Tara first saw the forest in a dream, rather, a nightmare. It appeared out of nowhere, the sudden presence of trees and shadow. One moment there was nothingness and the next an all-encompassing, all-consuming darkness. The trees were so tall that they blocked out the sky, their leaves forming a thick canopy that obscured the sun. The scarce light that did reach the forest floor was more of a haze, as if the brilliant beams had been strained through a veil a thousand times over. There were no sounds, not from birds or insects, or animals. Just the silence of the trees and the rolling breath of the shadows.
In the dream, the forest was moving outward, swallowing whatever sat in its path. She watched, unable to shake the cold anxiety of a nightmare. Her dream brought her to church—as many nightmares had—the one made of white stone with the tall red door, the one that her family had attended for as long as she could remember. Her heart lurched as the forest molded itself around the building like a cloak hiding it from her sight, like a mouth yawning wide then snapping shut. Then it was gone, covered by dark foliage and scored trunks. The trees bent backwards, retreating to whatever void they had crawled from and leaving an empty space in their wake. No church to be found.
The eight-year-old Tara startled awake from fitful sleep with tears in her eyes and on her pillow. It was not her first nightmare, but it was the first that felt so real, so possible, as if she could not trust that it was only a dream. She was inconsolable, mourning what had been lost to the forest. So many Sunday mornings, so many memories. She thought of her grandmother playing the piano; she thought of her grandmother’s funeral. All gone, all eaten up by the trees and the shadows that hid between them.
Her father tried to put her back to sleep, but it was no use. Tears ran freely down her cheeks, her eyes made red and puffy, even her nose wet with snot. Her father helped her out of bed and into the car, taking Tara to see the church for herself, supposedly to see that it was still there. With love in his heart, her father drove her through the dark backroads, following twists and turns buffeted by trees that seemed flat and lifeless compared to those in her dreams. Nothing malicious about how they stood, no creatures hiding in their shadows waiting to feed.
They got to the space where the church should have been and there was just that: a space. A gaping wound in the world, as if someone had taken a giant eraser and smudged away the building from existence. All that was left was a sign by the road, half there, half gone, as if torn between two worlds. Welcome to the First Baptist—that is where it faded away with a vague green stain, the wood and lettering gradually disappearing like it never had been there. Below read the words: Come Join Us—but the rest of the information was lost, leaving more threat than welcome.
Tara tried to tell her father that the forest had taken the church away, that she had watched it happen, but how could he believe a story like that. He got out of the car, telling his daughter to stay put. He walked to the half-there sign and ran his hand along it, pausing where it ended. The car’s headlights illuminated his furrowed brow. He walked up what used to be a brick pathway, instead, there was overgrown grass, untrampled and wild. He paused when he reached the-should-have-been door, raising his hand as if to knock. Then, just like in the dream, Tara saw the not-door contort and swallow her father whole.
She screamed. And a hole ripped through her heart where he should have been.
A decade-and-something later, Tara still dreamt of the forest. It terrified her, taunted her, tempted her. Fear and grief over the loss of her father grew into something deeper—an obsession with the unknown. A notebook and pen open by her bed, the words “HUNGRY FOREST” scrawled on the cover. It was a record of everything her dreams had shown her of the forest, of what it eats and where it takes from. A printed map was tucked inside, little red circles indicating other places the forest had taken. On other pages there were printouts of news articles and conspiracy theories about disappearing buildings, lampposts, sometimes whole towns. But nothing was as familiar as the church. Nowhere she could pinpoint in time to enter. Once she had driven until dawn but was unable to find a way in. She had not found another entryway, not since the one that took her father.
At first it was about finding him and bringing him back. But after months became years, became almost twenty years, that dream faded and was replaced by a reckless passion to know. She had a bag packed by her door, car keys ready, the tank always full, just in case she saw something she recognized. She had to find her way in, she needed to know where her father had gone.
Then, her nightmare finally brought her something useful.
That night the forest had consumed a gas station, the vines and moss slowly obscuring the bright lights and colored signs, making the place look grimier than before. It was altogether unremarkable, especially with the greenery already covering most of it and taking away the surrounding scenery, something that could be anywhere, a hallmark of any small town. But this was not in any town, it was right outside of her own. There was a sign, a small thing, but something she recognized. It was a sale-sign that advertised last season’s ice cream flavors. Something that should have been replaced months ago, something she silently mocked every time she saw it, something that told her all she needed.
Tara forced herself awake, not waiting to see the station fully consumed. She didn’t bother writing anything down, or researching the place, she just grabbed her bag, ran to the car, and raced to where the trees were claiming another victim.
She reached the gas-station, or rather where it should have been, at half-past three. She got out and wandered the space, marveling at how quiet it was, like the space was a void. The forest was not just eating up the brick and glass, but any sound that might have been there. She pulled up a map on her phone, her location showing her where the door to the building should have been. She had seen enough to realize that doors were the easiest way into the forest, like it recycled the features that it ate. It was from this idea that she devised her theory, that the forest was superimposed over the real world, overlapping in places when it had to feed. Of course, that was just a theory, untested and risky, though it was her best shot at finding the church and her father’s end.
Tara peered around the shop, the only light coming from glowing buttons and a neon sign advertising unnatural slushie flavors. This did not look like a gas-station after hours—as if you could flip a switch, add some people in a hurry, and it would come to life again. No. This was darker, more sinister If you turned on the light, you would see things that were better kept to shadow. She had the horrible feeling there were things watching her from every angle, hiding just out of sight, ready to eat her up.
There were leaves on the floor, dried and nearly ground to dust, pine needles and spores too, more than an average day’s foot traffic would bring in. This was unnatural, unholy in a green-tinted way. Even the shelves were threaded with vines, the glass of the coolers broken and tinged with what looked like moss and mold. Mushrooms sprang from between rows of snacks and random knick-knacks. There were branches poking in too, finding ways through broken windows and even a large crack in the side of the building. Tara almost tripped, catching herself on a vine, catching her skin on the prickers. She looked down for the cause of her fall. At first, she thought it was a log, or maybe something fallen from the shelves. Then her eyes landed on a pair of bright red sneakers, and jeans.
Lying on the cold and green floor of the gas-station was a body.
Poor kid, she thought. She could tell he was young, maybe in college, maybe in high school. He was not breathing—at least not that she could tell. She did not want to get too close. Like the other things left in the building, he looked as if he had been there for far longer than possible, long enough for there to be an exposed part of his skull where mushrooms poked through the greying skin. The clothes were wearing thin, some patches reinforced by a layer of lichen or moss, some patches of skin peeled back to reveal bone. On his sweatshirt there was a name tag that read WILKS, whether that was his first or last name she would never know.
Her mind flitted reflexively to her father and imagined that it was his body decaying on the floor instead of this kid. The thought made her eyes prick with tears. She had to get out of there, out of the gas-station, and away from the body. She broke through the vine-crusted door and out into the forest.
The parking lot and gas pumps were overrun with greenery, just like the building had been, though the red lights still displayed what members would save per gallon. It was eerie, the green foliage tinged by the red light, only interrupted by the flickering of harsh LEDs. When she looked up, she could not find the moon or stars. Tara shone her phone light up, only to find layers and layers of branches and leaves, as if the forest were insulated from the world beyond. It was darkness like nothing she had ever known. Wanting for light, Tara went back into the building and, with a bit of hunting, she found a couple lighters and a larger flashlight. There was no need to kill her phone battery just for light; besides, she needed it for something else.
Tara pulled up the map on her phone. Sure enough, it showed her location where the gas station should really have been. She located the field where the church was and set it as her destination. She had a theory that the forest was just a palimpsest, imposed over her own world and intersecting occasionally. If this was true, she should be able to find her way through the forest as if it were the world she knew.
She had not gone far, not yet half-way, when she realized she was being watched. Although the forest was silent, no sounds of birds or bugs, she could hear what could only be described as breathing. It was a chorus of sounds, soft and almost unnoticeable, but unmistakable. This was easy enough to get used to, if she didn’t think too hard about what made the sounds. But then, apart from the ambiance, there was a muffled scuffling from somewhere behind her. She was not just being watched but followed. She fought the urge to turn around, to stop and see what was behind her. But if she just kept going, if she did not hear anything else, maybe there would be nothing there.
She kept on walking until she heard it again, closer this time. She tried to tell herself it was just a rabbit, maybe a deer. A perfectly normal woodland animal in perfectly natural woods. But of course, Tara knew there was nothing natural or normal about this place.
She heard it again: this time accompanied by a gruff sounding breath. Tara spun around, her flashlight held as a weapon, her eyes scanning the trees and the gaping spaces between their trunks. She screamed, her eyes landing on bone, on a skull, on the fully clothed skeleton that had been creeping after her. To her shock, and to her fright, the skeleton screamed back.
It was the gas-station boy, Willis or something like that. Wilks?
“You’re the boy … the one from the gas station.” She tried to reconcile this version of him with the one on the floor. Although it had not been an hour, the boy’s flesh and muscle had completely decayed. She could see the lines of similarity, but it was still jarring. Here he was, dead—and following her.
“Do you know where I am?” He asked with an urgency tipping to panic.
Tara did her best to explain the all-consuming forest and where she had found him. To his credit, he did not interrupt or refute it. He must have known somehow that it was truth.
“Am I dead?”
“Yes,” Tara replied automatically, then reconsidered. “Sort of.”
He nodded, then took a moment to examine his hands, or the bones and the lichen that had taken over them.
“God, I’ve never hated the outdoors more.”
Tara snorted before picking up the pace.
As they walked deeper into the forest, the rumbling sounds only intensified, though they were nothing like the sounds Tara had heard before. The noises became less breathy and more like a low hum. It grew steadily louder, oscillating between two pitches. It was accompanied by a distant thud and scratching sound, like dragging nails over wood. She tried not to think about what kinds of birds or insects might make such sounds. She tried to stay determined, to tell herself she was not afraid. But her racing heart betrayed the truth. She only knew the forest from the outside, not from within. Sure, she knew about the palimpsest, the doors, the gap in reality that it left behind, but she had no idea what resided in these shadows.
It terrified her.
Wilks walked a few steps behind her, struggling to keep up with the brisk pace. He was getting worse, not that she would say that to his skull. His bones were getting darker, as if stained by the soil he was never buried in. From his right eye-socket, a small vine climbed up his temple. If it bothered him, he did not say, though she was sure he had deeper discomforts, like the ferns that poked past his ribcage and beyond the collar of his shirt.
At last, they reached the church, or what was left of it. All this time being fed on, the forest had left its mark. The steeple had long since crumbled, the white stone stained green and black by mold and moss, and the door—the one that had taken her father so long ago—hung askew from its hinges, the wood made fragile with rot. Tara tried to gingerly push it out of the way, but the weakened door fell backwards. A crash echoed out from the crumbling building. She flinched away from the sound, it seemed unnatural against the hallowed nature overrunning the place. When the echo had died down, she noted that the humming and thudding had stopped. Silence swallowed the church until Wilks spoke up.
“Something else is here.”
Tara froze and turned back to him, “How do you know?”
He shrugged with a small creak of his bones before saying emphatically, “I can feel it. I’m not the only thing that followed you.”
Then the shadows between the tree trunks began to stretch outwards and move, like something was hidden behind them, something that was about to break out. Tara’s heart pounded, an echo of the rhythmic thuds that had resumed just past the tree line.
Something—somethings were coming.
She reached out and grabbed for Wilks, her hand latching on to his forearm. To her horror, his arm lurched toward her but his body stayed put. It had detached at the shoulder, leaving him standing and her falling backwards with his arm still in her grip. She cried out, her eyes flung wide, and her mouth stuck open in disgust. Wilks did not make a sound, just looked at her with those hollow sockets, his skull cocked to one side as if appraising her. Then the shadows closed around the skeleton boy and ate him up, leaving only his right arm in her hand.
The other shadows seemed to wriggle in delight, hiding just beyond the reach of her flashlight. Then, out of the darkness came sights far worse than the skeleton boy ever could have been. The creatures varied in size and shape, but all were turned to her, all approaching slowly as if moved by the same force. Tara allowed herself to scream.
Still holding on to the arm, she turned and ran into the church, some shelter from the horrible creatures that followed her. She picked up the broken door, made lighter by decay, and propped it back in place. She ran further in, through the second set of doors that had been protected from some of the decay. Tara secured them behind her and turned to examine the sanctuary. The large room was dark, just like the rest of the forest. She shined her light around, trying to ignore the sound of things moving closer. The beam illuminated the pews, rotting, but still set in their staunch rows. The windows were stained, not with the colors or images of cathedrals, but with greens and browns. One or two were broken. The ceiling was mostly there, save a few gaps that had vines and leaves hanging down. In a moment of sacrilegious observation, Tara thought the sanctuary looked more beautiful and felt more holy than it ever had before.
As she walked down the aisle, she wondered about her father and what he saw when he walked through the door, whether he had decayed until he was dust—or whether he was eaten up like Wilks. She wondered if he was scared or confused, whether he thought about his daughter, and her nightmare. Whether he tried to wake up from one of his own.
At the base of the sanctuary sat a piano. The sight made her heart lurch and her eyes prick with tears. The grand instrument had been brought to a kneel, the front legs broken down after all these years. The ivory keys—blackened and teeming with moss—were now slumped toward the floor. And in front of the desecrated instrument were bones—not clean, polished bones like Wilks had, but fully reclaimed by vines and mushrooms. Death tarnished by shades of green.
It was not hard to figure out that this was, or had been, her father. Even after the clothes or any other identifier had been consumed, she knew it could only be him. She imagined him sitting at the piano and playing while alone in the darkness. She saw his hands glancing over the keys until his fingers were narrow bone and his eyes had decayed in his skull. She could see him sitting there, perhaps singing, as the forest stole more and more of him. She wondered about the last song he had played.
Despite the answer to her desperate question, there was no resolution in her heart. Just the gaping hole within her, eaten away by the grief she had accumulated over the past decades. She knew then that the search had been in vain. No amount of knowledge or research could ever heal the pain of loss and the anger she felt at the forest. At her dreams. At herself.
A tear ran down her face and she reached to staunch the flow before it could get worse. Splotches of pale green caught her eye. Beginning to grow over her skin and between her fingers were clusters of lichen.
Tara screamed. It was not a sound of fear as one might expect, but a scream of defiance. The sight of her father and the sight of Wilks churned in her mind, both taken by the dark forest, both consumed until they could give no more. This would not be her fate, not if she could help it.
The sounds from outside the church grew louder, screeching and screaming in response to her challenge. She said a quick prayer and readjusted her grip on Wilks’ severed arm, brandishing it like a weapon. She wondered whether her father had said any prayers.
Then her flashlight flickered out, leaving her in darkness for one quiet moment.
Tara heard the walls burst inwards as she fumbled for one of the stolen lighters, igniting a small flame just in time to see one of the creatures, with the face of a skeletal vulture and antlers like an elk’s, inches away from her face. When the orange light hit it, the creature hissed and fell back, shrinking away from the mild heat. The flame revealed the other nightmarish beings, some tall like trees, colored dark like the shadows and stretching to the ceiling, horns jutting out like crowns, their mouths hung open, hungry and daunting. Some had the faces of owls and sparrows but bodies like hedges of feathers, antlers protruding from them in unnatural ways, as if they had eaten up herds of deer. The most terrifying were the ones that did not walk, but slank along the floor, like piles of sentient moss, sliding over to her, their bodies covered in little yellow eyes, reflecting the small light.
Tara knew what she had to do. Using Wilks’ severed arm and her jacket, she fashioned a makeshift torch. The fire roared to life, and the creature sunk back even further, flinching away from the flame. She brought it closer, jabbing it at the shadows.
Tara brought the flame to the pews, touching it to the wood, praying it would catch and spread and make a blaze brilliant enough to light up the whole forest, maybe even push the trees back and open a way out, another doorway back to her world. The rotting wood started to smolder, giving off a putrid smell. The creatures shrank back further, spilling back out into the forest, away from the spreading fire. Tara’s heart sank as she noticed the flames already fading, refusing to spread to damp kindling.
This was not enough to bend back the forest.
The dying fire would not make a dent.
But there was something far more volatile in the forest than the damp wood.
She readjusted her grip on Wilks’ burning arm and ran out after the monsters, desperate to claw her way back to the gas station. The monsters had gone back into the shadows between the trees, but she could still hear them, breathing and shuffling, waiting for the light to falter, so they could eat her too. She paid them no mind, which was harder to do now that she knew what they were. As she went along, the torch caught on lower branches and thickets, starting small fires behind her, leaving a trail of oranges and reds that illuminated the upper branches. To Tara’s horror there were creatures waiting up there too, perched high and looking down. They were like bats with horrible faces, like small, exposed skulls; they shrieked and peeled away, flying around and ahead of her, desperate to get away from the flame.
She kept running, no longer looking up or back or even down. Finally, she saw the muted red light of the gas station sign. She felt like her bones had worn, they creaked with each movement. She ran to the closest pump, number three, and freed her credit card from her phone case and frantically swiped it.
More monsters were following.
The fires she left behind disappeared one by one, decaying like everything else in the forest. The pump beeped but she did not bother to remove the card, she only took the nozzle and began to dispense the gasoline onto the forest floor, trying to shoot it as far from her as she could. Then she ran back, as far as she dared. She could see monsters now, she felt the ground shake as the tallest stomped towards the station. She raised the torch and tossed it back towards the pump, the spilt fuel.
The forest exploded in oranges and reds, burning in a ball of flame, consuming the pumps and the monsters that were close enough. The creatures screamed, a sound of being unmade. Tara, herself, screamed as she was thrown back, the heat singeing her hair. The forest was bright with warm yet violent light, but distinguished from the blaze were a few gaps, holes that had torn open like wounds, letting in early morning light and clear blue sky. Tara scrambled to her feet and ran for the nearest tear, pushing herself through, it felt like breaking through a veil. She collapsed out on the other side, into the liminal space that had been the gas station. She lay there, struggling to breathe although her chest was heaving. As she pushed to her feet, her hands caught her eye again. They were spattered with lichen but more startlingly, they were skeletal.
The forest had fed after all.
K Gardiner is a writer and artist who can be found splitting her time between her undergraduate thesis and drafting her first novel. Her favorite things to read and write are magical forests and anything that steals you from reality. More of her work has been published with ARCH Literary Magazine and The Minison Project. She has forthcoming pieces in HELL IS REAL Anthology and Gutslut Press’s B O N E M I L K.
photo by Micha Frank (via unsplash)