My car rattles and groans as I urge it down the gravel road. My little Honda civic wasn’t built for going this far off road, but the GPS tells I’m just a half mile from Tanya’s house. All I can do is keep going and hope none of these rocks are sharp enough to puncture a tire. Having to deal with a flat in the middle of the woods as the sun is setting would be a miserable start to what is supposed to be a lovely weekend reconnecting with an old friend.
In the meantime, I’m going over greetings in my head again: definitely a hug for Tanya and probably an enthusiastic handshake for her husband. He never struck me as the hugging type. I can’t believe it’s been almost ten years since their wedding, which was the last time I saw her. At least until recently, when she out of the blue called me and invited me to visit her new home. When I accepted, I didn’t think it would be so far from civilization.
As if on cue, a deer dashes across the road. I immediately slam on my breaks, scattering more gravel in my hasty attempt to stop. I don’t skid too much, though, as I wasn’t driving very fast because of the loose rocks.
The deer pauses once he reaches the other side, inspecting the giant hunk of metal invading his forest. He’s a beautiful young male with a pair of small antlers poking out of his head, and he regards me with me a gaze resembling scorn. It’s as if I have inconvenienced him for driving where he planned to stroll. After a short moment, he shakes his head and vanishes between the pine trees.
That was odd. I blink a few times as I put my foot on the gas. At least I can see the faint outline of a house a couple hundred feet ahead of me.
Eventually, the narrow road opens into a sizeable lot, and I pull up next to a beat-up pick-up truck and its large, unlocked trailer. They’re parked vaguely in front of a petite, single-story wooden house. The fading light makes it difficult to distinguish where the house ends and the forest starts, but at least its cozy looking.
I throw on the parking brake and pull the keys out of the ignition, but I barely have enough time to get out before the side door swings open. Tanya stands in the doorway, a wide grin stretched across her face.
“I was starting to think you wouldn’t show!” she cries as she steps onto the gravel barefooted. I take two steps before she pulls me into a bear hug. “It’s been so long, and you haven’t changed a bit!”
“Well, I like to think I grew taller,” I joke, noting the solid four inches of height difference between us. I wrap my arms around her anyway and squeeze her just as tightly.
She lets out a laugh so deep I can feel in it my own body. “It’s been long enough that I guess anything is possible. But come on in! Victor’s trying to get the kids to bed.” Then, she pulls away from me and turns her head away to cough. Before I can express any concern, her hand is around my back to guide me towards the door. I’ll just get my luggage later.
The house is much more cramped on the inside. The kitchen appears much too small for a family of five, and there’s already an accumulating pile of dirty dishes settled in the sink. Just beyond the counter is the living room and the clutter only gets worse with the heaps of discarded children toys and unopened boxes stacked across from the couch. The last bits of light from the sun stream into the otherwise dim room through a glass door that leads out onto their porch.
“Sorry for the mess,” Tanya says, sweeping aside some shoes in front of the entrance, “but we’re still settling in after the move last week.”
“You’re fine,” I respond. “I’m just happy you wanted to have me over so soon. It’s so good to see you again.” Tanya beams as we hug again.
A large man with an apparent beer belly comes from the hall connected to the living room. He scans the room for something but scowls once he’s unable to find it amongst everything else. After a second or two, his eyes land on us and his expression returns to neutral. “Oh, hello, Annie. Glad you made it in one piece.”
Tanya purses her lips, fighting back an angry retort at her husband, but I wasn’t surprised by the greeting. Good to know I was right about the no-hugging. I give him a smile and say, “Hi, Victor. I hope you all have been well.”
He’s quickly finished with pleasantries. “Honey, where’s the flashlight?”
She gives a confused look. “Flashlight? Why—”
I take a panicked glance at Tanya, but she just lets out an exasperated sigh. “It’s alright. It’s just little Lane.” She grabs the flashlight off the dining table beside us and pushes her way past Victor while I follow on her heels.
More boxes line the walls of the hallway, so the path is very tight with the three of us making our way towards the call. In no time, I find myself in a very pink bedroom meant only for a little girl, though there are two beds shoved into the tiny room. Across from the doorway, the girl, named Lane, can’t be older than six, and she’s curled up in a flurry of pink blankets and pillows, pressed against the wall as she sits on her bed in the corner of the room. She’s watching the door, so she immediately sees when we come to her aid.
“Mama, the monster is back!” she cries, little pools of tears welling up in the corner of her eyes.
The closet is slightly ajar, mostly from the clutter spilling out of it, but Tanya makes no hesitation as she heads for it. “Lane, I’ve shown you before, baby. There’s nothing hiding in your room.” Tanya flips on the flashlight and makes a dramatic showing of opening the door wide and even leafing through some of the clothes a potential monster could be hiding behind. Knowing that the girl wouldn’t be satisfied, Tanya then crawls onto the floor and lifts of the ends of the blanket to get a good look underneath the other bed. Another wave of the flashlight shows nothing lurking in wait.
None of the gestures do anything to calm the little girl. In fact, I notice that she’s not even watching her mom go through the motions of assuring her safety. Her eyes are instead glue on the door, as her gaze is concentrated just a little bit past me.
“What are you looking for, Lane?” I ask. “What monster do you see?”
At first, she just shakes her head, mutely trying to get me to understand her plight, but eventually she manages to softly mutter, “There’s the shadow man. He tries to get on my bed at night.” Her voice is quiet, but I still notice a bit of hoarseness in it. It also occurs to me just how small and frail, almost sickly, she looks in her oversized pink nightgown. Are all six-year-olds that small?
Tanya just gives another sigh and pleads, “Lane, I promise you, it’s okay. Nothing is going to hurt you.”
“Monsters aren’t real,” Victor grunts from behind me. I turn around to look at him, having been slightly startled by his voice. However, something behind the door catches my eye. I take a step forward and pull the door out a bit to examine the corner, which is a distinctly darker shade of pink than the rest of the wall. That’s strange, I think, reaching out to touch the paint. As soon as my hand comes close, the dark spot disappears. It was so fast I must have blinked and missed it, but now the wall is the normal shade of cotton candy pink. I turn back to Lane, and she gives me the same baffled look.
I try to muster the most adult voice I can manage and say, “See? Nothing there.” Though, right now, I’m not sure I believe myself.
Neither Tanya nor Victor seemed to notice what had transpired, so Tanya just goes back to Lane’s side and tucks her in. “Now go to sleep, okay? You can meet Aunt Annie in the morning.” After a quick kiss and goodnight wishes, Tanya ushers us back into the kitchen.
“It’s been like that every night since we’ve moved in,” Victor grumbles once we’re out of earshot. “Tucker sleeps in the same room, and he doesn’t complain about monsters.”
Before she can respond, Tanya breaks into another fit of coughs and pours herself a glass of water from the tap. As she’s doing so, she accidentally knocks over one of a few empty beer bottles set by the sink. Momentarily forgetting I was standing at the edge of the kitchen, she says, “I thought I told you not to leave these lying around so my friend doesn’t think you’re an alcoholic.”
“It’s no worry,” I say quickly, trying to defuse the situation. “I know things are hectic for you all right now.”
For the first time all night, Victor cracks a smile. “Hectic is a part of life. But life is great! We’re doing well for ourselves, just buying this new house as I’m starting new work. Aside from our new ‘monster’ problem, everything is shaping up well.” Tanya almost smiles too, but it dries up on her face as a sunken look takes over. With the sun set, the only light in the kitchen is a tiny bulb, and suddenly, it’s obvious how exhausted she looks. Her face is pale, and I can count each of the years in her eyes as she watches the cup of water in her hands. They have taken their toll on her. I never did ask her why she moved; she loved being close to family. This was anything but that.
The longer I watch her, the more the light around her head appears to dim. At first, it could come across as an optical illusion, motivated by poor electrical wiring, but after a few seconds it’s impossible to deny that there is a gray shroud circulating around Tanya. It’s most prominent at her head but it circles around her and even reaches her torso. I tear my gaze away from her to keep myself from freaking out.
I look back at Victor, who has now settled into a creaking wooden chair at the table. “I’m glad to hear. I’m sure you can tell me all about it tomorrow. It’s getting a bit late.” I hope my voice isn’t shaking.
Tanya snaps out of her stupor and slams her glass down on the table. “I still have to get your room together! It’s just at the end of the hall, past Lane’s.” The shroud is no longer there.
“Don’t worry, Tanya,” I say, relieved at her sudden return of enthusiasm. “I still need to get my bag from my car, so I’ll be right back.” I excuse myself from the kitchen and step back outside, closing the door behind me.
If it weren’t for the light coming from the kitchen window, it would be pitch black outside. As soon as I’m by myself, I let go of the breath I didn’t know I was holding. Alright, I just need to take some deep breaths and calm down. I know that things seem kind of weird right now, but I’m tired, I’ve been driving all day, I’m in an unfamiliar place, and my mind must be playing tricks on me. Everything is okay; no one else is worried! Everything is fine.
I try to repeat this to myself a couple of times as I retrieve my duffle bag from the back seat of my still-unlocked car. Once I go inside, I’ll just take a hot shower and sleep it off, right? But I’m not ready to go back just yet. I slam the door shut and try to look past the darkness behind the tree trunks, prying into the secrets of the forest, but the little light isn’t enough to disclose anything. I close my eyes and take in the sounds instead. There are insects chittering, leaves rustling in a light breeze, and even the far-off howl of wolves prowling their pine-filled territory.
When I open them again, panic slams back into my chest. The kitchen light has turned off. Hoping Victor hasn’t forgotten I was out here, I grab my back and scurry towards the door. Luckily, he must not have locked the door, as I easily make my way inside. I don’t know where the switch is supposed to be, so I drag my hands against the wall until I somehow bump into it.
The switch flips with a soft click, but there is no light. I flip it back and forth a few times, but no luck. I then try the other switch on the panel, hoping the first one just wasn’t working yet, but the second produces the same result.
“Tanya? Victor?” I call into the dark kitchen. “Did the power just go out?” I wait a moment for any response. There is none.
The knot in my chest buries itself deeper as my eyes begin to adjust to the darkness, aided only by a sliver of moonlight beaming through the windows. I gently set my bag beside the door, but when I look down, I see the entire floor is covered in debris.
Chunks of the ceiling panel have fallen as its given way to rot and mold. The wallpaper is cracked and faded, peeling away in haphazard strips. Everything looks as it did when I first arrived, from the dishes in the sink, to the beer bottles, to the toys and boxes in the living room. The difference is what appears to be 30 years of neglect inflicted on this home, as if everyone suddenly vanished and was never able to return. Even the glass doors leading to the wooden porch are cracked and splintering, random shards littering the floor that was once swept clean.
I’m horrified. I want to call out to someone again, but after witnessing the scene before me, terror takes over my body. I step back outside. A hopeful thought appears in my mind, and I greedily grab a hold of it. Maybe there’s a back-up generator somewhere. They just went outside to go power it up. It’s really dark in there; maybe I didn’t actually see what I just saw.
Despite no more than five minutes passing, it seems like it has gotten even darker outside. I call out for Tanya and Victor again, but I receive the same result. Goosebumps race up my arm as I realize that the forest has also gotten much quieter, even the wind halting its flow completely. Wanting anything but to go back inside, I muster up the courage and march down the steps towards the trees.
The tree line brushes right up against the house, interlaced with a collection of thick bushes, so I’m forced to go a little bit further into the pines than I would like. Every twig I step on echoes in my ears, almost loud enough to rival my heart slamming against my ribcage. Once or twice more, I call out to my friend, hoping that maybe she was just too far away to hear me or was too focused on the task at hand to notice. Where else could they have gone? I doubt they were already asleep, and they didn’t answer me inside the house.
The bushes beside me rustle, and I jump out of my skin with a scream. Standing not ten feet away from me is a deer. Except the deer did not have skin on its face, only bone. Its short antlers protrude directly from the skull, and the white of its face glints in the moonlight, acting like a beacon in darkness of the tree’s cover. A stream of sickly black ooze drips from the flesh around its neck, some of it even splashing onto the ground. The sight of its face contrasts with the normal look of the rest of its body.
The deer is also certainly not dead since it turned its head to look at me when I screamed. Like the first deer I saw today, it does not seem frightened of me, and it is only when there is another sound further into the woods that it finally walks—no, scrambles away.
By now, I want to find any other person, so when I see a figure moving through the woods, I immediately follow. “Hello? Who’s there?”
Fear momentarily replaced by hope, I trudge into the woods. Once again, I don’t receive a response, but I keep telling myself there are a lot of reasons for that. The only focus is to keep going forward.
After a moment or two, I stumble across a wide stream pouring water past me. I haven’t seen any more signs of anyone, and though I know which direction I’ve come from, when I turn around, I’ve also lost sight of the house. A sense of loneliness overpowers my desire to keep going and I slump down on a rock by the water. How did all this happen? Things were normal, and then when I arrived, suddenly they weren’t. Tears stream down my cheeks before I notice they’re there, but once I do, they don’t stop.
The forest is eerily quiet once I calm myself down again, even the water has held its breath in anticipation. I look closely at the reflection of the moon in its surface until something starts to happen again. A dark shroud – no, many dark shrouds – materialize in the still water, quickly turning from weird discolorations into the same dark sludge that was on the deer. Now there are many splotches, bubbling and growing and rising. My mind screams at me to jump to my feet, but I am mesmerized, forced to watch in horror at what unfolds before me.
Out of pool rises what looks like a hand with claws, gripping the edge of the sludge like a ledge to lift itself up. Then follows a spindly blackened arm that drips and oozes like liquid, which connects sharp, metallic claws to a lanky black body heaving itself out of the water. Its head is a blurry mass that looks like a mix of liquid and gas, but I can easily make out sharp jagged teeth and bright green eyes boring into me.
I clamber to my feet, watching it materialize, followed by other horrific oozy creatures around it. For a moment, it stays and watches me, analyzing me. Then it lunges.
I scream again, my flight instincts finally kicking in as the danger registers in my brain. I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I kick up dust and leaves in my scrambled back towards the house, or back towards my car really. I have to get as far away as possible, just get out of this forest, then maybe – oh god, it’s so fast!
Out of the corner of my eye, I see one of those monsters lurch past me, speeding faster than I can register its movement, and swing its claws at my face. I tumble as I dodge its swipe, struggling to get back on my feet and start running again. As more adrenaline pumps through my muscles and my heart screams in my ears, I notice that after its first swing, it pauses for a moment, but I do not keep watching for when it would start moving again.
The run back feels ages longer than the walk there, but eventually the house is in sight. I dodge around the brush and trees and make it into the clearing, a glimmer of hope forming in my brain as I fumble for the keys in my pocket.
The hope is knocked out of me as something struck a blow at my back and winds me. The keys fly from my grip as I stagger to the ground. I don’t even bother to look back at my assailant, knowing that the battle was lost from the start. I can already see them swarming me as they prepare to tear me to pieces. I tuck my legs into my chest and close my eyes as I cry out, “What are you?”
“Annie, there you are!”
I pull my head from my chest and open my eyes to see Victor rushing out the kitchen door towards me. The house’s lights are back on. There are not ooze monsters surrounding me. Everything looks once again normal.
I just blink, dumbfounded, scared to say anything because I don’t think I can trust my words right now. Every muscle in my body shivers. Victor doesn’t need me to say anything, the worry in his eyes said anything I could as he helps me up and guides me to the door, “You gave us a scare. We didn’t know where you were for a minute. Everything’s fine though. Everything’s safe.”
He meant to comfort me, but his words sound hollow.
The kitchen and living room are back to normal, with the bright yellow wallpaper looking as if it had just been installed yesterday. The bottles, though, had mysteriously disappeared. My duffle bag was right where I had left it. My mind and body are too tired to try to explain what had happened, to him or to myself. Victor doesn’t let go of me until we are right in front of the hallway, and when he does, he speaks quietly, saying, “Your room is just at the end of the hall. Please, rest up for tomorrow. It’s very late.”
I nod along. What else is there to do?
I pass Lane’s room on the way to mine, and she is standing in the doorway, watching me walk by. She doesn’t look so scared anymore, but she is still incredibly frail in the tattered, fading pink nightgown falling to her ankles. There are tears in her eyes as she watches me. Black ooze drips from her neck too.
A/N: Thanks for reading my story! :) I put a lot of thought into this, and there are a lot of small details I included to try to work around a theme. I'd love to hear your interpretation on what you think happened/what you think it means! Also, does knowing that this story was inspired by Chernobyl change how you view it? Thanks again!