THERE’S A FOREST behind my house.
It’s a state forest, known for its unusual species of plant life and fauna. In fact, the local university used it as an outdoor classroom until the students started disappearing.
After an entire class disappeared, they stopped using it as an outdoor classroom.
A lot of people have gone into that forest and disappeared. So many that there’s a sheet at the front gate requiring you to fill out next of kin information if you don’t exit within twelve hours.
Overnight stays are not allowed.
Bodies are rarely found. The few that have been found have inexplicable changes. For example, the body of an old man was found not far from the gate. Although he looked to be at least 80, according to his fingerprints and DNA, he was an 8 year old cub scout. There was also the body of a man whose DNA and fingerprints matched that of a missing teenage girl.
There’s more, too many to list.
A few years before we moved here, the state tried to sell it to some developers. Rumor has it that a bulldozer was found in the tree tops. That was strange enough, but a further investigation revealed that it had been taken apart and put back together around the trees. If you look on Reddit, you might find a picture of the branches growing through the engine.
The sale fell apart. The park remains a park.
I moved here with my husband, all newlywedded and excited to be living a grown up life. My husband had inherited the house from a long lost uncle who had recently been declared dead.
“It’s a free house, Jane!” my husband exclaimed. “There’s no mortgage, and the taxes are, like, $300 a year or something. Think of the money we’ll save.”
I did think about it. I thought about it a lot. On one hand, it was a lot of money to save. On the other hand, it was creepy as fuck. “I don’t know, Eric.” I ran a finger across the dusty countertop and grimaced. “I have a bad feeling.”
“You don’t believe that crap, do you?” He made a face at me. “All that spooky shit? You know it’s all bullshit, right?”
I used to hate it when he made fun of me. I would get all pouty. “If it’s not bullshit, where’s your uncle?”
My husband shrugged. “He died.”
“He was declared dead,” I corrected. “He disappeared. People disappear around here.”
“Janie. If you’re scared, I’ll buy you a dog.” He cupped my face and kissed my nose. “It’ll be fine. I swear.”
At first, he was right. It was all good, except for the dogs. Every one of them ran away within the first day of owning them. After the fifth, we gave up.
I didn’t need a dog, anyway. While my husband was at work, I’d paint or take photographs of the forest from a distance. Summer was peaceful.
Then came the fall.
Eric started coming home later. I asked why, but he’d only get angry. “Work, Jane. You know? What you don’t do.” He’d storm upstairs to the attic and spend the rest of the night there.
I stopped asking.
One day, before he left for work, he stopped at the front door and glanced at me. “Jane… ”
“I… I… I feel like I’m… ” He shook his head and left. That night, he didn’t come home. I called his office, his parents, the police, the local hospitals… nothing. He was gone.
After a week, the sheriff came by. He was a kind man with sad eyes. “Jane, I am so sorry. Even people who travel by the forest, sometimes… it’s just not safe.” He squeezed my hand. “Maybe you should think about moving.”
Eric was the love of my life. We’d met in elementary school, dated in high school, romanced in college, and now… now… without him, my life was no life. “I’ll wait,” I replied. “He’ll come home.”
That night, in the deep bitter cold of a dark December, memories of stories my grandmother once told me years ago danced through my mind. Of salt, and fire, and the strength of iron.
I marched out to the back yard, made a circle of salt, and stood in it. “I want my husband! You give me my husband, or I’ll burn you down.” I took a bottle of alcohol I had previously prepared, lit it, and threw it at the trees.
There was a fireball, but no explosion. The flames quickly went out.
“What are you doing, Jane?”
I turned; behind me was Eric. I nearly stepped outside the circle, had I not seen his silver eyes. “You’re not Eric.”
“I did not say I was.” The thing wearing my husband’s skin formed a smile. “You love him. That’s so… tasty.” The smile turned to a snarl revealing rows of sharp, pointy teeth. “Come out of the circle, Jane. I’ll take you to him.”
I lit another bottle and threw it at him.
“You think this circle will keep you safe?” The Eric thing now stood behind me. “You can’t stay there forever.”
“I’m not planning on it.” I threw another bottle.
“Come with me,” it murmured and held out a hand. “You’ll be together.”
“Okay.” I took its hand.
A look of triumph crossed its face as it tried to pull me out. “What? What is… ” Triumph morphed to pain. Wispy smoke began to rise. The creature gaped at me. “What have you done?”
“Iron gloves,” I replied.
It screamed and tried to pull itself free, but I would not let go. “Bring him back.” The night grew darker. It began to snow. “Bring him back.” The snow turned to a blizzard. I held on. “Bring him back.”
I held on, second by second. I had one chance. I could not let go.
“Hi.” A cute boy with a natural afro coming up to me. “You’re new.”
I nodded. Everything was new. This world was like none I’d ever known.
“I can show you around.” His eyes were deep brown, friendly and curious. “I’m Eric.”
“I’m… Jane.” I’d almost forgotten the name. “Jane.”
The pink of dawn shimmered from the east, chasing the night away. The storm let up. I no longer held a hand; instead, I held a dead tree branch. I tossed it aside.
“Jane?” The voice was weak. “Jane… I’m lost.” Eric wandered out of the forest, still in his suit, his tie askew. “Janie?”
As much as I wanted to run to him, I made myself wait. “Eric. I’m here.”
“Jane!” Seeing me, his face lit up. A moment later, he was picking me up, hugging me, kissing me. “I was so lost, Janie. So lost.”
“Now you’re not.” I wiped his face. “Can we move now?”