Treelights: A short story

Two friends help each other find direction during a game of hide-and-seek in the woods at night. A short story.

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1. Treelights

Treelights

I know the flashlight is dying when I leave the house. I don’t have to squint through the orangey beam to see the delicate filament’s barely glowing. But it’s the last one, and when Linden hands it to me, his fingers brush mine, and, dumb me, I just follow him into the woods, trailing after my flashlight’s quavering patch, pathetic next to his spotlight.

He offers to trade, or to share (he has enough light for both of us), and the idea puts a desperate glitter in my stomach, but on some half-baked whim, I decline. I don’t know why.

All five of us friends meet in the clearing south of Linden’s house, excitement reverberating in the sleepy air. Linden explains the rules of the game with a kind of natural, concise control that people pay attention to. If it was me, they’d interrupt and squabble the moment I opened my mouth, but not with Linden.

The game is easy: one person gets dizzy, loses direction, has to hunt down everyone else. When you get found, you join the hunter’s team and help them look. The last one found “wins” and chooses the next hunter. As far as tactics, anything goes.

Al is first. The rest of us space ourselves around the clearing, each facing a different direction. North, south, east, west. Linden’s north. I’m west. Al puts his head down, closes his eyes, and spins himself dizzy for ten counts as the rest of us sprint, each into our own spindly neck of the woods.

The trail is a bumpy log, off-kilter and rolling away. I try to run quietly. Zig-zag. Look for places to hide. As I go, I mostly just stumble over various sticks and stones. And maybe a squirrel. I don’t know.

Eventually, I walk. As I move along, stealthier now, the shadowed glow of my flashlight flickers. I shake it, feeling the clunk of the massive batteries inside against the thick yellow plastic. It brightens for a hot second, then washes back out, slightly darker than before.

I can’t hear Al’s counting anymore. He’s probably done, disoriented, and on the prowl. I shine the light around me, watching its edges bend and warp over sticks and dead leaves. Odd shadows collect in its wake, closing in.

Just as I start to wonder what might be skulking around, the batteries in the flashlight croak. I try shaking it again, turning it off and back on, waiting, wishing, all the things you try, but nothing works. Defeated, I look around. I feel lost, like I was the one spun around and tossed into these leery trees. It strikes me; I don’t know which direction I’m facing, and have no way to find out. I don’t remember our fourth grade astronomy unit enough to know how to find the North Star.

Well, on the bright side, it will be much harder for Al to hunt me down without a light to track. I sit down, leaning against a tree, back rasping as it scrapes against the bark, and draw my knees to my chest.

If Linden were here, he’d probably offer me his jacket, or, better yet, build me a fire to keep warm. With my track record, I’d probably tell him not to bother, that it turns out that I’m really not shivery at all and just... get goosebumps sometimes. Randomly. I don’t know why.

But I am cold, and I kick myself again for not sharing a flashlight with him. We could have been a team. A nice, warm, illuminated team. I slip  my hands up into the sleeves of my ratty sweatshirt, press the fabric against my cheeks, cold to the touch, like they belong to someone else.

The longer I sit, shivering and looking at the starry sky, the dark woods seem less like a suffocating evil and more like a simple, watery curtain.

From far off, I hear crackling in the brush, and the frozen hairs on the back of my neck raise. I need to run, or hide. Especially if it’s Al.

A voice comes with the rustling. I can’t tell where from. It’s a muffled, drawn out “Maggggiee...”

This could be a clever ploy to draw me to Al. I stay quiet and sneak to my feet. My hand scratches the gritty, rough ground. When I move my hair out of my face, I catch an autumnal whiff of dirt and rotting leaves.

“Maaag-gie!” But it doesn’t sound like Al. It’s too deep, too controlled, more like...Linden. Linden? It doesn’t quite sound like Linden. It couldn’t be anyone else, though.

Whoever it is, if he thinks I’m just going to give up my position, he’s sorely mistaken.

I’m halfway up a tree when I hear it again, my name, but this time I notice it. His voice is riding on the verge of desperation like he’s halfway down a cliff and without much thought, I decide to screw the game.

“I’m here!” I yell back, dropping out of the tree, and nearly losing my balance on the landing. Oops.

I spin around, trying to figure out where I hear him from, but I don’t know. All I do is further lose my own sense of direction, lose my own way without moving two feet.

“MAGGIE?”

“HERE!” I start to stumble through the scraggly, dead underbrush, the skeletal tentacles sleepily scraping at my shoes, socks, jeans. I can’t hear anything but the razor of urgency in his voice, I can’t see anything but the delicate, emaciated branches in the dark, waving as I pass, humming to me, hurry up, good luck, you’re close...

I hear him clearly now, but where? I whirl through the gauzy dark, and I feel like I may as well be in space for the amount of nothing I feel around me.

“I’m right—” I turn around to him. The ghostly fear on his face seems more real than he does in the dark. “What’s wrong?”

He tries to play it cool, but he’s quivering. “Nothing,” he says, a little too quick. “My—uh, I was lost. Figured you were closest.”

Somewhere far away, a twig snaps. He snaps down with it. Then, sheepishly, he straightens up, avoids my eyes.

It dawns on me; he’s scared of the dark. I’m glad I didn’t trade for his flashlight earlier, I think, and then I realize, he doesn’t have it anymore.

“What happened to your flashlight?”

He scratches his neck, curling pink tiger stripes down to his collarbone. “I, uh, dropped it. Thought maybe you could help fi—” He looks over his shoulder. What ghastly thing does he see, lurking behind him? The trees whisper to me, but maybe to him, they scream.

I can hear his nails on his neck now, the ragged scrape, scrape, scrape—

Impulsively, I take his sticky hand and try to calm it, but icicles have grown in place of my fingers. He jerks around, and for a moment, I wonder if he’s going to attack me, like I was lurching for his neck... “Linden.”

“Sorry, sorry.” His hand is still an earthquake in mine, but I clutch it anyway. “I just, God. Um, do you have light?”

He looks at me, frantic with haggard madness I’ve never seen on anyone before. I try the flashlight again, to no avail. I swear. Not helpful. I’m not sure he’s even breathing. I know I’m not.

I look around for anything, anything bright, anything at all. The whole forest is tinder, so a fire would kill us all, all the fireflies have dropped dead by now, I don’t know which way to go to get back to the house...there’s nothing. Nothing. I’m useless.

Normally, Linden would be the one to help. He’d know what to do. He’d probably just look up and summon two fat batteries and an Olympic torch right out of the sky.

The sky. Stars. Light.

“Hey, look up,” I say, drawing his attention. “What do you know about stars?”

For a small ice age, he doesn’t say anything, but slowly, slowly, his breathing steadies. The whole forest seems to subdue with him, the first loop of a complex knot finally picked loose. That’s when I start to breathe again.

“Ursa Minor,” he eventually says, and points, but there are so many stars, it’s pointless. “The Little Dipper, see?” I don’t at first, but then, all at once, it twinkles and I wonder how I couldn’t before. “The bright one at the end of the handle, that’s Polaris. The North Star.”

He’s okay now. Cool Linden with all the answers is back. A surge of relief crashes around me. “Welcome back,” I say.

He does a wry smile and squeezes my hand, still grasping his. “Thanks.”

And so we stand, soaking up the opalescent starlight, waiting to be found.

(fin)

 
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