“The Forest Breathes” by Nic Highsmith

Read the 2nd place winning submission from our Scary Story Contest by Warrior Media!


Image by mskathrynne from Pixabay

Second Place- “The Forest Breathes” by Nic Highsmith : A man looking for the body of a missing boy ventures into a forbidding forest. Along the way, he meets two strange characters who think they may be able to help…

The following story contains descriptions of gore, reader discretion is advised. 

What lurks in the darkness is among the most viscerally biting of things; the darkness and the harsh cold only brings out the worst in the human mind, and it serves no purpose but to find the darkest fear among the lingering hearts of the loneliest people. The bite of cold air and the glide of the noble owl brought out a human’s senses in a visceral way that spoke to one’s primal instinct, as if it were the gnashing teeth of a wild hound pressed against their jugular.

Being lost in a forest like this was no less or more horrifying than if one was equipped with all the materials they may need for a traverse like this. The items they carried were superfluous, really; this forest tore it all away with no regard for human limitation. Were a person to be seen stepping out of the forest, they were regarded as a hero to be wary of. For, while they survived a battle with nature that was nigh impossible to win, they always appeared changed. The eyes of the walking dead rested in their sockets, and oft, they were missing enough minor organs to be considered emptied, a bottle poured out until only the smallest drops remained in the miserable ribbed bottom of green glass. Their lips curved around syllables that, when pushed together, were made up of no human language. Of course, the likelihood of even a scrap of them escaping the sea of trees was nigh zero, which was the only cause for celebration when one returned.

They had all been warned, to be truthful; there were dozens of signs along the path in such a variety of languages that even a family born in rural Mongolia could understand the message of warning. There were long strings of yellow and red winding their way through the forest, yellow leading through the forest but giving an easy exit and red leading only to a cemetery on the outskirts. Only those who followed one of the strings survived, and even then, their chances of finding their way wore thin were they to follow the yellow. Unless one held tight to the yellow line and never followed any mirages the forest may present to them, clutching it tight like the hand of a lost toddler who had lost their mother in a grocery store, their survival chances dimmed with their hope.

The oddity of this was, besides the obvious mysticism behind a forest that swallowed at least a dozen people a year, no bodies were found. Symbolic graves were dug in the red string cemetery, but even the loved ones of the many undiscovered corpses knew there was little hope to locate these bodies.

He entered with a noble enough purpose, really. He was intending to locate at least one body, to give the family some closure; the body of William Queen. He was described to him as a six year old boy who, in a fit of imaginative dreaming, had wandered his way into the forest. It had been two weeks since his disappearance, which lended no credence to any theory of survival on the boy’s part. The parents of William acknowledged this, even if it was tearily and frankly distasteful in nature. They simply wanted the boy’s body, at least a part of him, to bring back, to bury outside of the red string cemetery. It made sense, logistically; burying the recovered body of a forest victim in a symbolic cemetery built no respect for their death. But he could not fail to think that the spitting gates of the forest simply mocked the attempt.

With enough money offered, though, he set off with very little equipment. He’d heard tales of recollection from people who had been recovered, as disturbing as they may look. It was a shared sentiment that bringing supplies served no logistical purpose besides weighing you down. The supplies would be given no time to give you any benefit, as they were always lost by nightfall the first day.

Even though a large sum of money was offered, there were still the naysayers who had coined him “The Garbage Man”, a more mythical symbol of death than a fellow man. But he had some unsavory preferences in life that he could not afford on just working in town and dirty money was usually presented in higher quantities for the work none wished to do. So he carried on in a manner that was decently respectful, even if he rolled his eyes at the sneers, pleas, and demands, all carrying the same message: Don’t go into the forest.

Of course, he was disinterested in the concern coming from his fellow townspeople, considering their lack of concern for the rest of his life and whether he was dead or alive. The townspeople were protesting in their own self interest, figuring the forest was akin to a volcano on the brink of a major eruption. He was unbothered by this; if they died, they died, he rationalized. It wasn’t as if he had been raised by mercy in this miserable town. So, with nothing beyond the clothes on his back and a half eaten snack in his gloved hands, the man wandered in.

Upon breaching the wall of trees, he was hit with a wave of silence, a humidity of unanswered questions and unbroken screams. He could hear his heart with the clarity of a bell as if it was lodged between his ears rather than in the sunken cavity of his chest. Immediately, he was put off guard. No other place that was not 5000 feet underground could produce that level of silence, much less make him able to hear all his organs working in tandem. It was not normal, nor was it any sort of comforting.

The first step was less taxing than the next. The forest floor worked as if it were pulling him to Hell, grasping at the ankles of his galoshes. The man had a feeling that his galoshes, as well as the rest of his protective getup, would not last very long the further he wandered into the forest. A bony, rubber-gloved hand gripped tight to the yellow string. He cast a glance behind him, but saw only smoke. It had not been smokey the day prior, and it had no reason to be. Mirages were common in the forest, but they were far from normal when it was warm out and nobody needed to light a fire. Admittedly, he hadn’t been expecting the mirages to begin so soon. At least, he hoped it was a mirage. It would be inconvenient to step out of the forest and find the whole village burned down.

His eyes tore away and he began his trek into the darkness ahead, a sea of trees where he could almost imagine a whale diving down to him from the leaves or mythical beast winding in between the stripped bark trees. It was difficult to imagine this had any human intervention at all; the yellow string bearers were a famous tribe who had sent at least 15 people trekking through to attempt to help those foolish enough to wander their way through on a whim. The foolishness of the general populace never seemed to amaze them, though; they had been there when the forest had taken its first victim, and the more news spread, the more hazy dared teens and curious photographers began their search for a good story.

Only about 5 minutes in, he heard a distant cry. It sounded youthful, like a child on Christmas morning coming down to see no presents under the tree, and yet so very worn. An abused facade of childhood from a broken soul, beyond frightening in nature. The “Garbage Man”, as it were, was not one for frightfulness, had never jumped at a monster nor shivered at the most gruesome of sights. For some reason though, hearing a shriek with no discernible age or emotion sent a chill through his mind.

The noise came from up ahead, and within an hour, he found where it originated. A small woman, no more than 16 years old, with a blindfold on. Her hair was as twisty as the road out of here, her hands were gripping a skirt that was little more than stitched scraps, and her darkened skin challenged the warmth of a bird’s midnight song while matching the wing of a raven. It appeared, from his non-doctoral view, that her ankle was some sort of injured. As much as he would’ve liked to skip past her and leave her there, he acknowledged her weakness would get her killed one way or another. Plus, his galoshes were not any sort of quiet.

“Hey,” he croaked out, parched from the movement while he knelt by her side. “Are you quite alright?”

“Quite alright is not the way I would describe this.” Her voice had a distinctly British twist on a decidedly French accent and it was no more charming to him than the rest of the village. “Why are you here? I thought the forest signs warned to stay away.”

“You would be correct, but I’m here on a contract. I’m assuming you didn’t see them?”

Charming. I’m in here to find a friend,” the wounded woman explained. It didn’t seem she was in the mood to explain. He snapped a stiff branch off a nearby tree, sending an overwhelming sense of displeasure through the sea of trees around them. Of course, that was paid no mind as he tore a strip off the shirt under his rubber jacket and attached the stick to her with it, like a brace.

“We’ll find your friend and my contract and leave as soon as possible.” His arm went around her and hoisted her to her feet, allowing her to rest against his side. And off they went. Displeased, he noted the slowing of his pace and that she already seemed winded. An unusual burden he was not fond of carrying.

Camp was set around hour 5 of their journey after she pleaded with him to stop. “Camp” was not much of one, though; they had no tent, no food, no fire. It was simply him laying his jacket down on the ground and laying down on it while she sat next to him. She sat and stared as if seeing something through the black and brown cloth wound over her eyes. Every time she spoke, no response came, and she frequently checked he was still there. Her hands were rough, although he hadn’t the foggiest clue why, and her skin’s dark pigmentation seemed to vary when it dipped into her neckline into a slightly paler, pinker tone. Her hands were upturned and resting on her thighs and the stillness she maintained could trick one into thinking she was merely a statue. The dust on her clothes and skin gave the appearance of hardened stone.

Waking was unpleasant, and falling asleep had been equally bad. The thick, fogged air hung heavy and sat on his chest to make it so breathing was an unusual chore. She had not moved, although clipped puffs of air left her occasionally that hinted she was, indeed, asleep. She looked more of an effigy than a real person, something to be set ablaze for celebrations or strung up with fitted dresses to ensure they worked the way they were intended to. He knocked her side with his boot to startle her out of her paralytic slumber and she slowly worked herself to her feet with surprising efficiency for someone with a hurt ankle.

Finding a house had not been on the agenda, nor the man tending to it. The chimney was spewing putrid smoke, as if he were burning tires rather than firewood. The man tending was swinging an axe at a tree, but was disingenuous in his motives towards it. The tree took no damage by his hands. His worn hands and dry knuckles clenched around the stem of the axe and he showed every intention of hitting the tree, but either he or the tree stopped him before he did. It was impossible to distinguish his spirit from the forest’s; the trees swung when he did, although with less efficiency, the ground breathed in tandem with his own lungs, his skin was rough as the bark lining the bases of the trees. A man truly at one with his work, to the point that his breathing matched with the swing of his axe and it stuttered when the axe did not connect. The girl by his side could see none of these details, but she heard them. She heard the swing of the axe, whistling through the air, and could hear the way his worn clothes groaned and creaked like an old house or unbroken leather. Upon calling out to him, his eyes did not direct to them. He simply stepped towards them, dragging the axe behind, a portrait of the textbook serial killer. The Garbage Man was unshaken, as was the girl by his side. Her hands were still risen to the hidden sky, covered by layer upon layer of thick foliage.

The lumberjack stopped in front of them. He was a towering figure of intimidating stature, the breadth of his shoulders rivalling some of the tree trunks. His skin was pale as the mushrooms by his feet, his eyes as light and glassy as the moon. The only thing it could be said he resembled was those that had returned to the outside world after exploring the forest, but he had made his home here. He was as blind as a mole and no words of any human origin escaped him when he approached. Silent, stock still, as unbothered by their presence as he was by the air around him. A hand outstretched before directing itself, stuttered and as if his arm were controlling itself rather than the whole body working in tandem, towards his cabin. It was a silent invitation. This whole interaction set his muscles tensed, pulled tight like a violin string. There was a debate, really, between safety and comfort there. On one hand, comfortability would be nice in an inescapable forest and the cabin did look warm, in contrast to the damp cold of the blanket of trees. On the other hand, safety would lead to them not dying, which would be ideal.

Eventually though, comfortability was chosen, and he tugged the small girl along with him into the warm cabin. The lumberjack did not drop his axe, nor did he say or acknowledge anything that was happening around him. He was a redwood of a man, but his home was small. A twin sized bed, a fireplace that could hold perhaps one pig belly on a stick, a kitchen better equipped for butchering than any sort of elaborate meal, and the door to the bathroom which he felt awfully repelled by.

The three of them spent the rest of the evening drinking tea made from the tea tree outside one of the rush-fix windows and sitting in relative silence. The lumberjack was some sort of speech impared, whether mute or anxious or whatever else, the girl was busy sitting stock still on a rocking chair that was doing anything but rocking, and the Garbage Man didn’t want to disturb the building tension. The two invaders slept on the floor while the lumberjack somehow fit himself into the bed through some sort of witchcraft. 

The two left early in the “morning”, although the hanging fog left an impression that it was always evening or close. The mysterious calm that had set the previous day continued, but with a more sinister air about it. It was anything but relaxing. The girl trailed behind him, refusing help although she still was limping. Nothing could be seen behind her blindfold and her lips showed no evidence of discomfort, but it was an honest toss up whether or not she was truly feeling any pain. The little conversation she attempted to make was met with silence or harsh looks.

“Who is your contract?” she finally asked. He huffed out a mixed sigh of displeasure, from the questioning, and incredulousness, because she just kept asking questions even though it was unlikely they would get answers.

“Some 6 year old named William,” he mumbled, hands fisted in his pockets. His eyes darted around with frustration and nerves, concerned about what might happen. The lumberjack apparently slept with both of those glassy eyes wide open and that didn’t instill any confidence about anything relating to their situation. Mirages were getting ever more frequent, visions of the dead and the lumberjack lost to the woods. He could see the lumberjack aimlessly swinging at every tree, glassy and pale eyes staring into the abyss. An empty, heavy silence hung in the air, coating the world around them in a wide-stroke brush of tension.

“William Queen, huh?” That gave him pause.

“I didn’t say that. How did you know that?”

No answer came. His breath sounded sharp in the cool, misty air. He could hear his heart, and then he couldn’t. He could hear the heart of the forest. A fluctuation of air patterns, falling leaves, animals dying, and the consistent chop of an axe. The way everything sounded was as if he were given a viking’s funeral, sent off to sea and burned all at the same time. All he could smell was freshly cut grass and the iron of blood. His fingers, then hands, then all the way up and all the way down his body went numb. His tongue was swollen and clumsy behind his teeth. 

“William Queen entered this forest with destructive intent,” she said slowly, grabbing the back of his shirt. Her fingers moved up and he could hear the rustle of fabric over hair, but he was not allowed any time to check and see what was behind that cursed fabric. Rather, she dragged him with strength that should not belong to the body of a teenager, to the wall around the forest. He was thrown on top, landing on his stomach, and his hair was pulled to force him to stare forward. He could see the town down below, full of swindlers, corruption, those who simply wanted to belong. He could feel disgust that was not his own, and for a moment, he could see himself torching the food supply, breaking each building down. Forests couldn’t move, but this one sure could think.

“They built on our land, where our children would grow and create a utopia of greenery to be seen from space, and built a fence. They chop down any child who escapes these walls, and yet they fear us.” Her voice was not one, but many, sounding like it was being carried by the breeze whizzing past the oceans trapped in his ears. “And then they come in here and expect us to accept their presence.”

He fell down off the wall, staring up at the sky inside the forest, and she stood above him. He could see her eyes, and they didn’t belong to her. None of her did. Her eyes, blue and green, rolled around in her skull, disconnected from any sort of tissue. Every patch of skin she wore was just slightly a different color, making a gradient from dark to light, head to toe. And, right upon her stomach which she bared for him to see, was William Queen’s face, all skull, cartilage, and tissue removed until it was a simple husk. Nothing was behind the eye sockets, no skin of her own, nothing. She was but a skin suit, staring down at him with eyes that would not match her intentions. 

“It is not your fault that you came here, Mister ‘Garbage Man’, but you cannot leave. You don’t know too much, you haven’t seen too much, but only the blind may stay, as the blind cannot see the evil beyond these walls.” A hand that felt hollow pushed his hair back, and she took the branch off her ankle. The fabric, that was long ago torn from his undershirt, was laid upon his chest.

He felt nothing.

He saw nothing.

He was everything.