Estimated reading time — 21 minutes
“Through me you go into a city of weeping;
Through me you go into eternal pain;
Through me you go amongst the lost people.”
– Dante’s Inferno
“Okay, you’re not driving if you keep that shit up.”
Mark snatched the keys from Scott’s hand, who couldn’t even bother to protest while shot gunning down his second twenty ounce can of beer. He belched loudly, wiping foam from his lips with the sleeve of his black trench coat.
“Yeah, why do you think I’m doing this? It’s been your turn to drive for at least thirty miles now.” He said, washing down the malt liquor with a sip from his flask, as an extra assurance that he was well past the legal limit. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to stock up on cheap vodka and poptarts. Back in a minute.”
From the gas pump, Josh checked his phone for the time. “Make it quick Scott, I’d like to get to Ashville before noon.” The fourth member of the group, Chloe, was tuned out of the conversation by her headphones. To her, this trip was about padding her portfolio with black and white photographs of crumbling buildings. The sort of thing that would make her look well rounded without requiring any real effort. They all had their reasoning for traveling to Ashville, Kentucky.
Mark wanted to have a kind of fun, kind of spooky adventure, and maybe get a little closer to Chloe. Josh wanted to show people how coal mining destroys homes, ecosystems, and natural beauty. And Scott, well he wanted to check up on his childhood home. And drink, heavily of course. Together, they were legend tripping, the age old practice of visiting strange locations of urban myths. Places such as the Baird chair monument, the Screaming Beaches, or the Spider Gates Cemetery. Popular sites frequently visited by tour groups or rowdy teenagers, locations with a history of the tragic, the horrific, or just plain old supernatural acclaim. Anyone with an authentic sense of skepticism who has visited those places knows that a haunting is nothing more than psychological priming. Stories that are just that; scary words that mean nothing but still manage to trick the lizard brain into pricking up neck hairs. And for the most part this was the working assumption of Ashville. The only discernable difference was the scale, Ashville being an entire town rather than a bridge or farmhouse.
“Let’s a go-go!” Scott shouted as he tossed his alcohol into the backseat of his 2003 piece of shit Saturn. Josh hung the gas pump and Mark turned the ignition, and they were off to the hills. Approximately nine minutes later, Mark had a thought.
“You didn’t pay for those, did you?” He asked Scott, now irritated with his increasingly erratic behavior.
“Of course not idiot,” he replied, beginning to open his toaster pastry with his teeth. “You guys didn’t want to cover an even split of the gas. Now I gotta steal stuff. Really it’s more your fault than mine.” Scott took a bite of the crumbling frosted deliciousness without concern.
“You’re a goddamn asshole, you know that right?” Scott just chuckled to himself. At this point in the journey, there wasn’t anything any of them could realistically do to get back at him. It was Scott’s car, and he was the only one of the four who knew how to get into Ashville. In the fifteen years since it was abandoned, no new road maps had any of the town printed within a ten mile radius. GPS wouldn’t register the place, and the two bridges that lead into the town had been demolished and marked up with roadblocks just in case someone ended up going in the wrong direction. Plus, the county sheriff patrol was under the orders to arrest anyone trespassing within the city limits. Scott knew how to get around these barriers, having lived in the town until the age of ten, committing large portions of the geography to his long term memory.
After a few minutes of silence, Josh decided to start working on his environmental project, asking Scott to talk about what he remembered about his family’s forced removal from their property. He held up a digital audio recorder close to Scott.
“It was October 2nd, 1999, at approximately 8:13 a.m. on a Thursday, when the National Guard banged on our front door. There was overcast, a slight rain with a temperature of 74 degrees Fahrenheit. The school had been closed the previous day due to its close proximity to the fires.” Scott narrated as coherently as he could. It helped that his memory was better than most, even while drunk. It didn’t hurt either that he had practiced his speech earlier with Josh at the motel. “They told us that the sulfur that had been ignited by the anthracite coal was oxidizing in the clouds to produce sulfurous and sulfuric acid rain. The governor had declared eminent domain over everyone’s properties while the EPA tried to clean up the mess. We were given twenty four hours to vacate before the rising carbon monoxide levels reached lethal concentration, but suggested we leave as soon as possible. My dad threw a fit, swearing at the soldiers about a conspiracy to steal his land and mineral rights. They tried to assure him that he would be compensated and given a new home in Frankfort. He and my mom had been fighting all night about leaving. She wanted to go, he wanted to stay, but there was no convincing him. He had always been a delusional man, always ranting about chemtrails, black helicopters, the illuminati and whatever else managed to catch his attention. I doubt he ever met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like, but he never acted as irrational as he did that day. I think he just snapped when he saw those jeeps pull into his driveway. I mean, it wasn’t even close to being debatable that there was legitimate emergency. Just the day before a coal vein caught fire beneath Chucks Gas N’ Go. We all heard the explosion, saw the smoke. But he wouldn’t listen. My mom left right then and there, threw me and our luggage into one of the guardsman’s armored jeeps. The last I saw of my dad was him loading a shotgun on our porch, face red and sweaty with rage as the soldiers just shrugged and left him.”
Scott paused, cracking open another beer and lighting a cigarette before continuing.
“On our way out of town, I got a firsthand look at the chaos. Somebody’s house had been partially collapsed into a flaming sinkhole. I saw families throwing trash bags full of cloths into their cars, police and National Guard directing traffic towards the southern bridge out of town while hazard trucks and ambulance rushed in the other direction. Smoke rose in thick black streaks into the gray sky, emergency sirens blared loud enough to almost mask the sounds of scarce gunfire. Apparently my dad wasn’t the only paranoid libertarian in Chesterton. Oh yeah, this was all of course before the town got its nickname. Before Ashville it was just Chesterton. You can guess why it changed.”
“What do you think happened to your father?” Josh asked, already knowing the answer but wanting to get something recorded.
“He’s dead.” Replied Scott without any hesitation. The next half hour was mostly quiet aside from the stereo, until at last Scott spoke up with the directions to get off of the interstate onto a smaller highway, and then again onto a county road. From there it was a straight shot until they crossed the Levisa Fork and from there it was east until they were on the western side of the Blue Ridge Forrest.
“Damn, this forest is beautiful.” Said Mark, commenting on the temperate deciduous topography.
“Yeah it’s a real land of mirth and merriment.” Said Scott sarcastically. “See that dirt trail coming up ahead to the right? Turn there and follow it up the mountain. When you see the cabin just park somewhere.” After fifteen minutes of a zigzagged ascent, they had reached a moss covered cabin in the middle of the woods. Everyone exited the vehicle, stretching their backs and taking a look around.
“What is this place?” Asked Chloe, speaking up for the first time that day.
“My dad’s old hunting shack. He took me up here a few times.” Scott threw an empty beer can at the cabin, startling a bobcat that had been sleeping under the porch.
“We could probably camp out here if we spend too much time hiking to and from Ashville. If we try leaving after dark the cops might see our headlights and give us shit.” He continued. Chloe took a picture of the cabin.
“How far until Ashville?” Asked Josh, not very pleased at the idea of having to spend the night in such a place.
“This is literally as close as we can get to it by driving. It’s about a fourteen mile hike down the other side of this mountain-hill thing, so we should probably start like, right now. Actually, wait a minute.” Scott walked towards the cabin, kicking in the door with a hard stomp from his boot.
While he was rummaging around in the hunting shack, Chloe changed into her hiking boots while Mark and Josh unloaded the rest of their gear from the trunk. The items they needed of course were canteens, a compass, a pair of binoculars, Josh’s digital camera, and the rest of Chloe’s stuff. Also included was four sets of full-faced air-purifying respirators, with clear eyepieces that reduced the restriction to peripheral vision. Once they reached Ashville proper it would likely be necessary to protect their lungs from soot and other lingering contaminates. Scott returned from the cabin with a large hunting rifle slung across his shoulder.
“For bobcats.” He said before anyone questioned him. “Also feral dogs, if we run into any. Not everyone managed to evacuate their pets. So uh, right. Follow me.” Scott stumbled himself into some bushes, having trouble using his legs after consuming such ridiculous quantities of booze. The others looked at each other with uncertain grimaces. It wasn’t much of a secret that Scott was an alcoholic, but until now he refrained from becoming completely intoxicated before noon. Mark wanted to say something, but Josh shot down the idea before anything could be spoken. He didn’t think it was a good idea to piss off the only guide they had, especially when said guide was carrying a loaded gun. So they marched on, following Scott across the small mountain.
Besides the random yelling of Scott, the path was quite peaceful for the first leg of the journey. Chloe got some decent pictures of trees being trees, as so did Josh in his attempt to show the slow decaying health of the local flora as they approached the ash cloud that hung permanently over the town. After perhaps two hours of walking, the four managed to find a rock that ejected itself horizontally from the now descending mountain side, granting their first clear view of the valley below: A red haze that seemed almost a lake maybe a half mile down the slope. Peaking from the top of this cloud was the upper portion of a water tower and the tip of a church. Besides that, a few lines of smoke snaked from the sea of red. Everything else laid beneath the thick smog. From this vantage it was possible to see the transition of trees going from perfectly fine, to sickly to finally dead husks of skeletal wood. Josh and Chloe both captured images of the vista, while Mark sniffed the air.
“It smells like fireworks and rotten eggs.” He said with an unpleasant look on his face. Scott lit another cigarette for himself.
“The shape of the valley makes its own weather. Most of those heavier fumes just stay in that one place, while the rest hang around until a breeze from between the hills manage to carry away the excess. Some of it of course wafts all the way up here, hence the smell of sulfur and coal. By the way, those fires burning beneath the town have enough fuel to keep going for another three hundred years, so that cloud isn’t going anywhere for a while.” Scott stated all of these facts nonchalantly, hopping down from the angular rock and proceeding with the path ahead. The other followed, partially excited, partially nervous. After fifty or so meters of walking, the air began to smell foul enough that the group thought it best to put on the masks. It was at this point the trees looked diseased enough to warrant the precaution. Scott had rigged his mask with a small, one-way hose that led from a funnel directly to his mouth. He tested his contraption with a long pour from a bottle of vodka.
“I’m thirsty!” He yelled just before the decent into the cloud.
“Well you shouldn’t be so damn drunk this early in the day!” Mark yelled back to him through his respirator. Chloe rolled her eyes and poured some water into Scotts funnel.
“Thank you sweet pea.” Said Scott in gratitude. “Now everyone listen the fuck *belch* up. We’re gonna go down into that cloud. You guys are gonna take some fancy-done pictures, and I’m going to throw up in my old house. Then we leave ‘n shit. Got it?” The group nodded in agreement. “Okay, let’s do it.”
The four walked into the cloud.
The first thing they noticed was the road. They had managed to reach Main Street, and the sight of the road set an example for the state the rest of the town. A deep, winding fissure ran the length of the road, with what looked to be steam rising periodically from the crack. Josh recorded everything he saw. Scott pulled out a single match.
“Watch this.” He said, tossing it to the pavement. A few seconds later the head burst into flames. “The ground is hot enough to ignite match heads. Careful standing here. A few more minutes and those boots of yours are going to be a puddle of melted rubber.”
“Yeah let’s not do that.” Said Mark, moving to the sidewalk. He touched the concrete and found it cool enough to stand on safely. Looking up, he saw the sign. “Warning!” It read. “Ground may suddenly collapse.”
“What the hell? How dangerous is this place really?” He asked in an angered tone. Josh and Scott both laughed.
“Dude, did you seriously do no research on this place? Why the hell do you think we’re wearing gas masks and trying to avoid the police? Of course it’s dangerous.” Said Josh, filming Mark’s reaction to the sign. “Come on. Scott said the first sinkhole appeared near the cemetery. Let’s check that out first.”
The four walked side by side down the main road into Ashville. They passed cars with melted tires and burnt frames, and piles of ash that collected like snow along the road. One car in particular had an odd symbol scratched into the passenger door. It was a double cross with a figure eight at the base.
“Brimstone.” Said Scott, eyeing the etching suspiciously. “As it was sulfur once called by the alchemists. Later it was adopted as the satanic cross by that guy from the sixties. Here, check it out.” Scott rolled the sleeve of his trench coat to show his tattoo of the same symbol on his forearm.
“Why the hell do you have that?” Asked Mark. Being the only religious member of the group he was somewhat alarmed at the sight. He also thought it was weird that he had known Scott for three years without until now seeing his arm. Scott didn’t answer though, and kept walking.
They walked past a playground where the paint from the recreational structures had been stripped by acid, the metal beneath partially warped into disfigured hunks of steel. Chloe of course had to get a picture of a clown’s head that had been almost melted to an unrecognizable, borderline demonic state. Eventually, they found themselves walking through the “downtown” portion, where taller buildings stood parallel to one another: some collapsed under their own weight, other managing to stand upright after all these years. In both cases, the red-orange haze gave the structures an appearance of being ghostly monoliths instead of pie shops and dollar stores. The first sense of creepiness began to set in with the understanding of how truly abandoned the town was. Mark looked around at some of dark rectangles that used to be windows.
“Anyone else get the feeling they’re being watched?” He asked, sincerely.
“Boo!” Yelled the other three in unison.
“Don’t try and ruin this for us Mark.” Shouted Chloe.
“Yeah fuck you douchebag!” Yelled Scott. He followed his insult by throwing a rock at Marks head. It bounced from his skull with an audible clunk. Looking up after sheltering his face, Mark saw Scott and Chloe share a high five. Anger started to swell within him, and the next thing he knew, he was throwing a swift punch into Scott’s gut. A second later, Mark was on the ground, having been rammed in the ribcage by the butt of Scott’s rifle.
“Knock it off both of you!” Shouted Josh, forcing himself between the two. “You’ve been getting on each other’s nerves since first thing in the god damn morning. Scott, quit being a dick, you could have broken his mask, it wasn’t funny. And Mark, get your shit together.”
Mark was just about to say something, when a faraway noise stopped him. Everyone was silent for a moment, listening intently to what sounded like a vicious animal attacking a smaller one. Snarling, screeching sounds, not unlike a dog shaking a rabbit between its clenched jaws. The sounds echoed along the length of the abandoned street between buildings, amplifying to an ominous frequency. And then, as fast as it appeared, it was gone. All four stood motionless and quiet until the sound faded into the dead weather.
“Okay, that was actually kind of spooky.” Said Chloe, being the first to speak up.
“I told you there might be a few dogs scampering around.” Responded Scott, loading a shell into the rifle’s chamber.
“Yeah but how could anything even live in this place?” Asked Josh. Scott pointed at a patch of weeds sprouting from a crack in the pavement.
“Life finds a way. Come on, let’s cut through this alley. My old neighborhood should be just on the other side.” The other three followed him.
Houses with broken windows and collapsing roofs littered the former residencies, paint streaked down the outer walls from years of corrosion. Chloe stopped for a couple of shots, while Josh filmed video of a sinkhole with small flames rising from the inner edges, a sinkhole that once somebody’s front yard. Ash fell like snowflakes onto his camera. Suddenly, Scott started shouting and dancing a drunken dance.
“Look, there it is! 156 Peachtree Lane!” Scott pointed a particularly aged house with a rusting pickup truck in the warped driveway. He took another victory shot through his mask. “After all these years that piece of shit still stands. Can’t believe it.”
“Wanna look inside?” Chloe asked, starting to match Scott’s energy. Mark made an expression of concern under his gas mask.
“That thing looks about ready to collapse. You really want to add extra weight to those floorboards?” Mark didn’t want to look like a coward again in front of Chloe, but he couldn’t help but be the rational one. While Scott was charismatic, reckless, and amoral, Mark was the opposite in all ways.
“Tell you what Mark.” Said Scott in a condescending tone, “Why don’t you wait out here and be the lookout for ghouls and goblins?” He laughed, tossing the rifle to Mark. “It’ll just be a minute.” With that, Josh, Chloe and Scott entered the house, leaving Mark to stand alone on the weeded lawn.
Josh held his flashlight at shoulder level, scanning the interior of the living room from left to right. Surprisingly little of the smog had managed to make its way into the house, and for the most part the air was clear. Scott took the chance to lift his mask for a cigarette.
“Ah gross, it’s like sucking on a sack of burnt hair.” He said, tasting the air. He lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply. “That’s better. So, what do you guys think?”
Chloe took a picture of Scott’s former living room with a flash, angling it to capture as much of it as possible. “I’d say I’ll be getting my B.A. this year for sure.” She said, taking another of a cracked television.
The three scattered about the house, checking every room they found. From the looks of it, it appeared as though Scott’s father had continued to rampage for a while after the evacuation, judging by holes punched into the plaster and flipped over furniture. The master bedroom was in a state of rather severe trauma. Scott took a sip from his flask, handing it to Chloe and Josh, each partaking. After a few more minutes of rummaging through closets, draws and whatnot, Chloe found a family photo. A pleasant looking woman, a ten year old Scott with that same angry look on his face, and a tall, barrel chested man with a thick beard. Chloe handed the framed picture to Josh before Scott noticed what they were looking at.
“Damn dude.” Called Josh to Scott. “Your dad looks like a lumberjack.” Scott walked across the bedroom to inspect the picture. He slipped it from the glass that had protected it for all these years. “Wonder what happened to him.” He continued, as Scott folded the photo into his jacket.
“Like I said before, he died.” Replied Scott. “Probably somewhere in this very house. It’s not like he drove anywhere. Pickup’s still in the driveway.” Josh and Chloe looked at each other with the same idea on their minds.
“Want to find the body?” They both asked, knowing the one place in the house that they haven’t searched.
“Absolutely.” Said Scott, swallowing another shot from his flask before re-sealing his mask. “The basement’s this way.”
Outside, Mark paced back and forth across the lawn in anger. His expectations for this trip were basically the exact opposite of what he had hoped for. Scott was probably going to fuck Chloe in a motel on the way back home, while Josh, his best friend, was more concerned with his stupid project than defending him. On top of all this, he was left outside in the creepy haze of a condemned town that sat on top a burning chasm. He made up his mind: when the others were done screwing around in the house, he was leaving. He would walk back to the car all by himself if he had to, but he wasn’t going to spend another minute in this hellhole. He leaned against the back bumper of the paint stripped pickup, letting out a sigh that briefly fogged his eye plate. As he leaned there, just staring off into the middle distance, something across the street caught his attention.
A light wind had blown into the valley, just enough to make vaguely clear objects at thirty feet or less. In this case, it was the house across the street. A sound, like someone dropping a metal hammer onto hollow wood, resonated from within the building. Mark looked up from his thoughts, and a second latter, tightened his grip around the rifle. The breeze that had rolled in a moment previous caused the drapes of the house’s front smashed windows to softly move, revealing some of what hide behind them. Following the origins of the noise, what he saw, if only for a split second, was a pale figure standing in the window frame, blurred by the returning haze, and staring a straight line towards were Mark stood. He blinked, and it was gone.
“The fuck?” He said to himself, now incredibly tense with a lingering fear of what he had just witnessed. He looked around his immediate surroundings, unsure of what to do and so backing slowly towards Scott’s house. Another beat passed, when he heard the growling. A vicious growl that echoed through the fog.
“Guys?” He yelled, as loud as he could through his mask. He broke into a run.
“What’s with the scratches? Did you guys have a dog or something?” Chloe asked while looking at the door to the basement. Large chucks of paint and wood seemed to have been violently ripped out of it.
“Nope.” Said Scott, trying the doorknob. It wouldn’t budge. Taking a step back, he proceeded to break open the door with one forceful kick. Part of the frame splintered as three separate deadbolts tore through the wood. “Light please.” Josh illuminated the darkness with his flashlight, showing the descending steps.
The staircase creaked with each step, but still it held the weight of all three as they continued downwards. At the base, plastic tarps hung from the ceiling, sectioning off the staircase from the rest of the basement. Scott cut a slit in it with his pocket knife, and noticed the dry heat wafting in.
“The lower we go, the closer we are to those underground fires. Watch your shoes.” The three wandered into the basement proper, Chloe and Josh lighting the place with the new addition of Scott’s lantern. The ground was indeed warm to the touch, but not as much as was expected. Looking around, it was a normal basement, with stores of expired canned food, cardboard boxes filled with Christmas ornaments, and a couple of gun cabinets. The first thing to be genuinely noticed however, was the fissure that ran across the bare concrete floor up the length of the western wall. The other was a skeleton wrapped in dried hair and tissue propped up in the corner.
“Oh shit!” Cried Josh, almost dropping his flashlight. Scott patted him on the shoulder.
“Yup. There’s dad. Stupid bastard just wouldn’t let go.” Scott walked up to the carcass, inspecting it from every angle. A shotgun was held between its arms, slumped casually to one side. Scott noticed the spent shell on the floor to its side, and traced the angle of the hole in its skull to the dark stain on the wall behind it. “Or maybe he did.” Scott shrugged to himself before attempting to pry the gun from the dead hands. Josh raised his flashlight to the right side of remains, noticing the alchemical symbol for brimstone drawn onto the wall with motor oil. Beneath it, words were written.
“Demons are everywhere.” It spelled out.
“Uh, Scott, um, what the hell?” Josh asked. At this point, he was justifiably disturbed, having witnessed both the dried leathery remains of a human corpse and a cryptic message of alluding to something clearly sinister.
Scott walked over to the sigil. He looked at it almost without any concern whatsoever, being far more preoccupied with picking fingers from the shotgun’s hilt. “Yeah, that’s weird or whatever. You guys wanna grab anything? It’s not looting if it’s technically my stuff.”
“How the hell are you this calm?” Even Chloe was nervous, more so by Scott’s drunken attitude than anything else. Scott was about to say something when a muffled yell managed to penetrate through to the basement. All three heard it.
“I guess Mark wants us to finish up.” Scott said while looking back towards the stairs. “Come on, he’s been out there long enough.”
The sense of true fear arose after the three made their way back into the haze. Mark was nowhere to been found. Josh slide his mask just enough to get out a few good calls, but nothing was heard in reply.
“Oh god damn it!” Scott growled. “That dickhole still has my keys! If he pussied out and ran back to the car I swear I’ll murder him.” Scott proceeded to curse to himself incoherently while Chloe and Josh tried their best to figure out what to do next.
“He probably just got spooked or something and left without saying anything. He’s passive aggressive like that and I don’t think wanted to confront anyone.” Chloe rationalized.
“True, but he doesn’t know this place at all. He’s dumb, but not that dumb to wander around all by himself.” Josh grew apprehensive by the second. Scott kicked the side of the rusting pickup hard enough to knock off the passenger door just as more animal noises were heard in the distance.
“Okay fine!” He yelled at no one in particular. “The creepy noises scared Mark, and like a bitch he ran back to the shack without telling us. That’s about a three hour walk, so if we hurry and provided he doesn’t get lost and fall into a sinkhole, then we should be able catch up to him just in time to kick his ass. Good plan? Great fucking plan!” Scott took an exceptionally long drink from his flask, running it dry in the process. “Kay let’s go!”
Chloe and Josh followed him into the carmine mist.
“There, just keep it like that.” Josh said as he tied part of the torn dress into a proper sling. He was shaking, but still managed to make the knot tight. Chloe thanked him with her eyes, but was still having trouble finding her words. Scott peeked through the drapes of the wedding boutique, scanning what little he could of the street outside.
“That… was the scariest fucking thing I have ever seen in my entire god damn life…” He spoke quietly, backing away from the window slowly. He poured some water into his funnel, feeling the dehydrating effects of alcohol yet expressing absolutely no desire to become sober anytime soon. He rolled one of his unopened vodka bottles over to Josh and Chloe, who were hiding behind the cashiers counter. The three would have moved further back into the building, except that the posterior half of the storage room had fallen into a fissure, with the rest of it being too hot to dwell in for very long. Even here, in the showroom, some of the mannequins were partially melted figures stuck in their bridesmaid dresses, faces deformed, arms raised at wrong angles.
Josh splashed some vodka onto his leg where the cut had been made, tying some frilly thing around his thigh to help with the bleeding. Chloe took a drink with her good hand. They had run into this shop just after the attack, giving that… thing the slip as they turned a few corners. Scott was the only one left uninjured, but then again, he was the only one who fought back. Of course, in the chaos of the moment, it didn’t work out as well as intended.
“I’m sorry I broke your arm.” Scott apologized for the missed kick.
“Better than blowing off my head.” Chloe replied. No one was really mad at each other, not anymore. It was probably their bickering that lured the thing to them in the first place. A rotting, putrid thing. A wadded mass of skin and flies that lurked in the crimson haze, waiting, stalking, and angry.
“Listen,” Scott began to think clearly of the situation. “We have about three hours left before our filters will need to be changed. Around that time the sun will be setting behind those mountains. If that happens while we’re still under the cloud then there won’t be any getting out of it.” The other two nodded in agreement. What was also left out was the fact that any wet, exposed skin was beginning to inflame and sting from the myriad pollutants. Scott loaded a few more shells into his gun, Josh checked that his camcorder still worked, and Chloe slung her pack across her back.
“Ready?” He asked rhetorically, standing to the side of the front door. Once again, the others nodded. Scott threw open the door, and they burst into a sprint.
Mark climbed the hill as fast as he could. His legs were weak, barely able to hold him upright against the slope, but he pushed on, knowing that if he stopped he would rest too long, and whatever it was that was following him would catch up. He couldn’t see it, but he could hear it, maybe twenty meters behind, maybe closer. He had been running for so long that he had hardly any time to address the guilt of abandoning his friend. Perspiration and tears mixed on their path down his face. Prayers were muttered under the effort of his breath.
At last, after hours of panicked scampering, hiding, yells of terror and running for his life, Mark had made his way to the other side of the mountain. It would only be a short descent until he would reach the car, and a few minutes later, he could even see it. Except that something caused Mark to hesitate, the sight of two county police cars waiting patiently next to the Saturn. It took a moment to collect himself, brought on by the continued noise of snapping twigs and footsteps coming over the peak, reminding him that the police were the best possible people to run into. He threw the hunting rifle and his mask to the ground, and found enough inner strength to sprint the rest of the way to the hunting shack.
“Hey!” He yelled, waving his hands as he stumbled closer to the officers. Both looked up to see him, motioning for him to approach them.
“Is this your car?” One of them asked in an authoritative tone.
“N-no. It’s my friend’s.” He responded, trying to catch his breath.
“There are others with you? How many? And where?” Asked the second. Mark looked over his shoulder, checking to see if he was still being followed, while letting the officers implicitly know where the others were. “Did you know that you’ve been trespassing on federal property? Do you think it’s some kind of joke?” Mark paused briefly.
“No. No joke. Listen, there’s st…” Mark tried to explain, but was interrupted.
“On your knees now!” Barked the officer. “Hands behind you head.” Mark complied, still sure that this was better than the alternative, and still hoping that someone would send help for the other three still in Ashville. He was sure, that was, until both officers raised their side arms.
“Do you have any idea how dangerous it is out here?” Said the first.
Scott watched the specks of blood exit the back of Mark’s head through the scope of the hunting rifle. A half second later the sound of the shots reached his ears. He was on his stomach, using the ground to steady his aim. His lip curled in anger, almost reaching his nostrils. He centered one officer’s face under the sights.
One round fired, another chambered, then a second. Both bodies fell like rag dolls. He waited a beat, just be sure that there weren’t any others, and stood up, walking quickly the rest of the way to the hunting shack.
Chloe was the first to go, some flaming thing leaped through the cloud tackled her into a sinkhole. Josh was dragged off by long arms reaching through the haze, attached to a body Scott couldn’t see. He tried to chase him down, firing shot after shot at where he thought the beast to be. A half block down the street, all he found was Josh’s camcorder, and part of his jaw. He made the rest of the on his own.
When he reached the hunting shack, he took a moment to remove his keys from Mark’s corpse, smash the in-car police computers, shred apart their notebooks, and stomp their radios before entering the hunting shack. Looking around for the second time that day, he unfolded the family portrait tucked into his breast pocket. On the back were a few words. “Found it in the mines. Hid it beneath the floorboards. I know they’re working for devils, but they won’t scare me.” Under the writing was another drawing of that sign of brimstone. Scott kicked the dear skin rug, revealing a few loose boards, one marked with the symbol. Scott lifted the wood, his face shifting from fatigue and rage to a smile.
“So that’s where you put it.” He said to himself. He tucked the skull under his arm, mindful of the horns.
Credit To – Stephan D. Harris