There are four of us left huddled in the cabin: me, Jerry, Carina, and Kyle. And we’re terrified the door won’t hold. Carina shivers so uncontrollably, her teeth sound like stones rattling down a metal chute. Kyle begs her to quiet down.
But her teeth aren’t making enough noise to matter. Not compared to the howling storm. It comes in gusts that build in slow waves, rhythmically increasing in both volume and strength until a gale overtakes the cabin, pelting the windows with hard rain. A cold draught pushes past us while we tremble on the floor, wishing we were anyplace else.
Still, the draught’s not the issue. It sneaks beneath doors and crawls down the chimney, and these are things we may not like, but we expect. It isn’t the storm that bothers us, despite its deep-throated howls and the way it screeches around the corners. The problem, instead, is what’s beneath the storm, mimicking the howls of the storm, trying to coax us into opening the door and letting it in.
The others are quickly losing hope we’re going to survive this.
Not me. I lost hope a long time ago.
• • • •
Kyle, Jerry, and I have travelled up north together, three former workmates who still get along. Kyle, tall and lean, with a confidence born from getting everything he wants without much difficulty; Jerry, his opposite in a way, trying maybe too hard to remain detached from life’s upsets. But both are good people, and I need to surround myself with good people. I meet so few of them.
It was Kyle who suggested we hike through Iceteau Forest for a week. Collectively we’ve spent too many nights in downtown bars and pubs, and he thought time outdoors would do us good. I suspect, though, it was his and Jerry’s plan to get me outside my head for a while. Give me something distracting to do, some good stories to focus on for a change. Since all three of us left the socket company, I haven’t landed on my feet the way the two of them have, and I know they’re worried.
The trip to Iceteau was long, mostly sunny and pleasant. The forecast promised long warm days and short cool nights in that brief window between the rise of the mosquitos and the fall of the black flies. The perfect time to hike into the woods, Kyle said, and when we left our car at the side of the road I felt buoyed enough to wonder if I’d ever want to return to it. Maybe we’d leave that life behind and start anew, become one with the grass and bushes and trees. But it was clearly a dream; my desire to give up and do nothing resurfaced quickly once we started walking.
The good weather didn’t last long. No more than a day; long enough for us to hike too far to make turning back reasonable. As the storm commenced, we rooted through our backpacks for our waterproof shells and trudged through the deepening mud and the increasingly heavy downpour. After a while, the white noise multiplied on itself, becoming as deafening as it was maddening, as though it were trying to prove something to me: that no matter where or how far I went, my misery would always follow.
Maybe that misery was why I didn’t notice it. Maybe being unhappy makes it harder to speak. I know the longer we walked through the mud, the less we wanted to talk to one another. Misery loves company, but the miserable just want to be left alone. The wind was hot and drove the rain against the sides of our drawn hoods, creating an impenetrable racket, loud enough to cause hallucinations. Kyle did his best to convince us the storm was abnormal and temporary; that it would be sunny again soon. It sounded like just another story to me.
We hiked single file, picking our way between tall old trees. Kyle led the way, Jerry close behind, but I couldn’t keep up with their strides. The mud was too thick, and sucked my boots down no matter how many stones I stepped on. Wet leaves clung to me, their weight slowly building. I heard only my panting breath over the rain, interrupted by the scratching of low hanging branches against my hood, and I saw only the grey of heavy sheets of rain. With each deaf and blind stumble forward I sensed something was wrong, and that sense quickly turned to fear; cold, irrational, debilitating fear.
I kept quiet, told myself the story that everything was fine. That it was only my depression rearing up. But when I peered ahead I saw the shimmer of movement, like some giant thing unfurling. I screamed and Jerry spun, but I knew he saw nothing. Even Kyle asked what was wrong. I was dumb, unable to do anything more than point. The two followed my hand, saw what had until then been camouflaged by old trees.
The thing had to be twenty feet tall yet couldn’t have been more than a hand’s breadth wide. Its limbs were thin and elongated as a stick insect, except an insect that towered over us on two narrow legs, and instead of a head there was nothing.
There was nothing.
Just a mouth, too wide, lined with a dozen rows of tiny sharp teeth embedded in undulating flesh. It reached toward us with one of those long creaking arms and only Kyle had the wherewithal to move. He yanked me and Jerry back, breaking the spell of disbelief and terror that had enthralled us.
I chased after Kyle; Jerry behind me where I couldn’t see him, but I could hear his boots throwing themselves frantically into the mud. The howling wind grew louder around us, as though the storm were strengthening, yet the rain didn’t fall heavier, the sky didn’t grow darker: whatever caused that noise was not the wind; it was merely pretending to be the wind.
We scrambled through the downpour, chased by the sound of trees being uprooted and tossed aside. Jerry shouted hysterical gibberish, but I heard nothing from Kyle. Both their reactions were frightening, but I couldn’t allow myself to succumb to the fear. I had to concentrate on escape.
Sighting the cabin was more blind luck than anything else. Kyle saw it first, pivoting mid-stride toward the ramshackle structure. I followed without thought, Jerry close behind. I prayed the door would be unlocked.
Kyle stumbled ahead of me, just avoiding the black iron rod driven into the ground. He reached the cabin a few steps before me and wrenched open the door. I dove in, followed close by Jerry and Kyle. They tripped over themselves, tumbling into a heap on the floor, and I scrambled to slam the door shut against that twig creature and its horrifying undulating teeth. The three of us then froze in place—me curled against the door, Jerry and Kyle tangled in one another’s arms—and we stared at the cabin’s buckling walls, its trembling windows, waiting for the defenses to inevitably fail. But they didn’t. Not when the storm howled louder, not when the cabin rattled with anger. I didn’t understand why, but I also didn’t understand any of what was happening. The swelling of wind and rain against the cabin eventually subsided, and we three instinctively knew that whatever that half-seen thing between the trees was, it had retreated back into the woods to wait for us. Kyle and Jerry hoped, for the moment, we might be out of danger. I didn’t share their hope.
The two disentangled themselves from one another and stood. I thought Jerry might be crying but didn’t want to ask. I was worried the truth might cause me to do the same. But the whimpering wasn’t coming from any of us. It came from behind the closed door of a rear bedroom. It was Kyle who decided to open it despite my protests, and Jerry who stood close with a wooden chair held over his shoulder as a makeshift weapon. I stayed back and waited for whatever they were letting free to kill us.
And Carina and Weston behind the door waited for the same. We found them kneeling on the floor, clutching one another in fear. Carina’s eyes were pressed closed as she repeated Antripuu below her breath. Tears streamed over her quivering lips. She screamed when Kyle touched her shoulder, awakening her from whatever refuge she’d retreated into during the storm’s onslaught.
Carina was petite with dark hair that matched her dark, harried eyes, while Weston was tall, blonde, with a football player’s shoulders. We found out they’d been hiking in the woods as well, and like us they’d become lost in the unexpected storm when their compass failed to steer them out of it. They were in the midst of staking their small tent when the wind took it and lodged it in the trees. Then one of those trees proceeded to eat that tent.
Carina knew what she’d seen even if Weston didn’t. And what she was still seeing whenever she closed her eyes. Antripuu.
It was the name she’d said earlier, though she denied it. None of us knew what it was, and Carina didn’t want to talk about it. She would only say the sight of it sent her and Weston running, their gear left behind in the forest to rust and rot.
The five of us sat in a circle, Carina and Weston on the couch, Jerry on a small stool he dragged over, and Kyle and I on the floor. I had tried to light a fire earlier, but the stove wouldn’t open and even if it had, seeping water had already made the pit an ashy swamp. No one said anything for a long time. We just listened to the howling and the rain as it ebbed and flowed. Every so often one of us would startle, certain we saw something in the window, but it turned out to be nothing.
When all that was left was darkness, I thought we should sleep in that rear room, hidden and protected, but Kyle wouldn’t entertain it. He did not want us to give in to the fear. I didn’t know how to tell him I already had a long time ago. Nevertheless, I sat in the front with the rest, sharing my sleeping bag with Jerry so Carina and Weston could use his. I was so exhausted from the hike and the subsequent terror that even my anxiety couldn’t keep me from sleeping until morning.
When I woke, there was still no sun, but the black had given way to dark, drab grey. I felt the opposite of rested as I struggled out of my shared sleeping bag. Carina was already up, looking out the window at the half-dozen black metal rods planted in the ground and encircling the cabin. Each had a chain leading from the top into the mud. I asked if they were what was left of a fence, to which she shrugged. Then I asked her if they had something to do with Antripuu. She shuddered.
An Antripuu was a spirit, she whispered. A forest elemental her grandmother had told her about. But it wasn’t real, she said. It was just a story from the old country. What did the Antripuu want, I asked, but Carina wouldn’t answer.
Kyle woke then, but I suspect he’d been pretending to sleep while listening to us because he rose unmoored. We didn’t repeat anything and he didn’t ask. All he did was sit quietly with his face in his hands. When Jerry woke, he looked at the three of us, and moaned.
Only Weston appeared inured to the storm, emerging from the room chipper and relaxed. He decreed the night before an aberration, a shared delusion that leapt from him and Carina to the rest of us, or vice versa. Despite our arguments he assured us that we hadn’t seen anything but the storm playing tricks on us, but now the storm had weakened. It was already getting brighter, he claimed, though it seemed no different to me. He laughed then, maniacally, as though in the grip of depression or delusion. I was understandably concerned.
He suddenly announced he was leaving. We urged him to reconsider, but he was decided, and even Carina’s pleas would not deter him. Weston assured us that once he reached a park ranger or some authority in Iceteau Forest, he’d report what happened and insist on our rescue. We told him again it was too dangerous, but he asked about our alternate plan. Was it to stay hidden until we starved to death? None of us knew how to respond. We looked to Kyle and after a moment he acquiesced. Weston was right; someone had to go.
With great trepidation we unlocked the door and he stepped out, invigorated by his imminent escape from captivity. Clouds hung overhead, heavy and potent, while mist had risen from the ground to mirror them. Weston kissed Carina, and shook hands with me, Kyle, and Jerry, and again told us not to worry, and that he would see us soon. We stood in the doorway and watched him walk off with the pack we’d assembled for him, following the makeshift path toward the trees. He whistled something jaunty as he passed the black iron rods, the sort of tune one might whistle on an invigorating summer’s walk. When he was almost at the trees he stopped and turned to wave at us, and from the mist behind him rose the Antripuu.
We screamed but I don’t know if there was time to hear us. A roar like howling wind, and Weston was up in the air and gone. Swallowed whole in a single motion.
I came to my senses inside the locked cabin while around me Carina was trembling and Jerry sobbing. That was when I understood how bad things had gone. Once the Antripuu appeared, Kyle had dragged us inside before we were noticed, but now he stood at the window stone-faced, watching the day increasingly darken. It was too early for night’s approach, so it had to be clouds gathering, blocking the remaining day while lightning flashed and thunder jolted the ground. We looked at one another, then crawled and shuffled towards the middle of the floor and huddled together as a deluge of rain hammered the cabin. When the wind returned, in volume and in force, howling as it had the two days and nights prior, I was tempted to surrender and follow Weston out the door.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t do it.
That was when Carina slapped me across my face so hard, I tasted blood for the next hour. But at least my head was screwed back on right.
• • • •
We won’t escape the forest. That was clear the moment Weston was devoured. Our car is days away, and Carina doesn’t know where she and Weston left theirs. Even if she did, he carried the keys. We will not be rescued, we will not get away. Which means there is no consequence to anything we do. Nothing could be worse that what already awaits us.
So we spend the night arguing what we should try and when. Jerry wants to wait the storm out, but I don’t think that will stop the Antripuu. Carina called it a storm-bringer, and as long as it stays, so will the rain and wind. Like Weston said, there isn’t enough food to hold us long. We pile it in the middle of the floor and there’s no more than a day’s worth. We could ration, but the more we stretch it out the hungrier and weaker we’ll be, and we need our strength. It seems so impossibly insurmountable, but Kyle forces us to press on. It takes him until dawn, but he rallies us. Even with the sound of the storm outside, even with the flashes of lightning, and of the Antripuu circling, he tells us we can make it, that we can survive. We just need to stick together and stick to the plan.
Once we lose hope, he says, we’re dead.
It’s a good story. I’m not sure I believe him, but I want to.
We distract ourselves from the howling by sharing bits of ourselves. I learn things about Jerry and Kyle I never knew, like how when Jerry was eight he lost his father in a bar fight, and how Kyle never graduated high school and got his GED much later. And I learn things about Carina. I learn that she and Weston met at a peace rally only a few months ago. I learn that she’s struggled with anxiety for most of her life, and her medication was a godsend. I learn she’d wanted to be a poet, but ended up selling pharmaceuticals because of how much more money she makes. And I learn that she is terrified of the Antripuu and desperately wants everything to be over. That revelation, if it can be called one, brings a somber air to our night, and we get down to business planning what we’ll do once the day returns. If it returns.
Our plan is not complicated. It can’t be, because we have nothing. There is no fighting back. There is running, and there is dying. The only hope we have is seeing the Antripuu before it sees us. We will walk in a cluster, a set of eyes in each direction, and head for our car. Kyle will be our point person, the leader, the one we follow if we have to run. We dress him in all the red clothing we collectively have so he will stand out. Be unmissable in the rain, between the trees. If the Antripuu appears, Kyle will run, and we will follow him like a beacon. It’s a terrible plan, but it’s all we have.
We leave as soon as the sky has turned from black to grey. It’s the hardest moment of our escape, when we most question our judgement. For me, the second-guessing is nothing new, but for Kyle, it must be strange to not be sure of something. It takes our cluster some time to find our rhythm, and we worry with each stumble or falter that the Antripuu is readying to strike. But it doesn’t, and we are in step by the time we reach the black iron rods.
We don’t stop long enough to inspect them, but in the morning light I see they are not the remnants of a fallen fence. The chains are not linked together, but instead to metal collars partially sunk in the ground. Poking through the water-logged mud are yellowed bones, and I shift my eyes away, not wanting to think about why the animals were chained. Or if they were animals at all.
I hear only rain pelting my shell and the howling wind. I concentrate on the trees, scanning for the Antripuu. There isn’t energy left to speak, and if the others do, the din is too great to hear. It doesn’t take me long to conclude we’re fools, and that we should turn back. Out in the storm, with that thing stalking us from behind the branches, my anxiety coils tight and threatens to explode. I can’t imagine how Carina is fairing. I feel her trembling beside me. I want to tell her the only way through is to ignore the fear, push it down and forgets it exists, but I can’t help her. I can’t help anyone. I’m on the cusp of losing everything, and I don’t know how to stop it.
The four of us move as a unit through the pouring rain. Jerry is surprised the tree canopy doesn’t better protect us, but it’s clear the trees have given up. Alone in the middle of Iceteau Forest, insignificant and alone, I wonder if they’re any different from me.
It’s as though my every suspicion about the world has been proven true. There is something out there that wants to destroy me. I haven’t been imagining it. No job, no partner, no prospects for either; watching my friends excel while I fail repeatedly. Until now I assured myself I was wrong and things would get better, but now that I’m trapped in this downpour, surrounded by deafening winds and stalked by a creature who craves my destruction, it’s become clear I’m right where I belong.
The screaming is sudden, but I don’t know from whom or where—the sound is sliced by the savage winds and rain. Kyle is already a red blur bounding ahead through the storm, and I am running before I’m aware I’m doing so. I don’t turn to look for the Antripuu. I don’t turn to look for Jerry or Carina, either. I just pray I’m running fast enough. The mud tries to slow me but I defy it, hurtling over logs and debris. Kyle’s red clothing slips in and out of sight as he moves between the trees, looking for the swiftest path to safety. The forest spins, my vision confused and disrupted in a perpetual state of vertiginous mayhem. Then, at some point, I realize I am still running but the red blur ahead of me is gone.
I cannot panic. I will not panic. I keep running straight, hoping to catch another glimpse of Kyle and his red clothing, or of anybody at all. At least anybody real, anybody who is not a mirage of streaming water and shadowy branches, a ghost from my past skittering in the spaces between the trees. Repeatedly, I see an illusion of the Antripuu hovering overhead, but I don’t stop running as hard as I can. I run until I can’t do it anymore, until the adrenaline boost wears off and I find myself staggering through the woods, nearly falling over every root or upturned stone. When I can’t go on, I throw myself into the mud behind a tree and wait for whatever is coming.
It’s only when I’ve stopped that my body demands more breath. My limbs rattle and my digits spark as I try to get myself under control. I will not think about the others. I won’t. I close my eyes and listen for the howl of the Antripuu, but if it’s there it’s hidden behind the static of rain on the leaves.
I hold no hope I’ll see anyone again. Not Jerry, not Carina, not Kyle. I could call out their names but I don’t have enough breath to pretend. The Antripuu has found them. I am utterly alone.
We did not plan for this. I have only the vaguest notion of where the car might be, but I start moving nonetheless. Without hope, there is nothing left but the illusion of hope. The treetops above creak and bend, but I do not see the Antripuu looming among them. I take a hesitant step into the open, then another, and still there is nothing.
As I move through Iceteau Forest, my equipment, food, and friends gone, I question why this happening, what I’ve done to cause it. The thought consumes me as I watch the trees, hoping I’m still moving toward the road. Toward the car. Toward escape and salvation.
I catch sight of red again between the trunks ahead, the briefest glimpse of Kyle. I yell despite it being impossible for him to hear me through the rain, and he stops. I stop as well. I can make out a red blur through the haze, waiting for me to catch up, and for the first time I feel hope. Kyle has survived. And if he’s survived, the others have survived as well.
They have to have. They have to.
I squint, hand on my brow to keep the streaming rivulets out of my eyes, but I can’t see any sign of them. They’re not behind me, either. But maybe, I hope, they found their way past me when I became lost. Maybe they’re up ahead. I turn back, calling out to Kyle to tell him I’m coming, but he’s gone; the red blur is gone.
I run forward, screaming his name despite my breathlessness, each footfall a jarring thud in my ears. The trees ahead cluster tighter, their branches springing lower to the ground, and the mesh of twigs and leaves scrape my skin. I raise my hands to protect my face, sacrificing them to the long scratches and tears. Everything in Iceteau Forest is hungry for my blood.
When the lattice of branches suddenly opens, I’m spit out over an unexpected ravine, and I spin and flail over the edge. I don’t remember the fall, only coming to my muddled senses sitting waist-deep in rushing water, staring up at the narrow opening too far above my head to reach. Dazed and bruised, my head buzzing, I raise my aching hand and it’s clear my arm is broken. It’s much too thin, and flexing it feels like someone slowly pushing a dull knife into my flesh. I cough and everything hurts.
In the gap above there is a glimpse of movement, a momentary red blur. It’s Kyle. He’s found me. I see his arm stretch over the side for me and I’m elated. I call up through the rain as I reach to take his hand. My ringing head, though, keeps insisting something is wrong, something I’m not seeing, but I can’t focus on what, not until my fingers graze Kyle’s overlong arm and I jerk my hand away.
The Antripuu’s body resolves between the drops of rain, standing astride the chasm’s opening, its unhinged mouth grinding against the crevasse’s opening—too wide to fit through, but wide enough to show me the row after row of undulating flesh and teeth within. I smell its foetid breath, the odor compounded and worsened by the rain, and I slide my broken body down farther out of reach until all but my head is submerged in the water.
The Antripuu, frustrated, struggles against the solid rock, stretching its long spindle arms to snatch at me. I can see the tattered remains of the clothing we’d given poor Kyle tangled around its knotted limbs, and the sight unleashes the anger and frustration I’ve been carrying much longer than I’ve been in Iceteau Forest.
I scream at the Antripuu to leave me alone, to ask it what I’ve done that’s so horrible, so absolutely vile as to deserve this, any of this. What have I done to deserve having my only friends taken from me? To deserve losing everything I’ve ever loved? My home? My career? My sense of self? What have I done that’s so awful that my dreams should fail, that any promise I ever had should wither away? What have I done to deserve sitting here, alone, deep in water and muck, pounded by rain so heavy it’s like rocks, chased by a spirit or a god or figment of my imagination until my body is destroyed and I have no choice left but to curl up and die? What have I done that is so bad that I deserve this life?
The Antripuu doesn’t have the answer. All it has is a howl like a thunderstorm, and a hunger to consume me.
Hopeless, broken, and alone, I wonder why I even bother to fight.
The voice beneath the howls is a mirage. It must be. Small and pitched barely above the Antripuu’s roar and the ringing echoing in my head, it can’t be ignored, even as I focus my attention on the creature pacing above and wonder how much longer I can hold on. The voice sharpens, grows insistent, and needles into my thoughts, forcing me to turn my head, to take my eyes off the Antripuu. On the edge of the ravine’s crevasse a short distance away, disheveled and panicked and skittish, is someone it takes a moment to realize is Carina.
Through the heavy storm and my concussion I see her eyes are wide and fearful as she watches the Antripuu. If it sees her, it’s too busy grappling with how to best reach me to care. She creeps near enough to ask if I’m able to move. I tell her I’m not sure. She tells me I must.
I wait until the Antripuu steps away from the crevasse in search of a solution. First I try to straighten my bent knee stuck in the ravine’s muddy bottom. It’s painful and exhausting, but I manage to free it, and immediately the rushing water carries me forward. I use my one good arm and the drag of my legs to slow myself before submerged debris tears me open. Carina races along the bank to keep me in sight while I try to remain as silent and as invisible as possible.
The Antripuu returns to the place I was shortly after I’ve gone—I can see it through the widening opening of the crevasse—circling the spot it last saw me, frustrated and confused, and I almost feel . . . no, I don’t feel anything. I’m numb to everything but my throbbing pain. Carina’s harried face appears periodically, peeking over the edge of the ravine, urging me on.
The ravine’s banks eventually slope downward; the eight foot banks become six foot, then four, then only one, low enough that Carina can wade into the ravine and grab my battered and exhausted body before I float away. She manages to drag me from the water and onto the bank where I lie on my back and let the rain shower my face. Staring into the churning, clouded sky, my body continues to feel as though it’s floating, and I wonder if any of this is real, if I’m not actually still in the ravine, swept away by the current. Why else would the rain on my face taper in force, like a storm in its final throes?
Carina says we have to go. The rain may have weakened, but we’re not safe. She helps me roll over, then get my knees under me. My joints are swollen and bruised, and even with her help standing seems impossible, but I’m able to move enough that we can get out of the open. I still hear the howling wind, but it sounds further away. Like distant thunder.
We take refuge in the fringes of the tree line where Carina helps me splint my arm and wrap my wounds. I want to ask her about Jerry, but I know the answer. It’s already written on her distraught face. But there’s something else there, too, a perseverance that illuminates from beneath the scrapes and dirt and keeps me from losing hope. Once you lose hope, you’re dead. I remember Kyle saying that, and it’s never seemed truer. Once you lose hope, you’re dead.
As soon as I’m able, Carina and I stumble through Iceteau Forest, taking care to study the trees, to listen to the winds, but the rain gently peters out and the wind dies down the farther we walk, which tells me we’re moving in the right direction, away from this horrible nightmare. I don’t know how far the road is from us. I just know it’s somewhere ahead. I hope when we find it the car will be right there, right where Kyle, Jerry, and I left it, but it seems impossible. Iceteau Forest is so large, so deep, that the car could be anywhere along the road, or maybe even nowhere. Maybe Jerry and Kyle made it past the Antripuu and reached the car first. Maybe they’re driving back and forth looking for Carina and me. Or maybe they’ve left to find help. Or maybe the car will be sitting behind a curve somewhere along the road, somewhere out of our sight, and will remain there until it eventually rusts away.
I don’t know what we’ll find when we get to the road. It could be anything, or it could be nothing. But the sun is already starting to peek through the drizzling clouds, and my banged up knees are starting to hurt less. Carina has been telling me stories about the old country and what it was like for her grandmother there. She tells me she loved hearing those stories growing up, and I’m starting to understand why. A good story can make you forget about the bad stories, even if the bad stories are all you want to believe. All you’ve ever told yourself. And sometimes you have to choose to believe the good stories, even when it feels like there’s no choice at all.
I’ve almost forgotten all the bad stories I know as Carina helps me limp through the trees. I think I hear the sound of a car engine somewhere in the distance. Or maybe it’s the roar of wind echoing through the forest. It’s difficult for me to be sure. All I can do is hope.