Excerpt: Servants of the Living Forest

The rusted blue van trundled down the county road, the tall ash and firs at its sides casting long shadows over it as its driver navigated the myriad hairpin turns.

Cameron gripped the wheel firmly, nervous about the day and alert for any disturbing sounds the old van might suddenly decide to start making. It was a terrible and embarrassing vehicle, but she wanted this weekend more than anything else.

She glanced at her girlfriend of eight months, sitting contentedly next to her. Jocelyn was wonderful and very beautiful, with dark olive skin and long, gold-brown hair tied back in a sporty ponytail. The trip had been her idea, and while not Cameron’s first choice of activities, she was more than ready to attempt it for Jocelyn.

Jocelyn caught Cameron looking at her and smiled playfully. She loved the admiring way Cameron looked at her, like she was someone special, like a model, when most of the time she just felt dumb and silly. It wasn’t the only reason Jocelyn had pursued her. She was impossibly sweet and as cute as a button, with bushy chestnut curls like those of a doll.

“You were looking at me again,” she said over the van’s insistent rumble and the teen pop playing softly from the radio.

Cameron blushed, looked away. “Sorry. I should probably be, you know, watching the road.”

“I love it!” Jocelyn said. She giggled. “This is so exciting! It’s our first big thing together. It’s like we’re proper grown-ups or something. Right?”

“Yeah,” Cameron said. She was bookish and awkward by nature, but for Jocelyn, she tried to be more open. It was an ongoing effort. “We’re going to remember this forever.”

Cameron could feel the sweat on her lip and tugged at her yellow polo, wishing the van had air-conditioning. Jocelyn, in a bright green tank top, didn’t seem bothered. She hoped it was because Jocelyn just cared about her that much and not because she didn’t have her own means of transportation.

“I should’ve rented a car.”

“Oh, you! This van is the real deal,” Jocelyn said. “There’s lots of space in the back, if you know what I mean.”

Cameron snickered, but was too bashful to add anything else. She glanced at the odometer, then looked ahead, and worried.

“I think we missed the turn,” she said. She grabbed the printouts wedged under her seat, fussed through the pages. “Yeah, we should have seen it by now.”

“We passed a service station not too long ago,” Jocelyn said, pointing behind her. “Why don’t we go back and ask for directions? Someone’ll know.”

“That’s a good idea.”

Cameron turned the van on the narrow road and headed in the opposite direction. After a while, they found the rustic garage nestled among the verdant trees. The white paint of the rectangular shop had mostly peeled away, revealing soggy gray wood. They parked in the gravel lot, large enough to almost fit two more vehicles, and stepped out.

Behind the shop’s counter, a rotund man looked up from his comic book, a silver-age adventure yellowing at the fringes, and grinned at the sight of the cute girls in small shorts approaching his door.

“AUGH!” he groaned and gazed upward. “Thank, Odin!”

Cameron and Jocelyn entered with a squeak of the door. He set down the comic and with some effort, hefted himself from his seat, still grinning widely.

“Hi,” Cameron said.

“Hello there, ladies,” he said. “How can I help you?”

“We’re looking for Zarindast Road. Can you help us?”

He leaned in. “You two, you’re going into the woods alone?”

“Yep!” Jocelyn said and put her arm around Cameron. “My girl here has never been hunting before. She’s only done sports shooting and archery. And I want to show off my skills with a Remington 798.”

“Amen, sister!” he said. “Good fun and good protection, too! Hey, you never know what kind of weirdoes are out there.” He leaned back. “You wanna keep going the way you’re going, about another four or five miles. And go slow, ’cause that turn’s hard to spot among the trees and whatnot, but it’s there.”

“Thank you,” Cameron said with a sheepish half-smile.

Jocelyn waved and smiled pleasantly as they left. At the door, Cameron noticed a symbol cut deep into the dusty white wall. It had three vertical lines, a straight center line with the two at its sides curling away at the top, all drawn over a circle. And jagged, as though it had been clawed into the paint.

She glanced back as the door closed behind her. The shop owner nodded stiffly, smiling like he had won an election.

They jumped into the squeaky van and took off down the road.

Jocelyn giggled, biting her nail. “That was fun!”

“It was scary!” Cameron said. “I can’t believe you told him all that stuff.”

With the service station out of sight, she slowed and searched for the turn into the forest.

“What? That I have a gun?” Jocelyn said.

“There’s that. But also, you know…”

Jocelyn thought, and then she rolled her eyes. “Oh! It bothered you that I told him we’re a couple?” She scoffed. “You’re too uptight, babe. Nobody cares. It’s just us out here.”

“I don’t know.”

“Admit it. You got excited just a little.”

“Yeah, a little,” Cameron mumbled. “Do you really have a rifle?”

Jocelyn laughed. “No! I hate guns. I just looked up a bunch of stuff online to make us sound all tough and formidable. That way, no one’ll even think of messing with us. Not unless they want to take some metal spray in the face. BLAM!”

“That’s really clever. I like that,” Cameron said. “I’m going to use that.”

“Thank you!” Jocelyn squeaked.

As each tenth of a mile ticked on the odometer, Cameron became more alert. Jocelyn joined in, staring at the winding road. Silence pervaded. After a while she sprang up and pointed ahead wildly, her bracelets jingling.

“There it is!” she said. “Right there! Turn! Turn!”

“Okay.”

Cameron made the turn onto the narrow dirt road, slowing conspicuously. The van rocked and bounced along the earthen path as the trees drew even nearer to them. She instantly became twice as nervous. She had never been so far from the city, and had certainly never ventured into the wilderness. The risk of looking like a fool in front of her girlfriend had just increased tenfold.

“I’m really excited,” she volunteered, struggling to stay upbeat. “I’ve never slept in a cabin in the woods before.”

“I hope it’s okay,” Jocelyn said. “I forgot my stepdad even had a cabin.”

“It was cool of him to let us have it for the weekend.”

“I think he just wants to show how supportive he is, you know?” Jocelyn said. “He’s like that.”

“We’ll be all alone,” Cameron said smoothly.

“Yeah, we will!”

They laughed giddily, their elation mutual. And then Jocelyn put her hand on Cameron’s bare leg and felt along her thigh. Cameron swooned, her heart racing and her grip tightening on the steering wheel.

“Joey! I’m driving,” she said, not wanting the moment to end.

Jocelyn giggled wickedly. It was Cameron’s favorite sound. “Sorry,” she said, grinning as she removed her hand. “I couldn’t help myself.”

Cameron took a breath, calmed. “You know, we don’t have to, like, do anything this weekend. I mean, it doesn’t have to be like that,” she said. “We can just take it easy and relax, and stuff.”

She glanced at Jocelyn. After a moment, Jocelyn leaned in closely. “Once I get you in that cabin, I am going to rip off your clothes and lick every part of you twice, starting with your toes and working my way up to your ears. Then, I’m going to work my way back down very, very slowly. And that’s just one of the things I’m going to do to you with my tongue. I am going to take you so hard your mind will break!”

Cameron, already breathing hard, suddenly shuddered and pressed the accelerator. The van whirred as it rapidly charged ahead. She gasped and pushed hard on the brake, making them lunge in their seats.

“Sorry! Oh, God! Sorry!” she said quickly as the thrumming vehicle drove onward.

Jocelyn sat back, worry and regret flashing across her face equally. “It’s okay,” she said. “Hey, um, I’m not going too fast for you, am I?”

“No!” Cameron said, a half-truth. Her heart was still racing madly. “No.”

“Good,” Jocelyn chirped. She clapped her hands. “So! After we unload all of our stuff, I am going to take you to the lake, and we’ll go swimming together. And tomorrow we’ll go on a hike, just the two of us! We’ll see bunnies and squirrels and chickadees, and maybe, just maybe… chipmunks!”

“I like that idea very much,” Cameron said. “I’ll make us lunch.”

They sat for a moment in silence.

“Do you want to hear what I’m going to do to you with my little finger?” Jocelyn said.

Cameron smiled, blushing even more brightly. “I do,” she said. “But then we might crash.”

For a long while they simply listened to music, enjoying each other’s company and their tranquil surroundings.

Cameron marveled at the vast green sameness around her, interrupted by stripes of black-brown. The late morning light was broken by the dense multitude of trees, creating an uneven layering of brightness and shade. She glanced at the clock and was shocked to find that after almost an hour they weren’t even twenty miles into the woods yet. She wondered if they were lost, certain she had screwed up somewhere and hoping she hadn’t already disappointed Jocelyn by being herself.

She glanced to her left. Her eyes went wide then, and she looked out the window fully. For a moment, she thought she had seen something large and dark moving behind one of the nearby trees. But there was nothing.

“I see it!” Jocelyn announced. “Our home away from home!”

Cameron, no less shaken, peered through the glare shining against the windshield and slowed the van to a stop.

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