Lost in the Woods

Submitted into Contest #196 in response to: Write a story involving a portal into a parallel universe.... view prompt


Science Fiction Fantasy

When I left my apartment this morning, I did not realize how cold the wind would feel. I can feel the wind biting at my face and can only guess how red my cheeks have grown from the cold. I have walked these trails before when I needed to get some inspiration. The wind has never been able to make its way through the thick crop of trees in this area of the Smoky Mountains when I have hiked them many times before. 

I knew better than to come out to the forest at this time of the year, but I needed to get away from home. I’ve been cramped inside my apartment for way too long working on projects that I never finish. There are too many RAW images on my computer that I have never finished editing. My apartment has begun to suffocate me in the last year. Everyday is the same and it is killing my creativity. I can’t go on like this much longer since the money from my last publication of photos is starting to run dangerously thin. I thought that some fresh air would help me clear my mind enough to start fresh and actually finish something. Now that I am out here though, I regret it. February is not a good time to go hiking. 

As I make my way up the trail, I come across a curiously laid out staircase of rocks. From first glance it looks like they are a natural occurrence. So many years of footsteps carving out chunks of the dirt to reveal stone underneath, guiding you up the steep hill. However, when you look closer, you can see that these are individual rocks placed by human hands to create makeshift stairs to make the climb easier.  

Nature has found a way to combat civilization’s disturbance in these woods. Wild flowers grow in between the cracks and water has weathered down a lot of the edges. I can even see where some trees have taken root, though they are still only saplings now. I doubt they will grow into anything much. It is only a matter of time before all of the hikers that pass through will stomp out their growth.

Did I say that these rocks make the hill any easier? That was definitely naivety. My legs burn as I make my way up the hill, but I know it will be worth it once I get to the top. There is supposed to be a beautiful waterfall at the top of this climb and I desperately want to get some photos of it. Frustrated, I hitch my backpack up higher on my shoulders. I know I need the water I packed, but does it need to be so heavy? My eyes lock on a large boulder sized rock up at the end of these rock stairs and I get a burst of determination. I just need to make it the rest of the way up and I can take a break. 

Once I reach the large rock I realize that the top is nice and smooth. I wonder how many people have had this exact experience and chose to use this rock as a resting point. Sitting down, I swing the backpack off of my shoulders and drop it to the ground. I pull out a water bottle and try to sip it instead of chugging. I have learned that lesson before and I do not want to get sick. 

I pull out my phone, and just as I suspected, there is no signal. I sigh and lean back on one hand, drinking some more of my water and looking around at the scene around me. The wind is still able to make its way into the leaves of the trees up here and the sound of them rustling against one another is calming. You don’t get to hear it so much in the city. All of this green is the perfect opportunity to get some photos done, but nothing has inspired me yet on this hike. 

Scanning around me I see some color off in the distance. Is it a crop of flowers? I have been on trails near here before and have never seen any yellow flower fields, especially not this high up. It can’t be though, because it was something that caught the light of the sun. It was something shiny. This is the inspiration I needed. I finish off my water and put the empty bottle back in the backpack. My camera is in a front pocket and so I go ahead and take it out and attach the lens to the camera body and put the strap around my neck.

As I make my way closer, I realize it is a staircase in the middle of the woods. I stop walking closer once it comes into full view and take it all in. It is breathtaking. The steps look like rudimentary stone blocks, but they have been plated in the shiniest gold I have ever seen.

I turn my camera on and pull the viewfinder up to my eye, adjusting the setting to accommodate for the light. I can zoom in and even from far away I can tell that there are some sort of carvings on the sides of the steps. I take a few photos from my vantage point and, once satisfied with the images, cap my lens and decide to get closer for my photos. 

As I take another step closer, I can feel a change in the air. It feels like the air around me is electrified and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. Something seems wrong with these being here, but I can’t tell what it is. 

I am only a few feet away when I realize what it is. The stairs do not seem to be affected by the nature surrounding it. There is no dirt on the steps or any kind of debris. They are not weathered at all either. It looks as if they were just built this morning and dropped here. 

I come around to the side of them to get a better look at the carvings. They are unlike anything I have ever seen. Interwoven geometric patterns and interlocked patterns decorate the entire side of the staircase. I run my fingers along the thick lines of the patterns and am surprised at how smooth all of the edges are. It must have taken a lot of skill and time to create something like this. 

I ready my camera again, determined to get some photos of this, despite the sudden thickness of the air around me. I move all around the staircase in order to get images from every angle I can think of. My mind races with ideas of how best to edit the images and it is like I have come alive again. I can see my agent’s face now, gleaming with thoughts of all the money these photos could bring in. I might even be able to get them into a gallery or a museum feature. I have never seen anyone produce images like the ones I have been able to capture.

In all my excitement, I don’t realize that I can no longer hear the sounds of the forest around me. The sounds of random bird calls and animals skittering in the brush have all died away. An eeriness falls over me as I realize the only thing I can hear is the shutter of my camera. I try to shake the uneasiness out of my head, but the more time I spend here the more the feeling creeps in. 

What is it with these stairs that is starting to freak me out so much? Running my eyes over the stairs, I realize that the wind has not blown any sort of dust or dirt onto them. That can’t be possible. Even I have to keep wiping my lens because of the thin layer of dust that keeps forming on it. 

I give in to the unease and decide it is time to make my way up the rest of the trail. Putting away my camera, I start to wonder about the strangeness of these events and decide that I should climb them. I am already here and what harm could it do to get a few photos from the top. It is the only angle I haven’t shot from. 

As I put my foot on the first step, goosebumps raise along my arms and I get the feeling that I shouldn’t be here. I pause and consider how many photos I have already gotten and I know that it would be enough to publish a collection. I need to make sure it is something no one has done before though, and so desperation gets the better of me as I begin the climb up. 

I take my time and measure each step. There are no railings of any kind and these stairs would not be very forgiving if I were to lose my balance. The more steps I climb, the more I can hear a voice in my mind tell me to turn around and walk back down the steps and go back to my small apartment. I almost give in and turn back as I make my way further to the top of the stairs. The closer to the top I get, the thicker the air feels and the electric feeling I got used to increases. I think I can even hear something buzzing before the world goes black. 

My mind feels fuzzy as I begin to wake up. I blink my eyes open and realize I must have been out for at least half of a day because the sky is starting to darken as the end of the day draws near. It is much colder now and my nose feels like ice when I touch it. 

I slowly sit up and look around me. The staircase I thought I must have fallen off of is no longer there. Hurriedly I turn my camera on and find that the battery has drained from it being left on and I groan. I needed to know if I imagined the entire ordeal. It feels too strange for me to have imagined, but the staircase is definitely gone and there is no sign that it was ever there. 

Somewhere in the distance I hear an owl hoot, reminding me how late it is. I get back up to my feet and brush all of the dirt off of me. I assume that I must have fallen off  because of the blackout, but I’m not sore anywhere. I scan the area around me and it looks the same as it did before. Trees all around and areas of thick underbrush, which is not unusual off of the well-worn trails. In the distance I see the boulder sized rock I sat on before so I use it as a way-point to make my way back to the trail.

As I make my way back, I tell myself how lucky I am that I woke up before night truly fell and that I still have time to make it back down to my car. I wish I could have made it up the rest of the trail, but with the photos I got, it doesn’t really matter that I didn’t finish what I started this time.

I can tell something is wrong before I reach the rock. The makeshift stairs I climbed up are no longer there and it is only the steep hill left. In fact, I realize there is no trail at all. It is just more of the same thick trees surrounding me. I can feel my heart begin to race. I need to calm down so I go to sit on the rock, but it is no longer smooth. I turn around to look at it and it is no longer the seat-like surface it was just this morning. Instead it has bumps and sharp points dotting the surface. The thought comes to me as I look around me. 

I am not in the same place I was before I blacked out.

Of course, it is the same mountain and the same trees and the same rock, but it hasn’t been touched by human hands. There doesn’t seem to be any interference from mankind at all. I can feel myself shaking as the panic sets in and adrenaline starts coursing through me. I crouch down as I start hyperventilating and bury my face in my hands. This cannot be happening right now. 

I give myself a few minutes to get myself calmed down and try to come up with a plan. Every survival show I have watched says to go downhill and try to find water to follow. I know it goes against everything I know to go up the rest of the mountain side, but I need to get a good viewpoint to see if there is anything I recognize and determine where to go. It is obvious to me now that what I know of the world and who inhabits it is not the same anymore. 

The light from the sun fades more and more as I head up the mountain. It is a difficult hike without a trail to follow but eventually I make it before darkness completely covers the forest. I consider myself lucky that I still have my backpack as I take out some water and drink an entire bottle while I try to catch my breath. 

The sounds of the forest are starting to quiet down as the night begins to creep in and I can just make out the sounds of a city? It is not the normal sounds you would expect with the sounds of cars and machinery, but it is the unmistakable noise of a dense population of people. 

I make my way to the edge of the trees and peer out over the valley below me. I expected to see the river that winds through the valley, but what I did not expect was the city that had been built along it. There is still enough light that I can see the buildings, so many of them, along the river's edge and some up into the mountain sides. They look like the ancient ruins from central America but these are new and more modern than what I remember seeing from pictures.

The largest building I can see is made with the same type of blocks from the staircase I climbed and is plated in the same shiny gold. I can still see the sun gleaming off of it, but not quite as brightly. It looks like a pyramid you would expect to see from one of the old Aztec cities, but I am far from where they would have been. It is much taller than any of the other structures around it. Many other pyramid-like structures surround it and even more encircle a courtyard that extends behind the tallest one. Not all of the buildings seem as ornate, some I can tell are only made of stone without the gold coverings. It is impossible for me to be back in that time though, since I can see lights shining from inside some of the smaller structures around it. Somehow, there is electricity or some other way of lighting the buildings. The lights bounce off of the streets and it almost seems like the streets are made of gold as well. 

It is utterly breathtaking. The mixture of civilization and nature is something I never thought I would witness. I wish I would have turned my camera off before climbing those stairs so I could have some proof of what I am seeing when I get back. If I get back. I had not thought of that yet. How am I going to get back? The staircase was gone and I have no idea how to bring it back. 

I cannot stay out here in the forest forever. I don’t have any knowledge of how to survive and the grumbling of my stomach reminds me that I have not eaten since the morning. I have enough water to last me maybe one more day, but after that I don’t know what I will do. I have to make my way to this city and hope that the people there will help me. I doubt we will speak the same language. 

I cannot doubt that I am scared and confused on how I came to be here in this world so similar to my own, but I try to cling to the excitement I feel as I head back down the mountain towards the strange city. This is not the change I expected when I left my apartment this morning, but I am determined to make the best out of this strange series of events.

May 04, 2023 23:31

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21:40 May 10, 2023

Hi Genevieve. This is a cool story that leaves the reader asking for more. I’m wondering if it is the Aztec empire allowed in this timeline to flourish without contact from Europeans. If so do they have a modern society that held on the principles of greater respect for nature—that would be fascinating!


22:36 May 10, 2023

That is what I envisioned! Maybe I could expand on this and continue the story line to reveal this.


23:09 May 10, 2023

https://grist.org/climate-fiction/imagine-2200-contest-submissions/ Maybe look into this—it’s interested in environmental futurism and specifically with indigenous takes on that so if you’re either indigenous yourself or ready to research what native practices are relevant, it might be the impetus you need


13:33 May 11, 2023

I just read through this and really loved the premise they set up! Thank you for sharing this.


16:04 May 11, 2023

Good luck. I’m thinking of entering too, but my idea has much more to do with feminism so I don’t know how much chance I’ll have— yours is a good fit


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Kristin Neubauer
13:07 May 08, 2023

I loved this, Genevieve. Your description of hiking through the mountains got me right away. It made me remember my days of hiking through the Blue Ridge. I really like how you changed the feeling of the story. It went from peaceful and serene to scary and ominous....and then it went to awe, joy, fulfillment. Really, so well done!


19:27 May 08, 2023

Thank you so much! I've done my fair share of hiking in Blue Ridge, so beautiful there.


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Estee Kitelinger
14:37 May 18, 2023

Hello Genevieve, I was matched up with you in the critique circle. I love your premise and your descriptions of hiking in a hilly forest. I could really picture the hillside and the formations. They felt real to me. One thing I thought was that this sentence "February is not a good time to go hiking." was very strong and felt like the first sentence to me. It was what pulled me in. Maybe because it was a definite opinion, or because it promises conflict. I'm not sure. But I think it's your hook. I also noticed that you slipped into adding...


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