19 Feb The Forest
“The Forest”Written by T.F. Ahmad Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 28 minutes
I spent my childhood in a small town. Long, winding single-lane roads with speed limits that topped out at seventy miles per hour were common. Modest-sized houses on large lots dotted the landscape, innumerable trees providing privacy and anonymity. One of those houses was mine. It was set back from the street about one hundred feet behind a row of tall slippery elms that lined the road. A gravel path wound around hedges and between a waist-high wooden fence.
I never had any siblings, so my free time was spent with an open book clutched in my hands. My parents encouraged this isolating activity, as it kept me out of trouble, out of the road, and out of the woods behind my house. These woods were thick, effectively blocking out what lay beyond my backyard. Though there was a high fence enclosing our property, getting into the forest was as simple as moving aside two panels that had been knocked loose by my dad’s lawnmower. To me, those loose panels were an invitation to a world begging to be explored. My parents did not see it that way.
“You could get lost out there,” was a typical warning from my mother. “Once you get a certain distance in, you won’t be able to tell which way is north or south.”
“You never know what kind of animals are out there, son,” my father was fond of saying. “There are wolves and coyotes and possibly even bears.”
These warnings never frightened me. What did frighten me was a tale my friend Scott told me.
“You know the real reason your parents won’t let you in those woods, right?” he asked one day when we were sitting on my back patio sipping cans of Pepsi.
I was in my favorite chair, a white recliner with soft floral print cushions. Scott sat cross-legged on a bench made of dark brown wood nearby. We were both facing the forest, watching as the sun started to approach the tops of the trees in the purple-orange sky. I believe we were both eleven at the time.
“No,” I answered. I wasn’t sure if I should’ve felt embarrassed at this admission.
Scott slurped the last drops of cola out of the lip of his can and set it on the wooden floor of the deck. He straightened like he was ready to deliver a speech. Anticipation painted his face.
“There’s a place in the woods,” he began, “a very specific place. You’ll only find it if you’re looking for it, and even then, you may not find it.” He reached down for his Pepsi but jerked his hand back, remembering it was empty. I shook my half-finished can at him, and he nodded. I went into my kitchen through the sliding glass doors on the deck and grabbed two fresh Pepsis.
“Hey Scott,” I asked, tossing him his soda.
He looked up at me.
“What did you mean when you said ‘even then you may not find it?’” “I mean,” Scott said, opening his soda, “that you have to want to find it. Like, desire it so bad that you don’t care what else happens.” Though I had no idea what Scott meant by this, my spine tingled. The light outside was slowly disappearing as I took my seat.
“Anyways,” my friend continued, “this place is a sacred place, like very important to a certain group of people.”
“Indians?” I blurted out. We had just watched The Shining earlier that week, and Indian burial grounds were fresh in my mind.
“No, stupid,” he said, smiling. “It’s important to the Doorway Seekers.” He had to be messing with me. The Doorway Seekers? That sounded like something he pulled out of his ass. Scott looked at me with an expression that was part victory and part anticipation. I gestured him to go on, and he did.
“The Doorway Seekers, or just plain Seekers, are a kind of satanic cult, dude.” “They, like, worship Satan?”
Scott shook his head. “No. These guys are different. They believe that in order for the world to keep on existing, there has to be some evil in it. They think that without evil to balance out the good, the world will be destroyed.”
My attention was his at this point. I still was sure he was fucking with me, but it was an interesting story.
“They’re called the Doorway Seekers because they’re always looking for entrances into Hell that are spread out all over the world. They use these doorways to release a calculated amount of evil into the world, just enough to keep the world in balance.” He leaned in closer. “And one of those doorways is somewhere in that forest.”
I shuddered. Say what you will about Scott; that guy can tell one hell of a story. I looked towards the thicket of trees beyond the fence and noticed night was approaching. The thin space between the trees was pitch black, hiding an uncounted number of unnameable horrors.
I went to take another sip of Pepsi but noticed I had bled my can dry. Chuckling, I put the can down. Scott must have noticed the awkwardness of my chuckle because he eyed me with concern.
“You all right?” he asked, his small hands crushing his own empty can.
“Yeah,” I said. The same awkward chuckle escaped my lips again. “That was some story.” “Oh, that was no story,” Scott said. “Another Pepsi?” I held my hands up like a criminal caught in the crosshairs of a determined cop. “Oh no, no more for me. Any more of these, and my teeth will fall out of my mouth.” A silence followed, punctuated by the passing of a car on the distant main road.
“Are there any Seekers here in Oak Lake?”
He thought for a moment before answering. “You know what,” he said. “I’m not really sure.” I never tried to verify Scott’s story. Why bother? As far as I was concerned, the whole thing was an elaborate fiction, a good story to tell around the campfire to your friends. I certainly never asked my parents if they’d heard of the Doorway Seekers.
I did not forget about the story, but I tried to put it out of my mind. I’d arrive home by early afternoon from swimming camp down at the middle school. I read books in my bedroom or watched whatever was on Cartoon Network to pass the time. When I looked towards the forest, all I saw was the gentle, lazy swinging of the branches and the play of light and dark between the leaves and the recesses of the forest.
At night, however, Scott’s story became a frightful focal point in my mind. There would be a faint rustling from between the walls, or a dog barking in the distance, or my parents shuffling about the house, and I would think of Hell and doorways. I would look up from my book or from the television and stare out the window at the forest, its arms in the form of trunks and its fingers in the form of branches reaching out from the darkness to grab me.
Scott hadn’t said much in his story at all, just that there was a doorway to Hell in the forest behind my house. No gruesome details, no human sacrifice, no blood or guts. But that small story had been enough. For a boy with a wild imagination, it was enough.
That is why I don’t know what compelled me to start going for walks in the forest. Maybe I wanted to prove Scott and my parents wrong. The forest wasn’t dangerous; it wasn’t evil. Or maybe I thirsted for an adventure like Captain Morgan in Cup of Gold. Or maybe I was just bored.
I only went for walks during the day, tearing off my clothes after the bus dropped me off from swim camp. I would squeeze into a fresh shirt, sweatpants, and secure, lime green running shoes. I’d put on my Cubs baseball cap and grab my mom’s sunglasses from her dresser. She wouldn’t miss them. I also grabbed my father’s hunting knife, just in case.
That first time, I crept across the lawn to the fence that backed up for the first line of trees. I was afraid someone would see and tell my parents, ending my first act of rebellion before it even began.
After removing the two loose planks from the fence, I crawled through the opening. There was no ceremony, no real threshold to cross besides the fence. The forest didn’t seem as dense up close. Walking between the trees was surprisingly easy. My path was dark, the cover of the trees cast and almost total. However, an occasional opening allowed in a bullet of sunshine. The first bullet shocked my vision when I looked up. The world appeared black and white, devoid of all color, and I had to sit back down against a tree trunk in order to regain my composure. I slipped my mother’s sunglasses on my face, learning from my mistake.
Lessons learned and repeat excursions led me to gather a measure of enjoyment from my walks. Every day I walked further and further in, retracing my steps around gnarled roots protruding from the earth, twigs that never seemed to be in the same arrangement twice, and changes in elevation as low as a stair or as high as my chest. I never encountered any animals on my walks, a fact I found odd. There were no squirrels gathering nuts, no birds chirping their love songs overhead, not even insects to bite my flesh. As the days and weeks rolled along, this feature of the forest passed into normality and walking with the sound of the wind as my only companion became the norm.
I was always careful to keep my activities hidden. I left the house locked, the key looped through one of the laces of my shoes. I kept a strict eye on my watch and always put the two fence planks back to where they belonged. I was showered and dressed by the time my parents came home from work with a thick novel resting on my thighs, the sounds of Radiohead or Incubus softly pulsing from the CD player. I put the music on for my parents’ comfort. It made them uneasy when they came home to a silent house, me perched on an easy chair reading like I’d fused with the furniture.
I still hung out with Scott on occasion. Our schedules were mismatched, with him at football practice at the park district while I was out playing Magellan. I never told him about how I spent my afternoons, and he never asked. We didn’t talk about the forest either, preferring to pass out evenings watching TV or playing board games.
The walks started to become activities I’d look forward to, and my traditional elation at weekends turned to anxious waiting for my parents to start work again. The forest had ceased to become sinister, the terror fading to a thin mist.
It was not until late July that the terror returned.
The night was a cool one, if my memory serves me right. I had gone on my walk in the forest that afternoon, pushing further than I had on previous days. The walk was uneventful, banal even. As the sun set, my mind was deep in the world of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Roland of Gilead was fighting for his life, being slowly eaten alive by strange lobster-like creatures.
I had a habit of reading using the scant light of my bedside lamp. I was rubbing the strain out of my eyes when I heard a sound coming from the backyard. It sounded like someone had dropped a piece of wood. I stood up, stretched, and made my way to the window. From this second-story vantage point, I had a panoramic view of my backyard. It was dark, the only light spilling from the neighbors’ yards on either side of us.
My eyes scanned the darkness, panning back and forth like a drunk man with an unsteady camera. They eventually focused on a sight they had glazed over a moment before: in the back corner of the yard, two wooden fence planks lay against the fence proper, showing an opening into the forest beyond. My first reaction was surprise, followed by confusion, followed by panic. I was sure I had replaced the planks to their proper place when I had re-emerged from the woods. I had done that very thing with religious devotion every day for weeks. Failure now seemed bizarre.
I threw on a red sweater with the Statue of Liberty on the front and crept into my kitchen. I walked towards the sliding glass doors that led to the patio and lifted the blinds as quietly as I could. Staring, I remained motionless, listening for any sign that my parents had stirred. They had not. My hand reached for the lock, but at that same moment, my eye caught a flash of something to the left. At first, I thought a fly had entered into my vision, but I was wrong. A crouched figure darted across the lawn. It looked at first like a large canvas sack of dirty laundry, a rolling, pulsing blob in the night. I soon saw legs, made out a torso and a head. Somebody was running towards the opening in the fence.
I was motionless, my hand still reaching for the lock as I watched the figure disappear back into the forest. My terror was total now, and I even feared turning around. Had the figure seen me? Why did it run? Did my parents see it?
After what felt like countless hours, but was perhaps only a few minutes, I turned and ran up the stairs, not caring if I woke anyone. I bolted into my room and jumped underneath the covers with my heart pounding in my chest like a frantic caged bird. I do not recall when I fell asleep that night.
The next morning, I awoke, blissfully unaware of anything except the weight of my own body. I blinked several times, and the previous night’s horror crept back into my mind.
Some dream, I thought as I stretched in front of my full-length mirror. I must have fallen asleep reading again. I really should—
The thought was interrupted by the sight of what I wore. A red pullover hoodie with a circular logo bearing the Statue of Liberty stared back in the reflection of my mirror. The realization that the previous night’s events had not been a dream drew me to my window. I remembered with stark clarity the dark crouching figure running along the lawn towards the opening in the fence.
I ran to my window. The opening was gone. Where the improvised doorway had once been was now occupied by two wooden planks set neatly into the frame. Whoever had been there last night had replaced the boards. I shuddered, pulled the loathsome hoodie over my head, and tossed it in the corner. It was Saturday, and I did not need a calendar to tell me that; my mother’s cooking odors wafted into my room, a siren song that would doom my hunger. I ran down the stairs as any middle schooler would at the smell of his mother’s cooking. I smelled eggs, I smelled bacon, and I smelled coffee. Though I didn’t drink coffee, I found the smell relaxing.
“Good morning,” my mother said. She was a tall, thin woman, brown hair resting lightly on her head in full curls. She was wearing a white apron with blue trim, a faded bear on the front. The bear was anthropomorphized to look like a patient mother with a bonnet, glasses, and a rolling pin in one paw. There were letters beneath this image, but they were either too faded to read or too unimportant to remember.
I was about to return her greeting when I noticed the sliding doors. The blinds were lowered but rotated at an angle to allow sunlight to spill into the kitchen. Had I lowered them the previous night?
“Oh, silly boy,” my mom said, noticing my transfixed gaze. “You forgot to close the blinds last night. Your father lowered them this morning.”
My father? Had my father also put the planks back in the fence this morning? I gazed up at my mother. She was smiling at me, so I smiled back. There was no indication that she knew about the fence. No worry in her face, no reluctant questions about if I had been in the backyard messing around. My mother’s calm had the opposite effect on me, however. My stomach sank into my bowels. She didn’t know about the fence. That meant someone was in my backyard last night, and that someone had closed off the fence.
I didn’t go on my walk the following Monday. Breaking this steadfast ritual felt odd at best and blasphemous at worst, but my fear won out in the end.
The afternoon after swimming camp was spent in front of the TV with little attention paid to what was on. Scott’s odd story about cults and the doorways to Hell started creeping in again. It had been months since he had told me the story, and the details were murky. Grasping at them was like trying to see underwater without any goggles on.
What had the cult been called? The Doorway…what? Finders? Keepers? Jeepers? Creepers? Whatever they were called didn’t matter to me at that moment. What mattered was what they did.
“They’re looking for entrances to Hell,” Scott had said. “They use these doorways to release a calculated amount of evil into the world.”
I sat in front of the TV all day. When my parents came home, they remarked at how I wasn’t reading. I hadn’t felt like reading that day. When Scott called, I told him I wasn’t feeling well. I went to bed early.
The next few days were the same. I woke up, went to my swimming classes, rode the bus home, showered, sat in front of the TV. I rarely read. When I tried, I would retreat as soon as I got engrossed in the narrative. Why try and get involved with a nuanced universe when you were so preoccupied with your own?
My parents offered the standard questions about my health. Why wasn’t I eating? Was I having trouble sleeping? Why had I been in the same place in my book all week? I gave non-committal answers, and they left me alone. They had no idea, but I was saving energy, mentally preparing myself.
I decided on Friday, one week after the incident in the backyard, to resume my walk. I started off as I had before, changing into my t-shirt, shorts, Cubs cap, and lime-green running shoes and removing the two planks from the fence with the care one uses when handling infants. The space before me seemed darker somehow, as if it were much later than one o’clock in the afternoon. I raised my sunglasses and lowered them several times, gauging the light. After a moment’s consideration, I draped the sunglasses from my shirt collar. I wouldn’t need them today. As long as I remained smart about where I looked, I would not be blinded by any sunlight.
I retraced my steps, walking around twigs and roots, twisting around tree trunks, and measuring my steps. In all of my weeks of walking, I had made it further each time, passing another set of trees here, marking a wide opening there, and mentally tracking my stopping point every time. My memory was surprisingly good here, and I was always sure I was taking the same route. Today felt no different. It was as if I hadn’t skipped a day.
As a result, I went further than I ever had before. My progress was alarming; it was electric. I knew it was because my body was making up for lost time. I was barely aware I was doing this, barely aware that I had been wound back like a spring and let go. I passed my last stopping point, noting the sun in the sky with a quick glance upwards. There was still time before the light made its departure, and I was determined to use every second.
I had left a scratch mark on the trunk of a tree to denote my stopping point the previous week using my father’s knife. I kept walking. My legs felt Olympian. I listened for any noises that weren’t the crunch of my feet on leaves or my breath escaping my lungs. I heard nothing: not a bird singing its evening song, nor a mosquito buzzing in search of blood. The silence was to be expected, but the gulf of time between my last walk and today meant I now noticed it anew. And it unnerved me.
Why weren’t the birds chirping? Why, in all my excursions into the forest, had I never returned covered in itchy, reddening mosquito bites? There was nothing alive here besides the trees, deep in the forest behind my house. I was walking in a land devoid of any animal life. An odd loneliness filled me. My walking slowed as I looked at my watch. The digital display said 3:45. The sun usually set at eight this time of year, but I knew my parents would be home around seven pm.
I made my way back, my pace quick. A disquieting feeling entered my mind. The magic wonder I felt on these walks was gone. The figure in my backyard stole that feeling from me. Before, I felt like Bilbo Baggins going on an adventure. Now, I felt like I was running away from something. There was now a feeling of finality to it all, a curtain closing at the end of the best play in the world.
My pace slowed as fatigue set in my muscles. I glanced at my watch—4:57 pm. By my estimation, I was still two hours away from home. I would be cutting it close to my parents’ arrival. I sighed and kept on marching.
It was around six o’clock when I heard the sound. It was a far-away sound, innocuous and innocent in any other context. In the confines of a silent forest, it was sharp and ominous.
Someone was whistling.
It was a few seconds before I stopped. Frozen, I strained to hear the odd music and pinpoint its origin. I closed my eyes, having seen this done in countless movies.
The whistling was coming from the darker part of the forest in the east, adjacent to my path home. Great.
I looked at my watch. 6:15. It was starting to get darker. I was going to be late. Without a second thought, I darted towards the sound of the whistling. I already had an excuse in mind for when my parents came home: I would tell them I was grabbing a ball that flew over the fence. When I came back empty-handed, I would say it must have flown into the forest. I smiled at my own cleverness.
Almost as soon as I started walking east, I felt the growing darkness on my body as if it were a physical substance. I tried not to shudder, but an involuntary spasm rippled through me. I can’t recall if I was fearful or if I was just excited.
The whistling continued, a pleasant tune I did not recognize that was high in pitch. It sounded like a sea shanty or a working song that I had heard in some place or other. It got louder as I got closer. I felt a rush of heat all over my body. Nerves, I guess. I had not encountered another person in these woods before, and I was wary of what I would see.
Yet as I crouched from tree to tree, my confidence grew. I walked carefully, making little noise. I hid behind the wide trunks of trees I passed, careful to stay out of sight of anything ahead of me.
I encountered the man suddenly, but because of the care of my approach, I was able to dart behind a wide elm. When I peered around the trunk, I found that I needn’t have been worried. The man had his back to me. He was seated, still whistling the same sea shanty, its pleasant melody a stark contrast to my state of excited apprehension.
He appeared to be tall and thin, hunched over so his vertebrae made a mountain range up the middle of his back. His black t-shirt was clean but full of small holes like pitted asphalt. His dark hair was askew, and I could see his pale skin contrasting his dark clothing.
It all seemed wrong when I stopped to think about it. It wasn’t just the fact that I was surreptitiously watching another person without their knowledge; it was also that I couldn’t think of a good reason why this man would be in this part of the forest. There wasn’t another house close by, though I’m sure he could have just been on a leisurely stroll like me. But that also felt wrong. Call it a hunch, but I had the distinct impression that this man had come from deeper in the forest. I did not know how far back the forest went, but this man had to have walked a great distance to get to where he sat.
I was interrupted in my thoughts by a change. The man had stopped whistling. My body tensed. Why had I not been paying attention? I was sure the man was going to turn around, gaze in my direction, and grin an evil grin. I was sure that if he did, I would be frozen in my spot, unable to run.
The man did indeed stand up, a deep grunt escaping his lips. I held my breath. The gaunt man, however, did not turn around. He brushed at his pants and started walking away from me, never looking over his shoulder. He resumed whistling, but this tune was different and less cheerful.
Only when he had gone twenty feet or so did I allow myself to breathe again. The wind whistled through the trees, shaking branches and leaving behind a calming soundtrack to my nervousness. I peered at the man. He seemed to be ambling along without haste. I could still see his form, though in a few seconds, he would be obscured by the thicket of trees in front of him.
I had to make a decision then. I seemed to be making a lot of those that day. I glanced at my watch. 6:25 pm. Had I really been watching this man for almost ten minutes? It seemed as if no time had passed at all.
To this day, I do not know what made me follow him. Even now, many years later, I think about the consequences of that decision. How did I think this was going to turn out? Following a man alone in the woods is never an idea borne of innocent curiosity.
But follow the man I did. I slipped from behind the tree and made my way to the spot where the man had been sitting. The area had been cleared for some unknown purpose many years back; there were no fallen trees or natural rocks in this space. There was just a handful of native weeds and a large root of a nearby tree jutting out of the ground like a gnarled tooth. It was on this root the man had been sitting.
I flitted from tree to tree, feeling like James Bond on a secret mission. The excitement of adventure filled me again. I felt like a character in a story, not a young boy who may have been on his way to encounter real horror.
I kept the man in sight, using the sound of his walking to mask my own subtle footfalls. I dared not look away from him. I scarcely blinked, my concentration causing the edges of my vision to become clouded.
I almost missed the man side-step behind a tree. At the same moment, my foot kicked something painfully. I bit my lip to stop from crying out and looked down to see what I had run into. A large stone was on the ground. It looked as if it had been placed there. I darted my eyes to the left and to the right and had my suspicions confirmed. There were dozens of stones laid in a curve on the ground apart a foot apart. I appeared to be standing on the outer rim of a stone circle.
This did not unnerve me until I walked forward to the tree where I saw the gaunt man disappear. It was there I encountered another stone circle. The stones were the same size and spaced apart the same as the others. I looked from behind the tree and saw the man I had followed. His back was to me again, only this time there were two other figures standing beside him. One was the same height as the gaunt man, also wearing a black t-shirt and dark pants. This second man was larger than the first, his features round. The third figure was a short, petite woman whose hair was hidden underneath a black ski cap. She was also wearing a black t-shirt and black jeans. They had already started speaking, but my timing was perfect.
“So, we are ready then?” the larger man said. His voice seemed to be filled with impatience.
“Yes, yes,” said the gaunt man in a placating tone.
“Okay.” The larger man let out a deep sigh.
“Afraid, Baxter?” the woman said. Her voice was oddly soft and sweet given her manner of dress.
The large man, Baxter, huffed. “Have you ever known me to be afraid, Kel?” Kel smiled. “No, but you seem nervous.”
“Well, I haven’t seen the offering yet.”
“You’ll see the offering tonight,” the gaunt man said.
I had no idea what they were talking about, but I felt uneasy. Their tone was strained, nervous. They seemed to have a great task ahead of them.
Kel spoke again. “I hope this time you’ve picked an offering that won’t squirm too much.” The gaunt man turned towards the woman, putting him in profile. A small smile curled his lips. “This one won’t squirm. Trust me. He’s a bit athletic, but I brought something special to make sure he doesn’t run away.” “A paralytic?” Baxter asked.
They all nodded significantly, as if this word was a prayer.
My feelings of unease grew. I reached towards my belt to grab my knife in order to defend myself. From what, I did not know.
“Listen up, Bax and Kel,” the gaunt man said. I knew authority when I heard it. “If this is to go off without a hitch, we must all be on time.”
Again significant nods. My fingers wrapped around the hilt of my father’s knife, slowly pulling it from the sheath.
“Please alert all of the other Seekers and make sure they get the message.” My breath caught at the familiar word. Seekers.
My chest felt tight, and my muscles failed me. My hand reaching for the knife stumbled, and the weapon slipped from my grasp. My panic barely had time to register before I heard the sound of metal on stone. The knife bounced off one of the stones in the circle at my feet and fell into the dirt.
I did not waste a second. I turned and ran in the direction I had come, careful not to stumble over the outer stone circle. I did not look to see if the three Doorway Seekers had seen me. I did not grieve for the knife I had dropped. I simply ran.
I did not stop until I reached my fence. I did not know how long it took or what the distance was, but dark was overtaking light when I replaced the fence planks and ran into the house. I checked the time on the microwave: 7:24 pm.
I stood in my kitchen, ears straining for the sounds I expected: my parents yelling, feet stamping on the stairs, rustling in the rooms upstairs. I heard nothing. My parents were not home yet. It was unexpected, but not worrying. I went to the phone and, sure enough, found the red light for “new message” blinking. I pressed play on the answering machine and heard the familiar sound of my mother. Her voice comforted me.
“Hi there, sweetie. Your father and I ran into a few old friends in the city and decided to have dinner with them. We will most likely not be home until late. I am sorry to have missed you, and sorry to spring this on you, but you can watch whatever you want on TV and eat the leftover lasagna that’s in the fridge. Please use the microwave and not the oven, please. Love you, and see you tonight.”
The message ended. I stared at the answering machine for some time, unable to decide if I was lucky or unlucky. I decided to take my mother’s advice to heat up the lasagna. I brought a heaping portion on a large plate to the living room and settled in front of the TV.
But I couldn’t keep focused. Everything about the day’s strange events was running through my head. I was no longer frightened, but I still felt a nervous energy in the air. Eventually, the combination of food, the drone of the television, and my ceaseless running in the summer sun caused me to drift off to sleep. I do not know how long I was out when I heard the noise. I must have thought it was from my dream, for I do not remember stirring.
I only jerked awake when I felt the gloved hand cover my mouth. My eyes burst open, only to face a darkened living room full of three silhouettes of three people. One of these people had covered my mouth and was standing to my left. I was pulled off the couch by a fourth person I could not see, who proceeded to grab me in a bear hug from behind to stop me from squirming. A burning hot lance of fear consumed my body, and my eyes became wild. I attempted to scream, but the hand over my mouth pressed harder. I attempted to bite the hand but only caught bits of the fabric in my teeth.
“Gag him,” said a cruel voice muffled by what was probably a mask.
The hand over my mouth was gone, and a damp cloth was stuffed in my mouth with startling quickness. I did not have time to scream.
The effects of whatever they had soaked the rag with were immediate. I felt my mouth grow numb. My fingers, toes, and other extremities started to tingle. It was like when I got my tooth pulled at the dentist. I wasn’t entirely sure, but I think the grip of the fourth captor loosened slightly. I could still see, though my vision was starting to blur.
I was moving. They were carrying me out of the house. How had they even gotten in? My mind raced with harried thoughts of escape. I was led out the sliding glass doors of my kitchen across the lawn. The fence planks had been removed and were propped against the fence. I was roughly pushed through. The evident leader of the group seemed to be barking orders, but I do not remember what he said.
My fear was total. I had become paralyzed by both it and by whatever they had put on the rag in my mouth. Soon, thoughts of escape changed to thoughts of sleep. If only I could fall unconscious. Maybe then, I could wake from this nightmare back in the safety of my bed. Every time I closed my eyes, something jolted them open again. I was either pushed, tripped over a snarling root, or heard a loud barking order from the leader.
It did not take long to find the stone circle. Even in the darkness and in my altered state, I could tell that was where we were going. Through my haze, I could hear voices. They didn’t conceal their movements or lower their voices. They did not care who heard; there was no one around to hear them.
The mass of people tightened into a circle. Someone struck something, and a whoosh sounded into the night air. A column of flame soon followed, and I could see everyone now in the harsh firelight, their silhouettes like black columns holding up a church of evil. The fire brought a strange clarity to the events, and my fear returned in equal measure to the increasing light. The silhouettes swayed in unison and faint chants in a language I could not recognize reached my ears. Their volume increased as their swaying exaggerated. The shadows seemed to blend together, the black mass becoming one. The flames danced as well to their chanting in what looked like a drunken swagger.
Above all of this, one voice was louder than the others. It was a deep voice, oddly familiar in the unfamiliar space.
“And we who shall bear this sacrifice with our own souls…” said the voice. At times, the chanting drowned out parts of the speech, and I had to strain to hear what was being said.
“…to these depths do we inter…”
I closed my eyes tight, not wanting to see the light.
“…for we shall make good what has been made bad…” This meandering speech continued for some time, and I am not entirely sure when it ceased. There was a painful silence, heavy in the night air. Finally, the booming voice spoke again.
“Where is the innocent blood?”
At the moment those words escaped his lips, my captors hauled me upright and pushed me forward towards the roaring fire. I felt the increased heat as the chanting of the shadowed forms around me increased in speed and volume. They seemed more harried and insistent.
When I was at last forced to stop, I was a mere six inches from the edge of the fire, which I now noticed was coming from a deep pit. I was swaying dangerously, but my captors held fast to my arms.
“You have done well,” said the man who spoke earlier. That baritone was familiar in my ears, and in that moment, I felt sure I knew who it was.
I lifted my head, a Herculean effort. When I gazed on the hooded face above me, I gasped, though it came out more like a muffled, wet gurgle.
It was Mr. Cole, my friend Scott’s father.
I attempted to jerk away from my captors so I could scan the rest of the faces in the stone circle. I needed to know if Scott was among them, but I was weak, and my attempt was stopped by the strong hands grasping me.
Mr. Cole’s face remained impassive. He did not speak, though the chanting around me became more insistent. I wanted to ask Mr. Cole why he was doing this. I wanted to beg for help or offer a plea to let me go.
He must have seen something on my face, for he lifted his finger to his lips as if shushing a small child. Was he trying to tell me to keep quiet? Or was he trying to tell me this was our little secret? A faint smile curved on the old man’s face, and a new terror gripped me. That new terror was multiplied tenfold when he produced a knife from his belt. It was a black blade, its edge gleaming in the firelight. His hand clutched the handle with such vigor that I thought it would snap in half. I wish it had. I wish the knife had broken into a million shards, piercing his hand with a million little cuts. But I was not that lucky.
Mr. Cole raised the knife overhead as if it were a trophy. “Is this the Knife of Truth?” he called, his voice thundering off the trees.
“Indeed it is,” chorused the circle of dark shapes.
“Then we shall administer the test,” he said.
He lowered his hand and stepped towards me. My body tensed and the grip on my arms tightened in anticipation. His arm shot out expertly, almost too fast to see. I felt a prick on my triceps and hot liquid trickled down my arm. The pain did not come until I was dragged closer to the pit with my arm jerked violently over the fire. I could see blood running in a slow trickle into the pit, drops coalescing then dripping like a leaky faucet. I bit down against the pain and revulsion, tasting the foul rag still stuffed in my mouth. The chanting around me resumed in a wave, the violence of their voices pressing against my body like an oppressive wind. I had given up fighting. I felt too weak.
The air around me began to change. My face began to feel cold despite my proximity to the fire. A wind started to blow in the still night, the swaying branches and dancing leaves seeming to applaud this horrendous display. The earth became unsteady beneath my feet, but I was held fast and did not pitch forward. The fire in front of me began to change color. I saw a flash of pink, then white smoke began to emerge from the pit, flowing of its own accord. The smoke came in several jets, each stream timed to the rhythm of my heart.
Next came a scream, one that emerged from below. My bones rattled at the sound. The flames and white smoke shot further into the air. The bellowing kept on unabated, unceasing in its terrifying triumph. Everybody reacted, though not in surprise like I had. They were whispering reverently, though I could hear fear and hesitation in their reverie.
The grip on me loosened, but I was too weak to break away. Mr. Cole had not put away his knife. He had not even relaxed his grip. Though he wasn’t looking at me, he was still poised for some action.
It was then I knew that Mr. Cole meant to kill me. He meant to permanently silence me, complete his ritual, and go back to his wife and Scott. My parents would never know of my fate. They would never know what happened to their only son.
This thought galvanized me, though I did not react right away. To do so would play my hand too soon.
The hands gripping me loosened once more. I waited. My captors were getting careless. When their grip had loosened enough, I bent my injured arm at the elbow, ignoring the pain. I removed the wet gag from my mouth and spat. My head instantly cleared. I spat again for good measure and looked up at Mr. Cole. The old man was not looking at me, his gaze transfixed by the white smoke still shooting out from the pit like ghostly bullets.
I brought my arm down and clenched my fist. My arms were still in my captors’ grip, but I was not stopped. With a final effort and a grunt, I wrenched my flexed arm free from my captor and shot my elbow back.
It made contact.
I felt soft flesh and heard a grunt. I spun away from my second captor, who let go of me with a surprising lack of resistance. Surprise was on my side. The momentum of the chanting circle was broken, their congruous effort faltering. It was all the distraction I needed. Without looking for obstacles, I ran toward the circle of revelers, pushing past two who had swayed in opposite directions. The opening they provided was enough for me to squeeze through, and I was off in the forest before they had a chance to assemble.
I ran blindly, not caring where I was headed. Behind me, I could hear cries of surprise, alarm, and anger chasing me. The noise began to recede, and the desperate sound of my footsteps became the only soundtrack to my escape.
The Doorway Seekers had many advantages on me: there were more of them, they were all faster, and they had anger on their side. I, however, knew that forest. Oh, how I knew that forest. My countless explorations had created a mental map that I now accessed. My eyes adjusted to the dark as I dodged obstacles like an acrobat. I darted in and out of trees and ducked beneath low-hanging branches that reached down like the arms of giants. I did not keep track of the time, but it felt both too soon and too late when I reached my house. I replaced the fence planks in their proper spot once I was in my backyard. Though I could not hear the sounds of pursuit, I was frantic in my flight to my house. I opened the screen door and charged into the kitchen. I was on the phone with the police in no time at all.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” the stale voice on the line said.
I told her my emergency. She sounded bored as she took down the details and my address. She told me a patrol car would be around the corner shortly.
I did not have long to wait. When a frantic child in my neighborhood called the police to say he was home alone and thought intruders were breaking into his house, the police showed up fast.
My parents arrived forty minutes after the police. With them present, I made a statement. My parents and the police asked how I’d injured my arm. I told them I was roughhousing with Scott, and I hurt myself. They called Scott’s house, and his father answered, corroborating my story. I had a feeling this would be the case, but I understand how big of a risk that was to take.
The police, nor my parents, nor Mr. Cole’s false confirmation of my whereabouts did anything to ease my nerves. I still felt an incessant dread, a bottomless darkness that I could not shake. I thought at the time it might have been shock from the events that night. I had no idea how wrong I was.
I never saw my friend Scott again. Since there was no final meeting, no last hurrah, I can’t pinpoint the last time I saw him or what we did. After the events of that summer night, Scott stopped answering his phone. Nobody ever returned my calls, and any attempt I made at visiting his house was met with silence. It was as if they had packed up for an extended vacation without bothering to tell anyone when they were coming back.
My parents showed concern for both the flight of the Coles and my change in behavior. They tried tracking down the missing family, but it all came to nothing. They were worried about my sudden night terrors, attributing it to PTSD from the fake break-in attempt I’d experienced. I can’t remember what I dreamt on those nights, but I do remember always waking up with the same feeling of dread I felt that night in the forest. I started to believe that I had erred in some way, that evil was thick in the air due to me.
It was obvious that I had ruined the ritual of the Doorway Seekers. Scott had said that the Seekers released a calculated amount of evil into the world through doorways to Hell. Had I upset that balance somehow?
My theory was confirmed over the next few years. All over the world, tragedy begat tragedy. Four months after my run-in with the Seekers, my parents were gunned down in a massacre at the local mall that claimed 150 lives. Crime rose by forty percent every year thereafter globally. Countries followed Syria and Somalia’s fate, descending into civil war resulting in collapsed central governments. Oil-rich nations became resource deserts, causing a global financial recession. Now more than ever, the crimes of the rich, the powerful, and the political elite went unpunished. Police forces had more unsolved cases on their books than ever before. A collision of two satellites in orbit had caused an ocean of space debris to rain down on the planet, knocking out communications and costing an untold number of lives. The United States, Canada, and Western Europe had gone on “purges,” ridding their populations of undesirables and refugees in order to concentrate their resources.
Preachers around the world prophesied this as the end of days. We were being punished by God, they said. Others said the devil had found his way to the Earth. The rationalists in the world attributed these events to simple entropy. Civilization, given enough time, would always trend towards collapse.
I, however, was one of the few in the world who knew the truth. I had upset a balance that night in the forest. I had stopped what was necessary in order to curb this evil. It took me a while to accept this notion, but once I did, I knew what had to be done.
The ritual must be complete. The doorway must be sealed. I am the only one who can do it. I must head back into the forest.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: T.F. AhmadPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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