Creature in the woods

The Ruby Forester

By Marilize Loxton

“And ever since the incident,” said Kyle, holding his flashlight beneath his chin. “The Ruby Forester is said to roam these woods at night, searching for the jewels he never found, and hunting all who enter by inhaling them like a vacuum . . .”

“WhOoOo!” said James in the most chilling tone he could manage. He cast his flashlight onto Megan and Joe.

Their shadows withered in the firelight.

“The Ruby Forester?” asked Megan. She strengthened her grip on the log she used as a seat. She cocked an eyebrow. “You can’t seriously expect us to believe in a man with rubies for eyes who inhales people?”

Joe nodded, agreeing with his sister, “You have to admit, Kyle, it sounds pretty far-fetched.”

“Alright,” Kyle yielded. “The two of you can believe what you want. Just don’t come crawling into our tent when you hear his wooden leg drag across the soil, or his claws trace along the tree trunks.”

The fire sputtered. A sprinkle of ash ascended into the sky, blending with the stars. A sinister breeze whipped the tops of the trees.

Joe stood. “Well, I think that’s enough babbling for tonight. We better hit the hay, it’s an early morning tomorrow, remember? The many species of birds around here aren’t going to document themselves.” He beckoned Megan towards their tent. She shivered and followed. “We need to do our best on this project. If we’re graded anything less than a B, I’m blaming the two of you!”

Kyle and James grinned. They shook their flashlights, humming an ominous tune. Kyle scratched his nails against the tree. “Sleep tight, you two . . . I hope you don’t have a run in with the Ruby Forester . . .”

“Shut up, Kyle!” snapped Megan. She zipped the tent shut. “Can you believe those two idiots? Out of everyone in our class, why did we have to pair up with them?”

“Because they’re really smart, Megs,” said Joe. “Just ignore them. They want you to react like this. Now, let’s go to sleep.”

* * *

Megan woke with a start. She sat motionless, listening: something heavy dragged across the ground. “I’m just being silly.” She turned, opting to lie down, when the dragging transformed into scratching: crrr . . . crrr . . . crrr . . . A set of sharp nails traced the side of the tent.

Megan whimpered. “Joe, wake up . . . Joe!”

The scratching stopped.

Joe murmured, “Megs, what is it?” He wiped his eyes.

“There’s – there’s something out there,” she said. “I thought it was nothing, but . . . it was right outside our tent, scratching.”

Joe listened. “I don’t hear anything.”

“It’s gone now, of course, but I think it might have been a bear. We have to go and check on the car.”

“The car?” Joe snorted. “Why? Are you afraid the bear might steal it?”

Megan squinted at her brother. “No, I just thought the windows might be open. The bear could scratch the paint or puncture a wheel. Dad won’t like that.” She crawled out of her sleeping bag and unzipped the tent. “Go check already.”

Joe mumbled something below his breath, but nonetheless obeyed. He stepped out of the tent, warily, and switched on his flashlight. It flickered and died. Joe smacked it. “Great, the battery’s dead!”

“Do you see anything?”

Joe looked around. He had chills from the cold, and the hair at the back of his neck stood upright. Something swooped behind the tent. He swung around. Nothing. On the side of the tree were claw marks, stretching a great distance upwards and into the branches. “Megs,” he said, in a hoarse voice. “Do – do you have a flashlight?”

Megan hid in the tent. “Nope, sorry. Why? Do you see something?”

“Get out here and look for yourself!”

Megan refused. She was climbing into her sleeping bag, when the back of the tent suffered a blow. She screamed and crawled outside. The sleeping bag was still wrapped around her ankles. “What was that?”

“I don’t know,” said Joe. He had withdrawn behind the firepit of glowing coals.

“Don’t leave me by myself!” Megan ran towards her brother. She clung to him, and jerked when their entire tent began to shake.

The two of them held their breaths. The shaking seized, and for a second everything was quiet – save for an owl hooting in the trees somewhere, and a bat fluttering overhead. The moon cast in beams through the trees. “Do – do you think it’s gone?” asked Megan. She gulped.

Before Joe could answer, the tent was plucked from the ground and reaped into the forestry.

They gasped.

The shrubs ruffled, and a pair of ruby eyes came into view. It stared at them without blinking.

“Joe, what is that?” Megan could barely speak.

Joe’s jaw worked, but no words emerged from his mouth. He plucked his sister by her arm and hauled her into the woods. The sploshed through a gloopy muck, and Megan skidded to a stop to undo her hair from a branch. A pair of claws wrapped around her arms, and she pulled away. It lacerated her shoulder, but they kept running. Megan squealed, “Was that the Ruby Forester?”

Joe shook his head. “No, of course not . . . it can’t be . . .”

“Well, it certainly wasn’t a bear!”

“Stop!” Joe heeled, and Megan ran right into him. A shadow cast over them, blocking the moon. They looked around, but saw no one. Nothing. A raspy breathing echoed around them, enveloping them.

“Where is he?” asked Megan as they ducked behind a boulder. It was covered in moss. “More importantly, where are we?”

Joe forced a laugh which sounded like a cough. “We ran in a circle, Megs . . . look, there’s Kyle and James’ tent.”

“Kyle and James!” cried Megan. “We need to wake them! We need to check if they’re okay, and warn them!” She leapt forward, but Joe barred her with his arm. She looked at him, questioningly.

“Think for a second, isn’t it obvious?”

“What?” She gasped as Joe got to his feet. “Get down! The Ruby Forester might see you!”

Joe wrenched himself from her grip. “They’re the ones doing all of this!” He stomped over to the campsite. “I don’t know why you’re so gullible. When I unzip this tent, they’re not going to be in there.”

Megan sprinted to her brother’s side. She kept low to the ground, gathering pebbles and twigs. “Joe, we need to get to the car.”

Joe didn’t listen. He unzipped the tent, and snorted. “See, it’s empty! What did I tell you, Kyle and James are the –’ He couldn’t finish, as something grasped him from behind, throttling him.

“Joe!” Megan cried. She began tossing stones at Joe’s captor, who at once released him and began scowling.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” The captor swore. He towered half a person above Joe and Megan, but they could see the falsity in his stature. A flap in his middle unclasped, and James’ face popped out. Kyle removed his mask. He was sitting on James’ shoulders. “It’s just us – no reason to get violent!”

Megan exhaled. “Thank goodness. Joe, you were right.”

Joe didn’t seem as relieved. His face turned red. “What’s the matter with you two? Scaring us is one thing, but stealing out tent like that?”

Kyle scratched his head. “Steal your tent? We didn’t steal your tent. We heard you guys were up, and figured you were going to the bathroom. We went to the car to put on this costume and came right back.”

“Didn’t you chase us into the woods?”

“No?”

“Stop messing around, Kyle, you’re scaring Megan. This isn’t funny anymore,” said Joe, folding his arms.

The colour drained from Kyle and James’ faces.

Joe snapped his fingers before their eyes. “Hey, aren’t you listening? What did you do with our tent?”

“J – Joe,” Megan squeezed her brother’s shoulder. Her mouth hung open, and her eyes were as blank as the boys’.

The owl stopped hooting.

The bat came to rest.

Joe turned, looking up into a pair of eyes. Ruby eyes. They no longer hid in the shrub, but were deeply set in an emaciated skull. The skull was fixed on a beefy neck and body, draped with mop-like hair.

The Ruby Forester grinned. Almost all his teeth were missing, and those that remained were yellow and mouldy. He began coughing – choking – and clutching his middle. His jaw dislocated, and he vomited a ball of mush. Joe looked at the ball. His eyes widened, and his stomach turned.

“It’s our – our tent,” was all he could say. The Ruby Forester opened his mouth further. It widened to such an extent, an entire car could fit inside. He exhaled, expelling all air, and began to suck . . .