Here’s a short story that’s my attempt at a horror story, or weird fiction, at least. I’ve been reading about pagan mythology for a novel project lately, which inspired some parts of the story. Enjoy!
The park, like most, closed at nightfall, and Sean hurried to get there so he could do a quick walk after work. The tedium of his job wore on him: the long days in a cubicle, the drama between co-workers, the draconian rules.
His after-work walks helped him release tension – and also kept him from more self-destructive habits, like stopping at The Waverly, a musty dive bar on his ride home filled with old drunks and the occasional hustler.
The sky was a shade of gray mixed with blue, covered in cloud, as Sean walked onto the trail near the horse stables. The thought struck him that maybe he would go to the bar after his walk, just for a few. Maybe that cute brunette bartender would be behind the counter, smiling her pearly-white smile.
The trail was muddy and dotted with horseshit. Up ahead, what looked like a park ranger came towards him up the hill.
“Good evening,” the man said, huffing and puffing.
“Hey.” Sean avoided extended eye contact.
“Should be nightfall soon. Park will be closing up.”
Sean stopped, annoyed that he had to engage in conversation. That’s when he got his first close look at the man. He wore a frayed, light brown cowboy hat and flannel shirt, and his face was a chalky white. The man’s eyes were total blackness, and long, stringy black hair, which looked wet, slivered down to his broad shoulders.
“Okay,” Sean finally responded. “Guess I’ll have to make it quick.”
The man stared right through him. “Need some company?”
“No, I’m good,” he nervously said, trying to keep walking, but the man followed.
“Looks like you could use some company.”
His figured was imposing. The flannel shirtsleeves were rolled up, exposing black, faded tattoos on the pale skin, looking like ink splotches. Barrel-chested, wearing combat boots, he followed Sean down the trail.
Sean’s heart skipped a beat.
“What’s your name?”
“Tegid. Protector of the Forest.”
Sean wished he’d gone to the bar; by now, he’d be snug in his usual spot in the corner, watching a ballgame, drinking a cold draft. Instead, the sky grew darker and he descended further into the woods with a man who looked like a pro wrestler and just referred to himself as “Protector of the Forest.”
“So, you’re a park ranger?” Sean asked, innocently.
“Something like that.”
They walked down the hill and around a curve, getting closer to the part of the trail that went under a small bridge, which was always a mess of mud and puddles. Sean smelled something burning, like woodsmoke. In the distance, he heard shouts, what sounded like a man pleading for help.
They sloshed through the muddy trail, avoiding the puddles, and the shouts grew louder. They were screams, in fact; guttural screams. And the smell of smoke increased. He turned and saw the man licking his lips.
“I think I’m going to head back,” Sean said. “It’s getting dark.”
The man chuckled. “No, no. You’ll want to see this.”
“No, really, I should be heading back. Like you said, the park closes …”
The man grabbed Sean’s arm, pulled him forward.
“I said, ‘No.’”
Deep in the heart of the woods, something was happening. Shouts, blood-curling shouts. A campfire. The man held tight to Sean’s arm; he was strong. Sean could hear other voices, as the man dragged him along the trail. They sounded almost like people in a tribal dance, moaning and bellowing. A soft wind rustled the tree boughs, and Sean’s mind raced. The man smiled now, wickedly, exposing small, sharp teeth. Sean wished he was at the bar.
But he wasn’t.
“This is Sean.”
The old woman with the painted face gave him a toothless smile, showing off blackened, diseased gums. “Very well, good enough, yes. He will be pleased, yes. He’s a good one, not too old.”
He’d never seen this clearing in the woods before. He always guessed most of the areas off the beaten trail paths were densely wooded, but it wasn’t so. The area was wide enough to hold the twenty or so costumed people who stared at him behind golden masks and black cloaks.
Sean wondered where the shouting had come from because, now that he was at the supposed source, he saw the campfire burning, but he saw no man in distress – just the costumed, ominous figures.
“Please, I’m not sure what’s going on, but just let me go.” The Protector of the Forest held Sean’s arm tightly. Then he pushed him to the ground. “Please,” Sean whispered. “Please, please, please.” His pants were soaked with piss and mud.
“He’s a good one, yes,” the old woman kept saying, walking over to Sean and brushing his hair back, inspecting him. “He’ll be very pleased, yes.”
The masked people moaned softly, formed a circle around Sean. Light from the fire glistened on their masks, and made shadows on the old woman’s painted face. That toothless smile again, those greedy eyes.
“Should we tie him up?” the Protector asked.
“Yes, yes, that would be good.”
Sean was tied up to the oak tree, whimpering the whole time, snot sliding down into his mouth. The knot was tight around his wrists and waist, squeezing and burning his skin. The Protector smiled at him with his black eyes and sharp teeth, then he caressed his cheek, just like the old woman had done.
“Just time to wait now, yes,” the old woman said. “He’ll be here soon, yes. Then we’ll know. We always know. He always knows.”
By now, Sean was beyond fear. He was more in a land of utter dread, feeling as though he had descended into a kind of hell, like he slipped into another realm where the same rules didn’t apply. Eat, sleep, work, repeat, over and over, until a strange, pale man pulls you deep into the woods and into a dark ritual that you’d only seen in movies and read in books, the type of thing that wasn’t supposed to exist, the type of evil that few see face to face.
The Protector and the old woman whispered to each other near the campfire, and the masked people began standing in front of Sean, moaning. It was night now and, besides the moaning, the woods were quiet.
“Don’t be afraid, dearie,” the old woman said to him, caressing his wet cheeks. “It’s always quick, painless, yes. He knows. He’s always known you, you know. You’re going back home, yes. Don’t be afraid.”
In between short, shallow breaths, Sean fainted somewhere after he looked beyond the old woman and saw The Protector chewing on something like it was a huge stick of beef jerky. He looked closer; it looked like the leg of a deer – but at the end of the long, slender limb were human fingers.
When Sean opened his eyes, the masked people were screaming and whirling around the fire, and the old woman was shouting, too, saying, “Praise him! Praise him! He knows, yes! Praise!”
A shadowy figure emerged from the woods into the clearing. The campfire light revealed him: He stood tall and naked, and he had a muscular, god-like frame. His face was painted white with black around the eyes, and a long tangle of full black hair reached down to his buttocks. He strode toward Sean with the use of a brown walking stick, and he inspected Sean’s face and stared into his soul.
“Hm,” the savage grunted.
“Please, please.” Sean mumbled under his breath.
All was quiet. The masked people, the old woman, the Protector watched the savage, waited for him to say something. Instead, he walked over to the campfire and picked up one of the human limbs and bit into it like a turkey leg.
“Yes, we shall know soon,” the old woman muttered.
Sean could hear the echo of the spring peepers in the woods. Usually, he associated that sound with peace, but now it seemed like a symphony of death.
“He is not suitable,” the savage grunted.
“Oh yes, yes, he knows.” The old woman wrung her wrinkled hands.
The Protector loosened the rope around Sean’s wrists and waist, and Sean fell to the forest floor, weeping. He held onto the Protector’s boots, kissing them, feeling clumps of dirt and mud in his other hand. The Protector kicked his boot away, and Sean crumpled to the floor.
“Go on. You heard what the god said. You’re free to go.”
The old woman was chewing on a finger now; it crunched in her mouth like a chicken wing. The masked people stared behind their facades. Sean stumbled into the woods, prickly bushes cutting his skin as he frantically tried to escape, falling and pressing on, away from the nightmare, back to his comfortable, boring reality and away from the horrors of the woods and the pale-faced demons of the night.
He got onto the trail and began running, not able to see in the darkness, but still running for his life, afraid they’d change their mind. He kept running until he lost his breath and his legs burned, brushing into bushes, screaming, “Help!” He kept running until he ran smack into a tree and knocked himself unconscious.
There was never an explanation for what Sean saw in the woods, or at least one that he found suitable. He’d woken up the next morning in the daylight, his clothes tattered and torn, cuts and bruises on his body. He walked back to his car near the horse stables and drove home and called out of work.
When friends asked, he made up the excuse that he went paintballing over the weekend and the game turned intense. But he knew different, even if he couldn’t exactly prove it.
A month later, he was reading the local news online when he saw a story about an apparent murder at the park. A body was found dismembered: limbs were strewn across a clearing in the woods, and the head was missing, and there had been an apparent campfire near the site where the body was discovered. Police said the horrendous crime may have been the work of a serial killer.
Sean drank more after this. The nightmares returned, him waking up in a cold sweat, seeing The Protector’s pale face and the eyes like a black void. He spent every night in the bar now and, like the other patrons, he didn’t talk much: just sat there hunched over with his glass, staring into space.
He wanted to tell someone. He wanted to tell anyone, but he doubted anyone could believe such a thing. The psychiatric meds for post-traumatic stress disorder helped, but they weren’t enough. They suppressed some of the dreams but, as Sean sleepwalked through life, his biggest fear was slipping back into the dark realm, the alternate path where faces of evil blend in with the crowd and show themselves and take you down dark paths, whether you like it or not.