2019 Competition Piece
Prompt: Catch Up
Genre: Fiction, Suspense
I only exist in stories now. The lore told wistfully by the ones who knew me. Even the ones who didn’t know me caught wind of the words that breathed suspense into the mundane embers of life, this fire that we stoke with more and more fuel, until its heat can no longer sustain us and we extinguish. They’d whisper my name in disbelief, all the while secretly enjoying vicariously living the primal and brutal retelling of what I’d done. The mystery shrouded around my circumstances pulled closed like curtains, offering glimpses from which one might derive some clues, but giving no confirmation of its truth.
The rain is good. It keeps most hikers off my path and the ones who do venture into the muggy slosh are covered up in their protective gear and have no question about why I might be covered up in mine. My rubber boots leave an impression the earth will easily forget by the time I pull them off to dry by the fire this evening. I can cover great distance in the rain, putting them all farther and farther behind me.
This raincoat is good, too, its thick waterproof shell creates an easy shield I can push through the brush in. I slide through the thick and menacing briars, magically walking through a secret door in an otherwise impenetrable wall of plant life. I can move swiftly this way, undeterred by the unruly vegetation’s guardianship, but I can also make my own trails, unrestricted to the plain and simple paths most travel happily by, the doorway I’ve created closes tightly behind me, leaving no trace of my presence there.
The dog is also good. Apart from his noisiness, a thick and clumsy breed, he can sense things before I can, though he scares them all away too quickly. He steps onto the plush sand, saturated with a full days rain and he backs up, untrusting the earth that gives under his weight. He’s right to be skeptical as it lines right alongside a creek bed, so we shift further up into the tree line to avoid an unplanned plunge off the side bank into the unforgiving waters below.
The dog doubles as a cloak of invincibility. No one would question a man with a dog, at least not one that behaves like a companion. A friend to animals could not also be a criminal on the run, a desperate murderer of his beloved. His muddy fur serves to cover my scent.
I imagine the search is about twenty miles behind me and I don’t believe they will ever catch up. Their efforts aimed at covering a wide expanse as opposed to the linear trajectory I am on. They would not expect a lone, fugitive man to head straight north during winter.
It’s a strange feeling when you become a ghost, of sorts, unable to be seen but also unable to disappear, trapped in some unknown and unwanted purgatory. Left with few choices but somehow unlimited freedom, I could not plan too far ahead of the single digit miles I would cover in one day. Could I walk out in the open, obtain supplies on a regular basis, I might be able to conquer more ground. But my transparency left me crawling along through the shadows of the unattended wilderness that weaved between Georgia and Maine.
It’s amazing; actually, how much land remains undeveloped. Completely untouched except by the wildlife that still holds claim on their territory. Much like myself, they skirt around the edges of the tree lines, keeping an observant eye on the civilization that encroaches upon their borders. Each time a slice of land is selected for clearing, they retreat further into the raw land, growing their distrust for humankind.
I cannot help but identify with this distrust. The pure and sharp edges of my betrayal still fresh in my heart, the dew on my eyelids when I awake each morning upon the frosted ground, a fresh reminder of my isolation. At least in the animal world individual worth is made clear and distinct. In the human world, your favorability fluctuates on a precariously balanced beam held in place by the mental stability and sound judgment of anyone to which you’re emotionally tethered. The momentum can swing you to great heights, or the downfall can crush you into nothing – all in a day’s work.
The sun is eye level now, rays of light stabbing through the trees like the claws of a cat slicing through a tablecloth as it falls in slow motion from the ledge of the table. I shake the dog’s leash and grunt, indicating it’s time to bed down for the night. He shakes his whole body in wicked protest, indicating the woods are too wet and not fit for walking much less sleep.
I don’t have the luxury of choices these days. I unclip his leash and hold his head in my hands, a nightly ritual wherein I do give him a choice. He could run off. He could easily abandon me, catch scent of the nearest road, and someone would be sure to pick him up. It would not matter to me if he goes, he cannot tell anyone my secrets.
Much to my surprise, he stays, night after night, as if carrying out some noble quest. It makes me wonder about his intellect, choosing to travel with a ghost that only offers him a life that is starved, wet, cold, and always moving. His goodness is an unlikely pairing. The darkness that resides within me recoils from him, unable to process his loyalty.
The only thing we have in common is the present moment that we share. My purpose having been stripped away and every breath a stolen one, but he, I think, would be this way even if he were traveling with someone more wholesome. Two creatures so present, there isn’t much thought for the future or the past, only what exists now.
I awoke to the popping embers of my dwindling fire and through the drifts of smoke that escaped my eyes met another’s, a wolf as dark as the night, his form completely masked by the surrounding blackness. I acknowledged a physical response within my body though I cannot call it fear. That is one advantage to being a ghost already. Next my heart dropped, not in sadness, but in pity for the dog that stood ready to defend, hackles raised along his back. Still, so small and docile compared to the experienced and calculated predator that faced us.
I pulled the trigger and killed the wolf, knowing there were likely more pack mates lurking just beyond my campfire light. The sound was deafening as it ripped through the crystalized silence of the night. The effect was successful as I could hear the scattering paws of the other shadowed wolves. I cannot be sure if it was the shot or the adrenaline that propelled the dog like a rocket also into the darkness.
I could not linger for his return or speculate upon his choices. I left the black wolf laying there, just another dark mark in my trail of devastation.