He found himself staring. The trees around him swayed slightly with the small breeze, but that wasn’t what he was looking at. A ray of sunshine shone down on him, split in two by the branches, but it still wasn’t the center of his attention. No, his focus wasn’t on anything physical, something that one could touch. Because the thing was, she didn’t seem real. He was staring at the tiny figure of a girl, standing a few yards ahead of him. Her form kept flickering in and out of view, as if a hand was blowing away bits of smoke. The man tried to call out to her, to ask her if she was lost, but each time he tried the girl would giggle and run farther away from him. He moved his legs in an attempt to reach her, but the faster he ran, the longer the distance was to cover in between them.
The forest was enormous. There were so many trees with branches only at the very top that everything surrounding the man and the girl were like naked wooden spikes stuck into the earth. But this did not attract the man’s attention. Or the little girl’s. The pair continued to play their little game of chase until the sun had set. By this time, the man had realized that all the girl had wanted in the first place was someone to play with. She was lonely.
By the end of the day they had grown accustomed to one another’s presence in the forest and they were eventually able to be a few steps away from each other. Looking down at the girl, the man smiled. He hadn’t had that much fun for some time. He couldn’t even remember the last time he had thrown all of his cares away and explored such an unknown place like that. Their game hadn’t been anything but pure innocence. He was amazed with himself, yet he felt as if he somehow deserved that little break. Deserved to be free.
The little girl, who seemed to be around eight, sat on the ground at his feet, her body neither making an imprint on the dirt nor crackling the leaves underneath her.
“Will you come play with me tomorrow?” she asked the man in a soft whisper, the sound almost like a tiny breeze blowing through a window.
The man sat in front of her, crossing his long legs underneath him. “I will,” he replied warmly.
“When the sun shines directly onto the ground, like today.”
The girl smiled. “I can count on you to keep that promise?” she asked.
Her statement puzzled the man. She suddenly sounded much older than she appeared to be.
“Yes,” he told her. “Of course you can. I will come back. But first, I need to know something.”
She cocked her shimmering, gray-white head to the side in question.
“Why are you here?”
The little girl raised her slim eyebrow. “Why are you here?” she countered playfully.
“I am not sure, to be honest. I think I felt like going for a walk,” he told her, shrugging. “I do not really remember.”
“You just wanted to have someone to play with.” She giggled. “You were lonely too.” Her face fell just a bit into a pout.
“What is your name?” the man asked, thinking he should probably not continue to be rude and introduce himself to his new friend.
The girl’s head snapped up and her dark, misty eyes widened. “I…can’t tell you,” she said quickly. She stood and began to back away from the man, her small hands held up in defense. “Just come find me again, okay? I want to play.”
“But, wait!” Not wanting to scare her, the man stayed seated on the forest floor. “Why can’t you tell me?”
She just shook her head. “Because I can’t.”
And just as the man blinked, in that millisecond, she had vanished into thin air.
Murphy Hays picked his way out of the forest. He was beginning to brush past branches laden with leaves that sprayed him with water from the recent rain and he could tell, after a few minutes of silent walking, that he was near the edge of the forest. But the trees that pressed in on him, though he knew their color, seemed to have none. It was black around him, the surroundings so dark now that he should have run into something: a tree, a fallen branch, a rock, even. But he kept walking and his luck still held. And though he felt his eyes roam around in their sockets, all they saw was nothing. Holding his hands out in front of his face, he could just barely make out the outlines of his fingertips. Couldn't he?
Murphy had no idea how long he’d been walking. He didn’t even know if he knew his way out. Thinking back, he really wasn’t sure how he’d ended up in the forest in the first place. Then, Murphy took one last step and found himself at the edge of the woods. A lot of gravel sat in front of him, empty and beckoning. A small shop was situated directly opposite of him, on the other side of the lot.
He'd stopped walking before his boots could touch the gravel. He stood in the shadows for a few moments, his mind racing. Should he step out of his protective barrier? Should he venture out and explore more unknown territory? Because as of that second, Murphy Hays realized that he did not remember anything before his forest friend. He did not know how old he was. He did not know what year it was. He did not even know that his name was Murphy.