His mind was elsewhere as Jim went on with his story. Relentlessly long winded, you only needed to tune in here and there to get the point of a Jim story. Good soul, who laughed at his own jokes.
“So, they sat, huddled together,” Jim went on. “Listening to the banging on the door.”
Jim was also a huge fan of onomatopoeia. And hand gestures.
He thought of her as he gazed upon the mild inferno. He couldn’t help it. The fire matched her hair. But he could find a memory of her anywhere. In anything.
But tonight, his stomach sat different. Anxious. A peculiar kind. The kind that builds bad thoughts into horrible ones. The kind when exactly what you hoped would not happen, does. But the strangeness is that nothing had changed. She was still as far away as any two humans could be. Likely in the comfort of the man she had wanted more than he. As they had been for years.
The facts did not settle the feeling. It only grew. And grew worse, as did Jim’s story.
“They fell into one another’s eyes,” Jim said. “One last time, as the lock on the door flew off.”
So, he wondered, maybe it’s something else. Something else is wrong. Something entirely different. But what, he could not say.
“And there, in the doorway, he stood.”
Jim finished, expecting applause. Instead, he was berated by the playfully cruel words of his friends. The fire still crackled, as he felt the huge silence around him. They did this trip every year, for ten years in a row now. It was the last night. And every moment was just as fun as they’d always been. It wasn’t until a few minutes ago, that the paranoia began.
“Mark?” Jim asked after the ramble had rumbled down. “Are you alright? You haven’t said a fucking thing since we ate.”
This pulled him back from his mind. He was not expecting to hear his name. He had almost forgotten that he was there at all.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Just tired, I guess.”
“Have another drink,” Mo suggested, handing the bottle.
So, he did. And down it went, piled on top of the anxiousness.
“It’s your turn.” Axel told him. “Whatever you’ve got. It can’t possibly be as bad as Jim’s.”
“Hopefully not as fucking long,” Mo shot.
They all laughed. Jim as well, being no stranger to his own abuse.
“Alright,” Mark said.
Then he waited. Stuck in that feeling. The rolling stone of dreadful thought. The fire still had a whisper of her hair, but it had gone somewhere else. He felt as a child. Small and weak. Afraid from misunderstanding or paralyzed to his inability to do anything about that which he could comprehend. His stomach churned, throwing nausea to the back of his throat. Teeth clenched. His hands began to tremble.
He had no story to tell. And he had no idea how long he’d been sitting in silence. A grown man cowering in his own mind.
“Mark?” Mo asked softly.
It must have been a long time. He looked up to find the sympathetic gaze of his longtime friends. All of them wondering what plagued him. Mark opened his mouth to speak, without a clue of what to say. Though nothing ever got the chance to come out.
Through the infinite silence around them, a bang. Not an explosion. The sound of something going very fast. An engine. It came from behind Mark. South. They all turned towards the break in the peace, as it echoed through the trees.
“What the fuck was that?” Mo demanded.
“Sounded like a jet.” Mark replied. His anxiety turned to adrenaline. His body urging him to prepare. To act. Or die.
“There isn’t an airport anywhere near up here.” Jim reasoned.
“Sure as shit not one with any planes that go that fast,” Axel informed them. “The closest base in at least a few hundred miles from here. Fort Kearny. Spent eighteen months in that dump.”
The conversation ended there. Broken by another sound. Worse. Accompanied by a light. A tremendous light, that cast shadows long between the trees. And explosion, but not of normal fire. This was brighter, and off colored. Almost void of color. Just light. Furious and menacing.
Mark felt the pressure build. Now justified, the vague fear that had slowly been crippling him. The trees all ached, as a gust as mightier than mother nature herself swept through their camp. It knocked all but Mark from their seats. And blew the flame out, reducing it to the dull glow of embers. Embers which hardly lit their camp as the unknown light from a far, dwindled down to nothing. As the wind died down the same. Darkness. And silence, for a moment.
“Jesus,” Jim claimed, pulling himself from the ground. “What the fuck was that?”
“I think we’re about to find out,” Mark heard himself say, knowing it would not put his friends at ease.
The discussion ended there.
A light grew in the sky again. This time, much dimmer. A fire ball of more earthly style. The jet, Mark had claimed might have been. Falling to bits as it soared over head. Screaming and fighting to keep in one piece. Fighting to stay in the sky. And failing. From south to north. Until it broke through the tree line and crashed to the ground not more than one hundred yard from where they sat. So close as it went by, they could feel the heat of it on their faces.
They could see the smolder through the bare autumn trees, just up at the base of the hill. And with that, silence loomed again. Surrounding them. And from the looks of their faces, sharing the dread with the rest of them, as had been plaguing Mark.
“Holy shit,” Mo muttered in wonder.
“We should go see if they need help,” Jim said.
“Are you stupid?” Axel inquired. “We don’t know who the hell was flying that thing, or why it went down. Shot down on our soil? I highly doubt it was one of ours.”
“It could have just malfunction, though?” Mo hoped to know. “Right?”
“I wouldn’t think so,” Axel said. “They put a lot of work and a lot of money into those things. They wouldn’t just go up in flames like that. Not without getting hit by something. Something fast. Or something they didn’t see.”
“What should we do?” Mo trembled.
“Shut up,” Mark heard himself say. “We don’t know anything, but I don’t think whatever that was would know that we’re here. Not with our fire so low. And not if we stay quiet.”
So, they all did. And listened. At first there was little more than the distant murmur of the burning wreck. No wind. No feet moving. Not a sound otherwise.
Then broken. By gunfire. Automatic and in great supply. Moving, it seemed. Away from the wreck and growing in speed. Closer to us, but a bit westward. Soon, yelling was heard. Two separate voices, calling out to each other. Drenched in desperation. In fear.
As they moved, the sound grew. More shots, in more directions. One of them snapping just past Mark’s ear. But before long, a scream. The sound of man more afraid than thought possible. A sound worse than death. Followed by the shouts of the other. More desperate than before. Fearful. Alone. Quelled by gunfire. Constant until it ceased.
Then the silence again. Courted only by the remnants of the burning wreck. For a few moments. In which, Mark put his flashlight in one hand, and pulled his knife from its sheath with the other.
As he did, another scream. Echoed through tree and soul like. The kind that makes skin crawl. The kind that makes someone piss their pants. A scream that lasted an eternity and an instant. Until swallowed again by nothing.
And there they sat. Frozen faces in the low orange glow of what remained of their camp fire. Too afraid to make a noise. The fear of something finding them, though they had no idea at to what that might be.
Mark believed he heard leaves underneath a very light foot but couldn’t be convinced of anything anymore. He looked at his friends of so many years. All of them, hoping to not be, but sure that they were dead men. And by that which they could not understand.
The he closed his eyes and held his breath. He thought of her, as she was when his memory decided to fix her permanent place. All senses dancing around a day now long gone. A warmth crept at first, then began to take over the dread. That wonderfully vague benevolence. Home. Love. All that. It began to break the anxiety that had begun so long ago. He held as long as he could. Then sighed. And back it came.
His eyes opened and found his friend Jim. Terrified. Almost in tears. Doing his best not to shake.
The from the darkness behind, it came. Long and grey. Vascular, but on the outside of the skin. Each finger able to slowly hover full around Jim, from neck to navel. So, slow that Jim himself had not seen right away. Now that he knew, he dared not look. Still, without touching him, the hand consumed him. Each claw the closest to his skin. Each claw long and seeming rusted. That or bloodied. The back of Jim’s hair being blow by a slow breath. Massive and untired. Calm, making it all the more to fear.
Mark looked at Jim, knife in hand. Certain he had to do something, though no idea what that might be. He saw as Jim mouthed something to him, unable to drawn enough breath to speak.
Then the hand closed. Powerfully. Crushing bones all through Jim’s body. And so, he screamed from a blood-filled mouth. Like the two from the jet. He screamed for as long as he could even after he was pulled into the darkness. His scream grew further and further. Until it ended.
Then the silence. Again.