Into the Woods

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Lilley Pope woke before the sun opened its eyes and unleashed its radiant light on the land. As a kindergarten teacher, she started her days while most people were still in bed dreaming of secrets, fantasies, hopes, and fears. She showered away her tiredness, dressed in black slacks and a purple cardigan, brewed a cup of Irish breakfast tea, and hopped into her car.

The sun peaked its head above the tops of trees and painted the sky with its artistic hands, perfectly blending purple, pink, orange, and yellow into a stunning array of art. Every day Lilley had a front row seat of the spectacular show in the sky as she wound her down a long road and listened to classical music.

She was following the road and planning the course of her day when a girl ran out of the woods and froze in the direct path of her car. Lilley jerked the steering wheel and screamed in panic as the car swerved, veered off the road, and dove into a ditch. The airbags deployed, punching her in the chest and slamming her back against the seat.

She gasped for breath and stared out of the cracked windshield at the crumpled frontend of her car; the bumper buried in a watery grave. She said a quick prayer, and then she forced open the car door with a bruising hit of her shoulder and tumbled out of the slanted car into three feet of water. Her shoes sank into a layer of gooey mud. Using her hands and knees, she climbed out of the ditch and clambered onto the black asphalt.

On the other side of the road, next to her car's skid marks stood a young girl, who wore a white cotton sundress, with nothing on her feet, and her blonde hair in tangles. The blood that spotted the girl's dress, flowed down her legs, and streaked her hair frightened Lilley. She hurried toward the girl, and the closer she got the more cuts and bruises she saw.

"It's going to be okay," Lilley reassured her. "I am a teacher. I can help you." A foot away from the girl, the toe of Lilley's shoe hit a road stud, causing her to trip. She put out her hands so

she wouldn't knock the girl over, but her hands passed right through her, as did the rest of Lilley.

After nearly tumbling to the ground, Lilley caught her footing and stood half bent over in the middle of the road with wide eyes and a face as pale as white glue. Slowly, she turned around and came face to face with the girl she had just walked through. Her heart was a fast drum in her chest, and her blood was icy-cold in her veins.

"Please," the girl said. "My name is Mandy. A group of girls brought me into the woods last

night, beat me up, and left me for dead. You need to find my body."

When the girl first spoke, Lilley's already frightened eyes doubled and her breathing hitched, but when her speech ended, Lilley began to shake her head from side to side like a rusty robot, and then faster as if an oilcan had restored mobility to her neck. "No." She took a step back and then another. "No, I am a kindergarten teacher. I'm not supposed to see ghosts!"

"Well, now you do," Mandy shouted. "Please, I need your help, I'm not dead! I still have a

heartbeat, but if you don't find me soon, I am going to die. Please, I'm an only child. I'm all my parents have."

As a teacher, and an only child herself, Mandy's plea went straight to Lilley's heart. "All right, where are you?"

Mandy thrust her arm out and pointed at the section of woods she had emerged from. "I'm that way. Hurry! My pulse is getting slower."

Lilley launched into the woods.

A bouquet of trees crowded together, suffocating the area of sunlight with their full canopies. Wild vines strangled their trunks, spongy green moss devoured their bark, and stringy gray Spanish moss hung in thick clumps off their branches. Thorny bushes clogged the spaces between the trees, and decaying leaves littered the muddy forest floor. Lilley ran through all of this like Snow White. Mud sucked at her feet, bushes clawed at her arms and legs, moss slapped the top of her head, and the trees kept getting in her way.

Her heart pounded frantically. What if she didn't get to Mandy in time? And how the hell could she see a ghost?

Mandy materialized a few yards in front of her. "Go that way!" She pointed to the northeast. "I'm over there. Hurry!" Then she vanished again.

Lilley turned and continued to run. She hopped over a pair of white flip-flops that had fallen

off Mandy's feet. A puddle of sickly-brown mud was eating them. Dread and fear swallowed Lilley at the site of those flip-flops, because they made what was happening even more real. There really was a ghost leading her into the woods.

A log emerged in the path Lilley followed. She sprang up to meet it, but when she did, it seemed to sink back into the ground, making her stumble and fall. Falling felt like an eternity, as if the Earth shrank away from her. Then in the next second, it rushed back up and her body collided into the ground with a thud that shook the marrow in her bones. She lay on the muddy ground, dazed. The fall had robbed her of her breath and left her feeling broken.

Her mind screamed at her to get up. A girl is dying! Get the hell up!

As if she were a puppet tied to strings, her limbs moved and she was on her feet again, running with urgent determination. After several minutes, Mandy reappeared. "You're almost there!" Before her last word died, she was already gone.

Lilley's legs were beginning to quiver, her lungs burned, and her heart was about to burst from her chest, but she pushed herself to keep going. She fought through a wall of bushes and erupted into a clearing. A few feet in front of her was Mandy's body, and standing next to it was Mandy's ghost.

Lilley fumbled for her cell phone and dialed 9-1-1. She informed the operator of her location and explained that she had found a girl who was badly beaten. When she knelt next to Mandy and touched her neck for a heartbeat, the pulse stopped. Lilley jabbed the speaker button, tossed down her phone, and started CPR.

"Hurry," she shouted, "she doesn't have a heartbeat."

"An ambulance is on the way," came the operator's voice. Then all was silent while Lilley fought to keep Mandy alive.

The woods had eyes and they watched the scene. Mandy stood over her body, also watching, but with each breath Lilley gave to Mandy's lungs, Mandy's ghost began to fade. Lilley was pumping her heart, keeping her alive, bringing her further away from death. Mandy was barely visible, a faint image on the wind, when she thanked Lilley and returned to her beaten body.

The sound of sirens from the road reached Lilley like a forlorn, muffled cry. Seconds later,

shouts echoed through the air to her ears. Hope punched her in the chest. She raised her head and yelled. "Here! Over here!" She screamed even when she was breathless from giving her breath to Mandy, even when her throat strained and her voice became hoarse.

The shouts grew louder as the medics trudged through the woods. When they finally emerged through the brush, they surrounded Mandy's body. Lilley moved out of their way and stood nervously by as they shocked Mandy's heart.

"We have a rhythm!" The paramedics eased Mandy's battered body onto a backboard and carried her off.

Before they left, Lilley caught one last look of Mandy's pale face. "You're welcome," she whispered, and picked up her cell phone from a pile of soggy leaves. She was about to follow the paramedics out of the woods when she heard a branch snap behind her. She turned to see a

young man step out from behind a tree.

"Are you with the paramedics?" she asked.

"No," he said, and then vanished.

Lilley blinked in shock. Upon opening her eyes again, she found the young man right in front of her, with blood streaking down the side of his face from a gunshot wound.

"I'm dead."


THE END


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