The Lost Town of The Barrens (February 2021)
By Diane Arrelle
The snow fell so thick that Kyle kept wiping his glasses with his mittens. The cold, wet fabric changed the winter precipitation to smeary spots dotting his vision. He grumbled as he walked through the famous New Jersey Pine Barrens dwarf pines. At five-foot-eight, he towered over the full-grown trees that were only chest high.
“Damn, this has to be the first time the weather forecasters are actually right in decades,” he groused, thinking about how they’d predicted a Nor’easter, the fifth storm this year. And it was the first time the stupid forecasters even saw a predicted raindrop or snowflake. “Well, screw ‘em all!” he yelled at the storm and held up his brand new $1,000 camera like a trophy. “I’m going to find it and prove to everyone that the lost town is somewhere out here. I’m not crazy!”
He trudged on, the snow settling on the trees and coating the ground. He wished he hadn’t stormed out this morning after arguing with Tammy about his trek, and that he’d heeded the weather forecast. His lightweight jacket, although supposedly good to five degrees below zero, had some issues: a neck that didn’t close to the chin, a loose hood that didn’t pull tight, and sleeves that let the wind blow up them.
The short stunted pines gave way to the thick, full-sized forest. He sighed with relief as the trees broke the wind blasts and the snow, although coating the ground, didn’t blind him anymore.
Kyle thought about this mission of his. He had a point to prove, one that had been haunting him for fifteen years. He couldn’t forget that back when he’d been a cub scout on an autumn jamboree, he’d gotten lost. Being nine-years-old and never being good at following directions, he did the opposite of what the scout leaders taught them: to stay in one place and wait for help.
Naturally, Kyle ran off the minute he lost sight of the other boys. By nightfall when the sounds of the deep forest grew louder and louder, he finally stopped walking and stood perfectly still. He hunched his shoulders, shivered in the night chill and sobbed out choked calls for help.
As if in answer, hundreds of fireflies surrounded him and herded him gently, nudging him forward until he saw the glow of warm, yellow light. He entered a village and a giant goat-like creature with huge batwings greeted him warmly: “Come on son, don’t be afraid. We won’t hurt you.” He never understood why, but he trusted this grotesque being that appeared to be half-man and half-demon.
He was led to the bonfire in the middle of a circle of old wooden houses and was given a seat on a rough-hewn bench. A little girl, a rather ugly girl, with a hairy chin, really weird eyes, and tiny pointed teeth put her arms around Kyle in a bear hug. “Oh, you are sooo cute!” she gushed. “Daddy, can I keep him?”
The winged beast smiled at his daughter and said, “Not yet, Sweetheart. Be patient. Now get our guest a drink and a sandwich.”
Kyle found peanut butter and jelly on a bagel in one hand and a cup of hot steaming cider in the other. He stared at the sandwich like it was poison. He had no idea what monsters ate, but he’d never thought it would be normal food.
“Oh, are you allergic to peanuts?” the creature asked. A few short people with pointed hats and pointed ears came into the firelight to join the group. “Would you rather have cream cheese?”
Kyle, who’d always been a very polite child, tried to smile and shook his head. “No thank you. This is very nice.” He took a bite of the bagel and realized he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. After two more sandwiches, Kyle was laughing and playing marbles with the little girl and the other small people, who he realized were a faint green color in the orange glow of the fire.
At some point, he fell asleep and when he woke the next morning, everything in the clearing was gone. No sign of anyone or anything. No houses, not even charred wood where the fire had been. He heard the voices that disturbed his sleep and moments later, a search party burst through the trees to rescue him.
Kyle tried to tell the scout leaders about the village and then his parents and then a multitude of counselors. Everyone told him it was the nightmare of a terrified child in a stressful situation. But they were all wrong because he hadn’t been terrified and it hadn’t been stressful after his firefly rescue.
The years passed and Kyle read book upon book about the mysterious New Jersey pinelands. He theorized he’d met the Jersey Devil and some wood sprites, and maybe a pixie or elf or two. He learned that fireflies weren’t around in late October so he was never sure who or what had rescued him in the dark forest. All Kyle really knew was the experience had been real and he’d actually found one of the many mysterious, lost villages in the South Jersey Barrens.
His family moved to Iowa when he was twelve but he knew that someday he’d return to the East Coast and find that lost village he’d visited.
Kyle shook off his memories and returned to his current situation. He walked through the forest and the snow made every tree look like all the others. The flakes fell in swirls, blowing first one way, then the other. He looked down at the ground and discovered his footprints had blown away in the increasing wind. They filled-in with the rapidly increasing snowfall.
The snow was dry and starting to drift at the trunks of the trees. He was glad he’d put on hiking boots, because the snow was getting deeper, now up to his ankles. He walked on, worry nagging at him as he realized he was lost, just like when he’d been a kid. A similar situation but back then he’d been found by the Jersey Devil and he hadn’t been in danger of freezing to death.
Kyle took out his phone and discovered that he was in a dead, no-service area. No cell towers anywhere to let him find out where he was. The pines must have blocked the signals. He walked on, deeper and deeper into the forest, pelted by the now relentless wind and whipping, stinging snow. He’d dropped his camera a while back and didn’t even care — he was that cold and scared. He shivered and rubbed at his sleeves with his snow-crusted, mitten-covered hands trying to make his arms feel less frozen, but his fingers were numb and his feet were like heavy blocks of ice. Walking was getting more difficult but he knew if he stopped and sat, he’d probably die.
A quarter-mile later Kyle realized he just couldn’t go on. He tried to lift his arms but they wouldn’t move. He knew if he took another step he’d fall down in the snow. His heart pounding so loud he could hear it, he leaned his back to a tree and slid down to sit in the growing drifts. He let his head loll against the rough bark and wondered why he’d move back to New Jersey after college, why he had given up a perfect stay-at-home day, a perfect day to watch the snow fall from a warm, safe apartment. And mostly, why did he have the driving need to search for a dream. “What would I do if I ever found them again?” he mumbled as his eyes started to close. “What was I thinking? Tammy was right, I am a dumb shit!”
He briefly thought about Tammy and wondered if she’d miss him. He knew she’d miss his half of the rent, but he also knew their relationship was at an end. It had been a nice fling for both of them, but there’d been no love. Just convenience and companionship while waiting until the right one came along. He was overcome by a wave of regret that he’d never had time to find that love. It would have been so nice…
His eyes closed completely and he began to feel comfortable. Barely cold at all. Sleep would be so comforting. He could find his way out later, he just needed to take a little nap, he just needed to sleep…
A buzzing like a fleet of flies disturbed his thoughts. “Hey, it’s wi… wint… winter, you’re all d… dead now,” he mumbled at the sound that wouldn’t go away. He started to feel cold again but forced his eyes open wide.
Kyle couldn’t believe the vision before him as he blinked several times and shook his head. The fireflies were back. Dozens of them flittered around him, grabbing at him, trying to make him get up. He shook his head again and his eyes focused on the tiny creatures. He stood up on his own and gaped stupidly at the small beings trying to help him. He was surrounded by fairies! Small, almost human and yet so foreign, almost alien, and all grace and beauty. He smiled, took off a mitten, and reached out a shaky hand.
One fairy left the group and landed on his palm. It held his thumb with its tiny hand and bowed. He smiled, awkwardly bowing his head back. “Are you here to help me again?” he asked, as shock started to set in. He was freezing to death but he’d finally found what he’d been searching for.
Would they save him this time or were they there to help him die? If they helped him survive, then what? He couldn’t stop thinking about what it possibly meant.
So what! I’m actually right, magic does exist, but so what! No one will ever believe me this time either, even if I managed to find my camera and a way out of the woods.
He sighed and let the little creatures lead him just as they had once before. He was barely aware of anything. Just one shuffling foot after the other. Then, just like last time, he saw the glow of a crackling fire just a few steps away. He tried to walk toward it but his knees gave out and he fell face forward into the foot-deep snow. He closed his eyes again and this time gave in to the welcoming dark.
Kyle opened his eyes and found he was staring up at the trees instead of the bottom of a snowdrift. He felt puzzled, he felt warm, he felt his head resting on a soft lap as someone gently massaged feeling back into his fingers.
“Wha… wha… what-“ he stammered through chattering teeth because even though he was feeling warm, he was still shaking.
“Hush,” a rich, female voice interrupted him. “Rest, Kyle, take it slow. You almost died out there.”
He thought about sitting up but he was comfortable just the way he was. And that voice: it was so warm and feminine. He shuddered as he subconsciously compared it to Tammy’s flat twang. Then he heard another voice, a booming one, the one he’d heard the last time. The Jersey Devil! Kyle struggled and sat up to look at the kind creature who had once fed him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Kyle smiled. “So you saved me again, sir.”
The creature, a monster of legend, was roasting marshmallows on a stick at the edge of the great fire that warmed the entire village square. “Hi, Kyle, you sure took your time getting back to us. Here,” he said picking a graham cracker off a clay plate. “S’more?”
Kyle, always polite, held out his hand for the treat. He looked around at all the beings surrounding the bonfire. There were so many more, the ghostly white stag of barrens legend, lots of small beings he wasn’t good enough in his fantasy studies to name, as well as wild animals seemingly comfortable with present company.
“I’m having a nightmare, no, a pleasant, surrealistic dream,” he said biting into the chocolaty marshmallow treat and chewing. “My mind taking a final go-round before it is frozen into the stillness of death…”
The woman’s voice from behind him laughed, sounding like music to him. He turned and stared at what had to have been the homely little girl he’d played with years ago. She was all grown up now. Very, very grown up.
She blushed and lowered her long lashes to look at the ground. Then she looked up and their eyes met. They both smiled. “I’m so glad you came back. I’ve missed you very much.”
Kyle stared at her, slowly taking in the luxurious long curly brown hair that shimmered golden when the firelight hit it. She was more human than he remembered with a great hourglass figure and a lovely mouth that looked perfect for kissing. He was surprised by the small goat beard on her chin, but even that shimmered gold in the glow of the fire and was beautiful in its own unique way.
He stared into her eyes, the ones he remembered as strange. They were incredibly bright green with the sideways pupil of her obvious goat genes. If there had been any doubt about her lineage, she took care of it by spreading her shimmering, luminescent bat wings. He was completely and hopelessly smitten. She was the most unique and fabulous creature on the planet.
“Can I keep him, now, Daddy?” she asked the Jersey Devil.
Kyle saw him glance his way, then back to his magnificent daughter. The being of dreadful legends smiled and said, “That’s not for me to say. Ask Kyle.”
She looked at Kyle a bit nervously. “Want to stay here with me?”
He found his voice, “Well if I leave, I’ll probably die, so…”
The Jersey Devil spoke up. “If you want to leave, we will lead you to safety but you will never find us again. If you stay, you stay for life. Did you leave anything behind you can’t live without?”
Kyle knew Tammy was only a friend, certainly not love. “Well, my parents…”
Everyone laughed. “What, you think you could marry my daughter without your family present? We are mythical, not barbarian!”
A pale woman dressed all in white with long, silver hair was suddenly standing next to the Jersey Devil and took its hand. She smiled at Kyle and her daughter and said. “Kyle my dear, family means everything to us. Will you join our family?”
With a quick intake of breath Kyle turned and stared at the lovely creature at his side: “Your father is the Jersey Devil and your mother is the mysterious Woman in White of lore. I don’t know who you are,” he said to the young woman now standing in front of him. “But I really want to find out.”
“I’m Verity,” she said and slipped her hand into his.
He squeezed her hand back. “Just one thing, what do I call you?” he asked looking at the two legends standing before him.
“How about Mom and Dad?” the Jersey Devil answered. “Welcome to a long, long lifetime in the Pine Barrens. Son.”
Text copyright © 2020 by Dina Leacock. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Diane Arrelle, the pen name of South Jersey writer Dina Leacock, has sold more than 250 short stories and has three published books including Just A Drop In The Cup, a collection of short-short stories and her collection of horror stories, Seasons On The Dark Side. Retired from being director of a municipal senior citizen center, she is now co-owner of a small publishing company, Jersey Pines Ink LLC. She resides with her sane husband and her insane cat on the edge of the Pine Barrens (home of the Jersey Devil).