ALGARD PEAK by Jonathan True
It was approaching dinner time when Karen, Becca, and Marcus finally reached Orford Bay 4. So far, it had been an amazing journey filled with beautiful sights. They had started out in Santa Cruz, California, flown up to Vancouver, and just finished an eight-hour boat ride up the coast and into one of the many waterways. The constant drone of the nautical motor still rang in their ears when they spotted a clearing in the endless temperate rainforest.
Orford Bay 4 was just another logging site up the coast. More importantly, to this group, was its proximity to Algard Peak, their final destination. Six months ago, during the mild California winter, Rebecca Walker (a UCSD student and outdoor enthusiast) convinced her boyfriend and sister that a trip to one of the world’s most remote and beautiful peaks would be a memory they would cherish for all of their lives.
Their guide, Shiloh Carpenter, was a sixty-year-old Chinook man. He jumped into the waist-high water, pulled the twenty-foot well-used cuddy cabin, christened The Native Sun, onto the rocky shore. The waves lapped against hand-sized, well-rounded stones, most of them dark in colour, with the occasional white rock contrasting strongly with the rest. In front of them, stood the cluster of simple single-story buildings that made up the logging camp.
This was the last shred of civilization they would see on their journey. It was a small logging village, nestled in a deep valley completely surrounded by a lush green forest. In the middle of the encampment ran a gravel road. Most of the buildings stood to the right, and on the opposite side, there were supplies, water and propane tanks. A latrine stood on its own, and further down, a smokehouse that currently was emitting small amounts of delicious smelling white puffs.
Not wanting to look like a lazy tourist, Marcus Randall Stevens jumped out of the boat, rocking it a little too much for Karen’s liking, and helped drag the small marine vessel to shore. The waves aided in pushing it the last few inches out of the water. Karen and Becca were the last to step out of the boat. Becca felt the still ground was unsettling. They hadn’t made any pit stops on the way up the shoreline. She had gotten used to the constant whine of the motor, the breeze in her straight blonde hair, braided for travel, and the smell of the ocean breeze. She enjoyed the gentle waves rocking the boat and the mist sprayed up from the engine.
The trees, mostly coniferous, masked the shoreline. Enormous ancient pines coated the countryside. A small portion had been reduced to trunks; the logs with hundreds of rings were floating in the water. Held in place by massive chains, the once majestic trees, now awaiting the next pickup.
Karen was concerned about the size of the tourist boat. When she booked the vacation package, she imagined the cruise up to have more creature comforts. Her sister and her sister’s boyfriend were into nature: they liked hiking and mountain climbing. She was just along for the sights. She needed the inspiration. Karen Walker was a landscape painter. She knew there would be little time for sketching on the long journey up the mountain, but she couldn’t help packing some pastels, charcoal, and a sketchbook.
Karen was twenty-eight and had already built up a small following of patrons. Most from the Santa Cruz area, but a few from all over the world. The mountains loomed in front of her as she stepped onto the muddy ground. The shoreline was more soot than sand. She was worried that the hike would be too much for her. The five foot four woman was not entirely out of shape; she did bike to get around back home, but this was something altogether different. This was serious. They were a hundred miles from the nearest hospital. If someone got hurt...they might not make it. Karen took a deep breath, grabbed her pack out of the boat, and looked anxiously at her watch.
“The itinerary says that dinner was served at five-thirty. It’s ten past six. I hope they have something left. You know, ‘cause it’s our last opportunity to eat something that’s not cooked on a campfire.” Karen inhaled deeply, “You smell that?”
Her little sister chimed in, “What? The fresh northern air? The ocean breeze? The fact Marcus needs a shower?”
“No… it’s dinner. I heard lumberjacks know how to cook, looks like they are not going to disappoint!”
Their guide, the grey-haired Shiloh Carpenter, tied the boat to a post to ensure it didn’t get swept out to sea when the tides came in. “Go grab a plate; they’re expecting us. There’s always plenty of food left. I just have to finish up here, and I’ll be right behind you.” He was getting older. His walking stick was becoming more of a requirement than a decoration. It was a solid looking maple walking stick with his favourite animals carved into it. At the top were the tricksters: the jay and coyote. Below was Shikla, the shapeshifter, in the form of an owl. Under them, all was the grizzly, Shiloh’s own spirit animal. Since his initiation rites when he was fourteen, Shiloh had always felt a close kinship with the grizzly. On many occasions, his spirit guide had led him when he was lost, brought him food when he was hungry, and provided him with wisdom when he needed it most.
Shiloh still remembered his first vision. It had been several days since he had last eaten. The tribe gathered around to show him the ways of their people. He was in a sweat lodge, what little he had drunk was pouring out of his body; he remembered how weak he felt as he left his body and went to the spirit plane. He remembered how the grass had felt, soft between his toes. He looked up to see the giant grizzly, but he did not fear it. And he remembered what it said to him, “Running Water (the name his mother called him before she died.) I can feel your heart, and I know its pain for I am always with you. We are both solitary creatures, but we care for our tribe; we care for our own. You will travel far in your lifetime, and I will be there to guard you, and when you need, guide you to fertile hunting grounds. Your life will be long and you will live without fear because of the secret I’m about to share with you.” The twenty-foot tall creature walked closer to the young Shiloh. The Grizzly’s eyes were black as coal; his voice was like thunder rolling off over the countryside. “Beware the two-headed elk, your cultus. Only he can mark your transition from the mortal realm.”
That seemed like a lifetime ago. It had been a long time since he went back to see his tribe. All of the people he remembered from that day were long since dead. His heart sank. He wanted to feel the loss of his parents and his elders, but they had died so long ago he was numb to it. He was angry at himself for not being able to remember their faces. He was disappointed that he never taught his own son the ways of their people. There was always an excuse not to go back and visit. He was too poor, or there wasn’t enough time between jobs. But before he knew it, his son had gone from a child to a young man with children of his own and no idea of who he was or where he came from.
The leathery-skinned guide hardly noticed, the weight of his pack when he threw it over his shoulders. It weighed over fifty pounds for a trip like this. He needed his sleeping bag (rated to negative forty degrees), a single person tent, three days’ worth of food, an extra set of clothes, and first aid supplies in case of emergency. He had made trips like this over a hundred times now, and this trip, hiking to Algard Peak, a dozen times. He knew what path they needed to take, where the picture-perfect touristy spots were, and what times of year were best for the trip.
It was early August, just perfect for enjoying nature. Most of the time, there was no chill in the air at sea-level. Spring was long over, and there was still time before the animals had to prepare for the winter freeze. It was, however, the most popular time of year for salmon to spawn. That meant there will be plenty of fish to catch, but the bears will be out in force along the river. Shiloh always loved watching the bears, but he knew tourists were stupid. That would make this trip especially nerve-racking.
Marcus Randall Stevens was the first person to enter the dining lodge. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the poorly lit aluminium structure. The doors were open to let in the light and let out the heat. All of the food was cooked with wood heat, either in a wood-burning oven, or on a makeshift griddle that sat on a wood-burning stove. The ground was white gravel covering dry, well-compacted dirt. Eight bearded men sat talking at picnic tables that were pushed end to end to make one long seating area. Most of the smoke was caught in the chimney, but there was still a discernible amount making the inside of the lodge hazy.
“Ahhh, there they are! My name is John, but everyone calls me Cookie,” said the man standing at the griddle. “I was afraid you would not get here in time. Leftovers are fine, with a cook as great as me...” The men sitting all jeered, “Ahum! But… as I was saying, fresh is better.” Cookie was the only man lacking a full beard. Instead, he sported a full walrus moustache and a shaved head. The drops of sweat on his bald head were a testament to the heat in the cooking area of the building.
Shiloh was the last person to walk in. He sat his rucksack and walking stick against the wall, beside the front door, like he had done a dozen times before. Excited to have new people that didn’t berate him on a daily basis taste, and if he were lucky, eat his food. Cookie placed four aluminium plates on a counter. Tink. They sounded like, and looked a lot like, tiny metal trash can lids, the kind you would see in pictures of New York City back in the seventies. He started with a massive salmon steak, seasoned with salt and pepper with chopped chives on top. Afterward, he took what appeared to be an ice cream scoop and carefully placed a dome of macaroni and cheese beside a heaping pile of French-cut green beans that were poured directly from the can to a pot, aluminium flavoured water and all.
“Don’t let these men fool-ya,” the old guide said to his flock. “Cookie here’s the best cook in a hundred miles.”
“He’s the ONLY cook for a hundred miles,” shouted one of the louder men at the table.
The lodge erupted with laughter, all except the cook who sneered and said, “You guys don’t know what you’re talking aboot. Fresh ingredients are hard to come by. I don’t mean to be rude, but what would you cook if all you had to work with was canned vegetables, instant mashed potatoes, and fish! We have all the fish we can handle, that’s for sure.”
Becca, feeling massively outnumbered, was glad her big sister was there. She knew she wasn’t in danger. These guys seemed just like regular, if not rough around the edges, folks. Here to do a job. She imagined being away from their families for so long must be hard on them. Some of them must be married she thought, “I bet these are just hard-working, ordinary guys… Definitely NOT psycho-killers in the middle of nowhere that prey on tourists.” She did a quick scan of the room and saw no wedding bands. She did see, however, one of the men with a nasty scar across his face missing his ring finger entirely. Becca tried not to wince at the sight of it but failed unnoticeably.
“Karen, look,” Becca leaned in to whisper to her older sister, “none of the guys are wearing wedding rings so they don’t get their fingers ripped off by the logging equipment. I brought my own boyfriend, but it looks like you get your pick!”
Karen scowled, not wanting to give Becca any footing for continuation of this line of conversation. “If that’s what I wanted, I didn’t have to leave California... They certainly smell better back home. I’m just here for a little fresh air and enough inspiration to last me a few months.” She made up her mind: she was here for inspiration, and what better way to do that than talk to the locals? She could hear a few stories; learn about the best views, and most importantly, eat without her sister harassing her about not having a man. She had to muster up the courage to talk to new people all the time when patrons wanted to talk about her art… This was no different. She would just find an open seat, eat her fish, and listen to the locals.
The loggers were well behaved and courteous, for the most part. They were all too happy to regale the newcomers with an assortment of stories. All of which were over-told, and over-embellished. One story, in particular, caught even the old man’s attention.
“On the north side of Orford River, about half a mile past the logging site,” the young man with piercing blue eyes and a flaming red beard started, “I was marking trees. I know you aren’t going to believe me, but there are things out here. The Chinook have known about things that don’t belong in this world. Things they had been telling stories aboot long before the first explorers crossed the Atlantic. That’s exactly what I saw. I think it was just as surprised to see me as I was to see it. The sun had just gone behind the ridge when I started to hear something eating. Not the sound of chewing leaves, mind you. It was the sound of something loudly ripping, tearing, swallowing flesh. I figured it was just a bear; God knows there’s plenty of them up here.” Orville’s demeanour changed. His expression went to concern, worry, and then fear as he continued. His eyes looked through Karen, as though he were seeing it all again.
“There, on the ground, eating the carcass of a mama grizzly, was a creature hunched over. Almost like a person. It used hands to feed itself. Two baby bears were hiding behind a tree. Too afraid of the beast to go closer, but not knowing what to do without their mama. It just ate her... until it noticed me.” The man went pale under his long fiery hair and beard, “The creature stood up on its hind legs and screamed at me. No human can make that sound, believe you me!”
By that point, everyone in the room was listening to Orville’s story. All except the outsiders had heard it before and it was clear even the steeliest among them were unnerved. There was a long uncomfortable silence as Orville regained his train of thought. “I ran, and I’m not ashamed to say it. I ran like my very life depended on it. And in that moment, I was sure it did.”
Orville looked off into the distance and spoke like he was in a trance, “I kept running through the trees until I made it back to the rest of the crew. I’ve never in my life been afraid of anything, but when that thing looked at me and screamed… I… I pissed my pants. It was like the very gates of Hell opened through its throat… Every damned soul in the blazing pits, wanting to rip me to shreds, wanting to drag me right to Hell with them.”
“I, um, I have a few chores to finish up,” the solemn Orville continued, “anyway… Be careful out there. I’m not sure if anyone believes me, but it was real, as real as we are right now.” He stood up from the picnic table he was sitting at, ran his thick calloused hands down his worn-out tan Carhartt jacket, and slowly, walked out the back door. The sun had all but gone down, and the rest of the crew, being reminded of their own responsibilities, quietly left the dining hall as well.
“Jesus, that wasn’t awkward at all,” Marcus said with a level of sarcasm that was not wanted or appreciated by his girlfriend Becca. She scowled at him in the same way Karen had scowled at Becca earlier in the evening.
“Don’t mind them,” Cookie started, “they are just a little superstitious. Being up here, man versus the wild, it does things to your mind.” He chuckled nervously while wildly waving a ladle he was in the middle of cleaning. “There’s nothing more dangerous than the odd Grizzly who wanders into camp looking for a little sna....”
“Speaking of which,” Shiloh said cutting off the Canadian cook, “it’s time to set up camp. There’s a flat spot over by the hatchery pools where we can set up our tents. Rule number one in bear country… Don’t leave out any snacks. All food must be sealed up. If they don’t smell anything, they won’t bother us, for the most part. Rule number two, if you are in your tent and hear a bear outside, just let it pass. It will eventually get bored and move on. Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone.”
Shiloh was mostly blind in his left eye, so he had a tendency to squint that eye giving him the appearance of disdain for everything he looked at. He was completely unaware of how it made him appear and mostly unaware of how it made people react to him. His thick, silvery, shoulder-length hair fell around his face when he leaned over to pick his rucksack off of the floor. The campsite was only a couple hundred feet away from the back door of the dining lodge, so he casually threw his pack over one shoulder and made his way outside.
The ocean fog had made its daily appearance in Orford Bay 4. Like an unstoppable wall of milky white cotton, it enveloped everything it came in contact with. From a distance, it was almost ominous, hiding the bay water and everything beyond. Once it came closer, it was more calming than alarming. Visibility went down to twenty feet. The hikers felt anxious in anticipation for the upcoming hike as they finished setting up their tents. Becca and Marcus shared one tent while Karen and Shiloh had their own single person tents.
Karen Walker zipped up her sleeping bag, laid back, closed her eyes and listened. “The sounds of the night were like a song,” she mused to herself. All of the instruments playing together in harmony to create her own personal symphony. The waves of the bay, gently lapping at the shoreline, was the unchanging beat of the bass. Crickets softly keeping perfect rhythm as the string section. A distant woodpecker faded in and out, searching for a meal, played the percussion on a timeworn tree. Lastly, a pair of owls played and enchanting melody as the flute. It was a long trip out there; her muscles were a little sore from the first day’s journey, but at that moment, before she fell asleep, Karen was certain she had made the right decision in coming.
The crisp morning air was still thick with fog when Marcus unzipped his and Becca’s tent. He did not have a particularly good night’s sleep. He and Becca tried using the same sleeping bag so they could be close, but there wasn’t quite enough room. There was only one position that they found they could both sleep in, but it put him with his arm too far above his head leaving him stiff, sore, and generally groggy. “I love you babe, but you are sleeping in your own bag tonight,” he said to a sleeping Becca.
Cold, aching, and ready to pee, Marcus stepped out of the tent, zipped it back up and stretched in the cool dawn air. He heard his back pop and mused to himself that it was probably loud enough for the people around him to hear; that is if there were any people actually awake. Marcus’ eyes were already adjusted to the early morning light, but there wasn’t a lot to see. The large hatchery pools they camped beside seemed more interesting in the fog, like a mystery; Marcus smiled to himself. He scratched his two-week-old, dirty-blond beard and went to investigate, after relieving himself on a not-too-close spruce tree.
Tiny fish swam around the four above ground pools. Marcus lit up a cigarette while watching tiny ripples on the water. He took a long drag, blew the smoke back over his shoulder, and said, “Now what are you doing here?” More to himself than the fish. The longer he stood there, the more agitated they became. “Hungry for some breakfast?” Marcus thought about flicking some ash in the water to see what the fry would do. It was a fleeting thought. He felt bad that he even thought about it. He wondered what protected the fish out here from birds or bears. Marcus looked around all four pools for something to feed the fish that wasn’t an evil, horrible thing, but found nothing. “No food left outside. Sorry guys, I’m sure they’ll bring you your breakfast soon.”
The sun was quickly rising, giving the pools a mirrored surface. Marcus looked down at himself frowning in disapproval. Behind him, Karen started to unzip her tent; Marcus, distracted, looked back to see who it was. Seeing it was only Karen, he peered back into the pool only to see his head split in two.
“Shit!” Marcus stumbled backward and landed hard on his back. His arms shaking, the college dropout ran his hands over his head. Karen was the first to make it over to Marcus.
“What is it? What’s going on?” Karen reached out a hand to the confused looking young man. “What’d you trip over… eh…?” She looked around and didn’t see any obstructions on the ground, and with a nervous laugh said “your feet?”
Marcus felt overwhelmingly embarrassed. He felt fine; Karen wasn’t screaming, so he must look fine. “Must’ve been a ripple in the water. Jesus, I feel stupid.” He timidly stood up, dusted off the back of his pants, and peered into the hatchery. A nervous twenty-four-year-old peered back at him. He ran his hands over his head and face. There was nothing there, nothing unusual at least. Marcus stepped away from the pool and noticed his unfinished cigarette still burning on the ground. He picked it up with some disgust, peering at it suspiciously. Satisfied that there was nothing more than dust on it, he blew the dust off and resumed smoking.
Becca, finally emerging from her tent, was not happy she had woken up alone. She was even less happy to find her boyfriend talking to her sister, and her body language showed it. Her arms were crossed as she walked off to the latrine. Karen looked quizzically at Marcus as Becca stormed off. All Marcus could think of was to shrug and hope Becca was friendlier when she returned.
“Time to break camp,” barked Shiloh. He had been silently packing up his tent for the last couple of minutes without anyone noticing. Shiloh was the kind of man who liked to lead by example. He was hoping the others would notice what he was doing and follow his lead… sadly no one was paying attention. “Cheechako,” he thought to himself, “are always too caught up in their own drama to notice what’s happening around them.”
Shiloh said in a firm but quiet tone, “Ten minutes to breakfast, people.” There was little sound to compete with. The animals were silent, and the morning fog felt like it dampened all of the noise around them.
Marcus finished packing his and Becca’s packs before Becca got back to the hatchery area. She returned just in time to help Karen finish getting her sleeping bag attached to the outside of her rucksack. “Thanks for packing up, Sweetums,” Becca rewarded her boyfriend with a kiss. “Mmmm...” she pulled away, “You’ve been smoking again. Can you stop polluting your lungs?” She made a face like she was being force fed canned spinach.
Within thirty minutes, the group had eaten a hearty meal of thick oatmeal and real maple syrup from the dining lodge. The loggers ate their breakfast and left before even Marcus woke up. There was a banquet style heater that was keeping the remainder of the oatmeal warm for the sleeping campers. Even Cookie was nowhere to be seen. He had already left the dining area to get fresh water in preparation for the next meal.
“This is the last time we’re going to see a latrine for two days. Anyone who needs to should probably use it now.” He looked directly at the two sisters. Karen felt a little uncomfortable being talked to like a child but decided not to argue since she had to go anyway. “I’ll go with you,” said Becca. Years of being her big sister’s shadow still applied, even as adults, even in the middle of nowhere.
A few minutes later, the group was hiking, packs on, and ready for their adventure. The temperature was now climbing to the sixties, and the sun was burning off the fog that had shrouded the valley. It was like the opening curtains of a vast play. More of the awe-inspiring land was being revealed by the second. Pine covered mountains jetted up towards the sky, surrounding them on both sides. The path was well-kept and fairly straight-forward. A slight incline reminded them they were indeed climbing.
The Orford River sliced through the middle of the nearly-untouched valley. The path was cut in a way that kept the river to the left of the hikers and mountains loomed overhead to their right. Snow-capped peaks cut the passing clouds like jagged rocks sticking out of a stream, slicing through the current. The hikers walked single file, Shiloh in front, Karen, Becca, and then Marcus, an experienced hiker, bringing up the rear to make sure nobody was lagging too far behind. As they walked deeper into the forest, he was reminded, more and more, of his time on the Appalachian Trail.
Marcus Randall Stevens started seriously planning his trek down the Appalachian Trail over two years earlier. He had lost his way in college. His grades were failing. He was smart enough, but he just wasn’t interested. That’s when he started thinking about getting away. To be alone with nature. Not having to worry about grades, money, women, anything. That would be the life. Even so, he felt he needed a purpose. The A.T., as he had started calling it, was the perfect fit. He could remove himself from society while still looking like he had a purpose, a singular goal. His plan was to hike from Maine to Georgia in five months.
Walking over two thousand miles in just five months was an ambitious goal, even more so, for someone who had never hiked more than the distance from the couch to the kitchen. Marcus was never a strong planner. He managed to plan far enough in advance to pick out the day he should start: the last winter freeze. He figured he would need some food, mostly jerky and trail mix. He saved nearly a thousand bucks. In his mind, he wouldn’t need much along the way, just the occasional boost in jerky and maybe some extra socks.
That year was unusually cold. Marcus felt at times that he would freeze. He packed for the winter he grew up with... in Southern California. He had no concept of the bitter freezing rain he would experience walking through New England. There was a week-long stretch where he found himself between towns; his food running low, and sheets of freezing rain made the path muddy and virtually impassable. Marcus’ hair and beard were dirty and clumped. He went from a solid two hundred twenty pounds down to a slim one-eighty in just a month. It was then, in his moment of desperation, that fate tested him.
The starving man had stumbled in the rain for hours. Mud covered his body, his fingernails black, only the taste of bile lingered in his mouth. He was completely out of food. The unforgiving weather had thrown him off the path. He was lost, freezing, and scared for his life. All of the trees started to look the same, one after another, until there was one different from all the rest. That tree had a man in an orange vest, preparing a noose, a noose for himself. As Marcus approached, the man let himself fall from the branch. The rope tightened around his neck, but it was not a far enough drop to snap it. Marcus watched as everything played out in slow-motion. Every choking noise echoing in his mind, like a loop on a tape player. The sound of the rope pulling tight, the creak of the branch as he swung there momentarily, and then, the frantic noises of him trying to pull the rope off of his neck. Desperately trying to get his fingers between the rope and his throat, and ultimately failing. The man in orange’s face turned bright red, and then, purple as his eyes rolled back.
Revelation, clear and unmistakable flashed in the eyes of the suicidal man. Swinging from the tree, he realized he didn’t want to die, that life was worth fighting for. In those last few seconds of his miserable existence, he scratched at the implement of his death and begged Marcus with his eyes to cut him down. Marcus did no such thing. He just stood, watching the gruesome act play out.
Marcus knew he should do something. A quiet voice inside of him pleaded for the man’s life, but his feet were lead. He could do nothing more than be an unwilling witness to the horrific deed. When the swinging stopped, after the man relieved himself, after his eyes bulged forth from his skull in unblinking death, Marcus found himself rummaging through the dead man’s pack.
Food, plain and simple. It took a few minutes before he could regain enough control to stop eating. Marcus’ hands shook while he ravenously ate an MRE the corpse had brought with him. It took all of his strength to open it. He forced nearly all of the crackers in his mouth, greedily devouring the first thing he had eaten in days. Like a madman he opened his mouth to the cold rain, drinking from the sky. The swinging man in the tree above did not concern him at all. He started the warming pack with some water from his canteen. The taste of the warmed beef and noodles was so overwhelmingly delicious that tears ran down his face. And then, all at once, the emotions came back, his humanity returned. Staggering guilt and remorse slammed down on him, crushing his throat, moving down to his chest.
Shame and regret filled the lost vagabond. He wanted to think he was a good person, but when it really counted, he did nothing but watch, as another man died. Sitting there, under that tree in the early New England spring, Marcus realized that as much as he wanted to be different, he was just an animal. No matter what he did, he was just a couple of meals away from not giving a shit about his fellow man.
People mould moments to their desire. Day in, day out, planning, plotting, crafting what they want the moment to be. This moment, in Marcus’ life, moulded him. It taught him what he was like at his core, and as people do, he judged others based on his own guilt and standards. He no longer cared about what other people thought of him because, in the end, swinging from a tree, it just doesn’t matter. We are born alone, we die alone, and nothing we do keeps us from being what we are at our core: animals, hungry and selfish.
It was early afternoon when Karen started falling behind. She was young, but not in shape. Shiloh with all of his years could still outpace most of his patrons. Even so, he was careful to watch for them as they needed rest. “How is everything back there? Are we ready for a break?” Shiloh called out over his shoulder.
Karen was out of breath. Becca dropped her pack on the ground, making Marcus the first one to say anything.
“Whooo, yeah. Ha, this climb is a good workout. Don’t forget to stretch out before coming to a complete stop ladies.”
Marcus overplayed a breathless tone. The truth was he could have kept going for hours. He was hungry, but he had several protein bars in the front left pocket of his dark grey cargo pants. There was no way Marcus was going to be caught without food on this trip. He knew first-hand how a trip that was planned to take a couple of days could grow into something far longer.
“Come on, old lady, what’s the hold-up?” jested Becca at her sister’s expense. She pulled her canteen from a side pouch in her pack that was sitting on the dusty road. The sun was nearly directly overhead and was surprisingly hot on her hair. The wind felt good on her back. Becca’s shirt was soaked where her pack rested against it. “I didn’t expect it to be so hot up here. I know it’s only sixty-five, but it feels more like eighty-five.” She pulled a black ponytail holder, seemingly out of nowhere, and put her blonde, shoulder-length hair up off of her neck. “Jesus, that feels better.”
Karen stood admiring the view. She closed her eyes and imagined it was a painting. Thinking of the focal point, where she would put the horizon, the colours, the best time of day for the best shadows to bring depth to the painting. With that, she was off. Her tired legs and sore muscles didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was capturing the feeling. She pulled out her sketchbook. She had to capture the emotions, how she felt being here. Her hunger was gone. All that mattered was capturing the now.
Ten minutes disappeared. The others had already had time to catch their breath and look around for a proper place to sit and enjoy some food and relaxation. Tiny shadows danced on the ground as the less artistic members of the troop quietly ate lunch. A cool breeze moved through the valley carrying on it a crane, flying high in the mountain air.
Shiloh noticed a rustling in the woods. He was on the lookout for bears, but what he heard was much smaller. It was a fox, sitting between two pines. The old guide smiled and waved at their audience. The fox remained seated. A chill ran down his spine, “Is this really just a fox? It’s just sitting there… Watching me. Am I supposed to follow you?” he thought to himself. He stood up and the fox turned and started trotting off in suit.
No one noticed as Shiloh Carpenter walked away. Karen was focused on recording the sunbeams in the valley. The lovebirds were too involved with each other to notice anything around them. The leather-skinned man slipped into the woods without a sound. The fox kept perfect pace leading him deeper, further into the thick underbrush.
Before long, they had made it to an outcropping of rock, rising up from the forest floor. Green moss covered the base of the boulder becoming more mottled as it crept up the stone. A small, dead tree jutted out of a crack a few meters up. Below the tree, where the rock met the ground, the fox slipped beneath, into a small hole. Shiloh was certain the fox was trying to show him something. The stories of his youth warned against the fox, often a trickster. He steeled his nerves, ready, waiting… Nothing. Silence. Only the sound of something quietly munching leaves behind him which he ignored, focusing his attention to the hole at his feet.
A snapping twig pulled him from his trance-like gaze. A shadow fell over him as he slowly turned around and looked up at the silhouetted figure. Four massive antlers loomed from above, each with a dozen dagger-like points. Like a dream, the massive beast looked into Shiloh’s soul. The two-headed elk stood, fearless, in front of the once mighty Chinook warrior. His own personal harbinger of death. Shiloh was not afraid to die. He knew this was his time, but he still wanted to die fighting. He couldn’t face his ancestors any other way.
With a battle cry, he unsheathed his hunter’s knife and lunged toward the colossal quadruped. The monster reared up on two legs; its razor-sharp hooves cut into Shiloh, slicing him deep across the chest and neck. The proud, Chinook man, squirting blood, grabbed one of the biting heads and pulled it close. One of the antlers’ lethal spikes found its way under his jaw and into his throat. He was stuck, impaled by the forest spirit. With his vision growing dim, and body growing cold, he plunged his knife deep into the fiend’s chest, over and over until it finally collapsed with him still attached.
Shiloh’s enraged scream echoed through the valley. Birds resting in the pocket forest took flight in anticipation of the worst. A murder of ravens cawed, the sound of flapping wings followed closely, and then, all was deathly silent. The remaining hikers looked up and, all at once, realized he was gone. It was impossible to determine from which direction the battle cry came from. The distortion from the mountains, the sound bouncing off of every rock wall and being absorbed by the forest itself, caused it to feel like it came from everywhere and nowhere all at once.
“Oh shit, where did Mr. Carpenter go?” said Becca. “He’s dead, oh my God, he’s dead. I just know it.”
“Relax, you don’t know...” started Marcus.
“Don’t fucking tell me to relax! You always do this shit to me. You’re always being dismissive.” The stress of losing their leader and a year’s worth of not feeling heard fired from Becca’s mouth without her consent. “Damn it, Marcus, if you think he’s fine, go and fucking get him!”
Marcus thought of the man gently, swinging in the breeze. “Listen, it’s probably a bear. He probably accidentally walked into a mother and her cub. She got mad and either attacked him outright… or maybe that was just him, screaming to scare off the bear. Either way, he’s been doing this for years. Besides, he’s Native American, or… what do they say up here in Canada? First Nations? That grants him some kind of nature magic, right?” Marcus smiled. He was trying to bring some levity to the situation, but Karen was unimpressed, and Becca, seeing Karen unimpressed, was unimpressed herself.
Karen started in, “This is no time for your bigotry. It’s not funny. He needs our help, and if you’re not going to go, that means I have to.”
“You’re not going anywhere without me,” responded her little sister.
“Both of you have lost your minds. Listen to yourselves! You don’t even know which direction he’s in. That scream echoed all over the valley. Look, we should stay together, number one. Number two: he was only gone for like ten minutes at most… so we just walk in spirals, getting larger from the point of origin… right here.” He took out his collapsible shovel, tied a piece of cloth to it and jammed it in the ground directly in the centre of the path.
“There, now, no one is getting lost, and if the worst happens, if anyone comes looking for us, they will know we are close to here.” Marcus clenched his teeth and grimaced. He didn’t like the idea of losing their guide, but he knew they were only a half day’s walk away from the logger’s camp. The most important thing to do was remain calm and think rationally.
The sun had fallen behind the western mountains when the group stumbled upon the gruesome scene. Shadows were cast over the entire valley, the temperature was dropping. Unbeknownst to them, there was a wall of fog silently enveloping the valley. More out of obligation than necessity, Karen walked up to the heap of bloody death. “What in God’s name?” she whispered to herself. Shiloh, with his head entangled in the elk’s fearsome antlers, gazed lifelessly to the sky. “Help me get him off of this thing. Grab his legs...”
Only a thick trickle of dark blood ran out of his neck when they moved him. None of them knew the old Chinook man very long, but they treated his body with the utmost respect. They ended up laying him flat on his back, crossing his arms over his chest, and closing his eyes. It was quickly growing dark, and Becca was the first to take out her flashlight. She illuminated Shiloh’s mortal enemy, the two-headed stag.
Karen started the conversation, “Do we want to go back now?”
“We can’t just leave him,” chimed in Becca
“There is no him… he’s gone. That’s just his body,” said Marcus matter-of-factly.
“It doesn’t matter. What if that were me? Would you just leave me out here?” Angry tears threatened in the bottom of Becca’s eyes.
Marcus knew there was no right answer to the question. It was a trap. No matter how he answered, she would be angry at him. “Wouldn’t you want me to get Karen back to safety? You don’t want the rest of ...” his voice trailed off. He grabbed the flashlight out of Becca’s hands and pointed it at the elk. More to the point, he pointed it where the elk was just a few seconds ago. Nothing remained, just a pool of quickly drying blood and a spot bare of pine needles. Marcus swung the light from tree to tree.
“You guys are seeing this right?” shouted the frightened Marcus.
“What the hell? It was just there.”
“This can’t be happening!” Karen’s world of lists and order was quickly unravelling. Her voice quaked with the uncertainty she was feeling. Madness was setting in, and it was only going to get worse. “The deer, or whatever the hell that thing was, is gone. Now, they’re going to think we killed him. We have to hide the body. Fuck! They know who we are. They have our passport information, they know where we live. We have to carry him back. I’m sure they can tell it was a wild animal attack.”
Marcus shook his head, “Even if I wanted to I couldn’t carry him ten kilometres in the dark. We can’t go anywhere, not now.” As if on cue, a wall of dense fog, 100 meters high, overtook them like a runaway train. “Chill out, everything is going to be fine. Freaking out isn’t going to help anyone. I’ll check his pack to see if he had something useful.” The similarity to the swinging man didn’t escape him. Here, another man lay dead, and he was rummaging through his belongings. It didn’t feel right like he was violating the corpse itself. Maybe it was deeper than that, maybe that’s just what he was programmed to think by society. Maybe what he felt, was the profound violation of the man, not just the shell currently decaying in the woods. Marcus had food, matches, a flashlight, everything he needed, but there was one thing he was looking for. They were in bear country, where no experienced hiker would go without a gun for protection.
He rummaged through the rucksack: tent, cooking gear, food, change of clothes, but no gun. “He has to have one, maybe he kept it on him.” Marcus kneeled over the corpse and slowly began to run his hands along the cold, wet sides of his body. His palms were now covered with blood. There, on Shiloh’s left side, under his jacket, was a holster. With great trepidation, the young Mr. Stevens reached into the sticky orange jacket and pulled out a handgun. He had no idea how to use it. He had never even held one, but having it somehow made him feel better.
Marcus stood up and looked around. Only the beacon of their flashlights made the two women visible in the fog. The smell of death lingered in the air. A gentle breeze swept billions of tiny white particles past the light. Karen and Becca were terrified, standing in the northern wilderness, with nothing but a couple of flashlights for protection. This was not the vacation they bargained for. It became even worse when Marcus got close enough for them to see. Drenched in blood and shakily carrying a gun in his right hand, he approached them. He smiled, showing off his prize. Becca and Karen were horrified.
“Wha-What are you going to do with that?” Karen shifted her weight nervously.
“Just in case we run into something we can’t handle. I’m going to make sure we get out of this shithole.” He held up the 9mm as proof his statement was true and smiled reassuringly. “All we have to do now is set up a tent. Karen, you can sleep with us. We’ll be fine.” Marcus hastily dumped the tent out of his rucksack. He put it together in no time while Becca kept the area lit with her flashlight.
Becca’s light was pulled off of Marcus when he got the last pole in place. It wasn’t staked down yet, but it was good enough for tonight she thought. Her light swept passed Shiloh’s body. A small rusty red animal sat quietly on his chest. Patiently, silently, the fox sat… and waited. It watched Marcus frantically finish setting up the tent, and then it started. Quietly at first, a barely perceivable growl. Soon, its unearthly screaming was all they could hear. It just stood on the dead Native American and screamed like its throat was the gateway to all of the lost souls in Tartarus.
A single shot rang out in the night, and the abomination was silent. It fell over, stiff and silent. Everyone’s flashlights were focused on the dead fox. Thirty seconds passed and something started to move in its belly. Suddenly, violently, bloody tentacles of flesh burst out of it, far more flesh than the fox had. Piles of skinless muscles writhed on the pine needle covered forest floor. There was nothing left to be seen of the fox, just a hole where it once been. The sound of cracking bones joined in on the already grotesque noises.
Marcus fired wildly into the night. There was nobody to aim at. He simply sent bullet after red-hot bullet screaming into the pile of flesh that jiggled before them. Logic played no part in the action; it was a bullet that started this nightmarish outburst. It didn’t make sense that a half dozen more would make reality fall back into place. The searing lead did seem to get its attention. A nine-inch, thick bundle of muscle, fat, and blood shot out and wrapped several times around Marcus’ leg. He tried to pull away, but there was no escape. Like a boa constrictor, it squeezed, snapping every bone in his leg. Becca ran blindly into the night. Karen wanted to follow, but her mind was broken.
Marcus, like a ragdoll, was smashed against five trees in the area. He screamed and tried to protect his head against the first tree. By the time he was flung against the fourth, he was silent, and his body started coming apart. There was a huge gash in his head where his brains were exposed from being bashed against the unforgiving wood.
“This must be a dream. It has to be a dream,” Karen started muttering to herself over and over. Time started to move slowly over her, like syrup over cold pancakes. Her psyche was broken. There was only one thing to do: she picked up the gun off the ground from where Marcus dropped it. She resolved to shoot herself. If this was a terrible dream, she would wake up. If it was not a dream, she couldn’t handle it anyway and wanted no further part of living. She pressed the muzzle against her heart. The trigger squeezed under her unsteady hand. Click...nothing. Click click click. No ammo remained. It had all been wasted, without effect.
Out of options, Karen started running headfirst into the rocky outcropping that marked the fox’s hole. She hit her head and stumbled backward. She was desperate to die, but her body wouldn’t give in. She backed up dizzy and disoriented. Karen found her bearings and footing enough to give it another go. Run, run, run, run, thud! She fell to the ground. It still wasn’t enough; she hated herself for being so weak.
Karen climbed back to her feet. She was determined to finish what she had started. It was the only thing that made any sense. She found her balance once again. A bulky tentacle wrapped itself around her torso. Solid muscle squeezed her fragile body. She couldn’t breathe. The sound of her back popping was heard over the colossal forest spirit’s writhing. Karen could no longer feel her legs. They wouldn’t move; there was no sensation, just a feeling like warm water washing over her lower half.
The titan relinquished its coil dropping the once beautiful young artist on the ground. Her mind lost control; her body started calling the shots as instinct kicked in. She could not move her legs so she grasped at the pine-scented ground in futile anguish, pulling herself forward a few measly inches at a time. The primeval creature watched in amusement as she tried to escape. It allowed her to crawl for a few seconds, and when it became bored, it wrapped a coil around her leg and popped her skull against the rock, like a red water balloon, snapping her the way you would a wet towel in the locker room.
Becca, hearing her sister’s final scream, did not slow down to think of the moral implications of leaving her sister to die. She was in fight or flight mode, and she had chosen the latter. There were two obvious problems with this: the first being that Becca had no sense of direction and even the best navigators would get lost in this fog, and the second was her flashlight was starting to flicker out.
Moments passed as she ran through the woods; she stumbled over a large root but kept running deeper into the darkness. Her light faltered. She stood alone in the black. “Please please pleEEEEEase! Goddammit, I don’t have time for this shit!” She slapped the flashlight against her hand pleading with her only source of light to return. The sound of her heavy, frenzied breath was outweighed by a new sound, squelching, squishing, shifting in the darkness. The light came on briefly, just long enough to see the dead faces of her traveling companions entombed in writhing flesh. The faces wailed when the light hit them, something between anger and fear. Becca screamed in response. The light blacked out. Silent sobs were absorbed by the impenetrable gloom. A muffled cry was immediately followed by blood splatter and snapping bones. Silence, once again, dominated the night.