Lena stood outside the edge of the thicket, her feet heavy like lead as she thought about whether or not she should even leave. The start of what was supposed to be the dirt path (though it barely resembled one) reminded her of an intersection, despite the linear line. Like the break in-between the train track junction back home. A crossroads where she couldn’t leave unless she made the decision of whether or not to enter the forest. At midnight. All alone with only a tiny key and a flashlight to guide her there and back.
Luckily, she made a point to walk just far away from the cabin so her “friends” couldn’t see her. So they wouldn’t have the satisfaction of lining up at the small, cloudy window in front to see if the new girl would take the challenge. Amber called it an initiation, but Lena knew better. This was hazing, a test.
For all the time she spent standing there, she would have been a quarter of the way through by now if it wasn’t so late. That was the only problem. Paranoia slipped through the cracks and into her mind as it replayed the words that led her to that point of its own accord. Lena could still hear Amber’s nasally voice in her head, spewing sing-song instructions laced with venom. “Go to the other side of the forest, get the totem and get back to the cabin. Doesn’t matter how long it takes. You get your bags back when you come back with one,” she said. And it was with that command that she was gestured out by almost every member of Cabin 667 over the age of 11. Alana, the only person in the cabin with any level of seniority or control, went to bed a little early, so Amber took it upon herself to be the one in charge and as soon as the suggestion left her lips, potential quiet was dead on arrival. Lena thought of an old saying about power and how it corrupts, but didn’t feel it applied in this case. There was nothing to corrupt if the base was already rotten to begin with. If this week was any and all indication, she was doomed from the very start.
One argument lead to another, that argument lead to a challenge she boldly accepted to everyone who could hear and Lena was told not to come back without a totem stolen from the storage shed on the other side of the campgrounds. She felt so brave then, but that feeling faded as soon as she stepped out that door.
You can always just tell a counsellor, Lena thought, but she dismissed it outright. With near-supernatural clarity, she knew how the next few weeks would unfold if that happened; she could see it now.
Amber would spend the next six weeks dedicated to making her life a living hell. Lena knew her type: unofficially categorized in the back of her mind as ‘relentless asshole’. She could not have that, not if she wanted basic respect for the rest of the summer, not if she wanted peace. So there she stood, still at the crossroads. Common sense sent her thoughts in one direction, and stubbornness pulled her heart in another. She tugged at her jacket sleeve and stared at the ground, her thoughts pouring in steady and slow. However, after sifting through them, all she was left in was a heavy beating in her chest that seemed to usher her focus towards the forest. So with that she began to speak aloud, cajoling herself into taking the first steps.
“Ok Lena, you can do this. Calm down,” she said to herself aloud as she switched the flashlight on. It’ll be fine if I just stay on the path, she told herself. She drew a deep breath and with the forced confidence of a girl who felt in over her head, she took her first steps into the woods.
Then she immediately regretted taking her first steps into the woods. She felt her feet sink at least four inches deep into the ground, mixing her russet leather boots with a greyer shade of brown. There was a heavy rain the night before. It mostly cleared over the course of that day but yesterday’s hike was still cancelled for a reason. That day’s overcast skies did nothing to dry the ground below because of tree cover, leaving the sludge of wet dirt as a messy reminder. She trudged along the path regardless, following alongside animal tracks trailing along in different directions, the mud sticking to the bottom of her boots and trying her best not to pay too much attention as she felt it begin to crust over the edge of her black and red striped pajama pants.
Lena tried to keep a steady pace. Too fast and she might end up running; partially out of anxiety, partially just to get it over with. Too slow, and she might get it in her mind to turn back. She barely passed the edge of the forest, but she needed to go further. She felt a slight gust of wind and paused in place to stick out the cold. Pulling her jacket closer with her free hand for comfort, she was glad she made enough of a fuss at the cabin to get to grab that at least. It was a still little cold for June and the weather was sure not to let her forget it. Yet, Lena kept walking, careful not to walk on any tree roots and shining the flashlight in every angle just in case.
Allowing her mind to wander, she remembered the stories told around the campfire just the other night, the memories would help the time pass more quickly. They were old campfire stories, designed to scare and entertain. Not the most ideal thing to think about on a walk in the woods, but it was a more welcome distraction to her less-than-welcome reality. Alana told them they’d been passed down year after year for over a decade, from person to person, the camp’s very own legend. It had something to do with its origins, about what happened the forest a couple of years back. About how the forest used to be full and lush, untouched by human hands. The land was left as an offering to gods of any and every kind for mercy as the people began to settle towards the west, meant to rejuvenate all those who chose to stay. Stretched out to an expanse, further than the naked eye could see and just a little past that too. This forest was to remain as the lone place allowed to simply be and breathe. Then, the people began to forget, promises of old now lost in their progress. Trees were cut down, wildlife was hunted, cities were built. Leaving only the 5 acres of ground and turning even that into a commercial venture. But there was a creature who answered the original call, a creature who didn’t quite fit the description that laid right in the middle, just above animal but just below god. A living silhouette, angered by the people’s change of heart. A creature who walks the forest every night, consuming the property that belongs to them. Everything of the night was theirs to take forever and always. But instead the people lied and as the forest shrank, so did their power as the forest diminished piece by piece. Forever in pain from the power so horrifically ripped from it. Offered, then taken away in but an instant of their lifetime, they stalk the night to prey on anyone who chooses to walk their domain. Or so the story goes.
She couldn’t help but feel a slight shiver down her spine as Alana described the beast in excruciating detail, reveling in the girls’ faces twisted in fear, worry and in some cases a strange mix of both. It wasn’t even the worst one, stories of ghost children with carved faces and bloody knives littered themselves throughout the night. This was just the one that was the most distinct, less ‘murderer with a chainsaw’ and more...real. The story was interesting, if not absurd, buried under too much myth to be true. Though, it was based in some kind of truth. Lena recognized the irony of building a camp meant to respect nature on formerly government protected land. She wouldn’t be too surprised if it was real, an ancient shadow still seething from slights of old.
In that moment, the light decided to flicker out, and all at once Lena was left in the forest with only the light of the moon to guide her. She directed her attention to the batteries of the flashlight, letting out a harsh, shaky sigh as she shook them out of her hand and placed them back in one after the other, darting her head back and forth just in case. Annoying process, sure but faulty flashlights were faulty. Old, cheap and faulty. After a few hard shakes, it lit back up as barely a crack through the darkness, but it would do. Sometimes it shone bright, sometimes it just refused to function. The flashlight couldn’t last much longer; it would work or it wouldn’t, no in between. Either way, it needed batteries and she needed to not be there right then, but no one could get what she wanted so she started moving faster. At this point, she was about 3/4ths of the way there. Just a little further up and she would have made it there. Hell, she could gun it there and back if she really needed to. The dimmer flashlight made her feel off-kilter, like something off was about to happen.
Nothing happened per se, but almost landing face-first into the mud over a stray tree root should count for something, tripping without the brightness of the flashlight to keep her from doing so. She didn’t fall but the almost event kept her on edge, tapping her fingers against her thigh as she crossed over into more familiar territory on the other side of the camp. Lena was getting close.
“Get the totem, get back, get the totem, get back,” she repeated the mantra as she proceeded along.
She watched a raccoon scurry across her path and along her side of the trees. Looking like a bandit, darted back and forth between the grass, almost walking beside her. She took a breath and smiled. She always liked raccoons, they were like little thieves, stealing things and looking like trash doing it. A bit like herself in both respects, about to take something so they can see another comfortable day. Lena could respect that. It was a distraction but distractions were good, calming her nerves as she began to see picnic tables and a clearing of the trees. She was finally there.
And there it stood, just before the archery range and the astronomy building, a glorified locker. It was built like a giant metal cabinet, installed into the ground with the edges buried beneath weeds. The silver metal shone in the moonlight as Lena swung the doors open. She shone what she could of the flashlight into the storage shed, but the light was still too dim to make anything out. She ruffled through what she could find, knocking things around, feeling through cloth, metal and plastic before hitting carved wood. Jackpot.
She held the totem in her hands like it was sacred, tracing over the intricate patterns and the little deer etched into it with her thumb. The ticket to getting her stuff back, right there. She slammed the door shut unceremoniously and locked it in another swift motion.
Just as she started to walk away, the flashlight sputtered out in that instant. It was just Lena, the totem and the light of the moon to guide her way back. “I’ll just run,” she thought as she resolved to speed walk her way back to the cabin as fast as she could. She had the totem, all she needed to do now was get back. She darted her head back and forth before heading back down to the cabin, the raccoon now nowhere to be seen.
Her boots pounded against the mud and the off things she was waiting for began to surface. Small patches of mud were replaced by holes of dead, graying grass and everything about the forest seemed to still as the wind blew in harsher gusts. The trees swayed in response, almost dancing in time to the wind. Lena could swear she heard sighs like gravel amidst the screams of the wind and that only heightened her paranoia. She felt her feet pick up the pace as if speeding up would stop the absolute crawl that the walk back turned into. The initial speed walk turned into a jog, which turned a run. Something was definitely wrong.
She began to identify the noises as more than sighs. They were almost animal in nature, hiss-like sounds that stopped in intervals. She clutched the totem to her chest and ran as fast as her legs could carry her. Lena was halfway through the forest, almost there, she had to be there. But that all changed when she when she ran into them sitting there, blocking the way back. Her only thought was:
Oh. That’s where the raccoon went.
Half of the raccoon she saw earlier was long gone, the creature leaving only the torso and an arm behind. Taking slower bites as they watched her, still eating. Still staring.
Lena noticed the white parts first. They were the easiest to spot. The rest of them was shade personified into a cervine shape, dripping with a black ooze. Coating the ground they stood and draining the color out of the muddy grass around it. The bone white antlers shimmered under the moonlight, worn like contorted twigs on its head, twisting under and unto itself into two massive branches on their head.
There were eyes too. So, so many eyes. At least seven, blinking in different intervals, staring except a single white eye in the center of the cluster that rotated in its socket up, down and everywhere, on constant alert. The other ones were directed straight at her. Blankly. But the mouth had the things to pay attention to. It was a jumbled mess of different types of teeth; big, small, sharp, flat, curved, jagged and varying colors. Canines and molars laid side by side in their mouth and stained with blood as she watched them tear apart the raccoon. Making those same gravelly sighs as they continued to tear apart the animal bite by bite.
She heard that if you stare a deer in the eyes, it’ll run away. She’d seen it first hand on those nature walks her dad used to take her on. The deer would make eye contact for a fraction of a second before running off, simple. Easy. But this situation wasn’t simple or easy, the creature just held her gaze.
They stared like she was the trespasser, like she was the unknown oddity, intruding on something she didn’t understand. She didn’t, but she wanted to. She had the totem, she could go but fear welded her in place. Anchoring her to the ground, holding her down as the creature began to sniff at her.
Eventually she finally got it in her thick skull to fucking move. She lifted her feet from the mud and took a step forward and they jerked their head back in her direction. They didn’t seem to like that very much. They finished off the last of the raccoon and stood up to approach her. Lena noticed two small, beady eyes appear on either side and she needed to do something.
She took a step back and they took a firm step forward while growling. Gotta get away, gotta get away. She attempted to loop around the creature and they moved from their spot to follow her. Eyes turned from caution to anger. They snarled and bared their teeth. She turned to leave but they persisted. Legs went from walking to sprinting as they started to chase her back deeper into the forest. As they pursued her, Lena saw the area get the life sucked out of it from the corner of her eyes. But all she could do is keep running.
As she ran, she could hear it, the breathing. A cross between a deflating balloon and a chorus of grown men wheezing for air. Half pained, half livid. This couldn’t continue for much longer, she felt the burn in her legs and her breathing grow more haggard. She had to reevaluate the plan. Hell, come up with a plan in the first place. Lena couldn’t keep running like this, because eventually they would catch up to her. Eventually they would get her their grasp and she would end up as dead as the raccoon that left her behind just a few minutes ago. She slowed the run slightly to scoop up some rocks and throw them in her escape.
It worked to slow their chase down by shreds as she kept up a steady assault. The rocks landed and sunk into the monster’s flesh and there they stayed. Suddenly the rocks flew out at once in different directions, some ricocheting into trees and one barely missing her. She spared herself a glance and watched thick, red puss flow from the wounds to harden and turn black before whipping her head back around.
If only she saw the fucking tree root again. If only she didn’t fall this time.
She crashed into the tree head first, holding her head in her hands and catching her breath at the base of the tree. Lena struggled to stand but slumped back down under her own weight. She was too exhausted to run. She weighed her options. All she had was a flashlight and a totem. That wasn’t much of anything. They caught up to her, hissing and sprinting and in her desperation, she threw the totem at them. They didn’t like that very much either. The monster worked themselves into a frenzy, transforming before her eyes. The slender body enveloped itself in its own secretions to form a more gelatinous mass, twitching with every motion as it piled on layers. They sprouted 4 more legs at their sides, erupting from flesh, each with different sized paws on each limb and crouching down lower like a spider. They crept over to her, a single foot placed over hers and drooling the same red puss onto her face as they prepared to eat her. Their jaw unhinged to expose their teeth. She turned her head to avoid getting spit on. had one last idea, one last ditch effort. If it’s a shadow, then...the flashlight!
She flicked it on and the creature immediately recoiled and crawled back. Lena slowly and cautiously followed them back, prodding them as they flinched against the brightness. She led them back a few more steps before propping the flashlight enough on the path to cover all of it. This doesn’t make much sense, she thought as she backed away from the cowering beast. But as soon as it was out of immediate sight, she ran.
It didn’t matter. Lena took what she could get. She didn’t need answers, she needed to get out of the fucking forest as fast as humanly possible. So she scooped the totem off the ground and ran. Ran past the flashlight left on the ground. Ran through the tears pricking her eyes. Ran to the cabin. She just...kept running.
She crossed out of the forest and staggered into the cabin with expectant eyes all gathered on her. She lifted up the totem with a shaking hand to the sound of impressed claps as congratulations rang through the air. She heard Amber mumble something to herself and move in the opposite direction. Typical. She tossed to the nearest girl and pushed past the pats on the back and nudging elbows into the next room, climbing into her top bunk bed and pulling the covers over her head.
The other girls celebrated her success with the totem but it didn’t feel like much a victory. She saw them, against all odds she saw them and she didn’t die but that didn’t feel like much of a victory either. All she could think about was that monster; their teeth and the blood that stained them, their breathing, their eyes. Real. Completely, utterly, insurmountably real. She got away just barely. There were so many things wrong with this, so many things she needed to do, so many things that should be figured out; but that could wait until the morning.
She just closed her eyes and tried not to remember theirs.