My family moved to a small, unassuming rural town called Cranesbill shortly after I turned twelve. We rented a brick house nestled at the end of a winding dirt road lined with statuesque trees and surrounded by acres of forest, where I enjoyed an amount of roaming space that seemed almost extravagant compared to the cramped apartment we'd lived in prior to our relocation. Among our scattered neighbors was a girl my age named Joanna. She too had recently moved into town, and despite my shyness and cursedly awkward nature we soon became friends. Jo and I spent most of June's sunny days riding our bikes throughout town, taking in whatever film was currently playing at the single screen theater, and poring over books at the Cranesbill Library. While Jo shared my love of fiction, her interests lied predominately in illustrations; oftentimes during our outings she would reach into the patched messenger bag she always carried with her, retrieve a sketchbook, and commence drawing the subject that had captured her eye.
Jo was bright, highly creative, and kind enough to give the timid new kid in town a chance rather than largely ignore me like the other local youths had. Jo wasn't simply my best friend—she was the only friend I ever had in Cranesbill. But all these years later, I still dearly wish I'd never met her.
The older I get, the more I've come to realize how unfair memory can be. It's funny in a bitter, cruel sort of way: some of my happiest recollections from decades ago have begun to fade and blur like aged, out-of-focus photographs, but the painful moments have yet to lose their vibrancy. My remorse remains as vivid as ever.
One morning Jo called to tiredly inform me that she was feeling unwell and would be staying home at her mother's insistence. I attempted to pass the time by watching television and perusing a paperback novel, but both activities ultimately failed to distract me from what I really wanted to do—go outside, breathe in fresh air, and let the sunlight warm my skin. When that desire eventually grew too persistent to ignore I climbed onto my bike and began a solitary journey down the winding road.
I soon regretted my choice. The miles of dirt felt unbearably long as I traversed them alone. I was on the verge of turning around to head back home when out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of something unusual. I came to a stop and glanced towards the towering trees at my right, where I saw a narrow soil pathway trailing ominously into the forest's green depths. I stared at the path in astonishment, for that afternoon was the first time I'd ever laid eyes on it; Jo had never pointed it out during our previous travels, and I'd somehow managed to overlook it entirely.
I still don't understand why I dismounted my bike and approached the newly-discovered path. It wasn't curiosity that propelled me forward, but a strange, magnetic-like compulsion; my uneasiness increased with every step I took, yet I pressed on anyway. The unsettling sense of disquietude continued to grow as I walked along the soil trail, occasionally side-stepping fallen logs and roots protruding from the ground. An eerie stillness lingered in the forest's atmosphere, punctured only by the sound of my footsteps.
Eventually I reached the end of the path. I found myself standing before a house so decrepit that it appeared to be held together by little more than pure luck. The home was encompassed by knee-high grass, overgrown shrubs full of thorns, and spindly vines that reminded me of thin serpents. Nearly every window had been damaged; some bore spidery cracks that crept along the glass, while others were little more than a collection of broken shards. Several shingles were missing from the sagging roof, and what appeared to have once been a coat of crisp white paint had faded into a chipped, dingy gray. Judging by the house's appalling state of neglect, it seemed as if no one had lived there in quite some time.
As I stepped onto the rickety porch, an abrupt euphoria washed over me. A sudden burst of elation bloomed within my mind. Never before had I ever experienced such unbridled, overpowering joy; I felt as if something wondrous awaited me inside the house, and I was supremely eager to greet it.
My hand was gripping the rust-coated doorknob when a faint noise pierced through the blissful fog in my mind. Immediately I froze, much too frightened to dare move, and held my breath.
Then I heard it again, this time much more clearly—a slight creaking sound, like footsteps shuffling across aged floorboards, was coming from the other side of the door. My eyes widened when I felt the doorknob begin to slowly turn beneath my fingers.
It was enough to pull me free from my rigid trance. I jumped from the porch and ran as fast as my legs could carry me, my chest pounding as I leaped over every obstacle along the path before reaching my bike and wildly pedaling home. I chose not to breathe a word of the unnerving incident when my parents arrived home from work a few hours later; I knew they wouldn't be pleased if they discovered that I'd been snooping around on another person's property, and I didn't want to risk being grounded for what remained of the summer.
Two days later Jo had recovered from her brief illness. When I regaled her with the tale of my afternoon in the forest she gawked at me with a combination of incredulity and excitement as storm clouds rumbled above us in the gray sky.
“You have to show me that path,” she declared enthusiastically. “If we leave now, we can make it home before the rain starts.”
I blinked in amazement, stunned by her proposal. “There's no way I'm going back there.”
“But I've gone down that road countless times and never seen any sort of pathway before! It might take me ages to find it on my own.”
“Are you serious? Did you miss the part about the creepy house?”
Jo smiled. Though her kind expression lacked condescension, I could tell that she didn't fully believe me.
“You probably heard a harmless noise,” she stated gently, “and mistook it for something sinister.”
“That's not what happened, Jo. I felt the doorknob turn.”
“But maybe you just thought you did. Remember when you spent the night at my house and thought the tree branch outside my bedroom window was a ghostly arm? Or when we watched that horror movie and you had nightmares for almost a whole week?”
I shifted uncomfortably on my bike. “Maybe.”
She smiled again and immediately I felt rather foolish. Though I loathed to admit it, the undeniable truth was that at times my imagination had been guilty of outracing my common sense.
“We don't have to stay long,” Jo reassured me. “I just wanna take a look and maybe do a quick sketch or two.”
Before I had the chance to respond Jo had already begun to pedal away determinedly. I followed and begrudgingly directed her towards the path, deeply regretting my decision to have ever told Jo about it at all.
I could barely keep up with my best friend as we walked down the slender trail. The peculiar magnetism I'd experienced during my previous venture was replaced with a hideous, suffocating dread that made my feet feel as heavy as lead. I tried to convince myself that Jo was right, that I'd only imagined the creaking sound and the turning doorknob. But no amount of self-persuasion could quell my nervousness; by the time we reached the house, I was practically trembling with apprehension.
“Please hurry,” I whispered. “I don't feel good.”
I surveyed the area warily while Jo scribbled into her sketchbook. Every minute crawled by at an agonizing pace. Despite the warm temperature, I shivered as light raindrops began to land on my skin. I looked up into the sky wistfully, wishing that I was sitting inside the library with a book in my hands or munching on popcorn at the theater.
“Are you almost done? It looks like the storm's about to hit.”
I glanced back down and felt raw, unparalleled panic seize hold of me when I saw the door of the house was now wide open, revealing an interior drenched in shadows.
“Jo?” I tried to call out meekly, but all my mouth could form was a dull whimper. Every instinct in my body roared at me to flee, yet immobilizing terror rooted me to the spot even as I heard the familiar creaking noise begin to emanate from the home's dark confines. I watched in paralyzing horror, my heart hammering so violently that I feared it would reduce my rib cage to splintered fragments, as a woman emerged from the shadows.
Though I dearly wish I could forget her, I believe the terrible image of the woman will haunt my memory forever. Her long dark hair dragged across the porch's decrepit boards, wildly tangled and rife with knots the size of a fist. A tattered lace gown hung loosely on her wiry frame, so consumed by mildew and stains that I couldn't determine what color it had once been before decaying into a murky shade of blotchy, rotted brown. The woman's sinewy hands were a jarring display of gnarled fingers, veins like plump worms, and pallid flesh that appeared paper thin, as if even a delicate touch would cause her skin to rupture open and weep something far more loathsome than blood.
But it was her face that terrified me the most. The woman's features were contorted into a violent expression of venomous, frightening hatred, as if an inconceivable rage pounded through her veins. Spittle frothed on her colorless lips when she contorted her mouth into a snarl so furious that it bordered on animalistic. The woman's reddened eyes burned with viperous rage as she fixed her gaze on me before staggering off the porch and into the tall grass, her every movement seething with murderous intent.
A stifled scream rattled inside my frozen throat. The woman was soon close enough for me to see the dried blood caked beneath her cracked, sickly yellow fingernails. I wanted to tell her that I'd never set foot on her property again, that I'd leave and never come back if she spared me from whatever hideous doom she planned to inflict upon me, but instead I stood there mutely and gazed into an infuriated visage entirely devoid of mercy.
Suddenly a hand seized the back of my shirt and roughly pulled me backwards.
“Run!” Jo shouted frantically. “Now!”
In the blink of an eye we were racing down the path, nearly tripping over our own frantic feet as we ran beneath a sky that had at last erupted into a downpour. Rain fell heavily and threatened to transform the ground into a slick carpet of mud.
“Why did you open the door?” I shrieked in a tone shrill with incredible fear.
“I don't know!” Jo yelled back, her voice teetering on the edge of hysterical sobs. “I didn't mean to do it. All of a sudden my hand was on the doorknob and—ah!”
A startled cry tore from Jo's lips when she tripped over an exposed tree root and began to fall. Sometimes, on the nights where sleep is particularly elusive and there's nothing to distract me from the painful memories swimming throughout my mind, I close my eyes and hear the cracking sound of Jo's skull slamming into a moss-covered rock as she landed in a motionless, silent heap.
I gasped when I rolled her over and saw the blood trickling down her scalp. Jo's eyes were closed, her chest rising and falling with each feeble breath she took. I desperately tried to wake Jo before attempting to pick her up, only to discover that her limp body was too heavy for me to carry. All the while I never stopped hearing the persistent, menacing footsteps heading towards us.
“I've gotta go find help,” I whispered shakily. “I promise I'll come back for you.”
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I dragged Jo's unconscious form into a cluster of shrubs, concealing her within the leafy foliage until not even a patch of her clothing was visible.
Then I ran.
By the time I reached my house I was sopping wet with rain and sweat. Sobs wracked my body as I called my mother, who in turn called the cops. A succession of police cars soon descended upon the dirt road.
Nobody believed me, of course. Not when I told two somber-faced officers everything that had happened as my shocked parents sat beside me on our couch and wore matching expressions of horrified confusion, not when the police repeatedly drove me up and down the dirt road while instructing me to point out where the path was, and not when I couldn't find it again no matter how hard I tried. The trail had inexplicably vanished into thin air without leaving behind so much as a trodden blade of grass to mark where it'd been a short time ago. That night I lied awake in bed and listened to the inconsolable wails of Jo's weeping mother drifting hauntingly through the rainy air. I heard Jo's name being called out over and over again as several of Cranesbill's townsfolk gathered to search for her, but despite their valiant efforts they failed to uncover any trace of Jo. The searches continued for weeks, and each time the results were always the same.
They never found Joanna.
We moved away a month later. “A fresh start,” my mother called it, but I dragged grief and guilt behind me everywhere I went. I blamed myself for Jo's disappearance, and to this day I still do. I often wonder how our lives would have turned out if I'd never even met Jo; perhaps she would've grown up to become a famous artist, and perhaps I would've become anything but the hollow shell of a person that I am today. Many years have passed since that fateful afternoon, and I've spent each one mired in self-hatred and ceaseless regret. I constantly think of Jo and my unforgivable failure to save her.
But I think I can finally make it right.
You see, tonight I had the urge to take a drive. Much has changed about Cranesbill; most of the small shops have been replaced with popular chains, the local library appears to have undergone renovations, and there's a supermarket where the movie theater once stood. But as I drove down the dirt road leading to my former home, I spotted a recognizable sight—something I never thought I'd see again.
The path has reappeared.
My own existence disappoints me. I've abandoned all the hopes and dreams I once had, I work a dead-end job that I inherently despise, and I have no companionship to speak of. I'm no longer afraid to walk into the forest, even if the withered woman remains there; her infernal rage cannot compare to the unbearable weariness and pain that I have carried with me for so very long. I hope that I'll find my best friend right where I left her, somehow frozen in time and still unawake, waiting for me to fulfill the promise I made on that long-ago summer day. This time I won't leave without her.
I believe the path I am about to walk is meant for me alone—if I never return, I don't think you'll be able to find me. Know that I am without fear, and that I am finally ready to face whatever awaits me at the end.
And if you should ever find yourself wandering down a secluded road, surrounded by a broad forest or a lonely stretch of woods, be sure to glance out into the trees before you pass them by.
Perhaps there's a path meant for you too.
Written by CertainShadows