Brett gasped when they got to the top of the hill. He saw the entire valley, filled with stoic evergreens, severe rock formations, and the sparkling lake. And there in the sky, to welcome them, a vulture which he mistook for an eagle. He was so moved he immediately turned around and took a selfie.
“Oh my god!” Brett said. “Isn’t this place amazing!?”
Chuck swatted a mosquito, and then another one. He grabbed ahold of his shorts and jerked them around, and then buried his hands in them to better adjust his boxers. He grimaced at all the sweat, and felt like a moist oven.
“Yeah,” he said, “whatever.”
“Oh my god!” Brett said, snapping a shot of the vulture, and then applying an epic filter to it. “I’m feeling so spiritual right now, dude.”
Chuck swatted another mosquito, and then his eyes widened when he saw how steep the other side of the hill was. “Okay,” he said. “We saw the stupid thing. Let’s get back to the trail and the resort.” When he looked behind him all the trees looked similarly unfamiliar. They hadn’t wandered far, but the trail lady said not to wander from the trail, like, at all.
“Dude!” Brett said. “C’mon! We’re out in nature here. Isn’t this way better than the smelly city?”
“Look, you said there’d be hot tubs and all-day happy hour, and a bunch of loose girls at the resort. You said it’d be like Mardi Gras. That’s the vacation I signed up for. Not this hippie bush shit.” He swatted yet another bug, slapping himself in the face in the process.
“Oh man, if you’d just stop going all Adolf for one second–”
“–What!? How am I going all Adolf–”
“–then you might appreciate just how restful this is!”
Chuck sighed, closed his eyes, and massaged his temples. A stress-ache, just like at work. Brett shook his head, and then turned back to the valley and grinned. How could anyone not be inspired by this sight?
“It’s just,” Brett said, “I see that view and think, I’m wasting my life in the office. Like, I could just paint away all the world’s worries, you know? Like with a happy little cloud or something.”
“I don’t even know what that means. And anyway, all you do is brag how awesome your job is.”
“That’s before we came here,” Brett said. “It’s sucking the life out of me. C’mon, please. Just trust me. How about this, we’ll go back to the resort, and I’ll even cover all your drinks tonight, but first we just head down to that lake.”
“Just to see it! It looks so pristine and serene and stuff. Like it’s magical.”
Chuck shook his head. “I don’t believe this. The hike is bad enough, but now you actually want to go into Cannibal Valley?”
“What?” Brett said. Then he stuttered a couple times, not sure of what he wanted to say, so he settled on, “Dude.”
“Yeah, that’s what it’s called.”
“No way. How do you know?”
Chuck pulled the trail pamphlet out of his back pocket. “It says so right here.” He pointed to it.
“Oh. Well, whatever. I don’t care, and I want to see the lake. C’mon, it’ll just be like one more hour, tops. And then I’ll cover your drinks tonight.”
Chuck glared at his friend. “You’ll cover them for the rest of the trip.”
“Or I walk.”
Brett shook his head. “Fine.”
They started down the other side of the hill, to the alluring lake with its still water.
“Why do you think they call it Cannibal Valley?” Brett asked.
Chuck’s eyebrows startled. “Why do you think they call it Cannibal Valley?”
“Oh, c’mon man. There’s no way.”
Chuck passed him the pamphlet, filled with the region’s gruesome history, and a rundown of the TV specials and movies it spawned. This included no fewer than seven art house films which were critically acclaimed and largely panned by audiences.
“Pfft,” Brett said. “Didn’t come here to read.”
Chuck shrugged. They walked and chatted about random topics from their long, shared history, recounting times at school and bars, video games played, and memorable highs. Before long they came to a large rock jutting out of a small hill. It was slanted and peeked just above the trees.
“Oh, that’s awesome!” Brett said. “C’mon, let’s climb it!” He made for the base of the rock.
“Don’t be a pussy.”
Chuck’s face reddened, but he followed his friend. He hesitated at the rock. It had been a long time since he’d done any real physical exercise, but the climb looked gentle enough, and the rock was gouged with what might be convenient hand and foot holds. And besides, Brett was managing just fine.
“Okay,” Chuck whispered to himself, and then he started climbing. He was so focused he didn’t realize when he got to the top, where it flattened out a bit. He rose on shaky legs, beside Brett.
And this time Chuck gasped. It was like standing on a tiny island in a sea of tree tops. He felt the warmth of the sun and an exhilarating cool from the breeze, and the mixture made his skin tingle.
Brett held his arms out into the sky. “Simba!” he shouted. “I am your father!”
“I don’t think that’s the line.”
“Close enough. You gotta learn to chill, man.” Then Brett’s footing slipped. He exclaimed, flailed his arms, then fell on his butt and tumbled back down the rock. When he hit the bottom he let out a terrible wail.
Chuck’s pulse quickened. He scrambled down as fast as he could without a catastrophic fall of his own. Moving with purpose made it easier, and again he got there sooner than he expected. He saw Brett sitting on the ground, rocking back and forth and holding his right arm with his left. He intermittently wailed and hissed.
“Oh my god, what happened?” Chuck asked, crouching. “Are you all right?”
“Fuck! I think I broke my elbow!” Brett shouted.
Chuck looked at the elbow Brett was cradling. The skin was gently scraped.
“You’re not even bleeding,” Chuck said.
“I hit my funny bone! It really hurts!”
“Oh my god,” Chuck muttered, getting to his feet.
“No, you’re not.”
“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever – oh, wait, it’s going away.” Brett tested his elbow, winced a bit, and then got up too. “Yeah, it’s better now.”
“Such a baby.”
“I could have died!” Then Brett dusted off his shorts and found that not only were they smeared with moss, but they had torn too. “Damn it! The rock ruined my shorts!”
Chuck rolled his eyes, and then again when Brett kicked the rock to punish it.
“So,” Chuck said. “Did you still want to go to the lake? Or did you want to head back?”
“Lake!” Brett said, and he stomped back in the direction he assumed they were walking before.
He assumed incorrectly.
They spent the next two or so hours wandering aimlessly through the woods. Brett was certain the lake was “just around the corner” every few minutes, and when it wasn’t, he changed direction. Chuck offered the odd word of complaint, but he was distracted by the things the woods offered. Every few feet was a colourful new plant, or a strange pack of mushrooms – Brett laughed when he saw that “these ones look like cocks!” and then took more selfies, and Chuck chuckled – or an old tree whose bark held imaginative shapes. Once he saw a deer in the distance just looking at them, before it bolted.
And then there were the smells. Everything smelled so fresh in the woods. The aroma of pine was heavy in the air, and not-at-all like a cheap car freshener. There were all sorts of familiar scents and new ones, and his nose tingled when it stumbled upon something striking.
“Oh! Oh!” he said. “Do you smell that!”
“Yeah,” Brett said, wiping his shoe against a log with a grimace. “The floor is covered in shit.”
“No, no, I smell gin!”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Chuck followed his nose to a patch of shrubs covered in green needles. “These!” he said. “Gin trees! Gin bushes? C’mon, don’t you smell that? It’s the same smell.”
Brett sneezed and gave the junipers a wide berth.
After another hour of walking, when they took a break and Brett went off to relieve himself, Chuck discovered a giant ant hill. He kept his distance and watched the little beasts working, initially with trepidation. They were nothing but pests back at home, but here, there was an alluring order to their activity. How could such tiny creatures organize such giant projects, all without even being able to speak? Or maybe ants had an ant language. He was mesmerized by the tightly controlled chaos, where everyone did what they were meant to, and were happy to do it. And he wondered… was he really doing what he was meant to be doing? He certainly couldn’t say he was happy.
Then Brett burst forth from the bushes and stepped right into the ant hill.
“Oh shit!” Chuck shouted. “Ants!”
“What?” said Brett. Then he started leaping, slapping, and shouting “Ah! Fuck! Get it off!”
It took ten minutes for them to get the ants off, and another twenty to convince Brett of the fact. His legs, and parts of his arms, were covered in tiny red bites, and he alternated between grousing and swearing.
“I hate these goddamned woods,” he said.
“Did you want to head back, or–”
As Brett was distracted with his grumbling, Chuck led the way. Not turning every few minutes, and thereby going in circles, he eventually led them to the shore. By then the sun was nearly setting.
“Oh my god,” Brett said, “this itches so bad. I’m going for a swim.”
“Uh,” said Chuck, “is that a good idea?”
Brett ignored him, stripped, and ran into the lake. Chuck found a rock to sit on and dipped his feet in the water. Then as the sun began sinking below the rim of the valley, he heard the haunting call of distant loons. He saw a group of them out on the water, which – Brett’s splashing notwithstanding – was flat as a table.
With the reflection of the dying sun, it looked like the loon silhouettes were floating on fire, and the juxtaposition sent a chill down his spine. It’s like the scene was trying to tell him a deeper message about life – about the choices people make, how much effort they spend on superficial things, on ignoring and denying what truly mattered – and there was a fundamental gift of wisdom, which he just might discern if he focused.
Then Brett screamed, “Gator!”
He splashed up a storm as he fled to the shore, screaming it over and over. The loons took flight, as did most other animals within earshot. Chuck stepped into the water to help his friend out, keeping an eye out for a gator and poignantly ignoring what he might do about it if he saw it, because that’s what friends did.
But he didn’t see anything chasing Brett. Though, there was something bobbing up and down nearby. When it floated close enough he picked it up, and turned to Brett who was shivering on the shore.
“Did you mean this driftwood?”
“It’s a fucking gator!” Brett said. “It was huge!”
Chuck waved the soggy stick around with an arched brow, and then the wood came apart and splashed into the water.
“I hate this lake!” Brett said, on the point of tears.
Chuck looked at his friend, nude and shivering, and frowned.
“What are you looking at?” Brett said, covering himself. “Pervert.”
“What are those black things on your skin?”
Brett examined himself. He discovered he was covered in thumb-sized black lumps, and when he touched one he found it was slimy and rubbery both. And then it clicked. “Leeches!” he shouted. And then he screamed animal noises.
By the time Chuck managed to help him get rid of the last of the twenty-something leeches, Brett was shivering and crying. The sun was also almost gone.
“I hate this place,” Brett muttered. “I hate forests. I want to go home. I want a shower, and reality TV, and frozen dinners.”
“Put your clothes on, dummy. You’ll freeze.”
“Let’s go home, Chuck. Please?”
Chuck looked around, but all he knew was that they were beside the lake. There were no signs leading to the resort, no visible paths, no trace of other humans. Even if there were, the idea of wandering the woods at night didn’t seem like a great one.
“I’m afraid of cannibals,” Brett muttered, shivering in his clothes.
Just then, Chuck noticed a flash further up the shore. The last of the sun’s light glinting on something. Metal, maybe? Glass? It wasn’t the water in any case, and hopefully it was some sign of civilization.
“C’mon,” he said, “this way.”
“We’re lost, aren’t we?” Brett said. “I don’t want to die.”
“We’re not going to die, buddy.” He wrapped his arm around Brett’s shoulders, alarmed at how much he was shivering. Despite that, there was something comforting about being of real use to someone. Something that transcended spreadsheets and emails. A vague memory of once wanting to be a rescue helicopter pilot stirred in his mind.
As dusk muffled the woods around them, they came to the site of the reflection he had seen. It was the window of a rickety cabin, barely bigger than a one-car garage. Piles of junk were strewn around it, though it was too dark to make most of it out. One of those ubiquitous picnic tables. Maybe an old mower? A heap of rotting oars.
“Where are we?” Brett asked, his teeth chittering.
Chuck tried the door but found it was stuck. He rammed it with his shoulder and it gave, old wood groaning against ancient wood.
“Oh my god!” said Brett. “Is this a cannibal cabin? I don’t want to die!”
Chuck ushered him inside. “It’s not a cannibal cabin. Relax.”
He turned on his phone’s flashlight app and scanned the room, and then gasped. There was a table and some chairs, an old couch, and some miscellaneous junk scattered about, including a high-visibility life jacket – not exactly cannibal fare. But what made him grin was an old-style iron stove, and the neatly stacked pile of firewood beside it.
Brett complained and worried about everything while Chuck worked, but Chuck just humoured him. Soon enough he had a fire going and the small building filled with pleasant heat and bright orange light. Brett warmed up and quieted down, and eventually fell asleep on the couch. Chuck took the opportunity to dig through some of the papers scattered on the table.
There were some work logs, some manuals, some training materials – he figured this must have been some sort of rangers’ cabin. Rangers or another kind of forest worker, anyway. There was a map on the wall which showed the lake and the little town near the resort. A spot right by the lake was circled with marker, and labelled Callum’s Cabin. If that was the place they were now, it looked like there was a path nearby they could take in the daylight.
Then he found a dog-eared book called The History of Callum’s Cabin, which indeed confirmed it had once been owned by the infamous cannibals. He chuckled, and figured he’d give Brett a good fright in the morning.
Then the training materials caught his eye. One glossy sheet specifically, with a cartoon owl on it. The owl had a speech bubble outlining all the great perks of working for the service, and he stared at it long and hard.
And then he jotted down the phone number.