01 Feb I went camping with my friends, and a stranger joined our group unnoticed
I was the first to notice an extra person had joined our group. I counted six of us sitting around the campfire, but I knew we had left home with five. The sixth person had joined us somewhere along the way, but where and when exactly I could not be sure.
All the glowing faces looked familiar, like I had known them all for a lifetime. That was why it took so long to find the man out of place.
I had to go through the faces one by one. I went through my history with them, recounting how I met them, how I knew them. I fit each one into my memories like puzzle pieces.
First, there was Mark. He was sitting next to Sarah, chatting her up as always. I met Mark and Sarah six years ago in the tenth grade. Mark and I played wide receiver together on the school football team. Sarah was a cheerleader, and Mark always had a thing for her. The three of us started hanging out after games, Mark flirting non-stop, and Sarah always hilariously rebuking him after a while.
Then there was Ben. We had been best friends since the first grade. Inseparable ever since we bumped heads playing tag during recess. He had his arm around his long-time girlfriend, Justine. She started at our school when she moved from Chicago in the seventh grade. Ben sat next to her in English, and soon she became a part of our group at the time. She was quiet and shy when she first arrived. But once we got to know her, she opened up. She was one of the coolest and nicest people you could ever get to meet. She had also become close with Sarah in the past few years.
And then there was the sixth face, the piece that did not fit. I stared at him, and his name escaped me. That is if I ever had it in my memory banks in the first place. He looked familiar, but I could not place him in my memories.
But why, if I recognized him, could I not remember his name? Why did he sit among us, acting as if he belonged? He stared at Mark and Sarah as they chatted. He laughed when they laughed, smiled when they smiled.
I couldn’t figure it out. The question burned in my head. How had he–a stranger–joined our little group without any of us noticing something amiss?
“Yo, Porter!” Ben pulled me from my thoughts. “Your head up in the clouds or something? I was just telling Justine about our fifth-grade teacher. What was his name again?”
“Mr. Smith,” I said.
“Oh yeah, Mr. Smith. I was telling Justine how you could rile that guy up like nobody else. Remember that time you handed in an assignment printed in yellow ink?”
Ben and Justine laughed.
“Yeah I remember,” I said.
“I can still see the steam coming out of his ears.”
They laughed again, and I joined in half-heartedly. When I glanced the strange man’s way, he was watching us, grinning. He was always watching, always on the periphery, never partaking. Part of the reason he had flown under the radar.
I was struck with the sense that he was studying us. My skin crawled.
Ben drained his beer and threw the empty can in the cooler. “Well, I gotta take a leak,” he said and walked into the woods, swallowed up by the dark.
“You really know how to push people’s buttons when you want to, huh?” Justine said.
I shrugged. I was having trouble focusing on the conversation. The weight of the situation, the reality of it, was starting to hit me.
A strange man had attached himself to our group unnoticed. And who the fuck knew what his motivations were? Questions raced through my mind. None I could answer.
How had no-one else noticed yet? Why had it taken me so long to notice? Was I going insane? Did I have amnesia and forget this one friend of ours? What in the hell was going on here?
The strange man stood with jerkiness. “I gotta take a leak,” he said. It was the first time I heard him talk. He spoke with an odd lisp. It sounded as if he had to force the words from his throat. He walked with an awkward gate, and like Ben, disappeared behind the dark veil of the trees.
No-one else flinched.
Justine kept talking. “I always loved the long relationship you and Ben have. It was so hard moving cities and leaving all my old friends behind. I mean, I can’t complain too much, I wouldn’t have met Ben and all you guys otherwise.”
“Justine, don’t you see what’s going on here?”
“You’re telling me you haven’t noticed?”
“Notice what, Porter? What are you talking about?”
“Who was that guy?” I gestured to the vacated spot the strange man left behind.
“Oh him, he’s uh. . .” she trailed off. She frowned into the fire. I could see her mind ticking over, and her eyes twinged with concern. I knew I wasn’t going crazy.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Who is it?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
We stared at each other.
“Maybe-” Justine was cut off.
An ear-piercing screech came from the woods. It sounded like a shrill, injured cat. A large cat. The sound split the air and cut our conversations short. A blanket of silence fell over the four of us, only the crackling campfire persisted. The woods were still and quiet.
“The fuck was that?” Mark broke the silence.
“I don’t know,” Sarah said. “I’ve never quite heard an animal like that before.”
“Sounded like some fucked up mountain lion,” Justine said. “You ever heard anything like that before, Porter?”
I shook my head. My fingers tingled with adrenaline. Ben was still in the woods, and the strange man was out there with him. Dread filled my gut.
“There’s no mountain lions out here,” Mark said. “It’s probably an elk. They can make some creepy sounds.”
Sarah agreed. Justine bit her lip and scanned the woods.
“It’s probably okay. I think Mark’s right,” I said to her. But I wasn’t sure I believed it.
Mark and Sarah had started up their conversation again when the strange man bumbled out of the woods. They paid him no mind. I was hoping something would have triggered in them by now, but they were oblivious.
The strange man took a beer from the cooler. He fumbled with it, struggling with the tab. It was as is if had never opened a can before. When he finally had it open, he sat, beer in hand, and continued to watch Mark and Sarah, a thin smile on his face. He never did take a sip.
I watched him from across the campfire, his head wavering behind the heat. I touched on what made me uneasy about this strange man, aside from the fact he had managed to infiltrate our group without any of us noticing for a long time.
He moved with jerkiness and awkwardness, like a newborn animal. Nothing he did was smooth or well-practiced. It made everything he did look like an act, an imitation. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but I should have seen this man was not quite human.
But at the moment I wasn’t sure what to think. I guess I just thought he was a freak. I considered calling him out, then and there. I wanted to ask him just what the fuck he was doing. But I’ll admit I was scared. I had visions of this guy being some horrific serial killer, and I didn’t know how dangerous he was, or if he was armed. I didn’t want to push him into doing something drastic that got us all killed.
As time went by without any sign of Ben, I became convinced the strange man had done something to him. I watched him plotting, planning, and marking his next target. Anger sprouted from my fear, and I started to see red.
I needed to stop him.
We used an axe to chop firewood for our campfire, and it was leaning against my seat. This man was dangerous. I was sure of it. I convinced myself I needed to do something before another one of us was next.
I clutched at the axe’s handle. The smooth wood felt reassuring in my hand.
Justine touched my arm.
“Porter, where’s Ben? I’m getting nervous.”
“It’s okay,” I lied, patting her hand. “I’m sure everything is okay.”
I stood with axe in hand. “I’m going to get some more firewood,” I announced more awkwardly than I hoped.
“Uh, okay dude,” Mark said.
“Porter?” Justine’s voice wavered.
Speaking up was a mistake. I had drawn the attention of the strange man. I walked passed him, trying to act as nonchalant as possible, but I was never a good actor.
He watched me the whole way. He maintained his glare as I reached the perimeter of the woods, and as he looked back, his head rotated around an unnatural distance. That was enough to chill my spine.
I was hoping he would turn around, to look away and give me an opening. But he never did. I’m not exactly sure what happened next. I never saw him stand up and walk over to me. I never even saw him move a single muscle. But in an instant, he was standing in front of me, inches away from my face.
It was as if he teleported.
A metallic smell stung my nose. The strange man stunk of blood and copper. The axe trembled in my hand. Any thought of actually using it fled my mind. I locked into place, my skin covered in goosebumps. Power radiated off him. He spoke to me.
“Get some firewood,” he said in his forced tone, and he smiled wide. At that moment, Ben emerged from the woods.
“Ben!” Justine cried.
“Jesus,” Ben said as Justine squeezed him. “Did you guys hear that cat thing?”
“We think it was an elk,” Mark said.
“Where were you? Why did you take so long?” Justine asked.
“I guess I wandered too far off and I lost sight of the campfire. Took me a bit to find my way back. For a second I thought I was going to have to freeze my ass off out there alone tonight.”
The relief washed over my body like a wave, crashing into my muscles. I felt each one relax. At least Ben was safe.
I looked for the strange man, but he was gone. He somehow slinked away while I was distracted. He was good at going undetected when he wanted to. My thoughts turned to getting out of there. Even though Ben was unharmed, that guy was still trouble. I started back towards the group and caught the middle of their conversation.
“I don’t know actually. Yeah, who was that guy?” Ben said.
“I thought he was with you guys,” Sarah said.
“Yeah isn’t he your friend?” Mark added. “I thought he drove over with you three.”
“No,” Ben said. “I don’t know who he is.”
The panic spread over everyone’s faces. They were finally feeling what I was feeling. The realization had set in.
“We need to get out of here,” I said. “Before he comes back.”
“Yes please,” Justine said. “We have to leave now. That guy was a freak. Right, Porter?”
“Yeah,” I said. I explained to them how I noticed he was the odd man out when we were sitting around the fire. I explained the odd behavior, and they all agreed the guy was strange and possibly dangerous. None of us could pinpoint exactly when he had joined the group. He had slipped in unnoticed and unaccounted for, it was uncanny.
We packed our tents in record time. We trekked the fifteen minutes to our cars through dark woods, flashlights in hand. We heard the screech of the elk again–if it was an elk, which I have my doubts about now–and we took some comfort from the fact it sounded farther away. Even so, we picked up our pace for the final stretch of the walk.
I felt like I could finally relax behind the wheel and locked doors of my SUV. Justine and Ben sat in the back, while Mark and Sarah followed behind in Mark’s beaten up Ford Laser.
We were heading out of the woodland and were planning to shack up in a motel for the night, before heading home in the morning.
I thought we were free and clear.
We wound our way around the dark roads that snaked through woods. I let a smile open up my face when we finally reached the exit road. It was an arrow-straight stretch of asphalt that split through the last few miles of woodland.
I pressed on the accelerator.
I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there, and I think Mark was feeling the same way, because he sat close on my rear bumper. I remember thinking, at least we’ll have a strange tale to tell after all this. I didn’t think it was about to turn into a horror story.
The trees and the dashed lines on the road blurred past us. My headlights reached out for the seemingly endless road, and my speedometer needled its way towards 100mph. I don’t know what possessed me to go that fast, and I wish Mark didn’t follow my lead. It was a mistake.
The strange man appeared from behind a tree. He walked into the middle of my lane.
I slammed the brakes. It was too late.
The next sequence of events happened so fast it plays like a slideshow in my mind.
The tires screeched, and there was a smell of burning rubber. The strange man folded over my bonnet and got sent flying down the road. He skated across the pavement on his back, moving with such speed it looked as if he was gliding on ice.
More tire screeching.
Mark flew past in the opposite lane, fishtailing. He fought it, and for a moment I thought he had it saved. But the car hooked right, into the trees.
The sickening sound of crunching metal reverberated in the air. Mark’s car slammed into a tree, driver side first, sending fragments of glass and metal flying. The car bounded off one tree and into another. The front passenger side impacted this time. The front light exploded, and the passenger side cavity caved in, sending a wheel bounding into the woods.
The crumpled heap of a car came to a rest.
Justine was the first out the door, crying out Sarah’s name. Ben went after her, and I followed after him.
Everything felt surreal as shock coursed through my body. It was as if I was watching through a screen. I floated over the asphalt as Justine and Ben sprinted towards the steaming wreckage. The crash scene dimly lit by my SUV’s one remaining headlight.
There are two screams I’ll never forget. They imprinted themselves on my brain, and I’ll hear their echoes at night forever. If I happen to get Alzheimer’s later in life, I know the last thing to go will be these screams.
The first one I heard when I was thirteen. It came from my mother. It flooded the house, splashing off the walls. I ran out of my room to see her crumpled at the front door, with two police officers standing by. They had notified her that her eldest son (my brother) had died.
The second came from Justine when she saw what was waiting for us in that Ford Laser.
Mark was unrecognizable. He was a shattered mess of bone, skin, and blood, melded and intertwined with the crumpled steel.
Sarah was blinking slowly, her breathing labored. Her one arm shattered, broken in too many places to count. Her legs crushed at knees from the front of the car, which crumpled back into her leg space. Her legs would have been flat, if I could see them.
Justine turned away and fell to her knees, face buried in her hands, shoulders heaving. Ben tried to comfort her, but he had to turn away and throw up off the side of the road.
I pulled out my phone and struggled to dial 9-1-1. With my fingers shaking, I kept pressing the wrong numbers.
My voice was small and distant as I explained what happened to the operator. She told me to stay on the line, but as I looked down the road, I dropped my phone.
The strange man was standing there.
His grin reached from ear to ear, showing a grandstand of teeth. His shoulders shrugged up and down as if he was laughing.
In fact, the fucker was laughing.
If I were not in shock, I would have gone after him right then and there. I would have torn his heart–if he has one–right from its chest. But all I could do was stare, mouth agape, struggling to keep the tears behind my eyes.
The strange man started for the woods. I watched him go, and I watched him change. I saw it. I know I did. This was no illusion. No trick of the mind. This was real.
I saw him shapeshift.
I saw its true form.
We were not dealing with something human that night. After countless hours of research, I believe I saw what others have called The Goatman.
Its horns stuck out unevenly from its head. Its grinning snout bared rows of sharp teeth. And walking upright, like a man with an awkward gait, it vanished into the shrouded woods.
It has been eight months since that night. I’ve only seen my friends a handful of times since then. Our relationships have shattered and are left in ruin. All we are now to each other is a stark reminder of that night.
Mark is dead. Sarah survived, but as a triple amputee. Justine and Ben broke up. And here I am, rugged with a scraggly beard and uncut hair after spending every sleepless night researching the monstrosity I saw that night–The Goatman.
I’m going back to those woods.
So help me God, I’m going back. I’m coming for The Goatman.
And I’m not stopping until one of us is dead.