Author’s note: Another short story, little dark, perhaps even a little lovecraftian. I’ve read Stephen King’s “On writing”. Excellent book, if somewhat harsh, guide on writing. As always do comment with any constructive criticism. I’m just starting out, so it would be nice.
The wind snapped the upper branches against each other like scrabbling fingernails, while I couldn’t see them clearly in the pitch black around me, the sound, for me at least, is a comforting one. Many people find the trail creepy at night, but that’s usually due to ignorance and fear. They imagine all the things that could be there scuttling behind the trees and bushes along the route. For me, it was relaxing to be there, alone, and with a direct purpose. No choices to be made, no stressful mistakes, just one foot in front of the other, follow the path and you make it home.
The path had, in a previous life, been a train line running alongside the river but that train had stopped running some 60 years ago. At some point, someone smart at the local council made the decision to tear up the rotting sleepers, level-off the gravel and make the trail people friendly. Having a 31-mile bike trail with great views was a massive success, during the day people cycled, dogs ran and children laughed. It was always bustling with locals.
What most of the locals don’t know, which took me hours of perseverance in local libraries and online, is that the trail predates the train line, by a long, long way. There are references all the way back to the Domesday Book in 1066, which leaves an oblique reference to public land-way that bypasses lands right to the coast through the Land of Bishop Geoffrey of Coutances and on and on.
Also, If you know where to dig, literally not figuratively, and you’re looking for anything out of place even older shit that turns up. One sweaty evening of me digging into the riverbank found clumps upon clumps of Bluestone all demarking the edge of the tree line. What’s Bluestone I hear you ask? … Well maybe you didn’t, but I don’t care, Bluestone, is the fancy term used to refer to the smaller stones which are commonly seen at Stonehenge, all of which came from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales.
This path, this land-way, is old, really old, perhaps older than I can fathom and just walking down it is to walk on the back of a long untold history.
While it might be packed during the day in modern times at night it was a desolate thing, empty from end to end as it carved a nearly direct line for 15 miles leading me from closing call at the nearest town bars to my village nestled near the ocean. 9 times out of 10, I’d just stay in town with friends or wait for the morning bus. 15 miles isn’t a casual stroll even on a clear day and when it starts at 1am well… It’s never a great idea.
In any case, I’d decided during a drunk epiphany that I’d rather walk home than sleep on a floor. No matter how good looking the company or how comfy the floor might be. That decision was a few hours before and my feet had finally found their moderately less drunken rhythm. It was around this part of the walk home when the forest emerged and crowded in on both sides of the path, the hiss of leaves and chattering of branches filled the night. As the buzz of alcohol subsided that floor back in town and dubious company seemed like more and more of a good idea.
If you’ve never walked in a forest at night, the world is silent and sound seems dampened compared to the bustle of the day, but you can still always hear traces of life everywhere around you. Owls call out, foxes, mice and other creatures scamper in the undergrowth. One time I even saw a stag on the path, just standing there like a 4 legged statue. One of the infrequent shoddy path-lamps backlit the massive animal through the mist like some horned giant pagan deity. I damn near pissed myself. But most nights, like that night, it was simply me, trudging forward, my thoughts the loudest thing to be heard for miles.
The forest was actually a welcome sign though, it meant I’d nearly finished my self imposed odyssey. I’d also worked out most of the alcohol from my system and the lethargy and regret at starting this walk were really kicking in. My feet still marched in steady time though eating up the trail as the canopy above slowly swallowed up the thin light of stars and moon. The gravel they’d used to pave the trail was thoughtfully light, nearly white in fact, so unless it was a new moon anyone could walk along it at night without getting lost.
For perhaps half an hour I continued trekking onward, my steps scratching grit occasionally, but it was only when I’d really made some headway into the heart of the trees something began to scratch at the back of mind for attention. A nagging sense of something off. It was a like a picture on the wall that’s not quite level and once you see it you can’t unsee it until you’re forced to take action, or that faint odour of rot when you’re about to cook some dubious meat and your body recoils instinctively. I tried shaking the feeling off, but eventually, I could feel my momentum bled away until I was just standing stationary, dead still in the centre of the path.
This was not the comfortable silence of a library, the hushed awe of entering a church, or that quiet moment you sometimes have before a storm. But it wasn’t that babbling jumble of noises that you hear in any woodland either. The forest seemed to be holding its breath. When I scraped a foot across the gravel the noise seemed to be eaten up by the thick ancient barks around me and I slowly turned in place trying to pierce the veil of leaves, brambles and gorse. Trying to see… What? I’m not sure, just various shades of black looked back at me.
The alcohol obviously hadn’t completely cleared my system because instead of listening to every nerve in my body screaming at me “perhaps, tonight is not the night for this walk.” Another part of me rolled its eyes said “Fuck. That. I’m not walking 10 miles back to town just to get a bus because the wind stopped blowing.” There was no good reason to walk all that way for nothing. Snapping out of my reverie I shook my head a bit, stretched my arms let out a jaw-cracking yawn and went to move on.
It was that first step, the very moment my right foot hit the floor that I knew, just knew, deep down, that I had fucked up. A flash of adrenaline crackled it’s way up my leg and I felt my calves burning. It was as if that single step had taken me way further than the last 10 miles, hell, further than the last 10 years, a disorienting feeling like plunging into tacky water or wading into a stream when nothing was there. Thinking back I wonder now if this is the feeling a fly might get when stepping onto a spiders web the only time I felt anything similar was entering the museum gates of the Auschwitz camp during my German exchange trip. You just knew that this place should never have existed and things that happened there had stained the land forever.
My next steps felt a little awkward and sore, I mean I had been walking for a few hours by now. The break-in my rhythm had thrown me for a loop and for a few disorienting moments I wondered if I was even facing the right direction, but for some reason, I just knew which way was deeper not due to my “Stunning sense of direction” or natural “Canny senses” (sarcasm intentional). No. there was a feeling of pressure, like something flowing against me from up ahead. It was as easy to tell what way was forward on that path as it is to tell which way the flood is flowing downhill.
When I continued my march, it was part obstinate rational thinking but mostly pure bravado, but each step reduced my stress a little, each one a decision made. “This is England for fuck’s sake,” I remember thinking “the scariest wild animal here is an angry badger, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” I was just in the process of finally shaking off the notion of things lurking in the shadows when I heard the branch snap.
The creaking strain followed by the crack of aged wood sounded off like a gunshot. For a moment all I could hear was a buzzing in my ears punctuated by the pounding sound of my heart. My mouth suddenly tasted of battery acid and what felt like a belt constricted around my chest. I realised I’d stopped all motion, frozen midstride.
My head snapped to follow the sound so fast it’s like it was on loaded springs. I swear I heard my neck crunch. It was all I could do to stop from screaming. The world had changed in a single heartbeat and suddenly I wanted nothing more than to be somewhere else, anywhere else. My eyes darted back and forth and all I saw were trees and swaying shadows. Every black space suddenly seemed to hold the promise of violence, every rustle of wind through the trees jerked my eyes to movement.
Now I’ve read once or twice that you can know if someone is watching you. That the feeling of being stared at is so clear that it leaves no doubt in your lizard brain. Perhaps you’ve had the same moment, you suddenly looked up for no reason to see someone staring back at you from a 2nd storey window. Well, fuck all those things, and fuck your eyes meeting a stranger’s in the street. Notch the tension up to eleven and imagine the feeling of knowing, just knowing without a doubt in your mind that there is something there, right there, behind you. And every muscle and fibre in your body has tensed like a steel cable, abso-fucking-lutely assuring you, that you are now. Something’s. Prey.
Let me try and give you a taste, the tiniest notion of what that feeling was like. Because to be frank, nobody I’ve told really gets this part. But indulge me for a moment.
First important rule. Don’t. Turn. Around. Maybe firstly take a breath and shake out any tension, because I want you to know, without a doubt that something is in the room with you. I know it’s there because I’m looking at it. No, I’m not guessing or imagining things for you, since my unintentional pilgrimage in that wood, well… Let’s just say I see the world a little differently these days and trust me, we all have something following us. It’s there, it’s in the room with you and it’s dangerous.
So, for a moment just focus and try really hard to imagine the room or wall behind you. Do not turn around for reference, use your brain. I want you to gaze into your memory and make it as vivid as possible, imagine the walls, chairs, tables all the familiar shapes, the texture of the carpet, wallpaper, peeling paint, the shelf of half-remembered books. Maybe it’s sunny and well lit, maybe it’s midnight and you’re reading this is a bar with nothing more than wood panelling behind you. Wherever you’re sitting, it’s just a room right, it’s just a place, maybe you’re lucky and there are people there, but they’re just temporary things. The room is what’s permanent.
Now, with that image as clear as you can make it, I want you to become aware of something. Because if you concentrate for long enough you’ll notice there’s a smudge, I don’t know where it is for you, perhaps a corner of the room, the edge of the panelling, a dusty book. But it’s there everyone has it and no matter what you do, you just can’t quite remember that part perfectly. It’s there, for sure, you know it’s there but it’s elusive. When you find that blemish, it’s suddenly obvious and it gets more and more obvious, like an itch you can’t scratch. “Why can’t I remember that like everything else?” So I want you to imagine walking up to that flaw and lean in close to it.
When you’re closer, maybe meters, maybe inches, we’re all different after all, you’ll see something strange start to happen, the smudge will start to shift and tear, sometimes it’ll unfurl like the petals of some ancient flower or maybe you’ll see paint stripping back to reveal the bones of the building beneath, books disintegrate into meaningless piles of pulp. You might even smell the fungal rot emerging from beneath that hidden gap you’ve exposed.
Now I want you to see that rot spreading out from that tear like a black ever-expanding tumour. It’s happening, right now. Behind you. But don’t turn around, because you need to keep your eyes fixed on that viscous cancerous mass a little longer. Because, if you don’t you’ll miss the moment it arrives, it’ll pull itself out of the hole, silent, massive, heaving, and as the oozing black birth fluid sloughs off in meaty chunks details begin to appear.
Twisted mouths with broken teeth poke through blackened skin, disjointed mandibles creak and clack together, the blinking twitching collection of eyes that cover parts of it like a rash, blink and dilate in mindless flutters. Then this miscarriage of a thing your mind has birthed will look at you, all attention locked on. Then you’ll feel it on the nape your neck, heavy breathing, the feeling of someone standing too close, your personal bubble has been penetrated as it starts reaching out with wiry clutching appendages.
Do not look back.
Just see it there. Just imagine it hanging from the hole it chewed through, a bloated, broken shape from childhood nightmares. Clawed fingers of multiple scabbed hands nearly caressing but not quite touching your neck, brushing through your hair. A black, leathery, spittle-covered tongue inflamed with ulcers flattens itself out ready to lick your undefended back.
Do not turn around.
Because if you do, well that might make it real mightn’t it? If you do turn and it is that it’ll have you, teeth and talons and thrashing limbs vibrating and salivating just waiting for you… and all it takes is that simple glance over your shoulder. The pressure of wanting to look is overwhelming, to escape the childish feeling, the feeling of something filling the space behind you just a glance away from release.
Eventually, you will, and surely when you do you’ll relax and shrug of course it’s empty. Yeah, it is now, but what about then, what about the cupboards or the attic? How long before every shadow and every snapping branch hides a black flexing mass just waiting for you to pay attention to it.
So that’s a taste I hope of what I felt, but just that. In that wood, it wasn’t a mental invasion. It wasn’t something entering my space, I had entered its territory and I couldn’t just turn around. I was already consumed.
I heard a grunt or was it a snort, an animal offering a challenge. A creature breathing in my terrified sweat. For a long frozen moment, I stayed locked in place. Some instinct told me that sprinting would be the last thing I ever did. That running would bring on the hunt instantaneously. So I did the only thing I could do, I took one rigid step forwards and waited. Nothing. I followed it up with another and then another, back muscles rigid, waiting for the explosion of bushes and movement before searing pain began. Stars clouded my vision and I realised I was panting not breathing.
I took step after painful step, slowly building up a momentum, not running, never running, but walking the way people do through rivers, I tried to inject false bravado I’d cultivated over a lifetime to stop bullies and thugs from starting a fight, radiating a sense of casual violence and false confidence with each footfall. I swallowed down the swelling fear in my throat and clenched my fists in my pockets until my palms ached. With each step, I felt like I was pushing through thick ropy currents a forest riptide.
I kept walking.
I can’t tell you how far I walked like that, I can’t even get a sense of time or how it felt. Walking through a forest, at night with every pool of darkness hiding from the moonlight or the choking moment wispy clouds briefly coated the moon, created a moment of absolute darkness which allowed anything out there to move right up to me, unseen silent.
I focused on the pale gravel and the path ahead, I kept walking.
Something brushed past my leg, a subtle feathery touch, I forced my eyes to stay ahead. Something shakes the branches of a tree above and I gritted my teeth and took another step. My head was pounding with adrenaline and fatigue. A spasming desire between seeing what was following me and a part of some deeper instinct, the same one I ignored earlier, saying “If you turn and look, you will see it. If you see it, you will die.” The logic was nonsense. The situation was insane. I was also sure that instinct was right. I could not turn, but nor could it make me.
When the structure appeared in my blurring vision for a second I was confused, then ice folded into my veins and my steps faltered. For a brief moment, I swear I heard a panting wet sound. The sound of something expressing a wet hungry pleasure at seeing prey stumble. I swear that I felt a hot breath on my cheek I steeled myself
“Must. Not. Look.”
The trees seemed to sigh, a petulant disappointment from those whispers that they hadn’t run me to the ground… yet. But up ahead loomed the thing that nearly broke me in the first place. The tunnel. The goddamn tunnel. I’d not even thought about it. But of course, as I was really getting to realise, wishing that something wasn’t there didn’t really mean shit.
The trail had been a train track as I said and like many trains, there were two ways to go through the hills. What someone had decided here, what some long-dead architect had decided was that a tunnel would be cheaper. I’d passed under bridges on the route already, those are where a road or crossing was required. They are about 10-15 meters tops. They’re straight and over the years they’ve been given lights. You barely notice them.
The tunnel is not like this, it’s a black hole. It’s a mouth hanging open wet with old rain and moss-covered stone teeth lining its entrance. I know that I was moving towards it, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was slithering towards me. I was the mouse frozen solid as the snake lunges forward to engulf it.
The tunnel’s throat is probably 60 meters long from mouth to exit. But what makes this unique amongst the various structures that remain, is the curve. It’s not a straight tunnel, it’s bent like an intestine which means even on a bright sunny day it looks dark and ominous. Like some hunched monstrosity waiting for people to just wander in.
I had to keep pace if I stopped that would be it, my body screamed that at me. But looking at the gullet opening up in front of me I wondered if I were wrong again my brain was trying to second guess my instincts, were those shadows and noises behind me like the games keeper beating the bushes. Were they like the clutching feelers of some sea creature drawing me down into its trap?
The wind moaned out through the tunnel mouth and when it hit me it was fetid, rank, hot and wet. I nearly stumbled again, retching, the only thing keeping me upright was the scrabbling sound to my left near the path edge. Something seemed to be shivering behind the bushes there, trembling in anticipation that it just might catch me. Teeth clenched, arms pumping I steamrolled headfirst into the tunnel and plunged into the black.
It was still behind me, the faint moonlight that pooled around the entrance was obscured by some vast shape, or perhaps it was a myriad of smaller ones, like a cloud. and I desperately wanted to finally look and know if it was another cloud or all those chittering slithering things my mind had conjured up. “Just keep walking, you’ll get there if you just keep walking.” I thought. But even remembering that moment, I wonder how much of that thought was mine.
The first 30 meters of the tunnel is like being in space, I’d occasionally felt unnerved here before. It’s like nowhere else on the route, you’re cut off from the sounds of the forest and you really lose a sense of where you are, I rarely carried a torch and at that moment I wasn’t really sure I wanted to see what that beam would reveal. Each step made it feel like the tunnel walls shrank in, the echoing crunch of feet on gravel changed to the wet slapping sounds of thick moss that stuck to my shoes like mucus.
My panting echoed chaotically off the walls and I was more than sure that I hear other sounds amongst my echoes, overlapping scurrying sounds just behind each breath. I still couldn’t see anything, for a fleeting moment I wondered if I was even walking the right way, hadn’t it already been 60 meters? I started panicking, what if that night for whatever reason the curve just continued forever and I was just going to walk on blindly like this until I finally tired and fell. I reached out a tentative hand to my left and screamed as I contact wet, viscous sludge.
The shriek was amplified in the narrow space and bounced through and around my body with such volume it hurt. But, I didn’t forget to raise my left leg and even though it felt like the air itself resisted I brought down my next foot and kept walking, it felt like a river pouring through the tunnel was sluicing around me, the current pushing me back two-steps for every one I managed forward, the shrieking echo continued vibrating around me carrying on and on, far longer than it should have. My head was bursting, it felt like swimming and desperate to reach the surface for air, but for a single moment of clarity, I swear I heard another note in that scream. A note of frustration.
I kept walking, with a mantra filling my head “right foot, left foot, right foot..”
Hot liquid trickled down my face in thick rivulets,
“Sweat,” I prayed to myself, “it’s just sweat.”
I kept my hand slithering over the mucus and lumpy surface that was, I kept telling myself just the wet moss-covered wall,
“It is moss, it’s not skin, that thumping pulsing feeling is my own heart, if I follow the wall, I won’t fall, if I follow the wall the tunnel will curve and then I’ll be free from this place.”
I pant and wheeze like the air is up on a mountain top but I feel the wet humidity in my lungs.
When I saw light, it wasn’t dazzling, not glorious sunlight pouring in but even with the moonlight, I saw the slowly growing arch shape of the exit. I think I said something I don’t know what, but a chorus of echoes flowed back and around me like dogs, like chittering insects, I heard them all daring me to turn, daring me to look. I didn’t. I was fixated on that pale shoddy moonlight up ahead and with each step, I found the current lessen. Each footfall seemed to tear me loose from clawing unseen fingertips. I Didn’t run. Couldn’t run.
I breached the void and burst from the tunnel into the trail beyond like a trembling newborn, and all the echoes seem to cut off as one as I stepped on to that path. The silence was so profound and the pressure so suddenly lifted that I yelled out in savage agony and release, more of a roar. Trembling, heart weak and fluttering, sweat drenching my clothes and hair I moved like I’d run a marathon. I still didn’t look back. I was sure that hillside, that thing was still there. But I knew with each step I was pulling free, each step took me out of danger. Out of that hunting ground.
I was a few meters down the path from the tunnel, my body finally felt like my own when I heard the sound and my blood froze, I could almost have dismissed this whole event to alcohol-fueled imagination and childish terror but for that sound, it was distinct, clear and not my imagination, a growl, low and deep, deeper than reason, like all the rocks in the hill were grinding together so I could hear its frustration. I didn’t look back. I kept walking.
I don’t really remember the rest of my walk, I do know it started to rain and I got home soaked and shivering. I remember closing and locking the door pulling the bolt across the threshold so hard I worried I’d woken my parents on the other side of our home. I didn’t go to bed, I didn’t leave the door, I just slid down my back against the reassuring wood, breathing in the scent of home.
I never ever went near that part of the trail again, day or night. I still on occasion when reading a book, watching TV or relaxing at home feel a prickling sense of what I felt out there. Like a lingering afterimage watching me from somewhere. I ignore it as best I can. I dismiss the feelings, the memories, the growl. “It’s crazy,” the rational me protests “it’s just a fucking tunnel!”
But… I also keep an eye on the news and while it’s probably nothing I notice the number of people who go missing locally during clear moonlit nights, tear streaming families asking for information, search parties struggling to find anything, I see the shadows cast behind every street lamp, I trust my instincts, I stay far from those woods and I still sleep with the lights on.