by Karena Landler & Danielle Devillier
Town history was about the only part of the local library that the boarding school down the road hadn’t quietly bought up and siphoned away into their private halls. She and Graham spent hours there, looking through reams of old articles about the fall festival, new additions to the local fire department, and pictures of kids from the public school making paper rockets.
In short, it was very boring. Perhaps it wasn’t even Ella’s fault that she had gotten distracted.
“Hey Graham, check this out,” Ella said, holding up the newspaper clipping. “‘Local Woman Disappears, Rumors of Harvestman’s Return.’”
“That is not pertinent to our research project,” Graham said primly. He picked up another clipping, staring at it pointedly.
“This one is cool, seriously.” She shook the clipping in his face.
Graham set down his own papers, sighing. “Harvestman?”
“Listen, it’s some town-legend shit,” Ella said. “Some lady was walking in the woods and ran back into town crying about something called the Harvestman following her. She disappeared from her room the next morning and was never seen again. Spooky, right?”
Graham snatched up the article, tilting the paper towards the lamp. “Sixteen disappearances attributed to the Harvestman over the past hundred years…” he muttered. “That’s way too many… it follows its victims through the wood… heralded by the smell of smoke and the sound of cracking wood….” He shuddered and made a face that reminded Ella of a catfish, though a real shiver of strange delight ran down her spine.
“Cool legend, right? ‘The farther it sounds, the closer it is.’ Very creative.”
“Yeah, I guess it’s… interesting. It says here… the Harvestman ‘is summoned by the sound of its name…’” Graham looked up. “ELLA, WHY WOULD YOU LET ME DO THAT?”
Ella laughed. “Oh, sorry, does that scare you?”
“You didn’t even stop me from saying the name! Ella, that’s like saying,” his voice dropped. “Bloody Mary.”
“What was that? Bloody Mary?” she asked loudly.
“Shh! Don’t make me say it again.”
“Did you say Bloody Mary?”
Graham made an unsuccessful grab for her face to stop her saying it the third time, and ended up falling out of his seat onto her lap. She shoved him off, and picked up the news clipping.
“Why would you let me say the name of the creepy body-snatcher, Ella? Those things are always after me for my godlike good looks!”
“You are so mistaken I don’t even know where to start,” Ella said, standing and slinging her bag over her shoulder. “Get your shit, the library closes in ten minutes.”
After a brief scuffle during which Graham asked Ella for the ninth time that day to stop swearing, they were walking beneath the streetlights back towards the campus of their boarding school.
“Besides,” she added, “you don’t actually believe in any of that stuff, right?”
Graham was silent, shuffling his feet in an irritating manner against the pavement.
“Oh, come on,” she said. “They just made that shit up because they didn’t know what science was. You’re not dumb enough to believe in monsters.”
“I just—” Graham faltered. “I would prefer to respect things that I don’t understand.”
“What, like you respect calculus?”
“Rude. Disrespectful. I am mortally offended. I am wounded.”
“Not as wounded as you’ll be when the Harvestman comes.”
Graham groaned and walked faster, leaving Ella to trot after him. She grabbed his arm and dragged him towards the other side of the deserted street.
“Nope. I’m not going through the woods.”
“Graham,” she said, linking her elbow through his and dragging him bodily. “My simpleton friend. The school literally owns the woods. It’s like fifty feet of trees. Two minutes in the woods rather than an hour of walking around the hill. Comparatively, the woods are safer.”
“It does not take that long to go around. And timing has nothing to do with safety!”
“Come,” she said. “On. Now.”
“If I die,” Graham declared, “I will haunt you.”
“Now, that is my actual worst nightmare,” Ella said. “Good thing it will literally never happen. Because ghosts. Don’t. Exist.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” said Graham indignantly. “It’s just that I don’t not believe in them. Also, the harv— the thing isn’t a ghost.” He extricated himself from Ella’s hold.
“So you’re not afraid?” Ella asked, trying to grab Graham’s arm again. He sidled away.
“Not in the least,” he said with pompous affectation. “I require no hand holding. If we were we attacked, I would valiantly defend you. I can bench 250.”
She went to grab his arm again, but then realized that the movement was akin to feeling up his bicep. Which… she wasn’t doing. Didn’t want to do. “Bull.”
“No, I really can bench 250,” he insisted.
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
They were silent for a moment, and the only sound was the quiet crunch of leaves beneath their boots.
“It’s—uh, getting really dark,” Graham said after a moment, attempting gruffness.
Ella pulled her phone from her pocket and switched on the flashlight. The woods circling the campus were strange; not quite wild but not quite manicured. The trees were trimmed regularly and the brush was cleared away, but the path was infrequently used, and the flashlight unsettled Graham more than the dark did. Now he could see just enough for the movement of the leaves to play at the corner of his eyes, for the woods to feel alive. Breathing.
Ella’s breath was loud in her ears. Her footsteps were soft. Her fingers brushed Graham’s. They were cold. There was a beat, a pocket of still, and then something snapped behind them.
Graham spun around. It had sounded like a branch breaking. Loud. Right behind them. Ella lifted her phone, and the harsh white light fell across the trees where the noise had come from.
“Did a limb fall?” Ella asked.
She shone the flashlight down to the ground, on the path they had just walked, and where something might have fallen, but it was clear.
“That’s weird,” she said.
“Ella,” Graham said, the slightest quiver in his voice. Ella felt colder than she had a moment ago, but she pushed Graham around towards the school and marched him forward.
“Trees make noise,” she said. “There are animals and shit.”
“So that’s your explanation,” Graham said quietly. “Animals and…stuff.”
“You can bench a deer.”
“I’ll keep that in mind if we meet one.”
From behind them, there was another crack like the snapping of wood. Loud, insistent. Graham froze, and turned to look back. Ella grabbed his arm, notions of bicep-feeling be damned, her fingers digging in. “Keep walking.” Keep walking, keep walking, don’t look behind.
“Ella,” he said very quietly. “Do you smell smoke?”
“No,” she said. It was a lie. Reassuring him (just to reassure him, not for any other reason), she added, “there’s no such thing as the Harvestman.”
But the smell of smoke was unmistakable, right behind her, or next to her– she couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but it curled up around her and into her mouth and nose.
The noise came again, still loud and still behind them. Graham did not stop this time, but his breath came faster, and his head tilted down just slightly towards her. “Please don’t say the name again.”
“Shh,” she whispered furiously, and walked on. There was something crawling down the back of her neck, like snow dripping down her collar. The dark crowded in, and her phone light felt flimsy and fragile.
Another crack, from farther away. Quieter. Behind them. Ella stopped and turned.
“Whoever you are,” she called into the trees, trying to keep her voice even, “you can fuck right off!”
“Don’t, Ella,” Graham said urgently, and she grabbed his hand before marching forward again. They were halfway through. A few minutes walk and they would be in the quad and on their way to the dorms for the night.
Graham was breathing hard, and his hand shuddered in hers. He cleared his throat gently, and sniffed once.
‘The farther it sounds, the closer it is.’
A stick snapped somewhere in the distance.
She wasn’t sure when she decided to start running. The fine hairs on the back of her neck prickled, and she broke, Graham following closely behind.
The flashlight beam shuddered erratically as they ran, crashing through brush and stumbling over unseen roots on the path. Graham’s shoulder crashed into a tree, but he righted himself and kept on running. Hooks and tangles grasped at them from trees, sharp and biting, where there once there had been nothing but branches of red and gold leaves.
From far off behind them, there was the crack of a twig.
The trees all looked the same, yet all unfamiliar. The shadows shifted and bobbed and reached out for her. Ella dropped her phone, and did not go back for it. It lay screen down behind her, shining light up into the branches.
“Straight,” Ella gasped, “go straight.”
They should have reached the campus. They should have reached the campus. This was not their forest. They were running uphill. Why were they running uphill? There was no hill. There had never been a hill in the woods. The only hill around the town was the one leading up to the dorms on campus, and it was a grassy field. There was no hill.
But they were running up one.
Ella gasped for breath, and the cold air bit her lungs, and her hand slammed into a tree. It tore her from Graham’s grasp, and she lunged for him once she had passed it by, but he was not there.
“Graham!” she shouted. Nothing. Not a sound. An unnatural silence over the trees. She was the only sound.
Her, and a crack far off like someone stepping on wood.
Smokey wind blew into her face as she ran, and her eyes watered. The ground was evening out. Her hand was scraped, she thought. Bleeding. But she didn’t feel anything. Her fingers were numb. There was light ahead. Light. The school? Light.
She stumbled to a stop.
Graham stood in front of her, bent down to lift something slowly from the leaves. It was her phone. The flashlight shone up into his face, casting harsh light over his cheekbones. He straightened, and stood waiting for her.
She sagged, and threw herself at him, snatching up the phone and grabbing his hand to pull him on.
Ella didn’t see the edge of the trees until she burst through them, and cleared a healthy ten strides with Graham, who was working not to outpace her. She trotted to a stop, and turned to look back at the trees.
“See?” she asked breathlessly, dashing the moisture from her eyes. She dropped his hand, which had been warm in hers. “Nothing there. Nothing to worry about.”
Graham stared off into the woods as Ella turned back around to look at the familiar grounds of the campus, and the streetlamps that lit the paths. There was the grass, the quad, the brick of the buildings. It was all as it should be. All dark, all normal. In the distance, a few students still milled about outside. But the night was strangely hushed.
“Says the girl who started running first,” Graham murmured. He was still staring at the woods as though mesmerized.
“The woods,” Ella admitted, “at night, was perhaps not the best idea. Anyone could have been in there. But it wasn’t some monster that snatches you up at night.”
“Yeah,” Graham said. He had a distant, detached look about him. “Maybe you’re right.”
“I mean, I guess I’ll admit that something was off, but— did you just agree with me?”
Graham finally looked away from the woods. “I guess so. It was probably nothing.”
Ella left him at his room, three doors down from hers. “What if we just… don’t talk about this again? Like ever?”
Graham sighed. “Right. Yes. Sounds good.”
“You aren’t afraid, are you, anymore?” she asked. “Really?”
Graham snorted. “No. I’m good. The woods are weird as fuck, huh?”
“Yeah,” Ella said, unlocking her door. “Weird.”
“Wait,” he said, throwing a hand out to keep her from going. “Can I sleep on your floor tonight?”
Ella sighed, and tried to suppress her own tickling unease about being alone in her room. “Yeah, totally. I’ll get you a blanket.”
It was when she closed the door behind her that she thought about what Graham had said. Those woods are weird as fuck, huh?
Graham never swore.
The stress is getting to him.
She showered, and the tension left her. Safe in the light, there were no monsters. The terror of the woods was gone. It was nothing, a phantom in the trees, her own mind playing tricks on her. But anything seemed terrifying in the dark. Her mind made the smoke on the wind and the noises of the trees into a monster, as had the minds of countless people whose loved ones had gone missing over the years.
There was no Harvestman but what was in her mind, and in Graham’s.
She sat at her desk awhile in her room, with the lamp on, looking down unseeingly at her notes for her project. Graham was already asleep on the floor near the window, curled up quietly into his blanket.
Bed, she decided finally. Bed, before I dream up any new terrors.
She clicked off her desk lamp, impossibly tired, and stood to walk to her bed. The room was cast into darkness. She hadn’t taken a step before she heard a bang on her door, and froze.
It was Graham’s voice. When had he left the room?
“Ella, please.” He was close to screaming. “Are you in there?”
Her doorknob rattled; she had locked it when she came in. Graham had not left the room. The back of her neck felt curiously cold, as if a curl of cold air had touched it. A whisper of breath.
“I lost you in the woods!”
‘Several of the apparent abductees have described their experiences before their disappearance. According to these accounts, at the Harvestman’s quietest, it is standing at your back.’
Far, far off behind her, out her window and down the hill, in the woods and almost inaudibly, there was the crackling of wood.