In the Woods

Image of Long Story Short Award - 2022
Image of Short Fiction
Elias was the one to first see the body — he was the one to fall off his bike. Skidded in the gravel and tumbled to the ground, scraping up his elbow — "A squirrel ran out in front!" he protested, and his bike lay mangled on the path. The air was salty and fishy from the bay, where they just swam, hair still damp and skin cool to the touch. They left as clouds began to sweep over the sky, packing up their lunchboxes and new, colorful stones. And now, on the half-hour bike ride back home, Elias froze.

"Don't be a baby," said Alma, his older sister, perched on her bike. Her blonde hair, tied back in a braid, whipped in the wind — she rolled her eyes. "Let's go."

But Elias's face, which had been scrunched up in anger and embarrassment, suddenly loosened, and he stared widely into the woods. "Is that a person?"

"What?" said Clara, their younger cousin, and she stepped off her bike to peer into the foliage from Elias's point of view. Her bottom lip started to tremble. "It looks like a lady, Alma."

Alma looked for herself. It did look like a body — ten meters or more from the path. It was hard to see. But a piece of her shirt was brightly colored against the leaves, and from there, you could see a mess of tangled hair, and the general shape of a body. "Is she alive?"

Clara started to cry. "Do we phone the police?"

"Stop crying, Clara," said Alma, who thought Clara cried too much for a seven-year old.

"We'll tell Mum when we're home," said Elias, still sitting where he fell, a hand pressed against his bleeding elbow. "And Mum will phone the police."

Alma took one step towards the body, dry leaves crunching under her sneaker. "Hello?" she called, then louder — "Hello!" But the body didn't move, or respond.

"Maybe it's dead," said Clara shakily, who was trying not to cry, but fat tears dripped from her eyelashes.

"We don't know that," said Alma.

"Should I go have a look?" said Elias. He didn't want to, but he was the only boy, and felt he needed to prove himself after just falling off his bike.

"No," said Alma sharply, and Elias felt a wave of relief. "No one's going up to it."

"What if she's just sleeping?" said Clara.

"It's not sleeping," said Alma. "Who would sleep in the woods?"

"What if she was murdered?" said Elias. He had just read a murder mystery novel in class.

Clara began to cry again. "I want my mummy."

"Everybody, be quiet," said Alma. "I'm thinking."

"Mum will know what to do," said Elias again.

"Mum will kill us!" said Alma. "She told us not to go swimming today. We weren't supposed to leave town. She would know."

"Oh, no," said Clara, at this awful realization.

"We can go to the police ourselves," said Elias, who was getting annoyed at Alma for bossing him around. "We can bike straight there."

Clara swiped at her eyes. "Will we get in trouble?"

Elias paused, staring down at his little cousin, then looked up to Alma. "I don't know. Would we?"

"Probably," said Alma.

"I don't want to get in trouble!" said Clara, dangerously close to crying again.

Elias frowned, eyes still drawn to the body. "But we need to tell someone."

"If she's dead, then she's dead," said Alma dramatically, to the horrified, gaping stare of her brother and cousin. "What are we supposed to do?"

For Alma to use the word 'dead' in such a serious manner meant it must certainly be true. Clara started to cry.

"Stop crying," snapped Alma.

Elias stood up, still holding his elbow, his eyebrows scrunched in defiance. "I'm telling the police whether you like it or not," he said to his sister. "They'll know what to do."

Alma gestured to the ground. "Look, Elias! It's your own blood on the ground. What if they think we did it?"

Elias and Clara looked down, where a few drops of his own dark blood lay splattered on the gravel.

"It's called our DNA," said Alma. "And it's all over. Do you want to go to jail?"

Someone was framed for murder in Elias's mystery novel. "I don't know," he said, feeling very nauseous all of a sudden. "I don't know. Maybe we should just leave." He hated when Alma was right.

"I don't want her to be dead," said Clara.

Alma picked up her bike. "Everyone, get your bike. We're going."

The wind picked up. The sky seemed much darker than it did just forty minutes ago, when they were playing in the sand and the cold water. Elias felt a horrible pit in his stomach.

"It doesn't feel right, Alma," he said.

"Well, someone else will find her. The police will find her. How hard could it be? You found her without even trying." She looked over her shoulder, making sure everyone was back on their bikes. "Let's go."

They began to bike again, faster than they had been before. The wind, fishy and cool — Clara, blinking back tears, the body in the woods disappearing behind them until none of them could even remember the spot.