After two days of searching, we found Klein’s body. He lay on his back in a nest of leaves beneath a huge, ancient oak. His eyes had been gouged out; the sockets scraped clean. Little puffball fungi had been dropped into the hollow openings. His teeth had been removed – every last one — his nose and ears had been hacked off, and bright green moss had been stuffed into the recesses of each. His body looked deflated.
Brunson said we should bury him. None of us moved. I didn’t want to say it, but I was afraid to touch Klein. I thought that if I did, somehow the person or animal or monster that had done this would become aware of me and track me down to do the same thing to me. We stood and stared at the defiled body, then we walked on. Burial was not mentioned again.
Poole was ahead of me and seemed to be muttering. I couldn’t make out any words, but the sounds were enough. He was clearly in shock. Or, more likely, he was going crazy. He kept pulling at his right ear, and had developed an odd hop to his gait, where every fifth or sixth step he would kind of skitter. Every time he did it I would cringe.
I noticed that Poole was no longer carrying his rifle. I thought he had probably left it back at our sleeping spot. It didn’t seem important.
We walked single file. This made it easier for us not to talk to each other. Brunson went first, then Poole, then me. The forest was thick with trees grown so tight at the top that you couldn’t see the sky. Ambient light just kind of filtered through the canopy of leaves. The ground was covered with brown leaves and pine needles. The smell was like a combination of autumn and Christmas, and if we hadn’t just left Klein’s mangled body behind us the scent would have been calming.
The four of us – Klein, Brunson, Poole, and I – had been dropped off at a beautiful new cabin in the Appalachian Mountains by a salesman from some timeshare company. We had the use of the cabin for the whole week, completely free. We had no intention of buying the timeshare, we were using the free week as a cheap vacation – some hunting, some drinking, the usual guy bullshit. We had already sat through one two-hour sales pitch and would be required to sit through another when we returned from the cabin. It felt like a reasonable price to pay for a week in the woods.
We had been friends for many years. Klein and Brunson were fairly normal sorts, although Klein was rarely serious, and Brunson tended toward being bossy. Poole was a nice guy but fragile. You never knew what would upset him. He had spent a few months in a hospital for a nervous breakdown but seemed completely recovered.
The first morning at the cabin, we had eaten breakfast and then gone out to the front porch to appreciate the wilderness. The sun was shining, and a light breeze swept through the trees. Suddenly there came a kind of screeching, crying sound – part human, part not – from the woods. It didn’t sound very far away. All four of us had been hunters for years, we were used to the forest and everything that lived in it. None of us had ever heard a sound like that before.
Klein suggested that maybe it was Bigfoot and we all laughed. We decided to investigate so we put on our coats, grabbed our rifles, and began walking toward the sound. After twenty minutes of walking, we had not found the sound’s origin, nor any animals at all. The forest seemed deserted. We turned around to go back to the cabin, but after retracing our steps for half an hour, we couldn’t find it. The cabin was not there. Everything looked familiar but everything looked the same. There just was no cabin.
We wandered around the woods for another hour or two hoping to stumble upon the cabin but had no luck. The strange cry was not heard again. Eventually we stopped and held an impromptu meeting in a small glade between five towering pines. Brunson wanted to start over, and work in concentric circles outward from where we currently stood until we finally came across the cabin. Poole was against this idea, he felt we would waste too much energy going in larger and larger circles and wanted to strike out in one direction. Klein and I didn’t have any ideas to contribute, we were already exhausted and couldn’t form an opinion. Breakfast had long ago been digested. I looked around unsuccessfully at the forest floor for something to eat.
After a while of Brunson and Poole going back and forth, Klein said we could stand here all day but we weren’t getting anywhere, so we decided to hold a vote. Klein and I voted with Poole to take the straight-line approach, not because we had any insight into what would work best, but because Brunson had been getting bitchy about his concentric circle plan and we had had enough. Since it was his idea we let Poole choose a direction and we started out.
We walked for what must have been several miles. My calves ached and I felt sweaty and sticky despite the cool breeze. The forest appeared the same whatever direction you looked. Klein began calling me Hansel and Poole Gretel and joking about breadcrumbs, but we were all hungry by that time and told him to shut up because the thought of breadcrumbs was making us drool. Klein was miffed but he shut up.
The forest began to get dark, or darker anyway, and we realized we would soon have to stop for the night. We couldn’t understand why we hadn’t come across the cabin, or a dirt road, or anything. We were clearly not going in the right direction, but no one wanted to point this out and give Brunson the satisfaction of being right.
We found a small place where we felt we would be able to sleep. The forest was eerily silent, not a squeak or bird call. It felt as if the trees or something behind the trees were watching, but we had seen no movement all day. Despite the fact that the temperature was dropping we decided against a fire – the thought of a fire made us feel more able to be observed. We had not brought any food with us, not even a candy bar, and so sipped water from our bottles for dinner.
We silently chose places to lie down and sleep, fluffing up leaves and pine needles into impromptu mattresses. We propped our rifles against a tree, then wrapped our coats around us and tried to sleep.
I must have been exhausted from the hike, hunger, and fear of being lost as I fell asleep almost immediately. When I awoke it was light, and Klein was gone. I nudged Brunson with my boot to wake him. He sat up and looked around, and then stared at the spot where Klein had been sleeping. He frowned and bit his lower lip. I woke Poole and told him Klein was gone, but he didn’t understand, and I had a hard time trying to explain it. We lurched about the sleeping area for a while shouting Klein’s name but there was no response. Not knowing what else to do, we began walking again, yelling for Klein every few hundred yards.
Like I said, we found him after two days.
The night after we discovered Klein’s body, we lost Poole. It happened just like with Klein. We woke up in the morning and Poole was gone.
It was maybe a little less of a surprise this time. Poole had been losing it, and the thought of him wandering off didn’t seem quite so strange, but it still was unsettling. Brunson and I wanted to search for him, but getting out of the forest alive was quickly becoming more of a priority due to our lack of food and our water running out. We just started walking along the same general direction we had started.
We walked all day. We took lots of breaks this time as we were both tired and hungry. I felt jittery with fear. We were lost in the wilderness, Klein was dead, Poole had somehow wandered off, and no one would think to begin searching for us at least until the weekend when the salesman was supposed to pick us up.
We stumbled across Poole’s body that afternoon. We were revolted but not necessarily surprised. His face looked ravaged, like Klein’s but with minor differences. His eyes, like Klein’s, had been removed and the sockets abraded, but instead of puffballs his eyes were stuffed with the green moss. His mouth was open in a silent scream – his jaw must have been broken at the hinge because no normal mouth could open that wide. Again, the teeth had all been removed and the ears cut off, but the nose was intact. Instead, two twigs had been stuck into Poole’s nostrils. The mutilations were horrible enough but sticking twigs in his nose seemed even more of an affront, like kids were messing with him or something. I touched one of the twigs, expecting it to leap out alive and attack me, but of course nothing happened. I grabbed it and pulled it out with some difficulty. It was longer than I had imagined – perhaps eight or ten inches long – and it slid out finally with a sudden slickness. It was coated with blood and slime, and at the end was some matter that could have been brain. Brunson turned away to puke.
We walked a few yards away until we couldn’t see Poole anymore and sat down with our backs to a couple of trees, facing each other. We looked at each other silently. After a while Brunson began to cry quietly. Tears ran down his cheeks and snot dripped from his nose, but he didn’t seem to notice. Eventually the crying wound down and he sighed.
It’s okay, I told him
How is it okay?, he said to me. I had no answer. We were lost in an immeasurable forest, unable to find a cabin that should have been close by, two of our friends had been killed and grossly disfigured, and we were out of water and without food of any kind. And we had no idea who or what was doing this to us.
We sat quietly for a little longer, and then Brunson stood up and started walking again. I got up and followed him. We moved with a great slowness. I felt like we were walking through jello, like I carried a backpack filled with stones. We did not speak. Toward the end of the day Brunson just sat down against a tree and started making his nightly leaf bed. I watched for a while and then made my own. There no longer seemed to be any point in avoiding a fire, but we were both too exhausted to try to gather wood and try to start one. We laid down in the cold, hugging ourselves, both needing sleep and fearing it.
I watched Brunson from the corner of my eye. He was lethargic, seemed barely able to shift his body in the leaves. I was shaking with terror. What monster was doing this? Would I wake tomorrow to find Brunson gone and perhaps come across his ravaged body later, if I even had the strength to continue walking? Or would I not wake at all? Instead, would Brunson discover I had gone missing, carried or dragged off to my death? I almost didn’t care which way it went. I only knew that one of the two possibilities would happen. I was sure of it.
As I watched Brunson drift off into a fitful sleep, I wondered if, perhaps, he was the monster. Did he have it in him to perform these inhuman acts of violence? I had known Brunson for about twenty years, and while he was sometimes difficult, he had never displayed tendencies to make me think he was capable of this kind of thing. But one never knew, I told myself. Brunson had a wife and two kids, a normal if boring job, and was not the asocial loner that serial killers frequently turned out to be. Everyone has a hidden self, I thought.
But maybe this was something other than human depravity. Maybe the serial killer theory was far too mainstream, too pedestrian for what was happening here. Perhaps the origin of this behavior was something mystical, magical, not human desire but actual evil incarnate. Something off the charts of normal life.
For that matter, maybe I was the monster, carrying out these killings without remembering. Some subconscious impulse to murder my friends that returned to the recesses of my brain when I awoke.
I am laying here now, in my leaf bed, wondering what the morning will bring. I’m pretty sure at least one of us will be dead, Brunson or I. Or if neither of us is the monster, perhaps neither of us will wake, but instead our bodies will be lost in the forest, carved into parodies of humanity. I hope, that, of the potential results tomorrow morning brings, I don’t wake up alone.
Mark Jabaut is a playwright and author in Webster NY. His fiction has appeared in The Ozone Park Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, Uproar, The Corvus Review, Defenestration, and more. Visit www.markjabaut.com.