Today, for The 13 Days of Halloween, I have another piece of spooky short fiction. It’s called The Trail, and it’s from my recently released short story collection Devil’s Dozen. If there is a lesson to be learned here, its to always be prepared, especially when you go out on a day hike. You just never know who you might meet. And like all of us, the spirits get lonely sometimes, too.
Aaron watched in growing fear as the shadows crept over the trees, shrouding the forest around him in an ever-increasing blanket of darkness. The sounds of the animals rustling in the leaves, or the crickets chirping had seemed so natural and friendly earlier in the bright light of day. This wooded landscape, so beautiful and awe-inspiring only a few hours ago, now seemed to be made up of the building blocks from his most horrid nightmares. As the encroaching dark continued to drown out his vision, the formerly-welcoming array of sounds were beginning to take on an evil, unknown quality. But at least he was still on the trail.
He has mis-timed how long the leisurely hike up the mountain would take. By his best guess, the sun had just passed the horizon and Aaron was still at least three miles from where he had parked his truck. The semi-darkness didn’t allow for a very good view of the path before him as he continued to scuffle along at a quickened pace. One false step, and Aaron’s foot struck on a large rock protruding from the earth, causing him to lose his balance and topple to the ground, striking his elbow on another such jagged stone. The sharp tinge of pain that shot up his arm forced a low yelp from Aaron in response. He at least still had the capacity to muffle his cry so as not to attract undue attention to himself here, alone in the darkening forest.
Despite his growing apprehension, Aaron was slightly pleased he still managed to possess enough self-control to remain cautious. Black bears and even some types of wild cats were known to roam these woods, and he wasn’t about to attract one if he could help it. He collected himself from the ground and rubbed his sore elbow, feeling a small abrasion and a corresponding still-swelling bump, but luckily nothing was broken, this time. With darkness continuing to fall, and his being without a flashlight or lantern of any sort, more such falls were almost inevitable.
From what he could still see through the shroud of trees above him, the sky was becoming increasingly overcast, as well. That would effectively cut off any light he could have expected from the evening’s near-full moon. Aaron couldn’t decide whether to continue on and further risk injury or try and find some sort of shelter nearby. There appeared to be a clearing off to his left where he could build a fire. If he stayed here, with no supplies except for a lighter, a small utility knife and a water bottle containing only a few more swallows, he would have to have a fire, he thought. And now, he felt like a bigger fool than ever for his decision to leave his phone in the truck. He’d wanted a nice, relaxing day, out of touch from the world constantly pushing at him through that little device. Well, he got his wish. Aaron couldn’t be more out of touch with the world than he was right now.
He considered his predicament for a moment before deciding that a fire would be too risky. If nothing else, the warmth would attract snakes, and that would be the last thing he needed. But to stay here without a fire would be equally risky, if not worse. The temperature was supposed to fall into the thirties overnight, and Aaron didn’t even have a well-insulated coat, let alone any blankets. In the end, he thought he might be better off continuing onward, even in the dark, than to risk death from exposure.
“What the hell are you doin’ out here?” a voice suddenly called out through the darkness from somewhere behind Aaron, sending a stark fear bolting through him. His mind instantly raced to all sorts of gruesome possibilities. Maybe he had stumbled onto the killing grounds of some vicious mass murderer who lived out in these secluded woods. It could be some whacko just waiting for people to get lost out here where help was nonexistent, so he could brutally kill them and use them for stew.
Aaron spun around to try and get a good look at this potential assailant.
“Uh, I, um, got a little mixed up and lost track of time,” Aaron said, knowing that it was probably not a good idea to give up too much information but figuring it was as good an explanation as any.
“Damn stupid kids,” the voice replied, getting slightly louder as it continued, sounding as though it was approaching.
Through the blackening haze, he finally began to make out the silhouette of a man, decked out in what appeared to be all the necessary hiking supplies he had neglected to bring himself. As the man got closer, Aaron took a small step back, still uncertain of the stranger’s motivations. The man’s voice sounded like someone in his mid-thirties, maybe older, but he still couldn’t make out a face to confirm his suspicions. The darkness covered the man enough that he couldn’t make out very many specific details. The only thing he could tell for certain was that he appeared to be wearing a heavy white coat and carrying a large dark blue or possibly black backpack.
“Look kid,” the man spoke again, “Do you have any idea where you are?”
“Yes,” Aaron replied, trying desperately to sound confident. “I’m on the trail I started on this morning and I think my truck is just a couple miles further on.”
“You think? You’re gonna get yourself killed not knowing where you are at all times out here,” the man scolded him. “Got it?”
Aaron nodded slowly, not completely sure if the man could see his response.
“Look, if you’re not certain, you’d better find someplace to stay out here for the night then try and find your way back in the daylight.”
“That’s what I was trying to figure out,” Aaron said. “I was gonna build a fire in that clearing over there.”
“Bad idea,” the man said, matter of factly. “A fire out in the open like this’ll bring a bear right to ya. And we’ve got timber rattlers out here, too, that love to curl up with campers beside the fire. One of those bites ya way out here, and you’ll be dead before you ever get back to your car.
“There’s a small cave off of the left side of this trail here about a hundred yards on up. I used it a couple years back when I got caught in a snowstorm. You’ll be safe there.”
Aaron initially wanted to say no thanks to the man, was still more than a little unnerved by his sudden appearance from nowhere. But he also didn’t want to spend the night out here in the cold. Plus, the man’s mention of timber rattlers only added to his earlier fear of snakes. The man, despite Aaron’s misgivings, did seem to know his way around the forest. And he had said that he’d used the cave of which he spoke before, in conditions that must have been much worse than this.
The man began to walk away without waiting for a reply from Aaron, as if the matter had been settled. The choice was abrupt and stark; stay here and get eaten or maybe freeze to death, or follow the man to the cave and pass an uncomfortable night hoping for the best. Aaron finally made his call, deciding on what he considered to be the lesser of the two evils he now faced, and quickly followed the man.
The stranger walked over the rough and unseen terrain as smoothly as if he were crossing a linoleum kitchen floor. Aaron, on the other hand, lost his balance, stumbled and nearly fell several times, but somehow willed himself to stay upright. He didn’t want to appear any more incompetent than he already did. They walked on for a brief few minutes before the man stopped and pointed to an area to the left of the trail.
“There’s the cave,” he said.
Aaron strained his eyes in that direction, barely making out a small patch that remarkably seemed to be darker than the surrounding area.
‘I really don’t wanna go in there,’ he thought instantly, but still went along with the suggestion because he didn’t want to offend the man who seemed so much more knowledgeable about survival that he was.
“I’ll go in first and check it out,” the stranger said, almost seeming to sense Aaron’s apprehension, “to make sure there aren’t any critters already living here.”
The man knelt down and disappeared into the small black hole. Aaron waited impatiently in the dull, fading light, suppressing a sudden urge to turn and run back down the trail now, while the stranger couldn’t see him.
“It’s all clear,” the man’s voice eventually called out from the void with a slightly perceptible echo in its tone, “Come on down.”
Aaron took a deep breath, and made his way to the opening, testing each step before him slightly. He put out his hand to feel his way into the cave when it came to rest on a large stone above the entrance. Pausing for an instant for a closer examination, Aaron realized that the cave was actually just a crevice between a collection of much larger rocks, and not a hole leading into the ground as he had assumed.
He slowly bent down and made his way into the opening, still being extremely cautious of each step. Soon, he reached what felt like a level floor, and he began to walk deeper into the cave. Moving further into the darkness, Aaron found himself again questioning the man. How did he get down here without a light, and why wasn’t there one on now?
“Excuse me, sir?” Aaron called out softly, hearing even his light, hesitant words bounce back at him from the rock walls. “Are you there?”
Suddenly, a loud crash came from behind him, causing Aaron to let out a screech of shock and fear. Unlike when he had tripped on the trail earlier, in here, in the chill air and total darkness, he hadn’t been able to muffle his unexpected cry.
‘Oh, screw this,’ he thought, and turned to try and head back out into the wilderness, feeling his way toward the entrance as he could no longer even make out the faintest hint of light before him. But when he reached the place where he knew the cave’s opening had been, he found the way blocked by one of the large stones he’d felt as he’d entered. Gripped by a sudden panic, Aaron pressed his shoulders into the stone, digging his feet into the ground and shoving with all the strength he could summon, but to no avail. The rock would not budge even an inch.
Finally, calming himself slightly, he turned again to face the darkness of the cave.
“I think we’re trapped,” he said, unlike earlier, actually hoping the man was still in the cave with him and hadn’t been the one that moved that stone that now confined him. Waiting a few seconds for a non-existent reply, Aaron finally yelled out, his fear starting to get the best of him.
“C’mon, say something! What do we do?”
But still, there came no reply. Aaron again made his way deeper into the cave, again feeling his way along the stone walls as he went. His steps were slower and more deliberate, yet he still managed to strike something in the path before him, causing him to tumble forward to the dirt covered ground. Aaron struggled to get himself upright again, but in the darkness, he had lost his bearings before finally finding the rock wall once again with his flailing, panic-driven arms. Taking another deep breath or two, Aaron suddenly remembered the lighter in his pocket, quickly fishing it out and struggling to generate the flame, striking three or four times before finally bursting to light.
For an instant, his eyes were whited out by the sudden glare from the firelight in the intense black of the cave, but soon enough, they adjusted and he was able to make out the object he had fallen over. Looking down at the thing at his feet, Aaron’s mind completely reeled from the awful sight, and he dropped the lighter, rushing the small cave back into total darkness.
Aaron didn’t dwell on it for very long, or make out much in the way of specific details, but he had seen enough in that single instant of clarity. A decayed skeleton of a man was lying against the wall, and the only specifics he could make out were a battered white coat and the dust-covered dark blue, almost black backpack it appeared to be wearing.
The Trail, copyright 2011, Dan Meadows and Watershed Publications. All rights reserved.
If you enjoyed what you just read, you can click on the link below to find out more about the book it came from, my new 13-story collection, Devil’s Dozen.
And for more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my original short story collection Bad Timing.
Click below for more fright-filled stuff. And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…
The 13 Days of Halloween