I never ran past the stump. Never. The stump had been there for years, at the edge of where I turned around on my runs, right at that point where I knew I would have a hard time getting back without walking.
Except for that day. Last spring, around noon on a Saturday. Gentle breeze, high 70s. The sun dipping behind the clouds every few minutes. Perfect weather.
Something about the daylight had always made me feel insecure. It was the night we were always supposed to be wary of, with its shadows and the silence. When the bugs would stop making noises — that’s when you were supposed to worry. That’s when the hairs were supposed to rise. When everything felt wrong. Not during the day, though. Not when everything was supposed to be safe.
That was never how I worked, though. I was always wary of the day growing up. My nightmares were during nap times, during the day when everyone else thought the world was safe.
I grew up as a cautious type of kid. I was afraid of a lot of things. Being alone used to terrify me. I slept in my parents’ bed until I was four or five, and even after that I felt uneasy sleeping alone. Most kids feel safe if they bundle up enough in their blankets, but that never worked for me. I always felt as if I were laying on an island surrounded by evil, and nothing I could do could protect me from it.
Back in high school, running was easier. I could eat what I wanted, and run whenever I felt like it. My run time was never really affected by my life choices. I was a quick kid, too. I was running low five-minute miles. One time I even ran a 4:50. Not really competition speeds for college, but pretty good for a kid who just enjoyed going to city runs on the weekends.
I used to imagine myself as a gazelle, running from a cheetah or some other large cat. The cats win sometimes, but the gazelle has form over power, grace over strength. When chased, the gazelle will take every step with the intent to survive. That need to live always spoke to me.
That was the past. As the years strode by, running six-minute miles began to hurt. I became more of a seven-minute mile type. Which was fine; I wasn’t racing anymore.
For me, running had always been a form of meditation. About a mile or so into a run everything would loosen up and it’d become easier to stride out. Mentally, I’d reach a point where the intense focus I needed to maintain pace simply melted away and I became more of a spectator than a participant in the run. I would experience myself as just a part of the trail.
On that Saturday, everything felt right. Everything was more than fine. It was the perfect day. I was approaching the stump and I felt amazing. The best I had felt on a run in years.
I approached the stump and I hurdled over it like a track star. I heard a scratching sound, even though it felt like a clean jump and I didn’t feel like I scraped anything. I was so in the zone that I didn’t turn around. Birds and other animals in the woods were common on my runs. I ended up running another mile into the forest. I had never been that deep in. I was probably around five miles from my house when I saw a bit of smoke in the distance. I knew that there were other trails in the woods, but the trail I used was the nice one. The trail that the sun could touch almost all day.
I looked down. My trail had quickly devolved. It wasn’t as nice as it was before the stump.
I saw the smoke get closer. Then I saw a shape.
It was a cottage. The smoke was coming from a random cottage deep in the woods, a building so run-down the squirrels likely avoided it. Something about the way the house sat on its foundation made it seem to be twisted and, in a way, abnormal. The windows were uncharacteristically high, beginning almost at chest level. I started to jog in place, considering whether or not to keep moving forward or to turn back. The curtains in the window had some sort of floral pattern. I didn’t want to trespass. I never knew who the woods really belonged to out here.
Suddenly, the curtain was thrown back and a figure was looking at me from behind the window. Eyes wide, barely peering over the base of the windowsill.
I turned and I ran toward home.
It seemed so far. It took me a very long time to make it back to the woods I was familiar with. I just kept running. Pumping my arms and moving my legs. Breathing. Strong inhale. Strong exhale. Strong inhale. Strong exhale. Focus. Equal breathing. Equal breathing.
That’s when I saw the stump. Except it didn’t look the same, different from how I was used to seeing it. Granted, I had never approached the stump from that side before. But I knew. I knew that there was something wrong. My chest tensed up just a little bit more. I slowed down to give some rest to my hips.
There was some sort of lump on the tree stump that I had never seen. Some type of cancer.
The closer I got, the less the lump looked like a part of the tree. It looked like some kind of matted hair, clumped and moist. I had slowed down to almost a walk. I was just a few strides away from the stump when the moist lump opened its eyes.
It was some type of animal, covered in a dark brown fur that almost camouflaged it against the stump’s bark. It was only after the eyes opened that I realized both of the animal’s long arms were draped over my side of the stump, the head concealed behind the opposite side. All I could see were the eyes peeking over, like the animal was hiding from me.
“Hiiiiiiiii, Alllllexander. Alexander the stranger. The runner, the Lone Ranger. Don’t look surprisssssed. You don’t remember me? We used to be so close. You slept on top of the bed, and I slept belllllllow,” it said.
Its way of speaking seemed to trail off on certain words in a weird distracted tone. I looked at the arms of the animal, covered in hair, powerful looking. I couldn’t bring myself to speak, at first. I hesitated.
“Are you the devil?” I asked.
“Aw, Alexxxx, the devil is just a story. I’m very real. I’m you. I’m not you. I’m something different. Something blue. Something betterrrrrrrrr,” it said. The animal started to tap the stump’s bark with all of its fingers.
“I need to go. I want to go home,” I said. I was looking at the hands of the animal, at the claws. It was tapping its fingers against the bark. I noticed my breathing wasn’t rapid. I wasn’t out of breath at all from the run. Instead, I was barely breathing at all. Like I kept forgetting to take another breath every few seconds. I turned my head to look back at the cottage quickly to see if anything was coming from that direction. Nothing was there. I quickly turned my head back to keep my eyes on the creature behind the stump.
“Ohhh, nowwww, Alex. Don’t you worry about Mother. You’ll never get to meet her, Alllllllexxxx. That’s what I’m here for. You shouldn’t have looked. Didn’t you learn to never peek under the bed, Allleexxx? Triple X. Not the sex. Not the sex. You aren’t going where you want to. This isn’t the trail home. The trail of tears. The trail of fears. We’re going to do something else,” it said.
Up until that point the eyes had been wandering, contemplating what the next words would be. The animal seemed to enjoy the rhymes. Every rhyme would strike some sort of emotional chord with my childhood. The shows I watched, the things I would say growing up.
Then the animal’s eyes locked right into mine.
“The things I’m going to do to you, Alex. Oh, you haven’t lived until you’ve, ahhhhhhh, the things I will do to your innards. The belly. Inside. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but, ohhhh. The things we are going. To. Do.”
I heard it clack its teeth together a few times.
I swallowed and reminded myself to breathe. I made myself say something.
“Please. Don’t,” was all that came out.
I couldn’t see its mouth, but I could imagine its smile. It was in the eyes. Everything about the animal was inhuman, except for the eyes. Baby blues. They could have been my eyes. The eyes squinted a little in an expression dripping with intent.
“Are you going to pee yourself? Are you going to pisssssss? Little Alex pissed the bed. Pissed the bed and slept in the shed. You can’t hide from me, Alex. You can’t run away. This is our moment, together. Are you going to pee pee? Cry to Mother. I used to lick it up, every time I would lick it all up. I would suck that bed dry after a good soiling. What it must taste like after all these years. I’ve waited, Alex. I’ve waited to taste it from the source. Pure. Unfiltered. I’ve followed you for a very long time. Go ahead and do it for me, Alex. I just want to smell it,” the animal said.
I heard it lick its lips and start clicking its teeth. I could hear them like pieces of metal clacking together. And then the animal slowly raised its head above the stump. There was no smile. Just a wide mouth of teeth. Row upon row into the blackness of its throat. As if the teeth would never end once something strayed past the animal’s hairy lips.
“No,” was all I could say.
“No? Oh, Alex. We know no won’t go. No. I’m going to step over this stump and you are going to let me do it. All the dreams are about to happen. Let me suck on it. Your hand, your foot, your leg, your flesh. Just a nibble. Just the tipssssss.”
The animal began to laugh. Seeing the teeth, hearing the laughter, the depth of the animal’s scratchy voice. Like coals on a fire.
My bladder let out everything.
The moment that happened, the animal stopped laughing and threw its head back in the air to take in the smell. I could see its nostrils expand to surprising size. Maybe fear drove me, because once I realized the animal was going to keep its head back a moment, I shot into the edge of the woods to the right. Fight or flight.
That day was my best run in so long that I had to chance it. I had to try to escape. To run for my life. Miles. I still had miles until I would make it back home. And I wasn’t on any trail; I was just running through the middle of the woods, hitting the dead pine needles with my feet. Needles that were never cleared by anyone. You could have buried anything in those woods. If someone disappeared out there, that would have been it.
The animal realized a few seconds after I broke the tree line that I wasn’t going to wait. I didn’t hear it talk, but I did hear it start moving behind me. The movement was what kept me sprinting, kept me pushing myself. I heard the legs of the creature and the trees. The animal was so strong that every few breaths I was taking I would hear a tree get splintered, or another tree fall down. And it was gaining on me.
Another tree fell. I could hear the animal breathing.
“Allllllexxxxxx,” it said. “Alex!”
I couldn’t turn around. I didn’t want to. If it weren’t for the lack of a trail, I would have closed my eyes, hidden deep inside myself and hoped to wake up alive. The breathing was so close, almost right next to my ears. I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to see the moment happen. I wanted to try to fight until the very end.
And that’s when I found another trail.
Out of nowhere. It was going in the same direction as the main trail I had always ran down. I didn’t think of anything besides getting home and escaping. I opened up my stride and I did my best to breathe correctly. Pump my arms, perfect form, perfect form. Not slamming my feet, not arching my back too much, staying forward, letting my core be involved. It was the most important run of my life.
I was the gazelle. Puff out.
I had to be. Gasp in.
I needed to be perfect. Puff out.
I needed to live. Gasp in.
I knew I had a chance if I could sustain the pace, maintain, and not look back. Even on the trail, I could still hear the animal crashing through the woods behind me, as if the trail wasn’t wide enough. I didn’t want to think about how massive it was, how easily the animal was going to tear me apart, how my skin was going to feel sliding off my bones.
I tried to keep my mind on the run. On the breathing. On staying light. Falling on each step to save energy. Long strides. I could make it if I kept form. Kept the breathing, ignored the pain in my shins, in my thighs. I had been past muscle failure when I ran past the stump; I wasn’t sure how I was running as well as I was then, but I knew I wanted to live. Knew that if I kept that in my mind, I could do it.
I was so close. I saw the edge of the woods, and there was maybe a quarter of a mile before I was out. I was there. I was going to make it. The animal kept running after me. It must have had many legs, given how it was smashing through the bushes and tearing apart the trees.
Ten feet away from the wood line, I took a step, but my foot didn’t land right. The animal had caught me by grabbing a hold of my ankle. I was pulled to the ground and my head hit something while I was being flipped upside down. The animal raised me up to its face.
“Alex, I love games. I told you that you couldn’t run. Was that tortuuuurrrreee for you? I let you get this far.”
The animal’s tongue came out of its mouth. Long and grotesque, the tongue slipped down my shorts to taste the urine. It was a violating sensation. Sandpaper. If I hadn’t already done so, I would have urinated myself, again.
“Salty,” the animal chuckled.
I was shaking. There’s a certain type of anticipation that the body experiences when the mind knows everything is about to end. I could feel it in the back of my neck. A kind of tingle. Instead of forgetting to breathe, I couldn’t get enough air. My lungs were a vacuum.
I was upside down, but raised high enough to be eye level with the animal. The creature was something old and eternal: the hair matted in odd places, patches of scales, sharp joints of a being that should have died when the planet was young. My heart ached. To be so close to home and to be gazing upon true evil. The monster. The devil. To see the matted hair and the black line over the blue eyes.
“Oh, Alex, sweety. No tears? Now now, do stop screaming. No one can hear you in this terrible dream,” the animal said. The smell was too complicated for human noses to understand; it was disgusting and as hot as a furnace.
My skin felt tighter after each breath from the creature.
And the animal was right, I was screaming. I didn’t even realize it, my mind was in so many places. I couldn’t think of anything to do. I was trapped. Caught.
“Please,” was the only word I managed to get out.
“Don’t mind if I do, boy.” What happened next was fast. I was instantly flipped right-side up and I watched as the animal opened its mouth wide. All those teeth seemed to be infinite. An impossibly deep throat. A part of my mind thought I was looking into Hell itself.
There was no fire, just the heat of it. There were only teeth.
The animal’s tongue slid out of the mouth and wrapped around my leg and drifted up. I tried to struggle away, but there was nowhere to go in that amount of time. I saw my leg slowly being pulled into the mouth. The end. I closed my eyes.
My skin slid off of the bone like the icicle on a popsicle stick. I felt the tug, the pressure, and then heard a pop and a feeling of release. At first, I couldn’t tell if the fire that shot up my leg was the heat from the animal’s mouth or the pain. It was searing. I couldn’t help but look. See what had happened. I was bleeding everywhere. So much blood drenched the animal’s face. I realized why the animal’s fur was all matted. Clotted. It had its eyes closed, enjoying the blood spraying all over its face. Half of my leg was gone, disappeared in the animal’s mouth. The pain was everywhere, and I was surprised that I had not immediately gone into shock. I knew that I needed to keep my head together. I needed to concentrate. Then I heard the crunching. The animal started to chew.
It was eating my leg.
It dropped me to the ground. It seemed to be caught up in the sensation. Like it hadn’t eaten in years. I didn’t care. I needed to escape, I needed to get home. Home. I was almost in my backyard. I was ten feet away. There was so much blood, I knew I had only a few minutes. Maybe less. I needed to get to my back yard, I needed to crawl. I rolled over to my stomach and I moved every remaining limb as fast as I could.
“No. Ugh, uk! Stuck! Stop!” the animal choked out in surprise.
The animal’s mouth was full. I had the notion that it didn’t want to stop chewing. It paused, as if to decide whether it should just enjoy what it had, or to catch me. Maybe it paused intentionally. By the time the animal made the decision to lunge at me, I had rolled the rest of the way into my backyard. I had done it. I made it back. I rolled to my back. I knew I needed to stop the bleeding. Seconds mattered. I ripped off all of my clothes and tore them to tie a tourniquet. I pulled the knots tight and covered the stump that remained of my leg.
My heart was still beating.
I needed to hydrate.
I needed to.
I needed to get to a doctor.
I passed out.
I woke up. I couldn’t tell how long I’d been out. I looked over. Maybe it had all just been a dream. A nightmare, and I had become dehydrated on my run. It was a relieving feeling, but after a moment the clouds in my head started to clear. It wasn’t a dream. At the edge of the woods, it was there. Peeking behind a tree, and somehow hiding the true size of itself. The animal.
It was dangling a shredded running shoe in one of its hands. My running shoe. I heard a slow crunching sound. A steady chewing. The animal was still chewing on my bones. It began to speak again, except its voice had changed to the voice of my mother, “Alex. Alllleeeexxx, wake up, sweetheart. Its time to go outside and play. Go off and play in the woods. Don’t you want to come back, honey? Do come back. Maybe tomorrow, yes? Get your five miles in. Get your 10 miles in? I’ll see you then, dear. I will see you then.”
I never could figure out what made the animal stop, how it wasn’t able to move past the wood line, or even how I knew I would be safe if I made it back to my yard. Was it really under my bed as a child? The cottage. Mother. I didn’t understand.
I crawled back to my house. The bleeding had slowed, but the bandages were soaked through with my blood. I was really lightheaded. I thought I was going to pass out again when I had to push the sliding glass door open.
I managed to make a phone call before passing out again.
The doctors didn’t know what to think. I told them it was a gator that got me. No one would have believed anything else. No one questioned me further with that information, either. People rarely show up at an ER with a leg bitten off. No doctor where I live would have the experience to really question my story, anyway.
I have never gone back in the woods. Never even thought about it. I never could go back. Sometimes, if I wake up before the sun rises, I’ll be drinking my coffee and right when the sun hits the tree line, I’ll see it. The animal, peeking out from behind a trunk. Never the same tree. What is left of my leg will ache, and I’ll feel the sensation of being lowered into the animal’s mouth, again. The tip of my leg will feel that fire. The tip of my stump.
Once the twilight of morning is past, the animal will duck from whatever it’s hiding behind and disappear. It never speaks. It never does anything but look at me. I never see the animal’s teeth, but I don’t ever have to.