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Stray Woods

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Stray Woods
Stray Woods

  A Farewell Reality story


  Shaun Tennant

  * * * * *

  Stray Woods

  Copyright © 2012 by Shaun Tennant

  Cover Photo Spooky Vultures © verinize -

  * * * * *

  It had once been a place of such happiness and joy, but it was now a place of evil. That’s what Josh Farewell thought as he looked through the chain-link fence surrounding what used to be a playground. For forty years, children had run down well-worn paths through the thin woods to the central playground equipment, where they could climb and swing and chase each other. Josh had been one such child.

  The playground equipment had changed since his own childhood—wood replaced by plastic, chains replaced by solid, brightly painted steel—but you could still see the purpose in in it. It was built for fun, for play, to elicit laughter and shrieks of joy. That would never happen again. The joy had been stripped out and would never return. Josh didn’t even really blame the murder for that. He blamed the town.

  The playground was surrounded by a small forest, and on three sides of the woods were houses, on the fourth side a road. A path had been hammered into the ground by generations of running shoes and bike tires, following the three main pathways. Two paths came in from the road, converging on the playground; while the third ran from the playground to the back fence, where it opened to a paved catwalk that let kids walk through to the neighbourhood behind the park. Together, the paths formed a Y with the equipment at the centre.

  Sometimes, kids would stray from the paths, running through the woods when there was snow on the ground, or colourful fallen leaves in autumn. But most of the time, kids stuck to the pathways, never really spending much time in the woods. That’s why it took over a decade to find the bodies. Whoever it was that killed them—“them” in this case being two women who seemed to have died at the same time—had dumped them in the very back corner of the forest, up against the fence. And nobody found them for twelve years. The people who lived on the other side of the fence didn’t notice a smell, or at least didn’t care to investigate one, and no kids ever wandered over there. For twelve of the forty-three years Stray Woods Park existed, there were corpses there, and at no point had they ruined anybody’s fun. Kids still laughed and ran and played tag. Parents let their kids go there, oblivious to the skeletons in the corner.

  And then someone found them and ruined it for everyone.

  This was the part that Farewell didn’t like. Because in the entire forty-three years, nobody had actually been hurt at the park. Nobody had been kidnapped, molested, or otherwise endangered. Well, at least that Farewell knew of, since he hadn’t been alive for fourteen of those years, but in his time there had been nothing bad reported about the park. It was a place of happiness. Innocence.

  But the town caved to demands from a vocal handful of people who hated the idea of their kids—or anyone else’s—having fun in a place that used to house corpses. Nevermind that the corpses were buried now, or that an entire generation of kids had played there and had fun while the corpses were still present but unseen and unnoticed. They fenced off the fourth side of the forest, along the road, and the end of the catwalk that allowed entrance from the other side. They removed the single streetlight next to the equipment that had allowed kids to keep playing after the early sunsets of Canadian winter.

  The work done, the park had officially transformed from a comforting, welcoming oasis for children into a taboo, poisonous place. A year ago, it had been the place parents told their kids to go to get them to play outside. Now it the place parents warned their kids against. Without the streetlight that had lit it for so many decades, it now seemed to be the darkest place in the whole town, a black hole of darkness, fear and murder. You didn’t need to warn people away anymore, the park itself was a warning.

  Josh climbed the chain-link, and jumped into the woods. Immediately, the night was darker. The trees, so thin and far apart in Josh’s childhood now seemed to create a perfect blanket of darkness and creep in all around him. He could have come in the daytime, and said goodbye to his childhood then, but people would notice a man in the park during the day, and Farewell couldn’t handle a run-in with the cops now. He was an escaped convict, and he was back in the town where he had grown up for the first time in a decade. He needed to say goodbye, to remind the park that it wasn’t always the territory of fear and taboo. He walked down the path, confident that even in the dark his feet would remember where the ground tried to trip you with rocks and roots. In that, he was wrong.

  In only a year fenced off and forbidden, the forest had already set out to reclaim the path. New roots and shrubs encroached on the hard pack of the path, and low-hanging branches scratched at his face. When the wind picked up the branches ruffled with a sound that was too similar to the sound of leather wings. After the things Josh had seen on his last night in prison, he might have expected to be more confident in the darkness. But the opposite was true. Josh knew now that things really did go bump in the night, and right now he was surrounded by the darkest night he could imagine.

  The moon had been out before Josh climbed the fence, but under the canopy of branches over Stray Woods no moonlight reached the ground. Stumbling along the path, he heard a branch break, in the distance ahead. It could have been a squirrel or a raccoon on the ground, but the hair on Josh’s neck said otherwise. He pressed on.

  Finally, the end of the path brought him to the big square sandbox that housed the plastic playground. Here the tree canopy gave way, and there was a circle of starlit night sky. Josh could see the shapes of the equipment now, his eyes adjusting to the dark. He saw the main equipment, with several platforms, two plastic slides, and a fireman’s pole. A separate area had two swings, now gently sawing forward and back as the breeze picked up again.

  Farewell climbed onto the first platform, turned around, and sat his butt on the second level. Resting a hand on the cool metal bar that supported it, he tried to think of why he had come. This wasn’t the equipment that had been here when Farewell was a child, but it still meant something to be here, looking out at the two diagonal paths that headed away, back to the road. He had been happy here, before he discovered money, and the crimes that provided money, and monsters in prison that showed him what the world was really like. Before all that, when Josh’s world could have been anything, he spent his days here. Now, his world was the road, the quick con, the quicker escape and the fear. He knew that there were things out there that could kill you in ways that seem to defy nature, or maybe they defy God. But the last time he had been to this park, monsters weren’t real and there was no reason to be afraid of the dark. Time had killed both of those illusions.

  He rubbed his hand on the steel and silently said goodbye. He didn’t expect he would ever return. Another stick snapped in the woods, and this time Josh knew that something heavy had stepped on it. It wasn’t likely to be a dog or a bear in this fenced-off twilight zone. Which meant there was someone else here.

  Josh turned to face the sound, and suddenly felt icy cold. His shoulders rose up as he felt a frozen finger trace his spine. He tensed, looking all around as fast as he could, but saw nobody. The wind blew again and the leaves above and around him whispered, and this time he understood some of what they said: “Ours now.” “Forever.” “Farewell.”

  Another stick snapped, and this time he heard the crunching of a footstep in the dirt. Another step, but this time it wasn’t behind him, it was in front, between Josh and the road. He knew in his core that he had to leave now, had to get through the woods and over the fence and into the man-made light of the street. Coming here had been a mistake. He had hoped for a glimpse of his childhood, to remember a time before he was guilt
y, but this place was tainted now. It had the energy of evil. He didn’t know if the bodies had done it, or if the collective will of the townspeople deciding that this place was evil had made it so. But it was done now, the darkness had moved in, and now the darkness had company.

  Two more footsteps, crunching closer and closer, and Josh finally broke the spell of the cold and the wind and jumped to his feet. He ran from his seat, slipping in the sandbox before reaching the solid forest floor. The footsteps in the darkness were curving around the side of the playground toward him. He turned to look, but the darkness was on the other’s side, and Farewell could see nothing. He couldn’t find the hard pack path now, and ran through the undergrowth toward the road. The footsteps seemed to be so close now, he knew that he should be able to see whoever chased him, but the gloom was too impenetrable. Finally there was a strained, hoarse “ahhh!” from behind him, and somebody dove to tackle Farewell to the dirt. Immediately, the plants and fallen branches seemed to tangle him to the ground. He tried to lift his right hand and found that somehow he had slid the hand under a tree root, and now the root was holding him. He jerked his arm back, but the tree root held. Jerking his arm hard enough to tear the skin, he realized he was truly trapped. The maniac clinging to him crawled over Josh’s back, his foul stench filling Josh’s sinuses. Normally the forest floor would smell like earth and pollen and wet leaves, but down here it smelled like rotting meat, like a dumpster on a hot day.

  Pinned down by the man’s weight, there was nothing he could do when the man picked up a nearby rock, and clubbed him in the back of the head.
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