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It's too cold to be outside in bare feet.

I curl my toes into the dirt anyway, swinging my sneakers by the laces. The woods beckon, but the sky is fading to indigo and the leaves scurry across the ground like they're heading in for the night.

I can picture my home: cold and empty. After the fight, Marco slammed the front door and I decided he wasn't going to be the only one who walked out. I'll stretch my legs a little bit longer.

The path is soft and only lightly cool beneath my bare feet. The temperature dips and light dapples the undergrowth and dust motes dance around me.

I wasn't born in this town, but I've heard the stories. They say this forest has a never-ending labyrinth of trails. You can walk for hours and never get back to where you started. Some never come to the other side at all. It's even whispered the gates of hell are down one of these trails.

It isn't the time to test that legend, but my feet are drawing me deeper. Out of the corner of my eye, something flashes. Whipping my head around, my eyes land on a flick of red in the trees. A cardinal. It watches for a minute then flaps off into the canopy.

Ahead is a bend in the trail. Maybe it'll be the end or maybe I'll be able to see where it goes. Once my curiosity is satisfied, I'll go home.

This path is soft with moss and dead leaves that crunch beneath my feet. I'm a few steps from the bend in the trail when there's another sound to my left. I turn in time to see a great horned owl silently floating above my head so close I could touch it, then it too disappears. The woods around me seem to be holding their breath. I'd seen two birds but hadn't heard a note of birdsong.

Ignoring the gut feeling that it was time to go home, I round the bend. At the center of a small clearing stands a magnificent tree—an oak I guess from the rugged bark. All the leaves are gone surprisingly; most oak leaves are tenacious and hold on until the first snowfall.

The tree is so big it would take three people to wrap their arms around it. A tiny bit of the evening light filters through, creating an unnatural glow. A cloud scuttles across the sinking sun and I'm momentarily plunged into darkness.

The clouds recede and a gust of wind comes barreling down the trail at my back. I spin around and trip, throwing my hands up to brace my fall. I land against the rough bark of the tree then gasp—the bark's so hot it's burning my fingers.

I land on my butt, heart pounding and gasping for air. I look down, expecting my hands to be blistered.
They aren't—the only way tree bark could burn your hands would be if the tree was on fire. Around me, the air is so cold it condenses as it leaves my mouth. My heart is racing and I decide it's time to go home.

I don't even bother with my shoes. There's another flash of color and I don't look back because I already know it's a bird. I take three steps forward, but trip to a stop. This isn't the same trail. I'd been walking on moss and leaves, but before me was a path as rocky and uneven as the side of a mountain.

I'm so rattled, I must've taken the wrong trail. Except on the other side of the tree, there's no trail at all, just dense brush and impassable thorn bushes. I circle the tree but after the third time, even the trail of rocks is gone.

The trees and the underbrush aren't moving, but I can feel the night closing in around me. It's so silent. I noticed the birds were quiet earlier, but now I realize there isn't a single sound. No crickets or frogs; no movement from small animals. Not even the wind.

From behind me, there's an explosion. I instinctively drop to the ground, throwing my hands up to cover my head. It sounds like gale-force wind and when I dare to look up, the night sky has been replaced by wings. Hundreds of thousands of birds, maybe every bird in the forest, making haste for anywhere else. The sky is black and blue and red and brown with winged bodies. One swoops low and brushes past my head and I scream, shrinking into a ball.

More birds swoop and dodge towards me, bouncing off my back and slamming into my head. Every scream seems to draw them closer. I shove my fist into my mouth and bite down until I taste blood.

Then, silence.

I ease my hands free and uncurl my body. Too afraid to look up, I scuttle to the boughs of a hemlock. It's like an umbrella in a hurricane. I have a bad feeling that if I spend the night in this forest, I might not see the sunrise. My shoes are gone and all I can think is they'll find them when they search for my body.

I creep forward, lifting the branch. It's as quiet as before the mass exodus. I slide out from under the tree and stumble forward three steps. Still nothing.

I can't see a trail and I don't recognize anything. Even the massive oak had been absorbed into the overgrowth. It's like the forest is mutating around me. Directionless, I push my way through it, despite the thorns tearing at my clothes.

My feet are numb and bleeding from the rough ground. I fall and a sound like thunder rumbles behind me. I risk a glance over my shoulder. Just at the edge of the horizon is a flickering orange glow.

And it's getting closer.


I can't smell smoke, but what else could it be? The depths of hell, a voice whispers, maybe the legend is true.

I hurry in the opposite direction, trail or no trail. The sound's growing, reaching down and shaking the earth. I can feel sweat running between my shoulder blades. The wind stirs up the barest hint of smoke.

I start to jog, then run until my quads are burning and my eyes start to water as the smoke grows thicker. I rub the back of my hand over my eyes. Is that a bright spot ahead? It didn't look like the orange glow behind me. It looks like a sunset.

I shove brambles out of my path. The noise behind me is so loud I can't hear my gasping breath. The wind is whipping up an angry inferno.

I dare to look back for what I fear will be the last time. Gone are the towering oaks and pines and the brambles that tear my clothes and the stones that cut my feet.

In its place was a wall of fire burning blue and white—so hot that it nearly blinds me. I pray incoherently and keep running. I can see the edge of the woods and beyond to a field of untouched grass and weeds.

The fire seems to be gaining, but I keep my eyes on the edge of the woods, the soft sunset over the field. The skin under my shirt starts to blister and burn. I smell singed hair and gag. My step falters and for one moment, it's like the fire's on all sides, teasing me, tormenting me, ready to consume me—

With a gasp, I throw myself forward with every last ounce of my strength. I land on my knees in the grass of the open field, just out of reach of the woods.

Nothing happens. One. Two. Three. I'm still alive. I take three more breaths, then look over my shoulder, prepared for the charred remains of what was once a mythical forest stretching as far as the eye could see.

But nothing changed. There's no smoke, no flames; just tall trees and multifloral rose bushes and goldenrod swaying in the breeze. There's a faint smell of leaves and dirt.

I crane my neck searching down my back and arms for burns. But it's the same blue sweatshirt with a bleach stain, gray leggings crusted in mud. I'm sticky with sweat, and my feet are bruised and bloodied. I have crescent-shaped marks in my palms from my fingernails, but there's nothing else to show that I was nearly burned alive in the woods.

Like it never even happened.

When I finally straighten up the sun is sinking below the horizon. On the other side of the field, I can see the street lights kick on like they've been waiting to guide me home. If I squint, I imagine my apartment and there's a light on. Maybe Marco's home.

I start to walk, a slow limp that carries me a few yards away before I look back. For an instant, I swear I see a spark of glowing orange deep in the woods.

Then it's gone.

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