You’re driving along with your group of buddies down a country road. The sun will be setting soon, and everyone is tuckered out from an exhaustive bout of road trip tom-foolery and radio sing-alongs. Jesse has kicked her feet up on the dash and opened the Ziplock seal to her coveted Pretzels stash. Dale, meanwhile, is drifting off in the backseat, forehead rested against the rolled-up window. Energy levels are low, but fret not—your lodging for the night draws near.
As you roll up to the cabin and park your 2005 Ford Taurus with its single tail light out, Jesse shakes Dale’s shoulder until he comes to. Stepping out onto the gravel, cobbles crunching beneath your sneakers, you take in the scene—wonderful golden larches, crisp mountain air, and swatches of snow brushed along the earthy landscape. Popping the trunk, you sling your backpack over one shoulder and heave the small trunk of luggage out onto the ground. With a click of your keys and a small blip of confirmation, you, Jesse, and Dale move to enter your new, temporary vacation abode.
- Five Hours to Midnight
With mildly exaggerated exertion, you swing your luggage onto your bed and begin to unpack. Though most of your hiking gear is already prepped inside of your backpack for tomorrow’s trails, you’ve still got a few loose bits in your trunk that you’ll need—a few water bottles, a first aid kit, and of course your boots. Unfortunately, the remainder of your packed items are drearily domestic, amounting to nothing more than clothes and bathroom supplies.
Despite the momentary snacking on the trip over—Jesse was not the only patron of Pretzels—you and the group decide it’s probably about time to begin cooking dinner. Dale sets some water to boil and pulls out two boxes of spaghetti. No better choice for the eve of an outdoor adventure.
After a solid six minutes of fiddling with your Bluetooth speaker to no avail, Jesse’s tired of waiting for some tunes. She pops up and walks into the other room to entertain herself with her guitar until dinner. You watch as Dale tosses the pasta into the pot, listening all the while as Jesse stops and starts her strumming, practicing a new song that you don’t know the name of. Then she stops, quite suddenly, and shouts from the other room:
“Did any of you bring a stuffed animal?”
- Four Hours to Midnight
The answer, obviously, is no. Jesse explains over dinner how she had turned her head toward her nightstand while practicing and jumped at the sight of a stuffed panda bear that she hadn’t noticed earlier. “Chunky,” the name on its tag read. Quaint. Bizarre. Slightly infuriating, for some indescribable reason.
The group concluded it must have belonged to whoever occupied the lodge before you had, and so the best thing to do was leave it. Jesse tosses it into a drawer in her nightstand to forget about it.
After dinner, you decide it’s probably worth settling down with your book before fully calling it in for the night. You rummage through your backpack to look for your current read, but cannot find it. Peculiar. It must have fallen out during the car ride over.
Slipping on your shoes quickly and dashing outside to check, you’re immediately chilled. The crisp air from earlier had escalated into a brisk, affrontive cold. The sun has set. Reaching the car, you pop your head in, find the paperback sitting in the corner of the trunk, and grab it. As your gaze returns to the cabin, something feels different. For the briefest of moments, you hesitate. But you still walk back to the lodge.
- Three Hours to Midnight
After about an hour of reading, you can feel your eyelids grow heavy. It wasn’t that late, sure, but you also had a long day of driving—plus, an early morning the next day. You place down your book beside you and reach for the lamp to click it off.
- Two Hours to Midnight
You awake to a cluttered crash coming from inside the cabin. Startled, you jump out from under the sheets and shout down the hall.
You wait for a moment. No response.
Immediately, you run down the hall toward where you think the crash came from. The door to Jesse’s room was opened, drifting slightly on its hinges. Stopping inside, your eyes flick around to survey the area: no Jesse. A wardrobe had fallen over, wooden ornaments bruised and busted under the cabinet’s weight. And Chunky, sitting neatly in the center of the bed.
You stare at the plushie for a moment, transfixed. But only for a moment. Suddenly another sound catches your attention, this time the slam of a door. You turn toward the front of the cabin, just glimpsing the silhouette of Dale as he sprinted out into the cold, wintery wilds.
“Dale, wait!” you cry, to no response. Panicked, frightened for your safety and for that of your friends, you race after Dale into the night.
- One Hour to Midnight
Tracking Dale proves to be a challenge as an initially light snowfall grows heavier. The twilight that casts itself upon the surrounding forest proves to be enough of a cover to mask most details—including the shadowy figure of your friend.
Luckily, you did recognize the prints of Dale’s bare feet in the snow. Both you and he had run off without proper clothing, but at least you had grabbed your sneakers on your way out. Dale, on the other hand, would be in serious danger if he stayed out for too much longer. If there’s any chance that you could rescue him, or maybe even find Jesse, you have to give it your best shot.
Stopping for a brief moment to catch your breath, you survey the area. The golden larches that once watched over you now stalk you, their looming shadows enveloping your vision. Indiscernible shapes dance around their edges—ferns, logs, perhaps moose or wild predators. You continue onwards, before the snowfall completely obscures Dale’s prints.
As if by a miracle, you find him. He’s hunched over, laying down in the snow unmoving. Rolling him over, you see his chest still forcing small puffs of breath out of his lungs.
“Dale, what happened?”
He responds. “There’s something in the forest.”
- Midnight, or, Into the Void
Darkness. Dale is gone. Jesse is gone. And so is the hope that you would find your way home. The trees seem to stretch for miles, and as the snow falls, you don’t know if you’ll make it through the night. Your only option is to keep moving and try to find shelter.
You know whatever is in the forest will come for you next. It’s picked you off systematically, one by one. You should never have come to these trails, to the cabin, to the forest. Just keep running.
Maybe it’s some uneven ground, maybe it’s fate. But you trip, and you tumble down a rocky slope. You can’t move.
Staring back up at the ledge from which you came, a figure catches your eye. It’s stature is small. It’s sitting neatly. And it’s the stuff of nightmares.
Then everything goes dark.