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.