This is my entry for round 1 of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2014
The first part of my run was easy; a few laps around the clay track surrounded by derelict white barracks, boarded up mess halls and empty officers’ quarters. But dense forest covers the entire northern half of the camp and that’s where I’m going. Whether I like it or not, doesn’t matter how scared or creeped out I am about the woods. My grandpa died at this camp in his first year of training. They say he got lost in the woods and died of exposure and starvation; the very same woods I’m about to run through, a massive and complicated web of dirt trails. They say his body was never found. Most likely eaten by wild predators. Thinking of it sends shivers trickling down my spine, but determination to win this inner battle blots them out.
I started running at the camp after they abandoned it for the fancy new super base built on the other side of town. In spite of the intense history and palpable tension of the place, running here calms my mind. Soothes my soul. Allows me a certain peace I couldn’t get anywhere else. I’ve always been drawn to the camp: the gravel roads, the abandoned buildings, the old track. But today I’m drawn to the forest; my grandpa . The peace and calmness of my runs have been stolen by thoughts of my suffering grandpa trapped in the forest fighting for his life. I have to see where he died, to know about it, to feel it for myself. I’ve heard many versions of the story, all are gross and terrifying. Of course, I know they’re fictitious and absurd, but you can’t unhear stories like that. They leach onto your brain and suck all the sensibility out of you when you’re weak or vulnerable.
The steady crunch of footsteps on gravel soon give way to a softer patter on dirt and decay of old forest floor. The woods disappear the open sky and envelope me with the smell of pine, moss and rotting leaves. Suddenly dark and cold. I take a deep breath. Tall trees, alive with their own purpose, close the world behind me. My heart quickens. I close my eyes and let myself feel the forest; I begin to relax and find the courage needed to continue on my quest. Narrow dirt trail, soft underfoot, twisting amongst the trees. The only sounds are the movement of air in and out of my burning lungs and the padded footsteps of my tired feet on the damp and rotting dirt of the forest floor. I time my steps to match my breathing; breath in-two-three, breath out-two-three. I imagine my grandpa chanting a cadence while training in these woods. Concentrate on your training and the jagged branches can’t grab and the gnarly roots can’t trip.
Breaking twigs and footsteps behind me. I glance over my shoulder; no one. I thought I was the only one at the camp, no other cars in the parking lot. Fear commandeers my imagination, my breathing quickens and, despite my cramping and burning muscles, so does my pace. There’s a fork in the trail; I take the right. Another fork, left this time. I’m being pushed, no pulled by the trees themselves in an uncertain direction, deep into the woods. I can hear the footsteps again and the forest instantly gets darker, thicker, creepier…breath in-two-three, breath out-two-three. I chant my own cadence silently in my head. I’m lost, in the dark forest, alone; this must be how my grandpa felt. My grandpa. Footsteps always behind, never catching up. They comfort me and terrify me at the same time; I’m not alone, accompanied by a delusion of a phantom soldier, but not alone.
The trees give way to a small clearing, an old log cabin. I stop and so do the footsteps behind me. I glance over my shoulder, half hoping to see someone. I’m lost and scared; the presence of the cabin surprises me and I need help. The trail behind is empty. Alone again; I mean still. Twigs snap and a scraping sound near the cabin. I turn and my heart instantly stops, I can’t breath and fear freezes me. In front of the old cabin is a young man in training fatigues. Where did he come from? Were those his footsteps I heard? He’s standing next to a cooking grill made of flat stones piled loosely and covered in moss and some kind of rusty metal grate, flipping a meal that isn’t really there. He looks up as if he was expecting me, smiles and says my name.
Confused, scared and not sure where reality is, I say, ‘You’re dead’.
‘Are you scared’
‘Not any more, ma’am’
‘Because I know the way now’
‘I think I’m lost’
‘No, you’re not’ he says. Smiling at me with familiar eyes and with a come this way gesture he finds the trail and enters the woods. I follow. I have no choice.
The footsteps are in front of me now. I can’t see them, but I can hear them, believe them. The woods remain large, dark and gloomy, but knowing my way erases the fear of it.
Following the comforting sound of my grandpa’s footsteps to the end of the forest, I’m able to find the peace of mind I came here for. Before re-entering into the heart of the camp I turn, hoping to catch one more glimpse; no one. The soft patter of my footsteps gives way to the steady crunch of gravel.