Dahlia Ray sat in silence as the sun beat down over head. A crow cawed and landed with a flurry on the shoulders of the scarecrow. Sam looked down at her with delight.
“Better?” asked Sam.
Dahlia Ray shrugged with uncertainty.
“You didn’t like that one either?” Sam swung his sack head at the crow on his shoulder who then flew off with an angry caw.
“I think I should go home now,” Dahlia Ray said to the ground.
“I thought we had a deal,” Sam said flatly.
“My mom might need help.”
“Well, let me down then. You don’t want to go out there alone.”
“How can I trust you?”
Sam looked down in contemplation, his body making a rustling sound as dark sockets looked below him. He slowly lifted his head, the cavernous, dark holes where his eyes should be were pointed at Dahlia Ray.
“You can’t,” Sam lamented. “Not yet. I wouldn’t trust me either. I am just worried about you walking through this place by yourself.”
“Why?” Dahlia Ray eyed him with suspicion.
“Well, you see, Nathan thought walking through a place like this was a good idea too. It wasn’t. I would hate for you to end up like him,” Sam squeak on the last word.
“What happened to Nathan?” Dahlia Ray settled back on her bottom and listened intently.
“I’ll tell you what happened. I call this one: A Bit of Fresh Air.”
My father loved it up here. He would always say, “Nathan, the Blue Ridge Mountains are a special place.” We came here at least once or twice a month when I was a kid. It didn’t matter what the weather was like; rain, flood, or snow, my father could handle it.
“Just wear layers,” he would say in his gruff yet humor-filled voice whenever I complained about the cold.
We would come to the top of one of the mountains and he would take a deep breath as he looked out over the azure expanse in front of us. “Now that’s fresh air, Nathan. You gotta come here for fresh air,” he would say.
I am not entirely sure if he was ever happier than when we went on our long camping trips together. Those forests where our sleep schedule coincided with the rise and set of the sun. Those were some of my favorite memories as a kid, but that was a long time ago. I haven’t been up there since I left home nearly 10 years ago. Time goes by and we forget how important the small things are. I forgot how important those mountains were to him. For years we would talk about a future camping trip that never came.
“What do ya say we head to the mountains and get some fresh air, just you and I?” he would ask from nearly 2,000 miles away by phone.
“I don’t know, Dad. I just have a lot to do. I don’t know if I have the time,” I replied the last time.
I remember the static-filled silence.
“Well, alright then,” he said.
We exchanged goodbyes and planned for the next year. However, those were the last words I heard from my father. The ones that still ate at me even as I brought his ashes with me to our favorite summit, miles from the park’s entrance. I knew it was going to be a long trek but my Dad would want it that way. He always said the best things in life are rarely the easiest accomplished.
I hiked through the muddy trails as foliage and earth crushed beneath each step. Recent floods had taken out our normal route, which meant I had to improvise. I know these mountains pretty well. I used small trees to keep from slipping as I made my way up the large, mountainous landform in front of me. Hours in and I felt as if I had made no progress. The rains have ceased for now, thank goodness. I could handle mud but the winds and storms here would make this impossible. A few days of no rain and I should make it to our place where I was to spread my father’s ashes. The place he considered home.
I finally reached the top of the small mountain; I saw them looming around me like blue giants. Low hanging clouds made it seem a bit eerie, a bit colder than I remember. I had never been here by myself and for some reason it felt a bit lonelier. I felt the weight of my pack as I caught my breath and thought of what my father would say.
“What are ya afraid of? Just be the meanest thing and ya got nothin’ to fear.,” I remember him saying when he first brought me here.
I took a bite of granola and admired the vastness as birds chirped all around me. The wind blew something fierce through the trees. I could imagine how people were able to get lost here. My Dad would often say that a lot of people go missing in this part of the range.
“Some get lost, others just don’t wanna be found,” he remarked as we worked our way through the hilly terrain.
I continued on a few more hours before the sun began to set. I decided to make camp at the top of a smaller hill along the eastern ridge, just in case the rain picked up. I made a fire, despite the wet ground, and cooked up a few hot dogs for dinner. The inky black night was just a few feet from the fire. Stars hid behind the low hanging clouds and it seemed a bit oppressive. Insects chirped and made their sounds all around me. It seemed colder than I remembered for this time of year.
I thought about all of the times we came up here and I wondered if I would ever come back. The draw here was not exactly the beauty of the mountains; it was the time – sticks cracking around me interrupted my thoughts. The insects went quiet. The fire blinded my view of what was in the darkness. I stood up and squinted my eyes. It could have been a bear but it was too soft.
“Hello?” I asked with force. “Anybody there?”
Behind me, another crack. It was methodical. It sounded like footsteps, light footsteps. Then, from in front of me. Another crack to the left of me. I felt surrounded. This was no bear. Bears aren’t pack hunters. The cracks stopped, as did my breathing. I stood still for what was probably less than a minute but felt like an eternity. The insects began chirping once again and I sat back down, a bit more unnerved. It was quiet for the following few hours and I decided to head to sleep. I left the fire to die out and climbed into my tent. The insects sang their songs as I drifted to sleep.
Freezing. I awoke to see my breath leave me in a cloud of steam. I saw, through my tent, it was day but felt like winter, far from the 70 degrees it was when I fell asleep. I crawled out of the tent only to see snow blanketed over my tent and all around me. Trees were baron; their skeletons loomed above me, all around me. I put on my hiking boots and walked out bewildered. How is this possible?
I felt myself shake uncontrollably as I stumbled through the cold morning. The snow muted all sound except for the crunch of the snow beneath my feet. I kept walking. I felt compelled to continue forward through the grey landscape. I wandered for what seemed like hours until I came to hill over-looking a small valley. It was still; snow gently fell around me. In the distance, I saw movement. Something down in the valley was moving. I couldn’t tell what it was. Possibly a small fox?
I continued walking down to the valley where it finally leveled off. The trees created a tunnel around the clear path to where the thing was. I stumbled through the snow as it crunched beneath me. My limbs began to feel heavy and numb as I got closer. The snow suddenly stopped as I entered the small area. Trees gathered around a mound. It wasn’t an animal; it was plastic flapping in the small breeze coming through. I stopped in my tracks. This desolate place hit me with something I haven’t felt before. It was a mixture of loneliness and despair. I made my way slowly to the bag. I could start to see the contents of it. I thought I saw – was there something in it? Someone in it?
My feelings of depression and loneliness began to disappear; they were replaced by fear. That cold feeling in the pit of your stomach, that heavy breathing, that silence that comes with it consumed me. I was just a few feet away when I saw the silhouette in the massive plastic bag begin to shift slightly. I stopped in my tracks. Suddenly, the quiet was broken by the sound of someone humming. It was light and slow. Something familiar but I was not sure. I walked closer and the humming grew louder. The bag was in front of me now and I leaned down, arm stretched to open the small flap.
The humming stopped suddenly as I saw the body of a woman, young and frozen in a wide-eyed gaze. Her arm stretched out as if she was grabbing for something, reaching for something. The whites of her eyes were red, filled with busted blood vessels that merged into one bloody mess; the irises were deep black. The color of her eyes offset the grey stone-like texture of her skin. Her eyes gaze past me in horror. I looked deep into the irises when they abruptly flicked in my direction. She was still alive and looking at me, into me, through me. We remained like this for a moment.
“M – Ma’am, are you –,” I began before I was cut off by her bloodcurdling screen. I fell back as she slowly slipped out of the plastic bag towards me, her scream continuing. Her nude body crawled on top of me as her scream became deafening. I closed my eyes and cringed, waiting for the thing to make its move. Silence.
I jerked awake. Birds chirped outside the tent. I stepped outside and felt the sun’s warmth on my skin. Trees were full and lush, grass and flowers surrounded me. It must have been a dream but an incredibly vivid one. It was so – so real. I laughed it off as me just being spooked from the night before. I packed up my gear and returned to the hike. I traversed the small mountain and headed down through the valley.
Clouds began to crawl overhead as I walked along the stream that led deeper into the valley. I stopped for a moment and ate some granola. I looked at my map and saw about another day’s hike to get where we always camped. The nightmare from last night was like static in my brain. It came and went in flashes. I saw her face, I felt the cold, and I heard her screams for just a moment and then it faded. The water trickled in front of me over rocks. The vast blue-green foliage in front of me had lost its’ beauty and now seemed more sinister. A bit scarier than it had ever felt before, but I had to continue.
I walk along the stream for a while and ascended the small ridge about a five-hours-hike from where my father and I spent so much time together. The clouds seemed suffocating as they grew closer. It was just before I made it to the clearing about a quarter of a mile ahead of me in the brush when I felt a shiver run through me. It was like ice in my stomach. I felt as if I was being watched. I quickly turned around to see if I was being followed.
“Who’s back there?” I yelled.
I stood quietly as I awaited a response. The birds that made their coos all around me stopped. I looked ahead to see, about 20 yards away, a darkened shadow peeking around a tree at me. I felt my stomach sink and chills made my skin contract into goosebumps. It was completely solid and dark against the emerald background.
The shock passed and I screamed, “What the hell do you want?”
I began running up the hill towards it; the dark figure darted off ahead of me impossibly fast. I reached the spot where it finally disappeared over the ridge. I looked down into the wooded decline and saw nothing. The wind blew harder and whistled through the trees. I breathed heavily, trying to catch my breath. I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell that thing was. It moved so fast. It looked like a human outline but had no tangible form. It had no eyes, just emptiness. It was like the imitation of something. I heard the light and brief humming of that familiar song I heard the woman hum in my dream the night before. The shadow-inspired detour I took cost me daylight as I saw the sun was setting just over the ridge. I decided that the clearing I was in was the best place to camp for the night.
I sat next to the fire on the log I found near my camp. I tried to enjoy the jerky I brought with me but I couldn’t help the feeling that I was being watched. Insects sang around me, just past the campfire’s glow that quickly dropped off into blackness. I couldn’t tell if I was crazy, paranoid, or worse, if I was right. Maybe something or someone was watching me. The clouds hovering overhead promised more rain. I heard a low rumble from somewhere distant as it came across the valley.
Time passed and I began to relax. Tension made the muscles in my feel like they were on fire. A pop of a stick in front of me intruded on my sanity once again. I said nothing this time; I just waited. I tried to calm myself by taking a deep, warm breath and slowly exhaled. There are tons of little critters all around here. I felt unnerved – another pop of a twig cut through my thinking process. I stood up and walked to the edge of the fire. I turned my headlamp on and peered into the darkness. The greenery shimmered in my light but nothing else. I scanned the dark once again but my lamp flickered in a strobe pattern before turning off. I tried to turn it on again but nothing happened.
My breathing deepened as I slowly stepped backwards. I began to hear the hum of the familiar sound. I knew it; somehow, I knew this song. The hum stopped. Along with the hum went all other sounds of the forest. As if blinking into reality, I saw two red dots about 50 feet ahead of me. They looked like eyes. They were deep red with a darkened center, much like the woman’s eyes from the night before. I stared deep into them when suddenly…they blinked. I gasped and continue backwards. Then one, two, three, four more pairs of red eyes opened. I felt them staring at me in silence. I opened my mouth in a scream but nothing escaped. I tripped backwards, my body hitting the ground with a dull thud.
My eyes opened and adjusted to the grainy landscape as I got to my feet. The lush greenery was now varying shades of gray. I looked around and found myself in a small clearing. I began walking down the trail ahead of me, ambling in a way I can only describe as zombie-like. The insects and birds stopped their songs and all that I heard was the fuzzy scratching of some sort. I walked along the grainy trail until it met a house. I stopped just in front of the door as the sound ended. I listened as a pop emanated from the other side of the door. I then heard heavy footsteps slowly leave the room as the sound drowned out.
That’s when I heard the tone. That humming tone but clear as day. I knew the song. It was the one my father would dance to with my mother. I remember those nights when I would hide on the stairs and watch them sway to it in the flickering light emanating from the fireplace in the front room. The song would end and he would go put it back on. They would embrace again and sway together. The words come through the door in their old tyme crackle, still somehow warm and haunting, “I don’t want to set the world on fire, I just want to start a flame in your heart.”
I tried the door but it didn’t budge. Somehow, the music shifted further away. It now sounded as if it was behind the house. I walked slowly around the house as it continued. There was a large rushing creek that ran down the small slope. Trees sparsely populated the backyard as I saw the phonograph slowly moving through the grey grass. It was dragged a distance, stopped for a moment, and then continued its slow crawl forward. It was methodical. I was entranced by the sight of it. I slowly walked with it and noticed the cord being pulled from behind it. Something or someone was pulling it towards them. I stopped and watched as the phonograph continued behind a few trees and disappeared with a crash. The crackling of the record was the only sound as I moved towards where I last saw the record player.
My blood ran cold as it is pumped through my veins. In front of me, just a few yards away was a huge, rectangular hole. The hole was deep enough to put a truck in, but too dark to see what was in the small precipice. The music suddenly came back on. It was coming from the hole. A pale hand whipped out of the darkness and splatted onto the muddy rim of the hole. Something nearly human began to crawl out. Its face was motionless and darkened. I saw the place where the mouth should be but it was just a gaping black hole. The eyes are white like dolls’ eyes. It heaved its figure out of the ground and rigidly pulled itself towards me. I turned to run but there was a large dark figure in the doorway to the home. The empty sockets for eyes seemed to burn through me. I knew I couldn’t move.
Then, I heard a choking sound come from behind me. I didn’t look, couldn’t look. I didn’t want to know what that thing was or what it wanted. The choking became more erratic and I turned around. The muddy, pale figure was awkwardly standing like a mannequin whose torso had been twisted. Its arms flailed at a rope that was around its neck as it was slowly pulled back into the hole. I looked into its eyes, now wide with shock but still somehow false. Unblinking but still letting me know that it was in despair. I ran over to grab its hand but it fell in just as my hand reaching out. I looked down into the hole and heard the haunting song continue, “in my heart I have but one desire.” A hand ripped through the darkness, grabbed my foot, and pulled me into the darkness.
I woke up screaming, which echoed around me. Birds took flight in fear. I felt drained but I saw the morning sun cutting through the clouds without effect and it somehow gave me vigor. A light drizzle poured down as I got my gear together and collected myself. I refused to spend another night in this place. This hellhole. I hated it here. I loved my father but this was too much. These, I don’t know, I guess visions were becoming too much. I could still feel that thing’s hand on my ankle. It was so vivid and real. I had had enough. I took the last leg of the journey with more hustle than I’d had in years.
I reached my destination at the top of the northern ridge. It was still beautiful but changed due to the rains. I felt calmer here. It was so much cleaner here. The fear of the past two days melted away and I could see ghosts of memories all around me. The trees where we hung our lanterns at night. The fire pit in the clearing where we enjoyed long talks and great meals was somewhat there. It was all still there. I dug around in my pack and found the urn. I walked through the tree line and over to the ledge looking down another valley
“You can get as much fresh air as you want now, Dad,” I said as I released the ashes of my favorite person over the ledge. The grey dust swirled around in the wind. I watched as what was left of my father floated away. I turned to leave when I feel the ground shift. I heard a creaking as the tree behind me began to turn upward and the ground beneath me slid away, taking me with it. I turned and tumbled down the hillside with the mud. I fell for what seemed like hours until I finally came to a stop, mud still slowly piling on top of me. I rolled away and tried to push myself up. I scream in agony as I realize that my arm is broken and the bone protrudes through the skin just below my elbow.
My father wouldn’t want me to scream out in pain. You have to fight through it. That’s exactly what he would say. So I did. The rain poured relentlessly as I struggled to my feet and stumbled down the hillside near a water runoff that was eroding at the mountainside creating its own stream. I stepped in a soft spot that gave way. My knuckles turned white as I clung to a small tree that held me against the sludgy torrent of mud water eroding the land around me. Mud slid off and into the water next to me. I gasped for air as I held on to the tree for dear life. I saw a cabin just ahead of me through the sheet of rain that broke through the canopy overhead. I had no idea people still lived in these areas. Some people just don’t want to be found.
I waded my way towards the cabin when something behind me caught my eye. It was slowly tumbling down the stream. It brought the fear back. It was present and in my face, screaming at me to be afraid. The large plastic bag, with what looked like a human figure inside, became dislodged from where I stood. The opaque bag slowly glided down around the trees and out of sight along with the rushing water. I stumbled away in disbelief. This was a dream. It had to be a dream.
I made my way to the cabin and went for the door. That’s when I heard it. The crackling of a record just like in my dream. I tried the door, which opened into a minimally furnished cabin with a dying fire in the fireplace. I slowly walked over and moved the needle away from the record.
“Hello?” I asked as I slowly walked through the cabin.
Rain rushed down on the tin roof filling the empty space with a constant pattering. I walked through the kitchen that had rotting floorboards and a single chair next to a small table. A candle burned on the table next to a pipe. It felt wrong. Neither this person nor I was supposed to be here. It just felt wrong. I continued out the back door and into the backyard. Rain obscured anything more than 20 yards away from me. That’s when I heard a knocking coming from in front of me. I walked cautiously towards the sound. The rain water tumbled over my feet. In front of me was a small dam made up of several large opaque plastic bags. One of them was knocking against a downed tree that held them all in place. I saw it was the decomposed head of what I thought was a woman. Her skull knocked against the bark as the water pushed the bags further down the recently made stream.
I gagged in horror. All of those people floating by. How?
I noticed a long, wide trail leading back up the hill and slowly made my way to where the trail ended. I felt terror tear through me like lightening as the recently made trail ended at a massive hole that had been partially washed out. Head sticking out, eyes open in horror, hand reached out, was the woman from my first dream along with two other large bags. I felt tears roll down my face as I try to gasp for air. The heavy sound of raindrops was interrupted by the haunting melody. I froze. Footsteps behind me drew near. The footsteps stopedp and I closed my eyes.
“I hope you can hold your breath, boy,” a gravelly, male voice croaked from behind me and a thick plastic bag flops over me. I tried to fight back but he wrapped me up tight and slammed me to the ground. I felt the wind get knocked out of me. What felt like a sledge hammer came down on my head and I faded into darkness.
I awoke to pressure all around me and the sound of a shovel digging into earth. I try to fight but it is too tight. My breath is hot and it bounces off the thick plastic and back into my face. I feel the plastic cling to my face and move away with every breath I take. The only thing I see are the woman’s red eyes before the mud blocks out all light and the air begins to get thick.
I can’t breathe.
Oh God, to have just a bit of fresh air.