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North of Mesabi

Rain fell hard against the roof of galvanized steel that sheltered me. It was almost as if a crowd applauded me with every falling drop. A continuous gale of wind whistled through the small crevasses of the corrugated and overlapping sheets. My only companions within the confines of the fishing shack was a simple wood stove in the corner and a transistor radio next to my bunk. In the stove, flames of yellow, red, and blue danced over a bed of burning and crackling logs. Every so often, a drop of condensation rolled down the mono-sloped ceiling and fell onto the cast iron with an angry sizzle.

The radio on the other hand, was the only instrument that truly competed with the storm's continuous chorus. Through the AM static, the song of big band orchestra filled my ears with a jazz melody of clarinets, saxophones, flutes, muted trumpets, and a plucked bass violin. An amber glow of light crept past the tuning scale and was absorbed by the soft blanket that covered me. Despite the fury that was happening outside, all the accommodations within the shack were comforting. In time, my eyes grew heavy with the sweet lullaby of the night.

Preferably, the night would have stayed like that, as would the rest of my weekend fishing excursion. Sure the rain was bothersome, but it only served as breathing point for the next day. I'd been catching some monster sized fish since dawn and probably would have continued doing so well into the night. The lake I was fishing in was north of the Mesabi (Meh-saw-bee) Range and was a short distance away from the highway. The shack may have lacked electricity and running water, but it served well enough for what I was doing. Then again, the lack of amenities only made the experience more rewarding.

I remember lying there on the hard bunk staring up at the rafters with the smell of fried fish still looming in the air from earlier. All was perfect and right with my little world, but things changed.
The events didn't come drastically like a tree trunk snapping in the long throws of winter. It came gradually like a dark cloud creeping in the distant blue skies. Calm and quiet, yet one can see the entangled lighting flaring with anger. My distant cloud of warning was the radio.
Right in the middle of another soft jazz piece, the music suddenly halted and only the sound of thunder took its place. At first I thought the batteries had gone dead, but the continuing amber glow told me otherwise. There was a long period of silence before the D.J.'s voice came crackling through the speakers.

"Attention listeners. An all-out manhunt has begun for Steven Vander. Vander is a convicted murderer that fled authorities following a vehicle collision during his transport. Vander is believed to be fleeing north to Canada. All residents north of the Mesabi Range are urged to lock their windows and doors as authorities found his discarded uniform in the forest nearby. Vander is considered to be extremely dangerous and should not be approached for any reason. If Vander is spotted, it should be reported immediately to local law enforcement. Now, back to your regular programming."

A chill ran down my spine as the music faded back in. The woods north of the Mesabi Range may be vast, but I was not going to risk it. Immediately, I rose from my bunk and walked to the door. There was a twin set of steel hooks that flanked the frame. Which just so perfectly matched up with the ancient board I placed within them. The locking system may have been archaic, but it was the only kind available.

As I walked back to my bunk, I felt a small, but cold draft creep through the room. It may have been summer, but the temperatures drop quickly this far north. And since the shack didn't have any insulation to cover the bare sheets of corrugated steel, I threw another log into the stove. Within minutes, the room became toasty and the comforts of my bed came calling once more.

I switched off the radio and the light it provided faded away leaving only the flames of the stove to faintly illuminate the boarded-up door. I'll admit it was difficult to fall asleep considering the news I'd heard only moments before. For some time my mind played tricks with me. The smallest gust of wind was a person breathing outside these four walls. A tree branch scraping against the walls was a knife wielding man cutting his way in.

With time, I became desensitized to the many sounds that filled the night. After all, what were the chances of Vander coming across my domicile? No, that man was probably halfway across Ontario by now, I thought. Those rapid footsteps I began to hear squishing and splashing in the distance could not have been his. They belong to a deer seeking shelter from the rain. I held onto that logic until they started getting louder. They were more frantic, and came out of time, as if the legs were limping along. 

My hand swept the concrete floor until they came in contact with the filleting knife I had used earlier. My fingers clenched around the handle as I held it across my chest. "No, it can't be him." I said trying to reassure myself. Yet, my fingers did not loosen their grip.

The footsteps came faster, louder, and closer. Then, with a loud boom, the door jutted inwards slightly and the board flexed under the force of the blow. I gasped and jumped out of bed. More sounds of splashes filled my ears, but where only replaced with another more equally terrifying crash against the door, and once again the board bowed unnaturally. The whole structure shook. My fishing rods mounted to the wall fell to the ground and hot embers from the stove whisked into the air from the stirring.

Trembling, I stepped lightly to the stove, placing myself between it and the door. I crouched with my knife at my waist and my other arm out stretched before me. If anyone came in, I was going to throw all my weight into the deadly thrust. A sickly muffled cry was heard on the opposite side, like someone was screaming into a pillow. Then with another sequence of steps, the door did much as it had done before, but a permanent dent was now left in the steel sheeting that covered the frame. Whomever was out there was hell-bent on getting in.

There was an even longer period of steps before the loudest strike came to the barrier between him and me. The board stretched once again, only this time, a horrific cracking noise came from it.
I began to shake at the knees, as the all too familiar splashes filled the air once more. With another crash, the board began to splinter with the jagged path of destruction running down the center.
Again, another hit came to the door and the lumber split in two with only the remaining pieces feebly holding it shut. The entire door was now terribly mangled and small bits of light from the outside came through the enlarged crevasses of the perimeter. 

One more strike would have done it. One more crash would have changed the course of my life forever, or would have ended it all together. Yet, it did not come. Instead, the rain almost drowned out what I'd heard. It was the plaintiff and muffled cry of man. Like a wounded animal trapped in snare and knowing full well what its fate would be.

Heavy breathing became prevalent, like the man on the opposite side was preparing to endure something painful. These haggard breaths only intensified as I heard another set of footprints approaching. These on the other hand were slow paced and possibly heavier than the ones before.
The man cried even louder than before in frantic protest to what was approaching. The sound of sloshing filled the air, followed by a series of dull thuds. His cries reached an absolute apex, but suddenly stopped with a loud cracking noise.

A long period of silence ensued.

It was the first time in my life that I was able to hear my heart pounding in my chest.

That was the worst part of it all, the fear of what was to happen next.

There was never another knock at my door, nor was there the sound of labored breathing. Rather, the jingling of keys made me sick to my stomach, as did the sound of feet walking away.

I still stayed crouched and ready to attack. Even when they could no longer be heard in the distance, I still stayed posed in a fighting stance until the rain subsided and the dawn broke. I was not going to take any chances knowing a killer could have very well been lying like coiled up snake in the grass.
I think it was late in morning when I finally gathered the courage to break my pose. It was still an even greater length of time before I was brazened enough to remove the board.

Sometimes I cry when I think about this night. I feel too damned guilty about what I'd done, but that's the thing about life, you can't rewind it. 

He was lying there his side in a mixture a blood and black mud with his eyes staring lifelessly into the direction of a set of water filled tracks leading away from the shack. His hands were bound behind his back with a liberal ball of duct tape which was a contrast to the single piece that stretched across his mouth. A large rock laid beside his bloodied and cracked skull with a crimson puddle surrounding it like a halo.

I've been suffering from survivor’s guilt for some time now and rightfully so, even though I never knew that man lying dead in the filth. I'm not sure what exactly happened outside of my door during that storm. However; there were enough clues to let me draw the picture. I'll always remember that night. It was the night a man came to my door begging for his life, but I denied him his salvation.

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