Girl of Nightmares

Page 71


"And maybe more than friends?"

"Do you have an issue with this, Jestine?" Carmel asks.

"No," Jestine replies. "Not really. It's just that I wonder what's the point? Even if you don't die trying, and you somehow manage to get her back-it's not as though she and Cas can settle down and raise a family."

"Can we just shut up and get through the death woods?" I snap, and keep my eyes straight ahead. What are we talking about this for, when there are people hanging from branches like goddamn Christmas tree ornaments? Concentrating on the present moment seems more important than waxing theoretical.

Jestine doesn't shut up. She keeps on chattering, just not to me. Instead she talks to Thomas, quietly, small talk of Morfran and magic. Maybe she does it to prove that I'm not the boss of her. But I think she's doing it to mask her growing nervousness. Because we've been walking for far too long, and there's no end in sight. Still, our legs keep moving forward, and the unified thought is that it can't be much farther. Maybe if we think it hard enough, it'll turn out to be true.

We have to have gone another half mile before Carmel finally whispers, "We're not going the right way. We should have been there by now."

I wish she hadn't said anything. There's a light sheen of panic sweat on my forehead. For at least the last five minutes, I've been thinking the same thing. We've gone way too far. Either Jestine was wrong when she told us the distance, or the Suicide Forest is stretching its dimensions. The pulse in my throat says it's the latter, that we've walked into it and it isn't letting go. After all, it could be that no one intends to kill themselves here. They just do it after the woods drive them insane.

"Stop," Carmel says, and grabs the back of my shirt. "We're going in circles."

"We aren't going in circles," I say. "We might be completely screwed, but I know that much. I've been walking in a straight line, and the last time I checked, both of my legs were the same length."

"Look," she says. Her arm shoots out over my shoulder, pointing into the trees. Off to our left, a corpse hangs against a trunk, strung up by black nylon rope. It's wearing a canvas vest and a tattered brown t-shirt. One of its feet is missing.

"We've seen it before . It's the same one. I remember. We're going around in circles. I don't know how, but we are."

"Shit." She's right. I remember that one too. But I have no idea how we've managed to double back on ourselves.

"That's not possible," says Thomas. "We would've felt it, if we'd curved around that far."

"I'm not walking this again." Carmel shakes her head. Her eyes are wild, ringed with white. "We have to try another way. Another direction."

"There's only one way to the Order," Jestine interjects, and Carmel wheels on her.

"Well, maybe we're not getting to the Order!" Her voice quiets. "Maybe we were never supposed to."

"Don't panic," is all I can think to say. It's all that's important. I don't understand how these trees are stretching. I don't understand how I was put so far off track that I've wound up back at the beginning. But I do know that if any one of us panics now, that'll be it. Whoever runs first will let the fear out of everyone else, like a gunshot, and we will run. We'll be lost and maybe separated before we even know what we're doing.

"Oh, shit."

"What?" I ask, looking at Thomas. His eyes are big as eggs behind his glasses. He's looking off over my shoulder.

I turn around. The corpse is still there, hanging from the tree, the lower jaw half dropping off and the skin sagging. My eyes scan the scenery and nothing moves. The corpse just hangs. Only-I blink a second-it's bigger. Except that it isn't bigger. It's closer.

"It moved," Carmel whispers, and grabs on to my sleeve. "It wasn't there before. It was there." She points. "It was farther away; I'm sure of it."

"Maybe not," says Jestine. "Maybe it's just your eyes playing tricks on you." Sure. It's a reasonable explanation, and one that doesn't make me want to piss myself and run screaming. We've been in this forest for too long, that's all. Reality is starting to bend.

Something behind us moves, shuffling through the leaves and snapping twigs. We spin on instinct; it's the first noise the trees have made since we walked into them. Whatever it is it's not close enough to see. A few of the ferns attached to a large ash seem like they might be wavering, but I can't tell if they really are, or if my head's making it up.


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