Narrated by Bob Eccles
A forest—it could be anywhere. It’s part of a “nature preserve,” a sliver of land between the highway and the river. Nobody wanted it, so the county bought it up, halfheartedly staked a few trails and put up some signs touting their conservation efforts. There is a clearing, maybe twenty feet across. To the untrained eye, it is unremarkable save for the stones—seven unremarkable lumpy gray rocks, arranged along a perfect circle at the clearing’s perimeter.
If someone with the proper background stumbled across the clearing, they would see the stone circle and immediately report it to some higher-up at whatever institution they were from. Academic-types—anthropologists and the like—would swarm the site. They’d have their underlings poke around for a while until they decided that the circle was built by the such-and-such indigenous society to commemorate such-and-such astrological event or perform such-and-such ceremony. The theory the academics put forth would have been dry and faintly condescending and utterly, laughably wrong.
The people who erected the circle have been entirely forgotten by history, wiped out before anybody thought to start keeping track of such things. The circle of stones in the unremarkable clearing had no ceremonial or astrological function whatsoever—it was put there as a warning.
But the academics never got their hands on the circle of stones. Nobody with the proper background ever stumbled on the site, because the circle didn’t want them to.
* * *
“I don’t know, I guess this place just always felt more interesting when I was a kid.” It is a young woman speaking, a blanket slung over her arm. She is walking down one of the little footpaths with a young man beside her, carrying a cooler. “I mean, my mom would take me to the park all the time, and that always felt, you know, contained and safe. But, like, she only took me here like twice but I really remember this place. I remember it being all big and magical—like, out there, there was this world that grownups ran and everything was under somebody’s control. But here—here, anything could happen.”
“Did anything ever actually happen?” the man says.
“No, of course not. My mom and I would walk until whenever she got tired and then we’d get back in the car and go to McDonald’s or something.”
They walk a little longer along the cracked asphalt footpath. The man appraises the forest around him with an air of tired detachedness, while the woman seems increasingly agitated as she looks around.
“Let’s go off the trail,” she says suddenly.
“Maybe we should just—” the man starts to say, but a look from his friend silences him.
“Let’s go off the trail.”
She sets off first, at a precise right-angle to the footpath, her body bending away from it as if it physically repulsed her. She vanishes into the underbrush, and he follows quickly after. For reasons unknown to them, the pair find themselves moving in an almost-straight line. They have no particular destination in mind, but they stride purposefully and silently through the forest, as if they are on their way to a pressing appointment.
Soon, they are standing at the edge of the clearing, looking into the circle of stones. The hum of the highway, omnipresent in the little sliver of forest, is silenced here. Outside, the chill of winter still hangs in the spring air, but the clearing is warm and inviting. A soft breeze at the backs of the new arrivals pushes them ever-so-gently onward and makes the trees around the circle wave an eerie welcome.
“This looks like a good spot,” she says, and steps over the threshold, into the circle. She turns to face her friend, who has hesitated just beyond the edge. “Well?” she says, her eyes glimmering unnaturally, “come on.” He follows.
Neither of them are able to recall what follows with any clarity. They sit down on the blanket, the food suddenly forgotten, as a strange heat settles over the clearing like a thick haze.
The next thing either of them remembers is waking up. The air is cold and dead. They are naked, wet, and shivering, huddled together in the center of the circle. The sky has turned slate gray and will rain at any moment. When they try to remember precisely what happened in the circle; details elude them, as if their minds are refusing to conjure the images. They stand gingerly, the natural pains caused by sleeping on the ground amplified by a deep-seated exhaustion that has worked its way into every fiber of their bodies. The cooler, the picnic blanket, and their clothes have all been carelessly flung beyond the border of the circle. They gather their things and dress without meeting the other’s gaze, and head off in the direction of home in silence.
* * *
Years later. Their daughter returns to the place of her conception, as the forest is consumed by the ecstatic fury of a summer storm. Rolling blue-black clouds surge overhead in the midnight sky, rain drenches the canopy and forces the trees to dance, and the darkness of the storm is broken only by the white-hot flashes of lightning overhead.
The young woman moves effortlessly through the pitch-black forest. “All a game,” she says to no one. Her voice is soft, but it carries through the woods even over the rage of the storm. “You’re playing a game with us for your amusement.”
Lightning flashes, and we see her on the border of the circle of stones. Her bright green eyes stare into empty space, and her entire body is quivering with something like elation and rage but not quite either. “I,” she says carefully, “am a pawn. And this—” Nothing in her movement indicates what she’s referring to, as she stares fixedly at nothing. “This is the other side of the board.” She steps across the threshold.
* * *
Every inch of the nature preserve is scoured. The search teams find no trace of the missing woman, save for a curious set of footprints in the rapidly-drying mud. They follow an impossibly straight path through the forest and then, all at once, they simply end. The trail cuts off, as if the missing woman had just vanished into thin air. A member of the search party, on condition of anonymity, speaks to the local paper about the incident. They describe the odd nature of the missing person’s footprints, saying it is “as if she took one step in this world, and the next step in another.”
In time, the vanishing footprints are dismissed as an oddity, a strange effect of the soil composition or a remnant of a flash flood. There is no body to find, so the authorities never find one, but in time the missing woman is assumed to be dead.
Use of the nature preserve, already low, drops off following the disappearance. Over the years, the county will make token efforts to sell the useless land, and even local environmental groups raise no protest. Still, red tape always manages to ensnare any such measure, so the land remains a “nature preserve.” To those unaware of the circle of stones—which is to say, almost everyone—it is a perfectly ordinary forest with virtually no distinguishing features whatsoever. It could be anywhere.
AUTHOR BIO: Patrick McCarty is a senior at New York University, studying Economics and English. He has served as the treasurer for NYU’s Headless Society for two years, and would like to thank them for being a constant source of support and inspiration.