Nancy O’Shea pushed her little trolley down the narrow corridor. The soles of her cheap rubber shoes squeaked on the poorly waxed tiles as she made her way to room 101. She had never understood why she couldn’t just call it room one, it wasn’t like there was going to be any confusion with the rooms on the floors above, there was only one floor.
Oasis Rehabilitation Center was an outlandish name for this single story building. Aside from the fifteen rooms for patients it held a tiny cafeteria, an even smaller recreation room and four offices for the doctors. Why a town as small as Truth or Consequence New Mexico even had a nut house was beyond her. Other than the serial killer back in ’99 there weren’t many people who would benefit around here. Nancy was grateful for the nut house though, when her husband broke his back and she had to go back to work, Oasis had been her only offer.
At the end of the hall Nancy turned her little cart around and parked it next to room 101. Taking the cover off of the first tray she stepped up to the door and knocked. A young woman opened the door and graciously took the food from Nancy’s hands and with a timid smile quickly shut the door. Nancy wasn’t bothered by the girls actions, abuse cases and suicides rarely spoke and she was both. Making her way down the hall she exchanged pleasantries and lunch with the patients in each room on her list. It wasn’t until she reached room 113 that her steps slowed. 113 was the only room in the hall that made her hesitate.
Most patients were here for drug rehab plus the girl in 101 and one case of extreme paranoia. This room was different John Doe truly scared her. He was pale and skinny with dusty blond hair and blue eyes. He would have been quite handsome if his face wasn’t locked in an expression of pure terror. His pupils were dilated to the point that you could barely see the iris, his nostrils flared as his breath raced in and out and he was always sweating like he had just run a race. While all of this together was unsettling what really bothered Nancy was that in the five years she had been delivering his food he had never once acknowledged her presence. He would move around his room like anyone else but even when his gaze slipped across her he wasn’t seeing her. Nancy figured all he saw was whatever had scared and scarred this young man to the point of insanity.
Steeling her nerve Nancy quickly uncovered the tray and used her key to open the door to 113. His was the only room any of the staff was allowed to enter as he would ignore any knocking. Stepping quickly to the small table she set his lunch out and opened the plastic utensils for him. The only sounds in the room was the panicked gasping of John’s breathing and the constant static of the little radio on his desk.
Keeping a wary eye on John she quickly gathered the liner from his trash can as well as his laundry from his hamper but he never even so much as blinked. Stepping into the hall Nancy looked back over her shoulder as John stepped mechanically over to his food. She quickly shut and locked the door as he grabbed the chicken breast in one hand ignoring his fork.
Nancy spent the rest of the afternoon busying herself with the patients laundry and getting dinner ready. She did her best to keep her mind off of the unnerving man in room 113 but his panicked blue eyes seemed to float in her vision. Nobody knew much about him except that he had been found on one of the desert roads, battered and bloody, and had spent several weeks in the intensive care unit before being transferred to Oasis about ten years ago. He didn’t match any description for a missing person, had no identification and hadn’t spoken a single word to anyone since he head been found. All the mystery aside he was an almost perfect patient, he had only two incidents in his file and both had occurred before Nancy’s time.
When he had first arrived one of the attendants had served him dinner consisting of a medium steak and baked potato. John Doe had begun to scream the moment he laid eyes on the steak. He had screamed until his breath ran out and done permanent damage to his vocal cords. From that point forward John Doe had eaten only chicken. Several weeks later he was in the recreation room when another patient attempted to change the radio station to something other than static. John Doe had reacted violently, throwing the young man to the floor and spinning back to the radio in one swift motion. He hadn’t calmed until the static was blaring loudly from the speakers and since that time he had been provided a personal radio in his room. Both incidents were unexplained in the file and nothing else of interest was present.
Nancy had only one dinner left to serve and her day would be over. Adam would be arriving shortly for the night shift and she would be heading home. Again she stood outside of room 113. Her hesitation was caused less by fear and more so by a profound sadness. The evening always brought about a feeling of melancholy as she prepared to leave the patients and their problems to return home to her own. Tonight it seemed as if that sadness had permeated the very air as she thought of the young man, unnamed and unclaimed, inside this room. She quietly opened the door and begun to lay out his dinner. This time her eyes were not wary, but inquisitive, searching for some clue of who he was or some sign that he knew she was there. John Doe stared straight ahead breathing rapidly and Nancy turned back to the door. As she shut the door she spoke quietly.
“What happened to you Johnny?”
Asphalt whispered under the tires of my dad’s old blue station wagon. I couldn’t stand to look at the empty fields of dust and the occasional cactus or sage brush any longer so I’ve been reading most of the day.
“How are you doing back there hoss?” Dad asks from the front seat.
Rolling my eyes I mark my place in the book and dig out my old Walkman. Dad knows I hate to be called hoss almost as much as I hate Tommy. I have always preferred to go by Thomas but up until recently all of the adults in my life have called me Tommy or some other demeaning nickname.
Searching for something to listen to out in the desert is a bit of a bad joke. The only reason I bother is because the head phones block the sound of my sisters arguing over who’s doll is who’s. Sarah and Anne are twins and at six years old they insist that they need to have exactly the same everything. Matching outfits, toys and even hair styles. This caused more than a few arguments about which of the identical objects belong to who.
As near as I can tell there is only one thing the twins don’t argue about. They both clearly agree that our baby brother Danny is the greatest thing that has ever existed. Danny is two and he’s pretty awesome as kids go. He will do literally anything I tell him to and I’ve used his toddler charms to my advantage a few times.
Finding an oldies station that wasn’t mostly static I settled the Walkman in my lap and idly began to scratch my best friends ears. Dunce is a mutt through and through. He looks a little lab to me but then again he looks a little everything. I’ve had him since I was ten and he’s a highly energetic and loyal friend. Dunce gives me a doggie smile and stretches out across the backseat.
Looking out the front windshield I’m trying to figure out how much longer I’m going to be stuck in this damn car. I notice dads lips moving as he eyes me from the driver’s seat. With a sigh I turn my head and gaze across the endless dusty plains of the New Mexican desert. Dad recently retired from the army and decide we were going to waste my summer driving across the U. S. On top of that we would be moving from Florida, home for the last three years, to Oregon.
I figure it will be along time before I forgive him for that decision. For the first time in my life I’d had real friends. Hell I’d even had a girlfriend. They had all promised to write and I had promised to call but deep down we knew how it worked for army brats. A couple of letters and phone call or two then Katie would be a distant memory and a shared first kiss.
With a groan I shifted position and tried to stretch out my legs. At six foot two inches I was tall for fifteen and being crammed in the last row of seats was pretty uncomfortable. My shaggy blonde bangs fell across my vision, as I tried to use my fingers to brush it back I began to reconsider dad’s recommendation for a hair cut. I like it long but it was hot and tended to be a nuisance.
I looke forward again as dad begins to slow. Up ahead I can see a pull off for truckers and sleepy drivers. No other vehicles are parked but I know we would be spending the night here instead of the campground mom had found on the map. Danny had thrown a tremendous tantrum this morning as we had tried to get back on the road and it had cost us quite a bit of drive time. Dad didn’t want to drive late into the night with the little ones so we would pull off here and get some quality sleep in the little pull behind camper hitched to the back of the car.
After waiting for an eternity the brats have finally cleared their seats. I clip a lead to Dunce’s collar as my mom rocks the second row seats up to let us out. Dunce is well behaved and won’t run to far but this close to the highway I’m not taking chances. I stand next to mom and begin to stretch out the kinks in my legs and back.
Mom is pretty tall but I tower over her. Her fine blond hair floats around her head like a halo in the dry desert air. I’m built like my dad, tall and lean, but my features resemble my mom’s more than his. Dad and the other kids all have dark brown hair and brown eyes. Mom and I are blond, though my hair is thick and coarse, and blue eyed. Mom smiles up at me and begins to speak but Danny picks that moment to start hollering about something. Mom gives me a tired smile, lights another cigarette, and walks off to coral the kids before than can get into to much trouble.
I take Dunce across the blacktop so he can stretch his legs and do his business as far from the camper as possible. Sage brush about waist high lines the edge of the black top like a wall closing in on the highway but we find enough room for both of us to relieve ourselves. Mom hates it when I pee outside but I don’t think she understands just how awesome it is.
Taking off my headphones I’m startled by how quiet it is out here. The only sounds come from across the lot as dad prepares the camper and even that is subdued. An oppressive silence presses against me and I feel a quiver of fear coarse through my belly. In all my life I have never felt a silence like this. No insects sing as the sun sets, no birds chirp, there isn’t even the hum of tires on the highway. Everywhere I’ve lived has been alive with sound but this desert feels dead to me.
Without turning my back on the sage I begin to move towards the camper. The leash in my hand pulls tight as Dunce locks his legs and glares into the desert. His hackles are raised and I begin to panic. Dunce rarely shows any form of aggression and his actions are far more terrifying than the silence.
The dog ignores me and begins to emit a low growl. My stomach clenches as fear grips me, and with sweaty palms I size the leash in both hands and give it a sharp tug. Dunce stumbles and begins to slowly back with me towards the camper. My heart is racing as we enter the pool of dim light spilling from the windows of the camper.
Standing in the light with mom and dad just inside the door the fear releases its hold on me. Staring defiantly at the shadows creeping across the black top I reach down and scratch Dunce behind the ears.
“Nothing to scary for us is there boy?”
Dunce only glares into the night and despite my new found courage I want to be inside. Quickly opening the door I let Dunce enter and slip in behind him. As I pull the door shut I feel another tingle run down my spine.
Mom sits with the younger children at the table. Ruffling Danny’s hair as I reach past him I grab one of the sandwiches she’s has made for dinner. As I take a bite mom sends the little one to brush their teeth.
“Don’t be so hard on your father” she murmurs not wanting the kids to overhear. “We are only doing what we think is best.”
“I know mom but I’m tired of moving. I don’t understand why we need to leave Florida. You guys made the decision and didn’t ask how I might feel about it.”
I am nearly yelling as I finish my statement. A look of hurt flashes across my moms face and I instantly regret it. Even though they had explained their choice to move back to their home town in Oregon in still sparks anger in me when we talk about it. Mom and dad want us to be closer to our grandparents as they grow older. I want to be close to them too but my friends and life are in Florida. Mom purses her lips and stands. She gently squeezes my shoulder as she walks past to get the younger kids ready for bed.
I slip my headphones on and begin scanning for something to listen to. Like my books, I use music to avoid conversation and escape reality. It’s not that I dislike my family but mom and dad never seem to listen. They hear me fine but they don’t understand or acknowledge what it I’m trying to say.
Switching from one static filled channel to the next I let my gaze slip out of focus and brood silently.
After several minutes I begin to feel pressure in my ears similar to diving into the deep end of the pool. Plugging my nose I blow to release the pressure and when that doesn’t work I remove my head phones. A barely audible hum fills my ears. The hum has a strange cadence and two distinct pitches. One, like nails on a chalk board, sets me on edge the other is more akin to the sound on asphalt as a large vehicle approaches.
Lifting the awful yellow orange curtain that hangs over the window I crane my neck looking back the way we drove. There is no glow of headlights approaching so I scan the length of the road heading east.
Something firm and heavy lands against my shoulder and with a shout I attempt to throw myself out of my seat. Only my dad’s hand, gripping my arm, keeps me from sprawling on my ass.
“What the hell was that?” Dad asks incredulously.
“N.. No… nothing dad.” I stutter as my voice breaks. “You startled me is all.”
My heart is racing and all I can think of is Dunce growling at the shadows.
“Well keep it down,” Dad mutters “The kids are already in bed and if you wake them up there will be hell to pay.”
I nod mutely. I don’t want dad to hear the fear in my voice. Dad squeezes my shoulder and gives me a small smile to indicate that he is only partly serious.
“Your mother and I are going to bed. I know you slept half the day away but don’t sit up all night reading.”
“ ‘Night dad.” I mumble as he walks away. I realize that since dad startled me the hum has stopped. Maybe it was my imagination.
Knowing I won’t be able to sleep with my nerves as worked up as they are I leave the Walkman on the table and grab my book. Dad hates the books I read. We had argued over them several times, dad argues that if I would focus on my school work like I do on my fantasy novels my grades wouldn’t be so poor. I contend that the real world sucks and this is the best way to ignore it. Neither of us have given an inch and we do our best to avoid the topic with each other.
Hours later, my book splayed across my lap, my imagination has me in the forest of Tre’shenna. As one of the famed Gryphon Riders it is my duty to hunt the mighty Balrog that is terrorizing the forest and the surrounding settlements. My companions and I are approaching the area the foul beast claims as its territory. Crouching beside a tree I know we are getting close as I can smell the rot of its kills not quite buried under the scent of the damp forest floor. Behind me I can hear my companions creeping closer to my position. I wince as armor scrapes against tree bark, surprising the Balrog is best way to ensure victory. Through the trees ahead I begin to catch glimpses of a clearing bathed in shadow despot the sun being high over head. Drawing my short sword I signal my companions to ready themselves as we draw close to the Balrog’s lair. The beasts vile magic begins to fill the air. A steady threatening hum fill our ears as we proceed to surround the clearing. As I prepare to give the order to attack a large brown blur slams into me.
Dunce whimpers quietly as he attempts to squeeze between my self and the wall.
“Damn it Dunce” I hiss through clenched teeth. “What the hell are you doing?”
I had been thoroughly lost in my book when Dunce had jumped onto the little bed. He had taken me completely by surprise and a cold sweat covered my body. My hands were shaking as I attempted to pull him away from the wall. It was only then that I realize how unusual his actions are.
Dunce has never been afraid of anything. I had once had to prevent him from attacking an alligator in Florida and even though the beast was twice his size he hadn’t backed down. I had often joked that he wasn’t smart enough to be afraid. Tonight he was attempting to prove me wrong. With his tail tucked between his legs he cowered on the bed, rolling on his back he exposed his stomach and continued to whine pitifully.
Only then did I realize the hum I had imagined in my story was the same hum from earlier and it was back. Somehow it sounds closer and more menacing than it had earlier. I realize that it is well past midnight and the only light in the camper comes from directly above my little bed.
As I flip the switch shutting off the small bulb I get the distinct impression that I am being watched. Stretching out as far as I can I check the lock on the door. After ensuring that both the knob and the small deadbolt are locked can I raise the courage to look outside.
Lifting only the very corner of the curtain I can see that a small crescent moon has risen. It’s dim light reflects of the sandy desert floor. While it is enough to see by it only seems to deepen the pools of shadow below the sage brush causing another band of fear to wrap around my pounding heart.
After several moments starring into the inky black shadows I drop the curtain and turn back to Dunce.
“There’s nothing out there dummy.” I let out a nervous laugh as I wipe the sweat from my palms.
Dunce calms slowly as I grab my Walkman and settle into bed. He has stopped whimpering but is still shaking as I thumb through the radio stations. I settle on a classic rock station that Isn’t entirely static and close my eyes. Focusing on the music and calming my breathing I begin to drift off to sleep.
Unsure if I am dreaming or not I hear the radio fade to static.
“……hound will warn them…”
My eyes snap open as the voice speaks through my headphones. All I can hear now is the static and the persistent hum that has returned since I lay down. Fear courses through my belly as I lay trembling beneath the covers. The static of the radio is an oppressive wave of noise slamming against my ears but I cannot bring myself to move for fear of attracting whatever had spoken.
I try to focus, to remember what I had heard. It hadn’t sounded like the DJ or anything I had heard before. I had felt it as much as heard it. It had felt way a dentist’s pick scratches against your teeth. I tried to push aside the fear and focus on what the voice had said. Something about Dunce I was certain. Looking at the dog, who was sound asleep, it occurred to me that I must have been dreaming. He certainly shouldn’t have become so calm in the seemingly small amount of time that had passed. Dunce twitched a little in his sleep, dreaming, as I slowly reached up and removed my head phones. Maybe dad is right and my fantasy books have given me an over active imagination.
After a restless night of sleep I was woken up by something dropping onto my chest. Twenty pounds of two year old bounced up and down as Danny happily stroked Dunce’s back.
“Dawwwgie” he shouted with each part of the dogs head.
Reaching up I caught the monster under the arms to keep him from slamming against my chest for a third time.
“Uggh what is wrong with you?”
“Dawgie!” Danny shouted again.
Lifting the struggling boy from my chest I an attempt to set him on the floor. With a squeal he grabbed my blankets in one hand and my shirt in the other. I began to tickle under his arms in attempt to get him to let go.
Danny squealed and violently kicked me in the ribs. As the air blasted from my lungs I dropped him onto my chest and again had the wind knocked out of me. Danny let out a devilish giggle and leapt from the bed in the fearless manner that only a two year old can possess.
I sat up holding my ribs and glared after him as he ran to his guardian angels. Sarah and Anne were waiting with open arms as Danny approached. Sarah shot me the most menacing look she could manage while Anne smoothed Danny’s wild dark hair.
“Leave this poor baby alone you big meanie!” Sarah shouted at me.
Behind me mom began to laugh as she cooked. I quickly joined in the laughter while the twins glared at us.
“Take the dog out and tell dad breakfast is ready.” Mom gasps over her laughter.
I grab the leash as Dunce bounces from the bed at the mention of outside. Dunce bounces in circles as I attempt to clip his lead to his collar. Like all good boys the thought of a walk is to much to hold still for. Pinning him against the wall I clip the lead on, brace my legs and open the door.
Dunce nearly jerks me from my feet as he dashes through the opened door. Stumbling along behind him I squint in the desert sun as he drags me towards the bushes. As my eyes adjust I finally get to look at the rest area in the light. The wall of sage brush isn’t nearly as intimidating with the sun illuminating the shadows beneath them. I’m still uneasy as we approach them but I blame it on my imagination. Dunce is unperturbed as we approach and he quickly does his business.
Walking across the already warm blacktop I find dad stuffing suitcases into the back of the station wagon. I tie Dunce off to the trailer and begin to had dad bags and packs. Dad looks grumpy even for him and he keeps glancing out into the desert. I’m being to think he noticed some of the same things I did last night.
“Hey dad, does this place seem strange to you?”
“What do you mean strange?” Dad doesn’t look up as he speaks and I have to gather my courage to continue.
Once I begin to speak it all flows out of me. With out thinking about it I’m telling dad about the sagebrush last night, the hum and unease I’ve felt and even the voice in my walkman. Dad interrupts me with a wave of his hand.
“Thomas we have talked about your imagination before and it always ends in a fight. You’re already upset at your mother and I and now your imagination is sizing that anger and turning it into something real. I hate those damn books of yours but if you are going too keep reading them don’t come running to me every time you think you see something.”
Hanging my head I begin to walk away when dad clears his throat.
“Damn it Thomas, I’m sorry. I didn’t get much sleep last night and now you’re coming to me with this.” Dad let’s out a deep sigh and rubs his eyes, “It’s normal to be uncomfortable in a new place. Don’t ignore your instincts, you have them for a reason, but don’t let them rule your life.”
I try to smile as I nod my agreement. Dad throws his arm across my shoulders as he leads me into the trailer for breakfast.
“Don’t bring any of this up around the kids, or your mother, I don’t need them seeing things too.”
After eating dad and I get back to loading the station wagon. Mom is buckling the kids into their seats and making sure each of them has used the bathroom. Behind me I hear Dunce’s claws scrabble as he leaps to his feet. Looking over my shoulder I see he is staring intently at the sage. As I watch his lips peel back and the fur on his back rises.
I hiss drawing his attention to the dog.
We both watch closely as Dunce let’s out an audible growl. Both of us flinch, and I let out a yell, as Dunce begins to bark. I try to run as a blur shoots from beneath the sage and dashes across the black top.
My feet tangle and I sprawl to the ground. Before I can get up I hear dad laughing. As I look up I can clearly see the coyote as it dashes across the highway and disappears into the brush on that side. Joining my dad in laughter I lay back on the hot asphalt and try to calm my nerves.
“Stupid animals. Get that dumb dog in the car Thomas, damn thing nearly gave me a heart attack.”
Climbing to my feet I untie Dunce from the trailer and make my way to the car. Dunce grins a doggie grin knowing he has protected us from the obviously dangerous wild life.
Hours later I’m standing in a lonely campground halfway up a mountain I haven’t bothered to learn the name of. Dad was right and we had arrived just after noon. I feel a little disappointed that we are the only visitors here but the view is pretty amazing. The reds and Browns of the desert sands stand in stark contrast to the dark greens of the cacti and surprisingly numerous trees.
I laugh out loud as Dunce dashes back and forth beneath those trees. I’m not sure if he’s chasing something or looking for something to chase but he seems content and more importantly to me he has shown no sign of his unease from the night before. To my surprise I’m also feeling pretty good standing up here. The uncomfortable feeling of being watched had slowly faded as we had driven further from the rest area and now even with the sun nearing the horizon I felt comfortable outside.
The New Mexican sky had just begun to glow in deep rain ds and light purples when the door to the camper banged open.
“Mom says dinner is ready.” Sarah shouted.
I could never understand my siblings inability to speak at anything below a shout. All three of them yelled at every opportunity. Turning my back on the sunset I call to Dunce and make my way inside.
Standing in a clearing I can see the vague outline of trees surrounding me. Looking up at the night sky shows me nothing but more of the black night. No stars twinkle against that black backdrop and the moon hasn’t yet made an appearance. I turn slowly examine the small clearing I stand in. It is a nearly perfect circle with strange trees pressing in on all sides. I don’t remember how I got here and I can’t find the trail I must have used. As I turn I hear branches shifting beneath my feet. There are so many that I nearly fall as I turn. Extending my arms in front of me and sliding my feet to avoid tripping I begin to approach the tree line. I want to turn back to the safety of the small clearing but my feet seem to move of their own accord.
As I draw near the branches of the trees begin to sway in a breeze I can’t feel. Drawing my eyes upward the movement seems almost hypnotic. No longer paying attention to my footing I feel one limbs on the ground clutch at my ankle and I sprawl to the ground. Pulling my eyes away from the branches above me I cast my eyes around the circle of trees and the shadows beneath them. My heart begins to hammer against my ribcage as the deepest patch of shadow begins to slowly slide forward.
I grasp the broken branch beneath my hands and surge to my feet in the blink of an eye. Swinging my makeshift club over my shoulder I quickly turn looking for the shadows that approached. Chest heaving as I struggle to catch my breath I find nothing else in the clearing. Blaming my imagination I slowly continue to turn hoping for a way out. As I come back to the direction I had started in I notice a small path leading from the clearing. I must not have been able to see it from the center of the clearing. Running straight as an arrow the path isn’t wide but in the darkness it looks clear and uncluttered.
At the end of the trail I can see the camper with its dim light shining from behind closed curtains. With a sigh of relief I step forward to make my way back. Beneath my feet more branches skitter but I hear another sound and I freeze. Behind me I had heard another footfall. It had sounded much heavier than mine and instead of scattering debris as it came down I had heard the branches snapping beneath its weight. Glancing fearfully over my shoulder I couldn’t see anything. Adjusting my grip on my club I notice for the first time that it is sticky with the sap of these strange tress.
Keeping a wary eye cast over my shoulder I quickly glance to the trail before me. The trailer can’t be much more than a hundred yards away. I can run a hundred yards, even in the dark, pretty quickly. If I can get to dad, and Dunce, whatever else is out here won’t be able to get me. With a loud shout I lunge forward dashing down the small path. Blood pounds in my ears, a result of the adrenaline and exertion, and I am breathing heavily. Keeping my eyes on the trail as much as the camper I don’t notice the branch protruding into my path until it is almost to late. I throw my weight to the left in an attempt to dodge around it and I am mostly successful. Instead of striking the branch with my head it clips my shoulder and I nearly fall. Using my club as a crutch I catch myself before I sprawl in the dirt. Surging back to a full sprint I realize that besides the blood pounding in my ears I hear another sound. Footsteps, just beyond the trees closest to me, easily keeping up with my pace. Fear threatens to turn my legs to water and the trail ahead seems narrower.
With another defiant shout I push for just a little more speed. Turning my shoulder I dive forward between the trees before they can close together and trap me. My dive ends with a rough tumble as I crash against the side of the camper. With my eyes closed I rest against it catching my breath. After a brief moment doing nothing but breathing I finally find the energy to struggle to my feet and cast a glare back to the tree line. As if waiting for this moment the moon appears from behind the mountains illuminating the forest.
My legs give in to the fear that clutches me and I drop to my knees. Before me is not a forest of scraggly trees but countless corpses in various states of decay. They sway on their feet and each one is horribly disfigured. With a shout of fear I rip my eyes away from the grisly scene and look to the club gripped in my hands. It is a child’s leg, roughly half of it is stripped of skin and muscle, exposing the bloodied bone I now hold. On its foot is a single shoe. I scream aloud in fear and fling the leg away from me. I scream until I cannot summon the breath to continue. I begin to vomit. I can taste blood and bile as I empty my stomach repeatedly. Looking at the ground, soaked in blood and vomit, I collapse as I recognize the bits of meat I have regurgitated. Three small fingers and part of an ear are all I can identify before darkness consumes me.
I jerk awake, covered in sweat, and frantically glance around me. I attempt to wipe the tears from my eyes as I realize I’d just had a nightmare. My stomach clenches as I remember and it is all I can do not to cry out loud. My heart hammers in my chest and I can’t catch my breath. In all my life I have never had a dream like that one. Every detail had seemed so real, and even now my muscles tremble as if I’d been running.
My mouth is bone dry and as I attempt to swallow I taste blood. Recalling my dream my stomach surges violently. Using my tongue I find a small cut against my lips it is the only part of my mouth that isn’t dry. I want to go to the bathroom and rinse my mouth but I am unable to move. Fear holds me captive in my small bed.
Hours later and I am lying in the exact same position. My muscles ache and my heart is still racing. The curtains above my small bed are beginning to glow as the sun rises outside, however I am unable to move. Dunce is beginning to stir and in the small walled off section that makes up the master bedroom I can hear my dad doing the same. I want so badly to call out to him. I need his strength but I cannot find my voice. Besides it would only irritate him to find me motionless from fear. Even as a small child he had never been great at comforting me when I’d had a bad dream, that was mom’s job, but he had always been like a mountain to me. Unmoving and fearless, just knowing he was in the house had been a comfort to me growing up.
Hearing him move through the thin walls provides little comfort this morning. I am unable to shake a feeling of dread that has settled over me like a smothering blanket. I hear dad starting breakfast and even though I know I am safe I can not bring myself to get out of bed. It isn’t until Dunce begins to lick at my face that I begin to feel it is safe to move again. Wincing at my cramped muscles I slowly stroke his head. My hand trembles even now as visions of the dream flit before my eyes. Moving gently I begin to stretch beneath my sweat soaked blankets and as I work out the kinks and stiffness some measure of peace returns to me.
Muscles screaming in protest I sit and swing my feet to the floor. It takes several minutes to work up the energy to stand and if I didn’t have the small cabinets to hang onto I’m sure I would have fallen. I make my way to the bathroom, one hand running along the wall for balance. Catching sight of myself in the mirror I’m shocked by what I see. The skin of my face is pale and drawn tight. Dark circles line my eyes and blood has seeped out the corn or of my lips from where I had bit my cheek. Turning on the small sink I quickly scrub my face. The water seems to help, there are still bags beneath my eyes but my skin has some color to it now.
Walking out of the bathroom I nod at dad’s gruff good morning and sit at the little table. I’m so tired that my eyes begin to droop immediately. As my head drops dad plops a plate of bacon and eggs in front of me. Jerking my head up I smile and begin to eat half heartedly.
“You ok hoss?” Dad asks, “You look like you might be getting sick.”
“Didn’t get much sleep” I mumble in to my eggs.
“Well your mom and I are taking the kids up the mountain for a picnic lunch. You get some rest and get feeling better.”
I stumble back to my bed after breakfast. Even though the sun is shining I don’t turn off the overhead light as I lay down. I can here Danny and the girls arguing about who gets to hold Dunce’s leash so I slip my headphones on to tune them out. Even as afraid to sleep as I am it isn’t long before I drift off.
“….boy is alone…”
“Mmuuuh?” I mumble not coming fully awake.
“….rid of the hound….”
I come fully awake as the second voice speaks. Static bares in my headphones and I begin to wonder if I was dreaming again. I lower the headphones to my neck, I can still hear the static but it doesn’t block out other sounds, and look around the camper. I am alone, mom and dad have taken the kids and the dog up the mountain.
“Hello,” I call timidly, “Is anyone there?”
White noise from the headphones is the only sound that answers my call. Rising from my bed I slip my shoes on and open the door to the camper. Standing on the small stairs I scan the small campground. We are still the only campers present. Calling out again I receive no reply. Maybe I’m imagining voices in my sleep deprived state. As I turn to head back inside the static of my headphones breaks up again.
“ the..boy….ear us…” The hum I had heard the night before returns in time with the words.
Lunging inside I slam the door and lock it behind me. Something is out there and it knows I know. Rushing to the sink I yank open drawers looking for something to defend myself. Finding moms chefs knife I back into the bathroom facing the door the entire way. The small bathroom is not an ideal place to hide but the only window is less than a foot tall and doesn’t open. Squatting in front of the toilet I am far enough away that nothing can reach me even if it breaks the glass.
Listening intently for the voices in the static I cower in the bathroom for several minutes. My exhausted muscles begin to throb as I hold my position but nothing happens. Slowly rising my I dare to cast a quick look out the small window. The pebbled glass distorts my sight making everything appear a brown blur with hints of dark green. Reaching out the door with my knife extended I flip the curtain closest to me up and in the brief glimpse before it falls I see the empty campground.
My pulse is racing and I am sweating profusely despite the mild weather. I know I heard something but even now I am beginning to doubt myself. Turning the volume all the way up on my walkman I begin to speak.
“Can you hear me?”
“What do you want?”
“I know you are there!” I’m shouting at this point as well as starting to feel a little bit silly. Standing alone in the center of our little camper and talking to myself isn’t going to do much to convince dad that my imagination isn’t getting out of hand. Shaking my arms to release some of the tension I’m holding I place the knife on the counter top. After checking the out the window in the back wall I slide into the bench seat at the table. Resting my head against the cool surface I let out a deep sigh of relief as the static continues uninterrupted from my headphones. My heart clenches as I hear a knew sound. The door knob turns slightly then jiggle violently. I am holding my breath and starring in mute horror as something slams violently against the door.
With a scream of terror I leap to my feet and reach for the knife. My sweaty hand fumbles the handle and it clatters to the floor. As I scramble after it on my hands and knees I hear a shout.
“Damn it, Thomas open this stupid door!”
With shaking hands it takes me several attempts to unlock the door. I stumble out and throw my arms around my dad.
“What in the hell has gotten in to you?” Dad asks.
I am to terrified to answer and continue to hold on to him. Finally he pries my arms from around his neck and pushes me back to arms length. Behind him my mom and siblings stare in disbelief. As I’ve gotten older I haven’t shown any of them much affection.
“I heard the voices again dad. They are talking about us. I don’t know what they want but I can hear them on my headphones.” I realize I am babbling as I attempt to give my dad the headphones. I am incoherent with fear and I try to force the headphones over my fathers ears, he finally sizes my wrists and shouts.
“Thomas cut that shit out!”
Shrinking back I feel tears begin to fall. Mom and the kids are staring fearfully and I realize I am frightening them. Sitting on the steps I hang my head and let them pass by me and into the trailer.
“Thomas what is going on?” Mom sits next to me and wraps one arm around my shoulders.
I try to explain to her what I have experienced since we reached the rest area two nights ago but my words are frantic and jumbled. The look of concern on her face deepens as I speak. I can tell she doest believe me.
“Thomas I know your life has been out of sorts since your father decided to retire. Maybe this is your way of coping with all the changes. I really think you need to stop brooding and talk it out with someone. Talk to me or your father it doesn’t matter. Just get it off of your chest.”
Moms patronizing tone stirs the anger I’ve held since we left Florida and not wanting to yell at her I lay my head across my arms and choose to ignore her. As she rises to her feet I realize that I have not seen Dunce since they all came back.
“Mom, where is Dunce?”
Mom frowns and hesitates before she answers.
“The kids took his leash off and were playing fetch with him. He ran off and we assumed he was coming to find you.”
Terror grips my heart as I leap to my feet. The voices had mentioned a hound, that could only mean Dunce. Tears again begin to flow as I frantically scream his name.
“Dunce! Dunce! C’mon boy where are you?”
Dad comes out as I’m yelling and grabs my arm.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he yells, “I’ve about had it with this shit. You are scarring Danny and your sisters enough as it is, you’re not going to stand out here screaming!”
I jerk my arm out of his grip and turn to face him.
“Where the fuck is my dog?” I yell, “The voices said they had to get rid of him!”
“Enough!” Dad yells back as he slaps me hard across the cheek.
I back away from him as my face begins to burn. Staring at him in fear I spin away and as I run from the camp ground I hear both of my parents shouting my name.
As I come back to my senses I realize that I have been walking for over an hour. The sun is no longer directly overhead but it isn’t yet approaching the horizon. My throat is raw and dry as I have been calling out to Dunce continuously.
I lean against a large rock to catch my breath. As I try to calm myself and think I realize I have no idea how far I have come or which direction will lead me back to the camper. The fear that had fled as I began to look for Dunce returns and leads to despair. My dog is gone and I’m out by myself with no way of knowing what else is out here.
Sliding down the rock I sink to the ground and again begin to sob. All the emotion has drained me and I can’t summon the energy to get to my feet and look for Dunce or try to find my way back. I hear something approach and my heart leaps first in joy as I think Dunce may have found me, then in fear as it maybe the source of the voices I had heard. It is neither of these and as I see my father approach anger boils again to the surface. As I leap to my feet and prepare to take off walking again dad begins to speak.
His voice is low and I can tell he feels guilty over his reaction to my panic. Instead of stomping off I pause to listen.
“Thomas I’m sorry. I had no right to hit you I reacted in anger and I regret it.”
The sincerity in his voice takes me by surprise. I was ready to forgive him just because I was immediately less afraid having him out here with me but he has rarely ever spoken to me like this and it strikes against my anger and fear driving it down under my own wave of guilt. Maybe mom is right and I do need to talk to someone.
“I know dad and I’m angry too. I shouldn’t have yelled, but something is out here and we need to find Dunce and leave! I don’t care if we go to Oregon or Florida or Alaska. Please dad let’s leave now!”
Irritation shows briefly on his face as I talk but it is quickly replaced with a look of concern.
“Thomas I don’t know why you’re so scared of this place. It is a beautiful camp ground and I just want you to enjoy it but we can cut our stay a day short if it will make you feel better. Let’s get back to the trailer and we will leave in the morning.”
We begin to walk back the way he had come. Dad had clearly been paying attention to the area as he followed me. It was a good thing he had because in my fear and anger I had been completely beyond myself and didn’t recognize anything. As we walk I touch my face. Clearly dad hadn’t slapped me as hard as I had assumed. No welt rose on my face and am once again ashamed of my actions.
Trying to distract myself from those thoughts I began to study our surroundings. The dirt and rocks of the mountain rang from barely tan to an almost orange brown to a deep red and it held a uniqueness that I hadn’t experienced before. Gray green sage brush grows beneath dark green needles of a pine tree I have never seen before.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch a flash of brown against a dark red background and call for dad to stop as I backtrack hoping to find it again. Searching down the mountainside I see it again nestled in a small stand of pine. My heart flutters with panic and then drops as I realized what I was looking at.
I am nearly thirty feet down the mountain before I realize I am sprinting. Dad’s voice shouts out behind me and I can hear him racing after me. As I enter the small copse I drop to my knees tearing my jeans and my flesh in the process.
Dunce lies on the bed of pine needles. His belly has been ripped open and his blood bathes the area. I let out a wordless scream at the sight my best friend lying dead before me. Dimly I am aware of my dad trying to pull me away but I cling to his lifeless body. Several long gashes run the length of his ribs, exposing the bone, his head is twisted around and his neck is bent at an odd angle.
Blood, sticking like tar, coats his fur. Gently I stroke his face begging him to get up. I can’t believe this is real. Sobbing I wait for him to bounce to his feet and run in happy circles like he always does. Pulling my hand back and seeing his blood on my skin causes another surge of grief.
“No Dunce, no.” I wheeze. “Come on boy, no” I am shaking as I bury my face against the fur of his neck. I have hugged him like this thousands of times but this time he is stiff and cold. This time he doesn’t wiggle excitedly, squirming to get his head around and lick my face. He just lies there, ribs exposed through long tears in his skin, unmoving. Blood beginning to seep through my jeans and covering my arms as I hold him.
Dads hand gently squeezes my shoulder. His voice is soft but tense.
“Thomas we have to go.”
“Dunce. Please God no.” Whispering through the tears running down my face I ignore him.
“Thomas,” Dads voice hitches and he takes a deep breath before continuing, “We have to get back.”
“He’s dead dad. He’s dead. I can’t just leave him!”
“I know son. I can’t change that but your mother is alone with your sisters and Danny.”
Tentacles of fear clench my heart. Mom and the babies are alone and whatever got Dunce is out there somewhere. With bloodstained hands I attempt to wipe the tears from my eyes. Each step I take drives a spike of agony through me but I can’t help Dunce and mom needs us.
We don’t walk for long before we hear the first scream.
Neither dad nor I speak but both of us begin to run at the same time. Dodging over rocks and around trees with out thinking I sprint toward the sound of Moms voice.
“DANNY WHERE ARE YOU?”
Clearly panicked Mom is on the verge of hysteria as we come into the campground.
“Carl, I can’t find him! Where is my baby?” Mom rushes into dad’s arms. Face flushed and marked with tear tracks she is clinging to my father.
“What happened?” Dads voice is eerily calm. My heart is hammering rapidly and I don’t think I could summon the air to speak but dad manages to do so without even a trace of fear.
As mom recounts what took place after I fled I scan the campground for any sign of my brother.
“Thomas!” a shrill screech pierces the air as Sarah and Anne bolt towards me. Dropping to my knees I open my arms as the girls throw their arms around my neck. Both begin to speak at once.
“You ran away and daddy chased you…”
“….. thought you were gone forever!”
“Mom said go inside…”
“Danny was with momma…”
“Where is he?”
Both girls are sobbing by the time they stop to catch their breath. Anne pulls away from me and eyes wide, focused on the blood on my face and arms, whispers quietly.
Stammering I try to answer but anything I say will only serve to scare the girls worse. Fortunately dad steps in.
“Girls Dunce got hurt really bad. Thomas tried to help him but he won’t be coming back. I need you to get inside. Thomas get cleaned up and keep an eye on everyone. I’m going to look for Danny.”
He has retrieved his holster from the car and his voice is tense but steady. Not waiting around for any arguments dad turns and begins calling for my brother.
Taking one girl in each arm I make my way towards our camper. Mom slowly shuffles ahead of us. Vacantly staring all around she lights another cigarette. Setting the girls at the small table I grab a towel and quickly wipe the blood from my face and hands. With shaking hands I open the curtains to try to keep an eye on dad. I don’t like that he is out there alone but knowing he has his gun helps.
Mom is speaking quietly to the girls, her face is blotchy and red, and her eyes are swollen. Holding each of the girls in turn she places a kiss on their forehead. Rising she turns to face me.
“I’m going to help dad. Keep the girls inside and watch out for them. I have to go find my baby.”
“Mom, no! Danny didn’t wander off, something is out there. Stay here please.”
“Thomas I have to find him,” Stepping forward she quickly hugs me “Keep the girls safe.”
Before I can move mom opens the door and steps out into the fading light. Time seems to slow as panic grips me. My heart is hammering too fast and too slow, Anne’s lips are moving but her words are a monotonous blob. Suddenly her voice crashes over me so quickly that they can barely be understood.
Tears and snot are flowing freely, I can feel my heart breaks as she sobs, gathering her into my arms I look at Sarah and it breaks a little more. No tears fall from Sarah’s eyes but the look of terror on her face is plain to see.
Sitting down next to them I try to explain that it will be OK. Mom dad and Danny will be back soon and we will leave. Anne slowly quiets but Sarah is looking more and more afraid as I speak. Pausing to study her I realize I can no longer hear my father. Rising to my feet I almost fall as pressure slams against my ears. The hum has returned, and from the looks of pain on their faces, even the girls feel it.
Leaping to my feet. I throw open the camper door. Time freezes as I see mom standing in the deepening shadows of the pines. She stands rigidly, unmoving, starring into the trees. With a BANG the door slams against the outside of the camper. Mom’s head jerks towards me, eyes wide with terror, and opens her mouth to speak.
Something inhumanly fast snaps out of the deepest shadows. A pale blur, the color of bone, lashes towards mom. Flinching back I lose my balance as something cracks sharply, like a heavy branch snapping from a tree, and stumble against the door frame.
Mom is gone. All that remains is a glistening pattern of dark blood sprayed across the gravel of our little camp site.
Fear closes around me like a cage. Watching through eyes that don’t feel like my own I slowly stumble down the stairs. My head is turning, eyes darting, looking for mom or whatever might have taken her. Fear demands that I run, the screaming voice in my head wants to go back inside with the girls, but my body acting of its own accord walks closer to the shadows.
Blackness consumes me, my heart is beating a rapid tattoo against my chest, my breath sounds like gale force winds rushing in and out of my lungs but I am unable to move. My body ignores my commands and I can no longer even see.
When I regain control of my senses I am kneeling in the sharp gravel. Blood and a few partial foot prints are the only indication that mom had ever been here. If not for them I would think I had been hallucinating. Slowly recognizing that I am not only outside, but that I have left the girls behind, I lurch to my feet. Stumbling in the near darkness I feel like I am running through quicksand. My limbs are heavy as I move. Like the very air is attempting to hold me in place. If my heart beats any faster I’m certain it will explode.
The camper before me does not seem to be growing any closer as I attempt to move faster. With slow motion clarity I see the knob turning, as the door bangs open time snaps back into motion.
“Stay inside.” I scream at Sarah. Rushing the final few feet I lunge inside scooping the girl against my chest and slamming the door behind me.
Sobbing loudly Sarah wraps her arms tightly around my neck. Anne clings to my waist as I attempt to move through the small camper. Tears and snot soak through my shirt as Sarah presses her face against my neck gently patting her back I try to speak calmly to quiet the girls.
“Shhh. Its okay.”
“You left us!” Anne wails.
“I know and I’m sorry. It’s okay now, I’m back, I won’t leave again.”
“Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy…..” Sarah sobs. “I want mommy and daddy and Danny. I want Dunce.”
Dread clenches in my gut knowing she will never see three of them again but I cannot bring myself to tell her the truth. Hell she may never see dad either. I hadn’t made much noise since I’d last heard him. He would have no idea that mom was gone. He may be dead or still looking for Danny. Setting Sarah down I pull Anne’s arms from around me. Settling Anne next to Sarah I step closer to the door. As I lift the curtains I can see that full dark has fallen. I can’t make out much in the thin sliver of light spilling through the curtain.
Grabbing the knife I had left on the kitchen sink, I slowly open each curtain. I need to be able to see outside and Dad needs to find his way back. Opening the cupboard underneath the counter I dig out dad’s old mag light. It’s weight is heavily reassuring and the beam is incredibly bright.
Grabbing blankets from the beds I pile them thickly on the floor creating a small comfortable pile. On the floor between the counter and the table the girls will be well away from any windows. Kneeling in front of them I meet their eyes.
“I’m going to open the door. I will close it behind me, I have to try to get dad to hear me. Lock the door and don’t move open for anyone but us.” Sarah begins to sob as I speak.
“You promised you won’t leave.” She gasps.
Wrapping my arms around both girls I try to reassure them.
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m just stepping outside. You will be able to hear me the whole time. Stay down here and stay quite. I will only be out for a minute.”
Knife on one hand, flashlight in the other, I slowly open the door. Sweeping the bright beam in every direction I step out and swing the door shut with a hollow thud. I hear it lock behind me. My shaking hand aims the flashlight around the small campground. It’s bright beam lights up the night like a miniature sun. Long shadows leap from the trees as the beam strikes their surface. Nothing moves in the trees, steadying my breathing I attempt to listen, hoping to hear dad out there somewhere. Filling my lungs I begin to shout.
“Dad! Dad come back.”
Holding my breath I listen intently, not even my own echo return to my ears. Slowly shuffling forward I slide to my left. Keeping my back to the camper I try to gain a wider view. Nearing the corner my imagination treats me to a vision of something sinister crouched just on the other side wanting for me to walk foolishly into its waiting arms. Little light spills from the pebbled bathroom window but I don’t se any shadows around the back side. Trembling legs slowly carry me further out so I can peer around without exposing my self.
Nothing but more silence waits for me. Taking one slow breath after another I try to calm my nerves. The beam from the flashlight jerks back and forth in my trembling hands. Sweat makes the handle of the knife slip in my grip as the hair on the back of my neck rises.
Resetting my grip on the knife I tense my shoulders and spin wildly. The knife extended in my right hand rips violently through the air. It’s expertly sharpened blade cuts into nothing.
Still a few feet away from me my father approaches. He stops as I spin watching wide eyed as the knife whips past his face. His lips are moving but all I hear is my pulse hammering against my ears. Dad raises his hands and slowly approaches. I realize I’m still pointing the knife at him. Dropping my arms to my sides the knife slips from my limp fingers clattering against the gravel. A fresh wave of panic and fear courses through me.
“Mom is gone. She walked out to find you. Something took her dad. I couldn’t help her. I locked the girls inside. Please dad help me find her.”
“Thomas slow down I can’t understand you. What about mom?”
Pointing to the now dried blood stains in the gravel I force myself to speak slowly.
“Mom wanted to help you find Danny. She wouldn’t listen. Something in the shadows took her before I could move.”
Tears stream down my face. Head hanging with shame I stare at my feet while I wait for dad to say something. Dad’s voice had a strange hitch as he tried to speak.
I nod dumbly as grief rips across dad’s face. Followed quickly by mute terror as he realizes that the time looking for Danny has been spent in vain. His lips move but no sound comes out and after swallowing a couple of times he finally speaks.
“Inside. They locked the door behind me.”
Nodding his head he turns towards the car.
“Get in there… “
Dad and I freeze as we hear a new sound. A piercing wail cuts through the campground. Dad’s eyes widen as we both recognize the sound.
“Mooooommmmmyy” Danny wails.
Whipping the flashlight towards the sound shows us nothing. Dad grabs the light from my hand and begins to run. After a seconds hesitation I leap after him. Running through the trees is terrifying. The bouncing beam of the flashlight in dads hands throws shadows in every direction. Finally slowing to listen we again hear Danny call out.
Dad spins trying to locate Danny.
“DANNY” Dad shouts.
Danny’s scream comes from our left. This time I take the lead as we rush towards him. Stumbling over rocks and brush we burst into a small clearing. Heart racing I pause to wait for the light. Shadows reced as dad approaches and in the center of the clearing Danny lies on his back.
“Owwieowwieowiieeee” he gasps.
Unable to move I am nearly knocked to the ground as dad rushes by. Dropping the light it rolls under one of the sage brush casting its light through the branches. Dad drops to his knees next to Danny and tenderly reaches out to him. Danny screams in pain and fear at dad’s touch. Flinching away from the frightened child dads shoulders lurch as he begins to sob.
Steeling my nerve I slowly approach my kneeling father. Looking over his shoulder I see Danny lying on his back. Arms and legs sprawled underneath him. His head twitches in time with the movement of his lips as if he can shake his pain away.
Jesus. So much blood. It soaks the ground around Danny. No toddler could hold this much blood. Even now more leaks from his wounds. A long shallow cut runs the length of the left side of his face. Blood crusts over his eyes running from another deeper gash in his hair line. Puckering holes the size of dimes line one arm between his shoulder and elbow and several deep cuts show through the shredded remains of his shirt.
Danny twitches as dad attempts to lift him. Crying out his arms and legs hang limply by his side. Holding Danny tightly against him dad turns towards me. His left ear is missing, torn off, tooth marks show against his tan skin. Nausea turns my stomach and it is all I can do not to vomit. Blood steadily drips from Danny’s wounds. Dad slowly begins to walk back to the camper. Staring straight ahead I am not even sure he realizes I am there. Digging the light out from under the brush I turn to follow.
Following my dad I hear Danny’s cry becoming quieter. My relief at finding my brother has been washed away by the agony of his condition. As we walk I realize that I have left the girls unattended in the trailer. Attempting to hurry dad has no affect. He continues to walk methodically trying not to upset Danny or cause him any more pain. As soon as the trailers light come into full view I dash ahead leaving dad and Danny behind. Crashing against the locked door I hammer my fists against it screaming.
“Sarah, Anne open the door! Unlock it. Hurry up!” I can’t see inside. Apparently they pulled the curtains after we had left. Guilt rushes through me. I had promised not to leave but I hadn’t had much choice. No sound emerges from the trailer. Not a whimper or a footstep. The door remains firmly locked.
Fear curls in my gut. Drawing the flashlight back I swing it against the window in the door. Glass, and the build of the flashlight, shatters. Pushing my arm into the small hole I reach down for the lock on the door. In my hurry I feel shards of glass biting into my skin. Ignoring them I fumble for the knob, as I feel it click I hurriedly yank my arm back out and jerk the door open.
Only the small light above the kitchen was still on. It’s dim illumination shows me a nightmare. The rear window has been shattered. Blood covers nearly every surface. It pools on the floors and drips down the walls. Small bloody hand prints turn to smears across the table. One of the girls had grabbed at the shattered window frame. More hand prints lined it’s edges and three small fingers lie on the table top.
I can only stare in horror at the interior of the trailer. Shaking violently I stumble back down the two steps, as I turn to flee, I trip sprawling in the gravel. New scrapes and cuts join the old and as I cry out in pain it flips a switch inside me. Laying in the near darkness I scream and sob. Dad, standing at the tree line, looks from Danny’s small face, up to me, then back at Danny. Forcing myself to rise as I shake from fear and exhaustion. My mind is nearly numb to the situation. I am only barely aware that something has slaughtered my family, killed my dog and must be nearby. As I approach my dad I look down to Danny. He has stopped crying, stopped moving and his mouth hangs partially open. Danny is dead in dads arms.
Raising my eyes to my father’s tear stained face I search for some sign of hope. There is none. I see anger, pain and fear but behind it all is an acute sense of hopelessness.
My mouth hangs open and terrified whimpers begin to emerge. Directly behind dad and two feet above him twin glowing golden orbs snap into existence. Eyes locked on the orbs I can’t acknowledge my dad’s questioning stare. The orbs vanish and reappear quickly and I am vaguely aware that something just blinked. Dad recognizes the horror splayed across my face. He let’s Danny’s limp form fall from his arms. My eyes briefly meet his as he slowly reaches for his pistol.
“Run Thomas,” Dads voice is barely a whisper. I can only watch blankly as dad jerks the gun from his holster and spins, firing into the night.
As the hammer falls against the first shell the bark of the gun snaps Thomas into motion. His legs and feet are a blur as he mindlessly flees towards the perceived safety of the tree line on the opposite side of the campground. Breaking through the first of the trees he hears the gun roar a second time. A long branch whips from the darkness, scoring a deep cut across his right cheek. Thomas ignores it as he leaps over a large rock and continues his flight. Running on instinct his feet find purchase as the small mountain begins to slope downward. A final shot rings out followed almost instantly by a scream of pain and fear. The echo of that scream chases the remainder of Thomas’ consciousness into the night.
Everything hurts. The rising sun slams against my eyelids like a tsunami against the beach. Scrapes and cuts cover my entire body and as I lift my hand to wipe my face crusts of dried blood scrape over my skin. A deep cut under my right eye reopens as I run my hand across it. Slowly I realize that I am not in my bed. I am laying in the dirt at the base of the mountain. What the hell is going on? Standing slowly my muscles scream in protest at the movement.
“Mom? Dad?” I yell. “Hey what’s going on?”
Trembling with fear I realize I am alone. Slowly the events of the previous night trickle through my mind. Mom ripped into the night faster than the eye can track. Danny mutilated and left alive for us to find, and Sarah and Anne taken from inside a locked trailer after I had promised not to leave them. Dad? What happened to dad? I flinch as I hear a gunshot ring out next to my ear. Spinning frantically I realize that I am still alone.
Heart hammering I search for the source of the shot. Nothing presents itself, finally acknowledging that I must have imagined it I slowly walk towards the mountain on trembling legs. A second shot rips through the air and freezes me solid. It is closely followed by a third. Silence hangs heavily for a heartbeat finally broken by my dad’s screams of pain.
Dropping to my knees I cover my ears trying to make them stop. Even with my ears covered the screams pierce deeply into my mind. I curl into the fetal position, fingers buried in my ears, and sob until dad finally stops screaming.
Slowly scanning all about I lurch to my feet. Flat desert plains stretch endlessly in one direction and the small mountain rises in the other. Realizing I have no idea where to go I turn slowly scanning every direction. I need to find the road. A small voice speaks behind me.
“You promised you wouldn’t leave us.” Sarah whimpers
“You said we would be safe.” Anne sobs.
Turning quickly I find only the empty desert floor.
“Leave me alone, I’m sorry.” I yell at the sandstone and sage brush.
Deciding to move before I just give up I begin walking away from the mountain. As I go I feel the steady pressure of the hum.
“…. broken promises….”
Surprisingly the Walkman still clipped to my belt is undamaged.
“N… nnn.. nnnoo!” I stammer as the icy tendrils of fear seep back into my belly. Lifting the headphones over my ears I listen to the static hoping the voice is in my imagination.
“…. ome for you…” Whispers the voice.
Thomas charges obliviously across the desert. His worn sneakers kick up clouds of dust as they methodically pound the ground. Dry desert air rips at his lungs with each aching breath. Blisters burst and swell anew inside his sweat soaked socks. Thomas doesn’t care, doesn’t seem to even notice as fear drives his exhausted body forward. The sun is nearing its highest point when Thomas’ legs fail. Collapsing to the ground he isn’t even aware of the mocking laughter drifting from his headphones.
The sun nears the horizon as I open my eyes. Throat burning, I take a breath and attempt to sit up, I can barely summon the energy to groan in pain as every muscle attempts to cramp at once. Thirst burns in my throat and my tongue feels like leather in my mouth. My cracked lips burn as I run my tongue across them searching for any bit of moisture. Not finding any I agonizingly roll to my back and begin to stretch my aching muscles.
After an what seems like an eternity I am finally able to lift myself from the ground. I gaze across the desert shocked to find that the mountain ranges is tiny against the far horizon. Having no idea how I have managed to make it this far I turn and stumble towards the small thicket of desert trees growing nearby. Hopefully there will be water nearby.
Finding a small shallow pond in the shade of the trees I drop to my knees. Cupping my hands I scoop the brackish water to my lips. It tastes like iron and I can feel the grit sliding between my teeth. I have never tasted anything so delicious. Taking another handful to my mouth I notice that the sand stone has tinted the water red. Not caring in the least I drink my fill. Rocking back on my knees tilt my head back staring at the sky as I try not to throw up. After a few tense moments my stomach settles and I lower my eyes to get a better look at my surroundings.
Small dark green pines surround the tiny pond. Something floats in the water at the far side. Hoping for a branch or anything else I can use to defend myself I stumble around the pond. Stepping into the ankle deep water I nearly fall as I reach for the branch. Spreading my feet to catch myself my hand lands against it. Instead of rough bark the branch is soft and gives beneath my fingers. Lifting it into the light I examine my prize. It is so water logged that the bark is spongy and sloughs off at my touch. With a grunt of disgust I throw it back into the pond.
I slowly approach the trees. The sun, halfway past the horizon, throws long shadows towards my feet. Fear returns now that my thirst has been quenched and the light fades. Something moves in the trees and I freeze in place. I see it again from the corner of my eye and as I turn my head I see my mother facing me. She stands staring intently almost as if she only vaguely recognizes me. Except for the blood running in rivers down her chest and the gaping hole where her throat use to be she looks exactly like she did the last time I saw her.
Sobs erupt from my chest as she stares at me. Shaking uncontrollably I begin to step towards her. Her head jerks sharply side to side. I pause as she opens her mouth. My father’s voice whispers.
Sharp claws pierce into Thomas’ back as he starts forward. Only his motion stops them from stopping him permanently. Shredding his shirt they dig deep, bloody trenches through his skin. Blood flows freely and the hum slams against his ears. Locked behind a wall of fear Thomas isn’t aware of the hum. Or of the words breaking through the static of his headphones.
“… find you…”
Asphalt whispers under the tires of Jackson’s old rig. Long haul truck driving paid pretty good but long hours and demanding schedules often meant starting early and stopping late. It wasn’t much of an issue as long as he fudged his logs properly for the D.O.T. This drive wasn’t necessitated by his schedule though, only by his desire to be home. He had started early yesterday morning, taken a short nap, and drove through the night to get back to his wife. His exhaustion would explain why he didn’t stop immediately when he saw something in the middle of the road.
Panic seizes him as he finally recognized the figure of a boy standing smack in the middle of the road. Jerking the wheel and stomping the brakes he nearly sends his truck careening off into the sagebrush and dust of the surrounding desert. Years of driving have trained him to keep control of his truck and through his exhaustion manages, barely, to avoid being stuck in the dusty field.
Angrily setting his parking brake Jackson throws open the door and begins to shout.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
The boy standing in the center of the road doesn’t move. Barely illuminated by the trucks headlights he appears to be covered in dirt. Slowly it occurs to Jackson that they are a long way for any major towns. This boy would had to have walked at least sixty miles to get out here on foot. Wondering if the boy had wrecked his car or something Jackson scans the road illuminated by the headlights.
“Jesus,fuck I ain’t got time for this.” He mumbles to himself as he debates calling in the boys presence on his CB and leaving.
No he finally decides. Jackson doesn’t want the boy on his conscience ruining his return home. Slowly he approaches and speaks quietly.
“Hey bud you okay?”
“Jesus dude I almost killed you. You gonna talk to me?”
Again nothing, the boy doesn’t even turn his head as Jackson speaks. As he again steps closer a foul stench slams against his nostrils. Jackson had once come across a calf that had been taken down by coyotes. This smell reminds him of that. Blood, feces vomit and piss. Jackson gags as he stares at the boy, he can now see his tattered and bloody shirt. Peeking through its shredded remains he sees four long and jagged tears in the boys pail skin. Wounds crawling with maggots look like somebody tried to impale the boy on a pitchfork and instead drug it down the length of his back.
Rushing to the truck Jackson hurtle inside and locks the doors to the cab. Hysterically screaming his location into the CB mic he begs for police, fire or Ems assistance.
“What happened to you Johnny?”
As the door closes Nancy quickly sets the lock and rest her head against its frame. From the other side of the door the static blaring from the radio fades out.