Emma was only off the main trail for two minutes before she was lost.
For a few minutes more, she didn’t really care. She sang along to Imagine Dragons under her breath, considering the lyrics. She wasn’t sure why she liked love songs so much when she’d never been in love.
Once the song ended, she emerged from her thoughts and took stock of her surroundings. The packed brown earth of a path lay ahead of her, flanked by tall trees and overgrown shrubs.
Emma came to a slow stop as the start of a rock song blared through her earbuds. She looked back over her shoulder.
There was no trace of the path that had brought her there.
Fear stabbed like a knife in her belly. Emma took a deep breath as she tried to remain calm. She wasn’t that far from the main trail and she remembered the general direction she’d come from.
Still, she looked ahead, wondering if this branch of the trail circled back around to the main path. She decided in an instant that it wasn’t worth finding out, but then she saw someone moving through the copious amounts of vines and leaves ahead.
“Hello?” Emma called, pausing her music. She walked towards the figure, but when she rounded a tree to reach them, no one was there.
“Huh,” she muttered. Maybe they had been further ahead; it was hard to gauge distance with all the wild plants obstructing her view. Emma turned to head back to the main trail, but the greenery behind her suddenly looked different. She’d have to push through some undergrowth to go back the way she’d come.
Fear seized her again. Something weird was happening. It was like…like the forest was moving.
She shook her head. Of course it wasn’t. She just wasn’t paying enough attention.
“So,” she muttered to herself, “going forwards and possibly getting lost, or going backwards and getting tangled in the bushes?” Images of spiders, snakes, and bears came to mind, and all of a sudden going into the unknown didn’t seem like such a terrible prospect. Besides, she’d glanced at the map on the way into the park, and she was fairly sure this side path joined back up with the main one. And she’d most likely run into the person she’d seen; they probably knew where they were going.
Having almost thoroughly convinced herself, Emma pressed onwards, pushing her thumbs behind the straps of her backpack. She called out a couple of times, hoping the person she’d seen would respond. She knew they hadn’t been that far away. How had she missed them?
The forest seemed to press in on her like it was purposefully trying to scare her. She knew it was just her imagination, but it seemed to Emma that everything was growing closer together, squeezing her into a tunnel. Birdsong disappeared. There was no breeze to even rustle the leaves. She wasn’t sure that she’d ever heard the world so silent.
A few minutes went by before Emma realized that her soft footfalls on the dirt had changed to more powerful strides over roots and leaves. She came to a halt.
The path had vanished altogether.
Emma removed her earbuds and clenched them in her fist. The silence remained, so complete that it was almost tangible. Emma wasn’t sure what else to do but stand there in the middle of the forest. Would she ever find her way out? Would someone find her if she stayed put? She pulled her phone out of her pocket, but just as she’d thought, she didn’t have any service.
She reasoned with herself once again as she put her phone away. She just had to keep moving forwards. Eventually, she’d make it out. It was just common sense. The forest wasn’t too big. She’d run into the main road after an hour or two.
But a low grumbling sound scattered all of Emma’s thoughts. Worst of all, the sound came from behind her.
Emma crossed her arms over her chest like she was physically holding herself together. She whimpered, terrified of what she’d find if she looked towards the source of the noise. Maybe it would be better not to. She could just stay there and let the animal attack her, or she could run.
Some kind of morbid curiosity made her turn around.
A huge black bear stood in the space she’d just walked a moment before. Its fur was pitch black and its eyes even blacker. It stared at her intensely—not like a hungry beast, but a curious person. Even though it was on all fours, its eyes were level with hers.
Emma found that she couldn’t work her legs. Her mouth fell open, but no sound passed through her lips. The only thought in her mind besides sheer terror was simply, Why am I not dead yet?
The bear blinked. “Your scent is new here.”
Emma wondered if she had already died, because the bear had definitely opened its mouth and spoken.
“My name is Oberon,” he said in a deep, resonant voice. “It’s been a long time since someone new has passed through my trees.” He gazed at her like he was waiting for a reply.
Emma swallowed, realizing her mouth was completely dry. “Uh…” The word barely made a sound. “Hi? I’m…Emma.”
“Emma,” Oberon said like he was testing the name on his tongue. “You are most welcome here.”
She didn’t understand how or why this bear believed that it owned the forest, but she wasn’t about to question something with teeth that big.
“Thanks?” Confusion and fear filled her voice and she hoped the bear wouldn’t think her rude. Did bears have a concept of rudeness?
This one can talk, she thought. All bets are off.
Oberon growled and Emma took an involuntary step back, but the bear’s gaze looked past her. “Stop playing games with the girl,” he said as a clear command. “It’s no way to treat a guest.”
Emma thought she heard something like high-pitched laughter all around her, but there were no people or other creatures in sight. However, vines and roots wriggled like snakes beneath her feet and she jumped with a gasp. They were all gone in an instant, revealing the dirt path. Instant tears of relief sprang to Emma’s eyes.
“I apologise,” Oberon said, meeting her gaze once again. “The trees like to play with the newcomers. Once, they kept a human walking in circles for two days,” he said with a chuckle.
Emma simply stared at the bear. Two days? “But I can get out now, right?”
Oberon nodded. “Simply follow the path. You’ll find your way. If the trees start acting up again, call out my name and I’ll put them to rights.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, the lizards and frogs have declared war against each other again. I’d stay clear of the brook if I were you.” There was no trace of humour in his face; but then again, he was a bear. How did one read a bear’s expression?
“Got it.” She shifted her weight from foot to foot, unsure how to say goodbye to a giant talking bear. She glanced at the path behind her and saw that it went on clearly as far as she could see. Two birds flitted between tree branches and chirped at each other. Everything seemed to be back to normal.
“Well…” Emma said, “I guess I should be—” The rest of her words were stuck in her throat.
Because when she turned back around, Oberon was gone.