Vid strode out of the cabin and slammed the door behind him. Hard. The windows shuddered in protest as the noise echoed up angrily into the surrounding hills.
All this claptrap about ghosts and evil spirits. Who in their right mind still believed in that rubbish? Besides stupid, inbred locals. And of course his darling gullible wife, Lettie. Vid let out his derision in a short laugh.
He couldn’t believe Lettie was buying into anything the dumb cabin owner said. But there she was, with wide eyes, gushing one pathetic “oh my god” after another. Almost as if Lettie was challenging him. Vid’s eyes narrowed and his fists clenched reflexively at the thought.
Vid glared up at the grey sky. This stupid weekend getaway had been Lettie’s idea. He’d only agreed to it because she had suggested the idea in front of his boss. Now he was stuck in some dead-end place, in the middle of nowhere, without any phone reception and a decrepit box of a TV with no channels on it. And the only other human being for miles around was the prattling cabin owner, and she lived over the next hill apparently.
Vid popped the boot of the car. Lucky he’d stopped at McQuaine’s Liquor Supplies on the way and stocked up on booze. Lettie hadn’t wanted him to, he could tell, but she knew better than to say anything. Vid permitted himself a grim smile.
He fished a can of beer out of the cooler box, slammed the boot down hard and started walking. Lettie could unload the car by herself. This trip had all been her dumb idea.
Within 20 metres of walking, the cabin was buried in an avalanche of swelling bumps and hills. If Vid hadn’t been standing on a sealed road, he wouldn’t have believed anyone lived around here.
He looked around with a sneer. It was a real godforsaken hole. There was the single road beneath his feet cutting through the grassy hills, but in every direction, all around, trees massed and gathered at the edges of the grasses. Like a huge army under a sombre sky, coiled in waiting, watching silently for the command to attack.
Vid scowled as a small breeze slunk around the back of his neck. “If I had my way,” he spoke loudly, “I’d get some civilisation happening. Bulldozers in here, builders, landscapers, mobile phone towers, a couple of pools and get a proper holiday resort happening. Yeah, and a spa! The rich bitches love all that crap!”
He mimed a machine gun at the silent line of trees from his left all the way around to his right. “Yeah. All of this. Gone.” He nodded, satisfied, took another slurp of beer and started walking again.
The sealed road didn’t stay sealed for long. Roots and lines of grass and weeds began to carve through the road like veins, until there was only the faintest memory of tar by the time Vid reached the tree line. He stood, hands on hips to glare at the battered wooden sign at the end of the road, which had crude, hand-carved letters weathered into near-nothingness: “Dead End”.
Beyond the sign, the trees stood close together, dark greens and browns; trunks, branches, bushes, foliage, vines and tendrils cloistered close; prickly and watchful. Leaves shuffled and murmured all around Vid. Damp earth, rotting bark, moss, and a vague stink of mildew tickled at his nostrils.
“This place sucks!” Vid muttered.
He turned away. A cold wind trickled at the back of his neck and down his spine. The leaves hissed and whispered loudly at each other. An unwelcome spray of goosebumps spilt onto Vid’s torso, and his belly constricted. He suddenly felt small as the trees and sky loomed very big. Exaggerated whispers of ghosts hid in his thoughts. He felt very far from home, far from anything familiar and averted his gaze to scowl at the ground. He would head back and tell Lettie exactly what he thought of her idea to come here. Yeah, that’s what he was going to do.
But then he paused.
Vid never gets scared. Vid inspires fear. Vid never walks away. His Dad’s voice yelled in his head, like it always did when that churning began in his gut. His Dad’s advice had always been spot on.
Vid threw his shoulders back to face the forest, and glugged the last of the beer loudly. “No. Screw this. You know what? I’m coming back here. With bulldozers. All this…” he grinned crookedly and made a rude gesture with his fingers, “…virgin land is gonna be mine!”
He crumpled up the empty beer can and hurled it into the trees, where it was silently swallowed.
But the gesture wasn’t enough. Vid had to make his stamp. Now. Prove he was a man. He stepped beyond the sign. He kicked at leaf litter, stomped at the earth and tramped down on some ground cover; he was starting a path.
“Not a dead end anymore!” Vid felt his confidence oozing back. He might even have to thank Lettie for dragging him out here – that would be a first!
Above Vid’s head, a branch cracked soundlessly from a tree and crashed onto his right shoulder. Vid dropped to the ground, sliding head-first down a small incline. The branch, thicker than his thigh, pinned him down in a cruel one-armed hug. Dazed, he stared up at a leering green canopy as his body twitched in the damp earth. Pain crashed into him a split-second later and he flailed to free his arm.
Somehow, his left foot got hooked and wedged tight under a root. Now he was really pinned down. Vid thrashed about furiously, fuelled by panic; the loamy air in his nostrils was replaced with the metallic tang of his fear. Pain sank through his body in a flood. Vid’s face contorted and a blubbering sound spilled out of his mouth with saliva.
Lettie. Lettie would find him. He wasn’t far from the road. And there was only one road. Only one road, one way. Even she would know where to look for him. She had to find him. Lettie, his saviour. He spat out a sobbing laugh.
Suddenly thinking she might be right there, Vid screamed for help as loudly as he could manage until his voice dried up into a choked rasp. But he had barely heard himself, as though the forest was absorbing any noise he could make.
Vid bashed the ground uselessly with his free hand, raking at leaves, air and soil, whatever was in reach. His fingers felt and closed around a branch and he clutched it like a life-line. Only then did he realise it was a vine, not a branch. And it was punctuated with evil thorns. He tried to let go, but the vine arched and plunged deep, vicious bites into his arm and wouldn’t relinquish its hold.
Vid cried, his body dry-heaving and shuddering. “This is stupid!” He gibbered the words out loud. He wasn’t clutzy like this; Lettie was!
Cold fear rushed over him when he first felt and then saw tendrils reaching out and tapping around his whole body like scientists pawing over specimens in a lab. Vid knew with a sudden stomach-churning certainty: the forest was alive. It was doing this to him deliberately. Terror sank into his pain and Vid shivered violently. What stories had that dumb cabin owner told? He couldn’t remember. Ghosts? No, spirits. Evil, malevolent ones that chewed up humans.
As if knowing that Vid now knew, the forest threw aside all pretence. Leaves rustled loudly all around him in anticipation. The wind sighed, whined and laughed softly. The trees seemed to move closer. The branch pinning his arm and the tree root around his foot both tightened, and the thorns ate eagerly into his other arm.
“No…” Vid whispered uselessly.
Tendrils began coiling themselves eagerly around his body, clamping tightly and cutting with care. Splinters, one after the other, began stitching themselves through his upper body skin with agonising care and burning precision. His toes – no, his whole feet – began to feel filmy and scratchy, as though bacteria was blooming its way across his skin.
Vid wailed and a tendril tapped eagerly into his mouth. Vid bit down frantically and spat the green worm-like texture out of his mouth and clamped his lips tightly shut. Other tendrils took its place, tapping teasingly, caressingly at his ears, his nose, his eyes.
Lying there, eyes and mouth clamped shut, Vid was becoming part of the forest’s consciousness. He saw what they saw. A great grey sky overhead growing steadily darker; rich damp earth wriggling and living beneath; the grassy hills which had been brutally stripped bare of their rightful trees and which were slowly being reclaimed; animals who tread through with caution; and puny humans who had learnt to keep their distance.
In the distance, Vid saw Lettie get into the car, unclip her hair, wind down the window and drive away. She was smiling like he’d never seen her smile.
Vid opened his eyes and mouth and screamed out all of his fury and disbelief. A tendril whipped into his open mouth and strangled his tongue with glee, as the forest fell upon him in earnest to cannibalise him whole.
Many thanks to @Jabe842 for generously taking the time to read through the first draft of this story and provide feedback that was incisive, encouraging and enthusiastic, and so confirmed it was a story worth sharing.