pungent odor. It is indigenous to Australia but has spread to North
America. Its Latin name is Clathrus Archeri,
also known as Octopus Stinkhorn. Most people call it The Devil’s Fingers . . .
field of the luridly colored fungi. Two of her fellow campers make
the mistake of touching it. Now it’s growing on them. Fleshy
gelatinous pods. Sprouting from their skin. Feeding on their blood . . .
monstrosities—grotesque, human-fungal hybrids as contagious and
deadly as any virus. Autumn knows she must destroy these mutations
before they return to civilization. But if there’s one thing that
spreads faster than fear, it’s The Devil’s Fingers . . .
Carrie’s screams rocketed Autumn’s heart into her throat. A crow big enough to carry a cat in its talons leaped from its perch above their heads, screeching across the blue sky.
“Carrie!” she shouted.
Her friend had forged ahead to take pictures, her passion du jour of nature photography separating her from the group. Autumn Winters had wondered where she’d gone. Now, she just hoped she wasn’t in a ditch or hanging off a cliff.
Like that time in Mexico, she thought, the heavy pack on her back thumping the base of her spine with each footfall.
“Over here,” Carrie called back, her voice coming from a copse of spruce trees to their left.
Latrell sped ahead of Autumn, letting his backpack slip from his shoulders so it wouldn’t hold him back. Carrie’s longtime boyfriend, Dan Waverly, was right behind him. Autumn’s much shorter legs couldn’t keep up with the former college athletes.
She followed their path, branches and weeds swaying from their passing. Veering from the official trail worried Autumn, but nowhere near as much as Carrie’s peal of terror. The gradual uphill climb had seemed so easy, the late spring air just cool enough to make it one of the more pleasant hikes she’d been on. It was amazing how arduous and stifling things got the second they had to sprint like madmen, thorny weeds scratching their legs.
The toe of her hiking boot caught on the underside of an immovable stone. Arms flailing, she twisted her body so she wouldn’t fall on her face.
“Got ya!” Brandon barked as he grabbed hold of her backpack. He held on until she steadied herself. He coughed up half a lung while she caught her breath.
There was no time to thank him. Carrie had grown frighteningly silent and there hadn’t been a peep out of Latrell or Dan.
“Come on,” she said.
“I’ll catch up,” Brandon wheezed.
There were heavy footsteps behind him. He’d be okay.
Autumn weaved her way around the closely packed trees, careful not to clip her shoulders on the sturdy trunks.
“Where are you?” she shouted.
“Over here,” Latrell answered.
Honing in on her fiancé’s voice, she stumbled out of the tree line and into Dan’s wide back. She caught an unwelcome whiff of sweat, her face smooshed into his moist shirt.
Regaining her balance—not that she had any to begin with—she stepped back, noticing that Carrie, Dan, and Latrell were standing alongside one another, hands on their hips, staring at something she couldn’t see thanks to being dwarfed by Dan’s massive shadow.
Latrell took her by the hand. “Look at this.”
Carrie sounded close to tears.
“Are…are they alive?”
Autumn looked across the meadow and fought a sudden wave of dizziness. As far as she could see, the ground was littered with shattered white pods. Sprouting from each pod were thick, pink tentacles. It was like looking at a sea of squid, the underside of each tentacle dotted with wet olive and black spots. Interspersed within them were deathly pale limbs, four or more to a pod, looking too much like severed baby arms for Autumn’s taste.
Autumn hated calamari.
She took a step toward the edge of the meadow. Latrell held her back.
“Don’t go near them.”
“Whatever the f*** they are,” Dan said, putting a protective arm around Carrie.
Crashing in the brush announced the arrival of Brandon, Tina, and Seth.
“That is wild AF. And I haven’t even smoked yet,” Brandon said, peering at the field as if his eyes were deceiving him.
Autumn let go of Latrell’s hand, crouching close to the nearest cluster of skyward-reaching tentacles. It was hard to believe that Autumn, the girl they all called Mighty Mite because her genetics refused to allow her to pass the five-foot mark, was out macho-ing her alpha male of a fiancé. Then again, this was kind of her specialty.
Or it would be in a couple more years.
“Jesus, don’t touch it!” Tina yelped.
Autumn turned to her friends, all of them looking as if they were standing on the precipice of untold horrors. Latrell’s smooth, shaved head ran with rivulets of perspiration. Seth’s hand went to the machete secured at his hip.
“It’s all right,” Autumn said.
“That does not look all right,” Carrie said, her hand on Dan’s chest.
A breeze whispered over the meadow, animating the tentacles as they swayed back and forth. Tina yipped. Brandon pedaled backwards, falling on his ass.
The only thing worse than fried calamari was living calamari. Blinking hard, Autumn willed her mind to just shut up and deal with what was in front of her.
You’re not at Nicky’s Fish Box or lost at sea, dummy.
Autumn reached into her pocket for the little baggie of nuts she’d packed for quick snacking. Dumping the nuts on the ground, she inverted the bag over her hand.
She reached down, fingers grazing the papery flesh of the tentacle. She plucked it free from the pod. It was almost as long as her forearm, yet weighed next to nothing.
“Don’t bring that thing near me,” Carrie said, cringing.
Latrell’s eyes grew wide. The wind changed direction, blowing Autumn’s long honey hair into her face.
Hands flew to mouths as everyone started choking, Tina making tiny retching sounds.
Uh-oh, Autumn thought. I should have known better.
The stench rolling off the meadow was impossible to ignore. It hijacked their lungs, nestled into the membranes of their noses, coated their tongues.
A fetid redolence encompassed the campers, the presence of death too much for Autumn to handle. Eyes watering, she dropped the tentacle, hands grasping her knees, stomach heaving.
“Oh my God,” Carrie gasped between bouts of vomit splashing her and Dan’s boots.
She was the first to pass out.
But not the last.
movies, reading forbidden books and wishing Bigfoot would walk past
his house. He’s the author of over 17 books, including The
Jersey Devil (Pinnacle 2016)), Tortures of the
Damned (Pinnacle 2015), and We Are Always
Watching (Sinister Grin). Hunter’s novels can even be found on
display at the International Cryptozoology Museum. The Montauk
Monster (Pinnacle 2014) was named one of the best reads of the
summer by Publishers Weekly. He was selected to be part of the
launch of Samhain Publishing’s new horror line in 2011 alongside
legendary author Ramsey Campbell. His video podcast, Monster
Men, is one of the most watched horror podcasts in the world. Living
with his crazy and supportive family and two cats, he’s happy to be
close enough to New York City to see the skyline without having to
pay New York rent.
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