I slapped my hand against the steering wheel and shouted my favorite curse word–the F-bomb repeated eight times, if you must know–as I watched the Grand Am’s tach dwindle from 2800 rpm to 0. The gas warning wasn’t screwing around with me, after all. I believed the thing could make it to the Summerville station just across the Georgia state line, but that faith now seemed more than a little misplaced. Well, okay, maybe the light had been on long enough to test the confines of wishful thinking.
The car sputtered to a rest, and I gave the steering wheel one final, resentful slap before pressing my forehead against it and trying to collect my thoughts. I was on a trip home from college in Huntsville to visit family in Rome. The state line wouldn’t take long, so I guessed I was maybe a little over halfway home. Working against me was my habit of traveling late at night to avoid traffic, as there were now no other drivers to aid me. Even if I did see the occasional headlights bobbing in the distance, I doubted they would stop so late for a wandering stranger.
I leaned back in my seat to fish my cell out of my jacket pocket. No signal in the remote mountains of northeast Alabama, but I tried dialing Dad anyway. I pressed the phone against my head as though compression into my ear would help anything, but nothing happened. When I took the phone away, a disheartening CALL DISCONNECTED message blinked at me. I pressed my thumb hard against the redial button–again expecting this to help in some way–but again got the same response. I tried three more times before admitting defeat and exiting the car. There was a gas station some ten miles back. I could grab the empty gas can out of my trunk and check for cell service along the way. Surely Verizon would reach somewhere out in the boonies.
I popped the trunk, and the gas can was mine. I made a few sloshing motions in hope that there might be a half gallon or so left in it, but nothing happened. I sighed and put boots to pavement, retreating toward Fort Payne, the last city I came through. The mountain wouldn’t begin to slope downward again until well past the gas station, so I had miles of flat pavement between me and fuel. I thought about leaving the car’s hazard lights on, but I knew the walk would take so long that they would likely kill the battery.
Fifteen minutes walking through the chill of late October saw me crossing a bridge high above what a sign labeled as Little River Canyon. Cars passed me, but of course none stopped. Hundreds of tree frogs sang to each other, the sound only interrupted by more passing vehicles. I paused while crossing the bridge and looked down over the surface. It was deep below me, but it reflected full moonlight dappled across the tiny, rippling waves. How far down? I looked about the bridge for a stone to toss over, but found nothing large enough to make a sound that would reach me. I glanced over the bridge railing again, but again all I saw was the full moon reflected on the inky surface far beneath me.
I shrugged my shoulders in an effort to relax and hefted my gas can.
I looked ahead and took a seemingly significant step away from the bridge when the tree frogs stopped. The sudden lack of noise startled me, and I spun around again to look in the direction of my vehicle (which was now hidden through a bend in the road). From this angle just beyond the bridge, I saw where the landscape sloped downward. Plant growth gave the concrete a wide berth along the path surely used both for maintenance crews and for high school kids wanting to sneak away for skinnydipping in the canyon river. Looking along that path made me appreciate how deep the river was, but that would have to wait.
When I turned back to the highway, I noticed a light zipping between trees in the forest to my right. Any other time, I would have left it alone, but it looked like a flashlight, and I knew there was a state park in the area. Maybe a park ranger? Maybe something else, but I doubted the region had a history of many axe murderers. I was frustrated enough to take a chance. I reached into my jacket and thumbed my phone to life for good measure. No bars, no Gs. I cupped my hands over my mouth and bellowed a grand, “Hey!” into the woods. I stepped closer but stopped at the tree line. If it was an axe murderer, they would have to take me out in the open. “Hey!” I repeated. “I just need to get back to town if you can help.”
The lights paused. Still no answer. My frustration grew, and I was already turning back to the highway in defeat when they moved again. I looked again and watched the light’s approach, hoping to see a reflection of a badge among the trees. The flashlight blinked as though the batteries were dying, but then the woods lit up again. The light then moved faster than I expected, weaving through the trees with alarming speed. I cried out and fell to the gravel by the side of the road in surprise as another speeding car passed in the opposite lane, blowing an angry horn but otherwise never slowing down. I scrambled back until I felt pavement again, not daring to go any further into the path of traffic. I watched transfixed as the light came to tree line, and then I muffled a shout as the light split and blinked. Not like a flashlight with dying batteries.
The light grew and revealed a creature, or at least that’s how I was able to think of it. It was feline in nature, like a panther or mountain lion, but foggy and indistinct. It glowed pale like the full moon light spilling over its ethereal form. The body faded to mist entirely around the ankles and trailed away into a fog that permeated the boundary of the woods. The eyes glowed yet brighter than the body, and they turned to me. The cat held its gaze against me as it slithered onto the pavement to block my path. When it made sudden motion toward me, I abandoned my gas can and bolted in the general direction of my car. As I turned, though, it was before me in a brilliant flash of light, still making its advance. I struck left of the bridge then, sprinting down the sloping pathway toward the river.
My breath hitched with chill air on the descent, my heart racing in panic. Cold and clammy sweat spread along my chest and arms. Even as I ran, I saw myself outlined in the shadow of the creature’s light. I spared a frenzied look over my shoulder, and my foot caught a large rock embedded in the dirt. My arms pinwheeled, and I fell forward, landing face down against my chest and sliding several breathless feet before friction turned me on my side and gravity sent me rolling. With each rotation, the bridge loomed higher and higher above me.
My descent ended on the river bank. Silt and pebbles grated against my hands as I tried pushing myself up to continue my flight, but panic combined with the harsh trip down the slope turned my muscles to jelly. With heart hammering in my chest, I closed my eyes and waited for the misty white panther’s embrace. I waited. And waited. Almost expecting to find myself in the afterlife of your choosing, I opened my eyes again. Darkness but for the moon.
I sighed and wondered if my mind was slipping when the world lit up again. I turned, and a great white bird fell under the bridge. It spread its wings and then appeared to unravel before coalescing into the form of a deer whose antlers had too many points to count. The legs still misted into a fog that spread over the river’s surface. I was paralyzed, and it took advantage. It came within arm’s length of me and opened its shocking white eyes. I panicked and fell, holding a hand before my face to stop the eyes from blinding me. It moved forward and lowered its head at me as though grazing. A sound buzzed from within my head, and I realized it was the sound of the tree frogs again. Katydids too. Woodpeckers, songbirds, the symphony of local nature. I held my hands against my head trying to drown it all out, but the white deer lowered its head further until it nearly touched my face with its muzzle. I opened my eyes to face it and saw its own eyes. They quivered with madness. They were human eyes.
Then I did scream, or so I tried. As my mouth opened, mist filled it like a sock. It writhed and wriggled for a moment before more mist poured into my eyes, ears, and nose. I could see, but erratic images overtook my mind. There were people like me, terrified and at the mercy of this thing. Some were in clothing that I recognized; others wore various military or service uniforms. Still others were clad in leather jerkins or loincloths. Rangers, soldiers, policemen, farmers, hunters, gatherers. They all held the same terror that I now knew, and I saw them all looking into the mad eyes of this creature. Not only humans. Small animals, large, birds, great fish, every type of creature that would have ever inhabited this area.
Ancient rituals appeared in my mind with humans from times much, much further back in time than the native tribes that we know of today. They danced among fire, chanting in sharp tongues as they somehow steeled their determination and surrounded this thing, unafraid of what it could do and somehow able to hold it at bay. The vision ripped itself apart, and I saw the creature’s frustration, and all that came to my mind was the word anchor. Later it was forgotten, then rediscovered and worshipped and then forgotten yet again.
Still it showed me even older images as it roamed the earth. Searching? It was lost and confused, driven to the madness I saw before me. It knew there were others out there, but it did not know why they were important. It searched and searched and searched for… Well, so long that by the end, it had regressed to showing me images of creatures I did not recognize. The world in the visions darkened and twisted. The strange animals deformed into shapes I again thought I might recognize, but then everything was gone in a flash of fire.
The mist jerked away from me, and I fell backward. When I crashed into the silt and pebbles again, I stared into the bright sky of late morning. I shook my head and stood up before making my way up the slope to the highway again. Something still buzzed in my head like the incessant chirping of tree frogs, and I felt a distinct direction in my mind pointing to something. Something west. I could deal with it later, but that word anchor repeated in my mind. Eventually, I would have to do something about that.
I brought my cell to life and chicked the signal. 4G. I laughed to myself as I hefted my still-empty gas can. I decided to save Dad the hassle and look up the number for local police service. A short ride in a police cruiser later, and I had a full can of gas. I refueled my car under the officer’s watchful eye, then nearly cried when the Grand Am sprang to life after a few woeful chugs. The officer asked if there was anything else I needed, then wished me a safe journey before getting back to his patrol.
I pulled onto the road and again headed east toward my family’s home. Anchor still buzzed in my mind. I would have to follow the signal soon and find where it led me. Anchor, anchor, anchor. I know I must break the anchor.
This story was originally published in the October 2014 edition of Calhoun County Insight.