During a race to get back to camp first, a pair of teens stumbled upon a paper cube that grows a monster.
The story I am about to tell you happened on a starry October night at a place called Lake Thunderbird. Some of the locals referred to it as Lake Dirtybird on the count of the lake being murky from the clay soil. Still, it was a beautiful and beloved state park. Many of the trees were still green as Mabry and Heide raced passed them along the dirt trail. Earlier, the two had made a bet that the first one to the campfire would get the loser’s s’more.
“That s’more as good as mine,” Heide shouted from the lead.
“Don’t count your desserts just yet,” Mabry snapped back as she went off trail to get ahead.
Mabry’s shortcut did work. She did surpass Heide – until she tripped. Mabry cursed, causing her friend to stop.
Heide stopped and helped Mabry get back on her feet. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Mabry groaned. “Let’s call the race a tie.”
Heide laughed. “Only because I’ll feel bad eating your s’more. What did you trip on anyway?”
Mabry shrugged and pulled out her cellphone from her jeans. Using the flashlight feature, she scanned the area and found a cube of newspaper about the size of a baseball. The cube was densely packed. She picked it up.
“This is heavier than it looks,” Mabry commented.
“Really?” Heide questioned. Mabry handed her the cube. “Wow. This is heavy. Do you think it’ll burn?”
“Maybe. We can put it in the fire and find out.”
Heide tossed the cube back to Mabry, and the two walked back to the campsite where they joined their fellow students around the fire. The intimate group of teenagers were united for a weekend improv retreat. Standing together facing the teens were two of the “camp counselors” or improv teachers, Jessie and Nick, both in their mid-30s. As part of their improv troupe wardrobe bit, they wore matching short black ties and black fedoras.
“Heide, Mabry, so glad you’re finally here,” Jessie said in a cheerful team mascot tone. “We got plenty of marshmallows and chocolates still.”
Nick noticed the dirt scuffle on Mabry’s clothes. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, I tripped over this,” Mabry explained as she held out the paper cube. “Thought we could add it to the fire.”
“Go for it,” Nick encouraged, and Mabry tossed it in.
Jessie clapped her hands, getting the group’s attention. “While everyone enjoys dessert, let’s play an icebreaker game where we each reveal something that scares us. We’ll go clockwise, and I’ll start first. I’m Jessie, and I’m afraid of ostriches.”
Jessie’s reveal garnered some giggles in the crowd.
Nick went next, holding a flashlight under his face. “Reverse Vampires. They crave sunlight! Also, Land Sharks.”
“Disease,” Mabry somberly answered, thinking of all the family she’s lost to sicknesses.
“Being burned alive,” Heide said as her marshmallow caught on fire from her impatience.
Robyn pushed aside a streak of her white hair. “Being Followed.”
“Robyn, you’re like a black belt,” Jessie commented. “People should be worried about you following them. Michael, your turn.”
Michael adjusted his metal glasses and stumbled to confess, “Drowning.”
“Asphyxiation!” Shai jumped with an unexpected burst of excitement, eager to share.
The last person, Jeff, took a deep breath and, with a serious face, answered, “Sandpaper.”
The group laughed.
“What?” Jeff huffed. “It’s a texture thing.”
“Okay, okay,” Nick instructed, “let’s play another–”
The crackling fire collapsed into itself. The group went silent as they watched the paper cube pulsate with a rainbow of colors. The cube began to expand, like one of those black snake fireworks that grow when lit on fire. Then, it ramped up in speed, growing and forming an ash black ostrich with a shark’s dorsal fin on its neck and pectoral fins instead of wings. A green sewage cloud of disease-ridden gas seeped out of its mouth.
The creature let out a terrifying screech. The campers scattered every which direction as it whipped out its monstrously long tongue around Jeff’s body and Shai’s neck. The tongue was rough like sandpaper. Jeff and Shai pulled, clawed, and fought back. In retaliation, the creature flung them into a tent.
The creature spotted Heide running down a trail by herself. It spat out a fireball, catching Heide on fire. While Heide rolled around on the ground, the creature scurried down another path.
“What the hell is that?” Robyn asked Mabry as they and Michael ran as fast as they could.
“Like hell, if I know,” Mabry snapped back.
“It’s like an amalgamation of our fears,” Michael commented, struggling to keep up.
Robyn turned her head back. “It’s following us!”
“Just keep running,” Mabry encouraged.
The trio burst out of the woods, leaving them nowhere else to run with the lake before them.
“Great,” Michael grumbled.
Mabry pointed across the lake. “Let’s swim to the other side. It’s not a long stretch. Maybe it can’t swim.”
“But who knows what’s in that lake,” Michael exclaimed. “There could be alligator snapping turtles.”
“It’s either that or face the monster,” Mabry laid out.
The creature screeched, prompting the three of them to jump and swim, with Mabry leading the charge. The teens were halfway across when the beast arrived at the shore. The creature paused as a powerful beam of light from a park ranger’s flashlight shined on it. The monster hissed and charged at the park ranger.
Mabry was the first one across. She watched as the park ranger firmly stand his ground as the monster lunged at him. The park ranger opened fire, his gun emitting an icy blue beam. The creature burst into a puff of smoke.
Before Mabry could process what she witnessed, her fellow campers walked out the water only to be greeted with the light of another park ranger. She had buzzcut hair, black skin, and was short, at about five-feet tall, but stood with a calm authority that made her appear taller. The name patch on her green uniform shirt read, “Ranger Mists.”
“Are you all okay?” Mists asked, concerned.
“This–this land shark ostrich monster is chasing us,” Michael blurted out with no regard for how crazy he sounded.
Mists pointed her flashlight at the park ranger across the lake. He gave her a thumbs up. She shined the light back at the teens. “You’re safe now. My partner took care of it. Where did you first see it?”
“I found this weird cube of paper that I tossed in our fire, and it grew from that,” Mabry explained to the ranger.
“Where’s the rest of your group?”
“At the Post Oak campground,” Mabry said. She started to feel uncomfortable with how comfortable Mists was with believing them. Does she really believe all of this? she thought.
“We’re part of an improv retreat,” Robyn added in a panic. “There’s us plus our teachers, Nick and Jessie, and then Heide, Jeff, and Shai. You got to help them. They’re all probably hurt.”
Mists put her hand on Robyn’s shoulder to reassure her. “Don’t worry. We’ll help them, and then this will all just be a bad dream.”
The silver bracelet around Mists’ wrist that was resting on Robyn’s shoulder emitted a calming white aurora that put the teens to sleep.
I made a post on Facebook, “It’s my Birthday and I’ll kill you off at a summer camp if that’s okay with you. Leave a comment with something that scares you.” I took the fears they responded with and named a character after them. When writing this story, I wrote with the intent of telling this at a campfire.
Story Artwork by Chen Kang at Design Pickle. Get a discount off your first month of Design Pickle via this affiliate link, which full disclosure, I earn a small commission as a discount for me as well.