Gather around, everyone, for I’d like to tell you a story.

Now, this was a very long time ago, when children stayed children until they were forced to grow up and anything was possible as long as you did it before lunchtime. A little boy lived in a little house on a hill under a great oak tree with his family. And, every night when his chores were done, he would sit under that tree and look up at the stars until it came to be bedtime. It was a very long way to anywhere, and anyone, else from that little house, and the boy often felt like the stars and the great fuzzy belt of the Milky Way were closer than anything, and anyone, else. He used to dream about what, and who, might be looking up at his little star from far-off cosmic hills under far-off cosmic trees.

Of course, there was no way for him to be sure–or so you might think! As it happens, the boy’s house had a very well-stocked library, and he would often take a book to read when the moonlight was at its brightest on hot summer nights. One of the books talked about a lonely castaway on a desert island lost in the seven seas, who had sat under a palm tree on an island hill and wondered the same wonders as the boy. The castaway had written a message and put it into a bottle, which he’d hurled into the vast ocean–not looking for rescue, since he’d come to love his little island, but rather looking for a friend. The bottle had returned bearing a message from a prince in the far-off orient, with the castaway and his new friend exchanging many such bottles in the pages to come.

The boy was enchanted by this idea, and one day he wrote a letter of his own, sealed it up tight in a bottle, and flung it into the sky with a little help from his slingshot.

It was many days later that he found his bottle under the great old oak, warm to the touch and bearing a message back. It was unsigned, but spoke of another child on another hill impossibly far away, sitting under the same sky and wondering the same wonders as the boy. That was the first of many bottles which came and went into the great starry expanse from beneath that old oak on hot summer nights, as the boy and his new friend wrote each other about their shared questions, hopes, and even dreams.

Then, it so happened that the boy’s last bottle went unanswered for a very long time–much longer than usual. When a bottle finally appeared, it looked as if it had been through a fire.

The message inside was brief. It read, simply, “help me.”

The victim was splayed out in the short grass next to the cornfield, just short of a grove of trees. The scene buzzed with activity as half a dozen people swarmed around the body, taking photographs, making notes, occasionally looking away as the view became too graphic.

Dr. Theodore Danna was onsite, moving slowly through the tumult and dispensing observations and advice. The group was raw, no doubt about that, but they went about their work with a wet-behind-the-ears enthusiasm that brought a thin smile to Danna’s face.

Rusty brakes squealed behind him as an official-looking vehicle move up the farm’s long, winding drive. Danna quickly pulled one of his crew aside, wanting to look busy. Whenever the higher-ups could bring themselves to visit (it did take a strong stomach), it was always best to be talking to someone, using plenty of scientific terms, so the interloper would be quite sure Dr. Danna was on the job instead of kicking back to watch corpses decompose with a tall drink at his elbow. After all, somebody who worked with them had to enjoy the gore on some level, right? Nevermind that TNT showed worse on its movie-of-the-night.

“So, Paula,” Danna said to a young woman hovering near the head of the victim. “What’ve you observed so far?”

Paula was always uncomfortable in the field; she’d come in with visions of sexy adventure right out of TV’s CSI, and the mundane yet alien quality of corpses seemed to shake her. “Well, I’ve noted quite a few Sarcophagidae, a few Staphylinidae, and Calliphoridae on the clothing. Flesh flies, rover beetles, and blowflies, if you want layman’s terms.”

“Always better to keep the two together,” Danna said. “It helps you sound smart without losing people. What would you estimate for the post-mortem interval? How long since the little guy bit it?”

Pamela squirmed, and Danna saw an approaching figure in a uniform from the corner of his eye. “I’d give a PDI of sixteen to eighteen hours.”

Danna was about to reply when he heard someone clear their throat behind him. Turning, he saw a thin, pasty-looking man in a Department of Natural Resources uniform a few paces away.

“Dr. Danna?”

“That’s me. And you are…?”

“Shapiro, Nate Shapiro, Tecumseh County DNR. I’m…not interrupting anything, am I?”

“No, no, of course not. Just letting the kids have a go at a murder victim.”

Shapiro glanced at the figure on the ground. “It’s a monkey in a track suit.”

Trish’s train of through was broken as movement in the underbrush gave way to a frightened dash across the path. A doe emerged from the lightly wooded ravine, and glanced around. Upon seeing the threatening form of a biped approaching, the doe gingerly stepped back into the forest’s edge.

“How did you manage to get out here?” Trish whispered. The wooded area was a tiny oasis in an urban sprawl, cut off from the nearest state forest by a dozen ribbons of highway.

She waved at it, which seemed silly in retrospect–how is an animal supposed to interpret a gesture like that?–but made perfect sense at the time. The doe bobbed its head; Trish knew better than to interpret the gesture as a response, but couldn’t help herself.

The creature remained there, peering out of the brush, until abruptly melting into the forest once more, without leaving so much as a sign of its passing.

I kept walking. Somehow, being lost among short grasses bending in the afternoon sun and trees undulating in a light breeze was less stressful than it ought to have been. Though wild, the foliage nevertheless had a faint air of maintenance about it, almost like the median strip on a highway.

After twenty minutes, I saw the girl again, sitting on another rock. Given her disinclination to move before, I was surprised to see that she’d somehow gotten ahead of me.

“How did you get here before me?” I demanded.

Still keeping that absurd, almost meditative pose, the girl opened one eye and once again regarded me. “I have not moved from this spot,” she said.

“Then how did you get ahead of me?” I demanded. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Things often don’t,” she replied, closing the eye. “But I’m not surprised to see you again.”

“You don’t exactly seem to be anything to see me again,” I said. “Care to be a little less cryptic for those of us not into transcendental meditation on random rocks?”

She sighed. “The glen won’t let you leave.”

Without her, the house seemed empty and foreboding. The sun didn’t shine as brightly—the entire world seemed faded, as if it had been bleached.

Marshall looked out the second-story window and sighed. “Where are you?” he said.

The treeline at the edge of the yard undulated in the light summer breeze, answering the question with another.

“What am I supposed to do now?” Marshall asked. “I…I never thought I’d say this, even to myself, but I’m lost. And I don’t know if I can stand to lose you.”

Boughs rocked back and forth gently, as if nodding.