“Today is my birthday,” she said. We were getting lunch, standing in a crowded, seemingly mile-long line for the crappy food. I looked over at her, and saw her smile. It parted her face unevenly, her beautiful eyes shining. I couldn’t help but feel gloriously happy for her this morning.

“So, how old are you now?” I asked her, and slid over to get a pudding cup. She jumped up and down excitedly and grabbed the green jello. She squealed with excitement and said, “I’m sixteen! I finally get to drive!” She laughed, and the people in the line next to her gave odd looks.

“But, you already know how to drive,” I said, leaving the line. We walked across the lunch room, looking at all the other kids clustered at the tables. She ran to catch up with me, stumbling and nearly spilling her food.

“Woo! Nobody saw that!” She straightened and righted her tray. “But yeah, I CAN already drive, I would just be able to drive legally!” She stopped in the middle of the aisle. I knew what was coming. She was going to rant. Again.

“SO I CAN GET OUT OF THIS MID-WEST, SMALL TOWN HELL-HOLE!!!” She screamed it loud enough that the whole lunch room went silent.

We sat down at our usual table, worn with the scratches of our names and grade years. The most recent said, “Rhiannon + James, Juniors 4 Evar!!!” We knew it was unrealistic, but we wanted to leave our mark on this school. Leave our memory imprinted somehow. So far, graffiti was the easiest choice.

The mind-numbing chatter continued after a few silent seconds. Rhiannon picked up her tuna sandwich, one pinky raised, and bit in ravenously. Mayonnaise smeared her cheek. With one thumb, I swiped the smear away.

“Ya know, as the guy in this relationship, I’m the one who should have the appetite of a caveman.” I laughed and took a bite of my burger. She shrugged, her cheeks puffed out with so much tuna salad sandwich. We continued eating in silence, people watching, and catching little bits of conversation here and there.

“…completely ripped in half!”

“The eyes were ripped out!”

“…sister went on a hike and she said she and her boyfriend saw him!”

“Man, this pizza sucks!”

“…and she, ya know,….!”

I ripped my eyes from the last one. Of course. The sex-freaks.

I turned to look at Rhiannon. A knowing smile broke out on her face, and she cackled her crazy laugh. I couldn’t help but laugh with her. We calmed down and finished our lunches.

My cell phone vibrated, signaling I had a text message. I fished in my pocket and found it. I swiped the screen and it displayed the ongoing conversation I’d been having.

Rhiannon’s mother, Shawna, was planning to throw her a surprise party. It would take place at her house, as her parents were divorced, but it would be delayed. Rhiannon’s father was stuck at work until seven, and Shawna was wondering if I could stall her until the party started. I texted back a reply, and shut off my phone.

“What was that about?” Rhiannon asked. Her brows were raised, her trademark gesture of confusion. I cleared my dry throat, thinking of something to do after school.

“Hey, how about we practice your driving skills after school.” I held her hands, kissing each finger tip and then the pink-painted nails. She giggled. “Okay, Mr. Avoidy-Pants. We’ll practice my “driving-skills” after school.” She removed her hand from my grasp and laid it on my cheek. But you ARE going to tell me what that text was really about…” She kissed me. “Eventually.”

At four o’clock in the afternoon, Rhiannon and I were speeding down a back-wood lane in the middle of no-where. A huge Michigan forest spread about us, mossy and chattering with life. The air roared through the open windows, making the car smell like wild onions and decaying leaves. I never really understood Rhiannon’s aversion to our 'small-town' area of Michigan. I always thought the rolling farmland and huge trees were beautiful. But, 'to each their own', as I always said.

She sped around a turn in the road, spraying dirt and dust and pebbles into the air. I smiled over at her, her blue eyes blazing with happiness and ferocity.

“Maybe we should slow down..” I said, grasping at the door handle, my knuckles white.

“Ha-Ha! What for, there aren’t any other cars!!”

A great shuddering guffaw leapt out of her as we tumbled down a steep hill, the trees whizzing by us like ghosts.

“Yeah, but there are deer. Ya know, destructive, huge, and smeary deer!?” We shot over a bump in the road, my head slamming against the ceiling.

“Only when you hit them, are they smeary!” She cackled again, but slowed down. Instead of whizzing, we were now going a normal speed. “ Woo! That was fun, though!” She smiled a Cheshire grin, her pink cheeks afire with the need for speed. She sighed, and slowed down to let a family of ducks pass. They waddled adorably across the road, their fluffy young as yellow as the sun. When they passed, she sped up again, swerving to avoid a tree trunk.

She looked over at my bewildered face, smiling. She giggled a little, and leaned over to kiss me. Her lips were soft, and I pressed for more. The next thing I knew, the front end of the car was bent around a giant oak.

What happened? My ears rang and my vision was blurry. Blood trickled from the corner of my mouth and with a shaking hand, I wiped it away. I looked over at where Rhiannon was, but she was missing. All that remained in her stead was a puddle of blood. I gasped, threw open the passenger door and tumbled out.

The ringing in my ears intensified. I couldn’t stop the blood from pouring out of my nose, and it stung as it ran into the cut over my mouth. I stopped, trying to see past the static gathering in my vision, trying to hear past this immense ringing. I sat on the ground next to the car, grabbing my nose to stop the bleeding. I sat and waited, hoping that soon I could hear. I felt the static fade, and the ringing stopped. What followed chilled me to the bone.

A blood-curdling scream ripped through the trees. It ended in painful sobs, like a fallen angel ripped out of heaven. I started, crawling to my knees. The screams started again, louder and more gut-wrenching this time.

“James. HELP ME!!!” It was Rhiannon. I scrambled to my feet, screaming her name. I followed the sounds of her screams, the ringing in my ears intensifying, the blood gushing from my nose like a river now.

“RHIANNON!!!” I yelled, pushing branches out of the way. I tripped and fell, skidding across the forest floor, rocks and twigs sticking into my flesh. But that was nothing compared to the pain Rhiannon must have been feeling. She screamed again, and I leapt up, stumbling after the sounds. I saw her in a clearing, suspended in this……creature’s arms like a stunt double in ropes.

He... it was… ripping her to pieces. I was stunned that she was still alive. Her guts were strung about on the branches of nearby trees like Christmas decorations. IT ripped into her again, IT’S hands digging deep. I turned and vomited, spewing chunks and blood and tears into the ferns. I heard IT drop her, her body squelching as it hit the forest floor. She screamed weakly, and I turned and ran to her.

“Rhiannon…” I looked at her ripped frame, and fought the urge to vomit again. She stared weakly up at me, her blue eyes blazing still. I could see her soul in those sky-blue depths. The love for me that burned there. “Lie still,” I told her, trying to find some way to staunch the blood flow. But there was nothing I could do.

“Hey…” She said. A weak smile split her lips, and her hand flailed in the grass, trying to reach me. I grabbed it and held on. Her smile faded, and she turned her eyes to the thing behind us. Fear rippled across her face, and her eyes shot to me. She licked her lips, gasped and wheezed her last breaths.

“Run,” She whispered.

I turned to the THING behind us and IT hissed. IT had no face, just these long spiraling limbs and stained clothes. ITS laughter filled the enclosure around us, laughter like the drums of Hell. I closed my eyes and felt Rhiannon’s love fill me, brighten the sunshine into beams of heaven. IT hissed again, and I felt and arm entwine my neck. I looked up at it as pain spread across my mind and clouded my thoughts.

I died thinking of Rhiannon.

The Clearing