Until that day Nathan Greenway never believed in second chances.
“Life isn’t a rehearsal,” Nathan told his friends.
He knew it was a cliché but he’d said it anyway. To his surprise his friends bought it and they set out into the wilderness. Seven days of hiking, swimming, camping and a stack of quality memories they hoped would stick with them for a life time. Not just photos on Facebook, LOL’d at for a few months to be replaced with generic faces leering at the camera. Nathan wanted his mates to remember their trip together until they died.
For some that didn’t mean until old age.
As Nathan sat on the edge of the outcrop he could hear the sounds in the distance. They’d find him sooner or later. He could have scrambled back and hunted for another way down but part of him didn’t want to. His seat at the very tip was the end of the road. Were the good times really over? Was that it? Life, done and dusted. Over. Finito.
The skies were clear and despite the cool wind rushing up at him, the sun was warm on his face. The lake below was a vast mirror, and the trees on the shore looked tiny, like something from a scale model. It felt surreal, like a mirage or a collection of sensations from that feeble half-sleep before your brain fully switches over to dream land.
Nathan closed his eyes and let his body relax by a tiny fraction. He had never been so tired in his life. Every muscle in his body screamed in pain and all he wanted to do was float away on a soft feather bed, let the world below him fade to grey as the deepest darkest sleep softly enveloped his weary mind.
He encouraged that half-sleep to ease aside the real world for a moment.
His body jerked and he gripped the outcrop with both hands. The scale of the view below made him jump and his heart hammered in his chest. He was known as a risk taker but he wasn’t a fool. When he finally slipped off the edge he wanted all of his senses on high alert. There was a difference between awake, ready and focussed and forced to react to a sudden situation.
Nathan was a planner.
When he put his mind to it his plans came off so well they looked dangerously spontaneous. Like the trip into the wilds. He sprang the idea on his close friends one evening in the pub. He argued they had become lazy in their adventures, post university life was too much work, not enough play.
“I play badminton every Tuesday,” said Tommy Wallace, his closest friend.
Nathan waved his beer glass at him and smiled. “Yes. I know. It’s dull, dull, dull.”
“You ought to know,” replied Tommy. “I beat your ass every week.”
Nathan suggested they all take a trip together. Not to some Mediterranean island again, but somewhere different. Most of them had girl friends, and Tommy was engaged to be married, so the idea of trolling around a beach front meat market filled with boozed up kids and easy lays was no longer their destination of choice.
“Thailand,” suggested Craig Jessop, a stocky chap with beefy muscles and unnaturally tanned skin. He thought of himself as a real lady-killer, irresistible to anyone in a skirt.
Nathan had shook his head. “Too easy.” He pointed to a painting of a mountain range on the wall above their booth. “Out there. In the wilds. That’s where our next adventure lies.”
His friends were dubious but by the time Nathan used the “Life is not a rehearsal” line they were sold. Nathan never told how he’d researched the entire trip down to the last detail. It was simply a spontaneous idea.
On the outcrop Nathan wondered how things would have turned out had they trooped off to Ibiza again. Perhaps some of his friends would still be alive. Although considering the last few days he didn’t see how that was possible. The wilds had turned out to be a a shit storm of nightmares and pain. Friends had become enemies and camp fire laughter had turned to fighting, running and screaming.
Nathan closed his eyes again.
He could still hear them as they ran through the dark forests.
On their third night Jack Young had pushed Nathan against a boulder and pinned him tight . “Is this what you had in mind, Nate? We coulda been sat on a beach right now, checking out the T&A.”
Jack was a hot head and known for shooting his mouth off before his brain could catch up.
“You heard that stuff on the radio, Jacky.” Nate pushed him away and stared at the trees, searching for their friends. “It ain’t just here. It’s all over the place. I’d say we’ve been lucky.”
Jack looked as if Nathan had just insulted his mother. “Lucky? Fucking lucky? Did you see what happened to Craig? He wasn’t lucky!”
“This isn’t my fault,” said Nathan. “Stop being a dick for one second and grow up.”
Jack grabbed his crotch. “Grow this!” He marched away into the forest.
Nathan searched for his friends all night and by morning he returned to the camp. A couple of logs smouldered on the fire that was surrounded by countless foot prints. Patches of dark sand were proof that blood had been spilled. The tents and gear gone. Only his back pack remained with a note pinned to it.
Thanks for running out on us. Brave move. Not. We lost Greg and Jamie.
We’re going back to the ranger cabin on the lake.
We left your pack.
Good luck in the wild.
On the edge Nathan gripped the note in his pocket. He’d read it dozens of times until the words were etched into his vision. The friends he thought he knew had turned on him, they blamed him for everything. The last line made it obvious they didn’t expect him to follow them. Or want him to.
It didn’t make any sense. How could they blame him? It was a freak thing. Unpredictable. As the gazed out at the beautiful lake and grey craggy mountains Nathan tried to empathise with his friends. They had been thrown into a situation like no other. They were scared beyond imagination. It made a twisted sort of sense to blame someone, anyone, in order to keep a grip on their sanity.
Nathan chose not to follow them. A decision he regretted the following day when he was lost and still being hunted. He thought if he kept pushing on he could outrun them so he hiked along a trail all night. When daylight filtered through the trees on the fifth day he stopped by a stream to fill his canteen.
The rush of the water, bubbling and frothing around the rocks in the stream masked the sound of footsteps. It wasn’t until he climbed to his feet that he saw the thing lurching toward him. Nathan didn’t stop to think. He stumbled back into the stream, his skin stung as the ice-cold water soaked through his trousers. All he remembered was a face of cuts and gashes, flaps of skin and missing teeth.
The moan chased him through the forest.
Nathan had been scared before but it was an adrenaline fuelled sort of fear. He chose to be scared and accepted it on his terms. That moment by the stream made him realise that true fear, the type that proves how close death can be, was something he had never expected or wanted to feel again.
He pushed on through the forest, switching from one trail to another, ignoring pain from his blistered bleeding feet and only stopping to rest when he was about to vomit. During those rare moments Nathan listened intently, praying he had managed to leave them behind. And each time his heart would sink when the distant sound of moaning echoed around him.
It was obvious he couldn’t outrun them.
He had pushed his body to its limits and it was starting to effect his judgement. Ever the planner he tried to claw back some sense of caution and reason. There had to be away to win. If they didn’t sleep and never stopped hunting then maybe there was a way to use that to his advantage.
Nathan didn’t like to lose. Life was about winning, even if that meant giving Tommy a chance to win in their weekly badminton battles. In defeat he considered himself a winner by keeping their friendship strong. None of that meant a damn thing out in the wild, abandoned by his friends and hunted by the things.
What they hell were they?
The brief snippet they heard on the radio on their second day was sketchy at best.
They had been playing their favourite drinking game – “Swig If You’ve Ever…” and their spirits were high after a long days hike. Tommy made a remark about feeling isolated, like the rest of the world had ceased to exist and they were the only ones left. Nathan knew Tommy was missing his fiancée and although they had made a rule not to use their mobile, he felt Tommy needed cheering up.
Nathan switched on his phone, ignoring the jeers from his friends.
“Technology!” They cried. “Nate, you’re a cheat!”
He hushed them up by playing a few tracks from his play list, knowing the sound of music would remind Tommy that civilisation wasn’t that far away. It brought a smile to his friend’s face. On a whim Nathan opened a radio app and scanned for channels. Being so far from a major city it was unlikely his phone would receive a signal and after a few minutes of static they were all surprised to hear a few snatches of words.
“…across the UK….in their thousands…anic has gripped the nation…with no official government statement…can only assume some kind of biological weapon…terrorist cells…though there has been no claim from any source…”
“It’s a wind up,” said Craig. “Nice touch Nate, got us all spooked.”
“Nothing to do with me, guys,” said Nathan. “This is on the radio.”
“…coming in from all over Europe…earlier today video sharing website, YouTube, crashed when millions of people started posting…and horrific stories of outbreaks…oments ago news came in that parts of the United States…similar stories…”
“Come on Nate, you made that on your PC, right?” said Greg. No one else shared his smile as they huddled around the camp fire.
“Enough bullshit,” said Jamie. He leaned over and snatched Nathan’s phone. It crackled and the reporters voice faded away. “See, it’s a prank. Very fun-“
“…to stay indoors and avoid contact with anyone behaving in strange manner…are advised not to seek help at a hospital…overrun with thousands of people showing symptoms of the disease…and not to make phone calls…ext messages will still get through…waiting on an official statement…but some sources claim the disease first showed up parts of…and India several months ago…considered to be the H5N1 virus and containable…for Disease Control in Atlanta have yet to release a statement….”
The voice stopped and the group stared at the phone for several minutes.
Tommy switched on his phone. He tried to call his fiancée but the line was engaged.
No one could get through to their family.
Only Nathan’s phone continued to hiss and crackle with the radio broadcast that came and went as the signal filtered through the mountains and trees.
“…and stay on the air as long as possible…just heard internet collapsing in many parts of the UK…with reports still coming in that many countries around the world…worst viral outbreak in history…National Guard unable to stem the tide of a panicking population….riots and looting…power brown-outs…including this radio station…lights…flickering on and off…hordes of people now inside…go lock the doors Kim…quick…Kim no…”
The group talked into the night, discussing what it all meant.
By morning the nightmare had reached the wilds.
When Nathan made the decision to stop running he was hopelessly lost. He started his decent and came to a wide flat bluff overlooking the lake. In the distance he could hear them tracking him down. He didn’t have the energy to fight them off again but he didn’t want to lose either.
Perched on the outcrop he listened as they approached. Shuffling across the granite, gurgling and moaning as they came. Nathan had come to a conclusion. He couldn’t fight them all on his own. He was no stranger to fatigue and fear but he knew sooner or later they would kill his hope and desire to live. He thought about his friends. Were they still alive? Had they made it to the rangers station by the lake?
Footsteps behind him. They were very close.
He didn’t look around, didn’t dare take the slightest peak in case the fright prompted an involuntary reaction. Every few seconds he heard a moan die away as one of them was pushed over the cliff edge. They were dumb but relentless.
He removed the crumpled note from his pocket and stared at it. It had been written in fear. He should have seen that and followed his remaining friends back down to the lake. He’d let stubborn anger rule his heart instead of using his head. He knew his friends needed him. Nathan let the wind snatch the note from his fingers and he watched it whip up into the air. It flew out away from the cliff.
The direction was favourable. The updraft wasn’t too strong.
Nathan knew he had one chance at redemption. A second chance to fight for his friends.
In his mind he pictured the things that hunted him. He had keen senses and judging from their grotesque sounds they were unbearably close to his seat on the outcrop, probably forming into a V shape as they inched across the outcrop.
It took every ounce of strength not to glance over his shoulder. But he had to stay in control. He got his kicks from facing controllable fear and surfing the waves of adrenaline that came from pushing his limits.
If his bearings were right the rangers station would be on the this side of the lake. He couldn’t see it through the thick canopy of trees. It was a long way down. Nathan smiled and gripped the straps of his pack. He was going to enjoy this.
The moment he felt a hand touch his head he pushed himself off the outcrop.
His chute opened.
This short story was inspired by Indigo Spider’s Sunday Picture Press – a challenge to write between 50 and 1500 word piece of fiction using one of 4 photos as a prompt. The twisteroo this week was to write a story about Second Chances.
I was so tempted by visual prompt 5, what a stunning image! But it was the man on the rocky outcrop that grabbed me more. I’m sure that’s been Photoshopped because if it’s real it’s a scary place to be!
This week I’m back keying in my SPP piece with my novel, The Range. This time the chaos and panic of the world at large is brought to a group of friends hiking through a remote mountainous region. I love the idea of characters being out in the wilderness, being cut off from the rest of the planet, feeling so isolated, only to discover something dreadful has happened and there’s nothing they can do about it.
I hope Nathan managed to find his friends.
NOTE: Indigo Spider has moved to a new domain – http://www.indigospider.org – If you were a previous subscriber to her blog you’ll need to re-subscribe.
NOTE 2: Indigo Spider’s blog has had a bit of a face lift recently, with a new easier layout, forums and live chat! Well worth a visit!
This picture prompt is by an unknown artist and sadly I don’t have a link.
Excellent picture prompts from Indigo. If you want to join in and write a short piece of fiction clicky-click Indigo Spider’s link above and wrap your imagination around one of the pictures.