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 THREE YEARS AGO

 

The information all added up to one conclusion: there was something evil in the forest.

Standing in front of her corkboard, Nicole Haught felt like one of those basement-dwelling conspiracy theorists. A map lay in the center, decorated with thread and notations, sticky notes covering it with anecdotes from fellow rangers. The rest of the board was covered with reports: false ones. Ones that didn’t add up. Missing notices that didn’t make sense. Morgue results that she shouldn’t have her hands on (you could get anywhere with two cups of coffee and a clipboard, she had found out) and officer reports meant only for the garbage can.

The newest report was the crowning achievement: a 'dog' attack.

If that thing was a dog, I’m a fucking unicorn, she thought bitterly.

Nicole herself had been a witness to the strange creature responsible for the happenings. She had experienced first-hand how it was swept under the rug and forgotten about. It didn’t matter that two others had seen it clearly and it had literally run into her, the victim’s parents were still told the same, practiced lie. 

That burned. Nicole's fists curled, thinking of how hard it was to watch the lies sink into the mother's mind. No, your child didn't fall off the cliff. He was pushed. She had stepped forward to comfort the mother, only to notice the smooth black suits of strangers watching her.

That had confirmed it. Among the regular folk who simply wandered off the trail, there was something going on. She had been onto something from the very start when her father had gone missing and the rangers had told her a whole bunch of lies.

Nicole wasn’t a stranger to bullshit. You encounter it daily when working with kids, little lies that little consequences that are easily corrected. Encountering a lie this big, this jarring and off-kilter, one that sounded repeated enough so the person telling it almost believed it to be true - that was enough to get her to investigate.

And now the results were speaking to her from every report, every note, every whispered conversation she had overheard: something is wrong, and we’re ignoring it.

Now her cat was staring at her with open disapproval as she finished packing. Nicole leaned the rifle against the wall and glanced at her. “Shut up,” She admonished before petting the judge. The meow in response was heavy with distaste for the current sequence of events. It was as if the cat knew she was leaving and might never be coming back. “You’ll be fine. They’ll coddle you like the baby you are.”

There was a knock at the door.

Nicole opened it and came face to face with a rather large man in a full black formal suit, sweating under his collar in the summer heat. “Ms. Haught?”

“That’s me,” she replied evenly, inspecting him with a critical eye. Government type. Another one of the 'Black Badge' who had shown up a few days ago. “How can I help you?”

“I was told it attacked you?” He lifted a black medical box for her to see.

“It did.”

Then he was pushing past her into her cabin, not waiting to be invited. “We don’t have time to waste, then.” He sat down at the table as she closed the door to keep the AC in. She thanked her past self for having the sense to hide the board in her small bedroom as she sat down across from him. He steepled his fingers and looked at her over his glasses. “Did you have the bite properly cleaned?”

What bite? “Yes,” she lied, and as he opened his box she realized she had to ask, even if she knew the answer already. “You planning to do anything about the creature?”

“‘The creature’, Ms. Haught? You mean the dog you mistook for something else?”

“You and I both know dogs don’t stand six feet tall and have hooves.”

“What you and I both know is that there has been an unfortunate increase in rabies events in this area, nothing more.”

“So that’s it, then? Not going to stop it?” Nicole leaned forward slightly but kept her voice even, her eyes narrowing, fists clenching under the table. He was way too calm about this, he sounded as if he had rehearsed the lines in front of a mirror before coming here.

“Stop what, Ms. Haught? Would you have us in the forest, following a rumor from a stressed ranger?” His tone dismissive. “It is alright to admit the heat caused you to mistake yourself.”

“I saw what I saw,” she said, unable to stop the increase in volume, “and what I saw was a monster.”

“Enough, Officer Haught.” He waved a hand, dismissing her claims completely. “Hand me your arm and let us forget about this nonsense.”

There was a thump and a rustling of paper.

The man had a gun in his hand before Nicole could blink, pointing it down the hallway towards her bedroom. “Is there someone else here?” He hissed, suspicion rising.

Her heart almost beat out of her chest, thumping in her ears. “I have a cat.”

With growing anxiety she watched him debate in his head before putting the gun away. “Cats are such silly creatures, aren’t they?” He said cheerily, pulling a too-large syringe from the box. That was definitely not a rabies shot.

Then Nicole heard the pitter patter of cat feet and a dragging sound made only by a sheet of paper. With growing horror she heard it come closer and closer to the kitchen, knowing that it might be the key to blowing her cover. It was like that Edgar Allen Poe story, the Tell-Tale Heart , except instead of a body under her floorboards she had a cat hell-bent on ruining her plans.

He watched her face closely with growing interest. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Nicole lied, hearing the cat enter the kitchen.

There was a rustle and a gentle pressure on her boot.

Nicole looked down and her face went slack. The man leaned forward and glanced under the table in following.

There, smug as a rich thief, sat her cat, presenting her with a ten-year-old missing poster half-torn from being pulled from the board. A sticky note was still attached, and the damning evidence was her own handwriting, scrawling a message of “The mother claims to have heard voices calling in the forest.”

There was another still moment where Nicole and the man simply stared at each other, waiting for the other to make the first move. Everything came to a stop and the beats of her heart seemed to rush and slow at the same time. She watched as his face changed from confusion to a growing understanding then, three beats later, it was resolution.

He stood -- no, he launched from the table with his gun out and he was striding down the hallway with singular purpose.

Shit. Shit. If he finds the board, I’m done for. He’ll try to stop me, or even get rid of me, now that I know the truth.

Nicole grabbed the whiskey bottle and was two steps behind him when he entered the bedroom and turned to see the wall. His eyes darted from the pack, to the gun, to the wall, and then back. His mouth opened in an o of surprise and he half turned to her, full ready to do whatever it was he planned to do, the gun turning with him, and she felt her heart almost leap of her chest.

She only had one decision left to her.

She slammed the whiskey bottle against his head, sending him toppled onto the wood floorboards.

Shit. Shit! I just made this situation ten times worse!

Already he was groaning, recovering from the attack. She grabbed her things and her hat, running to the kitchen and grabbing the case of syringes. She whipped out her cellphone and dialed as she left the screen door banging behind her.

“Yes, hello, I need a medic to my cabin, please. Door’s unlocked. Don’t let the cat out.” Next she texted Nedley a brief apology and a plea to take care of her cat.

He would understand.

The entire drive up to the end of the road was spent battling her guilt and trying to maintain the rage that brought her to this point. She felt guilt for leaving her cat and Nedley behind (And hitting the guy, honestly. He was a dick, but she still felt bad.)  but the anger she felt at how everyone seemed to dismiss what they had seen remained. Nobody was willing to discuss it or even look her in the eye. Then she had realized that this wasn’t the first time, that this wasn’t a new experience, that they had dealt with this before and knew better than to cause a fuss.

Then the government men arrived. Black Badge. She gripped the steering wheel tight at the thought of how dismissive they had been. The man in her cabin hadn’t been the first to simply wave away her claims.

Nedley would be upset, yes, but he would understand. He might suggest a search party but the others would talk him out of it. She had no intention of leaving an easy trail, just as she had no intention of sitting around, waiting for the next call, the next victim, the next crying mother. No more.

She left the keys and a note on the seat and passed the RESTRICTED AREA: NO TRESPASSING sign.

 

It took Nicole two hours of hiking to realize her mistake.

She opened the box the man had brought and saw no labels, no explanation, no easy How-To: Strange Creature Bite Treatment guides. Just three syringes tucked neatly away, filled with some weird liquid she didn’t have a clue how to identify. For all she knew, they might just cause her heart to explode or something equally strange.

Nicole decided to avoid getting bitten.

The first week passed easily as she made her way around the mountain towards where they found the boy. She slept in trees, kept her fires brief, and lived off anything she could find, careful to keep her emergency supplies for an actual emergency.

She double-backed and obfuscated her trails as much as she could. She knew Nedley would think like she did and would know exactly where she was headed. The only chance she had was to arrive after he passed over the area.

It was midday when she reached the spot they had encountered the creature. It was beautiful in a word, an incredible display of nature in a sentence. A blue lake stretched to the left, and the mountain rose to the right. She stood on the cliff that had claimed the boy and tried to catch a trail.

The screams filtered through her memory, causing her to shiver. The forest seemed to sharpen around her, the shadows somehow deeper. They had been searching all day when they'd heard the boy cry out. It had turned at the sight of the officers who had sprinted fast enough to witness. It did not attack, no, it only screamed like a dying man and collided with Nicole full-on. Then it vanished into the trees, leaving her wondering if she had simply gone temporarily insane.

She found the remains of its passage easily. Heavy hoof prints lead her deeper and deeper, down to the parts of the forest where the sunlight is only a guest, the host is the thick blanket of trees. It seemed reckless, obvious, and Nicole felt a sinking feeling as she followed the signs in a circle.

She frowned at the obvious attempt to throw off pursuers. It was rudimentary at best, but still whispered some kind of cunning that left Nicole restless.

 

Nicole followed it for perhaps a week as it wandered further and further from civilization and past the shadow of the mountain.

According to her journal, it was day sixteen when she found the remains of the herd of deer.

Judging by the trails it seemed a complete stroke of luck that the creature stumbled right onto the deer. It seemed about four of them had met their end in the clearing, strewn about like butcher’s confetti in a way that was wholly wasteful, the meat uneaten and the deer simply killed for the crime of living.

Is this creature some sort of maddened vegetarian? Nicole wondered. The meat did not seem overly rotted, she supposed she must be close behind it, perhaps gaining on it though she was taking her time.

She was stacking stones for a marker when she heard the call. The thing that could take experienced rangers off the trail faster than a storm wind  -- A cry for help. Deep and echoing, a man's plea for assistance called up from the forest. Her heart tugged painfully. She had to follow it.

Nicole marked trees as she passed them, following the voice deeper downhill into a valley. She did not respond to the voice. Something told her not to. Something seemed off about the way the shadows fell on the leaves, the way the birds said not a single word, the way she saw no life other than herself. The only sound in her ears was the pounding of her heart and the crinkle of leaves beneath her boots. Her breath thundered in the silence.

The calls continued for a full five minutes before stopping completely.

Nicole halted in confusion, then with a growing realization understood. This was not an unlucky man somehow miles from civilization, this was a play by the cunning creature she followed. Of course. Such a skill could easily throw rangers off and drag them into traps. It was so clever she shuddered at the thought, hand brushing sweat from her forehead as danger settled on her shoulders. Shit. The reports had even warned her, and she'd fallen for it easily.

All right class, time for a choice. Behind door number one, we continue in the general direction of the voice. Behind door number two, we turn around, follow our marks back to the trail, and continue from there.

If it wanted her to take door number one, then she would take door number two. She turned around and began following her marks back.

It came as a growing sense of apprehension, her subconscious noticing a pattern before she did, some sort of instinct telling her deep in her gut something very small was off, but it might as well have been huge.

Haven’t I seen that rock before?

Nicole ignored the feeling. She simply decided to make another row of marks under her originals and continued her way backward.

When she passed the rock a second time she simply sat down. She stared wide-eyed at the familiar surroundings with a sense of dread and numb acceptance. That's it. She was done. She's checked out, she's lost it, send in the dancing women and the show host -- she's been pranked. Cut to credits.

When the camera crew failed to leap from the trees, Nicole stood up and began again. All she had to do was find the tree with one mark now that the circle was marked by double marks.

There it was, a tree with a single mark. She breathed a sigh of relief and started back on the trail before she realized something that almost broke her right then and there.

Every single tree near her was marked.

Every direction, it seemed to go on and on. Her brain seemed to turn into one of those old-time slide-show movies, each thought taking too long to be fully understood, always slipping back to one black slide with white lettering and sticking there: Where would a monster get chalk?

Again and again the question seemed to ratchet through her mind, and again and again she was forced to face the fact she had no idea. It’s not like it could shop at Michael's. Those claws maybe could push a shopping cart, but they absolutely could not have the dexterity and control to use chalk.

Maybe it could. Maybe that was the secret to killing all those hunters and rangers before her - a secret arts and crafts stash. She smiled at the joke but the frown returned with the increasing sense of being watched. Another question took the screen, and that was what is it waiting for?

It was a rustle of leaves that gave it away, or perhaps the tell-tale inhale of a steadying breath, or maybe just some instinct that remained from the early days of man, some kind of sense that was unnamed but not unnoticed. Nicole turned just in time to see the rifle scope catch the light of the sun and the shot ring through the air.

The bullet slammed into the tree next to her and her heart continued beating. She turned on the man, enraged, “Do I look like a deer to -- ?”

Two hollow pits containing beady black eyes regarded her without emotion. A deathly gaunt cast had taken hold of his face, almost as if he had starved to death and risen out of pure malice. He may not have had hooves or claws or fur, but the man raising the gun to fire again was a monster all the same. A zombie. A literal dead man stood a few yards away, raising his gun again and aiming to shoot her. 

Run.

Which way, which way? Another shot made the decision for her and Nicole simply sprinted downhill. One part of her mind was still catching up, still stuck in a haze of confusion, still asking stupid questions like Can a zombie use a rifle? Can it think enough to use chalk? Did it shop at Walmart?

But what she knew is that something like that, something like the man that pursued her, would not stop. It would not rest. It did not require sleep or food or anything other than the pure will to move forward. It would follow her to the ends of the earth unless she thought of some way to deal with it.

She spotted a rock formation to her right and she turned, sprinting uphill and climbing it as fast as she could. A bullet slammed into the rock next to her hip. It's got shit aim.

But it only had to be lucky once.

Nicole rolled as soon as she reached the top, unslinging her rifle and flipping off the safety in one smooth action. She found a nearby bush and watched through her scope as the man came into view.

She took a deep inhale as she aimed her sights over its pale head, the hair seemed to be falling out in clumps, then she let the air out in horrified surprise as it turned and looked at her.

It was no zombie, but she could not be blamed for thinking so at first. Blood oozed from a dozen cuts from the chase as the man turned and gazed up at her through the scope, revealing a familiar face.

At first she thought it might be her father and she almost screamed, but no, it was one of the other rangers who had gone missing, who had been declared dead and never heard from again, it was Levi, the Levi she had mourned alongside his boyfriend in the night they finally gave up, the night the search parties came back and declared the trail had died out. Levi, who had sung drunk around fires and danced with the shadows, hooting and hollering on his birthday. Nicole remembered giving him a watch.

Now she could only watch in disbelief as the rifle raised yet again to a face devoid of recognition or any emotion vaguely human, no, just a blank face staring down the scope and one ghost-white hand pulling the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Did he not shoot? Or did the gun jam?

Then the rifle was sailing through the air with all the speed of a thrown dagger and the same accuracy, she jerked backward just in time as it collided painfully with her shoulder, almost breaking it with the sheer force of the blow. Her gun fired against her will but the shot went wild.

Holy shit.

Then Levi took a jumping leap at the rockface, scaling it easy as a monkey after a banana, but she was the unlucky banana.

She raised her rifle to fire then realized her heart could not withstand pulling the trigger. She could not live with herself, not without knowing, without understanding what it is that had happened to him.

Adrenaline stole away the pain in her shoulder as he reached the top and pulled himself up. “Levi!” His head snapped towards her, whether in recognition or simply because she had made a noise Nicole could not tell. “Levi, stop !”

Unless stop suddenly meant go, he did not hear her. He stepped towards her with a sureness born of a singular idea: he intended to kill her.

“It’s me! Nicole! Your friend!” They had spoken occasionally. He had told her about his boyfriend. What was his name? What was his name? “ You had a boyfriend, remember? He misses you.” She was still holding the gun, it was still pointed his way, as he stepped closer she still had time to fire, still had time to stop him, to put him down for good, to avert the inevitable conclusion.

He took another step, his face uncomprehending, his eyes hungry. The opening was still there, she had a chance, she could stop him --

The moment passed. She did not shoot him.

I-- I can’t. I can’t do it. I can’t shoot him.

She was forced to let go of the gun or break her fingers as he tossed it aside like driftwood. His hand latched onto her throat hard as a vice and she felt the ground drop away.

“Hungry,” Levi declared, voice like cracking glaciers.

 The grip tightened, he intended to snap her neck like a stick, one-handed in his strange strength, her air closed off with no hope of escape, he lifted her regardless of the weight of her pack, the weight of her in general , his arm simply flexed with the strain and that face remained blank, empty, and she was forced to act or die.

Nicole chose to act.

She pulled her pocket knife and slashed the tendons of his wrist, forcing the hand to slacken in the complete lack of muscular response, blood escaping in a flood as he stumbled back in surprise.

The ground shifted unexpectedly and he fell backward, without a single sound, off the cliff.

“No!” Nicole screamed, a hand outstretched uselessly as his form fell beyond hope of the catch and the thud announced his landing.

She glanced over the edge and saw his body, him laying on his back with his face turned to the sky in that expression of shock. His head had struck a rock. The amount of blood signaled he was most definitely dying.

Nicole shut her eyes, counting each breath so she wouldn't be sick. She forced herself to retrieve her rifle. Nobody could help Levi now.

Tears made it very hard to descend. Every second she took to be careful was another second hearing that strange rattle-whine as Levi’s body caught up to death.

He had gone completely still when she reached the bottom.

Nicole stared for a long time, utterly stunned. Reality blurred with tears that rolled down her face. It was true. Something was out here. Something was wrong with the forest.

She had to decide what to do. The sun would set soon, far too soon, and she had precious time. Nicole dragged him over to the grass, took two sharp, flat rocks, and began to dig a grave. She would not think of anything else except the sound of the dirt moving and her own breathing. Still, a worm-like thought survived, throwing her off balance with fear and anxiety. Why? What had caused this? What could drive him to this?

When she pulled his body free she inspected him closely, like a mortician would, her emotions forced to low-volume as she searched for a clue. The familiar emotional walls settled in. Just another missing body found. Find the hints, find the clues. Like there’s going to be a sign or some sort of chip, some sort of note in his pocket that read I BECAME A CRAZED KILLER BECAUSE ___, SINCERELY, LEVI.

Her instincts told her the animal bite on his shoulder was a clue. She no longer ignored her instincts. She stared close at the white scars that reached towards his collar bone with a critical eye, only to sit back in confusion. She had seen many bites in her life and many photos of injuries, caused by wolves or coyotes, bears or cougars or even dogs, but none looked like this did.

But the familiarity of the bite drew her to inspect it again. She had seen it before. Before, on a body, in the morgue, with the marking on the report saying RABIES.

“Just show me the bite and hand me your arm, and let us forget about this nonsense.”

Well, it didn’t take a detective to put two and two together. The bite drives you insane.

Honestly, I’m not even surprised. The monster could have a rocket launcher and I wouldn’t be phased. Next thing you know it controls the goddamn sun.

She had the antidote, right there in her bag! If she had only figured it out sooner...

‘There are many things you can change, Nicole,’ said her father, years in the past, ‘but death ain’t one of ‘em.’

So Nicole turned her guilt into anger, into pure determined fury. She would stop this.

She buried him in his makeshift grave and stacked rocks on top. She laid a few flowers and remembered a sea shanty he liked, singing it off-key and hoping ghosts weren’t real because he would haunt her for how badly she butchered it.

That night as she slept in a tree, far from the grave, and dreamed he was aboard a ship. He was saying something to her, she didn’t remember. All she remembered was how flat the sea looked, like a mirror reflecting the night sky, how it looked like they were sailing the cosmos itself.

 

The sun rose just as it always did. Nicole decided to follow Levi’s trail. It seemed a better idea than wandering in a random direction, anyhow. Maybe the beast would call again and then she would follow it again, perhaps be able to shoot it. Or maybe the two had stopped together, had a Monster Tea and talked about eating people.

She heard no calls. She found no tea.

She followed the trail as it meandered through the forest without a real direction. Levi apparently wasn’t headed anywhere fast. She soon became bored. She looked at some trees. Some birds. Some deer, some plants, some rocks. No matter the sights of the forest, it was all colorless. It was an intermission. It was a waiting.

Nicole skipped rocks on a lake she barely recognized and thought about heading back. Maybe she’d tell Levi’s boyfriend what happened. Maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she would just move to a city and do something else. No, a small town. Become a cop. That sounded good. Maybe a cute girlfriend, smart too. Braver than her coward partner who fled from the forest.

She threw a rock wrong and it fell into the water with an unsatisfactory plop.

She knew there was no chance she could forgive herself for turning back. She could not go home safe to her cabin, awaiting the next report of the newest victim, the newest parents without a child, the newest friends who would never meet again, the newest boyfriend taken forever by the creature in the woods.

Is that what drove her father up the mountain? The day he sat her down and said, ‘I’ll be right back, put the tea on.’ and never returned? Did he hear a cry for help he couldn’t resist, or did he know its true nature? Is it her inheritance to be so unable to stand on the sidelines, to be forced into the street to attempt to block the truck with herself alone?

It had been two years and she still kept making an extra cup of tea. Even after they buried him.

She hoped her friends would not wait for her to return. They would read the note, they would be upset, but they would understand. They would love her cat and spoil her and the little ball of anger probably wouldn’t even miss her. She loved the judgmental shithead more than anything, but she held no illusions of her cat’s simple tolerance of her presence. She had found her abandoned in the woods. The cat responded to the name ‘cat’ and disliked everything except food and naps. She and her cat had a lot in common.

Nicole beat her record of skips and decided it was time to leave.

 

The following day Nicole heard the cry for help and she was almost relieved.

She followed it for half the day before it lead her to a clearing. The calls stopped.

The feeling of being watched told her without a doubt that it would strike tonight, and it was in this clearing she would face the beast. She made her fire in record time and stationed herself next to it, waiting for it to fade so the encounter could finally begin.

She leaned against a tree and watched the fire. She thought about her dad. She thought about the bullshit claims that time healed all wounds. It made her forget, but when she remembered, she was hit again with the pain that took her breath away.

The fire faded and the wait began anew, now including an unwelcome sense of dread.

Strange wails rose in the night from around her, circling and circling, on and on did it go as the moon rose. The whisper of intelligence that tactic gave made Nicole tighten her grip on the rifle and grind her teeth. The psychological effect of wearing a victim down with the waiting, the waiting. Clever.

Or it just has a fun time wailing.

She watched the moon rise and pass the apex, then an owl hooted. Nicole looked for it in the darkness but didn’t find it. She supposed an audience was fitting.

And now, for the main event, we have... a...

She must have closed her eyes. That must have been it, she must have slipped into sleep somehow, against her will, her own body had declared a coup and betrayed her so easily she hadn’t even noticed.

Either way, Nicole found herself being dragged by the leg away from her gun. It had its teeth deep in her ankle, pulling her along and causing the skin to tear and the bone to grate. Pain left her gasping for air and sanity.

Well, there went rule number one: don’t get bit.

Also, rules number two through five, which all say don’t let your guard down.

She reached for her gun and felt it slip beyond her grasp without an ounce of surprise. It was fitting death, an ironic one, just perfect in how her life had been going so far. As far as she was concerned, it was a downhill rush from that one time in kindergarten she held hands with another girl without a single worry in the world. But not yet, she was not dying yet, she wouldn't let the bastard have the satisfaction.

She twisted and ignored the agony of the jaw locked on her leg, winding up an awkward punch that connected with a thud, a wide chance in the shifting black that hid its true form from her.

It stopped briefly, staring at her with an almost human confusion. Its look, hidden in the crude dark but those yellow eyes burned like headlights, seemed to ask 'Did you really just try to punch me, little girl?'

Nicole punched its inscrutable face again with an angry cry and it opened its jaws to hiss at her, claws outstretched to resume the attack, but Nicole was already running, limping along as fast as she could.

She hit the tree she had been leaning against and almost tripped over her pack, landing a hand on her gun just as she was hit by a truck. No, not a truck -- the beast itself, colliding with her like a linebacker and causing her to slam against the ground with her breath knocked from her lungs.

She responded with brutal strikes to its face, courtesy of the stock of her rifle. It leaned back again, turning its whole body in preparation for the killing blow, and Nicole seized her chance.

She shot it in the face.

It did not howl or roar, it screamed -- It screamed like a human being in its pain and confusion, backing away from Nicole with hideous speed. All that remained were splatters of blood and the ruined ground.

And just like that, it was over.

She listened for another hour, cleaning her leg and bandaging it as best she could in the darkness, listening as the wails faded as it returned to the forest. Then there was a silence, a waiting, a pregnant pause where she waited for the trees next to her to erupt into screams.

It did not come.

Again her body committed mutiny and she slept fitfully under the clear night sky, hands still tying the bandages, one laying atop the unopened box.

 

She woke up to the sun in her eyes. She had slept far too late as she sat up to the afternoon birds singing. She was starving.

No, literally starving. It felt like she hadn’t eaten for days, weeks. She ate everything in her bag in a fit of feverish hunger before gathering her supplies and deciding to follow the beast’s trail. She put weight on her bad leg and was surprised by the lack of pain. She had been so focused on her own hunger she had ignored the bite.

She lifted her torn pant leg and pushed aside the bandages, expecting infection.

There was no infection. Only a few pale scars where it had bitten her.

Nicole felt the scream building in her heart but it didn’t come. Instead, she simply stared at the marks in horrified confusion. What does this mean ? What does it do? She must have known, at some point, but now there was only fog.

Shit, I’m a werewolf. That’s what it does. Was it a werewolf?

No, dumbass, werewolves don’t have hooves.

She followed the trail the beast left. That seemed important. The blood became less, perhaps it was healing or clotting or whatever happened to wounds. There was still a trail. Nicole was following it. That was important.

Then she saw a deer.

Kill the deer.

No, I don’t need to kill the deer. What would I do with an entire dead deer?

Kill the deer. Eat the deer.

No, I should follow the trail. I don’t need the deer, I don’t even have a permit.

Kill the deer. Do it. Need to do it.

Why, though? It’s cute.

This is wrong, this is very not good, some part of her mind thought as she raised her rifle. I shouldn’t do this. Something has gone terribly wrong but I don’t remember what it is.

Her ears rang and her hands hurt from the recoil, but she didn’t remember the decision to fire. She lowered the rifle and looked with a mixture of regret and hunger at the fallen doe.

 

There was a river.

Her hands were sticky with something as she tried to get firewood. She lifted logs and threw them like they weighed nothing into rocks, picking up the shards and building the fire by mechanical memory. She did not think of anything except how the fish in the river would taste roasted over the fire.

She caught sight of herself in the reflection of the water and felt completely numb at the sight. She looked like the undead. Her eyes were hollow and her face was absolutely covered with browning and flaking blood. Something has happened. Something is wrong. It is very important that I focus.

For a while, she stared at the fish in confusion. Why am I not eating the fish? What was I thinking about?

She washed her face in the river and tried to remember. Anything. Why she was here. Where she was. What she had been doing for the past… how many hours had it been? How long?

There was a blank void as she looked back in time. An indeterminate amount of experiences she just didn’t recall. It took her ten minute’s mental battle to turn from the river without fishing from it.

I need a stick. A sharp one. Or the gun.

She had to remember something, anything. Think of something besides the hunger. Something in her pack. There must be some kind of clue. Why was she so hungry? She stumbled towards her pack, full of confusion and scattered thoughts.

She felt empty. No, she felt bottomless. She noticed that not a single piece of food remained in her bag and there was a first aid box messily stuffed in the wrong place. There is something inside it, something that she needed. Something she had forgotten. Something had happened, something very terribly wrong, something that must have caused her to turn away from the river and come to her bag.

Fishing pole?

I hit somebody with a bottle. I was driving. No trespassing.

She pulled the box out and stared at it like it was some kind of alien technology. It might as well have been, for all the sense she could make of it. It wasn’t food. I should put this down. Get the fish. No. Inside the box. Open the box.

Something to do with guns. Something to do with the forest. No trespassing. Dad. Where's my dad? Dad's missing.

But her rifle was still leaning against the tree nearby. She stared at it, thinking about shooting the fish, then turned back to the box in her hand in confusion.

Focus on the basics, Nicole. Kick your fear out of the van and get to work, her father said somewhere in the past. You don’t have time to panic. They need your help.

But she didn’t feel fear. She didn’t feel anything. Somebody needed her help. Somebody needed her to drive the van. But who? Did I forget them, too? Where are they?

She opened the box and stared at the three syringes inside. These are important, her mind whispered. We must use them to save someone. We are running out of time.

Then we can eat the fish.

Yet there were no instructions for her to read and no sign of how to use them. She ignored the rumble of her stomach. She needed to figure this out. This was important.

She closed the box.

She stared so long the bugs got curious. The sun moved. The river called to her.

She opened the box.

She picked up a syringe and tried to remember. Her cat, looking on in judgment as she left. Somebody was at the door, knocking. Let him in. Open the door. Open the door, Nicole.

She opened the door.

‘Hand me your arm and let us forget about this nonsense,’ said the man in the suit after he sat down. 

“Here you go,” Nicole said to the empty clearing and injected herself with the syringe.

 

Nicole woke sometime later to the same afternoon birds. She sat up and felt dizzy, but otherwise unremarkable. She had no idea where she was.

Her fear was back, but so was her clarity. She examined her situation closely as she cleaned off the rest of the blood in the river. She was lost. She had no more food and would have to live off the forest. She was succumbing to a strange kind of sickness, one that gave her hysterical strength and a mind-consuming hunger and made her forget, all in one neat little package of bad.

I read about this somewhere. Her memory still seemed foggy and spotted at best. She found her bag nearby and repacked it. She burned her clothes and pulled out a new set.

She knew what she was after, what she still had to do.

She knew that the shot to the face would not have killed The Beast. She had missed the vital point of the skull. It would still be out there somehow. She didn’t know if the injection had cured her, but it did not matter. Either way, she was running out of time. She had no trail so she simply walked towards the mountain.

Nicole marked her trees but still kept going in circles. The forest seemed wrong. Perhaps her memories of the forest had been lost, or she was just far beyond anything she had seen before. Still, no matter how hard she tried, she would end up in a circle that took her days to complete.

Weeks passed without her noticing. To her, it was days. Nothing made sense, not when she kept going in circles.

One day it began to snow. Nicole had not seen the leaves fall, but the trees around her were bare. She wondered if she had completely lost her mind. Maybe that crazy lady on the block had been right. She'd gone to hell at last. 

Hell was freezing, and it was a miracle she found shelter for the night. She half expected the cave she came across to be filled with bones or bears, but it was empty. She made a fire and slept, thinking about if this was hell for gays then why isn’t anyone else here?

When she woke again the snow had vanished.

That’s it. I’ve gone insane. Absolutely nuts, unless I’m a bear.

Honestly, to her, being a bear would be refreshing at this point. She walked through a forest that by all accounts was in full spring. She tried to stop and birdwatch, one of her favorite pass times, but that bothersome fear kept creeping back in whenever she let her guard down. She couldn’t even recognize the birds. Nicole, panic rising like background off-key violins, ignored the strangeness of the feeling and instead focused on the one thing driving her forward: She had to stop the Beast from killing others before her time ran out. She suspected that the continued routine of going in complete circles had simply broken her. Perhaps she had been here quite a long time and not remembered, but that made no sense whatsoever. She still felt as if it had been only weeks since she had passed the sign, not months.

No matter how much Nicole angled by the sun and walked up, she always seemed to end up down.

She shuddered at the thought, but it still made no sense. Perhaps that was another one of the beast’s chosen side effects, that things stopped having any up or down or left or right. They just had forward.

More circles.

She started marking down the days. She supposed about a week passed before the strange hunger returned and she had to take the second shot before she lost herself again. She spent the time wandering, still looking for something familiar, only having those brief moments of remembrance that were so slightly off it made her ill each time it happened.

So an indeterminate amount of time plus a week between each shot. Perfect. This is just excellent. This is the greatest experience of my life. So great.

More circles.

It was like everything in the forest was backward. Sometimes she would stop in one place, frozen with something half remembered, half thought, almost like waking after a dream, but then it would vanish. Maybe she had died. She did not know. The forest she knew, the forest she had learned and memorized and lived in, was completely unrecognizable. She would walk forward again.

Another circle.

“Look, class, another rock formation I don’t recognize,” She snarked to the forest in general as she passed a cliff face. She eyed the surrounding land critically, still holding out a useless hope. There were markings, yes, but hers? Not a chance.

She tested the radio and was not surprised at all to find it full of empty, out-of-range static. She did not bother trying again.

Two more circles.

“On your right you’ll see trees,” She told her imaginary tour, “and if you step right this way, you’ll also see some trees on your left.” She pointed at a plant. “That’s a plant.”

She supposed that it had become early autumn at some point. She only noticed by the increase of leaves on the ground ahead of her. She rarely looked up, not anymore, not after the strange birds had stared at her and she had stared back uncomprehending, as if they were alien visitors, but something in her mind stirred so heavily it made her sick. The birds were familiar, but she could not identify them no matter how hard she tried.

That night she slept in a tree and considered a plan. The beast had not appeared again after that night that must have been a very long time ago. What was it waiting for? How many circles must she complete? How many things will she forget? The forest and the beast must be one and the same. Something about the two, about their connection, she was missing.

The next day (hour? week?) she had an idea.

She sat down and took the third syringe. She needed all of her senses for this. No more fog. This would be her last chance - To kill it, or lose herself trying. She cleaned her rifle. She changed her clothes. She missed her hat.

She did not wait for sunset, she didn’t have the nerve.

She called out to it.

"Help!" Nicole shouted, birds scattering, "Help! I'm lost!"

The silence settled uneasily on her shoulders. Time passed. Nicole called again, her voice raw and pleading and delicious, "Help me, please! I'm lost!"

A third time before she heard it call back with an echoing wail that seemed to fill the whole valley. Immediately, she plunged into the forest in its direction and knew without a doubt that she would not go in a circle. She would find the beast.

For some reason, it was not coming towards her. It was leading away.

The calls paused for a long time, but she had the direction. She found a trail, broken sticks and clawed trees marking its passage. It didn’t matter if this was a trap or not, she would go forward regardless.

Sometimes, during the day, she could hear it ahead of her, crashing through trees and sometimes letting out that terrible wail. It was on the trail of something and it wasn’t Nicole.

During the night she slept in the trees and prayed it didn’t turn around. She ate some of her reserves and knew she had to catch up soon, this chance would slip away if she let it.

What’s it tracking?

But it did not matter, not really. All that mattered was killing the beast. Perhaps if it found its victim and Nicole caught it while its guard was down, she could fire the killing blow. Each step she thought of the names of those missing under mysterious circumstances. The results that never made sense. One plus one equaling three without a note where a number had come from.

It’s a forest. You lose people, that is unavoidable. But the kills and remains and sightings, these had to stop. These could not continue, no matter the consequences. Nicole knew full well that without the syringe she would have to find a way to stop herself before going insane if she did not die to the beast itself.

No more circles. This beast had to die.

She heard the sea shanty in her head again as she passed a cliff. Voices together, all of them the dead, harmonizing in her head. 

The false calls of the Beast began again, the pleas for help raised to the waiting air, perfect bait for a perfect prey.

She slowed to almost a full stop, carefully picking her way towards the beast, knowing that just one turn around this hill would put her face to face...

Then there was a different voice, calling in response. It sounded weary and intelligent and real, a kind heart being lured towards certain death.

“Hey! Can you hear me? I’m on my way!” How kind of them, to have given Nicole this chance. She did not wonder where they had come from or who they were. She thought only of the boy falling from the cliff, pushed off by the beast.

Nicole loaded her rifle and noticed the truth of the situation almost too late.

The beast would lure the victim off the cliff to certain death, of course. That was its plan, but Nicole stood between the victim and the cliff and the beast. She had to choose.

I have my chance! I have to take it, shoot the beast! I might not get one again!

But she’ll die, whispered her heart, low as a muted song through two steel walls. Walls she must have built, somewhere between Levi and the thirtieth circle. While you turn the corner and fire, she will plummet to her death.

What does it matter! I die regardless! The Beast never eats again! No more circles! People are saved!

But she could live. She doesn’t have to die.

BUT THE BEAST WILL LIVE!

Hey! I’m coming!”  called the approaching victim.

Nicole was already running up the hill, feeling her humanity rush back to her side with every step. She could not let this occur. She heard the woman approaching, the calling promises of safety to comfort a voice in need. Nicole might already be too late. But she could not stand by and let this happen. Wasn’t that why she entered the forest in the first place? What had happened to her, to make her hesitate?

She could live. I save this woman, I get her off the mountain. She could survive this if I intervene.

“I’m here! I’m coming!” Faster now, closer. 

Her legs did not burn, but she knew she could damage the muscles if she overworked them. Her brain seemed to have lost its sense of limitations as if she was full of adrenaline constantly. She thundered uphill just in time to see a flash of brown hair step off a cliff.

Nicole threw herself forward with all her new-found strength, gripping the woman’s pack handles and throwing her back several yards to safety. A cracking sound announced something had broken, and for an instant Nicole panicked, but when the woman turned and stood with fire in her eyes, she realized it was only the camera around her neck.


Whatever happens, I need to her to survive. That I promise.