Behind the Veil

THEY COULD HAVE BEEN YOU

100 PEOPLE LOST IN MONTANA EVERY YEAR

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        Andrew mouthed the words from the sign on the bathroom wall as he pulled up his zipper.  He studied the long list of names and faces extending towards the bottom of the flyer.

         “Jesus,” he said.

         As he washed his hands, he picked at clay caked deep beneath his fingernails.  He smiled thinking about the thousands of nearly identical buttes and coulees with similar clay baking underneath the high Montana sun and how he’d just happened to look at that single butte with a glint of white; something he’d done a thousand times.  He’d known full well all along they were out here.  Sure, Triceratops is neat, they’d taken out two skulls last year alone but that’s a participation trophy next to this; this was gold, a unique species of Dromaeosaurus, previously only known from teeth.  Out here the ground was sick with ghosts and he’d found the devil of them all.

         Andrew turned off the faucet and exited.  Cattle brands adorned the walls outside the bathroom like an esoteric hieroglyphic language. Around the corner, Brenda and Gwen talked with a local named Hank.   Sarah sat off to the side on her own and Kevin stumbled back from the bar. Their new friends Amy, Ted, and Roy were expected any minute.

         “Do people really disappear out here, Hank?” Andrew asked in reference to the sign.

         “Only if they want to,” Hank spoke with a thick, deep drawl.  “Folks who run away don’t wanna be found.”  When Hank spoke he had a tendency to put his cheek up on one side.

         Sarah looked down at a large yellow feather twirling it.   She didn’t care for drinking or small talk. She heard Hank tell a joke about ‘Indians.’  Her friends laughed in an attempt to stay cordial. As the only person of color in the group, Sarah knew just how dangerous their ambivalence could be.   Then there was Kevin. She listened as he spoke her direction while not to her at all. He wanted to be heard calling Hank a racist. Good for you, Kevin, how about a gold star? Sarah thought.  Hank pivoted in conversation, he was agile with a joke and dodged an argument but only because his newfound compatriots allowed it.

         Her mind drifted back to the field; if this had been brain surgery their patient wouldn’t have a chance in hell.   The girls were on vacation and they wanted to party; Kevin had two left hands and too much to prove; Andrew was the most experienced, but he was a glory hound, working fast and efficiently but also carelessly.  Dromaeosaurus may have been better off sleeping another 65 million years. She tapped her cheek with the feather as she thought.

         “You found Big Bird!”  Hank’s voice boomed like thunder pulling her back from her ruminations.

         “Know what it is?”  She held up the iridescent lemon-colored quill.

         “It’s fake!”  Hank laughed in a deep booming voice.  “What costume shop did you get it from, darlin’.”

         Sarah resented the honorific.   She was nobody’s darlin’ and she felt this redneck fool was calling her a liar.

         “Fake feathers don’t smell like this when they burn.” She held some ash in a chewing gum wrapper to the man’s nose.

         Hank wretched backward, it smelled like burnt hair.

         “If you say so,” Hank conceded. “No bird out here is that big.  ‘Feather is the size of a whole eagle.”

         Sarah detected bullshit but knew better than to call him on it.  “Thanks, boy scout,” she smiled.

         “Diggin’ up bones, diggin’ up bones,”  Randy Travis wailed from the internet jukebox.

         “Hey, is this ya’lls theme song?”  Hank said. He laughed.  The women ignored him and turned away.

         “Andrew, how old is the dromodon again?”  Gwen asked.

         Dromaeosaurus,” Andrew corrected, “is late cretaceous, like 68 million.”

         “How can you tell?” Hank’s toothy smile was disarming as he reentered the conversation.  Andrew couldn’t tell if he was baiting him or not. He bit anyways.

         “Potassium-argon dating of certain rocks.  You can see it out there, in those hills that contain coal. There’s this thin pinkish line of clay; it’s called the K-Pg boundary.  We’re actually studying it. It was deposited after the asteroid impact; we can tell because it’s rich in iridium which is only found in space or deep within the earth.”

         “Uh-huh, well keep diggin’ around out there, you might not like what you find.” Hank didn’t like being talked down to, he tipped his hat and walked away.

         “What? Does he think ‘dromosaur’ gonna eat us?” Gwen said.  She scrunched her face into a mockup of its saurian visage brandishing three fingers as claws.

         “Nah, dromaeosaurus was like a prehistoric coyote, he’d be too scared,” Kevin feigned a smile. He was irritated that he missed his chance to show off his knowledge. To Kevin, they were all snobby college kids overlooking his underclass brilliance but truthfully, Kevin knew he was dull.

         “Coyotes eat you,” Sarah interjected. “Unlike mountain lions, they won’t even bother to kill you first.”

         “Can we not talk about getting eaten?  It’s horrible.” Brenda’s face was scrunched in disgust.  She was leaning on a firefighter in town on wildfire duty.  He’d joined the table mid-conversation.

         “It wouldn’t so bad, getting eaten,” Sarah said, unable to resist the temptation.  She loved to make them squirm.

         “What!?”  The other two girls coughed.

         “You don’t feel it.  Not when they’re eating.”  The whole table looked at Sarah, she turned her head to hide the grin. “Prey respond with shock.  When they get attacked, they shut down and stop fighting. They don’t feel a thing. They’re still awake and aware as they’re being picked apart and opened up, but their eyes glaze over with this…glassy look.  Some think it’s a last-ditch effort by the body to preserve vital tissues but when the jig is up, as prey, you’re evolutionarily predisposed to accept your place in the food chain.”

         “Dude! This is creepy,” said Brenda.  She belched.

         “Yeah right Sar, you’d scream your ass off,” Gwen said while swaying.

         Kevin fumed in silence.

         Sarah noticed Andrew watching the door for Amy, Ted, and Roy.

         “I told you, we shouldn’t have left them.” Sarah could never pass up a decent told ya.  “They seemed shady,” she finished. He knew better than to engage her and walked away.

         At the bar, Andrew waited for another drink.  An older man in a cowboy hat sat closer to the door.

         “Digger?” the man asked. “Too skinny for one of them firemen and I don’t recognize you so you must be a digger,” the man chastised through his teeth chewing a toothpick. “With Samuels?”

         “Yes Sir,” Andrew said, the room began to spin. He took another sip.

         “Don’t really believe in it myself.”  The man looked Andrew in the eye.

         “We get that a lot,” Andrew smirked and looked away clenching his own wrist. “I’ll let you know next time we bring our mission through.”

         Laughter surprised Andrew as it poured out from beneath the cowboy hat.  Kevin approached for backup.

         “Obsessions will eat a man.  I like what y’all find, ‘s why I let you dig.  It’s also why I never will. Treasure hunters are always the same; obsessed, so you rob the land looking for things that don’t need finding.”   The man’s toothpick danced beneath his enormous mustache.

         “Sir, I assure you, we’re only interested in scientific progress.”

         “Progress? Boy, what the hell good is progress?  My grandfathers died taming this land so city people could romanticize it from air-controlled buildings and call it “progress.”  White men earned our place in the west, the way we always have.  Theft and murder. This used to be Crow country. Go down to Billings and ask what the Crow people think of “progress.”

         Kevin opened his mouth to speak but Andrew placed a firm hand on his shoulder.  A political discussion on social justice was the last thing they needed. Andrew realized who this man was.  He owned a lot of land around the county, including the land their Dromaeosaurs sat on. They’d call him Sir, and they wouldn’t insult him.

         “For all that progress, places like this can exist and dudes like you who’ve never worked a day in your life can come to my ranch and treat it like some sort of scientific Disneyland.  Progress…” the man spit his toothpick. “We need less of it.” He nodded towards the teenager behind the bar on his cellphone. “We need less city-people playing adventure out here and dot-com millionaires building hideaway mansions. And less kids running away from hard work. They all forget.”  He looked around the bar. “This land is dangerous, but here, sitting under the lights with the fancy internet jukeboxes and sipping refrigerated beer…well, we all forget.”

         “Sir, I assure you we respect your land. We never meant any harm.” Andrew said.

         “Do you know why they call it Hellcreek?” The man listened to the two young men breathing a moment.

         “Barnum named the formation after Hellcreek, but…”  Kevin was at loss.

         “It comes from the things Indians told the white men.  Things that’ll make the hairs on your neck stand up. When they first started exploring out here scientists called it primordial, the preachers called it Godless, but the Indians knew the truth.  It’s cursed.

         “Like a Native American curse?” Kevin was leaning into the bar.

         “And you think we’re racist.”  The man laughed. “No, this curse is older than them.  Much older. There’s a devil in those hills you’re digging into.   You hear it howling at night.” The man’s eyes glistened.

         Andrew’s skepticism was taking over and he wasn’t sure if the story was an act or sincere.

         “I’m not really one to believe in ghost stories,”  Andrew said.

         “That’s all America is, son.  One big ghost story. The land never forgets. Diggers should know that,” the man took another drag.  “Seems you left some friends behind today to set up camp? When Samuels signed the permit, I told him…”

         “Damnit, we told them not to, sir,”  Andrew interrupted, he was angry.  Deep down he knew, it wasn’t that they disobeyed the rules; it was jealousy.  They were at his site, those were his bones.

         “I saw their bright yellow tent on the way in.  I don’t go out at night for the same reasons you’d best go collect ‘em.”

         I can’t believe we trusted them, he thought. He motioned to Sarah to gather the girls and apologized to the rancher.  Kevin filled the women in.  Andrew assured himself it was probably fine.  They were probably just trying to save a few bucks on the hotel.

         “Can we get them tomorrow?”  Kevin asked almost rhetorically.  “Why is this our problem?”

         “Because Dr. Samuels left us in charge, they’re jeopardizing our permits.  Who knows, they could be fossil poachers,” Sarah said heading for the door as the group finished paying their tabs.  Sarah had zero tolerance for disrespect.

         “Can I just get the key to the motel?” Kevin said, but he was ignored.

         “They’re not ruining our site.” Andrew cracked his knuckles. He could see Sarah was furious. Everyone else was exhausted but Andrew was thrilled.  Time in the field regardless of the reason was time well spent.

         Andrew stopped as a hand suddenly grabbed his arm.  It was the rancher.

         “You hear them howling, run.  You feel a wind at your neck, pray. You’re about to see the real west. If you get lost out there… I won’t come digging.”  The old man smiled and tipped his hat. The bone diggers left to clean up their mess.

–-——————————————————————————————————————

 

         The wind rushed through a gaping hole in the collapsed structure roaring like the mouth of hell.   In the harsh sterile light emanating from a cellphone, Andrew couldn’t differentiate what was shredded nylon canvass and what was meat.  Save for a few backpacks, blood-soaked clothes, and one torn sleeping bag, the tent was empty. Three people should have been inside.

         “They’re gone,” Andrew called back to Kevin, poking at the tent with his bayonet.   “Gone,” he repeated to himself.

         Kevin began circling the tent for signs of their new friends.  They’d only met the day before yesterday. Andrew and Sarah didn’t trust them, but Kevin liked them okay.  After two nights of drinking, he could get to be friends with pretty much anyone. Still, they shouldn’t be out here, he thought resentfully, then we wouldn’t be standing over this bloody mess.

         “I really hope they’re okay.   Could be a joke?” Kevin said, forcing air through his nose to feign a laugh. “It’s gotta be a joke.”

         In the fading twilight, Andrew could see several drag marks jutting off in different directions.   A set of boot prints trailed off and disappeared in the hard Montana clay. Kevin followed Andrew’s eyes wishing he’d stayed at the motel.

         Desperate, both men called out in unison, “Amy! Ted! Roy!” but only the stars and moon heard them.

         “Coyotes?”  Kevin said. He scratched his red stubble. “A bear?”

         Andrew squinted in the light of his cellphone screen.  He looked back towards the direction of the van. “It’s getting too dark.  We’ll have to call someone.”

         Leaving Kevin to gaze at the void in the tent, Andrew turned on his flashlight and started towards the headlights at the top of the gorge.   Footsteps soon followed as Kevin raced up the coulee behind him.  He thought about checking the site but decided that could wait.  They needed help.

         “How are you so calm, they’re probably dead?”  Kevin whined, watching his feet.

         “It doesn’t help.” Andrew said.

         “What doesn’t?” Kevin scrunched his brow.

         “You ever see anybody die?”

         “God, no.”  Kevin’s mouth hung open showing his crooked bottom teeth.

         “It isn’t tragic or scary…or even sad.  It’s uneventful.” Andrew looked back. Kevin was holding his wrist and listening.  “It isn’t until you process it that all the emotions hit you. In the moment? It’s just another thing that happens.  A universal truth, like gravity. Things fall every day.” Andrew stopped.

         “You sound like a sociopath,”  Kevin scoffed racing up the hill.

 

         Above the gorge, Sarah sat in the van nervously checking her watch.   Packs, water, food, tents, tools, radios, first aid items, all were organized in the van ready to go if needed.  Brenda and Gwen drunkenly laughed taking selfies and stumbling outside. They were anything but helpful but that was for the best.  Sarah had this under control; she had a system and she preferred it that way.

         With nothing left to do but wait, Sarah began looking through small zip-lock bags of broken weathered bits of dinosaur bone.  She couldn’t believe they let her keep them.

         “Explode-a-saurus,” she said to herself.

         She looked at her cell; no service.  There was never service out here.  It was the last place on the continent untouched by modern convenience.  She tried the radio; a screeching interference blocked the signal.  Damn, she thought.

         BANG!

         Brenda kicked the door, it promptly slid open.

         “Did this feature cost extra, Sarah?” Brenda was giggling.

         The door had been broken since she bought the van.  One well-placed blow would trigger the mechanism and locked or not, the door would sling open.

         “Get in the van, before you step on a rattlesnake,” Sarah said.

         “You guys said you never see snakes out here!” Gwen pouted. “One was in my bucket.”  Gwen crawled into the van with Brenda.

         The three women sat huddled in individual blankets.  Sarah curled her nose at the smell of her friends. They stunk like gasoline, they were sweating liquor.  Sarah thumbed through a geology textbook by flashlight.

         “Do you think anyone will find us 68 million years from now?”

         “What?” Brenda said as she sloshed into the opening in the seats.

         “In the future, whoever comes after us.  Do you think the land will remember?” Sarah picked up the rocky bit of destroyed dinosaur bone.

         “How could it forget?” Brenda drunkenly goaded, flashing her bra.

         “Very funny, hoe” Sarah’s face wore irritation. “Seriously, in 3.8 billion years of life,” She tossed the hunk of prehistoric detritus in the zip-lock bag. “Dinosaurs got almost 200 million years and BAM!  We’re lucky to find scraps. We’ve only been around what? 200 thousand? If we disappeared tomorrow, who’s to say they find us?   There’s no way we find everything.’ Sarah paused and sighed. “Or everyone.”

         “I think you’re wrong about the one I found, Sarah.”  Brenda was digging through the bag.

         ‘The cow jaw?” Sarah raised her eyebrow.

         “…looks like a dinosaur.” Brenda burped the stench of volatile solvents. “…dinosaur teef,” she said, as she opened the door and stumbled out of the van.  “I gotta pee.”

 

         Andrew and Kevin were approaching the mouth of the gorge panting and sweating. The van’s headlights shined a short distance away.   Neither man spoke about what they just heard. They charged forward in mutual unspoken disbelief, holding false hope that they were imagining it, that it never happened. They heard it again; the scream.  Several more, in fact. It seemed to be saying something. They couldn’t tell whether it was one voice crying out in terror, or two. A cold feeling gripped Andrew’s spine as he approached the van. Kevin thought about what Sarah said at the bar.  They must be alive, for now. He punched the side door. The mouth slid open. Stumbling inside he tried to remember exactly how he’d gotten so drunk.

         “Where’s Brenda?”  Andrew was leaning into the van with his eyes focused behind him.

         “She went out to pee.  Are they gathering their shit? Are they leaving?”  ,Sarah said. She read the concern in Andrew and Kevin’s eyes. She hadn’t heard the scream.

         “God, I hope they’re okay,” Kevin said, shaking his head.

         “What’s he talking about?”  Sarah was gearing up to take charge.

         “We need to get Brenda and leave; we need help.”

         “Let’s just go, Drew!” Kevin was rubbing his arms.

         “What happened? Where’s Amy? What did they do?”  Sarah was shuffling things in the van to clean up.

         “We need to go. I’ll tell you on the road.”  Andrew’s face was pale.

         “Let’s go find Brenda,” Sarah demanded.

         Gwen moaned drunkenly in the back.

         “I can’t…I need sleep.”  She slurred her words while caressing the seat of the van.

         “Then stay here.”  Sarah was already slamming the door. “I put the child locks on,” she said to Andrew.  They grabbed three bottles of water and flashlights and started out in the dark to find Brenda.

         Andrew led the group in their search, it wasn’t lost on Sarah that he was walking in the direction of the dig site.  She had known him for a long time. Anything for another look, another minute.

         “This is a bad fucking idea; we should just go.”  Kevin was waving his flashlight erratically.

         “Brenda!  Time to leave!”  Andrew and Sarah took turns calling for her but she didn’t answer. Kevin walked backward keeping watch behind them.

         “We should go,” Kevin repeated at a whisper.

         “We can’t yet.” Sarah sensed his fear. “Andrew, c’mon.  The site?!  There are more pressing matters!”

         “We should get the fuck out of here. he isn’t telling you about the bloody fucking tent something ate the new guys, or Montana’s version of Charlie-fucking-Manson got them and if Brenda wandered off then whatever happens to her is her fucking problem.”  Kevin was jutting his jaw out as he yelled.

         “Shut up!”  Andrew glared towards Kevin.

 

         “Sshhh!”  Sarah interrupted holding her hand up at them.   The brush on the mound of clay in front of them was alive with a low hissing noise.  The stars were becoming visible. Soon it would be too dark to look for anyone.

         “Is that a snake?!” Kevin whined.

         “Not at night.” Andrew cupped his hand over his ear.

         The hissing escalated in volume and pitch until it was a deep gravely, unearthly howl.

         “What the fuck is that!?’  Kevin’s whole face was strained as he spun around with his flashlight.  A wind rustled the brush stirring up the aroma of sage. Suddenly, the howl stopped.

         The three didn’t speak as a large gust of wind struck them from behind sending chills down Kevin’s spine.   The three started stepping backward slowly and silently when another sound pierced the darkness. A rhythmic thumping sound like footsteps was closing in but the wind made it difficult to pinpoint the direction.  The group swung around. The pattering continued. Andrew clenched his jaw. Sarah felt the nerve above her eye twitching as she wiped the sweat from her brow. Kevin was poised to run. The brush rattled behind them.  Suddenly, the wind was still again.

         “Guys!”  A familiar voice shattered the tension.  Behind them stood Brenda. She was swaying in the glow of their flashlights, looking as if she’d fallen a few times. Her shirt was stained with something wet and yellow.  There were tears in her eyes.

         “I heard someone scream” She burped. “I was puking, but I ran anyways.” Brenda hiccupped, “I got lost.”  The young woman ran her fingers through her scalp gathering crab-grass.

         Seeing Brenda gave Andrew the momentary impression that everything was going to be okay.  He forgot the tent. He forgot Amy, Ted, and Roy. The group started their way back towards the car holding their breath from the stench on Brenda’s clothes.

         As the four of them made their way back to the van, the wind followed.  A forceful gust swept them from behind. Andrew felt something sharp burning in his back as he fell forward.

         “Fuck! What was that?”   He brought his hand forward into the light.  It was red with blood. Warm liquid trickled down his shirt.

         “Aw man, we gotta get out of here!”  Kevin was nearly crying, his voice cracked.

         The hills howled again, closer this time as if mocking the doomed quartet. They began to run.

         The sage rustled around them as their feet stomped into the hard Montana clay.

Something was following them.

         “What is that?” Sarah cried to Kevin as he struggled to keep up with Brenda’s arm slung over his shoulder.

         Where they ran, an unnatural wind seemed to follow as if they were being fanned by giant palm leaves.   Despite Kevin’s best efforts to keep up, Brenda just couldn’t move fast enough. They were falling behind.   A drowning man will take you down with him, Kevin thought to himself.  Another gust of wind swept them from behind.  A hard-repetitive thud could be heard as something heavy made contact with the dry dirt.   He could see Andrew and Sarah’s flashlights faintly ahead. Whatever cut Andrew’s back was closing in on them.

         He acted instinctively.  A subconscious impulse guided his fingers as they clasped tightly around Brenda’s arm.   With a fluid motion, he flung the arm away, sticking his foot out for Brenda to fall.

         He only glanced back for a second as she was ripped away, her white palms outstretched for help as they were pulled from the light.   He continued to run from the sound of Brenda’s sobs punctuated by loud cracking sounds, gasps for air, and indescribable gurgles. Suddenly there was silence.  He paused to catch his breath, the light from Andrew and Sarah’s flashlights was gone.

         “Shit!”  How could you lose the van, Kev?  He thought. Frenzied, he ran north-east, downhill.   The terrain grew rockier, eroded spires of hard sandstone jutted up from the Earth.  This couldn’t be right; the van was uphill. He turned the opposite direction and ran.  His heart pounded in his temples. He could hardly catch his breath; his chest grew tight.  He began to cry but his own wheezing was drowned out by a low guttural hiss growling from behind.  In his peripherals, he could see something closing in with razor precision. His body went limp, in a split-second decision, Kevin decided to roll.

         His body spun down the hill smashing his ribs against a large granite boulder; he cursed the damned glacier that left it there thousands of years ago.  Clutching his broken ribs, he saw the beast closing in.

         It had a supernatural quality as it came to a full stop out of a sprint and stood over Kevin.  He craned his head upwards as its jaws came downward. He saw its beady orange eyes glowing like fire in the Montana moonlight.   This the real west, he thought, hearing his bones snap. A magpie laughed.

 

         Gwen was startled awake by the sound of something hitting the van.   She pushed herself up and looked out the window.

         “Sarah?”  Her voice wavered to no-one. The van rattled in the wind.

         BANG!

         Gwen gasped as something made contact with the rear window, leaving a streak of grease.   A dark silhouette obscured the moonlight. The loud huffing noise outside the window had a sobering effect on Gwen.  She sat up as the thing struck the door this time.

         BANG! 

         Panicked, she grabbed the keys from the center console and climbed into the driver’s seat.

         BANG!

         The unseen assailant struck again. Gwen dropped the keys.  The whole van rocked violently. Frantically, she thumbed for the keys beneath the seat.  Her finger caught the keyring as another well-placed blow struck the broken rear door on the left side.

         BANG!

         The mechanism triggered and the door slid open.  Hurried, Gwen started the engine and shifted the vehicle in gear.   Drool dripped on her shoulder as the creature wheezed behind her. It was inside the van.   She slammed her eyes shut and stomped on the gas.

         CRASH!

         Blood dripped from Gwen’s forehead. Something wailed in pain before vanishing in the night.  She looked up; her vision pulsed in sync with the throbbing sensation in her head. Brushing glass from her hair, she coughed in the smoke spewing from the crumpled hood in the van.  Her friends were shouting for her in the distance. She reached for the door.

 

         The van’s alarm was blaring with a sick distorted tone that reflected its dilapidated state buried in the side of a butte. The van door was nearly smashed inwards. Gwen stumbled out.

         “It was inside!”  She cried. “It was inside!”

         Andrew caught Gwen as she fell.

         “Van’s dead,” Sarah’s defeated voice was strained as she surveyed the damage. “Get up Gwen, we gotta go.” Sarah walked over and tugged the girl’s other arm.

         “What about Kevin and Brenda?”  Andrew pulled at the hair on the back of his head.

         “I think it got them.”  Sarah shined her light out in the field, there was another light sitting in the open.  It was Kevin’s, but he wasn’t with it.

         “THIS IS FUCKED!”  Andrew broke down for the first time dropping Gwen’s arm to go kick the van.

         “Andrew, we need to go,” Sarah refocused his attention.  They said goodbye to their vehicle grabbing a rock hammer for a weapon and some water before limping towards the road, moving in unison with Gwen swinging between them. The small hills and sagebrush were unforgiving when carrying a person.

         “The eyes are everywhere,” Gwen gasped between sobs, “everywhere!”  Gwen struggled to break free. “Why did you make us come here?!”

         Sarah saw what troubled her friend.  Her flashlight caught the glint in their eyes as she moved it back and forth.  Twelve orange orbs faced forward in pairs of two. The creatures stood between them and the road.  They didn’t scatter like most animals, these things were not afraid.

         “What are we going to do?!” Gwen was hysterical.

         “Do you see them?” Sarah asked.   Her heart sank to her toes. She grew nauseous.  The eyes were getting closer.

         Together, the group turned and ran.

         A now familiar burst of fanned air hit them from behind.   Footsteps grew louder as the things closed in.

         “I…I can’t!”  Gwen sank. Both Sarah and Andrew tried to pull her up as she slugged behind them.   Something breathed on Andrew’s neck leaving a hot layer of condensation over the cool band of sweat.

         Sarah could only watch as a large set of jaws clamped down on Gwen’s side, blood splashed her face as the helpless woman slid from their grasp, her sweating arms slipping slowly until she was gone.  Sarah couldn’t help but notice, Gwen never screamed.

         For awhile Andrew and Sarah ran together in silence without knowing which way to go. When they stopped, Sarah glanced up hoping to find the north star to help them navigate.  As an experienced astronomer, the sky looked odd. She tried to place it but couldn’t.  A deep bellowing hiss came from the darkness on the left side. The hopes that the primordial hunger of these creatures would be sated by their fallen friends began to fade. She returned her gaze to Earth to see Andrew eclipsed by a large feathery shape with yellow stripes on the tail; it must be “big bird”, she thought.  Andrew fell to the ground and disappeared into the darkness.

         The cackling howls of the creatures screeched all around her.  She was alone now. In vain, she cried out for Andrew. The hissing howls of the creatures answered. She could hear the loud rhythmic thud of claws scraping clay.

         A chilling guttural hiss approached from behind.  She could feel the thing’s fuzzy coating tickling her neck.  She tried to think of a reason; even the most remote bit of understanding would be comforting.  To know is to have power, control; Sarah had none. That same unnatural wind chilled her back as a greyish brown shadow passed by.  Her palm tightened around the rock hammer as she swung the clawed end wildly into the dark. She cut only air.

         First, something slashed her face.  She felt it. It grabbed for her shoulder and started ripping, she heard the socket pop and felt it.   Gravel scrapped her side, back, and knees as it dragged her away. She felt it. A claw ran longitudinally across her abdomen.   Steam poured from her flesh. She barely felt a thing.

         She didn’t think of Andrew, or her family, nor her fallen friends, or the fact that she laid there while strange creatures picked her apart.  No, instead she thought of Polaris. She couldn’t fathom why on such a clear night, the north star wasn’t visible. Her final thoughts were a realization; she was not dying under her own sky.

 

         Andrew struggled to grab his bayonet from his belt as the creature dragged him.   He caught hold of the handle and stabbed madly at the fuzzy muzzle of the beast which had him in its maw.   It cried out and let go, leaving blood on the bayonet. Andrew attempted to stand but he couldn’t. For a while, he’d heard Sarah calling for him in the distance but now there was nothing; the alarm from the van had gone silent as well.

         Helpless and unable to move, Andrew fell back exasperated.  Blood spouted from the holes in his leg. He wiped his bayonet clean.   He’d brought it to remove clay from rock, never expecting to use it for the intended purpose of separating flesh from bone.   How ironic.

         He glanced around and wondered if Sarah saw how strange it was that the entire ground seemed to be made up of sandstones and a familiar reddish pink clay.

         “The boundary, Sarah. The clay.”  He said as if she was still standing by him.  It didn’t make sense, perhaps it was a trick of his mind or the light, but the whole ground looked like the same material found in that razor-thin line; the K-Pg boundary except there was tons of it.  The rocks are sick with ghosts, he thought.

         Looking at the clay he noticed his hand was sitting in fresh animal tracks; a familiar two-toed print that he and Sarah had seen in a museum.  In the distance he could see animals approaching in a strange glimmer of light, it was as if the night had ended in just a few short hours. Andrew put the bayonet down and hung his head in surrender, this was no longer the west he knew.  The battle couldn’t be won.

         They slashed at his back first before they gutted his stomach.  He coughed crimson. He felt his body go cold as warm liquid spilled out.  Andrew’s eyes followed a long-quilled tail with yellow stripes up to a large muscular feathered body.  Wings extended down their feathered arms and ended on the second clawed finger. Ostrich-like reptilian feet pinned him to the ground with a great meat-hook anchoring him to the clay.

         He watched another set of familiar bones wearing flesh he was never meant to see run towards him and fan its wing out to turn abruptly before stopping.  A cloud of dust mushroomed from the wind the wing had generated, it was the same wind that knocked him down just before they’d slashed his back. He realized, rather excitedly for a man being killed, that the wings were airfoils; that’s what made them so agile. The “ground-up” hypothesis was right.

         “Our Dromaeosaurus,” he choked, the treasure had found them.  Another bite came down on Andrew’s neck. His body went limp as his thoughts started to fade.   Andrew didn’t understand, he didn’t care. Large jaws closed around his head and lifted him. He surveyed the horizon and didn’t see the arid badlands on the ranch where they were digging but a conifer dense jungle where three-horned dinosaurs grazed by a stream. He wondered helplessly, is time tethered to the loose linear approximation of human perception? Or is it something more? The land never forgets. His skull cracked.  Shadows danced in his peripherals.

         Everything went dark.

“No more? A monster then, a dream, 

A discord.  Dragons of the prime,

That tare each other in their slime,

Were mellow music match’d with him.

O life as futile, then as frail!

O for thy voice to soothe and bless! 

What hope of answer or redress?

Behind the veil, behind the veil.”

-Alfred Lord Tenyson                     

Copyright, Eli LaChance, 2019, All Rights Reserved

         AUTHORS NOTE:  They say to write what you know.   So for my first endeavor with short story writing, I went all-in on my life’s biggest obsession; dinosaurs.   I can’t remember the first time I saw Godzilla or a Ray Harryhausen flick and decided that this was the thing I’d be into but it was long before my hippocampus was fully developed.

         I came up with the idea for this story while watching the old film Beast from Hollow Mountain and lamenting that the image of the dinosaur in popular fiction has been far too slow at keeping up with modern science.  I’d just returned from my annual vacation digging up dinosaurs in Montana, and while I watched the film, I was toying with a Beasts of the Mesozoic Dromaeosaurus action figure.  It all fell together from there. My favorite part of Beast from Hollow Mountain is that they never address where the dinosaur came from(or if they do, I missed it).  What’s important is there’s a dinosaur living in the swamp and it’s eating ranchers. 

         I also hate hearing whiners cry about modern dinosaurs ruining their childhoods; that feathered dinosaurs aren’t scary.  This is my small attempt at taking a stab at a horror sub-genre which, at least in film, has been unfortunately monopolized by one franchise for the last 25 years and proving that feathery dinosaurs are scary too.   I hope you had as much fun with it as I did with it. 

-Eli LaChance

Image result for mst3k the beast of hollow mountain

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