Note: This is the sixth installment of a ghost story. It’s not meant to be read by itself. If you’d care to start at the beginning, click here and follow the links.
Clarice fled into the night, her blanket clutched close around her. She slipped and fell, rolling into a muddy ditch, and the massive thing pounded past her into the night, snorting and groaning. There was the sound of a clatter and crash up ahead, and it moaned again before it was gone.
She got up and looked around, but the night was inky black, no comforting flashlight beam to guide her. The loudest sound was her own breath, which came fast and sharp. Her heart pounded in her ears, and her face was smeared with wet muck. She wanted very much to scream and scream, but she couldn’t.
In a moment she thought of the car. It couldn’t be far off; she’d be safe there. She started moving in what she thought was the right direction, slipped when she encountered the ditch again, corrected herself.
Modern civilization has its benefits; anyone who’s ever run out of toilet paper at the wrong time can tell you some of them. But ease of life leaves people ill-equipped to handle the less pleasant aspects of nature, and only a few campers truly understand how black it can be in the middle of nowhere on a starless night. Clarice was no camper, and she’d never learned why you shouldn’t go on a stroll in pitch-dark woods. She was learning now; it helped that she was lucky.
She eventually found the car by walking into it. She fell to the side, and her hand landed on something cold and hard. It was the screwdriver. She grabbed it desperately, felt her way to the car door, and climbed in back. She rolled the windows up and locked the doors, then huddled down under the now somewhat slimy blanket with the screwdriver held out in front of her like a talisman.
Jake ran on blindly, arms up, realizing he was fighting off branches. He ducked behind a thickish tree and peered out, panting. There was no movement, just a dim light scarcely visible through the fog. The flashlight, he thought. Sue must have dropped it.
He waited a bit, getting his bearings, catching his breath. Then the light winked out momentarily; when it flickered back on, he gasped, only then starting to panic. He got up and started moving quickly toward the now bouncing light.
As he got closer, he could hear Sue calling, the sound oddly muted by the fog. “Mike? Jake?” Then a long pause. “Clarice?” Despite himself, Jake chuckled at that pause. Then the beam steadied off to one side for a long moment. “MIKE!”
By the time he reached her, she was kneeling next to Mike, who was stretched out on his back, eyes closed. His nose looked oddly squashed and oozed blood.
Near his feet was the weathered post he had run into in the dark. From the look of it, it might have been here a century and more, but the ravages of time had left it unable to handle Big Mike slamming into it at full tilt. It now leaned drunkenly, cracked and splintered about six feet off the ground.
Even as Jake watched, the post shifted again. He registered for the first time that it propped up a porch roof. The structure was half ruined, clapboards fallen, windows and doorframe empty, the inside full of brush and small trees. And what was left of it was starting to sway alarmingly.
“Jake! Help me!” He looked and saw Sue straining ineffectively, tugging Mike by one arm, trying to drag him back.
Between them they could barely shift him, but it didn’t matter. The ancient house didn’t so much collapse as it did subside, folding in on itself almost quietly. It was strangely sad to watch; the building had stood alone and untended for so very long, and now it was gone, just a pile of broken timber and tar paper.
“So. What do we do now, Jake?”
“Hey, Boss. Motion sensor.”
“In this fog? You’re kidding.” He put down his paperback, carefully marking his spot, and went into the back. “Which one?”
“Southern, the one in the big dead tree.” Gillis frowned. The indicator was back to a steady green. “It flashed half a dozen times.”
“Huh. What about the tri-meters?”
“Not a twitch. No flux at all”
Clarice would have been furious if anyone ever accused her of snoring; it wasn’t ladylike. But she was definitely snoring now, a low buzz as she dozed in the back seat, exhausted, screwdriver still gripped firmly in her fist.
A loud clattering rattle sounded from the woods nearby, and Clarice woke with a start. She listened intently. The night had grown no brighter, and she couldn’t see even dim outlines. There was a soft noise outside, then another, followed by a low grunt, then silence. A horrible smell began to permeate the air inside.
The car rocked slightly as something bumped the side. Unable to hold it in any longer, Clarice screamed.
Then all hell broke loose.
The car rocked back and forth violently, and a loud groaning call competed with her own terrified shrieks. There was a series of bangs and the car jolted again. Then, all at once, it was quiet. Clarice stopped screaming and waited, breathless.
Suddenly, the driver’s window burst in, tiny cubes of glass scattering through the front seat. Clarice felt a massive, foul presence near her and began screaming, jabbing blindly with her screwdriver. She encountered resistance and stabbed again, much harder this time, and an outraged bellow filled the car.
It left the car; she felt it go. But the stink remained, worse than a dozen locker rooms, and she knew the respite was only momentary. Still, whatever it was could feel pain; she gripped the screwdriver tighter and braced herself for what was coming.
“Myra ain’t much, is it?”
Jake had taken the flashlight and poked around a little, staying close to Sue and Mike. What he’d first taken for buildings were ruins, none in better shape than the collapsed house. It was obvious nobody had lived here for a very long time, and the road itself seemed little more than a farm track.
“What do you suppose that was that attacked us?” asked Sue. “More to the point: Do you think it’ll be back?”
Jake sighed. “I’ve got no idea. How’s Mike?”
“He’s still breathing, anyway.” She frowned, thinking hard. “We really need to get him in some sort of shelter. Are any of the buildings–”
“No, that’s the best there is. Was. He’s better off outside.”
“In this weather? He’s going to die of exposure! We have to do something!”
“Well–” Jake started. They both heard whatever-it-was bellowing off in the distance, the sound muted by the fog.
“We’ll build a fire,” said Sue. “Quick; help me find something that’ll burn!”
They both rushed to the fallen house and started pulling out scraps. Much of it was rotten and damp, but some of the old clapboards were dry, and there was plenty of tarred paper. It was a strange texture, thick and crumbly, but it looked like it would burn well enough.
“Why not just set the whole house on fire?” Jake asked suddenly. “It would be easier, and a lot faster.”
“The way our luck’s been going, we’d start a forest fire. Good. Now, pull out that broken post. I’m going to get some bark.”
She was back in seconds, holding a long strip of birch bark. “Tear a bunch of small bits off and put them in a pile,” she instructed. She knelt down and began to unscrew the flashlight.
The sudden dark caught Jake completely off guard. “What are you doing?!”
“Relax. We don’t have matches, but we’ve got the next best thing.”
Jake looked around, or tried to. The night was an unrelieved black, terrifying, unknown, watching. The loud moaning bellow sounded again off in the distance; it was still out there somewhere. “N-no, it’s okay. Take your time.”
Fire bloomed in the night. And something saw.
They’d just broken out the cribbage board when it happened.
It registered first on the southern tri-meter first, a spike in local flux combined with a sudden drop in temperature. They watched, cards forgotten, as the various meters began to swing wildly. Then, one by one, they started to fail.
“What the hell…”
Gillis swore loudly, then leaped for the master switch. Cards scattered as he pulled it and the control board went dark.
“What— Why did you— ?”
“We were about to lose the cameras, Boss; I—”
They both went quiet as the van too died, its engine sputtering briefly. Frost began spreading across the windows, crackling audibly as they watched, wide-eyed. They were both shaking, and it had nothing to do with the cold.
A dark glow came from outside, moving around past the frosted windows, and the sound of distant voices faint beyond hearing. In that moment, both ghost-hunters were very glad they couldn’t see it, couldn’t see past the ice. Then the wind rose in abrupt gusts, buffeting the van as it raced down the hill, and the light went away with it, fading off into the distance.
The next installment has finally arrived. This is the big one, in case you couldn’t tell. Click the link to see what happens… if you dare.
Image credit: Junior Libby, by way of PublicDomainPictures.net