John A. Frochio
They didn’t notice when the birds stopped singing. Or when the insects stopped buzzing or when small animals stopped scurrying about. Even the Autumn breeze seemed to grow still.
Rhonda led the group of teenagers. The most athletic of them, she wore proper hiking clothing and used a tree branch as a walking stick and a knife to cut through heavy underbrush. A pair of binoculars hung around her neck. Her short mousy brown hair was mostly covered under her Pittsburgh Pirates ball cap.
She stopped and lifted a hand.
The five teens following her stopped moving and talking.
After a minute, Carla, a slim ash blonde lagging just behind Rhonda, whispered, “What is it?”
“Do you hear that?”
“Exactly,” she said. “It’s too quiet.”
Carla was a cheerleader but her asthma kept her more subdued than usual during their hike.
Tom, fourth in line, a dark-haired, bulky football player in heavy jeans and plaid shirt, said, “So what?”
“The birds and animals always get quiet when there’s danger nearby.”
Everyone listened now. The silence drilled deep into their bones. Cold sweat soaked their skin and their hearts pounded in their chests.
After a moment, Rhonda said, “Keep your eyes and ears peeled for anything out of the ordinary. We should keep moving. But keep the chatter down to a minimum.”
Andy said, “Maybe we should go back.”
Third in line, Andy was the resident computer nerd. He had wavy brown hair and was dressed in jeans and a pale yellow shirt. He was fidgety without any electronic devices.
“I think forward is safer. Everyone stick close and nothing should bother us. Safety in numbers.”
The last two hikers were Nicole and Travis. Nicole was an artist and photographer and generally full of energy. A slim black girl, she was dressed in figure-unflattering coveralls and an old flower-patterned shirt that looked like something her mother might have worn. Travis, the quiet one, was a philosophy major. He was fair-skinned with wavy blonde hair and dressed a bit too neat and clean for this type of excursion, white shirt and black pants.
They continued hiking down toward the lush green valley. Mostly untouched by man, it was overgrown by a wide variety of trees and shrubbery. It was also home to many kinds of birds and small animals. Nothing larger than a deer or fiercer than a fox were known to wander these hills. At the bottom was a pristine stream with the clearest water in the county. It gently flowed but was not more than two feet deep at its deepest.
Rhonda scanned the trees ahead with a goal of trying to find the perfect spot to setup camp before dusk.
They were on a week-long camping trip, a class project from their biology professor. Each team of six was assigned a different location and an experienced upper classman as group leader. That was Rhonda. And each team was expected to work together, observe and take notes, and ultimately produce a group paper of their experiences. Most enjoyed the assignment, but some did not.
Travis hated the wilderness. He brooded at the end of the line.
As the sun dropped low in the sky, Rhonda found a clearing she was happy with. They stopped and setup their tents. They had two small tents, one for the boys, one for the girls. After the tents were up, Tom helped Rhonda build a campfire. Nicole and Carla prepared and passed out hot soup and sandwiches, celery and apples. Andy and Travis were in charge of cleanup.
They ate their dinner with a flurry of conversation and speculation about the forest silence. Most of their discussions were not very serious. The sun set and the moon was a slight sliver in the sky. One by one they retired to their tents.
Rhonda was the last to turn in. She stared into the dark woods and wondered what could be out there bringing the forest to an uneasy silence. Neither bear nor coyote nor packs of wild dogs were ever reported anywhere near here. What could it be?
Eventually, despite her discomfort, she slept.
She got everyone up and moving at the break of dawn. Protein bars were passed out for breakfast.
They continued down the hillside and into the valley.
Andy noticed it first.
“What’s that? It looks like a tree lying down with its branches spreading out like vines.”
Rhonda looked in the direction he was pointing, far to the left.
“What the hell! I’ve never seen anything like that. Nicole, get some pics.”
Nicole dropped her backpack and stepped over some fallen branches and weeds to get closer to the plant. Using a small digital camera, she snapped several pictures from different angles. She turned back to the group and said, “It goes way back into the trees and down the hill. I can’t see the end of it.”
“Don’t get too close. For once I wish we had the Internet so that I could look up that thing.”
No cell phones or Internet devices were permitted on their hike.
“I’m okay,” she said as she took a couple steps closer to it. As she lifted the camera to her face, a long thin branch suddenly reached out and snapped whiplike, knocking the camera out of Nicole’s hands. She jumped back and hollered.
Rhonda ran over to Nicole, shouting, “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Just startled me.”
Rhonda used her stick to retrieve the fallen camera. The plant remained still.
When they rejoined the others, Rhonda said, “We better stay clear of that plant, whatever it is. No telling what those whipping tendrils could do to you.”
They continued down into the valley. The slope grew steeper.
As they settled into a new campsite, Rhonda said, “I estimate about another mile and a half to reach the bottom of the valley. I guarantee it’s going to be beautiful. The scenery will take your breath away.”
Andy said, “I don’t like that those whipping plants are on both sides of us now. They seem to be closing in on us. You know, like in Star Wars. ‘One thing’s for sure: We’re all going to be a lot thinner.'”
“We just have to stay far enough from them. They’re pretty strange plants, like trees growing sideways.”
Nicole said, “I bet we made an important scientific discovery.”
Andy nodded. “Yeah. We’re gonna be famous.”
“Well,” said Rhonda, “it does seem to be a totally new kind of plant. It grows along the ground and has whiplike limbs.”
Andy said excitedly, “It’s kinda creepy. We should come up with a name for it.”
After a few moments of silent rumination, Travis, normally reticent, said, “Yggdrasil.”
“In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil was the World Tree or Tree of Life. It was a giant ash tree that connected together and sheltered all the world’s peoples.”
“Cool,” said Andy.
Nicole said, “I don’t know. It’s a hard word to say. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.”
Rhonda said, “And I think it’s too fancy for these annoying plants.”
Andy said, “They’re creepy and they creep along the ground and they have whips for branches. How about we call them creepwhips?”
Everybody admitted they liked the name.
“OK,” said Rhonda. “For now—unless someone comes up with something better—we’ll call them creepwhips.”
They segued into more mundane conversations. Rhonda eventually walked away from the camp to get some quiet thinking time. She was still concerned about the unnatural quietness of the woods. Every tiny sound that was made stood out against the silent canvas. She wondered if the creepwhips were somehow related to the phenomenon.
That night she listened for anything that might give her a clue to what was going on. There was nothing.
The next day they made it to an outcropping of rocks that overlooked the valley. The view was spectacular. A small on both sides of them. They saw more creepwhips farther off to their left and right.
Another thing that disturbed her were the dead birds and other small animals they encountered more and more frequently. She didn’t reveal her additional concerns to her traveling companions.
Rhonda announced, “We should be at the bottom before noon.”
Carla said, “What’s that smell?”
Rhonda sniffed the air. She noticed a faint pungent odor, reminiscent of something burning. Carla’s asthma gave her a more acute sense of smell than most others.
“I’m not sure. Too faint for me to tell. Maybe something down in the valley since the breeze is coming from there.”
“I don’t think I want to go down there.”
“You have your inhaler, right?”
“Yeah, but it won’t do any good when the odor becomes worse and more persistent.”
“Travis, check the medkit for a mask. I thought I saw one in there.”
“I don’t think that would even help.”
“If it gets too bad, we’ll all want to turn around and go back. But we can’t leave you by yourself.”
Travis held up a thin blue mask. “Here it is.”
He took it to Carla.
“Thank you.” She smiled slightly and tried it on. After a moment she nodded. She took it off. “Well, I’ll give it a try.” She put it in her backpack.
Rhonda noticed a movement out of the corner of her eyes. She turned and spotted a nearby creepwhip whipping several of its leafy tendrils back and forth.
After a while it settled down.
They moved on.
Over the next hour, the odor remained faint. Eventually, however, the rest of the group noticed the odor. Carla put on her mask.
Andy said, “Notice how the creepwhips are converging. It’s going to get harder to stay away from them.”
Tom said, “It looks like they’re coming out of a hole.”
Carla said, “That’s where the smell is coming from, too.”
Rhonda said, “I’m going to take a closer look. Everybody wait here.”
“Wait,” said Andy, catching up to her. “You shouldn’t go alone. Someone should go with you.”
She looked at him. Andy was never one to be overly adventurous.
“So you want to be my backup?”
“Yeah. Might as well be me.”
“OK. Stay a few paces behind me and don’t make any sudden moves. Unless I say, ‘Run like hell!’ In that case, run like hell.”
What appeared to be a steep dropoff from a distance grew into a wide, deep indentation in the side of the hill. Dozens of elongating treelike creepwhips snaked out from around the perimeter of the ravine like a cluster of snakes from the head of a medusa. The stench became very pronounced as they drew closer to the strange phenomenon.
Rhonda and Andy approached the hole cautiously. Fortunately, the creepwhips were bare of their whipping appendages at their egress from the hole. Rhonda stepped as close to the edge as she dared and peeked over.
Andy came up beside her.
“My God,” he said, “it’s a garbage dump! A stinking, disgusting garbage dump.”
She lifted the binoculars to her eyes and panned the scene below them. She picked out heaping piles of decaying animal parts. The animals were not readily recognizable as normal animals, but were deformed or hybrids.
She couldn’t look anymore. She dropped the binoculars which swung around her neck.
Andy said, “Let me see,” and reached for the binoculars.
“It’s worse than you could imagine,” she said, turning away as Andy tried to grab the binoculars.
When he finally got them from her, he looked down into the hole.
“Isn’t that genetics research facility nearby? The other side of the hill. I think we found their dumping ground.”
“This can’t be legal.”
“It’s absolutely not legal. Not to mention the immorality of it.”
“I wonder what the creepwhips have to do with this?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they’re an intentional or unintentional experiment. Or maybe they just evolved out of the biological purification down there.” She shivered and turned away. “I don’t even want to think about it.”
Tom shouted, “What’s going on over there?”
Andy shouted back, “Nicole, bring your camera.”
Rhonda whispered, “This is sick. We have to get out of here.”
Andy said, “We need photographic evidence.”
Nicole arrived with her camera swinging and said, “What’s up?”
Andy said, “We need some closeup shots down the hole. It’s not pretty.”
“Oh?” She peeked over. “Gross!”
She took a couple far shots, then zoomed in. She looked up at Andy and Rhonda. “What the hell is this place?”
Rhonda said, “Hell is a good name for it.”
Andy said, “We need some pictures for evidence. Then we have to get out of here.”
She snapped a few more pictures.
“OK,” said Rhonda. “Let’s go now.”
Nicole turned and stumbled on a rock. Andy caught her as she fell close to the edge, kicking stones into the hole.
“Are you okay?”
Nicole lifted her right leg. “I’m bleeding,” she said.
Andy took a handkerchief from his pocket and covered her bleeding knee. At that moment, the creepwhip closest to them surged, lifting partly off the ground and nearly knocking them into the hole. It began gyrating and humming. Soon other creepwhips began moving in synchronization with it, undulating up and down and thrashing back and forth.
Rhonda helped them up and said, “Let’s go.”
They hurried back to the others.
All around them the creepwhips began moving.
Rhonda said, “They’re agitated about something. We have to get out of here.”
Rhonda led the way back up the hill, followed by Andy, Carla, Tom, Nicole and Travis. The uphill climb was difficult since they were already tired from hiking all morning.
Carla tripped over a root and fell. Tom reached her first and crouched down to see if she was alright.
Rhonda turned and said, “Is she okay?”
Carla said, “I’m okay. I’m just exhausted.” Her mask had slipped. She repositioned it.
Tom helped her to her feet.
A loud cracking sound made everyone turn in time to watch a tree come crashing down near Travis. He jumped clear but a few branches brushed him. He swore, then shouted, “I’m okay.”
More cracking sounds followed. The creepwhips were on the move, taking down trees in their path as easily as if they were matchsticks. Their whiplike appendages thrashed wildly about, snapping at the air as trees continued to fall around them.
Everyone froze. Rhonda spun around looking for an escape route. There was no clear path except straight up the hill, and even that route was closing up rapidly.
She shouted over the mayhem, “Pick up some sticks to block the whips. Cover your faces and follow me. We have to move fast.”
They ran as best as they could up the hill, weaving their way between falling trees and snapping whips that sprouted out of the moving creepwhips like angry snakes. Pure adrenaline kept them moving and fighting off the whips.
The whips tore at their clothes and their flesh, marking each of them with fresh streaks of blood.
Carla fell to her knees and dropped her sticks, whimpering, “I can’t take this anymore! I can’t take this anymore!”
A swarm of whips encircled her from both sides, wrapping themselves around and around her body.
Tom jumped on the vining whips and began pulling at them frantically, trying to free her. But they held tightly against her, muffling her screams.
Rhonda and Andy turned back to help. Nicole and Travis tried to catch up and help, but they were suddenly fighting off their own assault of whipping tendrils. Travis covered Nicole as both were quickly swallowed up by a continuous battering of whips wrapping around them.
Andy was tripped by a snapping whip and Rhonda tumbled over him. As they both tried to scramble to their feet, they watched as their fellow travelers disappeared into two large balls of wrapping tendrils. They were pushed against each other as both were engulfed by the whips. They were quickly rendered immobile. They looked into each other’s eyes as they vanished into the darkness of the growing ball of whips.
There were no more screams.
There were no more crashing or cracking or snapping sounds.
An ethereal peace fell over the whole surreal scene.
Three cocoon-like balls of interwoven tree limbs rested peacefully on the forest floor.
Deathly silence followed.
Suddenly a loud grunt broke the silence. A knife thrust through the top of Rhonda and Andy’s prison cocoon. It sliced through several limbs. Their heads broke through the surface. Gasping for air, they crawled out and dropped to the forest floor. They lay still for a moment taking long breaths.
“The others,” wheezed Andy.
They made their way down to each of other prisons. They cut each of their friends out. Soon all were collapsed on the forest floor, breathing heavily and shivering violently.
After a while, Rhonda said, “They’ll leave us alone for now. But we better get out of here as soon as we can.”
“What—what did they want from us?” asked Tom.
Rhonda stood up shakily and held out her arms.
“Do you see? All of our bleeding wounds have been licked clean. They wanted our blood.”
Her companions grew pale.
“And when they get thirsty again, they’ll remember where they got their last nourishment. Now that they’ve tasted human blood, they’ll want more from us.”
Carla said, “I don’t care how tired I am. I just want to get the hell out of here.”
They gathered themselves together—a weary, ragged bunch—and dragged themselves up the hill.
Around them the strange creeping plants rested peacefully among the wreckage of the forest, content for now. Unaware of the war that would soon befall them. It was a timeless war. The war between good and evil.
John Frochio grew up and still lives among the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania. He is semi-retired, working part-time supporting computer automation systems for steel mills. He has had stories published in Triangulation 2003 & Triangulation: Parch (2014), Interstellar Fiction, Beyond Science Fiction, Twilight Times, Aurora Wolf, SciFan Magazine, Helios Quarterly, Time Travel Tales, Visions VII: Universe, 2047: Short Stories From Our Common Future, and The Chronos Chronicles, as well as general fiction novel Roots of a Priest (with Ken Bowers, 2007, Booklocker) and sf&f collection Large and Small Wonders, (2012, Byrne Publishing). His wife Connie, a retired nurse, and his daughter Toni, a flight attendant, have bravely put up with his strange ways for many years. His author’s webpage is https://johnafrochio.wordpress.com/about/.