Day 3381, dusk.
The atmosphere was nice on this day. Better than the days before it in many ways. The skies had been weeping relentlessly for quite some time, making the search for food difficult. Floods swept across the land; large bodies of water overflowed, creating new meandering streams throughout the grassy valleys. Storms tore through the area; damaged foliage and limbs ripped from the trees above laid in every direction. Monuments that previously towered above me, places I enjoyed loitering at, had come crashing down. It’s difficult to find food with all of that going on. Everything wants to take cover and only the most savage of beasts brave that kind of weather.
But finally, on day 3381, the sun returned from behind the dark clouds, and brought with it a warm, comfortable evening. I waited patiently, sleeping a lot during the brightest, most dangerous parts of the day when creatures of all kinds are afoot, until evening when it was safer for me to come out. By evening, the most fearsome of the beasts would already have full bellies and would have found places to sleep off their meals. Feeling relieved that the bad weather was over, I sat on my favorite stone for a moment before I decided it was time for me to emerge from the small yet cozy cave where I had taken shelter from the storms. My skin, like the cave around me, was damp from the humidity in the air. The setting sun cast a gentle orange glow as far as I could see, throwing tall, warped shadows from even the smallest of objects. I was a bit tired from lack of nourishment, but otherwise content.
Hopeful for my first decent meal in days, or maybe weeks, I made my way toward the valley I frequently hunted at. As I approached my usual hiding place, I realized my prey must have been eager to stretch their legs and wings as well. The sheer number of tasty creatures at my mercy made hunting extremely easy on day 3381. I took aim over and over, missing only a couple of my smaller, faster targets. Easy pickings. Despite my tiredness and the fact that I hunted for only a short time, I was able to eat more than my fill.
With an overly full belly and an unearned sense of pride regarding my hunting skills, I decided to continue on to an area that had potential for providing me with some companionship. I didn’t mind my solitary life, but sometimes something would move me to seek out others. I knew others like me would visit the path occasionally. I had seen them there before, and sometimes I was even able to have brief interactions with them. And on day 3381, I had such great luck on my hunt that I thought I may have luck in finding a companion as well.
With all the grace I could manage, which between my full belly and overall tiredness was not much, I crossed the path and sat with my back to a big tree. My legs rested on the hard, rough bark of a root that had been pushed to the surface years ago, but the textured bark was a welcome change from the smooth hardness of my cave floor. The sun continued along its descent, turning the sky at the end of the path a deep pink. I settled into my resting spot with a calm comfort as I gazed at the colors bleeding into the horizon.
It wasn’t more than a couple minutes before I heard a noise from behind my tree. Curious, but too cautious to move, I waited for my potential companion to make his or her way around the day trunk of the tree. As I waited though, a chill swept over me and a realization set in. The noise I heard was far too loud, too big, to be a companion. My instincts turned the anticipation I felt in my gut from curiosity to solid, inarguable fear.
Time began to stretch; what could have only been seconds felt like hours as I sat frozen against my once comforting tree. The bark that I had just admired now bit into the soft parts of my legs, urging me to make an escape. But I couldn’t move. All hope for a companion had turned to dread. Why had I not just returned to my cave? I had a good day hunting and I shouldn’t have been greedy! I should have just gone back and rested my full belly. The belly that now threatened to regurgitate my earlier success.
But I thought maybe if I could just hold still enough, this unseen beast behind me might glance right over me. I pulled my legs in a bit closer to me so I would take up less space and hopefully increase the odds of being unnoticed. Another jarring crunch came from behind me, closer this time, off to the right. My heart pumped so loudly that I swear the beast could hear it. My own blood and organs were betraying me. I willed them to shut up, but no such luck. Then, with one final gut-wrenching crunch, the beast showed itself.
I had seen many beasts before, large and often graceful beasts, but I had seen them from afar. Even at a distance, I could always feel the intensity with which they hunted. I pitied their prey.
Up close, this beast was even more horrifying. It towered over me, covered in coarse black and white hair from its head to its toes. I imagined that if I stretched out as far as I could stretch, it would have been as tall as three of me. Like all the beasts I had seen, it confidently carried itself on its four legs, with its head up, aware but not alert.
As the hairy beast rounded the side of the tree, its massive head swung towards me. It’s fangs were exposed and the reflection of the red sun made it look as though the saliva dripping from its mouth was blood. Hanging grotesquely from the side of its open mouth was its enormous tongue. The beast’s eyes darted left and right, searching for its next target, it’s ears shifting to listen in as many directions as possible. At that point the beast still had not seen me and I wanted it, desperately, to remain that way. I tried not to even breathe.
But suddenly, the beast snapped its head up, alerted to the fact that it was not alone. It’s nose twitched in my direction, and it’s eyes followed. It stood and stared at me, maybe trying to decide with I was worth the effort to eat. And that is where the real horror of day 3381 began.
My mind was racing in a thousand directions. There was no denying that the beast had seen me. Everything in my body was telling me to run. There was a gap between the beasts legs. If only I could have made it through that gap and into the path beyond, I could have had a chance to escape. The beast leaned toward me and sniffed. I lunged toward the gap, my one sad attempt at survival.
The beast was much faster than me though. It pulled its foot back, startled that I had tried to escape. It hesitated a moment, and I froze in terror once again. The foot it pulled back was adorned with short, sharp claws. In one swift movement, it lowered its foot behind me and with unimaginable force, raked my body closer to its mouth. I rolled helplessly toward its massive teeth, stopping only inches from the beast’s mouth. It’s hot, pungent breath burned my eyes.
With nothing but fear and adrenaline driving me, dazed and in pain, I stood and tried to lunge towards freedom again. But the beast was not having it. It let out a sharp, high-pitched cry and stomped a foot down in front of me. I staggered backward and was met with the beast’s cold wet nose on my back. It pulled its claws back, puncturing my skin in several places and pressed its warm, disgusting, mucusy tongue against me. Dissatisfied with my taste, it pulled its head back and let out another cry.
To my horror, this cry attracted another beast. Somewhat smaller in size, but every bit as terrifying. As blood seeped from my wounds, the larger beast stepped back and allowed its companion to have a turn. Another foot the size of my body was slammed down in front of me, and a new nose accosted me. In an attempt to flip me over, the smaller beast nudged me sideways. But I was able to stay upright.
It let out two sharp cries and raked my body towards itself, across the large stones at the edge of the path. It seemed the beasts were not interested in consuming me. But as they continued to abuse me, tilting their heads back and forth as though confused, it was clear that they were happy torturing me to death. In what would be my last attempt, I tried and failed to lunge out of the beasts sight again. As I pushed myself away from them, I landed on something new. It was not rock. It was not bark, or grass, or leaves. It was soft and warm. It felt nice against my battered and sore body.
I assumed the beasts must have killed me, and this was the relief I had earned in my last conscious moments. My life was over. My future gone. I prepared myself for a light. Or maybe complete darkness, I wasn’t sure which. Either way, I was ready for it. I welcomed it after the torment I had endured.
Instead, my escape from the horror was suddenly interrupted. A new and different claw descended from the sky, three times the size of the ones attached to the beasts that had just been torturing me. I sank down into my soft, safe place, hoping the long reaching fingers were aiming for something other than me. Hoping that the monster this claw belonged to would be after larger prey than me. But on day 3381, I had no such luck.
The claws closed around me. I winced as I was slowly lifted higher and higher. A second claw clasped over me half way up, cutting me off from the light of the sun. This creature wasn’t scraping and digging at my flesh, but the fear of what it had planned for me was almost worse.
My bladder, unable to handle the tension and stress any longer, gave up hope and caused me to urinate on myself and the monster that held me. The monster, displeased with my accident, made a strange sound. I came to a halt in my cage of claws. The creature allowed sunlight to penetrate the cracks between its claws, and then swiftly lowered a claw towards my face. I closed my eyes, silently willing the beast to spare me. No pain and no torture that I had endured at the hands of the smaller beasts could have prepared me for what the larger beast was about to do.
It laid a warm claw on the top of my head, and began to gently caress me. Making soft cooing sounds, it rubbed my back before clasping its second claw back over me. Confusion washed over me. It began to move. I couldn’t see where we were going, but the beast was definitely in motion. My mind raced. What was the monster going to do? Was this some kind of psychological torture? Where was it carrying me to?
After what felt like a lifetime, we came to a stop, the creature lifted its claws away from me, and I reluctantly opened my eyes. I was at ground level again, facing a beautifully empty valley and to the side, a safe and welcoming cave. I yearned for the serenity and comfort the cave offered.
The monster sat there with its hand open. This was definitely worse than the physical torture. Freedom was so close. I was being taunted. The monster was dangling this safe place right in front of me. I sat on the warmth of the monster ‘s claw for what felt like forever. I longed for the cool, hard floor of the cave. Everything in me screamed at me to make a run for it. But I couldn’t. The events of day 3381 had me so exhausted, physically and emotionally, that the mere thought of another escape attempt made my stomach turn.
And then the monster moved again, putting its claw behind my back. It pushed me forward as if it wanted me to move toward the cave. It cooed again and I gingerly stepped off the monster’s claw. My stomach clenched. The monster pushed me forward again. I leapt forward toward the cave, toward freedom. Behind me I heard the monster stand and I was sure it would bring down all the force it had been holding back and crush me for my foolish escape attempt. Instead, I leapt again and again. Finally, I made it to the cave, heart pounding and legs aching.
I sat in my new cave. Not believing that the monster had simply let me go, I peeked around the edge of my new wall. The monster was gone. It was over. I sank back into my wall, not sure what to do now that I was free. The air smelled sweeter, the remaining light from the ending day seemed brighter, and the cave floor was more welcoming than any cave before it. The knowledge that I would wake up tomorrow and see the sun rise was overwhelming. I had my life, and my future. Day 3381 had not been my last.
This story was inspired by a toad that I saved from my dogs.