I had hoped to submit to Blood Bound Books anthology, Burnt Fur, but like many things, I didn’t make it. Joseph Sale encouraged me to write a story on the anthology theme anyway (he has a great story about ducks in the book).
Therefore, I present to you my story for this week – The Woods Today. If I’d submitted to Burnt Fur, my story may have gone a little something like this…
Ursula felt a thrill of excitement as she sneaked through the trees, occasionally stopping to look and listen for any police drones that might spot her. She’d been attracted to the online group because of their logo of animals dancing around a pyramid, but when they mentioned a secret get together in the woods, it seemed too delightfully illicit to turn down.
Bring a mask, the invite said.
She thought that odd. What was the point of a party in the woods if there was going to be social distancing? The risk was part of the thrill after all. However, she had her mask shoved into the pocket of her jacket. She didn’t like wearing it hiking. Her heavy breathing made her face warm and wet. She’d put it on if they forced her, but not before.
The coordinates led to a high meadow full of summer flowers and the hum of bees. The buzz of about twenty people chatting competed with the insects. It was a smaller crowd than Ursula expected, and she felt conspicuous until a petite blonde in a white shift rushed towards her and embraced her.
Ursula pulled back. “How do you know I’m BBHugz?”
“I love you’re voice. It’s so deep and growly.” The woman ran her fingers through Ursula’s hair. “I knew it was you as soon as I saw you, you fit your name perfectly. You’re a bold, beautiful woman I want to hug. What thick hair you have. It’s like bear hair. You’re so brave to wear it short, but you have the face for it. Come, drink. More will arrive until sunset, then we will get started.”
Ursula hesitated, wondering if she should have come. The woman grabbed her arm. “Your hand is so big!” She pressed their palms together, measuring, and Ursula was conscious of a thin layer of sweat coating her skin. “I love your nails. I’ll introduce you to the others.” Almost as an afterthought, she pressed her fist over her heart. “HunyB.”
A few camping tables with a tarp over them had plastic cups and an assortment of liquor bottles stacked on top, as well as various pungent foods that HunyB called edibles. Some coolers under the tables held slush and bottled beer. In the middle of the meadow piled firewood rested under a pyramid of lashed together tree branches.
Ursula took the cup that HunyB pressed into her hand and sipped at it while she was introduced to the others. Wolf8sheeple was smaller than she expected, with buckteeth and glasses. She thought Hawk2Duv’s grey hair made her look like a granny. TygerI had stripes tattooed onto his shaved head and holes in his ears, like the deer that had ripped out the scientist’s tracking tags she sometimes encountered.
She blushed when HunyB introduced her to FreedMason. His features were pleasing, his stocky body well muscled, although he was strangely hairless. His teeth were white and sharp, like a cub, when he smiled at her.
“So glad you could make it.”
He pressed three gummy bears into her hand. Ursula hesitated, then popped them into her mouth. They tasted bitter sweet.
The alcohol made her hot. Her clothes felt tight, her skin prickling underneath. They were too small for her, but they were the best she could find. She took off her jacket, but was afraid to take off anything else. She joined some of the others sitting at the edge of the meadow. HunyB sang as she threaded flowers into a crown. Ursula scratched her back against a tree, and then slid to a seated position, laughter bubbling out of her stomach. She dug her nails into the earth and thought of home.
FreedMason sat beside her, the whole right side of his body pressed against her left. He smelled good, and the thought made Ursula look down at her shoes. She wriggled the ugly trainers, her large feet painfully stuffed inside.
“I can’t believe you’re single.” FreedMason handed her more gummy bears. She didn’t mind their strange taste anymore.
“Chronically so.” She giggled.
He placed his hand over hers, rubbing his index finger up and down her digits and flicked her nails.
“I’ll have to do something about that.”
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. His face was close to hers, so she turned toward him, bringing their mouths so close that she could smell the beer on his breath that tickled the fine hairs above her lip. She felt giddy, and couldn’t help but think about what her father would do to him if he kissed her.
He squeezed her hand, then stood up and started dancing with CorvidSlayR, who was swaying to her own music.
The meadow held over fifty souls by the time the dying sun set the sky on fire. The atmosphere had changed as the darkness crept out from the trees. Someone had set up a wireless speaker on the camping tables, and wild, rhythmic music with a heavy drum beat blared out, dragging Ursula to her feet. Others were whooping and howling, feeling the call of the wild, and she saw that their faces had changed into shapes of wolves, panthers and crows. She stumbled towards a small figure with a proboscis, antennae and bulging black eyes.
She clapped her hands onto either side of the insectoid face, and felt plastic. The small woman pushed up her face, revealing her human one underneath.
“They’re just masks, silly.”
Ursula fumbled for her blue paper mask, but it was still in her jacket pocket, under the tree. HunyB held up the flower crown she’d spent the afternoon making, and placed it on Ursula’s head.
HunyB’s smile made Ursula feel warm inside. She let the smaller woman lead her to the others, who were standing in a circle around the firewood. Some of the men held flaming brands, and she could smell petrol.
“The virgin has arrived.”
FreedMason held out his arms to her, and, while the others howled, roared and cawed, HunyB pushed her towards him. Ursula felt herself blushing. FreedMason put his arms on her shoulders and leaned in, as if he was going to kiss her. Ursula felt her pulse quicken.
“Thank you for your sacrifice.”
His lips brushed her ear, and then he pulled back, showing her his sharp, gleaming baby teeth once again.
“Is this some kind of weird sex initiation?”
He gestured towards the pyramid.
She stepped forward. The firewood was sodden with petrol, the smell hurting her nose. She looked out at the circle of men and women, their eyes glinting hungrily through the slits in their masks.
FreedMason raised his arms to the star clad sky.
“Oh great god, Asclepius, take our sacrifice tonight, join it with those of our brethren and heal the world.”
Ursula looked down at her big, clumsy hands. She felt the pain in her feet, and how the fabric of the strange clothes dug into her large body. It had been fun flirting with this scene online, but she didn’t fit in with these people.
“Ignite the sacrifice.”
At FreedMason’s command, the torch bearers stepped forward. Pieces slid together in Ursula’s mind, finally making sense of the symbol of the animals dancing around the pyramid that had been the group avatar, and leaving her clear headed for the first time in hours. Before the flames got near to the petrol fumes wafting up from the firewood, she spun around with a growl.
“Oh hell no.”
She gave into her desire to rip the restrictive clothes from her body and tear the horrible shoes from her feet. Revealed in her 400 pound natural glory, she heard the humans gasp. Some stumbled backwards, seeking the darkness to shield them.
She didn’t need to see them to hunt them. She could smell them.
The fire came to life with a whumph, silhouetting her in a halo of vengeance. She swiped at FreedMason first, one blow from her paw so powerful that she snapped his neck. He was dead even as her nails raked through his cheek, gouging out chunks of flesh the texture of chuck steak.
Perhaps it was the alcohol and drugs, Ursula wasn’t sure when she thought back on it with shame later, but she had never been so wanton. She killed with a blood lust that was alien to her. She used her teeth to rip out eyes, tear off faces. She dug through chest cavities for hearts. She ran on all fours and bowled over the fleeing humans, then tossed their bodies into the air until gravity ground their bones to dust against the earth.
She left HunyB to last. She found her hiding under the tarp amid the wreckage of the camping tables, her white shift darkened by numerous fluids. As she drew her into her embrace, squeezing tighter until the fragile woman’s ribs cracked and she suffocated, Ursula whispered into her ear.
“It stands for brown bear hugs, you idiot.”