He’s running. He’s running and he doesn’t know where to. Something’s behind him. Something’s in front of him. The lights flicker and the shadows are blacker than black. He runs to the end of the corridor and slams the door back on its hinges. It bounces off the wall as he keeps running, breath coming hard, sweat pouring down his face, slicking down his palms.
Where is it? Where is it? This thing he is running from? Is it still behind? Is it above? Is it below? Will it obey his laws of physics? Will he ever be safe?
Just as he calms, he knows it will come. Making some inhuman noise before it strikes with lightning speed.
The lights flicker off, then on again. A moment longer this time. Too long. He almost wishes the lights would stay off so he can get his night vision, but it will be too late. He doesn’t have time to pause.
He doesn’t have any time at all.
He spins around, looking back down the corridor, searching in the light and the darkness for his hunter. There’s that strange inhuman noise again — not a voice, not a foot fall, but an unnatural, metallic, insect like rattling. And the smell of ash. Whatever it is, his mind doesn’t pause to identify it, passed identifying it as: WRONG.
He turns back again and runs, blindly. He doesn’t care where, as long as it’s away from this thing.
He runs and runs into the dark. Out of the building. Down the drive. Out onto the street. Down the middle of the street. He runs and runs, around one corner then another, always staying out of the shadows. He runs, until he gets to his house.
When Billy wakes up, it is as if from a nightmare. He stumbles outside and shakily lights a cigarette in the frigid morning air. The cold shocks him out of his adrenaline rush and as he breathes in longs draughts of nicotine saturated oxygen, he convinces himself he’s a fool for thinking any of it could be real.
He showers and pretends it’s a regular day. He gets ready for work. He takes a few minutes to have another cigarette and the dregs of last nights beer. Shirt buttoned, belt secured, tie straightened and he’s out the door.
When he pulls up at work he’s at the end of his third cigarette. They like him at work — he’s rough around the edges but he’s a good guy. He’s the guy who can keep calm through any crisis. When he’s needed at the coal front, he is always there. They don’t see the shakes. When he needs to be, he is intimidating. They don’t see all the bottles lined up at his back door. And when he needs to, he gives the bad news. And they don’t know that he wakes up screaming every night.
He’s at home that evening eating his dinner at the kitchen table when the lights spark and blow out. His breath freezes and he glances hastily around the room, looking for differences in the shadows.
He stills. What is that sound? That oozing, dripping sound?
He’s trying to convince himself to move, to be a man, to go and see what it is, when the lights suddenly burst on again. He jumps but stays frozen for a moment more, listening hard. But the unnatural sound has ceased with the lights.
The air explodes out of his lungs and he swears under his breath. He can smell that ashy smell again. He gets up and walks out of the kitchen, out of the house, across the yard. He walks through the dark woods at the side of his property, as if trying to prove to himself that he’s not afraid. That he can face this thing head on. That it won’t reduce him. He walks on alone, stumbling, feeling for his way and it strikes him that this is what life has been for him — blindly stumbling, not knowing where he is going.
Suddenly the sky lights up, in a series of harsh flickers, like lightning strike, but coming from everywhere at once. Billy looks up, his brain struggling to make sense of it, his feet pausing in their blind groping across the forest floor. His breath comes in ragged strips, fighting to break free. He drags more oxygen in than he can let out, making him feel faint. Somewhere not too far away a dog howls. Billy makes an incoherent sound, his voice shaking out of him.
In the morning he wakes up in the dried leaves on the forest floor, the cold shivering his bones to life. The white sky is stretching out above him, intersected with naked branches, blackened by the harsh backlight. He stumbles to his feet and starts walking, blindly, rubbing warmth into his arms. He doesn’t know which direction he is heading in at first and it takes him a few minutes to get his bearings before he can start purposefully heading for home.
He arrives home and then goes to work, arriving only a little late, and nobody notices anything different in him. On the way, he passes the local sheriff out investigating a case on one of the back roads. He nods hello. In town, he passes Jed’s Store and calls out a greeting to the owner.
Good old reliable Billy. Nothing ever phases him.
That night he goes out onto the deck and has a can of beer and a cigarette while looking out onto the low mist. He looks out at the wilderness, the bare tree branches standing like white needles against the black sky, and he feels cursed. He feels there is no room in his life for anything but himself and this curse, no matter how much others try to get close. He has walked away from everything and everyone in his life so that his curse won’t infect anyone else. He feels this curse and him are locked into some sort of unholy union. He can sense something in it, something he knows but can’t quite remember.
He tries to grasp it but nothing comes.
So he works. He works harder than he ever has in his life, so that he doesn’t have to think. And remember. And fear what is coming.
But he isn’t always successful. Sometimes he thinks he sees things out of the corner of his eye — flashes of movement, colour. But when he turns his head to look fully, there is nothing there.
He feels jumpy and suspicious and it begins to show in his work. He starts doing things outside the parameters of his job. Things that make him feel safer. Or going into places he shouldn’t go. Doing things that somehow might help him understand. After all, what could be more frightening than where he’s already been?
He wakes in a sweat on his couch, breathing raggedly. He doesn’t know how he got there. He doesn’t know what time it is. He barely knows whether it’s day or night. There’s bottles and cigarettes and pills spread everywhere like someone’s been having a party without him. But, whoever they are, they forgot to wipe his mind. He jumps up and runs to the door, out into the front yard. But there’s no one there.
He runs back through the house — running like he’s finally lost his mind.
He picks up the phone. With shaking hands, he punches in the number he should have called years ago.
He says into the silence, “June. It’s me.”
More silence greets his words.
His voice shuddering out, he says, “I know it’s been too long. I know I should have rung. Been there for you and the kids. But I’m ringing now. I need to talk to you.”
He draws in a deep, uneven breath. “We’re running out of time.”
He hears her breathe, a thin, drawn sound, and then she answers, her voice strangely disembodied. “Come over, then, Billy. I’m waiting for you.”
Words in bold are connected to the preceding parts of this story in other submissions.