The Grinning Forest

The Grinning Forest

by Jonathan Ryan

Dedicated to my little Mouse, who first heard this story…..

LuLu tried not to cry as they drove away from their house. Rain gently drummed the car in a steady rhythm, as Daddy drove through the streets towards the highway. Any other time, she would have curled up with a book for the long ride. But this time, she didn’t want to miss getting a last look at the city she loved, the only home she’d ever known.

She sighed. None of this was her idea, that’s for sure. Mommy and Daddy felt the city was getting more dangerous, especially after the scary things that had happened in Ferguson. They’d looked for and found a professor job in a small southwestern college in Missouri, somewhere in the Ozark Mountains; without even bothering to ask how she felt about it.

Mommy tried to convince her it was good to live in the country. They’d live in a lovely historical farmhouse surrounded by lots of trees, she’d said. Lulu didn’t want trees; she wanted pavement, bricks, cars and her friends. It’s not that she hated nature. She loved it, but she just didn’t want to live in it all the time.

Tucking her long blond hair behind her ears, she sniffled.

Mommy turned around. “Are you okay, Mouse?”

LuLu nodded and stared out the window. She hated crying, but couldn’t stop a stray tear rolling down her cheek.

“It’s gonna be okay, Love. Things are safer in the country. You won’t have to worry about all the riots and missing school.”

Shrugging, LuLu didn’t say anything. She wouldn’t be starting 3rd grade with JoJo, Jen, Mari, and Julia. That’s all she cared about.

Finally, after the longest car ride ever, they made it to their new town. They drove a few miles on a two-lane road, then found a hidden driveway surrounded by the tallest trees she’d ever seen. She took a picture of them with her iPhone and resolved to look them up later. Daddy maneuvered the car up the long, twisty drive until they reached a large clearing at the top of the hill.

“Here it is….the Last Homely House,” her daddy joked with Tolkienesque flair. Normally, LuLu would have giggled, but she didn’t feel up to it today. Instead, she got out of the car and stared at the house. Despite herself, she couldn’t help but like it. It was a huge, red brick farmhouse with three floors. At the front corners of the house, two towers topped with cone-shaped roofs stood like silent guardians.

“LuLu, your bedroom will be in the right tower. You’ve always wanted to be a princess!” Mommy smiled as they walked towards the house.

“Sure, that sounds nice.” She tried to sound happy, so Mommy wouldn’t worry.

The next few days, they unpacked, settled in and explored their new home. She’d fallen in love with all the strange and oddly angled rooms, especially her own at the top of the tower. She was intrigued by its round shape and huge bay windows that overlooked the surrounding fields and woods. Everything seemed to ooze mystery and beauty.

Even more exciting, Daddy found a secret door in the cellar. He’d told her that the house was old enough to be part of the Underground Railroad, so he wanted to do some research to figure out its history. She remembered her lessons from school about how runaway slaves would use “safe houses” to get to Canada.

School wouldn’t start for one more week, and LuLu wanted to get out of the house for a bit. She decided to spend a day exploring the surrounding fields and woods. Even though she liked the city, mommy and daddy took her camping one weekend a month to “get away from it all.” They also took her on long hiking trips along the Appalachian Trail and just about every National Park imaginable.

She decided to start with the huge forest across the wheat field and to the north of the house. She’d grabbed some fruit, stuffed it into her My Little Pony backpack, and said, “Mommy, I’m going to explore the forest.”

Mommy smiled. “Okay, honey, keep your phone on you.”

LuLu ran through the wheat field and hummed “Beautiful Day” as she skimmed her hands across the golden brown stalks. She was trying not to think about her brand new school or the scary thought that no one would like her. Maybe, LuLu thought, they wouldn’t like her because she was from the city.

Not today, she thought. Don’t think about that today.

As she reached the end of the field, Lulu stopped running. The forest stood in front of her like a dark, unclimbable wall. Tall oak trees towered over her, as their gnarled branches reached to the sky. Her stomach tightened and she gripped the straps of her backpack. Everything here seemed to say, “Go away, Stupid Girl, why would you even want to come in here?”

LuLu peered into the forest and everything looked dead. The sunlight filtered down in a dark, dingy light that reminded her of the inside of the local Walmart. The grass was puke brown and the leaves on the trees colored grey, as if they’d lived on a diet of cigarette ash. Plus, she couldn’t hear any birds or squirrels scurrying about and chattering, as if someone had draped the forest in a large blanket.

Her heart pounded and her hands shook. LuLu turned around to go back home, but she stopped.

“Silly, stop being a scaredy cat,” she said to herself and faced back towards the woods. “You fail this, and probably all the country kids around here will find out and laugh at you.”

She glanced right and left down the tree line. Nothing seemed weird, so she walked into the forest. She gasped. Carved into a tree was a horrible grinning face. It wasn’t a crude, schoolboy job done with a pocketknife. With parents who taught art for a living, she could tell someone with skill had carved its wide, smiling mouth, eyes that seemed to follow her, and a strange symbol on the forehead.

Trying to show herself she wasn’t afraid, she reached up a shaky hand to touch the face. When her skin connected with the wood, a rush of images from her nightmares filled her brain: the ceiling of her hospital room after she’d been hit by a car, grandma’s cold dead hand at the funeral home, and the large spider that crawled across her chest when they’d camped in the Grand Canyon.

Screaming, she pulled her hand off the image and took deep, shuddering breaths. Her mommy’s words came back to her, “When the nightmares come, laugh, for they can’t stand to be laughed at.”

The last thing she felt like doing was laughing, but mommy was usually right about everything. She started with a shaky laugh, but the whole forest rang with the echo. The trees bent down towards her, and the grass shimmered for a few moments with color. Cocking her head, she kept laughing, and the blanket of silence lifted. She heard animals running about, and the birds singing.

She stopped laughing, just to see what would happen. The animal noises stopped and the forest resumed its dark silence.

LuLu chewed her lip. “Huh, what’s that all about?” she said aloud. Shrugging her shoulders, she walked further into the dim light. After a few minutes of looking, she found a well-worn path and walked further into the forest. The silence made her a little crazy. She could hear her breathing as it echoed in the forest, like being in the middle of a large empty room made of concrete.

Plus, as she walked, she couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. The further she got into the forest, the more the skin on the back of her neck prickled. Finally, she called, “Hello? Are you there? Don’t be a weirdo.”

Behind her, LuLu heard a rustling of grass and turned around. A boy, about her size, stepped out onto the path and faced her. He wore faded jeans, ripped at the knees and a faded Johnny Cash t-shirt. Green dreadlocks hung to his shoulders with pieces of sticks, leaves and rocks clinging to each braid.

He stared at her with quivering lips as he said in a shaky voice, “Who are you? Why are you here?”

LuLu put her hands on her small hips. “It’s polite to say hello before you ask questions.”

The boy glanced around with a look of uneasy terror. “You shouldn’t be here. Please leave.”

She frowned. “I’m not leaving. So forget it. You’re being rude.”

The boy covered his face. “I’m so afraid.”

“Scared of a little girl?” she said in a voice more brave than she felt.

“I’m afraid of myself and what I might do to you.”

To be continued…

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