This was an entry to a free short-story competion based on weekly prompts by Reedsy.com The prompt I chose was “characters are warned not to go into a forest”
The forest wasn’t there last night.
Gramma said it was a miracle, Papi said it was the Devil’s work. The younger Winks didn’t know what to make of it. The farm had sat squarely in the centre of nowhere, arable land that reached to the horizon. A horizon the forest now obscured. They had set out on their bikes as they did every weekend they went to visit their Grandparents, Viola had her metal detector and her Papi’s trowel in her backpack, and Lucian had his camera. They had explored as much of the great open fields as much as anyone could have, and today they still set out for adventure. Gramma and Papi didn’t have cable TV and the WiFi was always shakey, it was either adventure or help out with chores, which is about as difficult a choice as sitting still or punching yourself in the face repeatedly. Before they set out with their bikes, Papi had one last misgiving to bestow.
“You kids be safe, and don’t you go near that damned forest, you hear? I gotta call someone about this..” He said grimly, before trailing off and heading back inside. Gramma was in the kitchen, cleaning the utensils from lunch. Of course they were going to investigate it.
The forest sat fifty or so feet away from the house, a verdant explosion from the window. Papi had noticed as soon as the dawn had shifted, to a hail of curses and hail-marys. They eagerly rode their bikes to the mass of vegetation, but they had not been prepared for the size. They approached the outer perimeter, and the woodland was dense, it was dark in between the tree trunks, and the foliage hovered above them. It was a scorching hot June day, and the shade provided some much appreciated shelter from an unmerciful sun. They had worked up a sweat, riding with such vigor, but only Lucian had brought water. He drank it gratefully, before Viola motioned with her hand for a sip, like a toddler gestating towards food. He pulled his usual face, but tossed it to her, and she drank heavily. Ordinarily, he would find himself irate at her stealing his hydration, but he was too excited. He saw the rays filter through the emerald leaves, and how they painted themselves on the dark trunks, a mosaic of light and Earth. They were far from the roads, no trucks or tractors passed. The only sound was the chorus of crickets and buzzing flies amongst them.
The forest itself, was dead and still.
A gentle breeze flew by, and the Winks nuzzled against it, like a calming hand. Lucian looked once more at the leaves dancing above them, carried by the tune. He wiped the sweat off of his head, but he no longer felt warm. In fact, he had become very cold. He could have sworn that breeze had come from within the forest. He turned to his sister.
“Alright. Ready?” He said breathlessly. She nodded back, and tossed the water bottle back. He stuffed it into his backpack, and they walked gingerly into the dark glade.
The shade surrounded them, and quickly they had to adjust their eyes. The forest was completely still. No breeze now, no birds or insects. Not a sound. The ground beneath them was occupied only by dry grass, no twigs or leaves. Lucian couldn’t even see an ant below. Everything was so still. He reached for his camera, and tried to look at the woods in a photographers view, keeping an eye out for how the light reached the vegetation. Viola was in front of him now, he could see she too was scanning the location, but not for pictures, but for treasure. He stopped at a tree to his side, closed one eye to get the frame just right. Each tree seemed to be almost exactly the same width, from what he could tell. No stray branches, lumps or breakages, every tree around him stood in complete symmetry with one another. He brought his face in closer to examine the patterns in the bark, camera now switched on. The bark was darker than most trees he had seen. Could have been the shade, he thought, but they were almost black, statuesque obelisks with frilly green hats. He held the viewfinder to his eye, focused the lens, and took a photo. The flash was blinding in the dim light, and spots appeared in his eyes. Even Viola turned her head to him, the sudden blast of light surprising her for a moment. Lucian blinked a few times and went to look at the picture. Weird, it came out blurry. Must be the low light. He turned flash off, adjusted his aperture and tried again. The camera clicked, once, twice. He checked the next photo. Blurry again. Now that was odd. The almost-black bark seemed obscured, as if a haze was in front of it, or if something had moved within movements. He pulled a puzzled face and went to touch the bark, his finger hovered above it, but he didn’t press down, something within him stopped himself. Then Viola called his name. Suddenly she was gone behind the trees. She called again. He felt his heart racing, and staggered through the trees. Then something occurred to him. Not only where there no leaves, branches or bugs on the ground; there weren’t any roots either. The trees just jutted out of the earth, like spines on a porcupine. He called for Viola. Again, and then again, panic seeping into his voice. She was gone. All he could see where trees, and the further he moved into the forest, the closer they grew, then larger. He called again. It was getting darker into the woods, and the camera trembled in his hands. He called her name one last time. Then she was there.
She jumped out at him from behind a tree, her hands poised like a predator, her eyes full of mischief, and a smile on her face, she shouted loud and incoherently, and Lucien screamed bloody murder. Viola burst into hysterical laughter at his high-pitched reaction, and watched him try to get his breath back, and steady himself with one hand on a tree. She laughed so hard her stomach hurt, and he just stood there, trying desperately to get his breath back.
“You..You..” He managed between breaths.
“Oh man, I got you!” She said between laughs. She wiped a tear from her eye, the mental image of his open screaming mouth still in the forefront of her mind. “Ah..you okay?” She said with a chuckle, watching him still steady himself on the tree.
“That’s not funny…I was so worried, Vi..” He said, as seriously as he could. She only giggled, holding her stomach, still not over the bout of hysterics. “C’mon..I think we should get out of here..this place is weird.” That made her laughing stop.
“What? Why? It’s just a forest. I haven’t even got my detector out yet, I bet there’s loads of cool stuff here.”
“No. This place…it’s weird. I think Papi might be right, I think we should go back.”
“Ahhh..but it’s so boring at Papi’s. Where else are we going to find treasure?” She said with righteous indignation.
“I’m sure we’ll find somewhere..c’mon.” He began to get his breath back, but his hand still stayed on the trunk. It’s surface was cool and slick.
“Alright..fine. Let’s go.” She finally agreed, and began to make her way past him. Lucian turned to follow her, shifting his camera to his shoulder by the strap. He pulled his hand back, but it would not move. He made a curious noise, and turned, pulled his hand again, and felt resistance. It was stuck. Stuck to the trunk.
“What the-?” He said, grabbing his arm with the other hand and pulling, and finally the hand moved, but it pulled the bark with it, which stuck to his palm like onyx glue. “Vi? Vi! Help, I think I’m stuck!” He said, fear clear in his voice. She turned with a mixture of confusion and irritation plain on her face, which all melted away and turned to concern and panic when she saw the black pus protruding form the trunk. It looked like melted rubber, and Lucian’s weight gave way and he was pulled back, and suddenly his whole hand was within the tree, absorbed.
“Violet!” He screamed.
Without a word she jumped to her brother and pulled with all her might, and saw Lucian had put his other hand on the trunk out of instinct, to steady himself, now that hand was being pulled in too. He screamed. She pulled her arms around his waist and tried to pull, but now his forearms were being pulled in. “I’ve got you! I’ve got you!” She screamed, but he could not hear her. Slowly, he was brought in past his elbows, and now his shoulder, and now one side of his face and his leg were stuck, slowly being feed to the tree. She was careful not to touch the tree with any part of her now, and had to relinquish her hands from him. His camera was still on his shoulder, and she grabbed it by the strap and pulled until it snapped, and the camera fell to the ground, and now Lucian was gone. The last thing she saw was one of his eyes, embedded into the tree, staring at her in horror, then it was gone, only the jet black bark remained, and she was alone.
The tree began to shimmer and shake, and so did all the trees around her. They shivered as if in pleasure, and Viola felt the ground tremble and gurgle beneath her feet. Her body shook with adrenaline, and she had to run. She picked up the camera, and ran. She didn’t know which direction she was going, but she knew the forest had to end somewhere. She tried to find the light but it was dark everywhere, and it grew darker, and darker. She sprinted, careful not to touch the trees, but they grew denser, and larger the further she went. She stopped for a breath, and felt a cold chill stroke her shoulders, and it froze her. She stood there in the all-encompassing darkness for an age, until her fingers trembled and dropped the camera. The camera. She fumbled around and found it, switching it on. It was down to two bars of battery, but the screen was illuminating. She desperately tried to find settings, she knew it had a night-vision setting, she knew it. Above her the breeze shook the leaves angrily. Finally she found it. The world opened to a ghostly dark grey hue, but she could see. She walked slowly, carefully, dodging all trunks carefully, her breath held in her throat. Then she fell.
She fell hard, the wind being driven out of her, the camera dancing away from her grasp. She felt around near where she fell clumsily, and felt a hard surface on the ground, almost snake like. It was a root. She began to crawl towards the dim light of the camera, everything now was pure darkness, and that was her beacon. She grabbed it, shivering. She was suddenly so cold. She tried to pull herself up, and her hand grabbed onto the ground to steady herself, but with horror, she realised she had grabbed one of the snake like roots. She squealed with pure terror, but to her surprise, her hand lifted from it. Curiously, she grabbed it again. It was just bark, a normal tree root. Slowly, she brought the camera light up, and to the tree the roots belonged to. It was the largest tree she had ever seen, enormously wide, and apparently taller than all of the others thus far. It was like it was alive. It moved, squirmed in the grey light, like a monstrous worm. She stared at it, in awe and terror, at his horrific majesty. The world was silent, except for her ragged breathing. Except that it wasn’t, not entirely.
She heard a tell-tale thump, like a beating drum, or a racing pulse, but there was no orchestra or conductor, or any other living creature in sight. Slowly she lowered her head to the ground, and the drumming noise grew louder. She carefully placed her head on the ground, and she could feel it heave beneath her, like an animals breath, and the drumming sound like a metronome below her. Then she heard a scream. Lucien. Frantically, frenetically, she pulled the backpack off of her shoulders, and rummaged through all the belongings she haphazardly stuffed into it, using only touch to find what she wanted. Then, finally, her hands grasped the cold handle of the trowel. She ripped it out, and tossed aside the bag, the camera next to it lit her peripheries, but other than that, she was in solid darkness. She grasped the trowel like a knife, and plunged it into the earth, and the earth responded with a howl, with a shriek. An otherworldly noise that squealed in the darkness. Again, and again, she stabbed at the black soil, and again and again, the earth screamed. She dug until her arms began to burn, and her lungs ached, but she dug desperately. Then the earth fell.
Soil crumbled below her, and she tumbled down the rabbit-hole, free-falling through air, until she hit the surface hard. She could taste bitter blood in her mouth. She slowly rose herself to stand, and found she could see. The cavern she had fallen in to was glazed with a crimson hue, and the ceiling above shifted and pulsed, but it was not solid earth, instead it looked like membrane, like that of a bats wing. The pulsing drum was deafening here, rhythmic, and around her were coils of tentacle-like roots, all feeding to the surface above. In the centre lay a great heart, wrapped in these roots, the source of the pulsing. Slowly she walked towards it. The ground below was soft, squishy. There was a curious, but pungent stench of earth and decay. She walked slowly to the fleshy lump, that was taller than a grown man, and wider than a car. It fed directly up to where the great central tree was. Something caught her eye to the left.
In the roots to her side lay something. She realised with terror, it was a skeleton. Old and brown, wrapped in metal, like some kind of knight’s armour, it hung limp in the trees roots. Then she realised there were skeletons everywhere, Some in queer, unusual clothes, some of them child sized. She still had the trowel in her hand, and felt her grip tighten. Then she saw movement, and a mass of the roots moved and swirled like serpents, and she saw the hand of her brother sticking out from below. Screaming, she gripped the roots and stabbed at them, but they were too strong. Panting, she turned her attention to the pulsing red mass ahead.
The heart-like lump in front of her seemed to glow, and thump with deafening purpose. She held the trowel once more like a dagger, unsure if any of this could ever work, but what choice did she have? Instinct had taken over, and she plunged the metal into the heart with a roar of defiance, and the world around her screamed. The trowel buried itself into the fleshy-thing, and black liquid began to stream to the floor. The cavern seemed to shake. Again, and again she drove the utensil into it, until finally it burst, with a flood of viscous, sticky black liquid that covered her from head to toe. The final scream was the loudest, and the entire area seemed to shift and shake, like an earthquake, threatening to collapse the very world around them, until finally, the heart stopped thumping, and the roots around Lucien stopped moving, and everything was still.
Wiping the black sap-like material away from her eyes, she stumbled to where her brother was caged, and used the trowel to cut away at the roots, which faded to dust at contact. He fell into her arms, coughing and panting, covered in scratches and cuts.
“Vi?” He rasped, almost deliriously. “Are we..alive?” Viola could feel heat at her cheeks and her eyes began to blur. The cavern was growing rapidly darker. She hooked her brother’s arm around her neck and stood, but by then the world was darkness again.
Then, there was light. Only a little a first, then gradually, more and more, from above. The trees were dissapearing, and the dazzling sunlight poured through the hole were Viola fell. Though they were weary, the sunlight gave them new purpose, and they used the roots that still twisted around the now limp and grey heart that tied to the great tree above. They climbed to the surface, and stood at the base at the colossal tree, now standing completely alone. The bark was brown, there were flies in the air, and the leaves were moving independently. They slowly limped back to their bikes, now about forty feet away in open field. Viola turned one last time to look at the great tree, and could have sworn the lumpy, twisted bark almost looked like a weeping face in agony.
When they returned to Grammar, covered in bruises, cuts, dirt and viscous black liquid, Papi had only one thing to say.
“Didn’t I tell you kids? That forest was the Devils work!”