Marianne wandered away from the camp in search of firewood. She heard their voices nearby and resolved not to stray too far. She knew the danger of wandering alone in these woods so thick that faint sunlight only seeped in through the dense canopy of the ancient evergreens. This forest teemed with legends of shifting trees, vanishing paths, and whispered voices that led people astray. She gave them no credence—they were just ghost stories—but the forest was notorious for its incidence of missing hikers and strange accidents.
Marianne gathered a few more branches and twigs and tucked them in the crook of her arm. She turned to retrace her steps down the narrow forest path. But, to her surprise, it had disappeared. Marianne pivoted and scanned the forest for the opening in the trees, the jagged rock that jutted out so the path wound around it. She searched for the trail marker painted on the tall oak, but found no sign.
Marianne gulped. She listened for her friends’ laughter and hubbub, but perceived only the soft breeze blowing through the leaves.
“What the…?” She muttered.
A strange sensation, as if a sinister blanket woven with eerie thread, descended upon her. Her heart raced, her knees buckled, and her arms trembled under the prickly weight of the firewood. Beads of sweat formed on her brow, and Marianne struggled to calm herself.
Did she get turned around somehow? Had she wandered too far away?
Marianne took several deep breaths until the pounding fear subsided. Closing her eyes, she listened, focusing on the soft trickle of the nearby stream. She gauged its direction, and still carrying the firewood, set off to find it. Then she would follow it upstream to the fallen tree; they had camped several yards from it, inward the woods.
Relief escaped from her lips when she found the babbling brook.
The sun’s last rays shot out and sparkled in the water. Marianne trudged along the riverbank upstream; the cloudless sky blazed with red and yellow flames. The oozing dusk began staining the world with its blue light.
Marianne paused for breath and glanced around her, hoping to distinguish a marker towards the campsite. But the woods were dark, engulfed in a haunting gloom. Phantom shadows meandered through the trees. She cast her eyes towards the stream; the water flowed with an unearthly, dark glimmer.
Lightning flashed upon the riverbank and, startled, Marianne dropped the firewood she still carried. She spied four shimmering apparitions drifting downstream towards her. As they neared, Marianne leaned closer to discern them. Fallen branches? But their blinding, bluish-white glow mystified her.
Four bodies floated, feet first, past the riverbank with ghastly faces, shut eyelids and blue lips, their hands crossed upon their chests, as if they lay inside shimmering, watery coffins.
The first body was her own likeness! Next came the image of Monty, followed by Minnie, then Miranda—the four M’s.
Marianne plunged her hand into the water, but the wraiths disappeared.
“A mirage!” she breathed with relief.
Wishing to leave, Marianne set off at a brisk trot, always keeping the river by her side. Her breath came in heaves and pants, and tears stung her eyes so that she tripped as they blurred her vision. The fallen tree loomed ahead, and Marianne hurried to reach it.
As she rounded the tree, she found the forest path in the waning sunlight trickling through the leaves, and her friends’ distant voices shattered the eerie gloom.
“Don’t set up,” Marianne panted as she burst into the campsite, “let’s get out of here.”
“Why?” Miranda asked, puzzled by Marianne’s ashen countenance.
“Please let’s go!” Marianne’s gaze darted from one friend to the next like a frightened cat, “This forest warned me to leave.”
Monty shrugged. He never admitted it, but he was superstitious, and he had grown up with the legends too.
Marianne’s frightened expression dried up Minnie’s protests.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, though the weather forecast had predicted no storms.
They reached the car parked at the trailhead when heavy raindrops fell. Thunder and lightning were now upon them, and the air was dense with moisture.
As they drove away Marianne glimpsed the sign pinned up on the board at the trail entrance; “WARNING! FLASH FLOOD AREA!” it screamed.