It was at night when it all came back to her; no matter how hard she tried to escape her past, it came to visit her nightmares.
Lana had tried to outrun it for as long as she could, leaving Chicago on a train then switching to a Greyhound bus, getting into far Northern Wisconsin before the cash in her wallet had run out. In a cheap sweatsuit and knock-off Keds that she purchased at a Wal-mart, she walked into the office of a property rental company and picked the most remote place she could find, a one-room cabin about 20 miles from the nearest town. She carried a meager amount of possessions to her new home. Everything that she used to own, everyone that she used to know, everything that she used to be, was left back in Chicago.
At night, however, it returned to her in her dreams. Tossing and turning in the small, lumpy single bed beneath a hand-stitched quilt, she saw it all again. She saw the outstretched hands, trying to claw at her face, grabbing her skirt, wrapping their twisted digits around her ankles. Their eyes were dull and calculating, like sharks circling their victims. Her senses were overwhelmed by the metallic smell of blood as it sprayed onto the walls, over the floor, onto her face. The red was so vivid that it looked fake, like the set of a horror movie. But somehow it had become her real life. In her dreams, she watched the blood run down her arms, separating into rivulets and tributaries as it dispersed over her biceps. She had never expected to become a person that knew what it was like to fight for her life. And now, she relived it every single night. Again and again, she felt the broken pool cue in her hands bend from strain as she drove it deep into the chest cavity of her friends, grinding through meat and cartilage. She looked into the vacant eyes, watching a flicker of their old self return briefly, only to die by the makeshift weapons in her hands. She reminded herself that they weren’t her friends in those moments, that if she didn’t kill them, they surely would have killed her. It did little to ease the nauseous guilt that swirled in her gut, eating away at her like a parasite.
In her dream, she spun on the blood-drenched floor, facing her next attacker and flinching in horror when she recognized the face of her best friend Nicole, now twisted and grotesque from whatever had transformed her into a cannibalistic monster. The dream always came down to this final moment. A wave of memories overtook Lana: she and Nicole meeting for the first time during cheerleading tryouts freshman year, driving around after school for years once they finally got their licenses, helping Nicole cheer up after she was ditched by her prom date. Years of friendship flew past her eyes like a flickering old movie reel as she looked into Nicole’s crazed eyes, now those of a stranger’s. It was not her, this could never be here, something else had taken her over. The tiny moment of hesitation was all that the monster needed to lunged at Lana, wrapping powerful clawed fingers around her neck. She gasped for air, feeling herself beginning to slip away, her hands grabbing desperately around her for something, anything. Her fingertips brushed against a bottle. Lana smashed the bottle and drove it into Nicole’s face as tears blurred her vision.
“I’m so sorry,” she cried, bending over as the deep sobs wracked her body. And as she doubled over Nicole’s lifeless body, she finally awoke, shooting straight up in her bed as the strange sensation of free fall clouded her senses. Her hair was plastered to her head with sweat, her breathing so panicked and accelerated that it made her chest ache. She looked around, expecting to see leering corpses reaching for her, but she was all alone in the little wood cabin. The single room was softly bathed in moonlight, illuminating the few pieces of furniture: a table with a single chair, a dresser with only one drawer full, a small kitchenette, and a shotgun leaning next to the only door. She told the man at the gun store that it was for protection against the black bears in the area. It was her last option, the only way she could escape the dreams that haunted her. But as strong as she was that night at the bar in Chicago, she could not find the strength to pull the trigger.
Lana got out of bed, the cold air hitting her like a slap. She padded over to the wash basin and used a wet washcloth to wipe the sweat from her face. In the quiet stillness, she detected the sound of something moving around outside, snapping twigs beneath its feet. Adrenaline rushed into her veins like ice water. She snapped up the shotgun and threw open the door to confront the intruder. The arctic wind made her eyes water; she rubbed the tears away with a flannel sleeve.
“Who’s there?” she screamed, aiming the shotgun into the darkness. A low roar shook her down to her core. A grizzly bear stood in front of the cabin, its massive size towering in front of her. Steam rose from its flanks. It must have smelled the food in the cabin.
“Go away!” she shouted, hoping to scare it off. Instead, the bear moved towards her, growling. Its claws tore into the frozen ground with each step. Confrontation was inevitable. Lana fired a warning shot into the sky, but the bear continued to advance without flinching. It was now close enough for Lana to look directly into its eyes. It looked wild, feral, and hungry. She knew exactly how it felt.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, and pulled the trigger. The bullet burrowed into the bear’s hide, but it continued to walk towards her, like it was pleading to her. She felt her eyes water again, and release the remaining bullets into the bear. It staggered to the ground, rolling onto its side. The ferocious creature was just dead flesh. She watched it until the last steamy breath emerged from the bear’s mouth and then let the shotgun slide from her hand to the ground. Her footsteps echoed in the still forest as she slowly walked up to the mountainous body, putting her hands over the bullet wounds. The blood was warm and sticky, thicker than human blood.
“It was going to be either you or me,” she said to the corpse. And in that moment, she knew that that was who she was going to be from now on. She was not going to use that shotgun on herself; it was going to be pointed out at anyone who came near her.