It was mid-October in New York, but summer hadn’t quite given up on us yet. The day we’d chosen for the hike was likely to be one of the last good ones before the cold weather set in – we being me, Marisol, Allison, and Dexter.
Dexter was something of an expedition enthusiast – a real outdoorsy type, which is something that, personally, I would never understand. I didn’t even know the guy very well, he was a friend of my brother’s. The only reason I was invited was because he had specifically asked for a few locals with thick skin to accompany him on a weekend-long trek through Drery Forest. Dearest Brother had volunteered me, as well as Allison and Marisol.
Those two I did know. Marisol was my brother’s ex-girlfriend, and Allison had been a friend since childhood. We’d never hung out as a trio, but I didn’t find it difficult to picture. I rarely had a hard time getting along with people.
Dexter showed up at six in the morning on the day. I was barely sentient, an iPhone in one hand and a Red Bull in the other, constantly rubbing underneath glasses at my eyes with the heel of my palm. He was much taller than me, and had a lot more gear. His eighteen-pound backpack didn’t seem to faze him.
“Good to meet you, AJ,” he said pleasantly, and held out a well-toned hand for me to shake. I stuck my phone in my pocket to follow through.
After a long yawn that surely gave an excellent first impression, I nodded sportingly and said, “You, too. If I collapse from exhaustion, just tuck me in a bush somewhere and pick me up on the way back. I probably won’t even notice.”
Dexter laughed brightly. “The ride up to our starting point is about twenty-five minutes. You can sleep in the car if you like.”
I could tell that Dexter and I were going to get along.
He didn’t waste time. We left two minutes after that, once he was sure he had everything and my brother had finished getting ready. He was driving us down so that we weren’t leaving a car on the side of the road for three days.
Next we picked up Allison, and then Marisol. I stayed in the car and tried very hard to keep myself asleep through the packing and moving.
I was shaken awake by Allison what seemed like seconds later, only now, we were pulled over and surrounded by trees. The golden sunrise was masked to our left, and Dexter and Marisol were unpacking the trunk.
The first thirty minutes of the walk were mostly – at least for me – an agonizing attempt to wake up, so I don’t remember much. I eased into consciousness by watching the forest take form around me.
The trees were tall and absolutely beautiful. Most of the leaves blended from bright yellow to vibrant red, spilled along the forest floor or tucked away in high branches. Anywhere uncovered by leaves there was either fresh, healthy grass or wet-smelling dirt. The sun was making its slow ascent – which only added to the effect. It almost tempted me to delete my Twitter and become a forest-hermit.
Instead, I started taking pictures.
At the sound of the automated shutter click, Marisol, who was right in front of me, turned around. She kept walking, but looked at me skeptically, her dark skin radiant and darker hair bouncing from her fluid motions.
“Selfies? Really? You don’t get the whole nature thing, do you, AJ?”
I smiled at her indulgently. “Pictures of the forest, actually,” I corrected. “Human memory sucks. Now, I can look back at this perfect image whenever I want to.”
“Sure,” Marisol agreed lightly. “Until I catch you texting and throw your phone in a river.”
“I don’t mind you paying for a replacement,” I assured her. “Besides, I highly doubt I’ll get service out here.”
I heard Allison – tall, thin, with freckles, and sandy hair tucked beneath a knit beanie – snort ahead of Marisol. “Yeah, as if you’ve never tampered with it to get a better signal,” she said.
“So, Dex,” I redirected loudly and pointedly. “How did you get started with the whole hiking aesthetic? I get it. This place is gorgeous.”
“That’s a little bit why I chose it,” Dexter admitted thoughtfully. “I knew I was unfamiliar with the area and that I’d be traveling with people I’ve never met before – which isn’t unusual for me. Hiking like that just means that it’s usually more about scenery than exercise.”
Allison laughed behind him. “It’s nice that you’re so gracious,” she teased. “But, if that’s only a ‘little bit,’ what’s the ‘a lot a bit’ of your decision?”
Dexter shot a look at her like he was trying to decipher whether or not she was kidding. “Hell’s Asshole,” he said, as if it was obvious.
“I’m sorry, did you just say Hell’s Asshole?” I echoed.
Again, Dexter checked behind him, making direct eye contact with me. He looked almost disappointed.
“You guys really don’t know the legend in your own town?” he asked. “That’s upsetting. I grew up in India and I know your local history better than you.” He shook his head dejectedly, but I had the funny feeling he wasn’t going to hold this against us.
“I for one would like to be informed immediately of my town’s Asshole leading to Hell,” I said candidly.
Dexter gave a superfluously pensive hum. “From what I understand, campers who go through this part of the woods have strange experiences. Equipment disappearing, hearing voices at night, memory loss… The place is really called Hell’s Beacon, but the locals created a charming colloquialism: Hell’s Asshole.”
“For the first time,” I said passionately, “I’m proud to be an American.”
+ + +
It was much later that Dexter, quite suddenly, stopped in his tracks. It almost led to that comical domino effect of us bumping into each other’s backs.
“What is that…” Dexter muttered, peering ahead.
“What?” Allison echoed, and she too squinted into the distance. Marisol and I abandoned our places in line to join the group. And, faintly, I could see what they were talking about. Something was bumbling around in the distance, banging into trees and stepping loudly on twigs, as if it couldn’t see clearly in the bright, afternoon light.
“Is that… a kid?” I asked hesitantly.
“Should we go help?” Allison’s suggestion sounded weak.
So I volunteered and told the rest of them to wait here. The second I started to traverse the brambles, Marisol yanked me back by the hood of my sweatshirt.
“AJ, you are brave to the point of stupidity,” she hissed.
“I prefer to think of it as martyrism.” I unzipped the front of my hoodie to keep my neck skin from pinching just as Marisol let go.
“I’m coming with you, then,” she ordained, and stepped authoritatively over a fallen branch, in the direction of the whatever-it-was. I tripped over myself in my eagerness to follow, earning a solid streak of dirt on my chin. Marisol rolled her eyes and picked me up, then together we went to investigate.
It wasn’t far, so I wasn’t very concerned with losing Dex and Allison, but there was still the overbearing sense of what the fuck. The kid – or whatever the hell it was – had collapsed at about the same time as I ate shit. Now, it was lying on the ground like a starfish.
As we approached, I was more and more apprehensive. At the first sign of ax-murderer suspicions, I would bodily drag each and every one of us out of there.
My train of thought was cut off by Marisol’s horrified gasp.
“AJ, what the hell happ…”
“I don’t know,” I breathed. Then, “Shit. Shit! I don’t know.”
Neither of us could look away. It was fucking awful. We couldn’t tell the gender because the kid was only wearing what really looked like a fucking satanic black cloak. No shoes. The kid had clearly collapsed from… Over-exertion? Exhaustion? Something. The skin was pallid and smooth, far from sun-kissed. Both eyes were closed tight, countering the mouth that was open in a perpetual silent scream of terror.
But none of that was the worst part. The worst part was the barbed wire wrapped so tightly around their head that it was actually embedded into and overgrown with flesh. The skin around it was warped but smooth, like brush strokes from an oil painting. Whatever had happened, it had happened a long time ago, and this kid had been made to live with it. It was obvious why a body might give out.
“We need to call the police,” I whispered.
Marisol hit me on the shoulder. “Fucking obviously,” she hissed. “Get back to the others. Do you have a signal?”
With my phone, it wasn’t out of the question. I dug it out of my pocket to check – but even I couldn’t extend my service range indefinitely. I shook my head. “Nothing.”
“Fuck. Let’s get back, then.”
We turned toward the path to reunite with Dex and Allison – but it was empty. We could see our own footprints, and beyond that the path, and beyond that an infinite backdrop of trees. But Dex and Allison were nowhere in sight.
“They wouldn’t leave us,” Marisol said, looking around in a flurry of panic.
My mouth was dry. “Maybe it was the guy that did THAT to a kid.”
“Shut your fucking mouth, AJ, I don’t need that shit in my head right now. What do we do?”
“We can’t get out of here without Dex.” I realized it as I said it, still looking around with dim hopes that one of us would suddenly spot the others.
So we stayed together and made our way toward the path. I tried shouting, and Marisol kept attempting to discern one landmark from another, but in the end, we weren’t even definitely sure which way we’d come from.
Only when my throat was threatening to give out did I finally shut up. “How can they not hear us?” I demanded of Marisol, though we both knew that I wasn’t expecting an answer. My voice was hoarse.
“Jesus Christ, AJ, we can’t just sit here. We’ve been walking all day, and we barely have enough supplies to last one fucking night. We have to pick a direction and start walking. We’ll have to come out somewhere eventually. What’s the direction we’re most sure we came from?”
She swiveled around and pinpointed one way, based on some supposition that I couldn’t fathom, so, together, we hesitantly set off. It wasn’t long before that plan fell to shit.
“Okay, wait right here,” Marisol ordered. “I need to piss. I’m going behind that tree, I’ll be right back.”
I raised both eyebrows. “Are you serious? We can’t split up, Marisol.”
“AJ,” she hissed, mouth drawn forward into and angry grimace, “I am currently lost in the middle of the fucking woods with my bladder about to burst because I have been walking for seven hours. If you try to take this one fucking moment of peace and privacy from me, I will fucking murder you and find the way home myself. Sorry that I can’t just unzip my pants, take out my magic fucking sperm wand, and immediately be accepted by society when I need to eradicate toxic wastes from my body. Wait here.”
I knew Marisol. She was a feisty, determined person, who was usually very angry when she knew was right and someone contradicted her. I also knew that she was only yelling at me because she was stressed out, so I left it at that. With my nod of affirmation, she turned on heel and disappeared behind a large cedar.
Not a moment later, she returned, brushing off the front of her shirt. She seemed to be in a better mood at least. I was glad she’d gotten herself together.
“Okay, let’s go,” was all she said. She started walking, but I stood planted. She turned back, looking annoyed. “I said come on, AJ.”
I raised an eyebrow and pointed west, nearly the complete opposite direction she’d set off on. “That’s not the way we were going,” I pointed out. She scowled.
“I have a better feeling about this way,” she said simply, but her tone made it clear that there were no more questions to be asked on my part. So, of course choosing to stick together rather than argue, I fell into step behind her.
Just as dusk hit, we began to hear voices. I perked up instantly and faced them. They seemed pretty far off, a few hundred feet toward the east, but it was enough to spring us both into motion. Marisol darted forward into the underbrush, faster than I had ever seen her run, uncharacteristically so – I lost sight of her in seconds.
“Marisol, wait, what the fuck!”
I did my best to follow her based on intuition alone, for a couple of reasons: I didn’t want her to get lost when we were so close to more people, I didn’t want her to find them only to realize that they were thugs or worse, and, most importantly, I really did not want to be fucking alone in the dark woods. I would be dead by morning.
I was wiped out before I’d made it thirty feet in her direction. A branch I hadn’t seen slapped me in the face and I feel onto my ass. It made me lose any bearings I’d had – Marisol could be anywhere. Most likely, however, she would have gone toward the voices, so I decided to find those next.
When I stood up, I hit my head again, although it wasn’t on the branch. It was startling enough to make me shout, though.
I grabbed it with one hand and ducked backward so I could make it out properly. And I was very surprised to find it was a doll.
What was worse, it appeared to be hanging from the branch by its neck with a length of twine. The most horrifying part of all was the way it was dressed. Barbed wire was pressed into the head, a dark blue hoodie, and, specifically, a fresh streak of dirt spread over its chin.
“What the fuck…?”
It was obviously supposed to be me. But… How had it gotten here, where the chance I would see it was infinitesimal to none? Who would make it? Who had even been around to see me? Was someone spying on me, even right now?
Had Dexter done it?
I barely knew him, so it was entirely possible that he was a murderer out for my blood. Maybe he had killed Allison while Marisol and I were distracted, then had led himself safely back to civilization, with the way only he knew. It was horrifying to consider.
But then, if he had left, why would this be hanging here? A place where I would never have found it if not for-
I’d completely forgotten about her. Was it possible that she had run into Dexter, that he had killed her like he had Allison? I must have been too late, it was all my fault.
I spun around, terrified, acting on instinct and ready to defend myself by any means necessary. “Allison!” I cried. I had never been so relieved to see anybody in my life. Allison seemed only slightly concerned to have found her abandoned friend hours after she had deserted me.
“Whoa – are you okay? You’ve been gone for forever. Did you get lost?” she asked warily.
I threw my hands up in outrage. “Are you fucking kidding me? Yes, of course I got lost! You and Dexter fucking deserted us in the middle of the woods fucking hours ago! What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Allison looked completely taken aback, her eyes widening as she struggled to process the influx of information. “AJ, AJ, calm down. What are you talking about?”
My temper flared. “What am I talking about? What are YOU talking about? You practically left me and Marisol out there to die, and now you’re acting like nothing happened!”
“AJ, listen to me,” Allison explained gently. “Nothing did happen. You and Marisol went off the path to investigate, and then you came right back. You were never even out of our sight. You guys said that there was nothing to worry about, that it was just an animal that had died, so we kept going. You were there the whole time. We walked for a bit, then we decided to stop and rest for the night. Twenty minutes ago, you said you needed the bathroom, so you walked away from camp and we haven’t seen you since. I came out here looking for you, and – what’s that in your hand?”
I tried to regulate my heavy breathing. How could she think that we had been with her the whole time? Was she the killer, and not Dexter, trying to lure me into a false sense of security? Was I going crazy, and the fact that I was doubting my friends a symptom? Had I really been with them the whole time?
Wordlessly, I held out the doll for Allison to see. When she realized what I had, that the doll was made in my image, she covered her mouth with shaking hands. “What – what the hell is that?”
I shrugged. Then, having regained some of my courage just by having a familiar face around, I threw the doll onto the ground and stepped on it had hard as I could. It didn’t do much, because the doll was newer, made out of that malleable plastic stuff, but it did get the point across. Whatever was fucking with me was going to have to try a lot harder.
“Where’s Dex?” I asked.
+ + +
Allison navigated us to a small campsite about fifty feet east. Dexter was there, but Marisol, who I’d assumed had followed the voices, was nowhere to be seen. When I voiced that, they both seemed worried.
“We have to go find her,” Dexter said bravely. “She can’t spend a night out here alone.”
We vehemently agreed, but I had to play Devil’s Advocate. “What about our stuff?”
“Marisol is more important than sleeping bags – not that I think anyone or anything is going to chance by this place,” Dexter said. “We fan out, but stay within earshot of each other. AJ, your voice sounds likeshit, so you stay with Allison.” Allison and I nodded our assent.
It wasn’t until Allison and I were just about to leave the campsite, standing next to the bright white electric lamp sitting on the ground, that Allison stopped. She was staring at me with a kind of puzzled horror. Or, not at me rather, but at my face.
“AJ…” she said softly. “Did you fall down… again?”
I gave her a confused look. “What?”
Allison pointed. “The dirt on your chin… You fell… and when you came back it was gone… but now it’s…” She trailed off, unable to look away, and my eyes widened as comprehension dawned.
“I never wiped the dirt off,” I told her solemnly.
She turned to look at the woods as though we were suddenly in the middle of a satanic ritual site. “What sort of a thing can do that… Can take your face and disguise what you see… Shit, now we know how you were in two places at once, this doesn’t even make sense, AJ, oh my God.”
I followed her lead, staring as far into the trees as I could, praying for either conformation or proof of our own stupidity – but there was nothing. The woods were as silent and still as always. “No, I don’t think it’s God,” I corrected halfheartedly.
The worst part was, the doll proved that whatever was out here knew about the dirt on my chin. It had simply chosen not to mimic that once it had infiltrated the group. Instead, it wanted us to piece everything together; it wanted to scare us.
“What do we do?” Allison asked weakly.
“We get Dexter back here, we hold out until dawn, and then we haul ass back the way we came.” Allison nodded faintly but resolutely. “So, first things first, we need for get Dex back here. Can you shout for him?”
Allison stated me in the eyes this time, and she looked utterly terrified at the thought. “What if it knows that we know?”
“If it can put a creepy doll two inches in front of my face, it already knows we’re here,” I said, but I ended it softly, because out of all of the suspicions I’d had for my friends, I couldn’t believe how stupid I was. The only friend I hadn’t suspected, the one who had vanished from sight and then led me right here, on a feeling. Marisol hadn’t been Marisol at all, had she?
“Shit,” I hissed. “I don’t think Dex is looking for Marisol. At least, not the real Marisol.”
“Oh, God, we can’t lose Dex, we’d be stuck in here for days,” Allison moaned, sinking to the forest floor and hugging her knees. I was suddenly wide awake, despite the above-average exertion I’d put my body through today. That being said, I wasn’t sure how long I could run on pure adrenaline, so I was smart enough to add caffeine to the mix.
I knelt beside Allison and swung my backpack around so I could rummage through it. “Here,” I said, handing off a Red Bull to Allison. She took it with uncertainty. “If this thing is fucking with our heads while we’re awake, I don’t want it anywhere near me when I’m asleep.”
That seemed enough to convince her, so we toasted and drank up.
That was when we started to hear it.
Something like a whistle pierced the air. It was like it came from all around us, a sudden torrent of shouts, whispers, jeers, and taunts. I jumped out of my skin and grabbed Allison’s arm. She was giving fearful, tearless sobs, the both of us on our feet again, turning back to back and trying to glimpse what was surely just out of sight.
It was a thousand voices, and yet, unified as one. Each jeer was a cutting, high-pitched shriek, each whisper a tickle ok the back of the neck. Then, there was one shout that stood out from the rest, delivered with a fucking awful, bloodcurdling cackle.
“He’s come out to play, out to play, brace yourselves, the Prince is out! The Prince is out to play! Brace yourselves, the Trickster Prince is out!”
And, like I said, I’m pretty adventurous, but when mysterious shit in the woods starts chanting about Satan in the middle of the night, I’m usually not going to test my luck. I knew we had to get out of there, but there was nowhere to go, and we were helpless without Dexter.
The next shout scared me more than anything, because it was Allison, with a deep, terrified scream:
“LEAVE US ALONE YOU FUCKING BASTARDS!”
My hand on her tightened instinctively, and I couldn’t help but think she’d probably just fucked us over.
But then, miraculously, everything stopped. Which was almost worse.
There was nothing. No crickets, no wind, no leaves rustling together. Fucking silence, that was all.
And then a breathy murmur, which escalated into something horrifying. Quiet, curious voices hissing through the air around us. I nearly shat myself. I didn’t know what they were waiting for. I didn’t know where Dexter was or what happened to Marisol or if I wasn’t still wandering around the woods and actually fucking crazy.
The voices were pulling into a crescendo. There was no crackling this time, no chanting – just the disorganized sound of a thousand people whispering at once. I suddenly got the sense that they were deliberating on us. On what to do with us.
And then it stopped again, this time for good. The were crickets again, but no rustlings. It was as though nothing was moving, but trying still to pretend that it was. I didn’t realize why until I heard Dexter behind me.
“What are you guys still doing here?”
Allison and I both screamed and turned around. There he was, standing tall and stock-still. Behind him, Marisol.
“I found her.”
Her head was bowed low, though she was still looking at us, almost so that only the whites of her eyes were showing. Her fingers were curling and uncurling stiffly at her sides, her mouth open in a grimace, waiting for the chance to growl. Her head was lolling slowly from side to side, sizing us up. Dexter was facing us, so he had no idea.
“What’s going on? Why do you look like that?”
“Dexter, didn’t you hear all that?” I demanded weakly. My eyes were darting from him to Marisol. Allison’s eyes were glued on her in terror.
“Dexter, you fucking idiot! That’s not her, it’s not her! It’s going to kill us all!” Allison screamed, pointing at Marisol.
The growl I’d been expecting didn’t come. Instead, Marisol spoke in a low, throaty voice that seemed to resonate in my spine, and I nearly pissed my pants.
“The Trickster Prince is here to play.”
Dexter spun around, nearly tripping over himself. “Marisol?”
Marisol threw her head back so sharply that I heard a distinct snap, but she seemed unaffected. Her mouth was wide open and laughing, her chest vibrating through the cackles like some sort of broken air conditioner. I felt Allison rip herself from my arm and start sprinting – which was the greatest idea ever.
Dexter took several stunted, alarmed steps back until he was next to me.
“What the fuck?!”
“FUCKING RUN,” I ordered, grabbing him by the shoulder. We abandoned the supplied and tore ass out of there. Marisol stopped laughing as we reached the end of the clearing, and I suddenly heard that same voice just as I’d heard what I assumed were its thousands of little minions.
“The Prince is ready to play! The Trickster Prince will play tonight! Run, run, run, here comes the Prince!”
“We have to help Marisol!” Dexter gasped as we ran. I was so thrown by the statement that I almost stopped to yell at him.
“Are you a fucking idiot?” I shouted angrily. “How the fuck do you think we can help her – if that IS her? Let me just grab my fucking handy dandy exorcist book! Or, better yet, my ancient sword of demon-slaying! Perfect! Fucking brilliant, why didn’t I think of that before? No, fuck that, fuck you, all we’re doing is collecting Allison on our way out of here! And YOU are leading the way, so try not to fucking DIE.” I would’ve gone on, but I ran out of breath at that point, so we carried on as fast as we could and did our best to experience nothing else.
Which didn’t last very long.
An ear-splitting shriek sounded at the same moment the area directly ahead of us lit up with unnatural light. Marisol was standing there, exactly as before, and Dexter and I both screamed as he pulled me to the side and we kept running.
I was already getting a stitch in my side, which was not fucking good when starring as Satan’s plaything.
We dove into the trees, which were strung up with more dolls, exactly as before. There were hundreds of them this time, though, and they came in different variations. Some looked like me, some like Allison, and some like Dexter. None of them resembled Marisol.
I batted them away and we pushed through, careening into Allison, who had collapsed at the place where the path reappeared. I knew we wouldn’t have time to stop, so I started shouting at her to get up.
“There’s no time to cry, stand up, fucking run, let’s go!” I shouted at her. She jumped a foot in the air, shaking, and settled just in time for me to grab her shoulder and drag her after us.
Another shriek sounded, and Marisol appeared at our right. Again, we diverted our course.
“Don’t tire out,” the voice hissed, tickling the back of my neck and spurring me onward.
This was all it wanted. It gave us a calm, peaceful morning to wander directly into the middle of its fucking house, and now we were trapped in the kitchen. The thing was just preparing its fucking dinner before cooking it.
Twice more Marisol jumpscared us. There was a point where we ran into the voices again, and it was like running through a room full of radiators. Allison swears she saw something, but she’s never been able to describe it. I believe her – trees don’t leave bite marks like that.
Apart from that, I don’t remember most of what I’m sure was plenty of stumbling and panicking through the woods. My therapist (Dr. Firske, what a guy. The fourth in a line of exasperated professionals having to deal with my rambling) says that the brain has ways of blocking that sort of thing out to protect itself. I believe that, too.
I still don’t know how the three of us survived. I do have a faint recollection, though, of one moment. It was just as the sky began to turn light gray – we were nearly out of the woods. Nothing had happened for quite a while, so we had slowed to a careful stumble through the brambles. A sudden thought had struck me. As we’d managed to evade it, to get farther and farther from the center of its territory, the attempts against us had become weaker.
I think most of it was luck. I think a lot of it was endurance or, in my case, Red Bull. I think if it hadn’t got all of that terror out of us to begin with, it might have tried harder.
Or maybe its waiting. Or it got distracted. After all, we still don’t know what happened to Marisol. She could be dead, or still lost, or she really was possessed, or God only knew where else. We didn’t want any police wandering in there either, so we claimed that it was always just the three of us.
We are quite literally out of the woods. So for all intents and purposes, it is over.
But it’s not. I can’t stop thinking about the woods. I know it isn’t over.
Credit: Striker Flynn