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The Autograph

The gravel path to the VIP shack was under industrial lights, struggling against the suffocating darkness. The woods were deep, the sky barely visible through the heavy branches. No moonlight could be seen because the trees were intent on choking out the sky. Their footsteps caused strange echoes in the cold misty air.

Henry pulled out the smokes and lit one with a stick match. David reached over and snagged one, using a lighter instead.

Henry paused briefly, using his stick match to examine the strange tracks pressed into the gravel. The shape could have been a bear but it was far too long and thin with claws too big. Perhaps it was a made by a prop for the show. He rose as the match went out and easily caught up with his cousin.

The smell in the air made both men glance around cautiously. Their eyes met as both tried to shake off their Grandmothers warning. This place was diseased.

David, trying to ignore the gloom said, “Why do you want to see this guy anyway? Aren’t you the one who said ‘He’s not a real Native like us; he is Hawaiian?’”

Henry grunted. “I need his autograph.”

David laughed. “Oh god… Don’t tell me, Betsy’s a fan?”

Henry gave him flat look. “Her daughter Susie is into the books.”

David frowned. “This crazy show is based off a book?”

They dropped their smokes in the coffee can ashtray at the door.

David stepped inside the VIP Shack. Henry was about to follow when a shiver of awareness crept over him. He felt eyes on him as he looked out into the inky blackness. The wind rustled the branches. The loud hum of the electric generators and noise of the cast and crew made it so he couldn’t hear. The bright artificial lights ruined his night vision. He was deaf and blind, but he could smell the sickness, the blight in the woods. His skin prickled. This was not a good place.

He kept his eyes on the darkness as he stepped inside.

The place was full of old has-beens sitting around reminiscing with a bunch of never-were actors.

Henry recognized the Producer, who was exuberantly explaining why this pilot was going to be the next big thing on Netflix.

“I am telling you this series has everything. A strong female lead and a handsome costar. A steam punk time traveler who crashes in Colonial days, only to discover that her instruments have been effected by the paranormal happenings in the area. She gets the help of a handsome Native, and they solve local mysteries. It’s Doctor Who meets Sherlock meets Sleepy Hollow meets Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman!”

David walked past that table to where the lead actor was sitting on a sofa with a pretty blonde who was almost wearing her costume.

Ryan Hukikala looked up when they approached. “What’s up guys?”

David patted Henry on the shoulder. “Hi Ryan, this is my cousin Henry. He’d like your autograph.”

Ryan smirked. “Hit me up tomorrow, I don’t have anything right now.”

Henry reached into his coat pocket. He pulled out the photo and the pen. “I have it. Now would be better,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument.

Ryan coughed uncomfortably as he looked Henry over.

He wasn’t much bigger then the man next to him, but seemed larger, tougher, and scarier. Henry looked… hard. Like someone had chiseled him out of rock, with a slightly harder rock.

There were a lot of locals working on this project. Better to keep them happy. “Sure. Anything for a fan, right? So who do I make this out to?” He looked at the photo in surprise.

It wasn’t one of the regular shots. It was from his very first film, an indie piece he’d done, a sad love story. It had been a great film but not many people had even heard of it. Ryan smiled nostalgically.

Henry spoke. “To Betsy and Susie.”

Ryan looked at Henry. “Betsy and Susie? Your wife? Daughter? They big fans?” He smiled as he tried to decide what to write.

Henry shook his head.

David explained. “Deputy Betsy Higgs, and her daughter Susie. Henry is trying to woo the lovely mother.” David grinned, teasing his cousin.

David must have a death wish, Ryan thought.

Henry glared at David and said, “I am sure he doesn’t want to hear about it.”

Ryan smiled. “Well, actually. It will help me to write the note. This photo should have something special.”

Henry looked irritated but he spoke with heavy seriousness. “Susie is sweet and smart. Her smile spreads joy like her mother’s. Betsy is sunshine, bright, and warm. Her voice is filled with music.”

David looked at Henry like he had never seen him before. “Holy shit, Henry.”

Ryan smiled and wrote a note on the back of the photo, then signed the front with a flourish. “Here you go Henry, for love.”

Henry took the photo back carefully.

Ryan looked Henry over. “So what do you do on the crew, Henry?”

David jump in. “He drives the bull dozer. He helped set up all the staging areas for us, even helped with the village set.”

Henry abruptly nodded. “Thank you. Susie will be happy.” And began walking away, leaving David sputtering niceties behind him.

Ryan watched them leave. He got up, and stepped out to the back patio, speed dialing his agent. Leo picked up on the second ring. “Ryan! My man, how’s it going in the deep dark wood?”

Ryan smirked a bit. “Fine… Hey look… I was thinking, I want to do another Indie film.” Ryan looked up at the small patch of sky. “I want to do a drama. I am thinking a strong silent tough guy, with a soft heart.”

Leo laughed. “What have you been smoking? No one does stoic natives anymore, that’s stereotyping. How about an action piece.”

Ryan saw the shadow, a swirl of black smoke drifting into view. He never knew what hit him. He didn’t even have a chance to scream before fangs sank into his neck. The smell of fur and rot filled his nostrils. He was slammed to the floor with a thud, his phone flying from his hand. Air gurgled out of his throat. He didn’t feel any pain. He didn’t even have time to be afraid.

Henry and David were half way back to the main pavilion when the screaming started. The dining area was a chaotic mess of snarling animals and fleeing people with the stench of musk and blood overpowering the scent of food.

The pretty corpse lady ran by screaming, trying to escape the scurry of squirrels that were swarming her.

David whispered, “What the fuck?”

The red coat actor was on the floor. A badger, two sizes too big and covered in mange, was digging itself a new home in his gut. The wendigo actor ran past, being chased by an angry groundhog as big as a pit-bull, half its fur missing, with ugly sores oozing puss.

David snuck around to the serving tables and dumped them, one after another. The spilt food distracted some of the frenzied, sick animals.

“Everyone, make for the building away from the tents! Move it!” a stage director shouted, pointing towards the VIP area. Soon the shack was crammed. David had an arm around Lisa, his on-set girlfriend. He looked at the crying, bloody mass of people.

Henry ignored them and looked out the window. Waiting to see what was to come. The mist was thickening into a fog. The light inside the tents created a grotesque shadow play.

Someone from the back of the room screamed. “He’s dead! Ryan dead! OH GOD... We have to get out of here!”

David shouted, “Everyone calm down! We can’t just go running out into the dark.”

The man with EMT on his jacket was busy treating the wounded, while people argued about what to do. The pretty corpse lady was in shock, covered in bites and scratches; the squirrels had bitten two of her fingers clean off.

The EMT said, “I need to get this woman to a hospital. I could use help with the stretcher.” The arguing stopped.

Henry opened the door as the stretcher was carried out. The small band who had decided to leave shuffled out carrying makeshift weapons of broom handles and table legs. Henry walked silently next to David who was holding Lisa’s hand.

The heavy fog sent a chill to Henry’s bones. The air was wet and the scent of sick stuck to the inside of his nostrils.

A circuit breaker flipped with a sizzling pop, dropping the huddled group into darkness. Flashlights began flipping around quickly. Someone started to cry.

Henry crouched down low, listening to the stillness now that the noise had stopped. The building was a lit candle in a dark room. He watched the inky miasma swirled around it. The darkness danced through the fog, floating in the air, hungry little shadows eager to devour the light.

He saw the flash of yellow fangs an instant before they snapped on him. He moved with catlike reflexes; wrapping his coat around the head of the dog, muzzling its snarling jaws as he twisted its head around. The crunch of its breaking neck could be heard beneath Lisa’s cry.

The group began to run. David and Henry followed along.

Someone whispered, “Wasn’t that Robert’s dog?”

Someone else answered, “Not anymore.”

Henry suddenly stopped at the edge of the parking area, and looked back. The group kept running, a few splitting off to carry the stretcher to the ambulance, and the rest running for the bus.

“What is it, Henry?” David whispered, fighting his instincts to run with the rest of the herd. Lisa broke off to run with others onto the bus.

“I left my coat,” Henry whispered.

David said, “Just forget it. Let’s go!”

Henry growled, “The autograph is in the pocket.”

David groaned. “We’ll come back in daylight.”

“Go. I’ll meet you at the truck,” Henry said, heading back along the dark path.

David growled. “Stupid, stubborn, pain in the ass,” he cursed all the way to the truck. In a blink, he was behind the wheel and locking the doors.

Sitting in the dark, David heard screams. He looked up as the bus was pushed onto its side. He watched an enormous furred monster swipe and tear into the metal hull of the bus. The massive bear was humped with misshaped cancerous growths; its open sores exposed rotten flesh. The monstrosity stuck its drooling maw into the tear, trying to reach the prey inside.

People clamored out the far side like blood dribbling from a wound. They didn’t see what David saw: two other bears stalking the parked cars. If he tried to warn them, the bears might come after him. Filled with fear, he closed his eyes instead.

The bears were working together. The two waited patiently for people to get out, then attacked, tearing them limb from limb in a frenzy of blood and fur. The screams fell suddenly silent with a sickening pop and a wet tearing sound.

David tried to breathe. This isn’t happening. Bears don’t do this. Animals don’t do this. They just don’t. This isn’t just some freak rabies. He clutched the steering wheel as fear churned inside him. The pounding of his heart filled his ears; his gasping for breath was so loud he was afraid the bears would hear him. He didn’t notice the tiny scratching noises. He couldn’t remember if he still had his gun in the glove box. When he opened it, mice began to pour out. Rats were already in the seat next to him. Gnashing and gnawing rodents were coming out of the vents. They swarmed, biting and clawing their way up his pant legs and out of the seat beneath him. He screamed, clawing at the door with blood slicked fingers unable to grasp the lock nob.

Henry broke the driver side window trying to reach David. He jerked back as rats and mice fell out with the glass. Henry stared at the bloody ruins that were once David’s face.

The diesel engine of the ambulance growled to life in a flash of lights and sound. The bears roared in displeasure and Henry ducked down low, hiding behind the car next to him. The small emergency vehicle raced as fast as its wheels would take it; the driver side swiped one of the bears and knocked it into a delivery truck. The back door flung open. Henry watched a miracle as Lisa, who had still been huddled inside the broken bus, made a mad dash for the ambulance. The claws of the monster bear missed her by mere inches. The door swung wildly as the driver sped off, and the three bears charged after the escaping vehicle.

Henry took the chance to sneak away. Silently, he made his way to the only place he trusted; his dozer. He stayed away from the lights. He was almost to the dozer when the screams from the shack began. He slipped into the cabin, locking the door. He heard the howls of wolves, the roar of bears, even the sounds of cougars. This was an unnatural place. This was full of sickness.

He turned on the engine and started her rolling. Checking his pocket, he looked at the autograph. “Still secure.” He drove the cat down a side path, maxing out at 12 miles per hour.

The sound of his engine drew the attention of creatures but none were big enough to stop a dozer. The wolves howled and nipped but the bears were his worry. The bears swiped at the treads, against the iron sides. They bit at the glass, scratching the surface. He smashed them with the blade and pushed them out of his way.

The night was kept at bay by the tiny light in his cabin. He drove for hours, till dawn, down the forest road. He finally stopped at a line of emergency vehicles. Tired and sweaty, he climbed out of the cabin, stumbling forward as Betsy rushed to catch him.

He smiled as he wrapped his arms around her.

“HENRY! Oh thank god. I was so worried.” She hugged him.

He held on tight and whispered, “I got it Betsy… I got it.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the autograph. Her eyes filled with tears as she read the back. “Dear Betsy. Henry loves you, like the sky loves the dawn. You are his sunshine and Susie is his moonlight. R.H.”

“I love you too Henry.” She whispered kissing his cheek. Tucking the photo into her coat pocket, she helped get him to the ambulance.

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