by J.A. Sullivan
Before Marie even opened her eyes, she knew she was no longer in the hospital. Her skin was damp with dew. The air felt different moving in and out of her lungs. A deep organic smell of decaying earth filled her nostrils with each breath, nothing at all like the lifeless antiseptic air of the hospital. As she became more aware of her surroundings she became less sure as to whether she was just waking from some terrible nightmare, or just falling into one. Either way she was where she found herself to be and knew she had to open her eyes.
Everything was dimly lit, bathed in periwinkle. Her eyes were trying to adjust to the constantly changing level of light, though she couldn’t say for sure if the sun was dying or being reborn. Her legs were curled under her in a bed of lichen, and her arms and head were resting on a moss carpeted old tree trunk. Each tuft of down-like hair that had managed to cling to her scalp caught even the slightest movement in the air around her. The hair tickled and made her scalp feel itchy. She felt as if her head was a giant dandelion flower about to go to seed.
The trees that circled her were old with gnarled burnt branches, stretching out like arthritic fingers beckoning her closer with each whisper of wind. They wanted her to come closer to tear at her flesh, leaving her as broken and dead as they were. In the shifting light and growing breeze, the trees seemed to be moving in, circling in tighter like vultures.
Marie needed to get away, to find shelter free from her vile pursuers and away from the darkness. She was sure now that the sun was dying, preparing to leave her in blackness, providing a veil of cover for the sharp clutching branches.
Each direction she looked seemed to offer as little hope for escape as the next, and now the air seemed to carry an acrid, nauseating scent of the charred remains of once living things. With anxiety descending like a shadow over her mind Marie felt certain that remaining where she was would mean death, so moving to almost anywhere else at least held some hope for survival.
A gust of wind swept through the forest making the trees groan with laughter which seemed to be directed at her thoughts of escape. As she rose to her feet the laughter ceased, and she surveyed her options once more. From her new vantage, Marie saw that she had been sitting in the middle of a path that twisted toward where she imagined the sleepy watchful eye of the sun to be perched on the horizon.
Once standing, her blue and green plaid gown fell to her knees and tickled the back of her legs in the breeze. Memories of needles, bags of chemicals, and bed pans flicked across her mind with each movement of the gown, and of course there was the image of Zoe. Marie wanted to forget the last time she saw her daughter. It had been an ugly scene, and she wanted to blame Sam.
There wasn’t much he could have done though. How do you explain to a four-year-old that her mother is dying? That she has faded away and looks like a stranger? If the tables were turned, Marie wasn’t sure that she would have been able to handle it any differently. All Marie had wanted was to hold Zoe, to let her know how much she was loved, but Zoe wouldn’t come near the bed. For that last short visit all Zoe did was stand by the edge of the curtain, clinging to her stuffed giraffe, staring with frightened eyes at someone she didn’t recognize.
Marie tried to blink that image away, and focus on the good times, like the day she bought Zoe her giraffe. The two of them had gone to the zoo, and Zoe managed to get vanilla ice cream all over her face, even in her curly blonde pigtails. That was less than a year ago, but it seemed an eternity, and even that memory was tainted.
When they got home from the zoo, the phone’s message light was flashing, and Marie ignored it for nearly an hour before she could bring herself to listen to it. She knew it would be the doctor’s office. Her test results would be in.
As soon as Zoe was down for her nap, Marie took the phone and the baby monitor, and sat on the back deck. After she returned the call as instructed on the message, Marie sat, silently crying, waiting for Sam to get home.
“How was the zoo?” Sam strolled over to the patio set, beer in hand. Marie hadn’t even heard the rattle of the garage door, which always told her when Sam was home. He was about to sit across from her when he really looked at her. “Oh my god Marie, are you alright? Is Zoe OK?” She probably looked like Alice Cooper, mascara and eyeliner smudged all over her face.
“Zoe’s fine. But I’m not.” Marie tried to tell Sam that she needed to start radiation the following week as calmly as she could and was surprised that she was mostly successful. They sat for a long time, not speaking, just trying to let everything sink in.
A snap of twigs somewhere in the blackness of the forest brought Marie back from her memories. Something was out there; watching, waiting, stalking. She took a few steps down the path, carefully placing her feet, and listened. When Marie moved it moved, when she stopped it stopped. But it was hard to say exactly where the pursuer was. Sounds seemed to echo off the dead trees in each direction.
Flashes of the past popped in and out of Marie’s mind, giving her a faint recollection of having been chased by this same beast into the forest. She couldn’t recall seeing the creature exactly, but she was sure it had a mouth of razor blades and a jaw with a vice-like grip. If it ever caught up to her she would never be able to escape.
Sifting through muddled memories, Marie couldn’t find the point at which the beast had entered her life, and she felt that perhaps it had been the only constant companion she’d ever had. It had stayed with her, even after she found out that Sam would not. Her battle was too much for him and had shattered his image of the perfect family life. They say that hardships show you who people really are, and for once Marie believed they, whoever ‘they’ were, were right.
Curiously though the monster in the darkness never staged a full attack; it only followed. It easily could have destroyed Marie when she slumbered on the mossy tree trunk, but instead it left her until she awoke and became aware of its presence.
As the wind rustled the trees again, Marie was sure she could hear whispers between the trees and the beast, conspiring to get her. That was when Marie stopped trying to figure out what stalked her through the shadows and refocused on trying to escape. She stayed on the path, which never seemed to go in a direct line.
The path wound through the forest, though the trees always seemed to be well off to either side. It was as if the trees were forbidden from growing too close to the path, preventing them from snatching any travelers.
Very clearly now, Marie recognized that the creature’s steps were coming from behind her, over her left shoulder. The steps were faint, probably made by padded paws, but they remained at a constant distance, always matching Marie’s pace.
For what seemed like hours Marie walked the winding path and passed innumerable dead gnarled trees. She came across a stream that curved toward the path and then trickled its way back into the darkness. The sound of the water meandering through the forest, around and over stones and pebbles awakened her thirst. It seemed that she hadn’t had anything to drink for ages. Her body had been kept hydrated directly through her veins, with her mouth only receiving moisture from ice chips and dampened sponges. She knelt to scoop a handful of water to drink.
In the still flickering last light of the sun, the water looked almost black. As she got closer to the stream she began to smell something heavy and metallic, not exactly offensive, but unexpected. Her cupped hands breached the surface of the stream and Marie was struck by the warmth of the water. Her thirst didn’t care whether the water was tepid or glacial and drove her lips and tongue into a frenzied motion of lapping and sucking the liquid from her flesh-made cup. She drained the first handful so quickly that it passed from lips to gullet without Marie even tasting the water.
With the ravenous thirst dying away, the second handful was drunk slower allowing her olfactory senses and taste buds to work together, telling Marie that it was not water she had been drinking. In the periwinkle light infiltrating through the trees Marie could see that her hands were stained red. The stream flowed blood like an open vein.
Part of her wanted to retch the contents of her stomach, but the other part didn’t want to return to a nearly insatiable thirst. At least for the time being her thirst felt under control, and strangely she felt stronger now, strong enough that she believed her body could run.
Marie had turned her attention away from her pursuer, but all at once her awareness snapped back as she could hear the beast lapping at the blood further down-stream, still cloaked in the shadows.
Run, her mind shouted. And so, she did. With each stride Marie felt her muscles strengthening, her feet seemed to know exactly which way to turn on the path before her eyes could even register the twists and turns in the dim light.
The beast began running in the darkness after Marie, yet still not gaining or losing any distance between them. Glancing over her shoulder almost constantly Marie kept expecting the sharp teeth of the creature to explode out of the darkness and plunge into her flesh.
As her eyes repeatedly scanned the shadows behind the trees Marie noticed that her surroundings were changing. No longer did the forest look like a burnt-out nightmare place. The trees were still old and gnarled, but with each footfall farther down the path each tree seemed to harbor more and more leaves. The ground was changing step by step too. Life seemed to be breaking its way through the damage.
Perhaps sensing that Marie was going to escape, the beast dialed up its efforts, closing the gap between them for the first time. Marie pushed harder but still the creature was gaining ground. She stopped looking behind her to focus all her energy into what lay ahead.
Rounding another bend in the path Marie finally saw what she never thought she would find. Up only a few yards away she saw an end to the tree line, with an open meadow stretching out to a horizon where the sleepy watchful eye of the sun sat perched, just as she had imagined. As she got closer she could finally see that the sun had not been dying after all but was being reborn into a new day.
With only a few steps to go the beast was close enough that Marie could feel its panting breath caressing the centre of her back. In desperation the beast swiped an appendage toward Marie. She felt knives slicing through her spine, sending her tumbling to the ground. She cried out in pain, and anguish that although she had come so far and almost escaped the creature had still won. With eyes closed she waited for biting and shredding of flesh to end her life. But there was none, only a howl from the creature, sharp and piercing like a banshee’s cry.
When Marie fell to the ground she landed in the lush green meadow bathed in light on the other side of the tree line. She had made it after all and began to weep. As she lay soaking in the sun, Marie strained her neck to look back at the forest to see if she could identify the creature that had nearly destroyed her. But the beast stayed in the shadows, pacing back and forth at the edge of the darkness, and continued howling over its lost prey. It was trapped, and she was free.
Marie let her head fall back and felt a blanket of peace wrap around her. She thought about Zoe. What she would look like when she grew up, what sort of dreams she would follow, and what kind of life she would make for herself. Marie looked back at her life and smiled at the little miracles she had seen – the perfect blanket of snow that fell outside the cabin when Sam had proposed, the day her parents lit up when they found out they would be grandparents, and of course the day Zoe was born, wrapping her perfect little fingers around Marie’s. There had been so many sparks of happiness that had outshone the bleak and dark memories. Marie let go of them all and let her mind immerse itself in divine nothingness.
[This story first appeared in Indie Writers Review Issue 4 available on Amazon. It’s a great magazine, filled with short stories, poetry, book reviews and author interviews. The publishers are always on the look out for new content, so feel free to check them out on: Facebook @indiewritersreview or Twitter @indie_writers.]