Roxanne felt a sharp cramp in the side of her abdomen as she sprinted towards the denser forest area. Quickly glancing over her shoulder, the man who had attacked and brutally murdered her fiancé was still in hot pursuit. On the verge of exhaustion and her stalker gaining more and more ground on her, Roxanne knew that she was running out of time.
She thought of gutting it out and hoping for the best, but her failing lungs and fatigued muscles wouldn’t allow it. Plus, by her own frantic estimate, she was still a good three to five miles from her car, which might have well been parked on the other side of the planet, it was parked so far away. Her other options weren’t much better. Fighting was clearly out of the question, especially considering the lanky looking man easily took her 6’3” two-hundred plus fiancé, Seth, down with ease. And hiding seemed impossible since she was still in the man’s line of vision.
Out of desperation, Roxanne stopped contemplating her choices and acted on impulse. After making it to the tree line, Roxanne swiftly darted to the right and began zigzagging through the trees with hopes of losing her fiancé’s murderer. For a brief second, Roxanne noticed that her strategy was working, but it still only solved one of her problems. Although out of the man’s sight, her lungs were still burning and her cramping muscles wouldn’t allow her to continue running for much longer. Glancing at the trees that were zipping by her, Roxanne thought back to a conversation she had just had with her fiancé, Seth.
While walking down one of his favorite hiking trails in Nathanial Chase State Park, Seth turned to Roxanne and half-jokingly asked, “So, Ms. City Girl, what would you do if a grizzly bear popped out right now?”
Roxanne glared at him, abruptly stopped walking, and shouted, “You never said anything about there being bears in these woods. Had I known that, I most definitely would not have come. I can’t believe you, you’re such an…”
Roxanne paused and without even uttering another word, turned around and began walking away. Seth let out a confused laugh, flabbergasted that the innocent little question he posed had gone drastically bad. He chased after her.
Grabbing her shoulder, he calmly apologized, “Look, Roxy I was just being an ass. I’m not saying there aren’t bears in these woods, but there’s nothing to worry about. With all the people that that use these trails on a daily basis and the actual amount of reported sightings, you’d almost have better luck hitting the lottery than spotting a bear around here.”
Roxanne turned to face Seth and with a tear streaming down her flustered red face, she burst out laughing. Seth gazed at her with a puzzled expression on his face, finally asking, “Are you okay?”
Roxanne nodded, “I got you good, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, you got me pretty good. For a second I thought I freaked the hell out of you.”
“I know!” Roxanne responded giddily. “I can’t believe you would ask me such a stupid question. You know that my father took my brother and me hunting with him every year till I went away to college?”
“That’s right,” Seth replied with a hint of embarrassment in his voice. “I completely forgot because you’re so anti-hunting now.”
Roxanne then grabbed a hold of Seth’s hand and began dragging him down the trail. Although primarily a city-girl, as Seth had referred to her as, hiking in the woods stirred up pleasant memories from her childhood. She thought back to how much she enjoyed her time in the woods, that is, when her father or brother weren’t busy gunning down poor innocent deer and rabbits. She loved the trips, even if she despised all of the killing.
After walking for a few minutes, Roxanne turned to Seth and commented, “Oh, by the way I’d climb a tree, as long as I had the time, the tree’s branches appeared sturdy enough, and most importantly, I could get up to a safe distance. I mean, the last thing I would want would be to be swatted out of the tree like a piñata.”
Seth looked impressed. “Wow, good answer. I personally would crap my pants, but that’s me.”
Roxanne and Seth shared a laugh as they continued on down the five mile path.
That’s it, she thought to herself. I’ll climb a tree and pray he doesn’t see me in the process.
With little time to waste, Roxanne made another sharp turn and after running for about a minute, she spotted an ideal tree to climb. Not only was the tree blessed with a bountiful amount of leaves perfect to hide behind, the branches looked sturdy, and most importantly it was climbable.
Roxanne immediately darted for the tree and sprang up it like a gibbon fleeing from a tiger. In her frantic ascent up the tree, several thinner and less sturdy branches cracked as she made her way up. Nearly hyperventilating, Roxanne hoisted herself up to a thick branch about the width of a telephone pole and carefully got herself into a comfortable position. With her arms and legs wrapped snuggly around the branch, she stared intently between the patches of leaves, her eyes busy searching for the crazed man.
Only a mere few seconds later, and much to her relief, Roxanne saw the blood covered man sprint by the tree that served as her safe haven. With her lungs still fighting to catch her breath and her heart thumping painfully inside her chest, Roxanne hoped that the worst was over. Tears trickled down her face and dripped to the ground as she thought about the tragedy that had struck her beloved Seth.
Roxanne gazed deeply into Seth’s eyes, and without even uttering a word, they read each other’s minds. Seth smiled playfully and pulled her closer to him. Roxanne enjoyed feeling the warmth of his body on the cool spring day.
Seth rubbed her lower back as he confidently stated, “Hun, do you want to go off trail and find a secluded area to set our blanket down and relax?”
Roxanne excitedly nodded and the two broke off the trail to find a nice place to unwind. Thirty minutes later, about a mile-and-a-half from the nearest trail, Roxanne spotted the perfect place to stop and settle down. She looked at her watch and saw that it was nearly four in the afternoon, which meant they would have about an hour before they would need to embark on the hour-and-a-half trudge back to their car.
Roxanne couldn’t remember a happier moment than that one. She was with her beautiful fiancé, and was about to get intimate for the first time outdoors. It was an exhilarating feeling. As she began to undress she kept looking over her shoulder, paranoid that someone was out there watching.
Noticing her eyes wandering around the woods, bare-chested, Seth approached her and calmly said, “Hey, there’s no one out here but us. There’s nothing to worry about. You know we don’t have to do this. We can just–”
“Shut up and get getting naked!” Roxanne demanded, as she finished removing her shirt.
Seth let out a low bellowed laugh and then unexpectedly went silent. He put his finger up to his mouth and gestured for Roxanne to be quiet.
Like most people in a predicament such as hers, Roxanne was unable to resist the urge to ask what was going on, so she did just that. “What is it, Seth,” she whispered.
Seth shook his head. “I’m not sure, but I thought I heard what sounded like a stick breaking or something. We may have company after all. Hold on, let me check it out.”
Now a nervous wreck, Roxanne threw her shirt back on and watched as Seth carefully began walking off in the direction of the sound he had heard. Roxanne stood there frozen, afraid that their little conversation about bears had stirred up some bad karma. She thought of screaming to Seth for him to come back to her, but she knew he wouldn’t listen to her anyway. After all, he was in his protective mode.
So she did the next best thing, she cried, “Please hurry!”
With his back to her, Seth held up a hand to indicate to her that he understood and he continued on his way. Seth carefully scanned the area as he slowly moved forward. At the time, it had been the longest two minutes of her life.
Then out of nowhere, Seth erupted into laughter and yelled back to her, “There’s nothing to worry about sweetheart. It’s just some guy. I’ll take care of this.”
A sense of calm swept in after hearing that it was just some guy and not a ferocious four legged beast. She glanced at the blue blanket that was all neatly placed down on the ground and smiled. She couldn’t wait for the two of them to be alone again.
She refocused on Seth and listened as he shouted in the direction of the man, “Hey, Buddy, don’t mean any disrespect, but would you mind heading over in that direction,” Seth pointed off towards where they had come from. “You see, I’m here with my fiancé, and we were hoping to spend some quiet time with each other.”
Expecting to hear a response, Roxanne turned her head slightly to get a better listen, but no words were spoken back.
Seth cupped his mouth with his hands and shouted even louder, “Hey did you hear what I said? I’d appreciate if you…” Seth paused and shook his head.
Then without speaking another word, he raced back to a confused Roxanne.
She asked, “What’s going on?”
With a troubled expression on his face, Seth mumbled, “Something doesn’t look right about that guy. I’m not taking any chances. I think we should just leave.”
Roxanne could see the terror in his eyes, and even though she hadn’t seen the man herself, she trusted Seth’s instincts. She quickly picked up the blanket and shoved it into Seth’s backpack. She then tossed Seth his gray t-shirt and slung the backpack over her shoulder. While Seth was busy putting his shirt back on, Roxanne got her first glimpse of the man. Like Seth had mentioned, something didn’t look quite right about that man. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but he had the tell-tale signs that he was sprung out on drugs or something and was in need of a fix. Roxanne had heard stories of people being so addicted to drugs that they’d rob their own grandparents for money to buy more drugs.
Not wanting to find out if this man had similar intentions, Roxanne grabbed Seth’s hand and screamed, “Come on, let’s go!”
The second they started running, the stranger broke into a sprint as well. Holding his fiancé’s hand tightly, Seth led Roxanne through the woods without much regard for the terrain. Fortunately for Roxanne, an avid hiker and jogger, Seth was great at off-trailing. She on the other hand was not, and if it wasn’t for Seth’s strong grasp on her hand, she would have fallen flat on her face on at least two occasions.
Eventually after making it out of the denser forest and into a clearing, Seth let go of his love’s hand and stopped. Gasping for air, he instructed, “Just keep…on…going…this is… crazy…I’ll…take…care…of this.”
Seth then turned around to face the man who was steadily approaching him. Roxanne did not heed Seth’s advice. She took several steps backwards and watched in horror as the man plowed right into Seth. The two then began wrestling on the ground and within seconds, blood curdling screams could be heard coming from Seth.
Those screams echoed in her ears as she viewed the horrific events that proceeded to unfold. After getting to a mounted position, the much thinner and now blood-covered man savagely chomped down into Seth and bit off another large chunk of flesh from his neck. Seth attempted to struggle with his attacker, but after his carotid artery was sliced into, his resilience began failing him as did his consciousness.
Seconds away from death and blood spurting all over he and his attacker, who appeared to be consuming his flesh, Seth let out a near breathless, “RUN!”
Although devastated, Roxanne did just that. She threw the moderately heavy backpack aside and made a run for it.
Still sobbing quietly in the tree, Roxanne couldn’t get the image of Seth’s mangled body out of her head. Her thoughts turned to what type of monster could do such a thing to another human being, and the disturbing images of the man chewing on Seth’s flesh.
That’s crazy, she thought to herself. It was just your mind playing tricks on you, is all.
But was it, or did she really in fact see her fiancé’s murderer devouring his flesh. At that moment, whether or not he had feasted on Seth mattered little. He was dead and regardless if parts of him were eaten or not, there was no bringing him back. No, what mattered to Roxanne at that point, was getting out alive and making sure that the sicko would pay for his horrific crime.
Petrified of making any sudden movements, Roxanne decided to stay in the tree out of fear that the man was off hiding in the woods, waiting for her to make a mistake. Glancing back at her watch she saw that it was a four-thirty. She would have thought hours passed since she last looked at her watch. Regardless, she decided it was best to stay put, at least for the next several hours.
The minutes passed like decades and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stop thinking about everything that had transpired. Her salty tears were near depleted, and from the long hike through the woods and the subsequent sprint through the woods, her mouth was left parched. She cursed herself for throwing Seth’s backpack aside, which happened to contain their water bottles and cell phones.
My phone, she thought to herself. If only.
Depressed, Roxanne closed her eyes, hoping her mind could sweep her away to a faraway place. Drifting in and out of sleep over the next several hours, Roxanne finally became alert after noticing that two hours had passed. She listened intently to her surroundings and convinced herself after hearing nothing, that it was time to make her move. She carefully began descending down the tree and when she was half-way down, she noticed that in her panic to get up the tree she had broken all of the smaller branches on the way up.
It wasn’t a major issue. Roxanne could still get down with a short jump of about ten feet, shorter if she hung from the closest branch to the ground before hurling herself down. But what surprised Roxanne was how she got up there in the first place. Seeing the condition of those branches, Roxanne was dumbfounded. She was lucky to be alive.
After locking her hands around the closest surviving branch to the ground, Roxanne eased herself down until she was hanging with her feet hovering several feet from the ground. Then just as Roxanne was about to jump down to the ground and make a run for it, she heard the terrifying sound of footsteps steadily approaching her from behind. Panicked and unable to see what was coming for her, Roxanne knew she needed to ask fast. Horror-stricken, Roxanne swung her body back and forth, and after several unsuccessful tries, was finally able to catch the other end of the branch with her feet.
Hanging upside down like a pig on a rotisserie, Roxanne quickly learned that one more failure would have been the end of her. Glancing down, Roxanne saw her fiancé’s killer standing right below her. She let out a loud scream and tightened her grip on the branch. Realizing that she was in a vulnerable position, especially if the man attempted to jump up and grab at her, Roxanne painstakingly maneuvered herself so she was lying atop of the branch. Once there, Roxanne was not surprised at all to see that the man had been jumping up and down swatting at her the entire time.
Unable to contain herself, Roxanne lashed out, “Look you sick son of a bitch! Why don’t you just leave me alone?”
The man suddenly stopped jumping and stared up at her with his glossy pallid eyes. Gazing into his milky eyes, Roxanne couldn’t help but to think of her Aunt Francis, who before passing at the tender age of seventy-three, suffered from an extreme case of cataracts. Roxanne remembered how afraid she was of that woman and how she was convinced that she was a witch. The death of her Aunt Francis was not the end of her nightmare. Those eyes that looked strikingly similar to the man’s haunted her dreams for years.
Lost in her thoughts, Roxanne was in a trance-like state as she thought about her Aunt Francis. Then, just like the snap of someone’s fingers, or in this case one of the trees broken branches, Roxanne’s alertness came crashing back to her. She glanced over and saw that the man was attempting to climb up the tree using the branches she had damaged on the way up. She prayed to herself that the branches wouldn’t hold, as she jumped into action. Avoiding looking down, Roxanne got herself to a seated position, then a standing one, before ascending back up the tree.
Roxanne didn’t stop until she made it back to the thick sturdy branch that she had rested on previously. While lying in the exact same position, with her body sprawled across the branch, Roxanne glanced down. To her relief, she didn’t see the man scurrying up the tree after her. Instead, all she saw was a confused man staring at all the splintered masses that were jutting out of the side of the tree.
“Thank you, God!” Roxanne whispered to herself.
Although momentarily safe, Roxanne knew her nightmare was far from over. Like staring at a wild captive beast, with little fear of being harmed, Roxanne studied her fiancé’s murderer. Aside from his creepy eyes and his animalistic demeanor, for intensive purposes he looked normal. He stood anywhere from five-foot-ten to about six-feet tall, had short blond hair, spotted red in some areas from Seth’s blood, and appeared no older than twenty-five. His thin frame and pale skin had initially led Roxanne to believe he was some type of junky, but she was now second guessing herself.
She thought to herself, if he was a junky why didn’t he just try to take our money and leave. Heck, he ran right past the bag I threw down.
As she ruminated over that idea, she nervously watched as the man attempted to scale the side of the tree using nothing but his hands and feet. Roxanne flinched after witnessing the left side of the man’s face get torn open by one of the longer jagged splinters. Expecting a steady stream of blood, Roxanne was shocked to see that his blood just slowly oozed out of the deep gash wound. It was as if his veins were filled with a substance the consistency of Black Cherry Jell-O. In addition to the gelatinous quality, the man’s, or the things blood seemed much darker than ordinary blood and from the naked eye looked clumpy, as if it had spoiled.
Unable to stare at the disturbing image any longer, Roxanne turned away and buried her face in the unpleasantness that was the branch’s barky surface. She didn’t mind though, the slightly stinging sensation reminded herself that she was alive, and that was a good thing. Roxanne closed her eyes and attempted to tune everything out, but the second everything went dark, she saw those eyes staring into her soul.
Roxanne let out another scream, this time directed at anyone but the man below, “SOMEBODY PLEASE HELP ME! HELP! HELP! HELLLLP, ME!”
Her plea drew no response and considering the time, she was not surprised. It was going to get dark soon and aside from the parks closing at 8:00pm, people seldomly ventured out that far that late in the evening. Regardless, it was her only hope, so she continued on screaming until her voice was so hoarse, she could barely utter another syllable.
With her throat on fire, Roxanne glanced back at the man, and gruffly said, “What do you want from me?”
As expected, the man said not a word to her. He just jumped up and down and once again attempted to scale the tree. Had Roxanne been under a different predicament, the scene would have seemed almost comical. But, considering that wasn’t the case, there was nothing funny about her current situation. As much as she didn’t want to believe it, Roxanne was trapped and there wasn’t a thing she could do about it. Her only option was to wait and hope for a miracle.
Feeling relatively secure for the time being, Roxanne decided if she was going to be there for an indeterminate amount of time, she would need to rest. So, after locking her arms and legs around her improvised bed, she did just that. Mentally and emotionally drained, Roxanne drifted off to sleep listening to the sound of the man’s feet thumping loudly below her.
When Roxanne’s eyes fluttered open, she saw that it was nighttime. Still groggy from sleep and with her head now pounding, Roxanne momentarily forgot where she was. Then after hearing strangely familiar sounds coming from below, Roxanne recalled all of the traumatic events that had transpired.
She was about to let another scream for help, but her dry mouth and swollen throat wouldn’t allow it. Putting two and two together, Roxanne realized that she was starting to exhibit the early warning signs of dehydration. Although not an expert on the subject, Roxanne knew the basics and most importantly, the inevitable outcome if left untreated. Not wanting to succumb to death, Roxanne prayed for it to rain.
Several hours later, the night was as dry as the blood that caked the man’s face and clothing. In the faint moonlight, Roxanne could only see the blurred dark image of the man pacing back and forth below her. Even though he had stopped all efforts to ascend up the tree, Roxanne knew he was just waiting for her to make a slip-up, literally and figuratively.
Roxanne didn’t sleep a wink the rest of the night out of fear of doing just that. The last thing she wanted to do, was drift into deep sleep, lose her balance, and fall to a painful death that awaited her. If that ended up coming into fruition, her only hope would be that the fall itself would do the job and that she wouldn’t undergo the torture that Seth had endured.
The next morning, from a seated position Roxanne glanced down at the man who was still busy pacing back and forth. No matter what direction he moved, his pearly eyes were always fixated on her. Having viewed some nature shows in the past, Roxanne knew the exact look she saw in his eyes. He had the gaze of a predator waiting for the perfect opportunity to pounce on its unsuspecting victim. The only real difference in her case was that in nature the predatory animal will eventually tire and move on in search of easier prey. That was not the case with that man. He appeared as if he was in for the long haul. Any hope of him leaving on his own accord had long vanished, and she was left praying for a miracle in the form of hikers.
With the start of a new day, optimism began to grow inside of her. She convinced herself that someone would come by and rescue her, or at least get help from the local authorities to do just that. It would only be a matter of time.
Hours passed and as Roxanne continued to stare at the man, she began to think the unthinkable. What if this guy has rabies or something? That could explain everything, right? Roxanne shook her head. No, if he had rabies he’d most assuredly be foaming at the lips, and that wouldn’t explain the clumpy gelatinous blood that oozed out of his deep facial laceration. Roxanne didn’t want to admit it to herself, especially since it went against everything that she believed in, but a single word crept into her mind: zombie.
“It can’t be,” she whispered to herself. “Could it?”
Whether or not that turned out to be the case mattered little at that point. Sure all signs pointed to yes: the vicious attack on Seth, the man’s pallid white eyes, the lack of emotion, and the dark congealed blood. But were any of those descriptors based on reality, or where they merely folklore. Roxanne didn’t care one bit if it was true or not. Since the moment she fled from the man, the zombie, or whatever he was, the only thing she cared about was her own self-preservation.
More hours passed and her condition deteriorated. Her headache worsened, and now in addition to her inflamed throat, Roxanne’s tongue began to swell. Roxanne also began to experience cramping in her legs and felt as if all of her energy had been sucked right out of her body. Fearing that she could pass out at any moment, Roxanne tightened her grip around the branch and bit the tip of her dry engorged tongue every time she felt as if she was losing consciousness.
When the sun faded away for the second time since she climbed the tree, Roxanne was too lethargic to move. Roxanne’s tightly wound hands and feet felt numb to her, which by all accounts was a godsend. It was as if her arms and legs had died and had become frozen in that position. Roxanne didn’t mind one bit. In fact, for her it was one less thing she had to worry about. Her real problem stemmed around her inability to maintain her awareness and the war she was battling with fatigue.
Unlike on the previous two occasions when she had drifted off into sleep, Roxanne knew that if it happened again, it could spell disaster. Terrified that her body was failing her and that if her eyes shut one more time they’d never reopen, Roxanne mustered up what was left of her energy to keep on fighting.
By three in the morning, pessimism invaded her mind-set and took over. It whispered into her ear, “You are going to die. You have no control over that. What you do have control over ishow.”
Roxanne didn’t want to think about it, and she had done a good job of avoiding the topic, but the time had come. She had to make a choice. To her it was like choosing between two similarly bad outcomes: death by dehydration or death by cannibalism. Both were equally devastating. But in her mind if she died up in that tree and was found before nature did its thing, she could still have an open casket for her family. And with that, it was decided. She’d rather rot up in that tree than be devoured by the monster below.
There was a catch, though. If she was going to prolong the inevitable, she would need some rest. Roxanne started chanting to herself as her eyes forced themselves shut, “My arms and legs will hold. My arms and legs will hold. My arms and legs will hold. My arms and legs…”
Her arms and legs did hold, initially, but the weight of her body that slumped to the side was too much for her energy depleted arms and feet to handle. She began to fall and in her dreamlike state, she believed that she was falling into her father’s arms, as she had done so many times as a child. But she didn’t land gracefully into her father’s loving arms, as she had expected. Instead, she landed painfully into the unforgiving ground and the travesty that would ensue.
The man, the zombie, or whatever he was showed no remorse. He gorged into her and began feasting upon her body. He paid no attention to her screams, muffled by her dying body and swelled esophagus, tearing chunks of flesh from her and gulping them down with a ferocity of a hungry lion. After having his fill and satiating his indescribable hunger, the man, the zombie, the thing, stood up and moved on…