She must have come from the hill behind the town. Somewhere among the rotting trees, below a canopy that resented light and air, there might have been a house. There had been rumors of wild things living up there—people who were not quite people, people it was best to avoid. A person working at the sawmill had seen something once, something you were not allowed to ask about. As far as rumors go, no one really knew what that something was.
When she appeared in school one day, the boys in the back row should have known whence she came. They should have known better than to follow her.
Unlike most mornings, this one brimmed with anticipation. There were reports of a school trip, an outing that would replace the tedium of textbooks with the anarchy of grass. To some, this was an occasion to watch the cheerleaders. To others, this was a time to bum a cigarette off one of the bigger boys and pretend that one day you would be like them. The boys in the back row, well, they would believe it when it happened.
A sudden smell of rot invaded Jasper’s nostrils, making it impossible to breathe. It was a sickly scent of wilderness that had no place in a school, and it clung to his tongue and his nose and the inside of his eyes, festering, burning. Danny and Tim felt it too, their nostrils pulling their attention towards its source, eyes scanning the throng of classmates milling about the room. No one seemed to notice that something was wrong.
“What is that smell?” Jasper gulped but then she was there, her scent opening a lane before her as the other girls moved aside, oblivious to the danger in their midst. The new girl walked slowly, tucking her head to the side as though her neck was not quite straight, or perhaps she was just shy. Someone made a vomiting sound—the ordinary greeting to a newcomer, but to the boys in the back row it somehow held more reality than insult.
“Stop staring!” Tim whispered to Jasper and Danny but neither of them could: the new girl was too mesmerizing. She hobbled toward the desk in the corner like some long-legged bird with its head in a bag. There was dirt under her nails, Jasper noticed, and her hands did not seem to belong on a girl.
“That is Peter Day’s seat” Tim whispered, mostly to Jasper. The girl folded herself into the narrow space between chair and desk, hands lifted before her. Jasper was reminded of the high school cheerleaders playing pranks at Halloween and unexpectedly wished he had missed the bus that morning. Maybe that was why Peter wasn’t on the bus today. Behind a curtain of hair, the girl’s eyes seemed to blink to the beat of the fluorescent light humming above, yet her hands followed a beat Jasper could not hear. He found himself clutching the sides of his desk, forcing his hands not to mimic the dance of hers.
“Hey! That is Peter Day’s seat” Danny called out and this time, the hands stopped. In a slithering motion, the girl got out of the seat—did she even touch the desk? Jasper did not think so—and moved over to the window where she shoved the blinds to the side, letting in the morning light. As she passed their desks, Danny caught a glimpse of the back of her knees where veins seemed to cling to the skin like cobwebs to pine boughs. He had to look at her, had to find out which patterns those cobwebs made elsewhere, against her thighs or neck or all the secret places in between. There were whispers of shapes underneath the clothes, voices murmuring Danny’s name. He had to make her talk to him, had to make her see the boy beside her. Inching toward her, he closed the gap between his desk and hers—closer, closer, shoulder, hip, shoulder, hip… Tim pushed him in the ribs to direct his attention to Mr. Twist but instead drove the smell deeper into Danny’s lungs. For a second, Danny felt himself moving through something wet and foreign, something that wanted to pull him down and trick his blood into new patterns, but then Tim’s shoe connected with his ankle and the classroom snapped back into focus.
During roll call, Mr. Twist called her Silvia. If she had a family name, the back row did not catch it. Instead, Jasper and Tim did their best to ignore her and Danny to attract her attention. They failed. Safe in Danny’s shadow, Jasper watched Silvia pressing her cheek to the window as though the entire left side of her body was melting into the glass, her eyes still twitching to the buzzing lamp. The desks and chairs appeared to move away from her, to crawl toward the safety of Mr. Twist by the blackboard. Everything felt unusual and uncomfortable, like waking up with the flu in the middle of the summer.
“Next period is English, next period is English” Jasper heard Tim mumble to himself, over and over again. Nearer Silvia, Danny seemed to be writing down everything Mr. Twist was saying, even long sequences of ums and hums. When the tip broke, he kept writing: scratch-scratch-screech, slivers of paper spraying the desk. There was something unsettling about him, beyond the oddity that Danny, who had done no homework since second grade, was taking notes. Clamping his sleeve to his mouth, Jasper nudged Tim with his foot, forcing a pause into the anxious muttering.
“Isn’t Danny right-handed?” With a snap, the pencil broke in Danny’s hand. Perplexed, he looked up for another weapon but it was too late: Mr. Twist had caught his eye and pounced on his victim.
“Daniel! Please share with us the properties of leaf litter as described in last week’s lab report.” Leaf litter? Tiny particles of dust glittered through the sunlight falling over Silvia’s desk, mimicking the fall of fairy-thin leaves, filtering out Mr. Twist, the blackboard, everyone. Leaf litter, leaf litter… Perhaps her veins formed leaf-shaped patterns against the small of her back. Danny heard her inhale sharply: could she read his thoughts?
“It is a bed for life and a weapon against death” Silvia said. Her voice was foreign in a way no voice could be. She seemed to taste the words one by one before letting them drip from her tongue. Danny found himself twisting out of his seat to observe that wide mouth moving, to catch the words sticking to the tongue lurking in its depths. At the edge of his consciousness, he perceived Tim muttering—a recipe, Danny thought, or an enchantment. It was unimportant. All that mattered was that the new girl would look at him.
“It protects our roots against fire and frost. It is where invisible creatures coax life into that which no longer breathes. It is where the friends of the forest take from the trees and give to the trees.”
“Umm, very good, Silvia,” he said and retreated to the soil profile on the blackboard, preferring not to see the odd behavior in the back row—besides, soil profiles were more interesting than people. When a fluorescent light gave a whining buzz and died, he did not even notice.
After their other classes, the back row was reunited for lunch but no one ate. Jasper was convinced that he was getting sick and had a sinking feeling that he had caught something terminal. Tim did not seem himself, and Danny absentmindedly rolled the salt shaker back and forth as his eyes scanned the cafeteria. Jasper knew who he was looking for and he did not like it.
“That new girl” Tim burst out. “She was in my English class. She went on and on about birds. Then she was in Algebra; then she was in gym. That was the worst. If she’s in Spanish, I don’t care what my mom says, I will skip out. I can’t take it.” Danny looked irritated.
“You are afraid of all girls.”
“Am not. Just the scary ones.”
“Silvia is not scary, she is shy.” Tim shot Jasper an exasperated look. They both knew what was coming. Every time Danny got into trouble, he somehow managed to drag the two of them into it, and it always started with a stupid idea. Girls were the latest thing.
“What are you kids moping about?” One of the big girls, the one whose entire being reminded Jasper of watermelons, stopped to douse her fries with salt. Jasper saw a way out. Surely Danny would listen to her; after all, he had spent most of last week on the edge of the football field, trying to get her to notice him.
“There was a new girl in Biology this morning,” said Jasper. “She smells weird.” The salt shaker stopped mid-air.
“You should not be judgmental, especially not about a girl. Are you still in kindergarten? Now stop making a mess or I’ll tell Mrs. Evans that you guys were trying to get into the girls’ locker room again—and remember to submit your suggestions for the school trip. It will bite if it is to the public library again.”
“You two are such wimps” Danny said when the perfect curls had disappeared. “I hope Silvia is in Spanish. Maybe I’ll talk to her this time—you know, ‘hola linda.’ She almost talked to me in Biology, almost…”
But she was not in Spanish, or in History, and Jasper and Tim were glad to see that she was not among the people waiting for the bus.
“Do you guys want to come to the pool this afternoon? The cheerleaders are prepping for the trip, in case it is to the beach,” someone asked, but Danny shook his head as the buses rolled around the corner.
“Burgers are on me” Tim said, visibly relieved. “We can go to the arcade afterwards.
“Ouch!” Danny had elbowed him in the ribs.
“Look!” Silvia stood in the shadow by the gym, so still that her body had become invisible to the crowds streaming through the doors. He could not see her face, but Jasper sensed that she was smiling. She began to walk, away from the buses, one foot in front of the other, like an old movie playing at the wrong speed. She walked like she had never worn shoes before, Jasper thought to himself, and suddenly he felt sick again.
“Danny, no, what are you doing?” But Danny said nothing, only pushed his way through the crowd. They had to follow him like they had always followed him, from kindergarten to the back row. Some things never changed.
There was a puddle at the corner of the gym, right where Silvia had stood. What kind of girl stands in a puddle? One he did not want to talk to, Jasper decided, one that is not right in the head. No matter what Danny said, tomorrow he would miss the bus.
“Danny, you are not following her, are you? If you are, you are on your own,” he said and did not even have to look at Tim to feel his agreement. Danny shrugged.
“I just want to see where she’s headed, that’s all. It’s funny that she didn’t get on the bus. Maybe she thought I was looking for her.” He had to walk faster not to lose sight of Silvia. She was moving up the hill where the bigger boys sometimes met girls to do homework. When was she going to stop?
“Danny, I don’t think this is a good idea,” Jasper tried, but then the forest loomed before them, a wall of darkness between sky and earth, and he had to swallow hard. The forest did not want them, he thought. They did not belong there. Danny swung around but Jasper could not look at him, did not want to hear the ridicule that would inevitably make them do whatever Danny decided. Why do we always do what Danny wants to do? Jasper thought angrily, looking to Tim for the power to give sound to the thought they both shared, but as always, the other boy stared at the ground.
“What is wrong with you two? You’re afraid of some trees? I don’t know why I’m hanging out with you anymore—grow up.” Jasper opened his mouth to protest but somehow the trees had moved, or they had walked further than he thought, because they were no longer standing on the grassy hill. The sky was gone. Tim whimpered.
“Let’s go,” Danny said and plunged ahead.
Jasper could not tell for how long they had been walking. Every step was heavy, his feet unwilling to leave the ground, but he had to keep moving, or the forest would somehow swallow him up. The silence held such weight that it was difficult to breathe. Now and then, he thought he heard Tim sniveling, but the forest absorbed the sound and made it its own. I want to go home, Jasper told the tips of his shoes. Go home, go home, take me home, stop. The last word was not his but Danny’s, the taller boy abruptly lifting his arm to halt his flock. Only steps ahead, Silvia had stopped in a stream. Dark water climbed her legs, rising through the stockings like tendrils of smoke.
In the gloom, her hair seemed to grow longer and her limbs thinner. Her hands drew circles against the dark, palms now facing back. They glowed white in the gloom, like eerie beacons leading travelers astray. She knows that we are here. The whisper caught in his throat, but Jasper knew that Tim and Danny knew it too, and it was worse than anything he had ever imagined. It was too late to go back. Around Silvia’s feet, the stream silently receded, if it had ever been there at all, and Tim began to whine, a rambling chain of noise that held no meaning. A thin, ululating sound wove its way around the rotting trees and suddenly, something crashed through the underbrush—a big bird, perhaps, invisible and yet right behind them.
Jasper reached for Tim’s sleeve but his fingers returned empty: his friend had bolted, a flash of terror disappearing into the dark. Jasper spun around to follow him but wherever he turned, he saw only Danny and that other figure weaving a terrible weft between the trees.
Time lost significance. At some point, Danny had grabbed Jasper’s hand. Now and then, they caught a glance of Silvia, sometimes far ahead, sometimes nearer, but the world outside the forest had shrunk to the space between their palms. There was no sky above, only trees. How can they grow, Jasper thought wildly, how can they grow without light and air? Only death could exist in such a place. Why were they here?
“There is a glade ahead.” Danny’s voice did not sound like his own but Jasper did not care; the fact that his friend could speak must mean that they were near the other side of the forest now. Relief washed over him like rain. Hand in hand, they stumbled into the clearing. There were no trees, yet Jasper still could not see the sky. His foot caught on something soft and terrible. Hidden by moss and detritus, logs lay rotting here and there—one, ten, fifty of them, all silently decomposing. It is where creatures coax life into that which no longer breathes, Silvia had said.
“Do you think it is a house?” Danny whispered and together, they leaned forward to look—but then Jasper felt Silvia step out behind them. Although there was no light, her shadow was all around them, darker than the gloom, bigger than the trees. To Jasper, the arms of her shadow no longer looked like arms but like wings or branches. He tugged on Danny’s hand but the space between their palms suddenly began to sting with electricity, as if bumblebees were trapped there.
“Danny, we have to run!” But his friend had already closed his eyes. A smile flickered over his face and he let go of Jasper’s hand. Then he was no longer there. Gasping for air, Jasper felt the sickly smell perforate his lungs from within as the shadow wrapped itself around him. Before he fell, he thought he heard Tim’s voice again, and this time the words had meaning. Root and wing, root and wing, root and wing.
Soundlessly, the moss began to grow.
The next morning Mr. Twist arrived early. He noticed that his colleague one door down had forgotten to use the hood again—experimenting with sulfur without proper ventilation? Intolerable! Next year, he would ask for another classroom. Maybe having a better room would bring him better scholars, ones that arrived on time and did not forget to feed the mice. Opening the door, he was shocked by the intensity of the smell, but two of the boys in the back row were already in their seats. Mr. Twist had no interest in his students, but decided to be friendly—after all, the boys had arrived early. Perhaps the principal had been correct, all things considering, to assume that advertising a trip would raise the school spirit.
“Good morning boys!” With a flick of his wrist Mr. Twist bathed the room in fluorescent yellow. One of the boys jerked to the side, his chair screeching against the floor. The other one seemed to have an eye infection, blinking and rubbing his eyes.
“Have you made your suggestions for the school trip? Remember, it has to be educational,” he asked, walking toward the supplies closet at the back of the room. One of the boys made a sound which might have been a word but Mr. Twist did not hear it. Instead, his attention turned to the third desk. A pool of dark water ringed its base, and floating on the surface were things that had no right being inside the school: tiny specks of plant litter. Confused, he leaned closer. Above his head, the taller boy smiled, his foot tapping the edge of the black water.
“We know just the place” he said.