Forest of Children by Shirley Pesto
Overcast, yet warm, it was a perfect day to be outside. It had rained for two previous weekends and it seemed like all of the neighborhood kids were sent out of their homes. Charlie was put in charge of his little sister, Gwen. They had a good sibling relationship, but being sixteen, having the responsibility of taking care of his twelve year old sister was kind of a drag. His main goal for the weekend was to try and get some alone time with his girlfriend, Sue. He came up with an idea to hopefully satisfy both being alone with his girlfriend and babysitting his sister. The idea was to have a scavenger hunt in the woods. He wrote up a quick list before he left the house.
Most of the kids from the area gathered downtown where there was the general shop, gas station, feed store, and diner. Sitting in the town center, the air was oddly still—almost stifling. Nobody was doing anything productive. Even the sounds of clicking marbles, bouncing balls, and shuffling feet sounded bored. Some of the kids were just lying on their backs with their forearms or hats over their eyes. Charlie knew if he spoke loudly enough about his scavenger hunt idea, some of the others would overhear and want to be involved.
“All right. Here are the rules of the game…” Charlie stated with no intention of finishing the sentence.
Just as he predicted, he felt tugging at his pant legs and heard pleading from the other kids to be able to play. Charlie made a big show of saying that there were only so many people that could come along. Of course he ended up saying that the exact amount of people present was the maximum number. The kids were all relieved. Sue watched and smirked at her boyfriend’s ability to enamor all of them. He gave everybody a five minute warning before they were to leave and walk to the open field near the edge of the woods.
Gwen dipped back into her house to get some items to put into her backpack, only to be verbally ushered out by her mother. She bolted out the screen door, which slammed and bounced three times before it rested closed. Once she made it back downtown, she saw that they all had already started on their way. The dust from the unpaved road was kicked up around them. The kids were in the front and Charlie and Sue walked slowly in the back of the group. They strolled with their hands in each other’s back pockets. Gwen’s backpack bounced as she jogged to catch up with them. She situated herself off to the side of everybody else. Together, they tromped over to the open field and stood in a large circle.
“Okay, pair up!” Charlie commanded.
There was a red rover type of shuffle that resulted in six inseparable pairs, and Gwen. She looked left and right and realized there was an odd number of them. Surmising that neither her brother and his girlfriend, nor any of the other pairs, wanted her to tag along with them, Gwen decided to remain solitary. She liked it better that way anyway.
Still standing in a circle, each pair took turns using a pencil and yellow notepad Gwen brought to diligently copy the scavenger hunt list. By the time the pencil and notepad made it back to her, the pencil tip was broken and the notepad had been dropped in a puddle. All the pages were soaked.
Charlie noticed this and said consolingly, “Here, you can just use my list.”
Gwen attempted to dry off the puddle-soaked notepad on her jeans. She squatted down to put both the notepad and the broken pencil back in her backpack. Still squatting, she reached up to take the folded paper that Charlie offered her. She felt special to get to use her brother’s original list, written on white binder paper with a blue ballpoint pen. His handwriting was so neat. Their mother always praised him for it. She looked down at the paper and then smiled at her brother. He smiled back at her.
Sue reached over and hooked Charlie in for a big hug, which garnered his full attention. Contrasting from the stale climate at the town center, a gust of wind blew by the field and the tall grass tapped the hips of the shorter kids and the thighs of the taller ones. Charlie’s unbuttoned blue flannel shirt flew up and showed his blaring white undershirt and Sue’s arms wrapped around his thin frame as she hugged him.
Charlie cupped his hands around his mouth and raised his voice so they could all hear. “Each list item is worth one point. There will be a bonus point awarded to the team that can find the prettiest item. Sue will be the judge of that. So take your time collecting these things. We’ll meet back here in one hour—not a minute earlier, got it? Ready? Go!” He almost lost his footing as Sue playfully jumped on his back.
Gwen took a sip from her water canteen. As she pivoted to put on her backpack, she saw her brother and his girlfriend sink down into the tall grass, presumably to roll around with each other.
“…and probably with the rodents and the ticks, too,” Gwen said to herself with an empathetic grimace on her face. She silently wished them good luck and hustled, on her own, into the thick of the woods. She sat crosslegged on a large rock to go over the scavenger hunt list. It was a simple list, but it was enough to keep busy for about an hour if she tried. The items were:
purple flower petal
smooth river stone
She retrieved all the items within fifteen minutes but loved the thought of forty-five more minutes alone in the woods. As much as she appreciated her brother obliging their mother’s wishes to take care of her, she really preferred to be alone.
Gwen rested her thumbs in her backpack straps as she took a deep breath and exhaled. She looked upward and smiled at the beauty created by the light peeking through the tops of the tall trees. Still smiling, she closed her eyes to feel the daylight on her skin. Not knowing how long she was standing there, she finally brought her face back down to face forward.
She opened her eyes and noticed a single curious looking tree. It didn’t look like any of the other trees in the clearing. The leaves were round and dark green. Bunches of red berries, that were shaped like beans, hung from the branches. It wasn’t a tall tree, it was just a little shorter than she was.
She checked her backpack to see the status of the yellow notepad that had been soaked in puddle water earlier. If it was dry enough, maybe she could make a rubbing of one of the leaves. After inspection, the pad itself wasn’t fully dry, but there was a triangle portion of it that had never gotten completely immersed in the puddle. She ripped off a sheet and tore away at it until it was only the dry portion of the paper remaining. Then she chipped away at the broken pencil with her pocket knife to expose a good piece of graphite. With all her supplies ready, she went to collect a sample leaf.
As she approached, the entire tree seemed to brighten in luminance. At the base of it, she spotted a fallen leaf and reached for it. In her periphery, she noticed one of the berries light up from the inside. It vibrated softly. The same happened with the other berries until one of them fell to the ground and rolled to her foot. Gwen squatted down to get a closer look. She had never seen a berry like this before. She picked it up and a whole new kind of brilliance shone from inside of its bean shaped flesh. Without explanation, she put it in her mouth and swallowed it.
After the kids ensured a full hour had passed, they all returned to the tall grass area of the field, except for Gwen. Knowing that his sister liked to be on her own, Charlie didn’t question her whereabouts for the time being. They took turns showing off their scavenger hunt findings. Sue surveyed the bounty and chose one of the seeds as the prettiest item. She awarded the pair that retrieved the pretty seed with the bonus point, which made them the winner. The prizes were two flower crowns that were hastily threaded together with wildflowers and grass. A thirty second crowning ceremony ensued and Charlie dubbed the winning pair “Royalty of the Woods” for the rest of the day. The neighborhood kids weren’t too impressed by the prizes but the prize givers didn’t seem to care and officially ended the game.
“Okay, time to get outta here!” They playfully roared and put their hands up like claws as they shooed the kids away and told them all to go home.
The kids feigned terror and screamed with delight all the way down the road toward the town until Charlie and Sue couldn’t hear or see them anymore.
Charlie looked toward the trees and expressed concern that Gwen hadn’t returned yet.
“I’m going to wait around for her,” he proclaimed.
Sue gave him a goodbye kiss on the cheek. “I have to get going. It’s my turn to make dinner tonight. Say ‘bye’ to Gwen for me.”
He watched Sue walk down the road until she disappeared beyond the horizon.
Some time passed and Charlie decided to walk into the woods in search of his sister. He was able to track where she had been. This wasn’t the first time he tracked her in the woods; sometimes they would track each other as a game. She was good at leaving tracks, but this time she was nowhere to be found. After about fifteen minutes, he came across a clearing where he spotted her backpack. It was set down near two curious looking trees. They didn’t look like any other trees in the clearing. They were small trees that had round, dark green leaves. Both trees had clusters of berries shaped like beans. One of the trees had red berries and the other had yellow berries.
Charlie motioned to pick up the backpack. The tree with the yellow berries illuminated and a solitary berry fell to the ground. The oblong berry rolled toward his foot and only stopped when it tapped the tip of his shoe. He bent down to inspect it and picked it up. Its brilliant yellow inner light reflected off his pupils as he marveled at it between his two fingers. Before he realized what he was doing, he popped it into his mouth and swallowed.
That evening, the sun set early. A small clearing in the middle of the forest remained illuminated amidst the darkness. The light came from three small trees that each had one lit up berry. One red, one yellow, and one blue.