Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Shalahlielle

by John T. Bien



Chris Meade loved running the Long Trail in Smugglers Notch State Park, although at the age of forty-two running might be the wrong term for what he was doing on the steep, rocky trail. His stride was short as he struggled on the uphill, his breath coming in quick explosions, his thighs burning and his brown hair sweat-plastered to his head. Fifty feet in front of him the trail angled sharply to the right. He couldn't see it through the thick trees, but knew that two hundred yards beyond that turn the trail peaked. A secondary trail would take him back down the mountain to where his Land Rover awaited his return.

He focused on the ground immediately in front of him and dug his way up the mountain at half the pace he could have mustered twenty years ago.

He reached the peak. For a moment, he felt weightless, and then he began the descent.

Slipping into the place where his mind was empty, existing merely to monitor his body's effort, he'd covered half a mile when the ragged sound of a chainsaw disrupted his running trance.

No one should be cutting up here -- not in the Park.

He veered off the trail, jogged into the forest and stopped, listening, orienting himself to the deadly roar of the illegal chain saw. It was close, maybe a quarter of a mile away. He jogged, following the sound, slowing as he approached.

The snarl of the saw died.

Chris stopped, waiting, listening.

A scream ripped through the trees sending birds flapping into the sky.

The tree poacher had cut himself, he thought, and charged toward the source of that terrible sound.

Seconds later, he burst into a clearing. His eyes drank in the scene: fallen trees, the narrow remains of an old trail, the battered ancient truck partially loaded with stolen wood, and the young woman crouched over the fallen logger, her hands and face smeared with blood. She paused, her brown eyes, framed by a cage of curly blond hair, were bright with rage.

"Shit," Chris muttered, bracing himself for an attack as the woman rose slowly to her feet.

He wanted to scream at her, to frighten her, but his mouth became a silent desert, his throat clenched in panic and his body refused the flight portion of the fight for flight response his brain was sending to his unresponsive muscles.

The woman's eyes held him. She hissed at him, showing gleaming teeth -- and she was gone.

####

"Matt," Chris said to the park ranger, "this woman was like a wild animal. She ripped out this guy's throat. She was taller than me, at least six feet! For God's sake, she hissed at me!"

"Did you recognize the victim?"

"No, and I didn't hang around to look for I.D."

"License plate from the truck?"

"You're kidding?"

"Okay, come inside. I'll radio the state police."

Chris paced while Matt calmly radioed the State Police barracks in Stowe. He quickly gave sketchy details and approximate location of the crime. He let them know he and the witness were going back to the crime scene.

With Chris belted into the passenger seat of the ranger's 4x4 it took half an hour of bouncing up the side of the mountain, following the same overgrown trail the logger had used, to reach the spot where the rusting truck stood.

Chris reluctantly led the way to the savaged victim.

Hungry flies buzzed around the corpse, barely disturbed by the men inspecting the scene.

"Don't touch anything," Matt said.

"You're kidding." Chris had no intention of touching the body. He wanted nothing more than to retreat to the ranger's truck and wait for the state cops to arrive.

"Tom Wilkins," Matt stated, carefully assessing the damage to the deceased.

"What?" Chris was aware that his mind wasn't processing information very well, but he was unable to snap back from the shock of the brutal murder.

"I know him," Matt said. "Tom Wilkins. He's got a trailer up on the hill outside of town. A drinker. No job. He and his wife live on public assistance, but he's been known to supplement that by any means he can. I guess he really pissed somebody off this time."

####

"And you are going to stick to that story?" the State Trooper leaned on the battered tabletop, his reddened face inches for Chris's.

"It's the truth." Chris leaned back. "There's nothing more to tell. I've cooperated in every way, but now I'm leaving." He rose from the thinly padded metal chair and took a step toward the door.

The cop slid to stand between Chris and the exit. He was a huge man, six foot four, with a body builder's physique that threatened the seams of his uniform shirt.

"Look," Chris said, forcing himself to sound calm. "I voluntarily took your breathalyzer and blood tests. I'm clean. We both know it. If I'm delusional then the story is still the only truth I have. You don't have to like it, or believe it. What I saw was a strange looking woman who had apparently just murdered a man. End of story."

"Science fiction, maybe -- the truth, well, we'll see about that. You can bet on it."

Chris choked back his anger, stepped around the red-faced interrogator, and left the room.

Matt was waiting for him in the office of the police barracks.

"What're you doing here?"

"Waiting for you. I figured you'd need a ride. The state boys aren't known for their courtesy."

"They're assholes!" Chris growled.

"I can't disagree," Matt smiled. "Let's get out of here."

####

Chris sat on a stool, a tray table with pad and pen stood in front of him, his acoustic guitar resting on his thigh. His eyes were focused on the woods beyond the large pane of glass in his music room, but his mind was deep in the new song he was writing. He suddenly bent forward, scribbled a few words on the pad, and started strumming.

The phone rang.

He cursed, thought about letting the machine answer for him, but his concentration was already ruined.

"Yes," he said into the cordless phone.

"It's Matt. Have you seen the news?"

"I'm working."

"They found three men dead over at the quarry. All three had broken necks. Pretty bloody from what I heard."

"What's that have to do with me? I've been here."

"Any witnesses to that?"

"You're kidding?"

Before Matt could respond, Chris heard a car approaching on his long gravel driveway.

"The cops are here," Chris informed his friend and hung up the phone.

Before he could lay his guitar on the couch, someone was rudely banging on his front door. "Open the door, Meade, or we're coming in!"

"I'm coming," Chris shouted, hurrying to the entrance before the overzealous trooper damaged the door.

"What can I do for you, Trooper?" Chris asked as he yanked the heavy wooden door inward.

A familiar glowering countenance glared at him. A thick arm pushed at the door as the cop, followed by his partner, pushed his way into the house.

"Nice place. I guess that means you can afford your own lawyer."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"How many have you killed? We know about Wilkins and the three at the quarry. How many more?"

"None, and who do -- "

"Just the four then?"

"No, none at all. I'll want the name of your superior officer. This is harassment and it will stop."

"This is an official police investigation and you will cooperate." He leaned toward Chris, resting his hand on the butt of his gun.

"Ridiculous."

"We're taking you to the station, superstar. Do you want to come with us voluntarily, or do you need some help?"

####

Chris swung the axe, splitting the log with angry efficiency. He had been questioned about the deaths of the three excavators working to expand the granite quarry. The men worked for a firm that had been contracted to cut down the trees and bulldoze the stumps that stood between quarrymen and a renewed supply of "product" for headstones and countertops.

The gargantuan Trooper, Jim Hopkins, had been one of the inquisitors who faced Chris in a small room that smelled of sweat and fear. Hopkins had glared, threatened, cajoled, but Chris didn't know any of the men who had been slaughtered. Chris had no alibi -- he had been at home, alone -- but there was no evidence to put him at the quarry.

When he demanded a lawyer, they turned him loose to find his own way home.

Anger worked against the pile of wood he was splitting. Sweat-rivers etched his lean body and pieces of firewood flew.

A strange sound, a growl, a hiss, startled him. He held the axe defensively, eyes searching the edge of the forest that surrounded the gravel parking area of his home. His wet skin bumped with fear.

The girl!

She stepped from the woods, tall, strangely beautiful. Her hands clenched and released. Her fingernails looked disturbingly like the claws of a large predator. She growled a deep-throated warning.

"You kill my forest." Her words clear, but hesitant. "You die like the other desecrators."

"No," Chris said. "I cut deadwood or trees the ranger told me to cut to thin the forest and keep it healthy. I use this to help heat my house in the winter."

She took another step toward him, swayed, and nearly fell.

Chris dropped his axe and ran to her, holding her upright with an encircling arm.

"Come on, let's get you into the house. I'll get you something to wear."

Something warm and sticky flowed onto his arm -- blood.

She struggled against him as they approached the front door, but lacked the strength to free herself.

He whispered calming words and felt her relax against him, though her eyes darted nervously, searching, as they entered his home.

Chris walked her to a couch, got her seated and rushed off to get a pan of warm, soapy water, a washcloth and a towel. Gently he washed her, cleaning the wound on her back and pulling it together with half a dozen butterfly bandages. He wrapped her in his bathrobe before getting her something to eat.

She ate, slept on the couch while he watched over her.

When she woke, she came instantly awake, not surprised by her surroundings, but wary.

"It's okay," he assured her. "You've been hurt, but you'll be fine."

She glanced around the room, then focused on Chris.

"I'm Chris, Chris Meade." He waved a hand in her direction, asking "You?"

"Shalahlielle."

"Shalah -- "

She nodded.

"What happened to you? Where are you from? How did you get hurt --"

"I found you," she said, a short pause between words as though she had to think before speaking each one.

"Why?"

"Stop hurting the forest. My home."

"You live in the woods?"

"Yes. I protect it from humans, from the destroyers."

"I don't understand." Chris said, puzzled by the thought of this beautiful woman living in the woods. "Where did you come from?"

"I am from here," she responded, eyebrows raised in a quizzical arch as though she didn't understand why he would think anything else. "The forest is my home, the home of my ancestors. It has always been so."

"Ancestors? Your family lives in the State Park?"

"No. Everywhere. We serve the wood. My race has existed always. We have seen many changes to the world. Great beasts walking the earth, fires in the sky, the birth of humans and their aggressive destruction of the forests.

"We hid, fighting to save our home, but my people are gone from this land. The forest is unprotected." She looked down and away from Chris, her strange eyes glistening with tears. "I am alone."

"That can't be true..." Chris reached out to comfort her.

"I broke the law."

"I know. You killed those men. I don't know what I can do to help you. You'll need a lawyer. I know some good ones, but before anything else, you have to go to the police and turn yourself in. What you have done...." He let his words trail off.

"Killing those destroyers is not a crime!" she said, standing and glaring down at him. "My crime was against my people. I wanted to see this world you humans had made. I had heard stories. Exciting stories. Our world was peaceful, quiet...boring.

"I went out into the world against the will of my family. It was horrifying -- and exciting. I met a human and fell in love. He loved me too, but did not believe the tales I told him of my home. He wanted to meet my family. He wanted me to stay with him. Marriage he called it. It was not the way of my people, but it seemed good to me.

"I took him to my home." She collapsed onto the couch. Tears fell. She trembled and pulled away when he reached for her.

"The law was broken! Outsiders were forbidden knowledge of our homeland. No exceptions. My friend, lover, was sentenced to death by the council. They killed him, gently giving him everlasting sleep.

"I was punished too. For me the sentence was also sleep; sleep until humans were no longer a threat.

"I awoke and found myself alone. My people were gone. That is why I woke: humans could not be a threat to those who are no longer within reach.

"I didn't find my people, but I did find those like you -- destroyers, raping the land, slaughtering the wild creatures, fouling the air and water. You must be stopped, only then will my people return."

Chris stared at her, drinking in the long, slender body, the heart-shaped face, the bronze skin, close-cropped blond hair and small, odd ears with a barely noticeable tuft of hair at their slightly pointed tops.

He made a wild guess into fantasy. "There are no others like you. You -- your people -- are only legend to us, stories for children."

"I am real," she blurted, a tint of fear in her voice. "My people are hiding. I cannot find them, but once the land is healed, they will return. I will help them find their way. No one will be spared if it means the return and safety of my people. No one!" Her moist eyes met his and hardened.

"There are billions of us," Chris said carefully. "You cannot kill us all." She could, however, probably kill him, now that he had treated her wounds.

Shalah smiled. "I will do no harm here. You have helped me. But I will not be able to protect you when my people return. You have been warned. Tell the others. We will take back the land."

####

Weeks passed, Shalah grew comfortable within the confines of Chris's house. He received bags of fresh produce from a farm co-op and watched her devour the vegetables like a child eating candy. While Chris worked, she sat on the couch absorbing information from the television. When Chris wasn't working, they discussed what she'd seen on the tube. Sometimes they walked in the woods, talking, and at other times, they were comfortable in their silence.

Chris found himself working harder. Inspired by Shalah's presence he began recording songs filled with light, love and wonder, unlike the dark, heavy works he'd previously unleashed on an admiring world. He was at peace for the first time in a long time.

And then Shalah was gone. Not a word of warning, not a hint, not a single look to let him know she was leaving, or when -- or if -- she'd return.

Chris continued to work, fighting to concentrate. Sadness crept into his art, but his sorrow was too powerful for him to create something more joyful. He chastised himself for missing the beautiful creature he barely knew. He slumped around the house, moping, asking himself how he could be so affected by a woman he had only known a few weeks, a woman who had only a tenuous connection to reality, a killer, and yet he was unable to fight off the specter of depression that followed him like his own shadow.

And then she was back!

He'd been trying to work in the recording studio, laying the vocals over the simple guitar tracks, when Shalah appeared, startling him as she wrapped her arms around him, her dark eyes, only inches from his, searched for something in his soul. She kissed him, long and hard, filling him with passion that erased his mind.

####

Chris woke, taking a minute to remember how he'd gotten into bed. He smiled, frowned: the other side of the bed was empty. He struggled into jeans and a t-shirt and stumbled down the stairs. Shalah was sitting in front of one to the huge windows that lined the room. She turned her head slightly when she heard him, but did not otherwise acknowledge his presence.

He stood behind her, touching her shoulders. She started, then reached back to cover the fingers on his right hand with hers. For a moment they silently stared at the woodland panorama that stretched across the valley below.

"You okay?" he asked, massaging her shoulders, marveling at the hard muscle hiding beneath the smooth skin.

A hesitation, then: "I feel funny." She touched herself over her heart. "So many years sleeping. Then years alone, longing for my people, mourning the loss of those I loved. I had no hope of happiness -- and then you appeared. So different from the others. So different." Her voice trailed off, her shoulders shook. He turned her and saw the sparkling trails of tears beneath wet brown eyes.

Chris pulled her to him, intending to comfort her, but she encircled him with powerful arms, crushing the air from him in her desperate need. They sank down onto the couch, made love with frantic passion and lay together in the aftermath.

They showered together, then walked in the woods, holding hands like a pair of high-schoolers. They silently absorbed the beauty of the forest, the singing of the birds, the scurrying of the chipmunks as they fled the footsteps of the human interlopers.

"I need to do some work," Chris informed her upon returning to the house. "I have music flooding me. I haven't felt so inspired in years." He kissed her and headed for his studio, not wanting to be separated from her, but overwhelmed by his need to capture the song birthing in his mind.

When he emerged hours later he found Shalah cross-legged on the couch, entranced by the television.

He leaned over, kissed her on the forehead, and stood back. She was frowning at the satellite-transmitted image on the screen.

She finally looked up. "Who is this man?"

"That's President Tremaine," Chris said. "He is the leader of our country -- our people elected him to represent us."

Chris turned to the television. The President was giving another of his frequent press conferences: another attempt to convince people that the economic emergency was under control, that the unemployed would be helped by a loving government until they could find new jobs, and that a solution to the energy crisis was easy and obvious.

"We will become energy independent," the handsome, immaculately groomed man spoke with a persuasive baritone voice. "We will use clean coal, which we have in abundance. We will produce fuel-efficient vehicles. We will drill for oil and natural gas everywhere it can be found. We will drill to access the known resources in Alaska, off our coast and in our parks. This administration will not tolerate this great nation being blackmailed by those countries on which we are currently dependent for our energy.

"Of course, we will build nuclear power plants, we will continue to develop wind and solar power that is commercially viable, but that will take decades. We cannot wait decades in a world threatened by terrorists.

"We will gain our independence from foreign sources of energy, and we will do it now.

"Congress has authorized me to...

Shalah pointed the control and the screen went dark. She sat for a moment, arm still extended toward the television. She shivered.

"My people will never return to this place."

"Whatever is done, Shalah, can be undone. The earth has suffered many disasters and has always healed itself. It can happen again."

"These men are evil," Shalah sniffed. "What makes them so?"

"Money. Money and power," Chris said. He paused, wondering how to explain that some people valued such things more than the natural world, more than love. Then he stood.

"Come on, I'm going to take you on a trip."

####

Two days later, nervously gripping Chris's hand in a current of passing humans, Shalah pointed at the tall, slender structure.

"What is that?" she asked, noting the reflection in the long rectangular pool that separated them from the towering edifice.

"That is the Washington Monument. It was built so we would remember the great men who led us to freedom."

"Where are these men?"

"Long dead," Chris replied. "But this place is the seat of power for my people. Look at it. Look at these memorials to the great men of the past."

He squeezed Shalah's trembling shoulders. "You began your work in the forest near my house, but there is more we can do, and this is the place to do it. Whatever it takes, we will see that your people can return to their rightful home."

It would help that his music gave him both money and an audience for the message they would try to convey to the world. If he could persuade a few people, people with influence and power of their own, the message would spread. And maybe together, they could turn things around.

For Shalah -- and for the generations to come -- he had to try.

THE END


© 2011 John T. Bien

Bio: John T. Bien is a graduate of Rutgers with a degree in English Secondary Education. He did a brief stint in the Army and a few years in the NJ National Guard. He played guitar, wrote songs and started a small candle company with his two best friends. For fun, he ran in local road races and played baseball. As the years passed, he began to indulge his love of writing science fiction, fantasy and horror, with stories published in a number of venues, worked for the U.S. Treasury Department and wrote articles for an investment newsletter. Since leaving the Treasury Department, he has taken to day-trading stocks and writing. He now lives in New Jersey with a beautiful former model turned executive secretary and two crazy dogs. He still makes candles for fun, walks instead of runs, plays guitar, and writes. His story Rocker appeared in the May 2011 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: John T. Bien

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