This story is by M. Hoff and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Late Autumn, 1850
Felix had never been lucky, but this had to be the worst run of it he’d ever been through. He tried to stay positive and keep moving, but if he was truly honest with himself, all hope of reaching California had been lost weeks ago in the stream with his map. That grouped with the early snowfall, the steady decline of supplies, and the stark absence of other people as he traveled made this journey even more of a fool’s errand. There was also the matter of the nightmares.
Early in Felix’s travels, he had begun to experience bizarre dreams that increased in both frequency and intensity as he made his way westward. He hadn’t thought much of them at first; he reasoned the sudden change from a comfortable life in New York to a life on the road was the cause of such unusual dreams – and when they had started, they were nothing more than odd and hardly remarkable. But as time went on, and more distance was put between him and home, the more frightening they became. What was previously almost whimsical had become powerful enough to wake him in the early hours of the morning with his heart pounding, lungs straining, as if he had run miles from the dream world to reality.
Worse still, the past few nights Felix had been hearing movement from outside his tent that sounded much closer to human footsteps than any shuffling his horse would do. If he felt brave enough to check, there would be no one there. In fact, it was so silent Felix wondered briefly if he had lost his hearing. Upon closing the tent flaps, the sound continued, circling the campsite like a mountain lion stalking its prey. He grew paranoid that the next time he peered out into the night, a hideous face would greet him mere inches from his own.
Berating himself for failing to secure a party that would offer him safer passage to the West and foolishly carrying on alone into the colder months, Felix tried to keep his goal in mind. The lawless West was better suited for a misfit like him. It had to be.
Having lost count of the days he had been wandering vaguely westward, his best guess would put today somewhere in November, both for the chill and how thick his stubble had grown since he gave up shaving to expedite his travel. He wondered what was going on in New York today. Was it Sunday? Would his family and neighbors be gathered in church, bundled up in their winter clothes as they gossiped before the service? Felix shivered and pulled his coat tighter around himself. Whatever they were doing, they were likely not missing him.
That night, the nightmares were the worst he’d ever had. Violent images of disemboweled fauna and fly covered skulls, trails of blood through the snow, thin claw marks on trees…he awoke with a shout, scrambling back to the far end of the tent. The familiar darkness of the tent calmed him some, reminding him of where he was, but a new sound outside ensured he remained in high alert.
It was his horse, wheezing and nickering in panic. Frantically pulling his boots on to get out and see what was the matter, he flung open the tent flaps only to see the horse having pulled loose from its bridle and fleeing into the darkness…along with several important packs of supplies. Felix grasped at his hair in stress as he gazed off in the direction the horse had vanished in. He was sure he had taken the saddle off and placed those packs next to the cart. The cart! Looking around the clearing, the cart with the bulk of supplies and food had also disappeared. Felix’s heart pounded as the reality of his situation set in. He was completely alone now, and utterly helpless in ways he had never been before.
Twigs breaking behind him caused him to jolt and whirl around. A low grunt revealed the intruder to be a bear, a large one by the sound of it. Remembering how to avoid bears back home, Felix waved his arms over his head and yelled, but this was no northeastern black bear. It drew closer and the shadows cast by the low campfire exaggerated its already massive frame. Felix’s mind went blank as he turned tail and ran blindly into the woods.
The bear effortlessly caught up with him and knocked him down with one swipe of its front paw. Felix yelped and hit the ground hard, rolling several yards. The adrenaline delayed the pain, but he knew he was injured. The bear roared, but it was cut short by something…else. Too dark to see clearly, Felix could only hear the sickening squelches as the other creature snapped the bear’s neck and bit by bit tugged its head from its shoulders. Felix stared in horror as his eyes adjusted and the faint moonlight outlined a skeletal humanoid shape crouched atop the bear’s carcass, hairless and naked.
An icy dread gripped Felix’s already terrified body. It knew him. Instinct kicking in once more, he staggered to his feet and ran, ignoring the stabbing pain in his side. He couldn’t hear the creature pursuing him aside from its shrill voice.
“It hurts…let me help…your bones call out to me…I know your fear…”
Felix tripped in the darkness and tumbled downhill, protecting his head with his arms while praying for escape. His descent came to a halt as he struck a tree and unconsciousness overtook him. This would be the last moment of peace he would know in his life.
Felix couldn’t remember getting up and starting to run again. His vision faltered, hazy, and there was a slight ringing in his ears. He couldn’t think; he only knew to keep going to try with all his might to escape whatever demon pursued him. Every so often he felt it near him, its unnatural presence sending spikes of fear through his body. It cut his arms, his back any moment he slowed, its claws thinner than knives and just as sharp. It wanted him to know it could end him at any moment, but chose to hold back and watch him flee. He ran and he hid, but nothing could shake its pursuit.
Hours passed. The sky began to lighten through the upper branches, but no birds sang. Exhausted, Felix leaned against a tree, waiting for the sun to rise; at least he would see his tormenter’s face before it killed him, though he wasn’t sure he really wanted to.
He whimpered and sank to the ground, too hurt and too cold to move. The creature’s voice came again from behind him,
“Is that all?”
“Show yourself, coward,” Felix challenged, “Face me!”
He didn’t know where the burst of courage had come from. The pastor at his hometown’s church had said once that a man shows his true self when he is faced with death. This memory comforted Felix as he sat, shaking with cold and fear. At least now he knew that his true self was of sturdier stock than he gave himself credit for.
“You would not want to see that,” the creature hissed, almost gently, “Trusssssst me.”
It lay its spindly hands on Felix’s arms and his heart sank at how inhuman and deadly sharp they looked in the faint light of morning. He gave an involuntary sob as they crept up his arms towards his face, like giant spiders closing in on a trapped insect.
“Who…what are you?” Felix ventured, silently praying for a quick death at the end of this conversation. He didn’t expect the creature’s response.
“You want to call me ‘monster’, as if that would soften the truth you already know,” it whispered, “I am the shadow you cannot outrun, and the fear you cannot live without. You know me, yet you do not accept me. You ask what I am? I am…disappointed.”
The last thing Felix remembered before fainting was the creature’s saber fingers pricking into the sides of his neck, and the warmth of his own blood trickling from the punctures.