Just One Night
The road stretched out for miles ahead of Eliza as she drove. The thick forest of the Virginia countryside that flanked her on both sides cast a looming shadow along the roadway. The sight of the trees flying past her was hypnotic and threatened to lull her into a deadly sleep if she weren’t careful. She had already driven for several hours, and the GPS app on her phone, mounted to the dash, still said she had a few more miles to go.
She outreached a hand to turn on the radio when she was interrupted by the familiar ringing of her phone. The GPS app disappeared and, in its place, showed an incoming call from her dad. Her hand hesitated over the phone for a moment before finally pressing and sliding the green button.
“Hey, sweetheart,” said her Dad.
“What’s up, Da --,” she said, but stopped herself. “What do you want, Bradly?” she asked.
“How’s the drive?”
“Well, I got the tent all set up, and the fire pit’s ah’ go!” He chuckled, and it came off awkward and nervous.
“Sounds good. I’m nearly there.”
She reached out to end the call but stopped when her dad spoke again. “I’m glad you decided to come up with me. It’ll be good to finally see you again, sweetheart,” he said. “A shame your mom couldn’t be here with us, today.”
Eliza tightened her grip on the steering wheel and said, “Yeah, see you soon.” She cut off the call. She sighed and looked out the window at the passing trees.
She flicked on the radio, and rock music filled the car. Eliza rolled down the window and let the cold breeze flow through her shoulder-length auburn hair. “Give him a chance, Eliza. Just one night won’t hurt.”
The sun set below the treetops by the time Eliza parked and walked the trail up to the campsite. It was a claustrophobic clearing surrounded by dominating walls of tall, thick trees. Crickets chirped in the growing veil of darkness, and the scent of pine sap saturated the biting evening air. Eliza pulled her jacket close as a shiver ran up her spine.
Her Dad, Bradly, waited for her by the lit fire pit. A pair of fold-out lawn chairs sat next to one another around the crackling fire, with him occupying one.
Bradley was a tall, barrel-chested man in his late forties. His trimmed, scruffy beard, and plaid shirt and blue jeans combination reminded Eliza of a lumberjack. Bradley held an open beer can in one hand.
Eliza hesitated for a moment before finally ambling towards Bradley and the campfire. Twigs and leaves cracked and crunched with each of her heavy steps. That noise echoed through the clearing, and Bradly turned an awkward smile towards his daughter.
“H-hey, there’s my ‘Liza!” he said.
Eliza took a breath and smiled, but it didn’t reach her forest-green eyes.
The campfire spilled smoke into the starry night sky. Eliza sat there in the fold-out chair next to her dad, staring into those flickering flames. Bradley whittled away at a chunk of wood with a hunting knife. The silence was palpable.
“It’s nice, ya know,” said Bradly. “Camping like this again.” He glanced towards Eliza. “It’s been too long.”
Eliza watched the fire. “Yeah,” she said, “It’s nice.”
Bradly frowned. “You don’t sound quite convinced, ‘Liza.”
Eliza sighed and turned in her chair to face him. “Sorry,” she said, “I’m trying.” Bradly met her gaze with a sullen smile. A smile that just made the pit of her stomach churn. She looked back towards the fire.
“Mom would have loved this spot. Always did love these family trips.”
Eliza clenched her hands into fists on her lap. She glared towards her father and said, “Don’t. Please, just don’t.”
Bradly frowned and lowered his gaze down to the piece of wood he was whittling at in hand. “It’s been three years, sweetheart. We should talk about her and remember her. I miss your Mother, too, ya know?”
Eliza gritted her teeth as she fought back the tears welling up at the corners of her eyes. “You’ve no right, Bradly,” she said, spitting out that last word towards her father.
“No right?” Bradley’s tone was a low, frustrated growl. “She wasn’t just your mother. She was my wife.”
“Then tell me, Bradley, why the fuck did you cheat on her?” Eliza spat the words at him.
“It was a mistake, ‘Liza. We had a fight. I left and got drunk, and things happened. I’m only human. We make mistakes.”
“No,” said Eliza. “You’re less than human. You’re a fucking monster!” Eliza glowered at him. “Maybe if you were a decent human to her, maybe she’d still be here. Maybe she wouldn’t have killed—”
Eliza jumped as Bradly spiked the wood that he was whittling into the ground at his feet. His eyes wild with rage. She stared back at him wide-eyed, mouth agape, and trembling.
Bradly’s eyes softened. “Sorry, ‘Liza,” he said, his voice low. He reached down with a shaking hand to grasp the hunk of wood at his feet and started whittling once more. “I’ve been a pretty shitty father, but—”
“You can say that again,” said Eliza, glaring at the crackling firepit.
Bradly glanced back at her and said, “I’m not tryin’ to excuse what I did. I fucked up, and I can’t change that.” He sighed, whittling hands trembling. “No matter how much I want to. We have to try to move on and remember the good.”
Eliza shot up from her seat and said, “just drop it!”
Bradly jolted back in his chair, and his trembling knife-hand slipped against the piece of wood. The blade cut deep into his fleshy hand. Crimson blood dripped and pooled to the cold, dark ground.
“Dammit,” he said, hissing under his breath in pain. He dropped the wood and knife and clutched at the fresh wound.
“Shit,” said Eliza. Her anger subdued by the sight of the blood. “You alright?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said in a low grumble. “Gotta get the first-aid kit.” He stood and walked over to the tent. Eliza watched as he unzipped the flap and stepped inside, leaving her alone by the fire.
Eliza slumped into her chair and stared into the dancing flame. “Just try,” she said, “Just give him a chance, Eliza. Remember, he’s your dad. Not a monster.” She wrapped her arms around her trembling form to ease herself.
Snapping and cracking branches echoed in the dark, drawing Eliza’s attention towards the distant tree line. It sounded again, and her breath caught in her throat. She couldn’t make anything out in that inky blackness.
Eliza took a breath and settled back into her chair. “Just a wild animal, girl. Don’t freak,” she said. Crunching leaves like soft footsteps sounded from the forest depths. This time, however, there was something more along with those footsteps. A heavy snorting like a bloodhound sniffing out tracks echoed in the deep of the woods.
Eliza glanced back. In that velvet darkness, glowing red eyes stared back at her. She threw herself back, toppling over her chair and hitting the ground. “What the fuck?” She shuffled backward, not taking her eyes off those unblinking crimson orbs.
“Something the matter?” asked Bradly, returning from the tent with fresh gauze covering his cut hand.
Eliza shot a look towards him and pointed towards the tree line. “Something’s out there. I-I saw something out there.”
Bradly looked in that direction and frowned. “Don’t see anything. Maybe it was a deer or something,” he said.
Eliza looked back towards the forest depths. No eyes greeted her. “Yeah,” she said, “Sure. Just a deer.” She said the words, but she didn’t believe them as she kept her eyes glued to the darkness.
“Well, deer or mountain lion, I got protection just in case,” said Bradly as he helped Eliza up to her feet. He pointed out a double-barreled shotgun resting near the tent. “So, we’re pretty safe.”
“Can we keep It in the tent with us?” she asked.
“Sure,” her dad said, “Why don’t we call it a night and start fresh in the mornin’?” He offered Eliza a worried smile.
“Yeah,” she said. Eliza just stared at the tree line. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Even the presence of the shotgun didn’t quell her racing heart. What sort of creature had eyes like that?
An hour passed after the pair settled into their sleeping bags for the night. An hour passed before Eliza found herself stirred from sleep by those familiar soft, crunching footsteps outside the tent.
Eliza’s eyes shot open. There it was again, so loud in the night. She sat up in her sleeping bag and listened. It was subtler than earlier, but that noise was unmistakable. She held her breath as she recalled those red eyes. The footsteps were slowly, almost methodically circling their campsite like a predator stalking a kill.
She looked down towards her dad and found him still sound asleep. She reached out a hand, and, as quietly as she could, attempted to shake him awake.
“What is it?” he asked.
Eliza placed a finger to her lips and pointed towards the tent door. Those encircling, creeping footsteps sounded again.
“Mountain lion, maybe?” he asked in a whisper. He fell silent and closed his eyes, listening out for more telltale footsteps. “Probably che—”
A shrill, monstrous cry pierced the night air. Both Eliza and Bradly jumped in their sleeping bags and looked at each other with widened eyes.
“Okay,” he said, grabbing the shotgun next to him. “Not a mountain lion.” He loaded two shells into the chambers and grabbed two spare shells along with a flashlight. “Gonna go scare off whatever the hell that is.”
“Just be careful,” she said.
He grinned and said, “Don’t ya worry none. I’ll be fine.”
Bradly unzipped the tent flap and stepped out into the night, shotgun and flashlight in hand. Eliza watched from the tent as he scanned the campsite before moving closer to the distant tree line. The only footsteps she could hear now were his. She hoped whatever it was had just moved on.
Time seemed to slow as she watched on. All Eliza could make out of her father now was the beam of the flashlight as he stepped beyond the tree line. Her heart pounded in her ears against the thick silence.
Suddenly, another inhuman cry echoed in the night. Eliza clutched at her ears and watched as the flashlight jerked to one side. She jolted as a shotgun blast resounded, followed by Bradly’s unmistakable scream. The flashlight hit the ground, flickered, but remained on like a beacon in the night.
Eliza gasped and sat there frozen in the tent as she watched that distant beam of light with wide eyes. Now all concept of time seemed to stand still for her.
Silence filled the night, and what felt like an eternity to Eliza passed as she watched the still-shining flashlight.
“Come on, move. Please.” But it didn’t move, and Eliza’s body began to quake. “No. Please, no,” she said under her breath. Her blood ran cold as the realization that something went wrong struck her.
“Okay,” she said. “You can do this, Eliza. You have to.” She took a breath and lifted herself up and stepped out of the tent. “I’m coming, Dad.”
Bradly had taken the only flashlight, which meant Eliza had to rely solely on what she could see in the dark. The beam of the flashlight acted like a beacon for her to follow in the inky darkness. Even the light of the moon and stars offered little assistance, seemingly engulfed by the intense shadows.
Eliza held her hands out in front of her as she stepped through the night, passed the tree line, and into the wild depths of the dark forest. Her heartbeat and breathing louder to her now more than ever before.
When she reached her destination, she found the flashlight abandoned. She knelt and wrapped her fingers around the cold metal of the flashlight and scanned the area. The beam of light landed on the shotgun, laying on the ground not far from her, covered in blood. Her heart sank into the pit of her stomach.
“No,” she said.
Eliza switched the flashlight to her off-hand and reached down and snatched the shotgun. She checked the gun and found one unspent shell still in its chamber.
The flashlight illuminated a glistening trail of fresh blood. Eliza clenched the shotgun tightly. After taking a hopeful step forward, she hesitated. A void of shadow surrounded her. The cacophony of chirping crickets had fallen deathly quiet, and the silence rang in her ears.
“Just one step forward, and then another. Come on, ‘Liza,” she said in a whisper. Her body quaked against the bitter, still night air. Dammit, old man, where are you? I’m not losing you, too,” she said in a whisper.
She followed that bloody trail. The gun and flashlight held tight in her shaking hands. Each step brought with it loud crackles and crunches against the twigs and dead leaves that littered the ground.
The trail led deeper into the trees. As Eliza moved onward, a sound broke through the silence. An unsettling sick, wet crunching, chewing and gargling noise. Her stomach churned.
Eliza approached and aimed the flashlight in the direction of the disgustingly awful noise, and what she found made her freeze in her tracks.
It took a second for Eliza’s eyes to focus and make out what she was even looking at. A large mass of pale flesh in humanoid form slumped over a body. It held a maw of razor-sharp teeth embedded into its prey’s neck, and sharp claws that gripped at its shoulders.
Eliza’s eyes fell on the face of the creature’s prey. Her mouth fell agape. “No,” she said in a gasp. Bradly’s eyes were wide and distant, and his mouth was opened in a silent scream.
“Dad!” she said.
The creature pulled that grisly maw away from Bradly’s neck, fresh blood dripping from its fangs. Eliza recognized its horrible, blood-red eyes. Those crimson orbs locked onto Eliza, and it let out that same shrill, inhuman cry.
Terror gripped Eliza as she stared this creature down, but a crashing wave of rage quickly diluted that fear.
“Get away from him, you bastard!” she said in a cry as she pulled the shotgun up, aimed at the creature, and pulled the trigger.
The crack of the shotgun resounded through the night air. The tree just behind the creature splintered as it dashed away and disappeared into the pitch-black night. Eliza was nearly thrown off her feet by the recoil, but she stood her ground.
She wasted no time as she rushed up to Bradly’s body and slid to her knees next to him. His eyes were clouded, wide, and distant. Shark tooth-like puncture wounds oozed dark blood from the side of his neck and pooled beneath his limp form.
“Dad?” she said softly. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “Dad, please. Wake up!” Eliza sobbed and said, “Please don’t go. I can’t lose you, too! Don’t leave me alone!”
His crippled form felt light and brittle in her arms, almost empty. His skin pulled taut against his bones, and his lips dried and cracked. All the while those pale, dead eyes stared back at her.
That familiar sound of twigs, leaves, and branches crunching and snapping grabbed Eliza’s attention. She released her dad’s body and felt around his pockets, finding the two remaining shells and chambering them quickly into the shotgun. A piercing, inhuman cry broke through the still night.
Eliza pulled the flashlight and shotgun up and listened as she scanned the surrounding area. Quick footsteps echoed in the distance, and then another beastly cry. She swung the light in that direction and locked onto the creature as it charged at her at full tilt. She inhaled deeply, steadying her trembling hands before she aimed and pulled the trigger. The crack of the shotgun echoed, followed by a shriek from the creature as it flew back and tumbled to the ground.
A crackling hurricane of conflicting emotions fought within Eliza as she stood and strode over to the creature. She leveled the muzzle of the shotgun right at its head and fired the final shell. Viscous blood sprayed across her face as she stumbled back from the recoil. Her forest-green eyes locked on the creature’s now-lifeless body with rage. Her ears rang, and she panted through gritted teeth as she let her gun-arm fall limply to her side.
“Stay down,” she said.
Eliza walked over to her father’s corpse and knelt by his side. “I’m sorry, Dad,” she said, tears and blood staining her cheeks. She pulled his body close, sobbing. “I forgive you, okay? For Mom, for everything. Please come back to me. Please don’t leave me alone.”
Bushes and branches and entire trees rustled in the surrounding darkness. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Her body quaked, and the shotgun clattered to the ground at her feet. The telltale crunching and snapping encircled her from all sides. She spun around, and from that encroaching void, ten sets of red eyes stared back at her.
She pulled Bradly’s body into her arms and sobbed. Cold arms wrapped around Eliza’s waist. A guttural, hungry growl sounded so very near her. She looked at her father and found familiar, red-hued eyes staring back at her. Bradly grinned at her with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.
“D-Dad?” she asked.