When the boys, who have been making fun of your sweater—the one mom made for you last year—taunt you from the old bleachers stretching along the back wall of the high school building, you…
a. Go home. Kick off your sneakers and leave them by the door, the way mom taught you to do. Notice how the house echoes with the odd, empty sounds, now that she’s no longer here. Drag your bag upstairs and spend the rest of the night doing homework.
Of course, you don’t.
b. Hit one of the bullies in the face, see his blood drip down onto the battered concrete of the parking lot. Shrug your friend’s hand off your shoulder and wait for the inevitable summons to the Principal’s office.
Or, perhaps, you:
c. Run. Run until you’re out of breath, until the intersections of your hometown have fallen far behind, run to the edge of the world as you know it, where the trees spread their luscious green canopy far and wide.
The forest leans over you, dry branches stretching forward like crooked fingers. Beyond the trees lies darkness. When a whiff of pungent air, warm and wet like an exhaled breath, touches your face, do you…
a. Pull out your phone from the back pocket of your jeans and, when you find there is no signal, not a single bar lighting up, plop down on the crumbling curb at the foot of the towering trees and start sobbing?
Or do you
b. Come closer, peer into the murky shadows beyond the tree line, see the winding trails snake between the mossy boulders, notice the flickering green lights in the mist seeping over the knotted roots, and feel anticipation trembling in your throat like a captured bird?
c. You’re no longer scared of the dark. Not since that night in late October, when a man in the khaki uniform of the sheriff’s department rang the doorbell, waking you up. From the top of the stairs you watched your father’s stern face pause, freeze, and crumble.
You make the first tentative step, and the forest envelops you like a blanket. The broad, pointed fronds of ferns twitch and quaver, fiddleheads poking through the leaves like question marks. Soon, the ground of the trail turns sodden, and the brownish muck soaks through your sneakers. You hop off the path. On your way deeper into the thicket, you find…
Check all that apply
a. A squashed soda can, flimsy metal, twisted like the hood of your mother’s Camry.
b. A sharp, crooked tooth.
c. A flower, red like the blood matted in your mother’s hair.
d. A golf ball with a painted green dot.
e. A piece of glass, light blue and glazed over, like your father’s eyes when he sits on a rickety chair in the kitchen, whiskey bottle clutched in his hand.
f. A piece of bone, more white than yellow, and brittle as his words, when he says your mother wasn’t supposed to be on that road. Don’t you know that she lied to steal a few minutes with that man, the one dead in the passenger seat? This is why she never came back home to you.
g. A cracked eggshell, empty and broken like your heart.
When the forest parts like a curtain and the vast swamp stretches before your eyes, do you…
a. Remember the tales of the thing in the bog, its cold and hungry mouth?
Or do you
b. Think of all the times your father said she didn’t love you enough and what kind of mother gets herself killed in a car accident, her lover’s hand still between her thighs?
Or perhaps you
c. See a silhouette in the fog—a woman sitting on a hillock—and run forward, feet sinking in the squelching quagmire?
Of course, it isn’t her. What did you expect? It’s nothing more than a crooked tree stump with exposed roots and yet, if you blink away the tears and squint really hard, you can see in the cracks of the bark the broken likeness of her face. You can fix this, if you…
a. Fit the golf ball in the empty wooden socket, the painted dot—an iris, green and bright.
b. Let the tooth and the bone complete her face, fixing the fractures.
b. Twine the red flower into the twisted roots, into the strands of her auburn hair.
c. Place the broken eggshell and the shard of blue glass into her mossy lap like an offering.
And when the thing in the bog rises, stretching its limbs, wraps its bony arms around you, and pulls you down into the cold, shifting darkness of the swamp, you will feel…
a. no fear
b. only love.
Laila Amado writes in her second language, lives in her fourth country, and cooks decent paella. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Rejection Letters, Milk Candy Review, Porcupine Literary, and other publications. In her free time, she can be found staring at the Mediterranean Sea. Occasionally, the sea stares back. Follow her on Twitter at @onbonbon7
photo by Balazs Kiss (via pexels)