When I came to, my body reacted. My hands hooked into talons, Swinging at... Nothing. Just a nightmare, but when everything came back, I wanted the nightmare again.
I looked everywhere at once; trees, trees, bushes, moss, sky, trees.
The birds sang, in spite of my berserk pinwheeling. The morning glowed golden against the island and the river surrounding it.
I hadn't slept for two days, but I couldn't let myself drift. The moss under my hands felt inviting as I hauled myself to my feet again. It was likely I had been out for only a few minutes after falling down. I checked my wrist out of habit, noticing my hands shaking from hunger again. I clinched them into fists and headed for the beach not far away, my parka making a whispering "swiff" with each movement.
Beach. What a joke. Nothing but bare rock here between the mossy ground cover and the dark water. It was here that I made my first stand against it, using a club. I was lucky to only loose my watch. Yesterday afternoon I used long, sharpened sticks, but that did less than nothing.
My legs buckled, but that was okay. Better to sit now and wait. If I was going to live, I needed to have all the energy I could muster.
That reminded me.
The moment my fingers touched the beef jerky in my pocket, my stomach started to dry heave, so I didn't look at the thin strips of flesh; I just worked them down fast and hard while looking across the water at the mainland three hundred yards away. So close, but this was the dead of September, and I'd be lucky to make it halfway before freezing solid.
The wind started scuttling the trees like a secret being passed along. The birds stopped as one.
It was coming.
By now, I was picking out the pattern before the sound reached me, something the background forest and river noises couldn't hide anymore.
Chuff... Chuff... Chuff...
Now that I knew the thing was nearby, all the way over here, I could head towards the other side of the island, and my preparations. I followed the shoreline to my left. I hadn't gone fifteen feet when I heard a clatter behind me where the thing left the line of growth, coming with its lethargic metronomic gait. I knew it was following my path because the "Chuffs" turned to more solid "Clups" on the bedrock. My blood rose, knowing it was near again, but even my adrenaline felt tired. I pushed my gait into a shuffling jog and left the thing behind without turning around.
The turtle’s head came into view. A boulder as big as a bungalow rested at the downstream point of the island. From the mainland shore, it gave the island the look of a mossback turtle rising from the riverbed. That was what Aaron and I aimed the prow for when we left the trail on our “real wilderness experience”.
There it was, the raft, reduced to a pile of odd shaped latex pieces.
"Fucking Aaron." I said, instantly regretting it as soon as the words left my mouth. I turned from the spot where we had landed our raft and the quiet humming noise just beyond.
"All right. Here we go." I said as I turned, my feet quickening in anticipation. Though I wasn't sure if I should be talking to myself, it felt good to hear another voice. A part of me - some nutrient deprived higher brain function - was aware that my psyche was frayed to the cracking point. But as long as I survived this… hopefully any other damge could be repaired.
Fifteen long steps down the path I was following opened into an area almost twenty feet across. There, a large pine had fallen against another tree across the clearing and died, leaving the larger branches and the trunk straddling the middle of the clearing. The tree holding the corpse tree was still alive and strong,. It had held my weight easily when I climbed up there before.
I set up each component of my brain child on a different trip through here. I would lead the thing to the opposite end of the island, come back and set up another piece of what I needed for this.
Hanging over the path from the crotch of a large branch is a crude noose I hung there early this morning, my last trip through here. I settle the rope in place, take up my position and wait.
This would be the hard part. The waiting. I tried to recall every bad movie I had ever seen, every girl I ever slept with, the first name of my band instructor in Junior High. Anything to keep the memories from coming back. Faces, trips, dreams slid by in a thin veil that turned gossamer translucent.
Aaron's voice screaming in the darkness not more than seven feet across the burned out campfire. I clicked the lantern beside me, casting white light onto crimson.
I had hit the thing then.
I struck its head with anger, then fury, then fear. I screamed, kicked - it never let go, never stopped... I ran when Aaron's eyes stared blankly out from a face frozen in an expression I'd never seen before.
I learned quickly; it moved slowly, but it never stopped. I must have broken fifty heavy branches against the thing, knocking it down hundreds of times over the last few days. But it never stayed down. I learned I couldn't kill it with blunt force. Which led me to this.
At some point, I had closed my eyes tightly. All sounds of the wind had been obliterated as my mind tried to fold back on that part of itself that was still sane. With no urging on my part, I dozed on my feet.
It was coming up the pathway. My mind refused any of my senses past its defenses, but some part of me that knew better, the survival part, allowed just one sound to come through.
Chuff... Chuff... Chuff...
It was coming closer, but I couldn't bring myself to look. The last thing I wanted to do was open my eyes and see it coming closer - letting it get closer to me.
But I had to watch it come this last time.
I would have thought the hundreds of horror movies I've seen would have prepared me for something like this. It turns out Wes Craven doesn't know shit.
The path I had come down was green and lush on either side with bushes that were too thick to walk through easily. The path between them was muddied with my desperate plan.
The thing tracing my footsteps stood about five feet tall and was probably human at one time, though when or how I have no idea. It was naked - I think. Its skin was leathery and ragged enough that I couldn't tell if it had been a woman or man. With its shuffling steps, I watched gray strips of exposed muscle flex and relax, moving feet worn so badly that only bones remained of the intact toes.
I glanced at its head against my will. The misshapen skull was disturbing; vacant holes where the eyes and nose should have been made it as bad as any nightmare I ever had, that much I expected.
But, oh, the teeth.
Gleaming white and huge, set in extended gums, they would have looked more in place on a horse barring against a mountain lion.
I saw what those teeth could do. I watched them sink into Aaron. It took chunk after chunk from him. And I hadn’t been strong enough to stop it.
Bellowing, I felt the rope tighten around me and pull as I sprinted. The noose, that I had spent all night tying so it would glide well enough to slip, caught the thing's leg and yanked it up. The thing jerked into the air as I ran underneath it, the rope sliding smoothly over sections of raft tied to the trees above and behind me. I reached the far end of the clearing and clung tight to another tree there. I had expected a great weight pulling me back, pulling me to a place where it was within arms reach. I felt... Nothing.
All the running, all the fear over this thing that weighed no more than a sack of flour. I worked back, hand over hand, back to where I started. From there, I let the rope slide across my palms until the things' arms were about two feet off the ground, and tied it off.
Crap, it worked.
Before I would celebrate, I pulled the kindling out from where I stacked it yesterday and put it where it would do the most good. All the while I kept out of the thing's reach. What remained of the hands looked brittle, but I knew better.
Smallest sticks on the bottom cross hatch like Aaron showed me. Larger sticks on top, enough to make the flames hot enough to-.
Its fingers brushed against my shoulder. Before I registered what I was doing, I had an arm sized branch clutched like a baseball bat and the ullulent screams were mine.
"Ha!" I kept screaming. "Ha! You a tough guy? You're a fucking piñata!"
Each strike made the thing buckle and jerk, foreign to its lethargic beetle movements.
I wish I can honestly say I came to my senses after half dozen or so swings, and if this were a movie with a time constraint, I could put everything I felt into those six strikes and be done. But I will never know how long I vented on it. All I know is I came to myself on my knees, watching it swing through blurred vision. Like something out of Poe's imagination, the thing's arc slowed to a slow turning, dangling on a string.
Simple plan. Gotta get back to the next part of the plan, buddy.
Part one; hang it.
Part two; start fire.
Part three; systematically lower the thing down, adding wood to the fire until it’s consumed.
Part four; laugh my ass off and hope I can stop.
Only then would it be over.
So when my breathing became normal-ish, I crawl over to the funeral pyre and dig the matches out of my pocket. Luckily, my psycho rant hadn't scattered my kindling.
The first of twelve matches got settled against the side of the box.
"Say goodnight, Gracie"
I push the light blue head of the match along the black striker plate. After two tries, I flick the broken matchstick into the kindling. Taking out another, I line up the box and force myself to use a smooth, constant motion. After flicking it away, I try a third, a fourth. All the match heads crumble like moist clay. When I squeeze one, the head flattens.
OhmyGod ohmyGod ohmyGod.
When I found these matches among what was left of our boat, they were in a plastic bag. It was one of the few items the thing had left intact. If I had kept them in the bag, I wouldn’t have soaked them with sweat.
I try them all one or two at a time. I try them until the strike plate is covered with a useless gummy blue. I try them and force myself to keep trying them until the box is devoid of everything, including hope.
I crayfish back until I feel the solidity of a tree trunk behind me, staring up at the thing, feeling numbness creep into my limbs from my soul.
The maybe-corpse whirls overhead, long after my impacts set it swinging. It’s arching its back, moving its limbs in lazy, lethargic arcs.
Reaching for me.
Around me, leaves scraped and crinkled like wax paper. Somewhere a dead stick crashes to the ground taking green twigs with it. The island itself was louder than this decayed, swinging thing.
The sun moves across the sky and my numb brain is content to watch the shadows play across the little clearing as mosquitoes wake in the sunlight to feast on me.
Slowly, my mind settles down to come around to the problem at hand. If I were playing chess, I would be one move away from mate. The king is fixed in place - dangling in place, rather. I just need to make a brilliant last move.
I can’t cut it apart, the largest sharp thing in my pocket is a Leatherman Multi-tool, and the thought of coming that close makes me shiver. I don't have a gun...
"Well, what do you think?"
The thing twirls gently until I see it's huge teeth again, gleaming as white as a bleached starlets' choppers. At this distance, I see a scrap of red cloth from Aaron's parka tucked under a loose flap of cheek skin.
Arms reach was out of the question.
"Fucking Aaron". And this time I mean it. Mister outdoors, ready for anything, except emergencies. No hatchet, no machete. Only one box of matches. What about if you get cold fast or if you have to…
I yell "Don't go away Gracie" over my shoulder, as I hurry down the path. Aaron kept a small box of signal flares in his pack. I can start a fire with those and be done.
Even at a distance, the persistent buzz is as powerful as the smell. The path straightened out and ahead was a cloud of flies gyrating in an amorphous mass, an orgy in my brother's remains.
I have to mourn later.
Our packs leaned against the tree exactly where we left them, between me and the packs lay Aaron's remains. The thing had been thorough, the perfect recycling machine. It had taken his body and reduced it into bite sized pieces. A pulpy, mass of mess.
My head feels light, but I still have the sense to fight the gagging and bile rising. This is my deliverance and I can’t walk away. I try to pick a path that has the least remains, but I still hear cracklings with every step. I throw up thinking; "That wasn't so bad".
Flares in hand, I head back to the thing dangling in my trap. After the bonfire, I’ll use the flames to start a signal near the shore until someone comes to get me. Captain efficient, that’s me.
Then, I swear, I will never leave the house without a shotgun again.
The buzzing flies grow louder and… Change pitch?
Coming from the water?
I run through leg cramps until I was splashing thigh deep next to the huge turtle head of a boulder. About a hundred yards away is a white and green park ranger boat, kicking up a huge wave down the middle of the river.
They won’t see me.
The sun is nearly overhead, but I got to try something. Pluck out a tube, make sure I close the watertight case again. I need to pry the cap off, expose the striker, now just smack the two ends together and make fire blossom from the end in a glorious burst.
I don't know why I jerk my head up. Maybe a shadow or the sound of bone on rock. It always traveled in straight lines toward me. This last straight line compelled it over the turtle head rock. Like some bizarre kite, rope trailing from its ankle, it came down on me. It had weighed nearly nothing before when I hoisted it up, but the way it hit me knocked me fully into the icy water. Before I could get my footing, the thing wrapped its arms around my shoulders with unbelievable strength.
Why the hell didn't I just float off the island on a big log?
I hear a crunch-