About leaned against a rough tree in the deep darkness, his breath coming in huge, ragged gasps. About wasn’t born with the name. His dad argued and fought to name him Beauregard, after a civil war general who later spent his life advocating for black civil rights. About’s dad died the day after he was born, however, when a tree fell the wrong way and crushed him. “That’s enough of that name,” his mom had solemnly pronounced and told everyone that his name was “About.”
His friends back in his small Kentucky hometown high school nicknamed him “About Dead,” after a line drive hit him in the chest while playing second base as a freshman on the varsity team. About was one of the best baseball players anyone had witnessed. When the ball hit him, his heart stopped for four minutes. While resuscitating him, his Uncle Desi, who was also the volunteer coach for the team, died of a heart attack himself. About’s story briefly made the national news, probably due to the incongruous death of his Uncle while reviving him. The day About got out of the hospital, his mom drove him directly to the cemetery to bury her brother Desi. About never played another sport.
His breath slowing a little, About estimated he ran for twenty minutes, ignoring branches tearing against his shirt, arms, and face. There was no illuminating moon in the night sky, and the light was dim. The dozens of small cuts on his face and arms itched with a fiery intensity.
About survived a mass shooting in 2005. A bullet shattered three of his ribs, and another traveled from his left armpit and exited near his spine. About was at Eastern Kentucky University to give one of his friend’s kids a ride back to school after a holiday break. He stopped for a cup of coffee near the university after dropping Christine off near the common eating area. He sat by the window to people watch. Across the street and not too far away, a disgruntled ex-employee of the university opened fire with a gun he stole. Because About was nowhere near the shooter, no one inside the diner initially understood what had happened. A policeman who sat in an unmarked car near the scene fired four shots. His report book remained unfinished in his lap. One of the bullets instantly killed the active shooter when it entered his left eye and exited the back of his head, even though the officer fired from a seated position inside the car. Two other shots miraculously traveled across the street, exploded through the coffee shop window, and hit About as he sipped his coffee. About was in a coma for ten days afterward, during which time the officer who stopped the shooter killed himself. The fourth bullet he fired struck and killed a woman sitting on the low wall on the edge of the street. In a coincidence, the policeman had been on duty just two days since a paid suspension following a shooting during a domestic violence call. The victim in the home shooting was the Aunt of the woman sitting on the wall near campus. As for About, he no longer believed in coincidences.
Five years later, when his truck was hit from behind by an unseen drunk driver, he went off the side of a steep valley road, tumbling end over end for fifty feet. He lay there bleeding for four hours until a passing local driver noticed the missing guardrail and investigated. Two surgeries later, scars traversed his back and right arm. He was whole, though. Many nights he lay in his restless bed wondering what force saved him. As he lay in his truck at the bottom of the ridge, he hallucinated and talked to someone or something he couldn’t quite see. While in the hospital, he vividly dreamed whatever it was at the bottom of the holler followed him to the hospital, too. The voice insisted it wasn’t his time to depart. Six months later, the drunk driver turned himself in to the Kentucky State Police. He was already dying of pancreatic cancer. About told him and the Staties that he forgave him and to let him live the rest of his life in peace. The drunk driver died of electrocution five days after reporting to prison.
People laughed at his nickname. “What do you mean, ‘About Dead,’ is your nickname?” Almost everyone asked. He politely recited the fact that a freak accident in boot camp almost killed him. It did, however, kill six new recruits and the drill instructor who’d served twenty-seven years in the Army. His friends became superstitious when he came back to his hometown to recuperate. The Army sent a Colonel to ask him to accept an honorable discharge on medical grounds. Truthfully, the Army was superstitious about the incident and didn’t want About back for reasons unrelated to his injuries. His friends dropped the ‘Dead’ part of his nickname. Kentucky grandmothers have preached for generations that it’s best to not jest at the things we don’t understand. Afterward, depending on how much interest the other person showed, he’d list off the other near-misses. Most people became uncomfortable. If he noticed their discomfort, he had a litany of jokes to appease them. He often said, “You can find me in the “About Section,” he’d say and laugh. If he was feeling particularly humorous, he would tell them that he was the brother of “Mostly Dead,” a joke he stole from The Princess Bride.
A year ago, About abruptly left his hometown and moved to another Kentucky town, one with about twice as many people as his hometown. He couldn’t tell his few remaining friends that he’d seen something in his peripheral vision. Often, as dusk approached, he could feel its long shadow behind him. He’d look, only to see the encroaching greyness of night. There were nights he lay motionless in bed, slowing his breathing, and waiting for an hour with his eyes closed to slits. Though he could see movement in the dark and shadows, he never spoke to it or acknowledged that he was aware of it. Whatever it was, it followed him to the middle of Kentucky, not too far from Mammoth Cave National Park. Because of his previous injuries, he had a full-body scan. This eliminated the possibility of a physical cause for his hallucinations. About would have preferred a definitive physical reason for his hallucinations.
As insomnia took its toll, About asked his co-worker Styles if he could stay in his cabin the following weekend. “Sure! It’s about time. You’re going to love it. Nothing but deer, fish in the creek, and a million trees to keep you and whoever you’re taking with you good company,” Styles said good-naturedly. He knew About didn’t have a girlfriend. “Watch out for bears, though. They don’t talk much.” Styles was rich due to his parent’s wealth. He still worked in the County Clerk’s office to keep himself busy. No one could believe that someone so friendly could be so rich. Coincidentally, Styles had the entire county map memorized, as well as almost every song written between 1980 and 1988.
After work Friday About drove the back roads across Highway 70 and Joppa Ridge. Style’s cabin was at the literal edge of the dense treeline. It seemed to be all porch. It had a hanging porch swing on one end and a netted sleeping area on the other. Styles often slept on the porch or out on the ground in a sleeping bag thrown near the firepit about twenty feet from the cabin. About noted that Styles had kept his promise; there was a massive pile of firewood and fallen tree limbs to feed the sizeable firepit. About took his supplies out of the back of his truck and carried them inside. He didn’t need much to keep him sustained. The fridge was well-stocked.
Around eight o’clock, About poured himself a few fingers of scotch from the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a bag of Style’s homemade beef jerky. He went out on the porch and sat on the stone steps. He left the gun inside. He couldn’t imagine how he’d need a gun. He knew that wildlife would not approach the cabin. Not tonight, anyway. The shadow would keep them at bay. About no longer felt foolish for thinking that way.
As the light faded, About sipped from his glass of whiskey and took another bite of the delicious beef jerky. Somewhere in the distance, a loud crash echoed. About didn’t flinch. He knew it was just letting him know it was out there. About downed the remainder of the whiskey and put the bag of jerky behind him. He clasped his hands and listened. Every few minutes, a crisp breaking of a limb would echo. The sounds made a long arc to his left. They stopped. About realized he had almost entirely stopped breathing. For at least an hour, no sound stirred. Forests are not dead places, even at night. Something is always on the hunt for food. No fireflies blinked across the expanse of grass leading up to the dirt road. The quiet was total and intoxicating.
As the ice settled in his whiskey glass, About jerked back to consciousness. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the shadow was behind him in the total darkness, sitting on its haunches near the door. Just as the thought coalesced, a board on the long porch groaned and settled. About felt the ridges of his scars light up with goosebumps.
About stood up slowly and then gingerly stepped forward down the steps and toward the firepit. He fished a lighter out of his pocket and flicked it. The light seemed unimaginably bright in the total darkness. He bent in the windless night and put the flicker of flame against the kindling and grass under the wood piled in the firepit. Immediately, a whoosh of flame shot up. About stepped back, but did not turn. Within a couple of minutes, the fire was going intensely. Careful to avoid turning his head toward the cabin, About threw more wood on top of the wood already in the firepit. He continued to throw it on, even as the ends began to hang over the wide edges. The fire roared.
About circled the edge of the firepit, away from the cabin. He kept his eyes downcast. Somehow, he sensed looking at it directly would provoke it. He picked up the longest remaining limb as he edged around the firepit. The fire continued to grow in intensity. It cast shadows of its own, as sparks crackled and made their way upward to disappear. On the opposite side of the firepit, About used the long limb to push and cajole the limbs and fire to an even greater height.
About dropped the limb on the fire. As he did, he looked up, squinting between the flames reaching upward. Through the fiery tendrils, he saw it. As his heart leaped, it saw him. Moments later, About realized that he was running. His ears filled with the screech of the shadow. He didn’t decide to run. His body took control. Twenty minutes later, he was panting in the forest, leaning against one of the million trees around him, weirdly remembering the baseball game that almost killed him.
Behind him, something cracked and broke.
About stood up and turned.
It was time.
He had always been in these woods, forever, a shadow of his own making.
If you visit Mammoth Cave National Park, build a fire and sit beside it. As the night encroaches, listen.
As the shadows pass over you, don’t look closely.