The forest was no place for a girl to walk alone at night. If common sense didn't pound that in, the darkness, the thorn bushes, and the poison ivy sure did. Trees loomed over the path – which wasn't so much an actual trail so much as a line of slightly tamped-down vegetation – and obscured the light of the moon and stars in a rather ominous fashion. Yet despite the obvious warnings from nature, a girl was making her way through the brush armed with nothing but a cellphone.
Every step she took produced a sickening squelch; the mud seemed incapable of getting her purple Converse filthy without simultaneously making an awful noise. It was impossible to listen to the sound without wincing – it was disgusting, really. Worst of all, tonight there was no cacophony of crickets or birds to drown it out. Besides the squelching, everything was eerily silent. She wasn't sure whether the noise made things more or less frightening, but it sure as hell annoyed her.
"I don't see them. Then again, I can't see anything, since I need them to... Is that a catch-22? I think that qualifies for catch-22 status. Does it?"
"I... Sure. Whatever. But you know this is the trail where Ken disappeared, right?" A nasal voice came from her iPhone.
"Who's Ken?" She asked absently as she aimed the phone's backlit screen at the forest floor. Her glasses were supposed to be around here, and stepping on them would render her efforts thus far completely meaningless.
"Seriously? He was your lab partner for, like, six weeks. Point is, he was walking around one night and just up and –"
"My lab partner when? High school? Undergrad? Med school? Which class? You'll need to be more specific." He didn't sound familiar. Then again, names of people who weren't terribly important to her had the tendency to fade into oblivion with incredible swiftness.
"Pathology? Like, two months ago? Seriously?"
She frowned and paused. It was probably better to lie here. "Oh. Yeah. Ken. Him. I remember. Sure. Where are my glasses?"
She thought she heard sniggering – from multiple people – but that could have been her imagination. "They're on the branch of the dying pine tree. Can't miss it – it's all brown and nasty-looking. Anyway, this place is why you needed a new lab partner. You know how Ken just stopped coming to class? Well, he went hiking in those woods you're in. And he called his girlfriend, said that he'd heard some awful roar or something, and then she heard all this screaming, and then there was dead silence." The voice dropped to a whisper. "You know, they never found the body."
"For lack of effort? If he had his phone with him, why didn't they just use triangulation to pinpoint –"
"I don't know! Maybe the phone got separated from the body. Or maybe," the voice grew low again, "whatever killed him just ate him up. Maybe it dragged him off to its lair."
"This is absurd. If we're to assume – since there was a roar – that he was killed by a wild animal, then – I mean, a roar would indicate a bear or one of the great cats. Since this area, as far as I'm aware, has no great cats and a bear population that's marginal at best – additionally, I've never heard of a bear dragging its kill for a considerable distance, and human attacks are very rare – plus you claimed that there was a roar and then screaming, but said nothing about intermingling of the two – I mean, I really doubt that a bear would kill without making some noise as it did so –"
"Maybe it wasn't a bear," the voice intoned darkly. "You know the story of the D.C. Demon Cat, right? Maybe it's got a giant cousin with a taste for human flesh. You'd better watch out, Jess."
"You're being ridiculous. He was probably... I mean, Washington's crawling with gangs. Maybe he just got involved with the wrong –" A roar tore through the forest, and the girl covered her ears. It was overwhelmingly loud... and full of static.
"Oh my God, I hear it! Run, Jess, run!"
She shone her phone around the trees, looking for a speaker. Nothing, nothing – there, she saw something. It was a bit blurry without her glasses, but it sure looked like... Maybe she just needed a closer look. She reached into her bag, ignoring the laughs and run, run run!s coming from her phone, pulled out her camera and zoomed in as close as she could. Oh, damn.
"I'd say... not a bear or a cat or anything. It looks more like he was cut up with a chain saw.," she said.
"He... What the hell are you talking about? It was a joke, okay? Just trying to have fun with you. No one's dead. Ken's with family in California."
"This guy sure looks dead."
"Look, stop it. We've got your glasses in the dorm. No one thought you were actually going to go into the woods in the middle of the... Just get back here, okay? Joke's over."
"I... don't think this is part of your joke. I – I'm calling someone."
"Who? Why? Jess?" She hung up, then immediately dialed another number. Her hands were starting to shake – adrenaline, probably – but she got through to the right person. She could tell because no one else hated being woken up in the middle of the night quite so much.
"Um, hi, Seeley. I sort of, I mean, there's kind of an issue here –"
"Jessie? What – it's two in the morning."
"Well, some of my classmates said that my glasses were in this park, right, and then, um, there were trees, and, uh, I was looking for a speaker, since I heard this gragggghhh noise, and then I saw something on one of the trees, and I'm all alone, so I have no alibi, and it looks really recent, so I thought it might not be a good idea to call the regular cops, since it might sort of look like I maybe did it –"
"Look, just tell me what happened." He was definitely pissed. She didn't blame him; it was two in the morning.
"I, well.. I'm sort of looking at this body..."