The boy began to panic. Not so much from the missing shoes, but wondering who or what in the world could have taken them, and with such silent deftness. Neither he nor the girl had noticed anything, and it wasn’t a very large clearing. Maybe twenty feet across. The girl yelled, startling him out of his wits.
“Hello? Is someone out there?” her voice would have echoed had they been in a canyon. But in this particular wood, sound drops like a stone only moments after being made.
“Don’t do that!” the boy whispered harshly at her, “We don’t know what’s out there! What if it wants to eat all of our clothes and then our toes and fingers and leave us to die in the cold?”
“Do you have a monster in mind that you’re not telling me about?” She thought that was an oddly specific description of what a monster might do.
“No… Not necessarily. I’m just saying, should the worst happen, we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.”
“I think your imagination might be the worst thing. I don’t think there is anything that horrible out there.”
“Well, on the off chance there is, just don’t yell, okay?”
“Yeah, okay.” She was slightly amused, slightly suspicious, and mostly nervous so she stood there silently. “What are we supposed to do now?”
“I don’t know… I’m going to inspect the bottom of the tree trunks. Maybe whatever it was left some print or something.”
The boy bent low at the waist and walked the circle again, this time much slower and with more scrutiny. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he hoped he could find it. Some of the tree trunks looked like they were growing halfway out of one another. How could anything survive being this tightly packed together? They were impossibly black, and the boy thought he might have found the reason why, though it wasn’t a comforting thought. “These trees were all burned. From trunk to tip, somehow they burned but didn’t fall down. That’s why our hands are getting covered in soot.”
“What could have possibly burned them like this without completely destroying them? Even logs in a campfire turn to white ash and pile up like a vampire turned to dust.”
“Well, forest fires can get intense. Maybe it was a fire in a windstorm.”
“I’m not sure how wind would get through these trees. They’re packed together so tightly that I can hardly breathe.” She began inspecting them, too. “They’re charred all the way down to the very bottom. There isn’t a part of the trunk that was not touched by the fire.”
The boy looked down at his hands. He figured they couldn’t get any dirtier, so he started feeling the tree trunks. It was like they were coated in a layer of black sand. It gave way slightly beneath his palm as he pressed into it, leaving a perfect, deep, sooty print. The girl came up behind him as he removed his hand and examined his palm print.
“That’s pretty odd,” she said, making the boy jump out of his concentration, “soot doesn’t typically collect and stay put like that, right?”
“No, not usually.”
“Maybe we can find out what kind of tree it is if we peel back enough of the soot.”
“How would that help me find my shoes?” he snapped slightly. He didn’t mean to sound so harsh. He was just very on edge.
In a tone that made it apparent he struck a nerve in her, yet with patience and composure, she said, “It might not help us find your shoes, or whatever took your shoes, but we’d learn something.”
“I guess, yeah, sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’d be frustrated if I just lost my shoes and didn’t know what took them, too. Just don’t snap at me for wanting to know a little bit more about where we are.” her tone was confident and understanding, and he rather enjoyed her demeanor.
The boy pressed his fingertips into the soot as far as they could go, much farther than he had anticipated. His hand was half buried when he curled his fingers the way you would digging in the sand on a beach and pulled away a large chunk of ashen bark. It seemed to act like ashes after it was pulled away, landing with a light thud and scattering like a small cloud. He could hardly tell he had taken a chunk out, the trunk was so black and there wasn’t enough light to create a shadow. He dug his fingers back in and, scoop by scoop, removed layers of bark from the trunk until he was as deep as his wrist in the soot. Finally after a few minutes, with the pile of ashes at his feet growing to a sizeable hill, his fingers struck the hard, solid wood. He widened the hole so they could see more easily, and he removed one more large chunk. They both gawked at the sight.
“It looks like it’s… Like it’s on fire,” she said, “is it hot?”
The boy touched the wood that was radiating reds, oranges, and yellows, flickering like flames.
“No,” he said in bewilderment. “It’s just as cold as the rest of the tree.
“Make the hole bigger, I want to see more of it!” she grew very excited.
With less finesse, the boy scraped away more of the soot like opening presents at Christmastime. He moved up the tree a bit so they could get a really good view of the trunk underneath.
“It’s like fire beneath a thin layer of glass,” he said, the pitch of his voice going higher as he spoke. He looked at her and saw that the light from the tree was dancing off her face as well, like sitting my a bonfire. He noticed how her eyes sparkled like blue crystals against the light. She was entranced by the sight but shook her head and looked back at him. He realized he had been gawking and blushed a little as he looked away and acted like he was redoubling his concentration.
“As cool and weird as this is, we should probably see if we can find marks at the bottom of the tree trunks from where I walked in, or from whatever stole my shoes.”
“Sure, I guess you’re right.”