01 Feb The Balloons in the Woods
“Come on, keep up!”
Melissa breezed ahead of me, her dark ponytail swaying in the breeze. Despite having ran for seven miles, not one drop of sweat had soaked her running gear while my own shirt was saturated to my skin, desperately trying to maintain a hobble.
When summer began, freed of the inaction of a crippling desk job, she’d resolved to get fit. I’d decided to join her for the fun of it. Instead of the gym, as I had expected, she had taken up jogging through the forest. Though she’d struggled as I was doing now, especially at the start, now she sped through with lightning ease. She’d already lost over twenty pounds, but her mood was effervescent, springing from activity to activity. She felt better- and as much as I hated it all, I wanted her to keep feeling that way.
I lumbered behind, gasping for air. She slowed her pace to a light jog, bouncing from foot to foot, unwilling to stop even for a second.
“We’re almost there. Just another half mile and we’re home free.” She promised.
“Great- you can drag me there.” I leaned on a nearby sign.
“Come on. This place is so beautiful, just look around.” She exclaimed, staring at the peaks of the trees. I could hear the faint music still playing through the headphones strung around her neck.
I could see where she was coming from- the forest was a famous one, one that people from all around flocked to- families, nature photographers and above all, joggers. I don’t know if it was just my city boy mentality, but there was something about the silence of the woods that instilled an uneasiness in me, finely honed by millions of years of genetic memory. The slightest crackle of the leaves could be some unseen predator, invisible within the giant redwood that clustered around us.
I waved a hand.
“You go on ahead, I’ll catch up.”
She rolled her eyes before resuming her pace, legs splaying out in long strides that would be the envy of any professional runner. Her stamina was almost superhuman to me.
As I stood there, trying to regain my breath, her voice drifted out on the light zephyr.
“-what the hell?”
I froze. That was the last thing I wanted to hear.
Despite the sensation of my overworked lungs about to collapse in my chest, I found myself caught in an aching sprint.
“Mel? You okay?” I called out.
I saw the dark peak of her head round into view, frozen by a bush, staring at something beyond my peripheral vision.
She turned to me. Although she tried to wear the same easy-going expression, her face was pale. She gestured into the hidden leaves.
“Look,” she said.
Squinting in closer, I managed to make out the pale oblong shape protruding from the dark green coverage. I almost fell over my own feet, thinking it was a head. Recovering from my initial shock, it was too light to belong to any physical body.
Snagged in the twigs was a single white balloon. It strained upwards, as if trying to reach the skies.
“That’s it- we’re going home.”
Melissa turned to me; arms folded.
“It’s a balloon.” She stated.
“Yes, a balloon- in the goddamn woods, where there’s no people.”
She rolled her eyes at my reluctance.
“Maybe it was a birthday party.” She said, unwinding the tangled string.
I flinched as she held the offending object out towards me, a teasing smile on her face. It seemed to activate a primal sort of fear, the kind activated by an object in a place where it’s not supposed to be, like children’s laughter in an abandoned house or a doll in a cemetery. Things that would be innocent in any other context, that took on a new dimension of fear by just being present. There was something so wrong about it.
I batted it away. The hairs on my forearm darted up from the static cling and my own rising fear.
“Can we just go?” I muttered.
This was too much for Melissa.
“I thought you hated running.” She smirked.
“Well, when it’s away from that, I’ll reconsider my opinion.”
I had never been so happy to feel the pounding ground underneath my feet as I tried to keep up with Melissa. Tossing a casual glance over my shoulder, I saw the balloon shrink into the distance, my chest sagging in relief.
She was right. It was just a balloon, nothing more. Some relic from a special family occasion.
There was nothing to fear.
We were almost near our destination when Melissa suddenly skidded to a halt, almost falling over. The wind had tossed out an object hidden between in the cloak of the tree trunks, where it rolled out onto the road.
It was another white balloon.
Melissa took a cautious step towards it and knelt into the underbrush where it had come from.
“There’s more over here,” she called out.
Peering down over her shoulder, I saw at least four or five balloons scattered on the pine-covered ground. Before I had time to stop her, Melissa was already pushing her way through, following the trail.
“Mel,” I hissed, “come back!”
But my words were vapour to her, dissipating into the air. We found ourselves pulled deeper into the woods, where the sun couldn’t penetrate through the twisting branches. All the while, I trained my eyes on Melissa, afraid that the surrounding shadows would swallow her up.
The stories of people who had gone into the woods and never returned all flooded back into my head- the Missing 411. Vaguely, I wondered if we were about to add to that number.
After a few minutes of walking, she stopped in her tracks. I touched her back, her muscles as rigid as mannequin’s.
“Oh my God.”
I barely even heard it with her hand muffling her mouth. Pushing my way through the shrouding leaves, I glanced over her shoulder.
A table sat between the trees, draped in a white cloth. Antique china was assembled along it, cups and plates that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Victorian tea party. There were about twelve chairs clustered around it- all of them occupied.
The women were dressed in white long-sleeved dresses and the men in matching white shirts and pants, all barefoot. White balloons were tied to the sloping branches over their heads, shuddering against each other. I couldn’t tell what the rest of them looked like due to the animal masks they all wore. No two were the same- there was a fox, a bear, a sheep a wolf- all the creatures you would expect living in a forest. Some had dark vacant holes, while others had bulging glass eyes fitted in which shook in their fake eye sockets. It looked like they were wearing the heads of actual taxidermied animals.
A woman in a grey rabbit mask sat at the head of the table, her draping gown obscuring her feet. She looked more like an effigy, something constructed as a mockery of humanity rather than an actual human being. Her movements were so stiff and controlled that she didn’t look alive. She was so tall that she had to hunch over the table just to sit at the same height as the others.
She stood up and raised a hand, silencing the chatter of the table. Then she reached underneath and pulled something large out. I winced through, trying to avoid making any sound. It looked like a cake stand, with something large and red atop of it.
Then, the woman in the rabbit mask stood up. The glint of a knife in her raised hand broke up through the tranquillity of the forest air.
My heart swelled through my chest, ready to explode.
She brought it down with enough to force to throw the silver cutlery strewn about on the white tablecloth into the air. The others remained her silent audience as she strained to cut through whatever it was. It looked like a large cake, enough to feed twelve people.
Yet an iron-tinged smell clung to the damp air, something that made my nose wrinkle. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, but I knew it.
It was only when the knife came down again with a burbling squelch that it all fell into place.
It wasn’t a cake.
It was a slab of raw meat, blood still pooling around it and dripping down the lacy metal patterns of the stand.
The woman in the rabbit mask scraped it onto the waiting plates of the others with the knife, where they spooned it under their masks without any hesitation. The human conversation had gone, replaced with growls and snarls that more suited their inhuman appearance.
That was it. We were done here.
As Melissa and I were about to make our hasty exit from the scene, a twig snapped beneath my heel.
The mood shattered, all heads turning to look in our direction in a motion that was almost mechanical. They all saw us.
The rabbit-masked woman rose from her seat, ghosting over towards us without a sound, the knife still gripped in her hand. I instinctively raised a hand in front of Melissa.
“Hello, strangers.” She trilled.
It was the voice of a child coming out of the figure of a grown woman. It was soft enough to the point it was almost musical. Like the balloons in the woods, nothing about it seemed to fit as she prowled around us.
“Don’t be afraid,” she went on, “today is a special day. We are celebrating the Hungry One.“
She went back to the table and lifted one of the chunks of meat she’d severed and walked back over to us, holding it up towards the blinding white of the sun, red streaming through the spaces of her enclosed fingers and down her forearm.
“Can you feel him? He’s all around us, in the trees, in the cold- waiting to be reborn into one of us.”
She squeezed it with enough force that blood squirted onto her mask. Her body seemed to vibrate, excited warbles and heavy breathing escaping through her mask. The others echoed her sounds, battering their fists against the table.
“He satiates the hungers we hide away. He helped us hunt the Long Pig for our great feast. Only though eating the flesh of the dead, we become whole. He has taught us that.”
She took a step forward until her bloodied hand was just inches away from our faces.
“Would you like to become whole, strangers?”
I stared into her hollow eyes.
“Fuck this,” I murmured.
We exploded out of the undergrowth faster than we had ever done on any of the previous walks. I’m sure that if any of my previous physical education teachers had seen me run like that, they would have shed a tear of joy. The only sound above my own pounding blood in my ears was Melissa’s panicked breaths.
The hidden crackle of running feet alerted me to the fact we were being followed. Their shapes appeared in the brief flashes of light between the imposing trees. No matter how fast we ran, they were always just a few feet behind us. I forced myself on, not daring to look around for a minute for fear of seeing those empty, inhuman eyes again.
Tearing through the trees, an exhausted, elated breath burst through my mouth as the stony path gave way to grey concrete of the parking place. We rushed down to our car, my trembling fingers struggling just to even grip the keys as I unlocked the car. We crowded in.
“Drive!” Melissa screamed, “Drive, now!”
Just as I was about to put the car into gear, I saw the black stare of a fox staring into the passenger door. A chill filled the car as the door was wrenched open, a gloved hand sliding in.
Melissa slammed the door down onto his hand with a ringing crack of bone as she pulled it shut. I could hear his screams outside.
Glancing back into the driver’s mirror, the others walked out from behind the trees, the rabbit-faced woman at the front, the draping sleeve of her gown soaked red with the raw flesh she still held.
Slamming down on the accelerator, I pulled out of there as fast as I could. As we drove away, something wet hit the back of our car. I turned around in time to see a bloody trail slide down the glass. It didn’t take a few guesses to realise what they had thrown at us.
It was only when we were out on the open road that we allowed ourselves to breathe again. Melissa had placed her head in her hands, trying to control her own hyperventilating sobs while I tried to maintain motor function. We sat beside each other in silence. Neither of us had the words for what we had just experience, but one thing on our mind was clear.
We were never going running in those woods again.
The moment we stepped through the front door of our house, Melissa had thrown off her shoes by the front entrance, never to put them on again. We had sat in the living room, dwelling over the memories over a bottle of wine, but not without locking every door and window in our house first. Neither of us wanted to leave the other’s side for anything.
Before we knew it, it was morning. There hadn’t been any unexplained noises, not a single bump in the night.
Melissa was sprawled on the couch, still dressed in her running gear. My eyes followed the slow rise and fall of her chest. I knew that she wouldn’t wake for a good few hours or so and I wasn’t about to.
Draping a blanket around her, I stepped out of the room, trying to nurse the throbbing ache of an oncoming hangover. Opening the front door, I let the cool morning air patter against my face.
As I lifted my hand, my foggy brain adjusted to the sudden wet sensation. It had just rained overnight, the rational side of myself assumed.
Looking down, I saw my fingers smeared with red. The glass was smeared with the still-wet outline of a bloody hand print. I was so stunned by the sight that I tripped on the front step, over something large and solid that had been placed there overnight.
As my body collided with the front porch, I picked myself up only to find myself face to face with a deer skull that had been placed underneath the door. The ivory dome glinted in the overhead rays of morning sun that peered through the shifting clouds, but no light seemed able to fill its empty eye sockets. The thing had an evil about it that I couldn’t describe.
There, tied around its left antler, was a hovering white balloon.