This story is by Sarah Ivie and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Icy prickles of pain stabbed her lungs. Andi’s lean legs pumped harder down the trail. Darkness had enveloped the forest, and with it came sounds of night – howls, rustling, and the cry of owls. She heard none of it. The beating of her heart dominated, and her mind flashed in red with each pulse. Instinct reigned as she strained against exhaustion, her bloodied Nikes flinging pebbles behind her.
How far had she run now? A mile? Two? Was it following her? Andi resisted a look back. White hot fear bubbled in her chest. She buried it beneath a greater, more primal drive.
She reached the highway somehow, and her muscles screamed in pain. Lightheaded, she slowed, struggling for focus. Andi stumbled down the road toward the ranger station, and it wasn’t long before she found it. Limping up the wooden steps, her bloody fist pounded on the door before she wilted against its frame. She stood panting, a flap from the arm of her sliced sweatshirt swinging loose, bathed in blood – both hers and David’s. It covered her normally golden blond hair, now matted with dirt and twigs.
The door opened with a creak, and Ranger Carl Miller squinted at Andi, groggy and still half-asleep. His salt-and-pepper hair stood in all directions as he grappled for focus.
“Help me! Something attacked our camp, and my husband is hurt.”
The ranger’s eyes widened; he wasted no time grabbing his boots.
“Locke Lake. We’re camped on the western shore.”
The two rushed down the steps to his truck.
“I-I don’t think so. I didn’t get a good look, but it was bigger than a bear.”
He looked at her skeptically, but his doubt was lost on her. She was already a step ahead, ready for action, adrenaline rushing.
“How injured is your husband?”
Tears carved through the patches of drying blood on her cheeks.
“He was breathing when I left. I tried to tie pressure against the wounds as best I could. I couldn’t carry him down the mountain…so I left to get help.”
Carl had been at this job for a long time. He’d seen his fair share of animal attacks; this was grizzly country, but many other predators lurked in these woods. Some spawned local legends of spirits. Whatever the case, injured and bloodied people rarely survived alone in these woods.
As Miller pulled onto the highway, he reached for his radio.
“Dispatch, this is Glacier Four. We have an animal attack at Locke Lake on the western shore. Extensive injuries, over.”
“Roger, Glacier Four. I am dispatching S and R.”
He glanced at Andi. “We are headed to the helipad at Search and Rescue. You’ll be safe there while we retrieve your husband.”
“Are you insane? I’m going.”
He hesitated. “You have injuries, ma’am. You need to be treated.”
He nodded to her arm, and Andi glanced down in surprise at the torn sleeve and back to him with resolve.
“No, you can’t make me stay behind. I’m going with you!”
“Easy,” Carl said. “Any information you can give us about the animal would help.”
“I…I don’t know. It was so big. Its eyes were strange…almost red…and its claws…”
Andi paused, and Carl glanced at her again, trying to hide his skepticism. Her face had transformed from panic to horror. His skin prickled.
“What is it? What did you remember?”
She swallowed. “It’s crazy.”
Carl’s uneasiness bubbled. He knew that look. He’d seen it when he was a child, and blurry memories flirted with the forefront of his thoughts.
Andi spoke again, pulling him back to the present.
“David noticed when we were hiking that he had a weird mark on his left arm. It wasn’t really a rash or scratch, but inside the skin,” she shook her head again. “I sound crazy.”
Carl swallowed. Stories from his grandmother rippled through his mind – stories of beasts and markings and sacrifices – things hidden so deeply in the mountains that they rarely surfaced. Folks spoke of demons and an evil not of this world.
“Could it have been a bug bite?”
No, he thought. It wasn’t.
She shook her head. “No. It was…it was brown and underneath his skin.”
Silence enveloped the truck. Andi’s fingers tapped wildly against her bloodied sweatpants. Carl’s heart pounded harder as he fought against warning bells screaming of danger. It had to have been a grizzly bear, he reasoned. They were the largest predators in the area and often the most ruthless.
By the time they pulled into Search and Rescue, the helicopter crew had completed pre-flight, and its blades whirred.
“I’m going,” Andi demanded as they exited the truck.
Something in her tone stilled Carl’s objections. He grabbed his rifle from behind the seat, and the two of them joined the paramedics on the chopper.
In spite of her shock, Andi was amazed at how quick the flight was compared to the hours on the trail. Apprehension prickled around the edges of her mind. What if they were too late?
“We’re lucky,” the pilot called from the front. “There’s an open meadow a quarter mile south of the tent. We’ll land there.”
Andi could see the spot from her window. From the sky, the tent looked peaceful and quiet in the moonlight.
The chopper landed with a soft rocking, and the paramedics burst into action, gathering gear faster than she could process. She glanced at Carl. His icy blue eyes watched her with an expression she didn’t understand. Was he afraid?
It took just a few minutes for the group to reach the tent, and Andi froze several feet away, unable to step forward as the paramedics went into the tent.
“Jesus,” she heard one whisper.
Carl stood back, too, though it wasn’t the paramedics that captured his interest. He watched the movement of the trees in the early morning darkness. There was no wind, no sound except for the medical team. Even the slight waves of the lake lapping against the earthen shore seemed muted.
Something was horribly wrong.
He stepped around the tent, facing the forest as the hair on his arms stood to attention. Logic battled with myth as his memories sharpened. Demons of the forest, it was said, sacrificed humans in exchange for domain. They were beast-like and all but invisible. Elusive enough to scare but lacking in proof. It was lore, but in spite of all logic, his nerves were taut.
He clicked the safety off his riffle.
A twig snapped.
Carl’s heart pounded against his eardrums as noises from the tent faded. Somehow in the blur, he heard a paramedic.
“This wasn’t a bear. I don’t know what the hell this was.”
Carl took another step forward, toward the forest and its darkness, toward the silent night.
“Ranger Miller!” called one of the paramedics.
He didn’t respond but took another step forward.
“Carl!” called another.
It was at that moment that he saw. Red eyes were motionless in the distance.
Footsteps snapped twigs beside him, and the eyes disappeared.
Carl glanced at the rookie member of Search and Rescue. Cade Paulsen, typically confident and sure of himself, was now also watching the forest, a tremor playing on his words.
“Miller, you should see this. This man was….he was cut up.”
Slowly the ranger turned to him. “What?”
“Sliced. Like bait.”
Ice ran through Carl’s veins. He inched backward, still facing the forest, still searching, before he turned toward the tent.
The man was sliced strategically, thorax opened from throat to groin. Fabric, drenched in blood, was piled to the side of the tent.
“Did you take those out?” Carl forced the words from his tightening throat as he nodded to the gruesome mound.
Cade shook his head. “It was there.”
Carl jerked his head back toward where Andi stood shivering in the night. “She said she packed the wounds. That he had a weird mark on his arm.”
Cade’s eyes widened with recognition. With caution, he lifted the left arm of the corpse, turning it for inspection.
There was a mark. It seemed like a bruise at first glance, but in truth it was just as Andi had described. Carl knelt down for a closer look, noticing that the mark was a circle with intricate lines in its borders.
A scream drowned the quiet air outside the tent.
Both men jumped, darting outside to an eerie stillness.
“Andi?” Carl called out. His voice echoed against the forest.
“Where are the others?” Cade whispered, his voice shaky.
The two were alert as they navigated to the opposite side of the tent.
There was evidence of nothing in the moonlit darkness. No trail, no blood, no movement, no bodies.
A swish of air nearly knocked Carl off balance, and he glanced to where Cade had stood. Now, the space was empty, the grass’s movement already slowing to a stop.
“Cade?” He said, knowing there would be no answer.
He would be next.
The beast was coming.