Isolation

Standard

Every hotel in Arizona, it seems, has that one room in their availability that they’re famous for… the one room that guests swear they can hear the sobs of an unseen woman coming from.  The one room where things that go bump in the night materialize, manifest and become real.  What someone thinks they see in the corner of their eye, and then disappears when they face it head on, thrives in the shadows, existing in the realm of the subliminal.

isolation

What sets the yurt at the furthest north corner of the Apache Center in Flagstaff apart is that it’s not a room at all.  And it’s certainly not at a hotel.  It’s one of five circular tents on the property with a wooden floor and the accommodations of a very small cabin.  It has a fireplace for cold nights and a plastic skylight for pleasant days.  It can comfortably fit one person, but can reasonably fit two.  It’s called the “Coyote Yurt.”  The other four on the property are named after other various Arizona-dwelling animals (cactus wren, roadrunner, etc.).

It does, though, have a reputation that precedes it.  Its history exists in no “Haunted Arizona” books or websites or blogs dedicated to the supernaturally-inclined hospitalities of the state.  Its history is much lesser-known than the sordid histories of the Jerome Grand Hotel and its murderous elevator, or the spectral child who never checked out of the Copper Queen in Bisbee.  The yurt at the northernmost corner of the Apache Center emits an energy that people can feel almost immediately once they get within sight of it.  Headaches, nausea and occasional nosebleeds occur.  That the Coyote Yurt and the forest around it seem to exist on a different, dreamlike plane isn’t as accurate as to say that the dwelling and the property seem to actually live.

On the night of June 13th, 2015 it was the last night the yurt had a guest in it.  Two days later, it was cleared from Apache Center’s inventory, and a week after that it was scheduled to be torn down by a bulldozer, its scraps burned.

Jeremiah Cervantes was its last guest.  He drove up on the morning of the 13th from Phoenix and arrived just after 1:00 in the afternoon for an early check-in he had arranged with the staff of the Apache Center in advance.

“We won’t be there when you check in,” The clerk at the center had told him when he had first made his reservation a week before.  “When you arrive, let yourself inside the main cabin and your key to the yurt will be in a locked box by the front desk.  The code to unlock it will be—are you writing this down?—1-5-6-3.”

“Fifteen, sixty-three,” Jeremiah repeated back to her.

“That’s right.  Outside will be a small wagon you can put your things in to hike up the trail with.  It’s got four big tires and should be able to hold all of your belongings for the weekend.  The combination to unlock the cable lock for the wagon will be the same for the room key:  Fifteen, sixty-three.  Same thing when you check out, there probably won’t be anyone there, so just lock the wagon back up and put the key back in the box.  In case you need them, there will be showers for your convenience that you can use.”

“Sounds good,” He told her and hung up the phone.

A weekend out of the sweltering heat of the crowded city sounded like heaven.  A weekend alone in the semi-wilderness, to be sounded by trees and nature, but also the relative comforts of shelter and tools to cook with, sounded like the type of therapy he needed to clear his mind.  To forget, briefly, about work, bills, money problems and the constant buzz of city life.

What he needed now was a weekend to recuperate.  A weekend to repair his mind from the damage caused by the stress hammered into him.

He woke up early the day he left, packing only a sleeping bag, two changes of clothes, his toothbrush and toothpaste, a small bottle of hand soap, plates and cutlery, a flashlight, and a 12 pack of beer and a single joint that he planned on smoking incrementally.  The rest of what he needed would be provided by the Apache Center.  He would have a bed to sleep on (no bedding, he would be using his sleeping bag as both a sheet and blanket), firewood for a fire, propane for the barbecue and a gas lantern for inside after the sun had set.

Traffic was light in the morning, and he was thankful for it because his car, though seemingly immortal, did not do well on hills, and there are a lot of them on the drive to Flagstaff from Phoenix.  Ordinarily, it takes most people about three hours.  It would take Jeremiah a little under four, provided he made no stops—but, he would.  Echoing the desires of his favorite fictional character, Special Agent Dale Cooper, he would stop at any diner he saw along the way if they looked quaint enough to probably serve good pie.  The Rock Springs Café off the I-17 did.

The Rock Springs Café was one of those places that probably hadn’t made any real interior changes since the 1980s, only repairing or replacing things as needed.  It settled on a look and decided to keep it for the rest of its life.  In order to get to the restaurant, you had to first walk through a gift shop, which the owners hoped would entice buyers to get a little something extra on their way in.  The restaurant had a bar, where Jeremiah always liked to sit at in a diner.  It was easy for the server to put him somewhere out of the way, and it felt like the food came faster, but maybe that was only his imagination.

He had a slice of apple pie à la Mode with a cup of coffee.  It was truly excellent dessert breakfasts that made him wish he hadn’t given up smoking.  Nothing follows a sweet piece of pie like a cup of rich, roasted coffee, and nothing follows a cup of coffee like a cigarette outside in a brisk morning, the smoke mingling with the visible breath so similarly you don’t know which is which.

On the road, he headed further up north, watching the orange and red desert landscape transform at higher elevations into a lush forest.  He touched the back of his hand to the window and it was now cool to the touch; back in Phoenix it had been hot enough to burn if he had left his hand there long enough.  The temperature had dropped over twenty degrees.  He rolled down the window to smell the air.  It just felt cleaner.  It smelled better.  The sun glinted through the trees, the pine needles glowing a fantastic orange aura in the early morning light.

#

     When Jeremiah arrived, it began to sprinkle.  It had been sunny on the drive up, but when he finally parked his car, he noticed it had become overcast.  Small speckles of precipitation gathered on his windshield and slithered down, leaving a trail of cleanness amid the dusty glass.

There were two other cars parked at the Apache Center, but no one in sight.  There were, in total, five yurts.  Two of them are directly upfront when he arrived, another two are next to each other only half a mile’s hike down a trail and the fifth one is a total of two miles away at the end of the trail.  It was going to be a hell of a hike lugging his stuff, but it was what he was looking forward to:  Getting a good workout in and earning a beer by a fire once he got there.

Just as the woman on the phone had said, no one was in the main cabin or its offices.  The door was unlocked and he let himself in.  The front desk was closed up with hours of operation listed atop the metal shade closed down signifying its closure.  It was open weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and unmanned over the weekend, with a telephone number listed in case of emergencies.

He grabbed his key and his wagon, filled up his water bottle and began his trek.  Everything fit neatly inside the green, metal wagon with the off-roading tires.  The trail was in good condition, but even still he could hear the contents of his ice chest sloshing around.

Gonna be fun hearing that for two miles, he thought.

It wasn’t cold out, but the wind cut right through his clothes and chilled him to the bone.  He walked with one hand on the wagon’s handle and the other across his chest, hand tucked into his armpit, to keep his body warmth in.  He was sweating and freezing at the same time.

An entire fifteen-minute streak of his hike was completely uphill.  Only halfway up, he had to pull over for a rest and massage his calves, feeling them cramping up and ready to quit.  He knew it would have been no problem if he hadn’t brought so much with him, and that only made him madder at himself.  As he massaged his cramping legs, he could hear the voice of his ex-girlfriend mocking him from the past.  “You should eat more bananas,” She had told him, stifling laughter when she saw him nursing a Charlie horse nearly five years ago.  “Bananas have potassium.  Good for cramps.”

“Do you have any bananas?”  He asked with a hiss.

“No, of course not.”

“Then fuck off!”

She always took a certain pleasure seeing him overreact to mundane injuries.  When he fell down in front of her or tripped, she’d laugh like a studio audience member of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” seeing a dad getting wacked in the crotch with a whiffle bat.

Andrea.  Even now, he thought of her.  When she entered his thoughts, she lingered, and it was impossible to know what would trigger a memory of her.  Sometimes even a simple glass of water would remind him of her favorite cup—a thrift store find of a 1996 Honda Civic, and for some damn reason she loved it.  Even though it was a coffee cup, she drank everything out of it.  Water, wine, beer, you name it.

The pitter-patter sound of the sprinkling rain became louder, and the haze of mist cleared as actual droplets began to fall.  Jeremiah’s shirt clung to his sweating chest, soaked at the shoulders.  “Fuck,” He said to himself.  He stood up, stretched his legs and began up the hill once more, gritting his teeth and swearing.  He could feel the rain soaking his hair and dripping down his back and into his butt crack.

The ground drank the rain greedily.

At a curve in the road, Jeremiah looked up to face the sky and allowed droplets of rain to land in his mouth.  He could see the tops of trees dance to side-to-side as the wind blew through them.  Up past the curve, the middle of the road formed a large, uneven bump from an overgrown tree root and despite his best efforts his wagon tipped over and his weekend accoutrements went spilling out—his sleeping bag soaked, the contents of his ice box covered in specks of mud, the ice itself dirty.

He scooped everything back into its place, with the sleeping bag down at the bottom to keep it from getting even wetter and dirtier than it already was.  He lost one can of beer that landed against a rock, its contents sputtering and spraying out from its aluminum wound.  He wanted to pop the tab and shotgun it, but he’d already had it in his mind that he wasn’t going to drink a beer until he made it to the yurt.  He had to reward himself.  Instead, he watched the beer bleed out of the can, soaking into the ground and watered down by the rain.

Wet strands of hair clung to his forehead.  He brushed them aside with the back of his wrist.  He felt additional drops drip down on his hand, but they were warm drips.  He looks down and saw that is was blood.  His hand shot up to his face as pure instinct and he found that his nose had begun to bleed.  A wave of nausea washed over him, followed by weak knees.  He steadied himself with one hand on the wagon’s handle and closed his eyes.  The moment passed and he began to feel better.  When he opened his eyes, he saw it:  The yurt.  His long hike was over.

He forgot about the weakness, the nausea that he felt and ran the last fifty yards to his shelter, feeling the power of the droplets of rain on his bloodied face increasing.  He fumbled with the key to the front door, dragged his belongings in, collapsed on a mattress on the floor and fell asleep with the door open.

#

     Jeremiah awoke ten minutes later feeling hungover, his head pounding at his temples.  He knew it was because he was dehydrated and dug his water bottle from the wagon and drank from it with his mouth wide open, feeling his mouth fill with water and spill over the corners of his lips and down his neck.  He let out a satisfied sigh and wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve.  He splashed some additional water into a cupped hand to clean the dried blood off his face with.

The door was still open and the sun was now shining outside.  The ground was heating up from the sun’s warmth and steam rose from it, hanging low like a spooky graveyard mist.  Of course, Jeremiah thought.  Of course it would stop raining now.

A trail of mud tracked in from outside, leading up to the wagon’s tires.  There was a broom in the corner, so Jeremiah pushed the wagon to the side of the yurt and swept the mud out the front door.  Once he was satisfied with his job, he looked around the place.  It was small, but cozy.  It wasn’t much more than what he needed, and not any less.  To the left of the front door when looking out was the fireplace, a cast iron stove with a thick glass door to look in through.  The walls were lined with a crisscrossed series of wooden beams for support so that it would withstand the most brutal of weathers—in the winter, the hiking trails became cross country skiing trails.  The yurts were still open that time of year and guests could either snow shoe in or ski in.

His bed was just a mattress with no frame, and not a very comfortable one, either.  But, he supposed, it did the job.  If he slept on it wrapped in his sleeping bag, it would give some additional padding for his back.

He thought of all the things he would have to do before nightfall but said, “First thing’s first,” and grabbed a beer from his ice chest, brought it to the wooden table outside and cracked it open and took a long slug from it.  It was brilliantly cold going down his throat, and when he stopped drinking from it he let out a grand burp.  The beer had certainly made him feel better and he, for a moment, forgot about his trembling legs and weak arms from the hike.  He simply sat and enjoyed his drink, looking at the painted-over, scrawled-in messages on the wooden table from guests past.  One said, “Tom + Angie = 4ever” and Jeremiah found the math to be highly dubious.

After he finished his beer, crushed the can and put it in the recycling (closing the lid with a bungee cord to keep raccoons out and maybe delay a curious bear for a minute), he set about chopping wood for kindling.  He wanted to change clothes and start drying the wet ones over the fire.  Nothing smells worse than mildewy clothes that haven’t been dried properly.

The Apache Center provided the yurt with a small hatchet to chop kindling, a chopping block outside, and newspaper and lighter fluid inside to start the flame.  In addition to the fireplace inside, there was a fire pit outside for summer nights.

Getting the fire started was easy.  The logs split with minimal effort when Jeremiah brought the hatchet down on them.  He’d chop a hunk off a larger log, then cut that small hunk in half, then both of the halves in half, until he had plenty of small wood to catch easily.  He laid a bed of newspaper with the kindling on top.  He didn’t need to use the lighter fluid, it would have started without it, but since it was there he wasn’t opposed to using what his father would have called a “cheater’s method.”  He struck a long match to the newspaper and it went up, followed by the lighter fluid.  In a matter of minutes, the small slivers of wood had caught too and laid a foundation for a small log to catch.

With the fire started, he lifted the top cover of the stove and it snapped into place on a diagonal slant to drape his clothes over and allow to dry.  When they got hot, the rainwater evaporating from them, they smelled like fresh laundry all over again, filling his dwelling with the smell of the scent he settled on at the grocery store, “mountain spring morning.”

Jeremiah changed his clothes and sat in the doorway with another beer and watched the wind blow through the needles on the trees, watching the wind blow toward him and another draft blowing away from him, making the forest appear to be breathing.

He smelled something foul.  Something that smelled like sulfur, like rotten eggs—that acidic-smelling rank odor of something that had gone bad.  Instinctively, he checked his armpits, but he still smelled fresh.  It was something else, something being carried by the wind.

When he stood, he heard something groan from the woods.  It sounded like when you shift all of your weight to one foot on an old hardwood floor and you can hear the stress beneath you.  It continued on, a sustained note that was implacable, unidentifiable.  It almost sounded like a force of pure energy screaming in agony.  Jeremiah could feel his heart begin to pound.  That he didn’t know what was making the sound was the worst part.  The sound changed mid-pitch and then he heard a terrific snap and the smell of sulfur intensified, enough to make him cough and choke on the odor.

Directly ahead, the trail forked, and on the left side of the fork was the outhouse he would be using.  The dreadful groan and snap followed by a loud crash and a tree came toppling down right beside the outhouse.  As the tree was falling, the forest and everything around it was lit up blue with a course of lighting that flashed within the inside of a cloud.  A low, angry grumble of thunder followed, causing the ground to shake—or had the ground shook because of the fallen tree?  Jeremiah had no idea, he simply stood in shock, mouth agape, staring at the tree still settling on the ground, its limbs snapping beneath the weight of the trunk on top of them.  Pine cones dropped from it and one rolled directly to him.

He walked to the tree to survey the destruction and thanked god it hadn’t fallen right on top of the outhouse with him in it.  The sulfur smell was coming from the tree where it had split at the base.  He inspected the wood inside where it had broken and it was soft and crumbly.  It had died inside and the sulfurous odor had been the tree’s decay.

Besides thanking god that the tree hadn’t crushed him while he was taking a shit, he was thankful that he hadn’t smoked his joint yet, because seeing a tree fall on its own, accompanied by a flash of lighting, was a trip he could do without.

#

     Hours later, in the amber glow of the afternoon, Jeremiah found himself to be quite drunk.  He laid down on top of his sleeping bag on top of his lumpy mattress and smoke three hits off of his joint and snuffed it out on the lid of an empty beer can.  He was perfectly content, comfortable.  He had long forgotten the dead tree.  The stress of his job, his life, had melted away and he looked up through the skylight at the gray mass of fast-moving clouds in the air and smiled.  He was happy.  He was happy to be away from it all.  He was happy to be in nature.

He felt only a slight twinge of isolation.  And when he had checked his phone to see if he had any missed calls or texts and saw that he had no service, it felt freeing in a weird sort of way.  He could ignore everyone completely and without guilt because he did not have the capability of responding to anyone, or to even see if they had reached out to him before.

Not having a cell phone signal was something he’d assumed as a possibility, so he had had the foresight to tell his closest friends where he was going for the weekend in case something happened—like being eaten by a bear, or having a tree fall on his while he was taking a shit.  Or something worse.

Jeremiah was not a superstitious person, but his family was and he’d been raised that way.  The bloody nose, the falling tree… those were things Jeremiah would call “strange occurrences” but his family would call “bad omens.”  And now he couldn’t help but have that phrase, “bad omens”, stuck in his head.  He knew it was ridiculous, but it was hard to shake off.

His mother had told him stories of the forests up north, where inhuman shapeshifters would disguise themselves as someone friendly to enter someone’s life and then curse them with a fate worse than death:  A soul damned to hell.

But he didn’t believe in those sorts of things.  Not anymore.  He was soon to be a college graduate—the first college graduate in his family.  He prided himself of skepticism and rationality.  Things didn’t go bump in the night.  Old radiators grew with heat and the steam traveling through pipes went bump in the night, not some ghost of a poor murdered woman who wants to communicate from beyond the grave.

As he lay on his warm, comfy sleeping bag, he heard footsteps scuffing the dirt of the trail approaching.  He looked up slightly and peered over his belly through the open door and saw a woman with a walking stick slowly making her way down the path.  She looked to be about thirty, wearing jean shorts and a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off.  Her hair was tied back into a ponytail.  He sat up to see her better and she stopped.  She stood and stared directly back at him and he could feel her eyes watching him.  He reached over and grabbed an empty can of beer and raised it to her in a jocular sort of cheers, but she had no reaction.  She continued to watch him with the curiosity of a housecat batting around a mouse.

He thought of the expression, “Speak of the Devil, and he shall appear,” and wondered, Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say think of the Devil and she shall appear?

He stood up with some effort—he had been very comfortable laying on his back with a beer at the ready—and made his way to the doorway and leaned out slightly and asked her, “Can I help you?”

The woman had a twinge of a smile at the corner of her lips.  Jeremiah wasn’t sure if it was the booze or the weed, but he thought she was very pretty when he was looking at her up close.  She finally said, “I’m just hiking through.  What happened to the tree?”

“I don’t know,” Jeremiah said, looking over at the tree that had fallen.  “I was just sitting there and I heard something and it came crashing down.  Stinks, too.”

Without provocation and with a large amount of presumption, she asked, “Can I come in?” Again, Jeremiah wasn’t sure if it was because he was so high, but he remembered a story his parents had told him about the Devil not being able to come in to someone’s personal shelter unless he was invited in.  It was the same rule that vampires followed.  But with Satan, he could take any shape he wanted, and in order to torment you, you had to let him in.  He had to be allowed in to your life, willingly, before he could unravel it and claim your soul.  An invitation didn’t necessarily need to be a yes, it could be a flirting smile or an unconscious head-nod that he could accept as a positive gesture.

His father had told him that walking home one night from a dance, he had gotten lost on a dirt road in the rural countryside of Mexico.  He knew that he was close to home, but it was dark and he must have taken a wrong turn.  He asked a man dressed too nicely to be out in the middle of nowhere where the street his home was on would be—north or south?—and when the man spoke to him in response, he immediately knew that he had asked a question to the Devil himself.  He had a faint aroma of fire and smoke.  The man told him where to go, and Jeremiah’s father had thanked him, and knew not to act strangely.  He knew that if the man knew Jeremiah’s father suspected him of not being a man at all, something terrible would happen, so he had to thank the Prince of Darkness and walk home the rest of the way with his heart in his throat.  For years after, he was afraid that he would wake up and see a shadow with glowing, red eyes in the corner of his room, ready to claim his soul as a prize.  He had been terrified that asking the man for help had willingly invited him into his life, so he prayed every day and every night for the Lord to keep him safe, and the Lord had thus far done that for him.

Jeremiah looked at the smiling woman who wanted to come inside and felt conflicted.  On the one hand, it had been close to a year since Andrea had left him and in that time he’d had no serious prospects for a new girlfriend and hadn’t had sex in a very, very long time, and if she was asking to come in, he figured he had a pretty good chance at getting laid.  On the other, and completely independent from his irrational supernatural fears, she was weird.  She didn’t necessarily have to be the Devil to be crazy enough to cause him harm.

On yet another hand, she was very attractive.

It took a moment, with some considered stammering and stalling before Jeremiah finally lied and said, “Oh, I have a girlfriend.  I don’t think she’d like that very much, me having strange girls inside my yurt-tent thingy.”

“No, you don’t,” She said without really accusing.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t have a girlfriend.”

“How would you know?”

“Because she’d be here if you had one,” She said.  And Jeremiah knew she was right, but he’d come too far in his lie to turn back now.

“I needed a spiritual retreat for myself.  She’s doing her own thing and I’m doing my own thing.”

She chose not to dignify his half-assed excuse with an answer and continued down the trail, dragging her feet lightly as she walked, keeping the walking stick in front of her like a wizard’s staff as she did.  He watched her as she traveled down the trail, disappearing into the forest and the trees.

And at that moment Jeremiah wished he’d had someone else to talk to about that encounter who could either confirm or deny his suspicions such as, “That was weird, right?” and “Was that weird?  Is it just me?  Or was that totally strange?”

He decided to forget it for now and rummaged through his icebox for some hamburger meat he’d brought with him to cook up a quick lunch.  He was happy that the grill was propane because he wasn’t in the mood to fuck around with starting another fire.  He had just wanted something that was instant that would be able to whip up food quickly and plug his gut.  He thought his rationale and faint praise of propane would make Hank Hill proud.

He had to close the hood on his burgers when it started raining again.  The rain came down on the hood of the barbecue with a cacophony of hisses as each droplet exploded upon impact into instant steam.  He ate inside the yurt with the door open again and watched the puddles gather.  Before when it had rained, it had been light and sprinkly, not ideal to get caught in, but now it was coming down hard and he couldn’t help but worry about the strange woman who had asked to come inside.  He was afraid she’d only asked to come inside because she knew it was going to rain, and was now out there soaking on account of him.  He made himself feel better for convincing himself she’d be dry as a bone right now if she hadn’t been acting so fucking strangely.

The wind slammed the front door to the yurt shut and Jeremiah could hear the raining coming in sideways, pounding the walls on the outside.  The skylight above was now just a series of droplets impossible to see out of.  He curiously peaked outside the door to see how bad it was and instantly regretted his decision.  It took a tremendous amount of effort to pull the door again and by then his pants were soaked.  He sat by the fireplace, opened the front of it and fed another log to the flames.  He sat by it and let his legs dry.

#

     This fucking sucks, Jeremiah realized after hours of sitting inside as the sun went down, the rain still pelting the sides of his shelter.  The way it sounded reminded him of the beginning of the Godzilla movies where the beast would raise from the ocean with a terrific roar, the waves crashing all around it as what appeared to be a large rock was actually a skyscraper-tall monster.

It was nighttime now, the inside of the yurt aglow in a yellowish shade from the lantern he lit.  He cracked open another beer, took another couple hits off his joint and checked the time on his still-yet-to-receive-service cell phone.  It was only 9:00 at night but it felt like hours later.  It felt like 1 a.m. and Jeremiah was feeling sleepy through inactivity.  Even though he hadn’t even been there a whole day, he felt cabin feverish.  He wanted to be outside to look up at the stars, but he was stuck inside this structure that was basically a tent with a foundation.

Two hours later, he had finished all of his beers and the rest of his joint and found himself beyond bored.  Bored was now long since passed and a tiny dot on the horizon; he was now absolutely fatigued.  The only moments of excitement he had were when he ran outside to take a piss in the downpour.  To keep from getting wet and having to dry off all over again, he had decided to do his last piss trip outside in the nude and brought an armload of wood back inside with him to keep the fire going all night long.  The last thing he wanted to do was wake up in the middle of the night cold, wet and frozen.

He fed the fire plenty to keep it alive for several more hours and crawled inside his sleeping bag on top of the mattress that felt like a worn-out gym mat and made a pillow out of his clothes.  He stared at the flames licking the inside of the glass window on the door, bobbing and weaving within the red flicker of the inferno like an apparition of a boxer.  When he would get this sleepy, with his eyes warm and unable to stay open for more than a minute at a time without falling shut on their own, it reminded him of being a child trying to stay awake to watch a movie that came on too late at night on TV.  He’d stayed up once to watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom but kept nodding off during the climax—one minute Indy would be bravely wielding a sword, the next he’d be dangling from a rope bridge that had collapsed.

Finally, he had given in and folded on the fight and allowed sleep to win.  Darkness washed over him and he could hear himself beginning to snore.

#

     Bad dreams jerked him awake, the sensation of falling into a black infinity, spiraling out of control.  He’d been asleep for about thirty seconds before his leg kicked and he snapped into consciousness again.  But it was something else happening, not just the dream sensation of falling; he heard a noise coming from outside, the sound of something clawing at the bottom of the outside wall, trying to get it.  It sounded like a rat gnawing at a wall, but bigger, with more weight to it.

Groggy, still drunk and confused from snapping awake, he crawled over to the other side of the room where the noise was coming from.  He could see the yurt’s fabric pushing in with the scratching sound, right at the bottom of the wall, above the flooring.

“What the fuck?”  Jeremiah muttered to himself.  “Get!  Get the hell out of here!”

The clawing stopped.  He stared at the motionless wall fabric for a moment before he was satisfied that he had stopped it for good.  He laid back down and closed his eyes, disappointed that he wasn’t as sleepy now as he had been before, that his sleep wouldn’t be as deep or rewarding.

The fire crackled and popped from inside the cast iron stove.  And then something else.  A scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch at the wall again.  Jeremiah turned his head without sitting up and at the same spot against the wall, down at the bottom by the floor, he saw the fabric moving.  Whatever had been clawing before was back.

     Probably just a raccoon, Jeremiah thought.  It’s cold and wet outside and it knows it’s warm and dry inside so it wants to get in on this.

His reasoning felt sound, so why was he still so afraid?  He put his hand to his chest and could feel his heart beating at a tremendous speed.  He could feel his pulse in his neck and in his dry, cottony mouth.  He got up slowly and fished out his flashlight and put on a pair of shorts to go outside in—even though he was sure whatever was trying to get in was surely an animal, he was afraid it might be a psychotic person or a monster, and for some reason he did not want them to see him naked.

He pulled the front door open and then pulled it closed again when he came outside, the rain immediately soaking him.  He turned the corner and shined his light on the spot where the animal should have been and found nothing.  Whatever it was, he was sure, heard him coming and ran away.  He hurried back inside and stood above the fire, rubbing his wet hair over the stove to dry off again before laying back down in bed.

Behind him, tickling and gnawing at the base of his head, Jeremiah could her the familiar sound of the scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch again.  He rolled his eyes, annoyed, knowing that he couldn’t sleep with that sound in the corner, knowing something was trying to get in.  Worse yet, what if the little bugger was successful and it actually got inside?  What if it had rabies?

     Shudder to think¸ he thought.

If he could just scare it off, force it seek shelter elsewhere, he could sleep through the night.

He picked up the flashlight again and snuck out the door even quiet than he had before.  He put much deliberate though into each step he took, letting it settle down into the mud without a sound.  He held his breath and rested his head against the wall of the yurt, the rain pelting his head, droplets of rain sliding over his entire body.  He could hear the animal clawing at the wall and he snuck closer and closer to the source of the scratching then, with one swift movement, swung out as quickly as he could with the flashlight pointed at the ground and, once again, found nothing.

Where the animal had been standing was a dip in the ground with enough clearance for something small to crawl underneath, so it was possible that whatever was responsible for scratching was slipping into that at an incredible speed.  He laid down in the mud beside the dip and shined his light into and, as suspected, saw nothing beneath the yurt except for more dirt and some dead weeds the structure had been built on top of.  He saw no glow of eyes reflecting back at him from some prankster raccoon, nor the hide of a woodrat that had been curious about its upstairs neighbor.

He let out a sigh, feeling somewhat defeated and made his way back inside, bothered by the amount of mud that he was tracking in.  But it had been raining nonstop for hours, with something that was trying to get inside with him, so he was goddamned if he was going to feel too guilty about it.  He could sweep it out again tomorrow after it stopped raining.  If it ever stopped raining.

There was a close-by flash of lighting.  He could see it through the small gaps of the doorframe and the skylight.  For one brief moment everything inside the yurt was lit up and he could see it all illuminated with crystal clarity.  He saw his footprints in the tracked-in mud; he saw his makeshift bed in the corner; he saw his dirty, rained-on and haphazardly dried clothes draped over a chair; he saw a dozen empty beer cans, one of them with a snuffed-out joint on the rim.  But, in that flash, he saw something that he was sure was the light and the shadows playing tricks on him.  He saw a face, high up in the room, attached to a cloaked, shadowed body, staring down at him with a bloodthirsty grin.

After the flash had cleared, he counted, one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi to see how far away it was.  Every five seconds is a mile, something he learned from his dad when he was still a kid.  He counted silently, moving his lips, and before his tongue could even press to the roof of his mouth to mime out the number two, the thunder cracked with such a suddenness that Jeremiah clapped his hands to his ears and dropped to his knees.  He was trembling.

Only hours before, he had been so happy that he made his way out here, and now he had regretted his decision deeply.  He was cold, wet, dirty and terrified.  The image that infuriated him most of all was the probability of walking back with the wagon full of his belongings on a clear, beautiful day, the rain, thunder and lightning only deciding to wreak havoc during his short stay there.

Jeremiah tapped his chest at his heart with his middle and index fingers and closed his eyes and breathed.  He wanted to calm himself down, knowing that fear and panic breed horrible consequences.  Most people who got themselves killed, he knew, were people who were scared.  People who thought they heard a tumble, assumed it was a rock avalanche and accidentally ran off a cliff.  He clutched his pectoral and massaged it.

The feeling of panic was beginning to fade and a drowsy, sleepy feeling began to set in.  Moments after he made his decision to go back to bed and sleep the rest of the night, he heard the sound of the scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch again, at the same place it always was, at the base of the wall, right above the floor.  He could see the shape of the claw through the other side.  He clenched his jaw and ground his teeth together and stormed outside, leaving the door open, pounding his feet down.  He didn’t care about being sneaky anymore because it didn’t matter—whatever was out there was going to keep clawing all night and none of his bullshit, sneaky ninja techniques made any goddamned difference, so if he was going to see whatever was doing, maybe he had a better chance at it by just rushing it.

For what felt like the fiftieth time, he turned the corner and shined his flashlight on the ground by the dip that a small animal could crawl under, expecting to find nothing as he always did.  What he found instead was the silhouette of a woman, naked and clawing at the side of the tent.  Lightning flashed again, further away this time, and he saw her more clearly.  It was the same woman who had asked to come inside earlier.  The hiker.  Her hair was wet and stringy, clumped together in thick strands with grease.  Her skin was pale and covered in cuts and small bruises around her arms and legs.  The hand she was using to claw the tent was battered and bloodied.  She turned her head to face him and her eyes were a ghastly yellow, her lips chapped and peeling and cracked.  She used the hand she was clawing at the yurt with to steady herself and she stood.  She emitted a low sound, like a wheeze.

The wheezing sound coming from her was masked and swallowed up by the growl of thunder, water from the rain flowing around her feet in sheets.  Only a second had passed, but if felt much longer than that.  In that time, Jeremiah considered his options.

Option one was to run inside the Yurt, grab his pants and car keys and shirt and run.  He would get in his car and spend the night in a motel in town and head back the next morning while it was light out the grab the rest of his stuff—or wait until Monday and demand someone else from the Apache Center do it for him.

Option two was to hole up inside the yurt and close the door and lock it.  Chances were, she wasn’t strong enough to wrench it open, but if she was he had a fire poker by the stove and he would smash her skull in with it.

     If she’s human, that is, the superstitious voices of his parents came to his mind.

He decided upon option two and bolted, slipping in the mud and almost falling, twisted around and ran inside the front entrance, slammed the door behind him and latched it shut.  He jiggled the doorknob just to be sure it was closed tightly.  He grabbed the fire poker and gripped it with both hands in a readied position.  If she pulled anything, she was going to be in for a hell of surprise.

The imaginary warning from his parents was stuck in his mind, but he knew it was silly.  “If she’s human, that is”?  It was clear to him that she was.  He’d lived in the city long enough to know a drug addict when he saw one.  When he used to work the night shift at a call center, he had gone outside for a cigarette—when he still smoked—and from way across the street a young woman had ran to him, with sores on her face, and told him, “Look around,” and then clumsily disappeared into the night.

This was the same kind of situation, but a more severe version of it.  She meant to do him harm because he decided not to let her in and she was too fucked up on meth or crack to understand why he’d done it, and now she wanted to at the very least scare him, but if she forced her way in to hurt him, he was going to deal the first blow.

The knob to the front door began to jiggle, the door itself being pushed forward against the frame with a thump-thump-thump sound.  He stood back a few paces and held the fire poker above his head.

“If you come in here,” He shouted at the door.  “I will bash your fucking skull in!  Do you understand?”

And with that, the jiggling stopped.  He wondered if the woman did indeed understand the seriousness of his threat, or if she was getting ready to try it again.  He lowered the weapon and held it in front of him like someone would hold an unslung rifle at rest.  He listened closely for the sounds of wet footsteps circling the perimeter of the yurt, but heard none.  He no longer heard the roar of the rain, either, it had slowed to a mild pitter-patter with an occasional loud drip against the surface of the skylight above.  He could hear gathering water falling from the pine trees outside, but it had stopped falling from the sky except for as a fine mist.

It had suddenly become very quiet, so quiet that he could hear the sound of his pulse against his temples.

Jeremiah could feel his eyes well with tears.  Whenever he found himself feeling scared or hopeless, he could feel his eyes tear up.  He blinked them away and clenched his jaw, ignoring the feeling of butterflies fluttering around in his stomach.

He felt like shouting again to the woman outside, but he smelled a foul scent—the same scent that came from the fallen tree—and heard a sound like whumpf and with that, in an instant, he was standing in complete darkness with the fire in the stove completely dead.  He wondered how could that be, how could a healthy fire just go out like that, but he knew the answer.  He didn’t want to admit it, but deep down, he knew the answer all along.  When he felt hot breath on the back of his neck and smelled the sulfur that accompanied it, he wasn’t even surprised.

He could feel something behind him, and he could sense its enormity, its entire weight seeming to bow the floor around it, but he couldn’t turn around and face it.  He just couldn’t.  He was paralyzed with fear.  When a hand clutched his shoulder that was inhuman and covered in scales, it seemed appropriate somehow.

His last thoughts weren’t of terror or impending doom.  They were of a happier time and of a happier place.  He remembered a long life populated with people he knew and loved.  He smiled faintly when he realized that old cliché about your entire life flashing before your eyes was completely true.  In a single moment, he had relived and entire lifetime.

#

     Two days later, on the morning of Monday June 15th, Bryan Frasier punched in to work at the Apache Center.  He was still groggy, always one of those people who says, “I didn’t get enough coffee this morning!”  He staggered in and opened up the front desk, whistling the last song he’d heard on the radio before heading in.  He noticed the car parked out front, but didn’t put two and two together until he saw that neither the key nor the wagon had been returned.

The guest’s cell phone number was in the system and he had tried calling, but it went straight to voice mail.  Some carriers didn’t get a signal at all out here.

He left a note in case anyone had shown up to work after him, and he took one of the all-terrain vehicles up the trail to the Coyote Yurt.  The guest registry at the main cabin had said the guest listed was only supposed to have stayed one night.  What happened sometimes is that if guests had packed light enough and didn’t have to bring the wagon back, they would leave both it and the key inside the yurt and lock them both inside… like you might do when an expedited checkout at a hotel.  But, since this wasn’t a hotel, it was a huge pain in the ass for the staff to have to go up there and strap the wagon into the back of an ATV and drive it all the way back.

Bryan headed up the trail and when he got sight of the yurt, he felt dizzy.  I need more coffee, he thought.  Too early in the morning for this bullshit.  He parked the vehicle beside the yurt and saw that the door to it was still open.

     Maybe the guy went on a bender.  That happened, people went up there to get blasted and sometimes hoped they could get away with living there forever, never having to pay the nightly rate.  That’s why they always made sure to have a credit card on file, to charge per night as needed.

Something felt wrong.  Bryan couldn’t place what it was, but something felt off.  It had been pouring rain all weekend, but it was barely wet.  Much of it the mud had already dried and hardened.  He saw bare footprints circling the base of the structure, the now-dried dirt looking almost like a preserved fossil.  When he looked closer, in addition to the bare footprints of a man’s foot, he saw the cloven tracks, pushed down deep, maybe caused by a large deer or a buck—an elk, maybe.  Whatever crated those animal tracks was large.

And the birds were quiet.  This time of morning he could always hear a tweeting in the air or the knocking of a woodpecker’s beak against the wood of a tree.

Before Bryan had even had a chance to push open the door of the yurt for himself and see inside, he could smell it.  The coppery smell of something dead is impossible to mistake.  It’s a pungent stink, sickening and thick in the air.  What he saw inside when he finally looked inside had haunted him for years.  Their last guest was barely recognizable as a human.  Pieces of him were strewn about the small interior of the yurt.

He headed back to the main office so quickly on his ATV that, when he thought back to the events later, he was amazed he didn’t wipe out and crash.  He could have gotten very hurt, or worse, and ended up like the poor bastard he saw inside the yurt.

Apart from the police that sat him down for questioning, he had never told anyone about what he saw that day.  He quit his job that day and pretended as though his time there was a just a long gap in his employment history.  What the police and the newspapers had officially called it was a “bear attack” but Bryan wasn’t sure if he believed that or not.  It sounded right, but it didn’t feel right somehow.

The Apache Center had decided that the yurt that far north of the property was problematic as it was too far away to monitor for safety.  No one could cry to the other residents for help if something terrible were to happen.

With the structure torn down and burned, pictures removed from their website, it was like the Coyote Yurt had never existed at all.

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