's 2017 Horror Write-off:

Visiting Anders

Submitted by Miranda Johansson

I wake to the light of dawn, and to the gentle noise of tree-branches brushing against the window by my bed. Through the window, past the swaying trees, what little I can see of the sky is clear. It's going to be a beautiful day.

After a light breakfast of fruits and greens, I put my boots on and head outside. I spend the morning pruning away the bits of the forest that have grown up against my cabin during the night. I leave about a foot of space between the dense wall of greenery and the cabin. While I work, the sun climbs high in the sky, and the morning turns into a perfect summer day. I'm alone, and it's demanding work. Sweat trickles down the back of my neck.

When I'm done it's time for lunch. I retreat to the cool interior of the cabin and eat a light meal of foraged greens: chickweed, amaranth, dandelion. My diet tends towards salads, these days.

It's not that I'm afraid of running out of food. Why all my meals are light, I mean. Not at all. The forest is chock-full of forage: potatoes, cucumbers, and gourds; flowers, corn, and beans; fiddleheads and watercress; apples, rowanberries, and mushrooms. Everything grows all the time, regardless of season. Every day is harvest day. I could eat my fill daily without ever making a dent in the forest's food supply.

No, the reason is that the forest is so unpredictable these days. I take care not to eat too many seeds.

After lunch, I sit at my little kitchen table and decide what to do with the rest of the day. I could forage for food, but I'm well provided, so there's really no need. I've been thinking about making jam, but I have no sugar; I've found what I think is sugarcane, great thriving stands of it, but I have no idea how I would go about processing it.

Of course, I'm just dilly-dallying. There's something I need to do, and I'm putting it off.

At last I get up, and fetch my old hiking backpack. I move about the kitchen, packing the backpack with a picnic's worth of food. Food for two. I always bring food for Anders as well as for myself, though he never eats.

Once I'm all packed, I head outside, get my bearings, and set off.


The air is warm, even in the shade of the trees. Save for the sound of my footfalls and the lazy buzzing of insects, everything is still. I never expected the end of the world to be so peaceful.

I've walked this way many times now. I make no attempt to count the days, but I see the seasons pass. I've weathered two winters in the cabin, so by my reckoning I must have lived there for almost two full years at this point. During that time, I've passed this way maybe every four or five days. Doing the math, that's a hundred and fifty times or so, along more or less the exact same route. You'd think I would've started to wear a path in the ground.

I haven't. The undergrowth is as thick and difficult as ever. The X's that I've made in the trees to mark the way are scabbing over with fresh bark. I touch them up with my hatchet as I go.

In the forest, it helps to have a good sense of direction. I've learned how to navigate by the sun a little, but it can sometimes be hard to see the sky in the deeper parts of the forest. And that thing about moss growing only on the north sides of trees was a myth even before, I think, but now it's definitely false; moss is everywhere. Even landmarks can be treacherous.

The forest is alive. I know, I know, obviously it always was, but now more than ever. It's vital, in a way it wasn't before. That gentle whisper of leaves overhead? There's no wind today. Yeah. The forest is alive.

I don't know what happened to make the world like this. Some kind of virus or something that affected the plants, maybe? A sudden mutation, a rapid epidemic spread? On my more spiritual days, I think maybe the plants just got fed up with humanity's abuse and decided to rise up. Literally, in some cases - I've watched trees grow visibly taller in the span of an hour.

I see a few other animals on my trek up to the road. Birds and stranger things flit through the air and perch in the trees. At one point, I hear snapping branches, and through a break in the trees I glimpse something bulky and brown, laboriously dragging itself along. At first I think maybe it's a wounded bear, but its body just keeps coming. Meter after meter, like a huge, furry worm.

Walking in the forest, I've sometimes found remnants of things. Teeth, mostly, and intact pelts, as if whatever animal they belonged to has undergone some kind of molting.

I've never found any carcasses. Animals don't die in the forest, they just... change. Sometimes in strange and unexpected ways. Once, while foraging, I stumbled upon an organic structure between two trees; it looked like a huge spiderweb, but it was hard and bony. It looked like it was made out of fused antlers. The creature clinging to it might've been a deer once, but it had changed. It had too many legs, though I couldn't count how many. More than eight. More than twenty.

The forest changes things. Hence why I'm so anxious to watch my diet. It's only a matter of time before the forest gets to me, I know, but I'm in no hurry for that to happen. I don't want to wake up one morning with an apple tree growing up my throat.


Ahead of me, the sun is bright on the ground. I've reached the road, where the trees part. They haven't yet been able to encroach on the ruined asphalt, though they lean out over it on both sides, greedy for sunlight. It won't be long until they close the gap.

The sun feels good on my face. I head up the road, clogged with the corpses of old cars. Moss and creeping vines carpet the asphalt and climb up the cars. Nature is taking this place back.

There's an old Volvo 240 GL sedan some distance up the road. It used to be blue once. It's not now. Its windows are so overgrown and so thickly dusted with pollen that I can't see inside, and the passenger-side door is so choked with rust and moss that I have to wrench it open. I've often debated whether I should just leave it open, to let the sun and the fresh air in, but if I did, who knows what else might get in?

Anders sits in the driver's seat, exactly where I left him days ago. His hands are on the steering wheel, at two and ten, gripping it so hard that his knuckles are white. Cords of muscle stand out in his arms and neck. He doesn't turn to look at me as the door opens. The one eye I can see is glassy and wide with fear.

I shrug the backpack off my shoulders and slide into the front seat next to him. The inside of the car is shadowy. What little light trickles through the clotted pollen on the windows is wan and yellow.

"Hey, babe," I say.

"Hanna," he says, "what's going on? It - it hurts, Hanna."

His voice is taut with barely controlled panic. It's like that every time, and every now and then his self-control snaps and he starts screaming. I'd like to avoid that, if at all possible, so I speak in a low, soothing voice. "I know, babe. I know. It's okay," I say.

He says nothing, and there is a pause during which the only sound is his rapid, terrified breathing. "I brought food," I say, and pat the backpack in my lap. "Are you hungry?"

He never is. I know why, ever since I tried to remove him from the car and he shrieked in pain. He gets his nutrients in other ways now. The roots go deep, past the undercarriage and the asphalt. But I bring food anyway, every time, for him and for myself. Just in case. Just because.

I can remember the way he used to be so clearly: his laugh, and the way he pretended to take offense whenever I said that his beard made him look like Gimli, son of Glóin. The way we would sing Queen songs way, way off-key while cleaning the apartment, and his tired old joke about how he was Freddie Mercury's evil twin, separated at birth. His owlish, red-eyed expression, as if he couldn't quite believe it himself, the time he told me that he'd never cried in front of a girl before.

That was before. Anders is a shadow of his former self.

"I don't - Hanna, I don't remember what happened. It hurts. Why are the windows dirty? The wipers don't work. I can't drive like this."

"I know, babe. I'll get out and wipe the windshield off before we keep going."

"Will you fix the wipers as well?" Plaintive, like a child.

"Yes, Anders. Soon," I tell him. "Don't worry, babe." I reach out, and he grabs my hand and squeezes hard, as if I'm the only thing keeping him grounded. His hand is cold and clammy, but it's nice to feel his skin against mine. I squeeze back.

Anders turns to look at me, and I try not to flinch.

He looks very ill. His beard is matted and his face is pale. But that's not the bad part. The bad part is the gaping hole in the side of his neck and head.

Around the edges of the hole, Anders'skin shades seamlessly into rough bark. It makes me think of the stories my father told me as a child, about the skogsrå, whose back was a hollow tree. But Anders'wound is not hollow. Flesh bulges over the lip of the hole, not red or raw, but pink and shiny - tender and exposed, but not damaged. I don't know much about human anatomy, but I know enough to know that it's wrong: it looks oversimplified, like a child's drawing of guts. Nonspecific viscera.

The pink flesh throbs visibly in time with Anders'heartbeat. A happy, leafy little branch pokes from his left eye socket. The eye hangs down on his cheek by its optic nerve, dislodged by the growing shoot, cloudy and blind.

"What happened to me, Hanna?"


Nobody knew what caused the plants to change. I don't know if they ever found out. They were still scrambling to figure it out, that day when Anders and I left our apartment and set out driving.

I don't know what we were looking for. We were desperate. There were vague rumors of safe havens further south and we decided to chance it. Sometimes I wonder if things would've been different if we had just stayed in one place and tried to survive there, but most days I don't think so. Not in the long run.

The road was choked with fleeing cars, though I don't think any of us knew where we were fleeing to. People were frightened. It was an accident waiting to happen.

There was an old white van ahead of us, smudged brown with road-dirt. It braked suddenly, and Anders drove right into it. Just a stupid fender-bender. It could've happened to anyone. But it didn't. It happened to us.

A man opened the door of the van and climbed out. He was elderly and unshaven and wore a camouflage jacket. He looked agitated. In his hand he held a shotgun, the kind that's for deer-hunting, with its barrel sawn off. He approached our car.

Anders started rolling the window down. The Volvo was old enough to have hand-cranked windows. The sight of the shotgun in the old man's hand terrified me, and I begged Anders to keep the window up - as if it would protect us from a shotgun blast - but he wouldn't listen. I think he was as frightened as me, but I think he dealt with the fear differently: by being as polite and solicitous as he could.

"I'm really sorry, that was completely my fault. I should've braked faster—"

Unfortunately, the old man with the shotgun didn't want to talk.

At the time, I believed the fender-bender was an accident. Now I wonder if the old man in the van wasn't intentionally trying to make something like that happen. Maybe he had already seen that the situation was hopeless, and he was taking the opportunity to get away with some long-held fantasy of violence.

The report of the shotgun was deafening. I heard screams from other cars. Anders jerked once, then was still. He would've slumped forward if not for his seatbelt; instead he fell back, his head lolling against the headrest and hiding the ruined side of his face. I was already fumbling with the door. I'm ashamed of that now. When Anders needed me most, I was running away. In my defense, I thought he was dead.

I ran for the tree line. I felt with absolute certainty that the old man would shoot me as well, shoot me in the back, that the thunderclap of the gun would be the last thing I heard. He didn't, and it wasn't. Out of sight of the road, I vomited on the roots of a fungus-covered birch tree. It was only later that I noticed I had pissed myself.

I didn't go back. Why would I? I had lost Anders - the last thing in my life worth fighting for - so I thought I'd just find a quiet place to die. I didn't yet know that dying was a thing of the past. That's when I found the abandoned cabin. It was someone's summer cottage, I think. There was a set of deer antlers above the fireplace. I would later throw them out; the next morning, they were gone.

When I went back to the road, many days later, it was deserted. I could hear no sound of motors. Even if the road hadn't been choked with abandoned cars, I don't think you could have driven on it - the asphalt was already too broken and irregular. Anders was still in the driver's seat of the Volvo. Nobody had moved him.

I don't know when he woke up, or if he'd been conscious the entire time. He was frightened and confused, but he was alive. I don't know what I felt - relief that he was alive and shame that I'd left him, mixed with horror at what had happened to him. We cried together that first time, though I think it was more that my sobbing scared him so badly that he started crying too.


"Where are we driving?" Anders asks. "I don't... I can't remember. It hurts so much."

"I know, babe. I know it hurts," I say. "Just hold on. It'll get better soon, okay?"

"But where are we headed? I don't like this. My face... I want to go home."

"We'll go home. Soon. Don't worry, babe."

And so on. Anders thoughts are disordered. The afternoon passes, and I do my best to answer his questions without upsetting him. I hold his hand and offer him what little support I can. The light wanes in the car, until I can't quite make out Anders'ruined face anymore. That's good.

It's getting late, and I don't want to make the walk back to the cabin in the dark. It's time to go. I lift Anders'hand in both of mine and kiss his knuckles, then I lean in and rest my head against his shoulder for a second. I can feel him trembling. His cheek is clammy against my forehead. "I'm just going to fix the windshield wipers, babe," I tell him.

"Don't go," he says, and breaks my heart.

"I have to, babe," I say. "I have to. We can't drive like this, right? I'll just fix them really quick."

He says nothing for a few moments, and then, in a small voice: "Okay. But hurry back. It really hurts."

"I know," I say. "Don't worry. I'll be right back. I love you."

He doesn't respond, and I leave him there in the darkness, clutching the steering wheel. I try to shut the door as gently as I can. Then, shouldering the backpack with the still uneaten food inside, I begin to head back to the cabin.

The sun is low in the west, bathing the tree-tops in warm golden light. While I walk, I think about how I would go about turning sugarcane into sugar.

It's almost completely dark by the time I get to the cabin. The trees I pruned this morning are visibly closer to the cabin's walls. Tomorrow I'll do it all again. For now, I'll see about getting a fire going. In the forest, there is no shortage of firewood.

On occasion, I have met other people in the forest - or rather the things that used to be people. I've spoken to them, but they never answer. I don't believe they're sapient anymore. Sometimes I think it would be better for Anders if that would just happen to him as well. I could... I could do it, I think. With the hatchet. A little more pain, a little more trauma, and he would change. He wouldn't have to be afraid anymore. He would stop hurting.

But then what would happen to me? Even if I drag my feet when I go to see him, he's the reason I get up in the morning. I love him. It tears me apart to see him so hurt and confused, but at least he recognizes me. At least he knows my name.

I don't want to let him go.