I found myself racing through the dark, soggy forest once again. Running barefoot, stumbling over fallen trees, sliding on wet moss, and cutting my feet on sharp rocks. Lungs burning like an oven, blood searing its way through my veins hot as lava. My shirt was torn and my jeans dirty from falling in the mud…my long hair was matted, entwined with leaves and twigs. Every muscle throbbed…but I kept running.
The Beast was gaining on me.
“Please, someone help!”
Had the words actually made it from my head to my tongue, they would have ruptured the sound barrier and made their way to the nearest city...wherever that was. Nothing but a slight whimper escaped my lips with unintelligible noise. I knew no one heard me. No one ever did. That made me cry harder, knowing that I was cut off from the rest of the world. The tears streaming down my face stung the cuts on my cheeks…but it was nothing compared to the pain of terror that chased behind me.
Hot air exploded over my lips. And I gasped in quick spurts of breath to keep the oxygen circulating to my fatigued extremities. The wheezing and panting of the Beast grew closer, its paws slamming into the forest floor, claws digging into the soaked ground, tearing up large rocks and flinging them like pebbles. The thing was agile like a gazelle, but heavy like an elephant, sending shock waves through the earth that I could feel through my sore feet.
I had never seen it straight on, but over the years my glances had created an almost surreal image of the hideous Beast navigating effortlessly between trees, it's timing precise and unmatched by any other creature on earth.
And this is how it went every time.
Mental torment worse than the pain of my physical injuries. Sweat, blood, and dirt covering every inch of me as I sought the lake that I would dive into from a high cliff and swim to the opposite shore. I’d come to know the Beast couldn’t swim. The ripple of the water over my drained body would refresh my senses enough for me to make long and fast strokes in the placid lake, eyeing the Beast over my shoulder every few breaths.
It would stand on the edge of the cliff behind me watching my every move, telling me with its narrowed, intense eyes that this wasn’t the last I would see of it. And I would pull myself up on the rocky shore on the other side of the small bay, shaking from exhaustion, looking across the water at the relentless monster, hoping that it would be the last time that I would be chased through the woods...but inside, I knew the truth.
This time, the lake just never appeared.
I must have gotten turned around. And the terrain was getting steeper and harder for me to keep ahead. I’d never been this far before. Never this...depleted and utterly consumed to the core.
My bones ached deeply. Every cell could be heard screaming from within me. In all my life I’d never felt such desperation...such misery...such an overwhelming sense of ruin.
Self-inflicted doom descended upon me with such a profound sense of sudden understanding...and yet...I denied that reality.
The heavy, snorting pant of the Beast was so close now, its footfall so unnervingly loud. Branches snapped as it darted around, rocks tumbled down the hill from its enormous paws as it dug into the earth, pushing its heavy body towards me.
I forced myself up the jagged incline, crying out loud, gasping for air, cursing my existence.
I’d run like this so many times…I’d hidden and outsmarted and reached the lake every time…but, each time...the thing…this Beast got closer.
I can’t do this anymore!
I could feel myself letting go of whatever sliver of sanity I had left. The understanding was starting to become a part of me.
This is it.
The will for onward movement vanished into the misty air and I slowed down, feeling almost weightless and dreamlike.
Bursts of tingling in my figures and toes fired their way up my legs and arms toward the center of my body.
Then a numbness crept in.
As I lost steam heading up the hill, my bloody feet slid on the slick, mossy rocks and I caught myself on an old birch tree, hugging it like it was going to somehow save me from a certain end. And that is where I came to a complete halt, motionless...even in my mind.
I was aware that the Beast had slowed to nearly a crawl...maybe confused...maybe wondering what it would do now that its prey was without an escape...maybe formulating some kind of gameplay.
An oddity filled me, warm and soothing. It was so strange. Nothing I’d felt before. It wasn’t confidence. It wasn’t cockiness...I tried hard to place it while time became extinct.
In that moment, all things came into focus.
The Beast’s breath was hot on the back of my neck, so heavy on the way out that it blew my wet hair around. Its vocal cords produced a rolling growl, like the guttural purr of a cat, only several octaves lower.
We’d never been this close before.
It was huge. I could sense its energy behind me and the space that it took up. My head buzzed. I closed my eyes. The seconds passed like hours. My bodily sensations were so heightened that I could feel every little hair on my skin move in minuscule amounts.
I’m fucking nuts.
Slowly, eyes still closed, fists clenched, I turned. That gross breath was on my face now, the stench unbearable. I trembled from head to toe, on the verge of complete, mental annihilation.
I peeled my eyelids back forcefully and took a look at my predator whose body was illuminated by the moon that was just now peering out from behind a cloud. Glowing yellow eyes stared down at me, investigating my soul. Sharp stained teeth…a stinky, hairy, figure like a giant wolf got fucked by a gargoyle and had offspring…It towered above me…could swallow me whole.
I screamed internally but didn’t make a sound.
Bile rose in the back of my throat.
I’m all alone.
With that, I released every last grain of lucidity I owned…I was as good as dead anyway. I couldn’t run from this. Or hide. Or swim myself to safety.
And that’s when I felt it.
The hidden anger.
At the circumstances.
At the world.
It rose up from within me like a new feeling…like reckless abandon. My fists clenched so hard my nails dug into the palms of my hands.
“What Do You WANT??!!”
My voice cracked and it wasn’t very loud. The Beast stomped its foot and snorted at me, sweat and snot flinging onto my face. It didn’t care. Almost laughing with its eyes.
I took a deep breath and let that reckless abandon fill my every particle.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT??!!”
It blinked, took a half step back, narrowed its eyes, and let out a roar that made my ears crackle. Even the trees shuddered. A few teetering rocks fell down the hill. I stumbled back. But there was nothing left in me to try and escape.
So, I didn’t.
I stood back up, my jaw tight and my stance set.
The Beast flinched.
“You wanna dance?” I laughed. Complete and utter abandon. The excitement now pulsating through my nervous system. The beast backed up ever so slightly.
It snorted, blinked, and took a full step backward. It was confused.
And I felt my power.
“You wanna watch the sunrise with me?” I stepped forward, nose to nose with my monster as it inched back, its strength collapsing, the heat of its breath cooling.
“Let’s fight! Let’s battle through the night, duke it out…get all bloody...rip each other apart!!!” Stupid laughter erupted out of my mouth and for the first time ever the beast turned its head away from me and I saw a reflection of something around its neck.
It took a few hesitant steps down, cautiously looking from me to the terrain behind it, slowly creeping away.
The Beast lost its footing as it edged down the hill, its eyes wide with uncertainty as it realized it wouldn’t be able to recover from the wobble. It toppled end over end until it hit the flat ground with a thud and a groan.
Strange, unworldly instinct possessed me, and I chased after it, feeling the rush of being the hunter instead of the hunted.
“Is that all you got!!!” I screamed, my voice deep and echoing through the forest. The beast returned to its feet and shook off the leaves as I gained ground.
“Let’s party man! I’m ready! Let’s go!” I cackled mercilessly. The feeling was intoxicating as I ran after the beast. It darted away from me, stumbling and knocking into trees, losing all sense of direction, glancing back over its shoulder, those slitty yellow eyes now unsure. I somehow knew that it felt exactly how I'd been feeling just a little while before.
I dashed up onto a high rock and launched myself off of it, pouncing onto The Beast's neck, grabbing a fist full of wiry, black hair. It yelped and scampered, trying to shake me off as it went. I lost my grip and slid down until my hands caught its collar.
It has a collar?
I hung on, being dragged through the woods for a while, my legs slamming into trees until the collar caught a branch and ripped it off its neck. I fell to the ground with the thick, worn collar in hand as the Beast took off into the deep woods.
I listened as it crashed through the brush, its panting breath, and heavy paws sounding more like a scared animal than a monster now. Finally, I could no longer hear it.
The forest around me was silent except for the trees dripping from an earlier rain. The mist cleared even more and the moon shown bright.
Exhausted, but so exhilarated.
This was me.
The real me.
The collar was still in my hand, reeking of otherworldly scent. I held it up in the moonlight and saw that it had a gold name tag the size of my fist hanging from the old, braided leather strap.
Someone owned the Beast?
The thought made me look up and around the woods. I’d never seen anything but rocks, trees, and water. Funny, not even another animal. Certainly, no cabins or vehicles or roads...
Grabbing the name tag in my dirty and bleeding hand, I wiped the face of it off and took a close look.
Opened my eyes wide.
This couldn’t be right.
The owner’s name was...my name. Owner’s address...mine. Owner’s phone number...mine too.
My heart pressed hard against my rib cage with every pump and I slowly turned the tag over. I knew what would be on the other side because now I remembered. This would be the last part of the understanding.
I stared down at the back side of the tag, seeing the Beasts name scrolled in deep, bold letters.