I remember the first time Pete said it.
As if he’d been thinking about it for a long time.
As if it wasn’t just the booze talking. He said it like it was a matter of fact; a truth, not an opinion.
“I want to crawl out of my own skin.”
I sat in silence, held my beer with both hands, watching the campfire die. The night was loud, and for a while, I let the noise wash over me, cicadas, birds, a small rustling in the leaves.
I didn’t know what to say, to be honest.
His daughter had died a year ago, in a car crash that he’d survived. He’d been left with a divorce settlement, a scar on his neck, and a gaping hole in his life.
If that confession didn’t convince you that he wasn’t coping, then maybe the puffy bags under his eyes would, or the nails chewed to the bone or the way he’d sigh every morning like he almost couldn’t bear the thought of another day.
He spat, reached for the whiskey bottle by the base of his chair; fumbled it.
I was trying to find the words, picking at the label of my beer with a thumbnail when he spoke up again.
“I was drinking, Jim.”
I looked at him closely, watching the way the alcohol made his head wobble, the way the confession had him hunched over the dirt.
“Pete – you weren’t. Kenny breathalyzed you on the scene, had to do it whilst you held her body, told all of us about it, told us you scored a perfect 0.”
Pete looked at me, clenched his jaw.
“Kenny? Kenny I’ve known since I was in diapers? Kenny who met his wife because I told her that he was the funniest man I’d ever met? Even when he couldn’t tell a joke for shit? Kenny, who was going to walk my daughter down the aisle if I ever-“
He stopped. His face contorted with pain. I could see two clear channels down his cheeks, his tears clearing the days grime.
We were silent for a little longer. He retreated into his grief, before taking a deep swig, steeling himself to continue.
I watched him run a finger absent-mindedly over the tattoo, the tattoo I’d always hated, his daughters name in gaudy cursive across the back of his hand. I remembered the day he’d got it, told me that the tattoo artist wouldn’t do names on principle, but that when he explained that it was his little girl and that because of her he was six months clean the guy practically had no choice.
He spoke again, quieter this time.
“I was drinking, Jim. Five, maybe six beers. I thought I’d be fine.”
“I’m too scared to die. I’m a coward like that, always have been.. I just want it to stop. I want to crawl outta my own skin.”
He stood up, and staggered to bed.
I thought there’d have been more, if I’m honest, but that seemed to be it. He seemed to be content with just letting me know. Almost as if he was saying it to himself, as if it was important that he verbalised it.
I had a hard time sleeping myself.
First, I had to try and ignore the sounds of Pete’s grief; rustling my sleeping bag, noisily taking a piss, doing all the zips I could find. I could tell he was trying to hold it in, but sometimes it would burst out, and it’s an ugly thing, hearing a grown man sob.
Second, once I had settled for the night, I was left with the thought that there was something weird about the trail. My father-in-law had said it was Skinwalker territory, although I didn’t much know what that meant. Something bad, I suppose.
And so I’d imagine what these Skinwalkers looked like in the dark, wondering if the snapping of twigs or the startled flight of birds was their fault. I imagined them as men with antlers, or as women with the heads of turtles or owls.
This night in particular I heard something unusual.
Pete was speaking.
Sure, it was in a whisper, but Pete was speaking to something, something which would reply in low grunts and hisses, something that made noises I couldn’t quite explain, and I spent a while building up the courage to undo the zip of my tent just an inch so I could take a peek, but every time I moved they’d stop.
I was certain of it, Pete was talking to someone, or something in the night.
And there was this smell, something goaty and musky, like a barn, or rancid meat, and it was so strong that even when I covered my nose it seemed to stick to my skin.
I must have passed out listening, because I awoke, with my head next to the entrance to my tent, to the sounds of Pete making breakfast.
I stumbled blearily from the tent.
“Bad dreams?” asked Pete.
He looked at the beer cans round the fire, then back to me – smiled.
I hadn’t seen him so calm, so himself since the accident, and didn’t want to jinx it by asking about last night. Instead, I mumbled in agreement as he suggested we split up for the day, seeing as it was the anniversary of the accident, the unspoken reason for this whole trip, and I busied myself with clearing up the campsite, plotting my days trip on a map in red pen.
About an hour after Pete left I noticed it, and was surprised that it’d taken me that long to see it in the first place.
All the grass and plants around Pete’s tent had rot overnight.
Flowers had withered, the grass had gone a dirty shade of brown, and a small trail lead into the woods that was made entirely of rotten foliage. There was even, I noticed, a rotten mouse at the edge of our campsite, which had decayed so much that I could see the white of it’s tiny ribs, and a small mass of maggots inside.
I sat for a while, thinking of Pete, and of what could have caused this.
Maybe it was like this when we got here, and we couldn’t see, the half-light of the evening obscuring our view, and the mouse had been here all along. Things do die, after all, and it wasn’t like there was any way of disposing of corpses out in the woods. I suppose, things just rotted, under bushes and in the trees.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was wrong, and that I was spinning myself a story to ease the anxiety. To ease the sense that something had happened last night which shouldn’t have.
My walk that day was short, maybe an hour or two, and I returned to the campsite and read for the rest of the day, waiting for Pete to return. He appeared as the sun was beginning to set, appearing from the rotting foliage, carrying some sort of small sculpture made from thin branches.
It was a strange thing; the branches had been tied together to make some sort of humanoid figure, and there was a parting in it’s chest, which Pete had seemed to fill with some rotten substance or other, something like black sludge.
I think he noticed me raise an eyebrow because he gave a short, strange laugh.
“I know, I know. It’s a little weird, sure. But I’ve had all this – energy – today, being a year since..”
He tailed off, and I watched his eyes glaze over for a second, before pulling himself back out.
“Figured I’d do something to take my mind off it, is all.”
I didn’t have the heart to ask any further questions. He’d lost more than a daughter – she was only two – he’d lost a whole life. He’d lost her first day of school, and her first real Christmas, her sports matches and her graduations, her weekends and her heartbreaks, her laugh, he’d lost seeing himself as a father, a grandfather, lost seeing her love something the way he loved her.
If this was his way of dealing with it all, then so be it.
He’d always been a talented carpenter, until he’d quit a few months ago, and so I wasn’t surprised he’d channelled all of that into something like this.
(He insisted he quit because he drank too much, although I’ve always thought that it was because he couldn’t bear spending all day looking at her name on the back of his hand.)
We spent that night round the campfire as old friends.
For a few choice moments, you wouldn’t have known anything had happened.
But, about an hour after I got into my sleeping bag, I could smell it again.
That goat-musk, that meat-smell.
And I heard Pete unzip his tent, and the quiet snap of branches that suggested he was making his way into the forest.
I couldn’t just let that happen.
Maybe it was an urge to protect him, or maybe it was just curiosity, but I followed Pete deep into the forest, following the smell and the rotting vegetation, using my torch every now and again when I was confident he wouldn’t be able to see.
After a while, I didn’t need to use my torch at all.
In fact, a warm, flickering light came through the trees, like long orange fingers.
I made sure to keep my distance, staying as quiet as possible and finding an elevated position where I could see the fire from the trees without being seen myself.
Although, I’m still not sure I can entirely believe what I saw.
There, in a clearing, stood Pete.
Naked as the day he was born.
And, around the fire, were dark figures. Shapes I couldn’t recognise, shapes that shifted and made and unmade in the light. Shapes that I knew were watching him.
And he was speaking to them, under his breath, eyes wide, his little wooden figure in his hands, and as he spoke he got faster and faster, and I could see the whites of his eyes begin to shrink, and the figures grew closer, leaping into the spaces the shadows afforded them, and he took one deep, final breath before throwing the figure in the fire.
There was silence.
The fire faltered for a minute.
And then the skin on Pete’s chest began to move. It began to move as if it were a thin fabric being pressed from the other side, stretching outwards, as if something from inside was testing it, and Pete opened his mouth and his tongue was black, and I could see now that it was hands that were pressing against the skin of his chest, until the skin tore, and instead of blood, five black fingers emerged, and they pulled the rest of the skin like cloth, tearing it, revealing more black.
It was like a balloon deflating in slow motion.
It was unlike anything I had ever seen, or have ever seen since.
Some small and hunched figure, the colour of an oil-slick, the same deep black and with the same shimmer, was tearing it’s way out of Pete’s body, limb by limb, clambering out of the hole in his chest, tearing his belly the way you’d gut a rabbit, until there was enough room for it’s leg to reach out, and another leg, and finally it forced the top of its head through the bottom of what-was-Pete’s throat, and his skin collapsed in a heap behind it.
The figures around the edge of the fire suddenly burst into a frenzy of noise, metallic and wet and animal all at once, and I could see their shapes for fractions of a second, figures with needle-teeth and antlers, women with mouths for breasts and bear-heads, squat four-legged figures that were dripping with scales, and figure after figure that were comprised of things I could not name.
The thing that was Pete, the black, hunched figure let out a scream. The borders of this figure were uncertain and shifting, like they were made of TV static. It moved around on all fours, and after sniffing the skin it had left behind, bounded into the forest.
There was silence for a while, as the figures round the fire dissipated.
I did not sleep for the rest of the night.
When people ask me now, ten years later, what happened to Pete I tell them that he wandered off into the night on a hike.
It’s not a complete lie, and there’s a sort of comforting finality in it for some people. They can believe it: that Pete was overcome by grief and walked until he collapsed, or was taken by some wild animal, or fell into some natural gorge that he couldn’t climb out from. They sigh, and shake their heads, and some will even go so far as to give me a look like I’m not telling the whole truth, but they accept it.
What I don’t tell them, what I don’t even tell my wife, is that I spend the month before the anniversary of her death at yard sales in other cities. I pose as a new parent, or increasingly as I get older, a grandparent, and I buy baby clothes.
I tell my family I’m taking a week to remember Pete, to follow the same trail as we did the last week we had together.
Maybe they think I’m still looking for him. Maybe they think it’s my own way of dealing with it all. Regardless, they ask few questions, and let me go.
And every year, on the anniversary of her death, and, I suppose, his, I make my way to the charred remains of that campfire, and I place a bundle of baby clothes on the black dirt.
And I wait, and I watch, as night falls, and my eyes gradually adjust to the dim light of the stars and the moon, a small black figure emerges from the undergrowth.
I watch in silence as the thing-that-was-Pete takes the baby clothes in its arms, and holds them until morning.
Holds them until they turn threadbare in its arms, until, like the grass and the plants and the mouse, they rot.