Kevin’s eyes feel almost like they are stuck together as he slowly wakes up. He hears breathing behind him with his back facing the front part of the couch. He opens his eyes slightly but cannot move any other part of his body. All he can see is that ugly flower pattern on the back of the couch, but the sound of the breathing behind him is chilling. It is a very wet and raspy wheezing sound like an unusual amount of phlegm is in a scraggly, narrow throat. Kevin tries to move his fingers and his toes but nothing happens. He tries to cry out but his mouth stays closed and no sound escapes his lips. The sickly breathing persists. It sounds like whoever or whatever it is, is very close to Kevin, practically breathing down his neck. He wants to turn his head but fears what kind of ghastly face this thing might possess. After what feels like a full minute of this torture, Kevin is able to move his free arm. He tries to talk, but only slight moaning sounds resonate within his throat. For some reason he reaches toward his ear, only to find that his earmuffs are off. As his waking brain starts to reorient itself, the wheezing slowly morphs into normal breathing that is barely audible. When he gains full control of his body, he quickly rolls over to find Jenn sitting in a chair right in front of the couch, leaning forward and holding a hammer, of all things.
“What are you doing? And why the hell do you have a hammer?” Kevin asks in a tone that doesn’t quite fit his alarm because he is still shaking off sleep. He tries to figure out which is scarier, the awful breathing or Jenn staring at him.
Jenn looks at the hammer as if she just became aware of its existence. She looks back at Kevin with eyes wide and slightly crazed. “Uh ah Uh,” she makes the ‘I don’t know’ sound, “I just kinda woke up a-holdin’ it.”
Jenn likes to use quotes from popular and not so popular movies. Sometimes they are recognizable and sometimes they aren’t. Kevin can’t tell if that was one or not and continues to stare at her with a very concerned look.
Jenn continues to eyeball him for a few seconds before sighing and rolling her eyes in an odd sideways manner. “You goofball, somebody had to fix the door you broke. I knew you weren’t gonna do it.”
Kevin looks back at the hammer and then back at her eyes which are no less crazed.
“A ‘thank you’ would be in order. And stop looking at me like that,” she smiles a little as she continues in a flat voice, “It’s not like I was about to bash your head in with it.”
She sometimes has very little change in her voice inflections as she shifts from saying something serious to joking to being totally outrageous. This is one of her traits that makes it so difficult for him to get a read on her, especially when she says things that should be sarcastic but she is dead serious instead. In a way, he finds it more intriguing than frustrating. Something that is more unnerving is the way she studies a person’s face before she speaks, resulting in odd pauses and stares. It seems like she scans a person’s face as if she were searching for the slightest twitch or hint that the person might be hiding something. This just might be his own imagination and maybe she is just a nutty girl with a few strange tics.
“I would feel better if you just put that down.” Kevin says slowly.
Jenn stands up so fast with the hammer, it makes Kevin flinch. “Hey, you notice something?” she asks in an inappropriately loud voice.
She quickly turns and walks to the window. She points to a peeled back corner of the black paper covering it and Kevin sees daylight shining through. He immediately thinks, No screaming and howling.
Kevin allows Jenn to continue smiling at him with anticipation for a while before he finally whispers, “It’s quiet.”
“I know. Right?” she says even more loudly, “While I was working on the door, I got sick of the noise, so I opened it and yelled ‘Shuuuut the hell uuuup!’ and they did!” Her large eyes dart from side to side as she waits for another response from him.
The disbelief shows on his face followed by dismissal, but regardless of her reason, it doesn’t change the fact that for the first time in months, the sun is still up and it doesn’t sound like hell on earth out there. He is elated at the thought, but before he can change his expression, Jenn zeroes in on him, “OH, you think I’m full of it! Don’t ask me for any favors later.”
“I just figured you were joking around about telling them to shut up. So you really yelled at them and they stopped just like that? All this time, one of us could have just told them to keep it down and they would have obliged?” It is still hard to hide his skepticism.
“I told them ‘shut the hell up’ not ‘keep it down’,” she then smiled awkwardly, “That would be messed up, though, wouldn’t it? Anyway, it might be a coincidence that they stopped after I yelled or maybe I angered the gods and they are silently surrounding the house now.” Her eyes grow bigger than Kevin ever thought possible.
The thought bothers Kevin slightly, but he tries not to show it. “So you have no idea why they stopped or if they are still out there.” He mulls for a few seconds before saying, “Wait a minute. Do you think we are finally at the end of this insanity? Maybe they are gone for good.”
“I dunno. Let’s have a look.“ Jenn sets the hammer down before she starts to unlock and open the door.
Kevin sits up so fast he feels lightheaded. “What the? You can’t just open the door like that when it’s still light out!” He rushes to the door as she is messing with the chain. He tries to keep her from opening it, but his lightheadedness quickly turns into severe dizziness. Kevin sees his hands almost help her open the door wide instead of stopping her.
“Oh, calm down.” Jenn steps out on the porch and twirls a couple of times before stopping and bobbing a curtsey for him. “Look. No monsters. No shadows. They went bye-bye.”
Kevin regains his balance and pushes the door mostly closed while leaving a small crack to peek out. Feeling only slightly emboldened by the fact that everything is calm, he says, “You shouldn’t just open the door without checking first. Some might be invisible. Some of them are already kinda transparent.”
“I did check. And they didn’t turn invisible. They – are - gone. Believe me.” Jenn lets out a little chuckle before attempting a joke, “Besides, have you ever seen an invisible one? No?”
If any one of them could possibly know, it would be Jenna. She has gone out amongst the shadows during some of the most chaotic days. She mostly goes out to get food and other supplies. What angers Kevin the most is the fact that she goes out some days but comes back and acts very cagey about where she has been and why she was out there. She also rarely shares what she finds out about the most dangerous ones and the world they inhabit. She seems to know how to avoid them but has never given him a straight answer when he asks.
Jenn steps closer and asks, “Why don’t you come outside instead of being such a ---“
“Pussy? I’m not a pussy,” Kevin protests, “I just have a stronger will to live than you.”
“I was going to say ‘such a hermit’, but if that’s how you see yourself…” Jenn says without looking directly at him. Then she immediately mumbles something completely unintelligible.
“What did you just say?”
“Nothing. Are you coming out here or not?”
Kevin opens the door a little wider as Jenn turns her back to him. The door creaks loudly. Maybe he did more damage than he thought, or Jenn botched the repair job. He leans out and takes a long look to the right. He then leans out a little further to look to the left.
“AAAAAAAAAAAAGH!” Jenn lets out a very piercing and terrified scream.
Kevin pulls his head back inside so fast that he bangs it on the door frame. Before he slams the door, he looks toward Jenn and sees her laughing it up.
“What the fuck is wrong with you!” he exclaims.
“Sorry, I couldn’t resist,” she says while still laughing, “But it's messed up that you would just close the door after hearing me scream. I mean, what’s up with that?”
“I wasn’t about to close it.”
“Suuure,” Jenn says humorlessly, “Did you hurt your head? You hit it so hard, I think I felt it.”
Kevin sheepishly rubs it a few times and says, “I think it’ll be fine.”
“Seriously come on out here. Heaven knows you could use some sunlight. You’re like a vampire.”
“Hang on, let me get Juan so he can see this.”
Jenn rolls her eyes as she says, “Why? You know he won’t come outside. I figured we could just take short walk. We’ll be back in no time.”
“I should at least let him know both of us are leaving?” Kevin turns to go back in.
Jenn grabs his arm tightly and exclaims, “No!”
Kevin looks at her like she’s crazy again.
“I mean, he’s a big boy, a really big boy. I think he’ll be fine,” she says with forced calmness. “C’mon. Let’s go for a walk before things turn ugly out here again.”
Kevin slowly steps outside as sunlight pokes through a small cloud. The sky still has a greenish tint that it took on the first day the shadow creatures appeared. When he steps out, he squints as the bright light hits his eyes. The stained wood feels warm against his bare feet. There is a slight breeze weaving through the trees as it carries the fresh aroma of cedar and pine. He slowly pans the landscape, reminding himself how serene the forest could be.
“You know you could just take in the scene while we’re walking,” Jenn says with a bit of impatience and irritation in her voice.
Kevin looks down at his feet. “Hold up. Let me get my shoes.”
He steps back, grabs his boots and starts putting them on. Jenna pushes the door a little wider and watches as he puts them on. Her posture and body language say ‘hurry’ more than her voice did. When Kevin is tying the last boot, he sees that she has left her post and is now standing on the steps with her back to him. Once he steps onto the porch, she walks down the steps and turns toward the back of the house. Kevin follows and doesn’t ask why she is headed there.
Jenn arrives at the back gate and waits for Kevin. “I have trouble opening this sometimes. Could you do the honors?” Jenn stands by as he forces the rusty lock open and pushes against the gate with his hip to open it wide enough for them to exit. The hinges are nearly frozen from disuse.
“Close it back,” Jenn says as she steps out. Kevin pushes the gate several times to shut it behind them. Jenn is already several yards down the trail when he turns around. He walks quickly to try catching up to her. She continues to walk swiftly and acts as if she doesn’t see him walking with her.
“I thought the whole point of taking a walk with somebody is to actually take a walk with them,” Kevin says pointedly.
Jenn pauses briefly and only turns slightly toward him. “I’m walking here. If you keep up, I will be walking with you.” She only waits a few more seconds for him to catch up before she turns and continues at the same pace down the path that is starting to gradually disappear.
They walk for a while stepping over a few fallen trees and their clothes occasionally snagging on thorny vines. Kevin brushes against what he thinks is poison ivy. Jenn hasn’t seemed in a mood to converse since they stepped outside the gate, so Kevin doesn’t press her. He does get a little concerned about walking too far away from the cabin while there is still uncertainty about whether or not they will be safe for much longer. His anxiety heightens as the forest gets thicker and it gets harder to tell whether or not something is lurking behind a tree. Thankfully, he can hear the river up ahead, so he figures they aren’t going to walk much further.
“We probably should be heading back soon,” Kevin says as way to check for a pulse from her.
He thinks he hears Jenn mumble something as she continues walking at her frenzied pace. After a few minutes, they reach the river. Jenn navigates the thick underbrush and walks toward an old dry rotted pier. I hope she’s not expecting me to get on that. She looks toward him as she passes by the pier and walks toward a large, fallen tree that is mostly in the river. Moss covers most of its surface and looks slightly damp, but Jenn sits down on top of it.
“This is a spot where I go to think sometimes. Come sit down.” Jenn pats the spot next to her. She sounds far more inviting than he might expect considering the ice cold theme of their walk.
Kevin walks over and wonders if he is being set up for some new confrontation. Although he has never been here, there is a sense of déjà vu. He briefly has a strong sense of what Jenn is about to say next and what his reply will be. The feeling lasts for a very short time before fading completely.
Jenn looks at him almost affectionately. “Are you sure your head is OK?
Kevin nods. He is still wondering if this is the calm before the storm.
“I put a little something in your pocket. It’s an extra special treat.” Jenn watches him reach into his front pocket before saying, “Not that one. Check the small one on your leg.”
Kevin reaches in and pulls out a joint. “You know, if you wanted to smoke, we could have just sat on the porch.”
“Did you not hear what I originally said about this place?” Jenn asks as she looks at him out the corners of her eyes.
Kevin realizes that she is trying to open a tiny window to allow him to look in and see some small piece of her that she doesn’t reveal to just anyone. If I question and probe she’ll just close and lock it again.
“I also think it is only a matter of time before you graduate from breaking doors. Next it will be windows and walls. Who knows after that? Maybe people?” Jenn doesn’t smile or blink.
That statement is pretty jarring and causes Kevin to think, OK this is not headed in the direction I expected. “I was being chased by something for God’s sake! I would never hurt—“
Jenn interrupted, “Yeah, yeah I know. You were running from something and kicked the door in. I know you would never deliberately hurt me or Juan. That’s not what I—“
“Not deliberately? Why would… That’s even worse! Am I some kind of rage monster who can’t control himself!?” Kevin notices that his voice is echoing off rocks on the other side of the river and lowers the volume. “Yes, I break things when I get upset… sometimes, but I have never… I would never hurt one of my friends.”
“That’s not what I was getting at,” says Jenn, who then looks at the joint that he has now crushed a little, “By the way, you probably should go ahead and light that.”
Kevin stares at it, “Maybe I should do that after this conversation.”
“Light it for me then.”
“So what were you about to say? What were you really getting at?” Kevin inquires.
Jenn is staring at the river flowing calmly by. She continues to look away when she says, “You’re cutting yourself again.”
Kevin remains silent for a while before asking, “Why would you ask that?”
“That was not a questions.” Jenn shifts her body to face him more and looks directly into his eyes. Her eyes are so intense, that Kevin only returns the gaze for a few seconds before looking down at the joint as he unsuccessfully tries to light it multiple times. Jenn snatches it and the lighter from him and lights it after a couple of tries.
“I need you to cut that shit out!” Jenn thinks for a few seconds about what sounds like a bad pun before rephrasing more calmly, “I need you… I really need you to stop cutting yourself.”
Jenn takes a couple of long puffs before giving it to Kevin. He doesn’t say anything for a long time and just smokes with her for a while. The only other sounds are the river, the wind blowing the trees, and an occasional cricket keying up. It is starting to get late.
“I don’t do that because I like it, ya know,“ Kevin eventually says, “It happens sometimes when I get really stressed. Other times, I don’t know why I do it. It’s like I’m not even aware I’m doing it until blood is everywhere.” He looks down at his feet while he is talking.
“Well I’m worried because we both know where it can lead,” Jenn warns.
“Yeah, I remember what happened before we moved.”
“I know that being confined to this place can make you crazy.”
Kevin frowns at her, incredulous that she would say something like that.
Jenn tries to sound sympathetic while stumbling over her words a little. “I don’t mean it like that. Not you specifically. It’s like being in a box day in and day out. That’s unhealthy for anybody. How could a person not end up bouncing off the walls?”
“I get it,” Kevin agrees, “So is this supposed to be my therapy?”
“NoOo,” says Jenn as she shakes her head exaggeratedly. “I probably needed this more than you. I just figured you might want to tag along.”
Kevin cuts his eyes at her and nods. “You know you’re going to have to help me through this.”
“For sure,” she nods, “Just let me know when things start to go sideways.”
“I know you have your own shit to deal with. How ‘bout I return the favor some time?”
“That’s not a good idea.” Jenn turns and looks back at the river.
“I could probably go outside during the day more if you teach me how you avoid these things.”
“Not a good idea either.” The little window closes again.
After a long silence filled with herbal enhancement, they start talking again about silly things and laughing. Before they know it, it is dusk and they figure they should be getting back while they can still see where they are walking. They dally a little longer before finally getting off the log and heading in the direction of the cabin.
Their mood is quite light as they walk back. They both crack a few unfunny jokes and dance around a bit as they stroll down the path. Although they are playing around, it seems like they are making better time than when they were speed walking in the other direction. That probably is just a perception. All of the fun and games comes to a halt when a loud piercing squeal slices through the trees from the direction of the cabin.
They both stop and look at each other, waiting for one or the other to say something. They stay silent. Kevin feels his heart about to jump out of his chest. The sound is one that Kevin knows too well. To him it sounds like a pig squealing in pain mixed with the sound of several metal rakes scratching thin sheet metal. Jenn grabs Kevin by the hand and leads him slightly off the path as she continues toward the cabin.
“Why are you walking toward it!?” Kevin asks in a loud, angry whisper.
“SSSHH!’ Jenn hisses.
Jenn crouches slightly and continues a little further off the path so that they can occasionally hide behind a tree. Kevin reluctantly allows her to lead him. She’s squeezing his hand tightly. He notices that her steps hardly make a sound while his feet seem to find every brittle twig and dried leaf in the forest. When they finally reach the bottom of the hill where the cabin sits, they stop behind a large tree where Kevin stands and Jenn crouches low while they peer from behind it. Kevin can tell that something is on the front side, but it’s partially obscured by the cabin. It’s dusk so it is difficult to see, but he already knows, based on the sound, that it’s one of the large shadow creatures that resembles a giant centipede. He’s not worried about it because it can’t maneuver through trees very well. He’s more worried about the things that come out of it. Sometimes it’s dozens of smaller ‘centipedes’. Sometimes it’s something that looks more human.
They stay behind the tree for a long time watching and looking. Kevin wonders if the things are going to switch to lurking at night instead of the day. They are very difficult to see at night and are much darker than actual shadows. No features can be seen anywhere and their darkness is so dark, it seems like it is capturing all light that comes near it. It almost seems like it could siphon the soul of anyone who stands too close.
Then Kevin sees a second shadow coming from the location he thought he saw something the night before. Its elongated head is slightly higher than the edge of the roof. Unusually long, thin arms protrude from a slender body much lower than where one would expect shoulders to be, except there are no shoulders. At the end of the boney arms, where one would expect to see hands, twelve inch fingers sprout directly from its wrists. Its legs bend at the knee as well as three other places, giving it almost a springy appearance as it walks. Each step is accompanied by the faint sound of creaking wood. I would never want to have to outrun something like that, Kevin ponders. All of the others pretty much look like shadows of regular people, but this one looks like something otherworldly. Kevin looks down at Jenn but instead of looking at the creature, she is intensely looking back at him. For the first time in a very long time, he actually sees fear in her eyes.
Copyright 2018 Darrell Winfrey