Into the Woods

Greg awoke to an upside down world of shadows.

His heart must have somehow moved to his head because that’s where he felt its pulse. He squeezed his eyes shut and grimaced at the pain gripping his temples and forehead. It was hard to think, but a tiny voice at the back of his mind warned him that something was very wrong. A sudden jolt of clarity helped him realize that he was hanging upside down from the ceiling with his hands tied behind his back. He peered through the darkness, trying to get a feel for where he was, trying to remember how he’d gotten there and what he had been doing before.

The memories returned slowly. He’d been driving home after work in the pouring rain. The main street he usually took was closed for repaving, so he’d taken one of the back roads. As he’d bounced along the poorly paved street and rolled his eyes at the irony of the situation, an animal of some kind had skittered across his headlights. He’d swerved and hit a tree, and now he was here. The rain rapped against the ceiling and beat the windows, like a crowd of unwanted guests. He couldn’t see much of the outside but, if it was this dark, he had to be in the woods somewhere. A hunting cabin maybe? He wriggled and twisted about, hoping to free himself.

The wailing of the rain died down for a moment and he was able to hear the sound of harsh breathing.

A shiver ran down the length of his spine, a cold finger tormenting him with visions of serial killers. He tried to push his fear aside and find his voice.

“H-Hello? Who’s there?” He waited for a fraction of a second before continuing. “I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing but my wife is waiting for me at home, and if I don’t show up tonight—”

Smacking lips made him falter.

“I-If I don’t show up tonight, she’s going to call the police. She knows my usual route. She’ll tell them where to look for me.”

A flash of lightning illuminated the room. The walls were covered in spider webs, intertwined, overlapping, reaching across the ceiling and dangling in corners. Spiders of all shapes, colors, and sizes dotted the misty white webs, thousands of eyes staring at the man hanging from the ceiling. A human-like figure stood by the door, machete in hand.

“Don’t forget, my lovelies,” the raspy voice of an older woman said. “I get the head.”

Greg screamed and thrashed about as the spiders and their deranged keeper advanced.

 

Officer Beau hated the rain. Rain made mud. Rain made his knee ache. Rain caused car accidents. Rain made his roof leak. Rain made everyone either paranoid or strangely romantic. Rain made it hard to do anything outside, even the simplest of tasks. He scowled at the wiper blades as they swooshed back and forth. Rain also made it harder to see. Beau was fifty-eight years old, two years away from retirement. Why couldn’t he be assigned the easy calls, the ones that could be resolved in town?

“You need to get out more,” his superiors said. “You don’t want to spend your last two years cooped up in the precinct!”

Oh, yes, he did. He loved the precinct. Not that anyone would listen.

“There’s been an accident reported on the old highway. Why don’t you check it out, Beau? It’s been quiet all day.”

Officer Beau liked the quiet. After thirty years on the force, he’d seen enough and heard enough to appreciate a quiet day. The other old-timers at the precinct didn’t seem to understand that. So here he was, driving out to the old highway to look at a crash in the middle of a storm. Who still drove on the old highway anyway? The new highway was nicer, with more than two lanes and going through an actual city instead of the wilderness.

Officer Beau grumbled to himself as his cruiser meandered down the pot-hole littered street, eyes narrowed as he searched for signs of a crash. Finally, he happened upon black streaks against the road and the mud tracks of a car going off the embankment. He stopped, put the car in park, and fumbled with his umbrella before climbing out. Still grumbling, he flicked on the flashlight and began his trek through the mud. His boots made eerie sucking sounds as he walked. The beam of his flashlight caught the raindrops while they fell and illuminated the wall of trees he was headed toward. Soon enough he found the car, a bright red lemon with its front crushed against a particularly large pine.

The driver’s side door had been wrenched open somehow. There was no one in the car. Officer Beau reached for the radio attached to his belt when a skittering sound drew his eyes to the trees. It had been soft, like the flapping of wings or spider legs dancing across a bed of leaves, but he’d still managed to hear it over the storm. A set of footprints and drag marks could be seen in the mud, heading deeper into the forest. Officer Beau snagged his radio and called it in.

“Don’t move,” his commanding officer said. “I’m sending backup.”

Don’t have to tell me twice, Beau thought, already making his way back to the cruiser.

An ear-splitting howl had the officer spinning around with a curse. What was going on in those woods? It sounded like someone was being tortured. The instinct to protect, that damn instinct that had prompted him to join the force so many years ago, palpitated within him. Beau shook his head and backed away, firmly shoving that instinct aside. He didn’t know what was out there. It would be stupid to go traipsing through the woods and into a dangerous situation without backup.

But as the scream sounded again, the old officer found himself racing forward. The footprints and drag marks in the mud led the way through the twisting trees, even after the terrible screech had been abruptly cut off. Huffing and puffing, Officer Beau found himself at the front door of an old hunting cabin.

He tossed his umbrella aside and pulled out his gun before shouting, “Hartford Police! I’m coming in!” Getting a strange surge of adrenaline, he threw his shoulder against the door. The lock burst and the door swung open to reveal a scene out of someone’s worst nightmare.

A person was tied up, hanging upside down from the ceiling, covered in spiders. A thin elderly woman sat on the floor a little ways away, slurping something out of a giant bowl. When the door opened, the woman dropped the bowl and uttered an animalistic growl. The ‘bowl’ rolled toward Officer Beau, leaving a trail of some dark, thick substance. It came to a stop at the officer’s feet. It was a head, probably belonging to the poor man hanging from the ceiling, being slowly devoured by spiders. Beau gagged and might’ve looked away if he wasn’t frozen with horror. His mind told him to run, to shoot the woman, to do something.

But he was still standing there when the machete came flying toward him and sank into his chest.

My worst nightmare

“I feel it physically—half of me turns to smoke. The corners of the room go dim, and from about the rig cage down, my body feels numb as the ghost limb of an amputee. It’s what happens when I’m about to write something that frightens me. Freaking yourself out is an occupational hazard for a horror writer. It’s also, if you rise to the challenge it presents, a great opportunity to hone your craft.” -Michael Marano


Something woke me up that night. To the day, I’m still not sure.

When I opened my eyes, the room was completely silent. It wasn’t until I rolled over that I saw the clown standing at the foot of my bed. He wore a pale white face mask with a big, red nose, pink cheeks, crazed blue eyes, a large eerie smile, and frizzy orange hair attached to the back. He was even dressed in large, colorful clothes. My heart leapt into my throat and still I managed to scream. I’d had this nightmare before, but this wasn’t a dream. The knife in his hand glinted in the moonlight, revealing a smear of blood. My first thought went to the children. Which one of them had been ruthlessly murdered in their sleep? But then I remembered the silence. The dog! The intruder must have killed her first to be sure she wouldn’t warn me.

My stomach turned at the thought of my Australian shepherd, but I couldn’t dwell on that. I had to act. I threw myself over the side of the bed, snatching my phone from the bedside table before I could hit the ground. The clown was on me in a second. His knees hit the floor as he straddled me and then proceeded to jab the knife at my face. I squirmed and screamed some more, releasing the phone to wrestle the knife out of his hands. We struggled, but not for too long. He was stronger than I was. The knife came down before I could stop it and nicked my cheek, burning like a deep paper cut. I twisted my hips, yanking his wrists down and away from my face. The clown crashed into the wall with a curse. I scrambled away, crawling as quickly as I could on my hands and knees until I reached the door. Then I jumped up and ran out of the room.

“Simon! Corey! Deliah!” I half-sobbed, half-shouted. “Wake up!” I dashed across the shadowed living room, almost tripping over the ottoman. I made it to my eldest’s room and threw the door open.

Simon sat up, instantly alert and afraid. “Mom? What’s going on?” 

I gripped him by the shoulders, heart hammering painfully against my ribs. “There’s someone in the house. I need you to get your brother and sister, and—”

Simon’s blue eyes bulged as he stared at something behind me. I spun around, arms out to my sides to protect my ten-year-old son. The clown’s mask was hanging crookedly on his face, revealing curly black hair and a sliver of pale skin. Despite his terrifying appearance, he was human and able to be reasoned with.

“We don’t have much, but you can take whatever you want,” I said, voice wavering. “Just, please, don’t hurt my children.”

“I don’t want any of your crap!” the clown growled. “Pedro Hernandez sends your husband his regards.” And then he lunged. 

I heard my son cry out and hoped he was diving out of bed. I tried to duck around my attacker, but he snatched me by the front of my nightshirt and threw me back onto the bed. The knife was coming down again. I blindly reached out, snatched the first thing my fingers touched (it felt like Simon’s batman alarm clock), and smashed it against the side of the clown’s head. He roared in pain and dropped the knife. I elbowed him in the face and kneed him in the groin as I wriggled to get free. My son was crawling frantically for the door once I had disentangled myself from the clown.

I raced after him, grabbed him by his armpits, and hauled him to his feet. “Get your brother and sister to safety, and call your dad!” Then I gave him a shove out the door.

The sharp end of the knife burst from my abdomen, splattering the back of my son’s shirt with blood. I gasped as my brain registered the pain. I stumbled forward.

Simon must’ve felt the wetness on his back because he turned and screamed. “MOM!”

I collapsed against the wall in the hallway, struggling to breathe, heart stuttering in fear. The knife was roughly tugged out from behind me. I tried to keep moving, tried to get away, but a hand grabbed a fistful of my hair and yanked me back. This time the end of the knife pushed through my chest. The world was growing fuzzy at the corners, my mind wild with panic and pain. My son stood frozen just a little ways away, face pale, mouth open in a silent scream. Then anger was twisting his mouth into a snarl and he came charging down the hall to take out my assailant’s knees. 

I wanted to yell at him, tell him to run away, tell him to find his siblings and run. Instead, I made a strange gurgling sound and slumped to the floor. I could hear them wrestling behind me, my son shouting, the clown swearing. Then two other pairs of feet were running toward me. I looked up into the faces of child number two and three. Deliah was crying as she fell to her knees and reached out to take my face in her little hands. Corey, dark hair falling in to his eyes, looked around wildly, as if searching for some way to help me.

“Get…Dad,” I managed to croak. “Simon…stop…”

“Call 911,” Corey told his little sister and then he was running over to help his brother.

“No.” I clawed after him but he was already out of reach. 

“Daddy,” Deliah sobbed as she jumped to her feet. “I-I’ll call Daddy.” She ran into the kitchen, bright pink Hello Kitty pajamas fading into the darkness.

It was getting increasingly harder to breathe. I knew at least one lung had to be collapsing or filling with blood. I coughed and wheezed and fought to remain conscious. I had to help my children. I had to do something. But then, quite suddenly, the darkness swallowed me up.

 

I came to when my husband called my name. I peeled my eyes open to see him sitting beside me, holding my hand, leaning in anxiously. He was still in uniform; his badge winked at me in the bright fluorescent light shining from above. He looked exhausted. There were stress lines across his big, handsome face, his blonde hair was askew, and the hazel eyes that were always so quick to smile were dark with worry. Wherever we were was rocking and rumbling. There were two other men in there with us, hooking me up to machines and pressing wads of gauze against my wounds. I could distantly hear the wailing of sirens.

My husband let out a choked laugh when he saw that I was awake. He kissed my forehead and managed to say, “You’re all right. Everything’s going to be all right.”

I couldn’t speak. They’d put a tube down my throat or something. I wanted to ask about the children. He must’ve read my mind because he added, “The kids are fine. One of the neighbors heard the screams and called 911. Some guys from the station got there just in time to pull Simon and Corey away from that creep. We got him, babe. We got the clown.”

That was all I needed to hear. I gave his hand a squeeze and closed my eyes.