I knew we had made a mistake when we passed by the crooked birch tree for a second time around. My father was cursing under his breath, convinced that if we just kept walking we’d find the road. My feet hurt. It was nearly 11 p.m., and we’d been walking in these woods for hours.
We had left the house just before 10 a.m., with two sandwiches, one big plastic bag (those massive ones you use for groceries), and a promise that we’d be back before dark. Apparently the woods like to hold onto their guests, especially at night, so we had to leave before it got too late. We said our goodbyes to my mom, got in the car and drove off.
“How’s school?” Dad asked. He wasn’t sure what grade I was in these days.
“It’s fine,” I replied. I didn’t feel like talking too much. The car smelled of fast food, cigarettes, and something else. I really only saw my dad a few times in a month. He never worked in the same place for long, and my mom said he had a ‘recurring problem’ that made him leave after getting that first paycheck.
“Is your friend Patrick still doing the track and field stuff?”
“No, Dad. He moved schools two years ago. Remember?”
After a few more tries, we figured it was easier to just sit quietly and watch the buildings fade away, giving way to taller and gloomier trees. The highway began to degrade, the clean and even asphalt giving way to a crumbling and cracked road. After a few more turns and twists, we ended up on some bumpy, dirt path. The trees seemed to loom over us, menacingly; people were not meant to be here, and even the afternoon sun seemed to dim. Forty minutes later, he pulled the car over and, grabbing the big grocery plastic bag, set out into the woods. I wasn’t allowed to just sit and stay in the car.
The problem with mushrooms is that they all look similar. My dad kept tossing out the ones I was putting into the bag, so eventually I just started collecting wildflowers to make a necklace. It was an old family tradition to go mushroom picking, even though no one really liked the taste of them anymore. I trudged on after my dad.
He’d started filling the large grocery bag, the plastic rustling between his hands, and I just ambled behind him slowly, admiring the wild and chaotic order of the trees. The tree roots were gnarled, twisting far above the ground before diving back into the ground. This was a real wild forest; no bike paths, no hiking trails, the trees weren’t evenly planted from one another, and no one had bothered to clean up the massive cobwebs that somehow connected multiple trees to one another. It was oddly loud; hidden birds sent their screeches into the air, while flies and other bugs hummed angrily around us. We were disturbing everything alive, and it was letting us know.
“Dad, I’m really tired. Can we please go?” I asked after a few hours.
“The bag’s not even half full yet. Another hour, okay?”
He had wandered off quite a bit from me, so his voice had an odd echoing effect. I thought I heard laughter among the trees. My incessant needling led my Dad to accept the fact that we’d just have to go home without a full bag of mushrooms. We started heading back the way we came, but something didn’t feel right. The thin rays of light that filtered through the branches had completely vanished, and a hazy twilight had settled over the woods. It was getting hard to tell what were shadows and what were the gnarled roots of the trees. The forest seemed to be pleased that we had stayed so late.
We should have reached the car within the hour, but after nearly two hours we were still deep within the woods. Mysterious creatures began scurrying around us, staying out of sight, rustling behind shrubs and bushes just out of the corner of my eyes. Owls and other birds began announcing their presence, and the forest seemed to press in on us from all sides. I was starting to get nervous, especially since my dad was obviously getting angry as well. He only gets angry when he’s lost.
“Dad, I think we’ve passed this tree before.” I said, after another half hour had passed.
“No, you’re just confused. We’re almost at the car,”
“It’s the same tree! Look, it’s even got that weird branch that kind of looks like a hook!”
“Damnit Alice, will you stop it? I know what I’m doing!” He started walking faster, as if that would solve anything.
It had grown dark. Whatever rays of sunlight we had seen were long gone, and even the twilight haze glowing around the trees had gone out completely. We were absolutely alone. My feet hurt with every step. I was picturing myself laying down to sleep with the mushrooms in the tree roots, and after I’d fallen asleep, the roots would slowly twirl themselves around me, wrapping tighter and tighter. I wasn’t sure if the tree wanted to keep me warm or not.
“Oh thank God! A road!” my dad cried out.
I had been focusing so much on putting one step in front of the other I hadn’t noticed that the trees had started to thin, and the path beneath my feet looked like it had been walked on before. It was after midnight. We’d been in the woods the whole day.
By sheer luck, someone drove past us after about 20 minutes, and seeing the miserable pair we made shivering by the road, the driver pulled over and picked us up.
When we pulled into our driveway, we found our house lit up with blue and red lights. Several police cars were parked outside, and some of the nicer neighbors were comforting my mother while she stood crying in the street, a blue blanket thrown messily over her shoulders. There were tall burly policemen, who immediately took my dad aside and started demanding answers. My mother hugged me tighter than I ever remember, but only for a few seconds, as she soon started screaming at my dad, who was being led away by one of the bigger policemen. One of the nicer looking officers stayed behind to calm her down.
The police thought my dad wanted to take me far away, that he was unhappy he only got to see me on the occasional weekend. They had found our car out by the woods, and there were some drugs in there too. He wasn’t supposed to have those with me nearby, and I guess that’s what that other smell was in the car.
I never really got to see my dad after that. My mom didn’t like to talk about him, and he only sent me birthday cards in the mail. The return address was always scratched out by my mom. The great big bag of mushrooms that my dad and I had collected was eventually thrown out, after they had started to rot.