“Of This Much, I am Sure”
by Ilsa J. Bick
by Ilsa J. Bick
Of this much, I’m sure. This is the God’s truth.
Call it woman’s intuition or that prickly, crawly sensation along your neck, the one that’s like the creep of a hairy tarantula. Call it whatever you want, but this is what I remember.
I know I was moving fast because by that point on my hike I realized how little light I really had left. I was also feeling weird, to tell the truth, and skittish as a spooked colt. Every few seconds, I’d toss a look over my shoulder. The first half dozen times, there was nothing to see but naked limbs and dark trunks and dead leaves. The woods were . . . the woods. But I knew that something wasn’t right.
Then there came the moment when my eyes skimmed the trail right to left—and he was there. He was, suddenly, right there.
And in the end, as I stood on that trail, frozen in my tracks and icy with terror; in the split second before I made the decision that I would have to run because there was just no other choice, I knew, exactly, what was going to get me killed.
I was going to die because of two stupid decimal places.
.01. A hundredth of a percent. Something so insignificant and trivial, an accountant would see it as nothing more than a rounding error. A number so small the only people who fretted over the difference were rocket scientists and astrophysicists—and Type A bozo-brains like me.
That’s how screwed up I was, how torqued I got about grades. That tiny little percentage stood between me scoring an honors that first semester and all those other faceless drudges who were my classmates because medical students are nothing if not plodding, systematic, obsessional in the extreme and not above a little ass-kissing. (You want a teacher to know your name? Get in line, buddy; I was here first.)
Me, I was a good girl. Planted myself in the front row, attended every lecture, took copious notes. Never dozed like those losers in the back row, the ones who left oily smudges on the dingy cinderblock where they’d leaned back. Teachers knew me by name; I was going places.
Like the mountains. This trail. I was a smart kid just dumb enough to get myself killed.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know better. This wasn’t my first rodeo, yet I’d broken every commandment of the hiker’s bible: skipped classes for the first time in my life (okay, not in the bible, but still); thrown some crap into my pack, none of it remotely useful other than the one water bottle and, of course, I’d neglected to bring a knife; roared out of D.C.; blasted past the unmanned gate at Front Royal and into the Shenandoahs (because, of course, no ranger was stupid enough to be hanging out in an unheated shack, much less in early December under a sky choked with clouds the color of slate). By the time I made it to the trailhead, a fine sleet was rattling like grains of rice off the windshield. There were no other vehicles in the postage stamp of a parking area just off the trail. I hadn’t passed a single car on Skyline Drive because no one was dumb enough to be out here in the first place but me. Of course, it goes without saying that the sign-in sheet at the trailhead was MIA, and never once did it occur to me that I should, oh, maybe leave a note pinned beneath a wiper blade to tell people who I was, where I was going, when I expected to be back, who to call if I didn’t show. No, no, I was only going for a hike on a trail I’d never taken, with only the barest bones of a map. I was unprepared and alone, and now I was going to get myself killed.
That guy? The one on the trail, maybe fifty, sixty yards away but hanging far enough in the woods that all I caught was a quick flash of dingy checked flannel, the crackle of a branch, the pale blur of a face? The man between me and my car, eight, ten miles back?
It would be him.
This is what I remember: a sudden lurch, a wallop as my heart slammed into the back of my throat; a clutch of twist in the pit of my gut; and this awful, frozen moment where my brain whited out. There was this gap of no thought at all and then only a thin scream in my brain: Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God . . .
I might have gasped. Eventually, I blinked, too.
And then, suddenly, he wasn’t there.
What the hell?
I must’ve stood there a good five or ten seconds, squinting, mouth hanging open, heart banging, my eyes straining to see what I knew just had to be. But there was nothing, no sign of him or anything.
And yet . . . I felt him. He was there. I knew it. Crouched in that tangle of brambles? Behind a tree? I was shaking, all over, and sweaty; I remember how I couldn’t stop gasping, and all at once, I had to catch this sob that tried pushing itself out of my mouth with my hand. I couldn’t see this guy but I was absolutely dead-certain that he was there, waiting for me to either keep going, or turn back.
And I had to turn back. This was a one-way trail. There was no other loop I could take or side-trail that would lead me to my car. If I wanted out of these woods, I would have to retrace my steps, I knew that.
But I was paralyzed. I just couldn’t, didn’t want to move. Maybe I was waiting for him to show himself again—and if he did? What then? Self-defense wasn’t in my repertoire. When you’re a kid, you think every disaster—the day you discover everyone’s laughing at you, or that lunch period when some asshole smears whipped cream in your hair—is just the worst thing.
I’d only felt really threatened twice in my life. Once, my boss, a retired cop, showed me his pistol as he assured me that all I had to do was relax because, really, he wouldn’t hurt me; he was a nice guy. That I happened to be cornered in a food locker was kind of a problem, but I got out of that one, mainly because his wife just happened to wander into the back of that deli at just the right moment. Is it bad that I didn’t quit? Probably, but then I would’ve had to explain why to my parents, and I needed the money.
The other time, I was thirteen and out in a field far from the school, on some kind of science-related project or other—and what I remember is how still the air was; how I sensed I was being watched. As it happened, I was. There were four girls? Five? Whatever. They threw rocks; I charged, plowing into a couple, breaking a necklace and, finally, a finger before hightailing it back to the school where I hid, simple as that. Eventually, I got called into the principal’s office for fighting. My parents were there; my dad said something about how he always wanted his kids to stick up for themselves. Whatever the outcome—it’s all very fuzzy now—I transferred to a different school at the end of that year.
Until that moment on that trail, those two events were the sum total of the truly awful I’d ever experienced. (Well, okay, the day I wandered into my dorm room only to surprise the guy trying to rob me blind was another. He rocketed out of there so fast I had no chance to be scared.)
I don’t know how long I stood on that trail, but when I shivered—from the cold, this time—I knew I had to move. With at least eight miles between me and my car, I had, really, only two options: walk, or run.
It was dumb and incredibly Hollywood-girly, I know that. I’d never jogged more than five miles, and hiking boots aren’t made for running, especially not over sleet-slicked leaves and exposed roots. All the guy had to do was pace me, wait until I got tired—or knocked myself out when I tripped and bonked my head—and then he’d get me. My only thought at the time was to squirt past, take him by surprise. I wasn’t thinking about five miles down the trail, or even two.
To this day, I could swear that as I drew even to the place where I knew he must be, I saw that face, white as a fish belly. For sure, there was a streak of dingy flannel: red and black checks. Or were those only dying sumac?
I just don’t know. I only ran.
Eventually, the terrain was just too rough and I slowed to a fast walk. I was too afraid to look back, too spooked not to and it really was like a bad movie where the stupid girl blunders her way out of the forest only to run right into the maniac with the axe at the instant she gets to her car.
Every so often, a branch would crack that I hadn’t crunched. Something would pop into focus behind me, and then disappear just as quickly. At times, I saw every feature—dank blond hair, thick stubble—and that terrible, gap-toothed grin . . .
Yet wasn’t I too far away? Wasn’t he? You couldn’t see where his teeth weren’t unless you were up close, right? And how could I see anything? It was December, early afternoon, and full dark in less than three, four hours, tops
I wish I could say that he jumped me and I fought back, maybe stabbed him with my non-existent knife, but that would be a lie. What I did was put my head down and keep going. I walked, fast, for a very long time. No one grabbed me. I didn’t have to fight for my life. The light started to go, and the air grayed out, and every now and again, I looked back—and there he was; I’m telling you he was right there; I swear he was just melting back into the trees.
Or maybe not.
It doesn’t matter. None of that does.
Here’s what does matter. This is what sticks in my mind: the instant I crashed out of the woods and spotted my car—
And the truck, right alongside, that hadn’t been there before.
I stopped, dead.
My memory of that truck is vague and ill-defined, but I believe the fenders were chewed up by rust and the chassis was, maybe, dirty red. Or brown. Black? I don’t know.
But that’s when I knew that he was real and behind me, not by much, and had been the whole time.
The next thing I remember, I was in my car. The air was very cold. I was wet, and the windows had fogged. My fingers were so stiff I couldn’t work the key into the ignition or get my muscles to obey.
That was when something man-shaped and gray-black floated right to left across the windshield. I couldn’t hear the crunch of gravel, but I’ll bet it was there.
I never looked up. Didn’t dare.
Instead, somehow, I socked the key in place, cracked the starter, got the damn thing started and then I was ramming the stick into reverse and mashing the accelerator. I remember the pings and pocks of gravel against the undercarriage, the bright cut of my car’s headlights sweeping the gathering darkness--and flashing across that truck, the truck and someone, someone—and then I jockeyed the stick into first and got the hell out of there.
If he jumped into his truck at that instant, I will never know.
But I do know this. Of this much, I am sure.
It takes a long time to get to the entrance at Front Royal. Skyline Drive is a hundred miles, give or take. From beginning to end, on a good day, you can go for three hours because the road curves, a lot, and you have to go slow if you don’t want to end up mashed into an accordion of metal and glass.
I know I went as fast as I dared. By the time I made it to that empty entrance shack, it was way past full dark and the road was icy. A couple times, I spotted headlights in my rear-view, on the same road, taking it turn for turn, never closing but never falling back either.
There are a lot of cider stands and seasonal restaurants on the road into the mountains, and not many open past peak season. Still, there are people, and the first gas station that showed lights, I pulled in. I don’t remember if I thought about calling the police. By then, I was feeling stupid. Like, how girly could I get?
But this is the God’s truth, too. I remember it like yesterday, like today. Like now.
I am inside the station’s convenience store. It’s black as pitch outside so I see my reflection, can count the bags of Doritos on the shelves and jugs of milk in the cooler.
But it is not so dark that I cannot make out that long spear of light leading the way.
And how slowly . . . slowly . . . that truck follows and follows and follows.
Now, this was years before the Spotsylvania serial killer, the Shenandoah Trail murders, the Colonial Parkway killings. In fact, it is only at this very moment--right this second as I type these words--that I’ve made any connection at all, if there is even one to make.
Because I really never got a good look. Most days, I think what I saw out there wasn’t real. Remember The Blair Witch Project? I don’t know about you, but I kept turning to my husband and whispering, What? What did he say? Did you see that?
What was on that trail was exactly like that movie, minus the funky stick figures: something seen out of the corner of my eye, just out of sight. And the sounds? I’m not sure I honestly heard them much less give them names.
But I did hear something—the snap of a branch, the rustle of leaves—and he was close, so close, close enough that I spotted where his teeth weren’t. I saw stubble over his chin and jowls, and his hair was a lank, greasy blonde mop, and his eyes were a muddy brown.
Except . . . no one’s vision is that good. I would’ve had to be only a few feet away to get all that detail, and I wasn’t.
But I remember it as if it were yesterday, this morning, the last ten minutes. I remember him.
I stayed in that store for quite a while, thinking about all the what-ifs and maybes. Eventually, I worked up the courage to leave or maybe the owner said something.
In the end, of this much, I am sure: I’m here, still kicking.
And, maybe, somewhere . . . so is he.
Ashes is Currently Available from Egmont!
Synopsis: It could happen tomorrow . . .
An electromagnetic pulse flashes across the sky, destroying every electronic device, wiping out every computerized system, and killing billions.
Alex hiked into the woods to say good-bye to her dead parents and her personal demons. Now desperate to find out what happened after the pulse crushes her to the ground, Alex meets up with Tom—a young soldier—and Ellie, a girl whose grandfather was killed by the EMP.
For this improvised family and the others who are spared, it’s now a question of who can be trusted and who is no longer human.
Author Ilsa J. Bick crafts a terrifying and thrilling novel about a world that could be ours at any moment, where those left standing must learn what it means not just to survive, but to live amidst the devastation.
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Ilsa, Thank you so much for sharing such a chilling story with everyone. I don't know what I would have done if I had been in your shoes. I'm sure I would have been extremely freaked out. Also a HUGE thank you goes out to Ilsa an the Publisher for the copy of Ashes provided for this giveaway.
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