A Thing Greatly Feared, Chapter 16

Scouting Campfire

A campfire to keep Hank warm, but will it keep the creature away? ... Image via Wikipedia

Hank jerked up into a sitting position, cocked his 12-guage and peered into the night. He’d been laying down between his tent and the main fire, cradling one gun while the other sat an arm’s length away, but a noise had roused him from sleep. It could’ve been anything – many creatures roamed the woods at night.

Or it could’ve been just what he was looking for.

It was still early – or late, depending on how you judge such things; it was still dark, no sign of the sun, and a few of the smaller fires had died out. Hank searched the scene in front of him: Everything was in its place, as far as he could see, but he couldn’t see far. He stood up, careful to keep quiet, and walked at a snail’s pace around the whole campsite, first behind his tent and then along the ring of smaller fires. Nothing was stirring – at least, that’s what his eyes and ears told him. His heart, though, said otherwise.

Taking some matches out of his pocket and some sticks from his reserve pile, Hank relit the dead fires and stoked the others, including the big one at the center of the site. In the midst of doing this, a thought struck him: What if this creature wasn’t like others – not scared by fire? Fear shivered through him top to bottom.

He finished with the fires and went back to his sleeping bag in front of the tent, setting the safety on the shotgun and laying it next to him. The dose of adrenaline from being jolted awake kept him up a few minutes longer, but then the soothing effect of staring into the fire took its toll, and he lied down and went to sleep.

* * *

“James. Jaa-aaames.”

“Hnn.”

“James, wake up.”

“Nnn. No, Karen. I’m tryin’ to sleep.”

“Come on, James, wake up.”

“Errrr. Alright.”

James rolled over to see what Karen wanted, but it wasn’t Karen.

“Who– ”

“Don’t recognize me, James?”

“No. Where’s Karen – my wife?”

“Not even gonna guess who I am, James? Not even curious?”

“Wh– ” James’s head twitched, his face one big question mark.

“I’m Molly. Molly Laske.”

“Molly?”

“Yeah. Still don’t look familiar? Maybe this’ll help.”

Molly was now 14 instead of 26. James’s face relaxed into a tired but happy expression.

“Ohh, yeah. Molly – the papergirl.”

“Yeah,” she said, smiling. “But how do you like this?”

In the next instant she was 26 again, but writhing on the bed, her bare hands clawing at the pillow, which was now turning into a set of steps. Her face stretched and contorted in horrible lines of pain – though she didn’t scream – as sounds of ripping and tearing laced James’s ears. He flinched, and his heart screamed, but he couldn’t get off the bed. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t leave, and his gaze always went back to her, in spite of the agony drawn on her face and the butchered sounds caused by an invisible enemy. No – wait. Not all invisible. He could see … eyes. Yes, orange eyes, staring right at him, and they seemed to grab him and hold him, locking his gaze and keeping it fixed despite continuous shredding sounds that seemed to be calling his name, and the sight of much red out of the corner of his eye.

“M-Molly?”

At last he heard her scream – a cry that sounded like “Why?” and stabbed through his heart – but he couldn’t help her, couldn’t even look at her; the orange eyes were swallowing him.

“Mollyyyyy!”

He shot up in bed. He looked around.

Molly? Where–

The livingroom at Darrell’s, on the couch. That’s where he was. Darrell came hurrying into the room, flicking on the hall light.

“James. You alright?”

Darrell could see that he was covered with sweat, and panting.

“James?”

James caught his breath. He looked at Darrell; Sara and Wade were now standing behind him.

“Everything okay?” said Darrell. “Been havin’ a bad dream?”

James looked down. “Yeah. Yeah. A bad dream.”

“Can I get you something?”

James shook his head. “No. No thanks. Sorry to wake you guys.”

“It’s okay. Just let me know if you need anything.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

Darrell and the others left, shutting off the light as they went, and James lied back down, but the couch and blanket were damp with sweat, so he sat up and wiped himself off with one of his T-shirts, then stood and paced for a few minutes while his bed dried. He looked at the clock on the kitchen microwave.

4:45. I wonder how Hank’s doin’.

Then he wondered how he was doing. James usually didn’t remember his dreams, but this one was all too vivid as he stood there in the black night. He wiped his hand across his face.

Molly. (How could I let her down?) I’m sorry.

And he cried in the dark.

* * *

Hank woke up – natural-like this time – and rubbed his eyes. He looked at his watch: 5:30. A fresh, clear light washed the lower part of the sky a yellowish-white, and the waning moon hung onto its last bit of life in a crystal-blue field overhead. All the fires were out except for some hot coals, and thin curls of smoke drifted up from the ashes.

I live to fight another day.

After several hitches he pushed himself up into a sitting position, noting more than a few cricks in his back.

Prob’ly slept on my dang gun.

He grimaced as he rocked forward, but managed to stand. After stretching, he got the main fire going again to take off the chill, then ate some plain bread and half a dozen granola bars in between guzzles of water that was cool from being left out all night. He then took down his tent and packed his bag, leaving one gun in it and one gun out, and by six o’clock was ready to go.

Better make sure these fires are out.

He used his remaining water to douse the main fire, then took all four of his water bottles and traipsed back to the stream he’d crossed yesterday. He filled the bottles in the cold, clear stream – “Clean as the day God made it,” his dad used to say – then walked back to camp. He soaked the coals in the big fire, then went to work on the smaller ones, starting with those behind where his tent had been. He had to return to the stream one more time, then worked on dousing the last few pits. When he came to the last two – at the opposite end from where his tent had been – he saw tracks in the dirt. He bent closer.

Six claw marks. He looked up, fear mushrooming inside him. These prints weren’t here when I got here yesterday. He spun around on his haunches. But then a white flag of relief sprang up. He didn’t come past the fires; he stayed outside the ring. Hank got up and looked all around the campsite just to be sure, but his hope held true – just the one set of prints, and they never entered the circle.

But … He stopped where he stood. Were those tracks there when I got up … or did they show up just now when I went to the stream?

* * *

James hadn’t been able to get back to sleep, so he just sat in silence on the couch until the others stirred.

“Good morning, James,” said Darrell, who headed straight for the kitchen and started cooking up bacon and eggs.

“Mornin’.”

A minute later he heard Sara coming out of the guest bedroom and down the hall.

“Good morning, James,” she said.

“Mornin’.”

Wade emerged a couple minutes later, and Darrell announced that breakfast would soon be ready.

“You won’t even have to serve yourselves if you don’t want to,” he said.

“That’s what kids are for,” said Wade.

“Oh, don’t I know it,” said James. “That’s why me an’ my wife had three.”

Sara chuckled.

“Well,” said Darrell, “they owe something for all the trouble they put us through, don’t they, James?”

“You’re darn right.” Everybody laughed. “So what’s the plan for today?”

“I want to do some diggin’ around,” said Darrell. “Library, town office – see if we can find out who the sheriff and his cohort might be trying to scare, and why, or what else they might be trying to do. You up for that, James?”

“Umm, yeah.”

“You sound unsure.”

“No, that’s fine. I’m–. Whatever.” He grinned.

“What about me, Dad?”

“I’m sure I’ll find something for you to do when we get to town.”

When we get to town, thought James. When we get to town, I might have to pay the sheriff a little visit.

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