I had stopped off at a diner. I wasn’t planning to get involved in anything, but as I nursed my coffee and watched the remnants of my cigarette smolder into ash on my table’s tray, I couldn’t help but notice a hush that fell over the place as the little bell over the door jingled. I casually glanced over to see a member of the San Diego County Sheriff walking in. He scanned the area until his eyes fell on a couple alone in a booth. The woman’s eyes were red and swollen, while her partner’s were narrow and angry, staring above his beard at the officer.
The officer approached them and removed his hat. He seemed unsure whether to sit or remain standing. I couldn’t make out what he said, but I didn’t need to. The bearded man stood up suddenly, getting in the officer’s face, causing more than one patron to flinch as he yelled, “You’re a joke. This whole thing is a joke. It’s not like Pete was the first, and we all know he won’t be the last. If I want an ‘I’m sorry,’ I have my friends and family–while they’re still here, at least. So don’t come to me with apologies while this whole community vanishes in front of your face. Just do your fucking job!”
The officer didn’t say anything else; he just took a step back before turning and walking back outside. Everyone else seemed to turn away as one and focus intently on their plates as the man sank back down into his booth and shakily grasped his partner’s hand. My interest was piqued, but I didn’t exactly have a way into the situation.
Gradually, the conversations returned to their normal cadence as the couple was left in their own world that apparently was now devoid of Pete, who I presume to be their son. The table next to my own spoke in low tones, filling in the pieces for me.
“He’s right to be so upset. I don’t know that I’d have the courage to speak up like that, but someone needed to say it. Too many people have been going missing in the woods, and nothing is being done about it.”
So it was something in the woods. I finished my coffee, left cash on the table, and stepped outside, slowly withdrawing a pack of Marlboros from my jacket pocket. There was a crisp chill in the air, unusually cold for October. The town–if one could call it that–wasn’t big; I’d wager it wasn’t incorporated. Just a small community in the shadow of Palomar Mountain. The woods weren’t as thick as I would have expected for it to be an area people go missing in with above average frequency.
I smacked the pack of smokes while searching for an area that might be of interest along the tree line. That’s when I saw a couple of teenagers walking in a way that was clearly trying not to arouse suspicion while having the exact opposite effect. I tilted my head away but kept them in sight, fidgeting with an unlit cigarette. From this distance, they likely wouldn’t be able to tell I was still staring at them. After another minute, they ducked behind a tree and I watched them head deeper into the woods.
I put away the cigarette and took off after them. I reached the treeline and could just barely make them out through the brush and tree trunks. They were still looking around and I had to constantly weave in and out of trees to avoid detection by the two teens–who I could now see were young women. Finally, we made it to a particularly rocky section where they sat down atop a boulder. One grasped the hand of the other and they wordlessly kissed. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be as interesting an expedition as I’d hoped. I hunkered low to the ground and listened as a conversation began.
“I can’t stay here anymore, Hannah. This town… people like us don’t belong.”
The other girl seemed hesitant. “Tracy… I don’t know if I can leave everything.”
“What’s there to stay for?” Tracy asked. “Your parents would disown you if they knew you at all. Pete was the only one who knew about us, and even he’s gone now.”
“He… he could come back,” Hannah said.
Tracy shook her head. “After everything that’s been happening over the past five years or however the hell long this has been going on, you know that’s not true. If we don’t leave tonight, we may never leave. One day you’ll just vanish like the others. Then I’ll be alone.”
“Don’t say that,” Hannah said as she squeezed Tracy’s hand. I would normally shake my head at the impetuousness of young love, but in this case Tracy may have had a point.
“You know it’s true,” Tracy said. “We have to leave. Tonight.”
“I-” Hannah started.
“Don’t think. Just say yes. Meet me here tonight. At eleven o’clock. Not a minute later.”
A smile tugged at Hannah’s mouth. “Yes,” she said.
They started kissing some more when I heard a rustling in a bush way off to the left. Was there another peeping tom? Perhaps the elusive Pete? Or something more sinister? They heard it too and stood up quickly before running away. I ducked down behind a rock as they passed. I think they were too busy trying to get out of there to notice me.
Twigs snapped under the weight of… something. I waited silently for whatever it was to reveal itself. I checked my watch after my leg started cramping. It had been more than fifteen minutes with no movement. Whatever it was had likely gone. But why didn’t I hear it?
I slowly stood, scanning the area for signs of something else nearby. Plenty of trees, bushes, and rocks. Nothing else that I could make out. I looked at my watch again. I had some time to kill before they came back. But when they did, I planned to be here. Not to stop them, of course. I’m sure I’d aim to leave as well, were I in their shoes. But anytime someone went into those woods, I wanted to know what happened to them.
I stretched my legs, then headed in the direction of the sound I’d heard. With any luck, there’d be tracks. I’d heard twigs break, so there’d definitely be evidence of something there. As I approached, my hopes dropped. The bush that was likely the source of the sound grew out of a crack between stones. No spot for footprints. Whatever had been here chose its path well if it didn’t want to be tracked. Luck was not on my side.
I made my way back out. I couldn’t help but feel like I was being watched, but anytime I looked around, I found myself alone. Whenever I stopped, no matter how randomly, there was never any other noise that you wouldn’t expect to find in nature. I exited the woods. There really wasn’t anything of note around aside from the diner. I sighed and went back inside. The waitress raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything about my return. I chose a different seat, by the window this time, which offered me a good vantage over the woods.
Darkness fell and I stopped being able to see outside the window beyond the three lone cars inside the glow of the parking lot light. Nobody else had gone in the woods during my entire watch. Apparently the rest of the town had a little more sense about that sort of thing. I picked at a plate of food I’d ordered so they’d know I wasn’t just loitering, but mainly sipped on more coffee and burned through more smokes. Ten thirty rolled around, so I dropped another few bills on the table and stepped outside after a copious stretch. If I never sit in that diner again, it’ll be too soon.
I stood by my car, watching for any shadows moving against the dark outline of the trees that blended into the night sky. Then I caught the blink of a flashlight which quickly turned off. Bingo.
I headed towards the woods once I saw the beam beyond the trees. I had a flashlight of my own, but not only did I not want to risk it, I also could make things out pretty well between my eyes adjusting to the dark and the beam of light ahead that I was following. Or, at least, I thought I could. They suddenly shut their flashlight off and stopped walking.
I didn’t think we were already at the place they were planning to meet yet, so I froze, wondering if I’d been caught. I heard a muffled cry, then some rocks being smashed. I had no idea what would be breaking up rocks out here, but I did my best to run forward in the dark while I grappled with the flashlight in my coat. I finally got it out and turned it on, spinning around, trying to catch a glimpse of the girl. A reflection caught my eye. Her flashlight. It was on the ground. Something had taken her. Around the tool was no blood, just shattered rocks. What could do something like that, I thought.
I was about to start searching the area for any traces of the girl or whatever took her, when I saw another light bobbing in the woods. I ducked behind a bush and waited to see if this was the thing that hunts in the woods. As she passed me, I saw it was the other girl–Tracy, I think. She continued on, not noticing the flashlight her girlfriend had left behind. In another couple minutes, she arrived at their rally point.
I closed my eyes, trying to heighten my other senses and pay attention to the sounds in the woods. All the critters scurrying over branches and slithering through the underbrush seemed that much louder than normal. Then I heard sobbing. My eyes snapped open as I heard the flashlight clatter to the ground, coming to rest on just a pair of feet.
I bolted forward and turned on my own light. I didn’t know what to make of what my eyes saw. Before me stood a trembling Tracy, her eyes closed as tears streamed from her face. She didn’t seem scared, but she was crying. In front of her was… a creature. Almost human in some ways, something entirely other than human in every other possible way. It stood on two legs, likely around eight feet tall. Embedded in varying patches of fur and skin were pieces of rock and minerals. One arm was covered with–or perhaps made of–tree bark. The other had jagged bits of spikes–almost bone-like in appearance–protruding all over. Its long fingers seemed alive and independent of itself, wriggling like snakes as it raised its hand.
Then it stretched out and wrapped around Tracy. As soon as she was folded into its arms, her skin began morphing and within a few seconds, she–clothing and all–turned entirely to stone.
“No!” I yelled as I dashed towards them, but I was hopelessly late. Instead, it jerked its face to me, dozens of insect-like eyes scattered without pattern down its face and neck. I heard rocks crumbling and, without realizing it, I was unconscious.
When I finally came to, I was propped up against a boulder, facing a tree. My head was pounding. I reached for my metal flashlight–the only thing I had that would likely do any damage against whatever it was that I saw–but it was gone. As quietly as I could, I rose to my feet and looked around for it. It seemed to be gone. Then, the tree in front of me grew. Before my eyes, its form emerged from the bark of the tree until it completely separated and stood directly in front of me.
“What… who are you?” I asked. I don’t know what I expected; it had no mouth. At least, not in the traditional sense as far as I could see. Then I felt it… inside my head. It was communicating with me. Not with words or any method I can really describe, but I understood it all the same.
I saw its childhood, if you can call it that. I watched as it was formed and abandoned, as they all were. There were others like it, but this species was vicious. Untrusting. Uncaring. Every one for itself. They hunted differently. Blending. Camouflaging. Becoming their surroundings, quite literally. Their ability had a dual purpose, to that end. It wasn’t for offense, it was for defense. Should a predator–or another one of their kind–attempt anything, they can embrace it and it turns to stone. The second purpose to this is that, because they are such an incredibly violent species towards each other, it prevents the possibility of back stabbing. Evolution had demanded that it avoid the risk of emotional connection, so it prevented a physical connection as well.
I watched as this thing before me looked at other creatures–birds, bears, humans, anything it could see–and longed to be connected to something. But it couldn’t. Its loneliness was unbearable to feel. I felt tears forming in my eyes. I should have been repulsed. I should have tried to stop it, or at least dissect it. But I couldn’t. My knees felt weak. Everything felt weak. Then I heard the question. No, I felt the question.
Can I embrace you?
This creature spent centuries longing for a connection, even if it could only have it for a moment. When you can feel that empty loneliness for yourself, no matter how little humanity you may have, you can’t help but empathize with it. How could I say no?
It stepped forward. I felt the coarse bark rub against my arm, then the bony spikes dig into my ribs. My pain mattered so little though. I raised my own arms as I began to lose feeling. I embraced it.