Fiction: The Shape in the Woods

This is a flash fiction story I wrote in September 2020 for one of Molotov Cocktail’s flash fiction contests. As usual, I subbed it to a few places, but I’m going to end up posting it here.

This is a picture of a local park I took today actually and I added the noir filter for fun.

Rowland was reconsidering amid his frontward tumble down the hillside. When a mangled tree limb broke his fall, he knew his 1,400-mile jaunt was foolish.

He’d already sprained both ankles back in Georgia at the start of the trail, and shin splints had become as common as his rapid heartbeat. And the bears. Rowland had grown accustomed to seeing bears, as often as he did seeing fellow hikers. Sometimes he waved to the alphas of the woods, like a conciliatory measure.

The suspected Lyme disease set him back in Roanoke, where a fellow hiker, trail name of Oz, helped him.

Oz wasn’t with Rowland at that moment, still hanging back near the Tennessee/North Carolina border. He met a fellow traveler, Tiny Dancer, and Rowland was sure they were having a better time than he was.

Rowland gathered himself, pulling leaves from his hair, and checking his body for any wounds beyond the bruise that was sure to develop on his lower back.

His parents on the other side of the country didn’t understand what he was doing. Rowland wasn’t sure if he did either. He had not so much as hiked a mile in his life. In high school, when they had to run track, Rowland was the guy in a hooded sweatshirt hugging the edge, hoping to blend into the shadows.

But what Rowland lacked in forward momentum, he made up for in spurts of whimsy. That’s what drove him to the base of Springer Mountain 1,400 miles and four months ago, like a virgin to a strip club, out of place, but excited about what awaited.

And Glitter, a nine-year-old girl he’d read about who hiked the trail with her dad. Part of her cargo included a 1.4-ounce stick of hair and body glitter. The name stuck. He wanted to be like Glitter, a somebody, even though he trailed her by 14 years.

As Rowland started back on the trail, with the familiar aches in his legs and shoulders resuming like oxygen-to-lungs, he thought about October.

Halloween. That’s what kept Rowland going, thinking about what it would be like to be finished, resting in Maine, knowing he had made it. Sometimes, while on the trail, he thought of himself as Michael Myers — the slow, steady and durable part, not the butcher knife-wielding psycho part. Still, The Shape, an Oz invention, stuck as his trail name.

He often thought the name stuck because of his conditioning, which was as top notch as his shoes with cutout, flapping toes. He’d be on his fifth pair soon enough.

Rowland had already been accosted by other hikers, more gruff, more ingrained into the terrain like wild flowers. The trail was the same as the real world, after all, filled with people like Oz, willing to help, and filled with those hikers, who had taken his backpack.
Fortunately, there were numerous hiker boxes along the way, where other hikers discarded leftovers and unwanted gear. He found a backpack with only one-working strap, but it was better than no straps.

With the next town still a two-day hike away, Rowland’s empty stomach slowed him down. All he had left was one of those high protein breakfast bars. He had no rational rationing faculties left; he downed it in one gigantic bite, savoring the nuts that cratered a home between his teeth.

After another 15 miles, mostly hobbled, with the sun nosediving like a plane with a ruptured engine, Rowland decided to make camp for the night. He used to have a tent and a sleeping bag, but now his backpack and a grassy spot one hundred feet off the trail served as his resting place.

The brightness of the stars tickled his drooping eyelids. Rowland pulled the polaroid of her from his back pocket. When he reached the end, maybe they’d have a new beginning. Maybe she’d see him with new eyes instead of weary ones.

Then he heard it. The telltale sign of the alpha in the woods, a low grumble and a moan. Rowland still hadn’t mastered echolocation, so he couldn’t tell which direction the bear’s grumbling was coming from, or how close it was.

Rowland knew it was rare for bears to attack; despite their size, they tended to avoid hikers. Oz told him a story about fending off a bear with one of his trekking poles, but Rowland figured it for a tall tale.

The grumbling faded out. Rolling over, Rowland kicked something with his foot. Instead of a grumble, he heard a low chewing noise, like something feeding near him.

Rowland hadn’t noticed the yellow jacket nest, but it noticed him. Annoyed to be interrupted during nest construction, the yellow jackets struck fast, stinging Rowland in the neck through his flailing arms.

His throat seized up, blocking the air to his lungs. Under the stars, less than 10 miles from the nearest trailhead, Rowland suffocated in silence until he became another shape in the foliage, another element of the trail.

Another tall tale.

In the days after, another hiker, Happy Trail, was seen with the one-strap backpack, making their way to Maine, as Rowland had been.

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