The sun sank low and the horizon glowed like a burning page as I jogged toward the hill looming in the distance. The forest around me was quiet, as if it was waiting for a whisper. I ducked one way and another, avoiding branches and tufts of tall grass, and finally came out at the edge of the hill.
Where was the orange object that I had spied and what had it been? Such colors are rare here, but where I had come from… maybe they had meant something else. I shielded my eyes from the sun’s glare and caught a glimpse of color up on the hill. For the first time all day, a flicker of a smile started on my face. I raced up the hillside, tumbling over dirt and rocks, and stumbled right onto it. Well, onto them. I had tumbled into a patch of pumpkins.
I sighed and kicked one of the gourds. It sat there uselessly, mocking me. “I should carve you up” I mumbled.
The sun had almost completely set by then, so I gathered some twigs and logs from the oak trees at the bottom of the hill, nestled myself in a nook on the hillside, and tried to light a fire. That was when the noises started.
First, something swished in the grass below. I thought nothing of it, focused as I was on starting a fire. Then came the moan. It was like an exhalation of breath from an old man who had slept for a thousand years. My face and hands froze. I put down the rocks I was trying to spark together and listened as the darkness settled around me.
My heart was thudding in my chest but I forced myself to my feet and steadied myself with my walking stick. There could be someone out there. “Hello?”
A low, gurgling growl was the reply. I stood to brace myself, expecting a wolf or a jungle-cat, and all the while my instincts were telling me to run. I knew better, though. Run from a predator and you’re dead. Stand your ground and at least you have a chance. Then I saw it lurch from the shadows: a rotting shell of a man, flesh barely clinging to its bones. My heart seemed to stop and the rest of the world went silent. Even the moon appeared still as it watched from overhead.
The thing was down the hill from me, but I could smell the putrid green flesh from where I stood. It was like rotting eggs. I grabbed a piece of wood and brandished it like a sword. I don’t know how, but I quieted the voice inside my head telling me to run and entered a state of… zen? Mania? Insanity? I’m not sure, but some some reason I had to destroy it.
I rushed down the hill, swinging at the monster as hard as I could. Wood connected with flesh. It recoiled. A crooked smile came to my lips, but the creature lunged and latched onto my arm, its blackened nails biting into my flesh. I swung with my left arm, over and over and over again, knocking meat loose from the rattling bones and beating the creature back until it collapsed on the ground.
I stumbled away, breathing heavily, bleeding, clutching my stick to my side, and then I heard more noises. More moans. More growls. What was going on? Had the dead risen to replace the living, or had I gone mad? I glanced side to side and saw other visages in the dark, some with red eyes, some with dark empty sockets. That was when I ran, straight back up the hill, into the smallest alcove I could find. It was little more than a crevice in the rock in the hillside, but with rocks piled in front it was enough to hide me. For the rest of the night I lay in the dark, unable to sleep, but listening. Listening for the dead.