The first reports out of Bonnieridge seemed like a hoax. “Town reclaimed by forest,” read the headlines, conjuring images of overgrown wildflowers and ivy climbing walls. It was worse than that. The photographs captured great trees of all varieties sprouting throughout the town, destroying anything that stood in their way.
I scrolled through my newsfeed, unable to believe to but unable to look away. A warning covered one picture. “Distressing content – discretion advised.” If this was real, this was blatant voyeurism and I shouldn’t look. But, like everyone else with Twitter, I couldn’t help myself.
A great oak had burst up through a shop. The building’s front window was in tatters. Broken glass and brick littered the ground. A stiff arm reached out from the trunk, begging for help.
I stared for longer than I should have. Something in my chest hurt as panic struck me. This couldn’t be real. It had to be one of those photo-manipulation things. There were plenty of those kicking around. An ex-girlfriend of mine had been obsessed with them for a while. Pictures of monsters lurking amongst pylons and horrible, imagined creatures washed up on beaches. She’d had one of something skittering along a railway track framed in our old hallway. I’d hated that thing.
Coming to my senses, I put down my phone and walked into my editor’s office. Liza was neck deep in emails so I always found this my best time to throw crazy ideas at her. She was usually too swamped to think about what I was saying and more often than not said yes just to get rid of me.
“Hey,” I said. “You busy?”
“What is it, Anne?” she asks without looking up from her laptop. Fingers scuttled along keys like spiders descending on flies.
“I want to go to Bonnieridge.”
The spiders stopped in their tracks. Liza lifted her head and looked at me over her glasses. “That tree story? We’re not one of those alien abduction mags.”
“Yeah, but I just…” I hesitated. “I just…need to know,” I managed to spit out.
Liza looked me up and down. Judgement radiated from her.
“Let me do this,” I said.
I knew she’d never print whatever I wrote out there but I also knew that she was just as curious. Liza sighed and went back to crawling across her keyboard.
“You have a week and then you’re back to real stories,” she said.
I left before she had the chance to change her mind.
I took the train to Bonnieridge and, over two hours, the scenery switched from the harsh industrial edges of the city to the soft wilds of the countryside. Grey blended into green.
My book lay unread on the seat next to me as I doom-scrolled my way through pictures of trees. As I came across one particularly appalling one – a trunk with a distinct face trying to push its way out of the bark, screaming in pain – the train’s Wi-Fi cut out. For the rest of the journey, I was stuck with that horrifying face branded on my imagination.
The train juddered to a halt one stop away from Bonnieridge and the conductor informed me that we couldn’t go any further. Disruption to the lines, he said.
Climbing out of the train, I looked past where we’d stopped and followed the railway lines. A huge elm tree had burst through the ground, splitting the earth and breaking the iron rails. Track was torn like paper and curled up on either side of the bark. Roots tangled with the line. We were going no further. “Disruption” was right.
At my hotel, a grim-faced woman took my details and threw a key at me. From my bedroom window, I stared out into the world beyond and all I could see was trees.
From my new bedroom window, I stared out into the world beyond and all I could see was trees. Opening my window, I listened to the birdsong of thousand sparrows. Each one finding contentment in a new home amongst the branches. It felt odd to hear such joyousness as I went back to scrolling through hundreds of pictures of death and destruction.
I settled down for the evening, intending to research the town and what it had been like before the trees came, but instead I found myself stuck in a loop of tweets, blog posts and Instagram pictures. I breezed past the sensitive content warnings with ease now.
Sometime around 2am, the screech of an owl snapped me out of my daze. Blinking away tears that had formed, I put my phone down and went to bed. I didn’t sleep but instead listened to the noises of the freshly grown forest.
Since I hadn’t really slept, I escaped at dawn, ready to beat all of the other reporters there. I had already looked up the route on Google Maps beforehand but the forest put a stop to that. Paths were obliterated by roots and street signs had been knocked out by branches. It would seem that there was only one option left: follow the trees.
After ten minutes of walking, I heard voices. The bright yellow high-visibility jacket of a police officer stood out between the foliage, maybe about fifty feet away. She was talking to two men, brandishing cameras.
“Sorry, gents,” the officer said. “This is a crime scene and I can’t let you go any further.”
A crime scene? I looked down and discovered a discarded strip of police tape. I’d made it to Bonnieridge. I just couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I quietly slipped out of sight of the officer.
Under my feet, broken concrete heralded my arrival on a main road. Looking around, I could see the remains of buildings, sticking out of the ground like tombstones. In between the greenery, a row of houses lay crumbled to my right. This seemed as good a place as any to start.
Trepidation returned to my stomach. I couldn’t believe that, just days ago, this used to be a neighbourhood. Items began to grab my attention now, lying amongst the weeds. A ball, a discarded handbag, a single shoe.
Rampant roots destroyed driveways and gardens. Sheds lay overturned with mangled bikes sprawled across the lawn. Branches ripped through walls and dangled bedsheets and items of clothing off them like a washing line, bloodstains drying in a gentle breeze.
I took my camera out of my bag, stole a few snaps and then moved towards what I assumed was the town centre. Through the canopy above me, I could make out a church spire. If I could push on towards that, I’d have seen enough. A shop lay near me, spilling its wares into the streets. Clothing tumbled down the road and caught on the foliage, where dresses danced like ghosts.
A bird cried above me and I looked up to discover it was sitting not on a branch but on an arm. I gasped and fell backwards into another trunk. I discovered that I was lying on the remains of a man, twisted and broken by the wilds that had stormed through this sleepy Scottish town. Moss had formed over his corpse, as if the earth was already reclaiming him.
Bushes hid fingers and leaves hid dead eyes. This was where the worst of it was. Shaking, I scrambled free and pulled my camera out. This is what I was here for, right? I held my lens up to where a knot of roots pinned a woman down. Her face was blue from where it had drawn around her throat. I took the picture and stared at the frozen version of her, now on my camera screen before glancing back at the real thing.
This had happened. This had really happened.
I deleted the picture immediately. Then the ones I had taken of the houses. Upon studying them, I discovered their own hidden corpses, lying under flowers and grass and lichen.
I reached what remained of the churchyard. A sycamore had torn the building asunder, leaving only the steeple like a cruel reminder of what had once stood here. I approached the great tree and was horrified. The shape of a woman reached out to me from the trunk. Bark had formed over her and she looked as though someone had sculpted her into the tree.
I reached out and took her wooden hand. Some bark flaked away to reveal soft, cold flesh beneath. Had she known what was happening to her? I hoped not, for her sake. I held her hand for what felt like an infinite amount of time.
“Hey!” a voice screamed in my ear and yanked my attention from the woman. The police officer I’d seen earlier pulled me away. Three other officers stood behind her and a legion of people in white hazmat suits.
I wiped my face and said nothing, following the other officer she directed me to. He led me out of the town in silence. I didn’t look around and kept my sight burned into his back, the bright yellow of his jacket searing itself onto the back of my eyeballs. I didn’t want to look around anymore. I wish I hadn’t looked in the first place.
We reached a point where a chunk of the wilds had been hacked down to clear the way for the emergency services. The officer said in his most authoritarian voice, “Come back and I’m going to have to arrest you for disturbing a crime scene.”
I nodded and whispered, “I hadn’t believed it.”
“I wish I still didn’t,” the officer said and I saw the bags under his eyes.
He sent me on my way but the pictures still flickered in my brain. Roots and bones and leaves and flesh and moss and teeth and trees.
I didn’t talk to the landlady when I arrived. There’s a chance she called me a handful of times but I ignored her, grabbed my stuff and immediately left. I’d paid upfront anyway and didn’t care how much I’d just lost. I needed to be out of here and I needed to get home.
Once I was on the train, I decided to call Liza. I thought calling her would feel like admitting defeat but it didn’t. Her phone rung one too many times. Each ring pushed anxiety further through my veins.
“Anne?” she answered, without a “hello”.
“I’m not going to write it,” I blurted out, staring at the world flooding by my window.
Silence filled the line. “Good,” she eventually said. “I wouldn’t have published it.”
“Are you okay?” she asked, dropping the boss façade for a moment.
I watched as my green view gave way to the grey of the city again and whispered, “I needed to know.”
Emma Kathryn is a horror fanatic from Glasgow, Scotland. When she’s not scaring herself to death, she’s either podcasting as one half of the Yearbook Committee Podcast or she’s streaming indie games on Twitch as variety streamer, girlofgotham.