KC’s eyes glittered with enthusiasm, shooting stars streaking against a dark blue sky. “Let’s go camping.”
“Camping?” I smiled. “That thing with the bugs and the bears?”
“Bugs build character.”
“Trust me—anything we meet out there will be more scared of you than you are of it. Come on, it’ll be fun—just the two of us.” KC’s grin looked like it belonged to a superhero.
I should have been more cautious. What kind of person wants to go camping with someone they met only a couple of weeks before? It was barely enough time for a movie and a cup of coffee. But I needed a break from work, and it did sound fun. An adventure in the fresh air and green earth with KC of the glittering eyes.
“All right,” I agreed. “When should we go?”
The sun was bright and warm when we set out for our trip that morning. A light breeze ruffled our hair, birds chirped, squirrels and chipmunks scurried around us—it seemed as though all of us were excited to get going. The ancient deciduous forest lived up to the hype, with the sacred aura of a cathedral at midnight and towering trees like giants, silent sentinels watching over us. Ripples flowed down my back like a waterfall and I realized it was the stress of the week melting away. This. I needed this.
But somewhere between leaving the car behind and reaching the site where we would set up camp, something changed. A chill crept through the trees, the birds went quiet, and the sun disappeared into shadows. The squirrels and chipmunks had long since abandoned us. The ripples down my back twisted and tangled, making my jaw clench as the stress seeped back in. Time passed and we spoke less, until, like the birds, we stopped talking altogether. My pack weighed on me more with each step, as though it were absorbing the atmosphere, soaking in the cold and the tension. The straps dug into my shoulders, laden with more than simply the physical contents they were carrying.
Suddenly, I jumped. “What the—?”
KC stopped, a few steps ahead of me. “What is it?”
“I don’t know.” I stared at the spot where I was sure I’d seen something—movement, a figure. All I saw now were trees and shadows. “I must have imagined it.”
“That happens sometimes. We need to keep moving if we want to set up camp before dark.”
“Is it much farther?” I asked as we started walking again.
“About an hour, maybe a bit more, depending.”
“Depending on what?”
“We don’t want to stop if there are other people around. This trip is about getting away.”
“Sure, but we don’t want to be too isolated, either, right?”
KC didn’t answer. We lapsed back into silence.
Later, after the campsite was set up and night had draped itself over us, we sat around the fire drinking burnt cocoa, the edge of bitterness cutting through the unhealthy amounts of marshmallows we’d added. KC insisted on telling ghost stories, even though I said I wasn’t a fan, so I only half listened as I watched the mist that drifted and swirled around the trees.
“After hearing about the apparition that was said to haunt the house, a man of science known for his reason announced that he would spend the night there and wait to see if the ghost appeared…”
A movement, not quite visible through the trees, caught my eye. I wasn’t sure what I’d seen, or if I’d actually seen anything at all. But the mist in that spot was disturbed, and so was I.
“After waiting patiently late into the night, the man suddenly heard the rattle of chains. When he looked, he saw the ghost of a dishevelled old man with a long, straggly beard. The spectre wailed and rattled the chains that bound his hands and feet…”
The story must have been getting to me because now I thought I heard a rattle. Only, it wasn’t chains—it was something more…organic. A shudder crawled up my back. I sipped my cocoa and tried to ignore it.
“Finally, as the sun rose, the ghost drifted into the garden and sank into the ground with a final wail. The man marked the exact spot where the phantom had disappeared…”
Another movement caught my eye. Then another. I didn’t know what I was seeing but I knew it had to be something causing the chaotic explosion of mist in each spot. Maybe it was insects disturbing the haze. Or mice. Or ghosts. Whatever it was travelled around the circle of the clearing. The next one would be right behind me. I forced myself not to turn around. It was nothing. I was imagining it. Everyone always told me I had an overactive imagination.
“The next day the man returned with a pair of workers, and when they dug in the spot he’d marked—”
A gust of wind out of nowhere, over my shoulder, in my ear. But no, it wasn’t wind. It was long and drawn out. There was a blissful moment of silence where I chided myself for letting the dark and the stories spook me. And then a faint whisper, growing, expanding. The wind was drawing back into itself, like…an inhalation. Something was breathing behind me.
I jumped up, spilling the remnants of my cocoa. I spun around and stared at nothing. Just darkness and trees and some mist along the ground.
“Wow—I didn’t even get to the creepy part,” KC said.
I looked all around, trying to find the source of what I’d seen and heard. “Didn’t you hear that?”
“Breathing.” As soon as I said it, I knew how ridiculous it sounded. But my heart wouldn’t stop thudding like it was trying to escape my rib cage. “I saw something too—in the trees.”
“You’ve been jumpy all day.”
“I feel like something is stalking us.” There, I said it. Even as I felt stupid for admitting it, part of me was relieved to get it out.
KC didn’t look impressed. “Who would even be out there?”
“Not who,” I muttered. “What.”
“Oh? Well in that case…” KC walked up to the edge of the trees.
“What are you doing?” I asked, panic catching in my throat.
“Hey, stalker!” KC called out. “Why don’t you come out where we can see you? Have a cup of cocoa. Do you like marshmallows?”
“Please stop.” I wanted to shout it, but it came out as a whisper.
KC kept going. “No? Well, you’re welcome to join us whenever.”
Another movement to KC’s right. A spot blacker than the blackness around it. The shape was too elongated to be a person, the movements too disjointed and jittery. It was put together wrong. I felt it staring at me.
KC turned to look back at me. “No stalker. Feel better?”
I was still staring into the blackness, but the thing was gone. “Yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”
I didn’t sleep well that night. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d seen, or thought I’d seen. Strange shapes seemed to come at me from the corners of the tent. When I did finally drift off, I woke in a panic thinking I heard those rattling breaths again, but it was only KC snoring next to me. I watched as the tent filled with light and decided to get up and start making breakfast.
Cooking put my mind at ease, and the smell of frying eggs and bacon made the weirdness of the night before seem distant and silly. Too much time spent in cities had me jumping at shadows—literally. I shook my head.
Any remnants of anxiety still clinging to me were forgotten as we got busy with the normal routine of getting on with things. We spent the day cleaning up around camp, fishing, making and eating lunch, and then more cleaning. I’d never have guessed how much dishwashing was involved in camping, or that I’d be the lucky one assigned the job. I was off on my own, struggling for what felt like an hour to scrub a burnt bit of fish off the pan, when something in the water caught my eye. I stopped to look into the rocky depths of the creek and saw a flutter, a dark shape bending and unfurling through the current.
I looked closer and the water that had been bubbling along seemed to still. I saw my reflection, distorted and weak, and underneath it, the dark shape. Elongated. Not moving quite right. I watched, frozen, too scared to stir as it rose through my reflection. I thought it was going to come at me, envelop me, but then I saw in the water’s mirror that it was behind me. It loomed over me, watching while I held my breath, staring at it in the water. It seemed to be pulsating, and then I heard that breathing again. Long wheezes in and out. A loose sound with every inhale and exhale, like jumbled bones being shaken together. A crack appeared where its face might be, if it had one. The crack started out small and spread, stretching across the shadow until there was a line from one side to the other. The gap widened and I saw teeth: long, silvery, sharp needle rows of teeth.
I whirled around and found myself staring into a pair of eyes, silver like mercury, but darker, as though oxidized. They stared back at me and wouldn’t let go. Not that I wanted them to. They were so strange, so beautiful. I forgot all about the teeth.
Suddenly, KC’s voice.
“What’s taking so long—”
The shadow was gone and I was staring at KC. I smiled a smile that was too wide. It stretched across my face and split me apart until there was nothing holding me together.
I woke up back at the car, the sun shining down on me like nothing had happened. I didn’t know how I got there or even what day it was.
I wanted to go for help but my legs wouldn’t work. I could move them, but not in the direction I wanted. It didn’t matter anyway; I didn’t have the car keys. I called out until some hikers heard me, my voice shaking, echoing as though it were coming from somewhere else.
After the police arrived, I heard them say that I must have some kind of post-traumatic stress because apparently I wasn’t making much sense. They still managed to find the campsite, though; what was left of it. And KC. Eventually.
I visited KC in the facility once. We didn’t really talk, although I tried. KC just stared at the wall with dull eyes like I wasn’t there. Until I started talking about the trip. Then the screaming started. The nurses hurried me out of the room and sent me home after that. They said KC needed calm. They said it would probably be better if I stayed away.
I still don’t really remember what happened by the creek. Bits and pieces come to me sometimes but they feel like someone else’s memories, and most of it makes no sense. I have dreams that something is next to me at night, breathing, wheezing in my ear, but when I wake up I’m alone. Maybe the police were right about the trauma. But I feel okay most of the time. Good, even. Other than the restlessness. I can’t seem to sit still. I catch people staring at me when my arms twitch and my legs shake. They leave in a hurry when they see me looking at them.
The city bothers me now, the noise, the buildings. Why is there so much concrete? It stifles. I need to fill my lungs with fresh air. I need the freedom of the forest, the dark, cool places where I can stretch my limbs and glide through the shadows. I’m thinking of going back soon. I think it would soothe me. Maybe it’ll help me remember. I know a spot that’s popular with campers. Maybe they can help me.
Aspasía S. Bissas writes about pretend monsters and real fears. She is the author of the dark fantasy novel Love Lies Bleeding. Find out more at her website. She is also available on Facebook and Twitter.
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