It Grows Again
“You guys know that this is around where they filmed The Blair Witch Project, right?”
Collin knew that fact all too well. It was the talk of all his friends when his Boy Scout troop announced they’d be camping in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland.
“You better be careful tonight! If you wander too far into the woods, she might getcha!” Jared continued on. For a patrol leader, he wasn’t the best at inspiring hope in his peers. Or, at least, he wasn’t doing any favors for Collin.
“You look a little pale over there, Collin. You scared?”
Collin, of course, was mortified. He tried everything he could to put the Blair Witch fact out of his mind, but here was Jared, going on about it. He was 15 and shouldn’t be this scared, but you try suppressing your natural anxiety.
“It’s ok, Collin,” Jared said with a small amount of mockery in his voice. “We’re just here for one night. After that, you can go home and cry to your mommy.”
That instantly killed whatever mood there was for the scouts around the campfire. The fire popped and hissed with indifference, but the rest of the scouts knew Jared had said exactly the wrong thing.
Collin, to his credit, kept silent. But that was because he desperately wanted the ground to open up and swallow him. If he spoke or even tried to breathe normally, he thought he might pass out.
Jared knew it, too. The instant remorse in his face was as close to an apology as Collin would get out of him. But he’ll take it.
Scoutmaster Yoast cleared his throat. “Well, scouts, it’s about lights out time,” he told them. It was getting late, true … but it was also getting too awkward. Better to defuse the situation. “Let’s all get to our tents. We’ve got a big day tomorrow to work toward that Totin’ Chip badge.”
Collin, David and Jake headed back toward their tent at the edge of the campsite. They were part of the Falcon patrol, which had most of the older boys in the troop, so naturally, they got first dibs on where they set up their patrol campsite.
And they had their reasons for wanting to be a little removed from the rest of the troop. As soon as they zipped the tent door closed, Jake carefully unloaded the secret stash from his backpack while David pulled out the contraband Discman player. The scoutmasters harped that electronics were a no-no when communing with nature, but they had some music to catch up on, dammit.
Jake was the son of a doctor, so he was one of the few boys in the troop who had high-speed internet AND a computer with a CD burner. That made him the troop’s dealer of hard-to-obtain-because-of-age-restrictions music. Need some of that sweet Marilyn Manson stuff? Jake’s your man. You got any of that Korn strain? No need to ask twice, Jake’s got you covered.
Jake’s latest score for David was The Eminem Show. He handed the MP3 disc to David, who put on the headphones and let Marshall invade his earspace. Collin, being the naturally paranoid one, was tasked with making sure they didn’t get caught.
“Ah man, this first track is TIGHT, dawg!” David whispered excitedly. Jake nodded with pride; another satisfied customer.
Collin listened to the muffled music from his friend’s earphones, but there was another sound that suddenly caught his attention. He waved his hands up and down excitedly, signaling to the other guys that it was time to hide the contraband and feign sleep. They hurriedly (but quietly) sneaked the Discman and CDs under their pillows as they heard one of the scoutmaster’s footsteps steadily crunch along as he walked through the campsite to make sure the troops were being quiet, if nothing else.
The footsteps stopped right in front of their tent, paused for a couple of seconds, then continued the last patrol before sleep.
The three of them waited until the footsteps faded, then resumed the CD sampling. The volume was as loud as they possibly dared, but it was enough for all three to get a taste.
The night continued as they told the latest dirty jokes they heard (“How do you circumcise a redneck?”), talked about their crushes and how they’d attempt to make out (David, being the most “experienced,” acted as the sage advice giver), and listened to Jake talk about the latest R-rated movie he downloaded (Scary Movie). Eventually—maybe around 1am—they gave in to sleep.
It was Andrew’s 15th birthday party, and of course, that called for an overnight Halo LAN party. Collin was excited to go, but a little hesitant seeing as how his mom just got back home. But she seemed good. She wanted him to go.
Six Mountain Dews and countless pizza rolls later, Collin was totally kicking his friends’ asses in Halo. He was completely lost in the moment. He didn’t notice the repeated missed calls on his phone that was given to him for this very reason. The night was perfect … until Andrew’s parents and Collin’s dad burst into the room. “Get in the car, now!” was all Collin’s dad said to him.
The rest of the night was a blur. Collin watched his body walk into his mom’s bedroom more than he actually did the act himself. His aunt and uncles were all there. His sister was crying, his mother looked up peacefully at him. All those years of treatment and chemo and bone marrow transplants—she had done everything to kill what was killing her from the inside—but she never once seemed defeated by it.
“Well, Collin, I’m a little disappointed you don’t have a dandelion this time,” she said weakly.
This was a joke of theirs since Collin was five years old. He wanted to give his mom a flower to show some love, but his naïve kid brain didn’t know that dandelion flowers were actually weeds. His mom laughed and appreciated the gesture of his love anyway. Since then, he always had a small handful of dandelions ready for his mom when she got back home from the cancer treatment center.
Collin doesn’t remember anything he said to her that night — just that smell. That smell that was the best attempt from the doctors to cover up the stench of oncoming death. How could he get that smell out of his brain?
Especially since he could smell it right now.
He woke up with a start. It wasn’t his imagination; he breathed in it, gagging on its potency. The wind was blowing up a storm all around him, carrying that familiar stench. When the wind slowed down enough that he couldn’t hear the trees sighing anymore, he heard the footsteps.
It wasn’t the slow, gradual march of a scoutmaster on patrol. They were inconsistent, jerky, almost like someone was walking for the first time. And they were making their way toward his tent.
He nudged David and Jake. “Do you guys hear that? Someone is walking around out there.”
They both groggily waved him off, but he nudged them harder. “Fine … fine …” mumbled Jake. “I don’t hear anything man, that’s just the tree—” Jake paused when he heard a leafy THUD near the tent.
“What the f—” Collin covered Jake’s mouth as they all stared at the tent door, trying desperately not to imagine what was outside and failing miserably at it. The footsteps got closer until they stopped right outside the tent. It might have been three minutes, it might have been three hours, but finally, they heard the footsteps jerkily thump off toward the woods.
“Do you guys think that was …” David started before Jake shook his head as if trying to convince himself that he didn’t believe the same thing. “There’s no way,” he whispered.
Collin hoped he was right. It was just a movie a couple of college kids made. It wasn’t real.
Nothing else happened. Collin was amazed at the ease with which David and Jake were able to go back to sleep. It was around 3am and Collin was wide awake, scared shitless.
Worse, he had to pee SO BAD. But how could he go out there when … something … was walking around the campsite?
Eventually, the call of nature won over survival instinct.
Collin walked a few paces away behind the tent toward the woods, pulled down his pajama pants a bit, and started to piss. Right as the wind kicked back up.
“Shit, shit, shit!” Collin was getting a shower of his own making from the sudden gust of wind.
After he got a moment to finish, he turned back toward his tent when the wind kicked back up again … and again, he could smell that smell. He picked up his pace a little to get back to the tent, and then he heard the footsteps, right behind him.
He instinctively turned and holyshitIwould’vepissedmypantsjustnow.
The figure in front of him was not human. It was human-shaped with arms and legs and a torso and head, but the stinking mass was covered with roiling tumors and sticks and leaves and … dandelions.
The eye sockets of the thing stared straight into him. He was mortified, but he couldn’t run. Get out, get out of here now! Start yelling! Throw something at it! his mind screamed at him, but he was transfixed. There was something too familiar about this shape in front of him.
It walked closer to him, and he knew.
It was some weird, unholy form of her. But it was her.
Had she come to tell him everything was OK? To forgive him for not being there? For going and having fun and causing her to die?
It walked up to him, and as badly as his mind was telling him to run, his body was frozen.
It reached up a tumorous arm and placed its hand on his cheek. The other hand plucked a dandelion off its body and slowly handed it to him. Mesmerized, he took the flower.
I’m so sorry, he thought. I didn’t want to go. You told me to go! How was I supposed to know?
The eye-sockets kept staring at him. Was that pity on its face?
The free hand—the one that had picked the dandelion—gently grasped his hand as if to comfort him. He couldn’t fight back the tears forming in his eyes.
Come. Come with me. It sounded like his mom’s voice, but he didn’t see the mouth move. The voice formed in his mind. Come with me, Collin. I forgive you. I promise you’ll be alright where we’re going.
As if in a trance, Collin felt like the only option was to obey. The body turned with its hand still on his and started to lead him away from the camp. It will be OK.
No! No! It won’t! his common sense was screaming at him. Get out of this! But how could he betray his mom?
It’s not your mom.
He stopped walking. The body stopped and turned back to look at him. Come, he heard it in his mind again. It sounded like her … but it wasn’t quite right. And he knew it. Deep down, he knew it.
And he knew something else, too. Something he couldn’t admit to himself until right now. It felt good to hold on to it, as if it gave him some sense of control over the situation that took his mother. But he knew better than that.
“No,” he said out loud.
The grip on his hand tightened, no longer comforting. Come. The voice was harsher this time. He tried to pull his hand out, but the grip became ironclad. Pain shot up his arm.
“No, no, this is wrong,” he was saying. The thing’s body was immovable, but he could feel wrath starting to radiate off it. It was a wonder it hadn’t shattered his hand into a million pieces. That was when he decided to admit it.
“It’s not my fault,” he said. “It’s not my fault that you’re dead. I had nothing to do with it.”
The hurricane blast from the wind was so sudden. The creature angrily looked and Collin and reached out the other hand toward his throat. “IT’S NOT MY FAULT!” he cried over the maelstrom.
The creature’s jaw collapsed as it released a deafening scream. The wind swirled around Collin, and just as the dark edges around his vision began to close, the body dissipated into the wind. But the scream remained long after the body was gone. It stayed until the wind died down, and Collin was utterly alone.
He collapsed on his knees and wept bitterly. But there was also relief. He could finally let go. It was not his fault.
The next morning, after the wood cutting activities, the scouts tore down camp and started to load up into the van to head back home.
“That must’ve been a hell of a piss you had last night,” David told Collin as they rolled up the tent and put it in the bag.
“Yeah, I don’t know, just had a lot on my mind and wandered a bit, I guess,” Collin mumbled. David and Jake shared a look, but that was all.
As they brought their equipment to the van, Scoutmaster Yoast called out, “Alright, guys, let’s get a move on! And Collin! I don’t know what you’re planning, but I don’t need all those dandelions all over your backpack in my car. That’s just weird.”