My early morning commute plunged me into thick fog along a stretch of highway known for twists and turns. Traffic around me didn’t slow. When I tapped my brakes, cars began flowing past, honking. I sped back up.
Bent over the steering wheel to see, I scanned the gray for my exit ramp. Ahead, several brake lights lit up red all at once. Clustered together like a multi-eyed monster, all eyes on me.
I yanked my steering wheel left, barely squeezing by a five-car pile-up. The ramp appeared just on the other side.
I heard their cries about me from the town square as I threw my belongings together in a sack.
“She laughs too loud.”
“Reads so much.”
“She’s way too smart.”
“Must be demonic possession.”
Soon it would be the torches and the pitchforks. Once they worked themselves into a frenzy, there’d be no stopping them. A bag of rocks tied to my feet in the river to see if I floated. Or just a good old burning.
The way they did my mom.
I slipped out the back window and vanished into the woods. Better luck in the next town.
From my angle, arms wrapped around several tree trunks as if holding on for dear life. Just arms, it seemed. Their bodies
I stood in the middle of a forest wrapped in arms, hyperventilating. Because I could feel a pull, a tug, a call to join. And when I walked around to the other side of the first tree, I found a person… hugging it.
Only. Tree bark overlapped the man’s outline. He had his face pressed so deep into the tree that the bark had conformed to him. Or he to the bark. His hands held on tight, with a white-knuckled desperation.
The other hugged trees had more people pressed against them. As if they had all wandered in from the same direction and just pushed themselves into the side of a tree. Every one of them breathed, but I could not guess at how.
Tugging the shoulder of one woman, I managed to pry her grip from her tree. She pulled away with a sucking pop, her whole front peeling out of an impression the shape of her body.
When she turned to me, she had no face. Just the pattern of wood grain dug into her skin. I stumbled back, but she made no moves to attack or leave. Just stood there. Lost.
I had pulled several others from their trees before I noticed the first few had quietly pressed themselves back into place in their indentations. I watched, helpless, as the rest followed suit, one by one.
I could not save them.
All this time I had avoided looking at one particular tree. This one empty of a hugger. I longed to wrap my arms around its trunk and remain here forever. So instead of rescuing everyone, I saved myself and walked away.
“You know why they always have a fence around the graveyard?” my grandpa asked me.
A brittle October afternoon flashed past outside the truck windows.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because people are just dying to get in!”
Neither of us laughed. As we passed the cemetery, we surveyed all the corpses pressed against the wrought-iron fence, collapsed there after getting this far under their own steam. A few that had managed to get inside industriously dug their own graves, anywhere they could find the space.
There was no sign of the cemetery attendants.
Soberly, Grandpa said, “Guess that fence wasn’t enough.”
You looked so confused when you possessed your portrait. A portrait you never commissioned yourself.
I had spent most of my life painting your likeness. Getting closer and closer to a perfect reproduction. When at last my painting looked just like your face, your soul had no choice but to return to me.
At the sight of my face peering too close at your picture, you frowned. When you recognized me, the one who tormented you in life, now in death, you shrank back within the ornate frame.