Episode 70: The Secret in the Garden (Part 1) – Halloween 2021

     Six friends.

     A borrowed camper.

     A recipe for adventure… and disaster.

     The group of friends had been planning this trip for ages. After getting permission to visit the picturesque area known as the Garden, they set out to find the perfect spot where they could have their camping adventure. They researched a place known as the Outer Limits Campground. That location was a remote site at the edge of what people considered explored territory. Whenever that edge moved, the Campground did as well, finding a new spot to call home.

     The Outer Limits Campground also offered to rent camper vans, but getting one was nearly impossible. Thankfully, one of Bruce Stafford’s main jobs back in his hometown was stealing cars for the crew that had taken him in when he was alone. He was easily able to locate a camper big enough for their group, and they waited until the rental booth was closed for a few days before slipping over a few fences and letting Bruce get to work.

Bruce and Kevin talk about the camper.

     “I like this yellow one. Number Eight,” Kevin Anderson, a young man in his mid-twenties with short blond hair and an enthusiastic smile spoke as he climbed inside one of the parked campers. “It’s a good pick. Retro. Makes me think of home.”

     “I’m not particularly fond of it,” Bruce Stafford answered, stepping around and opening the driver’s side door, reaching under the dashboard to start his work. “That being said, it’s similar in design to some of the vehicles back home. I can handle this one.”

     “Uh huh,” Kevin replied. “So, what about fuel and stuff?”

     “This camper has plenty. Nothing wild. It should get us to our destination.”

     “Right. We’re explorers now, Bruce,” Kevin said with a chuckle.

     “I don’t want to be an explorer. They have dinosaurs out here, Kevin. Real dinosaurs with teeth and claws that want to eat us.”

     “I’m sorry, what was that about dinosaurs?” Susan Staple asked. She was young, with long blonde hair, and she had been the most excited about these camping plans until now. She climbed inside the camper beside Kevin. “I was told that this is a camping trip, not some adventure into untamed wilds.”

Susan expressing concern about dangers in the Garden.

     “It’s both,” Kevin said with a smile. “Adventure!”

     “So why is Justice here then?” Susan asked, turning to look outside at the most reserved member of the group. Young Justice wore glasses, held a book on electromagnetism, and her hair was cut in a perfectly bland fashion that showed she dare not risk it with a style.

     “I can be fun too,” Justice Becket called back, making a rude gesture at Susan. “I’m here for the storms! On our old World Ship, there was a study that intense electromagnetic storms were a sign of a weakness in the fabric of reality, and if given enough power, someone might be able to pierce the veil of space and time. Some folks say that’s where—”

     “Oh my goodness gracious,” Susan said, rolling her eyes. “This is what you call fun?”

     “Witnessing a potential portal to another reality is definitely fun,” Justice replied, laughing a bit at her own response.

     “Hey, speaking of breaking and entering,” Tamara Becket, Justice’s older sister, spoke up. She was thirty, the oldest of the group, and while she was here under the pretense that she wanted to see the storm, the others knew she was just keeping an eye on Justice. “Are you guys sure we’ll be able to pull off this heist without the camp people knowing?”

      “Absolutely,” Ted Nannet answered. Ted was the group’s last member and was sitting in the passenger seat and sipping on a cola while he watched Bruce working on the wires. “The rental place is closed for several days, no one is inspecting the vehicles nightly. We go out, see the storms, then come back with cool pictures, fun stories to share, and no one is the wiser.”

     “Assuming Bruce can make it look like we definitely didn’t steal the camper,” Susan added.

     “Right,” Ted nodded.

     Tamara rolled her eyes. “Great. So we’re all going to jail.”

     “Does this place even have a jail?” Ted scoffed. “The whole population here is a collection of innocent and trusting weirdos that would just as soon believe no one is capable of grand theft auto! They have an entire village that’s just… holiday season… all year.”

     Kevin laughed. “He’s not wrong.”

     “Yeah, well, they let us live here,” Tamara replied. “I’m not going to attack ‘em.”

     “Steal from them,” Bruce said with a chuckle from under the dash. “Just not attack them.”

     Tamara’s cheeks became flushed, and she stepped off to check on Justice. Bruce had just finished putting the final touches on his splicing work, and now he had an easy way to start and stop the vehicle. Hopefully it would be easy enough to revert when they returned.

     “Okay,” he said. “Ready to roll.”

     “Excellent,” Kevin said. “Let’s go find that drone!”

     Their destination was a location known as The Hill. It was a high and flat area that had been identified by a survey drone far beyond explored territory. When the drone had run out of battery on its return voyage, it landed on The Hill. The Explorers said they had landed it there because it was highly visible and would serve as a marker for future exploration missions. Kevin wanted this to be a kind of extreme camping trip. The first thing he wanted to do was find this drone and have the group put their names on it with spray paint. A camping trip with a fun thrill, that’s all he really wanted out of this. Susan Staple and Ted Nannek had signed up for the same reason. They wanted to spend time with one another, and a remote camping trip in the wilderness would give them plenty of space and alone time. Bruce Zocco had, more or less, done the same. He liked Tamara a lot, but he didn’t know if she felt the same way. He figured a camping trip with her and her sister might be a good time to see how he fit in with them, because Bruce knew liking Tamara meant having to get along with Justice too. They seemed to operate as a pair. They had lost their parents years before, and Tamara never let Justice wander too far. He hoped after this trip, they might want to spend more time together.

Bruce and the others head away with the yellow camper.

     After a long time driving through the woods, as the afternoon light was fading, the camper finally reached its destination.

     Bruce drove them up the clearing, where they all spotted the drone. Bruce knew it was supposed to be big, but as he parked the camper next to it, he realized it was almost the same size as their vehicle.

     “Alright!” Kevin shouted. “We made it!”

     “Good thing,” Tamara said from the back. “I am getting hungry. Let’s start dinner.”

     “We gotta set up camp first,” Justice said. “The storms start a few hours after the sun sets. They roll in quickly, so I want to make sure we’re ready to shelter if necessary.”

     “Again,” Susan spoke up. “Not a shining example of fun.”

The camper arrives at the hill.

     Bruce chuckled, then shut off the camper’s main engine. The camper used a power crystal that would give them clean energy while they camped. It was more than enough to run some lights, a small stove, and whatever other accessories the group had brought. It would probably need to be replaced by the time they brought it back, but Bruce wasn’t super worried about that minor detail. Instead, he turned his attention to Tamara, smiling at her.

    By the time they had unloaded all of their supplies, the storm clouds had already rolled in from the far horizon of the Garden. No one had set foot this far away from civilization before, and there was something exciting about being the first ones to do it. Looking at the looming storms in the distance, though, Bruce wondered how much of this place was still uncharted. What other secrets might be looming out there in the unknown?

     A flash of lightning ripped across the sky, a fierce bolt that clearly struck the ground far away from them. It was close enough that the thunder boomed in the sky above, but the lightning itself had been different. Was it brighter? Was the bolt just bigger than some of the others? He stared off, waiting for another bolt, but when it flashed again, it seemed somehow normal. He wondered if he’d just imagined something unique about that single strike.

     “Bruce!” Kevin shouted. “Help us set up the grill!”

     Bruce nodded, stepping over to the grill that Kevin had set up next to the camper so that he could start cooking up some of the new Willow Farm Chicken Dogs that everyone had been so excited to try… a tube of ground chicken. Bruce frowned at the uninspired dish, but started up the grill and got to work.

The campers get the site ready.

     Above them, the sky was starting to fill up with ominous clouds. 

     “So,” Bruce started talking to Justice as he cooked. “Excited about the storm out there?”

     Justice nodded energetically. “There’s something about it, right? I don’t know what, but there’s something going on here.”

     “Yeah, it seems like it. Listen, Ted is still pushing us to use tents, but most of us are going to stay in the camper tonight. Tamara said you might want to do the same.”

     Justice rolled her eyes. She looked like she was about to reject her sister’s suggestion, but then a flash of lightning hit close enough to them that it lit up the darkened sky. The thunder exploded loudly, and the girl nodded. “Alright. The camper then.”

     A half hour later, sheets of rain were pouring down outside. The wind was howling, and Ted’s small tent was getting battered by the storm. Their friend had refused to join them, and he was holed up in his tent now, blasting music in the night and hopefully staying dry.

     From inside the camper, Susan was watching his tent, well lit by the equipment they’d set up before the rain arrived. She frowned. She had hoped to spend some time with him, but he had made it clear she had to stay in the tent, or she was on her own.

     “Surely he wants to come in here,” Kevin said at last. “We’re all terrified for him out there. He’s going to get blown away in the storm. Justice said it’s going to be like this for hours. I can’t stay up all night watching the tent get hammered like that.”

A rainstorm washes out the campsite.

     “So what do you want to do about it?” Bruce asked, reclining in the driver’s chair with his eyes closed. “I can’t just go drag him out.”

     “Maybe we can bribe him or something?” Justice suggested. “We could give him one of the good seats.”

     Bruce gasped. “You want me to give up my seat?”

     “Not happening,” Tamara agreed from the front passenger seat. “I like it here. Besides, the rain is letting up.”

     Bruce glanced out and saw the rain was indeed thinning out. The wind had died down a bit too, making Ted’s tent look far less battered. “Look, if Ted wants to stay out in the rain and—”

     The camper rocked ever so slightly, causing Bruce to stop talking. Everyone felt it. They all went still. The wind and rain were all they could hear, and the heat inside the vehicle was fogging up the windows, obscuring some of the campsite.

     “Did you feel that?” Kevin finally asked.

     The vehicle rumbled, again and again, a tempo… an increasing tempo.

     “Guys,” Justice said, her voice filled with fear. “Kill the power.”

     Bruce didn’t question. He reached down, flipped the power switch, and the entire campsite went dark. The rumbling slowed, but it didn’t stop. It continued to grow more powerful.

     Thud. Thud. Thud.

A noise in the darkness unsettles the campers.

     On the camper’s right, Bruce could barely make out the shape of the drone, no more than ten feet from the vehicle. It took up most of his view, but then he saw the unmanned vehicle move.

     Only a bit. It just… shifted.

     Then, he saw a dark form behind the drone, something that easily towered over them.

     For a moment, he realized the rumbling had stopped. Now he understood why. The monster in the woods, the dinosaur, it was here. “George,” he said aloud.

     “Nobody should do anything,” Justice whispered. “It’s an animal, not a scientist. If it doesn’t find anything to fight or eat up here, it’ll move on.”

George looms over the camper van.

     “Oh no,” Susan said, her voice shrill with terror. “Ted!”

Bruce spun around to look at Ted’s tent. Their friend had just opened the flap on the tent, stepping out into the rain, probably trying to figure out why he had lost power. He had to have felt the rumbling, right? Didn’t he understand what was going on?

     George, the monstrous animal, moved around the drone.

     Ted turned, looking directly at the camper, confused by the situation.

Ted, confused by the rain and the dark.

     “Guys?” He called. “What’s the deal?”

     Bruce cursed, opening his door and shouting, “Run! Here! Now!”

     Ted saw it now. He saw George.

     Bruce flipped the switch and the camper’s motor fired up. “We grab him and we go!”

     The sound of the camper’s engine was drowned out by the thunder of George’s foot slamming next to the vehicle as it charged forward. Ted didn’t stand a chance. Bruce saw his face, saw the fear in the pale light, and then George snatched his friend away.

Ted is attacked by George.

     Before anyone could react, the creature’s tail smashed against the side of the camper. The muddy ground on the hill gave way from the impact, and the camper slid sideways. It hit the drone as it went, and the lightweight frame of the flyer twisted and moaned from the impact. That noise must have pulled George’s attention, because it turned to face the drone and bit down aggressively, tearing through the aluminum frame like it was foil. The camper began sliding down the hill.

George’s tail knocks the camper from the hill.

     Bruce twisted the steering wheel enough that the camper naturally rolled to face downhill, and then he pressed the gas, accelerating off the hilltop and into the woods below.

     “What about Ted!?” Susan asked loudly. “We can’t leave him!”

     “Didn’t you see what just happened?” Kevin shouted back, sounding equally hysterical.

     “Buckle up!” Bruce shouted. “Just buckle up and hold on!”

     “Keep driving as long as you can,” Justice called from the back. “George is going to chase us. He’s going to keep chasing us. We have to lose him or we’re all going to die!”

     Bruce pressed harder on the accelerator, careful not to spin the tires and get them stuck on the hillside. His mind flashed the mental images of moments ago, when he watched Ted get swept away by a wall of teeth and muscle, but he forced down the fear that he’d die that way too. He had one job now… keep the camper moving, and lose the dinosaur. Survive.

Bruce focuses on escaping from George.

To be continued…

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