It had been a very bad day.
That Naomi would admit. It hadn't been a terribly productive day either; she'd admit that too. Not only had the teasing got worse, she'd had an argument with her best friend. She hadn't wanted it to be that way but Chari was being so irritating, then she gave her that scare and Naomi couldn't hold herself back.
She sat down at her desk and stared vacantly into space, re-living it and wincing at every word she regretted saying. It was an accident she kept telling herself and tomorrow she'd apologise. Homework was going to have to wait; Naomi was going to think up a pretty major speech. But what if something went wrong? She'd known her friend since nursery school and refused to imagine not having her around.
Naomi was broken out of her daydream as the screech of sirens cut through her trail of thought. She stood up trying to get a better view of whoever the police were chasing but there was no car in front of the proud yet battered white mustang. As she watched its progress to her horror it parked outside the house. She saw a man in a recently dirtied uniform leave the police car and ring the bell. As its melody echoed around the house she raced down the stairs and hurled the door open.
"Is this the Swept residence?" asked a rather startled looking man.
He was quite tall and loomed over Naomi despite her recent teenage growth spurts. He was wearing a proper formal posture, from one glance at his sternly set mouth and grim expression it looked like he meant business but Naomi was good at reading people, she could tell it was something more than that from the clenching of his hands. But what was his business here?
"Yes –" began Naomi but her mum was by her side as soon as she'd started the sentence and she knew she'd have no chance of getting a word in sideways.
"Yes officer." replied her mother calmly flicking a lock of black hair back from her forehead.
But that little distraction didn't stop Naomi from noticing the: "We'll talk about this later" look she gave her. Naomi's mother may not have been a wizard but she was a master of the little things in life. Sighing in frustration Naomi slowly climbed back up the stairs and sat down half way up eager to listen in peering through the white banisters but was distracted by another piercing noise of sirens.
"Another police car maybe? What is going on!?" she whispered to herself quietly, desperately trying to eavesdrop over the sound of the siren; however she could only hear snippets of their conversation.
"I'm afraid someone very close to your daughter has –"
Then the man leaned closer towards her mother so she'd hear him more clearly and when he drew back her mother looked considerably shocked.
"If you'll excuse me for a minute." he said politely then exited the house for a brief second. This time there was no need to strain my ears, what he said was perfectly clear. "SHUT OFF THAT BLOODY SIREN!"
When he came back into the house it was with a strong determination but Naomi couldn't even begin to understand what for.
"What? Who? How? -" exclaimed Naomi's mother.
"Exactly. At the time plenty of children were walking home from school, plenty of witnesses, plenty of people in shock but one of the more sane ones told me about some of Chari's background. Said she'd recently had an argument with yours truly." He announced gruffly nodding up in the direction of Naomi's room.
In any normal situation Naomi would have ducked down but this involved Chari and she did exactly the opposite sprinting back down the stairs two steps at a time until she was in front of the officer.
"What's wrong? What's happened to her?" Naomi questioned frantically. Whatever it was it could not be good. Her panicked eyes glanced at both of the adults then she ran outside.
There was an ambulance.
Inside there was Chari. Lying on a stretcher, broken and barely alive, her eyes flickering back and forth between me and various nurses by her side who had tried to restrain my entrance but now I didn't have the strength to move. I just stared at the remains of my best friend. I tried to find the words to apologise, honestly I did but they would not come. Not even at her last moment. She smiled with her bloodied lips, it was hard to find a body part of her that wasn't covered in blood and whispered croakily: "I know."
From then on everything seemed unreal it couldn't be, it was too horrific. That was when Naomi blacked out and everything changed.
How My Life Got Trashed.
We had an assembly to commemorate her. I was crying for nearly the whole day: crying myself dry, crying myself to sleep. All days seem to end like that now. My form tutor talked to me after lunch about Chari but I couldn't stop crying and her pity began to turn to anger as it was clear her words were having no effect. I can't help it but I can't focus. It's like I'm losing my grip on reality. I can't sleep. I'm turning into a complete insomniac. When I do manage to fall asleep it's during school time and I wake up screaming. People have got into the habit of nudging me before I wake myself up. Miss Ward wasn't the first teacher who asked if I wanted to see a counsellor but I've recently been making more of an attempt to pull myself together. Have a more positive outlook on things you know? If I start seeing a counsellor people are really going to start thinking I'm crazy. As if they don't whisper enough behind my back as it is! The rumours make me miss the teasing, the bullies keep well away from me now. Fortunately I think my "positive attitude" idea is beginning to work, though my new insomniac-ness seems to be here to stay.
On the way home today I took the route through the forest and nearly got lost. In this strange, dreamlike state of mind it took a while for me to convince myself it was worth finding an exit. Just as well I found my way again really, I certainly don't want to bump into Yenac Morcen. She is an old loner who lives in there apparently. I've never seen her, but I've heard rumours and that's as close as I want to get. I've heard kids saying she's decades old and it'll be her 200th birthday soon. But what do they know? They're just kids. One thing I do know is that she was headline news several years back. Somebody once tried to tear down the forest in order to build a parking lot. Yenac said that if the forest was going to die she'd go with it. Next thing you know the person who wanted it built was dead, but there was no proof that Yenac had gone anywhere near him of course. Since then nobody's touched her land. There's been other stuff too some people saying she's a witch but around here if somebody is even slightly off their rocker you get a million rumours whizzing around. This place is too secure and safe to have proper stories in the news. Instead you get this. I tell you it really spoils the whole point of learning about broadsheet newspapers and the other sensationalist style types. I never used to believe in the old crone's existence but after Chari died I couldn't let these ideas pass.
Anyways, I managed to go by the road where the accident happened and I had to pause for a mental breakdown by its side as usual. I came by here every day to make sure I never forgot her. It was painful but important. I can normally hold myself together for the day but I can't do it next to my best friend's deathbed. Falling to my knees I burst into tears clutching my chest; it was as if there was a real physical pain there like I'd been shot. The hurt was never normally this bad. I had to gasp for air. A car stopped and somebody rolled down their window to check if I was okay but when they saw who I was they just nodded as if they understood and drove off. Chari's story had been in the newspapers of course and I had been mentioned briefly. I might've been a mini celebrity if it wasn't for the situation. A car crash. One paper subtly hinted it may have been a suicidal jump and it was only voicing what people whispered about behind me. One of the other local papers had interviewed a doctor involved in the treatment of Chari who said that she might've survived if the tree beside the road hadn't fallen on top of her.
That's too much remembering. Oh god another mental breakdown coming…
I know it sounds ridiculous but the forensics team checked the roots of the tree after the accident and it looked like they'd been breaking for a long time, waiting for the right moment to snap, but why did they have to choose that moment?
I slowly made my way home after the depressing reminder that Chari was gone from this world. Sometimes I want to join her; that may save me the pain. But I knew this was one opinion that I should never voice; if my parents, teachers or fellow pupils heard me say it they'd think I was crazy for eternity. I'd never be able to shake off the cruel rumours. The ones that say I killed her that is. I don't know where they got that one from, I didn't even realise it had happened until that fateful evening. But the rumours that really get to me are the ones about the witch in the forest. It's weird, you'd think I'd be more worried about how to get over my friend's death.
I soon found myself to be standing at the door of my home and as I walked in mum came rushing forwards giving me a huge hug.
"What's that for?" I gasped in surprise (my lungs felt like they were being crushed).
Then she drew back from me and pointed at the clock. It was very late. I stared at it in confusion and then realisation; I must've been lost for a lot longer than I thought. That was when my father marched into the room. He looked relieved to see me but I could sense what was coming next. Sure enough he began to yell at me.
"WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING!? YOUR MOTHER AND I WERE WORRIED SICK! GALLAVANTING OFF AT NIGHT WHEN IT WAS ALMOST DARK, WE CONSIDERED CALLING THE POLICE TO SEE IF YOU'D GONE AND DONE ANYTHING STUPID AT SCHOOL! YOU COULD'VE BEEN IN THE FOREST! HAVE YOU ANY IDEA HOW DANGEROUS THAT PLACE IS AT NIGHT!?"
It did not take long for his pale face to turn bright red and he wheezed more with every word. Dad has asthma and unfortunately a short temper. All illnesses or injuries feel worse when you are upset he'd told me many a time. I don't think enough air was getting to his head: "NIGHT WHEN IT WAS ALMOST DARK" didn't make too much sense to me.
"You don't need to remind me about the danger of the forest dad. I know." I sighed impatiently, ever since Chari got hit by that tree he been lecturing me about safety ever since.
"WELL CLEARLY YOU DON'T YOUNG LADY!"
"It was the reason Chari died, do you think that's something I'll forget in a hurry?" I replied with a dark sarcasm lingering in my voice.
"Darling it's not worth it; just be glad she's home." coaxed mum patting dad on the arm.
But that was the wrong thing to do, now he turned on her. He was no longer shouting but his voice was too quiet for this to be a good sign.
"Do you remember how worried we were? Have you forgotten already? Marlina, your mother would've never let her child run amok like this."
Every time dad got annoyed with me and mum tried to sway him he used the mother excuse. It won her over every single time and today was no exception. She looked away, embarrassed that she'd even attempted to stop him from dishing out a good telling off. He turned back to me. Her mother died a long time ago, but all they same they'd not had a happy relationship. She'd always wanted to be her mother's favourite daughter but they never even saw eye-to-eye.
"JUST BECAUSE YOUR FRIEND DIED DOES NOT GIVE YOU AN EXCUSE TO BE SO RECKLESS!"
But he turned to empty space. I'd left, decided it was time to end these nightmares.
I was running, so fast. My breath coming out in short gasps, I couldn't stop. I needed someone to talk to, a friend. One who was actually alive but I didn't have any of those either. I screamed as I felt the pain in my chest once again, this time more painful than ever. I'd always assumed it was a natural part of the grieving process but maybe not. As I neared the forest it got worse and finally I entered it. If there's one way to be suicidal it's to stay in this place overnight, so I did.
Everything went black.
When I opened my eyes I could barely breathe. It felt like I was being smothered, then I opened my mouth and realised I was even if there was nothing actually on it. My chest heaved with the exhaustion. I made an attempt at standing up but I could hardly see anything. I didn't see the brown blur coming towards my back at high speed until it was too late, I was sent flying into a pile of autumn leaves and coughed up whatever it was that had been stuck in my lungs, and felt much better. I suppose I was lucky. As my vision cleared I saw a pile of gunk. I will not go into any further description as you probably don't want to know about the disgusting substance that nearly killed me. I took a deep breath, glad that that option was even possible at the moment but disturbed by wheezy tone to it. Whatever had been and probably still was hurting my chest wasn't just grief and now I knew that. All injuries feel worse when you are upset I thought to myself wisely. I should've told someone about it. Maybe I was finally inheriting my dad's asthma? But he'd never had it this badly. I knelt and spat out a bit more but the icky stuff stuck well to my throat. I stood; then ducked down as now I could see what hit me in the first place. It was a tree branch with an attitude of its own intent to do some damage. It was now probing the area, I'd read about these things before (Harry Potter's whomping willow) if anything could kill me successfully then this thing could. I was about to stand up when something scared me out my wits.
Honestly Nao! So I died it's not the end of the world. Well, it is for me.
I collapsed backwards in a state of shock.
"Chari?" I could barely muster the strength to whisper that.
You need to get out of here. There's no chance of saving me. I'll be stuck in this stupid tree for eternity, you have an actual life to live!
Several things crossed my mind at this point. Things such as: so she's not dead, but is she? She's trapped in a tree? I have a life? I got up and did the stupidest thing I'd ever done: I ran AT the tree. The branches crashed down around me but I managed to dodge most of the blows.
WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING!?
I smiled, grimacing at the returning pain in my lungs.
"You sound just like dad." I croaked.
Then I recognised the tree and knew that I was on the borderlines of the forest, I walked past this spot everyday coming home from school. This was the tree that hit Chari. It was meant to have fallen on her, but now it seemed perfectly normal. Renewed.
It's spiritual regeneration. In this case with a tree. My soul is trapped inside this thing keeping it alive; it's no more than I should be: a carcass. More running and less thinking!
But this had served a good distraction. A branch caught me across my abdomen whacking me in front of huge roots that now grew to incredibly sizes writhing madly in the air ready to entangle me. Then they drew back almost as quickly as they'd appeared.
Get back, I only have a minor influence on this thing. Once it chooses to pounce it will, you're lucky I can restrain it for this long.
I made no hesitation in scurrying back to the pile of leaves I'd fallen on originally.
"What's happened to you?" I asked in wonder.
That's why Yenac Morcen decided to kill me, she needed my soul to keep this tree alive. The whole forest is made up of trapped souls. And everyday she comes to take our sap.
The same as our essence, it is our very being, she feasts on it. Her powers are horrible enough without all the extra power we give her.
"Is that why she never lets this place be cut down? Whenever a tree dies she rebuilds it with a new soul?"
If this place got cut down she wouldn't have enough time to kill enough people to sustain her powers. In this case my soul. Yup.
"That's...that's...horrible!" I exclaimed.
Horrible is too mild a word.
"What can I do?"
If you're sensible - nothing. If you're an idiot you'll just wander on further into the forest.
So I turned around and faced the misty forest. It had never seemed so menacing and now it was dark adding to my terror.
I was joking! Don't you DARE. Nao come back here!
I kept walking wondering when my best friend's voice would finally fade away due to the distance between us.
I'm a lost soul, I can whisper in your ear whenever I want.
The smugness was not lost on me but neither was her clear panic. As her fear worsened I knew I was going in the right direction.
Turn around Naomi. You're being stupid, it's not like I could be brought back to life – I can only be returned to wherever I'm meant to be now. I'm not even sure if you can do that, this tree absorbed me you idiot!
"You're calling me an idiot?" I laughed softly.
That's because it's true.
"You have no idea how it felt. Knowing you were gone." I said in a grim tone.
That quietened Chari down a bit. I walked on, in the silence but felt strangely calm. I knew I was going the right way, and I was bickering with my best friend just like the old days. I still hadn't apologised for what I said to her...
Why are you doing this?
"Because you're my best friend."
"Chari you've always been my best friend, I thought you'd have noticed by now."
But you said to me, before we died...
"I know. I lied. You were being so irritating, then you really scared me: I couldn't hold myself back. I spent that entire evening planning an apology but even when you took your last breath I couldn't bring myself to say it. Wait a minute, say that again!"
Before I died...
"Strange, I could've sworn you said something else."
You said I'm still your best friend?
Please tell me you've made some new friends, I'm dead Nao. It's not good to dwell in the past. I'm still "gone".
"No you're here. Anyways, I'm guessing you've given up on stopping me?"
Well it looks like either way you're going to die.
For starters, that nasty asthma triggered by your breakdowns will probably kill you in a number of days if you don't get it treated and secondly there's a figure over there.
Worryingly aware of the sudden coldness in her voice and the chill around me I knew this wasn't good.
"How did you know about the asthma?"
Because I started it. It was an accident. I was reaching out to you, trying to make you know about me but you always knelt too close to the road for me to touch you properly.
"That sounds really wrong." I giggled.
But underneath my act I was not smiling, she invoked my breakdowns? Had she no idea how painful they were? Obviously not. But that shouldn't be my main focus, the figure was now approaching me. It was very close, one more step and I'd see its face. But a gust of wind knocked me into a tree, roots tied me up and the figure chuckled.
"Well at least you're a believer. It's pathetic watching my victims try to deny their torturer. As for why I won't let you see me, because image is power. My image is everything, that's why I got the souls to inhabit trees."
"I'm sure your friend will answer that for me."
Trees don't have eyes.
"What? How do you know –"
"That poor ickle Chari is guiding you? She's not exactly undetectable. Her voice echoes loudly across this land, your friend is taking a huge risk helping you."
The tree roots suddenly slid across my eyes as I heard the figure step closer.
"Maybe she's not your friend anymore." she whispered to me.
I was close enough to feel the very breeze of her voice.
"As for you spirit, you shouldn't even be able to whisper after the amounts of sap I took from you!"
A horrible feeling hit me in the gut, except this time it was metaphorical.
Chari, you are my friend. You've always been my friend. I know I told you I hated you, that I wished you didn't exist, that you were a witch. I'm sorry. I was an ass, please forgive me.
I was shocked at how my voice came out twisted.
It's a bit late for that now. But you were right in one sense, I am a witch. And you Yenac are NOTHING!
I heard screaming from Morcen and then silence.
Her imprisonment of me used magic far too strong to break free from.
And then it was my turn to scream.
But that can change.