In the Woods

By A.E. Decker

“Felicia told you to do what?”

“Look, babe,” drawled her stepmother’s chauffeur-cum-gamekeeper-cum-lackey, boredom lacing his Northern British accent. “I’m not happy about it either.”

“You’re not happy about it.”

He shrugged. Noncommittally, Snow felt.

Photo by Olivier Guillard on Unsplash

“Felicia commands you to murder me and leave my body in the woods and you’re not happy about it.”

He held up a finger. “Murder you and cut your heart out.” He clicked his tongue. “That’s just freaky serial-killer-type stuff.”

Snow struggled to rein in her temper. He was supposed to drive me to the Saratoga Farmers’ Market, dammit! She’d spent the ride dreaming of bins of fresh produce, waiting to be transformed into mouthwatering recipes. Instead . . .

“But you’re fine with just murdering me?” she asked.

He shrugged again. Scratched a stubbled cheek. “Well, she is my employer.”

Snow stared, then shook her head. This has to be a joke, she thought, digging her smartphone out of her pocket. Searching . . . searching . . . the little icon on the screen whirled before giving up the quest for available satellites. “It worked when I called Rose an hour ago,” muttered Snow, resisting the urge to bang it against the nearest tree to see if that improved reception.

“Dead zone, babe,” said her impending executioner, watching birds flit among the trees. A trace of annoyance crept into his voice. “Give me some credit for planning.” In his tough-looking brown trousers and buckskin jacket, he rather resembled Daniel Day-Lewis from Last of the Mohicans. Pity he seemed bent on channeling Day-Lewis from Gangs of New York instead.

A breeze toyed with Snow’s hair. Pretty day, she thought. An exceptionally picturesque spot, for that matter. Purple bellflowers and white daisies and some yellow blossom she couldn’t identify occupied every patch of sun that filtered through the trees’ branches. Maple. Hickory. Perhaps oak; she reminded herself to look it up when she got home. If she got home. The smells reminded her of spice and damp coffee grounds. A lovely place to die, really.

Snow took a breath. “Well, Daniel?” she asked. A chickadee chirped on a nearby branch.

Daniel’s gaze returned to her face. An eyebrow lifted. “My name isn’t Daniel.”

“I don’t care. Shouldn’t you get on with it before I scream and run away?”

“Are you going to?” He sounded genuinely interested.

Snow considered. Running was the preferred course of action in every horror movie she’d ever seen. Except all those girls inevitably tripped and got mauled or stabbed or eaten anyway. She gauged the distance to the Jeep, parked by the side of the road. Running might be worth a shot, although not-Daniel looked both athletic and at home in the woods.

Screaming? Waste of breath. They were alone. Plus she hated that quivering, falsetto sound. If their positions were reversed and not-Daniel started making that noise, she’d be tempted to kill him just to shut him up.

Rose and Cindy often teased her for having too analytical a mind. Seemed they were right.

Not-Daniel waited, his hands in his pockets, an expression of infinite patience on his face. “Don’t see the point,” Snow said, rubbing her arms. Despite the sunlight, the wind blew cold in the shadow of the woods. Her skin goose-pimpled through her thin sleeves.

“Well.” The bird flew off the branch. Not-Daniel’s eyes followed its departure. “Well. I’m not sure I can do this, you know, face-to-face. Maybe you could turn away and pick flowers, babe.”

“Pick flowers? What am I, six? Just do it. And stop calling me ‘babe.’”

She was betting he couldn’t cold-bloodedly murder her. Didn’t want to. Why else would he stand there watching birds instead of getting down to business?

He slid the knife out of its sheath. Metal rasped against leather. Snow shrank back. She used knives all the time at the culinary school, but this one—big, perhaps a Bowie—was definitely not the sort used for dicing herbs. She swallowed. This would hurt worse than the time she’d gashed her palm shucking an oyster.

“Why?” she blurted as not-Daniel took a step forward. She strained, trying to peer around the trunk of a maple, at the Jeep. Had he locked the doors? Maybe she could barricade herself inside and blare the horn until someone noticed…

Not-Daniel’s shoulders lifted inside his buckskin jacket. “You’re in the way. Felicia wants to take your da all the way to the White House.”

Snow gasped. “The presidency?”

Felicia. First Lady. Once the shock settled, Snow could picture her stepmother on magazine covers: kissing Ethiopian children, organizing charity dinners, speaking to the press. Perfectly coiffed, her rage clenched behind a polished smile.

It won’t make her happy, thought Snow. Nothing did, except those moments spent sipping green tea and staring out over the garden. She seemed a different woman then.

“I’m not in the way,” said Snow. “I’ll stay at the culinary school.”

“Exactly.” Not-Daniel twirled his knife’s point against a fingertip. “Won’t even wave for the camera, will you? Rather do your own thing.” The sun glinted off the blade. “Ruins the image of Senator White’s perfect, happy family.”

Snow bit her knuckle. Politics and her stepmother. She’d imagined she’d escaped both when she entered the culinary school. How they’d fought over that.

I thought we fought because Felicia wanted me to stay, said a small, hurt part of herself.

No, said another, colder section. You knew she wanted to use you. That’s why you left. You just didn’t realize how far she’d go.

“Better dead than disapproving?” that cold part asked.

“That’s right. Felicia figures your da will ride a crest of sympathy to the White House after you’re found murdered.”

Found murdered. Fear grabbed her, slicking her palms, pulling her heart into a choking lump at the base of her throat. She’d taken a self-defense class one summer. Unfortunately, the instructor’s advice on handling a man with a knife was to run away. I should’ve asked what you do if you have nowhere to run to.

No voices, outside of their own. No crackle of footsteps. Only birdsong and the wind. She swept the ground with her gaze, hoping to spot a thick branch or fist-sized rock. Flowers nodded back at her.

Not-Daniel ran a thumb down the blade. “Probably should get on with it,” he said.

Snow delved into her pockets. A tissue. A half-eaten tube of mints. Her useless smartphone. Pulling it out, she jabbed at the keys. Nothing. “Why are you doing this?” She flung the phone at not-Daniel’s face. He dodged and it fell amongst the flowers. “Is it for money? Or are you Felicia’s lover?”

He grabbed her arm, his fingers digging so hard it shocked the breath from her. “I just adore what you people think of me,” he hissed, shaking her. Their noses almost touched. Snow stared into his hazel eyes before he shoved her away. She stumbled, falling to her knees. Damp earth soaked through her skirt.

Who was this man? She’d glimpsed him around her father’s house, working in the yard or returning from town with a canister of Felicia’s favorite bitter green tea. Never gave him a thought. When she’d discovered her car had a flat this morning, Felicia had offered his services to drive her to the market.

In retrospect, that should have warned me. She fought a hysterical giggle.

“Yeah, money or sex; it’s always that,” said not-Daniel above her, his accent roughening. “What else could motivate a bloke like me?” He flipped his knife and caught it by the hilt. Its edge flashed as it bisected a sunbeam. Snow gasped and he blinked down at her, as if he’d forgotten her presence. The hard set of his jaw softened. “Turn away, babe. Pick flowers. You won’t see it coming.” He raised the knife, paused. “Or you could beg me not to kill you.”

Snow thrust out her trembling chin. “Will you spare me if I do?”

He studied her a long, long moment then shook his head. “You won’t beg. Pick flowers.”

Turning, Snow reached for a bellflower, feeling faintly ridiculous, like an oversized child. A twig snapped behind her.

I could plead with him. Her cheeks burned at the thought of weeping, but the idea persisted. He could bring Felicity a deer’s heart instead of hers; she’d never know the difference.

And then? Flight. Perhaps she could seek sanctuary at the Seven Short Sous Chefs’ apartment back at the culinary school. Eventually the story would come out. After that—the tabloids, the paparazzi. Celebrity, perhaps even a made-for-TV movie. In her mind, she saw the magazines again. This time her face smiled from the covers.

Her nail nicked the bellflower’s stem.

Other images crowded into her head. Jason from her confectionary class, with his gentle, crooked smile. The peculiar sweet-savory taste of leeks in almond cream she’d recently discovered. Herself presiding over a large kitchen, stirring pots, tasting sauces. A hot Tuscan summer sipping wine. Dancing in the autumn leaves, her arms flung over her head, joyously alone.

Not-Daniel’s shadow loomed over her. The knife’s silhouette pierced a daisy. Snow curled her hand into a fist.

“Sorry, babe,” he whispered.

She whirled.

The sound of the blow reverberated through the woods. Not-Daniel staggered back three paces, clapping his hand over the scarlet patch rising on his left cheek.

“You’re right,” said Snow. “I won’t beg.” The wind ruffled a lock of her black-as-night hair. In that moment she believed she could tear the sky in half and walk through the gap.

His mouth twisted; not quite a grin. “Of course not, babe.” The knife rose again, reached its apex.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

The knife froze.

“I should’ve asked your name this morning,” she said. “Instead, I acted as if you were just there—” She stopped. Felicia’s flawless, closed-off face rose in her mind like a phantom in a mirror. To get me what I wanted.

She looked at him. His head drooped, the knife limp in his hand. “I’m sorry,” she said again.

He laughed, harsh and sour, the sound muffled by the fall of his hair. “Me too.” He cleared his throat. “You’d better run now, babe. I’ll cover for you.”

“No. I won’t run.” The Seven Short Sous Chefs’ place was a pigsty, anyway. Stepping up close, she laid a hand on his shoulder. “What you want to kill isn’t me, is it?”

Around them the forest lay still, devoid of wind and of birdsong, as if holding its breath for his answer. The slightest shake of his head. A bird chirped. The breeze returned and toyed with Snow’s hair.

She shivered. “I’m cold. Want to find a café and have coffee? My treat.”

A wisp of a smile touched his lips. “Don’t suppose you can get a decent cuppa in this blasted country.”

“Let’s give it a try.” She hooked her arm through his. “What is your name?”

“Not Daniel.”

“All right.” She laughed. “Fair enough.”

His smile blossomed fully as he sheathed the knife. Together, they walked back to the Jeep. He got out the keys and beeped it open. So it was locked, thought Snow, nestling against the white leather upholstery.

“Felicia won’t be happy,” said not-Daniel, starting up the engine.

“Felicia’s never been happy,” said Snow. She stared out the window as the forest receded. She’d left her smartphone lying amongst the bellflowers like an abandoned heart. “And I never cared.”

“Feeling sorry for her, babe? She tried to have you killed.”

“What she wants to kill isn’t me,” said Snow softly. “It’s the face in the mirror.”

We’ll talk when I get home, she decided. So much to discuss: kitchens, Tuscan summers, and the taste of leeks in almond cream. What dreams had Felicia discarded by the wayside?

Let me help you remove that mask of trampled hopes and petty ambitions, Felicia. You’ve worn it too long. I want to see your true face.

Snow met the dark eyes of her reflection in the window and smiled.

I bet it’s beautiful.

A.E. Decker
A.E. Decker

A. E. Decker has been a member of the Bethlehem Writers Group since 2011. A former ESL tutor and doll-maker turned writer of fantasy, her short stories have appeared in such magazines as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fireside Magazine, and The Sockdolager as well as in the BWG’s own anthologies. Her YA novels in the Moonfall Mayhem series include The Falling of the Moon and The Meddlers of Moonshine,both from World Weaver Press. Like all writers, she is owned by three cats.  

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