by K.S. Walker
“Hey Britt…you’re not gonna like this.”
Brittany pressed her eyes shut, for just a moment. Her shoulders ached, her blisters burned, and there was not a square inch of exposed skin that did not host the raised welt of a bug bite. Whatever waited for her at the campsite could not possibly be worse than what she felt right now. She pressed forward through the trees, and stepped into the clearing. Her heart sank.
The last three of their seven miles were made slow and torturous by the late season black flies and wet trail. They were supposed to make camp hours ago. Already the sun was dipping below the tree line.
“This place is trashed.” Brittany fought to keep the tears out of her voice.
Mikayla snorted while toeing the larger fragments of broken glass bottles together. “That is an understatement.”
Brittany dropped her pack and joined Mikayla in her appraisal of their site. The wind had torn loose pages from a newspaper pinned under a rock; wet circulars were plastered across the dirt clearing. Brittany kicked a bottle of lighter fluid towards a punctured can of bug repellant. Several soggy rolls of toilet paper rested on a rolling cooler. An overturned camp chair jutted out of the fire pit. A rain-soaked tent obscured half the picnic table. Brittany picked at the pile of canvas, revealing the box the tent came in. ‘Sportsman 8 with Screen Porch and Dividers’.
“This was brand new. Who leaves this kind of stuff behind?” Brittany asked.
“Rich white people,” Mikayla shrugged. “No offense.”
Brittany rolled her eyes, “I’m only half white. And neither side is rich.” She knew Mikayla knew it, but Brittany couldn’t stop herself from saying it anyway. Both girls attended Camp Kalkaska on the same scholarship and had for the past six summers. They made a game of keeping track of who’s photo had made the most appearances in the annual fundraising newsletter. So far the score was Mikayla: 5, Brittany: 7.
Brittany groaned, “I do not want to clean this up. All I want to do is take my boots off, eat an under-seasoned dehydrated meal and take my butt to sleep.”
“Fine. We have to move the cooler though. We’ll leave everything else.”
On top of her aches, the trashed campsite, having to set up camp in the growing darkness, the abandoned cooler felt like just one thing too many. The last of her composure was peeled away and her tears came hot and choking.
“Remind me why we’re doing this again?” Brittany asked.
“Because we want to be junior counselors next year and junior counselors get paid $1500 for the season.”
Mikayla was quieter when she added. “And because they don’t think we can.”
And there it was, the truth of it. It wasn’t in anything anyone said directly. It was more in what wasn’t said that made it very clear that no one, not their head counselors, not their peers, expected either girl to apply for the position much less follow through the skills test.
It was Mikayla’s idea. One whispered from the darkness of their shared bunk bed. At first Brittany dismissed it. But sometime over the last year the idea burrowed into her and became her own. And as much as Brittany wanted the cash, she wanted to throw it in their faces even more. Not one, but two Black junior counselors.
“I’ll take care of the cooler, Britt. We can figure out dinner when I get back.”
Brittany nodded, wiping at her face.
Brittany stood stretching skywards. Then she did a slow circle, fully appreciating her surroundings for the first time. Three red maples sprouting gloriously grotesque burls lined the eastern end of the site. Between a gap in the trees she could see the Manistee River winding through the bottom of the bluff below them, wide and slow. Maybe things weren’t as bad as they seemed.
Maybe they wouldn’t have been if Mikayla didn’t return from her cooler dump asking the questions Brittany was happy to ignore.
“What the hell happened here?”
“Can you play detective while helping set up camp?” Brittany’s tone was snippier than she intended, but she had reached her capacity for stoicism two miles back, the last thing she wanted was a mystery to solve. She fished in her backpack and pulled out their campstove and two headlamps. She tossed one headlamp to Mikayla. “You don’t think the storm surprised them and they just dipped?”
“But they must’ve had a car, look at all this stuff they brought. Why not just throw it all in the trunk?” Mikayla said, slapping at an insect attracted to the light of her headlamp.
“Maybe there was a medical emergency and there wasn’t enough time. They might even come back for their stuff later.” Brittany swatted something winged out of her field of vision too.
Mikayla spat, “I swear to god, a bug just landed in my mouth. Where are all these coming from all of a sudden?”
“Goddamnit,” Brittany swore. “It’s our headlamps. They’re attracted to the light.”
“No shit. Why are there so many?”
Mikayla had a point. Brittany had spent six summers in the woods and had never had so many insects use her headlamp like the north star. She looked around and saw that the night was filled with fluttering moths. Brittany dropped the stove to swipe bugs with both hands. Her palm connected with something meaty. She stood from the table and ripped off her headlamp.
“I can’t do this, Mikayla. Forget dinner.”
“Let’s just eat a protein bar and go to —”
“To what, Mikayla? That’s not funny!”
And then Brittany heard it too. Like slow strokes of sandpaper against itself. Brittany swung around searching for the source of the sound.
Then she saw it. In the spotlight of Mikayla’s wavering headlamp, the lump at the base of one of the red maples moved. The lump was shifting, separating as if to open a chasm to the hollow core of the tree.
The huge growth Brittany had mistaken for a burl lifted itself on pale, spindly, appendages and it fanned out mottled forewings to separate from the tree entirely. Brittany backed away slowly, unblinking. She wished she could unsee the creature. She couldn’t afford to.
The terror’s movements were not graceful. The creature listed through the air on ragged wings, its feathered antennae trembling.The large compound eyes gleamed when caught in the red light of the headlamp. Its abdomen was by turns patchy grey and glistening smooth. And its mouth…its mouth was a ragged slash full of flat human teeth.
Brittany was beside Mikayla now, pressed against her. She bit her lips together to stifle a sob. Mikayla whispered, “There’s two.”
“Run!” Brittany moved when she felt Mikayla’s tug on her elbow. She stumbled but regained her footing and followed the bounce of Mikayla’s headlamp through the trees. They zigzagged down a narrow path. Branches whipped at Brittany’s face, her hands. Above her, behind her, she could hear that raspy buzz. It filled her head, vibrated her teeth.
“Down!” Mikayla shouted from in front of her. Brittany felt the tug of grasping appendages in her braids and dove. She landed hard on her right shoulder and rolled down a steep bank of gravel and sand until a downed tree broke her descent. They’d run right to the bank of the Manistee. Dazed, she looked around in time to see one of the moth creatures drop towards her, its six legs outstretched. Brittany covered her face with her arms and rolled. She heard a thud connect with a fleshy body, and another, followed by an enraged screech.
She looked up to see Mikayla hurling rocks at the creatures from the river’s edge. Brittany took the open Mikayla created and staggered towards her. They dove into the water together.
The cold was jarring, Brittany counted to twenty before resurfacing. She broke the surface sputtering out water from inflamed lungs. She grasped for Mikayla, and tangled their hands together.
“Look,” Mikayla said, pointing with her chin, “They won’t come in the water.” It seemed true. She hoped it was true. The two giant moths remained near— circling in their staggering, lilting way, but they weren’t coming any closer.
“But how long do we have to stay here? How long until someone comes looking for us?” Panic clenched at her throat. There were tears streaming down Brittany’s face and she was bleeding freely from a cut on her temple, but her face was too cold to register either.
“We don’t have to wait until camp comes for us. We just have to wait until morning, right?” Mikayla said.
“Just wait until morning?” Brittany repeated.
“Just til morning.”
Brittany pulled herself closer to Mikayla wishing she could ignore the buzzing and rustling of the terrors in flight above her. Just til morning. Brittany repeated to herself. Just until morning.
K.S. Walker writes speculative fiction. Their favorite stories include either monsters, magic or love gone awry. You can find them on Instagram @kwalker_writes.