Jamie flinched awake in the middle of the night when the wooden bunk bed above his head squeaked in protest at shifting weight. The cotton blanket hanging off the side slid back before Charlie stumbled down the ladder in the dim light.
His friend was, no doubt, heading to the outhouse that rested near the maple trees on the other side of camp. He knew this because Charlie never slept through the night without going to the bathroom at least once. He screwed up Jamie’s sleep schedule whenever they were at camp or sleepovers. If Charlie had been on the bottom bunk, he could have risen silently without disturbing anyone, but Jamie had lost at rock–paper–scissors fair and square and Charlie had called dibs on the top bunk.
Even though he always complained that his friend woke him, it wasn’t always Charlie’s doing. Sometimes he woke for no clear reason, only for his friend to stir a moment later, as if some part of Jamie had anticipated it. They were good like that, anticipating each other. Charlie always knew what to say or do to make him feel better, and when to give him space.
His friend’s shadowy figure passed the other ten boys who were snoring on bunk beds lined up against the log cabin walls. Someone’s rear end let loose a trumpeting fart. The floor creaked as Charlie stepped into his shower sandals and slipped outside. The motion sensing floodlight flickered on and shined through the double paned windows that circled their musty cabin. Jamie buried his face in his pillow and pulled his blanket tighter around his body. Wasn’t July supposed to be hot?
As he began to drift off, a tapping sound began nearby, persistent and almost rhythmic. He groaned. He would never get back to sleep. He scanned the room for the source of the noise.
It was a bug—a large bug. Its wings hummed as it smashed its fat head against the window next to his bunk. Jamie sat up and it stopped. It landed on the glass and became very still, like it had noticed his attention.
He gazed at it with disgusted wonder, glad for the barrier between them. It was a black insect with large, orange veined wings. Its teardrop-shaped body was bigger than both his thumbs. Two of its hairy legs twitched before the insect rubbed them over its wide-set, red eyes.
He leaned in, breath fogging the glass, and met the thing’s beady gaze. Something seemed…off. A shudder ran down his spine when he realized its mouthparts weren’t right. It didn’t have piercing mandibles like an ant or a curling tube like a butterfly or whatever the hell flies had. It had teeth. Tiny, misshapen teeth.
Its abdomen shivered, creating a loud rattling cry that made him jerk backward with a gasp. In an instant, it darted away into the night. The whining drone repeated itself further away. The sound wasn’t that different from the buzzes dog-day cicadas made during hot summer afternoons, but there were pulses to these cries that reminded him of a saltshaker. Similar calls rose in response around the campground, but they sounded one at a time like how people speak in conversation, like they had meaning.
Beneath the floodlight, a mass of little black bodies flitted through the air. Then the light timed out and everything disappeared into darkness.
Charlie was out there. Dread settled heavy in Jamie’s stomach. He lurched out of bed to rouse the boys for help, telling them in a rush what he had seen and his sense of unease. Some of them rolled away and told him to stop being a baby, it was just a bad dream. A couple of the campers stood to squint out the windows.
“It’s too dark. I don’t see anything.”
Jamie fumbled for the battery powered lantern that hung from a hook. He flipped the LED light on and held it near the glass. Except for a few white moths, it had gone quiet.
“It must’ve left,” one of the boys said, as he lay down and pulled the blankets back up to his chin.
He was right. They were gone, and Charlie still wasn’t back. Charlie, who had helped him limp home when he had fallen off his bike and broken his leg; who had punched Brett across his jaw after he made fun of Jamie for crushing on Sarina; who had been by his side since kindergarten.
He felt that his friend needed help. He knew that he needed help. But his gut twisted at the thought of traversing the distance to the outhouse or to the counselors’ cabin. He clutched the cold lamp to his chest, a lump forming in his throat. Then he steeled himself.
He grabbed one of the walking sticks leaning in a corner. He would have preferred his baseball bat but the stick would swing well enough. Then he nudged the door open and stepped into the cool night air. The light turned on as the door clicked shut. Shadowed cabins stood in a semi-circle around him. Everything was still.
He hurried across camp, his bare feet silent against the dirt, until he reached the outhouse. Light shined underneath its door. He set the lantern on the ground and inched forward. Blood pounded against his ears. He cracked the door open to peer inside. Empty. He didn’t hear anything either. He crossed the threshold wielding the walking stick above his head. A chill made the hair on his arms stand on end. He leaned down to look underneath the stall doors. Nothing. He opened all three but they looked normal.
A bug flew past the little window on the far wall; frost clung to the edges of its panes. Holding his breath, he crept towards the glass and stood on his tiptoes to see outside. The bathroom light illuminated three forms. Charlie lay slumped on the ground with a dark trickle along his temple, unconscious. A camper stood behind him and another was kneeling over him. Wait, no. They weren’t campers.
Their faces were too old, like adults, even though they stood no taller than he did. They had short hair that made him think they were male but their slight forms and round faces made him unsure. They wore clothes and boots made from animal hides.
The one leaning over Charlie moved in closer until their noses almost touched. The person’s face began to shift. Their skin dried and wrinkled like a raisin and their hair grew longer, curly, and blonde. They sat back and reached up to peel away strips of withered skin, revealing a reverse image of Charlie’s face.
Jamie’s eyes widened and his heart skipped a painful beat. This couldn’t be real.
One of the cicada-like insects landed on the standing one’s shoulder and rattled. They cocked their head as if to listen. Then their red gaze flashed towards Jamie.
Jamie ducked and sprinted out of the building, dropping the stick in the process. His feet stung as pebbles became imbedded in his soles. He burst into the cabin and dove onto his bunk amidst grumbles from the other campers. He buried himself in his blanket and pressed up against the wall. What he had seen was impossible. It was a dream. A bad dream.
The cabin door creaked open and footsteps approached his bed. Jamie froze, too afraid to turn around. The footsteps paused near his bunk for a terrifying moment, then climbed the ladder. The bed squeaked as something lay above him.
Heather Meeks is a lover and writer of dark fantasy and horror. She lives in chilly New Hampshire with too many pets, one of which is her boyfriend. She recently graduated with an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program.