The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Dark Itch

I’m not a nature person. I should say that right up front.

Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate nature. I recognize its importance, and I enjoy that it’s there, looking green and fresh as I stare out the window during algebra class, hating life.

(“Nell? Nell. Aren’t you paying attention?”

Obviously not. “I’m sorry, what was the question?”

Giggles. An aggrieved sigh from my poor, aggrieved teacher. I couldn’t care less what they think. I’ve got a novel in my lap, my index finger marking my spot. The open math textbook on my desk is just a farce, and we all know it.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. Nature, and how I appreciate it well enough.

The thing is that I’ve never much seen the point of going out into nature. All that’s there to find are mud and bugs and dead, rotting things. Is it interesting and pleasingly tidy that said dead, rotting things actually fertilize the ground and help new things to grow? Certainly. Good planning, there.

But I’ve never been the type to go hiking or camping or jumping off piers into lakes. Truth be told, I’m not even a fan of picnics. Why would I want to sit there worrying about ants and bees and inconveniently timed gusts of wind while I’m trying to enjoy my food? It’s just not practical.

And yet . . . well, it’s funny. Not the picnics thing; this other thing.

It’s funny because lately I’ve had this itch to explore the woods behind the school. Not for any particular purpose, at least not as far as I’ve been able to tell, when I’ve stepped back to examine this desire. No, I would simply like to walk about in the trees and see what I can see. I’d like to wander and traipse.

The itch resides in my heart, curled up dark and tight. The itch has a particular feeling to it, when I block out all other thoughts and focus on it. It’s a feeling like being pulled. Like a whisper you have to lean closer to hear. The itch . . . itches. Not like a feather tickling your foot or a stray strand of hair against your cheek.

No, it’s more like an itch from a crusty new scab.

I would like to scratch it.

*

The first time I go into the woods, I’m mostly thinking about how stupid I am. I have my phone, and it’s fully charged, but no one knows I’m here—not that there are many people I could tell. There’s Mom, and Dad, and Mrs. French next door, but that’s about it. Mom doesn’t like to be bothered until she’s had her first cocktail, and Dad doesn’t get home until nine o’clock, and Mrs. French will be too busy watching the news while on the phone with her sister, so here I am, going into the woods with the peculiar feeling that if I disappeared, no one would know for quite some time, and even then, my disappearance would not affect many people.

Perhaps I should feel a bit desolate at this thought, but I don’t. In fact I feel rather exhilarated. I feel something like freedom, I think.

The itch in my chest unfurls.

*

I walk for some time before I find her. The air in the woods is still and cool, which is a nice change from the world of my school. All those children, whispering and laughing, glancing and touching, sweating and stinking.

“All those children”—as if I’m not one of them. Well I am, of course, but none of them read like I do, and I would wager ninety-nine percent of them care about things I do not care about, like school dances and the Top 40 hits and sneaking kisses in stairwells.

I would also wager that none of them feel this itch like I do. They wouldn’t be able to stop talking long enough to hear it, scratching its tiny-legged way into their hearts.

That is what the itch has started to feel like now—now that I’m in the woods, I mean. It feels like a fuzzy, many-legged creature, burrowing its way inside me, digging deeper as if searching for the source of my body heat.

I come to a stop in a clearing of sorts, tangled with undergrowth. Gnats hover in hazy clouds, lit up by the sunlight shifting through the canopy overhead.

I pull aside my shirt and scratch with one fingernail the spot in the center of my chest beneath which the itch stretches and curls. Scratching my chest does not help, but my fingernail leaves behind a stinging red mark, and that seems to please the itch.

The itch grows. It now feels as though it extends from my sternum up into my throat. Not by a lot, simply a tickling tendril, seeking.

And that is when I see her.

She is a girl, perhaps a little older than me, but the sunlight hits her square in the face, and it is impossible to read any lines in her skin that would tell me such things.

She pauses mid-stride, like a grazing deer who thinks she has heard a hunter. Her body is slender, her hair is a pale golden color, and the way she holds her hands and wrists reminds me of a dancer.

The itch in my chest burns. Writhes. Tugs.

I try to say hello, but my mouth is full of weeds. I find myself reaching for the phone in my pocket, and I manage to snap a picture before she turns and runs away—or, that is, it seems as though she must have run away, but I did not see her go. One moment she was there, and the next she was not.

It is only then that I realize the forest is completely still. No wind moves the leaves. The grass is dense and black. I hear no birds or crickets, not even the sounds of traffic speeding down the nearby highway.

It is night. How is it night?

I turn and run, and I do not stop until I reach my home a few blocks away. Mom has fallen asleep in front of the television, and Dad is warming up something in the microwave. I slip upstairs unseen; he probably thinks I am already asleep, like the good, boring girl that I am.

Only when I am in my bed, cocooned in my quilt, do I take my phone from my pocket. I find the picture of the forest girl, and stare at it, hardly breathing.

I am a terrible photographer, it seems. The photo sits there in my hand, unremarkable. The sunlight that had bathed the girl’s ivory skin in a soft wash of gold looks dim, watery. The forest itself is bland, flat. The girl . . . where are her dancers’ wrists? Her arms hang there, awkwardly. Her cloud of hair is not a cloud but a thatch—dry and lusterless.

I press the phone’s screen to my chest, and press, and press. The edges of the phone dig into my skin.

I am a terrible photographer, but then, I was startled, wasn’t I? I was overwhelmed. I have never seen such a beautiful girl in real life, so naturally I wasn’t prepared to photograph her the way she deserves.

I will go back tomorrow, after school. I will return to the same clearing, with its weeds and gnats, and I will wait until she comes back. The girl, that is. She will come back, if the itch in my chest is any indication.

Every time I think of her, the girl, the itch in my chest gives a throb of affirmation. Yes, it says to me. You must go back.

*

The next day, algebra drags on for what feels like eons before the bell rings and we are released into the bright afternoon.

I go to my locker, stuff my things into my backpack, and head for the trees as quickly as I can without looking desperate. It’s not as though anyone could be watching me—no one ever does, for I am not the sort of girl worth looking at. That isn’t me fishing for pity, either; I’m perfectly happy with myself and my life, but I know my place in the world, which is more than most people can say.

Still, you can never be too careful. And besides, I find that I don’t want anyone knowing I am here. The forest girl is my secret, and mine alone. I would like to keep it that way.

As I walk into the forest, the sounds of the outside world fade away—no cars, no birds, no planes overhead. Certainly no laughter or playful screaming from my fellow students in the school parking lot. Here, beneath the trees, there is only the sound of my own heartbeat clogging up my ears.

And the slow, scratchy pulse of the itch below my breastbone.

It seems to me that the woods must be much larger than they appear to be from the outside, for already the bits of sky I can see through the trees is purple and soft. The light that does make it through is dim, bruise-colored. Have I been walking for hours? Before I reach the clearing, I know it is near. I know this because the itch flares up, pulling me onward. It feels like I have eaten something too spicy, and my body is rebelling. For a wild moment, I experience an image of myself, digging my fingers into my own chest, peeling aside the skin and scooping out the itch until the entirety of it wriggles in my palm like a fistful of hairy worms.

When I reach the clearing, she is there. My smile is skin-splitting. It’s only the second time I have seen my forest girl, I know this. And yet it feels like I have been waiting all my life to find her, that this is a moment of long-awaited reunion.

She is even more beautiful today than she was yesterday. Her dress is soft, sheer; the fabric looks as though it would slip through my fingers like water. It reveals things to me that are embarrassing, impossible—long legs and soft curves. I don’t think she’s wearing much beneath that gown, and I can feel myself blush. Her body is so completely unlike my own. Since starting middle school, I have examined myself in the mirror, many times, to try and understand what is happening to my body, why it looks nothing at all like the bodies I see on magazines, in movies. I am stubby and awkward; I have acne, and my hair doesn’t ever seem to sit quite right.

But everything sits right on my forest girl. She ducks her head out of the sun, only slightly. I see the curve of her smile and her wide eyes. She opens her mouth, and out comes a sigh.

The itch inside me darkens, twists.

I fumble with my phone, my hands clammy around it. I try to snap a picture, but my forest girl won’t stop moving. There is something unnatural about her movements—she jerks and darts like a creature would, not as girls do. Come to think of it, there is something unnatural, too, about the slim length of her neck and the shape of her ears.

“Please,” I whisper, stones weighing down my lips, “hold still, for just a second. I just want . . . I just need . . .”

“What will you give me for it?” Her voice cuts through the clearing, the lazy fog of gnats, through me like lightning.

The itch jumps up into my throat. I swear I can feel legs tickling the back of my tongue. Something is inside me, and for the first time I wonder if I should be concerned about that, but then the itch heightens, deepens, blazes.

“For . . . a photo?” My voice is awful, croaking. It isn’t good enough for her, but it is all I have.

My forest girl cocks her head, laughs. Her only answer.

I hold the phone between my cheek and shoulder, rifle through my backpack. Mom gave me a bracelet when I turned thirteen, an elegant charm on a silver chain. It was her grandmother’s, and then her mother’s, and then hers, and now mine. I remove it every day before gym; it is the only pretty thing I own.

I hold it up for her to see; dangling, it turns, catches drops of sunlight and spits them back out. I creep forward, place the bracelet on a snarl of twigs. They’ve choked the dandelions beneath them half to death.

I crouch there, like people do in church. When I glance up at my forest girl, she is smiling, a crescent moon made of teeth. It is, I suppose, an acceptance. I could cry at the sight; she is an angel, and I have made her happy, I think. My bracelet will sit on her dancer’s wrist like liquid moonlight.

Trembling, I raise the phone and snap a photo. When I lower the phone, she is gone—and so is my bracelet.

When I leave the forest, it is night again, and once more I am able to sneak into my room without my parents noticing anything is wrong. Of course they wouldn’t. That morning before I left for school, I switched on my bedside lamp. I wrote a note—Gone to bed early, headache—and taped it on my door and pulled the door to.

I suppose they fell for it. If they even bothered to check the door, that is. We long ago reached an understanding, my tired parents and I. I take care of myself; they work and keep food on the table, and then come home and fall asleep in front of the television. This arrangement suits me well enough. I like being left alone.

In bed, I check my phone, and must wipe sweat from my face before I can see the photo properly. I ran hard back home from the woods; I ran all the way, faster than I thought I could run.

But the photo, this second one—it’s all wrong. It’s even more wrong than the first. I peer closely at it, my heart a thudding weight.

My forest girl’s slender lines are bulbous, twisted. Her hair is the color of dust. Her arms and legs are too long, a disproportionate length that makes the lines of my bedroom shift and seem mutated, like I have been looking at the world all wrong, my whole life, and these lines—my forest girl, deformed and crooked—is what the world is, truly.

Her face is the worst thing—one eye larger than the other, teeth stained and misshapen. She leers, quite frankly. Her gown is a mesh of weeds and dirty cloth, her skin a sick white, drawn tight across her bones like a dirty canvas.

But this isn’t right. I know it isn’t. My forest girl is a wild creature—a doe, a bird. She is beautiful and light-footed. My phone must be defective. Of course. Yes. The lens is dirty. There is a glitch in the programming. I go to my computer, check for updates. I turn the phone on and off. I delete from it everything I can—every app, every stupid selfie I’ve tried to take with my sleeve falling off my shoulder and my lips pursed seductively. You’d think I could figure out how to pose like you’re supposed to, how to make myself look appealing, but whatever the secret is, it eludes me.

I delete photo after photo of myself—lumpy, frizzy, forced—with tears and sweat stinging my eyes.

And yet, still, the photo remains the same: My forest girl, warped. False.

I fall asleep in a tight ball, my phone pressed to my heart, the true image of my forest girl appearing behind my closed eyelids. I keep it there, falling in and out of sleep with the sound of her sigh echoing through my half-dreams.

The itch continues unwinding itself. I feel it skittering down my skin and into my toes. Burrowing there. Waiting.

I kick off the covers and twist, scratching and scratching at my chest until I break skin and blood gathers beneath my fingernails.

*

The next day, I return. Of course I return. My forest girl is a pearl, a diamond, a goddess. I must photograph her as she truly is so that I may carry her with me, always. Who knows if she’ll stay in these woods for much longer? Maybe someday I’ll wake up with a quiet, still heart. An ordinary heart, as I once had. The itch will be gone, and so will she.

But that can’t happen yet, not until I manage my photo. It won’t happen. I forbid it from happening. Others must know, others must see what I have seen. There is a girl in the forest, and she is more beautiful than any of you will ever be, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much make-up you apply, no matter how many designer clothes you buy and prance around in. And she’s not yours. She is mine. She chose me.

She has been waiting for me, I think. When I appear in the clearing, sweating and panting from my mad dash out of school, my forest girl turns to face me. I blink, and she smiles. I blink again, and she is right in front of me, cupping my cheek with a cool hand. My bracelet is a line of light around her wrist. The tips of her nails press into the skin beneath my jaw, and I begin to shake.

I have never felt love before, but this must be it.

Stupidly, I raise my phone. “Can I try again?”

She cocks her head. That same, moon-shaped smile. “What will you give me for it?”

My legs feel ready to collapse. That bracelet was the finest thing I owned. I search the contents of my backpack, and as I do so, my forest girl scrapes her nails across my scalp, sifting through my hair. I wonder what she’s looking for? I almost laugh, and then, with the next breath, I feel ready to start crying. Textbooks, spiral notebooks, change from lunch.

My pocketknife. Dad gave it to me when I started walking to school. “To defend yourself,” he said to me, “in case you should need to.” Then he ruffled my hair and went on his way. The microwave beeped, his leftovers ready and steaming.

I flip open the pocketknife and stare at the blade. I have never used it before; when Dad gave it to me, I rolled my eyes and tossed it into my backpack and forgot about it. We’re not supposed to bring knives to school, but it’s a small school, and I’m a no one, and so who cares, really? No one would think to search. No one would think to search me for anything.

Except for my forest girl. She continues combing my hair with her fingers, her nails dragging trails across my skin. What is she looking for? Will she find it? Whatever it is, I hope I have it.

The itch inside me darkens, a black bloom spreading through my lungs. My chest is on fire; my lungs are twin nests of bees, buzzing.

My forest girl stares down at me, tips up my chin. Her eyes are dark as the night above; it is night, and she is waiting. I have never seen anything so beautiful as the pitch pools of her eyes, waiting.

I am alive. I am awake.

I drag the blade across my palm. As soon as I am finished, my forest girl grabs my wrist, yanks it toward her mouth. She laps up every drop of blood, her teeth grazing my fingers, and when she has finished, and I stand there, cold and dizzy, I snap a picture, even though there is no light, and I can’t possibly have gotten a decent image.

“Did you find it?” I whisper to my forest girl, but she has left me, and the trees around me are made of ink and shadows.

Back home, my parents are laughing in front of the television—sitting side by side, miraculously. I pretend that I have come down from my bedroom for a drink of water, mumble something sleepy at them, return their I love you sweeties with I love you toos.

Upstairs, in my bed, I drop my phone three times before I manage to open my photo library. I nearly drop it again when I see my forest girl staring back at me from the latest photo—a grinning, pale wraith. She is made of sharp lines and swollen limbs. Her teeth are sharp, her eyes are all black—no whites around the edges. Her ears are too long and too sharp, jutting up from her head like a bat’s might.

Her jagged smile mocks me. I throw the phone across the room. “That’s not her!” I try to yell, but it comes out a harsh whisper. “You’re a liar, you’re lying!”

The phone hits the wall and bounces to the floor. I crawl to it, not caring when the carpet’s fibers make my palm sting. Frantic, I pick up the phone, check it over. No cracks; nothing shattered. The photo remains, this perverted echo of my girl, my beautiful girl.

I drag myself back into bed and cradle the phone in my hands like a baby. I do not sleep—I know this, I remember how long the night felt, how many hours I lay there, sweating, nearly hyperventilating, digging the heels of my palms into my eyes so that maybe I would stop thinking about her, how beautiful she looked in that still clearing where the only sound is her breathing and my breathing and the ever-present hum of buzzing gnats—I remember all of this.

But when I wake up in the morning, my sheets are stained with blood from the patchwork of scratches across my chest. Red marks from my own clawing fingernails.

The itch snakes through me, still—heart to limbs, heart to belly, heart to tongue—like a spider with its pincers in my gut.

*

I don’t go to school the next day. Are you kidding me? What’s the point? There is no point, not to anything but her.

The itch tells me so, and I agree.

Instead I wait until first Dad and then Mom leaves for work, and then I raid everything—their dressers, Dad’s armoire, Mom’s nightstand, her jewelry cabinet. I grab bundles of cash, diamond earrings, Grandpop’s pocketwatch, my great-aunt Willa’s rosary. Everything pretty, everything that glitters.

None of it is good enough for her, but it will have to do. I will get a photo of her, to keep with me always. I will get it if it takes all day, and all night. All the days, all the nights. I will get it if it requires I offer her everything I own, everything my parents own. One photo for each shining, polished piece. One photo for each crisp, folded twenty.

Before I leave the house, I go to the bathroom to find fresh bandages for my chest—and then stop, and change my mind, leaving them open and raw. I change into a tanktop so my forest girl will see them better.

They might please her.

I open and close my palm, making the cut sting and weep. With each clench of my fist, the itch beneath my skin pulses.

Perhaps it’s just my excitement talking, but I think that the itch, whatever it is, is ready to come out.

*

When I reach the clearing, I am lightheaded, my mouth dry. I should have brought water on such a hot day, and who knows how much blood I lost—was it only yesterday?

My forest girl waits, perched on a stone, looking bored. When I enter the clearing, she straightens and smiles. She opens her white arms wide, welcoming me.

Grinning, giddy, I dump everything in my backpack onto the forest floor—every last dollar, every last jewel—and step back, pleased with myself.

My forest girl rises from her perch like a queen, her gown trailing the dirt behind her. She inspects my offering, sniffs, glares up at me.

I hold up my phone, hopefully. “I only want a photo of you,” I whisper.

She stares at me, waiting.

I hesitate. “It’s because you’re so beautiful. I can’t stop thinking about you.”

One corner of her mouth curls up into a smile. She approaches, wraps me into an embrace that feels like one of those dreams when you can simply push off the ground and fly. “Me?”

Surrounded by her touch, I understand how miserable my gifts are, how inadequate. I flush and gulp down tears. “I’m sorry. It’s all I have.”

My forest girl kicks the gifts aside. The pile of trinkets topples, scatters. “I don’t want them,” she whispers against my ear.

“But it’s all I have!” I am sobbing now, like a little kid with no self-control. I try to hide my face from her; I look terrible when I cry, swollen and splotchy.

“Not true,” my forest girl says, her voice teasing me.

I quiet, grow still. The itch inside me builds and builds, and I realize with this light feeling—a puff of air, a flood of warmth, a sigh—that the itch is not something trying to get out.

It’s something trying to get in.

And the scent of my itch, the feel of it, the taste of it, tickling my tongue—it’s her.

“Me?” I gaze up at her, and I can feel my face morphing into what is no doubt the soppiest, most ridiculous smile there has ever been, but I don’t care, for now I understand, and the itch inside me becomes the sun, burning bright and steady. “You want me?”

“Only you,” purrs my forest girl, tracing the lines of my face with one sharp fingernail. “But you have to say it. You must tell me you’ll do it. You must—”

“Take me,” I blurt out, eager and stupid, grinning and beaming and ready to come apart from happiness. “You can have me.”

Her eyes glitter, shift. She holds out one finger, warning me, teasing me. “Just one photo,” she reminds me.

“And it will really be you this time, in the photo?”

“My true self,” answers my forest girl, her voice a fall of rain, and it is mine, she is mine, she is all for me.

I nod, fumbling with the phone, and as soon as I snap it, as soon as I press the button and lower the phone, the itch inside me bursts.

I fall to the ground, blinded by darkness, choked by it, burned by it. My skin is on fire, it is made of bugs—swarming, pinching. I crawl through it, scratching myself, clawing at myself, and when it is over, I feel that the itch is now a chain, wrapped around my heart, wrapped around my wrists, my ankles, pinning me—pinning me to her.

She yanks me up into her arms, and her skin is cool, still. It soothes me, and I think I may be drunk. I have never been drunk before, but you hear things, you know, in a school full of deviants.

“Try to run,” she hisses against my cheek, “and you’ll feel much, much worse than that.”

Run? I would never run. Not from her. I think that, my thoughts slow and muddy, even as I look up and realize that my forest girl is gone, and it is a creature now dragging me across the mud, toward a fat tree with an opening at its roots. Its claws dig into the soft skin of my upper arm. With each tug across the dirt, the itch through my blood tightens—her chain, woven through me. She grins, her mouth full of fangs. She rips me to my feet with one fierce yank of her arm, and the itch stabs my chest; the chain tightens.

“See?” she growls, her misshapen face hovering over mine. Her pointed ears. The sharp lines of her face. She is not a creature of my world, and I love her for it. There is a part of me that screams how wrong this is, how in danger I am, how she is evil, how I do not love her. She tricked me, she tricked you!

But I am well aware this part of me will soon die. Even now, the itch wraps around that frantic voice, choking away its air.

“Mine now,” she tells me, and I nod, letting myself be dragged across the tree roots into darkness.

“Yours,” I whisper, and the bark tears at my flesh, and we are below, now, in her world, where it is all darkness and unnatural heat, and the shadows shudder and laugh, and the only thing I know is her arms around me and the itch wrapping its coils around me, darkening, darkening—

*

“Do you think she ran away?”

I roll my eyes. “Where would she go? And with what money?”

“Maybe she stole her parents’ credit cards or something.”

I roll my eyes again. There’s a lot of eye-rolling whenever Darren Wyatt’s around, but I’m not the kind of person to chicken out on a dare, so I’ll have to put up with him. “Maybe.”

“Or maybe she’s still hiding somewhere, trying to freak everyone out.” Darren snorts. “Maybe she’s, like, spying on us all, watching the town go crazy looking for her—”

“Just stop talking, okay? You’re annoying the crap out of me.” Which is true. But more than that, talking about Nell while we’re searching the woods—the same woods into which Mr. Elliott saw her disappear the day before last, while we were all stuck in first period—just seems . . . I don’t know, like bad luck. Speaking ill of the dead and all that. Not that Nell is dead. She could be, obviously, but no one’s saying that out loud yet. At least not around us kids.

Darren mutters something at me, but he can insult me all he likes, as long as we just get in and out of here as quickly as possible. I’ve done stuff before—broken into cars, shoplifted, the usual. Petty stuff. I’ve even gone into these woods before, when Darren and I tried the cigarettes he stole from his mom’s purse.

But the woods are different now. I’m sure it’s just the knowledge of Nell’s disappearance playing tricks on my brain, but still. I don’t want to stay in here any longer than I have to. I hope we find something soon, or at least come up with something we can take back to the guys, something to scare them and start a nice, juicy story.

It’s like the trees were listening to me, because maybe thirty seconds after I think that—I hope we find something soon—I see it: A rectangle of turquoise, lying in the dirt.

I pick it up, and Darren looks over my shoulder. “Dude. Nell’s phone? Do you think?”

“Maybe.” I turn it over, press the home button. I slide my finger across the screen to unlock it, and it doesn’t ask me for a passcode, so the photo shows up immediately.

Darren curses and jumps back. I fling the phone away, and it flies into the dirt.

We stand there, breathing hard.

“What was that?” Darren asks, and when I head for the phone, he grabs my arm, squeezes tight. “Josh. Don’t, man. Evidence, right? That’s some freaky . . . don’t, okay? Leave it.”

But I can’t help it. I have to see it again. I pick up the phone, touching as little of it as I can. I turn it over, and there it is—the monster, staring at me from the last photo Nell took. It’s pale and has long, pointed ears. Its mouth is wide, huge, fanged; its body is all wrong, long lines and sharp bends and swollen joints and what looks like infected cuts.

As I look at the photo, it feels like something crawls into my chest, sliding into it like a worm. It stays there, sticky and fat, like I’ve eaten too much, like I’ve eaten something bad.

There’s a sound, behind me—Darren, running away. “Forget this, man!”

And another sound, in front of me. A flash of white.

I whirl. I think, for a minute, that I see a girl—barely dressed, delicate, beautiful. My chest twists, and my body moves, like it’s ready to run after her. I breathe, I blink, and she’s gone.

Was she there at all?

I tuck Nell’s phone in my pocket and turn to head home. Out of nowhere, the thought comes to me that I should come back. Not today. Maybe not even tomorrow. But someday. Someday soon, I think. I’m distracted by a million different things, but I definitely should. Come back, that is.

Something must have bitten me. A mosquito, maybe. There’s an itch on my chest, and I scratch it, and call after Darren. “Darren? Come on, dude, don’t be such a baby. Seriously? There’s nothing here but trees.”

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