It was 1966, we were a broken-voiced roaring thirteen, and every day we sat down around the shitty wooden table in my basement to worship the gods: Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula. Bela Lugosi was our messiah. Not a Saturday night went by that didn’t involve poring through Famous Monsters of Filmland like the cool kids we thought we were.
There were four and a half of us, if you sometimes counted my little sister, Dawn. We never invited her to hang out, but she would scream if she couldn’t sit at the table with us, and my mother was at the end of her maternal rope. I was the convenient one, the one whose house we used, whose mom made the best brownies, and whose 25-inch television made our Creature Features seem like some sort of twisted reality, come to life in sweater-vested suburbia.
Michael was the interesting one, because he was thoughtful and smart, but also started lifting weights when we were twelve (why, nobody knows). So girls liked him, because he wasn’t the stereotypical nerd; he was the dork they blushed about behind their Beatles lunch boxes.
The liar of the group was Danny. He was always making up stories about how he busted open a baseball with one hit, or saw Tommy I. and Kathryn M. frenching behind the bleachers after Miss Higgins’ third period math. He lied to other people, to us, and I think to himself a couple of times. He was hyperactive, but we kept him around because he was entertaining, and because beggars can’t be choosers.
Christopher was the one no one wanted to be around. Younger kids crossed the street when they saw him coming. He wasn’t that big, but he was a mean fighter, and there was always dirt smeared into his skin. He never stole, rarely trespassed, and was nice to his mother and fine to us.
There are events that occur in every individual’s lifetime that seem mundane in the moment, and then end up being incredibly significant later on. Ours happened on a Wednesday. The world felt underappreciated and sleepy. Gray, drizzled skies watched us, cloudy eyebrow cocked, as we raced each other to Martin’s Drug.
“Hurry up, come on!” Christopher let go of one of his handlebars in an attempt to shove me off my bike.
“You come on!” I knocked his hand away. The drugstore was the only place to buy Famous Monsters of Filmland, a wondrous magazine filled with articles on every detail of every movie we’d ever held dear. The only problem was it came out so sporadically that we’d have to drop all of our adolescent obligations to go pick it up. Filling ourselves to the brim with scaly, pockmarked trivia was much more important than picking Dawn up from the fifth grade.
We jumped off our bikes, letting them skid on the concrete and leaving them in a heap by the door. A woman in an orange pillbox hat stomped around us, nose up, eyes cast down. But not even an older, hot-tempered tangerine lady could stop us from our mad monster dash. Legs tangling with one another, we squeezed through the door triumphant– a ball of blush and heart palpitations only the thrilling combination of potential new dork information and women out of our pubescent league could produce.
An elbow mashed into my cheek.
“No running!” Old Man Martin.
My knee connected with someone’s hip.
“Slow down or get out!”
We flattened like dominos, the four of us, trying to brace ourselves against one another. Our momentum carried us flailing into a rack of comics at the end of the aisle, and piles of Bettys and Veronicas and Richie Riches came crashing down around us.
Danny popped up immediately, repeating, “We’re sorry, Mr. Martin. We’re real sorry, and we’ll clean it up. Right away! We are so, so sorry.”
The old man pinched the bridge of his nose. I was suddenly aware of how old he was; I had never really noticed the folded wrinkles that made up his face, or the way his spine curved forward just a bit like the bean sprouts we had grown in science class.
Before I could move, still stuck in my faux-nostalgia, Christopher snatched a magazine off the rack and ran, pulling Michael by the sleeve. Danny followed closely in suit, never wanting to be left out, and my legs carried me behind. In an instant, I realized my mistake, and left all the coins in my pocket on the counter.
We didn’t even take our jackets off as we huddled in my kitchen, out of breath from the scramble to ditch the mess we had made at Martin’s Drug.
“Dude, open it up. Open it up!” Danny beat Michael on the shoulder with his fist.
“God, shut up, Daniel. I’m trying.”
“Don’t call me Daniel.”
“Then shut up.”
“Guys!” I held up my hands. “Magazine? Please?”
It was tradition: transport the magazine home, carry to my basement, flip it over so none of us could see the cover, have Michael rip open the plastic (because he did bicep curls three times a week), yell at him for not being quick enough, crowd around the publication like it was a dead body and we were the cops. One time we brought it to Danny’s house instead, and the contest page, featuring a signed rubber chicken by Svengoolie himself, had been ripped out. It was that afternoon we all became superstitious.
I flipped it.
No one said anything.
Until, “Dude, fuck.” Christopher ran a hand through his uncut hair. “We wait weeks for this thing. We wait months. And they pull this shit.”
Staring back at us was not gruesome. It was not grisly. It was not the least bit science-fiction-y. Staring back at us from that glossy expanse of magazine cover, was a man. He had a faint glow around him, but besides that, he looked kind of like my neighbor, Mr. Anderson. Four separate times Mr. Anderson had gotten mistaken for four seperate men. My father used to say that if Mr. Anderson was a spice, he’d be flour.
Splashed across the front cover read, “Man-Made Monster: A Look Back at the SHOCKing Film that Launched Lon Chaney Jr.’s Horror Career.”
“I guess it could be interesting.” Michael’s voice broke on interesting.
And with that, we turned the front page.
The smell of campfire smoke hung off the branches of the pine trees like dirty laundry, and we weren’t sure which was worse: the fact that it wasn’t our fire, or the curious, misplaced dread that someone else was out in the middle of the Wisconsin woods on that late-October evening. The clouds were gathered low and close together, making it feel as if we were trapped in a box of peeling bark and water vapor.
“So when’s your hot sister coming?” Christopher asked me, trying to make conversation as we watched Michael and Danny struggle to pitch the old blue tent that my parents had stuffed in the garage for twenty years.
“Shut the hell up.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets. “The more the merrier, dude. That’s all I’m sayin’.”
Michael stumbled back, shaking his hand out. The tent sagged into a puddle. He looked around at the pin-straight trees. “A storm’s coming.”
“How can you tell?” I generally didn’t know if it would rain until I felt a drop on my forehead.
“The electricity.” He stood up straight. “Can’t you feel it?”
“Yeah, Freddie-boy, can’t you feel the electricity?” Christopher grabbed my face from behind.
“I’m serious,” Michael continued, as I wrestled Christopher off of me.
“Hey,” Danny called up the hill, his voice mingling with the crunching of the dead leaves as he raced towards us, “You guys need to see this.” He came to a stop in front of the tent. “It’s funky as hell and I don’t trust it.”
The hair on my arms stood up as we reached the bottom of the hill. It was as if we were in a vacuum– there were no birds chirping, no wind, no sounds of rushing water, despite the stream that ran perpendicular to our left. There was a tire propped up against a tree in the distance, covered in mud. The ground flattened out down by the stream, and rows of tall skeleton trees reached infinitely beyond into the distance.
Danny led us to the right.
“Holy shit,” Michael exhaled.
And there, reaching up towards the ashen sky like beggars on their knees, were eight of them. Smooth and yellowed, they looked alien in the ever-emerging twilight. What once could have been considered trees were now just matchsticks, waiting for the world to end and set them ablaze.
The missing pieces of bark lay blown out around each trunk in concentric circles. Suddenly I was six years old again, and sitting in church with my mom and my grandfather. Don’t move, don’t speak, don’t breathe in the place with the tall walls and hushed claustrophobia. Six-year-old me loosened my collar. Twenty-year-old me shook my hands out. It felt fragile, that space with the smooth trees.
Christopher shattered the silence. “So what?” He shrugged. “My great-grandmother got struck by lightning, too– twice.” The wobble in his voice told me that maybe he was just as scared as the rest of us.
The next episode began with the smell of burning.
Michael jerked his head up. “Someone’s cooking.” His tone was defensive, trying to counteract any argument we could throw out before any of us had even spoken a word. As if he could will a falseness into reality.
Spurred on by his words, the smell got stronger, more acrid, more wrong. It pierced into my head like a lobotomy pick, pushing itself into my skull and ushering whatever was inside my head, out. It was all I could focus on.
“I don’t think…anyone’s cooking?” I managed to choke out with uncertainty.
“Families camp all the time,” Michael reasoned. “We’re all shook up after looking at a bunch of trees. It’s fine.” Michael always had a tendency to say it’s fine as a way to try and calm people down. Except he doesn’t realize that those words are more condescending than comforting. Maisie Bridges once yelled at him for it, in the eighth grade.
“Michael Adams,” she stuck a finger in his chest and pulled herself up to her full five foot, zero inches height. “Who are you to tell me it’s fine? What if I don’t think it’s fine, or I don’t want it to be fine?” This was after he accidently pushed her ceramic vase off the table in art class.
“Guys, stop.” Danny had failed to realize that no one was doing anything that required stopping. “It’s fucking burning.” His eyes got wide in a big Danny-panic. “It’s fucking burning, man!”
He was right– the smell was almost unbearable at this point. I was reminded of when I was fifteen and my dad was setting up the first fire of the summer in the backyard, except over the winter a chipmunk had crawled into the firepit and died, and then we cooked it unknowingly.
“Come on.” Christopher led us, lead feet dragging, out of our little clearing. It was hard to tell where the smell was coming from; it was as if a cloud had settled around our entire campsite, permeating us all in rot. I didn’t want to be labelled the wimp-out, but I had less desire to find out what it was with each step.
Danny’s next words were comforting, even though I’m sure he was just talking for his own benefit. “Dude, we’re scared over nothing,” he explained to no one in particular. “Those trees…we’re fucked over some trees. That’s some L-7 weenie shit right there.”
“Shut up, Daniel,” Christopher called back.
“Buzz off dude. Call me ‘Daniel’ one more goddamn time.”
“Stop.” Michael held his hand out. I took a step forward and immediately regretted it. Laying in front of us was one of the most foul images I have ever taken in.
Its cheeks were slick underneath its eyeballs, dangling off their pink cords, as if it had been crying. Skin was peeling off in curls, like old paint off a wall, and the flesh underneath was sizzling. It was charred almost beyond recognition, with a blackened tongue on display as it hung limp out of its mouth.
I stumbled a few feet to my left and spewed my breakfast into the leaves. My brain was going off like an alarm: bad wrong bad wrongbadwrongbadwronGBADWRONGB–
“It’s just a deer.” Michael’s voice shook with each word.
“No.” I pulled myself up and pointed a finger into his chest. “We are not pretending that this is fine. This isn’t normal, and it’s not natural, and you need to stop pretending like you’re not freaked the hell out.” I got louder and louder until my hoarse voice finally gave out. “Yeah Michael, it’s just a deer! A deer that’s just missing its eyeballs, a deer whose skin is just literally charred off its body, a deer that just somehow got fried alive in the middle of the woods!”
Christopher stepped up. “I agree.” He looked at Michael. “We shouldn’t be here.”
“Man, I know that. God forbid I try and make everyone feel a little better.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I responded. “We’re going back, grabbing our stuff, and leaving.”
“I don’t want to leave.” Danny finally spoke up, breaking his petrified stupor. “That’s gonna draw attention. If we just stay in the tent, and don’t make any noise, we’ll be fine.”
“What do you think it is?” Christopher challenged. The condescension in his voice was back, dripping down his chin and splattering at our feet.
“Doesn’t matter.” I started walking, taking the lead for once in my passive life and crossing my fingers harder than they’ve ever been crossed that my friends were two inches behind me.
The walk back was a nightmare, due to the absence of such. We were stuck in a relentless dance set to the jagged tune of our own breathing: check over our shoulders, left and then right, peer behind that snowberry bush, jump at the twig crack, leap at the leaf rustle, turn and repeat forever.
We moved in a square formation, two in the front, two in the back. It was unspoken, but likely intentional. Voicing the idea would have been truly admitting there was something going on on that crisp night; instead, we chose to remain silent and ignore it. We clung to the childish notion that a thought cannot possibly be real unless spoken aloud, and we stuck that notion in our back pockets for safekeeping.
If the walk back to camp was a nightmare because of the lack thereof, then arriving at camp was a nightmare because of the introduction of one.
The three of us sat around a fire while Danny went in the tent to try and get some sleep. Michael was draped over a log, reaching over his head to play with the grass, as Christopher poked the flames. He threw a beetle to its heat-soaked death and frowned, probably thinking about charred animals and how that couldn’t be funny to him anymore.
And it was fine. It was quiet and a little tense, but we were fine. Talking about other things, like the merits of using blueberry syrup instead of maple, American Graffiti, and whether or not Christopher would eat dirt.
The laughter started during a lull in conversation. A gurgling noise bubbled up every few seconds, like water down the bathtub drain, or some unfortunate’s last breath in a slasher movie. It was a soft, high-pitched laugh, but there was something off-kilter about it– it was as if a grown man was attempting to disguise his voice as a child’s. And as if that wasn’t disturbing enough, in our isolated, midwestern paranoia, there was singing. The soundtrack to our terror was a pained, singsonged laugh, backed up by nothing but eerie silence. It wasn’t getting closer, but it wasn’t leaving, either.
“No.” I stood up. “We’re leaving.” I began to gather my things.
“Sure, let’s just walk off into the woods, where the trees don’t have bark and the deer have experienced the electric chair, and oh, where someone is singing while it sounds like a hole has been stabbed through their goddamn windpipe!” Christopher smarted.
I raised my eyebrows. “You want to stay here?”
“Not want, you fruit. But I’m not running into whatever the hell is out there.”
At the commotion, Danny emerged from the tent, a crease on his face where he must have fallen asleep on his sleeve. He stood stock still, hearing the moaning song that hadn’t ceased through our arguing.
“Oh, no.” He shook his head. “No, no, no. Come on, man!”
“Danny, let’s go.” I grabbed my bag from the tent. “I’m sorry, I’m not staying here.”
“Hold up, Freddie, come on. It’s so black out there that it’s turning purple. Wait for four more hours, just til the sun comes up. Then we’ll all go.” Michael, always the rational one.
I chewed my lip, thinking. Our best bet against whatever was out there was either a guy wearing a rainbow vest who used to lift dumbbells at recess, or Christopher, who never played fair. And I wouldn’t trust either of them with saving my life.
“Danny?” I looked at him expectantly.
His eyes darted around. “I–”
A shriek shot through the trees, exploding into our camp unwelcome. It was high pitched and drawn out, followed by manic giggle-sobbing.
“Fuck that. Okay, fuck that.” Christopher reached into the tent for his bag. “Let’s leave the fucking tent. Come on.”
It was the last straw, for all of us. We rushed to pull our bags onto our backs, scrambling to find our flashlights among the blankets and sleeping bags in the tent. The sing-sobbing was getting quicker, more frantic. It was as if it was keeping pace with us. As our hearts accelerated, so did the gurgling.
We slid down the hill in a tangled knot, bracing ourselves on our forearms and kneecaps and silent prayers out to the heavens. I kept my eyes closed to keep the mud out, moving solely out of instinct. We moved as a unit, jerking away from the right embankment, knowing that’s where the gaunt trees grew. Instead, we hooked to the left, blindly stumbling over rotted logs and mushrooms. There was no moonlight through the canopy, and instinct could only get our unseeing selves so far.
We fell into the creek.
As it had turned out, the creek was not a creek at all, but rather a cunning, carbonated river that swallowed us whole. I had no time to be shocked. We sunk like stones, and for a few, stretched-out, gummy moments, I didn’t even comprehend that we had moved from air to water. My body noticed almost immediately, and my heaving lungs turned into choking self-saboteurs in seconds. Disoriented and water-logged, I kicked out in underwater slow-motion, believing that our forest phantom was to blame instead of our own blind footsteps.
And suddenly, I was being shot like a rubber band to the surface, with Christopher’s fingers in a deathgrip around my elbow. The world slid into focus like a frame on a Viewmaster toy, and we coughed in cacophonous victory. As soon as we all caught our breath, still treading water, we noticed it: the voice had stopped.
The silence it left behind was more wrong and unsettling than the babble we had grown uncomfortably accustomed to.
We scrambled toward the side of the river, desperately trying to get purchase on the muddy walls. Slowly, the singing sank back up into our collective consciousness, like fog seeping up a windowpane. It began softly, getting more intense, more distraught, as we desperately clawed at the walls of the stream. We were stuck in a game of pinball, with the voice bouncing off the crunchy ground and our wrinkled foreheads, desperately drilling itself into our psyche.
I felt the hysteria growing inside me, because I couldn’t concentrate on dragging myself up the wall of the river and on the constant, piercing stream of noise at the same time. I squeezed my eyes shut and let out a ragged scream of my own.
With the secret adrenaline my body had been hiding from me, I managed to heave myself onto the bank first, collapsing onto the dying grass. I remained still for a moment before reaching down and pulling my friends out one by one: first Michael, and then Christopher, and then we collectively pulled Danny up last, spent of all remaining energy.
And that’s when the tree fell onto my leg.
I had no time to process– we had all been so preoccupied with breathing that we hadn’t registered the loud cracking noise that surely split the night in two. The tree splintered from the trunk, and suddenly my leg was lost underneath a pile of bark and sap. I looked at it for a moment, and then,
I screamed for a good, long while. They tried to shut me up. Christopher lunged over Danny, slapping his hand against my mouth. “Come on, Freddie,” he whispered. “Come on, just a little quieter, please.” The other two were frozen in shock. I did not scream quieter. Coincidentally, the laughing got louder, until we could hear it over my own ugly vocalization of pain. This snapped them out of their shocked stupor.
“Danny,” Michael barked. “Come help me.” He stood up, positioning his hands under the tree that was pinning me to the ground.
“Dude, you can’t move that. What if you move it and he bleeds out? Kinda like when people get shot in the heart with arrows. They’re okay with them in, but once, they’re out, whoosh.” He mimicked a waterfall with his hands.
“Fuck you, man. What else are we supposed to do?”
“It’s real. My cousin knows a guy who got shot wi–”
Meanwhile, Christopher was still trying to shut me up, past the point of being nice. He slapped my face. “Come on, Masterson, shut the fuck up! Do you want whatever that is to fucking hear you and come find us?”
Too bad for Christopher, because I wasn’t listening to him. I was staring right through him, only able to concentrate on the charcoal spiral of pain shooting throughout my entire body. My brain was throbbing, and it was only a few moments before I passed out into bittersweet oblivion.
When I woke up, the sky was purple. I could see it peeking between the trees, full of perpetual lightning. I was in a vacuum again, with only the familiar, ragged sounds of my breathing to keep me company. I struggled to lift my head, unsure why I didn’t hear my friends.
The man towering above me looked nine feet tall, but my soggy brain no longer knew if anything I was experiencing was real. I contemplated the idea that I was dead, as every person with a harrowing, life-threatening experience does, but ultimately came to the conclusion that I was in too much pain to be a ghost.
This man seemed otherworldly, though. He pulsed, and his hollow-cheeked head angled down toward my own. His stare was blank. I think I would have preferred the stereotypical evil grin, but as they say, those with their leg pinned under a pine tree can’t be choosers.
A small noise came from behind him. Pain shot through my blood-soaked leg as I fought to sit up. And there, spread out along twenty feet of forest, were my friends. They were scorched and raw and bound to the rough bark of the trees. Christopher was unconscious, letting the rope bite into his skin as his body sagged forward.
The man jerked around, searching for the source of the noise. Danny coughed again and curled into a ball the best he could, shielding his face. The man’s movements were unnatural and reminded me of the stilt walkers I watched perform at the circus when I was younger. He was hunched and took long, uneven strides, making his way to Danny in two steps.
Just as he lay his hand on the tree, I began to babble. “Hey now, that’s not necessary. I think we can all just talk about this, and my mom makes a mean brownie and those bad boys always make me feel better, and hey– even if they don’t make you feel better, at least you can say you stepped out of your comfort zone and tried something new: Virginia’s brownies! Known far and wide across Redbone County–”
As the tree lit up like a blown fuse and Danny let out a throat-ripping scream, I heard my name being called. I was sure I was dead at this point, toeing the line of consciousness, about to wake up to swimming faces looking down at me.
“Freddie, I have had it up to here with you! You’re all assholes, and you always have been. I did not drive two hours to be left out in the dark by myself with your empty tent and–” A figure emerged at the top of the hill, stopped short by the sight down below. I squinted in the darkness but could only make out an outline of the person, standing stock-still and silent.
Suddenly, “Dawn!” Michael howled, his voice broken and coarse. “Go!”
And the laughter started up again. I hardly had time to process that my sister was here because everything went south so quickly: the man stilt-lunged up the hill, there was commotion, Dawn slid down on the bed of dry leaves. I watched her tumble, Raggedy Anne-style, until she hit the bottom and got up, racing across the dead ground with a limp.
In a second’s time, she dove into the river with the man right behind her. As he hit the water, a soft explosion sounded, and then a crinkling noise like ripping tissue paper. A mushroom cloud of water shot into the air, and all I could smell was that newly-familiar scent of burning flesh. All was quiet.
When the smoke cleared, I was staring at a mass grave. Hundreds of white bellies stuck up out of the water, belonging to fish and frogs and hellbenders. Electricity crackled through the
air, making my eyes water.
When the news talked about it, days after it had happened and a family had found me and four corpses in the woods, they focused on my fictitious bravery, and how I was just so strong to have gone through the trauma that I had. Like I had a choice in the matter, with the branch of a tree ripping my thigh open and rotting my body from the inside out.
The nurses got concerned when I insisted on watching the same movie every day in the hospital, but now, after thirty years and dozens of worn-through VHS tapes, my orderlies just sigh, pop their ear plugs in, and go about their day. They’re tired of listening to me chatter on about our mistake, about how we were too quick, too eager, how we didn’t follow the rules and opened it in my kitchen instead of down around the shitty wooden table in my basement. They don’t even try to understand.
They’re tired of me. I’m just the old man they shoved off in room 86B, far enough away from anyone else that I can’t drive them mad with my rambling. Sometimes they’re sympathetic, but I hear what they call me when they leave the room, closed-mouth snickering at their own cheap cleverness: “Poor guy wasn’t always crazy. Just a product of his environment. Dude’s a Man-Made Monster.”
Paige Pfeifer is an English major minoring in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama. She works at the Marr’s Field Journal, UA’s undergraduate literary magazine. She has been published in The Offbeat, and is from Crystal Lake, Illinois.