Into the Woods
Pine needles crunched under the bike wheels as Julie pedaled over the path. She looked back over her shoulder at the world outside the Wild: streets and sunlight, dancing bears and Gillian. She could hear a Strauss march and police sirens mixed up with troll grunts and the stamping of hooves. Gillian had done it! She’d saved the day. She’d gotten Julie safe inside the Wild.
Underneath her, her Schwinn ten-speed neighed.
“Hey!” Julie clutched the handlebars as the front wheel lifted in the air. Wheel twisting, the bike shook its handles as if shaking a mane. “Stop it! Who’s doing . . .” The bike lurched, and Julie tumbled off the seat and landed smack on the pine needle floor.
Flashing its front reflector back at her, the bike hopped over roots, and she forgot about the pain of the fall. Oh, wow. Her bike was alive. She had a living bike.
Oh, no. Her bike was alive. Pedals spinning on their own, the bike (with her magic boots still tied to it) sped off into the forest. “Wait! Come back!” She scrambled to her feet and ran after it. It dodged between the trees, and she stumbled as her sandal caught on a root. Catching herself on a tree trunk, she called after it, “Bike, come back!” It disappeared between the trees.
Ferns folded like closing curtains to hide the bike’s tracks. The crunch of the tires on the ground was instantly gone. Julie listened for her bike and heard nothing, only the sound of her own breathing. Why didn’t she hear any birds or wind or anything? It felt as if the trees were holding their breath.
Shivering, she looked up at the armlike branches. The trees seemed to be leaning in toward her. Knots in the bark looked almost like faces. Shadows leered at her. She thought she saw something out of the corner of her eye and turned quickly, but nothing moved.
“Safe inside the Wild,” she mocked herself. Anything and everything—witches, wolves, goblins, trolls—could be hiding in the misshapen shadows. This was the Wild Wood. This was the place where Mom had lived and Dad had died.
Deep breath, she told herself. Don’t panic. She had a plan: she’d follow the streets (or what was left of them) through downtown to the Wishing Well Motel—the last place that Cindy and Goldie had seen Mom. With luck, Mom would still be there. Of course, if Julie hadn’t lost the boots, she could have been there and back already. Now she’d have to do it on foot. But the plan still held, right?
Tromping over bushes and ferns, she headed back toward the path. She’d left it to chase the bike. Stupid, stupid, stupid, she thought. She hadn’t been in the Wild for a full minute before she’d lost the boots, the bike, and the path.
It hit her like a slap: she’d lost the path.
She’d run straight. It should be right here. She should have found it by now. Julie scanned the forest: dark, crooked trees . . . all the same.
No, no, no! She couldn’t be lost. How could she be lost? She hadn’t run far. The street had to be near. She’d just picked the wrong direction. It must be over there . . . Backtracking, she tried another direction.
Gillian was out there playing the trumpet for wild animals so that Julie could come here, and Julie was lost after two minutes. She’d wasted Gillian’s bravery.
Mom would be so disappointed.
Balling her hands into fists, Julie swallowed hard again and again. Don’t cry, she told herself. Don’t cry, don’t cry. She just had to stay calm and not panic and it would all be okay. She couldn’t be far from the former West Street. It wasn’t as if the Wild could rearrange geography. (Could it?) She’d seen that gas station—the Wild didn’t transform everything. It wasn’t all-powerful. (Was it?)
“I’m trying, Mom,” she said aloud. “Doesn’t that count?” How could it count? If she didn’t succeed, Mom would never know she’d tried.
Then I’ll just have to succeed, she thought. She might have lost her bike and the Seven League Boots, but she still had all the magic supplies from the linen closet. She wasn’t helpless. She could do this. Straightening her shoulders, she picked a different direction and began to walk.
As she went deeper into the forest, the woods thickened. Ancient-looking ferns and thorny bushes filled the gaps between the trees, creating a lacework of menacing shadows. She climbed over fallen logs and massive roots.
How like a fairy tale, she thought, a girl lost in the woods. She tried not to think about the things that happened to little girls lost in woods. Maybe she was more like the simpleton heroes, wandering lost until they met the creatures that would make their fortunes—she wasn’t sure if that was better or worse.
I hate this, she thought. I really hate this.
She climbed over another root and spotted, up ahead, what looked like a string of Christmas lights between the ferns. Maybe it was a house. If it was a house, then a street had to be nearby! She picked up her pace.
Drawing closer, she saw the lights weren’t decorations; they were flowers—beautiful, unnaturally bright flowers that glowed with their own brilliance. She heard humming—someone was there. Julie froze, listening. It was a woman’s voice, and the tune was a cross between “Twinkle, Twinkle” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Julie wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans and crept forward. In between the trees, she saw a girl in a red cape and hood picking flowers. Little Red? How could it be? Ms. Hood was in France.
The girl turned her head as she picked a brilliant red daisy, and Julie’s eyes widened. Oh, wow. It wasn’t the Little Red she knew. It was someone else, someone older. Under the red cape, a forty-year-old woman wore a business suit. Staring, Julie forgot to hide.
“Look at my beautiful flowers,” the false Little Red said, smiling brightly. “I’m picking them for Grandma.” Julie opened her mouth, but no words came out. The woman hopped over a root and pounced on a shimmering purple flower. “Grandma loves flowers,” she said.
This was what Julie’s grandmother had told her about, the danger of the Wild. Somehow, this businesswoman had become a new Little Red. Julie managed to get her voice to work: “I’m, ah, looking for the path.”
“I’ve strayed from the path,” New Little Red said. “I’m picking flowers.” She spun the bouquet in her hands. It was almost hypnotic, a sort of kaleidoscope. Julie tore her eyes from it. All her instincts told her to run away—far, far away. “Do you know where the path is?” Julie asked.
“It’s over there,” New Little Red said, gesturing nonchalantly over her shoulder. “Mother said not to leave it.”
Yes! Julie peered through the trees, but she didn’t see anything. Maybe it was on the other side of the trees. Julie began to wade through bushes.
Behind her, the businesswoman giggled over a patch of yellow flowers that glowed like mini-suns. It was a horribly vacant sound. Julie hesitated. She couldn’t just leave her like this. Something was obviously wrong with her, and she could be walking right into the jaws of danger. Literally. “You didn’t happen to meet a wolf, did you?” Julie asked.
“He was a very nice wolf,” New Little Red said.
She had guessed right: this woman had set off a fairy-tale event, just like Grandma said would happen. She was caught in one of the Wild’s puppet plays. But that didn’t explain the weird blankness. Shouldn’t she at least know who she was, even if she couldn’t help what she did? “You shouldn’t be picking flowers. The wolf is on his way to your grandmother’s house.”
“Do you think Grandma would like the blue ones?” New Little Red said.
Julie tried again. “You’re not Little Red Riding Hood. You have to snap out of it. You’re in a fairy tale. A wolf is going to eat you.”
“Grandma will like these flowers,” the woman said. She smiled vapidly at Julie.
Goose bumps ran up and down Julie’s arms. It was okay if she ran, Julie rationalized. The woman was a grown-up. She could take care of herself. But the wolf . . . “Look, I can tell you what will happen: the wolf will be in your grandmother’s clothes. You’ll do the whole ‘Grandma, how big your eyes are’ thing, and you’ll get to ‘Grandma, how big your teeth are’ and he’ll eat you,” Julie said. “You can’t go to your grandmother’s house.”
New Little Red’s eyes narrowed. “I
going to Grandma’s house.”
What was Julie supposed to do? She couldn’t force the woman not to go. Maybe she could try to take the flowers away. Julie reached for the stems.
“No! Grandma’s flowers!” New Little Red swatted Julie with the petals. Julie jumped backward, and New Little Red advanced on her. “Bad girl!
girl!” The forty-year-old woman, face terrible in anger, shook the flowers at Julie.
“But . . .” Julie said.
The woman’s eyes widened. “You have my picnic basket!” she shrieked. She pointed at Julie’s backpack. “My basket for Grandma!”
Before Julie could react, New Little Red launched at her and seized the backpack. She ripped it off Julie. Julie clung to the shoulder straps. “No! It’s mine! I need it! Please!” Julie begged.
“My basket!” the woman yelled. “My basket for Grandma!” She tugged on it, and Julie stumbled forward. The woman was stronger than she was. But she couldn’t let her take the backpack. It held all of her magic. She needed it. How would she make it through the woods without it?
“Please! My mother . . .”
“Wolf! Wolf, she’s taking the basket! The basket for Grandma!” New Little Red shouted. “Wolf!”
Julie heard branches break. And she heard a growl—a deep, horrible, hair-raising growl that she felt inside her stomach. Oh, no! The wolf! She let go of the backpack and ran.
Julie broke through the bushes and stumbled. She pitched forward and crashed down on her hands and knees. Tears popped into her eyes.
She listened for the wolf behind her, and she heard nothing.
He hadn’t chased her.
She’d lost her supplies.
She stood and dusted her scraped hands on her jeans. How had she lost her bike, her boots, and her backpack all so quickly? It was like the forest was out to get her. What was it going to take from her next?
She scrutinized the surrounding trees. She was in a broad, flat section of forest. At first, she didn’t realize what that meant, and then she saw bits of the real world not quite transformed by the Wild. Telephone poles were fir trees, but their transformers peeked from between fresh leaves, and their wires, wreathed in vines, still linked them together. Lawns were sloped mats of moss. She could see hints of houses, wrapped in green. She’d been right: the Wild didn’t transform everything. She’d found a street.
I should be ecstatic, she thought. But she’d lost everything. She was helpless now. And, again, alone. She wished Gillian were here with her. She could use some of her enthusiasm.
Had Mrs. Thomas found Gillian in time? Or was Gillian in the Wild? Was she still playing her trumpet? What was going to happen when she stopped? Would the animals let her stop?
“No, girl, get down!”
She obeyed and crouched behind a mailbox embedded in a stump.
Just in time. Shrieking and laughing, a train of people ran down the forested street. A boy was stuck to a goose, a girl was stuck to his arm, a man was stuck to her shoulder, and a woman was stuck to his knee. Julie held her breath as the strange bit of story ran past. Somehow it seemed all the more horrible because they—like New Little Red—weren’t Mom’s friends. These were ordinary people, glued to a goose. She shivered. How did it happen? And how did Julie keep it from happening to her? The train of people ran between the trees and out of sight. “Too many civilians,” another voice said behind her.
Her heart leapt into her throat. “Who’s there?” she asked.
“Massachusetts National Guard,” came the whispered answer. “You shouldn’t be here, miss. The situation is not under control.”
Peering into the bushes, she caught a glimpse of them: army men. Heroes! On hands and knees, she crawled closer to them. “Am I glad to see you!” she said.
“We’re in hostile territory, miss,” the closest man said.
“Tell me about it,” Julie said. “Some woman’s going to be eaten by a wolf.”
The men exchanged glances. “Where?”
She hesitated. Would they believe her if she said Grandma’s house? “I mean, it’s possible that someone would in a forest like this. Do you know where we are?”
“Crawford Street, approaching Main.”
“Oh,” she said. She had made zero forward progress. But on the plus side, she wasn’t stuck to a goose or picking flowers—at least not yet. And maybe not ever, now that she had found the National Guard. She looked at the hidden soldiers with a growing realization: here was her answer to how she could avoid Little Red’s fate. They could help her! She was saved! “I’m searching for my mom,” she said. “I think she’s—”
“I’ll assign someone to take you out of here, miss,” the army man said. “Don’t you worry. Everything’s going to be all right. We’ll take care of you.”