Lauren walked through the woods, each step cracking the dried twigs that littered the area. The earth was dry and lifeless. Only the trees provided a sense of solace from the gray sky overhead. She tightened her cardigan against the chill air. The surroundings were unfamiliar. She could not even recall how she found herself among the trees. The bewilderment was not unlike the moment after waking from a dream, its details quickly fading away. She brushed the blonde hair from her face and continued forward, with only the sound of her crunching footfalls to keep her company.
The terrain remained unchanged in every direction. It wasn’t long before Lauren began to feel a sense of anxiety in the pit of her stomach. She had not gotten lost since she was a little girl, but the same sense of overwhelming doom she had felt then returned two-fold. There was no adult to help this time; she was completely alone.
It was unlike her to leave home without a trusty large purse of essentials, much less wander through unfamiliar terrain without anything at all. She rechecked her pockets for a phone or car keys. Nothing. Her pace increased as she made her way through the woodland. It was unusually cold for the time of year. She had just admired the start of autumn as she drove home from work a few days ago, yet here the trees were mostly bare, their leaves already dried and crisp.
“Hello?” she called out in desperation, her steps quickening to a jog. “Hello!” There was no response.
She spotted a glow through the gray trunks, the unmistakable reflection of water. It was a lake so still, it seemed like a giant mirror spreading across the clearing. Lauren ran to it and scanned the distant shoreline for a hint of houses, roads, or landmarks, but saw nothing more than endless woodland. She looked up at the sky in desperation.
Turning back to the forest, she instinctively took a step back in surprise. There was a bench just a dozen feet away. A cloaked figure sat hunched upon it, head bent down. She must have run right past it.
Lauren approached the dark antiquated bench. Even its bolts had long since rusted over. The figure remained motionless. Its cloak was deep burgundy, almost brown, and composed of thick, rich fabric with intricate patterns weaved into the exterior. The hood rose slowly to peer at Lauren, the stranger’s face hidden in shadow. The young woman froze in her path.
Old dark hands rose to pull the hood back, revealing an elder woman within. Her face was a dried riverbed of cracks. Her prominent nose came to a hook and her gray hair formed a neat bun. Her gaze seemed to penetrate Lauren, revealing the young woman’s every detail, every flaw. It seemed like ages before the stranger motioned to the spot beside her on the bench. The newcomer cautiously approached and settled onto the antique planks. There was no emotion on the wise old face beside her; the cloaked woman simply observed.
Lauren was about to speak when the stranger reached into her cloak. There was a tattoo on the elder’s wrist, a simple cryptic symbol resembling something like a stylized leaf or feather. The woman opened her rich covering to reveal an intricate picture frame lying on her lap. It sparkled with gold leaf in contrast to its monotone surroundings. Enclosed in the frame behind a pane of glass was a photograph. It was yellow with age and not any picture she had seen before, but there was no mistaking that the woman in the frame was Lauren herself.
The stranger rose casually and knelt at the edge of the lake. Her sinewy fingers placed the frame atop the water’s surface. It balanced perfectly as it floated from shore. Lauren felt her heart pounding as she watched the scene before her. The old woman remained silhouetted against the lake in perfect stillness while the frame continued to float down its watery path.
Lauren joined the stranger at the lake’s edge, but her eyes never left the distant frame. She could almost see herself behind the glass in place of the photograph, floating silently, staring up at the sky. The frame slowed its path and rotated calmly on the water. The old woman gazed forward with utmost concentration.
The frame suddenly stopped its slow spin and disappeared into the watery depths, sinking in silence. A heavy weight settled over Lauren. The old woman sunk her head, as if in disappointment.
Lauren’s fright and anxiety increased with every passing second. Her breath quickened, her chest pounded. Her thoughts became overwhelmed by dark memories, events that had long been forgotten. Each one refreshed the malice, jealousy, and anger she had experienced in those moments, and they settled upon her like a physical mass atop her heart.
The two women stood at the lake for some time, but nothing more was said. Lauren could only gaze up at the sky through teary eyes.