The Season of Death

March 31, 2009
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“There are beings that live on the fringes of the world… beings that are ignored most of the time. Normally this is fine, for they love the darkness and the obscurity… but sometimes they must step out of the shadows to assert their existence…”
--Exerpt from an ancient explorer’s logbook

In north-central North Dakota there is a town called “Cricket”. While most towns in this area were small farming towns, barely scraping together a meager living off the land and perpetually at mercy to the extremes in temperature and the sporadic nature of rainfall, Cricket was different. While most would consider it a small town, in this region it is considered quite large. Instead of directly earning its living off the land, it instead is a virtual supply depot for pretty much the entire region.

While seemingly unaffected by the financial issues faced by those who work hard to feed the nation, it was no less affected by the climate that dictated their very lives. Summers were boiling hot; winters long and freezing cold. Some of the locals say they get cabin fever between the freeze in October and the thaw in March. While perhaps not as profound as the cabin fever experienced in remote outposts in the Canadian subarctic, the effects are visible nonetheless. During the long chill, there is a lull over the town. While everyone talks as if things are normal, there seems to be a hush in their voices and something sinister lurks in the air.

Alex was standing in wilderness. He wasn’t sure where. He seemed on some mountain in a place that’s cold. He turned round to view his surroundings better. He was standing next to a solid wall of rock. To the other side, there was a gentle, snow-covered slope with evergreen trees jutting out of the ice and rock. It was night, yet it was bright enough to see clearly. The aurora floated overhead like a red and green dancing curtain. Or perhaps like an emerald man and a graceful ruby ballerina dancing playfully under the stars. There also seemed a supernatural glow coming out of the snow itself. He heard from somewhere, not anywhere in particular, a voice chanting a song from some forgotten language whose home was the taiga. It seemed joyful, yet melancholy at the same time. Celebrating life, yet mourning death in one stanza. More than that, it felt like the entire history of humankind in all its triumphs and all its downfalls was summed up in this one man’s voice singing words Alex could not understand. Alex looked up to the light show above him—more beautiful than anything that could be produced by human hands—and saw a new light. This one was a bright yellow. No, yellow does not describe it well enough, gold is a better term. This brilliant gold light formed something of a circle, blinding, but not overpowering, and seemed to reach down to touch Alex…


“Dangit!”, Alex thought. This wasn’t the first time he had dreamt this dream and it also wasn’t the first time it had been rudely interupted by the incessant beeping that awoke him in time for school. He had been having more of these dreams lately in anticipation of a coming solar storm that would cause all of Cricket to be lit up by the heavenly aurora borealis. Alex got up and began his morning routine. Alex was a sophmore at Cricket high school. He was a tall, akward, gangely adolescent with fair hair that was now a scrict buzz cut.

First hour: geography. Alex hated this class. Just a bunch of boring crap about mountains and oceans and stuff like that. Today they were learning about Alaska. The teacher showed pictures in a slideshow of various parts of the fourty-ninth state. First there was the panhandle with its many islands and rugged mountains. Then there was the ever-foggy Aleutian islands which were created by the same force that created the Phillipines, Alex learned. Then the focus started to shift towards the bleak interior area around Fairbanks. There was the Alaska range, the tallest mountains on the North American continent and the tallest of them was Mount McKinley…

“That’s it!”, Alex blurted out. The teacher had shown a panorama taken off of Mount McKinley that showed the sister peaks as well as the evergreens that were common of that region. That was what Alex had seen in his dream… Everyone in class started at him, Alex snapped back into reality. He lowered himself to try to be seen as little as possible, but nothing could lower the embarassment he felt at shouting out in the middle of class. Alex was like that. A dreamer, barely in touch with reality. A hopeless romantic. Born a century too late.

The teacher started talking again, slightly irritated by this sudden outburst. The class looked away from Alex and stared at a new picture of the Yukon river. Alex sat in the back of the room near the center giving him a perfect view of his classmates, specifically Jennifer. Jennifer seemed impossibly beautiful. It was hard to believe that her cheeks really were that rosy, that the cheekbones they concealed really were that high, and that her hair really was so natural a shade of blond, yet this is what she truly looked like. Alex wanted to be the knight in shining armor that saves her—the damsel in distress—but he knew this could never be.

What Alex often found he could not obtain from his classmates he could obtain from nature. It was just after school and yet the sun seemed ready to set as he walked through the woods nearby in shin-deep snow. All his skin was covered but he could not cover the most sensitive part of his body—his eyes. The wind blew into his eyes, causing them to tear up and created a horrible stinging sensation down his cheek. Still, the woods held a kind of allure to him. They seemed peaceful, yet, somewhere within the confines of this natural cathedral he felt there was the key to another realm where perhaps good and evil still existed in black and white instead of just varying shades of gray.

Alex kept walking, observing the tall, leafless trees when he heard footsteps. No, footsteps isn’t the right word, the right word would be scuttling, but what scuttled in these parts?
He looked around. He had a clear view of the woods all around, no undergrowth to hinder his sight, yet he still heard short bouts of rapid scuttling. Where was that horrible sound coming from? He saw, perhaps, something small and completely black move through the many shadows of the trees but could not quite make any animal in particular out. The scuttling increased—he seemed surrounded. Surely there were hundreds—no, thousands of those things surrounding him now! Trying to cut off his escape and then swarm him and then—who knows what. Just when Alex thought he could see one of those things for certain—he thought he saw certain crab-like characteristics—the wind blew with a hollow, lifeless shriek and caused tears to form in his eyes and now he might as well have been blind.
He started to run for the nearest exit of the woods. The scuttling now grew even more and seemed to follow him though the woods. He sprinted—one hundred yards, fifty, twenty-five, he ran out of the woods and was almost blinded by the sun now half-obscured by the horizon. He gave himself a small break to catch his breath and then ran the rest of the way home. He heard no more scuttling.

Alex darted inside the door and slammed it behind him, locking it immediately. No chances. Suddenly, Alex was startled by the phone’s loud whine.
“H-hello?”, Alex answered with barely enough breath in him to talk as he doubled over phone in hand.
“Hey Alex this is Steve.”
“What’s up?”
“You know that girl Jennifer?”, Alex stood up, alert.
“She disappeared. She was last seen near the woods. The whole town’s rounding up a search party to find her and that’s where they’re starting.”
“I’ll help.” Alex abruptly hung up the phone. Back into the woods. Back into the sterile whiteness with bare brown trees jutting grotesquely through the life-crushing snow like so many dragon’s teeth. Worse yet, what secrets did those trees conceal? What were those things that were chasing Alex? Would they be chasing Jennifer or were they perhaps just a figment of his overpowered imagination? Whatever was going on, Alex now had a reason to find out.
When Alex got to the woods, the entire town seemed huddled around the entreance to the vast sleeping jungle that Alex sprinted out of just an hour before. Tents were erected in a vain effort to escape the cruel wind, and many sunglasses were worn in a vain attempt to escape the painful snowblindness. Alex talked with the volunteers whom he had known his entire life, and learned of the plan. Alex would go traipsing through the woods with a buddy and would have to be back before nightfall, which was pretty soon. If he found Jennifer or got lost himself, he had to use the large revolver-looking flairgun they gave him. Got it.
His partner was Steve, his friend on the phone. Steve was shorter and stockier than Alex and a bit of a screwup and goofball, but he didn’t have the raw, unbridled romanticism that characterized Alex. Today he was dressed head-to-toe in what seemed enough cold-weather gear to cross the north pole. Time to head out. They started walking into the woods away from the shelter and protection of the others. They could only go out for thirty minutes and then they would have to come back. This was enough for Steve, but Alex would search the woods all night, strange creatures or not, to find Jennifer.
Alex had to get rid of Steve, for he was going to undoubtably suggest that they blindly follow orders when there was a life at stake.
Alex fell, pretending it was an accident. He hit a rock to make it seem more realistic. Surprisingly, it didn’t really hurt. Something seemed to cushion his leg. “Aw, damn!” he shouted. “I broke my leg!”

“Oh my God!” Steve exclaimed. “What should I do?”

“J-just go back and get help!” Alex said, putting on the voice of an injured warrior, wounded, yet still heroic. Steve looked around, panicking, and then ran off.

“Just fifteen minutes, buddy!” he called back, not realizing he had been cheated. Alex waited until Steve’s footsteps crunching in the omnipresent blanket of snow could no longer be heard. He then stood up solemnly. He would have been giggling, but this was a serious matter. He knew Steve and the rest would be mad when they saw he was not there, but this deception was needed—he required more than half an hour to search for the lost maiden.

Alex was lost. He was undeniably in an uncertain part of the forest—where the trees seemed to form a labyrinth and he could never be sure of his footing. Was he walking on soft ground or hard, bitter ice with death waiting just underneath to swallow him up? What’s worse, the sun set for its long hibernation. He had not heard anything unusual, just the ordinary sounds of a forest whose occupants had either gone to sleep or escaped to warmer climes. That is until he heard a decidedly human sound: the sound of chattering teeth and intermittent sobbing. Alex looked to a small clearing in the woods and saw a girl with long, smooth, silvery hair turned away from him, shivering. It was her!

“J-jennifer?” Alex began. This small sound, barely more than a whisper, caused her to turn around and give a startled scream.


“Oh, I’m s-s-sorry.” Alex said, attempting to soothe her.

‘Oh, that’s okay.” She replied in a strangely calm voice and gave a weak smile, interrupted by a gust of wind that forced her teeth to chatter more and caused her to hug herself more tightly. Alex now got a better look at her. She was wearing a sweater, jeans, and tennis shoes soaked by snow. She had no gloves and had to keep her hands within her sleeves for the meager warmth they provided. Sure, her clothes would be warm inside of a house, but they provided little protection against a North Dakotan winter night. Alex put his heavy parka around her, sat next to her, and started to shiver himself.

“Why did you go to the woods?”

“I know you won’t believe me but…” she looked away. A tear rolled down her pretty cheek and froze. “…when I got home, there were these—these strange creatures. I ran for my life, not knowing where I was going. The next thing I knew I—I ended up here. I know that sounds crazy.”

“No—no it’s not.” Alex answered. There was a long pause, filled only by the arctic winds coming from Canada. “Well, guess it’s time to call for help.” He reached into his pocket and felt the flairgun—“Dammit!”

“What’s wrong?”

“This thing is broken!” Indeed it was. The round part of the revolver was smashed in and the barrel hanging only by a thread. Alex knew how it had broken. When he fell, this was what cushioned his leg! Now he had no means to call for help as he foolishly left his cell phone at home. They were now isolated. Trapped.

There they sat huddling, their situation, utterly hopeless. “Hopeless because of me!” Alex thought angrily. Suddenly the heavens themselves seemed to shudder and shake in a magnificent display of colors. The solar storm! It was tonight! There they were: two beings sitting in the great icebox of winter watching the aurora—a gift from the north.

Suddenly, the northern lights seemed to shut down as if someone had turned off a light switch. The aurora borealis faded and disappeared to leave behind only a giant abyss in the sky without even stars. While before there had seemed to be life there was only a deadening calm. An eerie sensation crept over Alex. The cold seemed colder. The forest—more lifeless. It was at this point that Alex heard scuttling. Not the scuttling of small creatures, mind you, but rather a rapid series of deep footfalls that could only be produced by monsters—big as a man at least.

“Do you hear that?” Alex asked.

“Yeah.” Her hand reached for his and squeezed. Alex wasn’t sure what they were as he could barely see their silhouettes. They seemed large and broad with claws perhaps? It was hard to say. They—whatever they were—were like shadows. Existing, but not really alive. Judging by the sound of their footsteps, Alex thought they formed a circle around him and Jennifer.

The infernal scuttling grew closer and closer, louder and louder. The circle squeezed tighter and tighter, like Jennifer’s hand. Alex knew he had to do something. He stood up, ripped the barrel off the flairgun, shut his eyes and pulled the trigger, aiming for any part of the circle of death.

There was a deafening roar. The light pierced his eyelids and blinded him as if he had his eyes wide open. The heat seared his face and hands. After the roar of the flair had silenced he heard a horrendous screeching grower softer with each passing second, then silence. The aurora ignited again and Alex could now see the empty forest that was miraculously not on fire quite clearly.

Alex looked behind him and to his horror saw Jennifer lying facedown in the snow, a small wound on the back of her delicate head. The blood trickled down her hair and turned the snow a sickly crimson. Alex stood agape, not fully comprehending what happened until slow realization dawned on him: she was dead. How had that happened? How did they get that close? A grim determination set on him. He knew what he had to do.

He picked up her body and started out of the woods, lit by the aurora. Her body was peaceful. Her eyes closed. Her lips set in a serene smile. He walked aimlessly through the woods until by some fluke; he arrived at the crowd that was still gathered at the entrance.

The coroner said she tripped and hit her head on something. When Alex told his story, he was sent to a psychotherapist who said he had an acute case of seasonal affective disorder. The other students said he was just nuts, but Alex was too hardened to care. His romanticism seemed to have evaporated. He was no longer a dreamer.

After graduating from high school he moved to Oregon where it never quite gets cold. After several years, he was sure he had only been hallucinating. Yet sometimes, when the weather turns cool, the sun sets early, and the rain pours down in buckets, he could swear that he can hear the scuttling of strange creatures following him through the forest…

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