Let’s Go Camping!

For October and the haunted holiday it brings, I bring you my own original, creepy tales. Keep coming back for more frights all month long.

“What kind of adult man tells scary stories?”

“The kind that’s trying to have fun,” said Jane.

She rolled on her side, her sleeping back scraping the side of the tent. The fabric rippled in the light of electric lantern like sinking quicksand, and the sound of polyesters rubbing made Michael’s skin crawl. He squeezed his book, the novel he suspected would bring him more joy than fishing or birding, or whatever people did in the wild. His pen, the same makeshift book marker he’d used since grade school, sent new cracks in the sickly hump of the paperback cover.

“Well, we’re not children,” he said. “Surprised he didn’t hand out marshmallows and chocolate too!”

“If you’re trying to say you don’t like S’mores, then you’ve lost the right to judge what makes a fun camping trip. And keep your voice down. Terry’s tent is only a few feet away. I’m pretty sure he and everyone else can hear you.”

Michael dimmed the lantern. He could see the waning campfire light through the fabric, but the other two tents were dark inside. Bob and Angela Hamilton were both recently retired. Michael had heard empty-nester retirees often experienced a resurgence of giddy sexuality, but if they were up to anything wanton then it was masterfully discrete. With four kids, though, it was possible they’d learned how to do it on mute.

Terry spent most of his time in nature, alone. Available partners didn’t often spring up while out kayaking and survival training, Michael thought. Unless Terry stumbled upon a lonely woodland nymph, he’d likely be pitching a single tent for the rest of his days.

Michael looked over at the back of Jane’s head poking from her sleeping bag. Twenty years of marriage and they knew each other’s tells, though emotional subtleties had degraded long ago. It was that very predictable knowledge of one another that prompted Michael to finally agree to one of Terry’s camping invitations.

He hated camping. Jane knew he hated camping. When he told her they should go, she was over the moon. After two decades of togetherness, the unexpected is the greatest gift a spouse has to offer, and Michael wanted to give that to his wife. When actual camping commenced, however, he found it difficult to play along. The outdoors were disgusting, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous. Once Terry started in with spooky stories about werewolves, under a full moon no less, Michael announced they were off to bed, and escaped to their tent for the evening.

“No one’s awake,” said Michael. Jane was pretending to sleep. He should have moved in next to her and apologized for being a jerk. He should have kissed her neck like she liked. Instead, he turned out the lantern and said, “and S’mores are too sticky.”

“Shut up, Michael,” Jane said, and the darkness wooed them.

The halfway state between dream and wakefulness made Michael doubt the validity of the scream. It was the subsequent grunts and moans from the Hamilton’s tent that assured Michael noise had startled him from sleep. The old folks were as randy as the rumor said, he thought, and not quiet after all. Their romantic MO wasn’t hushed lovemaking, but strategic timing, waiting until a very late hour to get the deed done, only they hadn’t accounted for thin walls.

Michael was immediately certain that he and Jane had never done whatever Bob and Angela were doing. The sounds were guttural, feral, pained. The tent was thrashing about like they’d been caught in a hurricane, tearing under the force of their vigor. He heard slaps and choking, and as the Hamilton’s pleasure tones faded, Michael heard something like branches snapping, and then… chewing.

“Jane.”

Her hand thrust at him, clawing for him in the dark, and he stifled a yelp. She pulled herself close searching his head like anatomical Braille. Bringing her lips to his ear, she whispered, “Is it a bear?”

Michael wanted to answer, but his body had gone rigid, his jaw clamped shut. Whatever was outside was now silent. It had heard them, thought Michael, and it had ceased its consumption of the Hamiltons. Did bears really eat people? Did the Hamiltons provoke it somehow? What frightens them away? Terry would know. Michael turned to his wife, her shape only just visible in the distant light of the moon. The campfire was nothing but ash.

“I’m going to wake up Terry,” he said. “He’s got to have a knife or bear spay or something.”

He wanted her to argue, to volunteer to take his place for the potential suicide mission, then he felt the curves of the lantern forced into his hands. His wife was either confident in him or upset enough to send him to his death. He snorted, and Jane tensed.

“That was just me,” he said, but even Michael thought he heard the thing out there breathing. It wasn’t moving though. It was waiting.

The shuffle across the sleeping bags made stealth impossible, the zipper of the tent like a siren in the otherwise still night. Michael felt his ears working past age and rock-concert irrepairability, searching for signs of life. If Terry was aware of the situation, he gave no indication. If the Hamiltons were somehow clinging to life, they made no calls for help. There was nothing. Even the forest was quiet. The crickets had vacated. Owls had decided there was nothing worth hooting about. Even the wind was hesitant to blow. Michael was on his own.

He took a breath, twisted the knob of the lantern, and lit up the dark. With a trembling hand, he gripped the flap of the tent, then a finger tapped his shoulder. He jumped, the entire tent shaking in his fist. He turned back to Jane, a pen in her hand like a relay racer passing the baton for the next leg.

“A weapon,” she said.

Bewildered, her husband took the pen. Michael re-centered himself, raising to a squat, preparing to pull back the curtain to the unknown horrors on the other side of the tent. For a second he thought maybe it was all a joke, a gag experienced campers pulled on novices. He hoped their three companions were outside giggling. Hell, he hoped to see them constructing S’mores.

What he saw was something he never imagined. When the flap slipped open, and Michael held out the lantern, their were two moons of light shining back on him, and the bloodied fangs of something terrible.

Jane saw it too, and the couple screamed in unison. The beast lunged, biting down on the lantern. The plastic shattered. The metal bent like taffy. The LED bulb popped, and they were thrown back into the dark.

The thing was between Jane and Michael, its mass and rage emitting heat like summer sun. Michael’s eyes desperately adjusted, and the shadows redefined themselves. He could see an outline of the beast. He could see Jane. He saw her throw a shadow over its head. It wriggled beneath the polyester, biting through the lining of the sleeping bag, claws lashing out in all directions. It would be free soon, thought Michael, then he remembered the pen.

He stabbed the dark. The thing howled, and he stabbed it again. Michael thought the pen had broken, that the ink had spilled from it, but the ink was warm. The beast’s blood ran down his hand. Michael stabbed it again, lunging himself into it. Over and over he thrust the mighty pen past fur and down lining into thick flesh. The beast yelped and cried, and when it broke from its polyester cage, it ran into the night.

Jane and Michael found the Hamiltons in pieces. Terry was gone. Too dark to navigate the forest safely, Michael used Terry’s flint to rekindle the fire. They threw log after log atop it, determined to keep the flames high until dawn. Michael swapped his pen for Terry’s hunting knife. The night lasted forever.

In the morning, on the way to the car, they discovered Terry’s body on the trail. He was naked, crusted blood trails coming from dozens of tiny punctures in his skin, his lips and chin stained a deep red.

Seated in their car, the heater warming them through torn clothes, Jane held Michael’s hand.

“I hate camping too,” she said.

________________________________________________________________________________________________

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