It came down from the mountain as a high wind on the first night, a rumor of bad weather that deepened to a warning by the following morning. It seemed to growl from the earth itself, portending worse. Then worse came. Though he tried, he couldn’t ignore it just by turning his cheek. The wind scoured his face with snow and ice, and by the time he lost feeling, the “bad weather” was a blizzard, and he was a morsel in its teeth. It pulled at the trees as if to scalp the mountain and spat sleet across his bared face and fists, clenched so tightly for so long he was sure his fingers would snap off and disappear into the rising snow if he tried to open them. But though all the elements seemed concerted against him, the best the blizzard could do was slow him down. No matter how high the snow climbed, he went on. Ankles. Shins. Knees.
He had to go on.
The head was not far behind.
He had long since ceased to worry about time, having lost track of the hours and the unraveling parameters of days even longer since; but if there had been anyone there in the whirling darkness to press him for an answer, to lay a frozen hand on his shoulder and whisper with numbed lips into his ears, he might have guessed three or four nights since he had embarked, knowing there was something worth reaching beyond the mountains, a place to which he was drawn as a shipwrecked sailor to a light on the shore. But the wind and cold has torn away the what and why, leaving him with little more than crude instinct and the flat crunch of his boots in the snow. He clenched a fist tighter and drove the other deeper into the pocket of his coat. A surging wind rattled its frosted mesh, pressed a blade against the wattle under his chin, and then disappeared.
For the first time since the sun had last struggled through the blizzard--this past morning, perhaps--he raised his eyes, blinked away the snowblind, and appraised the distance still to go. It was, somehow, an even bleaker sight than before, and he realized that he had strayed from his original course. Strayed far. He would have smashed the compass if he’d ever needed one, shredded the map if there had ever been one, in that time before he had embarked; but he only trudged on, adjusting course with the dogged fortitude that had gotten him this far. A lancing pain he couldn’t solely attribute to a rise in the pitch of the wind sliced him from temple to nape, but like a burn, it was gone before it had fully registered. It was the memory that hurt.
He squinted into the trees suddenly, certain he had heard again a noise like the stealthy, stalking crunch of a paw or a foot. Nothing had been there when he’d first caught it so many hours ago, but it wasn’t so this time: there in the wind-tortured darkness among the trees slid a shape, a thing moving low to the ground, but even in his state, he couldn’t let himself believe that what he saw (or thought he saw) could be any more than a branch falling or fallen in the snow, broken by a powerful gale. The wind slashed wildly all around him, and slashed even more wildly in the trees, bottlenecked by their unyielding trunks. There was still room to say that he saw nothing at all. He wanted to see something following him in the snow. That was it. He wanted something to push him up the mountain as powerfully as he was pulled, so his eye forced a shape where there was only darkness and snow and his mind whispered wolves, but there was really nothing there. He climbed alone, silently repeating it to himself until it was true. He climbed alone.
And the head pursued.
There had been days he’d spent off this terrible mountain, days of sunlight that did not fall flat upon snow and wind that did not wound as it cooled his face, but the collected volume of that joy was little more than condensation on the glass of these frozen hours. Somewhere in the world there was a hammock wrapped and tucked between canisters of house paint, a broken rake leaning closeby. The cobwebs seemed to brush his hands (the one in his pocket trembling, the other savagely frostbitten) as he reached for it, the sawdust sugaring his work boots (always in boots was he), the scent of mildew coating his nose and mouth (one stoppered with mucus, the other clamped silent for days), and as he unfurled the faded thing, he peered up in the memory and out through the shed window at the unkempt yard where his father had beaten him at bocce every summer. Beyond that, down the street, was the beach where he had learned to surf. He tried to imagine the wallop of the ocean against the rocks, the gossip of seagulls, but found he could not even remember his father’s name.
An ice-slick beneath the snow caught him unaware and he nearly planted into the snow. Terror kept him on his feet and set him to trudging with renewed haste into the howling maw of the blizzard, toward that place beyond the mountain it guarded. From somewhere in the darkness came that sound of stealthy movement again, a low and slithering sound. He did not turn his head, knowing it would expose his neck once more to the cold, but was aware of its shape just the same as he redoubled his efforts. His chapped lips parted, and he heard himself panting, a sound so small and alien it seemed as if some animal had trapped itself in his jaws. He shook his head, but by the time he realized his mistake, it was too late: he had caught sight of the head, not far behind, reddening the snow in its pursuit.
The sleet picked up. There was no sense in pulling his ice-hardened cap down any further, so he bowed his head. It had been a mistake to try to gauge the distance still to go, because now the sting of ice against his averted eyes and cheeks brought vividly to mind that whirling expanse, and a reminder that some paces ahead, the already uneven ground would begin to steepen. The only warmth left to him was the throbbing fire in his hips and knees, relieved not at all by these ill-fitting boots cramping his step, but he forced himself onward over the broken earth, trying again to summon up his father’s name. It would not come. He tried to remember his voice. It would not come. He tried to remember his clothes, and there was an intimation of wool and corduroy, fleeting as scent. He snatched at it, willing it to open the way to fuller recollection, but it slipped the grasp of his mind and gave way to a confusing mélange of polyester, hard plastic, rubber--
That lancing pain again, cometing from nape to temple in a brilliant instant. He squeezed the fist in his pocket, meaning to inspect the spot where the memory burned, but kept his fist in place. It was likelier and likelier that he would be losing a hand to the blizzard, so it was imperative that he protect the other at all costs. He would need it. This knowledge, too, had lost its context, leaving only an exposed wire of instinct, and though his entire body railed against the injustice leveled upon his frozen hand, he did as he knew he was supposed to do. All would be well beyond the mountain.
He trudged on.
The head pursued.
It was closer to him than he was to the other side of the mountain, but he realized, with a bolt of despair not so different from the lancing pain, that he had no guarantee the head wouldn’t follow him to that place where he imagined all his troubles vanishing. Was it only an imagining? He searched and found no assurance in himself that the head and its red shroud would go away. When had that thought come to him? When had he found the gall to lie to himself? He had no answers for these questions. And, with slow horror, he realized that he couldn’t remember a time he had not been pursued. In a panic, he rummaged for daylight, for sawdust and corduroy, collecting them in his memory like the materials for a lifeline leading back to the foot of the mountain. He pulled himself back along a winding road, back through shrinking townships; back to that summery yard where his father had dozed on the hammock for what seemed like days on end, swinging gently in a perpetual salty breeze. He pulled, but the lifeline had been slashed. Despair filled him. Its frayed end was charred and rank with the stench of hot rubber, burnt plastic, acrid smoke--
That stealthy, slithering sound. He saw its maker now, slinking along. It had been a patient hunter all this time, but hunger is an impulsive master. Its eye glittered like chrome in the dark, its attention divided between his frostbitten fist and the prize of soft meat beneath his oversized snow jacket, the hot liqueur of his blood, the quivering delicacy of his brain. The snow reached much higher on his thighs than the last time he’d checked. It resisted him like the stormy breakers of Half Moon Bay, igniting the pain in his legs, now creeping up his back, into infernos. The blizzard bellowed in his face. He pushed, but he was trapped. Trapped again. His legs pinned not between drifts of snow but the seat and the crumpled dashboard. The wheel wedged against his chest. He clutched again at his lifeline, at the wool and corduroy, touched the seatbelt across his father’s sweatered chest, touched the glass speckling the wool--
He had stopped moving. The snow was too heavy. He could no longer move, but only struggle futilely in place, the cloud of his breath whipped back down the mountain by a razoring gale. The creature, still shaded in the trees, paused anticipatorily. The fist in his pocket clenched and unclenched, stayed by sheer force of will. His other fist, the one exposed to the blizzard, tightened, or seemed to--there was no way to tell anymore whether the command had any power over those dead nerves and blued flesh. The creature slithered forth, waiting for him to keel over. But he was not concerned about it or its chrome-shiny gaze. He was not concerned with the loss of sensation in his hand. The head was behind him, and its red shroud would blot him out if he did not move or fight. The lancing pain retraced its course along his head. He was pinned again, but he did just as he had done before: methodically, single-mindedly, willfully ignoring the pain in his lungs. Ignoring the oscillant scream of an alarm. Ignoring the glass crunching on his father’s wool sweater as he fought for shrinking, smoke-poisoned breaths. Ignoring the patter of his father’s fingers as they scrabbled along his jacket sleeve. Ignoring the idiot shine of his father’s eyes as they ceased to blink, and--
He wrenched free of the wheel. He pulled himself with desperate strength through the mangled window frame, fangs of glass ventilating his jacket as he slid out, dropped into the snow, and--
In the present, he turned to face the head.
It was his father’s. It floated serenely there in the howling blue darkness, staring back at him without recognition, and as if all the world were only thin paper wrapping, red rashed his father’s distorted features and quickly emanated outward, infecting the snow, the trees, the sky they lashed against; flooding the dark and the air itself. There was no time to understand, but before the red reached him and the Others lifted themselves out of the snow, his chapped lips cracked to issue a brittle scream that took the shape of words:
The slinking creature did not slink. Its chrome eye regarded the scene in scarlet silence. The Others freed the rope from the frosty grasp of his hand. Pulled the fist out of his jacket pocket. Pried his fingers from the pair of wallets he had safeguarded all this way. His father’s head watched from its invisible perch, its dispassionate regard indicating as little recognition of his son’s voice as the chrome-eyed creature or the Others as they pulled, their strength an irrefutable suggestion of defeat.
“I’m sorry! It’s not right! I’m sorry!”
He closed his mouth and saw the Others. Their dry eyes. Their dry mouths. When he screamed, though the words were the same, their meaning was not:
“It’s not right! It’s not right!”
The pulled. He fell. The snow enveloped him, compressing the mindless roar of the blizzard and the mad thud of his heart into a hideous grinding that did not end, but deepened as the Others tightened their hold and dragged him down, further and further. The lancing pain cut him, and out welled the memory of his father’s pleading shouts, his hopeless moans. The lancing pain cut him again, and out welled the memory of his father’s last, accusatory gaze, preserved in ice and rot on that terrible floating apparition, reminding him of the weight of his father’s body as he dragged it out of the wreck. Lashed him to the broken door. Knotted two lengths of climbing rope through the mangled window frame.
His father’s mouth, mashing under his palm as he used his face to boost himself out of the car.
It’s not right.
The grinding deepened.
The grinding went on and on, and did not end.
- - - -
From the local newspaper:
Two men, identified as Edgar and Grant Abernathy, crashed an older model rental Ford Focus while driving north on Upper West Pass, said M------ Police Officer Terry Wilde.
They are reported deceased.
Grant Abernathy, driver, failed to negotiate the turn as Upper West Pass turns into the roadway exit and struck a boulder. The vehicle rolled “at least twice” down a steep slope and came to rest off the roadway.
Wilde said officers frequently respond to crashes and collisions on this stretch during the “busy season” which runs from November through January. He admitted the department was not prepared to respond to the report of an accident so early in the year.
The vehicle caught fire after the crash, but Edgar and Grant Abernathy, father and son respectively, were found several miles away from the site of the crash on Mt. Leger, one of a range of popular skiing mountains in the area.
“It looks like [Grant Abernathy] was aiming for [the nearby town of] Novak,” speculated Montana Police Officer Megan Cotten, head of the search party that discovered the deceased Abernathys five days after the initial crash. “There’s a hospital there that [Grant Abernathy] must known was there.”
According to accounts from other members of the search party, Edgar Abernathy was transported on a makeshift sled constructed from skiing apparatus and part of a door from the totaled vehicle.
Grant Abernathy sustained a traumatic head injury during the crash. Edgar Abernathy appeared to have died instantaneously.
FEAR: Short Horror Tales From The Team
FEAR is a new column from the ML team that brings new short fictional horror stories to our readers, enjoy at your own risk