“The aliens crash landed on the roof!”
“The people inside ran away!”
“An angry zebra chased them!”
Willow swished her stick through the campfire flames. Her marshmallow — the blackened, goopy mess impaled at the end of her stick — represented all her hopes and dreams for this evening. Campfire, outdoors, marshmallows, and horror stories.
Billy was a self-professed master story teller hellbent on telling a story which lurched from cliche to potboiler. As far as Willow could understand, his saga started with ghosts and space-alien zebras. It was every terrible story mashed together in a blender.
Willow watched her molten marshmallow ooze into the flame. It was the most terrifying thing about this evening. She could already imagine the breathless horror that would be today’s diary entry. Dear Diary, my marshmallow fell into the fire! And then? I went hungry! And then?
A soft crackle marked her marshmallow’s fiery death.
“All the zebras were zombies!” said Billy.
“And then?” asked Bobby. Bobby was his older brother’s personal cheer squad. He took every opportunity to applaud his brother’s achievements, no matter how trivial.
“They were all gored to death. The End,” proclaimed Willow. She avoided eye contact with Billy, lest he take it as an invitation to start something new. She could almost hear the grinding of his thoughts. I can’t wait to hear about the face-eating sludge. Looking around the campfire, she asked, “Who’s next?”
The other children stared into the fire. They didn’t speak. They didn’t move. The chorus of blank expressions was a sign they’d withdrawn from this world. This was the true horror story: an evening without wifi.
“I. Have. Story. To. Tell,” said the boy.
Willow knew everything about everybody. She knew their likes and dislikes and what they had for breakfast. The girl sitting opposite was Olivia Ava Abagail Green. Many years ago Noah Jacobs had dared Olivia to eat a live frog. Later that same day, under the glare of the afternoon sun, Olivia had swallowed the frog and earned herself the fantastic sum of five dollars. Noah would later go to excel in sports and have a painfully obvious crush on his vice-captain, never learning the frog had been swapped for a chocolate one. Willow knew all of this. It was her superpower.
Yet she didn’t know him.
“Who are you?” asked Willow.
The boy was about her age and had a strange expression which she couldn’t read. Her eyes gravitated to the gigantic nose jutting out from the centre of his face. A voice rang in her head.It’s a honker, her Father would have said.
“Forest. Black,” said the boy.
With no other words forthcoming, Willow assumed it was his name. Forest had a nose which towered over his face like a mountain to a village. His eyes and mouth fought for any room left over. He stood beyond the ring of rocks which marked the border of the campsite. The moon passed behind some dark clouds leaving the fire to cast flickering shadows. Willow looked up from his nose to see Forest Black staring at her.
“What are you doing here?” asked Willow.
His voice cracked as he hovered over each word. He looked like he was about to say something else but then changed his mind. He tried a smile. It didn’t look natural either.
His teeth poked out from behind pale lips. His canines were fatter and longer than they should have been. Willow squinted at them until Forest covered his mouth with a hand.
“Invite. Me. In.” It wasn’t a question but a statement.
Willow turned her head to see the family cabin only a few hundred paces away. Inside were her parents doing whatever parents do, sleeping probably.
There were no houses or freeways beyond the cabin. Nothing but three hours of open countryside until you hit the city where everyone lived. It was why she’d wanted this place. An evening of campfire and scary stories wouldn’t be the same under the harsh city lights.
“Do you need an invitation?”
Willow was the only one talking. A dozen blank faces stared into the fire. At the very least, Billy should be asking an annoying question. He always asked annoying questions. That was his superpower. Yet they weren’t doing much of anything. It was as though they had gone to sleep with their eyes open. Willow looked back to see Forest had dropped both hands to his side, his lips pressed together. It was only then she realised he was blind.
“And you’re passing by?” Willow had tried to push the skepticism from her voice. Tried and failed.It’s a honker. Her Father’s voice rang in her mind like a song that wouldn’t quit.
“Thirsty,” said Forest. He made motions with his hand like he was drinking from an imaginary glass. His hands jerked uncertainly. Willow studied Forest’s lily white eyes. Maybe he’s everything he says he is? Who doesn’t love a walk in the woods at night? Blind people, that’s who.
Willow snapped out of her thoughts. Her friends were further away than they should have been. Forest cleared his throat in a dry cough. Maybe he was thirsty? It’s a honker. She was standing now. When did that happen?
Two concentric circles of rocks formed the campfire. Flat stones formed the inner circle with smaller stones, pebbles really, marking the outer ring. Her friends sat on the inner rocks burning marshmallows, with Forest standing on the other side of the outer rocks.
Willow had been sitting at the campfire when Forest had first spoken. I have a tale to tell. She was burning marshmallows and praying for a quick end to the story. Now she stood half-way between the inner and outer rings. Had I not been paying attention? Maybe I had gone to get some water?
Thirsty people drink water. Forest stood only a few steps away. He didn’t seem to be doing much of anything, except waiting. She was close enough to see thin red lines mark the fleshy whites of his eyes.
“Marshmallows? There’s plenty to go around.”
Willow turned to get some food and then she was right in front of him. No time had passed. She hadn’t walked over to him or, at least, didn’t remember doing so. She had turned to get the marshmallows from the bag beside Billy and then she was here.
A droplet of moisture sprung from the corner of Forest’s mouth. Willow was close enough to see past his upper and lower lips. His canine teeth were so much larger than they should have been. They were huge like his nose.
“My God you have a big nose!”
“There’s a giant wedge of cheese with nostrils on your face! You could fit an entire hand up there!”
Willow willed her hand to cap her mouth. It was instinct. Young ladies don’t say mean things. It was her Mother’s voice this time. It’s a honker, plain as the nose on his face. Wicked tongues do the devil’s work.
Her wilful hands remained by her side. Some part of her mind wanted to smother the words from tumbling out, yet she couldn’t. Stop talking. This time it was a different voice. Hungry, be silent.
Jokes elbowed their way out. It came from her gut, a place which tightened when she entered a dark room or walked down an unfamiliar street. It came with an emotion. Something she had never experienced before. Self-preservation.
Forest opened his jaws and exposed two rows of crooked teeth. Aside from the canines, the first row was pearly white human teeth. His inner row tightened the noose around her gut. Haphazard jagged teeth tapered to fine points in a way which made Willow think of broken glass.
“—When you stop to smell the flowers, do they flee in terror?” shouted Willow. She let the words flow, no longer listening to the inner voices.
Forest shook his head as he stepped back into the darkness. The moon took the moment to peek out from behind its hiding spot. There was nothing but the cabin and the unending countryside with the city lights twinkling in the distance.
“… there was face-eating sludge…” said Bobby.
She had been right about the sludge. After a final check, Willow returned to her seat at the campfire. She had stared into the darkness and the darkness had turned away.
“I have a tale to tell,” said Willow.
“Better than face-eating sludge?” asked Bobby.
“It’s all about a vampire… with a huge nose.”