THIEVES, BEASTS & MEN
Once dark falls, Adelaide waits beneath the overhang of the roof. She tucks into the blackest part of the shadows and grips her flashlight, ready. At her feet is a metal bucket from the storage shed, half full of stones. Adelaide doesn’t know if she will throw rocks at the beast or shake the bucket and let the racket scare him off. She must make her decision in the moment.
Adelaide can still recall how quiet it was, her first night under the stars. That was a long time ago—before finding the cabin, before the garden, before chickens—when her only shelter was an leaky orange tent, beneath the infinite swirl of the Milky Way. It was so quiet that she couldn’t hear. Like a vacuum around her skull, vibrations through her brain. And a baritone hum that assaulted her ears for hours until she wept into the leaves, trying desperately to break the spell. She thought she had a bug in her ear, or a brain tumor, or some terrible disease that no one had ever heard of because no one would be as stupid as she, to go so deep into the Blue Ridge Mountains alone, where no one would ever find her body should she die right then.
She knows the truth now. It is a rare gift, an experience most will never know—the sound of true, and utter silence. It is anything but quiet, and in the unprepared, it can inspire madness.
Adelaide squints into the darkness, but the harder she peers into the shadows, the less she can actually see. Certainly not the ideal conditions for stalking a night predator.
She brings her fists to her eyes to buff away the gloom and bashes the metal flashlight against her skull. Blood trickles down her face.
“Goddammit,” she curses under her breath.
Adelaide places the flashlight at her feet and dabs the blood with her nightgown.
She’s really losing it.
Here she is, in the middle of the woods, facing off against a mountain lion with nothing but a pail of rocks, and she can’t even hold a flashlight without hurting herself. This is why she took a pocket full of pills to the river. It had been the right choice.
Now her garden is destroyed, her head is bloodied, she’s sleep-deprived, stressed to high hell, her favorite nightgown is stained, and where’s the goddamned flashlight?
She searches the dirt until her fingers touch metal, and wrangles the flashlight closer, slowly—slowly. She can’t give away her position.
A noise from the garden. A growl? Maybe.
Adelaide presses the flashlight button and the path before her illuminates into a narrow golden rod.
Something moves through her garden.
Adelaide yelps, and the flashlight slips from her fingers once more, spinning across the dirt.
It’s watching her, she knows it. She can’t see it, but she can feel it, and she’s learned not to doubt her instincts.
How fast can she run? She knows the answer before the thought is fully formed in her mind—not fast enough.
The rolling flashlight comes to a stop, shining against the corner of her wattle fence, small bits of light careening into the garden.
Dirt whirls through the air as the flashlight flickers—once, twice—before going dark.
And then Adelaide hears the growl.
A little like a hurricane, a little like a child wailing, a little like two rocks being ground together.
The growl is unwavering, surging toward Adelaide. Growing louder, or perhaps closer.
Adelaide has been spotted; she should run. But not yet. She wants to see the beast that’s been ransacking her garden. She needs to see it, will not leave until she sees it.
Adelaide pushes away from the cabin—just a little—peering into the garden that once had a gate, and into the shadows. But then blood drips into her eye and she can see nothing at all. Adelaide stumbles forward and her foot catches the handle of the bucket. She collapses to the ground as stones spill from the pail in garish metallic clangs loud enough to rival her racing heart. The dirt, like small fragments of glass, tears at her fingertips.
The growl ceases. Adelaide swipes at the blood, looks all around, but her eyes burn, and her vision is muddled. A shadow rushes from the garden, pausing to appraise the old woman who is now panting and stumbling to her feet.
The wattle fence creaks with the weight of the beast. The moon is eclipsed by the height of the beast.
Adelaide does not throw a stone into the night. She does not look back to the garden, nor examine the wounds on her knees.