Waiting for Winter
I always expected that in my worst nightmare I would be surrounded by darkness. The absence of light, of hope, of safety. What could ever be more frightening than that? Yet, here I was walking in the bright afternoon light of a sun that sat high in the sky, looking down upon me like a hot, citrine guardian. I had never felt so alone.
I found myself lost, and maybe that was the worst nightmare of all. I recognized nothing of the vast and deserted place reaching endlessly about me in every direction. I didn't know where I was. I didn't know how I'd gotten there. I didn't even know who I was. It's an odd sensation – not being able to remember one's own name. It felt so utterly surreal, but I knew that this nightmare surrounding me was no nightmare at all.
I ran my hands over my unfamiliar limbs. Lanky and lean, but awkward and unrecognizable in my confused state. I wore a pair of cropped jean shorts I'd never seen before, a plain, navy blue tee shirt, and white running shoes. My long, black hair was pulled back tightly in a ponytail. There was nothing frivolous about my appearance, but nothing recognizable either.
I looked around frantically, desperately pleading with my fractured mind to find purchase in just one small detail of this foreign world. Just one. I was somewhere in the middle of a thick wood, but autumn had almost entirely stripped the giant trees (larger than any trees I could have imagined on my own) of their golden and scarlet leaves, leaving the daylight free to bear down from the heavens and light the barren forest floor. Every instinct within me told me that this place was every bit as empty as it appeared. I listened intently for the usual forest sounds, sounds I was certain I'd heard before in some other forest during some other period of my life. There was nothing. No scurry of tiny woodland animals, no birds singing in the trees, no insects chirping their incessant tunes. Not even the wind whistling through the fallen leaves. Desolate, I thought.
"Hello!" I screamed in the dry heat, my voice carrying loudly through the twisted branches. I couldn't help but think that I sounded too harsh, too shrill, as I cut through the dead silence like a cry in the night. But the night was filled with sounds, with life. This kind of silence shouldn't have been possible.
"Is anybody here?" I called out again, but once more was met with complete nothingness. I wanted to sigh, to somehow physically release the dismay building up inside of me, but I was afraid to break the tentative silence again; it only made the situation feel all the more dire.
Unable to come up with any solution to my current predicament, I did the only thing I could do to fight off the panic threatening to entrap me here: I started walking. I didn't know if it mattered in what direction I went, so I simply continued in the direction I'd been facing when this all began. I hoped that I had at least known where I was going originally, that I hadn't simply appeared in this wasteland mysteriously. But that was impossible, wasn't it?
About as impossible as mysteriously losing my memory, I supposed. What was happening to me?
No time to panic, I reminded myself. Whoever I was, I was all that I had. All I could depend on. There was no one to save me if I remained lost here, and I had no way to know if anyone would be looking for me.
I don't know how long I'd been walking. My legs had grown tired, my breathing shallow and rushed, and my mind weary. It had been a long trek through unchanging territory. I remember the feeling of hopelessness. This forest, I feared, never ended.
I had heard somewhere once before, I recalled distantly (the tiniest flicker of a memory), that if a person becomes lost and walks long enough, that person will veer to the right and walk in a giant circle. Was I walking in circles? Had I been repeating myself for hours on end?
I slunk gracelessly to the grassless, dirty ground, inclining my back against the trunk of one of the colossal trees. I was tired, but determined to remain alert at all costs. As I scanned my surroundings, I sought out any sign that I had been walking in circles. In the end, it was another useless endeavor; there were no extraordinary landmarks in these woods, nothing to give me any indication that I had been retracing my steps. Regardless, there was no proof to the contrary either; everything looked exactly the same to me. These woods were a movie reel spliced together with identical clips, and the trees reminiscent of a record player with a stuck needle.
Finally giving up on my outward search, I decided to search inward instead. My mind was filled with facts for which I couldn't hope to account. I knew how many inches were in a foot, I knew what country the kiwi was native to, I could envision the steps to the waltz and the combinations of whole and half steps in both major and minor scales alike, but I knew absolutely nothing about the details of my life. There were flashes of things to be sure – colors, sounds, smells – but nothing concrete.
Eventually, I realized I could wait no longer; I may be trapped in perpetual monotony, but not in perpetual daylight. One thing that I could determine about myself was that I'd prefer not to sleep here. I pulled myself up using the solid face of the tree for support, and as I did a fleeting thought crossed through my mind. Running my hand along the rigid bark, I inspected the rough surface closely, intimately. No ants, no moss. Now I really did sigh.
How could any natural place be this empty? Logic, then, told me that this wasn't a natural place. Perhaps I was dreaming after all.
Suddenly, a spark of fear wracked down my spinal column and sent the entirety of my thin body into violent shivers. The urgency of my situation struck me all at once, and I began to run.
I didn't care how tired I was. I didn't care that everything looked the same. I didn't care that my guardian sun had betrayed me and now threatened to burn my pale flesh into angry, red patches of itchy leather. I didn't care for any of it as I darted through the monstrous trees and let the dead leaves crinkle and crackle under my plain, white shoes, breaking the silent void in my recently deafened universe.
Perhaps my imagination was beginning to get the best of me, but now a frightening change had overtaken these eerie woods. Suddenly, they seemed more alive than they'd ever been as the ancient, twisted trees seemed to reach out for me in vehement and fiery rage. No escape, the wind I created as I ran frantically through the woods seemed to be telling me in foreboding whispers. Oh, how I wished I could go back to that seeming death. It hardly mattered anymore, though. I refused to be here much longer. I absolutely refused.
And that's when it happened…
That endless forest…just ended.
I came to an abrupt halt as I sprinted through the last barrier of thickening branches, refusing to be their victim. What stood before me was one single house alone in the dust.
In any other circumstance, I wouldn't have said the house was particularly spine-chilling. Of course, neither was it a nice house with coats of fresh paint, adorable little lawn gnomes, and well-kept birdbaths. Not in the least. It was merely old, decrepit, worn; whatever word defined it best, I wasn't entirely sure. Perhaps neglected is the one to use. It was obvious to me that this house had once been grand; it was massive with Victorian windows and wide balconies overhanging the once lush lawn. But whatever it had been, it now looked beaten; the pale, periwinkle paint had long since weathered and chipped away, and the throng of balconies did nothing but cast intimidating shadows across the decaying landscape.
Was this where I'd been going? Was the occupant of this rundown home someone that could shed some light on my life? Or was this house currently abandoned? I honestly couldn't fathom anyone wanting to live in such a place, but I had to admit that as neglected as it appeared, there was also a lived-in quality to the place; a large bush of glorious red roses grew around the porch steps, the only sign of life thus far. They certainly were not neglected.
Despite a persistent and growing feeling of trepidation, my curiosity won out in the end. Perhaps I was learning something else about myself; I certainly didn't have a tendency to err on the side of caution.
Without further ado, I forced myself up the three shaky steps to the porch and approached the front door. It almost felt as if I'd floated up to that splintered, looming doorway; whatever compelled me to this place was out of my control.
I knocked on the door, hesitantly at first but with growing intensity as I regretfully glanced back at the menacing trees impatiently awaiting my return.
Suddenly, it was thrust open and I found myself looking into the leathery face of an old woman with gentle blue eyes and tangled white hair. Her dress was somewhat ragged, a shabby, floral thing that was ill-fitting and misbuttoned in a way that made it appear crooked from top to bottom. She smiled warmly at me with lipstick stained teeth, and I felt the fear rush from my shaking bones.
She knew me! She had to! I swear that she looked at me with recognition. But then her next words shattered my newfound peace.
"Well, hello, dear!" she exclaimed excitedly. "I certainly don't get many visitors all the way out here! Now, who could you be?"
"Well, I…" I didn't know what to say. It suddenly occurred to me just how insane my story sounded. I blushed with embarrassment. I didn't want to tell her I was suffering from some sort of magical amnesia, so I decided to lie. "I'm Rose," I finally answered, considering the rather out-of-place bushel of thorny plants that had enticed me to this doorway in the first place.
"Rose! What a beautiful, classic name," she said to me. "What can I do for you, Rose?"
"I-I think I'm lost," I admitted shakily. That shouldn't sound too strange in such a place as this one. I just hoped she wouldn't ask me how I'd come to be there.
"Oh dear! Oh dear!" she shouted anxiously with one gnarled hand raised apprehensively to her bosom. There was something in that hand that reminded me of the frightful, gnarled trees clutching wickedly at me as I ran through the wood, but I quickly pushed such thoughts aside. "You best come in then. I've got some freshly squeezed lemonade and chocolate chip cookies."
I was tired. I was hungry. I was out of options. I entered that ominous, old house.
The woman, Grandma Oak as she asked me to call her, led me down a narrow hallway of dark mahogany flooring and white plastered walls creased with jagged cracks and cobwebs. We continued past a tall, spiral staircase that still held a bit of elegance as it stretched up through the Victorian home like a giant serpent reaching for its prey. By the time we'd gotten to the large blue and white checkered kitchen I had come to one unusual realization: this house was as empty of memories as I was. There were no pictures on the walls, no knickknacks on the shelves, no souvenirs, no paintings, no books, no toys grandchildren might play with, and not even a single strewn about article of clothing. This house was as empty as the forest, as empty as I felt. What was this place where we were all lost souls with no identity, no fingerprints?
"So young to be alone in the woods," the old woman chastised, breaking my thoughts as she motioned for me to sit at a small, wooden table near a bare kitchen window. "How old are you, Rose?"
"Sixteen," I guessed, but somehow it sounded right to my ears. Suddenly, Grandma Oak's eyes frosted over in a dazed sort of way, as if she was searching out some long forgotten memory.
"Ah, yes," she said at last. "I was 16 once. So exciting to be so young, isn't it? It's the springtime of life when everything is fresh and new. But children are never content with the spring, always waiting for the summer instead, waiting to grow up. When you get to be my age, though, you start waiting for the winter. There's a certain quiet tranquility there. Besides, these weary, old bones could use the rest." She looked out the window longingly as she spoke, observing the still lingering autumn impatiently. I felt a chill as I watched her.
"Grandma Oak?" I asked as the old woman placed a plateful of cookies on the table in front of me. "Do you live here all alone?"
"Why, yes, dear," she said with a sigh after a moment's silent hesitation, "and I daresay it gets lonely every now and again." The look of sadness that crossed her features at her reluctant admission threatened to shatter me to the core. I could sympathize, after all. As far as I knew, I had no one either.
"But you must have children and grandchildren that come to visit you?"
I couldn't have said anything more wrong. Suddenly a darkness crept over her countenance like a malevolent shadow as her eyes narrowed with some unnamable emotion. Gone was the kindly old woman, suddenly replaced with an angry apparition.
"They can't be bothered to come all the way out here, dear Rose," she stated harshly. "It's those trees, you see. This house is just an island in them, and no one wants to work on through. It's no matter, though. No matter at all. I get my visitors when the lost ones come. They always make it through the trees."
"The lost ones?" I asked, suddenly frightened of the woman looking at me with deep blue eyes made of ice.
"Young girls, women sometimes, with no recollection of where they've come from." She eyed me critically then, looking me top to bottom to top again with a steely glare and grim set mouth. "They were all called Rose too, or so they said. I do like roses; I have quite the collection outside," she explained flatly.
I knew it then; I needed to leave. I could no longer breathe, no longer blink, no longer think any logical thought as I stared at this woman in disbelief. Something was wrong. I dropped the cookie in my hand back onto the plate at once without taking a bite.
"I, um…" I stammered, "I should get going. Can I use your phone?" I don't know who I intended to call. The police maybe, but nothing was ever that simple.
"I don't have one, dear," Grandma Oak answered in a sickeningly sweet tone compared to her prior intimidating intensity.
"Well, maybe there's another house or a town?" I was desperate. The feeling in my gut was telling me to just run, to get out of this house, to get as far away from Grandma Oak as I possibly could.
"Oh, not for a good thirty miles or so. I'd offer to give you a lift, but I'm afraid I'm a bit lacking in the transportation department."
"But you must!" I screamed. "You have food! It has to come from somewhere!"
"Call it a form of delivery, but I'm not expecting another for quite some time," the white-haired woman informed me with a smile that screamed deception. I had only just met this woman, but something in her eyes warned me that she'd keep me here forever if she could.
Abruptly, I leaped up from my seat as though I'd been bitten and darted out of that dusty, old kitchen and down that memory barren hallway until I reached the front door. My escape, my salvation, my mind supplied me, but to no avail. Frantically, I tugged on the unmoving doorknob and beat my fist against the thick wood. I searched desperately for a lock I could turn, a chain I could unhook, but there was nothing. I was utterly trapped.
"Is something wrong, Rose?" Grandma Oak asked from behind me, once again having returned to her kind, grandmotherly state. But I knew better.
"The door is locked!" I screamed in her face. "Let me out! Let me out now!"
"Come back to the kitchen, dear," she said, smiling kindly as if I had not just been shouting angrily at her. "I have freshly squeezed lemonade and chocolate chip cookies."
"I know that!" I continued to shout. "Please, please let me go…"
"It is out of my control," she said. "Besides, it would be rude of you to leave so soon. Why, you have only just arrived, and I've been waiting for you for so long."
Suddenly, I stilled. I could feel the blood drain from my face, and I looked at the creased face of Grandma Oak with my mouth agape.
"What do you mean 'waiting' for me? How could you know I would be here?" I asked, but suddenly I understood. "You did this to me! You brought me here! You're the reason I can't remember anything!"
"I do get so lonely," she said simply.
"But why?" I couldn't keep the whine from my voice. I felt so defeated, and all I wanted to do was cry.
"I'm so tired, Rose. I have so few memories of my own these days. I just want to talk, dear. I want to hear all about your life. I want to know everything." She smirked wickedly.
"How can I tell you anything if you've bewitched my memories away?" I asked, tugging desperately at my tee shirt for comfort.
"You will remember in time, and then you will tell me everything," the woman, the witch, informed me assuredly.
"And then you'll let me go?" I pleaded, dreading the answer for I knew what it would be.
"No one ever leaves."
"No!" I screamed as I pushed past the grandmotherly witch with the gnarled fingers and raced up the spiral staircase.
Renewed with adrenaline, my legs beat with a speed I never would have guessed I possessed. Around and around the staircase took me until I nearly lost my equilibrium and I no longer knew whether I was still running up or running down. Yet, I remained undeterred as I pressed on, and on, and on. I was almost afraid of what awaited me at the top. Perhaps this staircase was a serpent after all, and at some unforeseen point when I least expected it a venomous head would strike out and swallow me whole as I ran. But no snake head lurched out at me, and no frightening monsters lurked in hiding at the top of the stairs. There simply was no top. The house may have boasted an impressive height, but surely I should have reached another floor before now.
I kept running.
After what felt like an eternity I reached a single door. I didn't even pause before I furiously yanked it open, rushed inside, and slammed it shut behind me. Sighing with relief, I pressed my body weight against the door and slid down its length so that I was sitting hard against it, hopefully blocking any entry the witch might be planning.
Taking in the sights around me, my hope shattered to the floor like fragile china. I recognized this room. I had been running so long and so tirelessly, but now here I was – in that blue and white checkered kitchen once again with no escape.
Grabbing a chair from the side of the small table, I propped it under the door handle in an effective jam. Futile as the situation felt, I had to at least try the window. Running up to it, I mustered every bit of strength my slender body possessed and attempted to pry it open with all my might. It was no use, but I had expected that. Instead, I grabbed a second chair and charged the window, smashing the glass with its legs. At least, they should have smashed the glass. But it was, of course, impenetrable.
It wasn't in me to give up so easily, though. I was fighting for my life, my survival, and some mysterious witch with a penchant for young women's stories was not going to stop me. Frantically, I beat the chair into the glass repeatedly with maddening ferocity. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. The word was echoed in each thud of wood against stubborn glass.
"Let me out!" I cried out as my arms grew tired and I finally dropped the now heavy chair to the tiled floor with a clatter. I collapsed violently down to my knees and dropped my tearstained face into my hands as I at last allowed myself to sob openly. So this was it, I thought. And I didn't even know who I was.
"Now, now, Rose. Don't be this way," the voice of Grandma Oak cut through my sobs like a diver in the depths. I looked up at her and her tangled hair and knowing eyes. She was standing in the center of the room, mocking me with her presence as my makeshift lock still blocked the one and only door to the room. In that moment, I hated her more than I feared her.
"You have no right, you witch!" I cried out as I wiped the tears from my stinging, red eyes.
"Witch?" she asked with an amused chortle. "I'm no witch, dear; I'm just a lonely, old woman." Well, I certainly wasn't going to take her word for it!
"You erased my memories, you have a door that seals itself shut with no lock, a staircase that goes nowhere, and apparently you can walk through walls! I think that makes you a witch!" I argued back forcefully, but whether or not I proved my point hardly made any difference. At least I could stall for time.
"Then I have given the wrong impression," Grandma Oak mumbled with downcast eyes. "Please, Rose, look out the window."
I don't know why I obeyed her, but I did. What I saw terrified me more than the witch standing so closely behind me and more than this house that played tricks with my mind.
"The trees…" I muttered to myself. "Are they closer?"
"The Forest of the Lost," Grandma Oak said as she came to stand next to me and stare vacantly out of that bare window. I watched her reflection carefully in the glass, but she'd gone somewhere else. Somewhere I couldn't hope to follow.
"Grandma Oak?" I attempted to garner her attention to no avail.
"When I first moved here," she began in a faraway voice, "there was no forest here. The grass was green, birds flitted about my window, and I was seldom alone. There were so many others: my family, my neighbors, my friends. There were houses, and families, and children laughing as they rode their bicycles down the block.
"Then a change came over us, and people began to disappear. The trees started coming. They were always getting closer, and before we realized what was happening they'd overgrown everything practically overnight. It was impossible, but it was happening to us all the same.
"Nothing lived in those trees; nothing could survive. Closer and closer they came until they'd demolished everything, and soon no one was left but me. I didn't even realize they were surrounding me until it was too late. And now my own house is doing their bidding. Don't you see, Rose? I am a prisoner here, too. It's only the roses that stave them off now. They fear the roses."
I watched her reflection with shock as she told her tale, but I couldn't deny the honesty I saw there. As much as I wanted to scream and shout that it was impossible, I had been in the Forest of the Lost. The forest wanted me, and the forest wanted Grandma Oak now.
"What happens to you when they get you?" I asked with a gulp as I turned to the old woman beside me.
"You disappear, and you never return."
I shook violently at her words. I may not know my real name, but I existed nonetheless. I existed, and I wanted to keep it that way.
"What are we going to do?" I asked, but Grandma Oak seemed as calm as ever.
"There is nothing to be done, Rose. They dare threaten me," she voiced darkly, "but the joke is on them. Don't you see the frost forming on the branches? They are coming for me, but the winter will arrive before they will. They must sleep in the winter, and so must I. And when they make their approach again, it will be too late. My time will have passed and I won't be here waiting for them any longer."
I chilled again.
"But what about me?" I demanded.
"You are the last of the lost ones, Rose. You must tell me your story while there is still time."
"I don't know my story!" I screamed in frustration. Why couldn't she understand me? Why didn't she care? "We need to get out of here. Both of us. We'll burn it down!"
"Rose," she warned, but I was done listening to her. She was mad, crazy, insane. It was a poorly kept secret I had known all along: she would keep me here forever if she could.
I ignored Grandma Oak's calls as I pulled the chair away from the door and ran back through the hall and up to the front door. Pleased to find it no longer locked, I easily tugged it open and ran out into the chilly evening air. The sun barely peeked over the horizon as the moon began its slow ascent. The light seemed only to spotlight the roses, making them appear the color of blood. I darted past them until I stood in the center of the decaying lawn. I scanned the yard for anything I could use to start a fire. There was a toolshed to the side of the house! I hadn't noticed it before, but it was a blessed sight now. I ran to it as fast as my legs could carry me.
"Rose, wait!" the frazzled woman continued to call after me, but she was resigned to her fate whereas I was not done fighting. Throwing open the door to the shack I found exactly what I needed. Grabbing the can of gasoline and a pack of matches resting conveniently on a shelf, I lugged them back to the edge of the looming forest. The ominous trees seemed to glare down at me through dark black hollows as the uncomfortable stillness was broken by a sudden wind. As the wind screamed through the forest, the trees came to life. The long and winding branches curled in on themselves and then reached outward toward me, entwining every which way to form a bond of thick, monstrous appendages like the twisted claws of some horrible beast.
I wanted to run away, but there was nowhere to go. I needed to act, and I needed to act now. Clutching the matches securely in my palm, I raised the gasoline can into the air and poured the contents on the trunk of the nearest tree. They were so close together by now that the fire should easily spread. Dropping the can to the ground I opened my clenched hand to get a match from the pack, but they were gone.
"What's going on?" I asked the dangerous wind as I searched the ground for the lost matches. They weren't there, and neither was the gasoline can.
"I don't have a vehicle, dear. I don't keep gasoline. And I certainly have never seen that shed before," Grandma Oak voiced through the frigid wind. That's when I knew. The tricks of the house and the mirage of the shed and the gasoline, all of it, was a product of the Forest of the Lost. And that made everything I'd just experienced one giant trap.
I turned to flee, but I was too late as the branches whipped out at me and grabbed me around my ankle. They tugged hard, forcing me to the cold earth as they threatened to drag me into the thicket. I dug my nails into the stiff earth as I tried to fight the pull.
"I warned you, Rose! I warned you!" the old woman called to me over and over again.
"Help me!" I screamed, but she didn't budge from her post.
"It's too late, my dear!"
It wasn't too late, though. I kicked at the branches with my free foot until I finally managed to snap a few of the brittle branches away from the rest. It nearly seemed to scream in pain as branch was forced to separate from branch. Finally, I managed to pull free from the writhing appendage and although it continued to thrust itself out at me with impressive speed, I managed a narrow escape as I pushed myself to my feet and ran towards the house.
The trees were still rooted to the ground, unable to put forth a proper chase as I watched them sway angrily in place. Yet, I knew time was short. By now, the old woman had sidled up to me and was grasping at my arm manically, much like the trees had done to my leg.
"We don't have much longer, Rose! Tell me now! Tell me your story!" she screamed.
I tried to back away, but I tripped back over the porch steps and landed gracelessly in the rosebush.
"I can't!" I called out with tears in my eyes once again. "I don't know who I am!"
"Yes, you do, Rose!" Grandma Oak insisted. "You have to tell me! I've been waiting for you for so long!"
Frustrated and terrified, my fingernails dug into the flowerbed and I heaved in a heavy breath of air. That's when I smelled them – the roses. The roses. The Roses.
Suddenly, my mind was flooded with memories, with pictures, and sounds, and smells. I knew who I was! I knew who Grandma Oak was! I knew these Roses!
"I do know!" I answered at last. "I know, Grandma Oak!"
"Tell me, dear! Please!" she pleaded with me with desperate blue eyes of melted ice as I looked back with eyes just as vibrant and blue.
"I really am Rose!" I called. "I'm Rose! And so are you, Grandma Oak! I'm you when you were 16, and these Roses are us. This one was us when we were 12, and this one 36, and this one only seven! I'm here to help you remember!"
She smiled at last, warm and bright. The wind stopped, the night stopped coming, and I lay down in that bed of thorny flowers and closed my eyes in peace one last time. One more Rose in the garden to protect Grandma Oak from the Forest of the Lost.
I woke up with a start. My bones ached as I pushed myself out of bed with a groan and wobbled over to my vanity. Running my hairbrush delicately through my tangled mess of white locks, I raised one gnarled hand to my wrinkled face and caressed the leathery skin.
The night could be frightful at times, but sometimes it was wonderful too. I couldn't help but smile.
"Good morning, Miss Rose," my nurse Katherine greeted me as she entered the room with my breakfast tray. "And how are we this morning?"
"Just wonderful, dear," I replied. "I was just remembering when I was 16 years old."
"Ah, so it's a good day then, I see," she exclaimed cheerily as she set the tray on the nightstand and helped me to my feet. "I should like to hear all about it, Miss Rose."
"I was such a boisterous young thing. So feisty and full of energy," I said as I meandered over to my window to look out onto the glorious morning landscape.
"Doesn't sound like much has changed," Katherine chuckled as she too came to look out the window. "You best keep it locked, Rose. We wouldn't want you catching a fever. Do you see the frost on the trees? Winter is on its way."
"Yes, dear, I know. I'm still waiting."