“You shouldn’t be going into the woods in January. I was reading about a girl who disappeared in the woods just yesterday! It’s dangerous to go out alone, especially in winter…” Julia said. My sister was always worrying about me.
“So what if I die? I’ve always been curious about death. It’s not like anyone would miss me. I don’t have any friends. Put me out of my misery, mother nature!” I told her with a crooked smile.
“Aaaagh! Don’t even joke about that, Mel!” Julia replied, exasperated.
“Chillax, sis. I know what I’m doing.”
An hour later, I was pulling my snowshoes out of the car, throwing them on the ground, and clamping them on at the trailhead.
I began to walk in the bowlegged gait that the snowshoes necessitated, putting in my Bluetooth headphones then losing myself in the enjoyment of the woods—accompanied by a nice pop soundtrack.
After another hour, I saw tracks in the snow. Who the hell was out here? No one came all the way out here but me!
I followed the tracks, pulling off my headphones. I wanted all of my senses available as I approached whoever this was.
As it turned out, it was a whole group of whoevers. I approached quietly. There were eleven of them in a circle with some kind of mutilated carcass in the middle. They all wore ebony masks, absent of any other decoration.
Those masks didn’t look like Native American masks. What was this? Some kind of cult sacrificing animals in the woods?
I felt a black gloved hand reach across my mouth and grab me just under the ribcage. Oh, God! Was this one of them? What were they going to do to me? Terror pulsed across every nerve cell in my body, and I ceased to think, simply reacting.
I screamed, but it was so muffled as to be useless, serving only to garner the attention of a few of the masked cultists. I struggled in the attacker’s grip, kicking my legs. I couldn’t move my arms, as they were locked in place by the stranger’s iron hold. Nothing seemed to work. My attackers grip seemed stronger as I struggled, if anything.
My captor moved slowly toward the rest of the group, despite my squirming, struggling form, until he came to a halt before the tallest member of the veiled group. I was breathing heavily through my partially covered nose, too winded from my desperate struggles to do much until I caught my breath for a moment. Exhaustion mutated my desperate terror into a solid brick of dread, which settled in the pit of my stomach as the leader of the group turned to me.
“Have your secret desire granted by the mask or die,” he said simply.
The hand over my mouth came away. I considered screaming, but I was right in the middle of these people now, and their leader had just threatened my life. I decided that it wasn’t my best option. Given the two other choices I had—the ones tossed out there so succinctly by this cultist dude—option A was looking damn attractive. Wear a mask?
“I’ll go with the mask, I guess.” I mean, WTF, right? I wasn’t going to choose death, despite what I’d told my sister.
The man pulled a mask from somewhere inside his heavy black jacket and placed it on my face. I felt a wretched chill as the cold metallic surface of the molded object touched the naked flesh of my cheeks and forehead. It had no strap, sticking mysteriously to my skin. A queer sensation throbbed into my face from under the wicked thing as it became part of me.
My vision, rimmed by the darkness of the mask, saw eleven friends. The steely grip around me disappeared. I whirled to see another friend. I hugged him, pulling his body to mine hungrily. I delighted in the warm, pleasant sensation of our bodies touching, connecting.
I spent the rest of the day with my new friends, confiding my most intimate secrets in them. The mask and their companionship gave me the freedom to be my true self. I reveled in the sensation, like a baby bird taking flight for the first time.
I fell asleep in the woods, in a circle with the others.
I awoke to a scream. A hooded girl my size was in the center of the circle, my strong friend, the one whom I had hugged, held her. The leader sliced a knife across her throat.
A phone fell out of her pocket as she struggled. A crimson circle, stark against the whiteness of the snow, grew ever larger beneath her.
“She chose death,” the leader said as her struggles ceased. My strong friend dropped her in the center of the red snow.
I picked up the phone. There were a series of texts sent to the same person over the last twelve hours. The last one said, “I’m coming after you, Mel.”
I looked at each dark figure under the mask’s shadow. I didn’t care. I was a new person. I was free. I had friends now.