#horror #sci-fi #fiction #shortstory
Courtney knew that something was strange the moment they took Exit 223 and pulled into the small town. After putting in six hundred miles, she and Isaac were ready to set up camp, and neither had any desire to put a tent up in the dark. They were five days into what Isaac called a “working vacation”. Courtney was looking forward to seeing more of the country, even though both were working on a research project. Drive eight hours, work eight hours, sleep six, which leaves two hours every day to see whatever there was to see.
At this particular exit, somewhere in West Virginia, she didn’t like what she saw. At first, it was difficult to ascertain… just a feeling. The big chain gas station immediately off the exit appeared to be normal. There was a sign advising that the campground was to the right. She glanced at Isaac. She wasn’t sure what she wanted from him – either a confirmation that things weren’t right – or for him to be in normal spirits, categorizing her strange feelings as an illusion. He looked back at her without speaking, but she knew from the look that he sensed something wrong as well.
As they took a right towards their destination, they saw a sheriff cleaning out his cruiser at the pay-per-vacuum in front of a run down car wash. The man stood up and watched them closely. They passed, trying not to look. Fifteen seconds, then twenty, Courtney couldn’t stop herself. She glanced back to see if the sheriff was still looking. He hadn’t moved, his eyes were just following them, presumably until they were out of sight. Creepy.
The houses on the route to the campground were a mixture of very wealthy and very poor. Crazy town, she thought. Unpainted wood houses with rusty tin roofs and unkempt yards were nestled in between what had to be million-dollar houses. In a way, she thought, that’s a really good statement about the social structure of the town, possibly even worth a little bit of research. The peculiar nature of this neighborhood, however, only added to her feelings of discomfort. Tension washed over the two as all along the road they saw people peeking through curtains, closing shades, hollering at their children to come inside. Courtney had never felt so conspicuous in her life.
The scene didn’t change much over the next half hour, more houses, more people looking at the strangers driving through their town. Isaac said that they had driven too far, and must have missed the turn to the campground. “I can’t believe that they would put a sign at the exit, and then not put up any more signs. That’s just bad business. Like they don’t want my money,” he said. They were the first words spoken since they pulled off the interstate. Courtney felt as if they sounded surreal, hearing such a normal statement in such an odd situation; like finding out the world was going to end tonight, and then someone asking you to pass the butter.
As the scenery changed from houses to swampy woodland, Isaac pulled over and put his hazard lights on. He reached into the back seat to grab the atlas, and Courtney glanced at the wood line across the street. There was an old sign, sloppily hand painted in red stating BEWARE OF WOODS. Not ready to break the silence herself, she just tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the sign. For nearly a solid minute, they both stared. They looked at each other.
“I’ll take the map, if you just drive,” Courtney said.
Isaac pulled back onto the road and turned his flashers off, heading in the same direction. Since neither was too keen on turning their vehicle around near the edge of the woods, they looked for a wide space where they could do so safely. Ahead in the distance, they saw a traffic light. Guessing that there would be a good place to redirect their car, they continued forward. As they approached the intersection, a very large and very modern reflective glass building made its appearance.
“The Wysan Institute of Science and Technology,” Courtney read aloud.
“Ever heard of it?” Isaac asked.
“Wanna check it out?” he smiled.
“Neither do I.”
He turned right, opposite the Institute, and into a motel parking lot. In contrast to the school, the motel looked old and worn out. A few scattered cars were parked in front of rooms, but the lack of activity nearby gave the impression that those cars hadn’t moved in months, if not longer.
“Oh great, the Bates motel across the street from the mad scientists hard at work creating the next zombie virus,” Courtney said.
“This whole situation since we got off the highway does seem to scream out ‘scary movie’,” Isaac agreed.
“Are you sure you want to camp near this town?”
Isaac thought for a moment, and said “We’ve been driving all day, and I’m ready to do some work, then sleep. And we’re in the middle of nowhere already. Who’s to say that we don’t get the same impression of the next town, and the next?”
“There is not a doubt in my mind that something really weird is going here, in this whole town. I don’t think the next place we stop will be anything like this.”
Pulling out of the motel parking lot and heading back the way they came, both were lost in their own thoughts. The silence in the car did nothing to alleviate the discomfort they were both feeling. Hoping to lighten the situation and somehow cut the tension, Isaac said, “Did you hear the one about the…”
“You have never, ever told me a joke that I haven’t heard before,” Courtney interrupted.
“I saw a diner in town when we pulled in, maybe we will cool down a little after actually talking to some people. Socializing with locals usually feels pretty good, and once we see that they are normal people, they strangeness may fade,” Isaac said, acknowledging their mutual growing anxiety. She was preparing to respond, when they heard a siren. She turned around and looked out the back window as Isaac glanced in the rearview mirror. The sheriff from earlier was pulling them over.
“That’s just about right,” Isaac said. She grinned, feeling closer to him than ever. His dry sarcasm was comforting in its familiarity, but also because it pointedly revealed that his assessment of the situation was akin to her own.
Isaac put on his hazard lights, and began to slow down. Courtney nervously considered the handgun that he carried under his seat every time they traveled together. He was licensed in Pennsylvania, but never bothered to research to see which states honored that license. She didn’t think it would make a difference, anyhow. Isaac would never go through the effort to get licensed in every state, and he would carry his gun with him everywhere, whether legal or not. She hoped that this wouldn’t become an issue today, but she was also somewhat comforted to have the protection of both her partner and his gun.
Isaac rolled down his window to receive the sheriff as he approached.
“Hello folks. How are you this evening?” the lawman asked. He had a brass nametag on his uniform that informed everyone that his name was Johnny.
Officer Johnny? Courtney wondered. First name or last. She never heard that as a last name before.
“Just looking for a place to spend the night,” Isaac offered, not exactly answering the man’s question.
“I had a feeling you might be lost. I was cleaning my car and saw you drive by. When I saw you coming back this way, I thought I’d stop you to see if I could help. Hope I didn’t scare you.”
Courtney felt somewhat relieved at this statement, and there was something soothing about the man’s North Carolina, or possibly even Georgia southern accent. He was definitely not a West Virginia native, so not native to the town. That was comforting, although the thought didn’t escape her that this man may be intentionally putting them off their guard. Am I that paranoid? she thought to herself.
“You didn’t scare us at all. You were right, though we’re not exactly lost. KOA had a billboard on the interstate for a campground, but we can’t find it,” Isaac said.
“Ahh… I can answer that mystery for you. Nobody ever camped there, so the Wysan Institute took it over, and built its facilities on the land. The campground is still back behind the building, and they keep it up. It’s available for use, though it still doesn’t get many visitors. Some of the locals camped there right after Wysan took it over, just for the novelty of it. But that business dried up some time ago. You can go check them out though, I’m sure they’d be happy to have some visitors. I can take you over there if you’d like, show you around.”
“Well, thank you,” Isaac said, “but we’re going to hit the diner first and grab something to eat.”
“You may want to hurry that up a little bit. Nobody likes to set up their tent in the dark,” the sheriff said.
“I appreciate your consideration, but we’re pretty handy at this camping stuff. We’ve set up in the dark hundreds of times.”
As Isaac said this, Courtney thought she saw a look of disappointment wash over the lawman’s face. Odd, she thought, that he was going out of his way to help them, and seemed almost let down that they weren’t accepting his help.
“Well folks, you have a nice night. I’ll be driving my cruiser up and down this road for a few more hours, so if you need me for anything, just flash your lights or flag me down, and I’ll help you however I can.”
“Thanks again,” Isaac said, “we will keep that in mind. Have a great night and um… thanks for pulling us over.” The sheriff chuckled at this, tipped his hat, and made his way to the cruiser.
“Nice guy,” Courtney said as they pulled back onto the road. “He seemed unusually helpful.”
Agreeing with her, Isaac said, “And unusually interested in getting us to stay in this campground, and getting us there sooner rather than later.”
“Can we please just leave, Isaac?” she asked him. She already knew the answer to this. Isaac, was always the investigator, always the skeptic, always the man that just had to know the answer. This is the reason that he was so good at his job. This is the reason that their boss had paired them up, against her wishes.
“You have the know how – the understanding. Isaac has the motivation. I believe that the two of you will be the most productive team we have ever put together,” he had said. Courtney hadn’t wanted to be paired up with an attractive, motivated man. She knew that a long time on the road could do things to people, make them a couple. She knew that camping and living together, things would happen. And they had. And she wasn’t unhappy about that, but the forced relationship tainted her feelings, and the whole situation seemed too “likely” to happen. She wanted a love story, and what she was getting was more like an arranged marriage. And now, instead of taking control of the situation and just telling Isaac to get them the hell out of this town, well now she just felt disappointed in herself that she was pleading with him.
“We may have to get out,” Isaac said, bringing her back out of her thoughts. “But we can’t leave until we’ve figured out if something is really going on. At first, I was spooked and ready to go, too. But a couple of weird things happening that aren’t really that weird, that’s just not enough of a pattern to make us run away. Every town seems strange at first, and we’ve got to camp somewhere, or stay at some hotel, and if we leave now and succumb to these irrational fears, next time they’ll be amplified and we’ll start running sooner and sooner, until all we’ll ever want to do is go home or stay in big cities. And we can’t do that. Not with this job.”
Courtney was pissed at herself. Half of her wanted to overcome this cowardice, force some bravery onto herself, steel her nerves, and get on with things. The other half wanted to run, run, RUN! away from what seemed like inevitable disaster. These halves being truly equal, she couldn’t stop the war in her mind. It was easier to just let Isaac decide how to handle the situation. Easier just to trust him, and this thought also pissed her off.
“Whatever. You’re driving,” She said.
“Hey! Don’t act like that. Don’t be mad. I’m feeling weird about this too, but right now it’s just a feeling. And we can’t irrationally act on those with nothing to back it up. Dammit, we’re scientists.”
“You’re right,” Courtney agreed. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to be sorry. Just keep in mind that if strange shit keeps happening, I’ll be the first to say let’s get out of here.” Isaac put his arm around her, pulled her into him and gently kissed the top of her head. “Hey – I love you. I am not going to let anything happen to you.”
These words were exactly what she wanted to hear. They comforted her. And pissed her off. She didn’t need the protection, and she hated that she wanted it. There were just too many battles going on in her head right now. Maybe she needed to see a therapist.
The diner looked like a scene straight out of movie. Which movie was yet to be determined, Courtney thought. They walked through the door, and the squeal from the rusty hinges was loud enough to turn every head in their direction, if only for a moment. She felt as if she was the new kid in third grade interrupting the middle of class. She fought back the embarrassment, willing her face against turning red. She saw the sign that said, “Please Wait to be Seated” and was exceptionally relieved. It is so much easier when you’re in strange situation to be led by the locals instead of trying to decide where you’re going to sit. She secretly feared that there was going to be a “Please seat yourself” sign.
“You folks can go ahead and seat yourselves,” a server said as she walked by them.
Of course, Courtney thought. Isaac took the lead, and made a beeline for the closest open booth, walking by the least amount of people. It was as if he sensed her discomfort with this situation as well. The waitress handed them menus and they ordered drinks. “Are you folks camping in town tonight?”
“I think so,” Isaac said. “We haven’t decided.”
“I’m sure they’d be happy to have some visitors. They don’t get too many people staying over there, and they keep the grounds up so well. It’s lovely in the day. If you go, tell them I sent you.”
“And you are?” Isaac asked.
“Patti. Just say Patti from the diner. This is a small town, they’ll know who I am.”
“Thanks, Patti,” Isaac said. Courtney could tell he was curious about the phrase ‘sure they’d be happy to have some visitors’ – the sheriff said something similar. “So do I get some kind of discount, if I mention your name or something?” Alex asked the waitress.
The question seemed to throw her off track for a second; she seemed confused, like she didn’t know how to respond. “No, but I do,” she said through a forced smile. “I’ll be back with your drinks in a jiffy.”
Courtney pondered this curious transaction as she scanned the patrons as inconspicuously as she could. Her eyes landed on a young man in the farthest corner of the diner. She didn’t mean to make eye contact, but he was starting at her. He looked down as soon as he saw here. The man was decorated with metal in his ears, nose, and eyebrows, and was wearing a blue t-shirt that said: I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING AND YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF. She may have chuckled had the circumstances been different. He looked up, and looked back down yet again.
Patti came back with their drinks and took their order. Isaac asked her about the Wysan Institute. “Oh, all that science stuff is beyond me. I don’t know what they do there at all, but I know that they came in and helped this town. We were dying. The town, I mean. People were moving away, we were not bringing any money in. Wysan came in and saved us.”
“How did they save you?” Courtney asked.
“They just help us all out. And that’s all I’ll say about that for now. Your supper will be ready in just a little bit.”
“Thanks,” Courtney said cautiously. After the waitress departed, she turned to Isaac. “They help them out. And that’s all she’ll say about that for now.”
“I heard,” Isaac said. “It’s curious, Courtney, but it is not proof of anything.”
“Yeah, I know, just creepy. Maybe that’s all we need. I’m ready to go.”
“When we’re done eating, lets just go check out the campground. We’ve gotta know.”
“We don’t have to know,” Courtney replied.
They finished eating in near silence, contemplating their situation, both analyzing their own thoughts to see if it actually was a “situation” or if it was just in their heads. Everything was a little too ambiguous to piece together any solid proof that they weren’t just imagining things.
As they left the diner, they saw the young man standing outside the door, apparently waiting for them. “You guys staying at the camp?” he asked.
“Maybe. Why?” Isaac asked.
“Be really careful, just…be really careful.”
“Tell my why,” Isaac said.
The young man stood considering for a moment. He opened his mouth to speak, when the diner door squeaked open. Patti stood in the doorway with hands on hips, staring at the man. He looked at Patti then looked back at Courtney and Isaac. “I’m sure the campground would be happy to have some visitors,” he said as he went back inside.
“You folks have a great night. And thank you for the generous tip,” Patti said as she followed the man back into the diner. Courtney wondered if this was sarcasm. They left almost exactly twenty percent – so it could have gone either way.
Back in the car, Courtney asked if the encounter with the man outside the diner was warning enough about the campground. “Not a warning so much as it’s making me very curious to check out what may or may not be going on there,” Isaac replied.
A stop at the campground now being inevitable, Courtney opened the browser on her phone to look up the science institute. Why would they buy a campground? What do they do? Why do people seem so interested in visitors staying there? What was going on? These questions wouldn’t be answered, at least not tonight. There was no cell signal at all. She couldn’t even make a call, let alone trying to access a search engine or her academic databases.
“No cell signal,” she said. “You don’t seem to be reading these events the same way I am reading them, or you’d be hightailing it out of this town.”
“Courtney, I am reading them exactly the way you are reading them, which is why we can’t leave yet. I feel like I’ll know when it’s time to leave.”
“Like hell you will. It was time to leave an hour ago.”
“Maybe so. I understand that you are scared. But we can’t leave this uninvestigated. Not with our job. Just imagine if something is going on. We have to know. I promise you this – we will not stay the night. We won’t set up a tent. We’ll be leaving in just a little while, but we can’t go until we’ve had a look at the campground. We’ll check in, take a look around, and then be on our way.”
This made her feel a little bit better, though they could still somehow get trapped in the campground. But just having a plan relieved some of her fears. Driving once again towards the Wysan Institute, they passed the sheriff’s car. Officer Johnny was sitting with the dome light on, and waved as they drove by him. She waved back, hoping only to seem friendly, and not like she was trying to wave him down. He did not pull out, and follow, and they finished the drive to the campground without any other local attention – at least, no attention that they noticed. Pulling up the long drive, a sign told them:
CAMPERS – PLEASE REGISTER IN OFFICE
OPEN 24 HOURS
As they walked into the office, Courtney pictured in her head what the registration process might look like. How long are you staying? What’s your blood type? Do you have a history of diabetes in your family? But the man at the desk just took their driver’s license, and cars license plate. Isaac asked what the camping fee was.
“No charge – this is a community camping site,” the man said. “Just one of the benefits that Wysan provides to the communities where we operate.” Courtney wondered why their waitress told them she got a discount if there was no charge to camp.
“What do you guys do?” Isaac asked.
“Mostly study in social phenomena right now, with an interest in using technology as a way to enhance the social structure of a community. There’s a lot to it, we give tours of the facility on weekdays, if you folks are planning on being here during the day, we can show you around.”
“We just might take you up on that,” Isaac said.
“Okay. Well we have you set up in Section A of the campground,” the man said as he handed them a map. “I entered spot A6 into the computer, but seeing as you are the only visitors we have tonight, feel free to camp in any of the spots in section one. Just take a left at the first fork you come to, follow the road, and you can’t miss the campsites. If you need anything during the night, just drive over and come on in. Ring the bell, I may be sleeping. I just need to ask you to stay out of Section B on the map. We had some seriously messy campers last week. We have a clean up procedure scheduled for the morning.”
Curious phrasing for a cleanup. “Stay out of Section B. You got it,” Isaac said. Back in the car, they headed towards their temporary destination. Courtney looked back at the building they had just left as Isaac drove forward. She could see some lights on in the building through the windows, and in one window, it appeared that three figures were inside watching her and her partner as they traveled towards the campsite. Unnerved, but knowing that we would be leaving soon, she pointed out their silent watchers. Isaac put his finger to his lips, warning her to be silent for the time being.
One campsite being as good as any, when they saw the marking for A6, Isaac parked the car. The site was better than primitive, but not much. A water pump and picnic table at each station, and a portable bathroom in center of a circle of campsites were the only amenities they were able to see. There was a stack of chopped wood with a sign that said FOR OUR GUESTS. As Isaac got out of the car, he pulled his gun out from under the seat and quickly shoved it in his laptop case. He led her away from the car. Once they were over near the picnic table, he quietly said, “You may just be making me paranoid, but I think they put something in our car. I thought we should keep quiet, because it may be some kind of listening device. As we were leaving the building, I think I saw the dome light go out.”
“Why would they need to do that?” she asked.
“Not sure. What I do know is that we’re about to lose our tent.”
“We’re going to set it up, then drive over to their mysteriously messy Section B, check it out, and then get the hell outta dodge,” Isaac said.
“Sounds like a good plan, except for everything you said before ‘get the hell outta Dodge,” Courtney replied.
“I have some suspicions and I have to find out more before we get out of here,” he said.
Their experience camping allowed them to set the tent up in just a couple of minutes. Isaac undid his belt and ran it through the gun holster, untucked his shirt, hiding the weapon. They hopped back into the car. “Moment of truth,” Courtney said as she closed the door. Acting as casually as they could, they drove the car over to the other half of the campground. After a drive through the Section B campsites, they saw nothing out of the ordinary. Climbing back out of the car to look around, Courtney spotted a broken syringe lying near the remains of a campfire. Drug users, or was this more sinister? Isaac started into the woods from where they found the syringe.
They looked as much as possible in the dark woods, lit only by the small amount of moonlight that the trees would allow into their domain. About 50 yards in, they nodded assent to each other. Time to give up the search, they weren’t going to find anything here at night, and they wouldn’t be coming back in the daytime. Turning to leave, they heard a rustle in the leaves. Glancing toward the sound and expecting to see a small animal, they were completely surprised to see man. Not exactly a man, Courtney thought.
Completely naked, and completely bald, the man had a large shackle around one wrist. A thick chain that looked almost nautical tethered him to the tree. The skin appeared to be light blue, and although his mouth was closed, the tips of a series of pointed teeth extended from under his upper lip. He was lying in the leaves with his eyes closed and holding something in his lap. He looked too exhausted to move, he just sat rocking back and forth and looking at the object he held. Another chain lay on the ground beside him, which led up to another tree. He opened his eyes, and saw the two staring at him. He held up the object of his interest. It was his other hand. This unfortunate creature had apparently chewed off one hand to escape, but couldn’t or wouldn’t chew the other hand off to complete the task.
“I knew it dammit. Can we go now?” Courtney asked.
“We can go,” Isaac answered.
While in the woods their eyes had adjusted to the dark. During the fifty-yard walk back to the car, they saw more chains on the trees, with bodies near by that looked just as deranged as the one they had left, but these seemed to have a lot less life in them, if any. At least six bodies, and a couple of them appeared to be the size of children. They sped up their walk, feeling the danger around them.
They came out of the woods to the Section B campsite, and began to get in their car when a voice from the road called out them. “I can’t let you leave now,” the voice of the man they spoke with earlier said. They turned and saw four men, two of them held hunting rifles. “I asked you not to go into section B. You’re going to need to come with us.”
“You were going to kill us anyways,” Isaac said. “Don’t act like it’s our fault because we wandered where we weren’t supposed to. You were going to turn us into these…things.”
“Actually we were – and are – going to use you as feed.”
Isaac walked closer to the men. “Somehow I think you’re lying,” he said.
“That’s close enough,” said one of the gunman.
Isaac gauged the distance. “Yes, I believe it is,” he said. He drew his gun and fired three rounds into each of the gunmen. One of the unarmed men turned and ran back towards the building. Alex pointed his weapon at the first speaker, their campground host.
“Wait…” the host pleaded.
“Relax, I’m not going to shoot you,” Isaac said. He raised the gun to the man’s forehead, and pulled the trigger. Turning towards Courtney, he said, “You were right. Let’s go.”
They drove as fast as they could through the woods, past the institute building, and back out onto the town’s main road. Heading toward the interstate they passed the sheriff. He pulled out and they heard his siren ring as lights began flashing.
“Don’t stop,” Courtney said.
“Wasn’t planning on it. I am pretty sure he won’t follow us onto the highway.” They passed the diner, and were coming up to the gas station, when they saw a roadblock on the ramp to the interstate. Three police cruisers blocked the highway entrance, and the deputies were standing behind their cars with guns drawn and aimed. “Hang on,” he said. Instead of going straight toward the ramp, he spun the car around and went the wrong way down the exit ramp. Courtney prayed that nobody would take this exit. They made it to the end of the ramp, hearing cars on the highway honking at them in warning. Tires squealed as Isaac took a sharp right and began driving the proper direction on the highway.
Looking back, she saw the sheriff at the top of the ramp, out of his car and pointing a shotgun in their direction. “He’s gonna shoot us,” she yelled out.
“Don’t worry, it’s a shotgun, not a rifle. We’ll be okay.”
“What are we gonna do?” she asked him.
“We need to drive for a while, put some distance in between us and that damned town. Then I need to make a phone call.”
They drove in silence for thirty minutes, until they came to a rest area. He kissed her on the cheek, and picked up his phone.
“I need to talk to the boss now…no this is important…Sorry to wake you sir, but …yes. You need to know that there is a rogue team operating in Shoretown, West Virginia. Yes…saw it with our own eyes…they expected us to be a part of it…the victims. Not too much – they call themselves the Wysan Institute. No, not like that…same thing as we did in Oregon, with the campground and all that. Yeah…yup. They said cleanup was tomorrow morning, but I think they’ve got bigger things on their minds right now…No way. Not my job…You send a team. I also need a cleaner for my car. They bugged it, I don’t know the range, but I don’t want to find out. Yup. Yes. Call me tomorrow after it’s done, if you don’t mind, I want to hear about how it goes down… Yes… Thank you, sir. Thank you. Tomorrow. See ya.”
Hanging up the phone, he turned to Courtney. “You going to be okay?” he asked.
“I think so. When did you know? I thought we were in the middle of some kind of horror movie. I didn’t realize it was a rogue team. So how did you figure it out?”
“I only knew for certain, at the same you did. When we saw the blue Citizen. But I suspected much earlier. I was keeping my eyes open for signs.”
“So what made you suspect in the first place?” she asked.
“They were using all of our tactics, it’s like right out of our training manual. Get them addicted to the money and the free sex, drugs, and the benefits, that’s all the mind control you’ll ever need- think of the people in the diner, or the sheriff, more than willing to send us to the campground because they were rewarded for their loyalty – then you find the on social group that is most likely to be accepted by the rest of the town as outcasts, and perform the experiments on them. Strangers, visitors to the town, they are always the first group to go. Once the first group is dead or changed, you pick the next group, and the next, until the town is desolate, and you move on to the next bigger and better thing.” He set the phone on the dashboard, took Courtney’s shoulders in his hands, pulled her in and kissed her forehead. “Fortunately for us,” he said as he reached into the back seat and patted their work suitcase, full of syringes, “we are far, far more advanced than they are.”