Annie wrapped her cardigan tighter around her chest and her fingers tighter around her coffee mug.
She was the first one up today. Always a morning person, Annie was used to tip-toeing around the apartment while Troy and Abed slept in. She was not, however, used to waking up with a companion, nearly having a heart attack when she remembered WHO that companion was, and then sneaking stealthily out of said companion's bed.
A thick fog had rolled in overnight and with it, a quiet chill. The mountain air was damp, but fresh. Normally, her mind raced with to-do lists, worries, and come-back lines that she wished she had thought of when they were actually relevant.
But this morning, sitting on the porch chair surrounded by a cloud so dense she could barely make out the cars parked nearby, Annie felt enveloped in a peaceful, content little bubble.
The door to the cabin creaked open. Elijah and Jordan inched through it, stifling giggles and shutting it silently behind them. They jumped a little when they saw Annie.
"Good morning." She smiled broader than she normally would have, a bit ashamed that she held a grudge against a 10- and 12-year-old for stealing her bedroom last night and making her sleep with... not that she slept with... well, anyway.
"You're up early," she continued. "Where are you going?"
"We're going to the beach!" the younger one, Jordan, exclaimed.
"Yeah," Elijah piped up. "We're looking for treasure."
Annie laughed. "Aww that sounds like fun! But it's too foggy today."
"I know, right..." Elijah looked around in awe. "This is going to make it SO. MUCH. BETTER."
The boys headed down the porch steps, and Annie jumped to her feet, setting her coffee mug on the banister.
"Wait! You really shouldn't go out there. You can't see anything, it's just not safe..."
"Yeah, OK, mom." They kept walking down the steps anyway.
Well, forget the peaceful, content little bubble. Annie glanced nervously back at the cabin wall, really wishing anyone else was awake right now.
You know what? Forget that. They were kids. Just kids. And she was the adult in charge. She would put her foot down, be assertive, make eye contact, and they would just have to listen to her. Yes.
Pulling herself up to her full height (which, in all honesty, was barely more than Elijah), she said firmly: "Boys! I'll... I'll tell your mother! Yeah, that's right. We'll see what she has to say about this!"
Elijah and Jordan stopped and looked at each other.
A-ha! That's right, munchkins. Annie's out here laying down the law-
With two little "whoop!"s, the rascals turned and charged into the fog.
What? That making eye contact thing typically achieved results. Annie lunged after them quickly enough to grab Jordan's backpack. He wiggled out of it and kept running.
Annie set off at a full sprint after the hollering kids, tossing the backpack to the ground.
By the time she caught up with them, they had slowed to a walk, following the path down to the lake.
"This is just like that movie, The Mist," Elijah said.
"What's that?" Jordan asked.
"It's a horror movie," Elijah spoke in a low, slow voice. "There are evil creatures out in the fog... big monsters with six legs and tentacles, and if you go outside, they'll EAT YOU."
"Ooook," Annie glanced around anxiously, although there wasn't really a point. She couldn't see more than five feet in front of her. "Why don't we just tone it back, huh?"
"THAT. SOUNDS. AWESOME!" Jordan jumped up and pumped a fist in the air.
The path finally let out onto the beach, and they followed the slope of the field grasses down toward the water.
"Hey! Look at this!" Elijah pointed to a little orange light flickering through the fog.
As they got closer, the edge of a makeshift fire pit came into view. It was a simple hole in the sand, rimmed with damp driftwood, and a still smoldering ember in the center. A wispy trail of smoke danced upward to become one with the fog.
"Sweet!" Elijah and Jordan jumped around excitedly. "We can totally have a bonfire!"
They had passed other houses on their drive up the mountain yesterday, but none that she could remember within at least a mile of here. And yet someone had been on this beach... recently.
"Boys, we need to go."
They ignored her, continuing to talk excitedly about what foods to roast on the fire.
Jeff had seen a footprint outside last night. And though he played it off, she was pretty sure he had actually seen a person out there, too. And what if Abed was right about the spirits?
"I'm serious... Let's go back to the cabin, please."
The fire was still smoldering. Someone could be there now, watching them, waiting, ready to... There was a reason she didn't watch horror movies.
"I SAID GET BACK HERE RIGHT NOW!"
The boys stopped short at the unexpected outburst.
Seconds later, a scream pierced the sky.
The three of them whipped around and, without uttering another word, charged back toward the cabin.
Troy woke with a start and sat bolt upright, wobbling on the flimsy air mattress. He had heard two little "whoop!"s and muffled voices outside.
Britta was snoring beside him. (That's annoying. Noted.) He looked over at the figure on the couch. Abed was awake too, only his eyes and fingertips visible above the blanket. He wiggled his eyebrows.
They both rose and crept toward the front door, greeted by nothing but silence and heavy mist when they stepped onto the porch. They stood shoulder to shoulder; arms crossed.
"It's an ethereal fog," Abed whispered. "Almost, otherworldly."
"And cold," Troy nodded sagely. "Almost, too cold. You don't think..."
In unison: "We're not in Colorado anymore."
"This," Abed said, gesturing around with a pointed finger, "is Jumanji. And soon, it will begin."
He spotted Annie's steaming mug of coffee on the porch banister and picked it up curiously. The two men gave each other meaningful looks.
As if on cue, a wail came from inside the cabin.
Sharing another knowing glance, they stepped back inside.
Jeff staggered bleary-eyed out of his bedroom.
Britta tripped off the air mattress onto the living room floor. "What's going on?" she slurred.
Shirley barreled into the living room, holding Ben; Andre hot on her heels. "Have you seen my babies?"
Troy and Abed exchanged another glance.
"What was that look?" Shirley shrieked. They had never seen her so loud and flustered. "You know where they are?"
"AHHHHHHH!" Pierce surged into the room waving a fire poker over his head.
Everyone ducked and shouted: "AHHHHHHH!"
"Pierce! Put that thing away!" Jeff yanked the fire poker out of his hands.
"What's happening?" Pierce demanded. "Who screamed?"
"Tell me where my children are or so help me...!" Shirley dropped Ben in Troy's arms and got as close to Abed's face as she could.
"We haven't seen them," Abed said, as nonchalant as ever. "But you should probably look outside." He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder toward the door.
"Shirley's kids are missing?" Pierce asked. Thinking about the footprint from last night, he glanced at a very tense Jeff. "You don't think..."
"The jungle has claimed its first victims."
"Abed! Stop it!" Jeff shook the fire poker. Everyone ducked again. He threw it to the floor.
Shirley let out an extended whimper, and she and Andre ran outside.
"Why should they look outside?" Britta asked. "What's out there?"
Abed wiggled his eyebrows again.
"Also, where's Annie?" Pierce asked, looking around.
Before Pierce had even finished the question, Jeff swung back around into the bedroom. Jerked awake by Shirley's wail moments before, he hadn't even thought to check for Annie before rushing out of the room. The bed was empty. So was the bathroom.
Britta narrowed her eyes. "And why would you look for her in there..."
"There was a coffee cup outside," Troy offered quietly. "It was probably hers."
Jeff paced the living room, looking a little wild.
"I'll text her." Britta got out her phone. "Nevermind, no service."
Abed stared intently at the floor, eyes darting from side to side. "She rolled the danger card last night. It was an open door. Troy," Abed shot a sharp look at his friend. "Annie is the one who opened the gateway to Jumanji."
"Enough!" Jeff rounded on Abed.
He had tried to protect the group by not telling them about the figure running into the woods last night, and now three people were missing. Annie was missing. His guilt was in overdrive. "This isn't a game anymore! Snap out of whatever fantasy world you've conjured up for yourself this time and get serious!"
"Jeff, leave him alone. He's just trying to cope."
"We're all trying to cope, Britta. But pretending some ghosts jumped out of a board game and dragged Annie and the kids to Kingdom Come isn't helping anyone!"
"Technically, they didn't jump out of the game. We got pulled into it."
Jeff looked about ready to punch Abed in the face.
"I warned you this would happen if nobody reached the game board center."
Before the two could argue further, a scream pierced the sky. The group bolted out the door just as Shirley stepped into view, holding Jordan's abandoned backpack.
Note: I hope you're enjoying the "Supernatural Ecology" Series! Writing a true ensemble story is proving to be an incredibly fun challenge, and I'm so happy to share it with you as it unfolds! Leave me some comments below to let me know what you think! :)