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.

A Circle of Birches: Chapter 2

Ashley Stoneman leaned back in her chair, carefully balancing the old wooden seat on its back two legs as she braced her hands against the chipped, off-white counter in the Fletcher’s kitchen. “Thanks for lunch, Mrs. Fletcher!” she exclaimed cheerfully.

Kyle’s mother smiled kindly at the younger Stoneman, clearing her plate. “Ash, honey, you’re gonna cave your skull in if you’re not careful. Hasn’t that grandmother of yours taught you anything?”

Ashley looked back at her sheepishly, returning her chair to its proper position. “Sorry, Mrs. Fletcher,” she mumbled.

“I’m not angry with you, dear,” the housewife replied, placing the soiled dish in the sink. “I would just hate to see anything happen to you. You’re a good girl.” Mrs. Fletcher’s eyes seemed distant as she glanced over at Jill and Kyle. The two of them were sitting on the couch in the next room, their food half-forgotten on the coffee table as they sat knee-to knee. Jill’s melodic laughter wafted into the kitchen as she reacted to something Kyle said, her face alight with the warm blush of teenage romance. Ashley rolled her eyes, turning her attention back to her half-finished glass of milk.

Ashley wouldn’t say that she disliked Kyle. Not exactly. It was more that she resented Jill for liking him. He wasn’t even that special. Frankly, in just about every way, Kyle Fletcher was perfectly average. He played hockey for Lake Bakade High, but not well enough that he would ever be in the running for captain. Even his looks were just… average. His dark, soulful eyes and easy smile had always reminded Ashley just a little too much of an eager Malamute. But if that was what Jill was into, who was her little sister to complain?

“How’s your father getting on?” Mrs. Fletcher asked suddenly, her gray eyes intently drawn to Ashley’s face. “We haven’t talked much, not since…” she trailed off, suddenly sheepish. “I guess it’s a weird thing to ask.”

Ashley secreted away the tinge of sadness that the older woman’s question birthed in her, another piece of hollow loss that she kept hidden in a deep corner of her heart. “Daddy’s fine,” she managed, her voice softer than normal. “He’s working a lot more, now.” She wanted to tell Mrs. Fletcher the truth, but how could she ever begin to admit how worried she was about her father, or how terribly she missed her mother?

It had been nearly three years since Hattie Stoneman had passed, wheezing away her final agonizing breaths in a sterile hospital bed over at Iris Medical Center. But to those who had been left behind, it seemed somehow like only days had gone by. Ashley still caught herself watching for her mother’s beaten up old minivan to come crunching up their gravel driveway. Sometimes, she caught the tiniest hint of lilac perfume on the breeze, or heard the gentle hum of her mother’s voice just barely outside her perception. It was hard to remember that she was gone. It was hard to remember that she had ever really lived at all.

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Fletcher replied, her hand hovering just a whisper above Ashley’s shoulder before returning, defeated, to her side. “I just…I’m terrible at these things.” she chuckled in wry self-deprecation. “I wish I could do more for you all, you know?”

Ashley smiled warmly at Kyle’s mother. “It’s okay. Really. We’re totally fine. You don’t have to worry. Grandma takes good care of us.”

“Well, that’s good,” the older woman replied. Silence filled the kitchen like smoke, heavy and palpable. What was there to say, really, when all the pleasantries were done?

“Ash!” cried Jill’s voice from the living room, beating back the uneasy quiet. “Get over here!”

Ashley smiled once more at Mrs. Fletcher before sliding out of her chair, joining the older teenagers eagerly. “Are we finally gonna talk about your plan?” she asked.

Jill nodded. “Okay, so what’s the big problem with our pranks on Lottie?”

“They’re a little mean,” Kyle replied. “I mean, what’s she ever really done to us?”

“She’s a Wollard, dude,” Jill mumbled, as if this explained everything.

“Yeah,” Ashley said, nodding. “And Wollards are freaks.”

Kyle sighed. “But has she ever done anything?” he asked.

“That’s the point!” Jill exclaimed. “She never reacts to anything we do! So I think we should give her a dose of her own freaky medicine and scare the crap out of her tonight! What do you guys say?”

“I don’t know,” Kyle said with a slight frown. “What’s the plan, exactly?”

Jill grinned. “So we know she likes to hang out in the woods and junk, right? And Ky, you’ve actually seen her little clubhouse for one, haven’t you?”

He nodded. “Yeah, but it’s pretty deep in the woods, you know? And last time I was out there…” he shuddered.

“I found these creepy old robes in the attic,” Jill continued, ignoring Kyle’s hesitation. “We’ll take them and some flashlights and hide out in the forest tonight. Then, we wait for her to show up like she always does, and we really give her something to lose her crap about! You guys down?”

“I don’t know,” Kyle mumbled. “That seems kinda mean, don’t you think?”

“Don’t be such a buzz kill, Kyle,” Jill said coolly. “It’s totally harmless. What’s she gonna do, call the cops on us?”

“Still…” he sighed. “Fine.”

“Jill, we absolutely have to be home before dark,” Ashley said, her eyes wide. “Can’t we just pelt her with water balloons like we did last month? That was fun, and no one had to spend the night in the woods.”

“Well, you can stay home and watch tv with Grandma if you want to,” Jill said flatly. “But then everyone will know that you’re just a little baby. If we pull this off, Ash, we’ll be legends. Think about it.”

Ashley gulped. On the one hand, she was utterly terrified of the woods. On the other, she was about to start her freshman year. If she got a reputation for being a wimp now, she could kiss any hope of popularity in high school goodbye. If the choice was between an easy life at the top of the class or being consigned to the “freak” pile with Lottie, her decision was an easy one to make. “Fine,” she muttered. “But I think this is a stupid plan. Just for the record.”

Jill grinned. “Come on, you guys. This is gonna be great. Trust me.”

Kyle smiled at her, but Ashley could see the flicker of nervous energy behind his eyes, the startled shudder of a rabbit cornered by a lean and hungry coyote. “I do trust you,” he said softly. “Let’s go.” He led the girls towards the front door, grabbing the golf cart key off of a simple wooden tray sitting beside it. “Hey, mom!” he yelled towards the back of the house, “I’m going over to Jill’s!”

“Okay, Ky!” his mother responded, her voice resonating from the kitchen. “Don’t stay out too late! You’re working tomorrow, remember?”

Kyle groaned. “Damn it, that’s right. I’m supposed to be cleaning bait buckets at the boat launch tomorrow. Verne’s even paying me.”

“Ugh! Really?” Jill hissed as they walked over to the garage. “That’s grody as hell. I told you, if you need money, my dad’s always looking for guys to haul tarps.”

“Yeah, but then I’d have to work for my girlfriend’s dad,” he replied, tossing Ashley’s scooter in the back of the golf cart, “and that’s way worse. I’d much rather scrape fish guts out of old metal buckets. Besides, I’m less likely to get hurt working for Verne. Can’t afford to be laid up now that I’ve made varsity.”

Jill sighed heavily, hauling her mountain bike up to join her sister’s scooter. Ashley glanced between the two of them, a faint smile playing about her lips. So there was trouble in paradise after all. That was useful information.

“What are you looking at?” Jill snarked. “Get in, or you’re walking home.”

Ashley nodded, hopping into the cargo bin with their stuff. Kyle twisted the key in the ignition, and the little golf cart purred to life. Ashley held on tightly to the side of the cart bed as they whizzed down the driveway, back towards the Stoneman farm. She felt her stomach quiver warily as they whipped around the tight turn onto Schooner Street, leaving the sleepy village of Pyramid Point for the farmland beyond. One of these days, she was going to get to ride in the front of the stupid cart. She wasn’t sure how, and she wasn’t sure when, but it was going to happen.

The worst heat of the day had already passed by the time the trio arrived back at the Stoneman farm, so they wasted no time in stowing the bike and scooter in the shed next to the farmhouse. They breezed past old Sarah Stoneman without so much as a hello, dashing upstairs to the small room the girls shared.

“Ash, grab our camping gear and the flashlights,” Jill commanded, and the younger girl nodded, extracting a duffel bag from her closet. Inside was a small dome tent and sleeping bags, as well as their mess kits and an old kerosene lantern. They hadn’t used any of it in…well, in over three years, but the gear had remained in their closet, a testament to trips once taken and future expeditions that had died, stillborn. At least they were getting used now, she thought.

Jill pulled a large, dusty box out from under her bed. She brushed away some of the filth before carefully prying the lid off the weathered wooden container. She carefully extracted three bundles of dark, age-mottled cloth, placing them on the mattress. Kyle stared at them with a mixture of concern and curiosity.

“You found these in your attic?” he asked, tentatively touching the corner of one of the robes.

Jill nodded. “Yeah. They were just shoved up there behind the Halloween decorations, so I guess they’re old costumes or something.” She handed him a wooden mask. “Check these out, too! Seriously creepy! Can you imagine the look on Lottie’s face when she sees us in these?”

Ashley wandered over, pulling the mask from Kyle’s trembling hands. “Whoa,” she murmured, turning it over in her grasp. The mask itself was fairly simple, carved from a single piece of driftwood and sanded down to a gleaming polish that still held up even given its apparent age. The face was human, or human-adjacent, with large eye sockets and a long, thin nose taking up most of the surface area. The mouth was the most disturbing feature, twisted and gaping in a primal scream, its maw lined with jagged teeth that seemed to have been carved from bits of bone and shell. “Dude, this is dope!”

“Right?” Jill agreed, adding two other masks to the growing pile of stuff on her bed. Each mask was slightly different, though constructed in a similar fashion. One looked almost deer-like with branching antlers, its snout punctuated by a large fang on either side. The other was more bird-like, with a curved beak and almondine eyes framed by intricately carved feathers about the fringes. Ashley eagerly grabbed the beaked mask, tossing the screaming face back on the bed.

Kyle shook his head before selecting the antlered mask. “Are you sure it’s okay for us to borrow these?” he asked.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Jill said in reply. “It’s not like anyone’s using them. Besides, we’ll put them all right back where we found them after we’re done. No harm done.”

Ashley nodded, her thumb gently stroking the feathered carving on her mask. “I guess it’s okay, then. I mean, it’s just for one night.”

“Exactly!” Jill said. “And it’s gonna be so worth it! I can’t wait to see Lottie lose her freaky little mind over this! It’s gonna be awesome!” She grabbed the masks back from Ashley and Kyle, adding them and the faded robes to the duffle bag. “Now, we just need to grab some food, and I think we’re ready to go. You guys ready?” Ashley and Kyle exchanged a nervous glance before both nodding, hiding their trepidation behind a level of bravado only teenagers could muster. Jill laughed, looking at their faces. “Come on, guys! It’ll be fun, I promise! And if it’s not, well, at least it’ll be a cool story to tell.”

Kyle chuckled nervously. “Y-yeah,” he mumbled. “Spending all night out in the woods. Just the three of us, plus whatever hungry animals are out there. What could go wrong?”

“Would you chill?” Jill grumbled. “You sound like a city boy. It’s not a big deal. Besides,” she added, leaning in to whisper something in his ear. Ashley watched in confusion as Kyle blushed, his shoulders suddenly straighter. There wasn’t much time for her to speculate on her sister’s words, however. Even in these long summer days, the light wouldn’t stay forever. And the woods were dense and dark even on the brightest day. If they were really going to do this, they had to leave soon.