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  • Writer's pictureJavier Berrellez

The Hiker's Gift: A Short Horror Story

I’m sweating profusely, and however much I try to calm my adrenaline and anxiety, I can’t get the process to arrest itself ever so slightly. The night’s frigid air isn't helping, as it's seeping through the three layers of soaking wet clothing clinging to my skin. It’s all starting to take a toll on my senses; my chest, back, and especially my hands are freezing. I can barely clinch a fist with my uninjured arm without feeling the muscles, tendons and joints crackle in pain. The moment I realized I was in real trouble though, was when my fingers started turning a light sky blue. For a brief moment my fingers reminded me of the clear blue ocean I once dived-in at Catalina. How I wish I was there now. Instead, I’m cowering behind a large thirty ton rock freezing and fearing for my life. 

The day started like any other Saturday morning. I woke up at the break of dawn, poured myself a warm cup of coffee that I accompanied with a savory breakfast I shared with my wife. Before my dog could start barking his daily orders at me, I took him on a relaxing half mile walk. After getting back, I had the opposite experience with my cat; we quarreled for thirty minutes. He tried to best me with his sharp talons and even fiercer nails. I escaped his advances, but not without a few deep scratches on my left arm. A little over twenty four hours later, that same arm is now in a make shift tourniquet, aching in pain from a tear inflicted on me by a tall and lanky creature that tore through my skin like a hot, razor sharp knife cutting through warm butter.  At around two in the afternoon, I laced up my hiking boots, slung the already packed day pack over my shoulder and kissed my wife goodbye. As I walked towards the door and turned the knob, my wife walked up behind me and pushed the door shut. She looked at me with a smile and begged me to skip the overnight hike. She said she had a bad feeling about the hike this evening, but I insisted and pressed on.

The hike was the seventh of eight high elevation hikes I planned for the year. I was excited to get this particularly hike done. The evenings have been getting colder by the day; it was twenty two degrees two nights ago. Pulling out of the parking garage, I couldn’t help but realize that the hikes were taking a toll on my wife. What started off as a fun objective for me, has turned into a chore for my wife. I’ve spent the last six weekends in the mountains and avoiding my responsibilities at home.

Two hours after speeding away in my beat up truck from my town home in Pasadena, I was standing at the San Gorgonio South River trail-head. I was there alone. There wasn’t a single vehicle in the parking lot or any hikers in sight. I remembered looking around and thinking I had the whole mountain to myself. Happy for the quiet and serenity I owned, I ran up to the daily board to check my name in on the list. The list confirmed it! My smile stretched my cold skin as it reached towards my ears. The mountain was in fact empty; no one had checked in. With no need to hurry and jostle for position at the campground, I calmly took my time reading all the posters on the cork board. By the time I got to the daily trail update, I was surprised it hadn’t been updated in three days. The park rangers at this location are notoriously devoted to informing people on trail conditions. This trail is one of the hikes people get lost in or hurt the most on in Southern California. Still though, I was reeling in glee that I had the trail all to myself. Like earlier that day, I ignored a potential sign that something would be amiss up ahead.

Passing the trail head, I entered what instantly struck me as a beautiful and peaceful grassy meadow. The area was perfectly organized with benches, a surprisingly immaculate rest area, and a rather impressive gathering area that surrounded an almost seven foot tall rock that jetted from the ground. For some reason, the rock reminded me of a lectern used by Boy Scouts for briefings large groups.

Passing the grassy meadow, which surprisingly covered almost a quarter mile, I reached the first incline to the fourteen thousand foot peak summit. It was almost five in the afternoon and I hurried my pace towards Dollar Lake, which was the designated camping I needed to reach before sun down. In less than two hours, I covered all six miles and ascended almost eight thousand feet to the campground. The sun was just fading through the tree line as I pulled my day pack off my back.

Sitting on my pack as I stretched my legs, I remembered pushing a fast pace up the switchbacks. I recalled the trail passing under my feet as I placed one foot in front of another. With my head buried into the trail, I felt and heard every twig snapping and cracking as my hard soled boots trekked the undisturbed trail. Unlike any other hike, I recalled hearing my heartbeat pulsating through my chest; feeling my blood pushing through the veins. It was beautiful, an almost meditative experience. I soaked up every second of it. 

What I failed to notice at that moment, which is so apparent now, was the void of all sound. I didn’t hear birds chirping and rustling through the leaves of the trees enveloping me. I didn’t see or hear or see the ever opulent squirrels screaming across the trail as I bothered their quiet.

Like deja-vu, I can again hear my panting searching for every ounce of oxygen. I can feel my heart pushing blood to every limb in my body. The one thing that is different: I can hear the fast and heavy cadence of a large creature searching for me as I cower under a downed tree.

When I first reached the Dollar Lake camping ground before the night turned into hell, I only had thirty minutes to prepare the area for a night under the stars. After getting everything ready, I laid flat on my back on a relatively soft area as I stared up the stars. I remember being enthralled by the uninterrupted, dark, clear sky. I focused my attention on the pin pricks of light that pierced the black veil of the evening. I tried to locating the constellations I’d been reading about all week. I was lost in space on the ground with no point of reference on where to start. After twenty minutes, I forewent the exercise and started making up my own constellations until I drifted into my own darkness.

At two in the morning is when I first heard the quiet break like an anvil dropping on a wooded floor. I bounced in my sleeping bag and hit my head on the ground reacting to the disturbing noise. Instantly, the dark camping ground went quiet again. I waited a few minutes, but didn’t hear the noise repeat itself, or for that matter, anything else. I assumed the noise to be a tree limb falling from its proprietor.

  Pulling my right arm out of the sleeping bag, I squinted my eyes trying to focus on the bright light emanating from my wristwatch. Annoyed, I muttered out loud that it was too early to be awake. Nevertheless, I reached my arms above my head and stretched them until I grabbed at a rotting tree stump. As I let out a deep sigh, I heard it again. The loud noise! This time it was rustling in the wooded tree line. The short hairs on my neck and arms came to attention.

The noise was maybe fifty yards and getting closer. Focusing on the noise that was getting closer, I jumped in my skin as the noise turned into clamoring intrusion. Adrenaline began pumping through my veins and my eyes were wholly dilated searching for the origin of the sound. Every sense in my body screamed at me to run, but my mind froze me in place. If it was a bear, running would be a perilous affair. I needed to know what it was before I ran. Thinking back at it now, I should have listened to my senses and ran for my life that’s now teetering.

As the noise materialized into oncoming foot falls of some sort, I could tell they were coming directly towards me. I knew they weren’t from a bear. They were from a bi-modal animal of some kind: light and fast on its feet. I could hear it breaking its way through the tree line that darted up the steep and treacherous mountain. Not waiting another second, I shimmied out of the sleeping bag and grabbed the short and sharp tomahawk I kept at my side for protection.

Lacing my boots quicker than I ever thought possible, I fixated my gaze at the direction of the oncoming ruckus. That’s when I heard another noise behind me. It was similar to the one coming from the tree line, the steps were louder and much closer. I squeezed the tomahawk’s handle with my right hand and held it shoulder height, ready to strike. With my freehand I turned my headlamp on and squinted as my eyes adjusted to the sudden illumination. 

As my eyes adapted, I saw it standing there, no less than five feet in front of me. The creature was grey, pale skinned, eerily human like.  It had a strange tiny nose that jotted from its face, with two deep slits. Its mouth was small and round. As the creature breathed anxiously through it, I could see crowded rows of uneven teeth. Its eyes were large, as big as my fists, and almond shaped. The pair of eyes reminded me of two dark onyx crystals, as they mirrored my reflection. The creature’s head was large and elongated. Its texture was seemingly smooth, but bulbous. What I remember the most was that it was blocking the stars above me as its seven foot frame towered above me.

Frozen in fear, I stood there for what seemed like eternity. My brain was trying to process my next move. Subconsciously, my feet started moving in reverse. After the third one, I heard the creature cry out a deafening screech. I instantly turned and began running down the trail. My headlamp illuminated a bouncing light on the trail and tree line as I ignored every obstacle. An injury was the last thing on my mind; all I could concentrate on were the two pairs of feet chasing me. At every switchback, I tried calculating the odds of breaking from the trail and making it to the trail head faster where my car was parked.

I knew I had no choice when I felt the creature's breath on my neck. I bypassed the trail and simply jumped off a cliff I remembered being not so steep. I watched as my headlamp searched for the ground, but found nothing but tree tops quickly advancing at me. As I fell and broke through the thick tree branches, they slowed my decent before I hit the ground and my face planted into the ground. Spitting pine needles and dirt out of my mouth, I looked around for the tomahawk that slipped from my cold hands that were covered in mud. I knew I couldn’t take time looking for it, but I needed it. As I swiveled my head and the light from my headlamp followed, I saw it hanging from a tree branch. I jumped and at the first try grabbed the leather strap that hung below the handle. 

With my two feet landing flat on the dirt surface, I was surprised I made little noise. Turning to look down the steep mountain side, I smiled as I saw the trail just a few feet away. At that moment I decided to turn off my headlamp, and be as quiet as possible. With the sudden darkness I gave myself a few seconds to allow my eyes to adjust. With the sky clear, the moonlight gave me just enough light to find the trail. Looking up and down the trail and listening for any noise, I was surprised it was dead quiet. I knew those things were around, and it was only a matter of time. 

Again, I darted down the mountain trail, but before I could take ten steps, I crashed into the creature that was waiting for me. I bounced off of it and onto the floor. I sprang back up on to my two feet and swung the tomahawk at the creature. My right arm swung through like a tennis player serving to its opponent. I missed! My body lunged three to four steps forward before I fell on my knees. I jumped back up and without looking I swung back in the creature’s direction. Again, I missed. With an effortless swatch, its hand made contact with my left upper arm. Instantly I felt the pain of the attack wreck my senses. Warm blood spewed from my arm, as it now crawled on to my hands. Before I could react, the second creature grabbed at my right arm and pulled the tomahawk. I knew that resisting would be futile, so I just let go and started running. Thirty minutes into running for my life, I seemed to have evaded the strange creatures. What found me at that moment though was the freezing cold. My clothes were drenched in sweat and blood. The tourniquet I'd fashioned up with a stick and a piece of my shirt was holding true. My only reprieve was a ten foot rock I hid behind, which I remembered being no more than ten minutes from the trail-head. This is where I'm at now. All I can think about now is being in bed back at home, drinking coffee with my wife.

Looking up the path to see nothing was coming, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer. I immediately started down the trail again. What I quickly realized is that stopping for just five minutes in the bitter cold froze my joints. My blood seemed to be pumping through my veins like molasses. Every step I took hurt. My shins and knees screamed in pain from the intrepid descent. My chest felt like I had a fifty pound bag of cement stacked on top of it. My bloodied arm though was in serious trouble. A putrid smell emanated from it that I could only explain as the smell of rotting flesh. I needed help fast, and getting to my car that sat at the entrance to the trail-head was my only option for survival. 

My pace is disturbingly slow. The bitter cold and the loss of blood are taking their toll. As I make the last turn towards the trail-head, I freeze in place at the what I see. A bright, orange light is consuming the trail-head. I sneak behind the tree line off the trail to get a better look, but I’m not close enough. I get to a prone position and crawl close enough to see that the trail-head is full of people, maybe thirty in total. All of them, in unison, circle the fire in a counter clockwise direction. Their chants are something I can’t discern; it’s language I'm not familiar with or ever heard before. As I near the campground, I accidentally push a rock that rolls down mountain side towards the trail-head. As the rock disturbs the gathering, the chanting instantly stops and all thirty people, in unison, look in my direction. Again, my paranoia takes center stage. The hairs on the back of my neck and my uninjured arm come to attention. This new dose of fear fuels a new dose of adrenaline through my system. Realizing there’s no place to hide, or an option to run back up the trail, I pop up onto my feet. A man and a woman instantly break from the pack and walk briskly to my position. Their expressions startle me! They don’t appear normal, but who would act normal if their peace was interrupted by a strange man starring in their direction at almost three in the morning. I assume I'm just being overly paranoid.

With a stern look the man walking towards me says, “Hi. Are you hurt? Do you need some help?”

Before I can respond, the tall and slender woman with long, dark beautiful hair adds. “We have medicine and food. Don’t be afraid.”

Mesmerized by the woman’s beauty, I step out from the tree line and on to the trail. I greet the two with an emphatic hello. I extend my uninjured arm to the woman who reaches out as well. Surprised by her strong grip, she holds on tight to my hand as she shakes it up and down. After an awkward five second shake, I try to pull my hand back, but it’s useless. Instead, she pulls me towards her aggressively and she wraps her arms around me in a bear hug. The man trailing her jumps into the scuffle and knocks me to the floor. Struggling on the floor I try to free myself from the woman’s tight grip, I realize it’s a losing battle – she's much stronger than me.  I scurry my hand across the ground for anything I can use as a weapon, but the weight of the two people is too much. As I drop by head to the ground and open my eyes, I see the man pull out a glowing sheath from under his belt.  He extends his arm with the glowing sheath high above his head and plunges it into my forehead. At first I feel nothing. A second or two later, I feel my body going limp and my mind going into a haze. Before I know it, I'm unconscious. I wake up in a haze like I've been drinking for two nights straight.  My head is throbbing in pain. Above my head I see a shining object stuck to my head; it’s the glowing sheath. I can feel blood running down my forehead and down my cheeks. As I shake my head, I see the bright blue light from the sheath bouncing on the ground like my headlamp was doing earlier as I ran from the two creatures. Returning my gaze to the group, I can see them dancing and chanting in unison. The words they’re singing are foreign, unlike anything I've ever heard. The words are gritty, guttural sounds pushed from deep in the belly. As I become more conscious of my surroundings and feel awakened, the color of the sheath changes to a deep red. At that moment, the dancing and chanting stop. The group gathers into a large group in front of me and kneel. They extend their arms above their head, and say there for two to three minutes.

I then see another bright light engulfing me.  As I look around the campground, I realize I'm tied to the tall rock I saw when I entered first walked into the trail-head that day before. Like the sheath, the rock is glowing a bright red. The red engulfs the entire campground. The shadows of the people kneeling in front of me create a mesmerizing mural along the tree line. That's when I saw it coming: the creature I encountered up in the mountains at the Dollar Lake campground. 

Standing in front of me, I can again see my reflection in its dark onyx eyes. This time though, a bright red object is protruding from my forehead and the rock I'm on is shadowing my features. As the creatures raises its hand, I watch as the group of people behind it stand in unison and begin chanting once again. With an extraordinary force, the creature plunges the rest of the sheath into my head. My world instantly begins to spin, as I hear the chanting growing louder and louder. I feel drugged, but I'm conscious of my thoughts as everything around me spins and melts around me.

  With the spinning stopping, so does the bright light from the rock I'm tied to. I watch as the creature walks away, and the people in the group begin to leave as well. The only two people left behind are the man and woman who came to my supposed aid, but instead did this. . . whatever this is. I see the woman pull out a knife and cut the cord tying me to the rock. I drop to the ground like a sack of potatoes. I can barely move. The man smiles at me as I look up at him. 

            Kneeling down in front of me, the man stares into my eyes and I hear, “Welcome to our society. We’ve been waiting for you.”

I try to move my head back, but I can’t. The man’s words pierced my mind, but I never saw his lips moving. 

The woman kicks my leg, and I jolt my eyes in her direction.  “You’re not imagining what's happening to you. You can hear my thoughts, and I can hear yours,” she says as her lips move to a one sided smile. Through my eyelids I see a bright red light. A new dose of fear runs through my body and I instantly open my eyes and sit up. The bright morning sun, rising from the East is glowing right at me. Exhausted, I look around my surroundings and realize I'm at the trail-head campground. I go to rub my eyes with both my hands and realize that my left arm is no longer in a tourniquet. The bloodied rag and stick I'd used are sitting next to me. I grab my arm and feel for the injury, but it’s no longer there. My arm has healed. I stare down and see three large scars in their stead. I instantly check my watch for the time and day: it’s seven in the morning, the following day.

Lumbering back to my feet, I feel my pockets and find my car keys. As I gaze around the campground, I see the tall rock I was tied to that evening. Resting next to it is my backpack, the one I'd left at Dollar Lake when I ran for my life. Walking to the pack I see there’s a note on it, and it reads: You’ve been blessed by the gods with an unimaginable power you’ll soon realize. Use it as you please. We’ll be back in every year. Bring us another human to this spot, or we’ll take you and your family.

Those words kept repeating themselves in my mind as I drove west on 1-210 back towards Pasadena. That evening was a nightmare, and can’t imagine what gift the stupid letter is referring to. 

Hungry, I pull off the freeway and find the first In-N-Out. Pulling up to the person taking orders, I hear an unfamiliar voice in my head say, "I wonder what this fucker wants to eat?"

Rolling down the window, the young man takes my order and types the order in to his digital pad. Again, I hear the unfamiliar voice say, "That fucker could have ordered more."

I look at the young man and say, “Yeah, I could have ordered more. But I don’t want to be a fat fuck like you.”

The young man’s jaw drops open and stares at me as I pull away to the pick up window for my order. I look in the rear-view mirror and he‘s still frozen in place, ignoring the other vehicles driving up to place their order. With a smile, I look at the rear-view mirror and say out loud, “I can live with his.”

Pulling into the the underground garage that's shared by the six other families of the town home community, a massive headache similar to the one I experienced the night before returns. I hold the steering wheel tightly with both hands as I cringe and bow my head towards my chest. After just a few seconds the pain subsides, but it's replaced by a flood of voices. The voices of that of all the tenants in the building. I can hear Charlie, the six year old who lives next door talk with his friends as he plays video games online. I can hear Suzy is in the shower singing some a horrible tinny-bopper song i've heard on the radio a few times. Jamie is crying in her bedroom after she received flowers from her husband who's stationed overseas in Syria.

I sit in my car for over five minutes as I try to make sense and control the voices coming in and out of my head. Unexpectedly the voices all stop! It's all clear again. I can hear myself think; I can hear the cars passing by the entrance to the garage; I can hear water gushing through the overhead pipes in the garage - everything is back to normal.

Giving myself a few minutes to catch my breath and my heart rate to calm down, I pull open the door to the car and walk towards my town home.

As I pull open the door, I see my wife crying on the sofa. She looks at me and says, "I told you not to go, but you wouldn't listen."

"What are you talking about?" I ask, confused.

"There's no way out for you now. If you don't bring them a person they can convert, they will kill you."

"Wait, you knew they were going to chase me and try to kill me."

"Yes! I'm sorry. They would have killed me. I didn't know what to do."

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