Six people were camped in the center of the forest in upstate New York in the dead of night. Five sat around the campfire while one was off to the side sitting against a tree and drinking a bottle of Bud Light. They were camped at Hunts Pond Road near the water. The stars were at their brightest and the constellations were strikingly apparent. They danced in the sky like confident ballerinas on the world’s biggest stage, gleaming in all their hot, white glory.
The trees were vibrant, even in the dark, giving the forest calm and radiant energy. The leaves were in the prime of their lives as they hung tight when they breeze blew by causing them to rustle. The dirt on the ground was soft and damp because it’d just rained a couple days ago but the people didn’t mind, they were becoming one with nature.
They told stories they either heard or were told when they were children. The night was filled with laughter and merriment. All the stresses of the inner-city life faded away as everyone became one with the universe. The smell of fresh air giving the impression of the simple and peaceful life people could have but take for granted. The water was calm and black in the night, it looked like a silhouette when you looked over and saw trees on the other side that made the whole scene look like some famous artist’s painting of nature’s dark side.
“Hey, Neil!” Grace called. “Get your ass over here and tell a story. You always have the best ones
“You say that to everyone Grace,” Neil responded. “You just want me over there.”
“Yeah,” She smiled with a why-are-you-still-over-there-when-I-gave-you-an-order look, “So, get over here!”
Neil sighed and went over to the rest of the group.
“Yeah, Neil!” Jason said as he rose his Bud Light in the air. “Tell us that one with the paths and shit, that was a good one.”
“You mean The Story of the Switching Paths.” Neil smiled, sighed and shook his head. “Again? You guys always want me to tell that one.”
“Well, we’ve heard it,” Grace said taking a bottle of Bud Light herself. “But Cory, Mark, and Jenny haven’t.”
Neil looked at the three Grace mentioned, “You guys wanna hear the story?”
“We’ve heard it’s pretty good,” Jenny said as she looked to the other two for confirmation and they nodded in agreement. “We wanna hear it.”
“Alright,” Neil said as everyone gathered around, “The Story of the Switching Paths. One thing though, the real names of the people in this story got lost so I’m gonna make some up if that’s alright.”
Cory, Mark, and Jenny gave him the okay.
“A small family once lived on a hill at the edge of the forest facing the mountains.” Neil started. “A mother, father, and son whose names were Nadia, Tetsu, and Nisha. They lived in a small house made to fit the three of them comfortably and they had a small stable on the side of it. The seasons came and went, and the family survived the way people did in simpler times, but the forest they lived near never changed. The leaves never fell. They never died. Tetsu would go into town when the family needed food through the forest. Sometimes the journey was short, other times it was longer. Much longer.
“Sometimes, it’d take Tetsu a whole season to return with nonperishable goods that would last the family for the next month if they could stretch it out. The forest was called Forest of the Switching Paths. Every time Tetsu would go into the forest, he’d encounter ghosts and spirits of the people who died before while crossing through, those who fell for the illusions and traps of the forest.
“Tetsu, however, always had a keen eye and was privy to illusions. He saw right through them. Every single time. His only problem was when he got to the Switching Paths within the forest. They’d start like any other path, straight through. The issue was when he took one. The paths were always switching and intersecting and crossing each other without a moment’s rest. Thus, the name, Switching Paths.
“Tetsu’s instincts never failed him. His intuition was never wrong. He would only get lost because the path would switch before he could cross the one that led into town. See, the thing was, one path led to town, where he could trade and barter for food and the other led to an endless desert. Many had died there, and their spirits return to the forest and haunt all others who try to cross it.
“There were stories about the spirits being evil and that they wanted to kill people which made the townspeople stay away from it, but they weren’t true. Tetsu was aware the spirits weren’t evil. They were only warning others to turn back before they suffered the same fate. Every time Tetsu rode through the forest he paced his horse and take it easy so when they got to the Switching Paths, it could haul ass effectively and make it across before the switch. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
“This time, however, it worked. Tetsu made it to town, traded and bartered for nonperishable goods, and made it back home to his wife and son. The next day, on Nisha’s twelfth birthday, he told Nadia the boy needed to learn how to ride into town and trade and barter for food in case anything happened to him. Nadia agreed, but she said after their son had a proper birthday should they take the journey. Tetsu nodded his head and kissed her. After the celebration, he and Nisha packed up and prepared for the journey.
“Nadia made Nisha a lunch and wished him and Tetsu safe travels. Nisha was confused–they were only going into town to get food–but didn’t question his parents and went along with it. He looked at the forest and thought of how big it was and maybe that was why his father needed a lunch when he went out. They rode off into the forest leaving Nadia standing there and waving goodbye. A tear dropped from her left cheek, but they didn’t notice it. They were too far away.”
“Wait a minute,” Jenny interrupted, “why was she crying?”
“Let him tell the story, Jen,” Grace said. “You’ll understand soon enough.” She added, “Go ahead, Neil.”
“Alright,” Neil sighed and took a sip of his Bud Light, “When they first got into the forest Nisha was terrified. The spirits targeted him and flew within an inch of him every time. Tetsu remained stoical and fearless. Nisha–wanting to be like his dad–straightened up, puffed out his chest, and tried to brave the forest. It didn’t last long, he cowered when another spirit flew by. Tetsu didn’t reprimand him in any way. He simply let Nisha cling to him for dear life.
“When they got to the Switching Paths, Nisha rose his head and Tetsu straightened his back and took a deep breath. Nisha watched his father as he closed his eyes and appeared to be meditating. Nisha looked at the paths and saw they were moving. He was very perplexed by this until Tetsu told him not to look at the paths. That their movements and illusions would give him nightmares and drive him insane.
“Tetsu told Nisha to hold on as he kicked his horse into high gear, and they shot down the left path. Tetsu kept his eyes closed and told Nisha to do the same and hold on tight. Nisha didn’t need to be told; he was scared stiff. The path remained straight for about a minute then started to shift. Tetsu felt the initial movement and kicked his horse into high gear. The faster the horse carried them, the faster the path seemed to shift. The light at the end leading to town seemed just a couple feet away until it suddenly went dark. Tetsu was unfazed by this development as he’s experienced this before. Nisha had no idea what was happening but would soon learn.
“The path let them out into the desert. Tetsu tapped his son and told him to open his eyes and to start unpacking the horse. Nisha looked around and saw nothing but blue skies and an endless sea of sand. Tetsu was unfazed while Nisha was in total shock and awe. They took everything but the saddle off the horse and turned it around. Tetsu slapped the horses rear and it raced off to home as both paths lead back to the forest. Tetsu carried the heavy load and told Nisha to pace himself and to try and eat his lunch sparingly. They didn’t know how long they were going to be in the desert.
“Days, weeks, maybe a month went by. All sense of time was gone and so were all their supplies. Tetsu had carried Nisha for most of the way by that point as he was used to the brutal heat. The sun was pummeling their heads as they traversed the endless sands, climbing up and nearly tumbling down hills. Then, just when all hope seemed to be lost, when Tetsu thought he and his son were going to perish, they happened upon a cave. The cave was not a mirage. It was very real and appeared to funnel beneath the desert and led to who knew where.
“Tetsu carried Nisha to the cave and propped him against the wall, shielding him from the abusive heat. Finally, in the shade, Tetsu took a pouch from his pocket and went to his son. He opened it and put it to Nisha’s lips, and he drank the absolute last drops of water they had. Tetsu didn’t care if he died, but he’d be damned if Nisha died too. After the son awoken and took a couple deep breaths he was on his feet. Tetsu rested calmly and in a few minutes, he was on his feet as well. Tetsu walked into the cage and Nisha followed.
to be continued . . .
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