In the darkest hour of the endless night, in the deepest tract of the primeval forest, under a black and moonless sky sprinkled only faint
ly with cold stars, the campfire was a warm and yellow beacon.
It was visible for miles and Sumalee had been stumbling toward it for hours through the thick and pathless underbrush. Her face and arms were scratched from the branches, her legs bruised black and blue from the rocks and fallen trees. She trembled and shook violently from hunger and nervous exhaustion as she struggled through the thickets. She had been separated from her friends since before sunset.
“Get me out of here, please, get me out of here,” she cried huskily, despair mixing with frustration and anger. “I am so fucking sick of this shit. I just want to go home!”
Hiking in the Berkshires with her new friends from the physics lab had seemed like such a great idea. Amherst had totally changed her life. It seemed like every day brought her the opportunity to do something she had never done before. What had gone wrong? How had she gotten separated from the other kids? She didn’t even know.
The campfire was close now; it seemed like it was just a few feet away. She ducked under a low-hanging branch, pushed through bramble bushes that tore divots out of her jeans and sweatshirt. A clearing became visible, painted in flickering yellow light and dancing shadows.
“Come on,” she sobbed. “Oh, come on....”
As she got nearer, she could make out steadier shadows blocking the firelight. Three of them. Silhouettes of people sitting around the fire.
“Thank god,” she said. “Help me, please, help me.” But her voice was too dry, thin and husky to be heard, a dehydrated whisper.
Finally, she broke through the edge of the forest and stumbled into the clearing, dropping to her knees, sobbing. These people would have water, food, a map, a cell phone. She could already feel the warmth of the campfire against her cold and clammy skin.
“I need some help here,” she shouted hoarsely, crying and trembling on hands and knees.
After a few moments, she realized that nobody was rushing to her aid. She looked up, wiping the tears from her eyes with the back of her dirty hand. Three people, dressed warmly against the night chill, sat on logs arranged around the campfire. They were as still and silent as statues.
Confusion flickered through her mind. Were they meditating? Praying? Had she stumbled onto some bizarre religious camp or outing? These questions were followed by even more disturbing thoughts of cults, inbred backwoods families and cannibal bikers flashing through the back of her head.
Slowly, cautiously, she rose to her feet.
She stepped hesitantly forward, hugging herself, tiptoeing, as if afraid to wake these people from their slumber. The grass and leaves beneath her hiking boots were dry and brittle and crunched softly in harmony with the brisk crackling of the campfire.
Four logs had been set up in a circle around the campfire as benches. Two of the people, in heavy plaid coats– a middle-aged man and woman by the look of them– sat side by side with their backs to Sumalee. The third person sat alone on the other side of the fire, head down, dressed in a dungaree jacket over a bulky black sweatshirt and wearing a dark blue knit stocking cap.
The fire threw off a lot of heat; they didn’t need to be dressed so warmly.
Sumalee stepped up to the edge of the circle of logs and still nobody moved. But from this distance she had a better view of the face of the man on the other side of the campfire, and he looked like hell. Like death warmed over, thought Sumalee. Literally.
His skin was as gray and cracked as a dry old newspaper, his cheeks and eye sockets sunken and hollow. She realized that, under his bulky clothes, he was as emaciated as an ancient Egyptian mummy.
Now she realized what was going on, and she put her hand to her mouth as a wave of pity ran through her. These people were patients from that cancer clinic in Farmington; part of their holistic therapy included camping retreats, reconnecting with nature.
She took another step closer. “I’m sorry,” she said, both for the intrusion and the terrible....
And then she saw the human bones.
A chill of horror raced up her spine and curdled her stomach, and she swayed with vertigo. She wanted to step backward, turn and run back into the woods, but she was rooted to the spot.
Scattered on the ground, both inside and outside the circle of logs, were ribs, femurs, vertebrae, pelvises. Skulls. Tattered shreds of clothing, rotten and dirty, lay among them. Some of the bones were black and cracked with age, mingled with the dirt and grass; some were gray and smooth, only recently picked clean.
“Holy fuck,” she gasped, her voice breaking. “Holy fucking shit. Oh my fucking god.”
She put her hands to her face, like in the Munch painting, the blood pounding dizzily in her temples, and she felt on the verge of passing out. Her eyes, wide and white, scanned back and forth over the bones, the logs, the stone-circled campfire, the pitiful sitting figures. Did that clinic just leave them here to die? Was this some horrible scandal that she had stumbled upon, some cost-saving measure, some inhuman disposal of the homeless, the unwanted or the uninsured?
Then, as her eyes once again fell upon the wizened man in the stocking cap, he seemed to fold into himself; turning, twisting, he slowly toppled to the side and struck the ground with a limp thud, slack and dead.
“Oh, no,” sobbed Sumalee, tears bursting from her eyes. “Oh my god....”
But still she didn’t run; instead, she stumbled forward on shaking knees and sat down unsteadily on one of the logs. What the fuck am I doing? she thought. I have to get the fuck out of here.
If this was some horrid human disposal ground where the hopeless were left to rot and die, she could be in immediate danger. If they came back while she was here, what would they do? Kill her? Imprison her? They couldn’t just let her go and tell what she had seen.
As soon as she steadied herself, as soon as she could stop her legs from shaking, she had to get up and go. There had to be a road nearby for the clinic to use to bring these patients up here. She could follow that to find the way back to civilization. As soon as she felt steady. But the woods were cold and dark, and the firelight was warm against her face....
The campfire! Holy shit! They wouldn’t just go away and leave the campfire burning like this. They had to be right nearby. They could return at any second, find her here, catch her.
But still she didn’t move.
I’m in shock, she realized with sudden dispassionate insight. Fear, exhaustion, exposure, hunger, dehydration– and now this horror. Definitely shock, no doubt about it. Good god, this was a nightmare; anybody would have a breakdown.
And still she didn’t move.
There was something odd about the campfire, Sumalee thought as she watched it burn steadily, serenely, hypnotically. Something odd about the texture, the edges, something strange about the way it overlapped the circle of stones.
And why would the clinic dress up their patients in hiking clothes to dump them here? These weren’t patients. These were people who had wandered into the clearing, just as she had.
Something odd about the campfire, she thought, staring at it intently.
She looked across the fire at
the other two people sitting on the log. A man and a woman, their hair wispy gray, sitting shoulder to shoulder, the fingers of his right and her left hand intertwined. They wore matching red plaid jackets and brown hats with ear flaps. They had been elderly in life, an old married couple. Now they were gray, shriveled, parchment-skinned mummies.
Staring at the fire.
And still she didn’t move.
Sumalee realized at that moment that the campfire was never going to let her go. It was keeping her here, feeding on her, eating her from the inside out, just as it had done with these people who were now just dry dead bones. It had lured them in with its friendly yellow glow, promising warmth and protection and companionship and it had never let them go.
What the fuck was it? She stared at it as it flickered and danced and crackled, rose and fell, sent glowing orange embers floating up to fade in the cool night air, and tried to penetrate its strangeness. It looked like a normal fire and yet– animated. Self contained. Fluid. Smeared at the edges like something in a bad old videotape.
Was it some vampiric energy being from outer space that feeds on life energy, like on Star Trek? Maybe that was it. Maybe it was some clump of exotic particles that had gotten caught in Earth’s gravity well, some quark-gluon soup or packet of strange dark matter that was incompatible with the standard variety and wreaked havoc with cell activity, like a sunspot causing radio static.
Sure, thought Sumalee sardonically. My first month in the physics lab and I just happen to wander into the woods and stumble on an unpredicted physical phenomenon that fell to Earth. Not too much of a coincidence.
p; Maybe it was just fucking haunted.
Somehow she had to free herself, get away from this thing before it killed her. But she didn’t know where to begin. There was no force holding her, no compulsion to stay, no voice in her head telling her what to do.
She just wasn’t getting up.
Panic began to rise and she fought it back down. It will be all right, she told herself. It will be all right. Kim and Jerry and Maureen were still out there looking for her and they had probably gotten help by now and any minute they would pile out of the woods and grab her and drag her to safety and the campfire would die and the credits would roll.
She began to cry.
Closing her eyes might help, she reasoned; if she couldn’t see the fire, or whatever it was, it couldn’t affect her. But its erratic, gentle rhythms could still be seen through her eyelids, red instead of yellow, outlining a delicate pattern of blue veins. The pulse of the firelight and the pulse of her blood combined to create swirls of phosphenes, like splashes of bright paint, like galaxies and nebulae exploding in the dark, like fireworks, beautiful fireworks.
She had seen the fireworks at the Esplanade in Boston a couple of years ago with her mother and father and brother and her best friend Nicole. Her father had let Nicole come with them and had even let the girls have their own room at the hotel in Braintree. She and Nicole had ordered chicken strips and French fries from room service and her father had been furious; room service was expensive and he had already spent too much. He had yelled at her and she had yelled back, but she had been sorry and mad at herself. She hadn’t meant to cause him any problems, hadn’t meant to upset him after he had been so generous; she had never told him how sorry she was.
Sumalee opened her eyes. Time had passed, but she didn’t know how much.
The bodies of the old couple had fallen over backwards. She could only see their baggy trousers, tucked into their hiking boots, hooked over the log where they had sat.
Everything seemed muted and quiet, colors were dim and washed out, sounds were distant and hollow. She didn’t want to die, but she knew she was already more dead than alive. Her mouth was dry, her lips cracked and her throat constricted; she didn’t have the strength to swallow. She could barely feel the heat from the campfire on her face.
I’m sorry I ordered the chicken strips, Daddy, she thought calmly. I’m sorry I’m dead. I know you would save me if you could.
Eventually, she slumped forward onto the ground, face down in the bones.
And the campfire continued to burn, and its brittle crackling sounded like cruel laughter.