Photo by Richard Elzey.
This is the first of three short stories I’ll be posting on my blog in the days leading up to Halloween. I hope you enjoy it!
RUNNING TO DEATH
When the cold wind whispered against the back of my neck, I knew I didn’t have much time. Bodies crashed through the underbrush somewhere behind me, the occasional shout taunting, jeering, before the forest swallowed up the sound. I tore along the path, my boots pulverizing dry leaves as my feet pounded against the hard packed dirt. Spindly branches snagged at my hair and clothes, reaching for me, trying to hold me within the forest’s grasp, but I didn’t pause, didn’t slow down.
With a swift leap, I hurtled over a fallen tree and continued onward, following the pathway, relying on the faint moonlight filtering through the trees to find my way. Still my hunters kept up their chase, their clumsy pursuit heralded by the forest’s protestations. A burn like the touch of cold iron spread through my chest and my breath came in wheezing gasps impossible to stifle.
The sharp end of a branch caught my cheek with a zing of pain and a trickle of liquid dribbled down to my jaw line. Still running, I swiped at my cheek with my arm, not even sparing a glance at the dark smear I knew now marred the sleeve of my hoodie.
At last I broke free of the trees and emerged into the moonlight. I skidded across a patch of slick mud as I reined in my speed. As soon as I regained my balance, I clambered down a steep embankment, slipping and sliding, my hands dragging through dirt and damp leaves as I put them out to steady myself.
I slithered to a stop at the base of the embankment, my boots squelching in the thick mud. The dark water stretched out before me, rippling as the growing wind danced across its surface. I muttered a curse under my breath as I realized that I was at least twenty feet from where I needed to be. All too aware of time ticking away, I picked my way along the water’s edge, heading for the dark, elongated shape that rocked and bobbed in the moonlight, water slapping against its sides.
The wind picked up, a note of fury in its howl as it swirled around me, flicking my hair into my face, stealing my breath away. A thick cloud scudded across the moon, blotting out its light, leaving me to find my way by the memory of what I’d seen only seconds before.
Squinting against the cold air that cut across my face, I pushed onward, the mud sucking at my boots, trying to keep me in its sloppy hold. Even though I could no longer hear my pursuers, I knew they hadn’t given up. They wouldn’t. A misplaced sense of superiority and power fuelled them, a dangerous combination.
They hunted me because I wasn’t like them, because they thought I was a freak. What they didn’t know was that I was glad I wasn’t like them. And they had no idea how much of a freak I really was.
A ghost of a smile stole across my face, whipped away seconds later as another gust of wind swirled around me, carrying with it a tangle of dead leaves that latched onto my hair and clothes. I leaned into the wind and grasped the canoe’s gunwale. When I put my weight into a firm shove, the canoe slid free of the mud and into the water.
The wind tried to pull it from my hold, but I tightened my grip on the gunwale and climbed into the canoe. It wobbled and tipped but I managed to keep it from capsizing. I fumbled around in the darkness until my hands closed around the blade of a paddle. Kneeling just behind the yoke, I shifted my grip up to the shaft and dipped the paddle into the water.
Three strokes out, a shout rang out from somewhere near the tree line. My pursuers had broken free of the forest. The thick cloud that had obscured the moon now raced away from it, leaving me bathed in white-blue light. Another shout was followed by several whoops. They’d spotted me.
Still paddling, I glanced back over my shoulder toward the shore. Three dark figures scrambled down the bank, all of them bigger and stronger than I was. I couldn’t let them catch me. I had to stay ahead of them. It wouldn’t take them long to find the small rowboat that I knew sat nestled up against some reeds farther along the embankment. It was old and well used, but still seaworthy.
I paddled harder.
The frenzied wind carried the occasional taunting call and slap of paddle against water to my ears but I wasted no more time checking over my shoulder. I needed to stay focused on my destination. My arms burned as I struggled to keep the canoe on course but stroke by stroke I drew nearer to the house on the island.
It wasn’t much of an island, really. Barely enough land protruded above the surface of the water for the house to stand on. Once a grand residence perched on a hillside, its surroundings had been swallowed by water with the construction of a dam three decades earlier. Now it was three stories of peeling, dirty white paint and once-beautiful bay windows staring like empty, dead eyes, their glass panes long ago broken.
A tower rose up one story above the rest of the house and over the howling, whistling wind, it called to me. A hum of energy buzzed across the water, reverberating throughout every bone in my body, driving me onward, begging me to hurry. I pulled the paddle through the water once more and the bow of the canoe ran aground.
I crawled forward and climbed out onto the bank, abandoning the canoe. A raven cried out above me, dipping down toward the front of the house before the wind whisked it up and away. I hurried up to the front porch, careful to avoid the gaping hole in its middle. I picked my way to the weathered front door, placed my hand on the cold handle, and turned it.
The door protested with a shriek of rusty hinges and I stepped inside. Rustic floorboards groaned and creaked beneath my weight as my boots left muddy, damp footprints in the thick dust. Cobwebs tickled against my face as I edged forward through the gloom. Slowly, my eyes adjusted to the dimness and I made out the shape of a staircase ahead of me.
I gripped the banister but dared not rely on it too much. I jogged up to the landing, moving faster than was wise but no swifter than necessary. I made it up one story and halfway to another before the front door’s hinges screeched out a warning to me. The jumble of heavy footsteps that followed only confirmed what I’d already known. They’d caught up to me. Time was running out.
I picked up my pace, my feet hitting the rickety stairs hard. Too hard. With a splintering crack, my left foot dropped beneath me. I gasped and grabbed the banister. It rocked in a disconcerting manner but it didn’t break. With urgency strumming at my nerves, I tried to wriggle my foot free of the hole that now scarred the stair. Sharp bits of broken tread dug into my leg but my foot wouldn’t budge.
Laughter edged with danger rumbled up the stairway toward me. I leaned carefully over the banister and looked down below. A lighter ignited with a small click, the tiny flame flickering in a wild dance as touches of the furious wind sneaked in through the glassless windows. The light wasn’t bright, but it was enough to illuminate the three faces that leered up at me through the shadows.
More laughter mixed in with their taunting calls as they advanced up the stairs. I couldn’t make out the words. The border between worlds was so thin now, energy from the other side buzzing so loudly in my ears that everything else was muffled. But I didn’t need to hear their words to know that I had to move, that I had to get away.
Putting all my strength into one last wrenching movement, I yanked my foot free. Splinters tore at my leg but I hardly noticed. I ran for the top of the tower, putting everything I had left into the race. I passed the third story and fled up a narrower staircase. At the top, I emerged into the tower room, a square space with windows on all sides.
With no glass to hold it at bay, the wind blasted through the room, pulling at my hair, stinging my eyes. But more than the wind prowled at the top of the tower. As I paused just inside the door, hands on my knees and struggling to catch my breath, a dark ball of energy crossed fully over to this world, spreading, thickening. I pressed my back to the wall and shifted away from the door.
Through the insistent buzzing in my ears, I heard the thud of footsteps clumping up the narrow stairway. My breathing ragged, I waited, eyes darting from the doorway to the thick, swirling darkness and back again.
Three heavyset teenage boys burst through the open door, almost stumbling over one another in their haste. Malicious smiles spread across their faces and a mean light gleamed in their eyes as they spotted me. They stepped forward.
Only then did they notice the swirl of unnatural darkness looming in the middle of the room, growing larger with every passing second. Their eyes widened with surprise and horror but they had no time to react. Before they could even blink, the darkness was upon them. It pounced like a wild cat of the jungle, enveloping all three in a single swipe. By the time they started to scream, they were gone, swallowed up by the dense billowing darkness.
My back still against the wall, I released a huff of air, tension ebbing from my body. The darkness reared up in front of me, then dove down to swirl at my feet, its buzzing of energy a purr of contentment.
I smiled and it retreated. Then together we passed through the thin, flickering veil hanging between the two worlds. As I stepped over to the other side, my smile grew wider.
My friend’s hunger was assuaged for another year.
And I was home.