When the three friends woke up again it was still dark out. After a quick inventory of limbs and heads, Athena’s supposition that they’d be alive and still possess all of their body parts when they woke up was vindicated.
As they sat up and rubbed the sleep from their eyes, Dianna’s stomach growled.
“Uh,” she grunted to her friends.
“Nuu,” Annelise grunted back, pointing to the food bags.
Dianna searched through the bags until she found one of the granola bars Annelise’s mother had provided.
“Mer,” Athena groaned at Dianna.
Dianna passed Athena a granola bar, while Annelise snatched one of her own, and a bottle of apple juice.
“Ma,” Dianna said.
“Mii,” Athena added.
Annelise passed both of them bottles of juice as well, and then they all fell silent as they contentedly enjoyed their breakfast.
“That’s better,” Athena said when she was finished, and had regained the ability to speak.
“Like popping a zit,” Annelise added.
Dianna and Athena stared at her with confused, slightly disgusted looks on their faces.
“You’re weird,” Dianna yawned, still not quite fully awake.
“You guys know it’s true,” Annelise maintained. “Anyway, should we get going?”
“Yeah,” Athena nodded.
“Whatever,” Dianna yawned again, still too sleepy to care.
Annelise climbed into the driver’s seat and started the van while Athena got into the passenger seat, and Dianna took the back seat.
“We’re just going straight down this road, right? There aren’t any exits I have to look for or anything?” Annelise asked as they got moving.
“Yeah. At least I think so. That’s what it looks like,” Dianna answered, looking at the map.
“How far did we get yesterday?” Athena asked.
“Um, let me see,” Dianna said, re-consulting the map. “It looks like we went this far,” she said, reaching her right hand up for them to see, her finger and thumb about an inch apart.
“How long is that in miles?” Athena pressed.
“How should I know?”
“Why did we give her this job again?” Annelise asked with a chuckle.
“Would you rather I took care of the navigating?” Athena asked Dianna.
“No, I can do it,” Dianna contended.
“Fine,” Athena accepted reluctantly.
“Who cares about maps and miles anyway? Don’t you guys realize how awesome it is to be starting the second day of our ROAD TRIP!” Dianna screamed, nearly breaking the sky light as she punched it open, and stood up on the seat so the top half of her body was out of the roof.
“Come back in!” Athena ordered.
“But it’s great out here!” Dianna yelled back. “Wooo!” She screamed, throwing her hands in the air, the right one still clutching the map.
Between the wind flapping it, and the jarring motion of her hand, though, Dianna lost her grip on the map, and it blew away.
Dianna turned to see it fluttering out of sight behind them.
She stood there for a minute, trying to figure out what to do. She could tell her friends what happened, but then they’d insist on stopping and searching for it. And in the meantime, she’d be the subject of their frustration and anger, particularly Athena’s. On the other hand, she could keep quiet and they’d continue down the road in peace. Annelise said that they were basically already on the road leading to Alexandria. They could surely make it that far without a map, and then when they arrived at the city she could just sneak away and get another.
So she decided to just remain quiet, and get another map in Alexandria. And to Dianna, at least, it seemed like the right decision, a true win-win. Athena and Annelise wouldn’t have to deal with the inconvenience of being angry like they would if she told the truth, and she would be spared from their rage.
“Seriously, come back in before a rogue branch takes your head off!” Athena ordered her again.
“That kind of thing doesn’t happen, silly,” Dianna retorted, ducking back in the van and trying to act natural.
“Say that to the 23 people it does happen to every year.”
“Is that a real statistic?” Annelise asked.
“The point is that it could be a real statistic.”
“So that’s a no, right?” Dianna asked.
“Yeah, that’s a no,” Annelise confirmed. “2 out of every 3 statistics cited are made up, after all.”
“Even I know you’re making that up,” Dianna said.
“Even if I am, it only goes to prove my point.”
“Oh, shut up already,” Athena said lightly.
So they drove and drove for hours, mile after mile passing by in a blur of grey and green. The sun traveled across the sky like the golden chariot of Helios, until it was coming dangerously close to the western horizon. Dianna had fallen asleep on the back seat, Athena was staring out of her window absentmindedly, and Annelise was staring ahead, almost hypnotized by the straightness of the road. Just as the weariness of the many miles traveled that day began to weigh on her, an intersection up ahead broke both the monotony and her trancelike state. She sat up straight, wide awake and alert, when she realized that it was a crossroads, one fork headed to the left, and the other to the right.
Her mind immediately went to her dream from the night before. She knew that she was in a forest, not a desert, and that the sky above was clear and not covered in sadistic, lightning hurling clouds, but her first instinct was still that she should take the right fork, as she had in her dream. She even started to turn the wheel in that direction, when Athena realized what was going on.
“Hold up, Anne. We need to make sure that’s the right way,” she said to Annelise.
Annelise stopped the van. Yes, of course they needed to be sure. Of course they needed to check the map. She suspected that it would indeed take them right, but even so, they needed to be sure.
“Dianna,” Athena said, shaking her.
“Huh,” Dianna moaned, sitting up.
“We need to know which way to go,” Athena told her.
With that, as if she’d just been splashed with cold water, Dianna was wide awake, a look of stark terror on her face.
“Just follow the road,” she said, hoping beyond hope that that would be enough for Athena.
“We can’t. It splits up here,” Athena informed her.
“Oh,” Dianna replied, loathe to reveal what happened to the map.
“What is it?” Athena asked, able to see that something was wrong.
“Well I kind of – without it being my fault or anything – lost the map,” Dianna admitted.
“You what?” Athena asked quietly, absolutely aghast and feeling her temper rising.
“It kind of blew out of my hand when I was standing out of the skylight.”
“I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you!” Athena yelled. “How could you let this happen?”
“I’m sorry,” Dianna apologized. “I didn’t think it was a big deal. I thought we could just follow the road to Alexandria, and then get another map there.”
“And you see how that turned out,” Athena said, motioning to the crossroads in front of them. “We can’t go forward if we don’t know where we’re going. We have to go back,” she said, shaking her head in frustration.
“We can’t!” Dianna protested.
“We’ve already come too far,” Annelise agreed. “And if we go back to Sunnyville now we’ll be stuck there all summer. We’ll miss everything we wanted to see and do.”
“We don’t know where we’re going!” Athena pointed out. “If we go on chances are we’ll get completely lost, and starve to death, or run into that pair of trolls my dad warned us about, and then get taken back to their lair and roasted over a spit with apples in our mouths! Except you,” she said to Dianna. “They’d make you into Dianna jerky.”
“We’re not turning back, and we’re not going to starve to death, and we’re not getting eaten either!” Annelise proclaimed. “I’m pretty sure that the right way is, well, right,” she said, putting all their hopes in her dream.
“You remember that from yesterday, when you had the map, or something?” Dianna asked.
“Or something, yeah,” Annelise said with a nod.
“Are you sure that’s the right way?” Athena asked, looking down that side of the road suspiciously.
“As sure as I can be,” Annelise answered.
Silence fell as Athena considered their options.
Like her friends, she didn’t want to turn back. She wanted to continue forward. But how could they without the map? They’d be completely screwed if that happened. Then again, Annelise was confident that she knew the way. And she trusted Annelise. So, with that in mind, she made her decision.
“Fine. Let’s do it,” she sighed.
“Awesome,” Annelise said, praying that her dream was indeed meant for that moment.
Annelise turned right and they got back on their way.
Unlike before, the atmosphere in the van was tense and alert. None of them spoke. They just sat there, staring out of the windshield, waiting for some indication that they were on the right track.
After what felt like an eternity of silence, especially for Dianna, as the sun began to set, painting the sky in innumerable shades of purple, red, and pink, Athena spoke again.
“Stop! Stop!” She exclaimed excitedly.
Annelise, with no idea as to why she’d been told to stop in such an urgent manner, slammed on the brakes as hard as she could. Tires squealed and smoked, marking the road with a forty foot long ‘11’. Then the van lurched back as it halted, and all three of the girls slammed back into their seats.
“What are you doing, trying to give us wishlapse?” Dianna asked, rubbing the back of her head.
“Whiplash,” Athena corrected her. “And seriously, are you?” She asked Annelise.
“You yelled at me to stop! What was I supposed to do?” Annelise replied with a shrug. “What is it, anyway?”
“I just saw something I want to check out,” Athena answered, opening her door and stepping outside.
“Is this safe?” Dianna asked, getting out as well.
Annelise shifted the van into park, turned off the engine, and joined her friends outside.
“I’m not sure if it’s safe. We don’t have the map,” Athena answered.
“I already said I was sorry,” Dianna replied.
“I know, and I forgive you. I’m not trying to be a bitch. I’m just stating a fact,” Athena said, stepping into the forest.
“Where are we going?” Annelise asked, following her.
“I thought I saw something through the trees,” Athena answered.
“What are the chances that this is going to be really, really boring?” Dianna asked Annelise quietly.
“Be careful so she doesn’t hear you,” Annelise advised. “And very high,” she answered.
When they were just ten feet off the road, the trees and other plants were already so thick that the van was completely hidden from view. There were now absolutely no indications of any human presence in sight. The wood was just a sea of green, and gold, and purple from the trees, and moss, and flowers.
“It’s going to be dark soon,” Dianna told Athena, who was still a few feet ahead. “Shouldn’t we go back?”
“We’ll be fine,” Athena assured her.
So they trudged on until, at last, they came to what Athena had caught sight of from the road.
They stepped into a wide clearing, and found themselves at the base of an old, raised branch of highway. It easily stood a hundred feet high, though the many decades of abandonment had left it covered in vines and other vegetation, effectively blending it in with the rest of the forest. The section that was still standing was about two hundred feet long. The rest of it on either side had collapsed many years before.
“People used to drive on this monstrosity?” Annelise asked, gazing up at it.
“Yeah, bridges like this used to be all over the place. Most have collapsed, or been torn down by now, though. Very few sections are still standing,” Athena explained.
“It’s so high,” Dianna remarked.
“I would never go on that thing,” Annelise said, raising her camera to take a picture of it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been up that high before,” Dianna commented. “Want to try climbing to the top?”
“What did I just say?” Annelise replied.
“Don’t be a scaredey cat Annie,” Dianna countered.
“We really shouldn’t,” Athena said. “We don’t know if it’s structurally sound.”
“It’s huge, and we’re skinny. It’ll be fine.”
“We can’t be sure, though,” Athena maintained. “This is the kind of thing I’m going to do for a living, you know. I’m going to be going to stuff like this all over the country, and deciding what to do with it. There are a lot of formulas used to determine the structural viability of structures like this, but with something this obsolete that probably wouldn’t even be necessary,” she stated matter of factly. “I mean, there’s no use for something like this nowadays. It’s not like congestion is an issue anymore.”
“My mom gets congestion sometimes,” Dianna said.
Athena ignored Dianna’s comment, and continued inspecting the bridge as she thought about her future vocation.
“That’s indigestion,” Annelise corrected Dianna quietly.
“Right. How long do you think she’s going to take?” Dianna whispered back.
“Hopefully just a few more minutes,” Annelise replied, glancing around at the rest of their surroundings in boredom. “Hey, what’s that?” She asked no one in particular, noticing something odd about a tree on the other side of the clearing.
“What?” Dianna asked.
“Here,” Annelise said, walking over to it.
They stopped a few feet away from one of the trees on the edge of the clearing. It was an old oak with gnarled branches raised towards the sky. The trunk started out straight for the first few feet, before bending towards the west at an unnaturally sharp angle. What really caught Annelise’s interest, though, was a single knot in the trunk about five feet above the ground. She pointed it out to Dianna, who was enthralled by it as well.
This knot was different than the others, though it was subtle enough not to stand out to most casual observers. For this knot was in the form of a woman’s face. With a soft jaw line, slight features, and closed eyes and mouth, her expression was blank, the epitome of simplicity, yet she was still gorgeous enough to give any pre-Atlata supermodel a run for their money. The bark around the face, meanwhile, swept down and around the trunk in flowing waves to look like her hair, while other shapes around the trunk formed the rough shape of her body and arms and legs.
Neither Annelise, nor Dianna had ever seen anything like it before, though Annelise knew exactly what it was.
“This is a dryad tree,” she said quietly, in shock that they’d found something so amazing.
“Dryads, right. Those tree things,” Dianna replied simply.
“Yeah,” Annelise nodded, impressed that Dianna knew that. Then she realized that she’d basically said that moments before, and they were also standing right in front of the dryad tree, and became less impressed.
Athena, meanwhile, had just realized that neither of her friends were still standing there with her. After a quick scan of the clearing, she spotted them. Her brow crinkled in curiosity when she noticed that Annelise was taking pictures of something.
“What did you guys find?” She asked, walking over.
“A dryad’s tree,” Dianna told her. Then she paused, just looking at her friend.
“What? Why are you just looking at me like that?” Athena asked. “Do I have something in my nose again? Because after what happened at prom you promised-”
“I thought we all agreed never to talk about what happened at prom again,” Annelise cut her off.
“Right, sorry. So why are you looking at me like that?” She asked Dianna.
“You didn’t correct me,” Dianna said.
“You got it right.”
“Oh,” Dianna said, pleasantly surprised. “Come and see then,” she said brightly, leading Athena over to the face-knot.
“Wow,” Athena said, gazing at it. “Even I have to admit, this is way better than that stupid bridge.”
“They didn’t really have a sense of style back then, did they?” Dianna asked, tearing her eyes away from the tree to look back at the section of raised highway.
“They didn’t need style for roads. They needed functionality,” Athena answered.
“Well functionality sucks.”
“Compared to this, it sure does,” Annelise agreed.
“It’s going to be dark soon, guys. We should get back to the van,” Athena said, glancing up at the sky.
To that, Annelise inhaled sharply.
“What?” Dianna asked.
“It’s going to be dark soon,” Annelise said. “That’s when dryads leave their trees to roam the forest until daybreak. We should stay and watch it happen!”
“So something is going to bust out of this tree?” Dianna asked for clarification.
“I want to see that.”
“I don’t know, guys,” Athena dissented. “Other things come out when it’s dark too. Staying out here that long doesn’t sound very safe.”
“You said yourself that we’re going to be fine,” Annelise reminded her. “Come on! When are we ever going to have the chance to see something like this again?”
Athena sighed, and shook her head. She didn’t like the thought of staying, but she also didn’t want to be the proverbial chainsaw to their dryad tree. And she was the reason they were there in the first place. They’d been good sports coming to see the bridge she’d wanted to see. It was only fair that she allow them to see the dryad they wanted to see.
“Fine,” she said with a sigh. “Let’s stay.”
“Yay, yay, yay! Thank you Athy!” Dianna said, accosting Athena with a hug.
“I hate it when you call me that!” Athena replied, pushing Dianna off of her.
“But I know you secretly love it.”
“We need to get somewhere out of sight,” Annelise advised. “Dryads don’t like attention as much as you do Dianna.”
The sun was dipping dangerously low on the horizon, just minutes from finally going to bed, so the three friends hurried away and hid in some bushes just outside the clearing, about fifteen feet away from the dryad tree. Then, they waited.
“This dryad thing isn’t going to try to murder us, right?” Dianna whispered.
“Not if we keep our lighters and axes out of sight, and don’t harm her tree,” Annelise answered.
They fell silent as twilight finally gave way to full night. When the transition was complete and the moon emerged, pouring its thin, silver light over the clearing, the face in the dryad tree came to life. The eyes snapped open, and the mouth opened wide, as if yawning. Then the dryad poked her head out of the tree and looked to the right, and the left, as if making sure that the coast was clear. When she was satisfied, she pushed her head and hair fully out of the tree. Unlike the brown, harsh bark her face had been when in the tree, now that she was emerging her skin became a light green, and looked almost luminescent in the moonlight. There were no wrinkles or age marks on her face, only eternal youth. Her hair, meanwhile, was a darker, almost emerald green, with pale, gold highlights.
Her arms were the next to emerge from the tree, thin, yet clearly full of strength. Using them, she pulled the rest of herself out.
She had a slim, slight frame, and was clothed at the hips and chest with what appeared to be moss.
Athena, Annelise, and Dianna all watched in wonder, their jaws hanging open. Never before had they seen anything more majestic, beautiful, and amazing than that dryad.
“Do you guys think she’s prettier than me?” Dianna whispered to her friends.
“Yes,” Annelise whispered back.
With that, the dryad turned and looked over at where they were hiding. To the three friends, it seemed as if she was looking straight through the bushes, at them.
“Shut up!” Athena hissed.
The dryad, however, instead of leaping back into her tree, or bolting away through the forest like she could have, merely smiled widely, almost as if silently laughing at the friends.
“Can she see us?” Dianna asked.
“I think so,” Annelise said.
As if confirming Annelise’s answer, the dryad nodded. Then, before any of the girls could say or do anything else, it motioned to them, beckoning for them to come out into the open.
Without even thinking about what she was doing, Annelise stood up.
“What are you doing?” Athena asked.
“Stop!” Dianna told her.
Annelise, however, wasn’t interested in stopping. She didn’t care about listening to her friends, or doing what was smart, or being safe. Seeing the dryad had filled her with a happiness she’d never known before, and suddenly, more than anything, all she wanted was to get closer to her. So that’s just what she did.
Slowly, Annelise stepped forward, towards the smiling dryad. She didn’t know what was about to happen, but she continued forward nonetheless. After about a minute, when she was just five feet away from the dryad, she stopped.
“Could I,” she sputtered, raising her camera, “could I please take a picture of you?”
Annelise desperately wanted to be able to capture a tiny fragment of that moment to hold onto forever, but she expected the dryad to say no. And she wasn’t going to do anything without the dryad’s consent. So, when the dryad nodded, she almost burst into tears.
“Thank you,” she barely managed to choke out. “Thank you so much,” she said, raising her camera to her eye.
Not wanting to waste that once in a lifetime opportunity, Annelise carefully adjusted the focus, and flash setting, until she had them absolutely perfect for the conditions. Then, when the dryad was in frame, and she was sure she had the camera perfectly straight, she snapped a single picture.
By that time Athena and Dianna, confident that they weren’t going to be choked, garroted, stabbed, enchanted, or otherwise killed or maimed by the dryad and her tree, had crept up behind Annelise.
The three girls and the dryad stood there for what could have been either minutes or hours, just looking at each other in silence. Even Dianna had nothing to say. In those moments, the raised highway beside them could have collapsed and they wouldn’t have noticed. The world could have melted away around them, leaving only the clearing they were standing in, and they wouldn’t have noticed. They were so focused on the dryad, so full of absolute contentment that nothing else in the world mattered to them.
Nothing mattered, that is, until the dryad’s face fell. Her smile wilted, until it became a look of worry.
“What is it?” Annelise asked, alarmed by the change.
In response, the dryad just pointed at the girls, and then towards the road.
“I think she’s trying to tell us something,” Dianna said, stating the obvious.
“Is it that we should go? You want us to leave?” Annelise asked.
The dryad nodded her head frantically, and motioned to the road even more strongly, as if them getting out of there was a matter of grave importance.
“Okay,” Annelise said to the dryad with a nod. “Let’s go,” she said, turning to her friends. “Thank you again,” she added to the dryad.
Reluctantly, they tore themselves away from the dryad and began walking back to where they’d entered the clearing. Just as they were about to plunge into the forest and head back to the van huge, lumbering footsteps shook the earth behind them.
The dryad ducked out of sight and the three friends took off running, but it was too late. For before they could get out of sight, a fifteen foot troll issued out of the trees on the other side of the clearing.
The troll had dark, tan skin, a bald head, scrunched nose, heavy brow, a wide mouth that was missing many teeth, and grey eyes. His body was squat, his limbs long, and every inch of him was tightly packed with muscle. The only clothing he had on was a relatively tiny garment patched together out of different kinds of furs and skins, which was thankfully covering his crotch and buttocks.
At the sight of the fearsome monster Dianna and Athena screamed, Annelise dropped her camera in fear, and all three of the girls attempted to bolt away. The troll, however, was quicker than he appeared. Before any of the girls could get far he bounded across the clearing and snatched up Dianna and Athena, who he deposited under his arm before seizing Annelise as well. When he was sure they were all secure, he turned and headed back the way he came.