The Woods (Reflection Arc III) - Short Story

Short Story May 3, 2021
“I’m really okay,” I insisted, and he believed me, for a time.

It was a cool, spring evening. Campfire smoke twirled like the ghosts of the burning wood towards the starry sky as my family and I stood around the warm light. The crisp smell of it filled my lungs and I sighed contentedly. Noticing the embers dying lower than I would’ve liked, I went to grab some sticks and another log or two.
My two boys were here tonight, along with their partners, and we were celebrating the news that my youngest, Aaron, and his wife were expecting a baby.
I groaned as I hefted up one of the sturdier pieces of wood I had been drying and saving for just such an occasion. Pieces of the soft wood gave way in my hands, small splinters lodging themselves in my hands.
Should’ve worn my gloves, I thought.
“Need a little help over there, old man?” Mark, my eldest son, hollered over. Everyone around the fire chuckled.
Why was the old guy always the butt of the jokes?
“Only if you help me pull the stick out of my ass to add to this fire!” I yelled back, deciding to play along.
That got them laughing even more. I smiled in spite of myself. It was a good night. I hadn’t had any more episodes since the last one (redundant, yes, but true) and the strange world had nearly faded away into my memory.
I finished the long trek back to the dying fire, making the heroic effort of sacrificing another log of wood as I tossed it in. Kneeling down, Aaron finally took his hand away from his wife’s stomach and grabbed the sticks I had gathered. He arranged them in a perfect teepee design just like I had taught him back in Cub Scouts. Then, he blew on the ruby embers and the fire roared back to life. Nothing like a son making a strong fire to make a father proud.
I put an arm around my husband, and snagged a beer from the twelve pack sitting just outside the fire’s heat. “The doctor said no alcohol,” he said, trying to ease the drink from my hands.
“We’re celebrating tonight! One beer isn’t going to kill me,” I said and moved out of his reach. “Our son is going to be a father!”
I tipped the head of my bottle towards Aaron and Mark and they clinked their bottles against it in turn.
“To my family, may they eat well, drink deeply, and continue to grow,” I said heartily, taking a deep swig.
The rest of the family followed suit, with the exception of Aaron’s wife.
My alcoholism had always left a sour taste in his mouth. Ever since my rehab, he had never looked at it the same, never taken even the smallest sip. Those sickeningly sweet red wines and sangrias had always been his favorite. I hated that my own issues took something enjoyable away from him. It wasn’t the first time that had happened, and it wouldn’t be the last.
A cracking twig behind me tore my attention away from the gathering. It was probably just a squirrel or deer moving around in the woods but my gut instincts urged me to make sure.
A dimly lit forest filled my vision. It would’ve made sense except for the fact that when I had last looked into the woods, no light had shone from inside in the dark night. Now, an eerie, white light lit the trees, unnatural and cold. Looking closer, I noticed the trees were actually out of the place. I couldn’t recognize exact placement, of course, but where closely grown trees had stood moments before, there was now a wide, circular clearing, while the remaining trees were arrayed in perfect spaces around it. The clearing beckoned to me, an inviting oasis in the darkness, a place of solitude where I could drink my one beer in peace without constant nagging.
Distantly, I heard a voice ask, “Dad?”
I ignored it, moving deeper into the woods.
As I drew closer, the perfectly spaced trees became more focused and I could observe more details. Deep grooves like notched, wooden veins ran along the trunks in places but not on the thick branches. Strangely, the branches didn’t thin like normal trees. They were wide and round, narrowing to a heavy point like ghastly spikes.
The light was brighter here but still dim. I couldn’t see its point of origin anywhere. It seemed to come from every angle at once and none at the same time.
Despite the light, there was no intense color here. In fact, the world seemed almost black and white. I shivered in the dull shades, suddenly becoming aware of how god damn cold it had gotten. It felt like the temperature had dropped at least twenty or thirty degrees.
*How long have I been gone?*
I didn’t know why I had come here. My family was probably waiting for me back at the campfire, just outside the treeline. I glanced back to where I had left them, yet nothing but darkness greeted me. My family was gone, along with the campfire and our modest ranch style home with its half acre yard.
What was happening?
Then, I realized. Maybe, I was in another vision, a peek into the other world. No, this one is different. Almost a polar opposite actually. No color, no swaying tendrils, no haze.

I'm definitely not in my backyard anymore.
Just as I began to turn back to the clearing, something scraped against my shoulder. I spun around but nothing was there. With my skin crawling, I searched the dark, cramped trees for movement. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Nothing moved, not even a breeze stirred the branches.
From behind me, something hard and sharp scratched me again. I put my hand to my back but it came away clean. It hadn’t been hard enough to draw blood luckily, but it still hurt like hell.
A growl rose in my throat and I cursed. Pain had that effect on me. I was usually mild mannered, but there was something about getting hurt that made my blood boil over in that fiery hot rage.
Another gash burned across my back.
“OKAY!” I screamed. “Show yourself!”
This time, when the scraping came, it wasn’t across my back. It was in the trees. Not just one tree. All of them. They creaked and rasped against each other, a wooden chorus of demons in the dark.
“Dead… dying… he’s gone… he seeks you… the one you lost...” they whispered.
I felt my eyes bulge, though in fear or in anger, I wasn't sure anymore. Adrenaline rushed through my body like a freight train of energy, urging me, pushing me into action.
I screamed as I launched myself as the nearest tree…
And was tackled to the ground by a mass that felt three times my weight.
“Dad. Dad!” Pairs of hands grasped my flannel shirt, shaking me.
“Wha… what?” I said, my voice groggy.
“Thank God,” another voice said.
“Are you alright?” It was my son, Mark. “Sorry about that. You just wandered off into the woods without a word. We came running when you started screaming…” He trailed off, “...things.”
I cracked my eyes opened and winced at the bright flashlight beaming into my face. My whole body ached like it had been crushed underneath an eighteen-wheeler repeatedly and the lashes across my back burned as if branded.
“We had to tackle you when you wouldn’t listen to us. Your eyes were somewhere else entirely,” Aaron finished for his brother.
As he spoke, another flashlight moved over me.

“Was it another one?” she asked, terse but concerned.
“Another what? Jesus, what’s going on here?” Mark yelped, stepping back, confused.
“Your father has been having… hallucinations,” she said.
“They’re not—” I started.
“—hallucinations?” Mark said over me. “Couldn’t you have said something sooner? We’re family. We deserve to know these things.” He started pacing.
“Something could be seriously wrong,” Aaron continued. “I want my Dad to meet my little girl.” A mournful expression soured his face.
“Hey, perfectly healthy Dad, standing right here,” I said, pointing two thumbs at my chest. I was tired of them talking about me like I wasn’t sitting right there. I was fine.
The three of them turned worried eyes and concerned expressions at me.
“Okay, okay.” I held up my hands in defeat. “I’ll schedule an appointment with Dr. Anders in the morning. Everything will be fine, you’ll see,” I said, faked confidence laced in my voice. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure that I even believed myself anymore.

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Pranav Sharma

I’m a year 12 student at St Marks Catholic College. I specialise in science and mathematics, as well as full-stack software/hardware development. I am currently employed as a Network Administrator.

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