I wrote this story for a Halloween meeting of the Victoria Writers’ Society.
The last of the sunset gleams through the trees, black bars against the thick, yellow light. On the beach it would be barely dusk, but here in the woods, night gathers under the trees.
Carol quickens her steps, reminding herself to be careful of roots and rocks that could trip her up. It’s only going to get darker, and she doesn’t want to be late. “If you don’t make it in an hour, I’ll come for you,” Tom said before leaving her alone and sprinting up the trail. But she’s determined that he won’t have to.
She glances back one more time at the fading light, dull gold now. How quickly it’s changed! Soon the colours will fade to ashes of themselves, then to grey, then black. The faster she makes it to the campsite, the better. Tom will be there; he’ll have a lantern going, and a fire, and supper cooking.
Carol takes a deep breath and steadies her pace. “Keep focused on your goal.” Tom’s advice again. “Mental discipline is the key. You don’t think about side issues, you don’t play the ‘what-if’ game, you just focus on your goal and do what you need to do.”
Her goal is the campsite (and Tom), and to achieve it all she needs to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s less than three kilometers – 2.6, in fact. She must have covered half a kilometer already, so that leaves two and a bit. Half an hour should get her there. Thirty minutes, 1,800 seconds, 1,800 heartbeats. No, probably more like 3,000 heartbeats, considering that the trail is mostly uphill – slopes and switchbacks alternating with flatter sections. That’s what she remembers from the way down, but it was full daylight then, the sun filling the forest with bright greens and friendly browns and shards of brilliant sky behind the swaying tree-tops. The two of them swung quickly along the trail, a picnic lunch in Tom’s pack and the books and blanket in Carol’s.
Now it’s a different world. Absence of colour gives shapes and sounds a greater significance. The rocks sticking up from the trail’s surface are lumpier, the roots more numerous; the packed earth, overlaid with cedar bark shreds and fir needles, is softer. All the stumps look like bears now, not just the ones scorched in forest fires.
And there are sounds. Trying to identify them (creaking tree, falling twig, faint swoosh of ocean, stealthy steps?) won’t help her achieve her goal. “Sharpen your focus, lady,” she mutters. “Tom and the campsite, and getting stronger – that’s what this is about.”
On their second date, she’d told Tom about her fear of the dark, especially outside, in the woods. She’d had nightmares about being pursued through endless trees by… something. (That was the worst of it – not just being chased, but not knowing by what).
She didn’t expect him to remember, much less help her with a problem she’d lived with so long that it was part of her, like her springtime pollen allergies and occasional migraines. But Tom was a can-do kind of guy. After a decade in the Forces, he’d gone into business as a personal coach, offering wilderness boot camp experiences to executives and community leaders.
“Fear is a huge handicap,” he told Carol. “It can be totally crippling. The best thing you can do for yourself is master your fears. You face it, confront it, attack and conquer.”
That was two months ago. Now they’re camping in the woods, working on exercises every night to raise Carol’s comfort level with outdoor darkness. The first night they walked around the campground – empty on this post-equinox weekend – without flashlights. Then Carol did the walk alone, with a flashlight in her pocket to be used only as a last resort. Tom was very clear on that. “It’s a psychological prop, like a crutch you don’t really need.” She’d made it, but only just, the old panic dogging her steps along the gravel road.
This is the last test before she graduates into a new, fearless self. All she has to do is get herself back to the campground. Tom will have a surprise waiting – cocoa with Bailey’s, or a bottle of wine to go with the steaks. And afterward, in the tent… “You’re a strong woman, aren’t you?” he’d murmured, the first time they had sex. “Strong women do something to me, you know?”
Carol smiles, remembering, anticipating. She must be halfway now, and the light isn’t quite gone. She can still make out the pattern of bark on the nearest tree trunks, the patches of lichen on the rocks. But the glimpses of sky above the trees are pale grey and fading fast.
She stops. There’s a new sound. Not the ever-present whisper of wind in the treetops, not the receding sigh of ocean. This is a distinct sound – a snap, a snick – repeated three times. Not quite metallic, but almost, like something being released.
It was deliberate. Something wanted you to hear it.
She stands still, nerves buzzing, willing herself invisible. The trees stand like rubberneckers at an accident, avidly waiting. The woods have become a scrim behind which something is lurking, huge and imminent.
Instinctively, Carol turns toward the last pale patch of sky. It’s a little larger than the rest and remains distinct, framed by two black tree trunks. Between their verticals is a vague shape – hunched shoulders, a humped head?
It wasn’t there before.
Tom’s voice in her mind is her only hope. “Stay focused and keep moving. Make your own comfort zone right where you are. You won’t believe the things you can do when you have to.”
He should know, after two tours in Bosnia and one in Afghanistan. He must have done things she can’t even imagine.
But I can imagine other things, yes I can. What was that noise, what’s that shape?
“No!” she mutters. “Focus – keep moving!” If Tom has to come and find her she’ll fail the test. She starts walking again, slowly at first, then speeding up, like an engine without a governor. Her boots thump on rocks and roots. “Come on, Carol, let’s go!”
That noise she heard – it was meant for her. She was meant to hear it. If she looked, she would see shapes undulating in the darkness under the waiting trees. She can feel something thrumming, far behind her, but getting closer. Something.
It wants her to scream. The sound of her scream would break an invisible barrier, thin as the film of molecules that holds a raindrop together, and let loose the terror. If she looks back again, will she see the humped shape growing larger, growing tentacles, moving closer? She’ll scream then, for sure.
“No you won’t! Don’t look, just walk. It wants you to look, it wants you to scream. Just keep going!”
The trees can’t help her. They stand like mourners at a graveside, making futile gestures of empty comfort over her hurrying form. She’s all alone, it’s up to her to save herself.
Faster, Carol, faster! Don’t think, just walk.
Now she can hear it singing in her head, whispering seductively through the veil of perception, its voice like the hum of a night-dwelling insect: I see you, I know you, I know your fear, I love your fear, I need your fear, scream my dear, it will set you free, come to me, it will be lovelee…
She’s running now, through the silent screams that hover in the air, waiting for her to animate them – screams waiting to be screamed, hanging from the trees, slung from branch to branch like cobwebs.
Run! Now it’s time to run. See – there’s a light! It’s the campsite, it’s Tom! Run!
Carol clamps her mouth shut and runs, the scream rising in her throat and nearly choking her. But now the trail widens into the campground road, the sky opens above her, grey and benign. She’s nearly there, she’s done it, done it, done it. Relief never felt this good.
The campsite is empty. The Coleman lamp blazes on the solid wooden table. The tent and truck stand where they left them. But there’s no fire, no meal cooking, no Tom.
“Tom! I’m back, I made it!” Carol looks around, dizzy with relief, catching her breath. Where is he?
A noise. A faint crunch of boots on gravel. Behind her. She whirls around.
He lunges, face contorted, eyes blazing.