Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Horror  ➡  General  ➡  Supernatural

Wilderness

Wilderness

By Stephany Brandt

Copyright 2016 Stephany Brandt

Shakespir Edition

All Rights Reserved

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental. Thank you for your support.

For Tobin & Ragnar

 

 

Ben and Mike hardly noticed the five hours they’d spent cramped in their plane seats. A deep alcohol-induced sleep carried them through turbulence, a baby fussing two rows back, and two drink services.

“If you look to the right, ladies and gentlemen,” crackled the pilot’s voice over the PA, “you can see the beautiful Three Sisters Wilderness Area…”

“Huh?” snorted Ben as he abruptly sat awake-knocking Mike’s elbow in the process.

“Dang man, ow!” Mike barked.

Ben looked over at Mike and accidentally met the gaze of the woman across the aisle. She stared at him like he was some kind of filthy degenerate.

“Sorry,” Ben mumbled as he picked the crustiness from the corner of his eyes.

“No problem, Elbow Master,” said Mike as he rubbed his own. He could feel the bruise forming.

“We have only minutes to go before landing,” said the disembodied PA voice, “Please bring your trash to the aisle, stow your belongings and put your seat-backs in the upright position. Your flight attendants will be by to pick up your trash and any remaining drinks from our service.”

Ben searched the pocket in front of him and found 4 tiny empty bottles of Jack Daniels, while Mike stared at his group of 6 empty Stolichnaya vodka bottles. They’d smuggled the whole bounty from flight to flight after picking them up at the duty-free store in O’Hare.

“Here, pass these over to her, man…” Ben asked as he leaned towards the aisle. He got a nice whiff of his own rancid armpits in the process and blushed as the flight attendant drew near.

“Yeah, no worries.” said Mike as he fumbled for his own bottles, “Good times, ‘eh?” he said with a grin, displaying his bottles like a fan of cards.

“I feel like someone shoved a handful of sand in my mouth…” said Ben as he tried to lick his chapped lips, “you got any of those mints?”

“Why yes, good sir,” said Mike, sounding like the man in the Grey Poupon ad, “A man of my position never leaves home without them.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Ben, “hand ‘em over.”

“Right atcha…”

“Bueno,” said Ben as he picked a mint from the tin and slowly turned it over in his mouth.

Below them, the land looked like something from a Mad Max movie. The ground was dusty tan covered with small dull grey bushes. The only bursts of green came from scraggly juniper trees. Ben’s eyes tried to register the contrast from the lush green forest they’d just flown over.

The plane looped away from the mountainous forest and approached a small asphalt strip in the center of the sagebrush sea. Next to the strip was a modest building where other planes sat parked neatly on the tarmac. Ben watched their white tubular outlines grow bigger as the plane descended.

“Please prepare for landing,” voiced the captain over the intercom as the stewardess tidied up the coffee trays and other fodder.

Suddenly the plane started rocking and jolting, leaping up then dropping like a roller coaster. Mike and Ben looked at each other and Mike started turning green. The stewardess strapped herself into her tiny jump seat at the front of the aircraft and Ben regretted his decision on the Jack. He watched as Mike closed his eyes and hummed softly, then reached for the seat pocket in front of him. Mike’s fingers caressed the top edge of the airsickness bag.

The plane kept bucking like a bronco as Ben watched the wheels lower from their compartments in the wing outside his window. They each locked in to place with a loud thump that shook his seat a little. The small bushes below suddenly seemed bigger and bigger-the trees growing tall and gnarled like something you might find in depths of Mordor.

Ben’s eyes focused past the end of the wing and towards the broadening sunset. The sun sank behind a line of shockingly large mountains. The peaks progressed from a gnarled snag farthest to the east, and concluding with a grand conical mountain in the west. The biggest mountain still had glaciers clinging to its northern flanks. The sun’s intensity seemed to magnify as it sank below the peaks and Ben thought instinctively of the “green flash” his Dad always told him to look for as a child. The light cast eerie sunbeams and shadows on the mountains.

“Fuck yeah,” mumbled Ben to himself as he watched the sunset.

“Mmm-hmm,” agreed Mike as he tried to look out the window with the corner of his eye. He didn’t want to risk moving too fast and barfing on his buddy.

“Makes Chicago seem impure,” continued Ben. Mike just nodded in agreement and stared laser beams into the back of the seat in front of him.

The plane drew nearer to the runway then dropped suddenly to the tarmac with bang. Ben gripped his armrests so hard his knuckles turned white. The propellers outside Ben’s window roared furiously as they tried to slow the little plane down. The Bombardier anchored itself and braked to a reasonable speed, and the pilot started taxiing towards the airport.

“Expert landing,” said Ben facetiously.

“Yeah, kudos,” agreed Mike as he fumbled with the barf bag in his hands. His face looked like hell, but he hadn’t needed his emergency crutch.

The plane taxied to an area just next to the tiny terminal and parked at the end of a small line of other commuter aircraft. Ben counted the names of airlines he knew like United and the strange new ones like Horizon and Allegiant. He watched the small team of men in orange vests who started furiously unloading luggage from the rear of the aircraft. Some tied the plane to its moorings, and others tended to the engines.

They loaded the excess carryon luggage on a white-roofed trolley and wheeled the trolley near the walkway extending from the plane. Within a few minutes the aircraft was prepared, and they lowered the stairwell.

Ben fidgeted in his seat as he watched the rest of the passengers stand and stretch their achy legs. He could hear the overhead containers popping open around the cabin. The man directly across from him reached for his duffel bag emblazoned “Callaway” in gaudy lettering, while the woman in front of him desperately tried to turn her smartphone back on while cursing Samsung under her breath.

He looked around as the rest of the passengers started standing and admired how small he felt amongst the forest of bodies. Ben tried to sit as long as possible since crunching his frame below the overhead bin didn’t sound appealing.

Mike rummaged in the seat back for the fitness magazines he’d bought at the newsstand in O’Hare. He didn’t need help with a paunch, thought Ben jealously, and Ben secretly tried to work up the courage to ask Mike about his routine. Ben’s belly was starting to show the mid-thirties look of a man whose desk was his best friend.

Finally the rows before Ben and Mike cleared and they could stand. Ben curved himself around the base of the overhead bin to get a tiny bit more standing space. He was used to dwarfing his friends, but he hated hitting his head on things. Ben was in the uncomfortable invisible space between “average” height and “athlete” tall. He carried his height like an embarrassment, often hunched like he had a sack of flour on his shoulders.

Mike, on the other hand, was a man who seemed much larger than his size. His attitude was big, his voice was big, and he walked with a bluster that made people turn. He commanded his area and always seemed to find someone to talk to. Ben wished he had Mike’s gift for gab-to him it seemed like a dream world made of an unending amount of future friends. Ben was used to the friends he made on his Playstation.

As they stood and moved down the aisle Ben could smell the scent coming from the door. It was dusty and fresh and hot and piney all in the same breath—so unlike the smell of cars and humidity and oil from Chicago. Ben couldn’t help but sniff the air like a dog. He walked down the stairs and was hit by a wall of dry heat.

Ben pulled his little Samsonite from the carryon trolley and stayed between the yellow lines that marked a safe trail for passengers to get from the plane to the airport doors without being beheaded by another waiting plane. Mike followed behind him. Ben suddenly craved the chill of air conditioning. Stepping inside the revolving door the frigid air assaulted him and he thought someone must have read his mind. His sweat cooled.

Steve came running at Ben and Mike across the airport lobby “’Eh hombres!!!” Steve hooted, “Look who’s here!” Steve hugged both of them vigorously and chortled his hellos. Ben felt like Steve was going to hug all the air out of him, despite the fact that Steve’s head only reached Ben’s chest.

“Where’s the party?” laughed Steve as he stepped back and observed Ben and Mike’s bloodshot eyes.

“Yeah, good service on that plane…” chuckled Mike bashfully.

“Well I hope you got some more room, ‘cause we’re goin’ out tonight,” said Steve with a mischievous wink.

“Oh, yeah,” agreed Mike with a smile, “I feel a hollow leg coming on…plenty more room in there!” He patted his thigh for emphasis.

Ben just smiled and returned Steve’s enthusiastic hug, “Good to see you, man.”

“You too!” smiled Steve as his voice softened slightly, “Chicago’s been good to you! Why, you too little friend!” he laughed and patted Ben’s small gut.

“Yeah, yeah, shut it.” Ben forced a grin self-consciously.

“You’ll be able to get a tan on that thing this week,” said Steve cheerily, pointing at Ben’s belly, “probably a good ol’ burn too. Gonna be hot with some thundershowers.”

“Nice,” said Mike with a grin. Ben rubbed his stomach and thought about wearing a t-shirt while swimming.

They waited by the baggage claim, watching the belt move torturously by with no luggage on it. At long last one bag fell out of the tunnel on the belt and began creeping by all the expectant passengers. Ben noted sadly that his was never first.

It took ten minutes of staring at other peoples’ luggage before a bag fell out of the tunnel that the men recognized. “Yes!” hooted Steve, “Bertha is back!” The heavily scuffed and tattered duffel bag with a yellow body and bright apple green straps lumbered towards them on the conveyor belt. The interlocked “UO” logo of the 1980’s-era Oregon football team was emblazoned on the side. A throwback to the fandom of their childhood, all three men saw it and laughed.

“Hey, I’m a sucker for memories,” shrugged Ben with a smile.

Bertha had carried soda and comic books in her early years, then graduated to beers and cigarettes stolen from their parents in high school. Sometime in early college Bertha even carried a bit of marijuana. Today, she would be back to beer.

“I thought I’d bring the old girl along and see if we can still get in some mischief,” laughed Ben.

“She’ll be hell as a backpack,” countered Steve, “hope you brought something more useful.”

“Oh, yeah, for sure,” said Ben, “this is for the pre-and post-trip…if you get my drift.”

“Niiiice!” chimed in Mike, drawing out the word for optimal effect.

Minutes later two expedition-ready backpacks wrapped in clear plastic trundled down the belt. Mike grabbed the red one and Ben the forest green. They were fresh from REI and still smelled of the sewing room.

Ben and Mike followed Steve out the revolving door on the north end of the building, met again by the oven-like heat.

“Dang,” chortled Mike, “Is it always like this?”

“Yeah, been even hotter this summer,” said Steve. “Hopefully those thunderstorms in the forecast turn out to be mild. Otherwise there’ll be a fire or two started.”

“Really?” asked Ben, “In August?”

“Yeah,” answered Steve, “We had a shitty winter, so things are toasted out. Good for bugs, though-you need less Deet!”

He turned and led the group across the blacktop towards a dented but deeply loved beast of an SUV. It was tan above and green below, but a parade of dents small and large danced across its fenders and quarter panels. The marks of a life hard lived.

“Piggy!” cheered Mike, “She lives!”

“Yeah, had to give her at least one trip this year…otherwise she gets jealous,” grinned Steve. The old Landcruiser had been their vehicle of choice for many a wild late teen adventure, and Ben hadn’t seen her in years.

They all climbed in, loading their backpacks in the rear gate. The door squawked with disapproval as they opened it and little flakes of rust fell from the hinge.

“You gotta get this rust looked at,” said Ben, “or she’s going to rot right out from under you.”

“Yeah, I know,” admitted Steve with a shrug, “Just need a bit more ‘diñero’ if you get my drift…” He rubbed his index finger and thumb together for effect.

“Business not good lately?” asked Ben as he and Steve stood behind the tailgate.

“Yeah, a bit off,” said Steve, subdued for the first time all day, “tough times, actually. Don’t tell Mike, I want him to have some fun…you know how he gets if he finds out someone’s not ‘perfect.’”

“Yeah,” said Ben with a knowing look.

“It’ll change,” said Steve hopefully, “I have faith in that.”

“You always do,” grinned Ben. Of all of them, Steve always had the most adventurous demeanor. To him, life wasn’t any good unless there was a challenge.

“Shotgun!” yelled Mike with a laugh as he charged past Ben and claimed the passenger seat.

“Ah, more room for me.” Ben answered with effect on the last note as he climbed in the back seat. He extended his legs across the full length of the seat and both knees popped.

“Your dogs must be sore from that last little puddle-jumper,” said Mike.

“Yeah,” answered Ben, “but Dr. Jack kept them nice and numb for most of it,” he finished.

“Liquor before beer, have no fear!” barked Steve joyously, “On to our first stop…the Boneyard!”

“Uh…that sounds a little bleak, brother,” said Ben.

“Oh, just you wait,” answered Steve, “It’s my favorite beer-purveyor in Bend. Miraculous IPA. You’ll see!”

They started driving south on an average-size highway, surrounded by a strange amalgamation of giant farm trucks with black and white dogs clinging to the bed, and tiny brightly-colored SUV’s by Porsche and Mercedes. The landscape was dusty and yellow, with dots of dark green juniper trees interspersed along the shoulder. The farms mostly stuck to cattle and goats. Ben noted one such place overrun with brown and white goats of all sizes.

Ben’s eyes turned to the mountains again. A dense pine forest covered their sides and it looked like a carpet rising from the desert floor. The view was surreal, brown and green pastures rising to the forest then capped by the massive peaks.

On the north end stood the imposing North Sister, neighbored by the rounder Middle, and softer South Sister. A craggy ridgeline marked Broken Top, and peering up from behind was Bachelor Butte, bearing the tattoos of ski trails up its flanks. Each still had a little bit of snow up top, and the two largest mountains boasted glaciers that were slightly brown with the summer dust. The locals often called the area “Seven Peaks,” for that ridge of dormant and extinct volcanoes dotting the skyline. They’d long been the guardians of the ancient landscape.

Ben looked at the mountains and marveled at their size. It was clear and they were popping out like something on a movie screen. It made them seem even larger, like having HD full color across the entire panorama.

He hadn’t been back to this area since shortly after they’d graduated from the University of Oregon, when he and Mike and Steve celebrated their commencement with a series of drunken raft trips on various sections of the Deschutes River. Their first trip had been on the smaller rapids here at the base of these exact mountains, and he felt a strange sense of longing.

Ben thought back to the ancient school bus they rode that gagged and puttered up the dirt road, constantly threatening to die in a place of great inconvenience. He remembered the musty smell of the lifejackets, and the bleached look of the yellow rafts in the sun. The bugs on land had been thick like a wall of tiny wings, but once they climbed on board their raft they’d gotten free from the little creatures.

That trip had been short, and uneventful save for one stretch of rapids that offered a slight sense of danger. The guide called Big Eddy a “splash and dash,”-a set where you had very little commitment for a fairly big reward. It was great for novice rafters because they could see a challenging rapid but usually get through safely. That said, an irritated guide could still flip a raft if he or she really wanted to.

Ben broke from his memory to see the Landcruiser pulling in to what looked at first glance like an auto repair shop. Upon further inspection, he could see the large reverse-conical silos indicative of a brewing operation. The pungent scent of cooking hops and grains met them as they climbed out of the SUV. Ben thought it smelled a little like wet cat food.

A tiny door stood to the right of a large metal garage door, and above it was a sign listing the tasting room hours. All three men headed towards this door with a sense of heady expectation. It’d been a long time since they’d a beer together.

 

Chapter 2

 

6:00 PM.

Ben stared at his phone and couldn’t believe the time. He tried following behind Steve while wandering the streets of Bend, but it was all he could do to keep up without stumbling on his own feet. Ben’s stomach rolled and he wondered if the last beer he’d drunk had been unwise.

“Hey, quit lollygagging and get up here!” shouted Steve from ten feet ahead.

“Lollygagging? Did I really just hear you say that?” shot Ben back, “what is that anyway?” He slurred the last word just a little.

“To gag a lolly!” chirped Mike; fully aware of how dirty he sounded in front of the children coming out of the nearby candy shop. His mouth spread in a wicked grin that showed off his dimples.

They approached the end of one street and saw yet another brewpub. Ben mused that brewpubs seemed to breed like rabbits in Bend. This one was their goal, though, and the men entered the arched brick facade.

“I normally wouldn’t take you guys here on a Saturday night,” said Steve as he pulled open the front door and grimaced at the line waiting to be seated, “but beggars can’t be choosers, and these guys do make some of the best stuff in town…”

“Better than what we’ve already had?” asked Ben, his head already swimming.

“Definitely-they’re the original! Plus, the food’s tasty.”

“Mmmm, I smell fries!” barked Mike with a smile. His voice carried over the din from the other customers.

After thirty minutes obsessively watching their little seating indicator, the tiny box finally started flashing. Steve walked over to the front desk and handed the beacon to the hostess, and a waitress took them to their table. They sat next to what looked like a giant brick oven. Mike and Steve eyed the tap list across the bar, and Ben sipped at the glass of water the waitress brought.

There were dozens of beverage names written in colorful chalk on a board behind the bar detailing the specifics of alcohol content, bitterness and so on…. The vivacious and buxom waitress regaled them with all the selections in a booming alto. After each man ordered she returned with large frothing glasses, each a different shade of brown. They all spilled a little as she set them on the table with a ceremonious thump.

Drinks passed, food passed, and Ben took from whatever was placed in front of him. He felt like he was underwater, looking up at his two buddies arguing over which IPA was the hoppiest. It was soothing to his already inebriated mind.

“Beeen! Ben. Ben!” yelled Steve snapping his fingers, ”yo comprende?”

“Huh? Sorry…” said Ben sheepishly, caught again in a drunken daze.

“So I was saying…” continued Steve, suddenly unaware of anything around him other than his beer, “the drive might be Hell, but the lake we’re going to is pure Heaven. I figure we’ll camp a couple days then head back to town. Ben,” he said poking Ben’s ribs to get his attention, “there’s even fish in that lake!”

“Yeah?” said Ben with a slight slur.

“Yeah, huge ones!” said Steve with a defiant belch, ”Good water too. Not super buggy, and plenty of nature!” He said the last word like the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, and it came out sounding like “Nate-chur.”

At this note he surreptitiously pulled a small plastic bag out of his pocket with a wink. It contained green plant matter with a residue that stuck to the bag. The smell was unmistakable.

“No way!” hooted Mike as he slapped his forehead in mock surprise.

“Yup,” grinned Steve conspiratorially. “It’s legal here, you know…”

Ben looked at the bag full of weed and began inwardly debating if he truly wanted to go on that adventure again. He hadn’t had the best year. The last time he’d had cannabis he’d eaten a brownie that was way too strong and freaked out. He sat on the toilet all night, positive that the walls were speaking to him. He’d botched his presentation at work the next day, too.

Ben looked at his buddies-both so similar to how they were in school. Steve still lived the college-boy life at his advancing age, and Mike tried to as much as he could in Madison. Both couldn’t hide the passage of time at the corners of their eyes. Steve’s brown hair was beginning to show specks of grey at the temples, and Mike hid his grey with an impossibly short military-style cut, which he swore the “ladies loved.” Each man lived in clothing that seemed better suited to the skateboarder next door.

After what seemed like his fifth or sixth beer of the evening, Ben laughed nervously with a foamy belch and cautioned, “Time for a potty break.” His bleary eyes tried to focus through half-open lids. He rose clumsily from his tall stool, caught his heel on the leg as he turned, and started to stumble his way to the bathroom-holding each arm out gingerly like a novice figure skater on slippery ice.

“Oh, he’s totally going on a journey,” Ben heard Steve say over his shoulder.

“Yup…definitely!” Mike agreed.

Ben weaved down the long hallway with the green wood panels, feeling like the ceiling was going to collapse on him. The walls were impossibly close, and he felt curiously like Alice lost in the too-tiny hallway. He ducked in to the men’s restroom and took his place at one of the urinals. Staring straight ahead he contemplated the brick wall as he swayed, watching it dance between close and far away. He hoped not to meet the gaze of one of his urinal neighbors.

Doubts clouded his spinning brain and Ben frowned as he zipped his fly. He was so jealous of Steve and Mike. They were still so carefree and full of trust in their futures. Ben felt like he was already halfway buried underground—just enough of him showing to feel the sunlight. He wondered if they ever felt that way. At least here in the urinal he had a reason to hide out, but he half-dreaded rejoining his friends at the table. He just couldn’t see things through their rose-colored glasses right now.

He flushed the urinal and carefully washed his hands at the sink, cleaning each finger methodically like a surgeon. Ben stood for a second contemplating whether he should dry his hands with a paper towel, or try the strange dryer on the wall that boasted “high speed.” He chose the dryer and immediately wished he hadn’t. The air stream was so strong it produced a screeching noise that pierced Ben’s already sensitive ears. He felt a headache coming on.

Ben walked out of the restroom and stumbled back to the table, rubbing the inside of his left ear with the tip of his pinky finger. “Don’t use the dryer,” he said as he sat down.

Steve and Mike were taking sips off each other’s beers, and Ben’s saw he had a fresh pint waiting, dripping condensation and foam on the coaster. A gift from Steve or Mike, he was sure of it. Watching the room spin Ben eyed the glass but took only a sip.

“Done?” asked Steve, somewhat disappointed.

“Yeah,” Ben admitted, “I think my liver just held up the ‘Stop’ sign.”

“Mine too!” said Mike as his brows knit and his face suddenly turned green. He ran down the hall following Ben’s path to the bathroom.

Steve and Ben both laughed and locked eyes for a minute. “How’re you really doing?” asked Steve.

“Surviving,” admitted Ben, “I still can’t forgive myself for letting it happen, but I’m hoping someday that will fade. Today it’s still there, though.” He thought of Susan walking out the front door, towing her purple rolling suitcase behind her.

“I’m sorry, man,” said Steve, “I wish there was some way I could have helped.”

“You did with your support,” said Ben as his mouth cracked a tiny smile.

“Yeah, I got lots of that!” said Steve.

“You do, man, you do,” agreed Ben.

Mike stumbled back to the table, looking less green but smelling like the toilet he’d just visited. Ben choked back his own vomit and asked, “you want to head, man?” while patting him on the back.

Mike looked at Ben with rolling white eyes and nodded.

“The champion has been conquered!” shouted Steve like he was in the Coliseum. “Behold he has been bested in drink!”

“Yah, shaddup,” mumbled Mike as Ben supported him towards the exit. Once in the alleyway, Mike got a breath of fresh air and visibly brightened.

“You good, bro?” asked Ben.

“Yeah, mmmbetter!” mumbled Mike through puffy lips.

“Always lookin’ out for you, Bro!” said Ben as he pat Mike on the shoulder.

“Yup,” agreed Mike as he squeezed Ben’s shoulders in a half man-hug, “you’re the bestest friend in the whole wide world!” he added in a mock old-timer accent.

Ben smiled. It made him feel so much better to hear Mike’s funny accents again. They were a sure sign he was feeling better. It scared Ben to see Mike frown…he never did that.

“Where’s our digs?” Mike barked at Steve.

“Follow me, monsewer, to the Casa de Steve!” Steve answered.

Ben managed to somehow climb in the rusty Landcruiser without hurting himself. He fumbled in the back seat for his seatbelt, missing the buckle three times while Mike watched him and cackled. On the fourth try Ben told himself concentrate and slowly fed the latch into the buckle. It clicked as Steve started up the engine, which belched a plume of black smoke. As soon as it caught on, the engine roared with authority.

“Piggy’s still good after all these years,” admired Ben while lovingly patting the seat.

“Yup!” laughed Steve, “and like a fine wine she only keeps getting better with age…and more dents!”

“For sure!” laughed Ben back, “They’re like the age-rings on trees!”

“And, like any good ‘ol gal, she keeps her secrets!” Said Steve with a wink.

They drove off into the chill of the starry summer night.

 

Chapter 3

 

“I can’t believe you seriously forgot the olives…” Mike mock-scolded with a laugh.

“Yes, good sir,” grinned Steve doing his British accent again, “how very uncouth…one can’t have a martini in the wilderness without olives!” He mimicked sipping from a martini glass with a pinky lifted. Steve’s eyes twinkled with glee; he still loved giving Mike shit.

“Must’ve slipped my mind,” said Ben with a mock slap to the forehead. “Vodka shooters, anyone?”

“I had this Latvian buddy once who taught me how to drink vodka…” said Mike to everyone and no one at the same time, “They’d put it in the freezer so it was so cold you couldn’t taste it. You could drink it forever like that…got me fucked up hard!”

“No kidding!” said Steve, “How was the hangover?”

“Hell,” said Mike without a smile.

Ben watched them both for a second longer and turned to the three empty coolers in front of him. He looked at the pile of grocery bags and ice to his side and wondered if there was any way to squeeze the whole mess in. Baby steps, he thought to himself.

Ice needed to go first so he started carrying the blocks and matching them up inside the cooler with methodical precision. It was like a giant puzzle ruled by the cooler walls. Ben would arrange the blocks, look at the holes, rub his chin as he reconsidered the spacing, then re-arrange the blocks again. His hands started burning from the cold before they fell numb completely.

“You good there, ‘bro?” asked Mike as he approached hesitantly.

“Yeah, good,” said Ben in a distracted tone.

“’Kay…holler if you need some help…” added Mike as he walked back to where Steve was doing battle with his tent’s rain fly.

Ben focused his gaze next on the food: enough to last them for the week in the house, the week camping, and then have enough for a cool beer at the end. There were duplicates of some items like milk and cheese, so Ben started separating each item out. He carefully put one duplicate on Steve’s patio table and the other on the truck tailgate. As he dug through the bags his hand fell on a small oval tin.

“You guys really need sardines?” he called over to Mike, making the kind of face a child did when they were forced to eat Brussels sprouts.

“Heck, yeah!” chortled Mike, “that’s good protein! They’re soooo yummy with ketchup and crackers,” he finished with a Hannibal Lecter-esque sucking noise through his lips.

Ben made a faux gagging noise in response. The excess grocery bags flapped in the wind like plastic prayer flags.

A chill hit his legs and Ben partially regretted changing into shorts and a T-shirt advertising “United We Stand,” with a line of goats below the red-white-and blue text. His shorts were black and only reached a couple inches below his crotch-a throwback to the basketball stars of their youth. He gave the impression of a shorter Larry Bird with horn-rimmed glasses, and didn’t care if his friends gave him shit about his choice in clothing. The wind, however, made him think about changing.

Ben returned his focus to the cooler and admired the perfect layer of ice blocks with nearly no holes in between. It covered the bottom like a frozen lake. He started layering the food by weight, date of planned use, and type. Vegetables went on top in a layer delicately shielded from direct contact with the ice. Ben hated wilted vegetables, and took great pains to make sure they stayed fresh.

Mike looked back and forth between Ben’s intense zen-like cooler organization and the flailing mayhem of Steve and his rain fly. He shrugged his shoulders and went to the red beer cooler, pulled a tall brown bottle labeled “River Ale,” and used the opener on his keychain to pop the cap. He took a swig and looked back at his friends’ progress. Both seemed to be deep in their own preparations, so Mike sat down on the gate of the Landcruiser and sipped his beverage in the sun. The tart beer danced on his tongue and warmed his belly.

Mike watched Steve wriggling with his tent, took another swig of beer, and immediately thought of the time they’d all decided to try Jell-O wrestling in Steve’s parent’s basement. Steve’s mom had found them all covered in green goop, with a hearty amount of the food all over the floor as well. It just hadn’t stayed on the tarp like they’d planned. Steve kind of looked like he did that day: clumsy, messy, and irritated.

Steve cursed and tried to pin his rain fly to the ground with his knee as it whipped in the growing breeze. He tried to get an even fold between the two thick corner patches that held the ends of the fly’s spine pole. He cursed again as the fly caught a gust of wind and billowed like a balloon. Finally after a few minutes of constant battle Steve spat on the ground, rolled the fly’s billowing material up in his arms, and then walked off to the back door in a huff.

“Fucking wind!” he cursed, “can’t get anything done with this motherfucker while this shit’s going on!”

Ben looked up from his trance-like dance with the cooler contents to observe the dark clouds gathering to the south of Steve’s house. They were tall and white on top, slightly shaped like the product of an atom bomb, and almost black on the bottom. As he watched, a plume of white dropped from the cloud closest to them.

“Looks like a thunderstorm’s coming,” he said almost absent-mindedly to himself.

“Shit!” barked Steve from the back door, “get the stuff under cover! Quick!!!” He ran to the coolers, grabbing the one full of food by the handle and dragging it towards the shed by the side of the house. “Help me with these! Mike, get off your ass!” he barked towards the truck gate.

“Sure…coming!” said Mike, sounding surprisingly like a petulant teenager at being separated from his beer. Much to Ben’s chagrin Mike started throwing the remaining ice blocks in the empty large blue cooler.

Ben gathered and stacked two half-rack boxes of beer on top of each other and grabbed the bottom box by the cutouts that served as handles. He focused on lifting with his legs, like the personal trainer he hired once had told him. To his surprise, his quads already ached. He grunted at the weight, and promised himself to do more squats in the gym. Ben’s stomach bulge cushioned the corner of the bottom box.

He made four trips of similar loads until all the boxes filled with brown bottles were safely inside the confines of Steve’s kitchen. Steve had warned them about the beer-thieving college students in his neighborhood, so anything important was being stored in the relative safety of the house for the night.

Steve’s kitchen was small with a slightly concave floor covered in pea soup-green tile. The centerpiece was a round metal-edged table with a Formica top. The whole ensemble spoke to the heady days of the 1960’s when bold colors made people think of the future.

The wind rose to a howl not a minute after the men got all their camping provisions under cover. Dust from the neighboring lot kicked up in the air and billowed over Steve’s rickety wood fence. It grew to a cloud that rolled on for blocks and obscured the neighboring street. Ben shielded the sides of his glasses from the dust as he stood on Steve’s porch, watching the little specs build on his lenses.

“I gotta go inside!” he yelled over the growing din.

“Yeah, me too!” added Mike.

“Whooo!” shouted Steve, “it’s a good ‘un brewing!” he whistled for effect.

The three men retreated to the front room of Steve’s little house, affectionately known by the locals as a “Mill Shack,” for it’s humble origins and rustic construction. It had to be eight hundred square feet, maximum.

The first drops of rain hit the roof with an loud pinging noise. The air outside darkened and the men felt their skin prickle with anticipation. Suddenly a flash of light went off with no warning, followed immediately by an explosion of thunder that rocked the walls. The pinging raindrops on the metal roof immediately changed to the thuds and bangs of hail.

“Holy shit!” yelled Mike over the din.

Ben looked nervously at the clouds and his stomach jumped with horror when he thought he saw a hook. He instinctively recalled the weather outside Chicago. “Do they get many tornados here?” he asked, shouting to be heard over the noise.

“Nope!” Yelled Steve back, “The storms are just nasty, that’s all! Not the right updrafts and downdrafts to make a tornado…they just pound us with hail and start fires instead!”

“Ah,” responded Ben. He still didn’t totally trust Steve, so he watched the clouds warily. He’d spent too many years in Illinois to be comfortable in a thunderstorm.

The flashes of lightning and guttural roars of thunder continued to rock the cottage as the men hunkered down around the Formica table. Steve tugged on his refrigerator handle and pulled out three brown bottles and gave one to each of his companions. They all grabbed a bottle then took turns using the opener on Steve’s keychain to pop the caps. The hail turned back to fat drops of rain as each man sipped his beer.

“Damn,” said Mike in a slightly lower voice, “This thing’s gnarly! They usually like this?”

“Yeah,” said Steve with an apologetic tone, “That’s why I was messing with my bigger rain fly. Was hoping to do a mock-up of a rain shelter before we left, so I could do it again on our trip.”

“That’s a good call,” agreed Ben. “Getting stuck in this shit would really suck.”

“Yeah,” said Steve, “definitely not ideal.”

“You got some tarps?” asked Mike.

“Yeah,” said Steve, “what you thinking of?”

“You can do an even better rain shelter with tarps,” said Mike, “cover more area and keep things dry. We did them in the Boy Scouts.”

“Shit, man!” laughed Steve, “you were a Boy Scout?”

“Yeah,” admitted Mike while blushing furiously under his tanned skin, “Eagle Scout and everything.”

“How come we never knew?!” asked Ben incredulously.

“I felt it was so uncool and my dad was making me do it,” Mike said bashfully, “It didn’t quite fit with what the other hippie professor’s kids did…”

“Yeah, no shit!” agreed Ben. To most of their classmates’ parents any sign of right-wing leanings was cause to talk to a therapist.

“Anyway, it was my little secret. And I liked it!” he said with a firm air, “I got to shoot guns and go camping! It was fun!”

“Hey, add that to your title of ‘Most Interesting Man in the World,’” said Ben with a laugh.

“That Dos Equis dude’s got nothin’ on me!” said Mike proudly.

“Well, no more excuses for not working!” said Steve back with a naughty grin.

“Shit! Busted!” said Mike with a faux shake of the head.

All three laughed and took another swallow of their beers. The rain started faltering from a powerful drumming on the roof to a sound reminiscent of a fountain. Looking south they could already see the sun starting to break through in large beams of light. The sunbeams cut huge swaths between the milky curtains of rain on either side.

After a few more minutes, the rain stopped and the pounding on the roof ceased. Small droplets fell off the pine tree hovering over the house, and a tiny river carved a path through the needles at its base. The bark dust in Steve’s flower beds was built up on either side like a tiny berm—nature’s municipal engineering.

Outside the house, the street was flooded and the gutters were unsuccessfully trying to hold the unexpected deluge. Large pieces of hail the size of a quarter coated the lawn and driveway, and from the kitchen window the men could see the Landcruiser had sustained a few new dents on the roof.

“Oh, Piggy!” cooed Steve consolingly as he looked at the vehicle’s metal sides, “There’s a few more badges of honor!”

The men walked out on to the lawn, and Steve whistled as he picked up a particularly large ball of hail. It was the size of a golf ball, and he admired it like a prospector who’d just found a giant nugget of gold.

“Daaang! Fuckin’ nasty!” he said in awe.

“You think it’s because of the winter?” asked Ben.

“Yeah, probably so,” agreed Steve, “It’s been a funky year.”

All three looked around as the neighboring houses started opening and spewing out their incredulous residents. All the people up and down the street surveyed the damage and water pooling in their gutters. Steve grabbed his snow shovel and started clearing the sidewalk in front of his house.

“What a storm!” he said with a whistle.

 

Chapter Four

 

Ben opened his eyes and immediately shielded them from the blistering sunbeam shining right on his face. Sharp pain lanced through his head, making his eyes water and his stomach churn. Last night’s beer had not been kind. Ben kept his hand above his eyes and looked out the window at the bright blue sky, not a hint of a cloud left from the previous days’ thunderstorms. It was almost too blue to believe. Ben’s eyes teared up so badly from the glare he had to look away.

He trudged to the kitchen and opened the boxy refrigerator plastered with beer caps that clung to the sides on tiny magnets. They advertised brews Ben had never even heard of-obviously the product of Steve’s well-heeled beverage choices. On the rare chance he could get rise out of Steve, Ben would laughingly call him a “beer snob.”

The fridge was packed to the gills with the camping food not already loaded in coolers, and Ben had to carefully unpack everything to find the carton of milk conveniently located in the very back. “Vitamin D” proudly boasted the white container. Ben hadn’t seen whole milk since high school, and the creamy white liquid beat the hell out of the watery skim he subsisted off of at home. It didn’t seem to make his gut smaller, though.

He poured a bowl full of milk and took a banana out of the round fruit basket hanging crookedly from the kitchen ceiling. Ben cut the banana slowly, using his thumb as a backstop as he hooked the knife through the slightly bruised and overripe fruit. Once all the banana slices were sufficiently drowned in the milk, Ben grabbed his spoon and popped the biggest slice in his mouth. He sucked on the milk longingly and chewed the banana slowly.

“Hey stranger, whatcha up to?” asked Mike from the living room door. Ben jumped.

“Making the famous ‘Ben’s hangover cure,’” he replied through a full mouth.

“Mmmmm…” said Mike with a laugh. He reached into the refrigerator and pulled out the same jug of milk, swigging from the rim.

“Heyyy…The rest of us have to drink that, you know!” scolded Ben.

Mike lifted his eyebrows and drank further, mocking Ben with every swallow. Ben punched Mike’s shoulder, and as Mike swerved to miss he spilled the jug all over his shirt.

“Punishment!” crowed Ben, “A tiny victory for us who have to share your cooties!”

“Yeah, yeah…” said Mike dismissively as he returned the jug to the fridge.

“Good mooooorning!” bellowed Steve from behind Mike, making his compatriots jump, “Whatcha got there?”

“Mike licked the rim of the milk jug,” said Ben, feeling like a grade-school tattletale.

“Ah, you disgusting freak.” said Steve with a wink. Mike winked back.

Steve set about clearing the stove just enough so that he could fit a small black cast iron pan on the smallest front burner. He turned on the stove and melted a little bit of butter on the glossy black surface. As the butter melted Steve spread it all over the pan, coating everything with a smooth shiny film. He cracked two eggs in to the pan and they started frying almost immediately. The smell wafted through the entire house and made Ben’s stomach growl.

“Want one?” asked Steve, looking over at Ben’s hungry eyes. Ben nodded greedily. Steve pulled out one of the two fried eggs and placed it on Ben’s plate. Ben broke the yolk and watched it spill out all over his plate. Then he cut up the pieces of white and dunked them in it.

“Me too?” asked Mike hopefully like a hungry baby bird, eyeing the eggs.

“Oh-Kay…” said Steve in a resigned mock-motherly tone as he gave his other egg to Mike. As Mike devoured the egg Steve added a couple more to the frying pan. They hissed and crackled when they hit the hot surface. These two he guarded greedily until they were in his stomach.

After breakfast all three men cleared the table. Ben filled the sink with soapy water and threw all of the previous night’s dishes in to soak. They were caked with the remnants of pizza sauce and hardened cheese. He scrubbed furiously at the little cheese bits with a tiny plastic brush until the handle broke and sent soapy water spurting up on his shirt. Ben let out a huge sigh and shook his head, then left the sink to go change his shirt. It was a move Steve knew well, and he jumped in to finish the job. Mike joined and dried each plate as Steve handed it to him.

The house was strewn with all the men’s gear and the leftover food and sundries they’d rushed inside before the thunderstorm. It looked like a different storm had raged inside the house too. Steve surveyed the damage and let out a faint whistle.

“Well, I guess it’s time to get packin’.”

Ben went to his backpack. It sat next to the couch he’d used as a bed the night before. The top was completely open and his toiletries were neatly arranged on the end table. He looked at each item and carefully arranged them in the open space at top of his clothing. In went bug spray, sunscreen, lip balm, an extra pair of socks and a roll of moleskin. His shaving bag and modest head pillow followed. Last atop was a shiny black North Face jacket that still had its tags on it.

He walked over facing the couch and started rolling his sleeping bag up into a burrito-shaped roll. Fumbling to hold the sleeping bag together with his right hand, Ben reached to the floor and stretched his fingers to grab the small blue stuff sack. It took a couple tries before he finally reached his target. The tiny muscles between his shoulder blades cramped in protest.

Stuff sack in hand, Ben tried to get the entire burrito roll into the tiny bag.

“Here, you just have to stuff it in,” said Steve watching his friend fumble with the sleeping bag, “like this.” Steve proceeded to grab the sleeping bag unceremoniously and stuff it in the tiny bag, “Don’t worry, it’ll all fit.”

Ben took over and finished stuffing. Once done, the entire sleeping bag fit neatly into a small oval roll. He took the roll and strapped it to the bottom of his pack with the nylon loops that came standard. He stood up and felt the vertebrae in his back pop.

“You ready to roll?” called Steve from the kitchen.

“Yup,” answered Ben like he would answer his mother, “Coming!”

Steve and Mike waited patiently leaning on the sides of the Landcruiser. They positioned themselves like bookends on either side of the open tailgate. Ben smiled and hefted his backpack in to the back of the waiting SUV with a grunt.

“Finally!” laughed Mike as he elbowed Ben in the ribs. Ben swatted back at him and they all got in.

Steve turned the key in the ignition and the weary starter rolled but didn’t catch. He tried again, and this time the starter turned four times then died. Steve began stroking the steering wheel like a lover.

“C’mon baby, one more time for papa.”

“Ewww!” joked Mike from the passenger seat.

Steve tried the key again and this time the starter turned, caught, and then the rusty vehicle belched to life with a geriatric roar. “Yay! Good girl!” he cheered in encouragement.

Ben and Mike both settled into their familiar positions for the drive: Mike in shotgun and Ben stretching across the back seat. Ben looked out the window at the passing golf courses, fake craftsman-style housing divisions, and musty old hotels that harkened from the swinging ‘70’s. The odd mish-mash of mill shacks and luxury mansions spoke to the deep divide in local incomes.

The haunting sounds of Radiohead swam over the speakers, half drowned out by the rush of wind through open windows. All three men baked in the sunlight and admired the scenery. The road suddenly turned to a steep incline after they passed a sign promising access to the Deschutes River. The Landcruiser protested and started driving slower and slower. The engine strained and whined, but the needle would not pass forty miles per hour. Steve turned on the hazard signals and began encouraging cars to pass him with a waving hand.

“What’s up with the ‘Cruiser?” asked Ben from the back seat.

“Sadly, she’s a hater for exercise nowadays,” replied Steve.

“Need more maintenance?” asked Ben.

“Yeah, always…plus a new engine!” yelled Steve over the din.

Mike sat back and looked over at his two friends. It had been years since they’d been all together, and it surprised him how good it felt to be back. Yeah, Steve hovered and Ben nagged, but the two of them made him feel relaxed, no matter how much they pried. Katie was insanely jealous of his “guy time,” but he didn’t care. He lay back in his seat and watched the road ahead, listening to the radio and the conversation.

The grade finally flattened and the road opened into a wide straight stretch with a long pullout to the right side. In it sat a blue State Police cruiser with his radar gun out.

“Not gonna get me!” said Steve with a grin and a lilting child’s-like taunt.

“Yeah, but he might get you for ‘Pollution’ or ‘Disturbing the Peace,’” said Ben mercilessly giving Steve shit.

As they passed the trooper’s steel blue muscled-up Dodge, the Landcruiser gave a taunting belch of smoke, then miraculously cleared and began purring. The trooper tracked them as they drove by, but did not seem to mark them for anything unusual.

Steve saluted the officer as they passed, and they continued up a new gradually increasing grade. The rumbling SUV chugged steadfastly on-but still at 40 MPH. Each incline made the engine sound more and more strained.

Ben watched as the sparse pine trees surrounding the city gradually thickened as they drove higher in elevation. Large Ponderosa Pines studded the landscape, surrounded by a constant carpet of Lodgepole Pines that clustered close together in dense thickets. At the top of the pass there was a near curtain of trees; they created a staccato flash effect, similar to watching old-time movies in a video arcade on the boardwalk.

Ben imagined seeing a Sasquatch running along side the boxy vehicle. How fast would it have to run to keep up with the car? How long would its legs stride? Would it be bellowing, or completely cat-like silent? Ben thought of the Sasquatch as a shadow, always running just behind his active sight line.

Steve swerved suddenly and cussed, “Oh fuck!”

“What?” yelped Ben in confusion, broken from his daze, “did I miss something?”

“Ohhh, noooo!” cried Steve as he looked in his rearview mirror, “I got him! Poor little bugger!”

“What was it?” asked Ben.

“A chipmunk,” said Steve sadly.

“Wow. Aren’t you Mr. Nature…” said Mike with a smirk.

Steve spoke up at the roof of the SUV softly, saying a little prayer for the chipmunk. “Please don’t hate me,” he added mournfully.

“It’s just a chipmunk,” said Mike with a disdainful air.

“Yeah, guess I’m a softie,” said Steve under his breath.

 

Chapter Five

 

A half an hour after the chipmunk incident the boxy Landcruiser finally chugged her way up the pass to a saddle area nestled between the towering peaks. The lifts on nearby Mt. Bachelor paid quiet witness to the summer sports crowd, and north of the road was a flat area dotted with the dry skeletons of tiny wildflowers. The fragile earth had scars from the winter snowmobile rallies.

Ben’s eyes drew upward to the peaks surrounding him. The gnarled ridgeline of Broken Top rose above his head. It was so much more imposing than the distant rock formation he’d seen at the airport. The rocks flanking its peak were black and rough and looked like they’d been thrown to the surface from Hell itself. He couldn’t imagine climbing that mountain-it seemed like the task of a masochist bent on tearing himself apart on the sharp rocks.

Steve slowed the Landcruiser as they entered a series of winding curves. The road narrowed as they passed a gate blocking off the ski area parking lot to the south. The lumpy remnants of winter snow rimmed the roadside. They almost looked like dirt, but still had a tiny glimmer of white poking out in spots. Bits of moss and dust coated each pile – the build up from the many winter storms.

“Oooh, hey, let’s check this out!” cried Steve suddenly as he slammed on the brakes and violently steered the Landcruiser to the shoulder of the road.

“Whoa, Nellie!” yelped Ben from the back seat as he nearly rolled on to the floor. He wished the back seat had more than broken lap belts.

“Sorry man,” apologized Steve as he put the vehicle in park. “There’s a really cool pictograph here…let’s go check it out!”

The three men stepped out of the car and in to the warm afternoon air. The heat wasn’t nearly as oppressive as it was in town, and there was a light scent of pine drifting on the cool breeze. A lake sat on the other side of the road. It was shockingly clear with a light green tinge to the water. Ben marveled at the fact that he could see the bottom, even when he was hundreds of yards away.

A large boulder sat on the edge of a field of crusted black lava in front of them. The lava extended for miles and marked a crisp border between the forest and rock. Small trees poked up from the edges of the lava field, desperately trying to stake their foothold. Ben tried walking out on the lava and found the surface frighteningly uneven. It threatened to throw him down and cut his hands at every step. He wobbled like a newborn fawn and made his retreat back to the soft grassy area at the edge of the field.

Steve sat staring and shaking his head at the side of the large boulder. There was a brown area to the lower left that bore the scars of a vandal’s chisel, but he could still see a small bit of drawing to the sides of the damaged area.

Ben walked over to Steve to see what he was looking at. It was a red-tinged drawing about a foot and a half long, and about the size of a dinner plate. The vandals had taken something to one side of the drawing, but what remained looked like an eye. The primitive artist had made lines around the eye, giving it the look of something you might find in a crypt in Egypt.

“Whoa…” uttered Ben as he approached.

“Fucking vandals!” spat Steve, “This used to be a great pictograph…those fuckers ruined it!” he hissed.

“What did it used to look like?” asked Ben.

“There was a really cool hand print next to the eye,” began Steve, “I should have gotten a picture. It was very significant native art – I found it a couple years back when I came up here with a friend.”

“Whatcha lookin’ at?” barked Mike as he joined Ben and Steve from the rear.

“A pictograph,” answered Ben, “Steve found it, but it looks like someone’s messed with it.”

“Bummer,” said Mike. He looked silently at the eye for a second, then continued, “that’s kind of creepy…” he tailed off, “what does it mean?”

“I always thought it was a map or marker,” said Steve, “it seemed like a welcome to the forest.”

“Or a warning,” added Ben, “didn’t you say there was a hand?”

“Yeah, but it looked like someone was just tracing their own hand – more like a signature,” said Steve.

Ben’s arm hair stood on end as he looked at the eye, even though the air was warm and comfortable.

“How old do you think the pictograph was?” he asked

“Not sure,” said Steve, “It looked old, but people have been in the area for a really long time. We should check out the museum at the Warm Springs reservation when we’re back. Maybe they know more about it.”

“Yeah, it’d be cool to see what they have to say about this,” added Mike, “that’s some gnarly shit! Are there more?”

“Not that I’ve found up here,” answered Steve, “but there are a lot in some of the caves east of town.”

“Cool!” said Mike, “We should check those out too…Real historical shit!” he added with a hoot as he crawled around the surface surrounding the boulder.

Ben backed away from the boulder. He couldn’t shake the bad feeling in his gut, and the eye seemed to stare at him from the side of the rock. “Why did someone just cut out the hand?” he thought. They eye held no answers, just blankly stared with the red lines radiating from all its sides.

Steve reached out and touched the eye. He seemed transfixed for a second, and then he touched the scarred area where the hand had been.

“Damn vandals…” he muttered to himself

 

Chapter Six

 

The warm sun coming in the window and the Landcruiser’s burbling engine slowly lulled Ben to sleep. He stretched out across the cab’s back seat, knees slightly bent to accommodate his long frame.

“Here we are!” called Steve cheerily as he slammed on the brakes and clicked the turn signal on at the last minute, “On to the good stuff!” Ben sat up in the back seat and held on to the door with white knuckles; it took all his effort not be thrown from the back seat in to the SUV’s foot well again.

Steve turned hard on a small paved road. There was just barely enough room for two cars if they passed carefully. Potholes marked the road’s surface like a bad case of acne. It ran straight for about a quarter mile, then terminated in a fork. One side of the road turned left under a wooden arch and the other side turned right but quickly devolved to a rough, rutted path.

A tiny resort sat on the other side of the arch next to a large lake strewn with whitecaps. Ben watched a small sailboat make its way across the water towards a little dock. The dock was attached to a small red building. On either side of the dock were a row of red cabins and a red guest building where a small neon sigh flashed “Open” in the resort restaurant’s window. Small signs plastered the restaurant’s walls on either side of the door. They promised “Ice Cream” “Beer” and “Ice” in bright red letters. Ben’s stomach growled.

“Wanna stop for lunch?” asked Steve in a sunny voice.

“Sure!” piped up Mike from the passenger seat. He had a red mark on his cheek from sleeping against the window.

Ben adjusted his legs closer to his body and nodded in agreement, “Yeah, that sounds good.”

All three men climbed out of the vehicle and Ben shook the pins and needles out of his legs. Steve walked with the jaunty motion of a cowboy, sans the hat or boots. Mike followed, looking like Steve’s muscled bodyguard.

They turned their attention to the front doors of the small red guest building which were painted a nice shade of Forest Service green. Someone had cut tiny outlines of fir trees from the center of each door and on the window shutters as well. The door handles were a deep brown and the centers were rubbed nearly gold from the passage of time and hands.

Inside the restaurant Ben felt the ceiling pressing down on him. The room looked like it was made for gymnasts, and the wood panel walls gave everything an eerie dimness. Quaint wood tables with spindly legs sat in even rows across the main room. Equally spindly hard wood chairs ringed each table. On each chair seat was a pillow covered in red gingham that matched the curtains.

“Have a seat wherever you like,” called a petite blonde from behind the kitchen door, “I’ll be out in a second!”

“Thanks!” called Steve to the woman as he surveyed the dining room for options. He brightened when he saw an open table by the windows overlooking the modest bay. The dock outside extended to a small fleet of sailboats bobbing in the water each time a new wave hit them. Ben watched the boat he’d seen briefly on the way in as it approached the dock slowly.

“This looks perfect,” said Steve as he motioned to the table, “Can’t beat this view!”

“Yup!” agreed Mike as he pulled out a chair.

Ben just smiled and nodded as he sat. He winced when the chair squeaked at his full weight and felt bad; it was the product of a Chicago winter compounded by Susan leaving. Without her pizza had become Ben’s go-to main course.

All three looked around for a menu and found nothing but the salt and peppershakers sitting forlornly in an empty basket where the table touched the wall.

“Be there in a sec!” called the woman from the kitchen, seeming to intuitively sense their discomfort. True to her word, she emerged from the kitchen almost to the sound of her last phrase. She held three menus and three sets of silverware in one hand and, in a seeming feat of magic, three full water glasses in the other.

“Sorry about the wait, guys,” she said, gulping air to mask her exertion, “here’s some menus and water…would you like anything to drink?”

“You guys serve alcohol?” asked Mike with the sexy grin that guaranteed to melt women’s hearts and underwear.

“No hard stuff, but we do have wine and beer…” answered the waitress in a quick barrage bolted out in one breath.

“What’ve you got on tap?” asked Steve, also with a smile.

“Mirror Pond, RPM IPA, Total Domination IPA and Blonde Bombshell,” she said without skipping a beat.

“That is just music to my ears,” replied Steve with a coy grin. The waitress didn’t respond but looked at them expectantly.

Ben ordered a Seven Up—he’d drunk so much in the last couple days that his stomach craved anything but alcohol. A soft drink would be a nice change. Steve chose a pint of the RPM IPA and Mike chose a pint of the Blonde Bombshell. “I sure do like those blondes…” Mike added with a wink; still no response from the waitress. She wasn’t biting. Ben figured she’d probably heard that from more than a few men.

Ben looked at the menu. It covered the front and back of a thin sheet of letter-sized paper that was laminated. The front side listed a variety of sandwiches and salads, as well as a few different hamburgers and a tiny kids menu that boasted the usual chicken fingers and cheese sandwich. The back had a short list of the dessert options (“Pie-daily special-see board.”) Ben scanned the list and settled on a BLT with a side salad. He didn’t want to seem too girly and weight-obsessed in front of his buddies, but the chair did not lie.

“Whatcha gettin’, Ben?” asked Steve cheerily.

“BLT,” he answered, “Bacon sounds good right now…”

“Mmm…Bacon tastes good, ham tastes good!” laughed Mike as he quoted ‘Pulp Fiction’.

“Agreed,” added Steve.

“What’re you guys getting?” countered Ben, trying to direct the conversation away from his food choices.

“I’m gonna do a good old-fashioned cheeseburger!” said Steve.

“Hmmm…” added Mike, “I think I’m going to do that hamburger with the sautéed mushrooms and Swiss. Looks tasty.”

The waitress came back with their drinks and they all placed their orders. This time Mike avoided flirting with her and kept a straight face. She didn’t seem to notice one way or the other. Ben gave her a resigned and knowing smile and she returned it.

“So where are we gonna camp?” asked Mike as he shifted in his seat once the waitress left.

“The spot we’re heading to is up the road a bit,” said Steve. “It butts against the wilderness area, but you can get in there with a sturdy four by four, and we definitely have that today,” he said as he nodded out towards the hardy Landcruiser. “Should take us no more than an hour or so to reach.”

“Anything cool nearby?” asked Ben.

“Ohhhh, yeah!” said Steve while bobbing his head. “The camp site borders a nice lake that goes into the wilderness. There’s good rainbow trout and even some Kokanee!”

“Mmmmm!” said Ben, “I can continue to stalk the Big One!”

“That, you most certainly can,” said Steve with satisfaction.

“As long as it doesn’t get away…” added Mike in a mock reproachful tone.

Within a few minutes, the waitress returned with red plastic woven baskets filled with fresh fried potatoes and steaming sandwiches. Ben noted sourly that she’d forgotten his salad. In its place sat a pile of steaming golden fries. He shrugged his shoulders and decided to eat the fries anyway. It was what he’d originally wanted in the first place. Perhaps she’d read his mind.

The three men started digging in to their meals wordlessly, like animals voraciously trying to devour their portion of a communal kill. It was minutes before Mike broke the silence of their combined gluttony.

“Damn, this is good!” he said between a mouthful of meat.

“For sure!” said Ben as he sipped gingerly at his Seven Up.

Steve nodded in agreement as he wrapped his mouth around a huge chunk of bun.

The friends looked up just in time to see a sailboat approaching the dock. They could all faintly hear the sound of voices yelling, perhaps a warning. Before any man could say anything, the sailboat rammed in to the dock, throwing a slender gray-haired woman down to the hard boards. The hull of the boat crumpled slightly, and a man could be seen on the deck visibly shaking and bellowing.

The woman with the gray hair stood up, looked at her scraped knees oozing blood, and then turned and began walking away from the man towards the water. She stepped from the edge of the dock with a stiff leg, like she didn’t know that the next surface would not be firm, and then plunged over the deck in to the water.

The man on the boat shrieked in horror.

 

Chapter Seven

 

Ben woke with a jolt off the table.

“Wow…you really passed out there!” chortled Steve, “we let you sleep just to see how long you’d go!”

“How long has it been?” mumbled Ben, visibly embarrassed.

“About fifteen minutes,” chimed in Mike, “I won the bet! Steve…you get to pony up for the next round.”

“Oh, shit!” moaned Ben, “Should have gotten more hours last night…” he managed a smile and shrugged his shoulders in a mock apology.

“Was it the couch?” asked Steve, with a genuinely concerned air.

“Maybe-sorry man,” answered Ben while rubbing his cheek. The friction from his palm left a bright red mark to match the one on his forehead.

“You remember your dream at all?” asked Steve, “You were like a dog at one point-all whiny and twitchy…it freaked us out.”

“Sorry man, maybe I should lay off the sauce,” admitted Ben, “I really hadn’t been drinking much before this trip.”

“Yeah, I should probably cut back too,” said Steve with a grin while fondling his nonexistent belly, “Gotta keep in shape!”

Ben offered Steve a strained smile and tried to forget how embarrassed he felt. His hands were actually still shaking from the dream-it’d seemed so real, and he kept looking out the window at the sailboat, trying to confirm the truth with every glance.

The woman and man were on the deck, tying the boat to the mooring hooks on the dock. The woman brought out two bright orange buoys that looked like giant Tic-Tacs. She placed them carefully between the boat and the hard dock planks. A small group of waves knocked the boat towards the dock and the bumpers squeaked loudly.

Ben looked out at the water and watched the whitecaps grow. The wind was picking up and the branches on the trees beside the restaurant started flailing in the growing storm. Ben noticed a black set of clouds down at the far end of the lake. They were getting closer on the growing wind.

“Looks like we’ll have to stay here for a bit,” said Steve, watching the clouds with unease, “Might be a nasty one coming in.”

“Seems like there’s been a lot of those lately,” piped in Mike, “what gives? Did we anger the mountain gods?”

“Nah,” said Steve, “It’s just that time of year, the thunderstorms blow out just as quickly as they come in.”

The three men sat back, and Ben played absently with the dessert menu. He knew he didn’t need one, but the blackberry cobbler looked delicious. He waved the waitress over and ordered a portion, “anybody else care for a bit?” he asked.

“Sure, might as well,” agreed Mike with a belch, “it’ll pass the time…”

Their portions of cobbler arrived steaming in small earthen cups topped with a quickly melting pile of vanilla ice cream. The blonde waitress carried them expertly balanced on one arm. She left just as quickly back to the kitchen’s seclusion. A huge crash of thunder went off nearby. It rocked the small lodge and the saltshaker on the table fell over. The lights flickered.

“Whoa, man!” yelled Mike over the din, “that was close!”

Ben nodded in agreement and watched Mike race to the front door to peek out. Hail was falling already and the tiny pellets coated the flowerbeds on either side of the doorway. The man and woman from the boat covered their heads with their jackets and ran down the dock towards the lodge. Within a minute they were both inside shaking off their jackets. The woman pulled her silvery blond hair back in to a smooth ponytail.

“Hello?” called the woman towards the kitchen as she made her way in the door, “You guys still serving?”

“Yup!” called the waitress from the kitchen, “be there in a sec…take any table you want!”

‘What a storm,” the woman said as she shook her jacket and hung it on one of the long row of coat hooks lining the entryway.

“Definitely,” concurred the man as he removed his red rain slicker, “A real dinger!” On closer inspection, Ben noted the perfectly matching platinum wedding bands. She sported a diamond so big Ben thought her finger might fall off.

The couple sat down at a neighboring table, and Ben couldn’t help but keep peeking at the woman. She looked back at Ben and lowered her gaze almost immediately, inching closer to her husband. Ben looked quickly down at his cobbler, ashamed that she noticed him staring. He began working a spoonful of cobbler and ice cream free from the clay pot’s edge. His mind couldn’t get over the image of the woman walking robotically off the edge of the dock. Even if it was only a booze-induced dream.

“How was it out there?” asked Steve to the couple.

“Good wind!” answered the man cheerily, “thanks to this storm, that is…”

“Yeah, no kidding!” added Mike, “you guys must have made record time with that gale!”

“Eh, enough to get her going, but the chop slowed us down,” answered the man. His wife sipped a cup of tea and held her hands around it to draw the warmth.

“You guys staying up here?” asked Steve before he popped a piece of warm cobbler in his mouth.

“Nope,” answered the man, “we’re from town—just come up here on weekends to get a little sail in.”

“Ah,” answered Steve, as he spooned another bite of cobbler into his mouth. Mike and Ben remained quiet and watched Steve do his local-guy thing.

“What are you guys up to?” asked the woman with an inquisitive look at Steve. She seemed warmer and friendlier than the woman who broke gaze with Ben. Steve had that effect, thought Ben jealously; he could bring even the shyest people out of their shells.

“We,” said Steve with emphasis on the ‘we’ “are going to go camping. My buddies here flew out from Chicago and Madison, and we’re going to re-live the heady days of our youth.” He added with a wink. The woman blushed slightly.

“Where you headed?” asked the man.

“I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” said Steve with a grin and another naughty wink.

 

Chapter Eight

 

The men sat and listened to claps of thunder and pounding hail for almost an hour and a half. Flashes of lightning occasionally blinded them even inside the restaurant. Slowly the sound of thunder started heading north over the Three Sisters and the steady fall of rain became lighter on the restaurant’s metal roof.

“You guys ready to roll?” asked Steve looking to both Mike and Ben.

“Yup,” agreed Mike, “this place is cool, but I think I’m ready to bail.”

“Agreed,” added Ben. He secretly didn’t want to set up his tent in the dark. He was barely able to get the thing behaving itself in the daylight of Steve’s back yard, much less in a dark, wet forest.

The men left the dim confines of the restaurant and stepped out in to the blazing sunlight already peeking through the clouds. Sunshine glinted off the wet leaves of the low bushes, and fat droplets of rain fell from the pine trees’ needles. Ben reveled in the fresh, sharp smell that came from the desert earth after a storm. The world around them seemed hungry and reborn.

They each took their seats in the Landcruiser and the vehicle started up with a hearty cough, caught, and began roaring again. Steve turned on the windshield wipers, clearing the pine needles and tree fodder that fell during the storm. The bits stuck in the wiper blades and left streaks on the windshield.

Steve cursed, climbed out of the driver’s seat, and proceeded to snap both windshield wipers to clear them from debris. He carefully ran his pinched thumb and forefinger down each blade to remove the last of the sap that came from the squished needles. “Well, that’s that,” he said as he took the driver’s seat again, “back on the road, gentlemen?”

“Oh Jeah!” said Mike, “let’s get this bitch movin’!” His Jersey meathead accent was spot-on.

“We’re staying just on the edge of the wilderness area. Ms. Piggy can only take us to the lake where we’ll camp, but past it motorized vehicles are off-limits. Bikes too…only horses and pack animals allowed.”

“But we can still go in?” asked Ben.

“Yeah,” added Steve, “we can walk anywhere, they just have a ban on motorized and mechanical things in the wilderness. When there’s forest fires, they usually let them burn out, or fight ‘em by plane.”

“Do they fight fire by llama?” interjected Mike with a chuckle. Then he added, “On second thought, I would never want to fight a fire with one of those…they spit! And they’re mean!”

“Bad llama experience?” asked Ben in a faux-caring tone reserved for confidantes and TV show hosts.

“Yeah, my grandma used to have one to guard her sheep…meanest weird motherfucker I’ve ever seen,” started Mike. “They look like furry dying bugs when they try to roll over. Creeped me out,” he added with a shudder. Ben and Steve couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not. Mike betrayed nothing, so both men went with the cautious middle ground.

“Well, we don’t have to worry about that,” said Steve in a cheery voice, “Where we’re going we can camp by car, and leave the packing to other people and their weird animals.”

“Yay,” said Ben softly.

The road broke from the parking area around the lodge and marina and headed south. The sides of the road looked clean—the brush was cut back and the gravel recently graded. Ben relaxed in his seat.

Along the right hand side of the vehicle a small, rutted road branched off towards a smoothed-out improvised campsite. The main road continued to what looked like a well-kept Forest Service campground. The camp host’s worn Bounder RV sat at the entrance, and each spot was filled with a variety of vehicles: from tidy green Subaru’s next to perfectly pitched Sierra Designs tents to the beat-up Dodge Ram trucks that towed toy-hauler trailers with names like “Desert Fox” and “Weekend Warrior.” There were also simple cars like Chevys sitting next to Coleman tents hastily bought from the local Bi Mart.

Steve bypassed this tidy campground in favor of a rutted road that bore to the left of the camping loop. It looked like something out of the brothers Grimm. The trees arched over the top blocking out the sunlight and the bushes on either side craned outward to reach what little sunshine they could get. Branches screeched like fingernails on a chalkboard against the Landcruiser’s sides.

“You takin’ us to Narnia?” asked Mike.

“Sorry to disappoint, my friend,” shot Steve back without missing a beat, “We’re heading to my special place…you’ll see!” he giggled in a creepy way. “I found it with an old girlfriend. It’s private, but we’re close to all the good trailheads. No need to be a part of ‘Joey central.’” He added with a nod back toward the campground they’d just passed.

“Joey?” asked Ben with raised eyebrows that Steve could see in the rearview mirror.

“Oh yeah, that’s what the locals call out-of-towners,” elaborated Steve, “Sorry, but you’re both kinda’ ‘Joeys’…you better keep mum about this place.” He added with another wink of his right eye and a grin. Ben could see him back in the rearview mirror.

“Thanks, man,” said Ben as he shoved the driver’s seat from behind, “I feel so special!”

“You are, honey!” answered Steve with a fake southern drawl.

Mike laughed and looked out the window just in time to see a large pine branch scrape by with a shriek. He started backwards at the noise.

The road deteriorated quickly. Rivulets of water from the thunderstorm cut through it and in places the mud was getting thick. Ben ran through scenarios in his head revolving around getting stuck in mud that the Landcruiser couldn’t handle. He didn’t want to have to pry the beast out using poles or random pieces of wood.

“How safe is this road when it’s wet?” he asked Steve.

“Not too bad, actually,” answered Steve back, “I’ve driven this one in more rain than this, and good ‘ol Piggy has always made it through.” He added with a smile as he gave the dashboard a loving pat.

“As long as you say so…” finished Ben, “I didn’t sign up for slave labor to dig out a large vehicle.”

“Don’t worry,” said Steve as he peered up in the rearview mirror, “I’ll break my own back before I break yours.”

Ben stretched his legs across the back seat and felt both knees pop.

 

Chapter Nine

 

The road in front of the Landcruiser got narrower by the minute until the open space between the clawing branches was barely the width of the vehicle’s frame. The SUV bumped up and down through the deepening ruts like it was on a high sea. Each turn around the bend brought a new, uglier set of tire tracks. Steve had to jerk the wheel left and right as he tried furiously to avoid them.

“The Forest Service is going to put us on their ‘bad bubba’ list for all the erosion we’re creating,” joked Steve as he struggled to keep his hands on the rapidly jerking wheel. His forearms strained with the exertion of controlling the vehicle without the convenience of power steering.

Around one bend the tree cover darkened, and the three men could see a particularly challenging piece of road ahead. It pitched up at a steep angle, and was bordered by large boulders. Peppered amongst the tire tracks were large rocks big enough to scrape the Landcruiser’s undercarriage. There were ruts made from a larger truck, and it almost looked like the prior vehicle had backed away from the challenge.

“Let’s go, baby!” roared Steve as he dropped the beast in to her lowest gear. The wagon lumbered towards the rocky stretch, making a hold on each boulder. The whole cab would drop with a bang after cresting each rock, and Ben could feel the jolt from every impact radiate up his spine. For all his bluster, Steve’s eyes darted nervously in the rear-view mirror.

“Should we get out?” asked Ben as he surveyed the rough road ahead of them.

“No time,” answered Steve quickly. “If I stop now, we’re gonna get stuck!”

Ben looked out the window nervously and observed the rocks perilously close to his door. If the Landcruiser hit them there would be new dents on Piggy’s driver’s side.

The engine ground and growled as the wagon faced the last pitch. There was a large rock in the center of the road that was easily the size of a garbage can, but thankfully not quite high enough to reach the Landcruiser’s undercarriage. Steve reached his hand up quickly to rub a small ceramic goat that hung from his rearview mirror, then he returned his hands to the business of guiding “Piggy” over the final rock.

The tires slipped suddenly on the stone’s wet flanks and Mike let out a quick bark of “Whoa!” In a split second, Steve had the vehicle squared away and climbing the rock again. There was a loud crunching noise as the FJ crested the ridge, and dropped down to the much straighter road ahead of them.

“We should have a quad for this stuff,” said Mike incredulously, “I can’t believe the ‘ol girl made it!”

“She’s been through worse,” said Steve proudly, “and she’s got the scars to prove it!”

“Ah, Steve and his living Tonka Truck…” added Ben somewhat jealously with a chuckle, “built for stuff like this.”

“Yeah!!!” cheered Steve with an encouraging voice as the Landcruiser lumbered past the last rock, “Piggy lives!!!”

The road straightened out after the last brush with the boulders, and Ben could see the long stretch ahead. Thanks to the surprising lack of ruts on this section, Ben surmised that the piece of road they were on now hadn’t seen vehicles in a very long time. Clearly, the last section had scared off many a dilettante 4×4 driver.

Ben looked back out the window and began dreading the battle he faced pitching his tent. At least the forest was beginning to dry after the storm, and he prayed he wouldn’t have to set up the tent in a new thunderstorm. Pleeease, good weather, he thought.

Steve wove the wagon through the rocks that dotted the remaining road, and the Landcruiser continued to scrape random bushes as it crept by. The four-wheel-drive’s grinding in low gear continued, but it was much quieter than it had been in the tight rock fall.

After thirty bumpy minutes, Ben could see the trees opening on his right hand side, and they revealed the first glimpses of a lake. The water looked grey in the evening light, but you could see a bright shock of sunlight beating through the fading thunderclouds illuminating the west end.

Steve continued paralleling the lake in the Landcruiser until the trees opened in to a large high canopy. It sheltered the road and the vehicle on it like a natural umbrella. The bushes on either side of the path strangely disappeared, and the undergrowth gave way to an open carpet of pine needles.

Ahead was another lake sitting just to the left of the Landcruiser. It looked smaller than the one they’d been driving parallel to, and was surrounded by puffy Manzanita bushes. The Manzanita looked soft from a distance, but Ben knew that the plant’s branches could be sharp and scratchy on the skin. He made a mental note to wear long sleeves if he wanted to explore that side.

“Here we are!” cried Steve cheerily. He pulled the Landcruiser in to a round flat spot that bordered the larger lake to the right. The area was fairly smooth, and studded with mature Lodgepole Pine. There were a few stragglers interspersed throughout the campground-just enough so that it was hard to get “Piggy” turned around.

Steve made a series of three-point turns to try and get the vehicle pointed towards the road. As he backed the vehicle up for another turn, they all heard the rough thump of a tree hitting the back bumper. The Landcruiser shuddered mildly with the impact, and Ben’s head whipped forward. He felt a small muscle on the side of his neck twinge.

“Dammit!” cursed Steve as he hit the steering wheel with the palm of his hand, “Fucking trees!”

“It’s okay, man,” said Mike soothingly, trying to console Steve from the passenger’s seat, “It’s just another love bite!”

“Yeah, but I’d rather she not have any at all…” interrupted Steve, visibly annoyed at himself, “It’ll be another bill to pay…”

“We’re here, though…” said Ben, trying to break Steve out of his temporary tantrum. “Wanna pick campsites?”

“Yes, let’s!” cheered Mike as he pulled at the passenger door’s handle, “I got dibs on the lakeside one!” he yelled.

“Hey, no fair!” chided Ben.

 

Chapter Ten

 

Ben sat looking at the small drab green duffel bag at his feet. It was split open by a cheap zipper attached to a white string. The interior felt like a flimsy attempt at a tarp material, and the tent itself billowed out in heaps of soft nylon and crinkly tarpaulin. Ben upended the sack and the tent and rain fly both fell out in an unceremonious heap.

Below the piles of tenting were two bags made of the same olive-drab “camping tarp” material. There was a long thin bag, as well as a smaller wider one, both tied at the top with color-coordinated strings. Ben opened the longer bag and found the tent poles all bound in a jumbled zigzag pattern. In the smaller bag he found a tiny array of tent hooks-some bent and dirt-encrusted from his earlier trial in Steve’s yard.

Ben placed the bags of tent poles and hooks at the base of a pine tree on the border of his campsite and turned his attention back to the pile of tent material. Mixed in with the nylon was a brown tarp just big enough to go under the tent. Ben laid down the tarp and frowned. The area where he wanted his bed to go was unsuitably uneven, and sloped at a downhill angle. He grumbled beneath his breath and readjusted the tarp. Frowning again, Ben went through another two adjustments before he settled on a location surprisingly close to his original one.

Once his tarp was set, Ben laid the flattened tent on top. There was just enough room for the tent pegs to extend over the tarp’s surface and stick firmly in the dirt. He hoped the tarp would keep the floor dry if a thunderstorm came.

With the tent skin splayed in front of him like an animal ready to be tanned, Ben turned to the tent pole bag sitting at the base of the tree. It held three long poles with hollow ends. The two bigger poles obviously held up the tent, but he had no idea what the smaller third one was for. Ben started with the larger poles, assembling them slowly until he soon had two long poles laying in front of him.

He slid the first one carefully through the nylon loops across the top of the tent. It went obediently. Ben smiled and turned to the second pole, working it through the remaining half of the crossed support loops. He cursed under his breath when the end hooked up on the fabric at the cross’ apex. Ben crawled gingerly on the tent’s surface until he reached the center, then plucked carefully where the pole was caught. That freed the pole, and Ben retreated back across the tent fabric. On the second try the rest of the pole slid smoothly through the remaining slots and poked out the far end.

Ben looked over his shoulder at Steve and Mike’s progress. Mike seemed unaware that he might need a tent and was setting his cot up on the bare open ground. Steve was making a bed in the back seat of “Piggy,” now that the faithful rig’s contents were spewed about the back end like the remnants of an explosion. Ben and Steve locked eyes for a second.

“Just in case he changes his mind,” Steve said nodding in Mike’s direction.

“Could I get a hand, here?” Ben asked as he tried to hang on to his unruly tent.

“Yup!” said Steve with his usual cheerful air, “Whatcha’ need?”

“Help with this here tent pole,” said Ben without skipping a beat.

“Sure!” added Steve as he surveyed the downed tent while rubbing his chin, “that’s definitely hard for one set of hands to do…”

“Come on, man!” said Ben with a mock-teenager tone as he took one end of the lower tent pole. Steve grabbed the other end and walked towards Ben. The pole bent skyward from the two in a pressure-induced arc, pulling the skin of the tent upward as it rose. Ben and Mike moved simultaneously down and secured the hollow metal tip of each pole to a tiny metal peg poking out from the corner of the tent dome.

“Watch it!” hooted Mike as he joined the scrum around the base of the tent. He caught one of the loose ends of the second pole as it tried to swing wildly away and topple the fragile crest. Ben jumped over to the free end, pulled it down towards him, and hooked it to its respective peg. Mike did the same on his while Steve still clung to his corner.

Ben stepped back to admire the early shape of his tent. He started attaching the tiny plastic hooks anchoring the tent’s sides to the spindly support poles, and the tent gradually attained the marshmallow-soft dome shape that the package advertised.

“One more hand here?” Ben asked Steve as he started to turn away.

“No problemo,” said Steve as he came back. The day’s fatigue was just beginning to make his voice turn gravelly.

“You gonna do the fly?” asked Steve as he pointed to the gauzy material still laying on the ground.

“That’s what that is?” asked Ben, blushing slightly as he felt suddenly foolish.

“Yup,” said Steve, “I would recommend it.”

“Okay,” said Ben obediently.

Steve jumped in to action and quickly assembled the final pole, hooked it in to a couple small loops on the fly, and lifted the fly on top of Ben’s tent in one swift movement. Ben thought about how long he would have tried to figure that piece out, but was grateful for Steve’s expertise. Ben went to work inside the tent, assembling his cot and unpacking his backpack until the space felt appropriately homey.

Once outside, Ben stood back and admired his handiwork. The tent highly resembled the one on the cover of his duffle bag tag—proudly emblazoned with the red and white “Coleman,” logo. He felt the palpable satisfaction at the neat appearance, and nodded his head like the lady he’d seen on ‘Bewitched’ do, then turned to leave.

Ben walked to the back end of the truck and picked up a long folding chair sack emblazoned with the obnoxious neon “O” logo from the University of Oregon. Susan had laughed, but Ben felt the chair called to him from across the aisle at Costco. He slid the chair out of the bag, unfolded it, and set it by the fire ring.

Ben walked to the cooler, grabbed the nearest beer he could find, opened it and sat down in his chair with a sigh. He popped the cap and took a long swig. Even after his epic hangover he still couldn’t turn down the IPA Steve had packed.

He looked over at Mike laying on his cot, “No tent?” Ben asked, “you sure?”

“Fuck yeah!” chortled Mike, “A real man doesn’t need a tent!” Mike blushed immediately when he looked over at Ben’s Coleman, “Except you, of course,” he tried to backtrack, “yours is cool…” his voice trailed off.

“Well, guess I got to pack up my cohones, then…” said Ben shaking his head with a facetious sigh. “Can I turn in my man card to you?” He added. Ben often thought Mike should wear a shirt that said, “Insert Foot Here…” with an arrow pointed towards his mouth.

Steve joined the two by the campfire with his own IPA in tow. All three sat and stared at the flames as they licked their way up the fresh log Steve had just added to the pile in the center.

“Got any marshmallows?” asked Mike.

“Does a ‘real man’ eat marshmallows?” asked Ben with a facetious grin.

“Yes, he does!” answered Mike with a cocky chin tilt, “I happen to think they’re amazing and a staple in any good diet.”

“Will your abs thank you?” giggled Steve.

“You’re damn right they will!” said Mike, defending himself from the friendly needling, “I drink protein shakes and work out 364 days a year…I can have a fucking marshmallow if I want!”

“Yup, and you can sleep under the stars…” finished Ben.

“I swear, dude,” Mike ensured, pointing to his cot, “I camped like this in Costa Rica-it’s awesome!” Mike stood up, “you know what else I did in Costa Rica?” he said as he unzipped his fly and began peeing in the fire. The biggest burning log hissed a moment, then made a huge popping noise. A spark jumped up and hit the tip of Mike’s ‘Johnson.’ He screamed a list of profanities that was long and very creative.

“Shit, dude!” yelled Steve, “Is your cock ok?”

“Fuck!!!” shouted Mike, “I don’t know! Can you look at it?” he said, pointing his penis at Steve. Steve forgot his usual discomfort looking at another man’s junk. He was concerned for his friend’s health and inspected the tip.

“Looks ok…you’ll live…” he said in a low voice.

“Fuck me…” said Mike, drawing out both words so the sentence was an exclamation, not an invitation. He calmed down as the pain subsided, then slunk back to his chair.

“Hey guys, ‘think I’m going to call it,” said Ben as he yawned widely.

“No problemo,” said Steve.

“’Night,” said Mike, still nursing his injured member.

Ben stood and headed towards the comforts of his Coleman. Being in the woods felt good somehow; it was like he’d had a limb cut off, but could finally scratch the phantom itch.

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Ben heard chirping and opened his blurry eyes expecting to see a beautiful sunrise. Instead, he saw it was still dark out. The incessant chirping was so loud he couldn’t block it out. Up to a high pitch, then down to a low pitch, sometimes short bursts, and then sometimes long strings that ran around and around in his brain.

He rubbed the yellow crust from his eyes, rolled over on his cot, and checked his phone. It was 4:30 am and the sun was just barely starting to lighten the sky in the east. The birds, however, were sure it was time to wake up and get on with the day. Ben’s head hurt from the beers he’d drunk by the campfire and the chirping made his headache go from a five to an eight.

Ben stood up from his cot, careful to not hit his head on the low domed ceiling. He questioned how the tent’s tag advertised sleeping space for five people when it seemed designed for five ten-year-olds. It was barely enough room for his old swimmer’s body, let alone any guests.

He slipped on his hiking boots and carefully zipped open the tent door, checking outside to see if there were any critters running around the campsite. A few mosquitoes flew around Ben’s face but didn’t land. Steve had lied about there being no bugs, and all three men had to apply multiple coats of the highest-duty ‘Off’-brand bug spray the night before. They all woke up still bearing the pungent smell of Deet on their bodies and clothes.

Outside his domicile, Ben looked at the Landcruiser and saw Steve was still passed out inside the vehicle and not in his tent. When Ben walked closer he could hear the deep snores from Steve’s dreams. Ben decided against waking him and wandered to some bushes about 200 feet away from the edge of the lake. There he unzipped his fly and urinated on the bush, sighing softly with relief.

Mike still slept on his cot, bizarrely free of mosquitoes. Ben decided to make a bit of coffee instead of waking him. He worked quietly, moving slowly and handling the pans carefully so they didn’t clink together. He turned the camp stove’s gas on, lit the burner, and filled a small camp pan with water poured from the water jugs sitting outside the Landcruiser. The water tasted slightly musty, but once it started boiling Ben didn’t care about the flavor.

He focused on the food bags and found the one containing a mason jar full of coffee grounds. There was a tiny cup-top cone filter next to it, as well as the paper inserts that went in the filter. He placed the filter on top of his plastic coffee cup bearing a Cubs emblem, and spooned some grounds into the paper filter. The hot water was boiling furiously, so Ben carefully lifted the camp pot and poured the water in the cone filter, making sure not to spill anything on himself. He filled the filter up to the top and watched the water slowly drip through the grounds.

As his coffee brewed, Ben turned his attention to the lake. He could see little rings appearing across the entire surface. Fish of all sizes were beginning to feed on their breakfasts of caddis flies and other insects that flew too close to the surface. He watched closely and could see more and more ripples as the sun rose. The fish got more confident in the growing light.

Ben paid attention to the areas that seemed the most active and returned to his tent to pull out his fishing rod case. Inside, his rod and reel were slightly disassembled so he pulled the rod out, re-attached his reel, and began threading his line back through the eyelets. The leader was still in good shape, but he needed to add a little more of the fine tip line that would make his fly look natural to the savvy lake trout.

He carefully pulled out a few feet of fresh tip line, cut the knot that secured the old tip line on his rod, and then began tying the new line to his leader. Once it was secure, he clipped the ends of the knot with a pair of nippers hanging on his vest, and observed his meticulous work with a satisfied smile. The knot was almost invisible, and the entire effect made his line look like one continuous gradually thinning extension of the rod. He hoped it would be enough to fool at least one good-sized trout.

Once his new tip line was on, Ben turned to his box of flies to see what might be the most tempting lure to use. He walked to the lakeshore and captured one of the tiny bugs flying around in his cupped hand. It was the size of a staple with a darker body and white, almost translucent wings. Ben returned to the fly box and compared what flies he had that matched the insect he’d caught. Finally, he settled on a tiny Parachute Adams, the one that looked the closest. He tied the fly to his tip line, hooked it around the rod eye closest to the reel, then rewound the line back in the reel until all the excess was gathered in and the line was taut. Satisfied with his rod preparation he gently leaned the rod against his tent and returned to his coffee.

The grounds coated the filter’s paper sides but the water was gone and now his cup below was filled with steaming hot fresh-brewed coffee. Ben added a bit of vanilla coffee creamer from the bottle stored in one of their coolers and proceeded to sit down in his chair by the fire. Last night’s coals were still warm and he added a couple sticks from their woodpile to rekindle the flames.

After a few minutes Mike groaned and rolled out of his hammock. Ben started to forget all about fishing. His stomach growled noisily and he began wondering what Steve was going to make them for breakfast.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

The sun scorched the backs of their necks as Steve, Mike and Ben sat around the remnants of their fire. Each man helmed a chair as unique as their hair color: Ben had his cushy green one with the University of Oregon “O” on the back, Steve had a simple, square chair that was an indiscriminate shade of dusty green, and Mike had a chair seemingly straight out of Sharper Image: black, padded, had cup holders, and packed up in a very hipster-looking grey bag.

“Guys wanna go for a hike?” asked Steve as he finished the last of his morning coffee with a small belch.

“Where ‘ya thinkin’?” answered Mike back with hardly a thought.

“Walk the lake?” proposed Steve without hesitation, “There’s a really nice trail that goes all the way around.”

“I’m down,” said Ben, “It’ll help me burn off breakfast,” he added sheepishly as he looked at the remains of his breakfast burrito. Scouting for fish also sounded nice.

“All right, then,” said Steve with gusto an as he dislodged himself from his camp chair, “Wanna head in ten?”

“Jeah!” agreed Mike for everyone as he jumped out of his chair and headed to a pile of camping supplies sitting on top of a tarp next to his hammock. He rummaged around for what looked like sunglasses and a hat. His clothing remained the same as what he wore yesterday: black t-shirt and a pair of army-surplus cargo shorts. The combination showed off his skin’s deep tan, and the shirt purposefully clung tight to his biceps. Mike swore by his “lady attracting” attire even when there were no “ladies” present.

Ben walked slowly back to his tent while his eyes adjusted to the dim light under the canopy of trees where he slept. The fire ring sat by the lake in a spot looking up towards nothing but sky. It was clearly the handiwork of an earlier camper—piled with stray lava rocks that secured every side reaching almost a foot high. The holes between the rocks were filled with smaller rocks to protect the nearby forest from an errant ember.

He watched Steve draw buckets of water from the lake and pour them on the fire. What looked like a completely dead pile of ashes and charcoal suddenly began hissing and sizzling, and a column of steam billowed up from where the water hit. Steve took a stick and stirred the muddy ashes like a child in a sandbox, all the while checking to feel for hot spots with his free hand.

Ben turned away from Steve’s fire control measures and climbed in his tent to swap his beat-up sandals for hiking boots. The boots were fairly new, but he’d broken them in doing long walks around the riverfront in Chicago. They’d already explored the wilds of the Windy City, but the leather on the sides looked fresh, and the logo was still bright and crisp. He tied the boots up with a firm tug and bent his knees repeatedly to get the leather warmed up.

Before he exited the tent, Ben looked around and took a note of his belongings: his cot was in order, his backpack sat in the corner, his fishing rod was assembled neatly and slid under the cot for safe keeping, and his fishing vest sat spread open over the top of his back pack. He planned on fishing at sunset, but the micromanager in his head compelled him to keep his tent tidy.

“You guys comin’?” yelled Steve from the vicinity of the fire pit, “No need to get prissy, Ben!” he added.

Ben growled at Steve in his head, and shouted back, “I’m coming!” with a hint of annoyance in his voice.

“Okay, just makin’ sure you didn’t fall in!” added Steve.

“Nope, still here!” called Ben back.

The three men joined each other at the center of the campsite. Steve led the way on a small overgrown trail heading west along the lake’s flanks. Mike and Ben followed him like baby ducklings. Their banter gave way to silence as each concentrated on avoiding the sticks and branches arching over the path.

Each bush reaching out to the sunlight clawed at Ben’s flesh. “Are any of these Poison Oak?” he asked with a cringe, remembering the fateful Yellowstone trip.

“Nope, you’re safe, my friend,” answered Steve soothingly, “and I’ll let you know if there are any dangerous plants to avoid as we pass ‘em.”

“Thanks, ‘Bro,” responded Ben, relieved.

They all continued in silence. Ben took his eyes off Steve’s back and looked at the scenery all around. The lake’s sides were dotted with bright green willow bushes and other thirsty plants. They all crowded together in the buffer zone between the tree canopy and the lakeside. The further you moved away from shore the fewer bushes you saw. They didn’t like growing in the forest’s constant shadow. Ben realized it would be hard to back-cast next to the ever-present bushes.

The deep forest was best suited to the many breeds of pine and the occasional fir tree that called it home. The mix around camp seemed to skew more towards fir, since Steve had them settled in an area that crossed the mountainous boundary between the rainforest of the Willamette Valley and the desert of central Oregon.

Ben noted the trail seemed to be getting more overgrown the further west the three ventured. Soon the group was pushing willow branches out of the way before every new step. Each man gave one another more room in between so the branches they released wouldn’t whip the guy behind in the face.

“Does this thing really go all the way around?” asked Ben.

“Well, it used to,” said Steve in a slightly irritated voice, “I haven’t honestly been back here in a few years, and it looks like no one’s done trail maintenance in a while.”

“Do we have a saw?” asked Mike.

“Back in Piggy,” answered Steve forlornly, “don’t know how much further we’re going to be able to make it. You guys smell something burning?” he asked absentmindedly as the last word trailed off. Ben shivered as a strange chill passed through him. His arm hair stood on end despite the warm summer day.

Suddenly Steve’s eyes rolled up, and he dropped to the ground with a thud. Both Ben and Mike looked at each other for a split second, then waded through the bushes as fast as they could up to where Steve lay. Though it only took a second, Steve was already coming to by the time they reached him. Ben’s mind raced through a litany of WebMD diseases as he tried to get to Steve.

“Damn, what happened?” he asked as he rubbed his eyes and looked around. Ben could tell by the wide gaze that he was seeing, but not comprehending.

“Dude, you just passed out!” yelled Mike with both fear and excitement.

“…Must not have had enough water this morning,” Steve mumbled sheepishly.

“Here, have some of mine,” added Ben quickly, as he unscrewed the cap to his water bottle and passed it over. Steve grabbed it with a shaking hand and lifted the liquid to his lips. He sipped slowly, and Ben watched the color return to his face.

“Damn, you gotta take better care of yourself, Muchacho,” said Mike with an air of actual concern.

“Yeah,” agreed Steve, “I just don’t know what came over me.”

 

 

After Steve’s fainting incident, all three men turned back on the trail and returned to camp. Steve sat down in his chair, still a bit pale and not talking as much as he usually did. Both Mike and Ben hovered around him while trying to seem like they were actually busy with camp-related things. Neither wanted to make Steve feel too uncomfortable.

Mike took to setting up a rain cover over his cot made of a tarp, and Ben returned to his tent to fetch his fishing supplies. “You guys cool with me going fishing?” he asked.

“Sure,” said Mike with a hesitant air, “I’ll stay here and keep an eye on Steve.”

“Mmm…” mumbled Steve. His eyes looked glassy and didn’t seem to track them very well.

Mike pulled Ben aside, “do you think he’s okay?” he asked while nodding in Steve’s direction, “Should we bag it and take him to the emergency room?”

“Mmmm…umfine!” slurred Steve, easing their worry. He stood up from his chair, waved both hands, and then crawled in his tiny tent.

“Well, he certainly doesn’t look fine,” finished Mike. For once, he sounded definitely concerned for Steve.

“Yeah, maybe we give him a couple hours, and if he’s not better by then, we bag it?” suggested Ben. “I’m not sure if I can drive his truck back…can you drive stick?”

“Not really,” said Mike, “It’s been a while, and I most certainly don’t have roads like that one in Madison,” he nodded back to the rough path they’d taken in the SUV.

“Well, how ‘bout this,” said Ben, “I’ll go fish for a little bit, and when I get back we’ll make a decision.”

“Sounds like a plan, Mang,” said Mike, visibly brighter, “I’ll hang here and watch Sleeping Beauty.” He pointed back towards Steve’s tent.

Ben finished gathering his fishing supplies, threw on his favorite Oregon hoodie, layered his fishing vest over top, then took two Snickers bars from his bedside table and stuffed them in his vest pocket. Something to snack on, Ben thought. Once he was thoroughly satisfied with his setup he grabbed his fishing rod and headed off on the trail extending east around the lake. He’d seen some tempting strikes on the opposite side of the water, but he decided to take the trail that was more open and passable. Ben thought about walking around the entire lake just to get the lay of the land, but decided against it after looking at the willow-lash marks on his arm from their adventure to the west side.

 

 

Mike watched Ben leave, and felt a tiny tug of loneliness in his gut. He wasn’t sure what was going on with Steve, and Ben seemed hell-bent on fishing, so Mike was left to his own devices. He decided to finish his tarp tent and then make a fire to keep the three of them warm.

The tarp needed to be secured on a line between the two trees standing to either side of his cot. Mike found his box of bungees and started making a contraption where a bungee anchor was fastened around each trunk. He hooked a series of bungees together to make a line that extended over his hammock.

Once the bungee line was set, Mike threw his tarp over the line, creating an “A” type shape over the cot. He found two trees nearby that he could extend the “roof” of the tarp towards, and he fastened bungees around those trees as well. Lastly he strung the final bungees he had from the reinforced eyelets at the corners of the tarp over to the anchors on the near trees. He took a couple tent pegs and hammered the base edge of the tarp in to the ground.

The final effect of his labor was like a room with a high roof-just enough space above the cot to give the area an open feel, but low enough to keep the rain off the cot and the surrounding area. The rear of the tarp sloped down to the ground to create a backdrop that also shed rain and blocked the wind, leaving a very tidy camp spot underneath.

Mike looked back at Steve’s tent and could see his friend’s feet twitching slightly, as if he were a dog having a good dream about a rabbit. He peeked in the front end, saw that Steve was still asleep, nodded with a satisfied air, and then turned to the fire pit.

“Reshawah!” yelled Steve in a voice that seemed eerie and garbled. Mike jumped.

“You okay, bro?” he called out, his gut rising in his chest. Steve’s snores answered back, so Mike concluded it was just a dream. He turned his focus to the fire.

Steve had a bin of ready-made firewood in the Landcruiser that he’d pulled from his fireplace stock. Mike retrieved the bin and brought it closer to the campfire, grunting with the weight and consciously focusing on core support while he lifted. Inside were all the essentials: kindling, newspaper, matches, and some larger pieces of juniper wood. The fuel came from a tree that fell in Steve’s yard the previous winter. He’d taken great pains to carefully cut and cure it.

Mike took the newspaper and started pulling pieces and balling them up in the center of the fire ring. Once he had a pile of decent size, he took some of the kindling and made a teepee over top of the newspaper. The kindling held the paper safe and secure from the rising wind, ensuring the fire would take.

He returned to the woodbin and pulled out the matches. They were in a large box that boasted “strike anywhere” on the cover, so Mike tried lighting one on the rocks surrounding the fire pit. It lit right away and he held it carefully to the paper inside the kindling teepee. The paper lit, and within seconds was burning robustly, lighting the kindling cage surrounding it. Mike sat back and sighed as he watched the product of his labor.

He didn’t notice Steve standing directly behind him.

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Ben made it to the far edge of the lake almost across from their campsite. He looked over the water and saw Mike’s blue tarp contraption and smiled. He of many resources, most of which usually got him BMW’s and pretty blondes, now up to his antics in a new environment. Mike’s latest trophy girl would be shocked at his hidden skills.

Ben looked at the water in front of him, and frowned because the surface was still. The fish he’d watch hit the surface in camp had either decided to call it a night, or they just weren’t interested in the tiny bugs humming through the air anymore. He looked at the Parachute Adams he’d already tied on his rod, wondering if it would be sufficient to tempt any of these picky eaters.

Suddenly he heard a splash at the far west end of the lake. Ben looked up quickly—just in time to see the tsunami-like rings left by a very strong fish. He shrugged and walked towards the rings on the ever-narrowing trail.

As he progressed towards the west end of the lake the bushes became steadily tighter and tighter to the trail, scratching at his arms and hitting him in the face if he didn’t time his movements just right. The trail seemed to continue in a straight line paralleling the shore of the lake, but with all the bushes and plant matter in the way it was almost totally obscured.

Ben tightened his grip on his rod and held a wave of willow branches out of the way. It was like opening a curtain made of wood, and he was surprised with the effort he needed to push the branches aside. As he passed the branches they snapped shut behind him with a whoosh of air. Their whip-like limbs couldn’t stay stretched for long.

He kept his eyes on the faint depression that was all that remained of the original trail. At some point it looked like a Forest Service crew had done some very nice digging and tree clearing, but for some reason they decided to discontinue upkeep on the west side of the lake. Ben quietly wondered if this side was where the wilderness area began, and perhaps that’s why the lake was so overgrown on only one end.

He continued pushing his way through the bushes, occasionally slipping in the squishy mud that hid deceptively below the lush carpet of grass. Ben decided that the ground reminded him of a strange type of quicksand—he couldn’t tell what ground would hold his weight, and what ground would drop him ankle-deep in brackish, squishy water.

Just as Ben was contemplating the strange surface, his foot slid ankle deep in a sticky pool of mud that was covered by seemingly innocent wild strawberry leaves. He cursed and dropped his rod, for the moment completely absorbed in trying to delicately pry his boot from the mud without getting any inside. With each pull he seemed to sink deeper and deeper in to the gooey wet surface until he yanked so severely that his boot came off. Ben fell into the willow bushes, cursing. The surprise at losing his boot took him completely off guard.

Ben sat in the willow bush for a minute, thinking about whether he should just turn back. Right as the thought crossed his mind he heard another loud splash from the west end of the lake. Shit-I’m already almost the whole way around, he thought to himself, might as well just finish it.

He got to his feet and began prying his boot from the mud’s clutches. Ben felt ashamed that he was quietly happy to be away from the whole scene with Steve. Sick people always scared him, and he felt this strange aversion to seeing what was going on with his buddy. Out of sight, out of mind, he thought.

Ben pulled his boot free from the mud with a squishy sucking noise, and promptly lost his balance and fell in the willow bush again. He stood up, boot still in hand, and proceeded to dump out the brackish water that had trickled into the top. He shook the boot a few times to make sure there weren’t any more drops of moisture inside. Satisfied, Ben slid his foot back in the boot and began working the soggy laces back in the eyelets. Once his boot was firmly tied back on, he inspected his rod for damage. There was barely a scratch, so Ben nodded in satisfaction and continued towards the west end of the lake.

After about fifteen more minutes of struggling on the trail, Ben finally came to a spot close to the area where he’d seen the large fish jump. He found a small grassy patch next to the water with very few bushes behind it and made his way to that location. He quietly cursed himself for not bringing or buying any waders. He’d forgotten the challenge of fishing from shore with such a short space to cast in, and eyed the bushes warily behind him.

He slackened his line and removed the end holding the fly from his rod eyelet. He pinched the fly between his thumb and forefinger and applied floatant from a small bottle that was hooked to his vest on a retractable lanyard. The floatant was slick in his fingers, but he rubbed a tiny bead on his fly, fluffed the fly back in to shape, and then took a small amount and spread it on his tip line with pinched fingers. Once that was completed he began stripping slack from the reel until he had enough line to reach the area where he hoped the fish still waited.

Ben reached in to his traditional back cast and cursed immediately as the fly got caught in the willow bushes directly behind him. He berated himself for forgetting how close the bushes were, and began tugging on the line to see if he could gently dislodge the fly from the willow’s clutches. On the third pull the fly popped free, and he grabbed it off the grass to inspect the damage. It was still in fairly good shape, so he re-set his line, refreshed the floatant, and returned to his fishing spot.

On the second try Ben carefully cast with a short line so as not hook the plants behind him. As he released his final cast and sent the line and fly towards the fish, he gently relaxed his left hand and the line shot out from his rod like it was a fastball from Jake Arrieta. The line floated gracefully in the air and the fly landed on the water in perfect alignment with the line. Ben hoped all the fish could see from below was the fly. He sighed and breathed deeply, this all seemed so far away from the trouble at camp.

He loved the challenge of lake fishing because presentation was so much more important. You had to fool the picky fish that called these waters home. Most of the creatures had seen so many fishermen they knew better than to take bait, but Ben’s hope was eternal. He repeated the thought, “C’mon, c’mon,” in his head as he waited. Nothing bit around his fly, even though many smaller rings popped up here and there from fish taking smaller bugs. They started to spread across the water to his right.

Ben shook his head, thinking that his adventure for the night was a bust. As he lowered his rod and turned to step away from the bank something violently took his fly and pulled it underwater. He turned back towards the lake, heart racing, his reel whining with the speed of the retreating line. Ben was caught in such a shock that his fingers forgot how to work for a moment, and the line kept coursing through.

The shock suddenly broke, and Ben caught the line for an instant and gave a strong pull upward on his rod. He could feel the hook set in the fish’s mouth. The weight of something large was on the other end, and it was fighting violently. He released the line to let the fish run, but began giving the creature occasional “checks” with the line to herd the fish back towards his location.

The fish slowly pulled the line towards the area where the smaller fish were feeding, and all traces of the smaller creatures suddenly disappeared. It was as if they knew a predator was in the area, and they wanted no part of it.

Ben reeled his line in carefully conscious of the fish’s weight and movement on the other end. He didn’t want to have his line snap at an inopportune time, and this fish felt definitely capable of causing damage to his line or even the rod. The fish cooperated and was tantalizingly close to shore when it jogged hard to the left and ran away from him again. Ben let the fish take the line and started tugging to tire the creature out.

This battle ensued for at least an hour by Ben’s count, as he couldn’t quite see his phone. He could see the fading sunlight approaching the horizon behind him though, so he knew it had to be getting late. Finally, the fish’s movements slowed. On his next try to reel the fish back Ben was able to guide the creature to where he stood on shore.

As it approached the bank Ben could see he’d hooked a beautiful Rainbow Trout. It was nearly 20” long, and thick in body with brilliant silver scales cut by a beautiful band of red. The Midwest man in him thought immediately of the trophy it would make, and he decided to take the fish back to camp. This way neither Steve nor Mike could doubt his fishing prowess.

He began to whistle as he slit the fish’s belly and cleaned the guts.

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

“Rashor,” said the voice.

Mike jumped, because it sounded like no voice he’d ever heard before-the first tones sent chills up his back, and he nearly lost control of his bowels. It was low, rumbly and guttural. The voice’s owner sounded like he was talking through a mouth full of marbles.

Mike turned towards the sound and was shocked to see Steve standing behind him. His eyes looked funny.

“Was that you, ‘bro?” he asked incredulously.

“Maharag, bushon rashor.” answered Steve as his head lolled slightly to the left. A thin film of saliva leaked from the left corner of his mouth.

Mike froze in horror as he realized there was something seriously wrong with his friend. Steve was moving slowly with his left leg dragging slightly behind him. Mike thought immediately of his Aunt Selma after her stroke and panicked.

“Dude, you okay?” Mike asked again. Steve just looked at him through cloudy eyes, “Did you have a stroke?” Mike added as he cursed himself in his head for letting Steve sleep after his fainting incident. What if he’d had a stroke in his sleep, and it was all Mike’s fault?

“Rashor,” answered Steve in the funny voice again.

“Uh, Steve?” pleaded Mike, “Don’t fuck with me here…you okay?”

“Bushon rashor…” growled Steve, as he swallowed the saliva string and began advancing on Mike.

“Seriously, Steve, you don’t look right,” said Mike as his face paled. He could feel all the blood rushing out of his legs and was left with a terrifying numbness. It reminded him of the dreams where you wanted to run but couldn’t.

“Rashor,” said Steve again, firmly this time. Suddenly his eyes met Mike’s, and Mike was filled with terror. The eyes were not Steve’s, and they burned with an ancient hatred. The blue irises seemed to be ringed with red.

Mike turned suddenly and tried to run but he tripped on his own feet and fell to the ground with a “whoof.” He squeaked involuntarily as he hit the hard forest floor and let out a tiny squirt of urine.

Steve pounced and landed on Mike with the force of a cougar and began beating him with flailing arms. He hit Mike all over the head and upper torso, and Mike was so shocked all he could do was cover his head with his arms. He tried to roll away from Steve’s grip, but the monster in his friend sat on top of him. Its legs pinned him tight on either side of his body. In a fit of desperation Mike lashed out at the Steve-thing’s groin and hit his testicles squarely with the side of his fist.

The Steve-creature let out a piercing howl and held its groin as it rolled off Mike’s writhing body. Mike lay panting on the ground, in too much shock to move, but he kept an eye on the Steve thing as it writhed in agony. It looked over at him for a split second, and he could see the deep hatred in its eyes.

“Steve, Steve what the fuck?” cried Mike plaintively holding up his hands in the international symbol for ‘I Give Up.’ He was desperate for an answer, and prayed to hear his friend’s cheerful voice.

“Ragawa mashog ventisi!!!” snarled Steve in the deep foreign voice, as he spewed saliva on every word.

Mike’s eyes cleared, and in one second they betrayed both sadness and a steely resolve. He crawled to his feet and stumbled hunched over to his hammock area where he’d hid a small revolver in his pack.

As soon as Mike turned, the Steve-thing sprung to its feet and charged. It pounced on him like a cat before he was even a yard away from his pack and threw him to the ground. The two men wrestled like they were on a schoolyard playground, each hitting each other with hurried fists and open hands. It was the epitome of what some men would call a “bitch fight.”

After a couple seconds of open-handed hitting, Mike closed his fist and laid a strong punch square on his friend’s jaw. He could feel the crunch as he broke teeth, and Mike winced. For all his bravado, it killed Mike to cause his friend such harm. Despite the broken molars, the Steve thing looked at him with angry eyes and spat “Mushu awana,” as blood and saliva dripped from its mouth.

Mike tried to roll out from under the Steve-creature but it pinned him on both sides with Steve’s legs. The blow to the jaw hadn’t fazed the creature in the least. Mike made a desperate squealing noise as he tried to wrestle his way out, but he was stuck between two columns that seemed like they were made of concrete. He began hitting the thighs with his legs, but the creature made no response. When Mike made another move for the groin region, the creature pinned both of his arms to the ground with almost super-human strength.

“Steve, it’s me!” pleaded Mike with eyes that were no longer cocky, but terrified for his life.

“Rashor,” answered the thing with dead eyes.

“Seriously man,” begged Mike, “this is not funny! Knock it off!”

“Rashor,” answered the thing again.

“Steve?” asked Mike as a tear trickled from his eye and he caught his breath, “Steve?”

The creature maintained his vise-like grip on Mike’s arms, and bit off Mike’s ear in one movement. Mike screamed like an animal caught in a trap, and he watched in horror as the Steve-thing chewed on his ear like a piece of steak. The screams were piercing, and they echoed around the lake.

The jolt of adrenaline from having his ear bitten off gave Mike an extra boost of strength and he was able to kick his knee up high enough to catch the Steve-thing off balance. Mike hit Steve squarely in the groin. The creature howled again through its mouthful of ear and it released the leg grip just enough so Mike could wriggle free.

Mike pulled himself out from under the creature’s legs and crawled towards the Landcruiser. He couldn’t remember if the keys were in the ignition, but if he could at least get inside and lock the doors, then perhaps he would be safe. He didn’t know if his cell phone was in range, but perhaps he could get a call to 911.

As Mike was stumbling towards the Landcruiser and holding his ear with his right hand, the creature regrouped as if it hadn’t been hurt at all and ran with frightening speed towards Mike. It leapt on him from behind again, and pinned both of his arms to his sides as he fell. Mike had time to think shit as he was falling.

He fell on his face, and his nose broke on contact. Mike instantly saw a cloud of stars in front of his eyes that blocked everything else. The creature turned him over and pinned him again.

“No, please,” he asked softly as the creature had him at its will.

“Rashor bashan,” it answered with a cold eye.

“Steve?” asked Mike softly, with a childishly hopeful look in his eyes.

The creature just stared back at him, and Mike suddenly realized the true danger he was in. He screamed and began thrashing like a small animal caught in a trap. He flailed his arms and legs and tried to roll in any direction possible. He bucked his body and kicked his legs up in to the creature’s back and kidneys. The Steve-thing just sat immovable on top of him, holding his wrists with its cold, hard hands.

Mike continued to fight underneath the Steve-thing. He fought for what seemed like hours, but was actually only minutes. He managed to get one hand free and made a lunge for the creature’s groin again, but the thing caught his hand and bit a finger off with a loud snap. Mike screamed in pain and the creature spat Mike’s finger off in the bushes.

It turned its eyes back to Mike, and they both locked for a second. Mike could see nothing but a dead hate in Steve’s eyes, and he realized his friend was no longer in his body. Mike screamed again and started his thrashing anew.

The Steve creature raised both its hands, placed them on either side of Mike’s head, and slammed Mike’s skull back down against a black lava rock protruding from the earth.

Mike’s legs shook violently from his death seizures.

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Ben was careful not to scrape his prized catch against the bushes on his return route. Instead of looping all the way back around the lake he chose to go further around the west end, the shortcut back to camp. He walked steadily, balancing the fish with the fingers of his right hand firmly hooked into the gills. His bicep started trembling after a little bit.

As he made his way around the lake, Ben realized his path would take him back where Steve had his seizure. He instinctively tensed when he neared the spot. To his surprise, this time Ben passed through like a breath of air and felt none of the dread from the first visit. The mosquitoes were now also strangely absent.

He exhaled slightly and his shoulders dropped when he left the area. Ben chided himself for leaving to fish when he should have been at his friend’s side, but he figured Steve was sleeping soundly and Mike was probably on his third or fourth beer by now.

He rounded the lakeshore’s last bend and saw smoke rising from Mike’s fire. It was then that he heard the screaming. He continued further and could make out two shapes obscured on the other side of the flames. Ben approached the fire, and as he drew near his heart started beating faster. It appeared Steve was on the ground and Mike was over him…Ben cursed himself in his mind—his nightmare had come true. Steve took a turn for the worst, and he should have been there.

Ben turned slightly to his right to avoid the side of the fire and caught his first full glimpse of the two figures.

It wasn’t Steve lying on the ground, it was Mike. His skin was deathly pale and didn’t look right, and his eyes were closed. His body was jerking slightly, and then it held still.

Steve’s hunched back faced Ben and it looked like he was doing something to Mike’s chest. Ben instantly thought he was performing CPR and began walking quicker towards the two.

“Steve? Is Mike okay?” croaked Ben, not able to contain the fear in his voice.

Steve turned around. His mouth was slimed with maroon stains, like a one-year old eating their first piece of cake. Glaring out of the gore were the eyes: piercingly blue amongst the dark dried blood, and glaring with a deep animalistic hatred.

Steve took a bite of Mike’s heart while never losing eye contact with Ben.

It made an audible crunch.

Ben’s bladder let go as he dropped his fish to the ground.

 

 

Varturshan looked at the intruder. All it felt was deep contempt. How dare its meal be disturbed? It narrowed Steve’s eyes as it watched the foreign man drop his fish on the ground and soil himself. Pitiful.

“Rashan, mog doishan!” it snarled through the bite of heart, and swallowed. The creature set the heart back in the slit it’d cut in Mike’s chest cavity with the tiny red knife it had found in the host’s pocket. The knife had many small protruding cutting devices that Varturshan did not fully understand, but they were sharp.

The creature and the man’s eyes remained locked with each other. Varturshan could sense the fear coming from the intruder. It stunk like vomit, and Varturshan had the incredible urge to stamp the smell out like it had done with the other man. That scent made the monster ill.

Ben blinked once and broke from his trance. He turned and started sprinting blindly up the road.

Varturshan hesitated for a split second while the creature debated whether to pursue the intruder to stamp out the smell, or to continue eating its tasty lunch. The almost primal urge to punish the intruder won over and the creature left Mike’s dissected carcass at a pace nearing a full run.

Ben ran like he hadn’t since high school. His arms pumped, legs churning the ground while he felt numb all over. He had the distinct sensation of movement, but the world around him seemed to be moving slowly, like he was caught in molasses or syrup. He stumbled on a tree root and fell sprawling to the ground. The impact momentarily knocked the wind out of him and Ben lay gasping. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the creature nearing, and he desperately tried to scramble to his feet. He felt like wetting himself again, but had no urine left.

Varturshan cheered gleefully in its head as the intruder fell, and it sensed the chance to catch its prey. It lowered Steve’s head and began running faster, as fast as the body of the commandeered man could carry it. Its upper lip curled as it drew upon Ben’s prone position.

Ben continued to gasp as the Steve-thing neared. He instinctively knew that whatever this was, it was not the man who had mourned the death of a chipmunk only a day before. He clawed at the earth, willing his lungs to open and power his fading body. Ben looked up with dread and saw Steve’s new glowering eyes approaching.

Varturshan raised the tiny red knife as it sprinted towards the intruder. It would be a quick kill, perhaps a quick impact to the eye would do the trick. It thought hungrily of fresh blood and Steve’s stomach gurgled.

The creature overtook Ben’s prone body and leapt to pounce on its prey. That was when Ben rolled quickly on his back and blindly kicked out with his right leg. The kick landed squarely in Varturshan’s groin, and the creature screeched in pain as the host’s body flew backward from the force of Ben’s kick.

Ben seized the opportunity and turned hard to his right, sprinting towards the lake. He made it to the shore and dove in, his heart nearly stopping from the shock of the cold water. He grit his teeth and started swimming with the clean freestyle stroke he’d used since high school swim team.

Steadily, Ben focused on the shore ahead of him.

 

 

Varturshan held Steve’s groin as the spiking pain wracked the host body. It had not felt agony like this in a long time, and it was a shock to both the invading spirit and the host body. The host’s eyes sprang tears despite the creature’s rage. It watched Ben swimming across the lake with a murderous hatred.

The monster checked all the other body parts and found that the only injured part was the still-tender groin area. It rolled the host to its feet and looked back towards the meal it had left behind. Varturshan felt the sickening pangs of hunger rumble back through the host’s belly. It was almost as bad as the fear smell on the man who ran away.

Varturshan returned to the half-eaten heart and brushed off the dirt that crusted the still-sticky bloody sides. Upon second inspection, the dirt crust on the heart looked a bit crunchy, so Varturshan took it to the side of the lake and lightly rinsed it in the water. After the heart was sufficiently clean, the creature renewed taking large bites while holding the heart like an apple, chewing thoughtfully as the monster savored the flavor. It tasted like life.

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

Ben pulled himself out of the water and felt strangely warm for a minute. The evening air around felt so much warmer than the lake he’d just left. Les Stroud’s voice echoed through his head telling him to make a fire and warm up, but with a dangerous former friend on his heels Ben decided to dry himself with running. He looked east, then west, and headed towards the east hoping to find some trace of the campgrounds or lodge he remembered.

His body ached, his head hurt, and his vision was blurring from fatigue, but Ben continued running away from the setting sun. He remembered the trail on this side of the lake that ran up the long North side of the body of water. Ben took that trail, but when the trail tried to curve South around the East end of the lake he ran straight forward, crashing through the wall of small trees and funny bushes that clawed at his clothing. Ben’s body flailed like a fourth grader at his first track meet, but his clothes were starting to show the first dry patches.

Ben suddenly saw Steve’s face and stopped in his tracks. He dropped to the ground, body heaving, and sat directly where he stood, wrapping his arms around his knees. The first sobs out of his mouth broke the air with a honk and Ben clapped his hands over his mouth in terror. The thing could still be out there, and if it was, then it could hear him cry.

He proceeded to cry silently, all the while rocking back and forth and holding his knees. The tears flowed for what seemed like an eternity, growing stronger and stronger every minute, until Ben was crying like a hysterical widow facing the corpse of her beloved. He looked like a mime in pain. The tears were so strong they seemed uncontrollable and his sides shook with the effort.

Slowly Ben’s eyes cleared and he started tapping the side of his left hand with the fingers of his right. It was a technique the counselor had taught him to deal with his panic attacks after Susan left him.

“Even though my best friend just tried to eat me, I choose to love and accept myself anyway,” he whispered into the forest air. He repeated this mantra quietly over and over while tapping the side of his hand until the tears cleared. His eyes betrayed his absolute exhaustion, but Ben stood and started walking at a more manageable pace. He hoped he was either heading in the direction of the resort or the road.

Anywhere was better than in camp with the demon that bodysnatched Steve.

 

 

Varturshan lay curled in the dirt at the foot of Mike’s hammock. It opened Steve’s eyes slowly, blinking back crumbs of the sandy soil that stuck to its eyelashes. This host was a good one, he seemed quite healthy and strong. Even stronger thanks to the delicious meal Varturshan had just enjoyed.

The creature rolled to its left side, rose to its knees, and stood cautiously like a new fawn. The head rush Varturshan got when it took to its feet momentarily panicked the creature. It didn’t like the dizzy feeling-too close to the precursors of death. Varturshan couldn’t remember the last time it’d taken a human host. It tried to remember back to what this was like.

The creature in Steve looked around using Steve’s eyes. It saw the world with new color and light and was happy. There was much to do and see, but it wanted to tie up loose ends. The one who smelled like fear would have to go.

Varturshan tested Steve’s voice. It coughed, licked Steve’s lips, then offered up a stream of garbled words that made no sense to any outsider. It would take longer for this union to settle and Varturshan hoped it could somehow begin to access Steve’s vocabulary. For now, silence would have to do.

The creature in Steve looked up at the sky, then down at the ground, and then from left to right. It took one hesitant step forward, then another, and another, until it was striding around camp like a hardened general. Varturshan knew it needed to find the escapee, but it was having a hard time grappling with the host’s sense of smell. Varturshan remembered with disgust that humans couldn’t smell nearly as well as other hosts, but it would have to deal with this frailty. The creature inhaled slightly, hoping to sense any tendril of Ben’s fear that might be blowing on the breeze.

With no luck, Varturshan thought deductively. That was one thing these human brains could do, so it rifled through Steve’s memories hoping for a glimpse of anything useful. Steve’s thoughts came through in disjointed bursts, like trying to rewind a stubborn film. Varturshan could see the car ride, the lunch at the lodge, and a dwelling that the spirit presumed belonged to the host.

Varturshan delved further into Steve’s brain. It could see he had good knowledge of the area, and upon further examination, it could also see he knew the lodge, road, and more about where the road went. It saw the lodge at the lake through Steve’s memory.

That. That was where the prey would go.

Heading east.

Varturshan turned east and began walking.

 

 

Ben’s feet ached and the joint at the base of his big toe was burning, but he continued forward, cringing each time a spider web brushed his skin. His brain kept conjuring images of joyous rescue at the hands of the resort restaurant’s waitress. She would drive up in some sort of official vehicle, perhaps in a red Baywatch swimsuit even, and then they would embrace and make love.

The thought of a woman made Ben’s heart race and his palms sweat. If he weren’t already thoroughly soaked from his swim and the subsequent running, Ben even thought he might pit out. The last time he’d tried to talk to a cute girl at the grocery store he’d stumbled over his words and practically ran away. He felt like he was broken. It seemed like eons since he’d been with Susan.

He smiled for a second thinking about her. She’d had a funny obsession with goats. Any time she’d find something with a goat on it, she’d buy it. For a while they had an entire goat-themed apartment. That was until Ben asked if it was too much and she’d huffily packed all the goat things away. The incident happened only a month before she’d left him. He shuddered and tried to think about something else. The image of Steve’s eyes burning out of a face covered in blood suddenly flashed in his mind.

The memory broke him. Ben couldn’t believe what was happening, it seemed like he was stuck in a nightmare. He wasn’t supposed to be here; he was supposed to be with his wife! If she were here, he wouldn’t have agreed to come on this trip. If she were here, he wouldn’t have had to see his best friend eat his buddy.

Ben started crying as he rolled on his side in the fetal position. Nothing could console him, but he managed to remain soundless despite his despair.

“Dammit, Ben, get your act together!” shouted a voice from behind him.

Ben practically leapt to his feet. His head swung around wildly as he scanned every angle all around him. He saw nothing, which terrified him even more.

“Hello?” he whispered into the dusk.

Nothing answered.

“Hello?” he asked again, with a bit more diaphragm.

Still no answer.

Ben shivered and looked up at the sky. It was getting darker and the cool night air made his body stay tense and tight to conserve warmth. Now he really needed to start a fire, but Ben’s thoughts immediately turned to the creature. The tiny bit of his heart looking forward to the fire’s warmth was suddenly doused and filled with the image of Steve’s eyes again. They seemed like something out of a medieval painting of the devil. He felt them boring into his soul.

No. No fire tonight. Ben decided that the risk of being eaten by his friend was too great. It outweighed the potential warmth of a fire. In his mind, Ben heard the voices of all the different survivalists who permeated reality TV these days, but Les’ voice came back strongest, urging him to “shelter.”

Ben looked around among the thickets of tightly packed Lodgepole Pine, the Manzanita bushes, and the outcroppings of lava rock studding the forest floor. Not far away was a fallen Ponderosa Pine that looked straight out of a logging photo from the early 1900’s. Ben stumbled around in the brush trying to see his way in the dusky light, hoping to get over to the tree’s side.

As he neared the tree Ben saw a curved spot seemingly notched out of the trunk on the leeward side. It looked like it would fit a human body nicely. Ben burrowed a bit more around the edges of the depression, then he uprooted a nearby Manzanita bush for cover. With a tree to spoon and a bush as a blanket, Ben dropped in to a surprisingly sound sleep.

 

 

Varturshan noted the setting sun as it walked confidently down the road the host remembered. All was running smoothly until it felt the host’s need to go scat. Before it could exert any control over the host body, the bowels gave loose.

It was a moment of sheer terror for Varturshan. Many years had passed since the spirit had taken a host, and the last one had been a bear. The bear never had problems like this. It was a faithful host, and all its functions went to plan. The soiled clothing this human wore was such a hassle, but without it, Varturshan knew the body would freeze. It had learned that on the last human.

The creature could feel the stool running down the host’s legs, so it removed Steve’s pants and surveyed the damage. Foul. Varturshan wrinkled Steve’s nose and looked for anything to wash the body with. There was no water nearby, so Varturshan rubbed the soiled pants in the dirt. It was an effective dry bath—the creature was able to scrub most of the loose excrement off.

Once that was complete, Varturshan ripped big handfuls of leaves off the nearest Manzanita bush and scrubbed at Steve’s genitals. The creature continued until the host’s privates were reasonably clean. Spirits didn’t care what their host smelled like, but the feeling of dripping anything drove Varturshan crazy.

In the middle of this cleaning process, Varturshan felt Steve’s stomach rumble, then a distinct heaviness in the colon. With a panicked look in Steve’s eyes, Varturshan dropped and defecated again, thankfully before it had put the host’s pants back on. The creature winced at the diarrhea’s painful burn, all the while wondering why the host’s body was failing so suddenly. It did not occur to Varturshan that most campers filtered lake water before they drank it.

After the second round of diarrhea, the monster lay down in the dirt, exhausted. It felt like the host’s innards were finally empty, and Varturshan was suddenly weak. The creature cursed washing its meal in the lake, and felt the host body slipping to sleep. Not even a demon could fight the demands of its host, so Varturshan closed Steve’s eyes and slept in the blanket of its host’s body.

It’s unknown if demons dream, but Steve’s body lay motionless during this period like he was already embalmed. With a jerk the host awoke, but Steve’s eyes still glared with Varturshan’s murderous coldness. The creature looked around, noted its lower half was still naked, then crawled through the dirt over to where it had discarded the pants prior to the nap. The pants were now somewhat dry, but they smelled heavily of the diarrhea that was ground in to the fibers and now mixed with dirt. Varturshan didn’t care-the bear had smelled worse, even on a good day.

The monster rose to its feet and pulled Steve’s pants on, one leg carefully at a time. When it came to buttoning the pants, Varturshan cursed demon thoughts as it fumbled at the buttons with Steve’s knuckles. The pants came off so easily, thought the creature, why were they so hard to put back on? The creature finally managed to hook one of the buttons, and considered that a success. The pants hung askew on Steve’s hips, thanks to the crookedly buttoned fly.

Once the clothing issue was sufficiently fixed, Varturshan noted the sky was almost dark. Again cursing demon thoughts at the host body, Varturshan looked for shelter. It knew humans needed shelter or they tended to die suddenly in the night-a subject that continually vexed the spirit.

After pacing around the nearby area, Varturshan found a hovel under a large lava rock outcropping. Remembering the bear’s knowledge, the creature crawled in to the hole, curled up in a ball, and slept fitfully.

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

Ben woke to the same damned chirping like the morning before. The light rising in the east gave the woods around him an ethereal mystique. Little particles of dust floated in the air like mist, creating sharp beams of light through the tree branches. Ben could almost imagine little fairies flitting about.

He rubbed his eyes and his hands came back crusted with yellow eye boogers. Ben blinked them drowsily until he remembered what brought him to this uncomfortable resting spot. His mouth crunched in a frown and he thought again about the prior day. He stared at the forest floor as his frown deepened.

The thing after him was definitely not Steve, but Ben wondered if Steve was still in there at all. The burning eyes seemed to belong to something else. Ben mourned the loss of the guy who always drove him home after heavy drinking sessions in college and tucked him into bed with a glass of water and a banana on the nightstand. Whatever was in there, it was not that guy.

Ben suddenly thought of water and his dry mouth seemed to cry. Ben rose to his feet and spun 360 degrees, surveying his surroundings, hoping to see some kind of liquid. Nothing…Ben frowned. He saw the light rising and gauged that had to be east. Ben moved in that direction, hoping to find a road before lunchtime.

Watching his footing on the loose pine needles, Ben started his walk towards the sun. He looked right and left and also occasionally behind himself scanning for Steve, or possibly some nice camper to rescue him.

This was a long way from his condo on Shore Drive in Chicago. Since he’d moved there the closest he regularly got to nature was hours watching Survivorman at night and living vicariously through the host’s adventures. He’d always liked watching that show when Susan was sleeping.

Ben walked, being careful to watch his feet and kept his hands out for balance on the uneven ground. On multiple occasions his hiking boot scuffed the forest floor instead of a clear step, tripping Ben. Each time he’d land on his hands and knees in a stunned heap. Once he even fell and a pair of pine needles imbedded in the soft flesh of his hand. He yelped and clapped his hands over his mouth as if to catch the noise from leaving. The Steve creature might hear him.

Ben could hardly walk thanks to the never-ending Lodgepole Pine thickets. He tried keeping a straight line east, but each time he’d come to the trees he’d have to either make a path around or dig right through the patches. Scratches covered his arms from batting the branches.

He kept moving and tracked his progress against the sun. By his calculations there should be some kind of trail before the sun hit its peak, and that thought kept Ben positive. He remembered a good amount of the drive in, so he assumed the road would crop up at some point soon.

Ben’s stomach rolled, cramped, and growled, letting him know it was not particularly pleased at missing its blueberry-pancake breakfast. He was supposed to make it for Mike and Steve this morning, and Ben had prepared an elaborate feast of blueberry pancakes, eggs and bacon. He wondered what happened to his meticulously packed cooler. Perhaps a bear got it in the night.

He reached in the front pocket of his fishing vest, pulled out one of his Snickers bars and took a satisfying bite. Ben thought the better of a second one – something in him told him to wait. He carefully wrapped the candy bar back in its wrapper and snugged it next to the other one in his vest pocket.

Each footfall Ben made was careful, like a deer. He licked his lips and watched his feet. The skin on his lips was getting flaky and peeled. He didn’t seem to notice the cuts on his knuckles or arms either. He silently laughed at what the boys at the office would think of him. They probably would be secretly proud that the “pretty boy” finally got dirt under his nails.

Ben glanced quickly where his watch should be, all the while wishing he’d remembered to remove his cell phone before swimming across the lake. It sat in his pocket like a wet, dead brick. He didn’t know if his boss would believe the reason for needing a new work phone. They wouldn’t believe any of this. He wouldn’t believe it if he was in their shoes either.

As Ben ruminated on how to properly ask his employer for a new cell phone, and whether or not he’d lose out on a promotion because of it, he spied a clearing about 100 yards to his right. He refocused his eyes to make sure they weren’t playing tricks on him, and realized it was the road they’d driven in on.

His heart felt like it was going to leap out of his chest. Ben felt his blood rush to his head, and he curbed the urge to collapse from the dizzy feel. He checked over his shoulders again and made his way to the edge of the cleared area. Small trees clamored on either side of the road to get more of the precious sunlight. Ben spread the canopy and stepped through to the brightness on the road.

He looked both ways for any sight of the Steve-creature, and once Ben was sufficiently satisfied he walked east again. This time the going was much more pleasant, and Ben relished the fact he wouldn’t have to fight any more Lodgepole pines.

As he moved down the road Ben’s pace quickened. He started to imagine a delicious meal of a hamburger and salad served by that perky girl at the restaurant. He would most certainly get it, and hopefully before 3 pm.

Ben’s stomach growled like it agreed.

 

 

Varturshan was in a funk. How a spirit like it could get in a funk was beyond the creature’s comprehension, but it had not smelled its prey in what seemed like days. It didn’t know what would happen if the smelly man made it to what it knew from host’s mind was called “the resort” in time. Varturshan did not want to go near “the resort”-it was loud, and smelled even worse than the man he was following. It remembered those thoughts from the last time it was bear.

Suddenly Varturshan’s eyes and nostrils flared. It caught the faintest whiff of the man’s putrid scent. It was coming from straight ahead. From the road.

The creature immediately began running in a slow loping jog, making Steve’s body move more like a wolf. It ran down the road in this steady motion, conserving Steve’s precious energy while gaining ground on Ben.

Perhaps, Varturshan thought, I won’t have to go to “the resort” after all…

Varturshan could smell him. The putrid scent of fear was growing nearer and the creature’s stomach growled in anticipation. The loping strides of its run made Steve’s body both quiet and efficient: he moved like a high predator.

Each step drew the monster nearer to Ben. Varturshan moved confidently, head slightly lowered, Steve’s eyes glowering out from beneath his brow. If he were taller and hairy, one might have mistaken him for a Sasquatch. Suddenly the creature rounded a bend and spotted its prey. The excitement was so much that the monster almost let out a howl of joy from Steve’s mouth, but it caught itself just in time before it gave away its position.

Stupid creature, thought Varturshan, if he would simply look behind himself, he would notice the hunter quickly overtaking him. Ben did not, though, and Vartrushan was all the happier. It would be a quick kill, and this time Varturshan would not drop its meal.

 

 

Ben walked peacefully ahead, completely unaware at the danger quickly approaching him. He thought happily about what he would order at the restaurant to break his crazy fast. He purposefully blocked the happenings of the last 24 hours.

The force of Varturshan hitting him from behind threw Ben sprawling in the bushes on the side of the trail. The creature had misjudged its pounce, and hit Ben from a diagonal angle instead of straight on. Ben lay in the bush, stunned, trying to catch his breath and get his bearings at the same time. The sheer rush of adrenaline blocked the pain from the deep Manzanita scratches on his arms.

 

 

Varturshan cursed its foolish judgment, and regrouped on all fours. It looked up from the dirt, spotted Ben in the bushes, redirected, and pounced again all while Ben was still heaving in the Manzanita. He looked up just in time to catch Varturshan in midair again, and he delivered a kick that redirected the creature over his shoulders like the “airplane game” gone all wrong.

Varturshan quivered with a rage so strong it felt like bugs were under its skin.

“Rashon, mog rashon!!!” it screamed from where it had fallen in the pine needle carpet. Varturshan rose to its feet again, and began advancing on Ben from the dark of the woods. Its eyes were bright against the dusky cover.

Ben wet himself as he crab-crawled away from the monster on his back. He was afraid to take his eyes from the Steve-thing; instinctively knowing the creature would pounce if he looked away. He scuttled through the brush towards the road.

Varturshan moved in for the kill. The beast knew it was time, and it could smell the weakness in the man giving in. Soon.

Ben looked in to the eyes of his former best friend and saw nothing of the man who dressed as “The Dude” every Halloween. It was like staring in to the pointed abyss. He knew what the thing wanted.

As Varturshan advanced, it’s feet tangled slightly in the Manzanita bushes. That split second was all Ben needed, and he rolled quickly to his stomach and jumped to his feet. The running felt natural and he sprinted down the road towards the resort. He still looked like a giant fourth grader flailing, but his speed was there.

Varturshan cursed again at the host’s clumsy feet, and stupid two-foot balance. The bear was much better than this, and it was beginning to question the judgment in choosing Steve as a host. The smelly one was running like a lame sow down the road, and Varturshan looked to close that distance. It watched Ben, and then began the loping run after him.

Ben’s lungs burned like he’d swallowed acid, and he prayed his feet would carry him faster. He could hear the creature’s lightly thumping footfalls behind him and a cold nugget in his stomach told him the monster was gaining. He made a rookie move and tried to peek over his left shoulder to gauge the distance. As soon as he did that, his feet clipped each other and he fell sprawling in the dirt again. In a last-ditch attempt, he rolled on his back and prepared for the beast.

Varturshan chose not to leap this time, remembering how the smelly man had thrown the host body. Instead, it lowered Steve’s body to a crouch on all fours, and leapt in a more balanced position. Its body struck true and landed on top of Ben. Ben squeaked from fear and loss of breath.

Ben instinctively tried to hold all four limbs out to keep Varturshan away from his body. The monster snapped and gnashed Steve’s teeth and spat saliva all over Ben’s face. It took every bit of Ben’s willpower to keep his hands on the body of the beast, and not to pull one away to wipe the spit. The creature was reaching for Ben’s throat, and for once Ben was happy he had a slightly bird-like wingspan. His arms held the monster at bay.

Those arms were beginning to quiver with the weight of the thrashing man-thing and Ben’s gut was straining to hold the weight aloft. He willed up any bit of strength left in his limbs and tried to throw Varturshan off to the side of the road. The throw was ugly and weak, and the creature ended up just rolling off to the edge of the dirt.

Ben rose to his feet and faced the creature. Varturshan mimicked Ben’s every move. They circled each other, with Varturshan carefully herding Ben back in the direction of their former camp. Once Ben was facing in the right direction, Varturshan lunged at him-a common herding dog trick. Ben acted as any good sheep would and started running back to where he came from. He was so terrified he’d lost all sense of direction. Ben ran for what seemed like minutes, but thankfully was less than that. Suddenly he veered left in to the trees on the east side of the road.

He desperately ran from the monster.

 

 

Ben thrashed through the thick Lodgepole pine limbs, feeling like some woebegone character in a Grimm’s fairy tale. The more he struggled, the less he seemed to move. The creature sounded like it was right behind him, and his stomach sank to his colon as he realized he was about to die.

Varturshan could smell the submission in its prey-the time neared. Its pace quickened as the creature prepared to pounce.

POP!

Just as it stepped on Steve’s right ankle, something gave way and the foot rolled unnaturally on the lava rock below the needles. Varturshan shrieked as it felt lancing pain from the host’s ankle. That was it! It would never take a human host again! Varturshan rolled to the ground and vomited bile on the pine needles.

Ben heard the screams and wet himself again fearing the final death-pounce. When he felt no impact or gnashing teeth, Ben gathered his waning energy and renewed his desperate run. He hoped he could get enough distance between himself and the Steve-thing.

 

Varturshan keened on the ground, clutching at Steve’s ankle. Something was not right, and the creature couldn’t even touch the joint. To die like this would be a humiliation. It tried to will some kind of response out of Steve’s shocked shell, but the body gave nothing. It hurt too much.

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

Ben’s legs felt like someone had swapped his quads for Jell-O, but he kept pushing his body further. The hunter was still out there and the thought of stopping terrified him. His lungs hitched raggedly. Ben finally dared slowing down after he dry heaved in the bushes. He peeked over his shoulder, this time painfully aware not to trip over his own feet. There was no monster this time; only the growing night.

Ben looked around and considered his options. He was still moving east, and from his shaky memory of Steve’s map, he knew the highway was in that direction. Rescue sounded like soothing balm for his aching body. Ben continued his march as the sunlight grew deeper behind him.

As he walked Ben started watching the trees. He noted the bushes crossing his path, and the overall landscape. The ground was still studded here and there with black rock outcroppings that protruded from the forest floor. In the deepening dusk, they looked like the Boogeyman of his youth. Ben tried to feel brave despite his soiled pants.

Dark was coming, and Ben’s mind started berating him in Les’ voice, telling him to make shelter. Ben had done ok with the log situation last night, but he didn’t see any good candidates in this area of the forest. He looked again at the black humps of rocks. They were beginning to look less frightening and more like his only hope for shelter.

Ben saw a hulking shape to his right that looked large enough to fit his frame, so he stumbled towards it. The sides were dotted with spider webs choked with pine needles from the ever-shedding Lodgepoles. At the base of the rock Ben started digging a hole large enough to curl up in. He shuddered as he saw a spider scuttle away into the needles. Despite the company, Ben cuddled in to the rock face and tried to brush a coating of pine needles over his body. If his friends in the lunchroom could only see him now, they would never call Ben a ‘pussy’ again.

He lay in the deepening darkness watching the forest floor in front of him and could vaguely make out dark shapes he assumed were deer or other woodland animals. In the dusk they all were just menacing blobs, but none seemed to come close to him.

Ben’s hoodie was stiff from the last night’s muddy bed under the log. The green arms were deeply stained and he had a prickly coat of bark and pine needles that stuck out from the cloth at all angles. The yellow University of Oregon “O” logo on the chest was now a murky shade of brown, and he shivered thanks to its ever-thinning interior. It showed no resemblance to the hoodie that Ben obsessively wore to the sports bars on game day in Chicago. After this trip it would need to be retired.

Ben felt in the pocket of his fishing vest for the Snickers bar he ate for breakfast. Les’ voice coached him in his mind to save food, so he nibbled daintily at each bite, rolling the candy around in his mouth until all that was left was the peanut; then he ate the peanut like a bird – nibbling it in to tinier and tinier pieces until the entire bite was finally gone. Ben looked wistfully at the rest of the candy bar and wished he could eat the whole thing and its partner right then and there. He sighed, then carefully re-wrapped the bar and put it back in his pocket.

Once he was done with his modest meal Ben pulled off his fishing vest and very carefully folded it so the candy bars were padded on the interior, then he laid it on the ground and used it as his pillow. His eyes started drooping immediately despite his best efforts to stay awake. Ben knew the predator was out there, but he couldn’t control the simple needs of his own body.

Ben slipped in to sleep without even knowing it.

 

 

Varturshan felt like it was exploding. The pain was so intense, and the host’s ankle was swelling and turning a nasty shade of purple. It cursed the sneaky smelly man and lay panting like a hot dog in the duff on the forest floor.

The creature couldn’t move. All it could do was lie on the ground and hope the pain in the injured leg would subside. Each wave of pain brought on more nausea, and the creature sucked in shallow breaths to cope. Even though it was injured, the creature looked from Steve’s eyes with a deep, focused hate. It would find the smelly man, even if it had to crawl.

Varturshan rolled to Steve’s knees and started crawling on the ground to test and see if the body would hold. It got needles and bits of dirt stuck in Steve’s palms, but the pain from them was nothing compared to the ankle. The creature crawled around like a child playing pony, sufficiently satisfied with its new mode of transportation. Varturshan returned to Ben’s path in a low crawl.

The smelly man was not very bright and he left a trail that seemed like a freeway in the forest, thought Varturshan to itself. Pine needles were scattered every place Ben’s foot hit the ground. The creature crawled along using Steve’s nose on occasion to test for the smell. It was faint, but Varturshan could sense Ben even with the sub-standard nose of a human.

Crawling on all fours in the dark was slow, but the creature had all night to look for its prey. Though the body was begging for sleep, the mind of the monster pushed the host’s shell ever forward. The host’s hands were bloody from the many different tiny splinters and pine needles that continued to poke in the host’s flesh. At points Varturshan would stop and sniff the air quietly, eyes scanning the darkness, seeing, yet not seeing with Steve’s eyes.

Night embraced the forest faster than Varturshan would have liked. In the bear host, it could hunt whenever it wanted and see and smell so well. In this creature it felt almost helpless. How could these things be such efficient killers in such a weak and untrained body? Varturshan let out a hiss of breath, trying to silently mask its anger.

The creature crawled on through the underbrush. Varturshan found one positive from being so close to the ground: it didn’t have to worry about getting caught in the tightly bunched limbs from the pine trees overhead. It could crawl almost unimpeded at this lower level, making good time.

Each moment the creature stopped it sniffed the air hoping for feedback from the smelly man. In the darkness, this was Varturshan’s only way of honing in on its prey. It continued crawling and searching, waiting for the right scent to lead it directly to the smelly man.

 

 

Ben’s eyes flew open and he realized with a panic he’d been sleeping. The hole at the base of the rock was surprisingly cozy and the warmth from the earth had lulled Ben into unconsciousness. He raised his head and looked around in the darkness.

Thanks to the long hours without artificial light Ben’s eyes were now getting accustomed to the deep night in the woods. He could see somewhat clearly and could make out the shapes of the trees in the scant moonlight. Their branches were tight in areas where the Lodgepole Pine was thick, but in the places cleaned by fire the trees created nice “families” of intermixed large and small trees. It only seemed to be in certain areas that the Lodgepoles were so thick they choked all the air around them.

Ben looked up at the sky and stared in wonder at the magnificent band of stars glowing overhead. The Milky Way looked like it must have to the early settlers-no longer obscured by the glow of man-made lights. It shone so brightly that it almost rivaled the moonlight. Speckled around the arm of the galaxy were billions of flickering smaller stars. Ben had never seen so many, and didn’t realize this was what the night sky actually looked like. He stared up at it and wondered whether he would see it again tomorrow night. The thought made his stomach sink and growl slightly. He burped.

Ben’s eyes were fuzzy and he struggled to stay focused. His emotional and physical fatigue drained him much more than he realized; even though he fought his rapidly drooping eyes, sleep beckoned again. Ben lowered his head in the cradle of his arms and slept.

To the outsider, Ben looked like a woodland creature nestled in his hole. Only on second inspection would you realize he was a man. His clothing was filthy and he smelled like sweat and urine. If his friends at the firm saw him, they would avoid him like a smelly bum.

Ben’s sides slowly raised and lowered; he continued sleeping.

Creatures came and went around the dreaming man. Deer passed by the rock in groups of two or three on their way to the lake for water. A group of elk followed in a large pack on the same mission. A tiny rabbit with fur that blended with the forest floor hopped over to Ben, sniffed him, and nestled down in the hole with him. They could smell his fear, but for some reason the animals were drawn to Ben. The humans they knew never slept in this manner.

The parade of forest life went on around Ben. He was both part of it and a noted difference at the same time. Desert mice with fluffy tufts at the tip of their tails ran around the forest floor grabbing seeds and bits from the pinecones to eat. They hurried back and forth never straying far from the safety of their dens. A ghostly hoot in the darkness warned them of the owl lurking above, and they scattered to their holes before the predator arrived.

The owl scanned the floor below him. The mice were difficult tonight, and he noticed some strange creature sleeping next to the rock: a human. Perhaps this was why he could not get a mouse. They were already nervous thanks to this intruder. The owl flew on its way and moved to another area.

Somewhat further away, the owl landed in the high branches of a Ponderosa Pine and surveyed the new scenery. Much to his chagrin, there was another human here, also disturbing the mice. This one did not smell or look like the other, and it moved on all fours like a wood-creature. The owl didn’t like this, and decided to move to an even further hunting ground.

Around 4 am in the morning another visitor came to observe Ben. The creature was shy yet clothed with sharp claws and a fierce demeanor. It looked like the strange love child between a bear and a cat, yet was the size of a medium dog. The hair on its back was thick and pungent and was two different tones: a darker brown that made a spot on his back and lined his underbelly, and a creamier brown that filled the space in between. The wolverine sniffed Ben, debating whether this was prey, carrion, or something else.

The animal walked a perimeter around Ben, sniffing him like a curious dog. It could not make sense of this creature. He smelled like a man, but he also had a lot of earth smell, and a little bit of something the wolverine couldn’t determine. The man was not dead, and did not wake during the inspection. This made the creature a bit more confident, and it continued to evaluate the threat of Ben’s sleeping body.

If the old Ben had been awake, he would have screamed and tried to run from the wolverine. The little he knew about the creatures came from Wikipedia and the X-Men, and they sounded like nasty mean animals to him. The kind that would bite.

Thankfully Ben slept through the curious wolverine, and even slept hard as the creature began marking his bed with its musky spray. It coated both Ben and the ground around him, sniffed him again fitfully, then continued on its way. The wolverine smelled a fresh kill off in the distance to eat.

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

Ben woke and immediately gagged at the smell of wolverine spray. It was all over, on his clothes, on the ground, everywhere. He didn’t have skunks in Chicago, but this odor was what he imagined the little creatures might smell like. Great, he thought, now I have to escape a monster and my own smell.

The morning light was just beginning to rise and once again the little forest birds started their maddening wake up song. Ben’s body screamed for more sleep but the birds and the smell made that impossible. He tried to focus with his blurry eyes. Forgetting how dirty he was, Ben winced when the tiny splinters in his hands scratched his cheek.

He furiously tried to wipe his dirty hands on his hoodie, only to have them come away stinking like wolverine. His uncle said you needed to take a bath in tomato juice when you got sprayed by a skunk, and Ben figured he’d have to do that once he made it back to the lodge. Perhaps he wouldn’t get that lunch with the waitress after all; she’d find him disgusting in this condition.

The forest air was crisp and the stars were still peeking out from the rising light. Ben stayed snuggled in his hole a little longer—he wasn’t ready to go walking in the cold morning air. He knew he would have to move eventually, but a part of his brain didn’t want to deal today.

 

 

Varturshan crawled towards the smell. The night was waning, and it wanted to kill that smelly man now, dammit! The creature didn’t really know how to curse with words, but it found that particular word in Steve’s brain and felt it fit the situation.

The creature continued on, sniffing the air for traces of Ben, looking at the world with hate through Steve’s eyes. It didn’t know where it was going, just on the path of the escaped man, and the drive to have that prey grew by the hour. His heart will taste particularly good, thought Varturshan, especially after how badly this hunt has gone.

At some point through this trek the creature stopped suddenly, sniffing the air in a panic. It could no longer smell the man. Varturshan snarled and began desperately sniffing the air. It turned a full circle, trying to catch a whiff of Ben from any direction. Perhaps another predator took its prey, thought Varturshan, and that made the spirit bitterly angry. It would find the body, find who killed its special meal, and then kill them too.

The monster knew it needed to move faster, so it tried to climb the host’s body to his feet. The pain in the ankle was still strong, and it was still bruised heavily. Varturshan could put no weight on it. The creature cursed and returned the host to his hands and knees.

Since there was no more scent to follow, Varturshan continued straight on its present path. It figured the human prey was so stupid he would continue running in a straight line. On that assumed trajectory he would be easy for Varturshan to find. The creature moved forward with purpose.

The line led the parasite spirit towards a rock outcropping, where Varturshan hoped it could get a better view of the nearby forest. Dawn light was starting to illuminate the area, and the creature could see its surroundings better with the human’s eyes. This gave Varturshan confidence it could find the carcass and figure out who had stolen its prey.

The creature crawled out to the point made when the lava stopped flowing and sniffed the air, scanning in all directions.

 

 

Ben heard a rustling above him. He could hear something on the rock ledge just over his head. A terror gripped his heart. It could be anything up there, but instinctively he knew it was the thing formerly known as Steve. There would be no running, so all Ben could do was hide.

He held perfectly still in his bed-hole, trying to control the speed of his breath. He clapped his right hand over his mouth. His eyes betrayed his utter terror, but Ben tried as best as possible to seem calm. If he wet himself again, the monster would know. Ben was sure of it.

 

 

The creature continued sniffing the air on the rock and could smell only the stink of a wolverine. Perhaps that was the culprit who took the monster’s prey-it was something Varturshan knew they were capable of. It had watched one wolverine even take down a deer. Normally the spirit would be intrigued with the possibilities of a new host, but today Varturshan only looked at the wolverine’s intrusion as a distraction. And a possible theft.

There was no sight of the prey in any direction, and Varturshan knitted Steve’s eyebrows together with a look of madness and frustration. It would have to keep looking. It sniffed the air twice through Steve’s nostrils. Towards the right Varturshan saw some disturbances in the needles that looked like footprints. It turned the host’s body in that direction, heading south.

 

 

Ben felt like his lungs were going to explode and he fought the urge to start panting. He continued controlling his breathing and listened to the rustling and sniffing of the man formerly known as Steve above him. Ben never went to church, but he prayed deeply for the creature to leave.

It seemed like hours went by and all Ben could do was listen to the movement and sniffing above him. Just when he felt like he could hold his breath no longer, he heard the thing begin to move. It was going away. It was heading south.

Ben’s eyes lit up with relief while he clutched his mouth in silence.

 

 

Varturshan crawled away from the wolverine stink. It smelled terrible and the creature couldn’t stand being around it any longer. The monster once considered a wolverine as a host, but the smell was hard to get over. Bears were much better. If a bear wasn’t available, a cougar was nice too. The creature regretted choosing a human as the host’s intestines continued to cramp with diarrhea.

The path the spirit saw looked very much like a path a man might make, but as Varturshan crawled it kept losing the smell trail. Finally, when the creature lowered the host’s head to take a sniff of the trail, it caught the scent of elk.

Suddenly the tracks, trail and scent made sense, and Varturshan snarled in anger. It was on the wrong path, and now could not sense its prey at all. The creature beat the ground with Steve’s fists in anger and flailed like a toddler throwing a temper-tantrum. All this accomplished was setting off another round of loose stool, which Varturshan had to relieve by rolling the host over on his side and wriggling somewhat out of his pants. It cursed the weak host again.

After the gastro-intestinal distress passed, Varturshan took a survey of the area around the host. There were tight trees in thickets all around. The path south would have ended in a steep hike eventually. The creature combed through the host’s brain hunting for clues. Somewhere there was mention of something called “the highway.” Varturshan thought this might be where it would find its prey.

The creature made a direct change in its path and turned left, heading back East again. It felt the chance of catching its prey slipping away, which drove Varturshan crazy. The monster only wanted to have another better meal, and this stupid human seemed to beat it at every turn. How could something so weak and sniveling be able to vanquish Varturshan? It was one of the great lost spirits, respected by the old people, and it demanded domination. Other creatures feared the bear, but this broken human, not so much.

The last time the creature had taken a human there were none of these “roads” or “highways.” There had been only forest, and the human it took had been very different. It was much more capable of getting food and caring for itself, and didn’t get sick when it drank the forest water. Varturshan had liked that host. They had done some great things together. They had feasted. They had created fear in the other humans.

The creature didn’t know why humans had changed so much. Was it just this one, or were they all like this? Were they all feeble in the gut? Were they all frail now so that their bodies broke? The only good thing Varturshan could take from its experience was that this human was much better clothed. The last one had finally succumbed after a night of fall snow, and that had left Varturshan adrift again.

The creature stopped and sniffed with Steve’s body. It could not smell Ben anymore, but it felt it was on the right path. Varturshan continued crawling, licking Steve’s chapped and cracked lips on occasion.

Ahead, the monster spotted a slight rise in the forest floor—a small but manageable hill. The sides were slightly sparse, with a coating of large Ponderosa Pine trees trickling up the flanks. The scrubby Lodgepole pine trees were crowding the base, but up on the hill looked like a nice vantage point. Varturshan climbed slowly, digging Steve’s hands and knees into the slippery pine needles and duff as it steadily worked its way up the face. At the hill’s peak the creature could see a mild distance in all directions. It scanned the horizon looking for Ben.

Varturshan very much looked forward to drinking the smelly man’s blood.

 

 

Ben’s heart screamed with joy as he listened to the shuffling and sniffing above him move and turn south. It was the Steve-thing, Ben knew it, and his body felt like an electric current was running through every muscle. It was like his whole body was suffering from some sort of violent seizure, but to the outside eye each limb remained perfectly calm.

He sat still, breathing softly and feeling the wave of adrenaline ricochet through his body. His head felt dizzy and tears trickled out of the corners of his eyes. Each breath felt tight like someone held a hand on his sternum.

He fumbled with shaky fingers to wipe the tears from his eyes. He had no urine left, so there was no shameful accident this time. Ben looked around his surroundings and noticed the sharpness of the light. The sun was rising in the east, and he knew the road had to be out there somewhere.

The hole in the lee of the rock held Ben’s heat in, and he remained perfectly still. He watched the sun rise higher in the sky and tracked the changing shadows of the trees. After what felt like a long enough time, he crawled out of the hole and into the growing sunlight.

Ben stood up and felt both knees pop. Blood surged through his compressed muscles, and he felt a sudden warmth around his hips. The extra blood flow woke up the aching strings of sinew. Ben’s stomach rumbled, and he looked down at his suddenly flat belly. The long run and hard nights had given him the weight-loss cure of the century. He had the ribald thought of marketing it (“in only two days you can lose ten pounds! All you have to do is be chased by your best-friend-turned-cannibal!” shouted the imaginary ad-barker in his head.)

Ben’s head started swimming and suddenly he couldn’t seem to get his footing. His legs gave out from underneath him. Here, collapsed and prone on the dirt Ben laid in an almost faint. He’d made it this far, but his legs couldn’t take him any further. He was sure some creature would come and find him here exposed and make a painful death of him. Then he would be eaten. Ben shuddered at the thought of his flesh being chewed.

He rolled to his side, feeling the numbness in his legs. He sobbed into the pine needles and stroked the earth. With each breath he felt his pulse soften, his tears lessen, and his heart feel fuller. He lay on the dirt and watched as a small black beetle passed in front of his eyes.

The beetle moved slowly, with determination. Its little steps were careful as it made its way through the never-ending sea of pine needles. It looked like hard work to Ben, but the beetle seemed to know its way around the slippery surface. It climbed like a creature in stop-motion up the pile in front of Ben, down the side, and then motored off in a direction unknown.

Ben lay in the dirt, pine needles sticking to his tear-soaked face. His body quivered from nervousness and Ben fought the urge to throw up. Little by little Ben’s eyes cleared. He looked ahead of himself and focused on the roots of the Ponderosa Pine ten steps ahead of him. They were brown and strong and Ben’s eyes pored over the nuances of the thick bark coating their sides. His breathing relaxed and in his heart Ben began to feel a nugget of confidence glimmering like a coal in the dark.

He stood and felt the connection from his feet to the ground. Suddenly Ben felt a little more emboldened, his legs a little stronger. He brushed the dirt and needles off the sides of his jeans and turned to survey his surroundings again.

There were trees in all directions, some large, some small, and some that looked hooked and bent like Dr. Frankenstein’s faithful helper Igor. Ben checked to the sky, gauging the height of the sun. It was still rising slowly, and he guessed it was about eight am.

Ben walked slowly towards the rising sun.

 

Chapter Twenty

 

The sun was high overhead and Ben trudged through the forest. Every step got him farther away from the creature hunting him and Ben kept hoping any minute he might sight the road.

His stomach growled and Ben pulled out the last bits of his first candy bar. He’d hoped to save it for a late lunch, but his stomach and weak legs screamed for some kind of sustenance. He carefully ate the last third and sadly looked at the empty wrapper, crumpling it up and prudently sticking in one of his vest pockets.

Ben was exhausted and his eyes were disoriented in the midday glare. He carefully placed each foot in front of the other, feeling the topography of the ground beneath his feet through the thick soles of his boots. In his mind Ben imagined he was a prehistoric hunter, moving stealthily. The image guided him, and he had the sensation of his body floating somehow magically over his feet. Ben almost felt independent of his legs, and his head buzzed with energy.

His eyes squinted and he could make out the shapes of the trees around him. Up ahead was a mass of tightly packed young Lodgepole trees. Ben’s shoulders tightened as he got closer to them, already anticipating their scratchy branches. He could see no other way except through them, so he took a quiet deep breath and proceeded forward.

The branches scratched at his fingers as Ben pushed the first few out of his way. They whipped back with a violent SNAP and Ben couldn’t shield his face from their crusty, dry branches fast enough. His face felt the sting like he’d been whipped with a switch, and Ben could feel the warm blood trickling down his forehead. He brushed his hand up there like he was checking for a fever, but he could only feel the stickiness of his own blood. Perhaps it was better not to see the full wound.

Ben wished he could curse or throw something. This situation is shit, he thought to himself, and I can’t do fucking anything. The urge to sit and cry washed over him again and the woodland creatures could probably see Ben’s face quiver. The pain from his forehead seemed unbearable, but Ben pressed doggedly forward. He tried so hard to hold on to his sanity, but the pain seemed to defeat all of his best-laid mental defenses.

The deep trees were tightly bunched – each trunk no more than two feet from the other. At standing level the branches were tightly crammed together like people in a hot “EL” car, and sharp thanks to the brittle water-starved limbs. Down low, however, was a small space about a foot and a half high where no branches reached the ground. Ben dropped to his stomach and crawling on all fours under the branches.

His progress was slow at first, but with each silently placed movement Ben started feeling more comfortable with where he was going. It wasn’t so bad, he thought, he just had to move like an animal. It was an extreme version of the games he played with Steve when they were young – with Ben often playing the chipmunk/otter/cow/etc… and Steve often playing the cat/whale/tiger/etc… in epic recreations of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

Ben imagined he was one of the tiny lizards he used to watch on those shows – the ones that moved methodically with carefully placed feet across the desert sand. He could see his hands and legs as they lifted, held in the air, and then carefully settled on their hold on the forest floor. He focused on the smoothness of each movement, hoping that he wouldn’t make another sound to betray his location.

Ben moved carefully like this for what seemed to him like hours – each hand and knee carefully lifted and set down. The method focused his mind on the movement of his body, and Ben guessed this was what mountain climbers must feel like. Only he was moving sideways instead of upward. Ben suddenly felt the strange thrum of energy again. Suddenly he didn’t feel tired or painful, only the empty focus of moving forward.

After what seemed like a dark forever, Ben emerged from the thicket of trees and looked out on the shadows of a slightly more open group of Lodgepole Pine. His heart sank for a moment, then he started moving ever more methodically forward. Ben kept to the hands-and-knees mode of transportation-he’d secretly grown fond of the buzzy feeling he got when he focused on the movement. With this style of transport he could move silently and low, and Ben somehow knew this would be a way to stay even safer from the gaze of the Steve-monster.

Ben’s hands were sticky from the pine sap coating the forest floor. Long pine needles stuck to his palms like strange brown whiskers, but thankfully none pierced his skin. Ben tried wiping his palms against his jeans in the again but his hands came away even filthier than before. Now they had a coating of dirt added to the sap and needles. Disgusted, Ben tried blocking the image of his nasty hands from his brain and refocused.

Ahead a new blob loomed in Ben’s eyesight. He realized it was a small field of Manzanita bushes and his shoulders tightened even more in anticipation. He remembered the tight branches that caught his feet like a snare. That was just one of the times he’d tripped while running, and the bruises on his knees twinged at the memory. He decided to go around the bushes, not wanting to repeat getting trapped in the web of tentacle arms.

Beyond the Manzanita field Ben continued his relentless quest forward, silently ignoring the pain in his hands and knees. His trek took him over rocks and stumps, through small gullies filled with more pine needles, and past more of the ever-present “Octopus bushes” as he started calling the manzanita. In the daylight the plants looked puffy and harmless, but Ben knew better.

Ben crawled until he came to a space considerably different from the surrounding area. The trees opened up, the bushes disappeared, and all around him he could smell the scent of charcoal. He hadn’t remembered seeing a burned area on their way in, but Ben stood and continued out into the old burn. The soil’s consistency changed from the firm pack of pine needles found in the forest to a puffy fluff that reminded him of the flour his mom baked cookies with.

Ben walked through the wasted landscape. His knees thanked him for the break from crawling, but they also ached from the constant movement. He moved past huge charred stumps, the skeletons of small trees, and felt the snap of the occasional charred twig deep under the puffy surface. All around him the tree corpses reeked of charcoal and death.

It was in this charred landscape that Ben saw the sun setting in the West. To his deep dismay, the sun set in front of his face, not behind his back. Ben watched the sunset and cried, realizing he’d walked hours in the wrong direction. The tears cut large streaks through the grime on his face.

Ben’s tears slowly dried on his cheeks. From this vantage point he could see how far he’d gone in the wrong direction. His body was weak from yet another day and night with little food and he could hardly gather his thoughts – the only thing his body wanted to do was keep crying and curl up in a little ball.

Slowly, Ben looked around himself – observing the devastation from the fire. It must not have been too long ago, since there was still the old charred scent of burning trees in the air. When he neared a stump the smell intensified, and touching the side left his fingers black with charcoal. The soil seemed to have the life sucked out of it. All that was left was the powdery soot that puffed in the air with each of his steps. It looked like the smoke from a dragon hiding under the earth.

Ben took stock of his surroundings. He was at the edge of a very large burn. Each step he took left a print in the ground, and he worried with dismay that it would make him that much easier to track. His shoulders tensed and his stomach tightened as he thought about the Steve-creature.

Ben knew any further movement west would take him into the wilderness area, and any further south would also take him closer to the monster. After reviewing his options Ben turned north across the burned forest. His plan was to cut a square: going just far enough north to shake the creature, and then he’d turn east again towards the road.

As he set off across the burn Ben felt the tiniest tug of energy in his legs. They were shaking from the lack of calories, but something about moving in a constructive direction gave him hope. He thought about digging into his second Snickers bar and his stomach growled mightily.

The burn made the hair on Ben’s neck stand up. He felt like the ghosts of the trees and woodland critters who’d perished in the fire were watching him. He wondered what they thought of the disheveled man crossing the burn. Was he pitiful? Or frightening? He certainly looked frightening to himself. No one in Chicago would recognize the unshaven, filthy man who moved cautiously like a lone gazelle in the Serengeti – keenly aware of the predator threatening to catch him.

Ben thought about something Mike had said once while he was in his “wanna be a Samurai to get chicks” phase: that moving slowly with purpose was the best way to conserve energy. Ben laughed at the idea that he could even remotely be like a Samurai warrior, but the thought of conserving his tiny trickle of energy seemed like a prudent thing, given the situation. He concentrated on each movement and felt some kind of awareness growing with each footstep. It finally felt like he was getting somewhere.

He continued across the burned forest, occasionally having to climb the husk of a charred tree. In some places he’d have to skirt an exposed lava rock outcropping, or a mangled bunch of Lodgepole Pines. At one point he stopped in awe, staring at the bones of a young bunch of lodgepole. Their limbs were burned off so they stood like little blackened spikes pointing towards the sky. There was only a foot of space between each of the trunks, making the fire that consumed them that much hotter. Ben mused that the tight little group must have gone up like a torch.

As he continued walking he started seeing the footprints of other apocalyptic explorers like himself. There were the tiny pronged imprints of a small bird hopping around the base of a thoroughly blackened pine tree, the V-shaped small and large footprints of a chipmunk running, and the occasional side-by-side ovals that finished in a point where a deer had stood. He remembered these prints from the Smoky Bear posters his pediatrician hung all over the walls of his clinic when Ben was a child. Ben smiled as he remembered the doctor’s favorite personal decoration – a clip-on monkey that always rode his stethoscope like a forest vine.

The sun had scorched Ben’s neck during the long day. He touched the skin lightly and felt the sting, wincing. What I wouldn’t give for some aloe, he thought. Ahead, he could see a smattering of trees that were green on their tops even though their trunks looked wholly destroyed. Behind them the forest started up anew.

Ben looked up at the trees in awe-they were stubbornly clinging to life amidst the devastation. There were even a few pinecones holding fast to the upper branches. These trees had been through Hell, but they stood – a proud reminder of the forest that once was. Ben thought they looked like a giant “FU” to the world that tried to destroy them. He instantly liked them.

Nearing the edge of the burn something purple caught Ben’s eye. He immediately felt a strange urge to go and see this purple thing. As he got closer, he could see it was a tiny wildflower fighting its way up into the air despite the ashes all around it. He looked at its tiny petals and dusty leaves, admiring its pluck.

There was nothing else living as far as the eye could see, yet the little flower bravely poked its head through the surface after a rainstorm. It stood in deep contrast to the grey-brown charred soil reaching out in all other directions. Ben thought of taking it with him, but stopped his hand just inches from its stem. Instead of plucking it, he stroked its leaves with his index finger.

“Good little guy,” he muttered under his breath as he stood.

Ben took about forty more steps and reached the edge of the untouched woods. He looked back one more time at the burn, quietly sad to leave the brightness of the sunshine.

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

Varturshan could smell smoke. And burning meat. The aroma sent the host’s stomach rolling in waves of hunger, and the creature passed a small amount of gas in anticipation.

There were people up ahead – a new group, so it seemed. The monster lifted its head and sniffed the air delicately like a fox, gauging the distance between the host body and the new humans. If the host had been able to talk he would have gauged the distance at a quarter mile. The creature moved the body slowly and quietly so it could observe more.

The host’s ankle was swollen and had a nasty black bruise growing around the joint. When the creature tried walking on it there were still bolts of pain that lanced up the leg. The monster continued to crawl. Each movement was smooth and stealthy despite the host body’s injuries; Varturshan had not totally forgotten how to function.

The creature got closer to the smell source. It could see two men sitting on soft cloth chairs near the food fire. They were both clothed head-to-toe in material that matched the surrounding leaves. Both seemed to be most interested in drinking something from tiny silver tubes that they had a large amount of. The empty tubes littered the ground around their tiny fire.

Varturshan neared the men and overheard a large belch. They were talking and carrying on; neither seemed to mind the dirty man with burning eyes crawling towards their camp. As the creature got closer, however, it realized that both men were very large and fat – too big to fight off in this host’s decrepit state. There would need to be a change of plans.

“Help,” croaked Varturshan making some of the words it heard in the host’s brain, “Help.”

Both men leapt to their feet at the sound of the croaking voice, and their eyes fixed on the filthy man crawling towards them out of the brush. He was a mess, and both hunters immediately lost their instinctual bluster in favor of concern: this man from the woods looked like he had seen some pretty rough days.

“Oh, fuck, Barry!” barked the larger one with blonde hair, “You okay, sir?”

“Holy shit!” remarked the one who must have been Barry, “what happened to you?”

Varturshan crawled in to camp and repeated the word, “help,” again for emphasis. It could not make sense of the language that rolled around in the host’s brain, but it could at least speak in pantomime. Varturshan pointed towards the injured ankle, and tugged up on the pant leg. Both men gasped at the sight of the ugly bruise surrounding the ankle.

“Your ankle?” asked the blonde one. Varturshan nodded and made a clenching and snapping motion with both of Steve’s hands. It tried to assume as piteous a gaze out of Steve’s eyes as possible.

“Nate, he needs to see a doctor,” said Barry as he neared Varturshan’s leg, “you mind if I take a look, buddy?” Varturshan sucked air inward and hissed in pain when Barry tried to touch the bruise. Then it gave in to the probing from the giant man. It would have to play the situation right.

Barry sucked his breath in between pursed lip as he surveyed the damage to the visitor’s ankle. He was afraid to touch anything on this strange man, since he didn’t seem to know English and was utterly filthy. He also smelled strongly of shit. Barry’s days at the local feed store had taught him a lot about animal injuries, but not much about broken people like this one.

“Let’s grab him some ice,” said Barry as he backed away from Varturshan, “would that be okay, fella?” he added in a slightly raised voice, his usual way of dealing with anyone who wasn’t his same race.

Varturshan nodded. It could tell that these humans seemed to want to help, and that was okay. It needed food, and both what these men were cooking and what they had on their bodies would do just fine.

Nate dug around in their cooler amongst the plentiful cans of Coors and gathered a few handfuls of ice. He piled the ice on top of the cans at the corner of the cooler and started fumbling in the back of the dented Dodge Ram for something to put it in.

After searching a couple minutes, Nate uttered a quiet “yesss,” under his breath and produced a bread bag. He pulled the bread out of the bag and set it on top of the tailgate, then filled the empty bag with ice. He grabbed a piece of the white bread, rolled it like a tortilla, and popped it in his mouth, chewing the bread as he scooped the ice.

Varturshan watched this man with interest. He was big and slow moving, and seemed to have an inordinately large focus on eating. The creature tried to conceal its disgust as it watched the light-haired man shove food in his face while filling something with a clear material he pulled from the large white box.

“Here…ICE,” said Nate in the same high, slow tones that Barry used, “GOOD.” Nate set the bag on Varturshan’s ankle. The creature jerked for a second at the intense cold from whatever was in the bag. After a second, though, Varturshan relaxed. The cold felt immensely good on the burning heat radiating from the host’s ankle. It nodded it’s head in a gesture that Varturshan hoped looked like agreement.

“Don’t know where that dude’s from, but he sure ‘aint from here,” said Nate as he sat back down in his camp chair with a sigh.

“No shit, Sherlock,” countered Barry as he cracked another can of Coors, “that feel good, buddy?” he added slowly as he addressed Varturshan. Beer overrode their plan to take the stranger to the hospital.

Varturshan could not understand either of these men, but they obviously thought he was an imbecile thanks to their patronizing tone. The creature could not speak human language very well, but it could read human bodies like a mirror. These men were large, but not very smart. The creature knew it could get something done when the timing was right.

“Meat’s done!” cheered Barry suddenly as he looked over at their fire, “You hungry?” he asked Varturshan. The creature nodded, since it could see the man pointing towards the smoking food. It licked Steve’s lips in agreement.

“Well, let’s eat then!” barked Nate as he cut the two T-Bones the men had brought in to three even-sized pieces. “Bread too?” he added and offered a piece of the loose Buttermilk loaf over towards Varturshan. The creature took the strange piece of white material, smelt it, and then wolfed the bread down whole with abandon.

“Damn, you are hungry!” added Barry with a whistle as he handed Varturshan a paper plate with a piece of steak on it. The meat dripped a thin layer of pink blood, and the creature’s stomach let loose with a thunderous growl. It grabbed the piece of meat with Steve’s hands and began furiously biting into the flesh—chewing it in big smacking mouthfuls. It was good, but not as good as the fresh thing.

“He eats like he’s never seen food before…” remarked Nate as he sat down to enjoy his steak.

 

 

Varturshan’s opened its eyes. They were bloodshot from days of little sleep in the host’s body, but the burning hatred had returned. The fat men were asleep and snoring after their meat dinner. Varturshan wanted this.

The creature rose from the sleeping pad the blonde man offered earlier that night. The host’s knees gave out a sharp pain as the creature rose, and Varturshan had to steady the body as the world faded to black in front of its eyes. Within a moment the eyesight returned. Varturshan walked to where the men lay and stood over them.

Both the fat men were asleep. The brown-haired one rolled to his side and let wind noisily. The creature wrinkled its nose in disgust. This one was the slightly smaller of the two, and Varturshan had concerns about pursuing the easier prey first. Best to take care of the big one. Quietly.

The creature looked around the camp. There were boxes all around, boxes with round things underneath and boxes with strange colors-white, blue and even one that looked like the men’s plant-patterned clothing. Varturshan padded up to the first box and opened the lid. Inside there were many small packages and a lot of cold tubes. The creature closed the lid silently and moved to the next box.

The host’s mind recognized this thing as something called a “car.” Varturshan felt around the doors it had watched the men open, and pulled up quietly on the black half-moon thing on its flank. The door opened with a click. The creature shielded the host’s eyes from the blinding light coming from the truck’s interior. It panicked and closed the side-lid. The light was too much.

The creature moved along to the other “car.” This one had a lid in back as well as on the sides. Varturshan gravitated towards the back lid. It hoped there was nothing to blind the host here. The spirit was careful to shield its eyes as it approached the SUV. The host’s body now walked with only a limp.

Varturshan moved towards the tailgate and tentatively lifted the handle. The latch released and it could see the contents: lots of clothing that reeked of the brown-haired man. Trash. Old foodstuffs. Varturshan tried to keep the host’s stomach from vomiting.

Now that it had ruled out most of the boxes from usefulness, Varturshan moved to the smallest one: the one that looked like plant clothing. The monster fumbled at the shiny latches on the side for a few minutes before successfully lifting one with a loud snap. The creature tensed in an unexpected moment of fear as Nate snorted in his sleep and rolled over in his sleeping bag. Varturshan thought he looked like a blue caterpillar.

Returning to the second snap, Varturshan moved Steve’s hands much more carefully this time. The shiny snap released silently and the creature couldn’t help but smile with the host’s mouth. The insides of this box revealed two long, black metal tubes with handles and a beautiful large knife. Varturshan immediately forgot the rifles as it looked at the knife.

It was one of the best-crafted blades the creature had ever seen. In its last life as a human, the creature had sharp instruments-but never one like this. Varturshan lifted the knife and admired the sharp blade that was almost as long as the host’s forearm. It curved to a beautiful point, and the top edge was straight to a juncture. It looked like a fang. The creature picked the knife up in the host’s hand and started handling it with expert ease.

After experimenting with the weight of the knife, Varturshan cleared the host’s eyes and turned toward its prey. Both Nate and Barry slept soundly in their blue and camouflage-colored cocoons. Their large bodies lifted and fell with each breath. Neither knew it would soon be their last.

The creature’s eyes focused and narrowed as it approached Nate’s large body. Nate’s days manning the forklift at the feed store were in his past. With the precision of a surgeon, Varturshan drew the knife across his throat with one quick stroke. Nate’s eyes opened and he tried to scream but only a gurgle came out as his mouth filled with blood. Tears streamed from Nate’s eyes as the creature watched him die. Varturshan was amazed that something so large could die so quietly and quickly.

Emboldened by the ease of its kill, Varturshan moved to Barry’s sleeping bag. This one still snored loudly and let wind on occasion, and Varturshan was almost drooling at the thought of eating his heart. Nasty creatures almost always tasted best, and this one was no exception. It hunched the host’s body and tried to keep its feet moving silently, with eyes constantly focused on Barry’s sleeping form.

As Varturshan moved in for the kill Barry suddenly opened his eyes. He recognized his Bowie knife in the hands of this intruder and tried to jump to his feet. The sleeping bag’s mummy shape stopped his legs suddenly and he fell to the ground on his hands and knees—trapped in the cocoon.

In a lightning-quick move Varturshan leapt on Barry’s back, held his mouth shut with the host’s left hand and sliced Barry’s throat with the right. The creature wrapped its legs around Barry’s ribs like a bronco rider and held on tight. Barry bucked and writhed, but could not free himself from the vise-like grip of the creature on his back. He struggled for what seemed like minutes on end before finally slowing, then dropping to the ground in a pool of his own blood. Varturshan held onto Barry until the creature was positive the prey was dead.

The creature rolled off Barry’s back and looked at the two men. As it did that, the host’s stomach rolled in another hungry growl. The body finally wanted the right food. Varturshan rolled Barry’s carcass over and plunged the Bowie knife deep in to his stomach cavity, cutting both sleeping bag and man flesh downward. Barry’s intestines spilled out bright and moist against the camouflage fabric.

The creature took the back of the knife and smashed it down on Barry’s sternum – breaking it cleanly. Then it used Steve’s hands to efficiently slice upward with the tip of the knife-parting flesh and exposing the heart, but not damaging it. A few more surgical cuts with the blade broke the heart free, and Varturshan gazed greedily at its meal.

The fire slowly sputtered out behind the creature as it feasted.

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

Ben watched the sunset and contemplated if it was wise to continue walking in the dark. He furrowed his brows while thinking and finally chose to turn his back on the sunset and resume walking east. He gauged the landmarks around him and tried to make a mental note of what to keep looking for in the dark.

For a moment Ben thought about work. His office back in Chicago: all steel and black on the outside, yet spacious and retro-modern on the inside. He missed the safety of the desk. The convenience of the fridge that probably still had a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food in it. Ben’s mouth watered at the thought of the little chocolate fish.

Ben kept moving forward, ever watchful of the stars rising above him. They were his guide tonight and he noted where the constellations stood. Orion blazed high overhead and Ben counted the stars in his belt.

Suddenly he heard a twig snap behind him. Ben dropped to the ground immediately and rolled behind a tree. His eyes surveyed the dusk with a precise desperation. He spotted nothing out of he ordinary and his shoulders dropped slightly.

Then there was another crack, this time a branch. Ben’s eyes widened in terror as he realized that something big was coming out of the woods. He couldn’t seem to move his feet. His penis would have squirted urine if he hadn’t been so dehydrated. Ahead was a black bear – Ben could see the glint of a large eye.

 

The bear observed the creature ahead of him that smelled like wolverine. Bad news. Bad Smell. Thought the bear. It had a nasty encounter with a wolverine once, and the bear remembered that smell. It also remembered the sting and pain of the scratch down the muzzle, and the scar to prove it. The bear observed this larger wolverine with caution.

 

Ben tried to remember everything he could from any nature show he’d ever watched on TV as a kid. He remembered that if you encountered a mountain lion, you were supposed to look bigger to repel it. He proceeded to unzip his hoodie and raise it like a sail over his head. He spread his arms wide between the sail.

 

The bear watched the big wolverine somehow suddenly get bigger, and it decided to find a new spot to eat. This was too much. Wolverine was bad, and a big one even worse. It could not justify the scratch and pain and infection with the desire to go to the berry patch. The bear turned and walked away from the wolverine, hoping it wouldn’t try to chase after the bear and bite it in the rear.

 

Ben watched in awe as the bear turned and sauntered away from him. Nothing like this had ever happened in any of the nature films he’d seen growing up. Most said an encounter like this ended in a guy’s gruesome death. Entrails everywhere.

He began looking around and saw the forest with a new awe. Branches and plants seemed to stand out in relief, even in the dusk. Ben couldn’t imagine any night looking better than this. He joyously returned his gaze to the sky and winked at Orion. Ben sniffed the air like it was food and his heart rose.

After a few minutes Ben reached a new kind of obstacle: a thick barrage of bushes that coated the ground. As he drew nearer, he could smell a tinge of sweetness in the air. Closer still and he could see the plants were actually wild huckleberry bushes. In an act of pure mercy, there were still ripe berries on the stems. Ben wanted to scream with joy.

He knelt down to the bushes, stroked the leaves and pulled a berry from its stem then popped it on his tongue. The feeling was fresh and round, and when he crushed it the sweetness was blinding. His stomach immediately opened demanding more. Ben obliged and started plucking the plants dry, feeding the berries in his mouth. Huckleberry jam, thought Ben with a smile; all he needed now was some peanut butter and bread.

Ben grinned as he ate his fill of huckleberries. After endless minutes of eating pleasure he started plucking berries and stuffing them in to his hoodie and vest pockets. More went into the cargo pockets on each leg of his camping pants. He poured more berries into the loose pant pockets.

Ben looked around and tried to see where to go next in the deepening darkness. He banged a shin against a stump and cursed loudly. The progress only got worse until Ben had to finally stop and admit defeat for the night.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Varturshan felt tremendous. Its stomach was full, and the creature could feel the life energy from the two hearts healing the host’s injuries. Ah, the creature thought, the power of good food. The damaged ankle was already turning a lighter shade of green and the creature could put weight on it. Soon it would be able to walk much faster. Perhaps even run.

The monster wiped the host’s mouth with the sleeve of his filthy hoodie, smearing blood and dirt across both the face and sleeve. The face looked like some kind of grotesque clown. The eyes burning from this face did not belong to the host, but to the wendigo inhabiting it.

Varturshan thought back wistfully to the taste of the hearts. The one from the brown haired man was fat and juicy just like its owner, and tasted a slight bit like soil. The creature had devoured it so quickly it almost choked in its delight. Greed always came naturally to the monster.

The second heart from the blonde man also tasted good, but it was a bit tougher and chewier. Much like the first heart Varturshan enjoyed before being startled by the smelly man. It was still irritated at being disturbed while eating and felt a bristling indignation rise in the host’s craw. How dare anyone disturb the great Varturshan, spirit that ruled all? It would make that smelly man pay, and now it had the energy to do it.

The monster stood the host’s body upright and turned its head right and left slowly. It surveyed the entire campsite, the boxes both large and small that littered it, and also the two men it had killed. Varturshan ruined the clothing on the brown-haired one in a moment of pure desperation and hate, but it carefully pulled the blonde one’s shirt up before removing his heart.

Varturshan returned to the blonde man’s heartless corpse and undressed it. The creature used the host’s hands to tug at the arms of the camouflage jacket and undershirt on the body. It looked like a dog flailing furiously during a game of tug-of-war. Varturshan repeated this maneuver on each of the four limbs until the corpse was only in his underwear.

The creature observed the underclothing of this man with curiosity-they had the outline of a bat right over the crest of his crotch. The monster thought for a second, weighing the option that this was a warning sign to stay away from the corpse’s crotch, then it shook the host’s head and removed the underwear as well. The hosts were filthy with scat anyway…

After it had new clothing, Varturshan stripped the host body down to the skin. It kept the foot coverings, but threw out everything else. The creature went to the brown-haired man’s corpse and rubbed the host’s rear on it to clean off the remaining scat. Satisfied the host’s body was now less scentful and much more pleasant to move in, Varturshan returned to the new clothing and started dressing the host body.

To the creature’s dismay, all of the blonde man’s skin cover was much too big for this smaller host. How Varturshan wished it had chosen a better human body, perhaps even the one of the blonde man it had just eaten. Any of these bodies were better than the weak, small one it had chosen in a moment of desire. Varturshan was deeply regretting its decision.

It pulled all the new clothing on the host’s body and rolled up the arm and leg holes to an appropriate length for the host’s size. Once finished, Varturshan was covered with a bunchy layer of camouflage, leaving the creature looking like a pre-teen hunter playing in his dad’s clothing.

Varturshan looked to the sky and observed the position of the rising stars. It was early in the evening and the western horizon was still tinged with the pale peach band where the sun set. To the east stars were beginning to shine brightly against the deep blue backdrop. The creature did not know where the smelly man was, but it was sure the prey would head east on his original path at some point. It decided to follow that path again.

To Varturshan’s pleasure, the host’s ankle was healing at a rapid pace. It already walked somewhat normally on each leg, and no longer had to crawl in the duff. This made much faster pursuit, and also kept the new set of clothing warm against the host’s skin. The creature was very happy with this new skin cover. Even though it was much too big and a bit uncomfortable at first, the creature was grateful for the extra warmth in the settling night.

It kept walking forward, stopping ever so often to sniff the air and make out a scent with the human’s puny nose. Not much reached Varturshan’s recognition, though, so it used the eyes to keep track eastward. Now that the host’s ankle was healing, the monster could move as silently as the animal predators. Varturshan practiced more proficient control over its limbs.

As the creature walked it kept an even appraisal of the host’s condition. The ankle was much improved, the legs less shaky, and the stomach had quit its noisesome growling. So far, the intestines were holding both the burned and fresh meat, and each calorie was being harvested for the host’s need. The spirit kept the body moving and that helped the ankle considerably. The creature moved like a man slowly evolving from Neanderthal to Homo Sapiens,

The monster looked like a man, moved like man, but was somehow improving the man that used to be Steve. Each step seemed a new frontier of symbiosis, and if Ben had been there he wouldn’t have known his old friend. The host now moved like some kind of expert hunter or combat veteran, and you could imagine him sliding out of the jungle and killing someone silently in the dark. Those eyes still burned from the shadows.

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

Ben looked up at the sky and his eyes squinted with dismay. The stars twinkling just minutes before were dark. Something was blocking them and Ben had a sinking feeling – he knew it was clouds.

He begrudgingly looked for a place to hunker down for the night. There were no rock outcroppings in this area of the woods, but there were a few downed trees amidst the bushes. Ben searched for a tree he could shelter under, and found a particularly promising downed ponderosa. The trunk was thick and jutted up from the deadfall all around it like a small ridge of mountains. Ben made his way over to it while picking around the smaller trees and branches. Once near the log he found limbs long enough to lean against the trunk and make a shelter. It didn’t look as nice as something Les Stroud would make, but it would do.

The tree was considerably messier than the log he’d slept under earlier. Big chunks of bark fell off every time Ben touched it, and he could see the insects and beetles escaping on every piece in the last bits of light. The spot where he’d made his lean-to was covered in insects – many irritated at being disturbed in the dark. Ben thought about sleeping in the now bug-infested shelter and quivered with disgust. He sat outside it, hoping the bugs would somehow go to sleep.

This section of woods was a massive middle-aged lodgepole grove that experienced a nasty turn in a windstorm. Dead fallen lodgepole trees lay askew at all kinds of angles, coating the forest floor like a challenging version of Pick Up Sticks. Traversing this landscape was impossible in the dark. Besides, Ben was already exhausted and it took every effort to climb over the fallen clumps of trees. The further Ben labored, the worse the deadfall got.

Instead of struggling to get nowhere and getting hurt in the dark, Ben felt wise that he’d admitted defeat and stopped in the place where he was. He sighed and looked up at the sky, hoping to see some stars again. The only answer he got was an ominous flash of lightning from the clouds.

Ben removed the huckleberries from his pants pockets so he wouldn’t crush them if he rolled over in his sleep. He took his fishing vest off as well, then lay down on his back. He watched the sky, observing the lightning dancing between the clouds above him. It jumped from cloud to cloud and he could hear the distant thunder drawing near.

Just when Ben was ready to close his eyes a large flash lit up the sky above him. It was so close he went temporarily blind. The thunder roar was almost instantaneous and Ben felt the ominous wind rising. Suddenly pine needles and dirt were coursing across the forest floor and the trees above him rocked from side to side in the gale. He watched with horror as one seemed almost ready to fall in the wind, but somehow maintained its root control and stood standing.

The wind made a rushing noise through the pine needles. Ben shivered and held his hoodie tighter around his body, then he turned and finally climbed in his shelter. The skinny lodgepole trunks made an okay roof and seemed to block most of the rain. Ben reached over to his vest and grabbed a handful of huckleberries, putting a few in his mouth while he swirled the rest in his hand. He couldn’t sleep anyway, so he figured he might as well eat something.

As Ben dropped another pinch of huckleberries in his mouth a lightning blast roared out of the sky, hitting somewhere nearby. Ben felt the electricity pull his arm hair, heard the loud thunk of wood flying from the injured tree, and the crash as the pieces hit the ground. He was blind again, his vision dominated by a brilliant blue-white light. He sat in the darkness trying to regain his bearings.

Ben blinked and tried to get the green spot dancing in front of his eyes to go away. He couldn’t make out any of his surroundings, but the last lightning bolt was way too close for comfort. He wanted to move, but he didn’t know where to go. Ben fumbled on his hands and knees in the direction of his fishing vest and he breathed a sigh of relief as his fingers touched the khaki fabric. Ben stroked each pocket like a lucky rabbit’s foot, grateful for the food stored inside.

Ben crawled out of his shelter and looked at the hit tree. The trunk glowed orange with new coals. He walked closer to it and felt the warmth as he drew near where the glowing orange scar ran down the trunk’s side and met with the forest floor. Ben cozied up to the tree and warmed his hands like he would in front of a campfire.

 

 

Varturshan smelled the thunderstorm coming. It didn’t need to look in the sky to see lightning or cringe at the thunder, it felt the hungry current coming from the trees. They were desperate for water and the thunder prompted an almost visceral reaction; they yearned for the thunderstorm’s rain.

The creature moved steadily in the new loping gait thanks to the creature’s transformation. Varturshan’s feast gave the host body new strength and vitality, and the creature moved like a man that was part human and part animal. Even in his wildest gym-fueled dreams, Steve would have never guessed his body could move so well.

Each step the monster made in the host’s feet was now soundless. The host’s eyes scanned the forest on all sides, intently focused at the slightest twig snap. It looked like the creature was channeling the spirit of a cougar prowling through its territory. To Varturshan, this felt breezily normal.

Varturshan narrowed the host’s eyes as it observed the thickening brush up ahead. The tree trunks were so dense they choked the air between them, and the remaining space was tight with sharp needleless branches that poked the skin and eyes. The creature sighed. It didn’t want to crawl again.

Yet crawl Varturshan did. The creature dropped the host body down to the forest floor and wriggled on its belly through the pine needles and dirt. There was a small gap of about six inches over its back. Above was the thick blanket of sharp branches, but there was just enough room to move.

Varturshan watched the ground in front intently. It observed the roll of the soil where roots poked through the surface, sniffed at the occasional mouse or chipmunk hole, and on the whole kept its eyes and face intact while traveling through the thick and perilous space. As the creature crawled it shielded the host’s eyes from a new foe: the swirling dust sucked off the forest floor in the thunderstorm’s ever-rising wind.

A new roar of thunder shook Varturshan and the creature shielded its eyes from the blue-white blast. The monster shuddered in its skin as it felt the crackle in the night air. The blast was too close for comfort and the animal in the creature quaked. It was the only fear Varturshan knew.

The lightning intensified with such an effect the sky looked like it was one giant strobe light. Varturshan instinctually hunched Steve’s back and cuddled next to a particularly large lodgepole trunk in the midst of the thicket. The creature curled into the fetal position and bit its lips, all the while humming softly. It rocked back and forth on the ground.

The thunder kept coming in louder and louder. One instant a flicker of lightning danced from cloud to cloud, and then a jagged bolt would arc from the sky and make contact with the ground in a terrifying crack of thunder. The strikes seemed to hit all around the monster and it quaked next to the tree.

A particularly bright bolt roared through the night sky and made contact with a tree somewhere North of Varturshans spot. If the creature had been there, it would have seen Ben reeling from the blast and impact.

The monster still lay quivering in the dirt. Suddenly a drop of cold hit Varturshan on the hand, breaking the creature out of its terrified reverie. It rolled on its back and stared up at the tiny bit of clouds it could see through the branches. One by one more drops fell on the creature, and soon Varturshans face was covered with little pinpricks of water. The monster smiled and licked the water off its lips.

As if woken from a dream, the creature twitched and re-focused on the path ahead. The brush got denser to the point where even crawling was impossible. Each movement forward would be a battle of will against the halting push of lodgepole branches. There was no passage for anything but the smallest ground-dwellers. Varturshan hissed softly as one stick pierced the host’s leg through the coverings.

The creature swam its way through the ocean of sticks and tree branches unable to keep this part of the journey quiet. Thankfully there was lightning and thunder to mask the sound of Varturshans progress, so the creature continued to hope it could surprise its prey. It wiped absent-mindedly at the corner of its mouth when it thought of the smelly man’s moist, delicious heart.

After a seemingly never-ending battle against the Lodgepole Pine thicket, Varturshan exploded in to openness. Suddenly there was a large clearing free of trees and a black strip down the center. The creature walked to the edge of the strip and tested it gingerly with its foot. The material was hard, easy to walk on. Varturshan sniffed the air hoping the scent of its prey. The black path reeked of strange, bitter smells that reminded Varturshan of the large boxes at the fat men’s camp. It moved along the road with visible caution.

The black path hurt Varturshans feet, so the creature moved off to the fern-coated shoulder where the earth was softer. By the creature’s recollections it was now headed north. It hoped the prey would be in this direction, but Varturshan knew this was only a desperate guess at best. In any case, the going was tremendously easier than walking through the lodgepole thickets. Varturshan moved with a quicker step, eyes scanning the dark horizon ahead.

Rain continued to falling, but the creature seemed to be emboldened with every footfall north. It felt a tiny piece of the host body pulling it in this direction, and with no better idea the creature felt confident in its chosen path. It felt like it had a purpose.

Quietly the creature smiled and pulled the oversize camouflage jacket tighter.

 

 

Ben felt the first drop of rain hit the crown of his head and he shuddered from neck to tailbone. He instinctively needed to pee, but he had no water left. Ben stood next to the tree and thought about just staying put, but then the rain deepened and fat droplets exploded off Ben’s body. He left the warm tree and crawled back towards his shelter.

Under the lean-to, Ben pulled a couple more huckleberries out of his pocket, brushed them off as best he could, and fed them in his mouth. The slightly sweet taste with a bite of sour churned his stomach just a little, but Ben’s hunger overwhelmed his acid reflux. His gastroenterologist wouldn’t approve, but Dr. Miller wasn’t the one running from his cannibalistic friend in the woods.

Ben drew his hoodie as close as possible to his skin. He crossed his arms over his chest and tried valiantly to stay warm against the downed tree’s trunk. Little drops of rain fell through the cracks in the roof and made the matter worse – he could feel his jacket getting wet. He shivered and hugged his torso. It was oddly comforting.

The lightning blazed overhead and Ben sat amazed by the show. Bolts reached cloud-to-cloud, lit up the sky with overall flashes of light, and continued to lance towards unlucky trees below. It was one of the most spectacular storms Ben had ever seen; he took it all in, feeling his heart race with every bolt.

Ben’s thirst took over and he crawled out of the lean-to. He lifted his face to the heavens and felt more raindrops fall on his cheeks. They washed over his skin and he opened his mouth to catch a few. The water was welcome relief and Ben laughed with a gaping mouth as he choked on the nourishment. He looked like a turkey about to drown itself.

Rain poured over Ben. His clothes drooped heavy with the moisture. Despite this, he greeted the rain with open arms and more laughter. In a moment of clarity, Ben thought Steve and Mike would certainly think he was crazy if they saw him like this; then he realized with a sinking feeling his friends weren’t even around anymore. His eyes clouded and Ben fought the urge to cry.

Fresh lightning strikes lanced through the air and down to the forest with loud cracks and ground-shaking booms. Ben screamed to the heavens and raised his fists to either side of his head. He screamed at God, screamed for Mike, and screamed for Steve. He screamed until his voice broke and he could only utter a gravelly croak. Ben dropped to his knees in bitter exhaustion.

The thunder drowned out his mourning, and Ben’s rage and pain slowly ebbed to a trickle. He sat on his knees on the muddy forest floor surrounded by rivulets of water that the soil couldn’t absorb. The water cut trails through the dirt and carried pine needles with it, making tiny needle-coated banks on either side of the flow. Some rivulets were so strong they carried the soil away, leaving small trenches in their wake. Ben watched a tiny pinecone get carried downstream in one of the larger currents as a blast of lightning lit the sky overhead.

His rage ebbed and Ben stared downward with cloudy eyes. He looked at his filthy mud and huckleberry juice-covered hands and turned them over in the lightning glow. His palms sat upwardly turned toward the heavens as his shoulders sagged, exhausted from the screaming. He felt there was no will to go on, and resigned himself to waiting for the inevitable doom. Ben’s head dropped until his chin touched his chest.

Water gushed and poured all around Ben’s knees, soaking his pants even further. The dark moisture line crept up his thighs towards his crotch. Ben sat softly and contemplated his hands dejectedly, unmoving for many long minutes.

A particularly large bolt of lightning lanced across the sky and Ben jumped at the almost instantaneous roar of thunder. Everything around him was blanked out in another flash of blue-white light and Ben sat blind and deaf to the world. Out of the blindness stepped Mike, smiling in one of his favorite Wisconsin Badgers t-shirts with an extremely grumpy Bucky on the front. The frowning badger in a sweater made a stark contrast to the beaming man who wore it.

“Whatcha doin’ Bro?” he said with one of his famous Mike chuckles.

“Waiting to get hit by lightning and die,“ said Ben softly with his head downturned.

“Well that’s just shitty,” said Mike, “what good are you to the world if you’re fried like a fritter?”

“Fuck you,” said Ben as he tried to stifle a strange giggle, “What’re you going to do about it? You’re dead.”

“Touché,” said Mike, “but you’re still seeing me.”

“Yeah,” said Ben, defeated.

“You gonna let Steve munch on you?” said Mike, sounding like a personal trainer encouraging their student in a daunting exercise. When Ben sat silent Mike continued, “You want to go down in a fucked-up situation like me? ‘Cause believe me – it sucks!”

Ben couldn’t help but giggling this time and looked directly at the Mike apparition, “That’s better,” said Mike. “Now say after me: I will not fall into the snappy jaws of Steve.”

Ben repeated after Mike softly, “I will not fall into the snappy jaws of Steve.” The corner of his mouth wiggled.

Mike continued, “New one: I will fight to get back to that sweet Chicago pizza.”

“I will fight to get back to that sweet Chicago pizza,” Ben answered like a child caught doing something bad by their parents.

“Good,” said Mike, building energy like a college cheerleader, “One more for old time’s sake: I will see a Cubs game again.”

Ben brightened, “I will see a Cubs game again.”

“…and yell at Schwarber to hit something huge,” added Mike with a grin.

“Will do,” said Ben, now smiling as he looked at the apparition.

“Go get ‘em Tiger!” said Mike with a smile, “You got this!”

Ben’s eyes cleared, and he cupped his palms together to collect a bit of the rainfall. Within a few minutes he had enough to drink and he sucked greedily from his palms. Ben repeated this process over and over until he had drunk his fill. He was temporarily unaware of his soaking wet clothing or any of his other physical discomforts.

With each sip Ben felt a little more energy. He looked around in the darkness and saw the forest etched against the flicker of lightning. One more shocking blast lit up the sky and for a moment Ben saw his shelter against the tree trunk. It wasn’t far to his left. He rose to his feet and stumbled towards his lean-to.

Ben crawled inside his shelter and felt for his fishing vest. He pulled out his last candy bar and had a bite. Then Ben lay down, tucked his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around his legs. He fell asleep in his own personal hug.

Outside the cave the rain turned to hail, but Ben slept on.

 

 

Varturshan cursed in a hundred different creature languages as it felt the first piece of hail hit the host’s head. The going was much easier along the edges of the black path, but there were no trees to protect the creature from the sharp onslaught of hailstones. It debated altering its path to take shelter, imagined crawling under the lodgepoles again, and decided against it. Varturshan felt something stirring its instincts that made the host’s stomach growl.

The spirit worked the host’s body like an expert marionette master. It moved with an animal-like grace that seemed superhuman – like a parkour runner or a martial artist. Even in the darkness it found expert footing for Steve’s body and hardly ever stumbled. It instinctually knew the curvature of the forest floor like the body of a lover.

Hailstones the size of quarters started dropping from the sky with a clicking noise on the black path. One hit the creature squarely on the crown of the head, sending a sharp pain lancing through the shared mind. Varturshans eyebrows knit together in anger and pain as its hand rubbed the top of its head in a reflexive motion. Varturshan again cursed the weak human shell it was in.

With each minute the hail grew more intense and Varturshan had to raise the host’s arms above its head to protect itself from more stinging blows. It tried continuing forward, but the onslaught from above fell all around. Varturshan finally hissed through the host’s teeth in a combined sense of disappointment, anger and begrudging submission and made for the cover of the forest.

The creature waded again through the thick coating of ferns at the forest’s edge. Their leaves were soaked with rain, and here and there small branches were torn off by hailstones. Varturshan kicked the host’s knees high like a soldier on the march and waded through the small river of branches. Suddenly one of the host’s feet slipped on the hail and the entire body went down in the ferns.

The creature willed the host’s body to move and tried standing on the sea of hail. Suddenly the grace with which Varturshans body moved earlier was replaced with the gawky fumblings of a creature not accustomed to losing its footing. Varturshan tried to willing the host’s body into balance, but the legs quaked and the arms wheeled to stay upright. Varturshans toes gripped the insides of its shoes like a claw desperately trying to hold onto nothing. As the creature tried planting its foot, the foot suddenly found no traction. All Varturshans weight whipped in motion and the creature fell with a hard thump.

Pain lanced in Varturshans hip from the impact. The creature snarled once more in rage and cursed in whatever language came to mind. It lay in the hail-coated ferns and felt the pain turn from sharp to aching to dull, and it breathed a sigh of relief. At least it hadn’t hurt the host seriously again. The hail felt soothing against the creature’s throbbing hip so Varturshan continued to lie quietly.

Rain slowly started replacing the hail in large fat drops that splattered on the road. Varturshan watched the change warily out of the corner of it’s left eye. After what seemed like a never-ending wait it rolled the host’s body onto all fours and tried standing again. The ground rolled underneath the host like ball bearings and the Varturshans body fell down again like a novice ice skater. This time the impact hit square on the creature’s tailbone, and the force was so strong it released a tiny squirt of urine. Varturshan cursed viciously.

The creature spat into the ferns and rolled on its knees once more. Rain fell with thick splattering intensity, soaking all the clothing covering the host body. The large camouflage jacket now felt like a ton of bricks and the baggy pants threatened to slide off the host’s slim hips with each movement. Varturshan grabbed at the belt loops on either hip and tugged the pants upward. They pulled back down almost as soon as the creature was done.

Varturshan snarled and screamed into the roaring rain. It didn’t care if the prey heard it. It didn’t care if the whole forest heard it. It suddenly couldn’t care less about the hunt, and it beat the ground with the host’s fists. It ripped ferns from the ground and threw them. It beat its thighs with its own fists. Then it fell, exhausted, back into the sea of ferns and lay heaving. The host’s body shook with anger and weakness and suddenly refused to move or stand.

Varturshan lay in the ferns cursing in all the languages of the world.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

Ben woke to one last booming thunderclap. He wriggled his way out of his shelter and stood in amazement looking at a landscape covered in white. His mind immediately thought back to winters in Chicago and he wondered if it really could snow in July at that elevation. On second glance, he realized the white stuff on the ground was a very thick blanket of hailstones. Ben couldn’t believe he slept through that much hail falling.

Outside at least an inch of hail covered the forest floor. Ben stepped gingerly out onto the surface and had an instant flashback to a futile experiment ice-skating in Millennium Park. He’d fallen hard on his ass – much to Susan’s joy who crowed about it for weeks. He remembered the ice skating instructor’s chant to “bend his knees” and with outstretched arms Ben carefully started moving forward. The hailstones rolled under his feet but he kept his balance.

Ben realized moving a yard on the hailstones was like moving ten yards on solid ground. Every muscle clung tight to the futile image of security. His toes tensed in his shoes like a bird gripping a twig and his calves burned. Soon his legs screamed with each step and Ben felt sweat dripping down his stomach. There was a building cramp in the arch of his left foot.

Ben watched his feet carefully and turned around to head back to his shelter. He slapped his thigh in anger and shook his head, all the while berating himself at being so clumsy he couldn’t even walk on hail. Once he was back at the shelter Ben crawled inside and sat down facing the entry.

Ben felt his stomach relax slightly and the tight knot between his shoulder blades soften. He didn’t know what to think of the Mike apparition but it had put him at ease and encouraged him to survive. He thought that must not be all bad, and if he was crazy it was a helpful kind of crazy.

A sudden fear rolled over Ben: what if the police thought he was the killer? He had no idea where Steve was, and with no “other” friend to prove his innocence, the police would naturally think Ben killed Mike and ate his heart. Ben’s body started shaking as he thought of the possibility of going to jail for Mike’s murder. That would be even more terrible than witnessing the aftermath.

Ben suddenly didn’t know where to go or who to turn to. Safety meant getting to the road and civilization, but what if those in civilization thought he was the insane one? He certainly looked it right now with his filthy clothing and body. There was no blood on his hands or face, though, so Ben figured his best alibi would be to tell the police about the heart-eating incident.

Another thought grabbed Ben’s mind: what about the restaurant? The waitress there had seen all three men, so she would be able to prove there had been three going into the forest. Ben’s mind played the Devil’s advocate and reminded him a police officer could also believe he murdered Steve and buried him.

Ben wanted to cry on the hail-covered ground. It was one thing to survive being hunted by your former best friend, but it was something completely different to be blamed for his crimes. He felt trapped – there was no easy way out. A dark part of his mind encouraged him to lie down and wait to die. It hissed that would be the best solution to his problems.

Ben’s eyes cleared and focused straight ahead. He might look like a murderer, but he chose to keep moving forward. He didn’t deserve to die alone in the forest. He was better than forest animal food. He didn’t want to become Steve’s next prey. Ben stood up and regained his hunkered-over land skating stance. With a deep breath he shuffled towards the sunrise.

Ben’s feet relaxed and straightened out in his shoes. The shuffling/skating motion across the hail felt more natural with each step. Soon he was gliding in a movement that looked like clumsy ice-skating but at walking speed. He wanted to cheer at his progress; at least Ben could tell the world he was an improving hail-skater.

He focused straight ahead and tried feeling the spot where the balls of his feet touched the hailstones. Ben felt the pressure of each stone digging through the soles of his hiking boots. With a little more “skate-walking” practice they no longer sent waves of pain shooting through his calves. Now he felt the stones and their shape, but no discomfort.

Ben stopped for a minute and looked back at his progress. To his surprise and joy he’d already moved at least a half mile from his shelter. The shape of his den was now just a small shadow on the western horizon. Soon it’d disappear from view entirely. Ben thought about it sadly for a second – he already missed the shelter’s embrace.

Almost absentmindedly Ben felt his pockets for a huckleberry. He brushed the grains of sandy soil off each berry and raised his hand to his mouth, then poured the berries in from a hole between his thumb and index finger. The taste was tart but his body screamed for more.

In a bold move of faith, Ben proceeded to eat his remaining huckleberries.

 

 

Varturshan lay in the ferns looking upward at the damned clouds dropping their filthy rain. Fat splats fell in the host’s eyes. It made the monster look like it was crying, but it wasn’t. Wendigos never cried.

The creature watched the clouds ebb and flow. It had little interest in the beauty of clouds, or the power of the thunderstorm, it only hoped to see when the rain would stop. Varturshan peered through squinted eyes at each ripple of clouds, hoping to see a peek of stars through a break in the roiling surface above.

The creature took a preliminary survey of the host’s body. The ankle was beginning to feel more and more like a good ankle again, and the gums missing teeth under the host’s left cheek were no longer bleeding. The nourishment had healed quite a lot of the host’s injuries, but now the monster had a sore hip to deal with. It stood gingerly and felt a sharp pain and heard a click in the host’s right hip. If the creature had known about electricity, it would have said the pain felt like an electric shock.

Varturshan knew the only way to heal these new injuries was to get some kind of nourishment. It needed good food for healing, and a delicious heart would do best. The fat men’s hearts had been very good, but they only lasted so long in the face of a new injury. The monster felt warm blood coursing towards the host’s right hip; the joint was already stiffening.

The creature gingerly tested the right leg. Pain shot up from both the ankle and now the hip. Varturshan growled to itself and started walking. It needed to heal, which meant it needed to find the food, which meant walking on this hosts badly injured right leg. The body hesitated from the pain, but the spirit drove it on like a slave master with a whip. The body limped on begrudgingly.

Varturshan moved very carefully, making sure to keep the dark path on the host’s right side. It shuffled its feet gingerly in the hailstones, making sure its weight was balanced with each step. Varturshan looked like someone carefully marching on the side of the road after enjoying a few too many magic mushrooms. Or strong weed.

The monster continued shuffling along the roadside. The hailstones were slick with rain and even more treacherous; every once in a while the creature’s foot slipped and sent the unbalanced body tumbling. Each time this happened Varturshan snarled and spit and flailed in the bushes like a two-year-old throwing a temper tantrum. It had lost all patience with the host body and the way the night was going.

On one of these particular falls the creature rolled to its knees and just sat. The hip pain was getting worse by the minute, and each fall seemed to make the area hotter and hotter. The creature was positive the flesh could actually burn. Lances of pain shot down the leg like a staccato punctuation to the throbbing beat of swelling fluids.

Off in the distance the creature spied something. It looked like a light. The light broadened from one pinprick in the dark to two distinct smaller lights. Varturshan watched with a mildly curious gaze. At first the monster thought the lights were fireflies, which would mean the storm was stopping. After much practice the creature moved without slipping on the host’s feeble legs. It privately rejoiced, but collapsed to the ground in exhaustion.

Varturshan watched the lights get bigger and its mood darkened when it realized it was wrong about the fireflies. Fireflies didn’t grow like that. It spat in the ferns and tensed as the lights drew nearer. The creature heard the whine of some loud noise, which seemed to get closer with the lights. The creature instinctively drew the host body into a small ball. Varturshan clasped its knees tight to its chest, and opened its eyes a bit wider as the lights approached.

The monster could only guess this was some kind of greater spirit, although it haughtily questioned whether there were truly any spirits greater than the mighty Varturshan. The lights drew nearer and the creature started actually tightening more – if this was indeed a greater spirit, what could it do to Varturshan? This was out of the creature’s experience in any of its lives, and the threat of the unknown brought out surprising emotions.

Varturshan cowered in the ferns. It dropped the host to all fours and spread out on its belly. The cold shock from lying face down on a bed of hailstones made the host’s testicles shrink protectively towards the torso. Varturshan peeked up from the ferns and its eyes widened in the growing headlights.

The roaring sound drew nearer and the lights overwhelmed the ferns around Varturshan. It squeaked slightly in fear as the roaring seemed to be all around the host body, and the world was suddenly full of light. Varturshan lowered its head to the ground and covered its ears with its damaged hands. Perhaps this was the end.

As quickly as it had arrived, the car passed on into the dark night. Varturshan rose up out of the ferns like a cobra. It cursed the feeble host and the fear that infected its mind.

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

Ben’s tongue stung from the tart huckleberry juice and he was getting sores on both sides of the tip. The huge number of berries he ate suddenly made Ben’s stomach sick and it rebelled against the food in a slow disturbed roll. He could feel the warning chirps of gas forming in his intestines Ben was suddenly nauseous and desperate for another drink of water. He grabbed a hailstone and started sucking it, but for some reason it didn’t satisfy his thirst or his stomach.

He scanned the area looking for any leftover rain and gamely followed the little trails cris-crossing the dirt, praying to find a puddle somewhere. Everywhere the soil was thirstier than he was and each puddle had been sucked into the earth like a giant hungry vampire feasting from below.

A small distance away Ben noticed two rocks butting against each other at an odd 45-degree angle. There was a smooth spot at their apex and as Ben got closer he spied the shimmer of a tiny puddle in the crotch of the rocks. It looked clear against the black rocky sides. The water was so clear the tint of the rocks gave it an inky hue.

Ben’s tongue leapt at the thought of a good drink, making him forget all about the hailstone experiment. He slowly lowered his lips to the pool’s surface, looking like a child approaching a drinking fountain known to explode on unsuspecting third-graders. The reverie broke as soon as his lips touched the surface and Ben drank the pool dry with large, body quivering slurps. His eyes had the distinct glare of a hungry animal as he raised his head and scanned the horizon for more.

He walked from rock outcropping to outcropping, stopping hopefully at each one looking for more water holes; in many instances he was pleasantly surprised with the amount of water each rock held. Ben’s eyes would perk up like a lover seeing the object of their affection every time he spied a rock. After a thorough inspection he would either be greedily drinking, or shuffling off to find another rock with a dejected hunch. The minutes slipped in to hours as Ben kept searching.

Ben suddenly jerked to his feet and stood at attention. He looked all around the forest stepping in a tight circle, surveying the trees and bushes with a newly critical eye. He watched the bobbing branches as they rode the wind. Satisfied with the apparent safety, he resumed walking. Instinctively Ben had adopted the mannerisms of the local deer.

It was unnerving. Ben felt watched. He looked over his shoulder every few steps and couldn’t shake the creepy feeling gripping his groin and making his bowels loosen. His body twitched and jumped as he heard a small snap, and he ran to the side of a somewhat-larger ponderosa pine. Ben pressed his back against the thick, crumbly bark and felt small pieces break away as the sap stuck to his hoodie and vest. Ben’s eyes betrayed his panic and he was sure the hunter was near. He held his breath and his eyes darted back and forth trying to catch a glimpse of whatever made the noise.

He held perfectly still for what seemed like time unending. Ben’s heart pounded unevenly in his chest like a prisoner fighting in its cage. He dearly wanted to put his hand to his chest to see if he was having a heart attack, but Ben was too terrified to move.

Another twig snapped and Ben fought the urge to piss himself again. He heard rustling and another snapping noise, and whatever it was got dreadfully close. The snapping grew more pronounced as the approaching creature didn’t care to change its path. Ben closed his eyes for a moment as he felt the intruder’s presence. It was coming from behind to his right. Ben prayed the tree would shelter him.

He quivered in fear in the lee of the tree trunk as a large bull elk emerged from a thicket of Lodgepole Pine to his right. The elk had enjoyed a good number of the huckleberries from the same patch as Ben, and the smell of more berries was too good to pass up. The elk sniffed the air trying to locate the source of more berries.

 

Ben heard the gentle “whoof” noise the elk made sniffing the air. He knew the creature was big, whatever it was, but perhaps it wasn’t Steve. Ben had a chilling premonition that if it had been Steve, he‘d be dead already. He held perfectly still with his hands crossed primly in front of his groin.

 

The elk smelled the berries, but they were mixed with another smell. Man smell. This elk remembered a very bad encounter with Man smell and Dog smell once. It ended with a painful sting in the bottom. After the sting, the elk remembered getting up and having some strange thing around its neck. It smelled somewhat like this on the day he got stung. The elk thought about the benefit of the huckleberries versus the pain of the sting and turned slowly back in the underbrush. It didn’t want to encounter Man smell and Man sting again.

 

Ben could hear the large creature turn and move away. His eyes teared up in relief as his face slowly broke its frozen trance. All his effort had gone to holding still and quiet, so when that energy released it was like Ben was a marionette cut from his strings. He fell softy to the ground and thanked his lucky stars he didn’t wet himself again.

Looking around, Ben took his bearings. The energy buzz from the encounter made it hard to focus his eyes and he kept rubbing them to try and clear the fogginess. He sighted the sun and re-focused his attention back east. Ben chided himself for getting so drunk searching for water. He’d inadvertently lost his path again.

Ben looked for the first rays of the morning sun and headed in that direction, peeking up occasionally to take a better survey of his surroundings both near and far. The section of woods seemed to alternate between stifling patches of young lodgepole trees trying to choke each other out and open canopies of mature lodgepole with Manzanita bushes underneath. Black rocks that looked like they’d been spewed from Mount Doom studded the entire area. Ben tried to keep note of what rocks he passed, always making sure to check for tiny pockets of water.

He kept hoping each step would bring the sound of cars.

 

 

Varturshan saw the light flickering to its left. Smoke permeated the moist night air with a dirty aroma. In a normal situation Varturshan would never go near fire, but this was not a normal situation.

The host’s body coverings were soaked completely through. The oversized camouflage jacket felt like concrete dragging down on the host’s shoulders. It was everything the creature could do to keep the 38-waist pants on the host’s 32-sized hips. The creature tugged futilely at the belt loops but the pants only rose up about an inch. You could clearly see the elastic band on Varturshans underwear. To an outsider Varturshan looked like a white man trying to be some kind of hybrid hunter/gangster.

The creature knew the host was getting cold and it wasn’t ready to die yet. It wanted the smelly man’s heart and it would have it. In order to keep the host warm and alive Varturshan knew it had to approach the fire.

The monster surveyed the surroundings near the road one last time. The thick blanket of hailstones had melted down to nearly nothing in the rain, so the walking was much easier now. The creature felt a quick trip towards the fire would be worth preventing its host from dying, but it knew it needed to come back to the black path eventually. Varturshan instinctually knew the black path was what the stinky man sought, and that made the creature very reluctant to leave the roadway.

Varturshan tried to quell its fears as it smelled more smoke. The human body craved the smell and heat from the flames, but the spirit inside held a great terror for fire. Especially wild fire. Perhaps it was all the animal bodies Varturshan had taken over the years—each of them instinctually feared the fire Heaven and Man wrought.

The creature moved the host’s feet methodically, trying to step in the direction of the fire without losing the loose and soaking wet pants barely hanging on the host’s hips. Varturshan took the large leather belt Nate proudly got in a calf-roping contest and tied it in an ugly overhand knot. The creature grew ever more frustrated with these human coverings.

Ahead it spied the object of both joy and dread: a small fire burning in a circle around the tree Ben saw hit earlier. The branches and exploded bits of trunk smoldered in the Manzanita, and one particularly unlucky bush had already caught fire on one side. Varturshan moved towards the burning bush and held out the host’s hands to warm them.

The ground around the bush was surprisingly moist and stopped the fire from spreading further. The bone-dry pine needles were now soaked with rain and hail. The fire tried to lick them but sputtered and failed. Varturshan took this as a small favor, and crept nearer towards the bush.

The bush burned slowly on the power of the waxy Manzanita leaves and spindly branches. It wasn’t a large fire, but just enough that Varturshan could feel it through the host’s clothing. The creature didn’t know much physical pleasure in this human body, but the tiny flicker of warmth from the fire instantly perked both it and the host up. Varturshan held its hands closer to the fire, then yelped in pain as the middle finger got too close. The monster instinctively sucked the singed finger even as it tried to inch closer to the fire.

Varturshan stood next to the bush and felt quiet relief as its clothing dried. The front of the camouflage jacket had started out a dark mottled brown, now it was getting considerably lighter. Varturshan was pleased with the progress on the front side of the clothing, but it had to overcome a new bout of fear when it realized the back needed drying too. Every fiber in its spirit did not want to turn its back on the fire, but it needed the host to be dry.

Gingerly Varturshan turned in a small circle so its back was now facing the burning bush. The creature kept looking over its shoulder to make sure the fire was staying on the bush, and on one peek it realized the fire was almost done consuming the bush. It looked for the next safest place to warm the host, but that meant getting closer to the large tree which was smoldering angrily. Plumes of white smoke rose larger and larger and Varturshan could almost see the new flames starting in the tree trunk.

Fighting both the spirit and host urges to stay away from the burning tree, Varturshan methodically walked closer. It passed through the small ring of fire reaching out from the apex of the lightning strike, and the creature quietly prided itself on overcoming one of it’s animal fears. The monster felt the heat growing in the trunk of the tree, and knew this fire had the power to both dry and consume its host. Varturshan gave the tree a distrustful look but begrudgingly turned its back on the fire.

Minutes went by and the creature could feel the back of the jacket and the seat of its pants drying. As the fabric lost its water content it became dramatically lighter and Varturshan cracked the host’s mouth in a strange, wicked smile. It felt the fire’s energy feeding the host’s body. The monster realized that fire was something very different and important for these humans. It made a mental note to work on fire fear in its next animal host.

A large POP woke Varturshan out of its reverie and its body jolted from surprise. One chunk of the trunk exploded from the growing fire and lay smoking next to the host’s right foot. The creature turned quickly and saw small flames licking from the wound in the tree’s trunk. The edges of the lightning strike were now an ashy grey as bark turned to charcoal. The creature wanted to stay and warm itself more, but the fire was now beginning to crush Varturshan’s confidence in its newfound fire tolerance.

It turned and sniffed the air. The creature could still smell its own scent path reeking of moist man and mildew. It sniffed through the host’s nose like a bloodhound on the scent as it returned towards the black path.

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

Ben couldn’t take it any longer. He was tired, still hungry, still thirsty, and mildly wet from the thunderstorm. The balls of his feet were in agony with every step, but the pain drowned out the disgusting, squishy feeling of wet feet and socks.

There were even more downed lodgepole trees in the new area Ben wanted to cross. He seriously hated that tree species now. All it seemed to do was over breed and choke everything out. The lodgepole groves were either too thick to walk through, or they fell down and made the going even harder. When a forest fire came they burned so severely they consumed all the other trees around them. Weeds of the forest, he thought with disgust.

Ben took a momentary hiatus from his Lodgepole Pine-hating thoughts to sit on the nearest fallen trunk. The forest around him looked like a giant hand had smashed all the trees flat. The fallen trunks lay almost parallel to each other. It reminded him of the trees around Mount St. Helens he’d visited as a child.

Sitting on the hard trunk felt like heaven to Ben’s burning feet. He pulled off his shoes and started massaging his toes and arches with deep, rhythmic squeezes. A look of relief washed over his face as he closed his eyes and continued to rub in a Zen trance. He switched from right foot to left foot and even let out a small humming groan of pleasure. Once seated, Ben’s body didn’t want to move from the tree trunk.

Ben watched his socks gradually dry from the friction created by his rubbing. They left a rotting smell on his hands. He thought about ceremoniously burning the socks when he returned to Chicago. In fact, he wanted to burn all the clothing on his body. Perhaps that would help him purge the memories of this trip.

Overcome with exhaustion, Ben lay down sideways on the log. He first tried curling up in the fetal position and balancing, but quickly fell backward off the log in the dirt on the other side. Brushing himself off he tried lying on the log again, this time on his back with arms and legs splayed off to each side. He looked like some version of DaVinci’s Vetruvian man lying on a log. He couldn’t hold the position long, and the log started digging into the tender space between Ben’s shoulder blades. His back felt stretched like a gymnast and protested mightily. It only took a couple minutes and Ben had to roll off the log.

His eyes drooped. All he could feel was a heavy energy tugging him towards the ground. Ben slid to the earth below the log and lay down peacefully. His eyes closed almost immediately.

 

 

Susan was poking his belly playfully in bed. She used to like to do that before she tired of his lump of a gut and slightly growing man boobs. He couldn’t help it, the hours it took to get the partner’s attention left very little time for going to the gym.

He looked at Susan and she smiled back at him. Their eyes met and he felt the rush that made his stomach flutter and his bowels tingle. Suddenly his heart was racing and he felt warm. All the things she did to him.

She lay there in the blue and red Cubs t-shirt she’d stolen long ago from his wardrobe. It fit her like a comical sack or shroud, but was big enough to double as a very handy nightgown. Plus it had the old-school cub bear mascot on it they both loved.

Ben got out of bed and found his heel-less slippers sitting next to his end table. He slipped his feet in one-by-one and smiled as he wriggled his toes in the soft lambs wool. Walking over to the window he could see Lake Michigan standing out a brilliant blue. It contrasted starkly with the wall of buildings rising from its shores. Ben watched a small boat sail across the lake in front of him, presumably heading out for a fun Sunday excursion.

Ben turned and saw Susan in the kitchen. She was making coffee and Ben relished the slightly burnt aroma coming from the pot. He went to the fridge and brought out a carton of eggs and a loaf of bread, then added a large pat of butter to the fry pan waiting on the stove. The smell of frying eggs in butter made his stomach growl, and he couldn’t wait to get them on his plate. Ben made them in his favorite way: medium hardness with just a hint of runny yolk. Susan loved them this way too.

She sat down at the table and Ben brought over the eggs on a small blue serving plate. Susan dished herself up one egg, and Ben took the other three. The toaster popped up two golden brown pieces of toast. Susan grabbed one for herself before laying the other on Ben’s plate. He looked up and saw her brushing a lock of blonde hair behind her ears before it dipped in her egg yolk. Ben opened the giant jar of Nutella he’d gotten at the price club and spread thick globs of it all over his toast. He knew Susan wouldn’t approve, but it was Sunday and he didn’t care.

 

 

Ben woke with a start, his stomach rumbling. His eyes focused on the dirt in front of him, the sticks, the shadow of a tree trunk, the ants starting to come out of their holes after the deluge. He sat up and sadly surveyed his feet, hands, clothing, and the flattened grove of trees all around him. The disappointment made him want to cry so badly, but Ben quietly collected himself. He rose to his feet stiffly with a resigned demeanor that somehow had a flicker of determination.

Ben turned and faced east again, desperately wanting that breakfast.

 

 

Varturshan moved stealthily back towards the black path. A tiny bit of light was rising in the east and the creature could hear the beginning warbles of Nuthatches greeting the morning and each other. The spirit had never chosen a bird as a host for a variety of reasons, and Varturshan particularly hated these tiny ones. They always wanted to pick at its kills and meddle in the creature’s business. They also betrayed the host’s presence with their incessant pre-dawn calls.

The creature looked upward at the forest canopy. It could barely make out the small grey and white birds as they occasionally flew back and forth between the branches. Varturshan hissed softly, and as if on cue all the birds in the nearby area took flight in directions away from the monster. They could sense its presence and wanted nothing to do with it.

Varturshan knew it was getting closer to the black path again. Steve’s borrowed clothes were almost dry, and the friction from walking sucked the last little bit of moisture from the fabric. Moving was now much easier and the monster was pleased with the improved progress.

Nearing the road the lodgepole trees suddenly got thicker. Varturshan wove its way through the branches like a snake, this time hardly getting a scratch on the host’s body. The ground was drying rapidly and the hail was nearly gone so Varturshan took advantage of the faster walking. It didn’t need to smell for its trail any more, the black path was so close it could sense it.

Just when the trees seemed so thick the creature thought it might have to drop to a crawl again, Varturshan broke through to the open space beside the road. It could see the scrubby brush covering the shoulders, and this time there was no hail to make the going slippery. Varturshan walked with a quicker pace, moving the host’s arms in a swinging motion that made the creature look like a professional speed-walker. It had a purpose, for sure: it wanted that smelly man’s heart.

The sky started turning a lighter shade of blue, slowly transitioning from blue to peach as the Sun got closer to peeking over the horizon. Varturshan looked ahead and saw the dark outlines of a pair of deer step out of the trees to its left. The deer looked both ways before emerging completely from the forest. When they spied Varturshan they immediately raised their tails and sprung across the road to the other side.

The creature thought about pursuing them for a split second, then it remembered bitterly that it was not in a cougar or bear’s body. The deer watched Varturshan from the other side of the road, almost taunting the one who possessed the human body. The monster wanted their meat so badly, but a lone human could not catch a deer with its bare hands. This was another limitation Varturshan hadn’t planned for.

The creature re-focused on the path ahead. The black path was running currently straight, but up ahead it made a sharp jog to the left. Varturshan hoped for more of the straight path after that. It liked seeing far ahead, and it kept hoping that one time it would finally see the smelly man emerge from the woods. Then it would be time.

As Varturshan continued to stare ahead, a new set of lights emerged from around the corner. They were very large and intense and pierced the creature’s eyes. The contrast from the morning dusk made the creature temporarily blind and it fell to the ground in the underbrush. It didn’t want to be seen by this new loud, blinding monster. Those creatures always seemed to move only on the black path, and even though the walking was easier to the side of the path, the loud bright creatures frightened the monster.

Varturshan rolled onto its stomach and watched through the tangle of branches as the loud creature passed. It moved very quickly. The spirit hoped it was hidden enough buried deep in the brush. It cringed slightly as the Dodge Diesel rumbled by with a loud belch from the tailpipe. If Steve had seen the truck he would have moderately cursed the men he called “Bubbas.” He would have also been secretly jealous of the fishing poles poking out of the truck bed. Steve had always loved a good sunrise on the lake.

The monster waited until the loud bright thing had passed completely, then it slowly rose out of the underbrush. More and more it moved with an inhuman grace. The host’s feet made hardly any sound as they instinctually felt all the undulations in the ground and passed that information to the brain Varturshan controlled. All the feedback was buffered by the thousands of years of experience Varturshan had in these woods.

It had been a while since the spirit had been this close to the black path, and even then the last time it had seen the path was a quick glance from the trees when it was last a bear. At that time the path had been narrower and the loud bright things that passed over it had been much smaller and less frightening.

The peach-tinged sky started to give way to brighter and brighter shades of orange and pink. Varturshan walked steadily on, quickly overtaking the next bend on the black path. Past the bend lay another long straight stretch, with very open spaces on either side. The bushes on this section were practically non-existent, and the creature could move its body with even more ease.

It smiled, feeling closer to its prey by the minute.

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

Ben watched the small glow in the east get bigger and broader across the sky. It started with a tiny hint of lighter blue against the dark background, then progressed to peaches, pinks and purples. The light cast a brilliant hue against the bottoms of the remaining thunderstorm clouds. He watched the display with awe.

A quick shiver ran up Ben’s spine as he saw the last bit of sunrise paint the sky. Holding still made him realize how cold he was without the constant motion heating his limbs. He wrapped his arms around his torso like a bear hug for himself and tried conserving what little heat he had left.

The going was still slow. Ben had to walk carefully in between the fallen trees, often climbing over multiple trees in quick succession to move even a yard eastward. He tried his best to climb each log, but with each tree his legs felt more and more like Jell-O. Lifting each leg was like lifting a bag full of sand. It made his quads scream. Nevertheless, he continued doggedly east.

Ben approached a particularly large log warily. It was a Ponderosa Pine, and much thicker than all the smaller lodgepole trees around it. Ben marveled at the amount of wind it must have taken to topple the behemoth, and realized it must have been a very wet storm. The tree was completely uprooted from the soil, and its exposed stump had other smaller lodgepole trunks draped across it.

He looked up and down the log, hoping for some way around it. There were fallen trees to the left and right that looked like spaghetti thrown on the floor, so he resigned himself to crawling over the new obstacle. He found a particularly sturdy lodgepole trunk to stand on so he could at least have a leg up.

Ben walked over to the smaller trunk and carefully placed his right foot on the bark. It felt steady enough, so he placed his left hand on the ponderosa for balance and lifted himself so that both feet balanced on the lodgepole trunk. He felt slightly like a tightrope walker or one of those log rolling people he watched on the strongman competitions that permeated the sports channels at 2 am. He walked carefully along the trunk for a couple feet and felt more confident with each step. This must be what a gymnast feels like, he thought.

Ben approached the larger log and tried to lift his right leg to the top of its arc. Sadly he was not flexible like a gymnast and his exhausted hamstrings couldn’t reach the top. Ben sighed, he was only a couple inches short of the log summit, but those inches felt like miles.

He decided to climb up the way he used to get on his sister’s pony. Ben threw himself across the log on his belly like a sack of flour. His arms draped on one side of the tree as his legs struggled to find a purchase on the other. He gripped the trunk with his arms and hitched his right leg up over the tree trunk. Thankfully the tree didn’t try to bite him like his sister’s pony did.

After many minutes of huffing and puffing and wriggling his way onto the log Ben finally reached the top. He rolled to his knees and surveyed his surroundings. Across the log were more fallen trees, but he could see a group of standing trees only 100 yards away. He breathed a bit easier, realizing he was almost at the end of the log-climbing adventure. His legs softened.

Ben felt like a conqueror. He’d bested the tree and could see the end of his ordeal. To celebrate he stood up on the log and raised his hands in what looked like a “touchdown” signal from a football referee. Ben wanted to hoot for joy, but remained quiet. He couldn’t afford having the Steve-thing hear him.

Not two seconds after he did the “touchdown” move, the bark beneath Ben’s feet gave way and sloughed off the ponderosa’s trunk. He fell backwards off the log, and his head hit the lodgepole trunk below with a thunk.

The world went black.

 

 

Ben woke dazed. His eyes couldn’t focus and his head ached horribly. His hand felt the back of his head and came back covered in blood. Ben couldn’t help himself and started crying. The crying instantly made pain lance through his head and he stopped, terrified.

His eyes cleared little by little. The world regained its focus, and Ben watched the sky above. The clouds were clearing after the evening’s thunderstorms. He could see the last night stars dimming in the west. Above him the sky was turning a light blue in between the fading thunderclouds. The clouds lightened and split apart as the atmosphere absorbed the last little bit of their vapor.

A tiny bird flew overhead. Ben’s gaze turned to meet it and he saw it was a creature the size of his fist with a white underbelly, grey wings and a little black cap on the back of its head. The little bird flew to the nearby forest and sang a song that sounded like lasers zapping in a video game. Two more little birds flew out of the neighboring forest and joined it. Ben rolled to his knees and sat up. He couldn’t see over the log to the forest ahead, but he could hear the birds talking to each other.

Ben sat on his knees and made a mental check of all his body parts. The legs seemed okay, even though they were covered in bruises. His arms were also okay, and as he made his mental inventory he came away gratefully happy that nothing was broken. Ben’s head was a different matter.

The back of his skull throbbed and his hair was matted with blood. His fingers probed for the spot the blood came from, and he found a small cut at the crown of his skull. When his fingers touched the spot the stinging feeling jolted his whole system. The cut was still wet, but when Ben tested the area with his clean palm he came away with only a little blood. It was clotting already.

The headache was intense. Ben’s eyes were clearer, but it felt like they were popping out of his skull with each throbbing heartbeat. His neck felt like a piece of wood, and turning it shot spasms of pain into his shoulder muscles. Ben poked each of his extremities and gratefully found sensation in all of them. He was lucky he didn’t break his neck.

As Ben sat doing his mental inventory the three small birds left the trees in a group and flew toward him. They landed on the large ponderosa log in a little line, each looking at him with inquisitive eyes. The bird in the middle hopped towards Ben, then hopped down to the lower log right next to him.

Ben held perfectly still and watched the little bird. It watched him back and continued hopping towards him. It cocked its head at a forty-five-degree angle then straightened it back out. Ben sat amazed at how brazen the tiny bird was. It hopped even closer to him. In a strange moment of clarity, Ben reached into his pocket and produced one of his last huckleberries. He offered it to the bird with an outstretched hand.

The bird immediately flew to Ben’s hand like a trained falcon and plucked the berry from his fingers. It swallowed it greedily in one bite and looked back at Ben for more. Its friends sat on the log, too shy to come to Ben, but still hoping for a berry of their own. Each cocked their head in the same 45-degree pose of expectation.

Ben reached carefully into his pocket with his left hand and produced another berry for the bird sitting perched on his right. He approached slowly with the fruit pinched between his left index finger and thumb until the berry was in front of the bird’s beak. The bird agreeably plucked the berry from his fingers and swallowed it as quickly as the first. Ben tried to stand, but the movement surprised the bird and it flew to the log next to its companions.

“I offer you my friendship,” said Ben to the birds and the forest, and he pulled his last three berries out of his pocket. They were a bit crushed and mushy, but they still slightly resembled huckleberries. He carefully approached the birds, but all three flew off. Ben’s shoulders slumped for a moment, but he decided to put the berries on the log anyway. He laid them in a tiny row, 1…2…3, and stepped back away from the trunk.

To Ben’s delight, all three birds returned to the log, landed in a little row, and each devoured its huckleberry. They all cocked their heads at him one last time and flew back in to the lodgepole canopy.

Ben sat stunned. He didn’t know if he’d just hallucinated things, or if it had genuinely been a Bambi moment. He looked to the trees beyond the log and tried to catch a glimpse of movement in the branches. He could see nothing.

Again, Ben climbed the smaller log and hoisted himself up on the larger log. This time he didn’t get cocky with his achievement, and simply slid down to the other side.

He’d been enough of a show off for the day.

 

 

The sun peeked over the horizon, and Varturshan looked over its right shoulder to observe. Bright beams of light filtered through the lodgepole branches on the opposite side of the black path, occasionally blinding the creature. At one particularly bright juncture Varturshan raised its right hand and shielded its eyes in a semi-salute gesture. Despite it all, the creature hunted on.

Varturshan enjoyed the easy walking on this stretch of the black path. The sides were covered in grass and small bushes that gave easily when walked through. Varturshan felt like it was moving effortlessly, despite the pain in its hip. It felt the weakness growing in the host’s legs, though, so it continued walking at a steady pace. It did not want to waste precious energy trying to run.

Further down the black path the creature saw small mouse-sized chipmunks and larger fat ground squirrels cavorting across the black path in the rays of sunlight. They chased each other in circles, then darted off in to the bushes. As Varturshan neared, they all lowered their ears flat to their heads and sprinted to the bushes as fast as they could. Only one little ground squirrel remained, busily chomping on something dead on the black path. As the creature neared, it could see the squirrel was eating the carcass of another ground squirrel. Varturshan smiled wickedly – even the most innocent of creatures could become cannibals.

Varturshan neared the place where the squirrel sat eating and lowered to its haunches to watch it. The tiny creature looked up at the monster briefly, then started pulling the carcass to the opposite side of the road. It watched Varturshan with both eyes as it pulled backwards on the dead squirrel. Varturshan tilted Steve’s head to the right side like a bird, then sprinted across the road and stomped on the squirrel with one quick hit. Varturshan broke the squirrel’s neck and crushed its skull in one fell swoop. This was not the fresh meat the creature really wanted, but anything would do to fuel the host.

Varturshan used its fingers to rip open the squirrel’s stomach and it quickly devoured all the entrails and the tiny heart. The host’s body tried to retch and throw the meal up, but Varturshan exercised its power and kept the food in. It ate the meat off of the tiny squirrel’s bones, essentially scraping out the insides of the rodent’s hide. Once finished, all that was left was a tiny husk of fur that Varturshan tossed in the bushes.

At first the host’s stomach gurgled and heaved at the ground squirrel meat, but Varturshan was starting to tame the host’s gastrointestinal tract. The stomach slowly settled and the creature could feel a tiny perk of energy from the little squirrel; even that was enough to go on. It wiped the squirrel blood from its lips with one arm of the camouflage jacket.

The creature continued walking and soon moved past the straight stretch and into an area where the black path skirted along a small river. It looked across the path at the gurgling waters and licked its papery lips. Water sounded good after the tiny breakfast, so the creature crossed the black path and went to the river’s edge.

Where Varturshan stood the river was no bigger than a large creek, and a person could ford it in five or six large steps. The water rushed quickly through a series of rocks, however, so it remained deceptively swift. Varturshan kneeled down and lowered its head to the water like a cougar or bear would. It drank in long, slurping gulps, rising on occasion to sit and enjoy the ecstasy of the cold water running down its throat. The creature felt the water energizing every inch of the host’s body.

After drinking its fill, Varturshan stood and wiped its mouth again with the sleeve of the stolen jacket. The arm was stained darkly with water and blood, making it a particularly ugly shade of black. The creature turned and faced the side of the black path where it had originally been walking. Over there, somewhere, was the smelly man, and Varturshan felt a burning surge of anger. It wanted that man. The squirrel was not enough.

Varturshan turned to cross the black path again, this time returning to the west side of its flanks. The monster started moving at a slightly faster walk and put it’s hands in the pockets of the jacket for warmth. Off in the distance it could hear a noise approaching. It was loud and whining, like the sound of the bright monster during the night. Varturshan debated whether to keep walking or hide back in the brush of the forest. It decided to test the situation and keep walking.

The sound got louder and louder until a large object came around the corner facing Varturshan. It had bright eyes like the last one, but they didn’t seem to blind the creature like before. The morning sunlight makes their eyes glow less, the spirit thought.

As the truck approached Varturshan, it started to slow. The spirit could see a man riding this creature inside a small cover. It must be some sort of steed, thought the monster. As the truck got closer it almost pulled to a stop.

Varturshan looked at the man in the cab with burning eyes. It locked on him, and for a second the driver saw the darkness that possessed the dirty man in baggy clothing. He’d originally been planning to offer this stranger a ride, but upon second glance he knew there was something wrong about the guy.

Varturshan opened its mouth in what was supposed to be a friendly looking smile, but it came off looking like the grin of the Cheshire Cat below the devil’s eyes.

The driver’s eyes opened wider and his face turned white. He hit the accelerator hard. The truck’s tires screamed as they fought for traction, leaving black marks on the pavement. He sped away, checking his rearview mirror to make sure the Devil he’d seen was not following him. Further down the road he would later stop the truck and vomit out the side door. It was an encounter the man would never forget.

Varturshan felt a sinking disappointment at losing the hope of another meal, but it refocused on the promise of the smelly man. His heart would taste so good.

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

Ben rubbed the back of his head and felt the scab hardening just below the crown. It didn’t sting any more, but ached so badly he felt his head would shred itself apart. His eyes fought the blurriness, but it seemed there were two of everything. He hated to do it, but Ben lowered to the ground and sat in the dirt on his knees.

His entire body ached. It felt like he’d been playing football with 300-lb men, and for a guy whose biggest sporting event was high school swimming the feeling was completely foreign. The ground felt cool and he alternated placing his hands on the ground, then holding the cool flesh to his head. It was the only relief he could find.

Every inch of him didn’t want to go on. He’d spent days in this forested hellhole, and he couldn’t see any way out. There was no road, no sight of the resort, no sight of anyone but the animals that watched him. The empty quiet began to get on his nerves, and he strangely missed the sound of the traffic running day and night in Chicago.

Thoughts of Chicago streamed through his head. He missed the Cubs games, the walks along the lake, the clatter of the ‘L.’ The pizza. On that thought his stomach rumbled mightily, then fell hollowly silent. He’d never known true hunger, but now it was his constant companion. He cursed himself for giving the last three huckleberries to the birds. It must have been the concussion, he thought, that’s what made me do it.

Ben couldn’t stop – he started thinking of the foods he missed. Fat, cheesy slabs of deep dish, juicy Italian beef sandwiches, the mix of cheese and caramel popcorn at Garrett’s. The thought hit him – he might not eat any of these foods again. Ben’s heart sank lower than his intestines. Sure, a life enjoying many of those foods had given him the belly he carried like an early-term child, but he missed them all.

He looked at his stomach, and marveled at how flat it’d become over the last few days. He rubbed it slowly and felt the surface. Sure, it wasn’t a six-pack like Mike boasted, but it was decidedly more toned and taught. It reminded him of his swimming days. Ben vowed to keep the exercise going if he made it out of this forest alive. He just wouldn’t do walking any more. A gym would be heaven compared to the grinding time he’d put in amongst the trees. Ben did decide he would still treat himself to a pizza, though. He’d earned that at least.

Thinking of Mike’s abs stopped Ben’s thoughts in their tracks. His memory flashed to Mike prone on the ground with his chest ripped open and Steve staring at him with burning eyes. That wasn’t the end his friend was supposed to have. He was supposed to be that fit old man in his 70’s that still worked out every day and put his recipes for longevity on the Internet. He was supposed to find that girl who would finally tolerate all his endless preening in the mirror and find it cute. He was supposed to make partner at his law firm and take on all the corporate bigwigs that screwed their employees. He wasn’t supposed to die on the forest floor like that. Ben had the distinct feeling that this forest was cursed.

Ben sat on the forest floor and looked around him. His neck sent screams of shock-pains when he turned it left or right, but he didn’t care anymore. He would die in great pain, and there was no way around it, so he figured he’d better get used to it.

This section of cursed woods was, again, a section of Lodgepole Pine that seemed hell-bent on killing off anything around it. The young trees were clustered so tight he could barely wriggle through, and Ben dreaded any more slogging while feeling the branches cut at his body and face.

He hated those trees. Ben decided they were the shittiest breed of tree ever. He wondered who in their right mind thought to plant those trees here, and why they hadn’t come through and thinned at least a few. For the first time Ben thought of loggers as his friends. They’d kill the shit out of those Devil trees.

Ben looked straight ahead and watched the sun’s rays climbing higher in the sky. It seemed so far away filtered through the lodgepole’s tangled branches, and that brought another tinge of sadness to his heart. There was no road ahead, there was no salvation ahead, there was only this: death amongst the Devil’s trees.

Ben stared blankly. He wondered if any of the woodland animals would sniff his body and mourn him when he was gone. He wondered if anyone at the office would think about him. He wondered if Susan would feel any remorse at all.

The answer his head replied was a soul-crushing “no.” He figured the best he could do was to be some carrion-eater’s dinner, and perhaps some logger would find his bones someday. At that point, would anyone even know who he was?

He hung his head in sorrow and looked at his clasped hands. Ben had never been a church-going man, since his parents had raised him as a flower child and detested organized religion. At the end, though, his thoughts flew to where he would go when he was gone. In a sudden act of penitence, he whispered aloud.

“God, if you truly are there, and you truly want me to continue, please send me a sign.”

Silence greeted him, and Ben’s heart despaired even deeper. He didn’t want to go to the end. He was afraid there would be only black silence beyond. That he would wink out like a candle flame burned out.

That was when he heard the staccato chugging of a large truck’s engine brake.

 

 

Varturshan walking at a medium pace parallel to the black path. Every once in a while it would sniff the air, but the return scent hardly told the spirit anything. It longed for the use of a bear’s nose, or even a small chipmunk, because anything was better than this human’s. It decided never to inhabit a human host again after this experience. Eating humans, that was another thing all together. But a bear could do that better.

On one particular sniff the creature recognized the smell of smoke. It was very faint, but with each intake it seemed to grow more pungent. Varturshan turned left and looked back at the path it had just traveled. It saw a small plume starting to rise from the forest. Fire consumed the tree Varturshan had warmed itself on, and was most likely spreading to the neighboring plants. The creature quickened its pace. It didn’t want to get any closer to the growing blaze.

In the meantime the creature observed the surrounding forest, scanning for clues of its prey. The morning light grew and grew, but it didn’t seem to make the shadows in the forest around Varturshan seem any lighter. It hoped for a flicker of movement, but all it saw was stillness. On the opposite side of the path the river still burbled, snaking its way through the trees and underbrush. A mosquito landed on the creature’s cheek and it slapped the bug hard. The pain in the host’s face told the spirit that it should not hit the host that hard again.

With eyes watering from the slap, Varturshan refocused its attention forward. The walking was decent thanks to the smaller bushes in the area. In fact, the walking had been pretty fantastic since the hell of the thunderstorm, and the cursed hail. Varturshan wriggled its toes to surge blood in them. They’d gotten cold again and were falling numb. The creature needed them fresh, because it wanted to move quickly if it saw the smelly man.

On one of these confident steps the creature felt a sudden churn in the host’s stomach. The organ seemed to drop to the host’s bowels, then roll upward into the throat. Varturshan’s head swam and the eyes watered once more. The creature suddenly bent the host’s head down and vomited profusely on the grass by its feet. The vomit was red with the blood of the ground squirrel, and little bits of pink meat flecked the liquid.

Varturshan could suddenly do nothing but regurgitate. Everything it had consumed poured out in wave after wave. Gone was the ground squirrel, the water, and possibly even a little bit of the nourishing heart. On one particularly strong retch the creature started defecating as well, and it could feel the host’s undergarments fill with scat. It wanted to curse and scream, but Varturshan was so consumed with sickness it could only survive the waves of nausea and pain.

On and on went the vomiting until all that came up was yellow bile. Vomit filled the host’s nostrils and all the creature could smell was the refuse from the host’s stomach. The sinuses and throat burned with stomach acid, and the creature reeled in sensory deprivation. It rolled to the ground on the host’s left side and lay panting in the combination of dirt and scruffy grass.

For a few minutes everything seemed fine, then a new wave of nausea hit the host and Varturshan knew more vomit was coming. With no hint of the earlier confidence and power the creature rolled weakly to its hands and knees and vomited on the ground below. Again, all that came out was yellow bile.

Varturshan could not wait to get out of this host body. Being a watching spirit was much better than being engaged with a body like this. It didn’t understand why this human reacted so differently than the one it had taken long ago. Why could it not eat food? Why did it get sick all the time? Each question made the creature hate humans more and more. It wished death on all of them.

The monster waited painfully for the vomiting and nausea to recede. It took shallow breaths in the grass and tried not to smell the smell lingering in its nostrils. The scent seemed to make the host want to vomit even more. It blew forcefully out its nose and the contents shot out on the ground. A couple more forceful exhales and the nostrils seemed clear of most of the cursed scent. It sickened both the host and the parasite spirit within.

Varturshan lay back down in the grass and tried to breathe deeply. It searched for clear air to fill its lungs with, and some way to calm the sickness. With each breath the world slowly stopped spinning. After agonizing minutes of this, the creature felt somewhat better.

The pants were another matter, though. The diarrhea forced out by the power of the vomiting made the host’s buttocks move with a squishy smoothness. Varturshan hated that these creatures had to cover themselves with garments instead of fur – it made the basic body functions that much more difficult. The creature hated the squishy feeling and ripped at the belt holding the camouflage pants up.

Varturshan managed to untie the ugly knot holding the belt somewhat tight against the host’s small hips, and pushed the pants downward. It kicked at the coverings until they were bunched around the host’s ankles. It couldn’t seem to get the pants off over the foot coverings, so it kicked off the shoes and finished kicking the pants off as well. It looked like a child thrashing in the grass.

Once the pants and shoes were off, the creature stood and removed the undercovering with the bat on the crotch. Standing naked in the morning air, Varturshan felt a chill hit the host’s sex organs. They shrunk tight against its skin.

The creature looked at the soiled undercoverings and threw them away towards the edge of the woods. They landed on the top of a scrawny lodgepole seedling and hung there like a windless flag. The creature turned its attention to its backside and dropped to the grass in a sitting position. Scooting slowly, it wiped the bottom clean like a dog trying to relieve its anal glands. The movement was deeply barbaric, but the creature felt relief immediately.

It was sitting in the grass that the creature heard the sound of something large coming down the black path. This one sounded much different than the others, and had some kind of guttural roar. Varturshan tried standing quickly to escape the creature on the path, but its legs refused to cooperate. They were weak from the energy expended while vomiting.

Varturshan watched as the monster approached. It saw the bright eyes, huge and glowing, even in the daylight. It saw the bright green color that was unlike anything natural in the forest. It watched the fiery red box on top that emitted a bright red light. The new monster barreled down on Varturshan with a terrifying roar.

The creature struggled to make the host’s legs work one last time. They finally pushed at the earth, and with some effort Varturshan was upright and looking face to face with the monster. The green monster slowed with an even more terrifying explosion of noise and the creature fled to its left, into the forest’s protection.

 

The Forest Service fire truck’s driver slowed when he saw the man in the bushes, but as the man stood he realized the guy was naked from the waist down. He’d originally planned on stopping to help, but when he saw the nakedness and the terrifying look in the man’s eyes, he changed his mind in a split second. Thankfully the man ran off into the woods.

“Hey guys,” he radioed to the other fire vehicles, “I think we got us a freaker somewhere close to the access point. May be on drugs. He’s naked from the waist down…better call the sheriff; he’s somewhere near milepost 40.”

 

Chapter Thirty

 

Ben’s eyes lit up when he heard the engine brake. He stood up slowly, like a man suffering from years of arthritis. His vision blurred to black and his body wobbled drunkenly. He paused for a second and then continued. Two vertebrae popped when he reached his full height.

The sound came from his right. Ben turned his head and upper body towards the last echoes. He instinctively gripped the nearby lodgepole trunks and branches for balance. It was the first time Ben was actually grateful for the ever-choking tangle of trees; they helped him stay upright. His fingers clung tightly to the branches and he stepped forward gingerly. After a short period moving like this, Ben relaxed his shoulders in relief as his head cleared slightly. His eyesight opened up from the tunnel.

Ben could hear branches popping and cracking as he used them for balance. He didn’t care about being heard anymore. In any case, the stickly dead branches snapped so easily. One or two times Ben had to turn sideways and slowly wriggle through an exceptionally tight spot, but he moved stronger and stronger by the minute.

He left the band of thickly tangled young lodgepole trees and stepped out in a small opening. There were no pine trees for a small radius, and a tiny beam of sunlight peeked through the canopy. Ben felt the rays warm the crown of his head, but the cut on the back throbbed anew. He touched it lightly and his palm came away clean.

The sunlight somehow called Ben and pulled him in like a tractor beam. He held still in the warmth and looked up at the sky. It was a sunny day outside the forest – no clouds that he could see through the hole in the canopy. Ben turned slowly and looked at the forest surrounding him. The lodgepole thinned for a small band, then thickened directly ahead of him. In between was a strange open space, inhabited by forest plants clamoring for light. The space was studded by the occasional Ponderosa Pine.

The spot where Ben stood was conspicuously empty. The Manzanita bushes opened to the tiny clearing and there was a small carpet of grass. Ben felt suddenly loose in the legs and dropped to his knees again. He placed his hands palms-down on his thighs and contemplated the grass. On second inspection it was matted with thin, brown fur. There were circular patterns tramped in its surface.

Ben stroked the fur in the grass and wondered what it must be like for the deer who called this spot home. Did they have to fear the creature he had to fear? Did they know that monster in another form? Did their kind know how to survive? They probably just went around constantly in fear, he thought, because there were so many creatures that preyed upon them. He felt for the deer.

Ben sat in the sunlight a minute longer and enjoyed it. A tiny twinge woke him from his trance and he gathered what little strength he had left and stood. He faced forward with a resolute look in his eye and headed back in the forest again.

The Lodgepole trees clawed Ben’s arms and legs. He grabbed hold of the branches on either side of his face and held them out of the way just long enough for the branches to gain tension. Suddenly they whipped back as Ben’s hand slipped and both branches hit him square in the face. He fell to his knees and rolled to all fours shaking his head in frustration. Tears streamed from his eyes, but Ben blinked them back furiously. His focus turned back towards the road. His eyes had a new resigned hardness to them.

Ben crawled under the lower tier of branches and found the going surprisingly pleasant. He moved much faster than he did on two feet, and even better than the trek through the downed forest. He felt the sap collecting pine needles on his palms again. Ben made a mental note to get rubbing alcohol when he got back to town.

He continued crawling under the trees, but looked at the earth all around. From the ground level he could tell how close all the trunks were to each other, and they expanded out in a tangled mess to either side. Ahead, however, there was another tantalizingly bright bit of ground. Ben prayed for another break in the lodgepole. He wanted to burn the whole forest of those fucking trees down.

The brightness up ahead grew greater. Ben crawled as fast as he could towards it because he could see a break in the trees. It was big enough that a band of sunlight lit up the forest floor ahead. The contrast to the darkness hurt Ben’s eyes; he had no way to shield them, though, so he continued squinting ahead. Ben’s heart raced and his mind thought about how he would summon a car in his present shape. He crawled a tiny bit faster.

Ben emerged from the bushy lodgepole trees into a wide, manicured open space. He looked overhead and admired the craft of man: a large string of electrical wire, looping between single wooden poles on an expanse that stretched from horizon to horizon. He could hear the current’s slight hum and it made his skin prickle ever so slightly. The ground underneath was cleared free of brush and tree. It cut like a scar across the forest.

Turning from right to left, Ben scanned the expanse of openness under the power line. His heart sunk a little when he realized that the brightness wasn’t actually the road. A sign of humanity was a good thing, though, he thought. Perhaps this line might lead him to the resort. He absently thought about the blonde waitress.

Ben was watching the power line to the north when a dark form crawled out of the forest to the east. It stood on two feet, and watched Ben’s back with burning eyes.

Ben felt the electricity of that gaze and turned. He found himself staring across a small distance into the eyes of the man formerly known as Steve.

 

 

Varturshan scurried off in the woods naked as the loud green beast passed on the black path. It’s bellowing hurt the creature’s ears, and Varturshan had to hide somewhere to escape the sonic distress. When the monster felt the coast was all clear again, it slowly crept out of the forest cover towards the abandoned pants.

The pants were still fairly useful and not soiled, but the undergarment with the bat was completely ruined. They reeked of scat and lost meals. Varturshan left the underwear and tried feeding each of its legs in to their corresponding pant leg, to no avail. The monster fumbled and poked its feet in the holes, but the leg didn’t want to come out the other end. It hissed when it realized the foot coverings had to come off in order to get the leg coverings back on. Taking them off had been so much simpler.

Varturshan kicked both its hiking shoes off and tried feeding its legs back in the giant pants. This time both feet slid neatly into place and each foot poked out of its corresponding foot hole. The creature stood, adjusted the leg coverings so they were relatively comfortable, then it tied off the leather belt at the waist again. The pants billowed from Varturshans tiny waist like a pair of MC Hammer’s parachute pants, and the creature felt the odd empty feeling of the host’s genitals rubbing on the coarse fabric. It finally realized the bat under coverings had been good for something.

The creature returned walking north next to the black path. It felt somewhat annoyed at being interrupted while it was cleaning itself, but the desire for food ruled all of Varturshans thoughts. It had lost all its last meals – every last bit. There was no more squirrel to fuel the host, no more heart, and certainly no more water left in the host’s system. Varturshan could feel its legs getting soft and shaky, and its vision blurred. A loud gurgle painfully gripped the host’s stomach.

In a panic, the creature untied the knot around the host’s waist and immediately dropped the leg coverings. Varturshan felt the sharp shock of the fresh morning air against the host’s breeding parts, but all of that was overridden by the new urge to defecate. It groaned as it squatted to the ground and spewed out another wave of sickened scat.

It was in this frustrated moment that Varturshan caught a whiff of the smell. It was small and faint, but was most certainly the prey’s scent. It hinted of the man’s fear, and that sent waves of ecstasy rolling in the monster’s brain. Varturshans head immediately jerked up as if woken from a slumber and it’s eyes narrowed and focused on the horizon. It used Steve’s nose to continue sniffing delicately at the air.

From what the creature could tell, the prey was close, but in the forest. It mapped out a diagonal path from where it was standing towards the direction of the smell in its mind. The host was getting weaker, but it probably had enough energy to make it to the new meal. Varturshan was positive that this meal would be the one to restore itself to greatness. The creature’s heart raced in primal anticipation.

Varturshan turned inland and away from the black path. It used its nose like a homing beacon, smelling the air intently for any whiff of the prey’s fear. The scent only came in fits and spurts, with some waves exploded from the darkness like a thick cloud. Varturshan couldn’t fathom how one creature could emit smell so inconsistently, but at the end of the day it was just grateful it could smell anything. Human noses weren’t good for much.

The wendigo waded back in the thick, tangled arms of the Lodgepole Pines at the edge of the road. The tree tips facing the road were bright green and healthy, but the further inland the creature moved it met scraggly, sharp needleless branches. One particular branch poked the host’s cheek and left a small line of blood. The creature hissed and dropped to its knees, continuing on all fours. It would have to travel under this thicket of dead branches again.

The monster crawled. It felt the undulation of the ground and the warmth of the living soil. It sniffed for the prey and occasionally adjusted its trajectory through the woods. It continued further and further into the dark forest.

The smell grew stronger, so strong at one point that Varturshan looked around, expecting to see the smelly man standing right in front of its eyes. It sighed sadly when it realized the smell was just a mirage. The creature made a series of tiny sniffs like a dog inspecting a new visitor, then continued crawling further. It could feel the stinging tiny cuts in the host’s palms. These were hands that were used to holding a pen, not crawling the forest floor. Varturshan ignored the pain and pushed the host body further.

Up ahead the creature saw a band of brightness cutting across the dim forest floor. It looked like there might be an opening, and Varturshan secretly hoped the ground covering would be smooth and easy like the sides of the black path. The host’s body shook with even the slightest exertion. The monster continued crawling towards that light.

Varturshan emerged from the woods on its hands and knees. It could not smell its prey anymore, but it didn’t need to. Up ahead, with his back facing towards the creature, was that smelly man the monster so desperately sought.

A tiny string of drool dripped from the corner of Varturshans mouth.

 

Chapter Thirty-One

 

Ben locked eyes with the creature that used to be his best friend. He searched for any sign of Steve in there. All he got in return was the pointed, angry gaze. Ben narrowed his eyes and gave the creature a defiant look back. Steve wasn’t in there anymore.

His mind raced as he held the creature’s gaze. He couldn’t turn right because that was where he came from. He also couldn’t turn left because the wall of pokey lodgepole branches made a quick escape impossible. That left only one option: Ben turned and ran north down the power line.

His lungs burned immediately but Ben didn’t care. He willed his legs to move forward, to lift even though his muscles screamed back. He pumped his arms forward and back for momentum, praying every inch forward would get him further and further away from that thing that wanted him hungrily.

Ben could hear the creature behind him. It snarled and huffed and stumbled over rocks, but couldn’t seem to close the 100 or so yards between them. At one point Ben heard a shriek and a snarl combined with a thud. The creature must have fallen, he thought instinctually, and that made Ben run even faster.

Just when he felt he was a safe distance away, Ben’s toe stubbed a rock and he fell sprawling on the dirt. His arms flailed as he fell and lay crossed in a warding-off position under his body. Ben rolled over just in time to see the creature leaping towards him.

This time the monster hit its mark and fell squarely on top of its surprised and terrified prey. Ben didn’t even have time to raise his legs or hands in a defensive posture. Varturshan made sure Ben’s arms remained pinned beneath the host’s body. Ben tried to scratch and claw at the monster’s face, but the creature’s hands gripped Bens wrists with a power like steel, pinning his arms to the ground. Ben’s feet bucked and kicked beneath Varturshans rear, making the creature look like some kind of strange bronco rider.

 

 

Varturshan locked eyes with the prey. It looked back at the creature defiantly, then turned and ran. Varturshan hissed and pursued.

The man ran surprisingly fast and Varturshan cursed the weakness now softening the host’s legs. It tried to push the legs faster and faster, but they resisted with a dead feeling like they had been turned to clay. The monster willed every inch of the host body forward. It was terribly hungry. The creature felt a tiny glimmer of response in the host’s legs – even the body knew it needed food.

Varturshans strides lengthened and become more fluid. It felt like a cougar in mid-sprint. Each step breathed new life in the creature’s muscles, and the closer it got to the prey, the easier it seemed to run.

With all its focus on the smelly man, the creature neglected to see the small rock Ben had easily jumped over in his flight. Varturshan ran full-bore into it and shrieked in pain as the host’s toe crumpled against the surface. All of the host body weight continued forward over the rock, and the creature used its momentum to roll out of the fall like an acrobat. It didn’t even realize it had shrieked out loud – the wendigo’s focus still bored into the prey’s back.

The fall only energized Varturshan. The tuck and roll maneuver kept all its efforts moving forward towards the prey, so it hardly lost any time in pursuit. With each stride it could feel the distance between the hunter and prey slipping away. It could smell the man’s heart and hear it beating fast.

As if by some miracle, the prey tripped on a rock of his own and went sprawling. As he rolled over, the creature closed the last distance. Varturshan grinned as it leapt for the kill.

The creature landed squarely on top of its prey in one smooth movement, pinning his arms and legs to the ground. The man struggled, but Varturshan felt immense strength building before the kill. All semblance of weakness was temporarily banished from the host as the surge of adrenaline beckoned the body to fight with every inch it had.

The creature observed the prey for a split second, watching the vein in the prey’s neck bulge with blood. It wanted to taste that delicious blood, and now. Varturshan leaned down slowly with its mouth open, ready to bite. It would take out the prey’s throat, then feast on the rest.

 

 

Ben looked up at Varturshans face and saw the hunger in the creature’s eyes. It licked its lips and a little drool fell from its mouth onto Ben’s collar. It pinned his arms firmly to the ground and lowered its head towards Ben’s like a sick kind of lover. As it drew closer, the creature opened its mouth in a part grimace/part biting motion. Ben thought perversely that the monster possessing his friend looked like the character “Jaws” in his favorite James Bond movies.

As the creature drew closer to Ben’s face, Ben gathered what little strength he had left and made a lunge for its nose. He made contact and bit squarely on the tip. His teeth dug through flesh and he felt the coppery taste of blood in his mouth. The tiny nub of flesh fell on Ben’s tongue and he spat it out, disgusted. The monster shrieked and immediately clapped its hands to its face.

Ben seized the moment and brought his knee and lower thigh up hard against the monster’s gut. He felt the top of his knee hit firmly on the creature’s diaphragm, expelling any air the body had. Instead of screaming, the creature let out a guttural, surprised grunt and its eyes shed tears of pain. The creature’s mouth opened and closed like a fish gasping for air after it had been caught.

Legs scrambling against the ground, Ben crab-crawled out from underneath the wounded creature, never removing his gaze from the predator. He stood quickly and dove left into the thick forest bordering the east side of the power lines.

 

 

What happened next was utterly inconceivable to the spirit. The prey struck quickly like a mongoose and bit the tip off Varturshans nose in one quick snip of the teeth. Waves of pain screamed up the creature’s face and tears immediately obscured its vision. It clapped its hands to its face in an instinctual protective motion.

That was when the creature got the second nasty surprise. The smelly man’s knee connected firmly with the host’s middle. A new wave of pain seared through the creature’s entire body as it lost all its breath. It gripped its innards and doubled over. Varturshan was so surprised that it couldn’t even scream – it just let out a surprised “whoof” and gasped at the air like a weak fish.

Varturshan could feel the prey getting away, but it couldn’t see out of the damned host’s eyes. They were foggy and full of water, and the pain searing from the host’s nose burned and sent waves of pain and nausea coursing through the host’s head and stomach. The pain from the gut dulled to a bone-aching throb that drew all the innards tight. Varturshan tried to throw up, but nothing came out.

The host’s eyes cleared and Varturshan watched the prey escaping. It tried to stand, but the host’s legs felt like jelly and refused to move. It watched Ben dive in the woods with a burning hatred far exceeding the creature’s earlier anger. How could it be beaten by something supposed to be food? It was supposed to go easy. Not like this. Varturshan’s stomach rumbled.

The creature tried to force the body to gain its composure and willed every inch of the host to stand. It was able to get the legs moving slowly, but they were shaky and weak like a new fawn. Varturshan moved forward holding one of its hands out for balance and the other covered its nose protectively. Small trickles of blood escaped Varturshan’s knuckles and dribbled down its hand. The world went dark for a second then opened up in front of the creature’s eyes.

It focused on the prey. Varturshan turned its head and saw the hole in the tree branches where the smelly man had plowed through the forest. The monster walked slowly up to the entrance of the tree-tunnel, testing its legs with each step. They felt extremely weak now. It was like butterflies trying to escape through Varturshans skin. Each step sent a throbbing ache throughout the host’s body.

The creature’s nose bled profusely. Varturshan removed its hand and tried to wipe the nose with the hem of its jacket. The fabric came back stained with a crescent of blood that turned a deep maroon as it soaked into the fabric. The creature wiped its upper lip and mouth, cleaning most of the blood off. A small clot smeared around Varturshans chin.

The eyes led the body, and the deep burning gaze pulled Varturshan towards the smelly man’s path. It peered down the tunnel at the prey and thought to itself: “I see you.”

The prey turned around and they both locked eyes again.

 

 

Ben powered through the sharp, dead branches that clawed at his clothes and body. He raised his arms in front of his face with the elbows outturned so his forearms would plow away the branches that tried to claw out his eyes. The branches cracked and snapped as he pushed them. Ben plowed his body forward, feeling like he was trying to part a wall of water.

He kept steadfastly putting one foot in front of the other, using his abdominal strength (which he didn’t even knew he had) to fortify his torso like a battering ram. Ben peered through the small space between his forearms to watch the path ahead. All he could see were more trees.

Ben hit a particularly thick patch of trees. They pressed in from either side and pinched at his body with thicker branches. He wriggled his body left and right and squirmed his way through their grip. The branch his right elbow pushed aside released with a whooshing noise that sounded like a large whip.

Ben tried to hear the sounds of the forest behind him. All he could seem to make out was a low ringing and the sound of the branches he fought. The clock in his head tensed and he knew without knowing that the monster was near. He wriggled faster and tried to push at the wall of trees with all his strength, but he was having less and less of an impact. He felt his bowels sag in fear.

In one clear moment Ben heard the snap of a twig behind him. He turned and saw the path he’d cut in the forest limbs – it looked like a little tunnel through the branches. At the end of that tunnel and closing fast was the monster that owned Steve’s body.

 

 

Varturshan locked eyes with the smelly man. It hoped to see fear and resignation, but the look it got back was complete and utter defiance. It didn’t like this look, but advanced down the tunnel anyway.

The smelly man had made quite a nice tunnel through the tree branches, and Varturshan was quite pleased. The prey had trapped itself, which was always a nice turn of events. It wanted to make this quick, because it could feel the host’s tiny bit of energy fading fast. It advanced its body down the tunnel.

Varturshan rehearsed different killing methods in its mind as it closed in on its prey. The host body was feeling very shaky, but the creature tried to hold its outward appearance still and strong. It could not risk giving the prey any hint of its current state of weakness. It stopped in its tracks about five feet from the smelly man. Only now the man didn’t seem to smell.

Blood pooled on Varturshans lower lip. It licked the blood off in one lingering swipe, savoring the metallic taste. It wanted more.

The host’s head spun. The creature sadly realized it might not have the strength to bring down this prey if the man fought. It would have to find some way to get the prey to come quietly. Perhaps just getting it on the ground would be enough.

 

Chapter Thirty-Two

 

Ben looked deep in the burning eyes. He felt the thick band of trees at his back enclosing him on all sides. There was nowhere to go, and the beast was coming for him. His hands clenched in tight fists and he bit his lower lip.

The creature advanced down the tunnel of branches. It walked slowly, like a conqueror, and a sickly grin spread across its face. A scab was forming on the tip of its nose where Ben had bit it. A trickle of blood ran down the crease next to the creature’s lips.

Ben readied himself. His shoulders tensed and biceps flexed as he drew his hands in to the fighting stance favored by men in the early 1900’s. His eyes looked out at the incoming predator and gleamed with a new power-dissent. If this thing wanted to eat him, it was not going to get him without a fight. He would make it hurt.

The monster drew nearer. Ben felt his heart racing so fast he thought it would jump out of his chest. It gave a couple odd herky-jerky beats that thumped awkwardly in his rib cage. He couldn’t tell if he felt apprehension, fear, or excitement. His body thrummed with adrenaline.

When the creature was about five feet from Ben it suddenly stopped. It sniffed the air like a dog and licked its lips. The tongue lapped slowly over the top lip first, then cleaned the salty blood off the lower lip. Ben thought of the rabbits with bloody mouths that scared him while watching the movie “Watership Down” as a child.

The creature spoke strange words uttered in Steve’s voice. “Roshog, kamma matusha roshog.” It gestured a turning motion to Ben and spoke in a soothing voice, “Maratrice roshog.” The creature raised its palms to Ben and then began pantomiming a lowering motion, like it wanted Ben to sit down.

“Fuck you,” spat Ben to the creature, “No fucking way.” He backed up towards the wall of tree branches slowly.

The gleam changed in the monster’s eyes. It switched quickly from a kindly faux-soothing look to one of abject hatred. The eyes were sharp and the creature drew Steve’s face into a wrinkled mask of anger.

“Roshog!” it spat in anger as it began its charge.

Ben saw the creature start to run at him and held his ground. Somehow it made Steve’s body seem both larger and stronger than the actual shell weakened by diarrhea and raw food. Ben steeled himself for the fight and his abdominal muscles tensed for impact.

The creature hit Ben at a dead run, but Ben timed his punch perfectly. His right fist drove into Steve’s left cheek. He could hear the crunch of bones. The monster didn’t even scream this time, just hissed from the impact and kept coming. Ben rolled his body to the right and evaded the rest of the creature’s forward energy. The monster crashed headlong into the waiting curtain of tree branches.

The creature finally did shriek when one of the branches impaled its right cheek – barely missing its eye. It fell on all fours in the brush, yet whipped around quickly and grabbed Ben’s left leg. The monster pulled surprisingly hard and Ben fell to the ground with a thump. He was lying on his back like an overturned beetle, but one leg connected hard with the creature’s shoulder. The impact stood Varturshans body almost upright, and the creature fell backwards into the branches again.

 

 

“Roshog, kamma matusha roshog,” spoke Varturshan. It tried to speak in the high language, hoping this stupid prey would understand. When it did nothing, the creature raised its hands and tried to pantomime a turning motion. For some reason it suddenly didn’t want to look this pitiful thing in the eyes.

It tried to soothe the prey: “Maratrice roshog.” When the prey still did not move, Varturshan tried to make a lowering motion with its hands. It wanted the prey on its knees for an easier kill.

“Fuck you,” spat the prey in a language Varturshan had heard but could not understand, “no fucking way.” It got the gist of the words by the look in the prey’s eyes. He didn’t look like prey anymore, and held up his fists in defiance.

Varturshan gathered its face in a terrifying snarl that showed the creature’s fury. If the prey would not give up, then it would take him hard. The monster ran full bore at the prey with every inch of strength it could squeeze out of the body. As it neared, Varturshan suddenly felt the impact of one of Ben’s fists on its left cheek. The meat crushed into the bones and gashed the inside of the host’s cheek open. The sharp taste of new blood danced on Varturshans tongue, and the monster reeled from the impact.

The creature had too much momentum and when Ben dodged out of Varturshans path it fell headlong in to the wall of sharp tree branches. The sudden impact was enough to poke one of the branches through the host’s cheek, and the creature could not stop itself from letting out a shriek. It lashed out blindly, found the prey’s leg, and yanked hard. The prey fell down with a satisfying thump.

Varturshan advanced to take the prey while it was in the prone position, but the cursed thing kicked out and connected with the host’s shoulder. It surprised the creature and sent it sprawling backwards into the trees again. Varturshan watched as the prey crawled under the tree branches on its belly. The hunter pursued.

 

 

Ben rolled over quickly and crawled under the lowest level of branches. He had about a foot and a half of room to move. He’d never been to boot camp, but Ben imagined barbed wire and gunshots above him as he crawled on his belly. His legs flailed back and forth as they tried to keep his body uncomfortably low below the branches. His lower back ached where the spine met the pelvis.

The creature tugged Ben’s right foot from behind and dropped him to the ground on his stomach. All the air came flooding out of his lungs with a giant “whoof.” The monster held on to his leg like a pit bull and started tugging his body backwards. Ben kicked out with his left leg and felt a good contact with something. The monster yelped, but the curtain of trees muffled the effect. Ben continued crawling as fast as he could.

He felt strangely good. Crawling felt like second nature now and he scuttled under the trees at a better pace. Ben heard what was pursuing him, but kept his eyes doggedly facing forward. He had no time to turn and face his pursuer. opened above Ben. He was suddenly aware of the clearing he was crawling in to. He tried to stand, but the hand from behind pulled him back down again. Ben tried to kick back again, but this time felt nothing. He tried to turn and face his attacker as he moved in to the opening.

The creature fell upon Ben with almost no warning. He’d hoped to see his pursuer still on his knees, but Varturshan was standing and towering over him. There was no time to think. He tried to scuttle backwards. This time the monster judged its drop better and fell on Ben with its knee pressed firmly to Ben’s lower groin. It held him firm against the ground and also shocked him with pain from his testicles.

The monster wrapped its hands around Ben’s throat. They squeezed hard and tight like a clamp made of iron. Ben coughed and struggled, his face turning a bright red. His arms beat at the creature’s ribs, but they got weaker by the second. His body gagged and struggled to get air, but the creature’s hands clamped down even harder.

Ben saw a glimmer of a car drive by on the road to his left. His world went black.

 

 

The creature crawled after Ben as fast as it could. It watched the prey wriggling along in the dirt and had quiet confidence that it could overtake him quickly. Varturshan kept a keen focus on the prey’s feet, and mentally noted how they kept getting closer and closer. When it felt like it was close enough, the creature reached out and pulled back hard on the prey’s right leg. That movement dropped the prey squarely on his stomach, knocking the wind out with a satisfying “whoof.”

Varturshan moved in, but was met with a kick squarely to the face. New blazes of light and pain coursed through the host’s brain, and the scab covering the bloody nose tip broke off and started bleeding anew. The monster could see the prey getting away again, so it pursued with renewed vigor. It would chase this smelly man down even if it killed the host.

The monster in Steve followed Ben. It tried to move as quietly as possible, but kept a close bead on the struggling man in front of it. Ben didn’t know it, but the creature was only a foot or so behind him, matching his every crawling move in the dirt.

Varturshan looked ahead and saw an opening coming in the forest wall. It wriggled a bit closer to the prey, giving it just enough room to grab on when the prey tried to run. It mentally rehearsed the movements it would use to get the upper hand. A pull to the leg to knock him down. Then a knee to the breeding parts to stun him. The creature could not spare a hand to grab the cutting knife because it knew it would have to restrain the prey hard; Varturshan would just have to choke the prey to death. The creature smiled, as it particularly liked killing and watching the life leave its food. That made the meat taste even better.

As the prey reached the clearing, Varturshan struck. It dropped Ben using the series of moves it had rehearsed in its head. Each movement went according to plan, leaving the prey stunned and struggling. The creature felt the prey’s stomach heaving underneath its knee, and squeezed the prey’s neck with both of the host’s hands.

Varturshan watched with joy as the prey’s face turned bright red above its hands, then an ashy blue. The violent struggling slowly subsided, and it stopped making the choking and gurgling noises. The creature crowed inwardly with joy. Success finally!

The monster released Ben’s neck and fumbled in its pockets for the cutting tool.

It was so hungry.

 

Chapter Thirty-Three

 

Ben woke with a gasp to his shirt being ripped open. Both fists flew in all directions. He felt a sharp pain on his right hand, but the left one hit true and struck the monster hard along its right cheek. Ben felt bones break inside the skin, and his own knuckles burst with the impact. The monster shrieked in pain and dropped the knife it held in Steve’s left hand.

He wanted so badly to stay and beat the life out of the creature that had taken his friend, but Ben knew his goal was tantalizingly close. He could see the road faintly through the underbrush. Ben stumbled to his feet coughing and gagging, then flailed off East through the wall of branches. He didn’t care if they scratched or pierced him. He felt nothing at all.

The trees seemed to get thicker the closer he got to the road. Adolescent lodgepole pines blocked his way with their bushy green branches. Ben turned sideways and wriggled through the mess. He felt needles stroking and tickling his bare chest, but the feeling seemed like it was a mile away. Ben’s bleeding knuckles stung when they brushed a branch or a piece of pine needle. Little droplets of blood pattered down his hand.

Ben looked back and saw the creature coming hard. Its face was now mashed and gnarled and looked nothing like the friend he’d left behind. Blood poured out of the re-opened scab on its nose, and both cheeks now had a sunken and misshapen look to them. It spat a large gob of blood and bellowed unintelligible words at Ben. He returned to the task at hand.

Branches continued to hold Ben back like giant arms. He wrestled with them as hard as he could, but he felt his progress beginning to falter. His legs shook and his body ached, and now his knuckles were screaming at him as they bled. Each step seemed to be getting harder and harder, and he could hear the Steve-thing making progress behind him. Large cracks of branches and angry snarls chased him.

Ben suddenly broke through the last thicket of trees and fell headlong on the shoulder of the road. He’d never been so glad to see a black strip of pavement in his life. He scrambled to his feet and looked left and right in the hopes of spotting a car. He didn’t care what he looked like, he only wanted to escape the creature hunting him. Ben’s bare, scratched chest shone like a white beacon against the backdrop of the trees. His shirt and hoodie flapped in tatters where the monster had ripped them open.

Ben turned and ran north. His legs fought him with sharp pains and a grumpy dead feeling, but Ben forced them to go on. He stopped briefly to look back over his shoulder and saw the creature loping after him with a broken stride. It seemed to be struggling to catch him. Ben’s heart soared as he felt the creature slipping away.

The sound of a large vehicle approached the two men from behind. It was the same lime green fire truck that had terrified Varturshan earlier. The creature jumped into the trees as the truck slowed.

Ben started screaming and waving his arms as he ran across the road directly in the fire truck’s path. His voice cracked as he screamed “Help,” over and over and over, and his legs collapsed as he reached the East side of the road. Tears streamed down his face.

 

 

The fire truck driver was at first startled to see two men running on the shoulder of the road. One was the guy who’d been pants-less earlier, and there was a new one who had his shirt ripped open. The funky freaker ran off in the woods, but the new one ran across the road right in front of the truck, making the driver slam on the brakes. They squealed and skipped as the vehicle tried to come to a stop.

The man with his shirt ripped open tried to stand from where he’d collapsed and cried out “help,” over and over through cracked lips and a hoarse throat. He reached his arms towards the driver like a small child begging to be picked up.

The driver climbed out of his truck warily. The freaker definitely frightened him, but this man seemed to have no hint of the rage the driver saw in the naked man’s eyes. This man was crying and begging for help. He looked like he’d been beaten senseless.

“You okay, brother?” the driver asked with his head cocked.

“Oh God, help!” begged Ben through tears, “My name’s Ben Lowery, I’m from Chicago…my friends have been murdered!”

The driver’s eyes opened wide, “You shittin’ me?”

“No,” said Ben as he tried to catch his breath, “He’s chasing me…” Ben turned to point at the monster and realized the Steve thing was nowhere to be found. “He was just here.” Ben added, bewildered.

“Hey man,” said the driver as he reached out his hand to Ben, “the dude ran off that way…” he said, pointing to the woods on the road’s western side. “I’ll getcha out of here.”

Ben looked in the driver’s eyes and saw he meant what he said. Ben rose to his feet, shaking, and looked across the road one last time.

The Steve-thing was directly across from him, peering out from the lodgepole branches.

Ben locked gazes with the creature and stared it down with defiance and victory in his eyes. He clenched his jaw and jutted his chin out, as if to say “Fuck you” one last time.

The creature held his gaze for a second longer, then it turned and disappeared in the woods.

 

Epilogue

 

Ben looked at the blindingly bright waters on Lake Michigan. He watched the sailboats weave to and fro on the wind and felt nothing. His hand was still in a cast from breaking his knuckles during the fight with the ex-Steve.

On the table sat a small white envelope. Sticking partly out was a blue card listing the date, time and location of Mike’s funeral service. He turned the card over and over in his fingers, looking at Mike’s name like it didn’t even register.

He’d thought Susan might come back after his ordeal in the woods, but she didn’t even call him. His story was all over the news both in Oregon and Illinois, and even made it on the AP wire for a day. “Tragedy in the Wilderness,” they’d called it. To him it was still a nightmare.

Visions of those eyes still ran in his head. He’d wake up in the middle of the night screaming, feeling the creature’s hands on his throat. His counselor had been woefully under-qualified to help with PTSD, so he’d switched to one a friend recommended. Hours of sitting and talking hadn’t helped, but the weed he got from his dealer did. Ben sat in a haze of smoke and stared out the window.

They’d found Steve’s body, but not before the Forest Service police found the bodies of Nate, Barry, Mike, and another pair of unfortunate campers by Lucky Lake. It looked like the creature had died of hypothermia in the night. Ben still didn’t know if he wanted to go to the funeral. He couldn’t look at that face again.

The guys at the office had actually been horrified with his ordeal and his boss had given him a three-month leave with pay. Ben thought that was incredibly nice of him, but sitting at home and getting stoned didn’t seem to be getting him ready to face the world again.

A buzzer rang and Ben went to the tiny panel on the door. “Delivery for Ben Lowery?” asked the young male voice on the other end. Ben pressed the button releasing the door below.

“Come on up,” he spoke into the box.

It took a couple minutes, but soon he heard the buzzer at the front door. He peeked through the eyehole and saw a young man of about eighteen on the other side. When he opened the door the boy gasped.

“Holy shit, it is you!”

“Yeah,” said Ben in a cannabis-induced slur.

“Did your friend really eat your other friend?”

“Yeah,” said Ben. He’d gotten tired of all the people staring at him after the Tribune article came out.

“You hear they’ve found some other people with their hearts cut out?”

“Yeah.” Ben changed the subject. “How much?” he asked the delivery boy.

“Twenty-four,” said the boy, eyes still goggling.

Ben pulled out a twenty and a ten and handed it to the boy. “Keep the change,” he said as he took the pizza from the boy’s hand. The kid looked at him like he’d been given a million dollars.

“Thanks!” he blurted out, then turned and hurried to the elevator like a shy child on Halloween.

Ben closed the door and took the pizza to his kitchen. He opened the lid and admired the thick crust dripping with cheese and pepperoni. He grabbed a spatula and removed two slices and placed them on a paper plate. Then he grabbed a napkin and took the plate over to the table sitting next to his recliner chair. He returned to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of beer, slipping it into a neoprene coozy that had the Cubs logo on the side. He popped the top and took a long swig, then walked back towards his chair.

Pizza in his lap and beer at his side, Ben turned to the other end table and grabbed his bong. He took a couple large hits then returned to his pizza. After both pieces were finished he took the plate to the kitchen and left the paper plate on the counter with all the other dirty ones.

Ben returned to his easy chair and turned the funeral invitation over and over in his fingers as he stared off in to the bright Chicago day.

 

###

Thank you for reading this debut novella by Stephany Brandt. Please look for her future novels DARKNESS in 2017, and PERFECT in 2018.

 

About the Author: Stephany Brandt is a horror and science fiction author based in Oregon. Her novels are set in the Pacific Northwest both in present and future times. Her stories focus predominantly on the battles between good and evil, and the nature of love during trying times. Her works bear the influence of writers like Stephen King, Arthur C. Clark, Stephen Baxter, and Ursula K. LeGuin.

Ms. Brandt received her creative writing training at the University of Oregon, graduating in 2001.

Stephany lives in Bend, Oregon with her husband Tobin, their loving 16 year-old cat, and a passel of pet chickens. She is also owned by her writing room and travel companion: the 1985 Volkswagen Van “Henry.”

 

 

 


Wilderness

This novella follows three best friends approaching middle age who go camping to relive their glory days. The years and miles have split them apart, but each hopes to rekindle their friendship with beers and stories around the campfire. Everything goes as planned until they take a fateful hike around a lake bordering the Three Sisters Wilderness Area. Their leader, Steve, suddenly falls ill and needs to go back to camp. He hopes a little sleep will beat his illness and his friends Ben and Mike wait, hoping Steve will get better. Then Steve wakes up. He is no longer himself, and proceeds to play a game of cat-and-mouse with his friends through the forest over the next few days, battling exhaustion and illness as they all try to survive in the wilderness.

  • ISBN: 9781370065370
  • Author: Stephany Brandt
  • Published: 2016-12-31 00:05:15
  • Words: 61486
Wilderness Wilderness