“Singletrack” appeared in Greg Gifune’s magazine The Edge in May of 1999. I used to do a lot of mountain biking in the Adirondack Mountains, and the terrain is based on that (specifically, the trail around Moss Lake). I never encountered any wildlife larger than a squirrel, but the poor souls in this story are not so fortunate.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: In mountain biking terminology, singletrack denotes a trail—usually difficult to ride—that consists of one narrow cleared path.
The big downhill gave Jackson a momentum boost that carried him up the next rise with only a minor loss in speed, so he was still racing fast when he spotted the shelf of rock protruding from the path. He jerked up hard on the front wheel, but the ridge was too high to hop. He rammed it head-on, flying over the handlebars and into the spindly brambles that grew alongside the trail. They snapped and splintered like thin dry bones.
Jackson hauled himself out of the tangle of foliage. He grabbed his bike and dragged it over the spiny stone, then mounted it and began to ride. The bike wobbled and he fell again. He checked the front wheel; its rim was bent out of true.
He looked back up the trail. They were coming, coming through the trees; the wipeout had cost him precious yards, he was still miles from civilization, and now his bike was unrideable.
How on earth was he going to get away now?
—– Earlier —–
Bright summer sunshine poured through the windows of the diner, making the waitress’s hair look even redder as she leaned into the light to freshen up their coffees.
“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” Wayne said.
The waitress shrugged. She had the haggard, timeworn look of someone who didn’t get out into beautiful mornings very often.
Wayne persisted. “You get a lot of mornings like this up here?”
“Food’ll be out in a minute,” she said, departing.
“Leave her alone,” June whispered. “She doesn’t want to make small talk.”
“She’s a waitress in a diner, hon,” Wayne said. “She has to make small talk. It’s required.”
“Guess she hasn’t read her job description,” Jackson said, taking a sip of coffee.
Soon the waitress returned, carrying a heavily-loaded tray. Wordlessly she began placing plates on the battered tabletop; then, to Jackson’s surprise, she spoke: “You guys sure ordered a lot of food.”
“We’re gonna need energy for our big ride,” Wayne said, giving June an I told you so wink.
The waitress paused in mid-serve and squinted at Wayne. “You’re going riding?”
“In the mountains?”
“Those mountains?” She pointed out the window at the low, wooded, misty peaks that surrounded the village of Nathan’s Corners.
“Uh, yeah,” Wayne said.
“Do you get up there at all?” Samantha asked, rescuing Wayne from the unexpected grilling. “Looks like beautiful country.”
“Oh, it is,” the waitress agreed flatly, resuming her duties. “Heavenly. Just mind you don’t disturb the wildlife.”
“A responsible mountain biker never disturbs animals,” Jackson said.
She fixed him with a dead-eyed stare. “Who said anything about animals?”
he car looked funny with four bicycles on the roof rack, like some weird, antennaed creature. Wayne and Jackson took the bikes down while June and Samantha walked a little way up the path.
As he wheeled his bike to the trailhead, Jackson noticed a faded wooden sign lying in the ditch. It said, in red letters that had faded to pink, TRAIL CLOSED. The post was splintered partway down, as if someone had snapped it over his knee. “Hey, look at this,” he said, crouching down and lifting it for the others to see.
“That’s ancient,” Wayne said. “Put it down.”
“You think the trail is still closed?” Jackson said.
“Nah.” Wayne mounted his bike and adjusted his helmet. “That sign is probably from the big storm they had a couple years ago. All the trails around here were closed for a while because of all the trees that got knocked down.”
Jackson shrugged, dropped the sign, and joined the others as they started down the trail. It ran flat for about a hundred yards before beginning a long, steep downhill, but it was so muddy that they couldn’t gather much speed. After a few miles it leveled off, without getting any drier.
They rode for a while, staying spread out so they wouldn’t catch the spray from each others’ wheels. The trail wound through virgin old-growth forest, close-pressed by ferns and brambles, shaded by tree limbs that met and interlocked overhead. The air smelled of earth and leaves and rain.
After some time, Jackson began to catch glimpses of a grey, windswept lake some distance ahead. He had noted it on the trail map; it was about a quarter of the way along their route. He lost sight of the water as the path made a sharp turn around a massive, tree-shrouded boulder, but it came back into view on the other side.
Just past the big stone, a fallen length of decrepit wrought-iron fencing rattled under their wheels; it had once guarded a small, muddy graveyard that stood on a hillock in the shadow of the stone. The burial plot of some long-dead mountain family, Jackson thought, six time-weathered markers that bore only the faintest remnants of their epitaphs. He wondered who was buried there, where their home had been, when they had died.
The riding had been hard, so they stopped to rest by the lake. Samantha excused herself and ducked into the woods while the rest of them settled onto the shore. The surface was frothed into thousands of tiny scallops; the water looked cold as gunmetal.
“It’s so peaceful out here,” June said. “So quiet.”
“Yeah. This is what it’s all about.” Wayne lay on his back, eyes closed, soaking up the sun. “Hand me a Stoker, would you, Jack?” Jackson tossed him an energy bar; Wayne tore a chunk off and swallowed it without chewing.
“How do you do that?” Jackson said.
Samantha’s voice drifted out of the forest: “Guys! Come quick!”
They found her standing beside a sheet of exposed shale. The rock had a depression in it, a hollow filled with pine needles and fallen leaves.
It was easy enough to see why she had called them: a dismembered skeleton lay in the hole. The arms and legs were in a heap to one side; ribs and other small bones were scattered carelessly, the way a sloppy eater might toss wing bones in a pizzeria. The area was littered with shredded blue fabric. Jackson picked up a scrap. Nylon backpack material. “Must’ve been a hiker,” he said.
“Is it just me,” Wayne said, “or do the bones look gnawed?”
“Sure. Sure they would be gnawed. The woods are full of scavengers.” June hugged herself and eyed the forest wall.
“And predators,” Jackson said.
“The skull’s over here.” Samantha nudged it with her foot, turning it so they could see. The crown had been crushed; a flat rock lay in the brain pan, crusted with dried blood and shriveled grey matter.
They all stared at the skull for a moment.
“We have to go back and tell the police,” Sam said.
Jackson nodded. “Yeah.”
“Let’s just get out of here,” June said.
They quickly returned to the bikes, mounted up, and started back the way they’d come. The tracks they had left behind had refilled with oozing muck; they had to slog through virgin mud again, uphill this time. As they passed the graveyard, the front wheel of Sam’s bike got caught on the old fence and she wiped out in the mud. Jackson came to a stop behind her. “You okay?” he said.
Sam was down on the ground, checking her front tire. “I’ve got a flat,” she said.
Wayne and June had stopped some distance ahead. “You want us to wait?” Wayne said.
“No, go on. We’ll catch up.”
“Okay.” The two of them started pedaling again, disappearing around the boulder. Jackson dismounted and got the repair kit out of his riding bag. Sam attached the patch to the tire, then watched Jackson inflate the inner tube.
“What do you think?” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“It looked to me like somebody used that rock as a scraper. To get his brain out.”
“To eat it,” she said.
Jackson stood and clipped the pump back in its holder. “And on that note, let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Hey, here comes Wayne,” Sam said.
He was tearing around the boulder, riding like mad; he took the hairpin far too fast and wiped out in the mud a few yards away from them. “What’s wrong?” Jackson said. “Where’s June?”
“They got her!” Wayne cried. He struggled to stand up, slipping and sliding in the thick muck. “They’re coming!”
“Who’s coming?” Jackson said.
Wayne’s gaze moved away from Jackson, up to the boulder. His skin went white beneath the mud. He pointed and screamed, “Them!”
Jackson turned. Something squatted on top of the big stone, a shaggy, vicious parody of a person, half-hidden in the shadow of the trees. All that was clearly visible was the smooth, milky arm clutched in its grip. The limb had been twisted out at the shoulder, trailing sinew and gristle.
“Oh my God,” Sam said. Jackson put his arm around her, steadying himself with her presence, fighting the simultaneous urges to vomit and run.
The creature made a faint clicking sound, then bit into the arm, ripped out a chunk of flesh, and spit it at them. The gobbet splatted into the mud and vanished.
Wayne started forward, toward the boulder.
“Wayne! Get back here!” Jackson hissed; but Wayne ignored him, clambering up the slippery bank to stand in the ancient graveyard. The creature looked down at him curiously.
Wayne wrenched off a corner of a crumbling tombstone and hurled it at the creature, shouting, “You son of a bitch!” The hunk of stone struck the thing and burst into powder. It shifted position in the shadows, as if moving for a better look at them. A second creature joined it, this one carrying the lower section of June’s leg, still clad in torn, blood-soaked spandex. Large chunks of flesh had been bitten away from the limb.
Sam made a choking sound, like a sob tangled up with a gasp. Jackson scrambled up the bank and stood at the edge of the graveyard. “Wayne. We have to get out of here. Now.”
He turned to Jackson, squinting into the sun, his face streaked with tears. “They killed her, Jack,” he said. “Look what they did.”
“I know, Wayne, but they’re gonna come after us—”
He broke off as the earth beneath Wayne suddenly gave way. He sank into the mud up to his shins. “They’ve got me!” he screamed. Jackson lunged forward and grabbed his arm as he sank lower, down to his knees. The mud around him sucked and bubbled. The creatures atop the boulder bounced up and down and hooted.
Sam scrambled up to join them, grabbed Wayne’s other arm. “Pull me out, pull me out!” he cried.
They pulled. The mud reluctantly yielded up its prize, slurping around Wayne’s body as they hauled him free. “That’s it,” Wayne said. “That’s …” He trailed off, staring down at his waist, where several sets of muddy, hairy fingers had wriggled out of the mud to scrabble at his back and stomach.
“Hurry!” he screamed.
They pulled again, but the filthy claws ripped into his flesh and dragged him even deeper. Jackson’s feet began to slip through the mud, toward the graveyard, and he said: “Let go.”
Sam braced her feet against the slippage of the mud, shook her head, held on. Wayne made odd gurgling noises; his body began to shake violently and his eyes rolled up into his head.
“They’re too strong, Sam. Let go!”
“No!” she shouted.
Jackson pulled her away from Wayne; the creatures in the earth claimed him, mud closing over his head with a faint sucking sound. Bloody bubbles rose languidly to the surface and popped like boils.
Jackson half-dragged Sam back to the path. Sobbing, she clambered onto her bike, and he mounted his. Together they took off down the path, away from the graveyard, deeper into the wilderness. They raced past the depression where Sam had found the body. The grey lake rippled to their left, looking bone-cold even on this bright June day.
Jackson adjusted his visor mirror for a look back. No sign of pursuit; no trace of their passage, except the slowly-filling ruts from their tires. When those were gone, it would be as if he and his friends had never been here.
The trail began to climb, getting a little drier, a little rockier. There was still no sign of the creatures. Maybe they were content with their catch.
What were they?
A high, thin screech knifed out of the forest, rose and fell and rose again. It was joined by another, then another. The ululating sound seemed to come from all around them, from every tree, every inch of underbrush. Jackson eased ahead of Sam, moving to the center of the trail. “Stay in the middle,” he called, watching the dense vegetation pass. Nothing. No sign of movement.
The screeching stopped.
Then something spun out of the woods, something round. Warm fluid spattered Jackson’s back and neck. Behind him, he heard a thud, a scream, a crash. Sam had gone down hard. Jackson pinched his brakes, slid to a stop, looked back. Her bike lay on its side, one pedal spinning lazily. Wayne’s disembodied head lay nearby, smeared with brown muck, his hair and eyes and nose full of the stuff. Sam’s legs, from about the calf down, stuck out of the brush. She was lying on her side.
Her legs began to shake and quiver, as if she were having a seizure, although the quiet ripping noises he heard belied that.
The rustling in the undergrowth stopped. Her legs stopped moving.
Then, slowly, they slid into the woods.
He stood there a moment, stunned. He was alone. He was all alone. “Oh, God, Sam,” he said.
He heard movement coming toward him. Coming fast.
Jackson turned, jammed his feet into the pedal straps, and rode for his life.
—– Now —–
He only had a few seconds before they caught him. Jackson grabbed the top of the bent wheel with both hands and slammed his foot down on the rim. It popped back into a semblance of roundness. He vaulted onto the bike and started pedaling. He began to roll, but the delay had cost him; the things crashed through the brush, the foliage shaking as they passed. They were getting ahead of him.
Jackson pedaled furiously. He neared the ford, where his map had shown a shallow brook crossing the path. They would jump him there, he thought, while he was crossing the stream. They wouldn’t attack until he was vulnera—
They leapt out of the woods directly in front of him, almost close enough to grab him. Jackson screamed and jerked his bike to the left, off the trail. Claws whistled through the air, just nicking his cheek, opening up burning lines that dribbled blood down his neck. Then he was away from them, plowing through ferns and brambles; thorns and small branches raked his legs and shins. Somewhere nearby he heard the sound of water falling. He bulled through a thick stand of pricker bushes.
On the other side, the ground dropped away.
It was pretty high: twenty feet, maybe thirty. He let go of the bike and it spun away from him. The splash pool was deep enough that he didn’t break anything landing; he waded to shore, fighting a strong current that threatened to push him downstream. The creatures came after him, clambering down the sides of the cataract.
The streambed was exposed shale, much of it dry now that the winter runoff had abated. He could make a run for it, hope he could outlast and outdistance them in a flat-out race. It didn’t seem likely.
Then he noticed handlebars sticking out of the water at the edge of the splash pool. He reached into the frigid water, grabbed the top of the bike frame, and pulled.
It didn’t budge.
He yanked on the bike again. “Come on,” he muttered. “Come on!” He gave the bike another heave and it came loose. He dragged it out of the splash pool, mounted it, began pedaling. The chain slipped, then caught, grinding as the mud worked loose. He lurched forward along the streambed. The shale was bumpy and pitted from centuries of erosion, but it was solid and mostly level. He shifted into a higher gear as he gained speed.
He heard the creatures running along behind him, their feet slapping in the shallow water, their nails scratching on the stone. A stone whistled past, clipping the side of his head. Hot blood cascaded down his neck; it felt like the rock had taken his ear off. More projectiles followed; stones flat and round whizzed by with astonishing velocity.
Faster. He had to go faster.
Gathering speed, he rounded a corner and was confronted with a huge fallen tree that completely blocked the stream. Flotsam had heaped up behind it, forming a dam that had created a large pool of water.
The creatures were right behind him. He couldn’t carry his bike around the tree, not this time.
He would have to find a way to go over it.
One of the tree’s limbs lay at an angle, forming a bridge over the water from the ground to the trunk; the narrow end had splintered against the streambed a few feet before the beginning of the pool.
Jackson noted all this in an instant, and headed straight for the branch.
He bounced up onto the shattered limb. The handlebars jerked in his hands; he wrenched them straight and raced up the limb, over the pool, struggling to maintain his balance on the narrow, curving surface. There was a small knot in the wood ahead. He had to be ready for it. If he fell now, it was all over.
A rock caught him in the back of the skull, just below the protection of his helmet. Lights exploded in his head, blotting out his vision.
He had to keep the bike straight.
His front wheel bumped over something: the knot in the branch. The handlebars jerked in his hands. He pulled them back, knowing that the trunk would be just ahead. He had to hop it, but not too soon, and not too late.
He waited a heartbeat, then yanked on the handlebars. His front wheel left the limb, stayed in the air a second, began to fall. It rammed into the trunk with jarring force, half-bounced up on top of it. His gears scraped the wood. His back wheel bumped over. He balanced astride the tree trunk a moment, then dropped off the other side. He hit the streambed hard, wobbled, kept going.
Jackson leaned forward, pedaled hard. The sounds of pursuit faded. Jackson ventured a glance in his helmet mirror, but discovered that a rock had taken it off and looked over his shoulder instead. Empty streambed lay behind him.
He had made it.
He rode until he reached Nathan’s Corners, where the stream went into a culvert beneath the village. He left his bike in the ravine and clambered out. His body ached in a hundred different places; his head throbbed where the stone had clipped his ear; his legs felt like lead.
He came out just across the street from the diner where they had all eaten breakfast. The dinner crowd was in there now; he could see the red-haired waitress pouring coffee, and remembered what she’d said about the wildlife.
She knew, didn’t she?
He staggered out into the road, gaze fixed on the windows, on the woman.
Bright light, coming around the corner.
The blare of a horn shattered his concentration, seconds before the impact of a car shattered his body.
Jackson sat up straight in bed, gasping. Just a dream, he thought. He wasn’t back in the forest. It was just a dream.
He looked at the clock. Three a.m. He’d slept two whole hours that time. Exhausted, he crawled out of bed and stumbled into the kitchen. The limp was always worse at night, and he spilled some milk as he took his glass to the table. Sam’s cat was there to lap it up.
He sat down heavily, and stared through the window into the night. The wind was furious, whipping the trees around. No wonder all the motion detectors were lit up. He’d had them put in because the police had never found the creatures, just their network of burrows and tunnels. The things must’ve realized Jackson would be back with the authorities, and had moved on. Smarter than they looked.
They were still out there. He wondered, sometimes, if they were looking for him.
He finished his milk, left the glass in the sink, and limped to the garage. He wanted to take a look at his battered mountain bike, which hung from a holder on the back wall. It still showed all the dents and damages of his escape. He kept it for sentimental reasons; with his injuries, he would probably never ride it again.
He opened the door and flicked on the light.
The bike was gone.
He limped down the three steps to the cold garage floor. The wind blew in through the side door, making it flap and creak. It looked wrong, broken; he realized it had been forced, and hung from only two of its hinges.
Something clattered to the floor in front of him. The top crossbar of his bike, twisted all out of shape, gleaming silver metal showing where the paint had been gnawed away. Gnawed, like a bone. He looked up into the rafters.
Dark eyes looked back.
Behind him, the door to the house closed.
He didn’t need to turn to know it wasn’t the wind.
NOTE: The story you just finished reading (you did finish reading it, didn’t you?) does not feature its original ending. I had received a number of rejection notes from editors commenting that my stories were too lethal on their protagonists, and so when I wrote Singletrack, I let Jackson live in the end. Greg Gifune liked the story, but suggested that the ending needed to be punched up. He was right.