by Annie Neugebauer
It was embarrassingly easy to get lost. Even for someone like Jo, who was familiar with hiking and knew better than to make the mistakes she made. She’d always heard it was easier than you think; now she finally believed it. A bit of distraction. Forging ahead when something niggled in the back of her head that maybe this wasn’t the right way. Turning around instead of pushing forward. Dark creeping in. Paths blurring with natural breaks in the trees. And all of a sudden – not suddenly at all – she couldn’t ignore the worry in the back of her head that whispered, I don’t know where I am anymore.
Full dark was minutes away, and even if she found her original trail there was no way she’d make it back to her SUV before the light was completely gone. Darkness already filled in under the trees, and she didn’t have any light but her cell phone – no signal – which would leave her battery drained if she actually did find an open spot. When it came to strange woods at night, Jo decided hunkering down was smarter and safer than wandering around, even if it did put her behind schedule on her road trip.
Panic scrabbled at the heels of her decision, taking swipes at her ankles with sharp claws, trying to trip her up, but Jo wouldn’t let it. Panic got people killed in situations like this. Be smart tonight, then she could hike out in the morning. What she needed now was to level her head, get over the shame at the mistake she couldn’t undo, and think.
She stopped walking to take stock. The air was warm now, which meant it probably wouldn’t get much colder than cool. That was good because she only had a light sweatshirt with her. The sky had been clear earlier, so it probably wouldn’t rain. This area did have big mammals, though how common sightings were she wasn’t sure. Wolves, she thought, and mountain lions. Maybe bears too, but most big predators wouldn’t mess with a human, so really her biggest concern was small critters. Snakes that were drawn to warm bodies and crawling things that would bite and sting while she slept. Were there poisonous insects around here? Jo figured there must be. She couldn’t imagine actually sleeping no matter where she bedded down.
Readjusting her backpack, she chose the largest tree she could see in the quickly disappearing twilight and climbed it.
It was some kind of oak, with large, thick limbs she could rest on with relative comfort. She took off her pack and wedged it in the nearest fork, pulling out her water bottle. One was already empty – she’d drunk it casually before realizing she was lost – and the other was three quarters full. She took a small sip and put it back.
Leaning against the trunk of the oak, Jo scanned the forest below. It looked different in the dark. The tall grass that had looked so pretty from the path seemed almost flat from above, but she knew it hid pockets of life with motives of their own. The leafy patches blended and blurred with the grass, creating a vague patchwork her mind puzzled to make sense of. Motion suggested itself to her every few minutes, but she never tracked a target.
The trees were nothing more than silhouettes now, only their relative sizes indicating to her their nearness or distance. They all swayed in a breeze she couldn’t feel, creaking and groaning like an old fence being climbed. Jo stilled, closed her eyes, and tried to feel the tree she was in moving, but couldn’t detect anything but her own equilibrium messing with her. Her fingers tightened on the bark beneath her legs.
A sound popped from somewhere to the side. Her eyes jetted open. She held her breath, silent, straining. The crickets had stopped.
Jo counted to twenty, slowly examining each dark, open space between trees in every direction she could see. Still nothing made a sound. She had to take a new breath. She made it an excruciatingly slow drag so she could listen over it.
Even if there was something, it probably didn’t know she was there. Maybe it could smell her, but what were the chances it could smell her, climb trees, and was a species aggressive enough to actually do so?
Yet the woods remained expectantly silent.
Was it listening too?
A snap – sharp and almost… intentional. Like a heavy, walking thing stepping on a stick it could have easily avoided.
Adrenaline dumped into Jo’s system, her fight or flight instincts kicking in, but neither was a viable option. The only viable option was for her to sit perfectly, excruciatingly still and not make a sound. She fought the urge to pant and breathed in jerky trickles through her mouth. What was in her bag? Nothing useful. No gun, no mace, no blade larger than her pocket knife.
The next sound came from the other direction.
Her first thought wasn’t, Another one. Her first thought was, How did it move that fast?
Her second thought was, Why is it fucking with me?
And then she heard the laughter.
That’s the closest thing she could associate it with. Insane laughter. Her body crawled with goose bumps. Alien and wrong, a sort of indulgent, crazy giggle that bubbled up into a chitter. What was it? It wasn’t the laugh of a hyena, and those didn’t live here anyway. It was eerily human, but then so were the screams of goats and the imitations of crows. The word mimicry struck her, but she couldn’t place it. Humans couldn’t be that wild. Animals couldn’t be that intelligent.
One long string of laughter, and then more silence. Even the hair on her head stood on end.
She sat there, breathing, listening, heart pounding, but no more sounds came.
Hours later, when her body was weak with stiffened tension, her heart calm because it couldn’t sustain the panic, and her eyes dry from being held open so wide, the crickets finally returned.
Still, Jo didn’t trust them.
Darcy had to admit, there was a morbid fascination in watching Chug go insane. She’d always associated insanity with intelligence. Only brilliant people went insane. They left the mundane mental issues to people with mundane intellects – Alzheimer’s, dementia, PTSD – and took the real insanity for themselves. Chug had wrecked her theory. Chug was no genius, but he wasn’t challenged, either. He’d been something of a meathead before this all started, yet here he was, slowly unraveling in a display of psychological fireworks.
Right now he was on all fours, moving around the inside perimeter of the cabin, counting each tiny gap in the rough wooden planks of the walls, paying no mind to the wolves that prowled outside, snuffing and snarling for a way in. His dirty jeans made a soft scuffing sound against the tired, hard-packed floor.
Of the three of them, Chug was the worst choice to go insane. Maybe if she or Mario had flipped they’d be a more cunning brand – a greater mental threat to the others – but with Chug, it was brute strength Darcy worried about. If he decided to break for the door, would the two of them even be strong enough to stop him?
As he neared his original starting place on the front wall, he sat back on his heels. “Still fifty-six,” he muttered, sighing in relief. Then he leaned forward and pressed his face against one of the slits he’d counted, peering out at the wolves. He barked, sharply, four times, and Darcy’s shoulders ratcheted to her ears.
The counting made more sense, Darcy thought. It was like he was trying to ascertain his surroundings, focus on something unchanging. The barking was too bizarre. Besides, wolves don’t bark.
Lately she’d taken to sitting calmly and watching Chug unravel. She found herself narrating so in her mind, explaining to her own psyche which behaviors made sense and which were beyond crazy – like she was setting boundaries. Don’t go past here, she explained. We can wake up to check everyone’s positioning during the night, but we can’t begin barking at the wolves.
Then the use of “we” worried her.
Out of her head. She needed out of her head. But stuck inside the cabin, there wasn’t much elsewhere to go.
Chug flipped onto his back, sprawling his arms and legs up and out, head rolled back to stare out the crack. Weak, late afternoon sun pierced through, shooting a single ray to land on the drool on his chin. A shadow crossed it, blocking the light for the space of a breath.
The kitchen and living room were open to each other and together they made up the entirety of the cabin. Darcy got up from the sofa and crossed the room, circling wide around Chug but still keeping an arm’s length away from all the walls. She stopped at Mario’s feet, waiting for him to look up at her from his fingernails, which he’d taken to chewing. When his black eyes met hers, she almost wept. Instead, she sank down to her knees right in front of his feet, his own knees drawn up in front of him, his back pressed against the cabin’s only door.
He was keeping Chug in, yes. He was also keeping the wolves – and it – out.
Mario put out his hands, and Darcy laced her fingers in his. There weren’t words. They had all been said: How long can we go on like this? Will the wolves be able to break in? Can they dig? What will we do when the last of the food is gone? What should we do with Chug? Who will be the one to go outside?
What is it?
The mornings were relatively safe. Nothing was truly safe, but mornings were the closest thing. The wolves didn’t come around until afternoon. It didn’t come until nightfall. If they were ever going to make a break for it, it would have to be in the morning.
Inches away, just beyond the old wood that made up the walls, two of the wolves got into a tussle, snarling and snapping. Something crashed into the door, bowing it. A wolf yelped. Darcy and Mario both jumped.
Darcy wondered now if it had let them hike in on purpose. It was more than a full day’s hike to get here; why hadn’t it gotten them then? They’d spent one night outside – not even in tents – before finding the old man’s cabin. Had it intentionally stranded them?
Now they couldn’t hike out without committing to another night in the open. Now it knew they were here, if it hadn’t already. And now the wolves knew they were here, too, and their desperation was boiling.
Now tears did come, and Darcy didn’t fight them. She bent forward to place her face on Mario’s knees and cried. They hadn’t let the old man back into his own cabin, God help them. They hadn’t let the old man back in, too afraid of letting it in as well, and the wolves had gotten him. They’d even eaten the ribs and some of the bones, leaving only a skull and spine stretched out on the dirt.
Mario stroked her hair, despite it being unwashed for days.
The silence grew. The wolves stopped snuffling at the cracks. Their occasional howls tucked tail. Their steps in the dirt pittered softly, then scampered away with little whines of fear, until the only sound left at all was Chug’s labored panting.
“Shut up, Chug,” Mario whispered.
That only occasionally worked, but this time was one of them. Chug scrambled off his back and sat up, pulling his knees tightly to his chest, rocking, rocking, rocking.
It occurred to Darcy then, as her tears dried, that they were all sitting the same way now. Chug rocking, holding his knees. Mario blocking the door, knees drawn. Her sitting toe to toe with him, mirroring. They’d all gone fetal.
The crickets stopped. The silence outside grew large and expansive, sly.
Then, inches away, a kitten’s small, content purr reverberated through the wooden door.
Jo’s emotions flipped through an erratic rotation: furious anger, shame, determined calm, and panic. No matter: she was lost. She’d been hiking all day and she wasn’t out of the woods. It had taken her less than a day to get in, so a full day would’ve been enough to get out if she’d chosen the right direction.
She’d climbed down at first light and headed out, hope guiding her like a desperate beacon, but she’d chosen the wrong direction. Despite calculating the angle of the sun and thinking about where she’d parked and her basic knowledge of the larger geographical area, she’d chosen wrong. It was as simple as that.
Now the sun was digging eagerly behind the trees, leaving her cool, thirsty, and exhausted. What was she going to do? Her road trip plans were too flexible; no one on the trip had a definite date to expect her by. No one would be wondering where she was. No one even knew she’d stopped for a hike. Seriously, what the fuck was she going to do?
Her self-berating halted abruptly. Ahead, in a small clearing, two wolves hunched over something, feasting. They were large and dangerously thin, their ribs prominent even through their shaggy gray fur. A bone cracked. Jo tightened her backpack straps, glancing to the sides, wondering if she should sneak, be loud, or simply walk away.
A low, wet growl rumbled behind her.
Jo gasped, turning. Two wolves stalked toward her, backs slunk low and heads forward, teeth exposed. Hungry. Eyes shining with desperation.
She turned to keep them in her line of sight while tracking the first two. They’d spotted her as well. No use in sneaking now. She raised her arms over head slowly and waved them, talking loudly, telling the wolves she was here and she knew they knew it, and don’t attack; she’d be on her way. The first two stood, abandoning their meal, and pointed their red muzzles her direction.
They stalked closer. Jo bent, slowly, and picked up a large stick. She swung it in front of her like a golf club, warning them off. They showed more of their teeth and fanned out, working to surround her.
Sweat sprung to the surface of her skin. She couldn’t run. If she ran, they’d chase. She could feel their energy crouched in ready potential. Hungry, hungry energy.
Swinging her stick and edging sideways, she headed to the nearest, largest tree. She got three yards before they seemed to collectively realize what she was doing. In a synchronized pounce, they lunged, bounding toward her.
Jo dropped the stick and turned, running at the tree. She hit it several feet up, gasping, grasping. The bark scraped deep grooves down her arms as she scrambled madly up it.
Her hand clasped the lowest branch. They reached the trunk moments later, snarling and snapping. She hauled herself up, one of them leaping into the air. She hung a yard above them. Her mouth was parched, her breath too fast. She climbed higher, as high as she could get and remain stable. It wasn’t as big as the tree from the night before. That one had been almost comfortable. This one was just big enough.
Jo sunk to straddle the crook of the largest branch, staring down at the wolves. They paced around the trunk, silent in their temporary defeat. The largest of them went to retrieve the deer carcass they’d been eating and dragged it over. They all settled in beneath her and resumed their meal as the orange of the evening unraveled into blue.
When they began to howl, it made Jo thirstier. They tilted their muzzles up toward her so she could see the small black triangles of their mouths parted. The sound was low and melodious and slick, and she knew that they had water near, that their vocal chords were tight and smooth, that though they wanted for food they surely didn’t want for drink.
She’d heard wolf song before, but from a distance. This was directly below her. This seemed almost for her. It was indescribably beautiful, trailing chills of doom down her spine. Could they outwait her? Would they stay all night?
But when the wolves did leave, how would Jo get out? Should she turn back the way she’d come, or would that just double her time until she was out of these terrible woods?
From farther away, just out of sight but still near, a new howl sounded.
It began low, almost a moan, and climbed to crescendo in a breaking peak that trailed on and on, wavering but never cutting off, until the final crystalline echoes of it thinned into silence.
Every nerve in Jo’s fatigued body lit up. Her eyes stung with tears. Her fingers clutched bark. Her toes curled painfully within her boots.
All of the wolves went silent, their slim faces turned toward the howl.
That wasn’t a wolf.
The thought made no sense, but it’s what Jo believed. It was close enough to be called a wolf howl, but something else had made it. If not another wolf, then what? What thing could make a sound so close to perfect and yet so desperately wrong? What throat could bend the rightness of nature so?
In the silence, Jo peered into the sinking dark, and all of the wolves stood. The deer still had meat, but they turned their backs to it. They held their tails low against their hind legs and crept away, noses low to the ground, ears back.
All four of them slunk into the woods.
Jo continued to stare into the trees where that other howl had come from, but nothing moved.
Her chest heaved, quickly, though no fresh air drew into her lungs. Her dehydrated throat clenched around emptiness.
Minutes stretched and stretched, like a pine bough bending low under the weight of heavy winds. She sensed it moving but couldn’t see it – felt it creeping but couldn’t hear it. Every rodent nestled among the leaves held its breath. Every cricket sat frozen. Even the wind waited. The woods cowered in silence.
Behind her, below, at the base of the tree, it laughed a laugh that no lips should shape.
The laughter itself – close enough to be called laughter but somehow, deeply, wrong – gurgled and morphed and bubbled until the only sound coming from the base of the tree was the off-kilter babbling of a brook.
Darcy could hear each time Chug’s eyelid slapped his eyeball. He stood, calm, facing the two of them, pulling out his eyelashes one at a time. Each time, the lid would lift in a strained tent until the hair he pulled it by worked loose from its root, and then the lid would smack back down. Pop. As he spoke, Darcy stared at his unlined left eye as he worked on the right.
“I’m telling you, we should’ve left last night. That was our chance. We might never get another chance like that.”
It hadn’t come last night. The wolves hadn’t come either. The three of them had waited and paced and argued all night. Was it away, distracted somewhere else? Or was it a trick? Was it out there, finally silent, waiting for them to open the door?
Usually when it came the wolves ran and the crickets fell silent. So far tonight there’d been no wolves, and the crickets continued to chirp loud and clear.
In the nights since their confinement in the cabin, it had been a child crying, a kitten purring, a chit-chit-chit-chit-chit sound, a chainsaw, and a goat braying, but it had never been silence.
Chug had gotten worked up last night, when it hadn’t come. He’d been the sanest he’d been since they locked out the old man – since he’d insisted they keep out the old man – and he’d been on the verge of forcing Mario out of the way of the door. It was their chance, damn it!
“It could be the crickets,” Darcy had said softly.
That’s when Chug had started pulling out his eyelashes.
If it had been the crickets, there was no way to tell. It always left before dawn and that’s when the crickets stopped chirping, too, so how would they know?
They hadn’t opened the door. They hadn’t taken the chance. They hadn’t run as fast as they could through the woods hoping they could make it to their car before it found them, before the wolves found them, before another dusk fell upon them when they were unprotected by wooden walls. They’d stayed inside and argued, terrified of the crickets’ chirping, straining to listen and decipher. Had crickets always been so macabre? Had they always had that squeaky up-whistle at the end of their strokes? Had they always sounded exactly like… that?
Chug’s eyelid snapped into place. He placed the new lash in his left palm, where he carefully cupped a feathery pile of them. “I’m telling you. I’m telling you we should run. If it doesn’t come again tonight, we should run. We can’t miss another chance.”
None of them argued, but none of them agreed, either.
“The wolves still aren’t here,” Mario said. Darcy scooted closer to him, seeking his body heat. He put an arm around her waist. “They’re usually here by now. The sun will be all the way down in a few minutes. They’d usually have come and gone, almost.”
Darcy glanced to the diagonal slats of late evening sun that speared the gray dimness of the cabin. The whole place danced with dust. It occurred to her for the first time that they could easily starve here. They could stay trapped inside by that thing and their own fear and slowly shrivel up until they were just more furniture and dust. It suddenly seemed every bit as likely a way to die as going outside. The longer they waited to run, the harder it would be to build up the courage.
“Okay,” she said, nearly whispering. “If it doesn’t come in the next hour, let’s break for it.”
Chug’s face lit up, his lashless eyes looking over-wide and shiny.
“Okay,” Mario agreed, giving her a squeeze.
As they waited for the remains of the sun to slip away, Chug pulled the last lash from his lid and set about placing them all carefully around the perimeter of the cabin. Mario lit the candle on the tiny kitchen countertop. “It’s dark,” he announced, as if it wasn’t all any of them could think about – that it was dark now and it hadn’t come. That they knew of.
Darcy waited for him to urge them to go, but he said nothing. Even Chug said nothing. They stood side by side, staring at the door.
Leaves shuffled outside. Footsteps?
Darcy wanted Mario to go sit in front of it like he usually did, to give them all the illusion that he could keep it shut if something tried to break in, but he didn’t move, and she didn’t speak.
A knock came.
That’s not the right sound, Darcy thought. That’s not what a knock should sound like on that door. It was too hollow, too high for such thick, weathered wood. But how would she know? No one had knocked before.
It had never knocked before.
“Hello?” a shrill voice called. “Is anyone in here?”
Chills bloomed in circles over Darcy’s skin.
It had never spoken before, either.
None of them moved. Darcy heard Chug’s eyelids connect and part in a bald blink.
“Hello?” the voice called again. A woman’s voice, strained. Strained with panic, or with impersonation? “Please, is anyone here?” The door handle rattled, but the latch was dropped on the inside. “I need in. Please!”
Darcy was shaking her head, back and forth, over and over. No. No, don’t let her in. Don’t talk to it.
“Who are you?” Mario asked. Darcy’s head whipped to him, staring.
“My name’s Jo,” she said, relief clear in her tone. “God, please let me in. There’s…” Her voice faded distant and back, like she’d looked over her shoulder. “There’s something out here with me. Please.”
“We have to let her in,” Chug said, far too calm. “Can’t leave her out there for the wolves. Have to let her in.”
He said it as if it were obvious, as if he hadn’t insisted they do just that to the old man. He blamed himself, but not one of them had tried to move his big body from the door that first night. Not one of them had argued to let the old man into his own cabin.
“Have to,” he reiterated, walking to the door. “Have to. Have to. Have to.”
“Chug, no,” Darcy called reaching for his arm. “Don’t. It could be… it. It might not be her.” As if they knew her.
“Please,” the girl outside screeched. “Please, God! Hurry!”
Darcy’s fingers connected with his big, beefy arms, and he froze as if she’d shocked him. “Chug, we should have let the man in. That was a mistake we all made. But this could be too.” She looked over her shoulder where Mario stood, staring, his face drawn in indecision so tight it looked like pain.
“I don’t know,” Mario whispered. “I don’t know.”
“God, please let me in. You can’t leave me out here.” Jo’s voice broke in half over the word leave. “It’s going to get me. I can feel it coming. Please.”
“HAVE TO!” Chug bellowed, charging the door.
Darcy didn’t try to stop him.
He threw open the latch and pulled in the door.
A woman, maybe ten years younger than them, rushed in. Her hair was a nest of knots. She clutched her backpack straps as if they might hold her up. She darted all the way past the two of them lined up facing Chug, then turned. Together, all of them stared at the empty doorway for the span of several long seconds. Nothing was outside but descending dusk. The woods were still. Chug slammed the door and dropped the latch back down.
They all turned to stare at the new person, Jo, she’d said.
“How do you know it’s out there?” Mario demanded, crossing his arms. “We were going to run.”
Jo sunk to the floor, drawing her knees up, instinctively taking the position they’d all reverted to during the long, tortured nights inside the cabin. “It can be the frogs croaking,” she said. “It can be the wind in the leaves.” Then she started crying.
For the first time since they’d locked out the old man, Chug slept silently, no whimpering. Mario slept on the ground beside Darcy, and Jo slept stretched on the nappy old sofa.
Darcy stared up at her darkened form in the silence of the others’ sleep. She couldn’t close her eyes. She could hear Chug and Mario breathing, but the girl, Jo, didn’t make a sound. Darcy watched her, scarcely blinking, trying to pick out the facial features and forms of a stranger through the shroud of dimness.
It turned out Chug had been right; last night was their chance. Jo told them the thing had been with her; it had treed her in the woods. She said it couldn’t climb. They agreed to wait until sunrise, hike out, and spend the night in trees if they couldn’t make it out in one day.
Darcy listened for something outside, for the wind or the crickets or the wolves themselves to sound, and sound wrong, but nothing came.
Softly, sneakily, a tiny little click sounded. Darcy’s eyes went wide, staring through the dark at Jo’s silhouette on the sofa. She lay on her back, facing up, her profile silhouetted against the cushions. Had she clicked her teeth? Tapped her nail? Clucked her tongue?
Something creaked. Low and long, like hinges that hadn’t been oiled in years. Like old wood being weighted. Like stiff leather stretching past its resting point. So faint Darcy could scarcely hear it. Had she been asleep, she wouldn’t have.
She thought she saw Jo’s throat move. A convulsive swallow, but then it kept going. Her larynx bobbed up and down, up and down, then out, bulging, squirming. Darcy’s heart pounded in her temples, reflected into her ears by the bundled shirt she pillowed her head on. She held her breath to listen, eyes staring at the moving, writhing thing.
Minutes passed. Outside, the crickets remained silent.
Jo let out a rumble, and then a breath, and then another rumble, steady, rhythmic. The sound filled the cabin, but it wasn’t right. It was close enough to be called a snore, but it was ever so slightly, indescribably off.
About the Author
Annie Neugebauer is a Bram Stoker Award-nominated author with work appearing and forthcoming in more than a hundred publications, including magazines such as Cemetery Dance, Apex, and Black Static, and anthologies such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 3 and 4 and #1 Amazon bestsellers Killing It Softly and Fire. She’s a columnist for Writer Unboxed and LitReactor. You can visit her at www.AnnieNeugebauer.com.
About the Narrators
Stephanie Malia Morris works in a bookstore by day and a library by night, which gives her access to more books than she can possibly read over several lifetimes. She is a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award and a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in FIYAH, Apex, Nightmare, and PseudoPod. She is a regular podcast reader for Uncanny Magazine and has narrated short fiction for the all four of the Escape Artists podcasts, StarShipSofa, and Far Fetched Fables.
Dagny Paul is a lapsed English teacher, failed artist, and sometimes writer who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. She has an unhealthy (but entertaining) obsession with comic books and horror movies, which she consumes whenever her five-year-old son will let her (which isn’t often). Dagny was Assistant Editor of PseudoPod, and guest editor for Pseudopod’s Artemis Rising 3 event in 2017.
About the Artist
Yuumei is an illustrator, comic artist, and designer. Her works include “Knite” and “Fisheye Placebo” webcomic series, Axent Wear Cat Ear Headphones, and various art that focuses on environmentalism, fantasy, and human nature.