6 November, 2016 — Whitmore Lake, Michigan
A branch, unnoticed in the darkness, scratches Felicia’s face. It forces her to take a step sideways, where her foot lands on a tussock and slips off, nearly making her stumble. The pain on her cheek brings her back to something like what she would have regarded, only one day ago, as normal consciousness. The last two hours have passed as in a dream, or possibly a nightmare. She realizes that she has covered what must be several miles of marshy brushland since leaving her car. Looking around herself now even as she continues forcing her way through the heavy brush, Felicia sees that she is moving through land which, that same one day ago, she would have considered to be impenetrable even to deer. Yet she is doing it by no light other than that of the waning gibbous moon that has now risen halfway up the eastern sky. Her clothing is torn, her arms and legs scratched and bleeding, and her feet numb after two hours of stumbling through the near-freezing wetland. Her body is shaking with the cold.
But there is an exhilaration in the night, the moonlight, and the cold. There is a fierce joy that can only be felt this way: in flying through the harsh land, in seeing the calligraphy of twig and branch against the night-glow of the sky and knowing that—if you move a little faster, run a little farther—then you will at last be able to read the words written there.
Laughing, Felicia pushes her aging body through the wounding brush and deeper into the night.
At first she feared the change that she felt coming upon her, but when it blossomed fully last night it came as a revelation. Since childhood Felicia has known that there was some kind of energy inside of her that set her apart from family, friends, and even lovers. She knows now that it was only with the help of that special energy that she was able to live an extraordinary life, piling success upon success. And on some level she has always known that the energy did not belong to her. It was only borrowed, and the time would come when she would be required to give it back. She sees now that this feeling was why she never married, never bore children.
But is this how the repayment is to be accomplished? To be driven like an animal through the night? To what end? And how can there be repayment of a debt that she cannot remember incurring?
Could there be a simpler explanation? Is everything that has happened in the last few weeks merely a novel form of mid-life crisis, amplified by the same unusual energy that has affected every other stage of her life?
Still surging through the moonlit brush, her breath coming like that of a distance runner half her age, Felicia decides to stop. She is surprised that she hasn’t had a heart attack. The mind that is using her seems to have no regard for the frailties of common flesh. She resolves to pause, at least for a few minutes, to catch her breath and to consider more carefully what she is being driven to do, and why.
And finds that she cannot.
Her legs continue forcing her forward on numbed feet. Her arms continue forcing brush aside just enough to permit passage. Her body continues on its own way with no conscious help from her own will, and then in spite of her active resistance, and then in spite of her panicked resistance.
Felicia’s own mind is nothing more than a passenger in the vehicle of her body. The ‘new mind’ that has been directing her actions, which she has almost come to think of as benign, is responsible for her hijacking. Felicia struggles with a hysterical psychic strength that she could scarcely have imagined a day ago, but her body continues moving forward, in fact speeding up, in the grip of unstoppable automatism. She struggles to do anything at all, to even make a sound with her voice other than the endless rasping of breath, but is helpless in the grip of this power. This is an ultimate violation: her entire body worn like a glove by the hand of a ruthless god.
The last screen of branches parts, and she lurches into a clearing of slightly higher land twenty yards across, its dead grass white in the now unobstructed moonlight. She stumbles toward the center of the clearing like a poorly-used mannequin, her feet and legs nearly disabled now by the cold. At the center of the clear area her body stops moving, and stands. Trying again to move of her own volition, now that the terrible automation has ceased its active control, Felicia meets the same absolute resistance. She can direct her eyes, but the rest of her body is held as still as a statue.
As far as she can see through the shifting branches, there is not a trace of an electric light. From her life as a commercial realtor, Felicia knows this area somewhat. The population of southeast Michigan is heavily concentrated into Old Detroit and its suburbs, with another minor concentration around Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. To the north and west of those cities the density falls off very quickly. She is no more than five miles north of Ann Arbor now, perhaps a few miles west of the last Detroit suburbs. Half the sky is lit orange by reflected city light, yet this spot that she has been drawn to looks as though entire years may pass in which it remains untouched by human feet.
Her breath comes in gasps, also independent of her will. But even the horror of her inability to control her body is overwhelmed now by the immediate threat of the ring of heavy brush at the edge of the clearing. Desperately, she directs her gaze as far as she can in either direction. Half the wall of brush is moonlit and half is utterly drowned in darkness. Even in the clearing’s lit half, she can see no more than a foot through the twisted branches, silver against black.
But she can hear. Now that her rush through the marshlands has ended, the sounds of the night flow in around her. The cold breeze rubs the interwoven branches together, and even this late in the year there are still the sounds of little frogs in the lowlands.
Only four days from now, Felicia thinks, it will be Thanksgiving. Mark, at dinner with some of her young friends, will be telling them for the first time about the foundation that she has provided. Mark will have begun to accept that his old friend and sometime lover Felicia has gone for good. Tears well in her eyes.
Between one breath and the next, the air of the clearing compresses and rarefies as though a great silent bell has been struck. The brush around the clearing’s edge moves with a quick pulse of breeze, and is still again. Suddenly, Felicia’s breath sounds louder in her ears. All the frogs have stopped their cheeping. Even the breeze in the tree-tops has stilled.
The figure that emerges from the ring of brush is darker than the night around it. It is in the form of a man, but it is not a man. Even from ten yards’ distance it radiates bestiality. It is clothed, but its garments are shapeless, rotted and rent with age. The moonlight gleams on its rags, but the creature’s face and the flesh that shows through its clothing are utterly black. Not the ‘black’ of dark-skinned men, but the perfect darkness of soot. As though its skin has been designed to absorb all light and give nothing in return.
The beast looks at her, and Felicia is transfixed by yellow eyes like an animal’s, reflecting the skyglow behind her. The force of those eyes burns and freezes her, as though molten copper had been poured into all her bones and then instantly cooled to the temperature of the darkness between the stars.
Felicia’s attention is as riveted as her body. What is this dark thing? In the back of her mind for these past few days she has believed that she has somehow been called to be reunited with the Shining Man. But this beast is the Shining Man’s opposite.
The thing’s head twitches to right and left, almost as though—as though it is looking for a trap?
Was the Shining Man merely some form of hypnotism—an image somehow planted in her mind specifically to lure her here? Her thoughts race. But then surely it would have lured her to a place of its liking. How can it be fearful of discovery here? But this flicker of hope only serves to sharpen her fear. The creature moves again, and all other thoughts flee.
It moves as light as the wind, crossing the width of the clearing in the space of a heartbeat, so swiftly that the breeze of its arrival tosses Felicia’s hair. Her heart feels as though it has exploded and rendered the inside of her chest as empty and cold as the night.
The thing smells like the grave, but heat radiates from its body. Hair hangs from its head, tangled and dank, highlights gleaming in the moonlight, and only from this close can Felicia see the slightest light reflected from its soot-black skin. That skin is stretched tight over sharp cheek bones, as a man would look if he were starving. The thing stands closer to her than a lover. Its amber eyes look into her own, and through them, into her soul.
Felicia’s breath comes in tiny gasps now, and her body would be frozen even if the beast’s power had not already somehow immobilized her. The thing standing before her is more foul than any animal, but, she senses clearly, it is as intelligent as any man. Or more. Maybe much more.
People say, of the worst of men, that they are ‘bestial’, but beasts are innocent. The beasts of the field, though they are fanged and clawed, do not know guilt, or sin, or depravity, or nightmare. Only men can know those wrong turnings and desolate pathways of the soul.
But the thing that now lifts its clawed hand to touch Felicia’s face is as far beyond men as they are beyond the cattle that graze in their fields, and it has plumbed depths of nightmare beyond the capacity of any human soul. As the taloned finger traces a line of burning blood on her skin she feels a kind of pressure emanating from those depths whose slightest brush shakes the foundations of her being.
For a moment the thing withdraws its hand and even turns partly away from her. With its face hidden it looks almost like a man you might find in a hobo town: long filthy hair and ruined clothes. She sees clearly now that the thing has doubt. It did not call her here! It feels suspicion. It fears some form of trap. Hope flares wildly in her as she imagines that, in spite of its hunger, it is on the very edge of flying away again as quickly as it approached.
But then something inside of Felicia silently speaks. The energy that has burned inside her all her life, that has given her success and wealth, now at last calls to the soul of this creature. It called him here, too, she realizes, even while it was bringing me.
Its power calls again now, and the creature trembles with hunger and desire. With a shuddering breath it turns back to her, its golden eyes widening with lust.
Faster than she can perceive, the beast’s hand rises to rake her throat like razors. She feels her life’s blood burst forth and flow hot down her body. Liquid copper flowing out, the cold of the whole night sky flowing in.
Felicia’s last sight in this life is of steam rising from her blood in the cold night air, and the beast bending greedily to drink.