The whispering forest is cool and golden, and I am lost.
Afternoon sunlight angles toward the horizon, and the wind sends pine-scented hands to ruffle the painted carpet of fallen leaves. The trail map clutched in my chilly fingers has devolved into gibberish—the collection of interlocking lines and squiggles could be hieroglyphs, for all I can read them. My phone pings, reminding me yet again that I have moved outside my data roaming zone, and have no service.
I am very, very lost.
“Damn it,” I say, for the fifty-second time. Somewhere in between agonizing over which fallen leaf was prettiest and admiring the magic of the Midas sun, I managed to lose myself in the smallest forest ever.
The sun slips behind a cloud, and a sudden frosty wind sprints between the trees. Boughs creak and a shower of dead foliage spirals down around me. Threads of fear stitch down my back and arms, raising goosebumps in their path. I have maybe an hour before the sun sets. An hour of light, and then I’ll be lost in the woods…in the dark.
Resolve quickens my step, and I march up a small rise where the trees grow more sparsely. If I can only catch a glimpse of the river, I’ll know where I am. I squint between the pale trunks of birch trees, desperate for a glimpse of blue between the dancing curtains of yellow and gold.
The toe of my hiking boot catches on something, and I go down, hard, throwing a hand out just in time to catch myself. I curse, and whip my head around to glare at the offending hunk of rock jutting from the ground. With its sloping edges and smooth surface, the stone almost looks like—
My heart hammers against the inside of my ribs as the realization tumbles through me. A headstone. I scramble to my feet, sending my gaze skittering across the clearing. A dozen or so flat dark stones rise up from the earth, listing crooked and strange within the circle of birches.
A graveyard. I’ve literally stumbled onto a forgotten cemetery in the middle of the woods.
I thread my way between the grave markers, curiosity overcoming my nerves. The pitted slate stones are unmistakably ancient; time has eroded the etchings until they are nearly impossible to read. No flowers nor trinkets adorn these graves—only lichen and dirt and crumbling dead leaves. Who rests here, beneath the fading sky? What did they do, and how did they live? My questions have no answers. History has consigned this graveyard—and its occupants—to oblivion.
I pause in front of the final headstone, larger than the rest and tucked away at the edge of the forest. A crudely carved cherub’s face stares at me with blank eyes, sending a shiver to clutch at my spine. I take a step away, ready to head back into the forest, when a lancet of light slices through the trees and paints the headstone in shades of blood and ochre. The inscription leaps out at me, the graven letters stark and archaic:
Here lieth Eliza Tilley
I am not dead
I merely sleep
The words send a thrill of fear spiking through my veins, and I shudder against the chill creeping through my down jacket. My feet propel me back, back, my steps loud in the crackling leaves, but my eyes feel glued to the inscription. The words thrum through me, hushed and eerie, and my pulse seems to leap in time to that rhythm of dread.
I am not dead, I merely sleep.
A rush of wind. A loud crash—a falling bough. A flock of birds rises in a wave, the sudden clamor and rush dragging my eyes up. They scatter across the darkening sky, their strident calls echoing between the trees like some dire warning.
I hear the slow rasp of indrawn breath a spare second before I feel the tickle of ice-cold fingers on the back of my neck. And I suddenly know:
Someone’s not sleeping any more.