The Mountain Eats its Own

by Christopher Hivner

More blood. Dalton was still on the animal’s trail. If he could just get a look at it again, he could take the final shot. He re-adjusted the rifle cradled in his right arm and continued up the hill, scanning the ground for more drops. The miner’s helmet he wore flushed the forest floor with light.

The hillside was growing steeper. Dalton struggled to breathe; the extra forty pounds he was carrying in his belly made his legs wobble. He stopped to suck in gulps of air, tilting his head back and leaning against a tree. The air was bitter cold, but his lungs ate it greedily. When he finally lowered his head, his light caught something ten yards in front of him.

Dalton trudged over and found a smear of blood on the bole of a tree, and just a few feet away he saw a large pool. The animal was bleeding worse than before. Dalton steadied the rifle in shooting position. He jogged thirty yards into a clearing, sweeping the gun left to right.

A howl soughed into the night sky. Dalton jerked in the direction of a rock formation farther up the mountain. Another yelp. The wolf was behind the rocks.

Dalton moved forward slowly. “One shot,” he told himself. “If you do it right, you only need one more shot.” He shuffled his boots through the brush, keeping his gun steady.

There was a snap behind him. “What the hell,” he muttered, half turning. Had the wolf outflanked him? Were the howls of pain a ruse? “Shit, it’s just a big dog,” Dalton laughed. “It doesn’t have a brain.” Then another elongated, mournful howl enveloped him. It still came from the rocks, but then a sound from behind confused Dalton.

There was another snap. Something was coming at him. Dalton whirled around only to be met by a hard jolt to the side of his head. He fell, his rifle sliding down the inside of his arm, hitting the ground and expelling a shot. The gun’s report rang in his ear. Dalton tried to stand up but was knocked to his knees. Grabbing the rifle, he swung the stock around but missed his attacker.

The wolf howled again capturing Dalton’s attention. Fumbling with his gun, he didn’t know which way to turn. Before he could get his finger on the trigger though, the gun was knocked out of his hands once more, and his body was pummeled with blows coming from all around him.

Dalton lay on the frozen mountain soil absorbing the strokes, bellowing in pain until his cries were silenced by something raw and gritty entering his mouth. Dalton thrashed, swinging his arms. He felt metal and wrapped his hand around it only to realize it was his miner’s helmet. He swung it up finally illuminating his attacker.

For a moment their eyes locked. Dalton’s bowels released, and his sanity faded into a dark recess of his mind.

*****

No sun. The sky was gray like wet cement. Thank God for small favors thought Sheriff Jake Garmin as he sat in his jeep watching four of his deputies investigate a crime scene. He wanted every day to match his mood. Garmin was forty with quickly graying brown hair, six feet tall, and in reasonably good shape. The last two years had seen his father die of an infection following knee replacement surgery and his wife leave town with one of his deputies. The former is why he won’t go to a doctor, and the latter is why he treats the men under him like crap.

Garmin had never loved being a lawman, but his father and uncle had taught him the job, and he was good at it. The last twenty-four months though, he had trouble mustering any reason to care why somebody stole this or destroyed that, why it should be investigated or why someone should be punished for it. Now this morning on a freezing cold day in November, he had to figure out why he should give a damn about a hunter who got himself torn into seven pieces while illegally hunting an endangered species.

Garmin finally got out of his jeep and ambled over to the body. The closest deputy was Robbie Hippensteel, who was only twenty-two and looked twelve.

“All right, Hippy,” Garmin said, slurring his words from boredom. “Give it to me quickly and with a limited amount of stammering please.”

“Yes, yes, yes, Sheriff. Um, ID says this is Harold Dalton, lived two towns over in Brewer. Something tore the poor man to pieces and we’re guessing ate some of him ‘cause, ‘cause we can’t find all, all, all of him. It looks like he was on the mountain hunt, hunt, hunting. There’s a dead wolf behind those rocks with two bullets in ‘im.”

Garmin avoided looking at the eviscerated body and instead picked up the rifle. A bolt action .22 magnum, it wasn’t brand new but hadn’t been used too often, although there was some damage to the stock that looked fresh. Reluctantly Garmin looked down at the body which was really nothing more than puzzle pieces floating in a soup of blood and dirt.

“Well,” Garmin said, “it looks like some of the wolf’s buddies didn’t take too kindly to Mr. Dalton hunting him, and they took care of business.”

“There’s no, no tracks,” Hippensteel said.

“What?”

“There’s no tracks of other wolves,” Hippensteel repeated. He pointed to another one of the deputies who was collecting evidence. “Larry went one hundred yards south, and all he found was Dalton’s tracks and the dead wolf’s. He must have shot ‘im and was following him up the mountain. There’s a…a… a blood trail leading up, up to the rocks where the animal died.”

“Fine,” Garmin said. “A bear then.”

“No bear, bear tracks either, Sheriff.”

“Hippensteel, some kind of large animal has to be responsible for this attack. Now I don’t care about your damn tracks. A wolf, a bear, a lion, a shark, I don’t care. Some kind of animal is the only explanation for the condition of this man’s body. Stop being a prick. Finish gathering evidence, get the body to the coroner, and close this.” Garmin shoved the rifle into the young deputy’s hands and strode angrily to his car.

****

Dozens of newly formed eyes watched the men combing through the woods, disturbing their peace. They were still recovering from the transition to their new forms and needed rest.

The men tramped noisily, yelling to one another, always returning to the destroyed human body. If the men were so interested in it, they could have it. The mountain’s nascent creatures were finished with him.

Their appetite sated, they had blended back into the forest and slept until being awakened by the screams of the two females who had run away quickly only to be replaced by these men. Collectively they wanted to use their new power and be rid of them, but they recoiled from the sun as it rose higher in the sky. It sapped their strength, stealing their new identities. So they stayed quiet and hidden waiting until darkness dropped its cloak, and the pale acid moon renewed their strength.

*****

Jake Garmin’s phone rang, shaking him from sleep and a dream of his ex-wife drifting out to sea in a small boat. He was sure the part where she was eaten by a giant squid was coming up, so he was doubly annoyed at being woken up. He looked around, blinking his pasty eyes. It was his office. The clock said 5:07 pm. He had fallen asleep in his chair after lunch and slept the day away. Garmin grabbed the phone receiver and barked, “Yeah, what?”

“Sheriff, this is Bernie.”

It took a moment for the name to register with Garmin, but then Bernie Whitaker’s grizzled face popped into his head. The coroner of Spooner County was seventy years old and had been cutting open bodies for forty years.

“Uh huh,” Garmin grunted while sitting up straight in his chair.

“I’m finished with that pile of body parts your guys brought me this morning. What a fricking mess.”

Garmin laughed. “That’s what you get paid for, Bernie. So what kind of animal got him before he got them?”

“None that I know of.”

“What?” Garmin’s voice picked up its edge again.

“Granted, I don’t have much left to work with, but I can’t figure out what did it.”

“Come on, Bernie.”

“There are bite marks everywhere, and you know me, Jake, I’ve seen it all–bears, wolves, cougars, but I can’t match these. Whatever it was lost a few teeth in the attack, and I’ve been trying all day but I can’t match them.”

“So you don’t know what killed him?”

“Nope. You’re going to have to figure that out, Sheriff.”

“Shit,” Garmin spit as he slammed down the phone. “There’s no tracks, Sheriff. I don’t know what kind of teeth they are, Sheriff. Everyone has lost their minds.”

*****

Garmin was tearing down the road, screaming into his car radio. “Hippy, I want you and Larry up on the mountain now! Comb the area. I don’t care that it’s dark. You have spot lights on the jeeps, so use them. I want this case closed tonight.” He threw the radio speaker onto the passenger seat.

He was on his way to the coroner’s office to examine the body himself. Bernie Whitaker was no fool. He had lived his entire life on the mountain and could recognize animal bite marks quicker than anybody Garmin had ever seen, so what was different about Dalton’s body? Garmin hated expending effort, and he hated mysteries. Harold Dalton was suddenly two for two.

Garmin also knew having Larry and Hippy tripping over themselves on the mountain in the dark wasn’t the greatest idea. It was as possible they would destroy evidence as find it, but Jake was impatient. All he wanted was to be left alone. He was hip deep in his own misery and hoped to be up to his chest by Christmas. That’s why he shoved the work onto his deputies and locked himself in his office all day where he slept or checked in with his detective friend in Denver who was keeping tabs on his ex-wife. Jake knew that wasn’t healthy, but he couldn’t help himself.

Garmin’s jeep swept into the parking lot of Spooner County’s main police barracks. He drove around back, swinging violently into a parking space. The coroner’s lab was in the basement of an attachment built onto the main building ten years before. Jake climbed out of his jeep, throwing a glance at the rising moon winking at him over the horizon.

Loping down the cement steps two at a time, Garmin burst through the first door, then swiped a key card to get into Bernie’s lab.

“Bernie!” He yelled while striding past empty tables and freezer compartments. The first room was empty. Garmin stuck his head into Whitaker’s office, but it was empty as well.

“Bernie!” Garmin bellowed then he heard something metal hitting the floor in the next examining room. He waited for the coroner’s usual string of curse words but none came.

“Bernie, is that you?” Garmin asked while drawing his gun. No answer. Garmin eased the door open and sidled in, his Sig Sauer 220 held in front of him. The first thing he saw was a stainless steel exam table streaked with blood. The trails continued on the floor as though something had been dragged in several different directions. Surgical instruments littered the room including a scalpel embedded in the wall.

Garmin tried not to step in the blood, but it was everywhere. He walked around the exam table and saw Bernie Whitaker on his knees in front of the counter against the wall.

“Bernie?” Garmin said, approaching slowly. The old man had his chin resting on the counter, but his arms hung limply at his sides. Then Garmin saw the blood dripping onto the floor from the coroner’s midsection. Garmin reached out a hand tapping Bernie’s shoulder and watched stunned as the man’s stick-thin body fell to the floor while his head stayed balanced on the counter for a few seconds before swan diving to land on Garmin’s foot.

Backpedaling quickly, Sheriff Garmin almost fell. His foot slipped on a slick sheen of blood, and he reeled into the exam table. Somehow he kept hold of his gun and pushed himself up. He couldn’t take his eyes off of the head, eyes still staring at the ceiling. Garmin put his forearm over his mouth to keep from throwing up and walked around the table to the body. With the toe of his boot, he turned it over and saw a crater had been eaten out of Bernie’s stomach and chest. Kneeling, Garmin saw bite marks up and down the arms and on the neck.

“What the hell,” Garmin whispered to himself. As he stood back up, he was hit in the nose, scratches opening out to his cheek. Something landed on the exam table, and when Garmin looked, he blinked in amazement. It was one of the hunter’s arms. And it was moving toward him.

Garmin was frozen as the limb dragged across the table. It was covered in a powder gray fur. The middle and ring fingers lifted slightly, and he could see a small pair of eyes. Then it emitted a sound from a mouth on the palm of the hand. A mouth filled with fang-like teeth.

Garmin couldn’t process what he was seeing. But when the arm lunged at him, his instincts took over. He raised the Sig Sauer and fired, putting a bullet through the gaping mouth. The arm brushed against Garmin’s shoulder as it wheezed and fell to the floor, but his troubles were just starting.

The gun shot brought the other parts of Harold Dalton’s body out of hiding. Perambulating across the floor anyway they could, Garmin saw Dalton’s head, his other arm, his legs, and both halves of his torn apart torso. All the parts were covered in the same fur. A mouth had formed on the calf of the legs, blood imbued teeth threatened Garmin while two misshapen eyes stared from the heel of the foot. The torso had been torn in two. The first half had grown multiple eyes from strings of tissue and muscle hanging down. A large mouth took the place of the shoulder. The other half had one eye dead center and two mouths full of fangs next to each other above the eye.

Pragmatic, no-bullshit Jake Garmin backed himself up against the wall, watching the moaning, slurping body parts drag themselves across the floor toward him and yelled “What the hell shit piss cock whore bitch asshole prick crap is going on!” Then he started shooting.

Bullets tore through Dalton’s malformed body pieces, sending blood spraying like a leaky garden hose. The things screamed a high-pitched yelp and tried to reverse their movement, but Garmin fired until his gun was empty, loaded a new clip and emptied that one as well.

He jammed in a third clip but didn’t fire. He looked around him and saw no movement. The lab was covered in bits of flesh and tissue and bone. Garmin could feel remains on himself. He tried not to think about it, but it was too late. There were strings of skin and flecks of blood all over him, adhering to his face and arms. Finally Jake Garmin ran from the room, vomiting with each step.

*****

“Hippy!” Garmin screamed into his radio while he pulled onto the highway almost tipping over his jeep. “Hippensteel! Larry! Someone answer me!”

Garmin held the receiver, waiting. He started to try again, but instead he let the receiver drop and pushed the jeep’s accelerator to the floor.

With one hand barely controlling the bucking vehicle, Garmin swiped his other hand over his face, wiping away the human remains stuck to his skin. He realized for the first time that he was trembling. His mind had no way of dealing with what he had experienced. Since he couldn’t explain it, he tried to block it out, but the images of the legs and arms crawling toward him, teeth gnashing and soft moaning filling his ears had invaded the crevasses of his brain, and he couldn’t dig them out.

He had just made the turn onto McKenzie State Park Road and headed up the mountain when the radio crackled.

“Sheriff!” Robbie Hippensteel’s voice boomed.

“Hippy, what’s going on?” Garmin replied, almost driving off the road.

“Stay away,” Hippensteel said. “Don’t come come here, Sheriff!”

“Hippy! What’s happening?”

Garmin heard gun fire. He pushed the jeep’s whining motor even harder, taking the corners of the winding road like Evil Knievel. More gunfire. Then the radio came to life again.

“Stay away, Sheriff,” Hippensteel’s voice repeated. Before Garmin could reply back he heard Hippy make a soft, breathy sound and the radio went dead.

Jake Garmin turned on the jeep’s spotlight, and after two more curves in the road, he pulled off, driving through a clearing and into a copse of trees. The trees were spaced out just enough that he could serpentine his way through. He burst out into the glen where they had found Harold Dalton’s body. Garmin had to jerk the jeep’s steering wheel right to avoid hitting Hippensteel’s vehicle.

“Hippy! Larry!” Garmin called out his deputies’ names. No response. Holding a flashlight and his Sig Sauer in front of him, the sheriff ran around to the driver’s side of Hippensteel’s jeep and found the young man laying half in and half out of it. When Garmin turned him over, he stumbled backward, nearly falling down the mountain.

Hippensteel’s uniform was shredded and soaked in blood. There were scratches and bite marks from what looked like dozens of animals. What really shocked Garmin was Hippy’s face. The flesh and muscle around his mouth and nose had been eaten away, exposing the skull that lay beneath.

“Christ this can’t be happening,” Garmin said as he turned away. “What is happening?” He ran over to Larry’s vehicle and searched it but didn’t see the deputy. He called out the man’s name but got no response. Gripping his gun tightly, Garmin started combing the area.

Inside his head he was sorting out the facts. Harold Dalton comes up onto the mountain to hunt and shoots a wolf. Before he can bag his prize and go home, he’s attacked and gruesomely pulled apart. Later in the day, those remaining body parts mutated and came alive.

Garmin shook his head as he headed west down the slope, shining his flashlight on every tree, stick, and leaf. He couldn’t believe the recitation of the case going on in his head. He again tried to forget what he saw at the morgue and move on with more facts.

Two of his deputies, on his orders, come back to the crime scene and one is definitively dead and the other is missing. Whatever killed Hippensteel did things to his body Garmin had never seen before. The photos of the body parts that his brain took flashed through his mind again.

Garmin turned around to go back eastward again but moved farther up the mountain. Larry wouldn’t have gone too far away from where they found Dalton’s body to look for evidence. Garmin stopped and leaned against a tree. The air was so cold it scraped his lungs raw.

“What caused those body parts to mutate?” he said aloud. “What’s out here?” Garmin’s light was playing on the ground as he rested. He noticed blood. Bending down and swiping at it, he saw it was dried. “The wolf,” he whispered. He shone the light ahead and saw more drops of dried blood.

“Dalton hunted the wolf but got attacked from behind by something else. The wolf was bleeding as it ran ahead of Dalton . . .” A thought came to his mind that was more ridiculous than legs with mouths and teeth. “No,” he said quietly. “They’re only legends.” But he kept looking at the dried blood trail the wolf had left behind.

Garmin was still rejecting his theory when he was hit from behind. He lurched forward onto his stomach and then felt something biting his ear. Before he could fight back he felt more teeth sink into him, then roared in pain as his ear was torn off. Jake Garmin rolled over, shining the flashlight into something that couldn’t be real.

A pile of dried leaves had congealed together. They were covered in fur and had grown a mouth with several zig-zagged fangs. Garmin saw more of the creatures moving behind the one that had his ear in its mouth.

Garmin squeezed off rounds from his gun tearing apart two of the things. He heard movement to his right and swung the flashlight around. Before being hit on the forehead, he saw the trunk of a tree staring at him with baleful eyes and a slit of bloody incisors. The tree swung limbs at Garmin knocking him back in the direction of the leaves.

On his fall, Garmin landed on his gun, knocking the wind out of him. As he fought for breath, he continued rolling over top of the leaf creatures that had latched onto him, sinking new, pointed teeth into his flesh. He pushed himself up and was running before he stood erect.

The tree raked its limbs over Garmin’s back, ripping his shirt down the middle and leaving a deep gash. He felt the blood streaming down inside his jeans. Several of the leaf creatures were still attached to his arms and legs.

Garmin’s mind raced along with his body. How was he going to survive a battle he couldn’t comprehend? He felt something tugging at him. As he climbed the hill, he looked down to see sticks wrapping themselves around his ankles like snakes. They were covered in the same downy gray fur and tiny teeth ran their length.

Jake stomped on them with his boots, wincing at the high-pitched shrieks they emitted. Just as he freed himself, one of the leaf things ripped a chunk out of his left calf, and Garmin collapsed in a heap.

As soon as he hit the ground a half dozen of the creatures leapt on Garmin’s chest, lunging for his face. He threw his arms over his eyes for protection and then howled in pain as dozens of pincer-like teeth punctured his skin. Garmin still held his gun tightly in his right hand, but he didn’t know how to use it against the leaf things.

Jake started to roll over, hoping to exert enough pressure to crush his tormenters when suddenly his entire body was hoisted into the air. Garmin saw he was entangled in the limbs of another feral tree. He was twenty feet off the ground and did the only thing he knew to do.

The Sig Sauer fired again and again. Garmin emptied the clip into the face of the tree. The newly formed beast roared in agony and flung Garmin away. He flew thirty feet before plunging to the earth.

The sheriff landed on his side with a thud, and his head snapped back, hitting a rock that was jutting out a few inches from the ground. Garmin lay still, his vision blurred, his head pounding as if someone was pulling his brain out through his ears. When he tried to breathe, the pain was like serrated wire ripping across the lining of his lungs. He couldn’t move or think, but he could hear, and he knew the leaf things were coming for him: The sounds of their movement through the detritus of the woods was unmistakable.

There had to be a way to defeat them. He didn’t have enough ammunition to shoot them all and if the legends were true it wouldn’t kill them anyway, only delay the inevitable. In the physical condition he was in, he couldn’t outrun them back to his jeep. He needed a plan. They were getting closer.

“Run for now, plan later,” Garmin mumbled through gritted teeth. He rolled to his right and shrieked. He was lying atop Larry’s torso. The legs had been torn away. Garmin looked to the man’s face, but it too was gone, a jack-o-lantern of bone leered back.

Jake leapt to his feet and ran, pain blooming in every joint, his shredded calf burning. He breathed in short gasps as he headed for his jeep in hopes of somehow escaping the mountain. He had gone twenty yards when he stopped and turned around. The same yardage the other way was the rock formation where the wolf that Dalton shot had died. Garmin thought for a moment. He didn’t want to believe it was possible, but in the last hour he had been attacked by body parts, leaves and trees. The only common denominator was the blood of the wolf.

Garmin ran up the hill toward the rocks as hard as he could. He heard the rustling only yards away so he reached down to his ankle holster, pulled out his baby Glock, and fired in the direction of the noise hoping to slow them down.

When he got to the rocks, he clambered up to the top of the formation and slid down the other side, tearing open some new holes in himself along the way. He moved to an outcropping that looked like the letter J, and there inside the hook was where the wolf had lain down to die. Garmin knelt down and reached his hand into the earth where the wolf had bled out. The blood was frozen and dried, but it was perhaps his only chance to survive. He was surprised at how much he wanted to live considering how he hated his life.

He scooped up a fistful of dirt and leaves and then hesitated. If it worked, is it what he wanted? Garmin hiccupped a bitter laugh. When had he gotten what he really wanted?

“I don’t want to die like this,” he said out loud. Garmin shoved the dirt in his mouth and swallowed. Then he bent down and ate the blood-soaked forest soil like a dog. He coughed as much up as he swallowed but wouldn’t stop. Sticks and rocks cut the inside of his mouth and scraped his throat, but he didn’t slow down. Using his hands, he made a mound and gorged himself.

Garmin didn’t know what he would feel. He was sensitive to any change, but it wasn’t working. He was still just Jake Garmin, lonely bastard Sheriff of Cooper, Colorado. He stopped when he heard the creatures rushing down the rock face, wailing their high-pitched cries. Garmin looked up and was immediately attacked.

Three of the leaf things attached themselves to Garmin’s face, their teeth ripping into his cheeks. The sheriff fell backwards, and his body was overrun by the forest floor tearing at his body. Leaves filled his mouth and nose, cutting off his airways as sticks burrowed under his skin, driving down to the bone.

Garmin fought back by biting through one of the creatures and swallowing it, but another quickly took its place. He could feel his joints being pulled apart. He made a futile attempt to stand up then felt his whole body buck and spasm, arms and legs flailing uncontrollably. A rush of pain ate through his bones.

Clarity was something Jake Garmin had never possessed, preferring to live his life confused and bitter. Lying on the flat of a dense, frigid forest waiting to die was not where he thought illumination would come to him.

His body was growing larger, expanding in musculature and bone mass. Teeth were filling his new triangular snout as fur sprouted from his taut skin. Jake Garmin was changing, but he was not going to die.

A roar punctured the air, seeming to split the night sky into two. The monsters consuming him fell away as Jake Garmin exploded upward in a magnificent leap, landing on top of the rock formation. His new mouth with rows of gleaming fangs opened and emitted another rumbling roar that caused the trees down the mountain to shrink in on themselves.

Jake Garmin stared at the were-creatures of the forest and smiled. The mountain had a new king.