Don't Look Behind You

Submitted into Contest #165 in response to: Write a story that includes the phrase “This is all my fault.”... view prompt


Fiction Horror Science Fiction

“Smile!” I shouted. 

Jen turned as I pressed the shutter.


Jen stuck out her tongue. “You didn’t give me time to make my face not look weird.”

“But I love your weird face. It’s exactly my kind of weird.”

Instead of replying, Jen reached down, gathered up a snowball, and winged it at me with the accuracy of a lifelong softball star. I managed to turn my back so my jacket absorbed the blow.

“You throw like a girl,” I shouted, putting my camera in its pack so I could begin a snowball counterattack.

“Thank you for the compliment,” Jen replied, another fistful of snow bursting against my wool cap. “This isn’t a battle you want, Thomas. You don’t have the snowballs for it.”

We spent the next five minutes in a frantic scramble trading volleys of packed powder and ice. Jen was right; I was no match for her. She had an arm like a siege engine and was too small to target. At the end of our little war, I was covered in snow and defeat in equal measure.

“I give up,” I called out, hands up. “You win.”

“I shall be just and merciful in my victory,” Jen promised, brushing snow from my shoulder. “As my first declaration as Ice Queen, I’ll need you to take a better picture of me when I have a minute to actually prepare.”

“As you wish,” I said, setting up my camera.

Jen climbed up the ridge to pose next to a pine tree. The sun was high above her, though hidden in low, gray clouds that threatened more snow. We were about a half-mile into the forest from our rented cabin in the mountains. It was freezing and isolated and perfect. I never knew the Appalachain wilderness could be so stunning.

I was lining Jen up when I saw a…distortion through the viewfinder. It was only a ripple, like a heatwave rising off of August asphalt, and it only lasted for a split second. But it made me lean away from the camera for a better look. I’d spotted the blur on the ridge across from where Jen and I were standing, maybe a quarter mile. It was only visible when I had the lens zoomed all of the way out and even then it was only at the edge of my vision. Staring through all of the trees at the other high point, I couldn’t make out anything unusual.

“Hey, I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Photographer,” Jen said, doing her best Marilyn Monroe pout.

I shook the distortion out of my head and brought my camera back up.

“Say cheese.”

We spent the rest of the afternoon hiking through narrow deer trails and over a cascade of snow-drifts. It was peaceful and a calm kind of empty that was free of distractions. I alternated between taking pictures of Jen when she wasn’t looking and photos of wildlife. We came across woodpeckers and geese and sparrows flitting between evergreens. There were lynx as well, though we mostly only saw their tracks. Twice we stopped and changed directions when we encountered a moose and once we even saw a grizzly bear a hundred yards away, standing on the shore of a small stream. It was swatting at the water and every few splashes resulted in a fat, pink salmon getting tossed on the bank.

We kept our distance while I quietly snapped pictures of all of the full riot of nature around us. The day was perfect other than the increasing encounters with the shimmer. It wasn’t in every photo but I began to notice it more and more as the afternoon drifted towards evening. Whatever the distortion was, it was getting closer. It followed along behind us over the hills and across streams. I kept catching a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye or my lens, always keeping its distance, always just out of focus.

I tried to point the glimmer out to Jen a few times but it was always gone when she looked. Maybe I was seeing things, little spots and floaters in my eyes from too much squinting into a camera. But just as we were finishing our route and nearly back at the cabin, I began to see a form inside of the distortion. Something nearly human.

Just my imagination, I tried to convince myself. Just shadows on the snow.

We made it back to the cabin half an hour before sundown. The light was long and weak across the white fields. The sky was blue-gold against the cloud cover, but quickly on its way to an evening purple. It was cold and the temperature was dropping in time with the sun. Wind snapped at our heels as we hustled towards the cabin. I swiveled to take one last snapshot of the sunset and saw the distortion again only a few feet down the path behind us. I hurried Jen inside and locked the door, then threw the bolt.

“You okay?” Jen asked, one eyebrow lifted.

“Sure. Yeah. Just, eh, glad to be home.”

That wasn’t a complete lie. I had fallen a little in love with our rented cabin over the past two days. It was a single-story containing a handful of connected rooms: kitchen, bathroom, single bedroom, a combination den, and dining room. The walls were cedar logs notched and wedged together. Deep, soft rugs with geometric patterns covered the floors. A stone fireplace took up most of an entire wall. Owning a place like that for weekend getaways or summer holidays or a skiing trip…it would be a dream.

I tried to put the blurry thing out of my mind. I knew it couldn’t be real, couldn’t be anything more than a trick of the light or an issue with my eyes.

“I’m going to work on the pictures we took today in the bedroom, okay?” I called out.

“Have fun. I’ll start dinner. Photoshop me so I look extra hot, alright?”

“If you were any hotter, Jen, the cabin would burn down.”

My girlfriend giggled and started rummaging around for a pan. I headed into my “dark room” which was just the cabin’s bedroom but with all of the lights shut off. It made me feel like an old-school photographer, sitting on the bed with my laptop perched on my knees, the only light the glow of the screen as I shuffled through pictures picking the ones worth editing. I closed the door and put the camera’s SD card into the reader.

The first photo that loaded was from early in the morning. It was a timed selfie of Jen and me in front of the cabin. A strong breeze was pushing her dark hair around in her hood and across her face but I could still see her smile. I dragged the photo to the KEEP folder. The next dozen pictures were of the woods around the cabin. Then about forty photos of a blue jay just chilling on a branch. Not sure what got into me with that.

After about ten minutes of sorting through pictures in the dark, I got to the one I took of Jen on the ridge when I first saw the blur. Only it wasn’t a blur in the photo. There was clearly some…thing in the background. It was out of focus and hard to see details but it looked like another hiker wearing all red.

How did we not notice someone else on the trail right behind us?

I considered calling for Jen but didn’t want to freak her out. Letting out a quick breath, I got ready to go through the rest of the pictures. The next couple of shots were all of Jen on the ridge. The thing in red got closer with each photo. Closer and clearer.

“Jesus Christ,” I whispered.

Whatever was following us wasn’t wearing red. It was red. The raw red of a skinned deer; the creature was the size and shape of a man but naked, fleshless, a walking chunk of exposed muscle and meat. Its face was the hardest place to look. Wormy pink tendons stitched together dull pieces of white bone, blood vessels, and nerves twitching. I couldn’t be sure due to the lack of skin but the thing seemed to be smiling wide as it followed us. It crept behind us, partially hidden in every photo. Sometimes it leaned out from trees, only its lidless eyes visible. Once or twice I even spotted it above us moving through bare branches or lurking in the shadow of an evergreen.

The creature was…playful? In some pictures, it was only pretending to hide. In others, it took exaggerated tip-toe steps like some twisted cartoon character. It was toying with us, invisible except to my camera, and it got closer with every photo.

I suddenly felt very alone in the dark. There were a few pictures left but I jumped to the last one, that final snapshot from outside the cabin. The red thing was on the path right behind us where I’d seen the distortion. It had one fleshless arm raised. It was pointing at Jen and smiling wider than ever.

I shot to my feet. “Jen!” I shouted.

It took me a moment to orient myself in the dark but I was able to make my way over to the light switch. I nearly tripped in my rush for the door.

“Jen! Jen, where are you?”

My girlfriend wasn’t in the kitchen or the living room or anywhere else in the small cabin. The front door was open but the only tracks in the snow were our old boot prints. Still, I followed them as far as I could until fresh falling snow erased them a quarter-mile into the forest. The rangers and the search teams never found any sign of Jen.

It’s been six years.

I rent the cabin again every year right around the time of her disappearance. I spend a week hiking the woods with my camera looking for Jen and for the thing that took her. When I dream, I always dream of that last picture, of the smiling thing, red and pointing. If I’d acted faster, if I’d been with her…

This is all my fault. I should have protected her.

September 29, 2022 17:46

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Sylph Fox
02:05 Oct 23, 2022

Hi Emma, I really enjoyed your story! I like how you covered the aftermath and set up a “maybe” for Part 2. I'm starting a audio book channel and I'd really love to feature your work. If you’re interested in having your story read by me I'd really appreciate it if you'd contact me at Thanks for considering me to adapt your works to an audio book channel.


Show 0 replies
03:24 Oct 11, 2022

Your writing style is engaging and has a good flow. I hope you continue to write more stories because you clearly have a talent for them. This is my favorite Reedsy story so far!


Show 0 replies
Caidyn King
21:40 Oct 05, 2022

will you make a part 2?


Show 0 replies