Austin gave a nervous chuckle as he looked back and forth between his fellow Scouts’ faces, searching for a sign that this was just a stupid joke. The two older kids held his stare, unblinking.
“You’re kidding, right?” Austin finally said.
“No way. They’re real,” Eddy replied. “Nasty little things too.”
“Yeah. You never heard the tale about the slaughtered troop in these very woods, thirty years ago? A kid by the name of George or Gerald was the only survivor. They found him covered in blood and ranting about wild animals. His hand was ripped off. They chalked it all up to wolves, but we know better.”
“So… if they’re dangerous, why are we going to hunt for one?”
“It’s a test of courage that all Newbies have to take,” Eddy answered.
Austin’s stomach fluttered. Again, he waited for a punch line.
Eddy shook his head. “The Newbie’s too scared.”
Things haven’t been easy for Austin. His poor eyesight forced him into a comically large set of glasses since the start of grade school. Friends were hard to come by and becoming a welcomed member of any group was a pipe-dream. But here, with the Boy Scouts, he might have a chance. Eddy and Kyle were the alphas of the troop and if he could gain their acceptance, he’d be in. Austin ignored the usual warning signs that flashed in his brain, come on nerd, man up for once.
“No way,” he said firmly. “Count me in.”
“Good.” Eddy’s smile widened to Grinch-like proportions, and then he laid out the plan. “Alright, grab your flashlight and your tent bag. We’re going to head out past the latrine and away from the main trail. Kyle will take lead and I’ll watch our backs. You be ready with the bag. Got it?”
“We’re going to follow the tracks. If we find a Snipe, be quick and quiet. Sneak up behind it and get the bag over ‘em fast.”
Austin nodded, leaning harder on his false front of courage.
“So,” he asked in an overly casual tone. “What are we looking for exactly?”
“Um, they’re… small, up to your waist, maybe.” Kyle said.
“But, if they see you, they turn strong and angry. Watch out for their claws.” Eddy said. “If you see a pair of glowing eyes in the dark, it’s already too late. Got it?”
Austin nodded, worried his voice would betray his fading confidence.
“Good. Go get your gear and meet us behind the shitter.”
The forest floor lay hidden beneath three-inches of snowfall. The wet, dense snow made for prime animal tracking conditions, recording any goings-on with the sensitivity of a Richter scale. Solid cloud cover, however—a residual of the morning’s storm—offered little light for searching. Visibility was restricted to the sweep of their Walmart issue flashlights.
They walked for nearly half an hour before Kyle pointed out the first set of prints. He whispered back to the other boys to come look. Austin knelt down, pulled off his mittens, and inspected the imprint, following the shallow indents with his fingers. It was almost avian in shape with two toes and an elongated heel.
They’re real! The alarms blared against his senses again, too loud to ignore this time.
Austin looked over his shoulder, hoping he’d see fear in their faces as well, but Eddy just gave a calm nod. “Keep moving.”
They followed the prints, marching through the forest, weaving around barren trees. The distance between the three boys grew. Austin’s heart pounded; he could feel the thumping in his throat. Each print they passed heightened his desperation; he couldn’t think of a way to end this without seeming like a coward.
Austin clumped along, with no other sound but the soft crunching of snow under their feet. This is stupid! Why did I let them talk me into this?
An unexpected object entered his vision. Austin stared down at a glove resting on the snow. He crouched to pick it up but stopped when he noticed the dark circles. Despite the haze of his weak flashlight, Austin was convinced it was blood.
He jolted to his feet and whipped his light around, searching for the other two Scouts. He saw nothing but the cold skeletal remains of a once lush forest. Listening, he only heard his own panicked breathing.
“Guys?” Austin called out. “Kyle? Eddy?”
Fear took over. He jerked the light erratically, searching the surrounding trees for a blood-thirsty creature. He felt eyes on him, watching his every move.
He looked down at the tracks and started to run. His feet churned, cold air burned in his lungs and the cloud of his exhalation puffed in his face. He didn’t get far before something caught his foot and he hit the ground hard.
Austin flailed in the snow, turned quickly expecting to see a Snipe leaping toward his face, but he was alone. A tree root poked up out of the snow near his boot, offering a brief moment of relief, but his sense of danger still urged him onward. He turned back, preparing to push himself up into a run when he noticed a reflection in his periphery. Terrified it was the eyes of a beast, he jerked the flashlight back. The beam illuminated a small pile of torn ketchup packets partially uncovered by his scrambling movements in the snow.
It took a few seconds for Austin to comprehend what they were and only a few seconds more to figure out their significance. His fear burned away to nothing in the growing blaze of his anger.
Austin jumped to his feet, shouting, “It’s not funny, you… you… Assholes! Get out here. Eddy! Kyle!”
The two scouts stepped out from behind their trees, laughing. Kyle held out a gloveless hand with three fingers extended to show how the animal prints were made. “Oh, man, we got you good!”
“You turned whiter than the snow when you saw that glove,” Eddy added.
“I bet you pissed in your tighty-whities, huh?”
The hot pressure of anger and embarrassment exploded from Austin in a loud battle cry. He used the only weapon he had, packed snow. Austin launched snowballs at them as hard and as fast as he could. Eddy and Kyle ducked out of harm’s way, still chuckling.
After several attempts, Austin stopped to catch his breath. All projectiles had sailed uselessly to the ground except for one close call that struck the tree behind Kyle’s head. The boys laughed, pointing at the snowballs in the frost behind them, and slapping the tree where the lone hit still powdered the bark. They reenacted all the missed throws in a dancing mimicry that heightened their humor and sent them gasping for air.
Austin seethed as they made a fool of him. He clenched his fists and shifted his weight to take a run at them, but the sudden appearance of two lights stole his motivation.
They flickered into being like a dying lamp but in reverse. Then Austin realized the lights were too high off the ground and too steady for approaching flashlights in the hands of other Scouts. Austin glanced at Eddy and Kyle to see if this was somehow part of their plan, but the boys were still calming down from their hysterics, completely self-absorbed.
The lights began to move and blink in unison. Austin wanted to run, to choose flight over fight, but fear rooted him to the spot. The glowing orbs moved down the tree like neon sap while the surrounding bark unfurled into wiry limbs. A high-pitched whine, like tree tops rubbing in the breeze, finally caught the older boys’ attention. They turned around, eyes wide, as the creature landed in a puff of snow behind them.
Its back was dark, covered in coarse bark-like skin. The two lights Austin had seen were a pair of glowing eyes set into the shoulder blades of its lissome form. White crystals from the snowball still glistened between those glaring eyes. Four clawed hands flexed as the creature turned to face its attackers.
It stood on two feet that matched their pretend pattern in the snow. The front flesh of the skeletal creature was smooth and stark white, like the scales of an albino snake, but the boys couldn’t see anything beyond the gnarled head. Four more glowing eyes stared up at them from a heavy brow, and below that, a snarling mouth of jagged teeth waited impatiently for something or someone to gnaw. The noise it produced—a growl that clicked more than it rumbled—broke the silence of their held breaths.
Austin’s hands trembled violently, and despite the strobe effect this had on the scene’s illumination, he could see the snow beneath his fellow scouts steam and melt. The creature looked to be sniffing the air with the pink fleshy appendages ringing its snout—quivering, identifying.
The odor of human urine hit the animal’s senses and it reeled back, shaking its head, swatting at the offensive pheromones.
Eddy, trying to make sense of the nightmare he saw before him, could only manage a single, stuttered word. “Sn-sn-ssniiipe.”
With a roar, the creature pounced on him. Kyle, close to the action, fell backward into the snow. He crab crawled a few feet away from the feeding frenzy, before he scrambled to his feet and took off through the woods.
Austin watched in horror as the creature tore his fellow scout apart. Blood, gore, and down feathers splattered the pristine snow like a grotesque angel. Austin’s mind screamed for his body to flee but he couldn’t. The flashlight felt heavy and his hands had gone numb. He thought about what might happen if he let it fall – then he noticed the other lights.
All the surrounding trees were now adorned with their own set of white-glowing eyes. The tree bark all around them began to crawl. The forest came alive with slithering Snipes and clicking growls. Austin squeezed his eyes shut as dozens of creatures sped past him in pursuit of the escaping prey.
Moments passed and distant screams told of more victims. Austin knew they had found the campsite. There were too many screams followed by too much silence. He wondered if he was the only one left.
With no recent sign or sound of them, Austin decided to find a way out. Pivoting on his heel, he turned slowly—his held breath burning cold in his chest and his eyes darting around for movement in the trees.
A soft clicking noise in his ear seized everything. He couldn’t stop trembling. He couldn’t blink. With a blast of warm breath on his neck, the creature exhaled and stepped around him, all the while sniffing the air as it moved into view.
Austin stood face to face with the Snipe. It tilted its head as the star-shaped nose worked to confirm what its ineffective eyes could not comprehend. Then, more appeared—wandering in for a closer view. The first one spoke to the others in a series of shrills and clicks.
It was clear what Austin had to do.
He remembered the story his Uncle Gerard told the kids several years back after too many drinks on Halloween. He claimed his mutilated hand was the only reason he was still alive. He said it was a message. He also rattled on about little demons, and how he was the last one, but it never made sense until now. Uncle Gerard was the messenger and his left hand was the warning. The Snipes had ripped off the index finger and pinky, leaving behind their virtual footprint as a symbol of territory—a warning for others to see and fear.
Austin removed his mittens and held out his left hand.
~ Tyr Kieran
© Copyright 2015 Tyr Kieran. All Rights Reserved.