In the Woods

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

FLASH Fiction Challenge 100 – Day 30

Where am I? I take a step and nearly stumble in the dark. The ground is uneven here. I’m outside; that much is obvious. I hear things scurrying about unseen. Bugs, darkness, and animal sounds, I hate all of this!

How did I even get here? I’m not an outdoorsy person.

I can’t remember!

The moonlight flicks on as the cloud cover sails onward. I guess I’ve not been here long. I see a trail; I step over to it quickly before the moon disappears again. Once I step onto the path, I study my surroundings carefully.

To the left, the trail continues straight for possibly thirty yards and then opens into a meadow.

To my right, the trail is straight for about ten yards and then turns sharp right.

The woods appear much darker to the right, so I follow the trail to the left, toward the meadow. I study the terrain ahead just in case I lose the moonlight again. When I reach the pasture, I will have some time to figure this out – maybe.

I walk as fast as the light will allow me.

But before I’m halfway to the meadow, a cloud slides in front of the moon; it is dark again.

I slow my pace, but I don’t stop. Every few steps, I sweep my right leg from side to side, ensuring that I’m still on the trail. My hands float out in front of my face to push aside any branches I might encounter on the path and to prevent getting slapped by the lower hanging limbs.

As I walk, I am reviewing memories from earlier. I remember some alcohol. A birthday party? Yes, I think. But I never drink excessively, so I doubt I was drunk. I remember a party, cake, and some heated discussion, but nothing after that.

After five minutes of slow walking, the moon comes out again. I speed up a bit, and then I’m standing in the small open meadow. The trail ends abruptly five yards into the clearing. It’s not huge, basically just a rectangular opening in the woods. Maybe sixty yards deep by 15-20 yards wide. I’m assuming the trail picks up on the far, narrow end of the rectangle.

The woods seem even denser now that I’ve removed myself from them. But I also am more concerned about a misstep here than I was in the woods. That makes little sense. Surely, there were more dangers within the woods than the grassy meadow. Then I think about snakes, and I desperately want to find the path again. I even consider reversing course and following the trail the other way through the woods.

I decide to stay with my original choice. I study the far dimly lit edge of woods, trying to discern if there’s an obvious opening where the path re-enters the woods.

Something is wrong here. Somewhere in my brain, an alarm sounds. I take several tentative steps through the knee-high grasses.

I freeze in place. The trail opened into the meadow and then vanished? Something is wrong.

The path was a very well-tamped thing while it meandered through the woods. That meant people – a lot of people – had walked on it. Hikers, hunters, teenagers – looking for a place to smoke some weed or have sex. Many people had walked that trail. Then they entered this meadow and did what? I’m trying to see the hikers, a group or even just one, stepping into this meadow just as I just had. What did they do next? Why would the trail cut off there a few yards outside the forest? It didn’t gradually disappear either; it just stopped! Most gradually taper into nothing, a gradient where ‘path-ness’ gently transforms back into nature. Here the paved earth dramatically ended in a wall of knee-high grass!

Could it be the extra rainfall the meadow received that caused the trail to so jarringly end? But this is Washington; it rains incessantly here! The difference in the amount of rain between the inside and outside the woods can’t be why.

I’m missing something big here, and I regret turning left on the trail.

I’m about halfway through the meadow when I turn to consider where I entered. Then the moon disappears again, and it is dark. I freeze in place. The peril feels bigger here. In the woods, the packed trail was like a lifeline someone had thrown me. Here, in the open meadow, I don’t have any such comfort. I feel exposed and afraid.

‘ … my blood looks black in the moonlight … ‘

I’d completed a 180-degree turn before the moon went dark again. So my best bet is to stand here and wait for the shy moon to return. The opening from the woods was narrow. If I try to find it in the dark, it would be easy to miss.

An icy breeze reminds me I have no jacket. It’s September in Washington; this is a foolish way to dress under the circumstances. I hug myself, rub my arms, trying to warm myself as I wait for the moonlight to return.

I shiver just as the first drops of rain hit my bare arms.

I will my eyes to be better than they are. To pierce the darkness so that I may at least make my way back into the woods, where I would have at least a little protection from the elements.

This situation is wrong. I feel anxiety rising; I push it back down. Panic is how a dangerous situation becomes a deadly one.

I hear something that sounds like breathing. I almost cry out for help, but there is something off in the noise of that breathing. My panic is threatening to break through again. I shove the fear down again.

The clouds float by, and the moon returns. That’s when I see them.

And now I understand why the trail mysteriously stops a few yards from the woods.

My legs turn to water.

I see at least a dozen discrete ground flumes slowly gassing thick steam into the grassland. When each flume reaches a certain height, the gassing stops as the released gas slowly forms into a loosely bipedal shape.

Ghosts birthed from mother earth.

After a few seconds, each ghost takes watery, wavy steps towards the opening in the woods. As they approach the woods, they grow more substantial; they take on form, develop mass.

The trail doesn’t end just inside the meadow; that is where it begins.

And it wasn’t hunters and hikers and horny teenagers that wore the paved path through the woods; it was ghosts. But these ghosts were solid!

I am thinking about how the Donner party trail and what happened to them. This hidden meadow would’ve made a fine burial site for the dead. Or a place to bury your leftovers.

A blisteringly cold wind blows through me; in my mind, I see a settler named Hezekiah killing and eating his dead brother’s wife, Esther.

My vision clears, and I see it wasn’t a wind that blew through me, but a newborn ghost. One that hadn’t walked far enough to gain any mass yet.

I yelp. In front of me, the ghost stops walking, turns, and seems to see me. Its hands go up.

Please no!

It screams a soft but high pitch squeal that makes my hair stand up.

Beyond the ghost with its hands still stupidly raised, I see the other ghosts turn to investigate. They head towards me. The older, more solid spirits move a lot faster than the fresh ones.

My panic, having been rejected multiple times already, leaps fully formed into the world. I turn as quickly as I can – though I feel like I’m running underwater. I sprint for the far edge. On my third step, my right foot finds a hole, then my face and neck find the ground.

I climb drunkenly back to my feet and begin running, but there’s something deeply wrong with my traitorous right ankle, and my running form is the stuff of physical comedians. With each step, my pain grows exponentially. But I make it to the woods before the ghosts catch me. I crash through the branches. I need a trail or a place to hide, but the woods are denser on this side. I’m trying to rush through these trees, but the branches poke, scrape, and cut me as I insistently hurl myself through their domain.

I hear the ghosts crash into the woods behind me. I try to flee, but they are more sure-footed. Three of them find me just as the woods seem ready to show me mercy. The first one cuts my left Achilles tendon clean through, and I fall, hobbled, between two close trees. The other two grab me by the ankles and drag me back into the meadow for a midnight snack. The first ghost holds his knife up to the sky. My blood on it looks black in the moonlight. He raises the blade to his mouth and licks the blood from the cold steel.


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