by D.A. Rivera
He ducked behind the bushes as the figure drifted near. Shallow breaths made his chest quiver and his hands shake. Hoping not to attract attention, he clutched his hand with the other, subduing the shuddering of his body.
The figure floated past, its shadow dancing off the underbrush as it glided deeper into the forest.
A silent exhale. A sigh of relief. He rose slowly to his feet and began sneaking away. While scurrying across the forest floor, a dull pain rose in his chest. A subtle pain. A secret pain. One that weighed heavily on him as he strove to move on.
He hid behind every covering he could find. A thicket here. A tree there. His head spun on a swivel searching desperately for safety, for escape.
Amidst the trunks of blackened bark tempered by years of progressive acquiescence, a feeling rose in the forest that was palpable and impending. A feeling of certainty and virtue was once felt among its prior lush and fertile foliage. Now, but an umbrage of gnarled branches, stubborn trunks, and naked trees spotted the forest. Barely a bush and tree clung desperately to their leaves, only to find them riddling the ground with their rot. The feeling of the forest now, was one of loss.
He kept running, the few leaves remaining falling around him like a slow and heavy rain. All the while that lingering pain in his chest itched and begged for attention. He tried to find respite through fruitless attempts to ignore it. That is when a whisper shot through the wood.
“Please sir, what am I doing here?” A tiny voice pleaded.
He jumped back, taken unaware by its fragility.
Hidden within a nearby bush a small child huddled amidst its twisted branches. His face peered out and beyond a few smudges, his gentle features were smooth and untouched. His clothes were clean besides a speckling of dirt. It looked as though the decaying branches attempted to reach him but had failed yet to connect.
In contrast the man’s face possessed a shaggy beard riddled with scars beneath an entanglement of wiry hair. His clothes wrapped him tattered and worn, failing to mask the series of scars that threaded his body. His joints swelled with aches of past abuse and his mouth drooped at the corners in response. His eyes had grown as sunken as a ship moored in a jagged harbor. He felt weathered, exhausted, and torn. And that pain in his chest. That pain never ceased.
“If you’re like me, I would say you’re hiding.” The man stated gently, the gruffness of his voice struggling to adjust.
The boy’s head tilted. “You’re hiding too?”
Hesitating, the man looked upon the child. In shades of furrowed brow and questioning eyes, curiosity and fear were painted on the boy’s face. A face ready to learn but not yet ready to know. A face he himself once knew. A tear swelled in the pocket of his eye.
Slowly, he nodded to the child. The boy’s brow furrowed deeper, creating a deep divide. Lifting his hand, the man offered it to him. Upon seeing the gesture, the boy’s brows relaxed. He raised his own hand and placed it in the man’s. With calloused fingers cradling a supple hand, the man led the boy out from within the bush and into the open forest.
As they rushed between the trees and bushes the man’s eyes darted with renewed precision. Every fallen leaf, every shifting branch, nothing escaped his attention. With the boy’s hand in his own, his heart beat with renewed conviction. His chest swelled with the rush of breathing clearly and wholly once again. A faint smile appeared as he breathed deeply—before feeling the sharp pain in his chest. His hand tightened its grip.
“Why are you running? You’re an adult, surely you can face it.” The boy asked breathlessly, his feet scampering to keep the man’s stride.
The man hesitated in his reply. He quickly peered over his shoulder thinking he saw its form before realizing it was just a misshapen log crushing a budding sapling. He turned back to the boy and felt another twinge of pain.
“I don’t have the strength to tell it no.” He replied, feeling the pain igniting.
“But you know how to say no.” The boy said sweetly.
He sighed, grimacing from the pain. “I know the word, not how to use it.” His hand flung to his chest, clutching it tightly. In his opposite hand, he felt a small tug pulling him to a stop.
The child’s wide watery eyes met his gaze. Slowly, as if not to startle a deer, the boy tenderly grabbed the arm at the man’s chest. With both hands in his, he pulled the man down to his eye level. The man’s mouth thinned and frowned below sagging eyes, deepening the wrinkles that lined his face.
Crouching, the man stared back and found the boy’s expression had changed. What was once a tearful gaze gave way to a hopeful smile. The man then felt a gentle palm place against his chest.
“I have faith.” The child whispered.
The man’s eyes pinched as he fought to contain the tears that pooled within. A quivering lip gave way beneath a furrowed brow. Tears rolled over scarred cheeks like a flood over a hillside.
“Your faith is misplaced.” The words came out shaky, causing him to choke and gulp as he lowered his gaze. The tears fell, splashing upon the fallen leaves. A tiny finger lifted his chin. He saw the child’s tender smile remained, unrelenting in its position. Shakily catching his breath, he felt a small smile trace across his own lips. He let his tears flow unrestricted and pulled the child close, hugging him tightly.
The boy, with shoulders soaked from tears, returned the hug, his little arms unable to wrap themselves around the man’s thick build but still clutching him as tightly as they could. They embraced safely alone amidst the forest of death and decay.
Until a shadow rose, sweeping its way towards them.
With lightning speed, the man swept the boy up in his arms and spun behind the massive roots of a rotting oak. The man placed the child on the ground and against the bark cracked like veins after years of neglect. The tree towered high above them as a pillar, but the slightest thud created a hollow sound. With the boy concealed behind its husk, the man peered over the edge.
There stood a figure. Between the rays of scattered moonlight its garb of regal silver lined with brooding reds fluttered about, enticing its viewer with a glimmer mystique. Beneath the folds of gossamer linens flowed the form of a woman. Its clothing did little to reserve her shape but rather etched its outline in a prominent exhibition. Complementing this exhibition, silky brunette locks peaked and danced about from beneath the figure’s hood. Its hair and robes flapped and flitted, teasing the very wind that dared to stir them.
Amidst the teasing of brunettes, reds, and silvers was a sudden contrast of a bold chartreuse. Upon the figure’s face was no thing of beauty, but the mask of a serpent. Its eyes were wide. Its mouth exposed fangs of a twisted smile. And between those fangs a forked tongue flicked at the breeze, tasting upon the air its familiar victim.
The man ducked back behind the root. He placed a finger in front of the boy’s mouth, ensuring his silence. The man’s heart thumped with a beat so harsh it threatened to burst his ribs. His eyes swelled as he attempted to calm his breathing. The pain in his chest escalated to a stabbing that somehow hurt worse and different with each pulse. He bore the pain while his eyes darted back and forth searching desperately for an escape; anything to give him the strength to save the child and leave.
“I know you’re there.” A voice sang seductively, magically, upon the wind. It was but a whisper and yet it somehow pierced through the forest. “You may as well come out. You know you can’t resist me.”
He felt the tug that confirmed the figure’s statement. His legs demanded that he approach and expose himself entirely to her. His fingers dug deep into the dirt as he struggled to anchor himself. All he managed to clasp were but a few spindly roots. With what little strength he had left, he turned to the child.
The boy was shaking. His tiny chest heaved and his bright brown eyes bulged. Upon hearing the figure’s words, he shook his head repeatedly, pleading with the man not to leave and to keep him safe. Yet despite all the fear, all the trepidation, the man could see that somehow, hope still lingered within the boy’s eyes.
The pain in his chest nearly crippled him as the man mouthed the words to the child.
And with that, he turned and left the boy.
Walking out from behind the root, he stood before the figure fully vulnerable. He breathed, mustering what he could to speak. “I’m here. You have me.”
The serpent mask shook as a haunting laugh rumbled through the forest. “No. Not everything…” The figure raised its hand towards the direction of the root “I want all of you.” And it pulled its hand up sharply.
The boy flew up, struggling while suspended in mid-air.
Dropping to his knees, the man clasped his hands and pleaded. “Please don’t! Leave the child. Am I not enough for you?!” Hot tears rushed down his face, rolling over waves of scars and muddying with the dirt that caked them.
A chuckle escaped the serpent mask. “Did I not say, I want all of you?”
The figure pulled a long, crooked knife from within its cloak. Twirling it, the figure revealed every bend and twist. It playfully traced its finger along the edge of the blade, rising and falling over every curve.
The man’s legs began to tremble. They pulled at him to move forward. He struggled against them, doing all he could to dig his heels in place. The feeling fed at him, causing his feet to inch forward.
The man threw himself to the ground, burying his face as he bowed himself to her. He coughed as the decaying foliage and rotting dirt filled his nostrils. The pain in his chest was so blinding it forced him to clasp his eyes shut and grind his teeth. He screamed out, the last of his strength expelled from its force.
“NO! NO MORE!”
The figure hesitated, its twisted face tilting as it looked down on him. All but a whistling of wind filled the void. Silence lingered like a festering wound. Finally, a haunting laughter emanated from the serpent mask. One of many more to come.
“Like temptation to a sinner, I hunt down the good in you.”
The figure snapped its hand shut. The boy lurched forward, flying through the air towards the figure. The man jumped from the ground, reaching out to save the child.
The knife flashed. A scream rang out.
And he woke.
With a start, the man woke from his nightmare. Slowing his breathing, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the muted darkness before orienting to his surroundings.
He felt the sheets wrapping themselves around his naked body, feeling worn and abused with time. He felt the sag of the bed under his weight. And the weight of another. Looking over his shoulder, he saw her.
There she laid. Her shoulder rose and fell softly with little regard through each silent breath. The gossamer sheet was tossed over her as if a discarded shedding of skin. It spread with little modesty, etching the outline of her shape. Her brunette hair laid tossed about, flowing smoothly over the pillows. The steady oscillation of the fan on the opposite nightstand blew over her, her sheet and hair teasing the very wind that dared to stir them.
He tore his eyes from her, feeling disgusted with himself. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he let his feet settle. The cool of the old oak floor soaked in. His breath shuddered as the heat drained, allowing his head to clear. With a forward lean he felt ready to bear the weight upon his feet that had remained still for far too long. Just as he was about to stand the flash of a light pulled his attention to it.
Sitting atop the nightstand her phone screen brightened. 14 new messages. The notification stood out against the background: a picture with a couple cheek to cheek, smiling. A face stared back, one he recognized as not his own. The message in front of this victim read: I love you, I’m worried. Please call me when you can. He stared at the message. Its words burned into his eyes until the screen dimmed to black and the weight of the night fell on him once again.
When his eyes slowly readjusted, he was able to find the strength to finally stand. He started excavating the pile of clothes strewn about the floor. He was able to get his pants on before his belt jangled, waking the woman behind him.
“Where are you going?” A voice asked, one feeling somehow both magical and seductive. It was quiet, soft even, and yet it somehow felt like it pierced through the room.
“I can’t. Not anymore. This is wrong.” He scrambled to push his arms through his shirt before pulling it over his head.
She sat up and the bed made a loud shake; he felt an ashamed familiarity at the sound. “But why? I thought we both enjoyed this.”
“You have someone. Someone special. Something special.”
“What we have is special too. It’s exciting and different. Two things you’ve said yourself you’ve wanted…”
He clenched his fist, feeling his nails stabbing into his palm. However, he made no more movements, made no more sounds.
“Please…” She whispered, the word softly hissing as it escaped her lips. “Come back to bed. I want to be with you.” She pulled the sheet back, the gentle ruffling compelling his return. “All of you.”
The darkness weighed heavily on him as he stood in place. Bringing a hand to his chest, he felt a hollow feeling. A subtle pain. A secret pain. One that weighed heavily on him as he strove to move on. It lingered, stabbing at him. He clutched it desperately, hoping to grasp something that was no longer there.
An image of his dream flashed in his eyes. The innocent and pure face of the child shown itself to him, but only for a moment. One fleeting moment.
A tear rolled down his face as the image disappeared, not to show itself again.
With a sigh, he took off his clothes and crawled back into bed.
D. A. Rivera is a Puerto Rican, clinical social worker providing mental health therapy for individuals with severe mental illness in Boston, Massachusetts. He currently lives in Arlington, MA and enjoys taking dance classes in his spare time. He has a passion for creative writing and finds inspiration through music, illustrations, and spirituality. He looks forward to writing more stories in the future.
Nataliia Burmaka was born 1 October, 1978. She graduated from Boris Danchenko’s National Studio of Fine Arts (Sumy, Ukraine) in 1999 and had been working as an artist designer from 1999 till 2005 . Later she made illustrations for books and worked together with her husband creating murals (private orders). After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, 2022 her family made a decision to emigrate from Sumy. By coincidence she and her family got temporary protection in Finland. Creating art became some sort of therapy for her and her husband Anton Amit, who is also an artist. They had 3 exhibitions in the Jyvaskyla region, Finland, 2022.