This is a short little thing of 800 words that may not, depending on who you ask, constitute a short story. But I didn’t ask. I was trying something. And here it is. I hope it works, even kinda a lil’.
Once upon a time, Franny Mae had to die.
Before Franny, there had been Chadd Loggins, and before him, Torrance McClowd. Before Torrance it might have been a Sheila or Shelly or Sally, but that was so long ago that only grandparents might be able to recall anecdotally and only the records would be able to tell you unequivocally.
The Wood is picky and irregular, so you only know when it’s hungry if you’re paying attention.
You must always pay attention.
When you see the leaves at the very edges shift from muddy red to elfin green, you know it’s time. If the entire tree goes green, you haven’t been paying attention.
If the entire tree goes green, it’s too late.
It had only been a year since Chadd when the corner store clerk was walking home after a shift and noticed the creeping green. She ran all the way to the mayor’s house in her red smock and brown Crocs, where she hammered on the door until the mayor, drowsy in his plaid flannel night shirt and pants, opened it. Before he had even reached for the knob, however, he knew what it meant.
Between Torrance and Chadd, forty months passed with a safely red Wood, and before Torrance, it had been well over sixty years. Sheila or Shelly or Sally must have been a satisfying girl.
Before Sheila (?), time has forgotten their names and dates, for each Offering must have sated the wood at least as long as Sheila herself.
No one knew precisely why the Wood has grown so hungry.
“It’s these kids today,” some said, as though the times had stripped modern youth of any nutrients.
But you never risked letting the Wood grow too hungry. Story tells that when it did, all those forgotten years ago, when the town was still a village and its villagers were tired of losing their children, they had rushed to Woods-edge with fire and saw, and none had returned. The village would have all but ceased to be had the young and the women with child not stayed behind. The village survived through their toil and the Offerings of infants.
Franny Mae knew this story—everyone did—so she had been glad when it was Chadd and had been glad when, before Chadd, it was Torrance, not because she thought they had each deserved to take a one-way trip into the Wood, but because they would keep her safe. Because they weren’t her.
When the Lottery had come up with her number—come up in the middle of a town hall meeting the very night after the corner store clerk had roused the mayor, a town hall meeting where there would soon be dancing and pot luck feasting—Franny Mae had sat quite still. She had sat quite still, as though, in fact, they had read the name of Leslie Gilbert beside her and that was why Leslie had stared speechless at her. No one knew it, but Leslie Gilbert would stare speechless at the sound of her own name in seven short months, but it was Franny now, whose mother escorted her to the podium up front, where the mayor waited, where Franny Mae would accept the cash prize that came with death.
No one knew that the Offerings had truly died, because, of course, none that entered the Wood had ever returned.
Franny Mae would learn all too soon, for the next day, a Tuesday, would be her Walking Day.
Franny Mae had always liked this name, Walking Day. It had drawn pictures in her mind of a peaceful turn through the streets with one’s hands clasped behind one’s back.
Franny Mae had always used to like this name.
At the Wood’s edge on her Walking Day, Franny Mae stood beside the mayor and a few other town hall officials. Franny Mae was glad no others were allowed, so that none could see her tremble in her best dress.
She thought of Chadd and Torrance and all who had gone before her, humbled by her own fear, shamed to have forgotten theirs, for they had each had to face this the same: alone, and eventually forgotten. What would time do to remember Franny Mae?
“Be brave and be well,” the mayor had told her on the edge of the Wood on her Walking Day, before, without any ado, he had pushed her across the invisible line that marked safe from darkened Wood.
No one could be sure what Franny Mae saw in the Wood that day, but today the Lottery spit out the mane of Leslie Gilbert, so I guess I’m about to find out.
“Be brave and be well,” the self-same mayor tells me, and without any ado, he pushes me into the dark.