The Molting

Joseph Buckley


By the time I reached the wall, Jones had stopped at its base and below his rolled up tactical sleeve was a deep wound, dripping blood. The cut was clean, suggesting a knife’s work. But, when I asked him about the laceration, he shrugged, offering that he must’ve nicked himself clearing his path; still clutching the wide blade of a machete in his tensed knuckles. I found it hard to believe that he wasn’t concerned with all the blood flowing freely from his body.

“Jesus, Jones. We’ve got to at least dress it. Stop the bleeding.”

He ignored my comment, transfixed by the wall, speechless. It was then I realized the magnitude of what stood before us. The wall stretched as far I could see in either direction — made entirely of life, a vertical manifestation of the vegetation we had been traversing through for countless days.

Kudzu crept from the forest floor over the exposed cypress roots and continued up the wall, engulfing the same surface it created, muddling the distinction if this was a wall covered in kudzu or the kudzu itself formed the wall, tangled with innumerable other vines and leaves. The undulating shape of the wall gave the appearance that it breathed like a giant when the wind blew past. And, when viewed at a certain angle almost looked like the wall had shoulders and hands, ready to reach out.

Fern fronds struck out from the protuberation like thousands of fingers beckoning one to walk nearer the wall. Moss made up the base layer; a patchwork of deep greens, browns and yellows. Somewhere near the forest canopy, the wall stretched to its peak, a hazy green filter for all light that passed down onto us. The wall’s thickness was unknowable since we hadn’t yet made it to the other side, or found either of its ends.

When I pushed my hand into the verdant tapestry, it squished, felt flexible. I pushed further, all the way to my shoulder but still couldn’t reach all the way through. Suddenly, I was stuck. The vines had taken hold of me. I felt a tug as if the wall wanted to pull me further into it. Leaves and vines wrapped around my limbs, dragging me almost entirely inside, but before it could devour me, a pair of hands clutched my feet. Jones yanked me back and both of us tumbled out onto the forest floor from the force.

On my way out of the wall’s clutches, I must’ve scratched myself, for a trail of blood ran down my hand dripping onto my blue tactical pants. I stuck my mouth to it, sucking back my blood which had a strange herbal taste. By all appearances, the cut was minor, only cutting through the thin fibers of my tactical shirt and the surface of my skin. 

Jones shouted at the wall, slashing his blade into the layers of vegetation in a blind rage until he ran out of breath. He then slumped back to the floor, his eyes wide with adrenaline. Something inside of me felt different, like I had changed, like I was seeing the wall, Jones, our confused position in the forest, for the first time.

Except, why wouldn’t this be my first time?

Once Jones slumped with fatigue from his tantrum, I tore a strip of his pant leg away and tied off the wound on his forearm.

“This wall is going to kill us.”

“Stop being so dramatic. All we have to do is find a way around it.” I offered, cleaning the remainder of dried blood from his arm with a swab from my tactical pack.

“Or burn it to the ground,” Jones spat at the wall.

“I think if you burn that wall, we’re going up with it.”

“How else are we going to get out of this hell?”

His statement felt true on one level. Getting out of this forest would prove difficult, but at that point, I didn’t know why we would want to leave the forest anyway. Uncertainty had already taken hold of my thoughts and from there decisions and choices seem as meaningless as they are impactful.

“Have you seen Williams or Graves?” I asked.

“No, I thought they were with you.”

“Maybe we should camp here. Start a fire. They might see the smoke.”

“I guess.” Jones looked at me questioningly, like he saw something on my face that he didn’t agree with.

“Do you have a better suggestion?”

But before I had finished asking my question Jones disappeared into the layers of oaks and maples surrounding us.


                I wandered deeper looking for signs of the others, or any indication of our purpose here. At some point earlier, Jones had stated that our objective was to locate the rally point, but I was growing dubious of this objective. He kept disappearing. I couldn’t remember why we had been deployed in the first place, or from where we were deployed. I couldn’t remember much before my collision with the wall; only that we had been wandering the forest for an indiscernible amount of time. The blue of my clothes had darkened with humidity and sweat. Bug bites riddled my skin and when I checked my canteen there was little water left.

                Then, as soon as I looked in front of me the wall was there again, which couldn’t have been possible. I only looked into my canteen, checked my person. The wall wasn’t in my sight only a moment before. The layers of trees, the ivy, the kudzu must have confused me. When the vines cover everything in sight, it’s hard to distinguish the individual components. It’s hard to distinguish any sort of definition, as if all surfaces the kudzu covers become one. A compulsion overtook me standing so close to the wall. I could feel it drawing me toward it, almost whispering my name. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw the vines stretching out, reaching toward me.

But then the smell of smoke coursing through the sweet forest air interrupted my seduction. A short walk through the low-hanging vines brought me to Jones. He had a fire going.

The snap and hiss of the wood played off-beat to the lilt of the cicada buzz. But, the flame and smoke did little to stop the mosquitos from feasting. I stoked the fire to grow the flame wider but then noticed a discoloration at my wrist; surrounding the scratch I suffered earlier. My skin had turned green like a strange birth mark.

I convinced myself it was a trick of the dark; it would look different in the morning, of course. I lay staring up at the flickering orange on the underside of the layered branches. A distrustful feeling crept over me, as if the forest was closing in us. Perhaps the wall was more than just a wall. I thought I heard the crunch of leaves and branches moving in on us. My skin tingled, but not in alarm, rather, it tingled as if it was stretching or growing itself. Perhaps the sound had come from within our campsite, from Jones or me.

Jones slept quietly on a thin bed of palm fronds in his blue tactical suit. He had turned his back to me, as soon as he sparked the fire by rubbing two branches together. I wasn’t sure where he learned such a helpful trick, but I was grateful. Between my growing anxiety and the concert of night sounds, I assumed I would never sleep. I lay there in a daze; half-awake, half-dreaming, when something about Jones struck me as peculiar.

                His body appeared to have flattened, like an illusion, like I looked at him from the wrong angle. His shadow grew and shrunk with the flickering, orange, ember-light. The next thing I knew, he stood above me.

Except whatever loomed over me wasn’t Jones. It was his shadow, or whatever version of him existed outside of the flattened shell that still rested on the other side of the fire. His eyes glowed with the firelight — a stark contrast to the waxen green that was his body. He twined around my neck like a vine shortening my breath until I blacked out.


                I awoke to swirls of gray smoke twirling slowly from the ashes of the fire between us. It was morning. Sparrows tweeted across the canopy to one another, flitting up and down their local branches. The sun was bright enough to make me squint. The other side of the fire was empty. Jones and his pack were gone.

I felt a great ache in my stomach. I couldn’t recall the last time we ate anything more than the packets of powdered food we carried in our cargo pockets.

My skin itched terribly, and when I scratched through my tactical shirt, it felt distorted, stiff. Looking down the neck of my shirt, I saw that the flesh of my stomach had greened the same as the wound around my wrist. Then, I pushed my sleeve back to see that the pigmentation had stretched up my arm to the pit and down my chest, like bruising, but fresh green in color. Alarmed, I quickly realized I was lost. I needed to tell someone about my disfigurement. And, I had sent myself into a quickened pant — the heat already overwhelming before the height of the day. 

I stumbled off in whichever direction felt natural. Curtains of moss and fern fronds washed over my steps deeper into the forest. I thought I could hear breathing; not like a human, but more like the entire forest took deep breaths; almost as if it was smelling me. The whole kaleidoscopic green of it pulsing; constricting and expanding with each step I took.

I needed water.

A spider web, wide as a doorway, wrapped me up, and I did everything my hands could to free myself from its entanglement. Then I was in front of the wall — again — and I couldn’t shake the feeling that it had followed me. Daylight trickled through the gaps in the branches and leaves in oblong patterns distorting my vision. Without the distraction of another person, I could hear every leaf fall, every twig snap, every mosquito fly through the air. I trudged on, an arm’s length away from the wall not wanting to sit still with my thoughts, or provide a sitting target for what I was growing convinced was not a wall at all. But, at the same time, a strange desire to keep the wall beside, within arms-reach, underwrote my movements. The companionship felt pure, genuine. The wall would follow me like a dog.

Suddenly, the blinding light of sun reflecting off water pierced through the homogenous green. The soft twinkle of creek water passing over the rocks pushed away the cacophony of forest minutiae that haunted me, and welcomed me to the relief of a fresh creek. I bent over the slow-moving water to drink.

Thousands of fish darted erratically under the surface. Tiny crustaceans, worms and snails crawled around the creek bed. The amount of life was staggering as if the creek’s waters mimicked the vigor of the forest despite only being a foot or so deep. On closer inspection I noticed a funny thing about the appearance of the fish’s skin. The same growing discoloration of green infected them in the same way it had done to me. I couldn’t make any decent deductions about what this meant. 

Nonetheless, I laid my entire body, boots, pants, and shirt into the creek bed. I felt I could breathe; I could think. For a moment, I felt like myself again. And, I buried my face into the water drinking as much as I could, unconcerned with its drinkability. I closed my eyes for a moment, listening to the tinkle of the creek, relieved.

When I pulled up out of the water, on the other side of the creek I saw Jones thrash through the ivy and kudzu like a blue virus invading the green forest.

“Jones! Where have you been?”

He continued slashing his way through the forest, kicking the cypress roots, ripping fistfuls of leaves on his way. He must’ve not heard me.

“Jones! Hey, Jones.”

I called out then rushed behind him, splashing through the waters, but he moved fast, cursing at the woods, slashing haplessly, recklessly, with his blade. He flailed his arms fighting some invisible being, a bug perhaps. And then I lost him in the willows. Just as quickly as he had appeared, he had disappeared back into the forest without so much as a leaf shaking to indicate where he had moved to.

Then the wall was beside me, like it had sidled up to me silently during my confusion. Strangely, this time it was on the opposite direction. But, I didn’t recall changing direction, or turning around.

A septic odor strong as death then knocked me back. In the grass and ferns right before me, I saw a dense pocket of flies swarming about a large blue shape. Their dull buzz was amplified by the fact that the entire forest was silent. I pushed apart the foliage, and there lay the bloated body of Graves. His body and tactical uniform were covered in sweat and dirt. I couldn’t see any blood or wounds on his body. His skin was discolored from decay. Maggots crawled out of his ears and mouth. Worms trenched around the soil beside his body.

It then occurred to me that maybe Jones had killed him.

But that thought quickly faded. Graves body was rotting. He must’ve been dead for a few days, at least. Stranger yet, was the fact that Graves’ pack was gone and his pockets were emptied, same for his canteen.

I then remembered a conversation I had with Graves when we first arrived.

“We’ll all die out in these woods. But that’s what they want innit? Send the prisoners in to clear the forest and take the hit. We’re just numbers to them anyway, right? Shit we’ll probably kill each other before they run their tests or whatever it is they’re doing.” He grinned through his beard and winked his only eye at me. I then remembered how the four of us were released into the woods, rappelling down from a helicopter, but still couldn’t recall our purpose.

I considered burying him, but I had no tools. I certainly couldn’t carry him anywhere because I didn’t know where the rally point was, or base, or really what to do next. I was thirsty. The green discoloration had spread further over my skin.

I covered his body with the largest palm fronds and tried to find my way back to the water.


 I’m not sure how much time passed between seeing Jones at the creek and coming across another camp. It looked like the exact same camp as the night before. Maybe, I had been travelling in circles, or had I never left the camp at all? A bonfire roared in the middle of the small clearing. If the surrounding forest weren’t so green, so damp, the trees surely would’ve burst into flame.

Jones then crashed through the kudzu; the top half off his blue suit tied around his waist; his bare chest smeared in dirt and cuts. I noticed a tattoo of numbers across his right breast. The lines looked clinical, like he had not done this to himself voluntarily. In his hand was a torch made of palms and what looked like strands of his tactical suit? But his suit looked intact, only folded down, not torn apart. He pulled a sled and stacked on the sled were countless twigs and branches, all stripped of their green, all burnable, and without offering a greeting to me he tossed the wood onto the towering fire.

“Come with me.”

“What? Where? And wait, where have you been? I saw you earlier running across the creek and–”

“I was gathering wood, trying to get us the hell out of here. But you, you’ve been wandering around like some drunk all day. The question is, where were you all day?”

“I went looking for you.”

“Why would you be looking for me?”

When he asked me this question I grew concerned. Why wouldn’t I be looking for him?

“Graves is dead.”

“What? How do you know this?”

“I saw his body in the woods. It looked like he had been dead for some time.”

Jones finished loading the wood onto the fire which now burned high as the canopy of the forest, sending thick smoldering smoke through the air, clouding down toward us. The heat from the flames overwhelmed my thoughts.

“How do I know you didn’t kill him?” Jones stared at me, and I thought I could sense that same orange glow behind his eyes from my dream of him earlier, or was it a dream? Had he really choked me until I passed out?

“Why would I kill Graves? Besides you were the one running around like a lunatic with that knife of yours like this is some kind of movie. Where did you get that cloth on your torch anyway?”

He laughed. “Any sign of Williams?”


“Okay.” He looked me over, and shook his head. “Follow me.” Jones turned into the smoke that had consumed the air. On his back, I saw more wounds, like scratches, as if someone had clawed for their survival. Maybe he had been in a struggle for life and death.

In that moment, I didn’t want to follow him into the dark smoke but had no other options. Despite the changes in his appearance suggesting there was more to him than I could place, but he was the only touchstone I had at that moment, so I followed him.

 Bats fluttered in and out of the torch light almost smacking us with their erratic flight pattern. A creeping sensation spread through my skin. I could feel the green discoloration growing and overtaking me. I felt nauseous. I didn’t feel like myself, but then, what did I normally feel like? I couldn’t conjure any memories further back than our deployment here, our confusion, and the wall. All I could think about was the wall. 

Jones walked along the wall of plants, dragging the torch along its face. Most of the brush was too green to catch, but here and there small embers took, some flames grew. Then I thought I saw the wall in flames before us like we moved in a circle, or perhaps Jones had already lit this part of the wall in his determination to burn everything down.

“So, what’s the plan here Jones? Burn us alive?”

“Don’t you get it? This forest isn’t right. Can’t you see? The wall is closing in on us.”

So, Jones had noticed too.

“Why do you think they sent us here?”
“But I don’t even know who they are.”

“Oh, cut the dummy routine already.” Jones turned around to face me, growling his words. “You know we were sent here to kill each other. I was told to kill everyone in the squad after we had made contact with the wall. Except, Graves and Williams, someone or something had gotten to them before me. Which leads us to this.”

He then pointed his torch toward a blue suit hanging from the wall like wreckage from a storm. When he moved the torch closer, I could see hair at the top of the clothes and a head underneath, but the head looked deflated. Inside the blue suit was a layer of skin, and I thought I was looking at Williams’ dead body.

But then, Jones picked up the skin from the clutches of the wall and turned the shell of a body so I could see the face underneath the hair was mine. Jones looked back at me with a dubious expression.

“What have you done? You killed me? But how? I’m standing right here.”

He moved closer angling the torch toward my torso when he lifted back my shirt he saw my green flesh.

“You’re…you’re part of the forest, the wall?” He asked, pausing for a moment before jumping on top of me. 

He drove his torch into my chest and the burning flesh gave off a smell of sweet pine smoldering. He tried to headbutt me but my hands were already around his neck, his face purpling from lack of oxygen.

Only, they weren’t my hands.

Long green tendrils extended from wrists. They were like lashes made out of vine and they strangled the breath from Jones. But, before I could make sense of everything that had happened to me and to Jones, he stopped breathing, my tendrils wrapped countless times around his neck.

I stood and pulled my vine-arms away from Jones’s body. I was entirely green. And there, beside Jones was my former body, like the bones of a creature the wall didn’t want to eat. I couldn’t understand if I was dead, or had only shucked the body in front of me, like a gigantic mask.

The more I looked at the body, that I once thought was mine, the more it resembled something I had no connection with, a suit of skin that no longer fit me. There were scratches along the back. A wound across the forearm. In my green appendages the body felt different, as strange as Jones, or Graves. The body felt more like a manifestation of others, an attempt to fit in.

Then the wall was on all sides of me, but at the same seemed to grow into me and so did the flame.


Joseph Buckley is a dark fiction writer and poet living in New Orleans, LA. His work is featured in The Horror Zine and elsewhere