Josh Darling is an award-winning, bestselling author and ghostwriter. The main focus of his work is horror, with a few entries in the crime genre. His short works have been published in The Book Ends Review, The Horror Zine, and numerous anthologies. Born on Long Island, he has traveled the US extensively searching for experience. Currently, he lives in Bennington, Vermont.


by Josh Darling


The nightmares started when the hippies and the bats showed up. They were always the same. Always painful. Always in the middle of the forest. He hated nature, so being in a clearing surrounded by trees made no sense.

He’d never go that deep into the forest.

He’d never lie face down on the ground.

He hated touching dirt. It was filled with germs and parasites—it’s how the mold would get him.

It would start by eating away at his bespoke dress shirt. The green mold turned the fabric to dust. A black-and-green line ate at his skin as mold turned his flesh into dirt. It was transforming him into the forest floor. A panicked breath in, and the spores entered his lungs. The mold began to consume him from the inside out.

In the reoccurring dream, he’d die before he’d wake.


A knocking on the trailer’s door woke Randolph. Groggy, his eyes opened, and he felt hot. He didn’t want to be staying in the construction trailer, in the middle of the woods, but he didn’t trust those fucking hippies who’d set up their protest on the property line bordering The Great Tree National Forest.

The land his investment group purchased was 340 acres of woodlands as voted on by the Litchfield town assembly for development. While there may have been some bribes and blackmail of the assemblymen to make it happen, the fact is, GenCorp Ltd. partners Inc. won the vote.

That the bulk of the construction would bring jobs to the community—this was a lie. Many of the construction workers were from out of state. Some of the welders commuted three or four hours from Albany or Boston. None of the Hicks living here would be able to afford one of the ski lodges. The locals could clean up after the Manhattan professionals looking for a place to escape to over the weekend who didn’t want to spend five hours on a plane to Aspen, so they’d settle for Vermont.

The knock at the door came again.

Randolph shouted to the door, “Gimme a minute.”

He looked at his phone. The first text was from the site foreman, Rob Casella, which read: “I’ve got three guys calling out. They say they have a fever. They need doc notes, or they’re fired. I don’t know how much this will set us back, maybe half a day, but I’m not tolerating this bullshit. I’ll be at the cave in the morning.”

Randolph nodded and silently thought, That’s the only way to handle it.

The next text was from Stacy: “I’m having surgery in two days. Don’t you want to see me before?”

He texted back: “I’ll be there if I can get these hippies to go home.”

Since watching The Real Housewives of [he didn’t care what city], Stacy had gotten plastic surgery, starting with a facelift and fillers in her lips. The one surgery he’d been asking her to get, breast augmentation, she was finally getting. She was pretty, but he wanted her to look a bit more like a movie star, or at least a MILF porn star. Was it too much for a husband to ask? He paid for her to stay home on Connecticut’s Gold Coast and do nothing. Granted, she did the mommy thing. But how hard is taking care of their two spawn?

Randolph sent his wife photos of the hippie leader Kai when they first showed up. He joked the king of the hippies looks like Vogue Magazine designed a sexy Jesus for this Easter. She joked back she’d gotten hot flashes. At least, he hoped it was a joke.

There was a cautious rapping at the trailer’s door. Randolph had a row of shoes to choose from. Sneakers, loafers, slippers, and work boots, which he pulled onto his feet and worked the laces.

Outside the door, a worker in flannel and a hardhat looked up at him. “We’ve got an issue.”

Randolph cocked his head to the side. “What is it?”

The man raised his hand at a tractor. The cab’s front window was smashed. “Pigs raping nature!” covered the side in red spray paint.

Randolph said, “Why isn’t that thing moving? I don’t care what it looks like…we’ve got work to do.”

Catching shenanigans like these is why he’d been sleeping in the trailer, and yet somehow he had missed this one. He checked the security cameras, but most people knew, if they got a laser pointer and shined it into the camera, it pretty much disabled the thing. How did he not hear them doing this?

The worker looked at his boots. “Beside smashing the window, they cut the ignition wires.”

“Mother-fucking hippies.”

The small, hippie camp of a dozen tents was set up on the property line. They hadn’t woken up yet. They didn’t do much. They’d sit in camping chairs with signs and shout at the workers. At night, they’d form a drum circle around a bonfire, smoke weed, and eat vegan hotdogs or whatever shit they stuffed into their face holes.

Randolph returned to his trailer and got an air horn.

He strode across the construction site, past the tractor, straight to the middle of the hippies’ camp like he was heading to war. He stopped outside a red tent with two pairs of boots and a hand-painted didgeridoo and djembe on the mat outside.

Pointing the air horn at the tent, he held down the button for a solid second.


Kai unzipped the tent. He wrapped a cloth around his hips. He stood shirtless, his muscular frame covered in tribal tattoos. Inside the tent, a naked twenty-something woman pulled a sleeping bag over herself.

Kai confronted the construction leader. They knew all about each other. “Randy, bro, what the fuck?”

Under Randolph’s Facebook intro, he put, “Don’t call me Randy.”

Which was exactly why Kai called him Randy.

Kai stood barefoot on the cold autumn earth and listened to what Randolph said. “There will be repercussions for what you guys did last night. I’m looking over the security tapes and calling the police.”

Kai watched Randolph’s hands tremble with anger. He knew that Randolph couldn’t lose more time on this project. Kai knew he wanted to go home. He wanted hot meals and four-star takeout.

“Last night, you fucked with one of my tractors. Know there will be a reckoning.”

“A reckoning?” Kai laughed.

“A God damn reckoning.”

“Like in The Bible, a reckoning?”

“I can bring down Rico statues on all of you working as an eco-terrorist organization. The actions of one of you will be held against all of you. You’ll go down for terrorism—that’s what vandalizing a construction vehicle is.”

Kai smiled. “You can reckon that all you want, but none of us did it.”       

He watched Randolph stomp toward his trailer. Halfway there, he turned, “A reckoning is upon you.”

“Hey, Moses, be sure and include some frogs and locusts with that reckoning. But I’m telling you, none of us in this camp touched your tractor.”

“Fuck you, Kai.”

“God bless.” Kai waved.


There were thousands of them.

An ammonia halitosis rolled from the mouth of the cave. Excluded by accident from the land survey, the discovery of the cave happened when the sun started setting earlier. Thousands of bats swarmed into the air as workers got into their cars to leave for home.

The next day, some idiot workers went to the cave, scared the bats, got them to fly out of the cave, and then the bats returned to it. None of the workers were bitten. Rabies on the worksite wasn’t a worry…for now.

The dark bat-shit on the floor looked like dust…just like the line of soft black mold eating his skin in his nightmares.

The bats might fuck up the sales value of the condo resort. No one wanted flying mice surrounding their home every sunset. Randolph would have gassed those bats if the hippies hadn’t already seen them.

Now, he was heading into the stupid cave with a stupid animal control inspector from the county to determine if the bats were any of the three species of endangered bats native to Vermont. The inspector was a lean woman with a clipboard and a flashlight.

Randolph pressed a fist to the bridge of his nose. “God damned flying rodents. This cave stinks.”

“They’re primates,” Carmen said. “And what you smell is called guano. Smells a bit like ammonia.”


“There’s massive speculation that bats are actually primates, not rodents. Which would also explain why disease transmission between bats and humans is so common.”

“They’re flying mice to me.”

“Do me a favor, keep your voice down, I don’t want to spook them. It’s daylight and right now they’re sleeping.”

“Spook them?”

She turned on her flashlight and made a slow pass over a few hundred bats that were resting on the cave’s ceiling. With her cell phone, she snapped a photo of the roost.

“So, what do we have here?” Randolph said.

“I told you to lower your voice. These are Northern Long-Eared Bats, and they are endangered in Vermont.”

“Big fuckin’ deal. How do I get rid of them?”

“I just told you—they’re endangered.”

“You’re not answering my question!”

“You can’t get rid of them; they’re endangered. You can’t touch them in any way.”

“What if they were all suddenly dead? You know, an unfortunate freak of nature?”

“I’ve documented that they’re here, okay? You’d better not harm them in any way. The federal penalty per violation is up to one year in jail and a fifty thousand dollar fine.”

“I’m putting up condos a quarter of a mile from here,” Randolph said.

“They only roost like this during the fall and winter. We’ve had some warm nights. It’s why they’ve probably come out a few times at sundown. Usually they hibernate at this time of year, but global warming is giving us nights in the fifties when they need to be in the thirties, so the bats come out and eat. Come spring, they should be gone.”

“I want them gone now!” he shouted.

The animal control inspector suddenly ducked, because a torrent of frightened bats shot for the mouth of the cave. They swarmed Randolph.

With bats blasting past him, he ran for daylight. She joined him, but she didn’t run; she walked.

When she caught up with Randolph, they went through the woods together, following the noise of machines moving earth and cutting down trees. There was no trail. He followed the inspector. She moved with firm steps over the leaf-covered ground.

Halfway to the construction site, she stopped.

“Were you bitten?” She turned on her flashlight and shined it in his eyes. “By the way, I saw the plans you have for this place. I think what you’re doing is disgusting. You don’t need to clear cut that much forest and golf courses are a blight on the environment.”

“It’s for the good of the whole community. I don’t feel any bites on me.”

“Their mouths are so tiny, you might not feel anything. Rabies is transmitted by saliva, but Ebola and various forms of hemorrhagic fever can be transmitted from contact with bat feces. You know, the guano. Maybe you’d better talk to a doctor.”

“You’re as bad as the hippies. Fucking bleeding hearts. I wasn’t bitten and I sure as hell don’t have Ebola. Are those bats really endangered?”

“You’ll get an email that will have my report attached.”


Back at the site, Randolph paused outside his trailer, catching his breath from the hike. He was a smoker and his diet was bad so he wasn’t surprised that he was out of shape.

The tractor hadn’t been fixed, and he assumed the police hadn’t come by yet to document the damage. He knew the townspeople were pissed with the development project. It would probably take another call to the police before someone would come out.

His cell phone picked up a signal again. A text from Stacy: “It’s fucked up that I’m going into surgery and you’re not here for me. You’re a real piece of shit for not responding to the mother of your children, who works hard for us to have a nice life together—the day before I’m getting an operation, WTF!!!”

Leaning against the door of his trailer, he texted back: “You’re not having open-heart surgery. You’re going to take three to five days off from the nothing you don’t do all day. Bother Ari’s wife or something. You might be feeling needy, but the bats are endangered, the hippies are wrecking our tractors at night, and I have to pay for your surgery.”

He turned his phone’s ringer off.

Opening the door to his trailer, he entered. Before trying the police again, he needed a power nap.


He was in the middle of the clearing, lying on the ground. This time, he could place it. It was where the hippies set up camp. But they were gone. He was pinned to the forest floor. Lichen and moss expanded over his skin, sickening and weakening him. The trees extended over him, their branches preventing flight into a gray sky.

She walked out from the ring of white pines.

White-ink tattoos of roots permeated her skin. They matched the same white route pattern that covered her semi-translucent dress. The material looked like tracing paper. She stood over him. Her youthful, tight skin contrasted with the white dreadlocks that hung level with her belly button.

Her face reminded him of something delicate. Her light-green irises were huge and displaced most of the white and her eyes.

Randolph wasn’t scared. He was never scared. “Are you here to tell me to drop the vandalism charges? ‘Cause I won’t rest until Kai is in jail.”

“It’s going to stop.” Her voice was very feminine but firm.

“The vandalism is going to stop? Great, you just admitted to it.”

“No. The construction will stop. My message won’t stop.”

“Which line of New Age bullshit are you selling?”

Even though he was projecting bravado, Randolph hesitated. She wasn’t that big, but she was sexy, toned, feral, and natural—her smell was the musk of honeysuckle and earth after rain.

What the fuck was he thinking? She was just another dirty hippie, yet he felt pulled to her; a crazy desire he hadn’t known in years.

Ache spread through his joints.

The mold broke through his muscles.

He couldn’t get up off the ground. He couldn’t even hold his head up to look at her.

“This is over—that is my message,” she said.

“You’re very pretty. Maybe we could reach an agreement over the tractor?”

“You have nothing I want. I am the forest. I am the trees. I am the animals. I am the living Earth. The numbers of man are too great, so a culling must begin. And you shall take my message from your cousins, the bats.”

“Fuck you with your crazy hippie bullshit. I own this land. You won’t stop me from developing this land. You’re a person, and people need to live somewhere.”

“No, it’s me that allows people to live at all. But there must be harmony.”

“You slipped me something! What drug did you dirty hippies give me?” He coughed. Dust fell from his mouth and spread on the ground. The taste in his mouth reminded him of expensive French cheese.

“From the bats inside me, I birthed a disease so you shall let me be. When humans relent, and I can heal, then I will relent as well.”


Text alerts woke him. He was annoyed because he thought he had turned the ringer off.

Sweat soaked his shirt, but he felt cold. He wondered if it was a vivid dream or if he’d been doped. He’d never done psychedelic drugs. Speed and cocaine to get the job done, but nothing to alter his state of consciousness.

Looking out of the Venetian blinds of the trailer, he eyed the hippie encampment. They were still there, so it had to have been a dream after all. In fact, they were building a bonfire.

Randolph noticed the sun setting. Workers were getting into their trucks and cars, ready to head out to the bars and then home. The welders were gone. They always knocked off early with the long drives ahead of them.

He’d slept too long.

Stacy texted a picture of her tits, and said: “The girls will be busy for the next six weeks, but I doubt you’ll be seeing them for way longer than that.”

He texted back: “I’m coming home.”

He was tempted to add he didn’t feel good. But it was better to let her think he was coming home to her and the kids because he loved them, not because he was possibly getting sick.

He ignored the texts and calls from Rob and a name he didn’t recognize.

Wanting a peaceful drive home, he made sure the ringer was turned off this time.

Two hours into the ride, he pulled off the road in Greenfield, Massachusetts. His stomach turned against him, so he pulled into a McDonald’s near the exit. He couldn’t stop sweating but felt so cold, even with the BMW’s heater blasting him.

Rushing to the bathroom, he noticed people looking at him.

A small child pointed at his face.

Seeing the bathroom mirror, he realized he’d sweated so much that he didn't notice the streaks of blood running from his eyes. His stomach made bubbling noises. Running for the toilet, he got his pants down in time. Relieving himself gave him a break from stomach cramps. While sitting on the toilet, he dabbed his face with toilet paper.

Returning to the driver’s seat, he caught his breath and checked his phone. He received a bunch of texts. What the fuck? He knew he had turned the ringer off. He didn’t want to bother with any texts. He turned the ringer off…again.

Starting the car, the gas light came on. There was a gas station a few storefronts down from the McDonald’s.

After filling the car with gas, he headed inside the station. He needed water so badly.

He grabbed a liter of Smart Water and got in line behind some teenagers. That’s when the first light coughs came.

He didn’t even notice that the teens cleared out when the clerk behind the counter said, “You don’t look too good; you need some help?”

“No, what? I’m just…well, I do feel a little sick.”

“I know it’s not my place, but do you want me to call an ambulance or something?”

“I’m fine. I’m heading home, and I’ll get some rest there.”

His stomach twisted. He needed the water bad. He put it on the counter. The clerk picked up the bottle of water and scanned it. Randolph put his AMEX card in the chip reader.

As though through a fog, he heard the clerk say, “Dude, you okay?”


“You’ve been standing there for, like, five minutes. You need to put in your pin number.”

“Sorry, I must’ve zoned out; I haven’t been getting any good sleep lately.”

He typed in the numbers, hit enter, and coughed blood all over the clerk.

“Shit, man, that’s not cool! You need to take yourself and whatever disease you have out of here…right now!

“I’m sorry; really, I am.” He took the water bottle, unscrewed the cap, swigged, and shuffled out the door.

In the car, he looked at his phone again. There were dozens of missed calls and texts. He figured the texts would be from Stacy, but two were from Rob and another was from someone named Janet Tolarsky. He didn’t recognize her name.

Wait, how come the ringer was on again? He needed to take his phone a store to get that fixed.

The first text from Rob said: “I've got fourteen more guys calling out sick. I’ve got this bug too.”

The second said, “Bro, I’m in the hospital, this is hemorrhagic fever; the doctors are running tests but with treatment, they’re figuring it’ll pass in two weeks. But they’re calling in the CDC.”

The text from the name he didn’t recognize: “Hi, my name is Dr. Janet Tolarsky. I’m a virologist with the CDC. I know you’re about to leave for the day, but please stay there. Members of your construction crew have contracted hemorrhagic fever, specifically Marburg. This is the same type of fever as Ebola. It is extremely lethal. Please, call me back at this number ASAP. We’re sending a crew to your worksite. Please, keep everyone there. Containment is key. Again: NO ONE CAN LEAVE.”

He checked his call log. There were dozens of missed calls.

Still seated in his car, he realized that he could barely keep his eyes open.

He dialed a number…and tried to speak but only mumbled.

The voice on the other end said, “Is this Randolph? This is Janet Tolarsky. I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for the last hour. I need all of your employee records. We need to stop this before we have a major pandemic. This is serious. Where are you?”

He coughed. “I’m on my way home. The construction has stopped. I’m doing what the woods told me…in the hopes that she’ll let me live.”