Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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Nightscreams

by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt



"You know, there were two bear attacks at this campground last year." Blanca paused in the act of spearing a marshmallow onto her stick, the final rays of the setting sun bathing her face. With her dark eyes and high cheekbones Mike always thought of her as the Aztec maiden the ancient priests picked out to sacrifice to their volcano god.

"Who told you that?" he demanded.

"The lady over there in campsite ten. Were they grizzlies?"

"Yeah, at least what the papers said." He eased another log onto the fire and looked up the gravel road winding through the campground sparsely populated with a few tents and a lone truck mounted camper. Weekdays were the best time to get up in the mountains before the weekend crowd.

"They said it was grizzlies?" she persisted.

"Well, I was camping here myself last year--"

"That was before we met. Who were you with that time?"

"Do you want to hear the story or not?"

Blanca sniffed and lowered her marshmallow onto the coals.

"Are you sure you want to hear this?"

"I like bedtime stories."

"Okay. I remember hearing some yelling or screaming during the night, it was hard to tell as it was during a thunderstorm. In the morning I see two Rangers walking down the road toting hunting rifles. They told me a bear had ripped into some guy's tent and carried him off into the woods."

She looked at him. Her eyes widened.

"Did they find out what happened to him?"

"Don't think they did. Just a blood trail ending at the treeline. A bunch of Park officials arrived, chased us out and closed the campground." He ducked as an ember popped in the fire. "I heard there was another attack later that summer in another thunderstorm. Old guy and his wife. Bear tore the door from their camper, dragged them off."

"Did it eat them?"

"I didn't want to hear the details."

"And it was during another thunderstorm?"

"Lots of summer storms in the mountains, hon." He nudged her arm. "Your marshmallow is on fire."

"Dangit!" She frantically shook the blazing stick, causing the marshmallow to fall into the flames.

That was one of the things he liked about her. Most of the girls he had dated would have come out with shit! or goddammit! She eyed the ring of Ponderosa pine about them and the darkening sky.

"Mike, I was thinking..." she ventured. "I've had enough woodsmoke and mosquito bites for one camping trip. Can we go home?"

He shook his head. "Honey, it's almost dark and there's ten miles of winding road and ravines back to the main highway. Here, have another marshmallow."

She made a face and noticed a man walking past their campsite. He was wearing muddy boots, carrying a fishing rod and holding a stringer of fish.

"Hey, somebody got lucky," she observed.

"Evening," Mike greeted him. "How many did you catch?"

The man grinned, lifting the stringer. "Five rainbow trout. I think they stocked the creek last Tuesday."

"Nice! I should have brought my rod."

"Thanks. You folks better get your all your gear inside your car. Looks to me like a storm coming in."

Blanca watched him walk to the campsite next to theirs and unload the fish into a cooler. From somewhere up in the mountains came a distant grumble of thunder.

"Hijo de puta," she muttered.

"I didn't quite catch that, hon."

"Gosh darn it."

The rain started in about midnight, a steady mountain drizzle pattering on the fabric of the tent, showing no signs of letting up until morning.

"Mike, I felt a drop of water on my face." Blanca prodded the snoring body in the sleeping bag next to her.

"Dear, it's a new tent and I waterproofed all the seams," he mumbled. "Go back to sleep."

"You told me I would like camping," she continued. "Fresh air, sunshine, butterflies winging their way past my nose. How are we going to cook breakfast if it's still raining?"

A muffled grunt came from the sleeping bag.

"Mi amor, are you listening to me?"

"How could I possibly be still asleep?"

A flash of light lit up the red and blue panels of the tent. Half a minute later a deep rumble walked its way across the heavens.

"I told you I wanted to go someplace tropical for our vacation. You know, palm trees, a surf-washed beach, margaritas by the pool."

"That was before your bookkeeping job was outsourced to Bolivia and my hours were cut back at the factory."

"At least someplace with clean sheets, hot showers, room service-"

The sound of excited shouting came from somewhere out in the rain. Then the shouting segued into a prolonged and terrified screaming.

"Mike!" He felt her fingers tighten on his arm. He froze, feeling sweat running down the back of his neck, his heart hammering.

"What in the hell?" he whispered.

"I wanna go home now, Mike," Blanca whimpered. "Please!"

"Just hold on, lemme just see what's going on." He groped around, found the flashlight. Crawling from the sleeping bag he pulled up the zipper on the tent flap. Icy water splashed over his head.

The flashlight beam swept through the rain, over the marker post holding his soggy permit, to the tent in the next campsite.

Something was causing the other tent to be violently shaken back and forth. Abruptly, the screaming stopped.

"What's happening out there? What do you see?" came a muffled voice behind him.

Before he could reply the side of his neighbor's tent ripped open and the flashlight played across the shape of some huge animal emerging into the rain, lumbering off into darkness. He carefully backed away from the tent flap.

"Holy shit," he breathed.

"Mi amor, I'm really, really scared!"

"Blanca, we need to get into the car. Like now!" He handed her the flashlight. "I think there's a bear outside. Where's the car keys?"

"A bear!"

"It's okay, I figure it's just nosing around for that guy's fish. Come on, get your shoes on."

With urgent speed they dressed, dashed for the car and threw themselves inside, slamming and locking the doors. Another flash and crack of thunder lashed rain over the windshield. Mike began to grope under the car seat.

"Hon, gimme the flashlight, will you?" he asked.

"Um, I think I left it in the tent." She had her nose pressed to a side window, looking out into the night.

"Oh great. Can you go back and get it for me?"

"Viete a la mierda!" She removed her nose from the circle of condensation to glare at him.

"I love it when you talk dirty." At least he did when she said it in Spanish. Somehow Spanish made it sound sexy.

"What exactly are you looking for?"

"My little equalizer, sweetheart." He flipped on the overhead light and checked the loads of a satin black 44 magnum.

"You promised me not to bring that thing!"

"Aren't you just a teensy glad I did now?"

"Mike, it's against regulations to have a firearm in a State Park. You could go to jail!"

"Did I ever tell you my dad used to be a cop? Well, he said it was always better to be tried by twelve than carried by six."

"Me vuelves loco. You really think you're funny....what's that?"

A rippling lightning flash bathed the campground. An enormous animal was squatting a few yards from their tent.

It was no bear.

To Mike, it seemed like a huge hunchbacked armadillo with scythelike claws. Tentacles from an eyeless face ran over the ground as if searching for the scent of prey. Thunder rumbled and utter darkness returned.

"Can we go home now, Mike?" Her voice quavered a note from hysteria. "I don't care about the winding road or the ravines anymore."

"Somehow it doesn't bother me either." He started to turn the key in the ignition switch.

Something massive landed on the front hood of the car. There was a blizzard of glass and the roof turned concave, began to descend.

"We've got to get out of here!" Mike yelled above the shrieks of rending metal. He shoved the 44 magnum into his jeans and threw himself against the door, forcing it open. He grabbed Blanca by the wrists and pulled her across the driver's seat. Clutching her hand they stumbled off into the night forest, forcing their way through brambles, unseen branches slapping their faces.

On they ran until Blanca tripped over a root, dragging Mike down with her. For a moment they held each other, listening for the sounds of pursuit, gasping for air. A flash above the pines showed the forest behind them empty.

"Hey, are you okay?" he whispered, pushing wet hair from her face.

She held tightly to him. "That wasn't a bear. What was --"

"I don't know, honey. It looked like nothing on Earth to me."

"The man in the tent next to us... that screaming we heard..."

"Try not to think about it, not now." He propped himself up on an elbow, straining his eyes into the dark. "I figure if we circle around to the left we can find the road back to the campground. Then we can get someone to drive us back to town, get the Rangers back here with rifles." He snorted. "Rifles, hell. They'll need goddamn cannons, the size of that thing."

He felt pressure on his arm.

"Mike, is that some kind of light over there, past that big stump?"

It was a light, a pale wavering glow not far ahead. A blast of lightning came from above and it seemed to expand, grow brighter.

"Come on!" He helped her to his feet and they ran on. It had to be someone's vacation cabin, maybe an RV that somehow made it up that mountain road, Mike thought. What he didn't want to find was a campfire and another tent sitting out in this nightmare.

It wasn't.

They pushed through a scramble of underbrush to find themselves in a small clearing. Suspended in the air before them was an enormous blue vortex, shimmering with malevolent fury.

"What... what is that?" Blanca leaned against him, gasping for air.

"I don't know!"

Cautiously they drew nearer, feeling the wind rush past them, drew to the vortex' center. Lightning crackled overhead and the blue glow brightened, making them shield their eyes. Slowly, the center became misty, came into focus. They found themselves gazing down a blue tunnel to where an alien jungle stretched out under twin suns.

"It's like a doorway to someplace else, another world." Mike stared down the tunnel with awe. "Something caused it to open, maybe the lightning from the storm."

The pressure on his arm increased. "Mi amor, if it's okay with you, I think I'd rather be someplace else right now."

"You and me both. Let's head --"

The thing that had crushed their car was crouched at the edge of the clearing. Tentacles in the eyeless face were moving over the ground, over their footprints in the soft earth.

From some corner of his mind Mike sensed the rain had stopped. In a dreamlike trance he pulled the magnum from his belt and lifted the barrel toward the hulking mass bathed in the glow of the vortex behind them.

The thing lurched forward and the magnum spat flame into the darkness. Mike kept firing until the hammer clicked on a spent chamber. The creature squalled, fell to the ground and raised a flurry of leaves, rocks and broken branches. Then it went limp.

"Son of a bitch," he breathed.

"Is it dead?" Blanca peered over his shoulder. "Shoot it some more!"

"Out of rounds, hon. Wanna go over and make sure?"

"Vete al carajo!"

"I love it when you talk dirty."

She nudged him and pointed skywards. "Look, the storm's over." Between the branches high above patches of stars drifted.

Abruptly, the air rushing past them into the vortex increased. The shimmering disc shrank, grew incandescent. The wind sped up to a gale, then became a debris-filled hurricane.

"Get back!" Mike grabbed Blanca and fought against the force of the wind. He tripped over a slab of rock, pulled her behind it. Peering over he could see the vortex shrink to a lurid white ball. The scream of the wind was like splinters of glass in his ears. Then came a blast, a thunderclap that rocked the forest.

Darkness.

It was the singing of birds which drifted into his consciousness. He still had his eyes closed, pondering that birds usually sang in the morning, not at night. Ergo, it must be morning.

"My head hurts."

Mike finally opened his eyes and looked down at her. She had her arms and legs wrapped around him like a vine. "I think we got knocked out by the concussion." Just saying it made his head hurt. "You okay, hon?"

She blinked painfully, squinted at him. "There's some kind of beetle crawling up your shirt."

"Tell me if it's carrying a guitar." He unwrapped himself from her embrace and looked over the rock slab where they had taken refuge. His left side felt slimy from the rain soaked ground.

The morning sun slanted over the clearing, painting flowers fresh from the rain and butterflies chasing each other in dancing spirals. It also dappled the grotesque creature sprawled in a circle of torn earth. Warily they emerged from behind their rock and walked around it.

"Are you sure it's dead?" Blanca demanded.

"Dead as our checking account, sweetheart." Mike prodded a puddle of blue fluid oozing from a bullet hole in the scaly hide.

"Don't touch that, it's icky!"

"Hey, do you hear something?" He cocked his head to one side, listening. "Sounds like a truck coming up the road. Let's go!"

"Wait, give me a minute." She had her cell phone out and was busily snapping pictures.

"Later! We need to get back to the campground and report this."

Two Park Rangers and a leashed German shepherd were standing by the crushed remains of their car when they emerged from the trees. An ambulance was just pulling out of the campground heading down the gravel road leading to the main highway. At the entrance a third Ranger was posting CAMPGROUND CLOSED- GRIZZLY BEAR DANGER signs while the remaining campers loaded their vehicles for departure.

"You the owner of this here vee-hicle?" A heavyset Ranger with a cigar jammed into the corner of his jowls eyed them suspiciously. "We was just going to have Tailsniffer here set out to look for you." Tailsniffer sat back on his haunches and panted.

"Yeah, that's us." Mike watched the ambulance vanish among the trees. "What's the story on the guy in the tent next to us? We heard him screaming last night in the storm."

"Bear attack. Broken arm and lots of claw wounds. He said he managed to break free and run off into the night." He took a pull from his cigar and jerked his chin at the shredded tent. "Medics patched him up, gonna take him to the County hospital. They said he'll be okay."

"Yeah, great news. Let me tell you what happened to us Mike began.

"He said it was a bear attack?" Blanca interrupted. She seemed to be savoring the moment.

"Well, I don't think it was no squirrel." The Ranger grinned around his cigar. "He said something big and smelly busted into his tent about midnight, chewed him up. We had another attack last month so we gotta close the campground, track it down and put it down. That is, if the ecology boys from the State Research Center will let us."

"Seems you had a visit from the same bear." The second Ranger was peering into the broken windshield. "Must have been one hellova big grizzly. You know, they can get up to eight hundred pounds." He ran a hand along the crushed roofline. "Reckon you better honk up a tow truck for what's left of this."

Mike nodded. "Wonder if my insurance covers towing? Did I make that last payment?"

"Recommend you call Highside Towing. My cousin Newt owns it."

"Yeah, okay. Now about last night --"

"Excuse me, mister, but you packing the handgun I see there?" said the second Ranger. He was staring at the butt of the magnum in Mike's jeans.

"Handgun?" He grinned weakly. "Gosh, how did that get there?"

"That's what he used to shoot that big scaly armadillo thing that tore into our neighbor's tent last night," Blanca explained proudly. "He shot it deader than a smelt before it could escape back into the blue vortex."

The two Rangers looked at her as if she had just declared herself heir to the throne of England.

"Um, big scaly armadillo thing?" The heavyset Ranger took a wary step backwards.

"Absolutely right. Hey, want to see pictures of it?" She held her cell phone under his nose.

The cigar flared up and dropped from his lips. "Holy shirt," he mumbled.

His partner craned his neck for a look and blanched.

"Holy jumpin' jeezus!"

Tailsniffer looked from one group to the next, thumped his tail and panted.

####

There had to be nothing sexier on Earth than a tanned girl wearing a white bikini, mike thought, watching Blanca emerge from the concession booth, walking along the pool deck. Behind her the resort towers loomed over a beach of white sand washed by surf. She dropped one of the bottles she was carrying into his lap.

"Damn! That beer is cold," he yelped.

She took a delicate pull from hers and smiled. "You're welcome, handsome. Ready for a swim?"

"I'm ready for you to tell me how you got Newsflash Magazine to pay you all that money for pictures of the thing that chased us at the campground. When all those scientists from the State Research Center showed up and confiscated your cellphone."

"You mean after they hauled that icky thing away?"

"Before. No, after."

"I had already forwarded the pictures to my laptop at home."

He whistled noiselessly. "How lucky can a guy get. Beauty and brains."

"Just don't ask me to go on any more camping trips, buddy." She tapped him on the nose. "You can take your next girlfriend when you feel like woodsmoke and mosquito bites."

"What makes you think there's going to be a next girlfriend?"

She studied him seriously then bent over and kissed his lips.

"Eres el amor de vida," she said.

"I love it when you talk dirty."

"I said; you are the love of my life."

THE END


© 2011 Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

This story previously appeared in Orion's Child Magazine.

Bio: Kurt Heinrich Hyatt resides in sunny Phoenix, Arizona. His science fiction stories have appeared in Orion's Child, Residential Aliens, Allegory Magazine, and Aphelion (most recently Druglegger's Run and Cellarman, both in the December 2010 / January 2011 edition).

E-mail: Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

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