Myron could see the brilliant eyes glaring from the blackness. “Run!” he shouted, grasping Jenny’s hand.
He fled deeper into the eerie forest instinctively jumping fallen trees, winding vines and treacherous ground. Jenny flailed behind him like a rag doll.
“Myron, wait,” she gasped, trying to catch her breath. “What…what’s wrong? Where are we going?”
Not until he was certain they were safe did he stop. The two collapsed to the earth, their breaths rapid and short. Myron’s heart pounded in his ears. Forcing himself calm, he searched the shadows, looking for the eyes.
“Myron, have you gone crazy? What…”
“Shhh!” he strained to listen. Not a sound but a hooting owl. Overhead the trees rustled, then a flurry of wings flapped and disappeared into the night.
Jenny screamed, “Eeeyooo, bats! If there’s one thing I hate, it’s bats!” She cowered, covering her head, peeking out from between crossed arms.
Myron leaned back against the twisted trunk of a tree, finally allowing himself to relax. Eyeing Jenny’s comical appearance, he chuckled. “They won’t hurt you. We startled them.”
Slowly she released her arms, still scanning overhead. “Yeah, well, they weren’t the only ones who were startled.” She looked at Myron. “Now, what was that all about? Why did you drag me into the woods after dark? You’d think the Baskerville hound was after you.”
Myron paused before speaking. How could he tell her that what he feared was more than a mythical beast from literature? How could he explain a fear he didn’t understand himself? He stood to his feet and pulled her to join him. “Let’s find a place to camp for the night.”
Jenny’s eyes widened. “Here? You’re kidding right?”
Myron stepped with caution, scoping out the area.
He stopped and turned to Jenny.
“Listen, Sis, I don’t know why, but we can’t leave yet. Please bear with me. For now, let’s see what shelter we can find.”
With a sigh, she followed, clinging to Myron’s arm. The two picked their way further under the brightness of the full moon. “Ah, ha, here we go,” he said.
Before them stood an ancient tree, its trunk hollowed out by the elements. He knelt down and peeked inside. “This should do for tonight.”
Jenny’s eyes widened. “What, sleep in here? But there are bound to be spiders and probably snakes…are there bears in this forest?” She inched away. “Myron, please, let’s go back to the car.”
With uncanny speed, clouds rolled across the sky, blotting out the moon’s light. The rumble of thunder growled in the distance. “Oh, no,” Jenny moaned. Myron reached for her hand and pulled her inside. With a spattering of drops, the rain began. Within moments, it burst into a downpour. Jenny shivered, and Myron wrapped his arm around her.
“At least we’re dry in here,” he said.
Jenny nodded. “But I’m freezing.” She snuggled closer. “You need more fat, Myron. You’re just too skinny. You’ve always been skinny. It’s maddening. If you were fatter, I’d be warmer!”
Myron chuckled at her reasoning. “Sorry, Sis. Can’t help it if I’ve been blessed with an active metabolism.”
Her pout melted into a laugh.
“Too bad we can’t have a fire,” said Myron.
“Good luck finding dry wood.”
He stared out from their refuge as the raindrops pounded the forest floor. Fortunately their tree anchored on higher ground, keeping the water from flooding in.
As the night passed, Myron drifted in and out of sleep. Suddenly, he jerked awake, his muscles tensing, his pulse racing. What had wakened him? He sat and listened to the night, but all he could hear was the steady breathing of his sister beside him…and the rain.
The rhythmic flow of the storm lulled him into buried memories. His mind sought back to the time when he first entered these woods five years before.
He’d scoffed at the rumors of a haunted forest. No silly legend was going to keep him from backpacking anywhere he pleased. If only he hadn’t talked his cousin into coming with him. In spite of the cold, perspiration drops formed on his forehead when he remembered waking up to an empty sleeping bag beside him, and no sign of Ted. They’d searched for weeks.
He shook it off, as if doing so would rid him of the pain he carried. What puzzled him was the fact that he had returned here. He didn’t know why, but something drew him back. In fact, had been drawing him for weeks, but he’d resisted…until tonight. Jenny suggested a drive and before he realized it, they were here, walking in the forest.
And they weren’t alone.
His sister sighed then opened her eyes. She looked over at him and yawned. “What time is it? I can’t believe I slept.”
Myron glanced at his wristwatch’s luminous face. “It’s nearly three in the morning.”
She peeked out into the night. “Has the rain let up?”
“I think so.” Myron stood, hunching over. “I’m going to get some air.” He stepped out from their haven and stretched. The rain had stopped.
Jenny followed him. “So, can we head for the car now? The moon’s so bright, we can find our way easy enough.”
Myron stared at the glowing moon. It had been full the night his cousin disappeared. He shuddered.
“Myron? Are you all right?” She touched his arm.
“I was thinking about Ted.”
Her grip tightened as her voice dropped to a whisper. “Was it here?” Her gaze searched the trees huddled around them. “I didn’t realize it was here.”
“You were only thirteen. Ted and I went backpacking to celebrate turning eighteen.” He studied the night sky. “I wonder where he is now?”
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” She pulled him toward her. “Or do you think he might still be alive? How can he be?”
Myron just shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s impossible.” He smiled at her. “Don’t mind me. It’s just this place.”
She nodded. “Let’s get out of here, Myron. Please.”
“Yeah, let’s go.” As they began their hike back, Myron stopped.
“I don’t recognize the trees. Something’s different. Which way did we come in?”
Jenny’s voice trembled. “I don’t know. Myron, what’s happening?”
A twig snapped behind them. They whirled around. A pair of eyes burned in the darkness of their shelter.
“Let’s go!” Myron crashed through the thick curtain of trees, Jenny right behind him. The branches of the trees swayed, stretching toward them. Jenny screamed. Myron lunged forward. He slashed at the reaching limbs, shoving them aside. Myron didn’t know how long they ran before he tripped and the two tumbled, landing on a cushion of pine needles and moss.
He pulled himself to his feet and brushed off the dirt and debris. “Are you all right, Jen?”
She nodded as she stood up. She gasped. “Myron, look!” She pointed behind him.
His throat dry, heart pounding, he turned. “What the…” Before him stood the tree—the same tree.
A thick, cold mist began to seep in around them.
“Myron? What’s happening?”
He shook his head. “I…I don’t know.”
“What’s that?” cried Jenny.
Myron strained to make out the blurry figure emerging from the forest. Myron winced as Jenny dug her fingernails into his arm. She whimpered beside him. Unable to act, Myron just watched, feeling helpless, as the creature crept closer. The mist cleared around the figure, revealing the silhouette of a man.
“Myron?” A familiar voice greeted him.
Myron stepped forward and swallowed hard.
The man stepped into a stream of moonlight. Relief flooded Myron. “Ted!”
Ted shot a glance back over his shoulder. “It’s coming! Quick, back into the tree!”
Ted ran toward their shelter and hurled himself inside. He waved them to follow. “Hurry, there’s no time!”
Myron stared. Was he imagining it? The door in the tree was closing.
“Now, Myron! Now!”
Myron pushed a stunned Jenny before him and the two leaped inside. Within seconds the tree shut behind them.
And then it was daylight. Myron, Jenny, and Ted were sitting on dry ground, leaning against the same tree. Only this tree had no entry.
Myron stared at Ted. Was this a dream?
Ted answered his questioning gaze. “I don’t know, Myron. I got up to get firewood for our breakfast. I thought I saw something run inside the hollow tree. When I approached to investigate, I was drawn into the opening. Don’t ask me how.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “When I stepped out, the tree closed, the forest was different, and you were nowhere to be found. I’ve been wandering those woods for what seems like forever.” His voice trailed off. “No matter how far I walked, I would always return to the tree.”
Jenny asked, “How did you survive?”
He paused, glancing around. “It brought me food.”
“It?” asked Myron.
He nodded. “I call it the Guardian…because it guarded the portal.”
Jenny stared. “Portal? Portal to what?”
Ted shrugged. “Who knows? A parallel world? Another dimension? Who can say? I just know I was trapped.”
“But now you’re free.” Myron smiled.
“Yes.” He took a deep breath, “And hungry! What do you say we get out of here?”
“I’m for that!” Jenny jumped to her feet.
As the three headed in the direction of the car, Myron paused to look back. Ted and Jenny stopped, following his gaze.
The ancient tree nestled there, hiding its secrets. Myron would never forget what he saw standing in the mist seconds before the gateway slammed shut. He hoped that the portal had closed forever.