Naught but Shadows Walking

by Levi Krain

Rob was the first to go, although he came back later. The rising sun had turned the lake into a bright mirror of the blue autumn sky when we realized he was no longer on the trail behind us. We searched, of course, the others looking uphill into the woods, calling his name in ever harsher, frustrated bellows with no response.

After a while, I stared out into that lake gazing coldly back. Not a ripple stirred its surface and its secrets remained unfathomable.

“He’s screwing with us,” said Jeremy.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, then shouted into the tree-filled void, “See you at camp, asshole!”

Later came and Rob was suddenly there, pitching his tent alongside ours. Steve’s anger had evaporated and he and Jeremy poked fun at Rob in friendly ways but made no mention of his disappearance.

I grabbed Rob’s shoulder. “Where’d you go?”

He turned with dark eyes, like deep pools, but smiled. “Had to take a leak.” He turned away and the others ignored our exchange.

Around the campfire, Jeremy and Steve joked and laughed in their usual, drunken fashions. Rob, though, sat a bit further back, only staring at the rest of us with a sloppy smile screwed on his face.

In the morning, I sipped coffee and watched Steve and Rob pack their tents and gear. Steve was grumpy but jocular, his sleep too little and poor but not enough to dampen his large personality. He pointed at Rob’s paunch and laughed that married life had made him soft and fat.

Neither mentioned Jeremy, who did not appear and whose tent did not stir. We packed, Steve ate an energy bar, while Rob declined food or coffee and just stood around grinning.

The three of us left Jeremy’s tent sitting empty and forlorn like a deserted snail shell, and hiked onward. Steve led the way, as he had every day, and I let Rob get ahead of me, so I could observe him. He seemed taller and fatter, ungainly and sluggish. He walked in staggering, jerky motions and his arms was puffy, swollen, and shiny. The flesh jiggled like jaundiced pond scum.

The day and the trail unfolded sluggishly, everyone subdued and silent except for Steve who talked weather and baseball and lost youth. We camped again in the evening and Steve, maybe sensing the end of the journey or maybe just feeling lonely, spoke loudly and angrily about dead careers, dead friends, and dead dreams before drinking himself into a stupor.

In the morning, Steve’s tent did not stir.

I was up and nearly finished with my coffee when Rob squeezed his bulk out of his own tent and unfolded his frame to stand nearly seven feet tall. He was truly fat now, bloated, and his skin rubbery in the pale light.

I poured my remaining coffee on the ashes of the campfire and stood facing him. I frowned. “Why didn’t they notice how different you came back?”

Rob gave me that stupid grin, matched it with a stupid shrug. “People don’t usually notice,” he said with a slight burble. “Maybe they don’t want to notice.”

“It’s a power, or something like that?”

Again with a shrug that sent his whole body heaving like beach surf. “It doesn’t work on everyone, though.” His eyes were green now, emerald pools above squishy, yellow-gray slug lips.

“Well, it doesn’t work on me.” Rob’s stupid smile slipped as I stepped boldly toward him, drawing a skinning knife from my belt. “Didn’t you notice they never joked with me? Never spoke my name? Barely paid me any notice?”

I jabbed the blade somewhere low in his gut and ripped upwards with a strong, swift motion before jumping back.

His mouth and eyes gaped like a dead fish’s and his belly opened like a split bladder. Out poured gallons of algae-laced water, lake weed, crayfish, minnows, frogs, and muck. As the Rob-flesh fell away, out slipped the two waterlogged corpses of Steve and Jeremy to flop on the ground.

The puddle of lake water flowed away in a widening circle, only gradually draining into the dirt and sand of the campsite. When nothing moved for a long time, I stepped forward, knelt down, and cut strips of flesh away from all three bodies. With a pang of gnawing hunger gurgling inside me, I began stuffing pieces into my too-wide mouth, tearing flesh and organs with my too-sharp teeth, while my too-long tongue writhed like a sandpaper snake.

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