Forest From the Trees

 

“Sixteen years of persistence.” His old eyes scanned the horizon: treeline, lab coats, and punchy fingers poking at handheld devices.

“The first tree, over there, it’s a maple. Only one in the park.” He smiles, “We had the very same one in our yard. As a boy, it seemed larger than life. And just like life for little boys, we climbed it, got scraped up by it, tamed it, stuck it with nails and plywood, and claimed it our own.”

“Did you have such a tree, growing up?” His eyes never leave the trees. Periodically, he taps his leg with one finger, as if recalling something in those memories he’d rather keep buried.

“Sixteen years. Hard to believe all that time has passed. But we’ve done well enough. A lake, trails, wildflowers, 1,776 trees—a coincidence. By the time we’ve opened, we’ll have doubled that number.”

He surveys his trees, his lake, and his trails.

“Look! Over there!” He points to a frozen deer. “We’ve done well enough.” One of the labcoats rushes towards it, arms outstretched, and the deer turns and gallops through a tree. He laughs and applauds the spectacle.

“I suppose that’s one issue we’ve yet to figure out. Certainly a fence should fix it. See that though? We’ve even fooled the animals.”

He picks up a stick and draws a line in the dirt.

“The ground, that’s real. We’ve shipped earth from all corners of the United States. Even buried some arrowheads here and there for added authenticity—er, they’re real, too. Well, crafted in a factory, but real stone.”

“Thinking of taking a stroll? It calls to you, doesn’t it? It does, me. Have you ever walked a trail in the rain? Snow? Would you like to? Just a turn of the dial. Temperature, too. On these trails, cold and snow aren’t correlative. You won’t even get wet when it rains, if you’d like it to. Wonderful, really.”

“I know what you’re thinking. The point is moot. These trees don’t give off oxygen, they can’t make more—we do. But the experience, the experience is total—a digital arboretum. Don’t you see? The real trails, they’ll be smoothed over. They’ll get paved. They’ll fell the real trees, replace them with cement walls, and those inside will wish they weren’t. This place? It can’t be paved. It can’t be built upon. If you so wish to leave, you need simply choose one direction and run through it all. If the land is sold, we simply move it all to the left some, or to the right. You understand my point.”

“People long for escape, yes? Whether it be in the wilderness, or the internet. We need a place to go, to be understood, to be silent, heard, to hear. Our experience is a strange one, wouldn’t you say? We may not offer seeds, or fresh air, but we can give our visitors the illusion they long for. It’s only as deceptive as any other escape.”

“And in 100 years, it’s possible these are the only trees to immerse oneself in anymore. It could very well be that, by then, we’ve all moved to Mars. I only wish I could see that far into the future, to prove myself wrong. But our trees will welcome whatever unfortunate souls come here looking for life.”

“It sounds almost sinister. I sound defensive, my apologies.” He taps at his pants. “I’ve dealt with many investors, businesspeople. I’ve had to state my case to people who look to bottom lines, profits. It leaves a bad taste. Imagine, this experience for free? One day I hope to allow true freedom, but the investors insist an entrance fee.”

“Once opened, it’ll be twice the size it is now; over 4,000 trees. I’m personally designing over 10 trails. Our engineers are working wonders, and we’re only limited by our imagination. I’d love to have the bees up-and-running by then, but they’ll likely come as an update.”

“Four nations have already shown interest in what we’re doing here. In 100 years, we could have parks all over the world—when we’re all on Mars. Incredible. The businesses can keep taking what they will, and we’ll still have preserved our natural world in some form.” His smile slipped, his eyes slid to this shiny square-tipped black shoes, and he lost himself for a moment to a head full of digital trees.

“It’s not perfect. I mean, it’s not the perfect solution. But it’s the best I’ve got. I truly love the outdoors, you should know. I loathe what’s coming. Do you read poetry?

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats. I think of these lines often.”

“Tell me, what do you think when you look upon all this? Does it unsettle you? Are you moved instead by what may become? That this may very well be what remains of our natural splendor? Pre-emptive, and hopefully for nothing.”

The sun begins to set over the trees, some tips glitch and appear to the left of their trees. Labcoats gather in these areas and take notes, punch figures into their devices, and carry on into the night.

In silence, the two men sit and watch the last crystals reflect off a lake. Recorded crickets begin their symphony, and the labcoats walk the trail, single-file, with their eyes scanning for inconsistencies.

Out of the darkness, light shoots into the sky and bursts to color.

“This was not my idea, I should tell you. The investors thought it’d offer a little something more to guests. I find it tacky and outside the scope of our work here.”

Halfway through the display, the fireworks freeze in the sky. A loud boom stretches into the night, stuck in explosion, and pierces the ears. After a moment, they disappear from the sky.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.”

“Same poem.” He smiles.

“Part of me hopes this exists only here, as an oasis; maybe as a cautionary tale. Though I fear I may be asked to build many, many more.”

He draws circles in the dirt with a stick.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

“I must leave you now. I suppose I should get some work done today. Six months until we open. There’s much to be done. Investors to please. That sort of thing. Would you like some free passes? Leave your email address and they’ll send them to you.”

He kicks up dust as he walks, his shoes now in need of a shine. Just as darkness overtakes him, he turns around once more with a smile that pierces the night, “Six months! Remember! And twice as big! It’s not at all as complicated as I’ve made it, you’ll see. A true marvel. A real experience. You won’t believe your eyes!”

“After all, what’s left to do but enjoy what should rise in the wake?”

The Prize (Part 9)

Under the porch, Skinny had gone days without food. A dead squirrel or two might find its way under and the others would tear it to bits. They were the shaky hands of children who thought they’d someday escape, to keep nourished for their inevitable rescue. Skinny knew she’d never leave—it’s where she came from. She’d wait until the meat was near bones to savor a bite or two, it really didn’t matter to her.

She’d felt the stings and pain that come with a bloated, empty belly. She knew what it was like to be weak, but she never had a reason to stand when trapped. The days she spent writhing in pain over her slow death were much more palatable to those chained in Egger’s room. Out here in the woods though, the pains were so much different. They were unbearable, and as Skinny tried to make her way anywhere, she’d double over in pain, holding her belly, moaning and crying. From the warm dirt and grass, she’d watch the squirrels tease her, chasing each other a few feet ahead of her and up trees. She wondered if they acted like people before Egger killed them—if they squeaked for mercy the way Lansing did, or the kids, or the adults. She wondered how Egger and Pa could ever even catch them, as quick and little as they were. Finally, Skinny pictured herself shooting a squirrel in the belly, tied to a tree, and blacked out.

What should we do?

Give her water, wrap her up, here. Does she have a pulse?

Where’s the water?

DOES SHE HAVE A PULSE?

In her darkness, Skinny couldn’t make out most of the words spoken by little and big voices. She felt two fingers press her neck, and she immediately snapped out of her faint, though she was too weak to do anything other than open her eyes.

“She’s alive!” One hollered to the others, knelt on the ground and reaching through bags. “Water! I need water!” His hand reached out, beyond Skinny’s sight, and a bottle appeared in his hand. “Can you sit up?” He asked Skinny. Skinny silently watched him, opened and closed her dry mouth a few times, and came to understand he didn’t seem to be a threat. His hand behind her head, he propped her head up and poured water into her, restoring for a moment her energy—and the pains of her empty stomach.

“uunnngggg” Skinny moaned, doubling over in waves of pain.

“Do we have food? No, no! Stay back, give her room, guys. She needs air. She needs food! Burt, grab me the trail mix from my bag.” And suddenly, a baggy appeared in his hand. He reached in, took a handful, and showed it to Skinny. “I need you to eat some of this, sweetie. It will make you feel better. Can you understand me? Try to nod if you can.” She remained prone, petrified in a near-fetal position.

This girl’s been through hell, he thought to himself—unaware of how right he was. “Look, look.” He said, taking some of the items in his hand: pretzels, raisins, cheerios, and flax seed, and popped them into his mouth, trying to earn Skinny’s trust. “We’re here to help.” He’d repeat every few seconds. Without other options, Skinny buried her face in his hand and ate. “Good. Good. You’re doing great. Can you tell me your name, little girl?” Skinny stopped and looked up at him, kneeling before her. “Bitch! Stupid bitch! Stupid, stupid bitch!” She said, slamming her fists into the dirt with her regained energy. “Whoa! Whoa! No, we don’t talk like that here. What’s your name?”

“Skuh…” She started, struggling to find her voice.

“Go ahead.” He encouraged.

“Skin…” She stopped, it’s all she could make out without heaving heavy breath.

“Skin?” He repeated, taking a look at her and noticing a necklace dangling around her neck. Thinking it might hold a secret to her identity, he took it in his hand, Skinny still wearing it. The rope felt strange, looked odd, too. Everything came together when he noticed the stone dangling at the end was actually a tooth drilled through the middle, clumps of blond hair wrapped tightly around.

“Jesus Christ.” He whispered, shocked, releasing Skinny’s necklace after realizing the rope was human skin.

“We need to get this girl out of here, NOW.” He barked, while Troop 86 was busy preparing a makeshift gurney for Skinny’s escape.

The Prize (Part 8)

“Get the fuckin’ truck off the road, goddammit!” Pa shouted to Egger, looking down the road to make sure nobody saw. “Ya made enough of a racket for er’ry goddamm pig in 10 miles to come smellin’ us out.” Dusty was pissed.

“Little bitch is around here somewhere. I can smell her stink. She ain’t far.” Egger rumbled to himself, recalling the shot. “Shoulda put you in there with ‘er, you good-for-nothin’, stupid some-bitch.” Dusty yelled, belting Egger across the face with a right hook.

Starry-eyed, Egger rubbed his cheek, looking at Dusty, “Fer fuck’s sake, pa, I aimed at ‘er! Outta nowhere she leaps back, like she knew or somethin’. How the fuck was I supposed’tuh know she’d pull some shit like that?”

Skinny, seeing so much of Egger and Pa in the stranger, leapt back at the last second, afraid to get into a car with him—or anyone, for that matter. At that moment, Egger took his shot and most of the stranger’s, Douglas Stanhope’s, arm with it. Skinny peeled out, off the road, and dove into the forest on the other side. Egger ran towards the truck, stopping to notice how much this man looked like himself and Pa just before blasting most of his face away.

The truck disappeared down the road with Egger at the helm and Pa as passenger, Skinny watched while crumpled in a bush. They pulled off the road, into thick brush, just before they were out of her sight. Still holding her teddy bear, Skinny began thinking it wasn’t the bear that was bad at helping, it was just that she was bad luck—Skinny believed that she brought death with her wherever she went; nobody was safer from her than they were Egger or Pa.

Skinny cried for a long time for the driver, for killing him. She cried for herself, too, and how she’d never ever get out, or whether she deserved to at all. Last, she cried for the teddy bear, who had been misjudged by Mikey and her. Skinny thought for a long time about returning home and collecting her punishment and spot in the dirt. If the woods just continued and led to more black traps set up by Egger and Pa, it was a matter of time before they caught up to her. “So stupid! Stupid bitch!” How could she leave the badge behind. She should have been forced to carry it with her forever, a reminder of every terrible thing she’d done. “Stupid! Stupid!” She stomped her feet on the dirt, she shouldn’t have stopped that truck—should have disappeared into the woods forever.

The day was still young, and though Skinny felt deserving of death, she was caught off-guard by the sun’s omniscient optimism. It couldn’t penetrate her guilt-armor, but Skinny felt warmer, brighter, and could trace the cracks in her fingernails in the glow of tossed rays—details she’d never known about herself. Her eyes walked up her arm, stopping at every knot and bruise, every grass stain and clump of dirt, examining the forest etched into her body. For a second, Skinny believed she was turning into the forest. There were some kids who ran away and never came back—maybe they turned into the forest, too. Maybe the only way to hide from Egger and Pa forever without getting caught was to drown in the woods, become a tree, and stand petrified for the rest of forever, watching them chase children and occasionally whipping Egger with a low-hanging branch.