The Watcher

Chapter One

I’d never seen a dead body before.

The man lay on the ground near an uprooted tree stump with his face turned away. His tangled gray hair glimmered like ancient pewter in the late summer sun. He wore plaid pants with muddy cuffs and leather shoes split with holes. His tattered brown coat, stained from years of wear, was far too warm for daytime. Had he been here all night?

Was he even breathing? Somebody should check. But since I was alone in the middle of a park, at the intersection of two heavily-wooded trails, “somebody” meant me.

If he were dead, his skin would be cold, but I didn’t want to touch him to find out. I couldn’t help him if he needed serious medical attention. I couldn’t even call 9-1-1. My cell phone was dead on the sofa at home. If only I could call Mom at the hospital. She’d know what to do.

He could be sleeping. I watched for the rise and fall of his chest. Either it wasn’t moving or my mind was playing tricks on me. I pulled a tissue from my purse and leaned over to place it in front of his nose. Loud cawing startled me. I vaulted, staggered over the man, and almost fell right on top of him.

Behind me, a crow landed on a high cedar branch and fluffed its shiny black wings.

“Stupid crow.” I turned back to the man.

The air chilled. Hoarfrost trickled down my spine, and over the aroma of cedar and damp earth I smelled rotten eggs. Covering my nose, I backed away.

A sharp pain pulsed behind my eyes, followed by a high-pitched hum. Squinting, I saw a hazy shadow appear over the man, the kind you see when clouds pass over the sun.

The shadow started to move, undulating at first, then roiling and twisting into a heavy smoke that grew darker, more substantial. Inky blackness folded in on itself like boiled tar, forming first a head, then a muzzle as the darkness stretched out into a neck…body…four legs.

What kind of shadow does this?

Then it growled.

My stomach clenched into a tiny fist, and a voice inside me shouted: Run. Now!

I sprinted down one of the trails, scanning the forest for any sign of shadows. The path narrowed until it was barely a few feet wide, and the gravel beneath me surrendered to dirt. Soon I was dodging serpentine roots and mossy, fallen logs. Low-hanging branches caught in my hair. My pace slowed. In the dense underbrush, looming trees birthed shadows everywhere, none of them like the one I’d just seen.

I stopped. Listened. Heard my own breathing and the whooshing of cars from the main road. In the distance, seagulls screeched at each other. Closer were more crows. Perhaps it was safe.

With a sudden crashing of leaves, the shadowy creature bounded through the underbrush, baring its teeth. Solid now, and huge, it was bigger than any dog, with fur so black as to absorb the light and red eyes that glowed like lasers. I tried to scream, but the air had been sucked from my lungs. I made only a dry rasp.

My heart hammering against my ribs, I pressed through a wall of branches to an open clearing and made a dash for it. The creature was on my heels, but then it flickered and faded back into the shadows like a ghost.

Looking for it, I twisted and tripped, bashing my knee. The creature melted out from the branches. Would shadow teeth hurt as bad as real ones?

I tried to get up, but my muscles trembled and refused to work. White static