Jason and his wife Meredith had been hunting nearly every day of the season so far, without luck. It was the last week before deer hunting closed for the year and they were getting desperate. Jason decided they should try up north, in the Allagash.
This spot they were going to, it was where his grandfather had taken him when he was a boy, the last time he had done what he called “real hunting”. Old timber company land. It'd been clear cut years, decades ago, and the forest had come back thick and tangled. The trees were stunted and compact, not one with a trunk bigger than his thigh, and not enough space between them for a man to take two clear steps in any direction. The deer bedded down there in the days, when the hunters were prowling the fields, and you could run through a patch of woods, drive them out in the open while another hunter would post up on the edge of it, and he'd have his pick.
It was a long drive, an hour on the freeway and another 90 minutes on the state highways; desolate little roads that wound through the barren trees and the foothills while the flat gray skies pissed down icy rain.
When they'd gotten in the thick of it, the real dense woods where the night never really leaves the trees, Jason pulled off the little highway onto one of the crude dirt logging roads that cut an endless grid through the forest. He jumped from the cab with his rifle in one hand, called his wife over, sat her in the bed of the truck and told her where the deer would be coming.
She watched him walking down the road, a half mile or more. Then he looked back at her, waved once, stepped over the ditch, and vanished in the trees.
She waited, crouched in the truck bed, her finger on the trigger of her rifle as she scanned the clearing. A half hour went by. Then an hour. The woods were as silent as ever. She was beginning to worry.
When another 30 minutes had passed with no sign she stood up in the truck bed and called his name. The woods ate up the noise and then it was quiet. She called out again, and again, louder each time. There was something coming into her voice now, an edge of frantic excitement that lead into panic. She screamed until she felt her throat burn, she fired her rifle in the air three times, the universal distress signal. She listened until her ears hummed and throbbed with the silence.
She picked up her rifle and sat in the cab. Started it up. Took it down the road to the spot she'd seen him step off from. She stood at the wood's edge, looked out into it, saw the darkness and heard the muffled silence, and couldn't make herself go. She got back in the truck and drove off to find help.
He'd walked quickly through the woods, picking his way through the trees, kicking and stomping as he went, making as much noise as he could manage. When he looked back and couldn't see the road anymore he figured he was deep enough in to start making his drive. He turned right, towards Meredith and the truck, and began crashing through the brush.
It was a while before he suspected something was wrong. He'd been walking for what felt like hours. Hadn't seen any deer, hadn't seen any signs of life as a matter of fact, and he figured he'd have to have gone at least as far as the truck by this point. He faced what he thought was the direction of the road. When he'd been walking earlier he'd turned one way looking for a spot to cross a stream without getting his feet wet, turned the other way to avoid a particularly thick patch of undergrowth, always trying to correct himself so he stayed traveling in a reasonably straight line. He was confident he'd kept going in the same direction, thought he hadn't checked the angle of the sun earlier, so he couldn't confirm it. Either way, he should be pointing more-or-less towards the road now.
He walked again for a few more hours. Now he was starting to get worried. He hadn't heard a sound outside of his own feet crashing through the saplings and it was beginning to bother him. These woods were oppressive. It wasn't quite as cold as it had been when he'd first started off, but he was beginning to shiver every time he rested. He wanted to get in his truck and drive off out of the woods and stop at a warm, dry restaurant full of noisy people, eat a big hot greasy hamburger, with salty french fries that sizzled and crunched when he bit into them, and a thick milkshake he'd have to eat with a spoon. His hunger was like a knife point now, driving into his gut, and he desperately wished he'd brought food.
He kept walking. The gloom under the trees was beginning to look a little darker, or so he imagined, and the thought panicked him. He picked up the pace. Now when he came to streams he didn't look for narrow spots to jump over, or logs to balance on, he marched straight through them. The water was cold, it burned his skin like it was boiling, and soon his feet went numb. He crashed through brush, he tore his jacket, he cut his face and his hands on the thorns. He fired his rifle in threes. When he heard nothing he did it again. By the fourth volley he was out of rounds.
It was definitely getting darker now. The gloom was closing in tighter. He felt it constricting like a straitjacket. Stifling him with the dead quiet and the endless forest. He wasn't even sure he was going anywhere. Everything looked the same. For all he knew it was the same. Dread of nightfall welled up in him and pressed against his throat.
As he looked around him the trees began to feel ominous in the dying light. Wherever he stood they seemed to lean in over him, leering and thirsting for something. Dead sentinels, cold as the mud under his feet.
It was very nearly dark. He was frantic. Running as best he could, his clothes catching on the trees and tearing off, his breath clouding the air and steam rising off him in the bitter night winds that were just beginning to sweep through the trees. He ran while the branches moaned and rocked and his feet began to freeze.
It was just at this moment when the panic threatened to overtake him that he saw something that brought him relief. Far off through the trees, there were two circles of light, headlights from a truck. When he saw them he felt a warm comfort rising in his chest. He was going to get out, get back to his truck, leave the woods. He called out and waved his hands and the headlights turned!
Then he saw something that puzzled him. They were coming towards him, through the woods. As they got closer he noticed they seemed to be going between the trees. He was confused by the sight. It didn't seem to make any sense. They didn't move like a truck either. They turned, bobbed up and down, went over and around all the felled trees and stumps in the ground.
He suddenly realized they were much closer than he thought. Two perfect circles as big around as his fist. Somehow they weren't lighting up anything, though they glowed like molten steel. He was feeling very strange then, the beginnings of real fear, when he caught an odor, the smell of must and decay, old rot.
They seemed to glide to him, impossibly fast, and he could see now something long, thin, emaciated. The points of bones straining against dry, dead skin. It inhaled with sharp, raspy little gasps and breathed out in long, shuddering waves. Almost like it was crying.
When it landed atop him he could hear it, over the sound of skin tearing like rending fabric, bones that crackled and split, and the ringing in his ears. It was sobbing pitifully, even through the fistfuls of flesh those long hands were shoveling, one after another, into it's mouth.
Meredith sighed. It had been two weeks and there was no sign of him. Not a trace. Just as though the world had opened up and swallowed him whole. Today would be the last day of the search. The winter snows had come and even she had to admit the hope of him emerging from those woods had long since died. She'd vowed to keep looking though, right up to the last moment. Now here she was, on the cusp of nightfall, the other searchers gone already and not a single thread of his clothes, a footprint in the snow, a rock cairn to show that he had ever been there.
She gave one last look around the clearing as she climbed into the cab of the truck, started it up and flipped on the lights. As she turned to her left to put on her seat belt she was struck by the sight of a pair of headlights coming quickly towards her. For a brief moment she was ecstatic with hope, maybe it was one of the searchers. Maybe they'd found Jason after all and they were rushing to tell her now. Maybe. But this thought was interrupted by another, one of confusion. The road was in front of her, where were those headlights coming from?
Written by toadvine