Canopies and Walls
“This is it.” Tommy threw down his backpack and started pitching the tent. “This is it for the next three days.”
“It’s cold,” Clara complained, wrapping her arms around herself.
“Help me with the tent. That’ll warm you up.”
She rolled her eyes, but helped, anyway.
Daniel set his backpack down. He stretched, his back popping in several places. Turning a full circle, he studied the thick, dense forrest. The trees were a canopy, as well as their walls. “No one to get in or out,” he said softly.
“What was that?” Tommy sat up. The base of the tent was flattened out before him. Clara and Rachel were working on the poles.
Daniel said, “I’m gonna take some pictures.”
“And don’t bother helping with the tent, sure,” Clara continued to complain.
“I knew you’d understand,” he said with an endearing smile. He got his camera from his backpack and moved away from their campground.
“Don’t go far,” Tommy said. “We don’t have much daylight left.”
They didn’t have much daylight at all. The sky had been an abysmal grey all day, surely a bad omen for an oncoming downpour. Nevertheless, Daniel promised to be back soon.
The ground was a moist sponge under his feet. Leaves were scattered all across the ground, carpeting decades of detritus and old hiking trails. Dead leaves were the masters of concealing the mysteries of the forest. They also supplied the freshest scent of the end, while also a promising future next Spring. Daniel lifted his camera. A dozen pictures in, he stopped to take in the view first-hand. A lens had the ability to capture just about anything, but it still couldn’t rival the naked eye. A picture produced vicarious emotions. A first-hand experience was both irreplaceable and couldn’t be duplicated. Even as a photographer, Daniel understood this well.
A fallen tree that had possibly been dead for only days, maybe even weeks, lay in front of him. Its trunk was split in two, as if it were exposing all of its mossy insides. A host of spiders were living in its belly. Daniel leaned in to get a picture.
Then a branch snapped somewhere in the woods.
Startled, Daniel lost his balance and went headlong into the split tree. Luckily, he managed to tuck his camera against his cushioned jacket before he landed right on it.
Somewhere else, in a different direction, something else snapped.
Spitting out leaves and moss, Daniel sprang back up to his feet. His camera was ready.
He turned to his right. The noise came from that direction. One of them, at least. The snap! that came right after confirmed his conjecture. As quiet as the spiders in the dead tree, he made his way towards the sound.
It was the American Black Bear he was after. Though common and not anywhere near extinction, their hibernation period was imminent. Daniel had never seen a bear before, save for what he could recall in picture books and the zoo, but those were all snapshots of the real thing.
He was close. His heart quickened its pace, his breathing creating a thin fog before him. It was hard not to run. Noise would not favor him in the slightest, however. Another crunch! came from up ahead.
The camera was up and ready. What was between him and the bear was a well-grown Douglas fir. He peered around the tree he was behind ten feet away. His passion to see a bear did not rival his passion to live.
Daniel could partially see the furry black mass that had to be a bear. It took another step, moving out from behind the tree and into the open.
Daniel caught his breath, eyes widening, heart skipping a beat.
It was beautiful, the enormous black bear. It snorted and lifted its head up to smell the wet ether of nature. Daniel poised his camera and snapped a picture. Looking through the lens, he noticed dirt caked around the edges. Swearing silently, he cleaned it off. One of its ears twitched in his direction. The rest of it went on sniffing. Daniel took a picture.
The bear lowered its head and sniffed the ground. Daniel noticed something there. It wasn’t water from rain the night before, nor was it mud. It was blood. Not the color of decaying red leaves, but real red blood. With his camera, he focused on the ground. It was probably the blood of this bear’s last meal. One swipe and this beast could knock your head right off your shoulders. Daniel had a funny feeling. A feeling he couldn’t quite explain. The bear was smelling it. The blood coated the bottom of its huge, black paws. Was it the blood of his last meal? Daniel took another picture.
Simultaneously, a snap resounded in the air. The bear jerked its head upward, ears twisting around its head like satellites trying to pick up a signal. Refusing to miss the opportunity, Daniel took another picture. There came another snap, this one louder…closer. The bear’s dark eyes dilated. In Daniel’s deepening confusion, it took off in the opposite direction.
At first he tried to keep up, then he realized that he was chasing a bear. He eventually stopped. The grey sky was getting darker, but he didn’t notice.What stole his attention was a tree falling twenty yards ahead. It crashed to the ground with a thump, splitting in half. The walls are coming down, Daniel thought. He chuckled to himself.
Something moved away from the fallen tree. Daniel barely saw it before it vanished behind another five feet away. Daniel had to shake his head. Was it on two legs? A split-second of an image could very well play many tricks on the mind. That was what cameras were for. Slowly, he made his way towards the fallen tree.
Nothing. Nothing but leaves rustling.
A drop of rain landed on his head.
His finger was calm on the shutter. Being ready for anything at any second was his specialty.
Something moved from the tree to his left. Daniel turned, pressing down on the shutter as many times as he could. Whatever it was ran behind the next tree. Daniel went to meet it. As soon as he made his way around it, nothing was there.
Rain clouded his vision and his camera. There was nothing left to see. Perhaps there wasn’t anything to see in the beginning. It was an apparition, whatever it was. An apparition of his imagination, caught up in the fantasies of something actually being there when there was really nothing at all. And as for the snapping of twigs and crunching of leaves, he’d already forgotten about that by now.
What he was thinking about was dinner and escaping this worsening rain.
The next day bore no signs of any bear in the area, not even the one he encountered yesterday. Disappointment would have set in if they didn’t get to see a family of deer and an owl on their hike through the woods. The next day was when Daniel felt sure that he would see a bear again. Unfortunately, though, there was no such luck. He had spent the better part of the day wandering around from tree to tree, detecting every little snap or creak, only to come back disheartened, cold, and hungry.
As he neared camp, flames welcomed him back. Clara was sitting by the fire with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, rocking back and forward. Daniel saw Tommy walking towards him. “Whats wrong?” he asked.
“You haven’t seen Rachel?” Tommy’s face was a sheet of white.
“No,” he answered, concerned.
“She left about an hour ago, to find you. She was worried because it was starting to get dark and you weren’t back yet.”
Daniel glanced over to Clara, who was still rocking in front of the fire, clearly on the edge of hysteria. She was muttering something incoherent under her breath. Daniel asked, “Why did you let her leave in the first place?”
“I couldn’t stop her.”
He looked back in the direction he came from. It was pitch black, not even a chance a shadow flitting from one tree to the other. From deep within, there was a vibrating shudder, then a crash.
Clara yelped, snapping her eyes from tree to tree. Tears were welling up in her eyes, on the verge of spilling. Where was Rachel?
“Have you tried calling her?”
“There’s no cell service up here, are you crazy?” Tommy was also beginning to lose it. Daniel was on the brink, but he wouldn’t let himself succumb to fear, too. Not if everyone else couldn’t fight it.
Another crash’s echo came to the fire.
“Something’s out there,” Clara said.
“It’s probably just a bear,” Daniel said.
Tommy’s stare grew stern. “Just a bear?”
“I saw one the first day we were here. It might still be around.”
“Great. So, we’re missing Rachel and there’s a bear out there somewhere. This is great!”
“There’s something else out there, too,” Clara said, staring off into the darkness.
The camera in Daniel’s hands felt like lead. He looked into the pitch black of the trees, as if they were whispering his name; as if whatever was in there was whispering his name. “I’ll go find her.”
“No,” Tommy disagreed. “We can’t separate. That’s how we lost people. We have to stay together.”
“Okay, then let’s go find Rachel.”
Clara looked at them. The fire’s glare beat against her face in oranges and yellows. “I’m not going out there,” she said.
“Me neither.” Tommy shook his head. “Not with a bear on the loose.”
“Well, I’m not going to stay here to wait for Rachel to come back. What if she’s hurt?” What if she’s dead? He shook off the impulsive thought immediately. He had to go back into the woods. She was in there, somewhere…with it.
With what? Daniel scolded himself for thinking such irrational thoughts.
Tommy sighed, giving up whatever authority he was clinging on to. “Fine.”
“I’m not going out there,” Clara reminded them.
Tommy handed Daniel a flashlight. “If you’re not back in thirty minutes…”
Daniel turned it on. “I’ll be back.”
A scream, both inhuman and eerily familiar, made its way to their ears.
“Rachel,” Clara muttered, her tears now cascading down her face.
Another tree, somewhere out there, fell with a thundering crash. The walls are coming down.
“You better be back in thirty minutes.” Tommy’s voice was shaking, though faintly; he wouldn’t dare let his fear show. Daniel understood. He promised to be back.
What lay before him was more than a dark forest. It was a fortress wide open, beckoning him through its crepuscule doors. Rachel’s scream came out again. Daniel tried to ignore it but had trouble doing so. It sent a chill up his spine, biting into the nape of his neck. Taking a deep breath, he stepped inside.
The fresh scent of leaves now carried the odor of putrid carrion. Daniel’s camera was still on, as well as the flashlight. He flipped through the pictures he took over the course of their stay here, including the four of them on the day they left. All in the pursuit of the American Black Bear. Now he was thinking that he was asking for too much when he proposed the idea of this camping trip. When he got the picture of the bear sniffing the blood, he stopped. The bear’s ears were flattened against its head, not in wonder but in alarm. He went to the next picture. The bear’s eyes were open wide. That was when Daniel realized that it wasn’t looking for whatever was out there, it was frozen. Frozen in terror, in fright.
This also made Daniel stop in his tracks. His heart was a pulsating knot of anxiety. The rain finally let up, but an uncomfortable mist hung around in the air. It restricted his breathing, making him pull in short, shallow breaths.
“Rachel?” he called.
Silence was the only one who answered him.
He began to move again, shining the flashlight at every tree. It seemed to be only hindering him as he walked, shining light on what was seven feet in front of him, but shrouding everything else around him in deeper darkness. He felt more alone, more helpless. A strong wind blew past him. The flashlight flickered then went out. Swearing, he hit it back to life. “Shit,” he said involuntarily. “Rachel?” He began moving again. The tree before him was wearing a swath of blood.
“RACHEL!” was thrown back at him. He flinched, stopping again. Rain started to come back in fat drops. Blood littered the ground. Rachel’s blood? No. He would not let himself come to such conclusions.
The small light his camera’s screen gave off gleamed up at him. He looked back down and went to the next picture. What he saw in the tiny, bright fame turned his heart ice cold. He lifted his head up, searching for the stars.
There were none. Only black, only darkness.
Before he could think about it, he began to run towards Rachel’s voice. “Keep talking!” he yelled. “Say something!”
“Daniel, help! Quick!”
More blood painted the trees he was passing, along with the small pools of blood his feet were treading through. The flashlight shined on Rachel’s silhouette. “Praise the Lord,” Daniel exhaled. “Rachel.”
Her face was caked with mud and fear. She held her arms up. “Help me, I’m hurt.”
“What happened?” Daniel asked. As he neared her, his question was answered without words.
She was beginning to fade. Her eyelids threatened to close and never open again, but it took all of her strength to keep her gaze up at him. “Help me,” she barely could say.
She was missing a leg. All the way up to her hip, there was nothing there to be identified as her right appendage. Daniel turned around to throw up.
“Daniel,” Rachel called.
He turned back to her. “Oh my…Oh, Rachel…”
“It’s not bad.” She tried to smile, but the corners of her trembling lips could only go up so far. “It’s not that bad. Come on, help me up.”
Her arms fell to her sides. All strength was leaving her; soon she wouldn’t be conscious anymore.
“Who did this to you, Rachel? What did this to you? Was it a bear?”
Slowly––too slowly––she shook her head. “Not a bear.”
“What was it, Rachel?” He dropped the camera, the flashlight, and himself. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he asked, “What was it?”
She continued to try and smile. Daniel was kneeling in her blood; it was drenching his pants along with the rain. At a loss, close to losing himself, he pulled her into him. Tears fell from both of their eyes, falling onto each other’s backs.
“It was you,” Rachel whispered. “It was you.”
“What?” Daniel grabbed her by the shoulders again. “What did you just say?”
Her head drooped onto her chest. He shook her.
“Who, Rachel? Who?”
“It was you…”
He noticed that she was no longer supporting herself, but all her weight was leaning into him. “Rachel?” No matter how many times he said her name now––a dozen more times, a hundred, a million––she would not answer him. She couldn’t answer him.
Rachel was dead.
“No,” Daniel cried. He shook her harder, whipping her neck. The flashlight went out again, this time, though, not coming back on. The only light that was there to accompany him was the small, bright box of his camera.
Somewhere, something snapped.
Crying wasn’t going to solve anything. Crying wasn’t going to pick him up and lead him back to camp. He had to get up, or whatever killed Rachel was going to kill him next, he was sure of it. It was out there, lurking, watching him. Daniel glanced down at his camera. The same picture shined up at him.
He picked it up and went to the next picture. The same face stared up at him. Rachel’s limp body was still leaning into him. To his left, a branch cracked. The flashlight flickered back on, though a dimmer light than before illuminated the tree. Someone, something was there. It’s a bear, Daniel thought. However, he knew he was wrong, but how he so desperately wanted to be right. He laid Rachel’s body on the ground. Her blood was everywhere––on her, on the ground, on him.
It was there, right inside its concealment of the dark. Daniel called out to it:
“Who are you?”
No answer, just the rain beating down on the leaves.
Crunch! It took a step forward.
Daniel wasn’t going to wait; he walked a straight line until he was at the very edge of the light. There was breathing, excited and rapid. Perhaps it was his own. Daniel reached out into the darkness, grabbed onto something, and pulled it towards him.
He froze. Time froze. The rain was crystals suspended in the air. The dim light illuminated what must have been a mirror he was looking into. But it wasn’t. The arms he was clenching with tight fists were too real. Daniel stepped out into the darkness. He didn’t want to see anymore. If he had to look at Rachel’s dead corpse one more time, he was going to go insane. Reality was going to make him lose his mind.
I’m already insane, he thought.
“You killed her,” he said to the dark. He knew what he was talking to, who he was talking to. He wanted to be back in the comfort of the light, but he didn’t want to go back near her body. The camera was stained with her blood, but the picture still beamed upward. Daniel moved towards it, shaking, losing it…losing everything. He picked up his camera.
The picture was of himself, leaning out from behind one of these thick trees. He went to the next picture and found the same thing.
But that was impossible. He was the only one who took any pictures with this camera. It was impossible. Then again, it was him all the same. But how?
It stepped into the light. Daniel stepped into the light.
“No,” he said to it, to himself. He dropped the camera and grabbed onto it (onto himself) again. “No!” he shouted, cursing it.
Blood soaked the sleeves he was holding on to. He looked back down at Rachel and saw his hunting knife next to her body. The hunting knife he had used so many times to skin bucks and rabbits. He looked himself in the eye.
Everything froze again. Every tree in the forest could fall, a bear could come stumbling into the scene, he wouldn’t have noticed.
“You killed her,” he said.
It nodded its head, slowly and methodically.
A tear trailed down his cheek. “Who are you?”
“No.” Daniel shook him hard enough to snap his neck. “No, you killed Rachel.”
The picture on the camera was still on.
Daniel hit him square in the face. It was real, whatever it was, whoever it was. Not me, Daniel told himself. His knuckles cracked on impact. It was a hard hit. He pulled him back up until their faces were an inch apart. A bruise was already starting to form on the left side of his face. Blood was spilling from his lips.
“Why did you kill her?” Daniel asked.
He smiled. It was more of a sneer, a smirk.
Daniel hit him again, this time connecting with his nose. Holding him an inch from his face, he asked: “Who are you?”
Time stopped. The rain lost precipitation, then disappeared. Daniel let go. No one fell to the ground because he wasn’t holding on to anybody. He looked at his right hand and felt no pain; there was no bruise. Blood stained his clothes, but it was Rachel’s blood.
Daniel took a step back and looked back down at Rachel. She was still here, so was the hunting knife.
Realization struck him like time makes a clock tick, like a branch snapping off of a tree.
Somewhere, a branch snapped.
He went over and picked up the knife. The already dim flashlight was losing power again. Without giving Rachel a second thought––much like a bear doesn’t give its prey a second thought––he stepped over her body, heading back to camp. He was heading back to Tommy and Clara.
The trees were a canopy, as well as their walls. “No one to get in or out,” he said softly.