Deer season was approaching its eve, and, being the avid hunter I once was, I readied my algorithm of scents, calls, and supplies. The first day of deer season I was sure to be out there. Hunting was a passion of mine. I enjoyed it, but not as a game – I respected my kill. I was quite thankful for the meat and game provided by my prey. Perhaps it was in my blood.
I happened to live in the perfect place for it: the deep Midwest, dense with evergreens of every variety. There were rolling hills and creeks around every bend. The deer here were plentiful, and, when I couldn’t hunt, I enjoyed watching them as they came upon my land to graze, a temporary haven until their destined time. This region had never known wolves, mountain lions, or even coyotes for as long as I could remember.
If it weren’t for me, the deer would have lived in paradise here.
Needless to say, the nearest city center was several miles away, and so was my nearest neighbor. I enjoyed the serenity that I was constantly immersed in. I avoided horror films and ghost stories – Living out here with such things on your mind would soon drive you mad. Here, it was dark at night. Truly dark. Light was so absent some nights that, had I been placed randomly in the woods near my home, I’d be lost until sunrise.
This particular deer season was promising. The bucks that I had been seeing were majestic and their points numerous. I was so anxious for the season to approach that I found it hard to sleep. Luckily, I had a means through which to tide myself over until the dawn of this year’s hunt. I had an old deer cam my father gave to me many birthdays ago. I used it every year, but I always waited until the last week before deer season so I could see all of the populous fauna of the forests.
One morning, before the early hues of purple fled the sky, I waded through dew laden grass and weeds until I found my usual spot. It was an exemplary angle: The view was downhill, overlooking a babbling brook that beckoned the wildlife like moths to a flame. Few were the trees and obstacles that obstructed this view. A professional photographer would die for such scenery, yet I was the lucky participant.
Strapping the gadget to the tree was simple and quick. It was almost odd being done so quickly after such a long, refreshing walk to this spot. For a moment, I just took in the surroundings, breathing untainted air and sensing a time when man was not.
I walked home quickly, as if the faster I made it back, the sooner the week would pass and I would be able to enjoy the hunt. That week drudged by ever slowly. It was filled with monotonous chores and television that I was unable to focus on.
But finally my day did come.
I was up again when the morning mimicked twilight and the foliage attempted to soak through to your toes. This was what I lived for, the countenance of life in every inhale. I made my way past where I laid the deer cam. The mechanism sensed me and made a ‘click’ sound so subtle that a pin’s fall would drown it out. I suppressed a laugh and continued on about 70 yards.
This would be where I sat and waited for my prey.
Something felt off. The noiselessness of the forest was apprehensive. Such ambiance was better placed at an empty funeral.
I shifted, cracking a dead leaf under me. The sound resonated throughout the woods, the trees only making the noise more buoyant. I felt stupid – If the deer heard too much of that, my hunt would be futile.
I leaned my head against the tree I was seated beneath. The bark was hard and unforgiving, but such were the inconveniences that lead to triumph. I felt up the rifle at my side, reassuring myself that the safety was not on. I had loaded it before heading out, not taking the chance to have to ready the damned thing if I saw a trophy buck on the way here.
The sound of a twig breaking behind me stole my attention. An involuntary smile overwhelmed me as I nearly shook with excitement. I assumed a deer had snuck up on me. It was unaware of my presence, but little did it know it had just given itself away.
My hands were glued to the rifle, ever vigilant for the moment to strike.
The sound came closer and closer, the forest floor echoing the creature’s approach. Soon, the sound was just behind the tree where I sat, waiting. I could even hear breathing, deep and slow. I almost wanted to yell, to tell it to stand in front of me. It seemed to be taking its sweet time to show itself.
The breathing stopped and my heart sank.
Was it gone? No, it couldn’t have been. I would have heard it. Maybe it was holding its breath and listening for imminent danger? If so, it would certainly have to breathe again.
But it didn’t.
I waited for a half hour, my rear becoming sore from my unchanging position. The thing was gone, and it had somehow eluded me.
I was frustrated. I turned my head slowly, revolving my skull around the tree like disagreeing cogs. I saw the forest abruptly behind me and there was nothing. The same noiselessness remained, and there seemed to never have been another presence at all.
I stood up, the hair on the back of my neck did the same. I wasn’t scared, per say. I was simply uneasy. Because, as I checked the soil where the sounds emerged, there was no evidence, no tracks of any kind.
What the hell did I hear?
My skin became goose flesh as instinct forced my gaze in every direction. Compulsively, I looked up, as if the thing had silently crawled up the tree, but the thin branches were as empty of a presence as they were of leaves.
The all too familiar sound came again from my left.
Crack. This time from the right.
Crack. The sounds were coming from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
I started running, carelessly waving my rifle in a frenzy to escape the unoriginated noise. But the sound followed me, never growing distant or close as I ran. I wasn’t sure if it was the brisk, chilly wind against my face or the fear growing inside me, but tears protruded from my eyes and flowed over my cheeks.
Suddenly, the sounds stopped. I stopped as well, fear never leaving me. I could not continue when I did not the know what, where, or why of my situation.
I began to feel a breeze pick up on my right side, gently blowing over my ear almost forming a ‘hush’ sound. I listened closely, ready for another crack in the distance, but it never came. The wind picked up and a new sound came with it. Not just a sound, but a voice.
I ran harder than before, my heart aching painfully with each palpitation. If this strange presence didn’t kill me, the stress certainly would. The walk there that took a good hour I ran within ten minutes. When I reached my house, I opened and slammed the door shut. I even locked the deadbolt.
No one around for miles and I was locking my door from something.
Eventually, I calmed down. I watched some TV to take my mind off of things. After being so excited to get out there, it was a weird feeling for me to rather stay inside all day. It just didn’t feel safe out there. I thought I was just spooked, that a good night’s rest would alleviate the anxiety and suspense.
That night, it was extremely difficult to sleep.
My room was hardly dark, illuminated by a lamp made makeshift nightlight. The windows were closed and blinded out of paranoia. There was still rampant fear left in me, and I didn’t want to take any chances. By God, I was going to enjoy this season, I told myself.
In spite of my stress, my tossing and turning was only aided by a strange clicking sound coming from somewhere in my room. I couldn’t place it, but it came every few seconds. It wasn’t very loud, and, soon, I was able to drown it out with thoughts, and quickly those thoughts became dreams.
Somehow, I actually felt rejuvenated when I awoke. The morning sun broke gently through the blinds of my bedroom windows, the warmth of its rays splashing ever so pleasantly against my bare skin. I got out of bed and made my way to the door, yawning and stretching as I went.
Of course, that same noise from the night before. This time, I could make out where it was coming from. I perked up, listening intently to zero in on it.
It was coming from the dresser stationed a few feet from the side of my bed I slept on. Confused, I walked over, still half-asleep and in a daze. My blurry vision steadily focused on a dark object placed on my dresser.
I picked it up and nearly fell to the floor. I felt my mouth open wide in a gape.
It was my deer cam.
No, no, no, no, no, I kept telling myself. It was impossible. Had I picked up the camera before coming home? Yeah, that had to be it, I thought.
To be sure, I popped the SD card from the back of the device. I opened my laptop, the screen blinding my not-so-awake eyes. I shoved the card inside the computer, inadvertently hard. I clicked the icon for the SD card that popped up. A window appeared listing hundreds of still loading images.
Yeah, I just don’t remember taking the camera with me, I again assured myself.
The pictures loaded, and I was relieved. The first several dozen photographs were of deer, raccoons, a couple of opossums fighting over an unidentifiable artifact (probably garbage). I continued to scroll down, a laugh building up inside as I realized how silly I was for forgetting that I brought my own deer cam home.
Then I froze, my heart refusing to beat for the moment.
The environment in the next photographs was no longer the forest. It was no longer wildlife. Because, in the picture that now enveloped my screen, I lay sleeping in my bed.
The automated slideshow perpetuated my horror.
Each of the next photos were of me as well. I was in different positions, obviously tossing and turning as I slept. I wanted to cry, to scream, to do something besides look on in terror, but the entirety of my body was paralyzed.
The numbers of the pictures counted down, slowly approaching the last photo. When the final picture appeared, I threw the laptop across the room and ran out of my house. I jumped into my car and drove maniacally to the nearest other living soul I could find.
I stopped living there. Any sane person would never go back after what I saw. But whatever was there with me has followed me. To this day, I hear the clicking at night. Whenever I walk on the streets or around my house, I hear cracking nearby. And when I hear those sounds, my mind reflects back to a picture I will never forget. The last picture on that long forsaken SD card.
The picture of me asleep, a hill of blanket apparent behind me. And the clawed hand reaching out from it and resting on my cheek.