It all started when Jeb came stumbling back from the woods. He was still holding his shotgun, but his bright orange flannel was ripped, and his eyes had a crazy glint in them.
“Goddamn, man,” I let out in astonishment as he came back into our clearing where we were sitting around the fire. “What the hell happened to you?”
Jeb just stared back at me, not even blinking. “Deer,” he gasped.
Next to me, Kyle popped the top of the cooler. “I dunno what happened to you, man, but you definitely look like you need a beer,” he commented. He popped the top off a Miller by rapping it against the cooler’s lid, and then passed it over to Jeb.
The newest arrival took a long drink, and some of the color returned to his face. “That helps,” he agreed. He lifted the bottle to his lips and drank again, not stopping until the last drop had rolled down his throat.
With the beer filling his belly, Jeb finally blinked, leaning his gun up against a nearby tree. “Those deer, though,” he insisted, looking around at the rest of us. “I’m telling ya, there’s something off with ’em.”
“Yeah, they won’t hold still long enough for you?” I jabbed, drawing a bark of laughter from Kyle. Jeb didn’t laugh, however; he didn’t even crack a smile.
“Them holding still ain’t the problem,” he said darkly. “I hit ‘im. I know I did. I saw the hole.”
Kyle was still sniggering a little, but the corners of my mouth lowered. Jeb really seemed shaken up. “So what’s wrong?”
The hunter turned to me, and I could see the agony in his eyes. “He kept coming,” he said.
I opened my mouth to say more, to question, but Jeb’s eyes shifted, moving to over my shoulder. His mouth dropped open, and his hand shot out – but the gun he was reaching for was still leaned against a tree, on the far side of the clearing.
Spinning around, I saw a nightmare emerging from the trees. It was a deer, no doubt about that – had to be at least a ten pointer. But it was diseased, sick. The coat was a sickly pale green color, and the eyes of the creature looked cloudy, hazy and opaque. Its mouth was moving, drawing my eye, and for some reason, its teeth seemed to be protruding more than usual.
Kyle, sitting on my left, coughed as he also took in the sight. “Holy shit,” he gasped. In shock, he dropped his beer bottle and started to stagger to his feet.
With no warning, the buck dropped his head and charged. Those antlers caught Kyle right in the chest, and the man’s gasp turned to a wet squelching sound. He was carried back several yards before the deer skidded to a stop, throwing the man’s lacerated body clear. He hit a tree, hard, and slid to the bottom. I stared at him, but he didn’t move.
Now that the buck had charged past me, I could see his side – and now I saw why Kyle had sworn. Right in the middle of the animal’s rib cage, a fist-sized hole had been ripped in its skin. I could see the exposed white of ribs, little gibbets of flesh dangling out. And inside that hole, something was pulsing, shifting back and forth. I didn’t even want to think about what it was.
The buck turned back around. Those milky eyes revealed nothing, but it was lining up with me. I was frozen, paralyzed. The creature dropped its head once more, those antlers now stained with points of red.
Its hooves digging into the loam of the forest floor, it began to charge. It drew closer and closer, that rack aimed straight for me.
No more than three feet from my chest, however, the buck suddenly slammed sideways, nearly knocked off its feet. Woozily, shaking its head back and forth, it tried to recover, but the momentum of the attack was gone. Another blow ripped its skull apart and it collapsed heavily onto the ground.
I turned to see Jeb, his eyes still wide, clutching his shotgun. Smoke was trickling up from the barrel, as well as from the two discharged shell casings on the ground next to him. “And this time, the fucker’s gonna stay down,” he panted.
I climbed to my feet, my legs a little shaky beneath me, and picked up my own rifle. I cautiously approached the corpse, prodding at it with the tip of my weapon. The contact provoked no response, however; clearly, although this thing did just fine without a belly, it still needed a brain to function.
My eyes rose up to gaze into the forest around me. I hadn’t noticed until now, but it was eerily silent – no chattering of squirrels, no chirping of birds. Really, no noise at all. “Jeb, I think we gotta cut our hunting trip short,” I said slowly. “I don’t think we’ve got enough ammo for this…”