Harold was cold and it was a deep kind of cold. Harold was the kind of cold that got into the bones and threatened to break them. He had been lost for hours and he carried all of them. All the hours he thought he lost, wandering through the woods, were all there perched on his shoulders, weighing him down. He should have known it, too. He could feel the strain on his neck and he could feel it in his back. His feet throbbed, but Harold kept walking because he was afraid. Earlier on, there had been the sounds of wild life, at least. He could only hear the trees and the wind and he felt like he wandered somewhere he shouldn’t have. He imagined two night owls hiding in the trees, looking down at him. The first owl looks to the second and asks, “Should we warn him?” The second stretches its wings and says, “Let the idiot die.”
The moon was blue and round in the cloudless sky and it bled soft light down on the treetops. A strong wind licked through the branches, causing a rackety cry to echo off the wood and toward the distant river water. A storm had passed, but not before it raged. It ripped down bows and soaked the undergrowth, making the ground soft beneath Harold’s old boots. The wet undergrowth had made the going slick and Harold remained ever aware that he was skirting a steep slope. At the bottom of the slope, there was a lake of shadows and jagged rocks jutting out from those shadows like demonic fingers beckoning him to his death. He would not oblige. He hoped not.
The wind was beating at his back, pushing him, goading him. There was something rustling in the shadows. The noise came from beyond the sound of the swaying branches. Rats in the walls, although there were not walls for the rats to hide. Rats in the darkness, he supposed. His body had been shivering, but instead of warming him, it just made him sore. He considered emptying his bladder on himself, just for the warmth of it. He only considered it for a moment. It’d feel good for a little while and then the urine would start to cool and freeze. He was wet enough already.
The noise persisted from the darkness. The sounds of gnawing and scratching and squeaking. Rats in the darkness. Harold tried to remember how to determine North by finding the North Star. It was supposed to be the brightest one in the sky, but all he could see was a passing airplane and the blue moon. He remembered something about moss growing on the south side of trees, but he wasn’t sure if that was right. He couldn’t find any moss anyway.
Harold thought that he was being watched. Possibly by the two night owls in the trees, but he didn’t think so. If there were owls, they had run for the hills. His foot slipped and his legs were too tired to catch him. He fell ad fell down hard and all of a sudden, he was falling down the slope, bouncing and being beaten by random rocks and then he broke through something. There was a brittle snap and then he smacked down hard into a shallow puddle of stagnant water. Down in the darkness, there was a vicious stink. The kind that clawed up into the nose and made itself comfortable. It was ***** and urine and clotted, putrefied blood.
The sound of his fall had echoed out into a long nothingness. The ceiling of the place wasn’t high. If it were, he probably would have been dead. Beneath the icy cold puddle, there was hard stone and something that he didn’t want to believe was human skeletal remains. Maybe a deer. Maybe someone’s hunting dog. There was no skull, just a rib cage. Harold kicked the bones away and there was an odd cry. Definitely nothing human. There were the sounds of scuttling and eating and it was greater now. Where ever he was, he was close to the source.
He moved through the darkness, shivering so hard that he worried that he’d shake himself apart. His foot kicked something hard, something that wasn’t a rock or a bone. He bent down and picked up a flashlight. Someone had been here and Harold thought about the rib cage he found.
“It’s a deer.” Harold had insisted, rolling the long barrel of the flashlight in his hands. He slid a switch on the flashlight and for a wonder, it turned on. It might have been the cruelty of fate that the flashlight had batteries that worked. Had the light never turned on, Harold would have never had seen the rat kink. Hung over head, like a writhing hive, was a mass of rats tangled up together. Rats were all feasting upon each other and fornicating with each other and shitting over each other and all of their eyes moved to look at him. They were dripping with blood and urine and rat pups were crapped out the bottom to die on the ground. The dead pups had made a high mound beneath the kink and other rats scurried about, feasting on the pups. They saw him and saw that he was warm flesh, though Harold didn’t think of himself as warm flesh.
Once Harold saw the rat kink and the mound of dead pups and the fat rats eating the rat pups, he knew that the rib cage had been human and soon there would be another to join it. Harold ran, but it meant nothing. For the good it did, he might as well sat down and allowed the rats to wash over him. They bit into him and he batted them away and they kept coming, wave after waves, eating and eating. He fell to his knees as his eyes were eaten out of their sockets. As his shoulder hit the floor, his throat had been gnawed open and he was gone. The light from the flashlight washed over the writhing rat kink and the hunger rats with their wanting mouths and what was left of Harold.
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