JL Smither


JL Smither has published short stories in Danse MacabreWorkers Write: Tales from the Capitol; and Gay City 5: Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam, among others. She currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she writes marketing content for her day job. More of her work, including a comic series, is available on her website.
The Hunter 

JL Smither 

Almost knee deep in snow, Elizabeth peered through the trees with her rifle ready. The late afternoon sun cast long horizontal shadows that crisscrossed the tree trunks. She held her breath and waited for movement. A trail of blood stretched across the snow from her feet into the confusion of shadows ahead. She hadn’t heard the bleeding monster collapse, but she also couldn’t hear it move. So she waited. 

Elizabeth knew better than to peel off from the rest of her Confrontation unit. If any of her soldiers had tried this, they’d return to a public shaming and severe punishment. If they returned. But Elizabeth had missed the beast when she’d shot at it. The tranquilizer dart had lodged in the meaty part of his forearm, and he had ripped it out before much of the drug could get into his system. Unfortunately, he had ripped it sloppily and was now leaving a trail of blood behind him. While this made him easier for Elizabeth to track, the smell also attracted others hoping for an easy meal. And the woods were too close to the houses. If this dying monster brought forth others from deep in the woods, it wouldn’t be long before they moved on to the nearby people. Nothing more than ravenous scavengers.

The only positive aspect of the outbreak of these beasts, which the scientists referred to as lupanoids, was that it ended the World War. With the country’s fighting men mostly still in Europe, dead or awaiting transport home, the women who had been limited to sewing uniforms, collecting food tins, or enforcing darkness during air raids were finally called upon to fight. Elizabeth signed up immediately, making her old RAF captain father immensely proud while contributing a great deal to her mother’s anxiety. 

Her feet felt damp in her snow-covered boots. She exhaled silently through her nose, and the mist from this warm air temporarily clouded her vision. But she thought she saw something move. Ahead to the right, behind a thicker tree trunk, easily big enough to hide a crouching lupanoid from her view. Did that shadow move? She leaned forward and readied her trigger finger.

The beast darted into her view from behind a tree farther ahead than she expected. Too far away to shoot. But now that she could see him, Elizabeth jumped through the thick snow along the blood trail. He was zigzagging, which was spreading his scent and slowing him down, and Elizabeth realized that he must be getting dizzy. But she was slowed by the depth of the snow—her heavy boots sunk immediately, while the lupanoid could pad across the surface—so he was still putting distance between them. And she noticed that his path was beginning to veer back toward the forest border, toward the houses. 

Trying to hurry, Elizabeth got reckless. Her boot snagged on a hidden rock in the snow, and she tumbled forward. It was a soft landing. She came up spitting snow. She took her hand off the loaded tranquilizer gun to clear snow out of her eyes and push herself upright. 

On her feet, she brushed off her face and gun, but left the rest of her black clothes matted with snow. She thought it might help conceal her, although she could already feel icy water trickle down her back. The ground reflected nearly purple in the setting sun. Squinting ahead, she could no longer see the monster darting through the trees. 

Instead of trudging through the snow as part of the Confrontation, she could have found a position with the Institute for Co-Existence, helping prominent scientists answer questions about where the lupanoids came from, why their population suddenly increased, and how they could be lived with in harmony, maybe even tamed. She could have worked in a heated laboratory, thinking about important problems. But Elizabeth didn’t want to co-exist. She wanted to stand up and fight. She loved the Confrontation. She loved having first-hand accountability not only for her own safety, but also for others around her—strangers whose neighborhoods she protected as well as her fellow soldiers to whom she provided guidance and leadership. Years ago, she had longed to go to Europe to fight the forces of evil, and now the forces of evil had come to her. 

Elizabeth raised her rifle, pressing the butt against her shoulder. She took a cautious step forward, glancing once at the ground to assure her footing. She took another step, this time keeping her eyes ahead. After her third step, she froze. About 100 meters in front of her, a shadow moved. The shadow was too thick to be cast by one of the thin birches in that area. It looked more like a small, dark pool. As Elizabeth stared, the top of the shadow raised and lowered, and a wisp of breath escaped from one end. She took another hesitant step, and the shadow didn’t respond. Slowly and quietly, she crept forward, closing the gap between herself and the collapsed beast. 

The lupanoid sighed, and Elizabeth froze. He still hadn’t acknowledged her, even though she was close enough to see that he was curled in the fetal position with his back to her. She took a few more hesitant steps, amazed at how slowly she managed to proceed despite her freezing wet clothes and the ache in her shoulders and back from gripping the gun. The distance left between her and her prey was hard to gauge because of the darkening shadows, and she knew she’d only have one chance to make this shot. 

Elizabeth thought of Patrice, briefly her commanding officer, who had been mauled nearly to death when she surprised a sleeping lupanoid. Elizabeth was young then, flanking Patrice, and she hadn’t been ready with her weapon. By the time she had reacted and felled the monster with three darts, Patrice would never again be able to use the left side of her body. Elizabeth had been promoted to her position the next day. 

With one more cautious step, she readied her finger on the trigger. She lined up the panting beast in her sights, aiming for the center of his back so he would be unlikely to pull the dart out again. She held her breath and studied the animal. The icy sensation of her clothes penetrated down to her bones as she finally noticed what was wrong. Although she could see light pawprints on the snow, there was no trail of blood. This was not the animal she had been hunting. 

Her mind flashed, debating whether to fire and reveal her location or to back slowly away before she was noticed. She heard a branch crack to her right and looked over her gun just in time to see a lupanoid leaping at her, teeth and claws bared. It was on her before she could turn her weapon. 

She jerked her face away to avoid the blow and saw the sleeping beast leap up and run toward her, drool streaming from its jowls. Elizabeth turned to fight off the one on top of her, kneeing him in the belly. He reached down to grab her leg, and she noticed his forearm was gouged. This was the one she had shot previously, and the wound was worse. She grabbed for the bloody arm, but too late. His claws slashed her face, starting at the right temple, crossing her eye and nose, and continuing onto her left cheek. As her right eye was obscured with blood, she squeezed it shut and twisted her head. 

The other beast had nearly reached them. Elizabeth realized with disappointment she wouldn’t make it out of the forest alive. 

She held the shoulders of the monster of top of her, and he gnashed his teeth over her face. Hot saliva dripped from his snout onto the side of her neck. Her left ear pressed deeper into the snow, nearly burying her good eye. The other beast reared up on two legs, ready to fall into the feast, and Elizabeth held her breath. 

Instead of jumping onto them, though, the standing beast collapsed, as if its knees had unexpectedly given out. It crumpled in a heap so close that she could feel the heat from its slow, steady breaths. Before she could understand what happened, the monster on top of her went limp, his head lolling forward with his tongue hanging out.

Elizabeth inhaled deeply, catching some snow and the rank, rotten smell of the beasts in her mouth. With all her strength, she pushed the still-bleeding lupanoid off her and rolled to her right side. She sat up, dazed, and looked around wildly with her left eye. 

Shapes started to appear from among the dark tree trunks. She heard voices, and she soon recognized her team. 

“Pearson, Bryce, get the bleeder out of here immediately!” someone shouted. 

“Jacobs, come help me with this other one.” Voices grunted. 

“Where’s the medic? Get ‘im over to that sad sack.” Elizabeth realized she was the sad sack referenced, but she was too shocked and grateful to care who had said it. 

“Can you walk, sir?” Elizabeth struggled to focus on the concerned young face of the medic peering into hers. “If you can walk, we need to get you out of here before other beasts smell the blood.” 

Elizabeth nodded. She looked down at her feet, half surprised to see them there. 

“Let me help you, sir.” The boy crouched and draped Elizabeth’s left arm over her shoulders. They stood together. 

Her fists still clenched tufts of lupanoid hair. She brushed her palms against her pants in disgust. “I can do it, dammit,” she said. She tried to step forward, but her knee buckled with a sharp stab. 

“Yes, sir. Of course, sir,” the medic said. He put Elizabeth’s arm back around his shoulders. He picked up a medic’s bag and helped her walk in the direction where the other soldiers had dragged the unconscious beasts. 

They passed Joan, Elizabeth’s second in command, who studied the woods behind them with her rifle raised. Joan muttered, “Never took you for such a goddamn idiot, Wyndham.” 

Elizabeth nodded. She’d think of some fitting punishment for insubordination later. 

The medic took Elizabeth to a waiting transport and examined her face. “Luckily, it missed your eye,” he was saying. “Once we get it cleaned up, it’ll be fine. And that’ll be some scar, sir.” He dabbed at the blood with cotton swabs. 

She heard another vehicle, the delivery, start up. “Wait!” she called to the driver. She waved the medic off and stood carefully, gripping the side of the transport. 

She hobbled over to the delivery, threw open the door of the trailer, and studied the monsters inside. They’d been tossed in, one on top of the other. Elizabeth wondered at how they could look so peaceful, like sleeping dogs, after all that had just happened. 

She reached in and rearranged their arms. Once she found the arm with the gash on it, still trickling blood, she held its paw. With a quick, wrenching tear, she pulled off one of the claws. The beast growled and stirred in his sleep but didn’t wake. 

Elizabeth held the claw up to her face, squinting as blood again covered her right eye. Feeling dizzy, she tucked it into her uniform pocket before collapsing in the snow.