The Burn (Part 2)

Burn-5

I am not going to lie, I’m extremely happy with this shot. Burned Ponderosas with the silhouette of North Sister in the background.

This is the second part of a thing I wrote, which turned out to be the beginning of a much larger thing I didn’t know was going to be a thing when I started. The thing. Uh, anyway, this particular story ends rather abruptly, but I think it still works as a stand alone deal. Also probably read part one first.

2.

Despite waking up about forty times throughout the night – the wilderness is noisier and less comfortable than you might think – Renny awoke feeling mildly better. Hollow, fuzzy, but it was an improvement. The adventure of making coffee in the woods allowed him to delay thinking about the inevitable. The sun was just creeping up over the eastern desert, rosy-fingered dawn and all that. Renny sighed, which became manifest in the crisp air about him. Might as well pack up and head back. This was a waste of time, did nothing but focus on his failure. It marked the first time he’d ever come up here and felt worse for it. The rage and despair from the previous afternoon was gone, at least. Empty now. He said the name out loud.

“Skylar.”

The word tumbled out of his mouth, fell to the frosty ground, dead. The mountains didn’t even bother to echo back to him. Was this it? Was this turning the corner, where even her name feels like nothing? Because if so, breaking through sucks about the same as feeling relentlessly awful. Fuck it, fuck all this, fuck this tent, fuck this tree, fuck you North Sister, Middle Sister, South Sister. Fuck all y’all. Renny out. He stood defiantly and popped both middle fingers, taking in the entire landscape. That’ll show ‘em. He chuckled to himself, but his mirth was empty too. With that he hastily crammed his equipment into his backpack. It was a long trip back, but he’d be home by early afternoon if he left now. More than enough time to drown his emptiness with video games and copious amounts of beer before work tomorrow.

Renny left his campsite looking better than he found it because leave no trace, motherfuckers. By the time he started winding his way back down the user trail to the main trail, the sun had risen pale and yellow in the morning sky. Below him, the forest faded to desert in the distance, but he was once again struck by the massive size of the burned area, the bare silver forest sweeping down the mountainside out of sight around the folds of the landscape. As he descended, his mind remained leaden and dull. At least the constant clamor and endlessly repetitive thoughts of the last few weeks were gone and he could focus on not twisting an ankle as he navigated the downslope. Eventually he reached the point where the user trail met the actual trail, alongside the rumbling stream, which at this point in the day was more muted than it would be later when it warmed up. Renny dropped his pack on the ground and drank from his water bottle.

As he stood regarding the mountain stream, trying to convince himself that he was feeling better and failing, he was distracted by movement in some bushes on the near bank. Renny remained still, hoping to get a glimpse of a creature. He couldn’t remember if river otters ventured this high up, but a marmot wasn’t out the question. There was more rustling, and then a sodden, filthy golden retriever erupted out of cover and raced directly at Renny, with a look of determined idiocy on his face. Renny laughed, and tried to remember the dog’s name. Oh yeah, right.

“Hey Biscuit!” he said, holding his arms out so as avoid being knocked backwards by the frantic golden dummy. Renny’s smile wavered, however, when Biscuit got closer. When he had met this particular goofball yesterday, the dog was healthy and clean. Not so now, because not only was this overly-excited dog soaking wet, it was also a bit of a mess. Biscuit was beside himself at meeting Renny though, yapping and trying his best to jump onto him.

“Hey buddy, where are your people at? Huh?” He looked to the far side of the stream, expecting to see a couple of REI yuppies making their way to the trail crossing. Nobody was there. Biscuit barked again, and Renny took a closer look him. His fur, which only yesterday had been healthy and clean, was clotted with mud and covered in burs. There were several shallow cuts here and there, and it looked like the poor thing had been sleeping rough for a week. The dog’s feet were a cut-up mess, and there was dried blood around his jowls. Seems he was able to eat something, at least. Still, this had to be a different dog. There’s no way the healthy pup he had met yesterday would end up like this overnight. Renny backed away from the dog, who started sniffing at his backpack a few feet away.

“Biscuit! Come!” he shouted after quietly backing about ten feet away. There was no hesitation as the dog’s head snapped up, found Renny, and bounded over. Okay, well, this makes no sense. Renny felt his heartbeat speed up, because this wasn’t right. Wasn’t right at all. “Biscuit, buddy, where are your people at?” The dog barked again, but otherwise just seemed happy to see a human. Renny absently scratched his head, but made his way back to the bank. “HELLO?” he shouted. “YO, I’VE GOT YOUR DOG OVER HERE!” Nothing save a few startled birds answered back. Hmm. This presents a problem.

Renny began to pace while he puzzled out his situation. Okay. Okay. Okay, something must have happened. Either something happened to the yuppie couple, or the dog ran away on his own. Goldens aren’t exactly dog geniuses, so he probably chased a squirrel until he got lost. If I can keep an eye on this ding-dong, I can bring him back to the trailhead where his owners are probably beside themselves with worry. Maybe in the future they’ll realize that letting your idiot dog run free in the wilderness isn’t a great idea and keep his ass on a leash from now on. Probably not, but you never know. Feeling a little better about a course of action, he called to Biscuit again, who was as attentive as ever. Renny patted his head before rummaging around in his pack and extracting a granola bar. Better than nothing. He unwrapped it and tossed it to the dog, who may or may not have bothered chewing. Okay, let’s see how well behaved this dummy actually is.

Turns out, the dummy was quite well behaved. Biscuit trotted along at Renny’s heel without hesitation, and didn’t seem to be distracted by the various critters and birds in the underbrush. Renny had never owned a dog, owing almost entirely to the fact that the places he’d lived did not allow them, and didn’t know whether or not this was normal behavior for a golden retriever. What he did know was that Biscuit’s behavior shot some holes in his theory about what happened to the dog’s owners. Were they going to be at the trailhead, fretting and anxious? Were they behind him, still at their camp hoping that Biscuit was going to return? Renny briefly considered turning around and making his way up to Camp Lake, where he was pretty sure the REI warriors were headed yesterday. He dismissed this idea, however, considering he had already walked a mile closer to the trailhead, and who knew how long it would take to hike up to the lake. He’d hang out at the trailhead as long as necessary. Oh, wait! Renny glanced down at the dog, who looked up with a doggy grin. Damn. No collar. He could have sworn that Biscuit had been wearing a collar yesterday, right, right, go Dawgs. Hmm.

Whatever, if the owners weren’t at the trailhead, there were a hundred different ways to reunite this goober with his people. Best get back and get him safe before worrying about it. Meanwhile, the day had warmed up a bit and the sun had risen higher and the forest was coming back to life. The clean scent of sun-warmed pine was prevalent, and it’s nearly impossible to feel bad when that happens. The last hour or so had also cleared Renny’s mind out considerably. Unlike the day before, he had more to think about than regret. Like maybe it was time to get a dog. Some goofy pup he could talk to while he took his aimless evening walks around the neighborhood. Renny thought about dogs while the forest chittered and tweeted around him. He didn’t notice the vibrant, healthy trees slowly giving way to sadder, dun-colored pines or the dew-damp dirt track giving way to softer ash. Didn’t notice Biscuit’s cheerful trot slowing to a measured, cautious walk.

Renny had outpaced the suddenly wary retriever by about twenty feet before he realized his new buddy wasn’t keeping pace. He stopped and look behind him, realized that he was standing in the transition zone once again, and that Biscuit was sitting and staring directly at him, whimpering. Unburnt but dead pine trees outnumbered the healthy trees, and it was clear that in another turn of the trial he’d be back in the burn. A few lazy bugs buzzed around, the nice thing about October was that swarms of mountain bugs were almost entirely gone, but Renny wasn’t really thinking about any of this. His previously cheerful companion was in distress, despite the obvious lack of any threat. He walked back to where Biscuit was sitting in the middle of the ashy trial.

“What’s wrong, buddy? Worried about your people?” Biscuit gave a little whine, but you know, he doesn’t speak English. Renny squatted down so he was at eye level, and took the dog’s head in his hand, scratching behind his dirty ears. “Come on, Biscuit, there’s no bears or anything, we’ll be all right. When we get back to the trailhead your people will be there, right? Happily ever after. But we have to keep going.” It didn’t occur to Renny to feel dumb talking to the dog, and after a minute or so it seemed to help Biscuit make up his mind. With a much less enthusiastic bark, he began to walk down the trail which would eventually take them back. Biscuit turned to look at Renny over his shoulder, like come on dipshit, let’s get this over with then. Renny obliged.

After about a half an hour in the burn, the hike had become a grim trudge once again. It only took a few turns in the trail to effectively hide the healthy forest from them, and Renny quickly found himself surrounded by the ghostly silver forest. Biscuit walked alongside him once again, but the doggy grin was long gone, his grey tongue lolling listlessly, and if a golden retriever could look determined, this one totally did. The birds had stayed behind in the living forest and there was no wind to speak of. The further they slogged into the burn, the worse Renny felt. What if he made the wrong decision? What if the REI yuppies were hurt? What if someone else was up there, someone not interested in mountains and streams… oh shit, oh no. Renny stopped so suddenly that Biscuit ran into him. He didn’t notice. He just remembered his missing phone, and the shadowy figure he had seen from his perch near the glacier. A very real chill swept through him, and he jerked his head left and right, as if he expected to be attacked at any moment.

Renny stood utterly still in the middle of the ashy trail, but he could see quite a way into the burned, silver forest. Nothing. There was no sound, not even a passing airliner. His mind raced, making connections, concocting scenarios. The dew-covered car at the trailhead yesterday, evidence of another hiker in the wilderness, dispersed to who-knows-where. The shadowy figure and the missing phone. There wasn’t much in the way of reception up here, but once back at the trailhead there might be. He couldn’t remember, when he went into the woods he downloaded music so he didn’t have to worry about streaming. Who’s to say that this dude didn’t rob and/or murder the yuppie couple and then steal his phone to keep him from reporting anything weird? That’s a reach. None of this makes any sense, but now that the idea of someone out here up to no good wouldn’t leave his mind. He dropped his pack in order to rummage a bit, before extracting what he was looking for. It was a large red and white canister with a nozzle, not unlike a miniature fire extinguisher in a polyester holster. Renny took a moment to affix the holster to his belt and felt a little better. The canister contained bear spray, which is a super-potent pepper spray which shoots a jet of pure capsaicin to a distance of like 50 feet. It’s impressive. Renny figured it would work on a human just fine.

Once his pack was settled somewhat comfortably on his shoulders, Renny increased his pace back down the trail. Biscuit grimly trotted alongside. Renny cleared his mind as best he could, pushing himself forward faster than he had any business going. If he hadn’t been wearing an overnight backpack, he would have considered jogging, ignoring his usual disdain for trail runners. He’d be safe at the trailhead, and if Biscuit’s owners were not there he could leave a note on the signboard and drive down to Sisters. It would probably make sense to contact the Sherriff at that point. Meanwhile, focus on getting through this burn, which honestly just goes on forever. He was all ash from the knees down as his increased pace puffed more dust up into the air. Biscuit had a nice grey coating over her tangled, muddy fur. At least it wasn’t hot. Renny pushed on.

It took Renny another hour before he realized that something was wrong. He had been moving quickly, he had the sweat to prove it, but nothing had changed. Silver snags on either side of him, the occasional view of the mountains, the desert in the distance, the omnipresent ash. Renny stopped again, this time to drink some water. He took a moment to dig a dish out of his bag so that Biscuit could also have a drink. If he wasn’t so close to the trailhead, he’d worry about running out. Still. He looked up at the sky while Biscuit duly slurped water. The bright autumn blue of the morning had faded to a weird pale grey. This sometimes happened when clouds came in from the west and left their bulk on the ocean side of the mountains, leaving a thin layer to make its way east over the desert. The quiet was oppressive. Renny was rearranging his pack when it struck him what was wrong. He’d been in the burn for at least two hours at this point, he long since should have come across the creek he had crossed on the way in. It was the one landmark that stood out, because life lingered on its banks. So far, there was no sign of it. Renny took a deep breath. Sometimes on long hikes the way back feels about three times as long as the way in. And without his phone he had no way to actually measure the time. He kept moving.

Another hour. What felt like another hour, anyway, it was impossible to know. The trail kept going. It didn’t seem to change. It meandered through the burn, following the contours of the land, up and down – mostly down, at least – and around various hills and dips. The air was still and silent and the grey become more oppressive. The bleary sun didn’t appear to be moving, but for all his experience Renny wasn’t a ranger and couldn’t tell for sure. The moments of stark fear he had felt earlier had dissipated and settled into a constant background anxiety. Biscuit remained quiet and grim. He clearly didn’t want to be here but was resigned to his fate. Where human goes, so too goes dog. Another hour. Grey and still. Snags and ash. Renny had slowed to a trudge, fatigue setting in. Another hour? His thoughts slid around his brain with nothing to latch onto. Mountains and shadows. Girl? One good pupper and ash and ash and ash.

“YARK!”

Renny jumped, actually jumped, and whipped his head around. He had nearly forgotten he had a canine companion. Biscuit looked up at him and barked again before taking off down the trail, a plume of ashy dust behind him. The fuck? He stumbled forward, realized he’d been slogging along this trail in a complete daze, and then moved into a trot. “Biscuit!” he yelled, “hold up you dingus!” Hearing his name, the bedraggled golden actually stopped, looked back and barked again, tail wagging like crazy. “Yeah, I’m coming, dang.”

It didn’t take long to figure out why Biscuit was so excited. It was the sound of a tumbling mountain creek, it was something different. Within moments Renny noticed the first living trees he’d seen since the burn began. And then grass. And water. Renny let out a feeble whoop and stumbled toward the stream. Biscuit was well ahead of him, clearly in better spirits as he ran in two clean circles yipping before jumping into the creek with a splash. Renny sat on the damp bank of the creek, not caring about getting his butt wet, and unshouldered his pack. Finally. If he remembered correctly, the creek was maybe a mile or so from the trailhead. Obviously the tedium of the burn had fried his sense of time and distance, but he was almost back. Back to the Subaru, back to towns and people and sweet sweet concrete. Renny leaned back onto his pack while Biscuit romped around in the stream, and looked up to the sky. It was still greyer than it should be, but a small patch of blue was directly overhead, bisected by a single white contrail. He may have dozed off again, but it was hard to tell.

Eventually, Renny dragged himself up. Considering his proximity to the trailhead, he had no business feeling this kind of relief, but the slog through the burn took more out of him than he would have believed. He dug out his water filter. May as well fill the bottle just in case. Just in case what? Well, just in case it’s more than a mile back to the car, maybe. The bottle was about halfway filled before Renny realized that aside from the burbling of the stream, it was totally quiet. He looked up to see Biscuit standing completely still in the middle of the water, staring intently between his front paws. No, Renny was mistaken, Biscuit wasn’t being totally silent. He was growling.

A tingly sense of apprehension settled over him as Renny stood up to walk over to the dog. Biscuit ignored him. He took a few short steps, but was still unable to see just what the hell had the otherwise pleasant dog so perturbed. There was a glint in the water, but that was probably just the sun reflecting off the rippling surface. He was nearly on top of Biscuit before he realized what he was looking at, and the brief respite from his dull anxiety was wiped completely away in a cold shudder. Biscuit looked up at Renny, who was frozen in place, and barked once, sharply. Renny started, glanced at the dog with huge eyes, and then slowly reached down between Biscuit’s paws and picked up his phone.

It was on. That made no sense, considering, but Renny didn’t think about it. Couldn’t think about it, or anything, because Skylar was looking right at him. Of the dozens of pictures of her he had stored on his phone, pictures he’d spent sad, drunk hours poring over, he didn’t recognize this one. But that was Skylar. Her listless brown hair was shorter than he had ever seen it, and it had blonde highlights. That was new. Her grey eyes were bright and alive, but worried. Questions started to bubble up through his shock, but none of them quite surfaced through the sheer, desperate longing that surged through him. How long he was standing ankle deep in the cold mountain stream he didn’t know, but eventually Renny realized he was crying, hot tears dropping on the screen, blurring her image.

“Oh, Sky, I fucked up,” he whimpered. He walked to the far side of the stream, bumping into Biscuit, who Renny had entirely forgotten. Once out of the stream, he sat heavily on a clump of grass, and continued staring at the screen. The picture was closely cropped to her face, so there was no telling where it was taken. His grief throbbed in his chest, but those questions were close to breaking through now. He recognized the expression on Skylar’s face as the anxious look she had worn at times during grad school before presentations or giving talks at conferences. It erased his memory of the frustrated rage he last remembered seeing on her face. Then her eyes moved, and he yelped and dropped the phone.

“Skylar, what the fuck is happening?” he asked, a spike of terror slashing through his grief. Her soft grey eyes were alarmed now, he could clearly see love and concern in them, but she was trying to speak now. He could hear her voice, but only from memory. Her lips, narrow and unadorned but oh how he missed them, were moving, she was speaking. Something, couldn’t tell what. “I can’t hear! Sky, I can’t understand.” Her face didn’t change, just kept mouthing words. Biscuit barked again. Renny looked up by reflex, and then back down to the phone. It was dark. She was gone.

Burn-3

Broken Top on the right, burned forest on the left. Taken from near the timberline around where Renny made camp. I didn’t think to take shots of the sad little creek.

Biscuit barked again, closer this time, and Renny felt an immediate surge of irrational rage toward the dog. He snatched up the phone and stood suddenly, with the vague intention of kicking that loudmouth, interfering, filthy fucking mutt, but as he gained his feet his head swam, nearly sending him back to the ground. He shook his head to clear it, and Biscuit barked again, excited at something. He looked up and felt a brief wash of shame at his previous thought. Biscuit’s tail was going bonkers, and he barked again, looking down the trial like let’s get going already. Renny looked back down at the phone in his hand. The screen had a thick, vertical crack all the way down, black splotches of ruined LCD on either side. Water leaked through the two physical buttons on its side. It was clearly ruined, and had been for quite a while. His memory of Skylar’s picture trying to speak to him was clear, he could see it in his mind’s eye easily. The new haircut. Her anxious expression. Her lips moving, but no good. She could be saying anything. Biscuit barked again, and was close enough now that his tail was rhythmically thumping Renny’s leg.

“Okay, buddy, I get it. We’re almost there. None of this is weird, we’re cool bros just out for a hike. Isn’t that right?” Biscuit didn’t answer and leapt forward down the trail. Renny lifted the pack onto his shoulders once again, taking a last moment alongside the stream to look around. The blue patch in the sky was gone, and all was grey and still again. The stream seemed more muted, the colors of the living plants washed out. Renny absently put the broken phone in his back pocket, and followed the now-excited dog down the trail.

Renny had expected another indeterminate period of trudging through the burned forest. His memory of the hike in, which at this point may as well have happened years ago, was that the creek was about halfway through the burn. The grey emptiness remained constant, but instead of zoning out for what felt like hours, the trial led sharply downhill, and well before Renny figured to see any change in the landscape he could see a meadow not too far in the distance. As far as he could remember, there had been no meadow, so the empty space could only be the trailhead parking lot. He expected to feel a rush of relief, but a slow, creeping dread was settling over him. This was all wrong, all wrong.

Biscuit, at least, had perked up considerably, and was about ten feet in front of him. He had stopped barking, but was constantly looking over his shoulder at Renny, like hurry up, human, I don’t see what’s so difficult about this. The washed-out greyness of the light seemed to dim as he approached the parking lot, which had appeared much faster than it had any right to, the creek was maybe ten minutes behind him, but time and distance didn’t seem to mean much anymore. One detail was stuck in his mind, cutting through the dread and the lingering shock of seeing Skylar, that worried him as the trail wound behind a hill hiding the parking area. From up here, there didn’t seem to be any cars in the lot. Biscuit barked again, now standing next to a massive, burnt Ponderosa, its dead black branches reaching over the trail and not looking particularly welcoming. He caught up with the dog, examined the tree, which up close resembled a black, scaly mass of tentacles erupting out of the ground. The trail continued around a corner, but Renny could see the Forest Service signboard marking the edge of the parking area. His Outback was nowhere to be seen.

He stood in front of the signboard, not really looking at it, nothing on there could be of any importance. Biscuit sat at his feet, occasionally looking up the trail from where they had just come. Renny was no stranger to hiking in the wilderness, and one of his more irrational fears was coming back to a car that didn’t work. Sometimes he worried about losing his keys on the trail, ugh, the thought of finishing a ten-mile hike only to have to retrace his steps was a nightmare. Sometimes the fear was returning to the trailhead to a dead battery and no other hikers in the area. Once, up near Mt. Hood, he had returned from lengthy hike up to Vista Ridge to find a semi-desperate young woman who had been hiking solo and was now in the middle of nowhere with a car that wouldn’t start. Lucky for her Renny wasn’t a creep and gave her a lift back to the highway, but he always worried something like that would happen to him, except nobody would be there and he’d get to spend the night in his dead car. Those anxieties seemed quaint to whatever the fuck was happening to him now.

After a panicky minute of not really looking at the signboard, Renny took a deep, ragged breath and surveyed the parking lot. No cars, that was the most important detail, but also this was not the parking lot he remembered. He slowly walked over to where the pit toilet stood on the north side of the lot. The brown paint was washed out and peeling, the handrail leading up the accessibility path was warped, rusted, and listing. He reached out for the knob and pulled, but the door seemed stuck. Renny grabbed the knob with both hands and yanked the door open, but the horrorshow he almost expected to see inside wasn’t there. Sure, there were a bunch of cobwebs and desiccated bugs, but it was clear the facility hadn’t been used in some time. Renny backed away, confused, terrified, weirdly curious. This last bit had been simmering under the surface of the more primitive emotions since he had approached the parking area and realized all was not as it seemed.

Renny and Biscuit walked in a circuit around the parking area after examining the only building in the area. Nothing but the dead, silver and black forest of spires and snags surrounded them. That was wrong, Renny knew, because the trailhead area never burned. It was a transition area for sure, and to the northeast should have been normal forest. Now the entire area was just a blank space in the midst of endless grey. He looked up at the sky, which if anything was growing dimmer, despite the fact that the pale sun hadn’t moved a bit since he had reentered the burn about a million years ago. Renny, no stranger to science fiction, wondered if he had walked into some kind of distortion of time/space, and thought if the situation wasn’t terrifying, it might actually be kind of cool. Renny had come back to the signboard, but actually looked at it this time. The map of the area was still there, but weathered, same as the various other warnings and the polite sign asking visitors to please for the love of all things holy pack it out for fuck’s sake. Then, posted on the corner of the signboard, something he had missed. Just a piece of paper encased in a homemade laminate that had cracked and warped in the weather. Just a picture of a golden retriever and the offer of a reward, dated three days from now.

“Well,” he said, and then sat heavily on fallen log which served for a parking lot border. Biscuit trotted over, regarded him briefly, and sat also, laying his head in Renny’s lap. Renny looked down and smiled, “looks like I’m gonna be $500 richer when we get back, huh?” Biscuit did not dignify this with a response. Renny had momentarily run out of thoughts. Eventually he would have to stand up, do something, anything. Come up with theories, test them, try not to die. But now he would scratch this dog’s ears. It didn’t really help. Despair hung on him like a wet coat. Images floated around, mostly of Skylar. Anxious? Afraid? Was her appearance some kind of communication? Ah crap, is this the afterlife? Because if so it sucks all the way out loud. Nah, he liked the space/time bubble better. At least that provided some kind of hope of escape. Renny stood abruptly.

“Okay, buddy, enough of this maudlin bullshit.” Biscuit didn’t seem to know what ‘maudlin’ meant, but Renny’s intention was clear enough and that spurred Biscuit to action. The dog trotted over to what used to be the Forest Service road back to Sisters. “Good idea as any,” Renny said. His words sounded flat and affectless, barely his voice. As he approached the beginning of the road, the anxious dread that had followed him down the trail returned in force, and he stopped. The light kept getting dimmer. Biscuit whined, and continued down the road. Renny followed, and forced himself not to run.

The road was potholed and flanked by grey, burned forest, in far worse shape than it had been when Renny had driven up here bumping Eazy-E. Then it had been gravel, sure, but well-graded and clear. At this point you’d need a proper four-wheel drive to make it this far, huge ruts scarred the surface of the road. He tried to remember how far back it was back to town, and figured it was probably a good fourteen or fifteen miles, much further than he’d be able to walk today. He had no real desire to camp out in this creepy, dim purgatory, but in a little while he wouldn’t have much of a choice. At least he had been able to fill his water bottle. Renny forced the surreal surroundings from his mind while he plotted out how dinner was going to happen later, which worked fairly well until Biscuit started barking again.

Pulled from his reverie, he looked to where Biscuit had run off, a few yards down the road and off to one side. Biscuit was doing the yapping in circles thing, then ran a little bit up a clear trail leading away from the road before returning to bark at Renny again. Yeah, okay, I get it. None of this makes sense, might as well go with it. Renny walked over the where the dog was now sitting impatiently on the trail. He looked back up the road from where they had come, just to try and designate a landmark, but what he saw wasn’t a landmark. It was a person. Panic emerged from cold dread, oh no, no I don’t want that, because that is not a person, I don’t know what that is but I hate it, hate it, hate it and it wants me, I’m sure of it. Nope, fuck this, let’s go, go, go. The figure didn’t move, but Renny did. Off down the trail with Biscuit bringing up the rear, and dread followed.

The sky darkened as they stumbled down the trail. Any idle thoughts were pushed from his head and was filled by foreboding, a sense of grim inevitability, of being leisurely pursued by some unspeakable terror. Threat and menace seemed to pulse just off-trail, somewhere close by in the dark, skeletal burnt forest. Renny tried to hurry, tried not to panic, tried to find reassurance in his companion and failed. The figure was following him, this wasn’t a guess. What would it do if, ha, don’t be naïve, when it caught him? Death? Worse? Shit, if only he had learned to do a proper Patronus spell maybe he wouldn’t be so terrified. His backpack weighed on him but he didn’t take it off. Not because he was thinking ahead to when he might need it, but because stopping to remove it was unthinkable. I’m not stopping for nothing, if that thing wants me it gets me on the run. Renny leaned into a hill, feet pushing desperately into the soft ashy ground, he needed speed but he bogged down. Closer now, the sky was almost black, only the silver spikes alongside the trail were visible, he pushed ahead.

Biscuit barked, once, loudly, and then he streaked ahead on the trail, leaving Renny to struggle up the last of the hill alone. I don’t blame you buddy, best get while the gettin is good, no need to stay here for whatever happens next. One last surge of effort pushed him to the top of the hill, and he stopped in spite of himself. The world was gone outside of the hilltop, darkness had consumed the burned forest, only a house remained. A house? It was not a spectacular building by any means, it was just… a house. Two stories, maybe four bedrooms. Fairly modern, even though he didn’t know a damn thing about architecture. It was clearly empty, but didn’t have an abandoned vibe to it. A haunted house this was not, and he wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pickup truck out front or a kid toddling around on the porch. Instead, Biscuit sat on the porch, to one side of the front door, looking at Renny like hurry your ass up, human.

No need to invite me twice, buddy. Renny ran forward, across the ashen yard and up the wooden steps next to the dog. Here’s the part where the door is locked, of course. He looked behind him and froze, his entire body contracting into itself. Biscuit growled low in his throat, as menacing as no golden retriever has ever sounded. The figure stood across the yard, indeterminate shadow, radiating menace and darkness, at once incorporeal terror and solid threat. Renny grasped the doorknob, and it turned smoothly in his hand. Warm, sixty-watt light spilled out onto the porch. Biscuit stood up, bristling, but looked at Renny, like directly at Renny, and thwacked him once, twice, three times with his tail. He barked, and streaked directly at the shadowy figure.

“Biscuit, no!” Panic now, but not quite irrational enough to follow, only enough to remain frozen in place, stuck on the porch in the warm, normal glow of household light, watching the only friend he’d made in the last five years throw himself in a glorious, golden streak toward the manifest shadow of amorphous dread. He disappeared into the darkness, and then the shadow was gone as well. But it would be back, he could feel the certainty in his core. “You dummy, why?”

To give him time, of course, so Renny gazed into the darkness a second longer before opening the door and stepping inside. Isn’t wasn’t warmer than outside, not really, the forest had been a tepid sixty degrees since he had stepped back into the burn, whenever that was. Still, the light alone was a welcome change, even if the house was completely empty. No furniture, no décor, just empty walls and open hardwood floors. And the light, of course, which came from naked bulbs fastened to the ceiling of the foyer/living room he found himself in. Once he had crossed the threshold of the house, he had calmed instantly. It was weird sensation, like he had been injected with something which slowed his heartrate and banished the oppressive dread that had been gripping him moments before. Renny stood in the empty room, and all he could feel was sadness for the loss of his furry yellow friend.

Actually, no, too easy. The encroaching terror was still there, just deeper down, further away. He had teared up over Biscuit’s brave apparent sacrifice, but was now conflicted. Should he leave the door open in case the dog came back? Or would that make it easier for the shadow figure to enter? Renny didn’t think things like doors and walls would delay the figure much, and something in his heart told him that Biscuit was gone for good. What the hell was the point, then? He took a deep breath, and tried to remember how to think.

There were two ways to go, up a flight of stairs, or down a hallway towards the back of the house. Might as well check out the ground floor first. He had no idea what he was looking for, but a slight subconscious tug pulled him to the back of the house. A hallway led to a kitchen, which of course was empty, and an adjacent dining area. There weren’t even any appliances, just empty spaces where they should be. The only odd thing was the lack of a sliding glass door, or any windows at all, now that he thought about it. Renny walked over to the sink and opened the tap. Nothing. Lights but no water, okay. He glanced around before focusing on what appeared to be a laundry room situation just off the dining area. On the back wall of this roomlet was a wooden door, and that subconscious tug pulled him over.

Renny opened the door, revealing a dimly lit staircase. Cellar, then. Yep, nope, nothing creepy and suspect about that at all. Despite his brain casually asking what the actual fuck he thought he was doing, Renny started going down the stairs. He couldn’t explain, it just felt right. Besides, that creeping dread was getting stronger, closer, and he had to go somewhere. Down he went, and the stairs creaked beneath him. Still, aside from the dimness and the dust, it wasn’t terrible. The staircase was longer than he expected, maybe forty or fifty steps, much further than the standard basement. Eventually he reached the bottom, and found himself in yet another unadorned room, with a concrete floor and rough stucco walls. A naked lightbulb hung from a chain in the middle of the room, and on the opposite side from him was an old, wood-burning fireplace. To his right, a fairly rickety wooden ladder was leaning against the wall. Actually, after squinting at it for a moment, he realized it was leaning against a ledge maybe fifteen feet off the ground.

Well, there was nothing else for it, so up he went. For the first time in a while, Renny was conscious of the weight of his backpack. His center of gravity was off, and he swayed alarmingly on the ladder, but heights were never a big deal to him, so he kept on. Once he reached the ledge, which was made from stone, he was able to sit comfortably. Without thinking, he kicked the ladder over. The shadowy figure probably didn’t need it, but why take the chance? A little further down the ledge, Renny could see a square hole in the wall, with a weak light spilling out. It was clearly big enough to accommodate both Renny and his pack, so he didn’t bother to hesitate. That creeping dread was getting stronger and the rooms were feeling more oppressive as he went. Besides, he knew where to go now.

There was no rational sense for the passages he followed, and there was only ever one place to go in any given room, of which there were many. The sense of pursuit never left him, but the borderline panic did. To say he was calm may have been an overstatement, but he could think again. Of course, since none of this made any sense whatsoever, there wasn’t much to think about. He thought about Skylar, of course, but instead of lamenting their breakup he was trying to parse what she had tried to tell him earlier. Was it a warning? One last I-love-you? Impossible to say. Her face was comforting, though, so that was something. Meanwhile, he traversed room after room, hallway after hallway. Generally, the passages led downward, but there was an occasional ladder to mix things up. Time had no meaning. Each room or passage was empty, but the deeper he got the older things seemed. There was more dust and the heretofore sterile atmosphere became noticeably more dank and earthy.

Despite the clear lack of an immediate threat, however, the pervasive, oppressive feeling of pursuit and dread were getting stronger the deeper he went. Renny pushed open a heavy wooden door to reveal the most medieval-looking room yet. Rough-hewn stone walls pressed in on him, and instead of clear, clean electric light there was a small fire burning in an immense fireplace. The floor was packed earth, and as soon as he stepped onto it all the fear and terror he had been keeping at bay came crashing down onto him. Renny swung the heavy door shut, but knew it didn’t matter. It was coming. Poor Biscuit had only been able to delay it. Wildly, Renny looked around the room, nah, call it like it is, the dungeon, looking for the next path. Nothing, nothing, oh. Oh no. How about you go fuck yourself, creepy magic house.

The only passage left was a small, wooden door embedded in the wall. It was maybe three feet square, and had an iron ring attached to the front. A heavy iron grate was on the front, but no light came from beyond. Just looking at it made Renny want to run screaming back toward the pursuing shadow figure. Then that subconscious tug was pulling him toward it, and really, what choice did he have? This all stopped making any kind of rational sense ages ago. If this was purgatory, maybe this is the way out. The way to oblivion. Was Skylar warning him about this door? Or was she encouraging him to go through it? Impossible to know. He grasped the ring, and it wasn’t cold. The room dimmed. The fire was the same, but it burned dark now. Renny didn’t have to look, he knew the figure was in the room with him. He yanked the door open, and darkness yawned.

“I love you, Sky,” he said, and tumbled through. The door clunked behind him. It was dark.

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