*The characters and events portrayed in this story are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author. All rights are reserved under U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.  Les Stroud from the Discovery Channel’s Survivorman is a real person.

So…this is the short horror story I sent into the Writers Digest contest last month. I enjoyed writing Little Survivorman so much that I wanted to know what would happen if there was an eerie twist. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Little Survivorman and the Headstone Hills    by Shannon O’Brien

The boy squeezed his eyes tight as shivers rolled down his arms. Visions of blue walls, a pirate ship kite hanging over the bed and a dismembered Lego helicopter flashed across his mind. School books and baseball cards, stacked like a Main Street square, cover his small desk…

His eyes popped open. The sun setting behind the mountains painted the fingerling clouds dazzling tangerines and pinks. The air had retained the heat of the day, but a chill graced the late afternoon breeze. The high trills of little girls and little boys laughing faded along with the grating squeak-squawk of the swings.

Stupid butterflies! Stupid beetle! Get off my foot!

The striped insect tumbled through the air as the boy kicked his leg. The orange and blue butterflies flittered into the trees, leaving him all alone in the shadows of the gnarled oaks. The dark forms of the warped stones scattered across the hills stretched and extended as if they were flowers, nurtured and fed by the vanishing light. The grass swirled in the wind, releasing the tangy-clean scent of center field. His fingers itched for his ball and glove while he waited for Mom.

Just beyond the arching stones, a weeping creek trickled down the hill and the sunset ignited the water into flowing red lava.

The wind ruffled his hair, sending goose pimples down his arms. He traced a finger over his skin, mesmerized by the hairs standing at attention. A hand-sized maple leaf somersaulted across the grass as he glanced around for his ride…home.

Tired of just sitting, the boy pushed himself up, brushed the dirt from his jeans and tossed his backpack over one shoulder. It was going to be dark soon and he didn’t want get stuck out in the open.

He studied the jagged mountain range. Was there a town along the baseline? Should he head that direction? Downhill, a wooded valley ran parallel with the mountains and the creek likely flowed into a bigger stream. Survivorman always said to follow a river because it will lead you to people.

Valley-hooo!

The decline was steeper than it looked as he angled his feet and allowed gravity pull him down. Upon entering the forest, the absence of light was unsettling. He jumped at an owl hooting. Quivering, the boy snapped his head around as unseen critters skittered under bushes, rustling the low stems. Thick twigs snapped under his Vans and echoed off the dense trees like rifle shots.

Dropping the backpack on a log, the boy rooted inside for his green hoody and flashlight while commending his intelligence on packing all the necessary survival gear. Just like Les, his Survivorman hero.

Locating the stream, the boy hopped along the flat rocks until his flashlight flickered. He froze, prickles of fear crept up his chest as he shook his only light-source. Moments later the yellow beam steadied and he exhaled a huff of relief.

Walking in the woods at night wasn’t such a good idea. Survivorman would have created a lean-to, built a fire and foraged for edibles by now. The boy ambled over to a fallen tree, rustled around the ground for kindling and created a ring with fist-sized rocks. The magnesium bits he scraped off sparkled like Fourth of July fireworks as they rained upon the dry twigs. He lowered his face and blew on the smoky embers until flames appeared. After savoring a chocolate chip granola bar, the heat from the fire lulled his heavy eyelids closed.

“What a nice little boy.”

The peppermint did nothing to mask the cheese stench of his breath. Extending a shaking hand, the man pointed toward the trees along the edge of the park. “I think my puppy ran into the woods.” The candy clicked against crooked teeth as he spoke and his rheumy eyes welled with tears along their pink edges.

Rooted to his spot, the boy looked toward the playground at the top of the hill and then turned to stare at the trees, wondering how far he should go to be nice to the white-haired stranger.

“Let’s be quick about it,” the man whispered, glanced around and clasped the boy by the upper arm. They hobbled down the hill. “Can’t you hear him?” the man asked and then inhaled a wheezy breath. “Poor li’l fella’s whimpering over there somewheres.”

Indeed, the boy could make out a low whine above the breeze rustling the tree tops. He pushed branches and shrubs aside and stepped into the dimness, shivering with the sudden drop in temperature. Peering into the dark nook, the lump on the ground was no puppy. Timmy Webster, the little redheaded boy from school, lay curled on his side. Yellow bungee cords bound his skinny arms and spindly white legs. A patch of silver duct tape slashed across his face like a robotic smirk. The boy turned his head, green eyes round with fear. The whimpering intensified. With surprising strength, the old man pushed the boy down and his chin dug into the ground, filling his mouth with acrid earth. Before the boy could spit and scream for help, a sharp smack thudded the side of his head and the beast of darkness swallowed him whole.

A thunderous snap-crunch! yanked him out of his troubled sleep. Bolting upright, the boy banged his shoulder on a branch of the tree.

“Wh-who’s there?” His voice trembled.

Rubbing his sore shoulder, he focused on the inky black stream snaking along the ground. Shadowy trees bowed in the howling wind. Between the foliage, pairs of phantom green orbs peeked out of murky spaces.

Tossing sticks onto the dying fire, he blew until flames licked high into the air, forcing back the encroaching darkness.

A high-pitched yowl pierced the air. A banshee, straight from H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks wailed and cackled until the wind whipped it into hiccupping sobs. Leathery wings beat against his head and the boy jumped up, thrashing his hands to remove the squeaking rodents. The swarm of bats shot across the clearing and curled up into the sky, briefly blacking-out the yellow moon.

Keee…laaaaan…” the wind whistled almost sweetly. Catching his breath, Keelan focused on the blustery echo. Mom always said his name fit him perfectly: Irish for small and fair.

The sobbing wail came again, only further away. Keelan slid down the dead tree until his butt smacked the ground, pulled his knees tight to his chest and ignored the pressure in his bladder. Not even the burning desire to pee would pull him from his fire tonight.

The misty morning almost washed away the eerie vibes from the night before. Red-breasted Robins kicked at leaves and clenched squirming worms between their beaks. With the fire safely out, Keelan resumed his hike along the bank of the stream. The sun climbed higher and burned away the haze. The trees thinned and the creek narrowed until it was swallowed by a muddy pool at the base of a terracotta precipice. He inhaled the mildew and silt aromas before exhaling a stream of vapor. Craning his neck, there was only one way out of the chilly dead-end valley.

Hand over hand, the boy clambered up the cliff wall like a small, green Spiderman with a lumpy backpack. He grabbed onto roots and found footholds just big enough for the toe of his checkered Vans.

“KEEE…LAAAAN!” The wind roared and gusted across the crag, swirling around the boy and threatening to knock him off. His hands grappled with the lip of the cliff, his arms shook as he struggled against gravity and Mother Nature.

Suddenly, a hand seized his wrist and yanked. He flew over the edge, landed hard on his stomach and oxygen evacuated his lungs in a long whoosh.

“Hey kid, you okay?”

Wiping the stinging sweat out of his eyes, he caught his breath and looked up at the strange boy. Keelan could have been staring at his reflection in a mirror were it not for the twin’s eyes. They were two shimmering pools of the brightest blue Keelan had ever seen.

“Who are you?”

The twin smiled and shifted his backpack higher, threading an arm through the strap. Even his clothes and hair were the same as Keelan’s. Mom always told him he had chameleon hair; auburn indoors and strawberry-blond in the sunlight.

“My name’s Brennen. Mom says it’s Irish for teardrop.” He kicked a rock into the ravine. Bouncing, the lone stone knocked other pebbles free to keep it company until they reached their destination.

“I’m Keelan.” He didn’t share his name’s meaning. That was his secret.

“C’mon. We have to go.” The twin bounced on the balls of his feet, seemingly in a hurry.

The sun trekked closer to the snow-tipped mountains. It would be dark soon and Keelan wanted to make sure he was a better Survivorman tonight. He needed a head start to scope out a good place to make camp.

“I can’t go with you. I-I have to get home,” he lied.

Brennen jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “Look over there.”

He tore his gaze from the boy’s glowing eyes. The hills beyond the valley seemed to throb as the carpet of clover undulated in the wind. Twisted oaks and rounded stones dappled the rolling knolls.

“I was here yesterday! But…how did I get back?” Smacking his hand to his forehead, he muttered, “I hiked in a circle?” Survivorman never would have made that mistake.

“C’mon,” Brennen repeated and tugged Keelan’s hand. He trudged forward, resigned to trust the surreal child.

They padded across the spongy turf as brilliant butterflies darted and danced around their heads. Stopping in front of one of those funny arched rocks, Brennen’s tingling fingers released his hand. This wasn’t a normal rock at all, but a headstone straight from a creepy Halloween graveyard. Keelan shook his head. But…this was a good place. Right?

“That’s yours,” the twin said. Speckles of refracted light dotted Brennen’s cheeks and nose with blue freckles. “You are home.”

Keelan’s knee sunk into the soggy earth as he knelt to inspect the name and dates carved in the silver granite.

“Open your bag,” the twin directed.

Keelan reached into the backpack. Between a pocket knife and a water bottle, he pulled out his warn baseball glove. He sniffed the musky leather and smiled. Then he pulled out a crisp ball, dug his fingertips in and tested its weight. Sitting criss-cross-applesauce, Keelan leaned against his stone. A pulsating heat began to spread along his spine and into his limbs. His arms and legs absorbed the warmth like roots soaking up water.

“Close your eyes, small and fair one.”

The boy squeezed his eyes tight as shivers rolled down his arms. Visions of blue walls, a pirate ship kite hanging over the bed and a dismembered Lego helicopter flashed across his mind. School books and baseball cards, stacked like a Main Street square, cover his small desk…

His eyes popped open. A whimper drew him from his sweet memory. Several feet away Timmy Webster lay curled and shivering near a russet headstone.

Blinking, he rubbed his eyes and looked around. Brennen was gone. His glove and ball were gone. As he leaned forward, Keelan’s body tore away from the slab with a nauseating slurp. He turned and poked the silver rock. Circular waves rippled across its surface as if he had dipped his finger into a calm tidal pool.

Timmy’s muffled whimper intensified as his damp eyes grew wide. Dozens of butterflies landed on him, nearly covering his thin body in a vibrating blanket. Dark tracks of tears and dirt streamed down his face as the gravestone behind him began to twist and swell. Cankerous boils erupted around the carved “TIMOTHY JAMES WEBSTER.” The largest bubble, growing out of “J”, elongated and turned in to a glistening tendril. The appendage tapped the ground, seemingly testing the blades of grass. The arm absorbed a hapless butterfly into its gelatinous goo just before it came to rest on Timmy’s head. Then the tendril solidified, slithered around his neck and squeezed. The boy’s eyes bulged out of their sockets and his bound legs kicked as one. The little redheaded boy dug his heels into the grass as the tentacle dragged him toward the headstone.

Keelan pushed himself up and ran over. He wrapped his arms around the boy’s waist. “I got you,” he grunted and pulled. Timmy’s face morphed from tomato red to eggplant indigo.

Keelan climbed over the boy, slipping his fingers between the greasy tentacle and Timmy’s neck. “Hang. On.” He loosened the pulsating arm and Timmy sucked in a lungful of air, his face quickly returning to its normal pallor. Keeping his fingers in place, Keelan reached around and yanked the bungee cords over Timmy’s hands. Together, they pulled on the arm and Timmy slipped his head out. They clawed at the cords around his legs and then the boys staggered and crab-walked away, sending the iridescent insects fluttering into the darkening sky.

Other tentacles burst forth from Timmy’s grave-marker and waved blindly in the air, seeking them out like a hungry octopus.

“C’mon,” Keelan said. He turned and sprinted uphill, scooping up his backpack along the way to the closest oak tree.

Timmy skidded to a stop next to Keelan and then gingerly removed the duct tape, exposing raw lips. Every gravestone dotting the hillside jiggled to life, whipping their balloon appendages about. It was as if the stones were a mob of portly garden gnomes, furious their dinner just got away. Keelan swallowed a few gulps of air and blew a long whistle of relief. The headstones remained in their spots.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Keelan tried to focus. He wondered what Survivorman would have done in this situation. However, Les never had an episode where he was attacked by freaky tombstone monsters.

Glancing around, Keelan said, “I spent last night in the woods, hiked all day and still ended up back here. So, I think we need to try the mountains tonight.”

“W-where are we?” Timmy croaked. He doubled-over to cough and his red hair caught the sunlight streaming between the leaves. His shaggy curls seemed to glow with fire, life and power.

Keelan leaned against the tree. “We’re lost.”

A high-pitched giggle erupted overhead. The boys skewed their heads for a look, finding only branches and leaves swaying in the wind.

Such a nice little girl.” The man’s raspy voice seemed to come out of the tree trunk near Keelan’s ear. He jumped, startled more by the disembodied voice than the mysterious laugh. Timmy grabbed his arm, hands juddering as the all-familiar whimper began to rise.

But they were still alone.

“Shhh…” Keelan instructed and held his breath.

I think my puppy ran into the woods…” The voice now came from above.

Keelan’s gaze panned down to the wooded valley. Visions of last night’s dream began to flicker across his mind in bits and pieces. Over the fresh breeze, he could almost detect moldy-cheese breath mixed with sweet peppermint. Backpack in place, he held a finger to his lips. Timmy stiffly nodded.

After prying the little boy’s iron grip from his arm, Keelan embraced the rough bark. He scaled up and into the first Y and paused, straining to hear the girl or the man.

Another giggle emerged through the swishing leaves. Keelan ascended while memories of his last climb danced in his head. This place was becoming clearer. When he left the hill the first time, some force had herded him back to the hills. Like a bull to the slaughterhouse. The tight knot in his stomach loosened as he realized the mountains would only land him back here…or worse.

The key to escaping the headstone hills was to remain in it.

The limbs became denser the higher he went. The air, fouler. The leaves began to stink of a hot port-a-potty. Between his legs he caught glimpses of Timmy also climbing, careful to place his hands and feet in the same places Keelan had. Soon Keelan couldn’t see anything but the gold, red and umber leaves resembling multi-limbed ghosts. Keelan closed his eyes and felt his way deeper into the canopy. The tangy scent of urine hung heavy on the moist air, threatening to choke him as he fought his way through.

After what felt like hours, Keelan’s fingers bumped up against something flat. Pushing his head through the leaves, the bottom of a wooden platform came in to view.

It was a tree house!

The branches scraped along the slats as he pushed them aside, trying to get a better look. Silver hinges shone in the perpetual twilight and a brass knob, near the edge of a smaller square, appeared tarnished with age.

Quiet as a mouse, Timmy snuggled on the branch next to Keelan. Their labored breathing calmed as they swiped sweat from their flushed brows. Staring hard at each other, the boys seemed to give the other strength to do what needed to be done. They were no longer alone. They had found an exit from their Elysian dream-world. And most importantly, there was a little girl in danger. After nodding in silent agreement, Keelan and Timmy glanced up at the trapdoor.

Keelan placed his ear against a crack between the boards. No sounds or movement could be detected from the other side. He gripped the knob and pushed gently, wincing at the sharp squeak from one of the hinges. As he peered into the room, urine and feces scents seared Keelan’s nostrils. He swallowed, forcing back the vomit threatening ejection. As his watery eyes adjusted to the dimness he could make out two blanket-covered lumps on the floor and a glowing camping lantern on a plastic crate. He could not see what was behind the raised trap door.

With all of his nine-year-old strength, Keelan braced his Vans against the branch and heaved. The door fell back and landed against the floor, blowing up a cloud of dust. Keelan jerked his head around and released his breath upon finding only empty space on the other side of the room.

No old man.

No little girl.

He quickly scrambled in, held a hand down and pulled Timmy up. They closed the door and stood fixed to their spots.

“What do we do now?” Timmy whispered.

In the glow of the lamp, a shock of red hair poked out from beneath one of the lumpy blankets. Keelan tip-toed over and cautiously pulled back the edge to reveal an unconscious Timmy-twin. The duct tape still covered his mouth, but a corner had come loose like a floppy dog ear.

Sucking in his breath, Keelan glanced over his shoulder. The liberated Timmy’s eyes grew wide and his inflamed mouth formed a perfect O. Suddenly, his body began to shimmer like iridescent butterfly wings. Keelan blinked and Timmy was gone.

Swiftly tugging off his backpack, Keelan took aim and threw it with the precisian of a professional pitcher. It landed next to the second lump just as Keelan faded into nothingness.

Keelan blinked as the moss-green wool of the Army blanket came in to focus. He hadn’t faded insomuch as simply resumed his spot on the floor. The same place the old man had dumped him and left him for dead. Judging by the rank stench, he figured they’d been in the tree house for a couple of days.

He licked his lips with a sandpaper tongue, his throat burned with thirst. Through his strong desire for water, he was grateful to find he did not have tape on his mouth.

“Timmy?” he squawked.

The most wonderful muffled groan arose near Keelan’s feet. Timmy was alive!

“Everything’s okay,” Keelan said. He licked his lips again and swallowed, desperately trying not to sound desperate. “I’m…I’m under the other blanket.”

The rough bindings around Keelan’s wrists and ankles scratched his skin. He figured he was tied with rope instead of bungee cord. Rubbing his wrists together they moved easily. The days without food or water must have caused his hands and arms to shrink but not enough to slip his hands free.

Moving his knees up and down, the blanket fell from Keelan’s face to reveal only Timmy, the crate and the lamp. Glancing over his shoulder the backpack was where Headstone Hills Keelan had tossed it. He scooted his butt until it made contact. His fingers fumbled with the zipper, tugging it inch by agonizing inch while turning the canvas knapsack over as he went.

Thump! Tink! Clunk! One by one the mystical items fell out of the supernatural bag.

His fingers curled around the cylinder-shaped pocket knife. Had he any fluid left in his body, the small and fair Irish boy would have wept with joy. After caressing the tool, he used his thumbnail to flick out the blade. Twisting his right hand, he sawed methodically through the rope.

Slowly and dizzily, Keelan crawled over to Timmy and untangled the bungee cords. The child’s wobbly redhead seemed far too big for his frail body. But he was alive.

We’re alive!

The boys shared sips of water from Keelan’s bottle and slowly chewed the last chocolate chip granola bars, blissfully unaware they were covered in their own excrement and purposely ignoring their various aches and pains.

Bending close to Timmy’s ear, Keelan whispered his plan. Timmy said nothing as he lay back down and pulled the soiled blanket over his head. The wind howled outside, shaking the ancient oak tree. Keelan found comfort in the wind, imagining it was Mom whispering his name, encouraging him to be strong.

Time ticked by. Keelan matched his breathing with Timmy’s.

Beneath them, the floor rattled. The huff and puff of the old man and the low sobs of the little girl grew exponentially louder.

With a sharp squeal, the trap door opened several inches. Keelan saw what the old man did: two bumpy blankets and a glowing lantern placed on a crate. With a ragged exhale, the man shoved the bound girl across the floor. Her little yellow dress bunched up around her waist, exposing bruised legs and ripped Dora the Explorer underpants.

Keelan forced back a yelp of despair as his mind questioned how he was going to go through with this. He was just a kid. A kid against a strong man. But the girl was so young, maybe only four?

Survivorman would survive. No matter what. The three of them would survive. No matter what.

The trap door in front of Keelan swung higher. He held his breath while the old man grunted and climbed in. With a ferocious growl Keelan kicked the door. It slammed shut with a deafening bang that shook the walls just as he catapulted himself onto the stranger’s back. His left hand caught the man’s mouth, anchoring onto the slimy cheek just as his legs locked around the guy’s flabby waist.

“Waa thaa..?” the old man sputtered through his sideways-yanked mouth.

Keelan pulled the pocket knife across his throat, digging in hard against the tough cords. Hot blood spurted across the room like a garden sprinkler. Keelan slipped off just as Timmy hopped up and kicked the man in the nuts, causing his last gurgled breath to exit through the new gash in his windpipe.

As the stranger crumpled to the ground, a pinwheel peppermint rolled out of his mouth and came to rest in the crimson pool.

With adrenaline coursing through his veins, Keelan plucked the blanket off his backpack and cleaned his shaking hands. Timmy picked up the knife and cut the little girl free.

As the three of them hugged and cried and trembled, Keelan knew he would soon see his blue walls, sleep under his pirate ship kite and get a chance to reassemble his dismembered Lego helicopter. School books and baseball cards, stacked like a Main Street square, waited for him.

THE END

 

 

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