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The Forest

Jeff knew his feet and the years of walking helped pack the path he walked upon today and everyday. He watched the forest every day and it had become like an old friend to him. He knew where the owls nested, where the rabbit burrows were, where the deer visited a remote spring and which rocky hill attracted the rattlesnakes. Today, however, the forest was not the same forest he had come to know so well over the years. There was something evil in the forest today; something he didn’t know was here in the forest today.
Further down the path Grayson laid a mere twenty inches from the trail. His brother Liam nestled his small body against a nurse log a foot or so behind him. The boys loved to play hiding games in the National Forest near their home. The favorite was the camouflage game. They hid as close to the trail as they could and hoped to remain unnoticed by the hikers that passed them by. Today, although up to this point the boys had no idea, they were not the only ones playing camouflage games. Something else was lying in wait and… It was on the hunt.















***


Jeff continued walking down the familiar path. The leaves that swayed in the passing

wind were stunning in their colors of green apples, jades, and juicy limes. The

tree's branches seemed to lean protectively over the path, creating a gentle altar for him to

proceed under. As he walked, Jeff could hear the birds softly singing an unknown

lullaby. Their ancient harmony filled the forest as he walked. Going a little farther, Jeff

passed a narrow trail that cut off into the woods. He knew, that down that path, newborn

deer could be found, grazing on sweet orchard grasses, and napping beside their mothers

in sun kissed patches of soil between the trees.

Jeff continued on his own path. Ribbons of light fell through the canopy of leaves

leaving dappled spots of sun on the soft earth where he walked.

Ahead, just off the path, Jeff looked cheerfully toward the place where he often saw a

hesitant, dove-colored rabbit enjoying a mid-morning snack. This morning, however, the

hare was absent from its resting place. He stopped to peer between the dense brambles

that lined the path. Something light and soft rocked against the low vines. Jeff leaned in

closer to get a better look then pulled up sharply. Tangled among the thorns were thick

patches of grey and white fur connected in clumps by strips of skin.

Feeling troubled, Jeff walked on. After a short time he noticed how the light had

changed. It was still early, in the day and year, but where moments ago the sunlight had

seemed so clear, it now had a dull cast, like light found deeper in autumn and at later day.

Normally butterflies, with their brilliant shades of ruby, indigo, violet, and emerald,

would be dancing about the trail, but today there were none.

As Jeff walked, keeping lookout for a Monarch or Silverspot, a rancid smell hit him like a

fist to his face. It’s heavy odor disorienting him and causing him to twist against himself.

Jeff’s baseball cap fell from his head and hit the ground with a thud. As he bent down to

retrieve the hat, his head swayed again and he had to steady himself by pressing his

palms to the path. The dirt here was cold and damp. Jeff laid his forehead against the

soil hoping to still the queasiness in his stomach and to take in an unspoiled breath of air.

After only a minute, the earth began to feel clammy and Jeff stood determined to get

home before he was sick. The forest shadows were thicker now. Their grey forms clung

to trees and slid across great piles of leaf mold blanketing the forest floor. He quickened

his pace along the path, his eyes straining to catch movement amongst the dark trees. He

couldn’t remember this part of the trail being so dreary. Where he would have expected

to see green curling fern and strong, young trees there were now decaying mounds of

blackened compost. The trees here, while still thick, were brittle. Many of the branches

were split or broken, decaying where they hung.

Looking back the way he had just traveled, Jeff noticed that the path behind him had

grown dark. There was no fog, but the same feeling of pressure, was building at his back.

He felt suddenly that there was something unnatural watching him, stalking him, and a

terrible thrilling shock ran within his spine, exploding across his neck.

Awkwardly, Jeff began to run. His eyes pitched from rock to tree desperately searching

for the source of his fear. His head buzzed so that he was deaf to all noise except the

thumping of his feet as they hit the path, and the frantic pulling of air from his lungs.

Suddenly Jeff stumbled. Looking back to see what it was that his foot had caught upon

an icy sweat began to drip from the pores along his hairline. “This is not right,” he

whispered as he took in great breaths, willing himself to gain control. Jeff cast his eyes

once more, about the forest. Thick and damp, it felt oppressive, but he could see no

movement within the dripping screen of foliage.

Jeff tuned his sight back to the object he had tripped upon. A dead rat, lay in the middle

of the path, with its eyes wide open. A moth that it had apparently just caught, still

moving, clutched within the rat’s rigid paws. Jeff backed slowly away from the image.

Again he was overcome with the feeling of being watched, but this time he tried to calm

himself. These were the woods he had traveled through for years. There could be

nothing here to hurt him.

The path forked ahead. The left tine led home. Walking with purpose, Jeff scanned the

path. The mossy rock that he had always admired now seemed a disordered smudge atop

the stone.

Jeff refused to slow his pace even though the air seemed to become denser with each

breath. Colors blended together and he became light headed, but he refused to be

controlled by his earlier panic and began to count his steps in time. Once again, fear

clawed at the edges of his chest. As he frantically kept track of each step it seemed that

there was another, much faster set of footfalls tracking alongside him and hidden beyond

the overgrowth.

Horror compelled Jeff forward, but just as he started to run, two strange figures jumped

out of the thicket beside the path.

“Ha-ha! We got you Jeff!” Cried out a voice.

Jeff cried out. Stumbling back he fell against a sharp shank of rock, which sliced into the

revealed skin on his arm. His heart was now raging within his ribs and he yelled,

“What do you guys think you’re doing? How long have you been following me?”

The two small boys stared down on him. Both of them wore identical, terrified looks and

held their hands out to help Jeff to his feet. Grayson was the first to reclaim his voice.

“Jeff, I am so sorry! Are you okay?”

Liam stared at Jeff’s arm. His hands shook as he offered Jeff the bandana that he had

been wearing.


“I’m fine,” said Jeff, seeing that the two boys were very frightened. “You just scared me

is all.”

“But your arm is bleeding,” whispered Liam.

Raising his arm, Jeff inspected the injury. The warm sticky liquid filled his hand and

spilled through his fingers onto the forest floor, where a small puddle had collected itself.

“Ouch…” mumbled Jeff.

He took the cloth from Liam and pressed it to his arm. Grayson and Liam had extremely

grim faces. Jeff again noticed that the boys were truly alarmed and attempted a laugh,

but instead of ringing the sound fell with a thud between their feet.

“ I think Jeff has gone mad Liam,” said Grayson and his brother nodded in agreement.

This statement really did seem funny and Jeff managed a real laugh now, releasing some

of his fear. The feeling that there was something else in the woods with them was slowly

withdrawing.

“No, I have not gone mad at all! You two just scared me.”

Jeff gave them a thin smile, and then checked his arm again. The cut was deep. It would

need stitches. Jeff recoiled at the sight of the torn skin. The edges were ragged and

outlined with dirt and rocky fragments.

“Let’s go, guys,” he said, while rewrapping the gash.

The three hiked together toward the path that turned left. Just as they were about to

round the corner, Jeff looked back down the trail once more. He saw nothing moving,

but again it seemed a smothering fog was creeping ever closer to the path and Jeff had the

unmistakable feeling of being hunted. A great gust of fear blew beneath his skin.

Forgetting the boys, Jeff started to run.






***




Beyond sight of where the two small boys stood, startled by Jeff’s sudden flight, a shape

rose from the damp undergrowth, it’s long spider-like legs scraping through the decaying

carpet of leaves and on to the path where Jeff had fallen. Bending a long neck it rubbed

Its sharp face against the path where the three boys had gathered. Using the crusty

corners of its mouth the creature collected their cells and stirred up their scent.

Instinctively it organized their smells from weakest to the strongest and would hunt in

this order. Lowering it’s head to the blood that had pooled on the musky path the

creature slid its cracked tongue from its mouth and smeared it into the bloody puddle.

It preferred to hunt at night, content for now to let the salty taste settle between its teeth.



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