Distanced from the bright lights of Trillium, the stars glittered crisply – sharp pinpoints in a sky of darkness. Forked branches of tall trees, stark and barren, formed a latticed ceiling above the wooded area and within the dense undergrowth, small nocturnal animals burrowed their way home or foraged for a midnight snack. Wispy clouds, driven by a brisk and chilling breeze, scuttled across the face of the moon, painting the cratered surface with vague and ever-changing patterns of grey. The brittle needles of lofty pines rattled as a low-lying mist snaked through piles of decaying leaves. Hordes of unseen insects chirped with monotonous regularity, only to be silenced en masse before suddenly resuming their eerily repetitious serenade.
Several campfires littered the area, sputtering warmth into the dank air. Drawn with suicidal captivation to the flames, errant moths fluttered wildly in the smoke and heat until, with singed wings, they spiraled downward to be consumed by the blaze.
A voice droned faintly from the depths of a nearby clearing. The tone was hushed, as though imparting secrets of paramount importance. Although the words were otherwise indistinguishable, the speaker was definitely male. The owner proved to be a young man, thin and wiry, in his late teens. Hunched forward, he was spinning a yarn for the pleasure of his three companions, all around the same age as the storyteller. The four shadows they cast appeared huge in the flickering light, hovering like shrouded and silent listeners before being swallowed into the gloom beyond the limited glow of the campfire. The attention of the storyteller was riveted on the two girls across from him, who could see nothing of his eyes, only sparking tongues of yellow and orange reflected in the lenses of his gold-rimmed glasses. Occasionally, he would glance over his shoulder and then give an exaggerated shudder.
The two girls seemed spellbound by the unfolding tale. Neither moved a muscle as they hung on every word. Huddled together as close as their quilted parkas would allow, they had involuntarily clasped hands in search of mutual comfort and support. Two pairs of wide eyes anxiously followed the storyteller as he stole a furtive glimpse behind once more – but nothing could be seen, save impenetrable darkness. An amused smile formed on the boy's lips, but was quickly squelched before turning back to his captive audience and throwing himself into the drama of the moment again.
"She ran across the lawn, faster than she'd ever run before," he murmured. "Too scared to breathe, her chest burned for air, but she ignored it. All she could think about was the tingling chill at the base of her spine and the fact that she knew he was right behind her. Could feel it."
With a muffled gasp, one of the girls threw a fearful half-look around the clearing. Her darting green eyes radiated with obvious apprehension. The second girl, chestnut ponytail swinging, repeated the action, but again there was nothing untoward, nothing to be seen but oppressive darkness. The fourth member of the group, a strapping youth with the physique of a college quarterback, sported a mischievous grin, apparently finding much enjoyment in the mounting dread of his female companions. There was nothing especially evil in his delight, but he clearly found their trepidation to be highly entertaining.
"Even as she raced for safety," the story continued, "she kept waiting for the moment when he'd grab her and it would be all over." The voice of the storyteller lowered a little as the flames leapt within the lenses of his glasses. "The thought gave her an extra burst of speed and she threw herself into the door. She could hear him right behind her, walking at his own pace and sure that no matter what she did, he'd catch her."
From deep within the gloom came the sound of a footfall as someone – something – moved leisurely and measuredly through the dry brush with an agonizingly patient stroll . Leaves crunched and twigs snapped. The girls grabbed each other in a tight hug, eyes straining frantically to penetrate the darkness. But the sounds abruptly ceased and the storyteller seemed to have heard nothing at all. Slowly and cautiously, the girls unwound from their panic-inspired embrace.
"Her sweaty hand slipped from the doorknob, and a sob escaped her as she fumbled to try and grab it. She could feel his hot breath on her neck."
In a turtle-like motion, the green-eyed girl subconsciously withdrew her own neck further into the parka, instinctively protecting every inch of exposed flesh.
"She could feel her last seconds ticking away, but just before she reached zero, she managed to wrestle the door open. She didn't hesitate," he told them, leaning further forward. "Bursting into the house, she threw all of her weight on the door and slammed it shut. Before she could even think, her hands were working the locks, latching every latch, barricading herself in safety. A few moments later and every nearby piece of furniture was drafted into the good fight. Then, and only then, did she allow herself to breathe."
Taking this as their cue, the two girls collectively heaved a huge sigh of relief. The storyteller's eyes sparkled.
"Backing away from the door slowly, the girl spared a glance to look around. The house was dark and utterly silent, except for the pounding of her heart and the sound of a tree branch scraping the roof. She was alone. She was safe."
Tension began to ease from the girls' bodies and their postures relaxed. They had exchanged small smiles of satisfaction when the tale resumed.
"There was a phone on the wall nearby, and for the first time, she felt hope. She'd call for help. The police, the national guard. Hell, even that annoying kid next door with his slingshot would be welcome right about now." The girls sniggered a little at that. "With a shaking hand, she reached for the receiver. A voice in the back of her mind noted that the wind must really be picking up outside. The scratching was getting louder."
The sniggers immediately choked in their throats.
"Her hand froze an inch from the phone. That sound. Just a branch? Or something else? And what else could she hear now? Was that a mouse, or...?" Two involuntary gasps could be heard as fingers became entwined. "Her eyes widened as her gaze was drawn to the dark stairs. The shadows were playing tricks on her now, seeming to move all on their own."
The storyteller abruptly ceased talking. He tilted his head to one side and his brow furrowed, as though he were listening to something as yet only vaguely discernable. The shadows surrounding the four group members appeared to shift and merge of their own accord, adopting a different shape not easily recognized but seeming to exude a sinister aura. A trick of the light? Perhaps, since the flames of the fire now flickered and for a moment, threatened to expire altogether before leaping ever higher.
Nobody spoke for a long time –far too long. The storyteller, head remaining stationary so that only his eyes moved behind the glasses, focused upon the two girls. He arched an eyebrow.
"Definitely not a mouse."
With no forewarning, the quarterback let out a loud and booming, "MUAHAHAHA!" as he lunged toward the two girls. The desired response was delivered in record time. The girls obliged by opening their mouths in a collectively ear-splitting scream that echoed in the darkness and caused a pair of frogs to croak loudly in protest.
The green-eyed girl was the first to recover. Her gaze narrowed as she rapidly channeled all her considerable fear into no less considerable anger.
"Jason, you retard!"
She took a swipe at the quarterback, who was holding his sides as tears of laughter trickled down his cheeks. Apparently, Jason found the audience participation of their outing to be the most comedic aspect. Dodging the blow, he guffawed even louder.
Meanwhile, the storyteller was trying with limited success to subdue his own bubbling mirth. He rocked back and forth even as he tried to inquire about his victims' well-being. "A-Are you—"
Shrieking in falsetto mockery, Jason flapped his hands from side to side in imitation of ineffectual protection.
Succumbing to hilarity, for a moment it seemed the storyteller would pass out from lack of oxygen. It was with supreme effort that he struggled to regain composure. "Dude, shut up, shut up!" he hissed at Jason, trying to bite back his laughter. Maneuvering his expression – barely – into one of concern, he then addressed the girls. "You okay?"
The ponytailed brunette, who had remained locked in panicked terror until now, opened her mouth to reply. To her chagrin, the only sound her vocal chords could manage was a thin, weak, strangled sound, not entirely unlike the shriek Jason had uttered only moments before.
The feeble scream sent the guys into another fit of hysterical laughter. It seemed likely that their amusement might well last until doomsday, when a bag of jumbo "So Puft Up" marshmallows landed squarely in the face of the storyteller. This only served to add to Jason's unending delight – at least until he was hit in the head with a giant box of graham crackers, swiftly followed by a package of chocolate bars. Looking at the girls through streaming eyes, he held up his hands in defense, merriment slowly transforming to anxiety for his immediate welfare.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, hey, hold it. Time out."
The green-eyed girl was hefting a rather large can of pork 'n' beans, which promisingly bore the slogan, "Now with more pork for the joy of your fork!"
"You throw that, that's bioterrorism," Jason warned. "I don't think you wanna go there."
His opponent wasn't so sure. "I think I might. It's got a good weight to it." She balanced it speculatively in her palm. "It sort of cries out, 'Please, please, throw me into the mouth of the irritating one.'" She tossed Jason an endearing smile. "Who am I to ignore the will of the bean?"
Scrambling to his feet, Jason cautiously approached. He took a stab at being contrite, but couldn't quite pull it off. He also failed miserably to mask his expression of amusement at the whole situation. He looked rather like a small boy who'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and, by way of retribution, was offering it to his accuser.
"It was just a little story," he wheedled, inching closer. "Where's the harm in a story?"
The green-eyed girl continued to glare. Apparently, she was no stranger to Jason's roguish charm.
He slipped an arm around her waist. "Aw, I'm sorry, baby."
"You're not even a little bit sorry."
Jason grinned. "Really not."
"You're such a jerk," she said, shaking her head.
His grin grew wider. "That's what you love best about me."
For his part, the storyteller had gallantly escorted the remaining victim to a nearby fallen log. He brushed it off with his hand and then invited her to take a seat, settling beside her. He peered into her sullen face.
"Shelly? You okay?"
"I hate it out here," she told him pointedly, although more piqued and whiny than truly adamant. "It's cold and it's creepy. I miss my bed. I miss my TV." She shot him an accusatory glance. "I miss being able to pee indoors." She shifted uncomfortably on the log.
Tugging her parka closer to her body, Shelly's friend sat next to her, while Jason began to wander the perimeter of the clearing, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his jacket.
"Sort of agree," said the green-eyed girl. "Maybe we should just head back tomorrow?"
"Oh, no way," protested the storyteller. "We've still got three days left!"
Retrieving a stick from the dirt, Jason started to prod half-heartedly at the dry earth. He didn't appear to be looking for anything special, save perhaps a distraction from boredom that was quickly settling in now that the excitement had faded. He meandered into the darkness that lurked just beyond the circle of firelight.
"But Brian—" Shelly started to complain.
"D'you know what it cost me to book this spot?" asked Brian, waving his hand for emphasis. "Prime location, brand new campground? We are not talking cheap, ladies. Do the words 'pre-pay, no refund' mean anything to you?"
Jason poked his stick aimlessly into a dense clump of bushes. An unexpected response caused him to freeze. A noise – a sound, a shuffle of leaves, or maybe nothing at all. Stick poised, Jason's eyes narrowed as he scrutinized the gloom before him. "Hey, did you guys hear—?"
His three friends were far too involved in their conversation to pay any attention.
"But if we're not having fun ..." the green-eyed girl began.
"Who's not having fun?" demanded Brian. "I'm having fun." He looked up. "Jason, you having fun?" he shouted.
Jason didn't answer. He was too fixated on what his ears were picking up from the shrouded woods. The sound of a rustling footfall. Someone – something – moving steadily through the undergrowth. Heading in his direction.
Jason shuffled nervously. "Guys ..."
"Aren't you having fun?" Brian asked of Shelly.
Shelly sniffed peevishly. "I'd be having more fun if I could pee indoors."
Still, Brian took this as an affirmative. "See?" he announced in self-satisfied fashion.
Gaze rooted firmly upon a spot not too far in the distance, Jason began to defensively back away. He grasped the stick in front of him with both hands, as though it were a weapon.
"Fun a'plenty," Brian firmly decided. "Now please may we continue shore leave, Colonel Laura?"
Laura rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, but she admitted defeat as graciously as she was able. "Fine, you win. We'll stay." She chafed her shoulders against the cold. "Even if it kills us."
It was then that a form stumbled clumsily out of the brush, staggering unsteadily across Jason's path. Jason screamed – although it was more like the bellow of a petrified bull. Not to be outdone, Brian also screamed, closely followed by both girls. The trio on the log leapt to their feet and promptly huddled in a tight knit circle, even as the figure that had just emerged from the darkened thicket added yet another strident and panicked cry to the bedlam.
He was a young man, probably mid to late 20s. His bleached blond hair was shaggy and he was dressed in the dark green uniform of a park ranger, complete with wide-brimmed hat. There was nothing especially remarkable about him. Indeed, if he hadn't been screaming at the top of his lungs, he would have probably appeared a relatively normal human being.
It didn't take long the for the campers to realize that their current situation was far from deadly. Gradually, the frenzied yelling dissipated, save for that of the Ranger who continued to screech for a good few seconds after everyone else had stopped. Indeed, his mouth remained open in prime scream-position for some time even though the sound had died away. Eventually, his lips came together in repose once more and a prolonged silence fell upon the clearing. Then he grinned at everyone in general and nobody in particular.
Now that the screaming had stopped, the Ranger seemed almost to have forgotten it ever happened. His lips turned upward in a constant grin as easy as it was vacant. His eyes held a glassy sheen, and seemed to take an extra few moments to process before transmitting any information to his brain. Given his choice of profession, there could be no doubting the Ranger's love of nature. There could also be no doubt that love extend to repeated use of many and varied interesting herbal substances.
The quartet of campers seemed too shocked to respond to his easy-going greeting. The Ranger, however, was undeterred.
"Who is he?" Jason asked his companions. Not waiting for a response, he turned to the Ranger. "Who are you?"
The Ranger's eyes widened a little. "Oh!" He extended a forefinger upward to his hat. "Ranger!" he identified cheerily.
"What are—" began Laura, joining Jason at the front of the group. It seemed she might inch closer, but Jason blocked her path with his outstretched arm. The Ranger didn't seem to notice the act of restraint, although he did notice Laura. He treated Jason to a conspiratorial wink and a huge toothy grin.
"Dude!" He gave the thumbs-up. "Nice one!"
Laura's eyes narrowed. "What are you doing here?"
"Patrolling," the Ranger offered with a dismissive shrug. "Part'a the job."
His eyebrows knitted together as he squinted at the moon. His expression was one of rapt concentration as he recited, with excruciating slowness, from what was a questionable memory at best.
"'Rule 16. Three times a night, patrol campground. Investigate any possible disturbances'." He beamed with overt pleasure, obviously delighted at his magnificent recall abilities.
"S'what Uncle Max said," he told them with a confident nod. "Gotta do what Uncle Max says, or, uh ..." He frowned and seemed to be probing the mysterious depths of his memory bank for a second time. The campers waited impatiently until his expression became animated once more. "Or my 'sorry good for nothing ass can rot in that cell next time'," he stated with a sunny smile, which rapidly deteriorated into a grimace of dismay. "Which would way suck."
"Disturbances?" queried Shelly anxiously.
"Aw yeah, thanks dude!" said the Ranger brightly. "There I was, right, just walkin' along, doin' the whole Ranger thing, when I hear someone screaming!" He shivered. "Freaked me out for a sec cuz I thought it was me and I forgot. Turned out, not me. So I followed it and here I am." He spread out his arms as though to verify the fact.
Brian stepped forward to join Jason and Laura.
"Well thank you for checking ... sir," he said, tone indicating such a respectful address was not one he'd customarily use for a person of the Ranger's stamp. "We apologize for dragging you all the way over here. We were just telling stories."
The Ranger was confused by the explanation. Of course, the Ranger would be confused by buffalo wings, so this was not saying much.
"You know, scary stories," clarified Jason, as though he were speaking to a small child. "Whooo, ghosties, monsters, and other wholesome family topics." Looking at the others, he gave a subdued eye-roll.
"Oh, that's cool," agreed the Ranger happily. "I like stories. I remember when I was little, my mom used to tell me stories all the time." He smiled fondly at the remembrance. "She'd tuck me in and hand me Archduke Nooklin – my special friend – and she'd say, 'Rick, what story do you want to hear tonight?' and I'd say, 'Tell me about the rabbits again!' and she'd—"
"Say, that's really fascinating," Jason told him in a patronizing tone, "and I mean that from the bottom of my heart, but don't you have other patrons to freak out and then bore?"
The Ranger took no offense at the interruption, assuming he understood it. "Yeah, yeah, you're right. So, uh, lemme know if you guys need anything, 'kay?" He nodded cordially and jammed his thumbs into his belt.
"I'm sure you're at the very tippy-top of our contact list," Jason guaranteed.
Then, all but shoving the Ranger from the campsite, Jason hustled him to the edge of the clearing. With a parting wave, the Ranger resumed his dutiful patrol, a merry albeit somewhat tuneless whistle on his lips. Waiting until the Ranger's footfalls and unmelodious whistling had evaporated into the far off darkness, Jason turned to the others.
"All that money you paid, and you couldn't upgrade room service?" he said to Brian, delivering not unfriendly prods to his friend's chest.
Nonchalantly, Brian brushed away the attacks. "The dollar only stretches so far." He yawned and stretched. "I think he sapped my will to live for today. Bed?"
It seemed as though all were in agreement, save Laura who obviously had other ideas.
"Oh no." She shook her head decisively. "You think you get to just freak us out and leave it at that?" Her ensuing chuckle was far from pleasant. "I think not. Hunker down boys. It's time for the girls to show you how a campfire tale is really done."
Exchanging a "Yeah, right" glance, the two young men resumed their former positions around the fire. Laura and Shelly conferred for a brief moment in hushed voices and then turned to the guys with smirks that appeared almost wicked through the flames. The sputtering kindling only served to enhance the girls' menacing attitude.
"It all started when a group of friends went camping one January weekend," Laura murmured. "They were ready for fun and laughs. But they weren't even a little ready for what was already there, waiting for them in the darkness ..."
Shelly stifled a giggle as the wavering shades surrounding four group members appeared to shift and merge of their own accord, adopting a different form not easily recognized but seeming to move ever closer.
In the heart of the woods, the Ranger picked his way through the dense undergrowth, guided by the pale light of the overhanging moon. He pondered the recent events of the night, talking to himself softly, since silence appeared to muddle the clarity of his thoughts. He appeared quite accustomed to engaging in such external monologue.
"Nice guys. Way cool." He nodded with a smile. "Too bad they're—"
But his musing was disrupted by a series of horrendous shrieking that totally dwarfed what he had heard earlier. Stopping short in his tracks, the Ranger threw a glance over his shoulder. His expression registered no alarm. Instead, he smiled and gave a tiny chuckle.
"Must be one hell of a story," he said, before continuing on his way.