Mountains of Memories
Copyright © 2015 by Parker Sheaffer
As much as he sometimes wanted to, there was no way he could ever forget the day when the world changed for him, when he began to lose his family, the life he knew and perhaps his mind.
It was only a week after his fourteenth birthday and he was looking forward to that Sunday when his family would go to visit the Johnson's for a party. The Hardins would come as well. There would be music if Remus Hardin brought his fiddle and there would be lots of food because every wife and mother would bring her best dish. It was always a time when the women could show off their cooking skills.
He knew that he and his friend, Lester Johnson, would probably sneak a little sip of corn liquor from Mr. Johnson's old chipped jug. It tasted awful but it made them feel really good for a while. But then he always felt good when he was with Les. Les, with the dimpled smile, his eyes as green as corn sprouts, his body lean and muscular.
They shared a secret that no one else knew about. For some reason that neither of them understood they were not like the other boys, boys who liked girls. It was a secret that they instinctively knew must be kept to themselves.
They talked a lot about how they never wanted to have to get married and raise 'young-uns' like everyone else. They liked each other and hoped that when they grew up they could leave the mountains and head for some big city where they could live together always.
He liked Les a lot and sometimes, when they could sneak away without being seen, they even kissed. Kissing a girl could never be as good as kissing Les Johnson. He supposed that it was a sin but he didn't care. It didn't feel like a bad thing at all. Still, both boys knew they had to keep it a secret even though Lucas sometimes was so filled with joy that he wanted to shout it out to the world.
At his mother's direction Lucas had gone out hunting for squirrels to put in the pot for supper. His granny had warned him not to be too long.
"There's rain a-comin'," she told him. "I can feel it."
Entering the deep forest, his mind was straying. As he walked the familiar paths he fantasized that he and Les were living in Knoxville or some such big city and that they had a big, grand house and plenty of money and fine clothes. It was a sweet and inviting vision, but his daydreams caused him to wander off the trail.
The reason those mountains are called the Smokies is because of the thick mist that rises between the peaks, filling the valleys with a dense fog that is born from the many icy creeks and small streams. As his granny had predicted, a shower soon began to fall. Lucas could hear it pelting the leaves overhead long before it reached the ground and the coolness of the air that arrived with the rain caused the fog to grow even thicker.
It was difficult to see just where he was going. Having crossed a couple of hills and not paying attention at all, he was surprised by a growl and a snort behind him. He turned and saw that he was only a few yards from an old black bear. Lucas wasn't scared much; there were lots of bears around the area. His heart leapt for a few seconds, but then he remembered what his father had told him, to make a lot of loud noise and the bear would be frightened away. He yelled loudly and raised his arms in the air but the bear only stood up on its hind legs and looked at him and roared again. Standing, the bear was as tall as him and he worried that it wasn't running away. It didn't seem to be scared at all. In fact, the beast actually stepped toward him on its hind legs.
Lucas had not loaded the rifle yet. Since there was no way he could scare the animal with a loud shot, he screamed, this time from fear, and took off running. Knowing that bears were good climbers, going up a tree was out of the question. Granddad had told him that if you had to run from a bear it was best to run downhill. A bear's front legs were shorter than his back legs so running downhill made it trip and fall down a lot. Lucas hoped it was true as he sped down the mountainside, dodging trees, leaping fallen logs and pushing through the leafy branches that slapped him in the face.
After a half mile or so he looked back over his shoulder and was relieved to see that there was no sign of the bear. He rested against a tree and caught his breath. It wasn't running that made his heart pound so rapidly and left him breathless, it was fear. He could run for hours without stopping unless he had to go uphill, but he harbored a secret fear of bears and wolves and cougars, those hungry animals with fangs and claws.
Lucas had been raised in the woods and the idea of being lost seemed impossible, but as he looked around he really wasn't sure where he had wound up. The mountain behind him was deeply forested and any sign of his passage was lost in the mist that surrounded him, a mist that was so dense that it almost seemed unnatural. Lucas could see no trace of the sky above and only a few yards of the earth around him. He thought he knew which way was east but somehow he guessed wrongly. Lucas decided that going downhill was easier but if he went uphill he might come out into a clearing where he could see which way to get home. He chose the uphill route and walked for a couple of hours more until it began to get dark.
Finally he found himself standing at the crest of a ridge. The mountain seemed to plunge steeply down in front of him. He knew that he had gone the wrong way. He cursed himself for being a fool and getting himself lost. He shouldn't have panicked and now he was getting hungry and it looked like he would have to spend the night out in the woods alone.
If he had not been so tired he might have hunted for something to shoot and roast, but spotting a squirrel in that fog would have been very unlikely; besides, dark was coming on fast. His sharp knife quickly cut some thin branches and vines with which he constructed a small lean-to and covered it with leaves and twigs like his pa had taught him. Pushing a pile of leaves under the shelter he tried to make a bed and soon was lying among prickly but fragrant pine boughs. Darkness under the trees was so thick he felt as if he was blind. He told himself that there was nothing to be afraid of and, despite his gnawing hunger, his wet clothing and the frigid night, exhaustion caught up with him and he soon fell asleep.
He didn't remember dreaming, just waking up. He could never forget that waking up. Everything still felt like a crazy, awful dream, but somehow he knew it was real.
He was in a strange room, lying on some table that was both soft and hard at the same time. There was a bright light shining in his eyes and the glare blinded him. He closed his eyes and turned his head away from the light. Then, when he opened them again, he could see that the smooth walls were a light blue-gray color and they seemed to glow from within. The walls curved upward and became a ceiling. He couldn't see the floor. Other than his head he found that he couldn't move his body at all. This should have upset him, as should the fact that he was in a strange place, stranger than he could have imagined, but somehow he felt perfectly calm. He wondered for a moment why he was not scared, but whatever fear that he should have felt was pushed into some corner of his mind and he only felt a mild curiosity at his uncanny surroundings.
There was motion from the corner of his eye and he heard a rustling sound. Then he turned his head and looked up into the face of a demon. The monster had a large head with big, dark eyes and a slit for a mouth. It made some weird noises that Lucas thought might be its way of talking, as it raised a long fingered hand and touched his face. The demon's skin was dry and soft but it had a blue tint to it, not pink like it should have been. Inwardly Lucas recoiled and cringed at the touch, but his body didn't move. Again he knew that he should be filled with terror but his emotions seemed distant, as if they were walled off, and did not affect him.
Lucas thought, 'I done died and gone to hell.'
The preacher man was right, but there was no fire, no brimstone, yet this was surely a demon from below. He reckoned that the sins he shared with Les were finally catching up to him and now he was paying the price with his eternal soul. He began to pray silently to the Lord, pleading for salvation and promising to be a better Christian.
Other demons now stood around him and they spoke to each other for a few minutes while Lucas kept his eyes tightly shut and begged to be delivered from there. He felt more hands touching his face and his chest, then lower. He realized that his clothes were gone and he was lying naked before the horrible monsters, but he couldn't seem to care.
He felt a pressure on his arm and quickly glanced to see a demon rubbing a metal device up and down his bare arm. It hurt a little. Something was placed over his face and that was all he remembered. He succumbed to merciful darkness.
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