Boltedfruit Archive

Buried

31 Days of Steddie Halloween Horror: Part 1

Published: 2023-10-01

Category: M/M

Rating: E

Chapters: 31/31

Words: 7,443

Fandom: Stranger Things

Ship: Steve Harrington/Eddie Munson

Characters: Steve Harrington, Eddie Munson, Jason Carver

Tags: Prompt Fill, Body Horror, AU Modern Era, Psychological Horror, Blood and Gore, Dismemberment, Monster Eddie, No Upside Down, Spooky Vibes, Murder, Dreams and Nightmares

Summary:

Day 1 Prompt: Buried/Trees

You are safe in my forest. Nothing will hurt you so long as you love it.

 

Steve ignores the voice. Tells himself he’s lucky it’s not multiple voices.

 

Please keep going.

 

He does. He tries.

Author's Note

I hope you enjoy! And consider leaving a comment at the end of the fic to let me know what you thought.

Steve found the job online. An advertisement for a summer away in the nearby mountains after a year spent working dead-end jobs had him applying without fully thinking it through.

 

Robin thought it was stupid after he showed her the job post.

 

“They sound desperate. Is this even safe, Steve?” she had asked and he simply didn’t have a good answer. She was right, but he still wanted to see what happened.

 

He gets a call back a week later, and after a handful of months of specialized—but admittedly rather rushed—training, Steve finds himself facing down a fourteen-mile hike-in to reach the fire lookout he’ll be living in for the next few months.

 

He takes the bus to the park’s entrance since he won’t be needing his car all summer. He picks up his gear from the ranger station and gets a few hearty pats on the back for being new. The rangers all seem like nice people, but he knows the feeling of welcome will be short-lived. He probably won’t even see them all summer.

 

His pack is huge, and the rolling incline of forest up the mountain is a little overwhelming.

 

But he spent years on both the swim and basketball teams. Knowing how to keep a steady pace is ingrained in his blood. It’s second nature. He’s kept in shape in the few years since school ended, and he feels good.

 

But even so, eight miles in his calves begin to cramp, screaming with every step. The terrain is equal parts marked trails, cramped trees, and at a few points a not-quite-confident scramble up a rockface. He spends the long hours hiking learning exactly why this job has remained vacant for almost three years as opposed to the fully staffed squad about three hundred miles south. They got to at least drive in.

 

Even so, it’s a peaceful hike interrupted only by his heavy breathing and the occasional call of birds. He’s never been a bird watcher, that nerdy stuff fell more to Dustin and the kids. He stops to rest a few times to drink water, eat a too-dry grain bar, and knead his legs. He doesn’t come across any campsites despite finding several clearings that would be perfect for it.

 

He checks his map and watch’s compass frequently, and cross-checks them both with his handheld GPS. The weight on his back seems to double as the hours drag on, the sun sinking lower in the sky.

 

The top of the tower appears through the trees just after six. He swears in relief and feels a new burst of energy knowing he’ll have coffee and a bed soon.

 

The full lookout comes into view within the hour, and Steve grins when he sees the water tank beneath it. He won’t have to hike anywhere but up and down the many steel steps to get fresh water like he was worried about. He’d learned during training that each posting was different. Sometimes you could drive in, but in backcountry postings (like Steve’s) it would be impossible, and equally impossible to frequent the nearest town for resupply and off time.

 

He’d been told they’d stocked the tower with food and water beforehand, to expect a delivery of food and supplies by helicopter about once a month, and to expect to ration in the case of bad weather.

 

It’s been sunny for weeks, and Steve wasn’t stupid. He had a ration plan in place, and he’d checked the weather. It would be smooth sailing for the first few weeks.

 

The tower itself is just shy of a hundred feet. He stops again to consider the number of stairs. Tomorrow he’ll figure out the water tank. Tonight, he just wants to get unpacked and settled in.

 

Looking around the small clearing around the tower, he spies an outhouse and a camping shower. That answers those questions.

 

A wolf howls somewhere deep in the woods. He turns, looking out over the thousands of trees he’s now responsible for, and all the wildlife hiding within their green embrace. He knows wolves aren’t really a problem he’ll have to deal with. He’s more worried about the potential black bears, and rowdy campers not wanting to follow rules.

 

But all that’s tomorrow’s problem.

 

He steels himself and starts up the stairwell.

 

 

The cabin is unlocked, or rather the door isn’t even latched shut. The door swings open with a slight push. He huffs and trudges heavily inside, exhausted and feeling grimy in his boots and sweaty clothing. He can tell it’s an older lookout from how the door doesn’t close without a hard shove. It’s dark, but there’s still enough light coming through the wall-to-wall windows to see what he’s doing.

 

Steve drops his backpack on the floor and looks out over the forest. The sun is bursting as it begins to slip behind the farthest peak, an orange juicing itself before nightfall.

 

He takes the opportunity to pull his boots off and change his socks. He’s already got whopper blisters on the soles of both feet. He sighs and wiggles his toes. He needs to toughen up and fast.

 

The cabin has an old fireplace in one corner, a couple of tables between it and a small kitchenette—all simple propane-based appliances laid out in a neat row.

 

The bed is a pallet of wood with a thin cot thrown on top of it. It’s not new. Nobody’s used this posting in years, so everything is covered in dust and cobwebs. The only evidence of recent life is the generous stacks of boxed food alongside the kitchenette. He’ll clean tomorrow after he brings up the water.

 

But when he lays back on the lumpy mattress, it feels like the greatest thing in the world. Out of curiosity, he checks his phone. No signal, but he knew to expect that.

 

It doesn’t take him long to forget the coffee and pass out.

 

 

He makes it a week before there’s trouble.

 

He’s making his daily trek around the basin of the valley, checking over high-risk areas and finding little more than what had been there the day previous; dirt, leaves, and the occasional animal dropping. On the third day, he’d made a note of seeing graffiti across a large boulder that had been unmarked before, but until now he hasn’t seen anyone who could be the culprit.

 

It’s not long before he comes across two groups of people, and the once peaceful forest has erupted into a shouting match between a family and a group of young men.

 

It’s not a large clearing, but it seems like a nice spot to set up if you wanted to stargaze or make a small fire to cook over. The only drawback is that in spite of the path up to the clearing being rather mundane, the western edge is a sharp drop off.

 

Steve would have assumed they were a bigger group having an argument until an older man comes hustling down the path, waving him down. He’s pointing back up at the group of younger men and talking over himself. It’s clear something’s happened.

 

“Hey, slow down. Start from the beginning—”

 

“That piece of shit,” he seethes, fisting Steve’s short sleeve and pulling him back up the path, “just tried to throw my son off a cliff.”

 

Steve’s first impulse to keep the man from pulling on him is overridden by the claim. Jesus, that’s serious.

 

Steve had been warned he might come across isolated campers, not so affectionately dubbed crazies by the man who’d conducted his interview. He’d been warned too there might be surprising things he could stumble upon in the woods; dead animals in various stages of decomposition, items left behind by camping parties, the rare victim of a fall from one of the many dangerous cliff faces, or from illegal base jumping gone wrong.

 

He’d hoped the man was just trying to rile him up, scare the new guy kind of thing. But now, walking up the path to the feuding groups, it’s all too real. It beats in his blood, a reminder with every thump at his temples, this could have been worse.

 

The father returns to his family, still pointing at one person in particular. The other group is much younger, around Steve’s age if he had to guess. And for some reason, he can’t shake that some look familiar.

 

The father has his arm around who must be his son. A teenager who looks like he’d been scraped up. He almost looks—

 

“They pulled my boy away and started beating on him,” the father claims, glaring, hands tight on his son’s shoulders. The mother and two younger girls are standing in the shadow of a large tent, eyes all wide. “I want them arrested for attempted murder.”

 

Steve is just a lookout. He’s not a park ranger. He’s at a bit of a loss.

 

“What exactly happened here,” he asks the younger group.

 

“We didn’t do anything,” a tall member scoffs. “He’s lying.”

 

Steve throws a thumb behind him as he approaches the young men. They’re jeering, some are barely holding back laughter. He immediately dislikes them. “Then why’s the kid all scratched up with torn pants?”

 

“It’s the style.”

 

Steve shakes his head. “Not those. Nobody purposely rips expensive hiking pants.”

 

The one from before shrugs, smirking at the one Steve finds most familiar. It seems to click for him the same time it does for Steve.

 

“Holy shit,” Jason Carver breathes, smacking a fist into his palm. “King Steve on patrol! I never expected to see you out in the middle of nowhere.”

 

“He started it,” another says, hands in his pockets.

 

Jason jerks his chin over his shoulder. The other boy huffs and goes tight-lipped.

 

Steve hated the Carvers in school. The eldest, in his grade and insufferable, and the eager to prove himself little brother, Jason, two years below, but still loud enough that even Steve knew who he was.

 

That same restless energy still simmers around Jason even now, years later.

 

At least one of them grew up.

 

Their camp is small and clumsily put together. He scans their belongings and sees not one but two spray paint cans.

 

He can hear the family still angry behind him, calling for their arrest. And even though he found graffiti earlier, and sees the evidence now, it’s not enough. And because he didn’t witness whatever fight happened, he can’t do shit.

 

He’s entirely useless and he hates it.

 

“You’ll leave the area immediately. You won’t bother these folks again, and if you do, you’ll be escorted from the park.”

 

Jason narrows his eyes. “Don’t be like that, man. It really wasn’t that big a deal. The kid got mouthy, my guys maybe overstepped a little. Nobody got hurt.”

 

He’s hurt. Somebody could have died, Carver, or does that not even register to you?”

 

Jason just shrugs and Steve’s had enough.

 

The one from before, who hadn’t gotten the memo from five years ago that long messy skater hair was no longer in, jumps up from where he’d been squatting. “I’m not giving up a sweet spot for some uppity—”

 

Steve takes one step forward and the guy’s teeth click, he shuts his mouth so fast.

 

It’s almost a sweet feeling when he unlatches the walkie from his hip and raises it to his mouth, pressing the button to make it crackle to life.

 

Carver waves a hand. Turns and draws a circle through the air in what apparently means time to get going. The rest of his group starts grabbing their stuff and Steve feels a modicum of anxiety drain from him.

 

“Good choice. How long will your group be camping?”

 

“Few days, then we’ll be outta your hair, Harrington.”

 

Jason snaps up one of the bags, but it falls open in his aggression. Steve swears he sees the telltale wooden sticks of fireworks.

 

How could Carver be so stupid?

 

“Give me that.”

 

Carver sighs so overdramatically that Steve worries for the guy’s state of mind. Carver hands the bag over and true to form, Steve finds fireworks. He confiscates them, stuffing them into his own backpack before tossing the empty pack back at Carver.

 

As Carver’s group clears out, the father returns and thanks him. Steve gives the son some bandaids and antiseptic for the scrapes he sports on his face and arms. He tells them it might be better to stick to camping spots in clearings not at the edge of cliffs.

 

He’ll have to keep an eye out for Carver, but otherwise, he feels it’s not been a total wash of a day.

 

 

Back in the tower, he makes some ramen and does his documentation for the day. He calls in the incident with Carver and the family and the local park rangers agree to keep an eye out for any issues. It eases Steve’s mind a little.

 

But when he sleeps, he dreams.

 

He’s in the forest with a rough-looking man and his son. He’s small, too thin. Reminds him of how little Will used to be.

 

The kid’s sat in the dirt, staring up at his father.

 

“Get up,” Steve says, because there are all sorts of things crawling around on the forest floor. The last thing anybody needs is fire ants in their literal pants.

 

The kid stays put. He’s just looking, eyes round and dark as they peer into his father’s resigned face.

 

The man is covered in tattoos. Shitty prison tats, Steve thinks. He sees two webs inked on the man’s elbows, confirming it.

 

The man stands and stares back.

 

Steve says through the father’s mouth, “Get up.”

 

But neither move.

 

 

The moon is full, looks like a big pockmarked pearl in the sky. The forest is dark, which means it’s safe. His watch tells him it’s two in the morning.

 

Steve doesn’t remember waking up, but he can picture the child’s small face so clearly. Dark eyes sunken over full cheeks. Unevenly cropped curly hair tickling at his ears. The way his fingers had lain interlinked in the dirt as he stayed so still.

 

A wolf howls. He wonders if it’s the same one from before. Wonders if this is its forest, its territory, or if the wolf is a wanderer like the news sometimes reports. Steve likes the idea of a wandering wolf, as if instead of being disowned from their own pack, they made the choice to leave and see what was out there for them.

 

Another howl joins the first, this time in the east. Another joins. Then another. Each sound different but overlapping into something that settles him, makes him tired enough to sink back into the cot.

 

Get up.

 

They’re the last words in his head before sleep reclaims him.

 

 

Steve wakes up feeling new. He makes coffee and bothers to cook actual meat to go with his eggs and decides it was a good choice. He wishes he could call Robin, tell her how it’s been so far and how strange it feels—like he’s home in a way.

 

Back in Hawkins, he grew up exploring the woods that encircled his house. His house had everything but a family, so he spent all his time outdoors. Felt less alone surrounded by trees than four walls.

 

He chalks it up to that.

 

The hardest part is still being unable to talk to his best friend. But he keeps a journal and plans to share it with her when he gets back at the end of the summer.

 

Today he spends his breakfast and the entirety of his morning shift on deck with a pair of binoculars and his topographic map. He scans over the forest slowly, weaving back and forth and lingering on clearings where campers could be active. He watches for smoke and people. He keeps bears in the back of his mind, just in case.

 

Nothing seems amiss, thankfully.

 

He watches for a long while. Until he gets a stiff neck and back and has to get up and stretch. He takes his plates in to wash later and folds his binoculars back into their specific compartment on his belt.

 

“Time to get to it.”

 

 

He walks the basin. He finds more graffiti in the same spot as before. God, he hates Carver.

 

Instead of going down the usual path, he chooses the one leading to the clearing where the family and Carver’s group had been the day before.

 

Besides the telltale dislodging of packed dirt from tent spikes, the area has been cleared out. The man must have taken Steve’s advice and relocated to somewhere safer.

 

But it means there are two groups who have a problem with each other. Both of them relocated elsewhere in the woods, and Steve has no clue where.

 

I called it in already, he reminds himself. It’s not my problem until it is.

 

He toes at the dirt where he’d seen the spray paint. He should have called it in then and there, then he wouldn’t have to worry about Carver causing any more trouble.

 

“Steve Harrington, number one idiot like always,” he says to nobody. He sighs and takes out his notepad to make a note of what’s changed.

 

And he keeps on.

 

 

There’s been a rockslide at some point in the last twenty-four hours. He calls it in right away so the right people can get to work clearing it, but it means his immediate path back to the lookout tower is blocked. And he’s not much of a climber, truth be told. Steve knows if he tries to clamber over it, he’d likely end up breaking an ankle.

 

He takes out his map and quickly routes a way back. It’s longer, and risks crossing a river he’s never laid eyes on before. It could be difficult, but it’s smarter than risking hiking an even longer way that would leave him out and trying to navigate when night falls.

 

He cross-checks his GPS and sets to it.

 

 

He fucked up.

 

The river is wide, not something he can cross by wading into it. And it’s rough water too. He’d be swept away if he tried.

 

“Shit.”

 

He crouches low, trying to think, to come up with a better plan. He was never the planner in the group. Why the hell did he take this job?

 

It wasn’t safe. Robin had told him, but he’d been too eager to have a taste of something different in his life.

 

Now here he was, stuck and in real, actual, possibly life-threatening trouble.

 

If he turns back now and goes the long way, it’ll be well past midnight by the time he gets back to base. And that’s if no surprises come along, like another rockslide, or campers in trouble, or Carver.

 

He slaps at his cheeks a little. Get it together, he tells himself.

 

Breathe.

 

He does. He breathes in and out like Robin taught him to.

 

Get up.

 

He grinds his teeth and stands, but only after a long moment spent feeling sorry for himself and his self-made predicament.

 

God, he really is useless.

 

Stop feeling sorry for yourself. The forest is your home. The forest is the safest place you can be.

 

He supposes that’s all true.

 

But then again, he’s kind of panicking and now that a voice that’s decidedly not his own is whispering to him in his head is concerning, but not the top priority here.

 

Hush. I am nothing more than anything you might think me to be. Now, dig.

 

Steve blinks away anxious moisture from his eyes and spins. His eyes land on a tree, only one. He thinks it looks right.

 

He goes to it and kneels. He cups his hands and begins shoveling the earth away. It’s under his nails, caked over his palms. He itches. He digs, mind focused.

 

“Ow.” The tips of his fingers hit what feels like metal. He digs away the thing until he unearths an old tin lunch box. The colors are faded, the top dented badly. What once was a colorful display of He-Man brandishing a sword and shield is now a relic of decades past.

 

Steve jimmies the latches open and pops the top. It swings open and inside he finds a set of mismatched die, baseball cards, a little green figurine of some kind of monster, and a photograph.

 

He picks it up, not quite processing what he’s seeing.

 

It’s taken from far away, maybe the deck of someone’s house as they looked down into their backyard. A small boy sits cross-legged on the ground, hands disappearing into the dirt. His back is to the camera. His hair is dark, short, curly.

 

Steve’s throat feels impossibly dry. He swallows again and again until it no longer catches. He flips the photo over, dumps the lunch box out, searches for anything hidden. Secret notes, paper stuck together—but there’s nothing else.

 

Just the boy in the photo and a snapshot of a kind of life that simply doesn’t exist anymore.

 

 

Steve puts everything back in the tin lunch box and tosses it in his pack. He confirms his coordinates, radios his whereabouts, and his plan, triple-checks his GPS and gets to work.

 

It requires going off the marked path for most of the trek back, but he’s already decided. If he dies, then he dies.

 

Robin would definitely have his tombstone engraved with “I told him so.”

 

He focuses on his own dumb joke as he power-walks back. He needs to make it back.

 

It takes a long time. Longer. Every step he fears something will happen. A branch will snap, a bear will leap out at him, fire ants will decide he looks like a great new food source, a wandering wolf might find him.

 

You are safe in my forest. Nothing will hurt you so long as you love it.

 

Steve ignores the voice. Tells himself he’s lucky it’s not multiple voices.

 

Please keep going.

 

He does. He tries.

 

 

He doesn’t remember falling asleep.

 

He dreams of the boy again. His hair is longer, at his shoulders. All of him is longer. His father is standing behind him, clippers in hand, no guard. The buzz is loud and overpowering as he runs it over his son’s head in swift practiced movements.

 

The boy is crying silently, eyes locked on the floor. Steve sees they’re in a kitchen.

 

His father has a lit cigarette dangling from his lips as he shaves his son’s head. When he’s done, he takes one puff and holds it out over the boy’s shoulder. He takes it and places it between his own lips like he’s done it so many times before.

 

“You ready to finally earn your keep?”

 

The boy’s throat bobs. He can’t be older than thirteen, Steve thinks. Maybe not even that.

 

“Sure am,” the kid replies and his father smiles as he grabs a pistol off the dining table and tucks it in his belt.

 

 

The images change. He’s shown the boy again and again. Laughing with his mother. His mother passed out on the couch, makeshift tourniquet on her arm. The boy wanting his father’s attention. The boy crying. The boy refusing to show his tears. The boy, the boy, the boy. His father drunk and angry. His father driving them into the forest.

 

His father driving away.

 

 

Steve wakes up back in the tower. He’s the wrong way on the cot. He slowly observes the space he’s called home for the better part of a couple of weeks now and sees nothing lurking in the corners. Nothing crawling around on the ceiling.

 

His shoes and socks are off…placed neatly at the foot of the bed.

 

Steve sleeps in socks. It’s just easier. And warmer.

 

He can’t shake the feeling for hours. He makes a dumb mistake—cooks breakfast for himself then feels too off to eat it. A waste.

 

He made it back. But how.

 

Why doesn’t he remember?

 

And nothing else is different in the cabin. He tries to find something, any major tell that he wasn’t alone. It covers him, the suspicion, the paranoia. The knowing.

 

It’s only when he decides to stop acting stupid and get ready for the shift ahead that he finally sees it.

 

Dirt in front of the door.

 

 

He walks the basin, fast. He reports back nothing new. The rangers have nothing new for him either.

 

The voice hasn’t returned, so it’s about halfway through his shift he decides that the whole thing was his brain in survival mode, telling him what to do.

 

It still doesn’t explain the old lunch box or the dreams or the photo, but Steve’s not thinking about that.

 

It takes a couple of days, but the rockslide gets cleared out. Still, Steve decides to walk back to the river, to the place he unburied a secret.

 

Something inside him says to do it. Tells him he has to know. That he dug it up at all, that he was there, that the river was as dangerous and uncrossable as he’d seen.

 

He doesn’t make it that far.

 

 

Hanging from an otherwise inconspicuous and nondescript tree is a set of limbs. An arm and a calf. They sway in the breeze like a poor excuse for a windchime.

 

Beneath them is a trail of blood that leads Steve to the bodies of every single person in Jason Carver’s group.

 

They’ve been torn apart at the joints. Limbs are scattered, the pieces of clothing still clinging to bloodied skin not a match to the bodies they lie beside. What skin is exposed has been deeply gouged. Their combined blood has pooled, mixing the undergrowth into a thick, wet, leafy slurry.

 

Steve fights to stop his feet from moving him forward. He can’t stop looking, can’t stop himself from landing on every face, every jagged exposed end of bone. The ribs that erupt, cracked open like an egg down the middle and spread apart on more than one body.

 

Deeper he goes, daring. Unable to stop himself.

 

A tree in the center, beyond all the rest. Private, in that it’s the last body and it’s on its own.

 

Jason Carver’s been torn in half, an unclean parting from one clavicle to the opposite hip. His intestines are visible, hanging down through the gap of his snapped pelvis. He’s naked. He’s pinned high up the trunk, held in place only by a branch vanishing inside his mouth.

 

Where was his other half?

 

An animal didn’t do this.

 

Steve breathes in and out, in and out, turns, bends at the waist, and vomits.

 

 

He must radio, because the rangers find him, drape him in a shock blanket, tell him they wish he didn’t have to see this, not after last time. He doesn’t know what happens after that.

 

He showers after they drop him back at the tower. Insists he can still do his job. Almost everyone is shaken, so him zoning out isn’t something they question too hard.

 

Some act nonchalant. Like this isn’t anything new.

 

He stands under the water. It’s cold. He shivers, letting the afternoon light paint him golden as he stares at the dirt under his nails. The dirt that rinses off in grainy rivulets down his arms.

 

He did something after, right? Something else happened. After the vomit. Before the radio.

 

He shuts the shower off and races up the stairwell naked, not caring if a curious camper with binoculars witnesses the sight halfway across the valley. He shuts himself inside the tower, tracking in dirt and water as he goes to his backpack.

 

His hands shake.

 

It’s another lunch box.

 

 

He’s on his knees naked on the floor, a single photograph in hand.

 

The boy, alone in a copse of thick pine, so small in the distance.

 

Get up.

 

Who did this to you, he wonders, already suspecting the answer.

 

Fathers aren’t always the protector they are told to be.

 

A child alone. Abandoned in a forest. Forgotten by people who were supposed to love him.

 

I was not alone. I had the woods. They took me in, raised me. Made me what I am.

 

His dream about the boy being left behind. His father driving away.

 

“It’s not real. None of this is real,” Steve whispers, pleading with himself, with the voice in his head.

 

I am as real as you are, the voice whispers.

 

Steve shivers and crushes the photo.

 

 

Steve sleeps and does not dream. He wakes up and doggedly goes about his days on shift. He does what he’s trained to do. He analyzes the weather. He scans for fires. He documents.

 

He leaves out the part about the voice. Who in their right mind reports on their own growing insanity.

 

You are not eating.

 

Steve isn’t. Or, he isn’t eating much. He goes bare bones to get through his days. He doesn’t go out of his way to explore any meandering trails, he ignores the pull in his gut to venture to the bases of different trees. Ignores most of all the urge to dig.

 

The lunch boxes are decades old. The photographs are old too.

 

He doesn’t understand.

 

 

A little into his second month on the job it happens again.

 

His radio crackles. A ranger calmly states, “There are reports of more deceased along…”

 

Steve writes down the coordinates.

 

He doesn’t want to go. To see.

 

Get up, something whispers, but he can’t tell if it’s himself or the voice.

 

 

When he reaches the coordinates, the person who must have reported the incident is there, eyes shocked wide, and unseeing. He waves when Steve approaches. Definitely shock.

 

It’s a large clearing filled with holes. There must be dozens.

 

Steve doesn’t see any blood or bodies. Thinks there must be a mistake.

 

When he asks, “You reported a deceased person? Was that here or somewhere nearby, or…?”

 

“I…didn’t know how to say it.” The man lowers his head, stares at the dirt under his feet. His knee jumps constant and quick. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

 

The man isn’t a typical camper. He’s on his own, he’s dressed for the elements. The gear around his middle is laden with carabiner clips and climbing rope. He’s wearing heavy-duty gloves meant for mountain rescue. And if he called it in himself, that means he has the same tech Steve does.

 

If someone like this is this unsettled, then it tells Steve something serious is wrong.

 

That urge returns, tells him to dig, to uncover. To go to the tree line and find. To remember.

 

He warily approaches the nearest hole and dares to look inside.

 

It’s deep. Deep enough that if Steve fell in, he’d have to use a tool to climb out or have someone else pull him up.

 

There’s a pile of something dark and wet at the bottom. It looks like mud.

 

He crouches, squinting to focus. To make sense of what it is he’s looking down at.

 

“It’s organs,” the man says loudly. Steve turns back, sees him wiping his eyes.

 

Steve looks back out across the clearing. Dozens of holes. Dozens of deep, deep holes.

 

“They’re all filled with organs.”

 

 

“Are they animal or human?”

 

“Don’t know yet.”

 

“Have you looked?”

 

“Have you?”

 

“Well, no…but you know how those kids last month were emptied out—”

 

“Exactly. Where’d all those organs go? Animals don’t do this kinda shit. They don’t tear you up just to save your insides for later. I mean, what the fuck.”

 

“I would say it’s some crazy hungry bear if it wasn’t for the thing last week.”

 

“Yeah. That was something else. Have you found the reason for it?”

 

“Not yet.”

 

“I’m still saying it was some psycho who poisoned them.”

 

“Not even the world’s best big game hunter could nail twenty black bears with a bullet, let alone poison them somehow, and then drag them into a big pile.”

 

“Has toxicology gotten back to you yet?”

 

“No. You know they’re always slow as hell. They’re backed up like a year or something with all the wild shit that goes on around here.”

 

“I know. When will it stop?”

 

“This shit’s been going on for decades. It won’t stop anytime soon, that’s all I know.”

 

“Guess that’s why the pay’s so great.”

 

The two park rangers laugh.

 

Steve doesn’t understand how they can eat their sandwiches talking about what they are.

 

He recognizes one from the entrance when he first arrived. He’d patted Steve on the back and welcomed him to the fold. The other guy was called in special from the southern tower.

 

Steve hadn’t heard a thing about the bodies of Carver’s group missing their insides. It had all been fatty wet red, a confusing blur of gore. And he’d heard nothing about dead bears. A pile of them? Was the guy exaggerating?

 

Instead of listening to them any longer, he walks over to the team in biohazard gear collecting the organs from the clearing. He stays far enough away that they won’t force him back or into a suit of his own, and he watches them carefully gather every piece of organic material.

 

A large pink organ is lifted from the edge of the clearing. It’s not covered in so much dirt and debris as most of it seems to be. It’s pink, nearly globular. He counts enough lobes for a pair and a half of what it used to be.

 

He doesn’t feel the urge to vomit as strongly as before.

 

He turns and goes back to the two park rangers chatting over their lunch. They stop when they see him hovering.

 

“You okay, kid?”

 

“They’re human,” Steve states.

 

The men stop eating.

 

Steve walks back to the clearing to watch the bloody work.

 

 

He stands at the fire finder, looking over every topographical line indicating rivers, streams, stretches of forest, and inclines. He uses the sights to locate where the bodies had been found last month. He then sights the location from today’s strange scene.

 

It’s too close for him.

 

But three hundred miles south somewhere were over a dozen dead bears. Had they been ripped apart like Carver’s group?

 

Was there a psychopath running loose in the park?

 

 

On Saturday he decides to take the long hike back to the entrance. He sets out early after a night of restless sleep filled with nightmares of holes overflowing with blood and Jason Carver’s pinned head trying to talk around the branch.

 

He’s as determined as he is used to the terrain after over a month doing daily hikes. He reaches the ranger station just past noon and they’re all surprised to see him.

 

“I need to talk to Owens.”

 

 

Owens is the one in charge of the park. He’s technically Steve’s boss, but Steve had only ever met him twice. Once when he was officially hired on, and once towards the end of his training.

 

Steve’s impression was that Owens was a decent guy who seemed overworked.

 

Now, he’s angry. He doesn’t care if he gets fired. It would be a blessing. But he needs to know something.

 

Because the dreams have come back. The boy stares with dark eyes almost every night now, and between that and the blood, Steve’s about had enough.

 

“Have there been reports recently of a missing kid? White. Short or mid-length curly black hair. King of gangly.”

 

Owens seems surprised at the question. “I haven’t—hold on a moment.” There’s rustling and Steve waits. “Did someone lose their child? Have you checked with the station?”

 

“They haven’t heard anything. It’s just been a lot with the…you know.”

 

“Yes. Yes, that. I’m looking through our phone logs and incident reports…I’m not finding anything in the last week. How recent are you thinking?”

 

“Around when I started?” he tries.

 

Owens goes quiet again. Steve hears papers shuffling. Then typing. “Nothing. Why? Have you seen a child on their own?”

 

Steve grips the phone tight, turning away to have some semblance of privacy from the ranger at the front desk giving him a curious look.

 

“No. But I—What about since the eighties? Has there been any missing kids since then?”

 

Owens makes an incredulous, disbelieving sound. “That’s over thirty years of paperwork I’d have to go through.”

 

“Owens. Will you check?”

 

That urge to dig, to find, to remember claws at the nape of his neck. Tells him he’s right.

 

He can’t tell Owens about the lunch boxes, the old rust of their hinges, and outdated art from TV shows that hadn’t aired in decades.

 

And he’ll bite his own tongue off before he mentions the dreams of the boy, that they’re the same kid from the photos.

 

That the dreams feel like memories.

 

There’s a heavy sigh on the other end of the line. “Give me a few days. You know plenty of people go missing every year, it’ll be hard to track down one kid.”

 

“I’ve told you what I know. Narrow it down,” he says, his anger slipping through. “Look for any that are still cold.”

 

“Sure thing, kid.” Then, “Besides everything, how are you finding the job?”

 

“Well, there’s probably a murderer running around my territory, and apparently there’s a, what was it? Pile of dead bears at the southern lookout? Might just be a coincidence though.”

 

Owens has no reply to that. The ranger at the front desk isn’t paying him any attention when he turns back around.

 

Fine, then.

 

 

He expects the dreams. The boy is left to roam the woods. He sits with his backpack turned upside down and emptied out beneath a tree. He lays everything out. A rainbow-colored array of small figurines, all kinds of dice, a pack of baseball cards. There are snacks and juice boxes, an old camper’s canteen filled with brown water.

 

Steve knows this isn’t real. It can’t be a memory, or whatever the hell it’s supposed to be.

 

The kid has the photographs. He always does. He couldn’t have possibly taken them himself, and why would his dad, who abandoned him, take a photo of the act only to return it to him before he left for good?

 

It doesn’t make sense.

 

It doesn’t have to. I find most things don’t.

 

“Who are you?” Steve asks, watching as the child goes about getting the canteen open. He throws his head back and drinks down river water.

 

His hair is longer and a tangled mess. He’s dirty from long days and nights spent surviving.

 

The dream ends and he jolts awake to near-total darkness in the cabin. What light there is comes from the moon hanging almost full in the sky.

 

Steve blinks and sees a shadow leaning tall against the fire finder. It shifts, morphs. It’s a man, tall with dark eyes and long, curly dark hair. He’s pale in the moonlight, and Steve is lost. Can’t tell if he woke up inside another dream.

 

The man starts across the small room and Steve can feel his heart thump hard behind his ribs, the blood rushing through his ears. He’s awake. He’s alive. This is real, and there’s a stranger in his lookout tower that was watching him sleep.

 

His feet are bare.

 

Steve thinks of dirt in front of the door. Little things here and there, out of place.

 

Steve finds his bag and has his pickaxe in hand in a matter of seconds. He lifts it—

 

“Don’t,” the man says, raising a hand. He’s shaking.

 

Steve hesitates. The man is unarmed. Steve could have killed him in an instant if he’d brought the pickaxe down.

 

“The boy,” he says, voice barely a rasp. “What was his name?”

 

Steve scoots further back on the cot. He’s still poised to strike.

 

“Did you kill that group? Are you the one going around and—and leaving organs in holes?”

 

“The boy,” the man insists, not answering him. He comes closer and then he’s just there, nearly nose to nose and Steve inhales, smells pine forest and smoke. The man wraps his fingers around Steve’s wrist, and they struggle until the pickaxe falls free. He pushes Steve back, slams him against the window. It’s cold, icy against his back. The man eases off but not much. “What was his name?”

 

He’s going to die here.

 

Robin was right.

 

You are safe here. In my forest, you are safe.

 

Steve breathes in, the hand crushing his wrist is on his face. He shudders, fingers finding his cheek.

 

Dark eyes bore into his.

 

Steve knows him.

 

“His name,” the stranger repeats, holding his face so tenderly. “Remember for me?”

 

“Are you the missing kid?”

 

The man’s nostrils flare. He’s still staring, unblinking at Steve.

 

“Say it.”

 

He sees flames reflected deep in the man’s dark eyes. He’s still dreaming. He has to be.

 

Say it.

 

Steve can’t remember. He doesn’t know.

 

The grip tightens. Steve goes warm at the base of his sternum. Bile tingles at the back of his throat.

 

He throws his weight. The man is flung back, onto the floor. He groans, eyes roaming unfocused over Steve as Steve gets his bearings.

 

He grabs the pickaxe back up and follows the man to the floor.

 

If this is the lost kid, if he’s the one who’s been in these woods all these years—but he can’t be.

 

He’s young. Like Steve.

 

Steve gets a hand around his throat, pins him there. He feels breath struggle to leave the man, and he thinks, fine, thinks, good. Thinks of a set of torn lungs being dredged from the ground.

 

“Who are you!”

 

Dark eyes refocus. Find him again. The mouth below smiles, and Steve doesn’t look at his teeth. He can’t.

 

A piercing pain sends him reeling. He fights to stay where he is, readjusting his grip on the man’s throat.

 

Let go.

 

Steve fights it. The pain.

 

Please.

 

He quickly loses.

 

Flashes come. The family, fighting. Eyes in the woods, glowing, watching, tracking. There are claws, long and sharp and uneven growing from longer fingers, longer arms, misshapen joints. A hulking shadow marks a beast that preys, loping around in the dark. He feasts on anything. He believes in curses and monsters. He feasts and he grows strong. He feasts and he lives long. He feasts and he keeps feasting until he realizes what it is to feast and then starves. Until he is forced to prey and to hunt and to tear. He does not want to die. He does not want to be left behind, does not want to be forgotten, does not want to feast, to tear, to die, to live, to—

 

There are bodies in pits. Holes dug with his human hands, clumsy from lack of use. There are bodies he doesn’t care about. Skulls pinned to tree trunks. Limbs torn from torsos, sent to match like an ill puzzle next to bodies that don’t move anymore. And they can’t move, and they won’t move, but he will feast, he can feast on these, he can pull them into their own individual parts and make them into something new, something useful, something clever, he can feast, and he can—

 

The clearing. Holes dug deep with overlong fingers, too-long arms swaying from painful joints, he is wrong, he is like nothing else in the woods, he believes in curses, and so delivers more, no longer buries them, displays them, hopes it will bring more one day, soon, to learn beyond the fear, to dig, to find, to remember, to bleed him—

 

He is not what he used to be.

 

Steve blinks, folding in on himself from the pain scouring his mind. His brain is on fire.

 

Get up.

 

Skin on skin. Something sharp. He squints open an eye, and it’s the man beneath him, the boy, the one whose father chose to forget.

 

“Stop,” he begs.

 

“My name. Do you remember it?”

 

The pain forces tears from his eyes. He can no longer feel the pickaxe in his numb hand. Claws inch along his jaw. Holds him in a mirror of Steve.

 

This forest is your home the same as it is mine. But I will try not to let it curse you the way it has cursed me.

 

His own tears dot the man’s face and Steve remembers. He learns beyond the fear. Everything terrible that’s happened has happened because of the creature beneath him.

 

“Eddie.”

 

Eddie smiles. His eyes slip closed.

 

The claws retract.

 

“Please,” Eddie whispers.

 

The feeling returns to Steve’s fingers.

 

Now feast.

 

Steve lifts the pickaxe high.

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