WAITING TO POUNCE • by Steve Goble

It’s always there, stalking, somewhere near. Hot moist breath on the back of my neck. Skittery footsteps crunching parchment autumn leaves. A harsh, whispered laugh inches from my ear.

But I never see it. The most I ever get is a glimpse–a slithery shape here, a dark hairy silhouette there, a piercing bright gleam of yellow eye that vanishes before I realize I’ve seen it. Then it slips to the edge of perception.

It has been hounding me since I was seven or eight. At first, it crept unseen along cobwebbed corners of my dreaming mind. I woke up screaming, coated in sweat. My dad, the ex-Marine, told me to forget it, and it would go away.

But it never did.

I told him that, but Dad never believed me. No one ever believed me. Ever.

Later, the thing moved from my mind and now and then I felt it squirm through me, wriggling beneath my stomach or clawing its way along my backbone and perching on a rib. Sometimes, it would throb ever so slowly, and grow so warm I could feel the heat if I placed my hand on my skin. Sometimes, it would dig into flesh or gnaw on something deep inside me but only for a moment, only enough to remind me it was there.

I could tell it was growing.

I told the doctor. She didn’t believe me, either. She recommended psychiatrists and therapists, but Dad barked and said we didn’t need any of that.

So I prayed and prayed, begged for it to go away. And one night, it did. I awoke in the dark gagging, choking, blind with tears. My tongue seemed swollen, filling my mouth, alive until claws scratched at my teeth and forced open my jaws and the thing crawled out. I screamed and flew from my bed, huddled beneath my blanket on the floor, kicking and crying and squealing. When the Marine showed up and slapped me to awareness, there was no one in the room but me and Dad, my fears and his disgust.

The thing was gone.

Gone from my body, but not gone away. It never goes far away.

Tough it out, the Marine snarled. It’s just your imagination. Ignore it.

I’ve tried, but it never, ever, stops stalking me. Not even for a moment. I do not know its purpose; I only know it haunts me, nags me, stalks me. Waiting to pounce.

I can’t think it away, or ignore it away. It mocks those attempts, and reminds me of its presence with a hiss of hungry breath, or a snagging touch at my sleeve, or a tap-tap-tapping somewhere in the shadows. And every time I suddenly halt and listen, every time I whirl to catch a glimpse — it’s gone.

I’m tired of the fear, sick of it. I’m fed up with the strange looks I get from people who think I’m mad. My dad is a fool, but I have learned some things from the old man. I carry the Heckler and Koch 9mm loaded at all times, and the Sykes-Fairbairn knife is ever sharp and ready. I have other weapons tucked away, too. Whatever the thing is, if it bleeds, I’m ready to kill it.

I’ve been meditating, stretching my senses, tempering myself for the battle. One day, it’ll move too slowly or stray too close. I will spin, draw, fire and stab stab stab — I will become Death, and I will unleash all the fear and fury in me until the thing is dead dead dead.

And if you happen to be standing too close when it happens, that’s just too goddamned bad for you.

Steve Goble writes fantasy, science fiction and horror, along with a poem now and then. His work has appeared in numerous venues. One of his fantasy stories, “The Gods-Forsaken World,” was an honorable mention in “The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror” anthology for 2007. Learn more at his blog, Swords Against Boredom.

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