The Happy Trail

Submitted into Contest #143 in response to: Set your story in the woods or on a campground. ... view prompt

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Fiction

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The kid wanted water but all Ted had on him was a stick of Dentyne. The tent bag over his shoulder had started hurting around the same time Benny had asked for it, thirty minutes after they started walking. Ted’s bet had been twenty minutes. He supposed that meant the kid was defying expectations for once. 

Benny had taken the gum and stuffed it into that quiet mouth of his with a woebegone look. Ted doubted the kid knew what woebegone meant. Ted doubted he even knew how to hammer a tent peg into the ground.

“And you know why we’re going on this trip, Benny?” He shuffled his shoulder as he spoke, feeling the mallet press into his spine through the bag. Benny kicked a rock along the trail. 

“To learn a valuable lesson.” 

There was a hole eating its way into his left sneaker that gave sight to the very end of his sock. The kid would need some new ones soon, he reminded himself. The kid grew like a weed. The kid grew like a tumour, Dolores had always said. He imagined a tumour, blood and pus and all, dressed neatly with Benny’s comically large specs, and couldn’t help chuckling to himself. Benny’s woebegone-ness latched eyes onto him.

“Come now, son,” Ted placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezing in a way that might soothe the four-foot-eight beanpole of nerves walking beside him, “This is going to be fun, don’t you think?”

“I’ve never been in a forest before.” The rock tumbled along once more. Benny looked like he might want to tumble along with it. 

“That’s why this will be so much fun.”

And when the sun shone down to fray through the trees and the birds sang their gospel, Ted admitted he expected the boy’s expression to lighten. Even for the former, it could bring a smile to his face. The heft of the tent bag and the sweat that seeped through his shirt didn’t so much bother him at that precise moment, such a beauty the forest was. So different from the forests he had known in service, where the heat blistered and the humidity boiled and the leaves were not soft but waxy and stiff. Where he was still just Ted and not Captain Bennet. Now he stood in fallen needles rather than fallen soldiers, and carried a bag rather than ammo. It should’ve been preferrable but Ted had never much had a taste for the twee. He smiled even so.

“I’m not sure I like forests.”

Like he’d said, Ted wasn’t sure he liked them either, but Ted didn’t like a lot of things. Ted didn’t even like water and everyone liked water. Water was nothing and you couldn’t dislike nothing because there was nothing to dislike. Forests, though – Ted felt it took one miserable lump of a soul not to like forests.

“But it’s beautiful, Benny,” he ruffled dark curls and heaved the bag once more, “You can’t not like the beautiful things in life. Otherwise there isn’t anything left.” Ted imagined a world without birds and trees and, really, he didn’t much mind the idea. The smiles they brought were fleeting. Fleeting was never really worth it. 

Benny gave him an odd look. “Do you want me to help you carry the tent bag?”

Ted gave an odd look back. “No, Benny.”

“It looks heavy.”

“It is.”

“I could help?”

“No, Benny. It’s part of the lesson.”

“Oh. Do you have any more gum?”

“No, Benny.”

“This piece lost all its flavour.”

Benny stuck his tongue out and showed the mangled bit of white in his mouth.

“Spit it out, then.”

The kid’s following look was rather distraught, and even when Benny explained the reason, Ted still wasn’t sure why.

“But the animals,” he frowned, “They might eat it and die.”

The way the branches above shadowed Benny’s face only made him more melancholy in appearance, though that wasn’t much of a stretch. He always looked sad in some way or another. Dolores said his soul had a crack in it, made from cheap china and paste and painted with all those dreary little figures in a watery blue. Dolores’ penchant for an analogy was nearly as irritating as her face, but they were always pretty spot on. Benny was certainly cracked somewhere emotionally. It was why he needed the lesson more than the other kids.

“Animals die all the time, Benny.”

The tent bag weighed down his words with each inch of fabric. He could’ve slumped to the floor at this point, had the trip not been so important. They were nearly there, anyway. The clearing was just up ahead, lit up by that frayed light like an oasis.

“Not all the time.” 

Akin to some old, time-withered man with the weight of his tax evasion on his shoulders, Benny wrung his hands over each other. His eyes scanned the forest around them as if waiting for squirrel corpses to rain from the heavens. Ted rolled his eyes.

“They do, in fact. It’s the way of life.”

Or the way of death, he supposed. 

“I really don’t think I like forests.” Little hands continued to wring.

“But you don’t even like ceiling fans, Benny.”

The kid’s eyes went inexcusably wide at that, the mere thought of those spinning devils causing an anxiety unrivalled by even the Big C.

“Because Lydia says they could chop you up.”

Benny stepped through a puddle as he spoke that seeped right through the hole. He didn’t seem to mind but Ted could feel his own irritation already. That would knock at least a week off of the time he had to buy the kid new ones. 

“There are worse ways to go.”

Benny’s frown was all too telling. In his mind, being sliced and diced by Satan’s AC was the worst thing there was. Despite his statement, Ted wasn’t inclined to disagree.

“Are we nearly there?”

Not the most subtle subject change but Ted would give Benny the benefit of the doubt.

“Yes, actually. It’s just up there, see?”

He pointed an (admittedly stout) finger to the pasture up ahead. The ground there would be soft, not too chalky, and it was nice and secluded. If Ted had owned a dog, he would’ve brought it to sniff out any animal dens nearby, but half the kids were allergic and he couldn’t abide sneezing. Animals or no animals, the spot would do just fine.

“Here we are.”

They were finally here, at the precipice of this lesson Ted had been dying to teach for such a long time. Ignorance was another thing he couldn’t abide and Benny’s ignorance had always wafted off him in droves.

The tent bag slid off his shoulder and he dropped it to the ground.

Ted knelt down, not caring about the damp floor nor Benny’s nervous eyes on him. The bag’s zip was sticky but he managed to pull it open with one long strike. 

“There,” Ted nodded with satisfaction, “Travelled well, don’t you think?”

Benny didn’t even bother to nod. His eyes were only fixed to the bag. He watched as Ted pulled out the shovel.

“You start digging, Benny,” he handed it to the kid, “It’ll be good for your arms.”

Now, Ted wasn’t really sure how Benny would manage to dig a hole of such a size, given that the shovel was nearly as tall as him. Benny began even so, his movements clearly stunted with anxiety. Ted unzipped the bag the rest of the way.

He stared down at the corpse.

“A well-featured face,” he ran a hand down the skin, “It’ll be a shame to cover it up, Benny, won’t it?”

The shovel stilled. Benny kept his gaze away from Ted.

“Yes, Sir.” He mumbled.

Ted pulled the polyester away from the body until it laid bare on the bed of needles and mud. 

“Won’t you look, Benny? I want you to look.”

“I don’t want to,” he sniffed, “I don’t like it.”

“But it’s important that you do. It’s the lesson.”

Large glasses fogged up with small tears. 

“I don’t think I like this lesson.”

Ted gave a flat smile. “But you know now what the lesson is, Benny?” 

To his credit, the kid did manage to peel his eyes from the shovelled dirt to glance at the body. It was the shortest look possible, though, worthlessly fleeting, and he almost instantly locked eyes with Ted instead.

“Yes.” His voice wavered.

“And what is it, Benny?”

“Don’t break the rules.”


April 26, 2022 11:51

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14 comments

Amanda Lieser
05:00 Feb 03, 2023

Oh my gosh! I think Elizabeth, what I admired most about this story is the fact that it feels like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I found myself on the edge of my seat, wondering what the twist was going to be. And although it was a cruel twist, I was incredibly satisfied with what you chose to make it. I thought that you captured the nervousness that your main character feels very well. I also liked that he was a kid. I think that that captures the innocence that you were really hoping to find in this piece. I think you chose a brilliant persp...

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Janey El Napier
19:22 Feb 03, 2023

Thank you for such kind words – it always means a lot when people like my stories! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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Alex Sultan
16:12 Apr 29, 2022

I really think this is one of the best endings you've written to a story so far. It's so blunt, and you go the whole story building it up, that it does hit hard. I think you wrote some very clever lines as well. As Dorsa mentioned in her comment, the tax evasion one was unique - it fits your style. I liked the '“Because Lydia says they could chop you up.”' line a lot, and it might be my favourite. I know they're all standalones, but catching the reference to f.l.o.a.t made the story feel so much bigger. I always look forward to this series ...

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Janey El Napier
16:48 Apr 29, 2022

Thank you! I thinks its one of my favourite ones I've written too, and I love adding little easter eggs to the other stories in the series whilst still keeping it self contained. (I also liked the idea of a little girl who could float being afraid of ceiling fans haha). You always have lovely things to say so thanks for another boost in confidence! I'm certainly planning on continuing the series, though I have no idea what's going to happen yet. Its quite fun to have the weekly prompts help create the plot - when I first wrote f.l.o.a.t. I h...

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20:17 Apr 27, 2022

I am a sucker for imagery and metaphors, and your story delivers them both excellently. They characters were great as well! I’m kind of obsessed with the ending, it left me with goosebumps! I can’t wait to read more of your work! Thanks for a great read!

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Janey El Napier
23:16 Apr 27, 2022

Thank you! I'm a sucker for imagery and metaphors too! They're one of my favourite parts of writing so I'm glad they came across okay! I'm also glad the ending worked well - it's always hard to work out how they come across from an outside perspective. Thanks for reading :)

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Janey El Napier
23:16 Apr 27, 2022

Thank you! I'm a sucker for imagery and metaphors too! They're one of my favourite parts of writing so I'm glad they came across okay! I'm also glad the ending worked well - it's always hard to work out how they come across from an outside perspective. Thanks for reading :)

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S. Thomson
12:00 Apr 27, 2022

Great story! Excellent character work and a chilling final sentence. If I had a note, because Ted is the perspective character in this story, you don't need to include phrases like "Ted could see" because we assume that if something is described, it's because Ted can see it. Also, near the end Benny should "peel" his eyes away, "peal" is only for bells, and "melancholier" is not a word. Other than that, excellent work I really enjoyed reading this story :)

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Janey El Napier
13:36 Apr 27, 2022

Thank you for the kind words! I was sceptical of melancholier haha but my word document didn't underline it in red so I decided to just go for it. To be honest, I never really mind making up words as sometimes it can give an extra effect. Thanks for the tip about the 'Ted could see' part - I've never really thought about it like that! :)

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S. Thomson
14:02 Apr 27, 2022

Fair enough, if Shakespeare could do it then why can't we :D

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Janey El Napier
14:14 Apr 27, 2022

Unfortunately, I'm no Shakespeare, though, so I did go back and fix your suggestions - it's an improvement so thank you! Alas, 'melancholier' had to be removed :( but I still think it would make a pretty cool word haha. Thanks again :D

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Dorsa S.
21:17 Apr 26, 2022

"Akin to some old, time-withered man with the weight of his tax evasion on his shoulders, Benny wrung his hands over each other." that line by itself is the most amazing comparison i've ever read in my life. i can't describe how much i enjoy this line. the plot twist at the end was exceptionally executed! you have a talent for these things (i can't master them completely, which is why i don't write them often). your metaphors are so well-written as well as your imagery. thoroughly, this piece was a good one! well done :)

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Janey El Napier
23:01 Apr 26, 2022

Oh wow, that's so nice of you to say! Metaphors are one of my favourite things to do - I always have to hold back otherwise I'd do way to many haha! Thanks for your lovely comment - kind words like this always means a lot to me :)

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Janey El Napier
11:53 Apr 26, 2022

CW: discussions and depictions of death (also I apologise if there are any typos!)

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