Chapter 1: A thump in the night
Helen was standing in the middle of Main Street. The dark and peaceful night settled around the tiny town like a safety blanket. There wasn't a single sound or a light on anywhere in the community. Everyone was blissfully asleep, except for Helen. She tried to remember leaving her house and coming outside but she had no memories such an event. She glanced up the deserted street, a confused expression taking over her face. Her brow furrowed over her pale green eyes and her elegant nose twitched as she pressed her red lips into a thin line. Nervously, she ran her fingers through her shoulder length, auburn hair. Never before had she been reported to sleepwalk but that must be what had happened.
Although her predicament was odd, it was little else. It would be simple enough for her to just walk home. But when she turned around the sight that met her was not that of the quiet, calm street that should have been there. What she saw was darkness. Smack in the middle of the town there was a wall of darkness that even cut the houses on either side of the street in half. Her eyes quickly adjusted and suddenly she realized that the wall of shadow had depth and was, in fact, a forest. A dark and sinister jungle, far removed from the friendly woods that surrounded the town.
A strange fear began to run through her veins at the sight of this evil omen. But Helen quickly seized control of this fear and banished it. There was nothing to be afraid of. It was dark and she had been sleepwalking. She couldn't be on Main Street but perhaps a side street that looked similar and led to the edge of town. That was the only explanation for what she was seeing. She would just turn around and walk back to a part of town she recognized and find her way home from there.
Settled on this course of action, Helen turned to head back up the street but the dark and devious woods now surrounded her with no hint of the town anywhere in sight. And that wasn't all. A rumbling filled the forest now, the deep and wicked sound of an ancient monster awakened from its slumber. Second by second the rumbling grew louder, until it shook the trees and caused the grass to lean away from it in waves. The earth quaked under the massive beast's footfalls, to the point where stones leapt off the ground, as if to escape the creature's tremendous wrath.
Overcoming her initial shock, Helen was seized by a fear that no logic could exile. It was a frantic feeling that smothered any emotion or thought that didn't take her farther away from the monster. Without thinking, she turned her back towards the sound of the beast and ran. But immediately her plan began to go awry. Twigs and branches on the trees seemed to reach down in an attempt to slow her progress. Bushes threw sharp thorns in her way and roots sprang up from nowhere, tripping her as she ran. No matter which way she turned, the woods managed to bring her down to almost a standstill and the more she struggled against the wicked plants, the more tangled up she became.
The monster was getting closer. Its rumbling growl was now omnipresent, so close it seemed to come from every side at once. Gusts of fowl smelling wind now puffed on Helen's back, the putrid breath of the beast. The panic welled up in her chest, coming unspeakably close to suffocating her. There was nothing that could save her now. She turned around and saw . . .
With a gasp, Helen awoke and immediately sat up, scanning the darkness for imaginary evils. Nothing was there, no woods, no monster. Her bedroom looked the same as always, a bed, a dresser, an old computer on a desk and a couple bookshelves. Helen took a few deep breaths to calm herself. Of course there was nothing there; it was only a dream.
This past week hadn't been easy to endure. A hot spell had turned her small town into a sauna, a veritable desert and it was only the first week of May. The heat had been making it virtually impossible for anyone to sleep and Helen was no exception. However, the oppressive heat had also been giving her nightmares, but this one was definitely the worst. The memory of that uncontrollable fear still made her shutter, as if she could shake the horrible thought out of her head.
Helen got up and went to her window, which looked out across the backyard and to the woods beyond. Any other night, Helen would have counted this as a beautiful, tranquil sight but tonight it struck her with a sense of mystery, like that leafy oasis housed a dark secret. The moon, partially obscured by clouds, cast an eerie light that seemed to both beckon her and warn her away. Heaving a deep sigh, Helen shook her head and closed her eyes. Maybe she was getting sick from the heat or something, these strange musings weren't like her.
Silently, she flicked on the lights. With the shadows gone, everything appeared more reasonable and clear-cut, the way Helen preferred things to be. Even though it was Friday night and there was no school in the morning, she decided that she might as well do something useful while she couldn't sleep. She grabbed her calculus textbook on the way to her bed and sat down, opening the book to the easier derivative problems.
She had been in advanced math classes for as long as she could remember and was placed in the AP Calculus class this year despite only being a junior. Everyone always told her she should major in mathematics in college but the truth was that she didn't really know what she wanted to do yet. Fortunately, she still had a whole year to decide. The problems in the textbook began to get more difficult and finally surpassed what she could do in her head. She stopped only to dig a notebook and pencil out of her backpack and returned to her bed. With the AP exam looming on the horizon, she couldn't afford to be slacking off now.
But just as she settled back in with textbook and notebook in hand, she heard a solid thump that seemed to make the entire room shake. Out of the corner of her eye, Helen saw something drop down from the top of her window to the bottom. Immediately after, the sound of rustling bushes reached her ears, and it sounded like they were being attacked by a lawnmower. She got up to investigate; her first instinct being to just open the window that immediately struck her as a bad idea. Her window had no screen and her room was on the first floor, if she opened the window, whatever was in the bushes could end up in the house.
That left only one other option. As quietly as she could, Helen put on her sneakers and grabbed her car keys. On the keychain, she had a little, old flashlight and, after a quick test run, she discovered it still worked. She had to dig through her desk drawer to find her Swiss army knife, which she tucked into her pocket, just in case. She had no idea what might meet her outside but she was about to find out.
Tentatively, she opened the back door and stepped out. She turned on the flashlight and directed it towards the quivering bushes, which appeared to be putting up quite a fight. Flashes of orange appeared between the leaves but Helen could get no clear sight of what they were hiding. Directing the flashlight's beam to the house, she discovered a dent in the siding above her window accompanied by two parallel scratches that looked suspiciously like claw marks. But that was ridiculous . . . right? Suddenly not so confident about her idea to investigate, Helen began to back away slowly. She turned the light on the bushes one last time, hoping to catch a glimpse of the creature. But this time the light caught more than just flashes of orange. An eye, pure black from corner to corner, emerged through a hole in the shrubbery. Much to Helen's surprise, she realized that the eye must have been about the size of a football.
She didn't have long to ponder the consequences of this discovery due to an ungodly sound that suddenly filled the night air. It was a screech; the wailing cry of an animal in pain and it was coming from the bushes. The unexpected noise was ear shattering and frightening in equal degrees, causing Helen to drop her flashlight and clasp her hands over her ears. The creature's awful din continued, starting and stopping abruptly until its shape materialized as a shadow slightly smaller than a horse. For a moment neither of them moved as they sized each other up, then, with a final screech, it turned to the forest and galloped off. Shocked but not too shocked to move, Helen snatched her flashlight off the ground and pointed it at the retreating figure of the beast. What she saw was an orange pair of paws and a long tail with two large protrusions of the same color standing up on its back.
When the creature was gone and the night was quiet again, Helen went over to the bushes under her window. There wasn't much left of them now. Shredded to pieces, most of their leaves and twigs lay on the ground. But in the midst of the wreckage there was a tiny orange spot and she pulled it out from all the plant debris. In her hands she held a feather, no bigger than that of an average bird. She twirled it lightly in her fingers as she walked to the back door and sat on the cement steps. The moon came out from behind the clouds but it didn't manage to shed any light on Helen's situation.
"Well," she said softly as she stared at the point where the creature had disappeared, "that was weird." She pinched herself but she already knew she wasn't sleeping. She needed to think, there had to be some kind of an explanation. But the more she thought about it, the more blanks she came up with. All her explanations were outlandish and ridiculous and the holes in them only left her with more questions than before. There had to be an obvious answer that was simply eluding her.
The sound of crunching leaves and snapping twigs interrupted her thoughts. She turned her flashlight back on and pointed it towards the side of the house, but everything was still and quiet there. The noise was coming from the tree line. Helen was on her feet in a flash. Although she knew, in the back of her mind, that it could be any number of things, she was sure that it was the mystery creature returning. No other animal would be big enough to make that much noise. The underbrush in front of her began to move. Aware of the potential danger of the situation but too curious to go inside, Helen stood on the back steps ready to bolt if necessary.
A dark shape finally pushed its way through the undergrowth and immediately crumpled in on itself, releasing a string of profanities, the likes of which Helen had never heard before. Clearly, this was not the creature from before and, disappointed, Helen realized that it was most likely a lost hiker who sounded like he could use some help.
"Hey," she called out to him, "Are you alright?"
He didn't answer but he did stop swearing, which was a start. Realizing that no answer was coming, Helen walked over to where he was doubled over on the ground. Between her flashlight and the moon, he was illuminated enough for her to see that he was in a good deal of pain, the source of which was a yawning wound on the back of his shoulder so deep Helen could see white bone at its bottom. His white shirt, dyed red in the back, was dirty and torn in several places and so were his jeans.
The stranger got to his knees, still holding his shoulder as Helen knelt down in front of him. His head was down, and she couldn't see his face through his wild, black mop of hair but she could see that his arms were shaking and covered in small scratches.
"Are you alright?" she asked again, more tentatively this time.
"Do I look like I'm alright?" he answered back in a purely curious tone. He looked up and Helen saw that he was young, not much older than she was, and that he was probably quite handsome when not covered in dirt, cuts and bruises. His eyes, an electric shade of yellow, had a strange fire in them, alert and alive. His sharp, angular features suddenly contorted in pain as a shutter passed through his lean, muscle-bound body.
"Hmm . . ." he responded, "Imagine that. In any case, you should really go back to wherever it is that you belong because it certainly isn't here and I really must go."
"That's a strange request. I don't think I even have a response for that."
"I don't want you to respond, I want you to go home, just like I'm about to do."
"With a cut like that in your shoulder, you won't get very far," she pointed out.
"I think you have a hearing problem. Maybe if I speak louder. I THINK YOU SHOULD-"
"I don't have a hearing problem, you're being ridiculous. You need to go to the hospital. You can't just go around with an injury like that."
"I'll be fine," he said with a note of finality in his voice. He scrambled to his feet and tried to walk but he must have had some kind of leg injury as well because a severe limp caused him to stumble back into Helen. She caught him somehow, despite the fact that he was several inches taller than her, and set him on his feet.
"Yeah, you're right. You're completely fine. What was I thinking, trying to help you out?" Her voice dripped with sarcasm. For a moment, he didn't reply. He shut his eyes and tilted his head up towards the night sky, suddenly becoming very grave in demeanor and expression. With a sigh, he looked back at her with a desperate, almost scared expression.
"Will you at least let me drive you to the hospital?" she asked. He raised his good arm and ran his fingers through his thick black hair, staring off into the distance and, despite his pain, she could tell his thoughts were very far away.
"It would appear as though I have little choice in the matter," he said, eyes still unfocused. Helen suddenly got the feeling he was talking about something entirely different. He looked at her and slowly, the awareness returned to his eyes. "Let's go."
With a good deal of support from Helen, he managed to get around the house and to her car in the driveway. Luckily, track practice had run long on Friday and she had been the last one home, otherwise she would have been parked in. Lucky also, was the fact that the only working flashlight in the house happened to be on her car keys. Lucky for this man that she happened to be outside to help him. Too made weird coincidences usually signify a pattern, she thought as she started to drive out of her neighborhood.
"So who are you, exactly?" It had just occurred to Helen that she hadn't thought to ask that yet.
He didn't answer for a while and, as they neared the hospital, Helen concluded that she probably wasn't going to get an answer. She pulled into the empty lot and parked close to the door. Any other hospital would have been full on a Friday night but a small town in the middle of nowhere rarely has serious injuries. She made to get out of the car and help him into the building when she felt a hand on her arm. He was staring straight at a light post through the windshield but he spoke in a confident tone.
"If they ask, you don't know me. I was in a car accident and that's all you know." He looked at her with that intense fire in his bizarre yellow eyes, "Leave as quickly as you can."
"Because you don't want to be associated with me."
"And you are . . . who, again?"
"You don't need to know."
"And you won't tell me how you really injured yourself?"
"That's none of your concern," he said, expression grave now, "I'm trying to do you a favor and I would appreciate if you would be so kind as to accept it."
"I save your life and your favor in return is to refuse to speak to me or give me any information. What kind of place would this world be without generous people like you?"
"Listen, just help me get into the hospital and you'll never have to see or speak to me ever again. I know you don't know me but you're just going to have to trust me."
"Whatever you say, master," Helen said as she got out of the car and slammed the door for emphasis.