“We have to go back.”
“Not yet. We’ve only traveled for two days. You got the entire week off of work for this.”
“Denise, honey, we’re out of money.”
Xavier stopped at the only red light in the small country town in Arkansas. He tapped the steering wheel with one hand and rubbed his forehead with the other. “I don’t know. What do you want me to do?” Xavier reached for his cell phone.
Monitoring the light in case it changed, Xavier opened his bank’s application and put in his password. The light turned green. There wasn’t another car for miles, so Xavier didn’t move, choosing instead to wait for his phone to load. $58.63.
“Okay. So, we’ve got enough money to either make it up to St. Louis and then we live there, or we turn around now, head home, and we may have enough for dinner. You’re choice.” Xavier glanced at his wife, then quickly looked away.
“I guess we’ll have to turn around.”
Xavier made a U-turn in the middle of the empty intersection. “Sorry. This is my fault.”
Denise shrugged. “I’m tired though. It’s getting late.”
“We don’t have enough for a hotel room.” Xavier kept his eyes on the road.
“Mm.” Denise stared out the window.
They rode in silence for the better part of 45 minutes when Denise brightened. “What about camping?” She looked at Xavier.
The thought hadn’t crossed Xavier’s mind. “Decent enough idea.”
They rode in silence for a few more minutes while Xavier mulled it over. “Okay. Find a campground. Under twenty bucks, though.”
Denise’s face lit up. “This’ll be fun!” She wasted no time searching cheap campgrounds near me on her cell phone.
Xavier spotted a sporting goods store in a strip mall a few miles out of town. While Denise remained in the car, Xavier purchased the cheapest tent he saw. He tossed the tent into the back of the SUV and slid into the driver’s seat as Denise said, “Willow Falls Campground. $15 a night.”
“That’s the one.” Xavier started the car as Denise hit the get directions button on the campground’s listing.
Twenty minutes later, they were lost. “This is what it says.” Denise showed him the blue line on the map on her phone. “We’re still on track.”
“I call bullshit.” Xavier snapped as he looked to his left out the window. “There’s nothing around. The damn road isn’t even paved!”
“Keep going.” Denise urged.
Ten more minutes of driving over the pitted gravel road, and they came up on a wooden archway with a sign hanging from the top: Willow Falls Campground. The sign’s paint was peeling and one chain securing it seemed to be shorter than the other, causing the sign to hang crooked.
Xavier steered the car past the archway, and up to a small shack labeled Office. Several small white envelopes hung by thumbtacks from a corkboard on the office door. Each envelope had a surname on it. There was one for Xavier and Denise. Denise hopped out of the car and sprinted up to the door. She yanked on their envelope without pulling the thumbtack out. After getting back in the car, Denise opened the envelope. Inside was a map of the campground with their campsite circled. Denise guided Xavier to the correct spot.
Xavier drove slowly on the narrow path. They seemed to go further and further into the woods. “Well, it doesn’t seem like we’ll have much company.” Denise attempted to make conversation.
“Mm.” An unexpected sense of dread nagged at Xavier’s intestines. He glanced at Denise, wondering if she felt the tension he did, but she seemed enthusiastic.
“Oh, here it is!” Denise unbuckled her seat belt. Xavier parked in the gravel space next to the fire pit.
Xavier did not understand that this part of Arkansas had so much wooded area. The foliage was dense. He inspected their campsite as Denise flopped down on the grass, legs crossed, a genuine smile on her face that Xavier hadn’t seen in months. There was a fire pit, a grassy area for a tent or small camper, and a weathered picnic table. Xavier lifted the hatchback of the SUV and hauled out the tent.
After they set the tent up, the sun was sinking further below the tree line. It was almost dark. “I’d better get some wood for a fire.” Xavier absently told Denise as he looked at the sky.
“You want me to come with?”
“Nah. I’ll be right back.” He tossed her the car keys. “But just in case you want to sit in the car or something. It’s a little chilly.” With that, he set off into the dense forest in search of firewood.
There was a thin path that led from the campsite into the woods. It surely wasn’t a designated path, but one worked into the land after years of visitors taking the same walk. Xavier picked up large sticks, cradling them in the crook of his arm as he walked. About five minutes into his search, he noted a tree with a yellow ribbon tied around one of its low-hanging branches. Xavier also noted an oddly shaped bush further into his walk. He wanted to find his way back.
As the sky got darker, the path beneath Xavier’s feet vanished. Xavier’s arm was full of medium and large sticks, but he was looking for fallen branches. He didn’t find any. The sky was turning an inky purple when Xavier decided that he should head back. He wouldn’t be able to see in ten minutes.
Xavier began walking back the way he came. He found the oddly shaped bush. He kept walking. Xavier found it odd that he was no longer on a path, but he had found the bush, so he figured he was going in the right direction.
Xavier kept walking when he came up on the tree with the ribbon. Xavier stopped in his tracks when he noticed that the ribbon was no longer yellow, but red. Xavier felt a chill as he stared at the ribbon fluttering in the breeze. He forced himself to move past the tree.
After a few more minutes of brisk walking, Xavier almost tripped over a disemboweled raccoon. Flies swarmed around the entrails, a rotten smell emanated from the carcass. It must have been there for a day or two, at least, but Xavier would have remembered it if he had seen it looking for firewood. Xavier looked around, past the trees surrounding him. Someone must have put it there after he had passed this spot. Someone was watching him. Then he remembered Denise.
Xavier ignored the feeling of doom that gnawed at him and ran toward his campsite. After a minute, he saw an orange glow ahead. His pace slowed as he wrinkled his brow in confusion. It had to be his campsite; There was no one around them. Xavier hurried toward the glow. As he got closer, he recognized the picnic table and his SUV on the gravel pad. Denise was standing in front of a roaring fire, her back to him. He wondered how she got such an enormous fire going without supplies.
Tension filled the air. There was something wrong. Denise remained completely still in front of the fire. He approached slowly and quietly. “Denise?” Xavier gently called.
Denise didn’t respond or even turn around to face him.
“Denise?” Xavier called louder as he got closer.
Xavier reached his arm toward her, about to touch her shoulder, when suddenly Denise spun to face him. She was paler than usual and he noticed immediately that her eyes were not the same color they had been fifteen minutes before. A sinister smile was plastered on her face. This was not Denise.
Xavier backed away in shock. Denise continued to smile at him; Not moving, not speaking. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her as fear gripped his heart. He continued to back away. She continued to smile. The glow from the fire back lit her, giving her a demonic glow.
They stared at one another, Xavier breathing heavily and Denise smiling. The crackling of the flames was the only sound. Xavier’s mouth had gone dry, his body trembled. He then heard a rustling in the trees to his right. As he looked, Denise pounced on Xavier, sending him sprawling on his back. Sharp teeth dug into his neck. Xavier howled in pain. The teeth sank deeper until Xavier had no energy left to fight.
Xavier lay on the cold ground, staring at the sky, feeling his blood ooze out of the open wound. Denise came into his view. She stood over him and let out a cackle, licking the blood off her lips. Xavier let his head flop to the right. A raccoon ambled out of the tree line at the edge of the campsite as darkness crept into his vision. It’s only a raccoon.