By Michael McBride

© 2004 Michael McBride. All rights reserved.




Wednesday, November 10th

9 p.m.

The thin light of the waning moon filtered through the rolling fog. Snow swept down the front of the Rocky Mountains, the tiny crystals dancing atop the crisp, frigid breeze. Frost glittered on the tips of the pine needles that surrounded him along the winding, snow-dusted path, shedding more light than the early November night sky itself in the thick of the dense woods. Pines, spruces, and barren aspen were packed tightly together, their trunks nearly touching, branches bouncing gently, the flakes slowly piling atop one another on the ever-whitening foliage. It was a winter night in Colorado like most others this time of year: every inhalation bringing with it a stab of bitterly cold air that threatened to seize the chest; a plume of steam that dampened the face with every exhalation.

    And then there was the silence…

    It was the sound of absolute solitude; so quiet it almost stung the eardrums from the lack of audible noise. The wind, which gusted every so often, spoke with mute voice, his own footsteps muffled within the accumulating snow. Were it not for the sound of his own breathing within his head, he was sure he could have heard the snowflakes landing one atop the next, deafening amidst the stillness of the night. Every so often, he could feel the tip of Edgar’s tail swat at his left leg while the dog jogged dutifully in time beside him, never straying more than a few feet from the path, following his nose into the thick underbrush, hoping upon hope, that he might flush something from the thicket worth chasing. At least something that would allow him to give chase. A small bird would dart from beneath the snow-crusted twigs and disappear into the darkness beyond as though it had never existed, but a squirrel would taunt him mercilessly from one tree trunk before racing to the next, staying only a fogged breath ahead of the dog’s snorting nose.

    They made this trek every night about this time, he and Edgar. He always put this off until the very last thing, right before bed, because he knew that one of these days he was actually going to find what he knew he was destined to. He wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but every fiber of his being, from his flesh straight through into the marrow of his bones, knew that he was indeed going to find something. It was his whole purpose for being here. Maybe it was some sort of misplaced sense of responsibility or some form of cosmic penance, but he knew with every ounce of surety that it was the reason he still drew life from the emptiness. Why else would God or fate—or whatever divine hand tugged at the strings of his marionette existence—have brought him to that house… on that night.

    The path opened up slightly ahead, the thick wall of trees to either side peeled back from the line beaten through the coarse buffalo grass, signaling that they were nearly there. Stars sparkled overhead, but only momentarily, fading quickly as the clouds rolled in tufts of steam across the sky, spreading wave after wave of white crystals in their wake. But the blackness above was nothing compared to that which lurked behind the trees to either side. That darkness leeched the light from all around, wrenching it back into the shadows that ate it up mercilessly. It was a blackness that was almost tangible, as though it were a living entity that would rush from the underbrush and tear at his legs if he dared to step even an inch from the path. And he knew… within that darkness there was something else, something that he had seen, albeit only on that one occasion, but it had left a scar on his soul. And night after night, he passed through here, only inches from that darkness, whose icy breath he could feel in the hackles on the back of his neck, for no other reason than to show it that he was not afraid.

    But he knew that the only person he was fooling was himself, and most days, he wasn’t even very good at that anymore.

    Harry Denton had lived nearly all of his days within the shadow of the Rockies, having traded the smell of pine on frost for brine on pollution only long enough to complete his undergraduate studies between walls supposedly more hallowed by the ivy that crept up them. It had been four tediously long years. The speed of life in Colorado was much more relaxed and even-paced than the frantic pace with which Bostonians raced through their lives. They shot like lasers from one point to the next, slowing only long enough to make the effort not to allow your life to impede their own. He had felt like an outsider from the start, never getting the punchline of the joke, before finally resigning to the fact that he really wasn’t sure he wanted to.

    It had been a triumphant day when he had returned to Colorado to enter medical school. He could remember vividly pulling the Chrysler over on the shoulder of the road and sitting atop its hood in the midst of a dust storm. Dirt and debris scratched at his face like sandpaper while he just stared at that bright green sign that stated everything so simply: “Welcome to Colorful Colorado.”

    “It’s all right, Edgar,” Harry said, patting the yellow lab on the ribs with his gloved hand. But he knew the dog could feel it too.

    The faint whistle of the wind drifted down the path from ahead of them; the formerly gently bending branches beginning to sway more violently. Still, they pressed forward. The snow, which had once fallen straight downward, was now coming at angles, forcing Harry to wince his eyes to shield them from the small shards of ice, tucking his chin to his chest and peering up from beneath his frozen brow. Edgar no longer darted between the path and the edge of the thicket, his mood no longer playful. He stayed even with Harry; his body maintaining a slim one-inch gap, constantly glancing up at his master, a timid whine creeping from his panting jaws every so often.

    They were close now. Once they reached this point, Harry had to make a conscious decision each and every night: was he going to continue and traverse the last quarter mile or was he going to turn around and scurry back home? He knew that if he continued down the path, he was going to have to relive that night. But it wasn’t the fear of seeing the horror again, playing like a movie in his mind. Nothing as tame as that. No, it was the fear that tonight might be the night that he had been dreading, preparing for; the night where once again he found himself face to face with…

    He stopped dead in his tracks.

    Something was definitely wrong. He could feel it in the base of his spine; taste it on the howling wind.

    His frozen breath frosted the stubble on his face as he stood at the end of the path. To either side the trees just seemed to fearfully stop, the path opening up into a sloping, snow-drenched meadow. The tips of the untended wild grasses danced atop the mat of white, the walls of snow blowing first one way, and then the next at the whimsical shifting of the wind.

    Edgar whined beside him, pleading up to him with those large brown eyes.

    Harry’s heart hammered in his chest, and he unconsciously wiped the runoff from beneath his frozen, brick-red nose with the back of his gloved hand. His eyes fixed intently straight ahead, his breath suddenly seizing within his aging chest. Slowly, his lips parted and his lower jaw dropped slack. He could hear his pulse in his temples, throbbing rhythmically with the gusting wind.

    Harry looked down at Edgar, resting his open palm atop the dog’s head, a thin strand of his lightly graying bangs falling in front of his eye.

    Nodding gently in unspoken communication with the retriever, he once again steadied his gaze straight ahead and took a long, deep breath, closing his eyes while it swirled coldly within his lungs. Calmly, he peeled open his eyes and allowed the air in his chest to creep past his pursed lips. He stared straight ahead.

    The slope in front of him, leading down into that still meadow, was steep, with only a few saplings creeping from the cracking soil. This was generally as far as he came, just close enough so that he could see the house, just give a quick glance to verify that everything was as it should be, and then scamper home as quickly as his legs would take him. He was certain now that tonight would not be that easy.

    A thin paved road ran from the foothills to the west toward the plains in the east, cutting through the

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