01 Feb Freshly Killed
The smell of something metallic and sour tickled my nose. The trees towered over me, their low-hanging branches reaching down like thousands of gnarled, bark-covered hands. Each scratched my body as I passed them. I coughed loudly. A chilling wind flooded through the forest. I shivered and watched over the horizon as the sun began to set. The sky was marmalade orange, and it brought back memories of wandering the wilds and watching sunsets with my best friends. Using the sling, I threw my rifle onto my shoulder and then held it by the strap, sighing. The breath froze in a small, swirling cloud, then faded as it dissipated back into the atmosphere. My Foxhound, Levi, dashed to my side, growling under his breath. I turned to him and looked down, then pet him behind the ears. He didn’t seem to settle any. My friend, Clay, was taking steps closer to us. A single leaf swirled from a tree above and landed on the ground. It was reddish-brown, covered in black and gray splotches.
“You smell that, Luke?” asked Clay.
I inhaled again, and the tangy scent filled my nostrils. It was a thin smell, yet sickly sweet. There was an underlying taste of something red.
“Smells kinda like iron.” I shrugged. “Bear prolly caught a deer or something, wouldn’t you think?”
Clay chuckled a little, raising his shoulders as if to stretch them out.
“If there’s a bear out in these woods, we’ll leave it with a few bullet holes.”
“We’ll see about that, Clay.”
I took a moment to scan the clearing. Nothing but open, beautiful sky, painted like Bob Ross himself had done it. A wall of faint violet was brushed just underneath the orange-cream-soda horizon. The setting sun was a red medallion floating in the air, with yellowish clouds drifting in front of it. The trees were still mostly green, with patches of red, brown, yellow and orange dotting their leaves. The bark was shifting from brown to white as the forest went into its deep winter sleep. As the cold, arid air flooded my nose like mint, the taste of blood came again. I felt a shiver rack my body. I held my breath and turned, looking down a small trail. There were two trees on each side of the gravel path, almost in the shape of an arch of sorts, like it was put there for us to walk under. Levi, taking careful steps, started towards the path. Clay and I followed.
The sky steadily lost its color, becoming a deeper purple. Stars began to show through, bleeding into the backdrop with the passage of time. I felt my heart pounding in my ribs whenever Levi paused.
“Say, where have all the animals been?” Clay asked.
I shrugged, gesturing with one hand.
“Haven’t even been hearing them. Pretty damn weird.”
Clay chuckled a little. We walked another ten minutes, when Levi got lower to the ground, arching his back as if he were going to spring out, off the path and into the woods. I slung my rifle back into my hands and got down on one knee, resting my cheek as I looked down the scope. Clay stood just a few feet behind, stepping in circles and scanning the area. A long minute dragged on. Nothing but the sound of the blowing wind and leaves tumbling across the forest floor. There wasn’t the usual ambient noise of bugs chirping or frogs croaking.
“It’s getting dark. We’re going to have to leave soon.” I said.
There was a force pressuring me to stay, almost like a voice inside my head that wasn’t speaking. Clay gave me a solemn stare.
“You don’t feel like leaving either, do ya?” Clay asked.
I smirked and shook my head.
“Might be illegal. It’s whatever. We won’t shoot anything, then.”
“Probably still illegal.”
“The law can kiss my ass, quite frankly.” I said.
“You know it. I brought a flashlight.” Clay stated.
“You were planning this, weren’t you?” I asked.
Clay grinned and scratched his chin.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been in this neck of the woods.”
He was right; him and I had always ventured about in our youth, along with our other friends. Clay and I, despite having kept in touch, hadn’t gone hunting or exploring since our days as high schoolers. That night when we went out, it was the first time we’d gone hunting for forever.
Levi still strolled cautiously as we journeyed deeper into the forest. The trail we were on got thinner, about the width of a sidewalk in a neighborhood. The path started to feel familiar. There were tree branches whacking me in the face as we traveled. Clay’s flashlight left us with nothing but a beam of white light to lead the way. Silver crescents dotted the ground, shapes slipping through the canopy of leaves above as the moon began to float into the sky, the night reigning king now. I sniffled, and still caught a whiff of iron.
“Remember that bear?” I asked Clay.
He nodded his head. Levi contained a roar.
“Definitely killed more than one animal. It’s been on a hunting spree.”
“We’ll see about that.” Clay squinted, biting down on his lower lip.
We continued to walk. Light transitioned into dark as night fell upon us. As we walked the trail, thoughts stirred in my mind. As the memory poured back into my brain, everything leveled out, and it was as if the forest changed around me. It had been a cool, yet bright day. Soft April winds blew through the woods. I walked in the same spot beside my father, who carried a hunting rifle with him. He wouldn’t let me touch it yet. Our Foxhound, Josie, paraded along with us, pridefully bounding forward. That was the day my father had taught me how to hunt, and it was also the day I shot my first deer. A warm, yet bitter taste found itself at the back of my throat. I coughed.
“You know where I just realized we are?” I asked Clay.
The trail returned to its normal state of nighttime, and the feeling of wonder and discovery started to numb down. With a coy smile, he shook his head.
“The hell are you talkin’ about, Luke?”
“This is the exact same trail where I shot my first deer, where my dad taught me how to hunt.” I explained.
The feeling returned.
“This is the exact same spot where I made the shot.” I uttered.
Clay smiled at first, and then frowned, freezing in place. When I next breathed in, there was the tang of blood and the certainty of death.
“That’s cool.” he murmured.
I stammered at first.
“Clay, it’s okay.” I replied, getting control of my tongue.
“Sorry, I just- I know it’s been hard for you.”
“Past is in the past.” I said.
He nodded his head. Then came the next memory. I was in the passenger’s seat, just a little under a year ago, and my dad was driving. We were out on a country road, in the dark, blaring Johnny Cash on the car’s radio. I was banging my head and clapping my hands when my father’s gasp and the screeching of tires drew my attention away. We rolled over and his side of the car was crushed by a cluster of trees. He had lost control and was going far too fast. That was all it took, and in the blink of an eye, a scrapbook of life’s memories was closed. Clay took another whiff of the air. I listened to the howling of the wind. It sounded strained, eerie, and agonized like God was warning me to stay out of the woods that night. Then a wall of smells hit me; something faintly decayed, and the stench of the blood became a thousand times stronger. I coughed, narrowing my eyes and trying to peer into the darkness.
“The hell is that?” Clay questioned.
I pursed my lips, keeping my rifle pointed. Levi barked once, a stern, commanding call, you had better not get in my way, something like a broken man protecting his family as they cowered behind him. Clay retched, kept composure, and then turned the flashlight up to a brighter setting. It allowed us to see a few feet farther. We took calculated steps forward. Levi stayed behind, hackles raised, teeth bared. He snarled like a predator might leap from the bushes at any minute. A small swarm of flies rushed past me, humming and buzzing. They became zooming black specks in the light before disappearing into the shadows. I turned to Clay, frowned, and then looked ahead.
“This isn’t normal.” I thought.
“Could’ve been a family of bears on a hunting trip. Or something else.”
“Yeah, like what, foxes collecting their dead rabbits like trophies?”
“Well, like you said, this isn’t normal.” Clay reminded.
I nodded my head slowly.
“Now I’m interested.”
Clay stared off to the side, then back at me.
“I think I am too. Let’s keep going.”
We walked for another ten minutes or so, Levi trailing behind us now, taking each step like it was a leap forward into the mouth of death itself. The forest didn’t feel so welcoming anymore. The path was now thin enough that Clay had to lead the way, while Levi and I followed behind him, as baby ducklings would with their mother. An owl hooted, just before I heard it fluttering away. Stars glimmered through the gaps in the leaves. I gazed at the concealed, yet open sky, and was brought back to that night in the car. Only this time, in my head, I turned to look at my father. His skin was decomposed, his eyes and teeth missing, leaving gaping black holes in its place. Leaves and mud were stuck to his rotten flesh. He grinned without teeth, just as a worm wriggled its way out of his eye. Then, with decomposed hands, he jerked the steering wheel to the left, purposefully.
I snapped from the vision, only to feel my head throbbing and heart pounding. I noticed I was taking heavier, slower breaths. Clay stopped and turned his head to face me again.
“Are you okay?”
“Sorry. I was just thinking about my dad.”
“You don’t have to be sorry.”
Clay made a blank face, turned, and continued. Silence took over again. We stepped through a patch of pale moonlight as the path ended, reduced to nothing but dry, dying grass and tree roots. There were a few pines in the mix of oaks and birches. I ducked underneath one of the trees’ thousand different arms, watching them dance and sway with the groaning wind. The smell wasn’t as strong now; it seemed that earlier the wind had carried it over to us. Nevertheless, the taste of blood was in the back of my throat, and the odor was now more present than it had been when Clay and I first smelled it.
“Almost to the fox’s den, huh?” I asked.
Clay chuckled. I realized he was cradling his gun now, holding it close to his chest as if it were a holy weapon to him, or a child.
“We’ll have to see.” he thought.
The crackling sound of leaves in the distance could have been mistaken for footsteps, but it was quiet enough to leave the noise up to interpretation. Clay shot me a quick glance, still, and I felt a dark emotion, almost like a rotted hand, gripping my heart. An oily, black wave slicked through my body and corrupted it. I took in another deep breath. The tingling at the back of my throat remained, sour and viciously sweet, in a horrid, feral kind of way. For a second, I felt like an animal myself. I glanced my rifle and saw myself as the bear now, and as soon as I looked away and tasted the blood again, I was the deer. We walked a while longer. Levi froze once more. I spun around to face him.
“Come on, boy.” I uttered.
He growled. When I turned, Clay had taken a few steps forward, eyes round and jaw dropped nearly to the ground. I narrowed my eyes and peered at the trees ahead. I began to count, before losing track. 20, 30, 40, 50 or more trees were raked with claw marks. Splinters of chewed bark littered the ground. The scratches were deep enough and large enough that you might be able to fit a hand in there; a young child could. The smell was right on top of us now, and as the wind blew in our direction, it carried it forward. I coughed, nearly gagging up my dinner as I did. The vile taste of puke burned at the edge of my mouth. I caught up to Clay, who was standing still, trembling. I could only tell because the flashlight beam kept moving by an inch or two. He exhaled a cloud of frosty breath. I shivered.
“We have to find out what it is.” I said.
Clay took his phone from his pocket and clicked a few pictures. He got a couple of close-ups as we passed through the damaged part of the wood. The tainted scent had only grown stronger. I looked back to find Levi had not moved.
“Come on, Levi, com’ere, boy!” I hollered quietly, then whistled.
It echoed through the night. Levi’s response was a whimper.
“Hey, buddy.” I repeated.
“What’s that?” Clay asked.
He was about ten feet ahead of me. He continued to walk, and then stopped. He made the same expression that he had when he had seen the claw marks, only this time, it was exaggerated. I jogged towards him, and Levi made a choked, horrified noise as I left him behind. I was standing in front of Clay now, looking at what the flashlight beam was pointing at. A drop of blood dripped from the tree’s canopy. Then I looked up. Hanging from the branch, tied by what remained of its fur coat, was an animal, mostly skeletonized, nothing left behind other than a few chunks of muscle on the bony frame. My heart stopped. Looking past that, there were more shapes hanging from the trees, possibly a hundred. The wind blew, and the smell overwhelmed me. I held the vomit back, feeling like it might erupt from my jaws. Freshly killed, I thought. Then came the sound of what I thought to be stirring leaves… I wasn’t so sure anymore.