Gazing Into The Abyss

Gazing Into The Abyss Gazing Into The Abyss

Status: Finished

Genre: Horror

Details

Status: Finished

Genre: Horror

Summary

What we are is the sum of what we have. When everything is taken from you, what's left over? One woman takes a harrowing journey into dissolution in the dead of a Vermont winter, and discovers what lies within herself.

Summary

What we are is the sum of what we have. When everything is taken from you, what's left over? One woman takes a harrowing journey into dissolution in the dead of a Vermont winter, and discovers what lies within herself.

Content

Submitted: November 10, 2013

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Content

Submitted: November 10, 2013

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A dark mood was brewing in Alicia Castillo's mind, a perfect match for the coffee brewing in the Kitchenaid on her counter. It was barely 8 AM, but already she had a suspicion that it was going to be one of those days that makes you wish you could have just slept through to the next one. She considered calling in sick, but decided against it, her boss was already making her work Saturday and taking a day off would only make things worse.
She'd gone to bed early last night but couldn't get to sleep, tossing and turning for hours. When her alarm went off this morning it felt as if she's just closed her eyes, and she hated being short on sleep. Work was going to be hectic as usual, the office had been in panic mode all week as the Downtown Business Alliance prepared for the big labor day parade that happened every year. To make things worse she was out of orange juice and yogurt, meaning her usual breakfast routine was throughly disrupted, and vague recollections of some disturbing dream kept popping into her head unwanted, then vanishing into smoke before she could figure out what the dream had been. Something about being watched by something evil, or watching something evil, or being an evil watch, she didn't remember.
Half an hour and two toaster waffles later she was turning the key in her ignition, cup of coffee in hand, and taking off down her long driveway like a race horse leaping from the gate. The trees were changing colors early this year, still two days til September and already the canopy was starting to show streaks of yellow and red, but Alicia didn't bother to notice. She'd lived in New York for seven years now, and she was more concerned with the twenty minute drive to town, and the glowing dashboard clock which now read 8:39.
In a classic turn of bad luck, parking was particularly elusive this morning. Arriving late, she had barely gotten in the door when two people leapt forward calling her name, and proceeded to try to pull her in two directions at once. Within minutes the irritations of her morning routine were lost and buried beneath a heap of important tasks and looming deadlines. By the time she was getting back in her car, significantly after 5, she was mentally exhausted and looking forward to a quiet bath and an easy dinner.
Easy dinner ultimately came down to low-fat frozen cuisine. It wasn't exactly satisfying, but the bath that followed it surely was. It wasn't until she was standing in her bedroom in a bath towel that she remembered her troubled dreams the night before. She felt some trepidation as she climbed under the covers--work was hard enough right now, even with a good night's sleep. But her bed looked wonderfully comfortable and peaceful, and within moments her eyes closed and she slipped into slumber.

Wandering, lost, tired, through black woods. The trees towered, and silently wept as they stretched toward the starry sky, looking for purpose. Someone followed her now, staying out of sight, lashing the trees, tormenting them. She looked around, and saw to the left that the trees had lurched into order, forming a long, long corridor with no end and no exit. Fear, now. She looked back, but it was too late. The corridor stretched off in both directions, and she was stuck. She began to run, calling out for help, but the only answer was the echoes of her own voice and the whispering of her pursuer. They had her now. She didn't know who, it didn't matter, there were no more choices available to her, only running forward, toward whatever fate was planned for her. Like a rat in a maze.

Morning found Alicia sweaty, tangled in her sheets. She rose grudgingly. Her eyes were crusty and her neck hurt, and she felt as if she hadn't slept more than a few hours. Her dream was more vivid this time. The same thing, over and over, and each time she hoped it would end differently but each time it had been the same awful certainty that she was not in control. Work didn't help matters, and a lingering sensation of being trapped, boxed in by someone else's rules, stuck stubbornly with her. Excesses of coffee kept her awake, but gave her the jitters, and she had a throbbing headache by the end of the day.
Back at home that evening, the idea of food didn't even appeal to her. The only thing she wanted was a long bath. The quiet and the comforting warmth provided her the first measure of peace she felt like she'd had since her bath the previous night. She'd planned to sort some mail and pay some bills tonight, but she couldn't muster the willpower to rise from the tub until the water had cooled to nearly room temperature. When she finally did, she was too tired to do anything more than straighten her twisted sheets and climb under them.

Walking through the streets of an unknown city, the buildings empty and dark. All around were people, but they were blind to her presence, trapped in a deep sleep from which she knew there was no escape. Some stood dumbly on the sidewalks, eyes closed, breathing slowly, others sprawled behind the wheels of lifeless cars. She was ravenously hungry, but none of them woke to help her find a meal. In her frustration she struck one, but seeing him tumble to the ground like a rag doll was even worse than his silence, and she quickly moved on. Finally she spied a supermarket down the street, lit by only a few failing lights. Then she was inside wandering the aisles. She reached for an apple and bit into it hungrily, but all she tasted was oily, flaking ash. Screaming in frustration she spit out a mouthful of powder, and grabbed a tomato from an adjacent stand. It was plump and smelled ripe, but her first bite yielded only a thin, rotting pulp. Weeping in frustration she wandered the aisles, sweeping cans from the shelves and tearing open bags of bread and frozen peas, but everything she tried turned to waste on her tongue, and in the pit of her stomach her hunger gnawed ever more fiercely.

She woke, mouth foul with dried saliva, pillow wet with drool. Her headache was back, this time a sharp stabbing at the base of her skull. She opened her eyes to look at her clock, but a dark shape looming in the pre-dawn murk outside her window caught her eye first.
Briefly she saw a face, as dark as the trees behind. It had a short, powerful snout and was framed in long, pointed ears. The edges of the shape were vague, blurry, but the eyes were just an empty blackness, like holes in the night, and she knew they watched her. Fear shot down her spine and chilled her to the bone, and she screamed. As suddenly as she'd seen it, it was gone. Her scream trailed off uncertainly and she blinked, watching the spot, but nothing reappeared. Just the dark shapes of trees silhouetted against the slightly-less-dark background of the sky. She looked at her clock carefully, afraid to take her eyes off the window for long. '6:17', the glowing display told her.
When the gremlin failed to reappear after several minutes, and no suspicious sounds troubled her further, she finally decided she hadn't been fully awake yet. It had only been a dream. Exhausted, she laid down again and closed her eyed, but sleep didn't come, only the image of the face she'd seen. She considered calling in sick again, but she resolved to get up anyways since laying in bed wasn't making her feel any better.
She was hungry this morning, and she had plenty of time after showering and dressing, so she made herself a scramble with some frozen hash browns, and was pleased to find that they tasted exactly as they should. Feeling heartened after a greasy, diner-style breakfast, she gathered up her keys thinking maybe she'd go in to work early. She'd get the coffee started so she could get her fill before everyone else came looking, and get some extra work done.
Stepping outside deflated her confidence neatly. Something... animal had happened to her car. Three tires were blown out, and shredded beyond explanation. Two windows were cracked, and long scratches and dents marred the doors and the hood. She shivered and looked around, suddenly feeling unsafe. Retreating quickly to the warmth and safety of her house, she sat down at her dining room table again and stared at the salt shaker blankly for a few moments. The pain in her head swelled as if it were feeding off her fear, and she felt like there was a heavy stone on her chest.
Fishing her phone out of her purse she called work, and informed the message machine she was having a personal emergency, and she wouldn't be able to make it today. After that she called her insurance company and informed them that she wanted to file a claim, making a vague statement about a freak natural disaster. Next was a tow service. Two hours, they said. She sighed heavily and put her phone down, then went to the bathroom for painkillers.
She was closing the medicine cabinet, pill bottle in hand, when she thought she saw a dark silhouette in the reflection of the small bathroom window. A cold chill shot down her spine, and she whirled to look but saw nothing. Hurrying back into the kitchen, she picked up her phone, and stared at it for a moment. Her first instinct was to call the police, but she thought better of it. It was just nerves and sleep deprivation. She considered several options, then flipped open her phone and made a call.
"Carrie... It's Alicia. I'm so sorry to call you this early... No. I mean... I'm fine, I'm just having a rough few days. Look, I'm calling in to work today. Yeah... No, I haven't been sleeping, I'm kind of a wreck right now. No, I'm okay just... the craziest thing happened. My car got mauled by a bear or something. Last night. I don't know what time. Yeah, I called a tow truck but they're going to be a while, and I don't know if it's safe here. Look, I'm sorry to ask, but do you think you could drive out here? I feel like I'm going to have a breakdown. Work, I think... Things have been hectic, you know, with the big day coming up. That would be great... I'll make breakfast, or something. Thank you so much, I owe you one. How long? Sure, great, see you soon."
The next forty five minutes passed in ominous stillness, during which Alicia could not keep her mind from wandering. Her dream had faded from her memory by now, but images and impressions kept resurfacing without context, causing her an unquantifiable discomfort. She listened intently to the pre-dawn silence that filled the house, unsure what she was listening for. Her instincts murmured that something disastrous was about to happen, but she couldn't find a reason why.
Finally, she heard an engine and the crunch of fallen leaves under tires, and she shook herself out of her reverie. She turned on the porch light, but refused to open the door until her friend knocked, and she peeked out to be sure it was in fact her. Satisfied, she opened the door and Carrie stepped inside, yawning and smiling halfheartedly. Ingredients were gathered and a second round of breakfast cooking began. Much to her surprise, Alicia cooked and ate a second breakfast for herself. She hadn't realized how hungry she was until the eggs were in the pan again. Her friend looked as if she wanted to tease her over it, but she restrained herself. As they ate Carrie asked for more details. Had she heard anything? How did she know it was a bear? Was anything else damaged? Alicia really had no interest in dwelling on it, and avoided answering as much as possible.
Shortly after cleanup was complete the gravelly diesel roar of a large truck engine came creeping up the driveway, and was followed a minute later by a quick honk. The two women went outside and found the driver already lining up with the back wheels of the mauled vehicle. Before long Alicia's car was loaded and on the way to the shop, and the women were climbing into Carrie's small Mazda. An hour later they stood in Carrie's living room, in an urban second-story flat.
The friend yawned again, and headed for the shower. Sitting on the couch, Alicia realized she hadn't considered her plans from here on out very extensively. She didn't relish the idea of going home any time soon, with some sort of wild animal loose in the woods, but she hadn't packed for overnight, much less for an extended stay, and besides she wasn't even sure if Carrie had room for her.
Her impromptu host emerged from the shower at length, and started getting ready for work. Alicia tried to bring up the subject of her staying over, but no appropriate opening presented itself, and in short order she was left to her own devices. As it turned out, her own devices were rather limited, in uptown Wilsonville without a car. The day passed slowly, and all the little reasons she didn't live in town started to come back to her in the form of muffled voices coming through the walls and the smell of exhaust coming through the windows and more. By the time Carrie came home little of interest had happened except a call from the body shop citing a preliminary estimate for repairs, and Alicia was dramatically bored. Not wanting to seem ungrateful she tried to hide her misgivings, and suggested that the two of them might go out for dinner and a drink, and make the most of the unexpected visit. Carrie had other ideas however, citing tiredness in a voice that hinted that Alicia bore at least some of the blame. False enthusiasm dampened, Alicia at least managed to extract permission to sleep on the couch, which fortunately contained a hide-a-bed. Sleep didn't come easy to her, the bed was uneven and hard, and the sounds of urban comings and goings made her miss the solitude of the country.
The next morning Alicia's friend was in a better mood. They ate breakfast together and drove down to the nearest rental agency so Alicia could rent a car, before going their seperate ways for work. She expected to answer a slew of questions about her absence the day before, but no one had the time for small talk. The hands crawled around the clock and the day seemed to drag on interminably. She couldn't concentrate, her mind kept wandering back to her car, the autumn colors in the trees around her house, the dark face in the window, and the disturbing dreams she could hardly recall. She was ravenous by lunch and she went down the block to a cafe, unwilling to risk being teased by her coworkers for eating so much. She wondered what could be causing her appetite, but nothing came to mind. The afternoon was no better, and by the time she was getting in her car to leave she was filled with an urge to do something, anything, that would bring a little change of pace. She called Carrie, and suggested dinner out. Alicia would pay. She fumed in rush-hour traffic, and arrived at the agreed-upon restaurant ten minutes late. They shared orders of chicken chow mein and spicy hoisin pork and the entire time Alicia felt a dissatisfied restlessness. This pace wasn't enough of a change for her. Maybe it was time to cash out some vacation hours.
She suggested catching a movie, but Carrie just laughed and declined. She had other business to attend to, and she had to get home. She didn't want to go through another night in Wilsonville, and as much as the idea of going home seemed like it should be frightening, she found herself longing for the quiet and the forest and nights not lit by the yellow miasma of street lights. She told Carrie she didn't want to impose on her any more and thanked her for the rescue. They parted ways again, and she considered going home but ultimately decided against it. Driving towards downtown with no real idea of where she was going, she eventually found herself parking outside of a seedy, smoky-looking dive that was apparently named "COCKTAILS". Her better sense chided her for being reckless and irresponsible, but it didn't stop her from going in. She sat at the bar and ordered a gin and tonic. She was nearly halfway through her drink before some slightly scummy, burnt-out looking 40-something sat next to her (conspicuously -- the bar was largely unoccupied) and favored her with a worn-thin plastic smile. She took a large gulp of her drink and choked it down with a grimace, then mumbled something about going to the juke box. She wasn't sure if the guy figured out that this dump didn't have a juke box before she made it out the door, but she made it unmolested regardless. With a furtive look around and a guilty conscience she started her rental and pulled out onto the road back towards home. She drove slow, regretting her decision to stop at the bar and looking for a park where she could stop and walk off some of her drink, but it was growing dark and all she found was a collection of other drivers who expressed their displeasure by tailgating her and occasinally honking.
She arrived home mentally fatigued from the gin and from checking her mirrors for cops. The sound of the wind in the treetops was a balm to soothe her jittery nerves, and all she wanted to think of was climbing into bed and turning the lights off. She parked the car along the side of her house, intuitively avoiding the spot where her own vehicle had been wrecked, and made straight for her bedroom. The window was open a crack. She didn't remember leaving it open, but the screen was in place and she didn't dwell on it. She was about to shut the window, but the sound of the woods filtering in caught her attention, and she changed her mind and undressed and climbed under her covers. Sleep found her quickly this night.
She woke with a start, her heart beating quickly. Something had awoken her suddenly, but she wasn't sure what. As her pulse calmed she became aware that she was hungry and cold, and needed to have some quality time with the toilet. The clock told her it was 4:52. With a sigh she climbed out of bed, and immediately the floor twisted under her feet as vertigo played hell with her sense of balance. She stumbled once and almost fell back on the bed, but quickly adjusted, and made her way to the bathroom.
She was finishing up, washing her hands in the sink, when she noticed something strange. The bathroom window appeared to be obscured with leaves. Unless she was mistaken, she should be able to see the rental car parked beside the house. Something was wrong.
Pulling her robe tighter and finding her slippers, she made for the living room and turned on the porch light. Cautiously opening the front door, she stepped outside into the cold night air with a deep sense of foreboding. Biting back a growing nervousness, she tiptoed off the porch and around the corner of the house. It took her a moment to realize that the large shadowy mass that faced her was a gum tree, laid out almost perfectly from one bumper to the other across the car. The roof looked crushed, and she could tell the windows were shattered out. Unnerved, she shuddered involuntarily and started back into the house. She closed the front door and leaned against it for a moment, made a decision to leave the porch light on, then headed for the bedroom to close the window. That done, she had paused and was debating whether it was worth going out to the kitchen to look for a snack when a loud *thump* from the living room made the house shudder.
She froze, and a chill raced up her spine. That couldn't have been her imagination. Hesitantly she went to the bedroom door and peeked out down the hall. For a moment all was still, then another loud slam made the front door shudder and the windows rattle. She heard a crackling, and saw the door frame start to give way. Fear crawled up her throat like a swarm of spiders, choking her, turning her voice to a faint, dry whisper. Her instincts screamed at her to run, but she stood frozen as a third heavy blow landed, ripping the door hinges from the frame. The door fell inward and landed on the carpet with a muffled *thud*, and behind it, backlit by the reflected glow of the porch lamp, was a tall creature with pointed ears, and murky pits for eyes that were blacker than the night behind and were watching her intently.
It took a step forward. It's limbs were long and slender, but rippled with ropy muscle that clearly gave it strength beyond its seeming. It's face was dominated by a short snout, and sharp tusklike fangs protruded from it's lower jaw. It's stomach was sunken, and it's ribs made visible lines in its short black fur, only partly obscured by more tough wiry muscle. The creature looked malnourished, half-starved, and it's non-gaze somehow expressed ravenous hunger, but it showed strength as it raked two large chunks of the broken door frame away with rough claws that tipped it's spidery fingers.
Alicia found her voice as it stepped calmly across the threshold into her home, and she let out a scream of terror and slammed her bedroom door and began shoving her bed across the room to form a barricade. She slammed it into place just as a slow tearing sound began to emanate from the door. It grew louder, and a moment later three dark claws pierced the surface of the pressboard veneer and slowly tore a hole in the door. Alicia backed towards the window, her heart thundering in her ears like a trip hammer as the claws withdrew and one of the beast's black-hole eyes peered through and fixed on her. She screamed again and turned to the window while behind her a smooth tenor growl shot through with a high-pitched white echoed through the door. Numb with terror, she clawed the window open and tumbled through into the back yard.
Scrambling to her feet, she raced around the corner of the house and headed for the driveway. She cleared the side wall of the house and nearly ran into the waiting claws of the monster as it came bounding of the front porch to head her off. She screamed again and skidded to a stop, nearly fell over as she reversed direction and fled the other way towards the woods. It growled behind her as it gave chase, but no sharp claws tore into her shoulder, no hot carrion breath warmed her shouldlers.
After a while, she realized she couldn't hear it behind her any more, and she slowed a little so she could listen more carefully. There in the forest behind her, in the distance, she thought she could hear long loping strides rustling the leaves. She considered trying to climb a tree and hide, but she quickly gave it up as a bad plan. She wasn't a good climber, and the thing would probably smell her, and then she'd be trapped. She swallowed hard and kept running, now venturing a long slow curve back towards her house, hoping it wasn't smart enough to catch on and head her off. She had to get back to civilization if she had a chance of surviving, she jogged every weekend but she couldn't run like this forever and besides the pre-dawn air was chilling her to the bone. She paused a few times for just a moment, listening for the sounds of it's pursuit, but heard nothing until a rustle of leaves up ahead gave a moment's warning before the creature stepped out from behind a low-braching tree. It was ahead and slightly to the side, directly between her and home. She let out a breathless sob and darted left, but it moved to block her, tracking slightly forward, and she had no choice but to turn again and bolt deeper into the forest. Before long her breath was coming in ragged gasps, but every time she stopped for air she heard distant footfalls behind her. Once more she tried to circle back to the road, but again the creature headed her off.
Somehow it never seemed to catch her, though she knew she was tiring, and the thought entered her mind that she was being deliberately herded towards something. Unbidden, dream images came back to her of fleeing through a straight, dark forest row pursued by something unknown. The resemblance was uncanny and she felt despair begin to rise within, but she kept running, determined not to give up until she couldn't lift a finger to defend herself. She ran to exhaustion and beyond, until her lungs were fire and her legs were water. Pausing once more, she gulped for air desperately and wipe sweat from her brow. Her robe was tattered and smeared with dirt, and the intact parts were plastered to her sweat-soaked skin, and she was numb with cold. She held her breath for a moment, listening for footsteps in the distance, and didn't believe it when she heard nothing. She panted again for a few moments then stopped to listen again. Silence. Slowly a smile spread across her face, small and desperate as if she was afraid to hope. Maybe it had gotten tired of chasing her, and gone in search of easier prey.
Slowly, she slid down the tree she leaned against and sank to the ground. Still nothing. Her eyes were already starting to close, sleep rushing to claim her, but she registered the cold and with a tremendous effort she looked around. She had to find shelter, or she could freeze to death out here. Slowly she struggled to her feet, it felt like the hardest thing she'd ever done but she knew what the alternative was. The sky was starting to lighten, and she peered around in the murky pre-dawn twilight. There, off to the left, she thought she saw a clearing among the trees. At least it was different than the endless willowy birch and gum trees that spread off as far as she could see in all other directions. She stumbled towards the clearing, registering as she did the soft tinkling of water. Finally she broke out of the trees, and saw a small mountain stream trickling through a shallow depression. Her stumble broke into a run and she lurched to the stream edge and drank deeply. To hell with giardia, they could cure that at a hospital. She had to survive through the night, and find help tomorrow, and she needed water. She stopped several times to gasp for air, then went back to sucking cold spring water from her hands as fast as she could capture it.
Finally she was satisfied, and she lifted her head and looked around warily for anything threatening. The gesture made her feel silly, like a wild deer watching for wolves, and with a snort she stood up and straightened her robe. She looked up and down the river, finally spying an outcropping of rock several hundred yards upstream. With a faint groan, she started toward it on uncooperative legs. At length she reached out, and was delighted to find a shelter of significant size between the rocks. She wasted no time crawling into it, too tired to check for sleeping bears, and in moments she was curled up asleep.

At home, watching TV, cup of hot chocolate in hand. Warm, comfortable, but it's growing dark fast. Too fast. And the light is a strange shade of green. Turning to look at the windows, she sees thick vines creeping over the glass, blocking the late afternoon sunlight with broad green leaves. It doesn't matter, she's safe inside with her TV and her hot chocolate. She turns back to the TV, but the vines are inside now, crawling up the inside of the TV glass, obscuring the nondescript news anchor in the ageless tweed suit. She watches disturbed as the vines curl around the news anchor's neck and slowly choke the life from him. Cracks form in the glass, and with a crash the growth bursts out of the TV and creeps into the liivng room. Panicked, she stands and looks around. Creepers grow and spread from the kitchen sink, the toilet bowl, the bedroom door, and spread across the walls, slowly strangling and crushing the house, tearing it apart board by board. Green all around now, snaking between her ankles and covering the carpet. One loops through the handle of her cup and carries it away as it grows, crushing the porcelain. Hot chocolate rains down, and where it lands little thorn bushes sprout. She screams in frustration and distress, and the smell of the plants fills the air, heady and savory like herbs. As if in answer to her cry, a great tearing sound echoes in her ears as the roof splits open and more vines pour in from above. She watches helplessly as her house is consumed by the spreading verdant carpet. One by one the walls melt away amid the crackling and crunching of tortured timber, and now she can see the more vines covering her car, growing through her driveway, and the smell of the vines hangs thick in the air. Somehow, over the trees, she sees great green obelisks in the distance, shifting and swelling, then crumbling, and she knows it is civilization she sees, disintegrating and fading away under the heedless might of nature.

She woke slowly, the vivid smell of the vines staying with her and following into waking life. She opens her eyes slowly. Her vision is blurred, her muscles cramped and sore from her run and the cold of the night. Her head pounds faintly like a drum beat in the distance, and she realizes slowly that the air is hazy and smoky, thick with the smell of burning herbs, and something else that made her mouth water. Lifting her head she looks outside. The fallen leaves had been cleared away from the entrance to her cave, and a low smoky fire smoldered at the cave mouth. She coughed once, and tried to make sense of the fire. Rising stiffly with a groan, she crawled to the mouth of the cave and inspected the fire. Perhaps some hermit had found her and lit a fire to keep her warm. There was nothing else around to suggest that anyone else had passed by. Around the fire were several sharpened sticks, stuck in the ground and angled out over the coals, pieces of meat impaled on the ends and slowly blackening over the coals. Vaguely confused but unwilling to question the good fortune, she sat down and tore into the food ravenously. It wasn't cooked through, and parts were charred nearly to a crisp, but it didn't slow her down much.
After going through several she decided to wait and see if an unknown benefactor appeared, looking to share the meal. She let the fire warm her for a while, and looked around. The light was already turning yellow, the sun low in the trees and apparently heading for sunset. She debated with herself for some time, and finally decided perhaps it would be best to rest more and get a start early in the morning. She wasn't sure which way was back to town, and it was likely to be cold soon. She crouched by the smoldering fire as it burned down to coals and let the events of the past few days play through her mind without really trying to make sense of them. None of it seemed entirely real, as if the gravity of her situation had yet to fully sink in. Being chased by a nightmare creature, staying with Carrie, even the last few days at work seemed like a vision of someone else's life.
She looked around as twilight fell, and the darkening woods made her smile despite herself. It was a little bit fun, being out here alone. Even if she really was in trouble, at least it was exciting. It made a better story than dying of cancer.
As darkness gathered she withdrew into her cave and, after some consideration, made an effort to gather the dry leaves from the far corners into a pile. She curled up among them, rustling and crinkling with each slight twitch. They poked her and itched slightly, but it was warmer than sleeping on the ground. Soon enough she began to drift off, with thoughts of escape and adventure revolving slowly in her head until she finally slipped into dream. 

BREEP BREEP BREEP BREEP
Alarm blaring. She rolls over and slaps it, groaning in protest she sits up and rubs her eyes. Now in the bathroom, toothbrush in hand, eyes gritty like they are clogged with sand. A bleary, saggy face lined from wrinkles in the pillowcase stares back at her in the mirror, gaze resentful, blaming her for it's condition. Now in the kitchen, eating yogurt and cereal, drinking coffee. The same breakfast as a thousand mornings gone by, the same as it will be a thousand mornings to come. Now in the car, shivering in the pre-dawn chill. The sun lances through the trees and strikes her face, blinding her, and she looks away. Off beside the road, the forest calls her, serene and open. Wisps of mist curl between the trees, fleeing from the coming dawn, beckoning her to come along, abandon her thankless labors.
Dawn-blasted tree trunks and clinging fog give way to her desk. The sun beats in the window, glowing off a stack of paperwork and stinging her eyes. Form after form, the pile never seems to shrink. Permit requests, license applications, renewal fees, all blend together, and the glare of the white paper bleaches all the words into meaningless pain. The sun shines on her relentlessly, and she peels off her sweater, feeling warm. It's not enough. The air is hot, she is sweating. She stands up and her shirt clings to her uncomfortably as she heads for the water cooler. Several coworkers are already filling paper dixie cups and drinking greedily. She pushes through the crowd and pulls a cup off the stack, but the cooler is empty now. All around her office workers push in desperately, thirsty, sweating, angry. Someone arrives with the spare jug, but it is emptied before it ever makes it to the cooler, and Alicia is so thirsty. Desperate now, she pushes towards the front door and throws it open. As she does the sun strikes her in the face and she is momentarily blinded, reeling from the dazzling brightness. When her vision clears all she sees outside is ruin, seared earth and decaying buildings, dessicated by the desert sun. Badlands stretch out as far as the eye can see in all directions. Around her her coworkers huddle together in confusion, sweating and panting through cracked lips, tattered clothing flapping in the dry wind. If only they could find shade, some sort of shelter, they could wait out the daytime and search for water in the cool, blessed darkness, but these shattered walls and collapsed roofs are so dry they crumble at a touch, and besides the sun never sets in this hell.

Morning came slowly, creeping in and driving the darkness back an inch at a time. Alicia tossed and rolled in her pile of leaves fitfully, wishing for some of the heat she dreamed of. She was chilled and clammy and her muscles refused to work properly. Finally the sun cut it's way through the trees and the fog and stabbed into her cave, and she drew a deep breath and she woke enough to register the smell of wood smoke. She opened her eyes and crawled on aching legs to the mouth of the cave, finding the smoldering coals she'd left the previous evening rekindled into a small fire. The seared meat she'd left was gone, and she scanned the surrounding woods for signs of another presence, but saw nothing. She put it out of her mind and warmed herself as best she could by the meager flame.
Before long it began to diminish as the wood burned out, and reluctant to let the blessed warmth vanish she stood and began looking for fallen wood she could gather. Seeing something pale just across the stream, she stepped forward and bent at the water's edge to reach across and pick it up. She froze with her hand a foot from the object as she identified it as a bone, moist and fresh-looking with little scraps of gristle still clinging to it. A few flies crawled on the meaty morsels, braving the cold to claim a fresh and unguarded breeding ground. Another pale shape caught the corner of her eye and she turned her head. Her blood chilled by steps as she slowly realized that far from being singular, the bone was part of a collection, carefully laid out in a line. As she turned her head, she saw the circle jump the stream and curve around, apparently encircling her and her little cave.
Stunned and frightened, she slowly backed up and crouched in the cave mouth behind the dying fire, watching the empty forest suspiciously. At length she mustered the courage to step out again and gather a double handful of fallen leaves, which she carried back and fed to the fire slowly, enjoying the brief flares of heat. All too soon they were gone, and it seemed futile to gather more. Something was going on here she didn't understand, but it seemed that someone was at least trying to help her survive. Chilled both physically and spiritually, she retreated into the cave and curled up in the pile of leaves again, and dozed.
She woke perhaps an hour later to the smell of food and smoke and herbs. Sure enough, the little fire was kindled once more, and more strips of meat were roasting on stakes. She scrambled over, dizzy and disoriented from breathing in the smoldering green leaves in the fire, and tore into one. Again they were poorly cooked, but she paid little heed. She downed half the meal, and though she was hungry she left the other half for her unknown benefactor. Manners might be all that kept her in good standing, for all she knew. After eating she stood up and stretched carefully, and walked towards the stream, trying not to look at the bones. She knelt and drank from her cupped hands. Water ran down her throat and chest, making her shiver, but it was crisp and quenching and she didn't stop.
Thirst slaked, she straightened agian, groaning at the pain in her overworked legs and looked around. She determined again to find something to stoke the fire. With some real luck she might spot a sign of civilization she could use to find her way out of the forest. She mastered her squeamishness and prepared to step over the eerie perimeter of remains, but was interrupted by a bone-chilling growl, tenor with a high-pitched whine underlining it. Her heart leapt into her throat and she looked around wildly. Across the stream ahead of her perhaps thirty yards distant was a low rise, and crouched behind it's crest in the shadow of a blueberry bush she thought she saw a large, black shape with pointed ears and inky black eyes. Alicia's heart pounded in her chest and everything seemed to grow still and silent as she and the beast stared at eachother. She knew instinctively that this time she would not get away, her legs were stiff and weak and it was hard enough for her to walk, much less run. She swallowed, though her mouth was dry, but the creature made no move closer. She slowly stepped back, and the growl cut off abruptly as if a button had been pushed. Slowly, careful not to make any sudden moves, she backed away. Seeing no reason to stay she kept backing carefully down the shore of the stream. Disaster did not strike, she felt like she might be making some sort of progress. She put another fiteen yards between the two of them, when suddenly the growl rose again and she thought she saw the shape shift tensely. Her foot came down on something cold and hard and damp. Instinctively she jerked her foot back and looked down. She'd stepped on the far side of the circle of bones. She moved away a step, revolted, and the growl stopped again. She looked back at it's source for a moment, then tentatively sidled towards the cave and the fire. After a moment, the shadowy shape turned and vanished into the bush.
She sank to a crouch and sighed, feeling miserable. She hadn't escaped at all. She'd let herself be herded right where her nightmare antagonist wanted her, and now for some reason it wanted to keep her here. She had begun to believe that the creature was a delusion born of fear and exhaustion, perhaps it had been a wolf, she told herself. Or a kid from down the road playing a mean joke. But it was real. It was watching her.
Frustrated and depressed, she ate the remaining scraps of meat ringing the coals by her cave, partly out of hunger and partly out of some fruitless gesture of rudeness. It made her just a little bit better. She sat by the fire a little longer, but the feeling of being watched was unnerving and she went back into the cave and settled in her bed of leaves again. The cold was lessening slightly, but she still shivered from time to time.
The day passed in a haze. The air warmed enough that she no longer shivered by late morning, but it never grew warm enough to chase the last bit of chill from her bones, and she wished fervently that she had thought to grab a blanket from her bed before scrambling out of her window. She wrapped her tattered and dirty robe around herself as best she could, though it didn't help much, and she dozed sporadically, when sleep would come. Twice during the day she woke with a start, something that sounded like a distant scream ringing in her ears. Eventually she settled again. Screech owls weren't unknown in this area, and besides she was frightened and paranoid.
She woke in the evening after an extended nap to the now-familiar smell of heady smoke and cooking meat. This time she found a thick slab that was probably thigh muscle cooking on a primitive spit, just a thin branch ripped green from a tree and leaned diagonally against a forked stick stuck in the soft earth. She sat by the fire and decided this time to try to cook the meat a little better. She turned the spit with clumsy, numb fingers, and tried to wave away some of the smoke. The smell of the herbs smoldering in the coals made her head cloudy, made it hard to think, but she wasn't going to try to pick them out with her fingers, and she certainly wasn't going to attempt to dampen the fire, so they stayed and smoked.
She ate the half-cooked dinner slowly, her appetite fading before long. Finally she put the stake back in the ground beside the fire, leaving the meat to cook further, and sat watching the woods impassively. What was she going to do? The thought occured to her that the ring of bones around her cave might somehow be keeping her tormentor at bay, but the idea seemed rather optimistic. Why would it warn her off just as she was about to leave safety? Furthermore, she still hadn't seen anything to suggest there was anything else living in this forest except squirrels and birds. Besides, it would explain how she had made it so far without being caught during her flight into the woods. The dark hunter was tall, strong, it must have been faster than her.
What did it want with her? Why was it feeding her?
She turned and crawled into the cave, curled up in her nest of dry leaves, and finally tears came. Silent whimpering slowly gave way to great racking sobs as the stress and the fear and the despair all came up from dark corners of her heart and filled her head with images of tragedy and torment. She cried herself to sleep, seriously considering for the first time that she might not leave this forest alive. In the distance, the chilling cry of a screech owl echoed through the woods, sounding for all the world like a distant scream.

So hungry, like she will never be full. Woodsmoke and the smell of burning herbs fills her nose and stings her eyes, and she clutches the morsel of food greedily. Lifting it to her mouth again she sinks her teeth into the juicy flesh and pulls, tearing muscle and skin from bone and bolting it down. The hunger has her still, but the meat tastes so good, she thinks she could eat forever. She picks the bone clean and gnaws at the scraps, still unsatisfied. She snorts and tosses the remnants into the smoking fire and reaches for more, pulling a juicy-looking foot off a long black curved stake and tears into it with unflagging fervor. She sees something watching her as she eats, and she glances up. Behind a plump thigh is a face. Clear brown eyes watch her, expression sad, accusing. She hisses and turns away, tearing off another delicious mouthful. To soon this one too is done, and she reaches for a plump, perfectly-cooked hand. Disgusted, she wrestles a ring off one finger and throws it away. The face watches her still, and when she looks up it's lips are moving, speaking a silent plea, and she can see the smooth black shape of the strange stake impaling the mouth cavity and penetrating into the brain. She grimaces at it. "Don't look at me like that, Carrie. I'm just hungry, that's all. No one else would come."

She woke with a start, covered in cold sweat, and moaned at the horror of the dream. "Oh, god..." she murmured, and stared at the lichen-splattered stone wall of the cave for a time. Eventually she looked out, and saw the small fire she had come to expect, but no meat staked out to cook. She didn't think she could bear to eat right now anyways. She struggled to a standing crouch and stumbled her way out of the cave, then made her way down to the stream and splashed cold water on her face, trying to banish the lingering images of her dream. Her stomach gurgled quietly, and she closed her eyes and silently told it to shut up. Realizing she was thirsty she knelt and drank, then hurried shivering back to the fire. The sky was overcast today, and she hoped with more conviction than she had ever felt in church that it was not going to rain. Just in case it was, she put her back to the cave so she could quickly dive for shelter if the clouds burst. She sat and stared blankly, going over in her head the list of all the things she was going to do if she got back to civilization. Take a shower. Get a boyfriend. Go bowling. Ask for a raise... The list was silly, she knew. It was just something to think about, but she wasn't sure she really believed she'd ever get a chance to do any of those things. Besides, it was all stupid anyways. Bowling would be as boring as it always was, life-threatening ordeal or no.
Eventually she became aware of a presence. She looked up, and there it was. The dark hunter. It seemed a fitting name, and that's what she called it now. It sat on it's heels between two small birches, fingers buried in the leaves, maybe fifty yards away in the forest. Her pulse fluttered and raced, but the fear didn't master her now as it had before. She stared back in silence, and seconds ticked off uncounted. Eventually, her frustration outweighed the fear and she screamed. "What do you want from me!?"
The creature neither moved nor made a sound. "What are you?" she cried, hating how desperate and strained her voice sounded. Still, no response. Silence fell again. She stifled a sudden sob of frustration, and her anger evaporated, leaving her with only despair.
She couldn't stand the creature's gaze any longer, so she retreated into the darkness of the cave and curled up again, turning her back to the fire and the monster beyond it.
She covered her ears with her hands and shut her eyes, and eventually her mind slipped into the uncharted space between sleeping and waking. Time passed, broken only by the occasional rumble of her stomach as her hunger slowly grew, and once the distant owl's cry.
Morning slipped away, and some time in midday the smell of burning herbs again filled the cave. Consciousness resurfacing, and stirred and observed that the fire had once again been rekindled and something was roasting over it. She sniffed disdainfully, prepared to refuse the food on principle. After a moment she considered the smell of the herbs, how they accompanied the fire, but not always the food. Suspicious, she decided to escape the cloying smell, it fogged her mind and made it hard to focus, hard to recall anything except her immediate reality. She clambered out of the cave and went to sit by the stream, back still turned to the woods, not wishing to spot the creature watching her again.
The soil by the stream was damp, and cold. It didn't seem to have rained, but the cloud cover kept the sun from warming the open ground. Her hunger was growing powerful, and the meat slowly cooking over the fire was starting to look very tempting. Eventually she relented, and moved closer to the fire. Her meal today was a large rack of ribs, cracked and torn raggedly off whatever poor beast had provided it. Apparently the dark hunter didn't have a bone saw. Alicia giggled halfheartedly at the thought, and poked at the meat. It was looking almost fully cooked, and smelled good. Her hunger got the best of her and she plucked the skewer from it's crooked rest against the notched branch, and waited for the meat to cool before sinking her teeth in with enthusiasm. She bit here and there, choosing the tenderest and juiciest-looking morsels.
Her persistent melancholy gave way to a simple and powerful satisfaction that tonight at least she would not go to sleep hungry. This simple pleasure seemed of fundamental worth and filled her with an unjustifiable contentment, but she didn't argue the reason of it. She ate leisurely, hardly even bothered when she bit down on a chunk of rib that came away in her teeth, until she pulled the meat off it with her teeth and looked down to find something not at all bone-like. It was metallic, round and flat with smooth edges, about the size of a silver dollar. One edge featured a segment of clear molded plastic, and as she looked closer, she realized with growing apprehension that the metallic casing bore blue printed lettering.

"Medtronic"
"Revo MRI(tm) Pacing System"
"Engineered with SureScan technology"

Her good mood collapsed, as it had seemed to without fail this past week, under a growing sense of horror. It was medical equipment. She tried to think of something else, put the thought out of her mind, but it came unbidden. The device was a pacemaker. She had seen the one they'd put in her uncle during the pre-surgery consultation. Her blood ran cold, and the juicy ribs slipped from numb fingers. Her lips peeled back in an ugly grimace as she stumbled back, eyes fixed on the meat, face a mask of revulsion. A high keening cry spilled forth from her, then broke into a sobbing howl of torment and denial as her mind went racing through the implications. Dogs were given pacemakers, too. But it would be an enormous dog to have ribs like that. And it was too tender for dog meat. She'd eaten dog, visiting relatives in Oaxaca, it was tough and oily. And that screech owl she kept hearing. Too deep to be a bird...
Scenes from last night's dream flooded into her mind unbidden, and she turned away and collapsed to the ground, retching uncontrollably, tears streaming from her eyes. She purged until she felt hollow and wrung out, then finally lay down in the leaves and sobbed softly. At length she gathered her wits and slowly sat up, crossed herself, and began to stumble her way through a prayer she remembered from childhood, hoping the gesture would provide her with a measure of comfort. Behind her she heard a raspy, grating chuckle, close enough that it made the back of her neck itch with the feeling of immediate danger, but weary indifference kept her from panicking this time. If the dark hunter wanted to hurt her, there was little she could do to stop it. So she continued with her prayer, struggling to remember words, filling in where she had to with what seemed most appropriate.
Behind her, she heard a heavy thud like a shovel in wet sand. Momentarily distracted she turned to see a stick topped with a freshly-denuded skull that grinned cruelly at her. She turned away again. It was only another burden, it seemed insignificant now before the weight of this damnation she felt.
After that afternoon it was as if something had slipped loose in her head. Hours oozed by in a sluggish smear. She felt as if her ideas of the way the world was were melting and being washed away in the stream, leaving behind a place where life and death each implied the other, and pain was the only language that could be shared. Daylight came and went but the cold was constant, as was the cloying smell of her keeper's herbs. Hunger slowly grew in her but she could not bear the thought of food, not after what she had done. She would starve now, in this cold cave, and in so doing she would do penance for her sin. It was the only thing left that made sense.
She existed now in a self-imposed exile in the darkness of the cave, feeling indecent even to feel the warmth of the sun. As the hours stretched into days, the horror she felt slowly devoured her thoughts, and eventually silence reigned inside her mind. She became subliminally aware of the rhythms of the forest. She felt, more than saw, a dark shadow come to the mouth of her cave and leave a leather-lined hollow of bark filled to the brim with water. She railed against her thirst, but thirst won. The water was dirty, and smelled faintly of animal, but she drank. More days passed and more water came, but the hunger only grew.
She slept only after days awake, knowing the burning herbs would bring her nightmares, but what she saw when she finally succumbed was beyond her mind's ability to comprehend, a message spoken in the language of sightless things that crawl under the earth.
She awoke with a terrible forboding, certain she had been shown an apocalyptic truth that she could not remember. Feeling a presence she rolled over and saw the monstrous and emaciated form of her keeper crouched in the doorway, silhouetted against the dying light of the last fragments of sundown. Fear registered to her mind but rolled off her, her being already saturated with despair and final certainty. The monster's presence seemed proper, and she thought maybe her dream had told of this.
It took a long breath, and moved towards her. Her half-drowned instincts gave a feeble kick and she sat up slowly and scooted away from the creature, but there was nowhere to go.
It closed on her, sniffing the air. Now within reach of it's long arms, it reached out and pulled away the filthy and tattered remnants of her gown, baring her now-gaunt frame. She stayed frozen, quiet, as the murky pits of its eyes beheld her bare and beleaguered form. It lifted her thigh and exposed the soft, curly hair at her center, black like the beast's short fur. Its fingers caressed her firm breast, gentleness belied by the scrape of thick claws. Her captor leaned close and sniffed her lips, her ear, her tender neck where her pulse fluttered like a bird in a trap, then it ran its tongue across her throat and slowly up her cheek. Its breath smelled like blood and rotten wood.
Alicia squeezed her eyes tightly shut, and swallowed. Silence for a moment, then she felt hot breath on her ear, and heard a slow breath being drawn. "I can feel you stirring inside. I've searched so long, but it was worth every day and every mistake. Now is the time."
The creature laid a hand on her cheek, and after a moment she realized it was waiting for something. She opened her eyes, and found herself staring into the face of the beast. Its other hand was raised, and she watched with helpless apprehension as it lowered those claws, down, to her bare belly. She felt them come to rest across her navel. her breath caught in her throat as they slowly pushed deeper. Pain blossomed in her stomach as they pierced her skin and dug in. With a deliberate twitch the beast split a twelve inch tear in her gut, deep enough to expose her entrails. She watched in a distant and dreamlike panic, and absurdly the single thought she was able to form was that she thought her guts would be red and shiny, not black and matted.
Instinctively she clasped her hands over her abdomen, but everything seemed far away now, as if she were watching a grainy movie of reality. She sat in shock listening to the blood rush in her ears and seeing that momentary glimpse of her own insides. Something about it seemed strange. Wrong. At length she marshalled the will to look down again. There was blood on her hands, but none trickled from the wound. A realization dawned slowly, like a bubble of air rising through mud, that there was no pain.
With a mixture of caution and curiosity she relaxed one finger at a time. No pain came. No blood. Finally she could see. It wasn't enough, she didn't understand, so she spread the rent in her flesh wider. She took a deep breath, and it felt good. Carefully she touched the glistening black mess, then slid her finger lower, under soft flesh. It felt like she could breathe for the first time in her life. The edges of the wound itched, and she prodded at them, then slid her fingers into the bloody flesh and gave an experimental tug. suddenly she felt cramped, constricted, and she pulled at the slippery flesh again. It wouldn't give under her merely human strength, her fingers kept slipping. With a frustrated grunt she clawed at her stomach, but to no avail. Lifting her hand to her mouth she bit down between thumb and forefinger and pulled until the skin came loose. She bit again, and again, and soon she had peeled the flesh away from her first two fingers. She could hardly breathe now, and her movements became frantic as she dug her bared fingers into the tender undersides of her other arm, claws parting naked soft flesh to reveal blood-matted black fur beneath. She freed her arms first, then peeled away the constricting chest, pulled the legs off one by one like thick, rubbery stockings, then finally slid her claws under her chin and tore the bare skin away from her face.
She knelt, panting and gasping for air, hunched in the tiny cave. All around her lay discarded shreds of husking, fragments of her delicate shell. She looked out into the gathering night with longing, but instinct told her she was not finished. She had to show that she was fully born, that there was nothing left of the myopic whelp she had emerged from, if she were to be worthy of what she most desired. With a sigh she looked down again, and wondered how she had ever fit inside that tiny life. It was sweet, soft, and foul in her mouth like a pate made of spoiled fruit, but she didn't hesitate.
Soon, it was done, and brimming with the single-minded clarity that was the gift of her metamorphosis, she emerged at last from the site of her trial. All around, the night whispered secrets to her, and she could smell the giddy anticipation of the one who had found her and cared for her and wiped her mind clean of thought, just so she could witness the cool simplicity of the world. She understood now, the purpose of his attention. He had peeled back the cowl that had smothered her, and she loved him for his kindness, and they had all the world in which to play together. He had been waiting for her for a long time, but he would not have to wait any longer. She was ready. She drew a deep breath, and howled for her mate.


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