Here's Chapter Two of THE LOST. For now, I'd better leave it at this for a preview.
Copyright James Robert Smith.
Lost and afraid, the little boy stumbled out of the hell.
That's what the locals call them--hells--large tracts where only mountain laurel and Catawba rhododendron grow. From a distance they appear to be smooth patches on the peaks and sides of the mountains--an illusion of meadows, perhaps. But close inspection reveals them as what they are: tight, woody tangles where the big shrubs grow side by side, making an almost impenetrable barrier of unyielding trunks and branches; a dark green place where one may crawl and slither, yet certainly not walk. Whoever named them was no fool.
There was a small hell on the flanks of Hemp Ridge, where the local highway angled around the steep slope and up toward higher elevations. The heath plants grew thick there and were ablaze with whites and purples from May through mid-July. In November, though, they were merely dark and the hum of summer bees was a dim memory in reptile brains slumbering beneath tough roots. Night had fallen clean and cold; Officer McCoy and his ruined sedan were sitting, steaming a few miles down the road.
The boy had awakened, lying prone and staring at the leafy roof above him some time before. At first, he had merely lain thus, trying to recall where he was and what he was doing there. No amount of wondering had brought an answer and soon he was floating on shadows once more. The roar and scrape of automobiles running and chasing had brought him wake again, and then he had done his best to stand, his blonde, tousled head rising amid rhododendron leaves curled against the chill of the night. Turning round and round, he still could not recall where he was or how he had come to be in such a place. He was wet, almost soaking. And he was chilled.
Slowly gaining control of his limbs, which were stiff with cold, he knelt down and began to crawl; he seemed to see a path of sorts through the tangle, although what could have formed such a path he could not imagine. When he came out of the thick growth of bushes, his hands were damp with black loam, the knees of his jeans were wet and scraped; and he saw that he was standing in the woods, tall trees all about with only odd bird sounds echoing here and there, near and far. He began to cry.
When he had cried for a while, his tears making cold lines down his dirty face, he sat and carefully tried to make some sense of his situation. He could not remember how he had come to be in this place, and he knew this was not home; nothing about the land or the way it laid was familiar to him. Clutching his pale arms about his small chest, he recalled that his mother liked to tickle him there on his ribs; and he remembered strong father hands gripping him under the arms to lift him up for warm kisses. Quickly, there was a hitching in his lungs that he knew would soon blossom into crying; but this time he did not surrender to the building panic. He stood, brushed wet dirt from the seat of his pants, and scanned the line of trees, searching.
There was something. There was something to be done, something not terribly far from here that would help him home. In the clear light of the improbable spray of stars overhead, he peered at the ghost-like reflection of the forest and looked for a mystery that was a growing familiarity in his eyes and in his heart. He felt it: there was a place nearby that could lead him home; all he had to do was go to it.
A hundred yards below the tilt of the land, he could hear and barely see a small brook that trickled down from an unseen spring above. It moved; sparkling starlight gleamed up to him. The boy stepped off in that direction and went toward the sound of moving water.
It had come up in the night, breaking through the thin, black soil above. Breaching to air, knotty fingers that were limbs pointed toward the arc of the Milky Way, growing and trying to span the void. Hair like roots that had been dormant bristles for eight decades suddenly sprung out, groping past the leaded barrier that had at last succumbed to time and rust. A layer that had once been ash did nothing to impede the unnatural movement of the otherwise vegetable organ. In moments, it had firmly anchored itself in the sterile soil in which it so long had lain sleeping. And while no eyes watched, the limbs that had appeared like cracks in the fabric of the night suddenly sprang into motion, stretching cancerously out and out until the spidery reach of it spanned an area not less than six feet on a side, until it appeared like nothing so much as some kind of insane net strung to catch God knew not.
But it wasn't done.
Each limb seemed to move, to strain as if in either pain or ecstasy; tiny nibs appeared like blobs of tar at each juncture and tip. Small leaves unfolded in the chill, petaling out, out, as of the supplication of a thousand inhuman hands held open, waiting: leaves as black as onyx below, pale as maggot flesh above.
And though it now lay still, a new growth hugging close to the earth within the boundaries set by what had once been the stone foundation of a house long since gone, it was not done.
There was something more.
Billy Sothern was out with his dogs; he smiled and picked up the pace as he heard Big Sammy bellow out long and hard, and he knew the pack would tree something soon. My, but that redbone had been a bargain--he'd swapped him for a worthless bird-dog bitch two years before and it was a deal so fine that he had to avoid a shit-eating grin whenever he ran into Vin Hinson, the fool who'd done the trading. But Billy wasn't the type to gloat, so he usually kept his mouth shut and didn't crow too much about what an excellent tracker his Big Sammy was. The dog bellowed again and Sothern forgot the grade of the ridge and huffed his way to the top, vapor steaming and gleaming in the cold night air.
At the ridge top, he paused and got his bearing, listening for the baying of the pack, straining to hear the snap and shuffle of them through the underbrush where the 'coons would lead them. Sothern enjoyed hunting deer, but his favorite sport was putting his dogs on the trail of a fat raccoon on a clear winter night. He liked the chase and he liked the weather; and there was no one out to tell him what to do and when to do it. Here, at least, he was the boss.
Big Sammy bayed again, his clean, beautiful voice filling the woods. Somewhere a raccoon was shitting himself. Billy got his bearings, thought he could even see the tail end of the pack go slithering off down Seven Mile Branch, and away he went in pursuit. There would be roast 'coon on the table come tomorrow evening.
At the bottom of the ridge, he came into a wide hollow that served as a holding pen for a stand of second growth poplars standing straight and bare; despite the moonless night, he could clearly see the white trunks aiming skyward. On the far side of the hollow, his dogs were veering away from the creek and back up the incline of the ridge on the opposite side. "Shit." Sothern wasn't angry that the raccoon had abandoned the streambed as its escape route, but was surprised that it had done so. Nineteen times out of twenty a 'coon would run down the lay of a branch until it came to a familiar tree where his dogs would send it up to the small branches to become a target for him. Not this one, though. This one was heading back up toward the dry ridge top where the dogs would spend a little extra time chasing the damned thing. Sothern shook his shaggy head and headed up himself.
And then the timbre of Big Sammy's call went up an octave; coming down to the ears of his master, telling that the chase had changed, that he was no longer signaling the same prey. Sothern was aware of the change and noted it, although he was not terribly pleased by it. Climbing up and up, he also became aware that the dogs had changed course in a most drastic manner and had dropped over the opposite side of the ridge and into the valley beyond. That was toward Hemp Ridge, where the hunting was poor, where there were no houses or farms or orchards, and where what little browsing was to be done there was generally done by bears. Fine and well, except that Billy really hadn't come loaded for bear, although he'd killed a couple of medium sized ones with the very gun he now carried, a .22. Still, he preferred his 30.06 for big game. Whether he opted to fire or not, he needed to catch up with the pack in case there was trouble. He'd hate to lose such a fine hound to a bear; a dog like Sammy was one in a million, once in a lifetime.
He jogged up to the height of the next ridge and listened as Sammy and the others began to leave him in the dust.
The little boy had come to the creek; all it had been was an arms length of water trickling over broken quartz. Stopping long enough to quench his small thirst, he had knelt there for a moment, drinking the cold water and feeling better for it. When he raised his head from the task, it seemed as if he could see more clearly than before; he looked skyward to see if the moon had risen, or if dawn were lighting the sky. But the stars still shone just as brightly in a sky that was still as black as before. Ahead of him, though, through the woods and up the ridge was a pathway that he had not noticed when he'd knelt to drink. It must be the way.
He jumped, his child's legs taking him easily across the small beginnings of the creek. On the far side, he began to follow the trail, letting it take him higher and higher. Looking down at the ground beneath his sneakers, he saw that the path was not terribly worn, that it seemed as if no one traveled it any more; still, there was enough of the road about it so that he did not feel foolish in following along. Surely, it would come eventually to a house or a road. It led him up the flank of the slope that rose up to become Hemp Ridge. Up there, something dark waited gleaming and waxy in the night.
There were stirrings in the boy's mind, confusing images, the origins of which he could not name. As he climbed higher up the slope, he recalled his father's voice, once, telling him that if he ever became lost in the forest to follow a stream, any stream; for certainly it would eventually take him to a road. But he did not then look back down the way he had climbed, back toward the muffled gurgle of the small creek he had drunk from. There was some deeper voice telling him of this path. At the end of it, there was something to be done that would lead him back home. He knew this in a way he could not bring himself to explain; either to himself or to anyone he might meet along the way. And whom would he meet in this deep wood, at this deep hour?
He heard the baying of the hounds.
The dog voices were not so distant as he would have liked. It was as if the animals had suddenly sprung into clamor because of his very own scent and not of some animal they might be tracking. Stopping for the first time since beginning the climb, the boy looked up, scanning the ridge top to see how much higher he had to go before achieving the summit. Above, the earth loomed up; but he could see the bright twinkling of star shine glittering blue and white. He picked up the pace, for suddenly he felt as if the path no longer led him on a journey; now, it seemed as if it were a race. He had to get there first.
As he went, his small legs began to move to a quicker beat; and he made himself begin to jog up the incline, pacing himself so that he would not tire too quickly and so lose this contest. His breath labored in and out of his grade school lungs, and sooner than he would have thought, the top of the ridge was his. There, he placed his pale hand on the double trunk of a tall pine, its scaly bark flaking beneath his touch. He ducked his head and gasped in the cold air, wishing he had a scarf to deaden the chill of it all. When he had rested for no more than half a minute, he looked up to get his bearings.
If the pathway had seemed illuminated before, now it fairly glowed. The ground of it and the trees that lined the path looked as if painted in radium, glowing blue-green in the otherwise tar of the night. Frightened by the effect, he looked behind and saw that the path was gone, faded to the same darkness of the rest of the forest; the way back was gone for him. Ahead, he saw that he was on the big whale back of the ridge, but that it climbed further still to a height several hundred feet above him. The path was not so steep as before, but it was a long way for such a small boy. He wanted to call out for his parents, but the words seemed as lost on his tongue as he was in this place. Instead, he said nothing and pushed on.
From the far side of the ridge, he heard the hounds baying again, louder. In his heart, he knew that their goal and his were the same. And he knew that if they got there first, his way home was gone.
Some darker image, too, if the dogs got there first.
The thing in the earth felt the race between boy and hound. It felt it and knew of it in a way too strange to fathom in the ways of flesh and blood. Feeling, it acted.
Darkness. There was darkness, and no light.
Billy Sothern felt the scrape of fatigue in his good ol' boy lungs, and he was glad of the fact he'd stopped smoking cigarettes before he'd graduated high school. Still, Big Sammy and the others were chasing after something a bit faster and smarter than a raccoon, he figured, and he wanted to catch up to them before they got in a tussle with whatever they were after. He slowed to a trot, riffling through his catalog of knowledge of local fauna. He was certain now that the dogs no longer tailed the 'coon they'd first been tracking. He'd not trained his hounds to run deer, as he thought it was a stupid way to hunt them. Anything as small as a rabbit would not have diverted Big Sammy, so that left really only a couple of alternatives. Either the pack was chasing a bear--and he dearly hoped that were not the case--or they were hot on the spoor of a bobcat. If it were a cat, he figured it would tire and fight soon, and his dogs would get a good mauling before they finally killed the damned thing. Sammy was too smart to dive into a wildcat, but some of the other dogs were young; and God knew that Sally, the newest dog he'd bought, was silly enough to try. Thinking of having to salve paws that would look as if nails were driven through them, he sucked in a lungful of cold air and trotted on, dry leaves cracking underfoot.
When he was almost at the height of Hemp Ridge, coming upon it from the north, he heard the call of the pack suddenly rise, as if they had happened upon a mother load of soft, furry prey. Above it all, the voice of Big Sammy raised high and clear, almost as if in panic; the sound was, perhaps, the remainder of whatever of wolf remained in the dog's domesticated lineage. Sothern's guts froze on hearing it, and for a second his legs locked solid; he was rooted to the spot. And then the paralysis was gone and he was moving again, diving through the second growth oaks and poplars that reached out with anemic limbs to slap at his passing face.
His booted feet came to the jumble of rock that some crazy farmer had dug from the earth many years back. Billy's father had told him that before the depression these hills had swarmed with small farms and cabins. Life on the ridge tops had been hard for anyone trying to earn their way farming, but many had tried and done so. Even in his hurry, Billy noted the extent of the mounds of rocks here, and recalled stories of a farmer who had lived briefly among the locals; some said that he'd moved more rock in a year than whole families had stacked in generations. Seeing the Cairns piled here and there, he believed it. But Sammy and the pack were all in a lather over something, and he was in too much of a hurry to admire the work of the nameless farmer. He looked south, to the howling dogs.
Sothern was truly tired, now. His legs ached and his chest burned with the effort of his climb. He had to stop, if only for a minute, to catch his breath. He would sit, for just a second.
And then the night closed in.
The sound of the pack was gone. Suddenly, the only sound was the in-and-out of his overworked lungs drawing breath, bellowing. He blinked, confused; he peered ahead, behind. All around him, the forest was gone, and only the leaves at his feet showed him that he was still in the forest, still on the faraway top of Hemp Ridge where the acorn crop was always poor and the bears had the place to themselves. Looking back, he could see the pack moving, closing in on him. Along with this, something else--something dead and silent was bearing down. He stepped forward, away from the featureless approach of it. The way ahead seemed clear, although he could see no further than the next tree, the saplings just beyond. As he moved toward those things he could make out, the dark closed shut where he had been and he was herded on.
Around the place where he was being taken, the dogs bayed and howled. And; truly, though there were no tears, they cried.
Above him, the little boy heard when the dogs found that which they had tracked. He stopped, peering up the lazy slope of the ridge top, and knew that he still had time. The dogs only had so far found it. There was some other ingredient to make lost of his attempt. He looked with frightened eyes at the glowing path before him, and he pushed on.
He had actually stumbled and fallen hard against a pile of rough stones before he realized that all light had fled, that he was lost in silent pitch that revealed no image and no vibration. Indeed, it seemed he could barely feel himself. Even a brave man, full of strength and blessed with stamina, would then have let panic take him down.
And he was just one tiny child.
Sitting there, lost and alone, his legs tired and his knees scraped, the cold numbing his hands and his feet, he began to cry again, not knowing what he was doing in this awful place and wondering where his parents were. Why couldn't he recall their faces? He knew they were real; but they would not come to mind. And now, here was this strange black darkness muffling all but his breath. What was he going to do?
Groping on his hands and knees, he felt for the way down, away from the climbing slope. Slowly, he began to make his way downhill. Find a creek, his father had told him. Any creek. He stood and began a stumbling walk down the ridge, his feet shuffling through loose, newly fallen leaves. He could not hear them crunching beneath his shoes, but he could feel the gentle snapping of the stuff. Eventually, you'll come to a road.
Suddenly, without realizing just when it had happened, he could make out the trees again. Glancing back over his shoulder, he could not see the mountain: only a wall of black that shuddered and heaved at him before he looked down slope and began to run, angling for the flow of the little creek he had crossed before.
As suddenly as it had fallen, the blackness, whatever it had been, was gone. Billy Sothern blinked, wiped at his eyes and tried to understand what had happened. He was too young for a heart attack. Had he blacked out?
Then the baying of his pack lanced his eardrums; it was unlike anything he'd ever heard from them. Soon, his voice joined those of the dogs.
"Shut up! Goddamn you all! Shut the hell up!" He raised his rifle, and holding it far out in front of him, the barrel pointed up and away, he lunged at the nearest of the six dogs and pounded the beast squarely on the hard part of its cinnamon cranium. The dog barely noticed the blow and continued its horrible din.
"Sammy!" He screamed the name again and tried to get the big hound's attention. If he could rein in Sammy, then the others would follow. Kicking and thrashing into the milling animals, he lashed out until he could grasp the dog by its collar. He didn't worry about being bitten, for Sammy was as faithful and as one-man a dog as had ever been born; he'd pulled the hound from struggling prey in times past with never a thought of a bite or a nip. Tossing the rifle to the ground, Billy put his fingers into the loose warmth of Sammy's hide and pulled back on the dog. Holding the animal to him, he slowly and carefully succeeded in getting Big Sammy to calm from the insane howling to a low and guttural growl. The dog shivered beneath his caress, straining to be at whatever it was they had tracked to this place. In a few minutes, as Sothern had hoped, the other dogs calmed themselves and gathered about. He looked at what they were glaring.
All he could see was that he was what remained of one of the pre-Depression home sites. These foundations and chimneys were all over the hills, lost in abandoned hollows and faded fields and poor forests that rose up on the thin, rocky soil when the people who'd built them were long gone. Moving carefully, so as not to spur the dogs back into furor, he sat down and gathered his rifle to him. There was something else.
The rocky foundation of the house was full of some shrub. That would not have been so strange but for the fact that Billy Sothern had never seen such a shrub, and he had tracked over these hills all of his life. He knew the local plants as well as he knew the local animals, and this was a new one on him. Nasty looking stuff, too.
But that couldn't be what had his dogs so upset. Crawling in close to the foundation, he hunkered down and tried to peer into the packed growth of matchstick limbs and waxy leaves. There had to be something underneath that stuff, and it had to be small, for he did not think the shrub was growing much higher than the middle of his thigh. As he crawled in close, Big Sammy's growl rose and the others chimed in.
"Don't worry, old son. I just want to see what it is that's got you boys so riled up, is all. I'll be real careful," he crooned it to his hounds. Shifting forward, he pushed the barrel of his .22 into the leaves, hearing the oiled metal of it tapping against the white-on-ebony leaves. He was not imagining things, and it was not a trick of the light as a knot of branches moved toward his outstretched hand.
Even as the leaves made contact with the flesh of his wrist, he wondered through the excruciating pain why he had not noticed the numbers of needled hooks that lined each leaf. As he stood, pulling the branches with him, he saw that at least a dozen of the leaves had found purchase in the meat of his hand. Pinpoints of crimson were gleaming at each perforation, and now he was screaming so loudly that the pack was hard pressed to match the decibel levels of his own voice.
Oh, God, no.
So loud that Billy Sothern did not know he had voiced it. So loud that the dogs were frightened back by the force of it. So loud that the little boy scurrying down the hill almost a mile away heard it as if it were being yelled into his left ear.
Oh, God, no.
Then the scream was something else, the last syllable growing into a sound not unlike the baying of the animal his dogs had been a million years before. He tore his wrist free of the terrible barbs that had him, the flesh ripping like a burst balloon, his blood scattering out in a warm shower from forgotten summer. And before Billy Sothern could act or understand what was happening, his hounds were at him like dogs to a cat, or cat to a mouse. They fell on him, tearing at his arms and biting at his thighs and doing their level damnedest to chew through his hamstring.
A new thing, then.
Hands were claws, teeth were fangs, arms and legs were bruin muscle that parted the sea of dog flesh; Sothern's mind was red, red kill gnash teeth guts eat. On and on until he wiped the sheet of red from his forehead and saw Big Sammy's brown ass bounding away into the woods and the rest of the dogs in shanks and ribs and chitlin' piles steaming all around.
Sothern sat down, settling on his haunches and licking at the wound on his wrist and then the inconsiderate bites on his arms. Pausing for a moment, he breathed deeply, smelling for the first time all the scents of the forest that he had never noticed. A big, white grub was tunneling in the rotted log at his back. A ground squirrel was tossing in its leafy bed beneath the roots of the red oak in front of him. A big barred owl was sitting, perched safely out of reach in a sycamore a hundred yards to his right.
Also, far away, but not too far, a scared little boy was trying to get away.
"Aarh!" He was off.
When the little boy had heard the awful scream of pain and rage, he had begun to run, although he had thought himself at the end of whatever energy he had possessed. Before, he had been afraid only of the situation, but now he was frightened of something here in the woods with him. He ran, stumbling along the banks of the creek, listening as the stream grew as other branches met with it and poured their own effluence into it. He was only a child, and he didn't know how to gauge distances very well, but he felt fairly certain that by the time he heard the scream he had already put more than a mile between himself and the top of that ridge. And now he should be much farther than that. Far enough to stop to rest, certainly.
He would have cried again, but he was too tired to do so. If he had thought his legs hurt before, now they were a symphony of pain. His lungs burned with fatigue and with the cold. He had stamped through a puddle a hundred yards back, and it had been scummed with ice. It was very cold and getting colder, he knew. Leaning against a small tree, he all but let himself collapse, his little mouth gaping fishlike as he sucked air. He was gasping so hard and so loudly that he didn't hear the crash and crackle of leaves and twigs as something came at him from behind.
Jaws wet and warm with saliva clamped shut on the collar of his thick, flannel shirt. The material was solid, and held together as something that far outweighed the child pulled him down and along, dragging him across the forest floor. Leaves flew up, filled his mouth and prevented him from screaming, and he tried to twist in the animal's grasp so that he could see what held him.
Big Sammy held the little boy tight by the shirt, and he bounded along, taking the child with him. He weighed more than three times as much as the boy, and ran at roughly half the speed he had been moving before he'd seen the youth. The dog could not fight what he and the pack had tried to take down on the ridge top, what he felt was even now tracking behind. Perhaps he could outrun it, without the boy. But leaving the pup was not a consideration. Sammy's legs pistoned, kicking up moist earth and dry leaves, taking them toward sanctuary.
For his part, the boy sensed that the dog meant him no harm; and he clung to it, drawing himself under the big canine so that he could grasp hold of its torso, his legs lifted up and away from the earth. The dog raced on.
Behind them, the two heard the first howl of that which hunted them. The roar seemed arrogant, the thing that uttered it sure of its power. Soon, it would bear down on them.
Looking to his left, the boy saw the golden glow through the line of trees on the far side of the creek that had grown to a turbulent near-river tumbling over big rocks and plunging through small grottoes of stone. There was a house within that bright glow. "Stop! Stop!" He commanded the dog, and it skidded to a halt so that the boy could disentangle his shirt from Sammy's wet teeth.
Sammy could hear twigs snapping under inhuman feet; too close. He would turn and fight again. Perhaps the boy could escape.
Already, the boy was sliding down the stone-studded embankment to the lapping shore of the creek. Without pausing, he was in the frigid water, splashing up to his knees, his waist. The current threatened to take him away.
But Sammy was there, taking the lead and once more pulling the child with him by grasping at the tough flannel shirt. In the center of the stream, the water exceeded the dog's height, and he swam, pulling the pair of them to the other side. They clambered cold and wet to the far shore, moving quickly up the opposite bank and past the trees beyond.
Behind, the thing that pursued was there, and spanned from one bank to the next in a single, fluid leap. There would hardly have been a sound as it alighted, were it not for the hateful growl that painted its jaws.
The boy and the dog were in the glow of the light.
There was a frustrated snarl, as what chased could not enter the light. It wanted to roar, but the light was pain and only bloody vomit came up its craw. With something akin to a whimper, it turned and leaped again the creek, this time coming down short of the far side so that a second effort was necessary to clear the water. Covering its altered face from the singeing might of the glow, it returned to where it had come. There were things to gather before the sun.
With the dog standing protectively over him, the little boy collapsed into a pitiful heap on the lawn. The dog's warm tongue lapped at his dirty cheek, and the child forced himself to stand, using Sammy's strong body as support. Looking up, he realized that the golden light into which they had come was not from any electrical source, but from something else. The house itself seemed to shine with some power not borne by dynamos and wires. It was not unlike the light that had marked the pathway for him.
With small, stumbling steps, the boy made his way toward the back door he could see at the top of concrete stairs. The house, he saw as he neared it, was small and simple, painted light blue with shutters of white standing wide about the dark windows. A single bulb burned at the rear entrance. Balling his small hands into fists, he hammered as well as he was able, knowing that there was help here. When the doorknob began to rattle, coming to life from the inside, the golden glow that had bathed the house and its yards began to slowly fade so that when the door opened wide the person who stood in it could see nothing out of the ordinary.
Save for a tiny child standing wet and filthy at the back door in the dead of the coldest night of the winter; and one of the neighbor's hounds panting behind the boy, its big tongue lolling.
The little boy looked up, into the golden light that this time came from an electric bulb, and he saw the woman silhouetted there in the glare of it.
And then he collapsed, unconscious, into her arms.