“You aren’t actually going to do it, right?”
Ralph sighed and stared off into the distance. The sun was setting peacefully along the horizon, casting great orange waves across the sky.
“I don’t know…maybe.”
Emma furrowed her brow and placed her hand on Ralph’s shoulder.
“Ralph, look at me.”
Ralph dragged his gaze to meet Emma’s.
“This is dumb.” She spoke slowly, nodding her head with each word. “It could get us in a lot of trouble. Just say no. We can leave. I’ll put on some pizza when we get back.”
“But Derek said-”
“I don’t care what Derek said!” Emma shout-whispered. “If he’s gonna be a jerk and not give us a ride home, we’ll walk. I’d rather freeze to death out here then spend another minute sitting in his musty convertible, anyway.”
Ralph glanced over to the car. It sat at the edge of the field, polished red with black flames painted across the bonnet. Its reduced suspension meant it hung just a few inches off the ground, on carbon black wheels. Ralph had always wanted to give it a spin, despite the smell. It would be a substantial change from his shitbox Toyota, which was currently sitting in his parent’s garage, collecting dust.
Not too far away, a log fire was burning. Derek was sat quietly beside it on the dirt, twiddling a pocket-knife between his fingers. His spiked hair stood firmly upright, while Emma’s long locks flickered wildly in the breeze. The night was raw and icy, with an eye-watering wind that seemed to whistle along the grass for miles.
“My dad will fucking disown me if he finds out about this.” Emma whispered, clasping her hands over her arms. She shivered slightly. The biting cold was intensifying as the minutes passed by.
“Hey, lovebirds!” Derek suddenly interrupted. “You coming back over, or am I just gonna be waiting here like a third wheel the rest of the night?”
Emma gave Ralph one last pleading look. Together, they shuffled away from the tree, Ralph sticking his hands out into the warmth of the fire.
“So, Ralph…” Derek continued, taking a sip from a beer can. “You finally manned up, or are you gonna pussy out again like you did at the theme park?”
Ralph scowled. “Man, fuck you, Derek. You knew I didn’t want to ride the Spiral of Doom. Why don’t you do it, anyway? If you’re such a tough guy.”
Derek snorted; a wide grin plastered on his face. His defined jawline stuck out in the growing moonlight as he leaned back onto his elbows.
“Oh, I have. In other places, of course. Quite a few times. Even make it on the news every now and again. In fact, I came here just a few days ago, scoping the place out. No traffic, no signs of civilisation for miles. Been that way for as long as I remember, since when I used to come here as a kid.”
Derek let out a loud burp. He stared noticeably at Emma’s cleavage as he lit up a cigarette, cupping his hand over the flame to protect it from the wind. Emma recoiled in disgust, and Derek let out a smug chuckle at her reaction.
“Look, point is, if you wanna keep hanging out with me, Ralph, you gotta do it. It’s like an initiation thing. If you’re that scared, think about it this way: 80% of arson cases go unsolved. So the odds are already in your favour. Take that number and keep in mind how the cops around this place are a bunch of bumblefuck morons and I’d say you’ve got a 95% chance of getting away with this. It’s not like we’re burning a fucking church down or anything. It’s just a bunch of stupid trees. And if you’re still not motivated enough, the alternative is me hopping on out of here and leaving you and the lady stranded in the desolate countryside, all alone and hopeless. I hear the local wildlife gets pretty mean around this time of night.”
Derek mimicked a wolf howling, pointing his head up toward the sky.
“It’s Emma, you stuck-up asswipe. Not ‘the lady’.” Emma responded. “We don’t need this, and we don’t want it. We’re leaving, whether you’re giving us a ride or not.”
She stood up and began walking towards the road, gesturing for Ralph to follow her. Derek shot him a hard stare as Ralph felt his brain being pulled in two opposite directions.
“Hold on, babe, I just need to pee. Then we’ll go. I promise.”
“Fine. But make it quick. I don’t want to stay out here any longer.” Emma replied. She stopped walking and folded her arms, glaring at Derek.
Derek winked at Ralph as he slipped away, the soft sounds of the fire fading into silence. Approaching the cluster of tall oak trees up ahead, Ralph fished around in his jean pocket, making sure he wasn’t visible from the campfire. Eventually, he pulled out a lighter. A small flame popped into existence at the flick of his thumb, dancing in the air. Hesitating, Ralph gazed aimlessly across the tree trunks, checking for any signs of life. Nothing. Not a bird in the branches nor a fox in the bushes. And no sounds either, no tweets from up above or rustles in the bushes below. How odd, Ralph thought.
With a sigh, he reached into his other pocket, producing a can of lighter fluid. Unscrewing the lid, he doused the base of the tree with the oily substance, stepping backwards until he was a safe distance away.
Emma’s piercing eyes were stained in his mind as he contemplated his decision. Maybe now he could finally put an end to Derek’s relentless hazing and keep his dignity. Besides, Derek was right, anyway. It was just a bunch of stupid trees. How bad could it possibly get?
Tossing the lighter at the tree, Ralph shielded his eyes as a huge fireball rose into the air, engulfing the night in a cloud of orange and yellow. The grass was singed an inky black, the leaves of the trees instantly withering in the extreme heat.
“What the fuck, Ralph? Have you lost your fucking mind? I thought we were leaving!” Emma yelled, running over to the scene.
Ralph looked past his girlfriend’s aggravated frown to Derek. A pleased expression hung annoyingly on Derek’s clean-cut face; the fire reflected in his eyes.
“Geez, Ralph, I didn’t think you had it in you! Good job, my man! We’ll leave soon, I just want to stay and watch the fireworks for a min-
An unearthly scream shot through their ears. Ralph clasped his hands over his head instinctively, dropping to his knees in shock. Emma screamed and almost fell to the ground, as Derek stayed planted in one spot, wincing through the noise.
Another ear-piercing cry echoed across the fields. Ralph stared at the trees in horror, the heat of the inferno radiating against his skin. A horrible realisation crept over him. There was no ash, no peeling bark, no collapsing branches. The roar of the fire was mixed with a wetter, dripping sound. A pool of sickly brown and green was gathering at the base of the trees, inching closer to Ralph’s rugged boots. The trees were not burning, not sagging and falling like a piece of wood.
The trees were melting.
“What the fuck is happening?” Emma cried, jumping to Ralph’s arm.
The pair turned to Derek. Slowly, he began to back away.
“I’m sorry, you guys, I really am,” For the first time since Ralph could remember, there was fear on his face, real fear. His smarmy, confident tone had dropped to a lowly whimper.
“I had to bring you here. They wouldn’t leave me alone.”
“Derek, what the fuck are you talking about?” Ralph shouted.
“It’s the trees! They’re not trees, they’re…I don’t know what they are! I told you, I’ve been here before. They were just trees, for the longest time, I swear to God they were just trees, and then…and then they weren’t anymore. They spoke to me, told me I had to bring people to them. They followed me home, Ralph! What was I supposed to do?!”
Emma screamed in pain. The melted substance had wrapped around her ankle and was dragging her into the fire.
“Ralph, help me! I don’t want to die!”
Ralph looped his arms around Emma’s shoulders and heaved, straining against the substance’s pull.
“I’ve got you!”
He cast his head over his shoulders to Derek, begging him with his eyes to help.
Derek shook his head in bewilderment. He seemed to contemplate the action for just a second, then turned and began running to the convertible.
Ralph cursed under his breath. He was rapidly losing his grip. The slime was just too strong. Emma yelled once more as another ear-shattering scream roared out of the fire. The substance was climbing up her leg, engulfing her skin inch by inch. They shared one final look into each other’s eyes before his hands finally slipped and Emma toppled to the ground, crying and babbling as she was drawn into the blaze, disappearing behind a wall of smoke.
Ralph slowly backed away from the fire. The substance was rapidly advancing in all directions, as the trees quickly warped and lost their shape. Turning from the fire, he saw Derek was already a quarter of the way back to the car.
“Derek, you motherfucker!” Ralph bellowed.
He broke into a wild sprint, carried by sheer adrenaline alone. Derek was fast, but in the heat of the moment, Ralph was faster. In not even half a minute, the pair were in an arm’s reach of each other.
Ralph pounced on Derek’s back, sending them both spiralling to the ground. His vision went blurry as he knocked his head on the dirt, staying just clear enough to make out Derek scrambling to his feet and delivering a hard kick directly to his temple. The entire world was spinning as Derek crawled beneath him and locked his muscly arm around his neck.
“You never deserved that bitch, you know that?” Derek spoke as he tightened his grip. Ralph choked and gasped for air beneath the power of Derek’s headlock.
“With that bangin’ body and those luscious lips. She would always have been better off with me, but no, clearly she had a thing for worthless losers who aren’t worth the phlegm in my mouth!”
Ralph tried to force out a word to no avail. He felt his consciousness start to wither as he flailed and squirmed under Derek’s titanium grip, the oxygen cells in his brain popping one by one.
“You always thought you were the shit, Ralph! Being at her side 24/7, making a big show of how in love with her you were. It was only supposed to be you! Now she’s gone, and all because you insisted on dragging her out here along with you!”
On the verge of passing out, Ralph’s hand scraped along the dirt, brushing along a certain object.
Something that stood out from the grass that surrounded it, something hard and sharp.
“Goodbye, Ralph,” Derek concluded. “I’m sure no-one will miss y-
Derek’s words were cut short as Ralph stabbed the pocket-knife into his side.
Instantly, his grip was released, and Ralph rolled out onto the dirt beside him, panting and wheezing for air. Derek grunted and wailed in pain, gripping his waist and lunging for him once more. Ralph screamed and swiped the knife across his neck. Derek collapsed sideways, blood spurting over his face and shirt. His eyes grew pale and milky, and his large, heaving breaths quickly receded as blood filled his throat. Slowly, his body grew limp as he stared at Ralph, arm still outstretched towards him upon the blood-soaked grass.
Ralph lay on his back, staring up at the sky. It was a beautiful night, the stars and constellations fully visible. Part of him wanted to fall asleep right there and then, but he knew he couldn’t. He had to keep going. The convertible was only a little bit away, and the melted substance was spreading still, like liquid metal. It slid along the grass with a slight sizzle, scorching everything it touched. Ralph got up on his feet, still coughing, and started running shakily, wiping the blood from his eyes.
The wet squelches under his feet turned to soft crumbles as he stepped onto the gravel road. He opened the convertible’s door with a firm pull and climbed inside. The keys were already in the ignition, waiting to be turned by his shaking hand.
He looked back over to the field. The ‘trees’ were gone, as if they had never been there at all, and all that was left was the substance. Ralph heard it whispering indecipherable things in the distance, many voices all conglomerated into one. In the distance, he saw a figure walk out of the fire.
It was Emma. Except not quite.
Her body was now a slimy, wet husk, dripping and drooping as it crept towards Derek's body, its joints not quite in the right places anymore. Ralph saw it look up at him and smile, almost that same smile Ralph had cherished so many other times. The slime washed over Derek’s body, and Ralph stared in disbelief as it brought itself to its feet, sharing Derek’s stocky frame and towering height, but corrupted in a way Ralph never thought was possible. His two former friends joined hands together and stared at him from afar, walking backwards into the fire, still staring and smiling as their bodies turned to nothing, engulfed in the slime.
Ralph turned the keys in the ignition and floored it.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know. He’s covered in blood, but he seems mostly uninjured. Just a few scrapes and bruises from the crash.”
“I don’t smell any alcohol. Looks like a potential druggie to me.”
“Yeah, all I smell is gasoline. I mean, he was driving on a dirt road with no streetlights for crying out loud, he was doomed from the start.”
“And the blood?”
“Maybe he hit an animal or something. There’re a few wolves ‘round these parts. Them fuckers are bigger than you think up close.”
Ralph groaned, his brain full of fog.
“Can you hear me, son?”
The words echoed through his brain. He moaned and raised his hands to his face. Was it all just a dream?
“Try not to move too much. We’ll get you out of there.”
Ralph opened his eyes. He was upside-down, still in the convertible, hanging loosely by his seatbelt. The windscreen was smashed, and broken glass was scattered along the roof. Slowly, he felt his body being hoisted out of the car.
Stinging rays of sunlight dazzled his eyes. A dusty police car was parked on the other side of the road, its lights flashing. Ralph squinted up at the faces above. A moustached middle-aged man and a younger, less wrinkled officer were staring down at him.
“Can you hear me, boy?”
Ralph nodded slowly.
“Good. Then listen. Three teens around your age went missing last night in this area,” The older one began. “Two boys and a girl. We believe it’s linked to a recent forest fire. Know anything about that, son?”
The words were still incredibly hard to process. Ralph mumbled half a word, letting out a cough.
“We saw two of the missing people before, one of the boys and the girl, walking through one of the fields, but we lost them. You are Derek Woodley, yes? This looks to be your car, here.”
Ralph let out a confused grunt. The younger officer sighed, annoyed.
“Are you aware that you were issued a strict driving ban last week for risk of endangerment with this automobile?” He gestured to the totalled convertible.
“This is hopeless.” The younger officer butted in. “Starting fires now, are we, Derek? Roping others into your petty crimes? You knew you couldn’t drive this car, now look where that’s got you.” He sighed and scratched his head. “Goddammit. Kids your age shouldn’t still be doing this kind of shit.”
“Maybe it’s not his car. We should call an ambulance. He might be bleeding internally, or have brain damage or something fucked up like that.”
“Alright, fine. There’s pictures down at the station, anyway. We’ll know for sure when we get back.”
The older officer pulled a walkie-talkie off his belt and began speaking into it.
“Station, this is Unit 4, we have found one of the missing teens and are requesting ambulance support. We found one of the boys in a crashed car. Looks to be in a somewhat stable condition but may be suffering from less explicit injuries. Will report back to station to identify-
He stopped dead. The younger officer tensed up as the two men stared at something in Ralph’s peripheral vision. Slowly, he rotated himself to be able to see.
An identical-looking police car was parked directly behind the old one.
“Where the hell did that come from?”
Ralph tried to scream but his throat was too coarse. He could only watch as the older officer stuck his hand out towards the car, as Derek and Emma’s mutilated bodies walked out into the open from behind a circle of those cold, lifeless trees.
Written by Cornconic