Call it woman’s intuition or that prickly, crawly sensation along your neck, the one that’s like the creep of a hairy tarantula. Call it whatever you want, but this is what I remember.
I know I was moving fast by that point on my hike along a little-traveled trail in the Shenandoah Mountains because the light was going, and I had this terrible feeling of being watched. Every few seconds, I’d toss a look over my shoulder. The first half dozen times, there was nothing to see: just woods. But then came the moment when my eyes skimmed the trail—and he was, suddenly, right there.
And as I stood there, absolutely icy with terror, I knew what was going to get me killed.
I was going to die because of two stupid decimal places.
.01. A hundredth of a percent. A number so small the only people who fretted over the difference were astrophysicists and Type A bozo-brains like me. That little percentage stood between me scoring an honors and all those other faceless drudges who were my classmates because medical students are nothing if not plodding obsessives. Me, I planted myself in the front row, attended every lecture, took copious notes. Teachers knew me by name; I was going places.
Like the mountains. This trail. I was a smart kid just dumb enough to get myself killed.
I was so pissed about that dumb percentage, I’d broken every commandment of the hiker’s bible: skipped classes; didn’t check the weather; threw crap into my pack, none of it remotely useful; neglected to bring a knife; roared out of D.C.; and told not a single soul where I was going. Oh, and I was hiking a trail I’d never taken, with only the barest bones of a map. I was unprepared and alone, and now I was going to get myself killed.
No. Strike that.
That guy between me and my car, eight, ten miles back?
He’d do the honors.
This is what I remember: a clench in the pit of my gut; this awful, frozen moment where my brain whited out. I might have gasped. Eventually, I must’ve blinked because when I opened my eyes again, he suddenly wasn’t there. I must’ve stood a good five or ten seconds, squinting, mouth hanging open, heart banging. But there was nothing.
And yet… I felt him. He was there. I couldn’t see this guy, but I was absolutely dead-certain he was waiting for me. I would have to pass him, too. This was a one-way trail, and there were at least eight miles between me and my car. So I had two options: walk, or run.
To this day, as I flashed past, I swear I saw that face and a dingy red and black flannel shirt. Or were those only dying sumac? I just don’t know. I only ran. Eventually, the terrain got too rough and then I could only walk, fast, for a very long time. No one grabbed me. Every so often, a branch would crack that I hadn’t crunched. Something would pop into focus behind me, and then disappear just as quickly. Still, I saw his face: dank hair, thick stubble, a gap-toothed grin… Yet wasn’t I too far away? How could I see anything? It was December, early afternoon, and full dark in less than four hours. So… my imagination?
Maybe. Except when I crashed out of the woods, I spotted my car—
And a dirty truck with rusted fenders that hadn’t been there before.
The next thing I remember, I was in my car. I was wet and freezing; the windows fogged. My fingers were so stiff I couldn’t work the ignition key.
That was when something man-shaped and red-black floated across the windshield.
I never looked up. Didn’t dare. Instead, somehow, I socked in the key, cranked the starter, rammed the stick into reverse, and mashed the accelerator. I remember pings and pocks of gravel against the undercarriage, the bright scythe of my car’s headlights—and someone there, at that truck.
Then I jockeyed the stick into first and got the hell out of there.
By the time I made it out of the park, it was way past full dark and the road was icy. A couple times, I spotted headlights in my rear-view, on the same road, taking it turn for turn, never closing but never falling back either.
The first gas station that showed lights, I pulled in. I don’t remember if I thought about calling the police. By then, I was feeling stupid. Like, how girly. But this is the God’s truth, too. I remember it like yesterday, like today. Like now.
I am inside the station’s convenience store. It’s black as pitch outside so I see my reflection, can count the bags of Doritos on the shelves and jugs of milk in the cooler. But it is not so dark that I cannot make out, on that road, a long spear of light.
And how slowly… slowly… that truck follows and follows and follows.
Now, this was years before the Spotsylvania serial killer, the Shenandoah Trail murders, the Colonial Parkway killings. I don’t know if there’s a connection here because, most days, I wonder if I saw or heard anything. But then I remember the snap of a branch, the rustle of leaves—and he was close, so close, close enough that I spotted where his teeth weren’t. I saw stubble over his chin and jowls, and his hair was a lank, greasy blonde mop, and his eyes were a muddy brown.
Except no one’s vision is that good. I would’ve had to be only a few feet away to get all that detail, and I wasn’t.
I do know that I stayed in that store for quite a while, thinking about all the what-ifs and maybes. Eventually, I worked up the courage to leave, or maybe the owner said something.
In the end, of this much, I am sure: I’m here, still kicking.
And, maybe, somewhere…so is he.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ilsa J. Bick is a child psychiatrist, as well as a film scholar, surgeon wannabe, former Air Force major, and an award-winning author of dozens of short stories and novels, including the critically acclaimed Draw the Dark (Carolrhoda Lab, 2010); Drowning Instinct (Carolrhoda Lab, 2011); Ashes, the first book in her YA apocalyptic thriller trilogy (Egmont USA, 2011) and the just-released second volume, Shadows. Forthcoming is The Sin-Eater’s Confession (Carolrhoda Lab, 2013) and the last installment in the ASHES trilogy, Monsters (Egmont USA, 2013). Ilsa lives with her family and other furry creatures near a Hebrew cemetery in rural Wisconsin. One thing she loves about the neighbors: They’re very quiet and only come around for sugar once in a blue moon.
ABOUT THE BOOK: The Apocalypse does not end. The Changed will grow in numbers The Spared may not survive. Even before the EMPs brought down the world, Alex was on the run from the demons of her past and the monster living in her head. After the world was gone, she believed Rule could be a sanctuary for her and those she’d come to love. But she was wrong. Now, Alex is in the fight of her life against the adults, who would use her; the survivors, who don’t trust her; and the Changed, who would eat her alive. Welcome to Shadows, the second book in the apocalyptic ASHES trilogy: where no one is safe, and humans may be the worst monsters of all.
Thanks to Quercus I have THREE (3) copies of Ashes and Shadows to give away to three lucky winners.
For entry into the giveaway please answer the following question then fill out the form below: Click THIS LINK to an extract of Ashes by Ilsa. Read and answer the following to win: what is the name of Ellie’s Grandpa?
This giveaway is UK Only and ends 31st October 2012
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