Estimated reading time — 5 minutes
Orange light flickered and danced in the center of my vision. The dying heat barely reached me now, but there was no going back out there for more fuel at this point. At least it had stopped snowing. I had always been told not to stare into the fire at night. Keep that night vision sharp. But for some reason, I could help it. Like I needed to make sure it was still there.
The wide-floored canyon, covered in fresh snow, stretched out around me. The only shelter was the large rock in whose shadow I had hastily built the fire. The canyon stretched out into the darkness on opposite ends. One slope was simply a rock face – millennia of erosion had created an almost vertical wall of great sandstone boulders stretching up over a hundred feet. The other slope was a steep hillside, covered in dense trees. Not a bit of the firelight penetrated past the first few trees, and what little light there was created dancing, fading shadows upon the great Ponderosa pines. The new moon didn’t give an ounce of light, but at least with the stars, I could make out the faint shapes on either side of the valley. Atop the rock face opposite the treeline, a lone, gnarled tree trunk, long dead, silhouetted itself upon the ridgeline against the cloudless sky.
The fingers of my left hand were still numb, but at least they had stopped hurting. I had spent too long out there after I had lost the glove, and I knew frostbite had to be setting in at this point. There was no way I was going to stumble through the dark looking for it when I already had a fire going. And the inevitable cracking of branches would give my position away for miles around.
Once more, I checked my rifle. That clunky, wooden piece of shit was like a safety blanket now. Not that I expected to be able to face what was out there with it. But having it close, working the bolt, checking the sight picture, all gave me some comfort. That, combined with the soothing warmth of the fire, kept my panic from boiling over. Breathe. Deep breaths. In… out. Can’t be more than a few hours til dawn. It can’t be. My thoughts, the rifle, the fire. I needed to focus and relax.
Again, I checked the sight picture. Heaved the ancient piece of crap up and pointed at the canyon ridgeline, centering the sights on the silhouette of that lone tree poking up from between the rocks. Still trembled. The front sight danced and swayed, refusing to let me hold it steady on the trunk. Damn this hand. Even if I thought I could harm it, there was no way I could shoot straight.
Something crackled in the treeline behind me and I whirled around. My breath caught in my throat and my skin turned to goosebumps. Something had just moved, God dammit! I struggled to steady my aim at the movement, but the thing had retreated. Leaves and snow crunched and branches snapped as it loped back into the darkness of the treeline. By the sound of it, its strides must have been 6 feet apart. The thing’s legs weren’t that long, were they? Couldn’t have been.
Another rustling. Something flew out of the trees at head height and arced towards me. The firelight illuminated a black shape flying through the air before it came to rest with a wet thud a dozen yards away.
I shuddered. My heart felt like it was about to give out, and despite the heavy coat and the heat of the flames, I felt a chill. I stood, stock still, for what must have been almost half an hour, scanning my surroundings. I felt frozen to the spot. The thing it had thrown was still a dim shape lying atop the snow just out of sight. I decided I had the time to see what it was. It wasn’t that fast, right? No way it could make it from the darkness of the treeline out to meet me before I made it back. I took a few deep breaths, gave one last look around, and steadied myself. Breathe in. Out. I made a break for it.
I dropped my rifle and made a mad dash for the dim shape. As I grasped it in my ungloved left hand, a freezing chill washed over my palm. It was soaking wet. It was a wonder it hadn’t frozen solid already. I sprinted back to the safety of the rock and the fire, scanned the perimeter once more, then examined the thing.
It was my glove. Torn nearly in half and soaked with a viscous, dark fluid. Wasn’t water. Didn’t think it was blood either. Either way, it should have frozen out there. Had to be 15 below freezing at this point. But the dark fluid sloshed over my hand. I threw it back. Useless now. I could picture the thing grinning at its little joke. Bastard. I turned back to my rifle.
There was nothing there. A long indentation of the snow. Nothing more. I had dropped it not ten feet from the fire and I had been out there retrieving the glove for 15 seconds max. It was just gone. No footsteps in the snow other than my own. No noises. God fucking dammit.
I whirled around wildly, scanning my surroundings, as the frantic beating of my heart filled my eardrums. My rapid breaths fogged in the air instantly. The pines were still. No wind stirred their branches. Opposite them, the rock face was silent, its two lone dead trees still watching over me. Both ends of the canyon stretched into blank darkness. I calmed, just barely, and looked over my meager campsite. A tall rock on my left, with the dying fire in front of me, and my pack to the right of the fire.
Except it wasn’t to the right. It was opposite me, across the fire, almost out of its soft glow. I hadn’t left it there. No way I could have. I hadn’t even been on that side of the fire since I had made it back. Maybe I went a little off course when I was running through the trees, came at my camp from a different angle? No. No, I had come out facing the cliff face dead on, and my pack was on the right, where I knew I left it.
Suddenly, my dwindling sense of safety snapped. The warmth of the fire didn’t reach past my skin. My heart froze, eyes wide. I wasn’t safe. I wasn’t safe anywhere. Needed to… to what? The logging road I had been dropped off at was at least 3 miles away, and uphill. And there was no way I’d just happen to run into a passing car at what had to be 4 in the morning, even if I did make it to the road. The sun was coming up soon, right? It had to be. Had to. Just had to hold out a little longer.
The orange glow died. I spun around, already shaking. Nothing but embers.
I whimpered. This was it. No chance now. And so God damned cold. I stopped, sat down, and curled up on the cold hard ground. Maybe its vision was based on motion. If I laid still, it might not even see me. Or maybe it saw infrared. Just had to let myself cool down… Should be easy. Just let the biting cold do its work. Odd… I was feeling warmer already. My breath slowed. My heart was still. I could just sleep. Sleep and I would wake up in the bright daylight and laugh at myself. I felt a the chill finally leave my body. It was replaced by a pleasant numbness, then, gradually, warmth. I still shivered, almost uncontrollably, but that was alright. It was all going to be all right. Relaxed, I opened my eyes once more before I drifted off, staring upwards at the night sky. Odd. I could have sworn there was a dead tree trunk atop that ridgeline.
Credit To – Sam Harper