Thanks to those of you who have read, liked, plussed, and/or commented on my posts so far. I’m enjoying this exercise much more than I thought I might. It is forcing me to improve my writing and to come up with more stories than I thought I had. It’s also providing some sort of therapy as I flush out all of my own nightmares.

Every year, I take a weekend trip to Lake Quinault and the Hoh Rain Forest with my aunt. It’s one of my favorite places on earth, a place both ancient and newborn and fully alive. The trees there are hundreds of years old, and it always puts me in a state of awe when I’m there. And once in a while, it puts me in a state of fear. This is a story inspired by one of my fears.

“Keep at least one hundred feet away from elk at all times,” Alyssa read aloud. She snapped a picture of the sign. “Are they that dangerous?” she asked.

“You know how these places are,” Matt said. “The animals eat junk and get sick. So they tell people to stay away instead. Come on, the trail head is this way.” Matt’s familiarity with the area was part of the reason Alyssa had asked him to bring her here. She had heard Matt rave about how beautiful it was in the rain forest  She had planned her photography project as a nature study specifically so she could hire him as a guide.

She put her camera up to her eye and watched him walk away through the viewfinder, admiring the view. His bright red jacket disappeared behind a giant tree. Alyssa’s heart quickened, and she had to jog a little to catch up with him. She didn’t want to be left behind in this place.

She hoped that concentrating on the photos would help her relax, but the forest made her nervous. She had never been this far from civilization before. It was eerily quiet. The moss hung down from the tree branches like ancient beards or ghastly slime and the roots appeared to be slithering under the bare earth. Everything about the place seemed heavy and full of foreboding.

“Isn’t this great?” Matt said, looking back at Alyssa with a grin. He took a deep breath. “You can actually breathe out here.”

Alyssa managed a smile. It was the first time she had set foot in a forest in her life. All those old fairy tales about children lost in the woods haunted her mind. She remembered the rumors about bear attacks and lost people dying of hypothermia. Alyssa swallowed the thick feeling in her throat.

“Yeah, it’s pretty awesome,” she said with as much enthusiasm as she could muster. She took a picture of Matt’s photogenic grin. At least her photography project gave her an excuse to spend the day with that piece of eye candy.

The forest was hypnotic in a way. Soon, Alyssa felt herself in a kind of trance as she walked the path looking for more photo material. She found an orange fungus shaped like a brain growing from the side of a tree. There was another type of fungus that looked like blood droplets. Everything seemed alien, like she had been dropped into an alternate universe where ugly things were supposed to be beautiful.

She saw another elk warning sign through the camera’s viewfinder and tried to read it. There was a line in smaller print at the bottom that she couldn’t make out. She let the camera hang from the strap around her neck and walked up to the sign.

If you are chased, run away and keep running.

“Matt,” Alyssa called. He was at least twenty feet ahead of her, kneeling to examine something on the ground. He didn’t hear her call. She put the camera up to her eye again to take a picture of the strange sign. When she looked back to where Matt was crouching, he was gone.

The hair on Alyssa’s neck stood on end. She didn’t want to be alone in this strange forest. She didn’t even know the way back to the car from here. She told herself to relax. He couldn’t have gone far. She walked quickly up the path, looking for a sight of his red jacket through the thick trees.

She turned a curve in the path and then froze. Matt stood near one side of the path, not too far away, his hand outstretched toward the largest animal she had ever seen. It looked more like a horse than a deer. This one had no antlers, just large fur-lined ears that moved like satellites, listening for danger all around.

One hundred feet, Alyssa thought. They were supposed to stay one hundred feet away from the animals.

“Matt, I don’t think you should be so close,” she said.

“Take a picture, Alyssa! This is amazing. Look at her.” Matt reached further, almost touching the creature’s nose.

Alyssa hesitated. “I think we should go, Matt. Remember the signs?” The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, and she felt angry at Matt for disobeying the warnings.

“She’s just hungry,” he said. “Aren’t you hungry, you big sweetheart?” Matt crouched down and picked up a small chunk of green lichen from the ground. He held it out to the elk. The beast took a step forward into the path.

Alyssa raised her camera to her eye. She had to admit it was a perfect opportunity. The photo might even become the centerpiece of her project. She was imagining it as she lined up the shot, how she would emphasize the relationships between men and beasts. She pressed the shutter. Instead of a soft click, she heard a wet thunk, followed by a terrible groan.

Lowering the camera again, Alyssa saw a new creature standing boldly in the path. He had antlers like trees growing from the top of his head. Wrapped in its terrible branches was Matt, or a distorted and broken version of what Matt should have looked like. The great bull tossed his head, and Matt’s body was thrown into the air like a leaf in the wind. He fell in a broken heap, but made no sound.

Alyssa screamed. The huge beast turned to look at her. She froze. She tried to remember what the signs had said. One hundred feet, she remembered that. How close was the elk? Judging distance was hard, but she thought he might be thirty feet away. Too close. She took a step backward. The elk lowered his head and pawed the ground.

If you are chased, run away and keep running. The words screamed into Alyssa’s brain. She turned and ran for her life. Fortunately for her, the bull gave no chase.

Alyssa’s perfect picture never made it into her project, for instead of recording the hallmark moment of man feeding a gentle creature, the camera captured the moment when Matt’s chest was pierced by the horn of a wild beast. She never stepped foot in a forest again.

The following year, the forest ranger increased the size of the font on the warning signs and hoped that this year someone might actually read them.