“Gimme the map!” Mary insisted with her hand beckoning.
“No way, Mary! Last time we listened to you, we got turned around!” Paul retorted, tucking the map safely into his coat pocket.
“That’s because you didn’t listen to my directions,” she replied in defiance.
“ Will the both you please stop??!” A taller man named Brandon stopped walking to join in. “I’ve heard nothing but bickering from you two! We’re all scared, we’re all hungry, but this is doing us no good!”
“I think Paul isn’t doing us any good,” Mary muttered.
“You had your chance Mary, so Paul is taking over now. You have to deal with that, end of story.”
The group of ten trekked on, their feet mushing through the snowy forest. A solemn hush remained over them most of the time, with the occasional question, outburst, or complaint. Paul took the lead, occasionally checking his compass and map, and was soon sided by Brandon.
“So we’re still headed west, right?” Brandon inquired.
“Yeah, that’s still the plan. If we keep heading that direction, we’ll surely hit some towns or villages.”
“That’d be great, considering we are where we think we are. Do you think they’d be weirded out by a random group of people that survived a plane crash?”
“Yeah, it’ll probaly seem weird to them. Better than freezing out here, though. I’m sure they’ll be puzzled what a bunch of Canadians and Americans are doing in a dense forest like this. How many days ago did we leave main camp?”
“Right. Geez, seems forever ago. After everything so far….I know it’s kinda bleak but…we gotta try.”
“Yeah. Gotta try.”
An awkward moment of reflection hit them as they again thought over the hand they’d been dealt.
“So that whole thing with the pilot…”
“I don’t wanna talk about it, Brandon.”
“Sorry man, it’s just…I’m one of those people that can’t stop thinking about it. I feel like I have to rationalize it, you know? Maybe too many personal problems…”
“I just said….”
“Sorry, sorry. It’s just…flipping out like that.”
“I know, doesn’t make any sense. None of this does. Let’s keep moving.
The group was in luck as winter season was on its last leg, so the conditions weren’t nearly as harsh. This very thought came to Sheela, who was further back in the group.
“Ya know, there are some positive things that came out of this.” She chided to her sister Ava, who insisted on joining them.
“Like what? The pilot losing his marbles, crash landing, or the stranded part?” She bitterly asked.
“Oh, come on. Think about the season. A month ago, we’d all have died easily out here. And then one of the people on the plane had all this survival gear, including food? That’s a blessing, I say.”
“You say. I say this still sucks.”
“Always the pessimist, Ava.”
“Always the optimist, Sheela.”
They both chuckled, only to be interrupted by a shout from the front of the group. Everyone gathered, and soon found the source of their whooping and hollering. Barely a mile ahead they could see the faint glow of a campfire in a clearing, well-lit in the twilight sky. It didn’t seem small, but anything was better than nothing at this point.
“Alright guys let’s check it out, but be cautious. We don’t want to spook whoever’s there.”
After trudging along for five minutes, the camp was much clearer in view. Yet, as they got closer their fears of what they were seeing became more and more real.
“How is this possible?” One person yelled.
“What? This can’t be!”
“Calm down, everyone. We’ll figure this out,” Paul directed, trying not to freak out himself.
“What do you mean, calm down?! We’ve been traveling around in circles! Five days and we’re right back at our camp!” Ava started shouting, her sister trying to cajole her. This was followed by other exasperated cries from the group members, only to be silenced by one statement.
“Everyone’s gone.” One man stated, the meaning of it splashing them like a cold bucket of water. They froze, glancing around and realizing exactly how true his statement was. There was at least another thirty passengers that should be here.
“Maybe they decided to leave?”
“No way. Why would a fire still be going?”
“I don’t like this, Paul.” Brandon whispered. “This feels wrong.”
“I know what you mean. I just…I don’t know what to do.”
“I know one thing I’ll do.” Brandon pulled out his 9mm and clicked the safety off, giving Paul a worried glance that was returned with a nod.
Paul collected his thoughts, and turned to the group.
“Alright, everybody. The best thing we can do right now is start to look around the campsite. We need to recover any meds, food, or other items the group could have left. We might find some clue as to what happened. Thirty people don’t just up and disappear. Even if they all did leave, they would leave some kind of note of some sort. No lone wolves, please.”
Mary started to raise her hand as if to protest, but stopped when another group member glared at her. With the sound of the wind howling, they scavenged all around the desolate camp.
Paul and Brandon stayed together, first searching the immediate perimeter of the campsite with no results. They began to spread out further and further in a circle, checking trees for any markers or signs of anything.
“Hey, Paul. Remember in history class, about the Roanoke colony?”
“American settlers. A whole colony of ’em in Roanoke, North Carolina. Some went back for supplies, and came back to find everyone gone. An entire colony…poof.”
“That’s not helping, Brandon.”
“Sorry…just making connections. I’ll shut up.”
“It’s okay, man. Just keep an eye…..whoa.”
Paul directed him over to a tree ten yards away. Upon inspection, they found deep horizontal claw marks in the bark. Not anything a human could have possibly done.
“Bear, you think?” Brandon inquired.
“I wish I could say yes, but…the markings wrong.”
“A bear’s claw would form 5 slashes…this is only four.”
“So, what then?”
“I’m not sure, but I don’t like any of this.”
“Guys…guys!” A voice called, and they turned to see Ava and Sheela running over. One of them had something in their hand.
“We found this on some low branches,” Ava’s voice trembled as she handed them a torn shroud. Brandon unfolded it. It looked to be someone’s shirt.
“Oh God, it’s covered in blood.” Paul stated.
“Bear?” Brandon eyed Paul, hoping he’d agree.
“Can’t say for certain…where’d you find this?”
“Over near the campsite, we….
A bloodcurdling scream filled the air, turning their veins into ice.
“Over there!” Brandon pointed with his gun. “C’mon, let’s go!” Something clenched their stomachs as they made their way to the source of the scream. The four went from an anxious hurry to a stealthy gait as they approached. What they witnessed looked like a crime scene.
A haphazard pile of what used to be people were laid across each other. Bits of torn clothing were strewn everywhere, accompanied by splashes of blood and viscera. What remained of the people were not much more than skeletons, the flesh seemingly ripped from their bones.
“My God…!” Sheela whispered.
“Whatever was here didn’t have much mercy on them.”
“We need to go.” Paul said deeply, his urgent tone ringing true. “Whatever did this can’t be too….”
Before he could finish, a guttural rumble filled the air. The four shot glances all around, a full-on panic seizing them. Brandon’s hands trembled as he struggled to track the noise. A rustling from a nearby tree made them all jump, and Brandon pointed upwards. Something was stuck in the tree.
“Get down here and show yourself, you bastard!” Brandon shouted with a waver. Nothing moved, and his keen eye found a dark shape near the top of the tree. He took aim and fired, the round destroying the tense quiet. His shot found its mark, and the dark shape plummeted to the ground, hitting limbs along the way.
“Gotcha!” Brandon shouted, and ran over to the crumpled form.
“Wait, stop!” Paul called, but Brandon ignored his plea. They all watched as Brandon reached his target, and leaned down to turn it over. The whites of Brandon’s eyes bulged, and he recoiled with his arm covering his mouth.
“What is it?” Paul yelled. Brandon didn’t respond, only shook his head. Paul saw from his eyes that he might have asked the wrong question. “Who is it?!” Brandon mouthed one word to him…Denise.
“Denise….she just came back with us….how?” Paul stammered.
“Who was it, Paul?” Sheela asked, but Paul just stared at her. “Paul? Are you in shock?” Paul slowly shook his head no.
“Answer us, Paul! Who was it?” Again, he didn’t respond. “Fine, we’ll ask Brand—“
“I said…don’t…move.” He emphasized his words slowly. Sheela couldn’t stand the way Paul kept staring, and it suddenly hit her that he wasn’t staring into empty space. Ava had begun to follow his gaze as well. They were looking at something behind her.
Shaking, she slowly turned her head to see something poking out from a tree. It disappeared once she turned to meet it’s gaze.
“What the hell was that?!” Ava asked.
“It was too far to tell what…but it’s big. We need to leave.” They looked back to see Brandon was just standing over the crumpled body, his eyes far gone.
A tree branch snapped not far away. They all looked to their left, and something moved out of eyesight just as they looked. It happened again, this time closer. All they could catch was a fleeting glimpse of something pale gray…and very tall. Now, they all broke into a run towards Brandon’s direction. He didn’t seem to notice their presence until they flew past him and Paul yelled back. “Come on!”
Brandon moved his head around as if coming to. He soon heard the wet crunch of footsteps behind him. Very quickly the steps got closer, and Brandon did something he knew he should have never done. He looked back, and caught a blurred glimpse of a lanky figure with yellow eyes darting from tree to tree.
“Guys, wait!” He screamed, and broke into a mad dash.
The trio further ahead heard Brandon’s scream, but they didn’t heed his request. They rushed on, their sinking boots in the snow making it feel impossible to move fast enough.
“Should we wait for him?” Sheela gasped out, trying to hold Ava back with her. As if in response, a shriek of pain cut through the woods behind them. Ava glanced behind to see the tall gray thing crouched over Brandon. A shot rang out, followed by a primal scream of rage and pain. Seconds later, Brandon was screaming as if being tortured.
Everyone resumed running even faster, and for what seemed like hours thought it was only five minutes or so. All three stopped to suck in lungfuls of air, unable to keep moving. They all were soon sitting and gathering themselves for whatever awaited them.
“That thing….it got Brandon.” Ava cried, her sister cradling her. “And we’re next.”
“There must be something we can do….I heard a shot go off. Maybe Brandon hurt it enough that it won’t come after us.” Sheela was so blissfully ignorant, Paul didn’t have the heart to correct her.
“There’s nothing we can do, sis. It’s all over. We’re lost in the woods, we have no more food. Whatever this thing is, it’s fast and we don’t have the energy to keep running.”
“It’s getting dark….we’re tired. Let’s set up camp with what we have.”
“But that thing is out there!”
“I know. And like you said, it’s fast and will catch up regardless. I’m just done at this point. We’ve walked and walked for days. I’m just tired, Ava.”
Ava quietly agreed, weeping with her sister as Paul set up camp. Night soon came, and the two sisters huddled in the tent as Paul kept watch. He stared into the fire, unable to decide whether to put it our or not. Without it, they would be too cold. With it, they put a target on their heads. Either way he was sure this thing would find them.
Whistling softly, he pulled out a bottle of gin he found from the main camp and got to work on it. The more he drank, the more he realized that it was better this way. Rather than dying slowly out here of starvation or other means…it would be quicker. Better to get it over with.
Gazing into the soft glow of the fire, his nerves slowly settled and his mind began drifting away. Just as his hand relaxed and the bottle slipped from his grip, a barely audible voice stirred him. It brought him into a semi-conscious state, and he shifted around. The voice called again, and this time he sat up fully aware.
“Paul…..help!” The voice called for the third time. Paul couldn’t believe his ears. It was Brandon’s voice calling nearby. He pulled out his hunting knife and crept closer to the source of the sound. Immediately, his stomach formed a knot of dread. It felt so wrong to go after Brandon in the darkness like this, but he couldn’t risk his friend dying when he could help. The dark forest seemed to lean towards him as he moved, the trees reaching out their limbs to embrace him darkly.
He’d never realized it before, but the forest did have a strange, oppressive feel. As if it was suffocating him, even watching him. Every small noise around him got his adrenaline pumping as he turned, but saw nothing. The small makeshift torch only illuminated so far around him. For anything hiding in the darkness, it would be too easy to prey on him
“Paul!” He heard the voice again, much louder. He was so close!
“Brandon, where are you?!” He tried to call out without being too loud. If that Thing was nearby, he didn’t want to risk catching its attention. There was no response, but he thought he heard a slight rustling so he froze and listened. A whole minute went by with nothing.
“Brandon!” He whispered, and heard a faint cry. Walking stealthily, he moved through the trees and soon noticed something on the ground reflected in the dim moonlight.
“What is that?” He thought, moving his torch closer to the ground. It was a torn shirt, much like the others he found earlier. Just as he began inspecting it, another yell filled the air. This time, it sounded like…
“The girls!” he screamed inwardly. Dropping the shirt, he sprinted back towards camp. He reached the camp in under a minute, yet it felt like much, much longer. As he approached, he already knew something was horribly wrong. The tent was open and some belongings had been scattered. All the more terrifying was a rip in the tent, made by a long skinny claw.
“No, no, no,” he muttered. The girls were nowhere in sight. This thing had gotten them. Before he could even recover from the thought of being completely alone, something even worse happened...he wasn’t alone.
A hard rustling from a nearby bush caught his attention. His skin felt like it would crawl off and run away, but still he looked right to see the cause. Just past the glow of his torch was a pair of deep yellow eyes. The eyes moved closer, revealing a grotesque face with needlelike teeth. Its hair hung long in stringy black strands around its face. It seemed to smile malevolently as it had no lips, and some blood had dried on its teeth. The skin was an ashen gray and sunken into its face, making all the bones protrude.
“Paul, come help me!” Came the voice of Brandon, yet it emanated from the creature’s mouth. It sounded exactly like him.
“That—that’s not possible.” Paul gasped, backing up a step.
“Why didn’t you help me, Paul? Why did you let me die?” The monster continued speaking in his friend’s voice, and let out a cruel laugh. Terrified, all Paul could do was stand there as it moved closer, revealing more in the moonlight. The creature was unnaturally lean, its chest and stomach showing how incredibly emaciated this Thing was. It wore a single loincloth, but no other clothing. There were random patches of fur all over it. The sight of it all made Paul’s head swim, and he felt like he might lose his mind.
Paul only stood still as the monstrosity grabbed him by the neck and brought him closer. The Thing felt giddy and elation at his fear.
“Your fear is intoxicating. Do you smell your friends on my breath? I only hope you taste nearly as good.”
The rancid breath made Paul nauseous, but his mind had completely locked up. The last thing he saw was the long, pointed teeth as they opened and sunk into his flesh.ns22.214.171.124da2