If you’re lost in the woods, and hungry too,
There is one thing you should never do.
You must not resort to eating a man,
Or you will be killed and you will be damned,
By the Wen-
(Traditional Canadian children’s rhyme)
The tent sprang to life in Joshua’s hands. It was spring-
Jada, Patrick and Leslie couldn’t do much of anything on their own. The three of them could barely feed themselves without a cook to prepare the meal and a maid to serve it to them. Not that Joshua wasn’t affluent himself. His parents were in the seven-
But Joshua always thought of himself as different from the others. He had money, but he still liked to do things for himself. And so he was in charge of setting up the camp, and feeding everybody too. They never would have been able to come on this trip without him, which was really the only reason Joshua had decided to go. The trip had seemed so important to Patrick that Joshua had eventually relented and agreed, even though he thought it was a terrible idea. Not to mention being in very poor taste.
But Patrick always seemed to get what he wanted, and what he wanted was to continue the annual tradition they had started their first year of high school, back when they were all still just kids. Of course, in many ways, Joshua still thought of Patrick as that same spoiled teenager. But they were friends, and Joshua was loyal to his friends, even if he felt himself drifting further and further away from them in recent years. And since last year, Joshua didn’t like what he was reminded of every time he looked at them.
“Don’t you have the tent up, yet?” chimed Leslie as she walked by. It was amazing anyone had convinced prissy, bratty, irritating Leslie to spend an entire weekend outdoors. It was an absolute miracle that someone had been able to do it five straight years in a row. But Patrick was very convincing, and Leslie was head over heels in love with him. Joshua doubted she would ever openly defy Patrick, even if it meant she had to come on this yearly camping trip.
“Almost done,” Joshua replied as he stabbed the last of the plastic stakes into the ground. “Where are Patrick and Jada? We need to get a fire going before it gets any darker.” They’d made poor time on the drive up and had arrived later than expected, now night was rapidly creeping up on them. Patrick and Jada had gone off to gather some firewood, but Joshua held out little hope that they would actually bring any back.
“They’re probably making out in the bushes somewhere,” Leslie said. Leslie and Patrick had an on-
“Can you call them?” Joshua asked. “We all know how easy it is to get lost out here. No one should be off on their own for too long.”
Leslie rolled her eyes and pulled her phone from the pocket of her far-
Joshua examined his own phone. No bars. “Patrick said he checked and there was definitely coverage out here. I had him make sure; I wasn’t taking any chances this time.”
“Well either he was wrong or he was lying,” said Leslie. “Is the tent finished?”
“Yeah,” replied Joshua. “I guess I’ll see about finding some firewood.”
Joshua looked around the immediate area, but most anything resembling decent kindling had long been taken and used by the campsite’s previous visitors. Normally they would have found somewhere more isolated and less touristy, but Joshua had insisted that this time they choose a site that was well used and close to the road.
Joshua was more than fifty feet away from the tent before he found any suitable burning wood. He looked back to the campsite, but it was almost completely out of view. Joshua shook off his nervousness; this wasn’t going to be a repeat of last year. They’d taken precautions. They’d played it extra safe.
Behind him, Joshua heard the snapping of branches.
“Shouldn’t we be getting back to the camp?” Jada said. “We’ve been gone a while, I’m sure Josh has the tent set up by now.”
“Why do you want to go now, when things are just getting good?” asked Patrick. He had one hand under her shirt and the other was slowly creeping up her thigh.
“I just don’t like being out here alone,” said Jada, squirming uncomfortably under Patrick’s relentless advances.
“You’re not alone, baby,” replied Patrick, smiling. “You’re with me. I can keep you safe.”
Jada pushed his hand down off her leg. “I’m really not into it right now.”
“Come on J,” Patrick immediately put his hand back where it had been. “Don’t be a tease.”
Jada rolled her eyes. She had a hard time saying no to anyone, but it was especially difficult with Patrick. She didn’t know why, but she always seemed to give in to him, no matter what he wanted. How many times had she given it up to him, even though she knew he was never going to make her his girlfriend. A rustle of leaves in the distance brought her focus back to her surroundings. “Wait a minute,” she pleaded. “I think I heard someone.”
“There’s no one here,” insisted Patrick, moving in to cover her lips with his.
Jada shoved him away, more insistently this time. “I’m telling you I just heard someone. Over there, by that clearing.”
Patrick sighed heavily, but he reluctantly walked over to the clearing where Jada was pointing, some 20 feet away. “See?” he said, twirling around with his arms outstretched. “No one here.”
When he didn’t hear a response, Patrick looked back to where Jada had been standing. She was on the ground, lying on her side, eyes closed.
“Jada!” he screamed, starting back towards her at a full run. He’d only taken a few quick steps before his foot hit a slick pile of wet leaves and slipped out from under him. His head smashed down on the hard earth of the forest floor.
Leslie sat pouting in the tent, even though there was no one there to see her lower lip jutting out in frustration. The tent was big enough for seven people, supposedly, but it still made Leslie feel claustrophobic. She didn’t like small spaces. Or the woods. Or camping. She stood up and stamped her foot petulantly. Why was she even here? She never liked Patrick’s dumb camping expeditions, not even before last year. And now? Doing it all again seemed insane, but once Jada had agreed to come, Leslie’s hands were tied. She couldn’t very well let Patrick and Jada go camping without her around; Leslie could only imagine what would happen. Not that her chaperoning was doing much good at the moment, with Jada and Patrick disappearing into the woods almost as soon as they’d arrived. And where was Joshua with the firewood? She rubbed her hands up and down on her bare arms; it was getting dark and it was getting cold.
She knew she couldn’t make a fire herself. She had a lighter, sure, but there was more to it than making a pile of sticks and lighting it with a lighter, wasn’t there? She wasn’t sure, but didn’t want to end up looking stupid, so she decided it wasn’t worth it to try. Instead, she left the tent and started looking for Joshua. She couldn’t see him anywhere, and no one answered when she called out his name. She’d seen where he’d been going when he left to find the firewood, so she set off in that general direction, still calling his name.
Once the camp was almost out of sight, she stopped. She knew if she went much further she’d run the risk of losing her way, and she didn’t want to take that chance. She remembered what it felt like. She remembered the icy, hollowed-
“Joshua!” she called out one last time before she turned back. This time, though, she heard a response. Or at least she thought she did. It was very faint, and Leslie couldn’t quite make out any words, but she was certain she heard someone.
“Josh?” she called out even louder. “Where are you, you idiot?”
She heard the noise again. It definitely wasn’t words, but someone was making some kind of noise, and it sounded human, not animal. She followed the sound for a few steps, then tripped over what she thought was a pile of leaves. She fell head first over the obstruction and landed mostly on her face. She cried out as her professionally sculpted nose crunched against the hard-
Leslie wiped her hands on her khaki shorts, leaving sticky red streaks down the length of the twilled cotton. What had she fallen into? Something vile, she assumed, shaking her head in disgust. Why had she even come on this stupid trip? She looked down to where she had plummeted face-
Then she looked behind her and saw what she had actually tripped over. She screamed as loudly as she ever had in her life, and for far longer, looking down at what was left of Joshua’s body. She only stopped screaming when she saw Joshua’s mouth move and realized he was still alive. She dropped down next to him, her knees squishing in the blood-
As she straightened up and took her hand off Joshua’s insides, she realized he had more injuries than just the gaping hole in his abdomen. He had what looked like bites all over his arms and legs. The bites went straight through Joshua’s clothes and left huge open wounds, all pumping blood freely like fleshy faucets. Leslie didn’t know what could take chunks out of a human being like that, but it had to be some kind of vicious animal. Maybe a wolf. Or a bear. Or maybe it was a badger; she was pretty sure they were dangerous too. Whatever it had been, it looked like it had taken its fill of Joshua and left him to slowly bleed to death. He had literally been eaten alive.
Leslie could see that he was still trying to say something, but she couldn’t manage to make it out. She put her ear close to his mouth, because she didn’t know what else to do for him, other than listen to his last words.
With his final breaths, Joshua whispered in her ear.
“Tim,” he said, and then he died.
Patrick opened his eyes. The sun was almost gone, and he could see the first twinkling lights of the night sky starting to appear. He slowly picked himself off the ground, rubbing the back of his head. Realization of what had happened came to him slowly. As he remembered seeing Jada lying in the leaves, he spun to look at the spot where she had been, but she was gone. He walked over to the area she had been, still rubbing his head, and looked around. There was blood splashed across the leaves and soil, a dotted line of red, leading deeper into the woods.
Patrick’s first instinct was to run back to the camp, get in the SUV and drive the hell back to civilization. He didn’t know what had happened to Jada, but it looked like some kind of animal had gotten to her. She was probably dead; there was a lot of blood on the ground. Patrick figured there wasn’t anything he could do to help her, and there was no point endangering his own life trying to investigate. But there was a problem.
He couldn’t show up back home without Jada. He couldn’t say she got taken into the woods by some animal. No one would believe him, not after he’d already used that excuse a year ago. If he tried to say Jada had “just disappeared,” who would buy it, after he’d said the exact same thing about Tim? They hadn’t really believed him then, but there was no evidence, and he, Joshua and Leslie had been in such bad shape when they found them, that the police eventually let the whole thing drop. But if he tried to say he’d lost another camper, he was sure he’d end up in prison. He had to find Jada. Even if it was just to bring her body back and prove she’d been killed by an animal, he had to find her.
Patrick walked tentatively forward, following the trail of blood, not really wanting to find what he was certain was at the end of it. The blood was easy to follow; Jada had lost a lot of it. The longer Patrick walked, the more convinced he became that he was searching for a corpse.
The trail ended in front of a small burrow, a damp hollow in the side of a mossy knoll. The hole looked just big enough for a person to fit in, and Patrick wondered if Jada had crawled inside it to hide, or if she had been dragged inside by whatever had attacked her. Either way, he knew he had to go in there after her.
Patrick got down on his hands and knees in front of the hole. He reached in and felt around, but there was nothing near the entrance. He kept going, into the pitch black, crawling forward through the burrow until his hand hit something hard. He could see literally nothing, so he felt around a little to try to determine what he’d found. It felt smooth and hard, like rubber maybe. It was Jada’s running shoe, he was sure of it. He felt a little higher to make certain that it wasn’t just a shoe, but there was a leg there too.
“Jada?” he called out, although he didn’t really expect her to answer. Still, there was always a chance. He backed up, pulling her along with him. It was a difficult haul, but he eventually managed to drag her to the mouth of the burrow. Once he was fully out himself, it was easy to get her the rest of the way. With one final pull he dragged Jada out into the open.
Patrick immediately cried out and dropped the leg he had been dragging. Jada was missing her arm; it had been almost completely ripped off. Or perhaps chewed off would be a better description. Jada’s arm was intact down to a little above her elbow. Everything below that was just gone, save for a small protrusion of bone. The bone looked to have a number of deep striations that Patrick imagined could only be tooth marks.
And she was dead. There was no doubt about that. Jada’s eyes were wide open and they stared accusingly at Patrick. He wondered if he hadn’t slipped and fell, if maybe he would have been able to save her. But then he realized that might have just led to them both being dead, so he was actually kind of glad he’d fallen and knocked himself unconscious.
Patrick closed her eyes with the tips of his fingers because that seemed like the appropriate thing to do, then hoisted her up over his shoulder. She was always pretty light, and she’d lost a few pounds since the last time Patrick had picked her up. He didn’t enjoy having a dead body draped over his back, but Jada’s missing limb didn’t change what he needed to do. He couldn’t go home without proof that Jada had been killed by an animal; the tooth marks on her bone would exonerate Patrick in her death. He just had to make it to the campsite, then he could load her into the back of the SUV and Joshua could drive them all home. It was sad that Jada was dead, but all things considered, it still wasn’t the worst camping trip in recent memory.
As Patrick made his way back towards the camp, blood continued to drip from Jada’s wound. It wasn’t a steady stream, or even a spurt, but there was enough of a drip that it quickly soaked through Patrick’s t-
Patrick tried to pick her up again, but he could smell the blood now. In fact, it was all he could smell. As soon as he had the body over his shoulder, he began to vomit again, falling back to the ground and dropping Jada back into the dirt. He knew he wasn’t going to be able to do it. But he wasn’t going to end up in jail, either. Maybe he could get Joshua to help. Or, better yet, he’d just get Joshua to carry the body for him. Patrick knew he could always get Joshua to do whatever he wanted, and carrying a body was nothing compared to what he’d convinced him to do on their last camping trip.
Patrick breathed a sigh of relief, knowing he didn’t have to try and carry the body again. All he had to do was run back to camp and tell Joshua what happened, then get Joshua to come pick up the body. Starting back towards the campsite, Patrick was starting to feel like everything was going to end up being OK. Well… relatively speaking.
Leslie swore loudly at the steering wheel. Of course the keys weren’t in the SUV. That would have been too easy. She climbed out of the vehicle and ran over to the tent where Joshua had hauled everyone’s bags earlier. The sun was almost completely gone now and it was even darker inside the tent. She felt around for the electric lamp, the singular source of artificial light they’d brought with them. They hadn’t thought they’d need anything else since they planned to have the fire going long before nightfall.
Flicking on the LED light, Leslie started rummaging through the bags, looking for the keys to the SUV. She found the bag she knew belonged to Joshua and emptied it out into the floor of the tent. Energy bars. Some books. A journal. No keys.
If they weren’t in the car and they weren’t in his bag, then he must have had them on him. Leslie cringed at the thought of going back. She didn’t want to look at Joshua’s mangled body ever again. Or into his dull, lifeless eyes. The smell wasn’t something she was particularly looking forward to either. But she knew she had no choice; if she wanted to get back to civilization, she was going to have to go and fish the keys out of Joshua’s pocket.
Leslie stepped out of the tent. It was somehow even darker than when she went in, only a few minutes earlier. She started walking to the spot where she’d left Josh. She kept wondering why he’d used his last words to say Tim’s name. Was he still feeling guilty? Knowing he was about to die, was he worried he was going to go to Hell? Leslie had been worried about that, at least at first. But like almost all of Leslie’s worries, after she ignored it long enough, it just went away. It had been months since she’d even thought about Tim, at least until Patrick had brought up this goddamn camping trip. Being back out in the woods, it was hard not to think about Tim and what had happened, but Leslie was very good at pushing her dark thoughts out of her head, or at least pushing them down, so she didn’t have to concentrate on them quite so much.
“Leslie!” Patrick’s voice echoed off the bark of a hundred trees, disguising its point of origin. Leslie looked all around her, trying to see where Patrick might be, but even with her lamp, it was just too dark.
“Patrick!” she called out. “Where are you?”
She spun around holding the lamp out in front of her, and out of nowhere Patrick appeared, only inches from her face. His sudden appearance startled her and she let out a short scream, before Patrick reached out and covered her mouth with his hand.
“Quiet!” he said, not particularly quietly. “There’s something in these woods. It killed Jada. Tore her arm off.”
“It killed Joshua, too,” replied Leslie in a loud whisper. “I found his body. He was still alive when I found him, but he was hurt really bad and…and then he died.” Leslie found there were tears in her eyes. The shock of seeing Joshua ripped open like that had numbed her to the emotions of having lost her friend, but now she was suddenly feeling the emotional loss. And Jada was gone too. She’d had her problems with Jada, sure, but she never wanted her to die.
“Did he say anything before he died?” asked Patrick.
“Actually,” Leslie shuddered, remembering Joshua’s final moments, “He said Tim.”
Patrick flinched at the mention of the name. “Why would he mention Tim?”
“Well, he was about to die, so maybe he was feeling guilty,” suggested Leslie. “Or maybe he thought Tim was the one who was doing this.”
“I think we both know Tim didn’t do anything to anybody.”
Leslie shrugged, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Maybe it wasn’t Tim. Maybe it was someone who knew him, getting revenge for what we did.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Patrick grabbed her firmly by the shoulders. “No one but us four knew what went down last year, right? And anyway, whatever killed Jada was not a person. It was some kind of animal. It chewed her fucking arm off!”
“Yeah,” Leslie conceded. “I guess Joshua looked like he’d been attacked by an animal too. I wonder if it was one animal that got them both or if there’s a two different dangerous animals out there.”
“I don’t know,” replied Patrick, “and I don’t want to find out. Let’s get the hell out of here!”
Leslie looked down at the ground. “I can’t find the keys. Josh must have had them with him when he was… you know.”
“Well where’s the body then?” Patrick was growing impatient. He wanted this nightmare to be over. “We need to get those keys, Leslie.”
“I think he was over here,” she started towards where she’d left Joshua, holding the lamp out in front of her. They moved quickly, but when they got there, Joshua was nowhere to be found.
“He was right here,” said Leslie, swinging the lamp around, trying to find the body. “I swear, he was right here.”
“Goddammit, Leslie!” Patrick shouted, forgetting that he wanted them to keep quiet. “We need those keys!”
“No, look,” Leslie pointed to the ground. “Look at all the blood on the ground. This is definitely the place. But his body is gone.”
“Well is it possible he wasn’t actually dead? Maybe you thought he was dead, but he was just passed out.”
“No. He was dead. Like dead, dead.”
Patrick snatched the lamp out of Leslie’s hands and began looking around, holding the light out into the darkness. “Then that means whatever killed him came back for the body. Which means it’s probably close by.”
“Shit,” replied Leslie. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“Well the car is out of the question now,” said Patrick, still spinning around, trying to look in every direction at once. “We’re going to have to run for it. Hopefully once we make it back to the main road, someone will drive by and see us.”
“OK,” said Leslie. She didn’t love the idea, but she didn’t have any better ones to offer either. Before they could go anywhere, though, Leslie heard a sound that made the hairs on the back of her neck literally stand on end. It was a deep, guttural growl. It reminded Leslie of an angry dog, but much louder… and scarier. She looked over at Patrick to see if he was hearing it too, and the look on his face told her that he was.
“What is that noise?” asked Leslie, as though Patrick might somehow be privy to some information that she wasn’t. Patrick didn’t bother answering, but instead he held the lamp out towards the sound.
By the time Patrick had pinpointed the location the sound was coming from, the creature was practically on them. It stepped into the small pool of light generated by the lamp, the growling still getting louder. When he finally got a look at the animal, Patrick was so shocked he dropped the lamp. The creature vanished from sight as the lamp hit the ground and the light winked out of existence.
Leslie had only seen the creature for a second, but the image of it was burned into her eyes. It was the size of a very large man, or maybe some kind of ape, but it looked wiry and emaciated, like it was starving. Its body was covered with patches of long black fur, but the fur was scraggly, matted, and dirty, and it clung lifelessly to the creature’s almost translucent grey skin.
Its limbs were long and sinewy, and likewise covered in patches of thin black fur. At the end of its arms were long, bony claws. The hands themselves looked almost human, but each finger ended in a long, dagger-
Its face had no fur, and human-
Perhaps the most unusual aspect Leslie noticed, though it was certainly not as striking as the teeth, was the fact that the creature had massive deer antlers extending skyward out of the its bald, blackish head.
Leslie screamed when she saw it and kept screaming after it disappeared into the darkness. She dropped to her knees and fumbled on the ground trying to find the lamp. As she felt around in the fallen autumn leaves, Leslie heard Patrick make a strangled, muffled noise from right next to her. Then she heard brutal sounds of what she imagined must be ripping flesh and snapping bone and she knew Patrick was dead. She was forced to listen to the sound of the creature feasting on Patrick’s body while she continued to search in the darkness for her lamp.
When she finally found it, she immediately realized it might be better to leave it off, to keep the creature from being able to see her. But she couldn’t help herself; she had to see. Had she imagined the terrifying creature? Was it just her fear playing tricks on her? How could such a thing even exist?
Leslie flicked the lamp back on.
The thing was only a few feet away. Its head snapped up from its meal when the light came on, its attention instantly focused on Leslie. She examined the beast carefully in the light; she hadn’t been imagining anything. Leslie knew that the creature wasn’t natural. Whatever it was, it wasn’t that.
It dropped Patrick’s body onto the ground and began to make the same low, guttural noise it had made earlier, simultaneously staring down Leslie with its empty, black eyes. It started slowly stalking towards her.
“Wait!” she cried, panicking. To her surprise, the creature paused, as if it understood her and was waiting to hear what she had to say.
“Please don’t kill me!” she begged, still on her knees. After what seemed like a moment of consideration, the creature began moving toward her again.
“Is it because of Tim?” Leslie asked, the creature’s face only inches from hers. To her surprise, the creature paused again at the mention of Tim.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” she continued. “You’re doing this because of what we did to Tim?”
The creature didn’t directly acknowledge the question, but it wasn’t tearing her to pieces, so Leslie decided to interpret that as an affirmative response.
“It was all Patrick!” she kept going, desperate. “We didn’t want to do it, Patrick made us. He said we were going to die! He said we were going to starve to death! Tim was badly hurt anyway. None of us wanted to do it! And Patrick was the one that… that actually did it. We all just… we ate it afterwards. But we hadn’t eaten in days, in more than a week even. Patrick had it over the fire and it smelled like… it smelled like normal food. We couldn’t help it. I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry…”
Leslie stopped talking and began to sob. The creature made no move towards her while she wept. After several minutes, Leslie managed to pull herself together. She wiped her nose on her sleeve and dried her eyes on the backs of her hands. The creature took one final step towards her and lifted its arm high above its head. It’s whitish claws shone in the light of the portable lamp and Leslie could see they were covered in her friends’ blood.
“Please,” she said quietly, in the moment before the creature tore her to pieces. “Is there anything I can do?”
The creature stopped, its arm hanging in the air, the death stroke lingering unfulfilled. Leslie blinked hard. Had she said the magic words? Was that the secret to surviving this creature’s vengeance? Repentance?
“Please,” she repeated. “If there’s anything I can do to atone for what we did, I’ll do it, I swear I will!” She clamped her hands in front of her and leaned forward on her knees.
The creature slowly lowered its claw and took a step back. Leslie couldn’t believe it. Maybe she could still get out of this alive! This whole thing had been about Tim after all, and all she had to do was ask for forgiveness. The creature walked the few steps back towards where Patrick’s body lay, partially eaten, on the ground. It picked up the body with one hand and casually tossed it down in front of Leslie, as though the corpse weighed nothing.
“What… What do you want me to do?” asked Leslie as she looked down at the eviscerated carcass of her former friend.
The creature stepped fully into the light, and with on massive claw, it gestured down to the body. Leslie shrugged her shoulders as though she didn’t know what the beast wanted her to do, but she knew. The creature snarled, still gesturing down to the body and this time Leslie nodded compliantly.
“OK,” she said. She bent down over Patrick’s body, lifted one of his arms to her lips and began to eat.