I drink not because I like alcohol, but because I've recently seen the horrifying underbelly of the world, and I can't go back to blissful ignorance in any other way than through the bottom of a bottle. I can't sleep, either, so I'm writing this out to hopefully get some of the poison out of my head.
It began with a picture.
I'm nobody special, don't get me wrong. Just the opposite. Not a detective, not a cop, nothing like that. I was just a senior in college with an office job lined up, and I only had to coast out until the end of the year. All that free time made me vulnerable to questions. The question—and the picture that came with it—would have just flowed past my mind like every other bit of internet flotsam if not for that peculiar state of aggravated-bored I found myself in that freezing February afternoon.
Two local girls had recently gone missing. That much I knew; my year-older friend worked as an intern at the city news channel, and he told me nobody could make heads or tails of what had happened. "Look," he wrote in an email. "Someone at another news group sent us this. The cops found two pictures uploaded from their phones after the last time anyone saw them. They're hoping somebody can identify this guy."
I remember rolling my eyes. That was not the first time he'd forwarded me email chains full of internet meme bullshit. He was a sucker for clickbait. The pictures were the typical 'scary' type, taken in darkness and limited in scope such that nothing could really be discerned beyond 'look at how weird this is.'
The first image was taken from directly behind the head of a man with short brown hair, close enough that the flash illuminated his intermittent scalp in bright white. He appeared to be somewhere dark and slightly foggy; over his shoulder, a brandished knife could be seen, held forward for some unknown reason.
The second image was of a man lying face down in a hotel bed surrounded by empty liquor bottles and scattered pills. From his disheveled and sweat-matted short brown hair and the shape of the back of his head, it looked to be the same man. Convenient that his face was hidden in both shots, I remember thinking. Behind him was a peeling hotel wall and a mirror that somebody appeared to have spit on; in the mirror it was possible to see the man's left arm held out in such a manner that he was taking the picture himself with a cellphone. Given the context, I guessed the phone belonged to one of the two missing girls.
I tended not to believe things like this, because they never turned out to be anything. The two girls had likely snuck off to Spring Break and this was some sort of prank. Absolute worst case scenario, this was just some drunk frat guy they'd hung out with. "Let me guess," I wrote back to my friend. "An expert thinks this guy was dead when he took the picture of himself. Ooooooh, spooky, right?"
"He's definitely recently dead based on the way his limbs are behaving in that picture, and the discoloration and slight bloating of the skin, but that's not it. It's totally possible to put your camera on a timer to take a picture later, so they thought this was a suicide until they noticed something. Look closer. By his right hand."
I enlarged the image on my monitor and realized that there was actually something in his hand. But it couldn't be—
I printed out the photo to get a better look, and it was what I'd suspected: the exact same photo we were looking at was in the dead man's hand. An aging clock on the wall had the same hand positions in both images. He had, in his hand, a picture of himself dead—apparently the same photo he would later take of himself by using the camera's timer. I emailed back, "What are we looking at here?"
"Nobody knows, man. But they crowd-sourced finding the wallpaper and they figured out which hotel it was taken at."
"Yeah, new technique. They make some clues public and let thousands of people see it online. Eventually someone recognizes the clue, and then they've got a lead. It's a hotel in Brazil."
February was almost over and Spring Break was nigh. Holy shit, I had an opportunity to do something weird and crazy and prove to my friend that clickbait was stupid. "Dude, I'm gonna go there."
"You're not serious."
"Why not? I've got my passport because my mom pestered me to do it last year. And I've got the money to fly down there because of my summer internship. If there's nothing to see, I'll just hang out on the beach and have a normal Spring Break."
"I can give you the specific hotel, but are you sure you want to do that? That's like... crazy."
The peculiar mix of aggravated boredom and intrigued indignation brewing in me compelled me to say yes. I'd seen so many ridiculous internet myths in my time online, it seemed an incredible opportunity to debunk one.
I'd never really left the country before, of course, but I fought down the nervousness and did my best to research everything I could. The hotel was near a popular tourist destination, so it wasn't like I was going somewhere horrible. The beaches were beautiful, if nothing else.
The trip by plane was disarmingly familiar. Civilization, air conditioning, and safety shrouded me all through the flight, landing, and disembarkation. I waited for my bag while a bunch of people stood around checking their cellphones—just like home—and it didn't hit me that I'd flown to a foreign country and continent until I barged through that last glass door and smacked right into a brutal wall of humid heat.
Christ, it was straight winter back home, and here it was legitimately late summer. I'd chosen my initial clothes poorly, and they immediately became sweat-soaked drapes in a taxi that had no air conditioning. As high as the prices were in the hotel gift shop and as mass-produced and bland as they were, I bought lighter shirts and shorts and then sought refuge in my room.
I sat by the wall air conditioning unit until I'd recovered, and then I looked around my room. My friend had given me the right info—the wallpaper was the same pattern from the photo, and the bed, mirror, and clock were all the right design. Did a guy really commit suicide by pill in this hotel under mysterious circumstances? The nearness of it sent a biting air-conditioned shiver down my spine. Scary images sent in email chains online were supposed to be stupid myths, not something from a specific real location.
Once acclimated, I fought the churning fear in my stomach and forced myself to walk down to the lobby. I had pictures of the two girls on my phone, and I was debating whether to ask the concierge about them, but I didn't have to. Their photos were already on a bulletin board by the front desk—among others.
The concierge that I'd been considering approaching instead approached me when he saw me studying the pictures. "Você reconhece alguém?"
I remember laughing nervously. "What?"
"Yes." Well, I figured I might as well try, or else my friend would mercilessly tease me about flying all the way down there for nothing. I touched the pinned papers. "These two."
"Ah." The older Brazilian man sighed. "Very stupid, very bad. They went on a hike and never returned. The, ahm—" He waved his hands for a moment before seeming to settle with a sigh on a less accurate word. "—jungle. It eats people here."
That was something more than the gossip back home about the incident. "A hike?"
"Yes. Many trails have beautiful sights. Calm and peaceful belies the danger beneath. Do not go swimming, the currents are swift. Do not climb, the rocks are loose and the trees untrustworthy. Do not stay after dark, for the, ahm—" He paused again and appeared to frown at having to use the same word. "—the jungle—"
"It eats people," I finished for him. "Is it safe to go alone during the day if I stick to the marked paths?"
He glared, but drew lines for me on a local map to show me where the girls had said they were hiking. "I don't want to put your picture up here, too," he said. "But a polícia did not go looking, just gave us these papers. We do not risk our own to find foolish tourists. It's possible those two are still alive if the jungle did not find them at night. Hurt, maybe. It's sad."
I gulped, but put on a brave face. What was I doing? And why? I clutched the local map and adjusted my backpack as the concierge went back to his duties. I should have just gone home. I remember thinking I wanted to go home. Or, hell, even just to the beach. But presented with a stark cold fact like that—the police didn't even look—it felt impossible to go sit at the beach and ogle women while two fellow American girls were possibly dying at the very same time.
There were some guides for hire outside the hotel, but I felt less safe with a stranger than by myself. I couldn't stop thinking about tales of guides tricking people into captivity and selling their organs on the black market. All I had to do was walk a few paths, right? It was stupid. I knew it was stupid. The guides saw my direction, listened to my insistence on going alone, and looked at me as if I was a dead man. When he saw I was serious, one pressed a survival knife into my hand and shook his head when I tried to pay him. I accepted the gift and put it in my backpack before heading down the long dirt road toward the tourist hiking paths.
This wasn't like the small trails around hotels and campgrounds back home. The jungle here was not a mastered entity, and life was swarming everywhere. Thick clouds of insects hovered together only to be scooped up by flocks of little birds—or perhaps they were bats. I wasn't sure. It was humid as hell, and stuffy under the thick canopy of gloom and green, but I'd somehow stumbled my way into a mission and I couldn't turn back without hating myself.
A creek about a foot wide presented itself a few steps off the path, and I nearly went over to it to splash and cool myself down before I remembered the concierge's warnings. I took a long stick and lowered it in only to have the branch jerked out of my hands. The creek was a foot wide, but impossibly deep, and the current under those placidly flowing bubbles was murderous. If the girls had fallen in here—
No. Their phones had uploaded photos after they'd disappeared. Whatever had happened, it had not involved instant death.
Where would they have gone? For hours, I followed the path they'd indicated to the concierge until I reached a fork in the narrow overgrown trails. One path followed the black line he'd drawn, and the other led to what looked like a gorgeous waterfall basin.
Never in my life had I experienced such a strong fatal instinct. They'd gone the less-traveled path in the hopes of taking gorgeous pictures for their online profiles. Thus, possibly, it was death by Facebook.
Another twenty minutes of exhausting hike later, I found that the wide round basin was accessible down a steep scree and then along a slope of crumbling root-sprouting dirt. I ever so carefully picked my way down—and then nearly stumbled over a shoe. It was a dirty black American sneaker, and I picked it up to examine it.
Jumping back and letting out a short scream of shock, I threw it down on the ground.
It had a foot in it.
A goddamn foot!
Holding back overwhelming revulsion, I peeled back the tongue of the sneaker to confirm it was a female foot. Oh, God, I can still remember how it smelled; I can still remember the swarming flies and budding maggots in that stump of red flesh.
Yep. They were dead. Christ. I leaned back against the root-sprouting dirt wall behind me and tried not to throw up. I'd come all the way out here to find a rotting foot. This was why the police hadn't looked; why they never looked. They were right in assuming anyone that didn't come back from this horrible tangle was just plain dead.
I checked my cellphone—no signal, of course. I couldn't see the sun through the maze of greenery above, but my phone said it was getting late on the schedule I'd set for myself. Dusk would be coming, and it was time to head back. Even though I'd ignored the warning about climbing, I intended to heed the one about avoiding nighttime. Every single bush and hillock out here hid something alive, and I didn't want to see what might emerge in the dark.
And then, I heard her. "Heeeelp!"
It was the faintest echo through the dense foliage, but I was dead certain it had been a hopeless female shout. I shouted back a half-dozen times, even screaming 'til my throat was raw, but she didn't seem to hear me in return. Or, maybe, she was incapable of shouting again. It hit me: one rotting foot didn't mean they were both dead. They could both have been alive, for all I knew, and the foot was the result of some injury or animal attack that had left them stranded and hurt out here.
Shit. Shit shit shit! If only I'd gone home thirty seconds earlier, I would never have kept looking.
The waterfall above was beautiful but austere. There was no climbing up that way, which meant the girls had likely followed the resulting narrow river if they were unable to climb back up the scree I'd just come down. Judging my footholds and handholds, I clambered along clean rock, thankful to be out of the tangle for a time. The progress wasn't hard, just precarious, and I guessed that someone could do it minus a foot if needed.
Eventually, the terrain became more like a canyon with a river at the bottom, and I was forced to lift up onto dirt again. Here, I found an animal trail splitting off in three directions. A cellphone with a cracked screen lay half-buried. I brushed it off to discover that it still had some battery power and that it was not password-protected.
The text messages were mostly mundane conversations from the owner to her friends; the most recent ones were variations on help and are you getting this? based on frustration from the lack of signal out here. There was no information there about what'd happened.
But then I checked the pictures on her camera.
Beyond all the typical selfies and photos of the airport, the flight, and the hotel, there were a few of the jungle I'd just traversed, the waterfall basin, and then the very path I was standing on. The next picture seemed to be taken from hiding; between the leaves the image showed a man brandishing a knife and peering into the underbrush opposite. I still couldn't see his face, but he was dressed in local wear I recognized from the shop. Had he seen the girls at the hotel and followed them out here? From the back of his head, it was the same man from the suicide picture.
This was serious. I needed to be ready for a fight, or to run. Suddenly tense, I put my backpack down, hid it under a few bushes, and withdrew the survival knife the guide had given me. With the knife out and at the ready in one hand and the cellphone in the other, I swiped slowly through the photos.
The next few were of the trail I was on, and I followed it step by step, retracing the path the girls had gone. The man was not in these pictures; they seemed to be photos of landmarks that might help them find their way back. Many were blurry and had been taken in haste. No doubt they'd been running.
I couldn't shout anymore either, not without potentially revealing my presence to that man. Had he cut off one of the girl's feet or something? How had her foot ended up back by that waterfall?
Swipe. There's the rock. Swipe. Ok, there's the bend in the path. Swipe, there's the arranged stones to mark a direction when no other landmark would suffice. A few more swipes and—I was back where I'd started. The animal trails split off in three directions, and I could hear the river out beyond the trees. So they'd come full circle by accident, realized they were lost, then what? Dropped their phone here in frustration? Or had they run into the man with the knife again and gotten caught?
If there were three paths out of here and two looped to one another, that meant the middle one had to go elsewhere, right?
I heard a noise behind me; whirled, saw nobody and nothing. I stared out into the jungle as dusk swept a dim shroud between the trees. I'd stayed too long, and night was almost upon me. I had to go home. What was I going to do, fight a knife-wielding madman in the dark? I could get the cops and bring down the cavalry on this shit.
And then, I heard her. "Heeeelp!"
It came from down the middle path.
As it became harder and harder to see, I crept down that middle path, my knife held forward. If there was someone out here, I would only have a split second to strike back or run. The only advantage I had was that they had no idea I was here, and it was as hard for them to see me as it was for me to see them as long as I only checked the phone intermittently to keep its light to a minimum.
Swipe. A picture of the middle path in gloom. Alright, on a night sometime earlier this week, they'd gone this way. Had they again looped back somehow to drop this phone? I swiped ahead a few times to see multiple shots of the path I was on. I stopped at a shot of the knife-wielding man from the side; all that could be seen was a silhouette in deep forest dusk. Looking at the shot disturbed me. Was I witnessing the events leading up to someone's murder? I swiped back to the path shots and continued following their trail.
When I reached the spot where the man's picture had been taken from the side, I heard something crunching out in the darkness. I froze for what felt like an eternity as dusk began to approach night. All my senses told me that something was out there. Something was waiting and watching with malicious intent; perhaps even with glee. I could feel it.
As absolute darkness fell, a change came over the humid and dense air. The birds went quiet, and my ears stopped hearing their shrieking calls with a sudden internal echo. I thought I'd gone deaf for a moment, but I could still hear my own breathing. Moving step by quiet step back down the path and behind a boulder, I got out the phone to light my way and to check further pictures.
I turned my head suddenly to try to get a bead on the scream in the absolute silence. It sounded closer somehow.
This time it came from the opposite direction, a little further away.
That one came from right on the path ahead, exactly where I'd been about to walk before the sensation of being watched had stopped me in my tracks.
It was the same scream every single time. The same intonations, the same length, the same emotion.
I swallowed down panic. That girl had died days ago, and someone or something was using her last scream to toy with me. It was insane to think so, but it was the only conclusion.
Swiping all the way ahead in the pictures on her phone, I found a photo of an arm over a face; a man was wincing against the flash of the camera. Had they used the flash as a weapon to blind him? I—
I held my arm up as a series of flashes erupted right in front of my face.
I couldn't choose a direction. I ran. Somehow, someone or something had snuck right up in front of me and—and somehow—it was impossible but—
Pushing down the trail, I ran in absolute terror until the same scream erupted a few feet ahead of me.
It was loud this time, painfully loud, and I sliced at empty darkness. The light from the phone showed nothing ahead, just unmoving leaves and fronds. I held the knife forward with no idea what I could even do with it—until a series of flashes went off right behind my head.
Was it behind me? I ran for my life.
Down the dirt, climb along the river canyon in the dark, leap up the scree, sprain my ankle. That's what I remember. Limp along the path I'd come down earlier that day. I'd lost my backpack and the map inside it. I thought I could remember, but the jungle transforms at night. All of the landmarks I looked for were impossible to find in darkness, and I knew something was out there hunting me.
Obviously, because I'm writing this now—as I said, to get the poison out of my head—I made it out of there, but not for nearly a day. I spent that night crammed into a small rock hollow with stones piled up to block the entrance and only enough space for my knife to stab out; all night long, "Heeeelp!", "Heeeelp!", "Heeeelp!", from right outside my hollow, "Heeeelp!", "Heeeelp!", laughter, and random bits of conversation mimicking what the two girls had said to each other before danger had found them. It'd stalked and watched them for hours before night had fallen.
A foot. That was all that was left. A foot severed by powerful jaws.
When dawn finally rolled around, my sleepless body practically dragged itself out of its own accord. I don't fully remember what happened when I returned to the hotel, but they took care of me, and I did not tell them I found her cellphone.
And you know what? It's been five days, and I'm supposed to fly back to the States tomorrow night, but I happen to know I'll never make it. I sit in my hotel room and stew in my own nightmare. I can hear it calling from the deep of the night. It's out there mocking me still, waiting, because it knows I can't escape. All of those pictures were taken before they ever happened; all part of the horror in the jungle where time knows nothing of the strict structure of civilization. I only came out here because of that last picture, the only one that hasn't come true yet. How messed up is that?
So I sit here clutching the photo I printed out of that last picture, and I drink, and I take pills to try to knock myself out before it comes for me. I'm not killing myself. I just don't want to be awake when it happens. It's creeping closer now. The cruelest part of this is the clock on the wall. I know the exact moment as it ticks closer and closer second by second. Another swig, a few more pills. It's slithering up 'round the bottom of the clock now, the bottom of the basin, the bottom of my heart, numbing. He said it. I didn't listen.
Jungle wasn't the right word, but he straight up said it. He told me directly.
It eats people here.