The Yellow Leaves
by Joanna Koch
Hiccupping tears, tricked into leaving the picnic to lead the brat down the nature trail, the older sister squealed. “It’s your fault! I’m cold. I want my mother.”
Both girls shuddered. A slippery path of golden, amber, and crimson leaves concealed the ground, needing timid steps. The branches of crowded trees met in a dense thicket obscuring the sun.
The younger pulled off her sweater. “Here you go.”
The elder stretched the too-small cardigan over her shoulders. She sniffled down at her pink sneakers, flecked with mud. Pink sparkles for her, white hand-me-downs for the brat. “Be careful,” she admonished. “You’ll get stains.”
The younger kicked the thick detritus. She was never careful. She’d pressed and pleaded to go further than the elder wished. Twice they’d doubled back, and despite the older sister’s fearful insistence they must retrace their steps to find the right path, here they were again at the cryptic glade where the younger led them astray.
Resisting an urge to run ahead, she held her sister’s hand. “It’s like we’re in a storybook, except it’s more fun because it’s real. We’re on our own, fighting witches and wolves. We’ll live happily ever after in the forest.”
The elder’s voice veered high with panic. “There’s witches out here?”
“No, I didn’t mean that. Witches aren’t real.”
“I know they aren’t. I’m not a baby.” She pulled the extra sweater tight. “But what if they’re out here?”
The long trail of fallen leaves leading deeper into the forest from the picnic area wove a spiral maze through staring trees. Finding evil faces in craggy bark started as a game and set the elder sister trembling at every turn, to the younger’s delight. Tempted to keep teasing, the younger now relented. “Don’t worry. Church people can’t use the park when witches are here. It’s safe right now.”
She made up a lie because she knew how it felt to be scared. She knew how much worse it was when people laughed at you, too. The way their father had vanished, swept away in a torrent of broken dishes and betrayed howls, fleeing from the thing that was not their mother any longer, not the tender guardian who bathed and braided and hugged, but some imposter bent on driving the home apart.
No one believed the baby sister. But she knew what she’d seen.
“You’re making that up,” the elder said. She halted. “There it is again.”
Ahead, gnarled brown and grey trunks gave way to smooth skeletal white. Charcoal colored scrimshaw marked ivory bark like crudely drawn eyes. Sunlight streamed through high twisting limbs, illuminating a circular clearing enclosed by birch trees. Within, bright yellow leaves spun down like confetti from the older sister’s last birthday party. Above the circle, the peaks of tangled branches met in an arch to form a mangled crown.
Four paths led away from the clearing. The girls had taken three so far. The last remaining route lay straight through the center of the glade.
Hand in hand, with timid steps, the sisters crossed.
A pile of small stones blocked the exit. They had to go single file to avoid knocking them down. The younger sister volunteered.
“I’ll go first.”
The elder clenched her hand. “Don’t let go, okay?”
“Don’t knock them over.”
“I won’t.” Why was it so important? She didn’t know. It just was. To reassure her nervous sister she said, “Anyway, they’re just rocks.”
Yellow leaves cascaded downward as the younger slipped past the stack of stones like a nimble shadow flickering across a wall. She turned back smiling. “See, it’s easy.”
The older bit her lip. She took a hesitant step. Her glasses fogged from restrained tears. Leaves cascaded across her line of sight.
Her foot slipped. Stones clattered.
The girls screamed and clasped one another in a terrified hug. Wind billowed from the grey depths of the woods, gathering in an angry gust. Indignant treetops waved like witches’ fists.
Yellow leaves wafted down in bulk, first orange, then red, then crimson black like the old rotten blood of a miscarriage. Leaves stuck in the children’s soft hair, clung to their tiny sweaters, and buried their delicate feet on the cushioned forest floor.
The path disappeared.
Trees shifted, placing the girls in the center. The clearing grew dark in the deluge as a stealthy figure flitted between the gleaming white trunks.
The leafy downfall thickened. The elder sister flailed.
She swatted and lost her footing. Five black streaks on white bark stretched outward from a tree trunk. Five long black fingertips grasped the fallen girl.
The leaves hid the figure in a heavy golden cloak. Its shoulders were high and wide, its face a curling mask of white bark.
Five black fingers dragged the elder sister away.
The younger leapt and grabbed for the pink sparkle sneakers as they disappeared into the impenetrable thicket. She slid face first into leaves and mud and came up clutching fists of broken sticks.
The wind calmed. The trees stood back. The bark blinked with awkward eyes scribbled in black crayon. They watched in silence as the younger sister yelled and searched and cried out her sister’s name until a park ranger hauled her screaming from the glade.
“I’m sorry you lost your friend,” the mother said, “but you could have been hurt.” She hugged the younger sister and smoothed her tangled hair, plucking out the stray leaves. “It’s okay. I’m sure your imaginary friend will be back soon.”
“That’s what you said about daddy.”
The play-acting thing dropped its eyes and showed its true face filled with darkness and tears. The hand that was not her mother’s rubbed its flat abdomen in slow, sad circles. When it spoke again in thick lies, even the voice didn’t sound the same.
AUTHOR BIO: Joanna Koch (Joe) writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Joe is a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and the author of The Wingspan of Severed Hands, The Couvade, and the forthcoming collection Convulsive from Apocalypse Party Press. Their short fiction appears in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Not All Monsters, Liminal Spaces, and many others. Find Joe online at horrorsong.blog and on Twitter @horrorsong.