's 2014 Horror Write-off:

" Sleeping Bag "

Submitted by C. Lonnquist C. Lonnquist

I never liked camping. I hate the feel of sleeping bags.

I liked the outdoors just fine; nature was wonderful. I liked the smell of plants and trees and ferns mixed with earth—the kind of earth-smell you only get when you’re out in the woods, far from cities, far from noise aside from birdcalls. I liked the feeling of looking into the eyes of a living thing—a deer, a hawk, a squirrel, a fox—and seeing that strange flicker of aliveness, that glimmer of thought, even if only based on instinct. I liked the sun as it rose and made motes of unidentifiable dust form gossamer walls between the trees. I liked it as it pressed down through the branches at mid-day. I liked it as it like the world in brilliant fire-orange before it passed below the horizon.

I even enjoyed the night. People think that I hated camping because I hated the night, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Have you ever seen a cloud of fireflies? A moving, blinking mass of fluttering life, shuddering on and off, over and over. Have you seen the stars? All of them? The kind of stars you can only see from nowhere? Has the Milky Way ever looked like a solid strip of distant white? Have you heard coyotes and owls amidst throngs of katydids and chorus frogs? Of course I enjoyed the night as well.

And the creatures of the mountain that my great-grandmother warned of did not come out, as long as we stood among the pines and poplars, holding our flashlights and throwing their light into the darkness. Not the animals. The creatures.

And that’s why I hated camping. Why I feared it. It wasn’t the bizarre damp that always seemed to push itself into my single-person tent. It wasn’t the isolated loneliness, wrapped in my sleeping back, only my face exposed to the cold, the night, the small ash bough hung at the top of my tent, bound in birchbark and etched with the small runes my great-grandmother taught me before she died. I had no idea what they meant, but she said they would keep things out of the tent. She hadn’t meant insects.

Once, when I was six, there were five of them, and I could see them through the mesh window on my tent. It always managed to come open. I had begged for a different tent so many times, but my father told me the bough would stop the creatures of the mountain, so there was no need to buy a newer, expensive tent.

The five I saw that time were man-sized, but knobby, with long arms and legs, and fingers like broken twigs. Their heads were not on necks; rather, they were simply humps on the tops of their toros, and their two eyes—huge and yellow, but without pupils—looked lazily into my tent as I stared back out at them. I could feel them come towards me for a moment, but their gazes shifted to the ash bough and they drifted back into the forest, their voice like single repeated notes, whisper-quiet and tonal.

When I was eight, I saw a swarm of things, rolling and ball-shaped, with a halo of twitching hands and feet that were too human for my liking. They seemed to smile, but it was more that their mouths couldn’t close around their long teeth. I remember waking up as they came towards the camp, and I hunkered in my sleeping bag as they pressed down around the tent, a few of them climbing up the canvas. They chittered in annoyance and fear as they got closer to the runed branch, sliding back down the taught walls of the tent. I remembered waking up the next morning and finding nearly everything in the camp chewed to shreds. My sisters scolded each other for not hanging the food higher.

No one else ever woke up and saw them, but they believed me. My father always carried a bundle of ash boughs when we went into the woods. How could he not?

Some of them towered above the trees; their legs like the pillars of an old museum, but weathered and moss-striped. I always marveled at how quiet they were. Their footsteps were nearly silent, but far above the trees, I could hear their sighing; I could see the brightness of their searchlight eyes as long tendrils like vines fell about the tents, rasping softly against the walls, every now and then pulling idly on a zipper. There were always owls around them, hooting at trying to chase the things that looked like dragonflies with eight wings and faces like sleeping children. I saw them all through the tent’s window, and I would close my eyes tight as they landed on the mesh and screamed without force; choked whines pressed through toothless mouths filled with tiny, wriggling spider legs.

And then, there were the other creatures. The ones I saw nearly every time after I turned ten. The ones that carried sticks like staves and spears in their four arms. The ones that talked among each other. The ones that laughed with phlegmy, guttural voices. The ones that would stop in the camp and stare through the windows; their goggles hiding their eyes, their tubed masks hiding their mouths, their every breath crackling and pneumonic. They would point with their gloves—their six-fingered gloves—and rest on their polearms while they studied us. Their ears, torn and jagged triangles of skin protruding from the black millipede-like ropes rolling from their heads like hair, would switch back and forth as they listened to the forest sounds. They would point at the ash bough in my tent, nodding and grumbling to one another. I would keep my eyes nearly pinched shut; open just enough to see them, the edges of my sleeping bag nearly obscuring my face; the warm cocoon seeming to suck my own breath away as those ones discussed in unknown tongues my existence on their mountain.

There were more and more of them. Every year, the nights were filled with fewer creatures from the mountain, and simply more of those ones. They stood longer, waiting almost until dawn. I would wake up, tired and raw, and my parents would examine the round footprints that covered our campsite with worry the next morning. My father would tell us not to worry; the boughs were written properly. That was enough.

I believed him, but every time they slept on the mountain, I crushed myself deeper into my sleeping bag, forcing my mind to ignore the ones as they studied us and turned the knobs on the metal boxes on their leather aprons as acrid-smelling air hiss from the filters on their masks. They had begun to change as their numbers grew. Some of them were small and round with tooth-filled mouths, free of masks. Some were taller with longer limbs that had been replaced by simple, jagged scrap metal pushed through the stumps of what had once been arms. Some had eyes that shone like spotlights. There were thirty of them sometimes, by my count of the shadows draped across the walls of my tent. I had started keeping another bough in the sleeping bag with me. I hardly slept; the splintering wood pushing into my side, cutting me, forcing my eyes open, and making me watch the masked ones watching me.

When I was seventeen, I went to the mountain with my family. When we had reached the center of the forest, halfway up the mountain, we began to set up camp. I had unrolled my sleeping bag and looked up. The masked ones stood around us, whispering to each other. My father stopped and watched them. It was the first of two times I had seen him afraid. The second wasn’t much long after, when he died.

One of the masked ones held up a bough of ash wood, bound in birch bark covered in runes. It laughed; a coughing dying sound, and snapped the bough between its fingers.

I remember hiding inside a rotten log for hours. Days? Weeks? I don’t remember. I remember the sounds of my family dying. I remember the laughing that accompanied it; wet, hacking laughs. I remember pulling my sleeping bag around my face and clutching a now useless ash bough in my hands.