(from Fugitive Dreams)
When his eyes opened he found himself curled into a crescent against the corrugated metal of the culvert, wedged into the exact position he was in when he fell asleep. It was still dark, the wee hours of the night when desires ran loose and dreams filled the world with their allusive illusions, their mirage worlds built of hopes and fears and insecurities, their shifting vistas ever-changing, the space behind them infinite.
For a moment all was still and quiet save for a puff of breeze exhaling through the pipe that lifted a strand of his hair and tickled his scalp, sending a not unpleasant shiver down his back. He took stock of himself and his surroundings—he was Tommy Roenick, it came to mind, and he was a fugitive from a federal penitentiary, had been so for over a day now as a matter of fact, and he was now cowering in a wet culvert under a country road somewhere up in the northern reaches of the province. His father he had never met, his mother and brother were dead, and he was all alone in the world, more so now than ever. And he hadn’t eaten in a day and a half.
He looked drowsily to his left, at the open mouth of the culvert, at the small creek of runoff rivulets now silver in the moonlight, and thought of how pretty it looked in the hint of light that sifted spectral from the sky. As he did so, hoping to once again close his eyes and catch another hour or two of sleep, he felt on his other side a sudden feeling of arctic coldness, encroaching and drawing what warmth there was away from him. He turned, and when he saw what was there he froze with fear.
He was not alone.
A couple metres away hunched a shadowy presence, as if coalesced out of the very darkness, drawing shade as well as heat. He was unable to even gasp, the sound locked in his throat. He felt paralyzed, much like he did back in his solitary cell when a shadowy presence hung over him and held him frozen as he lay in his bed. Perhaps this same presence that was crouching in wait in these close confines with him, a blackness, a coldness, an insidious absence.
A high-pitched, whimpery sigh escaped his mouth as though he were deflating, and the sound jarred him out of his frozen trance. He shimmied backward toward the mouth of the culvert, only to see the shadow elongate itself toward him, its spindly arms reaching and stretching, elastic, approaching, encroaching like a darker shade of night unlit by any moon. Again, he backed up a foot toward the mouth of the tunnel and then stopped, realizing that this person, this spirit, this entity, this whatever it was, could reach for him anyway even if he tried to bolt. He looked into the dark blankness of the face cut from the cloth of midnight, tried to see into the blackness for any sign of features, and saw only an indistinct wavering born from the strain of his squinting.
“Who are you?” barked Tommy in a ragged, frightened voice, much like he did in his solitary cell when he felt the presence stalking behind him. “What are you? What do you want from me?”
He heard a low, basso-profundo moaning, a bestial growl coming through the ether like a faraway radio transmission. From here, from there, from everywhere. Or from some other plane entirely.
He gasped, frozen to the spot with fear.
Once again he felt icy fingers seize his heart. He felt cold and fragile in the clutch of this being; he felt invaded and infiltrated and unable to do anything but sit rigid in fear while an invisible force held his heart like a ripe tomato and threatened to squeeze it till it burst inside his chest and his life dissolved into the blackness of the night.
He felt the vise upon his heart tighten, and spots formed in front of his eyes. He gasped in pain and then backed out of the culvert, falling into the muddy puddles of standing runoff below. As he picked himself up off the ground he felt the pressure round his heart slacken, the invisible fingers like cold metal cuffs around his heart unclasping. With the sudden infusion of air into his lungs, he inhaled in relief and took off through a break between the trees, running through the bushes as fast as he could, the twigs snapping against his face, his lungs tugging for air. He tripped over a root and fell headlong onto the rocky path, scraping his hands in the dirt as he put them out ahead of himself to break his fall. No time to lick his wounds. He got back up on strained and rubbery legs and continued running.
Behind, he could hear footfalls on the trail, the rustled parting of foliage, the snap of twigs underfoot. Adrenaline propelled him forward, and he responded to this chemical call with great clarity, legs pumping, feet deftly avoiding the catch of roots, the gnashing stub of rocks. A fork in the trail: which way? Each option trailed off into a night-black hole in the hairy brush. He opted for left and kept running, running and sweating. How long could he keep this up? His legs burned with every stride, the furious pumping of his thighs reaching the limits of muscular exertion.
He stopped a moment to catch his breath and rest his legs. Enfolded in the gnarled, bristling trunks and arms of the forest, and in the cloak of night, he felt as though trapped in a childhood nightmare. He wondered a moment, am I really being chased? Now that he had stopped a moment, the cuts in his back and hand began stinging, singing with pain. He needed a doctor and he knew it. He looked down at his hand, cut badly on the prison sewer-grate, at the dried blood that soaked into the dressing, the blood tracing the jagged fissure of bad luck running through his palm.
A crunch, a crash, the forest transmuting the sound of footfalls to the sound of its own rustled foliage, its own disturbed stones and roots and fallen twigs. An icy presence looming behind him.
A cold breath on his neck.
He continued running. He wished, oh he wished he knew where he was going. He had started out north when riding in the truck. At least he thought so. Now where? What would he run into? And what would happen if he stopped?
The sound of running water, a burbling stream in the bristling nightwood blackness. A few steps ahead through a tangle of twigs and leaves and he could see the flashing water of the stream carrying a quicksilver skim of moonlight on its downward course. He bent down and cupped his hands and slurped several deep handfuls of the cold water, his cut hand stinging, and looked behind him to see if there was some other way he could go to avoid getting drenched.
He saw a slight opening in the tangled weaving of the foliage, and as he parted the branches to further explore he felt invisible talons slice down his left forearm. He gasped in pain and looked down at a row of four deep furrows scratched into his skin, his blood blooming black in the night. He looked all about him, straining his eyes in the darkness, but could see no one or nothing.
Frightened, he jumped into the running water, slipping and sliding among the boulders and tumble of mossy logs and branches. The cold seized his breath. He gained a footing by holding onto the branch of a fallen tree, it reaching up as though for help in its dying fall. He helped himself along, using his grip for leverage, and then slipped down into deeper water, up to his waist, sliding amongst the slimy boulders and sunken branches. His groin froze; his penis protested and withdrew from the temperature, and the flow of water was nearly overwhelming. He feared he was going to be carried away downstream to God knows what fate. He struggled to regain his footing, and paddled himself with struggling, wheeling arms against the current, and he lunged forward and managed to grab a fistful of twigs and leaves dangling from a bent-backed birch leaning over the river from the other side as though to lend a hand. He pulled himself up, straining, with the handful of birch foliage, and he managed his way across, and he disappeared through an opening in the tangled bush and was again enfolded in the spiny embrace of the forest.
Overhead, the flapping of a crow in the gnarled woven canopy. He was cold, shivering at the base of a cedar, obscured in the foliage. His pants were soaked, and the temperature was dropping, autumn in the air and cooling it fast these darkest hours of the early morning. No sign of his mysterious pursuer anymore, no telltale crunch and rustle through the underbrush, no ominous vibrations of impending approach. It smelled of woodchip earthen dampness, of bitter bark and rotting leaves. The pain in his hand and arm and back had numbed awhile from his dash through the stream, but his nerves were now awakening, and an itchy throbbing now defined the edges of the deep lacerations he had incurred. For all he knew he could now get tetanus, lockjaw, whatever the hell they called it. Where the hell am I, he wondered, and where the hell do I go next?
There was no room for carelessness. The story had surely broken by now. The sky would be abuzz with helicopters in the morning, and the police would be scouring the countryside from high above with binoculars, all the way down through the snouts of sniffing dogs. They had probably been doing so already, were perhaps already near. Every main road was probably blocked at some point; police from every force would be mobilized; even military reservists could be in on the search. Most breakouts did not end well.
He shivered and he shook and he ran his fingers through his hair, and he squatted, too tense to actually sit, too primed to relax. God, how he craved a cigarette now, something to calm the nerves. He felt frightened in the forest, directionless. He looked about and all he could see traced in the blackness was the tangle of the thick impenetrable bush, the bristling forest that grew seemingly from the stones themselves through a thin medium of acidic soil ground under the press of glaciers long retreated to their alpine and arctic redoubts.
He looked about in the oppressive darkness and guessed it was about three o’clock in the morning. It was late whatever the exact time, and he was adrenalized and starving. He felt as though he could not carry on much longer without some sort of a meal and some rest. But the pressure was on to keep moving. Oh Christ, hope I can find some shelter and some food, he thought, I gotta move, I gotta move, and it’s getting cold and I can’t sleep in the open in the bush with the cold and the animals and all the heat that’s surely coming my way. And whatever it is that’s on my tail.
He stood up, embowered in the thick brush about him, and continued his way through the forest, on a winding root- and boulder-strewn path, feeling his stumbly, uncertain way in the dark, pushing twigs out of the way, brushing against leaves. He heard only his own footsteps, his own heartbeat, the rustle of the foliage and the crunch of stones he stepped upon, with nary a thought as his mind had contracted like his stomach from hunger and nerves and fatigue.
At last, the woods gave out into a stony field, and he walked out watched only by the ancient eyes of stars staring out from the prehistoric past, some long since burned out, their spectres glowing faintly in the night. A cool breeze brushed through the long grasses of the field and through his hair, and it ruffled his sodden clothes. He shivered and kept on his way. An owl hooted. He stood to take stock of where he was, what he should do.
“Okay,” he said aloud, squatting in the field over a pitted table stone in which were embedded the fossilized denizens of an ageless sea, a Braille record of earthen memory, trilobites and shellfish and nameless ancient plants turned to stone in the gorgon stare of half a billion years. His breath smoked in the darkness. “Okay, I think I’ve lost it. I’m fuckin’ crazy. That thing—that thing—fuckin’ chased me all this way.”
He ran his hands through his hair on the sides of his head over and over again for sake of nerves, and continued speaking in the solitude of night. “Then it scratches me. I don’t fuckin’ get it, what’s goin’ on, I don’t understand a goddamn thing. And I’m all—I’m all cut up and bleeding everywhere and I need a fuckin’ doctor.” He stood up and kicked at the earth in impotent rage, dislodging a stone from the grass and the shallow soil.
“And I, I gotta be, I gotta be all over the news by now.” He paced back and forth, a few steps this way, a few steps that, his hands on the side of his face. “I need a fucking smoke, I’d kill for a smoke right now, I’d absolutely kill for a cigarette right now.”
A glance up at the stars in their midnight millions fixed in their burning points into the depthless cold of eternal night, fixed and impassive on his plight. What you need, he thought, weaving his self questioning back under the surface, back into thought, “Is to get your hands on a car,” his thoughts threading out through speech once again. And get your hands on a gun and hit a bank or a store—there’s no way around it—and take the cash. And get to a safe house of some kind so you can make further plans to disappear. Only then can you breathe easy. Only then.
“But now,” he continued aloud, choosing his words with care as he tried to still the mounting and inarticulate panic within him. “Rest. Get some sleep. You have no idea where you’re going or what is even happening right now.”
To this end he walked to the edge of the clearing and sat at the base of a tall cedar. He huddled himself against the cold and he shivered, and he lay his head against the rough bark of the tree, and he clutched the throbbing furrows of his arm with this hand, and he sat, teeth chattering in the coolness of the night, and awaited the arrival of sleep. He dissolved into drowsiness, eyes looking absently out at the darker shades of the trees against the lighter darkness of the night, and as he looked out he saw something in the corner of his gaze.
A pair of yellow eyes were fixed on him in the distance, shining faintly though staring with cold intent. Small pinpricks, hard to make out, but very much there, their indistinct pupils trained on him. A shiver of fear prickled through him.
“Go away,” he mumbled hoarsely, meeting the gaze of the eyes upon him in the night. “Fuck off! Leave me alone, whoever you are!”
But the eyes just stared at him as he muttered another curse and slowly closed his eyes and clutched the furrows in his arm now scabbing over. His own consciousness scabbed over for a while to undo the damage of the last couple days and make him forget the growing, gnawing hunger in his contracting, boiling gut. From time to time he emerged from his shallow, uncomfortable sleep and looked out and saw, or thought he saw, those beady yellow eyes still trained upon him in the blurry darkness.
And when he closed his eyes again he would plunge into staticky electric dreams of shapes and shadows and the breath of his uncle stinking of booze as he wound up to whip him with his belt and the drawn mask of his mother’s face in the prison visiting room and her croaking voice, “Sleep tight in here, Tommy, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” And the whirling sirens of the police upon him escape after escape and … and the twisted, broken shape of Lynne Hurst lying on the pavement as he looked down in horror at what he had done. She suddenly pulled herself up onto her elbows, her movements jerky, unnatural, animated as though her body were a puppet poorly worn by another spirit. Her head turned toward him, the eyes white, a grimace on her dead white face as she looked at him, into him, through him—
And still those eyes when he opened his, burning fires of midnight light, beacons to Bedlam’s shore, he drifting ever closer.
“Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite,” that haggish croak as his mother hovered over him, her bony fingers clamped upon his throat. She flashed decaying, sharpened teeth as she grimaced, her hands upon his neck squeezing, squeezing, pools of black tar bleeding into his vision, signifying his own extinction—
“Jesus Christ,” he murmured, opening his eyes again, a light breeze blowing through his hair, the eyes upon him still, “I just want to sleep without any goddamn dreams, please God just let me sleep just let me sleep—”
This cycle carried on through the eternity of the wee hours until at last the sky lightened, and the dreams went the way of the darkness.
MATTHEW MURPHY was born and raised in Sudbury, Ontario, and currently lives in Montreal. His debut novel A Beckoning War (Baraka Books, 2016) has been called “the product of an amazing new talent” by Quill & Quire, and “a creditable 1st novel” by Margaret Atwood (on Twitter.) Night Shades is an excerpt from his completed novel manuscript, a literary horror thriller entitled Fugitive Dreams.
Copyright © 2018 by Matthew Murphy. All rights reserved.