Abigail and Del stomped on old leaves for fun.
They marched through the Light Forest each autumn and laughed as each leaf crunched beneath their feet into fragments.
One day in October, the sky grew dark as they walked. The trilling birds hushed. Smoke and dust clung in the air.
But Abigail didn’t notice any of these things until she’d slipped through the veil into the Dark Forest. She didn’t notice until the dense trees had swallowed her whole.
She targeted a large brownish leaf and leapt toward it. As her feet landed, that familiar crunching noise she and Del loved so much didn’t resound.
She whipped around to find the forest had closed in about her. The tree bark was blue-black, the air thick and stagnant. Sunlight no longer flickered through the trees. And most importantly, Del was gone.
“Del?” she said.
She took a cautious step forward, then another. Whatever path she’d been on was no longer visible in the dense overgrowth. Roots entangled the entire forest floor. Had they taken a wrong turn? Did they venture farther than before? She wasn’t sure. All she knew for certain was that she was alone.
“Del?” she said again. She took another step and the sound of a twig breaking cut the otherwise silent air.
The breath rushed out of her lungs. Something snapped and cinched around her ankle. The world pivoted on its axis. Her hair rose from her scalp. She blinked at the upside-down trees, her body dangling in midair at least twenty feet off the ground.
And in front of her were a pair of white eyes nestled within a clump of leaves.
“How dare you disturb my forest!” a voice boomed.
She squinted at it and quickly realized the leaves themselves were talking. Rather, they had taken on the shape of a face within the tree and moved in unison to accommodate words.
Abigail froze. She didn’t know what to say, and the sensation of all her blood rushing to her head was making her dizzy. She looked at her feet and could see a vine snaked around her ankles.
“You’ve come into my forest uninvited. What is my name? Answer before I kill you.” The mouth in the leaves moved smoothly.
“I—I,” she stammered, her voice impossibly small. “I don’t know.”
“That is the wrong answer.”
“No please! I was just walking. Jumping on leaves. I got lost. I’ll go back home and leave you alone.”
“You don’t get it. Leaving me alone won’t fix anything. You don’t know my name.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, the phrase tasting sour, “But I was only playing a game with my friend. He’s back out in the Light Forest waiting for me. Just put me down and I’ll leave you alone.”
The face in the leaves of the tree made a little huffing sound. It blew hot mud breath into her face. “A game. It’s so like your kind to revel in the ruining of the dead. You tromp on the leaves and don’t know their names. You show no respect for the ancestors.”
The leafy face tilted upward and shook, letting out a thunderous bellow that sent vibrations through the earth and cast twigs down on top of her. Two branches cracked and creaked until they rested on either side of her. Smaller branches and twigs reached out like fingers and grasped onto her middle.
“How about I squeeze you until you make a crunching sound?” it asked her, the leaves forming a heinous smile. “How would you like if I flung you to the ground once I was done and stomped on your dead brittle bones?”
“Please, I’ll do whatever you want, I’m so sorry,” she said, tears threatening to spill back up her forehead. “Please, tell me your name and I’ll never forget it—”
“Hush,” the tree beast said, releasing its grip on her slightly. “Begging will do you no good.”
“Who are you?” Abigail asked. At any moment, the tree would crush her. For now, all she could do was hope to lure the beast into conversation.
“I don’t know why I’m surprised you don’t remember me. No one does,” the leaves said, the voice taking on a much more feminine tone. “But I suppose I could tell you my story before I kill you. At least then someone would know of all I’ve done in the name of the forest.”
“Would you mind tilting me right side up?” Abigail asked, as politely as she could.
“What? Oh, yes. I suppose so. But I won’t loosen this vine. I am wary of clever little girls,” it said before righting her and placing a branch with a tuft of leaves beneath her. Abigail took a deep breath and tried to steady her vision from being held upside down for so long.