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I finish the last of my packing by laying the final pair of khaki shorts on top of the mountain of books, clothes and supplies inside the suitcase. I close the zipper and attempt to lift the luggage out my bedroom door. I grab the handle with my small hands but it barely goes two inches off the ground. I groan loudly and pout my lip out. Footsteps echo the hallway and my door slowly creaks open. I look up and there is Max, my stepbrother. We were best friends throughout elementary school. His mom was my 6th grade teacher and my dad; a recent widower went to see her for a parent-teacher conference. The rest is history. Max and I get along well although he’s never been the same since our parents were married. I guess I’m not either.
He stares intently into my suitcase, zoning out. “Max!” I shout at him. He snaps back into reality and a smile breaks out across his face.
“Hey Charlie need some help?” My real name is Anne-Charlotte Connor but my family insists on calling me Charlie. I nod my head and am relieved to have his assistance. I watch as his right forearm flexes as he lifts the suitcase as if it weighed four ounces. I catch myself staring at him. Max is really a good-looking kid, athletic build, a strong jaw and perfect teeth to compliment full lips. Actually in the 3rd grade I had had a crush on him and was ecstatic to discover that he felt the same way when he sent me a love note on Valentine’s Day. That was years ago though, I’d be surprised if he remembered. I guess we all have our first crush. I really only have family feelings for Max now; he’s just a wonderful and protecting brother who will do anything in the world for me.
I escort Max down the stairs, him toting my luggage. “Good grief Charlie how much did you pack? We’re only going for a week!” he exclaims as he places the suitcase down and pretends to wipe sweat off his brow.
“Yes, a week in the woods! The WOODS! In the middle of nowhere without cell reception or Wi-fi. I need something to keep me entertained.” I say trying to hide my embarrassment. “That’s why we are bringing those.” Max points to the large metal case waiting next to the front door.
I shudder and shake my head, “You know how I feel about hunting. You and Dad are sick for killing innocent animals. I hope a wild bear eats you both.” I giggle but am still angered by the fact that this is a hunting trip to celebrate Max’s 18th birthday. My Dad and Lori (my step mom, who I haven’t really got around to calling Mom yet) wanted to do something extra special this year because his beginning to adulthood is also around the time of their 6th anniversary. And I guess “extra special” means a family trip to the woods to hunt and sleep in an old run-down cabin without running water. I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that we will have to dig a latrine! I would feel much better if Lori had the same worries but she is just as excited as Max.
“Oh this is going to be great!” she practically screamed after Dad announced the date of our trip a few weeks before. “A real wilderness experience! Cooking over a fire, washing our hair in the river and sleeping in a cabin! I just can’t wait.” I had rolled my eyes and pushed my carrots around my plate with my fork as the three of them discussed travel plans.
Max laughs too and hands me an oversized pocketknife. “To keep the bears away.” He says as he winks at me. I place it in the right pocket of my jeans.
“Charlie, Max we have to go guys c’mon!” Dad shouts to us from the car, already buckled in with Lori in the passenger seat. He revs the engine of the old mini-van in anticipation. I groan again and drag my feet towards the front door. Max grabs both my suitcase and the trunk full of hunting rifles. Then suddenly he zones out again, keeping his gaze on my face. Why does he keep doing that? I snap my fingers in front of his face and he laughs. “Sorry sis, I didn’t get enough sleep last night. I was too excited.” He says with a grin.
“Mhm. Whatever you say Max.” I reply sarcastically. We head to the car and he places all the luggage into the open trunk, full of the supplies we will need in the coming week. Then we slide into the backseat, awaiting the trip that dad says will “be a character building experience” and “something we will never forget”.
Lori turns on the radio to some slow jazz music station. I want to ask her to change it to the 107.3 but she’s convinced that classic rock damages the minds of teenagers. She hates Led Zeppelin more than Adolf Hitler. So I sit and endure the tedious noise of the saxophone and electric piano blasting out of the speakers.
We ride in silence with no sound but the radio and the hum of the engine for about an hour. Max announces that he is hungry so we visit a drive-thru fast food place. It is his birthday after all. The three of them order cheeseburgers, fries and milkshakes while I stick to a grilled chicken wrap and bottled water. After all the food is gone, we continue on our way. Dad said it takes about three hours to get to the campsite. I’m pretty sure he picked the most isolated place possible just to torture me. The clouds turn dark and the sky begins to rain down bullets of water. I open the window and stick my hand out to feel the pressure of the tiny drops. That’s when I see him. He’s a short man, but heavy. He’s maybe in his early fifties but I can’t see too well from here. He’s wearing a black winter coat and old, dirtied jeans. I guess Lori spots him as well because she nudges my dad and says, “Look, over there.” Dad glances at the man but keeps driving.
“Jim! Stop! The poor man is walking along an abandoned road in the middle of a rainstorm!” Lori starts to get upset.
“Yeah that doesn’t sound that it came out of a horror movie at all.” I say sarcastically.
Dad stops the car but says, “Honey I don’t care what the weather is like, I’m not picking up a hitchhiker!” He keeps arguing even though he turns the car around towards the man’s direction.
“He’ll kill us all! Haven’t you guys ever seen the Hitchhiker? You know the movie? With this exact scenario?” I continue joking but they ignore me.
“Aw c’mon Jim, the guy is suffering. Just look at him.” Max chimes in. So I do. Look at him, I mean. His wet jacket is dripping with rain and the mud on the side of the road sticks to his leather boots. He glances over his shoulder and catches my gaze through the window. Those eyes; black like coal and… evil. The corners of his lips rise in a nasty smile that makes my blood run cold. A shudder shakes my body and my palms start to sweat. I wipe them on my pants and try to breathe.
“DAD!” I yell demandingly, “Whatever you do, DO NOT stop the car. Keep driving please! Please!” But we have already reached the man. Oh no. My dad rolls down his window and greets him with a warm friendly smile.
“Howdy stranger, where you headed?”
The man replies with the same friendliness and waves his hand, “Up north towards the hunting grounds.” No, no I can’t have him on the same land as us! I was only kidding about the murderous hitchhiker thing but I still don’t want this guy anywhere near me.
Max zones out again, this time staring at the beads of perspiration forming on my forehead. I ignore his stare and zone out myself. Next thing I know the door to the left of me is being opened and in comes the man. Hesitantly I look up at my dad in the rear-view mirror but he only nods with approval. The hitchhiker climbs into the car and I am forced to scoot over to the middle seat.
The man smiles at me, revealing a set of several missing teeth. The ones that are intact are yellowed and rotten. He moves as close as he can to me, his leg practically on top of mine. My heart pounds inside of my chest and I want more than anything to go home and snuggle under the warm covers of my bed. We drive for a while, heading north towards the place where we will spend a week.
“So what’s your name?” Max asks after another hour of awkwardness. “Michael, my name’s Michael.” He leans over until he is up close to my ear and whispers “But you baby, you can call me anything you want.” His hot breath wraps around my entire face smelling of liquor and cigarettes. I want to throw up. He chuckles and puts his hand on top of mine.
“Get your hands off my daughter!” Dad yells. “And get out of my car!” His face turns red with anger. Michael hesitates and stares out the window into the raging storm. Max leans over across my body and shoves Michael and says in a deep voice, “You heard him. Get out. Now.” He breathes heavily and I can feel his muscles tensing. Michael chuckles but opens the door. He turns to leave but looks straight into my eyes as he says, “You’re gonna be real sorry you did this to me, baby. Real sorry.”
“Shut up.” I can barely whisper and kick him out the door. Dad speeds away and Michael turns and walks back the opposite direction of the car. This fills me with relief and I collapse into Max’s arms. “You okay Charlie?” he asks me. I nod my head but cling to him for protection. Dad is still seething with anger, ranting on about hitchhikers and cursing more than I’ve ever heard him before. Finally after a long half hour, the rain lets up and we reach the campsite of the hunting grounds. After the incident with Michael, the family’s excitement has dissipated. We slowly set up camp and try to make the old, moldy cabin feel like home. Lori cooks some of the frozen chicken we brought in the large coolers but I don’t feel like eating. After watching the sun go down along the trees, we head into the cabin and snuggle into our four sleeping bags. I don’t think Dad meant for me to see, but I notice him place a rifle behind his pillow.
I lay my head down onto my pillow and close my eyes. I am surprised that sleep doesn’t come easily to me. I’m so tired, in mind and body but I just cannot fall asleep. I keep imagining Michael with his nasty breath and how he told us he was headed to the very grounds that we are now sleeping upon. Hours pass and not once do my eyelids grow heavy.
The wild sounds of the woods distract me. The crickets chirping, the wolves howling and the leaves crunching…The leaves crunching…Crunching like someone is walking; walking around the cabin. A pot rattles outside. It may be only a raccoon. But I don’t think Lori left any food out.
“Pssst, Max!” I whisper. His sleeping bag is next to mine so I softly nudge him in the arm.
He groans and looks up at me. “What?” he asks, a little annoyed.
“There’s something outside. Can you go see what it is?”
Max pauses and says “Only if you come with me.”
He stands up and before I know what I am doing, I follow him out the door. Max searches the backpack on the cabin porch for flashlights and turns his on as he hands one to me. “Okay I’m gonna start over here around the cabin, you go that way towards the river.”
“Y-You mean split up?” I ask nervously. My hands start to sweat again and I feel like crying. I just want to go home.
“Don’t be a baby Charlie. Just suck it up and—”
A tear rolls down my cheek and he sighs. “Alright look, I’ll give you a gun; a nice big rifle to keep the boogeyman away.” He unlocks the gun case and pulls out two of them. The rifle feels heavy in my hands but I am determined not to look as scared and nervous as I really am.
“You know how to use that right?” He asks. I nod, remembering the hours of target practice Dad insisted on even though he knew I hate hunting.
“You’re fine sis; I’ll be right over there.” Max points to the rear of the cabin. “If you see anything, flick your flashlight on and off a couple times and I’ll come and get you.”
I nod again and trudge down towards the river. I hold the gun with my finger resting on the trigger, just in case. The wind blows through my hair and I wish I had brought my sweatshirt. A tree branch snaps behind me. I jerk back around but see nothing. But I hear something…It’s moving towards me. The leaves crunch and the wind blows faster around my face. Sweat makes my hands slippery and I drop the rifle onto the ground. I hear footsteps. They get closer and closer. The branches keep on snapping. And the leaves keep on crunching. I whimper and start to cry again. Then out of the bushes scurries a raccoon down to the river. It was only an animal like I thought before. I smile and laugh at myself for being so foolish. I pick up the gun and walk back in the direction of the cabin. I feel so relieved and happy that I begin to skip instead of walk. That’s when I hear the gunshot. It echoes throughout the trees and stings my ears. It came from the cabin. My heart stops. Oh. My. Go-. A loud scream interrupts my thoughts. It is followed by another gunshot. Then, the forest grows silent. Not even the trees are rustling. Everything is deathly still. My legs feel like they weigh a ton as I try to lift them to head towards the sound of shots. The cabin is in full view now, and I cautiously make my way to the porch. My whole body is sweating like mad and it is a struggle to breathe. The door is wide open. I peer inside but see only black. I whip my flashlight around and point it inside. The color red is all I see. Red, red and more red. It takes me a minute to realize that this is blood. I try to scream but only a tiny squeak escapes my lips. Lori is sprawled across her sleeping bag, her arm twisted in an unnatural position. Her hair and face are the color of the red roses that Dad gave her yesterday. Dad! He is face up, ghostly pale on the floor of the cabin. His once- light blue t-shirt is the same color as Lori’s face at the moment. The smell makes me gag. Lori and Dad are dead. They’re dead. Someone killed them. My thoughts jumble together in my head. Where is Max? Did he kill him too? But no I only heard two gunshots. Wait, who’s he? Did Michael kill my parents? He told me I would be sorry. Suddenly, a light flickers in the distance. Max’s flashlight! I run towards it dropping my flashlight and rifle along the way. But I don’t care, Max is alive and that’s all that matters now. I see him up ahead. “Max! Max! You’re not dead! Lori and Dad, someone killed them! Its all over the cabin Max, blood everywhere. Why would he kill them? Oh I’m so happy you’re alive! What are we going to do?!” I ramble on and wait for him to say something. My voice slows, “M-Max, why are you smiling? Didn’t you hear me, our parents are DEAD.”
His grin reaches his ears and he stares me in the eye and says, “I’m smiling Charlie, because now you and I are alone. Isn’t it wonderful how some things work out?” He reaches out his hands to grab me and the moonlight shows them covered in blood. He holds my arms behind my back with one hand and with the other, he holds the rifle. I manage a blood-curdling scream and I thrash around in an effort to escape but it’s no use. “You see sis, I’ve been in love with you since 3rd grade when I sent you that note. Remember that Charlie?” Max starts. No, no this can’t be happening. Please God, let this be a dream; a nightmare that will disappear as soon as I wake up. “But when they got married, I knew I’d never have a chance with you. First of all, I’m pretty sure it’s against the law to be in love with your sister and second I knew you could never feel the same way about me.” I try to speak but no noise comes out of my throat. “So I thought to myself, what could I do to make Charlie mine? To make sure that nothing would stand in the way of my love for her. That’s when I came up with this idea. For my 18th birthday, I would ask Dad to take us on a hunting trip. To be honest Charlie I hate hunting more than you do but I needed an excuse.” He chuckles to himself and I want to throw up again. “I knew that I would find the perfect moment to kill our parents and you provided me with it tonight. So thank you.” His grip loosens a little around my wrists but he peers over my shoulder. “Thank you Charlie.” I spit into his eyes. He isn’t holding my arms anymore so I run. I run as fast as I can, the adrenaline rushing through my veins. I don’t know where I’m going but anywhere is better than that campsite. I’m running fast until a tree root in the ground breaks my stride. I scream in pain as I fall when I hear my ankle crunch beneath my body. I try to get up but it’s impossible. My entire right leg is immobile. I drag my self to the nearest tree and try to conceal myself in the leaves. I’m so vulnerable lying here, unarmed and weak. I hear a wolf howl. I hope there aren’t bears out here but I realize that wild animals are the least of my worries at this point. Bears…Wait a minute. I reach into my pocket and pull out the pocketknife that Max gave me before we embarked on our hunting adventure. “To keep the bears away” he had said. “I’m not using this on any bears tonight, Max” I whisper quietly. I hear his footsteps coming towards me. “Charlie just come out now, you’re not going anywhere. C’mon sis don’t be stupid.” He is behind the tree. I use all the strength I have to lift myself up. I come face to face with the monster. He smiles and chuckles, “I knew you’d come out Charlie.”
“Shut up, Max.” I say as I drive the knife into his chest. He staggers backwards and lands onto the mud and leaves. He starts wheezing and choking and I see the blood pour from the wound. I fall onto my knees and slip into unconsciousness.
The sun wakes me, the warm beams heating up my face. The sharp pain in my leg returns and I realize that everything that had happened last night was real. I pick up my head and see Max’s body lying a few feet away from me. I crawl towards the path up the hill. I feel so alone. My entire family is dead and for some reason I feel like it’s my fault. I keep moving towards the trail. Maybe I can reach another campsite or something. I can’t be the only one out here. “Hello?!” I call out. “Is anybody there? Please.” I hear nothing but the call of the birds, the rush of the wind through the trees and the leaves crunching…Not again. “Get out of here you stupid raccoon, I have bigger problems.” I say angrily. The leaves keep crunching. I whip my head around and start to yell, “I told you to get…” My rant at the creature is interrupted.
I recognize his black winter coat and nasty grin at once, “Hey baby, did you miss me?”