ISOLATION WARD – The Hunted

The Hunted

A Short Story by Charles E.J. Moulton

When I arrived at the scene of the crime, I found only carnage. Blood splattered everywhere, bones thrown against stems of trees, a heart half eaten, a liver left to rot on a stone, intestines and a brain ripped out with such force that I now understood what Howard had told me. How people from miles around had heard wails that … what was the phrase he had used?
"Sounded like a deer being ripped apart."
Well, he had been right.
There was nothing left of the slaughtered animal.

I bit on my tongue, just to prevent myself from crying. I would’ve held back my tears if not for the stench and the sight of the slaughter. So I cried.

I took a deep breath, threw the rifle back over my shoulder and walked up a few steps to the remains. Holding my thick scarf against my face, probably looking like a dried prune with all the wrinkles I was making, I carefully examined the paw marks still intact in the fur. These rips in the flesh were different than the ones I yet had seen. Larger.

The tracks? Broken branches covered by light rain. By the looks of the animal’s remains, I guessed that whatever had been here had left at least two or three hours ago. Maybe even in the late morning. The blood had partially dried up and leaves had fallen on the carcass.

I stood up, looked around, doing my best to detect anything out of the ordinary. I looked for a stray bear, although to be honest, I couldn’t see a bear doing this.

My gaze automatically turned inwards toward the forest at the trail of broken branches leading away from the carcass. There was no movement in there, save that occasional flutter of a leaf or a dead bird falling from a branch. I knew I had to find out what beast had done this. I owed that much to the deer.

I pressed the button on my cellular telephone. It lay immobile and dead in my hand, just as dead as the deer was now. A sudden wrath at the beast rose up from the depths of my soul. Whatever roamed beyond those bushes had slaughtered, not just killed it. This act of deliberate murder had not been hunger. The creature had been pissed off. But what animal was capable of this?

I wandered about the hillside, waiting for Howard to pick up his phone. My hand, the free hand not holding the phone, turned into a claw, a chilly claw that felt like ripping the killer apart. Then I tried to imagine how large the hands of the beast had been. Twice the size of mine was my conclusion. I would be ripped apart myself if I tried. Bad idea.

"Howard, where are you?" I muttered to myself.
In the distance, way off in the distance, somewhere deep between the thickest of Colorado forests, a sound emanated into the open country. My head involuntarily snapped to the side, the old hunter in me trying to deciphre the origin of the sound. Several tones and timbres were in there. Growls, wails, even a tone that sounded human.

"Yes?"
The fear that had exploded from my guts into my head subsided for one moment as the calm twang of Howard’s outdrawn vowel greeted me.
"Hey, it’s me."
The wind whistled an odd song on the instrument they called the trees.
"Hi, Jim," Howard sing-songed, that fear ever so present in his voice. "Sorry I took so long to answer the phone. I thought I heard a noise in the garden. Sounded like a burglar. Did you find something?"
I nodded, my breathing turning infrequent and nervous.
"Yeah."
"Don’t tell me," Howard jibed in. "Deer, right?"
"I believe that’s what it was."
"Slaughtered?" Howard spat, skeptically.
"There’s not much left of it," I whispered. "This beast was angry. I have never seen a bear do this. In fact, I am kind of doubting a bear has the strength to rip a deer apart like this."
"Sounds like the Sasquatch," Howard mumbled under his breath.
"Maybe the boogeyman," I spat, denying my own doubts that this butchered animal had been killed by a normal beast.
"Stop kidding yourself, Jim," he told me, his voice turning soft, as if he waited for something to happen. Maybe that burglar and his ugly metal stick – or the boogeyman. Howard paused. "We’re dealing with a demon here."
"Howard, let’s be reasonable here."
"This is beyond reason," Howard interrupted. "This is the fifth deer this autumn."
"Sixth."
"Whatever," Howard scoffed. "The point is that we haven’t found a bear anywhere near any of the crime scenes. You said yourself no bear really has that much strength. A Sasquatch does."
"I have never seen one," I cackled.
"I have," Howard provoked.
"Are you sure that’s what it was?" I inquired.
"Jim," Howard sighed. "Are you sure that your preconceived conceptions of the Sasquatch are not making you rule out possibilities?"
"I don’t believe in Bigfoot," I croaked, allowing that old familiar feeling of inadequacy spread across my skull down to my groin. "Too far fetched. I mean, come on. Big hairy fellah that scares old ladies and eats deer liver for breakfast?"
"What if it’s true?"
I looked back at the dead animal.
"I haven’t seen a grizzly bear in ages," I wondered, almost speaking to myself.
"I’m just saying that if a ridiculed animal like Sasquatch is sighted more often than a grizzly bear we might want to change our minds about what that creature is."
"What is it?"
"An undiscovered animal. No more. No less. A very dangerous undiscovered animal. One we have to take seriously. Especially when it slaughters other animals. An animal was recently discovered in Asia that no one had ever heard of."
"What are you saying?"
"I’m saying that things are not always what they seem."
"Sasquatch," I muttered.
"Maybe, maybe not," Howard whispered. "Just check for tracks. Please."
"Okay."

So I hung up, called the municipal authorities about the animal and went into the forest to search for tracks. The branches felt like whips, the moss felt like quicksand and the holes in the ground that turned into hills a second later felt like a rollercoaster. In the thickest of forest greenery, as well, I felt like someone destined to fail. The wails in the distance died out just as I stopped to listen from where they came and arose just as I moved onwards, only to dwindled down again when I stopped again. I grabbed my rifle tight, of course, doing my best not to make a move.
The beastly cries in the distance caused me to shudder. It read my mind. At least I thought it did.

I didn’t want to be the laughing stock of the community of hunters. Still, I couldn’t just ignore these signs. They were evident.

One swift noise that echoed through the forest had me jump, the hairs of my neck standing up like rifles rising up against brutal beasts on an African safari. Immediately, I swung around to see what had broken the branch, if that’s what it was that had broken.

Tranquil and almost immobile, a giant met my gaze. It had appeared out of nowhere, maybe even breaking the branch on purpose in order to attract my attention. What immediately stung me, stung my nose, really, was the smell. It was the scent of dissected and slowly decomposing sewer rats on a bed of moldy bread.
To be really honest, and this came as a revelation of sorts, the intense stink that travelled up my nostrils rang a bell inside me. The beast that now stood in front of me had produced, infiltrated and soaked the smell of the dead deer in order to swim in a beastly pool of dead odor.

Breathing, heavy breathing, was now all I could hear. In fact, the cracking of the branch really had been the last noise I had heard. From a distance of eight feet I could feel the breeze of the animal’s breath on my face.
Its mouth wide open, it looked like an odd version of a monster from a B-movie. I would also have taken it for a puppet if it hadn’t been for the slow trembling of the jaw and the fur that trembled with it.

That was another thing. The fur. It was greyish brown, dark hair contaminated by drying mud, dirty and extremely long. The beast reminded me of the character of Chewbacca in Star Wars. I certainly would have asked the actor to take off his funny suit if I hadn’t been able to look into the mouth of the beast. The inside of that fleshy grotto that was his snout resembled that of a dog’s hole with its darkred flesh and hard bones, its curves and pointed cleft and dungeon of intestine abyss. The caved eyes, sunken in and almost vanishing into the skull, gazed at me solemnly like a hungry titan waiting for its meal. When my eyes slowly drifted down to its paws, I saw the bobbing head of a dead squirrel, only loosely hanging by a half eaten throat.

I think I panicked. I began shivering and shaking all over, fearing that my trepidation would cause the creature to feel wrath. I knew, however, that I had to keep still if I were to survive this. At least I imagined this beast to react like a bear, but what did I know? I knew about bears and coyotes and eagles and racoons. Eight feet tall, furry looking beasts likely to rip a deer apart? No fucking clue.

I tried to recall how far away I was from the deer at the edge of the forest. Right now, I really didn’t have many options. Dying was no option, me being divorced or not, happy or not. My pickup truck was fast enough to escape a furry beast, if I could make it to the truck, that is.
The other option? Pulling up my rifle and aiming at its heart. But what if I missed his heart? Then I probably would be lost forever.

My finger gently played with the trigger, hoping for the impossible, hoping that I could be fast enough to aim right at its most sensitive part and have it over with. But what was his most sensitive part? Could I distract the animal, throw something and cause it to look away while I escaped.

I did none of that. Instead I did something stupid, something hunters usually don’t do. Without any prior warning, I ran. I turned on one heel and scooted into the unknown greenery, hitting bushes and tripping over branches, all while hearing big thumping steps jumping up behind me. I could feel the animal’s stinky breath on my neck. In my fear and panic, I started screaming.

I must’ve lost my balance on my way a half length from the edge of the forest, with my eyes fixing on the body of the deer, when I tripped and tumbled into a bush, my rifle dropping into a nearby ditch.
My face rubbing the grass, I now felt the tickle of what I thought was Sasquatch fur. Expecting to die, I turned around and fell onto my back. What I didn’t expect, though, was that the Sasquatch fur belonged to a human arm.

"Jim?"
Howard’s worried twang sent me a small puff of peppermint flavored tic-tacs on my way from a friendly mouth.
I took his arm, heaving myself up and trying to hold and keep my balance.
"I saw it, Howard," I whispered, realizing that my life had just been saved by extraordinary circumstances.
"What?" Howard responded.
"It," I answered.
"Sasquatch?"
I nodded, suddenly realizing that I had no proof of my encounter. But what was I supposed to do? Pick up my phone, click on camera and say: "Cheese"?
"We’re invading on his territory," Howard continued. "Sasquatch has become a trademark and yet we still treat deers and bears better than we treat him. So he kills what we love."

I did end up telling Howard about my encounter in nauseating detail. As I walked out toward my pickup truck next to Howard, now with my rifle on my back, both of us heard that wail in the distance. Funnily enough, when the patrol officers and municipal authorities came to jot down the details, they laughed when I told them about the furry giant that almost killed me.

Howard and I went home to his place, drank a couple of beers and threw a couple of pizzas in the oven.

We had almost forgotten my encounter with the furry beast when Howard sat up in his chair, turning down the baseball game, his facial expression turning morose and frightened. He claimed he had heard the same strange noise in the forest patch in the back of his garden, a noise he had heard before when I had called him earlier that day. Howard excused himself, smiled and loafed away in his typically slow and comfortable way, leaving me to wait around for signs of ill doing. I turned down the shouts and murmurs of the game just to hear the effects of his search.

A minute went by. Then two minutes. Then five. After ten minutes, I looked up from my beer into the distance of the dark forest and saw nothing but the fog and the rising of the moon. I called out, hoping that Howard would answer me and tell me it was just a rat. After all, we had a few more slices of pizza to eat and a couple of more beers to kill. But there were other creatures out there who needed to kill us for whatever reason. Hunger, hatred, bestial frustration, animal lust. I don’t know what made them kill.

I pretended that everything was still okay, but the silence worried me. Even the hunter in me shivered. I knew the ominous atmosphere that suddenly overpowered me had its origin in something not us, something dark, something ill willed. I reached out with my mind, listening to the peace and quiet and almost hoping it was a burglar that had entered Howard’s house. I wondered if Howard had heard the same being in his house while speaking to me on the phone earlier. Then I wondered if its feet were swift enough to dash across great distances just to squeeze in another murder in its busy schedule. The thud I heard next caused to sit up, wait, listen, prick up my ears, smell the rotten whiff of decay. Something round rolled across the kitchen floor and hit the wall.

"Howard?" I yelled out. "You okay?"
When one of the fuses blew, leaving me in total darkness, I left my chair, felt myself through the house, my eyes staring into the dark void. Finally, I stumbled and fell onto something with grey hair on top, something that had spoken with a twang, something that had been severed, something that bled.

The loneliness of the Colorado forests became obvious to me first when I heard my own screams reverberating into dead Howard’s empty hallway. For next to Howard’s headless body was the swift and quiet, quick and agile creature we knew as Sasquatch. As I raised my head for that last time, I saw the creature lifting his claw, growling at me in the dark night and aiming at my skull.

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