The morning sunshine bounces from the long, honeyed tresses of the young woman stretched out on the deck. Harry watches from the kitchen window as she rolls onto her side, revealing her slim, toned body. Her gaze searches the view of the lake house from behind her large, sleek sunglasses, and he tenses, expecting to hear the sound of his name.
“Harry?” she cries, exasperation already evident in her tone. “Harry! Where are you? I need my hat, the wide-brimmed one. The weather today is just too damn hot!”
She fans herself dramatically with her free hand, peering into the oversized windows of the impressive house beyond her.
“Harry!” This time she is yelling, the irritation etched into the smooth skin of her face.
Harry appears in the doorway away to her right. “Yes, Miss Locks?” he calls, his voice the essence of patience after decades attending to the needs of the young woman sunning herself on the deck.
Vexed, she swings her legs into a sitting position. “My hat, Harry! Please bring me my hat!” She stands, her arms coming to rest against her hips as she watches the older man nod in acknowledgement.
“Yes, of course,” he says, backing away as he moves inside the house in search of the latest requirement. For all of her insolence, he has been serving her family for too long to allow Daniel’s daughter to ruin his mood. He is well used to her, and her ever-increasing demands. There was once a time when she was a pretty young thing, running around her father’s ankles, blonde hair flying behind her. He had loved her then, and her free-spirited passion for everything she saw before her. But Daniel was never really there for his daughter, compensating for his lack of attention with outlandish gifts. Expensive cars and skiing trips followed ponies and pools, and before Harry knew it, she was all grown up. Now aged twenty-four, Goldie’s many years of overindulgence mean that she is spoiled rotten.
Spotting her hat on the dresser, he collects it, before returning to the lounging woman outside.
“Here you go, miss,” he says, handing it to her politely.
“About time,” she snaps, snatching the brim from his hand and positioning it on top of her head. “I cannot allow the sun to ruin my skin, Harry. Do you know how bad UV light is for premature ageing?”
Harry blinks at her as though he has no clue, but nods his head nonetheless. “Yes, miss,” he agrees, moving to tidy some glasses on the table next to her.
“Be a darling and bring me another smoothie, will you, Harry?” she says with a yawn, as she stretches out in front of him. “I think I will take it easy today, but tomorrow I might go for an explore.”
She turns her head to the lake, eyeing the dark expanse of tall trees beyond it. Her father only recently bought the place and she found something about the view utterly compelling.
Watching her gaze, Harry shakes his head. “You don’t want to go wandering in there, miss,” he warns her. “Those forests are deep and uninhabited. Anything could happen to a young woman like you in a place like that.”
Goldie snorts at his concern, twisting her head to smile at him. “Oh, Harry,” she coos, “don’t be so dramatic! You know Daddy has paid for me to go on advanced orienteering courses. Don’t let my good looks fool you into thinking I can’t survive in the wilderness!”
The older man regards her in silence, unsure whether to be more worried about her vanity or her arrogance. “Very well,” he says eventually. “I will go and fetch the smoothie for you.”
As Harry wanders back into the luxury of the lake house, the young woman flips onto her stomach, resting her head against the soft pillows. He doesn’t see her move, or notice the way her gaze scans the woods again, but he knows her well enough to know what she is thinking. Goldie can be reckless when it suits her, and there’s never been anyone around to guide her. One day, if she isn’t careful, she’ll bite off more than she can chew. He shakes his head as he muses on her willful character, hoping that tomorrow doesn’t turn out to be that day…
The forests here are a wild and ancient affair. The trees have seen the turn of more than one century, and their roots run deep under the soil of the earth. Within these woods live many untamed creatures. Animals you will know only from fairy tales, and some of which you will assume only exist there. Predators here though, come in the form of many creatures: the wolves, foxes, and weasels that claim the dirt, and the hawks and eagles that patrol the skies. Each is adapted perfectly to its environment, taking only what it needs to survive within its habitat.
The same is true for us. My brothers and I have lived here for many decades, our lifespans exaggerated somehow by the same genetic kink that has allowed our unique transformation to take place. We settled in the deepest part of the woods, the location chosen deliberately to increase our isolation and diminish the chances of happening upon the inhabitants of local towns who sometimes like to visit the forest. We only venture into such populated areas once or twice a year, when we need those things that even the beautiful forest cannot provide, but we survive mainly on our own initiative, using the resources of the forest to feed and house us.
As the eldest brother, I learned to master my condition a long time ago, and I used this control to help us build a life amongst the ancient trees. Our home, though not grandiose, is strong and substantial. Built from the natural environment around us, our original cozy little cabin has been built into a great cottage. There are now bedrooms for all three of us, a comfortable living space, and an oversized kitchen for family mealtimes.
It is in this warm and busy hub that you find us one bright summer morning, around the dining table at breakfast…
“There is still much to achieve,” I say, pulling an enormous chunk of bread from the loaf sitting on the table.
“Hey! Save some for us, Logan,” complains Heath, away to my right.
I turn to look at him with a low growl, but the smile has already broken on my face before he can respond. Even so, his palms fly up in a conciliatory manner. “Only kidding, big brother,” he replies, shoving me in the arm. “I know you’re the boss!”
Reaching for him, I pull my youngest brother into an embrace, which of course he resists at all costs. “Damn right, Heath,” I laugh. “But never fear, I believe there is another loaf in the larder.”
“So, what is today’s grand plan, Logan?” The voice of my other brother, Ethan resonates from across the table. His low sarcastic tone cuts through the convivial atmosphere at the table, and I move back from Heath, assessing Ethan as I resume my place.
“We need to find a better way to control the river water,” I explain, taking a bite of the tasty homemade bread. “The storms last winter caused so much damage that even our interim work is proving insufficient.”
“What do you propose?” asks Ethan. “We worked freaking hard on that dam in the spring.”
Once again, I assess my brother, acknowledging the cutting tone in his remark. He sips at his drink as I watch him, and a silence falls over the table as we contemplate one another. Ethan has always been different from Heath and me. While I do not recall much about our father, it would appear from conversations with Ma that Heath and I bear a heavy resemblance to him. Our tall, dark looks are very similar to each other. We both wear our hair long, tied usually into a ponytail at our necks. Heath, it seems, has inherited our father’s dark brown eyes, while I, like Ethan, have deep blue ones instead. That is where the resemblance with Ethan ends though. Unlike our darker brown locks, he sports shorter, fair hair, worn to an irritating length that consistently sits in his eyes. He is not as tall as myself and Heath, but is arguably broader, with strong, muscular shoulders.
More than that though, Ethan is a free spirit, or at least he would like to be. While I am compelled by the traditions of our kind, and the need to create a stable home for us within the limits of our environment, Ethan has little time for such conventions. Heath is usually reliable, but Ethan strains to be free of the demands I set upon him. I wonder how long I will be able to contain him in the cottage at all.
His stare is insistent as he waits for me to elaborate. “We just need something stronger,” I explain as I finish the bread in my hand. “Your work in the spring was grand, Ethan, but was only ever going to be a temporary measure. We were all down there just last week, and you saw for yourself just how unstable it is now.”
He scowls at my response, clearly unimpressed with the verdict. “If my work isn’t good enough, brother, then why not just ask the beavers to start work instead?”
His blond brow raises at his snipe, challenging me as he often does. I smile, pushing back against my younger brother. “Perhaps they will assist if you ask nicely,” I reply glibly.
Ethan stares at me, his expression glazed with the indignation he feels.
“Oh, come now,” says Heath, interjecting as he tends to do when Ethan and I butt heads. “If we all work together we can get the problem fixed?”
“My little brother, the peacemaker,” says Ethan, his gaze finally falling into a smile. “Who would have thought?”
The tension in the room begins to dissipate, and soon we are all resolved. Once breakfast is complete, we will head out into the woods and assess what work needs to be done to control the coming torrent. Storms in these parts can be wild and dangerous affairs, causing havoc in our uninhabited part of the world. And havoc is one thing that I cannot abide.
I slip away before breakfast. Harry is up already of course, but he is easy to get past, and I leave him a note feigning an unexpected party I have been invited to in California. I know it will be hours before he realizes my lie, and even then, I can convince my girlfriends Sindy and Claire to reinforce it. Harry is accustomed to me coming and going as I choose, and what he doesn’t know about, he won’t have to concern himself over. He may be a stuffy old man, but he is the closest thing I’ve had to a real father figure, and I don’t like the idea of worrying him. Daddy, on the other hand, is still comatose from the bourbon-induced stupor he drank himself into the night before. I take his Jeep, knowing he won’t mind, and frankly not much caring if he happens to. As far as I am concerned, he owes me a new car, and the Lamborghini is hardly suitable for the forest.
Now, twisting the four by four around the roads by the side of the lake, I am resolute. A day of adventure awaits me in the wild—I’ll hike for a while, find the river that runs into the lake I can see from our house, and take in some of the surroundings. I know Daddy has great plans for this area, so I figure this may be the last opportunity I get to explore before he levels the place.
I head north, following the cut of the massive lake to my left, before the landscape breaks and is consumed by the tall, ancient trees of the area. Slowing down, I look for somewhere to enter the forest. The Jeep is not a small vehicle, and the trunks of most of the trees are frustratingly too close together to allow me access to the woods. There is, however, a small break in the foliage, so I pull onto the dirt and park up just inside the trees. The Jeep cannot be visible from the road—the last thing I need to do is arouse any suspicion. Daddy’s men patrol this area, and for sure they will recognize his car if it is abandoned. I’ll continue on foot from here. Pulling my brand new smart phone from the tight pocket of my shorts, I switch on the GPS. At once the device comes to life, giving me the exact coordinates of my current location. I add a marker to the map, enabling me to find my way back to the Jeep without getting lost, and grab my backpack from the passenger seat. The pack is heavy, straining against my shoulders as I move it into place, and fleetingly I consider just going back to the lake house, and enjoying what looks set to be another glorious day in the sunshine.
Yesterday had been fine; working on my tan and sipping cool drinks, with the view of the lake to amuse me while I chatted with Sindy and Claire on social media. Yet the girls can’t make it out here for days, and I am getting bored with only old Harry for company. I’m resolved, and begin my exploration with vigor, moving inside the forest with ease. Despite my taste for the finer things in life, and everything that Daddy’s money can buy me, there is still a part of me that likes to get dirty, climb trees, and build forts. This will be the day to satiate those desires. I can top up my tan tomorrow.
I make my way deep between the trees, forcing back the branches with my hands. By the time I stop for a drink I find my beautifully manicured hands covered in cuts and scratches. Riled, I check my legs, exposed from the bottom of my shorts down to my hiking boots. They equally bear the brunt of my adventure, and I sigh, irritated with my short-sightedness. Why had I not thought to cover my legs? Now my long limbs will be ruined by unsightly scrapes and bruises, and all because of my own stupidity.
Exasperated, I check my location according to the GPS. I have made some headway into the dense forest, but of course there are many miles of woods in all directions. I spot what looks like a river away to the west, but decide that it’s too far to reach in one day. Instead I set a course to hike a circuit and make my way back to the Jeep, and I trek on for what feels like hours. Scrambling through the terrain is hard work, and after a while, I check my watch and find that I have indeed been gone some time. It’s now nearly eleven o’clock. I wonder if anyone has messaged me. Sindy often gets in touch when she wakes up, so I reach for my phone once again. Irritatingly, I find I have no signal, and wherever I stand or wave my arms, it makes no difference. The high canopies of the trees cover much of the space overhead, letting in little light and, it seems, little phone coverage.
“Typical,” I murmur to myself. “So much for modern technology!”
I flick to my GPS function, and find that this also means I have lost my location. A wave of unease travels through me, but I suppress the feeling, drawing on my experiences from similar past endeavors. Pulling the pack from my shoulders, I stretch my back as the intolerable weight is finally removed. Rummaging through its contents, I eventually find my compass. I haven’t needed to use this for a long time, but at least when I hold it in the air it is able to give me an idea of which way I should travel. Decided about which direction to move ahead in, I pause to nibble some of the snacks I had raided from the cupboards before I left. They are all high in carbs, and I grin to myself as I imagine what Sindy and Claire would say if they knew about my indulgence! Still, I reconcile that the hike itself will burn a few hundred calories, so I can justify the excess just this once.
Before long, my travels resume, and I make my way onward into the deep darkness of the wood. It takes several hours for me to admit that I’m lost. I’m not known for my humility, and so for a long time I stumble on, looking to my compass for reassurance, even when there is barely enough light from the shade of the highest branches to even make out what it says. I flick on my smart watch and stare at the digits in shock. 17:47—I’ve been here the whole day! I have no idea where I am, and worse, I am never going to be able to find my way back to the Jeep, even if I had the energy to do so.
Tears of exasperated frustration rise in me, and I slam my small fists against the pack. How can I have been so stupid? The day has been completely wasted, I’m scratched, tired, and worse still, I am clueless as to how I can get home. Why didn’t I foresee that all my shiny technology would stop working in a place like this? I look around me, the dark branches now oppressive as they contort in all directions, concealing my presence to the outside world. I am trapped in here, lost and utterly helpless without the use of my GPS or phone to save me.
Fumbling for the side of the pack, I find my water bottle and drain the remainder of its contents into my parched mouth. My head throbs with the anger I feel at my own stupidity, but there’s nothing to be done about it. With my water gone, I know that I have to find my way to the river—it’s the only realistic chance I have of surviving out here until I can figure out a way to track my route back. Hey, maybe the trees will be less dense there, and I’ll be able to get a signal? The thought is encouraging, and stirs a new wave of energy through my weary body. Slinging my pack on my back and ignoring my screaming muscles, I press on, trying to remember in which direction I had seen the river earlier in the day.
I head in what I believe to be a north-westerly direction, fighting my way through the hard and unforgiving branches as I go. Around me the forest seems to come to life. I look about me and see nothing, yet it’s as though dozens of unseen eyes are watching my progress. Shivering, I lift my head high to check the position of the sun, but it’s well out of my eye-line now, and the blue sky is beginning to cloud over.
I have to find the river, I think to myself as I move on, stumbling over the roots of one of the ancient trees. I have to find the river… The line runs through my head, like a melody, driving me on when my tired muscles are telling me to stop.
At length the darkness of the evening falls, and with it all sense of hope is lost. Exhausted, I rest by the side of one of the massive trees, slumping against it as my legs give way beneath me.
The work on the dam went well yesterday, but even with the three of us coordinating our effort, it was a long, arduous task. We gave up as the sun began to fall, returning to the cottage for a well-deserved supper, before collapsing wearily into bed. I can’t speak for my brothers, but I was out for the count in a heartbeat, and only the early morning sun rouses me from my slumber.
I stretch as I wake, assessing the view from my window at the top of the cottage. I will never tire of the scene, the green canopy of the trees hanging tall and proud, the branches interlinking to offer welcome shade in this, the hottest of all months. Somewhere to my right two birds begin to sing, and I pause, tilting my head to listen to their happy song. Today is the day, I decide. We will get the dam finished, and then tomorrow we can rest. At least for a day or two. I know that both Ethan and Heath will appreciate the time for recuperation, and even I am beginning to feel fatigue at the task we have undertaken.
Dressing quickly in casual shorts and a tee-shirt, I make my way down our narrow, upper staircase, trying not to wake my brothers as I pass their rooms on the first floor. By the time I reach the lower stairs however, the sounds emanating from the kitchen suggest that someone has already beaten me here.
“Good morning, Logan!” Heath’s voice sweeps through the room, from his place at the stove.
“Heath?” I ask, staggered to see him not only awake, but dressed and preparing a meal. “What’s this, breakfast?”
The room is strewn with the evidence of his creation. The ends of vegetables grown in our small plot decorate the counter, a number of which have landed on the floor at his feet.
Heath swivels, flashing me a brilliant smile. “Not breakfast, brother,” he replies, adding what looks like chopped carrots into the huge pot simmering before him. “Supper. Last night’s picnic was just not enough for a growing beast like me, so I decided to make something a little more wholesome for tonight. Goodness knows we’ll need it.”
He winks at me before turning and adding something else to the pot. I move toward him, eyeing the contents hungrily. “So, what’s on the menu, Heath?” I enquire.
Stirring the concoction with a long wooden spoon, he turns to look at me with excited eyes. “Soup, brother. I’m adding potatoes and carrots, plus some other secret ingredients.” He pauses here, adding emphasis to the final words. “There’s plenty of bread waiting to accompany it too.”
I inhale deeply, my sensitive nostrils collecting the scent of the bubbling vegetables in front of him. Whatever it is, it smells good, and I smile, infected by his contagious gusto. “It certainly smells appetizing,” I say, slapping him on the back as I deliver the compliment. “Thank you, Heath.”
“Thank me later, Logan,” he responds, laughing. “I guarantee you’ll be asking for second helpings! I’ll cook the soup now, and leave it in the pot for when we return.”
“Great stuff,” I say, collecting some bread and honey for breakfast. “In the meantime, I’ll fill up on this, and get Ethan moving. The sooner we get started, the sooner we can get to enjoy your creation!”
He nods from the stove. “Sure, big brother,” he answers. “I can’t wait to devour this later.”
I make my way to the table, pulling out one of the wooden seats and falling backwards onto it. Below me I hear the fibers of the material groan, and the first creaks of the strain sound out around me.
“Uh-oh,” sniggers my youngest brother. “Looks like someone has eaten too much already?”
I rise from the chair before the whole thing collapses underneath the weight of me, and move it back to the counter behind me. At the same time, I hurl my bread at Heath’s head, hitting my intended target, although he has already turned back to his pot. “Hold your tongue, little brother,” I reply. “My muscles were growing before you were even out of the crib. I’ll strengthen the chair when we return, and in the meantime, no more wisecracks from you!”
The first thing that hits me is the cold. I am curled up in a ball against the same tree that I had collapsed against last evening, the roots creating a hard and unforgiving bed for me. I move tentatively, wiggling my fingers and trying to do the same with my toes, still encased tightly in my hiking boots. And then I’m awake; the reality of everything that has taken place hitting me in the face like cold water. I open my eyes, noticing dozens of small insects scurrying past my face.
“Ahhh!” I scream, darting into a standing position in a flash, and dusting down my hair and clothes in a frenzy of activity. “Urgh, I hate this place! God knows why I ever wanted to explore it.”
My heart is racing out of my chest as I contemplate the number of insects that may have made their way across me over the course of the night. The thought makes me nauseous, and all at once I’d give anything to be back in the comfort of my bed at the lake house. I choke back a low sob that catches in my throat, and draw in a deep breath. It will be okay, I tell myself. I’ll find the river today, get a signal, and call Harry for help. I reach down for my pack, my hand clasping the handle unsteadily.
It’s then that I hear it.
Just a small motion in the trees behind me, barely any movement at all, and yet it paralyzes me with fear. Something is in the trees… I am shaking as I twist my head slowly to the right, barely able to breathe for fear of what I may see.
My eyes scan the shrubs linking the swollen trunks of the trees. I can’t see anything, but it does nothing to slow down my racing heart. I know what I heard, and it was something moving over there. I don’t waste any more time. Flinging the pack onto my back, I begin to run. Hurdling over the roots that sit proud from the earth, I run like I have never run before. I run until my chest hurts and the tears are stinging my eyes, convinced that at any moment I will be jumped from behind by some dangerous predator. I have heard tales about how bears like to roam these parts, but had always believed these to be silly stories designed for frightening small children—until now.
Having no clue which way I am going, and even less concern about my direction, I merely flee. I don’t know how long I run for, but by the time I slow I feel sick to my stomach. I crouch, doubled over from the exertion. None of my gym visits have ever made me feel this way, not even the sessions with the gorgeous Pete, my personal trainer. Standing slowly, I lean dizzily against another large tree, and stare insistently at the route I have just come from. When nothing appears from the trees, I finally begin to relax a little, taking deliberate, deep breaths to try to slow my racing heart.
It’s then that something ahead of me grabs my focus. I look up, peering through the trees, and for the first time I notice their number diminishing. There appears to be a clearing up ahead, and my heart leaps at the prospect. I lurch forward, using the last of my strength to stumble over the roots and branches until I make it out from the last tree. The sunlight from overhead hits me, and I lift my head to feel its warmth, welcoming the light on my skin. As though I am working on autopilot, I reach for my phone, excited that I am now—finally—going to be able to use it to call Harry. I tap the front, expecting to see the familiar glow from its screen, but instead there is nothing. No light, no response, no power. The thing has gone flat in my pocket overnight.
In anger, I throw it into the long grass ahead, falling to my knees with the utter frustration of the whole thing. I can’t believe this is happening to me. Women like me do not end up like this; lost in forests, and defenseless against whatever wants to prey upon them! I sob for a while, allowing all of my hopeless feelings to come out as the tears make tracks down my cheeks. After the self-pity, I crawl forward, collecting my phone and shoving it inside my backpack. With a heavy heart, I draw myself up, knowing that I must find the river if I am going to get through this.
I wander on, walking around the edge of some trees, determined to compose myself in the aftermath of my hideous outburst. As I round to my right the sight that meets my eyes makes my heart race like thunder once again. A large wooden cottage sits proudly in the clearing, its roof created from long, interlinked logs. Swallowing hard, I catch my breath. A cottage, here? Who would choose to live in this Godforsaken part of the forest?
Whoever it is, there’s no doubt, I need their help right now.