Estimated reading time — 21 minutes
That’s all Matt could think as he sat on the bus throughout the entire, bumpy trip to the campground. He was thinking of Emily. Emily had dirty brown hair, kind eyes, a sharp wit and a dazzling smile- and Matt was going to spend the last weekend before freshmen year of college, camping with her and three other friends in the mountains, two hours away from his high school, at some place called Camp Babbenke. He couldn’t believe his luck.
Matt had been in love with Emily for two years now; of course, she had no idea. But Emily seemed to like Matt, as a friend at least, as did the rest of his camping buddies. Honestly, Matt couldn’t understand why; he thought he was terribly awkward and boring, compared to everyone else. When they asked him to join them on the camping trip, he was almost too anxious to agree. But his sister had yelled at him to nut up and go, so here he was, and now he was determined not to screw the trip up and reveal to everyone how big a loser he deep down was sure that he was.
Matt felt someone poke his head, and he snapped out of his daydream. It was Ron, his best friend, who’d introduced him to the rest two years ago. Thank God for Ron: without him, Matt was sure he’d have no friends at all.
“Dude, say something,” said Ron. “You’ve been sitting there for the past two hours, practically drooling.”
Matt nervously looked down at his shirt, but it was dry. “Practically, dude, I said practically,” continued Ron. “Look, we’re gonna be there in a few minutes, and if you wanna have a good time, you gotta talk to people. Be chill. Relax. Trust me, you just gotta rip off the band-aid, loosen up a little, and you’ll be fine.” Now, Ron smirked and leaned in. “So, how are you gonna make your move with Emily?”
Matt turned red, his eyes grew huge, and he scanned the bus, making sure nobody was listening. “Relax, Matt, she can’t hear you,” Ron assured him. “She’s up front having a conversation with Ben. Do you know what conversations are? You should try one some time, they’re pretty fun.” Matt glared at him. “Seriously, though dude, you’ve wanted this since you were fifteen,” Ron continued, a little more seriously. “This is your last shot before college. What do you have to lose? It’s not like you’re gonna be seeing her around much longer anyway.” Ron glanced past Matt, out the window. “Shit, looks like we’re here. Ok, well, grab your bags, pull the stick out of your ass, and let’s have ourselves a weekend, alright?”
God, the lake is buggy, thought Matt, as he swatted the umpteenth mosquito from his arm. He was happy that the campsite was further up the mountain; there were almost no bugs where they had pitched the tents. But here, by the water, they were eating him alive.
He looked around the fire pit and saw that his friends were all just as red, sweaty, and uncomfortable as he was. Ron was as sunburned as Matt had ever seen him. Anna’s hair, which she normally kept meticulously straight, was a frizzy mess. Ben had taken off his shirt a few hours before, probably to impress Anna, and he now had mosquito bites in the small of his back, which he could just barely scratch. Emily, of course, looked perfect, but Matt was probably just biased.
“Ok guys, I think it’s time to break out the beer,” shouted Ron. He opened the cooler behind him and pulled out cans, two at a time, lobbing them at everyone around the fire. Matt had to catch his with two hands, but was just happy he didn’t drop it. He’d never had a beer before, but he figured now was as good a time as any to start.
They all sat in their fold-up chairs around the camp fire, just barely able to see each other’s faces over the crackling flame. They drank and they laughed as the sun slowly set, forgetting their earlier exhaustion and itchy bodies. Eventually, it was dark, they were all full of s’mores and Budlight, and the conversation began to lull. At this point, Ben leaned in.
“All right, guys, it’s scary story time.”
Anna groaned. “Ben, why do we have to do this? We aren’t kids anymore, these ghost stories are stupid.”
Ben grinned at her. “Anna, we always do scary stories, it’s tradition. Matt’s never gotten to hear them, we owe it to him to keep it up. Sorry if you’re scared, if you can’t handle it you can go wait in the tent.”
Anna glared at him. “I’m not scared, Ben, I’m just not eight. Besides, you only know, like, three stories, we’ve heard them all fifteen times.”
Ben put on a hurt expression. “Hey, not cool Anna. My stories are always super original. But this year, I got something special. See, every year we go camping, true. But we always go to the same old place. This is our first summer here at Camp Babbenke. And I may know some stuff about these woods.”
Anna raised an eyebrow. “Stuff?”
“Spooky stuff,” came Ben’s reply.
Anna rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you do, Ben.”
Ben looked genuinely annoyed this time. “Yeah, Anna, actually, I do. I heard it from my older brother. Who’s full of shit, most of the time, yeah, but then I looked online and found a lot about what’s happened here.”
Anna looked supremely unimpressed. “So, the internet and your idiot brother. Great sources. So what is it? Ghosts? Werewolves? Killers in hockey masks?”
Ben gave her a look, then began to speak. “They say there’s something evil in these woods. That groups of kids go in and don’t come out. No, Anna, it’s not some guy with a mask and a knife. It’s not a wolf either. Online some people said it could be the Rake. Remember the Rake? I told you about him last year. But there have been no sightings around here; he usually pops up way further South. The best explanations say that the evil here does not have a body… or rather, not a body of its own. They think it gets into your mind, poisons you, makes you sick, makes you do terrible things.”
“People say that about every place in every story,” Anna said, rolling her eyes. “And guess what? People come to Babbenke, all the time, and nothing bad happens. Kids camp here every year, I think we’d notice if they started dropping like flies.”
Ben did not look happy to have been cut off. “Yeah, well, there are rules. These woods can’t get you just because you walk in. You have to be vulnerable.”
This time, Ron jumped in. “Vulnerable? What do you mean, vulnerable?”
“Well,” said Ben, “Apparently, you have to be asleep. Like I said, it doesn’t have a body in the real world, so it has to attack in your dreams, I guess. Also, you have to be alone, out in the woods. If you’re sleeping in a tent, or in a group, nothing ever happens, which is probably why most people are fine. And lastly, you have to be, well, scared. They think that fear lets this… being, this evil thing, into you. Oh, and also, it happens pretty quick, but it’s not instantaneous. So if you leave the woods before it really grabs hold of you, you’re fine.”
Anna laughed out loud. “Oh, so that’s pretty convenient. What, did they do a scientific study? I call bullshit, I call SO much bullshit.”
“Oh, do you, Anna? You call bullshit?” Ben was annoyed; Anna was spoiling the mood. “Well, if you’re so sure, why don’t we make this interesting?” Ben started searching around his feet. “Say, what if everyone who’s not scared of my story draws straws, and whoever loses sleeps outside their tent? Beautiful weather tonight, no reason not to, right?”
“Oh my god, Ben, you are so immature. We’re going to college next year, not the sixth freaking grade.” Anna clearly did not want to give Ben any satisfaction that night. “What are you doing, anyway? Are you looking for straws? Straws don’t just grow out of the ground, Ben.”
Ben was crouched over, with his back to everyone else. “Not actual straws, Anna. Creativity is the spice of life.” He stood back up, clutching a few blades of grass. “We can use this. Lemme just shorten one….” He wound the longest blade around his finger and snapped it, discarding the bottom. “There! Now, how many people think I’m full of shit?”
Everyone looked at each other. Finally, Ron grinned. “Sorry, man. You know I love you, but you also gotta know I never buy any of this monster stuff. So yeah, keep a piece for me, this sounds like fun.”
Emily laughed a little. “Yeah, what the hell. It was a good story, Ben, it really was, but, I mean, just cause it’s creepy doesn’t mean I believe it. So I guess it’s me versus you, Ron!”
Matt did not want to play. He didn’t really believe the story either, but he couldn’t help feeling a little freaked out. Besides, even if the story was fake (even though the story is fake, he told himself firmly), outside the tent, a snake could always crawl into his sleeping bag, or there could be a bear or something. But he couldn’t possibly impress Emily if he showed that he was more afraid than she was, could he? So he put on his most confident voice and called out to Ben: “Yeah, uh, what the hell. That story wasn’t even scary. I mean, yes it was, it, uh, just wasn’t believable. Yeah. So, um, I’ll play.”
Why does everything I say make me sound like an idiot? Matt though furiously to himself.
Ben carefully organized three pieces of grass in his hand; already, Matt had forgotten which was the short piece. “So,” Ben said, his eyebrows held high and aloof. “Looks like everyone’s in, except little Miss Skeptic over here.” He gave a quick little nod in Anna’s direction. “So, maybe you’re a little scared, then, after all?”
Anna looked uncomfortable. “What? No. No, I’m not scared, God. I just don’t want to sleep outside like some kind of idiot.” Her voice was getting high and squeaky, and the words were coming out fast. “I mean, like, there are bugs, and, and what if it rains or something?”
Ben looked like he was finally enjoying himself. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, first of all, it is not gonna rain. We waited all summer for a weekend with a perfect forecast, and this one weekend delivered, so don’t even try to use that as an excuse. And if I knew you were so terrified of bugs, I would have set the bar a lot lower for my story. What don’t you like about them?”
Anna looked livid. “Shut up, Ben.”
“Is it the legs?”
“Shut up, Ben.”
“It’s totally the legs, isn’t it?”
“Ugh, I said shut up, Ben, my God! You’re so annoying!” Anna was very flustered now, and her face was getting redder and redder. “If it will get you to shut your stupid face-“ (“Oooh, stupid face, she got you man!” joked Ron) “then I’ll play your stupid game and disprove your stupid story. Ok? Are you happy, asshole?”
“Ecstatic,” Ben said levelly. He adjusted the now four blades of grass, then beckoned everyone to approach. “Ok, you all know the rules. Three long blades, one short. Whoever pulls the short one, or whoever’s left at the end, gets to sleep alone and prove my story wrong. But if you get scared and chicken out –“ He looked at Anna. “-I don’t mind.”
They all stood awkwardly around Ben, until finally, Ron spoke up. “All rights, pals, let’s get the ball rolling. Excusez-moi.” He reached forward and pulled out a blade. It was long and perfect. “Looks like I’m in the clear! Woo!” He left the circle to grab a beer.
This time, Matt didn’t want to lag behind Emily. “I’ll go next. Um, if you don’t mind,” he muttered, haltingly. He reached in and grabbed a blade, which also turned out to be long. He smiled with relief.
“Ok, I’ll go!” Emily said. She reached in. She pulled out a blade. She held it up.
It was short.
Instantly, and inexplicably, Matt’s insides ran cold. Not Emily. He immediately said, without thinking, “Oh never mind, I’ll just do it.”
Everyone stared at him blankly. Emily looked at him, almost annoyed. “What?” she said. “You don’t think I can do it?”
As fast as it came, the icy feeling was gone, replaced by the all-too-familiar feeling of embarrassment. “Oh, no, it’s not that, I just, uh….” Matt now remembered that he was a terrible liar, on top of everything else. “I could tell which blade was the short one. So I didn’t choose it.” He paused. “And I feel bad. So I’ll just do it, I’ll sleep outside.”
Everyone still looked confused, but eventually, Ron said, “Well, I guess that’s that. Matt’s being a gentleman and sleeping outside so we don’t have to. Very heroic.” He took a giant swig of beer. “Yeah, I don’t think anything’s gonna happen tonight to top all that. I’m ready to head back to camp, anyone down to come with?”
The whole group agreed they were tired. They put out the fire, packed up their stuff, and started the trek back up the mountain to their campsite. Along the way, everyone joked about the night so far. Matt tried to laugh along with the rest of them, but deep down he wondered why he couldn’t just keep his big mouth shut.
It dragged itself into the clearing. One arm out; grab the grass; pull. Other arm; grab; pull. Its head was held just barely off the ground, its jaw held slackly, so that its chin scraped against the cold, wet earth. Useless, shuddering breaths escaped its mouth, and its chest rattled as air left its dry, papery lungs. Yellow, corroded shoulder blades, covered by threadbare strands of brown muscle, pierced the grey-green skin of its back. It pulled along its dead, desiccated remnants of entrails, which emerged from its open abdominal cavity. Its spine, dangling freely at its end, and held together only by connective tissue, formed a perverse tail. With a great deal of effort, it pushed itself up with its long, spindly arms. It surveyed the scene.
Two tents in the clearing. A picnic table. A cooler. And in the center, a mound. A mound, moving ever so slightly, rhythmically, to the beat of a peaceful, healthy respiration, so unlike that of the creature which observed.
It lowered its head and continued its horrible journey. One arm, drag, then the other. Finally, it arrived at the mound. It slid alongside the mound, and rotated its head, to catch a glimpse of the being contained within. It saw a young man’s face, eyes closed, blissfully unaware.
It placed a withered hand, with bone and sinew poking through broken skin, upon the mound, delicately searching for a way in. It discovered a zipper. Slowly, it pulled it down, releasing the boy from his cocoon. Gently, almost lovingly, it removed the soft, top layer of the mound. The boy, now exposed shivered in his sleep.
It turned itself around and pulled itself toward the boy’s legs. It slid his pant leg up and examined his calf. Satisfied, it gripped the boys ankle with one hand, and under his knee with the other. It pulled itself closer to the leg, and lifted the leg a few inches off the ground. It rocked its head back, its jaw flopping down. Its brown, mossy teeth were just visible in the moonlight. It swung its head down, hard, and the teeth entered flesh.
Matt lurched awake, in a cold sweat. There were shooting pains down his leg. Where was he? He was camping. He was outside, in his sleeping bag. Ok.
Then, he remembered his dream, and the frightful creature he had seen in it. No; the creature he had been in it. He swallowed hard. It had been such a horrible dream.
His leg was still smarting, so he unzipped his sleeping bag and inspected his calf. Right where he felt the pain, he saw a raised bump in the dim moonlight, nothing more. In the dark, he couldn’t see the color, but it seemed like a particularly nasty mosquito bite to him. Had he been scratching in his sleep? Maybe he made it worse? Or… could it be a spider bite? Could there be a spider in his sleeping bag?
The thought freaked him out. He considered opening his sleeping bag all the way and inspecting it, but in the darkness, he knew it wouldn’t amount to anything. Besides, he was so tired. So very tired.
After a few minutes, his leg pain seemed to dissipate. He drifted off to sleep. This time, no dreams bothered him.
Pound. Pound. Pound. A stabbing, screaming headache. That was how the morning greeted Matt. He then realized the pounding pain was accompanied by a clanging sound. He cracked his eyes open to see what was happening.
Ron was standing on the picnic table, banging a wooden spoon against a saucepan. “Everybody up!” CLANG. “Rise and shine, pals!” CLANG. “Breakfast time! HOW YOU LIKE YO EGGS?” CLANG.
I’m gonna kill him, thought Matt. I’m actually going to kill him. He watched a similarly displeased Anna stick her head out of the girl’s tent and squint into the morning sun.
“Ron, if you hit that pan again, I’m going to light you on fire,” she said, flatly. Ron stared at her, doe-eyed, and very carefully, deliberately, solemnly, banged the saucepan again.
By now, Emily and Ben were also making their way out of their respective tents, puffy-eyed and miserable-looking. “Looks like the team is all assembled!” Ron shouted joyfully. “Oh, wait, I almost forgot! Matt!” He turned towards Matt’s sleeping bag. “’Ey! You awake, bro?”
Matt finally sat up, rubbed his eyes, and nodded. “Woo!” shouted Ron. “Matty boy 1, evil woods 0! Looks like you’re full of shit after all, Ben!”
20 minutes later, they were all sitting around the picnic table, eating eggs. Matt stared at his plate. He had never been less hungry in his entire life. Strange; he hadn’t eaten for at least eight or nine hours, where was his appetite?
“So, Benjamin,” Ron said, talking through a mouthful of eggs. “What’s on today’s agenda?”
“Ok, here’s the plan,” Ben said. “We’re gonna grab all our stuff and hike up to this cabin about four or so miles from here. Apparently, every year, graduating seniors hang out there and leave something behind for the next batch. There’s supposed to be a footlocker with a Masterlock, and unless my older brother’s screwing with me, the combination is 20-4-2. Hopefully, the last class left us some good shit.”
Emily’s brow furrowed. “Wait, what are we leaving the kids after us?”
Ben smiled. “Don’t worry, I got it covered. My parents keep a whole lot of liquor under the cabinet… which they never drink. Don’t suppose they’ll notice if a bottle of Svedka goes missing, do you?”
Everyone cheered. They finished their eggs and began to clear up and pack for the hike.
As Matt got up from the table, he felt a shooting pain in his leg. Suddenly, the dream, and the mosquito bite- or was it a spider bite?- came rushing back to him. Had he been scratching it again, without even realizing it?
He pulled up his pants and checked it out. The bite looked really nasty, now; there was no top layer of skin over it at all, and it was oozing a pinkish fluid. It didn’t seem to be really bleeding, but the whole area around it was really red and warm; he didn’t like the look of it at all. This had to be a spider bite, no mosquito ever did anything like this.
“Hey Ben? We have a first-aid kit, right?” Matt asked.
“Yeah man, yellow backpack,” Ben replied, pointing. “Why, what’s up?”
“Oh, I, uh, just wanted to make sure we didn’t forget it, you know, when we go to the cabin,” Matt lied. He didn’t want anybody worrying about his leg, and definitely didn’t want to admit he was worried about it. “I’ll grab that bag for our hike, ok?”
“Yeah, cool, thanks,” Ben said, distractedly.
Matt sneakily bent down and fished around inside the bag for the first-aid kit. He pulled out some disinfectant and a big band-aid. He applied them to the bite, which stung him like crazy, but he felt much more comfortable knowing he had treated the wound.
“All right, gang,” Ben called out. “Ready to roll?”
And after a chorus of “yep”s and “yeah”s, they were off.
Matt must not have known how long four miles was, as the hike seemed to take an eternity. They walked on, and on, and on. The backpack chafed against his shoulders. The temperature had risen to an oppressive degree, and every part of him was drenched with sweat. He drank and drank from his thermos until it was dry, and still his mouth was parched.
Every step sent a twinge of pain through his leg. After the first half hour, that twinge had evolved into a searing pain, radiating up his inner thigh to his groin in one direction, and down to his heel in the other. Soon he was trailing behind the others, while trying, desperately, to pretend nothing was wrong. Even so, he could tell the rest were deliberately slowing down for his sake, and he felt ashamed.
Finally, they arrived at a clearing. In the middle was a cozy looking cabin. Ben ran to the front door and grabbed the handle and shook it. It was locked.
“Right, right,” Ben muttered to himself, looking around the floor. He bent over and wiggled a stone out of the ground, grabbed something from the pit where it had sat, and stuck it into the keyhole. There was a click.
“Welcome, friends, to the Babbenke Senior Cabin,” Ben said mysteriously. They all piled in, through their bags to the floor, and made themselves at home. After a few minutes of frantic searching, Matt was delighted to find a working faucet. The water was gross and warm, but it was still water, and Matt gorged himself.
“All right, bud, where’s this footlocker?” asked Ron, who rubbed his hands together and grinned.
“Over here!” Emily called out excitedly, pointing to a black plastic box beside one of many armchairs in the cabin.
While the rest of the campers crowded around the footlocker, Matt silently grabbed the yellow backpack and moved to another, quieter room. He pulled up his pant leg and looked at the bandaged bite on his leg. There were now bright red lines radiating out from under the bandage, which was dark and discolored from absorbing whatever fluid was leaking from the leg. The inflamed area had grown to cover almost the entirety of his calf, and the center around the band-aid almost seemed to be pulsating.
Grimacing from the apprehension of what he might see, Matt pinched one end of the band-aid and began to peel back. The band-aid was moist, and seemed stuck on the leg less by its own adhesive than by the sticky fluid it had absorbed.
When the bite itself became visible, Matt was almost overcome with nausea. The center of the bite was now an angry red, surrounded by a black and green ring. A thin coating of yellow-green slime was oozing from the bite. There was a powerful smell of rot emanating from the sore. Worse, two thick black lines were coming out of the top of the sore and working their way under the skin up the back of Matt’s knee.
How had this happened? Matt thought. I put on the disinfectant and everything. Besides, don’t infections take longer than this anyway? He had a horrible thought; what if this was the effect of some poisonous spider’s bite? He seriously considered going out and telling everyone, but decided against it. That would ruin the trip for everyone; he didn’t know how to get back, and he doubted any one of them would want to leave the rest to help him get back to civilization; most likely, his announcement would end the trip for everyone.
He put on some more disinfectant and a fresh band-aid and headed back into the main room. Everyone was smiling widely.
“Dude, where’d you go? Never mind, look at all this shit!” Ron said ebulliently. He was holding a bottle of Bacardi in one hand and Captain Morgan in the other. Matt looked around and saw Emily and Anna pouring each other shots from three other bottles, laughing hysterically. Only Ben looked a little uneasy.
“I didn’t expect there to be all this stuff,” he said stiffly. I kind of feel bad about only leaving them one bottle of liquor, but I mean, how many bottles can I steal from my folks? Maybe I can pay an upperclassman to get me some at college, and come back here some time to drop it off…”
“Dude, who cares?” Ron said. “Matt, get a load of this. Craziest thing in the footlocker, you’re never gonna guess. It’s freakin’ nuts.” He reached in and pulled out…
“A mother-fucking shotgun, baby!” Ron screamed. He started looking down the sights, pointing the barrel every which way.
Suddenly, Emily called out, deadly serious. “Ron, put that thing away right now. I told you before, the longer it stays out of the footlocker, the more certainly someone’s gonna end up getting hurt.”
Ron rolled his eyes. “Whatever, mom.” He started posing with the gun, checking himself out in a dirty mirror hanging on the wall.
“No, seriously dude, she’s probably right,” Ben said. “Especially since we’re drinking and all. Someone’s bound to do something stupid, it’s probably better if that stupid thing doesn’t involve a gun.”
“Actually, guys, maybe we should get everything ready for the rest of the day, before we’re too drunk to do anything,” Emily suggested. “For example, this place doesn’t have a kitchen, which means we’re gonna need a fire going on outside tonight if we want to eat dinner. Since collecting wood at night is a pain in the butt, who wants to help me do it now?”
“Emily, who needs food, we’ve got alcohol,” Ron declared.
Emily wasn’t amused. “Come on, seriously. Anyone? Anna?”
“Sorry doll, not really feeling it right now,” Anna replied. “Probably ‘cause I’m already four shots in. I’m like, almost starting to like the Bacardi. Almost.”
“Actually, Emily, I would go,” Matt volunteered. He ignored the massively obvious wink Ron sent his way. In truth, Matt wasn’t even trying to get alone time with Emily; he just couldn’t stand the thought of drinking right then. The smell of the liquor alone was making him feel sick.
“Thank you Matt,” Emily said. “See, I’m glad someone is willing to be helpful. Come on, Matt, let’s go. Guys, try not do burn the house down.”
And out they went.
Matt and Emily walked together to the edge of the clearing. They silently collected twig after twig, branch after branch. Much of the wood was damp, rotten, or both; they had to walk fairly deep into the woods to find good sticks for burning. It got to the point that it took almost a full ten minutes to walk the wood back to the campsite and return.
Matt desperately wanted to talk to Emily; the complete lack of conversation was unnerving and uncomfortable. However, he simply could not think of anything to say. His mind felt cloudy. His brow was sweating, and he could feel his blood pounding through his neck. Every time he bent over to pick up a piece of kindling, he felt faint upon standing back up. Still, he was happy to be outside, at least; it had to be better than the noisy, booze-filled cabin.
Emily called out: “Hey Matt, I’m gonna run back to the cabin to drop off this wood. I might run inside for some water, but don’t worry if I take a few extra minutes, I’m coming back!”
“Ok, Emily! Take your time,” Matt called back. He heard her footsteps taper off as she walked away. Matt continued picking up sticks. Bend over… stand up… bend over… stand up….
And suddenly, he couldn’t do it anymore. He stood up, felt pounding in his head, and weakness in his knees. He crumbled under his own weight and allowed the branches he was holding to fall to the floor. He leaned forward, supporting himself with his arms and sitting on his legs. A new wave of nausea hit him; this time, he simply couldn’t keep it down.
He threw up in the space between his hands. The vomit was thick and syrupy, with reds, greens and blacks mixed into a foul smelling pool. He threw up again, and again, until he was just retching at the ground. He forced himself to take some deep breaths, the closed his eyes, clenched his teeth, and pushed against his knees to stand himself up. Once on his feet, he stumbled in the direction of the cabin. He managed to get twenty feet or so from his puddle of sick before collapsing again. He pulled himself to the nearest tree and leaned his back against it, just trying to breath.
After a few minutes, he heard someone approaching. Emily. God, he didn’t want her to see him like this. But what could he do? He was too weak to stand, never mind get away from her. He looked up and watched her approach, her face gradually becoming more concerned as she neared.
“Matt, what’s wrong? You don’t look so good,” she said.
Matt tried to smile, but could only grimace. “I don’t feel well, Emily. I feel like shit, actually.”
Emily crouched down and looked him in the eye. “I thought something was up. You haven’t been yourself all day.” She squinted and leaned in closer. “You’re so pale. I think we better get you inside for now, and once you feel a little stronger, maybe we should cut the trip short and head home. You need to get out of these woods in case you get worse and need to get to a hospital.”
Matt painfully pulled his torso forward off the tree, forcing himself to support his own weight. “No, Emily, I don’t want to ruin this trip for you and everyone else. You’ve all been so nice, letting me come with you. Everyone’s just starting to really enjoy themselves, now that we’ve reached the cabin, and I don’t want to get in the way of that.”
Emily smiled and shook her head. “Matt, you’re more important to me than a stupid camping trip. I just want you to be ok. So let’s get you back to the cabin.”
Her beautiful face was just inches from Matt’s. She seemed so warm, so kind. Her eyes were a glowing chestnut brown in the dim light of the forest. And her lips seemed so red and full. Those lips, those wonderful lips….
Matt couldn’t help himself. He felt a pull towards her, the culmination of all the feelings he’d harbored for the past two years. He leaned in, he felt her against his lips. He was happy. Incredibly happy.
Then she screamed, and Matt, with sudden horror, realized what he was actually doing.
Emily jumped back, confusion and fear written across her face. She held her hand against her mouth and cheek. Blood was oozing from between her fingers. The same blood that Matt could taste over his teeth and tongue.
“Matt, what… what the FUCK was that?” Emily screamed.
Matt tried to answer, but instead a high pitched growl, like a hyena’s, came out of him. He felt strength returning to his limbs. Jerkily, he started crawling towards Emily, who was now crabwalking away from him, struggling to get to her feet. Matt felt desire. He had tasted her, and he realized he liked it. He wanted more.
Emily had turned and begun to run. Without even thinking, Matt began to pursue. They crashed through the branches toward the edge of the clearing. Emily began screaming for help as soon as she saw the cabin, while Matt continued his hair-raising shrieks and snarls. By the time she reached the door, Matt was just a few feet behind her. She threw it open and ran inside, attempting to slam the door behind her.
Matt was too quick. He managed to fit his hand between the door and the frame before it slammed shut. He felt his bones crunch, but he didn’t care. He reached around with his other hand and pulled, easily overpowering Emily, who was still attempting to pull the door shut. She bolted, screaming over and over, “He’s crazy! He bit me! What the fuck is wrong with him!?”
Matt tried to follow her through the house, but he was quickly blind-sided by a tackle from Ben. The two fell to the ground. Ben thought he had Matt pinned, but Matt managed to pull Ben’s hand over to his mouth. He bit his wrist down to the bone, and with strength he’d never felt before, threw Ben to the side. Savagely, he pushed against Ben’s chin with his broken hand and swung his head down, sinking his teeth into Ben’s neck. He tasted the warm, salty blood shooting from the wound. It was good.
But not as good as Emily’s had tasted.
Matt looked up. He saw Anna, standing in the corner, sobbing hysterically, transfixed. In a moment Matt was on her, biting and tearing, ripping strips of flesh from her bare shoulders and face. She attempted to fend him off, beating his chest with closed fists, but to no avail. In seconds, she collapsed to the ground. Then, Matt saw someone else in the corner of his eye. He whirled around to face them.
He found himself looking at a monster. Its skin was pale green, with thick, black lines coursing beneath. Its eyes were bloodshot, more red than white, with sickly yellow irises. Blood dripped from its mouth, which was twisted into a grotesque, hateful grin.
And suddenly, Matt began to laugh. He laughed at the monster, and the monster laughed at him. A high, terrifying, insane laugh. Finally, he was seeing himself as the hideous, unlovable creature he always knew he was, thanks to that dirty mirror on the wall.
And then he heard his name, his dirty, ugly name. “Matt!” He turned to face the speaker. It was Ron. He was holding the shotgun. And he was crying.
“Matt… Matt, what are you doing? Matt, please stop.” Ron was shaking with sobs. “Matt, don’t make me… I don’t want to… please, just, let’s go home, let’s leave this place…”.
Matt started to chuckle again. He took a step toward Ron, then another. “Please, Matt… no…”. Ron was backing away, stumbling drunkenly. “I don’t want to shoot… I don’t want to shoot…”.
Matt was almost on him now. In a moment he would be in range, he would jump, he would rip, he would kill. And suddenly- CLANG. A massive impact to the back of his skull. Matt, surprised, whirled around.
There was Emily, fearful but defiant, wielding Ron’s frying pan. She looked delicious. With a snarl, Matt lurched toward her, arms outstretched.
Matt fell to the floor, stunned. His head rocked back and he saw Ron, behind him. Ron threw down the shotgun, dropped to his knees, and started sobbing into his hands.
With the last of his strength, Matt pulled his head forward, looking at Emily. He felt his fervor, his sickness, draining out of him through the bullet holes in his back. Where he once felt mania, he now felt only a profound sadness.
He looked Emily dead in the eye and inhaled. “Emily,” he said. “I’m… I’m so sorry.”
He watched her face shift from fear to concern, even caring sympathy. Her eyes regained their warmth. Despite the caked blood on her face, her torn clothing, her disheveled hair, she looked beautiful. As his vision faded to black and Ron’s sobs dimmed to a high static, Matt had just one last thought.