Chandler Thomsen in HelloHorror: Lantern full screen background image
         
  Table of contents Issue Nine LANTERN

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CHANDLER THOMSEN
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I




keep telling Tory I’m tired but he keeps telling me he isn’t. He says he’s fine; he says it’s early—not even ten yet. He wants to stay up with Mitch, Belinda and Kayla. He’s so stupid. He can’t take a hint. I’m trying to send him the signs and if he had noticed I was horny we could’ve been in the tent like a half hour ago. Now he’s starting to kill my mood and he’s losing his chance.



Mitch has a look on his face like he’s preparing to tell one of his ghost stories. He’s looking past me at the trees, like he’s saying it in his head to rehearse the lines. Mitch plays guitar, which is why he has one on his lap. Is he going to put it down to start the story, or will he play another song? He’s already played “Hey There Delilah,” “Chasing Cars,” and “You’re Beautiful”—his usual set list. Put his heart into it for his new fling. He looked in Belinda’s eyes while he sang and you could practically smell her getting wet for him. That dopey face of hers; ugh. Please, switch to ghost stories, Mitch. Put the guitar down.



He and Belinda are sitting on a log together, the rest of us are in fold up camping chairs, and we’re gathered around the heat of the fire. Tiny sparks lift up to the sky and flutter into hot ashes. One of them lands on my hand and it burns and I brush it away and scoot my chair back a few inches.



Mitch scratches his forehead, pushes back his bangs and rests a skinny arm on top of his guitar. His attention is drawn away from the forest and he clears his throat.



“I like this side of Pine Peaks,” says Mitch. “It’s quiet in like a spiritual sort of way. What do you guys think?”



“I love it,” says Belinda quickly. I shrug. My body and brain feel tired. I’m trying to forget viral oncogenesis, host defense interferons and determinants of tropism from last week’s virology final. Sometimes I see flashcards when I close my eyes and I get nightmarish feelings that the cards are telling lies.



“I’ve been on the north side plenty of times,” says Mitch. “My a cappella group likes to go. But it’s only my second time out here. I told myself I wouldn’t come back.”



I settle myself in my chair. Here’s the ghost story. He tends to inject the ‘I’ and ‘me’ for effect. Sometimes he makes up his own stories, sometimes he borrows from the internet, but this one is different: he’s telling it as if it happened. I’m thinking he’ll make shit up, try to say something impressive, but I lean in because I’m ready to be entertained.



Belinda turns to him, keeping her hands firmly in her lap because she’s scared of getting splinters from the log.



She says, “Why? What happened?”



This bitch is so annoying! I exchange a glance at Kayla, who’s making one of those faces; peeved squinting.



Mitch stretches out his hands to feel the heat of the fire with his fingers, but the heat is too intense and he draws them back. Tory and Mitch spent the day chopping wood for the pit, which is dug into the ground and surrounded by rocks. Eight logs stacked makes a pretty big flame.



“Maybe I’ll share it later,” says Mitch. “I don’t want to freak you guys out.”



“Just tell us,” says Tory. He’s got a bottle of Corona on his knee that he sips frequently. There are already four empty bottles at his feet. Fire light reflects on the bottles; it’s the only source of light for miles. This is our third night in the woods and Kayla and I are starting to get grumpy about the bathing situation. We’ve been using drinking water for our hair and creek water for our bodies. We’re supposed to be here for two more nights and I’m really sick of feeling cold and dirty. But I’m not going to show it because I want to make Belinda look prissy and weak.



“I was here,” says Mitch, “with two buddies of mine last summer. It was warm then; not like now. There’s a trailhead a few miles down the road, where backpackers can park their cars and go on this loop around Pine Peaks. It was really hot out. I wasn’t expecting it to be that hot. And muggy because of this storm front or whatever. You know that sticky feeling when it’s humid? As soon as you’re outside it hits you like a wave.”



“Get on with it,” says Tory. He finishes the beer and drops it clanking to his feet with the other bottles. I notice a bead of sweat running down the side of his face. He’s been too lazy to shave and the bead gets caught in his bristles. I suddenly want to put my hand on his sandpaper cheek and kiss his beer-soaked lips.



“Alright man,” says Mitch. “I’m getting to it. So me and my buddies don’t want to backpack the whole trail; we just want to hike as far in as we can and turn back. Just for the hell of it. We headed up in morning, got to the trailhead pretty early, and started to hike this trail. We stop to rest after like three hours. Then we hear some footsteps behind us and we’re like, ‘Oh it must be another hiker.’ But it’s not a hiker it’s a runner. This dude runs past in short red shorts, as if this is his morning jog. We’re like, ‘who goes for a jog in the middle of the forest?’ But we say hi and we wave or whatever, to be polite. We thought the guy was crazy or something. But hey, maybe he wanted some nice scenery for his run, or prefers to run off-road. I don’t know.”



Mitch takes the guitar off his lap and leans it against the log. He looks at Belinda and he looks at us, waiting for Tory to interrupt again? But no, Tory looks sleepy and bored, eyes drooping.



Mitch says, “We keep hiking and at about one or two in the afternoon we feel like it’s a good time to turn around. We’re walking back to the car and we see someone on the trail again. We get closer and realize he’s sitting on the trail. We get closer and it looks like the same guy because of the red shorts. We’re thinking, That’s weird. How could he have gotten here? He was running the other direction! We never passed him a second time. We get closer. The guy isn’t moving. We get closer, and we notice that—that he’s dead.”



Belinda puts a hand over her mouth. “Dead? How’d you know?”



“Because,” says Mitch, “he was missing his head and legs. It was definitely the same guy. Red shorts, white shirt. It was the same guy. And there was blood all over the trail leading to the forest.”



“Probably a bear,” says Kayla.



“I don’t know,” says Mitch. “It could’ve been a bear, but this guy didn’t look like something had been eating at him. It looked like something had just ripped him apart. You wouldn’t expect an animal to leave a broken body like that. I don’t know much about bears or pumas, but this looked like a murder scene.”



Mitch takes a drink from his water bottle. We watch the fire silently. I move my feet closer to steal the warmth.



Mitch says, “My friends—they think it was a beast. They kept saying on the way back to the car it’s got to be the bigfoot thing. It’s not called bigfoot but it’s some other legend. It’s called…shit, I forget what they call it. Gargantuas, I think. It’s a primitive gorilla only twice the size. People have been blaming stuff on the Gargantuas, like trees fallen on the highway, stolen trash cans, missing dogs. My friends think the creature killed this guy, too.”



“What do you think it was?” I say.



Mitch looks at me. “I don’t know. I won’t rule out the possibility.”



“That’s so freaky,” says Belinda.



“So you called the police?” I say.



“Calm down, Amy,” says Tory. “It’s not real. Tell her it’s not real, Mitch. Look, you’re scaring her.”



“No,” I say, “I’m curious. I want to know if the police took a look. I’m asking if he called the police, that’s all.”



Mitch says, “No, we didn’t call the police. We didn’t want to deal with it or be associated because we were the only people out there. We’d be the only witnesses and the only suspects, so we just left him there. We’d figure his family and friends would call it in.”



“Have you told anyone else about it?” says Kayla.



“Just you guys,” says Mitch. “We got our asses out of there and agreed we’d never come again.”



“But you’re here now,” says Kayla.



Mitch scratches his head and says, “I was shook up but I’m not about to let fear rule my life. Bears, wolves, giant gorillas: there are risks but you have to take precautions. Don’t underestimate the wilderness; don’t go running in the wilderness by yourself. People may be weak and small and have dull teeth, but they’re afraid of us, too, the predators. Maybe it wasn’t something but someone who killed him. I don’t know. Besides, it was ten miles down the road.”



“I’m scared,” says Belinda. She wraps her arms around his waist. He brushes her dark hair and pecks her head.



“I’ve got you, right?” he says to her. She puts her head on his shoulder.



Tory stands up with a groan and I’m expecting him to finally say he’s ready for bed. Then he announces he’s going for another beer and does anyone want one? We tell him we don’t and he says, “K,” and walks to the cooler to get one for himself. A wind picks up and shakes the trees. I shiver and move closer to the fire pit, where the logs are turning black, but the heat is like a blanket on the front of my body while my back is freezing cold.



Kayla moves her chair next to me and whispers, “What’s up with Tory?”



“He’s in a pissy mood,” I say.



“What’s wrong?” she says, rubbing her hands together.



Tory got into an argument with his parents before the trip. His dad is having trouble with the locksmith business he runs and wants Tory to take over, but Tory doesn’t want to get dragged into the business. Tory’s dream is to become an urban planner. Used to make cities out of blocks when he was a kid. Reads every book on the subject he can find. “Did you know,” he said to me once, “that sidewalks are central to the economic and personal health of our society?” It seemed funny to me at first, but that’s his thing so I don’t care; good for him. His parents think it’s a joke and they kind of take it personally.



I say to Kayla, “He’s probably being a baby because he’s hungry and cold and sick of taking shits in the woods.”



“He’s not mad at you, is he?” says Kayla.



“He’d better not be,” I say. “I just want to go to bed.”



Tory drops himself into his chair and releases a long, throaty burp.



“Fuck,” he says. He tilts his chair back on its hind legs.



Kayla shakes her head and leans towards the fire. Mitch gets up and walks into the trees, probably to pee, disappearing in the dark. Belinda is left on the log alone—that silly poofy white jacket with fur on the hood—and she looks like she wants to say something to us. She’s struggling to think of what she can say to make us like her. I like it, this war going on inside playing on her face. Do I strike a conversation? What do I say? She decides to stay quiet and pretend she’s watching the fire. Classic!



Then Tory drizzles Corona into the pit and a flame leaps up. He chuckles. I slap him on the shoulder.



“What?” he says.



“Don’t be a dumbass,” I say.



“I just wanted to see what would happen,” he says.



“Now you saw it,” I say.



“Yeah, I saw it,” he says, drinking.



Mitch emerges from the dark and Belinda smiles, relieved.



“You guys up for another song?” he says, pulling out the guitar.



Kayla stands, saying she’s off to bed, and I say I’m going, too.



“Stay here a little longer,” says Tory.



“I’m tired,” I say.



“Fine,” he says.



Now I’m not in the mood at all so I hope he’s happy. Kayla’s tent is nearby and she uses her electric lantern to lead us through the familiar campsite. Our cellphones are in the cars in the parking lot a mile away. Her wire-frame tent is small and cozy and we have to crouch to get inside. Sitting on her sleeping bag, we enjoy a moment of comfort knowing that it’s just us again, like freshman year when we shared a dorm room together. You come home and she doesn’t ask questions; she doesn’t care where you’ve been; but if you want to talk, you can; and if you don’t, that’s fine. One night after a long day—another fight with Michael, my ex—I came home past one and she was on her bed with the lights on. When she saw me she said, “Glass of wine?” and I said, “Please.” Then we talked about shows and current events until the sun came out.



She turns to me and says, “I’m sort of done with this whole camping thing.”



“God, me too,” I say.



“Arshitha’s in Cabo right now,” she says enviously.



“Don’t remind me.”



“Probably on the beach sipping pina coladas through a straw, some hunky shirtless guy putting sunscreen on her feet,” says Kayla.



“Knowing her,” I say. I’ve camped in worse conditions—so has Kayla—but this time it’s not doing anything for me. It’s not ‘hitting the spot.’ Drill into brain, empty contents: that’s what spring break is supposed to be. Not hot dogs, beans, and beer. Plus there’s Tory’s shit. It’s not his fault, but spring break only comes once a year and it’d be so much better if he was in a better mood. I’ve been looking forward to this all semester.



I cross my legs on Kayla’s sleeping bag.



“Belinda is so stupid,” I say. Kayla agrees, and we talk about the annoying voice, the expensive boots that are obviously not suited for the outdoors, her Coach handbag, her exaggerated clinging.



“Mitch can do a lot better,” says Kayla.



“He can,” I say. “He just doesn’t want to try. It’s like, he just wants easy ass.”



“Exactly,” says Kayla.



“You need a boyfriend,” I say.



“No I don’t,” she says.



“Why not? There are guys lining up for you I bet.”



“There are,” she says, “but I have standards. I don’t settle for whatever comes my way.”



I fiddle with the corner of the sleeping bag, shrugging.



Kayla says, “I’m not talking about Tory. I don’t mean you settle. You know what I mean.”



“I know,” I say.



“Tory’s great,” she says, “He’s just—”



The entrance of the tent unzips. Tory’s head appears.



“Thought you were going to bed,” he says.



“We’re talking,” I say.



“Okay,” he says. “I’m going to bed now.”



He lingers for a moment, then leaves. Kayla looks at me.



“Don’t take it the wrong way, Amy,” she says.



“I know,” I say, getting up and climbing out of the tent. Tory’s silhouette is visible on the teal fabric of my tent, adjacent to Kayla’s. I get inside. The flashlight hanging from the ceiling sways back and forth. Tory’s clothes are piled against the wall on his side, some of them wet or covered in dirt. It smells like him in here. He’s in his underwear trying to put on his sweatpants, but every time he lifts a leg he loses his balance. I extend a hand to help him and instead of grabbing it he holds my shoulder, hopping on one foot. Once he’s dressed, I tell him to drink water. but he just mumbles something and crawls into his sleeping bag. He’ll be hung over and it won’t be my fault. I get dressed in plenty of layers, turn off the flashlight, and get into my sleeping bag. I close my eyes but the cold won’t let me sleep. After ten or fifteen minutes waiting to get warm I decide to squeeze in Tory’s bag. He’s already sleeping, breathing heavily.



I shake him and he doesn’t wake. I call his name. He’s like a rock. Jesus, Tory. I unzip his sleeping bag and this wakes him just enough to realize that I’m getting in the bag with him. Then I zip it over me.



It’s a tight fit but already I feel warm. His drunk body is almost too hot for me. Facing me, he gives me a clumsy wet kiss on my eye. I kiss his lips. He kisses back. He wraps his arms around me, kissing. Then suddenly he’s asleep again.



You drank too much, idiot. But whatever, at least it’s warm.



endmark





I wake up shivering. Tory is gone and he left the fucking tent wide open. I go for the flashlight but it’s gone. What time is it? I close the tent and get back in the sleeping bag. I wait ten minutes and he isn’t back. What could possibly be taking him so long? I put on shoes and a hat and go outside. The wind is harsh and it makes my jacket feel useless. Scattered clouds are blocking out the stars, making it so dark I can barely see the ground.



I go to the fire pit and there are embers here, still warm. I put my hands near. I don’t know if I should just wait here for him or not. And I don’t know why I’m not in my tent right now.



Another gust blows through and the trees creak loudly. I start walking towards Kayla’s tent. I step on something and my foot slips out from under me. I almost fall into the dirt. It felt like an empty beer bottle. Damn it, Tory. I bend down to pick it up. It is a bottle but there’s something odd about it. The neck is broken off. I don’t think I stepped on it hard enough to break it. And I didn’t hear it break just now, so it must’ve been like that before. I toss it away.



I go in Kayla’s tent to shake her awake. She’s shivering. I whisper her name, nudging her shoulder.



“What is it?” she grumbles.



“I don’t know where Tory went,” I say. “Can I use your flashlight?”



“Sure,” she says.



“Where is it?” I say.



“Over there,” she says.



I don’t find anything in her backpack and I search madly around the edges of the tent, but all I feel are cotton, denim, nylon, and wool. My fingers hit something solid and I trace the shape with my hands. It’s the lantern. This’ll do. I lift it by the metal bail handle, noticing immediately that it’s heavier than I’d thought.



When I’m outside, I turn the lantern on and my surroundings become a world of quaking shadows. Long black shadows, moving as I move, as if they’re hiding from me.



I approach the fire pit, now armed with the lantern, and I can see that there are shards of glass everywhere. All the Corona bottles have been smashed and strewn around the pit. I’m guessing Tory broke them ‘just because’ and went to the forest to take a leak. He’s passed out, I know it. God, I don’t want to do this right now; it’s freezing and I want to sleep. I can’t believe he’s making me do this. I scan for footprints. There are marks in the dirt leading to the trees—like gashes in the ground.



Weird.



It’s like he dragged the axe in the dirt. And that makes sense, if he was breaking bottles with it. I follow the marks into the forest, stepping over roots and bushes and hearing cricket choruses go silent when I approach. Farther in, there are tree trunks stripped of bark with marks like axe chops. I keep walking until I’ve lost sight of camp. This is about where he’d be if he’d gone to take a dump. Lifting the lantern, I feel like the locus of shadows, fingers painted on unknown forms of wood and needles all pointing to me. And the light says to all creatures: here I am, come find me. But that’s childish—it’s irrational fears talking. I can’t let Mitch’s stories get to me. I’m alone out here, except for Tory, who’s got to be under a bush somewhere.



I choose a direction at random and walk. I stop at a tree that’s been torn up at the base; part of the trunk is splintered off and the rest of the tree leans over, barely standing. I don’t know what could have done this. It definitely wasn’t an axe, and I haven’t seen damage like this in the past few days. Maybe it’s the wind. Maybe this is some kind of storm.



“Tory!” I say. I call his name a second, third, and fourth time.



I hear a crack and turn around; a tree is leaning over, split near the base. I want to take a closer look, and a voice inside says, ‘Run for your life!’ I tell that voice to shut up because I’m not going back without Tory. This is my man, the man who I’m going to live with next year. We’re for sure going to rent an apartment together, and of course we can’t tell our parents—they wouldn’t approve. I have all these fantasies about how great it’ll be to come home to him; we’ll take turns making dinner; we’ll sit on the couch in pajamas watching Breaking Bad and eating Doritos; we’ll share a bed and have sex whenever we want; never have to worry about annoying, messy roommates. Tory’s the type of guy who will take care of me after a bad day, and I’ll do the same for him. Because he’s my man. So I go up to the split tree, but I keep my distance in case the tree snaps off completely. The more I look at it the more I think these might be claw marks. Of something huge. Not a bear—they’re not strong enough. Not a gorilla, either—they don’t have claws.



I try not to panic. I tell myself that all big animals have been discovered. I tell myself there must be other explanations, but my fears say, ‘You are not alone out here.’ I walk quickly back to camp but am careful not to be disoriented or trip on something. I keep looking back. I keep looking and holding the lantern, which shines white light on the trees and lets me see how deep the forest goes. If there’s something on the edge of the light, I would never know.



I arrive at the campsite and something is horribly wrong: Kayla’s tent is gone. It’s gone completely, and gashes in the ground make a trail into the forest. I run to my tent to be certain Tory isn’t there. He isn’t; the tent is as I left it. I run to Mitch’s tent, crawl inside, and my hand slips on the zipper as I try to seal the opening behind me. The two are sleeping in a bag together and Mitch is woken by the light. Belinda makes a squinting face.



“God,” I say, “God, Mitch. Get up. Get the fuck up!”



“Go away,” he says.



“They’re gone,” I say, putting the lantern down to let my arm rest. I think of gripping Mitch, slapping him, pushing him outside, but I sit in the corner, blowing air into my shaking hands.



“Who is?” he says.



“Tory and Kayla,” I say. “They’re fucking—” I swallow, “They’re not here anymore.” I can’t breathe. I’m about to cry. I’m about to run into the forest screaming. I don’t know what to do.



“Where are they?” says Mitch.



“They’re out there,” I say, pointing to nowhere. “They’re gone. They are gone. Something’s out there, breaking up trees like nothing. I think it has Tory and Kayla. They might be hurt. I think they’re in danger, but—I don’t know. I don’t know what to do! I think we should look for them. We have to try, Mitch. You have to help. Please get up. Just get up.”



Mitch sits up and says, “Okay, okay. Can I get dressed?”



He holds the sleeping bag over his crotch, and I realize he’s naked, and so is she. I step outside and hear Belinda ask what’s going on. Mitch tells her he’ll find out and she should stay in bed.



“Be quick,” she says, “it’s freezing.”



“Hang tight,” he says.



He appears from the tent and I tell him to get a flashlight and a knife, if he has one. He goes back into the tent and rummages and Belinda says, “Baby,” and he ignores her. He comes out with a flashlight and a three-inch blade and the wind smacks hair across his face. I illuminate the campsite with my lantern so he can see the broken glass twinkling. I show him where Kayla’s tent used to be.



“Oh fuck,” he says.



Gashes are torn deep into the ground, leaving fresh dirt exposed. Items litter the edge of the forest leading in. Some torn up clothes, a canteen, some granola bars. We stand here wondering if we should go in after her. I think I hear a howling but I know it’s just the wind.



I lead the way into the forest. Mitch follows me with his knife drawn. The trees are thicker on this side and we trek up to the top of a rise. I point out cut-up roots to Mitch. He gets down and runs his fingers along the cuts.



“I don’t know what this is,” he says.



“Did you really find a dead guy on a trail out here?” I say.



“I never went on the trail. My friend did, and he told me the story. I didn’t really believe it.”



My heart sinks, thinking that Tory and Kayla could end up the same way. But I feel more brave with Mitch here, and I know I’m not crazy, and I know something has to be done.



“We have to keep going,” I say. “I think I see pieces of the tent.”



“I don’t know if we should keep going,” he says.



“Kayla might be in there,” I say, looking into the trees that shake in the wind.



“I left Belinda at camp.”



“And Tory? What about him?”



Mitch hesitates. There’s another loud crack, coming from somewhere farther in. I feel compelled to follow it. I want to know what it is. I want to see what happened to Tory and Kayla.



“I can’t,” says Mitch.



“You’re going to leave me?” I say.



“I have to go back,” he says, starting to leave.



“Mitch, come on,” I say. “We have to try.”



His eyes are wide. He shakes his head. The knife is loose in his hand.



“I can’t,” he says. “We need to get out of here.”



He walks down the slope back to camp, leaving me with the lantern and the night. I walk into the forest and find a strip of nylon clinging to a bush. Farther in, a tree is broken in half, twisted up and split in the middle with the top half of the tree dangling upside down. A pink bra hangs on one of the branches like the clue to some fantastic, risqué scene devoid of romance and devoid of hate. And it makes me think: what will I do if I find this thing? What words or weapons would I use against it? Even a knife or an axe would be useless. And Kayla’s things seem to lead still farther in, so I can follow them or turn around.



Panic returns to my heart and blood. Kayla and Tory might be dead. I tell myself they’re not: they’re fine and I’m going to be fine. Why did we come here, anyways? Why am I here? Why am I standing in front of a destroyed tree, arms sore because of the clunky lantern?



I’ve got go back. Run away. Go home.



And I turn around.



And I stand perfectly still and my breathing stops because I see something. I see movement through the distant trees, and it’s hard to make out. But it definitely is something. And it definitely is moving. I can see branches shaking in its wake and the gray texture of its skin, screened by dark trees. Then it moves beyond the light of the lantern, going into the forest at an even pace. Follow it, follow it. I want to face the beast. No, that’s suicidal. I go to camp instead.



Mitch’s tent has been crushed by a tree. The wiring has snapped apart and the nylon is flattened to the ground. I imagine Belinda’s body, bundled in a sleeping bag, squished dead beneath the enormous weights. I feel a pang of regret and shame. Then I hear a screech from the other side of the campsite. It’s Belinda screaming. I run to her, holding the swinging dying lantern, running past my empty tent and the spent fire pit. She’s in sweatpants and a sweater, holding her hands to her face. She’s not saying anything; she’s just screaming as loudly as she can. When I’m near her I see why: Mitch’s severed leg is making a pool of bloody mud in the dirt.



I’m about to ask what happened, but that’s dumb because I already know.



“Are you okay?” I say.



Her screaming grows weaker but she doesn’t look at me. I try to hug her but she pushes me away and squats on the ground and stands up and squats. She can’t take her eyes off Mitch’s leg.



I stand between her and the leg and say, “You’re okay. It’s okay.” She looks at me and the ground. I say, “Do you know what the thing is? What does it look like?”



“It took Mitch,” she says, hands on her head. I hold her shoulders and she stops screaming and fidgeting. I ask her if she’s okay and she doesn’t answer. She’s said all she can.



My mind hangs onto the hope that I can do something to save Tory. I could look for him but I’ll be wandering through the forest till I die. I don’t want to think about what might have happened to him. I do it anyways. I imagine the beast skewering him, so easy compared to splitting trees. Then what? Does the beast begin to feed? I can’t imagine that. I do it anyways. Huge jaws break off Tory’s arms. Does it have a mouth? It eats him in whatever way it does. It pulls the body into its mouth and chomps, chomps. It has Kayla, too. And the rest of Mitch. It’s going to come back for me and Belinda, and take us to its cave, or its feeding grounds.



I take Belinda by the arm and say, “Do you have a flashlight?” She cries, ignoring me. I ask again and she shakes her head. I yank her arm and say, “Listen! We need to leave. We need to leave right now. We’re going home. Do you have a flashlight?”



She shakes her head. The lantern flickers; it might not last us but it’s all we have.



I check my tent for the last time, thinking that maybe, in his drunkenness, Tory had come back safely without noticing what was going on. But the tent is the same: his smelly clothes are still piled against the wall, and the sleeping bag is still warm from our bodies. I take his keys and I can’t think of anything else important so I leave it all behind.



Coming out of the tent, I don’t see Belinda. I call her name several times. Then I turn around and she’s standing by her tent, shivering and crying. I take her wrist, she mutters Mitch’s name, and I don’t remind her that he’s dead.



“Come on,” I say. She follows when I tug her, and I move as quickly as she’s able. It’s a mile to the parking lot. The trail is thin and weaves so much we can’t see far ahead. The dense forest pushes up on both sides, and the stars are gone behind the clouds. I slow down for Belinda, who has gathered the mind to jog but not to sprint, and I won’t leave her here to die.



She trips on a root. I help her up and we keep going until we’re stopped by a tree that has fallen across the path. Belinda shouts and tries to run the other direction. Pulling her, I hold up the lantern and listen for the beast, but there seems to be nothing around. I guide her around the tree, scraping our way through all the bushes, and we return to speed on the hiking trail. The light is fading; it’s so dim I can barely see the first layer of pines. Cracking sounds pop behind us, then beside us, somewhere we can’t see. Belinda picks up speed, driven by the same rush of energy that carries my feet and courses through my legs.



The hiking trail widens out and suddenly we’re running into the dirt parking lot, getting whipped by unshielded wind. Mitch’s truck is missing. But wait—I see it, crumpled like paper and upside down on the edge of the lot. Tory’s SUV is by the trees, dented on the side and missing a door. Belinda is making sobbing, choking sounds and she doesn’t move when I pull her arm. The SUV is right there; all we have to do is run to it and start the engine, but Belinda doesn’t want to budge.



Then I notice why.



I can see it, too. The thing. It’s standing in the trees past the SUV. It’s tall, thin—treelike itself. It blends into the background, with arms like roots and claw-shaped branches that reach the ground. Its skin is rough like bark and it has twisted legs but no discernible head. It does have two slits like eyes that gleam the last light of the lantern. It takes a step towards us.



Then the light dies out.



Belinda says, “The light!”



We can’t see anything. I think I hear its footsteps drowned by shaking trees. I drop the lantern, take Tory’s keys from my pocket, and press the alarm button. The headlamps flash and the alarms sound, causing the thing to hesitate. I drag Belinda to the SUV and shove her in the open door, hopping into the driver’s seat and putting the SUV in reverse. The thing moves after us and swings its arm, scratching the hood. I’m in full reverse, honking the horn, and put some space between us. Then I switch to drive and whip the car around, accelerating onto the dirt road as it watches helplessly. In my rearview mirror, dirt clouds wipe the beast from view and I can finally breathe.



God. Shit.



We’re bounding down the road and I wipe my eyes. Belinda is passed out on the seat. I stop the car so I can buckle a seat belt over her. Then I take us up to speed and we reach a paved road. What direction takes us home? I turn left. I’ll drive until I reach a city, or a town, or a gas station, or until the sun comes out.



I could feel a lot of things right now but all I really feel is this: it isn’t fair. How could Tory be taken from me? And Kayla. And Mitch. It’s not fair! They didn’t deserve this. And I was going to marry that man, and we were going to live in a small house and have three kids—that was my dream, anyways. I’ll never find a man like him, with his intelligence and honesty and looks. It’s all over now. I can tell my parents the whole story, and report it to the cops, but wouldn’t it be better just to burn the forest down? To hunt the beast, light it on fire, hack it to pieces, watch it slowly cook. I’d like to make that beast suffer; I’d like to make it bleed and I’d savor every second. And then what? Medical school and horror, nights that can’t be slept through, love that can’t be made, and seeing eyes in every shadow, and death in every tree.



   
   

 

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Chandler Thomsen is an aspiring writer of horror, science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, and realistic fiction. This is his first-ever published work, and he hopes it will not be his last. He resides in California and writes in his spare time.



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