THE QUAKING ASPEN
Mitch skidded between two trees. A fox lunged for his throat. The bottle he swung came down hard and heavy on the beast’s skull, collapsing the roof of its head til its eyes rolled white and its limbs fell slack, pretzeled in a heap of fur and bone. Another came for him, and another, and another, and he was getting good at fending them off with his bottle of a sword until he realized he wasn’t moving forward—they wouldn’t let him move forward—so he feinted and let the fox-wolf sink its teeth in his shoulder. It hurt, but he hurt all over already; he was a walking, talking question on an unpublished version of the MCAT, and as soon as the animal tore free a small chunk of Mitch-meat he took the energy he would’ve used to scream and pumped it into his legs.
He kept running.
The army of monoculate foxes pursued him through a cavalcade of bleeding trees. His breath made no sound. His feet did, just barely, the hush-hush-hush of boots on grass an echoing whisper of noise distilled to its barest bones; the tha-tha-thump of galloping paws through dirt a ghost at once right on his heels and miles behind. He had no idea where to go. Where to run. Some primitive part of him knew that even if he had a map and compass he wouldn’t find where he needed to be—the compass would spin and spin until the needle broke; the map would shift and change upon every second glance. There was a clear path through the trees, but it would lead only where Pando wanted him to go—either to his death, or back to the fence—and so he sliced through the bushes, snagging on roots that reached out to trip him and branches that lurched down to slap him. He emerged on a hilly patch desperate to call itself a clearing with a face cat-scratched to hell and hair blown wild, threaded with leaves.
The trees. There was something about the trees that made liquid nitrogen of his blood. They stood in a straight line, like a platoon of soldiers mid-drill, too perfectly arranged to be a work of nature and too ominous to be a construct of man. He slowed his approach, only partially aware the beasts on his tail had halted their pursuit.
Mitch moved to side-step between two aspens. Cautious. Careful. His stomach crawled down to his feet. His heart slithered up to his throat. Something was wrong. Something was very w—
Hands launched at him from within the bark, stretching it like latex, clawing at the air in wild thrashes. Mitch fell, choking on his breath. Clambered back, back, back. Faces pressed against the wood-turned-rubber, mouths yawning wide, the unbreakable barrier so thin he could count teeth as they pushed against the impossibly pliable trunks. Air-starved, bottom-lunged gasps assaulted him from every angle, and he looked on in horror as the trees, all the trees, erupted with the forms of men struggling against them from the inside, strangling, sobbing, seizing—banging at the bark—whipping their heads—trying to climb—trying to move—trying to breathe.
There was an ear-ringing pause as their convulsions stilled. The calm before the storm. The silence before the crash. The rise before the fall.
And then, all at once, they screamed.
About the Book
One year after the death of his daughter, Mitch thought a forest fire lookout tower would be the perfect place to drown his sorrows in scotch. But a bond blossoms via radio with fellow fire-spotter, Sid Doyle, and the burden of his self-destructive despair begins to lighten—at least, until the trees start talking.
Something sinister lurks in the aspens. As he is forced to relive past nightmares and suffer fits of violent amnesia, the woods threaten to reveal a dark secret Mitch is desperate to hide. Trapped in a forest where reality and illusion blur, he must fight not only for his sanity, but for his final chance at redemption—before the trees drive him to a madness from which there will be no return.