Marty and Scotty Ray go camping in the Hundred Mile Woods.
|The Camp Out|
by Brian Mann
Scotty Ray and I were half way to the top of Myers Hill, the pedaling growing tougher with each passing second. I had scaled the hill numerous times before but the added burden of my backpack was making the going considerably tougher than usual. Forty feet from where the blacktop finally leveled, I conceded defeat and began walking my bike the rest of the way. Scotty Ray, his bike jerking left and right with each determined crank of the pedals, continued his trek to the summit.
It was an unusually warm afternoon for a Tennessee October and I armed sweat from my forehead. The clouds were plentiful but the sun currently shone unimpeded from an opening in the cumulous maze. Glossy black tar bubbled in the asphalt, popping silently under my steps.
Scotty Ray reached the top and looked back. His backpack sagged low on his broad shoulders. He was two inches shorter than I was, but outweighed me by a good ten pounds. That's not to say he was overweight, he wasn't, his twelve-year-old frame was sturdy and compact. I, on the other hand, was a wiry package of sharp angles and narrow lines, cursed with proportions that necessitated a belt be worn with any pair of pants my mom could find at the Woolworth's of a sufficient length to reach the top of my Keds.
"Hurry up!" he yelled, his voice filled with excitement.
"Yeah yeah, I'm coming," I said, breaking into a jog.
We soon stood at the highest point in Wyland County, a rolling vista of woodlands beckoning below. Other than the road, there was no hint of civilization on this side of Myers Hill, only the arresting work of Mother Earth, her adornment of autumn's fiery hues adding an impressive embellishment to the panoramic scene.
About a mile behind us was Burgaton, a sprinkling of about thirty clapboard sided homes on either side of Briarpatch Road. My name is Marty and I live in one of those modest Burgaton homes. A two-minute bike ride north lives Scotty Ray, whom I have known since we took turns prodding at a dead snake in his front yard. The snake was under a picnic table and we had to bend down only slightly as we stood beneath it, stabbing at the carcass with our crooked hickory swords.
Though I haven't been able to fit under a picnic table without dropping to all fours in years, my mom still seemed to think of me as the kid who once fell asleep and tumbled face first from the apple tree in our yard, breaking an arm in the process. That was why she wasn't aware of my plans for tonight. Getting parental permission for an adult-free campout in the Hundred Mile Woods had ultimately proved futile.
That was why I had lied to them. The first time I'd ever told one of such magnitude and I'd be lying again if I said it didn't weigh heavier on my shoulders than the backpack I was currently toting. Mom and dad were under the impression that Scotty Ray and I were camping in his back yard tonight, and though I knew a simple phone call could thwart my deception, I had decided that whatever the punishment, the risk was worth the reward. For the first time, I was about to brave the great outdoors without needing to check my watch to ensure I was home before dinner.
The grade wasn't as steep but was much longer on this side of the hill. About three quarters of the way down, the asphalt road gave way to gravel and curved gently left, swallowed by the woods half a mile below. Very little pedaling would be needed from here on out.
I shook off my backpack and retrieved my canteen. I downed a few swallows of lukewarm water and stuffed it back in amongst my other recently collected survival gear.
"You ready?" Scotty Ray asked as he twisted his baseball cap backward. A tuft of sun-bleached hair jutted from the opening above the cap's adjustment strap, centered on his forehead.
"Ready Foghorn." I said, slinging my backpack over my shoulders.
Not wearing a cap, I had no pre-flight routines to perform so I stomped on the pedals, satisfied at the look of puzzlement on Scotty Ray's face as I pulled away. I lowered my head and pedaled ferociously for a few seconds. Gravity began to work its magic and the asphalt quickly became a gray blur below me. I risked a quick glance back and saw Scotty Ray a couple of bike lengths behind, his eyes squinted against the wind. Gnats peppered my face as I sped through a churning cloud of the tiny pests. They struck my glasses with an audible click, making it one of the rare times I was glad to be wearing them.
I raised my head, abandoning the racing position as I prepared for the harrowing transition from unyielding asphalt to the less forgiving medium of dust and crushed stone. I reversed the pedals, applying the brakes as I judged my speed against prior road-rash inducing misadventures.
Scotty Ray rocketed past me, a contrail of dust erupting in his wake when he hit the gravel. He was quickly far in front of me, barely visible through the roiling cloud of dust.
Something emerged from the woods behind Scotty Ray. It quickly angled toward him, just to his left. It ran upright, on two legs. It looked something like a small boy. He was extremely skinny, skeletal in fact, and apparently naked. His movements looked odd. His legs didn’t seem to be finding purchase on the gravel, as if he was running on ice, yet he moved downhill amazingly fast. There was something else strange about him I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
He darted left and quickly disappeared in the dense foliage of the woods. The whole episode lasted no more than a few seconds. I yelled to Scotty Ray as I skidded to a stop where the running boy had left the road. He braked and looked back.
"Come here, quick!" I yelled. I glimpsed movement behind a tangle of blackberries about fifty feet off the road but by the time Scotty Ray reached me, it was gone.
"What is it?" he said.
"I don't know. Someone ran into the woods. It looked like a little kid." I said, pointing into the woods. "He was right behind you."
"You saw a kid running behind me?"
"Yeah, I think so.” I said. I hesitated and then added, "It was on two legs anyway."
"No shit?" He sounded skeptical, as I knew he would.
"I only saw him for a second or two.” I said, almost apologetically. “Seriously, it looked like a skinny little kid, sort of, except...”
I trailed off. I didn't want to sound any more ridiculous than I was already beginning to feel. Scotty Ray wasn’t going to believe me anyway. I had a history of morphing the innocuous into the inexplicable. Where there was only a knot-filled tree stump, I was as likely as not to see a bear, or even Bigfoot. I was already beginning to doubt what I’d seen myself. Yet, if it wasn’t real, where was the tree stump this time? What had I really seen that had prompted my imagination to run amok?
"Hey, maybe it was Big John!" Scotty Ray said smiling. "Maybe he left footprints. We'll track him." His sarcasm was obvious.
He abruptly climbed off his bike and threw it into the weed-choked ditch beside the road. Jumping the ditch, he started in the direction I'd pointed.
At the mention of footprints, the something odd I couldn’t place before suddenly dawned on me. As the boy, or whatever it was had ran, no cloud of dust had rose behind him. I jumped off my bike and began scanning the gravel. I quickly found our bike tracks in the powdery dust. I followed them uphill but found nothing resembling footprints.
What I had seen was impossible then, meaning it had indeed been purely my imagination. Just the same, at the mention of Big John Tuttle the hairs on the back of my neck had tingled.
Big John Tuttle has been part of Burgaton folklore for nearly as long as the town has existed. In the flood of 1947, when the Neuse River swallowed Burgaton, Big John’s mother had murdered him.
He was eleven years old, retarded, and huge for his age. By most accounts he was nearly six feet tall and weighed at least two hundred and fifty pounds. He lived in Burgaton with his mother Agnes, his father having died of a stroke the same week Big John was born. Rarely seen outside of the Tuttle house, it was said that Agnes kept Big John locked in the cellar most of the time.
As the floodwater approached, Agnes has simply locked the steel reinforced cellar door and headed for higher ground. As she locked the door, Big John was sitting near the top of the cellar steps. Leaning over the side, he was engrossed in his favorite activity. Below him, a wooden marionette walked across the cellar’s dirt floor, Big John's plump fingers manipulating the strings above the small puppet. According to Agnes, Big John would sit on that step for days at a stretch playing with his marionette.
When the floodwater receded two days later, a neighbor found Agnes digging in the Tuttle backyard. The bloated, mud-caked body of Big John laid face down in a shallow puddle beside her. The terrified neighbor ran home and called the police. When they arrived minutes later, they found Agnes alone, crying and sitting in a shallow grave with a shovel across her lap. It had been raining and she sat in several inches of muddy water, her soaked dress clinging to her. When asked about her son she had looked up at them, wild-eyed.
"He wouldn't let me to bury him," she whispered, "I dragged him all the way out here and he had mud in his eyes but he wouldn't let me bury him."
Investigators eventually determined that Big John had somehow gotten out of the locked cellar but nonetheless had drowned, his body carried away by the receding floodwater. This didn't explain the eyewitness account of the neighbor who had claimed to see Big John's bloated corpse lying beside Agnes in the backyard of course, but they were not willing to entertain the theory that Big John Tuttle had rose from the dead and casually strolled into the woods behind his house. They quickly declared Agnes insane and the eyewitness account unreliable and left it at that.
It was just a story of course. The Tuttle's were indeed Burgaton residents all those years ago and Big John did disappear in the flood of 47, but I suspected that the eyewitness account and a soaked Agnes sitting in a half-dug grave was simply inspired fiction.
Still, standing there at the edge of the road, Scotty Ray urging me to follow him into the woods, I hesitated.
"Come on," he said, "we might as well enter the woods here anyway. That way we won't have to pedal all the way back up Myers tomorrow."
I should have stood my ground. If I had just ridden off on my bike, coasting to the deer trail at the bottom as we had originally planned, Scotty Ray would have eventually followed. I didn't though. For one thing, I didn't want the teasing I could expect from Scotty Ray if I did. Mostly though, I was because I felt ashamed. Here I was twelve years old and acting like a baby, scared of the monster under my bed, or in this case, the imaginary running boy on the road.
"Just grow up." I said under my breath and chucked my bike next to Scotty Ray's. I jumped the ditch and followed him into the woods.
As we ventured further into the wilderness, my guilt increased with each step. I wasn't even supposed to be on this side of Myers Hill, let alone camping in the Hundred Mile Woods. My intent was to set up camp within a rock's throw of the road and although Scotty Ray had agreed to this suggestion just hours before, he now wanted to forge ever deeper.
"Why don't we pitch the tent right there?" I said, pointing to a nearby opening.
"Come on man," he said, "You're already screwed if your mom finds out anyway. What's the difference? You might as well make the crime fit the punishment." He then turned and continued on, not waiting for an answer. He had a point. A rock's throw or a mile, in the woods was in the woods. We continued our hike.
We eventually reached Caney Creek, a rock-bottomed rivulet that was dry for most of the summer but now channeled a shallow current of autumn runoff southeast to the Neuse. We hiked its bank for another ten minutes and finally settled on a campsite a few yards west of the creek, atop a small bluff.
Scotty Ray began collecting firewood and I set about the task of erecting the tent. Half way through the process, I had to take a leak and walked about ten yards behind the tent. As I zipped up, I noticed a shallow depression in the ground to my left. It was about six foot by three and filled nearly to the top with a thick layer of wind-swept leaves. I excitedly hurried back to the campsite.
When I returned, Scotty Ray already had a fire started. I ran to my backpack and retrieved a folding camp shovel.
"I found something." I said.
"Found what?" Scotty Ray asked, feeding twigs to the small fire.
"I'm not sure. Come check it out." I didn't say more. I wanted to see if Scotty Ray's impression on what it might be was the same as mine.
"Hold on a minute." he said, adding another limb to the growing flames.
"Save it for later." I said and ran back toward the depression.
I looked back and as expected, he was following, drawn by curiosity.
"Check it out." I said when he stopped beside me.
Scotty Ray stared for a second.
"What does it look like?" I asked.
"A hole." he said turning toward me. "What's it look like to you?"
"Look at the shape." I said.
"OK," he said impatiently. "it's a rectangle."
He looked a while longer.
"About the size of a..." I said, trying to help him along.
"What, a grave?" he said finally. "You think this is a grave or something?"
"Exactly!" I said. I held up the shovel. "Let's excavate it."
I waded into the leaves, visions of ancient skeletal remains playing in my head. My second step landed on something that gave a little under my weight. I heard a faint, ominous creak and I quickly climbed out, startled.
"There's something under the leaves." I said excitedly. "It gave a little. I think it's the coffin’s lid! It's not deep at all."
Scotty Ray didn’t respond and I turned toward him. He was standing with his back to me, motionless. I looked in the direction he was staring and saw only trees.
"What?" I said "What is it?"
He didn't answer. He just stood there, the back of his head facing me. He stood unnaturally erect and I noticed his fingers splayed out at his side.
"Cut the shit Scotty Ray." I said and pushed him on his back.
It was like pushing an oak tree. He didn't budge. Gooseflesh instantly covered my arms and I took a step back.
Then he spoke, except it wasn't his voice. It was guttural, deep and raspy. The sounds were unintelligible, but had the inflection of speech. I was suddenly very scared. Scotty Ray had pulled some elaborate stunts before, but this wasn't one of them. He couldn't fake that voice. Nobody could. It resonated like a drum through the suddenly still air.
He whirled around and faced me. His eyes were bloodshot pearls, only the whites exposed. His mouth was open wide, wider than should be possible, and the strange voice poured from it so forcefully I felt the heat of breath on my face, though I was at least six feet away from him.
The Scotty Ray thing stepped toward me and I stepped back, falling directly into the leaf-filled depression behind me. I heard a sharp crack and I saw a toothy grin form on Scotty Ray's face as I plummeted into darkness.
It wasn’t a grave. I upended as I fell and my head and left shoulder got the worst of the impact. I felt a pop in my shoulder and my head bounced hard off the ground. As I fought to inhale my arrested breath, a blanket of darkness wrapped me in a cocoon of nothingness. I welcomed it.
I don't know how long I was out. When I awoke my head was throbbing, one nauseating crescendo followed closely by the next. I was on my side, my right cheek pressed against cool earth. I opened my eyes but could see little. Looking up, I was startled to see how far I’d fallen. The sky through the boy-sized hole above me was nearly dark, which didn’t make sense to me. Had I really been knocked out that long? The waning light was just enough to reveal my dislodged glasses lying amongst the scattered leaves, the left stem bent slightly.
After fully emerging from my cloud of unconsciousness and more or less remembering what had happened, I tried to take stock of the situation. My headache had already dulled somewhat and my left shoulder ached like a bitch, but other than that I seemed to be OK.
I picked up my glasses and slowly sat up, wincing at the pain in my shoulder. I tried to raise my left arm and felt pain intense enough to water my eyes. I instantly knew the source of it. I'd felt that particular pain two years earlier when I'd dislocated the same shoulder playing baseball behind Terry Wilkerson's house. While attempting to steal second base I executed a rather awkward slide, Pete Rose style, and dove directly into the firmly planted knee of Scotty Ray's older brother Keith.
Speaking of Scotty Ray...
I put my glasses on. They sat somewhat crooked on my face, but at least they weren't broken. In the growing darkness there was little to see anyway. I looked again at the hole above me. It was at least twenty feet up. I'd fallen a good distance. I considered myself damn lucky that a whacked out shoulder and a bell-ringing knock of the head seemed to be the extent of my injuries.
"Scotty Ray!" I yelled up at the opening. I wanted to believe the strange events preceding my fall were nothing more than a nightmare I'd suffered while unconscious. My head was still woozy so that seemed likely. I had simply fallen down here when I had first stepped into that earthen depression and everything that followed had been some kind of concussion induced mind-movie.
The sound of my shout surprised me. It was rich with overlapping echoes, giving the impression of a surrounding vastness. It also reminded me of the Scotty Ray thing's voice and I shivered. There was no reply. I looked at my watch but in the quickly fading light, it was an unreadable shadow on my wrist. It was quickly getting very dark down here in this...what? Cave? Sinkhole? Freaking underground parking garage? A flashlight would be handy, I thought, remembering mine sitting uselessly in my backpack above.
I tried to stand, doing my best to ignore the pain radiating from my off-kilter shoulder. After a couple of false starts, I struggled to my feet. I stuck my right arm, my good arm, out in front of me and slowly stepped forward. Four steps in my fingers touched a wall, the rough texture of dirt. Turning ninety degrees left, I moved along the wall, dragging my hand along it as a guide. Small crumbs of dislodged dirt cascaded down in a muted hiss as I walked.
I was quickly beyond the faint influence of light projected from above and standing in total darkness. Not willing to give up my only source of light, as weak as it was, I quickly retreated back to Alice's rabbit hole, which by now was little more than a purple outline on a flat black canvas above me.
I felt a full on panic attack swelling within me like an inflating balloon and I had no choice but to release a pressure valve in the form of another shout for help. Eventually my shouts turned to shrieks as the situation began to unhinge me somewhat. Finally I had to stop, my throat growing hot from the desperate effort.
Assuming the white-eyed Scotty Ray thing was only a nightmare, where in the hell was he then? Gone for help? That was it! That had to be it. While I was out cold he had called to me and getting no response had went for help. I exhaled in relief at this obvious conclusion. I think I even smiled, though I can't be sure because this was precisely when I heard the voice behind me and my brain temporarily short-circuited.
I jumped in surprise and spun around, forgetting my ruined shoulder until a bolt of pain shot down my left arm as it swung with the turn. I went momentarily light-headed and my knees buckled. I nearly went down but managed to steady myself against the wall behind me.
It was the same mud and gravel voice of my supposed nightmare, except I was definitely awake now. A screaming shoulder and my bent glasses sitting weird on my nose were enough to confirm that.
The disembodied voice filled the surrounding darkness with the same hodgepodge of sounds I'd heard topside, spewing from the gaping mouth of the messed up Scotty Ray. If I had a flashlight, would I see my friend, white-eyed and mouth agape, approaching me?
Whatever it was, it sounded close, no more than a dozen feet away, though with the ricocheting echoes I couldn't be sure. The sounds grew louder as whatever made them inched closer. There was a wet, lip-smacking sound between the garbled bursts. I did not like the sound. Not at all.
Then, amongst the gibberish, I suddenly heard five words clearly. A chill ran down my back and just kept right on running to the soles of my feet. It wasn't just the words it spoke, but the sudden change in tone that made me want to scream. In Scotty Ray's unmistakable voice it said;
"I take the Marty too."
I shrank back against the wall as it advanced. My eyes were worthless, the darkness now as complete as a tomb. It soon stood directly in front of me. I felt the warmth of fetid breath on my face. It continued the incoherent rambling. Drops of spittle showered me and I thought disjointedly of the gnats I'd sped through an eternity ago on Myers Hill.
In my terror, I only stood there, my head turned and pressed against the dirt wall. After a minute, the presence fell silent except for long rattling breaths that warmed my face like a blacksmith's bellows. I tried to shrink even farther into the dirt wall behind me.
Something hit me hard on both shoulders, pinning me to the wall. The darkness instantly morphed into a blinding, flickering whiteout as pain radiated from my dislocated shoulder to my tormented brain and I shut down. In my twelve years, I had never been knocked unconscious or fainted. Now I'd done both within a few hours of each other.
When I awoke I was seated. My back was against the dirt wall, my head lolled to the right. My left shoulder still sung its song of misery but was now joined by my right one, which hummed along with a brand new ache of its own.
I opened my eyes. In flickering light, the subterranean realm was now exposed to me. The dirt floor extended nearly fifty feet in all directions before fading into darkness. Twenty feet above, the ceiling was more dirt, damp and uneven. Tree roots, like crooked stalactites, hung down in dozens of places. Above me, the doorway into this hell was a jagged, black wound.
My watch read 11:50. That would mean I’d been down here for over eight hours. If help was coming, it should have arrived by now.
The babbling thing was gone at least, thank God. Using the wall for support, I slowly tried to stand. My legs were weak but I managed to get them under me. So now what? I was stuck. The way out was twenty feet above, but it might as well be twenty miles. The wall I leaned on ran left and right to more darkness.
Twin torches, embedded in the dirt wall on either side of me, burned bright. I stared at them, transfixed. They jutted from the wall at an angle, about ten feet high. The flames were a foot tall and the wall directly behind them was shadowed with black soot. If I could reach one of them, maybe I could find a way out of this hell. It was a futile idea. Ten feet up was about three too many. The dirt wall was featureless so climbing wasn’t an option and I couldn’t jump that high even without a shoulder that would agonize with each jarring attempt. I turned away from the wall, frustrated. I was about to erupt in a desperate cry for help when I saw something that instantly seized my breath.
Scotty Ray materialized out of the darkness, moving toward me. Only it wasn't Scotty Ray. He moved in awkward jerks. He leaned left, farther than gravity should allow and abruptly swung upright only to fall right, his torso nearly parallel to the ground. His head lolled and flopped as if on a string. He advanced in ungainly steps. Occasionally his right foot would flip outward, hinged by splintered bone and torn flesh. His arms rose above his head, then flopped back down, swinging lifelessly at his side.
I felt warmth on my inner thighs and somewhere in my mind it registered that I'd pissed myself. I wanted to run but there was nowhere to go. My legs weakened and I fell back against the wall. I started crying. Intense sobs racked me as I slid down the wall. I sat down hard and pulled my knees up to my chest. I looked down, not wanting to see.
I was shaking uncontrollably. I heard the Scotty Ray thing getting closer, the crunch of bones moving in ways they're not supposed to. It was talking that meaningless talk again, except this time it was unmistakably in Scotty Ray's voice.
I tried to will it all away. I wanted to wake up in my bed, piss-stained sheets being the worst of my problems. I didn't wake up though. I only sat there, listening to the Scotty Ray thing at it stumbled toward me.
It stopped in front of me and fell silent. I stared at its shoes. The right one was twisted up, the word 'Kid-Trek' embossed on the sole.
Not long ago, as I had entered these woods, I had admonished myself to grow up. Now, I felt as helpless as an infant. I wanted taken care of. I wanted to be told it was going to be all right. I wanted my mommy.
"The Marty," it said.
I couldn't bear the thought of looking up, yet I did just the same. The Scotty Ray thing was smiling. It was a horrible smile, the lips stretched outward so forcefully the bottom one was split open. Blood oozed from the V-shaped wound and dripped from his chin. His pupil-less eyes bore into me
"I take the Marty," it said "I take the Marty too."
Scotty Ray’s jaw pistoned up and down as he spoke but the words were not in sync with the movement. Blood splattered my face as his lips smacked violently together. I heard the hollow crack of colliding teeth. A fractured tooth escaped his mouth and slid down the rivulet of blood on his chin.
"I take the Marty now." It said.
My left arm suddenly started twitching. I stared at it in horror as it began to thrash wildly. It abruptly jerked up above my head. My ruined shoulder popped loudly. I wanted to scream but somehow couldn't. My other arm shot up and I was jerked violently to my feet. I stiffened involuntarily. My muscles quivered with an invading, irresistible tension. My eyeballs rolled skyward in their sockets until they burned, and then they rolled up some more.
In the darkness beyond the torchlight, Big John stood in the corner of the cellar. Beside him, lying in a heap, was his old puppet. He’d found it in the river not long after momma drowned him. It was mostly just bones now. The skin had fallen off a long time ago and Big John was bored with it.
He wasn’t bored now though. He smiled as he placed his hands out in front of him. He began to manipulate his brand new puppets. He moved his fingers up and down, the thin bones creaking with the movement, and laughed with delight as Scotty Ray and Marty turned and lumbered toward him from the other end of the cellar.
Word Count ~5,000