I wrote this for the NYC Midnight flash fiction challenge the same weekend I was finishing “Haunted Mansions Are Never Wheelchair Accessible.” I almost gave up on this story because I wasn’t feeling the prompts (ghost story / walking trail / contact solution) and because of the Crippling Self-Doubt Monster, the terrifying, real-life antagonist in many writers’ lives. But I’m glad I did. Enjoy, and remember to never go to bed angry!
Never Go to Bed Angry
Before they got married, Jen told Connor that they should never go to bed angry with each other. Connor saw a lot of wisdom in the idea, so for twelve years, he shared every problem, insecurity, and hurt with her. As he wrapped his arm around her waist each night in bed and kissed her cheek, he fell asleep with no trace of anger in his heart.
Until tonight, when the nothingness of sleep finally swept away his anger and pain…
Connor hiked in silence next to his wife through the cool shade of the towering northern California redwoods, which usually calmed him. The green canopy two hundred meters above made him feel like a kid in a blanket fort, hiding from the world and whatever evil lurked outside its walls.
Jen moved her hand over toward Connor’s, and he pulled away, averting his eyes as Jen lowered her hand back down. Even after her affair, he felt strange not taking her hand as they hiked.
Jen cocked her head to the side with a sad smile that he used to find irresistibly cute. “You know,” she said, “before we came here this time, I thought this place would feel just sort of normal. We’ve been here so many times. But it still reminds me of how big God is, how through every terrible thing we go through, he still remains faith—”
“Stop it, Jen.” He looked at her and held up a hand. “Just stop it.”
They sat on a massive, fallen branch and ate their packed lunches in silence. Connor found it hard to ignore her as tears slid down her cheek. He wanted to hold her, but he couldn’t shake the thought of another man holding her instead.
Jen pulled a tiny bottle of eye drops from her pack and held it above her reddened eyes. Her hand shook as a drop missed. She was terrible at this and always had Connor do it for her when her frequent allergies came.
She missed her eye again and threw the bottle into the dirt. Connor stood, grabbed the bottle, and brought it over to her. “Here, just let me—”
“No, it’s fine. Forget it. I don’t need them.”
Something rustled behind them, and they both looked up to see a deer walking toward them.
“How does it not see us?” Jen whispered.
Connor held up a finger to his lips as the deer cocked its head and opened its mouth. Connor thought it looked happy, like it was…smiling at them…
The deer shuddered, an unnatural spasm, and ran off, disappearing behind the trees.
Jen frowned. “The hell was that?”
Connor shook his head and ignored the chill running through his body. There was something off about this part of the forest. He had sensed it ever since Jen’s silent offer to hold his hand earlier. He looked down and realized his arm was around her, pulling her tight.
He let go.
“Let’s head back to the car.”
Getting back to the main trail proved harder than he’d thought. Jen hated seeing tourists when they hiked, so they made a point to escape into less-traveled areas whenever possible.
“I’m sure it’s this way,” Jen said. “Just trust me.”
Connor resisted making a comment about how trusting her hadn’t worked well for him recently.
“I guess this trip was a stupid idea,” she said, adjusting her pack on her shoulders.
“It was just a deer, Jen. Not a huge deal.”
“No, not that. Just, this trip in general. Thinking this could bring us back to before. Do you remember our first trip here?”
Connor stared at the forest floor. Of course he did.
Jen continued. “That was my first time, you know.”
“First time? We’d been married for over a month.”
“Well, it was my first time doing it in a national park.”
Connor actually laughed out loud at that. “You’re ridiculous.”
“And my first time seeing you run through a forest with your pants down, tripping every five steps!”
“Christ, Jen. But I mean what were the odds of a ranger passing close enough to hear us in a forest this size?”
They were both smiling when they heard the thud of something dropping to the ground up ahead, followed by an agonizing, inhuman moan.
Connor ran toward the sound.
“What are you doing?” Jen called to him.
“Just stay here!”
As he ran, he could make out something on the ground between the vertical brown columns of the forest. A body of some sort, brown and heaving…
The deer seemed to look at him even in its dying state. Blood drained from deep gashes on both sides of its neck, like something had strangled the poor beast with sharp, claw-like fingers. Hope left the creature’s eyes, and Connor couldn’t help but empathize with it. He knew the feeling of having your foundation suddenly stripped away, the sensation of falling, choking…
He stumbled back.
Connor turned at the sound of Jen’s voice, but she was obscured by a pale, ghostly figure standing next to him. He didn’t know what the man even looked like, but he recognized him all the same.
Connor pressed a finger up against its chest. “Get the hell away from me, you bastard.”
It grabbed his hand, ripping off ribbons of flesh as he pulled away.
Connor scrambled backward, collapsing against a fallen redwood. The figure glided toward him, baring its smiling teeth.
“Jen, can you hear me!?”
He’d spent the twelve best years of his life following this advice: Never go to bed angry. He couldn’t end his life mad at her, despite how much her betrayal gripped his neck, choked him at night when he couldn’t sleep, flooded his dreams with the nightmare of her having sex with another man, with nightmares of these attacks in the woods. He had to let this go.
“Just know I still love you!”
The ghost’s hand reached out…
“We would have made it through this!”
Skeletal fingers wrapped tight around his throat…
“I forgive you, Jen! I’m not angry any—”