In the Night Forest

~ Tori Fredrick

In 1984, she told her fourth-grade class that she was a test tube baby and had no sense of smell. In sixth grade, she told two of her closest friends that she was from a secret lineage of witches and had already said too much. In ninth grade, she told her first boyfriend that her father was part of a pedophile ring and had forced her to do awful things. Only one of these things was true, although she didn’t know it at the time.

 

Dinner was served in the dining room, and Rachel dreaded the evening round of conversation that circled without her, Whitney and her mother on the same side of the table, laughing together and making the same gestures, like acolytes in the same church. They looked more like sisters than mother and daughter and Rachel burned with envy. She suspected that abundance was a myth. Whitney drew things into her own orbit, her eyes like dark planets sparkling, leaving no room for other suns. Rachel thought sometimes about melting away her sister’s face and features with acid or a blowtorch, leaving her monstrous but with her hands and vision unaffected so that she could still do her precious art.

“We have a special occasion,” her father said, the shadows of his face accented, cross-sectioned between the chandelier above and the candles flickering from the table below. Whitney pushed her glass forward to be filled with wine, her father standing like a dark sentinel, ready to pour. Rachel knew the special occasion was not hers, and they were in full “art school scouting” mode for Whitney, so the announcement of not one but two scholarship offers did not surprise her, as Whitney was something of a prodigy.

She pulled her own half-filled glass of wine back to her plate, and tried to smile, but it was so hard. Her expression must have betrayed something, because her mother said, “Can’t you ever just be happy for somebody else?” cheeks pink, and her eyes . . . her eyes like pebbles thrown against Rachel’s face, stinging in their regard. “What have we said about the attitude?”

Whitney made a face over her mother’s shoulder, shrugging a little. “Mom . . .” she said, her voice persuasive, soft, and Rachel’s eyes flooded with sudden tears, grateful.

“She knows what she’s doing,” their mother said, but waved a hand in dismissal and raised her glass for a toast.

There was a family rule, designed for her, about sullenness at dinner—she was to leave it on the sideboard before sitting down. It only made her angrier when they called her out on things. She didn’t know if they understood just how angry she could become.

 

Rachel thought of her life as the ugly duckling story in reverse. Her father took a series of photos of her as a toddler, playing with a bouquet of flowers bought just for her, all golden curls and smiles. She found the photo book in his desk and didn’t recognize herself at first—she seldom smiled now, and her eyes in these pictures were large and luminous, more like Whitney’s than her own, which were small now and set close to her broad, pasty nose. She tried to fix her tiny eyes with promised remedies from stolen drugstore magazines, filled with teenage girl stuff that she wouldn’t want anybody to catch her looking at, because she could imagine people wondering why would she even bother? She lost the golden hair in kindergarten, when it turned straight and slack and became almost no color at all—like dishwater runoff. She dyed it black now, to match her eyeliner and dark lipstick, echoing a growing trend, although she didn’t know it.

Rachel had lost other things over the years, too. She was good at math for a nanosecond, in elementary school. She remembered even now her heart swelling with a stuttering excitement when they selected her for the gifted program, and her father was so proud when he heard. She decided maybe smart was better than pretty.

Rachel’s father, a neuroscientist who taught at the university, was usually detached from the household drama, which made his attention to her during this time especially noteworthy.

He started her on violin lessons, buying her a tiny silver instrument for her charm bracelet, explaining that the neural centers for skill in math and music were correlated.

“Music is math,” he told her.

Rachel’s mother protested at her choice of instrument, claiming that an untrained violin player was perhaps worse than almost anything. But Rachel had been good, at first. It was during this time that Whitney experienced some unexpected setbacks in her middle school algebra course, which she had been encouraged to take early. It was unusual even then for Whitney to have problems with anything, and the feeling of surpassing her sister in any way was one Rachel would not experience again during their childhood.

Rachel remembered the night when she thought it must have happened. She awoke in her room, a round moon streaming light through opalescent curtain sheers, her head pounding but unable to move her body, her limbs feeling thick and grotesquely proportioned, as though she were a wad of clay, heavy and wet. She fell back asleep eventually, but when she awoke the next morning, something was different.

She got ready for school as usual, but her head still hurt a little, and when she got to her special math class her mind felt foggy and stuck.

“How can you multiply a negative number times a negative number and get a positive?” she asked her teacher, unable to either make sense of this concept or let it go, hitting her head with her hands in frustration. They sent her to the nurse’s office where her mother was called to come and get her because of her headache.

Rachel’s mother made a nest for her on the couch at home from an old quilt and pillows, stroking her forehead and bringing pills which she taught Rachel how to swallow. This softness from her mother was unusual, and she remembered closing her eyes beneath the gentle hands, as though she were one of her mother’s statues, being shaped from nothingness, a tattoo like an elongated star at the edge of her consciousness.

She lost the music at the same time, her fingers fat and clumsy, the violin strings cutting into her flesh but as foreign, suddenly, as a lost language. Her father ordered an MRI which was not yet common medical practice, but it revealed nothing. She lost the little charm from her bracelet but was happy and not sad that it was gone. She told the test tube lie not long after this, basing it on something she saw on the news, having no clear idea why she would say such a thing.

 

Rachel was the fifth girl Josh asked to the homecoming dance. Although a little dismayed when her friend Sonia told her how many other girls he asked first, Rachel didn’t really hold it against him. She usually kept a running tally of as many as six or seven crushes herself; since none of them ever went anywhere anyhow, it kept things interesting to be open to multiple possibilities. She understood.

She’d known Josh since elementary school. He wasn’t cute, exactly, but then her crush list did not usually include highly attractive people, because she considered herself a realist. His glasses were always a little greasy around the edges, his jeans were acid-washed and high-waisted, and he had a poorly drawn tattoo of a lizard on one ankle. When she asked him in homeroom if it was his spirit animal, he shrugged a little and said he wished he had gotten a barbecued chicken leg instead, because his current tattoo had the same degree of significance. Rachel found this hilarious and laughed so hard that he smiled a little when he looked at her, and she thought it might have been then when she was added to the bottom of his list.

When he asked her to go with him, all of his flaws folded into the wholeness of who he was, and Rachel felt a flooded warmth at her core, leaving all her practiced shrugs of indifference about boys and school dances on the cutting room floor. Faced with the unexpected need to purchase a dress, she called her grandmother, snaking the coil of the long telephone cord into the hallway bathroom for privacy. She didn’t want to ask her mother for the money, and she trembled with gratitude when her grandmother suggested they could shop for it together.

Her bone-thin and dark-eyed grandmother used a cane that Rachel always thought she managed to make look like a scepter and didn’t insult Rachel by suggesting that she try on dresses in any shade of pink or pastel. Although Rachel felt her usual discomfort amidst rows of gleaming merchandise and pretty clerks in the store at the mall, she appreciated this. She selected two dresses in black to try, and one in a dark fabric which looked black but had hints of red in the folds or in the light. Her grandmother did not insist that she come out and model them, as her mother would have done, and this thing which might have indicated indifference felt like kindness. Dressing room mirrors were merciless.

Her grandmother also didn’t demonstrate any particular interest in conversation, and they were quiet on the drive home, Rachel’s dress folded into a package with an elegance that outdid her own. At the same time, she wondered at the silence.

“Mom had a sister, right?” she asked the question without quite knowing why. The circumstances of her death were somewhat mysterious to Rachel, although she knew it involved a car accident, and wondered now if she were introducing the topic at a thoughtless time.

Her grandmother looked at Rachel sideways. “She did.”

“What was she like?” Rachel didn’t know if she cared, but it was never talked about, and maybe her mom’s sister had been more like her, maybe there was a story that would help her make sense of her own origins. Maybe her grandmother missed this other daughter, and Rachel could fill some void.

“She was a good girl, but unhappy. Sometimes we are made that way.” No emotion betrayed her grandmother’s face or voice, but Rachel thought that it must be there, just masked or frozen, like petrified wood. Further discussion did not seem welcome, so Rachel subsided back into silence.

Her mother heard about the dress, of course, but let it go with a shrug of her own.

“Have fun,” she said on the night of the dance, taking photos of Rachel and Josh along with Whitney and her date, urging them all not to stay out too late.

The school gym doubled as the cafeteria and smelled like a mixture of old sweat and prison food, although with the lights dimmed and disco balls rolling, a veil seemed draped over the relentlessness of daily life, and Rachel felt gratitude for the forgiving darkness. They danced, which she wasn’t sure she could even do, and shivered under Josh’s hands on her hips, the warmth from his palms electric. They didn’t tell Whitney when they decided to leave, stumbling across the parking lot together, music fading behind the tiny rectangle of light issuing from the opened gymnasium doors, crisp leaves under their dress shoes, the football field dark beneath the night sky, the metal bleachers cold as they crawled underneath.

“We can go to my place,” she whispered after their hands found each other, “we have a separate house in the back.”

A friend of Josh’s dropped them off down the road and Rachel pulled off her shoes before leading them in through the surrounding woods. The pool house loomed in quarry stone and aged wood as they approached, Joshua behind Rachel, both laughing, although they were trying to be quiet. She fumbled her key from a tiny clutch purse, black like her dress, the door resisting a little in its frame, both painted a classic, pristine white. Rachel’s grandmother stayed in the upstairs apartment when she visited, which remained true to the old New England roots of the building, but the downstairs was sharp and modern, displaying her mother’s goddess statues, all breasts and vulvic triangles, unseeing eyes dulled to the magic of this particular moment. She turned the track lighting on for a moment before thinking better of it, illuminating a shadowy circle of figures that although often faceless seemed to be watching, nevertheless.

Josh stumbled against her when she turned out the lights, whispering around soft laughter, “Thank god, those are creepy.” His breath against her neck smelled like the peach liquor and sour candy they had under the bleachers.

She reached forward and touched his face, his acne-marred skin under her fingers taut and a little chapped, occasionally scabbed, and she imagined him using astringents or other miracle cures, drying his skin but fixing nothing, and a rush of sympathy flooded her, because she understood.

She grabbed his hand again, warm and only slightly larger than hers and urged him up the narrow stairs to the apartment’s living room, a braided rug warming the floor and they rolled onto the couch together, limbs tangling. She cried later without really knowing why, suspecting this moment in its sweetness could not last and would melt away under the ruthless light of day. When Josh asked her what was wrong, she said the thing about her father without truly understanding the words coming out of her mouth or why she would tell such a story, but the details of shadowy figures and brutal twisted things she was forced to do spilled forward with lives of their own, evidencing a dark imagination she didn’t know she had. Josh made disbelieving sounds and held her, but the moment had devolved into strangeness and she could sense his deep discomfort and desire to escape.

 

On the night of Whitney’s celebratory dinner, Rachel awoke in bed with a headache that might have been from the wine, since she drank as much as she thought she could get away with, then finished the second bottle in the kitchen. Unable to fall back asleep, she sat on the ledge outside her bedroom window, the moon full, the joint she just finished making her hands tremble as she smoked cigarette after cigarette. Bone-white light cast chilly shadows across the yard, lengthening like long fingers reaching for the surrounding dark. She tracked movement near the pool house and scuttled across the roof for a better view. Several figures departed the dimly lit building into the woods beyond their property, walking in silence without flashlights, anonymous in the night forest.

Rachel crawled back in through her bedroom window, the ache in her head dulled but not gone, and descended through the dark house to make her way outdoors. She crept past the rhododendrons on the back deck and skirted the edge of the pool, drained now for the season. There was no path to follow but she didn’t hesitate to enter the surrounding woods and she could have sworn she felt the presences which came before her as her feet guided her without incident to a clearing amid a group of silent figures.

Her vision was disturbed but she recognized her mother and Whitney, their faces coming clear then shuddering away in shadows, their clothing dark and indistinct.

“What are you doing here, Rachel?” and the voice was her grandmother’s, calm but so cold, her white hair threaded with black, and it felt like a betrayal, that her grandmother would be here, although she couldn’t have said where “here” was in the first place.

Rachel had no words, her tongue heavy and stuck, and then she saw it, the thing laying on a stone table like a lump of wet clay given cursory human form. It was moving, a little, flailing arms and shaking its shapeless face from side to side. It had rudimentary hands, but no fingers, and its head missing a chunk of what would be skull and brain matter if it were in fact a living thing. Its eyes were gouged out and replaced with tiny dark pebbles set far back in the sockets. She stepped closer.

“What is this?” she asked, her voice so quiet she didn’t know if she’d spoken aloud.

“Go back to bed, Rachel,” her mother said, and her head, suddenly, was pounding again, and she wanted more than anything to obey this voice, with its unaccustomed gentleness, and when she looked, she thought her mother might almost be crying, and before she became afraid her heart melted at the thought that the tears might be for her.

Rachel stepped closer to the thing on the…was it an altar?…in the center of the grove, and leaning in she saw something familiar wedged into the hole where the figure’s heart might have been, and recognized the tiny violin charm her father had given her, and she wanted to snatch it back but didn’t quite dare.

She reached her hand forward, and then her grandmother was there, black eyes glittering. “Rachel, this isn’t happening,” she said, and her voice was like metronome, inevitable, soothing. “None of us are here. This is a dream, a bad dream.”

Rachel closed her eyes, because this had to be true. It wasn’t the drugs, surely, although maybe there had been something else in what she’d smoked, and her mind leapt to follow this thought, until she heard her sister’s voice, brushing her ear like moth wings.

“You won’t remember this tomorrow. None of us will, but it’s happening.”

Her eyes snapped open and Whitney was before her, diminished somehow, her elegance faded, appearing small and raw, afraid. Rachel felt something snap inside her and moved toward the writhing thing on the stone table, but before she could reach it her mother whirled it away, holding it not ungently as it made soft whimpering sounds at her breast. Her mother took one taper-fingered hand and closed the eyes of the indistinctly brownish figure, and Rachel felt her own vision fading with despair, as though she were only an absence beneath a star-studded sky. She was gone for a moment or an eon, until Whitney’s voice brought her back, again, pressing the bundled creature into her arms, pushing her forehead against her little sister’s and whispering, “Rachel, run.”

Rachel held the mewling doll thing as she fled, its tiny fingerless hands wrapped around her neck, deeper into the dark, wishing the moon were not there to guide her because that made her easier to follow, but she heard no sounds of pursuit. The forest ranged up around her, the trees impossibly old sycamores, trunks and branches nude in the night sky, thicker around than several sets of her own arms could encompass.

She became entranced by the twisting shapes and curling shadows, and her running slowed, then stopped as she stood before a tree with a crevice in its trunk, a bed of moss at its feet, across tangled roots. She sat, holding the thing in her lap, circled around it in a spiraling arch, feeling the warmth of its back arced against her stomach and chest, holding perfectly still for as long as she could.

Rachel knew she would have to sleep eventually, and she couldn’t let it be found again, so she tucked it into the hollow of the tree. It regarded her for a moment with its absent eyes, then curled in on itself. She covered it with a layer of loamy leaves that were warm and fragrant rather than cold and wet. She would see what she remembered tomorrow, she thought to herself as she fell asleep, a lick of fierceness animating her steady breath.

 

Tori Fredrick is a librarian specializing in reader services, a northern transplant to North Carolina, and a lifetime horror fan (with an incredibly strong stomach). By enthusiast standards she has a moderately sized Tarot collection and is very honored that her second fiction publication is appearing in Underland Arcana.

 [ issue 2 : spring 2021 ]