The Place Beyond The Trees
The beer left Jason parched and slightly dehydrated. He snatched a water bottle inside the cooler and sat in the lawn chair he packed for the night. The icy liquid soothed his thirst almost immediately.
Several minutes of watching the fire wood crumble advanced until his attention shifted to Byron creeping out of his tent. Byron was his best friend and fellow teammate from the varsity football team. He grinned at Jason and plopped in the chair beside him with a sigh.
“Can’t sleep?” said Jason.
“The missus is snoring again,” said Byron. “I thought I’d be used to it by now.”
He chuckled and handed Byron a water from the cooler. “Some things you don’t.”
Byron took a swig, turned to Jason, and in a more serious tone said, “I’m glad you came out to celebrate our graduation with us, man. I know you didn’t want to be here, so thanks.”
Jason nodded and chugged some more water.
“I think we need to get the three amigos out here, let the ladies sleep peacefully.” Byron winked and stood up, walking toward Oscar’s tent before Jason could stop him. Oscar was always irritable when he was tired. Jason merely shook his head in disapproval.
Byron opened the tent. He poked his head inside, but only found empty sleeping bags.
“What’s the matter?” Jason asked.
Byron shrugged. “It’s empty,” he said.
Jason gravitated over to the tent, riddled in confusion. He examined the vacant tent, wondering where Oscar and his girlfriend were hiding. “They’ve been gone almost two hours. I don’t understand why they aren’t back yet.” He glanced at Byron, worried. “They should’ve been back.”
“I’m sure they’ll be back soon. Maybe they just wanted some… alone time.” He smirked.
Jason was frustrated Byron didn’t exhibit similar worry. Something felt off, a gut feeling. At the very least, he wanted to make sure his friends were alright. He returned to his tent and retrieved a flashlight from his backpack. Brianna stirred, but didn’t wake thankfully. He didn’t want to concern her with something that wasn’t absolute. He tested the flashlight after closing the tent. On. Off.
“What are you doing?” said Byron, frowning.
“You know exactly what I’m doing,” said Jason. He brushed past Byron, away from the campsite, but stopped when a hand clutched his arm. He shook it off and turned. “What?”
“You’re an idiot if you think you’re going alone in there. Just take a breath and let me grab a flashlight.”
“No, someone needs to–”
“I’ll convince Tasha. Give me a minute.”
Moments later, Byron crawled out of the tent, followed by Tasha, a zombie-like figure, slogging towards the fire, moaning with tiredness in her pajamas.
“Ready to search the creepy forest?” said Byron, flashlight in hand as he stood beside Jason.
“Let’s go,” said Jason.
The dense cluster of trees made any linear path impossible to decipher, leaving the two boys to wiggle between the limited spaces as they trekked forward. The trees stood tall, intimidating, blocking a clear view of the 4 am night sky. Darkness swallowed the boys as they ventured deeper, nothing but the flashlights to comfort their uneasiness, though the light was barely penetrable. The sound of their shoes skating against the grass was barely enough to muffle the drum of their heartbeat, pounding louder and louder with every step away from the campsite. Away from safety.
The boys toggled their flashlights like a security camera, spotlighting different areas of the forest, hoping to catch a glimpse of their missing friends.
Jason sighed. Maybe they didn’t come this way, he thought, trying to suppress the concern growing inside. What if they didn’t find them? No, they’re out there somewhere. They have to be. “Wait,” said Jason, halting in place. “You should go back, Byron, check on the girls.”
“No way, man,” said Byron. “I’m not leaving you alone. They’ll be okay.”
Jason bit his lip and shook his head. “Something’s wrong. I don’t like it.”
“Then let’s keep looking.”
They pushed further along, lighting the path they carved for themselves.
A crunching noise emerged beneath Jason’s shoe. He paused and knelt to the ground, calling Byron over for a closer look. He found the source of the noise, picking up what used be a cellphone, its screen webbed with cracks.
“Oscar’s?” said Byron.
“Maybe,” said Jason. He continued treading forward, his pace slightly quicker, more frantic, Byron following behind. He called out to Oscar with no response. And again. And again. Where are you?
Before he could catch himself, Jason tripped and tumbled onto the ground, sending his flashlight sprawling across the ground in front of him. Only a few scrapes and cuts were etched into his forearm, nothing he couldn’t handle. He stood up, gathered his bearings, and picked up the flashlight that, to his surprise, was unscathed. “I’m surprised, not even a laugh from–”
Byron’s light casted over the ground where Jason tripped. He stood motionless, his face free of expression. Jason followed his line of sight, pointing the flashlight in the same position.
The light revealed a most unexpected horror, twisting his insides in disgust. Two bodies lay beside each other, vaguely pale and purplish on the skin. Their throats were slit, the source of the red stains of blood that painted their clothes. The cuts were deep but jagged and rough, less than smooth. Unlike Byron who couldn’t stomach the image, Jason fought against the bile rising in his throat, though he felt his legs tremble, almost preparing to give up. Who the hell would do this?
Byron, hunched over, wiped his mouth from the vomit. His breathing accelerated. “Oh god, oh god,” he said. He retched again.
Jason slipped out his phone and held it high in the air. No signal. He couldn’t call anyone, at least not here. He nearly stuffed the phone back into his pocket when the screensaver caught his attention: a picture of Brianna, smiling brightly.
“We have to go!” said Jason.
Tugging a sickly Byron along, Jason sprinted back in the direction of the campsite (or so he hoped), holding steady the flashlight in his view. The journey back seemed endless in the midst of panic. He prayed Brianna was okay, resting peacefully in the tent. Tasha too. He zigged and zagged between the trees, gliding across the ground on the balls of his feet just like in football practice. He couldn’t risk one misstep.
Upon reaching the campsite, the boys held their hands above their head to catch their breath, stamina weakened by a poor mix of alcohol and athletics.
Jason, still wheezing heavily, knelt beside his tent and peeled away the entrance. He flicked on his flashlight.
She was gone. Vanished.
His body went limp, pain striking his chest.
Tasha scurried out from the forest behind her tent, frowning at Byron. “About time you showed up,” she said. “I had to go to the bathroom all alone.”
Byron didn’t acknowledge his girlfriend, his face stone cold.
“Hello? Earth to Byron.”
Rage ignited within Jason. He gritted his teeth, squeezed his fists, and sprung out from the tent. “Where is she?” he yelled. His gaze aimed for Tasha, laced with venom.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“Where is she, Tasha? You were supposed to watch her!”
She licked her lips before responding. “I went to use the restroom, but just for a couple minutes. I didn’t–”
“Save it.” Jason wanted to punch her, to choke her, anything to relieve the frustration. But he knew it wouldn’t solve anything. He had to find Brianna. There was no other option. But where? Where would she be taken to? He didn’t know. “Grab a flashlight.”
“What the hell is going on? What aren’t you telling me?”
“Just grab a flashlight!” He pointed to her tent. “We need to find Brianna.”
“No, not until you explain yourself.”
He grunted. “Fine!” The mental image softened his tone, nearly on the verge of tears. “Oscar and Christina are dead.” He paused. “I need to find Brianna before something bad happens.”
Tasha collapsed in tears.
Jason marched over to Byron. He patted his shoulder and said, “I have to find her.”
Byron nodded without looking at his friend.
Jason didn’t know where to start, but he knew for sure he would find Brianna.
He had to.
Instinctively, Jason assumed Brianna would be near Oscar’s and Christina’s body. It’s the best place to start, he thought. He hiked his way back to their bodies, following what little he remembered about the path he navigated. Not ten minutes later, Jason stumbled upon the lifeless bodies still soaking the earth with their blood. He took a moment to close their eyelids out of respect and continued pushing forward. Now wasn’t the time to grieve. The darkness seemed blacker, more frightening as he moved along; the flashlight’s illusion of safety was slowly diminishing.
Jason’s efforts were met with little reward. Minutes ticked by, leaving him with nothing but the probability of never finding Brianna. The statistics looked bleak.
Just when the thought of turning back crossed his mind, the cave forced him to engage the brakes. The cave entrance was gargantuan, perhaps fifty feet both length and width. The idea of venturing deeper into an unknown, pitch-black hole was far more unsettling than the forest. If not for Brianna, fear may have turned Jason around without a second thought.
Swallowing his sense of trepidation, he wandered into the cave cautiously, steering the flashlight side-to-side to gain a sense of his surroundings for a quick exit. Stalagmites and stalactites stretched from different corners of the cave like needles. The incredible openness left Jason feeling tiny, shrunk. He nearly lost his footing on a slight drop below, but caught his balance and continued.
Voices. The echoes were faint, but enough to point him in the right direction. Every step amplified the sound. Louder. He was close. His speed quickened. Is that… a fire? The illumination expanded. The voices were coming from near the fire. “Hello?” he said. “Brianna?”
“Jason!” said a scream.
It was her. He knew that voice anywhere. He raced to the source.
There she was, but to his dismay, she wasn’t alone. Men in dark, hooded robes encircled Brianna’s fidgeting body, her hands tied by a rope hanging from the cave’s ceiling. The men pressed their hands together as if in the middle of a prayer.
Her name was all Jason could yell before a blow was dealt to the back of his head. His knees folded as he yelped, the dizziness overwhelming. His vision blurred. He attempted to muster the strength to stand up, but couldn’t. His head ached.
Two men dragged Jason to the middle of the circle, one in each arm, and dropped him to the floor.
“Jason! Help me!” said Brianna.
He heard her voice, but couldn’t react. It hurt so much.
A man spoke. “Let us continue.” He held a bronze chalice in one hand, a knife in the other. “Blood of the virgin, blood from the light, by the power of your grace, grant us everlasting life!” With the chalice resting against her chest, he slit her throat with one quick stroke. Blood poured into the chalice as she choked her final moments away. The blood nearly spilled over the top before the man slurped the red liquid. “Yes.” With a bloodied smile, he passed the chalice around the circle of hooded men, each man sipping the liquid. By the time the chalice completed a full circle, it was empty.
Jason, still suffering from the blow, gingerly stood up, pressing the wound on the back of his head. It was wet. “Brianna,” he whispered, unable to focus the blur.
The man with knife approached Jason. “You shouldn’t have come,” he said. “You should’ve left this place while you had the chance, just like your friends.”
Another blow landed to the back of Jason’s head, and the world went completely dark.