Authors: Dean Koontz
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Romance, #Fantasy, #Fiction
After a few minutes, as I crouched there in the dark between the narrow shafts of light, I heard noises. I thought the badger of my imagination might have become flesh and might be approaching now through the passageway that I had followed. The long claws of a badger’s forefeet make it a dangerous adversary. But then I realized that the sounds came from above, carried to me with the sunshine. Boots on stone, a clank of something, a rattle. A man coughed and cleared his throat and sounded very near.
If he hadn’t merely glimpsed me, if he had seen me in some detail, either he would have been searching for me aggressively or he would have decided to depart from a forest so queer that it could harbor something like me. Instead he seemed to have settled down for a brief rest, suggesting that he had not gotten a clear look at me.
What I might be, how I could be brought into the world through the agency of a man and woman, I didn’t know and thought that I would never know. Much of the world is beautiful, and much more is at least fair to the eye, and what might be ugly is nevertheless of the same texture as everything else and clearly belongs in the tapestry. In fact, on the closest consideration, an ugly spider is in its way an intricate work of art worthy of respect or even admiration, and the vulture has its glossy black feathers, and the poisonous snake its sequined scales.
One thing seemed to suggest that I might have some wisp of beauty to offer the world: the nature of my heart, which remained free of bitterness and anger. I feared, but I did not hate. I knew dread, but I did not judge. I loved and wished to be loved in return. And though my life had been circumscribed, though my experience had been limited by the threats I faced, I was usually happy. In this world, where woe and misery were common, where sometimes darkness seemed about to drown civilization, perhaps a capacity for happiness and hope was beauty of a kind, a small welcome light in the flood.
Waiting in the dark warren, I wondered about the hunter, who was separated from me by a few feet of stone. His life was unimaginable to me, more mysterious than that of a lion on the veld or a polar bear on the arctic ice. The little mountain meadow in which our house stood was so far from the nearest neighbor, so remote, that hunters had not before ventured that far. It seemed unlikely that this man meant to kill a deer and then carry or drag it miles to his vehicle. A disturbing possibility occurred to me. Perhaps he hunted for the thrill of the kill and had no need of venison. If he shot a buck, he might take only the rack of antlers, and if he shot a doe, only the ears and tail. Or maybe he would kill and take
nothing away except the memory of killing, in which case, it seemed to me that for the first time in my life, I might be in the presence of true evil.
I recognized the smell of his cigarette because my mother was addicted to her Marlboros. A moment later, the draft brought ribbons of smoke down the larger of the flute holes, suggesting that the hunter must be sitting near it. The pale fumes curled and quested as if they were spirits of the dead seeking a way back into the world of the living. He whistled a tune I didn’t recognize, pausing now and then to take another drag on his cigarette.
Other than my mother, he was the first human being that I’d seen. I sat fascinated in the gloom, fearful but intrigued, no less than would have been an astronaut on an alien world encountering for the first time life born around another star. His interrupted whistle, his occasional throat clearing, a few muttered words, the sounds of him shifting position—all of it made me impatient for a closer look at the man, for even the smallest detail of a hand or of the red coat he wore, because, though he was but human, he was magical to me. Gradually I convinced myself that he must be sitting so close to the flute that
of him would be visible, if only a shoe.
Silently I eased to the larger hole and leaned into the light and peered up and was rewarded by the sight of his hand less than three feet overhead. It rested on the stone next to the shaft, the cigarette held between two fingers. The hand was large and work-worn, and suggested that he might be strong, and red-blond hairs like fine copper wire glowed on the back of it.
The draft-drawn smoke willowed down through the hole and across my face, but I didn’t worry about coughing or sneezing. I had long experience of my mother smoking, when we would sit reading in the living room, she with her book and I with mine. From the age of six, I had read at a level far beyond my years, and books were a passion we shared. Her back remained nearly always turned to me, so that she could spare herself from the sight of my face, which might cast her into despair and give her a bad case of the mean reds, which were immeasurably worse than the blues, but somehow the graceful tendrils of smoke found my face and fingered it as if to question the reality of my features.
On the rock above, the hunter adjusted his position. His hand disappeared, but as he now sat, as he leaned, humming a tune rather than whistling, I could see part of his face at such a severe angle that it seemed to be of Mount Rushmore proportions: a heavy jaw, the corner of his mouth, the tip of his nose. A portion of the cigarette appeared but not the hand that held it, and he inhaled and blew smoke out in a ring that amazed me. The bluish circle quivered dreamlike, hung for a moment as though it would remain there in perpetuity, but then the moving air distorted it and drew it down into the hole and unraveled it into my upturned face.
He blew another ring. Doing such a thing twice proved intent, which made the second more delightful than the first. Although this trick ensorcelled me, I am all but certain that I made no sound.
Yet suddenly he turned his head and looked down, and because he didn’t block the sun, he saw
my eye, one of my singular eyes, three feet below, regarding him from within the stone. His eyes were blue, and the one of them aimed at me registered shock and then such pure ferocity, such hatred and horror, that I knew—if ever I had doubted—that my mother’s story of the midwife must be true.
Trembling, frightened as I had never been before, I retreated from the light, scooted into the dark, and pressed my back against a wall, grateful that the passageway into my den was much too small to accommodate him.
The crash of the rifle thundered down the hole and echoed around the chamber so unexpectedly that I cried out in surprise and terror. I heard the slug ricocheting wall to wall—
peen peen, peen
—and knew that I would die there, but it spent its energy without finding me. The hunter thrust the rifle farther into the shaft and fired again, and my ears rang with thunderclap and stricken stone and bullet whine.
Spared again, I knew that I wouldn’t be spared forever. On hands and knees, I crawled through the dark, found the way out. The passage seemed to have grown much narrower since I’d entered through it, the stone pressing relentlessly against me as though I would be flattened between strata and fossilized to mystify archaeologists thousands of years hence.
Half deafened by the two reports, I nevertheless heard the panicked hunter shouting outside. His voice came to me by the flute holes through which the wind might pipe on another day. He sounded both enraged and terrified.
The rifle fired again, but the boom was more muffled and seemed to come from a different direction than before. Vibrations translated through the hugging stone as I squirmed along. Another shot and yet another.
I realized what he was doing. He had come off the formation of limestone and had begun to circle it, seeking those holes at its base that might lead to the chamber where I had been when we came eye to eye. There were only five that would accommodate a boy my size, and only three of them bored inward to any extent, and only this one led to a pocket cavern large enough to serve as a refuge. If he fired blindly into some of those openings, he was at risk of being wounded by his own ricocheting rounds, but intuition told me that luck of that kind would not save me from him.
On hands and knees, I hastened through the darkness and followed the curve and saw precious daylight ahead. I almost hesitated, but my sole hope was to get out before he appeared and opened fire. I exited the passageway, expecting a boot in the face, a bullet in the head, but when he fired again, the report came from farther around the limestone outcropping.
I rose to a crouch, considering my options. I was on the west side of the formation and could see
the place where the wolf had vanished into the undergrowth. But our house lay in that direction, and it would be dangerous to draw the hunter toward home. To the north, a deer path offered a narrow but clear route into the rising woods, and if I could get to it and disappear along it before he rounded the limestone, I might be safe.
As I sprinted toward that best chance of escape, I heard him shout like a biblical avenger offended by some outrage committed against all that was good and decent—
—and knew that he’d seen me. The rifle cracked, and a bullet tore a chunk out of a tree trunk inches from my head. Shaken by the power of my own hard-hammering heart, gasping for breath, I ran as I had never run before, along a trail scattered with coins of sunshine and with a greater currency of shadows.
I knew this portion of the wilderness better than he did. If only I could avoid being shot in the back during the next minute, I believed that I might be able to lose him. This was the next thing to primeval forest, and though he had longer legs than I did and all the firepower, anyone lacking my peculiar intuitive sense of direction might become lost here forever.
When I reached the first turn of the trail without hearing another shot, I assumed that he must be racing after me. I didn’t look back but made an even greater effort.
Deer traveled by the way of least resistance, and because their sense of time measured life in four seasons rather than in minutes and hours, they lived without urgency. The hoof-beaten trails were therefore circuitous, and from time to time they branched. I took the first branch, and when that one eventually divided, I followed the new path again, hoping that at one intersection or another, the hunter would go the way I hadn’t. By this strategy I reached a crest and descended and crossed a shallow vale and climbed a longer slope to a ridge, where I stopped and turned and looked back and saw no one.
I sat on the rimrock to catch my breath, and the forest below blazed with fire that didn’t consume it, each autumn tree a torch of red or orange or yellow, like a vast canvas by an impressionist painter inspired and exhilarated by the quantum nature of all things.
By now I understood that he hadn’t shot me in the back on the first uphill leg of the trail because he must have been out of ammunition and needed to reload, which had given me a minute to get ahead of him and out of sight. Having taken a maze rat’s route from the limestone formation to this ridge, I was reasonably sure that in an attempt to follow me, he would make more than one wrong choice of trails.
I needed only to catch my breath and then make my way toward home by such indirection that I didn’t risk crossing his path as he wandered in search of me. Or so I believed. The rabid ferocity of his reaction had confirmed Mother’s warnings, but I didn’t yet comprehend the depth of the revulsion that I inspired or how relentless he would be in his determination to kill me.
As I sat gazing down into the serried ranks of trees in their celebratory dress, I realized that if the hunter ascended through them, I might not register his movement until he was close. In that festival of color, the numerous red-leafed maples redefined his red hunting jacket as a kind of camouflage.
Chips of bullet-fractured rimrock sprayed over me simultaneously with the crack of the rifle. I rolled away across the narrow ridgetop, down the next slope, onto all fours, onto my feet, and plunged through lashing feather grass, no deer trail apparent. I made it to the tree line, into shade and ferns, blundering through undergrowth. The hunter obviously had expert tracking skills, and I was leaving in my wake a path of disturbed and broken foliage that any amateur could have followed.
Out of the undergrowth, onto a deer path once more, I quickened down through a forest dressed in a million Joseph’s coats, skidding where the fallen leaves underfoot were damp, no longer trusting that switching to intersecting trails would thwart my pursuer, seeking the most direct route to the floor of the next hollow.
In previous outings, I had never gone farther than this, but I knew that at the bottom a stream wound through the hollow and might offer me a way to delay the hunter or foil him altogether. I thrashed through a sudden richness of painted ferns with purple-tinged, gray-green fronds and came to shallow water flowing lazily.
On her trips to the nearest town, my mother bought my clothes and always furnished me with the best waterproof hiking boots each time that I outgrew the former pair. Although I’d never tested their reliability this boldly, I waded into the water, which was three or four inches deep, and proceeded upstream. After splashing twenty yards or so, I looked back. Through the clear and sparkling currents, I saw my footprints in the compacted silt of the streambed. The water flowed so slowly that it might need an hour to erase the tracks I’d left, but my stalker was only a few minutes behind me.
Shaken, I hurried forward and soon came to a section of the stream paved with water-smoothed pebbles, on which I left no marks that I could see. Here and there were points along the bank where I might exit onto stone, leaving no footprints or disturbed vegetation. I took the third of those and hurried into the trees and once more uphill.
I proceeded now into new territory, not sure what I might find, and I was very afraid. As I climbed the slope, I told myself that I wasn’t just eight years old, that I was going on nine, that I might be a boy, yes, but not an ordinary boy, that I was strong and quick beyond my years, that already I could read at the level of a sixteen-year-old, which wouldn’t save me in this situation, but which nevertheless suggested that my chances of outwitting the hunter were much better than those of other boys my age.