The first letter arrived with the new year. In an unmarked, tattered envelope, typed on clean white paper, it read simply: “Come to the woods.” The second, two weeks later, added: “Full moon, 8:30.”
“Kids,” my father said, and tucked both letters as far into the trash can as he could get them.
We’d moved to the new neighborhood in December, just my dad and me in our old truck, packed with the paltry amount of worldly things we actually owned and all of our hopes and dreams for this new life.
“I’m a kid,” I told him.
“Sure,” he said. “But you have the common sense not to go running around in the dark in the middle of winter.”
He had a point, though it wasn’t common sense that kept me indoors and out of the night. It was fear. My shameful secret, that at fourteen and perfectly capable of knowing better, I was afraid of the dark. Dad didn’t need to know that.
“When is the full moon?” I asked.
“Three days from now,” he said. “Not that it matters.”
“It’s supposed to snow three days from now,” I said. “At least half a foot.”
“Common sense,” Dad said. “Foolishness, out in the dark in the snow.”
Our new neighborhood was surrounded by a thick circle of woods, which the realtor said meant that it would be nice and private, and which I found more claustrophobic and unsettling than nice. Our old neighborhood in the city had no woods. It did have traffic, and noise, and old Mrs. Devlin and her cats. I didn’t much miss Mrs. Devlin, but I did miss the cats. And the noise.
“You’ve done your homework?” Dad asked me, and pulled me out of my memories.
“Yes,” I answered. “And tomorrow’s reading, too.”
“Good girl,” he said. “I’ll get started on dinner. Why don’t you go and do something fun.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“You’ve earned it. All this unpacking. Go take a nap or something. Go call your friends.”
I didn’t really have any friends. Dad didn’t need to know that, either. He would worry. So I just said, “Okay,” and walked up the stairs to my room.
The new house wasn’t quite new. New to us, sure, but the wood-paneled walls and green bathroom tiles gave it away.
“It’s like the Brady Bunch,” I’d told Dad, when we’d first found the listing.
“That a bad thing?”
“I like it,” I’d said.
And I did. It felt homey, lived in, like it had a story.
“You’d love it, Mom,” I said to a small, framed photo on my bedside table.
My mom had died six months ago, and I still told her everything. We’d sold most of our stuff to pay for her treatments, even after insurance, something she told me I shouldn’t have to understand at this age. But you’re never the right age to lose a parent. I think she knew that, too. But Dad and I were okay. We were doing okay, in spite of everything. He’d even learned to cook. Mostly casseroles, but I wasn’t complaining. Neither of us particularly enjoyed time in the kitchen.
“We’ve been getting these weird letters,” I said to Mom. “What would you do?”
I could hear Dad banging around in the pots and pans, looking for his favorite baking dish.
“Yeah,” I told Mom. “Dad has one of those now, a favorite baking dish. Anyway, what would you do? Would you go to the woods?”
“I don’t really think it’s a good idea, either. But you know me.”
“You did always call me Curious Kelly.”
The next evening, two days before the full moon, we found another letter in the mailbox. “Don’t be afraid,” it read.
“Yeah, right,” Dad said as he handed it over to me. “Not scary at all, random letters from a stranger telling you to come to the woods.”
“Murder probably but not entirely guaranteed,” I said.
But my mind was made up, not that Dad needed to know that, either. I figured, this was a safe neighborhood, and we’d made sure of it before we bought the house. Safe and quiet, except the fox screams, which we’d been told were totally normal for this area. How very bad could it be, whatever it was we were meant to find in the woods? I talked to a dead woman on a regular basis, right? I already lived in “weird kid” territory.
And besides, I thought, fourteen is too old to be afraid of the dark. Way, way too old.
So, that was how I came to find myself, two days later, venturing into the deep, wild woods in the tawny glow of the evening, with snow on the way. I’d packed a backpack full of what I thought were essential supplies: a flashlight, a whistle, a book of matches, gloves, scarf, hat, extra coat, water, and most importantly, Mom. Well, her picture anyway. I found my way in easily enough, since the woods edged up to my own back yard.
How funny would that be, I thought, as I crunched over fallen leaves and balanced across downed limbs and vines. I could see the headline now: “Local Girl, New to Area, Disappears from Own Back Yard.” Best not to think too hard about that, I reminded myself. Bad enough to be out alone in the growing darkness.
And oh, God, the darkness.
There’d been plenty of light when I left the house, but out here, under the trees, it was like a canopy of gray-black, like the branches absorbed everything, like they left nothing for scared, pathetic teenage girls probably doing the wrong, stupid thing anyway.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. In and out, in and out. I focused just on me, on getting air into my lungs. I counted – five, four, three, two, one, one, two, three, four, five – and opened my eyes again. Bad idea.
I could swear I saw, well, I don’t know. And from my right side, I heard a scream. Just a fox, I was sure. Only a fox. But then, from my left side, I heard a sharp crack, a grunt, the sound of something scampering in the underbrush.
“Nope,” I said out loud. To Mom? Probably just to myself. “Nope, nope.”
And I turned, started to run, and promptly fell on my face.
“It’s like a scene from a horror movie,” I said.
The wind rustled through the empty tree limbs, a dry, sandy whisper.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay, now I know I hate the woods.”
A crow cawed, an owl screeched. I didn’t even know I knew what those sounded like.
I pushed myself upright, sat on the forest floor and pulled my knees to my chest. I tugged my backpack around and grabbed my flashlight. I clicked it on, checked the time on my watch. Only 7:45.
“I am such an idiot,” I added.
I could feel the dark, like a living, breathing, slouching, slogging monster, creeping up behind me, all around me. An angry dark. A lonely dark. A hungry dark.
I breathed in and out again, hoisted myself up. And I ran. As fast as you can run in the woods, anyway, I ran, all the way back to the house this time. I didn’t look back once. If this was a prank, some mean joke to haze the new kid, if someone really was in the woods waiting for me, or for Dad, or for whatever moron decided to actually go there in the middle of the night, I felt perfectly fine never, ever knowing the real truth. This mystery, as far as I, frightened, out of breath, and questioning every choice that had led me to this moment, was concerned, could remain a mystery forever.
Dad asked where I’d been, once I came through the door.
“Library,” I answered. I think that was the first, and last, time I ever lied to my father.
“Good thing you got home,” he said. “Starting to snow.”
It was, and I hadn’t even noticed.
The next morning, we awoke to a world awash in light, bright and twinkling. Snow covered the ground, the trees, the truck. Half a foot had become a foot and a half overnight.
“Bet you won’t have school today,” Dad said, and he was right.
We spent the day together, since he certainly couldn’t get to work, playing board games and watching bad daytime TV. We made a fire in the fireplace, our first ever, since our old place didn’t have a fireplace. We made lasagna for dinner, also our first ever. And for dessert, we shared a pint of ice cream on the couch. I’d say it was the happiest we’d been since Mom.
“This is nice,” I said.
“Love you, too, kiddo,” Dad answered.
At about 7:00, I checked the mail. We’d forgotten earlier in the day, and honestly, we thought it wouldn’t even run. And maybe it hadn’t, because the only thing in the mailbox was a tattered envelope. I opened it, outside, where Dad couldn’t see. It said: “The woods are waiting.”
I tore both the envelope and letter into pieces, small as I could rip them, stuffed the pieces into my coat pocket, and went back inside.
Thank you for reading! This is the first of twelve stories I’ll write for my 2023 Short Story Challenge. The theme this year is: Wild.
I hope you join me and write some stories of your own this year! It’s fun, and I hope this will be a happy year full of good stories. But just reading is fine, too, and I’m glad you’re here.
The next story will be posted at the end of February.