Flinching in terror, Sarah awoke from the nightmare. She stirred. Only a dream, she thought. Her head ached triggering a grim realization. Instead of her hotel bed she lay on cold, damp soil, wet leaves sticking to her face. Nearby a fire crackled. Around it a ring of devils sat staring into the flames tossing in bits of camera and cell phone to watch them sizzle and melt.
She rolled over slowly in order to not draw attention to herself. She didn't want them to know she was awake. Next to her she found Gene. His hollow gaze aimed at the lead gray twilit sky.
She whispered to him, "Gene, are you okay?"
He shook his head, "Never gonna be okay. Not ever."
He held up the bloody stumps where his hands used to be. Sarah felt her stomach twist. Gene's head flopped to one side.
Empty eyes staring at Sarah, "They've been waiting for you to wake up."
She heard leaves crunching underfoot. Her blood chilled, bones freezing down to the marrow. Before she could blink a pair of rough hands wrenched her up off the forest floor. Flung against a tree she almost fell over until those same hands held her up, while a white devil hurried around the tree lashing her to the trunk with a length of leather.
The hands released her. She struggled against the bonds. The Bone people laughed. It made them seem human, and that made them all the more terrifying. They chose to be this way.
As night closed in more and more of the Bone tribe emerged from the surrounding woods. They lit several small fires, amalgamating some into bonfires. Naked men, women, and children, heads shaved, all covered in some kind of white body paint. Probably ochre mixed with something, Sarah thought. Her mind insisted she stay logical, analyze the weird into something mundane, or else -- she could feel her thoughts going off the rails. One of the young Bone collectors walked by, a necklace made of several small bones dangled down his front. The bones came from somewhere fresh. Splotches of red kept dabbing onto his white chest every time the bones jangled against him. She recognized the metacarpals. Hand bones – Gene's hands refashioned into ornaments. Her mouth went dry.
The sun went down. The Bone people sat in silence, their eyes fixed on Sarah and Gene.
"What do you want?" Sarah shouted. She didn't expect them to answer, but it felt better than doing nothing.
As one, the Bone tribe looked off into the woods. Without a sound, the Shaman stepped into the light. His body looked as if he once walked through a shower of razorblades. Long stretches of poorly healed flesh gave his skin a texture more akin to bark than flesh. His face seemed to have been peeled off, clipped into jigsaws, then stitched back on without all the pieces; his teeth in plain view thanks to a lopsided Chelsea grin arcing up one side and down the other. The Shaman wore a set of bones that made it look like his skeleton resided outside his body, the ribs and clavicle held together by leather strips. He alone possessed a mess of oily black hair, decorated with trinkets whittled out of vertebrae.
The Shaman walked to Sarah. His face inches from hers he said, "We do not hide, but we will not be found."
He held up a hand. At a gesture the others descended on Gene. They made no noise, no cries or wild howls. They simply pulled out stone tools, and set to carving him alive. Gene screamed as they flayed him, dug out chunks of flesh, and amputated an arm. Sarah sobbed. When Gene passed out from the agony the adults stepped back, and let the children crowd around him. Some beat him with rocks, others took the blades offered by their parents and stuck him. One boy sliced off Gene's nose, and gave it to the girl next to him. She took it, and kissed him on the cheek. A young teenager used a stone ax to hack off Gene's foot. Picking up the foot, he presented it to the Shaman who nodded approval. The teenager used the ax blade to slice his face several times before hurrying off to sit by the fire where he squatted over Gene's foot, stripping the bones clean to make his first necklace.
A thought occurred to Sarah. If nothing else she needed to try, "People will come looking for us. You don't want to be found you need to let me go."
Without looking at her the Shaman spoke, "If others come they’ll disappear too. You're not the first, or the last."
The Shaman walked away. He squatted over Gene. The photographer breathed shallowly, the end fast approaching. For the first time in his life Gene understood what it meant to welcome death. It was a feeling he'd never wanted, yet he found it gladly. The Shaman peered into Gene's eyes, examining them for the right moment. Seeing a faint glimmer of peace, the Shaman dug his thumbs into Gene's sockets and plucked out the juicy orbs. The Shaman ate one then headed off to feed the other to a sick child.
Sarah went limp, her body held up by the leather bound. Gene's empty sockets stared at her. Transfixed by the almost accusatory look she returned the gaze. His mouth moved, but she couldn't hear him. Whatever he said belonged to the night. He tensed for a second, and seemed to sigh, his last breath visible in the chill autumn air.
The Shaman returned to Gene’s corpse. Sarah watched as a pair of youths held the body up, and the Shaman slit open Gene’s belly. Other members of the tribe gathered to catch glimpses. Gene’s intestines spilled out into a wet pile at the Shaman’s feet. He examined the steaming mess of viscera, nodding, grinning. Satisfied he gestured. The youths dropped the body. As soon as the Shaman stepped away the tribe descended on the corpse, tearing it to pieces, scavenging for bones and strips of skin to tan into leather; and in all this Sarah saw her future fast approaching.
The numbness dulling her senses, fogging her mind, subsided abruptly. Her options reduced to two choices: die or escape. She chose the latter.
The tribe distracted ravaging Gene’s body, the Shaman standing near a bonfire, lost in his own thoughts, Sarah started wriggling, testing the strength of her bonds. The leather strand wrapped around her held fast, but she noticed her right hand could move a bit. Tree bark chewed her flesh when she tried to get to out. Ignoring the pain she jerked her hand free.
With her free hand she managed to pull the strap, inch it around until her fingers felt the knot holding the whole thing together. Her eyes on the tribe, Sarah worked at the fastening, clawing, a fingernail chipped in half. She gritted her teeth and kept fumbling. The knot loosened. A child glanced at her. She froze. The child went back to peeling meat off a femur. Sarah felt the knot give. She pulled on a strand – her binds gave way.
The moment they dropped she ran. She bolted into the woods, and for a few brief moments she heard nothing. No sounds of pursuit – I made it, she thought. Then a cry echoed through the forest, animal but beneath it something vaguely human.
The farther she got from the fires the darker the woods became. The moon peeked through the treetops offering light too faint to see by. Sarah collided with a tree trunk, spun, and hit the ground. She heard leaves and branches snapping – too close. A surge of adrenaline launched her to her feet. She ran. She didn’t know which way to run, but any direction away from the fires seemed like the best option.
Deeper into the forest, every snagging branch arousing a wave of terror, tearing free to run even faster pushed on by a fresh surge of adrenaline; she determined not to get caught. Howls ripped through the air as the Bone hunters pursued. Sarah risked a glance back. Swirling dots of orange light spread out all over the forest, the tribe armed with torches.
She slowed. Now there seemed to be a way to avoid – a weight landed on her back, dragging Sarah to her knees. She didn’t think, she simply acted, reaching back to grab and using the momentum of her own fall to flip the attacker over. The two rolled across the forest floor until her pursuer pressed down, pinning her to the ground.
Sarah felt a hot punch in her shoulder followed by a flood of warm fluid. She grasped in the dark, caught hold of the hunter’s face, clawed, felt teeth bite her, another hot punch to the shoulder; teeth gnawing on her fingers, but instead of pulling back Sarah jammed her digits into the hunter’s mouth. Grabbing the cheek she wrenched as hard as she could. The attacker tilted to one side giving her a chance to roll on top. She put everything into the next pull, and tore the Bone devil’s cheek right off. The white demon roared in pain attracting flickering orange. Sarah ran.
Only now she didn’t feel so afraid. They could hurt her, but she knew she could hurt them too. Still holding the bit of cheek she felt on equal footing.
She stopped. Getting on one knee Sarah searched the ground quickly. Fingers brushing a small yet hefty, solid branch, she snatched up the makeshift club and kept running.
She stepped out into air. Sarah tumbled down a slope, careened off a fallen tree, and fell face first into water. She came up gasping, still holding the club tight.
Chance is better than nothing. Sarah recognized the shallow stream. It ran near the Dobbs cabin. A bit better oriented Sarah devised a plan. She fashioned a bandage out of her shirt sleeve to wrap her shoulder. It would have to do for now. Then she hurried along the shore. The stream ran through the Maigre Woods ending just shy of the highway. The route led back towards the torches, but she took the risk.
A few times she stopped to crouch in nearby brush. Bone hunters ran by, scanning for even the briefest hint of her presence. Seeing nothing they howled and plunged deeper into the forest.
At one point a lone Bone hunter crouched in the river scooping up mouthfuls of water. Sarah crept up behind her. The Bone devil stopped now and again to peer into the darkness, but Sarah managed to stay out of sight. She lunged, clubbing the hunter from behind. Sarah didn’t stop until the skull crunched. In another time Sarah would’ve found the sound sickening. She almost found it pleasant now.
At long she made it to the highway. The rain swept road darkly glistened in the moon light. Fresh worries invaded her thoughts. The open road left her exposed, so she stuck to the tree line.
Aiming for town she ignored the growing lightheadedness. She resisted the fatigue creeping into her muscles, turning her from lightning to molasses. Don’t stop became her mantra. No other options existed. She repeated it over and over, not just in her head, but as a breathless whisper: don’t stop… until she saw the dilapidated building, looked like an apartment complex that’d been left to decay.
Out front a pickup truck sat idling. Two figures stood in the glow of the headlights smoking and drinking beers. One looked familiar, while the other seemed to be a street teen in overalls.
Sarah recalled a name, “Mitch!”
The two figures started as if they’d been jabbed with needles. They squinted in her direction. She hurried to them.
The teen looked worried. So did Mitch. Sarah figured their worry stemmed from her appearance: clothes ragged and muddy, covered in blood, her face streaked with dirt and sweat.
She said, “You’ve got to help me.”
The teen pulled on Mitch’s shirt sleeve. Mitch waved the kid off. He knew what needed to be done.
“You’re a mess,” he said, “Get in the truck. I’ll take care of ya.”
The teen clapped his hands together and darted into the abandoned building. Needing no other prompting Sarah jumped into the truck’s cab. She locked her door. Mitch hurried to the driver side. A grim expression on his face he put the car in gear and drove.
Sarah closed her eyes, and let her head rest on the window.
Safe at last she muttered, “Thank you, thank you.”
Mitch cleared his throat and spit the bad taste in his mouth out the driver side window, “Don’t thank me.”
Sara opened her eyes. She saw trees on the side of the road.
She said, “You’re going the wrong way.”
“I hear ya, but they won’t be found.”
She jabbed striking Mitch in the jaw. He lost control of the truck, and the pickup slammed into a tree. Her body screaming in pain, Sarah reached over. She opened Mitch’s door, and pushed him out. Shifting over, ignoring the bone protruding through her arm, she put the truck in gear with one hand. The engine groaned as if to say let me die, but she stomped the pedal to the floor. The engine could die running. She shot back to town like a comet.
The lights in town seemed dimmer than usual, but they were still lights. She laughed at the hollow comfort. The reality lurking in the darkness could swallow them and her whole. She didn’t know where to stop, so drove out of town until the pickup ran out of gas. Then she passed out.
She woke up in a hospital. Tubes feeding life back into her veins, neat rows of stitches holding her shoulder together, and a desperate hope she might still blame this all on nightmares. A nurse entered the room.
“You’re awake,” the cheery nurse declared. He went on, “Don’t be afraid. Highway patrol found you, and well, you were a bit of a mess, but we fixed you up. You’re going to be okay. Do you feel okay?”
“Never better,” she replied as hope died. She took a deep breath, held it, and started to laugh while tears streamed. People always wanted the nightmares to be real. Well, they are.