no place like oz Page 15

“Come on,” I said.

My aunt and uncle and my dog all looked at me like I had lost my mind. But when I took a step forward to show them it was possible, I saw that my shoes were burning red in the dusky, spooky, evening light, their comforting glow pulsing against the washed-out yellow bricks in time with my heartbeat, and I knew it was the right thing.

“Come on,” I repeated, firmer this time. I took another step. Then Toto took one, too, still shaking, and then Aunt Em did the same. Uncle Henry grabbed her by the elbow and followed. If she was going, he was going, too. You could always count on him for that much.

So we moved slowly toward the woods, together, and as we got closer that moaning yowl shattered and reshaped itself into something else: a scratchy, violent squall so loud that my whole skull vibrated from the force of it.

Aunt Em and Uncle Henry doubled over as it hit them, both screaming and covering their ears in pain.

As unpleasant as it was, though, I wanted to hear it. The only way to understand it was to listen.

It was the sound of ravens screeching and rivers running dry, the sound of milk curdling into blood and children being torn from their mothers’ arms.

It was the sound of death. The sound of evil.

I took one more step forward anyway, feeling as if I was being propelled by a force outside myself, and that was when I saw their faces.

Each tree had one, and each face was worse than the last, each formed out of thick, silvery-black bark, gnarled and distorted into tortured grimaces and angry, curled scowls and gape-mouthed expressions of terror.

That’s when I understood: the sound wasn’t coming from inside the woods. It was coming from the woods themselves. The trees were screaming.

And I recognized them. Sort of.

“They’re not supposed to be here,” I said under my breath. I don’t think anyone heard me over the noise.

On my first trip to Oz, after the Wizard had gone home, the Scarecrow, the Lion, the Tin Woodman, and I had all made our way to Quadling Country to see Glinda the Good in the hopes that she would have the key to sending me home. Along the way, we’d had no choice but to travel through the Forest of the Fighting Trees.

That forest had been a lot like this one. The trees there had been mean and cruel, with ugly, hollowed-out faces and branches that bent and twined around you, tossing you to the ground when you tried to pass underneath them.

But they hadn’t screamed like this.

Were the two forests related? And if so, how? This one hadn’t been here the last time I’d walked this road. Where had it come from?

It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except getting through it. I forged ahead with Toto at my side and my aunt and uncle only a few steps behind.

The screaming became louder and louder until it hardly seemed like sound at all anymore, and more like a hopelessness so strong I could almost feel it as an aching pain, lodged somewhere in the back of my gut.

It was so loud I wanted to tear my hair from my skull, to scratch at my face until it bled.

And then it was over. Just like that, everything went silent. Deadly silent.

I looked to Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, and they looked back at me, just as shaken and surprised as I was. None of us said anything for fear of upsetting the quiet.

Then we all looked up together, and saw the trees towering over us. We had made it to the edge of the wood.

They were tall and thin, hardly wider around than Aunt Em, and were almost entirely bare of leaves. Their cruel, twisted faces took up almost the entire lengths of their trunks, and their knotty, spindly branches spidered out into sharp claws.

Two trees, taller and older-looking than the rest, stood on either side of the brick road at the spot where it disappeared into the dark tangle of woods. Their faces were frozen into gargoyle masks of torment and despair.

I wondered how they had gotten this way. Had they been people once? Were they being punished for something they had done in another life? Or was it something else entirely?

In the time I’d been back in Kansas, I’d almost let myself forget this part of Oz: the witches and the monsters and the ugly, dangerous things. I’d let myself forget that magic is slippery and unpredictable. It likes to change things. Sometimes it changes it into something incredible and wonderful—something to take your breath away. Other times it twists it and corrupts it into something you barely recognize.

For everything that’s wonderful, there’s something wicked, too. That’s the price you pay for magic.

It’s worth it, I thought. Even here, standing at the mouth of a place that radiated the purest evil I’d ever felt, I knew it would always be worth it.

Because without magic, you’re just left with Kansas.

Without warning, there was a loud creaking sound, followed by a groan, and then a crack as the large tree to the left side of the road lurched forward and began to uproot itself from the ground, scattering dirt everywhere.

It pulled itself toward us by its roots, dragging itself in our direction. My feet began to tingle.

It was coming right for me. It hissed and snapped its jaws.

The only way out was through. So I began to run.

I picked up Toto, ducked around the tree, and plunged myself into the forest, knowing from the sound of footsteps that Uncle Henry and Aunt Em were right behind me.

The road through the forest wasn’t anything like the road that had taken us through Munchkin Country. The bricks were still yellow, but they were grown over with leaves and brush; they were crumbling and warped where the roots of the trees were moving in on their territory.