Months later I can remember all of them, down to the slightest idiosyncrasies and quirks. They were my friends and they’re gone now. There’s a hole in my life where they were. Sometimes I’ll remember something they said or did and it’ll hit me like a ton of bricks. They’re gone now, they never existed. I’m sorry for being maudlin and bringing everyone down, but I think this is the only way I can really introduce my story and explain why I feel like I have to type this out. I think that writing this is the only way I can learn to accept that. I’ll try to keep these downer tendencies to myself as I’m writing all of this down, but I can’t make promises.
I know that being the third wheel in a group can be a terrible thing, but I can think of something worse, being the fifth wheel. If you’re the third wheel, that makes your group a semi-functional tricycle. If you’re the fifth wheel, you’re left as some obscure car from the fifties that no one remembers or cares about. Imagine not being able to follow the in-jokes and shared history of one couple and multiply that by two. Getting stuck as the fifth wheel is twice as bad. That was the frame of mind I had as we all piled into Ian’s car to go to Gila National Forest for our hike.
I know that’s a weird opening to give to all of this after my depressing opening, but I want you all to have an idea of my mindset. I’m not quite sure I know how to describe all of this, but I do know that I need to tell someone. I need someone else to know what happened and help me come to terms with it all. I think the only way I’ll be able to explain this would be to help you see from my perspective as much as possible. So there we were, driving down to Gila for a hike, with me feeling like the fifth wheel wedged between two of Ian’s friends who I didn’t know. Three of us were cramped in the backseat while Ian and his girlfriend were up front. I look back at that unnecessary bit of moping back in August 2016 as one of the last few moments of normalcy I would have in my life.
I tried to make the best of the situation, I really did. Ian was always the more social of us. Our mom used to tell us that Ian could make anyone his friend, and that once I had a friend that I kept them. It was one of those parental platitudes that was given to re-assure a socially awkward child that there was nothing wrong. Unfortunately, it would take me almost nineteen years to learn that that wasn’t true. Instead of taking my therapist’s diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder following a breakdown after an office get-together as a means for seeking treatment, I used it as an excuse to cloister myself off from the world. I stayed in my apartment when I wasn’t working and told myself that I was just doing what was best for me.
Of course Ian decided that that wasn’t healthy and convinced me to go on a weekend-long hike with him. It wasn’t until I showed up at his house at six in the morning on Friday after taking the day off of work that I saw that he had invited others along. I think he saw it as a means of getting me help and breaking me out of my shell. Unfortunately though with Ian’s extroverted nature he didn’t realize that I liked being in my shell. It was comfortable. A turtle doesn’t like being broken out of its shell. After a brief introduction where I caught no one’s name except for those I already knew (my brother’s and his girlfriend Yessica) due to morning grogginess and the rushed introduction, we packed up the car and left for our hike.
It took three hours of mostly awkward silence for us to reach our destination. Ian tried to make conversation, but my short responses and the other’s sleepiness killed them off fairly quickly. We found the parking lot near the Gila Cliff Dwellings. As we unpacked our gear, we took a moment to bask in the beautiful sight that sat perched above us. It’s hard to believe that someone could carve an entire town into the face of a cliff, but seven hundred years ago people managed to do just that. Given that the parking lot was empty except for us (we would find out why later) and I was in need of some social lubrication, we split a six-pack of beer and took in the majesty. Here’s a picture in case you were wondering what the area looked like.
As we finished our beers, got everything prepared, and used the restrooms; Ian explained what path we would be taking in detail. What we didn’t know and what my brother had failed to tell us was that the West Fork Trail had been closed all that summer due to flooding. To be honest, the path wasn’t that dangerous, they had just opted not to clear it due to the recent flooding so it would be a bit more of a rugged hike. While it wasn’t perilous, it did keep us from encountering other hikers which would cause us a lot of problems when we actually needed help.
Ian figured that we could make about two to three miles per hour and we would be able to complete the Gila Loop which was about thirty miles long with enough time to get back on Sunday and be ready for our respective jobs on Monday with no one any the wiser that we had back-packed a closed section of the national park. As his explanation was a bit heavy on names and locations, some of which I can’t recall clearly, I’ll opt to include a picture rather than spend a page writing out everything. For the sake of simplicity, this is the path we were planning to take (I’ll include a more detailed map of the area below as well).
In addition I’ll include a more detailed map of the entire area so you can orient yourselves if you want to trace the trail we took. If you plan on following along with the path as I tell you about this experience, all I can say is good luck. Even as I stare at it now, I feel just as lost now as I was then. I was just going along with the group and trying to keep a positive mind about everything. I wanted to try and do a better job of getting to know Ian and Yessica’s friends. I think my circumstances had finally begun to set in. I had been living in a quiet apartment in New Mexico for over a year and I had no friends. I would go to work and then home without doing anything else. Sometimes I would spend the entire weekend without saying a single word to anyone or seeing another person. I knew that if I didn’t change something quick that solitude would become the norm and that frightened me.
Our first day was relatively quiet. We spent a majority of the time taking in the sights, soaking in the sun, and breathing the fresh air. The hike felt like we were constantly moving upward. As I was unaccustomed to hiking, I frequently fell behind but I never completely lost sight of my brother's friends. While we took a break under the shade of a tree whose bark looked like dried scales from some long dead alligator, I tried to make small talk with everyone. I fell into a quick conversation with Ian and Yessica about their work and what they had been up to lately. When it came time to talk to the other two, I only managed to get the conversation going for a few sentences before it shriveled up and died.
I remembered assuring myself that it would be easier when we stopped for the night. We rested for a while before continuing our assent up the mesa. This was where everyone realized how truly out-of-my-element I was here. The path up the mesa was agonizing for me; it seemed to never stop climbing up and there was almost no shade to keep the sun from beating down on us. I was sweating buckets, panting, and wheezing whenever they stopped to wait for me to catch up. I tried to pretend that I didn’t notice their exasperated whispers or side glances, but it was easier said than done. They seemed like the outdoorsy type that had been doing this sort of thing for years. By the time our path started to level out, I was ready to turn around and leave. It wasn’t until we reached the top and looked out over everything that I realized how foolish of an idea that was.
Even if I was able to convince Ian to give me the keys and let me walk back to the car and go home, I had no idea where I was going or what trail markers we had been using. I imagined splitting off from the group and tromping through Poison Ivy, bumbling into a rape-y gang of banjo-playing hill-folk, or getting lost in the dark and wandering in circles until exhaustion and exposure took me. Even if I did manage to hike back to the parking lot, where was I going to go? Would I go back home to my empty apartment, eat a Hot Pocket, and feel sorry for myself again? I decided to tough it out and continue hiking.
We made camp at a dry section of the Indian Creek after having hiked a decent amount. Ian was confident that we would make it back on Sunday and that the next few days were going to be less intensive. We ate some food and stowed the rest in a Bear Bag a ways away from camp. We were passing a bottle of whiskey around in front of a campfire we had built when the conversation shifted to the most awkward moments everyone had experienced. Ian re-told his story about the first time he met Yessica at a club where he was way too drunk for his own good and ended up puking into her purse. Yessica bristled at the memory and jokingly called Ian an asshole for that. Each person shared their stories about a bumbling first kiss where their braces got hooked together, locking themselves out of their dorm rooms in their underwear, their cringe-inducing high school edge-lord personality, and caring for their drunken boyfriend who puked into their favorite bag. Then the bottle came to me and it was my turn to tell them a story.
I instantly knew what my most embarrassing story was the moment we started the conversation. I didn’t tell them about the door though. Instead I made up a story ripping my pants in front of a group of people during a work interview that I had probably ripped straight from a 90’s sitcom. They laughed with me and I felt like a piece of shit. They had bothered to reveal their most embarrassing moments and were commiserating in their shared experience and here I was too afraid to tell them the truth, to tell them about the door. The conversation continued for a bit afterwards as we killed the bottle. When it was dead, we all went to bed still pretty drunk after dousing the campfire.
I woke up in the middle of the night desperately needing to use the bathroom. Still a bit fuzzy from the Bulleit Whiskey, I tromped out into the woods to do my business. It wasn’t until I was almost done that Nadia’s voice cut through the blackness. She asked me if I had a lighter. Since I hadn’t heard her approach, the sound of her voice made me jump. It would have scared the piss out of me had I not just gone to the bathroom. I mumbled something about having a lighter back around the camp. She told me that she had dropped hers and asked me to help her look for it, but I was too out of it to be any good to anyone so I told her that we’d look for it later. I vaguely remember her mumbling a protest as I stumbled back to my sleeping roll.
It wasn’t until I woke up the next morning that I realized how stupid I had been. Apparently they had heard yowling in the surrounding woods all last night. They thought that the sound could have possibly belonged to the Mexican Gray Wolf, but no one was sure. Ian knew that they inhabited the area but were very uncommon. I paled at the thought of being mauled by a wolf while out peeing in the middle of the woods. I decided next time I would wake up Ian before going out in the woods to answer the call of nature. We packed up a while later after a light breakfast and continued on our hike.
The second day was a little better. The overbearing sun I suffered under previously was hidden behind heavy clouds. We crossed a number of rivers as we followed the 157-729 Junction. We went along Little Bear Canyon as we headed towards the TJ Coral (which was towards the end of the hiking loop). As the path hadn’t been cleared yet, we frequently had to dodge patches of Poison Ivy and stinging nettles. I fared much better on this hike and despite nursing a slight hangover, I felt like I was doing a much better job of getting around with my pack and clunky boots my brother had loaned me. We made camp around midday and purified some water from a nearby river (boiling and adding Iodine tablets to them) as the last section of our hike didn’t really have many opportunities for drinkable water.
I think that maybe our encounter last night with the yipping and yowling wolves had added a bit of seriousness to the hike as there wasn’t as much joking around or conversations this night. We talked a little bit, but mainly just had something small to eat while we stared into the campfire. Ian and Yessica were the first to call it for the night. I stayed up with the others for a bit, but we were mainly silent. The other two slowly went off after a bit and I decided to enjoy the warmth a bit longer before getting ready to go to bed for the night. Just as I had finished dousing the fire, I remember Gerry coming up to me and asking for the map. He told me he wanted to plan out the rest of our trip, and that there was a spring nearby that we should really visit that wasn’t too far out of the way. I grabbed the map from Ian’s pack and gave it to him before turning in.
I woke up the next morning to the sound of Ian rustling around his bag. He sounded angrier the longer he searched. He knocked mess kits into each other as he peered deep into the pack for something he was missing. Frustrated that he wasn’t finding the item he was looking for, he turned the bag upside-down and dumped out everything. He was practically ready to tear out his own hair and it seemed like he had spent the entire morning looking for that one thing. Wanting to know what was up, I walked up to him and we started talking.
He asked me, “Hey man, you seen the map anywhere? I can’t seem to find it.”
“Where’s Gerry? I gave him the map last night so he could map out a little detour on the trip so we could visit a spring. Why don’t you ask him? He probably knows,” I answered.
It was then that Ian said something that changed everything, “Gerry? Who are you talking about? Do you mean Oliver? Don’t tell me you thought his name was-”
I explained, “No, I’m talking about Gerry. Tall guy, kinda lanky-”
“You’re joking right?” He looked confused for a few seconds and made a questioning sound like a really old computer trying to process something moments before it catches on fire. The pieces clicked and Ian shouted, “Who the fuck is Gerry?!” getting the attention of everyone in the area.
“Some fucking guy asked you for our map in the middle of the night and you just fucking gave it to him?! You handed our stuff to some random stranger you met in the woods?”
I tried to explain myself and tell him that I knew Gerry and that he did too since I remember hiking with him the day before, but I couldn’t find the words to convey that point. It was here that Yessica stepped in and asked what was going on. Ian vented vitriol, “How fucking stupid are you Evan? Some random guy named Gerry comes up to you in the middle of the night asking for our shit and you just give it to him!? Jesus Christ! We needed that map to get around smoothly since the trails out here haven’t been cleared.”
Ian shouted for about fifteen minutes while everyone became aware of our situation. Yessica managed to calm him down enough so we could figure out our next move. While we weren’t completely screwed as Ian had memorized a large portion of the trail markers, it was going to be a lot harder to navigate the necessary junctions to bring us back around to our car. We packed up all our stuff, making sure that the guy hadn’t taken anything else and we left.
The entire hike I could feel Ian’s eyes drilling into me. The last time I had seen him this furious was just before he got into a fight with Aaron Fredlinger and beat him to a pulp. He got suspended for a week and Aaron got a black eye, busted lip, and never said anything about our mother again. Each time we came across a break in the path, we spent a few minutes while Ian tried to remember where to go. The fact that the trails had been closed and the paths were overgrown only served to make everything more difficult. I think that’s how we made a wrong turn and began wandering on the Faint Trail (I don’t actually know if that’s where it went wrong since we didn’t have the map at that time, but that’s my best guess.) further away from home and safety.
Towards mid-day tensions had reached a critical point. Ian frequently mumbled things that would make a sailor blush while Yessica tried to hide the fact that she was close to crying. Oliver attempted to lighten the situation by telling everyone that we just had to follow the compass and we would get home safe and sound. Oliver’s girlfriend didn’t say much, she just stared quietly at her feet as she walked. I think she had the right idea since Lucas was constantly misplacing his footing and slipping. He looked like he had downed a fifth of vodka and was now trying to walk home on a tightrope while being randomly shocked with a cattle prod. The realization twisted something deep down inside and made me want to throw up. I stopped walking and began talking to Lucas:
“What’s going on with you man?”
Ian, still pissed off at me took this opportunity to vent a bit. “Huh? What are you talking about now?”
“Lucas is bumbling and twitching all over the place. What’s wrong with hi-”
“Don’t be a dick man, you know he has Multiple Sclerosis. We told you before the hike started about his condition.”
As soon as he said it, the events came rushing back to me as clear as day. I recalled Ian pulling me to the side and telling me about his friend’s diagnosis and how this was likely going to be his last opportunity to undertake a long hike like this so we had to help him and move slowly. I remembered watching him scramble up the trail and thinking about our own mom and her illness. It brought back bittersweet memories of birthday wishes given to us from hospital beds and hearing her sob quietly to herself in the middle of the night when she thought we were asleep. Guilt flooded over me and I stepped forward to apologize to Lucas when it happened.
Lucas growled at me the instant I took a step forward and he dropped to a hunched position on his hands and feet. It almost looked like his skin was bristling at a possible threat and I could see his broken and decaying teeth as he hissed at all of us before taking off at a hopping stride into the woods. He moved like one of those CGI monstrosities from the last Planet of the Ape movie. His shaky and unstable balance was replaced by a more natural and animalistic gait as he loped into the distance and disappeared amongst the trees. The last thing I saw was what I assumed were its clothes, sloughing off of its body revealing that they weren’t actually clothes but gray folds of skin.
Oliver was the first to talk, “Wha-what the… fu…”
As soon as Oliver said those words, it was like a switch had flipped that set everyone to panic mode. We began to run along the trail as if it would do us any good. The only thought in my head was to put as much distance as possible between me and that thing. I think it took a good fifteen minutes for us to run out of energy with our heavy packs and the disorienting nature of the woods. As we tried to catch our breaths, I surveyed the area around us and came to a terrible realization. In our panic we had run off the path and were now even deeper in the woods. We tried to make sense of what we saw, I just remember Ian mumbling the same phrase over and over: “What the hell was that?”
The short answer is that it was Lucas. The long of if is this: There was no Lucas, not really. I’m sorry for interrupting the story in the middle like this, but I think now is the best time to try and explain everything. I know how confusing this all seems with Gerry and Lucas. The truth is, I did that because I don’t think I could have appropriately explained it to you without you first experiencing it from my eyes. I don’t know what to call those things, but they do something to your mind. They insinuate themselves into your memories. They wrap themselves up in a wall of your recollections and even though you know something is wrong, you can’t quite put your finger on it. Your group of four friends could grow to five and you wouldn’t be any the wiser. A part of you will stupidly admonish you for ever wondering how many there were.
You look at it and you recognize the face. You remember events. You remember getting drunk at a bar together, you remember them crying on your shoulder after a rough break-up, you remember everything that happened between you, but none of it’s true. I don’t know how it does it. It crawls into your head somehow and makes you see things in a way that benefits them. It can mold memories, but it can’t mimic human movement. It walks on four claws, not two feet. It growls, hisses, and snarls; it doesn’t talk. It infiltrates, observes, and waits. It was hunting us and trying to drive us deeper into the woods. It was succeeding.
We never really reached much of a conclusion about what that thing was, but we did reach a consensus that we had to get out of here as soon as possible. I watched Ian as he looked around at the forest and came to the same realization that I did. We were lost. He didn’t tell the others, I think he realized that panicking would only get us in more trouble. Instead he told us to follow him. With the shock of our encounter setting in, we could do nothing but follow his lead and hope it all worked out.
As we walked, we could hear the sounds of distant animals yowling and calling out to each other. The terror of our situation deepened as the others whispered that those were the same sounds they had heard the first night out in the woods. Whatever this thing was, it was following us and calling out to other things in the area. At the time, I couldn’t stop thinking about one of them barreling out from the underbrush and sinking its black and rotting teeth into my neck before the rest of the group could react. I remember brushing the thought off and mentally re-assuring myself that there were six of us here and we had only actually encountered one of those creatures.
As the day pressed on and we seemingly wandered South in an attempt to pick up another trail that would lead us back to the parking lot, I couldn’t help but shake a nagging feeling in the back of my mind. It felt like I had forgotten some important deadline that I should have never forgotten about. It wasn’t until Oliver mentioned his wish of being back in the car that Yessica stopped dead in her tracks. We all turned towards her, but knew what was coming the second she asked:
“We only took one car down right?”
Ian snapped, more fearful than frustrated, “Of course we did, remember how cramped everyone was in that tiny ass Prius with all our camping gear smashed in the trunk and on our laps? What about it?!”
Yessica went white as if this were the first time that Ian had ever raised his voice to her. She paused for a moment before asking, “How many of us are here right now and how many does your car seat?” Ian’s car sat four people comfortably, five uncomfortably; and there were six of us out in the woods at that moment.
Everything happened at once. Ian swore. Oliver’s girlfriend gave a half-shriek and a half-gasp while I looked wide-eyed from person to person, trying to figure out which one of us didn’t belong there. Sarah was the only one who managed to say something and that was: “Tsssssme SaraARAGL!” She hadn’t finished her words before her jaw popped open.
I don’t mean that it dropped open like she was astonished at something. It popped open like it had dislocated from her face. The space between her lips was a massive sickly pink void of inflamed gums that was at least a foot wide. She looked at us with dead and dull eyes as she slowly raised a twitching hand up to her jaw and tried to lock it back into a more human-esque appearance. She popped it back into place with a hollow sounding squelch of meat and bone shifting into place as if nothing was wrong about what had just happened before she tried to speak again: “Isssss meee-”
Ian was the first to react. He stepped towards the failed facsimile of human and swung his walking stick at her face while bellowing, “Get out of here!” She hopped back from the attack in a sloppy motion and landed on all fours. Her body shuddered as if an electrical jolt had passed through her as she slowly backed away from all of us while facing Yessica the entire time. She hissed at us one last time before retreating deeper into the woods with a convulsing lope. It took a moment for us all to regain our composure before we continued walking while trying to look in every direction at once.
I remember Oliver rambling as we walked. He kept asking although no one was responding to him, “Did you see how it moved? It was twitching like an epileptic in a rave. You ever see one of those documentaries about Mad Cow Disease? That thing was twitching and moving like one of those infected cows. What the hell was that thing? Was it a person? What kind of person can do that to their body? …It tried to talk to us. It…” He rambled for hours before we had to stop. We had to tell him to shut up because we were worried about that thing hearing us though that really wasn’t the case. We made him stop talking because it only served in scaring us.
Despite stopping for the night, none of us actually slept. We sat around a campfire and listened to the sound of high-pitched whining and yelping coming from all around us. It seemed like anytime I actually got close to falling asleep, the calls would start up and jolt me awake. We spoke in hushed whispers and tried to figure out what they wanted with us even though none of us really wanted the answer to that question. The hours dragged on almost endlessly before dawn broke and we continued our hike.
We spent Sunday hiking around and trying to find a familiar sight. Without any real sense of where we were and where we were going, our only hope was to stumble across another hiker or find an area with a high enough vantage point that we could survey the entire area. Unfortunately any elevations we climbed didn’t afford a good view of the area and it was extremely unlikely that we would find another hiker due to the fact that the trail had been closed and wasn’t cleared. Even if we did, what were the chances that we would trust them and could be certain that it wasn’t one of those things?
Midway through the day, Ian whispered to me, “Count the people wearing backpacks. One of them is with us again.” I casually looked over my shoulder and noticed that one of our group was walking without any gear. They trailed behind us, but were still in our vicinity. They moved slowly, but didn’t show any of the jerky movements of the previous two. The thought that it was learning to mimic our movements unsettled me. Without really thinking, I shucked off my backpack and approached the imposter. Before they knew what was happening, I shoved them as hard as I could.
The instant my hands pressed into their shirt, I felt something slick and warm give way like the outer layer falling off of a rotten mango. Their shirt slid off their body into my hands and I quickly realized it was their skin. The thing was actually naked, but gave the appearance of clothes by altering the color of its almost translucent skin. I dropped the skin that had sloughed off and it hit the ground with a wet slap. The creature toppled backwards and began yelping.
I can only describe the sound like this: Imagine you get out of your bed in the middle of the night to go take a piss. As you are feeling your way through the darkness to get out of the room, you step on your dog’s tail. Imagine that surprised yelp of pain and the surprise that comes along with it. Now forget the sound that the dog makes as it is nothing like what one of those things can vocalize. Just focus on that emotion, sudden surprise and guilt. Here’s the worst part, I shouldn’t have felt bad. Those things were stalking and tormenting us. They were likely hunting us and I felt bad for harming it. I shouldn’t have felt bad about it, but it wanted me to and so I did.
The thing writhed on the ground on its back for a few seconds making a pitiable noise. It reached back with its arms and pushed itself upright on its hands and on the balls of its feet. Its joints popped wetly and its muscles and bones adjusted to fit this new position. It crab-crawled away while shrieking the entire time as Ian pursued it with his walking stick hoping to catch up to it and cave its head in. It wasn’t until the thing disappeared from sight that I realized that the shrieking wasn’t just coming from the monster but from Yessica as well. It was trying to mimic her response. With Ian gone and Yessica’s screams possibly drawing more of those things to us, I decided that I had to do something.
I stepped forward and wrapped her up in my arms. She was shaking like a leaf in the wind. I stroked her hair and whispered that it was over. She managed to choke out something about its face. All I could make out was that something was terribly wrong with its face. She calmed down as I told her that everything was going to be alright. I didn’t believe that myself, but it was the only thing I could think of that might bring her comfort. Ian returned fuming that the monster escaped and I awkwardly broke off the hug. Ian didn’t say anything, he just started walking. We continued following him, hoping that he would find the way, but knowing that he probably wouldn’t.
Six hours later, we settled down for the night. It felt like we had been going in circles all day and made absolutely no progress. For all we knew, the thing could have been tinkering around with our memories and convincing us that familiar landmarks were new and leading us deeper into the woods. I didn’t tell the others, but I think I knew what those things wanted with us. They wanted to lead us deeper into the woods. They were trying to force us to exhaustion, and when we were too weak to defend ourselves, they would descend upon us and eat us. Oliver was right about that, if that thing is similar to us in anyway, then those twitching spasms were likely some sort of prion disorder that came from eating humans.
After eating some jerky since we decided against having a fire and drawing more of them to us, we reached the conclusion that we would have to sleep in shifts. I volunteered for the first watch because my insight into the monster’s behavior had robbed me of any desire to sleep. The others went off without so much as another word. They were exhausted and it wasn’t until an hour into my watch that I realized that I was too. Even given the monster’s grotesque appearance, everyone needs to sleep.
Yessica joined me about two hours into my watch. She admitted that she couldn’t sleep after our encounter with the creature. I nodded in agreement, both of us had seen something terrible that the others hadn’t. We talked for a good thirty minutes about what we thought was going on and how everyone was handling it. She was worried about Ian. She confessed that he was acting erratic and that he was scaring her. I wrapped my arm around her for a moment and told her that we were all scared. She looked in my eyes and told me that she was glad I was here and I felt something twist deep down inside me that I had buried a long time ago when I first met her.
The longer she stayed with me on watch, the more personal our conversation became. She confessed that she and Ian had been fighting a lot recently and that she was wondering if they were going to work it all out. At the start of their relationship, they were great together. He made her feel wonderful, but there was something that didn’t feel right. Like there was something missing. I listened to her talk about everything that was going on in her life and I knew I had to do something. I knew that if I didn’t do it now, I would regret it. I had to tell her about the door.
She listened quietly as I told her everything. It was the event that precipitated my breakdown at work and my Social Anxiety Disorder diagnosis at the therapist’s office. Everything started off simply enough one Friday at work. I was in the lunchroom eating my sandwich and reading a book as per my usual while my co-workers talked about their plans for the weekend. One of them was having a house-warming party and they were inviting everyone at work. I figured that the invitation was only extended to the people he was talking to until he asked me if I would be able to make it on Saturday. As it was the first time I had been invited to hang out after work, I chose to go.
I spent all of Saturday getting ready, planning what were interesting topics to bring up in case there was a lull in conversation, and the bottle of wine I was planning to give him as a house-warming gift. After psyching myself up, I left to go to the party with the bottle in hand and my spirits high. I convinced myself that I was going to be the life of the party and that maybe if I played my cards right, I could finally find a friend at work that would make the time fly by instead of dragging on. It wasn’t until I reached the house that that false bravado began to crumple apart.
I stopped in front of the neighbor’s house as everywhere else already had a car parked there. It was then that I felt my heart beating like I had just run a mile. I began heading up the driveway with the wine bottle slick in my hands from my palms sweating. It wasn’t until I reached the front door that I realized that something was terribly wrong. All that excitement that had been building up since Friday afternoon was now replaced with something else; apprehension. All those topics I had thought up seemed boring and all the re-assurances I had given myself seemed hollow. I didn’t feel prepared for this at all. At this point a small part of me whispered something that has stuck with me to this very day.
That voice intimated that they never really wanted me to come out. They had only given that invitation as a courtesy and didn’t actually expect me to come out to their house. It said that if I knocked on that door that I would be making a fool out of myself. It told me that I wasn’t even comfortable in my own skin so how could I even dare to imagine that they would enjoy my company. They wanted to celebrate with their friends, they didn’t want to listen to me fumble for something to talk about. All those fears flashed in front of me, taunting me, demanding that I knock on the door and make myself look like an idiot. That part of me told me that I was better off alone and I listened.
I turned around without even knocking on the door and I left. No one had come in and the music was playing loudly so I doubt that they would have heard me anyways. I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Maybe I saw them watching me from the window, maybe I didn’t. Maybe they were laughing at me as I drove away, flustered and embarrassed. Maybe they went back to the party and joked about the social retard who had seemingly freaked out and run away from their house while I went home and cried in the shower. Maybe.
Yessica listened as I told her the story. She smiled sadly as I started to cry into her shoulder. All those feelings I had experience outside of my co-worker’s house came rushing back; all that fear, foolishness, and fatalistic failure smashed into me like waves on the shore. She whispered soothing words into my ear and waited for me to collect myself. Once I did, she pulled away and told me that it wasn’t my fault. It was there under the moonlight with her face inches away from mine that I did the worst thing I had ever done in my life.
I kissed her; it was slow, hesitant, romantic. I looked into her eyes and I saw her beautiful face. She pulled me towards her as she leaned back. Lost in the moment I held her against me while telling her all the things I should have said when I first met her and realized that I loved her. I held her like that for a few moments, afraid that if I let her go, I would lose this perfect moment. She was warm, she smelled like wildflowers. She smelled like happiness. For the first time in what felt like a lifetime, I felt comfortable and content.
I don’t know when I drifted off, but I do remember waking up. In the love-drunk excitement of the previous night, I didn’t think once about Ian or the consequences of my decision. I only thought about Yessica and I forgot that she was his girlfriend. What I did last night was a beautiful mistake. I convinced her to cheat on him with me. I needed to tell him before the truth came out. I needed him to understand how I felt. I got up from the ground and stretched, Yessica was gone. I assumed she had gone back to her sleeping roll in the middle of the night. I walked over to Ian who was just waking up. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and asked me if I stayed up all night.
The words bled out of me and once they started I couldn’t stop, “I don’t know what happened man. We were just talking one moment and then the next- Oh Jesus, I didn’t mean for it to happen. You know I love you man, I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you. It just happened and now I can’t take it bac-” Yessica's cry of surprise cut me off before I could go any further. Both me and Ian turned to the sound of her distress and we knew instantly what had happened. The backpacks with our compass, food, and water had been stolen.
It knew. Don’t you see it goddamnit? It knew that we could identify it without a backpack and it couldn't shape its skin to take the appearance of one so it stole them away from us. Now the next time it wormed its way into our group, we wouldn’t be any the wiser. Yessica and I never talked that night. Yessica had never left my brother’s side that night. They had zipped their sleeping rolls together. She didn’t open up to me about her worries and I never actually kissed her. I poured my heart out to a thing wearing Yessica’s skin while it was in my arms. I confessed my truest feelings to an ersatz entity masquerading as a person. I felt sick.
The others woke up quickly after hearing Yessica screaming. We quickly searched around the area, hoping to find some scrap of food or some indication of where our stuff had been taken to. We found nothing, it was long gone. We had no food, no water, and no hope. We had no way of telling when one of those things was hijacking our heads and pretending to be part of our group so it could distract us. With our compass gone, we had no means of following a set direction and hoping to pick the trail back up. In short, we were screwed with a capital S.
Oliver demanded to know what I was doing last night. He wanted to know how I could be so careless as to fall asleep when I should have been watching over them and our gear. I lied and told him that someone had come around in the middle of the night to relieve me from my shift. I didn’t mention that it was one of those things impersonating Yessica. I couldn’t bear to look either my brother or his girlfriend in the eyes at that point. Oliver started to yell, but stopped when he saw I was on the verge of tears. I don’t know if it was mercy or disgust that caused him to stop. It doesn’t matter either way. We gathered up the only thing that they hadn’t taken in the night (our sleeping rolls) and continued walking.
The hike without water or the prospect of food was unbearable. We were already exhausted, and the realization that we were soon going to be starving and dehydration only served to sap more of our energy. Within a few hours my mouth felt gummy and dry. While we were still under the canopy of leaves, the temperature was still in the high eighties and low nineties. It didn’t take long for dehydration to set in. I kept licking my lips in an attempt to keep them moist, but I could feel them beginning to crack as my saliva began to dry up. As we walked, Oliver picked up his pace and caught up with me.
I looked over at him and knew without him saying anything that another one of those things had joined our group. He whispered, “Don’t look directly at it. Just keep it in the corner of your eyes. I think that’s how it messes with your mind. It would explain why you remember that guy that one night, but the rest of us can’t. You saw him but the rest of us didn’t. Don’t get close, just keep it in the corner of your eyes. It’s been trailing us for about half an hour now, I think it just wants to watch and follow us.”
I pretended to be cracking my neck and looked at the tag-a-long in my peripheral vision. It trailed behind us by about a dozen feet. In its resting state, its facial features appeared staticky. I could make out eyes and a nose, but it was constantly shifting and rippling like bubbling plastic. At this point we were too tired to even bother with chasing it off. We just kept walking and hoped that it wouldn’t try to join the group. It seemed content to keep its distance and keep us in its line of sight. It followed us for about two miles before it broke off towards the trees with a shambling, awkward gait.
We were too tired to even try and set up a shift system. We just huddled together in an attempt to convince ourselves that we were safer when we were closer together, but every time one of us got comfortable enough to drift off, those things would start making noise. The noises started off as high-pitched yips whose sound seemed to travel for miles. As the night drew on, they grew more aggressive. I remember one time as I was drifting off hearing the grating rasp of my name, “Evan.” The things weren’t just following us, they were learning. They were perfecting their mimicry. The thought disturbed me more than the idea of them out there watching us in the darkness. How long would it take them to become more human than human? What would they do once they were capable of walking amongst people again? I drifted off to sleep with that thought beating around in my head like a man trapped inside a wall.
We got up on Tuesday morning, and left without a word. At this point, there was nothing left to say. Some of us had been awake all night without any food or water. The constant stress had completely worn us down. We continued hiking in the same direction we had been going in with the false hope that we would come across someone. In the end, our hike looked more like a death march. My feet were covered in blisters that had ruptured and plastered the soles of my feet to my socks. Every step felt like I was tearing open the wounds a bit more.
In an attempt to take my mind off the discomfort, I focused on my brother who was walking in front of me. He wasn’t as much walking as he was limping forward. He had stopped using his walking stick and was dragging it behind him like it was a broken limb. I watched as he stepped over a rock and the walking stick slipped out of his hands. He kept dragging himself forward as if nothing had happened. He didn’t even register it falling out of his hands. It was at that point that I knew that something was wrong. I knew that my brother wasn’t my brother anymore.
I quietly picked up his stick as I passed it. Amy went to call out to him and ask if he was alright, but I shushed her. I was so sure that one of those things had replaced him and was now leading us deeper into the woods. I realized that I would only have one chance at this. The instant it knew that we knew, it would try and run away. All it would take was one good swing to the back of its head and we would be able to take out one of those things. The stick had a bit of weight to it, about five or six pounds, enough to crack open a skull if it was swung hard enough. I began walking faster while trying to avoid the underbrush that might give away my position. The thing wearing my brother’s skin continued limping forward as I drew closer.
I waited until I was within swinging distance before raising the stick above my head. My heart was beating in my chest and my hands were so sweaty that it felt like the stick would slide right out of my hands. It kept on moving forwards, completely unaware of what I was about to do to it. I whispered, “I’m sorry,” just before I swung the walking stick down with all my strength.
Ian turned to face me as he mumbled groggily, “Sorry for what?” My muscles locked and I stopped mid-swing and the stick stopped just inches away from his face. He blinked in surprise before muttering, “Evan, what’s wrong?” His voice sounded distant and empty, like he was in-between a waking and sleep state.
It was then that I knew the extent of his condition. He was pale and looked like the slightest breeze would blow him over. He wasn’t one of those things, he was delirious from dehydration, sleep deprivation, and starvation. The walking stick fell out of my hands and bounced on the ground next to us. I dragged my tongue across my lips and it felt like I was licking sandpaper. I whimpered, “Jesus, Ian. I thought you were one of those things. I almost- Oh God, I’m so sorry.” He didn’t react to my apology. He just turned around continued walking in the direction we were going in.
Amy just watched everything unfold numbly before she started following him. Oliver shook his head sadly, but he didn’t look any better. His eyes were glazed and his lips were cracked and red from rubbing at them. I watched my brother shambling forward and it reminded me of one of those old voodoo movies where someone is put into a trance and forced to work until they die from exhaustion. His mouth hung open and he moved like he was being dragged along on puppet strings. I picked up the walking stick and began to follow them. I wondered how much longer he had left in him and what any of us could do if he just fell over and stopped walking. I wondered how much longer any of us had.
I don’t know how long we walked. Everything melted together in a muddled malaise at that time. I remember losing my footing and tripping a few times, but I barely felt it. The third time, I didn’t even realize I was laying on the ground until Yessica stepped on me as she was passing by. There was no apology, she was too far gone to recognize what she had stepped on. I dragged myself to my feet and felt light-headed, but continued putting one foot in front of the other. The fifth time I fell, I wondered if it would have been better to just lay down and wait to die. An excited yawp behind me from one of those things drove me to my feet. It wasn’t until we bumped into the sign for Little Bear Canyon that I realized how close we were to salvation.
The post for Little Bear Canyon also had a branching sign that pointed in the direction for TJ Coral which was only a few miles from where we started at the Gila Cliff Dwellings if we walked along Route 15. Ian was heading in the right direction and we were almost home free. In my excitement, I began calling to the others to let them know that the end was near. I looked around me and shouted, “Yessica, Ian, Oliver, Heather, Amy! I know where we need to-” The words died on my lips as I counted the names and realized it wasn’t over yet.
The others kept moving as if they hadn’t heard me talking. The imposter shuffled alongside us and for once, it was easy to identify them. I don’t know whether or not they had let down their guard after seeing our conditions but this one was obvious. She moved slowly, but her movements didn’t convey her exhaustion. Everyone else was sweating and looked like the walking dead, but she was fine. I waited for her to get close enough to follow the trail the others were going down before I raised Ian’s walking stick and growled, “Turn around right fucking now! I can see you.”
She turned around slowly and I felt my heart skip a beat. She looked almost exactly like Yessica except for a brown tinge to her hair. She could have been her twin. I knew what it was planning before it even opened its mouth and asked, “What are you doing Evan?”
“Don’t call me that,” I winced.
“What are you rambling about? Please move out of the way, we’re almost safe from those things.”
“I know what you are.”
Heather turned white at the realization. She began speaking quickly, “I’m not one of those things. Please Evan, you have to remember. There were six of us. Those things want us to think there were only five so they can take one of us without the others caring. Those things don’t want us all, they only want the weakest one. Please, let’s go before they catch-”
“Shut up,” I snapped. I raised the walking stick in my hand and brandished it at her.
“Think about it Evan, do I move like one of those things? Do I speak like them? That should be enough to prove I’m human.”
“No. Ian’s my brother, Yessica’s his girlfriend-”
“I’m your girlfriend! I sat on your lap on the car ride. Please don’t kill me! Evan, I love you. Don’t you remember?! Evan, I love you!” I lowered the stick that was in my hand as memories bombarded me. I had met her one night when my brother forced me to go out to a club with him. Heather had been sitting at the bar all night drinking. It wasn’t until she tried to stand up and fell into my arms that we actually talked. I remembered lazy Sundays in bed watching cheesy B sci-fi movies. I remembered holding her close to me after making love and hearing her whisper sweet nothings into my ear. I remembered our life together.
I rasped, “Heather. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
She cooed, “Evan, it’s not your fault.” She went to touch me and I sprang back like I had been bitten by a snake. The instant I heard those words, I knocked. The stick caught her unaware in the side of her face. I felt her jaw give way under the sudden force of my attack. She burbled through broken teeth, “I lo-” The second strike dented her temple as the temporal bone shattered. She kept trying to talk, but it was too late and too much damage had been done. That door was shut to me now. I kept swinging the walking stick down on her head until it splintered and snapped. I looked up from her twitching body and saw my brother watching me in horror.
“Heather, oh my God…”
I spoke through grit teeth and regarded him with red-rimmed eyes, “Come on, we have to go.”
He went to keep talking, but I walked past him. I didn’t want to explain it to him. He eventually ran ahead, invigorated with the prospect of finding rescue on the road. I looked behind me one last time.The last thing I saw was one of those things dragging away Heather’s corpse. It looked emaciated and half-mad with starvation. At that very moment, I wasn’t afraid of the thing, I just felt pity. Whether or not it forced that emotion on me I’ll never know. I turned away and caught up with the others on Route 15. We were on the road for fifteen minutes before we managed to flag down a car and an ambulance was called for us.
The doctors said that our exposure to the elements, combined with our starvation and dehydration triggered our auditory and visual hallucinations. It’s a typical response you’d expect to hear from any half-dead rambling about creatures warping their flesh and our memories to drive us to the brink of death so they could prey on us when we were our weakest. We spent a week there while receiving treatments, recounting our horrific experiences, and then subsequent psyche evaluations before we were released. Ian and Yessica refuse to talk with me about it. I don’t really know Oliver or Amy so that’s off the table too. They just want to forget. I can’t forget.
Here’s the thing, I still remember Nadia asking me to help her find her lighter. I recall staying up late and talking with her by the campfire while she smoked like a chimney. I recognize Gerry’s terrible puns that he’d make about almost everything and Lucas’ determination at hiking this trail while slowly succumbing to the effects of his Multiple Sclerosis. I can recall whispering sweet nothings to Yessica under the glow of the full moon. I can recall that clear as day, even months later. I know the conversation we had word-for-word. I can remember the feeling of her skin against mine and the smell of her hair as I pressed myself against it when I reached that one true moment of connectivity. I remember Heather pleading and begging me not to kill her. Despite writing this all months later, I can see all of those things clearly. Sometimes late at night, I can even remember driving up to Gila National Park with Heather sitting in my lap, playfully grinding against me and telling me how fun our hike was going to be. Sometimes I think about that memory more than I should.
Since I can’t talk to my brother or Yessica about this, I had to find some other outlet. I guess I’m writing all this for that one reason: catharsis. In the end, I keep wondering if what I did was right. Did I make the right choice? I want you to read this and tell me that I had no other option, that the risk of one of them escaping into the city forced my hand. I know that’s not the case. I could have walked away or tried to scare her off but I didn’t. What kind of person can look into someone’s eyes, remember all the things we did and the life we had, and do what I did? Who can have all of those memories and end everything so callously? It doesn’t matter if none of it was real because in that moment, it was to me. Who can look at someone and feel such love for them before you kill them? The answer to that question is simple now that I ask myself aloud. I just don’t like the answer.
Written by EmpyrealInvective