by M.D.C. Hughes
Riley had a sinking suspicion that she was out two thousand dollars, plus a few irreplaceable items.
At least she was spending some quality time with Tom, as quality as time could be in a ditch waving away mosquitoes whilst searching for her lost lingerie and cocktail gown.
The taxi driver sat on the hood of his car in the breakdown lane. Chain smoking Marlboros and thinking about his meter clicking over dollars and cents of the easiest fare of his life.
Tom had agreed to undertake what he saw as a pointless task only after he had watched Riley tearfully scream at their coach driver for fifteen minutes when they had arrived in Portland.
Riley had gotten particularly irate when the driver had looked at his watch in the midst of her tirade, “Oh, I’m sorry am I keeping you?” Riley had asked, seething with rage. A rage that had only been vulcanized by the driver’s response, “Yeah actually. I gotta go up to Seattle and back again before I quit tonight, so if you don’t mind.”
Riley had been left gasping in front of the station manager as the driver had walked away, lighting a cigarette before immediately stamping it out and getting back on the bus.
In a hail-mary attempt to calm Riley before she popped a blood vessel Tom had offered to lend her his spare jeans and hoodie for the weekend, at least until they could get to the mall and replenish her lost items. At this Riley had turned her apoplectic fury in his direction.
“You know when you’re traveling you have all your favorite jewelry, all your favorite clothes, all the things you want to wear all the time?” Riley had seethed to Tom when he’d implied he didn’t see the big deal.
“Well that’s the situation here, plus some very sentimental stuff that I had brought with me especially for your brother’s wedding.”
Riley’s tone had conveyed to Tom that the loss of her things would be laid at his feet if he did not accompany her to recover them without another word.
* * *
Now they were both sweating and dirty hunting the stretch of highway where Riley was sure her suitcase had flown out of the greyhound’s locker after a particularly violent lurch earlier in the day.
When they had arrived into Portland, Riley had stood patiently while all the other passengers, including Tom, received their bags from the driver. She thought it was odd that she had had to wait until the very end. That morning Riley had run to catch the bus before it pulled out of its bay in Seattle. Tom had been stood at the bottom of the steps asking the driver to just wait a few more minutes. The driver had begrudgingly agreed, taking the opportunity to sneak in one more cigarette before embarking on the four hour drive.
When Riley finally arrived the driver took her bag without a word and threw it into the baggage locker, slamming the door in frustration. Riley looked at Tom, abashed. Tom merely raised his eyebrows and tapped his watch.
* * *
Looking at his watch now in the light of the setting sun Tom studied Riley’s behind as she picked her way through the undergrowth. He was impressed by her tenacity, but really hoped she was going to give in soon. Tom had to be at the wedding venue by nine the next morning, and hoped that the two of them could still have a fun night out on the town before hooking up in their hotel room.
As Tom stood by the highway letting his imagination steal his attention he snapped back to the task at hand when Riley swung around with a victorious cry.
Holding a small black leather case above her head Riley waved to Tom beckoning him closer.
“Babe! This is my toiletries bag, we’re in the right place.”
Tom was impressed. It had taken Riley a solid fifteen minutes to get the driver to admit that he had seen the locker fly open on this stretch of highway. A further five minutes for a manager to offer to compensate her two hundred and fifty dollars. At this paltry sum Riley had scoffed and pulled out her phone to call the cab that was now waiting for them a few yards back.
Riley took Tom’s hand and pointed to the fence at the top of the steep highway embankment where her suitcase lent drunkenly, with its contents scattered around it.
Before Tom had time to react Riley was dragging him up the hill and handed him her case.
“Here, hold this, I’ll grab all my stuff and we can get out of here.”
Tom leant against the fence, watching the cars fly by on the highway below them, a steady stream of taillights in the dusk.
As Riley gathered up the last of her clothes and shoes and shoved them in the case she turned and looked through the fence into the woods beyond.
“Dammit, look babe, somehow a ton of my stuff went over the fence, will you climb over and get it for me?”
Tom looked at the high chain link fence. Checking his watch again he considered the possibility of grabbing a few more of Riley’s things and still having time to make the rehearsal dinner and then a screw back at the hotel, verses the inevitable argument that would ensue if he refused to go over the fence.
“Sure thing hun,” said Tom meekly, placing the suitcase down and grabbing the chain link.
With flecks of rust digging into his fingers Tom swung a leg over and paused at the top of the fence, looking down at Riley, who was smiling up at him. Tom checked the ground beneath him and jumped down, he let out a yelp of pain as his foot twisted on a root that had been covered by leaves and highway litter.
Grasping the fence Tom winced as he tried to put weight on his ankle. Turning to look at Riley Tom hoped for a glimmer of sympathy from his girlfriend. Instead, as soon as their eyes met she pointed to a shoe at the tree line.
“There’s the other one of my heels babe, can you grab it?”
Shrugging, Tom stepped gingerly forward, testing his ankle before putting all his weight on it. As he limped under the overhanging trees he saw the suggestion of a trail in the undergrowth. Scattered along it was some of Riley’s detritus. A hairdryer hung by its cord from a branch and the low sun reflected off the mirror of a powder case that had been propped up on a stump.
“There’s a lot of your stuff in here, you think maybe you could come over so I don’t miss anything?”
“You can’t manage it?”
I probably could if you hadn’t packed so much stuff, Tom thought to himself. To Riley he said, “I mean maybe, I just would hate to miss any of your things in the dark.”
“Ok, let me run down and tell the cab driver what we’re doing, I don’t want to get stuck out here.”
While Tom waited for Riley to get back he picked up the compact and put it in his pocket. Sitting on the stump he lifted his pant leg to have a look at his ankle. In the dim light under the trees he wasn’t sure if the dappled color was bruising or just the shadows pressing in on him. Lifting his head to look for any more of Riley’s things Tom looked deep into the woods. Spying at least four more things that could only be Riley’s Tom turned back to the fence to see what was taking her so long.
Riley had to empty her wallet to persuade the cab driver to stay. He’d tried to weasel out of waiting for them with some story about how it was the end of his shift and he needed to get home to his wife and kids.
Riley had told him to stop complaining and stay there, turning her back on him and not seeing the middle finger he extended in her direction. Riley climbed the embankment and up over the fence, being careful to not jump on the root that had caught Tom out earlier.
Stepping up to her boyfriend Riley gave Tom a playful smack on the shoulder.
“Come on then, handsome, we better get a move on if we’re still going to screw in the hotel room later.”
Tom started, overjoyed that he and Riley were working towards the same goal. Standing to his feet he winced at the pain in his ankle. Even though he hadn’t been able to see any bruising Tom knew that his ankle looked bigger than it should. Placing one hand on Riley’s shoulder for support he pointed down the faint trail at the items he’d already seen. Both of them looked up at the orange sky, knowing they were short on time to find everything.
As they scooped up two blouses, some leggings, and a particularly lacy pair of panties they noticed more things further into the woods.
Tom was sweating now, the effort of limping along taking its toll.
“Please babe, haven’t we got enough? Can’t we come back tomorrow?”
“When Tom? When are we going to have the chance between setting up the venue, the ceremony, the dancing? We won’t be done until after dark and then our tickets home are for first thing in the morning Sunday. So when?”
“Shh, what was that?” said Tom, staring between the mossy trunks.
“Nothing, probably a rabbit or a fox.” said Riley. “Dusk is when all those animals are up and doing stuff.”
“I don’t know, it seemed pretty big.”
“There’s nothing big here babe, this is a forest inside a city, there is nothing to freak out about.”
“Ok, fine, nothing bigger than a fox. But a rabid fox? That would. Mess. You. Up.” said Tom wide eyed at the thought of a small woodland creature leaping out of the undergrowth snapping its foamy jaws at his neck.
“Come on, just a little longer, please babe, I haven’t found any of my jewelry yet, and I had my mom’s locket in my bag.”
Tom hesitated, suddenly understanding Riley’s behavior that had seemed so odd compared to her easy going nature.
* * *
When Riley was five her dad had taken her out of town on a daddy-daughter camping trip. It had been the best weekend of Riley’s young life. Cooking s’mores, catching fish, even shooting a rifle at empty bean cans.
When Riley and her dad had turned the corner into their neighborhood a low cloud of smoke and red glow had filled the windshield. By the time Riley and her dad turned onto their street Riley’s dad had been praying the prayer of the desperate.
“Oh God, please God, no God, don’t let it be God.”
The fire chief’s report had said that Riley’s mom had fallen asleep on the couch and left an unlit burner on the gas stove running. The chief wrote that Mrs. Porter must have turned on a lamp and the small spark ignited the gas filled home. She died instantly.
Riley had almost nothing of her mother’s. Everything that her mother had been and had was in that house. Except for the locket. For reasons unknown to Riley Riley’s mom had stored a letter and a locket in a safety deposit box at the bank. When her mother’s will was read both items were bequeathed to Riley and became her most treasured possessions.
* * *
Tom took a deep breath and pushed himself away from the tree he had leant against and took Riley by the hand.
“Ok, like thirty more minutes, and then it will be way too dark to even see where we’re going, let alone find a necklace in the woods.”
“Ok,” Riley nodded, “thirty minutes. Although, the dark isn’t really an issue is it?” Pulling her phone out of her pocket Riley swiped her thumb up to turn on the flash. Shining it in front of them she headed into the forest.
Tom grabbed a long stick that had fallen from one of the surrounding trees. Using it as a makeshift crutch he hobbled after Riley’s bobbing light.
As dusk turned to full night the two of them were able to locate more and more of Riley’s lost luggage. Tom wondered how it had gotten so far back between the trees along the trail. He shrugged and figured stuff could get thrown pretty far out of a bus doing eighty on a windy day.
After fifteen of their self imposed thirty minute time limit Riley gave a cry of triumph as she spotted something glinting in a tree branch just out of reach.
“Babe, look, can you reach that?”
Tom stretched up and hooked a finger through a delicate gold chain. Gently tugging for fear of snapping the links and losing the pendant in the dark Tom felt the chain shift, but it wouldn’t come free.
“It’s hooked on something babe.”
“Well, what if I sit on your shoulders and then I’d be tall enough to untangle it?”
Tom knelt, hoping that this was the locket so they could get back to the hotel. Any thought of getting laid was far from his mind now. Tom just wanted a shower, a sandwich, and a fistful of painkillers for his ankle.
Standing on his good leg and then gingerly putting weight on his injured ankle Tom raised Riley up until she was level with the mass of leaves in which the chain was entwined. He nearly fell as she recoiled violently and threw her weight backwards.
“What the hell Riley?”
“Get me down, get me down, get me down.”
Sliding Riley off his back Tom put his hands on her shoulders to hold her steady.
“What’s going on?”
“Well, it was definitely one of my necklaces.”
“So why didn’t you grab it? Too tangled?”
“Well, yes and no. It is tangled, but not accidentally. It’s been put there on purpose.”
“What? How do you know that?”
“Because it has been threaded through the eye sockets of a skull and that can’t happen by accident.”
“A human skull?” Tom was staring up at the hanging chain above him both intrigued and apprehensive.
“No, a bird skull.”
“Oh, well, then get back on and you can grab it down.”
In the white light of her phone’s flash Riley’s eyes widened in horror at Tom’s suggestion that she grab a dead bird’s skull.
“Ok, Ok, I’ll get it.”
Reaching up with his makeshift walking stick Tom pushed through the leaves until he heard the click of wood on bone. Jerking the stick up into the tree and releasing it so his hands were free he caught the skull before it could hit the ground.
Tom undid the necklace from its grisly jewelry box. Dropping the chain into Riley’s hand Tom held the skull up to get a closer look.
“I think it’s an eagle skull,” said Tom, “definitely a bird of prey,” he continued, pressing the pad of his finger against the sharp hook of the beak. Carefully placing the skull at the base of the tree Tom decided he would pick it up on their way back, thinking it would make a good story later. Checking his watch as he stood Tom realized that their self imposed limit was up.
“Ok babe, that’s all she wrote. Let’s go.”
“Really?” said Riley, sticking out her bottom lip. “One, we haven’t found my mom’s locket. Two, you’re not in any way interested in finding out who put my necklace through a bird skull?”
“One,” said Tom, also counting on his fingers, “we are not going to find your mom’s locket in the dark forest at night.
“And two. No. No I am not. Because there is zero chance that some kind of gentle forest dweller did it to help out. It was for sure done to freak us out, so let’s freaking go.”
Picking up his stick Tom turned to beat a limping retreat back to the fence and the highway. Tom pulled his own phone from his pocket to illuminate his way, Riley was still aiming her light deeper into the woods.
“Um, Riles, which way is it?” asked Tom, sweeping his light across the waist high undergrowth.
Riley spun around, looking for the trail they had followed into the woods. Before Riley could point it out to Tom her light shone off something to their left.
“Babe look, over there.” Riley strode off deeper into the woods to investigate the reflection.
Tom hobbled after Riley, glancing to try and find any trace of the trail they had been on moments before.
Riley grasped her mother’s locket in her hand as it swung in the cool night breeze. Tom came to a stop behind her and followed the chain up to where it disappeared among the pine needles.
“Is it in another skull?” asked Riley, unable to see above the branch the necklace was hung from.
“It’s in something.” said Tom, “it looks like metal though, it’s shiny.”
Tom reached out his hand, balancing on the toes of his good foot he could just brush his fingertips against the smooth surface of whatever was encasing the necklace. Pulling his fingers back quickly and stuffing them in his mouth Tom sucked in his breath sharply.
“Shit that’s freezing.”
Looking closely Tom saw that in the chill night air the metal sphere was starting to drip with a frosty condensation and that the pine needles around it looked like a Christmas card. Before he could lift his stick to knock the sphere and necklace out of the tree Riley pulled her hand back and shook it in startled pain.
“What the hell?”
Looking down she saw that the intense cold had burnt the filigree of her mother’s locket onto her palm. Holding her hand out to Tom she illuminated it with her flashlight.
“Ok, so now we can leave?” said Tom
“After we get my locket back, sure.”
Before Tom had time to argue Riley grabbed the stick from him and swung it at the tree branch.
Riley’s blow shattered the branch into frozen splinters that rained down on the two of them. Brushing at the frozen shards as they burnt through their clothes Tom and Riley moved backwards as the ground beneath them was coated in a thin layer of frost.
Tom and Riley looked desperately for the trail that would take them out of the forest and into the lights and warmth of the city.
“Where’s the trail Tom?” Riley demanded.
“What do you mean ‘where’s the trail’? I told you a minute ago I didn’t know the way, and then you just ran off over here,” snapped Tom.
A loud groan silenced Riley before she could reply. Looking around them they both saw tree trunks being enveloped in ice and frost.
“I think, that maybe, we should just go.” said Tom, lurching forward in the direction of the tree where they had found the eagle skull.
As he scooped to pick up the skull a tree behind them exploded knocking Tom and Riley into the carpet of pine needles. Scrabbling through the dirt and leaves to the other side of the wide tree trunk they sat panting as shards of frozen wood flew around them. Tom and Riley held each other as the tree they cowered behind shook with the force of multiple impacts.
Now the forest was full of the sound of cracking as more and more trees froze.
“We need to go. Now.” said Tom, listening for the distant sounds of the highway.
Riley accepted Tom’s hand and stood, she looped his arm over her shoulders so that she could support Tom’s weight as they hurried in what they hoped was the right direction.
Shivering and slipping on the frosty ground as the cold overtook them Tom and Riley saw headlights rushing past through the dark trees. Encouraged by the sight of civilization they picked up their pace. Tom slammed the end of his stick into the ground as hard as he could with each step, desperate to keep from falling on the increasingly treacherous terrain. When only a few feet separated them from the fence Tom and Riley began yelling down to get the attention of the cab driver.
“Start the car!”
“We need to go! Now!”
Riley leapt at the fence and screamed in anguish as the brittle metal shattered in her hands, she collapsed as shards of wire pierced her hands.
Tom took his stick and swung at the fence. Breaking a hole big enough for the two of them to walk through.
“Up you come babe,” said Tom. He helped Riley stand by grasping her elbow. Both of them could see their breath now as the temperature continued to plummet.
“Tom, I’m really scared, what’s happening?”
“I don’t know sweetheart, but we’re going now. It’s going to be ok.”
Sitting the two of them scooted down the slick embankment to where the cab had been.
“That bastard.” said Tom. “He’s left us out here. Oh babe, don’t cry. We can walk, maybe even hitch a lift.” Tom paused, taking in Riley’s bleeding hands and the leaf mulch that covered the two of them. “Well, maybe not hitch, but we can get to town.”
“Tom, what are you talking about? Just call someone, call your brother.”
Tom smacked his hand to his forehead, reaching into his pocket he pulled out his phone.
The warm air from his pocket instantly condensed on the screen. As Tom taped the home button the suddenly brittle glass shattered under the pressure and the phone went dark.
Behind them an explosion of white light filled the woods. Cars driving by spun out as the ice covered the highway and drivers were blinded by the glow from the forest.
Tom and Riley began to run, Tom grunted when his injured foot hit the blacktop. Riley started sobbing at the growing pain in her hands.
As car upon car rammed into one another behind them the highway was illuminated by a fireball of exploding gas tanks.
Tom fell first, his ankle giving out and pitching him onto his outstretched hands. As he lay with his forehead on the cold road he urged Riley onwards, desperate for her to escape whatever was coming.
Riley turned, slipping and landing on her shredded hands she cried out, falling silent as her head cracked against the breakdown lane.
Tom crawled towards Riley’s prone body. Wrapping himself around her to shield her from the cold his teeth chattered and his tears froze to his cheeks. In the light from the forest and the glow of the car fire Tom saw a small creature come walking down the embankment. Naked and not bothered by the cold, not even having to tread carefully on the slick slope, the creature came boldly towards them. The things feet were wide and two toed, with a claw on the back of its ankle that dug into the thickening ice.
A low buzz emanated from the things chest and with a twitch of a tentacle it beckoned to something out of sight.
Soon the side of the highway was inundated with a swarm of the creature. Each of them shied away from the heat of the fire, staying close to the ice encased fence until they could make their way down the slope to Tom and Riley.
Tom swept his hand around hoping to grab a stick, a rock, anything to ward off whatever the things were that shuffled his way. His walking stick was just out of reach and soon hidden by the legs of the creatures. Tom grabbed Riley’s shoulder and pulled her along, pushing with his good leg.
Tom felt something under his hand. Wrapping his numb fingers around it he lifted it up to his face. A book of matches, nearly empty. The cab driver must have dropped it. Tom noted how the creatures had avoided the fire and wondered.
Shivering Tom managed to grip the match between his fingers and rip it from the book.
“Tom? Tom? What’s going on?” Riley’s eyelids fluttered as she floated up to consciousness. “Why is it so cold?”
Riley gave a small scream as hundreds of stalked eyes turn towards her voice. She gripped Tom and screamed again at the flash of agony from her hands.
“Shh, here hold this.” Tom tried to pass Riley the match book before realizing that her ruined hands would be no better at holding it than his shaking ones.
“Here, between your teeth.”
Riley bit down on the edge of the book, Tom raised the paper match and drew it across the strike paper.
The light of the match barely showed in the incandescence from the forest, but the creatures saw it, and the creatures feared it.
As one the mass of claws and tentacles lurched backwards. The buzzing increased in volume and pitch becoming a high whine like a mass of huge mosquitoes.
Tom held out the match towards them, reveling as they slunk back from it, but very aware that he had maybe twenty seconds before the match burnt down to his fingers and the creatures renewed their chilling advance.
Taking the empty book of matches out of Riley’s mouth Tom lit the corner furthest from where spit had dampened the cardboard. Remembering the compact in his pocket Tom flipped it open and pulled out the powder puff.
Having no idea if this would work he held the flame at arms length and blew the loose powder over the top of it. To Tom’s elation the powder transformed into motes of fire and covered the nearest creatures. Everywhere a speck of burning powder touched their silvery flesh a fiery spider web spread.
Tom and Riley had to cover their ears as the creatures’ mosquito whine ramped up to a deafening scream.
The two of them sat on the frozen ground and watched with horrified delight as the initial advance of tentacled beasts pushed back from the small cloud of fire. Every time one of the burning creatures brushed against another the fiery trail leapt from skin to skin. Soon the entire multitude was screaming and flailing their tentacled arms into the air. The things turned and retreated back up the embankment, crumbling to dust.
Standing carefully on the slick surface Tom helped Riley to her feet. Cradling her injured hands Riley looked over her shoulder at the dust blowing in the frigid breeze.
“Tom, what happened?”
“Babe, I do not know, can you walk?”
“I think so, what about you? Your ankle?”
“I’ll make do –”
A scream of metal silenced Tom.
Pushing through the burning cars was a bus. It pulled to a stop beside them and the door slid open. A wave of climate controlled air swept over Tom and Riley as lurched towards the steps.
“Jes-us,” said the bus driver, taking in Tom’s skewed stance and Riley’s ragged hands
“uh, any luck finding your bag?”
“Very fucking funny,” said Riley through gritted teeth.
“You two want a ride?” said the bus driver as the two of them hobbled up the steps. As Riley reached the top she heard Tom gasp behind her. Looking back Riley was just in time to see Tom’s head wrapped in tentacles and his face blistering with cold.
Riley lunged for Tom to pull him into the sanctuary of the bus, her ruined hands failed to get any purchase and Tom slipped away into the darkness. Riley turned to the driver to beg him for help.
The driver held Riley’s mother’s locket up and used his free hand to pull the door closed.
“Was it worth it?” laughed the driver grimly.
Riley was encased in the metal confines of the bus. Over the hiss of the engine Riley heard a buzzing hum, and from behind each chair frost coated tentacles slithered into view.
Matt D.C. Hughes hails from Fair Oak, England. He currently lives and writes in Portland Oregon.He is married with three children. This story was written because a co-worker lost her bag on a greyhound bus.Twitter: @mdchughes