At the Stream in the Woods

Shout out to my husband for reading this short story before I posted it. Thanks, babe.

I haven’t been writing, but the other night I decided to just go for it. I typed the first two words without a single plan on what would happen and made myself keep going until I had something.

This isn’t brilliant, but it’s what I made, so I’m proud enough of it. And it gave me something to work on (and freak myself out with). Why every time I try to work up a short story, I make it like the first five minutes of Supernatural, I have no idea. Maybe because I like to leave open endings with scary stories and don’t have to come up with a complete resolution. Or maybe there’s something thrilling about trying to scare the stuffin’ out of myself in the shortest amount of time.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s At the Stream in the Woods:

“Ouch.”

“Shh.”

Abby scowled at Heather. “You stepped on my foot.”

“Well, if you weren’t so close…” Heather waved her back. “Give me some room, woman.”

Sometimes Heather didn’t mind hearing Abby’s nearly constant chatter,  but tonight it was a little grating. Heather couldn’t say why exactly. 

It could be that Abby wasn’t thrilled with tonight’s plan and was making certain that Heather wouldn’t forget it. 

“Remind me again why I’m here,” Abby said. 

“I would, but right now I can’t even remember why I wanted you to be.” 

They had walked a mile through the trees in the dark, and while the distance wasn’t that long, they’d been moving quietly and carefully with flashlight beams searching through low branches and around knotted trunks. 

“My parents are going to kill me,” Abby muttered for the umpteenth time since Heather had picked her up at her house–more specifically from the street around the corner from her house. Abby’s mom was a light sleeper and would have heard a car pulling up. It was miracle enough Abby was able to pry her window open and crawl out without detection. Abby could hardly be labeled “quiet”.

Like now. Heather twisted to her, pointing the flashlight in Abby’s face. “You know what’s going to kill you if you don’t shut it?”

Abby made a face. “You?”

“No. Abigail.” 

The Abigail in question wasn’t Heather’s friend that stood before her in a purple hoodie with a pout; Abigail was the angry spirit that wandered aimlessly through the woods, looking for victims. What she was so mad about, no one could say for sure. One story said she was murdered by an ex-lover who had lured her into the woods under the pretense of mending their relationship. Another suggested that she ran away from her family and had gotten lost, only to be devoured by a large wolf. Wolves didn’t prowl around this area, but Heather supposed they could have many years ago when the legend of Abigail first sprang up.  

“Don’t talk about her,” Abby said.  

“I’m just warning you. You keep flapping your gums, she’ll hear you. And once she finds you, she’ll never stop chasing you until you’re dead.” 

“Shut up.”

“Oh, how the tables turn.” Heather pressed forward without glancing back to check that Abby followed. Of course Abby followed. Wherever Heather went, Abby was only a step behind, even if Heather were to step right off the edge of the Earth. 

A silence finally settled around the girls, but the pleasant kind that was interrupted occasionally by a hoot of an owl or the chirp of bugs hiding in the trees, and constant was the shuffling of their shoes on the dirt. Sometimes they stepped on a fallen twig or branch, and the crisp snap made Abby draw in a quick breath.

The ground beneath them dipped down into a hill. Heather fought to keep her pace and not slip on the loose dirt and leaves. The further she traveled, the steeper the hill became, until she had no choice but to propel her body down quickly, the rest of her trying to keep up with her feet. She made it to the bottom, steadied herself, and then winced when she heard Abby’s body slam down and skid several feet. 

To her credit, Abby cut her startled cry short; either that or a mouthful of dirt muted her if she happened to have face-planted it. Heather turned the light towards Abby’s crumpled form at the base of the hill, briefly imagining what she would do if Abby had managed to break any bones. She saw Abby’s flashlight that had rolled away from her, out of arm’s reach.

“You good?” Heather asked.

Abby was slow to lift her head, but when she did, her expression showed only minor pain. “Ouch.”

“If I had a penny for every time you said that.” Heather stretched out her hand and helped Abby to her feet. 

Abby bent one knee, her right one, gingerly testing her weight on the ankle. “It might have gotten twisted,” she said. She also lifted her arms, examining the scrapes from her wrists to her elbows. They only bled a small amount in places. 

“Not too bad,” Heather commented.

“Says you.”

“At least no bone’s poking out, right?”

“Gross.”

“Shake it off.” Heather reached out with a free hand to brush some of the dirt from off Abby’s clothes. “You’ll live.”

“Thanks, doc.” Abby blew a thin stream of air on one of the scrapes on her forearm. “Stings.”

“I bet. Grab your flashlight. Let’s get going.”

Abby looked down at the ground and then around. “Um. Did you see where it fell?”

“It’s lit up. You seriously can’t–” Heather cut herself off as she realized the glow of Abby’s flashlight was gone. She pointed her light beam in the direction she knew she’d seen it last. There was nothing.

Abby swallowed. “Where’d it go?”

“Maybe a racoon took off with it.”

“Why would a racoon come around us? The ones by my house stay away from people.” 

“I don’t know. Maybe it liked the shiny thing so much, it wasn’t that scared of us. It doesn’t matter.” Heather shrugged it off. There was a reason her father called racoons little bandits. They’d stolen her cat’s food, dish and all, from the patio just last week. The woods were full of them, and that was really the most logical explanation.

Abby made a sound like she didn’t quite believe that, but Heather had someplace to be, and standing around trying to find the little beast that stole from them was a waste of time. The boys would have more light once they met up.

The girls continued, relying on Heather’s flashlight to guide them. Abby limped a little, but she kept up easily with Heather’s cautious movement. While there were no such things as ghosts, Abigail only a means to parents’ ends to keep their kids from creating mischief in the woods without adult supervision, Heather still felt a certain reverence that made her want to keep her travels hushed and unhurried.

“Are we almost there?” Abby whispered. 

“Yes.”

“Good.”

When they came to the stream, Heather stopped. She looked around. And then she frowned.

“They said they’d wait right here so they could show us where they set up.” Heather had confirmed the plans just this morning.

Abby groaned and sat on the bank near the shallow water. “Could they be late?”

“No, they were supposed to come earlier, and Benson said it wouldn’t take long and they’d just hang out here until we showed up.”

“We could always wait and see if they show up. They could have gotten bored and wandered off.”

Heather huffed a moment before joining Abby at the stream’s edge. “Stupid boys.”

“They’ll come get us. Or… You think they just were teasing us? Like they thought we wouldn’t show?”

“Maybe.”

“Or do you think they wanted us to show up and realize we were alone out here and totally freak out?”

“We’ve been alone this far. That doesn’t make sense.” Heather thought about it, pinching her bottom lip between her thumb and pointer finger. “They’re probably going to claim they waited and we never showed. But we’ll get proof that we did.”

Benson and Dave were two guys in their grade that had promised an awesome night if they came here. Heather hated chasing after any guy, but Benson was playing hard to get, and this was a first for her and she had to admit she generally enjoyed the way he teased and pestered her. Abby thought Dave was cute, so while it took a hot minute to convince her to venture into the woods after dark, she eventually succumbed to Heather’s pressure and Dave’s charming smile.

They were supposed to have set up blankets and a midnight snack with a small projector screen that Benson’s parents took camping so that they could watch a movie outdoors. It was going to be a horror film, the girls had been warned, but Heather wasn’t afraid of any movie.

She hated the disappointment that sank in her gut. 

“Let’s take a picture,” Abby said, “and send it to them.”

Heather managed a grin. “Good idea.”

They leaned in together and took a selfie, afterwards blinking and rubbing their eyes from the flash of the phone. Heather immediately pulled up a text to both boys and wrote, “We weren’t chickens. Looks like you were.” She attached the photo and sent it.

Abby opened her mouth to say something but was interrupted by a ding-dong chime. 

Heather glanced at her phone, but that wasn’t her message alert.

There was a slight glow behind Abby. Heather’s flashlight revealed something rectangular and blue propped up against a rock. It was a phone but its screen was facing towards the rough rock. Abby snatched it and observed it.

Her eyes widened. 

“What?” Heather asked, even though the sudden pounding in her heart answered before Abby could.

“It’s one of their phones. I see the text from you.”

Heather knew Abby was telling the truth, but that didn’t keep her from tugging the phone out of Abby’s hands to stare at the notification. The background was a guy with his arm wrapped around who Heather knew was his little sister. 

“It’s Benson’s,” she whispered.

“They are here then!” Abby cupped her hands around her mouth and called, “Boys! We’re here!”

Heather smacked her on the arm. “Shh.”

“What? You don’t want them to know? Dave’s probably reading your message right now.”

“Benson wouldn’t just leave his phone lying around.”

“Maybe it fell out of his pocket.”

It was Heather’s turn to be doubtful about such a simple explanation. One flaw to Benson was that he was constantly checking his phone. Even if there was no notification, no text or call, he would turn the screen on just to stare at the blank nothing before pocketing it again. Over and over, all day long. He would have noticed that it was missing before now.

Abby had her own phone out. “I’m calling Dave. Maybe they didn’t know he lost his phone right here and they started back looking for it.”

“Why wouldn’t they have just called it? The sound was on. We found it really easy.”

Abby ignored her, lifting her fingers to her face and nibbling nervously on her thumb nail with her phone against her ear. She frowned and hung up. “Immediate voicemail,” she said and then brightened. “His phone died. That’s why they didn’t call Benson to find his phone.” 

Heather relaxed slightly. “That could be… But we should have passed them on the trail.”

“Unless they went to the area they set up at.”

“We should have heard them anyways. Two teenage dudes…”

“They’re waiting to scare us?”

“They better not.” Heather hesitated before clicking on her own message on Benson’s phone. It opened immediately, no passcode required.

She examined the photo. It was poor quality, Abby’s eyes were closed, and there was something weird in the background, probably from the flash.

But Heather’s heart shot up into her throat when she zoomed in and realized that the weird thing was a pair of eyes. She could make out a shape of a face just barely above her head, angled slightly, like it had been crawling past them and looked over when the camera flashed.

“Let’s go,” Heather said, and the crack of alarm in her voice made Abby launch to her feet.

“What’s wrong?” she demanded.

Heather heard rustling. The leaves shifted though there was no breeze and then stilled, and the silence that had once been peaceful was suddenly tense, like the trees around them inhaled deeply and held its breath.

Heather pointed her flashlight across the stream and slowly in a circle around them. 

Nothing.

Of course there was nothing. What was wrong with her? What did she expect to see? Why was her body suddenly slick with sweat while the skin underneath was ice cold?

“Heather, what’s wrong?” Abby pleaded. She turned in place, also looking around, but for what? 

When Heather rose, lifting the light with her, it caught the woman crouched in the low branch in the nearest tree behind Abby. Heather screamed, and Abby, who did not see what she saw, screamed just as a chain reaction and covered her head, not bothering to look behind her. When Heather turned and ran, Abby pursued, grasping desperately for the back of Heather’s shirt.

“Wait!” Abby cried.

But Heather would not wait, and she would not look back. She didn’t want to see it again. The eyes had caught her light the same way that cats’ eyes did, and they’d been set in a sharp face that was alive with a dangerous fury.

It should have been harder to navigate the woods with her arms pumping at her side, the flashlight’s beam never pointing in one direction. But surprisingly Heather met no obstacle; she stayed to the path and never was caught by tree branch or root. And she did not tire; or if she did, she couldn’t pay attention to the fact.  

She did feel a stabbing pain nagging in her side, and she wasn’t breathing enough to soothe the burning in her lungs, but Heather did not slow, not even when she slammed hard against the side of her car waiting just outside the woods. Never had a mile run gone by so quickly in such a blur. Her hands shook as she pressed the button on her key to unlock the car, and she swung the door wide, climbed in, and yanked the door shut so hard that it shook the vehicle.

Abby would throw herself in the passenger seat a second later.

Two seconds later.

Five…

Heather locked herself inside the car and finally peeled her eyes from the space directly in front of her to the side, where the trees were still and the shadows between them even more so.

Abby was not there.

When had Heather lost her? Was it up the hill Abby had fallen down less than half an hour ago? Sometime beyond that? Her ankle had been hurt. Had she stopped when the pain was too much to bear? Had she called for help and Heather hadn’t heard?

Had she called for help and Heather had ignored her?

Had she screamed? Maybe she had, but when? Was it Heather’s name or was it a wordless cry of terror?

Heather couldn’t remember.

She choked on a sob. She wasn’t about to drive away, was she? Not with her best friend out there still with that…that thing.

“Please don’t do this,” she begged herself. She had to be better than her instincts told her to be. She had to get out of the car and find Abby, get her back to safety.  

But as she turned the key in the ignition and pressed her foot resolutely to the gas, the tires squealing as she peeled away from the woods, the voice inside her head that was busy reasoning with her said that it was better to live a long life with the guilt than to die tonight.

She had to trust that it was telling her the truth.

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