Rotten Rumba by ScienceMcQueen

Rotten Rumba When someone mentions hell, what do you think of...? Most people would say the standard assumption; fire, blood, torture, screaming, and the like. I never bothered with such things before, things like religion. My parents were never very religious, and I never felt the need to conform to such typical ignorance. My experience with Christians tended to be unpleasant at best, and I hardly had time to entertain such silly notions as an invisible man in the sky who would damn me to eternal suffering if I touched myself. Pretty arrogant, right? That was just what I was like, coming out of college with my doctorates degree in botanical science. I specialize in Mycology, the study of mushrooms and fungi. I was a man of science and believed in it wholeheartedly. Even afterwards, I still was. However, my faith in the idea of everything having an explanation, whether or not we've already discovered it, has steadily eroded as the years went by. By now... Well... I haven't the slightest idea what to think. Allow me to elaborate. Not long after achieving my PhD, I was given the chance of a lifetime. I was invited to join a research team that intended to camp out in a certain minimally explored forest in Northern California, studying a recently discovered species of fungi. I was… ecstatic. Of course, I wasn't going to be the head of the team, or even in any position close, but if I was lucky and I worked diligently, it’d no doubt be my gateway into the most elite groups of the scientific community. Well, that’s a bit of a stretch, but like I said before, I was young and arrogant.

So, I did what anyone would have at the time. I started researching. When I looked up the forest, I expected to find a lot of material about the new fungus discovery, but there was surprisingly little. What I did find however, was a lot of folklore. This particular forest seemed to be pretty popular with supernatural enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists alike. Apparently, It was supposed to hold some kind of gate to hell, or something equal. I didn’t look into it all that much, feeling that to read what these obviously delusional individuals had to rant about was beyond me. Looking back… I should have listened. I know that even if I had looked at those articles it wouldn’t have changed my mind, but… maybe if I had just, I don’t know… known what to expect…? Well… even then, I doubt it would have saved me from my fate. Karma has a way of dealing with people, making them believe they’re exempt from its clutches before slamming down on them when they least expect it. You know what they say… the higher you go, the harder you fall.

When I brought it to my fiance, Laura, was her name, she was quite a bit skeptical. See, I may have been an arrogant bastard, but I wasn’t heartless. Laura was the love of my life. She was as plain as plain could be. Deep brown eyes, chestnut hair, the like. Despite my tendency to grow bored easily of plain things, I loved her more than anything else. Sadly, I often failed to show it. Still, bless her heart, she had been very open-minded and flexible, always forgiving when I forgot a date night while working late hours in the university’s laboratory. Sure, we married earlier than we probably should have, but it must have been the only choice I ever made on impulse and I don’t regret it for a second. Even if it ended poorly.

We lived in virginia at the time, and Laura was hesitant to leave her family. I encouraged her, telling her how it would be a fresh start. It wouldn’t be forever anyway, just a little over half a year or so. I showed her pictures of the little town of Colmar that was situated right on the edge of the forest. It was small, and there weren’t too many photos. I was only able to find a few taken by tourists to the forests, but they must’ve done the trick. Lucky for me, Laura loved the aesthetic of small towns. The little general store, the small school, even the church. I think it was the photo of the antique store that finally did her in. She loved old junk. I didn't particularly care what it was that convinced her, so long as I got my way.

Together, we searched for a place to stay with low rent. There were some small houses available that were surprisingly low priced. I expected to have to take whatever we got, but it looked like we’d actually get to choose. The descriptions of the houses were vague, and had little to no real advertisement. It mostly just stated the facts. Small house for rent. Two bedroom. One bathroom. One floor. Seven hundred and fifty month. Of course, I was suspicious. There must’ve been some malady that the landlords weren't mentioning. The strangest part was the majority of them, especially the lower priced ones, were actually closer to the forest. Now, I was no real estate agent, but you’d think a house right on the edge of a beautiful redwood tree line would warrant at least a couple hundred more… Right?

I was too thrilled by everything going my way to be bothered with such trivial matters, so the nagging feeling in my gut was ignored completely. Like I said, I’ve always been a man of science. If something didn't have a logical explanation, then I didn't bother trusting it. I wish I’d known then what I know now. People… Are animals. No matter how much more advanced we are… We will always have those instincts. They shouldn't be ignored, after all… Those instincts are our last resort. And who should we listen too, if not ourselves?

But no. It’s far too late for what ifs. There is nothing I could have done.

The house we eventually chose was but a block away from the forest. It was small,past its prime, but by no means unkempt. The furniture was sparse, the floorboards old, creaky and warped under the stained carpet. It had two floors though, a nice kitchen, and even a room I could use as an office. Laura was the one who’d picked it out, and I felt bad about yanking her away from her family, so I agreed without a fuss. Not quite sure what she saw in it, though. It was just an old house. Then again, maybe that was it. Maybe she saw something awe inspiring through the clutches of overgrown vines and dirty windows.

We moved in about a month before I was supposed to start, just to get our footing. Settle in, explore town, get to know the community and such. We found a particular coffee shop that we both liked. My significant other was delighted by the atmosphere, and I by the quality beverages. The locals seemed to watch us warily wherever we went, and honestly, it made me a bit unsettled. Laura was quite an extrovert however, and struck up conversations anyway, despite the obvious distrust they displayed. The people of the town of Colmar did respond to my surprise, and actually began to warm up to Laura after a bit. Though they never really seemed to like me too much, even when my fiancé dragged me into the conversation. Their words were forced, smiles tight and obviously fake. I didn't blame them. After all, I was a strange researcher, come to traipse through their forest and bring lots of what I'm sure to many was unwanted attention to their peaceful community.

I didn't mind it all too much anyway. Eventually Laura stopped dragging me into conversations and just let it go. I was just happy she was making friends and getting involved. She even came home one night after shopping for groceries and excitedly told me that the owner of the cafe had agreed to train her to be a barista.

“Isn't it great, Owen!? Just think; I might even take it over some day!” She told me. Her major in college had been in business, so it wasn't too far fetched.

“Of course, dear. That’s wonderful. It sounds like something you’d really enjoy.” I’d told her.

The month seemed to go by faster than I expected. Of course I couldn't wait to start with the expedition, but I was kept pretty busy, too. I went for a walk a few times into the forest, just to check it out. I didn't go very deep, as I hadn't bothered to look for a path, and I never came across one. I came to grow quite fond of it. The trees weren't all the tall on the edges, but it was still quiet and peaceful. The lush undergrowth mad the air rich and earthy, each breath seeming to go straight to my soul. The birds were quiet too, but not silent. It's almost as if time slowed down in there. Not me nor the birds, or any forest critter for that matter, were in any sort of rush. Just meandering through life, enjoying the present to the fullest. I started to go every morning at sunrise, often returning right before it set.

The night before my first day on the job, I was sitting with my fiancé eating the dinner I'd made. She was so talkative these days, always telling me about what she was learning from the cafe, or the newest gossip around town. Now, however, she was quiet. I’d grown so used to her being so chipper, that I became concerned upon noticing her staring down at her autumn salad with a small frown.

“What’s wrong, darling?” I said gently. She paused her fork that she’d been using to rummage through the wet leaves on her plate.

“Oh, uh… nothing, nothing, I was just… y’know, thinking…” she said innocently, though still sounding distracted.

“Well, that’s never a good sign…” I say in a lighthearted tone. A feeble attempt to get her to smile. She did, but only a partial, weak one. My teasing smirk dropped to a frown.

“What’s on your mind, Laura?” I asked. She paused before looking up at me.

“You know… no one ever talks about the forest, Owen.” She says. I pause, thinking of an answer.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it's like it’s not even there! Well, not really, more like, it’s not important… or something… look, I don't know, it just seems strange, is all I'm saying…” she said, seeming distressed. “It's like… they mention it every now and then, but… no one actually goes in. Not because they can't, but they just… don't…” she trailed off.

“Well… no offense dear, but maybe you’re just overreacting? I mean, I'm sure if you’d lived your whole life next to a forest, you’d probably not find it all that remarkable either.” I said, no longer worried. I took another bite of salad, assuming the discussion to be over with. Laura wasn't one to argue, and once I gave her a solution, she typically accepted it and moved on. Now however, she hesitated before shaking her head, her frown deepened.

“It’s more than that. I think there’s something weird going on…” she said. I paused mid chew to look at her. Realizing she was serious, I swallowed, sighed, put my fork down, and leaned back.

“Laura, you’re not really letting that crap on the internet about this place get to you, are you…?” I said, hopeful. Curse those people for getting her hooked on stupid rumors and superstition.

“No, no, I'm not saying that, I'm just suspicious, is all. I tried to bring it up with Debbie and Marcus, you know, that lovely couple down the way? But they just got uncomfortable and changed the topic. And Mrs. Reinhard, she was even worse. She even made up some excuse to leave before practically bolting away!” Laura said, getting louder.

“I hardly think Mrs. Reinhard could be bolting anywhere nowadays in her old age.” I said doubtfully.

“That's not the point!” Laura said, as angry as someone like her could really get.

“Ok, ok, calm down… I'm sure they just don't like all the attention people bring to it. Tired of people making a fuss about just a plain, old forest.” I said in a calm voice. It worked, as Laura began to deflate.

“But there should be like, foraging… or at least some hiking… maybe animal stories…? Hasn't a deer ever accidentally ended up in someone’s yard? Where’s the proof…?” She said, sounding a bit defeated and desperate. I'd never seen her so invested in a theory. That was usually my area of expertise.

“I go walking there every day, darling. It’s quite beautiful and peaceful, actually. Nothing out of the ordinary. Here… why don't you come with me sometime? We could make it a date. You’d love it, I promise.” I said.

“Yeah… yeah, okay… that’d be nice.” She said, nodding slowly.

“Good. I look forward to it. Now finish your plate, you need your energy. Especially after the small lunch you had.” I said with a smile. She responded with one back, though I could still see the worry in her eyes.

It took a bit less than half an hour to drive to the campsite. The path through the forest was just gravel, and a bit overgrown. The speed limit was pretty low too, to avoid hitting any animals, bumps, or dips in the road that could potentially send my Jeep Wrangler off and into one of the old giants that stood tall and unmoving, protecting their home. As I drove, I noticed it seemed to be getting darker and… quieter. By the time I reached camp, it was almost like twilight, the only noises being that of the bustling camp and faint birds in the distance. It was eerie, to say the least. I’d never experienced anything like it. This deep in the forest, the trees really were as tall as described, intimidatingly looming above us, like grand columns holding up the vast leafy rooftop. It was cool too, much cooler than I'd even expected, and I had expected it to drop in temperature.

The air was still down on the forest floor, but above, branches waved in unfelt wind, the sunlight escaping briefly through the leaves like stars in a dark sky. Looking into the distance, there was only gray, each redwood getting smaller and fainter the further into the forest. Sometimes, there would be holes in the treetops, areas left uncovered where sunlight poured through like spotlights to highlight moss covered rocks and branches poking up between fern bushes. It was quite a sight to behold, and behold I did, as I put on my jacket, zipping it all the way up.

“Hi there. Are you Doctor Owen Carlton?” I turned to my left to see a man smiling politely at me. He was probably in his early forties, taller than average, thin, and wearing appropriate attire for the environment. This included worn jeans, a green plaid shirt, an oatmeal colored sweater over it, and a navy blue vest. His eyes were framed with crows feet wrinkles, and he had slight grey stubble on both his face and his head. He held a clipboard and a pen, ready to write.

“Ah, yes, that would be me.” I said. He marked something down on his board before slipping his pen into a secure spot into the clip and holding his hand out to me. I shook it, noticing he had a firm grip, looking me in the eye.

“Welcome aboard, Doctor! I’m Dr. Peter Guthrey, assistant director of this project. We’re just getting set up right now, but once we’re done, we’ll be meeting in that there tend to be briefed on what we’ll be focused on these next few months.” Dr. Guthrie said, pointing to a rather large white tent.

“The actual research will be done either in the field, or in a few make-shift mobile labs that will be coming in later in the month. If we find something particularly interesting, we might move to an actual lab, but for now, we’re not planning to even take any specimens out of the forest.” I nodded with a genuine smile.

“Sounds good to me.” I said. Dr. Guthrie seemed to like my response.

“Good to see some youthful enthusiasm in the group. Why dontcha head on in? Grab some coffee, chat up some of your new colleagues, and introduce yourself to the head director. He’ll give ya a job to do, help get this place all good to go so we can get started, yeah?” He said.

“Aye aye, Doctor.” I said in determination.

“Great,” the assistant director patted me once on the shoulder. “Good man. I'll see ya at the briefing.”

The coffee was pretty bad, but I was in too good of a mood to care. My colleagues seemed to be in good spirit too, and it was easy to find the Director. He was standing in the middle of the camp with his own clipboard, assigning tasks for each of the small group of researchers surrounding him. The rest seemed to be bustling around, already given tasks. There were less people than I imagined there would be, but still at least fifteen or so. Surely some where still on the way as well. I got a job as well, and set too it.

By the time everything was set up, my watch told me it was about midday. Everyone took their lunch, small, yet packed with protein, as instructed in the emails, and went into the white tent to be briefed. Inside, it was about the size of, say, a small classroom. There were wooden benches set up in rows, and a whiteboard at the front. The director, who, by the way looked like your standard science professor in college, stood at the front with Dr. Guthrie on the other side of the board.

“Thank you all for your help setting up. There’s still some more equipment on the way and, of course, the mobile labs, but those will come later. We’ve got everything we need for now, so let's get started, shall we? As you already know, I am Doctor Edridge, Director of project Devil horn, we’re calling it. This is because the main focus of the project, learning more about a particular new species of fungus only known to grow here, is called such by the locals. It has yet to be given a scientific name, as we do not know what family it comes from, though there are some hypotheses. They are called devil horns, as you can see here, due to it irregular shape and coloring.” The director continued as Dr Guthrie flipped over the white board to reveal the only known picture of the so called devil horn fungi.

“It appears to be long and often slightly curved with black and orangish reddish layers, forming a sort of ragged, striped appearance. Hence, the name. So little is known about this peculiar fungi, we’re not even sure where it tends to grow, so that will be our first focus. Tomorrow we’ll hand out maps and compasses before setting out to find devil horns, though be on the lookout for anything else of interest. Land markers, other types of fungi, anything you think might be worth recording, do so. “ I felt childlike glee rise up inside me, but I suppressed it in embarrassment. Crying out in delight would be highly unprofessional. I had to remember, I was one of the youngest here, and I had a lot to prove. I had to make a good impression.

The directors went into more detail, also explaining some side projects that didn't concern me. By the end of the day I felt satisfied, feeling as though I had just set out on a wonderful adventure. For probably the last time in my life, things were really looking up.

The next day went well. We were all paired up and given sections surrounding our camp, as well as blank maps, compasses, and paper to write our discoveries. I was lucky enough to get paired with Dr, Guthrie, though I'm pretty sure it was because they were unsure of my ability. I didn't mind though, as I couldn't blame them for doubting someone with a fresh degree. Dr. Guthrie treated me like a partner rather than a subordinate, which I was grateful for. Wandering the forest was quite relaxing for the first part of the day. We took our time, appreciating the natural beauty while the good doctor told me stories of his previous research. He gave me tips too, “happy to lead the next generation of scientists,” as he put it. He talked as though he were old enough to retire, though it was clear he loved his job to much to even begin considering it. Besides, he was still spry enough to keep going for awhile, if the way I had to stumble after him was anything to go by.

Around two o’clock or so, the atmosphere seemed shift, somewhat. After enthusiastically talking at length, both of us grew… quiet. The air, though already peaceful from the protection of the trees, seemed to grow near stagnant. Even the tree tops, so high up they should be in constant wind, stopped swaying and shaking their mighty branches. The result was an eerie quiet. The animals must’ve felt it too, for when the birds called, they sounded hushed, as though afraid of being overheard. Me and Dr. Guthrie walked in silence for, about, say, twenty minutes. I began to feel an odd sense of wariness, the kind you got as a kid when you’d sneak in somewhere you know you aren’t supposed to be, like hopping the fence of the meanest old man in the neighborhood after accidentally losing your baseball somewhere in his yard. I reassured myself, repeating over and over in my brain how it was just a silly feeling. Subconscious anxiety stemming from Laura’s episode two nights ago. Still, I decided to break the silence between the two of us, if only to distract myself from my growing panic.

“I-It’s going to be getting late before long… we might end up going back empty handed… think the other groups had any better luck…?” I said, eyes still roaming the ground for any hint of the orangish red belonging to a devil’s horn. When Dr. Guthrie didn't answer, I turned to look at him. He was turned away from me, looking up into the tree tops.

“Owen… Have you heard the rumors about this here forest…?” He said, ignoring my question all together.

“Well… only what I’ve read online while I was looking for a place to stay. Just a bunch of crap, if you ask me.” I said. I expected the assistant director to chuckle a bit and agree. He didn't. Instead, he just kept staring up, as though waiting for something.

“People say there’s a gate to hell here. But not just any gate.” He began to explain in a far off tone.

“They say the gate, and the area of hell in which it’s connected, is abandoned.”

“Abandoned…? How can a part of hell be abandoned…? How does that even work…?” I said, now intrigued. It may have been crap, but at least it wasn't too cliché crap. seriously, a part of hell being abandoned? The only reference to hell’s population I've ever heard seemed to imply that it was rather crowded there. I doubted Satan could afford to keep part of it out of order, I mused to myself. Dr. Guthrie shrugged.

“I dunno… I read this article from some nuthead who got one of the locals in that town, Colmar, to talk. The guy he interviewed said sometimes you can hear noises. Sounds like laughing almost, but… off. Distorted.”

“You don't really believe this shit, do you assistant director…?” I said with a small smirk. Truthfully, I was getting uneasy, though I never would have admitted it at the time. It seemed to do the trick though, as he turned back to me before breaking into a smile.

“Nah, of course not. But you’ve gotta admit, it’s interesting though, right?” He said. A wave of relief passed over me, and I smiled back.

“Yeah, sure. Whatever you say, Doctor.” I replied.

“You can call me peter, if you’d like. I’d say our time together today warrant’s at least that.” He smiled teasingly. I felt great pride at earning that right. I truly respected Dr. Guthrie, and knowing that he respected me enough to allow me that privilege, felt pretty good.

“Alright, peter then.” I said. We grinned at each other a bit longer, reveling in our new found friendship.

“You were right though, it will start to get late soon. Best start making our way back. If we don't find any on our way to camp, then we’ll just have to hope some other group did. Wouldn't wanna get caught out here in the dark, now, would we…?” Peter said with a sly smirk and a wink.

“No sir, I suppose not.”

On the way back, I was in a pretty good mood. The air seemed to becoming less still, and the forest was coming to life again. Still something gnawed on the back of my brain and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't forget it.

It was when Dr. Guthrie had turned back to look at me. Right before he’d smiled, his expression had been… serious. Haunted, even. As though he knew something he wasn't telling me. Sometimes I wonder if he did, but with that comes the question as to how he knew and why he didn't tell me, or someone, at least. I don't get much further than that. I don't like to think about it. I don't think anyone could enjoy entertaining the thought that your friend may have withheld information from you.

Especially information as vital and important as the kind I sometimes suspect Peter of withholding. Information that, by keeping it, put many people in serious danger.

Upon returning, all we had to offer were a few minor landmarks and a cluster of fungi we found on a rotting log. we also saw a few other kinds of mushrooms and spooked deer that had burst from some bushes and nearly made me piss my pants, as I jumped out of its way just in time. (Peter had thought it hilarious, and nearly went into cardiac arrest, laughing so hard.) It turned out, no one had found any trace of the fungus either. The director had us search the next day as well, but still we found nothing. Over the next two weeks, he mixed up our groups, our sections, and even had us explore deeper and deeper into the Forest. As the days went by without any luck, we all grew more and more disheartened. The head director seemed especially on edge, and Peter told me it was because he was taking it quite personally. Apparently he had fought for this particular spot to be the area in which we conduct our research, and thus, was responsible for any success or failure we had pertaining to our location. It got to the point that he started to become a bit violent. Nothing too serious, just some broken pens, banging of fists, and one particularly unlucky coffee mug. By the end of the second week, we were no longer looking all that hard. We’d already searched the area thoroughly, and there just wasn't anything to find.

Finally, upon our return on the fourteenth day with no devil horns, the director snapped.

“That. Is. IT!!!” He shouted, obviously enraged. He turned to all of us Sitting before him in the tent.

“Go home, and pack your bags. Tomorrow, we group up into teams of four. Each group will be assigned a new area past the usual sections, and we’ll be setting up tents and spending the night. The day after, we’re spending all day looking, and if we don't finding anything, i’m having this camp relocated.” He said, very seriously. It was a bit shocking, but at least we could finally make some progress if we didn't find anything, which I was hoping we didn't. The road I took to this camp everyday was the closest one to where we were going to end up staying, and I really didn't want to have to camp out in the woods away from Laura for days at a time.

We spent the rest of the day planning for the trip. Sadly, I was in a different group than Peter, but it’s not as if I was on bad terms with any of the other scientists, so I didn't mind too much. Laura  helped me pack that night, triple checking her list and fretting over my safety. I teased her lightly for it, but I could tell deep down she didn't want me to go. The next morning, after breakfast, she kissed me goodbye a little longer than usual. I still remember the way she looked at me before I walked out the door. Her deep brown eyes, filled with worry and begging me not to go. But I had to. It’s taken years to accept it, but…as I've already stated, I never really had a choice.

The day passed relatively normally. It took longer to make our way through the forest than was ideal, but we could hardly complain. We were researchers, not seasoned hikers. Even if we worked in the field. I hadn’t felt that odd sensation of wariness since that first day out with Dr. Guthrie, but it started to come back as dusk fell upon us and we stopped to set up camp. I had grown to know my teammates pretty well over the past couple weeks, enough to warrant idle chat as we worked, but as the air grew still and the forest went quiet once again, we too, grew hushed. We spoke only when needed, spending most of our time surveying the area around us. It was already dark enough in the woods midday, but as the sun set somewhere past the trees, It was growing hard too see. Luckily, we’d brought flashlights, so we were able to finish okay. The tent we’d brought was large enough for all of us, and I was closest to the opening.

We didn't make a fire. It was warm enough without it, and we didn't want to attract any unwanted attention from the local wildlife. Although they were rarely seen, bobcats, black bears, and mountain lions had been known to occupy the area we were staying in. We stayed up and talked for a bit about our plan for tomorrow, whether or not we’d find any sign of the Devil’s Horn, things like that. The conversation was strained and seemed forced though, so we eventually gave up and went to bed.

It’s odd how much more active the forest becomes at night. The birds are, for the most part, quiet, but crickets and other insects sing us to sleep. The owls are out, calling their eerie cry like a warning to us to stay inside our tents. I can hear small rodents in the undergrowth around us sometimes I think, darting through the ferns in an attempt to survive another night out of sight of predators. The others fall asleep rather quickly, but I have difficulty. I seem to drift in and out of sleep fitfully, tossing and turning through the night. The ground is uneven, and although I was sure we cleared the area underneath before setting up the tent, I could’ve sworn there was a stick poking into my back. Eventually, I had an ever growing urge to Relieve my now full bladder. I tried to ignore it at first, but of course it didn't go away. The last thing I wanted was to finally fall asleep and end up soiling my sleeping bag in the night, so begrudgingly I fumbled for my flashlight and climbed out.

It was surprisingly colder out than I thought it would be. More than a bit cooler during the day, already cool enough due to the redwoods blocking out the sun. It was pitch black out, the only thing visible to the naked eye being the fog weaving itself between the still pillars holding up the pitch black sky. I don’t know what it is about the night, but something about it brings out the poet in everyone, even me. I found myself thinking of the forest like a temple. One so grand in stature, built by mother nature and obviously not meant for humans. However, my enlightened ramblings in my brain weren’t going to drain my bladder, so I shook them from my head and turned on my flash light.

The shadows the fluorescent beam cast were enough to spook even the bravest man, but I was tired, cranky, and not in the mood to entertain my subconscious instincts of fight or flight. I trudged through the forest, keeping my flashlight trained on the ground in front of me to avoid tripping. Once I deemed myself far enough, I… well… I’ll spare you the details. Upon finishing, my brain now clear of the urgency to pee, I looked around and swore under my breath. In my sleep deprived mind I’d forgotten to plan just how I was going to find my way back. Of course, shining my flashlight at  my surroundings offered no clues. I really thought I was pretty superior to most humans back then, but really, I was just as prone to stupid mistakes as anyone else. I kicked myself internally before attempting to remember which way I’d come. I wasn’t sure, but I eventually made up my mind to begin stumbling through the undergrowth towards what I think may have been a recently made path created by my own clumsy feet. I couldn’t have gone too far, so hopefully I’d stumble upon it eventually. I must’ve been going at least the general direction, so surely I’d spot it somehow. How hard could it be?

What must’ve been half an hour later, I was spitting curses in angry whispers, stomping through the ferns with no consideration to any critter I disturbed in the process. I held out my flashlight as best I could while also hugging my arms to my chest in an attempt to get warm. I was lost in my own angry ramblings, so I didn't notice the air shift again until my temper was draining and being replaced with anxiety. The small breeze blew past me, just strong enough to ruffle the hairs on my arms and give me goosebumps. In it’s wake, it left the atmosphere stale. My muttering died off and even my mind grew quiet as the beam of light I had kept so strictly in front of me now wandered around, my eyes following it’s slow path. I began to notice the shadows it cast as my heart sped up in my chest.

With a quick shake of my head, I tried to dismiss it. Fear was not going to help me here. I needed to focus, get back to camp. Still, I only made it a few determined steps before they faltered and came to a complete stop. I strained my eyes into the darkness past the bright white and saw… something else. I turned off the flashlight aimost subconsciously to see better and realized I’d been correct. Somewhere, up ahead, a faint yellow glow shone onto a tree in the distance. I moved to get a better view of its source and was able to see what appeared to be a fire far off through the fog. Had I wondered so far that I’d stumbled upon another group’s camp? No, that couldn’t be… We had clear instructions not to light any fires. After all, the area we were in was technically off limits for camping. Someone else then.

My attention was drawn from the light when I noticed an awful stench that made me gag. I looked around in the darkness to find the source, but my eyes weren’t adjusted and all I saw was black. I gagged again, the scent stinging my nose as my eyes grew blurry from tears. It was growing stronger. It was like… Have you ever raked up leaves, or mowed the lawn and left all the dead grass or foliage in a pile to pick up the next day? But the next day, when you dig into the pile, the bottom is all wet and rotting, and the smell just hits you like wall of stench? That’s what this smelled like, but worse. Dead, moist, rotting leaves and grass, but also a hint of something else. Something a bit less sharp, more...blunt. Something… meaty. I tried to breath through my mouth, but the scent went straight to my stomach, tickling my throat along the way. I felt like I’d taken a big chunk of that soaking wet grass and swallowed it, letting it stick and form a thick layer all the way down my gullet. This time it was more of a dry heave and I felt as though I was choking on my own throat. No. I’d rather keep getting stabbed in the nostrils.

In an attempt to get away from the stench, I covered my nose and mouth with my shirt, stumbling in the dark towards the fire. I didn't use my flashlight, for some reason not wanting whoever was tending to it to know I was coming, but brought it along just in case. During the two previous times I’d felt this wariness in the forest, It had gone quieter, yes, but this time it was dead silent. No owls, no small rodents, even the crickets and insects had shut up. All I could hear was my own labored breathing, my blundering foot steps, and my own heartbeat. My anxiety had escalated to full blown fear, and the ground felt unstable beneath me. I kept wobbling and lurching dangerously, my feet moving faster than I was comfortable with. It took a few moments in my muddled brain to realize I was going down a rather steep slope.

As I got closer, I began to feel it before I ever heard it. Barely at first, indistinguishable from my own thumping heart. Then, It must’ve changed, because it was just ever so slightly off beat. That’s when I noticed it, and the closer I got, the more it bothered me. A thumping in my chest, not from my own organs. This one was against my entire ribcage, like when you see a marching band up close and you can feel the drums in your chest. It was just like that, except without the noise. At least, at first. I tried to ignore it after my initial curiosity and wonder, but it began to irritate me more and more. My heart and the mysterious thumping were like two songs with different beats playing at the same time. No, like the same song playing from two different sources, except one is speed up just enough to notice. The more I focused on it, the more it bothered me, but I couldn’t help but focus on it even more. By the time I finally was able to snap out of it to realize my surroundings, I was much closer now.

I found that the slope had gotten steeper still on the way down, enough that I had to crouch to keep my balance. Shadows flickered in the yellow light cast all around the surrounding trees. I was just out of reach of the fire’s glow, so I quietly crouched behind a tree and peeked out to observe. I noticed there were figures moving around the flames steadily. About four of them. Upon studying the moving figures is when I actually heard the origin of the thumping. It was a drum. At least, I was relatively sure it was. I saw some other figures sitting on one side of the fire, about north east of it, from my point of view. I hadn’t brought a compass, hence why I was in this mess to begin with. The drum sounded deep, the thumping so strong now I could feel it in all of my bones. I could only see the silhouette of the figures though, no matter how hard I strained my eyes.

I’d always been proud of my curiosity. It was a good thing to have as a scientist, but now and ever since, I’ve cursed it to the edges of the universe. My damned curiosity enticed me to go further, creeping from the thick trunk of the tree I’d hid behind to the next closest, and the next after that. I didn't stop until I was sure I was just out of earshot, should I accidently make a sound. When I peered from out behind the redwood I crouched behind, It took probably around seven full seconds before my very eyes began to spill soul crushing dread into my being, a product of what I saw that night in the light of the fire.

The figures were taller than I’d thought, ranging from eight to nine feet. They were still now. The four around the fire, the others off to the side sitting down, watching them. The drum was silent now, and even the fire seemed to dim as it’s reach for the tree tops grew shorter. I feared they had noticed me at first, but they weren't looking at me. They weren't even looking around to find a source of noise. They were just, staring down at their feet. That’s how it appeared to me, but I couldn't make out anything other than a silhouette, so I didn't know for sure. They were so still, as though roots had sprouted from the soles of their feet and plunged through the soft, rich soil. It must have been several minutes before it started.

The dance.

It began with an eruption of fire so great, I jumped back with a yell, startled. The noise I made was drowned out however by a sudden rattling that accompanied the roar of the flames. It was loud, sounding closer to a collection of dried sticks being thrown in a pile than anything one would use as an instrument. The rattling died down as I got back up and situated against the tree trunk again in time to watch the fire fade to a more typical bonfire size. I wasn't watching the flames though, as my eyes were glued to the figures around it. They were … shaking. Not like a shiver, or a laugh. More… inhuman than that. It was kind of like they were vibrating violently, they’re whole body quivering like the stick instrument was thrumming in their very core.

Another thing I noticed was the tall figures were all sorts of shapes I couldn't make out well in the dark. My imagination filled in the blanks for me though, and I found familiar patterns in the foreign lumps and curves of their shadows. Each new discovery drained more of the blood from my face. A hoof hanging limply. A moose's head with only one antler. A thick rat’s tail longer than my body. Hair. Fur. So much thick hair and fur. The rattling stopped all together and the drum started up again, but I had more horrible things to focus on. As the figures began to move, taking one creaky, unsteady step forward and another, I began to see more and more detail. They started slow, awkward, jerky movements, like they weren't used to their own height. The pelt of a bear. The talons of a hawk. A pure, white, dead eye gleamed at me as it passed around the blaze.

This is where things become… strange. Well, stranger. I was too far away to have made out any more detail than that, but in my mind, I can remember the next details as clear as if i’d been right there, in that circle, dancing with those things. You see, I began to notice that they weren't just monsters made of animal parts, oh no. They had… they must’ve… collected them or something. Because they were absolutely hideous.

The one with the moose head had gaping holes where the eyes should have been, and there was a dark, brownish liquid seeping out of the sockets. It must’ve been sticky, as it matted the hair all the way down its face. The jaw was dangling loosely, it's swollen purple tongue bouncing against it’s cracked, brittle teeth. The one with what appeared to be a bear pelt had clumps of fur stuck together by what I recognized as some type of dark green mold. Another had long, knotted hair that hung down so far, it dragged in the mud around the fire. The rat tail one of them had was too big, so it couldn't have been part of a real living animal. At least, not any from this world, but fuck if I even know what kind of creatures populate my own planet anymore. The tail was thick, fleshy, lumpy, and looked as though someone had taken bites out of it, ripping the bulging, tough flesh right off the bone.

The drum got louder until it was rattling my ribs again. I could feel it through my feet and in the trunk of the tree I was clutching. The creature’s movements sped up as they moved around the flaming pit. They went from jerky to fluid, like they were trying to be graceful but couldn't stop twitching. The one with the long, tangled hair tripped over a particularly nasty knot and as it fell forward, it reached out with long, ragged nails and accidentally tore through the one in front of it’s back. An unholy screech startled me enough for my foot to slip on something thick and wet and I fell on my ass in the stuff. The one with long, new gashes down it’s old, rotting back turned around to face the other before grabbing a long strand of greenish flesh dangling from its wounds and pulling it around in front of it. The long spoiled meat stretched like rubber and snapped off as the damn thing held it up to the long haired one and squeezed. A sort of clear liquid like plasma seeped from it and fell from its fist like a waterfall and the two laughed, laughed like a mix between a whole pack of hyenas and a group of children who’ve had too much sugar. The very sound sent me shaking uncontrollably while the creature behind the long haired one caught up to them and kicked them forward.

They resumed their dance as the deep thumping began to drown out the other sounds. I looked to see thick, club like stumps hitting a large drum made of animal hide. The hide looked as though whoever had cleaned it had done a shit job, as chunks of flesh clung to it like cantaloupe to its peel. Each hit sent a cloud of what I could only assume was dried blood so old it was the consistency of dust. The pounding was again off beat with my heart and I realized the dancers weren't in time with it either. The cacophony of it all sent my head reeling, even more than it already was, yet somehow, I realized why the dancers were off beat.

They weren't dancing to the drum.

They were instead, perfectly in tune with my heart.

As I realized this, said organ skipped a beat in my chest, and the dancers all skipped in unison to it. I would have kept watching, frozen in fear forever if it weren't for the realization of something squirming under my hand. I yanked it away from the tree trunk and before I could look to see what it had been, the drum was suddenly being rolled. The other instruments went wild too, nearly deafening me, but that wasn't what sent me jerking back and scrambling away.

It was the rise of howling, chaotic laughter of all tones and fluctuations. High pitched cackling, deep, throaty roaring, giggles of pure, sick glee. It pushed me into motion like a rocket and I turned and scrambled up the hill, or at least, I tried to. The ground was so much looser now, and wetter. No, slimier. I dug my hand in it, but when it squirmed around my fingers, I yanked a fist full of it back to my face. My hand squeezed tight, and I was shaking so hard it was blurry, but I recognized my fist was full of worms. It was as though the soil was now ninety five percent worms all squirming and wriggling spastically, fighting over what little dirt there was left, I shook them violently away and continued my fight upwards, but it was near futile. I felt like everything, the trees, the rocks, the ferns, all of it, were sinking into the sea of rot and pounding, howling noise. The laughter and drum were somehow finally connected as another sound joined in, raising them in a horrible harmony that I could feel pop my ear drums like firecrackers.

That noise was a scream. My scream, I soon discovered. It was so powerful, I could feel it burning away my throat but I didn't care. I couldn't stop if I’d wanted to. All I could do was keep struggling, flailing and flopping, trying to find something stable to keep me from sinking further into this hell, down to the things below me. As I searched blindly and desperately, I realized despite my failure to get any further away, the laughter wasn't getting closer. They weren't following me. I got barely a split second of even minimal relief before I was swamped with dread at the realization that they didn't have to.

No. they howled a different tune. One of victory and triumph. One that, with a tsunami of utter terror, I learned for certain, that night. They didn't have to chase me. They didn't have to even lift a finger Because, it didn't matter if I got away or not. Whether I made an inch of leeway, or made it all the way to the top, through the woods, on a plane, or even around the world. It didn't matter because they knew i’d be back. I was stuck in this sinkhole now, and once you're in, there's no getting back out. This I knew. It was with this revelation that my scream was torn to bits and my urgent grasp found something solid at last. I grabbed onto it for dear life and pulled as best I could, but I hadn't gotten too far up before my shaking grasp finally slipped and I fell. The last thing I heard was a sickening crack and the fading sound of drums and laughter as I finally, after an entire night of tossing and turning, fell into a deep sleep.

The crew found me the next day around noon. Everyone had postponed their mission to look for me and were on the verge of sending someone back to get help from the local police before I was spotted lying in a pool of my own blood, using a small rock as a pillow. The first thing I saw upon opening my eyes was a deep, reddish orange. As I was helped up into a sitting position, I looked around and saw I was completely surrounded by thick, perfect specimens of all sizes of devil’s horn fungus. The ground I lay on was flat, completely flat. The closest rise in landscape was many yards away, and could barely be called a mound of dirt. The soil was dry, save for my blood seeping into it.

Any attempt to talk made my throat burn with horrible pain, and all I could do was make sad wheezing noises no louder than a whisper. I was shaking so hard I couldn't write either, but I doubt it would have mattered if I could anyway. I don't think coherent sentences would have been something I was good at at the time, if the way they had to hold me down to keep myself from getting injured anymore was anything to go by.

The rest is all a blur to me. It's strange what we remember and what we don't. I can recall every detail of that event, even details I shouldn't have been able to, given the poor lighting of only that fire. I can remember all of that, yet I haven’t the slightest recollection of the last time I saw my wife. I knew i must’ve seen her before ending up at this place. I can remember bits and pieces, like how the doctor said I’d torn my vocal cords to hell and would never talk again. Or how the emergency personnel comforted me on the way to the hospital. I even remember my colleagues confusion when none of them reported hearing anything during the night, not even a man in the tent closest to where I had been found who reported being an awfully light sleeper.

It’s been many years now. I haven't seen Laura since I left on that camping trip. I used to be bitter that she never came to see me at this place, but now… I just hope she's happy. Perhaps she’s been remarried and has those kids she's always wanted. Three. A boy, and two girls. I used to dread the idea of children, but now, the thought of us together with three little brats running between our legs is the only thing that brings the closest thing to a smile to my face. She would have been a great mother, I'm sure of it. I wrote her a letter once, just to tell her that. I hope it reached her.

As for me, I spend my days here in this little white room. The doctors here take care of me, keeping me nice and high off whatever they give me to ease the pain. The hospital’s small, but I like it. It’s in a nice big city, far away from any nature. I spend my days playing chess with the other patients and telling tales and info on mushrooms to young nurses who give me tight lipped smiles and pretend they find it interesting. Of course, by tell, I mean write. My only real possessions are a whiteboard, marker, eraser, an old picture of Laura, and a bible. I don't read it, but it brings me some form a comfort during the worst nights.

All of my colleagues have come to visit me at least once. All except Peter. Never found out why, but I assume it had something to do with that look he gave me so long ago. I used to allow them to visit, but they only brought me pain, so I reluctantly stopped allowing it. At first they were kind and concerned of course, but they all had so many questions. Damn scientists. Can't just shut up and accept that there are some things they won't ever know. Or are ever meant to know. One woman used to bake me sweets every week, but even she moved on with her life and eventually forgot about me. I haven't been notified of a visitor for many years now.

The nights are the worst. I see them behind my eyelids. Every time I fall asleep, I'm back in that rotten hell. I wake up attempting to scream, but it only irritates my throat, making it ache and itch the rest of the day. It's the worst nights When I wake up and feel that same sinking sensation. Like I'm on a steep hill, sliding forward. Down, down to the abandoned part of hell where the demons run rampant without the devil to keep them in line. With no souls to torture they turn to the living, me, the others I'm sure were before me. They watch. They wait. And when I die, They will be there, dancing around the same fire, the welcoming song to welcome me back to the pit. Back to the place where things die and decay, and decay and decay, and never rejoin the earth. It’s this knowledge alone that keeps me from attempting suicide. Because once I am there, they will strip my bones of my skin bit by bit, piece by piece until I am nothing before sending me out to gather new parts. New limbs, a new face and voice left by the living to sink into the earth.

No. I will not give in. I will make them wait as long as I can, and the day I do croak, i will not struggle as I slip through the worms. I will not reach out for the trees, the rocks, nor the ferns. For my hands will meet razor blades for leaves and scabs for moss. They are all decaying. The animals, the plants, the wind, the mushrooms, the entire forest. One day we will all die, and we will all join in and partake in the chaos. The laughter, the slaughter. The dance.

The Rotten Rumba.

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