Hey, everybody! Go on over to Women and Words for a chance to win an ebook copy of Ylva Publishing’s Wicked Things anthology.
HERE IS THE LINK TO THE GIVEAWAY. It ends TOMORROW (1 November) at 9 PM EST US.
I also posted a short story of my own over there, but here it is here, too:
ANDI’S CREEPY (HOPEFULLY) HALLOWEEN STORY
You love camping, so when you decided to go that one time late summer above the town where you grew up, you figured it’d be like every other time. Hanging out with a group of friends at the campground next to the creek where animal sounds from the higher mountains roll down through the pines like fog. You love camping, so you said “yes” to the invite and grabbed your gear.
Night falls in a slow, quiet drift and you help get the firepit ready. A few cars pass the campground, on the way to the lake farther up, most people honking and waving. Except for the driver of that red pickup. He’s in a white tee you notice, and he slows down and stares hard at you and your group, but doesn’t smile and doesn’t wave. You watch that truck until the curve in the dirt road takes it out of your sight, but you see another guy in the cab through the back window, wearing a red tee. You think he might’ve been staring, too, expression hard and flat, like the side of a knife.
Just a couple of assholes, your friends say, but you can’t shake the slight chill that has nothing to do with the cooler air at this altitude. You hope they’re right, and you go back to getting the fire ready and when it catches and shoots sparks and merry flames into the air, it burns away most of that earlier chill and you settle in, laughing and joking, telling ghost stories because that’s what you do when you go camping with your friends.
The fire collapses into coals, as if full dark had pressed down on it, forcing the flames back to earth. The creek nearby gurgles and you hear a few rustles from underbrush, and the creak of trees as they shift in the breeze. Night sounds, all. Forest sounds, and one of the reasons you love camping. You look across the firepit to say something about that when a distant scream from higher up the mountain makes your words catch in your mouth and everybody around the firepit stares at each other, eyes wide, waiting.
Another scream, otherworldly, like a woman but not quite. You think of werewolves, then, because the sound isn’t quite human but it’s not quite animal.
“Cougar,” one of your friends says. She’s sitting across from you, and she’s trying to sound confident.
“Definitely,” her brother agrees, with the certainty of young male bravado.
You all listen, but the sound doesn’t repeat and you remember something you read, about how a mountain lion’s scream can mimic a woman in distress. You relax. Yeah. A cougar. Probably.
Another one of your friends throws a piece of wood on the fire, and the coals embrace it hungrily until flames emerge from its surface. That makes things better, so you add another couple of logs and the fire starts battling the darkness, and it wins, in the circle of your campsite, where your three tents are like wagons and you’re a group of pioneers braving the wilds. You relax and the conversation flows again, like the creek behind you.
Your friend’s brother has to go to the bathroom, so he gets up. She hands him a flashlight and he takes off into the underbrush across the dirt road that carried others up to the lake earlier. You see the flashlight’s beam bobbing among the trees, a willow-the-wisp in the forest. The cougar you heard was too far up the mountains, you think, so it’s okay if he goes a little farther away. Somebody says something about bears shitting in the woods and everybody laughs.
And then you hear a crashing from the forest, from where your friend’s brother went to take a leak, and everybody stands, then, and there he is, barreling out of the woods, flashlight beam skittering through the darkness like a weird concert light show. He’s running full-tilt, and you can hear him gasping his breaths. He doesn’t slow down until he hits the boundary of light that the revitalized fire created. Nobody says anything. You just watch and wait as he tries to talk.
“Guy in the woods,” he says. “Watching us.”
You all stare at him.
“Where?” somebody says. You don’t realize it’s you talking because you’re watching him, doubled over, still catching his breath.
“Couple hundred yards, maybe.” He gestures vaguely toward the forest, in the area where he’d gone to pee. He looks up. “White T-shirt.”
You all look at each other again. “Like that guy in the truck?” you say.
You all share another stare and you’re thinking that you’d much rather deal with cougars or werewolves than humans, and you think about Friday the 13th movies and Deliverance and you fight a crazy laugh when you realize you’re waiting for banjo music.
“Let’s find out,” one of your friends says. It was her brother, after all, who was scared out of the woods. “Asshole,” she adds and she goes to her pickup truck and opens the door and turns the truck’s lights on. They’re aimed at the forest across the road, and your gut clenches and you really have to pee but there is no way in hell you’re going up there to do it. And no way you’re leaving the fire’s light. You’re sweating, but it’s cold on your skin. Not like clean sweat, the kind you get when you work out or hike, but the kind that fear smears on your skin.
Dust from the road drifts in the headlights’ path, kicked up from your friend’s sprint. Your friend leaves her truck and picks up a hatchet from the picnic table. Her brother picks up a stick that would make a decent staff for hiking. Ballsy, you think. You go to the truck, thinking you’ll help somehow. Maybe by turning the brights on. Stupid, you realize, but you don’t know what else to do. Your two other friends stand nearby, waiting, as your armed friends follow the headlights across the road and into the underbrush, picking their way carefully. Your friend with the hatchet is the deliberate, slow-talking one in the group. Steady and patient. Doesn’t get all crazy. So if something’s out there, she’s the one to determine what it is. Not much fazes her.
But you’re coated in sweat, now. Your own tee is soaked under your sweatshirt above the waistband of your jeans and you realize you’re shivering. You clamp your teeth together because otherwise they’d chatter.
Nobody says anything. Seconds crawl. You think you hear your friends moving in the underbrush up there, about a hundred yards away. You hear your friend closest to you breathing and maybe you can even hear the blood moving through her veins, so attuned you’ve become to the dark and what might be in it. Your other friend exhales, like she was just holding her breath. Probably not a guy, you’re trying to convince yourself. The little brother had been telling ghost stories earlier. He was primed to see something creepy since he had already been thinking about it. You can’t convince yourself, though.
And then your friend and her brother burst out of the forest running. You freeze, not sure what to do, dreading whatever’s chasing them but unable to move.
“Let’s go,” your friend says when she gets to the truck. You look at her and then her brother and he’s nodding and gasping.
“Another guy,” your friend with the hatchet says. “Red shirt. He’s got a knife.” She’s trying to catch her breath and she’s shaking. Her knuckles are white on the hatchet’s handle. “Sitting up there.” She points toward the forest, where the truck’s headlights are aimed. She digs in her pocket and pulls the keys to her truck out and she looks at each of you in turn. “He smiled at me.”
And then you’re all moving. You don’t remember what you grab, only that you and three others pile into the back of the pickup and that your friend starts the truck and puts it in drive even before you’ve settled in. The truck’s bed is cold and uncomfortable against your skin but you don’t care. You brace yourself for the ride down the mountain, because she’s not taking it slow this time and you’re glad for it, though you expect bruises.
Better than the alternative.
You wait the night out in town. Nobody sleeps.
Finally, when the sun burns off every last bit of night, you all go back up the mountain. You left everything there. Tents, food, soda in the creek. Everything.
It’s all still there. But your deliberate, slow-talking friend studies the front of her tent. The flap is unzipped and moves in the breeze. She takes the staff her brother had carried the night before and uses it to push the flap aside so you can see inside.
Nothing inside that shouldn’t be there. But the other two tents are unzipped, too. You check them. Nothing missing. Even your soda is still in the creek. You don’t feel like drinking it, though. You all work in silence, packing everything up and loading the truck. You have a twinge of guilt because you’d left the fire still live when you bailed. Stupid, you think, but then you remember the guy in the woods, sitting there. Smiling. You pour extra water from the creek into the firepit, like you’re washing away last night.
And then you head down the mountain again. You’re in the back of the pickup, listening to the day sounds and the cheerful patter of squirrels and birds, going about their animal things. Business as usual.
But it takes you a long time before you go camping again.
Copyright 2014, Andi Marquette