For this challenge, only 240 writers advance. We all got new groups and the slate is wiped clean. We received the assignment at midnight on Friday and had to turn in our submission by midnight Sunday–no more than 1,000 words. I received the horror genre (again), where at least part of the story must take place in a tunnel and the story has to mention a stopwatch.
For your reading pleasure and perfect for Halloween, here is story #3….
Synopsis: A jogger’s early morning run in the backwoods of Idaho reminds him what it feels like to be hunted.
Word Count: 1,000
Peter was about four miles out of town, when he stopped to take his first sip of water from the small canteen hooked to his waist. In the predawn darkness, most of the tree-lined mountain trail was still in shadow—blackness overlaid with shades of light and darker gray, and sparkling frost catching slivers of the impending sunrise.
It was his first time running this stretch of road—he’d only be in Roland for a week, and after the call from his crew chief yesterday, it would be his last day in Idaho for a while. Another project shut down, and back on the road again. Hopefully, he could catch on with another land crew within the week—maybe in Colorado or Wyoming.
He’d resisted the urge too long, and left the motel sleeping to explore the Hiawatha trails before leaving town. The early morning, autumn weather left a chill in his Texas bones so deep that the black tracksuit he threw on over his t-shirt and running shorts couldn’t undo it. Another hour and he’d be warm enough, so he took off again, though the steep grade of the road pulled on his legs as his climbed upward.
Peter never wore headphones, preferring instead the regular pulse of his own breath moving in and out, cutting through the dark and bringing stillness to his chaotic thoughts. Rounding a corner, he saw the first wooden trestle bridge stretched across a creek, set the timer on his stopwatch, and sprinted full speed across it. He paused at the other side to check his pace, and satisfied, carried on more slowly now. At the second, higher trestle, he sprinted again, and breathing harder, stopped at the other side to assess his surroundings and take a sip of water. The beginnings of a sunrise lit the valley below, and he allowed himself a moment to appreciate it.
Only then, did the solitude hit him. It was a popular trail, or so he’d been told, and Peter was disappointed to find he was the only one on it. Nothing to be done but to keep moving. The steepest climb still lay ahead, and the day wasn’t getting any younger. He soon found his pace again—efficient, even, almost meditative—moving in the quiet.
But no, it wasn’t exactly quiet. He heard his breath, his feet moving the dirt underneath, a distant bird above, and the hum of insects. A rustle in the trees gave Peter a start, but he saw nothing. Just the wind. Another rustle. Probably a deer. He strained to look deep into the woodland but didn’t slow his pace. It was still too dark to make out anything at all.
He remained unconcerned until he heard—or thought he heard—something on the trail behind him. He turned with a start. Nothing. He didn’t trust his eyes and stopped to scan the road from one side to the other. Then shook his head at the emptiness and laughed silently at himself. He was letting the isolation mess with his head.
Peter briefly considered heading back towards the motel, but rejected the idea just as quickly. He had a plan, and he was sticking to it. So he carried on—feeling the invisible eyes of the mountain on his back, pushing him forward at a noticeably faster pace. He started to count his breaths, one to ten, starting over again until he had control of his rampant thoughts.
Before long, he found himself at the opening of a large tunnel, maybe two miles in length from what he could tell. Setting his stopwatch, he began to sprint into the darkness, still counting his breaths, though much faster now. The tunnel was darker than he expected, and the ground was wet. The echo of his steps splashing in the puddles reverberated in the enclosed space louder than anything he’d heard all morning.
He was about halfway through the passage when he saw it—or rather, saw a flash of something darting across the lighted opening. He squinted at the path ahead but lost sight of it and came to a full stop. He strained an ear in the direction of the shadow, but heard only his own ragged breathing and the pounding of his heart in his head. Reaching into his jacket for his folding knife, Peter crept forward, comforted by the weight of it in his hand. After a painfully long time, he finally moved close enough to see the outline of a large animal backlit against the tunnel opening.
At first, Peter thought it was a black bear, but upon closer inspection, he saw feline ears and paws. The mountain lion looked young, but large enough to cause some damage—maybe 90 pounds—and was chewing on a large stick. He was considering his options when the cat made eye contact and began a low, ominous growl. Carefully, Peter opened the knife in his right hand and took one step, then another backward, still facing the lion. The cat dropped his toy and rose at this movement.
Not wishing to further provoke the animal, Peter froze, but the cat crouched in preparation to pounce. Holding his breath, he gripped his knife and braced for impact.
Suddenly Peter heard screaming and clapping outside the passageway. The startled lion turned in the direction of the sound and ran off. Before Peter’s brain could process what had happened, a human figure appeared in the tunnel opening.
“Are you okay?” asked the hiker.
“I’ve never been happier to see another human being,” Peter said, smiling and rising to his feet. He approached to shake the hiker’s hand.
“Out here, you have to be careful,” the hiker warned. “Predators are everywhere.”
Peter grabbed the hiker’s outstretched hand and pulled him closer, then stuck his knife deep into his side, savoring the feel of the blade under the ribs, before pulling it out again.
“I couldn’t agree with you more.” Peter licked his lips and stabbed again.
Copyright by Jessica Llanes 2015.