This story is by Jessica McCarthy and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
*yip*. I’d woken to that noise, alone in my tent. Woken to a precarious 6% battery life on my cell phone that showed it was 3am.
*yip* It was the local foxes, calling into the night. They were frequently heard, and occasionally spotted, in the area. Campers and locals had posted lots of true, and also not-so-true-and-very-spooky, stories about them on the campsite message board. We’d read them out around the campfire mere hours ago. Foxes were little tricksters that walked a path between the living and the dead. Ghost stories told of foxes luring people, ignorant of their ways, into their limbo. Some claimed one should welcome any stray fox into the world of the living politely with a bow. Foxes are picky about manners.
Superstitions aside, I thought, unzipping the screen window and looking out into the night, an encounter with a fox was something I could handle. Better foxes than wolves, or coyotes, or bears.
*yip* “Shut up, noisy fox.” I whispered at the dark tent ceiling. “You’re not welcome in my world right now.” I closed my eyes and waited for sleep.
It’s dark. I’m awake again. I brought my phone to my face. 4am and 5%. So much for trying to sleep through to the light of morning. *yip* “Still?” I asked absolutely no-one, unzipping my tent to the cool night.
Outside, I looked around at my options. Public washrooms were down the road to the left. The campfire, and my flashlight, located to the right, close by. I really didn’t want to use up the last of my precious battery on the flashlight app. So I turned to my right…
*yip* I jumped. The fox again. But that noise was louder this time. My eyes darted around, fruitlessly searching for the source of the noise in the darkness of the woods. Did it come from the road, behind me? I turned my head to check, trying to make out the edges of the road against the bush. But there was nothing there. I exhaled a little.
And then a stick cracked in the bush.
Cold panic set in. *yip* Just a fox… My heart fluttered a little. Who could be afraid of a fox? An animal came out of the bush, running down the road, towards our campsite. Apparently I could be afraid of a fox. *yip* I found myself running too. Away. Towards the campfire.
“NO!” I shrieked. “THERE’S A FOX!” I can’t believe I’m going to wake up the whole group over a fox. I grabbed a flashlight left by the firepit. I hope it’s just a fox.
Stepping up on a chair by the pit, I pointed the flashlight toward the creature.
The flashlight wouldn’t turn on.
Another set of eyes flashed to my right. And then another pair from the left. And more movement all around me. I screamed again. Purposefully. Now trying hard to wake someone up.
“HELP! HELP! SOMEONE COME OUT HERE NOW!”
A large fox sat down in front of my chair.
Are foxes vegetarian? I don’t think they are, but I don’t think they’d attack a person either.
“SOMEONE PLEASE HELP!”
What could foxes possibly do, they’re so small… except for that one. Was the large one making eye contact? I looked right back and continued screaming into the night.
“GET OUT OF HERE FOX!”
I counted a group of nine foxes surrounding me. Pausing about a foot away. There was no response from the surrounding tents. Could no-one hear me? Was I not yelling loud enough? Desperately enough?
“PLEASE, HELP!” But no help came.
The first fox leapt on me, teeth thrashing and making sharp painful contact with my arm. I tried flinging it away, but in a moment, another had latched into my other arm. I fell off my chair, to the hard dirt by the fire pit. Shoots of pain as they tore away my flesh. How could nine foxes be so strong? The large fox climbed on top of my chest, so heavy, looking directly into my eyes.
It was getting darker…
It’s dark. I’ve woken up again. I was in the tent with the familiar musty sent. A hand went to my chest where the large fox had been. No foxes here. Only memories of a nightmare.
I grabbed my phone. A piece of the world I knew that existed outside of the one filled with hungry fox-monsters. 4am. Just like the dream.
*yip*. I could hear the noisy foxes outside. I resisted unzipping the window. I could wait until morning to leave the safety of the tent.
I clicked my phone on again. 4% battery. No signal. Weird, we used it all night around the campfire. A little spooked, I sent an “Anyone up?” message to the chat anyway. The phone might reconnect again.
CRACK. Was that a person? I checked my phone again. Still no signal. I stayed still in my sleeping bag. It felt too warm and heavy. I held my breath, waiting, and stared at the wall where the noise had come from. It was a dream, right? More movement around my tent. Something brushed up against the tent behind me. I squeaked. “Hello?”
*yip* Something started clawing at the tent wall in front of me. I recoiled from the wall, which was now bulging towards me at rapid intervals. I kicked at it. “GO AWAY!”
I heard a tear in the fabric at my side, and a snapping jaw found it’s way through.
I slid as far as I could into the sleeping bag, trying to use it as an extra layer of protection over me. I couldn’t feel the creature’s teeth yet, but I could feel the pressure of it snapping at the bag, trying to tear through the padding. Heard a chorus of angry snarling. I was covered in them now. The padding of the sleeping bag wouldn’t hold forever. It was going to hurt.
This time when I woke, I opened the flashlight app on my phone.
Still 4am. 3%. I hoped the battery lasted long enough for an escape.
I unzipped the tent and ran out into the night.
The smell outside choked me. It was everywhere. A cloying, sweet mixed with horrible decay. It was the smell of death.
Foxes, didn’t they walk the limbo between living and dead?
Nauseated, I continued running towards the washrooms.
Once at the building, panting with fear, I pulled open the door and looked inside.
Was the floor moving? My heart raced. I flipped on the light switch.
The floor was covered with worms.
*yip* The sound came from behind me. I threw myself inside and locked the door behind me.
I checked my phone again. 2%. My message still in the chat… and ‘your message could not be received’.
Every one of these dreams happened. It keeps happening…
I walked towards the sink, trying not to look down. I could feel the worms squishing below, squashed remains sticking to my bare feet. I crawled on top the countertop, thankfully free of worms, curled up into a ball, and cried.
It was still 4am. I’d been watching the phone for a while. Standing back at the door. Counting to 60 over and over. A minute should have passed, why won’t it change? 1% battery. I counted until I couldn’t take it anymore.
What did the stories say about foxes?
I opened the door.
All nine foxes were waiting outside, standing in a semi-circle around the entrance to the washrooms.
The large one glared into my eyes. I returned the look for a long moment. Then I took a deep breath, and bowed.
“Welcome, fox.” I whispered towards the ground.
The world went black.
It’s light. I’ve woken up in the tent again.
My phone was dead but it didn’t matter because I could hear the chatter of people outside. Exiting the tent, I walked through the dew covered grass, trying to clean off the worm carcasses, and made my way to the now relit campfire where my friends all sat eating breakfast.
“She must have gone for a walk.” Someone said.
“Who went for a walk?” I asked and sat down on my chair, surveying the area. There was no evidence of the vicious attack from earlier, no blood, no scuffed dirt.
I continued talking. “I had the strangest dream last night.” No-one looked up. “Anyone else hear those foxes?” No-one responded.
I looked around the circle, no acknowledgment that I was there at all.
“Can anyone hear me?”