Wind. The rustle of leaves.
“Prue McKeel! Can you hear me?”
It was a woman’s voice, a voice that Prue recognized, but only slightly. It was like hearing the sound of a familiar song over the loud thrum of a noisy restaurant. The voice made her think of safety. And cell mitosis. And patchouli.
It was the voice of Darla Thennis, her Life Science teacher.
“Are you okay?” asked Darla, her face blocking the dark sky.
Prue groaned. “I—I think so,” she managed to say.
The teacher helped Prue to a seated position on the snowy ground. Prue’s legs felt numb; her pants were icy cold and wet and clung tenaciously to her legs. She guessed she hadn’t been lying there long; the day didn’t seem much progressed. She began to piece together the events that led to her passing out: the walk to the bluff and then the noise. But she’d seen something, hadn’t she? Something startling. It came back to her in a sharp vision: the black fox. And then the screaming, deafening hiss. Prue craned her neck to look over the precipice of the bluff and scanned the ground below. The fox was gone. She looked over at Ms. Thennis.
“What are you doing here?” Prue asked.
“I’d ask you the same,” replied the teacher, rubbing her bare hands together. The tips of her fingernails were black with mud. “Interesting place to come walking.” She searched the horizon. “Just having a nice gander at the Impassable Wilderness?”
“I was just wandering,” said Prue. “And then I …” She paused, unsure of how much she should reveal to her teacher. She hadn’t mentioned anything of the plants’ voices to anyone—she was sure she’d be seen as a lunatic. “And I just became really light-headed.”
“It’s been a tough day,” said Ms. Thennis, standing up from her squatted position. There were bits of dead grass clinging to her skirt, and she wiped them away before she offered her hand to Prue. “Come on, I’ll buy you a steamed milk. You need to warm up.”
They made their way to the coffee shop on Lombard and slid into the opposing chairs of a table at the front window. The server brought a cappuccino for Darla; the steam from a mug of honey-sweetened milk warmed the air in front of Prue. They talked for a while about the snow, the dreary Portland winters. Darla sketched out her childhood for Prue, her love for books and music, her military dad who kept moving the family around. She talked about being a “real hippie” in high school and how she followed some jam band around the country, selling hemp jewelry in the parking lot during the shows.
“Do you like music?” asked Darla.
“Yeah, I like some bands. I don’t know. I’m kind of nerdy when it comes to music. Like, I’ve recently started listening to a lot of Cajun stuff. Do you know it?”
“Like, accordion music?”
“Yeah,” said Prue, feeling herself blush.
“Wow, kid,” said Darla, taking a hit off her coffee. “You are nerdy.”
They shared a fit of laughter together, which died away to a calm silence. They both looked out the window and watched the cars shshing by. A man struggled to open a newspaper box. Prue turned her head to watch her teacher across the table silently; the woman raised her mug to her lips with an almost inhuman grace.
The truth of the matter was that Prue had long kept the secret of her adventures in the Impassable Wilderness from her Outsider peers—only ever speaking of the harrowing events that unfolded there to her mother and father, who tended to greet mention of the place with a saddened frown. The entire incident only dredged up memories of lost children and sleepless nights for them. Mac ended up being the best and only confidant for her, someone who would appear to listen without judgment as she wondered what events continued to transpire beyond the wooded wall—and he was barely receptive, babbling “Pooo!” every time she took a pause in her speaking. It often occurred to Prue that it was a tremendous weight to be carrying about; she longed to share her secret with the world.
As if reading Prue’s mind, Darla set down her mug and fixed her companion with a look of wide-eyed confidence. “Do you ever wonder?” she asked.
Prue knew she was speaking of the Impassable Wilderness, though she thought it was too weird how matched their thinking was. “About what?” she asked.
“The Impassable Wilderness. Like, what’s beyond it?”
“I guess so.” Prue could feel her heartbeat speeding up.
“I used to hang with these kids, back when I was just out of high school. My parents lived in Hillsboro, and we used to stand at the edge of the I.W. and just … stare. And wonder. Just like you were doing, I suppose. Back on the bluff, there. This old boyfriend of mine—he was a little loony—he used to swear up and down that he’d seen things in the trees. Like, animals—but ones that walked upright. He even said that one tried to talk to him once.” She waved her hand dismissively, miming the boyfriend’s crazy mental state.
Prue couldn’t take it anymore.
“Can I tell you something?” she asked finally.
Darla looked at Prue quizzically. “Yeah, sure.”