Bud cringed inwardly when Gloria spotted him and gave her dainty finger wiggling wave. Nobody should be as cheerful as that woman was first thing in the morning, and with what he had going on, well, it was going to be best to keep his greeting short.
“Morning Bud, how was your weekend?” she asked when he tried to get past with a smile and a wave.
A knowing snort came out of Al’s open door and Bud wondered whether he should have called in sick.
“Bud got friendly with the wildlife,” Al called.
Gloria frowned in confusion. Bud shook his head to tell her that Al was teasing, and perhaps to indicate that she should let it go, but he knew that was too optimistic.
“Really?” she asked, drawing out the word to imply scandal.
“Sure,” Al chuckled, emerging in his doorway with a cup of coffee in hand. “Not sure there was one animal he didn’t shoot. It was the wild west out there.”
“Ha ha,” Bud said dryly, making his way carefully toward the coffee machine and wishing he had an office he could go to, so he could shut the door on the gossip that would make its rounds through the dealership. So far his way was clear but he wasn’t sure how long it would last. He knew what he saw out there. What had happened since, well, no idea what was up with that.
He and the boys had met up at the lake like any other Friday with decent weather. They’d been hunting and camping together since they were twelve, and in recent years their trips had mostly turned into getaways at the lake where they could party in peace and forget about work, family and duty. There was Al, called Hose by the boys for reasons they declined to explain to strangers; skinny white haired Edgar, who everyone in town called Zapper either due to his obsession with electricity or his near miss with lightning, the line there was unclear; Jimmy, who went by James now and snubbed the others from his law office window during the week; and of course, Bud.
They discovered that their usual spot was already occupied by Jack Ardent’s teenage kid and a bunch of his friends when they rolled in Friday evening. Al had been the one to suggest forging a new trail, and a few off-roading adventures later they’d set up a pretty decent camp higher up in the hills. The spot was sweet. After Bud pulled a few young trees down with some heavy duty chains and four wheel drive they even had a view of the lake and the hills beyond. Zapper got the generator roaring and the party started. The tunes were up, the cooler was stocked and empty cans became target practice. It was a fine night, with a little breeze to keep the sweat off and push along the mosquitoes not deterred by the cloud of bug spray Bud laid down on the place. Jimmy lit a fire and threw burgers over a grate while they tried to decide if Zapper’s new lady friend, Lola, was using a stage name. It was “livin’ like livin’ ought to be done,” they declared to each other.
Bud woke up at some undefined time later that night, trembling from head to toe. He’d nodded off in his chair. He could hear snores rumbling from the tents, though Zap was sprawled out under the stars sawing logs like the best of them. The air wasn’t cold exactly, but Bud couldn’t stop shivering. He’d had some kind of dream. There was something moving in the shadows. Must have been what woke him up. It sounded small and busy, whatever it was. He rose, stretching and groaning out the stiffness of sleeping in a camp chair, and walked a short distance off to water the bushes.
His head was still fuzzy, standing there gazing down at the lake and the small smoldering fire the kids had made on its bank, but he got the feeling that creeps over you when you notice that you’re being observed. He glanced back but Zap was still lying with his arms and legs stretched wide, the bit of round belly he’d grown in recent years rising and falling in time to his snores. Bud tripped on a low tree branch on the way to his tent and landed hard on his wrist and shoulder. Cursing and cradling his arm, he kicked at the stupid branch until it split away from the little sapling that supported it.
A flash of something light caught Bud’s attention for just a moment before a shadow slipped behind the splayed roots of the felled trees. Whatever it was, it had been small, like a raccoon or opossum. Maybe a stray cat. He’d thought he’d seen green eyes. He waited for a minute, listening, but nothing further happened so he went to the welcoming cocoon of his tent and embraced sleep.
Saturday morning brought with it an oppressive fog. Jimmy cooked up a feast of sausages, eggs, bacon and potatoes and they worked on stoking the fire to a great roar. The air was actually pretty thick already with heat and fog but it was something to do and all four men threw themselves into the task until they had a spire of flames licking a good twelve feet high. With no visibility for target practice and hiking being out of the question, they opted for hatchet games. They were, using the few trunks close enough to be visible until one of the smaller ones groaned, and a second later came down on their fire. There was some running around to be done after that to make sure their mighty flame didn’t sprawl into the rest of the forest.
“I’ve never seen anything like that happen before!” Jimmy kept saying, shaking his head.
Bud was shaken, too, though a part of him felt pretty awesome about it being his strike that took the tree down. That had to count for extra points or something. The tree, being green, kicked out a ton of smoke and Bud figured it was as good a time as any to step away to water some more bushes. He made his way up the hill a bit. Visibility was still low, but the music was blaring. He could find his way back blindfolded. Except, abruptly, the music stopped. The generator went quiet, too.
“What happened to the generator?” he called down the hill.
There was no reply. A noise to his right drew his attention, though he saw only trees and fog. A twig snapped on his other side, and this time he glimpsed moss green eyes, low to the ground, before the animal disappeared from view. He shook his head. It had to have been an animal. Except the eyes…
Just as suddenly as it had ceased, the music blared back into life with the generator. It was a startling contrast to the quiet and Bud jumped. His nerves were buzzing. What had he just seen? That wasn’t a raccoon or opossum or stray cat. The eyes on that thing had looked human. Just low to the ground.
“What happened with the generator? he asked when he got back to camp.
Jimmy blinked at him, uncomprehending.
“Nothing,” he said.
“It went down,” Bud insisted.
Jimmy shook his head.
“Think I’d notice something like that, Bud.”
Bud frowned. Green eyes had just been staring at him from a point over Jimmy’s shoulder.
“There’s some kind of animal,” he muttered, going to his truck and pulling out a rifle.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Al snorted when he saw the gun.
“There’s this animal stalking me,” Bud insisted, trying to find it in the sight. Al was right, though. All he saw was grey and shadows. “I saw green eyes,” he muttered.
“Those kids are down at the bottom of this hill,” Al insisted. “For all we know they could get the genius idea to go hiking around. Put it away Bud. You don’t need that kind of trouble.”
Sighing, Bud lowered the rifle. He kept it close though.
By lunchtime the fog had mostly lifted from where they were, though it was still clinging to the lake below making it seem like their hill was an island on a sea made up of clouds. Bud startled awake. In the absence of anything interesting to do, they had each dozed off in their camp chairs. Bud had a funny taste in his mouth and felt separated from his body like you do when you first awaken. He leaned back in his chair and stretched, letting his head fall backward. Green eyes gazed at him, mere inches away.
He jumped up, scooping the rifle into his grasp and taking aim, but the creature had already disappeared into the trees. He stood panting. What had it been? Moss green eyes. A plume of white hair. Two legs. It had looked human… hadn’t it? It had been so small though. Smaller than a child. And fast. It had been incredibly fast. He turned around, and around, watching. He went over to the radio and flicked the power off, and tried to listen in the silence but his ears were ringing from getting too close to the speakers.
“What are you doing Bud?” Zapper asked, rubbing his eyes and yawning.
Jimmy and Al had awakened, too, and were both studying the firearm in Bud’s grip.
“Everything okay there?” Al checked.
“It was right behind me,” Bud said, turning in a slow circle.
“The animal stalking you?” Al asked.
“Don’t know what it was,” Bud muttered. “Green eyes.”
A shifting shadow in the trees brought the rifle to Bud’s shoulder and he pulled off a shot.
“Woah!” Jimmy shouted, scrambling out of his chair.
Jimmy hadn’t really been in the line of Bud’s shot but he had a point. Bud moved to the outer perimeter of their camp and prepared for the next shot. He caught sight of the green eyes a minute later and squeezed the trigger. Whatever it was, it was fast. And seemed to be able to scale trees like some kind of monkey. He found himself wondering if it wasn’t some escaped pet he was after, but shook off the thought. He’d find out soon enough. Except he didn’t. The green eyed creature seemed to evaporate like the easing fog every time he thought ‘this is it, I’ve got you.’
When he returned to camp the boys had packed up early.
“Rains are coming,” Zapper explained, though Bud noticed how none of them met his gaze.
“You good man?” Al checked before getting into his truck.
Bud heaved his tent into the bed of his truck and nodded.
“Just wanted to know what it was,” he offered in way of explanation.
Al nodded as if he understood, but they both knew he didn’t. Soon Bud was alone in the clearing, staring around. Nothing left to see. The fog was gone but a few fat raindrops splashed into his hair. Time to go.
That night his dreams were filled with a green-eyed face.
“The worst part,” a small voice was saying, “is that you don’t even understand the wrong you do. Someone ought to open your eyes. When a tree loses a limb, you can still see the path of the branch long after it is gone. I can, at least. You should, too. Yes. You should, too.”
Bud scrubbed his face with water, studying the purple circles under his eyes in the bathroom mirror. It’d been a long and strange weekend, and he had Sunday to go yet. Walking from the bathroom he tripped and caught his cheek on the wall opposite to the bathroom door.
A tree branch stretched across the doorjamb, complete with little leafy twigs. He tried to kick at it but his foot went right through. Turning, he saw the upper branches of a tree filling his hallway. His foot went through those as well, but when he tried to walk down the hall he found them suddenly solid, whipping back at him as he pressed through. His kitchen was clear but his living room looked like a Christmas tree farm. He fled. Outside, a forest had grown overnight. It was disorienting but eventually he found Jimmy’s house.
“Jimmy,” he panted when his friend opened the door. “Can you believe this?” He swung his arm around at all of the trees.
Jimmy’s eye followed the gesture and looked around carefully before returning to Bud.
“All what?” he asked.
Bud didn’t know what to say. He gazed around at the trees, and saw children running through them. Straight through trunks and huge wiggly roots.
“You know,” Bud muttered, “this beautiful day.”
Jimmy studied him speculatively.
“You might want to get some help Buddy,” he said quietly. “It’s nine in the morning, man. Most of us are on our way to church and you’re already ripped. Listen, I’ve got to go. Maybe go home and take a nap or something, okay?”
Bud opened his mouth to argue, but wasn’t sure what he’d be able to say to change Jimmy’s mind.
“Sure,” he muttered, turning to go.
He walked right into a trunk, which sent him sprawling down Jimmy’s steps. He looked up to see Jimmy shaking his head sadly and closing his door.
The green eyes were back that night, and in his dreams Bud begged to have his life back.
“I don’t know,” said the small voice. “Maybe. Let’s see if you’ve learned anything.”
Monday morning was blissfully absent of hallucinations and Bud hurried to work, grateful for the ability to drive to the dealership tree-free. He made it past Gloria, and Al, and to his desk without incident. He began to think maybe something he’d eaten while camping had been off. He’d heard of things like that. Food causing you to think you’re seeing things that aren’t there and that sort of thing. As the morning wore on his tension faded and he was able to get into the rhythm of his work.
The day was a slow one so Bud focused on sprucing up the dealership. Little details that were often overlooked by the day-to-day maintenance. The cars looked fine but the sidewalk was getting rough with weeds coming up along the cracks. He set to work with a bottle of weed killer, which he applied liberally to the ants as well, watching them wobble through the little chemical lakes trying to find their escape.
Standing up, Bud knocked the back of his head against something hard. The trees were back. Worse, there seemed to be movement among them, as if they were crawling with animals and bugs and who knew what. Bud turned round and round, whimpering.
“No,” he hissed. “It’s something I ate. It’s not real.”
Something coiled around his leg and he jumped aside, shaking a snake loose. A hidden root tripped him up and he landed hard on a mix of sidewalk and tree roots. Ants were everywhere.
“You okay Bud?” Al said, frowning at him from a couple trees away.
“Get them off of me!” Bud shouted, trying to shake the ants away.
“There’s nothing on you brother,” Al said, but Bud wasn’t listening.
He’d stopped slapping at his arms and stood, staring at a point above his head, where moss green eyes glared down.
Written by W. C. McClure. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome at http://www.farsideofdreams.com. Also, please help support this indie author by buying W. C. McClure’s books http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!