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A Night in the Woods

Photo by Jachan DeVol on Unsplash

When I returned to work on Monday, the normalcy of the office was enough to make the events of the previous weekend feel like a bad dream from another life. The marketing department was on the third floor of Linden Hall–a towering limestone sentinel with enormous multi-story windows overlooking a sprawling plaza that served as the crossroads of every sidewalk on campus. The ground level was mostly administrative offices and the middle floor was home to Joseph E. Reiger Studio. It was all arts space, except for the tiny room that was the hub of 105.7 FM The Point, which usually played redundant top 40 songs but occasionally hosted visiting musicians or local politicians.

The work was sometimes monotonous–endless proofreading and making sure that text banners were positioned juuust so, but I loved the view and my little mahogany desk in the front corner office. That morning, I found myself looking forward to the monotony. I hoped there would be a pile of papers on my desk that I could bury myself under until five o’clock.

When I walked in fifteen minutes early instead of the usual five, Leif was sitting in one of the aging green armchairs, drinking what smelled like chamomile tea. Leif was the marketing director and thus my direct supervisor. He was a lean spike of a man with terminally red skin and a swath of too blonde hair that I’d always thought looked distinctly like vanilla pudding. He pushed his round, tortoiseshell glasses up the bridge of his nose and glanced in my direction.

“How was your weekend?” he asked in the same way he always did — like he knew normal people asked about their coworkers’ weekends, but wasn’t quite sure why he should be bothered to.

“Uneventful,” I lied smoothly. Then, in the way of liars, I added a little embellishment, more for my sake than his. “Saw a couple of friends, went to the lake.”

“Hmm,” he said. And that was that. I’d never been so grateful to have such a disinterested boss. Leif left me to my own devices, and for the better part of the day I managed to entomb myself so deeply in my work that I was almost able to forget the nagging sense of unease that had plagued me all weekend.

I updated the little throwaway pamphlets they kept all over campus for prospective students, adding the name of the new assistant head of biology–Dr. Marjorie Thyr. I drafted an email to send to potential donors about the School of Applied Media Arts’ upcoming fundraiser weekend. I tweeted, posted, and instagrammed about our weekly “Student Spotlight”—Jun Ikeda, who was doing his capstone biology project on starfish regeneration. Hell, when I was done, I even offered my services as a beta reader for the short story that Leif was writing for some horror compilation of Midwestern writers (“No,” he said flatly, insisting that it wasn’t ready).

I almost always had time at the end of the day to work on my own projects, which usually meant sketching on my tablet or perusing gallery openings nearby. Occasionally, I would even bring my sketchbook and draft a new piece while I waited for five o’clock. Leif firmly believed the creative spirit shouldn’t be stifled, and sometimes went as far as to encourage me. Today, though…I sat, staring at my sketchbook, unable to conjure even the vaguest of ideas into being. The faint sense of dread I thought I’d managed to smother pounded hard and painful in my temples. I didn’t know why I felt so troubled, so ashamed by what my research had convinced me was a perfectly common bout of sleepwalking.

“It was nothing,” I whispered into the empty room.

Outside, the sun was still a fat, blazing orb in the sky, gleaming off the red leaves of the sugar maples in the courtyard. Through the window, I could see students marching along the paths, some holding hands, some strolling lazily with cigarettes in their mouths, and some marching with the grim determination of carpenter ants. I watched them, twirling a strand of coppery hair around my index finger and chewing on the cap of my pen. It wasn’t until Leif called my name that I realized I’d been humming, low and lilting, a melody I couldn’t quite place.

“Greta!” He nearly shouted, his voice muffled behind the partially closed door of his office. “Have you heard about this?”

I placed my phone back on my desk, face down. I’d have to clean out my junk email folder later. For now, I would go “ooh” and “ahh” over whatever it was that Leif had discovered—no doubt some grisly unsolved murder that he would use as a plot point in his next novel.

Leif’s office was a small, well-lit room; or it would have been if the windows weren’t obscured by heavy, towering bookshelves laden with hulking tomes with titles like “The Weird: A Compendium of Strange Fiction from Lovecraft to LeGuin” and “Psycopaths of the 21st Century.” The floor was littered with papers, some in hastily labeled manila folders that had been stacked against the wall, and some crumpled and scattered in a way that seemed to suggest they’d been balled up and hurled across the room in a fit of rage. There was a photograph of Leif and Neil Gaiman framed over his desk. It was hard to imagine him looking starstruck, but the proof was there in his glazed eyes and goofy, too-wide grin as he held a copy of “American Gods” in his white-knuckled hands. He looked like a thirteen year old girl might look, flanked by the members of One Direction.

The real Leif, stern and studious as ever, was hunched over his desk, every bit as cluttered as the rest of the office. He looked like a large bird, tortoiseshell glasses pushed down on his nose, peering at his monitor with narrowed eyes. I leaned against the door-frame, afraid that if I barged in I might step on some half-forgotten masterpiece.

“Come over here and look,” he said, almost petulantly. I went, hovering over his shoulder and squinting to read the headline on the screen. “Missing Local Teen Found; Search Continues for Three Other . . .” The words seemed to evaporate from my mind as my eyes fell on the three photographs below the headline. They looked like school yearbook photos. The first two faces were nondescript. They could have been any local high-schoolers, but the third was a face I knew. Same freckles, and even though the photo was cropped, I knew that the words “Kinsley Midtown High Badgers” would be emblazoned on that same maroon shirt. The article was from the Kinsley Guardian, and the third photograph was captioned “Matthias Emry.” The boy that had found me wandering in the woods. The boy that was now, still, missing. Gone. I felt suddenly, violently sick. Leif was saying something, but it sounded very far away, like his voice was coming from underwater. I took a quick step forward and gripped the edge of his desk to steady myself.

“They found the girl wandering in the woods this morning,” Leif said tonelessly, as if he were discussing the weather and not a missing teenager. “Apparently she doesn’t remember anything that happened. They think that she might have been drugged.”

This doesn’t mean anything, I told myself. Just a coincidence. I repeated the words in my mind, forcefully, trying to quell the tide of dread that was roiling and crashing in my stomach. Finally, Leif turned to me. My face felt cold and stiff. I imagined that I must look like all the blood in my body had suddenly curdled. White and thin, like the paper I used to use to trace designs from my coloring books when I was a child.

“Greta…?”

“I know him,” I blurted. The already claustrophobic walls of Leif’s office seemed to be pressing in around me.

“Leif, I…I have to go. I’m sorry. Do you mind if I leave a little early?”

He stared at me, eyes clouded with confusion behind his glasses. For once there was no dismissive gesture or snarky comment. It seemed to dawn on him slowly exactly what I had said, even as he had no way of understanding its gravity.

“Yes…of course.” He added, awkwardly, “Let me know if you need anything.”

I stormed out of the building, numb and empty, like I was walking through a dream–a waking nightmare–just like that night in the forest, when Matthias had saved me from my fate and I’d left him to his.

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