Tall Pines (Short Story)

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Tall Pines

Written by Shelly Moore

 

There are few things I love more than laying supine on the pine needle covered forest floor, surrounded by the 150-foot-tall New England pines and various species of birds singing their morning song. The woods behind my house are far enough away from the road for me to close my eyes and pretend I’m lost in the middle of the Colorado wilderness; far enough removed from society and all its insanity that I’m able to finally breathe.

It’s been a few months since I’ve been out here, however. Last fall something happened. Something I’ve had a hard time wrapping my brain around. Something that changed me forever, and not in the, “Oh my god, this venti triple mocha caramel vanilla soy milk latte is so amazing it’s changed my life forever,” sort of way. I mean I’m quite literally not the person I was before. I could never be the person I was before.

It was about three in the afternoon on an unseasonably warm late September day in Massachusetts. The sun felt more like a mid-August sun, bringing along its humidity with it, so most people were outdoors enjoying it while they were able before the unforgiving Massachusetts winter crept in. My neighbor’s noisy, but ridiculously cute kids were outside splashing and screaming in their above ground pool, which I’m sure was pissing off our other, ex-firefighter neighbor two doors down who now worked third shift and slept through his afternoons. Across the street the young newlywed couple, who were the newest addition to the neighborhood, were out front picking and pruning their new picture perfect landscaping.

I sat at my picnic table, papers strewn in front of me. It had been sixteen months since the pandemic finally disappeared from the planet, or so they tell us, and life had just about returned to normal. During the outbreak, in order to maintain my sanity I had begun taking college courses online in nutrition, and two years later I was so close to the finish line I could taste it. (Nutrition pun?)

A shadow crossed from one end of the picnic table to the other, which broke my focus away from being the nosy Nelly neighbor that I am. I quickly raised my hand to my brow to shield the sun and to try to catch a glimpse of what might have caused it. Gliding far overhead, higher than the pines but not quite high enough to touch the clouds, was a magnificent bald eagle soaring effortlessly with the wind.

I had read in our town’s Facebook group that a pair of bald eagles had been spotted a few weeks back in a neighborhood not far from my own. “Watch your pups and children,” concerned citizens had warned, as if the eagles would swoop down and grab Karen DiMusio’s chunky 14-year-old son like a salmon from a stream.  I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to catch a peek, but here one was, directly above me, gliding effortlessly as he disappeared into the forest that abuts my property.

My first passion in life is photography, so without a second thought I hopped up from my seat, put my cell phone on top of my papers so the wind wouldn’t blow my work onto Boston Road, and ran inside my house to grab my Canon.

I hurriedly walked down the path that leads from my back yard into the woods and fidgeted with my camera, making sure everything was on and ready to go should I be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the magnificent bird again. I walked for about three miles, just until I came upon the area where I thought he might have been and stood silently, scanning the treetops through the magnified lens of this far too damn expensive piece of machinery that took me a full year’s tips to save for.

Forty-five minutes later, I realized he must have had other business to attend to and my opportunity had been missed. Slightly defeated, I plopped my rear onto a fallen tree nearby and sighed to audibly admit my defeat to the squirrel watching me from across the path. I set my camera beside me and decided to use this opportunity to simply enjoy the view.

I watched the trees above me sway gently back and forth in the warm wind, and I listened as the birds sang and chipmunks chipped. Using my arms for leverage, I eased my body down to the forest floor; my back supported against the fallen tree. I kicked my shoes off so I could feel the earth beneath my bare feet, and I closed my eyes and breathed in the earthy smelling forest air.

A twig broke somewhere behind me, which instantly snapped me out of my zen-like state. I turned to look over my shoulder to see what might have caused the noise and was surprised to see a boy of about 8 or 9 sitting against a tree about twenty feet from me, his head down, arms wrapped around his knees.

“Hey, you okay over there?” I shouted toward him.

I stood and clapped my hands together a few times to brush the dirt off, then started walking toward him. The boy either didn’t hear me, or didn’t care to answer because he didn’t move a muscle.

I pushed aside a few honeysuckle bushes and made my way off the path toward him. As I approached, I could see his light brown hair rustle a bit as the wind passed through it. He sat with his knees pulled to his chest, arms cradling them, with his forehead pressed to his kneecaps.

“Hey little dude, you okay?” I asked as I stooped down beside him. “Hey, can you hear -“ the moment I put my hand on his shoulder he looked up at me, and let me tell you… nothing in the world could have possibly prepared me for what I saw on his face.

Or rather, I suppose, the lack thereof.

He had no eyes, no nose, and his mouth was wide open and toothless as if in a silent scream. There weren’t gaping holes where the eyes and nose should be, but rather just naked, pale skin, as if the nose and eyes had simply been erased.

I fell backwards in shock and horror, unable to fully process what it was that I was looking at. He dropped his head to his knees again and let out a cry so deep and so agonizing it tore at my soul and sent chills down my spine. The wail seemed to come from all around us; it rustled the leaves on the trees and scattered the birds until the forest fell silent.

My palms to the earth, butt planted, and knees drawn, I tried to collect my thoughts and figure out what the hell it was that had just happened. Every ounce of intelligence within me was screaming to run as fast and as far as I could, but my stupid sense of compassion for this boy trumped all sense of sanity and against my better judgement, I stayed put.

After a moment, I sat up, once again brushing off my hands, and I crossed my legs in front of me.

The boy didn’t move, but his hair continued to rustle just slightly as the light breeze passed through. I tucked my own behind my ears.

After what felt like a dozen or so years, but was likely more like a few seconds, I decided I’d try talking to him again.

“What…. what happened to you?” I managed to ask through a voice that admittedly was so shaky it was hardly recognizable as my own.

He didn’t answer. I’m not sure I expected an answer at this point, but was admittedly relieved that he hadn’t let out another unearthly wail.

I picked up a leaf next to my foot so I had something to fiddle with as I sat there, waiting for I don’t even know what. I cleared my throat.

“Look, I’m sorry if my reaction was a bit… harsh. Obviously something terrible happened to you at some point, and I’m deeply ashamed for reacting in such an insensitive way. My name is Pen. Like an ink pen. It’s for Penelope. What’s yours?”

He said nothing.

“I have a nephew about your age. His name is Ian. He goes to Salem High, do you know him?”

Silence.

Eerie silence.

The birds had flown, the chipmunks had fled into their holes, and the trees had halted in their swaying. The only sound was that of my own breath. I was finally aware of the creepiness of the situation, and decided I’d better be on my way and leave this terrifying boy far, far behind me to deal with whatever it was he had come out here to deal with on his own.

I stood, brushed my rear off, and said, “Hey little man, I’m sorry. I really am. I’ll leave you be.”

I turned around to face the path again, and standing next to the fallen tree I had sat next to not twenty feet from me was another little boy. Same age, same light brown hair, same faded blue shirt and jeans. He stared in our direction.

“Hey! He’s over here! If you’re looking for your friend, he’s over here!” I shouted at him, hands up to my mouth to amplify my volume. I was relieved to see a friend had come with him and this little boy wasn’t, in fact, out here on his own after all.

I turned once again to face the boy against the tree but was completely caught off guard to realize he was no longer there. I spun again to face the boy on the path and now he, too, had disappeared.

Wait, was it the same boy? I think it was. It couldn’t have been, though.

“I’m losing my damn mind. That’s what I get for staying up until 2 am watching The Dead Files reruns,” I thought. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked back to the path trying not to think about what just happened.

If I don’t think about it, it didn’t happen.

If I don’t think about it, it didn’t happen.

If I don’t think about it, it didn’t happen.

When I reached the path, I realized the silence was still deafening. I fidgeted with my camera and tried to calm my nerves as I walked, telling myself in just a couple of miles there will be good tea and most of a leftover pizza in the fridge with my name on it. I’ll drown my crazy day in pizza. Glorious, delicious, cold pizza.

If I don’t think about it, it didn’t happen.

If I don’t think about it, it didn’t happen.

If I don’t think about it, it didn’t happen.

A twig snapped a few feet from me on the left. My eyes fixed onto the area trying desperately to figure out the source, yet I saw nothing.

I continued walking.

Shouldn’t my house have shown up by now? I had to have walked at least the few miles back that I had walked out to find the eagle. I stopped for a second to collect my bearings. I stood with my hands on my hips and camera hanging from my neck, taking stock of all that was around me. It looked familiar, but not enough to pinpoint exactly where I was, so I continued walking.

An hour later I had still not reached my house and I began to panic. There was one path through these woods. One. A single path that brings in you both into and out of the forest. I had walked it hundreds of times. It was as familiar to me as the route I drove to and from my job of the last ten years. I knew these woods like the back of my hand, so how could I be lost? This wasn’t the wilderness. I wasn’t in Nowheresville, Colorado; I was in small town Massachusetts and the woods I knew where only a few miles wide and a few miles deep. Nearly impossible to get lost in them. City surrounded them on all sides; houses, a large cemetery, and busy roads, including one of the busiest roads in the state.

I was not lost.

I couldn’t be.

So, I kept walking, making sure to stay on the solitary path and never to stray even an inch from it.

The sun had now set. My panic was full blown now and my confusion was as heavy as a lead coat. I had no food, no water, no headlamp, and I was wearing flip flops, so my feet began to ache.

I began to cry. Tears streamed down my face as I continued to walk. I should have reached the edge by now. I should have hours ago, in fact. This isn’t making sense. None of this was making any damn sense.

I stopped to take a break.

In the moonlight, I saw a fallen tree to sit on, so I sat to rest. I had just closed my eyes to silently pray for help when a twig snapped behind me.

I spun around but couldn’t see anything in the darkness other than what the moonlight illuminated, which wasn’t much. Again, it looked familiar though. Puzzled, I took inventory of my surroundings yet again and realized, although completely and utterly in disbelief, that this was the very spot I had stopped to rest at hours earlier where I had encountered the faceless boy.

Goosebumps covered my skin’s surface and chills shot up my spine from its base to the very tip of my skull. Terror sank its nasty claws inside my flesh.

Another noise, this time much closer.

I jerked my head to my right and standing six feet from me was the boy.

The terrifying, faceless boy.

I pushed my fear as far aside as I was able, which wasn’t much, and I gathered the courage to stand and face him.

“What do you want? What the HELL do you want?”

He didn’t move, only continued to stand, staring through eyes that weren’t there.

Even more perplexing than the fact that I had been walking for hours on a straight path that had brought me back to this same spot was the feeling of sympathy for this terrifying boy. I found myself wondering what had happened to him, and what had led him here to these woods. They say curiosity kills the cat, but in this moment I’d argue compassion might have just as likely killed it.

“Why won’t you talk to me?” I asked again, fear present in each word as it escaped my lips.

He said nothing.

Now anger began to surface within me.

“I’m talking to you. You may not have eyes but you sure as hell have ears, so let me ask you again: What. The. Hell. Is. Your. Problem,” I said defiantly, all traces of fear gone.

I took a step toward him, and then another.

He didn’t move.

I walked up to him slowly but steadily, one foot in front of the other, swallowing any and all fear and replacing it with determination to get the hell out of these woods and back home into my cat pajamas where I could finally shove cold pizza into my mouth and watch some mind-numbing television programs.

There I stood, less than eight inches between his face and my own. I could see the thin, pale skin that covered where his eyes should have been, and the gaping, toothless hole where his pearly whites should be. At this distance, I could now see the collar of his faded blue shirt was soaked in dried blood, which continued down the back of his shoulders and surely covered his back. More alarmingly than the blood, however, was that he didn’t seem to breathe; the lack of nose was concerning as it was but I noticed no air being inhaled nor exhaled as we stood silently facing one another.

My heart raced and my stomach turned inside out with terror.

Calmly and in my most motherly voice, I asked him, “Are you the reason I can’t leave these woods?”

He didn’t move.

Now he’s pissing me off. I’m Boston-born, dammit.

“Why can’t I seem to get out of these woods? Why can’t I find my way home? Do you have anything to do with that? Do you?” I asked more accusingly this time, my anger starting to spiderweb its way into my words. “Answer me, dammit. I’m talking to you! If you need me to help you, you have to tell me how.”

His head dropped suddenly, which startled me, and his focus was now on the ground below him.

“So it is you,” I said.

His head slowly rose once more so that his stare, if that’s what you would call it, was now directed at me again. He slowly tilted his head to one side while maintaining his blind glare, and his freak show mouth dropped open, revealing that he was not only toothless, but toungeless as well; mouth full of blood that dripped to the forest floor below.

I felt the hairs on my neck stand up on end and he abruptly shot his arms out to his sides and screamed a scream that could only be described as that of a legion of demons releasing from hell. I covered my ears and stumbled backward, tripping on a branch and falling head first into a boulder, which knocked me out cold.

Unsure of how much time had passed, I began to awake with a loud, high pitched ringing stinging my still sore skull. I had a really difficult time clearing the fog from my eyes, so I sat with my head in my hands and the taste of blood in my mouth for what felt like forever before finally attempting to reopen them to take a look at my surroundings. Before doing so, I prayed, “Please be at home. Please be at home. This was all a crap dream, and I’m just super hungover and in desperate need of an aspirin and a shower. Please be home.”

I quickly realized I wasn’t.

I opened my eyes and immediately recognized the fallen tree. That stupid fallen tree that I absolutely, unequivocally did not want to see in that moment.

I was still there. Still in that same spot. Nothing had changed, although it was now daylight. I sat up, head aching to high hell, and my stomach growling fiercely. I put my hands to the earth to help stand myself up, and realized there was an old paper cup of the fast food variety, sans lid, sitting next to me half filled with water. Beside the dirty old cup was a pile of berries neatly set upon a large maple leaf, almost as if they had been plated.

How odd, I thought.

I suddenly remembered my encounter from the night before and scanned the area around me to be sure I was alone and my faceless friend wasn’t waiting somewhere to startle me again. Once I was relatively certain I was alone, I ate the berries and drank the water my creepy host had left for me.

I stood, my head feeling as if it carried a million shards of glass within that rattled and sliced into the flesh of my brain with each movement, and began to walk.

I will walk.

I will find my way out of this, I told myself.

I walked, and I walked, and I walked until night fell, once again. That night I had no faceless visitor, which I was relieved about, and I slept about as soundly as someone in shorts, a tank top, and flip flops can sleep on top of pine needles. When I awoke the next morning, more water and berries were waiting for me, neatly plated on another large leaf.

As I ate the berries and wept, I yelled out into the forest, “How long will you keep me here? How long will I have to keep this up? You have to help me help you. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” and I cried and cried, and this day I decided against walking. What the hell was the point.

As night fell the second night, I gathered dried sticks and leaves to start a small fire. Looked easy enough on television, surely I could do it. Two hours and many frustrated tears later, I had a fire. I laid beside the fire, as close to it as I could get without burning myself; knees drawn to my chest, and dozed off with tear stained cheeks.

I fell rather quickly into a dream as real as the fire had been moments before. In the dream, I was watching a older man with a hunting dog walk through the woods, rifle slung across his shoulder.

“Keep up you piece of garbage. You’ll never learn to hunt if you can’t even keep up,” he grumbled angrily.

I thought, “How disgusting is this asshole, talking to his dog this way? What an awful man,” and then I saw him.

The boy.

The faceless boy except with eyes and a nose. He was running with a noticeable limp in order to catch up to the old hunter.

“Your mother got out of this easy, that lazy witch. She died while she was giving birth to you so she wouldn’t have to deal with you, you know,” he said to the boy. I stood witnessing this atrocity, unable to speak or intervene, my heart breaking.

“You worthless sack of – you know I told you to keep up, now keep up!” He screamed at the boy. The boy hung his head low, trying desperately not to make eye contact and said to the man, “I’m sorry, pop.”

The man cast a hateful glance back toward his boy and said, “Yes you are sorry. You are sorry, and worthless, and a big weight on my shoulders that I just don’t need. I should have given you to those nuns long ago when I had the chance.”

The boy stood just feet from me now, staring down at his battered shoes solemnly.

“I’m sorry, pop. I’ll do better. I promise,” he said meekly.

As the boy looked up to face his father, I saw his left eye was swollen shut and heavily bruised. Three teeth were missing. This poor, poor boy had obviously been a victim to his asshole father more than once.

“Get your worthless ass over here and help me finish chopping this tree down. Duke said he’ll give us ten bucks today if we bring him the wood. C’mon now, boy, we ain’t got much sun left in the day. Get your sorry ass movin’.”

The scene seemed to fast-forward and I was now standing in front of a tree that had been sawed almost to the point of falling.

“Just a few more, boy, and she’ll fall down. Go on now, this is a man’s work, but I’m tired. You finish,” he said to the boy, as he yawned and took a seat against another tree nearby.

As the boy sawed the tree, something caught the dog’s attention and he began to bark. I looked up into the sky and there taking flight from the branches of a tall pine was a massive, beautiful bald eagle. The dog instinctively took off after it, and the old hunter jumped to his feet calling after him, “Dag nabbit, George, you idiot, get back here!”

With his attention fixed onto the dog, the hunter had no time to react or notice the tree was falling directly on him.

The boy stood and watched as the tree crushed his father, still clutching his rifle, into the earth, with a solid thud.

The boy remained still for a moment, then cautiously walked over to where his father lay. To his surprise, the man was still breathing, although just barely, his breaths gurgling thick with blood. The man was wide eyed and near death, and glared at his boy with malice and deep contempt. The boy knelt down by his father, but didn’t say a word.

“You….” the man gurgled and strained to speak, “killed… me…”

The boy furrowed his brow as if to say, “I would never,” then stood and slowly took several steps back as he watched his father succumbed to his horrific fate.

The boy’s back now to me, I stood and watched helplessly with tears steadily flowing down my face. Then – a gunshot – one so loud it shook the very ground beneath my feet. I watched as the boy fell to his knees, and then face first onto the forest floor.

The man had managed to shoot his son in the face with his last bit of strength, and there, on that forest floor, they both perished.

I awoke from the vivid dream gasping for air; the embers of my fire still glowing red hot although the fire itself had gone out hours before. I sobbed, my chest heaving as if I had witnessed this tragedy not in a dream, but as an unwilling participant, and I struggled to regain control over my emotions again.

That’s when I noticed him.

He was standing on the opposite side of the fire, staring back at me through big, sad, blue eyes.

I wept, “I am so, so sorry this happened to you. No one deserves that. You did not kill him, but rest assure if I were there I would have done it myself! You deserve better. So, so much better. I am so, so sorry.”

He looked at me, and I at him, for what felt like an eternity. I wiped my face with the back of my hand, and again said, “I’m so sorry, little man.”

He smiled, but it was the faintest, smallest little hint of a smile, and when I blinked my tears away, he had vanished.

I stood, brushed my pants off, grabbed my Canon from the ground, and began my walk home.

 

{The End.}

Published by limitless.stimulus

Short Story Author

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