Close-knit tree branches blot out the sun like skeletal fingers. They're too closely packed, and only the ones on the fringes have green branches. The rest are choked of sunlight, trunks grey and branches a kindergartener could easily wrap their fist around. The roots of the trees can't find a foothold in the stone-cold soil, and can be pushed over without much effort. It's a false spring, and these frail trees fail to block all the wind. There's an obsidian black crow perched on a brittle branch, cawing loudly before departing.
I am here alone.
I am six years old, playing just off our property in White Salmon, Washington, in one of the many scattered and in-less-than-prime-health copses of trees on Burdoin Mountain. I come here often enough with my friends-it's an ideal place to make forts, collapse forts, and otherwise find ways to come home too dirty to leave the entryway. I can alone this time, but I'm not worried.
I come here all the time.
There's nothing to worry about.
It's too quiet.
I glance over my shoulder-just a glance, just looking around. There's a squirrel sitting on one of the lower branches on the other side of the copse. I can sort of see the sun through the trees. There's nothing to worry about.
I bend over to pick up a fallen branch. The main attraction of this place is the shear amount of things a child could use to build a fort, things that someone older would stumble and trip over. Really, no one ever comes back here but my sister, our friends, and me.
I start lining up thicker branches. A few more branches, some moss, maybe some dandelions to decorate it. (Mom claims they're weeds, but I don't believe her. Weeds are ugly, and bully out the flowers. But dandelions have yellow flowers, and when they turn grey, you can blow on them and make a wish. The leaves don't taste all that bad. The petals stain things, and make great dyes. How can a plant like that be a weed?)
But something's wrong. The branches won't stay in place. They keep falling, collapsing on each other. I can't build anything like this. I look down at my hands. They're shaking. I'm ruining it because I can't keep my hands steady.
The hairs on the nape of my neck are standing up. I whirl around.
Someone's watching me. I'm sure of it.
But no matter which shadows I peer through, no matter how hard I look, there's no one there. No eyes trained on my shaking hands. I'm alone.
No one's there.
I've given up on the fort-my shaking hands are unable to properly place the branches. I keep thinking I hear footsteps on fallen branches-heavy steps. Like there's a grown-up here.
But every time I turn around, I am alone.
And no matter how many times my eyes prove that I'm alone, my hands continue to shake and the hairs on the back of my neck refuse to lie flat.
Really, who would be out here? Mom and Dad are doing something in the yard that looks like it'll take awhile. Our closest neighbors with kids either live here only part time. Same with half the people with houses around mine. The people who actually own the property I'm on right now never come out here, and I don't care for them much. I don't think Mom does either. I don't really care if I upset them.
But still, those imagined too-heavy footsteps. But still, the feeling that I'm being watched.
Now that I think of it, does Mom know where I am? I'm not sure. Oh well-she must know Bella and I play out here all the time. I've never actually shown her inside, but she's Mom. She knows everything.
My hands are shaking even more. Suddenly these thin grey trees seem like they might actually hide something.
I look up. That crow is back. I smile-there is someone watching me.
The smile slips. It's facing away from me. Its eyes are trained on something on the other side of this little copse. My head snaps down, drawing my gaze from the treetops to a space about twenty yards from me.
The crow is staring into space. Its face looks pretty intent, but it's staring into space.
It's too quiet.
The other day, out P.E. teacher had us feel for our heartbeat before and after running across the gym several times. I put my hand to my chest. Yep, I can feel my heart beat. It feels like it did in P.E. But I'm not running.
Maybe I should go home. Maybe I'm not alone.
The crow's gaze hasn't moved. All of a sudden, it takes off, flying through a gap in the trees. His take off sounded too loud.
I turn and walk to a branch hanging limp over a gap in the close-grown trees. I push it aside and slip out into the sun. Hurrying, but not really running, I start down a dusty, under-used, too-small road with gravel instead of flat black and the white and yellow markings roads in town have.
Just before I reach the driveway, I turn around and give the trees one last look. Still nothing.
Mom's waiting for me when I get home, along with a few choice words about wandering off the property without telling her where I was and reminders about the kinds of animals we have up here that they don't have in town. The kinds that scare the people that come up here from town and the city (which is farther away.)
She reminds me about rattle snakes, coyotes, raccoons, bears, and cougars. I hate rattlesnakes-she chose the right animal to make her point with. I don't know how raccoons could be dangerous-I've seen one or two, and they're cute. Not too long ago Granny showed me a coyote nest. I never saw the Momma, but the cubs were also cute. I'm not entirely sure why mom included them. Even if they do get bigger, don't they go after stray dogs and cats? Mom says they would attack someone my size, but I doubt it. I've only seen one bear-I don't think they're much of a danger. They don't come near anyone's house. I wasn't really by anyone's house, but that's beside the point.
The cougars, however, are new.
Mom starts telling me about how some neighbor whose name sounds vaguely familiar spotted a cougar nearby, and how some other neighbor with a vaguely familiar name saw one when he was biking. Then she starts recounting a story Pa told her about something that happened when he and Granny went on a walk the other day. I mentally perk up. Finally, a name I can put a face to. Pa said they saw a cougar in the bushes, watching them. It was hard to see, and they only noticed it when it moved.
Odd. That sounds like the copse of trees. It seemed like something was watching me. Mom says cougars watch in the bushes, quiet-like, waiting.
She starts to calm down and go back to weeding the garden so I decide now would not be a good time to mention why I came home.