March’s theme was Man vs Nature.
Danny and his friends are on a camping trip in a treacherous part of the woods. What could possibly go wrong, right? They will soon learn that their greatest threat is only half an inch long.
by Ian Williams
The rough path Danny’s group walked was littered with fallen leaves and twigs. Along with the constant ups and downs of the terrain, they made moving through the dense forest a slow proposition. A couple of times he lost his footing and landed on his backside, dragged down by the heavy pack around his back. In these instances, the soft covering proved a blessing in disguise.
Leading the group of three was Danny’s best friend, Malcolm, whom he had known since school. With Danny in the middle, that left the last of them–a mutual friend named Bobby–to bring up the rear. They trudged through the bushes and forged tiny streams in single file, while following the route chosen by Malcolm and his latest handheld GPS trinket.
While the others were adept at finding their way through forests and valleys, Danny was not. He could not make head nor tales of the maps the others took for granted. That part of the trip was out of his hands and he was happier for it. All he had to do was follow Malcolm’s enormous boot-prints and keep his balance over the slightly harder terrain.
The entire weekend had been proposed down their local boozer the month before. Danny’s first reaction was one of disappointment rather than excitement. His ideal trip involved locating a nice, quiet place to sit and read. Not spending days digging mud from his fingernails and wiping sweat from his eyes. He was there because any trip was still better than none.
“I think we’re nearly there,” Malcolm called over his left shoulder. He stopped to refer to his GPS device again, a habit he had kept up throughout their long walk.
“You think we could take a little rest, just for a minute?” Danny asked as he slumped down beside a rotten tree trunk lying across their path. The weight of his fully laden backpack caused a hollow section of the tree to collapse, followed by a flurry of insect activity. He was soon ready to get back to his feet again. “Fuck’s sake.”
Bobby laughed as he helped Danny up. “What’s the matter, Danny, don’t you like bugs?”
“The only good bug is a squashed bug!” Danny replied as he heaved his pack further up his body. “If we don’t get to camp soon I think I’ll go mad. Nature is fucking disgusting.”
“Jesus, Danny, do you ever stop moaning?” Malcolm stopped ahead of them to say. “You’ve spent too much time in the city. I guarantee you this place is cleaner.”
“Tell my hands that. I’d kill for some soap and clean water right now.” Danny rubbed his blackened hands against his padded jacket and pulled his zip up to his chin. Nothing was going to climb down his neck without him knowing it.
“Come on, I promise it’s not far now. Hey, Bobby, did you bring any hand sanitiser for his Royal Highness here?”
“Sure, it’s in my pack somewhere,” Bobby answered.
“There, happy now, Danny?”
They were away again soon after that and moving as slowly across the undergrowth as before, which only frustrated Danny further. He would enjoy himself once the hard work was done with. Sitting in front of a small fire, with something warm and tasty bubbling away in a pot over it, would make it all seem worth it in the end.
Danny stepped over branches, tripped on hidden rocks and nearly slipped on moss as he tried his best to keep up with the leader. When he lost his balance he always found something to steady himself against, and it was usually something disturbingly damp. Every tree he leant on was sticky to the touch and often riddled with more bugs than he’d ever seen before.
Danny had finally found a rhythm to his steps that suited him. For over an hour and a half now, he had concentrated only on where he planted his boots each time, to avoid stepping on something that would rob him of all balance.
The group’s pace had picked up a bit as a result. They were set to reach camp well before it got dark, which Malcolm was happy about. ‘Pitch late and leave early’, he’d said shortly after setting off. He walked at the front whistling a tune neither of the others recognised. His enthusiasm was intoxicating, though, and occasionally Danny would join in too.
It was going so well in fact that when Malcolm stopped abruptly, Danny, at first, didn’t notice. He pulled up alongside his friend and followed his gaze down. He was shocked to see a twenty-foot-wide hole in the ground blocking their path.
Malcolm leant over the edge. “I wasn’t expecting to find … whatever the hell this is.”
“It’s just a hole, so what?”
Bobby was last to arrive, and had also failed to spot the group was now stationary. He piled straight into the back of Malcolm, almost knocking him into the hole. “Shit, sorry,” he said, grabbing his buddy in time to keep him from falling in.
“Watch it next time, Bobby. I’d rather not get stuck down there. Must be almost ten feet deep. That’d end the trip pretty quickly.” Malcolm returned to his feet and began to climb around the gap, taking care where he put his weight. One false move and he would soon find out exactly how far the hole went. “Let’s take it slow.”
“Why don’t we find another way around?” Danny asked.
“Because,” Bobby answered, “we’ve only got a few hours of daylight left and we still need to set up camp.” He took the next turn, leaving Danny to go last.
With the surrounding trees overhanging and blocking out most of the daylight, it was difficult to see to the bottom of the hole without a well-suited torch. Luckily, they each had the necessary equipment somewhere on them.
Danny pulled down his jacket zip and reached in to get the small torch hanging around his neck. It was a pathetic piece of kit compared to what Malcolm and Bobby undoubtedly had stored in their packs. But it would do. He expected one of his friends to make a joke as soon as he switched his tiny torch on, and he wasn’t left waiting long either.
“What the heck are you going to do with that?” Malcolm said, from the other side of the hole. “Seriously, dude, my lighter is brighter than that.”
Danny returned a whatever style shake of his head and continued regardless. He shone his light down the hole and searched for anything his humiliatingly small torch could highlight. At first there was only the dull reflection of damp mud, then something else came into view, something that surprised him; bones.
“What the fuck is that?” he said, drawing the others’ attention back to him. Bobby stopped just before reaching the other side and looked down to the body.
To see more than Danny’s torch could show, Malcolm unhooked a much larger piece of equipment from his belt and flicked it on. A thick beam of light reached down below and brought the rest of the body into view. He then arched his light up to Danny’s stern looking face. “It’s just a deer carcass, that’s all. Christ, why are you so damn jumpy? We’re in the wilderness; things kill other things out here.”
Bobby interrupted, “It probably fell down there and died.”
“Did they fall in there as well?” Danny said, shining his torch over another four animal corpses nearby. They ranged in size from a deer to a small rodent. All had been stripped entirely of their flesh. “Looks more like they were killed and then dragged down there. Maybe a predator caught them.”
Malcolm sniggered as he lowered his torch to his feet. “Don’t be stupid. There are no large predators running around this forest. Hell, there’s none left in the UK at all. So, believe me, nothing killed and dragged those animals down there. Now, can we get going? I want to be at camp in two hours and not a minute longer.”
“Fine,” Danny replied, with one last look around the pit. On the right side was a steep slope, which he noticed had been kept clear of debris, suggesting it had been used regularly. He guessed there were probably more bodies down there that they couldn’t see. “I’m coming across now.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll wait,” Bobby said, with a glimmer of a smile.
Malcolm once again checked his GPS for directions. “Come on, hurry up. It’s this way.”
As soon as Danny made it around the hole, they were off and heading straight to camp. After finding a hole in the ground where none should be, they were all treading carefully from then on. Their footsteps were light and measured, like they were tiptoeing past a sleeping giant.
By the time they made it to their chosen camp site, it was already starting to get dark. Neither of them liked the idea of pitching their tents by torchlight alone, so they began as soon as they arrived. This part was easy, for Danny at least, who had thought about it carefully. For him, the only tent worth his hard-earned cash was one he could set up with a single move.
While Malcolm and Bobby unpacked their tents, and checked every tiny piece was there, Danny shook his out in front of himself and watched as it popped open automatically. He gave a smug look to his friends, who both shook their heads disapprovingly.
“That’s it, Danny. That’s really getting the full camping experience right there,” Malcolm mocked. “Any chance you have a pop-up sofa or a blow-up sauna with you too?”
“What can I say? I came prepared.”
“Is that so? Good luck putting that bloody thing down again.”
Bobby let out a snort as he chimed in. “I didn’t realise this was a glamping trip.”
“What the fuck’s glamping?” Danny said.
“You know; it’s what they call luxury camping.”
“Oh right. Very funny, Bobby. You’re both just jealous anyway,” Danny said, with a grin.
Bobby stopped putting together his tent’s frame to ask, “Jealous of what?”
Before giving his answer, Danny retrieved a small rubber-ended hammer from his pack. “I can get it up quicker than you can,” he said, forcing the first peg into the soft ground.
The others took a moment to laugh off the taunt. They still had to build their shelters for the night, so they were back to work shortly after. Danny watched them work as he lay his bedding down. His bed consisted of a thin bottom sheet and a sleeping bag with a dodgy zip. The last time he had used the sleeping bag he had gotten the zip stuck halfway up.
No more than half an hour later and all three tents had been set up, and their occupants were ready for night to fall. Next, they unpacked their dinner for the evening and the single-hob camping stove they would use to cook it.
“What’s on the menu for tonight?” Danny said, sitting in the entrance to his single tent. He was expecting a less than appetising list of foods, maybe some beans or cold meats; a disappointing meal after a strenuous afternoon.
It was a nice change to be pleasantly surprised.
Malcolm dug a selection of small pouches out of his pack and read out the contents. “We’ve got two All-Day Breakfasts, a Pasta Bolognese, two Chilli Con Carnes and a Beef Stew with Dumplings. So, who wants what?”
“Nice, I’ll have the Pasta.” Danny reached over and took the pouch from Malcolm, before looking it over. It looked like real food. He only hoped it tasted like it too.
“Bobby, can you get the stove going?” Malcolm said. “I’ll get some water to boil the pouches in.”
Danny stood and brushed himself down. “I’ll go with you. Is there a stream nearby?”
“No, Danny, I mean the water in my pack.” Malcolm laughed. “We’re not roughing it that much, so don’t worry.”
That eased Danny’s mind a great deal. He had imagined a much worse evening of foraging for food and setting animal traps. Not having to trudge a mile for water made him happiest, though. At least he could wash off the muck that had accumulated on his hands during their long walk there.
“May I?” he asked, offering his palms to Malcolm, who obliged with a splash of water. Danny then rubbed his hands vigorously, until the dirt was gone, and the skin had turned a little red too.
It only took a few minutes to heat up the already cooked meals in a pot of boiling water. They each turned their attention to scoffing down their pouches of food shortly after that. For those quiet few moments Danny even began to enjoy himself.
This was a part of the world he never bothered with in the past. He hated to admit it, but he could really see why Malcolm and Bobby liked it; a decision he knew he would reverse next time he was dragged on another long hike. This was natures city, with buildings made of tall trees and streams for roads. His home, in a human made city, was so much more sterile and lifeless than this.
As the surrounding area became hidden in a quickly encroaching shroud of darkness, he felt his world shrink drastically. There was something humbling about being in the middle of nowhere, with civilisation miles away, and nothing even close to a fast-food chain anywhere around. It made him feel small, like an insect scurrying around while much bigger beings looked down upon him.
The evening had been a real eye-opener for Danny. As they had sat around the small heater and talked by the light of their lamps, he had drawn in the atmosphere in deep drags of clean, crisp air. The jokes flowed freely during that time and Malcolm even told them about his latest ‘piece of tail’, as he so eloquently put it. With good company and a full belly, Danny was set for the rest of the evening.
But a short while later they heard something moving in the distance. Bobby was first to hear it. The crunch of twigs and dried leaves gave away what approached them. He stood and shone his torch deep into the forest to find it.
“Is it an animal?” Danny asked quietly.
When another beam of light returned in their direction, they finally got their answer. There was someone else out there.
“Who’s there?” Malcolm called out.
A bearded man, wearing thick glasses and dressed in a bright orange anorak over a brown woollen jumper, stepped into the light of their campsite. He had a kind face, with a sprinkling of wrinkles about his eyes and a hairline that appeared to have receded sometime during the Thatcher years. His smile told them he was no threat, though.
“Evening boys. Name’s Geoff,” he said. “I’m the Park Ranger. Hope you don’t mind me dropping in on you like this.”
“Park Ranger? Did we do something wrong?” Bobby switched off his torch and offered his hand to shake, which was received gratefully.
“Oh, no trouble. I saw the light from your camp and thought I should come and check on you all.”
“Well, we’re fine, thanks. Aren’t we, guys?”
Danny nodded, while Malcolm gave a comical salute in reply.
“That’s good,” Geoff continued. “It’s not normal practice for me to check up on people. But then things haven’t been normal around here for a while.”
“Why is that?” Danny asked.
“Oh, you aren’t from this way, are you? They’ve begun Fracking, only a dozen or so miles away from here. It’s been causing a few problems around the area, and the occasional tremor too. Over the past few months I’ve had reports from locals of instabilities in the ground. It’s become part of my daily duties to warn people about the loose ground in some places, even holes in some parts too.”
“Hey, Malcolm. That’s got to be what we saw.”
“Most likely, yeah.” Malcolm then spoke to Geoff the Ranger. “On the way here we found a big hole, must have been twenty-feet-wide, just opened up in the ground.”
Geoff swung a small bag out from behind himself and opened it up. He rummaged around inside, then produced a pencil and a map, which he had drawn on multiple times. With his torch tucked under his arm he started to write something on his map. “I don’t suppose you boys remember roughly where that was, do you?”
Calling them boys all the time was a little funny to Danny. They were each in their early thirties. They had jobs, mortgages and families of varying sizes–Bobby’s had another little one on the way. And yet, in comparison to Geoff the Ranger’s age, Danny still had to concede that they were more like youngsters.
Malcolm produced his GPS gadget, turned it on and then searched for the coordinates of the hole. When he found them, he offered his device to Geoff.
“Ah, excellent,” Geoff said, before ruining his map with yet more doodles and scribbles. “I’ll swing by that way on my way out, make sure no one stumbles upon it by accident. Which reminds me, if you see a yellow flag then you’re close to another of these holes. Oh, and you may feel a slight shaking in the ground every so often during your stay. Don’t worry too much. It’ll just be a little shudder.”
“I can’t believe they’d Frack near a place like this,” Danny said.
“Dreadful, isn’t it? I tell you, if I was face to face with the person who gave them permission, I’d bloody well bop them on the nose. I don’t think they care at all about the damage they’re causing this beautiful place. But, hey, nobody ever listens to an old fart like me. Best if you boys do, though.” Geoff appeared to remember something suddenly. He removed his bag, knelt beside it and removed a walkie-talkie from the front pouch. “Here, take this. If you get in any difficulty while out here, or if you find another of these damn holes, I want you to radio me immediately. Got it?”
“Got it,” Bobby said, taking the radio from the ranger. “And thanks, for everything.”
“Yeah, I’m sure we’ll be fine, though,” Malcolm added.
After returning to his feet and swinging his pack over his shoulder, Geoff shook their hands vigorously and bid them farewell. He left quietly, his footsteps soft and barely breaking a single leaf. His torch never left the ground too, and only highlighted where his next step would be. Within only a minute or two he had completely vanished amid the thick bushes and tall trees.
For one of them, the visit had been an unwelcome intrusion.
“Fucking busy body,” Malcolm said. “He must think we’re bloody amateurs or something, out in the wilderness without a damn clue. Oh, thank god Ranger Geoff is here to save us. What a pillock.”
“He seemed harmless to me,” Bobby replied. He shut up when Malcolm sent a look of scorn his way.
“Yeah, he was just trying to help,” Danny added. “Nothing to be pissed about.”
Malcolm took a seat by the small heater and rubbed his hands together for warmth. “I know, I know. I just don’t like people appearing out of nowhere like that. We’re supposed to be out here, in the middle of nowhere, to get away from people. It’s a little difficult to achieve that when anyone who feels like it can drop in on us anytime they want.”
“Well, I for one, am happy to know we’ve got someone looking out for us. Makes me feel safe.” Danny made sure the others knew he was winding them up with a giant smile. “Anyway, I need to pee. Where’s the little boy’s room around here?”
“Wherever you want. Just make sure you go far enough away from camp that you don’t draw wildlife to us,” Malcolm said.
“Jesus, my piss doesn’t smell that bad.”
Taking Malcolm’s advice, Danny took a route that went directly away from camp. He used the light from his own torch to show the way, rather than asking for Malcolm’s or Bobby’s. He chose not to give the others the satisfaction of knowing he had brought the wrong tool for the job.
He stopped by a tree around twenty metres away from camp. It was close enough that he wouldn’t lose sight of the others, but far enough away to achieve some form of privacy. He then relieved himself, with his torch placed on a branch at shoulder height. The pit-a-pat sound and the rising steam reminded him just how far from civilisation–and a plumbed in toilet–he was. But he was happy to realise it this time. Life in the forest may be a dirty one, but it was certainly freeing.
As his mind began to wander he imagined how that life might be. He pictured himself setting up a home near a small stream, where he would make his house from the surrounding trees. It was a nice thought for him to explore. He could have stayed in that mental space for a few more minutes, but he was disturbed as he tucked himself away.
A tingling sensation on his hand required immediate investigation. He grabbed the torch with his spare hand and shone it directly onto his other hand. It took only seconds to see what had caused the odd feeling.
“Get the fuck off!” He whispered as he shook his hand out in front of himself. But however much he tried, and however hard he waved it, the bug that had crawled onto it would not come loose. In the end, he had to swing his hand into the side of the tree, just to dislodge the thing.
Malcolm and Bobby would be full of jokes when they heard about it. Danny could hear them laughing in his head already. He was about to see the funny side of it himself, then he took a proper look. It wasn’t a spider or a beetle. It was an ant, a single ant.
“Christ, you’re a big bugger, aren’t you?” He said to the creature, which he could scarcely believe was real. It had to be five-centimetres in length, far bigger than any ant he had ever seen before.
The ant scurried away, further up the tree, when Danny reached for it. He was curious and expected the others would be too. It was even possible that they might be impressed as well. If he could just get the thing cupped in his hands, he could show them.
To free both hands, he placed his conveniently-sized torch into his mouth and aimed the light roughly at the ant above him.
“Come here, you little bastard.”
He tried to grab it quickly at first, but missed it entirely. The ant recoiled when his left hand got close. It snapped its large mandibles at him, like a dog barking him a warning not to approach. But he ignored the warning and continued to try and trap it. The ant was showing an interest in him too. It had chosen to stay close enough to entice him, yet remained just out of his reach.
A few attempts later and Danny was almost ready to give up. He had now been gone for far too long. The others were probably wondering what on earth he was up to. So, he decided to try one last time and if it failed then he would head back.
He planted his right foot firmly on a protruding tree root and launched himself high up the tree. “Gotcha!” he said, as his hands closed tightly around the creature, trapping it between his palms. He was ready to run back to camp after that, with his prized catch awaiting their praise.
But his captive had other ideas. It bit down hard, taking a large fold of the smooth skin on his right palm and pinching it painfully between its mandibles. Once it had taken hold and could resist being shaken off, it curled up and stabbed its prey with a three-centimetre long stinger on the tip of its abdomen.
Danny barked loudly as a rush of poison was pumped into his body. He shook his hand violently, slapped it against his other, even rubbed it against the tree bark to rid himself of the pain. Only after he had smashed the over-sized ant into a pulpy mess did it finally subside. He quickly removed the slimy remains by wiping it on anything close to hand, mainly leaves and rocks.
After that he was eager to return to the safety of the campsite. He trudged back the same route as before, with his shoulders drooping and his face hard as stone. He hated nature again and was intending to make his feelings known as soon as he got back.
He described his strange experience to them in great detail. Of course, neither Malcolm nor Bobby took him remotely seriously.
“Bullshit!” Malcolm exclaimed, with a disbelieving smile.
“It’s not, I swear.” Danny offered them his bruised palm to prove the encounter had happened. “Look. It bit me too.”
“You’re seriously trying to convince use you saw a giant ant and it attacked you when you got too close?”
Bobby seemed unimpressed too. “Yeah, it does sound farfetched, Danny. Ants don’t get that big.”
“Well, they do in some parts of the world,” Malcolm corrected. “But not in the UK, or anywhere in Europe for that matter. It was probably a spider of some kind.”
“I know what a flippin’ spider looks like, Malcolm.” Danny leant down by the main lantern and assessed his damaged hand. The wound had already begun to swell and turn purple in colour. “Well, whatever the hell it was, it stung me badly. Bloody hurts too.”
Malcolm took Danny’s hand roughly and turned it over to see the injury for himself. He poked the swollen region a few times, which caused a reaction from Danny each time. “Okay, so you’ve definitely been bitten by something. But there’s nothing in this forest that has a dangerous sting, so it’ll probably just go down by itself. Why don’t we all turn in for the night and see how it is in the morning?”
“What if it gets worse?” Danny said.
“Then I guess we’ll have to get you back to the main site. Look, Danny, it’s nothing to worry about.”
Bobby held up the ranger’s radio and said, “If it does get worse during the night, then we can call Geoff for help.”
“It won’t come to that.” Malcolm dimmed the lantern and switched off the small heater. “Let’s get some sleep and go from there.”
“I suppose I could be worry about nothing,” Danny admitted. “But I’m not used to roughing it like this.”
As the night drew to a close they each found warmth inside their tents, ready for a good night’s sleep. Danny crawled into his tent fully clothed for fear of something getting inside and snacking on him during the night. He no longer trusted nature. It had shown itself to be unnecessarily spiteful and cruel even.
He lay on his back and draped his sleeping bag loosely over his body. He had no interest in fighting with the zip tonight. Besides, he was comfortable like this. He kept his small torch on and hanging above him. For the first time in his adult life, he was wary of the dark and what hid within it. He would sleep with the light beaming down upon him until the sun came up again.
A sudden whipping wind rattled Danny’s tent and awoke him abruptly. The wind became calmer after that, which moved his small home only slightly. He watched as the torch swung from left to right above him, before settling back down again. The torch reacted to each and every gust, like a pendulum suspended less than three feet from his face.
Now that he was awake he decided it might be wise to check his wound. Except he found it hard to figure out where exactly his hand was. He assumed he must have been lying on it during his brief period of sleep and it was now numb. To find out he tried to move his other arm. There was no movement at all.
Already he had become a little worried about it. Very rarely did he suffer with numbness during the night. It was something he expected much older people suffered with, not him. If he could not move his arms, then what about his feet and legs?
Oh god, I can’t feel my fucking legs! he thought in a quick flash of fear. His feet seemed a million miles away, like someone had detached them and moved them without his knowledge. In fact, all he could feel was his face, and it felt cold. The rest of his body was a phantom that existed somewhere nearby.
To get some feeling back into his body, he tried to tense his muscles, if only to confirm they were still there. But the signals were missing. He felt nothing, not even pain. There could have been knives stuck in his legs and he would never have felt them.
His mind quickly turned to what he now suspected was the cause of his immobility. The bite. It had to be the poison he had received from the ant. He cursed himself in complete silence for having ever tried to mess with the creature. Now he was facing the consequences of his mistake. He was paralysed, completely and utterly paralysed.
The only part of his body that he could still move was his eyes. He looked all around himself, as far as he could, as far as his eyes could manoeuvre inside their sockets. Without the freedom to arch his head to the side, it left him with a limited view of the tent’s ceiling and nothing much else. He realised he would be stuck like that until at least the morning, when one of his friends would stumble upon him trapped in this position and full of terror.
Maybe he could make a loud enough noise to alert them of his trouble? He breathed in heavily, draw in as much air as he felt possible–which was hard to judge without the sensation of full lungs–and let it out in one go. The air escaped his mouth with barely a whistle as it passed by his teeth, hardly enough to be classed as a sound at all.
Something told him that if he could not call for help, then his life was in far more danger than he originally thought. If he could not call for help, then how long before he struggled to swallow or before he lost the ability to even breath?
He tried again, this time will a full sense of urgency. With sweat dripping down his face, tickling his skin and teasing him for not being able to scratch himself, he went for it. And again, nothing, no sound at all. He was completely helpless. Would he have to wait for hours upon hours to get help? What if he felt pain somewhere on his body, would he be forced to suffer in complete silence?
As his mind raced and the panic grew, he lost all sense of the world around himself. The wind still blew and shook his tent, the trees and bushes continued to shake, and the odd hoot from flying wildlife echoed across the sky. And yet, all Danny could concentrate on was the ticking metronome of his own heartbeat. Every second that passed only added more to his internal struggle for control. If daylight did not come soon, he was sure the night would break him.
If only he could keep his breathing to a steady rhythm. If he could manage that then perhaps his mind would calm too. His thoughts were already dangerously close to tipping him over the edge, into a realm of self-induced terror, where just one imagined enemy would be enough to end him entirely. He dearly wanted to avoid that.
A rustle from the other end of his tent gave him another unknown element to worry about only minutes later. For a short while he assumed it was just another gust of wind drawing his tent to the side and making a noise, and then returned to controlling his breathing. But he heard it continue after the wind had subsided again. No, this was something else, something alive.
The last thing he needed now was to find himself paralysed while a rodent or another small animal stalked around him in the dark. What if it fancied a little snack while it was there? With no feeling in his arms, how the hell could he bat the thing away? His voice was too quiet to even scare it off.
He shut his eyes and tried to ignore the images fighting for his attention inside his mind. As if to torture him further, he could not help but picture the thing chewing on his toe, taking the flesh right back to the bone, while he lay there unable to move.
What if it’s not a small animal? What if it’s a fox? Anything bigger than a mouse would spell the end of him. Would his friends awake to a blood bath in the next tent? Or maybe they would hear the sounds of the animal feasting away without any idea it’s dinner was actually awake and aware of what was going on. They may find him, but too late.
When he heard the sound of his tent material tearing he silently begged the creature to move along. But it went on despite his wordless plea. Soon he could make a rough guess of the animal’s size by judging the hole it had torn through the door of his tent. It had to be something small, a rat maybe.
Being unable to feel a thing anywhere on his body, at least below his neck, meant he had no idea that the creature that had invaded his tent was now crawling up his leg. It remained on the outside of his sleeping bag as it travelled past his knee, then his hip and finally made its way across his stomach. It stopped once it had reached his chest.
Danny spotted something moving in the bottom of his field of view, but could not feel it there at all. He moved his eyes as far as he could to see what was staring him in the face. In the dim light of his torch he studied the thing, confused and amazed to see it there.
Thank god, it’s just another ant, he thought. His relief was immense. The threat was no bigger than a house spider. Sure, these ants were massive in comparison to the ones he saw in his garden, but what harm could they be?
He was about to return to his breathing exercises, to calm himself, when the ant disappeared back down his body. What it was up to barely registered with Danny any longer. The thing could do nothing to him, except for maybe a nibble here and there. It was irrelevant now. Finding some way of alerting his friends was back at the top of his list of priorities.
At least that was his plan. Shortly after the ant had vanished, it reappeared, in the same place on his chest too. It arched its tiny head up, let its antennae flick about above itself, and snapped its mandibles. The action had Danny transfixed. What was it doing?
Where one made no sound at all as its tiny legs moved across the floor, a few more were easy to hear. It was a scratching, ticking, clicking noise that got louder as time went on. Soon Danny was hearing a steady stream of these 5cm ants crawling around him.
The adrenaline was racing throughout his body, but only his eyes were able to react. To see what was going on he tried to lock his eyes into the corner of their sockets. It wasn’t enough. Something odd was going on around him and he could see none of it. All he knew for sure was that the hole in his tent was letting in a countless number of ants. One was a slight concern, an army of hundreds was a nightmare. That many could do him some serious harm.
After trying for some time, Danny soon found some movement to his neck. He had managed to bring some control back to a part of his body. It was only a small amount of control, but it was enough to get a glimpse of the ants around him. And only then did he see the real problem he faced.
As far as he could see, his tent was now full of ants. He had no idea what they were doing, though. They had surrounded him and were standing as if to attention, like a tiny line of soldiers awaiting their orders. His first thought was that they were going to sting him again, until he fell unconscious and they were free to do what they wanted with him.
He was completely wrong about that. Instead, they began to climb beneath him. He could see a few of them ducking underneath his sleeping bag, which was still only draped over his body. He felt nothing after that, which freaked the crap out of him.
It was only when the sleeping bag began to move down his body that the ants’ intention was made clear to him. They wanted him exposed, like they were unwrapping a meal from its packaging. Slowly, the sleeping bag crept over his chest, over his waist and then off his body completely. The ants tasked with removing the bag took it out of the tent and were gone moments later.
It was then that Danny noticed the gaping hole in his tent. They were now free to come and go as they pleased. The ants had cut the door away completely, all the way to the ceiling. How did they even reach that high?
A second team of ants then entered, in one single stream and following an exact path. They surrounded him like the first group, but their job clearly required more strength as there were a lot more of them. He counted five rows, all taking their positions one behind the other. They remained this way until the rest were in place, then they moved in.
The first row disappeared beneath him, followed by another, then another, until none were left. They had worked themselves under every part of his body, even his head. The tiny amount of movement he had in his neck was still not enough to fight off the ten or so creatures crawling around in his hair.
Danny could scarcely believe what happened next. A slight sensation of upward movement was the last thing he expected to feel, like he was somehow levitating an inch above the ground. It was anything but magic, though. The ants were taking his weight upon their backs. How was this possible?
He was desperately trying to understand how their tiny legs could hold so much weight, when he remembered something from his childhood. He had been sitting in front of the TV and watching a nature show one quiet afternoon. A segment on insects came up and he became fascinated by one fact; that ants could carry up to 100 times their own body weight. This, he realised, he was now seeing for himself.
For a few seconds he was held in place, seemingly hovering above the ground. He couldn’t move at all, otherwise he would have squashed every single one of the ants in an uncontrollable rage. He hoped to god that they would put him down again and crawl off into the night, that maybe they would realise he was awake and be scared off. Unfortunately, they were ignoring the frantic movements his eyes were making while he watched them.
Then, and without any audible orders shared between any of the ants, they began to march in perfect synchronicity. Danny watched helplessly as the roof of his tent moved up his field of view. The swinging torch soon disappeared too and was replaced by a field of stars. The pace was painfully slow and yet there was nothing he could do.
He pleaded with his own body to wake up, to snap out of its paralysed state somehow. To escape, he only needed the feeling to return to his fingers. That would be enough to stop his progress entirely. By digging his nails into the dirt like anchors, he could halt the ants slow march.
The occasional twig became snagged on his clothing, which brought him to a temporary stop. It took minutes for another ant to chew through the stick and release them again. The sound of the creature nibbling and crunching somewhere nearby made him cringe. He imagined the sound a hundred, even a thousand of these ants would make while they feasted.
But on they dragged him. He could only stare up to the night-sky as they moved him against his will. They took him past the camping supplies piled up in the centre of the campsite, past the heater and the small lamp he had sat around with his friends only hours before, and then on into the forest.
After a painfully long time staring at the trees passing by, Danny’s mind had turned to the route the ants were following. It had shocked him to notice a few recognisable landmarks passing by along the way. He was going at such a slow pace that there was time to think well ahead and anticipate the next.
There was the tree with a gouge across it that pointed back to camp, then the bush with bright orange berries hanging from its leaves that he had stopped to admire that afternoon, also a large rock he had rested against too. He now knew precisely where they were taking him.
No, it can’t be. They’re responsible for the animal carcasses I saw.
He cursed Malcolm for not taking him seriously. It was true that there were no large predators in the area, but what about small ones? If these ants were capable of stripping an entire animal of its flesh, its muscles, its tendons, then what about a human? Danny knew that would be no challenge at all. He was an average sized man.
His fears were confirmed when they finally reached their destination, after what he guessed must have been almost an hour’s journey. He already knew where they were. He recognised the place well enough. To his right was the narrow path he and his friends had taken around the pit they discovered that afternoon. This was where the ants took their prey and devoured it, one tiny bite at a time.
He was taken down the smooth, muddy slope on the other side of the pit next, and then down into the depths. He felt his body tilt forward slightly as the ants carried him deeper and deeper into the hole, to the very bottom of it. His view of the sky shrunk the further down he got, until it was only a circle surrounded by blackness.
There he was deposited upon the damp ground. He forced his head to the side with all the strength he could muster and watched as each row of ants crawled out from underneath his body and scurried away. They had taken him as far as they wanted. He was relieved to see them disappear through a small hole across the pit from him, a steady line of ants following one behind the other.
Now’s the time to get out of here, he thought. Over the course of his journey there he had begun to feel more around his head and neck. If the sensation could return to just one arm, he knew he would have a chance of escaping. But with every attempt to clench his fist or tense a muscle came a worsening sense of impending doom. The ants would soon be ready for their latest meal.
He hoped that these creatures had fed recently.
Once alone, he searched the darkness of the pit. Pretty soon he found the protruding bones of various animals sticking out of the mud, so many in fact that he struggled to tell what was what. Some of the bodies had been there for a while and were partially covered. But the more recent ones were piled on top, and some still had a clump of rotten flesh hanging from them.
The smell was revolting. Danny tried hard not to cough in reaction to the stench, in case it drew attention. Except every breath he took was full of dirt and airborne animal matter. He had to ignore it as much as he could, or face the very real possibility of choking on his own vomit. Drawing short, sharp breaths was all he could do to avoid that.
After visually exploring as much of this side of the pit as he could, he decided it would be a good idea to check the other side. The odd scratching sound made him worry about being eaten from the other side and not knowing it. All he had to do was flick his head back the other way and let it flop down again. Unfortunately, that proved much harder than he had hoped it would be.
The first two attempts failed, which returned him back to the starting position and staring straight into the chest cavity of a nearby deer carcass. By the third try he was angry as hell with his own body’s weakness and mentally boiling over. Each time he failed he let out a seething and frothy breath full of spit and hatred. There was enough strength in his body to do whatever he needed, but it was locked away and out of his reach. He only required a small increase to do this one move of his head.
What he settled on doing in the end was rocking his head from side to side. Using what little energy he had available he shifted his head back and forth until the force alone tipped him the rest of the way over. His small success had given him some hope of more, at some point soon at least.
He was now facing the other way and expecting to find more of the same, only piles of bones. It terrified him to see a lot more than that. First, he spotted a small yellow flag sticking out of the side wall of the pit, then he saw the remains a few feet away from him.
Shit, they got Geoff!
The last time he had seen Ranger Geoff he had mentioned he would visit the pit and place a warning flag. He had gotten more than he bargained for when he got there. For him the end had already come, though. The ants had started eating him earlier in the evening. They had started with the tip of his nose and slowly gnawed it away, revealing the bone beneath. Next, they had burrowed into his head.
Danny felt his eyes become moist as he was forced to stare at the ranger’s horrified face. He wished he had remained looking the other way. He could not bear the thought of going out the same way, but equally he didn’t want to watch them continue to eat the ranger beside him.
He got a fright when he saw a twitch of the ranger’s lips. The kind-hearted old man, with his fluffy white beard, appeared to be trying to speak. How was he still alive? Danny watched for more movement. Anything at all would have done.
What he did not expect was for the ranger’s mouth to open wide, as though about to scream for help. But nothing came out, no sound at all, not even a gurgle. The inside of his mouth was moving, though. Something was inside and trying to get out. It soon found the exit and crawled out across the tongue. Danny clamped his eyes shut as he saw the thumb-sized ant wander out of the ranger’s mouth.
That was it, he had seen enough. While the odd ant continued to eat Ranger Geoff from the inside out, he had to get away. No overly large critter was going to be climbing out of his mouth, he vowed. The thought of an army of ants moving about inside his own body made him want to vomit again. He shivered in response.
The cold night had turned cloudy now. But what he noticed wasn’t the bad weather brewing high above him, it was the sensation of cold down his spine and his left arm. It took him a few moments to work out why it felt so odd. Then it occurred to him; he hadn’t felt the cold on any part of his body apart from his face before. However brief it was, he had felt something during his involuntary shiver.
To test it out he again tried to move his head to the other side. If it was only a temporary feeling, then he would make good use of it and face away from the poor ranger. He flicked his head to the side and was overjoyed to manage it first time. Then something else moved, and he felt it happen too. His left arm was aching now as well. It caused him pain as it complained of being bent at an uncomfortable angle, and yet he felt nothing but happiness.
He straightened out his hand by clumsily throwing his arm in any direction he could manage. The movement was limited to only one plane, with no strength to lift it at all. Still, he could now feel his fingers and was able to walk his hand across the ground. Sensing where it was proved difficult. He knew it was there and that was it.
Getting his left hand to his face, however, was too much. Instead it flopped about in the mud, like a fish out of water. He needed to think for a minute. The excitement of having more control returned to him had distracted him from the truth, that he had very few options to try with only one working arm.
That’s when he remembered; The radio. The ranger has a radio on him somewhere.
He dug his fingers into the dirt and again walked his hand across the ground. Once he felt it touch the side of his body, he began twisting his arm around to get his hand aiming in the correct direction. Looking back at the Ranger, he judged the distance was just out of his reach. To have any chance of getting anywhere close to where he needed, his body would have to move too.
With his head shoved into the mud, he shifted his upper body to the side an inch or two. Despite the pain it caused his neck muscles, he did it again, reducing the distance by another inch. It was slow, but it was working nonetheless.
The damp ground beneath him was making movement a little easier. He could slide his arm away from his body and drag himself along by clawing at the mud. His fingers were now caked in dirt and feeling twice their normal weight. And yet he continued regardless. All he needed was to move another three inches.
Ignoring the pain, he forced his head back and grabbed at the dirt to pull himself to the side one last time. He stopped the very second his hand make contact with something. For now, he decided against checking what he tried desperately to hold onto. It was part of the ranger and that was all he cared about.
Next, he moved his hand down the body to somewhere close to Ranger Geoff’s belt. When he felt his thumb touch plastic he knew he had found the radio. He let out a moan, the first he had managed so far, as he again felt a wave of hope flow throughout him. All he had to do now was tug the radio free and he could call for help.
His nightmare would be over soon.
With his finger through the material strap of the radio, he pulled with all his strength. The radio moved a few inches closer to coming loose and then became stuck. He tried again. It wouldn’t move any further.
No, don’t fucking do this to me.
His next attempt only made things worse. With his hand partly around the radio’s plastic casing, he yanked hard and felt it move. But his judgement was totally off. He was expecting to pull the radio free, and instead he launched it across the ground. The radio bounced away, which surprised him with the force of it.
He quickly realised his mistake. The radio was again out of his reach, this time toward the ranger’s feet. He would have to move his body once more. Managing it once before gave him hope that he could do it again, so he went ahead and began his short journey. Pulling on the ranger’s body was a bad idea, as he found out when the body slid closer.
Now that Ranger Geoff’s corpse was closer to his own body, Danny realised his path was slightly blocked. For his arm to reach down to the feet he would have to get his head up on the ranger’s chest, otherwise his arm would never reach. The idea almost turned his stomach just thinking about it. But he had no choice.
He had dragged his lower body around a little already, but it refused to move any further. He was more than willing to put up with a few bruises and sore ribs if it got him his freedom. So, with his head ready to jump up onto Ranger Geoff’s chest, he mentally prepared himself. He shut his eyes, imagined the short movement he needed to do and pictured his head resting on the body.
As if winding up a spring, he built up as much tension in his neck as he could and then released it in one burst. His head bounced up off the soft ground and he then flicked it hard to the side. He overshot it a little and felt himself continue until his head landed on the ranger’s belly.
He was ecstatic to realise he had found yet more strength and a little control too, although he was unsure which part of his body he could now move. All he could think was that the poison had to be wearing off slowly. When the ant bit him he smashed it to pieces almost instantly, he must not have received a full dose of the toxin as a result.
As before, his small victory was joined by another setback.
Danny felt his head begin to sink into the ranger’s stomach. The soft area appeared to be unsupported now and the skin was unable to take any weight at all. As the stomach deflated it forced a putrid smelling gas out through Ranger Geoff’s mouth; a death burb of the worse kind.
That was too much for Danny to take. The very second the smell hit his nose, he puked all down his cheek. He had to move or he feared his head would sink further in. For all he knew, there were ants inside still eating away at anything tasty enough. He had no intention of disturbing them.
He shifted his head out of the dip that once had been a stomach and continued on until he felt his head mount the hip. Once there, he reached out his arm, stretching it as far as he could, until the muscles felt like they were about to split in two. It was only for a few seconds, then he had the radio in his hand and gripping it tightly.
To get away from the ranger’s corpse, Danny reached out his right arm and dug his hand into the dirt to gain traction. He pulled himself with his weak limb, dragging himself, sliding himself away from the disgusting stench of decomposition.
Wait, my right arm, I can move it!
He checked to make sure he wasn’t tricking himself and confirmed that his right arm was indeed moving under his will. The poison had worn off a little more.
Back in roughly the same position the ants had placed him, he struggled against gravity to lift a hand onto his own chest. He managed to walk his right hand onto his groin and then did the same with his left hand. When they touched, he joined them together–with the radio between them–and slid them up his body, all the way to his chin.
He looked down and found where the talk button was. He then clicked it with the combined strength of three fingers and tried to talk. All he could do was moan again, which he did without stopping for a good minute or two. Then he waited for any response.
Come on, Malcolm, Bobby, anyone. Someone please pick up the radio.
As far as he could remember it was Bobby who had kept the ranger’s emergency radio. It should be him who heard the noise. Malcolm was probably fast asleep still; he could sleep with a jet engine screeching beside his bed.
But nothing came through the radio, just the occasional click sound. Danny lost all hope in that moment. He had spent so much time trying to reach the radio that he had completely forgotten he could not call for help. Even if someone did pick up, how would they understand him? What could he say with a moan alone?
He was about to try again when he heard movement nearby. The ants were back.
Oh Christ! I’m not ready to be eaten, dammit.
Through the small hole in the wall of the pit came a long line of the creatures, in single file too. They walked into the centre of the pit, separating Danny off from the ranger’s body. He watched them as they moved. To his relief, they were ignoring him entirely. They had far more interesting things to do. It was feeding time again. The ranger was to be the main meal, but Danny worried he might be the dessert.
There must have been a good few thousand ants there, as they appeared all around the pit. They were on the ground, attached to the surrounding walls, even climbing upon each other and forming a multi-layered mesh besides Ranger Geoff’s body. The sound of that many tiny mandibles made Danny want to cover his ears and block it all out. But he couldn’t move, for fear of being set upon by the growing ant structure.
He was forced to watch, forced to listen and take note, as the ants demonstrated just how quickly they could strip a body. Every ant there suddenly leapt through the air and landed upon the body. They ate like a swarm of piranhas, tearing at the flesh with their tiny mouths and soaking up every drop of blood. It was a frantic, chaotic display of ferocity. As they took the body all the way back to the bone, the ranger became less human and more a pile of mush. His body had shaken and rocked while they ate him.
But the feeding frenzy was far from over. It had begun to spread out too and was taking up more and more room as it went on. Danny realised he was in immediate danger of being dragged into it now. If even one ant got the taste of him, then he was done for. He had to get out of there somehow.
With his eyes locked onto the quickly disappearing remains of Ranger Geoff, Danny tried to move. He made sure to stick to small movements, just a small flick of his neck to the side, then a grab at the dirt and a short slide away. By now he had found another limb to work with. The poison had worn off enough to restore his right leg and part of his back muscles as well.
His aim now was the steep slope out of the pit. It did not matter if he could make it back to camp. All he wanted was to get out of the feeding arena before it turned on him. Maybe if he lasted long enough someone would finally hear his moaning.
With his leg bent, he dug his heel into the ground and pushed as hard as he could. His clothes were saturated with mud, which had started to dry out beneath him. It took almost all of his strength to get any movement at all. But when he did get moving, he found it much easier to keep going. He could feel a momentum building.
He reached the slope a few minutes later and had done so without alerting any of the ants. Now came the difficult part. He had to make it out of the pit entirely. To do so he needed the use of both arms too.
With his arms against the sides of the slope’s walls, he drew himself up. He kicked at the ground with his boots to push himself on, and made it halfway up in only two goes. He began to think he might actually be able to escape. Just get outside and then worry about what comes next, he told himself.
When he felt the cold, damp surface of a fallen leaf in his reached out arm he could hardly believe his progress. He was already less than half a metre away from being out in the open air. The forest was ready to embrace him once again, like a lost child returning home. He loved everything about it, every leaf, every branch, even down to the slugs. But what he did not like, was ants. No, he now despised the little buggers.
“Hello, is someone there?” a voice said through the radio suddenly.
The sound made Danny instinctively slap his hand against the radio to silence it. Someone had heard his moan for help after all, and they had chosen the worst possible time to answer it. He had almost made it out undetected.
“Danny, is that you?” It was Bobby speaking. “Hey, buddy, where the hell are you?”
Shut up, Bobby, please just shut the fuck up!
“We woke up and found your tent door torn open. We were worried you’d gotten hurt or something.”
Stop fucking talking, please, stop.
“Where are you? Hellooooooooo.”
The rustle of the trees in the breeze was all Danny could now hear. The disturbing sound of a million tiny mouths clamping down and chewing was gone. They had stopped eating. But had they spotted their second course was now escaping? He looked down at his feet and saw the worst possible thing; the ants were focused on him, not the ranger’s remains.
“Danny, stop fucking about and tell us where you are.” It was Malcolm talking now and he sounded like he was ready for the joke to end. “Are you somewhere nearby?”
With his head slightly raised, Danny felt for the radio still resting on his chest and hit the talk button a few times. As he did, the ants watched him. They were frozen in place and looking directly at him, while he began to panic. He let out a loud moan with the talk button held down.
“What are you saying?” Malcolm asked.
“Mmmmm hhmmmmm ggrrrr,” was all Danny could manage in reply. He couldn’t even form the shape with his lips to attempt a ‘P’ for pit. His body may have been coming back under his control, but it was yet to be capable of the more subtle movements, the kind required for speech.
“Hang on, Danny, we’re coming to get you. Just stay wherever you are and we’ll find you.” Malcolm ended the conversation after that.
No, don’t go, you need to find me right now, before it’s too late.
Danny had done it now, he had made too much noise. The ants were aware of his attempt to get away. All that was left was for them to act.
The creatures’ reaction was slow at first, so slow in fact that Danny could not figure out what they were doing. They began to climb on top of each other, one ant crawling over another, and another, and another. Each time an ant reached the top of this new structure of theirs, yet more ants would make their way up and stop. They were building something, something much bigger than before.
Danny let them continue to create their structure, what appeared to be a wall of ants, and turned his attention to getting as far away as he possibly could. He rolled over and desperately clawed at the ground, losing two finger nails in the process. He slapped one hand on the ground, dug the fingers in, then pulled, before following with the next movement.
For the first time that night, he could feel himself growing in strength. The toxin had almost lost its grip on him. He could even make a fist now. If the ants got too close he would destroy them with one smack of his palm.
Unfortunately for Danny, the ants were much quicker than him. While he had added another metre of space between them, they had grown their wall to nearly ten feet tall. The structure stood as high as the top of the hole they called home. The question on Danny’s mind, as he turned over to see behind himself, was what the purpose of the wall was.
He got his answer in one fell swoop as the wall arched forward toward him. All he could manage in readiness of being covered was to raise his arms as high as he could. He got them over his face, but it wasn’t enough. His entire body was swamped by the ants. His worst nightmare had come true.
Every inch of him was under attack beneath the blanket of biting, chomping ants. His skin was too soft to hold back the thousands of mandibles tearing into it. It gave in easily. The entirety of his body had become their after-dinner snack, to break open and share between them. He could do nothing to stop it, just lie there and scream internally as the pain overwhelmed him.
Malcolm and Bobby had searched most of the night for their missing friend. They had spread out as far as they could during the darkness, but now that daylight had arrived, they tried further afield.
At the front of the group was Malcolm, as always. He followed the search grid on his GPS device, which he had set up before leaving camp. So far, he and Bobby had found nothing, not even footprints to lead them. Danny had simply vanished in the middle of the night.
“Maybe it wasn’t him on the radio,” Bobby said as he searched a nearby bush, the one with orange berries. “It could have been the ranger trying to contact us.”
Malcolm stopped and turned back to reply. “No, it was Danny. I’m sure of it. He sounded like he was injured too. He’s got to be around here somewhere. I doubt he would have wandered too far away.”
“We should have taken him back to the main camp. He must have been delirious to have walked through the forest alone. That bite probably had something in it.”
“Don’t you start that as well,” Malcolm said.
“Danny wasn’t bitten by anything poisonous.”
They walked for a few minutes more, this time in complete silence. Malcolm then stumbled upon something. He leant over the edge of the pit and peered down to the bottom.
Bobby stood beside him and did the same. “Anything?” he said.
“Nope, just bones, same as before. There’s too many down there to see what’s what. No Danny, though.”
“Shame.” Bobby shined his torch down the pit. There was nothing to see but bones, completely cleaned of flesh and scattered about the place. “I was hoping we would find him down there.”
“If he’d fallen down there, then we’d see him, wouldn’t we,” Malcolm replied, with a dismissive shaking of his head. “Come on, let’s go. Maybe he made it back to the main camp after all. I tell you, he’s gonna get a kickin for messing us around like this.”
Bobby laughed. “Yeah, this joke ain’t funny no more,” he said, putting on a comical accent.
They continued on after that.