The forest loomed large in front of her.
She barely remembered the trip. Must have been driving on autopilot.
Blinking the chilly rain from her eyelashes, she tried to remember what had led her here. When she was a child, she had come to the forest to walk the trails with her parents. In her mind’s eye, it was a sunlit picture. Today though, the sun was obscured by dense fog, making it impossible to tell the time. The water in the air settled on her face. She wiped the chill on her cheek away with the sleeve of her hoody.
Despite the chill gloom, the pull of memory led her to put one foot in front of the other.
Crossing the wooded threshold, she inhaled the smell of moist earth—a combination of dirt and decaying leaves. It was the dense and heavy smell that comes after the rains had continued without a stop for months—the scent of deep winter in the northwest.
As the path carried her deeper into the interior, she noticed the other hikers would not make eye-contact and giving her a wide berth. They were all in masks, hiding their faces from the plague that had settled on the country. Checking her pockets, she realized she must have left hers at home. She was treated as if she walked with death, though she couldn’t blame them. Fixing her eyes ahead, she continued.
The woods grew darker and the fog thicker as she moved into the heart of the forest. She had reached the place where the birds were silent and the critters still. There were no other hikers on the trail with her. It occurred to her it might be getting late and that she should turn back.
Standing and contemplating her next step, she noticed a small winding offshoot from the main trail—a dark path beckoning.
The path to the phone in the woods.
Mother. She must have come to call mother.
Taking the small meandering trail, she walked slowly to make sure she didn’t lose the hint of the path in the dark.
Someone had placed the phone in the woods untold ages ago. A plain beige rotary phone with a line connected to nothing—nothing in this world anyway. It’s a place where people went to commune with the dead. No one was ever on the other end, but people said it made them feel better.
Maybe that’s what drew her here. She needed some hope.
Following the pathway around a towering Douglas fir, she saw the phone. The tree on which it hung had started to grow around the receiver, making it look like part of the tree.
Twenty four steps she counted from the fir to the phone.
Reaching out and placing a hand on the phone, she froze.
What was she going to say?
When she read stories about the phone tree, people said to just start talking. The words would come. The lump in her throat might not let them.
Forcing her hand, she unfurled her fingers, which she had clenched into a fist, and grasped the receiver. Her fingers lingered there, feeling the cold plastic under them.
The woods got darker.
Just say hi.
Lifting the receiver, she inhaled the must of the ancient equipment.
She breathed out.
“It’s dark here. I’m scared. I don’t want to be alone.”
“Where are you?”
A breathless whisper at the edge of panic—”I think I’m close. They put me in a red car. Please find me.”
The line went dead.
She stared at the phone in her hand.
Bringing it back to her ear, she tried again—”Hello?”
I’m close. The words in the distressed voice repeated in her head.
Putting the phone back on the yellowed receiver, she turned from the phone.
The path had grown darker, and the forest was completely quiet. The only sound was the sucking mud with each footstep making the return slow going.
At the crossroads of the phone path and the main path, she leaned against a tree. Resting her head against its rough wet surface, she noticed how heavy her breathing had gotten. The further along she got, the heavier her legs felt. Try as she might, she could not coax her body to match the urgency of her mind.
Cooling her head with her wet hands, she tried to collect her thoughts.
Her rational mind would not overcome her irrational mind. There couldn’t have been anyone on the phone. There was someone on the phone. And they need help.
They need me.
One foot in front of the other, she pushed through the encroaching darkness. An overwhelming sense of loneliness and helplessness assailed her. Looking ahead and behind her, there was no one, only the seemingly infinite crush of trees and her.
The mud deepened.
Her foot sank into the soft ground up to her ankle, pouring over the top of her hiking boot, filling the shoe. Pull as she might, she couldn’t free her leg. Lacing her fingers under her thigh, she pulled sharply upward. The motion caused her to lose balance, pitching her forward. Arms in front of her, they splashed into the mud, sinking downwards.
She was being pulled into the earth.
Her breathing quickened.
She wouldn’t find the person on the line.
No one would find her.
I don’t want to be alone.
This last thought was the most terrifying of all. She would disappear into the mud absolutely alone. No one would find her. No one would know where to look for her. Into the earth, she would disappear—forgotten.
The fear seized her and she found her strength. Pulling her hands free first from the mud, followed by her sunken foot.
Standing in place to catch her breath, she could see the fog lifting. It wasn’t twilight as she thought. The sun break shone at the entrance only a few yards ahead.
Gathering herself up, she strode forward through the crest of trees marking the entrance to the woods. On the other side was a bustling parking lot filled with people going about their day.
Relief washed over her as she realized in her grief, her mind was playing tricks on her.
As she went to take a deep breath of the warming winter air, her breath caught.
In the entire parking lot of cars, there was a single red car.
They put me in a red car.
From her position, she could see that the car was empty.
“There’s no one in it.” She told herself as she felt her feet moving her over to the car regardless.
Peering in the windows for confirmation, it was empty except for the trash of fast food and candy bars—the unkempt car of a person who was not impressing anyone.
“This is foolish,” she said aloud to no one. “But.”
Even as she felt the impulse to move on, she entertained the thought of the part of the car obscured from view.
She ran her hand under the lip of the trunk for its release.
Giving a glance at her surroundings, she assured herself that no one was paying attention to her.
Squeezing the release, the trunk swung open.
As the shadow of the trunk retreated from the sun, across shovels, and rope, and disheveled hair, her eyes met cold, unblinking eyes she recognized.
They were hers.
It was her voice on the phone
“Oh my god, someone call the police!” Someone who sounded a world away shrieked.
They were the last words she heard after being found.
At least she wouldn’t be buried alone and forgotten.
This short story was inspired by this news story about a phone in the woods of Olympia, WA.
Copyright © 2021 TJS Sherman All rights reserved.