Brooke Reynolds

The October Selected Writer is Brooke Reynolds

Please feel free to email Brooke at: brooke.alicia.reynolds@gmail.com


by Brooke Reynolds

The weighted rubber soles of Cassandra’s Columbia hiking boots crunch through the melting leftover patches of snow. Where there isn’t snow, wet orange and brown decaying leaves intertwine like a crotchet blanket to spread across the forest floor. Her arms stretch out so her hands graze across an emerald sea of ferns. She pauses to rest, leaning against a nearby oak tree. Her fingers pick at the spongey moss that invades its trunk. Whenever she needs a good therapy session to work out a situation, Cassandra seeks sanctuary here in the Appalachian Mountains.

Saplings bend and twist at odd angles, their new spring growth forever stunted by the dense canopy above that refracts the late morning sun. Cassandra sucks at the rubber stopper of her Camelback, allowing cool water to flow into her mouth. Her stomach pinches, forcing a gag. She searches through her bag and pulls out a granola bar, eager to keep the nausea away that always seems to intensify on an empty stomach. If she’s lucky, she’ll only have to deal with this queasiness for another three phases of the moon. Though she’s heard some must endure it up until evacuation.

She still hasn’t figured out how to break the news to Chad. The conversation’s been easy to avoid. Thankfully Chad’s been in Mississippi for the past week setting up a new plant. When she finally gets around to telling him, he’ll be ecstatic, once the initial shock wears off. She’s just not sure how to feel about it yet. It’s not like they were preventing anything, but she’s the one that has to go through bodily disfigurement. Having a tiny piece of each of them is inspiring and terrifying all at the same time. Imagine a tiny copycat being with her long nose, doe eyes, and introvertness combined with husband’s insane level of stubbornness; the idea terrifies her.

With nausea subsided, she continues her trek. She comes upon an overturned birds’ nest at the base of a tree. A predator or the wind from a storm must have dislodged it from one of the branches above. Its previous inhabitant, a single white and brown marbled egg, lies abandoned underneath, cracked and spilling its liquid contents onto the ground. She picks up the nest and runs her finger around the inside. She marvels at its softness, a layer of padding formed from the undercoat of a grey fox woven between a mesh of twigs and mud. She packs the nest away in her bag and continues on.

Blocking her path is a fallen tree, the base wide enough that she must swing her legs up in the air one at a time in order climb over it. Its trunk is covered in small shelf like groupings of tan and white mushrooms. Being a member of the foraging community, Cassandra recognizes the characteristic gills running the full length of the underside of each one, making these delicious oyster mushrooms. She collects a small cluster and takes a small bite to test if they are too mature or leathery in texture. Her teeth glide through a tender cap. Satisfied, she adds them to her collection.

She ventures deeper into the forest, along a winding path that pulls her further away from society, so deep that the only sounds she hears are chirping birds and the rush of water from a nearby stream. Sweat acts as a glue, sticking her clothes to the small of her back. Its unusually warm for late March. She abandons the path to seek water to cool off. As she gets closer, larger and larger rocks climb out of the ground beneath her until she reaches a knee-high cliff dropping down to a rushing stream. The water is chaotic, jumping from rock to rock, forming a white froth of bubbles. She stands at the waters’ edge and breaths deep.

A cool breeze ripples through the trees. She unzips her favorite black hooded sweatshirt and fans it out, thankful for the relief. Her fingers pick at the holes in the cuffs from extensive wear. She bought the hoodie at a Trapt concert in her freshman year of undergrad, back when she used rock concerts as her religion. It’s all black with the band’s logo splattered across the front in red and white dripping letters that split apart from the zipper. She removes it completely and drapes it over a nearby rock. She crouches down to the waters edges and plunges her arms into the cold mountain stream. She grabs the smooth stones at the bottom as the current beats against her skin.

A baby’s wail breaks the silence. Her eyes search up and down both sides of the stream but she sees no sign of human life anywhere. The crying is consistent, loud, and urgent. It brings her to her feet. She follows the sound south. Her stomach twists. What if someone abandoned their baby out here along the trail?

She jogs after the sound, following it several hundred yards. It doesn’t get any louder. She changes direction and heads north, backtracking to the water and continuing on. The crying doesn’t get any louder. Maybe a mother is carrying the baby and they’re walking along the trail. She tries east. Then west. No matter how far she travels in any direction, the crying never gets louder or softer.

Then, it stops. An abrupt quiet with no soothing, wind down. Just stifled silence. She reasons that the mother must have finally soothed it by shoving a pacifier in its mouth. The hair on her arms raises. What if something else found it?

“Hello?” she shouts. Her lungs suck in a deep breath and she holds it for fear that the sound of her own breathing will smother a response.

No reply. A forced exhale spews from her mouth. She’s unsure how long she was holding in that breath. Cassandra rubs her head. Did she imagine the whole thing? Eager to get on with her hike, she wanders back to the trail. A strange sense of relief overcomes her. She’s proud of how she responded. Perhaps there is a mothering instinct deep down under her hardened exterior. 

“Please, my baby.”

A voice jolts her out of her thoughts. Limping towards her is a woman in clear distress. She’s dressed in black, loose draping clothes. Cassandra thinks she sees writing on the woman’s shirt, but there’s so much mud caked to her, it’s hard to tell. The woman bears a mangled right leg, her toes pointed off to the side. Dried pine needles stick in amongst a tangled mass of brown hair. Before Cassandra has time to react, the woman’s in front of her, crying. Mascara melts down her face like wax dripping from a lit candle. She grabs hold of Cassandra’s shoulders. Her hands are grimy, with dirt caked up under each of her nails, like she’s been clawing at the earth. She shakes Cassandra.

“Help me, please. My baby, I’ve lost my baby!” The woman has a hard Eastern European accent, making her words sound muffled. She lets out a guttural yowl.

As the woman shouts, spit sprays, hitting Cassandra in the face. Cassandra’s conscious screams at her to run from this crazed woman in the woods. Clearly, she must be on something to lose an infant in the woods or she’s lying. Cassandra’s heard stories of meth heads attacking hikers on the Appalachian trail. This could be just a ploy to catch her off guard. Deep in the bottom of her Camelback is her Swiss Army knife. If Cassandra shoves the woman back with both arms, she may have enough time to grab the knife.

The woman collapses to her knees, groveling at Cassandra’s feet. She buries her face down in the dirt and claws at the earth as she cries.

“My baby boy. Please. I fall asleep and wake and he’s gone. Why they take my baby?”

Something pulls at Cassandra heartstrings. The act appears genuine. This woman doesn’t possess any real threat. She carries no pack or supplies, no place to conceal any weapons. Cassandra kneels down next to her. “It’s okay. I don’t have a phone, but I’ll help you. Where were you when you fell asleep?”

The woman looks up and points behind to the direction she came from in the woods.

Cassandra slips her pack off and unzips it. She reaches her hand into the bottom and grabs the knife. It’s concealed from the woman by hiding in Cassandra’s palm. She feels for a front pocket and realizes she left her hoodie back at the stream. The knife slips into the front of her jeans instead, just in case.

She helps the woman to her feet. The woman stumbles and grabs at the front of Cassandra’s shirt. A hand brushes Cassandra’s stomach. “Ahh, you with child.”

Cassandra looks down at her stomach. How did the woman know? There’s no baby bump yet.

The woman responds like she can read Cassandra’s thoughts. “A mother always knows.”

Cassandra avoids any further discussion. “Take me to where you last saw your baby.”

They walk in silence, with the woman out in front dragging her mangled leg. The ground changes to a bed of dried pine needles as they come upon a section with mostly evergreens. The trees are spread further apart, allowing them to see quite a long distance in any direction. They approach an area where the needles have been disrupted, fanned out from the center creating a large nest like a deer would use to bed down at night.

Cassandra kneels in the center of the bed and runs her hands over the needles. Off to the right she finds large tread boot prints. She points to the tracks. “Those tracks are too large for you or I. If we follow them, we’ll find whoever took your baby.”

Cassandra leads the way, keeping her eyes peeled to the ground to follow the tracks. The woman trails close behind. Cassandra sneaks a look back every few yards to make sure she’s still being followed. The woman wrings her hands and with her eyes narrowed, stares straight at Cassandra. Mumbled words in her native language are spat at Cassandra. At first, Cassandra reasons that the woman must be muttering prayers to herself. It’s the stern look in the woman’s eyes with just the slightest hint of a smirk on her lips that makes Cassandra keep patting her pocket to check and see if the knife is still there.

The pine needles disperse and the ground becomes littered with a light coating of leaves again. After a few more steps, the tracks stop. Cassandra walks in a circle, trying to see if maybe whoever they’re following made a sudden turn that she missed. She pauses. The birds have all gone silent.

It’s too quiet.

She whips around and the woman is gone. When was the last time she looked over her shoulder? She calls out but no response. It had to be only a minute before she lost the tracks. She calls again, but there’s only silence.

Her feet drag her to the main part of the trail and she follows it back to the gas station rest area where her car is parked. She’s feeling exhausted and slightly delusional. Had she imagined both the baby crying and the strange woman? Her spinning head she blames on the pregnancy.

She pops into the gas station and grabs a bag of salt and vinegar chips and a Gatorade flavored green. It could be melon or lime, but to Cassandra they all taste the same. She heads to the check out and the cashier rings her up.

“Nice day out for a hike.”

“Uh, huh.” She pays for her items and turns to leave. Hanging off the counter is a lost cat sign. It makes her think of the woman. She asks, “By any chance, did you see a woman stop by here with brown hair and all dressed in black?”

“Like yourself?”

Cassandra looks down and sees that she is indeed all dressed in black. “A different woman, with a limp.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell but I generally don’t take notice to people. Why?”

“Oh, you would have remembered this woman. She kept saying she lost her baby. I would have thought her mad, but before she appeared, I did hear a baby crying. I was trying to help her find it. It was weird though because all of a sudden, she disappeared. Like one minute she was behind me saying weird words I didn’t understand, and then she wasn’t. I’m now thinking that maybe I was dehydrated and never saw here at all, but I’m not sure, so I’m asking.”

He nods his head. “Sounds like you had a run in with the Pearisburg witch, a little urban legend we have. Used to be hikers would see her all the time ‘round this area of the trail.”

Cassandra unscrews the cap on her Gatorade and takes a sip. “I’m not sure I believe in all those ghost and ghoul things. But I guess no one needs to call 911.”

“Oh, she’s very much real, or at least she was. But you’re right, no need to call the authorities. The story goes, about forty years ago a young Czech couple decided to hike the Appalachian trail with their baby. They made it all the way up from Georgia when there was a terrible accident. The husband, carrying the baby on his back, fell into a gorge and hit is head on the rocks, killing him instantly. He landed on the baby. The wife tried to go in after them and retrieve the baby, but ended up injuring her leg pretty badly. By the time she got down to it, the baby was dead.”

“That’s awful,” Cassandra murmured.

“As one would expect, the loss of both her husband and the baby drove the poor woman into a life of seclusion,” the man continued. “She refused to leave the woods and lived off of the land. Whenever she’d come across hikers, her frantic naturalistic manor from years of solitude in the mountains brought about accusations of madness. Hikers would challenge each to other to a sort of scavenger hunt, extra points were given if you could snap a picture with the witch or steal something that belonged to her. It was all an innocent game until a child went missing.”

Cassandra places her hand on her stomach. “What’s so weird about that? Children get lost all the time.”

“This was unfortunately the first in a series of disappearances. A family was hiking right up along where you were, going on ten years ago. They had the typical encounter with the witch, but when she disappeared, so did their five-year-old son. Police scoured the area for weeks but never found anything other than a black hooded sweatshirt. Every few years or so, another child goes missing and another story is created. Some believe she’s a ghost and that she died in that gorge years ago with her family. Others speculate that she’s still alive, abducting children to replace the one she lost.”

Cassandra thanks the clerk and heads home to rest. That night, she sits up in bed, feeling cramps in her lower abdomen. Unsure if she’s going to be sick or not, she runs to the bathroom. A sharp wave of pain ripples through her. Like her uterus is a wet rag, it squeezes and wrings, emptying its contents in a forced water balloon exploding expulsion. Her hands grab the sides of the toilet and she shakes. She doesn’t need to look to know.

Tears of frustration and anger flood her face. There wasn’t enough time to processes the pregnancy before her body spit it out. Chad still didn’t know and he never would. This secret she would bare alone.

The memory of the woman touching her stomach fills her thoughts. Did the woman put a curse on her to try and take her unborn baby for herself? She keeps hearing the words the woman uttered behind her in the woods. Words or incantations? Now she’s not so sure she knows the difference.

All her usual supplies are thrown back into her Camelback, plus extras of most items. She will stay in the woods as long as it takes to find the witch who snuffed out her lifeline.

Into the wilderness she goes, off the path and through the trees until she finds herself back at the water’s edge where she first heard the baby cry. Stomped into the earth she finds her old hoodie and slips it on. It’s here she waits.

A night passes and she stays in the woods. A week passes and still in the forest she remains. Then a month passes, followed by a few more, and soon the forest floor fills with a new layer of fallen leaves. She survives on mushrooms and insects, turning rotten logs to feed on things with legs that wiggle and crawl all the way down her throat.

Her typical black attire hangs loose on her shrunken frame. Leaves and twigs stick to the matted mess that was once her beautiful brown hair. As she withers away, she encounters other hikers, begging them to help her find the woman who took her baby. They mock her but she never stops looking.

Brooke Reynolds is a veterinarian from Charlotte, North Carolina. When she isn’t saving animals, she enjoys reading and writing fiction. Her stories have appeared at such online and print markets as Massacre Magazine, Fantasia Divinity, The Airgonaut, The Literary Hatchet, Ghost Parachute, Every Day Fiction, Riggwelter, Ricky’s Back Yard, Coffin Bell, Ink Stains Anthology, and Sanitarium Magazine. Her forthcoming novel Healers is set to be published by Adelaide Books in early 2021. You can follow her on twitter @psubamit or check out her website reynoldswrites.org.