Winter pounded on the door and walls around the wooden shack the men had found and hunkered down in. The small military force was at their wit’s and body’s ends; they were exhausted, soaking wet, and low on munitions, rations, and morale. Their survival was based on how much body heat the man next to them was able to produce. They shivered in unison, not a man moving deliberately. It was another of many restless nights for the small company.
After hours of the wind and the ice beating at their bodies through the slats in the walls, a freezing but welcome sun rose through the dense and dead forest canopy. The light tapped on Grant’s eyelids and he shot forward to sitting with a jolt.
Rodgers was the first to break the quiet and simply cussed as loud as his tense windpipe would allow. The noise was hoarse and shrill among the dead silence in the trees.
“Shut it, would you? What are you thinking, idiot?” was the response from a more-callous-than-usual Shifty.
Breakfast was weak, stale coffee and scraps of the rabbit the men had used several precious bullets to finally hit and bring down the night before. Their aim was suffering in tandem with their bodies, but they were just happy to have morsels of food to ease their empty stomachs.
After the brief and cold breakfast, Erickson shouldered their radio and hiked to the top of a small hill with a clearing to try and get in contact with basecamp. Every day for weeks, Erickson had returned to camp from attempting communication a little more defeated than the day before. The group had not heard from basecamp for too long now.
Erickson slumped heavily around the choking fire that sputtered smoke out from hissing cracks in the blackening wood. He did not need to report, the scene did that for him. Shifty scoffed more for the group than for himself, shifted and settled, attempting to find comfort around the fire that was resoundingly defeated by the cutting cold that crushed in from all sides.
Grant was fully aware of the situation he and his men were in. They were slowly succumbing to the death of the forest they had found themselves in and the situation was deteriorating quickly. Freezing and famished, the four men sat lifelessly around the smoldering fire.
The only thing that brought comfort with the day’s progression were the rays of sun that did find their way through the snaking branches above that warmed the men, and the four positioned themselves as well as they could to be warmed in tandem by the sun and the fire. Soon, starvation drove the men to complete the day. Grant told Erickson to set up another deer trap near a river they had scoped out in days prior and told Rodgers to find his way to the small gully to check the trap there. Shifty and Grant pushed farther from their camp than they ever had to find a gradually dwindling supply of firewood scattered afar and buried in the snow that seemed to fall every night. Even during the day, Grant kept his scarf around his face to keep the biting cold away from his lips and nose.
Erickson set up a new trap, Rodgers found that the old trap had not been sprung. The men defrosted the rest of the rabbit and made a weak stew with hardly enough meat for one man. They ate in defeated silence. Metal clanked upon metal as the men tried to make something edible both stay in their bowl for more as well as end up in their stomachs.
Soon enough, the sparse rays of the sun ducked down under the horizon and the men moved toward their broken shelter for a form of protection from the elements that the shack could only limitedly provide.
Cold, huddled, and starving, Grant tried to get some semblance of sleep. Every time his eyes felt heavy enough to sleep, wind would batter the wooden walls and shake the entire structure. It began to snow again and small, white, frozen teeth floated in between the slats, biting the men every time one would contact any open skin it could find. It was a night no less miserable than the night before, and soon Grant drifted off into a restless sleep.
In the morning, Grant’s eyes shot open and his body shocked him awake. Shifty rolled over, finding a better sleep than Grant had. Grant stumbled as he stood, hunger pangs tore at his stomach as he stretched his already-thin figure to its full height.
As he stepped outside of the small shack, the white world he was expecting was violated by one of red. Blood drenched the tree branches and snow, eviscerated and unrecognizable flesh were splattered from the epicenter: a torn body that lay on top of where the fire had been the night before. Grant froze midstep. He had seen his fair share of war out here, but this was an animalistic scale of gruesome.
Without moving his eyes from the gore in front of him, Grant began to bark at his men inside the shack to come see the carnage. Shifty emerged first and was caught in the middle of a hearty yawn by the scene, his jaw locked open in a half-yawn-half-appalled expression. Rodgers and Erickson both vomited.
Grant moved in toward the carcass and examined the body. What was left must have been a deer with holes bored through the body. Two legs were missing and Grant nearly gasped as he noticed that the eyes had been bitten from their sockets with obvious teeth marks around the divots, but the bite marks did not end there. There were whole chunks of flesh missing from their respective lacerated holes focused around the neck of the animal. Most strikingly, the horns had been removed with great force, seemingly ripped from the skull instead of broken off. The deer was more blood and gore than fur and skin. Erickson vomited again.
“What the hell is this?” Rodgers’ voice broke as he scrambled to find it.
“Screw that, what the hell could do something like this?” Erickson was more frantic than Rodgers. He was the youngest of the group and it showed in the horror on his face.
“You are both morons. A predator must have taken this down and just happened to have dinner at our camp. Why are we so shocked?” Shifty was significantly more cynical once he found his footing.
“There’s no animal that kills and consumes like this.” Grant said. “See? A bear’s teeth would have left a longer bite along here, and a mountain cat would have sliced the throat to take the kill. The throat doesn’t look severed. And any predator would eat more than this. Judging by the missing extremities, this seems like a murder more than a hunt.”
The men stood in solemn muteness between what was left of the deer and their shack in a broken display of defense. It was silent except for the whistling of the wind and the rumbling of brittle branches above. The carcase’s blood was frozen to the ground and trees and had begun turning a deep red color.
“We shouldn’t waste the excess.”
“What?” Erickson was stunned.
“There is a lot of extra food here. We should preserve it and discard everything else as far from camp as we can. Don’t want whatever this thing is to come back.” Grant said. This made sense to the group, and even more so as Erickson felt his stomach rumble yet again.
And so the men set to work preparing, sanitizing, and disposing until their camp was yet again devoid of splattered gore. They cooked the excess meat and buried it a fair distance from camp, keeping more than enough for a fair dinner for each of the men. They disposed of the bones and skin, but Grant could not shake the thought of those missing antlers from his mind. At any rate, they had food enough for the rest of the day and through the day tomorrow. Maybe this killer had done them a favor, and yet, something was not sitting right with Grant.
At day’s end, the men huddled again in the small shack, but now each with a full belly. Though the wind and snow beat at the men through the night, they were able to make it easier while being full for the first time in weeks. Each of the company slept as well as they had that night.
In the morning, Grant jumped awake again, startling himself to a sitting position. After looking around a little longer, he rubbed his eyes and rose to exit the shack. By the time Grant had rekindled the fire, Shifty, Erickson, and Rodgers had all awoken and come out to enjoy the slowly-diminishing supply of deer meat that had been so graciously given to them.
Erickson rose. He shouldered the radio and hiked to the top of the nearby hill for his daily dose of disappointment. He dropped the set and pulled the antenna and repeated “Basecamp, do you copy, Basecamp?” defeatedly into the microphone. “Basecamp, do you copy, Basecamp?” Erickson dropped his head between his knees when a static began to crackle over the microphone.
“… find… Where are… Copy?” Erickson’s legs excitedly slipped out from underneath him and he fell on his back. He scrambled to his feet and began yelling into the microphone,
“Basecamp! We hear you Basecamp! We need immediate evacuation.”
“Good… hear you too… are too thick, so your company needs… twenty-two kilometers west. We can evac… there. Try to find… communication point… is hard.” The message was broken but overflowing with hope. Erickson shouldered the radio and scrambled back down the hill to report the good news. The men packed what little supplies they had, unearthed the small amount of deer meat left underground, and set off west.
Going was slow. The snow that seemed to never melt here was up to the men’s thighs. Each man took a turn in the front to clear the snow, rotating through to conserve energy for the group as a whole. Being at the front of the caravan was exhausting, but between the four tired but able-bodied men, it was not impossible.
When the sun began to set in front of them over the horizon, they went out of their way to find shelter. Shifty called out when he found a small overhanging rock that could accommodate the four of them. Grant, Erickson, Rodgers, and Shifty all pushed themselves inside of the small cave. Grant distributed the remainder of the deer meat. It had lasted less than he had anticipated, and he found himself going to bed hungry that evening, as did the other men.
Morning found them shivering and Grant startled awake. Without a wall for their shelter, the frozen wind beat in from that side. The men had put the legs of their sleeping bags toward the opening, but it did not help. The three men shifted outside of their shelter. Grant looked around. Erickson moved with Rodgers to collect firewood, a chore they had neglected to do the night before. Suddenly, Shifty’s absence was a glaring presence among the men and they all froze where they stood.
Grant daringly called out, “Shifty!” and was met with no response. Not even the wind rattled the branches in the trees above and the silence was heavy. Grant, matching the silence, whirled around and checked Shifty’s sleeping bag. It looked like it had been opened with the zipper as opposed to torn open, but Grant felt a knot of dread welling up inside his gut. Erickson was the most panicked and his haggard breathing began to become a gulping swallow. Grant motioned to the others to arm themselves. Erickson shook himself and grabbed his handgun.
Rodgers found two pairs of tracks leading outside of camp and the men did not have to search far. Shifty, or what was left of him, lay in a small clearing crumpled in half. This time, all three men vomited. Grant then went out of his way to wrap his scarf around his mouth and nose and moved in to look at what had happened. Shifty had the same wounds as the deer from nights before. His body was folded at the base of his spine and bite marks that ripped through his clothes showed the muscle underneath. Scratches covered Shifty’s body from head to toe and there seemed to be some holes in the body that were not bite marks, as if he were stabbed with a blunt broom handle. The most noticeable aberration were Shifty’s eyes, or lack thereof. Teeth marks lined his brow and cheekbone, as if the assailant had dragged their jaw over the eyes to remove them. Grant felt himself heave and stumbled backward to a standing position without letting his eyes move away from Shifty’s corpse.
“Sir, do those look like predator bite marks, or like…” Erickson did not have to finish his sentence. Telltale flat marks from incisors were all too indicative that this attack was human, not bear or cat. Realization hit the group like a wave, and they banded together naturally back to back to survey their surroundings. There were no tracks that lead away from the scene, nothing to ascertain the size or quality of this attacker. The men quickly dug a small hole to bury Shifty. Grant wanted to do it with honor, but Rodgers wanted to keep any scent off of them as much as they could. Keeping in formation, Grant, Erickson, and Rodgers moved back to where they had set camp the night before. Grant smothered the fire with a generous pile of snow, trying to choke out the smoke as much as he could. They gathered their things and left that place without even eating, simply leaving all of Shifty’s gear under the rock except for his firearm, which a paranoid Erickson collected.
They moved quickly among the silent woods, each taking a turn at the front of the convoy to break the snow for the others. The silence was beating in on the men. There was not a bird in the trees or a crackle of branches from the wind. If the men wanted sound, they had to make it themselves, and even that was hushed by the snow that surrounded them. The men hiked the whole day without eating, driven by terror and wonder alike. At nightfall, they found two trees that had fallen over each other and used them to make a small shelter.
“We should have someone watch out in shifts over the evening.” Rodgers said. It was from a place of terror, but it made sense to the other men and so when the darkness of the night crept upon their makeshift shelter, Erickson was the first to stay the night awake on watch.
Grant felt himself bat his eyes open every several minutes and glance over at Erickson, who sat still but aware propped up against one of the fallen trees. Gradually, Grant drifted off into sleep, but one that felt deep and dead and offered little rest.
In the early morning while it was still dark, Grant jolted awake, but this time by terrified yells. He spurred forward and smashed his head on the tree above him. Grant emerged from the shelter rubbing blood from his sore forehead to find another scene of gore that made the scenes before pale in comparison. He pointed a flashlight around and to where the yells were coming from to find a distraught Rodgers knelt at the side of a pile of flesh. Erickson’s patch was the only thing that could have discerned what or who this used to be. Erickson was more mutilated than consumed and had numerous holes about his body. His eyes had been eaten out of their sockets, but the rest of him was stabbed and torn and collapsed.
Rodgers knelt and wailed facing away from Grant, but Grant quickly scanned down to Rodgers’ hands, which clutched deer antlers so hard that the blood and pale fingers perfectly matched the blood and snow around them.
Rodgers wailed again and again, and the noise became more and more animalistic and hoarse with each gut wrenching bellow. Grant snatched his gun from his side and pointed it at the only other life around them for miles.
“Rodgers?” Grant’s voice was barely above a whisper. The grunting and distraught bellowing subsided suddenly and there was silence around them.
“Rodgers?” Grant said.
Inhumanly fast, Rodgers raised one of the antlers and smashed the base of it into his own skull. He took the other, and in similar fashion, jammed a jutting deer horn into his skull. The bones protruded from the bloody holes in Rodgers’ scalp and rose out in nonuniform angles. As Rodgers turned, Grant was acutely aware of the blood dripping down his own forehead.
“What the hell is happening to me?” yipped Rodgers, but his smiling eyes and mouth bore a vastly different expression to the tone of his voice. There was flesh between his teeth and blood ran down the sides of his open-mouthed smile. The lifeless eyes that stared into Grant through narrowed slats seemed excited at the terror unfolding.
“I’d run if I were you.”
Credit: W. I. Boggs
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