The rowboat rocks dangerously as I climb out of it and step onto the dilapidated pier. After securing the boat to the dock--just incase I need a quick escape--I tuck the warning into the pocket of my filthy jeans for safekeeping. Whether it’s telling the truth or not doesn’t matter. I sense something is horribly wrong and I’m not anxious to spend the night in an unknown forest.
The pier ends at a muddy bank. From the shoreline rises a steep hill. A rusted chain-link fence coils along the perimeter of the bank, blocking all access beyond the lake. I hesitate, trying to decipher my next course of action. The pier is empty, the bank deserted. No boats, no equipment, not even litter. From the pier’s rotting wood and the gloom that shrouds the bank, I get the feeling the area’s been abandoned for several years. Could it have something to do with the letter’s warning to get away from the lake?
The planks of the dock sound hollow as my worn tennis shoes rap against them. I keep a steady eye out, my steps quick and as subdued as I can make them but my mind is restless. Someone wrote a note to warn me that I’m being hunted. But I’d know if I were being hunted, wouldn’t I? If I could just remember . . .
Again, the pain lashes out at me with whip-like precision and I shy away from what my amnesia conceals. My psychologist once told me the human mind has a tendency to block certain traumatic memories that the consciousness cannot reconcile.
If that’s so, I must’ve had one hell of a traumatic experience.
My pace slows as I approach the fence. Heavy chains curl around the fence’s gate like a metal boa constrictor. Dangling above the gate hangs a wooden sign with a worn message carved onto its face.
Private Property: Keep Out. Trespassers Will Be Shot.
--Camp Genki Security
Holy crap, shot?
What sort of camp shoots a trespasser without so much as a warning?
I can’t recall such a place near my home, but if the campers are children from wealthy and powerful families, then such a Draconian policy makes sense.
This is the South, after all.
Beyond the gate I spot a faint trail overrun with shrubs and brambles. It weaves between the dark outlines of the pines and disappears up the hill. It’s too dark to see anything beyond.
Do I risk a bullet or stay here and hope someone comes along? I glance over my shoulder at the dock and the heavy mist that enshrouds the lake. It’s so dense that it seems like a sentient being. Famished, skulking across the placid waters. Waiting.
I shudder. No way I’m staying here another second.
Chain-links rattle as I scale the fence. On the other side, the forest adopts an ominous feel. Shadows drip from twisted branches. As I hike the steep hill, black shapes scuttle across the woodland floor like beetles. A muggy heat scrapes against my skin and the gusts of wind that buffet my cheeks do nothing to cool me off. My nostrils flare, dragging in the fragrance of old earth, decay, and oleander. Nocturnal birds wail into the night, their undulating voices haunting the air like wraiths.
I hate the outdoors. Not so much because of gross bugs and vicious wild animals, but because the wilderness makes me realize my own vulnerability. No other human contact, forgotten and insignificant amidst vegetation that had been old when settlers first arrived to America. And the silence--that’s the worst. Give me skyscrapers, concrete, and rush hour traffic any day.
Thighs stinging and lungs burning, I pause at the crown of the hill. The dirt trail disappears beneath a layer of pine needles and leaf mold. It doesn’t matter. At the bottom of a gentle decline lays another path--a paved walkway that angles away from the vicinity of the lake. At intervals, stone lanterns splay a butterscotch light across the walkway, breaking the darkness into patches. I creep down the slope, my shoes crunching on dry branches and leaves, my eyes checking every hollow, every pocket of shadow.
It takes me a minute to realize the wailing birds have gone silent.
I don’t even notice the trio of dogs until I’m nearly upon them. At first, they blend in with the untamed foliage and gloom. From my vantage I can only distinguish vague hulking shapes. But once they slink into the glow of a lantern, I see they’re much larger than ordinary dogs, bigger than even Great Danes. They possess the wide faces and broad shoulders of a Pit Bull and their coats gleam the colors of coal and twilight. Barely more than slits, their feral eyes pulsate in hues of olive that reminds me of rotted moss and decayed undergrowth.
Something stirs in the back of my mind. A forgotten terror, but when I try to remember, nails rake across my skull.
The largest hound snaps its powerful jaws at one of its packmates. A series of snarls, whimpers, and snorts. The dogs thrust their noses against the ground, shuffling up and down the path. It’s almost as if they are searching, looking for--
My breath catches in my throat.
The yellowed paper burns in my pocket.
They are hunting me.
I try to run but my feet are frozen. My arm shoots out and my fingers dig into the rough bark of the tree beside me, steadying my weak knees. As quietly as I can, I shift so that the tree forms a barrier between me and my pursuers. While the trio search the walkway, my mind races, calculating a mode of escape. If I run, surely they will hear me and give chase, but if I remain behind this tree, perhaps they will move on and give me a chance to get away. I peek around the pine’s trunk. The hounds fan out. One follows the pavement to the left, the other to the right. The biggest, the alpha, starts in my direction.
Fear gives way to self-preservation. My first instinct is to dash back towards the lake, hop the fence and make for the moored rowboat, but when I turn to scuttle back up the slope, I spot someone shifting through the spruce. He is little more than an outline and makes no sound as he moves. Another remnant of a memory flashes through my mind. I’m being chased across a land with no moon and a bloody sky, stumbling through a forest--a different one than this one. A place of cobwebs and poison.
The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck tingle as if charged with electricity. The temperature towards the lake plummets by several degrees. Ice, glimmering like quartz, suddenly coats the branches around me. My breath comes out in white puffs as the man draws closer.
Seek no help until you remember. The letter’s warning snaps me out of my trance. I wish its writer had been more specific. Seek no help? What if my memories don’t come back? Am I supposed to hide forever? No way. I’m certain the man can help me--if he doesn’t shoot me for trespassing. As for the sudden ice on the branches despite the muggy heat--a hallucination, maybe? I have those often. If I close my eyes, count to ten slowly . . .
Okay, so that didn’t work.
If anything, my hallucination grows more elaborate, translating into the feeling of thick, sludge-like water that caresses my skin. My stomach churns but I ignore it. I can’t let fear get the better of me. My resolve encourages my footsteps and I sneak away from the pack of dogs.
“Excuse me, sir.” My voice is barely more than a croak. I sound hoarse. Almost as if I haven’t spoken to any one in months or I was screaming until I simply couldn’t any longer. For some reason, the last option seems most familiar. I clear my throat and try again. “I know I’m trespassing, but I’m lost and need help.”
In other words: Please don’t shoot me.
Despite the weakness of my voice, the man turns. The golden eyes of a predator burn into mine. Shadows circle him, hiding his body, but I can see his smile as clearly as moonlight. A white flash in a haze of gloom, his grin is that of a bobcat and I know beyond a doubt that I’ll receive no help.
This is the man the letter warned me about.
I pivot on my heel to flee but draw up short. The trio of dogs growl at me and block my access to the trail. They drop into a stance that leaves little doubt as to their intentions. Skidding, I sprint left--away from both the dogs and the golden-eyed man. The hounds yelp and bark. I risk a glance. The man watches me run, his smile loosening to a bemused smirk. He jerks his chin and howling, the dogs give chase.
In a flurry of legs, arms, panting and grunting, I zigzag between trees, over brambles, creeper vines and fallen branches. My pursuers do not slow. I’m going to have to fight. But even as the thought crosses my mind, I shy away from it. One teenaged girl against vicious dogs the size of Great Danes? I don’t think so. And even if I were crazy enough to fight, I don’t have a decent weapon. My breath comes in jagged, pain-filled bursts and I know I must come up with something quickly. No time to climb a tree, even if I could. My only option is to get help.
I scream. At first it’s barely more than a choked cry, but after a second or two and enough adrenaline to give my voice some oomph, my scream barrels through the trees. I hope that someone is near enough to hear it and respond. Anyone.
At my panicked shouts, the dogs double their pace, bounding across the woodland floor as if they glide on air. They are on me in a matter of seconds. The first plows into me from the side. His weight and stench knock me off my feet and we tumble over each other, rolling across pinecones, brambles and bushes. He lands on his side and I land on top of him. I manage to snatch my head back as he twists beneath me and snaps his jaws at my throat. His breath is hot, moist and fetid against my cheeks. I cannot gain enough leverage to pull myself free, but I manage to shift my weight so that my knee digs into his ribcage, crushing the air from his lungs. His pink tongue lops out of his mouth as he wheezes.
I hear the next one before I see him leap out of the brush to aid his packmate. With a choked shriek, I dive out of his path. He lands on the pads of his paws with the nimbleness of a feline and spins. His packmate rolls to his feet and both face me, stalking with unhurried, deliberate movements. I scramble to my knees and my gaze jumps from one to the other. Their pulsating eyes display a human’s cunning and for the first time I notice a strange glyph on their foreheads, right between their eyes. Two dots like a colon beside a square with the left half missing. A short horizontal line beneath. I have no idea what the brand means, or why both dogs sport it.
Dread pools thick and low in my gut. The alpha of the pack is still missing. The pair before me creep forward, their steps so delicate that the pads of their giant paws make no sound. My heart slams against my ribs. I should run, but their eyes, olive now emerald, jade then avocado . . . why do they glow like that? The shifting shades hold me entranced, binding me.
Distracting me for . . . Him.
The realization spurs a new eruption of fear, adrenaline and sheer panic. I leap to my feet and run blindly. I have no sense of up or down, left or right. The trail could have been in front of me and I wouldn’t know until I fell on top of it.
“Please! Someone, help!” The words burst forth and then the pair are on me again. One clamps his jaws about my right calf, his teeth easily shredding fabric and skin and muscle before sinking into bone. My squeal is muffled by my fall. The second hound snarls and clamps his mouth over my throat. He squeezes my windpipe--not tight enough to kill me, but firm enough to halt all sound and struggle. As it oozes down my neck, his thick saliva stinks so badly it singes my nose. The smell of it coupled with my own blood is enough to drag me to the brink of consciousness.
The hound at my feet releases my calf and howls. A sound of triumph, it makes the hair on my arms stand on end.
We have her. Come, Master, it seems to say. Out of the corner of my eye the alpha emerges, the same brand on his forehead, his eyes bright with satisfaction. Behind him appears the man, his own smile every bit as savage as a panther who comes in for the kill.
My God, I pray, a whimper escaping my lips. My God, save me.