Between the divorce and stressful deadlines at work, my life had become rather hectic. Needing a bit of time alone to clear my head, I decided to unplug from the world and spend a weekend in the woods. No Internet, no phone, and, most importantly, no people needing to be dealt with. I’ve never been much of the outdoorsy type, but I knew enough to survive on my own for a couple of days. After a bit of research, I settled on a forest about a two-hour drive from town. I brought a tent, plenty of water, and twice as much no-cook food as necessary.
It wasn’t too hard to find a clearing where I could set up camp. By the time I managed to figure out how to pitch my tent, daylight was already fading. I quickly gathered wood and started a fire. My evening was spent quietly watching the flames and embers floating towards the sky. I did the right thing coming here, I thought as I admired the untamed wilderness. I could feel my worries burn away, as though every twig I threw in the fire was one less problem off my shoulders. That night, I slept like a log, listening to the remnants of my fire crackling outside the tent.
The soothing sound of trickling water awoke me the next morning. Weird, I thought, I don’t remember seeing a river on the map. I unzipped my tent and stepped out into the cool morning air. My back cracked loudly as I stretched my arms to the sky. The forest floor certainly didn’t make for the most ergonomic of beds, and I cursed myself for not bringing a roll-up mattress.
After having breakfast, I decided to investigate the peaceful sound of running water. It led me to a creek just east of the clearing. I was surprised that I hadn’t seen it while gathering wood the night before. Though the flow of water was strong, I could still see the world reflected almost perfectly along its surface. I stood over it, watching the hypnotic current slithering between pebbles and boulders in search of an unknown destination. I imagined myself placing a paper boat and following it to a far-off land. Would it reach the ocean? With childlike fascination, I began to walk along the picturesque creek.
The stream continued for miles until it widened into a breathtaking crystal-clear lake. The scene looked so perfect that it could have been a painting. Beautiful, strong trees surrounded the lake, their bright green leaves glowing like emeralds. Bushes covered in flowers and berries adorned the forest floor. The sky seemed to open up and shine onto the still water, like a spotlight on a stage. I could hear a symphony of birds, crickets, frogs, and the rustling of treetops in the breeze. There was also the faintest hint of what sounded like wooden wind chimes echoing all around. My heart swelled with joy. I approached the water and peered at my reflection. The mirror-like surface revealed a face worn by years of stress and depression, but I could also see a twinkle of newfound hope in my eyes. Then, I looked up and spotted it: a half-sunken dock.
The dock was floating on the other bank. It seemed to be in good condition, despite its compromised angle. It was made of varnished wood and extended a good 10 meters before being overtaken by water. I was confused. During my hike, I hadn’t seen the slightest hint of human presence in the area. Not a single piece of trash, not a hunter’s cabin, not even a patch of trampled grass. And yet, I had proof that someone had trespassed into my perfect world, and had tainted its natural beauty. I needed to take a closer look.
I doubled-back to find a place where I could cross the creek. It was odd, though. The stream was wider than I remembered, and the flow of water was much stronger. No matter how far I walked, I was unable to find a narrow vein that I could jump over. I had no choice but to walk through the stream. The water was blisteringly cold and the powerful current kept tugging me off-course. The water was much deeper than it seemed. Though it looked about knee-deep, I found myself submerged up to the waist. Finally, I made it to the shore, and I headed back towards the lake with renewed enthusiasm. The road seemed twice as long, though I supposed it was the cumulative effect of a day’s worth of walking, and my brief dunk in the water. My clothes clung to my body, weighing down my every step all the way to the sunken dock.
I jumped onto the floating dock and took a few tentative steps forward. The structure was remarkably sturdy. My footsteps didn’t even cause a single ripple to form along the surface of the lake. As I made my way towards the submerged section of the dock, a strong gust of wind sent pollen flying into the air. Small clusters of white and green dust twirled like snowflakes in the breeze, landing gracefully over the surface of the lake. Everything about my oasis in the woods felt magical, and I hoped I would be able to remember the way so I could mark it on the map I’d left in my car.
The dock creaked as I reached its final dry plank. I peered towards the sunken wood, expecting to see kelp and moss coating its surface. To my surprise, it was as perfect underwater as it was above, leading me to think it had not been submerged long. I should have returned to camp at that point: I had seen what I wanted to see, there was no reason to continue. Unfortunately, I decided to test the waters, both literally and figuratively. I prodded one of the flooded planks with my foot, expecting the water to be as cold as in the stream. Shockingly, I couldn’t even feel the liquid. The only reason I knew I had reached the water was the ripple that formed when my foot broke the surface. It flared out towards the edges of the lake, bringing with it a simple message: There’s someone here.
The wind stopped abruptly and the forest came to a quiet hush. In an instant, I felt drained of energy, as though I had been running for miles. Everything felt wrong, and I wanted to turn back. I tried to move, but I felt something pulling me towards the water, guiding my feet farther and farther into the weightless liquid. I couldn’t even fight, it was as though I had lost all willpower, yet I desperately wanted to escape. My body refused to listen to my commands, and all I could do was close my eyes and inhale a final breath before I sank under the surface.
I couldn’t feel anything: not wet, cold, or warm. I held my breath for as long as I could, but my mouth eventually shot open to gasp for air. To my surprise, it was not water that filled my lungs, but oxygen. It came with an odd taste and scent that was not unlike a library’s archival room: bitter, musky, and stagnant. I tried to will myself to wake up from the nightmare, hoping that I would find myself back in my tent. It wasn’t a dream. I was still in the forest, or rather, in a forest. Though the layout was the same, everything looked different. The trees were hunched over like arthritic old men, the once remarkable foliage had become brittle and brown, the wooden dock was rotting, thorny bushes coated the area, and a heavy mist hung about a foot over the forest floor. The lake had been drained of water, leaving mud and a mess of vines in its wake. My gaze rose towards the sky, but I did not find it there. In its place was murky water that bubbled as though perpetually boiling. I was under the surface, yet somehow I could breathe.
And then, I heard them. Groans in the distance.
I could almost feel each individual hair on my body stand upright as an overpowering fear travelled through my body, poisoning my blood and turning it to ice. The shivers were uncontrollable, making me tremble more than a fragile vase in an earthquake. A second round of fear swelled through me when I saw shapes through the mist. They were low to the ground, barely visible, yet somehow I could already tell they were terrifying. I could hear crackles as they slowly made their way towards me, crushing fallen leaves and twigs in their path. I tried to run, but I couldn’t move. My ears caught their agonized moans coming from every direction, letting me know that I was surrounded, and that there was nowhere to hide.
A boy’s head emerged from the mist, leering at me through yellowed eyeballs. I could see tuffs of hair clinging to his rotting flesh, which sagged more than an elderly women’s neckline. His pustule-covered hands gripped my ankle firmly. I let out a whimper, but felt too powerless to kick him off. He turned his half-eviscerated head to look at me, and I felt my heart stop. I recognized him, but only because of the sound escaping the gap between his front teeth. It was Stephen, a childhood friend of mine. We’d been sledding down a hill one snowy winter day. I was preparing my next descent when I heard the shriek of the tires. I never forgot his scream. It echoed in my nightmares even years after the incident. Now, Stephen howled and dragged me towards the mist, where I could see others lurking. Their fingers wrapped around my legs. I desperately clung to the dock with all my strength, but the moss-coated wood was slippery, and I quickly lost my grip. I screamed, thrashed, and cried out for help. I wanted to go home. I wanted to take my ex back into my arms, to listen as my boss berated me, and even to endure my landlord’s threats. Anything but this.
The mangled bodies pulled me off the dock, through the mud, and into the forest. I had been wrong earlier. The crackling noises they made hadn’t been from crushing leaves and twigs: it had been from breaking bones. The forest bed was coated in the remains of thousands of bodies. Some were still moving, others were motionless, yet I felt like they were all leering at me with contempt. Even the beheaded, eyeless skulls seemed to glare into my very soul. My hands desperately dug at the pile of bones, trying to crawl back towards the dock, but it was in vain. I wasn’t strong enough. In life and in death, I had never been strong enough.
My body was scratched, bruised, and bleeding. I felt like I was going to die. Right when I was about to lose all hope, I heard a loud crackle behind me. The bony grip on my legs suddenly loosened, and I was able to kick myself free. Blood, mud, and tears rolled down my cheeks as I felt someone pulling me to my feet. I couldn’t see my savior clearly, but I was grateful for the help. He dragged me through the landscape of death and towards the dock. With every step, I could feel my strength returning. I wiped my eyes to try and see, but merely succeeded in smearing more filth into them. When we reached the dock, the stranger let go, and violently pushed me forward.
“You don’t belong here,” was all that I heard him say.
My head broke the surface, my lungs forcing me to gasp for air. I felt disoriented and dizzy. As I looked around, I realized I was in the middle of the crystal-clear lake. The forest had returned to normal, and I could hear wildlife chirping away happily. The water was cold, but I welcomed the sensation. I swam to shore, gagging and coughing as I pulled myself to safety. After taking a moment to catch my breath, I turned towards the lake, and noticed that the dock was gone.
I ran back to camp, carelessly throwing the tent in the back of my car. I wanted to get back as quickly as possible. My soaked body thumped against the driver’s seat, but I didn’t even worry about getting dry.
My mother was sitting in the hospital lobby, her eyes reddened with tears.
“Oh, honey,” she murmured, her face twisting with grief, “Your dad, he-” she began, but I cut her off.
I wrapped my arms around her, holding back a few tears, “… I know, mum. I know.”
When the doctors finally let me in to see him, I forced a smile, took the cold, strong hand that had pulled me from the darkness. In the privacy of his hospital room, I made him a secret vow, “From now on, I’ll be strong.”