The Dunning family were camping in Joshua Tree National Park for the weekend. Mike, the husband and father of three, had just purchased a new motorhome (a top of the line Winnebago) and he was excited to break it in. Susan, Mike’s wife of fourteen years, had been obviously reticent about the purchase, but she saw how excited he was, she just couldn’t say no. Besides, Mike had just gotten that huge bonus at work, it’s not like they couldn’t afford it.
Jesse, the eldest of the three kids at 13, was also very excited. He loved being outdoors and going for hikes and Mike promised they’d be doing a lot more of that from now on. Christy, the 10-year-old, wasn’t nearly as thrilled. She had hoped to have a sleep over at Brenda’s house that weekend, now she was going to have to deal with Jesse farting in her face every time he climbed in or out of the top bunk. Ashley, the 4 year old, didn’t seem to care one way or another.
Saturday night Mike decided they should go for a hike up to the nearby plateau to get a better view of the sunset, none of the women were happy about the idea. Susan had had a couple glasses of wine, she wasn’t drunk, but she wasn’t in the mood to hike. Christy had finally started to enjoy herself, roasting marshmallows over the fire, and she had just gotten into a groove of roasting them perfectly, charred on the outside, gooey in the center. Mike assured Christy that she could roast more marshmallows when they got back.
The hike was pretty, but took a little longer than expected and they just barely made it in time to see the sunset. They all stood side-by-side enjoying the view as the sun disappeared from sight. Even Christy had to admit that it was very pretty, she tried taking a picture of it with her mom’s phone, but it didn’t quite capture it. She decided to draw it in her sketchbook when he got back. She was glad she had decided to bring her crayons along.
Ashley was starting to get cold so they headed back.
They walked along the plateau and Mike couldn’t seem to find the trail that led back down the hill to where their camp was. They were traveling by flashlight now and the girls were getting very cranky. Even the enthusiastic Jesse was beginning to lose some of his enthusiasm.
Susan expressed her concern, but saw that Mike was starting to get stressed out so didn’t play the “I told you so card.” She’d save that for later when they were safe.
As they passed a spot Susan was sure they’d passed at least 3 or 4 times already they saw a campfire off in the distance. They started towards it hoping to find some fellow campers who might point them in the right direction. They were still a distance from the fire when they came across a ravine, easily a foot across. Not large, but enough to cause them pause.
Something about the fire and the ravine triggered a memory from Mike’s childhood and he froze with fear. He knew that crossing that ravine was a very dangerous notion.
“I did it!” Jesse shouted as he leapt to the other side.
“Jesse, no!” Mike panicked.
“He’s fine, Mike. It’s easy to cross right here.” And Susan stepped over, helping Christy while carrying Ashley.
“We should go back.” Mike couldn’t tell them what he had just remembered. They
wouldn’t believe him. Did he believe it? Was it just an old campfire story his dad told to scare the kids?
“Mike, we’re clearly lost. We need to ask for help. C’mon.”
Mike knew that without telling them the truth he had no argument. And even if he did tell them they’d probably just laugh at him.
He took a deep breath and crossed.
They approached the campfire and the hair on the back of Mike’s neck stood up.
“What if they’re not friendly?” He suddenly said.
“You’ve watched too many horror movies.” Susan laughed, though clearly she was a little nervous now too.
“Maybe you haven’t seen enough.”
“Stop, Mike, you’ll scare the children.”
Mike saw movement around the campfire. He could see there were people there, but he couldn’t see how many. There was a small hill next to the fire and whoever was there kept walking away from the fire behind the hill.
Mike suddenly wished he’d brought his .45 that was in the lock box in the Winnebago. He mostly used it for target practice. His only victims up to this point had been a few aluminium cans, but he figured if things got dicey he could do what needed to be done to protect his family. However, that gun was very far away from this situation.
“Hello!” Susan shouted as they got closer.
Three of the silhouetted figures stopped what they were doing and looked in their direction.
Two more silhouetted heads popped out from behind the hill. None of the silhouettes moved.
They just stared out at them.
“That’s a little creepy.” Jesse said.
The Dunning's approach collectively slowed a little. Susan was about to suggest turning around when Ashley giggled and took off running.
“Ashley!” Susan shouted. Both parents took off in pursuit.
“Jesse, stay with your sister!” Mike shouted back.
Ashley shot around the hill and disappeared. The silhouettes watched her and the two that had poked their head out from behind the hill slipped back behind following her.
“Oh, Jesus!” Susan screamed.
Mike and Susan turned the corner and Ashley was standing there next to a second fire eating something small and white. Almost like a grape, but bigger. The two silhouettes were both people, adults, both crouching next to Ashley, their backs to Mike and Susan. They hadn’t even looked at the three by the fire as they ran past. Ashley ate one of the not-grapes and the female handed her another one.
“What’cha got there, sweetie?” Susan said. She tried to hide it, but Mike could hear the quiver in her voice.
Ashley turned and held one out to her parents. It was an eyeball, the iris a striking green. “Have one mommy, they’re good!” Mike noticed a cauldron boiling over the second fire. The female who had yet to face Mike and Susan stirred the pot and several eyeballs floated to the top, bobbed briefly and sunk back down.
“Ashley, we need to leave now.” Mike reached down and picked up his daughter.
“Do you want one, daddy?”
“No, I…” finally one of the campfire people turned to face him. They looked human but their features were off a bit. Their teeth were sharp and numerous, almost like the mouth of a shark.
Their nose was longer and pointy. And their eyes. They didn’t have any. The black hole that was their eye socket was almost hypnotic. Mike froze when he saw the female's face.
“Mike!” Susan grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back. Mike slowly started to back up.
“Dad!” Mike turned and saw that the three by the first fire now had Jesse and Christy. Their eyes were gone. They didn’t even look scared. They just stood there.
Mike spun around and looked back at Susan. The female had her hands on Susan’s shoulders.
Susan’s eyes were gone now too.
Mike panicked and ran. He knew he needed to do something to help his family, but the first thought in his head was “Not Ashley too!” He had to get her away. Get her safe.
He made his way back to the ravine. “If I can only cross the ravine we’ll be safe.”
“Daddy stop.” He did. He didn’t want to, but… he did.
“Daddy, we need to go back.” Ashley didn’t sound like herself and Mike was suddenly terrified to look at his daughter’s face.
He took a deep breath and turned to face her, her porcelain skin shining in the moonlight. Her eye sockets were empty.
“I love you, daddy!” She smiled and revealed a mouth full of sharp teeth.
Tears began to stream down his face.
“I love you too, sweetheart.”
Then everything went black.
(c) Mike Noyes