The Stranger in the Woods
I first met him three days ago.
On my way back from school, I usually liked to cut through the woods. They’re nothing remarkable; white-barked trees, dead leaves that crunch underfoot. But they were always so still. No animals, no insects – just a deep, cutting silence.
That’s why he was so noticeable.
He stood there, just off the path, with his back to me. Naked, pale skin covered in bruises and scratches, hair that stuck out from the side of his head, framing a bald scalp. He quivered. He quivered so violently, in fact, the leaves at his feet danced alongside him.
“Um, hello?” I called out.
No answer. He creeped me out, of course, but I was sixteen. Invincible. Nothing could hurt me, not at this age. God, I was basically an adult.
“Mister?” I pressed. “Anyone home?”
Now, up to that point in my life, I had seen some shocking stuff. My father had been a smoker since the age of seven, puffing at least thirty a day, right up until he’d had his jaw removed. I remember catching glimpses of him in his bed, without the surgical mask. That yawning chasm where his mouth should have been. The yellow-ish pus leaking down his chin. The tears in his eyes. Mostly, I remembered the tears in his eyes. He was a broken man, physically and mentally.
This man – this stranger in the woods – reminded me of my father. Small, beady eyes of jet black. No mouth, no jaw, no chin. A scar ran down the centre of his chest, stapled together with metal stitching. But, somehow, he spoke.
“I am the Keeper of Time.” His voice slithered through my mind. “Do you wish to see your choices?”
Now, I think I was afraid. It’s hard to remember. Something about this man froze me in place. Attracted me, even. I’ve always had a morbid curiosity. Maybe even a part of me wanted to help him? In him, I saw my father. My broken, jawless father.
“Do you wish to see your choices?” The voice repeated.
“What do you mean?”
The quivering man stepped forward, his skeletal arms held out as if presenting something.
“Your choices. To see what could have been.”
At this point, I remember wanting to run. But my curiosity betrayed me. Jesus, I was an idiot.
“Sure,” I said conversationally. “Why not?”
Somehow, despite lacking a mouth, the thing seemed to… smile? Then it stopped quivering. Clapped its hands violently. Disappeared.
I awoke in my bed. There was no memory of me making it home from the woods, no memory of the night before. Just the stranger in the woods, clapping his hands together. I looked for my medication. I had only just started taking it. Depression, the doctor had said, onset since my father had died. I scoured the bottle’s label – I must have been hallucinating. A bad reaction to the loony pills, that’s all.
Then I saw him again.
In the corner of my room, concealed by shadow, he stood. Facing me.
“I am here to show you your choices,” he said, arms raised.
At the foot of my bed, something materialised. Like the trails a pebble makes as it skips across the water, wavering rings spread out before me in the very air, revealing something similar to a doorway… or a window.
And through it, I saw myself. I saw myself, in my room, hanging by the neck. My school tie propped me up, coiled around the ceiling fan. My face bloated, purple, lifeless.
“What is this?!” I cried to the stranger.
“It is one of your choices.”
“What do you mean?!”
“Do you wish to take this choice?”
I frowned at the stranger. “Of course not.”
He disappeared again.
The next morning, I rid the stranger from my thoughts. It was the pills. It had to be.
I went to school, shooing away the anxiety trying to uncoil within my stomach, and continued my day as any other. English was first, then Maths, then History. Lunch came, and I made for the top field, behind the old oak where all the kids smoked cigarettes, most likely stolen from their parents. I didn’t smoke, but I sat on the side-lines, listening to their inane conversations.
A part of me knew it was coming, but when it happened, my blood still ran cold. Opposite me – behind my group of friends – was a pale flash of something in the encroaching brush. A white silhouette. Him.
“I am here to show you your choices,” the voice said, just as it had the night before.
I darted my head from friend to friend, realising no one else heard it. I debated saying something, but decided against it. I could do without being thought of as a mental-case throughout the whole school.
“Be right back,” I announced, standing up. “Need to piss.”
I climbed through the shrubs and thistle, coming to a small clearing. Standing in the clearing was the stranger. He held his hands out in that familiar, enticing manner. I didn’t have to ask this time – he simply began. The ripples in the air vibrated, then became still, forming a window. Through the window, I saw the old oak. Beneath the oak, my friends lay scattered, dead. Not just dead – mutilated. Unrecognisable strands of skin and flesh. Over them, I stood, drenched in blood, knife in my hand.
“Do you wish to take this choice?”
I recoiled, stumbling backwards. “No!” I cried. “Why are you showing me this?!”
The next day, I was a zombie. I had not slept, not eaten, not spoken to anyone. I had sat up in my bed all night, waiting for him. For the Keeper of Time. I had even stopped taking my pills, which caused my stomach to cramp and my mind to drift into disturbing places.
I went to school, I tried my best to seem present, and I made my way home.
Every ounce of my being told me not to cut through the woods. Once unremarkable, they now seemed a sore on my very existence. My own personal trail through Hell.
But I needed to see him. I needed to speak with him. To find out why he was showing me these things.
As expected, he was there.
“I am here you show you your final choice,” the stranger said.
I gave a start. “My final choice? What do you mean?”
The gore in place of the stranger’s mouth twitched into that familiar movement which seemed a smile. “Three choices. One must be chosen. If you make no choice, all shall occur.”
I breathed in, deep. “Show me,” I said.
The ripples came. The window. I peered through, and I saw… nothing. A deep, unsettling blackness.
“What am I looking at?” I asked, turning to the stranger.
“You may enter, if you wish.”
I set my jaw. Every rational part of me screamed not to enter – to turn and run, to forget this place. But it had to end. I knew, deep down, I needed to make a choice.
So I stepped into the window.
Darkness enveloped me. Any sense of reality vanished. A slithering noise ran through my mind, similar to a laugh, but more like the crackle of a snake through dead leaves. And I knew. I knew where I was – what I was experiencing. I screamed, but made no noise. I needed to escape, to get out, to be anywhere but here. It seemed an age, but something seemed to yank me by the shoulder, sending me toppling backwards.
I rolled onto my back, relief flooding through me at the sight of the pale trees. The relief vanished upon seeing him, standing over me.
“You have seen your choices,” he said. “One of mercy, one of anger, one of justice. Which do you choose?”
I ran. There was no choosing. I simply had to rid myself of this stranger, of these woods, and hide. If I had to hide forever, fine. So be it. I couldn’t choose.
So, here I am. My hands are beginning to grow raw. I’ve been wringing my school tie for what seems an age now. The ceiling fan has never seemed so frightening to me.
I know this is the best choice.
It is the choice of mercy. My friends don’t deserve to die because of my stupid decisions. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t considered the choice of anger. But I can’t do it. All I know is that I cannot choose the third option. For that is his domain. The stranger in the woods. And there, he will own me, for eternity. Eyeless, limbless, eternally host to his slithering voice. I felt others there, but they, too, had no voice… no bodies. They just simply existed, under his domain. The stranger in the woods. The Keeper of Time.
I hope this finds you well. I hope you understand why I did it.