Excerpt from
THE NIGHTMARE FRONTIER

©2006, 2010 by Stephen Mark Rainey
 

Hard to accept that Rodney was gone, laid underground until the end of forever. God rest your soul, bud, and all that.

Zack Baird had never been to a funeral before Rodney Lawson's, and he hoped it was the last, for he could not have imagined a more depressing, tearful event. He had nearly bawled like a baby, and crying in public was not something his friends should ever see. Fortunately, most of them had been sitting behind him, so he doubted they could have glimpsed the tears that had leaked down his cheeks.

On the good side, he could not complain about school being called off for the memorial service, and since it was a beautiful afternoon, going riding on his bike seemed just the thing to turn the whole day around. He had called Sammy and Chuck, but their parents wouldn't let them leave the house. Since Rodney's death, his own mom and dad had forbidden him to ride up the mountain, but unlike his friends, his parents had jobs to return to after the funeral; he could easily be back home watching TV and looking bored by the time they got in from work.

But damn! Rodney would never be out here again, hauling ass through the woods and hitting the jump ramps they had built off Yew Line Road. For a "little kid," Rodney had sure held his own with the best of the 13- and 14-year-olds. He could ride faster than any of them, and he performed stunts that none of the others could hope to match. Old Sammy was even hoping he could talk Ms. Lawson into giving him Rodney's bike, though Zack had warned him not to go begging too soon; all they needed was a pissed-off math teacher with a long memory waiting for them when they got old enough to go to high school.

Yew Line Road was a long, very steep and winding road that went up into the mountains, but numerous trails through the woods shaved off much of the distance. Still, many stretches of trail were so steep that he had to push his bike, and the late April sun had turned the afternoon quite warm; by the time he reached Greasy Bend-a long curve so named because it was hard to negotiate without slipping over the edge-sweat had begun to sting his eyes and dampen his T shirt. Anyway, this was almost as far as he could go before reaching Barrow land, upon which no soul dared trespass. Barbed wire blocked the trail at the property line, and the boys had once seen old Joshua Barrow standing near the barricade, brandishing his shotgun and looking as if he wanted to use it on them. They always halted well short of that boundary before beginning the long, exhilarating ride back down through the woods.

As he started up and around Greasy Bend, Zack felt, before he saw, that something seemed different about the place. Beneath the freshly bloomed trees, little sunlight reached the trail, but he knew the ridge as well as his own driveway. As many times as he had ridden the curve, he should not have had to draw up short to avoid running into a huge, rough-barked tree that grew right in the middle of the trail. Nor should he have found his bike sliding out from under him as seemingly solid earth gave way to a pit roughly the size and shape of a shallow grave, swallowing him before he realized what was happening.

He automatically let go of the handlebars and threw out his hands to break his fall, just in time to keep his head from striking the rocky edge of the opening. The bike went tumbling away, and he landed with a heavy thud, his breath whooshing out of his lungs. For second, the lights went out, and he was afraid he had gone blind. Finally, the trees, lit by murky daylight, slowly swam back into focus.

"Shit!" he gasped as he struggled to his feet. The walls of the pit were cold and slick, but with an effort, he managed to reach an exposed tree root and gradually pull himself up to firmer ground. The first thing he saw was his new pants covered with mud and the knees ripped. Jeez, that wasn't good! At least he had escaped being injured. The clothes he might be able to explain away to his mom, but if he had gotten hurt, he could say goodbye forever to riding on the mountain. The second thing was that his bike lay thirty feet or more down the hill, and getting to it-not to mention back up to the trail again-posed a pretty hairy problem.

But how had he managed to blunder into a tree and then fall into a pit? He had come this way only a few days ago. No way could a huge tree like that have grown in such a short time!

He glanced up the trail in the direction of the Barrow property. The whole place seemed wrong somehow. All the trees seemed too tall, too luxuriant, even though foliage had started popping out in earnest over the last few days. And the curve, up near the top-it was supposed to bend to the right, not to the left! Could he have somehow strayed onto some side path that was similar, but not identical to the main one? How could he? He and Sammy and Chuck rode here all the time, rain or shine, heat of summer or bleak midwinter; he knew every inch of this trail, every fork, every twist and turn.

Well, whatever, he had to retrieve his bike. He just hoped it hadn't been damaged going over the edge like that. With a sigh of reluctant resolve, he started down the sheer hillside, using the smaller tree trunks as handholds and making short, controlled slides into the larger boles to keep from careening to the bottom and ending up a pile of broken bones. With some relief, he saw that his bike looked okay; no bent handlebars, and the chain wasn't broken.

When he reached it, he carefully lifted it from the ground and brushed off the clinging dirt and leaves. So far, so good. But now came the real bitch-getting back up to the trail with his burden. The bike was light, but not that light.

Then he made his biggest mistake: glancing down the hill into the deep woods. His breath froze in his lungs because, only a few moments ago, the bottom had been perhaps sixty or seventy feet below; not hundreds and hundreds, as it now appeared. And there was supposed to be a small clearing down there where daylight always shined-not a thick knot of tar-black foliage that swallowed every ray of sunlight that filtered through the canopy.

"Jee-zus!" he whispered, utterly disbelieving and, for the first time in his twelve years, afraid that the world might not be a stable, familiar place…that a child really could suffer an awful, unthinkable death-a fact that Rodney Lawson's funeral had almost, but not totally, driven home. Rodney had been found not far from here. Was this what he had seen in his last moments-a world turned topsy-turvy right before his eyes?

Then, somewhere above, he heard a loud, very strange clicking sound-almost like somebody smacking a number of sticks together at once. A rustling sound crept down from the trail, its source just beyond his range of vision, but obviously getting nearer. He craned his neck, trying to detect a trace of movement, some sign of an animal or-God forbid-a human being making its way toward him. So far, nada.

"Hello?" he called, immediately wishing he had not. If someone was up there, it would almost certainly be one of the Barrows, and a member of that lowlife clan was the last person anyone would want to meet out here. For all he knew, one of them could have even killed Rodney.

Click-click-clack, click-click-clack.

The sounds grew steadily louder and more agitated, almost but not quite insect-like. The rustling, too, became more violent; but he felt certain that no human was causing it. Not a steady, regular pace like something on two feet, but an erratic and rapid shuffling-maybe an injured fox or a coon. If it was just a critter, he probably didn't have anything to worry about-not from it, anyway. His main concern now was how to get off this bizarre, once-familiar mountainside, both with his bicycle and in one piece.

The rustling stopped on the trail just above, and Zack realized that the woods had fallen deathly silent, leaving the atmosphere heavy and horrible, its weight pressing insistently upon him. This felt like one of his nightmares, in which terror seeped like infection from every aspect of his surroundings-the dark trees, the patchwork sky, the cold earth beneath his feet.

Then the rustling began anew, and something lurched over the edge of the trail and started toward him beneath the thick underbrush-something he couldn't see, something that raced toward him like a fast-moving snake, thrashing and clicking with palpable rage. He had only seconds before it reached him, so in that panicked instant, he opted for the only plan his terrified brain could concoct: he shoved his bike straight down the hill and leaped onto its seat, praying he could keep it upright and put enough distance between him and his pursuer to get out of this tight spot alive.

Down he went, bounding into the seemingly bottomless chasm at dizzying, insane speed, somehow maintaining control, veering in and out of the trees without even thinking of the consequences should he crash. Limbs slashed at his face, threatening to dislodge him, but his fingers clutched the handlebars with desperate strength, and his feet worked the pedals automatically, hitting and releasing the brakes at strategic moments to keep from smashing into a tree or tangling himself in undergrowth. He couldn't even think of looking back to see if he had lost his enraged shadow; one wrong move and he would end up plastered against a huge trunk or dashed to pieces on the rocks that occasionally jutted from the ground. Every now and then, he thought he detected a faint clicking sound behind him, but he mostly heard only the rush of wind in his ears as his bike carried him farther and farther from the trail-the one thing out here that looked even halfway familiar.

As he rode on, the light grew constantly dimmer, and tears began to stream from his eyes, blurring the trees that flashed out of the darkness like onrushing columns of troops. He needed to slow down before the bike got away from him-but if he did, that thing would catch him and butcher him, as it had his friend. The thought sent cold, tingling tendrils into his groin. Trapped between terrors fore and aft, he kept going, always descending, farther and farther into the deepening, seemingly endless gloom.

Finally, he jammed on the brakes, twisted the handlebars, and dug one foot into the ground, which didn't quite stop him but slowed his progress enough to take stock of the situation. A few seconds later, he heard a loud, distinctive click-click-clack, click-click-clack, more distant than before but undeniably still behind him.

With a cry, he shoved his weight onto the pedals, and down he went again, deeper into the great gulf, his eyes no longer registering the obstacles that lay in front of him, his mind no longer an even remotely rational thing.

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