By Erik C. Martin
Originally published in The Guilded Pen 2019
His co-workers tried to discourage him from walking.
“It’s too cold,” one said. Jerry chuckled. It was almost sixty degrees.
“It’s raining,” protested another. But the rain had stopped. The only moisture falling now was that which was dripping from the tree branches.
“It’s dark,” his boss said. “We walk around the parking lot at night. Management thinks it’s dangerous. Renee saw a coyote last month.”
Jerry laughed outright.
“I can take care of myself. I’m not scared of coyotes. Animals avoid people.”
Jerry walked during all of his breaks. Just because he was working a night shift for once was no reason to forgo exercise.
His route was a half mile out, turn, and then a half mile back; a straight but hilly shot past the neighboring businesses.
Jerry took a deep breath. He smelled fall. The rain had stirred up the odor of decaying leaves, eliciting scents rare in Southern California. Jerry never missed Ohio winters, but he missed fall. He walked next to the dark street, down the hill, away from work. He closed his eyes and pretended that he was back in Cleveland where fall was a firm statement, not a mere hint.
He was making good time. The cool weather helped. He loved how desolate and quiet the street was at night. His head on a swivel, Jerry drank it all in: the faint mist rising off of the ground; the lights of the distant freeway; his shadows projected on the front of a white-faced building; trees swaying in the push and pull of the evening breeze. If he was lucky he’d see some of those animals his co-workers were so afraid of.
He plodded ahead.
Something nagged at him.
He had two shadows.
A lone light from the Otis Elevator Company across the street was the only illumination. Clouds blocked the starlight. The moon was new. One light source meant one shadow.
He looked at a tree ahead. One shadow.
Jerry glanced right. Two shadows.
Weird. I must be missing a light.
Jerry walked on. For a moment, he thought he heard footsteps behind him. He stopped and turned.
Nothing was there.
Of course not; I’m alone.
He glanced at the nearest building. Two shadows.
One started at his feet. The second shadow was about a yard behind and didn’t quite meet his feet. Jerry raised one arm. Both shadows raised an arm.
Was the second one slower? No, that was crazy.
Jerry’s heart pounded. He walked faster.
Again, he heard footsteps out of sync with his own. An echo?
He glanced at the shadows. The rear shadow was still there, following at the same distance. Was the second a little taller and thicker than the first?
He heard a low chuckle. He began to speed walk.
“Get a grip. You’re imagining things.
The lamp post that marked his turn around spot loomed closer. Jerry’s breathing came heavy. From behind was a faint but unmistakable scrape, like a sick dog’s dry pad on the sidewalk.
The darkness was thick here. To his right was a canyon wall overgrown with sharp, scrub foliage. Across the road to his left were empty businesses.
He had to make a choice. Would he turn and start back when he reached the turn around?
His eyes said nothing was behind him. His brain said he was being stupid. His pride made him think of the people who had told him to stay in the parking lot. But his gut said to keep going, to run. Maybe a cleaning crew was working late in one of the buildings across the street…
He reached the lamp post.
He turned around.
The light was coming from almost directly above; the shadows were minimal. But there were definitely two, his and the other, three or four feet away. Both were completely still.
A sickening odor of mildew hit him like a punch.
He heard the deep chuckle again, more like a growl.
His knees felt like soup, but he took a step forward as rationalization and ingrained behavior overrode the survival instinct.
Nothing is there. Nothing is there. Nothing is there.
The second shadow didn’t move.
Jerry stopped right before it. He heard raspy, amused breathing. He smelled mildew and carrion. What was it? What was it waiting for?
Jerry barely registered a light growing brighter down the road. He choked on a fetid wave of hot breath. Something cold and rubbery touched his hand and the back of his head gently, as if to embrace him.
And then it showed itself, perhaps as consolation to prey that had played the game and lost. Jerry looked up into big nocturnal eyes and a grinning mouth that was wide and full of saws.
“No!” he screamed.
Energized by fear, Jerry pushed against it. The teeth cut his face and sought his neck. The thing was too strong.
The headlamps of a car cast the growing light. The beams shined in the monster’s pale, saucer eyes. The creature winced and Jerry was suddenly free. He stumbled into the road as the car arrived. The driver stomped the brake pedal. Tires squealed on the wet pavement and the car began to slide. Jerry felt the impact as the car hit him. Then there was only blackness.
He was in an out of consciousness when the ambulance came and took him to the hospital. Jerry’s legs were broken, among other things. But he was alive.
The distraught driver told the responding police officer that she had seen something attacking Jerry just before he run into the road.
“It was big and white, like a hairless polar bear.”
“We don’t see many polar bears in San Diego, hairless or otherwise,” the officer deadpanned. “Maybe you saw a coyote.”
Later, loathe to report what had actually happened, Jerry confirmed that he had indeed been attacked by a coyote. This led to a dozen of the wild canines being shot and tested for rabies.
Jerry spent over a week in the hospital. Many of his co-workers came to see him. Everyone was sympathetic. No one gloated or said, “I told you so.”
When he went home, his insurance paid for a physical therapist to come by daily, and for an aide to help with meals and such.
On the third day, he heard the door open. He had left it unlocked because it was hard for him to get up, but they had knocked before. He glanced at the clock. They were twenty minutes early.
“Hello?” he called.
Jerry heard scraping footsteps in the hall. He smelled mildew and death.