Remember the Sci Fi stories I post each year? The ones for my school’s Sci Fi Short Story Writing Contest? You may recall how they were mentioned among the finalists for the past two years. After writing “The Globe” my freshman year, I made it my goal to write a placing story. I wanted not only to make it to the finalists, but to win the legendary Third, Second, or First.
Stuffs happened the year. I became the Historian of the Sci Fi club; I took Calculus, which drains life; and more calculus; lots and lots of calculus; and the musical had very difficult pit music. You get the idea. I didn’t write the story until the night before the deadline, and completed it somewhere around 3:00 a.m. I tried to get some friends to read it the next morning, but none of them did. I still don’t remember why, for I was still in zombie mode then.
At a meeting later that week, as the Sci Fi presidency discussed how to award the finalists and winners, I volunteered to make custom trophies for the winners. This was shortly after the badger’s creation, and I was on a roll. The next day I remembered that I had indeed submitted a story, and began to wish fervently that I would not win the contest and therefore avoid the awkward situation of making an award for myself.
The illustrious Author Friend and his Official Editor were called upon to anonymously judge the eight finalists, once the presidency picked them out. At the start of this week, I forced Author Friend to tell me the winners so I could make the awards before the Christmas assembly.
Aaaaaaaaaaand I got first place.
But he didn’t know it was me.
Immediately, I thought, Oh crap.
But I did make a trophy for myself.
And I put the story right here.
Underneath these words.
No, under these ones.
Just kidding. These.
FOUR HOURS OF SLEEP A NIGHT. 🙂
Okay. It’s right here.
Against the clear night sky, the trees were nothing but a blackish mass blotting out the stars. Not a breath of wind stirred the darkness, not a breeze rustled the branches of the kings of flora. The distant stars grinned coldly at the earth from the heavens, as if in anticipation.
A blaze of light exploded through the sky, basking the grove in brilliant rays. A white fire from some distance universe had found the blue planet and rushed eagerly to its rocky surface. The meteor plunged into the grove, not explosively as it would seem, but winking out the second the broad branches swallowed it in. But the meteorite’s work was not through yet: first arose a terrific howling. The otherworldly bawling reached a little village only eight miles from the site, waking every citizen therein and drawing them to their windows. Though the sound only lasted a few seconds, it was followed immediately by a second explosive burst of light, blazing out of the grove itself. The quiet, simple villagers averted their eyes and muttered prayers to themselves.
The whole spectacle lasted barely half a minute before all signs and inexplicable happenings ceased entirely. The only testament to the fallen star were the trees. Though the air remained as still and crisp as ever, the trees now swayed earnestly, branches straining forward to every point on the compass, clawing at the empty sky.
Three years later, a man by the name of Howard Gray fled his home in Kingsport, Massachusetts, and headed west to preserve himself from justice. A late night at a bar, high tempers and clouded reasoning, a stained blade… Gray hated himself for it, but even more he feared his demise should he be caught for his crime. Therefore, he fled into the wilderness hoping to disappear. But before he could erase himself from the world completely, he stumbled across Crafton, a little forgotten village in the peaceful valley. It was there he met Richard Payne.
Stopping for a rest in little Crafton’s tavern, Gray accidentally introduced himself to Payne when he stumbled over the villager’s outstretched feet upon entering the musty bar. Amidst Payne’s apologies, the two fell to talking. When Gray mentioned that he was heading further into the valley the next morning, Payne offered to accompany him. “I’ve wandered all over this valley,” he told the refugee. “I can take you as far as the end of the valley and back again faster than anyone in Crafton.”
Gray could hardly turn down his offer, though how he could convince Payne to leave him in the mountains alone once they got there had him worried. “I’d be glad of your company,” his mouth told the villager. Payne smiled and offered Gray a room at his house for the night.
Though an entire week had past since the incident in the Kingsport, Gray found the memory determined to haunt him through the night. Images of the bar fight screwed themselves into his brain like barbed torture devices, robbing him of sleep and waking him several times in a cold sweat. When he awoke for the fourth time with his left arm throbbing, and noticed early sun streaming in through the window, he rose from his bed rather than submitting to his mental agony again. Wandering out into the living area of Payne’s house, he seated himself by the wide front window and rolled up his sleeve to better examine his arm.
In his wild night thrashings, the improvised bandage had proved too inferior to keep the cut from reopening. A four-inch gash diagonally marred the flesh of his upper arm, cleanly slashed by a razor edge. Gray shuddered at the memory of the blade biting into his skin, leading to his own leaping up in retaliation, and… He shook his head to clear away the thought. A soft sound from the other room interrupted his musings, so he hastily tied the dirty cloth over the wound with his teeth and tugged his shirt sleeve down as Payne entered the room, dressed for the day’s journey.
“You’re an early riser,” he noted.
Gray merely shrugged uneasily.
“I heard you tossing about last night. Didn’t sleep well?”
Gray shook his head. Payne raised his eyebrows, but didn’t press the matter.
They were off within the hour, at first taking a winding dirt path out of Crafton, but that soon dwindled away to nothing. Gray relied completely on Payne’s knowledge of the land as they trekked through the valley. The sun shone brightly, and birdsong occasionally punctuated the pleasant morning air. They made good progress over the easy terrain, and Gray began to relax and forget his troubles. Then, in the early afternoon, Payne spoke up.
“Where’re you from?” he queried. “You never did say much about yourself last night. What brings you away from home to a little place like Crafton?” There was an odd note in his voice, and Gray got the feeling he was missing something.
“East coast,” he replied vaguely. “I needed some clean air for a change, so I came here.”
Payne went a long time without uttering a word, before finally saying, “Is your arm all right?”
Gray jumped. “It- it’s fine.”
Payne spun around and seized Gray by his shirt collar. “You lie!” he accused sharply. “Something happened to you, something happened at a bar fight. And you’re hiding it from me.”
“How…?” Gray croaked, sweat beading on his brow. One hand gripped Payne’s wrist, the other felt for the knife strapped to his thigh.
“I didn’t sleep well last night either,” Payne replied. “You were screaming. It wasn’t that hard to piece most of it together. Start talking.”
Gray let go of his knife and broke down completely. “I didn’t mean for any of it to happen. It was just another night in the Kingsport tavern, like every night I’d spent there in the past. But he was stone drunk, I was tense, we both were armed. He cut me, and–” His words stumbled to a halt. He tried desperately to say the rest of it, but his voice wouldn’t come. After gesturing helplessly, he wrenched out his weapon and showed the sanguine blade to Payne. “I didn’t mean for it to happen,” he forced out hoarsely.
“So you ran,” Payne stated flatly, face expressionless.
“I was afraid,” Gray whispered.
The guide stood unreadable as a condemning judge, his eyes punishing. Each second under his glare further crushed Gray’s soul. At last he delivered his verdict: “We go on.”
“We go on,” Payne repeated, more forcefully. “I’m not going to pretend my slate is completely clean, although you are the more tarnished of the pair of us. I refuse to be your executioner. I need time to think. But for now, we will go on. There’s a grove of trees a few miles from here where we can spend the night.”
Gray thought it best to remain silent for the rest of the expedition. The silence gave him time alone with his thoughts, and found himself in a heated argument with himself.
He knows. He could turn you in. He can’t know, he’ll tell, they’ll find out, they’ll catch up, you’ll be taken back!
…He could die too.
No! What are you thinking?! Payne is a friend. He has not harmed you.
Yet. Think. He is dangerous. He will not leave you in the mountains, not for long. He will bring others to find you.
Gray could not argue with that.
By late evening, they came within sight of the grove Payne had mentioned as they crested a small hill. The guide paused and said to Gray, “Those trees mark the last stretch of flat land before we hit the mountains. We call it Crafton Wood. Something in the soil down there causes the air in the thicket to be unusually warm. I’ve found it welcoming when the nights get cold.”
They hiked down to the dark grove. The trees appeared to be even darker than they had form the hill, and seemed abnormally large up close. Twisted branches grew at crazy angles to each other, patched over with mangy leaves, and weird fungi melded with the bark, creating unpleasant shapes and protrusions. The knotted branches clumped together in some places, as if clutching treasured objects.
Payne led Gray into the unwholesome grove without hesitation, though Gray paused to assess the trees cautiously. As he passed into the small wood, a violent smell assailed his nostrils, the stink of a bog, of decaying wood, the steamy and oppressive stench of death. Gray felt as if he had just stepped inside a long-sealed burial vault, and subconsciously looked about in fear of potential threats. “What’s wrong with this place?”
“A few years ago, a meteor struck down here,” Payne explained. “The whole village saw it and marked it as black magic. I’m the only one who dared investigate. I can only guess that the meteor leeched some alien substance into the soil and bothered the trees.”
Gray only nodded, still searching the trees with his eyes. Above them, the branches seemed to be hung with some sort of parasitic creeping vine. The musty leaves combined with the deformed limbs and net of creeping stems blotted out the sun quite effectively and placed the grove in a state of eternal twilight.
Payne halted at the foot of a massive beech. Black moss and gray lichens scabbed its convoluted trunk, and branches twice the breadth of any man stretched out from the wooden tower. Overall, the beech struck an imposing and somewhat frightening figure. Gray eyed it contemptuously as his guide spread a bedroll by the trunk. The tree leaned slightly to one side, which happened to be the side Payne had picked to sleep on, therefore looking ready to pounce on them. All the same, Gray was tired and his arm stung, so he spread out his borrowed blanket and bedded down for the night.
He lay awake for the longest time as the gray light faded to midnight black, fingering his bloodied knife. Once again, he fought aggressively with himself over whether or not to kill Payne. Here, in the pitch blackness and a sharp weapon in his hands, it was much harder to push away the notion. Finally, he made the decision and rolled upright, knife grasped tightly in his fist. He leaned over and felt for the edge of Payne’s blankets, finding the soft flannel with his fingertips. Gray then rose into a crouch and reached out to locate Payne himself.
The blankets were empty.
It was then that Gray felt something brush his ankle. He lurched away wildly, but it was if an iron bar held his foot in place. Tossing away all caution, Gray slashed at the unseen attacker mercilessly with his blade, striking what felt suspiciously like wood. After several strikes, the hold loosened and the grasping object vanished. He ran his hands over the soil multiple times, but found no trace of the thing.
I don’t care where Payne is, Gray told himself frantically as he scrambled to his feet. I don’t care if I’m caught. I must only get out of this grove!
He began walking shakily in no particular direction, hands held out in front of him lest he should run into trees in the blind nighttime. He periodically shouted Payne’s name, but received no response, only adding to his building anxiety. Several times he heard some nearly inaudible thumps, as if something were dropping from the trees.
Only a few minutes had passed since the first encounter with the unseen before he paused to get his bearings. A little moonlight somehow filtered into the grove here, and he could make out the vague outlines of trees. He was about to start walking once more when he felt something snaking around his torso and tighten like a noose.
The blade flashed maniacally in the moonlight, slashing at everything in his near vicinity. The ropey appendage squeezed a little harder and began dragging him away. Then the knife connected with something, a pliant piece of thick twine by the feel of it, and severed it. The hold on him slackened. There came the rustle of branches, a low, subtle hiss, and nothing more. Gray grasped the rough, flexible object wrapped around him and pulled it away. His eyes widened as he brought it into the light. The object was not twine, but a branch.
The meteor leeched some alien substance into the soil and bothered the trees, Payne had said. Bothered the trees. “Curse him!” Gray spat savagely. Got to keep moving, he told himself, breaking into a jog. Payne has a funny way of taking matters into his own hands. “Won’t be the executioner, eh?” He began speaking aloud between clenched teeth and heavy breaths. “Needs time to think? Ha!”
A terrific creaking and groaning stopped him in his tracks. Glancing ahead, nameless terror seized his wracked soul in a vice-like grip. A live oak tree, split branches splayed like tentacles, moved to intercept his path. Its roots churned through the soil like snakes, and its innumerable branches pounded the ground in a series of dull thuds.
Gray stood frozen, his heart pounding so heavily he was sure it would draw the live oak to him. He tried desperately to control his gasping breath, but to no avail. The tree paused in its march and slowly twisted around just a bit. Then every branch strained in one direction, struggling to grab Gray as he stood paralyzed. The roots churned on the double, moving the behemoth tree towards him. Unable to think of a better option, Gray turned on his heel and ran.
Spindly wooden fingers whipped at his face and clawed at his clothes as he fled. His arm burned and bled freely, blood tracing down to his hand and wetting his palm. The trees seemed to be moving in on every side, and he felt as if he were staring down a long, moonlit corridor. A root writhed out of the earth and grabbed at his legs, tripping him. The moment he hit the ground, more roots swarmed up to seize him. The crimson knife rent splintered furrows in the wooden serpents, and a few retreated long enough for him to jump up and fly. However, he could not help but notice the things the roots had tossed up as they sprang from the soil. Pale, gleaming white things, bright under the moon.
“You cast me into this hell-hole, Payne!” Gray screamed as he hacked through the fibrous branches of a weeping willow attempting to engulf him. “But I will get out!” His knife cut into one of the dense snarls common in the devil-trees’ branches, and it burst apart, releasing a shower of bones. I am not the first here, he thought grimly.
Once free of the clinging willow, Gray continued on his way to freedom, unhindered for an unnatural extent of time. His step became lighter and quicker, his heart raced with excitement. I can make it out of here, he thought with vicious triumph. I will!
He thought too soon. When he least expected it, the root of a nearby rowan leapt up and wound about his ankle. As he hit the ground, the knife, his only mean of protection, flew from his grasp. Gray looked at the rowan. The rowan looked at him. They both turned to the knife, and pounced.
The rowan cheated. Still grasping him by the ankle, it yanked him backward so his fingers fell short of his reward. More roots locked over his wrists like manacles as wooden limbs shot down and snatched the blade. Gray thrashed most piteously, but the rowan held like iron. Several more branches snaked down and curled around his arms, his legs, his torso. The roots snapped away, and he was whisked into the air. Still he fought like a madman, tearing at leaves and boughs with his teeth where he could, twisting rolling to break free. Other sinister trees moved in around the rowan, crowding it, branches grasping at their hard-won prize.
Richard Payne sat at the crown of the hill, staring down into the grove. Below, Crafton Wood heaved like the sea during a squall. Howard Gray could be heard above the rustling branches and rumbling roots, his shrieks increasingly panicked and terrified as the trees clumped together near a place at the northern edge of the wood.
“You are not the first, Gray,” Payne said aloud. “Others have come this way, running to escape justice. You nearly beat the wood, Gray, nearly escaped. But the trees never allow it.”
He rose slowly to his feet, the screams diminishing with the coming dawn. “Just is your reward, Gray. Just is your reward.”
And he walked away.