I hated camping.
My boyfriend loved it.
So we compromised and went camping.
I put on a brave face, packed my bug spray, and let him do everything else. He assured me it would be great. Fun. Nothing like the disastrous trips of my childhood where my sister wet her sleeping bag and cried until I let her use mine or the one where my mom was sure the leaves beside our tents were not poison ivy or that time Dad fancied himself a fisherman, but the only thing he ended up hooking was my cheek.
No, no. This time would be different.
Starting off felt just the same. Up before the sun, lugging my backpack to the car, flopping over in the passenger seat. Andre tried to get back into my good graces with a big travel mug of fresh-brewed coffee, but I told him it’d take more than a little caffeine to complete his redemption arc.
“Don’t be like that, Ro,” he said, pouting.
“If you wanted the sunny-side up version, you shouldn’t have gotten me out of bed so early.”
“Good thing you’re cute even when you’re grumpy.”
“Good thing you’re cute even when I’m grumpy.” I stuck my tongue out at him and sank lower in my seat. “Where’re we going anyway?”
“Didn’t you look at anything I sent you?”
I made a noncommittal noise from over the rim of my mug.
He sighed. “I emailed you the–nevermind. Big Head Lake. It’s about an hour away, in the state park. Kind of a hidden gem type thing. Not many people know about it.”
“Big Head? Named for the large, phallic trees lining its shores?”
“Maybe it’s shaped like a giant dick.”
“Just the tip, anyway.”
We smiled at each other. I was still unenthused about our three day getaway, but maybe Andre was right.
With him, it’d be different.
I slept most of the ride there. Andre was probably happy to let me. I couldn’t complain if I wasn’t conscious. The road turning to crunching gravel and then dirt woke me. We bounced along the narrow forest trail, wide enough for only a single car, and the deeper we went, the more the trees seemed to close in behind us.
Big Head Lake glittered in the early morning sun as we finally broke free of the trees. A range of hills, still blanketed in fog, rolled across the horizon on the opposite bank. Begrudgingly, I had to give it to Andre. He’d picked a pretty spot.
“You want to set up the tent or–”
“Nope,” I said, stretching as I got out of the car. “I’m getting my beach chair, my umbrella, and my book, and that’s it. You said you’d handle everything else.”
“I meant planning!”
“That’s not what I heard.”
I blew him a kiss as I swiped my things and sauntered down to the strip of rocky beach at the water’s edge.
He grumbled the whole time he fought with the tent poles and unloaded our gear.
Without screaming siblings, arguing parents, and a crowd of similar families all squashed together on overpopulated campgrounds, it actually wasn’t difficult to enjoy myself. I dipped my feet in the water while Andre fished nearby, we went on a hike up the nearest path and ended up on a cliff overlooking the lake, and then we napped in the shade before starting a fire for dinner.
It felt like we had the whole world to ourselves.
So skinny dipping was the obvious sunset choice.
“It’s cold!” I shouted, wrapping my arms around my bare chest.
Andre had dived right in and was standing in waist deep water. He grinned, hunched slightly, and spread both arms wide to either side.
“Don’t you dare!” I warned him.
But a wave of water splashed over me anyway.
He laughed while I danced around, sputtering. “You bastard!”
“Maybe next time you’ll help me unload!”
We splashed and dunked each other, shared underwater kisses, and watched the sky turn to gold as the sun crept behind the distant hills.
“Let’s get out and roast some marshmallows.”
“Is that a euphemism?” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively and I slapped the water, spraying him with drops while I giggled.
But the smile had faded from his face.
He was staring over my shoulder, brow creased with confusion.
“What is it?” I asked, turning to look out over the lake.
Dusk had turned it a deeper blue, and the surface was glassy and still beyond our ripples.
“I saw something,” he said with an uncertain edge.
“What? A fish?”
“I don’t think so. It bobbed up for a second, then went back down.”
Goosebumps broke out across the back of my neck. “Are you trying to scare me?”
“No,” he said, taking my wrist and pulling me towards shore. His eyes stayed fixed on the water. “Come on. Hurry.”
His tone, soft and serious, made my heart skip a beat. As we waded quickly for the beach, I looked back.
A mass of something dark and stringy had bubbled to the surface. It fanned like seaweed across the water, drifting with current.
“What is that?” I whispered.
“I don’t know.”
Andre tugged me more urgently to shore, but I couldn’t look away. The clump didn’t move, just floated a few yards out in the deeper part of the lake, but a knot had formed in my stomach and it was starting to tighten.
As we scrambled on to the beach, the stringy mass bobbed.
“It moved!” I said, clutching his arm.
“Get dressed! Where’d I put my pants?”
I hardly heard him. Small ripples spread from the clump in widening rings. It bobbed again, this time almost disappearing beneath the water, only to resurface once more, and panicked bile burned at the back of my throat.
The dark, stringy mass wasn’t seaweed.
It was hair.
And it was rising out of the water.
Beneath the long, knotted tendrils of dripping black, a woman’s giant head and trailing spine lifted from the lake.
She glided silently upwards and hovered in the air. With the fading sunlight behind her, it was impossible to make out any features, but I could feel her staring at us.
“Andre…” I uttered, hardly able to breathe, let alone speak.
I tore my gaze from the head and looked to him, terror ripping all reason from me. Andre’s mouth had fallen open and his eyes widened into saucers. I hadn’t noticed how tight his grip on my hand had become.
“Keys,” he stuttered hoarsely. “Where are the keys?”
The head was drifting lazily toward shore, toward us, still bobbing as if it were floating in water.
I tried to form words, to remember any, but all that came out was a strangled sound.
The giant head was picking up speed, the base of her spine slicing through the lake’s surface like a skeletal rudder.
“Pants,” Andre said suddenly, diving away from me.
It was his letting go of me that finally made me cry out, like his hand had been the only thing keeping my fear from becoming absolute.
Then Andre was pulling me toward the car. My legs didn’t want to work any more than my brain did. I couldn’t look away from her, how close she was to shore, how fast she was moving and the wild spread of her matted hair. Andre thrust me in the passenger seat and ran around to the driver’s side. He dove in, jammed the keys in the ignition, and the engine roared.
She was so close the taillights cast her in a red glow, highlighting the gaunt angles of her pale face. Sunken eyes burned with a hungry light, their yellow tinge turned to fire. A wide mouth split the head almost in two, and as she neared the back of the car, it began to open to a black void lined in jagged white.
Metal crunched and the rear of the car came off the ground. Andre slammed down on the accelerator anyway. The back wheels spun, whining, but the front bit into the dirt, churning against the ground.
The bumper tore away with a groan and sharp snaps and the car jumped forward. Andre yelped and struggled to keep it on the path. We careened dangerously close to the treeline before he was able to right it.
In the rear view mirror, I watched the head spit the mangled bumper to the ground and resume her pursuit. She filled the road behind us, all gnashing teeth and billowing black hair.
Andre took a corner sharply and I swear we were on two wheels, skidding, a hair’s breadth from going off road.
He spun the wheel, and I thought we were in the clear.
But we were going too fast. The tires couldn’t get any grip on the forest floor, and we spun.
I grabbed the edges of my seat. I was screaming. Andre was screaming. Somehow, in all the chaos, I still thought to look in the mirror.
The relief I felt at seeing only a glimpse of an empty path lasted until the car slammed into a tree trunk.
“Ro,” Andre’s voice was shaking beside my ear. Everything was muddled and ringing. I blinked, trying to find something to focus on.
I found it in Andre’s face, leaning over me. A line of red was dripping down his cheek from a gash over his eyebrow. Dazedly, I reached to wipe it away, but he stopped me.
“You have to get up.” He was whispering urgently, shaking my shoulder.
I nodded, only dimly aware of the press of my door against my side, the cracks spider webbing across my window. I reached absently for the handle.
“You can’t,” Andre said. “Your side is against a tree. Come this way.”
He helped me over the center console and out of the car. Sticky, wet warmth coated one side of my face and reached up with shaking fingers to find blood pouring from along my hairline.
I could only stare at my red hand in the headlights.
“Come on, baby,” Andre urged quietly. He was looking around, eyes darting, breath coming in quick gasps.
He took my hand and started running. I staggered after him, trying to keep up, to stop that tears blurring my vision. The forest was eerily quiet around us, the only noise seeming to come from our footfall. Sticks and stones dug into my bare feet, but I bit down on my lip to keep from making any sounds.
The head was nowhere to be seen.
Neither of us knew where we were going, only that we didn’t dare stop. Low branches and thorny bushes snagged on our exposed skin, leaving bloodied wounds across our naked bodies.
I stumbled, lungs burning, legs becoming watery beneath me, and almost took Andre down with me. He grabbed my waist to steady both of us, his own chest heaving. I looked up at him, desperate, helpless, confused.
Floating above his head, a row of teeth smiled in the dark.
Andre jolted, his back going pin straight, and his body stiffened. His grip on me loosened, and I fell to the ground.
The tip of her spine pierced through torso and lifted him from the ground. He attempted to gasp, but all he could manage was a burbling inhale. He lifted his hands to his chest, fingers grasping weakly, but it was a reflexive, mechanical motion.
Our eyes met, and then there was nothing left of him, only his hanging body.
I wanted to scream. I tried to. But beneath the giant head’s yellow gaze, I was frozen.
We stared at one another for a long moment, until she turned slowly, Andre dangling like a fresh caught fish from her spine. She glided silently through the trees, back toward the lake, and the further she got, the more the forest came to life again. The crickets. The frogs.
And my terrified, heartbroken screaming.