A Circle of Birches: Chapter 3

Though it was still late afternoon and the northern sun had yet to complete her lazy summer trip across the sky, all was dark and cool within the embrace of the Port Blanc Woods. The sun did not entirely penetrate the rich canopy of gnarled, ancient trees that rested above the trio, and what little light did fall upon their nervous faces danced and flickered as the breeze off the bay sent the leaves trembling. The Stoneman sisters and Kyle ventured ever deeper into the woods, following a long-overgrown road. The path itself was ominous and inhospitable as it wound through the smooth-barked beeches and malformed pines, slick with the sime of half-decomposed plant matter and littered with all manner of tiny bones from unidentified animals. Roots warped forth from the muck like the hands of the damned, grasping at their ankles.

“I really, really hate this,” Kyle whispered nervously, fiddling with the fabric of his robe. The deer-beast mask rested on his forehead, giving him the eerie illusion of having two sets of features.

Jill sighed. “Of all the boys at Lake Bakade High, I had to date the coward,” she grumbled.

“Hey! I’m not a coward!” he retorted. “Don’t tell me this place doesn’t give you the creeps!”

Ashley nodded from beneath her raven mask, lugging the heavy duffel bag behind her with a soft groan. “He’s right, Jill. I don’t like it here.”

“Will you two calm down?” Jill turned back to look at them, her rich brown eyes narrowed in disdain. “Look, I know it’s dark in here, but it’s just a freaking forest. There’s nothing to worry about. By this time tomorrow, we’ll be back on the beach with a hell of a story to tell. But if you two wanna chicken out and make me do this by myself, that’s your business.”

Kyle thought for a moment before sighing in resignation. “Like I could just leave you out here by yourself,” he muttered. “Come on. Lottie’s fort’s just up this way.”

The trio ventured onward as the road continued to fade away into an overgrown mess beneath their feet. Soon, the only path they had to follow was little more than a deer trail, a tight cleft in the undergrowth just wide enough for their legs. Ashley cried out as her robe sleeve caught on a large hemlock bush, yanking her backwards. She sheepishly struggled to free herself before racing to catch up with the older teens.

After what felt like hours, they turned a bend in the path to find themselves in a small clearing. The mixed deciduous and coniferous forest gave way to a circle of lean, corpse-pale birches that shone in the darkness like a congregation of phantasms. The papery bark sloughed off the skinny trunks like decayed skin, peeling back to reveal new, salmon-pink growth underneath. Their leaves rattled softly in the wind, sharp,serrated teeth clattering together as they brushed past one another.

In the center of the circle of birches sat a small brush arbor, a hollowed-out pile of dead branches and plant matter carefully constructed into a dome-like structure. The hovel had no door that they could see, an uneven, gaping hole yawning into the dark recesses beyond. Ashley pulled a flashlight out of her robe pocket, shining the narrow, yellow beam into the structure. It was simply furnished, with a stained, threadbare twin mattress taking up one side of the structure. The other side housed a large log that seemed to serve as a cluttered table.

Jill grinned, ducking as she entered the structure. “Let’s see what kind of junk that freak keeps lying around,” she suggested, approaching the table. Three stick candles stood in simple antler holders, forming an equilateral triangle on the table’s surface. To the left was one in bright blood red, hardened drippings staining the wood beneath the holder. To the right was a candle of deep blue wax, carefully carved with strange and arcane symbols. And in the center, as far back as it could be placed without tipping over, was a rich forest green candle, bound up in cedar needles. In the center, a strange shape was carved into the log. As she studied it, Jill found the shape increasingly familiar and eerily nostalgic, though it was something she knew she had never seen before.

The longer she stared at it, the more she felt drawn to it, her slender fingers reaching out to trace their way across the surface. Words came to her, strange and unknown, filling her brain with sounds her tongue had never made, with images she could not even begin to process. Still, she reached forward, her curiosity sharpened into a primal need to know, to understand.

“Jill!” Kyle cried, yanking her from her trance. He stood outside the hovel, his eyes wide in concern.

“What?” she snapped.

“I asked if you found anything interesting,” he repeated.

She looked back at the table. Whatever impulse had guided her in the moments before had faded, a disquiet memory clinging to the back of her mind and nothing more. Jill shook her head. “Just some stupid crap,” she replied. “Not that I expected anything else. Let’s go. We need to get our camp set up wile we still have light left.”

The trio walked back into the woods, looking for a good place to camp. It wouldn’t be much of a prank if their camp was within eyesight of Lottie’s hideout, but they still needed to be close enough to see her arrive the next morning. After a few minutes of searching, Kyle found a suitable site tucked beneath the skeletal remains of a lightning-torched red oak. The tree had split nearly down the middle, exposing dark, charred heartwood as half of it bent to meet the forest floor with its lifeless branches. The other half still grew tall and strong, a thick growth of jagged emerald leaves sprouting forth from the ragged structure. The fallen branches provided excellent natural cover, and had the benefit of concealing their camp from Lottie’s grove.

Ashley grumbled as she struggled to set up the tent, fitting skinny poles together and worming them through the tan fabric. It had been too long since the last time they’d used the camping gear. The last time, she’d been too small to be trusted with the tent, and had been content to watch her mother and father bicker over the placement of stakes. But those days were gone, now, a season lost to the all-consuming jaws of time that left noting intact. And Jill and Kyle were more than willing to make the youngest Stoneman do all the work while they climbed the fallen branches, struggling in their threadbare robes.

She watched them as they sat together on top of the tangled heap, Kyle’s arm wrapped tightly around Jill, her head resting on his shoulder. It wasn’t fair, not in the slightest, but Ashley supposed that was her fate as the youngest. Neither of them were bad people, not really. They just were oblivious, too wrapped up in each other to remember her or keep her company when they were together. She sighed as the final bar snapped into place, the tent standing proudly in the shadow of the oak. Finally. “I’m hungry,” she called.

Kyle let go of Jill, pushing himself off of the tree branch. “I’ll get the stove going,” he chirped, smiling awkwardly at Ashley. “Beef stew okay?”

She nodded. “Thanks. And we’re having s’mores later, right?”

He winked at her. “Why do you think I packed all these marshmallows?” he replied. Kyle rummaged in the duffel bag, extracting the camp stove, a can of fuel, and a large can of stew.

Ashley smiled back at him warmly. Maybe there was a reason why Jill liked him after all. He reminded her a bit of their father…well, how her father had been. He might have been boring and average and not particularly interesting to look at, but he was a good guy. Maybe that was what really mattered.

As Kyle opened the can of stew, Jill walked over, her screaming mask resting around her neck. “Eww,” she grumbled. “Didn’t you pack anything healthy?”

“It’s a camping trip, not a spa weekend,” Kyle muttered. “Besides, you had every opportunity to grab your own supplies.”

Jill seemed somewhat taken aback by his bluntness. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, unsure of how to respond. Eventually, she just slipped inside the tent with a soft huff.

Ashley rolled her eyes. This was Jill’s idea, so why was she being such a jerk about things all of a sudden? Was she scared, too, and just trying to act tough so the others wouldn’t back down? That seemed like the most logical conclusion to Ashley. Jill wasn’t exactly a coward, but Kyle was right. Anyone would be uncomfortable in these woods, except for the possible exception of Lottie.

“I’m sorry about her,” Ashley muttered.

Kyle shrugged. “It’s all good. You know how Jill gets.”

She nodded. “Yeah. I do. It’s just…” she sighed. “She didn’t used to be this way, you know? Like before, when mom was around, she was nicer. I guess miss my old sister, sometimes.” Ashley chuckled weakly. “I guess it sounds pretty stupid when I say it out loud.”

Kyle shook his head. “No. It doesn’t. I mean, I didn’t know either of you that well before. But sometimes, I see a little bit of that old Jill, I think.” He popped the open can on top of the stove, heating the congealed mixture slowly over the small flame. “Like, she’ll smile sometimes and her face will just light up a certain way, or…” he shrugged again. “I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. Just…I get it, okay? What happened to your mom? That really sucked.”

“Yeah,” Ashley agreed. “It totally did.”

They sat in silence for a long time, watching the stew slowly bubble in its fat can, steam rising like incense to meet the canopy above. Neither of them knew what to say. It was probably the most they’d ever talked before, and the subject wasn’t exactly an easy one. In the end, a silent understanding was all that they could really share, and that meant more than any half-baked pity of speeches about how things were going to get better anyway. The silence, the smell of damp earth, the rustle of the leaves…there was a peace there, in that moment, a spell neither of them seemed to want to break.

Eventually, Kyle pulled the duffel closer, pulling out the mess kits. “Stew’s ready,” he murmured. “You wanna get Jill, or should I?”

“I’ll do it,” Ashley replied, standing up and wiping bits of dead leaves from her robes. She waled over to the tent, unzipping the flap slowly so as not to startle her sister. “Hey, Jill? I know it’s not salad, but dinner’s…”

Her voice trailed off as she surveyed the interior of the tent. Their sleeping bags were still rolled neatly in one corner where she had left them. The rest of the structure was completely bare. There was no sign of Jill, or of any sign that might indicate where she had gone, save for a single jagged piece of shell that lay near the center of the tent. Ashley picked it up, studying it carefully. One of the teeth from Jill’s mask. It had to be.

Ashley ran out of the tent, nearly knocking Kyle over. “Kyle! Jill’s not in the tent!”

He stared at her, confused. “What? How? We would have heard her leave, right?”

“I mean, I think so,” Ashley replied, her heart racing frantically. “She’s gotta be messing with us, right?”

Kyle nodded, but he didn’t look convinced. His hand trembled violently as he ladled stew into one of the metal bowls, nearly spilling it everywhere. “Y-yeah. Definitely. We should just eat, and she’ll come back when she gets bored.”

“Okay,” Ashley agreed, taking the bowl from him. The beef stew suddenly seemed completely unappetizing, and she just held the bowl in her hands, letting the warmth radiate through her. When had it gotten so cold, she wondered.

Kyle seemed to be similarly at a loss, his eyes scanning the nearby trees carefully. Once again, they descended into silence, listening for footfalls and finding none. The creaking of the trees, low and strange like whale-song, was the only sound that met their anxious ears.