The mass of rotting leaves felt soft beneath the soles of her feet, it played havoc with her senses and balance, she never quite thought a forest floor would be so . . . wet. Yet here she was, creeping beneath the underbrush, searching for a safe haven, as you do when you’re alone and grossly unequipped for an alien forest. Crouching, peering through an endless array of ferns, tree trunks and plants with large leaves and vibrant flowers, she gasped as one hand slipped off a moss-covered stone beside her feet and onto the damp ground. She felt the slimy decay first hand, squishing between her fingers and she yanked her hand away, trying in vain to wipe the mess off onto the trunk of an old tree behind, ending up with more foreign muck than she had started. Suppressing a gag, she brushed it off onto her hazard suit, well, what remained of the pants she’d secretly acquired for the journey. She’d have to get a new one made on her return, if they’d ever accept her back on friendly terms. She pictured old style wanted posters plastered across the interior of the City Tower, sporting her bland face, freckles and all, and she wasn’t entirely sure how menacing she’d appear to the public, if at all. Back to the situation at hand, speaking of her hand, which was still damp and slimy, she made a conscious effort not to brush her curls from her eyes with that one. She couldn’t see anything ahead, just more forest. Surely there had to be someone civilised on the planet. Resuming her half-crawl, half-creep through the underbrush, she kept her ears wide open for any signs of life, hostile or otherwise – preferably otherwise – as she ducked her head beneath what felt to be the hundredth fern. Her neck was getting sore. She rounded a particularly large tree trunk, which must’ve been at least a thousand years old since it took a while to reach the other side. A while of clambering over roots with her slimy hand, during which she slipped multiple times and she even managed to bang her forehead against one. That would bruise. Around this frustratingly large tree was a wooden cottage. Her heart leapt and she picked up her pace, once she’d slid down from the thick roots. The base of the cottage tilted outwards to either side and continued on to join a loose ring of trees encircling the structure. The wooden walls were long thick branches, entwined and endless. Her pace slowed. The cottage appeared as if it had grown from the roots of the trees. Who knew what was possible on this world? Tiny leaves sprouted beneath a few round windows and large, waxy leaves blanketed what would have been a roof. She glanced around, apparently alone. Reaching the door, she tried peering through gaps in the wood; nothing, nothing but darkness. Oh well, that should mean no body is home, right? She took her chance, if she didn’t find a place to rest and clean up soon she’d surely lose it. Holding her breath, she tapped lightly on the wood, “hello?” She whispered. She flinched as the door shifted – as it does in these situations. It swung inwards, leaves along the hinges rustling. Small baubles hanging along the ceiling, about as big as Christmas ornaments, began to glow, casting the room in a soft green light; a fascinating change from the sea of deep purples and reds outside. They were cold, alien, whereas this green held warmth, familiarity. She stepped inside onto a thatched floor. Stable, dry, welcoming. The tree roots formed a single-roomed cottage. With a crude, wooden bed extending from one wall, a small table and a couple of chairs from another, and what seemed to be a tub, with a spout above, built into a small alcove in another wall. Cupboards and hay baskets filled any empty space. It was built for necessity, and certainly more than enough for what she needed. Glancing back outside through the door, it swung closed and she froze for a moment, expecting to see something there with her. But, she was still alone, at least, she couldn’t tell if anyone else was there. Body detecting an opportunity to rest, her eyes began to hurt and she studied the small bed. A layer of hay and feathers littered the top. She sat on it, surprised by its softness. Not quite as soft as what we are used to, but after her adventure, it was miraculous. Laying down, struggling to keep her eyes open or her limbs functioning, she barely noticed as a blanket of moss drifted down over her and she settled off to sleep. Her mind sharpened, detecting a birdsong somewhere nearby, how long had she been asleep? Raising her hands from beneath her blanket, she rubbed her eyes and struggled to open them, one of her hands felt gunky and she instantly regretted touching her face. She glanced up at the door. She bolted upright, almost falling back off the end of the bed as she noticed the huge, slanted black eyes gazing at her. Long stringy hair framed the creature’s sharp features, its dark skin laced with what looked like the pale veins of leaves, sending shivers through her core. She daren’t move as the creature watched, with what she thought was a smile, playing across its thin lips, revealing a hint of sharp, white teeth.
I struggled to see through the darkness as I stepped out into the backyard. The cold bit at my bare arms and I shivered.
“It’s time for bed!” I called out to the dogs, peering through the night.
A Husky and a German Shepherd bounded at me from behind the shed. I held my ground, they knew better than to bowl me over. They stopped at my feet, sitting perfectly still. Staring up at me with big eyes, ears forward and mouths hanging open as they panted.
“What were you doing behind there? You’d better not have been digging,” I said, as though they could understand me. I received no response. They had a gleam in their eyes and I dreaded the mess I’d have to clean in the morning. The Husky nudged my hand with his nose, the hand carrying the treats used to coerce them into the cubby for the night.
“Alright, alright,” I laughed as I stepped past them and headed for the cubby. They followed behind, occasionally stepping on the back of my heels, causing me to dance around them, frustrated, as they struggled to maintain a consistent pace. We reached the cubby and I ducked under the overhanging roof that acted like a veranda. They bolted inside past me and sat waiting. I tossed the treats into two opposite corners and they got busy devouring them while I shut the door and pushed the small bolt across, locking them inside for the night. All noise inside the cubby ceased as they settled for sleep. That was the last I’d hear from them until sunrise the next morning, it ensured that they didn’t get up to mischief at night; I didn’t want them hurting any other animals. Or getting themselves hurt.
I glanced up and spotted a large spider web spanning the underside of the veranda roof. Usually I resisted looking at them, but tonight I’d forgotten and the thought of being so close to whatever monster lurked in the crevasses, sent shivers down my spine. I stepped off the veranda and headed for the door, looking back across the yard. A low growl rumbled from a tree on the opposite side and I stopped dead. I couldn’t see anything, it was too dark. It growled again and I wished that I hadn’t threatened it; the wildlife around here may be small compared to a human but they were tough, tooth and claw always ready. Was it going to attack if I moved?
My heart pounded as my eyes darted left and right, trying to discern what else was with me in the yard. Of course the dogs were locked away, so they were of no use to me. My mind started conjuring up theories; perhaps it was a koala, I knew that they growled, but possums growl too. Maybe it was a bat.
And then the dreaded and inevitable thought; perhaps it’s an alien. The one thing that gets me quaking at the thought of having to walk through the house at night. The one thing whose motives and abilities humans have no idea about, they could do anything to us and we’d have no defence. Whenever I start to deviate down this train of thought, I feel ridiculous, but it doesn’t stop the fear.
It growled again and I raced for the door, ducking in to the safety of the house, refusing to look over my shoulder in case I saw it coming for me. I’d never be able to go out there at night again if I did.
I shut the door behind and stood panting for a moment, but curiosity still gripped me. I had to see what it was. Partially because I wanted to stop my imagination running wild for days to come, creating all sorts of horrors, all in my own backyard.
I grabbed a torch off the shelf beside me and cautiously stepped out the door. Flicking it on, I shone the beam toward the source of the growl and I scanned the trees. I spotted a large black mass at the centre of the fig tree and my heart stopped. It was nearly the size of one of my dogs, hanging effortlessly between the branches. What on Earth could do that?
It moved and I froze, staying as quiet and still as possible, never removing my hand from the door behind me. Slowly, it turned it’s head to face me and I was finally able to identify it.
It was a fully grown possum, red eyes gleaming in the light, broad grey tail hanging down beneath it. It was a beautiful creature, a formidable presence in this world of our weapons and wars. It stared at me for a moment before it bounded off into another tree. Disappearing into the dark, granting me permission to breathe.