14 Sep Shady Wood
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"Shady Wood"Written by
Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
I’m not sure whether this letter will ever reach you, but I’m going to put it in the mailbox and hope for the best. It seems unlikely anyone’s actually going to deliver it, but this may be my last chance to contact the outside world, so I’m going to seize it anyway.
You’ve probably wondering what happened to us; it’s been a week since we were supposed to come back from our camping trip. Well… it’s been a week to us, but maybe time passes differently outside, and maybe to you it’s only been hours, or maybe it’s been years. I have no way of knowing. Okay, that probably sounds crazy, but honestly, after what we’ve been through, I don’t know that there’s much of anything I wouldn’t believe.
I should probably explain from the beginning. This is going to be a long letter, but I want to make everything clear, and I’ve got nothing but time. I think I told you where we were going, but just in case it has been years outside and you don’t remember, I may as well remind you: I’d decided to take my family camping, just for a weekend, and I found a campground online called Shady Wood. It seemed to have all the amenities we’d need and it was surprisingly cheap, so I called the number on the website and made a reservation.
Actually, that’s something I don’t think I told you about… when I called and made the reservation, the person on the other end of the line spoke really slowly. It wasn’t odd, but not odd enough to set off major alarm bells. I didn’t think much of it at the time; the only reason I bring it up is because in retrospect it may have been significant.
So, anyway, we made a reservation for the weekend, and we set out the Friday before last. I was worried the campground might be hard to find; the directions on the website included a bunch of streets I’d never heard of. The first one was off a stretch of the 144 I’d driven down lots of times before, and I never remembered seeing it, and it was a weird enough name I was pretty sure I’d remember it—the name was Badhollow Road. But when we set off for our trip, there was Badhollow Road, right where the directions said it was, and there were all the other streets, one after another. After Badhollow Road, they were all just winding tracks through the wilderness, no buildings around and no signs of habitation. But they all were right where the directions said they were, and soon enough we saw the sign, a big wooden arch above the road that read “Shady Wood”.
We checked in at the administration building just inside the gate, and they gave me a map and marked on it where our assigned campsite was. I did think it was a little strange that the woman at the desk was wearing sunglasses—she was indoors, and it wasn’t that bright a day—and, now that I think of it, she did talk pretty slow, the same way as the man on the phone. But, again, I didn’t think much of it at the time.
We didn’t have much trouble finding our campsite. And the weekend passed more or less uneventfully. I guess there are only two things that happened before we left that are worth mentioning. One was on Saturday night when something got into our food. I thought it was a raccoon at first, but when I went out and looked around with a flashlight, I caught a glimpse of something that looked like a little white monkey. About two feet tall, vaguely humanoid in shape, no tail. Running on its hind legs. That I did think was strange, but I only got a brief look at it and wasn’t sure what I saw, and after all I’ve never been much of a nature buff and didn’t know much about the local wildlife, so while I was pretty sure there no wild monkeys in Pennsylvania maybe there was something here I wasn’t aware of, or maybe it was just a trick of the shadows and I was imagining its humanoid form.
The second thing was when we went to the trading post—that’s what they called the campground store—to buy some things I’d forgotten, or hadn’t brought enough of. Chapstick, toilet paper, garbage bags. The man running the store wore sunglasses, and he talked slowly, but not so much that I was seriously disturbed at the time.
Other than those two things, though, the weekend camping went pretty much according to plan. The kids enjoyed themselves. Gail found a muddy stream that seemed to be an endless source of amusement for her. Alice just kept looking for birds and animals. Rick acted bored a lot, but he was only acting—you know how teenagers are. Anyway, everyone had a good time, and Sunday afternoon we packed up and started heading back.
The first strange thing we ran across on the way back was an empty station wagon by the side of the road. It wasn’t at a campsite; it was just parked there in the bushes. One car parked in an odd place wouldn’t be too hard to explain; it was the second car that was really strange. I think it was a Volkswagen van that may have once been blue. It looked like it had been abandoned for a long time; it was covered with rust, and the tires were rotted away, and there were weeds growing through its chassis. And I was sure that it hadn’t been there on the way in.
I think it was about then we saw a couple more of those white monkey things running through the bushes. Maybe it was before the cars. I’m not quite sure about the sequence of events.
I do know, though, that it was after the second car that we got to where the map of the campground said that the intersection should be, and the intersection wasn’t there. The road just kept going. I wondered if we’d missed the turnoff, but neither Mary nor any of the kids had seen it, either.
So we kept going. It was either that or turn around, and there didn’t seem to be much point in doing that. I watched for any landmarks; depending on which turn we made we ought to be passing either the pool on our right or the radio tower on our left. We didn’t pass either of them. We did pass more cars, though. The further we went, the more of them we saw. Different makes and models. Some of them looked like they’d been there for years, maybe decades; others looked like someone had just stepped out of them. But they were all sitting there empty on the side of the road.
I think we passed a few dozen cars before it hit me that their license plates didn’t match. I mean, they were from different states, all over the country. I know people like to travel for vacation, but it didn’t seem likely people would drive all the way across the country to stay at an obscure little campground like Shady Wood. I even saw one or two license plates that I don’t think were from the U.S. at all. I’m still not sure what was up with that.
Eventually we did get to a fork in the road, but it was much farther along than it should have been. And since we had no idea where we were, we had no idea which way to go. Since our last turn on our way to the campsite had been left, I decided it made the most sense to turn right. It didn’t bring us to any place more familiar than where we’d just been, though, and I’d say we were just getting more and more lost, except that I think we were already about as lost as it was possible to get.
We drove for hours. That shouldn’t have been possible; Shady Wood shouldn’t have been that big. Of course I thought maybe we were driving in circles, but we weren’t. We used some of the cars as landmarks, taking note of a car that stood out and keeping an eye out to see if we passed it again. We never did. I swear we weren’t retracing our path. We were just driving over much more road than should have been able to fit in the campground.
The next intersection we passed, I stopped for a moment, trying the decide which way to go. Then Gail piped up, and said “Left”. So I went left. It was a long time till we got to the next intersection, and when we did she said “Right”, so I went right. You might be wondering why I was following directions from a six-year-old. Hell, I knew she didn’t know where we were going. It was probably just a game to her. But I had no idea which way to go, so whichever way Gail said to turn seemed just as good as the other.
Finally, we got to a trading post. The map had only showed one trading post, and we’d been there, and this wasn’t it. Still, this was the first thing we’d passed since we left our campsite aside from a lot of trees and empty cars, and maybe someone there could give us directions. And anyway, we’d used up our food, and we’d expected to stop by a McDonalds or something on our way home from the camp, and the kids were getting hungry.
So we pulled over, and I went into the trading post. Like I said, it wasn’t the same trading post as before, but it had the same stuff. Food, toiletries, stationery, you know, anything you’d need on a campout. I went in and bought enough food to keep us for a while—bought more than I thought we’d need, just to be safe. And when I went to pay for it, I asked the guy running the shop for directions.
I guess at this point it probably doesn’t really need to be said that he spoke very slowly, and that he was wearing sunglasses.
Anyway, I brought out the park map I’d been given at the main office, and I asked him how we could get to the exit. As I spread the map out on the counter, though, I could swear it looked different from when I’d last looked at it. It still had pretty much the same style, and it still said “Shady Wood” on the top, and it still had a blue ball-point ink X on campsite number 215, but the roads were arranged differently and had different names. So I wasn’t filled with a lot of confidence when the guy pointed out a spot on the map and said we were there, and traced the route he said we’d need to take to get out of the campground. But it’s not like I had a lot else to go on.
So we took off from the trading post, and I tried following the route I’d just been shown. But again, it was much longer than it should have been before we got to an intersection. And when we did, it was a side road meeting the one we were on on the left, instead of on the right like the map said. I did my best to follow as close to the directions as I could, but I knew I was fooling myself. There was no connection between the roads we were going down and what the map showed. We were totally lost.
And, of course, eventually we ran out of gas. That wasn’t a surprise; I knew it was getting low, and I knew it was going to run out if I kept going. But what else could I do? At least I hoped we’d make it somewhere before it happened. We didn’t. So I just pulled over to the side of the road.
It was getting kind of late by this time, so we decided to spend the night in the car. It wouldn’t be comfortable, but at least we’d be safe from the elements. We’d figure out what to do in the morning.
I think it was Mary who noticed that we were all a little shorter than we’d been when we left the campsite. I thought she was imagining it, then, even though Alice agreed with her.
It wasn’t easy to sleep, partly because of the cramped space in the car and partly, well, because of course we were all a little scared by what was going on. I managed to get to sleep eventually. I did wake up once in the middle of the night, and I almost screamed. There was a face, staring at me through the windshield. An almost human face, but maybe a third human size, white as snow. The thing looked at me for a few seconds, and then it jumped away, and I saw its pale, naked form disappear into the foliage.
I was unsettled for a while, but I managed to drift back to sleep. When I got up, I thought maybe I’d been dreaming. Now I don’t think I was, though.
Anyway, we got through the night, and then it was time to decide what to do next. We kind of got in an argument then. I was still trying to convince myself everything was okay, and I insisted that if we just waited there in the car, where we’d be safe, someone would come along and find us eventually, and we’d be able to get a ride out. Mary wanted to start walking. I told her she was just restless, that she just wanted to be doing something, even if it was useless, and she wasn’t thinking straight. But I don’t think I was really thinking straight either. Sure, walking like Mary wanted us to didn’t end up getting us anywhere, but I don’t think waiting there like I wanted to do would have ended any better. We were both wrong. I don’t think there was a right answer.
It’s not that Mary convinced me, though, or that I gave in. It was Rick who settled the matter. While Mary and I were arguing, he just grabbed his backpack and the extra supply bag, got out of the car, and started walking. Mary and I both yelled after him, told him to come back, but he didn’t listen, and finally we didn’t see any alternative but to get our stuff and go after him. He slowed down and waited for us to catch up. He hadn’t really wanted to get away from us. He’d just wanted to stop the argument.
So we walked, the five of us, along the road. I had the tent, Mary had the food, Rick had the extra supplies, and we all had our own packs. We walked all day, and didn’t see anything different from the kind of thing we’d seen the previous day.
That night we pitched the tent, right there by the road. We hadn’t gotten anywhere, and didn’t know how much longer we’d have to walk or if we’d ever get to the exit, but we were all tired and had to get some sleep. And we got up the next morning and kept going.
The food we’d bought at the training post ran out the day after that. We passed enough streams to keep off our thirst, but food was another matter. Alice was hungry enough she grabbed some berries and ate them before any of us could stop her. We were worried about her, but after an hour or two she didn’t seem the worse for wear, so the next time we passed by a similar berry bush, we all helped ourselves. We found some mushrooms, too, that I thought might be edible; I nibbled a tiny piece off the side of one to see if I got sick, and when I didn’t we ate those. It was risky, maybe, but so was starvation.
By that night it wasn’t possible any more to deny that we’d gotten shorter. Our clothes were bigger on us than they had been a few days ago; the sleeves went out past our hands, the legs of our trousers bunched at the bottom, and we all had to tighten our belts. We didn’t talk about it much. We weren’t talking much at all, really, but especially about that. I don’t think we wanted to acknowledge what was happening.
Besides being too big for us, our clothes were wearing out, too. Much faster than they should have been; it had only been a few days, but our clothes were as ragged as if we’d been walking around for weeks. And we were all getting paler. Gail had gotten a little sunburned over the weekend, but her skin was back to as light as it was, if not lighter. There were light streaks appearing in Alice’s hair, and I thought her skin was lighter too. Same with Mary. And Rick was practically blond. And my own skin, when I looked at my hands… well, I’d had a tan on Sunday, but I didn’t have one now.
I told Mary and the kids it was just sun bleaching. I made up some explanation for why the sun was making us lighter instead of tanning us—I don’t remember now exactly what it was I said. It didn’t really make sense, and I don’t think any of them believed it, but at least it let us all pretend we understood what was happening. I came up with an explanation for the shrinking, too; I blamed it on malnutrition, and said it would be reversed once we got back to civilization and got some good square meals under our belts. That isn’t how things work, of course, and we all knew it, but it kept us from having to fully face the wrongness of the situation.
Actually, I don’t think malnutrition is something we have to worry about. Over the next few days, we got pretty good at foraging for food. We found a knack for realizing what plants were edible and which were poisonous, and we were getting desperate enough we even developed a taste for grubs and bugs we could gather under rocks. We were eating almost as well as we had been while we were camping. But we didn’t seem to be getting any closer to civilization.
It was the night before last that Rick disappeared. I still don’t know why, but he’d been changing the fastest; by that evening he’d been shorter than Alice and almost as short as Gail, and he looked like an albino. Now that I think about it, he may have been shorter then than Gail had been before this all started, though he was still a little taller than Gail was by then. I’m not sure I phrased that well; I hope you get what I meant. Though if you didn’t, I guess it doesn’t really matter.
Anyway, we set up the tent and got bedded down for the night, and when we all got up Rick was gone. His clothes were there by his sleeping bag—what was left of his clothes, anyway; they weren’t much more than rags by then anyway. And his pack was still there. But Rick himself was gone. We all looked around for him, of course, and it was Alice who found a footprint near the tent, the print of a bare human foot about the size of a young child’s—which is about how big Rick’s feet had been by that point, given how much he’d shrunk. We managed to follow the trail a short distance away from the tent, but we lost it before long. It was leading away from the road.
We spent the better part of that morning looking for Rick, but we couldn’t find any other sign of him. He was gone. Neither Mary nor I wanted to leave there without him, but there didn’t seem to be any way we could find him, and we finally decided that if we found our way out of the campsite we could send help back to find him later. We went on.
Yesterday and earlier today were more of the same. Walking along the road, finding enough plants and grubs to sustain ourselves, passing car after derelict car. Again last night we pitched the tent and got some sleep. Every day since we left the campsite, we were a little paler and a little smaller than the day before.
Then, this afternoon, we found a trading post. Another one. I went in and bought more food—just because we could live on foraged food doesn’t mean we didn’t want other food if we can get it. I didn’t have cash left, but my credit card still works, for now. I asked the slow-talking, sunglassed woman at the counter for directions, at this point more because it seemed like something I ought to do than because I really expected it to do any good. Anyway, I noticed as I was leaving that outside the trading post was a battered old mailbox. So I went in again and bought some paper and envelopes and stamps. I took a while to think through who I should send a letter to, but as my sister you’re my closest relative who isn’t trapped in Shady Wood with me, so I figured you ought to be the one I tried to contact.
Like I said, I don’t know if this letter’s really going to be delivered. Maybe the mailbox is just there to tantalize us. For all I know, the slot in the mailbox just leads to a giant pit with fifty years’ worth of undelivered letters in it. But if there’s even the slightest chance that this letter will get to someone outside, I figure there’s no harm in dropping it in the mailbox and hoping for the best.
I’m not writing this letter expecting you to come after us. I’m only sending this so you’ll know what happened to us, so our disappearance won’t be a mystery. In fact, don’t come after us; even if you can find us, you’ll just be trapped here with us. I don’t think there’s much that can be done for us now, but at least you won’t be left wondering why we never came back from our trip.
As for us… after I drop this letter in the mailbox we’ll go on down the road. The woman at the trading post said that there’s an intersection right around the corner, just a few hundred feet away, and that if we turn left it’ll take us straight to the exit. Based on past experience, I have little hope that it’s actually true, but there doesn’t seem to be much else we can do.
Credit To – Immutatus