06 Feb Rope
“Rope”Written by Elias Witherow Edited by Seth Paul and Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 19 minutes
I went camping a few weeks ago. I wanted to be alone after my recent break-up and thought some quiet time with nature would help clear my head. I picked a mountain at random in New Hampshire. I’m not going to tell you which one. Honestly…I can’t remember. It took that from me.
I drove up on a Friday and started my hike around noon. I made it about halfway to the top and found a good place to pop my little tent. I set up camp and gathered some wood for a fire. It was cold, but I didn’t mind. It felt good and cleared my head.
By the time I finished setting up, it was dark. I turned on my electric lantern and set to work starting a fire. Soon, I had a couple of logs crackling and I sat close, rubbing my hands together and listening to the silence.
Getting lost in my thoughts, I wondered why I hadn’t seen anyone else today. It was an odd time to go hiking, but I thought I’d at least see one or two other people. It didn’t matter, I was content to be left alone.
Eventually, I ate a late dinner and decided to turn in for the night. The cold was making me sleepy, and I figured if I went to bed a little early, I could get an early start.
Burying myself under a pile of sleeping bags, I drifted off to sleep.
It didn’t last long.
Sometime around two in the morning, something woke me up. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was; the noise was faint and muffled. It sounded far away, but it was enough to break the silence of night.
I rubbed my eyes and sat up, training my ears. What was that?
Then it hit me.
People were singing Happy Birthday.
I unzipped my tent and stuck my head out into the darkness.
Yeah, that’s exactly what it was. It was coming from way out in the woods, the notes creeping between the black trees toward me.
It was strange and a little creepy, hearing that out there in the middle of nowhere. I listened for a few more seconds, noticing how…sad it sounded. There was no joy in the voices I heard, none of the usual birthday glee. It sounded like a funeral song, dreary and slow.
After a few seconds, the people stopped singing. And then they started over, from the beginning.
Creeped out and slightly confused, I zipped up my tent and buried myself under my sleeping bags again. I covered my head to block out the noise, shutting my eyes and willing sleep to come. I couldn’t hear the voices anymore. I swallowed hard, trying not to think about it…
Trying not to think about how my birthday was the next day.
I eventually fell asleep, the cold closing my eyes and pulling me down into the darkness of slumber. The next day I rose early and decided I’d keep my camp where it was. I pulled out my small pack and loaded it with supplies for a day hike. I wanted to hike to the top and stay there for a few hours with the intent to hike back to my camp before dark.
The trail was a little rough, in obvious need of some grooming, but I enjoyed the challenge. I stopped a few times, about once an hour, to catch my breath and snack on some trail mix. Eventually, I broke through the tree line, and after another hour of hard hiking, I made it to the summit.
Once I was up there, I was again surprised to find myself alone. Not a soul to be seen in any direction. I found a good place to sit down and ate while scanning the majestic view around me. A cold wind cut into my coat, and I pulled my hood up. I shut my watering eyes and rested my head against the rock I was sitting against.
I fell asleep.
When I awoke, I didn’t know what time it was, but the sun was going down. Dark splashes of infected purple bled across the sky. The wind was even colder, my whole body shivering against it. I rubbed my arms together as I watched the sun wink out behind the distant mountains. I had maybe half an hour to make it back to my camp before total darkness.
That wasn’t nearly enough time.
I didn’t know what to do, torn between staying or trying my luck on the trail. I was afraid I’d freeze to death if I stayed, afraid I’d break my neck if I left. After much internal debate, I sat back down. I had to tough it out and hope I’d make it. I was scared. I pulled my arms into my sleeves and wrapped them around my body. I curled up on the stones and pulled the hood over my head, cutting my view down to a thin line.
I don’t know how long I lay there until I noticed it.
It was off to my left, about ten feet from me on the edge of my vision.
It was a birthday cake. It sat on the rocks with a single lit candle stuck in it. The flame danced in the wind, threatening to extinguish. I sat up, my heart thundering. I looked around in the darkness, prodding the shadows with my eyes, searching for whoever had left it there.
Nothing. It was full dark now, a sliver of cold moon hanging in the sky like a bright smile, like it was in on the joke. Even with the light it cast, I didn’t see anyone or anything. All the shadows were frozen in place, waiting out the night like I was.
I slowly crawled over to the cake and looked down at it. The flame was holding onto the wick for its dear life, the wind viciously trying to tear it away. The frosting was white, the cream hardening in the open air. There was something written on it, something in red.
‘You Are Dead.’
I backed away, suddenly feeling very exposed. I didn’t want to stay here anymore; I had to try and make it back to my tent. I stood up, teeth chattering, and noticed my day pack was gone. I spun around, convinced I had just misplaced it, but it was nowhere to be seen.
Scared and frustrated, I started back towards the nearest cairn. I stumbled in the darkness, each step a prayer. I squinted against the shadows, trying to see the formation of stone beneath my feet.
As I made it the hundred yards to the first cairn, I tripped and went sprawling, smacking my face against the indifferent rocks. I felt my upper lip split and my nose crunch as I made contact.
Warmth flowed down my chin as I blinked back stars, sucking in sharp breaths on the ground.
As I got up, legs shaking, I wiped a thick trail of blood from my face. I was dizzy, the blood chilling in the wind and crusting on my chin and hand. I ran my tongue along my lip and felt where it split. I winced. I should have known I couldn’t make it. Not even off the top of the mountain and I had almost brained myself dead. I wiped the rest of my face clean and took a few deep breaths to steady myself.
I looked up from the cairn, which was next to a steep drop-off, and noticed something else.
The mountain had…grown. I shook my head, convinced I was just seeing things wrong in the moonlight. But I wasn’t.
As I looked out onto the vast mountain landscape, I noticed that the peaks of all the other mountains were far below the summit on which I stood.
That hadn’t been the case a few hours ago. It was as if the mountain had shot up another couple hundred feet, rising silently through the dark sky. How could that be, though? It didn’t make any sense. Nothing about the night made sense.
Not knowing what to make of my new discovery, I ran my hands over my body, checking for any serious injuries from my fall. I seemed to be intact. I looked around the bald expanse of rock, feeling the wind slice into me like a razor. It was then that I wondered if I was going to die out here. My fingers were numb from the cold, my blue lips trembled, and I didn’t know what to do. I had already fallen once, but I had to keep going. The wind was going to kill me. I wouldn’t last all night if I didn’t find some shelter.
I told myself to just be careful, take it one step at a time. If I kept my body moving, I could at least generate some heat. I squinted in the moonlight, trying to make out the next cairn, the pile of rocks that marked the trail. Even with the moon, I didn’t see it, but I remembered the general direction. Taking a deep breath, I started moving again.
It was agony, working my way off the summit. I battered my knees and hands countless times, my feet doing their best to hold traction. The wind was relentless, smacking me in the face with an open fist. I almost fell to my death a few times, but my quick reflexes kept me seconds ahead of ‘The End.’ I was breathing heavily, my frozen muscles exhausted.
I don’t know how long I descended, making my way to the distant tree line below. I didn’t see any more cairns and knew I was probably lost. I didn’t care at that point. I just needed to get out of the wind. It felt like no matter how many steps I took, I wasn’t getting any closer to my destination. The endless plod, the careful patient progression, I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep going. The moon seemed frozen in the sky. I looked out and saw the distant mountain tops still far below. I checked my watch and saw that it was two am. I had been walking for two hours now.
I’m never going to make it, I thought.
I blew into my frozen hands, trying vainly to warm them. Just keep walking. Don’t stop. You’re dead if you stop.
I continued my descent. I figured it was four hours or so until sunrise. I just had to make it until then. I shuddered. There was no way I was going to make it four hours.
And that’s when I saw it.
It was about fifty feet down to my right, nestled against an outcrop of rock formations.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I was saved. There was even a small fire crackling beside it, sheltered from the wind by stones.
I forced myself not to run, continuing the snail pace descent towards it. I wasn’t alone up here. I wasn’t going to die.
As I approached it, with the light from the fire casting shadows on the tent, I paused. I was about five feet from it, the wind partially blocked by a stone wall on my right. I took a step closer, cautious.
I heard something from inside.
It sounded like someone sucking in big, wet lungfuls of air.
And then the tent started shaking, violently.
I froze, heart thundering, fear creeping up my spine. The sound of the person inside continued, desperate urgent breaths sucked down into mucus coated lungs. The tent kept shaking, the plastic and nylon vibrating as if whatever was inside was having a seizure.
Then I felt a tremor run through the stone under my feet. I quickly caught my balance, steadying myself, terrified and confused. What the hell was happening?
After a few seconds, the mountain calmed, along with the tent. It was silent except for the wind. I took a few uncertain breaths, desperate to warm myself by the fire. I eyed the tent, preparing myself to speak.
The flap to the tent unzipped, just a few inches.
I felt my body lock and my eyes widen, my mind suddenly screaming that I was in danger.
A voice came from the opening, a wet, deep whisper.
I turned and ran, stumbling and tripping, bruising my body in a desperate need to get away. My heart pounded in my chest, confusion and panic pulsing through my bloodstream.
The air tore at my face, trying to rip it away with frozen claws. I raced towards the trees. They were closer now than I thought, each fumbled step bringing me nearer. I didn’t know what was going on, didn’t understand what was happening. There was something very wrong with the mountain and I desperately needed to find my way off of it.
My limbs were shaking by the time I crashed through the trees. I had countless scrapes and bruises running up and down my body, a testament to my hurried descent. Blood dried quickly in the cold air and I felt patches of it gripping my skin along my arms.
I stopped, now in the sanctuary of the trees, and sucked in hungry lungfuls of air. I placed a hand over my chest and willed my heart to slow. I licked my cracked lips and rolled my head up to stare at the sky, catching my breath. What was that? I thought, fear filling me. What was in that tent?
After a few minutes, I assessed my surroundings and began walking. I didn’t know where I was; a nagging panic crouched in my subconscious, but I knew going down was good. My knees trembled as my feet took me carefully through the woods. My eyes had adjusted slightly to the darkness, but now that I was under the cover of trees, my vision was severely limited.
I mentally crossed my fingers with each step, my fatigued limbs flopping with exhaustion. I focused on nothing but safely putting one foot in front of the other. The dark pressed in around me. The trees swayed overhead as the wind shook them, the sound filling my ears like high tide.
Just as I was starting to become optimistic, something changed around me. Noises. Quiet at first and then slowly growing in volume.
I stopped, one foot planted on a downed tree in front of me. I swung my head around, eyes growing wide, throat clenching with fear.
Something was crashing through the woods, headed right for me.
Judging by the cacophony of snapping branches and crushed foliage, it was only twenty or thirty yards away and closing quickly.
Making a split-second decision, I hopped over the log and rolled against it, wedging my body in as far as I could. I grabbed an armful of dirt, twigs, and dead leaves, and pulled them towards me to cover my body.
I waited, heart crunching against my ribs with violent terror. The crashing had almost reached me. It was deafening now. I swallowed hard and squeezed my eyes shut.
Suddenly, something huge and white flowed over the log, passing over me at an alarming speed. It crashed into the underbrush in front of me and then disappeared, leaving trails of cold fog behind it.
I didn’t move, paralyzed with fear. I listened to the sound of the thing diminish, the night
returning to its dark soundtrack. I exhaled. What the hell was that? It didn’t hold any form, just passing me in a blur of faded mist.
I was beginning to question my sanity. Things were happening outside the realm of possibility. The weird cake on the summit, the unexplainable growth of the mountain, the voice in the tent…it all came crashing down around me in that moment. I felt disjointed, my reality sinking in murky chaos. Am I dead?
I rolled out from the log and stood, cautiously eying the black woods. I winced as the wind cascaded around me, slapping my battered skin with angry hands. I shivered and sunk into myself. I felt hopeless. I was impossibly lost; I didn’t have a clue which direction to walk…
And I was thirsty.
I bent down and found a dirty pebble. I rubbed the dirt off it and popped it in my mouth. I remembered hearing that was supposed to help. As I rolled it around on my tongue, I decided that no matter what, I wasn’t going to give in to despair. I couldn’t. As soon as I let that in, it was over for me. I just had to keep working towards something. I had to keep myself as positive as possible. The temptation to panic was all too present. I could feel it under my skin, screaming and thrashing to be released.
I needed to start walking again. Standing around, waiting for that thing to come back, wasn’t going to solve any of my problems.
As I was about to go, I noticed something lying on the ground to my left, at the end of the log. I crouched down and examined it. It was a rope, about as thick as my thigh. I ran my fingers over the cords and traced it in the darkness. It was pulled taut along the forest floor and ran off into the woods, lost over the horizon of my vision.
I felt a pang of hope. This rope led somewhere. Someone put this here. If I followed it, maybe I could finally get off this godforsaken mountain.
My heart fluttered with newfound optimism, and I leaned down and picked up the heavy cords of nylon. I just needed to follow this out of here.
I began to walk, the thick rope straining through my fingers. I noticed that it was vibrating slightly, as if the end was tied to something mechanical.
As I walked, I glanced at my watch and saw that it was almost four in the morning. The sun would be up in about two hours. It felt like it had been days since I had seen the light. I ached for the warmth daylight would bring. The bones in my fingers seemed to crack in the cold as they gripped the rope. I swore to myself that if I ever got out of here, I was going to wear gloves for the rest of my life.
My feet crunched through the foliage, brush and branches catching me at the knees. I pushed on, the rope leading me deeper and deeper into the woods. The constant vibration running through it encouraged me to keep walking.
After another twenty minutes of slow progression, the vibrations became more intense. I shifted the rope in my grip, trying to get a better hold of it. It almost seemed like electricity was flowing through it, but that was impossible. I’d be dead if that was the case.
Suddenly, I stumbled forward as something jerked on the rope. I let go and went sprawling to my hands and knees, wincing as something sharp cut into my palms. What was that? I wondered, brushing my stinging hands against my pants. I stood up and picked the rope back up, cautiously loosening my grip so I wouldn’t get pulled down again.
The rope jerked again, the cords crunching as the line went taut. I was pulled forward, but didn’t fall, keeping my balance and steadying myself against a tree. I leaned against it, waiting for another pull, but after a couple of seconds, I assumed whatever was causing it had ceased. I hefted the rope up under my arm and was about to continue when I froze.
They were all around me.
Tiny black figures with eyes like hot coals. They were hovering in the air, small puffs of darkness pulled into a human shape. Some looked at me from behind trees, their glowing eyes cutting into the black. None of them moved.
I felt a scream rising in my throat, but I forced it down with a hard swallow. Despite the cold, I felt sweat along my spine. The closest one was about six or seven feet away, above me to my left. It was just…hovering. I scanned my surroundings and counted eight of them total.
I waited for them to do something, but they remained still, painted into the night. My mind was buzzing, trying to pile together some sort of explanation as to what I was seeing. The words on the birthday cake formed like a picture in my mind and I frantically pushed the image aside.
Slowly, very slowly, I began to inch forward, continuing along the rope. My eyes were laser trained on the figures, snapping between each of them, waiting for them to react. They didn’t move, only watched as I slid between the trees, away from them. I expected them to follow, maybe even charge me, but I remained the only being in motion.
My head was locked over my shoulder as I passed by them. I was holding my breath, begging the leaves underfoot to be silent as I crunched down over them. One step…two…five…
I exhaled and took another couple of steps, leaving them behind me. As I followed the rope deeper into the woods, I kept a vigilant lookout for any more of the strange beings. My mind was reeling. What were those things? The way they watched me, silent and unmoving, chilled me more than the wind. I forcefully pushed all thoughts out of my head, draining my confusion and fear like dirty water. Once I was safe I could dwell on the questions, but for now I just needed to get out of here.
The rope continued to wind along the mountain, sometimes going down, other times leading back up. I had no idea how far I had come. After a while, I fell into a rhythm. Take three steps, adjust my grip on the rope, look around, take another three steps. I felt like I was in a trance, my mind a blank space between my ears. There was nothing that existed except the mountain and wind. I realized that one could never get used to the cold. It chilled me as much as it had at the top of the mountain. Walking was the only thing that kept my joints from locking up, frozen in excruciating pain. I felt like if I stopped, I would just lay down and let fate have its way with me. The thought scared me, the temptation and ease of just giving up.
I realized I still had the pebble in my mouth. I spit it out and ran my tongue along my lips. What I wouldn’t give for a sip of water. A blast of wind through the trees sent my teeth chattering again and I slowed my pace and squeezed my eyes shut against it. My legs were trembling, rattled by the icy assault, my knees knocking together like two swollen walnuts. The air settled and I sped up. Would anyone come looking for me if I didn’t make it out of here? How long would I last if this rope led to nothing? What would I do then?
I shook my head in the darkness, trying not to let despair overcome me. One thing at a time. First, see where this leads. Then go from there. I needed to focus on solving one thing at a time. Get to the end of the rope. I noticed that it was still vibrating, the strange hum running up the cords and across my hands. No sooner had I noticed than the rope jerked again. It caught me off guard and I fell, crashing down onto rocks and dead branches. Cursing, I got to my hands and knees, amazed I hadn’t done any major damage to my body. What the hell was doing that?! I glanced at my palms in the moonlight, assessing the new scratches and cuts. I took a moment, filling my lungs with air, and then continued.
The underbrush stuck to my pant legs, snagging and slowing me any chance it got. The ground was uneven and rocky as I crossed the ungroomed terrain. My feet were aching, each step sending a pulse of pain up my legs. The rope twisted its way between trees, around rock formations, and across thick foliage. I began to wonder if the rope went on forever.
Between the noises of night, I began to hear something else. At first I thought it was my mind playing tricks on me, but the more I walked, the more I was sure.
I started walking a little faster, as much as I dared in the dark, my mouth a dry sponge. The thick rope trickled through my fingers as I went, taking me closer and closer to the sound. My tongue felt like it was made of cotton balls, the distant splashing causing the sensation to worsen. My breath rattled out of dry lungs, exhaling what felt like mouthfuls of sand.
I begged myself to slow. If I hurt myself now, it was over. With every step, I prayed I wouldn’t roll my ankle. I just needed a drink of water. That would make everything so much better. It was close now, the flow of water on rocks filling the night.
A few minutes later, I found it. It was a fairly large stream, maybe five feet wide. The rope led across it, floating perpendicular on the surface. I dropped to my knees and sank my face below the surface, shaking with excited relief.
The water was shockingly cold as I submerged my mouth, pulling in sweet mouthfuls of nature’s blood. I pulled my head up, sputtering and coughing as I choked. I took a few breaths, forcing myself to calm down, and then lowered myself and continued to drink.
“What are you doing here?”
I jumped and went sprawling, startled by the sudden voice. I stared around in the darkness, searching for the source. My heart galloped in my chest and my eyes went wide with shock.
A man stood across the stream, staring at me. He looked to be middle-aged, a trimmed beard lining his face. He was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt that rippled in the wind. If the cold bothered him, he didn’t show it.
I pulled myself up, relief rocking me. I was saved, the nightmare was over. “What are you doing here?” he asked again, his voice a cool breath on the wind.
I bumbled at first, the overwhelming relief jamming the words in my throat. I calmed myself and then began to recount my horrible experience since I arrived. I told him about the singing, the cake, the tent, the strange black shapes with glowing eyes, everything.
He remained silent as I spoke.
After a moment, he said, “You’re not supposed to be here.”
I blinked in the moonlight, confused, and explained to him that I was lost. I told him that I had found this rope and had been following it, hoping it led to something.
His eyes darted to the rope at my feet and his tone hardened.
“You’ve been following that?”
I nodded and began to feel uneasy. There was something off with this guy. I didn’t know if it was the way he was dressed or the way his voice seemed to carry on the wind. He seemed completely passive until I mentioned the rope and now his brow was furrowed and his face creased in hostility.
He began to shake his head. “Turn around. Go the other way. You don’t belong here.”
I threw my hands up, mouth agape. I told him that there was nothing back there, that I needed help, that I was lost. I pointed down the rope and told him that following this was my best chance to find a way out.
His face grew shadows in the moonlight and his voice turned to frozen steel. “Listen to me. You do not want to know what’s at the other end of that rope.”
I stood there, a response caught in my throat. I closed my mouth and looked down at my feet, eyeing the corded fibers. What was he talking about? I looked up at him and saw he was watching me closely. I wanted to ask him a million questions, get some answers to the nightmares I had seen tonight. I wanted to know who he was and where he came from. I wanted to know what was at the end of the rope. I wanted to know how to get out of here. But they dissolved on my tongue, leaving only the one question that had been hovering over my head since this began.
I swallowed hard. “Am I dead?”
He cocked his head, a small smile dancing at the corners of his mouth. “You’re the only thing on this mountain that isn’t.”
His words confirmed what I already feared. I shuffled my feet, watching the water run by. Silence grew between us. I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid of the answers I would get.
He broke the emptiness first. “It wants to keep you here.”
My eyes met his again. “What does? The mountain?”
He nodded, stepping towards me and placing a foot on the rope. “You said the mountain appeared to…grow? It doesn’t want you to leave. For whatever reason, you were able to find this place and walk among us. Now it doesn’t want to let you go.”
My voice shook. “C-can I…can I escape this place?”
He sighed and took another step closer, his feet splashing into the stream. “Yes. But you better hurry. I don’t know how much longer you have before you join us. We have already learned so much about you. There are those who would rather you stayed.”
My heart was beating hard in my chest and my voice came out in a whisper. “What is this place?”
He was standing in the middle of the stream now, getting closer. “It’s where the dead go when they have no place Above or Below.”
He took another step towards me and I saw his eyes go red. “And we can never leave. This mountain is our eternity.”
I took a step back, almost tripping over the rope at my feet. “Why not? If I can go, why can’t you?”
He was standing mere feet from me now. He pointed down the length of the rope. “If you saw what was at the other end, you would understand. We are kept here. There is no hope for us. We’re dead.” He smiled suddenly, but it held no humor. “Maybe one day, you’ll come back to us. Maybe there will be no room for you Above or Below. Maybe you’ll get sent here.”
He was inches from me now, his voice grating up his throat. “Maybe then you’ll get to see what this is tied to.” He bent down and picked up the rope, holding it out to me. “Take it.”
I hesitated, rooted where I stood by uncertainty and fear. I didn’t want to take it, didn’t want to look at it. I saw it vibrating in his hands, the dirty cords shaking in the dying moonlight.
He offered the rope to me again. “Take it! Follow it back the way you came. Trust me. You’ll be out of the woods before the sun comes up.”
I licked my lips and took the rope, trying to find honesty in the man’s eyes. “That doesn’t make sense. It’ll be light in less than an hour. I’ve been following this thing all night.”
His eyes shined in the darkness. “Trust me. It’s the only chance you have.
I don’t know why I believed him, but I did as he said. And he was right. Just as the sun peeked out over the mountain tops, I stumbled out of the woods, battered, beaten, and exhausted. I dropped the rope and fell to my knees, relief drowning me as I spotted my car. I couldn’t believe it. I had made it out. I looked over my shoulder and saw the rope disappear into the foliage, slowly being pulled back by some unseen force. I shivered.
What the hell had I just lived through? Who was that man, and why did he help me?
At that moment, I didn’t care. I just wanted to get away from this goddamn mountain. I stumbled into my car and pulled the keys out from under the seat, fingers trembling. I started my car and pulled away. I felt tears run down my cheeks, and I realized that I was surprised to be alive.
I’m still haunted by that trip. I’ll never forget the fear and horror I was exposed to. I haven’t set foot in any woods since then, and I don’t think I will be anytime soon.
One thing that still scares me, though.
It was what the man said…
“Maybe you’ll get sent here.”
I’ve started going to church, those words driving me to my knees and seeking comfort in religion. I don’t care what I have to do, what kind of sacrifices I need to make; I’ll do anything so I don’t have to go back to that mountain.
I’ll do anything so I don’t have to see what’s at the end of that rope…
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available