Photo of dark trees along a night sky

Night Forest in the Flint Hills

A short story

The city melts away and large expanses of land fill my view as I speed down I-70 heading for a weekend in the Flint Hills. My library book rests on the passenger seat begging for me to open the cover to reveal the magic contained on the pages. Just me, a book, and wide-open spaces for two entire days. The best medicine after too many months living within the same four walls.

Ahead are nothing but tall grass and blue skies. A quick check in the rear-view mirror to make sure the city is now gone from view reveals dark clouds forming, almost racing to catch up with me. A good Kansas storm would be a welcome delay on my trip, though it does seem a little odd that the storm is moving west. A western moving front is rare, but not unheard of and I think of it as a sign of the wonderful things to come over the next two days.

The clouds overtake me. A dollop of rain pounds my windshield and I jump and jerk the steering wheel to the point I almost run myself off the road. A second hits my hood so hard it leaves a dent and I swerve again. A third drop hammers the roof of the car and I duck without thinking. The check engine light on my beloved old car flicks on and the engine roars louder even though I removed my foot from the gas pedal.

A rest stop is just ahead, and I take it, grateful for the opportunity to get off the road. I don’t remember this exit being here before. As I make my way on the off-ramp, I see a sign that reads Night Forest 1 mile. There aren’t forests on the prairie. The dark clouds are still lingering, but rain no longer pelts my car. I maneuver through the winding paved path of the rest stop, but I don’t see a parking area. I urge my disabled vehicle to keep chugging along, as I look for a place to park, but as I keep driving, more and more trees come into view. It is almost as if they are moving in closer. 

Between the dark clouds that are now so low I feel like I could almost reach up and touch them, and the tall evergreen trees crowding around me with limbs drooping down as if to drag the ground, it feels a bit claustrophobic. I think I should turn around and try my luck on the highway, but as I stop the car and look behind me, the road is no longer there. Curtains of branches are all I can see wherever I look.

I reach for my phone, but the only thing I find in the seat beside me is my library book. I reach behind me and grab my purse from the floorboard, but my phone isn’t there either and I am struck with the memory of putting it on the charger before leaving for the library, thinking I could get in a quick charge before heading out. I don’t remember picking it up.

I push open the door with a creak of age and step out of my car stretching out my own aging body. Maybe I could walk back to the highway. Feeling the car key in my hand, I shut the door and start walking toward the direction I just came from. Before I reach the end of the vehicle, the pavement disappears and keeps disappearing right before my eyes. I am certainly not in Kansas anymore. This must be the Night Forest, but it doesn’t make sense. Nothing makes sense.

My heart is beating hard and I can’t seem to catch my breath. I think I should just get back in my car, but instead I lean against the door, the cool of the window against my back, trying to slow my breathing when I hear, “What are you doing here?”

My heart stops and I whirl toward the sound of the voice. “Wha-?” I don’t see anyone. Scanning the area, I walk around the car, thinking someone might be hiding on the other side, but nobody is there. I bend down until my knee is on the ground and I lean over, steading myself with my hand, to look under the car. Nothing. “What are you doing?” My arm gives away and I fall face first into the dirt, but quickly pop up and stand, but I am alone. My fingers search my face for damage, but beyond some stinging, it seems I’m fine. No blood. One good thing for the evening, or afternoon – Night?

Rain begins to fall, not the jarring drops from earlier, but a heavy downpour that drenches my clothes and hair in seconds. The steady rain helps calm my nerves until lightning cracks across the sky like someone taking a picture. The tall trees bow to the wind that begins to scream through like a train. Small limbs fly by and one smacks me in the face before I could react. I get my arm up in time to deflect the next one and, for a moment, I feel like I can take care of myself.

I do an awkward crouched run toward the side of the road and move quickly in the direction my car is facing, since I know only trees are behind me. A greenish yellow glow from the sky lifts the darkness enough for me to see a ditch and I dive for it just as a large branch flies above me. That one would have surely knocked me out and I am grateful to be in the ditch.

Laughter surrounds me, “The cave would have been a better choice.” Now the voice is getting irritating. “What cave?” I yell but the wind swallows my words.

The voice hears me anyway, “Look to the west.”

What the hell? Which way is west?

I clammer up the side of the ditch, peering over the edge. As the sky flashes white, I see a small hill just a short distance away. That must be where the cave is, but stranger is the hot air balloon on top of the hill. I can’t think about the hot air balloon right now and I pull myself over the edge of the ditch and half crawl, half run toward the hill. I reach it in seconds but there is no cave opening. My heavy breathing from excitement and exertion turns into hyperventilation and I hug the grass and dirt, which allows me to slow my breathing. Another flash and I see the cave opening to my left, and I force myself toward it, stumbling over a fallen limb as I enter, which causes me to land on my hands and knees. The cave floor is soft, and I quickly realize I am fine. I begin to laugh, because of falling or the absurdity of the entire evening – I’m not sure which.

The rain streaks sideways just beyond the entrance to the cave, but it is dry inside, and surprisingly warm, which is welcome since I am soaked through to the bone. I decide to stay here until the storm passes, maybe even stay the night. I can figure out what to do in the morning, when I can get a good lay of the land. Exhausted from the events of the day, I no longer have the mental energy to panic. I lean against the cave wall and think about how lucky I am to have found a place out of the storm.

But I didn’t find it, did I? I remember the voice that seemed to both mock and help me. I want to figure out what is happening, but my eyes will not stay open and I drift to sleep.

“Wake up!” I start and sit up, disoriented. I look around and find that it is pitch black. I can’t see anything, though my nose fills with the scent of damp earth. I can feel the soft dirt beneath me and the abnormally warm cave wall behind me. It wasn’t a nightmare, or I am still in it. Thankfully, my clothes are dry. How long was I asleep?

It is preternaturally quiet which makes my arm hairs raise. I crawl toward what I hope is the opening of the cave. When I touch the branch that caused me to make a less than graceful entrance, I let out the breath I didn’t realize I was holding. Light from a hidden moon allows me to make out the outlines of trees and shadows of limbs and branches strewn all around.

I can’t tell if my car is still where I left it and I decide it is better to stay in the cave until morning. I start to withdraw back into the darkness when I am shoved out into the open.  Again, I find myself on the ground and I scramble to face whoever or whatever pushed me, but I can’t see anything. Laughter vibrates in my ears and fear spreads throughout my body freezing me in the moment. Another shove from my right switches my body into flight mode and I take off in the direction of my car.

Stumbling more than once on storm debris, I make it to the car, running into it at a full sprint, banging my knee and catching the rest of my body by putting my hands up against the window. I am stunned by the abrupt stop and it takes me a moment to recover and yank on the handle. It’s locked. I pat myself down to find the key I know I had when I shut the door, but I can’t find it. Laughter is growing louder as whatever is in this forest gets closer. I try the other doors just in case, but none of them budge.

I attempt to run my fingers through my tangled hair, and I remember the hot air balloon. I run back to the hill, braving whatever mystery is harassing me, hoping with every step that the balloon survived the storm.

Amazingly, I only fall once in my sprint back to the hill, but this time I wasn’t so lucky not to break the skin. Blood runs down my leg as I scale the side of the hill in seconds, adrenaline doing its job. The hideous laughter always on my heels. Once at the top, I find the hot air balloon intact, ropes tethering it to the earth, and I feel tears prick in the corner of my eyes.

I hoist myself over the edge of the basket and start undoing the knots since I have no knife. I feel the balloon strain against the remaining ropes as I get each one untied. The laughter is getting louder and it is taking longer than it should release the ropes. As I work on the last knot, I feel the basket dip with the weight of an unseen force. My shaking fingers won’t cooperate fast enough, and I begin to panic.

I stop for a moment. Breathe. Another tug on the rope. Breathe. Focus on the rope. Breathe. Another tug and the rope falls away, releasing the balloon from the earth. I slump into a heap on the floor of the basket and let the tears come, not even caring what happens next.

Knocking wakes me up and I squint my eyes against the morning rays of sun. I look to the left and a man is standing outside my car window. In a daze, I roll the window down, it takes almost more strength than I have to crank the handle.

“Are you OK?” the man says.

“Um. Yes. I think so. I must have fallen asleep,” but as I say these words, I see the dent on my hood. “I had a bit of car trouble, and I don’t have my phone.”

“Go ahead and give it a start and let’s check it out.”

“Sure. Um. Thank you,” and I turn the key that is still in the ignition. How did it get there? It was lost to me last night. The car starts without any hesitation, even the check engine light that was flashing so menacingly yesterday is no longer on.

“Seems like everything is working just fine. Do you want me to look under your hood to make sure?”

“Um. No, thank you. It must have just needed a rest,” I smile. “You know how old cars can be.”

“Yes, I do, ma’am. Drive safe now.”

“Thank you,” I say as I roll my window back up. The man walks back to his rig and I notice there are no trees, just the open expanse of the prairie and I am sitting at a rest stop just off the highway. My body aches in places I didn’t know existed and I reach down to check my knee. It’s sore, but no evidence of blood.

I reach into the passenger seat to grab my phone, and remember again that I don’t have it, but notice a piece of paper tucked into my library book. I gently tug it from the grasp of the pages and read the words printed on the page.

“You are capable of more than you think.”

This story is part of a “choose your own adventure” kind of prompt and was originally published at JOCO Writes.

Featured image from Canva.

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