The wind thrashed wildly in the night sky, whipping and tearing at Jack's exposed face. If he stayed on the road much longer, hypothermia would most likely take him before sunrise; his horse was no better equipped than he was, grunting and whining with every gallop, hooves sinking into the fresh snow underfoot.
"Easy, girl. Easy. Almost there," Jack said, reaching down to stroke the horse's neck. He pulled the reins to the left, veering off the main road and onto a dirt trail splitting off into the forest; if he weren't a local, the trail would've been indistinguishable amid the piling snow. But he had lived in the area his whole life, and he frequented the trail as much as most men did saloons. His destination was a small cabin secluded in the forest, about five miles away from the village outskirts. The trail would take him up through the wooded mountain path, stopping at the cabin where his mother and father would be waiting for the weekly supply drop. Jack's family was very isolationist, but due to the generosity of their eldest (and only) child, who brought them goods from the general store, they could afford to live that way.
The trees on either side of the trail seemed to creep closer together, forming much tighter packs of forest; the further in he went, the closer he was to the cabin. To his family.
Finally, the warm glow of candlelight by the window pierced through the dark forest. Jack pulled back on the reins, the horse slowing to a trot as they approached the cabin. He hitched the horse on a nearby post, grabbed the supplies from her saddlebag, and approached the cabin door. Four quick taps on the oak door- the signature knock the man used to announce his presence. This time around, nobody answered. He tried once again, four more rapid knocks. Still no answer.
Jack grunted, hoisting the supplies over his shoulder. He jiggled the brass doorknob, slowly pushing the door open. That's odd, he thought to himself, Father is always so concerned about keeping the door locked. Must've slipped his mind; he's growing forgetful in his old age.
"Hello Father, hello Mother. I've returned with the supplies from the general store. I knocked, but you must not have heard."
The only noise he heard in response to his call was the howling of the wind, blasting cold air through the open doorway. His face slowly dipped into a frown. He set the supplies down, closing the door behind him and stepping further into the cabin's living room. The table was set for a meal, the candles were all lit, even the fireplace had been sufficiently stoked, seemingly not too long ago. It was a single-story cabin, with no cellar to disappear to. Where could they be?
"Hello?" he called out, cupping his hands over his mouth. He then put his hands to his shoulders, shivering from the cold.
I closed the door, and the fire's already going. Why is it so damn c-
He stepped to his left, peering into the dining area. Beyond the dinner table was a back door; it was wide open, the cold air continuing to torment the man from every available orifice. He started towards the back door, growing more confused with every step he took. He stood in the open doorway, legs straddled slightly as if he were blocking something from coming in. In the distance, he could make out footprints in the snow; they were fresh, and trailed towards the nearby woods. Jack's confusion melted into concern as he stepped outside, striding quickly beside the fresh footprints.
"Hello? Hello?" he began to call as he reached the mouth of the woods. The prints continued well into the forest; the further in they went, the more erratic the pattern became. The feet twisted and turned, sticking out at odd angles and looping in nonsensical circles.
"What the hell happened here?" Jack thought out loud, "These footprints, it looks like they were in a hurry to get out of the house, like they were... running away."
His blood grew cold, as if to match the frigid winds that besieged him. His heart pounded quicker, as if to match his quickening pace alongside the footprints. Soon, just as confusion gave way to concern, concern inevitably gave way to panic.
"Mother! Father! Where are you?! If you can hear me, please give me a signal to let me know that you're o-"
Jack stopped. Coincidentally, so did the footprints.
There were no signs of collapse, no evidence to suggest that the person who made the prints decided to backtrack. There weren't even any inconsistencies in the snow to suggest that the storm had paved over the remaining prints. They simply ended, as if somebody was running for their lives, only to be plucked off the ground like berries on a bush.
Jack surveyed the surrounding area. Nothing was making sense anymore.
"First they disappear out of their home," Jack exclaimed aloud to nobody in particular, "now I'm supposed to believe that they disappear off the face of the Earth?! What the fuck is going on?"
As soon as the question escaped his lips, Jack's surroundings were suddenly plunged into darkness. He tilted his head frantically towards the sky, which had been all but blotted out. Jack was hopelessly stranded in an inescapable darkness, which, to say the least, did not put his mind to ease.
"Huh?! What?! What the..."
In less than a minute, the sky returned to normal. Whatever strange blackness that had plagued the air was gone as soon as it had come. Jack quickly returned to his senses, leaning on a nearby tree for support.
I... I've gotta get back to the house, I have to call somebody! Call the sheriff, call the national guard... no, send for the reverend! There is something very wrong with this land, and I intend to find out what!
Jack turned on his heels and bolted, following the footprints in reverse, letting them lead him back to the house like a spool of thread in the labyrinth. He finally reached the familiar mouth of the woods, the sun just beginning to dip beneath the horizon as the winds died down. Jack stopped and keeled over, gasping for air. He composed himself and stood up, expecting to be greeted by the familiar sight of his parents' cabin.
The cabin was gone. The structure, the furniture, all gone. The cellar structure had been rooted out of the ground, leaving nothing but a crater in its absence.
Jack sank to his knees, defeated and dumbfounded. He tried to find the words for what he was feeling, to express his utter, incurable bewilderment, but he couldn't utter a syllable.
Slowly, he got up, trudging over to where the cabin once stood. He examined the area surrounding the cabin's former perimeter. The snow around the area was compressed much more than where Jack had entered and exited the forest; it was as if something had pushed on the earth with tremendous force. He circled the packed snow, his mind racing for a solution that he knew would continue to escape him.
"This... this can't be happening! It's like something out of a..."
Jack stopped, standing straight up as the thought hit him.
"...A child's ghost story."
In an instant, Jack's mind was flooded with memories of his childhood. He remembered sitting up in bed, adamant that all the other children had later bedtimes. He remembered his father sitting at the edge of the bed, a false look of concern on his face.
"Well Jack old boy," the memory rang out in his head, "I guess if you don't go to bed soon... the Wind Walker will get ya."
"Wind Walker," Jack remembered asking his father, "what's that?"
"Oh, it's an awful thing, Jack. The Wind Walker is an angry spirit that lives around these parts. They say he preys on children who disobey their parents and stay up past their bedtime."
Jack's pulse quickened.
"When the Wind Walker comes around, it don't matter how far you can run, Jack. Why, he's so big and tall that he could just scoop you right off the ground! His claws are so powerful that he could... why, he could pull our little cabin right out of the ground if he so chose!"
Jack's fists clenched tighter; his final footholds on security were failing fast.
"So he's a giant, Father?"
"Oh no, Jack. He's big, but make no mistake about it; there's only one creature like him, and it's him."
"Where does the Wind Walker live, Father?"
Jack could feel tears welling up in his eyes as he turned his gaze towards the sun, still setting peacefully over the distant hills.
"See those hills, Jack? Right there outside your window?"
"Uh-huh. Is that where he lives?"
Jack stared at the hills. He finally found the words to describe how he was feeling: hopeless. Small.
"They aren't where he lives, Jack..."
Jack stopped clenching his fists, letting his hands hang loosely at his sides. The wind slowly began to pick up again.
"...They're his spine."
Right before the sun set, it let out one final beam of light, stretching across the horizon. The last burst of sunlight illuminated the crater that was once Jack's childhood home, and he stared transfixed at the shadow it produced. The shadow of a massive hand-print.
The sun dipped further below the hills as night began to creep across the sky. Jack feared the night, because now he knew what it would bring. He would run as far away as he could; deep down he knew it wouldn't matter. He knew he couldn't outrun it.
Jack began to walk away, back towards the lone trail that brought him there. He gave one final glance at the landscape, and his heart stopped in his chest.
Jack's mind was already telling him what the bad news was. The good news?
The hills were no longer blocking his view of the sunset.
Written by Parlour