The Melting Dead
At the risk of being crude, Angela looked as if she'd been yanked through a knothole. Her eyes swam in pink puffs of flesh, tears streaked her cheeks, a smudge marred her jaw. Her hair was disheveled, her clothes filthy, torn, blood spattered, and burned in spots. Yes, burned. She was running like she'd never run before. Uphill through the woods, out of breath, aching in every muscle, running on her last ounce of strength. She hadn't a step left in her, still she ran on, gasping, shooting terrified glances into the darkness behind.
As she ran, she failed to hear any of the normal sounds of night. No nocturnal animals scampering in the brush, no creatures slithering in the grass, nothing flitting past on night wings. Not even crickets. Nothing but her gasps, her footfalls – and the unearthly sounds of the thing chasing her. The leaves crunched and branches snapped to its uneven step as it, whatever it was, pounded the path behind. Its occluded breath, growing louder, drawing nearer, threatened Angela like an opening theme from a horror flick, Suite for String Orchestra, Tubular Bells, Malcolm is Dead; music to scream by, music to die by. Its throaty panting gave way to a guttural howl. The thing was hot on her heels and closing.
All seemed lost… when the dawn arrived.
Angela experienced a rush of hope as brilliant rays of orange, white, and gold burst through the trees. But that hope was fleeting. The cavalry had not arrived in time. It wasn't the light of salvation. Rather, it was the dawn of the dead. It cast long shadows through the woods while, at the same time, ominously lighting a clearing ahead like a spotlight on a stage. Lights up, she was afraid, on the final act in the theater of blood. Angela had no choice. She left the path, crossed the clearing in eight panicked strides then, gasping in terror and exhaustion, pulled up with no more room to run.
She caught her balance at the brink of a sheer rock cliff. She swallowed hard and gaped over the edge taking in the hundred foot drop to a surging river below. Her mind reeled. Her stomach rolled. She took an involuntary step back. Her cognitive senses took an instant to catch up. She was trapped.
She turned to stare back across the clearing to the woods on the downhill side. She dropped her arms to her sides, flexed her fists, and fought to master her breathing. Was she afraid? YES! Still… If it was the end, she decided then and there, let it come. She was Angela Roskowic, wasn't she? Her old man's kid? She'd meet this like she met every challenge in life – head on.
The morning breeze chilled, blew through her hair and torn clothes, brushed her beads of sweat, turning her skin to goose-flesh, and sending a shudder through her small athletic frame. Behind her, Angela heard the water surging below. At the timber line, before her, she heard the snap of twigs and crunch of leaves heralding the arrival of her pursuer.
The thing broke through the trees.
Angela screamed – and bolted upright in bed. Just like the heroines did in the old horror movies she loved so much. She eyed her surroundings in the gloom and, finally, recognized them; her own bed, in her own room, in her own apartment. Angela caught her breath. It had only been a nightmare. The nightmare… again. For the fourth night in a row. Four times the growling thing had chased her through the woods and to the brink. Four times she'd found herself trapped and facing death. Four times she'd screamed herself awake.
She'd been a mess in the dream and, no doubt, looked worse now it had passed. Angela sat drenched, her too-big flannel night shirt clinging with sweat, her hair matted, her breath coming in pants, and a rivulet of saliva escaping the side of her mouth. Ugh, pretty. She wiped her chin with her shirt-sleeve and collapsed back on the damp pillow.
Like most actresses, most directors, most people of the theater, Angela was a night person, not much good in the day. Facing the normal world was challenge enough. Now, with her nights being ruined by crazy dreams… Ugh! Who needed it? She lay there, slowing her breathing, blanking her mind, willing her muscles to relax. She looked at the bedside clock and groaned with relish. “Whatever you do,” she told herself aloud, “don't fall asleep again. It's time to make the doughnuts.”
To heck with nightmares. She had places to be, people to see. If she didn't get going, Angela knew, the day would wind up one big trip through hell.
Four hours later, following a shower, toaster pastry with sprinkles, and a few last minute chores at the theater (she'd procrastinated the day before), with a cup of espresso driving away the remnants of her nightmare and her comfy-as-an-old-shoe Maverick driving away the last of the two hundred miles from The Windy City, Angela motored through Savanna, a sleepy northwest Illinois town on the east bank of the Mississippi. If she'd read the map right, she had nearly reached her destination.
One of the great thought-thinkers at the last meeting of their Chicagoland Directors' Guild, to the question of where their next convention ought be held, had boldly suggested a retreat into the wilds beyond the city. A “get away and play” as he called it. Of course, with the exception of a film shoot in South Bend, he'd never been more than five miles from the heart of the Loop. Someone else would have to arrange the affair. Angela as, one, the committee's recording secretary and, two, the only member not at the meeting, was nominated and immediately elected. She had no more experience with nature than the others, but that would teach her to miss meetings.