before finally someone called the police. I was whisked away to retell my story, and they undertook a search for Candace, presuming a kidnapping. It was not unheard of for children to create fantastic tales to cover dingy reality.
It was well past dark when there were shouts from the now dry creek bed that ran through the woods. Candace was lying unconscious in the bottom, her clothes muddied and torn, but otherwise fine. Team after team had patrolled that area, but only now did she turn up. The paramedics hauled her away, and that was the last I saw of my friend. I was still filled with terror because the worst thing was, no one ever found that other thing. No one saw it or even believed my story. They did investigate a possible kidnapping, but nothing ever came of that either. When Candace woke, she began raving about the woods and her mother, so her father decided it would be best to check her in to a facility for intensive therapy. Not long after that, he came over, tearful again, to speak with my parents. The conversation was in private, and try as I might I could not hear anything through the thick wooden door besides the occasional sobs. My parents exited later and, after showing Candace’s dad out, told me as gently as possible that Candace was going away. I would never see her again.
The rest of my childhood was scarred by that experience, but even that grew dim after a few years. The woods held a certain terror for me, but I was better at convincing myself that my memory was lying. Still, without Candace around, I had no good reason to while away the afternoons in that shadowed wood.
That is, until I came home from college my sophomore year. There was something about college that stirred a lot of old nostalgia. I tried to find Candace on Facebook and reconnect, but there were so many results and not enough leads on my end. Still, being home that summer, I resolved to at least revisit that fort and finally conquer my demons.
I found it just as before, if somewhat battered by ten years of wind and weather. Surprisingly, most of the limbs still stood, and most of our treasures were still inside with only minor fading and weathering. I smiled, feeling so many happy memories flooding back. I even saw the strange statue nestled in the corner, and found myself remembering our quests for our queen. It still had a crown of twisted grapevine perched on its round head. Seeing the statue reminded me of our time capsule. We had resolved to open it in ten years, and so I saw no better use of my day than to relocate the sacred trove and take the opportunity to hear from my ten-year-old self.
When I got to the location, I saw the large sandstone slab we used to mark the spot. I also saw Candace.
I assume it was her, as the woman standing in front of me was tall, blonde, and smiling. She looked like her mother, but younger and with her dad’s bright brown eyes. “Candace?” I asked, shocked. I could feel nostalgia and joy rushing through me, threatening to suffocate me beneath them. “Candace! Where have you been? I’ve missed you, and I came to open our—” as I rushed forward, I noticed something odd. Candace didn’t speak or move, but merely smiled vacantly at me, holding out her hand.
“Candace?” I asked again, slowing my pace. The form that looked like Candace smiled a little wider. “Can you say something?”
The silence was oppressive; I finally noticed that even the birds and squirrels were silent now. I stepped back. The image faltered.
Candace’s smile faded, irritation crept into her eyes.
“You’re not her.” I stated. I felt like I was crazy, and I hoped that the woman standing across the clearing from me would tell me that I was. Instead, she flickered again.
This time I saw my friend, still little more than a child. Maybe twelve, but not much older than when I had seen her loaded into that ambulance. I saw her eyes wide with terror, her hair a knotted mass of mud and twigs. Her mouth was frozen in a scream.
“You’re not her!” I screamed at the image, just in time to watch it dissipate. Again, I took flight through the woods, rushing back towards our fort with that thing in pursuit. Only, this time, I heard a screech coming from deeper in as well. Two of these things were now chasing me. I reached the fort and saw the gangly creature thundering through the brush. The eyes were round with rage again, boring into me even as it sliced aside the brush. I did the only think I could think of and picked up the small statue, hurling it toward the creature, It seemed surprised, unable to react quickly enough to my attack. The rock struck it, and Candace tumbled to the ground, the strange tree-like woman gone.
I again was shocked, certain of my insanity. I rushed over to my childhood friend and tried to see if I could do anything. There was a bloodied knot on the side of her head, but she was breathing. I lifted her, hoping to carry her from the woods, when the second figure burst through the trees. It screeched at me, and this time I was close enough to smell the hot, putrid breath. My limbs weakened and I felt Candace’s body slide from my shoulders. I stumbled as it continued to scream. Raising its slender arm, it struck out at me. The claws ripped through my shirt, leaving thin red lines across my abdomen. In my attempt to escape, I tripped backwards over a fallen log. I was helpless as the creature grabbed Candace and dragged her back into the woods.
As soon as I could move again, I made my way back to my house and a phone. I called the police, explained what had happened. I confessed to attacking Candace, showed them my wounds, and led them back into the woods. There was no sign of such a struggle, no blood on the stone. They began to search the area, expecting to find a body, but nothing.
Eventually, they called me in to the precinct to tell me they hadn’t found any evidence of a crime, but maybe I should seek psychiatric help. I pressed them on it, feeling that familiar terror for my friend resurge. Finally, the officer I was talking to sighed deeply.
“Well, listen, we can’t find anything. And this Candace you supposedly attacked is fine. We talked to Candace and her mother. Just let it go.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.