From debut author Chelsea Bobulski comes The Wood, a YA novel filled with dark mystery and atmospheric fantasy.
Winter didn't ask to be the guardian of the wood, but when her dad inexplicably vanishes, she's the one who must protect travelers who accidentally slip through the wood's portals.
The wood is poisoned, changing into something more sinister. Once brightly colored leaves are now bubbling inky black. Vicious creatures that live in the shadows are becoming bolder, torturing lost travelers. Winter must now put her trust in Henrya young man from eighteenth century England who knows more than he should about the woodin order to find the truth and those they've lost.
Bobulski's beautiful and eerie young adult debut, is a haunting tale of friendship, family, and the responsibilities we choose and those we do not.
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Dad tells me the wood is not a place to play. It is a place for business, and it is more powerful than I could ever imagine.
He tells me I cannot forget the rules of the wood. There are three.
Do not travel from the paths.
Do not linger after dark.
Do not ignore the calling.
These rules are easy to remember. He drills them into my head every day over cereal breakfasts and walks to the bus stop. He meets me after school and reminds me again, but when I ask if I can go into the wood, he says, "Not yet."
I watch them from my bedroom window, the trees that spread out behind our house along the Olentangy River. To everyone else, they are half a mile wide and three miles deep. To us, they're limitless.
I watch the seasons change from that window. Count the number of leaves that have turned orange and red, purple and gold. I watch them fall from their branches, covering the ground so that the paths are only distinguishable by the weathered logs that outline them.
When the snow comes, the logs are also covered, and I wonder if it makes the rules harder to follow. If it's easier to wander off the paths when they can't be seen. Easier to get trapped in the middle of a limitless space, unable to escape when night comes crawling in. If it's easier to forget things such as duty and honor surrounded by all that white.
Dad tells me it's in his blood. He would know the paths even if he were blind. He feels the night descending like others feel the warmth from a fire or smell rain on the horizon. He never neglects to heed the call.
Even when he wants to.
He tells me it'll be the same for me, when I'm old enough. He tells me it's in my blood, too.
And when he finally begins my lessons in the wood, I know he's right. I feel it, like birdsong. A buzzing melody beneath my skin that keeps me on the paths, guiding me, never letting me go where I shouldn't. I cannot travel from the paths — it is physically impossible. I cannot linger after dark — to do so would be suicide. I cannot ignore the calling — the one time Dad told me to try, the birdsong turned into hornets, boring into muscles and sinew, crippling me with pain and sickness.
It is because of these rules that I don't immediately think anything's wrong when I come down the stairs one morning and Dad's not sitting at the kitchen table. Why I don't understand when I see Mom sobbing into Uncle Joe's shirt. Why a humming clogs my ears as Uncle Joe tells me Dad wandered off the paths. That he got swallowed up by the trees.
That he's gone.
I tell Joe it can't be true. Dad couldn't have walked off the paths — it isn't possible. Joe must have made a mistake. Dad just hasn't come back from his morning patrol yet. That's all.
But I've never seen Uncle Joe look so pale. He murmurs to himself, the same way he does when we play chess and he's thinking of all the possible outcomes. I catch fragments like "must have tripped somehow" and "maybe a fight with a traveler?" and "need to inform the council."
Mom is sitting at the table now, her arms crossing her head like a fort. I lean over her and lay my head on top of hers, even though I can't understand why she's crying. Dad's still out on morning patrol.
He's coming back.
In the weeks that follow, the council's investigation concludes with no evidence of foul play. They determine he simply stumbled off a path. An accident. Nothing anyone could do.
But I know better.
Either he was forced off the path, or he found a way to walk off it voluntarily. If it's the former, if a traveler somehow forced his feet from the path, there's nothing I can do. So I tell myself it's the latter, because if Dad walked off the path, he did so for a reason. If Dad walked off the path, then I should be able to do the same thing. But even as I stand in the wood, surrounded by ice-covered trees that glitter in the sunlight like crystals, throwing bands of rainbows onto the snow around my feet, I can't follow him. My body won't let me.
I ask Uncle Joe what this means.
He says it's in my blood. I can never walk off the paths.
20 MONTHS LATER
I have never been so scared, or so curious, as I was the first time I met a traveler. Dad had told me about them, of course, these people who fall through the time-traveling portals — the thresholds, wormholes, whatever you want to call them — that pockmark the wood behind our house. They are the reason for the guardianship. They are the people who need to be protected from the wood, and whom the wood needs to be protected from.
Our job is to keep them from crossing a threshold into another time, Dad told me during my first lesson.
Why? I asked.
It's dangerous, he replied. For them and for the wood. Travelers are meant to live in their own time periods and no other. To be stuck in an era that is not your own could cause major ramifications.
Like what? I prodded.
Death, he answered. Destruction. Implosion of the space-time continuum and life as we know it.
I don't think Dad meant to scare me. I think he just wanted me to know, to understand. What we do — what the Parishes have always done — matters. Even in his cynical moments, I don't think Dad ever truly believed the work we did was for nothing. But it didn't stop me from seeing an omen of death and destruction the first time I laid eyes on a traveler.
He was tall — double my height — and broad, a mountain of flesh and bone. Dad didn't seem concerned, but I knew if I was out there alone, I wouldn't have been able to handle this traveler the way a guardian needs to. I was too small and he was too big. That's where the fear came in.
But the curiosity was stronger. I had only just begun my lessons in historical fashion — an effective signifier when trying to determine a traveler's origins — but I could at least pinpoint him to seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Europe. I was still trying to master Latin and Greek at the time, so I had no idea what language he spoke, but that didn't matter. Dad knew everything I didn't, and then some. I stuck to Dad like a shadow, watching his body language and facial expressions as he guided the traveler back to the threshold from which he came.
Some things you just can't learn from books.
Now, I stand across from a traveler who couldn't be more different from my first. She is a peasant girl, with a curtain of black hair covering her face and a black, suspicious eye peeking out from beneath the strands. She's shorter than I am, but the dagger in her hand makes her just as dangerous as the man who towered over me all those years ago. Still, I am not afraid.
What a difference six years make.
"Who are you?" she snaps at me in Japanese.
At least, I think that's what she says. It's in a more formal style than modern Japanese. Judging by her clothing, I wager a guess at Early Middle Japanese, which is really unfortunate. I'm much more fluent in the modern dialect.
I hold up my hands in front of me to show I'm not a threat. "A friend," I reply. "I want to help you."
At least, I think that's what I said. I mold my face into the same lines of sympathy Dad always used, just in case.
Her gaze narrows. "Where am I? I do not recognize this place."
"A wood," I tell her, "where lost people sometimes find themselves."
I'm not usually so direct with my answers; most travelers jump at the chance for someone to lead them home, even a stranger such as myself, whether their questions are answered or not. But this girl's fear doesn't shut her down; it wakes her up. If I'm going to get her to cooperate, I need to be as forthright as possible.
"Where are you from?" I ask, taking a step closer.
She stiffens. A band of sunlight glints off her blade.
"Please," I say. "I'm just trying to help. Don't —" But she's already running, barreling toward me like a bull at full charge. I duck at the last second, pivoting myself around her and catching her wrist in my hand. She jerks to a stop. In her split second of shock, I grab her other wrist, pinching her hands behind her back until the dagger loosens from her grip and sticks point-first in the earth.
"I don't want to hurt you. See?" I pick up the knife and throw it into the trees. "I just want to help."
"Why?" she spits.
"Because you're not supposed to be here. Don't you want to go home?" Her body relaxes slightly at that word. Home.
I take a deep breath. "Tell me where you live."
She hesitates, then mutters, "Heian-kyo."
Heian-kyo. The city now known as Kyoto.
"What year?" I ask, but I must not ask it in the right way, because she doesn't seem to understand.
"Who is the emperor?" I try again.
There is only one Heian-kyo threshold, so I'm not worried about sending her back to the wrong time, but it's important to keep track of the threshold's current timeline for the council's records. I'll have to double-check to be sure, but if I remember my Japanese history correctly, that would put the threshold somewhere near the end of the Heian period.
"I'm going to let go now," I say. "You have two choices here. You can run away and stay lost, or you can follow me and go home. Understand?" I'm really winging the Japanese now, but she nods anyway. She follows me down the paths without saying a word. A cloud moves over the sun as we walk, and the blood in my veins jerks at the sudden darkness. A primal reaction, but logic quickly takes over, as it always does on cloudy days. The wood doesn't change until night falls, and I know exactly how much time I have left.
Two hours to sundown.
We finally reach her threshold, an empty pocket of space between the trees, only distinguishable by a break in the logs lining the paths and the decrepit shingle hanging above it that bears her city's modern name: Kyoto, Japan.
"If you step through the trees here," I say, "you'll find your way home."
"Home?" she repeats.
She smiles and carefully takes a step forward, then another, walking underneath the shingle. And then she disappears entirely, as if she were never here to begin with.
This is my favorite time in the wood. The hour just before sunset, when the wind slashes through the green canopy above me, cutting open squares of orange sky like patches in a quilt. Fireflies flit through the trees, little lanterns in the encroaching darkness. I put out my hand and catch one in my palm. Its blue body is different from the fireflies others see outside the wood. Dad told me once that they are an evolved species, that our wood is littered with evolved species the rest of the world will not see for a millennium.
I stroke my finger down its silver-striped back and its wings flutter, revealing the lower half of its body. Pinpricks of light swirl in a clear shell, an entire galaxy of stars and planets and sunshine trapped in its tiny frame.
At least, that's what it's always looked like to me. Dad used to say it reminded him of oil slicks, the way the rainbow would swirl through the black, but he loved working on cars and I love astronomy, so I guess it all depends on what you want to see.
I press my lips against my wrist and blow until the bug flies away. I wish I could stay longer, but the sun is closing in on the horizon, and mist is already starting to unfurl from the trees surrounding me, collecting on the paths like a ghostly blanket. It's as if the mist knows the rules change after dark. As if it would hide the paths and the thresholds from me so I couldn't find my way home.
This is the moment when I wish my feet wouldn't betray me. When I wish I could stay in this exact spot, staring up at the patches in the leafy quilt until they turn velvety black, speckled with stars, and letting the trees take me so I can find him.
But then my feet shuffle toward home. Halfway there, the wood becomes less dense. I see the light from the kitchen through the gaps in the trees, and I remember why I can't disappear.
Mom would be all alone in this world, and she would never forgive me for doing that to her.
I would never forgive myself.
She wants me to stop coming out here. We argue about it sometimes but Mom knows there's no fighting it. The wood calls to me like a siren, tugging an invisible thread that reaches deep into my core, so that I have no choice but to follow. A puppet on a string.
Uncle Joe mediates when he can, but he's not always around.
I know I've stepped over the threshold into the normal wood — the one that everyone else sees when they drive by on 315 — when the breath rushes out of my lungs in a single huff and the regular noises of the world, the cars honking and the hum of the streetlights blinking on and the sound of the river, swollen from the previous night's rain and lapping against the edges of our neighbors' yards, slam into my ears.
It's always like this. Heart drumming, lungs burning, as if I've been holding my breath for hours. I feel heavier somehow, rooted to the ground, and yet disconnected from all of it.
I sit down on the giant rock that bears my parents' initials inside a heart and watch the sunset. Mom spots me from the window above the kitchen sink and waves. I try to wave back, but I'm still not completely in control of my body, and my hand doesn't leave my side. I smile at her instead.
Mom shrugs as if to say, What can you do? She knows I'm okay. She's seen Dad go through this a million times, what he used to call the decompression stage. The toll the body takes from walking through a world that is not its own is like jet lag times a thousand. She knows in a few minutes I'll be back to normal and I'll walk through the door with full control of my motor skills and ask what's for dinner.
But her shoulders don't relax until I stand and go through the stretching exercises Dad used to make me do to get my blood flowing again. Of course, he used to say chocolate ice cream did the same thing, taking me to Mr. Igloo whenever I skinned my knee or had my blood drawn at the doctor's office. "You eat chocolate ice cream and your red blood cells start to multiply. Poof," he would say, handing me a cone. "Like magic."
Now that I'm older, I know it isn't true, and I'm not certain the stretching does anything, either. Still, it feels good. Lets me forget he's not here next to me, doing the same stretch with his hands on the ground between his feet. For a moment, I can almost hear him breathing, and I think if I peek through the curtain of hair covering my face, I'll see him there in front of me.
But I never allow myself to actually look. It would hurt too much.
I start down the path toward home. Mud squishes up into the treads of my hiking boots. Crickets and cicadas buzz around me, static noise that didn't reach me farther back in the trees.
And then there's something else, a whisper that swims by my ear, soft as the tip of a feather stroking my skin. The breathy sound shifts and stretches itself into too many syllables, but it sounds like it says my name.
I turn back to the wood, half expecting to see my dad standing there in the same plaid shirt he wore the first time he took me into the wood, when I was ten and he seemed indestructible. A constant in my life that would never change.
But there's nothing. Just a darkness that stretches beyond what most people see.
Uncle Joe sits on the back porch, cloaked in shadows and cigar smoke. I'm fairly certain he wasn't sitting there a moment ago, but that's nothing new. Joe's magic allows him to bend the normal rules of nature and space.
"Any travelers?" he asks, a stream of blue vapor seeping out of his nostrils.
The old porch beams creak under my weight as I sit next to him. "One. A peasant girl from Heian-kyo. She put up a fight, but that was my fault. My Japanese is rusty."
"Course it is," Joe says. "That threshold rarely opens."
I shrug. "I should have been prepared."
Uncle Joe scratches his chin. His black stubble is salted with white, and the silver strands weaving through his hair seem to multiply every time I see him. Joe is forty-three years old, or so he likes to say. Age is kind of relative when you're immortal. He doesn't have a line on his face, and his body is more ripped than our star quarterback. Age has no hold on him anywhere else, which makes me wonder if the white in his hair has anything to do with age at all, or if it came from the wood. If the things he's seen over the last thousand or so years are finally catching up to him, or if his guilt over what happened to Dad is eating him alive, same as it's doing to me.
Excerpted from "The Wood"
Copyright © 2017 Chelsea Bobulski.
Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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