14 Jun Twigs
“Twigs”Written by Dylan Sindelar Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 7 minutes
I was twelve years old when I went on my first hunting trip. It took a lot of brown-nosing and a lot of help from my grandfather, but eventually my father caved and allowed me to go. I was ecstatic.
Every fall, my dad and grandpa ventured deep into the Rocky Mountains with about twenty guys that I had never met and spent a night or two hunting, drinking beer, and sitting around campfires. I was never a very manly man – I had only shot a gun once in my life before that trip. But I wanted desperately to bond with my father, who was a very reserved and quiet man.
I don’t think the smile left my face the entire drive there while my dad only stared…at the road, during the hike to the camping ground while he led the group and I struggled to keep up, or even through dinner around the campfire, where he just stared into the flames.
He left for his tent along with most of the men after some time, but I was determined to make the most out of the trip. So naturally, I struck up a conversation with the other men in the group. A couple of them talked about their first hunting trips and a couple of others recounted some tired ghost stories.
Eventually, two of us remained – I and an elderly man who I did not know.
“Everyone comes out here looking for different things,” he spoke. His voice was calming. “You are looking to become a man, yes?”
I nodded. He tossed an ancient-looking bota bag across the fire.
I took a swig of the sweet and bitter liquid.
“Others come looking for a hunt – deer, elk, bears.” His eyes widened and he smirked. “Most of these men hunt for something that requires more than just a keen eye.”
I looked at the man, puzzled.
“Most come looking for him. But he is very, very good at hiding; you have to open your senses and tread carefully because he hunts too.”
A chill came over my body.
“Cigarettes, for example,” he said as he conjured one from a frail hand that looked to have the texture of beef jerky, “they just allow you to catch his scent.” The old man inhaled deeply, taking in the air around him. “Pine with a hint of cinnamon,” he muttered without opening his eyes.
The chill within me grew quickly.
“You’re young, but the coca plant,” he laughed; it almost sounded like a cough. “If it gets your heart pumping – that’s when you start to see him. Just a little at first – flashes out the corner of your eye – outside your line of sight.”
The chill had completely set in; I was actually frozen. I felt my body sink deeper into my chair. My brain felt like it was collapsing into itself; my eyes felt like they were being sucked back into my skull and my sight shrank to only a tunnel.
“But what you just drank from that pouch,” he smiled with a set of poorly kept dentures – brown and chipped, “that’s a homemade recipe. Your grandparents – your grandparents’ grandparents – they’ve been perfecting it for hundreds of years now.”
The dimly lit forest around the old man began to blur and I dug my fingernails into the fabric of the chair. His eyes began to sink backwards into his head until they were only dark pits with a hint of light flickering in the depths of the hollow black sockets.
“It leaves you right there on the precipice.” He drew out the final word with a long hiss as he sat forward and placed his hands on his knees. I heard the sound of clusters of sticks snapping simultaneously around me. “It allows you to see him in his glory without any of the nastiness the tweakers get when they go looking for him. Disgusting filth they are – aren’t even remotely worthy.”
The old man cracked his neck; more branches splintered.
The sounds weren’t coming from the forest – the noises were coming from him.
He reached his hand out towards the half-charred log that had been used to stoke the fire during the night. His fingers morphed and grew in front of my eyes as they wrapped around the entirety of the timber. I didn’t think that both of my hands could have wrapped around it – let alone one.
His fingernails disappeared as he stirred the embers carefully. All that remained of his hands were a number of thin, long branches – the ends of which appeared to be carefully, freshly sharpened.
It was only then that I began to take notice of what he was doing.
The old man wasn’t stoking the fire; he was spreading the embers apart and keeping his distance.
He was trying to put the fire out.
I felt tears well up in my eyes as I sank deeper back into the chair.
“Only those–” he coughed. The sound was like air forced through a wooden recorder and playing the wrong note. He collected himself and the glint of light hidden in the dark pits where his eyes used to be – or never really were – darted in my direction. “Only those who I allow can truly see me.”
The glow of the embers had almost completely died at this point as it rose up, standing far taller than the man had previously. It had a defined hunch – like something struggled to force its way through the camouflage jacket which was now far too small to fit. They were little sticks or pieces of kindling; they were sharp; they flexed with his every motion.
The creature stepped carefully around the fire pit. The boots that adorned the old man’s feet earlier disappeared entirely. All that remained were thin stumps that appeared to be carefully shaped and roots that dug into the ground slightly with each deliberate step it took towards me.
“How does it feel,” it hissed, “to witness me?” It took one final lumbering step towards my chair and sank towards the ground, balling up into an impossibly small bush like a hedgehog. “You know my name, don’t you? You’ve heard it whispered before off the tongue of your grandfather, haven’t you?”
My tears had ceased. The last bit of light had almost left the fire pit and smoke had started to surround me. I could smell him – pine and cinnamon. With my impaired vision, I could hardly make out the gigantic pincushion to my right.
It would have only looked like a bush in the wind if it hadn’t been for the face.
Any trace of the old man had dissolved; the creature had taken form completely.
The pits of his eyes fixed on me and I could sense the anticipation in his gaze. What had been the old man’s dentures were now jagged woodchips that formed an unmistakable grin. Skin had given way to an unmistakable wood grain.
“You know it,” the creature spoke once more, only inches from my ear. Its breath was cold; its voice sounded like a focused breeze.
How did I know it?
I forced my lips to move as the single syllable crawled up my throat.
I heard wood grinding against wood. I sensed the smile that grew across his face.
The fire was dead. Gone with it was any bit of vision I had retained.
I’m not sure if it was smoke inhalation, fear, or the wretched concoction that caused me to lose consciousness.
* * * * * *
I awoke wrapped in a sleeping bag inside a tent that wasn’t my own. It was morning and I could hear a group of people outside of my tent. My body was glazed with sweat. I was still wearing my clothes from the previous night. My head ached and my arms and legs tingled.
Cautiously, I stepped out into the morning light.
The smell of bacon and coffee filled my nose.
Within moments of leaving my tent, my grandfather spotted me and quickly shuffled to my side.
“Had a bit of a rough night, did we?” he asked. “Troy said he went out to find a tree in the middle of the night and saw you asleep by the fire.” He gestured over to one of the men I had met the previous day who waved at me with a smile.
“I…no, there was someone else,” I said as my dad approached from the other side of the campground.
“Falling asleep by a campfire is how forest fires start,” he spoke firmly. “Maybe you weren’t ready to come on this trip after all. You’re lucky that the only thing you got was a bad dream.”
I looked down at my feet with a look of shame but a sense of confusion.
It had to be a dream, right?
My grandfather just gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze and walked me over to grab some breakfast.
I ate several plates of bacon and eggs as I tried my best to ignore the bloodied bandage hidden under Troy’s sleeve and the deep scratch down the back of his neck.
My grandfather offered me some coffee – strong and black. I must have had three or four cups as we packed up our camping gear and set out towards the truck.
The hike should have been easier coming back, but I found myself exhausted and ultimately lagging behind. This time, however, my father walked alongside me. He didn’t say much, but kept a close eye on the trees as we went along.
By late afternoon we had arrived back at the truck and packed up our gear. The men exchanged goodbyes and promised they would see each other the following year. I tried to find Troy to thank him for putting me to bed, but he left the lot before the whole group had even reached it.
As we prepared to head home, I thought to myself how strange it was that so many men had gone out on a hunting trip, yet only a few had returned with any kills. Even then, the most that they had was a rabbit or a couple of pheasants.
Our truck was the last to leave the lot.
My grandfather reassured me that I would be able to come along again if I wanted, despite my dad’s grumbling from the driver’s seat. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to.
As the caffeine began to wear off and I began to crash, my eye caught a glimpse of something in the cloud of dust our truck had kicked up in the lot. Even in the evening light, I noticed that distinct glint of light in its eyes as that thing stared directly at me.
With fingers like sharpened sticks, he waved.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableDylan Sindelar Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A