“And that’s why the summers at Camp Pinewood keep getting hotter and hotter every year,” I concluded, clicking off the flashlight which was held beneath my chin. Satisfied with the stunned and disturbed facial expressions I was receiving from the campers, I gave a smirk, “Alright, girls, off to bed now.” The orange light from the once crackling fire had now diminished to a faint red glow of embers. It produced just enough light to outline the tiny shifting bodies that had begun departing the campfire. As expected, the usual complaints and moans lasted for about ten minutes before all the girls finally left for their assigned cabins. Flicking on the bright lantern, I started the nightly ritual of dousing the fire and picking up all the graham cracker wrappings the campers had left behind. No matter how many times I’ve told them to clean up this junk before they left the fire, at least half of them neglected to do so. It was understandable that some might have been too enthralled in the story, but I doubt the legend had frightened each and every one of them into a trance.
“Did you really have to tell that story?” Beck demanded, sealing up some leftover s'more fixings.
“Don’t be so lame,” I scoffed. “It’s tradition. If they can’t handle a little Camp Pinewood legend, then that’s just pathetic.”
“Patty says she wants us to stop telling the campers stuff like that. We should be singing songs instead, not telling ghost stories. It’s not appropriate,” Beck shot back. She was always such a suck up to our superiors. Patty was our camp director, but to be frank, I doubt she’d care enough to stop me from giving the campers a little scare. Though, I was on her ‘watch list’ as the other counselors would tell me. Let’s just say, I wasn’t your hardworking stereotypical counselor who was expected to be jolly at all times. Actually, I hated the whole camping thing. Spending the entire summer in Florida outdoors wasn’t my idea of fun. It was way too muggy and blistering hot. Every year seemed to be getting worse, too. Naturally, a folklore to explain away the yearly temperature highs was inevitable.
Despite the fact that the cabins were equipped with windowed AC units, thoughts of cockroaches, spiders, and whatever else felt like climbing in through the cracks and onto my face while I was asleep were always in the back of my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good walk in the woods, embracing the outdoors. Sleeping out in the wilderness night after night, on the other hand, was a whole new can of worms. It felt more like survival. Especially having to watch over a bunch of screaming brats. I’m not sure why, but every year I kept renewing that dumb contract. It was the only way I could make some fast cash before returning to the demands of another college semester.
“I’m surprised you’re still working here, honestly,” Beck commented, slamming the cooler shut and clamping the lock down. I never understood why someone would ever say that to another person. It’s not like I didn’t already know I was a crappy counselor. If I actually gave a damn, I’d be trying much harder to follow their silly rule book. The fact was I didn’t, though. After all, it was just a temporary little job and I knew they wouldn’t fire me. They’d have no one else to rehire quickly for the rest of the summer. Plus, with my history of having worked here for years, they already knew that they could at least count on me for sticking out the entire contract. Beck had been working here slightly longer than me and essentially viewed herself as my supervisor, despite the fact that we were in the same job role with the same pay rate. It annoyed her that Patty didn’t recognize any of her efforts, which further backed my justification for not needing to take this job too seriously.
“Lighten up, Beck,” I muttered, stabbing a smore stick into a charred log. It crumpled immediately to soot. “It’s a freaking story. They’ll be fine.” Closing up the garbage bag and chucking it under the canopy, I wiped the accumulated beads of sweat off of my brow. At the feeling of a sudden itch, I slapped my calf harshly, “Damn bugs,” I growled in aggravation.
“I’m not so sure…Denise looked pale white. Like she had believed every single word you’d said,” Beck persisted. “She’s only seven.”
“Yeah, well our assigned camp group is supposed to be ten and eleven-year-olds. We shouldn’t have to babysit her,” I retorted, drawing my thick sweaty hair up into a bun. The back of my neck thanked me as I felt a slight breeze brush up against my skin from behind.
“I can’t believe how cruel you are, Jess,” she pouted, blaring a bright beam of light into my face.
“Ow! Hey! Watch it,” I shielded my face with my arms as if someone were going to shoot me with a gun.
“How about you go and check on her then,” Beck ordered, her lips had bent into a defined frown. “And count the rest of them, too, so we can go to bed.”
“Oh, of course, boss,” I jeered. “I’ll be sure to count them as quickly as possible so we can go to bed at the exact same time as a bunch of ten-year-olds.”
“Just go,” she huffed, placing her hands on her hips as if she were my mother. Giving her a mocking salute, I grabbed the brightest lantern in the batch and made my way toward the first cabin in the semicircle. Why was she never the one to move her fat ass and check the cabins for herself? She always forced me to do the worst of the day’s brunt.
Whipping open the canopy tarp, the white luminesces spilled into the small cabin room. Surprisingly, all four girls were in their designated bunks. Clothes and bags were neatly tucked under the two bunk beds and the girls stared back at me with anticipated wide eyes. All giving me affirmation that they’d be falling asleep shortly, I reminded them to be up by the morning roll call at seven am sharp per the usual. The next cabin was just the same. All campers were ready for sleep. Almost too ready. As if someone had threatened them with a strict bedtime or they’d be killed. Perhaps Beck was right, and the story had terrified them enough to leave them speechless. I wasn’t sorry, though. It made my job a lot easier.
The final cabin was always the one I dreaded the most. They were the most rambunctious group, constantly resisting any type of authority. As I approached the orange glow from beneath the tarp flap, I was shocked to not hear the typical giggles coming from within. Instead, hushed murmurs from only a couple of girls, on the cusp of audibility, were all that I could decipher. Heat began to seep into my temples as I anticipated falling victim to a vicious prank. It was the last thing I needed before relaxing at the end of a long hot sticky day with screaming brats. Hesitantly, I lifted up the moldy canvas, leaving just enough room to pop my head into through the opening, like a turtle coming out of its shell.
Two of the girls sat in the middle of the cabin floor and glanced up at me with horrified expressions. Their lips had bent into a quivering frown, failing to produce any sound. Poking the lantern inside the cabin further, my eyes swept the dark room like a vulture on the hunt for its prey. Proceeding inch by inch into the musty shack, suddenly, I slammed down the lantern into my legs in fury. “Where’s Eliza and Denise?” I demanded, trying to hide the anger that was bubbling up behind clenched teeth. Eliza was the biggest rebel of them all. She was constantly back-mouthing me, trying to get away with things, and always was persuading the other girls to break the rules along with her. I had a strong intuition that she was a spoiled brat back at home, which would explain why she was sent to summer camp every year consistently for as long as I’ve worked here. She portrayed a sense of entitlement among the other girls. Constantly, she would be showing off her new fashion accessories or gizmos. Whenever she refused to do something I had asked, she’d threaten me with the stereotypical, “If you don’t let me do what I want, I’m telling my Daddy.”
I really did try to see the best in every kid. After all, I was no angel myself when growing up. But it was kids like her that made me never want to be a parent. “They ran off,” squeaked Jenna, a small-framed brunette with freckles. Though she looked cute, she was one of Eliza’s minions, nevertheless. How did I know that this wasn’t part of their scheme?
“What do you mean they just ran off?” I hissed in disbelief.
“Into the woods,” the chubbier girl, Alex, chimed in, finishing her best friend’s sentence.
Staring at them dumbfoundedly, I sputtered, “You guys are serious? This isn’t some prank? I swear, if this is a prank there’s going to be some serious—”
“Not a prank,” Jenna interrupted quietly, her face as solemn as I’d ever seen it before. My heart nearly leapt into my throat and my stomach let out a nervous churn. Beck was going to kill me. She’d blame the disappearance entirely on me. Denise had probably gotten so frightened that she ran off. Though it struck me as unusual for someone like Eliza to go looking for her, especially since she had been the main nemesis teasing Denise the entire summer, I figured that maybe she actually had enough decency in her to go hunting for a lost camper. Maybe Eliza had a sliver of good in her after all. I remained hopeful, giving her the benefit of the doubt. But why on Earth would she go off by herself like that? We always talked about using the buddy system. I guess it was in Eliza’s nature to not listen to rules, so I didn’t ponder the question too deeply. If I didn’t find those brats myself, I’d be fired, no question. Losing two children at a camp isn’t something that I wanted imprinted on my resume.
“You’re serious?” I croaked, cocking an eyebrow, hoping that this was the part where they’d confess to an elaborate plot. “This is your last time to fess up. If this is a joke, come out from wherever you’re hiding. I won’t be mad, just come out.” A sudden loud hum burst from the air conditioning unit like a gunshot, causing me to jump, nearly dropping the lantern. Soothing cool air washed over my clammy heated skin, providing a temporary moment of relief.
“Nobody’s going to come out,” cried Alex. “They never came back to the cabin. When campfire time was over, they just went off into the woods. No flashlight or anything.”
My pulse quickened and my airways grew tighter. No longer did I feel solely adrenaline coursing through my veins, but now a new heightened sense of fear began to crawl beneath my skin like spiders. It wasn’t the type of fear that I’d lose my job or that my reputation would be at stake…or even fear for the safety of the girls. Something felt…eerie about the entire situation. It felt off to me, just didn’t seem right. How could they just wander off into total darkness with no flashlight? It was impossible to navigate in the thick brush, let alone in daylight. “I thought…Eliza wasn’t friends with Denise?” I slurred out slowly, deep in anxious thought. Despite the heavy gust of cold air radiating upon me, I couldn’t stop the sweat from leaking out of every single pore.
“They’re not,” Jenna answered confidently. “I’m her best friend. But she told me not to follow. Then she just took Denise by the hand…and they walked out over in that direction.” She motioned away from the camp facility. It was a direction that anyone rarely had ventured, even during lost camper drills. There was no need to. No trails, no camp facilities, no roads, only swamp land. I shuddered at the last remark Jenna had made…they were walking hand in hand? Out into a dead zone? What kind of enemies walk hand in hand?
Cursing under my breath, I stammered, “Look, um, you guys stay put. I’m going to find them. Don’t say a word to Beck or Patty…or any other counselor that might check on you. I’ll be back in a minute with them, ok? Everything is going to be fine.” They were words of hope and denial, but it was the only option I had in diffusing the situation and saving what little reputation I had left at this camp. Stepping back out into the hot humidity, I glanced back over at the extinguished campfire and vacant pavilion. A tidal wave of relief swept over me when I saw that Beck had retreated back to the main counselor cabin. Abruptly, I made a beeline and began jogging into the dense woodland.
After about fifteen minutes of trampling over logs, swatting down prickly branches, and dodging craters of mud, I began calling out their names. At first, I was hesitant to shout for them for risk that one of the counselors would hear me. But at this point, I had no other choice. There was no way I’d find them just by wagging back and forth a lantern. My voice began cracking as my throat developed an ache from the loud screams. I was starting to think this would be near to impossible finding them in the dark like this. Crickets buzzed loudly like a never-ending episode of tinnitus. Occasional scurries over leaves and the snapping of twigs by unknown critters surrounded me from all sides. To make the situation more miserable than it already was, mosquitos had settled into a constant, persistent pattern of biting me every few minutes as if someone were throwing darts at me from afar. Slowly, I began to speculate the idea that I might have no choice but to report the issue to Patty and face my demise.
As I continued to trudge deeper into the woods, my stomach suddenly lurched as my foot sunk deep and fast into a mucky liquid. Fumbling forward, I glanced down at what appeared to be the beginning of the swamp. Immediately, I threw myself backward onto the hard ground, sliding up next to a large tree trunk. My hand shuddered uncontrollably as I maneuvered the lantern around my vicinity, examining the land for evidence of gators. The gators suddenly became the least of my concerns, though, when a blood-curdling screech erupted into the night air like a firecracker.
Craning my neck in the direction of the scream, I caught site of large glowing red orb from across the swamp. Squinting against the darkness, all that I could make out were what looked to be veins encompassing the round mass as if it were an eyeball. The grotesque bulb appeared to be hovering just above the swamp. “What is that?” I rasped to myself in horror. Another shriek pierced my eardrums from the location of the orb. Warily, I forced myself to hurriedly plow through the muck in the direction of the screeches, absolutely dreading who or what they may be coming from. With all my strength, I ignored all possible angsts of what may be lurking in the thick sludge of the waters as I plowed forward.
As I approached the shimmering ball, I saw that it was pulsating. A sickening suckling sound beat steadily as if it were a heart. Not just warmth, but now an oven-like heat emitted out from the red bulge and onto my skin. The feeling of hot, moist clamminess was now replaced with what felt as if it were drying up, or more accurately, burning. Suddenly, a small dark figure emerged from beneath the globe, crawling on all fours through the swampy grasses toward me. Immediately, I froze in my footsteps, allowing the thick, warm juice to soak through my hiking boots and ooze in between my toes.
“Who—who’s there?” I sputtered in a shaky voice, as if I expected whatever it was to answer me. The dark figure maintained a slow, steady creep as it maneuvered through the thick blades of swampy grass. Each proceeding step was accompanied by a slick suctioning sound, slowly and methodically. All the intuition I had was begging me to ditch and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. My bones, however, felt as if they had been glued together, forcing me to remain in a state of paralysis. As the creature stepped into the quivering white beam off of my lantern, I saw a familiar clot of curly blonde hair. Though it was disheveled and slicked down from the slime of the swamp, I could tell by the signature blue scrunchy that it was Eliza.
Crouched on all fours in front of me, she lurched her neck upward violently as if she were going to howl. As I braced for a deafening sound, she instead portrayed a disturbingly wide grin which seemed humanly impossible to contort. She let out a deep, throaty laugh, no longer sounding like the sassy little girl sneer I had remembered. My skin itched with redness at this point, as if I were developing a severe sunburn. Finally, my muscles responded to my gut and I forced a few steps backward, stumbling over a slippery rock and landing hard back down onto my elbows. A foul wave of saltwater splashed up over my stomach, consuming me in all its slop. It provided only seconds of a cool soothe to my skin until the burning returned with a vengeance, feeling as if there were wasps pricking me up and down the entirety of my exposed flesh.
“Where’s Denise?” was all that I could manage to cry out, my tongue feeling as if I had licked hot gravel for a week. The muscles in my throat clenched when I saw that Eliza’s green eyes had transformed into an eerie glowing yellow, completely consuming her pupils. Examining her features more closely, I could now see that her skin wasn’t the previous ripe tan color it had always been but was exchanged by what appeared to be a pink colored paper bag. As my eyes ran up and down the grotesque site, she just kept gawking at me with that sickening, unsettling grin. Why was it so wide? Her teeth resembled small razors glistening and looked as if they had doubled in number. They were coated with what looked to be a gloss of fresh blood.
My heart suddenly skipped a beat as the thing I was dreading the most became a reality. Eliza crept closer on all fours toward me, fiercely pinning my back down into the mud. I felt my head sink into what felt to be a boiling crockpot of oatmeal. As I wailed out in terror, Eliza dug her elbow firmly into my throat, cutting off my air passages with a revolting “umph”.
“Your story tonight wasn’t completely wrong, Jessica,” she bellowed in the most inhuman and wicked voice I’d ever heard. Nobody had ever called me Jessica besides Eliza. “There is something lurking in these woods, fueling the summer heat, here at Camp Pinewood. But it’s not some dragon living deep in the swamp, roasting little kids as they wander off the path. Oh no, that’s only in fairy tales.” I thrashed my arms and legs violently from under her. Somehow, the girl who looked no more than seventy pounds felt like an anchor. My struggles appeared to be useless against her incredible strength, as I only dug myself deeper into the bug infested muck.
“Something much greater…much more powerful resides here at the camp. He needs children to feed off of. That’s how he keeps it so hot. Little Denise was just too easy of a target,” she continued, salivating onto my cheek. I could feel my skin begin to blister. The back of head felt as if my scalp was being scorched by a hot pan. “I keep coming back, year after year. Every year we need a child. I own this camp. I’m in complete control. And if you don’t let me do what I want…I’m telling my Daddy.” On the verge of passing out, I did the only thing I could do; stare off into the distance, into the red, throbbing globe, as I watched a large black claw emerge out of its center, followed by two enormous and twisted horns.