I had no idea that this is where this story would go. I thought it was going to be a fairy tale!
Abilene knew to never enter the forest, regardless of the time of day or who she was with. Bernard, her older brothers best friend, had done it on a dare one day, and had been missing for nearly 9 years. Carefree as her childhood was, the shadow of danger hung over it like a veil. Danger, lurking in the tree line. Edging ever closer to her own back yard. Father told her stories from his own youth, and of the friend who, like Bernard, disappeared one day.
Gravel crunched under Abilene's tires as she rode her bike one hot, still summer day. Her hair clung to her neck and dust rose into the air to settle on her skin, making little muddy rivulets of sweat on her face. Ivy had begun to creep out of the forest to climb the jungle gym on the outskirts of town. Jump ropes and jacks lay forgotten, having been abandoned hastily when rumor spread that the forest had claimed a child who was only near and not in it. Kicking at rocks as she walked, head down, Abilene tried hard not to look into the shadows. Longing filled her, and she imagined herself bravely running straight into those forbidden woods. Maybe she would be the one to liberate all of those long lost children.
Night fell softly in the fragrant way that hot summer nights fall. Overhead the street lights began to flicker, calling Abilene home to supper, and a bath and cool, clean sheets. Perched on a tree limb at the edge of the woods, a bird called out a haunting and lovely song. Queerly shaped and large, it sang again and though it sounded lovely Abilene felt the hair on her neck and arms rise in response. Retreating a few steps, she stared at the bird until her eyes ached and played tricks on her. She knew, as surely as she knew her own name, that this was the unknowable fear, the taker of children, the danger she had heard tell of her entire life. The bird dropped awkwardly from its perch, and began a lumbering shuffle toward her. Uttering a cry of revulsion, Abilene bent, feeling for rocks, unable to look away from the bird and its slow approach. Vulture body, hunched and huge, a scarred and ancient face, a ragged beak. Witches, Abilene knew, were kind and and gentle and lived close to nature; this was no witch. X's of puckered flesh covered its eyes, but Abilene could feel it seeing her. "You'll hear my name and lose your own" the bird sang to her, "lose your mind and never go home". "Zeeenabrahaaavvnaaaaa", the name came sweetly from its twisted beak and slid through the fragrant night air, and it was the last thing Abilene ever heard.