“There has to be more out there.” Natalie whispered under her breath. Not realizing she said the words aloud. She sat atop the patchwork quilt in the field of wild marigolds. Golden, like the summer sunset before her.
Wild marigolds were unheard of. Except in Louisiana. Anything could grow in the lush terrain. Throw a piece of fruit outside and watch as a seedling grows a few weeks later. Blooming into a magical fruit tree after a few years.
Josh chuckled. Revealing his toothy grin. Natalie loved his smile. It was a smile that could light up a dark room. A beacon of hope. “I often wonder what goes on in that head of yours.” Josh said. He was propped up on his elbows, laying beside Natalie.
“Me too.” Natalie said as she leaned over and kissed his lips. Smooth and moist. The taste of spearmint gum on his breath.
“Look!” She screamed with glee as the beautiful yellow and black butterfly landed on one of the marigolds. “That one is an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.” She was giddy, like a young child on Christmas morning. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
The butterflies were frequent visitors to the marigold field. Natalie would talk to them as they fluttered from flower to flower. She knew all the different types. Monarchs, Swallowtails, Hairstreaks; Louisiana was full of the most marvelous butterflies.
Natalie believed butterflies held souls of loved ones no longer alive. When someone we love dies, the caterpillar builds its chrysalis. Taking in the spirit of our loved ones. Then releasing it in the form of a butterfly, she told Josh the first time they met as small children. He was intrigued by her from that day on.
Josh plucked a marigold from the ground and put it behind Natalie’s ear. She smiled and replied, “Did you know marigolds are symbolic for resurrection in some cultures? In others, they are thought to attract dead souls. Strangely conflicting views if you ask me.”
Josh smiled. “I agree.”
Natalie pointed to the sky as the sun was descending behind the trees. Purple, red and orange streaked across the horizon painting a masterpiece. “There is so much unchartered territory out there. An infinite universe with infinite possibilities. I find it hard to believe it’s just us. That we live. Then we're gone. There must be more out there. You know what I mean?”
Natalie was well beyond her sixteen years. Her grandmother, Penny, said she was special from the day she was born. From a young age, Natalie often asked questions like: What is beyond the blue sky? Where do the roots of trees go? What moves around in the dark that we can’t see? Questions that shook most adults. Discussion topics beyond their comprehension. It made those around her uncomfortable.
Naturally, family and friends thought she was absurd. The word autistic came across their lips a time or two. Schizophrenic, perhaps, she overheard her aunt say once.
In her free time, Natalie engrossed herself in books and documentaries about the unknown. Questions that had no answers. Spending hours down the rabbit hole. She was unique in a world of bland and ordinary. A patch of wild marigolds in a sea of green.
It was only fate that the creatures of the night started connecting with her. Latching onto her like a leech. Natalie was vulnerable. She looked too deep for the darkness, so it found her.
The first incident occurred when she was five. Her mother, Carol, was awaken one night to Natalie’s screams. When Carol arrived at her room, Natalie was sitting up in her bed, sweating profusely. She pointed to the closet. There was nothing there.
This happened frequently for the next few years. Her mother blamed the stories she read. The documentaries. “Why can’t she just watch cartoons like normal kids?” Carol had said to Penny during Thanksgiving one year.
“I told you that girl was special. I knew it from the day she was born.” Penny said.
“I think she just needs to be more of a kid. Hang out with other kids as opposed to researching ridiculous things. Reading those silly books.” Carol said.
“They are only ridiculous and silly to those who don’t believe.” Penny had replied.
As Natalie grew older, shadows became frequent visitors. She tried to communicate with them. Ask them questions. Why are you here? Where are you from? But the shadows never spoke. Just watched her. At first, she was scared. Eventually the shadows became a part of her scenery.
The sleepwalking did scare her, though. Sleepwalking beyond the confinements of her home. Waking randomly in the yard. Further into the woods. Once into the field of marigolds. Over a mile from her home. In the dark. It was as though she was being led somewhere.
At ten, Natalie realized just how different she was. The shadows no longer appeared for fleeting moments. They began to stay longer than welcomed. Showing up when others were around. Yet, only seen by Natalie. She began to think maybe she was crazy.
Josh was the only person she ever talked to about the visitors. He would smile his beautiful smile and kiss her on the forehead. I believe you, Josh would say. I will always protect you. She trusted Josh with everything. They had started as friends at eight years. Now lovers under the sky of stars.
The pair laid in the field together. Watching as the lightning bugs lit up the tree line. Just the two of them. Not a care in the world. Little did either of them know, it would be their last time together.
Two Days Later…
Thunder boomed in the distance. A storm was moving in. Natalie could feel the humidity rising off the marsh. Sweat was already beading on her forehead. The spring rains were coming and would give no relief for weeks. Time was running out, she knew it. All evidence would be lost. Any clue as to what happened two nights prior. The night Josh disappeared.
Natalie wiped the sweat from her forehead as she trudged through the creek bed. The same creek bed she had checked a dozen times already. The mud was thick and caked her boots. Her legs were tired. She was losing hope of finding any clue in the unforgiving woods. Just like all the volunteers and police force. Even Josh’s own mother, Mary, had stopped looking. She was holed up in her room grieving the loss of her oldest son. The whole world had given up on Josh. That wasn’t an option for Natalie. She would never stop looking.
Children disappear all the time without a trace. In rare circumstances, few are reunited with their families. Most are never heard from again. Growing up without ever remembering their past lives. But how does a sixteen-year-old boy just disappear without leaving any clues behind? A fully capable young man known for his strength and quick wits. It didn’t make any sense to Natalie. There were no signs of a struggle. Kidnapping was just impossible. And death, that was an option she was not willing to accept. It’s like he just vanished into thin air. Ceased to exist.
Natalie sat on a downed tree and took a drink of the red Gatorade. Maybe there was something she was missing. She recalled the events from that night over and over in her head. Did Josh ever mention running away, Sheriff Sanders had asked Natalie the day Josh was discovered missing. Josh was always happy. He was one of the happiest people Natalie knew. So, like she told the Sheriff, Josh didn’t run away. But where the hell was he?
Josh and Natalie returned from the marigold field that night. Afterwards, the pair studied for their Algebra test. She offered to drive Josh home, but as always, he wanted to walk home on the trail between their homes. It helps clear my mind and I like the fresh air, Josh would always say.
Natalie waved goodbye and watched him enter those dark woods. The same woods the two made their playground years before. Josh could have made the trip blindfolded. Yet, he never made it home that night.
Natalie placed her hand on an old oak tree beside her. “I bet you know where he is, huh?” Trees know all. Trees see all. Trees have the answers.
A twig snapped across the creek from where Natalie sat. It was Tommy, Josh’s younger brother. At fourteen, he was a spitting image of his brother. It was hard to look at him anymore. He was a constant reminder of what she lost.
Tommy was the only person besides Natalie who believed Josh was still out there. Or to be frank, still alive. Though not a single person had said the words, it was a grim possibility.
Like Natalie, Tommy looked like a beaten dog. They both needed food and rest. She put the cap back on her Gatorade and headed towards him.
The thunder was getting louder. The trees creaked in the breeze that was moving in. “There’s a storm coming. We should head home. Plus, I am starving.” Natalie said.
Tommy had started the search so optimistic. Now he looked defeated. The poor kiddo sat down and propped his back against a great pine tree. “I just don’t understand.” His voice cracked as he looked into the distance. “What happened, Natalie? Where did he go?” Tears flowed down his flushed cheeks. She had not seen Tommy cry since he was a small child. It took everything she had not to scream. Natalie was losing it too, she just refused to show weakness. The world was crumbling around her.
Natalie sat on the ground beside him. “I wish I knew. I wish I had the answers.” She interlocked her arm around his.
The two sat in silence for some time. The dark clouds moved overhead. The trees swayed aggressively back and forth. It was time to throw in the towel.
“Mom’s cooking pork chops and potatoes. Come have dinner with us. I’ll take you home afterwards.” Natalie got to her feet and offered her hands to Tommy to help him up.
“Do you think I could stay at your place tonight? I can’t be in that house. You know how my mom gets. I don’t want to be there without Josh.” Tommy said.
“Of course.” Natalie pulled Tommy to his feet. “Now let’s get home before we get caught in this storm.” After days of searching, the pair finally turned in. Exhausted and defeated. Empty handed.
As the pair headed down the trail to Natalie’s house, she got a feeling she was being watched. An all too familiar feeling. The hair on her arms raised. She stopped dead in her tracks when she heard the voice. Plain as day. Natalie. He’s here. The shadows had never spoken before. She turned slowly to look behind her.
“Did you hear that?” Natalie asked Tommy.
“What?” Tommy said. Now growing nervous. Looking frantically behind them.
“Never mind. Let’s get out of here.”
Then, Natalie spotted it. On the downed tree she had been sitting on moments before. A single marigold. As golden as the setting sun in the Louisiana summer. But who had put it there? Were they trying to tell her something? A resurrection or a gathering of dead souls? Which one?
Better yet, were the shadows behind Josh’s disappearance? They had never harmed her before. Always just hovered around, aimlessly. Did they have a motive? Was this somehow Natalie’s fault? Had she looked too far? Found the answers she was looking for at the expense of Josh? The only beacon in her dark world.
Natalie left those woods with a different perspective. What was once a place of joy, now harbored darkness. There was a secret in those woods. A secret that only the trees knew. If only trees could talk.