Gray: Short Fiction

Whoo boy, it’s been a crazy week, but I managed to meet my goal of posting a new story each day based on one of your prompts! I won’t lie, it was tough sometimes – I’m sure you noticed some of the frequently late posts. Now it’s Sunday, which means it is the last day of my challenge. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading all these stories and joining me on this challenge!

Fair warning: after today, you might feel a certain void in your heart. Don’t worry, it’s just the realization that you won’t be able to get a story a day from now on. Of course, I’ll keep posting stories from time-to-time. If you’re looking for a fix in between those posts, make sure to check out my published works or my other free-to-read stories.

Now onto today’s tale. This day’s story is 2,680 words. The prompt was “a group is out camping when something begins calling to them in the woods, though they resist, many succumb to the call”. There was more to the prompt but it relates to a specific American myth and ending that would spoil the ending if I mention it so I shan’t.

Let me know what you think about it and, of course, show the love by sharing!

Dedicated to Scut Manycoats.

 

Gray

Lily was the first one up. She always was, not that she minded. Hanging out with three others for a bachelorette weekend was great – if emotionally taxing – so it was nice to have a moment or two for herself. She turned on the portable propane grill they’d brought and set the kettle on it, planning on making coffee for the group.

While waiting for the water to boil, Lily sat in her chair by the cold firepit. She loved the cold bite of the morning air, when the sun was barely climbing over the horizon and was still blocked from view by the thick congregation of pine trees that bordered the small clearing where they’d set up camp. The small bit of sky she could see was a washed out blue, like faded denim.

Lily took a deep breath, smelling the over-powering scent of pine, the smokey scent of the black skeleton of last night’s fire, and the hint of chemical from the propane grill. Around her and the firepit were the four colourful tents.

When she heard the water boiling in the kettle, Lily got up with a contented sigh and travelled into the trees to where they’d hung their bags of food up in the branches, away from any nosy ursine passerbys. She pulled one down and extracted a bag of instant coffee, returning the bag of food to its place in the trees.

Returning to the grill, Lily shook some coffee into her mug and topped it up with water, instant creamer, and a healthy dose of sugar. She sat back down, sipped her coffee, and waiting for the three other women to wake up. Nothing tasted better than camp coffee when the morning air still had the night’s bite.

Roxanne was up next. She stepped out of her tent, stretched, gave Lily a wave, then made her way into the trees holding a roll of toilet paper. Kat was the next one. She made up a cup of coffee for her self and plopped down next to Lily, yawning widely.

Roxanne came back, now also carrying some bacon and eggs in her free hand.

“Breakfast?” she called with a grin.

Lily cheered and made Roxanne some coffee too, moving the kettle to the ground so as to free up the grill for a frying pan. The smell of breakfast cooking is what finally got May up. She was the bachelorette of this weekend getaway and was showing the signs of their celebration last night. Surprisingly, jello shots travel well.

“Fuck me,” May groaned, making a show of crawling on hands and knees to the others.

Without a word, Lily made her a cup of coffee too and Roxanne handed a plate to the suffering May. She ate it, still sitting on the ground in her underwear and sport bra.

“Hair of the dog?” Kat said dryly, holding up a bottle of beer she’d pulled from the cooler by the pit.

“Come on now, Kat!” Lily laughed, but May held out her hand.

Roxanne handed plates out to everyone before finally serving herself. Together, the four girls passed around the bottle of beer, drank their coffee, and finished up breakfast.

“Let’s try and find that old cave that’s supposed to be out here,” May said as Roxanne was finishing up the dishes.

“A cave, great. Sounds like a lot of fun,” Kat sighed, painted a thick layer of sunscreen over her skin.

“Dearest Kat, there could be gold in that cave. So, the legends go.”

“If there was gold in some cave out in these woods, everyone would know about it. It’s just a dumb legend, dearest May.”

“What legend is that?” Lily asked.

“Some crazy hick in the woods discovered a cave near his shack. His name was hilarious, like Old Cobb or something. He found the cave and found a small vein of gold in it. But our pal Cobb was a drunk and he spilled the beans one night when someone asked him how he was able to buy so many rounds at the bar,” May started.

“Then the dumb townies killed him for the gold and his ghost haunts the caves, scaring away anyone who tries to get the gold, blah blah blah,” Kat finished.

“I especially liked the ending of the story: the whole blah blah blah,” Lily said.

“Really adds to the depth of the story, right?” Kat laughed.

“Guys,” May whined. “It’s my weekend and I want to try and get some ghost gold!”

“It is her weekend,” Roxanne said, always the neutral party. “Let’s just give it a go. At the very least we will get a nice hike out of it.”

“Then it’s settled. Kat, as the party pooper of the group, you have to carry the bottle of sparkling wine,” May said.

“Let’s get going then, day’s not getting any younger,” Lily said.

The women got dressed, misted themselves in bug spray, pulled on their backpacks and set off. The forest was an explosion of green – the dark tones of the pine trees, the subtle palette of the moss and lichens on the fallen logs, and the lighter shades of the grass that created a carpet effect over the ground. Even the light filtering down had an emerald hue to it.

May led the way, holding a map with Roxanne at her side holding the compass. Kat and Lily brought up the rear, Kat snapping tons of pictures with her camera. The four walked on in a comfortable silence, listening to the sounds of the forest all around them. At noon, they found a fallen tree and sat on it to enjoy a lunch of jerky, trail mix, and an apple each.

“And how much further is this haunted cave?” Kat asked as they packed away their garbage.

“Well, hm. From my intel – ” May started.

“You mean the rumours you heard,” Lily said.

“My intel puts it at about four or five miles north from the creek we were camping next to.”

“So we should be coming on it soon, then,” Roxanne chimed in, and with that, they set off again.

The women did not come across the cave, but they were having such a good time, they only realized it was getting late when the light that was filtering down began to turn gray.

“Guys, we should probably turn around. Does anyone have the time?” Lily asked.

The three others shook their heads, having all left their phones – useless without signal out in the wilderness – back at camp.

“We must have walked almost six miles by my guess,” said Kat. “Lily is right, it’s getting late and I doubt there is a cave anyway.”

“What about my wine though?” May said.

“We can always drink it back at camp. I brought sparklers,” Lily said.

“Hell ya. Ladies, roll out!” said the bride-to-be and the women turned about face and began to make their way back to camp.

The light faded fast as thick clouds chased away the remainder of the day. Lily looked up and watched the cauldron of seething gray.

“Did any of you bring rain ponchos?” she asked with a frown.

“No, it’s supposed to be clear and sunny until Wednesday,” said Roxanne.

The four stared up as the last of the true sunlight was eaten up and they were plunged into a false twilight.

“Flashlights?” Lily said.

Of the four, only Roxanne – the worrywart of the bunch – had brought one.

“We should probably hurry – ” Roxanne began when a powerful gust of wind whipped through the trees, pushing through even the thickest of the pines, stealing the rest of Roxanne’s words right out of her mouth.

Overhead the trees bent and whipped around the darkening skies, victims to the growing wind.

“This is a bad sign,” said May.

“You think?” replied Kat.

“How far are we from camp?” asked Lily.

“Probably another few hours, honestly I don’t see us dodging this storm,” Roxanne was biting her lip, staring up at the clouds. “I’ve never seen clouds move like that.”

“We’ll be fine, come on! What are we, basic sugar and spice bitches?” May crowed, pulling out the bottle of sparkling wine.

The pop echoed over the wind and May took the first gulp, sneezing when the bubbles tickled her nose. Kat laughed and yanked the bottle away, joining in. Roxanne looked at Lily, who only shrugged with a grin and took her turn.

Roxanne rolled her eyes and took the lead, the other three women followed finishing off the bottle in short time. At that point three-quarters of the party was feeling pretty fine despite the impeding threat of rain. A couple hours later, the darkness was closing in fast. Though the women couldn’t see the sky, they knew night was falling. As the clouds roiled, so the temperature dropped and the wind gusted harder, cutting through even the women’s champagne coat.

Roxanne stopped suddenly, causing Lily to bump into her back.

“Bad news,” Roxanne said.

“Don’t say that,” May whined.

“The compass, it’s – it’s just spinning,” Roxanne turned and held the little tool out.

“It’s spinning like the clouds,” Kat said.

As one, the four women looked up. The clouds were darker now and moved with a ferocity that was alarming. As they watched, a vein of lightning spiked through gilding the clouds purple. A rumble of thunder soon followed and yet, no rain fell.

The darkness beneath the trees was absolute at this time with only Roxanne’s flashlight to guide their way. The women huddled together, shivering. The air grew damp and smelled of the lightning on the air. Another wave of thunder rolled over the treetops making them jump.

“Wait – stop! Over there!” Lily yelled over the storm.

Kat, Roxanne, and May looked in the direction she was pointing. Among the thick, dark trunks to their right, something was faintly glowing.

“Is that a campfire?” May asked, hopefully.

“Campfires don’t glow silver, dumbass,” Kat whispered.

May started in the direction of the light but Roxanne grabbed her arm.

“What are you doing?” Roxanne hissed.

“There’ll be people there, I’m sure they’ll share their tents or cabin with us until this – ” May gestured wildly at the violent skies. “Passes over!”

“You don’t know what’s over there! We should just keep going!” Roxanne replied.

May jerked her arm away.

“You may be okay wandering around these woods until we die, but I have a little more to live for!” May dashed into darkness.

“May! May! Stop!” Lily yelled.

Roxanne, Kat, and Lily were stunned into stillness.

“May?” Kat called.

“Should we go after her?” Lily whispered.

“O – of, course. Come on!” Roxanne led the way through the trees.

The three kept calling May’s name, but received no reply or they heard none over the howling of the uncanny wind.

“Where is it? I can’t see it anymore,” Roxanne said, stumbling to a halt.

“What? What did you say?”

“The gray glow, it’s gone! Can you see it? Can you see it anymore?”

They looked, squinting in the darkness, legs spread to resist the push of the wind.

“Where did she go? May!” Roxanne screamed.

“We should go back, we have to find our camp. She can meet us there!” Kat said.

“I’m not leaving her out here in the storm!” replied Roxanne.

“She chose to go!”  countered Kat.

“Guys! Over there.” Lily was pointing again.

The silver glow shimmered faintly beneath the trees, slightly to their left.

“I’m not going any farther. You all are nuts,” Kat screamed, turning her back to the light.

Roxanne didn’t bother to reply, choosing instead to plunge into the shadows and take her light with her. Lily looked at Roxanne’s back as she faded away into the night, then at Kat’s back as she remained facing away from it all. Her indecisiveness made the decision for her, because when she looked back, Roxanne and her light were gone as if the darkness were a living thing that had swallowed her whole.

“The silver light is gone,” Lily said, but Kat didn’t hear her.

Lily reached and grabbed the other woman’s arm, desperate to feel something warm, familiar.

“What do we do, Kat? I’m scared,” she said.

“We go back to camp. That’s the smartest thing to do. We can get them help tomorrow, or maybe they’ll come back when it’s brighter out.”

“We can’t just leave them out there – ”

“And what would you have us do, Lily? Go chasing after them in the dark? Break out legs when we trip over something we can’t see? Get as lost as they are now?”

“We don’t even know where the camp is, Kat.”

Kat didn’t reply. Lily looked back the way Roxanne had gone. Her body was so cold that her skin was aching. The light was back, burning like quicksilver.

“It’s back,” she said, but if Kat heard her, she was ignored.

Lightning was cracking across the black clouds in regular intervals, followed by thunder so loud it made the ground shake.

“If you follow the light, you will die, Lily,” Kat said.

“We can’t just leave them out there,” the other replied and, with a trembling heart full of fear, tiptoed into the darkness towards the beckoning wisp of silver.

That left Kat, alone in the night. She spat into the carpet of pine needles on the ground under her feet and walked in the opposite direction. She walked for a few hours, following nothing more than her gut feeling. Overhead, the sky continued to threaten rain and the thunder that shook the trees shook her too. The distant gray light followed her, appearing in the corners of her vision. She could feel its pull and understood it not to be natural so she ignored it. It was hard. It was almost as though she could hear the light speaking in her head, promising her warmth and safety, if only she would follow it through the darkness.

The heavens finally opened up and a solid wall of rain poured down, crashing into the tops of trees and sending pine needles down in a scatter. Kat screamed out against the storm and thunder answered her call. The next lightning strike choose to descend and someone, in the forest, a tree caught fire then was doused. The light flared higher, brighter, casting a silver sheen on the pine needles around it.

Kat ran on and on. Recklessly, Kat dodged through the trees and jumped over obstacles, blinded by the onslaught of rain, until her lungs burned and legs ached. The light kept pace, disappearing and reappearing as it chased her through the forest. Luck guided her, though, and Kat caught sight of a muted colour in the trees – tents.

She turned and paused briefly, triumph in her heart.

“Fuck you!” the woman screamed at the silver apparition that flickered in the trees.

Turning, she sprinted for the campsite. She forgot the creek that had been May’s starting point for her quest to find the haunted cave. The ground sloped around from her. Kat tried to stop but the mud caused her to slip into the newly created raging river.

She had never been a strong swimmer and her luck ran out when she struck the first rock, which knocked the air from her lungs. It was thankfully quick after that.

The storm dissipated midmorning. The watery sun shone on the soggy pines chased the last of the lingering clouds away. Lily, May, and Roxanne stepped out of the cave in which they’d hid from the storm. They were shaken, cold, and hungry – but alive.

“Do you think Kat’s okay?” May asked.

“I’m sure she is,” said Lily uncertainly.

“What do you think it was?” Roxanne whispered, looking about for any hint of that silver light beneath the trees.

“I don’t know but at the end – didn’t it look like?”

“Yes, it looked like a man.”

“Do you think it was – ”

“Let’s just go back to camp. Let’s just go. I’m sure Kat’s waiting.”

Unsure and exhausted, the three began their long way back.

 

 

Thanks for reading, everyone! Part of the prompt was a legend of the Gray Man, a myth common in South Carolina and associated with hurricanes. I did my own little spin on it, of course!

And that’s the end of my week-long writing challenge. I hope you enjoyed it, I certainly did!

 

x P.L. McMillan

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