There's a lot of things people in the big city don't think about. They don't think about the trees, the mountains, the animals, and, least of which, us. Us being the people from these woodsy boondocks. Those of us who dig and claw our way through our simple lives among the rocks and trees of these isolated oases. It's not often you hear about us rural folk breaking the bonds of our rustic existence and flourishing in your metropolitan paradise, but it's not from a lack of trying. Like many of us, I dreamed big, imagined myself a shining star among the dull bulbs of my town. “I'm gonna move out west, get famous,” that's what I told myself for years and years, until the light in my eyes died – rather, I suppose you could say it was snuffed.
I hail from a desolate Kentucky town named Harlan. An uncompromising community that's hanging on by a single thread. I'd give it a good decade before we're nothing but a canopied crater, killed by our own disillusion and turned into a skeletal silhouette taken over by the rampant kudzu. We make our meager living as miners, mostly. It wasn't uncommon for my dad to make his way home covered head to toe in coal dust, a living shadow, hacking and wheezing but giving us everything we needed to survive, if only barely. Until the day he didn't come home. Cave ins weren't a rarity, but they were something we didn't like to think about. It was like we saw the earth as some beast, some unknowable being that held no power over us as we carved out its rocky cadaver to make our living. Ignore the monster, be brave, and it won't be able to hurt you. But it could. It did.
When dad died, things took a turn downwards. I was still a kid, death isn't something you can truly process when you're an eight year old coming to grasp with the concept of your father existing solely as an unrecognizable pile of fleshy rubble in a pine box. What I knew, what I understood, was that everyone dealt with this hateful specter called “Death” in their own way. I didn't understand how destructive these means of coping could be.
My mother did what many of our neighbors had done, and many still do. She turned to drugs. After years of seeing many of my friends and family wither into nothing but bony scaffolding supporting sagging, vaguely human skins I had learned what walking this path did to people, but back then I had no idea. Back then all my worries were born of the earth, of my life; human terrors, things I could escape from. So I ran. At sixteen, I gave up. I ran from the mountain that took my father and the poison that morphed my mother into a monster.
That monster followed. I still remember the day it happened, I see it in my nightmares and in these mountains every day. I ran along the creek bed, dried up in the summer sun, more bed than creek I suppose. The hardened mud cracked and shifted beneath my feet as I bolted along this ditch of a path, twigs snapping behind me followed by shrill roars.
“Wyatt, stop!” My mother's voice bounced between the trees, “You can't run away from this!” I didn't let it deter me, she was a person – she WAS a person, once anyway – people can't stop me now. I turned tail for one moment to confront this lanky beast that was once my mother. I looked her in the eyes, opened my mouth, relived every angry practice session of shouting and crying in front of my mirror, preparing for this moment. But as she passed beneath the train trestle that stretched to either side of the creek, I saw it. I saw it and I lost every word I had begged my mind to let me remember. There it was, motionless on the trestle, watching me with an eyeless stare. A massive creature casting its looming shadow over my mother.
Its head was that of a skinned stag, ivory white bones casting a harsh reflection. Its massive antlers arched inward, like a barbed crown. The creature seemed to encompass everything I had grown to hate about this land; as if it had been carved from the mountain itself. It stood there, powerful and imposing, its broad shoulders lead to branchlike appendages adorned with braided willow stems, forming makeshift wings. At its base, beneath its rocky core, was an ever streaming leakage of mud, dripping to the ground beneath.
Couldn't mom see this thing? This mountainous monster dripping its sludgy mass above her just stood there, and as if she was aware of its presence but unsure of quite how, she stopped. We stood there, staring at each other with this bizarre being intruding on our catharsis until the silence broke. “I know things went wrong, I know everything I've done was wrong, but you have to listen to me,” my mother plead as she wept, “come back to me. Come to momma. You can't understand, you can't run.”
I said nothing. Her words lit a fire in me, “you can't run.” Like Hell I can't. I'm sick of this place, these people. Sick of her. Suddenly it was as if the monstrous being was no longer there. I saw it, of course, I knew it was watching, but the anger I felt managed to trump the fear of this god-like behemoth. I turned heel to continue my escape, years worth of rage welled up inside me and my eyes started to blur with tears.
I couldn't run. She was right.
It was like a living wall, as if a mountain had stealthily sprung up in my path. The creature stared at me, as much as it could stare with the blackened voids where its eyes should be. It pointed behind me, toward mom. I hated her, what she had become, but on some level that kind of love doesn't die, and that tiny bit of love in the bottom of my heart forced me to turn around.
I saw her there, kneeling beneath the trestle. A thunderous rattling shook the trees around us as birds clamored for safety in all directions. The racket was unbelievable, I couldn't imagine what abomination was making its way toward us. Why wasn't she moving? The beast had arrived, bellowing smoke and warping the trees and jarring the earth. When my rational mind managed to seize control in this otherworldly moment, I realized what it was... A train, the same kind that crossed that bridge day in day out, hauling the latest spoils of our surviving miners' toil.
I was relieved, but quickly realized that while this monster was in my head, the one hovering over me was very real. Its pointed hand still aimed squarely at my mother, I watched helplessly as it proved its mastery over our world through unseen means. The trestle moaned and creaked, nuts and bolts freeing themselves by either the creature's ethereal tendrils or the train's power. The method didn't matter, the bridge was giving way. Still kneeling and broken, my mother waited, the train did not. Its massive bulk stressed the already ailing bridge, and before long it all came crashing down.
It's been years since my encounter that day. I haven't tried to flee this backwoods Hell again, but Lord knows I thought about it. With every thought my memories grew more vivid. The creature's face burned itself into my mind as if it was actively reminding me of what'll happen should I try to leave again. I could see this face everywhere, inside and out, as it would form itself into being in everything from the branches above to the dirt below.
I spoke to others about my experience at first, their reactions were interesting to say the least. No one denied the existence of our malevolent guardian but no one spoke of it in definite terms, either. I learned nothing about this being, not where it came from nor how my people had become its play things. Some long forgotten pact with a dead god, a ritual gone awry locking us in this dried up husk of a town. Frankly, I don't care anymore. It seemed that my whole town was aware of our invisible cage but no one seemed interested in breaking out of it. I began to feel like an imprisoned animal, watched over by an overzealous master.
Like most mangy, mistreated animals kept bound by their owners, I began to feel the pathetic acceptance of my place in this cage grow into a burning desire to escape. As I had tried to do so many years ago, I'm getting away from here. I'm getting in my car, heading for the county line, and not stopping no matter what. No man or beast will slow me down, no haint or eldritch horror either.
As I sped down the decaying mountain pass I saw the trees to my left shake as if threatening me, saw the mountains to my right begin to crack and fray with anger. It was coming. I made a harsh turn, clipped the guard rails and began bouncing from lane to lane trying desperately to regain control. When I finally reached my destination, as if I had any belief to the contrary, it was waiting for me. I saw it, miles away, nothing but a straight line separating us. I stopped to survey my situation, but found no obvious means of avoidance. With no other route available I took that empty, desolate road despite the living roadblock ahead of me.
My clunker of a car whined and ached as I slammed down the pedal and accepted my fate. The creature didn't move. It rooted itself to the earth below and waited. I wasn't going to stop, no matter how sure it seemed that I would. Was it confident in its power over me? Or did it just know it could stop me? I didn't care, didn't have time to, the thing grew in my center of vision as I drew closer and closer to it. It's even bigger than I remember. But I won't stop. I can't.
It was like running headfirst into a brick wall. All I heard was the deafening boom of the collision. All I saw was the shredded remains of my car, ripped up, burnt, and strewn across the highway. It's impossible to imagine the power of something strong enough to practically disintegrate a vehicle like that, but that thing wasn't of this world, it didn't play by our rules. In the calamity and noise I had managed to distract myself from the pain, truthfully I didn't feel much of anything but the crimson puddle beneath me indicated that I had suffered some kind of injury, I knew it was mine, that thing didn't bleed. That thing. That thing... Where was it?
I forced myself out of the haze, my eyes darted across the skyline looking for my unwanted guardian angel. There it was, same place it stood moments before. Staring at me as it always had. I had failed. I lay dying in a puddle of my own disappointment, just enough time left to reflect on this increasingly regrettable decision. But something was different. The thing was, well it's hard to say hurt given the abilities it had displayed, but it was upset to say the least. Still as a statue but subtly trembling with anger. Had I just pissed off a god? That's not something you walk away from, I'd imagine.
I waited for the killing blow, but nothing came. Then I saw it. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The road sign I had passed on the way, its green glimmer had caught my eye for a brief moment. That glimmer was gone, in its place was a worn, blank silver. It's the other side. I'm on the other side, out of the county. I won. I'm bleeding like a stuck pig but I won. The thing glared at me, couldn't tell if it was shaking from the impact or the anger it felt over my victory. Didn't matter either way, for all I knew I had five minutes left on this earth, and if I spent those five minutes rubbing this moment in the face of the monster that's kept me caged my whole life then I could die happy.
A piercing noise pulled me away from my gloating. Sirens. I managed to contort my neck and tear my eyes from my foe. An ambulance, cops. My rescue. My salvation. I had won. It was over. There's a lot of things I don't think about anymore. I don't think about the mountains, the animals, the trees. I don't miss any of it. But there are still people there, people that are suffering. And no matter what happens to me from now on, I'll never stop thinking of them.
Credited to AVoiceFromTheTrees