Jim was hunting with his two older brothers on what the locals called Jawdrop Mountain. Though he was only sixteen, he had convinced his brothers to let him go it alone, at least for a few hours at a stretch. The guys had gotten a late start that day, so it was around one o’clock when the three brothers set out hunting in different directions. This was to have been a separation of two hours before a final rendezvous at a marker tree on the path which the three young men had used to ascend the mountain. And then the brothers would head back down, deer or no deer.
It was a severely overcast day in midwinter. Several inches of snow lay on the ground from recent storms. No significant snowfall had been predicted for that day. But the weatherman had been wrong and a surprise storm brewed up on the mountain. It began as a squall, near white-out conditions. Jim panicked and stumbled around until he realized he could walk right off a precipice. This thought scared him so badly he froze in place under a sheltering stand of trees until the squall degenerated into a normal snowfall.
Then the boy realized he was lost. He had sprinted and walked much further than he had realized in his panic.
He looked at his cell phone, but without hope. He knew there would be no reception. Ridiculous even to look. He cursed himself for having wandered so far in his initial panic. He had lost all his “mental markers” in the landscape. He was calling out to his brothers, to anyone really, at the top of his voice. But no one replied. And the terrain already looked totally unfamiliar. All the trees looked the same in any direction. The snow continued to fall.
Just as it was getting dark, the boy saw a form in the woods which gave him hope. There was a cabin in its own little clearing deep in these woods of the tallest trees. He raced to it, realizing it was his salvation.
As soon as he arrived at the front door and knocked, he knew it was empty. It just felt that way. He looked in the windows, which were actually very dusty, and knew then that the cabin had probably been empty for a long time. He did a cursory inspection walking around the small structure, and saw it was intact. This was a secure place to hole up until help arrived. Though he had his rifle, he did not want to be out in the night. He realized it was hypothermia he should fear, but a primal part of him feared the other things too.
He couldn’t believe his luck in finding an unlocked window in the rear of the cabin and squeezed his svelte body through. He actually ended up falling to the floor and that was the scariest moment, when he felt most vulnerable. Lying there on the floor in the dark cabin. He froze and waited for whatever horror lay hidden in the cabin to fall upon him. He breathed a sigh of relief, right there on the floor, when he realized it was silent throughout the rooms. He could actually hear the sound of the snow falling outside through the still open window. But he wouldn’t close his exit behind him. Not before he really saw the whole cabin and knew he was safe.
“Hello?” he called out. “If you can hear me, I’m not an intruder. I’m a hunter. I’ve gotten separated from my brothers and I’m lost. Don’t be afraid.”
No fearing soul answered him or came forward to greet him.
Jim ran to the front door and undid the locks. He threw open the door and this let in a little more light. It was the wan light of snowfall which was cast into the living room of the cabin. Jim discovered that there were two other bedrooms and a small bathroom. These bedrooms were the scariest rooms to enter, since they were the darkest rooms, windowless. His eyes adjusted, but he could not be sure that he was seeing everything in those rooms. He saw enough to realize no one could be in those rooms. Not unless they were hiding under one of the beds. This was just a little too much of a risk to check right now. He could smell the dust in the cabin. Jim took it on faith that he was the only occupant of the cabin. It had surely been empty a few years, at least.
He ran out the front door and couldn’t believe his luck in finding a woodpile under an old, wind-torn blue tarp. He loaded up the fireplace and had never been so happy to be a smoker in his life. His Bic served him nicely. He prayed the chimney wasn’t blocked or sooted up beyond use. But the fire roared up and he slammed the front door shut and locked it again.
He felt terribly guilty when he thought that his brothers might be risking their own lives looking for him. He worried about them. But he figured they would descend the mountain and return with a search party. They sure would be pissed though. What more could he do but sit and wait until the morning. At dawn, he would try to find his way back to the path and maybe even be able to meet any searchers on their way up the mountain.
He decided to keep the window by which he had entered cracked open just a little bit, in case he could hear his brothers’ voices. He wondered if he should listen for search helicopters flying overhead. Or was that unrealistic? If only he could tell everybody he was alright, sitting now in front of a toasty fire as the sun died off the mountain.
Jim made a bed on the floor in front of the crackling fire. He had taken the pillows and blankets off the rather ramshackle couch that occupied the center of the room. In no time, the exhausted boy had fallen deeply asleep, grateful for the fire and the roof over his head.
When he was suddenly awakened, he had no idea at first where he was, what time of day or night it was, or what the sound that had awakened him had actually been. He thought it had been a knocking. A hard, insistent, series of fast knocks. Had he been dreaming?
Then he remembered his circumstances and he called out his brothers’s names, each one in turn. Had they miraculously found him? He sprang up and ran to the front door. But something in him told him not to open it. Not just yet.
“Hello? Who’s there?” he asked hopefully.
No answer. Only the sound of the wind. The storm had grown emboldened after night fell. He could hear its shrieking on the other side of the door.
“Okay, no one then,” Jim laughed to himself. “Of course, it’s no one. I was dreaming.”
Jim turned to return to his bed. This was just as more knocks sounded on the door: three times more. But this time, they were loud beyond belief. They sounded like the worst type of threat. It couldn’t have been a fist that had done that. It had to be some sort of board or log or….
Jim looked at the open window at the rear of the dwelling. It was still cracked open a few inches. The boy ran to it and slammed it shut. He was grateful there was a swivel lock on the sash. He shot it clockwise tight. He let the thick curtains close on the window, hiding it. But he knew that was only a thin pane of glass separating him from whoever or whatever was out there in the night. And there were two other windows in the cabin.
Panicked, he searched for a weapon. He was so grateful to realize the fireplace’s poker was there. He approached the front door again, weapon in hand, and listened.
His mind began to play tricks on him. What if that was one of his brothers, half-frozen to death, on the other side of that door, unable to speak, trying to let Jim know that he was a human icicle. It seemed improbable. But it was not impossible. He had to know.
Jim counted to three, but silently, in his mind. And then he threw open the door.
Only the snow innocently falling.
But looking down, Jim saw there was a line of tracks in the snow leading to the front door! Bipedal tracks. The snow had gotten rather deep and the wind was blowing, so there was no way to tell what sort of boots or shoes the visitor was wearing. Yet the weirdest thing was that these tracks stopped right there at the door. Jim looked left, right. No one. The snow was its own light source, so it was easy to see into the night. But there was no one, nothing there to be seen.
“Where in the hell did you go?” Jim whispered under his breath.
And that’s when he heard the sounds above him. Someone was walking on the goddamn roof!
This freaked the boy out. His thoughts ran madly. How did the visitor climb up there. Was it his brother, after all, hallucinating while freezing to death?
Jim couldn’t take the wondering anymore and stepped through the open door, ran out into the deepening snow. He looked up onto the roof, but there was no one. There was a tall pine tree, however, that grew close by the roof. It dangled branches down over it. He saw little miniature avalanches of glittery snow come sparkling down from the tall tree’s branches. Because something was stirring in those branches. He couldn’t see it in the darkness of the tree, but he could see it was climbing. Then the tree grew still.
“Who in the hell are you?” Jim screamed up at the tree.
He waited in a terror he felt was skinning his heart.
Now there was only the sound of the snow, the gusts of the wind picking up and then dying off.
Just as he was ready to run back into the house, feeling all his danger sensors shrilling alarms, he heard a voice come from the darkness of the tree.
“Waaaarm,” the voice hissed out at him. The boy was shocked at how well this loud whisper (for it was a sort of creepy whisper) carried.
“You want to get warm?” Jim asked.
“Waaaarm…..” the voice sighed again ten seconds later.
Before Jim could respond, a black form flew out of the tree, and it was larger than any man, whatever it was, and came sailing down right over Jim’s head, and something touched him there, on the top of his head, as the boy screamed.
But the thing had sailed past and up into another tall tree behind Jim.
So Jim bolted inside the cabin and locked the door in triplicate.
Mere seconds later another knock came on the door. This one sounded much more polite. It sounded almost like a human knocking. Almost. But it was a dragging sort of knock.
“What are you?” Jim couldn’t stop himself asking.
“Waaaarm?” the voice hissed beseechingly.
“What do you want?”
“You want to be warm?” Jim asked, shaking now.
“Waaaarm meeeeal,” the voice whispered loudly.
“Listen. To. Me. Now. I have a poker and I’m going to beat your brains in if you don’t go away. I’m going to beat your brains in, and then I’m going to eat you. I don’t care what you are. I’m going to skin you and eat you and cook you in this fire. Then tomorrow I’ll shit you out and flush you down a toilet. So consider that before you ask for anything again.”
There came the sound of claws scratching on the other side of the door. This was a very angry sound.
Then Jim was sure he heard wings flapping, flapping away.
He returned to his makeshift bed and he stared at all parts of the cabin over and over, all night long. He paid particular attention to the windows.
Morning came. Morning finally came after that endless night of snow and winds and the unspeakable. Jim looked out the dusty windows. He saw a beautiful sunny morning.
He stared out several of the windows for another hour and then he finally decided it was time to head back out and find the path home.
He held the poker tight in his fist and his breath tight in his chest as he opened the front door.
Four raw scratch marks had gouged the wood. There was a claw stuck in the fourth raking. It was no claw or talon that Jim could recognize. It looked like the sort of claw you saw on dinosaurs in the museum reproductions of those creatures.
Three hours later, Jim heard a member of the search party calling his name. He was reunited with his brothers an hour after that.
He couldn’t say why he never showed the claw to anyone, not even his brothers. Maybe the shame of having gotten lost, of causing so much worry for everyone, was enough embarrassment to shoulder. The story he had to tell would have made it even worse.
But he kept the claw in a drawer in his bedroom for many years, right next to a pistol that he always kept with him anytime he found himself having to enter the woods, whether it was hunting season or not.