Home Stories The Guardian in the Woods by Rina Song

The Guardian in the Woods by Rina Song


Tara befriends an unusual fox in her garden, that continues to visit her as she grows up; by Rina Song.

Image generated with OpenAI

She first saw the fox crouching in the corner of her new backyard.

Tara thought maybe it had snuck in from the woods surrounding the neighborhood. Its pelt was brilliant orange, a lively flame against the late summer grass. Dust clung to its whiskers as it snuffled at something in the dirt.

“Puppy!” she exclaimed, bounding towards it.

The creature, startled, made a break for the fence. It stopped before the crude wooden posts, which were packed too close together to squeeze through. Tara toddled closer, reaching her small arms out to embrace it.

Cornered, the fox snarled and snapped its jaws in the air. She drew away with a cry, but it stayed where it was and bared its long fangs. Then she finally took in the entire sight for what it was, and her heart skipped a beat.

The fox had three tails.

She gaped, all fear forgotten, as it turned back to the fence and pawed at the posts again. The fox moved almost like a dancer in delicate, quick bursts, and sunlight rippled through its pelt in shimmering ribbons. But something was wrong. The animal’s body was a little too slim, and its ribs showed through its sides.

Tara, only five years old at that point, had not yet encountered the concept of starvation. But something felt wrong about watching the fox struggle while its motions grew more desperate. There was a candy bar in her pocket, and she tossed it onto the grass. The fox’s eyes narrowed at the brown wrapper. Then, as if afraid she would change her mind, it pounced on the bar and tore it apart. Chocolate fragments showered the ground as it chewed.

She stepped forward; the fox paid her no attention. Tara raised a hand to pet its back. Its ears twitched at the sound of her approach, and she held her breath. Her fingers had barely brushed its fur before the house’s back door creaked open, followed by her father’s voice.

“Tara, your bedroom’s set up! Come inside, it’s getting late.”

“Not yet!” she cried in her reedy little voice. But the fox was gone, leaving only brown crumbs behind.

The next morning, Tara asked her father a question.

“Dad, can you tell me about foxes with three tails?”

Mr. Lin looked thoughtfully at his daughter as he buttoned up his shirt.

“Well, in real life, foxes only have one tail,” he said. “But your grandmother used to tell me bedtime stories about the huli jing, fox spirits that live in the forest. The older they get, the more tails they grow. The wisest ones have nine and live for centuries.”

“Are they good guys?”

“It depends on the story. But she used to say that no village could be established without a fox guardian nearby.”

Every day after dinner, Tara went to the backyard and waited for the fox to reappear. A week passed with no luck, but she didn’t mind staying outside. The new house was large and unfriendly, crowded with moving boxes and Saran wrap. The neighborhood itself was little more than a sparse scattering of similarly dismal buildings. She saw her father for a few minutes each morning before he left for work and left her with Mrs. Shen, the old lady next door who lived with her adult son. She smelled like tobacco and made Tara stand up straight until her back ached.

One afternoon, as Mrs. Shen dozed off on the living room couch, Tara peeked through the curtains and saw a flash of orange fur in the distance. Her heart skipped a beat. She cracked the back door open and slipped through.

“Wait for me!” she cried.

The orange blur disappeared into the trees. Tara tried to squeeze through the fence posts, but the gaps were too narrow. Desperate, she spotted a few bags of gravel nearby. Tara dragged them into a pile and clambered up. As she stepped onto the fence, her foot slipped, and she toppled over the other side, landing roughly on her ankle. She grunted and staggered forward.

The forest was much darker than she’d anticipated. The trees packed in so tightly she couldn’t tell where one’s branches ended and the other’s began, and their roots spilled out in knotted tangles. After an hour, Tara was lost. Everywhere she turned, the landscape blended into a thick, leafy wall. She couldn’t remember which direction she came from. Hot pain flashed through her injured ankle, and she collapsed onto the dirt.

“Help! Is anybody there?”

The woods gave no response, save the faint echoes of her voice. Tears welled in her eyes. She was all alone.

Then the bushes rustled, and the fox emerged.

Its poise was unmistakable, and its fiery tails shone even in the smothered light. Tara gasped as it turned its intelligent amber eyes onto her. It really did look unreal, like a child’s story brought to life. The fox licked her ankle with its pink tongue, and warmth bloomed through her body. She rolled the joint, finding that it no longer hurt.

“Thank you,” she whispered. The fox nuzzled her cheek, and she clung to its side with a sob.

It let her stay there a few moments before nudging her back onto her feet. Together, they walked out of the forest. When she arrived home, Mrs. Shen was still dozing on the couch.

After that, the fox began visiting the backyard daily. At lunch, Tara would glance out the window and look for its furry silhouette in the distance. Then she excused herself and raced out to join it.

She loved exploring the forest with her new companion. The fox was clever and playful, yet endlessly patient when she pulled on its tails or wandered off the path. It was quite good at hide and seek, and she shrieked whenever it found her hiding in the shrubbery with its cold, wet nose.

August rolled around. Over her protests, Tara’s father enrolled her in school. They drove half an hour out to reach the small brick building, which was nestled at the base of the mountains.

There were five other children in the class, two girls and three boys who all seemed to know each other already. They looked askance at Tara and whispered to each other whenever she was around. The school’s aging yellowed walls smelled of dust and Windex. She sat in the back of the classroom and daydreamed of running barefoot through the trees, mud squishing between her toes.

On parent-teacher night, Tara showed her father the origami fox she’d made in art class. Then her teacher showed him her report card.

“Tara’s very well behaved most of the time, and she has a great imagination,” she said. “But she struggles to focus in class, particularly math. And, well, she punched someone today.”

Mr. Lin was aghast. “Tara, you did what?”

“David made fun of me,” Tara mumbled. That day in English class, they’d taken turns reading passages aloud. Not knowing what a Bible was, she’d made her best guess at pronunciation. Most of her classmates had forgotten by lunch, but David hadn’t. Her cheeks grew hot at the memory.

“I think she’s having trouble adapting to her environment,” her teacher said to Mr. Lin. “You just moved here this past summer, correct?”

Tara’s father wiped his brow. The school AC was broken, and he was still wearing his suit, having driven in from work.

“Yes, but that’s no excuse for my daughter’s behavior,” he said. “I’m very sorry for the trouble she’s caused. I will make sure she catches up with the rest of the class.”

“Oh, it’s quite alright. I’d recommend checking in regularly -”

“No, I insist.” Mr. Lin put a firm hand on Tara’s shoulder. “Tara, what do you say to the teacher?”

She looked between them. Her teacher wore a strained smile. Her father had an expression she’d only seen once before, when she’d tracked dirt from the forest into the house. The smell of Windex grew stronger.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Mr. Lin rapped the table with his pencil. “Six times six equals what?”

Tara stared at the blank worksheet before her. “I don’t know.”

“Six times six equals WHAT?” he shouted, as if raising his voice would cause the answer to magically appear within his daughter’s brain.

Frustrated tears pooled in her eyes. Her father always insisted on tutoring her before dinner now, and they’d been going at it for an hour. Tara’s stomach rumbled with hunger. Through the window, she could see the trees rustling in the wind as if taunting her. Her pencil wandered to the margins of her notebook, doodling fox tails and paw prints.

Around them, the little town filled out like a pumpkin ripening on the vine. The real estate agency that employed Mr. Lin was swamped with work. Brand new houses sprung up in the neighborhood, and more cars joined them on the commute to school. As Tara reached fourth grade, her class swelled from six to twelve to twenty.

One morning, she came into school to find her classmates gathered in a circle. David held a small bundle of golden fur in his arms.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s my new puppy,” David declared. “Isn’t he so cute?”

The puppy yawned, then licked David’s stupid, smug face. Tara glowered at it.

“Actually, I’ve got a pet dog too!” she blurted. “He’s way prettier than yours.”

“Yeah? Prove it.”

“Come over after school today,” Tara snapped. “Bring him if you want. Just so we can really see whose dog is better.”

She hadn’t expected him to accept. Her father sat in bemused silence on the drive home, breaking it only to ask them timid questions about school. David took them in gleeful stride.

“What kind of dog do you have?” he asked Mr. Lin.


“Nothing.” He sneered at Tara.

When they arrived, she led him to the backyard. Her heart pounded as she studied the woods, anticipating a glimpse of fiery orange fur.

“What are we waiting for?” David asked. “Your imaginary dog to fall out of the sky?”

“Shut up!”

Then it appeared from between the trees. David gasped as the fox leapt over the fence into the backyard. Its three tails fanned out as if held aloft by some invisible breeze.

“What the heck is that?” he breathed.

Tara smiled. “I told you he was pretty.”

But something was wrong. At the sight of the golden retriever at David’s feet, the fox froze. It crouched, flattening its ears against its head.

David’s puppy barked in excitement. Before either of them could stop it, it had scampered forward and nipped at the fox’s tails.

Then it screamed. The fox had sunk its teeth into the dog’s side. Blood spattered the grass.

“WHAT DID YOU DO?” David bellowed, scooping the puppy up. “Get it away from us!”

“He didn’t mean to!” Tara stammered. “Your dog must’ve scared him!”

“That THING is a wild animal! I’m calling my mom.”

“Wait!” She put herself between David and the fox. “Don’t tell anyone, okay? Dad doesn’t know about this. I don’t know what’ll happen if he finds out, if he’ll ban me from seeing it, or – or worse…”

David stood for a moment, breathing heavily. Then, to her surprise, he sighed.


He stormed back into the house. Tara turned to the fox, which had curled up at her feet.

“I guess I won’t be introducing you to anyone else, huh?”

The fox whimpered. She stroked the soft fur at its neck, feeling its chest rise and fall, until her father called her name.

“What’s wrong? Your friend said he had to go home,” Mr. Lin asked when she walked inside. He’d made dinner. There was braised pork, steamed green beans, and a platter of sliced apples. Three bowls of rice had been set out.

Guilt bubbled in Tara’s stomach at the sight.

“Nothing,” she muttered, and sat down to eat.

The winter that year was long and brutal. Several waves of bronchitis hit the town, including the Lin household. By the time April came to melt away the frost, Mr. Lin’s cough still hadn’t disappeared. When he finally went to the doctor, she sent him to a specialist for a scan, then another. They found a mass in his lungs.

Tara didn’t quite understand what it meant, only that her father disappeared under a flurry of doctor’s appointments and hospital visits. The after-school homework sessions, however, continued. Mrs. Shen began coming over again. She bustled around the kitchen, making green tea while Tara multiplied decimals.

On her twelfth birthday, Mrs. Shen pressed a box of watercolors into her hands.

“For being a good girl,” her neighbor said in her thick accented English, with a smile like cracked glass. She wouldn’t elaborate further.

Tara brought the box into the forest. The fox sniffed the pigments and wrinkled its snout.

She painted its silhouette, covering her canvas in broad brush strokes. At first her efforts resembled something like a fat peanut, but as weeks passed she managed to capture the shape of its body, the grace in its long legs and flicking ears. Then she moved to painting the forest itself, focusing on the finger-like twisting branches and layered colors of its dense foliage. Tara liked spending time in the woods, exchanging their cramped little kitchen for the scent of moist earth and tinted stains on her fingers.

She showed a painting to her father. He traced over the image of the house and its woods and frowned.

“What is this?”

“I made this for you,” Tara said.

He handed it back. “Very pretty. Just remember to keep up your schoolwork.”

The next day, as Tara worked on a book report at lunch, she caught a boy gawking over her shoulder. He pointed to the doodles on her notebook.

“These drawings are sick,” he said. “I really dig the whole nature vibe. Where do you get your ideas?”

The boy’s name was James. He was her age, had just moved to town, and wanted to become a cartoonist when he grew up. It didn’t take long for him to invite her over.

On Saturday, James’ older brother drove them to the new mall in town. Tara sipped a milkshake and listened as he introduced his friends, long-haired boys who wore flannels and used words like “social anarchism” when they spoke. Afterwards they went to James’ house, which had a run-down shed in the yard, plastered in layers of eye-searing paint.

As Tara looked on, they threw her a spray can and invited her to make her mark. She soon began going every weekend.

The fox’s home was feeling more cramped as of late. More of the humans’ strange wooden houses had cropped up, and the screams of children and roaring engines echoed late into the evening. One evening, as it pondered these things in its burrow, it realized it had not seen Tara in quite some time. It seemed that as the years passed, Tara had grown busier with schoolwork and other human affairs.

Perhaps it was time for a visit. The fox climbed out, shook the dirt from its fur, and trotted out in search of familiarity.

Tara was in her backyard, but she was not alone. Five other humans crowded around a large white sheet on the ground. They smelled of oil and metal.

“I’ll go grab the rest of the blues,” Tara said. Her back was turned to the fox. “Make sure you keep the paint off the cabbage patch, or Dad will kill me.”

Its tails wagged as it followed her over to the shed. She emerged with an armful of metal cans. When Tara spotted the fox, she jumped, and the cans rattled.

“What are you doing here?” she whispered.

The fox brandished a fallen branch in its mouth, hoping to play a game.

“No, no. You can’t be here right now!” Tara hissed. She took the stick and cast it aside. The fox leapt after it, then dumped it back at her feet.

“Stop that!”

“Tara!” called one of the boys across the yard. “When’s your dad coming back from his appointment?”

Her eyes widened. She made wild, frantic movements with the stick. The fox watched her flail, growing confused.

“Shoo!” Tara cried. Then, by desperation or perhaps sheer accident, she struck it on the snout.

It yelped in pain. Tara dropped the stick and covered her mouth. She reached out a hand, but the fox recoiled and fled towards the fence. By the time the other boys called out again, it had already disappeared into the woods.

Tara was shaken by the fox’s appearance, but managed to collect her composure. Together with the other boys, they put the finishing touches on the banner. A week later, James called with the news.

“The competition judges liked our piece!” he gasped into the phone. “They want to see us again in the final round. We’re moving on!”

She blinked. “What are you talking about?”

As it turned out, he’d submitted photos of their project to an art competition hosted by the local state university. The banner, depicting the twilight sky over the woods surrounding the neighborhood, had been selected for exhibition in the final round. They would present their pieces in person, at the university’s arts center.

Tara couldn’t keep from grinning as James unloaded the details. She tried to picture the art show, a polished room of hushed admirers looking upon their work.

When she hung up, her father was standing in the doorway. He was wearing his gardening apron.

“Who was that?” he asked.

“James just called.”

“Ah, that’s fine.” He came into the room. “I just got the email from your teacher with your mid-quarter grade report. There were more Bs than I’d have liked.”

Tara stiffened.

“I know I haven’t been able to spend as much time with you since I got sick, but that’s no excuse to slack off. You’re a junior, college applications are coming up. You can’t afford to fall behind.”

Tara winced as he sat on her bed, dirt clumps falling off his boots. There was always dirt somewhere on him these days, now that he was spending hours tending to his vegetable garden. Sometimes she wondered if it was to counter the cold sterility of the hospital.

“I’m not slacking off,” she protested. “Maybe you don’t see it, but I want to go to art school.”


“James called because the project we were working on made it to finals at the competition he submitted it to. They only picked twenty entries out of six hundred. We’re going to be presenting it next weekend, in front of professors from some of the best art schools in the country. Why can’t you be excited about that?”

“That’s not the future you deserve. Art doesn’t pay. You’ll spend thousands of dollars and hours only to get pennies in return.”

Tara fiddled with the phone cord. She didn’t like where the conversation was headed.

“But this is what I want to do. It’s my passion.”

“I moved to this country to give you the best opportunities I could,” Mr. Lin said sternly. “I won’t see those opportunities go to waste.”

He stood with a grunt and left the room. As Tara watched him lumber out, a queasy feeling grew in her stomach.

The next day, as they sat down to dinner, there was a knock on the door. Tara opened it to find a blond man wearing a cashmere sweater and a wide grin.

“Nice to meet you, Tara!” he proclaimed. “My name is Robert. How are you doing today?”

“Let him in,” Mr. Lin called from the dining room. “I hired a counselor to help with your college applications.”

Tara kept her mouth shut until they sat down. “Dad, this is insane,” she hissed.

He waved her off. “His reviews were the best in town. You need to start on your future.”

“I am working on my future! Just because you didn’t personally approve of it doesn’t mean it doesn’t count! The art show’s on Saturday, and -”

“You’re not doing the art show,” Mr. Lin cut in. “Robert is running a seminar for college interviews that day. He’ll have alumni from all the Ivies hosting practice sessions.”

The heat rose in Tara’s cheeks. “What? You didn’t clear it with me first?”

Robert shifted unhappily in his seat. “Is this a bad time right now?

“I don’t need to clear anything with you,” her father growled. “You think it’s your life, Tara, but it doesn’t mean you’re free to do whatever you want. When I was only a few years older than you I made the decision to move to the United States, to secure a better future for myself and my children. I left everything I knew behind – my parents, my friends, the village where I grew up. You think the art show really means anything in the grand scheme of things? You don’t know what’s best for you.”

Tara couldn’t breathe. She opened her mouth to speak, but her throat seemed to have closed up. Trembling, she got up from her seat. Mr. Lin shouted something, but she pushed it out of her head as she slammed the door.

The cool night air caressed her burning temples. As she leaned against the shed in the backyard, panting, the bushes rustled and a small, four-legged shape scurried away in the darkness. Tara thought she could make out three tails waving behind it.

“Mind your own business!” she shouted, but the apparition was long gone.

That night, a knock sounded at her bedroom door. Tara ignored it. The knock repeated itself. She pulled the sheets over her head and turned away. A few moments later, she heard a pair of heavy work boots plodding down the stairs. Then the back door creaked shut, and the house fell silent.

For the next few days, Tara went to James’ house after school. She sat in his living room and did her homework, ignoring her father’s texts, until the last bus came to take her home. James shot her looks of concern as her phone buzzed, but knew better than to say anything.

On Saturday morning, Tara’s alarm went off. The clock read 6am. She shut it off, stifled a yawn, and got dressed.

The early daylight fell over the house in an eerie blue cast. No sound came from Mr. Lin’s room as she tiptoed past. A twinge of guilt throbbed in Tara’s chest at the thought of him waking to find what she’d done. Then she remembered the phone call with James, and how her father had shut her down so easily. Anger swelled within her. She wanted this.

The shed stood in its lonely vigil in the backyard. Tara glanced back at the still, dark house, then crept around to the front of the shed. There, she froze. The fox was crouched at the door.

Her blood turned cold. “What do you want?”

The fox snarled, tails lashing. It would not budge even as she attempted to shoo it away with a rake.

Tara dropped the rake in frustration. “Don’t tell me you’re on his side, too!”

Her phone buzzed. It was a message from James. He was nearly at her house. They were running out of time.

Desperate, and without thinking, Tara aimed a kick at the fox. It fell back with a yelp, and she barged into the shed. Its dusty, dry odor hit her nose, making her cough. She flicked on the light, revealing her father’s cluttered work table and the racks of tools beside it. The banner was nowhere to be found.

Tara uttered a curse and scoured the racks. Her panic grew as her search turned up little more than old paint rollers and bags of manure. Then her eyes landed on the table. A corner of white paper stuck out of the heap. She felt its familiar, thick texture, and her heart pounded harder. Tara pulled out the wad and unfolded it, revealing the banner. It had been stuck beneath a stack of seed charts. Confused, she cleared the rest of her father’s farming equipment from the table.

Underneath was an array of sketchbook pages, canvas, and lined paper, taped to the table’s peeling surface. Her mind raced to identify each one. There was the old painting she’d done of the house, with the treetops poking out around it. A drawing she’d made of herself, her father, and Mrs. Shen, for his birthday. There was even the geometry test that she’d failed a few months ago. She’d simply left the last few questions blank and covered the page in doodles. It was wrinkled, like it’d been retrieved from the trash and smoothed out.

Tara’s legs shook like jelly. All the art she’d ever made seemed to be there. The faded, time-worn pages stared down at her, their faces accusing.

Her phone lit up again. Tara swallowed and grabbed the banner. She would deal with it later.

The road trip passed in a blur. James noticed her pale face, but chalked it down to anxiety. As they walked into the exhibition center, Tara was struck by the silvery light from the pristine chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The nervous contestants stood in rows, their chatter filling the air. Tara and James rushed to their designated post among the exhibits, where an attendant helped them tape up the banner. Then with shaking, sweaty fingers, Tara pulled her presentation notes out of her bag and awaited the judges’ arrival.

At the awards speech, hours later, Tara stared in disbelief when the speaker called their names. James beamed at her as the smiling woman pinned a third-place ribbon to her shirt. Afterwards when they’d all filed out, he embraced her in a bone-crushing hug, whooping for joy.

“We did it!” Tara yelled into his ear. She felt invincible, a thousand pounds lighter, like she could’ve leapt into the sky and shone for all to see. As the arts center shrank away, she closed her eyes and thought of the tide of chandeliers overhead, stretching the moment out, wanting it to last forever.

All the lights were off when Tara got home. She knocked on the door and held her breath. When nobody answered, she let herself in.

“Hello?” Her voice echoed through the empty hall. Her father wasn’t in his study. He wasn’t in the garden either, though his shoes were gone and the car was still in the driveway. Confused, Tara wandered back to the front yard. Then she spotted Mrs. Shen across the street.

“You don’t know?” her neighbor cried when Tara asked. “Your father was sent to the emergency room. I called them when I saw him collapse in the backyard this morning.”

Later Tara would not remember the breakneck drive over to the hospital, or arguing with the frowning receptionist until he told her Mr. Lin’s room number. Neither would she recall the harsh buzz of the hospital’s fluorescent lights, so unlike the soft elegance of the university center. But the sensation growing in her chest was horribly clear. Its numb tendrils threaded through her veins, hardening as she hurried through the pristine white halls. Her father looked almost tiny in his bed, hidden under the mass of tubes and needles and plastic surrounding him.

“He had a seizure, so he’s been in and out of consciousness,” the nurse told her. Tara sat and grasped her father’s hand.

“Oh God,” she choked. “Dad, can you hear me?”

Mr. Lin opened his eyes. They were looking at Tara, but they seemed to be focused past her, on something in the distance.

“Tara, is that you? I didn’t wake up in time to drive you to the seminar.”

“It’s alright,” she whispered, but he continued.

“I’m sorry, too, about the art show. I know you wanted to go so badly… I saw how important it was to you.” Her father coughed. “The shed. There’s something in the shed, Tara. I’ll show you, when we go home.”

He was so shrunken, so diminished. This was not the stubborn man she knew. Tara wanted to open her mouth and apologize, to admit her betrayal and beg for forgiveness. But the words died on her lips, and her courage failed her. Her father shut his eyes again, and she sat there in silence, a lump aching in her throat.

The next time Tara walked into the forest, the summer was fading. The sun’s golden rays bounced off withering autumn leaves, masking their beauty like in an old photograph.

“I know you’re there! Stop ignoring me!” Her throat was hoarse from shouting. She swallowed and replanted her feet on the earth. “Come out and talk to me!”

Her voice echoed into the sky. Somewhere in the distance, a crow squawked. Tara drew the candy bar from her pocket and hurled it at the nearest tree. The doughy lump hit the bark and tumbled into the dirt.

She buried her face in her hands. Hot tears slid through her fingers and down her arms, dripping to the ground. Overhead, the crow continued to caw. She felt small, ignored, and worst of all, useless. So very useless. Her rage floundered and sputtered in its own frustration, a pathetic, dying thing.

Something rustled in the grass. She looked up to see the fox, perched and watching her.

“What do you want?” Its voice was sweet and mellow, but carried a hint of sadness.

Tara flinched, but steeled herself. Why shouldn’t a fox spirit talk? Here, at last, was something to vent her anger onto.

“I want you to heal my father. He’s dying, and the doctors have done all they can do.”

“No,” said the fox.

She wanted to scream. “Why not? You healed me the first time I followed you into the forest. You’re magic!”

“You were a child then. There are small miracles, and then there is everything else. A child’s wish cannot perform the impossible.”

“You won’t even try,” Tara snarled.

It yawned and curled up. “What could you expect? It has been years since you visited these woods. Whenever I came to see you, you wanted nothing to do with me. You did not think of me until now.”

The words stung, both because of the fox’s nonchalant manner and because they were true. It felt like the entire world was shaking, tremors shooting through her body into the ground below.

“I grew up,” she said. “I couldn’t just be a kid, playing around with you forever. I needed to learn to live my life.”

“Then I have nothing to offer you.”

Tara clenched and unclenched her fists. The anger thundering within her softened to a distant, bitter hum.

“Whatever,” she said finally. “There’s something else I came to tell you. College starts in a week, so I’m moving. I’ll be in another state by tomorrow. You probably won’t see me again.”

The fox jerked to its feet, ears pricking up. For the first time, it seemed unsettled. “What?”

She tossed it a wry smile. “So now you care? This is what you wanted. I’ll stop bothering you.”

It stood there, tails flicking in disbelief, until Tara picked up the fallen chocolate and threw it again. Harsh laughter escaped her throat as the fox fled into the woods. Then it died away, and she, too, turned to start the walk back home.

Years passed. The once-humble town now sprawled for miles over the countryside. Every morning the roads that made up its arteries roared to life, their inhabitants beeping and honking and arguing in their myriad ways. At night they settled to bed only to rise and do it all over again once the sun rose, like the thrum of a great heartbeat.

Mr. Lin died on a chilly December morning. A private ceremony was held in the backyard of the old family home. The crowd was small, but everyone knew each other, and it was enough.

For the first time in a while, the forest received a visitor. She was somewhat underdressed for the weather, shivering in her windbreaker and jeans. The forest had changed, the foliage grown in different places, but the earth felt the same underfoot. She walked until the air grew thick and heavy and the sunlight no longer penetrated the tree cover. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, like bubbles trapped in amber.

Tara stopped underneath a wizened oak tree. Its craggy limbs stretched in welcome. She spread out a blanket, sat, and waited.

Gradually, the shadows lengthened. The light filtering in from the sky took on a darker, grayer hue, and chilly breezes brushed against her skin. Tara unwrapped a granola bar and took a bite.

A cautious snout poked out from the bushes. The fox that emerged was smaller than Tara remembered, reaching only her hip, but its three tails wafted with the grace of a fairytale creature. It watched her with cautious eyes. She offered it the bar, and it settled down to eat ravenously.

The woods grew still, weighed down with memories and years of regret.

“I thought about visiting a lot after we fought,” Tara said. “I was planning to during winter break my freshman year, but then my dad died. That spring was rough, between the classes and the grief counseling. I got really depressed and nearly flunked out, which meant I had to spend the summer at school making up the credits, and… well, life always got in the way.”

The fox gulped down the last of its meal. Its coat, which had once been the color of fire, seemed to have lost some of its shine. Now it was duller, closer to pale orange.

“A lot has changed since you left,” it said. “The woods feel much smaller now, and the humans wander closer than they used to. I wake up surrounded by their fences, and their machines that belch smoke, and it terrifies me. Yet here I am now, sitting at your feet, eating your food. The world has become a strange place. I do not like it.”

Its voice trembled at the last few words. Tara stroked its back until it relaxed against her body.

“It turns out life is a lot more complicated than we thought,” she said. “It’s overwhelming, and that changes you, whether you like it or not. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. You’re stronger than you think, and you will be big enough one day to face down everything in your way. I promise.”

They sat there for a while, watching the daylight fade to deep, velvety dusk. The air filled with cricket chirps and muted whispers of wings rustling in the dark, the sound of a forest going to sleep.

“I will be going away for a while, I think,” said the fox finally. “It is time I ventured out of these woods and saw what else was out there.”

Tara squeezed its paw. “You will have new stories to tell me. For the next time we meet up.”

“Yes,” the fox agreed.

With that, she stood up.

“Thanks for everything,” she said. The fox nuzzled her, then scurried into the underbrush.

She studied the forest one last time. Parts of it had been eaten away over the years. If she walked half a mile in any direction, streetlights would shine through, or perhaps car headlights would wink at her as they zipped down the highway. Yet she thought she could see a different forest overlaying it, older and darker – trees towering infinitely into the sky, true darkness and mystery lurking underneath. It was both a memory and a future, endless possibility waiting to be explored.

It was time to get going, Tara thought.


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