The forest guided me.
A stream trickled up ahead. The woods had grown thicker, darker, blocking out the sun above. Gnarled tree branches reached out towards me like beckoning hands. Rough bark slashed at my bare, goose-pimpled arms, though I was still on the path that had thinned to the point of near non-existence.
Brambles scraped my jean-covered shins. The birds, so vocal up until now, had gone silent. Sweat beaded on my upper lip, and I hastily wiped it away as the path came to an abrupt dead-end.
I’d reached the cave wall and its ancient, cracked stones, entombed in foliage as the forest had claimed it over countless years. At one point there had been a small opening that had long since collapsed and filled in with giant, fallen rocks. In front of the collapsed cave mouth was a newer, clearly man-made addition, still probably far older than my sixteen years. It was a rusted hatch in the ground, padlocked with an equally-weathered chain, thicker than my wrist. Words had been crudely etched into the metal, partially concealed beneath a thick layer of moss. I scraped my sneakered foot over it until the words became more clearly legible:
It looked just as ominous during the day as it had been at dusk—the first time I’d stumbled across it and realized there was something supernatural going on here. I’d sworn I could hear movement inside. Breathing, even. And then . . . and then . . .
The goosebumps rose to new heights on my arms as I shuddered at the memory. It wasn’t accurate to say that I had heard something. No. I hadn’t heard it.
I’d felt it.
Its breath was in my ear, cool and raspy. Its scent—a concentrated form of moss and bog and stale soil—all but choked me. I was in the presence of something not animal, but not entirely human. At least, not anymore. There I remained, rooted to the spot like the ageless trees around me, frozen in fear and confusion until I felt the unmistakable grip of a hand on my shoulder. Cold and bony. With it, one word. Not audible, but rather a word spoken directly into my thoughts.
It was the sound of my name that did it. My joints unlocked and my muscles finally sprang to action. I turned and ran until my legs ached and my lungs burned and my eyes were blinded with stinging sweat. I ran until I was inside the cabin-y safe haven of my house, in my lumpy twin bed, hidden under the quilted covers. I threw them over my head like I did when I was seven-years-old, hiding from the boogeyman in the closet. I stayed there with clenched muscles until my older brother, Sam—looking uncharacteristically tired and worn—came and found me some hours later, asking what my deal was.
Well you see, I was just out exploring when some disembodied hand grabbed my shoulder and the woods spoke to me and oh yeah it knows my name and communicates telepathically.
Realizing how crazy that all would sound, I stopped myself before I could say it. Undoubtedly, he’d tell me to lay off the ‘shrooms, even though I’d never touched a drug in my life.
“Damn, Liv, we’ve only been living the country life for five months and you’re already losing your marbles,” he’d say. I could practically feel his eyes rolling. So, I kept it to myself.
After our parents’ fatal car crash, Sam had stepped up as my caretaker. I was sixteen, not too far from being an adult myself. But Sam was twenty-one, and he took the full responsibility on his shoulders. Thankfully, our parents had a life insurance policy, and a pretty juicy one, at that. But the city was full of bad memories. So, my brother got a job out in the country, and we’d moved to the woods for a fresh start.
Maybe I was crazy. It was possible I’d imagined the thing in the woods, wasn’t it? The move had drained me after all. Restless thoughts about all I’d left behind in the city plagued my sleep those last few weeks and made me loopy. A waking dream, maybe? A hallucination? Anything was possible.
But still, I had to know.
Which was why I’d decided to go back to the hatch the next day and well, there I was, wondering what exactly I was hoping to accomplish. For some reason, I was inexplicably drawn there, like a bee to a sun-facing wildflower.
Trembling slightly, I got down onto my knees in front of the hatch, tracing the crudely etched words which were damp with dew beneath the pads of my fingers.
The warning was clear—and the massive chain spoke volumes—but the question remained: was the hatch meant to keep people out?
Or was it meant to keep something in?
Drawing a breath, I rapped upon the metal with my knuckles, just above the ominous message. Then I stilled, listening.
Gaining my courage, I knocked louder. This time I could hear a distinct echo from within. The hatch clearly hid a chamber of some sort, large and empty enough for sound to bounce around, unhindered.
I knocked once more, in a pattern. Shave-and-a-hair-cut. When silence was still my answer, I chuckled to myself and shook my head. “Olly olly oxen free,” I said.
See, Liv, nothing to be afraid of, I thought. Clearly, my imagination had been getting the best of me.
Though, that didn’t explain why the hatch was there in the first place, and why it said not to open. . . But there had to be a logical—
“Is someone out there?” a voice called, sounding desperate and panicked. A young, female voice that sounded like someone I could’ve gone to school with.
The voice was coming from inside.
My eyes widened. It couldn’t be, could it? The hatch was long since rusted over, the padlock still in place, undisturbed and grown over with moss. If there was someone inside, how long had they been there?
I cleared my throat. “H-hello?”
“Hello?” I tried again, louder. I leaned my head nearer the hatch, speaking directly into the metal with hands cupped over my mouth like a megaphone. “Is someone in there? Are you okay?”
Still nothing. Maybe I’d imagined the voice too.
I leaned closer still. My left ear was nearly touching the cold, rusted metal . . .
The voice shrieked directly into my ear from the other side of the hatch. I fell back flat onto my butt, jagged stones scraping my palms as I braced them on the ground and scuttled backwards in a startled crab-walk. Fists thumped the underside of the hatch. The door didn’t budge, but the chains rattled, a horrible grating sound of metal against metal.
I scrambled to my feet, eyes darting back and forth. There was nothing I could break the chain with. No one around. My phone didn’t get a signal out there. My only choice was to leave and return with help.
“LET ME OUT!” Fists continued to pound the hatch with increasing ferocity.
“I-I can’t! But I’ll bring help, I promise!” I called back.
Just like that, the screaming stopped. The voice stopped. The banging stopped. All was silent.
But then there it was again. That uncanny feeling that I wasn’t alone. The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up. A twig snapped to my right. Then to my left. Leaves swirled nearby, caught in a breeze that seemed to have a mind of its own. That pungent scent of concentrated, decaying earth filled my nostrils.
It was real. It was back.
“What do you want?” I asked in a shaking, breathless whisper.
“For you . . . to remember . . .” the voice rasped.
A cold hand grabbed my shoulder, and I didn’t even have time to scream before the world spun like I was on the inside of a laundry cycle. But then the spinning slowed, and I realized I was still in the woods. Only, something was different. I immediately knew this had to have been sometime before. I saw myself with my brother; it had been right after we moved to the cabin and he’d tried to grow a beard. A very patchy one that I tried to convince him to shave.
I remembered the day. It was just about five months ago, the day after Sam and I had moved to the country. We were exploring the woods surrounding the house for the first time, following a narrow, babbling brook, and talking about my parents. Idle chatter about missing them. Reminiscing about Dad’s lame jokes. This conversation was familiar, yet not at the same time. It was like re-watching an old movie I hadn’t seen in years, trying to reacquaint myself with its plot points.
“Knock-knock,” Sam said.
“Who’s there?” Past Me replied. The green, long-sleeved shirt she wore was the same one I had on now. It was a favorite. Because Mom used to always tell me it brought out my eyes.
“A broken pencil.”
“A broken pencil who?”
“Never mind, it’s pointless.” Sam guffawed and slapped his knee. He was tall and gangly to my short and curvy, and his joke delivery was questionable at best. Though maybe it was because I knew no one could tell them like Dad.
“Oy, that wasn’t one of his best,” Past Me said, rolling her eyes.
“Ah, come on. It’s a classic.”
“Hey, what’s that?” Past Me stopped suddenly and pointed at a crumbled cave wall. A familiar one. The same one where I’d just been.
“Let’s go check it out,” Past Sam said. Past Me was eager to oblige.
I watched as they walked over to the grown-over, crumbled cave, knowing what they’d find nearby. I knew the moment they laid their eyes on it, because I did, too. There was the hatch, looking as ominous as ever, with the chain just lying there. Only this time, the thick, rusted chain was unlocked. The heavy padlock was looped through the end of the chain yet strangely open. How did I not remember finding it before?
“Why does it say ‘Don’t Open?’” Past Me asked, crouching next to the mysterious hatch.
“Maybe because we shouldn’t open it?”
“Thanks for the wisdom, Yoda.” Past Me ran her hands over the carved letters. “What do you think is in it?”
Sam shrugged. “I dunno. Cave-dwelling demons, a portal to another world, Bigfoot? Maybe you should go in and check it out.”
“After you, fearless leader.”
The tone grew more serious then, and Past Me sighed. “Sam, there’s something I have to tell you.” For some reason, I appeared incredibly nervous. I was wringing my hands like I did when there was something big to confess. Like the time I had to tell my Mom I’d cheated on my math test, or the time I had to admit to punching a boy in class like he’d accused me of. Freddie Anderson. He was dumb, and made an even dumber comment—one he’d intended as an insult—and I didn’t regret it, but I knew my parents regretted it for me. I’d always had a bit of a problem with anger, you see.
I remembered the Freddie incident very well. But why could I not remember what I was about to say?
“What is it, Sis?”
I watched the past version of me stand from her crouching position and bite her lip nervously, shifting her weight from foot to foot. “It’s about Mom and Dad.”
Sam’s eyebrows twitched. “Did you think of another one of Dad’s lame jokes?”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
“The accident was my fault, Sam,” Past Me blurted.
The baffled expression on Sam’s face matched my own as I watched myself confess to something I didn’t even remember doing.
Past Me stared down at her sneakered feet and continued to wring her hands as she recounted the story. “After I admitted to punching Freddie, Dad threatened to pull me out of school unless I got my anger problems sorted out. Until I started talking to a professional. It was like he was calling me crazy, Sam. It just made me so, so mad. I didn’t take well to that.”
My brother’s voice dropped, and his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What did you do?”
Tears sprang to Past Me’s eyes. I listened intently to her heartfelt confession. My stomach leaped into my throat as I watched with bated breath, afraid of what was about to be revealed. “Well, we started fighting. And it got ugly. Really ugly. And he screamed that I was incapable of making my own decisions, and that was that. He didn’t want to talk anymore. And I was so angry at him for what he’d said. Furious. I’d been sipping a Coke and I poured it over his head from the backseat. It distracted him and he-he swerved into oncoming traffic.”
Past Me was crying in full then, and so was I. How could I not remember something like this? But . . . But then it was like I could hear the fight, the screams. The shattering glass, the crunching of metal. Feel the impact, smell the gas and burned rubber, and I had to slap a hand over my mouth to hold back bile. The fight, oh God the fight. The Coke. I remembered it all then, every last excruciating detail leading to my parents' demise.
“The truck crushed the driver’s side to bits. Mom hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt at the time. She flew through the windshield. And I somehow walked away. I was buckled in the back seat, so I managed to escape the worst of it.” I’d actually managed to escape with barely a scratch, and sometimes I wished I’d died with them; the survivor’s guilt was very real.
Sam sucked in a sharp breath. “You and your damn temper. How could you do that?”
“I’m so sorry, Sam. Obviously, I never wanted to kill Mom and Dad. I-I loved them, I did. Now I have to carry the weight of what I did around every day. You don’t know what that’s like.”
My brother shook his head. “Screw your guilt. It’s meaningless. You only love yourself, Olive. You’ve always acted like the world owed you something, and then lashed out when you didn’t get your way.” His hands flew to his face, fingers pushing into his temples in exasperation. “God, and look, now I’m stuck taking care of you, skipping out on college to help support you, moving to the country for you to escape your stupid guilt, when it’s your fault Mom and Dad are dead in the first place!”
“I said I was sorry!”
“Not good enough!” Then, he shoved me, flat palms catching me in the chest, and I staggered back, mouth flapping open in shock. He’d never laid a hand on me, not ever, not even when we were kids. This was so unlike him. Tears were streaming down his now-scarlet cheeks too; tears of anger and frustration. I’d never seen him lose control like that before. I was usually the one throwing tantrums, not him. “Why didn’t you die, huh? Why couldn’t it have been you that died, you spoiled, miserable brat!”
Past Me took issue with those words. I watched as she—I—lifted a hand and slapped him, hard, causing a sharp crack to echo in the deserted forest. It turned his head, and he lashed back out with renewed anger. He shoved harder this time. So hard that I fell and came down on one of the fallen cave rocks, hard. The resounding crack wasn’t a slap this time, but the sound of bone breaking. A pool of blood gathered like a hellish, grotesque halo around my dark hair, christening the rocks with crimson. As I continued to watch my death scene play out, horror and sadness washed over me in waves.
“Oh, my God. Olive!” Sam dropped to his knees next to me. He checked for a pulse on my wrist, then stuck a finger under my nose to see if I was breathing. His hand fell, and quiet sobs shook his shoulders. I was gone, and I saw the moment that realization crossed his face. He stood and paced frantically, checking his phone for the bars that I knew weren’t there. Because there was never any signal this far out.
My brother pulled at his hair, dragged shaking fingers down his cheeks. I knew what he was thinking—if there was any chance for revival, it would have to be done within the next few minutes. The problem was that the nearest hospital was at least an hour away from our home, and we were a half-hour walk from the cabin and a life-saving phone signal. It was hopeless.
“I’m sorry, Olive. I’m sorry,” he cried, crumpling back to the ground in a heap.
He sat next to my lifeless body for some time while I cried with him. Past Sam sat with his knees hugged to his chest, rocking himself back and forth until the sun hung lower in the sky, threatening to set.
Finally, seeming suddenly resolved, Sam wiped a trembling hand over his mouth, stood, and bent down. He grabbed both my ankles with both his hands, and dragged me to the hatch. Kneeling, he pulled at the metal cover as hard as he could, grunts escaping his lips and tendons bulging on his neck under the strain of effort. After a few minutes—and to my surprise—the hatch gave with a protesting groan. A waft of pungent, musty air rushed out.
“God forgive me, I don’t know what else to do. I’m so sorry,” he muttered. “Goodbye, Olive.”
Then, he rolled my body into the opening, swung the hatch shut, and locked the thick, rusted chain with the open padlock, thus sealing my fate.
There was a sudden woosh, like I was being sucked out of the moment by a giant vacuum cleaner. I flew through the woods, through time itself, and was deposited back in the present. My eyelids squeezed shut as I contemplated all I’d just seen.
“Do you remember now?” the raspy voice said into my mind.
“Yes, I remember now,” I replied, and my eyes fluttered back open. Oh, my eyes were wide open then. I remembered everything, and I trembled under the yoke of desired vengeance. It was a feeling I’d grown too familiar with in life, that inevitably followed me into death. Freddie Anderson deserved that punch in the face; my dear brother deserved so much more.
I was going to pay Sam a visit he’d never forget.
It was dusk by the time I got to the cabin. My brother was sitting on a rocking chair on the rickety, sun-bleached porch, like he’d been waiting for me. He was drinking a beer, one leg crossed over the other—ankle over knee. He was never much of a drinker before, but just then he looked like someone who made it a far-too-regular habit. He looked awful, like he hadn’t slept in ages, curly brown hair sticking out every which way under a ratty baseball cap.
“You’re back,” he said, surprisingly not like someone who was seeing a ghost.
“Brother, I have a bone to pick with you.” Anger simmered beneath the surface, threatening to burst and boil over at any moment.
He took another swig of beer, his face alight with dull, golden sunset hues. A curious moth electrocuted itself in the bug zapper under the porch eaves, casting a quick spark over his head. “You always do,” he said, idly swatting a mosquito on his leg with his non-beer-holding hand. “I wouldn’t expect any less.”
Why was he acting so casual like this? Why wasn’t he scared, dammit? He should be scared.
I felt blood trickle down the side of my head from the wound that killed me, tickling my ear. I took a step up the porch, trying my best to act menacing. “Why did you have to kill me?”
“Every time you come back again you always ask that.”
My brows furrowed. “What do you mean, every time I come back again?”
He sighed. “Liv, since a week after I left you in that hatch, you’ve been returning here every night—every single night for the past nearly five months. Yet each time you do, you have no memory of this conversation happening before.”
I halted on the bottom porch step, and my undead face paled—if that was possible. Because my brother’s words didn’t make sense. So, what, I was reliving my death in some freakish loop, with no recollection of having relived it before? That begged one major question . . .
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know. But that hatch I put you in . . . I think there’s some kind of ancient power in there. I could sense it, somehow.”
"I don’t understand.”
“You paid the price for what you did. And me . . . well, being haunted every night by the sister I killed is my comeuppance. I think that hatch knows. I think it brought out the truth, and that it’s now punishing both of us. I think it’s why you felt compelled to make your confession to me as soon as you saw it.”
“Why would it do that?”
He shrugged. “Hell if I know.”
I looked to my brother’s dirt-splattered pickup truck, parked on a dead patch of grass next to the nearby gravel driveway. “You could move, you know. Away from here, back to the city. Leave me behind.”
“No,” he shook his head. “This is exactly what I deserve.”
“And I guess I deserve this for what I did to Mom and Dad.”
“What you did was stupid, but you didn’t mean for them to die. I get that now.”
Finally casting aside the yoke of vengeance, I sat at the top porch step near my brother’s muddy boots, one of which idly tapped the wood. Tap, tap, tap. “You didn’t mean for me to die, either,” I offered.
“Is that your olive branch, Olive?”
“Sure. But leaving me in the hatch was pretty messed up.”
“It was. I knew how it would look and I just. . . panicked. I guess I’m stupid and selfish, too.”
“We’re the stupid twins.”
“Quite the pair,” he agreed, laughing ironically. He lifted his beer in a mock cheers motion and took another swig, licked his lips. Then he set the empty bottle at his feet. “So, I guess I’ll see you again this time tomorrow night. Huh, Sis?”
I smiled tightly. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
We fell into silence for a while, until the moon hung higher in the sky, glowing like a beacon while simultaneously casting the world in shadow. Crickets chirped around us, frantic; somewhere in the distance, a low, mournful howl sounded, carried to us on the muggy breeze. Sometime later, I spoke again.
“Wanna hear a joke?”
I woke up. My head was throbbing, and something trickled down the side of it. Was that blood? I gingerly touched the wound and winced, then dabbed it with the end of my green shirt sleeve. My favorite shirt, dirtied and torn now.
Mind fuzzy, I took in my surroundings. I was lying on a damp, hard ground. Was I in a cave? What had happened and how had I gotten there?
Stalactites hung in jagged rows overhead, like long teeth dripping spittle to the cave floor—the resulting plopping sounds echoed throughout the cavernous room. There were a couple pinpricks of daylight visible through holes in the cave ceiling, which served as the only source of light in an otherwise oppressively dark place. I could just make out what was lying next to me on the floor, and it was . . .
“Oh, my God,” I muttered, scuttling away from what appeared to be a human rib cage.
I stood quickly, swaying on my feet as a new wave of nausea and dizziness overtook me, emanating from the throbbing in my skull. My entire body trembled as I took careful steps toward the far cave wall. There was a formation of several long, narrow stones stacked on top of each other to make a sort of crude altar, with a human skull placed prominently atop it like an evil watchdog. Behind the makeshift altar were various drawings etched in red, like bloody finger paintings. They were strange symbols intermixed with crude, stick-figure depictions that I couldn’t quite decipher in the dim lighting. This cave was ancient, and it held secrets I couldn’t fathom. Who knew what went on here, and for how long?
All I knew was that I needed to find a way out. Right away.
Just then, I heard a noise coming from the other side of the cave where I’d woken up, and where the ceiling was the lowest. It almost sounded like someone was . . . knocking?
Soundlessly, and on shaking legs, I crept toward the source. Once there, I spotted a metal door of some kind that I somehow hadn’t noticed before. It was round and rusted, and concealing a small opening in the cave, like a hatch. It was low enough that if I stood on my tip-toes, I could press my hands to it, palms flat. Maybe Sam was outside. He’d know what to do. My big brother always had all the answers.
Holding my breath, I continued to listen.
Soon, there was another knock. Shave-and-a-hair-cut. Someone was definitely announcing their presence. My rescuer, my salvation from this horrible place. “Olly olly oxen free,” a voice said. Not my brother, but a young, female voice that sounded like someone I could’ve gone to school with . . .
“Is someone out there?” I called, shivering against the dampness of my cave prison, eager to be delivered from its icy, desolate grasp.
I waited, and soon the response came from the other side of the hatch. “H-hello?”
Yes, she would help me. She had a kind voice.
A voice that seemed so strangely familiar . . .