by Susan L. Williams
Story Note: This story appeared in Cascade Beyond the Veil, volume II, published by Skeeter Press in October 2001. It breaks at least two of Holy Mother Grammatica's rules. Don't try this at home.
He's not human.
He can't be. I swear to any god you want, no human could do the stuff this guy does. I'm not stupid. I mean, I've read books. Lots of books. Okay, I don't remember which ones, but lots, I know that. I know that. I ran down the middle of a river--okay, more of a creek, but it was a couple of feet deep--for at least half a mile, to throw him off, like you do with dogs, right? I might as well have left a series of polite post-its with "THIS WAY" written in fluorescent marker. He didn't even slow down.
I think he can smell me.
But he shouldn't be able to, right? I mean, that's why you do the water thing with dogs, so they can't follow your smell anymore, because it gets lost in the water. So why doesn't it work with this guy? How is it possible that he can smell me through water? And if he can't, what the hell is he doing? Because he is having absolutely no trouble following my every dodge or double.
Not that I'm exactly Mr. Forest Ranger. I have no slightest clue where I am or where I'm going or how the fuck I'm going to get out of this alive. I've used my every feeble bit of knowledge about woodcraft, like trying to walk on rocks instead of soft earth, trying to wipe out my tracks and all that crap, but it's a total waste of time with this guy. My best bet seems to be flat-out running. I'm pretty fast, if I can keep from smashing face-first into a tree, and what do you know, I seem to have some stamina. He's bigger, but he may not be faster, and he has to keep an eye on my trail. I hope. Unless the smelling thing makes that unnecessary.
It's got to be smelling. He can't see me, I'm too far ahead for that, and even if he had the eyes of the proverbial hawk, there are too many trees in the way. Ditto for hearing. Besides, I don't make that much noise. Okay, a snapped twig or a dislodged stone here and there, but it's not like I'm stomping through the woods or anything, and there's not that much underbrush to disturb. So it's got to be smelling, because scent I leave a trail of. Except that it's impossible. Isn't it? But why worry about that with not-human guy? Maybe he's part bloodhound. Maybe he's part of some weird, secret genetic experiment that gives him a bloodhound's nose, and now he has to kill me because I've seen him. Funny, his nose looked normal.
I wish I knew why.
I know why now. I mean, I bashed him pretty hard with that rock and he's probably not real happy with me. He probably wants to rip my head off, when he catches me. If he catches me. I could get away. Maybe. Maybe the rock is why he hasn't caught me yet. Maybe I gave him a concussion or something. I hope I gave him a concussion. I hope it's a bad one. I hope it's so bad that he lies down and goes to sleep real soon now and doesn't get up again until I'm on a highway somewhere flagging down a ride. Preferably with a state trooper.
I don't want him to die. I just want him to stop.
What did I ever do to him? I don't even know him! Why'd he come after me like that? I mean, God, I woke up in the middle of the fucking woods and there he was and he just attacked me, like whatever was wrong, whatever had happened, I was to blame. Why would he do that? Why would anyone do that?
I thought he was going to kill me.
I think he would have. You know? I really think he would have, he was that crazy. He's big, and powerful, and he just kept coming, and he wouldn't stop, no matter what I said or did. He had me on the ground, and I was shit-scared, knew I was gonna die, knew it, and my hand found that rock and I just--I hit him. As hard as I could. Twice. He bled, on the rock, on me. And he fell off me.
I got up and ran. I thought I could get away. I thought I could put enough distance between us while he was out--didn't think about whether he might be dead, couldn't think about that--that he'd never be able to catch up, never be able to find me. A man would never have been able to find me. But he's not a man. He's not human. I don't know what he is. I was on a ridge, and I looked down, and I saw him, coming after me. He's a couple of miles behind, but he's coming.
I think it's getting dark.
I don't know what time it is. Like that matters. I don't have a watch, or a wallet, for that matter. I can't see the sun through the trees anyway, but I think the light's getting dimmer. Either that or I'm going blind, and nobody hit me with a rock. At least, I don't think anyone did. I don't feel any bumps or bruises under the hair. So, it's getting dark. Night's coming. I'll have to stop. Or keep going, and stumble around in the dark and probably get myself killed falling off a cliff or into a chasm or down a rabbit hole. It's getting colder, too.
I have a jacket. Leather, lined with some quilted stuff. Jeans, hiking boots, a flannel shirt, and a thermal under that. Could be worse. Then again, I have no idea how cold it's likely to get, and I have nothing else. Nada, not even a lighter. Maybe I could build a fire by rubbing two sticks together. Yeah, and signal not-human guy with my exact location, if my smell isn't enough to guide him right to me. Maybe I could just jump up and down and yell, "I'm over here!" Might keep me warm, for a while. I hate being cold.
I'm afraid to stop.
I'm afraid not to.
If I stop, he'll find me and break my neck. If I don't, I'll break my neck in the dark. Shit, shit, shit!
Wait. Idiot. He has to stop, too. He can't see in the dark either. Calm down and find someplace that offers shelter, someplace you can spend the night.
Someplace to hide, you mean.
Well, yeah. Now that you mention it.
Oh, shit, it's cold. It's really cold. I've got my jaw clenched to keep my teeth from chattering, but I can't stop shivering. Not that you're supposed to. Shivering warms you up, I've read, so it's a good thing, but it doesn't feel good right now, it feels like I'm going to toss my cookies, except that I haven't had any cookies so there's nothing to toss. Which is probably just as well.
This isn't much of a hiding place, just a fold in the rocks with an overhang, but it was all I could find before it got dark, and my body heat--what there is of it--warms it a little, so it's better than being in the open. Not much, but better. I want to move, so badly. I feel unsafe. He's coming, I know it, and that is so, so stupid, because he can't be coming, no one could be coming, no one could find his way in this darkness. No one human.
"I can hear you, Chief."
Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. He's here. The monster's here.
"I can hear you breathing. I can hear you shivering. I can hear your heart pounding."
He's getting closer.
"I could smell your stink from a mile away."
I can hear his footsteps. Oh, God, I have to run. I've been crouched in here too long and I'm stiff, it hurts to move, but I have to, I have to get away. I hear him behind me. I hear his feet, pounding on the rocks behind me. He's too close! I dodge to the side, and his reaching arm misses, but he darts after me, and he's not tired, he's not stiff. Oh, shit! Two hundred pounds slams into me, brings me down and knocks the wind out of me. My chin bangs the ground, and I can feel my lip swelling instantly. He gets up on his knees, grabs my wrists and turns me over. As soon as I can breathe, I start fighting him.
"Get off me, you son of a bitch! Get off!"
"Settle down!" he roars, lets go of one of my wrists and punches me in the face.
Fuck, that hurts. It feels like my cheekbone's broken. He grabs my wrist again and won't let go. I think I feel bones grating together. I squint up at him, trying to see his face, but it's too dark.
"What do you want from me, man?"
"I want you to fix this!"
"I didn't do it!"
He hauls me up and gets in my face like he can see me. Shit, maybe he can, I don't know anymore. "Don't play games with me, Chief."
"I don't know what you're talking about!"
"Look, man, I don't know what's wrong with you, but whatever it is, I had nothing to do with it. I don't even know who you are. Hell, I don't even know who I am."
The grip loosens a little. "What?"
"What's the matter, your super-hearing on the fritz?" Okay, so I'm mouthy when I'm scared. There's a swell survival trait. "I-don't-know-who-I-am. I don't know my name, rank, or favorite cereal. I am suffering from amnesia. Got it?"
"You're a lying little shit."
"I'm not lying! Look, you said you could hear my heartbeat. You should be able to tell whether I'm lying or not."
"What do you think I am, some kind of human lie detector?"
"Man, I don't know what you are and I don't care. I didn't do anything to you. I just want you to leave me the hell alone."
Finally, finally, the guy lets me go and backs off. Circulation returns to my hands. I'm feeling my cheekbone, trying to decide whether it really is broken or not, when he says,
"I don't know either."
"I don't know what--or who--I am either."
How weird is that? Both of us with amnesia? That's kind of beyond the bounds of coincidence. "I don't suppose you know who I am?"
"So, let me get this straight. You woke up stranded in the woods, same as me. You couldn't remember who you were. And your first instinct, the very first thing that occurred to you, was to blame me for it, even though you had no idea who I was."
"That's about it, Chief."
"You bastard! If I could see you, I'd pop you one."
"You can't see me?"
"No, I can't see you. It's night, man. Darkness has fallen over the land, and all that."
"I can see you."
"Don't tell me, I'm radioactive or something."
"Don't panic, Chief. It's not just you; I can see everything. Trees, rocks, animals."
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Put it down before I break it, wiseass."
Wow, he really can see. What is this guy? Sees in the dark, hears my heartbeat, smells me a mile away--I do not stink, thank you, and I'm pretty sure he exaggerates the distance, too, but still, that's three enhanced senses. What about taste and touch? Could those be super-sized too?
God, this sounds familiar.
God, something sounds familiar. And it's this?
"I think I know something."
Dryly, "That's a relief."
I hope he can see my scowl. "About you, asshole."
"I remember reading a book." I close my eyes, and open them again. It's just as dark either way. "An old one, by a British explorer. I can't--Sir Richard Burton. Right. It was a--a monograph on these people he studied in South America, special people with enhanced senses, who served as watchmen for their tribes. Burton called them...something..." I can remember this. I can. "Sentinels."
"Are you saying I'm one of these sentinels?"
"Well, yeah. You've got the enhanced senses, right? Stands to reason."
"And what are you? A librarian?"
"I have no idea."
"He is your enemy."
Ow! God! Did I just hear that? Or did the spike that just drove itself through my brain bring an auditory hallucination with it? "Did you hear that?"
The guy doesn't answer, and I can't see him. Oh, man, he's Mr. Sensitive. If whatever that was hurt me, he's gotta be in serious pain.
"Hey, are you okay, man?" Where the hell is he? Damn it, all I can feel is rocks and dirt. Wait, wait, I've got his shoe. I think. Yeah, and this is his leg. Corduroy doesn't grow in nature. Okay, I'm getting there. "Hey, can you answer me? Are you okay?"
Shit! He grabbed me. Okay, okay, it's okay. He let go, it's okay. "Did you hear that? You heard that, right?"
"Quiet! Yeah, I heard it."
I'll make sure to whisper. "Did it--did it hurt?"
"Yeah. Can you see anything?"
"Who was it talking to?"
"Are you sure?"
"So it was saying..."
"That you're my enemy."
"Why would it say that?"
"You tell me."
"How should I know?"
"Destroy your enemy, sentinel. Destroy him, before he destroys you."
God! God! I think my head's going to explode. And I do not like what this voice is saying. I can hear the guy on the ground beside me, moaning. This must be just about killing him. I wish I could do something for him, but I have no idea what, and the fact that it seems to be all about killing me is a little distracting. What if he decides the voice is right?
"It's okay, man. It's okay. Try to tune it out or something. Just ignore it."
I'm patting his arm while I say all this, which is probably stupid, but I can't think of anything else to do. God, I wish I could see. Then at least I'd have a chance to run if he starts listening to the voice in our heads. What the hell is it? Where is it coming from?
Whoa-kay. Wish granted. Let there be light, and I think hysteria is setting in. I can see. There's light, sort of whitish, not bright, but I'm grateful for anything right now. I can see the guy. He's pushing up onto his knees, taking his hands off his ears. His face looks pale, but that might be from the weird light. He's looking around, trying to find the source of the light, I guess.
"What the hell? Did you do this?"
"Do I look like Merlin, man? I have no idea where this came from."
"He twists your soul, sentinel. Kill him! Kill him before he binds you!"
Oh shit, that hurts! Why does it have to hurt like that? Who's doing this? The pain's fading; I think I can open my eyes. The guy's face is all twisted, but he's still on his knees, and he's staring at me. God, there's something--
"Behind you, man!"
He twists around, and turns back to me. "I don't see anything."
"What? You have to! I can see it."
"There's nothing there." Oh, man, I don't like the look in his eyes. "You're trying to distract me."
"I'm not! There's something there! It's--it's like a shadow or something, I can't make it out, but it's there! Come on, man, look again!"
He shakes his head and stands up. "I've had it with your lies, Chief."
"I'm not lying!"
Oh shit, oh shit. The voice got to him. I have to get up. I have to talk him out of this. My legs are shaking. Hell, my whole body's shaking.
"Kill him, sentinel. Destroy your enemy."
"Ow, God! God damn it, no! Don't listen to it!"
God, he's stalking me. I'm just backing away. I can't run. There's no place for me to go. He'd just find me, and when he did, he'd kill me. I can see the color of his eyes. Light blue, like a washed out sky. I can't see any sanity in them. The shadow's behind him. I think it's following him. I don't think it's his shadow. I think it's alive.
"Come on, man, don't do this. I haven't done anything to you."
"You hit me with a rock."
"You were trying to kill me."
"Time to finish the job."
He punches me, and I go down. I try to scramble away from him, but he catches me and jerks me back up on my feet, then shoves me hard against a tree. My head hits the trunk, and things look fuzzy for a minute, but he's gripping me so hard that I can't fall. I know this guy could kill me in seconds if he felt like it. So, what, he wants to torture me first? Beat me to death? Is the voice giving him nasty messages I can't hear? I don't want to think about that.
"Please, man, please listen to me. Don't do this. I am not your enemy."
He backhands me, and I'm bleeding now, I can feel it trickling down my chin, and I can see it on his hand. The shadow reaches over his shoulder and touches his hand, touches the blood. Oh, God, I'm gonna be sick.
"Look, man, look at it! Can't you see that thing? Can't you feel it? It's touching you! It's making you do this! God, you're the one with the super senses, why can't you see it?"
"There's nothing there!"
"There is! You can hear it! It's telling you to kill me! Turn around and look at it!"
He hits me again, and there's more blood now. The shadow is bigger, and darker, and it covers him like a blanket.
"I'm not lying! You've got to believe me! That shadow-thing is right on top of you! I think it did this to us, brought us out here and took our memories. It wants you to kill me. It wants you! Please, please listen to me. Please trust me. Turn around and see it." I'm shaking so hard I can barely move, but I manage to get my fingers on his wrist. "Please. Just for a minute. Trust me just for a minute."
I don't think he's going to do it. I think he's going to do what it wants and just kill me. The shadow will win, and that will be bad for more than just him and me, and I don't know how I know that. I'm not going to look away. I'm not going to close my eyes. If he's going to kill me, he's going to have to do it looking me in the face.
Slowly, his head turns. He looks over his shoulder. One hand lets go of me, and his body turns and his other hand grips my shoulder so hard that I know. He sees it. He sees the shadow. A soft "Jesus," leaves with his breath.
And oh, God, that hurt, that knifed through my brain, and I heard him moan, but he stayed on his feet. Keeping his grip on my shoulder, he faces the shadow-thing, the monster, and he says,
The shadow rears up, spreading out, rippling, and it has no form, no substance, but it's there. It hates and it wants and it has power, but we won't listen to it, we won't do what it tells us, we can see as well as hear. It shrieks, and the sound rips my head apart, and I can't hear, but I see his mouth open in what looks like a scream and I see him fall before the light is taken away again.
Oh, my head. Did I get drunk last night? Really really majorly drunk? Because I think my head is going to fall off. Which would be a blessing, really, because then it would be gone and my suffering would be over.
What happened to my pillow? What happened to my bed? Am I on--Oh my God, I'm outside. In the woods. Without a tent. Or a sleeping bag. What am I doing here? Am I alone? Where's--
Jim bolts right up--that Ranger training is great stuff--then grabs his head and folds in on himself. His voice comes out of his elbows, sort of.
"Where the hell are we?"
"In the woods, Jim."
"I got that part, Darwin. Why are we here?"
"I was hoping you could tell me that, man."
"You got any aspirin?"
"Dial it down, Jim. You can do that." Wish I could "You think somebody drugged us?"
"Could they still be around?"
Jim raises his head--guess the dial worked--listens for a minute. "There's no one here but us."
"Why would somebody drug us and just leave us out here? Is this some psycho's idea of a joke?"
"I don't know. But I don't want to stick around to find out." Jim stands up, then reaches down and gives me a hand up. He stares at me. "Jesus, Sandburg, you're a mess."
I've noticed a few sore places: cheekbone, lip, jaw. But it's not just me.
Jim's got a lump on the side of his head that's got to be contributing to his
headache. "You don't look so good yourself."
Jim frowns. He walks around for a minute, looking at the ground, and the frown gets deeper. "There are no footprints but ours. No tire tracks."
"How can that be?"
"I don't know." He turns on me. "So help me, Sandburg, if this is some sentinel thing--"
I raise my hands in the universal "Don't kill me" gesture. "Hey, if it is, Burton didn't write about it, I swear. I don't know what's going on any more than you do."
Jim sighs. "Yeah." He shakes his head. He hates this, but he's not going to waste any more time trying to figure it out now. "Let's go, Chief. We've got a long walk ahead of us."
We head out north. Or maybe west, I'm not sure. It's a pretty morning, at least.
Sunny, not too cold. A patch of shadow catches the corner of my eye and almost
jogs a memory, but Jim starts telling me about a fishing stream he thinks is
not too far from wherever the heck we are, and it slips away. Oh well. If it's
important, I'll remember.