Max slipped quietly from his tent, his shoes in one hand and Mr. Honeynuts in the other. He paused once he was outside, listening to make sure that he hadn’t woken up Neil or Nikki, but he could still hear Neil’s annoying, nasally breathing so he continued on. Once he was past all the tents he put his shoes down, took the flashlight out of them, and then pulled them on.
He continued on down to the lake until he was close to the treeline and heard voices. Immediately, he was wary, since no one else was ever out this late, and his suspicions were confirmed when he heard the unmistakable voice of Pikeman. He clicked the flashlight off with a curse, and hoped they hadn’t seen the light. Fucking. Wood Scouts. Great.
Huffing in irritation, Max turned on his heel and made his way back to camp. No way was he going to be taking a walk around the lake tonight with those assholes sneaking around near the docks. Still, he wasn’t going to be able to work off the restlessness of insomnia dicking around in his tent either, so he decided to take the main trail up the mountain a little ways. There was fuck all up there, nothing to look at but fucking trees, but there also weren’t any fucking Wood Scouts hanging out on it so that automatically made better than the damn lake.
He complained to Mr. Honeynuts as he hiked up the mountain, just like he always did on his walks. This was the only time he ever got to spend time with his bear these days, and he knew he was too old to still be so attached to a stupid teddy bear, but it was still nice to get to hold him and talk to him like he normally did at home. Just holding Mr. Honeynuts eased some of the restlessness in him that would built up throughout the day, which was now paired with the worry that he’d get back to his tent and find Mr. Honeynuts missing again.
A weird, high-pitched whistling noise in the distance made him pause for a second, waiting to see if it would come again. When it didn’t, he continued on his way, but after about three or so minutes it he heard it again. He stopped again, suspicious that he was being tracked since he had never heard the noise before, and the whistle came once more, a little sooner this time.
It didn’t sound like it was actually from a whistle since it sometimes changed pitch, but now that he thought about it, it probably wasn’t the Wood Scouts lurking around looking for him either. It was most likely just some bird or owl or something. Nikki would probably know better than him. But either way, it wasn’t a problem for him, so he kept going.
Every few minutes, he’d hear the whistle, and he thought that it might be getting louder. He liked to pride himself on how hard he was to scare, but something about it being the only noise he could hear aside from his shoes scraping against the muddy sand on the trail was starting to put him on edge. Which was dumb, because there was nothing but deers and squirrels and birds out here, and it’s not like he was about to be picked off by one of those.
Except, the thing was, he could now tell that sometimes the noise sounded raspy, a little more like a groan than a whistle except for how thin and high-pitched it was. The hair on his arms started to rise as his steps came slower and slower, until finally he stopped.
“I think,” he said to Mr. Honeynuts, petting the bear’s fur as his eyes scanned the trees around him, “that that’s far enough for tonight. I’ll probably feel like an idiot for this tomorrow, but it’s not like you’re gonna tell anyone I let some weird bird noises get to me, right? I think I’ll be good to fall asleep by the time it takes me to get back now anyway.”
As he started make his way back to camp, he became more sure by the second that the whistling kept getting louder, like maybe it was getting closer. Where it had been to the left of him for most of the way up, it now sounded like it was more behind him than to the side, and the combination of the two had him turning around every so often so that he could sweep the light back over the trail.
He was going to be pissed if this turned out to be some shitty prank, and was already getting mad imagining the way they’d laugh at him for getting scared when he had gone through all that effort to prove to them that the only thing that freaked him out was nasty old people BDSM. The memory of that night made him twitch in discomfort, and he suddenly hated how cold his fingers were and how Mr. Honeynut’s fur was still gritty with dirt and how heavy the mud made his shoes. Even his breathing and footsteps were bothering him; they seemed too loud now that he was trying to hear for the sounds of whatever was making that noise.
One particularly loud whistle had him turning around again, and he automatically flinched back when his flashlight revealed a man standing on the path behind him. Or, at least, it was man-shaped. Clutching Mr. Honeynuts closer to his chest, he felt his blood run cold as he took in the pale contorted face, the empty white eyes, the wide open mouth. Then the man took an impossibly long step towards him and let out another rasping whistle, the sound coming from his gaping mouth like it was a scream being strangled out of him.
Startled, Max took a stumbling half step back from the thing before whipping around and taking off at a dead run. This wasn’t a ghost story, this wasn’t his imagination playing tricks on him, this was something very real that had apparently been stalking him, and he was scared .
The thing screeched again, loud and clear behind him like he hadn’t put any distance between them, and he pushed himself to go even faster. He felt his heart stop as he nearly fell flat on his face when he ran across a puddle on trail and one of his shoes got stuck in the mud underneath it. His knees hit the water, but his knuckles crunched under his weight when they hit solid dirt and pain shot up his whole arm when that made the flashlight to dig hard into his palm.
His legs scrambled as he tried to regain his footing, but he was only able to do so when his other shoe got stuck too and his feet slipped out of them. He managed to stumble back into a run, but he dropped his flashlight in his flailing to keep upright and found himself unable to see almost anything at all.
The change of pace made his legs feel both weak and heavy at the same time as he struggled to get back to the speed he had been, but the sudden tug of something catching in the hair at the back of his head left him feeling nothing but panic. He would have screamed, but he was already heaving for breath, his throat was dry and his were lungs aching, and his legs were starting to burn, and he was pretty sure that he was going to die.
Moonlight lit the path in front of him now that he was no longer nightblind, and when he saw the the treeline at the edge of camp he almost sobbed. The light from the counselor’s cabin shone like a beacon and he angled himself for it without hesitation, but he didn’t slow down as whistles continued to hound his steps. He spared a thought for his tent, but there was no door or solid walls there.
He didn’t stop so much as he did throw himself at the door and scramble at the doorknob. His panic rose to new heights as his hand failed to get a good grip on the knob, sure he was going to die, he was going to be grabbed and eaten or maybe just torn apart and they’d probably never find him no help would be coming because his hand was too slick with sweat and shaking so badly he couldn’t get it to twist. Clumsily, he transferred Mr. Honeynuts to his other arm, using his newly free, less sweaty hand to finally, finally, get it and pushed it open just enough to slip in before slamming his body back against it.
“Max?” David said, starling Max, who hadn’t even seen him or Gwen standing there, “What’s wrong?”
It was too loud, he realized with a jolt. That was probably how it had found him before right? He had been talking to himself and it had been tracking him somehow, so that had to be it right? And now, whatever that thing was they were talking so loudly that it was going to know they were in here even if it hadn’t somehow seen him come in. Frantically, he shushed them before clamping his hand over his mouth and nose in an attempt to muffle the sound of his heavy breathing.
“Max?” David asked again, and Max shook his head, trying convey without talking how important it was to him that they stay quiet.
Then he paused and felt an almost overwhelming urge to cry or laugh or both, because maybe being quiet didn’t matter after all, maybe it would just go towards the light, knowing that people would be in there, and then it might break in and he didn’t know how strong it was but if it did get in then none of them might make it out and--
His heart was pounding in his ears, but he still heard the whistling scream when it came again. He jerked away from the door without thinking, his eyes casting desperately around the room for somewhere to hide, before stumbling over to the nearest corner. His sore, shaky legs gave out on him as he reached it, and he allowed himself to lean against the wall and curl up and become small. It wasn’t great, but at least if that thing came in through the door it wouldn’t see him right away.
“Max, what on earth is going on? What’s making that noise?” David asked the boy now huddled, wide eyed and shaking with his knees to his chest, in the corner. Gwen had been watching Max closely since he rushed into their room, a feeling of unease coming over her as soon as she realized that his feet were dirty and bleeding, and that he was still in his pyjamas - which were soaked all the way to his thighs.
David started to move towards the door right as another loud, high-pitched warble came in from what sounded like just outside the door. Eyes still trained on Max, her hand shot out to catch David by the arm as she noticed how the camper flinched at the sound, his feet scrambling at the floor and using the wall he was pressed tightly against as a brace while he slid up it until he was unsteadily upright again and tensed to run.
Thankfully, David did stop, but as soon as he did he started talking again. Remembering how Max had tried to quiet them earlier though, she slapped her other hand over David’s mouth, her gaze snapping to the door when something scratched quietly against it.
She felt David go tense under her hands, like it was just starting to register that this was probably more than just another prank that Max and his friends had cooked up. Sparing him a glance, she noticed he didn’t seem scared yet, which was probably for the best. David tended to scream when he was scared, and right now Gwen was liking Max’s 'stay quiet and hope they don’t realize you’re there' plan.
It seemed like forever that the person? animal? whatever was standing outside the door, now letting out a sort of slightly deeper crackling whine and scratching softly at the wood. After about ten minutes though, the scratching stopped and the next whistle after that sounded softer, maybe even farther away. None of them moved as they kept their eyes fixed on the door, but it got harder not to the longer it dragged out. Gwen felt like a scared deer, tense and ready to run the moment things changed, and the ragged breaths that Max was trying hard to muffle did not help the jittery anxiousness she was starting to feel under her skin.
The quieter the whistling got, the longer the periods of silence between them grew too, until eventually they hadn’t heard anything for almost two long minutes. Taking a deep, calming breath, Gwen started to unwind a little, letting her hand drop from David’s mouth just as Max’s legs collapsed out from under him. They looked at each other uncertainly, and then glanced in sync to Max, who was now back on the floor but still shaking like a leaf and clinging to his teddy bear like it was the only thing holding him together.
Gwen squeezed the hand that was still gripping David’s arm to draw his attention to her. In a low voice she hissed, “What. The fuck. Was that. ”
Shrugging, David shook his head as he whispered back, “I don’t know. I’ve never heard anything like it before.” He paused, looking a little lost as he looked back at the door for a second, before he turned back to her and hesitantly added, “I think… that maybe we should go check on the other campers.”
Gwen felt a chill run through her; she had forgotten about the other campers. She looked back at Max, taking in once again that he was barefoot and in his pyjamas. Neither of them had heard a scream to indicate that something was wrong prior to his arrival, which meant that if whatever had been outside their door had managed to get ahold of any of the other campers there was no guarantee that she and David would have heard it happening.
“Maybe,” David said, his nervous tone knocking her out of her spiraling, anxious thoughts, “Maybe we should have them sleep here tonight. Just in case.”
It would be a tight fit, and they definitely didn’t have enough blankets or pillows here to accommodate ten kids, but Gwen nodded anyway. She didn’t exactly relish the idea of having all of the campers in her personal space, but the whole thing was making her skin crawl and she’d feel better if they were all where she could see that they were safe and not horribly murdered by whatever the fuck had been trying to get in. Not for the first time, she wished that Campbell hadn’t been too cheap to give them actual cabins instead of flimsy tents.
“Max,” she said as she and David started to toe their shoes on, neither of them bothering with socks, “We’re gonna go get the other campers and bring them back here. Just stay here, we’ll be back soon, okay?”
The only acknowledgment they got was a tiny half nod, which kind of worried her. She wondered if maybe he was going into shock, because he still hadn’t stopped shaking - although they were mostly fine tremors now. He also had yet to look away from the door as far as she could tell, but it was more like he was afraid it might burst open at any second than it was like a thousand yard stare. His breath had also seemed mostly evened out, so if there was a problem it clearly wasn’t bad enough to be urgent, which meant that it was something they’d just have to take care of later.
When they were ready to go Gwen decided to take the lead, not because she actually wanted to go first, but because David was honestly kind of a scaredy cat and tended to act rashly when spooked, and she was kind of hoping he’d stay calm if he saw that she was too.
It was hard to push down the anxiety that this was all about to go terribly wrong though, especially as she slowly opened the door and peeked outside. Her heart lurched a little, half expecting something to jump out from the darkness onto her face, but when nothing did she forced herself to open the door enough for them to get out.
This was for the campers, she thought to herself. It helped a little, knowing that there were people - kids! - who needed her help, and her next steps were a little bolder even though she made sure to keep them soft. They couldn’t be sure that the whatever it was was actually gone, so she tried to move both quickly and quietly.
She nearly jumped out of her damn skin when she felt something grab her hand, which caused her to drop her flashlight with a loud yelp, but when she spun around she realized it was only David. He looked a little apologetic, mouthing ‘sorry’ at her, but he didn’t let go and she didn’t make him. He seemed more scared now than he had when the thing was at the door, and when she stooped to pick up her flashlight she could see that his knees were starting to shake. If holding her hand was helping to keep him calm, then she’d allow it.
They were just about to continue on when they heard a distant whistle. Gwen felt her stomach drop out of her, while David took in a sharp breath and tightened his grip on her hand until it was painful. Apparently it really hadn’t gone that far, and she suddenly, fervently wished that she was better at judging distance by sound.
There was a moment of confused fumbling as both of them tried to push the other forward, before David managed to get ahead and started dragging her forward by the hand as he made a break for the tents. She was incredibly thankful that the tents weren’t too far off from their cabin, because they needed to round everyone up and get them back quickly.
David let go of her hand as the tents came into view, breaking off for the far end. Catching his drift, Gwen started from the other end. Thankfully, none of the tents she passed seemed to be harmed in any way, but given the state Max was in she was still half convinced that she might find a dead camper, or that one might be missing.
Another whistle rang out, and she was pretty sure it wasn’t just her imagination that made her think it was louder than before.
She skidded to halt outside of Harrison and Preston’s tent, flinging open the flap as she called out, “Time to get up, boys!” By the time she crawled in, Preston was awake but he didn’t sit up until he saw her.
“Come on, we gotta get outta here,” she told him as she shook Harrison awake, “Grab a blanket if you want, but do it fast we need to leave now.” The two boys looked confused and only half awake, but they must have realized she wasn’t messing around because they started moving to get up right away.
Scooting back out of the tent, she hurried over to the next one and did the same to Ered and Space Kid. Ered was quick to get up and moving, already looking alert, but Space Kid couldn’t seem to shake off the grogginess. Deciding she didn’t have time for him to get oriented, Gwen scooped him up with one arm, held him to her chest as she rose into a kneel, and twisted enough so that she could roll sideways out of the tent.
It was faster than trying to drag him out, and by the time Gwen was standing again Ered had already followed them out and was saying, “The was actually pretty cool. You should do stuff like that more often.”
There was another whistle, Gwen shuddered as goosebumps broke out over her arms. She shoved Space Kid into Ered’s arms saying “Take him, I need to get the others up.”
She didn’t wait for a reply as she hurried over to the next tent. Only Neil was supposed to be there, since Max was back at the cabin, but she wasn’t too surprised to find Nikki in there too. They were both already awake, looking at her worriedly as she poked her head into the tent, and they came easily when she motioned them to follow.
“Gwen, what’s going on?” Neil asked anxiously as he and Nikki followed her over to the next tent.
“Yeah,” Nikki added, her voice shaking a little, “And where’s Max?”
Nerris came out on her own just as Gwen was about to crawl in, and although it probably shouldn’t have it startled Gwen and made her flinch back with a panicked gasp.
“Gwen?” Nerris asked, wide eyed and worried as she reached out to touch Gwen with the hand that wasn’t carrying her one of her stuffed animals.
“I’m okay,” Gwen reassured her as she gently pushed Nerris towards where the other kids were waiting, “But we don’t have a lot of time, we need to get going.”
Nerris was the last they needed to collect, since David had apparently managed to get three tents up before being waylaid by the campers who were bombarding him with questions. Ered had also apparently given him Space Kid to watch, which was probably for the best really.
Once again, Gwen took the lead while David herded the campers forward from the back. They were starting to get scared, which caused a few of them slow down as they looked nervously into the darkness around them or back at their tents.
Hurry up!” Gwen snapped when she noticed the lagging. She did not like how long this was taking, and was already back to feeling jittery when she heard the next whistle.
“Fuck,” she breathed. It sounded way too close for comfort now, and it took a surprising amount of effort to force her suddenly weak legs into a jog.
“Move, move, move!” she said, twisting around to jog backwards as the kids started scrambling after her. She watched as David bent down to pick up Dolf, who was struggling to keep up, before she turned back around and broke into a sprint for the cabin that had just come into sight.
She flung open the door when she got to it, ignoring the soft sound of Max’s harsh, horrified panting as she ushered the other kids in. Ered was the first through, then Nikki who was half-dragging Neil. Nerf and Preston were next, followed closely by Harrison and Nerris. David was the last in, and barely through the door before she slammed it shut and locked it.
For a minute, the only sound was that of the kids trying to catch their breath, before Nikki asked, “Max?”
Gwen finally stepped away from the door, turning to look at Max, who was still staring at the door. His shaking just as bad as when he had first come in and his breathing was even worse. He was hyperventilating, Gwen realized, and was probably on the verge of an anxiety attack.
She didn’t know what to do, she had never had to help anyone through one, and even if she had everyone needed different things. A glance at David told her he hadn’t even noticed, because he was trying to get all the kids be quiet and settle down, which was going about as well as could be expected.
Looking back at Max, she noticed that he was no longer looking at the door. Instead, he had pressed his face into the top of his teddy bear’s head and seemed to be trying to take deep breaths. Nikki and Neil broke away from the crowd to come closer, but she held out an arm to keep them from getting to him. Max was working to slow his breathing down, and she didn’t know if people getting close to him would send him spiraling again.
Which of course was when the next whistle came, sounding like it was right outside their door again.
Max cringed, trying to curl even further into himself, while a few of the other kids let out frightened screams. The scratching picked back up, louder than before, and her gaze snapped back to the door even as she moved to step between it and Neil and Nikki.
When it didn’t immediately break through the door, Gwen started to look around for something she could use as a weapon while David tried once again to quiet the campers. He seemed to be having more success this time, now that the kids knew there was something to be scared of after all, but some of them just got louder.
Gwen decided on the using the iron poker next to the fireplace because it was heavy enough to use as a blunt weapon and pointed enough to stab if she needed to. She then tried to help David quiet the kids, Nikki and Neil dogging her steps the whole way, but they seemed to be falling into a quieter sort of fear all on their own, like they had screamed themselves out.
A heavy silence soon fell over the cabin, broken only by the thing outside and the heavy breathing of some of the campers. Most of the kids had taken to sitting up against the far wall, huddled together like penguins, but a few others had found places to hide under the bed's blankets and behind the desk.
David had taken on the role of comforter, trying to quietly soothe the kids, while she took to guarding the door. She probably wouldn’t actually be able to do much if whoever it was managed to break in, but there was no way David would be able to hurt anyone either, so it was up to her.
The longer everyone in the cabin kept quiet, the longer the silences got between the whistles and scratches. It was just as loud as before, but it didn’t seem frenzied anymore for whatever reason. After about a minute of no noise from outside, Gwen started to hope that maybe it had moved on again until she realized that whatever was outside wasn’t the only thing that had gone silent.
She turned to look at Max and was startled to see him looking right over her shoulder with eyes so wide she could see white all the way around his irises. His eyes were light enough that she could see how his pupils had shrunk to pinpricks, and he was stiff as a board, not moving or breathing at all as far as she could tell, as if he were petrified.
The sight sent a chill through her that made her break out in goosebumps as she was suddenly consumed by the realization that something was right behind her. She quickly spun around, lashing the iron poker out in front of her with one hand-- and then promptly flinched back, her heart nearly giving out when she saw someone standing right outside the window. Luckily, she managed to choke back the scream clawing its way up her throat, but it was a close enough call that she slapped a hand to her mouth reflexively.
There was a man outside the window , and he was staring right at her with eyes that looked wrong. She was too far away to tell if they were all white or just pale and cloudy, but they were wrong . Everything about him was unsettling, like someone had twisted his face and it stuck that way. His mouth was gaped wide open as if he were about to eat something, and the rest of him disappeared unnaturally into the darkness of the night.
A soft, fast scraping noise behind her made her jump, and then she was staggering forward and closing the blinds as quickly as she could. Her heart skipped a beat - it was right outside, it could grab her! - and then she was backpedaling and tripping over her own feet in her hurry to get away.
She landed on her ass with her arms out behind her to keep her from falling flat, her eyes darting around aimlessly as she tried to steady her fast, uneven breathing. Taking a deep, bracing inhale, she held it in for as long as she could bear before letting it out. The person shaped thing had yet to break in. Maybe it couldn’t. Maybe it was fucking with them. It let out another shrill, warbling cry that made her shudder.
A cold drop of sweat rolled down the back of her neck and finally it registered how badly her arms were shaking under the strain keeping her up. She tried to stand, but could only manage to turn over onto her hands and knees before she had to stop. Her whole body felt weak and loose, like all her joints had liquefied and all her bones had gone soft.
With quite a bit of effort, she looked up to find all the campers looking at her warily, their eyes darting from her to the window. Good, it didn’t seem like they had seen anything. David, however, had gone deathly pale and was clutching at his chest like he was having a heart attack. He stiffly turned from the window to her, cringing away when another whistle came, followed by a scratch on the glass.
“Um, Gwen? David?” Neil asked. His voice was small and hesitant, but it still made both of them jump. They turned to look at him, but it was Nikki who lifted a shaky hand to point at something on the other end of the room.
Gwen turned her head to look, and felt her heart drop. At some point in the last few minutes, Max had started trying to pushing himself up the wall again, but his feet kept slipping out from under him as he failed to gain traction and left fresh streaks of blood on the floor. As well as something else. There was a puddle of liquid spreading out from under him - pee, she recognized instantly. Obnoxiously fearless Max had actually been so scared he had wet his pants. She almost couldn’t believe it, but the image of that thing in the window flashed vividly through her mind, followed by the way Max had burst into the cabin bloodied and terrified, and she was kind of surprised it hadn’t already happened. God knows that she probably would have if that thing had been chasing her.
Max’s shallow, wheezing breaths drew her eyes back up to his face. He was still staring at the window like that thing was going to break in at any second, still trying to get away from what he had seen. Out of sight was clearly not out of mind for him, and she was starting to get worried at how panicked he was getting.
“Max? Buddy?” David asked timidly, but Max gave no indication that he had even heard.
“Max, are you okay?” Gwen tried, purposefully making her voice louder and sharper than David had. The thing outside warbled loudly in response, making her jump and her heartbeat pick up again, but even that got no response from Max, who was still fruitlessly trying to get his feet under him without using his hands.
Really concerned now, Gwen crawled over to him, careful to avoid the puddle of piss, and once again asked, “Max?” as she reached out to touch his arm. He flinched away as soon as she made contact, drawing his legs back to his chest before abruptly going rigid. She touched his arm again, but this time there was no reaction all, even when she shook him a little.
Gwen sat back on her heels and looked over her shoulder at David a little helplessly. He didn’t seem to know what to do either though, his eyes darting between her and Max with his hands clasped together on top of his clavicle.
Glancing at the other campers, who were starting to point as they whispered amongst themselves, Gwen grimaced and turned back to Max. Scared and huddled in a corner with his teddy bear, he looked even younger than he really was, and perhaps for the first time ever her heart actually went out to him. He really didn’t need people gawking at him while he was like this, even if he didn’t seem to notice or acknowledge them.
Sighing, she scooted closer until she was able to awkwardly gather him into her arms. His muscles were completely locked, resisting her attempts to force him into a position that’d make him easier to carry, and after only a few halfhearted attempts she gave up because she didn’t want to accidentally hurt him. She was thankful he was small, because it made him easier to carry like he was a pile of blankets, but he was heavier than he looked and it was hard to get a good hold on him.
Her nose wrinkled a little when she had to put a hand under his butt to support him, but she had had to deal with enough pee from campers wetting their beds over the years that it didn’t really bother her that much at this point. Still, it wasn’t exactly pleasant to feel it dripping onto her legs and seeping into her shirt as she cradled him to her chest, mostly because it had gone cold. Max didn’t smell that great either, like stale, sour sweat and piss.
Finally sure that she had a secure hold on him, she gathered her legs under her and stood. Turning around, she did her best to ignore the other campers as she made a beeline towards the bathroom, pausing only to quietly ask David if he would clean up the mess while she cleaned up Max. He nodded, seeming to regain some of his usual pep now that he had something to do again.
She continued down the short hallway and shouldered the door to the bathroom open a little wider so she could fit through. It was a bit of an effort to turn the light on, but when she finally got it, she hip checked the door closed and set Max down in the metal bathtub.
There had been many times she had wished for a real shower and consistently hot water, but this one probably took the cake. She just hoped the probably cold water wouldn’t traumatize Max more.
Slowly, she began to try to pry the teddy bear (Mr. Honey Crisps? Honey Grahams? Honey Nut Cheerios? Honey Bunches of Oats? It was named after some kind of cereal, she was sure) out of Max’s hands so that she could take off his shirt and hoodie, but he had a vice-like grip on the ratty old thing and she gave up the effort fairly quickly. Moving down to his pants instead, she did her best to take them off with only a minimal amount of looking down. It wasn’t that seeing him naked bothered her - she’d seen enough during her time as a counselor that that too failed to do much besides make her feel resigned - but she wanted to preserve as much of his dignity as she could.
After managing to wrestle him out of his pants, she put them on the floor to be cleaned up later and turned on the water. It was cold when she touched it, and she waited about a minute to see if it would bother to heat up at all, but when it didn’t she just put the plug in the drain. It slowly began to fill up and she rocked back on her heels to wait, and then fell back with a start when Max suddenly jerked back with a weird, unhappy squealing noise.
“Max!” Gwen said, sitting back up until she was on her knees and leaning over the side of the tub so she could get a closer look at him. He scrunched his face up like he was trying to scowl at her, but it was a far cry from his usual expression, as he looked more confused and scared than anything.
“What the fuck, Gwen?” he snapped as she pushed him back down when he tried to stand.
“Look, I know it’s cold and it sucks,” she said, and a quick glance at his legs confirmed that he’d had broken out into goosebumps and that the way he was shaking under her hand was probably just him shivering, “but you desperately need a bath.”
She looked pointedly at the water, which had turned a murky brown from the blood and mud he had had caked on his feet, and he grimaced when he followed her gaze.
“Why the fuck did you take off my underwear off too, though?” he mumbled rather petulantly, to which she was about to respond to with annoyance until she stopped herself. She looked over at the soiled pants, then back at Max, and didn’t know what to say because he didn’t seem to remember any of that happening.
Max only then seemed to notice the clothes on the floor and, after a look between them and her wet shirt, was quick enough to figure out what had happened on his own.
“Oh,” he said, soft and strained, before hunching in on himself and turning his face away from her as if he could somehow hide that way. She hesitated for a moment, wanting to say something comforting or commiserating, when he suddenly jerked upright, his eyes going wide and mouth dropping open into a small ‘o’.
A horrible sense of deja vu made her hair stand on end, and she whipped around to see what he was looking at only to feel her breath get punched out of her. She had forgotten about the window in the bathroom. It was empty at the moment, thank fuck, just a void of blackness with no face staring back at them, but there was also no curtain she could close.
Scrambling to her feet, she looked around for a second before grabbing the closest towel and running over to the window so that she could hold it to the wall as a makeshift curtain. She glanced back at Max, only to find that he had slid down until he was half submerged under the cloudy water, although she saw that he had taken care to lift his teddy bear high enough on his chest that it was still dry.
When he noticed her looking, Max slowly sat more upright, using the side of the tub for leverage.
“You should probably try to hurry and get clean now,” Gwen said, trying not to sound like she was too freaked out by being so close to the window.
Max nodded, and reluctantly put his bear onto the floor before taking off the rest of his now soaked clothes. He then unplugged the tub and sat there shivering for a moment, looking lost and scared, before she finally turned her face away. It was still strangely hard to see him so vulnerable, and anyway, he deserved some privacy.
A few moments later, she heard the water start to splash in a way that she assumed meant he was standing up, before he sucked in a sharp breath and fell back down with two smacking sounds and a dull metallic ringing. He started to curse as she looked over, and she saw him rubbing at his elbow with what she thought might be tears in his eyes.
“Are you okay?” She asked.
“Fine,” he replied, but he had turned his face away from her again and his voice was choked up, and she was pretty sure he was trying very hard not to cry. She sighed, figuring that was all she was going to get out of him when he said, “My feet hurt…” very quietly.
She winced, saying, “Okay, um, well, try to get cleaned up as best you can, and then I’ll come help you with--”
“No!” he said cutting her, his voice loud and desperate as he looked between her and the towel she was holding over the window. “Don’t-- just-- I mean! ”
Okay, well, she guessed that was out then. She could certainly understand the sentiment; she didn’t want to lower the towel either. Just the thought of what might be behind it made her whole body shudder.
“We’ll… figure something out, Max, I promise,” she said, but it sounded pretty unconvincing even to her. When he didn’t answer, or even look at her, she turned back around and rested her head on one of her outstretched arms. God, she was so tired.
After a few minutes in which Max had made a lot of noise moving around as he presumably cleaned himself, the facet was finally turned off and she heard the other towel being pulled off the rack. She looked over when she heard him grunt, only to find him hauling himself up and out of the tub, the towel wrapped around his shoulders like a blanket.
“You got it?” she asked, watching him warily as he nodded with another grunt, bent over to pick up his bear, and gingerly made his way over to the toilet. He left puddles of bloody water on the floor in his wake, and basically collapsed onto the toilet lid in his haste to get off his feet. When he lifted them up so that he could maneuver himself around awkwardly on his knees, she could see why; he still had debris stuck in them.
Max hadn’t quite gotten settled when someone started knocking on the door. Both of them jumped in surprise, and shared a mutually suspicious look before David called out her name from the other side of the door. She relaxed instantly, but Max still looked tense as he hesitantly opened the door.
“Max!” David said, sounding surprised, “How are you feeling, buddy?”
Gwen couldn’t see him from where she was, but she could tell from his voice that he was still scared and stressed out. She’d have to deal with that later too.
“Fine,” Max replied, quiet and defensive.
“I’m so glad to hear that, we were all really worried there for a while!” David said, and Max curled in on himself enough that he could hide his face in the towel.
An uncomfortable silence began as David presumably noticed how embarrassed Max was, and Gwen decided to save them all by asking, “Is there something you needed, David?”
“Oh!” he said, “Yes! I brought some new clothes for you two. There’s nothing in Max’s size though, so I just brought him some of your clothes to wear. I hope you don’t mind…”
“No, that’s fine, David, thanks,” she said, before getting an idea. “Wait, actually, could you come in here?”
“Um, sure,” David said, shouldering his way in and pushing the door shut with his heel. The room was awfully small with three people in it, but it would have to do, she supposed. “What do you need?”
“Come here and hold this up for me will you? I still need to get clean,” she said, moving to the side a little as David came up and took her place. “Max, you good to get yourself dressed?”
Max scoffed in reply, saying, “I’m not a fucking baby, Gwen, I think I can manage to put some fucking pants on by myself.”
“Max!” David scolded while Gwen just rolled her eyes with an irritated huff.
“Well excuse me for trying to be considerate, you brat,” she said, putting her hands on her hips and doing her best to look unimpressed when he gave her a dirty look.
“Whatever,” he grumbled, putting his face back into the towel, where she could now tell it was resting on his teddy bear’s head.
She and David shared a worried look before Gwen sighed, feeling tired and sad as she said, “Don’t worry about it, kid. I know you’ve had a rough night. But , don’t you dare look while I’m changing or I swear to God I’ll kill you. David, that goes double for you.”
David spluttered for a second, his face going red as he looked at her in horror, “ Gwen! I would never! ”
She kind of got the feeling that if he’d had any pearls and his hands were free he’d have been clutching at them right then. Rolling her eyes, she said, “I’m not saying you would, I’m just saying make sure you don’t. Now turn around.”
Despite how she had made it sound, she didn’t actually plan to strip in front of either of them any more than she absolutely had to. Not only was that inappropriate as all hell since Max was like ten and David was her coworker, but also, just the thought of them seeing her gross stomach or lumpy butt or even the unflattering underwear she had on was enough to make her hands shake. There was just no way she was going to let that happen if she could help it.
Grabbing the washcloth hanging on the towel rack, she got it wet under the faucet and then rubbed some soap into it. She then grabbed one of the sets of clothes and went to stand in front of the bathtub, where she draped them on a dry spot over the side.
Behind her, she could hear Max starting to move around too, and began wiping down her arms. It was cold enough to make her cringe, but she powered through it anyway. And once she was done with that, she pulled her damp shirt up enough that she could wash her stomach where the pee had soaked through. She then set the washcloth next to the clothes and gingerly tried to get her shirt off without the pee spot touching her face, hair, or hands. She managed to do it after what felt like ten minutes but was probably closer to thirty seconds, and she hastily tossed it into the same pile as Max’s clothes before rushing to put on the new shirt David had provided.
She was sweating a bit again from having spent so long exposed, and she scowled at herself. Apparently even getting the worst scare of her life less than half an hour ago wasn’t enough to convince her brain that this kind of thing wasn’t actually something to get worked up about comparatively.
Thankfully, her shorts hadn’t actually gotten much pee on them, so after she wiped down her legs she was able to take them off and pull on the pajama pants as fast as physically possible. She then tossed the shorts and washcloth over into the pile, and breathed a sigh of relief that that ordeal was finally over with.
“Alright, I’m done. Max, is it okay for me to turn around?” she asked, wanting to wash her hands again.
“Yeah, I guess,” he replied, sounding irritated, and when she turned around she could see why. He had indeed managed to get everything on by himself, but he was basically swimming in her clothes. Her shirt was so big that the sleeves were nearly down to his elbows and the collar was halfway off his shoulder on one side with at least half of the shirt puddling in his lap. Likewise, the pajama pants were probably close to a foot too long in the leg, and they had been cinched so tight that the drawstrings managed to dangle off the side of the toilet.
“Shut up,” Max glared when he saw her looking at him, even though she hadn’t said anything.
“Oh Max,” David said sadly, “I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to get anything that fit better.”
Max turned his glare to David, before looking away sharply and snapping, “Whatever. It’s fine.”
Rolling her eyes again, Gwen quickly washed her hands again before moving over to Max and kneeling on the floor. “I need to look at your feet, so I’m gonna roll your pants up,” she warned him, before doing just that. She took care to not actually touch him after he flinched the first time, but she knew that she’d have to eventually if she was going to get everything out of his wounds.
She had to cuff his pants four times before she could see his feet, and she grimaced at the sight they made. There were only a few broken off pine needles and a pebble actually cutting into the skin, but there were a lot of scrapes and some scratches that still had some dirt embedded in them, and she didn’t like the way one of his left toes was sticking up.
“Yeah,” she said slowly, drawing the word out, “we’re definitely going to need the first aid kit that’s in the other room.”
“How bad is it?” David asked, his voice low with worry.
“Bad,” she said, “He’s gonna need to be carried back.”
“What?” Max said, “No, there is no fucking way you’re carrying me. I can walk!”
Gwen scowled at him, “I don’t care if you can, you’re not going to unless you want to make things even worse. It doesn’t need to be me cradling you in my arms again if that’s what you’re worried about, I can carry you piggyback just as easily.”
Max glared at her petulantly, but when David asked him to pretty please let Gwen carry him, he begrudgingly relented.
“Good,” she said, before turning around so that he could loop his arms around her neck. As the hand that wasn’t still holding the bear came into her view though, she saw a spot of red and made a grab for his wrist, pulling it out enough that she could get a better look at it. Like his soles, Max’s knuckles were scraped completely raw, as was part of his first two fingers. One of his knuckles looked it like might be swollen too.
“It’s fine,” Max insisted, trying to tug his hand away. She held on, turning his hand around to make sure that that was the only damage to it and worrying about how cold it still was before she finally let him pull his hand free, which he then used to grab onto his other arm.
“It’s not fine,” Gwen said as she grabbed his other hand to inspect the knuckles there too, before dropping it to open the door instead.
“Gwen? What’s going on? What’s wrong?” David asked as she tucked her arms under Max’s legs and stood. She glanced up to find him looking at them from over his shoulder, trying to strain his neck so that he could see better.
“It’s nothing serious, Max just busted up his knuckles too, apparently,” she sighed, before starting to back out the door and saying, “Okay, now as soon as I’m out of view, you can drop the towel.”
A queasy feeling started in her gut at the thought of what might be behind it, and from the way Max gripped tighter and buried his face between his arm and her neck, she wasn’t the only one. David too had gotten pale, and the last thing she saw as she backed around the corner was him gulping.
Then, half a second later, David screamed and came running out, slamming the door shut behind him and breathing hard despite the three steps it would have taken him to clear the room. Max’s shivering turned into a shudder that wracked his whole body, and she hastily backed up a step, watching the door intently.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” David said placatingly, making his way toward them, “There wasn’t actually anything there, I think, I just got scared of being alone in the bathroom too long while that thing might still be out there.”
Gwen heaved a sigh of relief that felt like it had been punched out of her. “God David, you scared the shit out of me.”
“Sorry,” he said sheepishly, “Max, buddy, you okay there?”
“Fine,” Max replied, but it was strained and almost angry, like he was saying it through gritted teeth.
David shot Gwen a worried look, but just said, “Okay, well let’s go get you patched up then!”
There was low chatter coming from the kids as they turned the corner into the room, and it looked like most of the younger kids had fallen back asleep, but the quiet was quickly broken as soon as they were spotted.
“Max!” Nikki shouted as she and Neil sprang to their feet. Gwen shot a quick look at the window, hoping fervently that between that and David’s scream just a few minutes ago that the thing wouldn’t come back.
“Are you okay? What happened? What was that thing outside?” Neil asked, his worry a complete juxtaposition to Nikki’s excitement, as always. It was a little disconcerting to see that dynamic without Max’s cool apathy to keep them both grounded.
“Yeah, was is a serial killer? Was it a monster? Oo, please say it was a monster! What did it look like? Was it scary? I bet it was scary, come on, you gotta tell--!”
“Alright now,” David said, cutting her off with a nervous look at Max and then at the window, “That’s enough of that, Nikki. Max has been through a very traumatic experience and we need to respect--”
“Holy shit, dude,” Ered said, “What happened to your feet?”
“Yeah Max,” Gwen said dryly as she set him down on the desk, “How did your feet get like that?”
Max shifted uncomfortably for a second, drawing his teddy bear close to him and looking away with a jut to his chin that suggested he didn’t want to say.
“Max…” David said, soft and sad and pleading, and Max’s shoulders sagged.
“You don’t want to know,” he said as David handed her the first aid kit.
“Oh, no,” she said a little tersely, “I really do. We need to know Max, what happened?”
Max sat, working his jaw for a moment and gripping his bear so tight his knuckles started to bleed a little again. Finally though, he said, “You won’t like it.”
“Well,” she said, wiping down a pair of tweezers with some antiseptic pads while everyone who was still awake gathered around, “tell me anyway.”
“Fine,” he grouched, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Consider us warned then. It’s okay Max, you can tell us,” David said, putting a gentle hand on Max’s shoulder, which Max promptly shrugged off.
“Okay so, whatever, it’s not that big of a deal, but sometimes I can’t sleep and don’t want to lay there do nothing, so instead I go for a walk around the lake or in the forest,” he said, shrugging.
“What?!” Gwen said at the same time David and Neil gasped, “Max!”
Max glanced away, shrugging again and setting the bear down in his lap, “Like I said, it’s not a big deal.”
“Not a big deal? Max, that’s dangerous, you know better than to do that!” David scolded, while Gwen grit her teeth in an attempt to keep her calm as a wave of anxiety and irritation washed over her.
Max glared down at his bear, fiddling with its arms as he muttered, “Yeah, well, I’m definitely not going to be doing it anymore, so whatever.”
“I can’t believe you were doing it at all in the first place!” Neil said, wringing his hands, “There are all kinds of wild animals out there, what if you had gotten hurt?”
“Yeah, and how did you manage to get out without ever waking either of us up?” Nikki asked, watching in fascination as Gwen finally started trying to get the debris out of Max’s feet. Gwen was hoping that if she concentrated hard on that then she’d be able to get through this story without having a meltdown.
“I sneak out- ow!” Max said with a hiss as Gwen dabbed at his foot with an alcohol wipe to get off the blood and hopefully some of the stuck in dirt. He winced when she did it again, but powered on even though his voice was tight and cracked with every press of the wipe, “I sneak out all the time, getting past you guys is nothing compared to what I have to do get out when my parents are home.”
“I still don’t understand why you would do something like that, Max,” David said, audibly distressed, “You could have gotten seriously injured or lost!”
“I thought it’d be fine, ” Max insisted, getting progressively more upset, “I made sure to stay on the trail and honestly what animal was going to hurt me? A couple of deers and some squirrels? You told me there hadn’t been bears or mountain lions around here for ages, I didn’t think it’d be a big deal!”
“And what if you hadn’t been fine?” Gwen asked seriously, finally looking up from her task, “No one knew you were gone and David’s a good tracker but you’d have been gone for hours at that point and there’s no telling when the next rainstorm will come through. If something had happened to you there’s a chance we never would have found you.”
“I know, okay?” Max snapped, his voice breaking as tears started to well up, “Trust me, I know .”
Gwen hesitated and then nodded before going back to work, this time picking up the tweezers to try and get some of the debris out from under his skin.
“You’re right,” David said compassionately, resting his hand on Max’s shoulder again, “Of course you know, it was silly of us to get worried over what could have happened rather than what actually did. Please continue.”
Max was silent for a moment as if collecting himself, before saying, “There’s not really much to tell I guess. I was out being an idiot by myself in the woods when I started hearing that noise. On my way back it got close enough that I turned around and that--,” and here he had to stop, taking in a deep, shaky breath.
Gwen, having paused in her work when Max started talking again, looked up to find Max staring intently down at his teddy bear and petting its head almost compulsively. She watched him closely as he continued, saying, “that Thing was behind me. It… it looked kind of like a person until it moved.”
Max shuddered, his hands beginning to clench and unclench like he was kneading his bear’s head. “Then I ran until I made it back to camp,” he finished succinctly, letting out shuddering exhale.
“Whoa, that’s intense, dude,” Nerf said from somewhere to Gwen’s right.
“For real,” Ered agreed, “But like, what happened to your feet then? Did you not wear any shoes?”
Max’s head snapped up and he scowled at her, “Of course I wore shoes, what kind of fucking idiot goes barefoot into a fucking forest?”
Ered shrugged and but it was Neil who crossed his arms and said, “I dunno, the same kind of idiot who wanders off into the woods alone at night?”
Max turned to glare at him instead, but before he could say anything David cut in with a stern, “That’s enough, kids.” He the then turned back to Max and asked more gently, “Max, if you started off the night with shoes, how did you end up barefoot?”
Shrugging, Max looked back down at his bear and started fiddling with its ears. “There was this puddle when I was running, and I guess they got stuck at the bottom because it was like stepping in glue and they came off when I tripped. And it’s not like I was about to go back for them.”
There was an awkward silence after that, which Gwen broke by saying, “Well, at least you won’t be needing them for a while.” And looking at the raw open sores on his feet that had started bleeding again under her ministrations, she added, “There’s no way you’re gonna be in walking condition any time soon.”
Surprisingly, Max didn’t kick up a fuss like he had when she initially said he’d need to be carried out of the bathroom. Instead, he just nodded kind of meekly, looking more tired and defeated by the second.
Gwen sighed, casting an equally tired look at David. There was no way that the three of them would be getting some sleep any time soon, not least of all because she was only going to feel safe once it was the full light of day again.
Catching her gaze, David stared for a second at her and then Max before nodding a little and then moving to shoo the other kids off, telling them that it was way past their bedtime and they needed to get some sleep. They complained, but it was more subdued than usual and none of them actually tried to stop him from herding them back to where they had laid out their bedding.
Nikki and Neil climbed onto the bottom bunk bed where Space Kid and Dolf were already sleeping, with Neil reluctantly slipping in next to them while Nikki curled up at the foot of the bed. Max watched them go with a guarded look, and Gwen couldn’t tell if he wanted to go after them or was happy that they were gone. He could even have been mad at them for leaving for all Gwen knew, although she was pretty certain that he was relieved when David finally made his way back to them.
Max whimpered when Gwen finally got back to what she was supposed to be doing and tried to dig the rock out from his heel, but aside from that first noise of pain he stayed pretty quiet. When she’d look up, he was always gritting his teeth and scrunching his face tight with pain, but it wasn’t until she was actively scrubbing at his feet with the alcohol wipes to try to get the dirt from inside the wounds that he tried to jerk his leg from her grasp and his harsh breaths started hitching. Looking up once more, she found Max biting down hard on his teddy bear’s ear while he tried to cry as quietly as he could.
“That’s enough for now, I think,” David said softly, wrapping an arm around Max’s shoulders and pulling him into his side. Max turned his face down into his bear, but curled his legs up out of her reach so that he was pressed flush against David.
Gwen nodded, but it was with some reluctance. “I still need to put on some neosporin and bandages though, so nothing gets infected,” she said, gently pulling one of Max’s legs back down by the ankle.
Max gave a quiet sob as she rubbed in the gel, and she tried to be as fast and as gentle as possible, but he still flinched at her touch. Seeing Max cry was almost as bad as seeing him be scared pissless, and it was starting to make her anxious again. She didn’t like hurting other people, and she certainly didn’t enjoy making them cry, and having Max fall apart under her touch left her feeling rattled all over again because honestly she had never expected to see him cry. She had never expected to see him terrified either though, and yet she had.
Although, she shuddered as she remember the monster staring in at her through the window, it wasn’t as though he didn’t have reason to cry and be scared. She hoped to god that she never saw anything like that ever again, but the idea that she had been working here all these years - that David had been working and camping here all these years - and had never heard it or seen it before made her hands shake.
How many times had she accidentally come close to seeing it before, without knowing the kind of danger she might be walking into? How many times had she written off strange noises as nothing, when in reality they had been something like that? The possibilities were too vast and terrifying, and she felt her chest grow tight.
A hand on her shoulder made her recoil violently, knocking her flat on her ass and leaving her panting harshly as she looked up to see David watching her with concern.
“Gwen?” He asked, rather timidly, “You were starting to space out and hyperventilate…”
“Oh,” she said, soft and breathless. She looked over to see Max staring at her with bloodshot eyes and a somber expression. He had mocked her anxiety a number of times in the past, but she didn’t think that he was ever going to be judging her for this. For one thing it would be extremely hypocritical of him to do so, but for another... the tension in the room still hadn’t completely faded.
Even with all the other kids asleep, the three of them were still huddled together. Part of it was out of necessity as Max needed medical attention, but she thought that another part of it might be because they were all still scared and wanted to be comforted. They were the only ones that had seen that monster, and the only ones still worried that it might come back.
She sighed, breaking free of her musings to start bandaging up Max’s feet. At some point she would have to clean his knuckles too, but she was pretty sure that David would insist she wait until morning given how much pain Max already seemed to be in. She was a little worried that they might get infected though.
When she was finished with that, she climbed onto the desk on the other side of Max and fought against the sheer exhaustion weighing her down. Mild insomnia aside, she probably would have been able to sleep in an instant if it weren’t for the cloying fear that twisted up her stomach every time she thought about being that vulnerable or looked at the window.
Just as she was about to suggest that maybe Max try to get some sleep, since the kid looked even more wrecked than she felt, a muffled clank made them freeze. There was a pause where Gwen and David glanced at each other and then at Max, before they heard a soft metallic screeching noise. Instantly, Gwen was on her feet and looking around for the iron poker, even though logically she knew it was probably just another raccoon climbing on top of the generator. After the night she’d had, she wasn’t about to take any chances.
The lights flickered and she heard David gasp. She looked over to find him wide eyed and pale, with Max clinging to David’s shirt with one hand and his teddy bear with his other. Her heart was pounding as she heard another metallic scrape like something was raking claws down the generator, and she took a few steps back so that she was standing with David between Max and the hall, down which was the direction that the noise was coming from.
There were a few tense seconds as the lights flickered erratically, before a loud, warbling cry rang out, startling some of the campers awake and making Gwen’s blood freeze in her veins. Behind her there was a sob of terrified realization, and then the lights cut out, drowning them all in darkness.