26 Nov Campfire
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"Campfire"Written by Daniel Martins (a.k.a. Abtrogdor)
Estimated reading time — 19 minutes
The drive out took a few hours. As I pulled off the main highway and onto the branching road, I was struck with the sense that I was going to be very alone out here. I’m an avid hiker but since many of the hiking trails I’d normally frequent had become almost crowded as of late, for this trip I’d settled on a trail I’d vaguely heard of but knew next to nothing about. It’d lead up towards some serious wild territory, with nothing around for hundreds of miles. The land was technically part of one of the nearby National Parks but was only barely mentioned on the Park’s website. I suspected this was because it was much further out than the regularly visited trails, only accessible from a branching road that pretty much led to nowhere.
My plan was to head into the wilderness and camp out overnight under the stars. I live in a desert State (no, I won’t tell you which one), and I figured there’d be some stunning views of the constellations in the cloudless sky at night, especially since it was forecast to be a moonless night. I’d already walked the popular day trails in the area, so I was looking into for something a bit farther afield – the plan was to camp out under the stars and head back in the morning. The deserted road suggested I was right in thinking that nobody came this far out. Should be a good chance to relax and get away from it all.
Eventually, I reached my destination and pulled off the asphalt of the road and into the gravel of the parking area, tires crunching as I slowed to a stop off to one side. “Parking lot” would have been too generous a title; it was really just an unsealed area next to the highway with a signpost announcing the entrance to National Park territory. The area was almost empty, only a single other car parked up. I got out and stretched, looking around and spotting the low sign that marked the trailhead. As I did, I took a second glance at the other parked car.
It looked like it’d been there for an age. All four tires were flat, although they didn’t look to be punctured. Every surface was dusty – I looked back at my car which was lightly coated from the drive in – but this was well and truly caked on. There were no broken windows, and it didn’t look like it had been stolen and dumped – it didn’t look damaged at all. “Must’ve been there a while”, I thought to myself, wondering why no one from the parks service had had it towed by now. I made a mental note to call them when I got home.
I opened the door to my back seat and got out my pack, hat and rifle. I’d thought hard about whether to bring the rifle – it was extra weight after all, and odds were I wouldn’t need it; but last time I’d been out hiking overnight I’d had a far-too-close encounter with a coyote that’d left me wishing I had something more than rocks to protect myself with. I figured since it was only a small .22 caliber it wouldn’t be too heavy, and I’d packed it into a light soft-case that’d fit alongside my pack. I reached into my pack for my sunscreen and slathered some on my arms and neck, before turning off my phone (I’d called my sister before I left town to let her know my plans) and stowing it and my keys away, shouldering my things and setting off up the trail.
I’d gone no more than a couple of hundred yards when I slowed to a stop, nose in the air. There was the slightest breeze, but with it came the hint of something behind it. I winced as the warm air hit my face, because the smell it wafted towards me was terrible. “Smells like something died…” I muttered to myself. The breeze died down and the smell went with it. “Ugh,” I said, setting off again and picking up the pace. I couldn’t see any buzzards around, but if there was something dead nearby I didn’t want to be anywhere near it if the wind kicked up again.
The hike in was uneventful – I won’t bore you with all the details, but it was great terrain, a clear and easy trail through the desert shrubland. Some hours in, I was breathing hard as I reached a slightly hillier bit of the trail. I came to the top of the rise and saw that the terrain flattened out ahead into a wide plateau. Looking at the sun, I saw it was mid-afternoon, and decided this was as good a place as any to set up camp for the night. I walked another few minutes before stepping off the trail – spotting a nice flat bit of land where the brush had been cleared away. There were the remnants of a campfire in the center, just a few bits of charcoal and some scorched ground. I nodded to myself, taking off my pack and rifle case and placing them on the ground near the old campfire.
I spent over an hour bringing in firewood, and another half hour breaking it all up into manageable pieces. There was plenty around, lots of low, dead bushes and shrubs around the place. I wanted enough wood for the fire to last easily through the night, the sun was just starting to go down and it was beginning to get a bit chilly. I stood back and looked at my woodpile – it was quite impressive, and probably way more than I’d actually need. “Better safe than sorry” I shrugged to myself. The last rays of daylight were peeking over the horizon as I lit the fire, building it up until it was crackling away merrily. I ate a couple of power bars I’d packed as a cold dinner, swigged some water and sat on the ground looking up at the stars coming out, feeling very peaceful.
That feeling didn’t last very long.
I heard the wind pick up before I felt it. It whistled between the rocks and shrubs, seeming to whirl around, passing me and then doubling back before arriving. It brought a warmth with it that was odd for the desert at night. That wasn’t the only thing it brought though; I sniffed as the breeze kicked up the flames in my little campfire, and screwed up my face. That stench I’d smelled earlier came with it – hot and rotten, like roadkill baking under the sun. I gagged and tried to hold my dinner down.
The campfire flared up as the wind hit it, throwing sparks in the air. I watched as they floated into the sky, bright orange spots against the black, almost blending in with the stars. As they burned themselves out the wind died down, the flames it had kicked up lessening as well. The stench had died back as well; it was still there in the background but not being blown in my face anymore. Once the light from the flare-up had dimmed, everything seemed a lot darker. I looked around and shivered involuntarily, realizing just how dark it suddenly was. I looked up at the sky and wished I hadn’t chosen a moonless night for my hike, looked back towards the fire and then stopped dead – something was wrong.
I blinked hard and looked up again at the sky – the stars… the stars were gone. One second they’d been there, and the next they just… weren’t anymore; as if the wind had blown them out like they were candles. There was nothing overhead; just a sudden blackness all around, seeming to press in against dome of light that my little campfire was throwing out.
“The hell!?” I exclaimed, looking about me. The air hadn’t changed temperature – it was still cool but not cold – but an icy sense of unease was settling over me. I shivered again and tossed a couple of branches on the fire, then drew my jacket closed and zipped it up. Where before I’d been able to faintly see the outline of the scattered shrubs and boulders by the faint starlight, now I couldn’t see a thing. There was no horizon anymore, the suddenly black sky blended in completely with where I knew the mountains in the distance were, and I couldn’t see anything in the darkness that was pressing in around me.
I grabbed my pack and pulled out my phone, turning it on and quickly navigating to the flashlight app. The phone’s flash lit up and cast a harsh light on the ground – and then flickered and died, the phone turning itself off again. I pressed the power button again but the screen stayed stubbornly black. “Shit”, I thought to myself, reaching back into my pack for my keys. I found the penlight on my keyring and turned that on, which also immediately flickered and turned off. I whacked it a couple of times to no avail, before giving up in disgust and stowing my keys and phone back in my pack.
I looked around me, shivering with unease again. It was very dark; I couldn’t see more than 20 feet on either side of the fire. It was almost as if the light was being forced back in on itself. I couldn’t hear anything other than the crackle of the campfire; the whistling of the wind had stopped. That god-awful smell was still in the background though, like there was something dead nearby and – what the hell was that?
I heard a noise, like someone clearing their throat – a thick, wet “heh”. My stomach dropped, my breath catching in my throat for a second. I wasn’t alone out here.
Looking in the direction the noise had come from, I saw a small flash in the darkness, and then another. A tingle ran up the back of my neck as I realized there was something out there, sitting just outside of the reach of the light from the campfire, watching me.
My sister has a little dog, and I remember staying with her once and it looking at me from a dark room down the hall while I was in the brightly lit lounge – I couldn’t see it at all but I knew it was there from the way the light bounced off its eyes, dim yellowy pinpricks in the darkness about a foot off the ground. What I saw was like that.
Only instead of the eyes in the dark being knee-height like my sister’s dog, these were six feet off the ground.
Too tall to be a coyote or even a mountain lion, I thought to myself almost absently, trying to control the fear that was bubbling up inside me. “Yah! Get out of here!” I yelled, standing and waving my arms in the air. It didn’t leave. Instead, the eyes came down a couple of feet, like the thing had lowered its head. I slowly moved to put the campfire between me and it, and it moved in turn. I kept moving around the fire, and it kept moving too. I stopped and stared at it, and it stopped and stared right back. Something else was strange – my feet had crunched the gravel as I turned to face it as it circled, but it made no sound at all as it moved. The darkness hid all but the barest outline and even that was fuzzy at best – apart from what I assumed were eyes, all I could see was a slightly darker spot in the blackness.
Crouching, I picked up a rock and chucked it in the direction of the eye flashes – the rock sailed through the air and I lost sight of it in the darkness, but I’d swear my aim was dead on. It didn’t hit anything; I just heard a ‘crunch’ as the rock fell to the gravel and tumbled away. The flashes in the darkness bobbed up and down slightly – whatever it was, it wasn’t afraid of me and it seemed to be moving closer.
Slowly, very slowly, I reached for the rifle case, unzipping it and taking out my little .22. I pulled the bolt up and back and then forward and down again, chambering a round. As I did, the thing moved again, the eyes coming back and slightly lower, as if it was coiling back on itself – like a cat ready to pounce. I moved my thumb to disengage the safety, pulling the stock tightly into my shoulder and aiming for where I guessed the thing’s center mass would be – a bit more than a foot below where the glint of the eyes were.
“Don’t make me use this!” I yelled at it again. “Just go away!”
I heard a wet sound, like a growl from a dog crunching food in its mouth – and squeezed the trigger.
The sound from my little rifle seemed deafeningly loud, splitting the quiet of the night like lightning splits the sky. I lowered it slightly, peering over the barrel towards the thing.
It hadn’t moved at all after coiling back, it’d stayed right there, ready to pounce. But there was no way I’d missed it, not at this range.
Work the bolt back, I frantically thought to myself – get another round in – re-aim, squeeze the trigger – CRACK! – work the bolt, aim, squeeze the trigger – CRACK! – again – CRACK! – Again – CRACK! – AGAIN!
The hammer came down on an empty chamber. My ammunition was spent, I’d only packed the single 5-round magazine and I had nothing to reload with, I hadn’t counted on needing any more than that. The thing shifted slightly, growling again as it moved. The flash from its eyes in the firelight disappeared, and I lost sight of its outline. I lowered my rifle with shaking hands, switching my grip to clutch the still-warm barrel like a club, ready to swing the stock into whatever that thing was.
THUMP – something solid hit me in the back and I screamed as I spun on the spot, swinging the rifle like a bat. It ‘whooshed’ through the air, hitting nothing. I took a step back, breathing hard as I saw that familiar glint in the dark, just beyond the border of where the light from the fire showed. It’d gotten behind me in seconds, and I hadn’t heard it move at all. But what had hit me, if it hadn’t come into the light? I looked down, and lying at my feet was a single hiking boot.
I glanced back up towards the thing – it hadn’t moved. It was just there, watching me. I looked back at the boot, which wasn’t in the best shape. The fabric was torn and it was caked in reddish-brown mud… “Hang on,” I thought, stooping to pick it up. I shifted it closer to the fire for a closer look.
Blood. The boot was caked in dried blood.
My head swam, and a fire tore through my nerves, the back of my neck prickling madly and my skin turning to gooseflesh. I found myself on one knee, breathing heavily as I mumbled, “Oh, shit… oh, shit…”
I looked back up towards the thing, which still hadn’t moved. I stood, and screamed at it, “WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH ME!?” It didn’t answer. I dropped the boot.
I jumped as there was a small ‘pop’ from one of the branches in the fire, but was suddenly struck by an idea. I moved closer to the fire and spotted a branch that only had one end alight. I pulled it from the blaze and turned to face the thing. It growled again as I held up the branch, which rose to more of a snarl as I threw it towards it.
The blazing stick lit up the night as it tumbled through the air towards the thing, and a horrified thrill ran up my spine as I caught a better glimpse of the outline of it, just for a second before it scuttled away from the light. It was huge – big as a bear but without any of the mass, lean as opposed to bulky. It was dark, so dark that it seemed to flow and blend into the gloom behind it. It had four long legs attached to an almost stumpy torso, but it hadn’t used all four when it moved – it used the front ones (arms?) to push itself upright onto the back legs and then danced madly away on those while its whole body and ‘arms’ jerked from side to side. God, it was so tall! Maybe eight feet high when moving on its back legs, and it never seemed to get fully upright.
The things that glinted in the firelight did seem to be its eyes, and the split-second glimpse of its face I caught was enough to make me take a step back in horror. It looked almost… human? Human but deathly wrong – like if you took a person’s face and stretched it forward so it was long, like a horses’ head. The mouth though, it wasn’t small like a horse’s, it stretched all the way back to where the face met the rest of the skull. The mouth was stuffed full of far too many rotten looking teeth, stained red in places. I think my legs gave way then.
I found myself sitting on the ground, hugging my knees and rocking back and forth. What in the hell was that thing, and what did it want with me? The bloodstained boot didn’t exactly fill me with hope that it was friendly.
I used a shaking hand to grab some more sticks out of my woodpile and feed the campfire. Whatever that thing was, it hadn’t come into the light, and it’d moved away when the fire came near it. I gave a silent thanks to whatever urge had made me drag in as much wood as I had. The eyes had stopped moving again, and it seemed the thing was content for the time being just to sit in the dark and stare at me. I stared right back, trying to think of what the hell I was going to do, and we stayed like that for a while, looking at each other.
Somewhere not too far away, a coyote howled. The eyes turned, and bobbed up and down slightly in the direction of the howl – was it sniffing the air? It turned back to face me and it… grunted? Whatever the noise was, it sounded dissatisfied somehow. The thing turned away again and I saw the barest smudge of an outline moving off into the dark towards the howls. Within seconds it was gone from sight, and as it faded from view so did its stench.
I sat there, frozen for a moment; and then burst upwards, boots scrabbling for grip on the loose gravel as I came to my feet. I frantically grabbed at my pack and swung it onto one shoulder, stooped to pick up my rifle and swung that by its strap onto the other shoulder, and then hesitated, torn by indecision. Dare I risk it?
I clenched my jaw and tried to swallow down the rising sense of fear. I picked up one foot and took a single step away from the fire, wincing as the gravel crunched underfoot, which seemed deafeningly loud in the silence that was broken only otherwise by the fire. I peered around, muscles tensing with anticipation, but saw no sign of the thing. I took another step – the gravel crunched again – still no sign of it. I relaxed ever so slightly, took a deep breath and started briskly walking towards the trail. Once I hit it, I could turn right and I was confident enough I could follow it back to the parking lot, even in the dark.
I’d taken no more than a half-dozen hurried steps when I stopped dead, frozen in place. I could smell it again, the reek bringing the bile up in my throat. Heart racing, I turned my head slightly to the left and saw that glint in the dark.
The light from the fire had dimmed as I’d moved away from it, but I was still just close enough for me to see that familiar reflection of the flames in its eyes again – a rumble came out of the darkness – a growl? I slid my front foot backwards, slowly moving back towards the fire, never taking my eyes off where it seemed to be in the dark. I reached the fireside and slid my pack and rifle off my shoulders, laying them on the ground and sitting down next to them.
As I did, I heard the coyote howl again. The thing seemed to grunt, and then it faded into the darkness as it turned away from me. What the hell was I going to do? It was like the thing was playing with me – but I wasn’t going to risk making a run for it again. No way did I want it to catch me in the dark. The darkness had seemed to kill my phone and flashlight when it settled in, and any flaming torch from the fire I took would burn out well before I made it back to my car. I still had my lighter, but there was no way that’d make enough of a difference to keep it away.
The coyote began to howl once more, but the howl cut off quickly, turning into a snarl. I listened closely as the snarls became pained and then desperate yelps, and held my breath as they cut off, replaced by the sounds of something snapping, crunching and splattering. I breathed deeply, listening as I tried to slow my hammering heart down. Nothing.
Once again, all I could hear was the crackling of the fire. I shut my eyes, listening harder, and shrieked as something hit the ground next to me, scrabbling backwards on my butt away from it; waiting for it to leap up and grab me. I’d gotten a few yards away when I stopped scrabbling and just sat there hyperventilating, staring at the ruined pile of grey fur and red gore that lay in front of me.
It was the coyote. Or, what was left of the coyote; it was a mess. It looked like every bone in its body had been pulverized and its front legs were completely missing, but raggedly missing, like they’d been torn away rather than cleanly cut or bitten off. Worst of all, its head was facing the wrong way, twisted around until it was entirely backwards. Blood seeped from the open mouth, collecting into drops that each hit the dusty gravel with a soft ‘splat’.
I shuddered, and hugged my knees tight, rocking back and forth slightly. This must’ve been the coyote I’d heard howl earlier, the one the thing went after. Oh shit – I stood – where was it now?
I circled on the spot, looking out into the dark – there! On the other side of the fire, just beyond the border where the light ended, that familiar reflective yellow double flash. It was still watching me. “FUCK YOU!” I screamed at it. I strode to the dead coyote, grabbed it by its still-warm tail and swung it around, casting it away from the fire towards the thing. It flumped to the ground not too far away from where the light ended. The thing didn’t move. I fought to get my breathing under control, kicking dust over the small patch of blood that had pooled where the coyote lay. I looked at my hands and they were sticky with blood too; I grabbed my water and rinsed the worst of it off, wiping my hands on my pants to dry them.
I heard a grunt, and turned to see one long, impossibly thin limb reaching in from the shadow to grab the dead coyote by the tail, slowly dragging it out of the light. It was hard to see any detail – it was almost as if it was radiating the darkness out from itself – but I could see that it seemed to end in a hand that again looked human, but wrong… The fingers were way too long, and they were jointed in too many places; it looked like someone reaching out with a collection of tarantula legs on the end of a stick.
It made a pained sort of sound while it was doing it – maybe the light hurt it? The coyote disappeared from view, leaving bloody drag marks in the dust, and I heard horrific ripping and squelching sounds; I guessed the thing was tearing it apart and eating it. The eating noises eventually stopped, and the thing grunted, but it sounded unsatisfied somehow. It went back to staring at me. Whatever this thing was, it wanted me, not just the coyote.
I picked up some more branches and built up the fire, then sat down and stared at the reflective eyes in the dark. I don’t know how long I sat like that for, it must’ve been hours. I built up the fire a couple more times and went back to staring at the thing. It’d grunt or growl every now and again, but then it shut up – for the time being, it seemed satisfied just to sit and stare. Eventually, I found my blinks getting longer, each time it was harder to open my eyes again. God, I was so tired… the adrenaline spike had long since worn off and I felt wiped out. Just a second, I’ll just close my eyes for a second I thought to myself, as my head began to nod forward.
I jerked bolt upright and wide awake at the thrill that ran up my spine as I heard a wet, throaty “heh” from behind me. I’d fallen asleep! The fire had burned down low and was mostly just embers, only emitting a faint glow – just enough for me to see that the thing had crept much closer as the light had diminished. I must’ve dozed off for an hour or more.
Leaping to my feet, I grabbed some branches from the pile and hurled them into the remnants of the fire, and then fell to my hands and knees so I could frantically blow into the embers, desperately trying to stir them back into life. The light flared up as they caught alight and I saw it sitting there, way too close – squatted on its haunches like a dog sitting; long back legs folded up so what I assumed were knees were up by the shape of its head, and arms extended down to the ground in front of it, holding its torso upright. The light glinted from its eyes as it shifted its head to stare at me again, and it hissed as it pushed itself backwards, retreating from the light. As I lost sight of it in the darkness I heard that wet sound again, like a long tongue smacking against lips.
I shuddered. I’d gotten a better look at its eyes in the light this time – they were filled with hunger (and… pain?) but there was an intelligence there. Human eyes, not entirely those of an animal. It went back to looking at me, only this time it wasn’t silent. It kept growling and grunting, and the noises it was making grew in volume and frequency, it almost sounded desperate. It circled the fire, eyes disappearing from view and then reappearing elsewhere where it’d growl from the dark, but it never came into the firelight. I didn’t say anything, I just fed the fire and hoped that my stock of firewood would hold out a little longer – I’d brought a lot in but it was diminishing by this point.
Then, finally, the thing made a noise I hadn’t heard yet – a hiss higher in pitch than anything else it’d made – and it looked up at the sky, before staring at me once more. It made a disgusted sort of noise, and then turned away. I heard the wind kick up and I could smell the thing’s stench again, and then all of a sudden it was just… gone.
As the thing went, the smell and the suffocating darkness went with it – and I realized I could see clearly around me again! The sky had that deep, dark blue color you see before sunrise and I could see a few pinpricks of light that could only have been stars. It got progressively lighter and lighter until – there! The sun peeked up over the horizon, and I’d never been as happy to see the light of day as I was now.
I waited another hour and a half, until the sun was well in the sky and things were starting to heat up before I dared to make a move. I picked up my things and got the hell out of there, shuddering as I passed the remnants of the coyote, just a bloody patch of grey fur and shattered bones. I jogged the whole time, never pausing, never stopping, and never looking behind me. Every time I slowed I’d hear the wind whistle again and I’d catch a whiff of something foul, so I’d pick up the pace again. Hours later, I was just about ready to drop when – there, the start of the trail! I could see down to the carpark. Without stopping my jog, I reached back and pulled my backpack off, holding it in one hand and awkwardly cradling the gun case in my other arm as I scrabbled in the pack for my car keys. I almost tripped as the hard trail gave way to the gravel of the carpark, but managed to keep my footing as I scrabbled towards the car.
I fumbled with the keys for what seemed an age, before throwing open the door, tossing my things across and slinging myself into the driver’s seat, both hands gripping the wheel with a white-knuckle grip. I looked at myself in the rear-view mirror, and was taken aback at the haggard, wild-eyed figure that stared back at me. There were rivers of clear skin in the dust caking my face, I realized I’d been sobbing with relief since I’d been able to see the end of the trail.
I looked back out at where the trail started, and saw the dust from the path swirl as the wind picked up once more. I hurriedly rammed the keys into the ignition. I gunned the engine, throwing the car into gear, pulling around quickly and peeling out onto the road. As I sped back towards the city, it wasn’t until I hit the main highway before my heart stopped pounding, and my breathing slowed to normal levels.
A few hours later (less time than it took to drive out there, I was not doing the speed limit) I was home, with my doors locked and the sunlight streaming in through the windows. My phone turned on after I’d plugged it in – “Now you work!” – so I messaged my sister so she wouldn’t call search and rescue. A day or so later, I called the parks service and told them that I’d been stalked by some mountain lions on the trail, and they removed the area from the information section of their website (nobody really went there anyway, they said). I didn’t mention the abandoned car or the bloody boot, and didn’t tell anyone what had really happened – and after all, who would have believed me if I did? There was no point in sending anyone else into danger.
Later, I started reading up on some local folklore, but stopped pretty quickly – I came across something that made me start to shake at the description of it. I’m fairly sure I now know what the thing was, but I decided I wouldn’t look anymore into it and I’d just try to put it all out of my head. It hasn’t really worked, my breath catches in my throat every time I go into a dark room while I fumble around for a light switch.
I don’t hike much anymore. If I do go hiking then it’s strictly along well-used trails, and I never, ever do an overnighter. I had work transfer me to a branch a long, long way away from the desert, I couldn’t deal with feeling a hot wind any more – I’m somewhere where it snows now. My encounter left me with a lot of unanswered questions, but one question ranks above all the rest, and it’s something I’m not really sure I want to know the answer to:
If that thing I read about is real, then what else is real – and hiding out there in the dark?
Credit: Daniel Martins (a.k.a. Abtrogdor)
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