Their second date had gone very well so far. Stan, not-quite star athlete at Shadow Valley High, and Billie, not-quite Prom Queen, had spent over an hour at the Brookbank Falls, deep in the mountains that ringed Pine Bow County. During the winter months, these mountains drew skiers from around the world to challenge its white-capped slopes. In the early summer, like now, the hills took on so much green they almost blended together, making it about impossible to tell one range from another.
Billie looked up at the lengthening shadows. Years of camping with her father had taught her a little, and though she wouldn’t consider herself a “mountain girl,” she knew enough to know how quickly daylight could descend into night on the mountain.
“I didn’t realize how late it is,” she called across the creek to where Stan was investigating something wedged between two large boulders.
Stan looked up at her and smiled, then leaped from stone to stone back to her.
“We should get back to the car,” she said. “It’s still a couple miles’ hike to the road.”
Stan shrugged and said, “Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll make it before dark.”
“If we leave soon, I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Billie redirected, and tried not to pull away when Stan put an arm around her shoulders. then the two of them headed down the dirt path.
“What were you looking at?” Billie asked as they walked.
Stan’s hesitation drew her attention to him. He looked slightly uncomfortable.
“Uh,” he finally said, “it looked like what was left of a coyote. It was pretty mangled, so it was hard to tell for sure. But it was fresh.”
“Hunters?” Billie asked.
“No, it looked like something with teeth.”
Suddenly nervous in the waning afternoon light, Billie glanced around, her gaze trying to pierce the heavy forest and foliage, looking for the telltale signs of predatory wildlife.
“Do you think whatever killed that is still around here?” Stan wondered aloud, sounding intentionally aloof.
“We should be fine, as long as we can get back to the car before dark,” Billie replied.
Without a passable road to them, Brookbank Falls enjoyed an exclusivity that helped preserve its pristine location. At the same time, with the tall peaks surrounding them, the afternoon and evening sun took little time to fade, enveloping the young couple in deep shadows and making the trail so treacherous that they eventually had to slow their progress.
“I don’t think we’re going to make it to the car before dark,” Stan said, his nerves beginning to show in his voice.
Billie decided not to comment on the obvious and pulled a small, powerful flashlight from her belt. It cut through the heavy darkness, allowing them to continue forward, until she stopped without warning.
“What is it?” Stan asked, watching Billie shine the line around them, then shining it up the path, then back the way they’d come.
“Did we pass a split in the path without realizing it?” she asked, hitting him in the face with the beam of light.
Stan put a hand up to shade his eyes and said, “If we did, it couldn’t have been too far back. Why, are we lost?”
Billie illuminated the way ahead, but her scowl didn’t inspire confidence in her date.
“I thought you said you’ve been here before,” Stan accused, doubt and aggravation trickling into his voice.
Not rising to the bait, Billie said, “I have, but never after dark. You know how woods all look alike, once the sun goes down.”
Before she could say more, something crashed in the darkness a ways off the path and in the distance a coyote howl echoed out at them.
Stan snatched the flashlight out of Billie’s hand and played the bright-white beam back and forth in the direction the sound of movement had come from, but couldn’t see anything. He held his free hand out to Billie.
Scowling, the girl took his hand and the two of them hurried along the path.
They made good time, until another howl jerked Stan’s attention from the path. His left foot snagged against an unseen tree root. He cried out in pain as he fell, twisting his ankle so far Billie was surprised she didn’t hear a snap.
“Are you okay?” Billie asked, kneeling down beside him.
The two of them carefully straightened out his wrenched foot, Stan wincing, but putting on his “tough football player” face instead of crying out a second time.
Billie took her mobile phone from her small handbag. After glancing at its screen she pursed her lips, then said, “No signal. How about you?”
Stan managed to extract his mobile phone from his back pocket without a whimper, but his mood didn’t brighten when he looked at the screen. He held it up for Billie to inspect.
Her eyes fell on the complex spider-web of shattered glass that now took the place of the shiny, smooth glass surface. “Oh,” was all she said.
He tried a few times to start up, but when the device refused to respond, he growled in frustration and tossed the phone a few feet away.
Billie hurried over to pick up his phone, but just as her fingers touch the metal case, something rustled about a stone’s throw away and a low growl drifted to her on the breeze. She froze. When the growl faded away a few seconds later, she snatched the smartphone out of the damp dirt and ran back to Stan.
“Come on, Romeo,” she said and hoisted him to his feet, ignoring his grunts of pain. “We gotta go.”
Once she had Stan upright, it emphasized the height difference between them. In order to keep him from slumping to his left, she strung his left arm across her shoulders, pressing her right and his left side tightly together, for support.
As one, they hobbled as quickly down the dark path as possible, their progress hindered by the increasing pain in Stan’s foot. It originated in his ankle and radiated up his calf to behind his knee, and any weight on it sent pulses of stabbing agony nearly to his hip.
“Keep it up,” Billie encouraged him, “you’re doing great.”
Stan could only grunt in response.
A few hundred feet further on, the couple paused to rest. Stan managed to lower himself to an unearthed tree stump and shut his eyes while catching his breath through clenched teeth.
Before they were ready to move again, Billie heard faint growling behind them. She turned and scanned the path behind them, but couldn’t see anything. There was, however, a thick, gnarly branch lying nearby. It made a solid weapon in her hands. As if in response to her new-found ability to defend them, the growling increased and she could’ve sworn she could now see a faint sickly greenish-yellow glow trickling between the leaves and branches of the thick woods.
“Um, Stan?” she stammered, backing away from the edge of the trail, her eyes still on the faint glow…
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, available now!