Altar in the Forest

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

The vast hinterland solitudes of the rugged Canadian Shield hold dangerous prehistoric secrets....

Submitted: July 27, 2018

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Submitted: July 27, 2018



I never will forget what happened amid the encroaching chill of autumn 2004.  Late on that rainy night in the storied region of the Old South known as the Mississippi Delta, I was sitting on a bench waiting in the terminal building of the bus station on Union Avenue in downtown Memphis.  The hands of the dreary big round clock on the banal wall indicated it was thirteen minutes past midnight, an awareness that sent a shudder down my spine.  Weird things - dangerous things - happen in the witching hour.

There were very few people.  The bus station seemed almost deserted, a surreal scene that induced a sense of ominous foreboding when, with so many empty seats available, a stranger in a dripping iron-gray floor-length trench coat walked in off the sidewalk and, morose and silent, sat down on the bench beside me.  The monotonous ticking of the Cyclopean clock way up on the high off-white wall was torturing my nerves, so to ease my mind a bit, I endeavored to engage the grim stranger in polite conversation.

He raised the broad brim of his drenched hat just enough so I could vaguely make out the weathered lines on his shadowed face.  He didn’t appear to be in the best of health, giving vent to frequent coughs that resonated pitifully with the hollow choking sound of croup.  His breathing was raspy and labored.  When he spoke, the sound of his voice didn’t seem coordinated with the movements of his leathery thin lips.  I began to feel guilty about imposing on any sense of civility he might possess.

I introduced myself as Sean Terrence Best.  He nodded slightly, then told me his name was Grade Ope.  Something about the name didn’t sit right with me, but it was a whole month later before I finally figured out it’s an anagram for Edgar Poe.

Mr. Ope began an eerie narrative, explaining first how he came to be in a bus station at such an ungodly hour.  He claimed he was being pursued by something dreadful, something abnormal.  He didn’t want to venture a supposition about what would happen if the cold-blooded hunter ever caught up with him.  Mr. Ope said his cutthroat pursuer had senses that were uncannily sharp, like those of a wolf or bloodhound, but that those almost supernatural detectors were grievously repelled by the strong odor of diesel fumes, so that for nearly two years Mr. Ope had been fleeing for his life by constantly moving from town to town, pausing only long enough to eat and shower.  

Sometimes he thumbed a ride with truckers in big rigs, other times, like the night of our encounter, he traveled by bus, but always he was on the move and always via transportation propelled by large loud smoke-belching diesel engines.  He had to keep moving.  If he ever stopped, the thing that was after him would, with those fiercely potent senses, sniff him out and zero in on his location.

“In a way,” he lamented sadly, “it doesn’t really matter, because right before this thing came after me, I was diagnosed with a rare strain of thyroid cancer.  Unknown to me, it had been spreading through my lymph nodes for years.  By the time I began to notice symptoms, it was too late to treat.  Oncologists tell me the disease is terminal, but they won’t venture an exact time-frame for how long I have left to live - could be a few years, could be less than six months.”

The melancholy stranger was silent for a moment as though solemnly reflecting on the tragedy of his grim fate, then he began talking about his life before the sinister thing started chasing him.  

He had been an investigator of paranormal phenomena.  His last case, the one that had resulted in the ghoulish predator bent on pursuit of his life, had been by far the most disturbing.  It had also been the inquiry that had come closest to producing verifiable evidence that could stand up against cross-examination to corroborate and substantiate the existence of entities and powers that lie outside the prosaic framework of what most of us consider factual reality.

“Strange customs,” warned the brooding stranger, “are practiced in far-away remote barrens where few people maintain year-round habitations.”  

Amid frequent coughs from deep in his ailing chest, the enigmatic traveler talked.  With keen interest, I listened, the ominous clock ticking incessantly down the dark tunnel of an insipid background occasionally accented by the fading rumble of a bus engine or the hiss of tires passing on the rain-slicked street outside.

My mind seemed drawn into a hypnotic trance by the rhythmic droning of his deep voice as he related his bizarre tale to me in a flesh-creeping first person narrative which proceeded as follows -

People have a morbid fascination with death.  One of my first investigations into reports of paranormal phenomena was nearly twenty years ago, north of the border, in the bewitching solitudes of the Canadian bush.  I didn’t have nearly the experience then as I do now, yet the case was worthy of probing research and I did my best at the time to chronicle the ghoulish legend still whispered by marvel-loving grandmothers in chimney corners on long blizzard-bound dark winter nights.  The spooky lore concerns rumors of a mysterious altar in the spirit-haunted boreal wilderness; a pagan shrine erected to appease a sadistic otherworldly being with sacrifices involving human blood.  The entity is rumored to be ancient, primeval, and capable of granting staggering riches and far-reaching power.

Tucked snugly at the fringe of vast hinterland solitudes amid Ontario’s rugged Canadian Shield lies the sleepy little fishing village of Britt, where cold crystal clear water churns white over granite boulders as the mystical Magnetawan River empties its knowing currents into the sapphire-blue depths of Georgian Bay.  

On the rocky bluffs of the south bank of the Magnetawan, I quietly entered a ghost town called Boon Inlet, named after a British admiral who was court-martialed then executed for cowardice, shot dead on the deck of the ship he had failed to competently command in high seas combat against the French in 1757.

My inquiries into the legend of the altar in the forest led me to seek counsel with a venerable old gentlemen named Theobald Sorrenson, who had settled into a reclusive retirement after many decades of guiding fishermen and tourists through the breathtaking coves and backbays of the glorious thirty thousand islands that stretch their beguiling maritime enchantment from Honey Harbor all the way up to the scenic inlets of the North Channel.

Theobald’s friends called him ‘Tubby’, not because of his physical appearance which was lean and sinewy, but rather because of the 18 foot steel tub in which he used to take his clients out on the great sweetwater sea.

Tubby’s rustic cottage was waterfront down a woodland lane that branches off from the old gravel logging road.  When I knocked on the golden timbers of his white pine door, the old fellow greeted me warmly, inviting me into his den, which was a sunken room at the back of the cottage with a stunning view of the broad deep river channel.

He seated me in the posh softness of a delightfully relaxing armchair, then insisted I have a cup of herb tea with him.  Disappearing into the kitchen for a moment to put a small kettle on the stove, he returned to the cozy den.  His next act is what raised the hackles of alarm on the back of my neck.  Very quietly he went round to all the windows where, one by one, he pulled the curtains closed as if he was about to reveal some forbidden secret of occult taboo.  It was odd that he made sure to completely close all the drapes not leaving even the smallest crack except at the window that looked out over the inlet.  There he left a small gap in the curtains, apparently so he could see through.  

He vanished into the kitchen again, then returned with two plain white ceramic cups in which a little pouch of chamomile steeped, gently staining the steaming water with a fay amber tint.  I would come to notice during his discourse that he cast occasional glances through the mysterious gap he had left in the curtains of the window that looked out over the inlet, as if he were diligently watching for some expected development.

We sipped our tea in silence for a few minutes.  The chamomile was delicious, but there was a faint taste, a subtle undercurrent lurking in the mild flavor, that I didn’t recognize.  It wasn’t rose hibiscus and it wasn’t lavender, yet that slight other bouquet was in every sip.  My head began to feel light and airy.  Though he smiled politely at me, Tubby had an expression in his watery gray eyes that evoked within me a sneaking suspicion that something had been left unsaid.  His curious behavior made me feel ill at ease.  

Not wanting to seem rude, especially since I was there to glean information, I sipped the curiously odd- tasting herb tea.  My insides began to feel warm and fuzzy.  My watchful host glanced through the narrow gap in the curtains, nodded his head, then turned to me and began talking, “Being an investigator of unnatural phenomena, you probably know something about cattle mutilations, missing time, alien abductions, and other such paranormal mysteries.  Well, let me tell you what goes on around here.  An outsider like yourself would have to do a lot of digging to make these connections, but living here all my life, I've noticed things over the years.  For example, every other generation, regular as clockwork, a few people go missing from hereabouts.  None of the disappearances are ever explained.  Authorities conduct investigations, but reports are soon tucked away in a cold case file for lack of evidence where they languor in limbo indefinitely.  

“Not far from here, you would have passed it on your way in, lies the old Boon Inlet cemetery.  It’s derelict now.  The last time a corpse was laid to rest there was over a century ago.  A group of tree-huggers went out there a few years back.  They had the idea of making a cultural community project out of cleaning up the old cemetery - pulling weeds, straightening leaning tombstones, pruning limbs, that sort of thing.  They were very enthusiastic about their restoration project at first, but then, for some reason that never quite came to light, the effort was abandoned.  The old cemetery once again lies forgotten and decaying in neglect.

“Now, I’ll tell you this.  People round here don’t like to drive by that old cemetery on moonless nights, because strange lights appear out in the woods behind the gloomy burial ground, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me first give you a brief rendition of some of the unnerving history of our outlying little settlement.

“Way back in 1888 the owner of the Boon Inlet sawmill, Straker Gravesend, notwithstanding his sterling success in the lumber industry, wanted to branch out into railroads.  The existing commercial infrastructure during those tumultuous years in the Canadian economy wasn’t tailored to suit so much industrial expansion in the boondocks, but the ferociously ambitious sawmill boss was determined to reach the lofty financial heights of such famed tycoons as James Hill and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Gravesend was shrewd and bent on his purpose.  He kept his finger on the pulse of local lore whence he gained knowledge of a prehistoric Algonquin legend about a mysterious forest spirit that wields lethally terrorizing potency as a ghost-witch.  Sasquatch, Wendigo, Abominable Snowman - they got all sorts of names for the thing.  According to legend, the ancient supernatural creature, in exchange for a sacrifice of human blood on the mystical stone altar in the forest, will grant a wish capable of satisfying the most depraved lust for wealth and power.

The famous French explorer, Étienne Brûlé, the first European on record to have laid eyes on this haunting realm of rock, snow, ice, and water was, as the historical establishment tells it, killed and eaten by the Hurons who whisper of a curse associated with his murder, but bands of the First Nations tell a different tale.  Medicine man rites handed down through hundreds of years of oral tradition reveal that Monsieur Brûlé carried a certain bronze medallion in his pocket which, unfortunately for him, led the stouthearted adventurer to a fate worse than death.  In the hushed murmurs of Indian lore, Étienne Brûlé actually found the altar in the forest.  He vanished never to be seen or heard from again, although there are rumors that the mysterious medallion is still extant, closely guarded by secret societies who delve into the murky arcana of runic occult.

The altar is said to lie hidden at an undisclosed location in the swampy tangles of the rocky backwoods, presided over by a mysterious race of beings that preceded by eons the first human inhabitants of this desolate northern realm of bleak granite bedrock and spooky warped twisted boughs and boles of wind-sculpted Jack pine.

The biggest employer by far to ever establish a commercial enterprise at Boon Inlet was the Gravesend Sawmill.  In January 1889, a fire broke out at the huge facility.  With miles of linear feet of newly milled lumber to feed the rampaging blaze, the catastrophic conflagration burned out of control for nearly 24 hours.  The mill was a total loss, yet to underscore the disastrous tragedy, a number of workers employed at the mill were missing.

Naturally they were presumed dead, however, no human remains were found among the smoldering sooty ruins of the burned-down mill.

It is interesting to note that, a week before the devastating fire, a group of foreigners arrived across the river in the village of Britt.  Ostensibly a hunting party, they took lodgings at the River View Inn.  Their skin was the color of rusted metal, their hair and eyes, dark and swarthy.  Two matters concerning these mysterious foreigners could not escape the attention of busybody locals.  One is that the suspicious foreigners never hired the services of a guide and they never went on any hunts.  The second eyebrow-raising inconsistency about the tight-lipped foreigners is that the day after the terrible fire that destroyed the sawmill, the dubious group departed Britt never to return.

Of course it didn’t take long for morbid scandals to be gossiped up about a clandestine link between the unidentified foreigners and the missing mill workers.  Dark rumors began circulating that the bigwig mill boss, Straker Gravesend himself, had secretly hired the ill-favored outsiders to commit a dastardly deed.  Wild speculation was whispered in shady corners of the village pub that those peculiar foreigners were a group of dangerous professional henchmen hired by Gravesend to deliberately start the horrifying mill fire - a heinous arson committed to provide a smokescreen for the kidnapping of the missing employees whose nightmare fate was to be taken to the fabled altar in the forest to be slain as blood sacrifice to the charnel entity so that Boss Gravesend could achieve his ambitious plot of rising to international wealth and influence via the railroad industry.

It goes without saying that no one could prove such monstrous allegations, but it is a fact that Straker Gravesend became a powerful railroad magnate after the suspicious catastrophic fire that destroyed his mill, which was subsequently rebuilt to commence logging operations at an even greater rate of profit than before the injurious unspeakable tragedy.”

Tubby paused to peep again through the narrow gap he had left in the curtains of the window that looks out over the deep dark water of Boon Inlet.  The unidentified under-taste in the herb tea was becoming more pronounced.  I was beginning to worry that I shouldn’t be drinking that tea, but I didn’t want to insult my welcoming host, who turned back to me and began speaking again.

“I remember way back in my childhood when a local hobby farmer named Talbot decided he wanted to be a shepherd.  He started with just a few sheep, but then the craze overcame his mind like a sweeping fad so that in less than a year that high-strung Talbot had a hundred head of the fluffy white critters.

“This was back in ‘47, the year the thing happened at Roswell.  When autumn of that year rolled around there were reports among the superstitious villagers of Britt that strange lights were being seen in the night sky over the abandoned Boon Inlet cemetery.  Well, Talbot always thought he was big stuff.  Him and about six or seven other roughnecks loaded their shotguns and went out there one Saturday night, each with a belly full of Molson, and sure enough, they saw eerie spectral lights hovering over the rotting burial ground.  Would you believe it?  Those fools shot at the lights!

“That was at the beginning of October.  Exactly a month later on November 4, the sky darkened.  Folks around here huddled inside with their oil heat and wood-burning stoves.  The first snow of the season fell during that portentous night.  The next morning was freezing cold with a dreary low-hanging gloomy gray sky, out of which a few scant flurries still drifted earthward in soul-subduing silence.  Talbot the hotshot hobby farmer woke to a grisly scene of brutal carnage.  His sheep-pen was ankle-deep in blood-soaked white powder.  Not a single one of the poor critters had survived the attack.  

“Naturally, suspicion fell toward a wolf pack or bear, but the bears were in hibernation by that time and there had been no reports of wolves in the Boon Inlet area for over twenty years.  Besides that, wolves or a bear wouldn’t kill all the sheep at once and, of course, those ravenous predators would eat what they did kill, but none of the sheep had been devoured.  Their corpses were slaughtered, but not eaten.

“Now here’s the really creepy thing about that fateful frigid morning all those long years ago - there was another reason that completely ruled out the idea of wolf or bear attack, and that was the method of kill.  Each of the awfully mutilated sheep had been decapitated, but that’s still not the most disturbing aspect of the grim tragedy.  The really sinister thing about the wanton butchery of those poor helpless sheep is that their heads were nowhere to be seen.  A hundred decapitated sheep, yet not one of the heads was ever found.

“In the augural portent year of 1999, a palm reader, Madame Thunderblanket, set up shop on Riverside Drive on the Britt side of the river.  She had grown up on the Indian reservation over at Henvy.  Of course she knew about the flood of tourists that stampede into Britt during the summer months - figured she could make a killing telling fortunes.  

“She regaled her mystified clients with miraculous prognostications she divined from those eager palms - the life line, heart line, head line, fate line, love line, Mount of Venus, etc.  For her high-paying clientele, Madame Thunderblanket conducted seances so they could speak to their dearly departed from beyond the grave.  A rather grim pastime if you ask me, but then, the rich entertain bizarre indulgences.

“The showy madame was a self-styled Delphic oracle.  In her little sanctum of spirits, crystal balls, raven feathers, and luck charms, Madame Thunderblanket was privy to much gossip, so that in due course she heard the age-old lurid rumors passed down through generations about a mystical shrine of primeval witchcraft hidden at an undisclosed location in the bush.  Apparently, she used her psychic talents to divine a telepathic map leading to the secret site of the ancient occult artifice.  With hunted expressions on their worried faces the hex-fearing villagers of Britt soberly warned the flamboyant madame to stay out of the bush and not go looking for that evilly-shadowed altar, but the psychic was stubbornly confident in her formidable powers of precognition.  

“With a real beeswax candle, the intrepid palmist - heavily clad in bangles, talismans, and pendants - went out to the abandoned Boon Inlet cemetery by herself one foggy afternoon not long before dark.  A person doesn’t have to be a fortuneteller to foresee the disastrous result of such an ill-advised course of action.

“It was after sundown when she finally came out.  She was found wandering the backroads like a zombie, dumbstruck, in a pitiable state of catatonia.  Her eyes were glassed over, a sad victim in the last detrimental stages of manic depression.  Most of her hair was gone, her scalp bleeding as though something had, in fistfuls, torn her long hair out by the roots.  Her wrists and ankles were severely bruised.  It was obvious that some beastly thing with a terribly strong grip had grabbed Madame Thunderblanket and held on tightly.  Oh, but the titanic struggle that must have ensued!  That poor lady put up one hellish fight for her life, of that nobody had any doubts.

“She never told anyone what had happened to cause her bizarre injuries.  She was mute for what little remained of her devastated life.  The horror she faced in those lonely woods will never be known now.  Madame Thunderblanket died screaming as a patient of the psychiatric ward in a hospital up at Ottawa.”

At that point, my knowledgeable host paused again to peek out through the narrow gap in the heavy drapes.  By this time, I was seeing two of Tubby.  My vision was ludicrously blurry.  I was having severe difficulty focusing.  The age-weathered folklorist lowered his voice to an ominous whisper and leaned toward me.  It was eerie that his lips seemed to move differently than his words when he said, “Even though I’ve never talked to anybody who’s seen it, and even though I’ve never seen it with my own eyes, I strongly suspect that witch-haunted altar is out there hidden somewhere in the woodland thickets of the scraggy bush, but my gut instinct tells me that nobody knows exactly where it is and nobody knows its true purpose.  

“I'll tell you what I really think.  I say that abominable altar is a portal, a gateway into another dimension, a whole other reality that exists parallel to our own.  I don’t have the foggiest notion to explain the mysterious cycle that, every other generation, causes a few people from around here to vanish never to be seen or heard from again, but if you ask me, they’re called out into the bush by some ghoulish voice in the night that summons the helpless victims to the secret location of the ancient altar where they are subliminally led in sepulchral procession through the portal, or dragged kicking and screaming, into that unimaginable unknown realm beyond.  After that, it’s too late.  The poor souls can't find their way back.”

It had been shortly after high noon when I arrived at Tubby’s cottage, so I have no idea what happened.  I think I must have experienced missing time because the next memory I have is finding myself wandering in the dying light of sunset treading silently and alone among the graves of the neglected decaying Boon Inlet cemetery.

I didn’t know where it came from, but there was a mysterious bronze medallion in my pocket.  It was emblazoned with eldritch occult runes.  I had a faint recollection of bronze being an amalgam of the pure elements copper and tin, both of which have properties that yield harrowing power in witchcraft.  My mind was drifting.  I couldn’t focus my thoughts.  With hushed reverent motions I ambled softly among toppled tombstones and weed-choked burial plots covered in rank sedges.  The fading red beams of the setting sun suffused that alienated graveyard of a forgotten era with an apocalyptic ambiance of somber grimness.  

A sudden flash of color caught my eye.  You can imagine how startled I was to see a young woman dressed in a long flowing white dress watching me from behind a towering hemlock.  Realizing I had noticed her, she dashed off through the white-bark birch and red maple.  I lost her for a moment in the dense undergrowth of juniper that tripped my feet as I pursued, nearly sending me face first into a frightful outcropping of solid gray granite.  I heard a rustle among the branches and dry fallen leaves.  I saw a wisp of white dart through the shadows of the forest several paces ahead of me.  Again I raced forward, dodging stones and stiff foliage in pursuit of the mysterious maiden.

I chased after her for what must have been several dozen yards, or meters as they say in Canada, before stumbling out into the open space of a small clearing.  A guttural sickening sinking pulled at the lining of my stomach when at the center of the clearing I saw a flat stone lying horizontally upon two upright rocks that served as a sort of trestle supporting what was in effect a table made of rock.  The sight of the artifice which was obviously not a natural formation shook my brain so profoundly that I forgot all about the young woman dressed in white.

The upright stones that supported the huge slab of granite were carved into graven images of what I can only describe as some sort of monstrous prehistoric predatory beasts.

The flat slab of rock was approximately eight feet long by four feet wide and was situated at what would be chest height for the average human being.  The thickness of the dreadful stone slab was about a foot, the sides of which were inscribed in bas relief with hex signs, unearthly alien hieroglyphs, bizarre spirals, and sinister runes of the occult.  The cryptic meaning of the carvings I could not decipher.

Approaching the stone table with caution, I saw that its top surface was obscured by a dense heap of dead leaves.  Mossy lichens of grotesque shape and variety spider-webbed the ghoulish shrine.  To this day I don’t know what made me do it, but for some reason, the origin of which lay deep within my altered psyche, I raised my hand to gently brush the ominous heap of leaves aside.  In utter astonishment my muscles tightened at what lay buried beneath the noxious heap of rotting leaves.  

Bones - I saw a gruesome stack of bones, weather-stained and deformed with age.  A creeping chill of mortal dread sank down heavily upon every fiber of my trembling being, but I could not resist pushing another clump of leaves aside to see what rounded object they covered.  It was a skull - a human skull.  

The ghastly bare cranium rolled off the huge stone slab and landed face-up at my feet, the shadowed hollows of its empty eye-sockets staring accusingly at me.

I was whimpering with terror, guilt, and shame.  Carefully, very carefully, I stepped slowly backward, moving my feet away from the gruesome grinning skull.  After a few backward paces, I turned to walk away from the nightmare shrine.  I hadn’t gone far when I heard an unwholesome disembodied voice whisper my name.  When I turned to look, I saw no one.

True panic was now racing my pounding heart.  Something big and powerful, like a hard metal vice, grabbed my ankles in a steely grip.  My trembling feet were yanked from under me.  I fell flat on my back, then felt myself being dragged through skittering clumps of dead brindle-colored autumn leaves.  In desperation, I clawed the rocky ground in an attempt to resist, because whatever clamped my ankles was pulling me back toward the witchy altar.  I groped and grasped in vain.  There was no handhold to give traction.  I looked toward my helpless feet to see huge ghastly paws clasped around the base of my legs.  Coarse hairs, talons sooty as smut - I saw only the monstrous paws, no arms, no creature, only charnel paws mercilessly crushing my ankles and dragging me across the cold hard ground toward the diabolical altar.

From out of the dusky air, another paw grabbed my left wrist, then another thing grabbed a fistful of my hair.  I screamed.  The gloomy forest gobbled up the pitiful sound of my pleading voice.  My right hand felt a chunk of loose stone, coarse and jagged.  In terrified mindless primal instinct, I grabbed up the bit of rock and struck blindly at the thing gripping my head.  A wad of my hair was torn from my scalp, but the malign thing released me.  I began bashing the paw that held tightly to my left wrist.  At first, my frantic pounding seemed to have no effect, but after a few spasmodic impacts, the hideous paw let go.  The wicked talons that still gripped my ankles had nearly dragged me all the way under the darkened space beneath the insidious altar.  With the stone held firmly in my quivering right hand, I attacked.  I lashed out with all the angry violence my fading strength could possibly muster.  I felt myself suddenly free of the deadly grip.

Struggling to my feet, I ran wildly retracing my steps along the forest trail that led through the bush back to the abandoned Boon Inlet cemetery.  Though I heard thudding footfalls closing in behind me, I did not dare turn to look.  I ran in mind-warping horror all the way to Tubby’s cottage where I threw myself against the golden-hued timbers of the stout white pine door, slapping the brass knocker breathlessly for him to let me inside to presumed safety.

I did not sleep a wink that night.  Tubby’s expression was scornful, but the old wilderness guide did not chastise me.  In truth, I felt no safer with him than in those witch-haunted woods.  I suspected that he had somehow, possibly through the odd-flavored herb tea, set me up for the attack at the altar in the forest.  It was not difficult to conceive that his attitude was one of surprise and chagrin that I had survived.  

The next day I reported the location of the accursed altar to the authorities.  A group of volunteers from the village assisted with the search of the shadowy woods behind the ill-omened Boon Inlet cemetery.  The entire region was thoroughly scoured.  Not the least hint of any stone edifice was discovered.  Not only was the altar not found, but there was no clearing in the bush.  It is morbidly disconcerting to note that searchers did find a swath of white fabric that forensics investigators later determined was a strip of cloth torn from the skirt of a woman’s muslin dress.

I was on my way back to my hometown of Love Creek beneath the towering sequoias and redwoods in the middle elevations of the Sierra Nevada when I first began to suspect that some charnel unhallowed thing had followed me out of the Canadian backwoods.  One night on the outskirts of Sioux City, I saw a shadow pass by the curtained window of my cheap motel room.  Later on, at a motor lodge off Exit 217 in Denver, I returned from grabbing an order of goulash at the all-night diner across the street to find my room had been ransacked.

After that things went from bad to worse.  I was seeing movement in my rear view mirror as if something was lurking right behind me in the backseat.  I tossed and turned in the torment of gruesome cannibalistic nightmares about human blood sacrifice.  When waking from those bad dreams, I had the haunting sensation that a heavy arm had been lying across my chest while I slept.  

I heard footsteps following me across parking lots at night.  My phone would ring with unknown numbers.  I’d answer to hear bloodcurdling screams as if people en masse were pleading for mercy as their skin was being flailed off their bones in ritualistic madness.  A disembodied voice was whispering “I’m coming for you, Grade Ope.  You desecrated my altar in the forest.  You’ll be my next sacrifice.”

I don’t know how it was, maybe psychic communication, telepathy, but I was overwhelmed with a morbid dread of being pursued by a homicidal maniac with unusual powers of trailing its victims - a tracker, a bounty hunter - yet inhuman in its murderous stalking.

It was in the arid vastness of the Utah high country when I first noticed that I would experience relief from the oppressive shadow breathing down my neck while at truckstops or fueling stations where diesel is sold, but when I was back out on the road away from those places, the sadistic stalker returned.

I sold my old LTD for a pathetically low price to a fast-talking salesman at a used car lot in Crescent Junction.  I’ve been living out of truckstops and bus depots ever since, constantly on the move, either in a big rig or a Greyhound.”

The mysterious stranger’s deep hypnotic voice seemed to trail off into a great foggy distance.  Apparently, and as inconceivable as it is, I had fallen asleep while he had been talking.  I woke to the sonorous irritating ticking of the big round clock on the high off-white wall.  The hour at the bus station in Memphis was either very late or very early - three a.m.  The bench beside me was empty.  I glanced toward the ticket counter and the snack bar, but the haunting stranger was nowhere in sight.

A middle-age woman with a rainbow scarf over her bouffant orange hair was sitting on the bench a few feet in front of me knitting a sweater.  Her face was caked with pale powdery white.  She was wearing an excessively heavy amount of blue eyeshadow and thick red lipstick.  She smiled politely.  I thought perhaps Grade Ope had gone to the men’s room, so I spoke to the woman, “Pardon me, miss, but did you see where the gentleman sitting beside me went?”

An expression of curious sympathy clouded her gentle features when she replied, “I haven’t seen anyone sitting beside you, dear.  I apologize for not being any help.”

I was puzzled and somewhat irritated with myself.  Why had I fallen asleep?  Where had the mysterious stranger gone?  Why hadn’t the weird lady seen him?  Did he vanish into thin air?

A cold voice on the harsh loudspeaker announced the bus that would take me to Santa Fe was now boarding.  Slowly, I stood, stooping a bit to heave my tote over my tired shoulder.  I started to walk away when the orange-haired lady spoke, “Young man, don’t forget your pendant.”

A spider-legged chill crawled over the clammy surface of my skin.  I looked.  She was pointing at the place on the bench where I had been sitting.  I saw a bronze medallion inscribed with cryptic occult runes.  The mysterious stranger had spoken of such a talisman inexplicably appearing in his pocket at the old Boon Inlet cemetery.  I had a brief impulse to reach for the medallion, but then a grim voice of warning sounded in the back of my mind.  If I took the medallion with me, would the paranormal shadow that had been chasing the stranger come after me?  I decided against touching the eerie bronze piece.

“Thank you ma’am, but that doesn’t belong to me.  Someone else must have left it lying there.”

For some reason, and I had a feeling I shouldn’t have looked back, I turned just as I was exiting the terminal building to get on the bus.  I did not see the kindly orange-haired lady knitting a sweater.  I did not see a bronze medallion.  On the bench where I had been sitting was a gory unspeakable abomination - cadaverous and evil - maliciously leering at me with burning blood-red eyes.

© Copyright 2019 Sean Terrence Best. All rights reserved.

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