Off the Rails

Colton Pike and Tobias Kessler strolled down the train tracks using the rails as balance beams. The air was still and warm, the sun getting low at their backs, sending their shadows sprawling out ahead of them.

“How long are we gonna walk on the tracks?” Tobias said, looking over at his best friend as he struggled to keep his balance.

“Till a train comes, I guess,” Colton replied. “Or ’till we get there.”

“Still waiting to find out where ‘there’ is, exactly,” Tobias added.

“It’ll be worth it, trust me.”

After a half an hour, the boy’s shadows stretched far to the horizon as darkness approached, birds chirruping in the distance as the hum and buzz of cicadas filled the air. Colton was scanning the ground surrounding the tracks feverishly in expectation.

“It’s close to dark,” Tobias said, “we need to turn back soon.”

Colton appeared disappointed, frustrated. “I know we didn’t pass it…”

“Maybe if I knew what we were looking for, I could help…”

Colton abruptly stopped. “Look!” he said.

There was dried blood on the tracks and a few tufts of dark hair rustling in the warm summer air. “I don’t understand, it was right next to the tracks yesterday,” Colton said.

“Gross, Colton! You didn’t really drag me all the way out here to look at a dead dog or something, did you?”

Ignoring Tobias, Colton’s attention was wrapt on faint ruts in the rock and gravel leading away from the train tracks and into the surrounding forest’s edge. “Maybe someone or something drug it away from the tracks, I’m sure it was dead.” Colton leaped off the tracks and headed down the slight grade toward the forest. Tobias followed, still confused.

Colton breached the foliage and stopped abruptly; Tobias skidded to a stop and gasped as he focused on the dark mound that lay before them.

“What the hell is that?” Tobias said, his veins suddenly pulsing with the ache of anxiety.

“I was hoping you’d tell me,” Colton said, slowly inching forward.

The hairy black mound was huge. If Tobias didn’t know better, he would’ve thought he was looking at a dead buffalo’s back.

“Don’t freak out…” Colton said. He grabbed a large stick and gave the hairy mass a wide berth to approach it from the other side. “It must’ve gotten hit by the train, did you bring your dad’s camera like I asked?”

“Y-y-yeah,” Tobias said, fumbling for an item from the depths of his pocket.

The front of the creature came into view, and Tobias froze. The black mass of fur was molded into a vaguely human form, legs folded in a fetal position with toed-feet twisting grotesquely backward. Its massive gorilla arms were draped across the ground like rolls of old carpet, one arm covering the head like a shroud.

“Christ, Colton, please tell me this is a prank…”

“I think it’s Bigfoot,” Colton said. “Take some pictures, quick, and let’s get out of here!”

“Bigfoot doesn’t have horns, or whatever those things are at the end of its arms…” Tobias thought it looked like tangles of dirty tassels where the hands should have been, there were no visible fingers. “Go move the arm so we can see its face…”

Colton edged forward with the stick, while his friend turned on the small digital camera and framed the creature, waiting. He levered on the heavy arm; his tool began to give and crack but held long enough to flip the massive limb to the ground with a thud. Tobias shrieked at the sight and dropped his camera.

The boys stood momentarily awestruck at the faceless creature; it had a massive head topped with a series of unkempt spiraling horns, but below was nothing but a permanent shadow, an empty pit of black.

“Dear God,” Tobias said, “what is that?”

“Just take a couple pictures and LET’S GO!” Colton exclaimed.

The terrified boy again brought the camera up, and there was a faint bink – bink – bink as the old Cannon snapped in the encroaching darkness.

“Use the flash!” Colton said, now standing slightly behind his friend.

The flash exploded, bathing the forest in light, and instantly searing green bulbs appeared in the void of the creature’s face. The whole mass of black fur seethed to life, and Colton and Tobias erupted in deafening screams and bolted back toward the tracks.

Tobias again dropped the camera as they hit the tracks, this time, the camera secured by the wrist strap. The friends ran at top speed until they reached the road intersecting the rails back in town. They’d looked back during their escape but never caught another mere glimpse of the creature. Gaining Colton’s front porch, the friends stopped and caught their breath.

“Holy shit, Colton, what was that, and how could you take me out there after seeing that already?”

“I… I… didn’t see it fully before,” Colton admitted. “It was face down, I thought… I thought…” He shrugged hopelessly, unable to explain his lack of logic.

“You’re unbelievable. Let’s just see how the pics came out…” Tobias sighed. “Dammit, the display broke, we need a computer.”

The boys scurried inside, trampling past Mrs. Pike, who was busy preparing dinner, and noting Colton’s father was entranced by a football game in the living room.

“We’ll have to use my dad’s laptop,” Colton whispered. “It has a slot for the memory card.”

The friends tiptoed down the hall and eased into the study. Tobias removed the SD card and handed it to his friend, who slid it into the computer. A cache of images opened up on the screen, old pictures from a long-ago birthday party before the birth of phones with HD cameras.

“Wow,” Tobias said, “these are old. Look! I was just a baby.”

Colton rapidly clicked through the images until the monitor was filled with dark images that appeared blurred and bent.

“I probably took that on accident when I took it out,” Tobias said. He nodded at Colton to continue. They both swallowed nervously.

The next three images were of the forest, a dark mound barely visible in the center frame. “These are worthless,” Colton said, “you can’t see anything…” He clicked once more.

Both boys sharply sucked air and held their breath, their eyes bulging at the image. The creature’s black mass was fully visible, the legs capped with backward feet, mop-ended trunk-like arms. Below the horns, the horrible dark pit was as empty as it had been in the forest, blacker even, as if it had refused to yield in the camera’s flash.

Tobias gulped again. “Zoom in.”

Colton made a reverse pinch motion on the laptop trackpad, and both boys leaned close as the midnight void became vaguely pixelated, filling the screen.

The entire display suddenly began a scroll of distortion, like an old television, and then stopped, the image now in perfect clarity, a concrete, undistorted pit of blackness and despair. The scintillating eyeballs of lime-green abruptly flashed open on the screen, and the entire image zoomed out as the being slowly and inexplicably came to life. The Pike’s study was filled with a vibrant green glow, the boy’s frozen in terror as the massive beast rose on its flipped-feet, its dangling arms sweeping the ground as it advanced with a petrifying chartreuse stare.

When Mrs. Pike came calling Colton and Tobias for dinner, she found an old camera sitting on the desk with a broken display before her husband’s open laptop. On the screen was a vivid image of an empty forest, with what she believed to be a vague stretch of train tracks peeking between a corner of overgrown foliage.

The boys were nowhere to be found.

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