OUT OF THE WOODS, a story by Marcus Scott
You arrive late (per usual) to meet your friend GRAHAM and his longtime life partner and business associate SUMMER at a unity gathering in Riverside Park. Everyone is there, even CHARITY, a former classmate. You haven’t seen your friends in over a year because all of you have been physical distancing and this is the first time you’re all congregating. This get-together was also put together to commemorate milestones in each of your lives, especially GRAHAM and SUMMER who have just relocated to the Riverside Park area to be closer to their new positions, which they will be spending a lot more time in given that they were both recently promoted. They’ve planned a stunning and intimate socially-distanced garden party where you will dine alfresco and reconnect with old friends and you’re the guest of honor: All you’re expected to do is have a great attitude, but you’re a good guest and bring refreshments in your large backpack anyway.
You have a great time reconnecting, reminiscing and waxing nostalgic about past memories, and you compliment the hosts on picking out a lovely location for the meetup, although CHARITY, a local historian, doesn’t share your enthusiasm. CHARITY ponders whether the abrupt ending of the physical distancing may alarm “the denizens” of the park. Your curiosity gets the better of you and you ask CHARITY to share her hypothesis and without hesitation, CHARITY shares her strange theory with you and the party attendants: Over the last half-century, there have been a series of hangings in the park and not too far from where you are currently situated at the moment, there is the notorious Freedom Tunnel. Somewhere within its bowels are shadowy shantytowns forged by a coterie of relatively peaceful vagrant denizen drifters called “mole people'' seeking shelter and freedom to live rent-free and unsupervised by the law. However, CHARITY theorizes that there are a myriad of abandoned underground tunnels and marooned mine shafts in and around New York City that have no proverbial purpose, and there may be something underneath the derelict service routes and unutilized subway system that even frightens the mole people. Looking you right in the eye, CHARITY says its best people aren’t in certain parts of the park alone after a certain time in the afternoon. SUMMER and GRAHAM laugh at CHARITY’s unnerving story and ask why these mole people are being spared by whatever is on the surface, but mere visitors of the park are not. CHARITY suggests that the mole people live in relatively peaceful communities and have a deep respect for the land; something that many visitors and the average New Yorker do not. SUMMER and GRAHAM politely tell CHARITY to stick to her day job as a historian (and not that of a writer) and transition from the conversation by proposing a toast. You raise your glasses....Then, fade to black.
You wake within a black grove surrounded by crabapple trees and you are completely and utterly alone; not much time has passed and yet... Your friends are nowhere in sight. Not a single one! Even some of the blankets, baskets and food items have gone missing. You don’t remember falling asleep, but here you are, stranded. You check your phone; you’re almost out of juice. Before you have time to assess the situation, you see a YOUNG MAN in desperate need of medical attention; he is hysterical, in panic mode and his street clothes are filthy. You go in for a further look and see there is a noose around his neck. On closer inspection, you notice that his hands are also bound. Get ready to make choices that will alter and shift how the story unfolds and impacts who you can save at the end because now the YOUNG MAN sees you and begins sprinting towards you. You have a decision to make and you have make it fast.
CHOICE A: RUN TOWARDS HIM
Maybe you’ve seen way too many films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and developed a superhero complex as a result, or maybe it’s because you’re just a wonderful person with stardust in your eyes and a beating heart as pure as 24-karat gold, but you run towards the YOUNG MAN. You remove the torn noose around his neck, you untie the knot around his wrists and you check to see if he is alright. You hand him a canteen of water from your backpack and tell him to drink it slowly. The YOUNG MAN tries to speak, but can only talk in a labored, guttural, husky and raspy voice and tells you that a group of strange figures stalked and chased him without cause. The YOUNG MAN tells you that he was captured, bound and gagged and after failing to escape a second time, he was strung up in a tree in a spot nearby. He says he only survived because the rope was old and therefore snapped before it was too late; when that failed, they unleashed something foul upon him: Three strange folk with bad ideas on the brain and fondness for blunt instruments; he also says that he also heard strange sounds in the shadows.
Freaked out, you look around for your friends and/or anyone at all, but there seems to be no one in the area but you and the YOUNG MAN. You check to see if he has any bruises or cuts that will hinder his movement, then you pick up your phone to call the police. The phone died and you accidently left your portable charger at home. The YOUNG MAN reveals he is a nature lover and carries a topographic map and compass; he says it's yours if you take him with you. All of a sudden, you hear footsteps drawing near from one direction and see a strange figure in the distance in the other direction. The YOUNG MAN seems on edge, petrified and paranoid.
CHOICE B: RUN AWAY FROM HIM:
Forget this! You turn in the opposite direction and practically fly like a bat out of hell, running for the hills. This is too scary and you don’t want to stick around to find out what’s after him. In your mind, better him than you, right?! You run, but he’s quite fast. You think of tossing your backpack to pick up greater speed, but with quick thinking, you take out the canteen from your backpack, look behind you and throw it at the YOUNG MAN, who stops pursuing you and runs to collect the canteen, vanishing from sight.
You quickly find a hiding spot behind one of the many trees and neatly crawl onto them. The YOUNG MAN disappears from view and you decide to wait there for a moment. Suddenly, you hear a loud bellow and then cries for help from the YOUNG MAN before they grow faint. You open your backpack and frantically look through it. You find that the only item you have to defend yourself with is a whistle, which is ridiculous. But you get wise and listen to your environment, you blow your whistle, hoping to scare off whoever may be around. You blow your whistle in different directions, responding to sounds either in nature or sounds that may be made by human beings. You decide to head back to the picnic area where you had your gathering in hopes of grabbing any supplies that were left behind that could help you get back. However, the whistle failed. Something is fast approaching on one end and in the faint distance, you see the silhouette of a mysterious figure.
CHOICE C: BRANDISH A WEAPON
You decide to take up arms. This means war! You’re from the belly of the beast a.k.a. New York City (or at least you’ve been in town long enough to have seen it all!) and no one, and you mean, no one, is going to scare you. You’ve taken the subway during peak hours and survived close calls with Boogie Down breakdancers who’ve used support beams and arm rests as personal props in their attempts to audition for the next Hustlers, Magic Mike or (*shudders*) Showgirls. You have survived standing in long lines outside of the Apple store to get the latest gizmo. You have survived Times Square in rush-hour!
You’ve got this, you tell yourself and grab a large tree branch. You swing once, but you fail to reach the YOUNG MAN. He goes to speak, but the branch connects on your second swing and the YOUNG MAN falls to the ground and doesn’t move. You go and check his pulse. His vitals are unclear. Desperate and afraid that this incident may not be considered an act of self-defense, you quickly access the situation and decide to find a place to dump the body.
You bury the body under a dark, wooded area and begin to flee the scene and try to get as far away as possible. After some distance, you catch your breath. Then, you hear it. Footsteps fast approaching. In the distance, you see a figure, their back turned to you in the distance. At this range, you’re not sure if they are friend or foe.
CHOICE 1: NAVIGATE YOUR WAY OUT OF THE PARK
You (and/or the YOUNG MAN) throw caution to the wind and decide that you will find your way out of this park and return to civilization on your own (well, and/or with the YOUNG MAN).
You take off sprinting and in a bizarre turn, you collide into CHARITY. CHARITY says she overheard a conversation between SUMMER and GRAHAM in the woods; they aren’t who they seem to be. They tranquilized you both and CHARITY woke shortly after being transported in another part of the park, hearing SUMMER and GRAHAM’s confession. SUMMER and GRAHAM tried carrying CHARITY off, but neither could successfully carry her without adding suspicion and so they left her in another part of the woods while they went to “get help” from a person only identified as THE LEADER; SUMMER and GRAHAM heavily implied that THE LEADER has plans for them both (and/or all); she heard that they had caught a YOUNG MAN and his friend earlier in the day. CHARITY says she has a good idea how to get out of the park without alerting SUMMER, GRAHAM or the mysterious strangers under the command of THE LEADER, but she’ll need a topographic map and compass, which will get them out quicker. She also clarifies that her cellular phone has energy, but she doesn’t get reception in the area as there is a dead spot.
CHOICE 2: APPROACH MYSTERIOUS FIGURE
You (and/or the YOUNG MAN) throw caution to the wind and approach the mysterious stranger. As it turns out, the figure is none other than your good friend SUMMER. You are relieved.
SUMMER explains that she and GRAHAM woke up in a different part of the park and haven’t been able to reach you or CHARITY due to poor reception. SUMMER asks what you’ve been up to, but you just urge her to go as the evening is no longer as cheerful and joyous as it started off. SUMMER leads you (and/or the YOUNG MAN) to GRAHAM who explains that it’s a good thing you were found and suggests that CHARITY may have had something to do with everyone falling asleep and disappearing. SUMMER and GRAHAM say they’ve found the exit and intend to call the police once they are out of the park. You follow them. As you journey through the wilderness, you are approached by three strange figures in white (they almost look like they are from a different time). THE LEADER says, you’ll do, and in a bizarre turn of events, SUMMER and GRAHAM restrain and subdue you. GRAHAM explains that it has all been a ploy. He and SUMMER have joined an “intentional community” that is located underground and its members forage the land for nourishment and supplies. As new members, they must fulfill their rite of passage by cutting off all contact with their old life if they are to fully assimilate with the group. That means destroying the closest member in their friend group and aren’t you lucky?! According to GRAHAM, you’re his very best friend! That’s right, you’ve been lured here and are considered the greatest chance of GRAHAM and SUMMER joining this “intentional community” of wanderers. SUMMER explains that you were tranquilized but woke sooner than expected, stating that they hoped to bring back enough members to carry you, CHARITY and the YOUNG MAN.
THE LEADER, their strange followers and both GRAHAM and SUMMER perform a dark ritual to the land spirits, thanking them for the gifts they will bestow. THE LEADER explains that they intend to sacrifice you all for the sake of new crops and ways to forage, stating that no hard feelings are necessary because they are the last vestige of hope for the land if it was to survive, and that GRAHAM and SUMMER chose you because you’re such a positive person in their life and they really wanted “good vibes only.” Yep, it’s a death cult; sorry! You ask them why they’re doing this and GRAHAM and SUMMER respond that they want to help reduce the carbon footprint of the human race and make sure the spirits live on and they need people like you with a great spirit and a love for art and the great outdoors to give life energy to the spirits of the park (even if it means a bitter end for you). THE LEADER adorns them with feathers from the red-tailed hawk, a local bird and they dance to celebrate their bounty: You. THE LEADER says the bird is connected to the mythological phoenix and symbolizes rebirth and renewal; by making a sacrifice to the spirits and dancing with the feathers over the sacrifice, the land will bloom and bear new fruit and the twisted and knotted trees in the grove will sprout new leaves and flowers and the mole people (and the people living under them) can live on the land longer where they can be free to do as they please.
Suddenly something strange happens: The followers of THE LEADER encircle you and begin to “change.” They aren’t as ominous as before, but a little more feral and free and kind of fairylike. They join GRAHAM and SUMMER, dancing around you with their feathers. Soon after, GRAHAM and SUMMER also begin to change, dancing with a delirious and devilish delight. Looking at you with giddy gloom, THE LEADER joins the dance, covering you in feathers, before ordering your execution.
You are bound and dragged kicking and screaming in the dark of the woods by THE LEADER and his followers, while GRAHAM and SUMMER dance.
*If you were executed in the previous choice: surprise! You get a do over!*
You quickly and quietly travel with CHARITY (and/or the YOUNG MAN) and arrive outside of the park. You call the police and file a report. Over the course of a numerous hours, police scour the area with K-9 search dogs and eventually law enforcement seize and arrest GRAHAM and SUMMER, who admit to having committed violent acts. GRAHAM explains that it has all been a ploy. He and SUMMER joined an “intentional community” that is located underground and its members forage the land for nourishment and supplies; as new members, they must fulfill their rite of passage by cutting off all contact with their old life if they are to fully assimilate within the group and that means by destroying the closest member in their friend group and—oh, happy day!—that’s you. According to GRAHAM, you’re his very best friend! SUMMER believes CHARITY to be her best friend! That’s right, you’ve been lured here. Your presence is considered GRAHAM and SUMMER’s greatest chance for joining this “intentional community” of wanderers. SUMMER explains that you were tranquilized but woke sooner than expected, stating that they hoped to bring back enough members to carry you, CHARITY and the YOUNG MAN before undergoing the ritual. With help of THE LEADER, GRAHAM and SUMMER hoped to perform a dark ritual to the land spirits by sacrificing their friends and the YOUNG MAN, thanking them for the gifts they will bestow.
While GRAHAM and SUMMER are repentant for their actions, because despite everything, they do love you. Being in quarantine for a long period of time made them reevaluate their lives and their purpose they and felt that the only way they could get out of this rut they were both in, was to destroy their old way of life and create a new one: They found a death cult that promised them rebirth and renewal. While they will certainly be detained for a very long time and need psych evaluation, you find forgiveness and impart with them a grain of wisdom: Every day is a chance to be someone better, to begin again, to start over. Only when one spends time being in the present experiencing every precious moment is it clear that living life is what matters the most. Death cults and blood sacrifices will change nothing if you aren’t willing to make the commitment to being a better version of yourself. You also remind them that if they really want to spread eco-awareness, there’s Greenpeace or the Climate Emergency Fund, or they can watch plenty of docs on Netflix or Apple TV—things they wouldn’t have access to living underground in the death cult.