Ursus arctos horribilis

This is another early exercise from my Creative Writing class this past Fall. It was written around the same time as “Autumn Whispering,” but this assignment was to create a scenario in which the character(s) were in immediate DANGER.

By Jillian Locke

She loved walking the trails. The woods brought her such a sense of relief, like all of her stresses were absorbed by the trees and transformed, the way photosynthesis happens. A subtle breeze ruffled the changing leaves. A renegade strand of hair blew across her face, tickling her cheek. A small animal made its way through the thick brush.

The path was well manicured with the exception of scattered rocks and ancient roots. The foot traffic at the trails was typically consistent, but the area was big enough that it was easy to feel completely alone. This was one of the best qualities of this particular route – the solitude of nature, the space Claire sought, and the occasional sign of life from a fellow traveler, just to reassure her that she wasn’t completely alone in the wilderness.

She never wore headphones when she walked the trails by herself. She saw young girls walking and jogging with headphones all the time; she viewed this action as a death wish. Dramatic? Not really. Just a few months back, a woman was attacked in the parking lot on a Thursday afternoon. She was just getting out of her car and a man leapt from the woods, dragged her in, and raped her, right there. Claire went for a jog there just a few days later, alone. It was a Sunday, so there were tons of families, kids, dogs, the whole circus, circulating the trails. She felt safe, but still didn’t wear her headphones.

When she got back to her car, she saw a missed call and a text from Nigel. She called him back “Where the fuck are you?!?!” he screamed. That was unlike him – what the hell was going on?

“I just finished running. What the hell’s the matter?”

“Did you hear what happened there Thursday?” he demanded, exasperated.

Clearly, she hadn’t.

“A woman was raped there, broad day light. Please promise me you’ll never go there alone again.”

She had never heard him so scared, such desperation in his voice. Nigel was a man’s man. He wasn’t easily jostled by anything. And right then and there, she realized how much he loved her.

“I promise babe. I’ll never come here alone again.”

For some reason, she was breaking that promise today. It was a Thursday around 4pm, but Claire needed to get into nature, lose herself in it. She wasn’t wearing her headphones, and she was carrying the mace Nigel had given her. She was being smart about everything.

The entrance to the trails was like the entry way to a secret garden; lush greenery flowing outward on both sides of the dirt path, small babbling brooks, an old abandoned well off to the left, bees and birds and squirrels buzzing and flitting around. It always felt surreal to her, like she was Alice diving head first into the rabbit hole. The difference was she always felt protected.

There were a few different trails, but she always ran the same one. It had two different entries, side by side. She typically chose the same one, the trail to the right, because she had gotten turned around the last time she ran the path to the left. But there was a group of three hikers and a few dogs just before her who took the path to the right, so she opted to not have to run around them, as the trails were pretty narrow, and decided to pay close attention to the other trail and make her way out the right way this time.

Claire hopped to, always going a little faster in the beginning than she ended. She always did this, and she knew it pissed off some of her running buddies. She couldn’t help it; the beginning of the run just felt so good to her. She would rather blast through the tough beginning aches and pains and glide into the part of the run that felt really good, the part some described as the “runners high.” She almost always had that feeling running through the woods; never on pavement, never on the treadmill. Claire floated over roots and rocks and branches with little effort while her friends ritually tripped or fell or faltered behind her. Her friend Rachel would always shout while struggling behind her, “It’s like you have eyes on your feet, Missy.” There was something about the woods that felt like home to her, carried her, and this is where she ran her best.

The reserve was really quiet today, the rhythmic drumming of her feet the only sound she was aware of. Her eyes were always on the ground, focusing on the next obstacle, making sure she lifted her feet high enough so as not to get snagged. She felt the slightest displacement of air past her right ear, and out of the corner of her eye she saw a small brown blur whiz past her, she missing her right temple. “That’s nice,” she bellowed. She always talked to the squirrels when they pelted acorns in her direction.

A few more minutes down the path, and another acorn. “Seriously guys? Enough!” She felt like she was being chased into the woods, or chased away. Claire had been nailed by nut grenades before, and it sucked. She felt a sharp twinge in her right knee, and she stopped to adjust her brace. About a month back, she had strained her meniscus doing some squats, but the brace seemed to be holding things together enough to allow some light jogging.

That’s when she heard the snap. A big snap. It wasn’t from one of those kamikaze nut launchers. She tightened her brace and picked up the pace.

She got that feeling in the pit of her stomach that she hated getting. She hated feeling like this in the woods – this was her safe haven. This was her escape. She kept running, kept leaping over roots and rocks, kept her focus straight ahead and her ears perked.

Leaves were disturbed, sounded like 20 to 30 feet back, but she couldn’t tell exactly. At this moment, she knew she had to make a choice: keep going, or go back. She knew she couldn’t turn around and speed towards whoever she felt behind her, and she also knew the further she ran into the reserve, the further she was from anyone hearing her if she needed to cry for help. She thought of how pissed Nigel would be if he knew where she was. She gripped the mace that she had tucked into the lame fanny pack Nigel had bought her to carry it in, secretly thanking him, and forged forward.

Every left foot fall brought her hope, every right foot fall anxiety. The leaves became more vocal, expressing their discontent at being disturbed with more frequency. She heard the quickening pace, more branches snapping, and lurched into a sprint, the rocks and roots becoming a blur as her stride grew. She just prayed she wouldn’t trip and fall. “Don’t you fall Claire. Don’t you fucking fall!”

A steep incline came into view, the rockiest one yet. She leaned forward, eyes focused on the ground, and threw herself at the obstacle, ignoring the shooting pains in her right knee. Rachel’s voice chiding, “You have eyes on your feet, girl,” rang through her head, giving her a seconds worth of confidence and belief. But her concentration was broken by a passing breeze and fear, both of which brought the scent of rust; a raw, putrid rusty smell. She couldn’t place it, but it filled the air and was enough to distract her from the awkward edge of a small boulder jutting from the left side of the path. The bottom of her sneaker caught the tip, throwing her left ankle off balance, twisting it as she crashed to the ground.

Claire heard the thrashing before she actually saw the blood. She heard the horrible ripping sounds, the muffled, gurgling cries. She was now facing downhill, her fall turning her around and forcing her onto her left side. She sat cradling her ankle, taking stock of a few cuts, her torn pants. Focusing was difficult, and she wasn’t sure whether she was physically unable to see, or if something inside her didn’t want to see. More tearing, sickening crunching, agonizing yells drowned out by feral growls.

She had always felt protected in the woods. It was her safe haven. She looked to her right, away from the massacre that was taking place just 10 yards to her left, and saw a great, hollowed oak tree. Inside, someone had placed a small statue of a happily sleeping gnome, the kind with little blue pants and a little red cap, like in the Travelocity commercials. He looked so peaceful, so content. Claire dropped down to her elbows, chanting “thank you, thank you, thank you,” over and over again, as she listened to the violent, bloody sound of nature’s purification process.

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