Happy Halloween! Enjoy this short story by the GMC Scaretakers.
October is a great time to thru-hike, if the weather cooperates. William hated the bugs of summer, and he grew up in New Hampshire so he was fine with the cold. Plus, he’d have nearly every shelter to himself: it would be luxurious. He was happy to have time off from work and wished he could stay out on the trail forever.
Hiking south was hard work but so rewarding. Each frosty summit motivated him to move quickly and stay ahead of the descending cold. He had made it several days without seeing another hiker, happily. The day ahead would take him over Laraway Mountain, where he looked forward to the view, then down to a hollow and uphill again to Roundtop Shelter. He felt strong and it wasn’t a particularly long day, so he was already looking forward to a relaxed evening at the shelter, boiling water for tea and reading. It was Halloween and he had packed some candy to celebrate.
The weather moved in fast, as it does in October. The grey morning never burned off, and as he climbed Laraway, the wind began to sting. Rain blew in, cold and sometimes strong enough to bounce off his jacket, sometimes not. Head down, he pushed forward, walking straight through mud puddles in the name of efficiency. He was certainly cold and moderately wet as the trail turned downhill, but William knew he could keep warm with a good pace.
He found speed to be elusive though, as the trail had gained a veneer of ice in many spots and had to be trod carefully. Progress slowed to a crawl. Most of the way down the mountain, William was tired of slipping, thoroughly tuckered, and ready to be done with the trail for the day. The sky was darkening, and he prepared himself for a long stretch of hiking by headlamp to finish the day.
As he reached a bald outcropping, the grey evening sky began to lighten by degrees, and with a sudden gust, he found himself in a gap between the blowing clouds, looking out across the hills below. Just as quickly, the clouds closed back up, but not before he looked down in the direction he was headed, and spotted a light plume of smoke rising from the trees. A shelter! It would be a short day, but an easy choice. He turned down the trail, ready to get out of his boots and into his sleeping bag.
As the descent leveled, he spotted the shelter: four-sided, thoroughly run-down, but standing and roofed. It was perfect. He opened the wooden door feeling ready, for the first time in days, to talk with other hikers.
The shelter was pitch black besides the last evening light barely penetrating two filthy windows.
“Hello? Anyone home?” he called into the shelter.
Another night alone, it seemed.
The shelter had several bunks, all empty. William selected a top bunk and laid out his pad and bag. He changed into dry clothes for sleeping and nestled into his down bag. There would be no full dinner tonight, he knew. The darkness of the shelter and his relief at being off the icy mountain brought out a deep tiredness. He grabbed some pepperoni and his bag of trail mix – the faster he could pack away some calories and get to sleep the better.
As he gnawed on the pepperoni stick, he pressed his nose to the window, feeling the chill of the cabin on his nose. Suddenly he turned and looked across the empty room to the stove. It stood dark and cold. Hadn’t he seen smoke from the trail? Perhaps it was from another nearby house, or someone’s hunting camp. The wind had tricked him. Still, he’d been sure…
William put his dinner back in his food bag and slung it over the nearest beam. Mice be damned, it was time for bed.
It must have been hours later because he was reluctant to be pulled from his deep sleep. Still, something drew him awake. Surely, it was the snap and pop of a wood stove. William peered through the dark, but could not make out the glow of any headlamps. The cabin even felt warmer, but maybe it was his imagination. He fell back asleep.
This time he was jolted awake by the short, sharp scrape of metal on metal. Wide awake, his heart was pounding. Listening, he could hear the quiet mutter of several voices overlapping in the dark. The metal scrape was replaced by a quiet but distinct clink and clatter. He knew what it was, even in the pitch dark: someone was eating from a can, their utensil occasionally grating against the sharp edge.
He reached for his headlamp and put it in his sleeping bag before switching it to red light. Holding it in his hand, he pointed it out over the cabin. Sitting on the lower bunks, on the floor, and leaned against the wall were six or seven hikers. In the dim light he could barely make them out, and the furthest corners were still too dark to make out. Each hiker was sitting hunched over, some looking at maps, some reading from dog-eared books, another picking at the floor with the tip of his knife. Several were muttering something quietly, but none were in conversation or seemed to be listening to each other.
“What time did you all get in?” he asked, trying to sound cordial despite his unease.
No one answered or even looked up. They went on muttering, staring at maps, picking at the floor.
“I didn’t even hear you come in!” He felt stupid talking to the cabin like this, but surely someone would answer. Just something to put him at ease until the morning when he could leave early.
The hair was standing on William’s neck, and his unease was mixed with irritation that the first hikers he had encountered were acting this way. What were they doing awake anyway? If they were going to be rude, he figured he might as well put himself at ease. The red light of his headlamp cast such fuzzy shapes and shadows that he would rather have a full view of the scene, courtesy be damned. He clicked his headlamp over to full white light.
He squinted in reaction to the sudden brightness, and as he did the hiker sitting across from him reading a book looked up. This is to say, he lifted his head towards William, but the hiker had no ability to look. The bare white bone of the hiker’s face shone back at William, who started and lost his grip on the headlamp. It bounced, rolled under a bunk, and the cabin was in darkness again. In a panic now, William fumbled in the lid of his backpack lying next to him to find his phone. What had he seen? Shaking, he grabbed the cold metal of his phone and turned it on to use the flashlight.
It was a cold night and the battery had drained to nothing. The flashlight lasted only a second. As it flashed on and then off, he saw the rest of the hikers looking up at him, all with smooth white bone faces. The one who had looked up first was closer to him now, only a few feet away. As the phone turned off, William saw a mouse scurry out of one of the hiker’s eye sockets and down its face.
In a second William was at the door, but it would not open. All of his weight would do nothing to move it. He made out the dull blue gleam of the window at his bunk but before he could move to it a dark shape blocked the way.
“Where are you going, young man?” asked the hiker, his accent thick New England.
“I’m… I need to go,” stammered William.
“But of course you can’t leave! It’s November!” the hiker answered.
“It’s November first! You could have left the shelter earlier, of course, but now it’s November. Once you spend the night, you can never leave! Don’t you know where you are?”
“I’m somewhere between Laraway and Roundtop! The map didn’t show anything here!”
“Ah, yes. That’s what most of them said, too,” said the hiker. “Try mine. Here, I still have a match or two left. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the dark soon.”
With a snap, the hiker lit a match and held out his open book to William in the faint light. It was yellow and crumbling, the pages loose from the spine. William looked at the page where the hiker’s bare skeleton finger pointed. Between Laraway and Roundtop it read: “HONTED” HOUSE CAMP.