3rd Place: "The Dead Forest" by Hailey P.



As soon as I wake up, I am faced with drowsy darkness. I try to sit up, or even open my eyes, but every muscle feels like lead. My thoughts make their way through my mind like molasses. I can’t remember how I got here, or what I’d done before I woke up. I force myself to calm down and breathe. I‘m lying on grass, but I can’t feel the sun or wind. I hear a thud from above me and force my eyes open. I sit up and immediately do a double-take. I’m in a forest - a huge forest. The sky is gray and cloudless.

But something else feels off. I stand up and tentatively walk forward. It’s only once I approach the first tree that I realize what’s wrong. There are no animals. No birds, no squirrels, not even an ant. Where am I? I wonder. There is no one else here, and the bleak forest appears to go on forever.

I decide to climb a tree to see if I can catch a glimpse of anything better from there. The first branch holds my weight, and the second, and the third. I reach up to the fourth branch and slowly shift my weight. I place my foot, my hand, then CRACK! The branch gives out beneath me. I hit the ground hard and barely dodge the falling branches. My heart racing, I look at the branch and notice something odd. The tree looks like it is made of… wood? Not the wood normally in a tree, but cut, carved, hollow wood - like a construction project.

I run to the nearest tree and yank at one of the branches. It’s exactly the same - man-made wood. I start to lose it and run as far as I can as fast as I can. I race past rows of fake trees and begin to sprint faster. My feet pound the forest floor and my arms pump beside me. Adrenaline is rushing through my veins and my heart is pounding against my chest.

As my eyes frantically search for something normal, I smack face-first into… a wall? I stumble backward as pain floods through my skull. I blink rapidly to clear my vision. My head spinning, I reach out and touch the wall. It also feels wooden, but it’s covered in some sort of… projection screen. As I question what’s going on, I feel something pinch my arm and look down in fear. My blood turns to ice and I suddenly can’t breathe. The object looks like a mosquito, but it’s stuck in my arm and is not budging. My head starts to feel fuzzy, and I’m able to recognize a syringe in the mosquito’s body before my eyes roll back and I black out.

“Local authorities have been searching for weeks, but there is no sign of the victims.” The reporter signs off and the weather report begins. The woman shakes her head and turns off her radio. Everyone else had dismissed the suspicious disappearances too easily.

__________________________________________________________________________________


Three months ago, a girl went missing and was never found. A month later, on the same day, a young boy went missing. And two days ago, another girl was taken. Serial killers and crazed kidnappers weren’t common in the rural town of Dubuque, Kansas, so the first disappearances had everyone on high alert. However, only one news channel was covering the latest kidnapping. It was as if no one noticed, or something was stopping them from noticing. The woman had heard of disappearances like this before, and she was determined to find the missing children. She had searched the town countless times in recent months but had never found a clue.

She decided to go for a walk to clear her head. There were miles of abandoned woods behind her house, and she liked the quiet. She found her usual trail and ducked under vines hanging overhead. As she walked, she pondered the mystery. This has to be the work of a psychopath, someone horrifically methodical. She thought. The problem was, she had no idea who it could be. Then again, Dubuque wasn’t a very lively place. People weren’t too friendly in a ghost town.

She sighed and looked up at the sky, then around at her surroundings. She hadn’t been to this part of the woods before, and the sky seemed to be growing darker. She shrugged and warily continued onwards. Soon, she spotted something in the distance. A swing set? Thinking of the missing children, she decided to explore. Just as she resumed walking, she heard a hollow thud. Then another, and another, and another, in time with her footsteps. She crouched down and knocked on the forest floor. Another hollow thud, louder this time. The dirt appeared to be thinner here, and the trail was worn down - like someone was recently here. She frowned. She hadn’t seen anyone walking in the woods before.

Her eyes roamed over the ground and found a mysterious dark, flat stick. A handle? She wondered. She gave it a tug and was surprised to find it give way. The trapdoor opened, and the woman could not believe her eyes.

She was standing in the sky. Below her, she saw a forest identical to the one she was standing in. She carefully leaned forward to peer over the edge. Just as she was about to back away, she felt a sharp shove from behind. She screamed as she plunged down into the mysterious forest. Her arms pinwheeled beside her, and her eyes squeezed shut as she braced for impact. She hit the ground hard and immediately blacked out. When she woke up, she was greeted by a bleak, endless forest.

Somewhere in the distance, the bodies of three children waited for her to join them.