The Forest Boy


Chapter 1

The tree towered over him like a war memorial, its cream-white trunk lathed with shallow grooves, rings that extended from the base of the tree to its uppermost branches. Brightlime broad leaves gave the tree a canopy with a canvas-like texture, casting halfhearted, vaguely trapezoidal shadows across his face. From its trunk grew two beady baubles, eyes that looked at him in the same way a lioness on the hunt might eye a gazelle—impersonal, predatorial, glazed over with a detached quality.

Trembling, James backed away, right into a pile of broken bricks of concrete. He turned around to look, and he saw that he was trapped, closed in by debris gathered so steeply that he could not climb out. The ceiling had caved in, separating the convenience store into two and creating an inwardly slanted plane of mass behind him, blocking his way out. He felt so squeezed in, so limited—he liked open, natural, spaces. Not a place as claustrophobic as this. 

James turned back to face the tree, which had begun to stiffen, roots branching out like tapeworms, slithering and evolving and merging into each other, separating from each other, extending into the concrete floor. They broke ground with ease, planting themselves into the earth like a truck extending its stabiliser legs, and now the tree, which had so swayed in the wind before, stood firmly still and stalwart.

It began to rumble in what felt like a galvanised agony. Beneath James’ hands, for he was now on his fours like an upended tortoise, he felt a spark of energy course across the fractured ground, then around his feet. Seconds later the tree spasmed subtly, absorbing the energy like a lightning rod. It began, slowly first, then with increasing speed and intensity, to vibrate in place, and James could almost envision the sparks of pure energy ricocheting around within its trunk.

Now, a name surfaced in his mind, but looking upon the tree—that he knew surely would detonate in moments—it seemed more a moniker, a title, the frightful name of an enemy general infused into children’s tales and soldiers’ doctrine:

The Aspen tree. 

The most common hardwood in Wyoming. 


A month ago, the trees had gained sentience. It had been the turn of the New Year—bright festive lights, a stark gathering of townsfolk for the local ball drop. But Aunt Magdalene was working late that night, so James watched the countdown from afar. Head out the window; the air was sour, the breeze new. In the distance, the tops of trees reeled, like the gentle washing of daffodils spotting a bay’s margin.

The countdown hit zero, and fireworks flew into the air, exploding high up in the sky and blooming into flowers of fire. An applause ensued, and though the festivities were so far away he could barely see them, James could feel the transition into 2017 almost as if the wind had reversed itself and blown in his face instead.

It was only later on, hours later in the morning, that he came to know of the tragedy that had happened in other parts of the country and the world. Trees, the newscaster said, hordes of them. Ran into towns, cities. The heart of celebrations. Exploded. Thousands killed; many more injured. Washington, Idaho hardest hit. 

A tragedy.

On television, James saw the aftermath of the attacks. Rubble covered censored shots of bodies, cuboids of concrete collapsed upon one another, structural wires ripped apart at the seams—and in the midst of the chaos stood a forest, a forest of trees rooted into the ground, their trunks sundered down the middles, exposing a splintered interior. Leaves—the remains of leaves, for they were so blackened and charred that they could barely be considered leaves—lay in plots surrounding the trees, resembling a graveyard burial. Still more fell from branches, thoroughly cooked and hanging like bones from a skeleton.

“It’s a massacre,” Aunt Magdalene murmured as they sat watching television from the sofa—he on the sofa, her propped up on its arm, both of them staring at the screen.

James nodded in agreement, but then he said, “Maybe we’re just getting what we deserve, for not stopping logging and all. I don’t understand why the authorities have let it come this far. There’s nothing good about cutting down trees. Nothing.”

“You know, it’s because of that attitude that—” Aunt Magdalene began, but then she stopped and looked down and went quiet, suddenly embarrassed. And yet what had not escaped her lips was so obvious between them that it need not even have been said. It’s because of that attitude that your parents died. 

A memory swept before his eyes. The rainforests of Brazil, humid and abuzz with life. A dark-skinned man wearing a t-shirt and long pants held a chainsaw, bringing it against the trunk of a mahogany tree. James saw the tree shiver, and fall to one side. The chainsaw rising up again, coming down into another tree—except wrapped around this tree was something incongruous with its surroundings, a man and a woman with arms extended around the girth of the tree’s trunk, their eyes closed and their lips nearly kissing the tree. His parents. Without hesitation, the chainsaw swung downward, into the tree and the man and the woman, so in sync with each other that they were just one tree, one tree standing still in solidarity—and that was the day his parents had died.

As he grew older, James seemed to take after his parents in spirit, advocating for the environment in much the same way that they had. Yet Aunt Magdalene had never approved of his edifices, treating them with condemnation.

After that they sat in an uncomfortable silence. A minute later, Aunt Magdalene stood up and went up to her room. James heard the door lock behind her.

“Is a war,” said a Polish historian on CNN two weeks after the New Year tragedy, “Like kamikaze pilots—fly in, careless, unstoppable, then boom! Everyone’s dead.” A week ago, this was what James had been watching when the trees hit Fransonville, his hometown in western Wyoming. The explosions rocked the ground slightly before noon. James tore himself from the sofa in a panic and ran to the window. Not far away, smoke billowed from what remained of the far side of Fransonville—closer to the forest, where houses were single-storey and in need of new paint jobs. The air reeked of death; James felt his hands curl into fists. He was shaking. 

He ran for Aunt Magdalene, who had been in her room writing. 

“They’re here,” he breathed. She was already on her feet, packing things into a small carry bag, her hands now resting on their passports.

In seconds they were out of the house, on the street, sprinting Eastward. They had originally contemplated driving, but as they rushed out the front door, they saw how debris from the explosions had travelled so far that some formed obstructions in the roads, and decided against it.

From around them, others emerged from neighbouring houses, grabbing childrens’ hands, holding toddlers in their arms, none of them looking behind. And so James did not look behind either, only focusing on escaping the town before the trees caught up. And yet it was so loud. He could not see the chaos, but he could hear it, the screams and the cries, the crackling of spreading fire. It frightened him. 

Soon they had left the town, and here they slowed and turned and pointed at rising organic shapes of smoke, dark grey fumes so far away now. They were a number of around ten, James and Aunt Magdalene among them. Gathering their wits, they resolved to journey toward the nearest town where they might be able to contact somebody for help or rescue.

The first days were empty, walking on and on along the highway with no sign of an end. There were several families among them, with young children whom James often overheard crying, sobbing at the toy they had left behind, the pet they had been unable to find. On the road, Aunt Magdalene often subconsciously gripped James’ hand in her own, squeezing it, and James realised she was shivering and held her close.

But then they began to see towns, or at least the ghosts of towns. From the towns they looted for meals upon which to subsist, and clean water to drink, for they had thirsted and hungered for days. 

Once, one of the mothers said to Aunt Magdalene, “How long have we been walking for now?”

“Six days,” Aunt Magdalene replied briskly, never really one for conversation.

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. It’s been six days and the kids—” turning around to gesture in their direction; they dragged their feet along the rough highway roads, heads hung low, “—are getting tired. And hungry.”

A pause.

“I think we should turn back. Go back to Fransonville. I mean, the trees are probably gone by now, right? And we don’t know how long it’ll be until we find some way to contact somebody—and then who will we contact? Plus, we’re running low on food and water, and—”

Suddenly James spotted something in the distance, and he voiced out his discovery. It was a small highway town—although it did not even cover both sides of the highway—and as what they envisaged to be a convenience store peeked over the horizon, it was to great relief that they found it was undamaged, as though it had been granted immunity to the wreckage everywhere else. 

A large sign stuck up from beside the highway: Welcome To Remnant. On the other side, among other text: Fransonville In Eleven Miles. And so they drifted off the highway to the left and entered an open parking lot with the convenience store beside it. A thin road ran straight down from the parking lot, surrounded by three double-storey houses and a gas station directly to their right. And yet there was nobody in sight; the residents had vacated the town, leaving dirty skid marks across the parking lot. 

Still the most important question that they had all been wondering remained unanswered. Apprehensively, hanging by the littlest bit of hope, they separately walked into the houses and the convenience store—and they all came out with tears in their eyes, happy tears. From the convenience store they grasped canned foods. From the houses they cupped small pools of water, pouring it down their throats. Somehow, by some miracle, the pipelines were still intact, and water galloped into rivered sinks, branching off into miniature distributaries that they spooned into their mouths with the tips of their fingers. And thus, filled with an intense wonderment, and because the sky had darkened, they branched out into the different buildings and resolved to sleep under shelter for the first time in a long time. 

James and Aunt Magdalene entered the convenience store, bringing with them blankets from the houses, and slept amongst the aisles of foods. As they closed their eyes, Aunt Magdalene placed a hand upon his arm, and despite how much he disliked her at times, James knew somehow that he was safe, that she would protect him. 

Hence they slept. They half-expected the food and the cushions and the blankets to vanish by daytime, revealing an empty plain, for it was more likely they had experienced shared hysterical hallucinations—it was all too good to be true.

In a way, it had all been too good to be true.


The tree had come as dawn broke, charging into the convenience store with the force of a tank. It was tall, so tall that as it entered, its trunk crashed against the ceiling, causing it to cave in, separating the convenience store into two halves. Aunt Magdalene, awaking first, had attempted to grab James and run, but in the half-awake, half-delirious state he was in, he had tripped just as the ceiling had come crashing in, leaving him and the tree trapped in the half of the store with no access to the exit. 

In the present, suddenly taken by a great emotive love for the tree, a yearning for a connection with the earth and the ground and nature, James ran forward, leaping over fallen bread loaves and canned foods, over the mangrove-like roots of the tree. Now he was before the tree, staring up into its eyes that bore into him so intensely.

Quivering, he closed his own eyes and brought his arms around the circumference of the tree’s trunk, then squeezed in tightly so that every inch of himself was touching the rough, almost scaly texture of the tree trunk. He had hugged trees before—every year on his parents’ death anniversary he visited the nearby forest to be with nature; it was also the only time Aunt Magdalene allowed him to leave the house without her. But this time, there was something different about it.

Abruptly, he felt himself merge with the tree, an astral projection of sorts where he was almost spiritually fused with the tree’s trunk. For the briefest moment he could feel the rings of wood within, signifying both the tree’s age and history as well as its multitudes of layers. Further below he could feel the ground. He could feel the veins of the earth and soil that connected everything. Being acutely aware of the littleness of himself, how inconsequential he was, every leaf that swayed in the breeze, every tree that walked and exploded, and beyond that, a larger entity behind it all. 

Sensory overload—he let go, and fell back, and in that instant he knew that he was going to die as the rumbling reached a definitive crescendo. He hit the ground, his body shook, his eyes were still closed.

Then the rumbling stopped. One second. Two seconds. Three. He let himself open his eyes, and he was still there—and so was the tree. But the eyes on its trunk had disappeared, rescinded back within. It was still; it was indomitable. It was dead.

Or so he thought.

But then he heard the tree move. Groan. He glanced up, and from within the tree’s trunk the eyes re-emerged, forcing their way out from the wood like a maggot consuming flesh from the inside out. Eyes bulging, the bark around them contorting in fury. Its roots branched out, almost like hands or tentacles, and once again it creaked and swayed, as though accustoming itself to a body it had suddenly acquired. 

James was too stunned to move. His fingers curled involuntarily into his palms, and he found himself unable to really breathe.

And thus the tree bore down upon him, trembling in what appeared to be rage, and spoke, in a timbre so low and gravelly and resonating that it sounded like it was coming from all directions and within him at once. 

“What have you done?”

Terrell James Ng (Class of 2025) started writing when he was ten. He primarily writes prose and poetry. His biggest writer inspirations are Hanya Yanagihara and Ocean Vuong. He loves the English language and wishes he lived in a library.