Whose Woods These Are (Flash Fiction)

Hank woke up, drenched with sweat, cold from the dying campfire. His slimy body felt slimy, sandwiched within a soaked sleeping bag. For Hank, every morning was a reminder of age. His shoulder ached, jammed into the socket by the bone-dry ground. Hank winced as pain shot through his spine. His muscles played tendon tug-of-war. Hank always lost.

Hank unzipped the sweat sponge sleeping bag and stood, careful not to surprise his left knee with any quick movements. If the fire died, he would have a lot of cold, cranky cub scouts. He had promised to keep the fire going, lest the dark consume them. The campfire stories were too effective. Already stressed by the lack of Xbox and what terrors may wait in the woods, the lack of a fire might make them snap.

Hank decided to keep his promise and look for firewood, rather than risk playing the role of piked pig’s head in a live rendition of Lord of the Flies. He rubbed his eyes. His tears pushed away the fogged protein-haze of smoke-dried contacts that felt like scratch-and-sniff stickers on his eyeballs. Hank then noticed he was alone.

The litter of sleeping cub scouts circled around around the fire had vanished. Bare ground lay where there once a tent had sat. Hank could find no evidence of his troop. Not a single peanut butter cup wrapper. Not a single scarred marshmallow, burned beyond recognition. Not so much a tent-stake scratch in the ground. Never had “pack it in, pack it out” been so complete.

The clearing held a stinking sleeping bag, a smoldering fire, and Hank.

Clearly, Hank was dreaming, some strange creation of his subconscious, expressing the desire to be alone, to have one moment of solitude. Even in sleep, solitude was a rare dream among a group of ten eight year-old boys. Hank pinched himself. He yipped. A red welt rose from his wrist, demanding to know what the Hell he had been thinking.

Hank saw an opening before him, a narrow path into the dark, deep woods. He sat within a silo of trees, the path the only crack. Into the path, he plunged.

The cold picked at Hank’s sweaty skin. He hugged his body, coaxing warmth from within. The summer night cooled. Hank shivered. The temperature plummeted. Hank rubbed his arms, urging blood-flow.  June’s first downy flakes began to fall, and Hank realized there must be some mistake.

Hank’s bare feet itched with the onset of frostbite. He turned to go back to the fire, but the path had disappeared. He searched for the glow of the smoldering coals, but found nothing in the grey darkness of June’s surprise winter.

Hank continued on the path. It wasn’t as straight as he had thought. It narrowed and twisted, overgrown, leaving little space to pass. Beyond the trees, Hank saw a glow. The last embers of the campfire called him to sweaty sleep, unknown miles away.

Soft snow blanketed the ground as Hank continued down the path. He followed the shimmering spark before him, arriving in a new clearing. There stood a beautiful Clydesdale, moonlight glinting off his harness bells.

“You lost, too?” Hank asked.

“I know exactly where I am,” the Clydesdale answered. “I’m in their woods.”

“At least I know this is a dream.”

“A dream?”

“Yeah, imagination. A fantasy, not real. Horses don’t talk.”

“Maybe we just don’t talk to you.”

“Why wouldn’t you?”

“Because you don’t expect us to. Humans think they know everything. They like to tell. They don’t like to ask.”

“Where did you come from?”

“My master’s house is in the village. You shouldn’t be here.  It is dangerous to wander in their woods.”

“Whose woods?”

The Clydesdale looked past Hank. Hank looked behind him. The path had disappeared. He heard the shakes of harness bells behind him and turned again. The giant horse had vanished, as well. Hank resisted the urge to pinch himself again, the red welt reminding him of its futility.

Hank examined the snow for hoof prints, but found only the outline of his bare size-twelve feet. His eyes followed the footprints, a slowly expanding, constant spiral through the clearing. Hank searched for the point of origin, but instead found his eyes spiraling in towards the middle once again.

Hank’s silent confusion shattered with the crack of a limb within from the forest. He plunged through the narrow gap of two trees, into total darkness.

“Hey. Are you out there? Horse?”

Hank stumbled on a root that seemed to pop up from the Earth. The trees seemed strangely dense. As Hank fought through the trunks, they seemed to bend to stop him. Limbs nipped at his clothes, tearing away a piece of his Pac-Man sleep pants. Hank felt like a stuck fly. He struggled through the wooden web.  Which way was the clearing? Where had the noise come from? He listened but heard nothing but creaking limbs and rustling leaves. There was no wind, yet the rustling grew deafening.

A limb snatched Hank’s wrist. Another struck him in the head. He felt momentary warmth as blood flowed over his icy face. Hank saw a glimmer to the East. He swam towards it through limb and trunk. A new glimmer to the North, and he surged that direction. Thorns shredded Hank’s feet as he struggled to remove himself from a tangle of vine. A new spark appeared to the South, but Hank could not move, the forest held him helpless.

The rustling faded. Hank’s haggard breath was the only sound. The cold air burned his lungs. Roots groped his face and dragged him down to the thorny ground. His skin flinched from a thousand pricking thorns, but Hank could not escape. The trees allowed nothing but shallow breaths, just enough to lengthen his death. No one would see him there. He watched the woods fill up with snow, just another freezing trespasser, soon just another drift in the woods.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

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