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Card Challenge: Day 65

Card Day 65: A cat sits in its bed, staring up at a deer head mounted on the wall. Tears drip from the deer’s eyes and down to the floor.

Henry had the growing sense of unease that there was something following him through the woods. It was a subtle sense, steeped in his own paranoia and cautious personality, but unshakeable. It was as if he could hear the slightest echo to his steps among the crackling leaves, or as if the birds seemed to wait just a bit too long to return to song behind him. He was born and raised among these woods, and he felt as if he could read them like an open book. Today, the message they were spelling out was grim, and he could not escape the clammy feeling creeping up his back. He was being followed, watched, and stalked.

The feeling of eyes on his back made his skin itch, almost as if a cold wind had whipped up and bit at his well-protected skin. Henry though he might just crawl right out of his skin, leave it a husk on the ground, if only to escape the impossibly unsettling feeling. Every tree branch suddenly became a traitorous hand seeking to pin him down and impede his progress. His home turf took on sudden maleficence he strained his ears, trying to hear the double crunch of his steps mirrored in someone else’s, attuned to the whispered music of another’s breath filtering through the trees.

It took all the resolve he could muster not to turn heel and flee through the woods. His home was on the other side, just over a mile’s journey, and even at his age he could make it in fifteen minutes or so at a light jog. His heart wasn’t what it used to be, but his doctor would probably approve of the exercise. But his pride forbade such an act of cowardice, so he held his steps to steady stroll through the diminishing sunlight. It would be dark soon, which might have been reason enough to hurry his trip, but the lingering possibility of some adversary that could perceive it as a sign of weakness meant he would be late getting home, strolling in and hanging his hat on the hook just past sunset.

Fortunately, the idea of the woods at night was less terrifying, or would have been under normal circumstances. His youth had been defined by sneaking into the woods for drinks and carousing with his buddies. Not to mention the many early morning hunting trips with his father—generally full of its own drinking and carousing—that had given him a familiarity with the darkened woods. In some ways, that was his territory to prowl. He felt as if he knew the way better under the cloak of night, those times when he relied on his other senses to guide him.

Only now, there was the very real danger of a predator. Carter Jinkerson had sworn he saw a couple of wolves roaming around a couple weeks back. Henry tried to dismiss the thought, noting that the footsteps—real or imagined—that he heard were not the soft padding of some four-footed animal. No, it was something large and heavy, walking about on two feet that perfectly mirrored his own. Somehow that realization did nothing to relieve his feeling of unease. He had bested every kind of animal that haunted these woods, but a human, now a human would certainly be challenging.

There had not been any string of attacks or murders in the sleepy town, so he tried to remind himself that killers did not just spring up in the midst of the woods. It was probably some kids, maybe one of his buddies trying to give him a scare. Even more reason to not let them see him sweat.

It was then that Henry realized the footsteps he had been thinking so intently on had, in fact, grown silent. He no longer heard anything sneaking along after him, even if the unusual silence did hang thick among the branches. Nothing but one set of steps pushing through the fall’s bounty of leaves, thundering through like a wounded deer crashing through the underbrush.

The silence was terrifying. He had lost the one thing that gave him an edge. He had known he was being hunted, and now he had lost his predator. Henry took a few great gasping breaths, trying to look as if he was merely resting, while his eyes jumped from tree to tree in a futile hope of finding one of the guys from the town leaning with a wide grin from behind his cover. But no one appeared, and Henry’s heart began to beat heavily against his ribs with the panic that left his limbs leaden.  Even if he was not walking, he could hear the steady steps of his heart pacing the forest floor, seeking solace in trees that had so often filled him with serenity.

And then the leaves cracked behind him, closer than he had imagined and gaining with each shuffling step. That sound sent a jolt running through him, the alarm of the woods filtering through his heavy soled shoes and through his body. It spurred those limp muscles to action, pushing through the detritus. Thin, wispy branches whipped at him, tugging on his clothes as if pleading to also be taken away from whatever monstrosity dogged his heels. The steps were heavy behind him, signaling some beast much larger than any he had ever hunted. Henry fled, his eyes trained to the treacherous ground, unwilling to risk of fallen branch or surprise sinkhole ending his perilous flight.

The fading sunlight threw long shadows across the forest floor. The slender bodies of the trees lay in straight lines, painting lanes that he used to direct his steps toward safety. His home was just a bit farther on, just beyond the edged of the woods. He pushed himself to keep moving, even as his lungs ached and his mind swam with possibilities. Most disorienting was the shadow that followed along behind him, something that towered over his meager silhouette. It consumed his shadow, devouring it was the long, angled face. Spindly protrusions—could they be antlers?—protruded from the head of the shadow, dueling the black and grey branches lacing the ground. And it always grew closer, gaining on Henry’s frenzied steps.

Breath, hot and sticky, rolled of his back. It came in great puffs, crashing onto him like a wave, and he felt primal terror of something old and unknown snaking through his body. It threatened to anchor him to the spot, cease all bodily functions, and sacrifice his life to avoid living with the knowledge that such a thing could exist. Only Henry barely understood what it was he was fleeing. But his instincts knew that it was dangerous, ancient, and inescapable. The memory would cling to him like disease. It would rot his life away, turn his speech into frenzied howlings of woodland monsters and curses. Henry’s baser side understood all of this, even as his human mind scrambled over all the rationality and logic it could muster. Unfortunately, things like what lived in his forest were utterly impervious to the machinations of rational thought.

A tree branch snapped at his cheek, ripping his baseball cap from his head and leaving a thin trail of blood. The pain, slight as it was, freed him from the hindrance of that instinctive fear and returned full control of his muscles. Henry vaulted back to his top sped, a far less impressive speed than it might have been five or ten years ago, and made for the tree line. He could see the golden light just beyond the trees, the freedom from shadow. Just beyond that would be his home, the front porch light on, and a heavy shotgun in the hall closet.

Those steps never faltered, but never seemed to gain on him either. Henry almost felt like this thing that he could not bring himself to study was toying with him. It was waiting for him to turn, look back, and trip. Then it would pounce, its lure taken by the prey. It, however, did not know just how stubborn Henry could be. Presuming to know its plan, Henry steeled himself. He would not give it the satisfaction of looking.

The trees thinned around him, and he imagined the steps slowed behind him. In his delirium, he was certain that the pursuit had slowed. He was escaping. The thought blossomed in him as he burst through the trees, a flock of pheasants startled from their roost and exploding into the air. He felt the same rush of escape, putting distance between himself and whatever his hunter was. As his front porch grew closer, Henry felt as if his heart would pound right through his chest wall and beat him to the safety of the house.

He collapsed inside, falling against the backdoor. Nothing sounded after him. There were no steps on his front porch. It was silent in his house save the ticking of a clock on the mantle. Henry marveled at the silence, wondering if perhaps he had imagined the pursuer in the forest.

While his hand scrambled to the closet and pulled out his ever reliable shotgun, Henry risked a peek through the glass of his front door. He saw shadows leaning long form the woods, but there was a section of darker shadow. Something tall and imposing, its shoulder heaving in the woods as if out of breath after a long pursuit. Antlers reached high into the trees, branches mingling with branches. He could see feral golden eyes sparkled at him, then whirl and disappear.

Henry flipped the deadbolt, and leaned heavily against the door. He had no answers, no any energy to move farther. The paralysis of fear finally snared him, and he spent the evening cowering by the door.

When he woke in the morning, it was easy to attribute his fear to a bad dream figments of his imagination, or symptoms of a stroke. Perhaps it was time to see Dr. Macoughley in town after all. His knees and back ached as he rose unsteadily from his vigil by the door. The hardwood floors—while attractive to look at—did not make a suitable bed. He felt certain he would hear about this for the next few days from his creaking joints. At least, he reasoned, it was looking like another nice day outside, full of early morning sunshine. Maybe not a day for a stroll in the woods, but pleasant nonetheless.

Henry opened the door to take in the view, to prove to himself that he was not terrified of the woods that had so long been his haven. Instead, the view confirmed his fears. On the porch sat a twisted crown of tree branches, reaching high and twisting like the beautiful antlers that resided over his fireplace. The branches jutted perversely from a bleached white deer skull, the eyes empty and glaring deep into Henry’s own. Worst of all, however, was what lay beside the strange skull.

There sat his hat. Jagged tears ran along the right side, tiny tufts of his hair still tangled within the material. The blood rushed from Henry’s face, leaving him a ghost standing on the porch of his home. The only thing about him that remain alive was the shallow, stinging cut along his right cheek.

Creative Commons License
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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