Hazel should not have taken a “short cut” through the forest. She should have known that “short cut” and “forest” are not words that go together, unless they are accompanied by the word “lost”. And lost she was.
She didn’t even understand how she had managed to get lost in the forest, which really should just be called a grove, because it was nestled in the center of her town with less than half a million people. No one was certain how large it was. No one had taken the time to chart the acreage, or explore it, or even bother to acknowledge it, really. Most people just ignored it. Drove around it, pretended that it wasn’t there.
It had a certain sacred feel, an ominous aura that just screamed: keep out. Most sane people did, even greedy business owners, which is truly saying something. But few people had ever called a desperate Hazel sane, and she was certainly desperate when she was running twenty minutes late for school. She should have stayed out. She should have gotten to school thirty minutes late. She should have stayed out, because she got the distinct feeling that the forest did not want her there. She truly was trying to leave, but the woods seemed endless. It was starting to really freak her out.
She took her phone out of her pocket, and tried to dial Nico’s number. She had no service.
“Shit,” she muttered, flipping her phone back and putting it back into her pocket. She was lost, and she had no way to contact anyway. She was well and truly fucked. She took a deep breath, and kept walking.
The trees were tall and dense. The woods kept the path shady, though Hazel knew that it was nearing midday, and it should be very bright. The grass beneath her feet was soft and a deep, soothing shade of green. The trees created a thick canopy above her, all various types of deciduous trees, oaks and maples, cottonwoods and mulberries. Flowered vines crawled up many of them, giving the forest a more mystical feel (like the one Hazel felt all along).
It was truly a gorgeous place, but Hazel wished she could appreciate it. She found it hard to do so while worrying about whether or not she’d ever find her way out. She felt a light poke to her shoulder, and she felt herself jump skywards. She turned swiftly around, expecting to see another person, or a ghost, or a monster or something, but there was nothing but trees behind her. Hazel took a deep breath, and forced herself to keep walking.
After a while, Hazel wondered if she had imagined the feeling. That was until she felt yet another tap on the shoulder. This time, she did not jump. She quickly grabbed behind her, and this time, her fingers met flesh. She turned quickly, and found that the person had not disappeared.
“Hi there,” the woman said, a puckish smile on her face, “Welcome to the forest.” Hazel let go of her arm, trying to find her bearings.
“Who are you,” Hazel finds herself asking, though her first question should have been, “Why can’t I get out of this god forsaken forest?”
“I am Piper,” she says, “I’m a spirit of this forest.” Hazel looks at her again, more closely this time, and finds that woman does not in fact look human. Her skin is a warm shade of brown with an other-worldly glow. Her eyes are glittering kaleidoscopes formed from various shades of greens, browns, blues, and hints of purples. They almost look like miniature galaxies contained within her irises. The tips of her ears are pointed, the way elves are normally depicted. And the most telling of all is that Piper is not standing on the ground, she is hovering a few inches above it. Hazel lets out a little scream.
Piper sends her a confused look. It’s actually kind of cute.
“Are you alright?” she asks.
“You’re floating,” Hazel says.
“Yes,” Piper says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Hazel takes a deep breath, and tries to come to terms with the situation.
It isn’t easy.
She decides to finally ask the only question that’s really relevant.
“Why can’t I leave?” she asks.
“You can’t leave?” Piper asks, “Wait, what?”
“I can’t get out of the woods,” Hazel reiterates, though she’s a bit more frustrated this time.
“They’re very big,” Piper says, “And difficult to navigate.”
“They’re in the middle of my city,” Hazel says, “How big can they be?”
“Never under-estimate magical forests,” Piper chides, and she floats higher.
“Wait!” Hazel shouts, “You can’t leave!”
Piper starts to float away.
“I’m just getting directions,” she replies, “I’ll be back in a few.”
“You need directions in your own forest!” Hazel shouts.
“It’s a big forest!” Piper retorts, and within moments she is out of earshot. Hazel has no idea what to think. She sighs, and leans against a nearby tree, a large, shady sycamore, and wonders how she managed to get herself into this mess.
After thirty minutes of humming to herself, shifting positions, and being bored, Hazel decides that Piper, whether she was real or a hallucination is not coming back. She grabs her backpack and sets off into the forest, hoping to find the exit quickly this time.
Nearly an hour later, Hazel is no closer to finding her way out of the woods and regretting ever having left the spot where she was supposed to wait for Piper. She looks to a large oak tree and seriously considers banging her head against it.
“Hazel!” she hears, and she turns around. Piper is wearing her relief like a thick layer of makeup and then she changes her expression to one more of irritation.
“Do you have any idea how hard it was to find you again?” Piper demands.
“Not easy?” Hazel asks. Piper’s glare seems halfhearted.
“Not easy would be an understatement,” Piper says. She grabs something out of her flowing, white dress. It’s fluffy and circular, and Piper tosses it at Hazel. Hazel is not coordinated, but she manages to catch it. She feels it between her fingers. What looked fluffy, like cotton balls, feels more smooth and soft, and Piper realizes that it is made of flowers. She puts it to her nose, and smells: lilacs. It’s fluffy and white and flowery. It looks like a wreath or a-
”Crown,” Hazel says, a little bit of wonder in her tone, “You made me a flower crown.”
Piper’s tanned cheeks are flushed a shade of pink that almost is not noticeable. Hazel places it on her head, and it fits nicely on top of her kinky curls.
“Well, yeah,” she says, and she’s trying not to sound awkward, “I had some time and I thought you might like it.”
“I do,” Hazel says.
There are a few moments of semi-awkward silence before Piper says, “I found out how to get you out.”
Hazel’s attention shifts off of her flower crown and embarrassment and onto this new piece of information.
When Piper doesn’t elaborate, Hazel asks, “How?”
“We go see Juniper,” Piper says, “And then she’ll create a portal directly to where you want to go. Simple.”
Hazel doesn’t want to, but she finds herself asking, “And Juniper is?”
“The queen of the forest,” Piper says, as if it’s obvious. Hazel supposes that it really isn’t all that far out there, considering the woodland spirits and magic forest. Piper holds out a hand for her to grab, and Hazel does. Piper’s hand is soft as it intertwines with her own. It feels right.
It’s takes about fifteen more minutes of walking through the highly wooded area and cracking bad jokes to make it to Juniper’s cottage. The cottage looks other-worldly, which Piper should have expected. It is composed of trees wrapping around each other, like living coil pottery, with vines and flowers growing off in all directions. There is a small door carved at the front. Piper lets go of her hand, and then makes a wide, all-encompassing gesture to the house.
“Welcome to the palace of this forest,” she says with a final twirl. Her dress spins around her and for a moment it resembles cotton candy. Then, Piper leads the way into the “palace”. Hazel follows without a second thought.
The inside of the cottage is mystifying. The inside seems even more like a coil pot, and light creeps in from the crevices and the holes in the ceiling. Hazel wonders how practical that must be during rainstorms. There’s a woman in a flowing white dress stirring a pot of some oddly colored and bubbling liquid. Hazel wonders if that’s the style here. The woman turns abruptly to face them.
“Oh, people!” she says with a light in her bright, green eyes. Her skin also has a strange, green tint, which is accented by her auburn hair.
“Welcome?” she says, though she seems unsure what to do or even why they came. Hazel feels uncomfortable.
Piper bites her lip, “Sorry to inconvenience you, my lady, but we’ve come to ask a favor.”
Juniper sighs, “How many times do I have to tell everyone that I don’t want to be queen of this forest? Well, never mind. What is it that you need?”
“A portal,” Piper says, “We need portal so that Hazel can leave.”
“Wait,” Juniper asks, “leave? Why would you want to leave?”
“She isn’t from here,” Piper explains.
“Oh,” Juniper says, “That’s odd. Mortals avoid our forest like the plague.”
“I was running late for school,” Hazel supplies.
“Oh no, dear,” Juniper says, and then she smiles.
“You stumbled into our forest because you were meant to,” she finishes as she flits about the room. She grabs an odd array of items, salt, spices, a bottle that looks like it might be either wine or blood, and something Hazel doesn’t even want to guess at the contents of. Piper smiles at her shyly. Hazel smiles back.
Juniper makes a large circle out of the ingredients and speaks some words in a language Hazel doesn’t know and can’t identify. The portal glows a deep shade of other-worldly purple.
“You just need to picture where you want to go and then step into the portal,” Juniper tells her.
“That’s it?” Hazel asks. She had expected it would be more difficult.
“Yep,” Juniper says with a light pop at the end.
“My husband, Grover likes to make portals with his pipes,” she says, “I prefer the old-fashioned way. It’s much more reliable.” Hazel turns her gaze to Piper who is caught somewhere between a smile and a frown.
“You’ll come back, right?” she asks.
Hazel finds herself not even thinking when she answers, “Yes. I might have to figure out how to make a portal on my own, though.”
“We can do that,” Piper says with a wide grin. Hazel takes a deep breath, and gets ready to step into the portal.
“Wait!” Piper says, and she conjures something. It’s a white sheet of paper, and she hands it to Hazel. The writing is done in a formal, cursive style, and the text reads as follows: You’re invited to the 307th annual forest orgy. As always, it is to be held in the center of the forest. Clothing is optional.”
Hazel can feel her face flush, and she looks to the ground.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “I think that I might have to pass on that.” She forces herself to look back to Piper, who is blushing madly.
“I’m sorry, that was uncalled for,” Piper tries not to meet her eyes. Hazel cracks a smile. It was pretty funny.
“Well, maybe,” Hazel says, “but you know what isn’t uncalled for?” Piper raises an eyebrow.
“This,” Hazel says, and she presses a soft kiss to Piper’s lips. For a woman who just issued an invitation to an orgy, Piper seems very taken off guard, and her face is red.
“Goodbye,” Hazel says.
Piper regains her composure and says, “I’ll see you soon.” Hazel looks to the woman one last time, and nods. Then she turns away, and steps into the portal. A moment later, she is standing in her front lawn. The evening sun beats down on her, and Hazel starts wondering when she can go again.