I can’t remember the last time I slept. A few minutes here or there, a jerk of my head, and that’s it. I’m back on my feet, I’m running again.
It’s the sound. That’s what comes first, that’s what I hear, that’s what sends shivers down my spine, that’s what pushes me to my feet. That awful, scraping sound. Like branches scratching along a car door, clacking incessantly, striving to get in. I stand in a hurry, my heart racing, and I run.
I used to be happy. I didn’t appreciate it at the time; I bitched and moaned about the little things, complaining when people talked at the cinema, or when I got cut up in traffic. Now though, now that I can’t remember a time I wasn’t looking back over my shoulder, now I realise how fortunate I really was. It may not have been a glamorous life, perhaps. It wasn’t smooth sailing all the way. It wasn’t a continuous stream of jokes and laughter. But damnit, it wasn’t this. It wasn’t this…
I’ve nodded off again, my head jerking upright as I blink my eyes wide, straining my ears. I listen, frozen in place, my body screaming at me to move but my mind knowing I need to listen first. I need to know where it’s coming from. I need to make sure I don’t run headlong straight into it.
My limbs are fighting me, my legs, exhausted though they are, pleading with me to use them, to stand and flee before it’s too late. My arms are gripping my thighs, straining to hold them at bay, my fingers digging in so hard I know I’ll have bruises, though these are the least of my concerns.
The world fades away. People disappear, dissolving from my sight; they don’t hear what I hear, they don’t see what I see, they are nothing to me. Everything is quiet, so deathly quiet. Without the noise of the normal world, the sounds of the city that everyone else hears, I’m left with a vacuum; a void of sound, the silence unnatural and cold.
At the edge of my hearing, barely noticeable, but there all the same.
I leap to my feet, sprinting to my left, darting away from it. My concentration released, the world of noise slams back into me full force, people blinking into existence before my eyes, and I’m darting and weaving, jostling, bumping, and pushing without regard. Curses follow in my wake, and I feel a hand close on my shoulder, an angry face thrust into my own. An unexpected pirouette, a wild flail of my arms toward his eyes, and I’m free. An explosion of expletives, but I’m already underway, the distance growing. They won’t follow; they’re not like the one that hunts me, never giving up, never slowing down, always on my tail.
I’ve lost time though, the altercation stilling me for a moment in my flight. I know I shouldn’t, but I need to know how badly I’ve been set back. A glance over my shoulder, that’s all it would take. Just a small peek. I shouldn’t; I shouldn’t; I shouldn’t.
But I must.
It’s gaining. Stalking me through the crowd, who melt and flow around it like fish in a stream, not even aware they’re doing it. I wonder if I was ever the same, back when I was one of them, ambling temporarily off my path, returning to it a moment later, not realising what I’d done. I wonder this, even as I scream.
My foot has stepped into nothing but air, and swinging my eyes back around I watch helpless as I fall, the staircase arriving without warning, gravity sucking me down. I shouldn’t have looked; I knew I shouldn’t have looked; I should have stayed focused on where I was going.
My hands shoot out, grasping for anything to break my fall. Looks of surprise greet me, as I plough right into them. The crowd totters and tumbles, like pins at a bowling alley, and I ride atop, scrambling to get my feet back under me. Moans and complaints start up, a sea of them, with me clawing above, tumbling over and over.
When I reach the bottom, arriving on my back and out of breath, I see it looming above me, perched at the top of the staircase, gazing down. It’s frozen in place, and for a moment I think I’m safe; the people aren’t on their feet, they can’t flow out of its way, it’s stuck. However, this is short-lived. Though they’re scattered and broken, heaped and dumped haphazardly across the stairs, still they begin to move. A gap appears, a space in the crowd, and it takes its first step down; a twisted foot thumps onto the stair, its skin mottled and dead, its arrival noticeable only to me. Another gap, another step, the distance closing as it stalks toward me, the sea of humanity closing behind it as it comes.
The noise returns, that familiar scraping clack, so close I can practically feel it. I stare at my pursuer, my limbs pumping with little success at the squirming mass of flesh beneath me, my escape slowed. Its body is a veritable pincushion, arrow shafts jutting from all angles, its head a dandelion of spines. Its stomach is criss-crossed by wounds, blood the colour of ink staining its unearthly pallor. Its bony hands are massive, the fingertips black and deathly, the skin raw and burned. It must have lived for centuries, had countless brave souls stand up to it and unleash their fury, but the thing simply doesn’t die.
I fall backward, the tide of people at an end, concrete once more solid underfoot.
I turn and scramble up, fleeing as fast as I am able. What hope do I have, when so many others have clearly failed?
Behind me, the abrasive clack steadily follows; the shafts of its many arrows grating along the walls, scratching and scraping as it hunts.
My feet are exhausted, my legs utterly drained, but what other option is there?
All I can do is run.