Camille escaped, for a time. She stepped out of the back door of her house and onto her family’s wooden porch. Oscar, her brown-and white cat, nudged past her. He pressed against her legs for a moment, looking up with her in silent expectation. She bent her legs to reach down and scratch his head. Pleased, he darted off through the yard and beyond into the woods.
Camille slid the door shut behind her, and the sound of shouting dropped by a few decibels. She didn’t know what her parents were fighting about, this time, and she didn’t want to know. She was tired of knowing or caring why they might be angry at each other this time. She didn’t want to end up somehow taking the blame, again, for their fight, and so she stepped out of the house and into solace.
Solace, to Camille, meant the yard, and the woods where Oscar had fled. She loved the outdoors. Even under the harsh summer sun, where even the grass and tree leaves seemed to be baking in the heat, it meant peace and simplicity to her. She stepped lightly down the wooden steps of the porch, one hand dancing down the bannister, which was cracked and rough, a nest of potential splinters.
She was not dressed for an excursion into the woods, but she didn’t much care. She wore a yellow sundress, the light edges of which shifted in the breeze, and sandals which would do little to protect her feet. The grass of the yard, tall and unkempt and spotted with dandelions, brushed up against her ankles as she walked toward the woods. It tickled her toes, bringing to her lips the first smile of the day.
The dandelions winked up at her in the bright sunlight. She knew they were weeds, and they weren’t supposed to be pretty, but Camille liked them anyway. She knelt for a moment to gather a small handful, which she carried with her as she entered the woods.
The grass of her family’s lawn was untamed, but it was nothing compared to the woods, where the trees grew thick and dense and the undergrowth crowded together into a tight blanket that left little room for walking. It should have been an impenetrable barrier to Camille’s sandal-clad feet, but she knew these woods well, and she knew a path through the tangled ferns and brush.
She knew that, if she went far enough, she would find evidence of humans once more on the other side of the woods. Still, she knew exactly where she was headed, and up until that point, at least, she could maintain the illusion that these woods were untouched by humanity. They were pure, simple, safe nature.
The outdoors made her happy. Here, by comparison to her home life, everything felt blissful and easy. The sound of the birds singing in the trees was infinitely more pleasant than the harsh tones of the music her father liked to play, which her mother made sure he knew she hated. Loudly, and often. It just made her father play the music louder.
Camille craved the simplicity of a bird’s life, flitting through the trees and singing songs, with no parents to yell at her or call her names or blame her for their fighting. She want the life of the snake she caught brief sight of, slithering away from her path, its scales making a hissing sound as it brushed against the leaves of the undergrowth. She didn’t fear it. She had never feared anything in the woods. She envied it instead.
Perhaps she should have feared the snake, and its cold heart, and the implications of what its presence might mean for Oscar, but the thought didn’t occur to her. Oscar had always returned home safe and unmarred before, as had Camille. She smiled at the snake, her second smile of the day, for she was glad to have seen it. Its presence made the woods more interesting. More wild.
At one point on her journey, Camille had to force her way through two bushes which had grown tight together, their branches knitted together. She picked them carefully apart and held open a space between them as she passed through, not wanting to damage another dress, giving her mother yet another reason to lay her ire upon Camille.
As she released it, one of the branches whipped out in an unexpected direction, drawing a red line on Camille’s arm. Camille gasped in surprise, though after the initial shock, her feeling was one of relief. The scratch did not bleed, which meant it wouldn’t have a chance of staining her dress, and besides, her flesh would heal. Her mother wouldn’t have to pay for a new arm, but she would be upset at having to pay for a new dress.
Her mother cared less for Camille’s injuries than for damaged clothing. That was the way of her life with her mother: if something would heal without cost, especially a cost to Camille’s mother, there was no use worrying about it.
Camille’s destination was a clearing in the woods. It was like a tiny field, surrounded by an almost perfect circle of trees, where soft grass grew instead of dense, prickly undergrowth. Wildflowers, white, blue, violet, and red, grew scattered through the grass. They danced with it in ripples as wind dipped down through the tree branches.
The clearing was too round and too convenient to be natural, but the only sign that someone had ever been here, other than her, was the ring of rocks in the center of the clearing. They were not new. They must have been here for some time, in fact, by the way the plants grew around them.
Camille generally tried to ignore them, because they made her oddly uncomfortable. It wasn’t just that they ruined her illusion of this place being untouched by other humans, either. There was something that felt off about them, in the same way that a whiff of something malodorous made her wrinkle her nose even if she couldn’t quite identify its source.
Today, though, with thoughts of her mother’s anger in her head, should Camille stain her dress by lying down in the grass, Camille brushed off one of the stones at sat upon it. Perhaps, by pure happenstance, this arrangement had come about naturally. It could just be a part of the nature that Camille respected and adored, and the peace she longed for.
“Nature is not peaceful.”
Camille jumped. She jerked upright, twisting to look behind her, and in doing so, she slid from the stone onto the ground. Her knees struck the earth hard, causing her to wince with the pain.
“Nature isn’t easy, either.”
Camille scrambled to her feet. A man stood in front of her. His wild, sand-colored hair stood out from his head in clumps. He had given more care to his beard, which was woven into a tight braid that reached nearly to his sternum. A robe of some rough, tan fabric wrapped around his body, though it was a light, tattered garment. In places, holes exposed his flesh, which might have been pale but was too stained by dirt and grime to be sure. Something dangled from a rope on his neck, though whatever it was, it hid behind his robes.
“Who are you?” Camille said. She hadn’t even heard him approach. Had she been so absorbed in her own thoughts?
“That doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t like you.”
“I… what?” Camille said. She stepped back away from him, disconcerted. He stood between her and the path she knew out of the clearing.
“I said I don’t like you.” His lips curled back, exposing yellow teeth.
Yellow, like his eyes. They were not human eyes. Camille shivered.
“I don’t even know who you are,” Camille said. “How can you dislike me?”
“Because I know you,” the man said. “I know your kind. People who think they have it so hard, when really they live the easiest lives imaginable.”
“My life isn’t easy,” Camille said defensively. This man frightened her. She looked about, hoping for a stick or anything at all with which she could defend herself. She would have to make it to the edge of the clearing, for that. She wondered if she could outrun him.
“Oh, it is,” the man said. His eyes had a wide, crazed look of excited expectation. “I’ve come to show you just how easy it has been.”
“I don’t understand!” Camille shouted. “Just stay away from me.”
The man laughed. Camille found herself close to tears. The sense of wrongness that she’d always felt from the stones radiated from this man as well. He terrified her. She watched his every move, feeling like a frightened prey animal a predator had decided to toy with before eating.
He reached into his robe, where it dipped low across his chest, exposing the hair of his chest. From inside he pulled out the object that hung around his neck. It looked foreign to her, at first: a flattened cylinder of wood, with a line around one end. The robe from which it hung was braided around it. He grabbed both ends, and the line split, causing recognition to dawn within Camille.
A knife. A knife, in a sheath. The blade was jagged and chipped and seemed to be made not of metal, but scorched wood. Camille screamed. She turned to run, though she didn’t know where she would go. She hadn’t explored the woods as they moved further out from her house. She only knew well the path to get here.
She heard the man’s footsteps behind her, rapid and assured. She didn’t run fast or gracefully in her sandals. The grass caught in them and between her toes, slowing her. She barely made it past the other side of the circle of rocks before something hit her just below her shoulder blades, driving her to the ground. She hit hard, hands held out before her, palms digging trenches in the earth.
She twisted her neck, trying to look up at him. The whole of his weight bore down on her. His feet pressed into her back, crushing the air from her lungs. She brought her hands beneath her shoulders, trying to push herself upward. Her toes clawed at the ground.
He stepped off of her back and she felt herself rising. He grabbed her hair, yanking her upward. She screamed, clawing at the hand that gripped her. “Help! Please. Oh my god. Please help me.”
“I am helping you,” he said. “In a way.” He cackled. “Mostly not, though, I suppose.”
On her knees, now, Camille tried to bring her feet beneath her. She got no chance. He reached around with the hand that held the knife, the one not tangled in her hair. She watched it with wide-eyed terror, her throat and tongue now frozen in terror and denial. She felt the knife enter her, just below her sternum. He jerked it downward, opening her up. She felt herself falling out of herself, and, in the haze of pain, everything went dark.