Trigger warning: Mentions of death, suicide, and supernatural forces. The contents of this short story may be disturbing to some. Readers’ discretion is advised.
In the dead of night, a cry rings out. So shrill in its existence that it rouses many a man, for many a mile. Yet not a soul is brave enough for the dark- not enough to venture out of their bed to investigate. They burrow deeper under their thick blankets with the lanterns burning the last of the oil.
All but a young man, with hair unkempt and under eyes heavy.
He is quick to push off his heavy covers and hoist himself as the cry echoes through his ears.
He hardly flinches as his bare feet meet the cold, wooden floor. Pulling on a jacket and snatching up his already prepared backpack, he slaps his cheeks twice. He needs to be alert.
He stumbles once over the living room rug as he searches for his matchbox, so sure he left it beside the front door of his small, rented cottage. He stumbles again as he finds it half hidden behind the hideous brown armchair, next to the dusty bookshelves. He remembers it falling off yesterday when he staggered in after the trek last night.
He picks it up and moves toward a small glass-cased lantern. The light shines out bright as the oil is lit.
A cry, shriller than before, louder than before echoes from the dark outside.
His breath hitches, and nerves surface, but he pushes them down. Now is not the time to question himself he thinks to himself. Worn boots tied tight, wool jacket shrugged on, he clutches the doorknob in his hand and pauses before twisting it open with a start. A deep breath and a long sigh escapes his dry lips as he steps out into the forest that breathes alive before him.
He tries not to rush, to not run towards the cry, not to stumble and stagger and impale himself on a fallen branch. The forest has not been kind to him before. He would do well to save himself from pain of broken bones and bleeding gashes today.
His lantern guides his path through bushes and low-hanging flora. He yearns to walk faster. He wants to-
Another cry. Much louder than any before.
He runs. He is close. He must be. Or it must be.
He has been tracking the phenomenon of screams for weeks. They were heard by a few and feared by all. These eerie screams, heard in places left to be wild and free, were not yet explained by any branch of science. People whispered how they were the cries of tortured souls, of pain and suffering, of the dead and the dying.
He has travelled, and recorded data from the suicides of Aokigahara, the marshes of Otzarreta, and the gnarled tree trunk filled Rata Forest. He has traced the phenomenon to the Tongass, where the cries have been heard the most and the loudest.
Tonight, he must find it. He stumbles. He rights himself. He struggles to run, blindly pushing away drooping branches and vaulting over dense bushes. Another cry. Closer than ever. Louder than ever.
He braves on but slows down to a walk. He hears something else now. Rustling bushes towards the left. He turns towards them. A whisper towards the right. He turns again. A whisper again. What does it say?
He feels a presence near him. It is in front of him, but he sees nothing. His flashlight shines upon the jagged bark of the tree trunk that line before him.
Is it behind him? But he sees nothing. A touch brushes past his shoulder. Something much denser than mere gusts of wind. He stays rooted in one spot, his arms clutching around his midriff. His sweat is cold against his face. Breath fogging in the cold air. His jacket heavy on his back.
Another touch against his leg. A push against his back. A shove into his chest. He wants to yell at it to stop, but what does he yell at? He sees nothing but trees and forest floor.
The scream is so terribly loud. It is here. He found it. It found him. What has he done?
Cold envelops him from behind. His lantern falls to the ground. His sweat freezing on his skin. It suffocates him. He cannot breathe. It is around him. A whimper barely escapes through. His arms are pressing into his body. Everything hurts. Too tight. Stop. Just stop.
His voice comes out in gasps and panic. “Stop! Please. I’ll go. No. I’ll go. I’ll leave you alone. Everyone will leave you alone. Please. No!”
He begs and begs and struggles against the invisible arms around him. The more he moves, the tighter it becomes. So tight now. He cannot breathe. He can feel himself slip away; feels his mind fogging over. His life draining from him.
A shrivelled corpse lies in the middle of the Black Forest. No living man will ever happen upon it. Not unless an ill-fated soul decides to hunt forces that should never be disturbed. Forces that are not of this world. Or the next.