by Matthew King
Pickle Gap Road is a cold, lonely path wandering along the western face of Rogers Bald in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Solitude is a valuable and dwindling asset in the hills, and it was the last thing Rogers Bald had left to give. Only a handful of hikers ever made it to the trailhead. Those that did rarely fought through the tangled webs of blueberry bushes that had overgrown much of the path. A few made it past, and so the stories of its treacherous outcroppings and challenging slope made their way through the hiking circles. Ned Parker first read about it on the Pisgah Hikers’ Message Board and immediately made plans for a trip. He dialed his manager’s number while grabbing his pre-packed bag and tent from the closet.
“Todd Martin speaking.”
“Todd. It’s Ned.”
“Ned? Funny, Frank and I were just wondering when we’d talk to you again. We thought we might’ve been sending paychecks to an empty house.”
“Yeah.” Ned rolled his eyes. “Look, I’m heading out for the weekend.”
“Ned, it’s Thursday.”
“I know what day it is.”
“Then you also know we work until Friday at five-thirty.”
“You do. I work when I want to.”
There was a scratching noise on the other end like a hand muffling the receiver. A few seconds later, Ned heard his boss sigh heavily. “Do you have to, Ned? You know we need that new version out by next week.”
“Yeah, I do have to. And stop worrying about the next version. It’ll get out on time and be just as crappy as usual, my stuff withstanding. I’ll give it to you by Monday.”
“Monday? Jesus, Ned. Do you realize the bind you’re putting us in?”
Ned yawned dramatically.
“Why you little—”
“Careful, Todd,” Ned replied. “I’d hate to have Frank hear whatever you were about to say to me.”
“You may scare Frank, but you don’t scare me.”
“Really? Then you won’t mind if I give Microsoft a call to let them know my services have just become available. Maybe while we’re chatting we can also talk about some licensing issues I might have information on. I hear they’re especially hard on other software companies when it comes to stuff like that.”
There was another long pause before Todd spoke again. “Fine. Have it in my e-mail by—”
Ned hung up the phone and grinned. He leafed through a stack of CDs on his keyboard and picked out the one marked “Ver. 5.1.” Below it was a time stamp. Twenty-eight minutes total work, Ned gloated to himself. Another personal record. He dropped the CD in his computer’s drive and pre-posted an e-mail for Monday, five thirty-five p.m. With any luck, he’d still be out in the middle of nowhere by then, enjoying the lack of company and toasting to Todd’s ulcer.
*** *** ***
Once he’d exited the highway and made his way onto the fire roads, Ned understood why everyone on the board had hiked their way in instead of taking a car. The potholes were more like miniature canyons. When he wasn’t dodging them, he was veering from one side of the road to the other to avoid fallen trees. There were some decent-sized logs around most of them, but Ned decided against stopping to pick some up. Fires, even small ones, tended to attract people, and suffering through idle chit-chat with some hillbilly was the last thing he wanted to do.
Ned finally made it to the trailhead, and walked for the better part of an hour without hearing so much as a squirrel running through the leaves. It was better than heaven. Just knowing that he had the place to himself brought a wry grin to his face. Ned rounded the corner of the first switchback and stopped mid-stride. His smile faded. He looked up to see a dark silhouette staring down at him from a rock outcropping. It was a man, judging by his build, but his face was obscured by the shadows of the stone rocks jutting out from the mountainside. He sat motionless with one arm hanging over his bent knee and the other holding a longneck pipe.
“Nice day for a walk.” The man spoke in an even, elegant tone.
It was. Suddenly the afternoon didn’t seem so promising thanks to this. What was he anyway? A British tourist? Sounded like it. He considered walking straight by but the man spoke again before he could move.
“Camping on the summit tonight?”
“Going at it alone, I like that. There’s something to be said for solitude, is there not?”
“If you say so.”
The man took a short drag from his pipe and blew away the smoke in a twisting column. He studied Ned briefly. “Do you pray?”
“Do I what?”
“Do you pray?” the man repeated.
Ned looked around in bewilderment. “No,” he said, finally dismissing the question with a snort. “Why would I?”
Ned couldn’t tell for sure, but he thought he saw a smile appear on the man’s face. Another plume of smoke billowed around his silhouette and then the man leaned over to pick something out from the shadows of the rock.
“Hey! Watch it!” Ned jumped back as a wrapped package landed on the trail at his feet.
The man rose and turned his back to Ned to walk up the slope. He moved with an uncommon gracefulness across the rock face and disappeared into the thick growth of rhododendron.
What in the hell was that? Ned stood in the center of the trail, too confused to move. He looked down at his feet, half expecting the package to not be there, but there it was. Ned looked around again to make sure he was alone before bending down to pick it up. The sides of it barely stretched over his palm. He held it for a moment trying to decide if he should keep it or chuck it into the woods. It couldn’t hurt to hold onto it, he finally decided, and what would be so bad about opening it once he got to the top? It could be the carrot that put him back on schedule for the summit.
Once he’d reached the top and staked his tent, Ned sat on a stump and sipped his tea as he stared at the bulging right pocket of his backpack. The square outline of the box was silhouetted against the last of the remaining sunlight, almost screaming at him to take it out. He took another sip and repeated to himself all the reasons he’d come up with to throw the box away, but he knew what would happen in the end. His curiosity would get the better of him. After one final chug of oolong, he threw the remainder in the grass and stood up to grab his pack.
The box had a certain unbalanced weight to it that he hadn’t noticed earlier when he’d picked it up. There was no bow, no markings to indicate it was any sort of strange present, it simply had a plain gray paper covering with seams sealed by a drop of wax. He shook it once more and the contents clinked against the side of the box. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Ned broke the seal and the paper unfurled and fell to the ground. He eyed the simple wooden box left in his palm. It was smooth and undecorated on all sides except for a small button just beneath its top. Ned pushed it in, expecting a spring-loaded plastic snake to pop out, but the lid merely cracked open a hair. He lifted it open and turned his back to the sunset to shed light on the inside. It sparkled in the dying light, quickening his heart for a moment as he tried to figure out what it was he was looking at. Maybe that guy was a crazy philanthropist after all, one of those who take trail magic to the extreme. If it was jewelry it was worth a fortune! He flipped the box over and caught the object in his hand, immediately running his fingers over the shape. He stopped soon after and drifted into a stare.
“A doorknob,” he said absently.
It couldn’t be. He held it up to the light again and looked at the crystal dome, which had been geometrically cut to look like a diamond, but had a tapering bottom that connected to a short metal rod. There was no doubt about it. The dumb prick had managed to get his hopes up over a cheap glass doorknob of all things.
“Goddamn people!” he yelled. He reared back and threw the piece of garbage as hard as he could into the mud.
Ned felt like he was drowning in a sea of mindless halfwits. Humanity was a fucking menace. His facial muscles tightened to the point where his ears started to ring. Ned kicked the head off of a dandelion and out of the corner of his eye spotted the doorknob sticking up out of the dirt. Which way had the bastard gone? East? Close enough. He reached down to grab the knob and throw it as far as he could toward the eastern ridge, but the doorknob didn’t move.
What the… Ned yanked at it again and again, but the glass wouldn’t budge. He kicked it with his heel. Still nothing. He stared at it with a scowl until an odd thought crossed his mind. This is nuts, he told himself, but he couldn’t move his fingers away. Instead, they tightened, and he felt the sharp lines of the glass dig into his palm. Ned turned the knob.
The sharpness of the sound scared him and he jumped backwards, crawling away like a crab that’d fallen on its back. His chest was pounding so hard he heard it in his ears. Ned shook it off and got to his feet. To his right was the tent and he picked up the Mag light he’d stationed just outside the door. He scanned his surroundings again, half-expecting the man in the suit to be watching him from the treeline. He saw nothing but shadows. Get a hold of yourself, for chrissake, Ned thought. He’s gone.
After a few deep breaths, Ned forced his hand to grasp the knob again. He turned the glass clockwise and kept his hand there even after the Click! The pounding in his chest returned; Ned ignored it. He tugged the knob lightly at first, then with a little more force. Nothing. The dirt never moved. Ned cursed in disgust and hung his head. He was a fool. Even so, he did hear a click, didn’t he? He couldn’t have imagined that. Ned’s eyes flashed over where he knelt and the answer hit him. He moved his legs away from the doorknob. If it was a door, he was sitting right on top of it. Ned tried the handle again and this time felt the earth beneath it move. A small crack appeared in the dirt and spread outward to form a rectangular outline. Ned pulled harder and the door gave way finally pulling it back far enough until it fell against the ground with a deep thud! A matching glass doorknob stuck out on the other side, amidst a sea of grass roots. Ned got to his feet and looked into the hole.
The chasm appeared to be empty, but on second look he could make out faint pinpoints of light. There were a few scattered around the black void, each one flickering as though they were—
“Stars,” he muttered aloud. Yes! He was looking at stars, no doubt about it. There was a breeze also, a cold one that drifted up out of the doorway and tickled the hairs on his legs. It was sweet-smelling, like he imagined untouched air would be. Ned’s mind overflowed with curiosity. He picked up a small rock off the ground and held his arm out over the middle to drop it in. It disappeared into the darkness for a moment and then resurfaced, bouncing in the air before falling through the doorway again. Ned watched it fall back and forth until he stuck out his hand to catch it and break the cycle. Gravity, that was good, he supposed. It meant there was probably a surface of some kind to walk on. He tossed the rock back in, this time at an angle. There was a faint rustle on the other side that sounded something like grass.
Pros and cons, Parker. The mental order triggered the creation of two lists in his mind. What were the negatives of going through the door? Maybe he couldn’t breathe the air, but he didn’t think so. It smelled so good and clean. What if something over there killed him or tried to eat him? What about disease? How would he get back? Ned answered all of these questions almost as quickly as they had formed. He would simply leave the door open. If things went bad, he’d hop back into this world, at an angle, of course. And the positives? Only one came to mind, and it was the only one he needed. I could leave this crappy world forever.
Ned looked back into the hole and noticed that the sky on the opposite side had lightened somewhat. The stars were beginning to fade. His day pack sat beside him and he threw the straps over his shoulders and fastened the clips across his chest and waist. He wiped his palms to get rid of the sweat and re-gripped the Mag light. The lava flow of air coming from the doorway drew him back to the opening. He looked in again and picked his spot. Far side, dive straight through, prepare to roll. Ned backed up a few steps and took a deep breath. So long, suckers! He ran forward, smiling impishly, and jumped through to the other side.
*** *** ***
The hard ground rattled his rib cage as he fell face-first into a clump of thick, waxy vegetation. It was like swimming in a bowl of fake fruit. He couldn’t see much because of the darkness, but this world didn’t seem all too different from his own. He was high up, he could tell that from the cold air, and there were trees scattered about him, although their size dwarfed anything he’d ever seen, including the Sequoias out in California. They were probably twice that size, maybe three times even.
Ned felt a sudden urge to check the doorway behind him. He pushed himself up and checked the ground behind him. The doorway was gone! Ned fell to his knees and frantically searched through the grass with his hands, looking for the doorknob. His programming instincts told him to always have a rollback mechanism built in. Now his had failed. The growing halo of light in the skies ahead cast a crimson haze over the grass. He caught something shimmer briefly out of the corner of his eye and looked down to see a doorknob nestled in the brush. He reached down to grab it and cringed as the handle came free without resistance, confirming the growing realization in his mind that the world he knew was gone forever.
Maybe not, his mind shot back. Maybe I can use this to get back anytime I want. That’s what doors are for, right? They don’t close off things permanently. Besides, who’d want to go back to that hell hole anyway? His breathing eased back into a regular rhythm. It was an uneasy calm, but he’d take it. “Explore,” he said aloud. “Take a look around, Parker. Let’s see what we’ve got.” Ned rolled the doorknob around in his hand once more before placing it in the mesh side pocket of his backpack.
The red haze of dawn put off just enough light for him to begin walking around without using his flashlight. Nearly half of the horizon to his left was backlit from the rising sun. He could see the silhouette of a mountain range that carpeted the landscape from one end of the light to the other. In fact, everywhere he looked he saw peaks and valleys. The meadow he was standing in was repeated on a number of hilltops but the majority of them were covered with the wide trunks of what he was beginning to call the Steroid Sequoias. Ned put an ear to the wind, but couldn’t hear any birds singing from their limbs, or streams rushing through their forests. The air had become completely still, as though it was scared to move.
The grass beneath his feet squeaked against the rubber soles of his shoes as he walked. He bent down to look at the blades again and flipped the switch of his flashlight to see them in his growing shadow. In the halogen light, the grass looked like it was covered in a blanket of snow. Ned snapped off a piece to look at it up close. The outer covering was damp to the touch, almost as if it was sweating. He decided that the moisture had probably come from an overnight shower. The green blade of grass could barely be seen through the layer of wax armor. It was pliable enough to bend, but only a microscopic chip fell off when he scraped across it with his fingernail.
Ned felt a stinging sensation on the back of his neck and swatted at it. His skin was warm to the touch. The stillness of the air was broken by a growing high-pitched whine in the distance. It sounded like the first few jets of steam leaving a boiling kettle. Ned froze in place, afraid to move. Now the hand on the back of his neck was hit with the same sort of pain. He took it away and brought it under the flashlight. The top half of his hand was a deep, cherry red. Suddenly the hairs on the back of his head began to bristle. The hissing sound grew deafening.
Ned swung around and immediately threw his hands up over his face, dropping the Mag light. The horizon was filled with a giant red sun that raced skyward above the distant peaks. As the light hit him, it began to sear the palms of his hands. His clothes were starting to stick to his skin and he wondered…are they melting? Ned reached back to grab hold of the doorknob. The metal shaft burned itself into his palm but he didn’t care. Every exposed area of his body was pulsing with pain. A scent like burnt plastic filled his nostrils and his mind somehow accepted the fact that his clothes were likely on fire.
Still holding onto the doorknob, Ned jerked his backpack up until it covered his head and he turned his back to the red giant. He stumbled forward and collapsed on the waxy earth, whose grass now felt more like wet pasta. Ned looked over to make sure he was still gripping the doorknob. He could no longer feel it in his hand. He jammed it down and buried it an inch into the soil. The knob slipped through his sweaty fingers on his first attempt to turn it. He peeled a bit of his shirt away to help and was not entirely surprised to see bits of his own skin dangling from the fabric. He turned the knob and opened the doorway just as he heard his backpack pop like a balloon. Sweat filled his eyes, blurring the world on the other side. His skin cracked as he moved. Ned willed his legs into motion and lunged for the doorknob on the back of the door. He grabbed it and yanked backwards, falling into the hole and closing the door with him.
*** *** ***
For a moment, Ned felt like he was floating in air, but the feeling lasted only a fleeting second as his body crashed down onto an unforgiving and rough surface. His ear smacked against the ground, building a new network of cobwebs on top of what already filled his head. He kept his eyes closed and enjoyed the cool air on his skin. It was almost like he could feel each particle of wind as it crossed his body, and that’s when the pain hit. It was immediate and complete, touching every extremity and making him feel like he’d been…
Ned wondered exactly how close he’d just come to buying the farm. Or was he already dead? His eyes shot open. At first, his vision was filled with orange and red orbs pulsing all around him. Then his eyes started to adjust and he focused on a brick wall just a few inches from his face. Brick? Was it really?
Ned pushed himself up and wiped off a thick coat of slime from his hands. Everything around him was covered with a glossy layer of black filth. He patted the floor near his legs and found the doorknob resting against the bricks. The netting of his backpack disintegrated, Ned decided to keep it in the main chamber. He unshouldered the pack and felt around for the zipper, but he wouldn’t need it. A hole the size of his forearm was burned into the nylon. Everything inside was in shambles. The plastic bags filled with food had melted, as had his backup flashlight. Each of his three water bottles had ruptured and spilled. It made the dryness in his throat almost unbearable. Water first, his survival instincts told him. Water, then shelter, then food.
Ned looked up and saw a band of blue sky above him. He followed it, using it as an upside-down path out of the alleyway. He realized as he walked that his right leg was dragging lazily behind his left. He ignored it and instead concentrated on the growing hum coming from up ahead. The band of sky turned right and Ned followed it down until he saw a break in the darkness. He limped faster, falling twice against the side of the alley and grating his burned skin across the jagged bricks. As he approached the exit, he heard the cracking sound of an overhead speaker being turned on, then a booming voice shouted into the air, “LABOR DAY COMMENCES IN FIVE MINUTES! ALL WORKING MEN AND WOMEN REPORT TO YOUR POSTS! GOOD DAY!”
Ned’s eyes focused on the exit more clearly and he saw for the first time the sea of people mulling about the streets. In just a few seconds, he guessed that more than a hundred people walked by the alley, all of them wearing strange-colored suits that covered every inch of their body except the face. The sight of them made his stomach turn; he looked down at the doorknob for a moment and then tucked it away in his shorts. The other worlds could wait. He might as well try to find some water first, maybe some new clothes as well.
A series of shouts broke out in the street. Ned hurried ahead, catching himself before he became lost in the rush of people. The buildings along the street were gigantic, filling nearly every inch of space there was below the clouds. A stream of white smoke poured out of the sides of every building and filtered down to the streets. Gray, lifeless architecture loomed over a sea of off-white concrete. There wasn’t a shade of color in sight. And worse, Ned thought, absolutely no sign of natural life, not even a plant hanging in a window.
The shouts roared out again and Ned looked over to see a mob of people banging on the door of a tower across the street. Grown men were crying and jumping on top of one another to get inside. One of the larger ones tossed a skinny dark-haired man out into the street. The reject tried to muscle his way back into the crowd but was thrown out again by a woman wielding a metal briefcase. He stood in the middle of the street, crying, until he saw Ned watching from the alleyway entrance. He ran over and grabbed hold of Ned’s arm.
“Get off of me!”
“Are you a boss?” he asked. His teeth chattered as he spoke. “You gotta job for me, Mister?”
“Leave me alone.”
“Please, I’ll do anything. Anything! I have two wives and four young children. See?” The man pulled a rectangular picture from his pocket that had been printed on metal. Six sullen faces stared back at him. “I need a job, Mister. Can’t you help me?”
Ned jerked his arm away. “I don’t have a job for you.”
“Aren’t you a boss? I won’t tell anybody. We can do the paperwork right here, I—”
“I’m not a fucking boss!”
The man’s strained smile faded quickly as his eyes drifted into a stare. He paused for a moment as though he were solving a mental puzzle and then his smile returned, this time a bit more knowing. “Do you have any tanks?”
Ned shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“O, man! O! I need some, Paralos damn you! Can’t you see I’m losin’ it? Can’t you?! I’m down to a C-level! A migrant worker! Almost a shit-brained FEEB!”
Ned pushed the man away and he fell backwards onto the cement. Ned watched him writhe on his back and cry until he couldn’t stand it anymore. He stepped backwards onto the sidewalk only to become lost in a fast-moving current of people. It was impossible to escape as people pushed and shoved their way toward the nearest building doorway. They all had a panicked look in their eyes as though they were about to drown.
“ATTENTION!” the booming voice yelled out again from the tops of the buildings. “WORKING MEN AND WOMEN SHOULD BE AT THEIR POSTS IN FIFTEEN SECONDS FOR SCANNING. REPEAT, FIFTEEN SECONDS UNTIL FINAL SCAN!”
The speaker cracked as the voice faded away. Hordes of men and women began screaming and pounding on windows. Ned found himself alone in the middle of the street. His throat ached for water, but he couldn’t stand being in this world a second longer. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the doorknob. “Make it a good one,” he said, and bent down to poke the handle into the ground. The metal clanked against the concrete. Ned tried again and the doorknob bounced back. It couldn’t get through. Panicked, Ned limped over to a building wall, pushing people aside to get to the surface. He jammed the doorknob into a piece of glass and cried out as it ricocheted back.
“THE WORKDAY HAS BEGUN! CONGRATULATIONS TO THOSE MEN AND WOMEN WHO KEEP OUR SECTOR STRONG! GOOD DAY!”
Everyone paused for a moment to look up at the buildings. The steam that Ned had noticed when he first stepped out into the street began to dissipate into little more than a tendril. The sight of it incited a rush of people toward the dwindling cloud. Ned fell back against the wall and tried to make sense of what had transpired. He took a deep breath and found that he couldn’t fill his lungs all the way. He took another and coughed. Every intake felt more shallow than the other.
“Come on, boss! Give me some O!”
Ned felt a hand grab his shoulder and turn him around. The dark-haired man pawed at his clothes.
“Where is it?! GIVE IT TO ME!”
Ned tried to get away but fell back as the man tackled him to the concrete. He swiped lazily at the man’s head and missed. If only he could catch his breath.
“O. O, O, O!” the man wailed as he turned Ned over to search his back. Thrusting his arm backwards, Ned caught him against the side of the head with the doorknob. The man fell off and began babbling incoherently as he lay on the ground. Ned pushed himself up. He grabbed the man’s shirt to hit him again and his fingers dug into his flabby chest. Ned reared back to strike and then stopped. He fought off a wave of lightheadedness and stared at the prone man, rolling the layer of muscle and fat between his fingers. He brought the doorknob down and looked at the metal shaft. His eyes switched between the two until he saw the man’s unconsciousness starting to fade. Now! his mind screamed at him. Do it!
“Do you pray?” Ned asked him. His voice sounded far away.
The man looked confused. “What?”
“I don’t know. Somebody asked me that once.”
Ned let out a rushed laugh and brought the doorknob back behind his head. He jammed it down into the side of the man’s stomach until the shaft buried itself in the skin. A gurgling scream erupted from the man and Ned used his good foot to pin him down. He turned the knob and laughed through a hoarse cough as it greeted him with a click! He pulled back, opening a hole from the midriff to the shoulders. The man’s screams ceased. Shaking off his dizziness, Ned took hold of the opposite knob protruding from a patch of small intestine and jumped through to the other side.
*** *** ***
After his escape from the city, Ned auditioned and rejected a host of worlds until he stopped keeping track of the count. There was the planet made up entirely of water, where he had almost given up hope of reaching the bottom to open another doorway. He was saved by a riptide that forced him down through the pressure of the sea, nearly rendering him unconscious as he approached the sea floor. He turned the knob just as his eyesight began to fade. Other worlds followed, each one more terrible than the other, and each one, in his opinion, had a common cause for their state: humans. Ned had never hated them more. They were weak, slow-minded, and didn’t deserve the lives they were given. It got to the point near the end where he would leave a world at the first sign of human life. He held in his hand the key to unlocking doorways to an infinite number of universes. Why couldn’t he find one that wasn’t tainted by mankind?
After escaping a world overrun with murderous children, Ned traveled through the doorway and fell into a patch of something that felt like grass. I wonder if it has a wax covering? he thought. His eyes opened and a gust of wind made him narrow them into a squint. He was definitely on grass; it was mostly brown mixed with a few patches of new, green shafts poking through in spots. Ned rose to sit up and winced. His back and legs sent angry shots of pain up his spine. He ran his fingers across his neck and felt his hard, wrinkled skin. His left foot cocked itself awkwardly behind him, as useless as it was painful. His ears still rung from being forced under the ocean’s pressure. If the man in the woods had meant to kill him, it was taking a helluva long time. But that’s not the case, Ned told himself. He was given a gift to escape, he just hadn’t found the right destination yet.
Sunlight reflected off the doorknob sitting next to his hand. Ned stood and closed his eyes as he took a deep breath. The air was cool but invigorating. He peeked out of one eye and then quickly opened the other one. He was standing on top of a grassy bald in the middle of a mountain range. A hawk swung down into view and Ned followed it as it twisted through the air, guiding him through a panoramic tour of his surroundings. “I know this,” Ned said aloud. Everything around him triggered a memory. The knife-edge peak off to his right was Mt. Pisgah, he was sure of it. And if that were true, there should have been a road winding up to the top with a large parking lot nestled just below the top, but there was nothing. Just beyond Pisgah he saw Black Balsam, its unmistakable green dome towering over Graveyard Fields. But where was the Blue Ridge Parkway? Where was the pulloff and the signs telling people where to point their cameras?
A deer walked out from the treeline below him. The doe watched Ned as it chewed on a mouthful of grass, perfectly content to share the mountain top with a stranger.
I’m alone! he shouted in his mind. Ned screamed out in joy and listened to his voice ricochet off the sides of mountains. It was the first pure moment of happiness he’d had in a long time.
With a broad smile draped across his face, Ned scanned the scenery until he recognized a mountain leading out toward the east. He’d thought about hurling a doorknob that way once hoping that it would brain the crazy bastard who’d stopped him on the trail. Ned looked down and rolled the doorknob around in his hand. The smile changed to a sideways grin as he tightened his fingers around the glass. “You thought you could outlast me, didn’t you?” he said, raising his voice against the wind. “Thought I’d give up that easily. Nobody gets the best of Ned Parker, kiddo! Nobody!” Ned reared back and hurled the doorknob through the air, watching it sail against the blue sky and then disappear into the forest below. He laughed out loud when he heard the glass shatter against a tree.
Ned turned around and limped back to the top of the bald. He would need to set up a camp soon. Water, shelter, fire, food, the four basic survival needs in the wilderness. He couldn’t wait to test out his outdoors knowledge. Fire might be tough to come by, depending on the rocks in the area, but—
A rustle of leaves interrupted the quiet stillness. Ned froze and listened to the wind. He paused for a moment, nearly allowing himself to exhale when he heard the noise again, closer, and sounding almost as if it had come from a different spot. It was followed by a low, gurgling moan. In some obscure corner of his mind, Ned felt a brief moment of relief. The sound didn’t seem like it was human. He turned slowly on his good foot, ready to grab some sort of stick to fend off whatever animal was moving in on him. Soon after he’d focused on the woods below him, Ned felt a stream of hot urine flowing down his leg. His screams soon followed.
Moving out of the shadows of trees were hoards of naked men and women. Black hair fell like rivers of oil over their shoulders, covering mangled humps along their back. More emerged from underground, pushing their way up through the dirt with claws that were longer than their fingers. They sniffed the air with pointed noses and then turned to follow the group heading toward Ned. They inched up the mountainside, gurgling and whimpering like hungry dogs searching for food. Faces swathed with dirt looked from side to side, passing over him as they surveyed his scent. A dome of translucent skin covered their eyes. As they got closer, Ned saw rows of sharp fangs jutting out of mouths that hung open in a pant.
“Go on!” he cried out meekly. “Get out of here!”
The creatures whipped their heads around, honing in on his voice. Most were running now, snorting as they trudged up the hillside. Ned could hear more coming from behind but he didn’t dare turn around. His mind spiraled out of control, leaving him paralyzed. Think of something, Parker! he screamed inside, but the orders went unheeded. It was too late. What good would running do when everywhere he looked, he saw mindless, ravenous…
…beasts charging at him? It wasn’t fair! IT WASN’T GODDAMN FAIR!
The first of the dirt-dwellers reached Ned and latched a clawed hand onto his arm. The man tugged at him, using Ned’s screams as a guide to inch his other hand closer to the neck. Claws like needles raked across his jugular, lightly at first and then with growing pressure. He saw ribbons of skin—his skin—hanging off of the beast’s claws. It rushed them toward its mouth, sucking them in through the gaps in its teeth.
Ned screamed out and flailed his body around to no avail. Every movement dug the talons deeper into his arm. Another set punctured his back, and he felt a hot, steamy breath surveying his head. His eyes flashed wide as he felt the dagger-teeth take away a chunk of his scalp. The growing mob cheered with a chorus of inharmonious whelps.
*** *** ***
When the feast subsided, the dirt-dwellers retired to their homes deep within the mountain. Rogers Bald, a picture of solitude, resumed its watch over the Pisgah, providing a tempting lure to the passing traveler desperate to attain a brief moment of isolation. The discouraging grade of Pickle Gap Road was a memory long forgotten. But the prospective wanderer should not fear, for there are always passages available for those eager to escape the world around them.