Coming February 5, 2015 from Ink Smith Publishing
The sequel to Polar Night
May 23, 2013
Max Fugate jogged down Wendell Avenue and took a right into Griffin Park, passing under the moose antler arch at the entrance. He made a quick right again and increased his speed as he ran along the park’s paved jogging trail. A light breeze played through his thinning black hair, and he could hear the “kaanc kanc” calls of the Mallard ducks that came to Fairbanks every spring and stayed throughout the summer. He could hardly blame them. Even now, when Fairbanks was experiencing a record-breaking heat wave, the likes of which Max had never seen, there was nothing like Alaska in the summer.
Streetlights lined the park trail, but there was no need for them during the summer season. Despite the fact that he had lived in Alaska all his life, Max never tired of watching the sun just start to set as he enjoyed his late night runs. Knowing that it would rise again in just a few short hours was magical to him. He could never understand why some Alaskans complained about the long summer days. He never wanted them to end. The only complaint he had about the summer was the annual infestation of mosquitoes. But even they weren’t bothering him now. He still had a few weeks left to enjoy the peaceful and glorious weather before the winged pests reached their noisy peak in June and July.
He smiled as he passed a pole with a sign advertising next month's Midnight Sun baseball game at Growden Memorial Park. The game had been a summer solstice tradition since the early 1900s, and Max hadn’t missed a year since he was thirteen and the flu had forced him to stay home. This year, the Alaska Goldpanners would be taking on the Chugiak Chinooks and the game would begin at its normal time of 10:35 PM. To Max’s knowledge, the game had never needed to be postponed or delayed because of darkness. The sun always stuck around until the last out was in the books.
Max hoped he could talk Kris into going to the game with him this year. If they were going to make it as a couple, they had to find some common interests. If Kris didn’t like baseball, Max was fairly certain the relationship would come to an end. There was only so much he could let slide.
He slowed to a jog and pricked his ears at an unfamiliar noise behind him. Or was it in front of him? Was it footsteps? It wasn’t unusual to find another runner savoring the beautiful May weather in the park. But it didn't sound like footsteps. Max glanced around him but couldn't identify the sound.
He felt an odd sensation and increased his speed back up to a run. While he didn't know what he had heard, he could say with certainty that he didn't like the feeling it gave him. Slowing his pace again, Max turned around and jogged backwards as he looked for the source of the noise. He saw nothing. There was no one behind him but, as he turned back to face the front, he saw a man ahead of him on the trail. Wearing a Seattle Mariners baseball hat over strands of dark brown hair, the man stood still and stared directly at Max. He looked familiar, like someone Max had seen at the hospital.
“Do I know you?” Max asked.
The man vanished without giving an answer.
Max closed his eyes briefly and focused on steadying his breathing. Was he seeing things? When he opened his eyes again, the man was nowhere to be seen. How could a person disappear that quickly? Max shook his head and scoffed at himself, knowing he was being foolish. There hadn't been anyone ahead of him on the trail. The setting sun had obviously played a trick on his eyes. Max forced himself to ignore the question that niggled at him as he continued to run. If he had merely imagined the man in front of him, how, and for that manner why, had he managed to see the Mariners' logo so clearly?
Max came to a startled halt as he ran straight into something that blocked his way on the trail. But there was nothing in front of him. Breathing heavily, he raised his hand out in front of him and felt a solid mass directly in his path. It felt like a man's chest....
“What's going on?” Max said, trying to keep the rising fear out of his voice. “Is this someone's idea of a prank?”
Max looked to his left and right as the skin on the back of his neck stood on end. He saw no one.
Max couldn't finish his question before an unseen hand gripped his throat and began to squeeze. He gasped for air as he brought his hands to his throat and clawed at nothing. He heard a chuckle as the fingers around his throat tightened and threatened to crush his windpipe.
As suddenly as the invisible terror had grabbed him, it eased the pressure on this throat and pushed him into the grass alongside the trail. Max coughed and gulped in air as he tried to get his bearings. He screamed for help, praying someone was around to hear him.
No one was. And even if they had been, no one could have made it to Max in time.
Before he could stand up, Max felt a prickly sensation on his arms as a wave of intense heat washed over him. At the same time, he heard the voice of a man chanting in a foreign language. His nose twitched as his nostrils picked up the scent of fire. Was something burning in the park? Still clutching his throat, Max glanced around but saw no signs of smoke. The wind rustled through the trees but Max could not feel its cooling breeze. He could feel nothing but heat. And he still heard the strange and unintelligible chanting.
Max struggled to stand but froze in place as he noticed tendrils of smoke rising from his arms. He once again heard the chuckle of his unseen assailant before catching another glimpse of dark hair underneath a Mariners hat.
Max yelled for help and heard his own voice echoing around the empty park. Wisps of smoke emerged from his legs and a spark ignited into flame on his arm. He collapsed back on the ground as something in his brain remembered the fire instructions he had received as a child during fire safety week at school. Stop, drop and roll.
Max rolled in the grass but the flames continued to erupt on his body. He screamed in terror as his legs and feet burst into flames. He brought burning hands to his chest and tried to rip off his burning t-shirt, but the flames merely jumped to his face and head.
Within seconds, the sounds of the fire had engulfed Max's screams. While his body burned, sparks from the flames leapt into the darkening sky. The fire burned a circle in the grass around Max's body. The last thing Max ever saw was the figure of a dark haired man standing over him, watching him burn.
Five minutes later, the fire collapsed into itself and dissolved into smoldering embers in the parched dirt. Nothing remained of Max Fugate but a charred and grotesque husk of a human body.