Greetings boils, ghouls, and other creatures of the night!
A warm welcome back to Night Terror Novels’ ongoing flash fiction series, The Theatre Phantasmagoria, and to our Flash Fiction Fridays—where we bring you fresh dark fiction of 2,000 words or less at the end of every week.
With The Theatre Phantasmagoria, a new theme is announced each month, and by the end of said month, four stories are selected from our call for submissions to be featured here on the site in a Friday post. These pieces will also be published in a “wrap-up” anthology at the start of 2023, showcasing the original works that debut here at Night Terror Novels throughout 2022. If you’re an author yourself and this has piqued your interest, please find details regarding the flash fiction theme for our July submission window here.
The theme for June’s submissions was “earth song”: stories centred around animal or ecological-themed horror, of Mother Nature’s wrath, or similar horror stories along these lines. Our sixth month began on World Environment Day 2022 with “A Ghost Story for the End of the World”, which was brought to us by Brandon Applegate. Last Friday, Darren Todd joined our lineup with the bone-chilling “Snowblind”. Tonight, author and EIC of Archive of Odd Cormack Baldwin brings “Orienteering” to the Theatre, a truly disorienting and unnerving tale about being very, very lost in the woods. You can find out more about the author featured in today’s post down below, including links on where to find them elsewhere.
We here at Night Terror Novels hope that you enjoy today’s terrifying tale, and remember to check back in on Fridays for future showings in The Theatre Phantasmagoria …
Welcome to …
The Theatre Phantasmagoria
Let us start at the beginning. You are lost. You are in the middle of the woods, but now the trees that you saw from the trail are at a different distance, or a different angle, or perhaps they aren’t there at all anymore. They may as well be a different forest altogether.
You are lost, and that is a very good thing to know. That means you know that the split-trunked pine with a sepia-grey scrape from years past is not the split-trunked pine with a clean, fresh wound that you saw earlier. That means you know to retrace your steps, provided you figure out which way you came from. You will not press through endless terrain, confident and wrong. That is not the problem at hand. The problem is that you do not know where you came from. The problem is that everything around you is a fractal of green and brown and setting sun. The problem is that you are now talking to yourself in order to feel better about the fact that in two hours or so, you will not even have the sight of a healed scrape in distant bark to guide you.
Let us start at the beginning. You are in a place, and you would like to be in another place. That place still exists. The fact that you don’t know where it is does not mean it is gone, it just means that it does not miss you. When you accomplish your goal of being another place, if you accomplish that, this place will still exist. And so will the infinite places you may end up if you are to do this wrong. It is only in your mind that this place will ever stop being just as real as it is now. It is only in your mind that the place you want to be has done just that.
You read an article once about place cells in the brain, neurons that would fire just so when you stood somewhere familiar. Grid cells, too, that give an underpinning beat to the cacophony of those neurons that are now firing and firing again, trying to see what combination will trip a memory of where you came from. They don’t have your eyes, though. They cannot see the riot of green around you, so forgive them for mistaking this for the moment you stepped out of JFK clutching your mother’s hand, looking up at a grey skyline as infinite as the blue, blue, blue behind it. They’re only trying to help.
Manhattan still exists, too, you know. Your place cells can walk you the miles there in a fraction of the time. If you knew where you were, that is. And even then, it would only be in your mind.
Speaking of, you’re starting to think that the trees have been moving. That one, the one with the scrape in its bark you’re telling yourself wasn’t a bear, or a boar, or something truly dangerous, it was to your left, wasn’t it? And there it is in front of you, but you don’t remember moving. The whole world has oriented itself anew around you. Can trees move? Or perhaps scraped trees are more common than you thought. You don’t know, you didn’t think to read up on trees before coming out here. You thought that people who got lost were stupid, especially when they were found a quarter-mile from the trail. You, though, you’re closer than that. Thirty yards if you were to walk straight back. It’s a matter of which way ‘straight back’ is. Three hundred and sixty degrees, and only one right answer.
Maybe those lost souls weren’t all the things you called them over breakfast as you read the news. Maybe they were clever like you are—were. We’ll settle tense in a little bit.
If it makes you feel better, they’ll be obligated to send search-and-rescue eventually. Teams will patrol the hazards, hoping to find your body. Maybe you’ll surprise them, there at the base of the muddy downslope of the Dunning-Kruger effect. After all, someone will realise you’re missing, even if it’s just your coworker when you don’t show up for the fifth day in a row. Unless they just think you’re a flake, which you haven’t given them any reason not to. Your landlord, maybe, when you’re so far behind rent even he can’t deny you a welfare check. Not that you left any good evidence. Didn’t write “going to the woods, will be taking the Grade Two trail until roughly halfway, after which I will wander off for reasons I don’t understand”. It would have made the police’s job a lot easier. You could have done them the service.
The trees have moved again. Or at least, that one tree, the one with green-white scrapes against ashy brown bark, the one with amber sap weeping around the edges. It’s at your two o’clock, assuming you’re what decides noon here. Closer, now, so close you can taste the infected sap like a wound when you breathe in too sharply. You didn’t move, didn’t turn. You can lie to yourself, but I won’t lie to you.
Does it really matter where you turn?
Blink again, breathe again. Tell yourself that the world will stay where it was. North is half of the darkening horizon, isn’t it? As if you could find Polaris anyways. As if that claw-scraped tree wasn’t a truer North than any compass could find.
Five o’clock. Seven o’clock.
Blink again, I dare you.
Nine o’clock. Back where it started, but you know better than that. Keep staring at it, keep letting those place cells and grid cells and half-memories fire, like the tiny electrical impulses that make up your shifting, melting mental map will somehow light the coming night. Like they aren’t the screws held by a hand whose wrist is being twisted to break. You can feel the sinews pop as golden tears of sap edge along fresher and fresher wounds.
Ten o’clock. You didn’t even have to close your eyes.
You know it’s coming. Make a decision. You aren’t where you started, but you can go somewhere else. Pick a direction. Find somewhere where the pearly white splinters don’t seem so much like teeth. Find somewhere that isn’t here. Trust what I told you, that those places still exist. That your home, your work, that Manhattan are just as real as if you were in them, that they will not change if you move from one somewhere to another. Just so long as you move.
There. You’ve reset the clock. The tree is now at six o’clock, and you are walking, gaining distance faster than it can take it back. You don’t know if the trail is that way, if anything is that way. Keep walking. Press through the brush, ignore the prick of thorns against your skin. Somewhere still exists, and you can be there again. You can go back to the world that has not noticed your absence.
But remember, here will exist then, too, and we will miss you so, so much.
About the Author
CORMACK BALDWIN is a speculative fiction author and editor who thinks we should just give being eaten by moss a chance. He also is the head archivist (editor-in-chief) of Archive of the Odd, a found-fiction and analog horror magazine. You can find him @cormackbaldwin on Twitter, or a list of his works at cmbaldwin.carrd.co.
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