Katya sighs deeply and closes her eyes as she leans back in her kayak, allowing the tense muscles of her upper body a slight reprieve. The cool fresh water and its evenly flowing current carry her softly, with a slight swaying motion, down the Potomac-Shenandoah River. From the shoreline she could hear the melodic trills of a pair of Goldfinches. Almost imperceptibly, a faint metallic whirring sound disturbed the peaceful ambience. Katya snaps her eyes open and meticulously scans the sky above her, her pulse steadily rising.
Tension had returned to her body at full velocity, with terror creeping at the periphery of her mind. After several minutes, with only the sounds of nature whispering in her ear and an unblemished pink-blue sky above, she allows herself to relax – only slightly. Tensing her aching abdominal muscles, she lifts herself back to an upright position while scanning the horizon in front of her. Satisfied that nothing is out of place down river, she methodically probes each shoreline with her piercing green eyes. Her pulse gradually returns to normal, as she eases her paddle in to the deep blue waters below.
There’s a persistent dull aching in her right shoulder as she expertly steers herself forward. For the past four hours pure adrenaline had managed to blot out the pains of her body, but it was slowly wearing off as she put distance between herself and the aging grey house on Greenview Drive. The scratches covering her left forearm mutely scream as she twists her wrist to guide the kayak around a bend. The worst of it was behind her, she knew that, but nonetheless her stomach remained knotted. She gripped her paddle tighter, raising additional protests from her shoulder.
As she continues down the river, Katya’s thoughts float back to the house she knew – had known - so intimately. She thought fondly of its deep hazel floorboards, and her well-honed knowledge of which spots would emit a creak. She remembered the bright scent of lemon dish soap, and the brief glimpse of iridescent soap bubbles occupying the wide kitchen sink. She recalled the glossy and slightly dated sea foam green kitchen tiles, and the unexpected catch in her breath when they were sprayed with an arc of blood. She stopped herself before her memories went further. If she wanted to survive, she needed to focus on the long journey ahead.
Sensing movement on her left, she pulls her paddle out of the water and peers deeply in to the woods beyond the shoreline. Without noticing she’s holding her breathe, she strains to hear any signs of pursuit – and the unquestionable snap of a twig is carried back to her. She inhales sharply and deeply, remaining perfectly still. For the next minute, all she can hear is the gentle drip of water droplets off her paddle. Even the Goldfinches seemed to have gone quiet. Something wasn’t quite right and the terror at the corners of Katya’s mind slowly began to crawl beyond the edges. Her eyes hadn’t left the shoreline. They didn’t dare to.
As Katya continued to peer in to the woods, she began to make out a dark shape, about two feet off the ground, moving gingerly. The bulk of it was spread horizontally in a manner that suggested it certainly wasn’t human, although this did little to abate the terror growing in Katya’s conscious. As she kept her eyes locked on the dark shape, she stealthily reached her right hand down in to the kayak, grabbing hold of the rifle below - the rifle that was missing two rounds. She continued to grip it tightly, but didn’t dare make any further movement. The shape in the woods was moving on a slightly angled trajectory – towards the shoreline.
The seconds seemed to drag in to minutes, as Katya’s heartbeat continued to climb steadily. Despite the cool early evening breeze, small beads of sweat were breaking out on her neck and leisurely cascading between her shoulder blades. Katya sensed her arms breaking out in to goose bumps; her dusty blonde arm hair standing on end, grimly aware that it wasn’t in response to the dropping temperature. The terror, it seemed, had embedded itself deeper than Katya could control. She blinked rapidly, trying to break its spell over her.
On the shoreline, the dark figure was edging closer and closer. It was only a matter of seconds before it would break through the foliage and spot Katya – or more likely, confirm that it had found its assigned target. Katya gradually began pulling the rifle backwards, her eyes remaining locked on to the creature. Clenching her jaw, she raised the rifle to her right shoulder and watched as the familiar brown triangular face of a white-tailed deer emerged. Its large black eyes were locked on Katya. It took a few more steps out from the trees, its white ears creeping out alongside its chest. Katya shifted just slightly, keeping her gaze locked with the deer, aiming the rifle at where its heart should lie.
The kayak continued to move gently along the river, oblivious to the danger at hand. The deer had stopped moving and stood, statuesque, staring. As the kayak carried forward, Katya twisted her body in order to keep her rifle and eyes locked on its target. She could taste bitter bile rising in her throat, as the words of her late father cycled through her mind: trust no mammal, trust no mammal, trust no mammal. It was one of the last lessons he taught her before he travelled to the front lines, where he would lose his life only days later. That was nearly six years ago – when peace still felt within their grasp.
The deer continued to stand stoically, the distance between itself and Katya increasing steadily. It didn’t appear to have any intention to follow her. While Katya knew she should feel relief, the terror cradling her mind held firm. Finally, the current began to carry her around a bend, and with it, carried the deer nearly out of sight. Just as Katya slowly eased her grip on the rifle, she swore that she could see a faint – but undeniable – gleam of red light. She squinted and leaned forward, the knot in her stomach pulling tighter, as she realized the deer’s eyes had seemingly transformed, no longer black but a deep, pulsating red. Katya felt sudden warmth on her chest, and looked down to see a large red dot had materialized on her tattered jacket. She felt vomit rising, but managed to choke it back. Her ears, still attentive as she continued to stare at the red dot, noticed a familiar metallic whirring sound rising behind her. The sound was increasing, evenly, as the kayak continued its leisurely path down the river.
Katya turns; quickly enough to nearly knock her resting paddle off the kayak, as she rapidly relinquishes her mind to the fangs of horror surrounding it. As she raises her gaze to the darkening horizon she could see dozens of small, nearly soundless drones hovering above the water only a few yards in front of her. She loses her grip on the rifle completely, causing it to tumble off the kayak and in to the water with a notable splash that she barely registers. In perfect synchronization, each drone lifts their own red beam to her chest. Katya closes her eyes, and takes in one last deep breath as the tension in her body melts in to the frigid waters of the river below.