The rabbit lay still on the cold ground except for the rise and fall of its chest. Fall was approaching and most of the trees were growing bare, their branches framing the view of the valley that sprawled out on the westward side of the hill.
There was a flurry and then some wet leaves and dirt sprayed up in the air as the rabbit suddenly began to struggle. It valiantly tried to fight against the thin green vine that was holding it down, thrashing, its eyes rolling back in its head in a panic, but it only managed to gouge itself deeper with the ugly looking purple thorns that ran up and down the length of the vine.
And then it stopped stuggling, going back to panting and thinking as it lay there trapped.
The vine seemed to react to this, and it drew tighter across the ground, pinning the rabbit harder to the cold dirt.
There was another sound, a slower rustling in the leaves, and the tip of another vine snaked its way into the patch of forest that had been clawed and brushed by the rabbit’s struggles.
The new vine meandered forward and bumped up against the rabbit. It drew back and then ploddingly probed at the rabbit’s body and felt where the other vine lay.
The new vine slowly curled around one of the rabbit’s legs and it squeezed, puncturing skin and muscle with its razor thorns as the rabbit squealed and thrashed in terror.
The new vine began to drag the rabbit across the forest floor, and the original vine, sensing this, relented and stopped pinning the rabbit down. It curled around the rabbit’s free leg, helping to pull the terrified animal along.
“You think, maybe, it’s because my shoes don’t fit? Do you think that’s it?” Grodin shouted up the trail to where he could see April’s brightly colored backpack bobbing along. He saw her turn and stare at him, waiting, glaring.
He avoided her eye-contact and tromped his way forward, doing his own glaring straight ahead.
“You are such a baby,” she hissed when he drew closer.
“I’m a baby?” Grodin snapped at her. “Who the hell are you even trying to impress out here? You’re so scared of being judged that you’re embarrassed for me about my not having the right fucking hiking shoes and,” Grodin turned, his arms up as he embraced the wooded valley to their left, “we’re the only fucking people out here!”
“I wanted to try a new hobby and of course you have to ruin it,” April snarled before she turned and walked off.
“A new hobby?” Grodin yelled after her. “A new hobby? You mean you wanted to try a new personality. ‘Hiker April.’ See her brand new Gore-Tex waterproof boots that are made without harming the souls of sad trees! See her moisture wicking backpack with extra pockets for power drinks and weird-ass fucking granola snacks! Look, she comes with a walking stick! An actual walking stick!” he had to yell louder as she began drawing away from him.
This day-hike had been a time-bomb for their relationship since it first came up. Grodin wasn’t proud of how passive-aggressively he had pretended to be interested in it, but then again he was too pissed at his, what for the love of Christ better be his ex-girlfriend now no matter how good the sex was, to care.
“I’m sorry that the spirit guide at the camping store got upset with me because I, too, didn’t buy a hand crafted walking stick from wherever the fuck yours came from!” She was further away now and he wasn’t sure his shouting had the same edge anymore so he angrily turned to the side of the path and began stomping about. He found a dead branch and propped it up against a log. He stomped down, enjoying the loud crack that rang out in the cold air. He grabbed a length of the snapped branch and began hiking up the trail again.
“Now I have a walking stick too!” he screamed, becoming aware as he did so that actually going so far as to get a prop for his mocking of this woman definitely crossed some imaginary line of neediness. He sighed, and his pride at his own cleverness deflated, and he walked a few feet off the path and heaved the branch into the woods. He turned back and screamed as he saw, from this new angle, a dead deer on the ground.
“Ugh,” he grimaced. It had been partially hidden from the path by some branches and the way it had lain. He leaned forward, his face still contorted in disgusted curiosity, as he examined it. Its lips were pulled back over its teeth and it skin was shriveled up against its bones. There were also holes all over the carcass like it had been punctured by something.
“I fucking hate nature,” he growled as he walked back towards the path, giving the deer corpse a wide berth.
“April!” he shouted as he continued walking. He glanced up the current hill they were on, his eyes picking out the worn areas and the duck stones that were his trail. He couldn’t see April anywhere. “What did you do, sprint ahead?” he asked, this time more to himself. Without April in sight he found that he was without the ever-present need to yell everything and he became aware that there were possibly other hikers around who didn’t want to hear him fight with his ex-girlfriend.
He adjusted the straps on his backpack and began hiking. The fall leaves were on the ground all around and he listened to their dry crunching and the sound of his own breath coming harder as he walked uphill. Realizing he was getting tired made him pissed off as he remembered the ass-hat at the hiking store telling April, as he blatantly hit on her, that this was an easy day-hike and how she had practically swooned over his stupid granola face.
What kind of jerk-off impresses a girl by acting like a hike is easy?
Grodin was sweating now and he stopped and took a deep breath. It didn’t feel awful, he had to admit that. He wasn’t wearing space-age materials or Gore-Tex anything, but he had known to dress in layers and he unzipped his thin jacket and felt the earliest hints of winter cold blow through his remaining clothes and against his sweaty skin and he took a drink of water from his bottle and looked around and he felt pretty good. The fact that April was still nowhere in sight may have helped his mood.
He heard something rustling in the leaves off the path. It was close, whatever it was. All day long he had been hearing sounds, birds, wind, acorns falling, leaves rustling, and they had all melded into a white-noise background.
It took him a few seconds to realize that the current sound of leaves rustling was somehow out of place.
He wanted to say it was a squirrel, he had heard plenty of them, but something was different. It couldn’t be a squirrel because…
Because it was big whatever it was. And it was close.
He slowly turned in a circle and tried not to move too quickly. His eyes scanned all over the landscape, peering through the bare trees. The sound came again, and he thought he saw something at the edge of his vision but when his head whipped around there was nothing.
His pulse was still pumping, and not because of the hike, and then he heard the sound of April yelling.
His mind began racing. Oh shit oh shit oh shit. Hillbilly rapist? Bear? What the fuck could even be in these woods? They had barely left the city behind them.
The sound came again and this time he saw leaves moving along the ground and then he caught a glimpse of something colorful being dragged along the same shade as April’s jacket, low to the ground. He stepped forward, sure that whatever it was, it was smaller than he was, and then he saw April’s bloody face bound up by some green vines struggling and he jumped and screamed.
He rushed forward to help her but he tripped on a root or something and fell to the ground. He scrambled to get up but his boot was stuck on the root and when he tugged on it, it tugged back and then he felt a sick pressure around his ankle and when he looked down a green vine was snaking up his leg towards his crotch and when he started to scream and try to kick it off he saw blood and felt something wrapping around his wrist and before he knew it he was covered all over and being dragged along the forest floor. Then he fainted.
Grodin woke up in pain. His first thought was to stretch and clear his head, but he immediately felt his restraints and as he opened his eyes to try and see he tensed and struggled with various limbs in an unconscious attempt to figure out if he could move.
In only took a few seconds for him to remember, and he blinked his eyes hard, struggling to see in the low light.
It was dark where he was, but there was some light coming in from somewhere and he could see that he was in a pretty large cave. He swallowed thickly and he could taste an overwhelming humidity in the air, everything felt damp and hot, and there was a stench of dirt.
He tried, and failed, to arch his back to stretch. He felt his chest compress and he gasped in pain, his mouth opening. Something rubbery and dirty slapped against his lips and he recoiled back, his bindings allowing his neck some movement. He heard someone crying, a sniffle in the dark. He turned his head and saw April, her body wrapped in green vines. Seeing her immediately made sense of what he was feeling, of how he was bound, and he noticed the thicker green bands around her were flickering with deep purple spots and he saw that ugly thorns were gently pulsing in and out of the vines. He tried not to think about his own body being hugged by those things, but he started aching anyway.
“April,” he whispered softly, but the only thing to respond was another vine that rubbed over his lips and he felt the tip of it poke into his mouth, searching. He struggled to remain still and not gag and eventually the vine became still, resting against his chin.
“Ap—“ he started to try again, and this time the vine moved faster, like it had been lying in wait, and it snaked around his head and gripped his open mouth and his head was forced away from April as he shivered and gagged.
He found himself struggling to stay still, hoping to avoid notice, and the vines holding seemed to respond, calming down, like their lover had stirred in the night but now they were snuggling up against him and falling back asleep.
He sat and he stared and he tried not to react as he realized that the floor ahead of him was covered in vines. Some were tiny tendrils, wriggling and playing, full of energy, some were much larger. He saw a massive branch, thicker than his leg, shake off a number of smaller vines as they began to overwhelm it, massive predatory thorns protruding from its rubbery green skin like shark fins breaking the surface.
Then he noticed that the walls and ceiling were covered in vines, everything around him a writhing mass of green and thorns and he began struggling and trying to cry out and his bindings began to squeeze him and he passed out.
He spotted the deer soon after he woke up again. It was being dragged across the floor by a nest of green into the waiting grasp of a few of the largest branches.
The deer struggled as it was dragged, but in a way that expressed it knew it was trapped, like it was conserving energy and testing its trap until it could find a moment to bound away.
Then the larger vines began to caress it, slowly coiling around it, but it remained still, its eyes wide open as it half-heartedly pawed and attempted to break free, still waiting for its chance.
When it was mostly wrapped in thick green vines the purple thorns rose out of their skin, only partway, but that was still two or three inches high, and the deer began to convulse and now it struggled no matter what. It kicked and its mouth frothed as it thrashed about, its eyes bolt-open wide, but it got nowhere. A free hoof managed to scrape over the mess of green on the floor, but that was it.
Grodin watched as the thick vines softly pulsed and the deer’s head shivered and he had an image in his mind of something being juiced.
Grodin woke up when he heard rustling, his battered mind smiling briefly as he cuddled with something next to him until he opened his eyes and saw the vine, not unlike a puppy, resting on his shoulder, and he remembered. The stench in the air was fresh and horrible and his clothes were wet with sweat from the humidity.
He looked around to find the source of the rustling in the dark and saw that the nest of the thickest vines was unraveling.
He watched as the remains of the deer slowly became visible, its skin desiccated and eyes sunken into its skull. Some hard to track undulation in the mat of vines on the floor moved it away, out, up, and then the carcass disappeared out of sight.
There was silence, briefly, and then more rustling as the entire cave, everything covered in growth, seemed to move, small tendrils wriggling around, tips of larger vines probing.
They seemed to find what they were looking for and Grodin stared ahead, exhausted eyes staring blankly as another struggling form was dragged across the floor.
When he saw April’s hair wrapped up in the vines he snapped out of his stupor. He lunged forward, not sure what he was trying to do but knowing that he was about to watch his girlfriend die.
The thorns dug in all around him and his vines squeezed, punishing, tips whipping angrily to run over him and search him, probe him, track him.
He struggled and felt his skin tearing and managed to fall forward but he was already exhausted and more vines were coming to hold him tighter and he could only watch as April was pulled towards the largest vines.
A lucky, or unlucky, spin as she was dragged spun her slowly around so her eyes were staring out at him. She didn’t move, she was already broken, but her eyes still contained a spark of humanity and Grodin began to cry, or scream, he couldn’t tell which, as he watched the largest of the vines coil around her, razor purple thorns the size of dinner plates pulsing, and the vines squeezed, and squeezed.
It was all her fucking fault, this trip was her fault, being separated on the trail was her fault, the stupid bitch, she wasn’t even that pretty and he should have broken up with her back in the summer and not been such a pussy and then he never would have come hiking and he began to rage at the dying eyes of April just to have something inside of him that felt alive. Then he passed out.
He was being dragged. He could feel the exposed skin on his face rubbing over the floor of vines, the occasional protruding thorn scraping and pulling. He was tired, he couldn’t move, moving caused pain. His body was sore, all of it, like a too-hard workout had been combined with a beating. He wanted to sleep. He wanted the floor to stop moving because he wanted to sleep.
There was louder rustling and he stared, suddenly becoming human again as he watched April’s body passing the other way in front of him. He knew enough to feel fear and disgust at what she had become, her visage hallow and sunken. He noticed how her head bumped along; how clearly that little detail made it that she was dead. Not the pockmarks from thorns all over her skin or the lack of color, no the listless movement of her head bumping along the floor of vines with no resistance or reaction. That was what made her look dead.
And her hair. She was fanatic about her hair, always taking too long and snapping at him if he brushed against it wrong while putting his arm around her. It trailed past as her body went along, matted and knotted and she would never have allowed that. She would have been furious, or scared, worried that if she didn’t look perfect she wouldn’t fit in. Her constant panicking and changing and skipping from hobby to hobby always just barely covering her worry that she was too different to accepted.
They had been good at first, or better, and he thought about that as she bumped along next to him, both of them had been scared and worried and they had met each other at that party and later how she had kissed him and how he had not worried about anything during that first kiss and they had shared that.
She was gone now. He was gone now. Nothing to be angry at, nothing to fight over, nothing but this.
And he felt his trip slowing down, the larger vines nearby. He felt them coiling around him, hugging him, creating a seamless coil of plant life around him and surrounding his neck and he relaxed, not needing to hold his head up or keep his eyes open or flex any muscles. He just needed to lay still, and as the coil of massive vines began to pulse, squeezing him in a dull rhythm, he smiled as he drifted away.
Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.