Short Story: A Night in Gulch Falls

Written August 2015. Elements Co-Created by Mari Harutunian, Erika Karlin, and Alexa Marquis.

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Benton Warwick had always been wary of the Forest of the Fey. Even as a small child, when his friends had danced at the edges of that strange and dangerous abyss, careless smiles upon their countenance,  he had shied away, his spine alight with tingly fear. That had kept him alive, ultimately- he was one of the half of his class from school which had survived to the ripe age of sixteen. Almost every kid, at some point, deluded themselves into thinking they could survive the woods beyond their safe, walled town, and many of their remains found their way back, often reorganized in creative ways. Benton had never been in the habit of deluding himself. He knew that he would never survive his trip. But, for Thylia, he had to try.

It had been a cold winters day when she had wandered off into forest, her normal pragmatism worn away by a hot fever. Benton had been in the shower, cooling off after a day split between the schoolhouse and the mill, and had thought nothing of the shouts he heard from the streets. After all, the people of Gulch Falls tended to get particularly irritable during the colder months. To his horror, he would soon discover it had been his own sister who had been the source of the shouting, breaking past the shocked locals to wander into the forest.

A miserable Benton would then go through all the stages of grief in the following months, his days marked by horror and foreboding. He had been certain that any day the scouts would call him out to point out her severed head, arranged with several daisies at the edge of the Forest. But many years later, there had been no proof of her death, and a haunted Benton decided his only course of action was to investigate the very slim possibility of her life.

So now he stood, soggy and grim, at the only gate of Gulch Falls, solemn scouts in front of him, sobbing parents behind him, and a heavy pack of necessary goods on his backpack.

“Are you sure about this, Benny?” His mother asked him between broken sobs. Benton choked down a sob of his own. He didn’t feel good about this, and he wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, but for some reason he just knew this was what he had to do, right or not.

“He’s made up his mind, Keryn.” His father said, his voice hoarse. “The question is, are you certain about leaving in such bad weather?”

Benton locked eyes with his father, and they exchanged sorrow. “The rain is going to be the least of my problems.”

His father nodded stiffly, and took a step backwards as Benton turned to the scouts. “This is where we must leave you.” They told him. “Good luck out there.”

Benton nodded, though he felt like bursting into raucous laughter. There wouldn’t be a chance of luck, once he crossed into those damned trees. But nevertheless, he gave the scout a respectful nod, and turned to give his parents a few final hugs. Tearing himself away from this painfully numb scene, Benton returned to gaze at the forest once more. Cracking his neck, Benton took a deep breath, and broke into a sprint, leaping under the shade of the trees and not looking back.

The forest was just as Benton had expected- healthy looking in every technical way, but with an inherent feeling of wrongness weighing down the air. There were no animals or living things of any sort, and the towering oaks hid all but a tiny bit of light from Benton’s view. And then there was the feeling- the feeling of being watched.

Benton wasn’t sure how long he ran for- it wasn’t like he was running to a particular place. But eventually, when it felt right to halt and conserve his energy, he found himself a relatively safe overhang of stone, which he nestled under with the only blanket he had been able to fit into his pack. Though he was 90% sure this would be the part where he died, Benton nevertheless allowed himself to doze off into a light slumber.

When Benton woke to realize a gnarled hand was dragging him through the woods, his first reaction was disinterest. He had expected this, after all. But as his foggy mind began to clear, a process sped by him hitting his head on a log lightly, fear kicked in. Scrambling wildly, Benton’s hand grabbed around the branch of a low tree, which he held onto and struggled for footing. As he found it, and tried feebly to stand, the strange being turned, confused. On a whim, Benton abandoned attempting to get to his feet, instead leaning into his kidnapper so he knocked the light monster over. His head cleared by pain, Benton rolled away from the other body and got to his feet shakily. His blood ran cold when he caught sight of the monster- a boy who looked to be about seven, except for the snapping jaws full of razor sharp teeth which presided in his mouth- and in the holes where his eyes should’ve been. Fear spiked, and Benton took off into the woods.

After only a few minutes, Benton was totally exhausted, and so crumpled to the ground in abject defeat in a cloudy clearing. As he was panting, a buff figure stood over him. Benton was now positive he was going to die.

“Do not worry your ugly little face, young friend.” A strange voice said. “The eye-flosser is gone and I have no desire to harm such an already distasteful person.”

Benton’s vision cleared a bit, and he became aware that he was staring at a bear. A talking bear. “I would be offended but you are a bear.”

“Don’t be silly.” The bear plopped to the ground as Benton pulled himself upwards. “I am no ordinary bear.”

“Well, I assumed.” Benton frowned. “You’re a talking bear.”

“No.” The bear shook its head earnestly. “I am an imaginary talking ghost bear, and my name is Tel.”

Benton regarded the imaginary talking ghost bear blankly. “What?”

The imaginary talking ghost bear sighed. “Well, Tel is short for Telemachus, famed Greek hero, and also Telephone, like the famed Lady Gaga song–”

“Not that.” Benton interrupted. “What in God’s name is an imaginary talking ghost bear?”

“Oh.” Tel looked miffed. “Let me break it down for your feeble bear. There was once a little girl who wandered into the forest, and her imaginary friend was a bear named Tel. Now, since this is the forest where anything is possible, the bear became a living, breathing, talking being- but then the girl’s dreams died, as did she, and so he became technically dead.”

“You’re dead?” Benton repeated.

“Absolutely.” Confirmed Tel. “A tunnel of light formed in the sky and everything. But I was distracted by a shiny object in the clearing beyond and by the time I returned it was gone and I was a ghost.”

“Okay.” Benton nodded slowly, trying to process. “So… aren’t you going to try to kill me.”

“Nah.” The bear yawned. “I find hideous things endearing and follow them around until they inevitably die.”

“That’s it.” Benton got to his feet, grinding his teeth. “I’m out.”

“Wait!” The bear called after him. “Let’s get to know each other first! We can make little structures out of the food in your pack and tell stories about them.”

Benton stopped momentarily, confused, as Tel laughed.

“Sorry.” The imaginary talking bear ghost told him. “You wouldn’t get that reference.”

Shrugging, Benton turned away and began jogging lightly away. To his surprise, he noticed the bear was following him.

“Wait up!” He called after him. “I want to stay relevant to the plot!”

Despite Benton’s best attempts to lose Tel, he couldn’t- even after diving into a waterfall to escape flesh-eating flies, and setting part of the forest on fire to lose some scuttling skulls. Tel stayed with him as he erected his next camp, and the one after that, and before Benton knew it, he was used to Tel’s perplexing banter and useless tendencies.

But it all came to an end one foggy day when Benton was getting some water from a stream while Tel babbled on about how much longer this could go on before it was too long to read. Benton was so distracted, trying and failing to splash Tel, that he didn’t notice when the cold, bony hands started to snake out of the water. It wasn’t until one grabbed his ankle and started pulling that he screamed. Benton tried to pry it off but another attached itself, then another, then another, to both his feet. Adrenaline pumped through Benton as he felt them tug him towards the water.

“Tel!” He called out. “Help!”

“Oh dear.” Tel remarked from where he was lying on the beach. “This is terribly unfortunate.”

Benton frowned. “That’s it?” He lost his footing, but grabbed a stick from the sand, and drove it deep into the ground as he pulled himself as far up as he could, straining against the hands.

Tel shrugged. “I was created to make ironic comments, not to display emotional depth.”

Benton stared at him, horrified, as he lost his footing again, this time tumbling into the surf. He struggled towards the surface- so near, yet so out of reach. Water filled his lungs, and he started to feel his panic be replaced by a calm. With an air of finality, Benton drifted in the murky water and drowned.

 

“Well, that was terribly dramatic.” Tel was saying when Benton became aware that he was lying on the sand next to the bear. Shocked, Benton scrambled to his feet.

“Tel! I just had a horrible dream where I drowned and died!”

“Oh, that wasn’t a dream.” Tel remarked uninterestedly. “You’re dead.”

“What?” Benton ran up to the water, and sure enough- there was his body, bobbing up to the surface. Benton felt sick. “How is that even possible?”

“Easy.” Tel told him. “You drowned, and I was okay with it at first, because honestly I only really got to know you through a timeskip. But then I got bored, and I thought- hey, why not try this imaginary friend? So I imagined you next to me, listening to me talk, and after a while the forest listened and here you are.”

Benton raised an eyebrow. “You expect me to believe I am now the living imaginary friend of an imaginary talking bear ghost?”

“Doesn’t matter now.” Tel shrugged. “You can see it all now yourself.”

Suddenly he became aware of the boy sitting at the computer screen, typing away, words detailing a story- this story. “We’re in a story?” Benton frowned.

“Yup.” Tel confirmed. “There are different worlds- Earths, forests, more. But they are all separated by a sort of metaphorical sea- which is occasionally penetrated by the only thing powerful enough to do so- the human brain.”

“Okay….” Benton was lost. “But does that mean–?”

“I wouldn’t focus on the writing.” Tel interrupted him. “I’d be more concerned with the story. You want to find your sister, right?”

“Yeah.” Benton said, though it felt like forever since he had thought of her.

“So skip to the part where you find her.” Tel stated in a matter of fact voice.

“Wow.” Our hero blinked,disoriented. “So this all really worked out in my favor, didn’t it? Except that I’m dead.”

“There is that.” The imaginary talking bear ghost agreed. “Well, do you see her?”

Benton turned to the fourth wall, staring out into the void. The story played out before his eyes. A nation, great and powerful, known as Freyvein. A war, ending with the nation split into fragments which floated in the void- a world where emotions were wrong, a world of a tyrannical ruler, a world which seemed disturbingly normal- all connected by a strange structure, created in the war- the Splinter. A circle of spikes and corpses, which alone was capable of bridging the gap between the splintered Freyvein. It formed in this forest, and its energy seeped out, giving this forest reality-alternating power. Anything was possible here. And then a little girl- Thylia, Benton’s own sister- found the forest, and wandered inside. For a day, she had all her greatest dreams- her imaginary friend was brought to life, and they played together, traveling through the timeless wood together.

But then night fell, and the girl could not find her way home. Slowly her nightmares became known to the wood, becoming reality until the wood was twisted and dark and evil. Until it was the Forest of the Fey.

Benton became aware of the fact that he and Tel were now standing in a new clearing, which he instinctively knew to be the center of the forest. Lying before them, in a makeshift bed of thorns, was an old woman- who was unmistakably Benton’s sister. Thylia.

She did not seem to notice them as they watched her. A lump formed in Benton’s throat. “What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s been alive for a few thousand years.” For the first time, Tel sounded sad.  “The forest needs her alive- they’re so closely tied together now.”

“What can we do?” Benton was horrified. He bent down over his sister, and gave her a small kiss. She did not stir.

“Why, you have to kill her.” Tel told him.

“What?” Benton turned back to Tel, unable to absorb this. “But–”

“Please. It’s what she would want.” There was pleading in the bear’s voice.

Benton was silent for a few seconds. “What happens if I do kill her? What then? You said the forest is tied to her.”

Tel shrugged. “I don’t know. The story ends. So does the forest and maybe Gulch Falls. I don’t know, maybe once the forest stops existing she’ll be restored to the town since there was nowhere for her to wander. Or maybe all of it will stop existing.”

“What happens to us?”

“We could always go into the Splinter. Try on a few of the other stories. It’s up to you, really.” The bear sounded more tired than Benton thought possible.

For a moment, Benton stood there, staring at his sister, and at his friend, and at the strange forest around him which once could’ve been beautiful. And then he bent down, and placed his hands around his sister’s throat and then

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