Black Petals Issue #91, Spring, 2020

The Run
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BP Artists and Illustrators
Mars-News, Views and Commentary
A Hole in the Somewhere-Fiction by Richard Brown
Everything Echoes-Fiction by Todd M. Guerra
Exit to Dove's Tail-Fiction by Ken Goldman
I Dream of Fire-Fiction by Matthew Penwell
Living Doll-Fiction by Carl Hughes
Angelika's Tough Decision-Fiction by Roy Dorman
The Cat-Fiction by Chris Alleyne
The Demon-Fiction by Misty Page
The Run-Fiction by Thomas Runge D'Amore
We Are the Monsters We Seek-Fiction by Karen Heslop
Brother of Mine-Flash Fiction by D. C. Plump
New Terror-Flash Fiction by Denis Alvarez Betancourt
The Flapping Thing-Flash Fiction by Robert Masterson
The Clown Loved Cherry Lipstick-Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
Ganymede-Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
Space Probe RH 120-Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
The Buffoon-Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
Just Another Day in My House-Poem by Tom Davidson
Blue Bell Hill Beast-Poem by Richard Stevenson
Plum Island-Poem by Richard Stevenson
The Thing in the Woods-Poem by Loris John Fazio

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Art by A. F. Knott 2020

The Run

By Thomas Runge-D’Amore

 

THUMP-thump-THUMP-thump-THUMP-thump.  Huff-huff-huff-huff.  These where the sensations at the top of his awareness, heartbeat and breathing, feet on pavement, all in a steady rhythmic time.  Under that, the sounds of the world around him; rustling trees, swaying grass, chittering birds, babbling creek.  This was why he never ran with headphones on, he much preferred feeling a part of rather than apart from the world, soaking in the sensations around him.  That, and he wanted to be sure he wouldn’t miss the approach of another runner or a cyclist. 

Deciding to get fit after a mild health scare in his mid-thirties, Kwame Parker had begun running the Cross-County Trail, first as part of a class, then on his own.  He had been doing it for five years now and had his favorite spots that he varied between.  The CCT was a paved network of trails linking various parks in the county using low-lying flood plain areas along creeks and streams that could not otherwise be developed.  In springtime the forest came to life, shading the trails from the sun above and hiding the houses on hills to either side, allowing a sense of privacy and nature not otherwise found in such a built-up space as these great metropolitan suburbs. 

On this mild late summer night Parker had decided to run his favorite spot, a stretch of trail running from Lake Harwell park, a small manmade lake, to Briarfield Baseball Park, and, if he was feeling particularly frisky, several miles into the neighborhoods beyond.  It ran along and, several times, over Harwell Creek.  This time of year, the landscape was a riot of bright greens interspersed with various colors of flowers, with a patchwork of dry forest floor and marshy spots along the trail, leftovers of frequent heavy spring and summer rains.  You couldn’t see very far into the woods on either side of the trail when you weren’t next to the creek thanks to the thick foliage, maybe ten or fifteen feet at the very most. 

Parker frequently lost track of time as he ran but had always been good about making it back to his car with enough time to get out of the park before it closed at dark.  This day started no differently, the sun still well above the treetops as he set out in the early evening.  He couldn’t see anybody on the first visible stretch of trail, a hundred yards to the first curve perhaps, as he stepped onto the trailhead and began his run following a strenuous warmup in the grass under the nearby train trestle. 

As he entered the dappled shadows of the path the mournful whistle and whooshing, clattering roar of a passing train filled the air behind him.  The trains around here were mostly short commuter jobs so the sound didn’t last long and when it had finished he was left with the usual sounds:  the trickle of the creek fifty feet or so to his right, the rustle of leaves above him and grass around him, the buzz of various insects above the marshy spots, and of course his own sounds.  These last Parker focused on intently as part of his routine for ensuring he maintained an even pace throughout, especially his breathing: Breath-Breath-Breath-Breath ran through his head in an even, steady 1-2-3-4 rhythm. 

Parker had long ago realized that if he let himself lose that rhythm and instead took the huge whooping breath his body ached for he would lose his pace and drop to a walk, or even stop, something he would not allow himself to do if at all possible.  He carried a smallish bottle of water in one pocket of his shorts, but usually only used it on the return half of his run to ward off the cramps he would often feel creeping up at that point; a policy which, unbeknownst to him, would pay off in spades this day.

Today’s run started off smoothly, with a warm-but-not-hot temperature and light breeze helping to cool him.  The path was asphalt paved with manholes in short concrete pyramids every hundred feet or so on the creek side for a while, two things which prevented him from really believing he was in the wild no matter how much the foliage blotted out the hillside houses.  Tree roots made inroads under the trail from both sides, causing humped cracks in the asphalt, something to keep aware of to prevent tripping. 

Soon enough, Parker started encountering other people on the trail, first an older couple with their little white dog on a leash, followed shortly by another few runners and walkers of various types: old, young, short, tall, skinny, fat, white, black, you name it, you saw it.  When passing, it was customary to give each other a hearty “Hello!” or “Nice Day!”  or other such short cheery greeting.  Except for cyclists who came speeding past in a burst of color and wind with little more than a quick “On the left!” to alert you to their presence when coming from behind before they swooped out to pass. 

Harwell Creek to his right was running briskly but not high or fast as there hadn’t been any rain for a week or so.  The sound of it babbling through its course always appealed to Parker.  The path and the creek zig-zagged back and forth, overlapping twice, and before long he crossed first one bridge, then a short while later, the other.  Shortly after the last bridge he followed the path on a long leftward curve towards Briarfield Baseball Park. 

A few minutes later Parker rounded a bend and found himself running between the park on his left and the creek to his right.  Thanks to the park he could see above the trees again and saw now that the sun was getting very close to the treetops, maybe an hour of daylight left, plenty of time to go to his furthest goal, 5 miles, in the neighborhoods beyond the park and get out of Lake Harwell Park before it closed at dark. 

          Kids practiced in the fields and batting cages to his left, punctuating the evening air with various sounds:  the tonk of bats connecting with balls, the thump of balls impacting leather gloves, cheers from parents, and directions from coaches.  It was a scene redolent of Americana, mom, apple pie, and hot dogs.  It always brought Parker screaming back to his own childhood, the pure elation of feeling a sure home run crack off his bat, shockwaves coursing through his body, of catching that last, desperately needed game winning out as it came arcing down into his domain, the outfield, seeing the first few stars in the purpling sky as the ball fell into his glove with a satisfying thump. 

He hadn’t been the best player, but he had been good and he had loved the game more than anything, and running past Briarfield was always the highlight of his evening.  He smiled as his deep, even breaths brought the smell of fresh cut grass, waved at a few people standing close to the path who turned to look at him, and moved on by at his usual steady pace.

Within a few minutes of reaching the park he was past, and in front of him loomed the Carlin Road bridge crossing over the trail, blackness underneath with a view into the twilit gloom of the once-again wooded path beyond.  He always joked to himself that maybe this time a troll would pop out and accost him: “Who are you to be Tap-Tapping under my bridge?”  Not quite right, he knew, but chuckle-worthy.  Only this time when he entered the darkness under the bridge, he thought he heard a strange snuffling sound, like something large taking a breath.  Gooseflesh broke out on his skin as he looked around warily.  Nothing and nobody to be seen. 

It was cooler under the bridge, and the light breeze blew into him, wicking sweat off his wet body and giving him a mild shiver.  Must have been this breeze, he thought with relief.  As he came out the other side of the bridge, it suddenly felt more like the early fall coming in a couple weeks than the late summer it was now.  Perhaps it’s just starting to cool down a bit faster in the evening, gotta start sometime, he thought.  Still, something was unsettling him now, though he didn’t know what.  Then it occurred to him, it was completely quiet.  No cars passed over him on Carlin, none to be heard on Spring Street a quarter mile through the woods ahead and to the right, no rustle of leaves as the breeze seemed to have abruptly stopped, and when was the last time he heard a bird?  Parker decided it must just be a lull in traffic and natural changes and kept moving, refocusing his thoughts on steadying his breathing and keeping his pace even.  Two miles to go before he could turn around. 

A few minutes later Parker entered the long swooping curve that took the path within a hundred yards or so of Spring Street, where the trees were thin enough to give a clear view of the street, which was empty.  No, empty was too simple a word.  This street looked not like it had been just a few minutes since the last car passed, but like no car had ever been on it.  Not in a sense of disuse or disrepair, everything looked normal, more a sense of timeless emptiness, a deeper emptiness that he could feel more than see.  All the visible houses stood black and empty, like mausoleums in a derelict cemetery, no lights, no cars in driveways, nothing.  Where were the people? What’s going on? He wondered in dull disquiet. 

Even more alarming, he noticed that the sun’s disk was just touching the treetops behind the houses.  How was that possible?  Had he lost track of time? Parker had thought it seemed gloomier after the bridge, but it was usually another hour, forty-five minutes at least, before the sun got that low this time of year.  At this rate it would be dark before he got back.  Better turn around now so my car isn’t locked in, he thought, while realizing that he had already followed the curve back away from the street and was in dark woods.  When he ran he almost entered a trance to the point where he ran almost without conscious thought of his actions, so it was no surprise that he was already past being able to see the things he saw before he processed them and realized where he was. 

It was the feel of gravel pressing into the soles of his feet that brought him around; at the end of the curve the paved path turned towards the street and the woods path became gravel.  The path ahead of him was nearly dark and completely empty, but some sense of approaching danger raised his hackles.  Without slowing he spun on his heels and started back the way he had come.  Seconds later something crashed through the foliage behind him.  Looking over his shoulder he saw eyes staring back at him from the trees.  Like nothing he had ever seen, these eyes were huge, red, and angry.  Worst of all, they were easily eight feet off the ground at least. 

Heart leaping in his chest, Parker turned his head back around and picked up his pace just a little, but not enough to tire him out much quicker.  Whatever it was resumed crashing through the woods behind him.  It soon got nearly even with him, and when it did, he smelled a rank miasma of death and decay.  But then as he hit the paved trail again, the sound of its snuffling breath fell back a bit, deeper into the trees, so that it couldn’t be seen clearly in the brighter lit section along the street. 

As Parker left the gravel behind he ignored the path towards Spring Street, the wrongness of what he had seen telling him there would be no help that way, all his instincts, or something, telling him that the only thing he could do was to try to beat this thing back to the parking lot and attempt to get in his car before it caught him, if his car was even there in this strange new world. Getting there would take all his will power and determination.  Every fiber of his being screamed at him to panic, to run as fast as he could with no attention paid to pace, form, or breathing. Rationally he knew this was suicide, as it would lead to hyperventilation, a fall, or both.  Instead, he forced himself to calmly remove the water bottle from his large front pocket, twist the locking nipple to “drink” and take two small sips, enough to ward off cramps and wet his mouth without affecting his pace or stride.  This refocused his mind on running and he put all his thoughts into maintaining his breath and pace. 

This didn’t totally remove Parker’s fear, but it did push his gnawing terror out to the edge of his thoughts.  He paid extra attention to the path ahead of him for any obstruction, such as large sticks or rocks, or where tree roots had pushed up humps in the pavement, as a fall would certainly prove fatal.  He didn’t know why the thing hadn’t caught him yet, as it obviously could, but as long as it hadn’t, he would keep running.  Maybe he would lose it when he went back under the Carlin Road bridge, if it wouldn’t leave the woods.  A vain hope maybe, but any was better than none. 

Soon enough the bridge was in view, only this time there was no visible light on the other side, making the tunnel look like a portal to nothingness, black and impenetrable.  Fear threatened to overwhelm Parker as it occurred to him that the beast could be driving him into a trap, and where better than a pitch-dark tunnel?  He mastered this fear by reminding himself that he had no choice but to go on, whether another beast was in the tunnel or no, and plunged into the darkness.  Once in he could just barely make out the slightly less dark patch of sky on the other side.  No eyes stared at him in the dark, he was alone. 

He was alone for only seconds before the beast behind him burst out of the foliage and onto the path at the tunnel entrance.  Soon Parker could hear its claws clacking on the pavement, echoing and bouncing off the walls.  Underneath that, much quieter, he heard a strange guttural growl that sounded like…laughter?  It was laughing at him!? So, this thing was sentient, and it was playing a game, he was sure now.  Like a giant cat, it seemed this beast would tease and torment him, letting him stay just out of reach, until it got bored and decided to finish things.  Having no way of knowing when this would be, Parker decided the best course of action was to not worry about it and just keep running. 

After a seeming eternity, Parker burst out into the open again, and was stunned to see more stars in the open sky above Briarfield than possible in a suburban area like this; hundreds, maybe thousands, only limited by a three-quarter moon low in the sky above the trees.  This could not be his world.  Had the beast somehow pulled him into another dimension for its games?  Just then it burst out of the tunnel behind him and into the trees along the creek to his left.  Seeing this, Parker realized that, except for the tunnel, it always stayed in the trees, and that it somehow limited him only to this path, which always had trees on at least one side.  Maybe it couldn’t be on human-altered ground for long, maybe if he could get it out onto the wide parking lot that his car was on it would have to give up?  Worth a try anyway. 

With renewed hope Parker pushed on past the ballfields, which were Empty as Spring street had been Empty.  Being so close to this Emptiness chilled his bones, so he did his best only to focus on the trail ahead.  What was this thing?  He knew enough local history to know there had been Native Americans in the area.  If they hadn’t been wiped out by colonists, would they still be telling legends of something like a Wendigo or Manitou?  Was there actually truth to those stories still hidden under the thin veneer of civilization laid over this ancient land?  He only knew of such things from pop culture, stories like Pet Semetary and The Amityville Horror, which had terrified him as a child, but which, in the face of the real thing, seemed laughably tame.  He would probably never be able to take fictional horror stories seriously again if he survived this.  But really, who knew if this thing had anything at all to do with Native Americans, or if this was even its true form?  Maybe it had been asleep since before the first fish crawled onto the beach to begin colonizing the land and was only now waking up. 

The whys and wherefores of its existence didn’t matter, only the fact of it and a few other facts that Parker had gleaned besides:  1. It was toying with him when it could overtake him at any moment, 2. It had to stay in natural areas, being on human-altered ground weakened it, and 3. Parker had the ability to hold back some energy for a final surge at the end while still appearing to go all out.  This ability had won him many races, and now, combined with the other facts, it gave him a glimmer of hope that if he could just keep this game up until he returned to the trailhead at Lake Harwell Park he could use his final burst to get well out into the large parking lot before it could grab him.  Then hopefully it would either have to stop or entering the parking lot would weaken it enough to loosen its hold on him. 

Parker had no way of knowing if this would work, but he had to try.  He knew the only way this would succeed was if he kept its attention squarely on him, maybe by taunting and toying with it, but mostly towards the end he would have to risk being caught by deliberately letting it get very close, just within reach, only to use his final surge to shoot ahead at the last moment into the lot before it could grab him.  Hopefully this would keep it from seeing the lot before it could stop him. 

The trees now came up to the edge of the trail on both sides, their overhanging canopies leaving it in near total darkness, the light of the moon giving Parker just enough to see by.  He would have to keep a very careful eye out for the root humps prevalent on this last section of trail.  The woods around him were eerily still and quiet, not even a breeze rustling the leaves.  The only sound was the thing crashing through the foliage, along with an occasional bout of gruff laughter.  It burst out of the trees behind him and crossed into the woods on the other side.  The shock of this unexpected event nearly caused a fatal loss of breath control.  He just barely managed to keep it, and though his heart leaped in his chest, he quickly calmed it back to his normal, even running rhythm.  He told himself to be wary and listen for it to approach closer to the trail, so that when, not if, it popped out behind or in front of him again, he wouldn’t be taken off guard.  It felt like Parker was going to be in these woods forever, but he knew the first bridge over Harwell Creek would be around just a few more curves, and after that the final ten minutes or so of the trail, and possibly of his life. 

In another few minutes Parker rounded the last curve and the bridge came into view, crossing a span of maybe fifteen or so feet from water’s edge to water’s edge.  The creek glimmered in the moonlight as it wended its slow, almost silent, course towards the lake.  Strange because it had been moving much faster earlier.  The comparative brightness from above and below threatened to leave him blinded once back in the trees on the other side, so he squinted his eyes to slits.  As he reached halfway across, Parker was surprised it hadn’t yet reached the bridge, judging by a lack of heavy treads behind him.  He glanced back and was surprised to see it emerge on the bank and, without pausing, leap across it in a single bound, going about twenty feet from top of bank to top of bank.  He followed it across and watched it disappear into the woods, only to appear seconds later on the trail, facing him. 

It was huge, maybe eight to ten feet tall, and one thousand to two thousand pounds, with red eyes set into a huge head that was like a hellish combination of man and bear.  It stood on hind legs like a man, hugely muscled and bearing several-inch long curved claws on hands and feet, its body covered in shaggy, matted, brown fur.  It was like a demonic sasquatch.  Worst of all, it smiled at him, it smiled at him!  This hideous, malignant smile revealed a mouthful of sharp teeth leaning every which way, with huge fangs in the front from which thick streams of slaver ran down its chin.  It took all Parker had not to give up right then and there, but something about its face told him it was still toying with him, and sure enough when his right foot stepped off the bridge it turned its head to the sky, let out something that sounded like a combination belly laugh and roar, and then disappeared into the woods on the opposite side of where it came out, leaving Parker in silence.  All told, it had stood there maybe ten seconds. 

With shaking hands, he pulled out his water bottle and took a drink, as he always did at this point to prevent cramps. As soon as he passed the spot where it had stood, he heard it begin to follow him through the trees again.  Parker willed himself to refocus on his breathing and movements in order to quell the shaking and shivering that threatened to overtake him.  The woods were thick on both sides of the trail in this section between the two crossings, which allowed the thing to stay further from the trail, muffling the sounds it made and making it difficult to tell just how close it was.  Every minute or so it would dart across either in front of or behind Parker, and soon he had lost all inkling of where it was at any given moment.  This uncertainty of where it was or when it would appear shredded his nerves and left him more desperate than ever to cover the last half mile or so left of the trail, to get things over with one way or the other.  Thankfully he soon was approaching the last bridge, knowing that on the other side would begin the endgame. 

As Parker neared the span, he kept an eye out to either side, expecting it to again vault across the stream.  This time it had other ideas.  Once Parker had both feet on the bridge, it darted out behind him, but instead of following him onto the bridge it went under it, grabbing on to the bracing underneath with both hands and feet and scrabbling across like a monkey.  When it came underneath Parker it stopped and began rocking the bridge left and right and up and down, nearly knocking him off his feet.  Thankfully, it could only stop on the manmade structure for a short period, and within ten seconds or so it was on the other side of the creek just as before, smiling that horrid, brutish smile of death and dismemberment, then disappeared into the woods, again leaving him in silence. 

Stepping on dry land, Parker took two last, large swigs of water to get him through the rest of this life-or-death race and forced himself to breathe calmly and steadily.  Immediately he wanted to retch.  He had just reentered the section of the trail lined with storm sewer access points.  There was an odor, but usually it was mild.  Now even before seeing the first one it was like hitting a wall of stench.  Was it trying to force him to lose his breath control by amping up the smells?  No matter, he would do whatever it took to get past them.  

Progressing further into the final stretch, Parker’s mouth began to water, his diaphragm began to stiffen, and his throat began to constrict in a gag.  He fought every instinct telling him to do what his body wanted, forcing his chest to continue to move in-and-out, in-and-out.  He began spraying water in his mouth to block the bad taste and pinched his nose to cut the smell.  Somehow, he continued on past one, two, three storm drain mounds.  On the other side, the woods side, the ground was a vast swamp, and this only added to the foul reek.  Like the creek, this was strange, as earlier in the day the forest floor was only swampy in patches.  Somehow there was now a third life form on the trail in the form of vast buzzing clouds of gnats, which got in his mouth and threatened to choke him.  Continuing to pinch his nose with one hand, swatting at gnats with the other, Parker somehow continued on as the beast resumed its pattern of crossing back and forth.  Finally, after the fourth and final drain the smell began to dissipate, the gnats to disperse, and soon he was able to breathe again as he came into the last quarter mile. 

“Hey!”, Parker shouted, “You better catch me soon if you’re going to, the trail ends soon!” 

With a roar the thing appeared from the woods right next to him and snatched at him with its enormous clawed hand.  Parker put on a small burst of speed and gained a few feet, rounding a curve to see an opening in the trees about one hundred yards in front of him.  Glowing moonlight on blessed asphalt, almost there!  Now was the time for chances.  He let the thing gain on him as it ran in the grass along the verge, five feet, three feet, two, NOW!  Just then it reached out a clawed hand and slashed at him, miraculously only catching his shirt in one claw, but coming close enough that Parker felt the smooth outer edge of that claw slide down his back.  For a few seconds Parker thought he was going to die, but then his shirt gave way and he put on his final surge, knowing that if this didn’t work there would be no further escape, as he would be out of energy after a short period. 

Knowing that it was now or never and he had no more reason to hold back, he pushed himself up to top speed and covered the final fifteen or twenty feet in five seconds or so and then he was passing the bollards that prevented cars from driving on to the trail, crossing the painted yellow lines marking the beginning of the trail, and bursting out into a corner of the roughly football field-sized expanse of parking lot.  Never had asphalt looked so beautiful.  He expected the lot to be empty, but it was still disheartening to not see his car about two-thirds of the way across.  Not knowing what else to do, he ran towards the spot where it should have been, hoping that maybe it wouldn’t dare to follow him into the lot, which had no medians, only painted rows of spots, or that maybe if it did follow him it would weaken somehow.  Soon he was ten feet out, then fifteen. 

At that moment the beast burst out of the trees to the right of the trailhead and charged at Parker.  It roared in anger and frustration and bore down on him at terrifying speed.  Then, just feet from Parker, it began to slow.  It was weakening!  Parker’s lungs burned, his heart felt like it was going to fall out of his chest, and his legs felt like they might fail at any moment, but somehow, he kept moving.  Forty feet, forty-five, fifty, now it was lagging more, and now the world around him began to warp and change, the sky one second star filled, the next the light purple blankness of suburban light pollution blotting them out, then back again, over and over randomly across the visible expanse.  In front of him his car appeared and disappeared like it was under a strobe light.  Just a few more feet now! 

Parker risked a glance back over his shoulder and saw that the thing had veered away from him and was now swaying drunkenly as it disappeared into the woods on the side of the lot.  He turned his head back just in time to throw his hands up to keep him from slamming into his now completely solid car.  As soon as his hands touched the smooth, hard surface his legs buckled, and he fell to the ground. Shaking to his knees, Parker unlocked the door and collapsed across the back seat, where he wept uncontrollably in a way he hadn’t done since he was a small child, taking huge gulps of air at the same time, frantically locking and relocking the car as he did so until he calmed down.  He wept for minutes, tears of joy and relief, he had done it, he was alive! As his breathing slowed, exhaustion hit and he passed out into a dreamless sleep.  The dreams would come later. 

Having run as hard as he ever had and done no cooling down afterwards, Parker woke up a mass of knots and stiff muscles when the morning sun cleared the treetops enough to fill his car with light.  He gingerly made his way into a sitting position then opened the door and stepped out, moving in short, shuffling steps.  He shivered a bit in the morning cool, high sixties or low seventies, and slowly began moving around, warming up his muscles, until he went from old man shuffles to doing full stretches, along with kneading his muscles.  Once he could comfortably walk around again, Parker grabbed his water bottle from where it had fallen out of his pocket in the car, and made his way to a bench on the earthen part of the dam and looked down on the lake, glittering in the morning sun. 

Parker watched geese and ducks paddle about below him, as a bird of prey, a hawk or maybe even a bald eagle, soared the morning thermals above looking for a meal and other birds flitted here and there above the lake and in and out of the trees, their chittering and birdsong on the air.  Occasionally, a fish leapt out of the water after a tasty bug only to re-enter with a splash.  A breeze rustled through the leaves of the trees all around him and created small waves which lapped quietly at the shore below, water trickling soothingly over the nearby spillway into the creek behind him. He took in a deep breath and soaked in the smells; slightly marshy from the water’s edge, grass and flowers, pine trees, and reveled in being alive for another day, in still being part of life.  He hoped never to take this for granted again, even the distant low drone of traffic was reassuring and pleasant this morning.  At seven o’clock on his watch a commuter train clattered in from the exurbs and across the trestle to take its passengers to offices and jobs in the city, the several hooting blasts of its horn echoing off the lake.  This reminded him to call in to work when he got home and tell them he was sick and wouldn’t be in for a day, maybe two, so he could have time to really process what had happened.

At seven-thirty, when the park opened, Parker made his way back down the hill and over to the trailhead.  His heart rate rose a little, but somehow, he knew he was safe in the full light of day.  He walked up it, just twenty feet or so, and in the golden shafts of sunlight coming through the trees everything seemed normal, the creek happily burbling past on one side, fast again, insects droning in the marshy flooded areas on the other, birds and squirrels flitting and chittering in the trees.  Normal.  As loud as the thing had crashed through the trees last night there should have been downed tree branches, maybe even downed trees, in large numbers.  There did not seem a larger than normal amount.  It really had been a different world!

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Parker returned to his car and drove home.  Once home he called in, showered, and ate.  Then he sat and tried to make sense of everything and decide what to do.  The best he could figure he had survived due to his unwillingness to quit, which had kept it from getting bored and ending things, and luck that leading it out from nature would weaken it so much so quickly.  He debated with himself whether he should tell anyone what happened.  He finally decided he couldn’t, he would certainly look crazy.  Parker had no proof, not even the hole in his shirt, a branch could have done that.  He hadn’t made plans for last night, so nobody knew he hadn’t come home.  They might think he’d had a psychotic break or something. 

Parker went back to work the next day and things seemed okay, but about a week later the dreams began.  In them he was back on that dark trail, being pursued.  Only, in these dreams he never made it to the parking lot, they always ended with the beast catching him.  In some it ended things quickly, in others it took its time playing with him and torturing him, but in all he would wake up soaked with sweat and shaking as the thing lowered its toothy, horrendous maw down to finish him, the rotten odor of its mouth gagging him.  These recurred three to five nights a week on average and Parker soon became frazzled and irritable.  He also entered a state of hypervigilance, starting at every sound, preparing to flee at the slightest touch, soon shunning all physical contact.  His relationships deteriorated and he withdrew.  His relationship with nature also soured, he made sure to stay only on and in manmade areas, not even crossing lawns to save a few seconds.  He was lucky he kept his job, though for how much longer was unclear. 

Finally, after about six months, at the urging of family and friends but also his own awareness that things couldn’t continue as they were, Parker sought help, going to a psychiatrist.  He told the doctor a story about how he was mugged on the running trail after dark.  It was a story close enough for him to massage details to fit, and for which dreams of being chased and killed by a monster could be seen as exaggerations of the real event, thus allowing him to put details of it in descriptions of his dreams. 

Parker was quickly diagnosed with severe PTSD and began intense therapy.  Between therapy, and both anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications, he made quick progress.  His life soon regained a sense of normalcy.  He would never be who he had been before that night, PTSD had no cure, but he could, and did, learn to manage it and lead a happy life as he was now, and that was enough for him.  The nightmares never went away but dropped from three to five a week to one a month or so, then to every so often at random. 

Parker still had bad days, but thanks to therapy and medicine he had tools to keep them from overwhelming him and controlling him.  One such was to pull up a mental happy place when he felt an anxiety attack or stress response coming on.  His was that bench overlooking the lake on that sunny morning, a constant reminder that life would go on and that he was much better off embracing it and its uncertainties than avoiding them.  Reliving those sensations almost never failed to bring him to a much better place.  He even created a new relationship with nature.  No more overnight camping trips, and he had to be back in civilization before the sun hit the treetops, but he did start running in the park and enjoying other outdoor activities again. 

As time went on, Parker met someone, married, had kids, lost friends, made new ones, buried friends and family, and grew old.  Therapy remained a constant.  In all that time he never forgot that night.  He never told anyone the real story until one night, when they were both old and gray, he took an old box from the back of the closet, and from it took out his old shirt, the one from that night with a hole in it, showed it to his husband and told him the real story.  At the end his husband held him while Parker cried.  His husband told him Parker he believed him, but Parker thought what he really meant was that his husband believed he believed it had really happened, and that was enough for Parker. 

Through the years, whenever Parker would see a missing persons story on the news or online, one where they had just seemed to vanish off the face of the earth with no theories or suspects, he would wonder if they too had stumbled across that thin, hidden line separating the lighted world of civilization from the older, darker one hidden underneath it, had met his friend or another like it, but had not had his luck.  He also wondered how many others were out there with stories like his, stories too strange to tell?  Such questions always made him shiver.


END


Tom Runge-D'Amore has decided to try something new after a decade in Museum Collections Management.  He feels working carefully with delicate and priceless artifacts has allowed him to become very good at carefully choosing his words.  He is also on the Autism spectrum and wants to prove that it is not a detriment to good fiction writing.  This is his first published work.