With a clash of grinding transmission and a snarl from the diesel, the coach swayed as it entered the parking ramp. I squinted through the window, but the glass was smeared with frost, sparkling from the fluorescent strips that hung from power poles outside. The brakes sighed and we squealed to a stop, the whir of air-conditioning suddenly loud.
Across the aisle a figure stirred beneath a blanket and a head slowly reared up. Someone coughed. A ripple of suppressed muttering and shifting of cramped bodies ran the length of the coach. The lights came on, suddenly bright and intrusive, and I saw myself reflected in the window.
“Appelton!” the driver growled into the intercom and pried himself out of the seat. “Stopping for twenty minutes only!”
The door hissed as it opened and powder snow swirled into the coach. The driver muttered something as he strode toward the luggage compartment doors. I stood up and groped for my jump bag in the overhead rack.
Pulling up the zipper of my ski jacket, I joined the queue inching its way down the aisle toward the door. I paused on the first step and breathed deeply. The sharp air smelled of snow. Looking at the old diner, I tried to sort out my feelings. How long had it been? Certainly longer than I cared to remember.
Outside, it snowed gently. The large flakes clung like feathers where they touched. Someone bumped into me and muttered an apology as I stepped off. The figure brushed past me, hurrying toward the diner entrance. The sidewalks were almost deserted. Bent figures moved through thin fog, only to vanish as silently as they appeared.
I turned and looked around, drinking in the sights. It hadn’t changed at all. Pete’s BP station was still on the corner, a blurred pool of white light cutting through the snow. A car whispered by, trailing a cloud of white exhaust, its parking lights glittering as it vanished down the street. The Wall-Mart store was dark and shadows lay thick around it. A lonely huddled figure hurried on the other side of the street and disappeared into the bright interior of the Kentucky Fried Chicken eatery.
With a stiff hand, I pushed open the diner door and walked in. The air was hot and heavy, a mixture of body odors, smoke and the acid reek of thin beer. Standing there, a small black cat rubbed itself against my leg, looked at me and purred. I grimaced and pushed it away. I have always been wary of cats. Suddenly, I felt alone and lost, wondering where the years had taken me. As I tried to find a familiar face, a finger jabbed my shoulder.
“You getting in or just admiring the scenery?” a strong rasping voice demanded behind me.
I turned slowly, stepped aside and grinned at him. “Sorry, bud. Wool gathering.”
He looked at me in disgust and shook his head. “Well, gather it someplace else, okay?” He pushed his way through the crowd and vanished in the gloom of coiling cigarette smoke.
I dropped my jump bag beside the door and rubbed my hands. Maybe coming to Appelton wasn’t such a great idea after all. I walked to the bar, leaned against it and reached for a bowl of mixed nuts. As I chewed, snatches of conversation washed over me; laughter and shouting drowned in a sea of noise.
“What’ll ya have?” a brusque voice jerked me back to reality. The barman looked at me with pale washed-out eyes as he wiped the counter with an impatient sweep of a crumpled rag.
“Bourbon,” I said. “A double.”
As I sipped, I sighed. I was wrong. The place and the people here hadn’t changed. I had changed.
The empty tumbler clicked as I placed it gently on the bar. I pushed it away with a flick of my forefinger and walked out, feeling the liquor burn in my belly, tempted to climb back into the coach.
* * *
It had stopped snowing. Through breaking cloud, stars shivered in frosty silence. I pulled up the collar of my ski jacket, and with a grunt, heaved the jump bag over my shoulder. It was late and the street was deserted. A church bell tolled mournfully and the hair on the back of my neck twitched.
With an impatient jerk, I pulled out my gloves and a postcard fluttered into slush on the sidewalk. I stared at it for a moment before picking it up. I unfolded the stiff cardboard and read the single line. All it said was, ‘Come to me now. I need you’. It was signed with his usual scratchy scrawl and I pursed my lips as I unzipped the jacket and slid the card into the breast pocket of my woolen shirt.
Why now, Dad?
I’ve been asking that question all day, but there were no answers. We had a curious relationship, my father and I. I sent him a card at Christmas and sometimes I remembered his birthday. Since Mother died, he lived alone on The Hill, and from what people said, he rarely came down into town. They said a lot more things besides, few of them flattering, but that was just idle village talk. There had always been something of a mystery regarding The Hill and our place. Folks loved to frighten kids with tales of witches and devils. Remembering the kind of people that lived up there, I often wondered if some of those tales might be true.
Shifting my jump bag to a more comfortable position, I started down the street. The snow crunched and squeaked beneath my feet and my face tingled from the cold. It was a two-hour slog along a steep, winding road to The Hill, but I knew a shortcut. I couldn’t see any point in paying a motel good money just to hang around till morning. And besides, the walk would do me good.
The icy sidewalk gave way to a narrow frozen road and the houses gradually thinned out – black outlines in the night. An occasional yellow circle of light from a power pole scattered the shadows. Overhead, a half moon glowed hard white, streaking patchy clouds with silver, making the frozen fields glitter. The silence lay thick around me, broken only by the regular crunch of my footfalls and my uneven breathing.
After a while, I felt that someone was following me. I even stopped to look back along the road, but there was no one there. Away from the noise and bustle of a big city, I was letting my imagination run wild.
As I walked, I thought I could hear the sound of mincing steps. The more I tried to ignore it the louder they became. I stopped suddenly and whirled, but there was nothing there. This wasn’t funny anymore and I chided myself for a fool.
Bare birch and oak began to reach toward the road from the blackness of the forest. I started looking for the trail, but it wasn’t there, probably lost somewhere beneath the snow. Hands on hips, I stared at the road as it wound its way up, clinging to the edge of the hill.
I checked my bearings, certain the trail should be here. I was puzzled and annoyed that I couldn’t find it. I must have walked through here hundreds of times. Snow or not, it was always used – at least it was when I was a kid. Listening to my breathing, I was unaccountably cold, a chill that came from within. Shadows moved around me, but when I looked, all was silent and still.
With a sigh, I jumped over a narrow ditch along the road and plowed through the powdery snow that covered the unmarked field. Twenty minutes tops and I would be home.
* * *
It was bright beneath the moon and the air crisp. The snowline curved gently upward and disappeared among the pines. My legs were beginning to ache, but at least I was on familiar ground. Transformed in summer, filled with clean smells and the buzz of insects, this meadow used to be my playground. Those were happy days, but my heart was lighter then.
Tall pines lined the hill and I walked closer toward them. A branch creaked and there was a flurry of snow, cascading among the branches. I looked around, sensing shadows moving between the trees. I felt a cold touch on my cheek and jerked back. It was only the fur of my ski jacket.
I hurried then, unexpectedly anxious to get to Dad’s cottage. The Hill was just beyond the forest ahead of me. I had gotten used to city living and its cloying intimacy. This cold wilderness was suddenly alien and I did not belong anymore.
A soft patter of small footfalls broke the silence behind me and I stopped and turned. The brittle surface of the snow was unbroken and I couldn’t see anything. I don’t know what I expected, but I waited until my heart slowed before moving on. Foxes and raccoons would be prowling the forest, I told myself. That was it. Nothing unusual about that, and the animals were light enough not to break the snow’s crust.
I didn’t believe any of it.
Ice crackled and snapped and the snow squeaked beneath my boots as I pushed my way up the slope. Perhaps I should have spent the night at a motel after all. The coach journey had been long and I was more tired than I realized.
When the footfalls sounded behind me again, I whirled around, my breath a white fog in front of me. It was a large cat, coal black, its glowing orange eyes staring at me fixedly. It sat on its hunches and licked its right paw, tail swishing back and forth. It lifted its head, the eyes never leaving mine. It yawned with deliberate dignity and I could hear its rasped purring. I had a moment of fear as I looked into eyes that glowed with open malevolence. Hell, it was just a cat! With a snort, I turned and began walking.
With each step the pines drew closer, but I couldn’t get that cat out of my mind. Every time I paused to listen, there was only silence and my labored breathing. I had a dreaded suspicion it was following me. I wanted to stop and see, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was ridiculous, but there was something about that cat that set my teeth on edge.
Then I did stop and stared hard at the wall of the forest ahead. I clenched my teeth, willing myself to turn. When I did turn it was there, staring at me, its tail working in agitation. I crouched and waved, hissing at it. It didn’t move. It was almost as though it was laughing at me. I picked up a handful of powdery snow, crunched it into a ball, and threw it. I missed, but as the ball shattered, fragments of snow fell around the cat. It jumped, back arched and spitting, its orange eyes glaring.
There was malice in those eyes and I felt a ripple of apprehension. Then I went pale. Another cat slowly emerged out of the pines. Silent like a black ghost, its red eyes stared at me. The unease I felt was quickly turning to a sense of danger and I hurried away from the damned things. When one of them yowled, I shivered with dread.
Pushing my way through the snow, I imagined one of them leaping on me, tearing at me. But that was absurd, of course, wasn’t it? Whoever heard of a cat attacking a man? Even though it seemed unreasonable, I knew they were behind me, waiting.
There was a narrow wagon trail through the forest, cut long ago before my father’s time, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I stumbled across one of its furrows. I stopped, turned and froze. There were dozens of them, all sitting on the snow, their glowing eyes staring and I stood rooted, unable to move. The apprehension I felt before grew into real panic as I pictured them swarming over me, clawing and biting.
But they just sat there, staring, tails working.
“Man, most mortal,” a harsh female voice grated close to me and I yelped in terror.
Beside me were only trees: pine, oak and birch. Then I noticed a slim black form perched on one of the low oak branches.
“Who are you?” I demanded and harsh laughter echoed around me. The cats began to yowl.
* * *
I have always considered myself religious, but I had long ago ceased believing in the reward of heaven or the pain of hell. As with sin, these were inventions of priests to keep the believers in check. Now, all the childhood horrors instilled into me reared their dark heads as I stood staring at the sinuous shape sitting on the branch. I could just make out the slow lashing of a long tail. There may not be a hell, but there were certainly devils around. Unless this was some horrible nightmare and I would wake, still on the bus. Somehow, I knew this was altogether too real.
“Why have you sought me now?” I whispered hoarsely, trembling uncontrollably.
“So, you recognize me,” the evil creature snorted with derision. “Not at all what you expected is it?” The laugh was nasty and mocking and my skin chilled. The cats, her minions, were all around me, waiting.
I fought to push back the tide of imagined horrors that waited for me when the demon dragged me into hell.
“Answer me!” the creature shrieked and I gasped.
“But I don’t seek you!” I managed to stammer.
Her laughter was the ripping of steel and her tail swished. “Yet you’re here. You fear me, mortal. That is good, for you have much to fear,” she grated, the sound setting my teeth on edge. “You were told never to walk here at night, for your soul would be in peril. As with other things, you chose to forget or ignore the warning. I demand your answer!” she screamed and the red glow of her eyes held me horrified as I tried to understand what she had said.
I couldn’t recall anyone telling me ever that I couldn’t walk here at night. Then, like a window opening, I saw myself sitting beside my father one dreamy afternoon as we gazed together at the forest below us. He clutched the bowl of his pipe, the aromatic smoke pleasant. Then he spoke to me. I was only a boy, restless and not much interested in his tales.
But I did remember his words.
“Our family has held that patch of forest as far back as any of us can remember,” he growled, nodding to himself. “It is ours to do as we wish, but only during the day. Only during the day,” he had said, nodding solemnly.
I remembered how he turned to look down at me, his eyes intense.
“Never go there at night, boy. Never!” His words were cold and I was afraid. I had played there often, at night too – well, late into the evening anyway.
“Why, father?” I had managed to ask.
“Later, boy. Just remember what I told you.”
I had forgotten the warning, and perhaps I was now about to pay the ultimate price. But how could I answer this thing when I didn’t understand the question?
A small part of me reared itself in admonition and the burden of my guilt for neglecting my Dad lay heavy.
“You have been following me,” I said accusingly, greatly daring. But if I was going to lose my soul, I could afford to dare.
“Ah, foolish creature,” she sneered and the tail coiled. “I was always there and you sampled the pleasure of my flesh, but when you came tonight, you opened the door to me willingly.”
I looked around and the cats were there, licking their paws, staring at me in anticipation. Their turn might come too. Was that to be my punishment, to be torn forever into pieces by snarling cats?
My soul was in judgment and my omissions were many. I had opened the door for her, if only a little, and I had done that a long time ago. Although I had never strayed along the dark side that lies within all of us, I knew its shadows. The craving for material possessions and the lusts of the flesh had claimed me, and I measured success with their coin, ignoring the needs of the spirit. That part of me had withered somewhat, but it was still there – waiting to be nurtured.
When that postcard came, I could have stayed away…
“I may have strayed, but you have no claim on me,” I said defiantly, the empty achievements of my life tasting bitter in my mouth.
“By answering your father’s call, you mean to redeem yourself?” the devil chided.
“I have not finished my work yet,” I said lamely.
“Your work?” she mimicked and laughed, the tail whipping. “You crave mercy, then?” she roared and one of the cats sprang on my shoulder. I stood rooted, terrified as it bared its fangs and hissed. The smell of death was on it and its eyes burned into mine.
“All I have to do is reach with my hand and you will be mine,” the devil hissed, and the cold menace of her voice was a voice from hell.
I may have been half crazed with fright, but I wasn’t about to give myself to that thing.
“You can’t –”
The cat on my shoulder snarled and sank its teeth into my neck. I screamed and clawed at the thing, but it sprang away. Blood flowed warm between my fingers and tears stung my eyes.
“I can’t what?” the devil demanded softly.
“You can’t touch me,” I grated in defiance. “I may be in terror of you and your minions, but I have never walked in your shadow. You and yours be damned!”
She chuckled and her eyes blazed. “Oh, that was good, mortal. Lame, but good. You may not have walked in my shadow, but you have touched me nonetheless.”
“You tempted me, yes, but I have never given into you!”
“One day you will, and then you shall be mine for real. You chose to walk the dark path, just as you chose to come to me tonight. You didn’t have to, but you did.”
“I will never walk your path!”
She let out a shrill laugh. “I can feel your terror, and the lust you harbor for my shape. One day, you will embrace me willingly.”
“We shall see. You have been warned. Next time our paths cross, the fear you now feel will be justified.”
One by one the cats slowly padded into darkness. A warmth seemed to descend on the forest, and with it, a pervasive friendliness. The branch where the terrible thing had perched was empty. It was a while before I stopped shaking. With tentative steps, I walked to where the cats had sat, but the snow was unbroken, except for my footprints.
There was a dark stain on the snow and I bent down. It was a fluff of cat hair. A drop of dark blood fell beside it from the bite on my neck. It was then that I sank into the snow and silently sobbed.
* * *
The coach lurched as it entered the parking ramp and I opened my eyes with a start. Across the aisle a figure stirred beneath a blanket and a head slowly reared up. The lights came on, suddenly bright and intrusive and I saw myself reflected in the glass of the window.
“Appelton!” the driver growled into the intercom and pried himself out of his seat “Stopping for twenty minutes only!”
The door hissed as it opened and he winced as powder snow swirled around him. I could see his hunched figure fumbling with the luggage compartment doors.
Blinking, I was confused. Had it all been just a dream?
I hurriedly touched my neck, but there was no wound. I opened my hand. In it was a fluff of cat hair. I went cold and started to shake. I swallowed, but it went down hard.
Pulling up the zipper of my ski jacket, I moved down the aisle toward the door. I paused on the first step, breathing deeply of the biting air, trying to sort out my feelings. It was with heavy feet that I descended the steps. When I looked up, he was there, waiting for me.
“Dad?” I managed to mumble, my throat suddenly tight.
He walked toward me and smiled warmly. When he saw my eyes, he frowned; then nodded slowly.
“It’s all right, son. You’re here, that’s all that matters,” he said gruffly and we embraced. He smelled of wood smoke and tobacco. He let me go and patted my back. I followed him to the car, flooded with relief at seeing him. I should have done this much sooner.
He opened the door for me and smiled ruefully. “Don’t worry. I didn’t heed my father’s warning either, boy. Get in. We have much to talk about.”
July 2015 Fictuary contest winner!
A slightly different version of this story appeared in an anthology Swallowed by the Beast, released in January 2015, edited by Samie Sands.