>

Exploring the art of prose

Menu

Girl in the Forest of Fear by Steph Grossman


In her short story “Girl in the Forest of Fear,” Steph Grossman expertly mines the constraints of first-person perspective in order to show us its possibilities, creating a compelling and authentic voice that raises questions about perception and persuasion, reality and desire.

What exactly does it mean to be coming-of-age? And what exactly—what actions, epiphanies, and rites of passage—constitute the moments leading up to arrival? Grossman’s protagonist Lara and her friends explore this evolution with equal measures of longing, angst, and fear. Still largely restricted by the limitations of childhood, they engage in a constant testing of the waters around them, not simply learning through quiet observation but actively teaching themselves when they can push against these boundaries, and when the boundaries push back in turn.

These boundaries arrive largely in the form of Lara’s unrequited obsession with one of her soccer coaches and the possibility that another coach—who is also the father of a friend—might have his own disturbing intentions. Limited to Lara’s point of view, readers are pulled along by a mounting sense of dread as she attempts to interpret the unsolicited touches and comments of this second coach, who takes both his own daughter and Lara to the literal Forest of Fear, a haunted corn maze full of false horrors that mirror the question the story initially raises: Is Lara imagining the inappropriate behavior? Or is it truly there? (See Grossman’s author’s note for more on this “exploration of the power of suggestion.”)

If Lara is fighting for autonomy and hoping to speed her arrival into adulthood, she’s also coming to understand her own limits and desires, as well as how logic meets emotion when trying to interpret the intentions of other people. It’s this “coming” that Lara is truly grappling with—how to come into her own; how to become herself. With simmering tension and perfectly wrought interiority, Grossman gives us a story that lingers and will make you reflect on your own youthful interactions in a way you won’t soon forget.  —CRAFT


 

“Yeah, he’s totally jerking off,” Lexi said. She elbowed Lara in the side and pointed to the front of the school bus where Coach Rogers sat alone.

Lara let slip a laugh, but otherwise tried to ignore Lexi by focusing on the science homework in her lap—a worksheet on the changing states of matter. It was a mini review of what they’d learned the year before, just a series of terms to define—evaporation, deposition, sublimation. Things like that.

“He’s totally yankin’ that crank,” Lexi said, cracking herself up about him, like she’d been doing all season.

Lara flicked Lexi’s arm and said, “shhh,” though she knew no one else could hear them. Their teammates were making sure of that, screaming soccer cheers and singing Shakira badly.

“But seriously.” Lexi lowered her voice. “Don’t you get, like, weird vibes from him? I get weird vibes.”

The bus engine strained as it climbed a steep, bumpy hill. Coach Rogers’s clean-shaven head bobbed along up front. From this angle, Lara got a good look at the port wine stain birthmark spilling across his crown.

“Lex, he’s Hannah’s dad.” She was getting tired of reminding Lexi of this. The perv thing was funny at first, but Lara was starting to feel bad making fun of Coach Rogers. The way Lexi talked about him was the same way she talked about Hannah behind her back. Don’t you think Hannah’s kind of immature? Lexi had once whispered to Lara when they both were at Hannah’s mom’s house for a homework session. She still wears Skechers.

“Exactly,” Lexi said. “Hannah plays field hockey. Why isn’t he coaching field hockey?”

“I dunno.” Lara shrugged. “Soccer’s better?” Soccer definitely was better. Even the uniforms were better. In field hockey, you had to wear itchy plaid grandma skirts that sat so high they covered half your ribs. In soccer, you got to wear smooth athletic shorts that could be rolled up at the waistband and turned into short-shorts. That was how everyone on the team wore them at least.

“Leos, we get feelings,” Lexi said. “Sixth sense stuff.”

A few seats behind them, Alyssa, the team’s goalie, started up the “Be Aggressive” chant. On reflex, Lara and Lexi joined in. “Be aggressive. B-E aggressive,” they all yelled as fast as they could. “A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E. Aggressive. B-E aggressive.

As the rest of the team pivoted to singing Outkast, Lara eyed their other coach, Coach Yapt, who sat across the aisle from Coach Rogers. She turned to Lexi, deciding to play along for a moment so they could talk about him.

“Lex, what do you think Yapt’s doing up there?” She pointed, feeling a rush. “Is Yapt jerking off? Are they jerking off together?”

Lara could see the back of Coach Yapt’s head too, only his wasn’t bald with a port wine stain. Yapt had curly red hair with millimeters of white bristles in his sideburns, and freckles that decorated his face and ears. Lara knew this because she’d once looked closely at him when she was out on the bench for a quarter, and when he was studying the playbook, not paying attention.

“No way,” Lexi said. “Yapt is cool. He’s a cool dude.”

“What do you think he’s doing then?” Lara found herself wanting to imagine whatever it might be. She wanted to know what was on his mind. He was a thinker—always staring out the window, thinking.

Had he ever thought about her?

Definitely listening to screamo,” Lexi said.

Lara laughed. “Yeah, okay.”

“I’m serious,” Lexi said. “You didn’t hear? Alyssa saw him at the Bullet Slap concert.”

“Freaking Alyssa?” she hissed, shocked. “Are you kidding me?”

Lara had wanted to go to that same concert, and almost did, too. Her older sister, Cassie, was supposed to take her, but had bailed at the last minute. If Lara’s parents had let her go without Cassie—which, of course, they’d never—that could have been Lara running into Yapt in the crowd.

Lara tore at a gash in the brown leather seatback as Alyssa started another round of “Be Aggressive.” The gash had a strip of frayed duct tape over it, and Lara pulled at a sticky white string hanging from the adhesive.

“Bet she was with her mom,” Lara said. “No way was Alyssa allowed to go by herself.”

“Totally. She’s très lame-o.”

As they pulled into the parking lot of Hillsdale Middle School, their rival team that day, Coach Rogers stood up. He waved his clipboard above his head to get everyone’s attention.

“All right, ladies,” he shouted above the din. “Let’s get right to it. Same starting positions as practice yesterday.”

“Beyatch.” Lexi nudged Lara. “You’re starting forward again?”

Lara smiled. Thank god, she thought. She’d never expected to be good enough to be a starting forward, ever. It had been a huge surprise these last few games.

She grabbed her bag and stuffed her homework back inside. Coach Rogers hurried off toward the field, but Coach Yapt stayed behind, checking off each girl’s name on his clipboard as she passed.

Lara moved down the aisle toward him, hoping he’d make eye contact with her. And for a second he did, but in a hazy, distracted way.

“Hey, Yapt,” Lara said as she got closer. “Heard you listen to screamo. That’s hardcore.”

“Screamo?” he asked, still distracted. His eyes scanned the list on his clipboard.

“Bullet Slap,” she said. She wanted to tell him that she’d first listened to Bullet Slap two years ago, before anyone else had, especially before freaking Alyssa had. What she wouldn’t tell him was that she could only listen to it during the day because at night the band’s hysterical screaming scared her.

“Oh, that,” he said. He put a check next to her name. “That’s my buddy’s band.”

“Oh my god, really?”

But then he was looking past her to Lexi, and then past her, and then down at his clipboard again. Lara had to keep moving down the aisle.

At the field, Lara and Lexi settled on damp grass behind the goal line. They were pulling on their shin guards when Coach Rogers came over and tapped Lara on the head with a rolled-up packet of plays. She looked up. Sunshine clouded her vision, and he became a purple-black silhouette.

“Hey, Coach,” Lara said, shielding her brow. “Hey, Coach,” Lexi echoed.

“Ladies,” he said. “Hannah wants to know if you’re still coming with us to the Forest of Fear on Friday?”

“Oh right,” Lara said. She’d forgotten about the Forest of Fear. She’d been forgetting everything lately.

“Not me,” Lexi said, grimacing. “My brother went last year. Told me he saw a huge, jacked guy pee himself, he got so scared.”

“Well, you know Hannah,” Coach Rogers said. “She loves Halloween.”

“Forest of Fear is on another level,” Lexi said. “Haunted corn maze? Count me out.”

Coach Rogers shrugged. He looked to Lara. “I take it you’re still coming?”

“For sure,” Lara said. Of course she was. One of her earliest memories was of throwing a temper tantrum outside a haunted house because her parents wouldn’t let her go in. She remembered watching her sister and cousin, both thirteen at the time—Lara’s age now—walk through the entrance of the house; a doorway shrouded with black beaded curtains. She remembered screaming until her throat felt singed, all while her parents repeated and repeated, “You’re too young, you’re too young.”

“It’s a date,” Coach Rogers said, trotting toward the field. “Now get out there, ladies. Hit the ground running.”

“A date?” Lexi said, giving Lara a look.

“He’s probably just going to drop us off,” Lara said.


“Three tickets, please,” Coach Rogers said.

“How many adults, how many kids?” asked the ticket taker. She sat on a metal folding chair behind an old card table, chewing loudly on a wad of gum. Yellow construction lights hung from metal poles, lighting a dirt path that led into the trees.

“What’s the age limit?” he asked.

“Twelve. Ten dollars for adults. Kids are half that.”

“One adult, then,” he said. “Two kids.”

“But I’m thirteen,” Lara said.

Coach Rogers looked at Lara, a frown on his thin lips.

“Lara…” Hannah said from behind her.

“What?” Lara said. “It’s true.”

“Okay.” Coach Rogers turned back to the woman. “One kid. Two adults.”

“I’ll say I didn’t hear it,” said the woman. She winked at Coach Rogers and passed him a blue wristband and two orange ones.

“You’re an angel,” he said, and gave her a twenty.

“Hey wait,” Lara said. “There’s no separate kiddie maze or something, is there?”

The woman shook her head. “It’s the same for everyone, sweetie.” She cracked her gum, and Lara got a whiff of watermelon. “You’ll be scared plenty.”

Coach Rogers patted Lara’s back. “See?”

Just then a man leaped out from the bushes behind the ticket desk. He was dressed in all black and wore a hockey mask with fake blood pumping down it. He ran at them, revving a chainsaw that had to be fake but looked very real. The people in line behind them screamed and giggled and bumped into Lara, Hannah, and Coach Rogers, pressing them against the ticket desk. Coach Rogers put his arms around the girls’ waists and squeezed.

“Bruce, get out of here,” the ticket woman shrieked.

The chainsaw grew louder, but Lara couldn’t turn her head to see what was happening. She was crushed against Coach Rogers, her nose buried in his ribs. The chainsaw’s angry sound vibrated inside her chest. “Hey, it’s okay,” Coach Rogers said.

Lara pulled away just in time to see the man disappear into the bushes again. Within seconds, the line of people behind them backed up to a normal distance and resumed their excited chitchat.

“We’re off to a good start,” Coach Rogers said, taking his hands off of Lara and Hannah. Lara breathed out a sigh of relief. She heard his voice in her head: It’s a date.

“Yeah, get outta here, Bruce,” Hannah said, kicking her white Skechers at the dust the haunter had left in his wake. She was doing it in this wannabe “let me at ’em” way that reminded Lara of Scrappy-Doo, Hannah’s favorite cartoon character. She had posters of him all over her room, and whenever Lara came to sleep over at Hannah’s mom’s house, they always had to fall asleep to Scooby-Doo reruns.

Coach Rogers ruffled Hannah’s hair. “You’re a tough guy tonight.”

“Dad,” Hannah whined. She started running her fingers all over her scalp, smoothing her hair in panic. “I just straightened it.”

“Sorry, honey,” he said, amusement in his voice. “I didn’t realize.”

They followed the dirt path until it forked at a row of trees. Behind them, Lara could see the border of the corn maze. A wooden sign gave them two options: “Restrooms/Refreshments” on the left, “Labyrinth” on the right.

Coach Rogers said, “Do you ladies need a bathroom—”

“I went before we left,” said Hannah.

“Me too,” Lara said.

“Well, how’s about this,” he said. “I’ll go buy us some hot chocolate and wait for you at the end.”

Lara liked the idea of the two of them doing the maze on their own. But she thought it was too warm out for hot chocolate. The day had been unusually humid for fall, and the night air was hotter still, causing her hair to frizz up as if it were summer.

“Really?” Hannah asked. “We can go alone?”

“I think you’re old enough,” he said. “The best part of these things is the food, anyway.”

Hannah squealed and shuffled over to him for a hug. While she was in his arms, he caught Lara’s eye.

He smiled. He winked.

At least Lara thought he did.

Dude, she imagined Lexi saying to her. Dude, that was weird.

He’s just trying to be funny, Lara thought. Like, friendly. Lara’s Poppy winked at people all the time. And that wasn’t weird.

Keep telling yourself that, Lexi would say.

“Ready?” Hannah asked, appearing at Lara’s side and hooking arms with her.

As Hannah pulled her toward the maze, Lara took a quick glance behind her, expecting to see Coach Rogers watching them. But he had his back to them now and was already rounding the bend, nearly out of sight.

Lara and Hannah followed the path, which was now lined on both sides by a thicket of cornstalks. They came to a group of about ten people, mostly teenage couples. A woman dressed as a scarecrow, hay peeking out of her patchy overalls, handed out green glow sticks on strings.

“Do we get to keep these?” Hannah asked, putting hers on over her head. Its green fluorescence glowed from the tip of her chin to the chest of her oversized T-shirt.

“Yes, but…” The woman sucked in a weary breath, her hay waving, and recited: “Do not put the glow sticks in your mouth. Do not bite on them. Do not cut them open. These sticks contain chemicals like hydrogen peroxide and dibutyl phthalate. Forest of Fear and its associates are not liable.”

With that, she continued down the line. Lara kept her glow stick in her hand and wrapped its string several times around her wrist.

“You don’t think they’ll touch us, right?” Hannah asked. “With their hands?”

“I don’t think they’re allowed to,” Lara answered.

They approached an opening in the corn, the size of a narrow doorway. Above the entry, attached to an arched metal arbor, hung a sign that read “Labyrinth” in red, hand-painted letters.

A man sitting on a stool held out his arm to stop Lara and Hannah from passing. He was dressed in a Mad Hatter hat and bowtie, costume accessories made deliberately too large. Lara assumed he was going to ask if they had tickets, so she held out her arm to show her wristband. He looked from her wrist to her face.

“Starboard?” he asked. “Or port?”

“Star-what?”

“Starboard or port?” he repeated, his voice on the edge of hysteria. “You can only choose one. What’ll it be, curious girls?”

Lara shrugged.

“May I suggest port?” said the man. He looked up quizzically at the night sky. “I mean starboard. Or perhaps port? Oh well. Just stay to the left. Yes, left—rightly.” He let down his arm.

Hannah giggled. “He really sounded like the Mad Hatter,” she said, hooking arms with Lara again.

“He sounded like a fucking psychopath,” Lara said.

“You curse, now?” Hannah asked.

They followed the dirt path along its bends and dips in the aisle of corn stalks. The leaves were dry and brittle and brown. Much browner than Lara had expected. In movies, corn stalks were always green and yellow, shining bright even in the dark.

Despite the many people who had been in line around them, it felt to Lara like they were alone. “Where is everyone?” she asked.

As if on cue, they heard a cacophony of growls and screams in the distance. Hannah jumped, wrenching Lara with her.

Then, from another part of the maze, a man screamed.

It sounded like Coach Rogers. The way he’d yell “no” from the sidelines when Alyssa let the ball get past her into their goal.

“Lara,” Hannah said, pointing. “What’s that?”

Ahead of them in the path loomed a figure in black, hovering a few feet above the ground, swaying. They kept moving toward it, Hannah’s grip on Lara’s arm growing tighter.

As they got closer, Lara saw what it was: in front of them stood a line of wooden gallows. Mannequin bodies dressed in grim reaper robes dangled from each, blocking the path. “It’s just plastic,” Lara said, trying to reassure Hannah. A stereo, somewhere, played the sound of ropes creaking.

She let go of Hannah and started to gently push the bodies out of the way. Hannah sucked in her breath and grabbed at the back of Lara’s shirt.

“I don’t know why I’m so jumpy,” Hannah said. “I kinda wish my dad were here.”

When they got to the last body, Lara stopped and put her arm around its roped waist.

“Hey, look,” she said, turning to Hannah, “it’s my date. Isn’t he sexy?”

Suddenly the body began to jolt from side to side. Lara jumped back and screamed. Hannah fell to the ground and cowered.

“Help me!” the body sputtered from a speaker inside its robe.

Lara looked down at Hannah and laughed. Hannah laughed too. “Why’d you have to go and touch it?” she said, wiping hay from the butt of her jeans.

“Sorry,” Lara said, helping her up.

They followed the winding path until they came to a circular clearing. The area was empty, aside from several dozen large lollipops strewn across the ground.

When they reached the center of the clearing, a woman popped out of the cornstalks and came skipping toward them. She was dressed like a doll in a plaid jumper and white blouse, with red circles painted on her cheeks and little black dots peppering her face. She hopped around Lara and Hannah, kicking up hay and sucking on a rainbow-swirled lollipop.

“How do you know you’re in love?” she asked in a baby voice. “How do you know? I want to know.”

“I think—” Lara began, but the doll interrupted.

“Sillies,” she said. She stopped skipping and put her hands on her hips. “It’s in your stomach. It plucks at you. Like a wolf plucks a chicken.”

The doll turned and watched as a man dressed like a disheveled lumberjack stepped out from a wall of cornstalks and sauntered into their circle.

“Here’s my love!” the doll shrieked with glee.

A thunderclap sounded from a hidden speaker. The ground lights flashed white, and as Lara’s eyes readjusted, she watched the man get on all fours and howl at the moon. He ripped his plaid shirt to reveal a chest full of matted, costume hair. Hannah clutched Lara’s arm again.

The werewolf scampered up to the doll, and they scuffled. It was so obvious to Lara that they were pretending. The doll threw herself on the ground. The werewolf growled, grabbed her leg with his hands, and started dragging her away.

“Run,” the doll yelled. “Run.”

Hannah took off and Lara jogged after her so they wouldn’t lose each other.

They slowed when the cornstalks narrowed back to a single-file path. Lara stepped in front of Hannah, leading the way.

“That werewolf looked so fake,” Lara said. “Didn’t he? The chest hair?” She was so proud of herself for not being scared that she actually found herself wishing Coach Rogers had been there to witness it. Maybe he’d tell Coach Yapt about it.

Hannah didn’t answer.

Lara looked back to check on Hannah, and that’s when she saw him, tiptoeing closer, stuttering toward them in the strobe lights.

A clown.

Hannah saw him too.

“I’m gonna get ya,” the clown said, dopily.

Hannah tried to take off again, but tripped and pulled Lara down with her. The clown caught up in seconds, grabbed Hannah’s ankle and yelled, “Gotcha!”

Hannah began to cry.

What a baby, Lara thought. She stood up, rubbing her hands together. Her palms had picked up dirt and hay from the ground like a magnet.

The clown leaned over Hannah. “Kid, you okay?” He looked at Lara, and she saw he was wearing contact lenses that made his irises glow crimson. “She okay?”

“She’s fine,” Lara said.

“I wanna leave.” Hannah sniffed. She got up. “I wanna go.”

The guy took off his red foam nose and put it in his pocket. Up close, the white makeup on his face was starting to crack. Tufts of his electric-yellow clown wig were coming loose.

“You sure?” he asked.

Hannah nodded and continued crying.

Seriously, an infant, Lara thought.

“Here. Let’s take the staff exit.”

Lara wanted to say no, wanted to say, I’m gonna keep going. It was hard to be scared when all you could smell was buttered popcorn, funnel cake, and deep-fried Oreos. She wanted to finish so she could say she did, so she could brag to Coach Yapt that she’d done it. And who knew, maybe she’d even round a bend in the maze and run into him, like freaking Alyssa did at the Bullet Slap concert.

Whoa, Lara, he’d say to her. You’re here? In the labyrinth? All by yourself?

She’d nod, the colored lights tracing her face, first in purple, then in red.

I had no idea you were so hardcore, he’d say.

There’s lots of things you don’t know, she’d say, about me. Then she’d pull his arm around her and feel his fingers reach down her thigh.

“This way,” said the clown. He pushed apart a few corn stalks, revealing a hidden path. Hannah wiped at her eyes and walked into it.

Lara seethed as she watched Hannah shuffle and kick up hay strands as she went. She hated Hannah. Her cold feet. Her Skechers, all ugly and chunky and way too shiny.


When they pulled up at Coach Rogers’s house, Lara saw that it was a trailer sitting in a row of identical trailers, which meant they must be in Spring Valley Trailer Park. It was the only one around and people in school were always talking about it.

As angry as she was at Hannah right now, Lara also felt sorry for her. Lara hadn’t realized Coach Rogers lived in Spring Valley, which had a pretty name but was the most dangerous place in town. She’d heard about the kids who lived here. No one had anything good to say about them. Rumors of drugs and fights and sluts. She’d even heard that a Spring Valley girl had given birth to a baby at age twelve and promptly thrown it in the dumpster. Both Cassie and Lexi had told her about that one. If Hannah couldn’t handle The Forest of Fear, how did she handle Spring Valley?

Lara got out of the car and walked in silence with Hannah and Coach Rogers along a loose gravel pathway to the trailer. He unlocked the creaky door and opened it to a cramped kitchen–living room combo. There was a narrow hallway to the left where Lara assumed the bedrooms and bathroom were.

Lara’s family didn’t have much, but still, she’d never been in a trailer before. Well, one that anyone actually lived in. When she and her family would go to Lake Tahoe, they’d rent extra-large campers, which always smelled of smoke and dirt and bacon. Coach Rogers’s trailer sort of reminded her of a camper, though it smelled like a normal house. Like Pine-Sol, something Lara’s mom used a lot.

Coach Rogers guided a sleepy Hannah, spent from crying, to her bedroom. At Hannah’s mom’s house, Lara and Hannah always slept in Hannah’s room together. And before the Scooby-Doo bedtime ritual, they’d make sure to sneak into the kitchen where Hannah’s mom always had a bowl of fresh fruit, usually plums, sitting out on the table. They’d pretend they were vampires and bite into plum after plum, sucking the juice before it could drip down their arms. “Ugh, got a sour one,” Hannah would always say, even when Lara was sure all the plums were ripe.

But here, Lara knew, she would be sleeping alone. Coach Rogers had covered the couch with a sheet and blanket for her. Feeling too exhausted to think anymore, she laid her head on a tan throw-pillow that smelled like sweat and closed her eyes.

She woke to rustling sounds in the kitchen. The trailer was dark, except for a small fluorescent light shining above the stove. Coach Rogers held a steaming tea kettle and stirred a spoon around in a dark blue mug.

“Coach?” Lara said, without thinking.

“Oh,” he said. He turned to face Lara. The only thing between them was a small kitchen island with two metal stools tucked under it. “Did I wake you?”

Lara wished she could pretend she was still asleep.

“Want anything?” he asked. “I’m making tea.”

The last thing she wanted was tea. But she knew what her parents would tell her to say. “Yes.”

He took out a mug that matched his own and put a tea bag into it. He poured in boiling water, added sugar and milk. Then he walked toward Lara, both mugs steaming.

As he got closer, Lara shrank into the couch. She thought about the pressure of his hand on her waist, his wink, his hand on her back, how she wished it were Coach Yapt walking toward her instead.

But I’m a kid, she thought.

And then, as he reached toward her: I’m just a kid. I’m just a kid. I’m just a kid.

He placed the mug on a table next to the couch.

“Wait for it to cool down, okay?” he said, patting her shoulder.

Lara nodded, so slightly that for a moment she thought he hadn’t noticed.

“Well, goodnight,” he said.

He crossed the living room, away from her. But when he reached the hallway, he stopped. Sighed. Blew on his tea. Slurped. The dim light of the trailer made the birthmark on the back of his head look less like wine and more like blood.

He turned.

They exchanged a glance. A millisecond of a glance.

Lara squeezed her eyes shut. She made her breath as small as possible and pretended she was hiding underwater, breathing through a reed.

The next thing she heard was footsteps.

A throat clear.

His bedroom door swing closed.

She kept her eyes shut for a while, barely breathing, straining so that she could hear anything else at all. But there was nothing else. No more sounds. Except for the crickets chirping outside the window on this false summer night. Pins and needles tingled in her elbow. She’d been leaning on it this whole time.

Lara opened her eyes.

She was alone now. At least, she was pretty sure she was.

I’m stupid, she thought, so stupid. She shook out her arm and picked up the mug. Hot vapor lapped at her lips as she took a tiny sip.

But then she thought of Lexi. Lexi pointing at the tea. Lexi screaming, What if it’s laced?

Jeez, Lexi’s so paranoid, Lara thought. Still, she removed her lips from the rim of the mug and put the tea aside. Eventually, she fell back asleep.

In the morning, Lara woke before Hannah and Coach Rogers did. She knew it was before six because the light slanting in through the windows was thin and silvery. She rubbed her eyes and looked at the mug. An ink blot of milk floated on the surface of the tea.

Lara thought about drinking it down after all. Partly because she was thirsty, and partly because she was worried that Coach Rogers would think she was rude. What if he walked into the living room, saw the full cup, and knew right away that she’d been afraid of him last night? What if he got mad at her? What if he moved her from forward to defense?

And what if Hannah discovered the awful things Lara and Lexi had been saying about her dad? About her?

Lara stood and wrapped the blanket around herself. She decided she’d go into Hannah’s room, sit on the floor, turn on the TV, and watch Scooby-Doo reruns on mute until Hannah woke up. They’d watch cartoons together all morning, as the Scooby gang unmasked ghost after ghost.

But first, Lara picked up the mug and drank.

 


STEPH GROSSMAN’s fiction has appeared in Joyland and Hobart. Her narrative nonfiction has appeared in Paste Magazine and The Masters Review. Recently, a standalone excerpt of her novel-in-progress was a finalist for The Masters Review’s 2020 Flash Fiction Contest. She’s worked in NYC publishing at places like Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, and JSTOR, but now lives in the Austin area where she’s pursuing her MFA at Texas State University and serving as the PR Manager for Porter House Review. A devotee of horror and the gothic, she co-hosts the Basement Girls Horror and Whatnot podcast with poet Bianca Pérez. Follow Steph on Twitter and Instagram at @stephygrossman.

 

Featured image by Bank Phrom courtesy of Unsplash

 

 

Author’s Note

I was lucky enough to workshop an early version of “Girl in the Forest of Fear” with Tim O’Brien back in September. The workshop took place on Zoom (thanks, pandemic), and as he chain-smoked his way through a pack of cigarettes, he told me that reading my story had given him the same feeling he got while watching the 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock. He’d been terrified for the Hanging Rock girls just as he’d been terrified for my protagonist Lara. He said my story was the real deal (I nearly fainted), but that I needed to lean even further into the foreboding and ambiguity of a young girl who may or may not be in danger.

“Girl in the Forest of Fear” began as an exploration of the power of suggestion: how a friend can make an offhand comment about someone you know, and how your mind can snag on that comment and allow it to intrude again and again whenever you see that person. How it has the potential to color your entire view of them and everything they do from then on. As it developed, the story also became about navigating puberty and a “haunted” corn maze, and about the very specific experience of a girl coming into her sexuality and feeling both ready and not ready for what comes next. In Lara’s case, she has a crush on one of her soccer coaches but not the other. The idea of Coach Yapt touching her excites her, while the idea of Coach Rogers doing the same makes her sick. From an outsider’s perspective, both scenarios would be criminal and scary, and yet Lara only sees the danger in one of them. I was interested in presenting a character who would make the reader feel both sympathy and disapproval.

And just as Lara’s view of Coach Rogers becomes heavily influenced by her friend Lexi’s comments, I found that Lexi heavily influenced readers too. When I workshopped the first draft of this story with my MFA class, people had all sorts of interpretations. Most notably, a slew of them wondered if Coach Yapt was sinister too, and if he and Coach Rogers were in cahoots. One person even asked if Coach Rogers had masturbated into Lara’s tea while she was asleep…

Lexi had definitely made an impression.

I’m a huge fan of ambiguity in fiction, because when you present a situation that can be read in a variety of ways, readers will enter into a conversation with it, and this conversation will be unique to their own personality and experience, their own nature and nurture. As the author of a story, you seem to control everything—the characters, the setting, the language. But you don’t control your readers, who are usually complete strangers to you, a complete mystery (if you’re lucky enough to have readers besides your mom). So, is the author in control of everything or nothing? I don’t know. It’s ambiguous.

In my experience, you also don’t truly have control over the story itself while it’s being written. I never thought I’d start a story with the words, “Yeah, he’s totally jerking off.” Yet that was what came out when I sat down to write this piece. Similarly, I didn’t expect the ticket booth scene, where Lara insists she should get an adult wristband. I didn’t expect the doll/werewolf scene in the maze, where the doll asks how you know you’re in love. I didn’t expect a lot of things, despite the fact that I went into this story thinking I knew exactly what was going to happen. For me, this strange, subconscious magic is what makes the act of writing so rewarding. But, like most writers, I have a habit of forgetting how magical it can be, especially when I set my writing aside and start binge-watching Forensic Files. Again.

So that’s my advice—for you and for me: sit down and see what floats up from beyond your outlines, your plans, your writing fantasies and daydreams. Sit down and see what you come up with. It’s always worth it.

 


STEPH GROSSMAN’s fiction has appeared in Joyland and Hobart. Her narrative nonfiction has appeared in Paste Magazine and The Masters Review. Recently, a standalone excerpt of her novel-in-progress was a finalist for The Masters Review’s 2020 Flash Fiction Contest. She’s worked in NYC publishing at places like Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, and JSTOR, but now lives in the Austin area where she’s pursuing her MFA at Texas State University and serving as the PR Manager for Porter House Review. A devotee of horror and the gothic, she co-hosts the Basement Girls Horror and Whatnot podcast with poet Bianca Pérez. Follow Steph on Twitter and Instagram at @stephygrossman.