The Forest 2

"You do know what this place is, right, Kevin? I mean, I don't have to remind you, do I?" Tim asked skeptically as he walked slowly behind me. I laughed under my breath and scaled the rusty metal fence attached to the tall eerie gate separating the forest from the rest of the world. Once I had landed on the other side I walked back to the fence and cursed, realizing there were about five padlocks on this side of the gate that kept it from being opened even if you could get over the fence.

"No, you don't have to remind me. I know perfectly well where we are. I just..." I left the sentence hanging and stopped in my tracks for a second. Something about what Tim said seemed... familiar. I shook it off and jerked my head toward the wall to tell my friend that he had to climb it just like I had. He gave me a long look, hoping it would convince me to go back and just forget the whole thing. I stared back angrily. There was no way I was going to go back now. He sighed and climbed the fence, landing beside me with a soft thud on the soil. I looked around, surprised that this was the only sound we'd heard for the past mile or so.

"It's just... this is where the girls went. None of them ever came back and Gracie and Cathrynn..." he said and shook his head, "I'm not saying it's glowing, regenerating, creepy little dolls or anything but... well, something traumatized them enough to land them... where they are." I stared down at the dry autumn leaves under my feet.

"I know. That's why we're here. Gracie is insane because of this and she's crying for her friends every time I see her. The nurses say she does it at least twice every day. I have to know what made her like that. I have to know what it is about this forest that made Cathrynn want to kill me and Gracie because she thinks we left her to die! I just... I have to know," I answered him, looking back up from my feet. He looked at me and sighed again, fully resigning himself.

"Me too," he admitted. I smiled a little and we jumped the little barbed wire fence after the gate, though I was still nagged by that feeling of déjà vu. They had officially closed and locked everything after I'd first found my best friend Gracie laughing hysterically at the edge of the forest. They had stopped burying bodies in the cemetery after that day, too... though, somehow, I could see at least two more there out of the corner of my eye that hadn't been there the week before. Considering it had been a year since the girls had gone into the forest and never come out, that made me a little nervous. I dismissed it as a trick of the moonlight, though, and focused on the trees in front of me.

It was the forest, and it looked exactly like it had the year before. Frost clung to the branches of the trees, leaves readily let go and floated down to the ground. It was locked in eternal winter. This set off more alarms in my head. It was almost summer, so why was the forest like this? Tim opened his mouth to comment on it, but I glared at him and shook my head. It was some sort of memorial maintenance in honor of the girls using shredded foam or something. That was the only explanation. I turned back around and nodded, relatively confident now.

I beckoned for Tim to follow me and marched into the trees, convinced that I would find whatever or whoever destroyed my friends' minds and give it a piece of my own. No-one hurts my friends.

We walked for an hour or two, scouring every part of the forest. Eventually, we just sat down against some trees, exhausted. Aside from the persistent frost (on the trees, ground, and in the air; which made me wish I had worn more than a t-shirt and jeans), we couldn't find a thing out of the ordinary. We sat there, panting with exhaustion for a few minutes before Tim got up and stretched.

"Maybe your parents are right and it was some sick axe murderer that messed with their heads and he's already left the forest- hell, maybe he's left the town altogether. I mean, it's bad that we couldn't find whatever spooked the girls like that, but at least if it was a person and he's gone then... um... oh, god. Kevin? What... what did Gracie say the dolls looked like? In her stories?" Tim asked me, his whole body frozen and his eyes fixed on a spot a few feet above my head. For a minute, I froze too.

Then I pushed myself onto my feet and slowly turned around. There, in the little space between the two main branches of the tree, was a multicolored doll with a huge Cheshire-cat shaped smile sewn onto his face. There was a bright green string coming from his right hand, shining like neon against the white frost on the tree. I slowly backed up until I ran into Tim and fell over. It didn't mean anything, there was no way it could have meant anything, it wasn't related, it wasn't going to kill me; I kept telling myself everything I could think of to calm myself down. I stared at that neon green string, horrified and transfixed. I almost felt my body being drawn closer to it so that I could grab that string and follow it to wherever it ended. I shook my head, remembering what Gracie had told me about their hypnotic power. Unfortunately, Tim did not.

He walked slowly closer and closer to the doll, his hands outstretched and his eyes blank. He didn't even seem to be looking at it, just shuffling toward it like some sort of zombie. I screamed his name and jumped up, trying to pull him back to me by his jacket.

"Tim! Tim! Tim, listen to me, damn it! Tim! You idiot! Tim! Come back here! Listen to me! Tim!" I kept calling to him, hoping that I could somehow snap him out of it. If anything that Gracie had said was true, then there was no way I was letting him get killed by some poorly stitched doll in the woods. I called his name a few more times and then stopped in the middle and let go of his jacket, stumbling back a few steps with the shock of the freezing, piercing cold that had just settled in my stomach. It was déjà vu all over again, though this time it was more intense and horrifying. I shuddered with the cold and threw my head back to look up at the sky. There, I could only see a sliver of the moon behind the thick black clouds high above the trees. I couldn't even see the stars anymore, and it was just a few seconds before the cloud would move the rest of the way and my world would be plunged into darkness.

I looked back at the tree and saw that the doll in the crook of it wasn't the only one. There were bright, blue points of light all around us. Three in the tree Tim was walking towards, two in the tree to my right, at least five scattered through the rest of the trees within my line of sight. They were everywhere. My eyes went wide and I ran around to where I was facing Tim. I tried to push him back from the tree, make him turn around and run away. It was real. The girls weren't crazy, they were right. Unless this was some prank someone had set up after hearing their story... but somehow I couldn't bring myself to believe that.

I started calling my friend's name again, but he didn't even register it. I looked back and saw that my back was about to touch the tree. I also saw that the doll had gotten to his feet and was smiling more maliciously than ever. He was humming, too. My heart raced with the rush of adrenaline the sight had given me and I realized that I was still alive and still willing to stay that way. Tears starting forming in the corners of my eyes and I quickly dodged out from under Tim's arms and spun around.

The doll's humming suddenly melded with the humming of all the other dolls in the forest and the three in its tree jumped at the same time as the six in the tree to Tim's left. He was tied up by their strings. I expected them to start singing "Mockingbird", but they sang a different song this time.

"Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream...' they sang quietly and gleefully, "merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily..." and on the last "merrily" they jumped again. I turned around so I wouldn't have to see it, but I heard the sound as the many brightly colored threads sliced my friend apart. I heard his scared, confused, agonized scream as he came back to his senses and realized what was happening. I tried to blink the tears away and noticed that the dolls were advancing towards me now, humming their little lullabies. I spit at the closest one and started sprinting as fast as I possibly could.

"I'm so sorry, Tim. I tried, I really did"' I said in a teary, raspy voice. Then I yelled at the top of my lungs, letting out all of my anger. How could we have been so stupid? It had all been my fault. I had forced him to come along with me, I had failed to warn him about the doll or to snap him out of the hold it had over him; I had let him die. I had killed him. All because I hadn't believed Gracie and Cathrynn when they'd told us what had happened to them in the forest. All because I just had to know. I cursed under my breath and kept running, hoping I would get to the edge of the forest. Gracie had said they couldn't follow you there.

I stumbled as I was running, and looked back for a second to see what I had almost tripped over. I barely kept from throwing up when I realized what it was. It shined a dirty white under the light of the dolls. I had nearly tripped over the skull of one of the girls who had come before me. I closed my eyes and kept running. It had to have been an hour before I finally stopped at the edge of a wide circle of trees, hoping that the lack of light meant I had lost them all.

Then the color drained from my face when I saw a powerful blue glow emanating from the center of the trees. There were dolls there, and they were giggling and humming, guy dolls and girl dolls alike. They were standing over the body of some innocent victim, some idiot who had jumped the fence just like we had. I put my hand against a tree to my right and decided to rest for a second anyway. They were busy. They wouldn't notice me for a few more seconds... I hoped.

Just as I was catching my breath, a group of them abandoned the main body and walked over to the severed head a few feet away. I gagged and almost threw up at the sight. They waved their hands at me like a parent waving their finger at a naughty kid. I started backing up and got ready to run again. They giggled more and picked the head up, showing me the face. I screamed, putting my hands to my mouth. I almost passed out then and there.

It was impossible. It was physically impossible. It was my own face. They were gathered over my body. I looked down at my own hand and held in my other hand, feeling the solidness of it. I wasn't dead. I wasn't dead and I wasn't going to die. So how were they...? I looked in the direction of the main body and for the third time that night I had to keep my gag reflex in check because it looked like they were eating the body, scooping pieces out and shoving it into their faces. Their heads opened into two sections, splitting at the mouth, and the "food" disappeared down there. How were they eating me if I was still alive? I choked for a second and then turned around, running full speed again.

Again I stopped in a smaller section of forest and saw a group of dolls eating my face off. I turned to my right and ran. Again, in an undeniably different place where a few leaves still refused to fall, I saw myself dead at the feet of the dolls.

Each time they were singing their song, "Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream; merrily, merrily, merrily: life is but a dream!" I did a full three-sixty and saw them there again, still singing.

"But... but I'm alive. Alive, alive, alive! And I'm going to stay that way! You hear me? I'm gonna be like Gracie! I'm gonna get out of here and tell people about you! I'm gonna live, you understand?" I yelled out to the forest as loudly as I could. The giggling grew louder too, like they were mocking me. I screamed my frustration and turned left, running yet again. This time I just passed all the bodies with my face on them- some of them with the face eaten off. I just ignored it, willed it not to exist. I stumbled sometimes when the light vanished, but quickly adjusted myself and weaved through the trees without a problem.

Finally, after another hour of running, I saw faint starlight between the trees. Better, I saw gravestones illuminated by those stars. The cemetery marked the end of the trees- the end of the forest.

"Safe! I'm safe!" I said with a note of hysteria in my voice. The dolls, which had been silent for the past hour, started their humming again. They sounded happy. I ground my teeth together, frustrated with the stupid things. Even though I hadn't thought I'd had any energy left in my system, I sprinted faster than I ever had before and made it past the trees into the cemetery. I jumped and punched the air. I was safe! I was alive! I heard the humming again.

I faced the woods and it was my turn to grin. I started to laugh, sitting down on top of a tombstone. I doubled over laughing. Then the humming got louder and I froze, looking out at the trees. I didn't even need to look that far, though. Just three tombstones in front of me there was perched that first doll with the neon green string and the much too large smile. I screamed and fell back, my head ringing from its impact with the tombstone behind me. I barely managed to keep myself from passing out. I grunted as I pulled myself up from between the two graves, the first doll next to my feet now. I ran again, stopping when I saw a girl doll right in front of me. I spun in place and saw that they were blocking all of my exits. In between and on top of every single slab of engraved gray rock there stood a doll. They weren't going to let me go.

I ran for the closest tombstone and put my hand on it, planning to push off and jump over so I could run again. The doll there made a disapproving noise and circled my wrist and jumped onto my back, tying me up. I could feel it pressing against my skin, cutting me. Blood started to trickle from the places where the thread was tightest around me. I sucked in a deep breath, surprised. As if that had been their cue, the rest of the dolls jumped on me. They tied their strings around my legs, arms, neck, torso, even my hands and feet. I didn't move because I knew if I did it I wouldn't end up breaking my bonds; they would break me.

"Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream; merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily...' they sang triumphantly before they all jumped and the strings pressed against my skin one last time. I screamed with the pain all over my body. "Life is but a dream!" they shouted the end and the world went black.

I blinked a few times, the light off of the bleach white ceiling confusing me. I was alive? Finally, my vision focused and I realized that I was in a bed in a room that seemed vaguely familiar somehow. I sat up slowly, holding one of my hands in the other again to confirm that I was still alive. I pressed my hands against the bed to make sure I wasn't a ghost. I smiled a little. I was alive.

"You're 'awake' again, Kevin? You were gone a little longer this time; you must be tired," I heard a girl's voice say somewhere to my right. It also seemed familiar. I turned and almost jumped out of the bed. It was my friend Gracie and this was her room in the asylum she had been sent to after walking into that damned forest. She smiled sympathetically and told me she knew how I felt and that she was sad that she had to see it happen to me so often. She said that there was no way I could know what was going on when I was dreaming. She seemed to be talking in circles.

When she was done saying how tired I must have been, Gracie started to hum under her breath. My eyes widened and I scooted back against the wall. It was that song. She was humming that song. She smiled again and got up from the rocking chair she had been sitting in. The teenage girl walked over to my bed and kneeled down, yet again saying that I must be tired.

"Here, I'll sing you a lullaby to get you to sleep. Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream..." she sang softly, soothingly. Alarms were going off in my brain, my body made a few sluggish attempts to push her away or get out of the bed and run or... or... something, but I was getting tired. The more she sang, the weaker I got. After the first line she re-started a few times and my eyelids got heavier and heavier. I protested, but I just couldn't stay awake.

"No... no.. no..." I mumbled desperately for each time she re-started the song.

"Shhh, Kevin... don't fight it. You have to wake up from a dream at some point, don't you? You can't just live your whole life sleeping, you know. Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream; merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily..." I fell back on the bed with a thud and cursed in my head when I yawned. She smiled again, leaned close to my face, and whispered the last line to me in a honey-sweet voice.

"Life is but a dream..." and with that, I started walking towards the metal fence beside the gate since I couldn't walk through the gate itself. Something seemed strangely familiar about it, like déjà vu, but I just shook my head and scaled the fence anyway.

"'You do know what this place is, right, Kevin? I mean, I don't have to remind you, do I?" Tim asked skeptically as he walked slowly behind me. I slowed down and then stopped altogether on the other side of the gate. I looked through to Tim's worried face and almost started crying, though I couldn't quite figure out why. It was like I remembered something really bad happening to him... but I couldn't think exactly what it was.

"You don't have to remind me. I... I feel like I've been here before. I just..." and I cut the sentence short to look up at the sky. There was just a shred of light from the moon and the clouds were about to cover it. The only light near us was the many small blue dots in the trees that were locked in eternal winter.

It was inevitable; because the strings on those dolls are the web of fate, and there's no escaping the reach of fate itself. Not even at the edge of the forest. Not even in a tightly guarded insane asylum. Not even in your sleep. Life is but a dream, after all.

The End