"Part of the Deal" - A Scary Short Story
Although the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville, North Carolina and the areas features are in fact accurate and real, the town of Tollat Falls and Popinam Falls are fictitious and were created just for this story.
Northwestern North Carolina
"It's going to be a long trip..."
"Is it - the air freshener hanging from the mirror?" Linda asked hopefully.
"Nope," Justin answered with a grin. "Not even close."
"Hm. Is it - my shoes!"
"That's more of a neon yellow. So, no."
Cara thought she was going to be sick. This never ending game of "I Spy" had been going on since they had gotten into the car over two hours ago. She and her three closest friends - the new couple Linda and Justin along with Cara's own boyfriend Dylan - were two weeks into their three week vacation. After sleeping in extremely close quarters for the entire trip, she had just about reached her breaking point. From a bed and breakfast to a packed campground and then onto another bed and breakfast, all Cara wanted at this point was a bit of peace and quiet. Just for a moment.
"Oh!" squeaked Linda. "The trees!"
"Nope. You're getting colder," replies Justin as he playfully poked her side.
That silent moment wasn't going to happen anytime soon. The only thing more distracting than the over-physical lovebirds was the chattering of their local tour guide in the front seat. He drove the van and babbled away while Dylan sat in the passenger seat pretending to be interested in what he was saying. Or was he actually interested? Cara couldn't tell.
She watched him for a moment as he glanced in the back seat and rolled his eyes in annoyance. Cara smiled happily. Dylan had always protected her, even from something as simple as having to listen to Ray ramble during their drive. When everyone was taking their seats in the van, Dylan sacrificed himself to the front seat so Cara could sit in the back with her friends. It seemed like a fair trade at the time, but now she wasn't so sure.
Looking back to the driver, Dylan consistently gave the generic, "oh yeah's?" and "uh-huh's" with great precision as Ray sputtered on.
"Located in the Northwestern section of the great state of North Carolina, Tollat Falls was originally a lil' pioneering town in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains," Ray continued with his rich Southern drawl. "It's known today for it's neat-o waterfalls that are scattered all 'round the forests. A few of which we'll visit on our hike today."
That sounds more like it, thought Cara. Her one release from the commotion was the absolutely stunning scenery. Cara reached down and rolled down her window. As the cool fall breeze began to flow into the car, she took in a deep breath. It smelled like nature. That was the only way Cara could think to describe it. To go into detail about each individual smell couldn't do it a justice. It smelled like nature. Period.
The Blue Ridge Mountains
The view wasn't too bad either. Every few minutes the thick forest would open up and reveal a luscious, mountainous valley. The sun had just begun to peek over the crest of the horizon causing the fresh morning dew to glisten miraculously on the trees and the snowy mountain tops. As soon as it had appeared, it would be gone when the van took a sharp turn around the winding road.
She began to zone out as she continued to stare out the window at the passing trees when she suddenly felt an elbow jab into her side. Linda had crossed her arms, pouting.
"I give up," she whined.
Cara watched with a sneer as Justin slid closer to his girlfriend and whispered softly into her ear, "It was your gorgeous green eyes."
Giggling like an idiot, Linda turned to her companion and apparently forgave him quickly. She lunged forward and the two began to sloppily kiss.
Ugh. Rolling her eyes, Cara looked once again out the window. Just when she was about to pull the door handle and fling herself out of the car - Ray's voice stopped her.
"Here we are!"
The van had barely come to a full stop when Cara opened the door and hopped out. Taking another deep breath, she glanced around at her surroundings and realized she felt better already.
Ray speedily exited the vehicle and rushed immediately to the back to begin unpacking their gear while going through some last minute tips. "Now remember - you don't need to worry about maps or compasses. I've got it all right up here," he claimed while pointing proudly to his head. "I've lived here all my life and I lead kids just like you out here every month just like my Dad did, and my Granddad, and my great Granddad."
He handed out backpacks he had put together himself - one for each of the four travelers. It was strange to Cara that he insisted they not bring any of their own supplies. The one rule she would be breaking, was the 'no pictures' policy. She had brought along a small disposable camera and stuffed it inside of her small fanny pack tied tightly around her waist. What was Ray really going to do if he caught her taking pictures?
Leading the troop, Ray walked casually through the thick forest while explaining each tree, flower and animal along the way. He used his walking stick to scare away a snack that was slithering across the trail without flinching.
Grasping one anothers hands tightly, Linda and Justin walked side-by-side a few paces behind their guide, despite his suggestion to remain in single file. The hissed quietly in each other's ears, completely ignoring the sights around them.
How could they not pay the slightest bit of attention? thought Cara. It annoyed her how they took this trip so lightly. Probably because she was the one who dreamt of becoming a wildlife photographer someday. They were thrilled to hear that no cameras were permitted on this trip after their last few hikes. Cara had stopped to take almost one thousand pictures so far on this vacation - and why were they surprised? That was the entire point in this trip! To explore the wildlife. Apparently she was the only one who truly cared.
"A'right, now see that tree up ahead?" she heard from behind her. She smiled as Dylan immitated Ray's accent mockingly, careful not to be heard by anyone else.
"Now that there tree was built in 1396 by Napoleon. That's right - THEE Napoleon. The little one. He used to spend his summer vacations 'round these parts. I know it's pretty neat-o stuff, but don't you take a picture! We don't want you enjoying your memories of this trip!"
Cara laughed and looked over her shoulder. "You're just jealous you don't sound like that all the time."
"I could," Dylan replied with a sly smirk.
"You should. It's pretty sexy."
"I don't want to catch you sneaking off to Ray's tent tonight, little lady."
Letting out a snort, Cara shook her head. He was ridiculous, but that was one of the many things she loved about him. He could always tell when she was getting near the end of her patience and he was the only one who could stop her from exploding.
After hiking for about two hours, Cara could hear an ominous sound up ahead. It didn't take long for her to recognize the gushing sounds - a waterfall. She could barely contain her excitement.
"You hear that?" she asked Dylan who had now switched spots with her in the line and was walking ahead of her.
He looked back over his shoulder with a huge smile on his face. It was clear he had in fact heard the falls ahead and knew that she would be thrilled to see them. From what Ray had explained in the van they would be setting up camp across from Popinam Falls. A Latin term for "eating place", Ray told the group that settlers used to gather in the same spot they would be camping to exchange different foods with nearby towns.
"I know this is the usual spot on the trip the guide is s'posed to say, 'git out yer cameras!'," Ray shouted from the front of the line. "But you'd better not. It's against forest policy."
Forest policy? What did that mean? That must be his funny way of saying that it is against his policy. His excuse for the 'no camera' rule was that the flashes and sounds disturbed the animals, but Cara knew that wasn't true at all. Neither she nor Dylan had ever heard of a hiking trail that didn't allow photography.
Using his walking stick, Ray pushed aside a bunch of hanging limbs and revealed their home for the night. Linda and Justin even paused their excessive cuddling to stare at the scene before them.
Popinam Falls were quaint, but still magnificent. The rocks were smooth with the sunlight bouncing off to create a faint rainbow in the mist towards the bottom. There appeared to be two or three separate waterfalls that flowed into the same pool about a hundred feet down from where the group was standing.
Of course, Cara's first reaction was to reach into her fanny pack and pull out her small disposable camera. Immediately she began clicking away. Even the dull quality of a throw-away camera she bought at a truck stop couldn't take away from the beauty before her.
With the four friends standing at one anothers side overlooking the falls, Cara was finally granted her moment of silence. Even her lovesick friends were admiring the beauty before them. It was a wonderful sound, especially with the roaring water to accompany the quiet.
A few yards from where they were standing, Cara noticed something that seemed oddly out of place. There were holes in the dirt ground, all about a foot and a half wide. The same markings were carved into the nearby rocks leading down the side of the ravine. What were those from? It had to be some type of animal, but what? Bats? Badgers or some type of similar burrowing creature?The holes seemed to large to be anything Cara could think of - and there were so many. There had to be nearly one hundred.
She turned to their guide and asked, "Hey Ray, what are those holes - " She abruptly stopped. Ray was gone. Cara called out for him curiously, "Ray?"
Sensing the sudden unease in her voice, Dylan and the others also looked behind them to where Ray was last seen.
"What the - ?" Justin whispered, mostly to himself. "Where did he go?"
"Ray!" Dylan shouted.
They waited. No response. Cara felt her stomach turn from fear, but kept herself from panicking.
"Maybe he saw you with the camera and got upset," Linda suggested with an irritated tone in her voice.
"He was right here. Just a second ago," Cara replied.
Both having the same thought, Cara and Dylan began walking forward, back in the direction from which they came.
"Wait!" Linda shouted. "Where are you going?"
"He may have went back to the van," Dylan said.
"He wouldn't have just left us here though," Justin replied "Unless he's trying to freak us out!"
"Calm down!" Dylan yelled as he stopped, turning to face them. "There's no reason to panic."
Cara calmly finished his thought, "Let's just head back towards the road. At least we can call for help from there if we need."
Just then, the group heard a noise in the brush a few yards ahead near the holes Cara had spotted. It sounded as if an animal had scurried out from it's hiding spot, careful not to be seen. But Cara had noticed something, just then, staring right back at her from the forest. Linda and Justin felt as the tiny hairs on the back of their necks began to stand up. Justin reached down and took a large stone and threw it in the direction of the noise.
"Stop it!" Dylan snapped. "It's probably just a rabbit or something."
Shaking her head slowly, Cara answered, "I don't think so..."
Dylan looked at her quickly. Not once in their four year relationship had he ever seen her frightened, but it was very obvious that she was right now. Terrified even. He took a few steps towards her, hoping to comfort her when she spoke once again.
"There," she said with her voice hardly more than a whisper. "Peaking around that tree."
Her companions followed her gazed to the base of a mighty Oak tree. As they immediately made eye contact with the same creature, they felt their hearts drop inside of their chests.
Hovering just three feet above the mossy ground were two bright yellow eyes that resembled those of a cat. They seemed to be floating in the air with no body attached until a stiff breeze blew through the surrounding forest. While the leaves behind the creature moved, the ones directly below and around the eyes had not. It's tiny, human-like form was made from leaves. They had even begun to change into fall colors to match the rest of the forest.
Dylan squinted his eyes and was able to see the animal had a small hand grasping the base of the tree - a hand made from sticks and branches.
While staring back at the group, the small creature never moved. It remained still, watching them. It only blinked it's bright yellow eyes several times.
"What...is...that?" Justin asked slowly, careful not to irritated the animal.
"I don't know," answered Dylan.
Just as Cara was about to speak, another pair of eyes popped up all around the base of the tree followed by another, and then another. The group of friends feel their heartbeats quicken as they watch hundreds of yellow eyes appear before them all over the forest. Finally, Justin snapped.
"Forget this!" he screamed and took off running in the forest. Linda followed after him screaming at the top of her lungs.
Shocked from the sudden reaction, Cara and Dylan both glance to one another before turning and hurrying in the same direction as their friends. They both knew that there was no way Linda and Justin would be able to navigate their way back to the van without guidance, especially now that they had strayed away from their original route.
She was so frightened, Cara had dropped her camera sending it crashing onto the hard dirt ground. Kicking up leaves and jumping cautiously over downed branches, she kept her eyes on Linda who was now directly to her left a few yards away.
"Linda!" she cried. "We have to stay together!"
Instead of hearing the usual stubborn response, she heard Linda let out a painful shriek. Cara watched in horror as one by one, the small creatures jumped all over Linda's back. She hardly had time to fight back. In just seconds - she was gone. It was as if Mother Earth had extended her branch-like fingers, pushed Linda into her mouth and swallowed her whole.
Cara didn't have any time to react. She felt Dylan grab her arm and pull her to a stop. They watched together as Justin went down in the same fashion as his girlfriend. The only difference was that he put up much more of a fight. He swung his arms wildly, cursing angrily before finally being engulfed by the tiny forms.
What was happening?! This explains what had happened to poor Ray. It was just minutes ago - Cara and her friends were admiring the pristine sights and sounds of Popinam Falls. Popinam Falls: the eating place. That's what Ray had said.
The eating place...
Could that mean - ?
With her body frozen in raw terror, it took an aggressive shake from Dylan to snap her out of her shock. "Cara! We have to keep going!"
Unable to speak, Cara simply nodded in reply. Dylan took her hand and said very sternly, "Listen to me - no matter what happens you keep running towards the road. Do you hear me? Keep running! Go, NOW!"
Without question, Cara took off running with Dylan following closely behind. She glanced over her shoulder and saw the hungry figures scurrying in a mass and gaining on them. She desperately glanced around at her passing surroundings, trying to recognize anything to confirm they were heading in the right direction. Everything was moving too fast. The greens, yellows and oranges were all just a blur.
It was then - her worst nightmare came true. She heard the sound of a grunt directly behind her. Dylan. Cara slowed her pace and instinctively turned around to see what was happening. Before she could fully turn her head, Dylan growled, "NO! Keep going!"
It took everything in her not to argue. Tears began to build up in her frightened eyes as she listened to Dylan yelling loudly. To Cara's shock, his voice veered off towards the right. He was steering the creatures away from her. Just like he had always done - he was protecting her, even at the cost of his own life.
The mournful drops rolled freely down Cara's face as she heard Dylan's screams clearly - and then muffled - and then silence. The only noise now was the thudding of her rapidly beating heart and the sounds of hundreds of feet trampling behind her.
She ran and ran for what felt like hours although it was actually only a matter of minutes. Cara began to wonder if she would be able to sprint all the way back to the road. Even if she could in fact keep running, what was going to keep the creatures from catching her before that? Dylan had distracted some of them, but not all. She could still hear them - their delicate, speedy footsteps snapping branches and dry leaves. It was as though a swarm of angry insects was chasing her.
Even more unnerving was the faint, gasping breathes they were making as they ran. Cara could hear them getting closer and closer with each step.
After hopping over a pile of branches, Cara noticed something up ahead. It was a figure standing in between the trees. Oh no...what was it? Another creature? It was larger than the others. Much larger. From this distance it appeared to stand about six feet tall.
Squinting her eyes Cara continued towards the still form. Slowly it came into focus. Cara gasped out loud when she recognized the welcoming, familiar face.
Her terror was replaced by a rush of reprieve and her feet moved faster than they had moved her whole life. Ray was alive! Thank God! He must have escaped from the creatures and made his way back to the van which was probably nearby.
"Ray!" Cara cried as she ran into his arms. He hugged her in comfort and listened as she continued rambling through her tears. "They're dead! They are all dead!"
"Whoa, whoa, darlin'," Ray cooed. "What are you doing out here?"
Pulling away, Cara explained while shaking her head in distress. "We have to run! They'll kill us, too! They are coming! Those - things!"
"The Tollat? Of course they are!"
Cara froze. What? Those monsters had a name? And he knew what they were?! Before Cara could ask, Ray explained openly while Cara's mouth hung open in shock.
"Why did you think I brought y'all out here? Did they get the backpacks? They love those little fruit gummies I always pack in there."
Oh my God...not only did Ray know about these creatures - he was feeding them. He was feeding them hikers with fruit treats as a sweet topping. This couldn't be happening...
Cara pushed away from him and took a few steps back.
"You lead us out here - for them?" she asked. "Why?"
"That's the way it's always been done, darlin'. Just like my Dad, my Granddad and Great granddad. I drive a couple of passers-through out here - four this time! Then I guide them down to the falls. I told you what it was called! The eatin' place. That's where they like to be fed. After that I head on home and go another week without having to worry about 'em sliding into town and eatin' us!"
"What?!" Cara shrieked in disgust.
"Sorry, darlin'. That's part of the deal."
"Linda and Justin and - " her voice cracked emotionally, "Dylan. They weren't just some pizzas to be delivered and they weren't part of any deal! They were my friends! And you've killed them!"
"Oh, I'm sure at least one of them it still hangin' in there. Probably down by the falls," Ray replied calmly before joking with a snort. "They don't eat all of their snacks in one sittin'!"
Tollat is a Latin term for take.
Her immediate reaction was to turn and run away from this evil man, but as soon she did Cara was met by hundreds, maybe even thousands of the tiny forest beasts. There were so many of them - she had a hard time telling them apart from the thick foliage. Glancing all around, Cara realized that she was completely surrounded.
As the creatures closed in, tears once again ran down Cara's face.
"Maybe you shoulda' listened to me," Ray said with a much different, more devious tone to his voice.
"I told you not to bring a camera."