A gnarled root snagged her toes, sent her down into the mud. Ava caught herself with both hands, silt oozing up between her fingers like dough gone chilly and foul with mosquito-laced brine. The ocean was close—she could make it. Ava lunged upright, stripping leg skin on a knob of bark, and ran.
All around her trees pressed in, greedy schoolboys whose long and spindled fingers caught at her arms, her cheeks; she could hear them whisper as she lurched around blackberry thickets and shoved her way between fat bows of pine. Above her head the forest crept across the sky, choked out the sun.
Ava’s heart was all she could hear: the savage pounding of her blood as she forced her legs to churn, whipped the giant northwest ferns out of her face. Her own damned pulse blocked out the wet and rhythmic slaps of feet on undergrowth—her feet, and--
No. The ocean. She could smell it, taste the salt against her tongue with each sobbing breath; she could feel the frantic smash of waves even if she couldn’t hear, but no, she could, she could hear—there! A crash, another--
Behind her the forest thrashed and boiled, tree limbs snapping in the wake of something massive. Ava stepped hard on a jagged spear of rock or oak that pierced her sock and stuck inside the pad of her right foot; she couldn’t stop the scream but caught herself against a sapling before she hit the rotting leaves again. For one awful, breathless moment Ava felt her brain go still and shrieking voiceless like the painting, frozen in the no-man’s-land of Get it out! and Run!
Then she bent and yanked a granite spur the length of her thumb from the ball of her foot. Ava dropped the spur and hurtled forwards, her stomach scrambling for her throat. If she could make the bluff—if she could only clear the trees—get out, get out--
It came on her like thunder, like trains, like any other stupid metaphor for something too big and too hungry and not at all like any useless human words.
The bear exploded from the left, a flood of fur and teeth and fetid, fish-scaled breath. One moment she was on her feet, racing for the sound of waves and the steep cliff dotted with tiny caves and ledges where a desperate girl might hide, and the next Ava was not so much a girl as a chunk of termite-eaten wood, hurled into the ground so hard her mouth gushed blood where her inner cheek had been.
She had time to look up, to see it blocking out the canopy in a smear of brown and red. The grizzly’s teeth came down.
That night, rain. First a drizzle and then, briefly, a downpour. Enough to work beneath the fragile roots of two young birches on the bluff and send them sloughing down into the water. With the loamy slope came a torn and broken thing in denim and plaid, which caught on a shallow outcrop. Hours later it slipped into the sea.
There is a piece of forest outside my grandfather’s house where things get lost.
Sneakers. Keys. The less ornery cat.
Grandfather calls it the sideways patch: “Keep to the compass, Madeline.” Cough, hack. His throat’s a coal mine; dust comes out his nostrils when he speaks.
My father gone and my mother how she is, I spent every summer and most school evenings in those woods. I ran barefoot over holly leaves until my soles were tough as sharkskin and decomposing vegetation painted me like sweat, but I knew the perimeter. All was well.
Then I turned fifteen and lost three hair ties, my school planner, and a girl whose skin I wanted to lick.
It was my own fault. I told her to meet me in the tree house halfway to the patch: not so much a box as a platform, with a railing and an old air mattress I’d rescued from Grandfather’s truck. All night I shivered on that mattress while fireflies wooed the oak and the blackness between them congealed. Once something crashed in the woods, bumbling towards my little raft in the dark. I thought it was this girl and pulled my shirt back on despite earlier convictions, but my flashlight killed the noise.
I called for her. A barn owl answered, far too close. Mosquitoes tightened their whining net. In the morning I woke alone with a crick in my neck and bug bites in all the places I’d wanted her to touch. Some paces deeper in the wood, her sweater hung. A slash of red corrupting all that green.
My grandfather greeted me on the porch with half a grapefruit sprinkled with brown sugar and we waited together on the steps until the sheriff came. It was a big thing for a while after that. Our little Bermuda Triangle.
Of course the adults didn’t believe me when I said she’d fallen in. They tried to claim she ran off to The City (with a side-eye my way) but rumor in a small town is like aggressive gangrene. Every time they cut a bit off, somewhere else began to stink.
Pretty soon other kids wanted to know more. Nasty whispers about my parents kept them off me for years but now they cozied up to me at baseball games or church, sliding into my air with their gossip and acne. The girl who’d vanished wasn’t one of those golden children, if you’re wondering. Just a girl with dark hair and a light touch on the French horn. But her disappearance opened up a scab for them, a tiny crease of scar tissue in the elbow of my apathetic cohort.
Dark magic is still magic.
“Have you… seen anything?” someone finally asked me over fish and chips one Saturday. Alyssa was in band and also my gym class, where she wore her brother’s old dog tags even to shower. I had seen her once, in the home that kept my mother, walking quickly with her head down. She and the girl who'd disappeared? I saw them too.
“Only heard it.” I put a fry on my tongue and let the salt dissolve. “Things going bump in the night.”
“They should send someone out there. Or just burn it down.”
“The whole forest?”
“You mean there’s only one spot.” Alyssa pushed her hair (mink-brown) over her ears and braced her elbows on the table, leaning into my space. “You know where she disappeared.”
“I know where I think she disappeared.”
We went that night.
Alyssa met me at the treeline, her ponytail so high and tight her scalp could’ve run for help. She had a taser. We both carried flashlights, hers yellow, mine white. The trees breathed in time to the gentle creak of Grandfather’s porch swing, summer welling up in a flood of crickets.
The forest yawned for us.
I pressed into the trees. Alyssa stuck to my elbow at first, but soon the hardwoods gathered too closely for anything but single file. Fresh, earthy smells brushed up against us with the branches; if I ignored the sharp breaths behind me and the oozing weight of darkness I could almost enjoy myself. Sticks snapped. Alyssa grabbed my arm.
“It’s not a monster.” I held a pine bough up so we could pass, hunched, little old women burrowing deeper in the wood. “Just stay by me and everything will be okay.”
“Why did we do this at night?”
“Because we need to.” I speared a thicket with light, carving our path forward. “You never find places like this in broad daylight. If you want to know, you need to trust me.” I stopped. Turned to her. In her own mellow light Alyssa’s face was a soft, pale grub. Even her eyes seemed vestigial. “Do you want to know?”
“I have to.” She fumbled for her dog tags.
Oh. There it was, even clearer than I'd feared.
She hadn’t put her shirt back on.
“Let’s keep going,” Alyssa said, and waited for me to lead.
Soon we were past the treehouse. The cops had trampled some of this part of the forest, looking for more than one lonely sweater; broken branches scraped my arms and mud seeped between the laces of my shoes. Behind me Alyssa sounded less like a girl and more like a dog, panting as she pushed aside spiky fingers of holly.
“Wait,” she called. Her yellow light swooped around me, then guttered out with a wet thunk. “Maddy, wait! I dropped my light!”
I slipped around a fat oak trunk and switched off my own flashlight. Blood pounded in every fragile crook of veins as I tried to breathe so shallow and light the forest sounds would swallow me. This far in the woods the canopy spread out above us like a second sky, too thick for any moonbeams to force their way inside. My eyes adjusted slowly. But faster than hers.
Alyssa was on the ground now, judging by the slapping sounds of knees and palms on damp dead leaves. Her own breath came higher, filled with little squeaks as she searched for her light.
But we were on the edge. Close enough for it to snatch a small thing, once dropped. Something soulless, just plastic and metal. Never alive.
It took less time than I’d expected for Alyssa to realize her flashlight and I were both gone. I welded myself to the tree, digging my nails into the bark so pain would keep me still. Alyssa managed to stand. Her breath got louder, a little curse here and there as she fumbled nearer to me without knowing.
“Madeline?” she asked. Her voice was quiet, a tiny fearful animal inside her mouth. I could imagine it too well: alone in the dark, wet earth lapping at my ankles, the hungry press of trees and there—a darker shadow—moving? Borrowed panic trapped me in her skin, sutured tight with preemptive guilt.
Alyssa stepped forward. My eyes adjusted quickly, now trained on her outstretched arms as she glanced off a tree and stumbled, then righted herself and took another step.
No. Don't be this person.
I darted round the trunk and reached for her, crying out--
She didn’t fall. It doesn’t work like that. Alyssa was a dark shape against a darker army of trunks, arms stretched to either side, and then she wasn’t.
Once the woods were quiet of everything save my own ragged breath, I turned my flashlight on and scanned the line between me and the patch. No sign of Alyssa, not even her perfect scrunchie.
But there, just beyond the place where my eyes couldn’t seem to focus, lay a dark-haired girl in a black shirt and blue jeans.
First they called it a miracle. A balm for the summer’s second tragedy. It didn’t take long for the news to sour, though. For her parents to go quiet, their house to go dark.
They took her up north to a private hospital, last I heard. She hasn’t spoken yet. Apparently they never do.
The fall of my fifteenth year I spent chopping wood from the outskirts of the forest, stacking it to dry, sitting with my grandfather beside the wood stove when the air chilled. Penance.
“We don’t make trades, Madeline,” he said to me finally. The eve of winter. Clouds of bitter smoke billowed from his lips. “Can’t walk off the map and come back whole.”
That weekend we visited my mother for the first time in months. I confessed, told her everything. It didn’t matter.
She won’t tell.
They filled a room with balloons the day Elanore died. The trains were running again, or at least one was; Sadie’s ticket came hand-delivered in a crimson envelope so Joy drowned them all in helium and silver plastic.
That morning, when the sun was just a cracked egg on the horizon, the new rail man sat on the light tower platform. He still had more than half the bottle he’d accepted from the general’s man, but this fine whiskey was lagging on the job. Even if he couldn’t see that hole in Bill’s head anymore, he could damn well smell the gun smoke.
Oh. Right. Cigarette. He flicked the ashes down on black metal. Beside the tracks, four crows hopped around a deer gone mostly to bone. Usually the night crew took care of bodies like this so close to the station but they weren’t back on shift yet.
The new rail man poured whiskey onto the deer’s yellow smile. All four crows puffed up like tarred meringues, hopped back but didn’t fly away. One skidded on the rail where his brave and stupid predecessor had smashed the general’s “gift” of olive oil.
The new rail man laughed to himself and the crows and his contraband smokes.
He could respect things that wouldn’t leave when they ought.
When Joy came back with thirteen balloons she said, “I’ll keep them in our room once you’re gone. We can see how long they stay up.”
“Will you tell me?” Sadie wrapped plastic strings around both wrists and let her slender arms float skyward. “When they fall.”
“If they still take letters through.”
“They’ll take yours.” Sadie unwound the balloons. They drifted up until they hit the ceiling beneath Elanore’s bedroom. She and Joy flinched. “I’ll make him write a decree. The general isn’t concerned with you.”
“Why should he be?” Joy went to the stairs and walked up, one hand white-knuckled on the railing. “He got what he wants.”
In the upstairs room, everything smelled of chamomile tea. They’d tried compresses for the sickness, and later for comfort. Sadie knelt by the mattress. Elanore rolled her head around, her face a child’s scrawl, all jagged lines.
“I have to.”
“Don’t let her, Joy.”
“She’s going to get you medicine.” Joy released a balloon from behind her back, big and bright and, with its fellows, worth a canister of salt. “Look how pretty.”
“Expensive. Take the rest of my cards.” Elanore waved her thin fingers to the ration tickets on her bedside table. “When Sadie goes they’ll erase me. You know that. But I’ll be ready for them.”
Joy put her hand on Sadie’s shoulder, thumb smooth and warm on Sadie’s neck. “She’ll come back. He’ll let her come back for us.”
That night the train carried Sadie out. She kept her eyes on the window while the general’s soldiers whispered about the cut of her dress. Her home, Joy, Elanore, all of it peeled away. Some poor creature had nearly made it past the light tower. A blur of bones, now, and broken glass.
At the house they said she didn’t own Joy sat in her room and sucked in helium while her mother slept with one eye open, waiting, and then didn’t anymore.
Two octaves up Joy’s voice sounded more like Sadie’s. “I’ll come back for you.”
Nothing from the balloons. At the light tower, the crows moved on.
It wasn't going well.
They just weren't getting the kind of volunteer force necessary to really put together a usable sample. Leonard was arguing for advertising in the tertiary townships that just barely edged onto university land. He'd wanted to spread out from day one, but LePonte just could not understand where he thought he was getting the funds.
No number cruncher in the world would be able to pull that out of their tiny starting grant, but somehow Leonard was convinced that if they just set up outreach clinics in Maryland and - god forbid - West Virginia, the work would be saved. Which was probably true, really, but with just the two of them it was hardly even feasible for one clinic to take subjects.
More subjects, more data, more proof. That was the mantra.
Or, as it stood, few subjects. Some data.
'Maybe we should try New York again,' Leonard said. His cowlick was at full attention. Beneath it, his pinched face had gone sallow weeks ago.
'Why? What's the point? We have nothing.' LePonte was tired, it made him snappish.
'But the center at NYU said -'
'It doesn't matter.'
Silence filled up by the dripdripdrip on tin. Not an aggressive rain, but one with no sense of purpose. Outside, the ground would be just damp enough to stain their leather shoes.
'We don't have to set up clinics,' Leonard suggested. 'We could just travel in the area. Advertise on our own.'
'We're not minstrels, Kilmer,' LePonte remarked with a pinch at the bridge of his nose. 'Besides. We need to bring them here. It's no good if they're not here. No readings, no evidence, no new review at NYU.' For a second he thought Kilmer might smile at the rhyme, and he thought that if that happened, he'd probably have to punch his teeth in.
'What about Bonnie Tedesco?' Leonard said instead. 'She's promising. Let's just focus on that.'
'Bonnie Tedesco is going home to her mommy in twenty-three hours,' LePonte reminded him. 'We're not going to last much longer without results.'
'We have more time.'
'We don't,' LePonte broke out, and brought a hand down on the tabletop with a smack. 'We are all out. Leo, this is it.'
Everything was eggshell in the study. The carpet, the walls. It was supposed to be cleansing, to suggest space. It made LePonte feel as though he were sitting in a padded room banging his head against air. The space it suggested was smothering.
Leonard folded his arms. His bug-face contracted even tighter beneath his youthful swipe of hair, and there was quiet.
The typical dose of clozapine - their brand, anyway - was just enough to produce a mild sedative effect. Long-term use could induce tremors and low white blood cell counts, which had, in some patients, caused immune disorders and death; the drug had been recalled in the late '70s. The doctored dose Kilmer and LePonte were using was a mixture of a few more modern atypicals, designed to act as an antipsychotic that would (or could, they hoped) bring on a more productive seizure.
This was not exactly what they were disclosing to their small batch of study subjects.
Bonnie Tedesco was thirteen. She had a retainer, and had carefully placed a yellow and red plaid backpack below her bed on the first evening. Inside, they had discovered over the course of the tests, she kept a teddy bear (never to be seen save on camera), a notebook, and an expensive pack of drawing pencils.
Bonnie's mother was a nonentity. From the medical records Kilmer and LePonte had requested before accepting her as a trial subject, they knew that she'd gotten pregnant when she was seventeen. It was unclear as to whether she'd since died or - as Leonard had put it - done a runner. Her father worked in a veterinary clinic, though not as a doctor. It put him in an awkward financial position, which he'd taken several uncomfortable moments to explain to them when he brought his daughter to the clinic.
LePonte had not admitted the pang of guilt he'd felt after that. He'd looked at Leonard, and when Leonard had not looked back, he'd understood that guilt was not something the two of them would discuss.
They gave the girl a double dosage at 11pm and waited. Ostensibly, the drug was supposed to positively affect her night terrors, to soothe her mind and cull away whatever it was that kept her up at night. She was also being given supplements to keep her white blood cells from depleting to a dangerous level. That was the surface of the study.
The bedroom was dark. It was kept that way, to help the patients sleep. LePonte sat in a wicker chair he'd brought with him from his small apartment, a notebook on his lap, and watched. She was out, her breathing steady, the IV drip in her left arm an eery transparent glimmer against her skin. She snored slightly. It was oddly comforting, that gentle huff and release. LePonte knew that Kilmer was opposite the one-way glass to his right, and that their every move would be recorded on the two cameras mounted in respective corners of the room... but there was a stillness to it all that had the power to unnerve. Given enough time in a dark room watching someone else sleep, every breath becomes surreal.
Exactly thirty-two minutes after administering the dose, the stillness changed. Not a sound but a movement of air, a vibration that skittered over LePonte's clean-shaven cheek like a thousand imagined insects. His eyes jumped from his lap to the bed, marking each wrinkle in the sheet. It took a moment to find the source of the shift, and when he did, LePonte felt his skin begin to crawl.
It was nothing they hadn't seen before. A common side effect of most antipsychotics: tremors. Her hand, the one with the IV in it, was shaking. Not profoundly, but rather just enough to send the line into a series of soft undulations that rolled across the room in minute, near-indiscernible waves. It was a subtle thing, but LePonte hated it. The whole situation made him paranoid, but there was something grotesque about that silent jerking of the fingers; it looked unnatural and somehow threatening. The death rattle of a puppeteer unwilling to give up his toy.
He glanced towards the mirror on the wall above the bed, and waved a hand. Two raps back. Kilmer was watching, too.
LePonte bent to his notebook, squinting, and wrote down the time and the symptom. He was still peering at the yellow legal paper when Bonnie Tedesco started screaming.
'Shit!' LePonte remarked, less loudly than expected, and dropped the pad. 'Leonard, get in here!'
'I have to monitor - '
'Shut the fuck up and get in here,' LePonte barked. The shock was over now, and he was trying to get his belt out of the goddamn loops because she was thrashing and her mouth was opening and closing, her tongue was in there somewhere but it might not be in a few seconds. Leonard burst in.
'Fuck,' he said, and lunged onto the bed. 'Get her head!'
LePonte got the belt out and shoved it between Bonnie's jaws. The stuffy room was filled with new sounds, guttural punching cries, muffled by the belt but still so wet and loud they seemed to mirror LePonte's pounding heart. She was seizing hard, the IV swinging wildly. He managed to grab the tower before it toppled and ripped the needle right out of her vein, putting all of his weight on the girl's shoulders.
'Her legs,' he grunted; Leonard promptly sat on Bonnie's thighs.
'Jesus,' Leonard said, and that was when the equipment on the other side of the mirror started to explode.
'Oh, what the fuck,' LePonte moaned, because Bonnie was still trying to tear herself up from the inside.
'Straps,' Leonard reminded him. There was a series of quick popping noises from the other room: the lights? Something else cracked and splintered onto the floor, it sounded plastic. LePonte reached down, pinning her with half his torso, and got ahold of one of the leather straps that dangled from the borrowed hospital bed. By the time he'd gotten it up and put it along the line of her shoulders, it was all over.
They secured her anyway. LePonte left the belt in her mouth. It seemed safer that way.
The monitoring room was a wreck. The halogen lights that lined the ceiling were all shattered, bits of glass littering the floor and sticking in the grout. The TV was on the floor as well. It was still smoldering.
'What the fuck,' LePonte said again. Leonard's face was shining.
'Johnny,' he said. 'Johnny, we did it.' He took LePonte's hands and brought them to his face and kissed them. It was a moment of such rare intimacy that LePonte would remember it years later, when other things were shattered than glass.
And when they went back into the study bedroom and realized that Bonnie Tedesco was dead, that moment would stay too.
They closed up the clinic. It was impossible to do anything else. The grant went with it. So did their positions at Johns Hopkins. Leonard didn't seem to mind as much, but LePonte felt something leave him when he left the school.
They weren't living together when he got the call. For a few days immediately after the incident, LePonte had considered cutting off all contact with Leonard Kilmer. It felt good, thinking that. But it also felt cheap. Like bargaining, except so petty an act of contrition that it would almost make everything worse. And, in the end, there was the fact that Kilmer had been right.
They had done it.
It wouldn't get out. Their findings would never appear in weekly journals or be defended before the Board. But they knew.
And, as LePonte learned several weeks after his dismissal from the PhD program at Johns Hopkins, so did someone else.