“Alex! Don’t go in there!” Luke. He sounded panicked.
I had only a second to wonder why before I was enveloped by trees with leaves like tiny hands.
When I looked back, I couldn’t see past the leaves, trunks, and darkness. It was as if the forest had grown up around me the second I took that first step. My eyes tried to focus on the soft glow in the distance. Alex. I’m waiting for you.
Just to be sure I didn’t have brain damage from the car crash I carefully checked my head, face, and neck with my fingers for bumps or cuts. Nothing, except pieces of leaves and shards of glass. I wasn’t hallucinating a sound or smell that twisted like a serpent through the underbrush. Now that I was standing still, it felt like an outside force was tugging me deeper into the woods. I briefly thought: I should find my friends. Only I couldn’t remember which way I’d come from.
Tonight started off so great. We’d won our fourth straight basketball game. Being seniors, we drove instead of taking the team bus. The whole ride up had been full of jokes and farts and fart jokes. The team went out for dinner after the game -- paid for by Coach -- and there was more laughter. Why did my best friend have to die? Why wasn’t he wearing his seatbelt? How many times had we ragged on him that belts weren’t only made for old folks? Now he was dead, smashed into a thousand pieces, and I was alive wishing our places had been switched.
The question now was: Why hadn’t anyone survived to tell the authorities that their friends or family were dead in the woods? Maybe everyone’s injuries had been mortal, and they died somewhere out here in the dark trying to find help. I silently thanked my seatbelt for keeping my own injuries to a minimum. Basketball had allowed me to keep in shape. All the running Coach made us do every practice would definitely help me walk as far as I needed to find help.
Behind my closed eyelids I replayed the memory of Mason’s last seconds before the crash. It was true there hadn’t been anything in front of the car, only something in it. Something that forced us off the road, killing my best friend in the process. Trent looked like he didn’t have any serious injuries, and he still went into the woods without a word to us. I couldn’t leave him alone to deal with whatever might be taunting us.
“Trent?” I shouted into the blackness. “Luke? Connor? Anybody?”
The echo of my voice was the only response. The adrenaline wore off and left me shaking. Everything inside me told me to curl into a ball and sleep until I couldn’t dream. Then sleep some more. Seeing your friend mutilated by trees and glass will do that. In place of swift adrenaline there seeped in anger and a little fear. Steeling myself for whatever I was about to face, I broke off a tree limb, snapping it in pieces until I had something that resembled a spear. If a second-grader were in charge of weaponry, that is.
There were tiny pieces of glass embedded in my shirt and jeans that glinted in the light ahead. It reminded me of an action movie I saw where the guy wrapped his hands with cord, then dipped them in oil or something, and then rolled them in chunks of glass to make them more lethal. Would tree sap and the tatters of my shirt work? Alex. Don’t keep me waiting.
The soothing tone made me forget about glass and destruction. I might have dropped the stick too because the next thing I knew, I was standing in front of a small pond. It glowed like a firefly on a humid summer evening, although it wasn’t warm at all. The air felt like I’d dumped a bucket of ice water on my head. It crept past my clothes and into my very bones. My teeth began to chatter. The smell was so thick here that if it had hands, I’d swear it was holding me tightly to that spot. Still, it remained light and refreshing and familiar. Almost safe.
In the faint light of the pond, I noticed blood and dirt caked onto my hands. It wasn’t that Mason’s blood disgusted me, exactly, it was more that it kept reminding me how he’d died. I rubbed them together as best as I could then wiped them on my jeans. The evidence was still there, dark smears across my skin. My fingers were frozen, and I was about to stick them in the pond. Realizing exactly how cold the water could be when the air was barely above freezing stopped me. Instead, I clenched them into fists and put them under my armpits. The core of my body trembled in response.
That’s when the voice spoke so close to me, I jumped. Alex. Cherished. Nothing will hurt you if you stay with me. If this voice could produce heat, I’d definitely consider it. You won’t need warmth if you stay. I’ll protect you. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw glowing mist rise from the pond in a delicate wisp like cotton candy in the wind. As it rose, the smell changed from tangy to something richer. Meatier. The light faded from the water and began to move into a more defined space like a glass being filled with milk.
The image become solid and formed a body before my eyes. It was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, and I spent a lot of time downloading images from the Vicky’s Secret catalogue. Though her ears weren’t pointed, she could’ve easily passed as one of the elves in the Lord of the Rings. The woods behind her and the pond beneath her disappeared, as all my attention was directed at her. She looked timeless in flowing robes and long tresses, although she remained the color of chalk and starlight.
“Alex,” she said in the sweetest sing-song voice, “I’m so pleased you came at last.”
“How do you know my name?”
She smiled. It wasn’t quite right. Her lips stretched too far, trying too hard to be perfect. Like a magazine cover that had been airbrushed. “You told me.”
I’d remember telling someone like her my name because it would’ve been followed with my cell phone number. “Where’s Trent?”
“I called you, not him,” she whispered, cocking her head to the side, her large eyes staring into me.
At least that meant Trent, Luke, and Connor were alive wandering in the dark somewhere. I hoped they’d been able to find each other. And that they’d come looking for me. But it didn’t explain why I had heard Mason arguing with someone and pulling the steering wheel in the opposite direction. This chick was lying. She called Mason first and he’d refused her, so I guess that made me a sloppy second. The fresh smell of wet pine and grass from a recent rain cleared my head of her essence.
Her porcelain face twisted into a nightmare. That smooth flesh looked ripped from her skull. Her dress was torn and tattered. I could make out leaves and twigs in her tangled hair. Where once she had been silvery light, she was replaced with shades of grey and darkness.
I did the one thing that made sense to do: I ran.
Up next: Part 3 by Natalie. Come back next Tuesday to read what happens next!
Welcome to Tangled Fiction, where three YA writers collaborate to complete one story!
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday one TF writer will post a piece of the same story. Each of us will be responsible for one beginning, middle, and end in a single month. The fourth week will be full of surprises, we're sure, and we'll share them with you when we know what they are.