The Woods

Nothing like a nice, leisurely walk in the woods.

In the Gutter, Nothing like a lot of things. And Nothing forgives even less.

In the Woods by Gary Duncan

Frank stopped where the bridge used to be, and looked around.

“They’re all gone,” he said. “The bridge, the stream.”

Mike looked back the way they’d come: row after row of red-brick houses with red-tiled roofs. They’d parked the van on the edge of the estate and walked through another development: more red-brick houses with red-tiled roofs.

“It must have been something,” Mike said. “Before all this.”

He took a bottle of water from his rucksack and offered it to Frank. Frank needed something stronger, but he took it, clumsily, and spilled most of it down his chin. The others had stayed back a little, but they were watching him: eight pairs of eyes boring into him.

“We can wait here a bit,” Mike said. “Till you catch your breath.”

“I’m fine,” Frank said.

They set off into the woods, the path forking left and right and then petering out. Frank took his time, breathing in the cool, damp air, the sweet smell of wet soil and fallen leaves that took him back to another time.

He stopped when they reached the clearing, and looked up at the light filtering in through the tops of the trees.

“Here?” Mike asked.

Frank shook his head. He inhaled, held it, and let it out slowly. “I’d forgotten that smell.”

Mike looked back towards the path.

“Jesus Christ,” he said, grinding his boot into a pile of dead leaves.

One of the guards had lost a shoe in the mud and was trying to retrieve it with a stick. He was young, about the same age Frank had been last time he’d been in the woods.

“Maybe you should help,” Frank said.

“Maybe he should watch where he’s walking.”

Mike bent down and grabbed some leaves.

“Why now, Frank? Why wait all this time?”

Frank shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the right time. The right thing to do.”

Mike threw the leaves up in the air and watched them fall slowly back to the ground, turning, caught in the breeze.

Frank looked down at his hands.

“How about taking these things off, Mike.”

“You know that’s not going to happen, Frank.”

Frank nodded. Mike was one of the good ones. Probably the only good one.

They set off again when the others reached the clearing, Frank out front, Mike one step behind, the others following.

Frank could have cut through the bramble bushes, like he’d done all those years ago, but he didn’t want to make it too easy for them. Let them sweat a bit first. They’d waited long enough—another hour wouldn’t make much difference.

He took them away from the clearing, farther into the woods, down to where the stream used to run deep and wide. Every now and then he slowed down and looked back and saw them all lined up behind him, single file on the narrow path.

When they’d almost gone full circle, Mike came up beside him and said, “I know what you’re doing, Frank.”

Frank ignored him.

“Frank, you—”

“They’re over there,” Frank said. “Other side of the bramble bushes. I killed them both, just like they said, and buried them in the ground.”

Frank looked around one last time, and said, “I’m sorry, Mike. You can take me back now.”

Gary Duncan is a freelance writer and editor based in Northumberland, England. His stories have appeared in Shotgun Honey, Yellow Mama, and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine.