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Dying Light

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Estimated reading time — 31 minutes

The light of the camp fire offered little comfort to the panic that surged through him. His blood might as well have been pure adrenaline. His senses were on high alert, triggering him, causing him to jump at the slightest sight or sound.

“AAAGGHHHHHHHHH! HEEEEELLLP ME”!

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There was that scream again. He startled, his body was shaking, his muscles spasming. His heart slammed against the inside of his rib cage, each beat trying to break free from its bony prison. He brought his hands in and pushed back on his chest. Keeping his arms in close was the only way to stop them from shaking, and he needed to try and calm down. The scream trailed off until it was lost in rhythmic crackling of his campfire. It was the scream of a woman, pleading for help, crying out in pain between wretched sobs. It was the sound of pure agony and torture. It was the sound of fear.

He had heard screams like this before. The sound evoked an older memory from his past, a moment he had been happy to have forgotten. He had witnessed a woman under that same level of distress, the night she lost her son in an accident. The women had been walking hand in hand with her boy, along the sidewalk of Sacs 5th Ave in New York. The boy, no older than five or six, was pointing across the street, no doubt curious to one of the million flourishes and fanfares that canvased the city streets. She, herself had become distracted too, letting her guard down for just a second to admire a jewelry display in one of the store fronts. Her boy, free from his mother’s grip, had dashed out between two stopped cars, and into the hustle of a New York street. The boy met his fate with a commercial truck that never saw him. He died instantly. His bereaved mother had lain protectively over her son’s broken and lifeless body, weeping her wretched tears and screaming her frenzied petitions towards the heavens. The woman was inconsolable, completely unreachable in her distress. Unable to maintain the screams any longer, probably due to exhausting her voice, the woman moaned, strong pulls of air, followed by a slow inarticulate push. The sound, he remembered, had been truly unsettling, a sound he believed should be reserved for the damned. Here all these sounds were again, only now he was alone in the middle of this dark and God-forsaken forest.

He stared off into the darkness towards the scream, scanning it for movement. The light of his humble camp fire reached the Douglas Fir trees that surrounded his tiny clearing. Those trees stood tall, their enormous trunks giving way to the darkness as the climbed higher into the night sky. All around him they stood, looking more like the bars of a cage that he was trapped inside. Just outside that circle were shadows, darkness, and that “thing”.

Some-thing was out there watching him. He could almost sense its movement through the undergrowth. He could feel its stare on him, like an extra dose of gravity. This thing wanted him bad and it wanted him now. His eyes continued their fruitless search. Focusing his senses and waiting to react. Why would it not just come into his cell and take him? It needed him to come out.

Roger had gone out to investigate the cry the previous night, and Roger had not returned. He was gone no more than 2 minutes before he had heard Rogers screams. The same mixture of agony and fear. Rogers screams only lasted a few seconds, then it went quiet. He told himself to get up, to go help Roger. Instead, he had cowered at the edge of their fire, sobbing and calling out his name. He had been taken by the fear, becoming paralyzed in its grasp. He remained awake the remainder of the night, unable to rest, unable to focus, feeling very much like the woman from his memory.

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At sun rise, after he had gained some composure and had summoned up enough courage, he left his camp following the same path Roger had taken the night before. He had only walked about five minutes before finding him, or rather, what was left of him. He had spotted Roger’s coat, caught between the forking limbs of a large willow tree, hanging about seven or eight meters off the ground. His coat was unreachable, but he could tell from his position it was tattered and covered in a brown glaze of dried blood. Following with his eyes below, directly down from the coats purchase, showed the trunk of the willow was also coated with trails of blood, as it had been smeared by human fingers. This was clearly not the work of some mountain lion. The blood marks ran in four parallel lines to one another, each set were several inches long stretching around the tree’s trunk, with the same patterns repeating itself lower and lower, all the way to ground. It was as if the creature had pulled Roger up into the tree to feed, and then climbed down after he had satisfied its hunger. On the ground beneath, was a mass of entrails, enameled with blood, thick and brown from coagulation. Roger was gone, that much was clear, and there were no other persons around he could count on for help.

At this realization, he sprinted back to his camp. There he had become extremely ill, vomiting, choking, coughing, crying, and then crying some more. He had spent a good hour curled up in a ball next to his fire, hugging his knees, and just crying…his pain was too overwhelming. Roger, his best friend and lover…why in the hell did he have to be some damn noble? Why did he always have to help?

“AAAGGHHHHHHHHH! PLEASE! AAAGGGHHH! HEEEEELLLP ME, PLEASE”!

His mind was slammed back into reality with the thing’s scream, causing him to jump and spasm again. His recovery was immediate, though, and he spun towards the sound. He could tell from the wail’s proximity that it was just out of sight, beyond the bars of his cage. He stared at where the scream originated, scouring the darkness between the pines for any clue of his stalker. Nothing. His knees trembled, knocking against one another, making it difficult for him to stand. His arms were not any better. They felt like jello, lacking the strength to do anything but shake. The more he held them out, the more they shook. He pulled his arms back against his chest as if to hug himself. What chance did he have against something like this, something that could disembowel Roger and leave pieces of him hanging from tree branches?

The thing had been circling the camp, and like him, it was crying too. He had heard its sobs as it moved through the blackness outside of his firelight. Was it mocking him? As quickly as it has started, the sobbing within the blackness stopped. The thing had made a full circle around his camp. The silence was terrifying, had it moved, where was it now? His fire was making it too difficult to see. Its light could only penetrate the darkness so far, keeping his view confined within its small halo. It also made it impossible for his eyes to properly adjust, making the blackness beyond even blacker. The man cursed, spat, then wiped at his face with the back of his hand. Getting the tears out of his eyes was an improvement, although the long trail of snot that graced the back of his hand told him he was much more frantic than he realized. He had to get control of himself. He stood, waiting. His thoughts were interrupted with another terrifying cry.

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“Aahhhhhgggg! Aahhhhhgggg! Someone help me!”

He startled, then spun. The thing had moved off to his left this time, and it scream sounded much more distant. The thing was moving away! The man exhaled a huge sigh of relief, this gave him some time. He began looking this way and that for anything that might improve his situation, a stick, a rock, the fire. THE FIRE! He could use the fire! It was the only plausible explanation for why the thing hadn’t taken him yet. It must be afraid of it. Maybe he could make a torch and then keep moving and … wait, that was stupid. The thought of trying to navigate a map, the terrain, and the darkness with only a torch, and with this thing chasing him, that was suicide! And what happened if his torch went out, or he tripped, with that thing following him? Continuing now, in the dark, was stupid. He would have to wait for day light. He could still make a torch, though. That idea felt right enough. If the thing hates fire, then he might as well carry it with him.

He pulled a burning tree branch from the flames and held it high out in front of him with both hands. The torch’s light did little to illuminate the space beyond the trees. He chanced a step towards the blackness, then another, then one more. As he moved, the light peeled away the darkness, layer by layer, until he could make out the shapes of more trees beyond his little circle. He watched the shadows dance, a manifestation from his shaking torch. One could easily see just how scared he had been by how fast the shadows move. Aside from vegetation, nothing else was there. Slowly, he walked the perimeter of his camp, using his dying light to probe the surrounding darkness. Step, look, listen, repeat. It took at him at least 30 minutes to circle his camp the first time. He inhaled deep, then exhaled. His pursuer appeared to be gone, at least for now.

The man retreated to his fire and added several more branches to the burning pile, then sat down to take inventory. The added heat was soothing and provided him with more light. He was not ungrateful for it. He spent the next several minutes focusing on his breathing, slowing it down, using the breathing exercises taught to him by his therapist. He inhaled deep, then held it in, counting to four in his head, then exhaled over another four count. As he did this his heart rate had slowed. Coming down from the adrenaline, after the day he had, made him realize just how tired he really was. He realized he had been up for almost thirty hours. The last time he had slept was when he and Roger had snuck in an afternoon nap back at one of their stops, the day before. They were on a five day hiking trip in the backwoods of northern Utah, and they had been making good time. They had plotted their own course, hiking into a couple remote areas, wanting to explore nature and get away from civilization. They were ahead of schedule and not wanting their adventure to end early, they decided to slow down and enjoy the afternoon at a lake they passed by. Roger had gone for a swim while he snapped dozens of photos. Considering himself a decent photographer, he relished the chance to get into nature and capture it with his skills. After a late lunch they ended up napping on the edge of the lake shore. It was a perfect afternoon.

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That evening, they set up their camp in a clear patch of ground on a hillside overlooking the same lake, not too far from the forest of Quaking Aspens. They had been preparing dinner together, a buffet of trail mix, granola bars, bananas and canned tuna fish. The tuna fish was supposed to be a backup plan in case they came up short with Roger’s fishing pole. That day, they had. They were laughing and joking with one another. He remembered Roger had been making fun of him for losing his flashlight the day before. It was at that moment they heard it’s tortured screams of agony for the first time. It had startled them both, although he had been more visibly shaken. He had pleaded with Roger to stay, begged him not to leave him alone, saying that the woman was some poor hiker, probably being eaten by cougar or wolves. Why put themselves at risk? Plus, it was dusk out and he had always been afraid of the dark. He relied on Roger for comfort and protection, not the other way around. Roger reassured him like he always had in the past. “Don’t worry”, he had said, “everything will be fine”.

Roger had always been the strong one in their relationship, outgoing, fearless and macho, while he was an emotional sissy, withdrawn and suspicious of others. Roger liked action movies; he enjoyed romantic comedies. Roger was a carpenter who built his own furniture, while he ordered name-brand décor online. The two could not have been more different from one another, yet they had, somehow, been perfect together. Roger insisted he’d go, and he had taken his flash light and his bear spray just to be safe. Roger’s calls echoed in his mind as he was leaving their camp. “Don’t worry”, he shouted, “help is on the way. I’m coming”.

He let out an involuntary sob, then choked back a wave of tears that were forcing their way to the surface. Roger, Roger was gone! He attempted to calm himself by sucking in several deep breaths and releasing them slowly over his four second count. He could mourn Roger later. He needed to keep his mind in the moment.

A wave of tiredness overcame him and he caught himself letting his eyes close. He shook his head violently back and forth to force out the cobwebs, then he slapped himself once in the face for good measure. He had to stay awake; he could sleep when he was back in civilization. He was so tired though, and weak. He realized he hadn’t really eaten anything all day other than a couple handfuls of trail mix. He pulled out a granola bar from his pack, tore off the wrapper and shoved the whole thing in his mouth. He needed to regain his strength if he was going to get out of this alive.

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He reflected as he chewed. He had hiked as hard as he could after finding Roger’s remains, that was of course after he had regained his composure. What other choice did he have? He had made sure to grab the map from Roger’s pack. Unfortunately, Roger had his flashlight and survival knife on him when he was taken. The bear spray too, that could have been useful. His plan was to push hard to civilization, taking the quickest path back, and to put as much distance between himself and that monster as possible, but he underestimated the difficulty of the terrain, and he had not made good time. He figured he only had 6 or 7 more miles left to go. He only stopped because it was dusk again, the path before him was a bit rugged, and he dared not go on after what had happened the night before. His only regret now was he had not gotten any sleep, but how could he? When would he have taken a nap, right after Roger disappeared? Or maybe right after he discovered his remains? The idea was ludicrous. He had decided to press on and use the day light hours to get out of this God forsaken backwoods. Sleep be damned!

His head nodded forward, the motion of it immediately alerting his conscious, and snapping him back into attention. What had happened? Had he fallen asleep? No, not exactly. At least not for more than a second or two. He scanned his surroundings. Looking was useless, his eyes couldn’t break through the gloom that was pressing in around him. Not knowing where the thing was, was the worst part. Facing down this demonic creature seemed far less terrifying than waiting for it to strike. He wouldn’t believe that this monster would just leave him, and he could not afford to take that risk. Where in the bloody hell was it?

This time, instead of using his eyes, he listened. Again, he scanned his surroundings, turning his head ever so slightly, letting his ears work. At first, he could hear nothing, but as he focused his attention, the sounds slowly began to register, as if he was fine tuning the nob on a radio frequency. Each sound came into focus, layering themselves over the next sound, cutting in and out, blending themselves together like instruments in a musical composition. The ending musical score played on his ears like a nightly lullaby.

The most obvious noise was the popping tree sap oozing from the branches in his fire. It crackled and snapped at him its invitation, offering him its comforts and companionship. Above that he could hear the winds as they navigated the pine needles in the tree tops above. It’s air was warm and welcoming, and it brought with it the blend of fresh smelling pine and the almost pleasant scents of mold and decay, typical to all forests. Between its gusts he could make out the string quartet of crickets rehearsing their solemn melodies. Blending in with the crickets was the chittering and trilling of the nightjars, darting amongst the trees, fighting with one another and vying for dominance. To his left came the hoot of a night owl, followed by the croaked response of a toad. All these sounds were normal and there was nothing that spiked his concern.

He forced open his eyes and stared into the fire. A larger branch cracked and shifted in the blaze, sending up tiny embers that flickered and swirled until they burned out and disappeared in the night air. How long had it been since the thing had made itself known. It had been an hour, at least? Maybe it had gone. Maybe now he could get some rest. He was so tired. He had pushed hard through the day and the hike had been taxing on his already tired body. He stood, then stretched his arms into the sky. His chest and shoulders were quite sore and tight from hefting that pack all day. His legs were sore too. Worst of all were his feet, shoved into his boots, pleading for release. He sat back down, then turned to warm his back.

It wasn’t just his body that was tired. His mind was longing for sleep, his head literally aching from over use. He had suffered a great deal in these last 24 hours, mentally speaking, and his mind hadn’t been given a break. He was emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. This unseen horror had not made itself known over the last hour and he was wasting this precious gift of its absence. There was not going to be another chance for rest. There was still several more hours until sunrise and he was pretty sure he could not last through another night. He needed to take this opportunity while he still could. Maybe if he just took a thirty minute, no, a fifteen-minute nap. Just enough to re-energize a bit, just enough to carry him through to morning. He could risk just fifteen minutes. He rolled one of the larger pieces into the flames, then, stretching one more time, curled up on the ground and laid his head on his pack. Just fifteen minutes…

“HHHEEELP, PLEASE HELP, AAGGGHHHHHH!”

Another shot of adrenaline shot through the man’s body, jolting him upright. He rolled, pushed up on his hands and knees and then scrambled to his feet. His body was lagging far behind his mind. It was compensating for waking up so quickly. He blinked several times and waited for his sight to return. His eyes focused but everything was dark. He tried swallowing but the lump in his throat would not budge. He stood ready, looking back and forth, waiting to react, waiting for his body to catch up. He blinked again. Where did it come from and where was it now? He scanned his camp. Things had grown increasingly dark. Where was his long shadow, where were the bars of his cage? He realized it before he actually saw it. His fire, it was almost gone! The only thing left were some small flames licking their way up the inside of the carbonized wood and a pocket of red embers, tucked away in a pocket of white ash. How long had he slept? He immediately dropped to his knees and blew on the embers. His panicked breaths were forcing out as much spit as air. He leaned over, grabbed some twigs and some leaves, then pushed them into the embers. He sucked in some air, then, as calmly as he could manage, he blew again. The embers glowed, then caught hold of the detritus, igniting it into flame! HA! He frantically scanned his surroundings for more fuel. He scooped up some dead leaves, some twigs, another stick.

“AAAAGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH! AAAGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!”

The scream split the air like lightning, causing him to convulse and drop his precious fuel. He twisted towards the sound just in time to see something darting between the trees, getting lost into the murkiness of the night. It was moving now, clockwise around camp, circling him like a shark would an injured seal. He figured it was zeroing in and he had only seconds left. He turned back to his fire as he dropped down to his knees. As quickly as he could, he picked up and tossed whatever he thought would burn into the fire. The small flame had taken to its new meal but it was rapidly eating it up. Again, he scurried over the grounds around him, plucking and snatching. A twig, then another, more leaves, a pine cone, as fast as he could work. He could hear it now as he worked, moving, repositioning. It was not crying out, the thing had just silently relocated for a better angle at his 2 o’clock. He could hear it as it brushed against some foliage. It had not gotten this close before. He brought his face to his small fire and blew again.

The fire spread, engulfing the clumps of nourishment, growing bigger by the second. He turned, positioning his back to the fire, and sat facing his huntress. He watched as the fire’s halo widened, pushed the darkness back past the surrounding trees, his cage. The heat of the fire spread up his back and neck. It was a small, but comforting reassurance. He felt as though he had just been dangling over some enormous precipice, and had barely pulled himself up to the ledge. He took a deep breath, then another. The effects of the adrenaline were clearly acting on his body. He forced in another breath. With the light at his back, he converged his eyes on the vegetation just beyond his fire’s light, the place where he had just heard it. His eyes crisscrossed the onyx curtain hanging there, searching for anything.

Was that it? He tried to make sense of the shadows he was staring at. The shape looked almost human. There! Right there were the shoulders, and that had to be its head. Was this real or was his mind just playing tricks? He couldn’t be sure. The shape was just a shadow against a background of pitch, and it did not move. The shadow could easily be just some tree, some bush, anything really. But right there was where he had tracked it. His gut turned and twisted, affirming his suspicions. Without taking his eyes off of the darkened obscurity, he felt around his person for more food for his fire. He had to keep that going. It put him at a huge disadvantage, seated on the ground, but he had to keep the thing in front of him and his fire burning. It was his only life line now, and if it went out, he would share Roger’s fate.

His hands moved over the ground around where he sat, dragging his fingers through the sediment, feeling for twigs, sticks, leaves, and pine cones. As he found them, he reached back and tossed them into his fire. His efforts kept the fire burning bright and hot, forcing the shadows back beyond his prison bars. He continued his stare deep into the obsidian void where he imagined the thing’s head to be. He could only assume the darkness was staring right back. The shadow, to its credit, was unmoving, a black hole, with no light or sound escaping its presence. Tension emanated from the shadow with each passing second, heavy and thick, pressing against him like a wet mattress. He felt smothered, claustrophobic, pinned. As the tension mounted, so did his fear. It slid across his person, an ice cube of anxiety and panic, forcing his limbs to tremble and his hairs to stand on end. Still he looked on, his eyes bulging. He desperately wanted to look away, but couldn’t. The black mass held his stare, pulling his gaze in with its gravity, clutching it and refusing to let go.

This thing was not going to give up, it was here for him. The thought accelerated the fear coursing through him, causing his vision to tunnel, and forming goose bumps down his legs. Still, his hands searched. The tiny fragments he collected burned too quickly, and the fire was exceptionally hungry. It was consuming its meal almost as quickly as he could feed it and he was becoming increasingly aware that the area around his body was becoming more and more barren of combustibles. The fear had taken over his legs, rooting them to the ground, and was now advancing up his back. The prehistoric part of his brain was yelling at him to either fight or flee, but he needed to act! Still, he held his gaze, eyes boring deeper into the darkness, the fear nearly consuming him.

His right hand brushed over something hard and smooth. A rock! His hand traced the path back until he found it again. He pushed his fingers down beneath the loose soil, and closed around the rock. He could tell it was about the size of a tennis ball, all be it a little flatter. It was partially buried, and had to work his fingers around its buried edges, pushing away the dirt to either side. There were no other sounds now other than the fire. The nightjars and crickets had stopped their performance, and the wind too, had seemed to abandon him. As he stared, his mind traced the outline of the shadow. There it was. He couldn’t say how, but he was sure now that this shadow was his pursuer. It was definitely hunting him. If he looked away, it would attack. As quickly as he dare, he worked at loosening the rock from its purchase. His left arm had stopped moving, no longer gliding this way and that. He had brought it inward, gripping the shirt at his collar, a feeble attempt to control its convulsions. Still he looked on.

The longer this standoff continued, the more his body gave into the fear. Each passing second, he was losing control of himself and the situation. All his efforts were focused on getting the rock and watching the shadow. Nothing else mattered. Everything else was death. Digging his fingernails into the dirt, he located the far edge of his rock. He wiggled it, then lifted it, breaking the rock free from its earthly bed. Still keeping his gaze forward, he collected the rock with his fingers and palmed it in his right hand. His fingers squeezed tightly around it, forcing the blood from his fingers and giving him a dose of courage. He had his fire and now this stone. They were not much, but they offered hope.

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The tension had continued its steady build up, forcing his mind back towards the edge of sanity. He had reached his limit and his body succumbed, giving in to the fear’s besiegement. More tears emerged, building puddles in the pits of his eyes before they dumped down the sides of his face. His heart was knocking on his chest, pounding at his innards, trying to fight its way out from inside him. Each beat pumped more and more ice water into his chest. The spreading cold felt uniquely different from the earlier chills. His guts had turned into one massive knot, constricting, then constricting again, pulling his torso over on itself, bending him with pain. Despite all of this, his whole body was taken in by a palsy, the involuntary quivering making it almost impossible to keep himself upright. Again, he tried to swallow. Impossible. The lump in his throat had only grown.

His body had given in, but his mind clung desperately to his remaining parcel of hope. His fire and his rock, his shield and spear. They anchored him against the fear storm raging around him. The thing seemed to sense his predicament. He saw, or maybe he sensed, the movement of shadow against the blackness. It was the slightest of movements. A shift in its stance, as if to readying itself to pounce. The tension had finally peaked. Like a teapot coming to boil, its whistle blasted in between his ears, screaming at him that it was time to act, right now! The moment had come. With all his might he flung his right arm forward, releasing the rock towards his night-stalker. The rock flew true, connecting with the shadowy silhouette. The sound of the impact was the sound of bruised meat, like someone slapping a pound of hamburger. He immediately regretted his action.

There was a half a second pause where nothing happened, then, like a rush of air, the shadow darted forward from the shadows, dropping to all fours in its pursuit. It moved in like a spider converging on a webbed bug. He did not have time to analyze what was going on, he only had time to react. He threw himself backwards, rolling through his own fire and barely escaping the connection from the creature’s striking claw. The quickness of the event was stunning, too fast for him to fully process what he saw, or what he thought he saw. He had barely recovered in time to see something exiting between the bars of his cell, escaping into the blackness. What was it? What, exactly, had he just seen? He had expected something grotesque, but he had NOT suspected that? It appeared humanesque, and from what he could tell, it was female. Its dimensions were not proportionate, compared to a regular human. Its arms and legs seemed freakishly long… Frankly, he had not gotten a good look and he was not being allowed the time to fully understand or process it further. From the opaque cloud of shadows, the she-beast let out a high-pitch, screech of pure anger and hysteria.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

The fracas was void of anything remotely human, sounding bestial, savage, like some demonic spawn summoned from its smoking pit in hell. The wailing pierced him, going straight to his core, pinning him again with fear. The screech lingered on the night air for several moments before fading away. His body responded, in turn, by draining his bladder into his pants. Somewhere deep in the back of his mind he could recognize spreading warmth and wetness, however it was far from his immediate concerns, which were that she was exceptionally mad, and he was at fault.

The stalker bound through the trees, making no more effort at stealth. It moved fast, circling around his camp, staying just outside the light’s touch. He was able to identify her position by the sounds of snapping branches, the crunching of leaves, and the rustling of the bushes as she dashed through them. With a massive effort, he uprooted his arms and dragged his weakened body around to the other side of his fire, keeping its blazing tendrils between him and the predator. She continued her movement around his clearing, using her speed to try and catch him out of position. There she was, circling right! He scooted again, then rolled, pausing long enough to clear the wetness from his eyes and listen for its position. Then it was more crawling, more shifting. He kept moving, always trying to keep the fire between them. As she circled, he circled.

“AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH, AAAAAAAGGGGHHHHHHHHH!”

The she-beast’s howl rocked his nerves again, sending another tidal wave of panic down his spine and releasing the remaining fluids in his body. New tears sprang from his eyes, cutting clear trails through the dark muck that had collected on his cheeks. His nose was running too, uninhibited over his lips, mixing with the strings of saliva that stretched between his gaping mouth. At some point, he realized, that he had emptied his bowels. He didn’t care, though. His only concerns now were the thing and the fire. How long they circled, he could not say. After what seemed like ages, the circling suddenly stopped. He could not hear its movements now. It appeared to have abandoned the tactic in place of another. What was it though? He knew she hadn’t left him. She had unfinished business. He focused his eyes at the black wall between two tall trees where he had last heard her.

He could sense her now, staring at him, studying him. Looking for a way to separate him from his precious fire. He was holding his breath again. He needed to breath. He forced the airway open in his throat, allowing the oxygen to flood his lungs. His spasming diaphragm, however, only allowed the air to enter in small intervals. He was hyperventilating. He had seen this happen to small children after losing a toy, or a playground fall. He needed to slow his brain, and control his breathing. He took in what air he could, the held it, then counted slowly to four. On four he exhaled. His release let out an involuntary groan. He sucked in again. His air intake was again blocked by the spasms in his chest. No matter. Inhale, one, two, three, four, exhale. Each ejection of air was an audible moaning, a testament to his deplorable state.

As he was regaining his breath, he watched the black curtain between the sentinel pines where he had last tracked the thing. As far as he could tell, it had not made any attempt to move. What was it waiting for? He could not fight it, he was easy prey. He guessed she was not used to working so hard for her next meal. Why was she letting him catch his breath? Maybe she was punishing him for his stubbornness prolonging this moment. Clearly, she was in charge, and he was completely at her mercy. The quietness of moment no longer felt encouraging. He sat there, waiting for it to makes its next move. What more could it do to him that it had not done already? At least there wouldn’t be any more surprises. He had reached that conclusion too soon. As if on cue, a voice from the blackness called out.

“Don’t worry, help is on the way.”

What in the hell was this! It was not the wailing sobs from before, it hadn’t even sounded female! It called out again.

“Don’t worry, I’m coming. Help is on the way.”

The sound was a bucket of ice water being dumped down his back. Wave after wave of chills spread goosebumps across his body, causing his stomach to knot and his limbs to tremble. He felt his bladder give way again. This was not some beast, it was Roger’s voice! Roger’s! What was this devil-spawn doing?! He tried calling out, but all he could manage was a puttered sob. “No” he tried. It was almost inaudible. He would not let her make a mockery of Roger. She did not have his permission to use his voice. He regrouped and pushed again, “NO!” Rising on his knees, he squared up to voice and balled his fists, challenging the darkness before him. The darkness responded calmly.

“I’m coming, I’m coming, don’t worry, help is on the way”.

This putrid bitch! She was parroting Roger’s last words, back in his face. She had been closer to them that night than he realized, listening to them, stalking them. Just the night before, when Roger left their camp, he had been lured away by a cry for help. He wondered if that sob, that damnable moan, and that scream for help had once belonged to someone else who had been lured into her trap. Had she stolen their last words, their pleadings for mercy? He imagined she thought herself pretty clever, like she had everything all figured out. Now she was trying to hurt him, using the voice of the person he had cared for the most.

Something in him snapped. The fear that was there just a second ago melted away, immediately replaced with red-hot, molten anger. “No!” he demanded. “NOOOO!” A rock materialized in his hand. He launched it into the blackness. A stick now, appeared. It too, he threw. He realized what he was doing. He was picking up whatever he could find and hurling it at his attacker. Another rock, a pine cone, a fiery branch, another stick. Anything and everything he could get his fingers around. As he did, he screamed his declaration of defiance, “NO”! He would not back down, not to this bitch. In front of him was his pack. He couldn’t throw it, but he could throw some of the things inside. He reached inside and pulled out a pair of socks… Dropping the socks, he reached in again, this time his hand found something hard. It was a 4 pack of tuna fish cans. He brought them out. Clutched them against his chest with his left arm, he launched the cans with his right. “NOO!” he yelled, “NOOOO!” One by one he flung them into the darkness between the towering pines. He would stand up for Roger, and anyone else this creature had tormented. He reached into his pocket and retrieved his cell phone. He threw it. It didn’t matter, his battery was dead and there was no service out here anyways.

His hands searched frantically for new projectiles but their findings were less and less impressive. Rocks were smaller, sticks turned into hand full of twigs. His pack no longer contained solids. He was down to clothing. He grabbed the socks and threw them, “No”. His hands continuing to searching but it was becoming more and more obvious his efforts were being wasted. Not only was he low on ammo, but his arm was tiring too. Each throw seemed less impressive and more weakened. His strength was puttering like a dying, gasless engine. His last throw was just a handful of dirt and pine needles, thrown with only a half effort, a pathetic ending to his final stand. “No,” his call was little more than a mutter. He sank back down to his butt, then fell back on his elbows.

“Help is on the way, don’t worry, help is on the way”

Roger’s voice was calling to him from the patch of darkness just to the left of where he thought she had been. The thing had simply moved during his pathetic fit. He had not seen or sensed its movement. He had not hit it, not even once, not even close… His efforts were little more than a whimsy stunt, a complete embarrassment. So much for defiance. He collapsed onto his back in defeat. He no longer had the strength to fight. Let the thing come. He closed his eyes. Oddly, he found he was completely at rest. He no longer feared the impending doom, he almost welcomed it. He was too tired to worry, too tired to try. This new mental state was fascinating. Had it occurred under any other circumstance; he would have been eager to explore it more. It made him acutely aware of himself and his surroundings. He started to inventory his circumstance.

His boots were tied too tight. He was losing feeling in his smaller toes. That was a shame. Oh well, next. He moved up his body. His legs were okay, just tired. Both pant legs were wet. That made sense because he had just wet himself. He could also feel the sticky mush of the stool trapped between his butt and his underwear. He almost chuckled, “gross” he thought. His focus moved on to his torso. His bed of leaves and pine needles was pleasantly comfortable except for where his shirt and jacket had ridden up his back, exposing his skin to the pokes from the pine needles beneath. Okay, that was slightly uncomfortable. His chest moved up and down with each breath. It appeared that his tantrum had done some good after all. At some point in his rage, he had reset his breathing. His arms lay motionless at his side. It felt good to rest them. Hmmm, there was something cool was resting on his neck between his chin and his chest. What was that? It was of little consequence now, and it felt good against his skin. His head was next and it was throbbing. He had a headache which was completely understandable.

He could hear the stalker moving in, closing the distance between them. By his judgement, it had entered his cage. He didn’t care to look. It crept closer, each step was slow and deliberate. What was it waiting for? Oh yeah, the fire. She hated the fire. Something in his mind was telling to check the item under his chin. What was it? His hand reached up and surveyed the piece. Its squared edges and the feel of cool metal revealed itself to be his camera. It had been tethered around his neck this whole time. He could have thrown it. Too late now. His fingers explored the camera, finding the face, and moving themselves into their positions to operate it. His pointer finger found the power switch atop the camera and he flipped it forward causing the screen to go from black to light blue. He should take a picture of this monster. If nobody ever figured out what happened to both him and Roger, maybe they could find his camera. There were pictures of them on it, and there could also be a picture of their killer. Someone with half a brain could figure it out.

The she-thing was close now. It was just off to his left, down by his feet. He felt something grab hold of his boot and lift it slightly off the ground. He didn’t move. He could feel its fingers clasping down over the bridge of his left foot. They squeezed slightly, then a little more. She was strong. The she-thing tugged slightly, testing his weight, then it pulled a little more. He felt himself lurch in the direction of the pull. He began inching towards the edge of his cage, the fallen pine needles scrapping against his exposed skin and collecting in his untucked shirt. He realized it was dragging him into the darkness and it only needed to get him clear of the fire before she had her way.

This was his chance; time to get this things photo. The man rolled his chin to his chest and squeezed his eyes together, straining himself as he tried to sit up. His body, however, was a sack of rocks, and lacked the energy to sit up. Instead, he just lay there. Maybe he didn’t need to sit up. Instead, he hefted his right arm, finding just enough strength to move it, and his camera into place. “Say cheese”, he mumbled. He jerked to a stop; she must have heard him. Right then he pushed down on the button atop his digital camera. He could hear the ting as the gears and mechanics of the camera rolled into action, the slight pause right before the photo. The camera flashed, a powerful strobe lighting pulsed, lighting up the front of his closed eye lids, turning his black vision orange for fraction of a second, before their descent back into blackness. His photo had a greater impacted then he expected.

“AAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

The monster let out another air splitting shriek that jolted from his despondent state, and then swung him by his leg, sending him hurling through the air. The throw had sent him spinning and he had no means of countering against the momentum while in the air. He knew his impact was imminent and he needed to prepare for the worst. He tucked himself into a ball, bringing his arm over his head and tucking his knees up to his chest. The man hit the ground at a low angle causing him to slide, then roll. He rolled several times before coming to a stop. To his amazement, he didn’t feel any worse than he had before the throw. It appeared the monster’s toss had more distance than height. He was lucky he had not hit any rocks or trees!

Between the monster’s scream, and being thrown like a dog’s toy, the man felt another surge of adrenaline flood his heart, sending his body straight back into red-alert. He rolled to his hands and pushed up, getting his knees under him, then his feet. He stood. He immediately noticed he was not standing in the glow of his fire. He had been thrown into the darkness, beyond the bars of his cage. The shriek she had let out had come from behind him, in his camp. He dared a glance back towards the fire. He could see her silhouetted against the fire, huddled in on itself, her hands covering her face, as if to protect it from something.

“Oh my …”, he formed the words with his mouth but didn’t finish. His mouth was just left hanging open as he stared, trying to process what he was seeing. He should not have looked back. Those hands! He knew he could not go back to his fire. To go back would put him face to face with the her and her terrible, nightmarish claws. He’d take his chances now with the woods. Despite the adrenaline, his legs weren’t responding very quickly. He moved away, slowly at first, but gaining momentum with each step. His legs were coming back to life. It was almost impossible to navigate the darkness. He had no idea where he was going. He needed light. He hands found the camera dangling around his neck. He moved his hand up, grabbing the camera, his fumbling fingers eventually finding their positions along is smooth surface. He pushed the button atop his camera. The camera burst with light, instantaneously melting the darkness in front of him, and sending long shadows deeper into the woods. There, there was his path! He broke right, navigating the darkness using the afterimage still fading in his eyes. He paused when the image faded away, but only long enough to take another picture. Flash! He drove himself forward, continued moving. In-between the flashes, the blackness collapsed back around him, enveloping him on all sides in darkness.

He tried to memorize the ever-changing forest with each flash of his camera. Fallen trees, exposed rocks, a bush, the changing terrain, all threatened him with death at his slightest misstep. In the blackness in between the flashes, he maneuvered. Jumping, dodging, zigging and zagging. Despite the danger, he forced his way forward. Flash. The forest snapped into rainbows of greens, browns, oranges and yellows, then disappeared behind their black blanket. He was moving dangerously fast, now. Flash. There was a rock protrusion just ahead, time to jump. He leapt, landed, and continued forward, never breaking his stride. Flash. The light waves broke against the scattered pines, firs, and ash trees, sending long black shadows in front of him where the light didn’t touch. He maneuvered again, adjusting his course slightly. Flash. Low hanging branch. Flash. Another rock. The sound of his crashing foots steps were drowned by the howl of his chaser.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAGHHHHHHHHHH”!

He was expecting it, but even so, it still startled him. It was closing in behind him. His jumbled mind miscalculated his path slightly and he clipped the edge of a tree with his left arm as he shot past. The impact threw off his balance, pushing him sideways to his momentum and almost causing him to fall. He grimaced. He’d have to make do with the miserable discomfort pulsing in his arm. Flash. He MUST keep moving.

“AAAAAAAAGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH”!

She was much closer now; she would be on him in seconds. He could hear her tearing through the brush, still gaining. She made little effort to dodge her surroundings, telling him she didn’t suffer from same inability to navigate the dark. She was now no more than twenty feet behind. Flash, the night cleared again, and he could see a break in the trees to his right. It looked, or maybe it felt, like a clearing. He needed to get to that clearing, away from the maze of trees, bushes, rocks, and shrubs. He needed to change directions but that was not something that could be done on the fly, and he could not do it until he did something about the grotesque thing closing in on him. An idea formed in his mind. It could work! With no time to think it through, he reacted on instinct. The man skid to a stop, turning, he faced directly behind, raised his camera, then snapped another picture. The forest lit up again, another mixture of light and shadow. The sight absolutely horrified him. There she was, fully exposed in the light of his camera. The flash had blinded her, and she crashed through his position, stumbling, then falling, crescendoing in of a violent crash of underbrush and tangled limbs. He didn’t see the crash but he heard it unfold in the darkness behind him.

In that fraction of a second, he had seen her, really seen her, and now he could not unsee her. It was as if time, for a brief moment, had stopped, allowing him to study the intricate details of her anatomy. Nothing in his life had prepared him for what he saw. The sight slapped him right in the face, then it slapped him again. God played no part in this thing’s creation. If he lived to see tomorrow, this moment would haunt him the rest of his days. He could hear her recovering in the brush. He leapt forward, moving with new purpose towards the break in the tree line. He was no longer scared of death, but he was scared of this freakish, devil-horror.

“RRAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!”

Her clamoric uproar reverberated back and forth inside his skull. He raced down his new path towards the clearing. Holding nothing back, he pushed his body to move faster. He flashed the camera again, bathing his pathway in its light. The darkness closed on him again like the shutters of a camera. He bound through the undergrowth now, leaving all thoughts of caution behind. Not to her. Please God no! Only thirty more yards and he would be in the clear. Flash. The camera was swinging with his arms and the angle was off, casting shadows across his path. Still he ran on. What choice did he have? He would choose to face down the strongest lion, the biggest shark, anything else, before this abomination. His lungs were burning. “God, Please,” he thought, “if you can hear me”!

“RRAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!”

He flashed again, light shot from his camera illuminating the last trunks and underbrush before the clearing. His direction was off. He veered right, making his best guess to correct his trajectory. He pumped the button on his camera, but it needed sometime between flashes to reset. He would make the clearing before it was ready again. He could hear the nightmare on top of him now, only feet behind him. The clearing was rushing to meet him. He sprinted through the blackness. Almost there, almost theeeeeere.

SMACK!

The sound was like a hand slapping water. Something had just happened. His head. He could feel something in his head. A vibration of high frequency, moving in and out, twisting this way and that. The vibration was accompanied by a whining sound like a microphone’s feedback. His brain felt like the black and white rush of TV static. His head throbbed and he moved his hands up to his ears stabilized himself against the spinning. He had collided with something. What was going on? Why was he laying on his back? His mind was rebooting, and it was taking a moment for everything to catch up. Where was he? Oh yeah, he was camping with Roger!

He stared blankly into the darkness above him, waiting for things to reset. Slowly, tiny lights came into focus. Those were stars, thousands of them! He was in a clearing. He remembered now! There were trees before, and he was trying to get into the clearing…Wow, the sky was so beautiful. Roger was going to love this; where was he, anyways? Far above, he could see the blinking lights of a plane passing high overhead. He smiled, weakly. He was so sore. His arms hurt, his head hurt, his feet hurt. No matter, he would be okay. Roger would make sure of that. “Roger” he called out. His voice sounding more like a sick animal, than a man. “where are you?”

“Don’t worry, I’m coming, help is on the way”.

The man smiled again. The sound of Roger’s voice spoke peace to his soul. He heard a step in the tall grass just behind where he lay. Roger was here! He would be okay…he would be just fine.

Credit : Austin Ryan

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