#72 The Forest by Paul Parten

We never liked living close to big towns, my dad always said they made the air taste too closed in, ‘pre-used’ he’d call it.   But, dad always had to go where the jobs were, so moving to California was just another house in another town.

New friends, new school, new address.  Again.

The moving truck got to our new home a couple of hours before we did, but the sun wasn’t too high over the horizon as we pulled up the long driveway in my dad’s pickup truck.  My backpack sat on the floorboard, tucked between my sneakers.  Our furniture sat on the front lawn, still covered in thick plastic from the move and a couple of burly men were lugging our couch into the open front door of our new home.

“Don’t worry honey, this contract is a big one.  You might actually be able to stick around through next school year.”

His voice had that sing-song quality grown-ups always use when they want you to think everything is going to be okay.  I just smiled and nodded, I knew that was what he wanted.  I hoped he was right, but he didn’t understand how rough this was each time we moved.

As the truck pulled to a stop I hopped out, cutting off the incessant pinging of the alarm as I pushed it shut behind me.  Our new house had that ‘old-timey’ kind of feel you always see in good magazines and bad horror movies, squat and wide with a wrap-around porch and ancient slate shingles.  The yard sloped gently down towards the sprawling city below, specks of grey and white spread across the valley below just visible through the black walnut trees that surrounded the house.

I blew my bangs from my eyes as I walked across the thick grass, slinging my backpack over my shoulder.  A smile crossed my lips as fallen leaves crackle under my sneakers; I always hated moving in the summer, and school transfers took so long that I’d  have a few days to myself to enjoy the quickly approaching autumn weather.

“Candice!”  My father’s voice boomed out of the open door of the empty house, echoing down the hallway.  My sneakers squeaked wetly on the creaking steps, damp from the grass as I stepped inside.

Hardwood paneling lined the walls, making the hallway seem far darker and longer than it should have in the morning light.

“Candice, come here!”  My dad again, his voice echoing crazily down the narrow passage as I walked further into the house.

Doors opened on either side of me as I walked down the hall.  “Dad?”  I called quietly, poking my head into one of the rooms that branched out from the main hall.  The room was bare, white walls with shadowy rectangular echoes where pictures once hung, dark paneling climbing up from the baseboard into the chair moulding.

“Dad, where are you?”  I called out again, bolder this time as I looked around the room again, turning in place.

I stopped suddenly and blinked hard.  Against the far wall, an arched doorway stood where there once was only plaster.  Another shiver ran through me as goose pimples rose on my arms and my hair stood on end.   The room beyond was clad in shadows that seemed to creep out across the floor.

I swallowed hard and squared my shoulders, forging ahead.

“…Candice…”

I heard dad’s voice echo from further beyond the room, his usually masculine baritone winding through the dim space with an eerie, lilting tone.  My chest grew tight as the shadows in the corners of the room rose up, stretching up the wood-paneled walls and crawling across the ceiling.

My heart pounding, I turned and found the archway I had just come through was gone, replaced by another paneled wall.

The sound of my sneakers pounding across the floor echoed out of the room before my backpack had ever hit the floor.

Doors flashed past as I raced through the winding warren of rooms, crying out the whole time, calling for my dad, calling for safety and comfort as I tore down endless passageways and unseen rooms.  At the end of the corridor stood a great gnarled oak door.  Bracing myself, I slammed into it as I instinctively twisted the handle and tumbled out into the blinding sunshine.

I fell face first into soft, sweet smelling grass, the dew soaking into my clothes as my head spun.  I rubbed my eyes, blinking hard as I tried to focus.  Everything around me seemed to be filtered through nylon, soft-edged and blurry.  Colors stood out vibrantly in a dazzling array of hues, shimmering emerald grass, chocolate brown trees and sapphire skies with cotton-puff clouds of pink and silver.

A hand reached out and helped me to my feet, lifting me as though I were weightless.  I pulled back and turned to see who it was, but I couldn’t make out a face.  All at once the fear left my body and for a brief instant, I knew peace.

In the distance, music flitted along a gentle breeze and reached not my ears, but thrummed and sang through my bones.  The wind carried with it the scent of baking breads and the ripest golden honeysuckle that spring could ever bloom.  All at once the rush of sensations overtook me and I felt my head spin as I lost my balance and fell backwards, once again stopped by those guiding hands and lifted unsteadily back to my feet.

I opened my mouth to speak, but a gauzy finger stopped me, held to my lips in a universal gesture.  Something warm and heavy was placed into my palm and gentle but strong fingers closed my hand around it as I was led back to the oaken door.  The figure opened it and led me through; their face lost in light as I looked back.  Soon I was left alone in the too-too dark hallway, the light quickly fading as the oaken door slowly closed.

Before it closed completely, an ethereal voice whispered through the crack, setting my hair on end and sending shivers rolling under my skin like warm water.

“Come back anytime…”

I woke up with my dad and the movers hovering over me, my dad’s eyes filled with worry and concern.  I assured him I was fine, nothing broken from the fall through the rotten flooring into the root cellar below.  He hugged me hard enough to pop my back, forcing a grunt of embarrassed air from my lungs as the movers looked on, smiling.

As the moment of recovery died down and dad turned to survey the damage, I sat down on a time-aged crate of canned goods.

“Candice?”

I looked up to see my dad standing on the staircase leading back up to the first floor.

“You coming honey?”

I nodded and smiled as I sighed deeply.

“Yeah, I’ll be up in a second, I’ve got to catch my breath.”

He nodded and walked up the staircase, leaving me alone in the dim cellar.  As soon as he was gone, I slowly opened my hand, the odd weight still tucked between my fingers and resting against my palm.

A brass key, thick and ancient but without a spot of tarnish lay in my palm, looped onto a coarse rope of some strange fiber.  I squeezed the key and felt it pulse with an inner warmth, bringing a smile to my face.

I think I’m going to like it here.

© Copyright 2012 Paul Parten. All rights reserved.

Paul Parten is an imp of sorts, the kind of man who as he quickly grows older doesn’t get old at heart.  With a passion for cooking, good scotch and literature, he spends his days as a Building Commissioning Technician, helping to make buildings work more efficiently and reduce waste to preserve our natural resources for the next generation.

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