“Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit.”
— Frank Borman
The bird didn’t move when Pip approached it, though he kept his distance. It cocked its red-capped head to the side, looking him over with its black pebble eyes.
“Look, Tay,” Pip breathed. “It’s not even flying away.”
His friend also squatted down into the tall grass. “No one ever goes out this far anymore,” he whispered. “It doesn’t know to be scared of humans.”
The bird gave a little chirrup, then took off into the sky in a whirl of feathers.
Pip snorted. “It didn’t like you.”
“Couldn’t resist my charm, more like,” said Tay, tossing back his head of shaggy black hair. Pip shoved him, laughing, and took off running before his friend could get back to his feet.
The village was a sliver of brown in the distance. Everything else was blue sky and green grass, as far as he could see. Or at least . . .
Just before him, there seemed to be a drop in the very earth. He stumbled and barely caught himself from falling straight into it. He landed roughly on his hands and knees. Pip quickly shifted backward from the edge and sat back on his haunches, breathing heavily. He examined his skinned palms, then peered over the side. Dirt clods and rocks rolled down a steep ditch that lead right into . . .
“A forest?” Pip said out loud, his voice sounding small. It was a guess. He had only ever seen trees of this size and number in vids and book illustrations. And if he was right, then this particular forest was huge, despite being nearly completely hidden when viewed from up on the grassland. He stood and rose up on his toes, cupping his hands around his eyes to block the afternoon sun. The trees stretched on and on to the horizon, a deep green carpet at his feet.
“Pip! Are you okay?”
He turned to see a worried Tay running toward him. “I’m fine!” Pip called, waving his hand.
Tay looked even more alarmed. “You’re bleeding!” he said, sliding to a halt in front of Pip. He took one of Pip’s hands. “We need to clean this.”
Pip yanked his hand away. “It’s just skinned. Did you know about this?” He pointed at the trees. “About this . . . forest?”
A strange expression came across the older boy’s face. “We’re not allowed to go there,” he said slowly.
“So you did know! Why didn’t you tell me? It’s so cool!” Pip exclaimed, and bent to peer into the ditch again.
Tay pulled him back sharply. “We’re not allowed to go there,” he said, now sounding stern.
Pip frowned. “Why not? Is it dangerous?”
“We’re not allowed to go there,” Tay repeated. Pip stared at his friend.
“Are you okay?”
Tay shook himself, his strange expression disappearing. “I’m fine. But we’re not allowed to go there. It’s against the village rules.”
He stared at the forest as he said this, not even glancing at Pip.
“Well . . . aren’t you at least curious why? Of what could be in there?” Pip asked, feeling slightly unnerved.
“We’re not allowed to go there,” Tay said, shaking his head. “Why would I be curious about a place like that?”
Pip’s mother had a similar reaction when he told her about the forest that night.
“You shouldn’t have been out that far. If something had happened to you, no one would have been around to help,” she scolded.
“Tay was with me, Mom,” he said, sulkily squishing peas into his mashed potatoes. “But he didn’t even care about the forest. He just kept saying, ‘we’re not allowed, we’re not allowed,’ over and over.” Pip pushed his food away. “It was weird.”
His mom tsked as she picked up his half-eaten plate. “Well, he’s right. We’re not allowed to go there.”
Pip frowned at her as she went into the kitchen.
The moon was waning, but it still shone bright enough for Pip to easily find the lock of the barn door and slip inside. It was dark and smelled of hay and horses. One gave a soft snort at the boy’s entrance. Pip patted it on the nose as he shrugged off his knapsack and went over to his father’s workbench. Taking a small flashlight from his pocket, he examined the carefully organized tools, each in their respective casing or drawer. He wasn’t sure what he would need going into the forest, but he had read enough survival books to know it was better to be overly prepared. Still, he could only carry so much.
Over some deliberation, Pip selected two medium-sized knives, ones he had used before when helping skin wild rabbits. He also took a sharpening stone and a short-handled ax. He kept them in their sheaths, wrapped them again in a couple handtowels he’d taken from the bathroom, and stuffed them into his knapsack, next to similar packages of food, clothes, and —
A water bottle fell from the open pocket and bounced onto the floor. Pip winced at the noise, slight as it was, and made a grab for the bottle. It slipped through his fingers and rolled into the darkness. A couple seconds later, he heard a metallic clang that reverberated throughout the barn. Pip started violently, and one of the horses gave a low whinny.
He frantically flicked off the flashlight and waited a few agonizing minutes for the sound of anyone approaching. Nothing except the pounding of his own heart and the shuffle of hooves met his ears, and he let himself relax. Turning on the flashlight again, Pip searched for the errant water bottle. It had rolled into the wall, where a series of long, dangerous-looking scythes hung. They glinted sharply in the light, and Pip grabbed the bottle quickly and returned to his knapsack, jamming the bottle deep inside.
Pip hefted the bag onto his shoulders and took a few experimental steps. It was heavy, but not overly so. He could probably hike all the way to the forest before having to rest. His conscience gave a small pang, and he stopped, his hand on the barn door. He had never done anything so reckless before, so disobedient. But there was something strange about that forest — the way no one knew anything about it, that nobody even wanted to check it out. It wasn’t so far that anything dangerous couldn’t venture into the village. He was doing everyone a favor, scouting it out.
Determination renewed, he swung open the door — and someone was standing there.
Pip nearly bashed the person over the head with the flashlight before he realized it was Tay, frowning at him.
“Tay!” he hissed, both shocked and angry. “What are you doing here?”
His friend shoved him back into the barn and shut the door behind them. “Stopping you,” Tay said, keeping his voice low.
“What? Why?!” Pip snapped.
“You’re sneaking out! You’re going to go to the forest. We’re not allowed —”
“To go there, I know!” Pip said, throwing his knapsack to the ground. “You and everyone else have only told me a thousand times.”
Tay crossed his arms. “Then why are you leaving? Why are you disobeying orders?”
“Because I can? Because I want to?” Pip retorted. “It’s not about disobeying, it’s about finding out what’s in there! It’s about exploration!”
Tay’s frown deepened. Pip knew he wouldn’t be able to outrun Tay, let alone fight him to the door, so he tried a different tactic.
“Don’t you remember watching those old cartoon vids? Of those kids who would travel around the world, seeking adventure? Or solve mysteries and help people?”
“Those were cartoons,” Tay said. “They weren’t real.”
“No, but the spirit is. Of wanting to know what else is out there.” Pip gestured at the wall, toward where the forest lay. “And no one else seems to care. No one else wants to help. And I’m fifteen years old. More than capable of taking care of myself — even by our village rules,” he pointed out, anticipating Tay’s next point.
Tay shook his head, his dark hair falling into his eyes. “Exactly. You’re too old to be doing this. Running away from home. Disobeying.”
Pip snorted. “You act like I’m not coming back. It’s basically just a camping trip.” He nudged his knapsack. “I brought enough supplies for a few days. If I can hunt food, maybe a week, tops.”
He gave his friend a look. “Come with me. Let’s do it together.”
Tay didn’t react.
Pip tried again. “C’mon, with two of us, it’ll be a proper scouting mission.”
“Our scouts have explored all there is to explore,” Tay said tightly.
“Except the giant bunch of trees right at our doorstep!” Pip shouted, forgetting the need to be quiet. “That’s not on any of our maps, is it? Just a oversight? Only thing around us is grass and grass! Something’s not right here, our leaders are hiding something.”
Pip grabbed his bag and slung it over his shoulder. “And I’m going to find out what. For the good of the village.”
He tried to push past the surprised-looking Tay, but his friend quickly regained his composure and blocked him.
“Do not disobey!” he said sharply. He poked Pip in the chest with every word. “We’re not allowed to go —”
“I KNOW!” In a blaze of frustration, Pip shoved Tay as hard as he could. The boy stumbled backward and fell, cracking his head against the barn wall.
There was a glint of silver, and Pip watched, horrified, as the scythes rattled off their hooks . . . and dropped.
Pip screamed as several of the blades pierced Tay’s body with sickening thuds, the handles quivering as Tay jerked back from the impact.
“Tay!” Tears began flooding Pip’s eyes as he rushed over.
Slumped against the wall, his friend stared blankly at a scythe sticking out of his chest. Before Pip could stop him, he yanked it out in one swift movement, and dark blood gushed out of the wound, running down Tay’s shirt and pooling onto the ground. Pip made to stop the bleeding with his hands, but Tay brushed him away.
“No, you can’t . . . It’s . . . I’m . . . ” Tay said weakly.
And Pip screamed again.
It wasn’t blood. Blood wasn’t black. And inside the hole in Tay’s chest, instead of bone, Pip could see sparking wires and glowing blue circuitry.
Tay wasn’t human.
So somehow this little flash fiction turned into a two-part short story, heh. ^^;
Come back tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion!