By Mike Stuart
A man was running through the dark forest. His shoes thumped on the damp black earth as he crashed, stumbled and tore his way through the undergrowth in a desperate panic, too scared to glance over his shoulder for fear of tripping and letting his pursuer catch him. In his head the words ‘Oh God, Oh God, Oh God’ repeated, as the vision of that hideous face urged him on and on, fighting the burning breath in his throat and lungs and forcing his aching legs to carry him away from the snarling and tearing sounds that were gaining on him.
The storm-lashed leaves smacked into his face and a river of sweat and rain water ran down his back. His eyes stared blindly into the dark, desperately looking for path through the tangle of roots and briars that hindered his escape.
Suddenly he saw a glimpse of light. Twin beams moved through gaps in the trees. A glimmer of hope entered his feverish mind and he turned and ran recklessly down the muddy slope to the road that was suddenly revealed by headlights beneath him.
He yelped as thorns tore into his legs, tumbling downwards to land in a painful heap on the flooded tarmac forcing the vehicle to skid to a halt just in front of him. With one last gasp of effort he raised his hands for help, as icy claws grasped his ankles, dragging him away from the road. He roared a primal shriek as he turned to see yellowed ragged teeth sinking into his ankle bone…
Then a flash… the world lit up… a mechanical screech deafened him… and all was black.
He awoke from pleasant dreams of peaceful slumber to a monotonous thumping sound. For a moment he was disorientated and confused… then he realised that noise that had awakened him was his own head bouncing on the wet tarmac. He was being dragged unceremoniously by his ankles towards the open door of an off road vehicle. Before he could call out, strong hands lifted him by the shoulders, threw him inside and slammed the door behind him. The driver jumped in to the seat in front of him, the idling motor roared into gear and he was bouncing along at high speed through the forest. He had time to utter a faint thank you before he fainted again, this time feeling that he was finally safe.
When he regained consciousness he took stock of his surroundings… the vehicle was lurching and skidding along at an alarming speed through endless woods that reared into view as the headlights burned their way through the dark. He was lying on piles of tarpaulin, covering boxes of heavy equipment and ropes that glinted in the dark. An acrid animal smell mixed with the tang of stale sweat and old clothing turned his stomach. Following the sound of panting he could make out an enormous dog sat calmly in the seat directly in front of him, and to his left he could see the broad leather-clad back of the driver, hunched in concentration over the wheel as the vehicle skidded and scrambled along a dirt track.
“Thank You!” he called in relief “You saved me!”
But his thanks were greeted in silence as the driver continued to push the vehicle onwards, so he relaxed back into his makeshift seat, adrenaline giving way to aches and pains as he took stock of the cuts and bruises that covered his body. He started to shiver with cold and his mind became numb with that strange pragmatism of survival.
He was drifting into sleep when the vehicle skidded to a halt. He driver flicked switches and a powerful beam of light swept the area, revealing a narrow clearing with a large concrete slab.
In a moment the driver was out, opening his door and dragging him out. Supporting his shoulder the driver steered him towards the concrete slab. A trap door was kicked open and he was lowered down a short ladder into the welcoming light, warmth and safety within.
A sharp whistle brought the dog bounding down after him, followed by the booted feet of the driver lugging a large box, who slammed the door shut above their heads.
“Thank You sir! I thought I was going to die!” he gushed… only to be surprised as the broad back above him turned to reveal the hard features of a middle aged woman. “er.. thank you ma’am!”
The figure stopped and the face before him glared with flinty eyes… studying him in the most uncomfortable way.
“Don’t call me ma’am” she snarled… “You’re an American? What the hell are you doing here?”
“Canadian actually! But don’t worry… you people are always mistaking my accent… Jeb McCloud” he said cheerily offering his hand, which was left dangling untaken. Unperturbed, he continued: “ I’m a reporter! Working for the Paraphysical Times actually, doing a report of the supernatural sightings here! I’ve been placing sensors and cameras around the forest in the hope of catching evidence of these creatures!”
Throwing the box to the ground, the driver pointed to its contents.
“So these are yours?” she spat.
“My equipment!” he shouted “What… why have you got it? I spent days placing these sensors! This is some very expensive kit… why have you got them? With all due respect, Ma’am you have no right to touch my property”
“You have no idea what you’re doing… if you knew what lived in these woods you wouldn’t be here… idiots…” she snarled kicking the box, turning her back and stomping across the tiny concrete bunker to study a desk strewn with battered electronic equipment. Making notes in a small pocket-book she tapped dials and studied readings.
“Oh my god! I know this stuff!” exclaimed Jeb as he limped painfully over to peer over her shoulder. “This is a bio-static psychic-field analyser… I’ve heard of them but never actually seen one… this is SO cool! How did you…?” but before he could finish she whirled round and pushed him back against the hard concrete wall.
“Keep your eyes to yourself… this is NOT cool”
“But my readers would love to know about this stuff! It’s dynamite!”
She stood motionless for a moment, her hard eyes boring into his, as if searching for something… then she shrugged and stepped back.
“You don’t actually believe any of this stuff do you? If you did, you wouldn’t be so obsessed about proving it. If you knew… you wouldn’t be here.”
“That’s simply not true! Supernatural phenomena is my life! The Paraphysical Times is a highly respected journal. They’ve paid me good money to come out here to investigate the sightings. People need to know!”
“I know the Paraphysical Times… I like to keep track of these things. It’s a rag – a comic. If it wasn’t so badly written it would be classed as entertainment. The creatures that live here don’t need horror tourists… people like you cause more trouble than you realise.”
“So there ARE creatures here!” he cried triumphantly. He surveyed the narrow confines of the bunker, suddenly noticing the weapons, hunting paraphernalia, nets, ropes, camouflaged clothing and electronic equipment that was stacked on every wall… “Are you actually a creature hunter?”
She shrugged her burly shoulders indifferently “In a way yes… you could say that. But not exactly. It really is none of your business”.
Jeb beamed with satisfaction… “Wow” he began, but a sudden wave of nausea caught him and he started trembling… his childlike enthusiasm gave way to a deep chill as he realised just how bruised and injured he was. The woman’s harsh features softened imperceptibly as she realised that he was going into shock.
She glanced at her watch and seemed to make a decision: “It’s almost dawn. We’d better check you over for injuries and as soon as the rain lets up we should get going”
Gratefully Jeb sank back into a folding metal chair as the woman poured water and salt from plastic containers into a bowl and began bathing the scratches and cuts on his face and hands. Jeb felt lulled into a numb semi sleep as the wounds throbbed and stung…
“What’s this?” she gasped, noticing the deep circle of teeth marks on his ankle beneath the torn jeans “have you been bitten?”
Suddenly Jeb recalled that terrible face… those terrible teeth… and his body started shaking uncontrollably. Sliding slowly off the chair he began retching. The woman grabbed a nearby box just in time as he emptied his stomach in sobbing heaving gasps, then he was curled up on the cold concrete floor, shivering and drifting into the welcome relief of sleep.
The forest was dark and dripping leaves thrashed in the storm. He could hear a girl’s piteous cries carried on the wind, drawing him on despite his fear. A moaning, keening, high-pitched wailing that pulled at his heart, driving him onward desperately. Finally he saw the figure in the gloom, her back hunched over on the forest floor, sobbing quietly…
“Hello? Miss, are you OK?”
The sobbing quietened for a moment, and he approached her gently… “Miss?”
A gap in the clouds revealed moonlight just as the kneeling figure turned… and Jeb gasped in terror at the hideous face that glowered with unfathomable malice, sunken eyes that gloated with animal hunger, shrivelled lips curled around jagged yellow stumps of teeth, pinched and withered skin drawn tightly over an inhuman bony face… his heart pounded in horror and yet his limbs would not move.. Spellbound by the sickening terror of that face… those teeth…
He awoke with a jolt… his heart pounding in panic for several moments. Then the aching and stinging of his injuries brought him back to the present. His shoulders and hips ached from the cold concrete beneath him. A musty blanket had been placed over him, but he shivered deeply. The bunker was dark apart from a faint grey glow of dawn coming through a tiny window in the roof. His eyes followed the faint sound of snuffling coming from the dog curled around the feet of the woman, who dozed fitfully on the folding chair, her calloused hands curled around a long hunting knife. He listened and could hear her murmuring in her sleep… “where… where’d.. Wendy go?” she mumbled… then her words lapsed into snoring.
Jeb pulled himself up painfully, and suddenly the dog’s head rose protectively. The movement woke the woman who was awake in an instant, poised for danger… then relaxed slightly as she glanced at her watch.
“OK. It should be safe to leave now. You need medicine and food. I’ll take you up to the house”.
At the mention of food, Jeb’s stomach growled audibly and he realised that he was ravenously hungry. “Thank you ma’am! I could eat a horse!”
She studied him critically for a moment, then rose and busied herself, collecting equipment from the shelves and placing them into a brown metal crate, finally taking a hand gun and pushing it into the back pocket of her heavy combat trousers.
Walking to the ladder, she pulled down a periscope and peered into the lens, turning a handle.
“Right. Listen carefully. I will leave first, then my dog Spud. When I call you, and ONLY then, come out quickly and go straight into the Landrover, which is parked directly to the left of the entrance. Do NOT stop to look at anything – is that clear?”
Jeb stood up painfully “Yes ma’am”
She winced and her eyes narrowed… “And you can stop calling me ma’am”
Jeb nodded apologetically.
As he scrambled out into the silvery dawn, his eyes streamed tears in the glare and the cold. The Landrover waited with its motor idling. As his eyes adjusted, he noticed the cages over the windows, the bank of fog lights over the windscreen, the bull bars and the metal boxes riveted to the sides.
“Move! Come on!” the driver ordered and she roughly pushed him inside, slammed the door, ran over to fasten the trap door of the bunker and jumped into the driver’s seat.
The motor roared into life and the Landrover was suddenly bouncing along the dirt track, a deep mechanical drone filling the cab, making conversation impossible. Jeb sat in the passenger seat with Spud nestled at his feet, staring in a numb daze at the monotonous landscape of dark green fir trees as they jolted through the woods.
Finally the Landrover emerged from the depths of the forest onto tarmac and they climbed smoothly up a twisting road, coming to a halt outside a dilapidated cottage, nestling beneath a craggy cliff lined with dark pines.
Jeb winced as he limped across the driveway to the cottage door and gratefully sank into a large comfortable armchair next to the kitchen range. The woman busied herself bringing in equipment as Spud scampered happily around her. He glanced around the room, taking stock of his new environment. The windows were barred, but the atmosphere of the kitchen was bare yet comfortable in a rough rural way. A frayed carpet on the stone flag stones gave a homely quality, and bunches of flowers and herbs stood in jars on shelves.
A collection of framed photographs hung from the wall over the stone sink. He could see the driver looking younger and happier, her arms across the shoulders of a younger pretty girl in several photos. He realised that the photo of a woman in army uniform must be the woman who saved him, but with a cheery optimism in her features which was no longer visible in the hard face that was clenched in concentration as she stoked up the fire in the stove, bringing a soothing warmth to the damp kitchen.
“Is that girl in the photos Wendy?” he asked, hoping to strike up conversation. Her back tightened visibly as she let the pots she was holding clatter into the sink. For several silent moments she stayed turned away from him, eventually turning to reveal a face that was etched with barely concealed sorrow. Regaining control of her emotions she glowered at him, then turned back to her task.
He dozed as she clanked about, lulled by the heat and the relief that safety brought.
The most delicious smell of cooking awoke him… and his stomach clawed at his insides, begging for food. He studied the woman as she busied herself over the stove. She had taken off her battered leather jacket, revealing broad shoulders beneath a threadbare navy jumper, sleeves rolled up showing strong tattooed forearms, above scarred and stained hands. Fine lines covered a care worn but determined face, with a thin lipped resolute mouth and hard jaw, topped with jagged carelessly-cut dusty grey hair. There was a restless, ferocious energy about her that made it hard to guess her age. A glance from those steely pale eyes was enough to make him lower his gaze awkwardly, as she placed a large bowl of steaming stew in front of him. The delicious aroma making him salivate with anticipation.
He ate with a relish that surprised him, as she sat studying him quizzically.
“Thank you so much!” he gasped between mouthfuls “what is this? It is so delicious! Aren’t you eating?”
“I’ve eaten already. You go ahead. You need to build up your strength”
“You’re so kind… I don’t know how to thank you” he said as she ladled out another serving.
Her eyes burned into him impassively: “I’m not kind. It is just necessary. Get some sleep and we’ll take a look at your wound when you have rested” she said, gesturing to the cot that lay in the side room. Gratefully, he finished his second helping and laid down on the cot, drawing a tattered tartan blanket over his shoulders, before drifting into a fitful sleep, peppered with disturbing dreams.
When he awoke the light through the dirty barred windows was fading into evening. He must have slept all day. That gnawing hunger was almost burning his insides now and all he could think about was that delicious stew. The house was quiet and growing dark. He raised himself from the cot and let out an involuntary groan as his injured ankle took his weight. Looking down at the source of the pain he could see a ring of teeth marks that were turning purple and black. He noticed the yellowing circle of a puncture mark on his arm as if someone had taken his blood. Still feeling dazed he tried to rise. He needed hospital… but first he needed food. Before he realised, he had limped back to the kitchen and had helped himself to the stew that still stood warming on the stove, and was gorging his ravening hunger when the door flew open.
Spud scampered up to him, then hung back with his ears low, growling quietly. The woman marched in carrying a large basket of herbs which she flung onto the table in front of him. Taking a long knife she started chopping up the herbs roughly and flinging them into a large pewter pan.
“What the hell is that stuff?” gasped Jeb as a searing stench flooded his nostrils.
“Sage. It can protect the house from intruders. Certain creatures find it repellent. It also serves as an anti-inflammatory agent when applied as a poultice”
She hauled the heavy pan onto the stove and began stirring it rapidly. A wave of nausea caught Jeb as the smell of cooking sage filled the room… “I’m really sorry ma’am – I just can’t stand the smell”.
She stopped, turned and examined him. “It will help to heal your wound”
Jeb couldn’t understand it, but the overwhelming urge to run away from the aroma was almost unbearable… “I really can’t stand it… please” he muttered, but she ignored his plea and busied herself grinding the mixture in a pestle and mortar, eventually placing the pulp into a gauze pad.
Bending over his injured ankle she carefully placed the steaming poultice on the deep wound. Jeb clenched his teeth and gripped the chair, beads of sweat forming on his brow, until he could stand it no more.
“It BURNS!” he yelped and tore the bandage from his leg, howling in agony and jumping away to the corner of the room. Suddenly he was out of the door throwing up into the yard, heaving until his stomach was empty, then lying there, abject and exhausted.
She stood over him, arms folded, thinking.
Jeb lost all sense of time as his life seemed to revolve around eating, sleeping, being woken by terrible dreams and then eating again. His hunger seemed to take on a life of its own, dictating his movements… he was almost scared to leave the pot of stew that seemed to be endlessly replenished and simmering on the stove. His saviour mostly ignored him, busy hauling in boxes from the yard, fixing equipment on the kitchen table, oiling weapons, typing up notes on her laptop, relentlessly busy with an endless list of tasks that he could only wonder about. Occasionally, she would stop, look at him, then take a small notebook from her pocket and jot some notes down before returning to her tasks. He found the bustle of her energy strangely reassuring and his fears calmed when she was busy around him. Spud became increasingly anxious around him, sitting as far as possible in the corner, growling faintly if he approached. But mostly, Jeb ate and slept, feeling feverish and disorientated.
He was awakened one night by the door slamming and the rising whine of the Landrover driving away. He lay in the cot for a while watching the light fade to dusk until that familiar gnawing hunger forced him out of bed. He made his painful way to the stove and saw with horror that the large pewter pot was empty. He had to eat!
A quick tour of the kitchen cupboards revealed nothing that could satisfy him, mostly herbs and roots drying in baskets and pots. Clawing at his stomach he scoured every box and basket until he was assured that there was no food to be found.
Strangely though, he could smell food outside. His hunger was so acute that his senses appeared unnaturally heightened. Yes, something delicious outside was calling him, urging him. His belly rumbled and griped, telling him that he needed food more than anything.
He stumbled to the main door and found it locked, but after rummaging around the shelves he found a bunch of keys in an old earthenware pot. Trying the keys eventually he found one that fitted the lock and with a click the door swung open.
He peered into the gloom outside fearfully. The cottage was ringed by a dark wall of pine trees that rustled ominously. Alone for the first time in days with the dark forest, his imagination ran rampant… he was sure he could see things moving in the shadows, feet scurrying in the undergrowth. He slammed the door and pressed his back against it, breathing heavily until his heart stopped racing.
But the hunger was too much… he could smell the most delicious food wafting from outside the door… an unfamiliar and slightly sickening aroma but it was maddening him, making him almost giddy in anticipation. He realised that he was drooling, and wiping his mouth glanced at his hands and flinched to see how different they suddenly looked. The yellowing skin hung loosely across bony fingers, with nails that protruded like jagged splinters. He had been too ill to notice until now, but his whole body felt strange to him… he was wasting away. He really needed to eat.
Before he had time to think he had lurched outside following the delicious scent of food that drew him onward, across the courtyard toward the dim blue light inside the garage. Stumbling up to the locked door he found himself scratching at the wood for several maddening moments, until he remembered the bunch of keys on his pocket. Fumbling frantically he tried the keys one by one until finally finding a fit. The door was stiff, but he nudged it with his shoulder and was inside.
In the garage the remains of farm implements, wheels, tyres and metal crates were piled high around the walls, but what grabbed his attention was the tall freezer humming gently in the corner, that seemed to ooze the most irresistible odour, summoning him onward. His stomach gnawed angrily as he staggered forwards, grasped the handle and opened the freezer door.
What he saw inside made him shriek then retch and heave… piled inside were arms, legs and feet… pieces of human limbs, chopped up and laid in rows by some evil act of butchery. Filled with repulsion he left the freezer door swinging open and threw himself outside, where he vainly tried to vomit the contents of his empty stomach repeatedly until he lay curled up on the mud trembling and in shock, unaware of the Landrover returning, until with a squeal of brakes, it skidded to a halt in front of him.
Strong hands lifted him to his feet, and the driver stared into his terrified face, glancing at the open door of the freezer within the garage in comprehension. Without a word, she hauled him back into the garage and through a door in the back wall, dragging him down steep concrete steps into a brightly lit basement. Groggy from terror he heard the jangle of keys and then felt himself roughly thrown to the stone floor, where he lay stunned for several moments until he realised that he had been locked inside.
He lay for a long time, stunned and shocked… unable to register what he had seen… until the gnawing in his belly brought him back to consciousness. He looked around the room. He was in some sort of cage, with another cage next to him. In the far corner of which he could see what looked like a bundle of rags, but looking closer the bundle appeared to be moving. Then he heard it… sobbing… a high pitched keening sob that broke his heart. What horrible fate had happened to this poor girl in the next cage?
“Miss? Are you ok Miss?” he called, surprised to hear the unfamiliar guttural tones in his voice after so many days of silence. “Hello Miss, please talk to me” he cried…
The bundle shifted and turned to face him. A mass of shaggy hair parted to reveal the most hideous face… snarling blackened lips pulled taught across sharp yellow teeth, dark hollows around beady eyes. The icy gloating stare of the predator caught him in a pitiless gaze… then the creature leaped at the bars of the cage, snarling and howling with fury, shaking and clawing the metal to reach him.
In his ears a second terrible wailing deafened him… high pitched and animal sounds… and he realised with horror that the sound was coming from himself… he cupped his wretched face in his hands and sobbed and wailed… moaned and shuddered until an empty hungry peace fell upon him and he curled up in the corner, longing for release… for hour upon hour upon hour.
Eventually he heard footsteps approaching outside. The door was unlocked and the familiar heavy tread announced the return of the driver, carrying a large bucket.
She stood for several moments observing him then turned and whispered to the creature in the next cage, who sidled up to the bars fearfully.
The driver then did something that made no sense to Jeb. She stroked the creature’s head and crooned gently to her, before reaching into the bucket and throwing a human leg into the cage and watched sadly as the creature leapt upon it devouring it with violent relish.
“What have you done to me?!” Jeb rasped… “Why?”
The driver stood regarding Jeb with curiosity. She took out her notebook and wrote something. Then she took out her phone and pointed it at Jeb. The flash made him jump backwards. She beckoned him over as she turned the phone to reveal the photo… what he saw made him feel sick to his stomach… it was him… but instead of the jolly, fresh-faced and eager youth was a sallow, sunken and desperate visage… with lips bared to reveal jagged yellow teeth… and dark sunken eyes.
“What have you done?!” he screamed… but his voice was no longer his voice… issuing from his mouth was a high wailing garbled series of grunts and squeals… no longer words… no longer human.
With a sad smile, the driver reached into the bucket and threw a human arm into Jeb’s cage, turned and walked out, locking the door behind her.
Jeb scrambled away from the horrifying object, repulsed and disgusted, sick to the core of his being at the sight of the human meat.
He lay curled in the corner, abject, alone, disgusted… but then came the hunger… it gnawed at his insides relentlessly…
Finally he could bear it no more. And he dived upon the human arm, sank his teeth deeply into the flesh and ate… and ate … and ate…
It tasted so good.
Mike Stuart 2016