“It’s not a bush.”
The two friends appraised the strange clearing.
“Oh, come on, Nat, what else could it be?”
Natalie crouched and ran her fingers down the branch, stopping short of the mounded dirt clumped around it. “It’s a tree, or the top of one at least.”
“So? Maybe there was an earthquake, swallowed the thing whole.”
Natalie shook her head and met Jack’s exasperated look. “The leaves are still green. Did you feel any tremors?” A sunken bough cradled a drooping bird’s nest. Natalie pushed back leaves to get a closer look. Blood glued shards of eggshell and feathers to the twigs. “Broken eggs.” Natalie reached out and tilted the nest. “And blood.”
“We’re in the wilderness, birds get eaten every day.” Fishing the map out from his pocket, Jack unfolded it and waved it at her. “You’re getting off point. There’s supposed to be a campsite here. What happened to those famous navigating skills you keep bragging about?”
“I didn’t get us lost.” Natalie stormed over to him and took out her phone. The compass app swung and settled. “See the longitude and latitude? We’re in the right place, and it’s not just a campsite, there’s supposed to be a lodge here, with Wi-Fi, electricity...” Natalie winced at her growing odour “... and running water.” With a sigh, she looked around again, scanning the trees for the hidden lodge. “We’re in the right place,” she repeated.
Jack shrugged. “So the app’s broken.”
“Even if the app is broken, I’ve tracked our progress manually.” She looked down at her compass, which pointed the same way as the app. “We’re not lost,” she mumbled.
Only the strange treetop bushes grew in this sun-drenched clearing surrounded by the forest they had been venturing through for days. Large swathes of earth had been freshly turned. It looked like someone had been digging, prompting Natalie to imagine a giant spade, tilling the huge clearing like it was a vegetable patch. Tentatively, she ventured further in, dancing her fingers over the leafy treetops. She weaved around the smaller mounds of dirt until she reached a colossal one.
“We could still camp here,” Jack called after her. “I’ll set up the tent.”
Natalie ignored him. The sheer size of the mound unnerved her. “What could have done this?” she said to herself. The mound stood a little taller than her and stretched out the width and depth of a small house. There was something buried just under the surface. Natalie pushed her fingers through the warm dirt to the cool under layer and pulled out a hard, round object. Something slimy wriggled on her fingers. With a squeal, she jolted back, dropping the item.
“You going to help me with the tent, or what?” Jack yelled.
Natalie looked at the pinecone she’d dropped and the worm thrashing beside it, and wiped her hand on her shirt. There were other things poking out of the mound, a shoe, a dog chew, and – was that? Natalie shouldn’t have been scared to reach for it – she had one just like it in her pack – but seeing it out here, in a clearing surrounded by endless forest, felt wrong. The cord uncoiled as she pulled on it. Apart from the dirt, there was no damage or signs of aging on the charger. Her phone was the latest model. If this was some kind of dumping ground, as she was coming to suspect, then why would something new and of value be discarded? “And in the middle of nowhere, no less.”
Listening past the sound of flapping tent material and clinking poles, Natalie closed her eyes and focused. Other than the wind in the trees, and Jack, she couldn’t hear anything. “When did you last hear a bird?” It was Jack’s turn to ignore her.
Natalie started. With her desire to hear a bird, she assumed she imagined the tiny chirp, yet it continued, a tiny cry coming from inside the mound. The bird wouldn’t live for long, not if it was buried. “I’ll get you out.” Dread and empathy mixed and curdled as Natalie dragged off armfuls of dirt. Cheep. She was getting closer to the noise. The butt of her fist hit something solid. Cheep. The final sweep of her arm glided on a flat, angled surface – a window. Cheep. Natalie squinted past the sky’s reflection on the glass into the darkness buried beneath it.
The featherless hatchling levitated to the window. Cheep. A translucent film of skin covered its black eyes. And as the bird rose closer, a dark leathery hand came into view with the bird cupped in its palm. Fine tendrils extended out of its fingertips, worming their way into a hole in the bird. Under its see-through skin, they coiled around the bird’s vocal chords and into its beak. Cheep.
“JACK,” Natalie screamed, fleeing towards him. “The lodge is buried, monster inside, a dead bird is in its hand. Run, Jack, run.”
Without looking up from the tent poles, Jack yelled, “Not falling for one of your pranks, Nat.”
Burial mounds, Natalie thought, and shuddered as she ran past the man-sized piles. “I’m mean it, Jack, move!” She’d closed half the distance between them before she saw a large black hand with undulating tendrils breaking through the surface at Jack’s feet. Natalie stumbled to a stop, her legs feeling too heavy to move. She held out a trembling hand. “Come to me, Jack.”
“I get it, Miss hiker-extraordinaire wants to turn back. You bet me you could last a week, and by my reckoning, we’ve still got until midday tomorrow before we head home.”
Wind caught the thin branch of a sunken treetop and tickled it across Natalie’s leg. She jolted forward, falling knees first into a mound. The dirt beneath her rained into a deep hole and took Natalie with it. “Jack!” Natalie grabbed at the floor, trying to keep her head above ground, but the dirt tore away under her nails. Inch by inch, she slipped into a vertical tunnel, not much wider than her.
“Nat, I’m here.” Jack leaned into the hole. His fingers met Natalie’s for a moment before she sunk too far for even a touch. “I’m getting rope, I’ll be right back.”
“Please,” she whimpered. Tucked uncomfortably under her bum, the toes of her hiking boots were catching on the dirt wall, and she stretched them out as far as they would go. Her bracing forearms were rubbing raw, but she couldn’t stop the fall, only slow it. Fine dust clouded around her head, stinging her eyes and chalking her tongue. Larger chunks of earth pebbled her face, but she needed to keep looking up, to keep the sky in sight.
Her thoughts returned to the hand reaching out from the ground. Whatever had buried this campsite was still here, and she was slipping down into the dirt where it hid.
“Jack?” Part of the mound caved in on top of her and the distant light vanished. Natalie bowed her head and gasped and spluttered. The dirt weighed down on her, tumbling over her shoulders. The small pocket of air under her chin filled up. Panic set in. She felt the dirt around her face, her mouth, her nose. Pretty soon there would be no air left to breathe. Natalie stopped resisting the fall, and her slow motion descent ended in a sharp drop.
“Ah! Jack, I’m hurt. Jack? Are you there?” She pulled out her phone and groaned. “No signal.” The torch app lit up the tunnel she’d landed in. It was wider than the one she’d fallen through, wide enough to crawl through, but she had no intention of moving. The cave-in hadn’t covered the hole completely, leaving a slither of distant sky. This was where she needed to stay if she was ever going to see that sky again.
The tunnel shook and rumbled, and Natalie braced herself. When nothing fell, she looked up for the rope, picturing what it would look like slipping down the shoot. The rumbling grew louder. Natalie pressed herself against the wall and feeling the deep grooves, tried to place what tool had made them. Tunnelling, something was carving its way towards her. Her silent prayers and pleas didn’t bring Jack or the rope. The noise stopped though, and the only tremors left were the ones coursing through her body. She didn’t want to open her eyes, didn’t want to face the presence she sensed cloaked in the darkness.
There was an injured yip, followed by a fierce bark. It sounded wrong, like they were in the wrong order. Natalie lifted the phone. A short way down the tunnel, her light landed on white and black fur. The small dog yipped again. Not all of its paws met the floor, it seemed to dangle, and its eyes, with their grey sheen and blank stare, reminded her of the baby bird. She looked past the animal this time, past the tendrils curled inside its mouth, to the thing lurking in the shadows.
The monster filled the tunnel. An outer shell made up most of the creature, shaped like half an eggshell. A large, drop-shaped being hung under the shell. The drop had two arms and a head. The two arms with the tendrils looked human, but the four supporting limbs – part of the outer shell – were wide, curved, and clawed. They reminded Natalie of excavator scoops. It was hard to make out facial features, but it had eyes, and they locked on to Natalie.
The dog panted and tendrils wagged its tail. Natalie gave the rope-less hole one last longing glance before darting away in a hunched run.
She could hear it gaining ground, thundering through a space made for its shape. Gripping her phone until her knuckles whitened, she kept the light dead ahead and tried to stifle the cries leaking out between breaths. It was so close she swore she felt bristles of the dog’s fur.
The tilted door hadn’t been expected, but she had never been so grateful to see a door. Natalie dashed through and flung it behind her. The frame was warped. No matter how hard she pushed, it couldn’t hug the door shut. The door gave way to the monster. Its human-like arms hugged the small dog to its underbelly.
The floor was unnaturally even. This was a room, she realised, probably part of the missing lodge. Natalie backed up, with that thing matching her every step, until her back hit a wall. She slid to the floor with sheer terror threatening to stop her heart. Groping in the dark, she wished for a weapon, something, anything to scare this abomination away. The creature stepped closer. Natalie threw a brick, then a charred log. The monster’s round back and thick limbs looked like stone, and it used them to deflect Natalie’s projectiles. Her hand curled around a fire poker, and she thrust it forward. The beast curled its rock legs underneath it, encasing it in an impenetrable shell.
“Die, die, die!” she screamed. The poker wasn’t working.
Quickly, Natalie flashed her light around the room. It had crumpled during its burial. Even at a glance she could see that none of the strewn and destroyed items were substantial enough to take on the beast in its shell. Behind her, the wonky chimney breast creaked. Natalie looked at a second doorway, then she wedged the poker between the broken grouting and pushed out a chunk of the chimney. The entire room groaned and collapsed. Natalie leapt through the door. She coughed and dusted herself off, then looked back at the blocked doorway.
“Nat, I’m here. I’ll set up the tent.”
“Jack?” Natalie spun her light around the room. “The tent? Where are you?”
“Nat, I’m here.” His tone was reassuring, but she still couldn’t see him.
Dirt covered carpet lined the steep, slanted floor. She was still in the lodge. Glass in a picture frame crunched under her boot. She picked it up and turned her light to the photo. There was an older couple smiling on the porch of a lodge, with a small black and white dog at their feet.
A faint glow caught her attention. She smothered the light in her hand and looked up. There was the window she had uncovered, the window with the bird. Natalie ran up the steep carpet and reached for it.
The room behind her rumbled, and she heard the muffled bark of that small dog.
“Nat, I’m here.” Jack's voice was just through the next door.
The window wouldn’t budge, and the more Natalie tried to force it, the more her boots slipped on the steep floor. The rumbling got closer and rubble spilled into the room.
“Nat, I’m here.”
Natalie abandoned the window. She couldn’t get through it in time, even if it did open, but maybe she could reach Jack.
The final doorway opened into a cavern. This wasn’t right. There was no light, no rope, no rescue. She turned to go back, wanting to reach the window, but the creature emerged from the rubble below it, and the dog yipped.
He repeated the words, only this time Natalie felt dread. “Nat, I’m here.” He used the same tone and inflection as he had when he reached for her in the hole.
The cavern was large. There were no more doors she could see, no tunnels to run through. Natalie dared to venture further. Her light stretched out, laying a faint glow on many solid shadows, until she found a familiar silhouette.
“I’m getting rope, I’ll be right back.” One of the creatures held Jack’s body out in front of it. A hand was buried inside of his chest. She focused the light on Jack’s face, on his dead staring eyes, and watched the tendrils work his mouth. “Nat, I’m here.” His last words to her repeated back, only Jack wasn’t really saying them.
More voices started up around her. As her eyes adjusted, she saw the outlines of people circling the edge of the cavern.
“Edith, when’d you last see the dog?” Cheep. “Wi-Fi’s gone down.” Cheep. “Have either of you seen Layla?” Cheep. “Tim was in the tent when it got sucked down!” Cheep. “Climb the trees, climb the damn trees!”
A smaller monster, a child perhaps, edged forward with the tiny bird in its hand.
“Shut up, all of you just shut up!” Natalie screamed, pressing her hands over her ears.
She noticed the jolt, and the heat, and the wet, before the pain. Angling the light down, Natalie saw a hand sticking through her torso. The phone fell from her grasp, illuminating the ground and the discarded dog puppet. Tendrils snaked through her body, taking hold of her lungs, her vocal chords, and her mouth.
“We’re not lost,” her voice mumbled the eavesdropped words. “We’re in the right place.”