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‘Sea of Green’ by Michael Whitehouse

From the diary of Jake Sato:

Dated: May, 11th, 2019

I've always tried to rationally think through how we got here. What happened to lead us down this path? Why did life turn out like this? When I do, my mind always comes back to that summer's day in Scotland. Everything stems from that like a collapsed vein; a happier time cut off from us in the past, and nowhere else to go but this tainted present.

Back in 1977, my wife, Jenna, and I saw something neither of us could comprehend. It changed us forever.

We were staying in a small Scottish village called Aberfoyle for a week at the time. It was a quaint place, surrounded by pleasant rolling hills, woodland, and lochs. From our hotel, we could explore the lush Scottish scenery, something Jenna had wanted to do since she was a kid. Her mother was Scottish, and although she had passed away when my wife was very young, Jenna always felt a deep connection to the country. It was a spiritual home of sorts.

She was fascinated by it. The vast spaces of green and rock. Clear blue waters, snow, rain, wind, sun piercing through it, if you were lucky. It was the natural world in its element. Most of all, Jenna cherished the few memories she had of her mother telling stories about Scotland. It was a mystical place for her and her family, and that pull to see it first hand only grew over the years.

I had spent my childhood in a small town in the Midwest. I'd had my fill of nature, and preferred the streets of Boston as an adult, but when my wife turned 30, I knew that a trip across the Atlantic would make the perfect present. When I told her where we were going, she was so happy.

Aberfoyle village was barely more than a main street at the time, with our hotel - well, I say, 'hotel', but it was more of a bed and breakfast - sitting on one of the rare, empty backstreets. At night the place shut down except for a solitary pub, leaving us to breathe in the relative silence and darkness of the surrounding hills and forests.

The first night there we had dinner at a small restaurant. That night brought more than its fair share of surprises. The first was when I surprised Jenna with a silver bracelet engraved with a suitably soppy message on the underside. But that wasn't where the unexpected ceased. Jenna then dropped the biggest surprise of all - she was pregnant with our first child.

We had been trying for over a year and we were beginning to worry that something was wrong, and so to hear that she was pregnant was overwhelming. We celebrated - Jenna on the orange juice, me on the Scotch.

The next day, my head was pounding and I asked that we stay closer to the hotel rather than have our planned trip into Glasgow City. Jenna was a little put out, but by lunchtime, my headache had lifted a little and I suggested a walk through the countryside as a compromise. The night before, one of the locals had told me about a scenic walk through Queen Elizabeth Forest. It sounded perfect, and just a short drive away. If I had to hurl, at least I wouldn't be doing it in front of other people.

Jenna was excited to get out and about, and so we drove for about twenty minutes from Aberfoyle and parked in a small makeshift parking lot inside the forest. This was the place the trails started, and they could only be explored on foot. When we got out, the scent of pines was sweet in the air and the fresh smell made me feel much better.

Although I've been told the location is now more popular, on that day we saw no other cars on the road into the forest, and the parking lot itself was empty. The sun was high in the sky, and as we headed on foot towards what was supposed to be a relaxing forest walk, I remember smiling at Jenna. She was so beautiful.

A wooden information board showed us the route we were to take. Given her condition, I didn't want Jenna to overexert herself, so we took the path marked in green, which meant it should have been the easiest trail.

And it was, for a while. The path moved through pockets of pine trees and had clearly been used many times before. It was picturesque, and with each step, I started to understand why Jenna had been so happy to visit the place. There's undoubtedly something necessary about getting away from the world to lose yourself in nature. It's like we still have an ancient part of ourselves that gets nourished by the deep greenery.

As we strolled along the dirt path, we started talking about what we would call the baby if it were a boy or a girl. It was then that we realized we were not alone. In front of us in the distance, a young boy walked out from the tree line and stood on the path ahead about 50 yards away, just staring at us. He looked to be about 8 or 9 years old. Being in an isolated area, it would have been unnerving to begin with, but what immediately filled me with disbelief was the fact that the boy was clearly naked.

The sun reflected off of his skin, and his pale color was stark against the green of the forest. What do you do in a situation like that? This was in the 1970s and, although there were always whispers of terrible things happening behind closed doors, it was long before the public truly accepted that many children were being abused or mistreated.

Still, the unsettling sight was soon replaced with concern for the child. Jenna picked up the pace and shouted 'hello', but something immediately made me grab her hand and stop her from running up to the boy.

I asked Jenna to stay put, not just for herself but for our unborn child's sake. The last thing I wanted was for a stressful situation to affect the pregnancy. Reluctantly, she stayed where she was and I stepped forward towards the boy.

As I drew closer, I realized just how pale and emaciated he was, as though he had been kept somewhere, malnourished and away from sunlight for some time.

'Are you okay?' I asked. 'Where are your parents?'

He just looked at me, the skin beneath his eyes darker than the surrounding skin. Cautiously, I moved closer with my arms open so as not to scare him. 'Let us help you. Maybe we could take you to the police or help you find your parents?'

The closer I got, the more I felt the uncertainty of the situation. There was something very wrong with the boy. I expected him to move back or show some sort of fear, but he didn't. In fact, I was sure that a subtle grin momentarily flickered across his face before returning to the same, somber expression as before.

By this time, I was standing straight in front of him.

I asked him: 'What's your name?'

Again, he said nothing, but now he was looking intently into my eyes, and that gaze carried with it nothing but menace.

The boy then reached out his right hand and touched the center of my chest. The touch of his fingers left me unsure of myself. I turned to look back at Jenna down the path to ask her what I should do. As I turned, I heard a rustling sound and when I looked back towards the boy, he was no longer there.

I followed the rustling to the side of the path. The ground dipped down into a slight incline. There, the trees and bushes created thick clumps of leaves and branches. It looked difficult to traverse, and I thought that the boy's naked skin must have been scraped and cut to pieces running about in there. It was so dim between the trees; a tangled green mess.

Waiting for a moment, I listened. There was nothing other than the occasional creak of a branch swaying in the gentle breeze. Above, the sun shone down directly onto the path, but just a few steps forward and I would have been engulfed by the dark of the forest. The difference in light was stark in my mind, and although I wanted to help the kid, everything about the situation left me in a wary state of mind.

Seeing no sign of the boy, I walked back to Jenna. She asked where he was. I said I didn't know and told her that he'd disappeared into the forest when my back was turned. Jenna looked pale, and she gave me a look I knew only too well. I'd seen it a few times over the previous few years - something was on her mind and she just had to get it out.

Jenna looked me straight in the eyes and said: 'I never saw the boy leave the path.'

She insisted that it was as if he had just vanished. One moment he was there, the next he was gone. I was caught in a difficult situation. This was long before the common cell phone. One of us needed to alert the authorities that there was a young boy stranded in the woods, running around as naked as the day he was born.

Considering how deep and thick the section of forest around us was, he could easily have fallen and hit his head on a rock or, later, died of hypothermia when the night came. There was only one thing we could do: One of us would have to stay put in case the kid needed help, while the other would walk back to the car, drive into Aberfoyle, and raise the alarm.

There was no question that I would stay in the forest, but I didn't feel right about letting Jenna go back to the car by herself. Even if she hadn't been pregnant, I wouldn't have liked it. But, Jenna was always stronger willed than me, and although I would try to pull the usual 'strong husband' routine common at the time, she was nearly always immune to it.

Jenna insisted that she would head back down the path and that I should try and find the kid, but not to stray too far. She would be back as soon as possible with help. I told her to honk the horn when she was leaving the parking lot, that way I'd know she'd got back to the car okay. I got a smile and a roll of the eyes in return, but she promised to do it if it made me feel better. She gave me a kiss on the cheek and walked back the way we had come. I watched her until she disappeared from view.

Although I'd spent the last 10 years living in Boston, I grew up in the Midwest, and so hikes through the woods were not alien to me - but this was different. There was something off about that long stretch of path. It was flanked by pine trees so close together that the forest was as dark as twilight once you stepped off the path and into it - and that was something I had no intention of doing.

The tree line was like an impenetrable wall to me. Nonetheless, I stared intently at it in search of the smallest sign of life. I was sure that since I hadn't heard anyone moving around in there, the boy must still have been near. He would have made too much noise moving through the uneven and cluttered terrain.

There was a sense of loneliness about that place. No... Not loneliness, but isolation. Like it was an arm cut from the body of the world. Such environments infect the mind with paranoia, and as I was entertaining the stark atmosphere of the place, I kept my eyes on the side of the path from where the boy had first appeared.

My imagination took over. I began to think about the kid, lost in the woods. I thought about how he'd gotten into such a situation. And those thoughts were too dark to dwell on. I turned my mind to a lighter explanation. Maybe there was a loch nearby and he was swimming there with his friends, I thought. They took his clothes as a prank and then he'd followed the path trying to get back to town.

Yes, that made sense. It must have been something like that. But why did he not speak to me? And what of his skin: It was unusually pale, and that flicker of a smile on his face, it caused me doubt just to think about it.

Continuing my vigil, I wondered why Jenna hadn't honked the car horn yet as she left the parking lot. I was sure she should have made it back there by then. That's when I thought I saw movement. I didn't know if it was a deer or the missing boy himself.

Slowly, I stepped forward to the edge of the path and peered in. The quiet of the place took over, and I stared steadily for any hint of movement. I was so focused that I had no time to react to the real danger. Something walked out of the woods from behind me at speed. I barely had a moment to turn, and when I did, something large and white put its hands on me.

It knocked me from the path, and as I fell down the incline into the trees and bushes in front, a searing pain cut across my vision. A branch of pine needles scratched across my left eyeball leaving me unable to see out of it.

Instinct kicked in and I fled deeper between the trees, the branches cracking and prodding around me as I did so. Blood and tears oozed from my injured left eye, and as I looked back momentarily with my right, I saw, standing on the sunlit path, two people. A man and a woman. Both were naked, and their skin was as white as the boy's I had seen, gleaming in the summer sun.

Both figures stepped forward towards where I was, and I quickly attempted to hide within the cutting embrace of a large pine tree, but it was clear that they could see me somehow. It was at that moment that I heard the distant sound of a car horn. A sense of relief cut through my adrenaline. I could at least be happy that Jenna had made it back to the car without incident. Hopefully out of the forest and away from my attackers.

The man and woman stared at me through the trees, their gaze dark and malevolent. Angry even. When he and the woman moved towards where I stood, I panicked and picked up a moss-covered rock on the ground at my feet. It was the only way to protect myself.

I watched, anticipating their movements, waiting for them to attack. The woman spoke to the man, and her words were unlike any I had heard before. It wasn't just the language that confused me, but I'm uncertain how any human could make such a sound. Beneath the words, there was an unusual noise. Each word lay on top of a breath, like a storm swelling and pushing through a constricted space. The man answered with a lower, yet equally airy voice.

There we were, waiting. I might not have understood the language, but I knew they meant to harm me, and for the first time the thought that I might never leave that forest alive rose up in my mind.

Just as the man finally lurched towards where I was, my heart began to race. If the sound of Jenna striking our car horn had made me feel more at ease, the second time it sounded put me on edge. When the horn sounded for a third, and then a final fourth time, I knew something terrible had happened. Jenna needed help.

There was no time for dialogue. These people, whoever they were, had undoubtedly hurt that boy we had encountered, and now they were hell-bent on hurting me and my wife. Who knew how many of them there were. I had to get back to Jenna to make sure she was okay.

The man continued moving forward, the pine branches breaking against his skin. When he reached me, I leapt forward and swung the rock in my hand with all of my might. When it contacted his head, I was certain I had killed him. Something cracked inside of his skull. I felt it. Blood sprayed across me, and he staggered back onto the trail.

I will never forget the piercing, inhuman scream the woman let out when she leaned over to help her bloodied companion. The man's pale white face had come apart from the attack, his features now a flap of skin hanging from the side of his head.

The woman stood up to come at me, and shocked at what I had done, I ran back down the path. Looking back with my one good eye, I could see that she was still with the man's crumpled body, and so I focused purely on reaching Jenna.

When I got to the parking lot, I wasn't sure what I saw at first. The car door was open and Jenna was lying in the driver's seat. A small, pale white figure was hunched over her, doing something.

As I ran to the car, the figure, who I could now see was the boy we had first encountered, let out a screech, and held a bloody mess in his hands. I was too late. The boy scampered off towards the surrounding forest, but as he reached the tall grass just before the tree line, he stopped. Crouching down, he turned and stared at me, his white skin bleached red with my wife's blood.

I didn't care if I was going to die. I took a deep breath and turned to look at what he had done to my wife. She was sitting in the driver's seat, her eyes glazed, but I didn't understand. She was looking at me in a daze, smiling.

There was no blood. No visible wound that I could see.

'I dreamt about our child,' she said. Then she lost consciousness.

I pulled her still breathing body out of the driver's seat and lay her gently in the back. She was talking to herself, mumbling something, as though she were in a deep, confusing dream.

My only thought was to get her to a hospital. Climbing into the car, I slammed the doors shut. All the while the boy covered in blood, nestling something in his hands, stared at me from the tall grass. But he was no longer alone. The man and woman I had encountered on the path were with him, and the man, though he bore a scar down the side of his cheek, looked as though his entire face had been sewed back on.

They watched silently as I drove out of the parking lot, and I was left with the uneasy feeling that they allowed me to leave.

Jenna recovered in a local hospital, and to my complete surprise and joy, our baby was still alive and healthy inside of its mother. We spoke with the local police. Of course, no one believed us, and why would they? There wasn't a scratch on Jenna, and bizarrely, even the blood which had sprayed across me during my fight on the forest path had vanished like disappearing ink.

When I asked Jenna about what happened at the parking lot, she said all she remembered was a flash of white on the windscreen, as if something had jumped up on the hood of the car. Then, nothing. But she did say she dreamed about a crying baby.

Months later, when we were back in Boston, Jenna gave birth to our son. He was beautiful. We were happy... For a few days. To our horror, just a short while after getting him home, his skin began to change color, like food going bad because of the air. His skin darkened as he cried for his life. I called 911, but it was too late.

He stopped breathing in Jenna's arms. We were overcome with grief I can't describe, looking down at our beautiful boy, his skin now the color of mold, his eyes frozen open looking up at us.

We heard the paramedics come into our home downstairs, but before they reached us, the miraculous happened. Suddenly, our son began breathing again. His eyes rolled around, and then his skin began to change color back to its original healthy tone. But the change did not stop, it grew paler and paler, until there was no doubt that we were staring at one of the children of the forest.

Before our very eyes, and I will swear this until my dying breath, our son then began to fade away, just as the blood had evaporated on my clothes. As the last outline of him vanished, he let out the laugh of a child far older than his few days. That laugh moved off into the air and out through the nearest window, fading to nothing.

If it wasn't for the paramedics, who saw the last moment themselves, the police would have thought we disposed of our own child. We didn't. He was never our child to begin with. He was of the forest, and I'm certain that's where he now lives. Lost in a sea of green.

And what of our own unborn child? Was he taken from Jenna's body at the forest? Is it possible he lives there too? That possibility haunts me, as do these memories I've finally put into words.

Jenna and I remain married, though we swore after that day never to have another child. Perhaps the effects of what we encountered in that forest still linger in her body. Who knows what we would have brought into this world.

Published inShort Stories

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