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I took the beyond last drag of my cigarette; it was down to the filter. I coughed, exhaling the raw, burnt flavor it left in my mouth and took a swig of the cheap soda I had found outside 7-Eleven, trying to rinse the remaining taste out. My head hurt. I was cold, tired, wet - but I wasn’t going home. I wasn’t ready to face my mom and my boyfriend yet. I don’t know if I’d ever be ready. Seventeen year olds shouldn’t have to go through things like this. They shouldn’t have to arrive home just to find their boyfriend and mom going at it on the sofa. Things like that don’t happen in real life.
I shook my head, clearing my thoughts. I was on the outskirts of the woods, about an hour’s walk from my house. I didn’t know we had a forest in New York City. I hadn’t lived there long enough.
I stood up and faced it, my head tilted to one side, absentmindedly playing with a thick lock of raven-black hair. To enter? Or not to enter? I fished another Marlboro out of my pack, twirling it between the fingers of one hand as I searched through my pockets for my lighter with the other. I made my decision as I lit it. To enter.
I slowly stepped over the boundary of city and trees, into a land unfamiliar. I’d never been a particularly brave person, and I was scared of the dark. This time, anger and embarrassment gave me courage. There was a crow, perched on one of the branches with a cigarette butt in his mouth. Where he got it, I don’t know. The crow turned his head. His other eye was bright green versus the normal, dilapidated black of the other. A shiver washed over my body and I looked away.
I kept walking, my mind blissfully distracted by the beauty of the copse of trees. I saw a man, leaning casually against a tree, staring at me. “Can I bum one?” he asked as I got closer. I pulled one out, almost giving him my lucky in my haste. I was desperate to get away. For some reason, the whole situation seemed off. “Thanks,” he said with a slight smile, just barely showing his elongated teeth, all filed into points. I murmured a vague reciprocation and walked on hurriedly. I looked over my shoulder once and saw him walking the other way, spines jutting out of his back. I shoved my fist in my mouth to keep from screaming, and blinked. When I opened my eyes again, he was standing there, looking at me curiously. The spines were gone.
I shook my head and continued to walk. This jaunt was turning out very strange. My cigarette was gone. I threw it to the ground and kept walking. There were no odd surprises for almost ten minutes. The break was interrupted by a thump from behind me. I turned around. There was a sock monkey on the ground. Pale blue and lavender, one eye missing, fraying at all its edges, and yet it was still unbearably cute. I had no idea where it had come from, but it unnerved me more than anything else. I trudged on.
There was a tree a little ways ahead. It was gnarled and old. It looked dead. Beyond dead. Decaying. But hanging off one of the branches was a small flower. I smiled and reached up to touch it - it opened and an eye peered out. I jumped backwards, tripping over my own feet and almost falling over. Without looking behind me I ran. Far. I didn’t stop for anything.
That is, I didn’t stop for anything until I saw the bent old woman kneeling over a small fire. She was holding a small pebble that continuously changed colors, a liquid rainbow. She was putting it into the fire, hand and all, and pulling it out after a few seconds. After a close inspection of every single spot and scar, she plunged her hand back in. She was draped in gauzy shawls and layers upon layers of strange beads and jewelry. Gold discs clanked in her hair, playing a sweet melody. Then I saw the wings. There, on her back, was a set of iridescent wings. They looked like a dragonfly’s and were a wide array of soft colors. She looked at me, her knowledgeable voice cracking. “Heat and friction are what polish the stone,” she said solemnly. Her eyes were milky and glazed over.
Suddenly, home didn’t seem such a forbidding place. At least I knew what to expect there. Here - here there were strange things. I composed myself. Running didn’t sound like a good idea. I began to walk quickly home. Maybe someday I’d come back, when I could handle the very real and unusual unreality of this quirky place. It did intrigue me.
Not for a while, though. I saw things all the way home - weird things, confusing things. A trashcan fell over by itself, but there was no wind. I saw a woman growing out of the ground, laying on her back. Her “skin” was bubbling as if she were boiling, but she had the biggest smile on her face. There was a hedgehog running in circles so fast my eyes almost couldn’t make out what it was. And everywhere I turned there was a crow with one bright green eye.
I sighed in relief when I finally reached my porch and turned the door handle to go in - and then I saw my mother. She had green, glass eyes and hooves for feet. I smiled. “Mommy,” I said as I held my arms out to her. She hugged me and iridescent, rainbow tears slid down her face as she kissed my pale green cheek and stroked my hair laced with leaves and branches.