Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
It was late into July when we decided to visit a place from our past. This would be one of the final nights we would all spend together as friends. There were five of us and we were soon to be going our separate ways. Cooper and I would be starting our college degrees in the fall, him across the state in East Tennessee, and I in Missouri. Lawrence and Amanda were a package deal. They were juniors and had been dating on and off since elementary school, for all the good that did them. They were often times arguing, but always seemed to make up one way or another. Finally, there was Hannah. She was two years younger than us, and the first week of August she was moving across the country. Her father was a software developer and after decades of struggling he was offered a job by some promising start-up company in Silicon Valley.
The week before Hannah was supposed to move she asked us to go out to the field and forest right off Old Union Road. It was a strange request coming from Hannah. She was never the one to suggest we hang out there, but she was always happy to accompany us, and considering the accident she had in the forest nearby, it was stranger still. Perhaps it was for the sake of nostalgia. We had grown up in those woods, playing in that field; there was no way we’d pass up one last chance to be kids together. We arrived at sunset. I parked my car at the top of the hill not far off the road. The field sloped down gradually until it ended at the edge of the thick forest. We spread out our blankets and laid out to stare at the heavens above us. After a couple hours, a lull in our conversation allowed my mind to wander. I turned my head and my eyes caught sight of the trees through the twilight. I began thinking about what lay beyond that tree line.
The initial outset of the forest was dense. A small path designed for a four-wheeler or Mule cut along the surface and followed the tree line. There was no see-able path deeper into the forest without traveling by foot. Many large trees had collapsed either near or across the path from time to time. The caretakers of the land would often drive through and clear the path, moving the large trees to the side. Over the years the build up of fallen debris had created a barrier re-enforced by gnarled branches, saplings, and bramble bushes. It wasn’t worth the effort trying to get a motorized vehicle over the mound, so we always traveled by foot once we got as deep as the path would allow. Besides, we knew it was pointless, as not much farther in was a narrow creek that cut deep into the earth. The easiest way across was a well-timed jump. Otherwise, it was a laborious descent down into ankle deep water and a messy climb out.
The trees of the forest become sparse once further in. That’s when you knew you were almost there. The small trees gave way to ancient oaks and pines that towered over the forest. The shrubs and bushes were mostly gone, and the ground was covered in moss, vines, and dead leaves. Barely visible was a large ridge in the distance at least 25 feet high. Originally a railroad lay on the top of that ridge and cut through these woods, ending in town, but that was many decades ago. Now the track was all but gone. A few ties were left behind, but the metal had been recycled into scrap, or so we thought.
The railroad wasn’t the most interesting part of the forest, however. It was what was at the base of the ridge, a small junkyard, or more appropriately, a dump spot. It wasn’t uncommon to find these places around the more rural parts of the county. You see, the railroad eventually intersected a road many more miles down to the east. The ridge was just wide enough for a truck to travel down, and although it was a very slow drive, it was much faster than driving across the county to the landfill. To the west, the track eventually ended in overgrowth deep into the forest.
The ridge sloped down at a near sheer drop. Some small trees sprouted up from out of the side, but nothing of any substantial growth. The only tree of any size that grew in the junkyard was at the bottom and dead center amongst the morass. The maple was still pretty young by the standards of the trees around it, but it’s bark was strangely dark, much darker than any other tree I had ever seen in the forest.
At the base, all manner of garbage could be found, anything ranging from soda cans to an entire washing machine that was half embedded in the dirt. Radiating out from the ridge, the junkyard formed a semicircle. It occurred to me that the structure of the junkyard was planned. At one point many summers ago we had found the intersection and followed it all the way in. From up above, the uncanniness of the semicircle could be seen. That same adventure ended with Hannah falling down a lesser part of the incline and spending a few weeks in the hospital. It wouldn’t be the last time we visited that place, but an unease about the junkyard would always remain etched into our minds.
Well all knew these woods well. We spent hours upon hours hanging out at the junkyard, just being naïve juveniles, until, of course, Hannah’s fall. We never really went back to the rubble. She had become frightened of the area, and most times it was enough just getting her past the creek. I remember it had been a couple years since I had seen the familiar rubble, but I caught a glimpse of it one late afternoon while we were trekking through. A pang of nostalgia struck me. Hannah urged us to turn back, so we complied.
Someone shifting on the blanket brought me back into the present. My eyes broke from the trees and returned to the stars. There we were, five of us laying out in the field. The forest was not far in front of us, and behind us, the nearest house was almost too far away to see except a small prick of light cutting across the tall grass. Faintly off in the distance I heard the familiar sounds of coyotes barking and howling deep in the woods. It was always an unsettling sound to me, but this time was even stranger. The cacophony continued for quite some time. After about twenty minutes I noticed something else was permeating the sounds of the coyotes, something slightly higher pitched and reminiscent of a bird. Kyuu, kyukuku, kyuuk, followed by a series of clicking noises. I seemed to be the only one that heard it at first. The coyote calls continued for a few more minutes, and then the strange sound happened again.
“What the hell was that?” asked Hannah.
I quickly replied, “I heard it, too, but earlier. I think it’s been happening since the coyotes started.”
“I think it’s some kind of bird,” said Lawrence unconvincingly. Through the darkness I could see his eyes shining, apprehension scrawled across his face. “Well, I think it’s time we when back and put on a movie. I’m bored,” but his voice betrayed him and cracked on the last word.
As we shuffled to stand and gathered the blankets, we heard a rushing sound in the tall grass behind us. Something had cut across between us and the car. Was it a coyote? I had never come face-to-face with a wild animal, especially a scavenger desperate enough to attack 5 of us. That’s when I heard the rushing coming from a different angle. It cut across our path again and all I could see was the tall grass waving in the moonlight. We were all frozen in fear. Had it been the same animal, or another? Almost in answer, the rustling happened again, but this time from two different points; they came to a halt in front of us. We were still at least 50 yards away from the car. The a pack of coyotes had circled around the field and cut us off. There was no way we could make it.
Some weird urge suddenly came to me. I felt exposed, I needed to get out of that field “The forest,” I croaked in a whisper. My chest was tight and I could feel the familiar pangs of heart palpitations incurred by my anxiety. I hadn’t blinked since the second rush. As my eyes flashed closed, I heard the rustle in front of us move forward and come to a stop. I was taken off guard and stumbled backwards. One of the girls let out a short cry. The sudden movement must have startled the animals in the grass as everything around us began moving and rustling. The dread set in completely now. We were surrounded in a wide arc with the forest as our only retreat.
I quickly stood back up when suddenly everything stopped, the light breeze ceased, the grass slowed…The silence enveloped us, and for a moment I thought I had gone deaf, but I was reassured by the sound of blood pumping through my ears.
Kyuu, kyukuku, kyuuk! The shrill cry pierced the silence. It was right in front of us. The animals in the grass were making these noises. Another responded from our left, and then another clicked multiple times from our right.
“Go,” I said exasperatedly. Lawrence spun and sprinted for the forest line, and we were all following close behind. As we approached the black towering trees I could hear the quick footfalls of an animal running parallel to me. I could even hear it’s labored breathing as it raced across the field with us. I lost control of my voice and I let out a guttural scream just as we entered into the darkness of the forest.
We passed through the first line of trees and ran perpendicularly across the Mule trail. My shin slammed into something hard and I felt myself falling. I crashed into a pile of logs and debris that were built up on the side of the path. The wind was forced out of my lungs and I clawed at the bark trying to drag myself over. Something warm wrapped around my wrist and arm and pulled hard. I slid over trees and rolled down the other side.
It was Cooper. He had pulled me over and I could barely make out his face but he had his index finger to his mouth. The other 3 had disappeared deeper into the woods. I heard something stirring back behind us at the tree line. I quietly rolled over and laid on my stomach to see over the barrier. Black four-legged figures paced back and forth in the moonlight. They had stopped at the treeline. Long fur hung off the creatures, but something was odd about the way it moved. There wasn’t a strong wind that night, but the fur moved back and forth like tendrils. These things that were hunting us were not coyotes.
“Where are the others?” I whispered, barely audibly. Cooper grabbed my shoulder and motioned for us to keep moving into the woods. I turned back to look at the creatures at the tree line. One slowly entered into the shadow of the canopy. It was wheezing and panting in strange uneven breaths. It kind of hopped forward and stopped on the Mule trail. My eyes got bigger as more of the animals entered the forest. Cooper tugged at my shoulder and I began pulling myself up. I placed my hand on a branch and I immediately knew it was dry and brittle, but before I could stop myself from applying my weight I felt the branch give way. A loud crack echoed briefly and the creatures chortled their strange sound and rushed into the woods.
We were sprinting again. It wasn’t much farther before we hit the creek, and I knew in this darkness and at this speed I was sure to miss the jump. Falling in would give the creatures enough time to catch up to us. Cooper was only a few feet ahead and very quickly I saw him leap. I estimated and leaped as well. The ground didn’t come up to meet me. Instead, I continued to fall.
I landed and my feet sank into mud up to my knees. The summer heat had mostly dried the creek up; all that was left was a soft sludge along the bottom. I looked around and Cooper was down there with me. He was laying prostrate. I didn’t have time to check if he was alive or dead. I laid in the mud as the rustling of the animals behind us grew louder. They were right on top of us. We were dead. We were dead, and no one knew it. How long would we be missing before anyone came looking? Would they even find our bodies?
The first creature to arrive at the bank leaped over and continued running. Then two or three more. Or was it four? How many of these things were there? As their panting and rustling dissipated I reached out for Cooper. His head was facing the opposite direction and I couldn’t make out if he was breathing in the darkness. My legs were still stuck and he was outside of my grasp. I stretch and writhed in the mud.
When my finger brushed his arm he recoiled violently. His head spun around to meet my own. He grabbed my arm once again and pulled. I could feel my legs coming free, but the suction of the mud ripped the shoes from my feet.
“Are they gone?” he asked. I had to lean down and nearly place my ear against his lips to hear his words. There was a quiver in his voice that made it difficult to completely understand him. “We have to go back and get help.”
“What about the others?” but my question was only met with horrified eyes waiting for the only thing he wanted to hear: a confirmation that we would leave the forest, that we would be safe. I couldn’t do that for him. Despite the overwhelming desire to flee, I couldn’t leave my friends in this hell. It would be nearly two hours before we could get help out here. I shook my head, not really convinced I was making the right choice.
A short whimper escaped Cooper’s lips and he stood. The forest had grown unnervingly quiet. I hoisted myself up and stood where the mud wouldn’t suck me down again. Cooper turned towards the bank in the direction of the car. “I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry.” He whispered and began climbing using twisted roots as steps. I did the same, but only on the opposite side.
“Cooper. You cannot leave us here. Get to the car, lock the doors, wait for us. Do not leave us,” I said as loud as I dare in hopes that I wouldn’t attract unwanted attention. Cooper did not respond.
Once we had both climbed out of the ditch I looked around towards the tree line. Only a few slivers of moonlight on the field could be seen if I looked at just the right angle. We were a ways in, but it was deeper still to the junkyard. Calm momentarily crept over me as once again memories of past summers flashed through my mind’s eye. If my friends had gone anywhere, it was there. Cooper had his back to me, but I knew exactly what he was doing: calculating the fastest way out of the forest.
A human shriek cut through the forest, and like a gun shot at a race, Cooper bolted away from me. But it was a short lived escape. He made it only about five feet before he stopped and made a choking sound like he had been hit in the throat. His hands shot up to his neck, grabbing at something I couldn’t see in the darkness. His head jerked up and he was quickly lifted into the trees with his arms flailing and his legs kicking. The scream that issued from him sounded like it was being pushed through his clenched jaws.
Kyuu, kyukukukukuku! It came from above and multiple other calls responded followed by a sea of clicking.
The creatures were in the limbs of the trees.
How had it grabbed Cooper and pulled him up and so high? They were medium sized animals, nothing larger than a Labrador and yet Cooper was gone, pulled into the blackness like a doll. His scream suddenly ended and I could hear the sound of liquid drizzling down into the branches and grass like rain running off a clogged gutter.
I twisted around and sprinted through the dense trees, small saplings tearing at my face and brambles attempting to snag me and bring me to the ground. Every time I brushed against a larger limb I pulled away, afraid that dark unseen hands were reaching out to grab me and pull me into the branches. Tears were streaming down my face and my chest was tighter than it ever had been before. It was like some enormous rubber band had been wrapped around me, and with each passing second it squeezed just a bit tighter. My breath was coming in short bursts and I could feel my vision becoming hazy. Of all the times to have a panic attack, this was both the worst and most fitting moment.
I pressed on for what seemed to be far too long. I should have reached the junkyard by now. I was exhausted. Pain from running had begun to form in my lower abdomen and my speed was decreasing. I could feel my steps becoming sloppy, but finally I noticed the forest had become thinner. A bramble wrapped across my ankle succeeded in tripping me up. I stumbled forward and fell to my knees. My hands came down hard on a rock and something sharp. I knew immediately I was bleeding.
I was still hyperventilating and my vision was blurred from the tears. My hearing was diminished by the rushing of blood through my ears. I couldn’t make out if any of the monsters had resumed their chase. My hands probed the rock, it was smooth, incredibly smooth except for a patch that felt like sandpaper that flaked off as my fingers ran over it. I quickly wiped my eyes and brought my face down low. It was a half buried washing machine, partly rusted, but mostly still covered in smooth white painted metal.
My breathing began to come under control. That’s when I heard the sobbing. I stood up quickly, reeling from being lightheaded, but I pushed through the rubble and into the semicircle. I tried to speak, but only a croaked moan came out.
Hannah screamed through her sobs. My eyes locked on her. She was sitting in the middle of the rubble with someone laying beside her. “Hannah? Oh, my god, thank god. Are you alright?” She didn’t respond. She only continued to cry. When I reached her it was like she hadn’t noticed me. She was holding Lawrence in her arms. His eyes were closed. I reached out and placed my hand on her shoulder. She jerked, released Lawrence and flailed. Her arms and hands struck my face, my chest, my arms. I bit back the pain and pulled her into an embrace.
“He’s dead. He died only a few minutes ago. Amanda was pulled down by the dogs. But they aren’t dogs, are they? Are they?!” She was still hysterical, but at least she was also coherent.
“No. I don’t know what they are.” Her face raised up and our eyes met. The moonlight danced off her tears.
“Their fur, it moves like hair underwater. And their hooks–”
“Hooks?” I hadn’t noticed any hooks on the creatures when I saw them at the treeline.
“The ones in the trees. They have these long arms that reach down, and their hands are large hooks, like what you hang meat on.” She began to tremble violently. “As we ran, Amanda fell behind. She doesn’t know these woods like we do. She called to us but I was too afraid to look back.” Hannah was crying harder now. “I heard her scream and then those things, I knew they had gotten her. It was only a few more feet before Lawrence caught his side on something, just under his armpit. He was pulled into the air and flipped sideways. He fell and I grabbed him. I don’t know why I stopped for him, but I saw it.”
Chills ran down my body. My arms and legs pricked up in goosebumps. I couldn’t look away from Hannah. She had regained some composer, but her eyes were hard. “Wha-” I began, but was cut off.
“It was covered in that black wavy fur. As it climbed down I could see its arms were incredibly long and where its hands should be were two hooks. It got so close to us. I couldn’t tell where it’s head ended and it’s body began. And it’s eyes. There were so many, like a spider, glossy red in the light.”
I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. My mind kept replaying the moment Cooper died. How his head snapped back and that terrible scream he loosed. One of the creature must have caught him in the throat or under his jaw. It was almost like these things were fishing for their prey.
“We managed to make it here,” Hannah continued. “Lawrence was still alive for awhile. He was bleeding so much. I—I couldn’t stop it. There was so much. All he kept asking me was if Amanda and I were fine. Oh, god, Patrick, what is going on?!” Her eyes finally broke from mine and she stared down at Lawrence, who I could see was pale from blood loss. The moon shining down gave him an ethereal quality.
I didn’t have the answers. I doubt anyone did. I suddenly became painfully aware of the silence that had been present since my arrival to the dump. “Have you heard them since you came inside the junkyard?” Hannah didn’t respond. “God dammit, Hannah! Have you heard them!?” Her head snapped back to mine and for a moment all there was in the forest, in this entire universe, was her face.
Kyuu, kyukuku, kyuuk!
The pain of my heart skipping pierced through my chest. For the first time since I had arrived I noticed Hannah had been leaning against the one tree in the center of junkyard. It was the maple with the darkest bark in the forest, and the animal call had come from directly above us. The rapid clicking of the creature filled my ears as I slowly looked up and met it’s glossy red eyes staring back at me.
Credit To – B.P. Gee