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Authors: Eric Leitten

Mask of Flies

BOOK: Mask of Flies
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Mask of Flies

Eric Leitten

Copyright © 2015 by Eric Leitten

Table of Contents

Prologue

Malik Warren died
silently, tantamount to how he lived his life, and the world would
continue on in his absence. However, his posthumous exploits would be
much livelier than his squandered forty-three years. When alive he
had never been a church going man but reveled in the mystery of the
natural world. Walking the wilderness was his religion—and
inevitably his demise.

His final exodus from
the hopeless was brought on by personal necessity. Malik had a
difficult time dealing with the stress of divorce, coupled with the
unrelenting tedium of the Post Office—he needed a sabbatical. So he
rented a cottage for a weekend that bordered the Allegheny Nature
Preserve, located in the southern tier of Western New York.

The silence of the
forest conjured up poison in his mind. He remembered, his ex,
Cassandra’s crushing words: “I just don’t love you anymore.”

“I don’t
understand? I gave you everything, gave up my ambition for you and
the children,” Malik had said, seated at the kitchen table.

“Don’t you see
fool, that ambition is what I loved about you.” Cassandra pounded
the table, rattling silverware. “When you gave up law school,
runnin’ scared, you sealed our fate as just another strugglin’
black family, stuck in the East Side.

“The way I remember
it, I quit and found a paying job to support you while you were
pregnant! I provided and sacrificed ever since.”

“Sacrificed?
No-no-no, you gave up. You used to want to change things, make this
town better, but then you took that god damn job at the Post Office.
You was content on lettin’ them bleed your heart down to the last
drop.” She had snatched her purse and rushed out the door. That had
been their last time in the same room as a married couple.

The brilliance within
the hiking trails served as a panacea to his thoughts. He approached
a brook that was canopied by massive snow-covered trees, an ivory
sanctuary—and the painful memories temporarily eased
.
I’m on the inside of a snow globe, unbelievable, like something out
of a storybook.

By the time he returned
that night to the one room cottage, he had hiked over eight miles.
His legs ached from the cold. Inside, at a small wooden table, he ate
a bowl of beef stew, sopping up thick broth with a piece of rye
bread. Afterward he went to bed, body worn but spirit reinvigorated,
looking forward to the hike up to Bridal Falls the next day. And the
night melted away into dreamless sleep.

At dawn Malik woke. His
breathing felt taxed, so he took a precautionary hit from his
inhaler. Asthmatic since childhood, he put his medicine in his
knapsack, along with an old park map, flashlight, and his bag lunch
for the day.

Shortly after setting
off, constriction gripped his chest. The cold air burned his lungs
with its icy brand upon every breath. He stopped, took another breath
of medicine, and pressed on. Rarely had he relied on it this much in
such a short period of time. The burning brought the memory of being
rushed to the hospital when he was a boy; the liquid nervousness that
accompanied the certainty of death on the mad ride to the ER. He
would do anything to avoid that experience again, but deep in the
ancient wood, without a white coat for miles, death would be
unavoidable.

The tightness continued
and before long he began to wheeze. A quarter mile from his last
puff, he decided to head back to the cabin and take it easy.

Heavy snowfall had
completely erased his outbound tracks within a half a mile of turning
back, and his lungs felt as if angry hornets nested in them. He put
the inhaler to his lips and squeezed the top, but all he got was a
thin mist of medication. He chucked it empty into the woods and
rubbed the sides of his face.
Panic
will only make it worse, I need a hospital
. He pulled out
the map from his backpack. The Seneca reservation was less than a
mile to the north.

Where the map showed a
trail, Malik only saw a snow encrusted sign that stood almost lost in
the whitewashed background, barely legible from where he stood. He
brushed off the dusting with his gloved hand: “Path Closed.” He
had no choice but to wade through. Determined, he plowed forward,
pants beginning to freeze, legs becoming heavy, engorged with blood
from the push. His breathing sounded like a hacksaw cutting into dry
timber.
I’m close. I know.

Waist-deep, he
attempted to move forward, but numbness spread through his body. The
falling flakes metastasized into a chaotic grey flutter, and darkness
encased his periphery. His legs stiffened, fixed anchors that refused
to do as commanded. Malik dropped to his knees in the snow, certain
it was his time to die.

* * *

The Allegheny trail
heading into Seneca land converged with a once highly traveled
hunting area—Road 128F, or Blackstone Run. It had been quarantined
almost a decade. The closure began with talk amongst some of the
hunters about a possible rabies outbreak. Shortly after the initial
reports of aggressive animals, a body of a local man was found on the
side of the road, eviscerated. The depth and strike of the wounds
were inflicted by a large animal, and the promise of big game had
been motivation enough for the park rangers—John Stevens and four
of his men—to investigate Blackstone Run further. Tracking the
beast responsible proved difficult, but one of the deputies found a
cave that reeked of decomposing flesh.

“I’m going in
boys,” a young deputy, nicknamed Noodles had said. “I’ll piss
this thing off, draw it out in the open, and you guys put it down.”

“Alright hero,”
Stevens hunkered down, aiming his flashlight into the cave. “But be
careful. You saw what it can do. It must have claws as wide as your
neck . . . Your mamma would have my hide if she knew I let you in
there.”

Teddy Simmons spat a
black wad into the snow and cocked his shotgun. “You come runnin’,
n’ we’ll be gunnin’.” He nodded his head towards the cave.

Noodles maneuvered his
lanky frame into the maw as the other men stood by anxiously. After
15 minutes of silence, the radio squawked: “All empty in here.
Nothing but bone and—”

The rangers outside
stared at each other, waiting, hoping Noodles had simply fumbled the
radio. “Noodles, you in there?” Teddy shouted into the mouth of
the cave. “You pussies are gonna’ make the fat guy go after the
boy?”

“Calm down now, we
would need a stick of butter to get you in there, and the Jaws of
Life to get you out.” Stevens pointed to some dead wood on the side
of the cave. “We smoke this thing out. I’m not going to risk
anyone else.”

The dead kindling
crackled then roared to a blaze. The rangers pushed black smoke in
with a rolled up tarp. After five minutes, a shadow emerged inside
the grey murk.

Through the veil of
smoke, Stevens sighted a bear with multiple pitted sores that exposed
its skull beneath. Grey maned, with thatches of black hair around its
hind quarters and belly, it came forward. Intermittent bald spots
exposed paper-thin epidermis, glued to a shrunken frame. Sores
erupted from the beast’s body, and maggots spilled from the open
flesh by the hundred. The diseased bear stood on its hind legs,
approaching the men, but before it could get closer, one of the
rangers let off a shot, ripping into the bear’s neck. It staggered
back, twisted, shook, and continued forward.

Keeping his distance,
Stevens shouldered his Winchester, and aimed for the bear’s center
mass.
Slug to the windbags
.
He pulled the trigger. The report was deafening. The bear absorbed
the shot, and leapt forward. It took down Teddy, squeezing his head
like a grape between a serrated vice.

The beast’s
preoccupation afforded Stevens another shot. This time he aimed for
the head. The boom of the Winchester and the explosion of the beast’s
skull seemed simultaneous. As the bear crashed to the ground,
red-backed flies began to pour from the newly created orifice. The
smell coming off the carcass was stifling, as its putrefied insides
oozed out with a paste like viscosity.

“Burn the carcass at once;
Clayton, you go find Noodles,” Stevens said as he rushed to his
downed friend. Kneeling next to Teddy, he took a rag and attempted to
contain the bleeding.
Don’t
die on me asshole.
But when Stevens shifted Teddy’s
head, he found a loose flap of scalp and skull that bled and bled,
almost concealing gouged grey matter. Simmons shuddered. His
breathing went still when Ranger Clayton emerged from the cave with
sullen eyes, shaking his head.

The death of the two
rangers compelled the park’s administrators to close Blackstone Run
to the general public until further investigation deemed the area
safe again. But more sightings of diseased fauna occurred on the
trail: A rabid buck, charging a ranger, was head shot before it could
gore him, and Stevens killed a decomposing raccoon dragging itself by
its forefeet. In both cases red flies exited from the carcasses and
the animals were rotting inside and out. Park leadership’s only
instruction to the patrolling rangers was to burn all diseased
animals put down.

Blackstone Run remained
closed. A ranger patrolled the trail every third day. Reports over
the winter stated that the animal life on the trail dwindled, despite
the busy hunting season on other trails. By spring Blackstone Run was
devoid of life, not a squirrel in a tree or a bird overhead. The
rangers rationalized the animal’s exodus as nature’s way of
finding a way around the disease.

Blackstone Run became
better known as Demon Fly Run to the rangers who patrolled it, and it
was removed from the park’s map of hunting trails the subsequent
year. A few of the seasoned hunters questioned its removal at first,
but over time the inquiries subsided, and the trail was slowly
forgotten. Over the next decade the trail remained silent, all except
for the red flies that buzzed obscenely. Most of the new generation
of park rangers and administration, now the majority of the
workforce, did not even know that the forbidden trail existed.

* * *

The process of human
decomposition is ironic: Humans consume to survive, but when it is
all over, the body consumes itself. Upon death the anaerobic
organisms inside the digestive tract begin to break down surrounding
tissue and organs, liquefying them in the process, causing that
horrible stench corpses produce.

Snow had encased
Malik’s body for over a day, substantially slowing the process of
decomposition. His winter hiking gear kept his temperature from
falling so quickly it would cause irreparable damage to his muscle
tissue, while the colder atmospheric temperature quickened rigor
mortis, and deterred any parasites from diminishing his corpse . . .
conventional parasites like bloat flies, flesh files, or carrion
worms. The flies that begun to swarm over Malik’s preserved corpse
were unlike any species seen in the greater Western New York area.
They had the characteristic shining, red-metallic body that made them
look like embers crackling off of a dry log. From the depths of the
forest swarmed hundreds, perhaps a thousand red backs. They covered
Malik’s exposed areas, and then disappeared into his ears, nose,
and mouth. As abruptly as they came, they disappeared into Malik,
taking respite in his corpse. Malik had made the mistake of dying on
Demon Fly Run.

BOOK: Mask of Flies
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