Her Mother’s Girl
by Tom Vaine
The little wood at the back of the school property seemed bigger on the inside than it looked. Sadie hadn’t even really thought that it would hide her when she’d run into it. Now, her heart still racing, she found the trees seemed to go on in every direction, the thick undergrowth making it impossible to tell where she’d come from.
She pushed forward, determined to find her way out. She had always thought the woods looked picturesque, and her school prided itself on being able to keep a green space in the middle of town. She looked about herself. These trees weren’t pretty. They were dirty and sticky with sap, and she found she hated them a little bit.
Hated them, and maybe herself too. She shouldn’t have to be there. She shouldn’t have to be afraid of Sheena and her friends; her mom wouldn’t have been. All Sadie had wanted was to show off her new jacket. It was a really nice pattern — yellow and purple, which she loved — but, best of all, when she’d seen it, she knew she’d be the only girl at her middle school with one like it.
* * *
Everyone in class that morning thought it was great. Unfortunately, so did Sheena. She’d waited patiently, until lunch, to make her move.
“Where’d you get it?” Sadie hadn’t seen where Sheena had come from, but she could feel her friends melting away as she turned to face her.
“My mom gave it to me last night, before she left to go on tour. Isn’t it great?” Sadie gave a nervous laugh, looking over her shoulder as she did it.
“Yeah.” Sheena’s friends began to materialize, one by one.
Sheena took a step forward. “I want it, bitch.” It didn’t even matter that Sheena had hesitated just before she swore. Sadie took a step back.
That was all it took. The shove that hit her back was sharp, and she fell into the center of the ring. Her mother had told her to stand her ground no matter what, but her mom wasn’t there, and Sadie had never been given Army training. Her fists froze at her side and the hands reaching for her took hold of her shirt and arms, the fingers starting to tangle in her hair.
Her panic came as a sudden thrashing, toppling another girl to the ground, but she was up again in a second. She’d run as fast as she could, the pack a few howling steps behind, and she was heading for the first thing that looked like it might hold them off. The gang would have caught her if they’d been as hungry as she was scared, but the trees were too much work. It took Sheena’s example to send them into the woods after her.
* * *
Sadie looked down at her jacket. It was dirty and a bit scratched, but nothing too bad, nothing that couldn’t be fixed at home. If she could just figure out how to get back out of the trees, everything might still be okay.
The undergrowth was becoming thicker. Sadie put her hands in front of her face to keep the branches from swatting her, failing to notice the root around her foot until it tripped her. She pitched forward, twigs and nettles scraping her sleeves as she fell, a stabbing pain pounding into her big toe. Her ankle twisted as it came out from under the root, and she tumbled down a steep incline.
The ground where she landed was covered in dirty leaves and broken branches and by a thick layer of webbing that covered every surface she could see. The little hollow was caked in the stuff, spreading from beneath where she’d landed outward and up. Sadie glanced at it for a moment but couldn’t focus, the pain in her foot dragging her back.
Her toe was throbbing and wet, and she knew it was bleeding before she looked at it. Whatever her foot had caught on the side of that root, it had punctured her toe and drawn a thin stream of crimson onto her shoe. It hurt, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as her jacket.
The little coat was ruined. Sadie held up the torn sleeves of her jacket, the cuffs stupidly tying the tatters to her arms. A nettle branch had worked its way up into the lining around the zipper and was poking her in the side.
It was too much. All she’d wanted was to show it off a little. It wasn’t fair that Sheena should treat someone else that way. It was even worse that she still felt too weak to defend herself if the other girls showed up.
Her tears felt greasy and made her feel stupid, but Sadie couldn’t stop them. She sat crying for several minutes, fighting hard to keep quiet, until she saw the eyes watching her.
They were old eyes, dark and smooth, and she could feel them moving over her like hundreds of little insect legs. The call for help slipped out involuntarily.
The shadow in the tree twitched, its arms and legs all seeming to stretch outwards at once from a dark center.
Sadie watched as something that looked very much like her mother picked its way out of the tree hollow and crept towards the ground. It had her mother’s high cheekbones, her sure and callused fingers, but Sadie had never seen her mother’s hair so wild, had never seen her crawl. The eyes shone as it reached the ground.
“Why are you crying, my love?” It pulled itself across the webs, its fingers and toes making little dimples wherever they fell. Sadie couldn’t look away.
“I shouldn’t be talking to you. You aren’t my mom.”
“No?” It seemed hurt. Soundlessly, it drew nearer and Sadie realized she was shaking.
“No, ” she whispered.
It was beside her now, its fingers tracing the lines of her arms, its hair tickling her face. “Aren’t I? You asked for me, and I came. What made you call me, sweetheart?” It breathed the scent of her skin.
The tears started sliding down Sadie’s face again. The presence beside her was cold, and she had to fight the urge to lean in. It moved forward instead, the fingers clamping with gentle firmness on her shoulders, the legs wrapping around her torso. Sadie felt its breath draw closer, and her body relented. “My jacket. I wrecked it. I wanted to show it off, but Sheena and her friends chased me and now it’s ripped.” It paused, the fingers loosening ever so slightly.
“Did they follow you in here, lovely? Did you bring them to me, too?” The hand stroked her chin, turning her face to meet its own.
“I couldn’t get away. I think they stopped, but I’m not sure.” She paused, seeing now the horrible thought that hung in the black of its eyes. “Can you help me? Can you make it so they’ll leave me alone?”
It smiled hungrily. “I’d love to, darling.” Then it let go, sliding back across the webs and up towards the lip of the little concave. “Show them to me.” It disappeared behind a tree and, as if on cue, Sadie heard a shout behind her.
Her foot still hurt, but Sadie struggled up and limped to the edge of the pit. The ledge was deep and the spider webs made everything repulsive. She looked around herself and, finding a solid looking tree limb that wasn’t too objectionable, used it to hoist herself up and over the rim.
Pulling the stick up with her, Sadie pointed herself in the direction of the shouting. The voice in the trees seemed not to hear her approach, and she came quite close to it before she realized that it, too, was crying. Carefully, she peeked through the branches.
Sheena was standing all alone in a little clearing, her clothes and face as filthy as Sadie’s. By now she was only mumbling, talking about the other girls.
Somewhere above her, Sadie felt a shivering in the trees. She stepped into the clearing.
Sheena turned, but whatever the bully had planned to say died on her lips. The two stared at each other for a moment, but Sadie noticed the way the branches shifted noiselessly above Sheena’s head.
“They left you in here.”
“No” — Sheena shook her head — “I told them to go.”
“No. They left you. They only like watching you when you’re mean to other people. They think you’re a joke, really; they use you like they use everybody else.” She was a little surprised she hadn’t realized this before. Sheena’s lip quivered.
The shadow dropped from the tree above. Sadie only saw it because of where she stood; Sheena had no idea until it was on top of her. The thing wrapped itself around her, bearing her to the ground. Sadie watched the dark eyes flash, saw the pincers force their way out from behind dark lips. Sheena yelped once before the hands wrapped around her mouth and throat, exposing her neck.
It was so easy to watch, just as the other girls did. To see someone’s pain without getting involved. It was exactly the sort of thing her mom had joined the Army to stop.
Sadie wasn’t sure how she could move so quickly. Her foot still ached, but she raised her stick high and charged. As hard as she could, she swung it down, connecting with the back of the creature’s skull. It shrieked and rolled over, snapping at the dried leaves, but Sadie was already past it, hauling Sheena to her feet. She held Sheena’s wrist and both girls started running through the brush.
The branches whipped at her face, but Sadie didn’t care. Behind her, the scrabbling in the bushes stopped, and she could picture the thing shaped like her mother crawling to its knees, hissing as it watched them run. There was a howling behind them. It shivered them so deeply that Sadie nearly fell. She heard the branches behind her start to shake and she knew it was running above them, long limbs speeding it forward, yellow teeth clacking in anticipation. She felt the tears on her face again. She refused to look back, even when she could smell its breath.
The edge of the trees came suddenly and both girls hurtled headlong out of the undergrowth and across the grass. They fell forward, skidding, and for a few moments neither moved.
Eventually Sadie got up. The woods were quiet, but she could still feel those eyes. The creature was just beyond her sight, apparently unable or unwilling to leave the trees. Sadie felt it retreating even as her breathing slowed.
Carefully, Sheena stood beside her. “What was that?”
“I don’t know. It said it was my mom.” She turned and the other girl stared, uncomprehendingly.
“Did you just say that was your mom? I think it wanted to eat me!”
“I think it was going eat both of us.”
“We’ve got to tell somebody.” Sheena began to ramble, the shock of their experience gripping her. “I’m going tell somebody. I’m going tell them about it and all that stuff you said.” Her words cut out when Sadie punched her firmly in mouth, toppling her over.
Sadie gave Sheena a grim stare. “Shut up. It doesn’t matter if you’re scared, and it doesn’t matter that your friends left you in the woods. You’re a jerk, and I should have punched you way before now. Don’t talk to me again. Don’t look at me, ever again. Don’t even think about telling anyone about this or, next time, I’ll leave you in there.” She stared a moment longer, until she saw her words sink in.
Sadie’s foot was throbbing again, but she didn’t care if she cried a little because of it. She limped back to the school doors.
Copyright © 2017 by Tom Vaine