Strawberries Bleed at Midnight

by Keily Arnold

 

When Samantha bit into another bright red strawberry, the juice leaked through her lips, dripping onto her apron and staining the white cloth. She groaned. She had hoped to avoid another argument with her husband. She’d earned a strawberry or two. Her husband and the farm hands had turned in at the first signs of twilight, but even as the sun set, she busied herself with picking more. Every muscle ached from bending over and crouching down. Her legs burned from the last fire ant hill she’d had the misfortune of stepping in. Her body screamed for rest.

She set down her basket and looked up at the sky. Pink, orange, and red hues streaked the horizon. It was the only thing about Ider, Alabama that still held any sort of magic for her. She’d spent her entire life in the small town. She’d grown up with the same unchanging group of people and married James right after graduating from Ider High School. Farm life had suited her, as it suited most of the citizens of Ider. She’d been content with James. When she found out she was pregnant at age twenty with the twins, she’d been ecstatic. Samantha had latched onto motherhood and stumbled her way through the first five years. For those precious moments, Ider had seemed new and different. Peter and Evelyn had given her a purpose, a destiny besides being a farmer’s wife.

Then she found Peter’s body at the edge of the woods.

The sky’s brilliant colors gave way to shades of gray. Soon, it would be too dark to pick berries. Then she’d have to return home to whatever mood James was in. She scratched her arm, nails scraping against the bruises that littered her skin. She yanked down her sleeve to cover them.

When she lifted her gaze again, she stared at the woods that bordered their land. A single dirt road led into town. If James had already passed out from another night of drinking, he wouldn’t hear her snatch the keys to their truck from his coat pocket. Evelyn wouldn’t make a sound if Samantha snatched her from bed and ran out to the truck. In the three months since Peter had died, Evelyn hadn’t spoken a word. They would drive up north to some booming city and leave farm life, James, and Peter behind.

She gripped her basket with tired, sore fingers. There was no leaving Peter behind. She’d never lose the image of his mangled body. Whatever had snatched him from the fields had torn into him with crude and savage force, ripping open his arms and legs. His chest had been clawed open, and his still heart torn out. Evelyn had found one of his fingers a few feet from the corpse, and Samantha had to pry it from her tiny, frozen hands as she screamed.

“What are you still doing out here? Get inside.”

Samantha turned around. She wrinkled her nose at the stench of whiskey-laced breath that blew onto her face as James sighed.

“You’ve been eating them again,” he said.
He motioned to the basket. It was a lazy wave of his hand, but she knew better than to question it. She knew what he wanted. She set down the basket and closed her eyes.

The first blow hit her in the chest, knocking the breath out of her. The second time, he kicked her legs to knock her over. He kicked her ribs three times, each time harder than the last. She knew better than to make a sound. He’d only hit harder, and Evelyn would probably hear.

“Get inside,” he said.

She rose with care. One hand dusted off her blouse. When he wasn’t looking, her fingers lingered over the places where she’d find bruises later. She hurried past him to the little house that occupied their land. Evelyn waited in the doorway. Her tiny fists swiped the sleep from her eyes.

Samantha scooped her up in her arms. She’d hoped the motion would shock some tiny peep out of the girl, but she remained as silent as ever.

Evelyn had been the chatty twin. While Peter explored and brought home all sorts of odds and ends, Evelyn went on and on about their adventures. Peter this, Peter that.

Ever since he died, she could only scream in her sleep.

Samantha tucked her back into bed. Evelyn stared up at her, mouth in a flat line. She gripped Samantha’s wrist, nails digging into the skin.

“I’ll stay with you,” Samantha promised.

The lie was sour on her tongue, and she was sure it was just as unpleasant to Evelyn’s ears. It was a mother’s lie, a comfort and betrayal all in one. Once Evelyn closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, Samantha would leave for her own bed and pray that James was already asleep.

Evelyn slept anyway, and Samantha crept from the room. A light was on at the end of the hallway, right behind her bedroom door. Her stomach twisted in revulsion. Her fingers lingered on the doorknob. James would kiss her, touch her, apologize until she almost believed he still loved her. He’d act like he forgave her for letting the twins play at the edge of the woods.

The door opened, and James pulled her into his arms.

*****

When it was time to go to church the next morning, Samantha spent an extra thirty minutes scrubbing her skin. She lingered in the bathtub even when her teeth began to chatter enough to give her a headache. Once she finally got out, she took a long look at herself in her bedroom mirror. Fading gray bruises lingered next to new purple splotches, and raw, red flesh marred the rest of her. Every inch below the neck had to be hidden under her best Sunday dress. She’d show her pretty, unblemished face and pretend like her ribs weren’t still throbbing from the night before.

She took Evelyn to Sunday School after James left for the pre-service bible study. The Sunday School building was a short distance from the church itself. It was housed in the same small, red brick structure that Evelyn went to school in.

On her way to the church, she concocted a list of excuses to keep from attending. Her eyes lingered on the woods in the distance. That thing was still out there. She knew it. It may have only had Peter, but it could still get Evelyn or Linda or Daniel or any of the other children in Ider.

“You must be Samantha.”

Samantha froze at the sound. She turned to face the speaker. The speaker was a young woman who seemed to be around her own age. Her eyes were a deep gray like ash. Her skin had the same sun-kissed look shared by all the women of Ider. Her lips were painted ruby, and her cheeks held a faint, healthy blush. Her fair hair fell to her waist in waves and looked as soft as corn silk. There was a sudden urge to reach out and touch it, but Samantha resisted.

The woman smiled. She placed a hand over her heart, drawing Samantha’s eyes lower. Samantha averted her gaze, a blush dusting her cheeks.

“Adeline,” the woman said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you these past few weeks. Everyone’s missed you at church. That husband of yours said you’ve been sick the past few weeks.”

Samantha eyed the stranger with a mixture of fear and wonder. No one left Ider, but no one ever visited, either. The part of her that was still a product of the small town wanted to know everything. Where had she come from? Was she a relative of one of the citizens? She certainly dressed like she belonged in Ider with her simple, light blue Sunday dress that fell to her ankles. Samantha eyed Adeline’s hands. They weren’t a farmer’s hands. There were no calluses or smears of dirt. The nails were neatly trimmed, and the skin looked soft.

“Service is about to start,” Samantha said.

She pushed past Adeline, but one of those soft hands grasped her wrist. She didn’t move a muscle as Adeline rolled up her sleeve just enough to expose one of the bruises. Samantha’s mouth opened and shut at a rapid rate, unable to properly form any excuse.

“How did you know?” she asked.

“You look like you need a minute,” Adeline said. “God’s not going anywhere.”

It wasn’t the answer she’d wanted, but Samantha faltered under the warm touch. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had touched her besides James. There had been plenty of hugs and pats on the back when Peter had died, but after some point, she’d shied away from them all.

She didn’t want to pull away. Something about that moment left her feeling more exposed than she’d ever felt. She was just as much of a stranger to the people of Ider as Adeline was. They didn’t understand what it was like to see Peter’s torn body carelessly tossed in the grass.

Adeline wouldn’t understand, either. However, Samantha knew there was one thing Adeline could give her.

“You won’t tell anyone?” Samantha asked. Her voice cracked slightly, a precursor to tears. She wouldn’t cry. She was strong.

“Not a soul,” Adeline said.

Adeline drew her closer. As Samantha rested her head on the woman’s breast, something finally broke. She hadn’t cried in months, and she wasn’t going to start again. Instead, she slumped to her knees. She buried her face in Adeline’s skirt and screamed.

*****

There were whispers all through town over the next month concerning Adeline’s origin, but Samantha might as well have stuffed her ears with cotton. When she went into town, Adeline met her. They shopped together, had lunch at the local diner, and even went for walks along the woods that Samantha had once hated. Samantha started to crave the simple touches that Adeline provided her. Sometimes, it was her fingers running over Samantha’s hair to smooth it down in the name of helping her look “presentable.” Other times, Adeline’s fingers accidently brushed Samantha’s on their walks, and Samantha recoiled as though stung by a yellowjacket. When Adeline leaned over to whisper in Samantha’s ear, her warm breath sent shivers down Samantha’s spine. Samantha didn’t have a name for how she had begun to feel, but she prayed for it to pass. She prayed that one day Adeline would disappear with her small, tempting touches and knowing look in her eye.

Samantha had once loved her husband, but what she felt for Adeline didn’t compare in any way. It felt darker, coiled within her like a copperhead waiting to strike. Adeline treated her like she mattered again, and she never wanted it to end. She knew a prayer was only worth something if she felt it in her heart, and truthfully, she never wanted Adeline to leave. Her fantasies of running from James had started to include Adeline.

Samantha even found the nerve to have Adeline over for dinner one evening while James was out with the farmhands for another night of drinking. Afterwards, they laid down by the strawberry fields as Evelyn slept, gazing up at the stars.

“How did you know?” Samantha asked.

She wasn’t sure how many times the question had come up. Each time Adeline had laughed it off with her high, warm laugh that made Samantha’s heart stutter.

“My husband,” Adeline said, “was a cruel man as well. It’s easy to spot a woman who knows that pain.”

“What happened to him?” Samantha asked.

Adeline rolled onto her side, propping her head up on her arm.

“I ran,” she said.

There was almost a hint of hope in her whisper, a hint of urging that reminded Samantha of Peter and why she could never leave. Her eyes turned to the woods.

“It’s been four months since he died, Samantha,” Adeline said.

Samantha pushed herself to her feet. She stared down at Adeline with burning eyes.

“Who are you?” she asked. “You show up from nowhere, claim to know what I’ve gone through, and now you want me to just run away with you? Who do you think you are? I have a daughter. A husband.”

She faltered as Adeline rose to face her. They stood there in the moonlight. Samantha breathed quick, fast pants to match her racing heart. Adeline’s lips twitched into a smile.

“Come with me,” she said.

Samantha opened her mouth, but clamped it shut the moment Adeline’s hand grasped her wrist. The strange coolness of the woman’s flesh startled Samantha, and she shivered. She found herself being led toward the woods. Crickets chirped their evening song, and an owl hooted from the treetops. Light filtered down through leaves from the half moon above.

“No, I don’t want to go in there,” Samantha said. She tugged at her wrist, but Adeline’s grip was firm and strong. Memories of Peter filled her mind, and her stomach twisted with the sudden urge to vomit.

“Don’t you want to meet the others?” Adeline asked. She glanced back at Samantha, and her eyes were as dark as the night sky. She closed the distance between them.

“The others?” Samantha asked.

“Like us,” Adeline said. Her fingers danced over the bruises on Samantha’s arms.

Dread fell over Samantha like a black veil. The forest fell silent around them. Her heart fluttered in her chest. She felt the answer before it even became hers. She felt the pull for Adeline, the need to be with her. So it was Samantha that pulled her in for a bruising kiss, and it was Adeline who laughed in a way that seemed to seal her fate.

“Yes,” Samantha said. “I’ll go wherever you want.”

A bright, orange light flickered ahead of them. Samantha looked to Adeline for some sort of reassurance, but the other woman ignored her. Her skin was as white as the pale moon overhead, and dark shadows lingered beneath her eyes. Had she always been that way?

As they drew closer to the source of light, Samantha swore she saw Adeline’s shadow writhe like a serpent.

They came upon a small clearing. A small fire crackled in the center. Six women huddled around it. They shared the same dark hair and eyes as Adeline, and their skin was just as pale. She almost mistook them for ghosts until she noticed their bodies moving as they breathed in the summer air. As Samantha drew nearer, she saw their kind smiles. Their kindness relaxed her, and she joined them by the fire. They all seemed to be dressed for church in beautiful Sunday dresses made of fabrics Samantha had never had the pleasure of seeing before.

They whispered among themselves for a while. Adeline remained by Samantha’s side. Her cold hand gripped Samantha’s.

“We’re celebrating tonight,” Adeline said.

“Celebrating what?” Samantha asked.

She wanted to know who the women were, but then she noticed the bronze cup that one of the women held. One of the women took a sip from the cup and passed it on. She jumped to her feet and danced, twirling around the fire in a frenzy. The hypnotic movement made Samantha sway to the rhythm of something she couldn’t hear. The urge to join her was almost maddening, but Adeline’s wrist kept her grounded. The next woman took a sip and passed it on before joining in. This continued until the cup reached Samantha. She looked into it, and disgust twisted her features.

The chalice reminded her of the cups used for communion, but the liquid inside was dark red and thick like syrup. A sweet scent drifted up from the cup.

“Go on,” Adeline said. “Drink with us.”

The women danced and laughed around them. Their figures blurred as they spun and spun.

Samantha crinkled her nose and tilted the cup to her lips. The thick liquid dripped into her mouth, tasting of strawberries and something she couldn’t quite name, and she swallowed gulps of it. A dizziness washed over her, and she laughed along with the other women. Adeline took the cup from her trembling hands and sipped what was left. Samantha jumped up and joined the dancing women.

She clasped Adeline’s hands and pulled her into the circle. They laughed and whirled around the flickering flames. The shapes of the other women twisted and writhed. They spun faster and faster until Samantha collapsed on a pile of leaves, bursting with laughter. Adeline hovered over her, a smile on her lips. Samantha tilted her head to meet Adeline’s lips in a heated kiss. Something sharp nicked her lip, and the taste of her own blood filled her mouth.

“Stay with us,” Adeline said.

*****

Samantha woke in the strawberry field. Her husband’s voice called out to her, but she didn’t respond. Her heart thundered in her chest. She sat up, head whipping to the side. The sounds of crickets and owls filled her ears. The border of the forest was dark, but no one stood waiting for her. Adeline was nowhere in sight. Her basket lay nearby, filled to the brim with strawberries she didn’t remember picking. She reached her shaking fingers to her lips to touch where she’d been cut, but there was nothing there. Images flickered in her mind: Adeline sliding Samantha’s dress from her shoulders, lips hovering over the pulse on her neck, soft caresses and sighs. A shameful blush crept up her neck.

She returned to her home, head bowed. James waited for her in the doorway. From the position of the sun in the sky, it wasn’t quite noon, but the scent of alcohol hung in the air. His dark eyes watched her approach. She waited for him to hit her, scold her, anything. He said nothing as she crept past him.

Evelyn waited at the kitchen table, eyebrows knit in confusion. Her stomach’s growls reached Samantha’s ears, and the shame she felt only worsened.

“Mama will make your breakfast,” she said. The smile she offered was shaky, but Evelyn seemed pleased.

Samantha fixed breakfast without another word. She served James and Evelyn, who had already dressed in their Sunday best. They ate like ravenous wolves, but Samantha could only stare at her plate. Her stomach rolled as the scent of eggs and bacon reached her nose. She excused herself from the table, pushing her plate to James. He said nothing as he scraped her leftovers onto his plate.

Once she closed the door of their bathroom behind her, her nausea subsided. She didn’t want to wash lingering touches from her body, but she didn’t want to smell like sweat and dirt at church. She shrugged off her dress, only to freeze in place.

Her bruises had vanished.

She pressed down on her skin that had been purple, black, and green before. There was no pain, just pressure. She slumped to the floor. Her hands twisted in her hair as she panted, eyes wide with terror. A few knocks on the door jolted her back to reality.

“Samantha, hurry up,” James said. His voice was muffled.

She laughed, and if he heard, he made no indication.

*****

This time, Samantha did not take Evelyn to Sunday School, and Adeline was nowhere in sight. She looked for the other woman as she made her way to church, but no one seemed to be out. Ider seemed to have stilled overnight. There were no birds chirping or squirrels foraging. The air was hot and heavy without even the slightest breeze. The summer cicadas seemed to have taken the day off from singing their dreadful song. Evelyn clung to Samantha’s dress and watched the forest with her wide eyes.

When Samantha entered the church, a new sound greeted her. A woman wailed, her cries echoing through the small church. A group of people hovered around the pew where she sat. Some glanced up at Samantha, but the others tried their best to comfort the howling woman.

Samantha knew before James walked up to her with his face twisted in a scowl. He shoved past her with several men in tow.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

He glared at her.

“To kill the animal that hurt my son,” he said.

His son. Samantha’s fingers clenched into fists as she approached the huddle of townspeople. One broke away, an old widow by the name of Esther. She hobbled over to Samantha and pulled at her sleeve, guiding her away from the scene. Another woman, Sara, reached for Evelyn’s hand. Samantha opened her mouth to protest, but Esther held a finger to her lips to silence her.

“It’ll be fine,” Esther said. “Evelyn needs to be with the other children. She doesn’t need to be reminded, don’t you agree?”

Once they were safely outside of the church, Samantha pulled her sleeve from the woman’s grip.

“What happened?” she asked.

“They think it’s the same animal that got your boy,” Esther said. She wrung her hands together and licked her lips. Her eyes refused to meet Samantha’s terrified gaze. “It’s Ruth. Her father found her out by the woods this morning.”

The world spun around Samantha, and she stumbled back. Esther reached out as if to steady her.

“Your husband is going to find the animal,” Esther said. “Don’t you worry. Come have a seat on the porch.”

Samantha couldn’t bear the woman’s wails. A cold sweat broke out on her skin. The taste of strawberries was heavy on her tongue.

“No,” she said. “I’m going home.”

“You look pale, my dear,” Esther said. “Do you need someone to walk you?”

“No,” Samantha said.

“Get some rest,” Esther said. “We’ll look after Evelyn.”

Samantha turned her back to the old woman and began the long walk home.

*****

Samantha sat in the fields until Adeline came.

She looked up at the fair-haired woman, her lips pressed in a firm line.

“Don’t come any closer,” she said.

Adeline smiled and stopped a few feet away.

“That was real,” Samantha said. “I thought it was some feverish dream. The dancing, the laughter, the fire, the—”

Adeline’s smile broadened into a grin.

“Did you kill Ruth?” Samantha asked.

“You wanted to escape this place, Samantha,” Adeline said.

She moved closer and joined Samantha on the ground. Her face was mere inches away, and Samantha’s eyes fell to her lips.

“He’s never going to stop,” Adeline said. “My husband nearly broke my neck. Do you really think James will ever forgive you for what happened to your boy?”

Samantha looked down at her hands. Her nails dug into the dirt.

“Why Ruth?” Samantha asked. In a smaller voice, she added, “Why Peter?”

Adeline gripped her jaw, forcing their gazes to meet. Samantha’s eyes were wet.

“You already drank,” Adeline said. “So does it matter?”

Adeline drew a nail across her wrist. Black blood oozed from the wound, dripping onto the grass.

“Three times,” Adeline said. “Three times, and you can forget all about Peter.”

Samantha closed her eyes, but the aroma of strawberries hung in the air. Her throat burned, her body ached. She dove forward and latched her mouth onto the bleeding wrist. The taste of strawberries faded into something bitter and salty, rotten. She gagged at the taste, but she continued to drink. Adeline’s laugh echoed in her ears. The world faded to black.

*****

She woke to the sound of her doctor speaking with her husband. Her eyes remained shut, but she smelled the familiar pine scent of their room. Heavy quilts had been placed over her, though they didn’t warm the chill that seemed to have taken over.

“She hardly ate this morning,” James said.

“How long has she been showing signs of weakness?” the doctor asked.

“I didn’t notice anything wrong with her when I went hunting yesterday,” James said.

“On top of the weakness, she’s pale, and her heart is struggling,” the doctor said. “My diagnosis would be anemia. It’s probably been brought on by her poor appetite.”

The conversation continued as the two moved away from Samantha, and Samantha bit back a scream. A rotten taste lingered on her tongue. Three times, Adeline had said. The first time had been the cup with the sweet, strawberry liquid. The second had been Adeline’s oozing wrist. Samantha wouldn’t allow the third time.

The door slammed against the wall of the bedroom. Samantha’s eyes snapped open to meet the infuriated gaze of her husband. Sunlight poured through the window, and cicadas sang their awful tune around the house.

“Get up,” he said. “What were you thinking, leaving Evelyn by herself? First Peter, now Evelyn? What kind of mother are you?”

He yanked her from the bed, and her weakened body fell to the floor. She didn’t cry out as pain shot through her body. His boot snapped against her ribs, and her body convulsed. A sharp jolt of agony blossomed in her chest, radiating from her heart. Her head rolled to the side, eyes meeting her reflection in her floor-length mirror. Her pulse slowed. The boot collided with her chest as her heart gave one last, pitiful thump. Her eyes darkened in the mirror, the pupils dilating until they swallowed her eyes in black.

Her husband kicked at her lifeless body, red creeping up his neck. He shouted at her, waved his hands, but her glazed eyes gazed up at him, unblinking. Finally, he crouched down to feel for her pulse. Nothing.

He began to pace back and forth, hands gripping handfuls of his hair. He moved toward the door, only for his foot to catch on something and send his body to the ground.

A weight pressed against him. Samantha’s body crouched over him. Her dark eyes gazed down, meeting his terrified gaze. Her lips were parted, but she no longer breathed. She gripped his shoulders, pinning his struggling body to the floor with surprising strength. Her mouth opened wide, jaw unhinging into a gaping hole. Two long fangs glistened as they stretched out from among rows of sharp teeth.

His screams turned to gurgles as her fangs plunged into his throat.

*****

Night fell over the farm.

Samantha huddled in the corner of her bedroom. Her body ached. The blood she’d drained from her husband stained the floors from where she’d thrown up. She wasn’t alive, but she wasn’t like Adeline. Not yet. She knew that much. Her husband’s blood hadn’t been right for her. It was too old, tainted.

Evelyn crept into the room, and Samantha moaned.

“Mama?” she asked.

Three times, Adeline had said. Samantha thought of Peter and Ruth, the little children of Ider who had been slaughtered by rabid coyotes or bears or something that laughed and danced in the woods while their parents screamed over their corpses.

She held out her arms to Evelyn, and the little girl went to her mother.

*****

Samantha stepped out from the shadows of her bedroom. She kicked aside the corpse of her husband. She was gentler with Evelyn’s body, stepping over it with care. Her bare feet crossed the house without a sound. She crossed the fields, inhaling the scent of strawberries as she walked. A sweet taste lingered on her tongue.

At the edge of the forest, Adeline waited with open arms.

Samantha moved toward her with a smile on her reddened lips. She fell into the embrace, eyes closing in pleasure while hatred burned in her heart. Tonight, she would dance, and she’d forget them: James, Peter, Evelyn, and all of Ider.

Behind her, her shadow writhed like a serpent.

 

One Bad Choice After Another

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

“Tell me one more time why I agreed to this.”

Karen looked at me with embers behind her green eyes. The headlamp she wore cast a glare as she stared at me, making it difficult to tell if the fire there was at all playful.

“Because,” she said, her tone suggesting she was more irritated than I’d hoped. Not that I could have hoped for anything else, really. “You’re the one who is always bitching about needing some sort of adventure. Something exciting. Well here we are: excitement coming out of our asses! Happy now?”

She was right. As always. I had been the one that insisted we explore the cave we found while hiking. I had, in fact, been the one that insisted we go for a hike at all. Everyone else would have been happy hanging at the camp and swimming or reading or doing anything other than wandering aimlessly through a cave that had so many passages you had to wonder how the ground didn’t collapse.

Still, her tone had been a little sharper than necessary, but I guess that’s marriage for you. Some days one or the other of you is wound just a little tighter than usual, and the words come with just a little too much zing attached.

I swallowed the burst of anger in my throat and reminded myself that we were all tired. We had hiked for nearly three hours before we even found the cave, and the four of us had wandered for close to another three before we would admit to ourselves we were lost. That had been nearly six hours before.

And still, the fact that it was my fault we were there hadn’t changed.

So, I left off my usual sarcasm. I took out my water bottle and had a long drink before I leaned against the wall and said: “Sorry. I’m just a nervous talker.”

“I know, babe.” She smiled weakly, but I could tell her exhaustion had her feeling raw on the inside.

“I think we should all take a rest for a minute. What do you two think?”

Rachel dropped her pack to the ground and plopped down beside it. She unzipped it and dug around inside for a moment before pulling out a water bottle and two Clif bars. She tossed one to her husband, Alex, before tearing into her own. He sat down beside her and took a drink from her water bottle when she offered. The four of us had been friends for well over a decade, but I could tell that at that moment they both wished they’d never met either of us before.

When they finished eating, Rachel looked at her watch and let out a bewildered sigh.

“Well, I think we should think about setting up some sort of camp. We’ve been walking all day. And all night for that matter. I need to just sit here for a while or I’m going to collapse. It’s dark outside, anyway. We probably wouldn’t even be able to see the exit.”

“I agree,” Alex said, leaning back against the rock wall. “I could use a little more to eat, and maybe even a few hours sleep. I hate to ask this, but does anyone have any idea where we are?”

“We’ve been in this same stretch of cave for the past three hours,” Karen said. “Which makes me think we’re nowhere near where we first entered. There were tons of side tunnels coming off that first tunnel.”

“Yeah,” I said, remembering. There had been one to our left after only about fifteen minutes after we set foot inside. From there we passed a tunnel on the right or left every twenty minutes or so. “We’d walked for close to two hours before we made that first right-hand turn.”

“That was when we first heard the water,” Karen said, her eyes glazed with memory. “We never did find that damn river.”

The statement hung in the air like an insult handed to you just after someone socked you in the gut. We all felt it, but it stung me the most. Just like all the other events of the day, it had been my idea that we try to find it, after all. The whole day had just been one bad choice after another.

“So, we should turn back, then, right?” Rachel asked, looking first to Alex, then to Karen, and then, finally, to me.

It seemed that no one wanted to be the first to speak. There was something in the question that seemed charged, loaded. Like it might explode in our mouths if we tried to answer. We all just sat there, leaning against the rough stone walls, looking at anything but each other.

“It doesn’t really help that none of us know what we’re doing,” Alex said.

We all agreed silently. For my part, I had never been in a cave that hadn’t also been some kind of tourist attraction, and I was pretty sure that was true for the others as well. That fact alone should have been enough to keep us all outside.

“We should never have come in here,” I said.

“Well now,” Karen said. “That’s not going to help us get out of here.”

“I know. I just feel like shit for getting us all into this.”

“As you should,” Alex said, grinning beneath the light of his headlamp. “Come on, man. We all chose to come in here. You didn’t force anyone.”

I frowned, wanting to believe him. I didn’t.

“I say we all try to get some sleep,” I said, changing the subject. “We can try to come to a decision once we’ve had a bit of rest. Right now I’m so tired I can barely think at all, much less straight.”

Everyone nodded and grumbled their consent. We spent the next few minutes digging Clif bars and individually wrapped cheeses out of our packs and then stuffing our faces. We made sure not to eat all of our rations, though, just in case it took us longer to get out of the cave than we were all hoping. After our impromptu dinner by headlamp, Rachel and Alex curled up together beside the cave wall. They mumbled a half-hearted “good-night” and then turned off their lights. I could see they were using their packs as pillows, and I wondered vaguely if that was comfortable.

Karen and I decided to try the same arrangement, but without much luck. She had always been prone to insomnia, even in the least stressful of times. With a real reason to be anxious—like being lost in a cave, for example—sleep was as unattainable for her as the Fountain of Youth is for everyone else. After what felt like hours, but was probably only a few minutes, she sat up and whispered to me in the dark.

“It’s no use,” she hissed. “I can’t sleep. I’m going to go a little further down the passage to see if I can makes heads or tails of where we are. It might help us decide if we should turn around or not.”

“I’ll go with you,” I whispered back, sitting up.

“No. Try to get some sleep. I won’t go far.”

“I really think we should stick together, Karen. What if something happens and you get hurt?”

“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Hang here and get some rest. If I’m not back in half an hour or so, come find me.”

After eight years of marriage, I recognized that tone. There would be no arguing with her now that her mind was made up. I could try, of course, but I knew how it would end: both of us pissed at each other and even more unhappy than we were when we started. She was going to do what she wanted no matter how I felt about it.

“Okay,” I said, more than a little irritated.

“Don’t worry,” she said again. “I won’t be gone long.”

She turned and switched her headlamp on. I leaned against the wall and watched as it moved steadily away from our mock camp. After a few minutes, the passage must have curved, because the light vanished. I looked at my watch. It was about two o’clock in the morning. I would give her half an hour and then I’d go after her if she wasn’t back yet.

I rested my head against the wall and closed my eyes for half a second. The stress of the day and all the energy I had spent hiking worked together so that that brief instant was all it took for me to fall dead asleep.

* * * * *

Rachel pushed me gently, and I woke with a start. A quick glance at my watch told me it was just after five in the morning.

“Fuck!” I said aloud, and then to myself: Why do I screw everything up?

“Is Karen back?” I asked. As I looked around the makeshift camp, the panic in my throat eased for an instant as the hope that she’d returned while I slept popped into my mind.

Before Rachel shook her head in response, though, I knew she hadn’t. She would have woken me.

After spending about five seconds making sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind, I turned in the direction I last saw Karen heading and was off.

“When did she leave?” Rachel asked from behind me after a quarter of an hour. I hadn’t turned to check, but I could sense that both she and Alex had followed me from the start.

“Around two,” I said, not slowing my pace.

“You let her go off alone?”

“Come on, Rachel. You know how she can be sometimes. I tried to go with her, but I got the feeling she was just wanting to be alone for a little while. She’s probably just up the tunnel here, curled up asleep.”

“Maybe.”

She sounded about as certain as I felt. Karen required more solitude than most people, and sometimes if she could go off by herself for a little while she could get around her insomnia long enough to catch a little rest. But, unfortunately, as the minutes ticked by and turned into an hour, we still hadn’t found her. Asleep or otherwise.

After two hours of walking I was growing very nervous and was having trouble keeping myself calm enough to keep moving. Just when I thought I couldn’t handle anymore uncertainty, we came to a fork.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“What do we do now?” Rachel asked.

“When in doubt, Merriadoc,” Alex said from behind, “follow your nose.”

I wanted to laugh. I did. He was trying to ease the tension we were all feeling, but I just didn’t have it in me.

Which way did she go?

I felt so desperate that for a few minutes I actually did try to sniff out a difference between the two tunnels. Maybe if I’d had any experience spelunking I could have detected something, but to me both passages had the same musty dirt smell that I’d always associated with basements and Halloween Haunted Caves.

Even though I couldn’t smell a difference, after a moment of standing there I thought I did detect something. Not in the smell, but in the sound. There was a deep, rhythmic pulse that I almost felt more than heard coming from the right-hand passage. It was a very slow and drawn out sound, but it repeated over and over: hhhuuuuuuuhhhhhh-nnnuuuuuuuhhhhhh. Hhuuuuuuuhhhhhh-nnnuuuuuuuhhhhhh. It seemed so familiar that I couldn’t quite place it for the longest time. And then I had it.

It sounded like someone breathing.

Sleeping, to be more exact. It sounded like someone—or something—breathing while in the midst of a deep dream.

It was so faint, though, that I had almost convinced myself it was my imagination. If Alex hadn’t said something then, I probably would have ignored it.

“Does anyone else hear that?” he asked.

“I do.”

“Do you think it’s Karen sleeping up ahead?”

The terror that had been growing in my chest gave way for a moment. That possibility hadn’t occurred to me. “Maybe,” I said, hopeful.

I stepped a few feet into the tunnel, straining to hear. “Karen!” I called, still a little spooked, so that I didn’t do it as loud as I could. The breathing seemed to pause for a moment, but then resumed.

I started to go deeper in the tunnel, and Rachel followed.

From behind Alex asked: “What if it’s a bear?”

“We’ll figure that out when the time comes,” I said and continued without pausing.

About a hundred yards down the passage the floor fell away to a steep incline. It wasn’t a straight drop, but it would have been a nasty fall if I’d come upon it unawares. We stood there for a moment, looking into the darkness.

“I don’t think Karen came this way,” Rachel said as she and Alex crowded around me at the edge of the slope, hoping to see better.

“Neither do I,” I said. Something about the place felt wrong. There was thick dust and muck over everything. “I don’t think anyone’s been through here in a long, long while. Nothing looks like it’s been disturbed recently.”

“Right. And when did you get your Tracker’s merit badge?”

“Okay, Alex, good point. I don’t know what I’m talking about, but something about this just doesn’t seem right. I don’t think Karen would have come this way alone.”

“She could have not been paying attention and fallen,” Rachel offered.

I frowned and shook my head. Looking more closely at the ground, I noticed that the ground was much softer through this part of the cave. I looked closely and was able to spot the footprints the three of us had left as we came through. I pointed it out to the others.

“While Alex is right,” I said, “and I don’t know shit about tracking, it really only looks like three sets of tracks have come through here. I don’t see anything by the edge of the slope, either.”

“Neither do I.” The voice came from behind us so suddenly that it startled us all, but none so much as Rachel. She let out a gasp that was almost a shriek and jumped almost two feet into the air—away from the source of the sound. Which meant toward the drop off.

When she landed, a large rock slipped out from under her foot, and her momentum carried her toward the edge of the precipice. She slammed down hard on her tailbone before her momentum carried her into Alex’s legs, sending him tumbling after her. Alex cried out in either fright or pain—I couldn’t tell which—and then the two of them went crashing into the dark.

Karen was at my side and holding my hand in an instant. I nearly jumped out of my skin again, but the realization of what had just happened dawned upon me. In stunned silence, Karen and I turned toward the sound of Rachel and Alex’s calamitous journey down the slope. When the crashing came to an end, I waited for a moment before calling down after them.

“Alex? Rachel? Can you hear me? Are you all right?”

It took a second, but Alex’s voice drifted up from below.

“We’re all right. A little banged up, but nothing seems to be broken. There’s a pretty nasty drop off at the bottom here. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get back up without some rope.”

“I found a way out,” Karen yelled. “I can run back to the camp and bring rope and help.”

“Yeah, you might want to do that.”

There was something different in Alex’s voice. Something that sounded very much like fear. A second later I thought I heard Rachel say something. It sounded like a question.

“Mike,” Alex yelled. “I think there’s something down here with us.”

Then Rachel screamed.

Karen gripped my hand with one of hers and squeezed my bicep with the other. Her nails dug deep into my arm.

I gasped as Alex’s voice joined his wife’s. A second later both voices were drowned out by a sound unlike any I had heard before. Somewhere between a screech and a snarl, the sound brought goose bumps across my flesh as it echoed through the cavern.

The timbre of the screams in the dark below us changed. They went from a bone-chilling tone of fright to a sickening chorus of pain as a second screeching/snarling voice joined the first. Then a third came, and a fourth, until there were so many that it was impossible to count. Within seconds Alex and Rachel’s voices diminished. Eventually, they died out all together.

Karen began to back away from the edge of the downward slope, her face a mask of panic-stricken terror. The way her headlamp illuminated it against the utter darkness of the cave around us suddenly seemed to me the most frightening part of everything that was happening. It took me a second to realize she was still clinging to my arm and pulling me away from the slope with her.

I almost began to protest, not wanting to leave Rachel and Alex behind, but then I heard something from the pit below. The things that had attacked my friends, whatever they were, were talking to each other.

I couldn’t understand their language, but there was no doubt in my mind that what I heard was intelligent communication. This, on top of everything else, was just too much. As we turned to run, I heard something else from the bottom of the slope. Despite my better judgement, I paused and cocked my ear in order to hear what was going on. The things were still chattering to each other, but there was a strange scraping sound that I couldn’t quite place. In a gift of vision, it suddenly occurred to me that what I was hearing was these things crawling up the rocks toward us.

“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing Karen’s hand. She led the way out, taking me into the passage we’d ignored when we first heard the strange breathing sound.

“The way out is pretty far,” she said. “But if we hurry, I think we can make it.”

We took off running, with her in the lead. The cave was much rockier and wet here, not to mention that it had a fairly serious uphill grade. Our boots fought for every foothold, and we both slipped several times as we tore through the tunnel. Once or twice we lost our balance and hit the ground. As these happened more often, I became aware of sounds behind us. Scratches, grunts, and other disheartening sounds were growing louder and more frequent, and I felt the same terror from before sprung to life anew in my throat.

But each step we took brought fresher air that carried with it hope. Hope that we might actually make it to the outside. What we would do when we got there was irrelevant. One goal at a time was all my mind could handle at that point.

Karen slipped and fell, crashing down hard on her left knee. She let out a cry of pain and slumped onto her right side, cradling her knee.

We had been running for half an hour by then, and how I was able to pick her up without stopping still confounds me. But I lifted her onto my shoulder and carried her through the cavern on a wave of adrenaline. My pace was slowed, though, and I could hear the sounds of our pursuit growing closer.

“I can walk now,” Karen said several minutes later.

I grunted and picked up my pace, not trusting her knee yet. If she was wrong and stumbled again it would likely mean our deaths.

Minutes ticked by and the cave grew closer around us, making it difficult for me to carry Karen. I ducked and slid as much as I could, but the passages were shrinking and my back was starting to get pretty adamant in its protests. Not for the first time since we set out to go hiking yesterday, I made a decision.

“We’ll try it now,” I grunted. “Be ready to run the second I put you down.”

“I will.”

I heard in her voice the same fear that was in my mind: what if her knee won’t support her?

Pushing the thought as far into the back of my mind as I could, I paused for an instant and set her down. She stumbled on her first step, and I nearly grabbed her. But she stayed up and kept moving. I could tell it was causing her serious pain the way she was favoring it, but we were keeping a pretty brisk pace regardless.

Seconds turned to minutes and as our pace began to diminish, the sounds of pursuit were getting louder. I spared a glance back once and thought I saw something, but it had to have been my imagination. If it had been as close to us as I’d thought we would have died seconds later.

I was beginning to lose hope, beginning to think that maybe lying down and letting them have me not be so bad after all. But then it appeared. It started as no more than a thumb-sized dot, but each step I took brought it closer: sunlight.

The sight of it renewed me, and Karen must have seen it, too, because her pace quickened as well.

We were sprinting by then. How we managed to keep our feet in that rocky terrain is a topic for theologians to discuss. All that mattered was that the sunlight was getting closer, and we would be safe there.

I don’t know why I believed that, but I did. Maybe I read too many stories as a kid or maybe something was happening on a deeper, more instinctual level. Either way I thought—no, I knew—that we would be safe as soon as we hit the surface.

As if sensing the same thing as I, but preferring a different outcome, the things behind us began moving faster, narrowing the gap between us. The snarls and screams and screeches were getting louder faster than the light was getting closer. I thought I could feel the heat of their breath on my skin, and imagined they were nipping at my legs, taking tiny scrapes of flesh with them until my skin felt sunburned.

Fear and pain mounted, and with one final burst of speed I didn’t think either of us had left in reserves, we broke through the cave mouth. As I crossed into the morning sunlight, I felt a jab of pain in my left heel and went tumbling forward. I rolled head over heel down a rocky hill, eventually slamming back first into a boulder and stopping.

Through the haze of pain, I could make out several shapes in the mouth of the cavern, crossing back and forth, yammering to each other. They were pointing at me and Karen, who had run down to where I’d fallen and was leaning against the same boulder I’d crashed into, gulping air and nursing her knee. Otherwise she seemed fine.

The creatures were never completely visible. They ducked in and out of the pockets of shadow inside and around the cave. At first I thought they were very doglike, but the longer I watched them the more they took on feline characteristics.

Covered in what looked like filthy, matted fur, their snouts were long like a dog’s with large mouths and very sharp teeth. Saliva dripped from their chins and large tongues as they barked and chattered to one another. They sat on their hindquarters and held their front paws in front of them, though to call them paws is a little misleading. Long, slender fingers with sharp claws opened and closed in ways that were uncannily hand-like, and it seemed that they might even have had thumbs, but it was too far away to say.

“They seem like they’re trying to decide something,” Karen said between breaths.

She was right. I got the distinct impression that they were discussing something, and I didn’t need three questions to guess what it was.

I looked at my heel, which was now but one of many injuries commanding my attention. My whole body, especially my head, throbbed with a pain so intense I was finding it difficult to understand what was happening around me. My sock, just above the top of my hiking boot was torn and soaked in blood. I pulled myself up on the boulder and tried to put weight on my left leg and nearly passed out from the pain.

The chattering of the creatures got more excited.

Karen, seeing the extent of my injuries, and not knowing what else to do, found a long, straight stick that I could use as a crutch. I thanked her as I leaned against it, still feeling nauseous from the last attempt at walking.

I took one last look at the creatures, which seemed on the verge of disregarding whatever it was keeping them at bay and coming after us, and started moving as fast as I could away from them and down the hill. I was in too much pain to worry about whether we were headed toward the camp or not, but luckily Karen had a clearer head. She removed the old-school GPS her uncle had insisted we take with us the day before. It took her a few minutes since we were afraid to stop moving, but she got us pointed in the right direction. We thought we had the radio with us for a moment, but then we remembered that Rachel had been carrying it.

We were lucky in one small way: since we hadn’t returned the night before as expected, and since they couldn’t raise us on the radio, Karen’s aunt and uncle had organized a search party. Several of the members of this party knew about the caves in the area and had sent people to all the known entrances. We stumbled upon them about twenty minutes after exiting the cave.

Help was called in and we were escorted back to camp where the police had already arrived. They weren’t very convinced by our descriptions of the creatures or our accounts of what happened to Alex and Rachel, despite the fact that they questioned us separately and our stories matched exactly.

I can’t say I blamed them. I wouldn’t have believed me, either.

Another search party went out, headed toward the cave we used to make our escape. We warned them repeatedly and begged them not to go, but I think that just made them more suspicious of us.

Karen and I were taken to the hospital to make sure we would be well enough to be taken into custody. My achilles tendon had been severed, and the imagined cuts on the backs of my legs turned out to be real. Most of the skin on my legs and parts of my back and arms was gone. On top of that, I shattered several ribs when I hit the boulder, which was also when I got the concussion.

The good news is the doctors say I’ll be all right.

It’s just going to be a little while before they can get me in to surgery. In the meantime, I have the morphine which is administered by the all-powerful button to keep all my troubles at bay: the pain that won’t stop, the screams of Rachel and Alex that I still hear, and the feeling that those—things—are still nipping at my legs that I can’t shake.

The morphine is all that I have to help with all of that, and it isn’t working.