TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
The campers next to them were noisy, rude, and downright obnoxious. She winced as more profanity echoed through the woods. Her husband had insisted that camping would be “educational and wholesome fun for the kids.” He’d sure gotten the educational part right!
That morning, they packed up their belongings to head to another campground. But, when they were about to pull out…
(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)
“Cowboys discovered this place a hundred years ago,” their father had told them the day before. He’d had the idea that they would do a whirlwind tour of the southwest, staying in hotels only when necessary. Goblin Valley was among their Utah stops.
“These parks are certified dark,” he’d explained, repeating the phrase he’d learned in his internet research. “The stars will be awesome!”
And, of course, Sam did his best to rattle his six-year-old brother during the drive. “It’s called Goblin Valley because of the creepy little men that live there,” Sam said, showing his brother the scariest image he could find on the internet.
“Stop,” Kim, his mom, said. She assuring Benjamin that the name for the park came from the thousands of large toadstool-shaped rock formations in the valley.
“They steal away little boys at night,” Sam whispered, “and -“
Sam sighed. “Fine, goblins aren’t real. But rattlesnakes and -“
“Knock it off,” their dad barked, glaring at him through the rearview mirror.
And while Sam hadn’t gotten under Benjamin’s skin, he’d tapped into Kim’s apprehension. She kept imagining worst-case scenarios. A scorpion crawling into her shoes. A rattle and hiss as she made a late-night trip to the bathroom.
As it turned out, their camping trip hadn’t been ruined by desert creatures, but by two young couples who arrived after the tent had been erected. By then, Benjamin and Sam had been exploring for a couple hours, and their dad was digging in the coolers for hot dogs.
One of the young men, his hair pulled back into a bun, spotted the family and nodded. His girl and their friends were oblivious to the family as they hauled their gear to the campground. Their too-loud conversation, overtop a playlist of southern rock, suggested they’d started their partying much earlier.
“I guess we have neighbors,” Jason said. Kim frowned.
Hastily propping up their tents a few yards away, the four loud young people grabbed backpacks and headed off into the maze of toadstools. They took their southern rock with them.
The sun eventually settled in the west – an amazing red glow behind the wall of buttes that circled the valley. The shadows of the toadstool formations stretched toward their campsite until, finally, everything became shadow. Absent of city lights, the sky had become a deep ocean of diamonds, just as the websites promised.
For a while, following s’mores, the two boys and their dad played hide-and-seek within the rock wonderland. Sam, tall and wiry, could climb high, while Benjamin sought out hollows and clusters and crouched within them until his laughter gave him away.
He was always the first to be found…
Until he wasn’t.
Kim, reading by lantern, realized that something was wrong when she heard her husband and Sam calling out for Benjamin. Their flashlight beams swept across rock formations.
Dropping her book, she grabbed the lantern. She fought off images of her little one struggling to breathe, two snakebite holes in his ankle. She imagined him broken at the bottom of a rock he had tried to climb.
But Benjamin was fine. He eventually came running and laughing – proud of how he’d tricked his big people. He got scolded a little and hugged a lot.
The two couples returned near midnight. Their Bluetooth speaker had run out of juice, but they hadn’t. At one point, Jason was going to say something, but Kim stopped him.
“They’ll go to sleep soon,” she’d said. It wasn’t soon, but eventually the profanities and drunk laughter died off, and the young couples slipped off to their tents, where they made another kind of noise. Fortunately, Sam and Ben had already fallen asleep.
The next morning, Kim got them packing early. As they pulled out, the tent and gear strapped tightly atop their SUV, Jason noticed that Benjamin sat especially alert, staring out his window as Sam played on his phone. “Really neat, isn’t it, buddy,” he said, patting the boy’s knee. Ben smiled, though for a moment, there was something in his eyes that wasn’t a smile. His dad, focused on driving, didn’t notice. Didn’t notice, also, the fingers slowly narrowing. The hair, thinning.
As their car continued away from Goblin Valley, red dirt and rock flanked the narrow road out of the state park. Mesquite trees, sage brush, and small cacti surrounded them. The thing that wasn’t Ben struggled to hold this form.
Behind them, they left the couples, sleeping off their hangovers. Jason and Kim also left the little boy who had once been theirs. He continued sleeping deep in the forest of rock toadstools, but would soon wake. The creatures crouched around him, waiting. Patient, they knew that this kind of sleep – an old, but necessary trick of theirs – took longer than natural sleep to leave the body. One of them snatched a scorpion from a nearby rock and bit it in half, chewing slowly.
They didn’t look much like the picture from Sam’s phone. Small, yes. Their skin was grey and thick. Eyes like a desert night sky stripped of its stars. Certified dark.
At least sometimes the creatures looked like this. It was another trick of theirs, of course, that sometimes they didn’t.