A Terrorwood Story
*Note: Terrorwood is currently being revised and rewritten. All stories in this project are subject to changes at the author’s discretion.
This story was written around early 2018, and I promise my writing has improved since then.
Long. Sleek. Smooth. Fast.
I wondered what it would be like to swim underneath the water, to never have to surface. To breathe air droplets so small I couldn’t even see them. To move with incredible speed, never touching the ground.
I quickly walked through the woods, along a path that only I knew. It was midsummer, and the air bathed me in a sticky heat that I vainly tried to brush off every few minutes. I could feel the dampness soaking through my thin t-shirt, wetness spreading in dark patches along my spine and under my arms. There is something uniquely disgusting about the feel of sweat on skin, an instinctual need to clean it off as quickly as possible, to make room for more sweat.
The taste of old coffee still lingered behind my teeth, a singular vice that I couldn’t quit. No smoking, no drinking, no drugs, no deep seeded need for the rush of adrenaline, but I held on dearly to coffee beans. The buzz of caffeine did little to nothing for me now, it was the taste that kept bringing me back. That earthy bitterness, following by a smooth warmth that caused me to salivate. I knew that I had finished my cup before I left the house but kept wondering if there had been one last dreg of the pot that I missed.
This was a pine wood with trees that towered over me, providing shade not by an expanse of leaves but by how densely they grew together. The path I walked was originally made by deer, a trek back and forth from the hills to the lake. It was weak and undefined, a slight brown line cutting through the thick bed of needles, but I could always find it. I had grown up in these woods and knew all the trails that its inhabitants had worn down over the years.
A pine needle had wormed its way into my hiking boot and was digging into my foot between my toes. I debated stopping to try and fish it out, but my efforts would most likely end with more needles in my boots and time wasted.
I didn’t have the time to waste. I needed to focus, to keep working.
Blue. Green. Teal. Darkly iridescent.
I’d never seen the ocean. When I was younger I remember an uncle promising me that we would one day make the short trek to the shore, but he disappeared from my life along with everyone else. Little me would flip through picture books filled with sand and scales, bright clear water and fantastic creatures, dreaming of the day I would splash my feet in the water.
My path branched off, I could go right or left. I opened the small notebook I was carrying, a spiral bound packet of paper covered in cheap plastic and cardboard. According to my notes, I had taken the right path a month ago, but it had been four months since I’d taken the left path. Too long. I flipped the notebook shut, sliding my pencil into the metal rings and fastening it all with a rubber band, and tucked it into the right side-pocket of my hiking pants. The pants were a lightweight grey material, a high-quality pair designed for treks along the Appalachian Trail. I’d never been along the Trail and had no intent to see it but had saved up for three months to afford these pants. I needed them, especially for the hot summers.
The left trail, there was more underbrush this way. This was why I hadn’t been down it in a while, the walk was more work. I cleared the path as I went, tossing fallen branches and pieces of rotting bark to the side. The last storm had put a beating on the older trees in this area, many of them were shedding bark like snakes shed their skin. But snakes were meant to shed, were prepared for the event. The pine trees were not, and in their exposed flesh I could see the tunnels of termites carving into them. They looked painful.
The ground started to slope down, slowly. I was getting close to where I needed to be. I checked my watch and the small compass attached to its side. Yes, I was still heading west. Once the trail started to turn north, I needed to branch off it and keeping heading west, I could even go south a bit. When the ground sloped like this it was hard to resist the downward pull, I needed to keep checking the compass. I couldn’t waste the time of heading off in the wrong direction.
Strong. Muscles seething under scaled skin. Powerful. Deep.
My uncle stopped coming around. I wrote him letters, but he never responded. Eventually, I gave up. I gave up on everyone, until it was just me and my aunt. We lived together in the big old house, us and the dog. But then the dog was gone too, sent to live with a loving family. I loved him too, but my aunt said that he couldn’t stay. That it was just she and I, two against one world.
I stayed true to the path until it went north, and I then stayed west. The ground sloped upward again, and I started to labor at breathing. I was moving at too fast a pace, if I wasn’t careful I would burn out too soon. I slowed down, until the vice around my lungs loosened. I could breathe again. I wanted to move faster, but that would be counterproductive. Sometimes slow is better, not the tortoise and the hare but magnesium and a match. Magnesium burned brighter, but a match burned longer.
Here I started to intently scan the trees, searching for a glint of metal. I didn’t expect all the nails to still be hanging, some probably fell out or were pulled out by hikers. That thought worried me more than anything, the thought of other people passing through here. I hadn’t seen the telltale signs of hikers or kids coming out to smoke and drink, no fallen logs cleared for seats or discarded, crushed cans. The woods were far cleaner now than they had been when I had first started my route, a few years ago now.
How old was I when I first started this? Thirteen? No, it was before my disastrous attempt at piercing my own ears, so I must have been… Twelve? Yes, that sounded right, twelve. So, five years now I had been out here, working the trails. Back when I first started I had to bring heavy duty trash bags with me to pick up all the litter, and I had to go back and forth from the house to the trails multiple times in one outing just to drop off all the refuse.
Still, though there were no signs of people, it had been a long time since I had seen the telltale shape of a nail driven into a tree.
Cold. Searching. Swimming. Wanting.
Life went on that way for a long time, just my aunt and me and the big old house. Not too big, not too old, just big enough to lose yourself in and just old enough to smell like dust and smoke. Then one day, my aunt wasn’t there anymore. Sure, there was a woman who looked like my aunt and sounded like my aunt, but she was not the same woman who had raised me. The woman who had looked at me with kind eyes and treated me with patience, who took the time to teach me right from wrong. I don’t know where she went, but this woman, this woman wanted nothing to do with me. She was done.
There it was, a metallic glint against the warm brown of pine bark. A nail.
I couldn’t help myself and I broke into a jog as I approached the tree, relief washing over me. There was still a scrap of a sign desperately clinging to the nail, still holding on. I reached up and tugged the bit of plastic-coated paper down, feeling around its edges. The ripped sides still had a raw, fibrous feel to them, the sheet had come down recently.
I looked around but couldn’t find the rest of the sheet. This happened sometimes, park service employees would go through the woods and take them down. One summer, three years ago, they had been annoyingly insistent, and I’d almost been caught more than once. One time they actually saw me and chased me through the woods. But I had spent the previous two years learning every nook and cranny of the woods, walking them every single day. I had the stamina and knowhow to get away, and they never saw my face.
I unlatched the fastenings crossing my chest and stomach and felt the pack sag against my back. I let the straps slide down my arms, catching them before lowering the pack to the ground beside me. Crouching down I brushed a few stray needles off the cover, before unlatching that and flipping it back. I’d bought the pack off a hiking website, again for Trail enthusiasts. The pack was made of coated cloth, waterproof and sturdy enough to survive daily use. I had considered stitching my name into the lining, but in case it was lost I didn’t want my name attached to any of this.
I pulled one sheet out of a sheaf of plastic-coated papers, all laminated by hand by me. You could order self-laminating plastic in bulk, it was less sturdy than going to an office supply and doing it with the machine, but it was far cheaper, and I didn’t have to leave the house. Also, it would probably draw attention if a homeschooler were laminating stacks of warning-yellow papers on a weekly basis.
I also pulled out a hammer and a box of nails, fresh just in case. I couldn’t quite remember when I had put in the nail presently in the tree, but it never hurt to replace them. At first, I’d felt bad, spending all the time to clean up the woods then littering them with plastic and paper and nails. But it was necessary, taping or tying up the papers didn’t last long enough, and if I didn’t laminate them they would dissolve after a few rainstorms if they weren’t stolen by birds for nesting material.
I needed these to stay up longer than that. Long enough for me to go through the rest of the woods, to sweep through and replace them all. It took me three to four weeks for one full sweep of the forest, and they needed to last at least that amount of time. When I found littering sheets that had fallen or been torn off, at least I always took them home to dispose of them.
The nail in the tree had come a bit loose, and when I tugged on the head it slid out easily. I tucked it into my pocket, to be put away in that one pocket in my pack. The new yellow paper was glaringly bright against the tree, impossible to miss or ignore. A few well aimed strikes and the fresh nail was secure in the tree, a new sign securely fixed.
Teeth. Fangs. Razor sharp. Cutting. Slicing.
After my aunt went away, I spent all my time alone. At first, I sat in my room, reading books and tracing over the pictures in them. Soon, I realized that I didn’t have to stay in the house, I could disappear into the woods surrounding us for hours and the woman who said she was my aunt would make no comment. This was when I discovered the deer and animal trails and started to follow them. I learned that they all led to the lake.
Hours of walking, taking down old, torn signs, replacing them, stopping long enough only to scarf down an artificially sweetened granola bar laced with chocolate and shards of espresso beans. The sun had only just been peeking over the horizon when I started out on the trail, and by its steady blaze across the sky I knew that evening was approaching. I was quite a distance away from the house now, near the far edge of the woods. If I listened closely, I could hear the guttural hum of the occasional car passing by on the road.
I nailed the final sign into place, the last of two dozen. I had a system for placing the signs, so that it was nearly statistically impossible to move through the woods without seeing them. At night I took classes online and had taken advanced statistics four years ago. That was when I came up with the system, based on the distance between trees and in which direction the ground sloped. I once tried to map out the location of each individual sign to make my work easier, but that hadn’t taken. This felt right to me, this manual schema. I couldn’t afford to get lazy and having to locate each tree anew on every sweep kept me focused.
My work for the day was done with this final sign, and if I wanted to get back to the house before it got too dark I needed to get going. But I could feel the pull, the need to go to the lake. To see the water, and what lay beneath it.
I secured my pack and its contents, cinching the fasteners across my chest and stomach. The lake was easy to find, all you needed to do was follow the way the ground fell. Down to the lakeside. The day’s earlier heat was quickly settling into the middling warmth of the evening, and I could feel the grit of residual salt from dried sweat on my arms and forehead. The sensation didn’t bother me, not like it used to. When I first started working I would feel something akin to panic in the evenings, covered in the grime of my own making. There was this fear of being dirty, and that being dirty meant I had been doing something wrong. Not anymore though. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this was my badge of honor, because that implies I would be showing off to someone else. This was more personal, my outsides matching my insides.
As I approached the lake I could feel the coolness of it begin to wash over me, urging me to walk faster, to ignore the pain of blisters bursting on the soles of feet and get moving. However, I refused to give in, because if I gave in a little the rest of me would be gone to it.
The trees parted, and there it was. The lake.
I had never learned the official name of the lake, and never thought to ask the woman who said she was my aunt. The lake was the lake, what more could there be to it?
Pale white orbs, watching. Pleading. Needing.
At first, I was afraid of the lake. The water seemed so big and dark, waiting to swallow me up, and I would never be seen again. Each day I would venture closer to the edge, until I climbed the overhanging branches and there was nothing but water beneath me. I stared down into the brackish depths, watching the legs and fins of frogs and sunfish pushing the water in ever changing patterns. I thought of the books in my room, of the beach I was promised. I began to imagine.
A strange satisfaction rolled over me like the small waves lapping at the lakeshore. Twilight was settling over the forest, swathing everything in the silence of the between. Between day and night, between nocturnal and diurnal. I left my pack at the edge of the woods, away from the creep of the water and mud.
There was one tree which had fallen in a storm yet was still clinging to life, the roots grasping back down into the earth. One of the tree’s largest branches now reached over the water, the thin twigs growing down from it coated in a wet mold crawling up from the water. Getting down on all fours, I climbed out on the branch just as I had since I was small. I couldn’t go out as far as I once did, before I grew into this older body.
Reaching the farthest point I could, I lay down on my stomach, feeling the rough bark pressing through my thin shirt and into my skin. I rested my cheek against the branch and stared down into the water, watching the crisscross of small wind waves play on its surface. The feeling still pulled at me, calling me down into the dark, brackish depth.
I knew better than to tease and that I was only encouraging a need for contact, but for all my self-control this I could not resist. Far below me, the desire was clawing out through flesh and bone and blood, shredding from the inside out. It needed connection, to feel something, to find what it lacked, so that it wouldn’t go searching. This, I could give willingly. Others could not.
I dropped my arm down off the branch, holding my fingers a fraction of an inch above the water. I let my fingers fall, breaking the surface, and they created a wave that pounded and reverberated through the lake. I called out and waited.
Fins splashing through the surface. Breaking the water. Ripping through the peace.
The first I saw of it were its eyes, milky white orbs the size of baseballs. They rose up to meet me and were followed by teeth spilling out of a wide grin. Razor sharp and gleaming white, the mouth opened to reveal row upon row of them, leading down into an endless gaping black maw. Its body was long and moved languidly through the water, like a snake slithering through sand, with strong muscles seething underneath darkly iridescent scales. Long fins lined its spine and sides, tapering off at its back end to a whip of a tail.
As I let my fingers hang, I saw the bubbles climbing up through the water, breaking at the surface to release a whiff of what I imagined a sea breeze smelled like. Then, a dark shape curling through the water, swimming up towards me with eyes and teeth glowing like searchlights.
The water here was maybe fifteen, twenty feet deep, but it swam up for an eternity, growing larger and larger as it emerged from below the lake floor. Faster, its fins rippling like silk in the wind, it rose to meet me. For a moment I felt fear, that this would be my time to be dragged down. But I was met with reassurance, not animosity. Excitement, not enmity.
I hadn’t named the thing, nor tried to ask what it liked to be called, whether it was male or female or somewhere in between. In my mind I referred to the creation as the thing and it, a beast of its own. The thing was moments away now, arcing back and around until its fins broke up through the water, creating ripples that washed away floating pine needles and debris.
The thing swam to me and ran its forehead under my fingertips before diving. Resurfacing for another pass, for another touch.
Though it never hurt me, never gave me reason to fear, this thing in the water needed to eat. And whether through some buried resentment or unrecognized intent, it would only eat one flesh. I tried to bring it raw beef, chicken, fish, even fruits and vegetables. But none of it was right, what it really wanted. One day, I saw a lone hiker stop at the other side of the lake, sitting on an overhanging rock and dangling their feet in the cool water. Then I understood what this thing needed.
I lay on the branch for only a few minutes, letting the thing pretend that I was petting it. I felt the contentment in its mind, the fulfillment of a need for companionship it could find in no one else, no matter how violently it tried. I closed my eyes, resting for a moment, knowing that I needed to leave soon for home.
Then, I felt a rush of water splash against my palm. I opened my eyes to see the thing’s whip of a tail disappear down into the lake floor, gone without explanation.
I understood a moment later, when the gnarled scream of metal crushing bone broke through the twilight silence, coming from the road a mile away.
I needed only see the thing desperately try to sate its need once to understand that I mustn’t let anyone near lake, ever. I considered going to the woman who called herself my aunt, to the police, hell, to animal control. But I couldn’t, every time I tried it felt like a knife was driven through my chest, carving me through. What I could do was trade in fakery, in false signs and nails in trees. I could push people away with faux authority, and my own willpower.
I’d never had the chance to act heroically, and perhaps I wasn’t acting heroically then either. Maybe the instinct to run towards the sound was one of survival, a desire to keep anyone and everyone away from the lake. Maybe I wanted to help. In that moment, the reason didn’t matter, and I ran for the road.
My legs were tired from the day’s work, but still strong from the years of daily exertion. I worked through sun, rain, and snow, through storms and through droughts. Nothing could stop me from walking the trails with my plastic papers and nails, and I could run. Especially with my pack sitting at the edge of the woods by the lake, with nothing on my back but a shirt and my own skin.
I burst out of the forest with a gasp, skidding to a stop in the middle of the empty road. Struggling to catch my breath I whipped my view back and forth as I backed up to the roadside, looking for cars and people. Nothing. For a moment I was confused, convinced that something had happened but seeing nothing. Then, the heel of my foot sank into something thick and soft.
I jumped forward and spun, for the first time looking down for what my heel had struck. There lay a young woman, perhaps my own age or younger. She stared up at me with empty, glassy eyes, her neck tilted to the side at an unnatural angle. Her body was splayed over the side of the road, surrounding by a pool of dark blood and the glimmering shards of a broken headlight. A large tote bag lay next to her, its contents spilling onto the grass.
Bloody boot prints led away from her body, and my eyes followed as they led directly to… me. In my haste to reach the scene I must have sprinted right over and past her, sliding into the road completely unaware. I swallowed down some bile at the realization, willing myself not to throw up.
There was no way whomever had hit this girl didn’t notice, though I wasn’t enough of a sleuth to figure out if there was more to it. All I could see was a girl hit by a car and left to die in the middle of nowhere. I waited and listened for sirens, some sign that anyone was coming for her, but there was nothing. The twilight silence of the forest was quickly changing over to the mild cacophony of the night, and I could see no lights coming down the road.
Crouching down beside her, I tentatively reached out, feeling for a pulse or any sign of life. Her skin was still warm, but nothing moved beneath. I yanked my hand back, my heart racing in my chest as my breathing sped up. I could feel panic rising in a flush up my neck, creeping up the back of my skull, black spots appearing as I fell back against the grass. I closed my eyes and tried to breath, willing myself not to pass out.
My eyes popped open at the words, loud as a whisper in the back of my mind.
Look in the bag.
I lifted myself back into a crouch and reached for the girl’s bag. Rummaging through it, I found a few sets of clothes, a pair of shoes, prepackaged snacks, and a large water bottle. A wallet had fallen out of the bag and onto the road, inches away from the spread of blood. Looking through it I found a wad of cash, a high school ID card and a learner’s permit. A picture had been shredded and hidden in the side pocket, but I couldn’t piece together the image from the fragments.
I didn’t recognize her, though there was no reason why I should. I didn’t go to the high school and avoided the town proper as much as possible. This girl was no one to me.
I tucked the wallet back in the bag, along with the various articles of clothing and snack packages that had fallen out into the grass. Some had landed in the blood, and I wiped them off as best I could. I stood up, there was nothing I could do for this girl. She had no phone for me to call for help, and neither did I.
I dropped back to my knees, driven by an instinct I had been fighting ever since my family had begun to leave me. I fought the instinct to fix it, to bring my mom and dad back, to bring the dog back.
Placing my hand on the girl’s forehead, I closed my eyes, still fighting but losing the need to do something. I knew this was wrong, that nothing good could come from fixing what was beyond repair. Nothing good could come from making something new, at the very least I needed something to use as a base, a reference.
It doesn’t matter what.
The last time I had seen someone my age was a few weeks ago, when I walked down to the end of the driveway to collect a package of yellow paper and laminating sheets. The house was surrounded by an old metal fence that had to be opened by hand, but the delivery people came by regularly enough that they knew it was okay to leave the boxes at the end.
I had just picked up the box when I heard the tinny ringing of a bike bell. When I looked up at the source, there was a girl waving at me as she rode by. Another girl was following on a second bike, rolling her eyes at the first’s friendliness. I was so surprised that I never waved back, but that first girl seemed nice. Kind, maybe. Hopefully.
Do it now.
I focused on the girl on the bike, on that smile on her face. On the set of her shoulders, the movement of her legs as they worked the pedals. The twist of her wrist as she waved, the shutter of her eyes blinking. How her back straightened to lift her arm, then bent back down over the handlebars. The sun casting the shadows behind her, the whoosh of air as she rode past. I imagined how her heart pumped in her chest, and how electricity fired through the neurons in her brain.
Under the palm of my hand, I felt the staccato beat of blood being pumped through veins and the twitch of muscles reawakening.
I leapt to my feet and bolted back towards the woods, not looking back at the girl. My backpack was still sitting by the lake, and I slowed only enough to sling it onto my shoulders and keep running for home, its weight slapping against my back without the straps to fasten it in place.