“Come on! It’s right over here.” Nellie tugged on Tristan’s hand, pulling him deeper into the woods.
“Are you sure you’re not just making this up?” Tristan asked, but he followed her anyway, because he always did. There was a silver string that connected their souls, and it would always tug him after her, from this life into the next. He tromped along behind his best friend as they crunched leaves and twigs under their feet. They weren’t afraid of the woods – they explored there all the time, searching for rocks and tiny animal bones and hidden treasures. There were plenty to be found in this area. The woods were their kingdom; whenever they were bored, Tristan and Nellie would escape into the trees for an hour or two, sometimes three, sometimes until the sun disappeared from the sky. In the woods, time was only a word.
The wizened tree trunks they passed were marked with nicks and slashes to keep track of all the trails they’d blazed over the years, and their initials were carved in the bark of every tree. The spaces between the branches held all their secrets, whispered to no one but each other and the birds. They ruled over the forest like kings.
Earlier that day, Nellie had gone into the woods by herself. It was rare that she ever explored without Tristan – they were next-door neighbors and, in turn, inseparable – but this morning when she woke up, she’d felt something in her chest that pulled her towards the whispering trees. She’d dodged her parents and didn’t bother to tell Tristan, even though he would be mad; she simply walked into the line of trees at the edge of her backyard, and her feet seemed to forge a path of their own.
After a while, she stumbled across a small clearing that she thought might’ve been someone’s backyard a long, long time ago, before her house was built and before the forest around her was a forest. In the clearing was a three-foot high crumbling statue of an angel, and a big, perfectly round circle low in the ground that Nellie thought must’ve been a pond or a fountain once upon a time. The circle was a mosaic, and the picture in it was a large oak tree. Nellie recognized it – the Celtic Tree of Life. The branches stretched to the top of the circle and the roots buried themselves in the bottom, curving along the sides until they met the tips of the branches and intertwined to complete the circle. It was made from faded green and blue stones, and it was just big enough for an average adult to lie across.
There was a gray stone bench next to the statue of the angel, fit for two. Nellie looked at the angel when she sat. Its wings were spread out behind her – her, Nellie decided, it was a woman – and she wore a tattered gown. Her hair stopped at her shoulders, she had a circlet of thorns on her head, and her face looked so sad. There was a single stone tear etched on her cheek and her mouth was open in a cry. Her arms were stretched out in front of her, like she was grasping for something she would never be able to reach.
It was a beautiful place. There was something about it that was indescribably sad and lonely, and there was something sort of dark about it that made Nellie feel just the tiniest bit foreboding. It felt rich with history, a story that she wasn’t sure she wanted to know about. But it was also like something out of a fairytale. Nellie had kept it to herself for most of the day, sitting on the bench and imagining things, counting the tiles in the mosaic, before she decided to show Tristan. She wanted to share it with him, as they shared everything.
“I’m not making it up,” she said now, giving Tristan a dry look as she pulled him along behind her. “It should be right … here.”
She stopped and looked around her uncertainly, and Tristan smirked smugly. She frowned at him.
“I’m not making it up,” Nellie repeated with conviction. “I swear. I found it this morning.” She crossed her arms over her chest and looked up at the canopy of brown and red treetops above them as if the autumn leaves personally offended her, and then turned her head back and forth, trying to decide which direction to go in. She was sure she’d been going the right way.
“It’s getting dark out, anyway,” Tristan said, tugging on her hand. “Let’s just look for it tomorrow.”
“No. I think it’s this way.” She let go of his hand and started walking determinedly forward, deeper into the woods. Tristan hesitated for a moment before following her. He kept his eyes on the back of her head. There was a golden leaf stuck in her waves of fiery hair.
After a few more minutes of walking, Nellie stopped again and shook her head. The leaf fluttered to the ground. She didn’t notice. “I don’t understand. It was right here.”
“I believe you,” Tristan said, looking nervously up at the darkening sky. They’d never been in the woods this late before – they always went home at twilight. “Maybe it’ll be easier to find tomorrow, when it’s lighter out. Everything looks different when it’s dark.”
Nellie sighed. “I guess you’re right.” She took his hand and held onto it tightly. Tristan squeezed back. He would never admit he was afraid, but he could tell Nellie was starting to get scared, and the way he squeezed her hand made it easy to tell that he shared her feelings.
“We’ll just come back tomorrow,” he said, leading the way towards home. Nellie didn’t say anything. Her eyebrows were drawn together in consternation and she still had a little frown on her freckled face.
When they were halfway home, Nellie stopped abruptly, jarring Tristan to a halt.
“What is it?” he asked her, his heart beating faster.
She didn’t speak, but her jewel-green eyes were wide with terror. She pulled her hand out of Tristan’s and began running east, opposite of home.
Tristan ran after her. “Nell, what is it? Where are you going?” He tried to grab her hand and pull her back, but she kept running, her footsteps frantic. He had no choice but to follow her.
Afterwards, he really, really wished he hadn’t.