This story is taken from my collection Menhir + Seven Stories. The collection is available on Amazon Kindle.
In The Woods
“We’re going to miss everything.”
“No,” he said and shifted up coming out of the curve. “We’re not.”
Jennifer wasn’t buying any of it. “Amy said they were going to start about 6:30.”
According to the display on the dashboard, it was now almost 7:30.
He shifted down again and braked as they approached another curve. “Honey, it’s not a job interview; it’s a bonfire and barbecue. It won’t really get going until it gets dark.”
She made an exasperated sound. “Whatever.”
“Can’t we have just one night without fighting?”
Jennifer crossed her arms under her breasts and turned to stare out the window at the passing forest.
It seemed like all they did anymore was fight. He was beginning to wonder whether it was worth the heartache anymore.
David could only take a deep, calming breath and try to concentrate on driving. The South Bank Road was always a challenge. It headed east from Gold Beach, snaking along with the river through the heavily forested canyons in a series of sharp, hairpin turns piled on top of each other and punctuated with steep hills and potholes.
The gravel road up to Agness had only been paved in the late sixties and he didn’t think anyone had bothered to repave it since. If the potholes had been repaired at all, they were merely patched. It was a rough ride that demanded his attention.
“What’s happened to us?” Jennifer asked, still staring out the passenger window. “We used to be so happy.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
The sun was hidden behind the hills behind them, throwing the entire canyon into shadow. It was even darker on the South Bank Road. Here, the forest grew so lush and tall along the road the branches from each side seemed to join above into a single canopy. It was like driving through a dark green tunnel.
He didn’t see the rocks until it was too late.
He abruptly swerved, but the right front tire hit a rock the size of softball.
Something exploded and the car tried to turn right into a rock embankment. David braked and fought to keep the car on the road. The wheels on the right side slipped onto the narrow shoulder, then moved back onto the pavement, just missing the rock wall.
The car really wanted to turn right and it took all his strength to keep it straight, on the road, and under control until he could slow down enough to safely pull onto the shoulder.
When they were finally stopped, he switched off the engine with shaking fingers and looked at Jennifer. “You okay?”
She nodded, but her face was pale. “What happened?”
“I think we blew a tire.”
He ignored her remark, unlatched his seat belt, and climbed out of the car.
The first thing he noticed was the damp coolness. Under the tight canopy, he doubted the sun ever reached the ground. It was probably twenty degrees cooler than out in the open. Then there was the silence. Even in a small town like Gold Beach—barely over 2000 people—there was ambient noise: traffic, stereos, people.
Out here, there was nothing.
He walked around the front of the car to examine his right tire. It was flat, of course. It looked like the impact with the rock had broken the bead.
He had a tire to change.
The passenger door opened and Jennifer climbed out. “Is it flat?”
“As a pancake,” he said and returned to his side of the car to pop the trunk. “This is why we have a spare.”
He pulled the jack, spare tire, and lug wrench from the trunk and carried them over to the shoulder next to the damaged tire. It took two trips. Jennifer stood off to one side and watched.
“How long will this take?” She asked.
He slid the jack under the car. “I don’t know. Ten minutes, maybe.”
Jennifer had her cell phone out and was looking for a signal. He didn’t bother telling her that it would take an act of God to get a cell signal in the middle of all these ridges. No one built cell towers out here.
He started cranking up the jack.
“I can’t get a signal out here,” Jennifer said.
“The hills are blocking it,” he said as nicely as he could.
She snapped the phone shut, then abruptly looked into the woods. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
He picked up the lug wrench and moved to the damaged tire.
Jennifer was looking up into the forest beside them. “I heard something.”
He looked back where she seemed to be concentrating. The underbrush was so thick, he couldn’t see more than a foot or two off the road. And it was rapidly growing dark.
He couldn’t hear anything.
“It’s the woods, honey. You probably heard a deer.”
“You’re probably right.” She didn’t sound reassured.
He attached the lug wrench to the first of the five lug nuts and leaned on the handle to break it loose. The second one took two pops to break free. He moved to the third.
Jennifer moved over next to him to watch the progress. Or so he thought. When he glanced up, her eyes were squarely on the edge of the forest.
She looked spooked.
The third lug nut was being stubborn. He moved on to the fourth and fifth and loosened them before returning to the stubborn third lug nut.
“How much longer is it going to take?”
David leaned on the lug wrench. The nut refused to budge. “Forever if I can’t get this last lug nut loose.”
A branch snapped in the woods behind him. In the stillness, it sounded like a bone breaking.
“David…” Jennifer sounded on the edge of panic.
“A deer,” he told her. “It’s just a deer. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Despite his own words, something about the sound had spooked him too. He returned to the lug nut with renewed energy. It finally relented and broke loose.
He moved to the jack and raised the car the final few inches to move the tire off the ground.
Behind him, another sizable branch snapped, followed by the rustle of foliage as something passed by. Something big.
Darkness was growing rapidly along the roadway. It was already dark enough he was having trouble distinguishing Jennifer’s features, just feet away. As he began to manually unscrew the lug nuts, he worried about dropping one and losing it in the dark.
“Jen,” he looked up at her. “Could you get the flashlight out of the glove box for me?”
She nodded and wordlessly went to get the light. He couldn’t see for certain, but he had the impression he eyes never strayed far from the forest.
It was making him a little nervous too. Again, the foliage behind him rustled as something moved through it.
Jennifer returned with the flashlight. At his request, she directed the light onto the side of the tire. Once again able to see, he finished removing the lug nuts, set them aside, and pulled the damage tire from the axle.
“God! What is that smell?”
A second later, he too caught a whiff of a very unpleasant smell. It reminded him of very bad body odor, like that of habitual homeless person, but ten times stronger. It almost made his eyes water. Jennifer covered her nose.
Jennifer also moved the beam of the flashlight from the tire to the edge of the forest.
“Jennifer. I can’t see what I’m doing.”
“There’s something there, David. Something’s watching us.”
He sighed. “Jen . . .”
“David! I’m not stupid! Deer don’t stink like that!” Her voice nearly cracked. “There’s something out there!”
As if on cue, something in the darkness behind them made a “chuff” sound. To David, it sounded like the alert sound a dog often makes when it’s suspicious of something, but not sure of the danger. A few yards away, something answered with another “chuff.”
He pried the flashlight from her hands. “Get in the car and lock the door. I’ll get the tire on and we’ll get out of here.”
Jennifer searched his eyes, nodded, and hurried over to the car. She climbed in and slammed the door shut. A second later, the lock clicked into place.
David quickly propped the flashlight on the ground so its beam shone on the wheel well and grabbed the spare tire. Despite his show of brave calmness to Jennifer, he was spooked too, maybe as spooked as she was.
He needed to get the spare tire on quickly, so they could get the hell out of there.
Behind him, the strange vocalizations continued in the dark forest, becoming more frequent and more aggressive. Brush rustled as bodies moved around. Branches snapped. It was like they were working themselves up to something.
He lifted the spare tire, lined up the holes in the rim with the lug bolts, and slipped it onto the hub, then began twisting on the first lug nut. His fingers seemed to be working in slow motion.
Something whipped past his ear and slammed into the car’s fender. He jumped to the side and dropped the rest of the lug nuts into the gravel.
“Shit!” He scrambled to find the lug nuts.
Two more missiles slammed into the side of the car. Another hit his just arm just above the elbow, shooting burning pain down to his fingertips. He cried out and clutched his injured arm. Again, the lug nuts fell into the gravel.
Missiles were flying steadily now, smacking into him, bouncing off the sides and top of the car, the windows. Most seemed to be green pine cones, but there were a few rocks and branches mixed in.
The “chuffing” had grown into a rhythmic shouting match behind him. Inside the car, Jennifer was screaming.
Another blow landed squarely between David’s shoulder blades.
That was enough.
He scrambled to his feet and sought cover on the other side of the car. Pine cones pounded the car like a bizarre hailstorm and bounced over him onto the road. The creatures in the woods had worked themselves into a frenzy. They hooted and thrashed the underbrush and see med to cheer each other on.
It reminded David of the sideline at a football game—the winning sideline.
The driver’s door popped open and Jennifer tumbled out onto the roadway just as one of the car windows shattered behind her.
She scrambled to her hands and knees and crawled over to huddle beside him.
She nodded. Her entire body was trembling. “They’re going to kill us.”
“No, they’re not.”
“David! Have you seen them? They’re huge!”
He hadn’t, but the barrage of pine cones hadn’t slowed down; neither had the hooting and thrashing on the edge of the woods.
There was no way he was going to be able to finish changing the tire. Not under that kind of fire.
“What are we going to do?” Jennifer asked, her voice tight with fear. “I don’t want to die out here.”
As far as he could tell, they only had two options. They could stay put and hope someone in another car came driving by to either help them escape or scare their attackers off. But there wasn’t much traffic this far up the river after dark. They hadn’t seen another vehicle in an hour.
That seemed a long shot. Too long a shot.
“Listen,” he told her. “I’m going to attract their attention. When I do, I want you to sneak to the other side of the road and start running toward Agness.”
“I can’t leave you here.”
“Believe me.” He ducked as a pine cone bounced across the hood and over his head. “I’ll be right behind you. I just want to give you as much of a head start as I can. Okay?”
Jennifer nodded and reached down to pull off her flip-flops. “What if they’re faster than us?”
“Let’s hope they’re not.”
He gathered an armful of pine cones—maybe a half dozen—and moved past Jennifer to the tail end of the car.
He took a deep breath and stood. “Now, Jennifer! Run!”
She moved across the road in a crouch, then began to run. He stood up and chucked a pine cone into the darkness. “Hey!”
He couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Hey! Over here!”
He threw another pine cone as hard as he could blindly into the darkness.
For a second, he was met by silence. Maybe he’d startled them; maybe they weren’t expecting any resistance; maybe they’d fled. He threw another pine cone and risked a glance toward Jennifer.
The darkness had swallowed her, but he could hear her feet slapping the roadway.
“Hey!” He hurled two more pine cones into the darkness. “What’s the matter? Not so tough anymore?”
All hell broke loose. It sounded like there were a hundred of them, screaming and thrashing the underbrush.
David threw his last pine cone and ran.
Behind him, glass shattered to the ground and something slammed on metal. He didn’t look back and he didn’t slow down until he’d caught up with Jennifer.
Nothing seemed to follow them, but they didn’t slow down until they’d put a mile between them and the car.
It took them nearly two hours to get to Agness. By then, Jennifer’s feet were so badly cut and bruised she could hardly walk. David had tennis shoes, so he fared better, though his thighs and lungs burned. He wasn’t used to this kind of exertion.
But they made it safely to the party.
They didn’t hear or see any further sign of the things in the woods.