Crunch…crunch…crunch. The sound of boots on snow. He walked through the desolate forest; nothing alive to greet him in the freezing morning air that surrounded him. It was cold, although frigid would be a better word. It described how lifeless and indifferent the world had become. The winter was cold enough to drain life from the beings which were unlucky enough to experience it, and the wind was bitter enough to chill the soul. He was wrapped in thick clothing. His layers were tucked into his boots and ended at the two snow caps he was wearing on the top of his head, underneath the hood of his Carhart jacket, and over the ski mask covering his face. Although he was wearing two scarves around his neck and mouth, he emitted breath in a giant, white puff. The surrounding air froze the moisture in his exhalation; condensing it in seconds on his red and brown beard – a beard which would have shamed even Saint Nicholas. Snow blanketed it all, covering everything in sight. Neither bushes, nor reeds, or rushes were visible. Trees were the only beings which stood tall – sleeping sentinels – in this white wasteland. He knew the depressing forest went on for miles in every direction. He continued to crunch through the snow, the trees looking down on him. The wind was blowing out of the west, biting with greed at any exposed flesh it could find.

It was early morning. Twilight illuminated the frozen mist hanging in the air, projecting it like fog. He always felt dawn was the eeriest time of the day. If he had to guess the time a clock would show, it would be around seven a.m. This was only pointless conjecture though, as he hadn’t seen or used a clock in months. Now, it would be unnatural and foreign to not rely on his circadian rhythm – his inner clock. His thoughts began to meander at this realization, and he let them. They weren’t of much use to him anymore and only made his basic and instinctual life harder.

He was floating in the useless ocean of thought when snow cascaded from a tree to his right. He whirled around and brought his rifle up to eye level to meet the culprit of the snowfall. Both of these actions happened almost simultaneously. The time between the snow falling and he raising his rifle was less than a second – instincts honed through trial (and little error). His heart beat hard and steady in his chest. Sweat beaded up and froze on his gaunt skin. Finally, his breathing returned to normal as he realized nothing (alive) caused the snow to fall. He silently lowered his gun and looked up at the dark foreboding sky above. Snow continued to fall, and it melted on his upturned face. A whistling sigh escaped him. He turned – now downtrodden – and resumed his methodical trudge toward the trap area.

More snow. He jumped at the suddenness of the voice and the anger behind it. It had been so long since he had heard any voice, let alone the voice. The words echoed in his head while he continued on. After another five minutes of walking, the voice returned, although at merely a fraction of its former power. I sound different. I don’t know how it’s possible, but I do. He stared ahead, assessing the environment and weather, and realized that today visibility would be greatly reduced based on the current rate of snowfall. He learned the hard way that reduced visibility is a bad situation – a terrifying – situation to be in. If it is reduced to five feet, you might as well be in the biggest maze God himself had ever seen. You know how it’s possible you liar. He jumped again and was instantly wary. This voice was new…and yet, somehow familiar. You know what has happened over the last year has done a number on you, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Hell, it’s probably even left a pretty scar on your immortal soul, buddy boy. He recognized the voice as a combination of his father and his high school wrestling coach. Why they decided to integrate and speak up now was beyond him. The development frustrated him, but he knew there was nothing to be done. I can’t disagree with you, he replied morosely.

He looked up just in time to shift to the left and avoid a young oak tree standing in his way. He was so lost in his fascination and frustration of the two voices which had taken up a casual conversation in his head he had nearly walked head first into a tree. That’s not happening again, his voice said. I have to concentrate more on what I’m doing – the task at hand. So go away. The dad-coach voice spoke up; Of course you can’t disagree with me. It continued unabashed, you’ve barely been surviving the last year. You’ve seen people die, and you couldn’t even protect your family. What kind of man are you? What kind of man could even have a piece of himself left after a monumental failure like that? He halted immediately, both feet planted firmly on the ground. He looked down – a veil of darkness covered his face. He tried to not let himself remember, but the effort was futile. Wait, what? His voice said in confusion. The pain welled up, from deep within. His heart burned as tension rose in his chest. He had tried for so long to forget the faces of his wife, son, and daughter, and now – when he finally needed to recall them – he found it impossible.

Warm tears streamed down his cheeks, where they froze in moments. I can’t remember what they looked like! He lamented. Even though the voice was in his head, he could hear the desperation seething from it. Well, it would appear you have goofed up royally, son. The dad-coach voice retorted flatly. The indifference of the voice only added to his misery. You had a chance to save them, and ya let it sleep through your fingers, but it happens to the best of us right? There were tones of humor mixed with sarcasm in the words, as if the voice were chuckling derisively. There was nothing I could do, his voice moaned, I did the best I could! The dad-coach voice came back with a quick retort, Well, sonny, would they agree with you on that? Would they just look at you with big, puppy dog eyes and say, “You did your best daddy, no problem?” Your kids might be sittin’ there with their angel wings and halos smiling at you, but you can bet that wife of yours would be standing there behind them with a rough look of disappointment on her face. He began to whimper, “Shut up, please…please, just shut up,” he said aloud – the first human voice he heard in ages. He began to sob while he stood shin deep in the snow; an endless procession of snowflakes falling around him like the world’s most depressing confetti.

******

Man up, boy. Dad-coach commanded while his sobbing transformed into a guttural noise. You’ve got work to do. “You’re right. I do, so shut up you bastard,” then he added in a whisper, “I didn’t let them down completely,” he said, like he is trying to hide the words – or some ugly truth – from the dad-coach voice. He realized that while this – almost – internal monologue was occurring, he had veered from the route he took to his best trap area. Well, there probably wouldn’t have been anything in the trap anyways, he thought. Yeah, you were never very good at hunting, the dad-coach voice chimed in jovially. He leered ahead at nothing in particular, and continued to walk. I should probably get back before it gets too late. He continued to walk though, and after a few more minutes of blessed silence, he spied a road through the trees ahead. Wow, how far off the beaten path have I come? He walked out into the thin road and stood on top of the double yellow lines which would begin to fade and crumble at some point in the next couple of years. His thoughts wandered at the realization. Then he looked to his right and instantly dropped to his stomach. There was a car in the road.

He tried to remember, back to when he first came to this area, if it was populated by any human relics. He knew there were no other people around. He desperately tried to recall this road. He knew he had crossed it multiple times in the months since he had been alone in this unnerving forest, although, he couldn’t recall if he had ever crossed the road in this precise spot. His mind reeled as he searched it frantically, trying to remember. He felt the adrenaline surging through his body, the intense focus, the increased heart rate; a reaction he never would have dreamed of with respect to a vehicle more than year ago. His thoughts raced – disconnected – zig-zagging, like some comet haphazardly plummeting through the endless void of space. Car? How? How long been here? Others? People? Does it run? Food? He tried to make sense of the situation, and before he realized what he was doing, he was crawling – in what used to be army fashion – toward the static vehicle.

As he got closer, he saw it was big and old, most likely a Tahoe or Suburban of the mid two thousands. The thought would have brought a twinge of nostalgia if he weren’t so terrified of the potential implications. The age of the car had probably been accelerated because – he thought somberly – that is how the world is now. He assumed car maintenance would come in a close second behind staying alive though, so if the vehicle was operational, whoever owned it would most definitely be nearby. He momentarily stopped his processional crawl. He estimated he was probably about one hundred feet away from the vehicle still. He debated whether or not to sidle closer to the snow drift on his left, or continue his current course in the middle of the road. If I don’t do something, I’ll be roadkill soon enough.

His mind turned to a darker prospect…he decided on the distinct possibility it could be some kind of trap, something to lure in unsuspecting people. The paranoia in his brain began to worsen and take hold, a viper with poison fangs. What if they have seen me out walking the forest? What if they know my secret? They could be watching me right now…he scanned the forest with a long, panoramic gaze. He squinted; trying his best to pick something out of the vast whiteness, although he only lifted his head off of the ground four inches (barely enough to see over the snow drifts on the sides of the road). Although the temperature was verging on zero degrees, he was sweating underneath his heavy clothing. He immediately returned his head to the ground. Its freezing nature brought sobriety to his mind – he knew. Someone is out here with me. The thought brought a sinister fear to his chilled bones and emaciated frame.

******

Are you just going to lay here until whoever is out there comes over here and blows your head off? The dad-coach voice demanded. He raked his fingers through the snow on the road as a low whistle escaped through his clenched teeth. The real possibility of malevolence cut through his thoughts. His head pulsed in time with the flow of his blood. “You just had to come back now,” he said in a barely audible voice. You bet your ass, boy. Someone has to look-out for you. The softness in the last words hit home. He let the compassion underneath the tough shell of words radiate throughout his mind. The realization of someone – even a fictitious pseudo-someone long gone – caring about him propelled him forward once more. He continued to crawl, like some monstrous crustacean from an old monster movie, toward the Tahoe, one hundred feet…fifty feet…twenty-five feet. He counted them out, like seconds ticking away on a clock. He had tunnel vision, clearing all but the vehicle from his sights. He could see each individual snowflake as it dropped to the ground on his path. Out in the forest, away from any hub of a once great civilization, he hadn’t had to worry about danger, just the occasional rabid raccoon or wandering bear. He had been the hunter for months, and now, he felt he was the hunted. The thought petrified him down to his primal core; it was something primeval, bringing back collective human memory from the time before walls existed. Instinct had taken over, and his conscious brain was set on autopilot.

He finally reached the vehicle and crawled around to the snow drift side. As he stood up, he realized it was too fast, and he reached out for purchase to prevent a loss of his battle with gravity as the world began to fade around him. The sparing meals across the last few weeks had not treated his body well. Get a grip, son! The dad-coach voice commanded as the darkness threatened to consume him. How ironic, he mused as he straddled the thin line of consciousness. The urgency in the dad-coach voice pulled him further away from quiet oblivion. He decided to take the advice literally, and at the last possible moment, his right hand found a handle. He was able to steady himself.

******

He pressed himself low against the side of the Tahoe. He breathed in rapid and shallow breaths as he constantly surveyed the forest. You’re gonna have to do whatever it takes to get out of this alive, you got it? The question sounded more like a command than anything else. However, did he not know this was most likely going to be the case when he happened upon this disquieting scene? Since everything went to shit, he had experienced loss, looting, and violence (some quite grotesque), but those experiences seemed to be a dream now, the kind of dream which floats on the edge of your subconscious once you awaken, and is gone two minutes into the day. He didn’t know if he was ready to do whatever it might take. I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to do it for them. I’m not going to let them down again. The snow was beginning to fall in large, heavy flakes; time was growing thin. He had come to know the surrounding forest well, but he knew even the best outdoors-men could become fatally lost without landmarks of some kind to guide them. He rotated around, and began to stand slightly, keeping his legs bent. His knees screamed at the tension on them, but in his adrenaline fueled state, he barely even noticed the pain.

******

In the time since everything had happened, he knew it was possible for almost anything to be a type of shelter. Cars and already standing buildings were obviously the most common, and this was what worried him, especially out on this road during the middle of winter. If this truly were someone’s shelter – now their livelihood – he might as well be swimming in the ocean surrounded by sharks with bloodlust. The feeling of someone else somewhere near him didn’t fade. It only became more concrete the longer he was there. Finally, he felt secure enough to creep up sufficiently to look over the top of the door and through the window. What he saw within the Tahoe set alarm bells clanging in his head.

There were two handguns, a shotgun, and a rifle – it made the one slung around his back look like something used in world war one. The two larger weapons were leaning against the passenger seat. The two handguns, one box of handgun ammo – half empty – five shotgun shells, and a plastic bag which probably held around fifteen rifle bullets, were all lying on the passenger seat itself. In this world, whoever owned the Tahoe might as well have been a one man army. If the individual who owned the vehicle knew how to hunt small prey using traps and forage, they could maintain their current stash of ammo for a very long time. Something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. The last row of seats had been folded down, and something was covered up by a tarp. He slowly made his way down the length of the Tahoe. He peered around the side.

The forest stood desolate across from him. He peaked back over his shoulder, and the same desultory forest greeted him. The silence was deafening. It crowded in on him, causing latent claustrophobia to creep in on him. He knew he had to get the hell out of there as fast as he could with whatever he could manage to carry. The feeling of being watched still clung to him like a shade; the smell of stale sweat permeated from his skin. How it stunk! Are you going to get the garbage or what? It’s time to shit or get off of the pot, bucko! This advice was the best he had heard in quite a long time; however, before he was be able to leave, he had to look under the tarp. His attention kept turning back to it, yet he did not know why.

******

He realized he hadn’t tried opening any of the doors yet. He couldn’t believe someone would leave a car unlocked in this world, but out in the middle of nowhere, who would think they would need to? With this in mind, he inhaled the cold air deeply, and he tried his luck. He put his hand underneath the latch to the rear of the Tahoe. He began to slowly apply pressure, bit-by-bit he pulled more and more until, click. To him, it sounded like a gunshot in the middle of the desert; in reality, it couldn’t have been heard more than four feet away. He slowly let the door swing up, so as not to create any more unnecessary noise. The tarp lay in front of him, surrounded by odds and ends ranging from fishing equipment to an old tire.

He looked directly at the tarp. His mouth suddenly went dry. It was like having a mouth full of cotton. He licked his lips. He reached, and then withdrew his hand. He reached, and then withdrew it again. What was he so anxious about? The tarp was thrown over something that was highest in the middle – a mound – and ran down to the floor of the Tahoe. Don’t do it. The dad-coach voice flashed through his mind. Probably the second great piece of advice the voice had given him today. Unfortunately, he decided he couldn’t follow it this time. Curiosity got the better of him. He thrust his hand forward and threw the tarp back.

******

What greeted him was a mound of snow. The tension which inhabited his muscles began to seep out, and he felt himself relax a little bit. He exhaled in a sigh. Why would they have the entire back end of their Tahoe filled with snow? His eyes traveled south, following the contour of the mound as it made its way toward him. About halfway down, he spotted the tail of a fox, and then recognition hit him. He’s using the back of the vehicle like his personal freezer. The snow keeps everything good longer. He had almost begun to admire the cleverness of it when his eyes stumbled upon something that made all rational thought dissipate, and replaced it with utter horror.

A hoarse moan escaped his throat. He was so entranced by what he saw, he didn’t even realize he had made any noise. His eyes found a human foot peeking out of the bottom of the mound. He continued to stare at it – head cocked to the side – unblinking and dumbstruck. He had seen horrors over the course of the last year; things that were violent and grizzly, things that tugged on sanity, but the image which stood before him now, with its sense of terrible purpose, was worse than any of those he had seen before.

The warning lights and sirens in his head began their incessant ringing once more, telling him to move, run, get away, as fast as he could. His feet seemed stuck in place, a giant puddle of tar trapping them…Cannibalism…The dad-coach voice stated without emotion. All sarcastic humor and authority in the voice – like Elvis – had left the proverbial building. This change in tone tore through the terror that had paralyzed his brain. Time to go, said the dad-coach voice. He realized that he didn’t want to take anything from the Tahoe anymore, it was now unclean. Any thoughts of stealing from this person had vanished with what he had seen. He felt that if he touched anything else this monster owned, then he would catch the terrible disease it was carrying.

He realized the feeling of another presence gripped his consciousness. Everything thing appeared sharper. His focus was at a level he hadn’t felt in months. It was the same focus which had saved his life in that earlier time, and although he was a ghost of his former self, the strength and vividness with which the sharpness returned was startling. He knew he had been discovered during his own terrible discovery. It was a fact. You know what you have to do, boy.

“No…I don’t want to do it again,” he whispered to himself, lips quivering. It’s time. You’re not going to control this dog and pony show anymore. You’ve failed yourself and your family again son, and now it’s my turn. His eyes widened in disbelief. Recognition struck him like a brick to the side of the head. He knew what this voice was all along. It was the same voice that had led him out of the city, had helped him survive; it had, in effect, turned him into an animal. It was him – the lizard part of his brain which was pure beast. His eyes closed, and a battle ensued within his mind. All of this played out in seconds, but seemed an eternity to him during the internal struggle. When his eyes opened, there was blankness in them, and the person who had resided there before was now a passenger. His mind became a machine, computing what needed to be done, formulating a strategy, and finished the calculation almost instantaneously. He turned away from the Tahoe, shifted his rifle on his shoulder, and walking upright – seemingly without a care in the world – put his hands in his pockets and began to whistle as he walked back the way he had come. Blood seeped from his right eye.

******

“Well, I’ll be jumped up Jesus on the cross,” Marvin Delbourne muttered to himself. He was watching the guy walk away from his car through his old binoculars. Then he thought about how ole Jesus and his holy father were dead to this world, and that made him chuckle a bit despite the cold. He had stopped at the spot in the road about four hours ago. He decided it would be a mighty fine place to hunt for a bit, so he had gotten out of his Tahoe home, searched for a good spot to hold up, and waited for something to meander on by.

He had taken a pair of binoculars and his shotgun out to go deer hunting (anything hunting really). If he stumbled upon something, or if something was unlucky enough to stumble upon him, he wanted to be able to blow its brains out right quick so he could chuck it in the back of his car, and get the hell out of here. While searching for some animal to balistically decapitate, he had happened upon a tree stand about two thousand feet off the road. What luck! It even had a ladder. He had tested it out – very slowly at first – and when he realized it was going to hold his weight, he climbed up faster than a squirrel climbing a bird feeder. Unfortunately, unlike most squirrels, that was where his luck had ended.

His constantly blood shot eyes had stared through the binoculars, fighting the freezing cold for almost two hours after that, with not a single living creature coming anywhere close. His luck hadn’t brought a bird to shit on him. If that would have happened, at least he could have tried to kill the som’bitch to alleviate his boredom.

He had been about ready to climb down from his perch, but had decided to give one more quick scan of the area around him through his binoculars. Boy was he glad he had done that. He had spotted a man off in the distance, crawling on his belly – which was probably piss yellow – toward his Tahoe. Fury did not adequately described the anger he had felt. That cowardly piece of shit thinks he’s gonna steal from a Delbourne?! Red had streaked across his vision, and he had been nearly down the ladder when a smile (full of missing teeth) had surfaced on his face. He understood his luck had actually turned around. He had the drop on this yellow belly, so why not enjoy the ride? So, he had climbed back up to the stand, pulled out his binoculars, and watched as the guy nearly shit his drawers when he had found the precious cargo in the back of his Tahoe.

He had wanted to slap his knee and let laughter rip out when he saw that. He kept a tight button on it though, and just grinned through his crusty beard. After the little scene unfolded though, he had not gotten the reaction he was expecting. He had expected two possible outcomes, either the guy was going to bolt and do something stupid, or he was going to piss his pants and cry for his momma. Either way, Marvin knew that the corpse of jerk number one (or what was left of it) was going to have a new bunk buddy when all of this was over with, but the coward had done something unthinkable. After his face had gone blank, he had just turned, and walked away, he was even whistling! With the whistling, Marvin’s anger had resurrected, like the dead Jesus once had. That bastard is going to whistle, is he? He must have some balls at least, but, he thought, he better kiss ‘em good-bye because his sweet meats are gonna be the first to go. He licked his cracked lips as he descended the ladder to the dead forest floor.

******

He continued to walk through the woods at a leisurely pace. I’ve got about ten minutes until the bastard catches me. His voice said. It was no longer the dad-coach voice, but it was not him, it was an amalgamation of what he used to be and the part of him that had been created when everything had gone so wrong. Thinking time is over. Now it’s time to act. He began to pick up his pace, while the stranger gained ground.

******

Marvin reached his old Tahoe, and could see – almost feel – where the man had been just minutes before; the fresh footprints in the snow, the tarp thrown back from his homemade freezer, and the stink of sweat and fear. He inhaled deeply. All of these cues stimulated his senses. He had come to love the hunt, regardless if it was man or beast, but something about going after another human being just got his gears going. His eyes brightened and his anger was forgotten. The idea that this guy had uncovered his dirtiest secret made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. He realized he was hard from being discovered – knowing the fear he had instilled in the man – and the anticipation of the hunt he was now a part of.

He allowed himself to laugh, and it came out in a spittle filled guffaw that made him double over. By God if he didn’t feel ten years younger. He thought about it, and came to the realization the reason the guy had walked off was because his mind had snapped like a twig at what he had found, and that was quite alright with Marvin, yessirree bob. He cradled his shotgun like a newborn between his arms, and began to sprint after the guy. Only the hunt existed for now.

******

Less than five minutes. The coldness and lack of emotion which radiated from what was now his voice would have mortified him only fifteen minutes ago, but now there was no room for that. Only survival and protection of himself and his secret remained. He made a sharp turn to his left, passing by the small oak which had almost broken his nose earlier – a distant memory now. If this was going to happen, it was going down on his ground. He knew the thing which followed (prowled was a better word he thought, men followed) him was no more a man than the corpse he had found in the back of its car. He could feel it. This caused a flutter in his stomach, even with the robotic state he was currently in. It will all be over soon enough, he thought, and wandered back the way he had originally came as the whites of his eyes were washed red.

******

Marvin was nearly running on all fours. The only thing preventing him from doing so was his shotgun. Bloodlust had won control of his senses, and rational thought had been suppressed by animalistic instinct. He had, at first, allowed this to happen, as it had proven to be correct choice at many junctures throughout his miserable life. When he had almost gotten his fifth DUI, the cop had stopped him, and had gotten much more than he had bargained for with Marvin (no cop was going to send him to prison again). They hadn’t found his body until the river had thawed – and 200 miles downriver at that! Through all the bar fights he had been in (he had only lost two, and each time, the other guy had lost a small body part that would be missed), etc, etc, until he had landed in this wonderful dystopia.

This was the world his people would inherit. God had been wrong. It wasn’t the meek who would inherit the earth. It was the wretched and the broken. He spun left around a small oak tree. Marvin was closing in on the jackass. He knew it because – although the snow was beginning to fall heavily – the footprints were getting deeper and deeper, meaning fresher and fresher. He could smell sweat, or at least he thought he could, when the footprints disappeared from under him. He slammed to a halt, kicking up snow in every direction. It peppered his whicker-like beard. His blood shot eyes darted back and forth, scanning as far in front of him as he could. He snarled fiercely. In his frenzy, he had underestimated the amount of snow which was pouring from the sky. The flakes were as big as his thumbnail. He saw a dark figure move from one thick tree to another directly in front of him. He whipped his shotgun up in front of him.

“I’m gonna eat you for lunch, you little prick!” He screamed as he rushed towards the trees. He knew the guy had a rifle, but it wouldn’t be as efficient as his shotgun in close quarters. Shotgun beats rifle, you cowardly shit. He sprinted between the trees and turned to his left. He felt something constrict his right foot.

“Wha…” was all he could say before he was ripped from the ground and high into the air like a helpless, newborn child.

******

He stepped out from his hiding place behind one of the trees. The sight which greeted him was oddly normal. It was as if he had just captured another rodent in one of his snares. The man across from him was hanging upside down. Slobber slipped from his rotten mouth down onto his nose. The eyes which greeted him were a stomach churning mix of yellow and red. I wonder if he ate someone with hepatitis, he mused. The man kept trying to flip up and grab the rope he was dangling from to no avail. He watched until the man had exhausted himself.

“You wipe that smirk off your face you little shit,” the man spat.

“I don’t think I will you disgusting dog.” The voice which came from his mouth was cool and collected. Marvin stared at him in disbelief. Marvin wasn’t used to hearing a human voice, let alone back talk. Marvin bared his teeth at the man and began to snarl. I couldn’t have been more right to call him that, he thought to himself. He started to chuckle.

“Nobody laughs at me! I’ll fuckin’ eat you alive. You’re nothin’ more than a shit stain on a dirty pair-ah drawers,” Marvin sprayed through his teeth. He took two paces towards to the animal, being careful to not get too close. It was still dangerous.

“You know, you’re lucky, son. I bet you still remember your name. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what mine used to be. All I know is that I have a family to protect and take care of.”

“What the hell are you talkin’ about you yellow-bellied nutcase? You try to do anything, and I’ll tear into you faster than you can say ‘Jesus Christ Almighty’.”

The guys’ eyes glinted; a small smirk turned up at the corner of his mouth. “I bet you would follow through on that, my friend. So, that’s why I brought my trusty buddy here,” he said as he patted the butt of his rifle. Marvin’s eyes grew wide. He patted himself, and then looked directly below him. His eyes locked onto his shotgun – out of reach, a foot away – and when he looked back up, the rifle butt was sailing through the air towards the center of his forehead. Then there was nothing but the engulfing silence and ever increasing onslaught of snow on the forest.

******

He came to with a mix of snow, dirt, and microscopic rubble invading his mouth and nostrils, causing him to choke and gasp for air. As he choked, pain bolted down the center of his forehead to the base of his neck causing him to grit his rotten teeth. He tried to reach up and feel the tender area between his eyes, but in his groggy state, did not realize his hands were bound behind his back. Marvin continued to try and cast the mental fog from his mind. He blinked several times before realizing he was being dragged across the snow covered forest floor.

“Whuugh..?”

Then everything came rushing back to him in a flood of memory. The bastard had knocked him out! The butt of the guy’s rifle had connected straight to the center of his forehead, and he had gone out like a light. This sonofawhore had gotten the drop on him?! It was unthinkable. He was the best hunter he’d ever known! He had even won a few awards back in his hay day. He craned his neck up in an attempt to keep his head from sliding over the uneven ground. He saw he was tied at the ankles and being pulled by a length of rope.

“Hey! Jerk off—” He cut off midsentence. He was looking at the back of the man who had gotten the better of him. Something didn’t seem right…something was off from the guy he had seen nearly pissing his pants with fear earlier. He seemed…more there: larger, stronger…darker. He began to panic. Who the hell is this guy? I have to get out of here, now. This is bad.

“You should just shut right the hell up if you know what’s good for you, my stupid friend,” the man said. There was no hint of any emotion in his voice. It sounded automated, like an old answering machine tape. There was no way this was the same guy, only logic (even his limited one) told him it had to be. The man just continued to waltz forward.

“Who are you,” Delbourne asked, barely above a whisper.

“Well, for starters, I’m a guy that’s seen it all, my friend, just as I’m sure you have.” He noticed the guy’s voice now had humor in it, but it was sour, like milk that had gone bad. It seemed like a cheap imitation of the real deal.

“I’m also the guy who lost it all, the guy who took it all, and the guy who will preserve it all, wrapped into one big package,” then he stopped, turned his head, and winked at Marvin. Marvin’s breath caught in his throat. He hadn’t seen the guy up-close until now. The man had winked with an eye which had turned completely red, taking the place of the former whites, leaving a bright blue pond in the middle of a red sea, all of which was flowing into a hole of endless darkness and understanding.

“Holy God…”

“Nope! Sorry to surprise you, son, but he’s not here! Hell, you might think he never would have even existed if you look around.” A soulless, giddy laugh climbed out of his throat. It made Marvin’s skin crawl. He continued, “As you’re so fond of reminding yourself all of the time. Isn’t that right, Marvin?”

“No! How do you know my name?! I never told you nothin’,” Marvin screamed. In his terrified state, he was completely unaware that his bladder had let go, and that his urine was freezing his overalls and genitals. He’s a monster. He’s not human, it’s happened to him! The thing got’im! How is he alive? I’ve never seen it this way before! His thoughts became confused and jumbled. The guy stopped, craned his head to the side, like a bird listening for its brethren, and then it snapped straight again.

The man chuckled. “You call me the monster? At least I don’t eat other men! What dark hell did you climb out of? At least I still have a human side left, you miserable little prick.” The man’s expression became neutral, and Marvin thought it was worse than any emotion.

“I did what I had to survive!” Marvin shouted defiantly, lying and he realized – too late – it had been a bad idea to lie. This thing had been reading his thoughts the entire time. A boot flew from the right and nearly sent Marvin’s head rocketing off his spine. Dark flowers and stars bloomed across his field of vision. They ate his consciousness like carnivorous plants.

******

As the world began to slowly appear once more, he was vaguely aware of a crackling sound, and a very strong ache coming from the right hemisphere of his head. Warmth had somehow crept back into his cold-soaked bones. He blinked to push away the unconsciousness which threatened to engulf him once more in its deep waves.

“Where,” he inquired to nobody in particular.

“Welcome to my humble abode, boy,” said a figure from the shadows to his right. A scream rose in his throat, but he choked on it, and it refused to come out. Marvin’s eyes dashed all over the place. He didn’t even realize they were looking for any possible escape route. He was in an old log cabin which looked like it hadn’t seen a good repair in years. Split wood was everywhere. There were no windows. He only saw two doors, one to the left and to the right. He had a premonition that if he entered one of them, it would be the end.

“Settle down now. I’d like to have a conversation, if that is okay with you?” He didn’t wait for Marvin’s acknowledgement – and with a smile on his face – continued, “I do what I have to do to protect myself, him, and my family. Don’t you agree that is honorable?” Marvin knew what could happen if he even so much as thought the wrong thing, so he just nodded in agreement. The man’s smile faltered for a moment and returned. “Well, I guess a thing like you doesn’t really know what honor is. You think I’m crazy? It’s alright. We both live here now. You could never understand.” Does this guy have split personality or some crazy shit? I’m done for if he’s a wacko. The guy lowered his head and shook it back and forth. Marvin knew his mistake almost instantly at this motion.

“NOO! I’m sorry, mister. I can’t help it. I’m just thinkin’, please. Stay outta my head.” The man leaned forward out of the shadows, as the fire cast an insane glow across his red eyes. No humanity resided within them, only emptiness called them home. Marvin began to weep.

“Unfortunately for the both of us, I can’t do that,” the man said, and this brought another giddy laugh to his lips, which only caused Marvin to cry harder. He reposed himself and continued, “As I was saying before, I have to protect my livelihood and my family. I know it’s hard for you to understand the concept of family, considering you killed your brother and ate him.” He clicked his tongue chidingly at Marvin. “How could someone do that to one they’d once loved? It’s maddening really,” The man said as he leaned back in his wooden chair. It creaked beneath the his full frame. It was only used to emaciated bodies sitting on it. He put his hand to his beard and rubbed it thoughtfully. “I’ll tell you what, son. I’m going to give you a chance at redemption. How does that sound?” Marvin was now on the verge of hysterics, he was beginning to find breathing – something he had found easy for the last forty years, despite smoking a pack every two days – difficult.

“I’ll do anything! Please, pleeease,” Marvin begged. He was gasping for air like a fish. No amount was too much. Marvin was hyperventilating, having the granddaddy of all panic attacks. The man sauntered on over to him and slid an arm around his shoulders. The whole set of actions made Marvin’s stomach churn. He wanted to wretch.

“Don’t you think about getting your sick on me now. I’ll tell you what you’re going do.” The man turned his head to Marvin’s ear, and after covering his mouth with his hand, whispered like he was telling a secret to the dead. Marvin’s face went pale as the snow, which continued to drop like dead insects from the sky.

“Marvin, my boy, I’m going to help you make your life worth a damn,” and with that the man sprang up, and grabbed Marvin Delbourne by his long, thick, fetid hair, and dragged him across the floor of the cabin. Marvin began to scream, “NOOOOO! LET ME GO!” He kicked wildly, throwing his body as much as he could, but it made no use. The monster’s grip was superhuman. The man kicked out the backdoor of the cabin, and pulled Marvin to a standing position facing him. Marvin thought his scalp was going to peel off of his skull. The man pulled Marvin around to his side, and they faced a pit in the ground which was fifteen feet deep and twenty feet across.

The man shouted with one hand out, “Hello, family! I’m back, and look what daddy brought!” Marvin stared down into the giant hole in the ground. What he saw made his eyes roll in his head. He was wrong about this man. He was no monster. If ever on the earth, which used to be green, there had been monsters, they resided in this pit. There were three creatures, all of which had human hair, skin, and eyes, but that is where the similarities ended.

All of their jaws were unhinged and swung five inches below the head. They slowly retracted up to the palate when the jaw muscles were flexed. Instead of the normal set of human teeth, two sets of razor sharp incisors and molars filled their mouths. All of the nails had grown to immense lengths. They looked to be at least two feet long and resembled the roots of some teenage oak tree. One of the beasts walked on all fours while the others waddled on two. They were emaciated beyond recognition, but some part of him knew the two smaller creatures had once been children and the largest of the three, a woman.

They all turned at the sound of the man’s voice. Marvin screeched – the pathetic cry of a dying animal. Upon seeing and hearing Marvin, saliva began to drip from their anaconda like mouths. They emitted high pitched screeches in return. They moved faster than he could have imagined, and were at his end of the pit, trying to clamber up as fast as their deformed limbs would allow. The man looked down at them admiringly with love.

He leaned in toward Marvin and said, “Aren’t they just beautiful?” Marvin was paralyzed, eyes rolling. “Isn’t it ironic? You started your real life eating men, but now you’re going to end life being eaten by man. Damn, I love it!” Another giddy laugh escaped the insane man’s throat. Then he stopped mid giggle, “Time for retribution, dog. No hard feelings!” the man leaned in toward his ear, and whispered for the last time as he pushed Marvin over the edge. His sanity dissolved as he fell towards the oncoming abominations. Screams emitted from the pit as Marvin was pulled apart and consumed clumsily by the creatures, while the man watched on with red eyes.

******

Crunch, crunch, crunch. Once more, snow was packed beneath his feat as he bent to check a trap for signs of life, or the lack thereof. He carried his trusty rifle about his shoulders, but he carried a shotgun – which he had added to his repertoire – tucked in the crook of his armpit. No thoughts ran through his mind. Only the daily tasks at hand were important. He turned his head and noticed someone had left their Tahoe in the road. Normally seeing the vehicle in the middle of the road would send him packing the other way. These things were too risky. Today, however, he felt like it was a lucky find, plenty of weapons and gas to start a fire if it was needed. It was suspiciously clean, like someone had left it for him on purpose, but he was not going to be one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

He began his trudge back toward the cabin to return home with what he had found. He decided he’d check other traps on his way back, just in case. If he didn’t find anything, he thought he might just go crazy. He felt more and more that the snow really started to do something to you if you were left alone in it for too long. No color, cold, dead. It was as if the devil himself were wrapping you up tight in his personal hellish sheet, a blank that could smother your humanity and eventually eat you from the inside out. Everything had finally been going right for once. Although the trap had been empty, he was sure he wouldn’t have to let his family down this time. He didn’t want to disappoint them. He knew how hungry they could get.

-Don