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Prey

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My story takes place in a town you’ve probably never heard of in south-eastern rural Kentucky. It’s a small town with its people sparsely peppering the mountainsides to and fro. It’s the type of town where it isn’t exactly unusual to find neighbors bartering for goods with livestock, living off what the land provides, and making do with what they’ve got. It is here that my father was raised. It is here that my father raised his family.

My father was a proud man; short, barely 5’ 7”, but stout. He was many things – a mountaineer, carpenter, a survivor, a hunter… but mostly, he was proud. He instilled in me all the virtues that I believe in today. He’s the type of man that would give you the last dollar to his name. The type that would go hungry to make sure his children were fed, and there were times that he did. I suppose I should clarify that I grew up in poverty. No doubt there were those that were worse off than me, but times were hard nonetheless.

My father worked intermittently, mostly in construction. There were few homes within the community that my father did not at least help with. He built our house from the ground up, dug out the basement, and leveled the land with little more than a shovel, wheel barrel, and the helping hands of my uncle and two older brothers. Our house sat on a hillside, in a leveled alcove; the yard stretched on for what seemed like forever, ending at a fresh mountain brook where the woodland lied beyond.

He spent a lot of time in those woods – hiking trails, digging ginseng, hunting, and otherwise passing time. The mountains provided our family with many necessities. Our water was pumped from a mine near the mountain’s peak. Our food consisted mainly of game and livestock. My mother is a wonderful cook. She had a fondness for chicken – which we raised. My father, on the other hand, preferred game. No stranger to the culinary arts, my father was adept at preparing a variety of dishes. All of which he tracked and killed himself. Long before the sun would rise, my father would grab his light and head out. He would follow the mountain stream before turning off onto one of the many mine roads that littered the terrain. One such road ran by an old graveyard long since forgotten by the rest of the world. Some headstones there dated back to the onset of the 19th century.

I recall one night my father decided to go spotting. For those of you unfamiliar, spotting is a common practice amongst Appalachian hunters (perhaps amongst hunters in general, but I do not hunt so I am not sure). The hunter will set out before sunrise, taking a light and little else. The hunter will then proceed to shine the light, much like a spotlight, in hopes of catching a glimpse of an animal’s eyes. You see, the eyes of an animal are luminous; and in complete darkness when the light passes over them they will shine. This is a method of establishing good hunting venues. On this particular night, my father broke tradition and decided to take his shotgun with him on his spotting expedition. This decision, I would later learn, saved his life.

It was a warm spring night. I was always a night owl, so when my father stirred, I was still awake and playing my Super Nintendo. It was not a school night, so I was greeted with his ever present smile. “Hey big man,” he chimed. “You’re up late.”

“I want to beat Mario,” I told him, my eyes leaving the screen long enough to see him tying his boots. He didn’t reply, he just smiled and rubbed my head as he passed me on his way to the gun cabinet. From it, he removed his customary 12 gauge shotgun, some rounds, and a miner’s light. The light, I recall, strapped to his forehead and attached to a rather large battery that he hung at his waist. He then made his way to the couch and sat next to me. He casually lifted the TV remote and waited. When I finished the level he smiled.

“Pause it. I need to check the forecast,” he told me. I obliged and he changed the channel. He watched as the forecaster rambled on about the weather and seemed content. “Not giving rain for today. That’s good.” He turned to me and smiled again. “Okay. You can go back to your game. I’m going out. I’ll be back in a while, tell your mother I’ll bring home supper. Tonight, we’re going to have rabbit.”

He kissed my forehead and stood. I smiled at him as he rounded the hallway corner to our front door. I listened to the door shut and to the clunk of his boots as he made his way off the porch, down the steps and through the yard. His steps faded in the distance. From this point on, I cannot vouch for the validity of my tale, but I can tell you that the man who returned was not the man that left. Make no mistake, my father did return; but he was a changed man. He never spoke much of that night until after I had started college. This is his story.

Like most other nights, he headed up the mountain via a trail that ran alongside the brook. The air was still and warm and the moon and stars shone bright. There were no clouds, and the forecast was clear. The sound of cicadas and crickets filled the air. He made his way along the trail intermittently shining his light on either side of the stream. He walked along the stream until he reached a fork in the path. To his left was his customary turn off, further up that trail was an old slate dump. Above it was a derelict coal shoot.

He shined his light along that trail and contemplated. He had been talking with his hunting buddies and they had mentioned a sweet spot near the graveyard. A warren of rabbits had apparently taken residence near the abandoned cemetery, and they had all had good fortune when hunting there. My father thought on it for a moment before turning to the right. The right trail lead on up the mountain to the mine where we drew our water. It passed by the cemetery where the rabbits were said to reside. He continued to follow the stream until making his way to the cemetery.

Upon his arrival, he skimmed his light back and forth across the plots. If there was a warren here, the rabbits were definitely not being very active tonight. He trudged amongst the plots until finally deciding to move on. He walked back to the trail and stopped. He could go back along the stream trail and to the slate dump – at the very least, he thought, he could cover grounds he was used to hunting. Instead, he decided to follow the trail further. He had been walking for a little more than fifteen minutes when he noticed a strange phenomenon. The light from the moon and stars was completely gone. Clouds covered the sky and in the distance somewhere there was flash of lightning. He counted the seconds to the thunder.

The sky roared a moment then fell silent. There was no rain. He silently observed his surroundings, shining his light on either side of the trail. He paused for a moment longer, and then trudged on. As he walked he noticed something else. Very faint, and very rhythmically his footsteps were echoing. This was unusual. If you’ve ever been in a wooded mountain, one thing you’ll notice is that the mountains are excellent listeners and seldom repeat what they’re told. It was then the silence consumed him. The cicadas, the crickets, the owls – they were all hushed. My father stopped and shined his light around him. He saw nothing and after a moment he continued along the trail.

The echo was silent for a moment then started up again. With every crunch of my father’s feet, he could hear a crunch simultaneously hit the trail behind him. Someone, or something, was following him. Deliberately and furtively stalking him. He stopped again, and so did his echo. He shined the light around him again, in all directions. Down the trail, into the trees, and even into the air. Nothing. There was absolutely nothing there. He carefully observed his surroundings. It was then he noticed another trail, not three feet from him on the other side of the brush. Silently, he began devising a plan. He decided that he would begin walking again, and when the echo recommenced he’d take another step…but he’d stop. If it was his mind playing tricks then the echo would stop too. He turned up the trail and continued along his way. Within moments the echo re-emerged. He waited until he was confident the time was right, and he stepped…and stopped mid step. His foot was barely an inch from the ground.

*CRUNCH*

The sound resonated through his being and sent shivers down his spine. He spun around and shined the light again only to be greeted by darkness. He turned back up the trail and quickened his pace. This time the strides did not mimic his own. They were faster and louder. It dawned on my father at this point that he had pissed it off, whatever it was. He loaded his shotgun as another plan developed in his mind. He decided to step through the brush to the trail on the other side. There he would wait for It to pass him, and he would turn the tides. Without hesitation he cut off his light and stepped across the brush and waited in darkness. The sound of Its strides continued up the trail before stopping what sounded like mere feet away.

Then It crossed through the brush, coming to a halt beside him. His stomach sank and he fumbled for his light. He could feel eyes burning into his skin, boring holes into his brain. The light came on with a sudden flash…nothing. There was absolutely nothing there. He shined the light all around him. There was no sign of anything passing through the brush, no sign of anything walking along the trail. My father, an expert hunter, could find no trace of the thing that was stalking him. He shined his light further up the trail and saw something. A building…the old coal shoot that was just above the slate dump. He bolted for it. He could hear Its strides coming up fast behind him. He turned into the coal shoot and dove in. The shoot collapsed around him, sending him pouring down onto slate and rock. He quickly made his way to his feet and shined his light towards the shoot, shotgun in firing position. He could hear It moving fast up the trail. He heard It hit the coal shoot. The shoot thundered and trembled under Its weight, but my father couldn’t see anything. He blindly fired, pumped, and fired again and again. The boom of his shotgun echoed throughout the valley…the sound matched by a roar that made the hair on his neck stand. The shoot was silent for a moment. Then he heard Its strides bolt in the opposite direction. It made its way up the mountain towards the mine. He listened for a long time. Silence.

He got home around noon. He was beaten up pretty badly from his fall. He never said a word. My mother attempted to console him, and he silently looked at her. His eyes filled with dread and his ever present smile gone. Not long after that he and my mom separated. The court ordered that the house be turned over to me upon my 21st birthday. I returned home to find him sitting on the porch, shotgun beside him. He had long since erected a security fence around the property. He told me his tale and he told me that he continued to hear It, when he walked to his mother’s or when he trimmed the hedges and mowed the lawn. He could hear It following him. Ever presently, It stalked him. Hunted him.

After my father passed, I left the house empty. It didn’t feel right taking it when he had built it from the ground up. But then I met the woman who would become my wife. We married after I graduated college, and now she’s pregnant with my son. I brought my family back here, to raise them where I was raised.

But I write this now because I am afraid. Each night I do a quick sweep of the property. I check the house and then I check the yard…and each night I can hear my footsteps echoing beyond the fence.



Credited to John R. 

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