HEARTBLOOD, CHAPTER 3: WAKE

CHAPTER 3: WAKE

The cave was part of a very old system of the sort that, if it had been discovered by man, would have been the site of furious paleontological study. Its walls and ceilings, unadorned by stalactite formations, wrapped around a wide antechamber that led to several lesser chambers. The rock from which the cave was formed was primordial Triassic limestone, with fossils of long dead sea life locked within its stony tombs for millions of years.

In one of the lesser chambers, Maddie lay in a bed of spruce boughs, stirring to consciousness. She woke to a soup of thoughts and feelings, masked with the static of her physical needs. Everything hurt. Her right leg was swollen and inflamed in her jeans, which were waterlogged. Her right ankle pulsed with a sprain. Her head pounded at her left temple, where it had struck the small tree’s trunk. Her shirt’s shoulder was torn, and the surface of the skin on her arms itched. Her throat was dry, and the lather she had worked up on her lips dried to a crust. She needed water, most of all.

Turning her head quickly made the world spin, and Maddie almost passed out again from it. She resigned herself to slow, steady movements, taking in the scene of the cave around her. A small exit gave off a little light, bringing the brightness of the cave about equal to that of a full moon’s night. A damp, rich, mineral smell hung in the air. To her left, water trickled down a channel in the limestone, into a shallow pool about four feet away. She tried to shift her body so that she could crawl to the pool, but her leg screamed in pain. Maddie tried to stand, pulling her left foot under her, and groping for a handhold, but there were none. She tried to balance herself over her left foot and push up, but could only get a few inches off the ground that way. She collapsed onto her back, out of energy again.

The dam couldn’t hold, and burst. Maddie lay there, exhausted, and cried. Pain and worry mingled with the more alien emotions of true fear and confusion, ingredients in an emotional stew that was now boiling over into a river of tears. She wanted to fixate, to cry something out, but so much of what she was feeling were primal, wordless emotions that could not be spoken. Her brain struggled with real events that she had been told her whole life couldn’t happen, that were the stuff of fairy tales. Her family was secular, so Maddie had no god to plead to, and science and education had no answers to give regarding a horned skull-faced monster that ate rabbits and hunted children.

Eventually, as she cried herself out, the terror began to fade, and she focused her thoughts on Josh. He was out there, somewhere. She hoped he’d made it back to camp, away from the creature, but she didn’t know how. It was his scream she’d heard, hadn’t it been? Yet, he wasn’t there when she reached the scream’s source… Or had he been, already lying dead in the trees, just out of her sight? Thinking of her brother made the tears return. “Josh… Oh god, Josh… Please, be safe. Goddammit, Josh… Just… Be OK.”

Eventually, exhaustion-borne sleep began to take her again. She welcomed it.

*****

It was dark by the time she woke again. The dryness of her mouth had worsened, but the pain at her temple had faded substantially. Maddie rubbed her eyes, which had become thick with dried tears and sleep crust. Her leg still pained her, but it felt deeper and more distant now. She lay there for several minutes, just feeling the throb of her leg listening to the soft, almost silent noises of the cave. Eventually, she decided that she needed to see whether her leg was broken, and that meant removing her jeans.

She couldn’t stand to take them off the usual way, so instead she pulled her left leg in, using that to prop up her hips so she could undo the button and zipper on her jeans. She pulled the waist of the jeans down over her hips, biting back the pain in her leg as she moved. Maddie had wrestled the waistband down to her knees when, suddenly, excruciating pain shot up her right leg, causing her to drop everything and fall on her back, curling her hands over her eyes, tears welling out to her temples. The emotion threatened to take her over again, but Maddie fought it back, and refocused.

With her leg like it was, removing her jeans felt about as practical as standing had proved to be. Turning to the next best option, Maddie felt around in the dark for a sharp rock to cut them off with, but found nothing. Frustrated, she pulled her waist line back up, and buttoned and zipped the fly again. At least the pants had dried somewhat. Her next priority had to be water, she decided, and the only option seemed to be the pool she remembered was somewhere to her left, now invisible in the pitch dark.

Conscious of her injured leg, Maddie scooted herself back-first with her hands and good left leg, in the direction she remembered the pool was. Each movement towards the pool strained the battered limb, causing her serious but bearable pain as the lower leg and ankle tensed and relaxed. Eventually, the job was done, and Maddie reached the pool, her hand groping in the dark and coming back wet. Briefly, she wondered if the water in the cave was safe to drink. Did she read somewhere that the water that drained through caves was naturally filtered? She couldn’t remember, and was losing the fight to care. She was dehydrated and needed water, and there it was.

Maddie shifted her leg – more pain, then – and brought her left side along the pool’s edge. The water was cool, although she couldn’t tell how clear it was without the light of day. Her fingers reached the bottom easily, the surface barely reaching the second knuckle of her straight middle digit. She sucked her wet fingers, the cool water revitalizing her like a previously unappreciated ambrosia of life. All her caution left her, and she greedily dug in to the pool with her hand, reaping the water of life from the pool one shallow handful at a time.

Giving in was, Maddie thought, a considerable improvement. If she caught some disease, that might be a problem later, but right now it felt as though she had just made a major breakthrough, even if her leg still troubled her. With her thirst sated, and little else to do, her mind began to wander to less fundamental questions.

Her thoughts turned to the creature, grappling with it. A part of her brain – the rational part, that saw herself as an adult – refused to reconcile itself with what she had seen. We must have been seeing things, there’s no way something like that could actually exist. There must be a reasonable explanation. Maybe it was a person? Someone could maybe make a mask from a deer skull… A very, very big deer skull… The thought felt hollow against Maddie’s still-vivid memory of the inhuman thing. No person could move like that, surely. How could a human being seemingly teleport across a field like it had? Unless there were two… It didn’t seem likely, but how likely did it need to be against the alternative? Still… There was something very wrong about the thing, and Maddie found she couldn’t shake a deep feeling that she had seen something outside of the bounds of science and reason.

She became frustrated thinking about it, and looked around the chamber of the cave for a distraction. For that matter, how did she get to where she was now? She had blacked out, could she have wandered in here herself? Did she not remember because of the head trauma? Maybe she had been brought her by someone, a good samaritan, someone living on the island?

Maddie dwelled on the questions for a while. With each theory, something didn’t fit. She could remember everything about the chase, up to her fall; it didn’t seem likely that she’d wake up, and, what? Walk all the way out to this cave, when there were none near where she’d tripped? Why not just head back along the shoreline, to camp? For that matter, how did she wake up in the cave? Did she come in, and then pass out again? It didn’t seem likely.

Someone else must have brought her here while she was unconscious, but why would anyone bring an injured, unconscious girl to a cave in the Alaskan wilderness? If there was a search and rescue party, surely they would bring Maddie back to Petersburg. It might make some sense to bring a wounded person into a cave for shelter during a winter’s night, but it was high summer, the conditions couldn’t have been more pleasant. It seemed improbable that someone else would bring her here, and almost impossible that she walked here herself.

…What if it was the creature? Could the horned thing have picked her up and taken her to the cave? Was she food waiting in the creature’s lair? The thought settled in her mind uncomfortably.

The room she occupied now didn’t look like the chamber of a man-eating creature, or of an anything-eating creature for that matter, but there were rooms beyond. Maggie examined herself, and found no drag marks. It seemed whoever brought her here had carried her after all. And what about the boughs? If Maggie were a TV dinner for a man-eating monster, waiting in its equivalent of a refrigerator, why did it seem to take the trouble of laying out a bed for her? Was the monster – if it was a monster – even intelligent enough to do such a thing, and if so, what reason could it have to do so? She pondered these questions for a moment, but could think of few plausible answers.

Her thoughts were interrupted by soft sound coming from the main chamber, a shuffling noise like gowned feet moving in the dark. Suddenly, she was alert, focused. Fear crept behind her, wrapping its fingers over her shoulders and possessing her. Her heartbeat and breath quickened, her eyelids drew back, and sweat began to bud over her brow and on her back. With no path to escape, she sat there, as silent and still as she could.

The noise became louder, Maddie’s ears telling her the source was closing with the entrance of her chamber. When it got close, however, it stopped suddenly, leaving a silence that thundered with the orchestra of Maddie’s blood pulsing through the veins in her head. Her short, quick breaths threatened hyperventilation, but neither could to make the noise of breathing deep. She tried to slow her breath.

Then, a new noise began in the main chamber, a sound like someone tearing cloth across from her in a large, empty room, followed by a wetter sound, too soft to identify. Maddie listened, willing herself to remain still and silent, as the wet noise continued for what seemed like an hour, but which was only a few minutes in reality. As the sound ended, Maddie slowly let out her breath, noticing for the first time she had been holding it, and then breathed in again, as quietly as she could.

A moment passed, and then the shuffling footsteps resumed their approach to Maddie’s chamber, the deliberate, inevitable slowness of it driving her into a quiet, still panic in the dark. Her section of the cave was far enough from the entrance to be effectively pitch black, so as the figure approached Maddie only got the barest sense of it. She could tell when it was at her chamber’s entrance, and that it nearly filled it. She could hear the figure’s breath, which reminded her of a horse’s. It stopped just inside the entrance of her chamber, and knelt. Something heavy fell from it, like a large sack of flour hitting the stone. The figure rose into the frame of the chamber’s entrance, and stopped. It waited for several moments, the sound of its breath filling Maddie’s head like a chant. Finally, it turned, and left for the entrance.

Maddie was completely terrified, hardly able to even breathe. Her pulse pounded in her head as if continuing the job the figure’s breath had started. She sat out the night in the dark of her cave, quiet and still, not ever daring to move.

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