Camp Hartgrove By Virginia Burns

As a sort of preface to things–

I love the woods. They’re one of my favorite places to be, and camping is a frequent activity of mine. I usually take my sister, a friend or two, and my dog. We have a rule of sorts, that no one goes out into the woods alone after the sun goes down. We’re always prepped with multiple lights, radios, and a shotgun. (I don’t know what we originally thought we were prepping for, but it wasn’t anything like what we saw.)

It’s too hot to camp around here in the summer sometimes. I’m usually up for it, but the heat does get to you, especially if you’re doing stuff (which without doing anything, the trip is pretty boring). That’s why when I saw a temperature of 74° in the middle of July, I jumped at the chance. Made a few calls, and my sister along with two others were in. (For their sake I won’t reveal their names. I’ll be calling my sister Kat, and the others Emma and Brian.) We were going on Saturday, three days from then. Planned on staying for four nights, because after that the temperature shot back up into the hundred-zone, which wouldn’t be impossible– just unpleasant. First and last day would be mostly walking, but we would get to relax in the middle.

We’ll call our destination “Camp Hartgrove”. It was an older site that led deep into the woods. The outsides were normally a bit crowded, but the deeper you went the less people there were. I wasn’t new to the area, but Kat had never been here with me before. She always said she heard stories about ‘creepy things in the woods’. I teased her about it, but she used to be pretty hard-set. Things change, though, and I guess as she got older she started to believe less and less in the tales. (Which thank god for me, because she was always the best companion. I was glad to have her there.)

Yada yada yada, do some stuff, a little bit more planning, and there came Saturday. We loaded up the pickup truck with our tents and supplies. Four people was a tight squeeze in a two-door, but we made it work. I drove, with Emma sitting shotgun, Kat in the middle, and Brian in the bed. Legal? Definitely not, but I’d done it before and no one seemed to pay much attention. There weren’t many cars on the dirt and gravel roads leading to the side entrance we normally took. 

Drive there went smoothly, we even stopped for McDonald’s on the way. About 45 minutes later and we were turning onto the first side road that would lead us to the camp. Things started to get a little strange, but no cause for alarm just yet. 

After half a mile, we found a deer carcass in the middle of the road. This in its own wasn’t weird, but the condition of the body was what gave us bad feelings. The front half of the animal was on the left side of the road, and the back half on the right. Its entrails were strewn in the middle, twisted and broken in strange places. The mouth was open and tongue lolled out onto the gravel. Eyes were open, but seemed to look at our truck, lacking the usual glossiness of death. It looked like something had ripped it in half, then laid it down on the ground.

“Do you think a bear did this, or something?” Kat asked. She seemed the most affected, of the four of us.

“Probably. Bears are weird sometimes.”

“Yeah, bet it was just a bear.”

And we left it at that. It left us a little unsettled, for sure, but it wasn’t the strangest thing we’d seen in these woods. We just kept driving and hoped the bear wasn’t around anymore.

“Which way was the head facing?”

“Forward, towards the car.”

“It’s backward, towards the car.”

Sure enough, as the mirror showed us, the head was now facing the direction we headed in. Kat shuddered.

“We just bumped it, don’t worry. That thing’s long dead.”

She didn’t tear her eyes from its gaze until we rounded the next turn.

(In retrospect, we’d seen corpses like this on the interstate or busy roads. The thing was that almost zero cars drove on this road, and if some did, they would’ve been going slow enough to break before they hit. The body would not have been in this position naturally for any reason we could guess other than a large predator, which is why we all a bit weary of the woods after that.)

Finally we made it to the entrance. Spirits were higher, seemingly having forgotten about the ordeal with the deer. We joked and laughed as we pulled up to the gate, wooden sign reading the all familiar Camp Hartgrove. We parked in the second lot, along with the minivans and other pickups, and unloaded our things. Packs weighing on our shoulders, down the first trail we went, ready for a fun few days among friends.

“My legs hurt,” Emma complained. “Are we almost there?”

“Stop whining,” Brian told her. “Don’t be a baby.”

She muttered a reply, speeding up just enough to step on his heels and cause him to trip. 

Dude! What the hell?

Emma smirked. “Don’t be a baby.”

I was in leading position of the group, with Kat behind me, followed by Brian and Emma. There was almost a path, branches broken and bushes still pushed out of the way from the last time we walked here. Thorns pricked at our pant-legs, but otherwise it was fairly clear. We were about halfway, I guessed, judging from the trees I remembered. The first time we came, I had carved a crooked smile into the light bark of a sycamore tree. The next time, I couldn’t find it anywhere. It was probably still around here somewhere, though.

The place we were headed was a clearing of trees, about the size of the parking lot. It was room enough to pitch the tents and make a campfire in the middle. We usually set up a hammock and a table with chairs, too. Pretty normal camping stuff, doesn’t need too much of an explanation. There was a small lake a short walk away, where we frequently swam and hung out.

Ten more minutes passed, and the lineup changed. Me, Brian, Emma, then Kat. Kat was being unusually quiet, but I chalked it up to she hadn’t been out in a while, and was tired and out of breath. I myself could feel the sun beating down, and started to doubt the forecast. Standing in the sun, at least, it couldn’t’ve been less than 90°. Just looking back, I could see that everyone’s hair was slicked with sweat. My shirt was stuck to my back, and the heavy bag didn’t make matters better. I was just wishing for a breeze, or a stream, or anything that could cool me off. I took a deep breath, but the air didn’t seem fresh, just hot. My water bottle was in my pocket, so I went to turn around–

A string of curses erupted behind me, along with a loud crack and the scuffle of someone quickly moving around.

“OW, SHIT!” 

“What happened?”

“I stepped in a hole, or something. I don’t know. Feels like I broke my fucking ankle. I’m not kidding,” Brian said. He took a sharp breath as he tried to move it around.

“Can you walk on it?” Kat asked, her voice concerned.

“Does it look like I can walk on it?”

“Dude, be nice,” Emma told him. “Don’t get pissy with us just because you couldn’t see a hole right in front of you.”

“Guys, hush. You’re fine, Brian. Do you need one of us to help you?” I said, wanting the argument to cease.

“Then we’d have to double up on bags,” Emma pointed out. “I think one bag is heavy enough. Kat?”

“Actually, mine’s not that bad. Here, I’ll take Brian’s, and you let him lean on you. He’s not that big, you can handle your bag along with him. Sound good?”

“Fine,” she grumbled. She took Brian’s hand and pulled him up, her arm around his shoulder so she could lead him along. “Guys are such babies.”

“I heard you, and no, we aren’t. That’s sexist.”

“You’re right, my bad. It’s just you that’s the baby.”

It seemed like an eternity before we made it to the camping space. Emma and I pitched the tents (two three-person, so we’d all have more room), and Kat set Brian up with a homemade cast. His ankle was starting to look pretty bad, purple and swelling. He assured us that he was feeling better after some food and water, and didn’t want to go home. (And even with the increased heat, it was still a hell of a day for camping, and we weren’t going to argue with him.) Evening had set in, and we all agreed we wanted to try the lake before it got darker. We secured our belongings and closed up the food, heading down the fern-ridden path to the cool waters.

Won’t bore you with the walk there, but we ended up leaving Brian to watch our stuff, because we weren’t sure the water would be too clean (and his ankle had a few scrapes from the ground). Everything seemed normal until we got to the lake itself. When we stumbled upon it, the atmosphere changed.

There was a deep sense of dread in their air. My chest was tight, like the moment before an anxiety attack starts. Emma complained that her head hurt, and Kat was just scared. We didn’t want to get in.

We stood around for a few minutes, just surverying the water. But Emma spoke up and assured us that we weren’t making sense, because there was nothing out here, and started taking off her shirt and shorts. She stepped into the edge of the water, so that only her feet and lower legs were covered.

“Come on in, guys. The water’s fine. Seriously, nothing bad’s gonna happen to us.”

“Yeah, you’re right. C’mon, Kat.”

She mumbled a response, but we both followed suit and took off our outer layers. I have to admit, the relief from some of the heat was refreshing. I felt better when I stepped into the water. The bottom was soft and I didn’t find any rocks stabbing into me. I could almost relax– key word being almost. Something still felt wrong.

We ignored it for the most part, though, and swam together. Kat and I took turns splashing eachother, and Emma swam in laps along the edge. It was enjoytable, at least from my perspective. The sun which previously beat down on us now warmed our skin as we came up from the cool water. I let out a breath.

Which I quickly sucked back in as Kat jabbed me in the shoulder.

“Do you see that?”

“What?”

“It looks like there’s something over there. Like, a kid or something. I don’t know what it is.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I said automatically. But sure enough, when I looked, I saw something in the brush.

The feeling of dread came flooding back to me. I could tell Kat wasn’t at ease, either. Emma didn’t seem to have taken notice. I tried to signal to her, speaking in hushed tones.

“Hey, do you see something over there?”

“Where?”

“The bushes, I think.”

“Do you want me to look?”

“Yeah, sure.” I sure as hell don’t want to. “Be careful.”

She climbed out on the bank and stood up, hair dripping, and peered over the green. I could see her heart drop from where I was. She looked nauseous.

“It.. god.. I can’t even tell if its alive or not. Come over here.”

“Do we have to?” Kat whispered to me. I motioned her on, but she didn’t move.

“Fine, you can stay here. I’ll be back.”

“Thank you.” 

I waded my way over to the other girl, insides feeling twisted up. A gulp made its way into my throat and I felt childish. A corpse was a corpse.. It was probably a fawn or something. I took stance next to Emma.

And the thing was not a deer.

It did look like a kid, but the proportions were wrong. Its limbs were too long, and so was its neck. I couldn’t see any hair on its body. I shuddered. It looked starved, like there was zero muscle on the naked, bony body.

“Maybe he was abused. That’s horrible,” Emma said in a low tone, tears in her eyes. “Who would do something like this to a kid?”

I had just opened my mouth when the thing’s head snapped up. A sick crach was emmitted from its neck, and it let out a guttural scream. It didn’t sound like a person. My hair stood on-end. Despite the heat, a deep chill had run through my body.

I didn’t have a chance to react. Emma was standing closer to it. It wasn’t my fault it grabbed at her instead of me. I froze when she screamed beside me. The sound was awful, and it hurt to hear it. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t tear my eyes away as it tore into her skin.

I didn’t snap out of it until Kat screamed behind me. She took off running, not that I could blame her, and I followed right after. My lungs burned and my feet bled as they tore through the forest. I didn’t stop running ‘til I saw our tents again. Kat was sitting on the ground by a concerned Brian, her head in her knees. I think he asked me what happened, what was wrong. I couldn’t tell him. My breathing was too ragged, horrid sounds replaying over and over again in my head.

I must have blacked out, because I don’t remember anything after that, up until the point where Brian was loading stuff into our truck in the parking lot. I don’t know how he got it out there with a hurt ankle and a definitely fucked-up Kat, I didn’t ask. Maybe he got help from some other campers. He could’ve left it all behind, and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

It’s been weeks, and I still see it everytime I close my eyes. I see it all. Emma’s face contorted in pain and confusion, like she was in disbelief, and then the acceptance that she was going to die. The thing, it’s pale skin, yellow teeth and yellower eyes. It wasn’t a person. It wasn’t a human.

I haven’t talked to Brian since he dropped me and Kat off. We didn’t tell him. What were we supposed to say?

I don’t think we’ve gotten a night’s sleep since. Kat started sleeping in my room. For the first few days, we’d just listen to eachother breathe, too afraid of what sleep would show us. We couldn’t do that forever. I wish we could.

The cops didn’t believe us either, of course. They passed it off as an animal attack. From what rumors I’d picked up on from my parents, there wasn’t much left of her at the scene, so they couldn’t know for sure. “Probably bear.”

I feel like I’ve talked for too long, so I’ll leave it at that. I can barely breathe writing this. I don’t think I’ll ever be okay again, after that. Kat too. There’s people still out there, camping like nothing is wrong, because they don’t know anything is. Before that, I wouldn’t have either. You don’t expect someone to die on a friendly camping trip. You don’t expect your friend to be ripped apart by whatever is in those woods. You don’t expect to hear their screams and struggles as you run away, like a coward.

So here’s a warning for all of you, if you choose to believe it. Stay out of the woods at Camp Hartgrove. There’s something in there that’s not supposed to be.

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