Angels on Mountaintops (from B is for Beasts)
The hot summer sun beat down on the back of my neck as I stood surveying the single file line. The girls ranged from eight to twelve years old. We all had our favorites, of course, along with a couple that no one wanted in their group. I glanced at the clipboard in my hand. “Keisha, Sammy, Amber, and Riley, you’re in the red group with me. Come take your bandanas.”
The girls stepped forward, looking hesitantly at one another. Sammy was the wild card in this group. She was new at camp this year, and most of the others kept their distance from her. I’d noticed her a few times, collecting feathers and stones and putting them into the pink fanny pack she wore around her waist. I hoped that, by taking her under my wing, I could help her fit in with the others. I handed each girl a red bandana. “Do you have your bags ready?”
“Yes, Miss Elena,” Amber answered. She was an overachiever, which made her good to have along. Amber liked rules, and she especially liked making sure other people followed them.
From the corner of my vision, I saw my Aunt Celia jogging towards me. “Elena?” she called.
My aunt Celia ran Star Lake Christian Camp, which guaranteed me a summer job through high school and college. She took pride in running the camp, which had started as an extension of the church my uncle pastored, but had grown in popularity over the past few years, bringing in kids from all over the area.
“I’ve hired a new counselor. I want her to join your group for this outing so you can show her the ropes, okay?”
I rubbed the inside of my palm with my thumb. “It’s weird being here without Abby.”
Aunt Celia frowned. “We’ve talked about this, Elena. You can do this. I need someone to train Miranda, and since you’ve been here the longest, I think it should be you.”
I nodded. “I… I guess I can.”
“Great.” She smiled and patted my shoulder. “I’ll have her meet you at the van.”
I could feel the AC blasting out the van’s back doors. This summer was shaping up to be another full of record setting temperatures. Miranda helped stack the bags into the van.
I leaned against the door, handing her another pack. “So, what brought you to Star Lake?”
She shrugged. “I need the money. You know, for college and stuff.” Miranda was all braided blonde hair and freckles, pretty in that small-town sort of way. It wasn’t her fault my aunt had saddled me with her, but I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a multi-day trip into the woods with four kids and a complete stranger.
“Oh yeah, what do you study?”
“Early childhood ed. I want to work with kids. Maybe teach one day.”
I nodded. “Well, you’re in the right place, then. I’ve worked with most of the girls in this group before. They are a good bunch but keep an eye on Riley. She can be a bit of an instigator, if you know what I mean.”
She nodded. “What about you? Are you in school?”
“I was. I’m just, you know, taking a break for now.” I rubbed the inside of my palm with my thumb and took a deep breath. It would be fine. Everything would be fine. “I’ve worked here five years. The lady that hired you? She’s my aunt.”
She grinned, stacking the last bag into the back. “That must be nice.”
“It’s why I got the first pick of the groups.” I pushed the door shut.
“How do they decide who gets what activity?”
“We rotate. It just so happens that we got hiking and camping first. Lucky us, huh?”
We climbed into the van and sat behind the driver. After a headcount, we headed for the campgrounds.
After we unloaded, Miranda and I herded the girls into a circle. We were at the trailhead of a path that led up a ridge on the mountainside. The trip was a four-day hike, with a new campsite each evening.
Miranda checked each girl’s supplies while I unfolded the trail map. “All right, does everyone have a compass and whistle handy?” It was a formality, mostly. The group was always together; the likelihood that they would need their own compass or whistle was low, but the motto whispered among Star Lake Camp counselors was ‘Better safe than lawsuit.’
“Okay, ladies. We’re gonna hike up the ridge to the campsite. We’ll make camp there. It’s important that we stay together. There are snakes and bears and all sorts of things in the forest. It can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Counselor Miranda has our food and cooking supplies, and I have the first aid kit. Do you understand?”
Keisha stepped forward, hand raised.
“What if we need to use the restroom?”
Riley giggled, tossing her ponytail over her shoulder, “Then you’d better watch out for poison oak!”
I shook my head, suppressing a grin. “Miranda has a roll of toilet paper. No itchy butts for anyone.” The girls giggled. No matter how old they got, at least butt jokes were still funny.
“Okay, I’ll walk up front and the four of you– wait, where’s Sammy?” I turned to look behind me. Shit, less than fifteen minutes and I’d already lost a kid. This was why I needed a partner I could count on. Abby wouldn’t have let this shit happen.
I cupped my hands around my mouth. “Sammy?”
“She’s so weird,” Riley whispered loudly to the others.
I sighed and turned to the troop. “We don’t talk about each other like that. She may be different, but that’s okay. It’d be pretty boring if we were all exactly the same.”
Gravel crunched near the trailhead, and I turned to see Sammy, holding a pale blue feather in her hand. “I’m sorry. I found this and I wanted to look it up in my book.” She held up a pocket-sized field guide to birds.
“Weird,” Riley whispered again.
Miranda shushed her. Maybe she would be helpful after all.
“It’s okay, Sammy, but from now on, we stay together. If you see something you want to look at, let us know. Maybe we can all learn something about birds together, okay?”
“Okay ladies, let’s move out!” I said, and we began our ascent of the ridge.
The first day’s hike was one the shortest on our route. It was designed this way so that we had ample time at the first site to practice setting up camp, complete with bonding time in the evening. It was all a part of Star Lake’s mission to foster community among Christian youths.
The campsite was a clearing surrounded by dense forest. We were at a pretty high elevation, and a stream flowed about twenty feet away. The scent of pine needles baking in the summer sun reminded me of summers past. Abby had loved the smell of pine.
I missed her. I knew I was supposed to be moving on, but how could I when everything about Camp Star Lake reminded me of her? The weight of her absence pressed heavily upon me. A constant burden.
Where I was timid and prone to anxiety attacks, Abby had been fearless. I used to be terrified of these overnight camping trips. Afraid that I’d get lost, or one of the girls in my care would get hurt. We seemed so far away, out there under the wide-open sky, that anything could happen. Abby had always been there to reassure me, and now that she wasn’t, I felt those old fears starting to creep back in.
“Elena?” Miranda was looking at me. She’d asked something, but I didn’t catch what.
“Sorry. I was… thinking. What’s up?” I crossed my arms over my chest.
“I was asking if you wanted us to start the fire now, or wait until the sun is setting?”
“Better to do it after the tents are up.” I rubbed my palm absently. “I’ll start looking for wood while you help the girls finish the tents.”
It was against the rules. No one, not even counselors, were supposed to leave the campsite alone. But Miranda was new, and either didn’t know the rule, or wasn’t confident enough to call me out on it.
“Okay. Take your compass and whistle, just in case.” She smiled sheepishly.
“Try not to let any of them wander off this time.” I cringed. The words carried a sharpness I hadn’t intended. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Her smile faded, and I saw my words had injured her. “Yeah. Of course. I’ll keep an eye out while you’re gone.”
I ducked into the copse of trees that ringed the campsite. After hours of trudging through the forest listening to the girls bicker and giggle and gossip, I needed a moment to myself, rules be damned. I’d apologize to Miranda later. I’d been unfair. It wasn’t her fault that Abby was gone.
The forest was a mix of old and new growth. Random ditches and fragments of old stone walls lingered like ghosts, hints of the life that used to exist here. It seemed a random place for a settlement, but the hills were full of vanished mining camps.
After I’d collected as much wood as I could carry, I started back for camp. The sound of leaves and twigs snapping under my feet seemed to fill the forest around me. That wasn’t right. It was loud, I realized, because there were no other sounds. At all.
A twig snapped behind me, and I spun, dropping the wood.
My heart threatened to pound straight through my shirt. “Is someone here? Miranda?” Stupid. I knew it wasn’t Miranda. She wouldn’t leave the girls alone.
A screech broke through the silence, a high-pitched sound somewhere between a dove’s coo and the squeal of rusty hinges. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard. I backed up against a large oak, my breathing shallow. I was trembling.
I was being irrational. It was a panic attack. All I heard was some weird bird – maybe a hawk or something. No reason to freak out.
A panic attack. Just another panic attack.
A twig snapped, and I nearly jumped out of my skin.
“Miss Elena?” Sammy stepped out from behind the shelter of a pine tree.
“Sammy! You scared the crap out of me. What are you doing out here? Was that you making that sound?” I was gulping in air, trying to fight down the rising terror.
“I was looking for feathers.” She held up a bundle of sticks and twigs, knit together by twine and feathers. Shaped like… a ladder?
“What is that?”
She frowned and looked at her feet.
Her answer was hesitant, barely more than a whisper. “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.”
“You were building a ladder for angels?”
I sighed. “You shouldn’t have left camp. Miranda is probably scared shitless.”
“You shouldn’t say ‘shitless.’ The angels don’t like it when you say bad words.”
“Well, you can tell the angels I said I’m sorry. Come here and help me carry this wood back to camp, okay?”
She nodded and together we headed back.
Miranda was pacing around the fire. When she saw us bushwhacking our way back to camp, she ran out to meet us. “Oh my gosh, Elena, I’m so sorry. I was helping Keisha with her tent. I turned my back for two seconds, and Sammy was gone.”
Amber sat on a log by the empty fire pit. “I told her it was against the rules to leave the camp alone. I told her, but she didn’t listen.”
I sighed. “It’s fine. No harm done.” I dropped the wood and turned to Sammy. “You can’t keep wandering off like that. You could get lost, or hurt…”
She dragged the toe of her boot in the dirt. “I thought I heard the angels. I was going to find them.”
Oh boy, I’d picked the crazy kid for my group. Freaking fantastic. “Angels?”
I could hear Riley giggling from behind her tent.
I clapped my hands together. “Okay, everyone. We’re going to start a fire and make some dinner. After we eat, we’re going to have a sharing circle.”
“Lame,” Riley said, approaching the fire pit. “We should play truth or dare instead.”
“Maybe tomorrow night. We always have a sharing circle on the first night. It’s how we get to know each other. And we have two new people in our group.”
Riley groaned dramatically.
I grinned. “Don’t worry, you’ll live.”
The fire crackled and popped, burning low. The stars were out in full force. Out here, in the middle of nowhere West Virginia, the sky seemed boundless. It made me feel my own insignificance, a small speck of life, spinning on a rock in the middle of the universe.
Abby had loved the stars.
I jumped as pots and pans clanged together. Though it was only Miranda cleaning up, I was on edge. The terror I felt in the forest had followed me back to camp, clinging to me like a shadow even now. I shivered.
Sammy couldn’t have made that sound. It wasn’t human. And why had it been so quiet? Forests were never quiet, not in the middle of a summer afternoon.
Miranda cleared her throat.
I looked up and smiled. “Thanks for getting those. Okay, girls. It’s time we all got to know each other a little better.
“Those of you who’ve been here before know the drill. We all sit in a circle and share things about ourselves with each other. Will anyone volunteer to go first?”
Amber’s hand shot up. Riley rolled her eyes.
“Go ahead, Amber.”
“I’m Amber. I go to Weston school, and I get straight As. My teacher said my research paper about people’s biases towards insects was the best in the class, and she hung it up in front of the room.”
“Insects, huh?” I asked. “Why don’t you tell us a bit about what you learned?”
She grinned. “Well, people are trained to make certain associations with different types of insects. They believe that some are good, and others are bad. Like ladybugs are good, and wasps are bad.”
Keisha nodded. “That’s because wasps are nasty, and ladybugs are cute.”
“But wasps aren’t bad. They’re pollinators,” Amber continued, “And then, people think butterflies are good and moths are bad.”
“Wait, why are moths bad?” Miranda asked. “They’re like butterflies, just not as colorful.”
Amber shrugged. “Some people think they are bad luck. Like an omen, or something.”
I stood. “Very good, Amber. Why don’t we hear from someone new, next? Sammy, would you like to share with us?”
She stood slowly, unzipping her fanny pack. She reached inside and pulled out a feather, a coping mechanism, holding it as she spoke. “I’m Sammy. This is my first year at camp. I live with my grandma now, and she said I should come so I could spend time with other kids.”
“How come you live with your grandma?” Keisha asked.
I stood again. “Keisha, I don’t think–”
“No, it’s okay,” Sammy answered. “My parents went away.”
“They moved?” Keisha asked.
“No, my Dad used to take us on fishing trips, and we stayed at a cabin by the lake. One night, at the cabin, the angels came and took them both away.”
Angels. That explained what she’d said before. The poor kid wasn’t crazy, she was grieving, and someone must have told her the angel story to ease the pain of her loss. It was pretty common. When I first heard about Abby, people said all sorts of crazy things to me about her death. “She’s in a better place,” or “God called her home,” and all the other things people say to feel better when someone dies.
“I’m looking for them. If I find the angels, they’ll take me to my parents. We can be together again.”
I felt a sharp pang of grief. Someday, Sammy would realize that there were no angels to reunite her with her parents. Only death could do that.
Riley was less moved. “That’s just stupid. Angels don’t literally come and take people away. Your parents are dead, dumbass.”
“Riley!” I scolded.
“What? It’s true. This is why everyone thinks she’s weird. I’m just trying to help.”
“Okay, enough. I think that’s enough for tonight.”
Riley sulked. “But I didn’t get to tell everyone about the new iPhone I got for my birthday.”
“You didn’t want to share anyway,” I reminded her.
“Yeah, lame. Can we have our phones back now?”
I shook my head. “No, this trip is about unplugging and spending time in nature, and with each other. Phones all stay locked up until the trip is over.”
“All right, girls. Everyone to your tents. We’re going to get an early start in the morning.”
There were two tents, each large enough for a counselor and two girls. I’d decided to bunk with Keisha and Sammy, to keep an eye on Sammy. From her first disappearance to the strange sounds in the forest, a sense of dread loomed over this trip. Maybe it was just me missing Abby, but something felt wrong this time.
I woke with a start. I wasn’t sure what time it was, but something had woken me. A sound or movement. A sense of something wrong. I sat up in my sleeping bag and clicked on my flashlight. I shined the light across the tent, to the side the girl’s sleeping bags were on. Sammy’s was empty.
Damnit. Maybe she had to go to the restroom, but I was starting to get fed up with this kid wandering off. I unzipped my sleeping bag and slid my shoes on. I didn’t bother with socks.
I pulled back the flap of the tent and shined the light around the campsite.
“Sammy?” I asked in a loud whisper. “Are you out here?”
I took a few steps towards the fire pit and paused. Voices. Had she woken up Miranda, or the other girls? But that didn’t make sense. Why would she wake them and not me?
Another step. Two more. Not voices. Voice. One voice. It was Sammy. She was singing.
I stepped slowly, trying to make as little noise as possible. I could see her now as my eyes adjusted to the moonlight. I clicked off the flashlight.
She stood under the open sky, her hands extended upward. She wore a white nightgown that reached to her feet, dirt-caked at the hem. Her tiny body swayed as she sang, the words coming into focus:
“Oh, come, angel band,
Come and around me stand;
Oh, bear me away on your snowy wings
To my immortal home.”
I circled around, afraid I’d startle her if I approached from behind. “Sammy?” I hissed. “Sammy, what are you doing out here?”
Her eyes were rolled back into her head. She stared with those white, blank eyes.
Shit. She’s having a seizure. I sprinted forward and took hold of her shoulders. “Sammy?!” I screamed into her face. “Sammy! Snap out of it!”
I heard rustling from the tents as the others woke to the sound of my shouts. They rushed to the edge of the clearing.
Miranda got there first. “Elena? Sammy? Are you okay?”
“She’s having some sort of seizure!” I turned back to face Sammy, who blinked and stood staring back at me.
She rubbed her eyes.
“Sammy, are you okay?”
She nodded. “Yeah. Why?”
By now the other girls had reached us and were standing around in a circle.
I shook Sammy a little too hard. “What were you doing out here?”
Miranda stepped forward. “Come on, let’s go back to camp.”
I looked up. “Did you see her eyes? They were…”
“She was sleepwalking, Elena. We should get the girls back to bed.”
I looked at the others. Riley was smirking, but Keisha and Amber both looked shaken, concerned. “Of course. Sorry. Let’s go, ladies. Nothing to see here.”
I spent the rest of the night sleeping in fits and starts. I dreamt of little girls having seizures and angels like monsters coming to carry them away while I screamed and pleaded. Sometimes the girls in the dreams had Abby’s face.
By the time I pulled myself from the sleeping bag in the morning, the water was already boiling, and Miranda was measuring out instant coffee powder. She handed me a mug.
“Thanks. You’re a saint.”
“Not an angel?” She lifted an eyebrow.
The tension of the last couple of days eased its grip on me, and I laughed. She winked and took a sip from her mug.
“Thanks for last night, Miranda. I know I didn’t exactly handle it well.” I looked down at my coffee.
“You know, they really should disclose things like sleepwalking on the medical release form. It’s kind of scary when you aren’t expecting it. It’s not the kind of thing that should be sprung on you in the middle of a camping trip.”
I grinned. She was letting me off easy. “Definitely not. And hey, I’m sorry if I’ve seemed… unwelcoming. It isn’t you, it’s just–”
“Your friend, Abby, right?”
I nodded. “How do you know about Abby?”
“Your aunt told me. She said not to mention her unless you brought it up.”
“Oh? What else did she tell you?”
“Not much. That she was your best friend. That it was an accident, and that this is your first summer back since it happened. That you might be a little…” She seemed at a loss for what I might be. That made two of us.
“I think I’m more than a little.”
She smiled and bumped me with her shoulder. “Don’t worry. I get it.”
I turned up my mug, letting the coffee scald the back of my tongue. “We should pack and get moving before the heat gets unbearable.”
The second campsite was further out and further up. Most of the second day’s hike was uphill, but it was a gradual climb. I hadn’t noticed just how high we’d climbed until an overlook or a clearing offered a scenic view. As we gained elevation, the large deciduous trees gave way to scraggly pines.
Amber stayed up front with me, followed closely behind by Riley, who took every opportunity to whine about her missing phone.
“You could at least let us check them before bed.”
“For the thousandth time, Riley, no phones, period.”
Keisha and Sammy hung back closer to Miranda. Normally I wouldn’t keep so far ahead, but Riley made snide remarks anytime Sammy was within earshot.
Next year, I was picking a different group.
We climbed up the hillside, one of the few places on the trail where it was too steep to walk up. When we reached the top, I turned and looked back. There was no sign of Miranda, or the two girls in her care. “Okay, ladies. Wait here a minute. Have a drink of water. I’m going to see how far back the others are. We might need to rest a minute and let them catch up.”
I spotted Keisha a little way back from the direction we’d come. I scrambled down to meet her, and offered a hand, helping her up the steep cliffside.
“Where are Miranda and Sammy?”
She was panting. “Back a little. Sammy kept stopping.”
“Is she tired?”
Keisha shook her head, taking in a deep breath. “No, she was leaving a trail of feathers.”
“You know the feathers she collects? She was leaving them on the trail so the angels would be able to find her.”
I sighed. “Thanks, Keisha. I’ll go find them. Why don’t you go join Amber and Riley at the top?”
She nodded and placed her hand on the next rock, pulling herself up.
“Oh, and Keisha?”
“Maybe don’t tell them about Sammy’s feathers.”
“Sure thing, Miss Elena.”
Between the heat, the climb, and Sammy’s feathers, it was dusk by the time we made camp.
I coaxed the fire to life and took a seat beside Miranda. I’d decided to be kinder to her, especially after last night. I’d lost my cool, and she’d proven good in a crisis. I rubbed the inside of my palm with my thumb. It was okay, no real harm had been done. I still felt like an ass for the way I’d reacted, though.
The girls were clustered in a circle around the campfire. Keisha looked over at Miranda and me. “Can we tell scary stories?”
Officially, we were supposed to discourage this type of behavior. We were supposed to encourage the girls to tell stories of encouragement and empowerment. All counselors received a packet with suggested topics to have the girls discuss in the evenings by the fire.
I didn’t have the energy, so I shrugged. Scary stories it was.
Miranda leaned in and whispered. “I don’t want to seem weird but…”
“I had this really strange feeling during the hike today.”
“Strange like what?”
“Like we were being watched.”
“The whole time?”
She nodded. “Kinda like we were being followed or something.”
“You didn’t see anyone, did you?”
She shook her head.
“Maybe it was just a bad feeling? Sammy spooked us all last night.”
She smiled nervously. “Yeah. You’re probably right.”
Amber was standing, waving her hands dramatically. “And when they shined the light in its direction, its eyes glowed like reflectors on a bicycle. A year later, it took revenge on the town. It made a whole bridge collapse!”
That night, Miranda offered to share a tent with Sammy and Amber. As a matter of policy, we rotated the sleeping arrangement so that all the girls got to spend time with each other. I wasn’t looking forward to the night Riley and Sammy shared a tent.
I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag. Faint noises crept into my dreams, doves cooing and rusty hinges creaking. I woke up in a sweat and kicked off my sleeping bag. When I reached for my water bottle, I saw a soft glow in the distance.
It’s probably Miranda or one of the girls going to pee, I told myself. I clicked on my light and checked the tent. Riley and Keisha were sound asleep. Not them, then.
I sighed. What if Sammy was sleepwalking again? I pulled on my boots and stepped out of the tent. I’d have sold my soul for a good night’s sleep.
Outside the tent, I could see the glow was multiple flickering lights. It was weird, and weird meant Sammy. Although I’d never admit it in front of the others, Riley was right. The kid had issues.
I felt a tickle on the back of my hand and brushed something away in the darkness. I walked closer. Sammy was standing in front of what I could only describe as an altar. It was an enormous slab of rock covered with a white cloth. Three votive candles flickered on top, emanating the smell of melted wax.
Another tickle, this time on my face. I slapped my cheek and pulled my hand away. A dead moth.
I glanced back at the altar. The votives were surrounded by moths, large and small, darting like suicide towards the flame. Strange as it was to see the cloud of moths with their pale white wings dancing with death, it was stranger still that Sammy knew how to build an altar and had packed her own supplies.
When she spoke, her voice was soft, like the flutter of the moth’s wings, “… out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.
And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.
And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the color of burnished brass.
And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.”
I recognized the words, as if from a story I’d heard. No, not a story — scripture. She was quoting scripture.
A rustling sound in the distance broke my concentration. As I turned in the direction of the sound, I glimpsed a silhouette among the stunted, man-sized trees.
I grabbed Sammy and ran back towards the camp. From behind us came the rustling of wings and a sound like the coo of a dove and the squeal of rusty hinges. Something dark circled overhead, blocking out the moon’s bright glow. By the time I got to the tent, Miranda was awake, coming out to search for Sammy.
“Get inside!” I hissed.
She looked behind us, wide-eyed. “What is…”
“Just get inside!”
She fastened the tent behind us. It wasn’t much protection, I knew, but it was better than being exposed, out under the open sky.
“What the hell is going on?” she shouted.
“The angels don’t like it when–”
“Shut up about the stupid angels, Sammy. This is serious!” I looked around the tent frantically. “Do you have the bag with the phones?”
“See if you can get a signal. Someone’s out there. Sammy’s light must have attracted them.” I turned towards Sammy. “We told you not to wander off. What were you doing out there?”
She started sobbing. “I was calling the angels.”
“Sammy, I’m sorry about what happened to your parents, but angels are not coming to get you. You put us in danger, do you understand?”
“The angels won’t hurt us.”
I sighed. “Sammy, you have to stop this.”
Miranda stared at the phone’s screen. “Nothing.”
Amber sat up in her tent and rubbed her eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Sammy was sleep walking again. Everything’s okay. Go back to sleep.”
I exchanged glances with Miranda. “I’m going to look outside. To see if whatever it is has gone.” I took a flashlight and a whistle. At least if there was trouble, I could make enough noise to warn the girls.
“If someone is out there… following us… maybe we should just pack up and go.”
“We can’t hike down the side of the mountain in the dark. Someone will get killed.”
“Okay but be careful. If you see anything…”
“I’ll blow the whistle.”
She nodded, hugging Sammy against her chest. I could tell the whistle was as little comfort to her as it had been to me.
I crept over to the altar. The wind picked up and blew out the flame of the candles. Feathers, no doubt spread by Sammy, whipped around in the breeze. The moths were long gone. I picked up the candles and noticed a small Bible open on the altar. King James version. It seemed an odd thing for a child to carry around, but odd took on a new meaning as far as Sammy was concerned. I reminded myself to search her bag for matches later.
I stepped away from the altar and my boot crunched on something solid. I bent down and lifted a bundle of twine and sticks roped together in the shape of a ladder. I scooped it into my arms, along with the extinguished candles, the cloth, and the Bible. I’ll give the kid one thing; she was certainly determined.
When I got back to the tent, Sammy had cried herself to sleep in Miranda’s arms.
“No sign of anyone outside. Whoever or whatever it was seems to be gone now.”
“I sent Amber to your tent,” she whispered, cradling Sammy. “The crying was keeping her awake.”
“I think we should keep watch. Just in case there is someone out there, and they come back. Take Sammy and stay with the others. If I put the packs in the other, we should all be able to squeeze into one tent.”
“I’ll take first watch.”
Exhaustion was catching up with me. As I settled outside to watch, I thought I saw the silhouette of a giant bird circling overhead.
A scream pierced the peaceful predawn calm, startling me to attention. I’d fallen asleep during my watch. Apparently, Miranda had fallen asleep too, and failed to come relieve me of duty.
I rushed to Miranda’s tent. The door flap was ripped aside, and Miranda stood in front of it, screaming.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I was with the girls. I fell asleep.”
I peered inside the gaping hole. “Oh God.”
“It’s our stuff…”
The packs were torn open. Their contents littered about, leading a trail out the back of the tent, where there was another gaping hole.
I looked back at Miranda. “How did we sleep through this?” Among the torn clothing and spilled supplies, there were markings in the dirt. They didn’t belong to any man or beast I could identify.
I was outside the tent. The girls and Miranda were inside the other. Someone, or something had done this intentionally, strategically. The thought, once formed inside my mind, was too horrible to contemplate.
By this time Riley, Sammy, and Keisha were standing around, surveying the destruction.
“We need to clean this up. We’ll salvage what we can and get moving.”
I rubbed the inside of my palm with my thumb. It would be okay. We would clean up and hike for as many hours as we were able. If we trekked from dawn till dusk, we could get to the rendezvous site ahead of schedule. It was a risk, but miles from nowhere, it seemed the only way out.
The girls started sorting through the litter. Miranda looked at me. “Elena?”
I handed Miranda the only working phone we’d found among the debris. “Start walking. Keep checking for a signal. If you get one, call 911. If you see anyone, ask for help.”
“I don’t want to leave you here alone with the girls.”
“We can’t leave until we find Amber. The best thing you can do is get help.” I handed her a few of the granola bars and some jerky we’d managed to salvage. “Take the map, too.”
I felt a sharp pain in my gut as I watched her walk away.
I inhaled a deep breath, trying to maintain a semblance of calm. “Yes, Keisha?”
“We want to help look for Amber.”
“I know, sweetheart, but it is dangerous to wander away from camp. What if someone else gets lost?”
Outside the remaining tent, we’d piled all the supplies we’d managed to save. Keisha reached down and lifted a spool of twine. It was the twine that had bound together the sticks and branches, shaping the ladders Sammy built.
“Someone holds one end, and we tie the other end to the tree.” Keisha nodded to one of the scraggly pines just outside the clearing. “That way, we can find our way back.”
The ball of twine wasn’t long enough for us to explore very far beyond camp, but it at least it would keep them busy and let them feel they were helping. They were all worried. Even Riley managed to keep her whining and fault-finding to a minimum.
I kept Sammy with me. I didn’t want to risk her wandering off with the other girls. I feared they would leave her or get lost trying to follow her.
I rubbed my palm.
“Why do you do that, Miss Elena?” Sammy asked.
I smiled. “It’s an old habit.”
“You do it when you’re afraid, but you shouldn’t be afraid. The angels took Amber. She’ll be fine.”
The angels. It was insanity, but maybe she had seen something. “Sammy, will you tell me about the angels?”
She considered it for a moment, then nodded. “What do you want to know?”
“You said the angels took your parents, and now, Amber, too?”
She nodded again.
“Where do they take people?”
Sammy shrugged. “Paradise.”
I sighed. It was no use. The kid was suffering from some sort of delusion. A mental breakdown triggered by the death of her parents. She didn’t know anything.
After a moment, she looked up at me. “Do you hear that, Miss Elena?”
I opened my mouth to answer, and then heard the sound like the cooing of a dove and the squeal of rusty hinges.
Sammy grinned. “It’s the angels. They’re close.”
An hour had passed since Keisha and Riley’s last check in. They’d either found something, or something was wrong.
“Sammy, I think we need to go and look for Keisha and Riley.”
Sammy shrugged. “They’re with the angels now.”
I sighed and turned so she wouldn’t see me roll my eyes. If we got out of this alive, I was going to give my aunt a piece of my mind. This kid didn’t need camp, she needed a therapist.
“Let’s leave a note in case Miranda comes back. Maybe she’s gotten a cell signal by now.”
Among our salvage was a half-torn Star Lake Camper’s Handbook. I ripped the back cover off and scribbled: Gone to find the others. Will return. ~E
I attached it to the outside of the tent.
Three girls. Three girls missing on my watch.
I picked up the twine and felt sick. It was slack. Nobody was holding the other end.
“Sammy, you go first. I don’t want you out of my sight.”
She nodded and led the way through the forest.
The twine twisted around the scraggly pine trees and through shrubs. I called until my voice cracked. “Keisha? Riley?” When we reached the end of the cord, there was nothing. It lay on the ground, abandoned. I slumped to the ground and sobbed.
Sammy leaned down beside me. “Don’t cry, Miss Elena. We’ll find the angels; they’ll take us, too.”
My face flushed with anger. “There aren’t any angels, Sammy. They don’t come and take people away. That isn’t how it works, so just shut up about stupid freaking angels!”
She looked stricken. She took two steps backwards, her lower lip trembling.
“I’m sorry, Sammy. I didn’t mean it, I–”
She didn’t wait to hear the rest. She turned and ran.
Everything hurt. My eyes stung from crying, my feet from walking, my throat from yelling.
“Sammy? Keisha? Riley? Anyone?”
I hadn’t gone back to camp since Sammy ran away. I couldn’t. I wandered around the forest, possibly in circles. I had no map, no compass. It was impossible to tell.
Every so often, I heard a noise like the cooing of a dove and the squeal of rusty hinges. Apart from my voice, it was the only sound in the forest.
Night fell, and still I wandered. I might have slept. If I did, I slept while walking. Not exactly sleepwalking, not as Sammy had done. But Sammy hadn’t been sleepwalking, and I’d known it. She was calling to them, to the angels.
My stomach rumbled. I found a bush with berries and swallowed a handful. A few minutes later I was bent over a shrub, vomiting. I wandered across a stream and bent down, gulping mouthfuls of water. I drank until my stomach ached, and then lay back beside the water, watching the night sky.
I heard a rustling sound and looked up. A large bird flew overhead. I remembered the bird circling the camp. No. Not a bird. The wings weren’t bird wings. There were no feathers.
I pushed myself up from the stream bank and ran after it. I kept my eyes towards the sky, tripping over roots and undergrowth, stumbling through the forest in the moonlight. It called out into the night. The coo of a dove and the squeal of rusty hinges.
I tripped and landed on my face in the dirt. I sat upright and looked to the sky, but whatever I had been chasing was gone.
I felt the ground, trying to find what had tripped me. My hand fell upon something stringy and slick, like clumps of wet hair. I pulled my hand away and saw it covered in blood. I scrambled backwards and screamed. A head.
At least it had been a head. One eye dangled half out of its socket, the other already gone. An ear was missing. The face was frozen in a scream of terror, gazing up at the sky. I realized with horror that I recognized the blonde hair. The long braid. Miranda.
I sobbed. Was I dreaming? Hallucinating? Those berries I ate, maybe they were making me see things. If mushrooms could do it, why not berries? My heart was racing. I felt myself hyperventilating. I pressed my eyes shut tight. This isn’t real, this is a panic attack. I am asleep at the camp. I fell asleep. I am going to wake up. I am going to wake up…
When I opened my eyes, I had to rub them twice before I believed them. The ground writhed all around me. Giant maggots squirmed across the most grotesque garden I’d ever seen – a garden of human heads, their bodies planted beneath the soil. Close to me were fresher ones, still fleshy and stinking of decomposition. Farther back, only skulls remained.
I forced myself to look at them. Miranda, Amber, Keisha, Riley… they were all here, faces all twisted in horror, all looking upward, all partially eaten.
But, not Sammy. One of the child-sized maggots slithered toward her, eager to feed. I launched myself at it, recoiling at the touch of its cold, slimy flesh. It stank of puss and rot. I swallowed down the bile in my throat and shoved.
It was futile. The thing wriggled through my grasp, intent on its feast.
I scrambled closer to Sammy and scratched the dirt with my bare hands to unearth her buried body. “Come on, I’ll get you out of here!” I flung dirt and pebbles in every direction.
Sammy didn’t look panicked, not even alarmed. Her face was serene. “Look, Miss Elena. Angels.”
A cry pierced the night. I looked up and saw the angel, all moth wings and glowing red eyes. It swooped down, blotting out the night sky.
The writhing thing bit down hard into my leg. Not a maggot, I realized. A caterpillar.
B is for Beasts is available for Kindle, in paperback, and on Audible here.
Look for her story “The Groom of Lorelei” in Don’t Break the Oath, coming October 31st from Kandisha Press.