The Alice Tree

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Thrillers  |  House: Booksie Classic
After graduating college, Jane and Robert decide to go on a hike to complete an old tradition. They have an unnecessarily hard time.

Submitted: December 10, 2016

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Submitted: December 10, 2016

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A hike to the Alice Tree was tradition, or so Jane’s parents had told her. But she had never met anyone her own age who had actually done it. Supposedly, friends hike to the Alice Tree, where they would proceed to dance and drink, sing and make love, and, supposedly, Alice would bless them with a happy life, if she approved. At Jane’s urging, the college outdoors club had tried to reach it, four times now, but failed each time and always for a different reason. Her first year, they had gotten atrociously lost. Her second year, a freshman had dislocated his kneecap – that was scary. In her third year, the club found a beautiful little waterfall and, much to Jane’s exasperation, decided to give up on the Alice Tree altogether. Her final year – and this was absolutely ridiculous – someone had actually forgotten to bring enough food for the hike back. The route to the Alice Tree was not, by anyone’s standard, a hard hike: one day out and one day back. But Jane was starting to wonder if it might not be an impossible one.

She reminded herself that this trip was different. She wasn’t with the outdoors club. She was with Robert, who, admittedly, had never been hiking in his life, but he was a strong guy, and that must count for something. It was going to be just the two of them, a romantic escape after a strained year and a last send-off before their new lives in a new city. But more than that, it was going to succeed. The weekend was set to be perfect: low eighties, blue sky, no rain, and no excuses.

Currently, Robert was fidgeting in the passenger seat. He did that a lot, and today he had magnets. A gas station on the way had a kiosk where, for five dollars, one could fill up a velvet pouch with shiny, ebony rocks. They were meant for kids, and at first Jane thought it was cute that Robert bought some. That changed quickly. Over and over again, in the car, he would push two together, slowly, brows furrowed and eyes fixed, and the two unlike poles would resist more and more the closer they became. Robert would bring them together, slowly, until bzzzzt! The magnets would jump apart rather ferociously and the like poles would come together again.

Jane had suffered nearly thirty minutes of this on repeat. “Rob?”

Bzzzzt!

“Rob?”

He looked up.

“Why don’t you drive for the rest of the way?”

Robert breathed through his nose and nodded. They pulled over and the bzzzzts stopped at last. Jane decided to take another look at the map and pulled it from her backpack. It was limp and creases from countless foldings and unfoldings had made long, pale grid lines along the tallow paper. Technically, Jane was only borrowing it from the outdoors club but, technically, they were borrowing it from her. Years ago, her parents had marked a small, black “A” in the upper right hand corner, where the contour lines ran close together. It was a mute mystery, and staring at it too long set Jane on edge. Taking last nap soon felt like a great idea, and so she did.

The words “We’re here” woke her. But as she felt the car turn and slow and stop, Jane kept her eyes closed. She had dreamt, but all she could recall was the patter of rain and the feel of mud between her toes. The rest slipped from her mind like water from a colander.

What came next was routine, to Jane if not to Robert: unload packs, check water, check map, check food, check tent, check bug spray, double check water, pee. They took a picture by the trailhead, which turned out well: glowing cheeks and genuine-seeming smiles. Jane wondered if that’s how they always looked. Standing outside the visitor’s center, she saw a park ranger who had a familiar wisp of white hair peeking out from under his pine colored hat. She waved to him.

“Mr. Ryan!”

The man turned and, upon seeing her, beamed. He strolled over and gave Jane a short hug.

“Look at this!” he said, “I haven’t seen you for ages.”

Jane saw Robert was standing at an awkward distance. “This is Robert, my boyfriend,” she said. “Robert, this is Mr. Ryan. He’s been working here as long as I can remember, taught me about trees and slugs when I was a Girl Scout.”

The two shook hands and exchanged brief smiles. Mr. Ryan turned back to Jane and put a hand on her shoulder.

“How have you been?”

“Well! Just graduated, actually.”

Mr. Ryan whistled. “No kidding! And what now?”

“I got a job – Chicago. We both did, actually.”

Robert spoke up. “We’re moving next week, going to stay in my mom’s house while we look for apartments.”

“Chicago’s far. Bet your parents are frightened out of their minds.”

“Maybe,” said Jane, nodding, “but they’ve had me around for twenty-two years. I think they’ll manage.”

“They’ll find a way. Where ya’ll headed?”

Robert reached for the map in his pack and handed it to the ranger. “Someplace called the Alice Tree,” he said.

Mr. Ryan took it and laid it out on the picnic table next to them. After examining it for a moment, he bit his lower lip and looked at Jane.

“You know how you’re getting there?”

“Gaffer’s Wind, till we hit the bridge,” she said.

The ranger was tracing their route with his index finger. “And then?”

“Then we follow the river upstream.”

“Right, that’s northeast. You got about two miles of that. And then you know what to look for?”

“Not really, never got that far before. Dead trees, I guess.”

Robert gave Jane a confused look.

“Dead trees,” said Mr. Ryan, “And the land will shoot up on your right. Call that Alice Hill. You follow it straight to the top. The Alice Tree’ll be there.”

He smiled at Jane, sliding his eyes towards Robert. “Did you tell him yet why they call it the Alice Tree?”

Jane shook her head. He looked to Robert. “Do you want to know?”

“Um, yeah. Sure.”

Mr. Ryan grinned and began like he was sitting around a campfire with a circle of rapt ears listening. “This happened a long time ago. Before I was born, maybe even before my grandfather was born. There was a businessman that lived near here, who had run into a good deal of success. With his wealth, he built a manor here and filled it to the top with every wonderful treasure a person could want. But of the whole world, what he adored most was his young daughter, Alice. She was a beautiful girl and lived a blessed life. Every day, in the morning, she would bathe in the river and walk through the woods. Even more than the man’s manor, the woods were her home. She loved the forest, and it’s been said that the forest loved her back.

“But her father was selling something the world no longer wanted to buy, and soon enough his business began to falter, as all businesses do. He loved his home and knew his daughter loved it too, but he knew he couldn’t keep it. Soon a new deed was signed and that was that. When he told Alice that they were to leave, she wept for a whole night, kept the entire forest awake with her. The man’s heart broke. But the house had been sold. There was nothing to be done.

“That morning, Alice walked into the woods, just as she had done every day before. And as she bathed, she began to cry again. Her tears fell into the river and she prayed with all her will to never have to leave, to stay in the woods for the rest of her days. The clouds began to rumble and a storm came. The river swelled and soon flowed stronger than Alice was able to swim. It swept her deep into the forest. When Alice finally climbed on shore, she was naked and freezing and wet and hadn’t a clue where she was, but the storm was still raging and she needed shelter. Alice climbed up to the top of a hill where she came upon a great tree, old as the land she was standing on, with a great hollow in its trunk, large enough for her to step inside. So she did, and she hid there, shivering. A bolt of lightning struck the tree. And Alice got her wish.”

Robert bobbed his head along. “Cool.”

Jane picked up the map and placed it in her backpack. “You’ve been before, right?” she asked.

Mr. Ryan looked like he had been insulted. “Course I’ve been, not for years, though. I can’t think of anyone who’s been since the fire. I think Alice wants to be left alone.” A smile returned to his face. “Sure you’ll manage though,” he said.

They made their goodbyes, and Jane promised to say hello to her parents for him. When he was gone, they took out their phones for one last moment of service before the trail.

“Thanks for listening to him, back there,” Jane said. “He loves to tell that story.”

Robert didn’t look up. “What do you think the caption should be?” he asked.

“Caption for what?”

“Our picture, for Instagram. I’m thinking ‘Call of the Wild’ maybe, something like that.”

“Don’t post it yet,” Jane said. “I want to wait until we have one of us by the Alice Tree.”

 “Why?” He grinned. “Afraid we won’t get one?”

“No, course we’ll get one.” Jane adjusted the straps on her pack. “I just think it would be better to post it as an album.”

“Whatever you say.”

***

Gaffer’s Wind really was a beautiful trail, and that day really was a beautiful day. Actual butterflies swooped dizzy patterns around their heads as they walked, and rows of tall, gorgeously green summer trees provided just enough shade to be cool. The sun gleamed above them in the broad sky, occasionally vanishing behind picturesque tufts of cotton cloud before emerging again, sending a glowing warmth to Jane’s shoulders, her arms, the back of her neck. She became lost in the walk, seeing nothing but the roots before her, hearing nothing but the crunch of earth beneath her feet, feeling nothing but the steady course of blood in her veins and the quiet weight of her pack. Jane worried about nothing more than the next step.

The trail turned sharply skywards, and the beads of sweat on her forehead soon turned to drops. She had been wrong about making good time. Robert was a decently athletic guy, but bigger than he was fast. About an hour into their ascent, Jane could hear his breathing get heavy and his steps get clunky. But she didn’t stop for a break. That would embarrass him, she knew, and besides, they were close to the top. Gaffer’s Wind brought you up and over a long ridge, and the view from the peak was something to see.

They dropped packs on a boulder overlooking the valley. Jane settled down cross-legged and picked at a granola bar while Robert dropped his pack and flopped down, face up, apparently too exhausted to care about the frying-pan heat of the boulder. After a minute of luxuriating in the fact that his legs were finally still, he rocked upright and took a look.

“Wow,” he said.

“Yup.”

“That is pretty.”

“Think we’ll get anything like this in Chicago?”

Robert laughed. “Nope.” And then, “Can I have some of that?”

Jane knew that Robert would take more of hers than she wanted, so she ruffled through her pack and tossed him a new one. He unwrapped it and took a big munch. “So why are we looking for dead trees?” he asked, his mouth full.

“Hm?”

“You mentioned there were dead trees. After the river.”

“Oh, that. Yeah, there was a forest fire about a decade ago on Alice Hill. Some dumb kids with cigarettes.”

Robert snorted. “Yeah, I think I’d be pissed too.”

“Hm?”

“You know, if I were Alice. Go through all that just for someone to burn my home down.”

“I don’t think she really cares, Rob.”

“Why not?”

“…Cause she’s dead.”

“Oh, yeah.” He gnawed some more on his granola bar.

“You can see it from here, you know,” Jane said. “See that big hill below the mountains?” Robert looked. It rose above the rest of the valley and looked sparse and grey, like it was balding. A forest fire indeed.

“That’s Alice Hill. At least I think so. My parents always pointed it out to me when we went hiking.”

“They could tell?”

“Course,” said Jane. “They’ve lived their whole lives here. My dad actually proposed to my mom at the Alice Tree.”

“Really? You didn’t tell me that.”

“Yeah, it was a favorite spot of theirs to go with their friends. But one day, my dad took my mom there, just the two of them, and popped the question.”

“Huh.” Robert shifted uncomfortably in place. “You’re not expecting me to…”

“No!” said Jane, rather quickly. “No, of course not. I’ve just always wanted to see it, is all.”

They were silent for a moment.

“Seems like a creepy place to propose,” Robert said.

“You think so?”

“Yeah it’s, like, a girl’s grave.”

“I always thought it was romantic,” said Jane. “They were pledging to stay here forever, just like Alice.”

“I mean, I guess.” Robert put the last chunk of the bar into his mouth and put the wrapper back in his bag. “Still spooky, though.”

Jane laughed. “Let’s get walking,” she said.

They picked up their packs and Jane took a last, long look at their destination. Robert wasn’t wrong, she thought. Alice Hill did remind her of a burial mound.

Something was different once they crossed the ridge, and Jane couldn’t figure out what. She noticed fewer butterflies and more bugs. The shade felt cold and the sunbeams seared. Roots jutted out at inconvenient places, forcing her to take steps that felt too long or too short. Of course, nothing had changed. Not really. This spot of woods was no different than the one they had left behind, and Jane knew that. She figured that the difference must be in her head. Maybe it was something Robert had said. Maybe it was just a bad mood. Whatever it was, Jane felt unwelcome.

The river was just as she remembered it. It just wasn’t where she remembered it. Jane couldn’t argue, though. There it was: grey stream flowing placidly beneath a dark patterned bridge. A small sign was planted into the ground with the title “Gaffer’s Cross” wood-burned on. There it was, no question. She mentioned something to Robert about how she had not expected to reach the bridge for another hour, at least. He beamed and said that must mean he was a fast hiker after all. Jane knew that wasn’t true, but she didn’t correct him.

As they crossed, she took each step on edge, unable to shake the eerie feeling that the bridge might vanish, plunging her into the cold water below. It didn’t. Once they had crossed, they left the trail and began to walk upstream looking out for the burned tree trunks that would mark their destination.

Her mind wandered out of the forest and into Chicago. It was going to be cold up there, colder than she had ever really been before. Did she even have enough winter clothes? She wasn’t prepared for anything below twenty degrees. She would probably have to buy a wardrobe’s worth of sweaters. What if their apartment didn’t have enough space for all the new clothes? Would she have to throw out all of her old ones?

But the rush of the river calmed her, becoming white noise in her ears. She slipped into a kind of meditation, listening to the stream, the rustle of wind among the leaves, the crack of twigs under her toes, the droning buzz of locusts, yet hearing none of them. Jane saw the water on her left, the sun above her, the trees before her, and yet she didn’t register a one. Her mind became wiped of every distraction as she plodded forward, step after step.

Time passed seamlessly. It could have been an hour, or two, or even three, when a thought stumbled into Jane’s mind: they really ought to have reached Alice Hill by now. The notion knocked on her spellbound brain and at last her eyes began to take in what they saw.

“Robert?”

“Yeah?” he said, in a daze himself.

“Where’s the river?”

“Oh.” He looked around. “Shit.”

Jane de-packed, and immediately sat down on a rotting log, reaching for the map. Robert went for one of the turkey sandwiches he had packed. As he ate, Jane began to think out loud.

“Okay. So we lost the river. Not the end of the world. No. Okay. Okay. We were headed…” She ruffled through her bag for a compass placed it on the map. “Northeast. Which means… we should have been following the river. We should have. Do you remember losing it? I don’t remember losing it. But, okay, so we lost it anyway. Okay. What happened.” She scrutinized the map and measured the distance between Gaffer’s Cross and Alice Hill with her finger. “That’s one mile. We can’t have not gotten there yet, right? We definitely went further than a mile. Further than two miles. So, even if we lost the river we should have run into it. Right?” Robert finished the first half of his sandwich and said nothing. Jane slapped her forehead. “Shit! Oh shit, we’re idiots. I think I know what went wrong.” She let out a heavy breath. “We left the trail after the wrong river. There must have been some river closer to us that… I forgot about. Yeah. That means right now we’re between that river and the real one, which means we can still find Alice Hill. We just have to go, uh…” She looked at the map again. “West.”

Sandwich still in hand, Robert examined the map.

“There isn’t a second river.”

“It has to be too small for the map. Or something.”

“And the sign at the bridge said Gaffer’s Cross.”

“I know! I know. But, Rob, I’ve been in these woods all my life. Just trust me on this.”

Robert let out a deep exhale that didn’t sound trusting at all. But then he grinned. “Maybe Alice is trying to mess with us,” he said.
Jane meant to give him a playful shove, but put more force into it than she intended.

Not funny.”

***

Jane could tell that no one had been this way in a long time, not even the forest service. The wood between the rivers was threaded with decaying trees and snagging roots. Jane wondered if they were going the right way, if she hadn’t just read the map completely wrong and sent them deep into God-knows-where. Rob clearly didn’t think she knew what she was doing, but she did. She knew what she was doing. And if Rob really thought she didn’t have a clue then he was free to take the map and figure it out himself.  They were going the right way, though. Sure, she had made a mistake, but they would get there.

Jane’s eyes became transfixed on her toes. As her feet marched forward, she scrutinized every dead leaf on the dirty ground. Wasn’t that a White Stripes song? Dead leaves on the dirty ground. Yeah, that was how it started. “Dead leaves on the dirty ground… think you’re gonna make a sound.” No, no. “Dead leaves on the dirty ground, when I know you’re not around and I think you’re gonna make a sound” – wait, no it was “when I hear your lips make a sound,” that’s it –

Crunch.

Jane turned around to face the noise, only to find Robert looking at his own feet, eyebrows fixed in a befuddled “V.” A small yellow dot whirled around his shoulder, until it rested on his forearm. He swatted it.

“Ow.”

 More yellow dots followed. Jane watched frozen and mute.

“Ow!” he said. More dots flew out of the ground. Robert twisted his body. “God – shit. Shit!

And when the rest of the hive broke free, they ran.

Jane darted forward without a thought to where. She was unable to process direction. The wasps were stinging her legs, her arms, her neck, but she didn’t swat, didn’t even try to shake them off. Her arms were too busy pumping, getting her body away. She couldn’t hear the wasps buzz. She only felt the piercing burns that appeared – and lingered – on her skin. Jane ran as her body shouted for escape.

And, in the middle of running, Jane realized that the stings had stopped, and that they had stopped a while ago. Her sprint became a trot and her trot became a walk. Jane could feel every sting on her body individually. She counted. There were eight. And then she realized that Robert was gone. A flash of alarm seized her, but the blood surging in her veins wouldn’t let her panic. The forest was a quiet place. Her voice would carry.

“Rob!” Jane heard the name echo through the trees. She counted: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. “ROB!”

One, two, three, four, five, six –

“Jane!” The sound was faint, coming from behind her.

“I’m here!” she said, “Follow the sound of my voice!”

“No!”

No? Had she heard that right?

His voice reached her again, still distant: “You come to me!”

Jane called a hesitant “Okay!” and began to walk forward, excruciatingly aware that under each dead leaf a hive might be waiting.

When she saw him, his entire upper body was covered in red welts. There was pain in his eyes. Jane ran to him and reached out to touch his forearm. He flinched.

“You okay?” she asked.

“No.” The words came through a tightened jaw. “Since when do bees build hives under ground? What the fuck kind of plan is that?”

He looked at Jane as if he expected her to know. She didn’t.

“But check this out,” Robert said.

“What?”

He didn’t answer. Instead, he turned and began to walk away.

“Check what out?”

“Just come with me.”

Jane followed in silence, feeling the throb of her own stings. She wondered why Robert hadn’t asked her if she was okay. A soft sound began to fall into her ears, a dull, continuous crash. She looked to Robert. He creaked his neck and pointed forward.

“You were right,” he said. “All we needed to do was go west.”

Jane parted the trees to find herself staring directly into the setting sun, its rays painting the sky a majestic purple and its light glinting off the churning caps of the river. There was no bridge to be seen. Jane could almost feel how refreshingly cold the water would be on her skin.

“Ready to get your feet wet?”

Jane didn’t answer. She was too busy staring across the bank, where the land rose high and became covered in a blanket of dead, white trees.

***

She was acutely aware of how small she was. Her hands were maybe half their usual size, child’s hands. They were covered in grime, her nails chipped and a red gash wound down her left palm. It was raining. No, it was pouring. The cold drops were harsh on her skin. It occurred to her that her clothes must be soaked, and then it occurred to her that she wasn’t wearing any. She was naked. Her bare toes curled over a bed of pine needles. They were soft in the rain. She put one foot forward, and then another. Soon she was walking up the hill, having to fall to all fours whenever it became too steep. The rain only fell harder and faster. The wind heaved through her body and she heard the white crack of thunder. Her frame felt charged with an odd mix of exhilaration and sorrow and fear. She kept climbing.

The tree, tall as it was, looked to her like a beacon. She could not see its peak, which rose far above the surrounding pines. Directly facing her, in the center of its thick trunk was a great hollow cavity. The edges were jagged like teeth. She was so small, and the tree was so big. She wondered if she could fit inside, if the hole would provide shelter, if it might keep her warm. She walked through the hole as if it were a doorway and stayed there, pressing the tips of her fingers against the damp wood, watching the rain pour outside, unable to touch her. There was a deafening boom and a close flash of bright light. A searing heat shot through the tips of her fingers.

And Robert was shaking her shoulder. Jane batted his hands away and nearly jumped upright. The first thing she saw in the dark was his face, and it shocked her. Robert’s eyes were wide, his lips tight, his jaw clenched, a level of fear Jane had never seen from him before. The second thing she saw was Robert’s index finger, held up against his lips, a soundless “Shh!” So Jane listened. Something heavy was plodding outside their tent. Jane could hear the immense weight shift from left to right with each step. She realized what it was and an icicle slithered through her insides.

The bear sniffed deeply and pushed its nose far into the nylon. Jane could see its nostrils pressed into the fabric. It scratched its claws against the plastic surface, making three pale lines on the tent, almost like tally marks. Robert’s fingernails dug into her shoulder; Jane’s fingernails dug into his thigh. A great roar burst from outside the tent, not two feet away from the foot of their sleeping bags. A silence, a breath, then another roar, and a third. The bear went quiet and stalked away in the direction of the pines, leaving the very air inside the tent still – neither Jane nor Robert able to free a breath.

They collapsed into each other: Jane shaking in his arms, Robert muttering into her ear “Christ. Christ, Christ, Christ.” Their gasps, ragged and heaving, soon became exhausted and slow. Eventually they fell, flat on their backs, staring upwards at the tent frame.

“Listen to that,” said Robert, after a moment. “It’s just gone. It didn’t even try for the food.” Robert ran his hands through his hair. Jane could see the bee stings on his arms.

“Guess it wasn’t hungry,” Jane mumbled.

“This is insane. All of this is absolutely insane.” He turned his head towards her. “We shouldn’t be here.”

Jane rolled over to face him. “Rob – what?”

“None of this makes sense. I think Alice is trying to tell us to leave her alone.”

“You’re not serious.”

“I am.”

“Rob – ”

“Well, hear me out. Why didn’t the bear go for the food? What the hell did it want?”

“I don’t know!”

“It was a warning is what it was.”

“You don’t actually believe that, do you?”

“Well how do you explain it? And what about the bridge?”

“What about the bridge?”

“It was Gaffer’s Cross.”

Jane opened her mouth to speak, but Robert kept going. “It was Gaffer’s Cross, and you know it was Gaffer’s Cross. She tricked us, somehow. Alice is trying to make us turn back.”

Jane’s fists were clenched so tight she could feel the tendons in her palms. “Robert, listen to yourself,” she said. “You sound like a kid.”

Robert breathed. “I think we should listen to her,” he said.

Jane turned away from him with abrupt force. And for an achingly long moment, Robert was silent.

“You’re right,” he said. “I’m being ridiculous. I’m sorry.” Jane wasn’t sure if there had been a crack in his voice. He rolled away from her and laid his arms out in front of his sleeping bag to give them air. After a few minutes, Robert began to snore softly.

Jane lay awake for a long time. She wondered if Robert had always reached for absurd excuses to give up. Maybe she just hadn’t noticed. Looking for apartments with him would be a circus. They would find a perfect place right next to the park and Robert would claim it was haunted just because the floor creaked. Jane smiled into her sleeping bag because she figured that wasn’t any more outrageous than what Robert had just said. But then she wondered if that was true.

***

Jane woke tired and sore. Even now, she had never gotten the hang of sleeping on a pad. Robert’s sleeping bag was empty and unzipped. Jane reached out her hand to touch it – the cloth lining the inside was cold. Adrenaline crackled through her spine and she scrambled out of the tent to find Robert, sitting on a dead log, playing with his magnets.

“Rob!” She ran her hands through her hair, kneading her scalp. “God! I thought you had…”

He looked up, his eyes curious. “What?”

“…Nothing. Nothing. Never mind. It’s just that, for a moment, I thought – ”

Robert wasn’t looking at her any more. He was playing with his magnets. They went bzzzzt. Jane snatched them away.

“Can you please not do that when I’m talking to you?”

Robert turned his head to the magnets, then to her, and then held out his arm in a grudging surrender.

There were words brimming in Jane’s throat – scary, final words. She did not say them and they slid down her gullet like a cold drink.

She tossed him back the magnets. “Get your backpack,” she said. “We’re hiking.”

“Not today.”

“I’m sorry?”

He gestured to the sky with his magnets. Jane looked above her and saw thick clouds the color of slate. A gust hurled through the camp and shook the trees. Jane shivered. The weather report had said nothing but sun.

“We’re not going to walk to the top of a hill in the middle of a storm,” Robert said.

“No,” Jane said. “We won’t. We’ll get there before it hits.”

“Jane – ”

“Rob, if I don’t do this now, I never will. Get your pack.”

And he did.

Jane had never before walked in a forest after it had burned down. The ground was strewn with trees that reminded her of carcasses. A few were still standing, their bone-pale trunks twisted into featureless faces trying to scream. Jane did not let herself look at them for too long. She saw no saplings, and this, more than anything else, unsettled her. It was as if the ground itself had been poisoned, leaving the entire forest frozen in the moment of death.

Jane was moving fast, much faster than Robert. She would occasionally allow herself to pause so he could catch up, passing the time by snapping her fingers and kicking the occasional root. Robert would arrive, breathing heavy, and she would not say a word to him before turning around and walking faster.

As the hours passed, the clouds only grew darker. Jane, at first, refused to acknowledge the cold drops sprinkling her skin. But they became too consistent to ignore. A storm was coming, and it was moving faster than she was. Her ears prickled to the far away rumble of thunder. Not far enough.

In front of Jane, Alice Hill took a sharp turn upward. This part of the woods felt familiar. Jane could feel an unclean energy reverberating in her ribs, pushing her away. She would wait for Robert one last time, and they would ascend the last section together. They were here for a tradition, after all. At that moment the clouds opened, and rain fell like hail. A strong gust blew through the forest and Jane felt her the marrow quivering inside of her bones. The dead trees around her creaked in exhausted resistance. This was not a storm for old roots.

Robert rushed to meet her in an awkward, encumbered jog. His arms were above his head, futilely trying to shield himself from the shower. He was breathing heavily.

“We need to turn back!” he called, his voice straining to rise above the wind. “This hill is a lightning rod!”

“We’re not turning back.”

“It’s not safe!” Desperation pleaded in his eyes.

Jane’s jaw tightened. “We’re too close.”

“Look.” He grabbed her by the shoulders. “We’re not supposed to be here. Alice does not want visitors.” He pulled her face close to his. The wind whipped through his drenched hair. “Jane, we need to leave.”

“Well I don’t see anything stopping you,” she said, and slapped his hands away.

“Jane,” he said.

She took a step away from him.

“Jane!”

She turned her back to Robert without a word. He seized her arm and yanked her towards him. Jane felt it in her shoulder.

“Get off of me!” she cried, but her voice was drowned in a blast of impossible sound as the whole world, for a moment, went colorless. Jane felt Robert release her arm and looked ahead. Before her, an immense pine was groaning. With the speed of a giant it wobbled, and with a bone-splitting crack began to fall. Jane dove forward, just as it crashed behind her.

Her body was covered in mud and leaves. Her shirt was torn. As Jane stood up, she felt a pain in her right knee but chose to ignore it. The trunk of the pine was behind her. It was wider than she was tall, and she could not see beyond it. In the whipping gale, she heard a call from the other side of the tree. “Jane?”

She didn’t answer.

Jane?”

She knew that it would be simple to walk around the tree, but also knew that she couldn’t, that to her the pine might as well have been an impassable wall. The only way left was forward, no matter what would come.

JANE!” came the final cry from the other side. But she was gone.

The frame of Jane’s skull was bursting. Instinct, experience, intuition, all told her to run and flee. This was not her place. She was unwanted, and she knew it. But the dread of turning back dragged her forward. The rains slashed her skin and the winds froze her limbs. They could do nothing. A poison coursed throughout her body, but it could not stop her. She walked forward and dead pines fell behind her like fallen soldiers.

The Alice Tree was a giant. It towered over her, commanding her to stop solid. In the darkening light, Jane could just make out the great cavern of its trunk. Its white bark was now turned to an ancient gray, but its hollow mouth still yawned blackness. A flash of lighting – had she seen? – a hand, no, bones, reaching from within. Another flash – could it be her? – the fleshless fingers beckoned, saying, “Come.” She promised shelter. Jane walked forward, alone. The Alice Tree was again flushed white and – yes, she was sure – her bones reached from the hollow and held out a single finger in invitation. Jane approached Alice, loomed closer than anyone living had for a decade. She reached out her fingertips, and in the terrible union of light and rage, power and sound, bone lit flesh. The storm ceased, the clouds scattered, and Jane lay still, face down, an inch away.


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