This story is by Tammy A. Branom and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Allen Stone groaned and planted his forehead on the steering wheel of his old car, his fingers still gripping the keys in the ignition.
“Come on, please start.”
“Great. I’m stuck in the forest with a dead battery. Again.” Two vehicles were beside him, one belonging to an acquaintance named Stanley; the other a black, topless, door-less Jeep.
He turned the key again.
Slumping into the seat, he tipped his head back and closed his eyes. “Damn.”
“Hey,” a soft, female voice said. “Do you need help?”
Allen lifted his head. Outside his window stood a red-head in a tie-died t-shirt. Her daintily pointed long face gleamed pale in the afternoon sun; her almond-shaped eyes mirrored the blue sky.
He stared at her, riveted.
“Hi there,” he said. “I think I have a dead battery. Do you have cables?”
Her narrow lips pouted.
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t. But, I can give you a ride.” She motioned toward the Jeep.
He pointed to the forest. “I need to pick up my tools.”
Her thin eyebrows shot up. “Perfect! I’m meeting friends out there. We do this every year. It’ll be nice to have company for the ride.” She giggled.
A quiver surged in his veins. “I’d need to come back. I have to go to the university tomorrow.”
She gave him a sweeping gaze. “Are you a teacher?”
Allen wrapped his clammy palms around the steering wheel. “I’m a mycologist. I’m here foraging mushrooms for a study.”
She bobbed her head and tucked her hands into her pockets. “So, you’re a mushroom man.” Again, she giggled.
Nodding, he wrung his hands on the steering wheel. “My gear is at the Forest Road 12 trailhead, so it isn’t that far.”
Her jaw dropped. “Oh my stars! That’s where I’m going!” She shifted her weight to one leg and put her hand on her hip. “It’s like destiny.”
Allen grinned. “Yeah, destiny.”
Her lips curved into a tiny smile. “By the way, my name’s Suzy.”
“Well, Suzy, I’m Allen Stone.” His heart jolted; his pulse quickened.
She swung his car door open. “Let’s go, mushroom man.”
As he stood next to her, he eyed her tininess. She was barely 5 foot tall, reedlike, willowy. “Aren’t you afraid?”
She tossed her red hair and squared her shoulders. “No one helps anyone anymore. There’s too much hate in the world. Everyone lives in some sort of fear.” She waved her hand. “I don’t live in fear. I believe in a better place where we all love each other.”
He sighed. “That would be a nice world.”
She headed to the Jeep. “Let’s go.”
Keys jingled as Stanley unlocked his car. “Dead battery again, Stone?” His head swiveled between Allen and the girl. “You got a ride, I take it.”
Allen motioned toward her. “Yup. I’m ridin’ with Suzy.”
Stanley grinned and gave a thumb up.
“Come on,” she called.
Allen hopped in the passenger side as she revved the Jeep to life. Reaching into her bra, she extracted a marijuana joint and lighter.
“Will you light this for me?” She plopped it all in his lap, and he scrambled to catch everything as she floored the accelerator. A billowing cloud of brown dust whirled in their wake as they sped away.
“Maybe you should do this yourself.”
“Just light it, mushroom man.”
“I haven’t done this in a long time.” He clenched his jaw. “I have a job.”
Her head snapped back with her laughter. “With the name Stone, you don’t smoke?” She flapped her hand. “I have a job,” she said, mimicking him. She shrugged. “Who will know?” She leaned toward him. “Live a little, Allen Stone. Be happy. You want to be happy, don’t you?”
Allen lightly wiggled the joint in his fingers, recalling the earthy aroma, the full-body relaxation. His vision shifted to her.
“Come on, mushroom man,” she teased. He sparked the lighter and lit the joint. Inhaling deep, he felt the smoke billow into his lungs with surprisingly smooth warmth. The effects were immediate. His body wilted into the seat.
His eyelids blinked until sleep covered him with its warm, black blanket.
“I knew you wanted to be happy,” she said, taking the joint.
“It’s in your genes, Allen Stone.”
Chattering voices echoed in his ears and he flickered awake to darkening twilight surrounding the parked Jeep. Remnants of the drug dizzied his head and he slowly looked around. “Suzy?”
She was gone.
His gear was next to a sign marked Road 12, still stacked as he had left it.
“The trailhead.” His eyes tracked the trodden path up a little knoll. A group of several men and women clustered in a circle at the top. They parted, disappearing over the hill, leaving a small, whitish, spindly figure behind, its body like a twig against the giant redwoods. Its large, red-haired head cranked and blue, almond-shaped eyes peered at him. The entity headed for the Jeep; its body shifting as if twirling in a breeze.
Allen cocked his head. “Suzy?”
She appeared beside the Jeep.
“You’re awake!” She leaned inside. “Would you like to meet my friends?”
He rubbed his hands on his thighs. “I need to get my stuff and go back.”
She smiled, shimmying closer. “Would you like to be happy forever, Allen?” The sweet smell of wildflowers lingered in his nose and he lost himself in her blue irises spinning like twin galaxies.
His shoulders sagged.
She pressed a kiss to his lips. “Come with me, Allen. Be happy.”
Pinching the corners of his eyes, he shook his head, fighting his growing desire. “I need to get back.”
She clutched his hand, tugging him from the vehicle. “Worry about that later.” Her grip tightened and she pulled him along the pathway, the woody scent of the damp forest floor surrounding him.
Over the knoll and tucked amid the dense woodland, stood a shimmering arch with a dazzling center. Brilliant rays slivered outward, slicing away swathes of darkness. At its edges, sparking tendrils whipped the night air.
One by one, the people entered it, their silhouettes evaporating into the radiance as if stepping into liquid sunshine. Leaves tussled in a whooshing wind and flitted around Allen’s ankles as they moved closer.
A low hum filled the air, crawling over his flesh. His hairs jolted upright. His body’s muscles stiffened him midstride.
He wrenched against her hold.
“What is this, Suzy?”
“You’ll be happy. I promise.”
Allen yanked away. “This is a cult, isn’t it?”
She hung her head. “We are here only once a year.”
She stroked her belly.
“I need YOU.”
Anger festered in his thoughts.
Her fingers scrunched her shirt. “You will know only pleasure. No pain.” She looked up at him, her eyes bordered with tears.
He huffed and wheeled away. “This is a cult.”
She reached for him, her fingers grasping air. “We need human DNA…to mix with ours…for survival of us all.”
She hugged her midriff.
“I’m here for YOU.”
His steps plunked along the trail as the humming thrummed his core.
“You can live happily ever after. You can hunt mushrooms all day, every day.”
He shook his head, trudging onward against the throbbing rhythm.
“You can’t fight this, Allen Stone.”
The hum coursed into his bones. His head spun; his vision blurred. He staggered over the knoll and crashed into the side of the Jeep.
Light sliced the forest. The droning howled to a crescendo.
Inky, blind darkness shrouded him.
Trees moaned melancholy hushes; limbs sighed.
Cold settled in Allen’s back as he straightened himself against the Jeep.
“Need a ride, mushroom man?”
Her face came into focus from the blackened night. Her fingers hushed his lips then swept his cheek and clamped against his temples. Her blue eyes set him adrift in a sapphire sky. He glided like a leaf on the breeze into tall grass that caressed his skin as vivid green feathers. Soothing melodies swished in trees. He breathed wildflowers.
“Not a cult,” she said. “Destiny.”
His eyes closed.
His shoulders slumped.
His groin tingled.
Allen Stone groaned, his forehead smacking the steering wheel of his old car, his fingers tightening around the keys in the ignition.
“Hey.” A soft, female voice said. “Do you need help?”
He lifted his head from his steering wheel. A red-head leaned in his car’s window, her long, pale, dainty face gleaming. Her blue, almond-shaped eyes mirrored the sky.
His heart fluttered.
“Hi.” She smiled. “I’m Suzy.”
“I’m Allen Stone.” He pointed to the hood. “Dead battery.”
“I can give you a ride.”
Keys jingled in the lock of the car next to them. “Battery again, Stone?” A familiar face glanced between the two, but Allen couldn’t remember his name. “I take it you have a ride.”
Allen motioned toward the girl. “Yup. I’m ridin’ with Suzy.”
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