J. Dianne Dotson
Writer’s Note: This story bounds ahead of a real-life terrifying encounter on a mountaintop in East Tennessee many years ago. In the middle of the night on a remote heath bald, I encountered a stranger in the darkness. That experience unsettled me so much that I never returned to that mountain. Sometimes you get a sense for a place that it belongs to a force unknowable. And some heights are best left unclimbed.
The heath bald arched black and slick with dew, the highland wind having died down to a sigh. Only stars lit the ancient landscape, though far off in the Blue Ridge, the orange smear of a town’s light marred the darkness. The Geminids were to make quite a show, Shannon had heard, so she picked her way over limestone rocks and low brush.
Mick insisted on a bit of bravado, casting a sleeping bag on the ground so they could lie on it and watch for falling stars. The darkness betrayed them, though, for they were not alone. And the only light cast across the sky before them was the flaming arc of a lit cigarette. She watched it flare through the air and strike the dank rocks beneath. Someone had been watching them in the dark the whole time.
Mick’s voice fell, and he instinctively moved closer to Shannon. She could almost hear her pulse in her ears, drumming with a fervor only matched by a passionate moment along the trail earlier in the day. In the forest, farther down the mountain, the trees and mountain laurels offered refuge from prying eyes. But not out here near the mountain’s crest. There were three people—Shannon, Mick, and someone.
A metallic creak startled the couple again—a car door closing or opening. Blinking, Shannon could see—barely—that it was a pickup truck. There were no roads at the summit of Preston’s Dome, however. That was the whole reason they had hiked up from the gravel lot below the tree line.
The door slammed. Shannon backed up, Mick holding her by the arm.
“Trespassin’,” a voice scraped through the acrid night air. “Y’all better git down off my mountain.”
Mick tensed, and Shannon cringed with dread, for she knew he felt affronted, and his instinct was to lash out.
“Oh,” he said, his tone unctuous, “your mountain? Um. This is a state park. And it’s not really a mountain. You should go out West. Those are moun—”
“Get down off my mountain,” the shadowed man said, low and guttural.
“Pshh,” Mike began, but Shannon pulled at his arm and gave him a stern look, which although in the poor light he couldn’t really see, he could feel it.
Finally, dramatically, Mick flung his hands into the air. “Fine. Jesus! We’ll move.”
He snatched up the pack, jerked it back into a ball, and threw that on his back. Shannon could see he approached a full-on rage. She hurried back down the path, Mick trudging angrily along behind her.
“You know what,” he said, heated, “fuck that guy. Let’s just put down over here.”
Shannon whispered, quaking with unease, “I think we should leave. That was really creepy.”
Mick snorted. “He’s a redneck in a pickup.”
“Yes, in the middle of the night,” Shannon pointed out. “From out of nowhere.” She shuddered. That gravelly voice reminded her of someone, and she could not think of who. She had been here years before, with her family, picnicking at an old concrete table just above the parking lot. She had perched afterward on a grey wooden post of an old fence, and in so doing, felt the throb from a splinter piercing her small thumb. It had remained swollen for three days, the splinter impossible to retrieve. She assumed it had fallen out.
But that was during the day some fifteen years prior, and this was not that joyful day. Something was missing here. Or something had been added. Something that either did not belong or perhaps decided it did.
Where were all the other hikers? The dark, cold, still cars in the parking lot were a welcome sight, but also disturbing, for they all sat empty, or senescent, perhaps. She shivered.
“Should we just camp in the car?” she asked.
Mick scoffed. “Really? We could have done that anywhere. I drove you out here to see the stars like you wanted to.”
Shannon felt a branch of hot anger bloom in her midsection and sprout upward, and she almost said something while Mick bellowed over the state of his backpack. But a strange noise gave her pause.
The gravel of the parking lot was bouncing. She blinked, opened her eyes wider, and confirmed again. Each grey pebble leaped into the air in rapid bursts, about six inches above the ground, and fell back, over and over. It sounded like someone shaking ice in a great bucket.
“Mick,” she said, as he swore under his breath. “Mick!”
“What!” he yelled.
Mick turned and looked, and for the first time, she saw something in his face that she never had before—wonder. He sat very still and watched the bouncing rocks, and as he did so, their jumping rose higher. By now they could hear the rocks pummeling the undersides of the other cars parked there, and it grew louder. Still, no one came to investigate the noise.
Mick stood, shouldering his pack.
“Let’s go,” he said, his voice low.
“Where?” Shannon asked.
“The car!” he hissed. “Come on!”
Something thumped behind Shannon, and she wheeled to look but saw no one. She did find something else extraordinary when heard the thumping again. She turned and beheld the dirt on the path behind her rose and fell quickly with loud thumps, sending dust into the air and clouding the sky above her.
“Shannon!” cried Mick. “Run!”
She felt his hand, clammy and calloused. The path beneath her bucked, and she fell onto her knees. Mick pulled her up, and they ran toward the car. By this time, the gravel lifted two feet high, higher, three feet, now four, and then it rose high enough that it began denting the cars like a hailstorm.
“Fuck!” screamed Mick. “My car!”
He dropped Shannon’s hand and ran toward his old Mazda, and then the earth thumped and threw him into the air. He scrambled forward, shaken, and approached the car again, but the gravel swirled and pummeled. The rocks increased their pounding, but they began pummeling him, seeking purchase as if he were a hive to a return of many stony bees. Stones from all directions, hurtling, scraping, cutting. He screamed. His keys flew off.
Shannon ran toward him, but the path had other ideas, rippling and buckling so that she could not stand for long, while the cacophony of rocks pelting cars and Mick’s shrieks echoed across the bald.
“Help! Help us!” Shannon screamed to a sky muddled by flying dust.
Mick began to make strange, gurgling noises, and Shannon wept and screamed, crawling while being tossed continually on the path.
Where is everyone? she thought helplessly.
Shannon noticed something dark, darker than the sky, and looked up. Above her, something deep indigo, deeper than the deepest sea, black yet blue, branched down to the cars in the parking lot. Nothing remained of the sky but the bottomless thing that her eyes could not comprehend. At the end of each fork from this dark presence, something dangled. Dozens of things. She then could see what they were—people. No, the remains of people. Broken and twisted and trapped in screams, some decapitated, others eviscerated. She vomited and was immediately tossed back in the vomit. Mick was enclosed in a blur of gravel crushing him from all sides, and then he rose skyward as well.
One final grunt, and then silence.
The path ceased heaving. The dust cleared. The gravel fell back into the parking lot. Mick stared down from suspension in the air, head lolling, tongue out, eyes staring.
Shannon wailed, looking up at the infinite branching and all the dead drifting above her.
A coil of it, like a tiny waterspout made of nothingness, stretched down to her, accusing, a finger of malice distilled. She pressed herself into a ball against the heath. The finger touched her forehead, and she felt a cracking sensation extend down her spine.
“We told you to get off our mountain.”
“Please,” Shannon whispered. “Please. Let me go.”
“You are marked.”
She was hysterical, but stopped her convulsed cries long enough to wonder aloud, “Marked?”
She felt her hand snap upward by the dark fork, and she thought, That’s it, it’s taking me up too, I’m done. But the thing simply held onto her hand, and she felt a tiny prick.
“We will let you leave,” said the voice, or voices, woven and thrusting and stabbing into her mind, a basket of utter madness, a presence beyond comprehension, ageless and wrought of despair.
She felt the car keys fall into her lap. Her lips shook and tears coursed down her dust-streaked face. Her ears hurt from the sheer sound of emptiness. She felt the keys in her hand and clenched her fingers, the keys’ points burrowing into her palm.
Hot breath fanned her neck and she turned where she sat. There stood the man who had warned her and Mick earlier.
“I told y’all to git down off my mountain,” he said, grinning, eyes swiveling in their sockets in different directions. Spittle flew at her face with every syllable. “Don’t you come back, or we’ll dance with you up there.”
Shannon scrambled to her feet and winced—her right foot was asleep—and she dragged herself toward the now-still gravel parking lot. Dropping her keys, she groaned and reached down to retrieve them, noticing the vomit on her pants and shoes, the acrid stench making her nauseous again. Trembling, she turned the key in the lock, then looked up again. She nearly fell.
The bodies all swirled above her, a hideous carnival ride spinning from a creature of nothing. The man, if man he was, raised his arms, smiling, welcoming the sight.
Shannon sat behind the wheel, buckled, turned the key, and the car sputtered. Swearing, she tried again. The engine turned over. She slapped the gear into reverse and spun out, the murderous gravel flinging in all directions, and she floored it, bumping, skidding along, and she clipped a post on her way out of the gate. The post—the post she had perched on as a girl.
“You are marked.”
Over the ruts on the mountain road, Shannon hurtled the car, and it whined and creaked on its suspension. Finally, the headlights showed a sign, and she was on the main road. She drove, she kept driving, she did not look back, her blood pumped in her ears, and she descended. No one traveled on the road tonight. She made it off the mountain. She pulled over at a closed convenience store off the main highway back to Baleton. She threw the door open long enough to vomit again, but there was little left. She looked behind her, and then she dared to look up.
The shadow of Preston’s Bald loomed in the distance, dark and still, with nothing above it. Only the stars shone above her.
J. Dianne Dotson is the author of THE SHADOW GALAXY: A Collection of Short Stories and Poetry (March 2023; Trepidatio Publishing) and the space opera series, THE QUESTRISON SAGA©.
Dianne writes science fiction, fantasy, horror, and Appalachian stories. She is also a science writer and artist.