Word Count: 1900
Ali finished setting up her side of the tent by putting the finishing touches on her sleeping bag, tucking her sweats into the top to slip into later. Her other five friends were all either out trying to get a fire started or still setting up their tents. Wendi, who was sharing a tent with Ali, had quickly thrown her pile of stuff in a corner and called it good, in typical Wendi style. Placing a flashlight right near the tent door, Ali nodded to herself at a job well done. Now she was ready to organize the cooler and get ready to cook some cowboy grub.
“Yay!” Lilly clapped as Ali walked by the green tent where she and Chad lay on their backs, staring up at the trees. “All set up?”
“Yep,” Ali answered. “I'm going to see if I can get some dinner going before it gets dark. This time of year, it will be dark in like an hour.”
“We'll be there in a bit,” Lilly said. Ali could hear the tent zipping up as she walked further down the trail to the fire pit.
When she reached the clearing, Ali saw that Wendi was having a smoke while she giggled at Spencer and Pete's pathetic attempts at starting a fire. Pete was blowing furiously, his usually pale cheeks red with the effort and smoke inhalation. Spencer was trying to light bits of cardboard torn from a cereal box they had hiked in to the camp site. They were only about a mile off the Forest Service road, along a popular trail in the summer, but now that it was late October, they had the forest to themselves. It was crisp and cool in the shade, but the sun had warmed the day nicely. Soon they would need the fire, though, for warmth and light.
“Dude,” Ali said. “You can't just light logs that big from cardboard. This your first campfire, or what?”
“Um-” Spencer looked sheepish. “Well, sort of. Yep. You, Pete?”
“No way, man,” he said with a smile. “Did this tons of times in Boy Scouts. It's just been a while.”
“We need to find smaller sticks and branches, all sizes graduated up to the size of those logs. You gotta start small, then build it up slowly. I'll go hunt for some kindling,” Ali said eagerly. She wanted to show off for Spencer, and was riding high on the prospect of a whole weekend with him.
“I'll come with you,” Spencer said, practically tripping over the logs as he got up. He walked off with Ali, leaving Wendi and Pete alone. Wendi's giggles could be heard over the sound of a bottle of wine being uncorked. “Those two are hopeless.”
“Agreed,” Ali said. She headed in the opposite direction of the tents, not wishing to walk up on anything going on in Lily and Chad's tent. They had been together since high school, so there was no ice to break there.
Silently they walked deeper into the forest. Ever since meeting Spencer, also a Freshman in her dorm, Ali had been dreaming of something like this moment. They found a nice area of deciduous trees and began to pick up the dry branches strewn around.
“Like this?” Spencer asked, holding up a few skinny twigs. He flashed his drop-dead smile.
“Perfect,” Ali said. She hoped she wasn't blushing, but he was so cute looking to her for approval like that. “From that size to a bit bigger will be great.”
They picked up small branches for several minutes, until their arms were full. Spencer was pretending to struggle under his load, trying to make Ali laugh. She was giggling as if she had already had some of the wine back at camp. They walked back in the direction of their camp as the sun began to set, lighting the orange and red leaves of autumn in a fiery glow. After several minutes of walking, Ali's arms began to ache. She could have sworn that camp was just up ahead, but the more they walked, the less familiar things looked.
“Hey, Spence,” she said over her tangle of twigs.
“Yeah?” he asked. “Sorry, I was spacing out. It's so pretty in this light. The forest is totally magical right now.”
“Um...” Ali hesitated. “Are we going the right direction? I feel like we've been walking for a long time. Shouldn't we be at camp by now?”
“Hmmm.” Spencer looked around and considered this. “Yeah, you might be right. I don't remember those white trees before, do you?”
Ali looked over and saw a stand of birch trees, their white bark reflecting the orange of the sky. While the grove felt inviting, she knew they hadn't passed it on the way to collect wood.
“No, definitely not,” she said. “Let's put our sticks down here and scout a little. It's going to be dark any minute.”
They dropped their bundles at their feet and began to retrace their steps. After a minute or two, Spencer walked back over to the grove of birches as if he had forgotten that they had lost their way.
“Spencer!” Ali called to him. She wondered what it was about that grove that called out to them both. Obviously he was feeling it more strongly than she was, but she was impelled to follow him despite the fact that she knew it wasn't the way to camp.
“Ali,” he said dreamily. “Ali, come with me. Let's just go into those trees and hang out for a bit. Come on, they are so beautiful.”
He walked to her and took her cold hand in his strong, warm guitar player's hand. It felt so good that she didn't complain when he led her into the stand of glowing birches. They stopped, still holding hands, and stood there for so long that the sky had turned midnight blue before Ali noticed that the glowing bark was reflecting the white of the full moon now. Adrenaline flowed into her veins for a moment, but soon dissipated in the sense of peace and calm that the grove seemed to emanate.
“Ali,” Spencer said softly, turning to face her.
“Can I kiss you?”
He didn't wait for an answer, just grabbed Ali in his arms and started kissing her with his full lips. Ali had never been kissed like that before, though she had had one serious boyfriend in high school. She was melting into Spencer's embrace, and he into hers. Before they knew it, they were lying on the ground making out in the fallen leaves. It seemed like hours, but it was hard to tell now that the sun was down. Time was stolen away as Ali and Spencer held each other, snuggled together as close as possible, locked in an intense embrace. Somehow, they must have drifted off to sleep there, because the next thing Ali knew, it was cold and dark and something was crunching through the fallen leaves nearby.
She shook Spencer, who groggily came to. He heard the sound of the footsteps, too, grabbing her more tightly in fear. Ali tried to get up, but it was like her whole body had fallen asleep.
“Spencer, we have to get up,” she whispered.
“I can't move my legs,” he said quietly. “Maybe that's just a deer, or something. Just be quiet. It will pass.”
Ali struggled to move, but found that her legs were tightly bound. She was able to finally move her hand to her legs and felt a somewhat removed jolt of adrenaline as she realized that there were vines wrapped tightly around them. With intense effort, she reached over to Spencer and felt that he, too, was being strangled by the vines. Meanwhile, the footsteps in the dry leaves were increasing, more and more feet seemed to be headed toward their grove from all directions. Just as Ali was about to scream, more vines grew out of the ground and bound her arms to the earth. It took the breath right out of her.
“What's happening Spence?” Ali asked with a shaky voice.
Spencer didn't get a chance to answer because blue lights began to peek out from behind the oddly glowing birch trees, circling them. The footsteps also encroached, slower than the blue flying lights, but more intent. They all stopped in a ring around Spencer and Ali. As she looked at them, she saw tiny faces illuminated by the blue lights and felt a cold, numbing energy filling her being. Behind the blue fairy-like creatures was a circle of tall, hooded figures who began to chant in guttural tones.
Slowly the flying blue-lighted fairies came closer, sucking more and more life out of Ali and Spencer. The vines had encircled them almost entirely, with barely space to see between. Their bodies were still entwined, which was the only thing keeping them sane. Within minutes, everything was dark and all they could hear was the strange chanting and the whispering wind.
“Oh Spirit of the Grove,” a deep voice spoke, “please accept this sacrifice of lovers. Give us the power we desire, and the lovers shall be given unto you. Give us strength, wealth, and influence, and in return we give these lovers to the Kingdom of Fairie. Accept this gift, and grant us the power to rule in this realm.”
A crack of thunder sounded, then everything went silent. Ali and Spencer fell into a dreamworld, or rather a cold nightmare realm of twisting, screaming souls, joining them in their fall. They were never seen or heard from again, despite the search and rescue teams combing the forest for weeks after they did not return to camp that night.
Every year, Lilly and Chad would go out to the end of the Forest Service road and hike in to the area where Ali and Spencer disappeared. On the seventh year anniversary of their disappearance, Chad and Lily brought roses to lay at the old camp, in memory of their friends. It was a particularly stormy day, with leaves swirling in the wind. Though it was only noon, somehow they got off the trail and found themselves in an area they hadn't seen before.
“Lilly, look at that amazing grove of birches,” Chad said. He led her by the hand to the shimmering white-barked trees.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Lilly whispered, unsure why she felt goosebumps rising all over her.
“C'mon, it's so pretty,” Chad said, sounding dazed.
Lilly followed reluctantly, but stopped short at the edge of the grove. Her eyes rested on a strange mound on the forest floor, right in the center of the white trees. At first it looked like a strange pile of leaves, but then she saw that it was a tangle of vines. It was in the exact shape of two people locked in an embrace. She knew instantly who those two people were.
Screaming, Lilly dropped the roses and ran. Chad woke out of his trance at the sound, running after her. In the shadows, the blue lights retreated, disappointed - this time...