Fiction Fantastic 2024 Winning Story: “Whispers in the Woods” by Lauren Ellison

The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.

You can purchase this story in the 2024 Winners Anthology, Realm of Forgotten Dreams.

“Whispers in the Woods” by Lauren Ellison, Marist High School

Third Place, High School Level, 2024

Whispers in the Woods

by Lauren Ellison

Marist High School

When the bell rang announcing the start of lunch, Willow pushed out of her woodshop seat, waving goodbye to Mr. Hamley. He was a round man, with bald spots on the back of his head. Willow wondered if he didn’t know he had them, or if he felt the absence of hair when he anxiously stroked the back of his head during lessons.

She passed the gym on her way outside, getting a look at the basketball freaks, sweaty and yelling at their teammates. Stepping outside, Willow felt the harsh bite of the winter wind pushing her brown hair into her face, but was thankful for the breeze anyway. She had become sweaty during woodshop class, working on her memorial box for her brother, Aaron.

Aaron was sixteen, just three years older than Willow when he was killed. Murdered, by a cop. Now, two years later, fifteen-year-old Willow was terrified of cops.

She was such a wimp, ducking behind a bush when a police car passed, keeping her head down walking by one on the street. The only thing that helped drown these thoughts was walking. Willow walked everywhere, to school, to the library, to the store. During lunch, which was now, Willow walked to the track field, crossed it, and hopped the fence that kept the students safe from danger. Or was supposed to, anyway. Behind the fence was lush Oregon forest, vibrantly green compared to the sad beige of the school.

Willow traveled deeper into the woods, led by nothing but her feet and an empty head. The trees shrouded the pale sun’s light, and she became cold in her hoodie and jeans. As Willow walked, she checked her watch. Twenty minutes left of peace and solitude.

Still looking down, something caught her attention just to the side of her, something shiny. Willow turned and walked towards it, her curiosity too loud to ignore. What she found was an old and rusty pull saw, like the ones they used in woodshop. Willow wouldn’t call herself a collector, per se, but she did like keeping things she found. Into her backpack it went.

Willow’s mom was already there when she arrived home from school at 3:45, her eyes glued to the news on the TV. This meant another night shift, the third in a row this week.

“Hey, sweetie,” her mom said without looking at her.

“Hi, Mom. What time are you leaving tonight?” Willow asked, shutting the door behind her.

Ignoring her daughter’s question, her mom asked, frowning, “Do you know these kids? They go to your school. They’ve been missing for over forty-eight hours, poor things.”

Willow looked at the screen and saw Leo with his curly brown hair, and Priya, her beautiful smile and green glasses on display.

“Yeah, they’re in my woodshop class this year. Maybe they ran away together,” she joked.

As Willow walked up the stairs to her room, her mom called, “Willow, sweetie, I love you. Be safe walking outside, OK?”

“I will, Mom. I love you too,” Willow replied.

She couldn’t bear the defeated look on her mom’s face. Willow knew she was thinking about Aaron, who she hadn’t talked about in what seemed like forever. Willow wished they talked about him more. She missed him so much.

Willow woke up groggy and dazed from another night of restless sleep. Getting ready for school, she brushed her teeth, put on clothes, and set out a banana for her mom, who should be getting back from work at the hospital soon. The fifteen-minute walk to school seemed quicker than normal, probably because Willow couldn’t wait to finish her box in woodshop. Once she arrived to class, she got to work right away, finding the tools she needed to finalize her memorial box. Staring at the wall of tools for what felt like hours, Willow couldn’t find the draw knife. Mr. Hamley smiled at her as she made her way over to his desk.

“Good morning, Willow. How’s your box coming along?”

She smiled back, saying, “It’s going good, but I can’t find the draw knife. I wanted to use it to round out the edges. Do you know where it is?”

“Nope. Went missing about a day ago. I haven’t a clue where it went. Sorry, Willow.”

Mr. Hamley almost looked nervous when he said this, which confused Willow. It wasn’t necessarily his fault, some kid could have stolen it or something, which he couldn’t help. Whatever. She’d have to work with what she had.

That night, Willow had the strangest dream. She was walking in the woods behind school, hand in hand with Aaron. He led her to a big, knotted tree, where a draw knife lay at the base of its trunk. Just then, there was a rustling behind them, and they turned around to see a hooded figure running past them, a pair of familiar glasses in hand.

“Hey! Where are you going? What are you running from?” Willow yelled.

The figure ignored her and ran on. The back of their jacket was unnerving. A white skull was surrounded by flies, with sharp weapons bordering it.

Aaron turned towards her, a frantic look on his face. Before, he had been smiling and serene, but now he was shaking his head at Willow, mouthing the words, “This tree,” and, “Be careful.”

Willow woke up sweaty and afraid, and she couldn’t go back to sleep. She turned on her lamp and grabbed the pull saw from underneath her bed, inspecting it. It was worn down, the wooden handle chipped and scarred. The blade was still sharp, though. Really sharp, actually, like it had just been sharpened.

There was a red stain at the base of the handle, and Willow held it closer to her lamp. It looked a lot like blood. Willow was pretty sure it was blood. She stuffed it back underneath her bed and read a book to try and muffle the thoughts swarming her head.

“What was this saw used for? Why was it in the woods behind the school? Why did I keep it?”

While getting ready for school the next morning, Willow decided that she was going to find the knotted tree that Aaron took her to last night. Who knew, maybe the missing draw knife from woodshop would be lying in front of it, like in her dream. Or maybe the tree was just a figment of her imagination.

The day dragged on until woodshop, when she noticed a familiar leather jacket that Stephan was wearing. The back depicted a decaying skull surrounded by flies. Exactly like the hooded figure in her dream. Did he have something to do with the missing students? What about Mr. Hamley’s missing tools? Willow couldn’t help but wonder about the situation.

Willow walked for fifteen minutes until she found the knotted tree. The draw knife was exactly where Aaron led her in her dream, and beside it lay a broken pair of green glasses. Willow’s heart pounded as she recalled her classmates’ faces on the TV screen.

She carefully picked up Priya’s glasses, horrified. This was evidence in an investigation, a police investigation. Willow knew she shouldn’t have, but she stuffed the glasses in her pocket and stashed the knife into her backpack, in an endless loop of asking, “Why would Stephan want Priya and Leo dead? Where did he take them?”

Willow needed melatonin that night. After her dream the night before, and the day she’d had, she didn’t hesitate to reach for the bottle. She fell asleep quickly.

Willow woke up in the woods, walking with Aaron again. Except this time there were screams in the distance, and Aaron’s face was coated in blood. Her own hands were coated in blood. It was then that she noticed she was holding the pull saw that she had found days ago, which was now sticky with blood. Leo’s curly brown hair was stuck to it, wrapped around the blade like a Christmas ribbon. Aaron was crying beside her, silent tears streaming down his face.

“Aaron, talk to me,” Willow pleaded. “Is Stephan the one who killed them? Please, just say something!”

“Wake up now, Willow, go to the knotted tree.”

Aaron stared deeply into her eyes as he said this, and it felt like real life, like this was actually happening.

Willow didn’t notice until the tear ran down her cheek that she was crying, scared and sad.

“I’m scared, I don’t want to go to the woods by myself.”

Aaron held her shoulders tightly, urging, “You need to go now! Wake up!”

At once Willow was awake and out of bed, putting on her coat and sliding into her slippers like a robot. Her alarm clock showed that it was two in the morning. Willow knew that her mom would be gone for at least three more hours, so she shut and locked the door behind her, exposing herself to the cold air outside.

Willow ran as fast as she could to the school, cutting through neighbors’ yards and jumping over bushes. She hopped the fence and realized that she hadn’t brought anything, a flashlight, a weapon, anything to help her with her task, but she decided that it was too late to turn back. She didn’t even know what her task was, just that her dead brother was telling her to find that tree.

Willow rushed into the woods, blindly hopping over tree limbs and rocks, dodging everything blocking her path. She didn’t know how she knew where the tree was, but she knew she was getting close. In the distance, Willow heard a sound, and she slowed down to a walking pace.

Up ahead, she caught a glimpse of light coming from a flashlight. She leaned up against the knotted tree’s trunk and slowly looked around it, to where the light was coming from. There she saw two figures, one larger and standing over the other, the latter kneeling, bent over themself, their blonde hair cascading over their face.

Willow’s heart felt like it was beating out of her chest, she was so frightened. She knew that blonde hair. It was Priya, crying, while the hidden figure yelled at her. Willow watched the scene play out, careful not to make a sound. The larger figure was hooded, holding a knife to Priya’s throat. Suddenly, Priya lurched forward and pushed the hood off her captor, revealing their identity.

Willow saw who it was and gasped so loudly that both Priya and her captor looked in her direction.

Willow turned and ran back home so fast, hopping the fence and winding through lawns, looking back to see if the man was chasing after her. Once she was inside, she locked the door behind her and peeked through the curtained windows.

Questions were flying around her mind like a blizzard.

“What am I going to do? How can I stop this without going to the police? Should I not have left Priya with him? Why am I such a wimp? What does Mr. Hamley want from them?”

Willow didn’t go back to sleep. She couldn’t, not with the events that had just occurred replaying in her brain. When her mom pulled up in the driveway at five, Willow ran upstairs into her room and pretended to be asleep. She felt empty as she got ready for school and said goodbye to her mom.

Willow walked slowly to school, not wanting to go to woodshop. Mr. Hamley would be there, and she knew what he had done. It wasn’t Stephan, like she had thought, but actually her teacher, the nice, welcoming balding man. Willow was still in shock as she walked into his classroom and slid quietly into her seat, careful not to make eye contact with anyone.

The class went by slowly, and Willow kept her head down the whole time, faking a headache. She was terrified of the reality she was in; she was a witness to a kidnapping, and she was harboring evidence from the crime. Willow knew what she had to do, but she just couldn’t face it. The police had killed her brother, she couldn’t go to them. What if they didn’t believe her, or they thought she was the one who killed Leo and Priya, if they were dead? Mr. Hamley might be saving them for something bigger; Willow didn’t want to imagine the plans he had.

The bell rang, and instead of going to her next class, Willow walked home. She snuck past her mom, sleeping soundly in her room, and went to her own. Willow slept.

In her dream, Willow was in Aaron’s room with him, playing Monopoly. It was his turn, so he grabbed the spinner and spun, quietly hoping under his breath for a three. Willow looked at the board, seeing where his token was and where three moves would get him. Her heart sank, and tears stung her eyes.

“No, Aaron. I can’t go to the police. You of all people should understand, they killed you!”

Willow scooted back on the carpet, farther from the game. The spinner was still spinning, perfectly centered between three and four.

Aaron looked at her with sad eyes, saying gently, “It’s OK. You know you need to do this.” A tear fell down his cheek and he closed his eyes. “Keeping this a secret won’t bring me back, it will just result in more death.”

Willow was sobbing now, hugging her knees to her chest.

“I just miss you so much, you don’t understand.”

Aaron appeared by her side, taking his sister into his arms and holding her head to his shoulder.

“I miss you too, Wilsy. Go to the police station. You’re brave and smart and too young to hold this inside of you. I love you forever.”

There was a clink on the board, and Aaron and Willow both crawled to the game. The spinner had stopped, right on three. Willow wasn’t about to cheat; she would do as the board ordered. She was going to jail.

“I’d like to report a crime. Please.” Willow’ voice cracked on the word “crime.” The whole walk to the police station, Willow had been repeating that sentence perfectly. Of course, she messed up when it really mattered. The door shut behind her, and she stood in the lobby awkwardly, feeling in her pockets for Priya’s glasses. She felt the weight of the saw and knife in her backpack. A nice-looking woman came up to her slowly, like she was a scared animal.

“OK, sweetie. Come with me.” The woman gestured to a long hallway behind her, and Willow followed.

She cried, but she did it. Willow told the police everything, her body shaking with anxiety and sadness for her classmates. The officer thanked her as he bagged the evidence, told her she was free to go for now, and that they would start searching as soon as they were done here.

Before heading home, Willow walked around town to clear her mind. She was scared that Mr. Hamley would know she told the police. She was scared they would want her to go to court. She was scared of the future, in general.

When Willow got home, her mom was hunched on the couch, watching the news intently. A picture of Mr. Hamley was displayed, along with the heading, “Missing Children Found in High School Teacher’s Shed.” Willow sat beside her mom to listen to the reporter.

“After police received a tip and evidence from a citizen of the community, officers found freshman Priya Lang and Leo Matthews in the shed of their teacher, Mike Hamley’s backyard. Hamley has not yet been questioned. The two students are back home, safe with their families. The police and families of the recovered students thank this anonymous source for helping to find them.”

Willow leaned back on the couch, disbelieving of the events that had occurred. Her classmates were alive because of her, because she went to the police. She looked at her mom, noticing the dark circles under her eyes and her messy hair. Willow leaned closer and hugged her mom, saying, “I love you.”

“Oh sweetie, I love you too. I’m so glad your friends are safe, and that your teacher is gone. It’s just unbelievable, that could’ve been you!”

“It wasn’t.”

“Well, it could’ve been. I can’t lose you. You know that, right?”

Her mom searched for an answer in Willow eyes, which were now brimming with tears. She couldn’t imagine how hard it must have been for her mom, losing a son when he hadn’t lived a full life like she had envisioned.

“Can we talk about him? Aaron? I miss him so much,” Willow asked.

Her mom’s eyes sparkled with tears.

“Of course. We should have, a long time ago. I’m so sorry.” She paused, then laughed, smiling, “Remember his dance he would do when he was scared?”

Willow hugged her mom tighter, letting the tears flow.

She laughed and said, “Yeah, it was so weird. Like a kangaroo. I can’t believe I was the spider-killer in the house, and not him.”

They held each other until the tears stopped, until they were too tired to talk. Mom and daughter fell asleep on the couch, embracing each other.