BY CHRISTOPHER LOCKE
EXHIBIT #5 The woods are quiet, Daria said. Yeah, what do you mean? I mean they’re quiet. No sound. No movement. Nothing. It’s weird. It’s like we’re walking around in a photograph. So we stood side by side for a moment, surveying the area. She held the pillowcase half full of morel mushrooms, I the aluminum red trowel we ended up not needing. But my daughter was right. The woods were quiet. No chipmunks to scold us, no birdsong woven throughout the treetops. There was even an absence of mosquitoes to complain in our ears. The sunlight splashing between the pines seemed staged, as if part of a bigger setpiece. I think Chuck said there was a patch of apple trees this way, Daria said. A patch, I asked. Since when do trees grow in patches? Daria smiled at me. You’re such a dork, she said.
EXHIBIT #7 My breathing grew elevated and I could feel a cool film on my neck, sweat blooming in knots on my t-shirt. We crested a hill and I could make out two or three gnarled apple trees about 100 yards away. How much do these things sell for again, Daria asked. Like, thirty bucks a pound. Oh. How much do we have now? She stopped and opened her sack, looked in. It reminded me of when was little, no older than nine. She was dressed as a Dalmatian that year. Her twin sister, Marie, was Cruella de Vil. She was mad because Marie kept stealing her Kit-Kats. Marie had just started showing signs of getting sick that fall, but we were still months away from anything serious. No I’m not! I’m not stealing, Marie yelled. Yes you are, I saw you hide the wrappers! Did not! Did too, liar! Girls, girls, I pleaded. You’re a jerk and dad loves me more anyway, Marie said. Hey, I said, and immediately felt guilty because all three of us knew it was true.
EXHIBIT #12 The apple trees were old, beaten. Their low branches stretched out above the ground like diseased arms. I immediately noticed several morels near the base of the first tree; they looked like tiny, dusty brains. Bingo, I said. Daria tipped her head down and scooched under the branches. She began gently pulling the mushrooms up. Careful not to break them, I said. Dad, please, Daria complained. I heard a man and a women talking behind us and turned around. I expected hikers. What’s wrong, Daria asked. I couldn’t see anyone and the voices stopped. Nothing, I said. I turned back around and Daria was still working. Did you hear that, I asked. Hear what? I listened. Everything was quiet. Nothing, I said again.
EXHIBIT #15 I weighed the pillowcase in my hand. I think our work is done here, I said. Daria smiled. Nice! Gonna make it rain, she said, and began sliding imaginary bills off her open palm. Yeah, yeah. Maybe enough for your textbooks next semester. Let’s go, I said. Our feet crunching the leaves and pine needles was the only sound for a while. As we made our way up the little hill, Daria was behind me and began to hum a song. It was a song Marie had asked for on the last day, lying there crisscrossed in tubes and wires, her head naked as a baby bird’s. Sing it again, she said to me before closing her eyes. Sing it again, Papa. My wife and I held her hand, bewildered. Daria stayed in the bathroom the whole time, the door locked. What are you singing, I asked Daria now. Oh, just some song, she said.
EXHIBIT #19 When we got to the bottom of the hill, I couldn’t tell if we’d been here before. I put my hands on my hips, looked around. What’s wrong, Daria asked, a little winded. Um, did we come this way? Daria looked left and right. Of course. I think so. Why? No, it’s just…this doesn’t look familiar, I said. Daria and I stood a moment longer. If there had been crickets, they’re all we would have been able to hear. Instead, nothing but a dropping sun and shadows stretched mutely across soil and dead leaves. The car’s this way, Daria said. Don’t be so dramatic.
EXHIBIT #22 About 15 minutes later, we heard a dog barking in the distance. We froze. Do you hear that, I asked. Duh, Daria said. The dog kept barking. And barking. It first sounded like it was in front of us, but then like it was to the left of us. Do you think…Shh! I said, holding my hand up. The dog continued barking another 30 seconds then made a quick, high pitched sound, like a struggle, and then the barking stopped. What happened, Daria asked. I cocked my head a bit. Strained. I don’t know, I said. But let’s get moving. It’s getting dark.
EXHIBIT #27 When it became too dark to see I used the light on my phone to guide us. The going was slow and both of us kept tripping, kept stumbling over roots. I still can’t get a signal, Daria said. She was looking at her cell phone and then holding it to her ear. Finally my phone ran out of power. Daria’s followed suit in a couple of minutes. We stopped walking and huddled up close. The sky held no moon or stars. Dad, I’m scared, Daria said. Before we all went downstairs to leave for Marie’s funeral, Daria hid in her closet. My wife couldn’t deal with much of anything so I went into the closet to fetch her. She was sitting on the floor in the back. Whatcha doing back there, sweetie, I said. This is what it’s like to die, Daria said. All this darkness. Hey, that’s not true. Don’t say that. I slid a row of little dresses out of the way. Daria looked up at me. It’s true, she said. Except when you die, there are others with you. I squatted down and brushed a loose strand of hair off of her forehead. Sweetie …Marie told me, Daria said. Marie says they won’t stop touching her.
EXHIBIT #32 After about a half hour of sitting down together, I ate a few of the morels. How are they, Daria asked. Raw, I said. The dark was so thick and so silent and so complete. It seemed like the trees were holding their breath. Maybe we should sleep here, I finally said. What? Are you nuts? What else are we going to do? We can sleep until first light and then go and get help. Help from where, Daria demanded. I realized I had no idea. Did you hear that, Daria asked. Hear what, I said. Is that someone talking? I listened. Sweetheart, I don’t hear anything. Daria found my hand. Dad, Daria asked. I shifted my weight. Yes? Was Marie afraid to die? Um, that was a long time ago. Was she? Maybe, I said. I think so, yes. What was that, Daria said. What was what, I asked. That sound! Daria, you need to just calm down, I said. And that’s when I heard it. Behind me. The voice of a little girl I once loved above all others.
Christopher Locke is the Nonfiction Editor at Slice in Brooklyn. Other speculative pieces can be found in New Flash Fiction Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Forth, Adbusters, Ink Stains Anthology, SmokeLong Quarterly, etc. His latest book is ORDINARY GODS (Salmon Poetry—2017).