It was the second rumble of distant thunder that convinced Joseph to take the short cut.
He had been in two minds to cut through the woods as he rode his bike down the main road and towards the opening. He had never been through them before, he liked to speed down the main roads to get home, but today he was in a hurry. Jasmine had said that he could take her out tonight and he wanted to get home to wash the grease from the garage off in the shower and get himself looking good before he would call a taxi into town. The thunder boomed again, it was getting closer. He slowed his bike, turned into the walkway to the woods and then picked up his speed.
The shortcut should shave a mile or two off his trip plus it would keep him from being splashed by the wet roads. Joseph had only lived in the area for eight months, he had moved there for work, a promotion in the garage and he easily found a room to rent only a few miles bike ride away. He had never been in these woods before, he was more into cities and tarmac than trees and grass. However, he had heard stories about this large forest from one of the young apprentices at his work.
Apparently they were haunted by the many witches that had been hung there during the witch trials hundreds of years ago and there would often be a film crew from one “ghost hunt” programme or another.
Joseph didn’t believe in ghosts and goblins or aliens that came down to probe your arse. He was told that children often went missing, and many parents wouldn’t let their kids go near the woods let alone play inside them.
The rain had started to fall and the pitter patter of the droplets striking the leaves reminded him of a soft drumming sound. The trail was small and bumpy and he was thankful the heavy foliage above was keeping him and the ground dry.
He knew there was a gate that entered the forest near the top of the avenue that he lived down, but he now thought that he had been naive to think that it would be a straight journey. He lowered his gears as he tried to ride up a small hill. There were roots and stumps poking out of the footpath and Joseph knew it was going to be a harder ride than he had thought. He needed to stop and walk his bike around a large tree that must have been there since time began when he thought he heard a child’s laugh. He stopped to listen.
“Was it a bird? Maybe the wind?” he wondered.
He didn’t hear it again, so he stood on his pedals to start the ride once more.
Thunder drummed louder, almost above him and the noise made him glance up in surprise and the steering rocked in his hands and the front wheel hit something on the floor causing it to stop and throw Joseph over his own handlebars.
He found himself on the floor and his left ear and cheek were wet. He touched his ear and then looked at his hand expecting to see the crimson of blood, but it was brown and sticky
from the wet mud he had landed in. His head hurt and he wished he had worn his helmet and not had worried about his modern ‘hairdo’ getting mushed down flat.
“Had it got darker?” he wasn’t sure, he supposed it was from the dark clouds and the thick leaves above.
He got to his feet and looked down at his knees. His jeans were covered in mud and his phone had fallen from his pocket. He picked it up to wipe the screen when he saw something move a few trees ahead. He froze. Standing completely still he looked around, looking for the shape, but he couldn’t see anything.
“Had it been a deer, or maybe just a shadow?”
He lifted his bike without taking his eyes away from the tree he thought that something… or someone might be hiding behind.
He got a leg over the frame and onto the pedal before he called, “Hello?” His voice sounded funny, scared and he didn’t recognise it.
“Is anybody there?”
He felt the woods go quiet.
There wasn’t a sound from wildlife, wind or rain and his ears seemed to try and tune in to something, anything as they searched for sound… and they soon did.
It was a child’s giggle.
Joseph's back felt frozen as ice seemed to shoot up it and his hair spiked as if the air was full of static.
He peddled as fast as he could, daring to glance behind him.
He saw… something.
Something black floating and dodging between trees.
He let out a little cry of terror before he faced the front and tried to go faster. The sound of rain had returned and he could see puddles ahead. The air smelt of pine and wet Christmas trees. He splashed through three puddles and held the handlebars tight as his front wheel skidded on a muddy verge.
He looked ahead and all he could see were trees.
“I must be there by now” he thought, no, pleaded.
He almost lost control as he sped through a large puddle spraying muddy water onto his face and into his eyes. He used his arm to quickly wipe the filth from his face. He could hear the laughter again only this time it sounded within his own head as if the mouth were beside his ear. He desperately wanted to reach up and cover both his ears to block the sounds out, but he didn’t dare to let go of the handlebars. The bike bounced as it went over embedded stones and roots and he felt as if he were on a rally course as he held tight to stop himself from being shaken off.
He thought he heard an engine from a car and relief flooded into him like water filling a bath, it was then something brushed his hair and ear.
It was probably a low hanging branch, but Joseph imagined that it was long talons reaching out to grab him. This spurred him on and he rose up to pedal faster.
He saw the track was widening and up ahead there was an opening in the trunks. The way out.
He was exhausted and his eyes stung from the sweat that ran down from his forehead. He was nearly there, but he felt his speed begin to slow.
“No, come on” he cried but he just simply didn’t have any more energy in the tank.
He spun around from a quick look behind and saw a dark shape, and then another and another. There were four or five of these floating shapes darting through the trees towards him. They dragged a black cloak and had a white blur where the face should have been.
The bike had come to a stop and he let it fall as he ran the last fifteen metres to the exit. His legs burnt and his ankles felt loose like they might detach as he tried to run faster. He looked like an action movie hero as he made a dive through the opening and out onto the pavement, back into daylight and civilization.
There was a noise that sounded like a shriek that reminded Joseph of a hunting bird of prey. There was a snap of twigs.
And Joseph had time to frown before two skeletal hands stretched far out from the opening and grabbed each side of his head and dragged him back into the woods.
There was a muffled scream that was soon lost in the sound of more approaching vehicles as they sped by.