A chilly, afternoon breeze blew at the forest edge of Farm Road 1195, making the autumn-colored trees whisper like dead men. The 3 p.m. sunlight did little to calm the shiver going down Sherie’s spine, though, as she leaned against the hood of Libby’s car, playing Candy Crush on her phone and pretending not to listen to Thrash’s story.
“Look, you can believe this or not, I don’t really give a shit, but the whole thing went down last September,” Thrash said, crushing his cigarette butt into the heel of his boot. “I’d been at Drury for a couple of weeks when it all went down. My first thought at seeing it, I figured it for some sorta freshmen hazing. You know, scare the hell out of us and watch us piss ourselves. It’s kinda funny, right?” The question was to Sherie but she stayed focused on her phone.
The wind picked up a bit, colder this time. Dead leaves blew around Thrash’s ankles as he continued.
“Christ, it’s getting cold out here. Where the hell is Caitlin and Lauren?”
“En route,” Daniel sighed, finishing up the laces on his hiking boots, “Are you gonna tell this story or not?”
“I still don’t think he should.” Libby added, pulling a duffle bag out of her car and shutting the door, “Aren’t we trying for a legitimate hunt? Heightening our emotions – our imaginations – it’ll skew the results.”
“’Skew the results’?” Thrash laughed, kicking at the leaves that had amassed around his feet, “We’re just lab rats to you, aren’t we, Lib. Look, I came out here as a junior. Nothing happened. As kids, all our dads brought all our moms out here just so they could freak them out and then see if they could get into their pants. It’s a tale as old as time.”
“Ew!/Dude!/Nasty!” Sherie, Libby, and Daniel all said at once.
“Anyhow, back to my story,” Thrash smiled, “I’d had a helluva brain burner in Chem 101 and was beat. I fell asleep that night as soon as my head hit the pillow. I slept hard. When I woke up, it was early dawn. My room was all gray-blue and still filled with shadows. But there, standing at the end of my bed was this little girl. I could see her as clearly as I see you guys now. And – I mean it’s not like it is in the movies. The room wasn’t cold and there was no faint kid laughter announcing her presence. Wasn’t any deep, jarring cello note to signal your freak out. There’s just a person standing there while your brain is telling you that that’s impossible.”
Sherie tried really hard to focus on her game, but finally gave up and set all pretenses aside. “Who was she?”
Thrash shrugged before continuing, “Dunno. Drury’s been haunted by her since the old days, is what I was told after. But, as I kept staring at her, I realized that I couldn’t move. I was frozen stiff, watching her watch me. Then she took a step forward, coming around the foot of my bed. As she did, she started to grin at me. Each step she took, her grin got wider, and her head started to tilt to the left a little. Step. Grin. Step. Grin. The smile started to become too wide for that little face. No human grinned that way. Her head was tilted nearly to her shoulder but she never stopped looking at me. Slowly, her mouth began to open, showing these jagged sawblades for teeth.”
Daniel snorted, “Bullshit.” He tightened the hood on his sweatshirt, though.
“No bullshit,” Thrash said. “Then, right before she turned me into an all you can eat buffet, she just kinda . . . blinked. She was gone.”
Libby pulled a small tape recorder out of her bag and checked the batteries. “That’s pretty cool. I have a strict ‘If I wasn’t there, it didn’t happen’ policy, but it makes for a cool story. Maybe we could go there next weekend? Kind of a spook hunt part two?”
Just then another car pulled around the corner of the gravel road, Janis Joplin’s Me and Bobby McGee blaring from within. It slammed to a halt in the middle of the road next to Libby’s car, kicking up gravel dust into a light, angry fog.
“What up, bitches?” Caitlin grinned from the driver seat. “Hey, not for nothin’, but I do not have Bobby McGee with me.”
Lauren was sitting with her knees drawn up to her chin in the passenger seat. She leaned across Caitlin to the open driver’s side window.
“This is fuckery, is what this is.” She yelled to those collected. “I was told we were going to a Halloween party. This,” she opened her coat to reveal a colorful top, “is an ‘I’m going to a party’ ensemble. You know what it’s not? It’s not an ‘I’m gonna go out woods-traipsing with the cast of a Nirvana tribute band so we can all trick-or-treat the Blair Witch’ outfit.”
“Yeah, so, she’s somewhat displeased.” Caitlin drawled.
“Dude, are you stoned?” Daniel yelled, looking Caitlin in the eyes closely. Lauren sat back in her own seat with a huff.
“Relax, man,” Caitlin looked affronted, “You and Libby told me the drill. ‘No hunting unless clearheaded’, and I’m abiding by the rules. Sir, yes sir!” She saluted.
Lauren opened her door and got out of the car. “Seriously, though,” she pulled her coat’s hood up. “No party?”
“We’re only going to stay out for a few hours.” Daniel turned, explaining.
“The keg will still be full by the time we call it quits,” Thrash growled, wrapping Lauren into a big bear hug. “Unless,” he sighed, “Libby actually gets some sort of EVP.”
“I’m set to move.” Libby smiled. “I’ve got a good feeling about this. You set with the camera, Sherie?”
Sherie held up her iPhone, “Always. But I’m stilled pissed about this. You know I hate this stuff. I’m with Lauren. Can’t we just head to the party now?”
“One hour,” Libby pleaded, “That’s all I ask. It’s Halloween of our senior year. I don’t plan on returning from Berkeley next year just for Halloween,” she turned to Thrash, “no offense meant –”
“Sure, sure.” Thrash patted the air in a No Worries gesture.
“So let’s do this!” Daniel shouted toward the woods. “Hear that ya creepy-ass woods? We’re about to be in you!”
* * * * *
The party gathered their belongings and began the trek across the empty field that stretched between the farm road and forest. The brown, long-dry grass suffered their crossing, crunching underfoot.
“What all ya got in this thing, Lib? It’s heavy as hell!” Thrash asked, taking her duffle bag from her shoulder and throwing it over his.
“A little bit of everything,” Libby said, testing her tape recorder. “Testing, one-two. Testing.” She played back the tape, hearing her voice: Testing, one-two. Testing. “A pup tent, length of rope, couple of starter logs, lighter fluid; ya know, just in case we had decided to stay the night out here. Night vision goggles –”
“We are not camping out here.” Sherie interrupted.
Daniel scoffed, “We’ve covered this already, yeah? We’re in, we’re out, and we head to the party.”
As the group got to the wood’s edge, everyone stopped.
“Anyone wants out, here’s last call,” Caitlin said. Everyone was looking at each other in the eye, gathering nerve.
“We’re here,” Lauren shrugged, her arms wrapped around herself in a hug, “let’s just get it over with before we lose the daylight.” With that, they all walked into the woods.
For the next five minutes, no sound was heard except for their footsteps. The woods seemed to envelop their minds like a murky fog covering a swamp. Caitlin, normally so quick with a laugh, tried thinking about something happy but couldn’t. Lauren thought she’d hum a song, something she’d done since childhood to cheer herself up, but only funeral songs came to mind. Thrash, unable to take the thoughts bubbling to his mind’s surface, started to light a cigarette.
“Don’t,” Daniel said, seemingly snapping himself from a daze, “it’s too dry out here. Pretty sure firetruck sirens would skew the data.” He forced a smile and pointed to Libby, who seemed preoccupied with her tape recorder.
“We’ve hiked for nearly ten minutes,” Libby said into the recorder, “the cars –” she turned back toward the road, “are still within eyesight. Sherie, start filming.”
“Oh!” Sherie jumped, “Right. Got it.”
Sherie panned the area with her cell phone, capturing the surrounding trees and brush with a sense of unease. She came around to each of her friends in turn. A gloom had crept into their faces; a grayness devoid of joy. Finally, Lauren grabbed Sherie’s filming hand, staring into the camera.
“Here we are,” she began, in a thick Eastern European accent, “on the set of Pimp My Crypt. I am your hostess, Vampyra, and clearly, I’ve made bad choices in my life. You see, I like to bet the ponies.”
“Hey!” Libby yelled over the others giggling. “I thought we were hunting here.”
Lauren let go of Sherie’s hand and turned back toward marching forward into the woods. Nobody else said anything for a while. Not even Libby into her tape recorder. Sherie kept filming, looking at her phone’s screen as it recorded.
Suddenly it was dark outside.
It wasn’t as though it went from three in the afternoon to 9:00 p.m. in a flash, but as if it had been dark for ages and none of the kids had noticed it. Everyone stopped walking at once.
“How the hell?” Daniel wondered aloud.
“How the holy shit is it nighttime?” Thrash asked. “Did we get stoned and nobody told me?”
“Guys?” Sherie’s voice quivered, “Guys?”
“Let’s go back you guys.” Caitlin turned around trying to find her bearings, “Which way to the cars?” she screamed.
“You guys, look!” Sherie shouted, holding up her phone so everyone could see. “I haven’t stopped recording since Libby said to start.”
The screen showed that she’d been recording for twenty-three minutes. It was only 4:13 p.m.
The dark purple/blue light made available by the evening sky was quickly changing to black.
“I can’t see shit out here.” Thrash moaned. “Hey, Lib, didn’t you say you had some night vision goggles in here?” he stopped, pulling her duffle bag from his shoulder and began digging through it on the ground.
“How can I have no service?” Daniel yelled, holding his phone up to the night sky.
“I’m out too,” Lauren added. “But at least my flashlight works.”
“Hey, shine that over here a sec,” Thrash told her. “I’m gonna find our cars with Lib’s night vis –”
Something tore through the brush from deeper in the woods. It moved clumsily, from the racket it was making, but with tremendous force. Then, in the dark, silhouettes that were darker still could be made out – things coming toward them. Not one, but many. Lauren pointed her flashlight their way. Small humans, crawling on all fours like fearsome, hairless apes were captured in the cone of her light; as many as ten of the creatures. They bounded toward her, inhumanly quick. With outstretched arms, their fingers achingly seeking the touch of flesh, they were upon her.
Lauren had the good sense to scream.
She dropped her phone to the ground, flashlight side up. The creatures seemed entranced by the light; ignoring Lauren’s collapsed body, for the time being, they each pushed to get a glimpse of the phone as it shined pointlessly into the night sky.
Daniel was the first to come out of the shock of the situation, running toward Lauren and grabbing her by the wrists. She whimpered, blubbering incoherently as he dragged her away.
“Thrash, help me with her! We’ve got to move. Go, go, go!” he whispered harshly in the dark, not wanting to draw the creatures’ attention from the light.
Thrash grabbed Lauren by the right arm and the two boys lugged her along. Libby felt for her duffle bag and picked it up while Sherie and Caitlin gathered to them, willing everyone to hurry faster with each step.
“What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck,” Caitlin repeated, nearly manic.
“I – I don’t know.” Libby said hoarsely, “I don’t know. Let’s just get to the cars and get home. Lauren,” she tried to make out her friend’s face in the dark, “honey, are you okay?”
When Lauren didn’t respond, Caitlin got her own phone out and turned the flashlight on, pointing it at Lauren’s face. Lauren was pale. Her eyes were glassy. Then Caitlin saw that Thrash was coated in blood down the right side of his body.
“Oh my god, Thrash, guys, stop!” Caitlin yelled.
She stifled a scream after looking Thrash over. It wasn’t his blood she was seeing. Lauren hadn’t dropped her phone in a catatonic state when the creatures got to her. They had somehow, upon reaching her, attacked. Lauren was bleeding profusely.
And missing the last three fingers of her right hand.
“Turn out the light!” Libby screamed at Caitlin.
But it was too late.
Noticing the light, the creatures tore through the woods after them.
* * * * *
Libby pressed Play on the recorder.
By our account, we’ve been in the woods for nearly three hours. The sun has come up and gone down six times. We can’t find the cars. Every way we take seems to lead back into the forest. The Crawlers – that’s what we’ve been calling the creatures – are obsessed with light, but only come to the edge of light sources. They stick to the shadows of the forest in daylight, staring into the sun. We’ve learned to hide in the darkest parts of those same shadows at night, while they roam freely in the moonlight. We were headed north when we first entered the forest, but going south doesn’t get us back out again. I don’t understand how –
“Enough,” Caitlin snapped, grabbing the recorder from Libby’s hand and turning it off, “How many times do we need to listen to this?”
Libby snatched the recorder back, “I don’t understand how any of this is happening. If I go over the tape, over the notes, maybe I can –”
“We’re fucked!” Caitlin yelled, “We started out fucked as soon as we stepped into these woods. We’ve walked forever, run from grub-midgets, and we remain fucked.”
“I’ll never realize my dream of concert pianist,” Lauren said sleepily, sitting nearby. She was holding up her bandaged hand, watching as it bled again, “not that I play. But I could’ve learned.” She smiled up at them lazily.
“Jesus,” Daniel sighed. “She’s lost a lot of blood, guys. Here’s hoping it doesn’t get cold once the sun disappears again.” He said, ripping strips from his flannel overshirt to redress the wound.
“Who the hell is that?” Thrash asked, pointing to a wooded bluff rising fifty yards away. “Hey! Hey! Over here!”
Everyone looked to where Thrash was pointing. There were two people walking atop the bluff. They seemed to be looking around for something.
“Where did the bluff come from?” Libby asked aloud. “This is all flatland woods out here. Hills, yes, but a ridge that high?”
“That’s what you focus on?” Thrash turned to her, incredulously. “Have you noticed? Those are people over there! They walk upright like people, dress like people, real people!”
“Speaking of dress,” Sherie spoke up, disbelieving her eyes, “that one, the girl on the edge there. She’s dressed just like me.”
“Ho-ly shit, Sherie’s right.” Caitlin added, “And Thrash. The guy behind that Sherie . . . he’s dressed like you.”
“What’re you –” Thrash asked, squinting closely at the figures in the distance. It was true. These new people did look like Sherie and himself. It went beyond their dress. They were built the same, even walked the same way.
Suddenly, it was dark again.
“I am so over this,” Caitlin said. Daniel had finished redressing Lauren’s hand and Caitlin bent down to help her up. “You know the drill.”
No flashlights. Hit the dark forest.
Everyone knew the drill.
Six hours, eighteen minutes in the woods
“I’d like to get a closer look at one,” Daniel said after the group had seen a mysterious double for the third time. This one had been of Caitlin. Double Caitlin had seemed agitated, shaking her fist at the sky and shouting, though no sound had accompanied the vision. Then, she was gone.
“Why?!” Sherie asked, annoyed, “Let’s just figure out how to get the hell out of here!”
“Because they could be a clue toward explaining all of this weirdness,” Daniel stopped, looking back at her, “like why do they resemble us? What’s with it looking like there’s a heatwave between us, making them look like a desert mirage? Any answers we figure out could lead us home.”
They all began walking again. The trees grew closer together in this part of the forest, corralling the group of kids like cattle down the few open paths. They were being forced into higher terrain and didn’t even realize it.
Nighttime came. Five minutes later the sun rose and always there were trees.
They began to hear strange sounds in the distance. Human voices. Some screaming in terror. Others laughing.
They came upon a small clearing in the forest when night came once again. Thrash stopped, leaning against a tree, too tired to go on. Libby and Sherie sat down next to him while Daniel and Caitlin helped Lauren lie down on the ground.
“No, that’s wrong,” Lauren said woozily, looking up into the dark, cloudless heavens.
“I know, sweetie, I know,” Caitlin commented, checking Lauren’s hand, “this is all wrong. It doesn’t make any sense. Like a bad movie that –”
“No,” Lauren interrupted softly, pointing up, “no. The sky is wrong. The sky. Those aren’t our stars.”
“Oh my god, she’s right!” Libby jumped up, startled. “I don’t recognize any of those constellations.”
Everyone was looking up, so no one saw the figure appear behind Thrash. Had they been able, they may have determined that it was Thrash. Same jeans, same hoodie from Drury, even the same sneakers. They might even have noticed that Double Thrash’s hands and face were devoid of detailed features as if he were standing behind a heat haze on a summer’s day. But they most definitely would have seen him raise his weapon to strike.
But, as it was, no one saw what happened until it was too late.
The club caught Thrash at the base of his skull, just behind the right ear. The crunch of it connecting with his head was so loud that the rest of his group turned toward the noise. They saw Thrash fall to the ground, and Double Thrash standing behind him.
“Goddammit!” Daniel yelled, rushing toward Thrash’s seemingly lifeless body.
“Fucker!” Caitlin screamed at the shape of Double Thrash. She grabbed a melon-sized rock from the ground and rushed the hazy figure.
Libby knelt down to cradle Thrash’s head while Daniel felt at his neck.
“Bastard disappeared.” Caitlin said, returning from the woods, “Is Thrash okay?”
“He’s got a pulse, but it’s weak.” Daniel spoke quietly, “He’s bleeding really bad, guys.”
“Crawlers!” Sherie screamed, pointing to the edge of the clearing, though she needn’t have bothered. The creatures’ grunts and heavy, raspy breathing were quite audible as they tore through the woods behind them.
“We’ve got to get out of this clearing!” Libby said, grabbing for her bag. It was only then that she noticed Lauren was digging in it. “What are you –?”
“Just give me one second,” Lauren said, pulling out what she’d been fishing for. She held one of Libby’s starter logs in her good hand. The lighter fluid was in her bandaged hand.
The Crawlers drew closer.
“Hell yes!” Caitlin grinned, realizing the plan. She pulled out her zippo as Lauren tore a small hole in the starter log packaging, filling it with lighter fluid. Caitlin lit it.
“I’mma make it rain, bitches!” Lauren yelled, smiling, as she threw the makeshift Molotov cocktail. It arched high, sailing along like liquid sunlight until finally crashing down – exploding into the group of writhing monsters.
“Help me get Thrash up,” Daniel yelled. Sherie grabbed Thrash’s other arm and the two got him upright. He groaned in pain. “It’s okay, man,” Daniel assured him, “You’re gonna be fine. Let’s blow this joint.”
Libby got her bag and helped Lauren to her feet. Caitlin picked up her rock, feeling safer armed. The group returned to the forest just as the sun came up again.
Libby, turning back, noticed first that the Crawlers were gone. Secondly, that the clearing was fully engulfed in flames. The heat rising up behind them was intense. Libby was just noticing the space above the fire begin to wobble in waves of heated air.
“It’ll bring help,” Daniel whispered to Libby, snapping her out of it. “Let’s just keep moving.”
“Hear that forest?” Caitlin screamed, shaking her fist at the sky, “We’re gonna get out of this shithole!”
Libby flinched at the sight of Caitlin’s declaration. She wouldn’t realize why until it was too late.
“Jesus,” Thrash moaned from between Daniel and Sherie, “no more booze. Stick a fork in me, I’m done.”
“Thank Christ,” Daniel said, stopping to look into Thrash’s eyes. “There’s no way you don’t have a concussion, brother.”
“I’ll be okay,” Thrash told them, shrugging off assistance from Daniel and Sherie, “Just grab that tree branch for me so I can steady myself.”
The fire behind them continued to grow as smoke filled the sky above and throughout the forest. The only clear path with breathable air led uphill. They climbed in silence for a while, skating along the edge of madness. The hill had become a cliff, though no one made mention of this geographical impossibility.
“Oh my God,” Libby whispered, staring ahead. Her double had appeared at the cliff’s edge. Not moving, not even looking their way. She was merely staring down. Then, the double began to silently scream.
Without warning, the double of Daniel appeared right in front of Caitlin. With a shriek, Caitlin bashed her rock into his face, knocking him to the ground. She jumped on top of him. “Stupid mother f-!” The rest of her curse was lost to the sound of her repeated blows.
Finally, Sherie was touching Caitlin’s shoulder, gently coaxing her to stop. Caitlin looked down expecting to see a bloody mess. But she was just sitting in the mud. The double of Daniel was gone. Caitlin looked around to the faces of her friends. Everyone looked like she felt. Far beyond terrified, barely sane; lost.
And it was nighttime again.
Somehow going up the hill had led them back into the woods.
Smoke billowed as flames danced all around them.
“This can’t be real,” Lauren said.
Libby agreed, silently. They’d walked at least a mile since Lauren and Caitlin torched the Crawlers, yet flames were here, too. It was like the whole world was on fire.
“There’s one of them,” Thrash said through gritted teeth. His double had appeared, standing with his back to them, not ten feet in front of the group. Thrash prowled forward, his walking branch drawn up to strike.
It was the crunching sound of the hit that made everything come together for Libby. Libby, who had planned to study physics at Berkeley, whose rational mind couldn’t quite accept what was now in front of her.
“I was looking down,” she started, frantically looking at the ground, “I was – what was I looking at?” She asked Sherie.
“Honey, I don’t –” Sherie stammered.
“No!” Libby shouted, spinning away, “I’ve got to figure it out before –” She looked to Daniel and her face fell.
“What’s going on?” Thrash returned, leaning on a nearby tree to hold himself up. He had broken the branch over his double’s head.
“Libby’s lost it, man,” Daniel said.
“Don’t you see?!” Libby demanded, “It’s time, space. It’s all turned around. Like reality going down a toilet; it’s day on one side of the bowl, night on the other. We see doubles of ourselves walking the woods on one side because we’ve already walked the woods on the other side. As the cosmic toilet flushes, the sides get closer until they meet.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Thrash said in a calming voice.
“We’re the doubles.” Libby screamed, her eyes welling with tears, “We’re the doubles!” She ran, trying to return the way they came.
“The fire!” Caitlin yelled after her.
“C’mon!” Daniel hurried the rest along behind Libby.
The forest began to fill with the sounds of its unmaking. Brush burned, crackling. Trees, long seeking water from an uncaring sky, ignited. The group made their way back as best they could, black smoke trailing them until a wall of flames stopped all progress.
“We’ve got to go back!” Lauren pleaded. “The fire’s too intense!”
“I was looking down,” Libby repeated, coughing. “Down. Why was –”
She saw it. Through the chaos and destruction raining around her, she just made it out. There, at the base of the cliff some six stories down sat the cars. Libby was so overjoyed as she pointed toward them, she didn’t even register that her hair was on fire. When she finally did feel it, she screamed.
And then the fire took her.
Lauren and Sherie tried frantically to pull Libby away, but it was too late. Thrash had just enough time to grab the two of them in a bear hug and get them away before the fire devoured them as well.
“She found them,” Daniel said, in tears, “Libby found the cars. Hurry!” he scampered down the side of the cliff, “It’s not too steep. Let’s get out of here.”
“But Libby!” Caitlin cried.
“There’s nothing we can do!” Thrash said, pushing her toward the others as they made their way down, “If we stay, we all die.”
They slid and tumbled their way down the cliffside. It was fairly fast going. They were almost out of the woods; could see the cars not even a hundred yards in front of them. The sun was shining its 3 p.m. sunlight, outside of those woods, just as it had been when they started the spook hunt.
That’s when Caitlin’s double appeared out of thin air in front of Daniel.
For a brief moment, time seemed to stop. Everyone froze in the harsh realization of what was about to happen. That Libby was right: it was going to happen because it already had.
Caitlin’s double smashed Daniel’s face in with her rock. He fell, eyes wide with the absence of life, where he stood. Caitlin’s double fell on top of him; rock raised high but then she disappeared.
“No!” Caitlin wailed. She dropped to Daniel’s body, pushing it, trying to will it to life. “Please get up. Please. I didn’t know,” she sobbed, “I didn’t know.”
Sirens filled the air outside of the forest. In a daze, Thrash could make out firetrucks barreling down Farm Road 1195 in the distance. He picked up his dead friend and then the four remaining spook-hunters limped toward their cars.
Sherie had stayed up all night in the hospital. She supposed it was in some attempt to guard Thrash and Lauren as they slept the sleep of the sedated, but she knew that wasn’t really the case. The truth was, she was afraid to be alone. Caitlin’s folks had come to take her home after the police asked their fill of questions, but Sherie’s parents were in Branson until Monday.
Around eight the next evening, Caitlin returned.
“You need to get some sleep, girl.” She said. “I’ll take over the watch. Why don’t you head on home? You can take my car.”
“No thanks,” Sherie told her.
“Well, how about that guest lounge next door?” Caitlin offered. “It’s dark enough to sleep, but I’d be right in here.”
Sherie stood up and stretched. She felt like a zombie.
“Maybe for a bit.” She said. Her eyes felt like stone marbles. “Come get me if they wake up?”
“You know I will.” Caitlin tried to smile, but still looked lost for the effort.
Sherie walked around to the lounge and opened the door. It was too dark. She turned her phone on and flipped it over to find the light switch on the wall. She heard their harsh breathing first, then their inhuman grunts.
There in the dark, with the ambient light from her phone, she could just make out their faces as they came for her.
It was mercifully quick after that.