Her brain first registered it as a shoulder-high mound of moss and forest detritus, but too many facts contradicted that interpretation. The mound swayed gently and emitted a faint, irregular crunching noise; just behind it, something like a wide, leafless, thick-limbed bush rocked back and forth in time. The conflict of her brain wanting to classify the unclassifiable made Maddie’s head hurt. She rubbed her eyes in response.
Then the crunching noise stopped, and it rose.
The mound seemed to simply stretch upward, the “bush” behind it rising faster until Maddie realized it was attached to a head. In the same moment, it turned to face her and her brother, and she saw it was human-shaped, with head like a giant deer’s skull and the strangest, wildest antlers Maddie had ever seen. The “mound” was made up of a fur cloak of some kind, clogged or woven with leaves, sticks, and grown with moss and lichen. It was tall, excluding the antlers at least a foot taller than her parents, and its hollow skull-like face was covered with bright red blood. Beside it lay the rabbit in crimson.
More than all the rest, there was something deeply wrong about it. Its movements combined the fluidity of a cat with an eerie sense of tree branches rustling in the wind, and its proportions – exceptional height and a broad chest, but an anorexic-thin midsection – were inhuman. The result was sensory data that challenged human interpretation, a picture of something that declared its own genuineness, and strangled attempts at classification.
An age passed within a few heartbeats, and then Maddie’s brain finally decided what the thing was: A threat. A cold fear invaded her, like icewater was being pumped through her heart and into her veins.“Josh, run, now.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him with her, her legs moving on autopilot and dread in the direction of the shore.
The creature didn’t start after the two children at first, but paused as if considering two appealing choices. The bare, empty nose of the skull lifted as if sniffing the air, the creature’s bloodstained talon-like hands opened and closed slowly. Then it began to move, slightly crouched like an adult stalking their child in a game of hide and go seek.
A soft, steady hush of trodden forest bed followed Maddie and Josh as they ran back towards shore, starting distant and slow, but becoming faster and faster as they pushed through the low branches of the evergreens. As the soft shush, shush, shush, built into a louder, more authoritative crushcrushcrush of stamped leaves and brush, Maddie began to panic. Her brain was being rewired again, but in a different way than before, a way of pure instinct and fear, of sweat, not the electricity of a first high school crush.
Her legs continued pumping, moving her as fast as she could through the wood in the vague direction of her camp. She ran, the crush behind her now coming loud and fast, like the thing was right behind her, like it could stretch its arm out and have her, and it would lay her out on the ground like that rabbit-
Suddenly, she was in a clearing, one they hadn’t passed on the way in. She stopped. The crush was gone, leaving only the quiet sounds of the wood. Her hand was empty, Josh’s arm was gone. She was alone.
“Oh my god, oh my god, ohmygodohmygodohmygod! Josh! JOSH! JOOOOSHHHH!” Her words were broken by panicked breaths, and she screamed at the top of her lungs. Her brain was on fire and upside down and squeezed all at once. How could she? She lost Josh! When? Why hadn’t she noticed? What was wrong with her?
“JOOOSSHHH! Ohmygod. JOSH!” Her voice broke, and the rest of her threatened to follow. Then she saw it. Not behind her, but in front, moving slowly between the trees, heading towards the opposite end of the clearing, towards her.
Maddie broke into a run to her right, away from the creature in a direction she hoped was towards the shore. She had to find Josh somehow, but she couldn’t lead the creature to him, either. Maybe if she got to the shore, she could get her mother and father to help. She ran as fast as she could, a deep, almost sleeping part of her brain wondering in between the pounding of blood through her skull just how long she could keep it up.
There was no pursuit, no shadowing crunch of the creature’s feet on the underbrush. After a short time, which seemed much longer to Maddie, she got her bearings: One spread wing of the skookum pole’s thunderbird top poked through the branches of the furs. The walk from the shore to the pole made for a pleasantly short trip; at a dead run, it would be only a few minutes before Maddie found her parents, and they could all help Josh together. She hoped he could stay safe for that long, but the creature seemed to be following her, at least at first.
Just as Maddie reached the small clearing around the pole, she heard a noise, muffled by the pounding of blood through her head. She stopped to listen, and heard it again.
It was high-pitched, like a child’s voice, but wordless.
“JOSH!” A crack at the end of her voice surprised Maddie, and for the first time she noticed how dry her mouth was, and the layer of lather on her lips. “Ohgodno, JOSH!” Her voice was reedier this time, sounding desperate even to her. “F… F… FUCK! Godshitfuckdammit! FUCK! JOSH!” Why did she think leaving Josh had been a good idea? She should have stayed with him, she should have never left him, she should have… What? What could she have done? For that matter, what could her parents do? This creature, whatever kind of awful nightmare monster it was, seemed like some kind of hunter, like a predator. If she and Josh had found a grizzly in the woods, what could her parents have done?
She noticed she was already running towards the sound, her internal monologue pulsing with the blood as her heart pounded out harder than she knew it was capable. She ran towards the scream.
The same high pitched scream rang out, sounding closer and closer with each fume-fueled pump of Maddie’s legs. She hadn’t eaten much that day to begin with, and after having run the equivalent of a track meet was now reaching the edge of exhaustion. Frustration threatened to overcome her at the thought that the screams never sounded as close as they should, that she wasn’t running fast enough, that when she got there, Josh would already be dead and gone, cloaked in red like the rabbit from before. Tears began to well up in her eyes and began to stream down her face, a release of both exhaustion and despair from some part of her mind that knew she was already too late, that knew what she would find when she got there.
“There” ended up being the edge of the woods, which Maddie reached several minutes later. The side of a mountain stretched out before her on the opposite site of a finger of the river network. Below her lay a plain of green grass that seemed to melt into the water in the distance, with sparse, shabby trees standing every few yards or so.
The cries had stopped, leaving Maddie with the heaving of her chest and the ache in her legs as company. She scanned across the plane, along the shoreline for any sign of Josh or – God forbid – the antlered creature. To her dismay, she seemed to be alone, standing in a chill of sweat on the edge of the wood, tired, hungry, and teetering on the edge of the despair that surely her brother was dead like the rabbit, prey for whatever monstrous mythology had visited them. She felt torn, pulled between the burning force of her own like that she had struggled for like never before, and the insane surreality of her situation. Unsure of what to do next, she stood and began to wonder if if any of it had really happened, if she could trust what she had seen before. The skull, the antlers, the cloak of leaf- and twig-matted fur, the claws in red, had it all been her imagination? A hallucination? A nightmare?
She was answered from the wood by a soft, slow crunch. It was behind her, she was fully sure. Maddie turned, her head moved over her left shoulder with a slowness that betrayed the part of her that just wanted to wake up, even if waking up meant standing there and letting the creature sink its teeth into her neck…
NO. No, this is real, Maddie thought, I can tell the difference between reality and a dream, and this – however insane – is real. If I let it take me, I am dead. The thought was spoken in her brain in the wordless language of instinct, and Maddie ran into the bog to escape the creature.
After a few steps, her foot fell into a watery pit, caught, and pitched her forward. She blacked out as her head hit the tree trunk.