August 27, 2016
Collin took the shotgun like a bachelor being handed a baby, holding it awkwardly at arms’ length with a queasy smile to hide his anxiety. It was heavier than he expected, and he wondered if that came from the polished wooden stock, the long black barrel, or the fact that it could blow a hole through flesh and bone as easily as the nearby wall. The safety was on, but he wasn’t taking any chances. He kept his finger tucked into his fist, far away from the trigger. Reminding himself over and over it was just one day. One hunting trip.
Faith had told him he didn’t have to go. It had been Collin who insisted. Telling her in what they called his “work voice,” that he had analyzed the risk and thought it was best to bite the bullet and go on the hunting trip. Collin had no illusions about fitting in with Faith’s family in South Carolina. It wasn’t just his appearance, although he knew his gaged ears and intricate ink sleeves had been a shock, it was that somehow they lived in the same country but different worlds.
“You know how to use that thing, Collin?” Towns asked. Towns was Faith’s older brother and he carried his shotgun with an easy, relaxed confidence that Collin envied. Not jealous exactly. It was a feeling that had lain dormant since high school. A longing to fit into a world he had forgotten existed outside of his Brooklyn bubble, one with a completely different set values and priorities.
Collin looked down at the shotgun in his hands then back up at the three men standing beside him. “Point and shoot?”
Collin had answered honestly, but around him everyone smiled, and Towns laughed. They were all standing around a table pressed against the back wall of the garage. Towns stood just to his right, with Faith’s brother-in-law Brian in the middle, and then Faith’s father. Faith’s father had a name, but everyone just called him the General – even his wife.
“Just make sure you don’t point it at one of us,” Brian said.
They were standing in front of a wall decorated with a half dozen rifles, a few handguns, and two compound bows. The General held a third bow in his hands and he strummed the string twice with his thumbs, like a musician tuning a harp.
“Well, it’s bow season – so you won’t be shooting,” Towns explained. “You and me will carry bear shot just in case.”
Satisfied with his bow, the General slid it into a woodland camouflage case that matched his pants and jacket.
“In case of what?” Collin asked.
Hearing this, the General paused, and Brian grunted. Collin was initially surprised that Towns, not Brian, was the General’s biological son. Standing side by side, Brian and the General looked like young and old pictures of the same man. They were both short and stocky, with rock hard guts that seemed to be composed of concrete. Only where the General was completely hairless, Brian still had a thin laurel wreath of red hair circling the crown of his head.
“Clowns,” Brian said, taking another bow down from the wall, testing the string, and then sliding it into a matching case.
Collin blinked. He had only just started to catch on to the fact that most, if not everything, that came out of Brian’s mouth was a joke. Even if these jokes were delivered deadpan, without the slightest inflection. Collin thought this might be a sign that Brian was warming up to him, but he couldn’t be sure.
Towns laughed but shook his head. “Bears. But yeah, I guess if you see any clowns? You can shoot them too.”
The remark about clowns was a call back to the night before, when two uniformed officers – Collin thought they were cops, but maybe game wardens – stopped by to say they’d received strange reports of ‘clowns in the woods,’ and ask if the General had seen anything. Before Collin could even process this, the other men had burst out laughing, with Towns promising to shoot anyone “dumb enough to be clowning around on the General’s land.”
Collin didn’t want to look like he was afraid, last night or now, so he played along. “Bears and clowns, got it,” Collin said, as if the thought that there were bears in the woods didn’t bother him.
“Smart boy,” Brian said.
“We’ll make a hunter out of you yet, Collin,” Towns agreed. “You got any other questions?”
Collin didn’t have questions, but he wanted to keep them talking. He felt more comfortable when everyone was talking.
“What about those?” Collin said.
Beneath the assortment of weapons were several decoy ducks, two painted brown and one with a dark green neck, and two devices that looked like flutes, one long and black and the other short and white.
“Those are duck decoys,” Towns said. “They’re actually pretty high tech. Check this out.”
As the General and Brian checked their arrows, Towns picked up one of the brown ducks and flipped a switch on the bottom and it moved through the same three motions on a loop, starting with a shuffling of its wings, then a whirring of the paddle wheel along the bottom, before culminating in its head diving forward.
As the duck began another cycle of its rote motions, Towns spoke: “You put this in the pond near your blind. Ducks see another duck. They know it’s safe to land. And the movement distracts them from your blind.”
Towns didn’t answer questions, he explained them. Even last night, when Collin had asked Towns to pass the mashed potatoes, he had gotten the dish and a story about the recipe.
“That’s crazy,” Collin said. He wanted to pick it up for a closer inspection, but he wasn’t sure what to do with his shotgun. Should he set it down low or throw it over his shoulder like a continental soldier? The line from the children’s song, so suddenly and unexpectedly remembered after twenty years, almost made him laugh. To cover it, he nodded at the two recorders sitting nearby. “What about those?”
“That’s a duck call and a deer grunt,” Towns said. He picked up the shorter one, raised it to his lips, and blew.
Collin blinked. He knew the ‘quack’ that filled the garage came from the duck call. More than that, he had even seen Towns blow into it. Yet, even knowing it was coming, there had been a slight short circuit in his brain. A part of his brain that still believed, despite all the evidence stacked against this fact, that a duck was somewhere in the garage.
“And that one sounds like a deer?” Collin hesitated. “What does a deer even sound like?”
“Not just a deer. A doe in heat. Drives the bucks wild. Gotta be careful with that,” Brian said, picking it up and sliding it into his jacket pocket. “Around a young buck like you? Oh yeah. Gotta be careful with that.”
Towns laughed and, despite not really getting the joke, Collin laughed too. Only the General remained stoic. “You give Collin his compass?”
Collin blinked again. The only thing more surprising than the duck call was hearing the General speak. And while the General hadn’t spoken to him, he had spoken about him, which seemed like a win.
“Oh yeah, almost forgot. Collin the General got this for you,” Towns said, slapping down the many pockets on his jacket with one hand.
“I can’t really, not something else,” Collin protested.
They all wore matching uniforms of woodland camouflage jackets, pants, and boots. While other men’s gear was faded and broken in, Collin’s gear had the glossy, brand new look of something fresh off the rack. It had been an unexpected gift from the General, waiting without a word in his room when they arrived, and Collin was still wondering how he could pay the old man back. He had checked the prices online and hunting gear was not cheap.
“This is a compass. You ever use one of these?” Towns said.
Collin had always pictured compasses as fragile, silver pocket watches worn by pirates. The compass Towns handed him looked more like an old iPod encased in a heavy black plastic case.
“Oh yeah,” Collin said automatically. This was technically true. Sometimes his phone’s gps acted up and he switched to his phone’s compass, but more importantly he wanted to assure them he knew how a compass worked. “Points north.”
“Right, so, here come here.” Towns paused in his explanation to lead Collin out of the garage and down onto the big sprawling pond of concrete that composed the driveway.
Faith and her family referred to this house as “the Lodge.” Towns thought it looked more like a resort. It was two stories of red brick, with sprawling social rooms on the first floor and enough bedrooms to house the next three generations of Beauregard’s up on the second. The woods had been cleared enough to leave room for a sprawling back patio and a playground, but beyond that they circled the property like a moat.
Looking out at the woods now, Collin thought again of the inadequacies of that description. When people said “the woods,” Collin usually thought of the forested sections of Central Park. The places where people could duck around a corner and find a bench with some privacy to read or eat their lunch. These woods were different. These were massive. A thick wall of trees held together by a silvery calk of morning mist that stretched as far as the eye could see.
“We’ll be heading southeast, that way, to the deer blind,” Towns explained, chopping the air as he pointed away from the Lodge and into the trees. “If you get lost?”
“Or separated,” Towns said.
“If anything happens,” Towns said.
Collin tried laughing. Looking out at the never ending sea of trees stretching as far as the eye could see, it was easy to imagine someone getting lost out there, but harder to imagine being found. Only Towns didn’t laugh and neither did Brian or the General who stepped out to join them.
“So if that happens, you take out your compass, put on your orange vest, and head west. That road over there? The one you took on the way in? It runs north and south along our property. Once you get to the road, you just start walking north and you’ll end up back at the Lodge. You understand?”
Collin knew he wouldn’t get lost, but he also knew this scenario would haunt him on late nights when the melatonin kicked in before he could fall asleep. On those nights he would lay awake, imagining himself crawling over tree trunks, screaming for help, wandering aimlessly among the trees.
“All roads lead to the Lodge,” Brian said.
“All roads lead to the Lodge,” Towns repeated, like a mantra.
They looked and Collin expectantly, so, unsure of what else he could say, he repeated: “All roads lead to the Lodge.”
The General grunted and spit once onto the ground.
“Enough,” he said. “Let’s hunt.”
* * *
For the first leg of the journey, Collin wondered if he had found a new passion. Not hunting, but being out in nature. It wasn’t just not having a single building in sight. Collin could get that by going upstate, albeit with the distant rumble of traffic in the background. Seeing the woods stretch on forever in all directions reminded Collin of a meme people sometimes shared, equating the earth’s place in the cosmos to that of a pale blue dot. He could already imagine telling his friends about how empowering it had been to see, to truly see, for the first time, how minuscule man was in the face of nature.
Slowly, this awe faded as the pockets of mud and fallen leaves molded around his boots, making them heavier and heavier with each step. While the fresh air was at first invigorating, clean as it was of pollution, it also seemed to be full of water. As the sun rose, the air boiled, and soon Collin was drawing ragged breaths and dripping sweat.
Collin tried to distract himself from the mounting burning in his thighs and chest by imagining the story he would tell his friends about the hunting trip. It worked for a time, but eventually his mind drifted to what could go wrong. In his job (his day job, his friends would correct him, his real job was writing) they called this issue-spotting. As a risk management consultant, it was Collin’s job to look for potential risks and how to mitigate them. At least, that was how it worked when the client came to them early. More often, the client came to them after something had gone wrong. In those cases, it was Collin’s job to weigh the pros and cons of several bad choices. Collin’s boss liked to say, sometimes the job was about getting the client to realize that it was too late to dodge the iceberg before they went down with the ship.
He found it easy to issue-spot what could go wrong out here so far from civilization. Listening to the steady trot of the men’s footsteps, Collin thought of ankles snapping like twigs. Hearing a tree limb, knocked loose by scampering animals, tumble through the branches, Collin imagined a tree falling from above. Feeling the weight of his gun on his shoulder, Collin could only shake his head. The things that could go wrong with a gun were too unimaginable.
Collin’s mind was so full of horrific images of gut shots and missing fingers he walked three steps past the others before realizing they had stopped.
Blinking, Collin looked around. They had come far enough that he could no longer tell which direction the house lay in. All around him the trees stood together and then apart with no discernible pattern, like coworkers from different teams at a company wide mixer, leaving in between them pools and ponds of grassy meadows.
“What the hell do you think did it?” Brian asked.
Collin turned his attention back to the group and stepped closer to get a look. Stretched out on the ground were the bodies of several animals, arranged in ascending order of height. Starting with a trio of squirrels on the left and ending with a small fox on the right, with several raccoons filling out the middle.
Leaning forward, Brian prodded the body of one raccoon with the butt of his gun. When it didn’t move, he picked it up with a gloved hand for closer inspection. He turned it around, pausing when he came to a stump on the right arm. The right claw had been completely removed.
Dropping the raccoon, Brian reached for the fox. Turning it in his hands again until he came to the missing right paw.
“Why’d they take the paws?” Brian said, grumbling under his breath.
The General shook his head. He eyed the trees around him and, without thinking, Collin took a step back and away from his line of sight.
Brian squeezed the body of the fox in his hands, moving his fingers tenderly until they found a hole the size of a quarter.
“Someone bow hunting?” Towns suggested.
Brian stuck his finger through the hole and wiggled it around. Whatever had made the hole had sealed up the surrounding sides, because Brian’s hand remained unstained.
“Never seen an arrow that could do that,” Brian said.
“Poachers,” the General said, and Collin could feel the anger radiating off the man in waves. He silently hoped that the poachers were long gone. He didn’t want to be here when the General found them and he certainly didn’t want to be a part of whatever would happen next.
“Whoever it was, they’re long gone, right? We all agree on that, right?” Towns said, stepping closer to the General and bringing his attention back around. “Look, I’ll take a picture of it, okay?” He bit off the glove of his right hand with his teeth and took out his phone. “We’ll report it when we get back to the cabin and we have wi-fi. But no need to let it ruin today. Right?”
Collin thought this was an excellent plan, but Brian looked at the General like a soldier awaiting orders. Collin knew in that moment that if the General had commanded Brian to hunt down these poachers, he would have done so without a second thought.
Fortunately, the General only shook his head with disgust before nodding.
Looking back, Collin caught one more glance at the carcasses. Collin found he yearned for last night, when the scariest thing hiding in the woods was clowns. Now that he had bears and poachers to worry about, clowns seemed charming.
Whatever excitement and luster of being somewhere new that had carried Collin for most of the first leg of the journey was long gone for the next leg. The fresh air, so novel only a day before, now barely registered. He didn’t just count each step; he felt each step. From the strain of ripping his muddy boot up and out of the foliage, to the flash of pain that shot through the arch of his foot every time set it down, all while his lungs screamed for air. He had thought he walked a lot in the city. His average step count was well over ten thousand, and there were days he walked fifteen, or even twenty thousand, steps. But those walks were on well-paved sidewalks and punctuated with breaks. This was just walking. Without a path. Without a clear goal in sight. Without any indication, it would ever end – until it did.
“Here we are, Collin,” Towns said. He hadn’t spoken since they stopped earlier, but he sounded fresh and strong. As if they had finished a short stroll through the yard instead of an epic trek through the elements.
“Here?” was all Collin could manage. He sagged against a nearby tree, exhausted but still careful to point his gun away into the woods.
“This is the deer blind,” Towns explained. “Can you see it?”
Collin looked around. They were at the tip of an oval shaped clearing the size of a large pond. At the opposite end of the oval sat a tiny wooden altar, which Brian and the General were already approaching. As Collin watched, the General pulled a white block out of his jacket and placed it on the altar.
“That there’s the salt lick,” Towns said. His voice dropped to a low whisper, although Collin wasn’t sure if this was because he thought deer might be nearby or if because the clearing invoked a sense of reverence. “What’s going to happen is the deer will smell the salt and walk right up to it, giving us a clear shot at them.”
Collin took a deep breath. Now that they had stopped, he could feel the burning in his ribs and upper gut beginning to recede. He took another deep breath, but slower this time. By the time he had caught his breath, Brian was already walking back to join them.
“So what happens now?” Collin said. “Do we like, hide? In the trees or something?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Pick you out a tree and start climbing, Collin” Brian said, then without missing a beat he looked at Towns. “You tell him about the traps?”
Towns shook his head, “that’s right. So you see those orange flags?”
Collin hadn’t seen the orange flags but, instructed to look now, he saw a small little orange piece of plastic tied to a bush. The bush was only a few steps away and Collin stepped back involuntarily.
“There’s one,” Towns said, but unlike Collin, he stepped towards it, waving for him to follow.
Collin did so, reluctantly, watching as Towns pulled apart the branches to reveal the metal teeth of a bear trap spread wide on the ground.
“You see it, right? Be careful you don’t step on one,” Brian said, as if Collin needed to be told. “We keep them all around the blind to make sure nothing sneaks up on us.”
“The blind?” Collin asked.
Towns pointed at a small clump of trees near their side of the clearing. Only on closer inspection, Collin saw it wasn’t a small clump of trees, but a small tree house, elevated a step above the ground and painted to match the foliage. The longer he looked at it, the more obvious it became. To the point where he wondered how he could have missed the long rectangular window cutting through the middle and the set of two steps.
“I didn’t even see it,” Collin admitted.
Towns grinned, “And neither will the deer.”
* * *
The excitement of finding the deer blind soon gave way to the monotony of actual hunting, which turned out to be mostly waiting. Sitting along a little bench placed at the back of the blind, they sat and they stared. Through the same window. At the same salt lick. Waiting for something – anything – to happen.
Eventually, Collin shifted in his seat and reached for his cell phone. Or almost reached for it. He was saved from having to noticeably hesitate because his phone was buried deep within the folds of his jacket, secure beneath a zipper and a velcro patch. Still knowing that he shouldn’t reach for his phone, and even knowing that his phone would likely be a useless brick this far out in the woods, didn’t make him want his phone any less.
He knew he should try to appreciate this moment in nature. There were so many times he had found his cursor drifting at work to articles about entrepreneurs and tech gurus, guys barely out of college worth billions, who talked about the healing power of being cut off from the distractions of city life. Sitting in his cubicle, Collin had always imagined that being cut off from technology would cleanse in the way an ice bath might cleanse, a sudden shock to the system with instant results. He had never imagined it would be like this, sitting in a room that smelled more and more like sweat and mud, feeling his phone like an itch he couldn’t scratch in one of his pockets.
Still staring out the window, Collin wondered how much time had passed. He hoped it had been at least an hour, but without his phone to check, he had no way to tell. For all he knew it could have been only fifteen minutes, maybe even only a few seconds.
The question branded itself on Collin’s brain. He leaned forward to see if he could get a good look at the sun. To see if it were at least in the middle of the sky, but all he could see were the trees and a patch of blue that could have meant morning as easily as afternoon. He counted slowly to sixty repeatedly, trying not to think about what would happen if he needed to use the restroom, then cursing himself for planting the seed. A seed that took root in his bladder, expanding and inflating like a balloon until he sweat. He tried to look around the room for a distraction, wondering if there was some sort of pre-planned bathroom break up ahead. If there were some milestone up ahead, he might hold out, like waiting for a bathroom during a road trip.
He was about to break the silence and ask when the General sat up. Brian and Towns did the same, leaning forward. Following their lead, Collin crept an inch closer to the window and peered out. At the opposite end of the clearing, a pair of antlers, followed by the head and torso of a ten-point buck, stepped gingerly out of the trees.
Collin had imagined what it would look like to see a deer step out of the trees. In his mind, it was Disney animated technicolor, with a majestic buck emerging from the shadows, with the mist swirling around the its hooves, like lords and ladies at a court bowing and curtsying before their regal majesty.
This buck looked like it had seen better days. Instead of a majestic, glossy coat, it was shaggy, with gray and red patches. Its eyes were wide and stared straight ahead without blinking. In fact, aside from the antlers and torso, which were massive, there was nothing impressive about this animal. Even its elongated torso, supported by four legs as thin as twigs, was laughable.
“That’s a deer?” Collin said.
Brian held up a finger to his lips, fishing the deer grunt out of his pocket and raising it to his lips. He looked out the window, waiting for something, then raised the grunt to his lips. Blowing on it released a sound halfway between a grunt and a burp, punctuated by a rattling of ribs. It was a sound so inhuman that Collin jumped, but no one seemed to notice. Instead, all eyes were on the deer as Brian raised the deer grunt to his lips and blew again.
Watching the deer, something stirred in Collin as the animal took a step closer. He could imagine the buck as a trophy on the wall back at the lodge, its chest puffed out and head held high beneath the thorny crown of the antlers, but he was also painfully aware of how oblivious the animal was to its fate. The way it twitched its ears, wriggled its nose, and bent down to sniff at the grass, were all the very picture of unsuspecting prey.
Towns shot Collin a look, one that made him wonder if he was still being too loud. His breathing, or perhaps his heart beat were making noise. Thinking it was his own heartbeat, Collin’s heart raced. He had never thought a heart could beat so loud other people could hear it, but maybe out here in the country, it was a thing. A thing Collin had never learned to control. A thing which would now scare off the buck and ruin the entire hunting trip.
The General’s bow twanged once and the arrow shot through the air with blinding speed. Outside, the deer shuddered, stumbling back as the arrow struck it just above one of its haunches. The deer stumbled once or twice in a loop, as if finding its footing, then retreated into the woods.
Immediately, the blind erupted in silent cheers. Brian held his fists up with excitement while Towns pantomimed an excited yell. Even the General smiled.
Only Collin found he couldn’t muster the excitement. He couldn’t tell if he was disappointed in his own species for using such dumb tricks, or if he was disappointed in the deer for falling for them. It just all felt so anticlimactic.
Seeing the General and Brian moving for the exit, Collin rose off the bench. His legs creaked after sitting so long and had to reach out a hand to steady himself.
“Now we gotta go track it,” Towns said.
Towns nodded, but didn’t explain further. He just followed Brian and the General outside. Collin didn’t linger alone in the deer blind long. Leaving his gun resting against the bench, he crouched down and walked out into the sunlight.
“Careful,” Towns said, reaching out and gripping Collin’s shoulder. “The traps.”
Collin nodded, thankful. Realizing he had forgotten about the traps. “Shit. Thanks. Hey, is there a place I can pee around here?”
Up ahead, Brian and the General were looking at the salt lick, bows in hand.
“Y’all coming?” Brian shouted back.
“Be right there,” Towns said. “Collin needs to see a man about a horse.”
* * *
Collin found it difficult to express how much better he felt after using the restroom. Not just physically, although there was that, but also mentally. He hadn’t realized the heavy mental toll of not just needing to urinate, but not knowing when he could relieve himself, had taken on him.
His new-found elation when he came bounding back into the clearing was sharply at odds with the mood of the others, who ranged from frustrated to confused. In the time Collin had been gone, the General had noticed the deer standing just inside the trees and got him with another arrow.
“I got him twice,” the General said. “I got him twice. He should not be doing that.”
What the General described as that was the deer standing a hundred paces behind the salt lick. Still facing them. Still running through its rote pattern of movements, starting with the twitching of its ears, then the wriggling of its nose, before dipping its head to sniff the grass and complete the pattern. Only now two arrows protruded from its chest and hind leg.
“I’m of a mind to shoot it again,” Brian said.
“He’s mine,” the General replied, shaking his head.
Together they watched the deer complete the cycle of movements one more time, then without a word, they began moving deeper into the woods. When they were within fifty paces, the deer looked up and bounded another thirty feet deeper into the woods before stopping. Soon, a new pattern emerged. One where they would draw within twenty paces of the deer, at which point it would freeze, raise its head a little higher, then bound quickly away from them before stopping.
“That deer’s not normal,” Brian agreed at last, wiping sweat from his brow. “See if you can get him again.”
The General raised his bow and let loose another arrow. Again, the blinding speed of the arrow impressed Collin, but this one flew wide of its mark and landed in a tree nearby.
“Damn,” the General grunted, but he didn’t string another arrow.
“No blood neither,” Brian added, crouching down to examine some branches the deer had tramped through ahead of them.
Collin had nothing to add. He could only follow quietly as they drew close a second and then a third time, with the same results. Finally, after the fourth time they got close to it, the deer bound out into a wide clearing in the middle of the woods. This clearing was like the clearing with the blind, only the outer edge was ringed by a cliff that dropped off into a trench before a perfectly blue sky. And instead of a deer blind and a salt lick altar, there were the remains of a campground.
Not the remains, Collin corrected, an active camp ground. There was a green tent, a small crackling fire, and even a red blanket with a picnic basket sitting out.
“What the hell?” the General snapped, and without waiting for the others he stomped into the clearing, shouting.
“Ah shit,” Brian managed, before taking off after the older man.
Collin swallowed, still processing the fact that the deer had led them to a campground in the middle of the woods. While the General stormed towards the tent, shouting a torrent of curse words and shaking his fist, Collin looked over at the deer. It stood near the edge of the edge of the trench, the arrows still protruding from its chest and hind-legs. As he watched, the deer twitch its ears, wrinkle its nose, and sniff at the ground. From behind the deer, a bright red bird took off out of the trench and fluttered into the distance.
The General had reached the picnic basket and kicked it over with a snarl. “You got three seconds to come out of there!”
Collin kept his eyes on the deer, unable to look away. Something about the way it twitched its ears, then wriggled its nose, before pawing at the earth.
Then Collin saw it. A bright red bird, he could have sworn it was the same red bird, took off from the same spot in the trench before vanishing into the horizon.
A pattern, Collin thought. A loop.
“One,” the General shouted from the campground.
“Wait,” Collin said, or started to say. Unsure how to articulate his sudden, overwhelming feeling that the world around them was moving in patterns only he could see. He settled for: “There’s something wrong.”
Only there was no one around to hear him. Towns had joined the others in the clearing, walking cautiously towards Brian and the General as they posted up at the entrance to the tent.
“Two,” the General shouted.
Collin’s confusion about the deer and the bird abruptly turned to a very real fear for whoever was hiding in the tent.
“Three!” The General shouted.
Nothing happened. No sign of movement, save the deer pawing at the ground before the bright red bird took flight.
The General nodded, and with a jerk of his arm, Brian yanked open the tent flaps. Or bent to open the tent flaps, only to come away confused.
“There’s no zipper, sir,” Brian said, his face scrunched up in confusion.
Then all hell broke loose. The scene before Collin changed from one of an idyllic camping site to a blood bath so fast, and with so little warning, his mind short-circuited. It was like he was watching a video on his phone while passing through a tunnel. The feedback coming through glitchy in fits and starts. The skyline flickered as a loud whirring filled the air and a second later the General reeled back, a rainbow colored cork screw sticking through his chest and into the ground behind him.
The skyline flickered again, and Collin thought he caught sight of two shapes standing just beyond the ravine. Shapes that had the general outline of a man, but were bulkier and far too tall.
A whirring sound filled the air as Brian leaped to the side, narrowly avoiding a corkscrew, which thunked into the ground an inch away from his foot. Brian swore loudly as the sky flickered twice more, turning to run only for a corkscrew to catch him through the leg while another one caught him in the chest, causing him to twitch violently before he was torn in half, his insides bursting apart like a piñata.
“Jesus Christ,” Towns screamed. He jerked his shotgun up, pointing it to the left and then the right, before aiming it up at the horizon and pulling the trigger.
Whatever came out of his shotgun struck the horizon like a firework, leaving the air to shimmer and twinkle in its wake. Pumping the shotgun, Towns advanced and fired again at the same spot. Now a sizable chunk of the air hissed and fizzled, flashing gray and black like a television set without service.
Towns broke open his shotgun in the middle, dropping to one knee and reaching for more shells, when the horizon gave a loud pop and abruptly went out. The calming blue skyline was replaced by a clearing of fallen trees, many of which were burned and black. Standing just beyond the fallen skyline were two figures, while a third sat on an inflated rectangle nearby.
At least it looked inflated, Collin thought. It looked like some sort of kids’ bounce house, set up for a birthday. It was garishly painted in bright, primary colors of red, yellow, and blue, matching the billowing outfits worn by the figures.
Not figures, Collin thought. Clowns. He couldn’t think how else to describe them, as he looked up the billowing folds of their clothing to their massive, porcelain white heads. They each wore matching, toothy grins, frozen in place beneath massive, unblinking eyes the size of dinner plates. Only their hair was different, with the two standing sporting tufts of blue and red, while the one sitting, whittling away at something, sported a single mohawk of green.
Whittling. Collin’s mind stumbled on the word. Because the seated clown wasn’t whittling. In his hands, which ended in dripping black claws instead of fingers, the clown was putting the final polish on a bony right claw. The claw of a black bear which Collin now saw lay slumped over the clown’s bent legs.
Collin felt the bile in his stomach surge up and, without another word, he turned away and retched into the foliage. His muscles constricted around his stomach, ringing it out like a sponge, and he threw up again.
When he looked up, wiping the spittle and bile from his lips with a gloved hand, he saw Towns raise up with his loaded shotgun and fire again.
One clown raised an arm, as if to shield its face, then they both returned fire. Towns, an all-star athlete with trophies from every sport still hanging proudly back at the Lodge, leaped back, light on his feet. He narrowly avoided three more of the deadly corkscrews and, for a moment, Collin thought he might make it. Then a corkscrew clipped him in the side, and another one caught him in the thigh.
Towns had only time to scream once before the air filled with the whirring of corkscrews. In the blink of an eye, Towns fell silent. He stumbled once, swaying like a human pincushion, before falling to his knees.
Seeing Towns fall, Collin’s nerve snapped. Without waiting to see what the clowns did next, he turned and ran. His thighs and calves, already pushed past their normal limits, screamed in protest, but instead of slowing down, Collin ran faster. A fire kindled, then burst into full bloom in his lungs as he struggled to suck in air, but still he pushed forward. Running until a long bony hand grabbed his foot, and he toppled over face first, his mouth cracking against an upturned rock with a crunch that sent pieces of his teeth flying back into his throat like pebbles. Panicked, Collin looked back, expecting to see the outstretched claw of a clown, only to see an exposed tree root.
Collin allowed himself one shaky breath, then he yanked his foot free and stood up. His ankle felt tender, and when he squeezed it to see if it was broken, it sent a spiderweb of pain up through his leg. Even if it wasn’t broken, it was the sort of injury that would have normally kept him in bed for a week, but for now he had no choice but to limp forward, wincing through the first few steps until he remembered what was behind him and he ran again, pain be damned.
He kept running, sucking wind and blood into his lungs with each step, until he finally stumbled to a stop and sagged against a tree. He knew he couldn’t keep running aimlessly. The woods were big. The thought had crossed his mind this morning, when he thought about how it would be easy to get lost and but impossible to be found. Right after Towns gave him the compass. The compass.
Collin shivered with relief, yanking off his glove and tossing it aside. He dug into his pocket, scrambling for the small circular object, only to yank it out with such force that it flew free of his hands, tumbling down into the grass and rolling to the stop at the foot of a tiny wooden altar.
“Damn it,” Collin screamed, although the words came out half garbled and coated in blood. He had cleared half the distance to the fallen compass before he realized his luck. The wooden altar. The salt lick.
Collin felt a sudden release of emotion, like someone had flipped a switch in his heart, as a brief torrent of tears streamed down his chest.
He had found the salt lick. Which meant he had found the deer blind. He might not find his way home, but surely, when they came searching, this was the first place they would look.
Collin scooped up the compass and ran through the clearing towards the deer blind. He found now that he welcomed the pain in his injured foot. The pain in his foot was logical. People fell and twisted their ankles all the time. That made sense. What didn’t make sense was whatever he had just seen. What had just happened.
And yet, the more distance Collin put between himself and the scene, the harder he fought to convince himself there was an explanation. If he gave in and admitted to what he had seen, the fear would swallow him whole. So instead, he let the rational part of his brain offer explanations. Like, it was all some sort of prank, or maybe an accident. The creatures had been people in costumes. Or maybe scarecrows. Maybe they had stumbled onto some crew shooting a big-budget movie. Or, even more likely, a crew setting up some sort of haunted house. It was August, but October would be here sooner than anyone expected.
Another part of Collin’s mind shot each of these explanations down, but it kept him distracted until he reached the deer blind. Slowing his pace to make sure he didn’t accidentally step on one of the spring-loaded bear traps, Collin picked his way to the entrance and collapsed through the door.
Once inside, Collin felt whatever fear and adrenaline had carried him this far slip away. He had forgotten, or at least been able to ignore, the pain in his ankle and mouth as he scrambled for survival, but now that he felt safe again, the pain came roaring back. He hobbled to the back bench and sank down with a sigh of relief. Looking around to take in his surrounding, Collin couldn’t believe his luck. There was plenty of water, a little jerky, and, with his previously forgotten shotgun, protection.
The sight of the shotgun he had been so afraid of this morning brought another burst of tears to his eyes. Still, he couldn’t rest yet. He shut and locked the door, lowered the blinds to block the window, and crawled into the corner opposite the door, holding the shotgun.
He took a painful swig out of one of the water bottles when he heard a grunt from outside and froze.
Something was outside. Something big, stomping through the clearing. A strange sound filled the air, like the popping of bubble wrap punctuated by several loud coughs.
Collin clenched his eyes shut and prayed. He prayed to a God he had proudly proclaimed not to believe in since the ninth grade, while making promises to be a better person. To do whatever it took to survive tonight.
When at last he opened his eyes, it was quiet. Slowly, the sounds of the woods crept back. Leaving Collin, panting with exhaustion, to fall asleep still clutching the shotgun in his hands.
* * *
Collin awoke with a start. The sun had fallen outside, and it took Collin’s eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. Opening the blinds a crack, he saw, with some confusion, there was some source of light outside. Like someone had strung Christmas lights along the clearing.
Before Collin could work this out, he heard a familiar sound. A human sound. A woman’s voice, loud and crisp.
“Hello? Are you there?” the woman said from outside. “Hello? Where are you?”
Collin lurched to his feet, forgetting where he was for a second and banging his head against the ceiling. Wincing and seeing stars, Collin rubbed at the spot for a second, then lurched forward and shoved the blinds aside completely. He scanned back and forth in the clearing, from one edge to the other, but the clearing was empty.
“Hello? Are you there?” This time, the woman’s voice sounded fainter.
Panicking, Collin remembered how well hidden the deer blind was, and how easy it would be for a search party to walk right past him without realizing it. He tried to call out, but he couldn’t get more than a low moan out of his swollen mouth.
Turning, Collin limped across the deer blind to the door and jerked it open, tumbling outside before he could catch himself. Pushing up off the grass, Collin looked around. He couldn’t see the lights, but most of the clearing and the surrounding tree line were well lit.
“Hello? Where are you?” the woman’s voice said again.
Unable to shout, Collin rolled over and thumped the side of the deer blind with the butt of his gun twice before pushing up to his feet. He felt a surge of annoyance that the woman hadn’t combed the well-lit area. He couldn’t see the purpose of a search party that didn’t actually search the surroundings. Stumbling into the clearing, careful to avoid one of the hanging orange ribbons that indicated a bear trap, Collin managed a low moan.
He hobbled into the clearing as he heard the woman’s voice again, this time from beyond the salt lick.
“Hello?” she called again. “Are you there?”
Collin moaned in response, squinting into the trees while his eyes adjusted to the soft lighting of his surroundings. Finally, he saw her. A woman, standing in the shadows just past the clearing. She wore a simple dress, really just a piece of yellow cloth bound around her waist by a matching yellow sash.
Seeing her, Collin started to wave and moan louder, but the woman didn’t return his wave, nor did she run out to join him. She remained just beyond the light, her head and shoulders drooped, her feet dangling a few inches above the ground, like a coat hanging from an invisible rack.
Collin saw all of this before he processed it, and by then, the shadows behind the girl were swirling into shape. Stepping out into the darkness and into the clearing, holding the human doll before it like a shield, stepped the clown with the green mohawk.
The clown cocked its head to one side and held the doll up again, shaking its wrist so that the woman’s voice again filled the clearing. “Hello? Are you there?”
Collin froze. With nothing else to do, he stared at the grotesque caricature of a clown. Standing this close, there was no mistaking the creature for some kind of scarecrow. He let his eyes rise slowly, starting with the legs, thick as tree trunks and wrapped in yellow and red, up past the silver belt around the waist, where two bony human hands dangled freely, and finally up to the face.
At first, Collin didn’t know what he was looking at. They were the features of a human, but twisted and grotesque, with a nose stretched out far too long and ears that were misshapen and uneven. As the clown cocked its head again, Collin realized the features weren’t moving. They were frozen in place, projecting the same toothy grin from every angle, like a picture that seems to always follow the audience with its gaze.
A projection, Collin thought. Like a mask. A high tech, human mask made to fool humans by something that wasn’t human.
The clown started forward, easily covering the distance between them in two steps. Its approach triggered something in Collin’s chest. A fight or flight reaction when there was no where else to flee. He jerked his shotgun up, thumbed the safety off, braced it against his shoulder, and pulled the trigger.
Collin didn’t see what happened next. He felt like a mule had kicked him in the chest. The recoil sent him stumbling backwards, off balance, the gun flying from his hands. Collin flailed his arms wildly, grasping for branches and clawing in vain at an orange flag, only to feel it give way in his hands as he crashed to the ground. He landed hard on his shoulder, inches away from the metal teeth of one trap.
Collin winced, heard the leaves crunch, and spun back around. Through beginner’s luck, good karma, or some hidden talent, Collin scored a perfect shot on the creature, punching a hole in its chest just above the heart.
Or where a human heart would be, Collin thought. He watched as a tangled knot of writhing tentacles shot up and out of the broken hole, clawing at the air before crystalizing and freezing in place. So that they stuck out like a bush that had taken root on the creature’s chest.
Collin saw two more shapes, both the same size as the clown, move out of the shadows and into the clearing. The sound of popping bubble wrap filled the air, as one creature ducked its own masked face close to the hole, then in unison, they turned back to face Collin.
Images and memories, some imagined and others still fresh, flashed through his mind. He thought of the row of animals, each missing their right paw, from the squirrels up to the brown bear.
Collin looked down at the trap by his side.
He wondered how many times he had performed a risk analysis for a client over the years. How many times he had gathered facts, done his research, and finally laid the inevitable truth out on the table before the client: that it was too late to avoid the risk and the only thing left to do was to mitigate the damage. “It’s too late to dodge the iceberg – but not too late for lifeboats.” He could hear himself saying, but it sounded different now the iceberg was bearing down on him. Now he was the one scrambling for the lifeboats.
Collin reached out, closed his eyes, and wrapped both hands around the cold steel teeth of the trap. He had imagined the second before the strap closed would stretch on for an eternity, but he was wrong. The trap gave a single metal click then snapped shut; the teeth clamping down and punching through the skin, muscle, and finally the bones of his hands.
Collin opened his mouth and screamed. He screamed until his throat burned and his mouth went dry, and he fell back like a deflated balloon. He caught only a glimpse of his mangled hands, but it was enough to see they were bent and broken beyond recognition. Hot tears burned his eyes, streaming down his cheeks, and he didn’t look until he heard the crunch of leaves to his side.
All three creatures stood over him now, staring down at him with their strange human masks that flickered to maintain their shape despite the way they turned their heads. Looking up at them through tears, Collin found it easier to believe they were human. Or even clowns. As if he had stumbled into some strange circus in the woods. An idea that normally would have been horrifying, but today, on the worst day of his life, seemed oddly comforting. He wished he could believe it fully. He wished he could look past the swirling skin of tentacles and focus on the faces.
Up close, the creatures gave off a pungent, mildewy smell that made the air moist and difficult to breathe, so each breath Collin took was shallower than the last, as if he were snorkeling on vacation, and someone was slowly squeezing the breathing tube shut. The closest creature lifted him up. The hands that protruded like hay from their arms were pliable, wrapping gently around his body while the tentacles of the creature’s other hand probed and prodded him.
Collin wanted to cry and laugh and scream all at once. He wasn’t the hunter. He didn’t deserve to end up a trophy on some alien wall. If only they could see he was damaged goods. That he was useless to them.
Then, as if to grant his wish, Collin was lowered back to the ground. The creature gave the trap a tiny pat and dropped him.
A sound escaped Collin’s mouth. Something between a sob and laugh.
Above him, the lead creature made the sound like bubble wrap popping, while one other grunted and shook the woman doll hanging on its arm again.
“Hello?” the woman’s voice said from the doll. “Are you there?”
The lead creature shook for a moment. The sound of bubble wrap popping came from beneath its mask. It batted the other creature affectionately on the shoulder, then waved for the other two to follow. Then, just like that, the creatures left. Leaving Collin to stare up at the woods and beyond that the sky, gasping for one more shaky breath.
At last, with some effort, he released the jaws of the trap and pulled his hands free.
He was no doctor, but he doubted even the best surgeon could repair either of his hands, or reattach the two fingers that had caught the worst of it and were now bent at odd angles from his palm. He would never type again, and certainly never hold a gun again for the rest of his life.
Collin rocked back and forth. A chuckle tickled its way up from his stomach, across his neck, and out of his mouth. This was followed by another and then another, until the trickle became a stream of laughter, pouring out and echoing through the woods.
He thought about what he would tell them when they found him. They would want to know what happened. They would want to know what, or who, had done this.
And all he would be able to say, is the clowns in the woods.
Inspired by True Events
“Reports of Creepy Clowns in Woods Spooking Residents of Greenville, S.C.” – NBC News, August 31, 2016
“Reports of Clowns Trying to Lure Residents Into Woods in South Carolina Prompt Investigation” – ABC News, August 30, 2016
“Clown Sightings in South Carolina: Creepy Details Released” – CBS News, August 31, 2016
This story previously appeared in Black Sheep: Unique Tales of Terror and Wonder No. 1: July 2023
Edited by Mitchelle Lumumba.
Harold Hoss the penname of Blake Hoss. He is a graduate of USC Law with a passion for horror films. He most recently worked as a producer on the feature films Creep Box and The Unheard. The Unheard is streaming now on Shudder.