NYC Midnight Short Story Contest
Assignment: 1,000 Words
Location: A clearing in a forest
Object: A footstool
This story isn’t long, and you won’t learn any lessons from it. It’s simply what happened to me. Take it or not, believe it or don’t; either way, I’m never getting out of here, and the only thing left to me are my words. I sincerely hope that you, whoever you are, burn these pages once you’ve read them, because the only way to end it is to destroy any trace of it.
It was late by the time I reached the clearing, almost dark. I could just make out the ragged edges of tree stumps and piles of discarded branches and needles turned black with mold. This was no natural meadow; the place had been cleared — stripped, more like it — and hastily. Had I known then what force was responsible for that savage reaping, I would have abandoned my course and possibly escaped with my life. As it was, I was bold and arrogant, and I still believed my objective was worth it.
I no longer believe in anything, except for this endless darkness.
I dug a shallow hole and made a fire of the detritus. The smell that rose from those rotted needles as they burned was nauseating, but it couldn’t be helped. It was cold in the clearing, and I intended to stay the night.
I laugh now at my concerns; so many nights have passed since that first night, and the cold no longer reaches me.
I must have fallen asleep. I don’t remember. I only know what happened when I woke up. A light illuminated the clearing, casting shadows against the tall spruce trees along its edges. I glanced at the fire, where the embers had gone cold. Still, there was that light.
I rose from my bedroll and pulled on a sweater. The clearing had grown colder in the night, and I remember wishing I had dressed warmer. I wished I’d brought something other than the rotted forest to keep the fire going. So many mistakes.
The light — muted, with a murky green tint to it — came from the north-end of the clearing, just the place I planned to investigate in the morning. There was said to be remnants of an ancient homestead here, evidence of which I intended to bring back to my colleagues at the university. Every archeologist had to prove themselves, and this was the course I had chosen: To go into the woods and return with the treasure that would solidify my reputation for years to come.
There is no one to hear my laughter. There is nothing to heed my screams. My blind ambition and all my petty resolve is buried here with me.
It is hard to stay focused. I feel myself growing weaker. I am now nothing more than a prolonged food-source for a creature that has not yet chosen to kill me. But I want to finish the story before I no longer have the strength — or the sanity — to tell it.
I approached the light. I brought nothing with me, not my dig tools, or the small handgun I’d tucked into the outer pocket of my pack, only this slim notebook and pen I keep always tucked into the front pocket of my shirt. Perhaps I believed I was dreaming. The nagging sense of danger — that hint of wrongness — I’d felt since entering the clearing had not abated, but nor had it grown stronger.
The forest had been silent for the duration of my stay in it. Now, as I took another step toward the light, I perceived a low whistle, a desperate keening. There was no wind, nothing to stir the leaves or needles and illicit that awful noise. I knew terror, then, and I felt my first inkling of regret. I should never have come here. No trinket or treasure was worth whatever foul deed had caused — was still causing — that terrible wail.
I turned back, having resolved in that moment to pack up my things and leave the clearing, reputation be damned. Let them laugh at me; at least I’d be free of this place.
I can’t say whether it was hands that pulled me down or the decayed earth itself. All I know is that I was standing in the clearing, that strange green light somehow growing stronger around me, the keening filling my ears, and then I was buried beneath it.
I saw objects as I was dragged down, empty wooden rooms with faded pictures on the walls. A weathered writing desk, a narrow mattress with rumpled bedding, a shotgun mounted above an ancient fireplace, a footstool with a small pair of withered shoes upon it — remnants of the home I had come here to investigate. They were all somehow illuminated with that same sickly green light, more visions than actual things I was seeing, but they were all down here too, beneath the surface of the clearing.
I have gained no more understanding of this place than when I first came. My research did not prepare me. The clearing was said to be home to American settlers, dating back to the early 1800s, but clearly it is more. A trap, maybe. That it is a place of death and always has been, I have no doubt.
I know not the nature of my tormentor, be it beast or man or the poisoned earth itself. I know only that it is evil, and that I am not the first of its victims. Indeed, I sense the others nearby, buried here with me. Not all of them are dead, and I fear there is no swift end to this nightmare. Already I feel as though eons have passed. They might as well have. Perhaps they will before it is done with me.
I trust this notebook will never be found, buried as it is with me and the others. If you have found it, tell no one. Heed my warning and burn these pages, lest others suffer the same fate.