It must have been around 11am before we set off warily back to Keith’s minivan, first light was around 5am which meant we’d been sitting around the campfire watching and waiting for any sign of Paul’s return for close to six hours...
Or at least, we waited for whoever or whatever that was imitating our friend…
I never spoke of what I saw to the rest of the group; I never spoke of the metallic silver teeth like thick sewing needles and those doll-like eyes staring at me like a goldfish’s passive gaze. As far as anyone else was concerned, this person or whatever or whoever they were, looked like Paul.
But it wasn’t him… It couldn’t have been him.
I refuse to believe that a friend I’ve known since my earliest childhood memories was some kind of monster all along that he’d been simply waiting for this moment in time to turn on us.
No something out there took Paul and was wearing his guise to taunt us.
Though thinking backwards, I remembered seeing not Keith sitting alone by the campsite after dark, but just who I assumed to be Keith wearing his jacket to stave off the cold. I was neither suspicious back then, nor was I paying much attention to the details like that, I was more focused on the trip and the long journeys ahead me, and enjoying myself with my friends.
I threw a cautionary glance towards Keith who was going about his business helping Fitzy to his feet and letting him lean on his shoulder. Was Keith even still the guy I knew? Or was he just some monster waiting to reveal itself?
I figured if he was, he had had plenty of opportunities to do that last night. But even still, I kept a watchful eye on him during the rest of this nightmare. Because who knew how long it was before Paul became that thing? How long was the monster within our group unnoticed and mingling with us like he was part of the family?
As for where Paul really was? I don’t know. We waited and listened, hoping that maybe the real Paul would call out to us or would run back to us with a tale of how he escaped his captor’s clutches. But there was no sign of him, the trees around us remained deathly silent and stood ominously still like a grim painting, we couldn’t even feel any trace of a breeze in the air.
It was almost like the forest was waiting for us to make the first move...
And we couldn’t wait any longer. There was no way we’d ever be able to endure another night of hell like that again, we had to get out of here, get help from the police and return to find the real Paul and hope that he was alright.
We moved as quickly as we could with Fitzy in tow, and it wasn’t the pace we’d hoped. There were too many inclines and some very steep terrain between us and our destination. Fitzy, even with help, hadn’t a hope in hell of moving over such difficult terrain so we had to compromise and chart routes around much of the areas Fitzy couldn’t move through.
This only added more time to our journey which was already moving slower than molasses. And I knew at this pace, it would likely be almost dark by the time we reached our way out of here.
I also knew we were being watched. We all did.
I’d like to think it was just my imagination, that after the previous night I’d just been on edge, but more than once I saw something skulk out of sight. It was too big for a hare, and too small to be a deer, and yet still not a single sound, not a twig breaking or leaves rustling.
And then we found a very peculiar and morbid discovery lying half buried in the midst of dead leaves and dark soil. Martin pulled out what appeared to be a set of clothes half buried from the ground, and held it up to his breadth to examine the size, he suddenly let it drop from his hands as if he’d been electrocuted by the leathery cloth.
He stared at the hood of the brown wrinkly jacket, and it was then I realised the hood bore a shrivelled and empty face. Complete with two eye holes, empty sockets for nostrils and a long stretched out mouth that looked like a silent scream.
After finding such a gruesome thing, we did our best to pick up the pace…
Eventually, we breached the forest to the dirt road we had parked by and the sight of the minivan made us quicken our pace with elated cheers and gestures of thanks to whatever providence was watching over us. Though once we got close enough, I was hit by a wall of fumes, the air was thick with the scent of petrol, and it appeared the tires had been all but destroyed.
The rubber had been torn to the point that the exposed wheel touched the road itself, and a darkened stain of fuel trailed out from underneath the vehicle and had soaked into the soil.
It seemed our stalker had been following us for quite some time… Especially if this thing knew where we were parked.
Martin broke down into a fit of anger and violence, he started yelling into the forest, issuing threats and challenges to the monster within, smashing the hatchet against the minivan’s windows and tail-lights which threw Keith into motion to calm the man down before he rendered his van into scrap metal.
Linda had been silent since she had been attacked, her legs were bandaged as best we could but there was nothing we could do about the pain, and she hobbled almost at the same speed as Fitzy, who stood staring at the tires of the van. It looked like they were both trying to fight back tears.
As for me? My heart just sank; it felt like after all this time this was the final nail in the coffin, we were going from one run of bad luck to the next and it seemed very likely we’d die here.
Then I noticed the road.
Regardless how far away we were from civilisation, this was still a road, and we could still walk down to the next town and get help. Or, if we got very lucky, we could flag down a passing car, tell them what had happened and get a ride to the nearest police station.
Or hell… At least get close enough to town that we got phone reception again, and then we could call the cops to come pick us up.
What other options did we have?
I tried in vain to break up the argument between Keith and Martin but neither of them started listening until I began walking back to town. I didn’t stop walking until Keith had caught up and grabbed my arm.
“Where are you going?” He demanded, his nose slightly bloodied after his sparring round with Martin.
“I’m heading into town, unless you got a better idea?”
“It’s at least a twelve hour walk!”
“Again, if you’ve got a better idea then I’m all ears, because arguing sure as shit isn’t doing us any favours.” I shot back and casted a glare back at Martin, who was sitting by the minivan with his head in his hands.
Keith mused for a moment, squeezing the bridge of his nose tightly and pausing to take a breath, I could see him weighing our options and none of them were good. We either stay here and die or we take the risk of walking down the road, even through the night if we have to.
“Going down there is suicide.” Keith grumbled, pointing a finger down the long lonesome road. “None of us have had any sleep last night. And you want to walk for the next twelve to fourteen hours through the dead of night with that thing snapping at our heels every step of the way?”
“Again, do you have a better idea?” I replied back.
Keith sighed and pulled the map from his rear pockets; he knelt down on the road and began studying it nervously for a minute, before settling on a point with his finger.
“Here.” He stated, pointing at a small blue icon on the paper.
“Where?” I asked impatiently, at this stage I wasn’t really interested in whatever hair brained plan he had to offer, I was too tired to even think straight after the long walk with no sleep.
“There’s a ranger station a few kilometres west from here, we could go there.” Keith offered, bringing the map closer to me to show the route. “We can get help there, more importantly we can get to a Phone and call for more help. They’ve got to have some way of contacting people in an emergency, right?”
I wanted to argue, I wanted to point out some potential problems, but again, I was tired.
Keith was right though, there’d be no way in hell I’d be able to walk for half a day in the condition I was in, especially with that monster stalking after us. I also couldn’t depend on luck alone to have a car pass us by on this road and stop to aid us.
A working phone sounded more promising.
“Alright, let’s go.”
The mood around us was clearly grim, none of us spoke, none of us wanted to be the one to break the tense silence and risk the explosive anger of their neighbour. Things had gone from bad to worse, and now we were braving the unknown, hoping that Keith was right and that salvation lay only a mile or so away from us.
It was also 8pm; we had gone a whole day yesterday, last night and all of today hiking and waiting for the next attack to strike us when we were weakest. It was likely it would wait until we were all completely exhausted or sleeping deeply where we would not stir at the monster’s invasive presence.
All we knew is that we had to get to the Ranger Station and get there soon…
We walked for another forty minutes before we caught sight of the building; a small one roomed hut built from pale wooden boards and brown earthy shingles. It was bordered by another dirt path led from the road to a small clearing, presumably for parking, next to a row of two blue cubicles that housed a chemical toilet each.
I was elated to see it; it was the first sign of the civilised world we’d seen since setting off on our journey, but our elation soured to anger as we got closer and noticed the darkened windows starting out at us. The lights were off, and nobody was home.
“Well this is just fucking great.” Fitzy murmured in a daze, clearly he was on his last legs before ready to collapse from the duress of a broken foot and a long journey without rest.
“There might still be a phone.” Keith added, storming off to check the building over, cupping his hands over his eyes to peer through the blacked out windows.
Martin tried the entrance, and within seconds of finding it locked he began thrusting kicks and driving his shoulder into the door to force it open. The door remained steadfast and resisted every blow against it even as it rattled within its frame upon every impact.
Though Martin was beyond patience or diplomacy by this point, he battered his hatchet against the small glass panel on the door and reached inside, fumbling with the lock before opening it with a satisfying click.
The inside was built probably for two, maybe three people at most, with two workstations comprised of cheaply made desks and a chair each. There was a small kitchen area with a sink, cabinets, microwave and an electric kettle was nestled in the corner next to a small plastic covered couch which we lay Fitzy on as comfortably as we could.
Martin and Keith ventured outside to look for a fuse box or breaker for the power, the lights wouldn’t work, and to our frustration the phones were dead as well. The plan was falling apart at the seams already…
While I waited on the verdict on the power situation I wandered around the room browsing various charts and photographs colourfully displayed upon the walls.
“What is this place?” Linda asked, probably taking notice of my own curiosity.
“It’s owned by the Forestry Commission, I think it might be an arborist’s hut or something.” I replied as I looked over the detailed photos of tree bark and leaves.
“What’s an arborist?” Fitzy chimed in, adjusting his body into a more comfortable position on the very uncomfortable couch.
“It’s like a guy, who studies wood.” I muttered back.
“I guess it’s a living.” I was in no mood for laughing, but that at least brought a half-hearted smile on my face...
Eventually, Martin had returned through the main entrance, he didn’t say a word; he just sat down in the corner silently staring at his feet. Judging by his demeanour he didn’t need to say anything, we were up shit-creek with no paddle, there was no power, and that meant no phone.
Keith followed shortly after, shuffling inside with a defeated and apologetic look on his face, and I cut him off before he even spoke.
“Not a word.” I breathed tiredly. “Not one single fucking word out of you.”
“How was I to know???” He yelled back.
“I don’t want to argue; just don’t fucking speak for the rest of tonight.” I growled angrily, “I’ve been walking who knows how long and I’m too tired to even fucking think right now. I just want to sleep and hope I wake up alive in the morning.”
I took a seat by the desk and slumped my head in my arms as a makeshift pillow, I heard Keith mutter something, probably an insult, probably an excuse, but I didn’t care. The sun was setting, my legs ached, my eyes were heavy and my mind was fogged with the single-minded purpose of sleep.
And I’m damn sure it came quickly.
I remember having a dream that night, something about having to wake up early to meet the postman and pick up a parcel, I remember that same postman knocking on my bedroom window yelling at me to wake up. I remember waking up and people yelling at me again to wake up.
It was dark, but the moon was bright and highlighted the interior cabin with a faint silvery shine, I could make out Keith and Martin standing by the windows, and I could hear Fitzy crying softly in the corner.
Linda was gone, or at least we thought she was…
She was standing outside in the clearing with torn, muddied clothes and bedraggled hair, staring up at us as we stared back from the windows. Her arm gave a crude wave, as if her limbs had been numbed by a strong anaesthetic and just flailed without proper motor control.
And then she turned and skipped like a child into the forest.
“Okay, I’ve had enough of this shit.” Martin growled, pulling the door open forcefully and storming outside with a murderous glint in his eyes. He marched into the forest and Keith and I just stood there and watched, frozen, terrified that if we went in there, we’d be the next ones to vanish like Paul and Linda.
“You’ve got to stop him, he’ll kill her!” Fitzy pleaded as he limped forward, shaking Keith’s shoulder to get him to snap out of his complacency.
“It’s not her anymore.” He replied quietly.
“You don’t know that, none of us do, she could just be sick or maybe being controlled, you can’t let him do this!”
He was right, we didn’t know for sure what was going on, and I had to know if Paul, Linda or anyone could be saved from whatever the hell was happening. I put Keith’s flashlight in his hands and stared at him, he didn’t need me to speak, it was written all over his face.
He brought us here, he’d damn well get us out.
I moved to the door and Keith followed, neither of us wanted to, but we’d already lost two people, and probably Martin as well if he remained alone in the woods. And so, we gave chase.
We broke past the treeline and back into the forest, our flashlights did their best to carve through the darkness but we could find no visible sign of Martin or Linda, but farther in the distance we could still hear Martin in the midst of his tantrum.
We yelled aloud, hoping he’d hear us over his own enraged tirade, but either he didn’t hear us or was beyond caring by this point. He was like a man possessed by an angry god, accepting nothing less than our antagonist’s head or his own death…
We hadn’t even thought of a plan to reason with the guy once we found him, he could be drunk with anger and possibly even turn on us with that hatchet. But we’d have to cross that bridge when we came to it; we had to reach the angry bastard first.
I call out again, hoping Martin will hear me this time and by this point I realise I’m now alone…
Keith is gone…
I become still with a creeping fear that grows like a morning chill, I whisper out Keith’s name in the hope for a response, but all I can hear is Martin’s incessant and incoherent bellows of anger in the distant forest.
I slowly turn in place, trying not to shift too quickly and create more noise; my flashlight creates a small window of light for me to see what lies in front of me. Keith is nowhere in sight.
The next thing I know is something heavy striking my shoulders and forcing me into the ground, leaves and twigs scratch my face and my mouth fills with mud and the coppery taste of my own blood.
I try to move but the weight on my back is pinning me to the ground, and I freeze still when I feel many sharp points like knives press upon my back and shoulders. My muscles are rigid and frozen in place; the very motion of standing up against this weight on my back would impale me with these spikes. And then they start moving… They’re kneading my clothes and skin like dough or like a cat would knead a soft spot to sleep with its claws.
That thought stays in my head as I realise what’s threatening to pierce my body, long and dangerously sharp talons.
I suddenly feel an unsettlingly warm breath against my ear and take in a sour odour like spoiled milk, it’s whispering to me, but not in words, it’s a series of clicks and crunches like twigs breaking underfoot, and then I feel one of those talons pressed against the back of my neck and my body seizes up under the pain and threat of being torn open by the pressure.
I can only stare into the ground or close my eyes, but another hand is placed into the mud near my face, and I get my first glimpse of what threatening to steal away my life.
The hand is thin and feminine, clearly belonging to Linda, it’s even wearing her bracelet, but the fingertips are gone, they’re opened up like a torn glove and protruding through are long grasping talons, curved much like a bird of prey, the middle one is especially long and resembles a gut hook, something that I saw Keith use to skin and “unzip” the carcass of a rabbit only a year ago.
Then suddenly, I hear Martin’s voice, then Keith’s voice, they’re close.
And then in the blink of an eye, the weight upon my shoulders is lifted and I can feel those talons no more. I call out as best as I can; half muffled from the mud and unwilling to move in case the slightest motion means my death.
Martin rushes over, shouting questions to me and I feel his hands pull me back to my feet, but I’m still very much in a daze. Simply from what I was just privy to witness and the closest I’ve ever came in my life to imminent death.
Another loud groan from nearby and Martin and I find Keith with a bleeding head wound lying in the muddy underbrush; his flashlight is broken, though mine works well enough that we can find our way back to the arborist hut.
Martin practically carries us both; we lean on him as we stumble back through the forest and back to the clearing of the ranger’s hut where we’re met with another turn of bad news.
Fitzy is gone.
Not a trace of struggle, not a speck of blood in sight, just vanished like everyone else.
We let ourselves collapse into a sitting position by the doorway, defeated and exhausted we say nothing, if that thing were to return at this moment in time I’m sure it would claim an easy victory. I don’t think any of us are willing to fight anymore.
We sit in silence for hours and occasionally we hear something from the forest, sometimes it sounds like Paul, sometimes like Linda, and now sometimes like Fitzy. I honestly can’t tell if it’s trying to lure us, or just mock us by gloating its victory.
Not before long, the sun rises and with it, the forest seems to come alive again. Birds chirp merrily, the breeze brushes through the tallest trees, making them sway gently to and fro. And mercifully, there is no sign of our body snatching stalker.
“I’m willing to try that road idea now…” Keith mutters solemnly.
I didn’t answer him, I contemplated giving up, just walking into the woods and letting whatever that thing was take me sooner than later. So I stood up, walked out the door with Martin and Keith following me close behind, and if they hadn’t followed me, I’d have probably walked right into those woods myself.
Instead, we ran.
We ran towards the main road and then headed back towards town, we ran until our lungs wheezed and our throats were so dry we could barely feel our own tongues. Our legs burned and every footstep stabbed our feet with agony as each blister and sore from our long walks bled and ruptured.
We ran, and when we couldn’t run we walked until we could run again, we didn’t stop moving even once.
Then we saw it…
Not our monstrous stalker, but a small blip on the hazy horizon.
It was a truck. It was cruising down the road ahead of us and completely oblivious to the horror which lurked in the trees around it.
We formed a blockade on the road, standing side by side and waving our arms frantically for help, doing our best to grab the driver’s attention. The truck slowly decreased speed and the cautious driver eyed us with a stern degree of suspicion, we must have looked like a bunch of vagrants by now.
He didn’t even roll down his window and kept his engine running as he spoke with us. We told him we needed help, that some of our friends were missing and we needed to get to the nearest police station.
“Hop in.” Was all he said, and Keith, Martin and I climbed into the flatbed on the rear, making ourselves comfortable in the midst of gardening tools and clods of turf stored there.
On the ride back into town there was fifteen minutes of anxious silence between the three of us, but it was Martin who broke that silence with a very good question.
“What do we tell the cops?”
Do we tell them our friends went missing due to some body snatching monster? And would they even believe us if we told them the truth? Or would they more likely believe that we were responsible for their disappearances?
In the end, it was my suggestion to lie. We’d tell them that we woke up one morning to find them gone, some of our tents and gear were we damaged and our car sabotaged. We would give the police the description of the man we saw down the riverbank, the one who ran from us.
This would be our official story to the authorities, and we stuck to it.
We were each interviewed by police and press alike, search parties were organised, and somewhat reluctantly we agreed to participate. Searches went on for months and during that time we were interviewed again and again and we presumed that we three survivors would still be the likely suspects. But no arrests were made and no bodies were recovered either.
The man we described was never found either, and seven months later we went back to our lives and tried to move on.
Keith, Martin and I don’t speak to one another anymore. At work we barely interact with each other unless we have to, the mood has changed. I know people in work whisper about it, about how our friends went missing, and we either survived or perpetrated the act…
Two weeks ago, Martin stopped showing up to work. He didn’t call in sick and he’s not answering his phone and has severed all contact with everyone.
And just yesterday, Keith has done the same thing… No calls or nothing.
I don’t think its coincidence.
I think I might be next.
After our sudden disappearance the authorities will likely assume we went into hiding and were guilty as charged. I doubt they’ll think we were victims in the slightest, people always want someone to blame for these sorts of horrible mysteries.
So this is the real account of what happened in the woods those nights ago, I don’t expect anyone to believe it, but at least if you DO venture out there, you’ll hopefully spot the signs before I did, and get out of there before you end up like us.
Look after yourselves.
And wish me luck.