Having dropped the employees of Hirsch Capital off at the site of their corporate retreat, Willie was halfway back down the mountain when he realized he’d forgotten to take advantage of the bathroom. The pressure on his bladder grew urgent.
“Damn it.” His voice sounded very small inside the empty bus. “Ain’t no way I’ll make it to the bottom.”
He downshifted as the bus approached a steep grade in the road. He spotted a long gravel-filled lane up ahead—an emergency ramp for trucks whose brakes had failed. Pinching his crotch with one hand, Willie squirmed in the seat and changed lanes. Checking behind him, he saw the road was deserted, so he swerved into the breakdown lane. Gravel crunched beneath the bus’s tires as he slowed to a stop.
Leaving the engine running, Willie flung open the doors, clambered down, and hurried, bow-legged, toward the greenery. He pushed his way through a tangle of undergrowth. Vines and thorns tugged at his pant legs, and thin branches whipped his arms and chest. Curiously, there were no tall trees to stand behind and conceal himself from the road while he pissed. As he pressed farther into the brush, he saw why. He emerged into a stand of blackened, splintered tree trunks—a scarred, blasted heath left over from the wildfires that had scoured Silverwood a few years before. He looked down at his feet and realized that he was walking across a layer of ash. Grayish-black particles floated upward with every step. Farther ahead, Willie spotted pine trees, untouched by the blaze. They seemed to loom over the area, as if standing guard.
He glanced behind him. Although he could hear the bus’s engine running, he could no longer see the road. Satisfied that no passerby would see him either, Willie unzipped his fly and urinated into the ash. He sighed with relief, trembling. A hawk screeched overhead. Willie watched it circle. Then, finished, he shook himself, zipped back up, and turned to leave.
The first sneeze, violent and racking, took him by surprise. A bubble of snot dribbled from his nose. Willie reached up and wiped it away with the back of his hand. The mucus had miniscule black grit in it. Frowning, he touched his face. His fingertips came away coated with more black dust. It felt slightly tacky and had an odd, though not unpleasant, odor, similar to chocolate—sweet and somehow warm.
Pollen, he thought, or maybe ash? Either way, I don’t want to be breathing this shit in for too long.
He sneezed again and decided it was probably pollen, given his body’s reaction. But pollen wasn’t black—was it? And it didn’t smell sugary, like cotton candy melting in the sun.
Willie was halfway back to the bus when the trees began whispering to him.
He cried out in alarm and spun around in a circle, expecting to see someone hiding in the brush, but he quickly confirmed that he was alone. He slowly plodded back to where he’d been, and then past it, right to the edge of the forest. The whispering grew louder.
When he was a child, Willie’s mother had told him that the sound of the wind rustling through the trees was the sound of the trees talking. That sound and that memory had brought him comfort throughout his life. But this sound wasn’t like that. These were actual voices—harsh and ragged, quiet but powerful.
And there was no wind.
Willie stood there, helpless, and listened to what they had to say.
YOU CAN SEE YOUR WIFE AGAIN, the trees promised.
“But when?” Willie asked. “How?”
AFTER THE DOOR IS OPENED. AFTER THE DEPARTURE. BUT TO MAKE THAT HAPPEN, WE MUST FEED, AND YOU MUST HELP.
Willie nodded. “I can do that.”
Then, smiling, he made his way back to the bus and rooted around under the driver’s seat until he found his knife. Company policy forbade the drivers from carrying weapons, but most of Willie’s coworkers ignored that rule, keeping tear gas, pepper spray, baseball bats, or knives concealed but within reach in case of trouble. In today’s world, you couldn’t take any chances. Bad things could happen anywhere, anytime.
He hefted the knife in his hand, testing its weight. It would suffice until he found something better.
Still smiling, Willie stalked off into the woods.