genre: contemporary horror
word count: 505
It’s disingenuous, probably, to call it a campfire.
It isn’t small or cozy or comforting or warm—no one’s roasting marshmallows or telling ghost stories or boiling a cast-iron skillet full of drinking water over it.
No, it’s huge.
It’s bleeding jagged, oddly shaped shadows that flicker and stretch across the ground to gnaw at the underbelly of the tree line, and it’s blistering hot, one-two-three snare drum bursts of red-orange sparks scorching the cool night air. The breeze rifling through the clearing is heavy, weighed down by the scent of moss and rot and woodsmoke and slowly decaying leaves; and there’s a late summer storm on the horizon, thunder rumbling, whip-fast veins of lightning lashing at the sky, a frenetic, rain-hazy tension holding the forest hostage.
There’s nothing here, though, aside from the bonfire, and the sight of all that space—not a single backpack or tent pole or beer can or anything—is making you more anxious than the weather.
“This is weird, right?” you mumble, but your lips are barely moving, and your nerve-ends are bristling, and you can’t quite shrug off the overwhelming suspicion that you’re being watched, somehow. The sense of wrong—of dread—is pervasive. “Like, not just the fire, but—this. Generally. The—the scene. Situation. Whatever.”
“I don’t know, man,” Jesse says, hitching his camera bag higher up on his shoulder and fiddling with the zipper on his jacket. It’s red-and-black plaid, fleece-lined and bulky. “The fire on its own is already pretty fucking weird.”
“What’s the point of it?”
Jesse shuffles his feet, boots crunching against the rock-studded dirt. His gaze is troubled, even behind the slightly smudged sheen of his glasses. “I mean, you know what we’re looking for.”
You cross and uncross your arms, warily scanning the opposite side of the clearing; you think you see a ripple in the darkness, a blink-and-you-miss-it flash of movement, but there’s no accompanying sound—no leaves rustling, no twigs snapping, no branches creaking. You swallow and take a breath, lungs trembling.
“It’s an urban legend,” you say flatly. “It’s not real.”
“Then what are you—”
“That old guy we interviewed for the trailer footage, out in—what was it, Satan’s—”
“Right. There. That old guy talked for, like, a million years, remember?”
You rub your thumb over your knuckles, squinting at the fire, stepping closer, trying to figure out what it is, exactly, that seems so off about it. “Yeah. I remember.”
“Do you also remember what he said? About the—”
“It’s attracted to fire,” you interject, nose twitching. “You think that’s what this is? A—a beacon?”
Jesse glances behind you, back towards where the partially overgrown trail vanishes into the woods, and then narrows his eyes. Thoughtful. Considering. Alarmed. “No,” he says. "I don’t think it’s a beacon.”
“I think,” Jesse whispers, cutting you off just as a booming clap of thunder jostles the atmosphere, “that it’s a trap.”