Rumors of bad things happening in backwoods were far more attractive to a bored college student than keg parties. At least, that was how Ben felt as he stomped through the woods, the wild grin on his face and the adrenaline pumping through his heart making him giddy.
“Ben, shit! Wait up man!” Renaldo the stockier of the two who had a prominent limp and always wore the same tacky Hawaiian shirt. Ben had no idea why, for while Jersey was humid, it wasn’t exactly screaming tropics weather. Then again, Renaldo always had a habit of wearing out of place clothing. Renaldo panted, drool dripping down his light brown skin as he wiped it away with a meaty fist. “Where are you going anyways? Slow the fuck down!”
Ben laughed, swinging his cellphone’s light into the eyes of his friends. The glasses of the girl in the group were illuminated briefly, and the others shielded their eyes. A few of them scowled, and he caught the shadow of one of his friends flipping him the bird before he smirked and turned back to the dark forest, flicking the phone off. Branches caught and snagged at clothing as he pressed on.
“Shit, this is crazy,” one of his friends said, his dark skin taking on a near blue undertone in the darkness. “We’re running in the middle of the goddamn Pine Barrens and you’ve got this grin on your face–”
“No, this is good!” Ben’s voice took on a whine that he hated to use, glancing between his pack of friends who were giving him various looks that ranged between him being mildly mad or just clinically insane. He wasn’t going to let them deter him, and continued on. “The grin is a good thing! This is a good idea!”
“If I have to hear you say ‘good’ one more fucking time,” Rose snarled, catching the arm of the skinny white kid next to her. “Charles, why are we chasing after your insane friend through the middle of this dark, damned forest?”
“Because, honey,” Charles said, and he drew out the word “honey” the way one would an old piece of gum between teeth, “Ben might be insane–”
“Hey!” Ben turned to glare behind him.
“– but he’s never given us a boring night. Besides, what else were we going to do?”
“Anything that didn’t involve trekking through this muck, sweetheart,” she spat, throwing the word at him like an insult. A hiss peeled from her lips and the sound of a slap was heard. “Third mosquito! I can’t believe this–”
“Oh, I can,” Renaldo said. “It’s the tail end of summer, and there’s so many stagnant ponds where they breed. Just imagine it: little wriggling pupal, probably colored all gray and shit, swimming through every little puddle by the thousands! The thousands! And then they crack open and–”
“We get it!” The girl snapped. “I’m so sorry I ever came here. Charles, you’re making dinner for me tomorrow.”
“Fine Rose,” Charles said with a note in his voice, as if this was an argument they had before which always arrived at the same conclusion. “Dinner. Tomorrow. Assuming we–”
“No, don’t even finish that sentence!” The last member of their group snapped. “Ben, where the hell are we going anyways?”
Ben had still not said anything, content to let his friends bicker behind him as he threaded through the trees. Renaldo had gone silent, perhaps guessing at his friend’s intentions as they made their way through to the thickest parts of the forest. Here, the ferns overhead threaded so much together that the gray moonlight barely shown through the knots of their leaves. Trees emerged out of the ground likw arms, the bark black in the watery light. Ben put his palm to one as if to test that it was beneath his fingers. The further they went into the forest, the more the horizon seemed to blur.
“Look, do you know what you’re actually doing?” Renaldo whispered, pitching his voice low and looking up. “I’m not one to question such lovely hikes like these, but…”
“We wanted to be entertained, did we not?” Ben said, earning a glare from Renaldo.
“Don’t go sounding like some bad nineties song on me–”
“You’ll enjoy this,” Ben said, cutting off Renaldo as he continued walking. It seemed as if they had walked for ages and ages as trees and paths began to blur together. The voices and shuffling of his friends slowed to nothing but crunching sounds and huffed breaths. This was the thick of the forest, where lights behind them from the city were nothing but blurred specks. He looked to the knotted branches of trees, attempting to see something familiar in the foliage and instead felt his stomach churn.
Hands were in the trees. Hands and twisted arms– no, no. It was just a trick of the moon. But things were bent wrong. The very knots of the branches were inverted. Renaldo shivered, hand resting on Ben’s elbow. His mouth moved, but no noise came out. Ben stared at Renaldo, but the other stared back, growing annoyed as Ben said nothing. He gestured and once again tried to speak.
Black ichor began to flow from his mouth.
Ben screamed, or he tried to scream. No sound came, but he heard something over his silence. A laugh. A laugh followed by the scent of copper and vomit, so putrid that tears were brought to Ben’s eyes.
Renaldo was reaching, and sounds came back to him like a tidal wave in its fury. Charles was crying and holding onto Rose, and someone was screaming.
Ben tried to run back for them but the very ground seemed to be pulled from his feet, twisting and churning. The branches and foliage scraped at clothes and drug across his skin like blunted nails. He swallowed, kicked and thrashed until he was still.
The smell came back. His stomach heaved as saliva built on the back of his tongue. Ben tried to stand and grip onto something solid but he gripped at black bark that peeled away from his hands like flesh. These wrong branches and roots made him stumble back, eyes looked up to the sky to find something that could ground him from above.
He heard the laughter, a sound that played across his inner ears and down his spine. He shouldn’t look away from the moon. Something told him, very sternly, he should not look away from the moon.
The thing was maddening that stood before him. Parts were in places that they shouldn’t be; a gleaming white skull with eyes that hung from dangling sockets. It twitched, the entire body caving in on itself. The bent and twisted figure flashed, appearing feet before him, then inches, then whipped behind a tree. Legs were bent backwards atop of hooves that made no sound. When it appeared again, great wings stretched from the ridges of its spine, leather and dark and smothering any light that dared to try to touch them.
Ben screamed, screamed from his belly and scrambled back. He couldn’t let the thing near him, but soon it was above him, jaw unhinged and he realized then it was the skull of a creature, dripping grime and fur as it laughed above him. Black claws sunk into his belly and he watched as it pulled his flesh back in neat strips, bloody pink flesh exposed and blood staining his shirt. Pain exploded behind his skull and between his eyes.
His friends must be screaming.
Ben turned his gaze to look at them and saw no one. The weight on his chest lifted; when he glanced down at himself, there was no blood, no sign of the creature even once being here.
Ben sat up, gazed at the hoof prints in the dirt. The laughter echoed once more through the forest, bringing a fact to Ben’s mind that twisted his stomach anew.
He had not traveled with friends in this part of the forest.
He had been alone.
The smell hit him once more before Ben stood on shaking legs covered in something wet and began to run.
Story by: Mckenna
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