When the grind of the daily job gets too much, Deven just wants to escape. He drives past the exit for work on the highway as he keeps going, no idea where he’s going physically or where he’s going in life.
New day. Same as the previous. Same as every that was going to come after it. Ever since graduation it had been the same routine for years and years. Get up, go to work, get home to exhausted and irritable to enjoy the evening. Get two days off a week, assuming you’re not called in to work overtime, and spend them running errands and doing chores to keep your home from falling apart. It would last until retirement and Deven was too old to enjoy life. Assuming he didn’t work himself into an early grave.
Deven left the flat, got in his car and pulled onto the road. Regardless of how frustrated he felt he still had to get paid, still had to keep the daily grind going. For what purpose or reason? Continued existence he supposed. Up until the day that ended at least. Just what was the point of it all? The only brief moments of happiness that came in life were when he allowed himself to be lost in a fantasy of a game or a story, being somewhere else for a while. Because somehow, a world threatened by a dark overlord who ate souls was somehow less screwed up and more inviting than the real world.
But the real world was where he lived. And what he had to deal with.
The commute to work was the same as ever. Backed up traffic from everyone trying to get in to work at the same time. Deven was on the highway, and at a few times may have hit as high as 20 miles per hour while trying to progress forward. It was amazing and depressing than his workplace was less than ten miles away but took almost an hour to get to. Honestly, he could probably get up later if he started walking to work. Of course, then he’d have to deal with the weather. A nasty storm coming in would mean that he’d either have to walk home in the rain or pay out what little precious disposable income he had to hire a taxi. So, he stuck to driving to work.
His exit was coming up. The workday would begin soon. And Deven’s soul would die for a little as soon as it did. Not having hope made it easier to endure the workday. It didn’t matter if you were good at your job or terrible. Someone above you in management would make a mistake an inevitably leave you with the blame their decision. Anything you did right, they took credit for. Anything that they or anyone did wrong you took the fall for. When Deven had first started this job, he had been told about how they like to promote from within. How he could use a starting level position to work his way up to being an executive. And perhaps, fifty years ago that had even been true. As far as Deven could tell though no one at his level had been promoted even once in the last twenty years. Management positions that opened up always went to new hires from outside the company, or from managers from other office locations. Deven didn’t know a single person above him who had started on out on the office floor.
Work was a scam. Possibly the greatest scam of all time. You were given promises of your hard work being promoted, and told how far you could go. You were told it was essential to have a ‘real job’ to be considered an adult. But in the end, work was just a way to entrap you, ensure you could never grow beyond your current point. Your wages always just enough to barely survive so you can’t justify quitting, but never enough to make it safe to take time away from work to look for a better position. Honestly, those soul stealing dark lords from his video games could learn a thing or two from the corporate world. If they got their evil on this level there would be nothing the hero could do to stop them.
If only a hero would put a stop to his corporate overlords. But of course, in real life there were no heroes. And bursting into a CEO’s office with a sword drawn and declarations of ending their reign of terror tended to get you thrown into a padded room instead of regaled as a champion. Which felt very backwards but that was how life worked.
Deven approached his exit for work. He turned on the turn signal. He started to merge into the exit lane. Then, for some reason, he didn’t. He corrected his path back into his original lane and passed the exit for work. There was no way he’d be on time now. The next exit wasn’t for another ten miles and considering how traffic went it would be a while before he reached it and even longer before he successfully turned around and made his way back. Why had he done that? He had missed the exit on purpose. True, he was feeling melancholic. But that was completely normal for the start of a work week. If anything, it was a sign that he was still alive in there somewhere that he could still feel the oppression from his job.
So again, why had he just done that? He wasn’t sure. But he’d turn around at the next exit. And then have to come up with some kind of excuse for why he was late. Yet, he couldn’t be bothered to think of one.
After another thirty minutes, Deven approached the next exit. It was his chance to turn around. He avoided this one too. About this point, his cell phone began to ring. It would be work wanting to know where he was. He probably should have answered it. He didn’t. Driving while using a cellular device was dangerous. That was definitely the reason he had ignored the phone call and not because he was ignoring work.
And yet, it soon became impossible for him to continue to deceive himself. He passed two more exits. He was now outside the city limits and traffic had thinned out allowing him to speed up. He watched civilization disappear in his rear-view mirror as he drove out into the country, soon surrounded by grasslands and forests. He was running away from work. Why was he running away?
Well, he had a laundry list of reasons to do so. But the problem was the consequences that came with his actions. But… He just couldn’t go in today. Couldn’t listen to the same blowhard boss. He just needed an escape, even for one day. He’d lie tomorrow. Say he had been laid up in bed all day, that he was so sick he couldn’t even get out of bed to use the phone. They would grumble, but they wouldn’t fire him over being sick. Even if they didn’t believe him. Simply put, they didn’t care enough about his wellbeing to call his bluff so as long as he had at least one sick day left.
So, he was skipping work for a day. A much needed sanity break. But he still had no idea of where he was going. The decision had been on a whim, and taken him almost an hour to realize he had even made such a decision. But he had no idea what he was going to do with his sudden day off. He couldn’t exactly go anywhere too public. If he was seen by someone who knew him at work, or popped up on someone’s social media then work would call his bluff even with the sick day. But of course, by this point he was well outside the city limits. Doubtful that either of those things were a risk. Still, he should probably figure out where he was going to actually go instead of driving along the highway indefinitely.
Deven pulled off at the next exit. It led to a series of old dirt roads. He was looking for a good place to pull off the road so he could think, as well as some place with enough room to turn the car around. The road however was extremely thin. If another car came from the other direction there would be no way to pass each other. On either side of the road was a ditch, so he couldn’t pull off the road. Someone would just have to drive the entire road in reverse till they got back to the highway or to wherever this road led.
Deven huffed, frustrated by the state of this road, as well as realizing he had no idea where he was. And then suddenly, his car made a stuttering sound and came to a stop. He was out of gas. That was right he hadn’t had a full tank when he started. And he had traveled far, far further than he normally would have. Now his car was stuck. He was going to have to call a tow truck. Hopefully the GPS on his phone could help him figure out where he was to call the truck. Except, as he picked up the cell phone he saw that he had no bars. Deven rolled down a window and held the phone as high in the air outside the window as he could. Still no bars. He was stuck. At least until someone came along the road.
But, as Deven studied the road, he saw that his car had left deep tracks in the dirt road. There weren’t any other tracks going either direction. This road hadn’t been used by anyone in a long time. The odds of someone who could help finding him here were looking abysmally low. Maybe if he hiked back to the highway?
He flung open the car door. The ditch was right on the other side of the door. There was no room for him to stand outside the car. He’d have to leap down into the ditch to get out. Lovely. He’d have to figure out how he was going to climb back up later.
Deven held onto his car door as he slowly lowered his feet onto the edge of the ditch. Feeling solid ground, he hoped he could run down the edge of the ditch using his own momentum to help avoid falling flat on his face. He let go of the door, started to work his way down, and then suddenly the ground gave wave beneath his feet.
The ditch was far deeper than Deven had been able to see. A thick layer of leaves had disguised its true depths and Deven fell downward, tumbling throughout the process, getting several scratches on his arms and legs from various sticks pointing out, as well as tearing bits of his clothing. Thankfully, when he finally landed it was on pile of leaves that broke his fall. Had they not been there, he might have broken something. He slowly climbed to his feet. He looked up. There were trees in every direction. The ditch must have actually been the side of a hill or mountain. All those sticks, pieces of branches he had fallen through on his way to the forest floor. Now he was surrounded by woodlands, and not 100% sure where he had fallen in from.
Well maybe he’d get reception here except… Except he had left his cell phone in the car! Of all the stupid mistakes to make! He was lost, he was in a forest he wouldn’t even be able to place on a map, and on top of all that he was hungry. This was hardly the ideal escape from work.
Not seeing many other options, Deven chose to press on further into the forest. You could only walk halfway into the woods before you started walking out after all. Hopefully once outside the forest he could find some signs of civilization. Call a tow with a pay phone. Did pay phones still exist? He would figure out these things later. For now, he needed to get out of the woods.
As he began to hike. There was a crack of thunder overheard. Of course it was going to storm down. The rain came, falling from the sky in buckets. However, Deven remained completely dry. He paused and glanced around. From what he could see through the tree canopy it had definitely started storming. And it was a pretty fierce one too. He should have been soaked. There was no possible way the leaves from the tree blocked the entire forest from getting wet. And yet… Everywhere beneath the trees was dry… Almost everywhere. There was a stream running close by. Deven stopped and stared at it. The stream was a smooth surface of water with no ripples in it whatsoever. None of the raindrops were landing in the stream. Somehow, the rain wasn’t reaching the ground at all.
While very strange, Deven filed that under things he didn’t have time to worry about now. The discovery of a stream was good though. He could use it to trace a path out of the forest. It’d be a lot easier to avoid going in circles and getting turned around if he just followed the stream through the forest. And so he started traveling along it.
“This one is little old to be running away from home.” A voice giggled from somewhere behind Deven.
“Whose there?” Deven asked as he spun around.
“But he’s still running.” Another voice laughed. “He’s all grown up but acts like a lost child.”
“Oh, if you had only come here earlier.” The first voice spoke. “We take in all the lost children, but we don’t take adults.”
“Adults are too stubborn, too old, and too ugly.” The second voice added. “Only lost children can stay here. You’ll have to go home.”
“That’s… Great and all…” Deven wasn’t sure what of the voices. He couldn’t tell if they were male or female from their tone. They certainly sounded young. But… Generally speaking, creepy voices suddenly speaking up while you’re lost and trying to find your way is less than pleasant. Hopefully, he hadn’t just discovered a couple of serial killers living in the forest. “Just point the way out.”
“Just go the way you came.” The first voice said.
“Yes, it’s quite obvious. Why make such a silly demand?” The second voice said.
“Yeah I’m not really which direction that is. I fell down a ditch, or I guess the side of hill… And now here I am.” Deven kept glancing around trying to find the sources of the voices. But they always came from somewhere else.
“He really is just like a lost child.” The first voice noted.
“But he can’t stay. He’s an adult.” The second voice chided the first.
“Such things are easily fixed.” The first voice replied. “But only if he gives up the trappings of civilization.”
“Yes! Yes! Adult or child! No civilized person can live in this forest!” The second voice added.
“I really have no idea what you’re talking about.” Deven rubbed the back of his head. Whoever these two are, they were really starting to get on his nerves.
“Must we spell it out?” The first voice demanded. “Everything in your pockets. Your clothes themselves. Anything that ties you back to society.”
“You want me to strip?” Deven asked with a note of concern in his voice. Truthfully, he had no love for clothes. And when hanging out at home didn’t wear them. But, this was a little bit of a different situation.
“If you wish to stay with the other lost children then yes.” The first voice replied.
“I don’t think he understands us.” The second voice sighed.
“But he is a runaway child.” The first one asked.
“Just missing the child part.” The second let out a giggle.
“Well… I suppose we can maybe bend the rules just this once.” The first voice teased playfully. “After all, we’ll be here all day before he figures it out.”
At that moment, the forest came to life with color. The leaves of the trees changed shades, becoming purple, blue, green, red, gold and silver. Flowers Deven had failed to notice bloomed in similar colors and were glowing. The entire forest was filed with a welcoming warmth. Deven didn’t notice, but at the same time the scratches over his skin closed up, erasing all signs of his injuries.
He largely failed to notice, because that was just a byproduct of the fact he was suddenly getting much smaller. His clothes grew looser on him, and his jeans soon fell to the ground, leaving him in just a shrit and some very oversized shoes. Confused as to what was going on, he stumbled backwards, falling out of the shoes, and landing tangled up in his shirt as he stared down at his hands. His skin looked softer… But he also had claws? And then there was hair on his hands. Except, soon it was too thick to be called hair, and would be more accurately described as fur.
His feet, free of his shoes were in a similar state. Covered in brown fur, with his nails replaced by claws. The fur was spreading, extending up from his feet covering his legs. On his arms, the fur spread all the way up to his elbows and then stopped. On his legs, the fur continued to spread all the way up until it had reached his waistline. Then, at that point, Deven felt a sharp pain in his rear. He was sitting on something and it hurt. His leg? No that wasn’t it. He had a new limb that hadn’t been there before. Deven struggled to stand up, letting the oversized shirt fall to the floor in the process. The second he was free of the shirt, he also freed his long and fluffy tail that had been squished down while he was on the ground. It was a relief to let the thing out. It was soft, and almost as long as his body, but not meant to be sat on like that.
Suddenly, Deven noticed that the forest became clearer. Noises became louder. Smells stronger. His awareness of the entire forest had suddenly increased right as his ears had moved towards the top of his head, becoming round and covered in brown fur. While he couldn’t see that his ears had changed, the changes to his senses could not be ignored. The entire forest was alive. Each of the flowers produced a pleasant scent. He became aware of birds and insects in the distance, going about their business. Grass and leaves gently blowing in the wind. The stream, a clean scent, free of any corruption or pollution. The entire forest was more beautiful that he would have ever noticed before.
And… Now, he could make out the location of the two voices. His ears twitched as they moved. They were fast. But, he could track them by sound and scent. Wherever they moved, there was the impression of lilac. And then them landing on different branches of the trees gave away their location. Deven didn’t get a good look at them physically… But he saw enough as they moved around trying to avoid his gaze to see they were small winged creatures, each no bigger than a mouse.
Deven slowly stood up, and steadied himself. Standing was a little awkward. Not only because he now had digitigrade legs, but the shrinking hadn’t just been in size. He was only about four years old now. He could still walk, and even run but it was a bit more awkward. He looked down at himself, seeing the fur that started at his waistline and covered him all the way to the tips of his toes. Then there was similar fur on his arms up to his elbows. Then, the big bushy tail he had. There was only one animal that had a tail like that. A squirrel!
And… Now that Deven thought of it, he realized he was smaller than a four year old should have been. He was pretty close to the forest floor, maybe only two feet tall. Not as small as an actual squirrel, but much smaller than a normal human child. Which made sense given he was no longer human.
“I think he gets the picture.” The first voice spoke happily.
“Yes, yes, and he makes for a much better picture now.” The second voice replied.
“What… What just happened to me?” Deven asked. He was too stunned to be afraid. His brain was still trying to process this had actually happened.
“Gave you the same boon we offered all Children of the Forest.” The first voice replied. “Should you leave the forest before the next sunrise, the boon will fade and you will return to normal.”
“But if you stay in the forest, the boon will remain.” The second voice added in. “You will become a child of the forest, bound to it, but always protected by it.”
“Surely you wondered why the storm didn’t effect you inside the woods?” The first voice asked. “We wouldn’t want any of our children to catch a cold and get sick. We take very good care of the lost children who come to us.”
“After all, once they join the forest, they’re one of us.” The second one replied. “Perhaps, not as magical, but still, charges of the Summer Court. And we have a duty to protect them.”
“So now, when you’re done realizing this isn’t a dream you have a choice to make.” The first voice asked. “Grab your clothes, and other trappings of civilization and follow the stream till you exit the forest, and go back to your normal life.”
“Or cross the stream, and come deeper into the forest, and meet your new brothers and sisters.” The second voice replied. “An eternal childhood would be a very lonely existence without friends. There are dozens who have chosen to stay. And so you’ll never be short of company.”
“But make up your mind soon.” The first voice spoke playfully. “You have till the next sunrise to decide. Do you follow the stream out of the forest? Or do you head deeper in, and join the other lost children in this bastion from society.”
And with that, both voices ceased. Deven twitched his squirrel ears, listening for any signs of them but was unable to hear them. They had truly disappeared. And now here he was, some kind of squirrel satyr child. If the voices were telling the truth, all he had to do was follow the stream out of the forest and he’d change back to normal.
And then could go back to his job. Back to the endless grind. Working his way to an early grave.
Or… He could cross the stream and head deeper into the forest. He could escape all of it. Sure, it meant also losing access to things like video games and the internet. But he would have plenty of playmates, and even if he could no longer leave the forest, he would be more free to be himself and live how he wanted.
Deven’s body moved before he realized he had even made a decision. He approached the stream, wading through it to the other side, and proceeded to walk deeper and deeper into the forest. The further he got, the warmer and brighter the forest seemed to get. Before long, he came to what looked like a village in the trees. Tons of treehouses, dotting around a large grove in the forest. As Deven approached the grove, other children appeared. Like some, satyrs, but different species from squirrels. There were a variety of forest animals. Foxes, raccoons, mice, lizards, and a number of different species of birds. They each came down from their treehouses to stare at Deven as he arrived.
And then, his new family welcomed him. And as they came out to meet him he realized this was the home where he belonged.