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When I was a child, my father was god-like. With his deep voice, his big, black beard and his strong arms, I always pictured him as invincible. When he would frown, I always imagined that this must be the way that Zeus looked upon the mortals who angered him.

If you were to see him out in the woods, you’d probably envision Grizzly Adams. My father is as adept out in the wilderness as he is in his own home. In fact, he tends to be the sort of person who is more comfortable in the arms of nature, as though his energy is drained by the proximity of people. Abruptly, it seems, he stopped taking those backpacking trips. He cited his aching back and his aging body, but there was something about his excuses that felt superficial.

Last year, my sister (who is now in her twenties) was asking about the last place he had gone backpacking and seemed really interested in going there with a couple of her girlfriends. My father, long silent about his experiences finally broke down and told us about what had happened, and after he had finished, I can honestly say I haven’t had the urge to go out into the wilderness anytime soon. I’m going to tell you the story because I think you ought to be warned about the danger of going into the woods, especially if you aren’t fully prepared or experienced with it. There’s a reason why, in fairytales, all bad things happen deep in the forest. There is a good reason why people don’t live in wild isolation if they can help it. But I digress.

When my siblings and I were younger, my father would go on yearly backpacking trips out into the wilderness with his three best friends from college. All three of them were Engineering majors and they had shared many adventures in their youth. There was Skipper, who was the free-spirited semi-bachelor who always had a long-term girlfriend (but was very against marriage) had stayed in their college town and lived in a funky bungalow. Then there was Freddie, whose hair and beard had gone snow white at a very young age and he always had a joke to tell or the smile that preceded one. Next was Daryl, who had moved out of state for a high-paying job, but he always came and stayed with Skipper for a few days before their yearly backpacking trip so he wouldn’t have to fly down and immediately go out into the wilderness. Then there was my dad. They called my father “Dodger,” because he had worked his ass off in college to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War and was one of the only men in his family who hadn’t been pushed into some sort of military regiment.

Each year, the “guys” would get together and choose some remote local to visit. Armed with some basic supplies (and maybe a couple rifles and clay pigeons for target practice), they’d head out into the wild for a week or two and emerge stinking with the righteous sweat of good, clean exercise.

The year it happened, they had decided to go to a specific location that they hadn’t visited before. It was supposed to take them through a valley that used to be underwater before a nearby dam had been destroyed, over a mountain and behind to a “hidden lake” where no roads had been built. The only way to visit the lake was to literally climb a mountain for a couple days. Because of this and an unfamiliarity with the area, my father and his friends came extra prepared, just in case of sudden rain or other weird weather changes that are common in the mountains. My father brought his fishing pole because he wasn’t sure what river fed the hidden lake, but he was certain that if there were fish, they’d be stupid and unused to hooks, which is exactly the sort of fishing that my father liked. They brought an ample amount of food, mostly dried and freeze dried food packets wrapped in silver that reminded me of the sort of stuff astronauts eat.

It was a beautiful sunny morning with just a hint of a chill in the air when they reached the ranger’s station to purchase the two-week long permit to leave their vehicles. They always chose late August through early September to avoid the crowds of families camping in the tent and RV campsite areas. The parking was cheaper and more plentiful and there were fewer instances of vehicle accidents from tourists forgetting to look when they were trying to park their boat or hooligans breaking into your truck for the stray quarter visible through the window.

My dad picked up the parking permits and the rangers in the ranger station told him that they had been on the look-out for this college-aged couple who had gone out to the lake a few weeks ago but still hadn’t returned. Apparently, they hadn’t looked very prepared when they had arrived and the rangers had bets on that the two would probably give up without even going halfway. Still, the parents of the couple had come by looking for them, and seeing as classes were starting the following Monday, it was obvious that there might be trouble. Still, they officially couldn’t start a search party until the weekend because there were only one or two rangers on duty at any time during the week and the fire warning level was at orange. So they simply asked my dad and his friends to keep a look out, and if they came across the kids, point the couple in the right direction and if not, it was common for people who got turned around to hike out of the woods and hitchhike out on the highway. No one seemed that worried, so my dad and his friends strapped up their packs and did a couple of last-minute gear-checks and started their trek.

The first day was uneventful. They made good time and enjoyed a speedy trip to the base of the mountain. They camped in a small hollow that looked like a previous group had had the same idea. Even though there are rarely any official campgrounds out in the backpacking trails, most backpackers created little hollows, semi-cleared of any large debris or prickly vines where a tent could be pitched and there was always a make-shift fire pit of sorts- usually dug into the ground with rocks around it. In a dry area in the wilderness, having a fire was dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. You only started one if you reasonably thought you could drown and stamp it out. Luckily my father and his friends were adept at this sort of activity, and they were able to heat and eat their first freeze dried meal without incident. Later that night, they listened to the sound of the crickets and slept well with their sweat and dust covered bodies.

The next day, they started the long climb up the mountain. Luckily, there were many mountain springs to quench their thirst and other interesting landmarks made of granite and composite rocks to keep the journey interesting. As they climbed, they were able to see the snakelike curve of the river beckoning them to the hidden lake, which would only be visible once they hit the peak. They stuck to the dusty dirt trails that looked more like deer paths than proper trailheads, but they still were making great progress, which was hampered by the average aches and pains of roughing it after months at a 9-5 desk job.

It took them three days to reach the hidden lake.

When they got there, the weather had turned hotter than ever. My father and his friends felt like they had dust and grime in every single crack and cranny in their bodies. Once they set down their things, it was a no-brainer to take a dip in the lake. They had a great time, whooping and hollering and splashing in the cool clean water. It was like waking up and being the last people on Earth, and who could be sad with friends?

After they finished with the swim/clean up, they set up a semi-permanent camp. The plan was to stay for a couple of days and then hike back. My father was excited to note that the fish did seem pretty plentiful and he caught a couple of small silver fish with his fishing rod. After the last couple days eating freeze dried “food” and dried fruit, fresh fish was amazing. Still, they did notice that the crickets were unusually silent for the heat that clung to the air, even after the sun began to set.

That evening, as the sun was going down, Skipper saw something gleaming over on the far side of the hidden lake. It looked like the sun was reflecting on it as it was going down. He talked with Daryl and they decided that they’d take a look at it the next morning when the sun was up. There was no use in stomping around in the dark just because of some shiny thing. That night, the wind picked up, and clouds came in. My father placed the rain fly on his tent in case of rain, but the clouds didn’t feel like rain clouds. They seemed bloated and menacing, but not with rain. There was an electric feel in the air, and the few crickets that had been chirping fell silent. After filling themselves full of fish and a little brandy, they all said their respective good nights and went to bed.

My father woke up in the middle of the night to a sound. It sounded somewhat like the crackle of fire on wood, only more chitinous and hollow. Immediately his thought was to the fire that they had stomped out. With the wind and the unseasonable warmth, all it would take was a couple of sparks to ignite the whole woods, and my father knew better than to think he could outrun a forest fire. He sprang out of his tent with his flashlight and raced to the fire circle. Luckily, even when he stirred it with the fire stick, there were no flames or smoke. He used his flashlight to peer out into the woods, but it was pitch black in a way that is impossible to describe to someone who has never seen it. There wasn’t much of a moon left, but even so, the Milky Way shone in the sky like its own night light. Even with the trees dotted around the campground area, my father could see the stars glittering in the sky. But the forest was pitch black and he didn’t hear the noise again. My father figured that his mind was playing tricks on itself and went back to bed.

The next morning, they all ate a spartan breakfast and set off for the shiny object. My father brought his fishing pole because now that he knew that the lake had fish, he wanted to make sure that he had every opportunity to catch fresh meat for dinner.

They left most of their stuff at the campground, after all, there wasn’t anything for miles and anyone stupid enough to happen upon their sweaty, grimy stuff and willing to slog it back to civilization would have earned the privilege of ownership.

As they got closer to where the metal glint had appeared, something began to feel very wrong. My father felt the hairs on his neck pinprick and that feeling of falling of heat and cold racing up from toes to chest filled him with dread. The wind had died down in the morning, yet there was still a noise, intermittently making a “Whooh” sound like wind through a keyhole. The noise got progressively louder as they got closer, but the thick tree cover wasn’t very helpful so they didn’t see it until they were almost upon it.

What my father saw, even when he was retelling it to us, made him pale and feel decidedly ill.

The shiny metal thing looked a lot like aluminum foil, only it had been folded around a large piece of wood. It had been angled into the air seemingly to catch the sun’s light and draw attention from…what? Something in the air? But the angle was all wrong. It looked like it was supposed to have been leand up at a different angle, but a bunch of rocks and logs had been rolled and moved around in such a way that it looked like the rig had collapsed. What my father was staring at, what all of them were staring at, was the body.

At least, that’s what my father assumed it was. The body was naked, bluish black skin and distended belly that was almost comically inflated, had it not been grotesquely worn on a corpse.. It was pinned between the aluminum foil coated branch and a log. The smaller branch was angled over it and the tip was in the water of the lake. Every time the waves lapped the surface, the smaller branch would push up against the belly of the corpse and a sharp “Whooh” noise would come from the body. It took a moment for them to realize that the sound was coming from the hole in the severed neck on the corpse.

The head was missing.

My father felt sick and several of his friends threw up or shouted in terror at the sight. Reeling with nausea, my father began to look around the rest of the campsite, if you could call it that. Belongings were haphazardly strewn about the ground, more mess than camp. Skipper called everyone over to the remains of a cooking fire, which was luckily not burning. There were two hiking boots standing next to it. A smell emanated from them, and no one wanted to confirm that there were still feet in those shoes, but everyone knew it. Something had happened at the site, and my father and his friends did not want to stick around, especially not while several days away from civilization. Daryl went over to take a look at the remains of the tents, and he remarked that it looked like some kind of animal had gotten into the tent. No one had mentioned grizzly bears or any other large predators in the area, but cougars could be expected in this remote part of the woods. Skipper remarked that he was glad that he’d brought his hunting rifle, but my father and Frankie had forgotten theirs back at the campsite. All my father had was his fishing pole and his daypack. The most dangerous thing he had on him was his pocket knife.

They weren’t sure if their ears were playing tricks on them, but they started to hear something moving in the brush. Not wanting to wait around to find out what it could be, they started moving quickly, everyone back to back, not running, but moving with purpose until their legs screamed with pain. They heard the noise from the night before, only now he heard an accompanying whine, something that sounded like a very large mosquito. The clicking noise sounded quieter and more close together. The sound moved strangely, seeming to appear from multiple directions but never at the same time. There would be a couple of rapid clicks and then nothing but the whining. The wind began to pick up as they finally got about halfway back to the campground, and they couldn’t hear anything anymore.

That’s when the branch flew in from seemingly nowhere and almost impaled Daryl. Luckily, their back to back formation saved his life and Frankie pushed Daryl down before it could strike. They had all been holding themselves together by swearing and trying to strategize their retreat, but this was too much. They all screamed/hollered/freaked the fuck out. and began to haul ass as best as they could in the dense brush. My dad helped Daryl up and they booked it through the trees, not even stopping to unlink their arms- they were rigid with terror. All they knew was that they had to get away from the noise before…..whatever the fuck it was…..caught up with them.

Now, people often forget to say how easily fear can blind you. The fight or flight reflex is strong and instinctual. So when my father and Daryl finally calmed down enough to slow down and feel the fire in their lungs and the screaming tendons in their legs, they realized that Frankie and Skipper had disappeared. The dense woods felt like they went on endlessly in all directions. My father had a compass in his daypack, so he checked it and luckily they hadn’t gone too far off course. The campsite was probably only a little further northwest. But his stomach fell to his toes when he realized that two of his friends were missing. He and Daryl decided that they would get back to the camp and make a campfire so that the others would be able to find their way by the smoke. It would also serve as a way to frighten away any large animals, although the two of them were fairly certain that whatever had thrown the branch wasn’t a bear or even a cougar. Just then, he heard a shot coming from not far off to his right. He and Daryl ran towards the noise and heard Skipper swearing. My dad started to call out to him, but something grabbed his ankle and his heart leapt into his throat. Luckily, they weren’t going too fast, or he probably would have faceplanted. It was Frankie, and he was pushed up with his back behind a large mossy rock. They ducked down next to him and he hissed at them, “Don’t move. That..THING might still be nearby.”

Sure enough, they heard something loudly moving in the trees, but they still couldn’t see what it was. They peered around the side of the rock and saw Skipper shooting his gun in the air again after reloading and cocking the rifle methodically. He was forever shooting gophers and deer that wandered on his property, so even though he wasn’t exactly a sharpshooter, he was a pretty good shot. He hit something, and the whining noise seemed to get higher and more plaintive (but of course, that could have been my father’s imagination, he says that the adrenaline pumping through his veins made everything feel really distorted) and the crashing moved further away, as though it was retreating.

They met up with Skipper and beat a quick retreat, vowing to break camp and start back, even though the sun was starting to dip in the sky. Luck was with them, and they packed quickly and silently, moving out and up over the mountain as quickly and safely as they could. My father looked back at the lake when they were halfway up the backside of the mountain and night was starting to fall and thought that he could see flickering light under the trees for a moment and then it was gone. When it was fully dark, they set down their packs and rested in an alcove against the side of the mountain near the path they’d followed into the hidden lake and waited until the sky started to light before quickly and quietly continuing. No one slept, the thought of closing their eyes was maddening.

They reached the ranger’s station in the mid-day and no one was there. They left a hastily scrawled note about what they had seen (but not the things that they had heard- people would think they were crazy) on one of the photocopied maps that were left in the plastic information pockets outside the ranger’s station and got the hell out.

There was an unspoken agreement that they wouldn’t talk about it when they got home early, and they didn’t really even talk about it with one another. They parted ways as they usually did after a quiet breakfast where no one really had an appetite.

My father decided that he would do a little fishing to calm his nerves in a well known river that was at least two hours drive from their original hiking spot, and he stayed the night in a small lodge before heading back home the next day. On the small TV in the bar/restaurant at the lodge that night, he saw a news report showing that the heat and unseasonably high winds had started a fire on the far side of the mountain by the hidden lake. They were estimating over a hundred acres had burned and rescue teams were doing their best to contain the blaze. The fire raged on for a long time, and as far as he knows, no one ever found the body, or the boots with rotting severed feet inside. But there was something that did churn his stomach with dread a week later when a local news report of the fire showed footage around the lake. There was a quick cut to a branch that was sticking out of the lake’s surface, partially burned but with a metallic object wrapped around the topmost tip.

And that was when he finally admitted to himself that it hadn’t just been a nightmare.

It was real.

My sister never did go on that backpacking trip.

Fiction


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