Jarod K. Anderson
Sue Wain was sitting on a park bench lost in a true crime paperback when the German Sheppard padded up to the stroller where her baby daughter Gwen slept. The dog nosed around the swaddling until it found a suitable grip on the blankets, then lifted the baby carefully up and backed away. Sparing a last, wary look at Sue, the dog turned and trotted off toward the nearby tree line.
The odd gait of the Sheppard, carrying its bulky white bundle, caught Sue’s eye just before the dog melted into the shade of the oaks. Contrasting with the summer sun, the tree-shadows seemed a localized midnight. The dog was lost from view as soon as it passed beneath the nearest boughs.
When Sue saw the pink blanket draping over the side of the stroller and the pacifier on the grass beneath, she was off at a run before her mind had time to articulate the electric panic that was screaming through all her limbs. Her cry for help was a wordless, animalistic thing. But, there was no one near enough to hear it and she didn’t dare take here eyes off the spot where the dog had entered under the trees long enough to search for help.
The place where the German Sheppard had left the well-tended lawn of the park and entered the woods was not a path. It was a tangle of briars, trailing reddish vines with a poisonous sheen, and long, thorny, whip-like plants that arched up and out from some unseen center and stitched all the underbrush together into a single, unified barrier.
Sue hesitated for less than a breath before plunging in like charging bear. Vines snapped. Thorns tore at her skin and clothes, but she stamped and pushed and kicked her way forward inch by inch. There was no sign of the dog. It was hard to imagine anything bigger than a squirrel passing that way without a battle, but Sue felt sure she was going the right direction. In some deep-rooted place within her, a place that didn’t give a single goddamn about every thorn and briar ever sprouted, she knew in which direction her daughter could be found, and knew that she’d get there if she had to chew and claw her way though a forest of oaks to do it.
Eventually, slashed and torn, with a predatory look in her eyes, Sue found the underbrush give way to dark, open woodland. At her feet, trailing off in the same direction she had been heading, the leaf-litter was marked with a regular pattern of moss-rimmed indentations. They looked something like dog prints. Sue’s legs took off in a sprint without waiting to be asked.
She hadn’t gone far when she saw a small clearing ahead, like a pillar of green and gold light standing in defiance of the gloom. Squinting against the brightness as she raced forward, Sue leapt into the clearing, fists clenched. The light was blinding. Something caught ahold of her ankle and sent her sprawling to the ground. She hit her head and for a moment could do nothing but lay still and try to force her eyes to focus.
When she could finally see again, she was looking up at something like the ruins of a dead tree, but in the shape of a man. It resembled a statue lashed together from cast-off bits of bark and crisp, dried ivy. It was mostly hollow, and a ray of noon sunlight shown straight down through a hole in its left shoulder and illuminated the empty cavity of its chest, gilding the pale yellow wings of the fluttering moths that were sheltering there.
Sitting on a deep mat of moss backed by the curving fronds of a great fern, like a plush green chair, sat Gwen, smiling and giggling to herself. She was naked and her beautiful green eyes were shining with a fire Sue had never seen before. On her head sat a circlet of ivy, a tender green so pale it seemed to have sprouted that instant.
Shaking off her daze, Sue started to crawl forward, but found that her foot was still stuck in place. A root, thicker than her thumb, was wound around her ankle. She reached for it, but before she could try to free herself the root uncoiled on its own and withdrew into the earth like a snake fleeing down its hole. Sue stared after it for a moment, wondering if her head injury had been more serious than she had thought.
Her surprise was interrupted by a feeling of being watched mingled with the reawakening of her sense of panic at losing Gwen. She turned toward her child. They were not alone.
The German Sheppard was sitting quietly at the far edge of the clearing. The black and brown of its coat had changed to hues of deep green shot with shades of tan and yellow. There was thick ivy hanging about its shoulders and its eyes gleamed an impossible amber.
It stood and moved forward to stand close by the baby. It looked from the husk of the wooden man, to Gwen, then to Sue. It met her eyes with an intelligence that short-circuited all of her maternal instinct and left her sitting wide-eyed and opened-mouth on the dirt. Everything seemed terribly still and silent.
Then, Gwen cooed, reached for empty air and toppled over sideways. Sue was at her side steadying her in a thoughtless flash. Every knotted muscle in Sue loosened at the touch of her child.
The dog stood rigid for a moment, but eventually just let out an acquiescent little snort of a bark, wagged its leafy tail lazily, and flopped onto the ground next to mother and child. It let out a low “woof” and an apple dropped from somewhere above, though Sue couldn’t pick out any apple trees around the clearing. She picked up the fruit and looked at her reflected silhouette in its yellow-green skin.
Gwen giggled again. Sue had never seen her so happy or so alive. She looked home.
The shadows lengthened. Sue looked up at the sun filtering though the leaves. Somewhere overhead, she could hear the dull rumble of a jet engine.
After the adrenaline subsided, Sue felt all of her scrapes and cuts coming alive with new pain. At the same time, the hard ground seemed to be sapping the warmth from her, even in the summer sun. But, Gwen was home.
Sue took a bite of the apple. It tasted amazing. She looked at the fruit in her battered hands. Her daughter was home and the real struggle, she knew, had just begun.