500 miles out, the last traces of civilization mere pebbles under the soles of hiking boots. Ancient oak trees surrounded us on all sides. The sun had long since left us, consumed by the ocean of bark. Only the sound of our laughter pierced through nature's cage—our idiotic jokes falling on the deaf, unfeeling ears of the world around us. It howled back an equally cold wind.
Yet nature gave us one luxury among its many derisive gifts. A single ray of sunlight found its way through the forest and shined down on a clearing. No signs of humans habitation or even animal life. At most, there were small shrubs and wild grasses littering the open area. I still felt the presence of something watching—like the world itself looked down on us for coming here. Ominous, but it would do for our purposes. We settled here.
Damien had been planning this trip for months. “We have to go deep in the forest,” He said. “It’ll be more fun.” Some unknown fervor had overtaken him. Camping wasn't an unusual thing for our group, but how he acted was very uncharacteristic of him. He was the unappointed leader of our group, but he didn't do much besides suggest random adventures and crack jokes about any and everything. Nothing was serious to him, except this trip.
When asked what was so important about it, he'd just say “You'll see. We're gonna make history with what I have planned.” 'Planned.' His face was a contorted mess of smirks and grotesque veins that formed mountain ranges down his neck. Fervor was his blood, a drug for his soul. What was going on in his head?
None of us knew, despite all of us having grown up together. There were five of us in total: Damien, myself, and three others—all college students. We came from some hazbin town in Northeastern Pennsylvania where the internet went out every couple of days and most people had never seen a black person before. That’s how things were: stagnant.
But we wanted adventure. We all managed to get good enough grades to make it to the local community college (Ray thinks our high school inflated our grades, but that’s neither here nor there). This was our chance to do something with our lives, to leave the mundane. It wasn't good enough, though.
It wasn't “unique” enough, for the lack of a better term. None of us wanted to be a lawyer and debate over the same redneck drama we've seen all our lives or teach in a four-walled hut with no air conditioning. We've seen that; it's not special.
We had to do something, and we had to do it together. We've always been together. We could always trust one another. We were bound together, and when Damien offered this chance to make history together, even if we didn't know what it was, we took it. It was worth the risk.
We had all just left my truck a couple of hours ago and went out into the forest in search of a spot to set up camp. The plan was to originally destroy the truck since Damien said we wouldn't need it anymore, but we never got around to it. We were so engulfed in the beauty of the wilderness that we forgot about it.
Trees everywhere. Dark greens and tall shadows. Mostly darkness, the kind that surrounds you and forces you to hyperventilate. It was beautiful, to say the least.
And my companions felt the same way. We almost got lost on that first trek into the dense forests of West Virginia. Luckily, we knew what to expect. If you’ve seen one backcountry, you’ve seen them all.
And this one was absolutely glorious. Two hours passed before we happened upon the clearing that would become the site of our camp. It was a disgraceful thought to want to “humanize” the beauty around us, but it was a necessary evil.
There, deep in the forest, we made our new home. Along the way, I had planted red flags in the ground so we could find our way back to the truck if necessary. They even glowed in the dark if we needed to use them at night—a result of Shelby's artistic nature. Everything was set for our first night of Ascension.
“Take a look at this,” a voice said. I was busy pitching a tent when I turned and saw Damien standing over a rotting oak log. He had picked up a stick and was poking at something by the time the rest of us gathered around.
“It’s a caterpillar,” I said, squinting my eyes at it to see if I was missing anything. Damien didn’t like that. He slapped the back of my head with the stick.
“No shit, McGreeny, but look at the side of it. It’s got thick, red lines on it.”
We all stared at him, confused. Damien's imagination often puzzled us. No one knows how he managed to maintain such a thing in our little town, but it became one of his defining features. He just rolled his eyes and sighed.
“It looks like it’s bleeding.”
“Blood?” Ray questioned, hand on his chin. “Why does that matter?”
Damien tensed the muscles in his arm, refraining from beating him with the stick as well. “Why not!” Damien yelled. He shoved the stick in front of the caterpillar, and it flinched. After a couple of pokes, the caterpillar was coerced onto the stick.
“Listen carefully, everyone,” Damien said as he sat down on the log. Shelby instinctively sat down on the ground in front of Damien—first resting on her knees and then falling back onto her ass with her legs crossed. The rest of us sat down as well.
“I have a story for you,” he began. “I think it’s time I explain to y’all why I brought y’all out here.”
“We ain’t just coming out here to camp?” Trevor asked, the last of us.
“Nope,” Damien replied. “We’re here because we’re special, but y'all already knew that.” He paused for a moment and stared intensely at the caterpillar. Its green body and single red line on both of its sides perplexed our cross-eyed leader.
“Trevor’s the strongest in our town. He’s over 6 foot tall and made throwing around hogs a sport.” Trevor just smiled and nodded, his best response to the compliment.
“Ray’s the smartest out of us,” Damien, continued. “And Shelby’s the most beautiful.” Shelby shifted a bit at the mention of her name—or maybe it was just because of his voice.
“I’m the most ambitious,” Damien said. “And you, John…” He paused and looked me deep in my eyes. “You’re the most loyal.”
“We're all special in our own ways, but together, we can do whatever we want. But we need to do something big! I have some ideas, but I'm not really sure.”
“Well tell us anyway,” I said. “We all want to know what's been going on in your head for so long.” The others nodded in agreement. Damien's jaw seemed to tense up at the thought like he was regretting saying anything. Only a second passed before that tension was replaced with a now familiar, crooked smirk.
“You got me, John. You really got me!” He laughed. His eyes were bulging out of his head. “The other ideas don't really matter. There's only one that makes sense.” Damien put down the stick and jumped to his feet, nearly falling off the log. We snickered, but he ignored it. “Every night, we’re going to party until we come up with somethin’ that’ll show how special we are! We'll be ourselves! We'll have fun! It's why we're here.”
I noticed the sweat rolling down his face as he finished. He was a wax statue, soulless eyes with melted skin. For the first time, I saw through the cracks, and I was horrified. He wasn't there, maybe never was. I looked at everyone else, and they seemed to have already moved on.
“Hell yeah, Party!” Trevor jumped to his feet and lifted Damien onto his shoulder, his delayed response startling the poor guy. “You sure know how to surprise us, ‘fearless leader.’”
“Ha, thanks,” Damien said. He struggled but eventually made it back to his feet. “Now everyone!” He yelled. “Let’s get this place ready for tonight.”
With that, we all got back to setting up the camp, but I couldn't shake these new thoughts in my head. Something was wrong with Damien. I just couldn't imagine what.