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The horns were all Robert could see for a moment. His eyes focused on the demon perched on the back of the Harley roaring toward him, shadows swirling violently behind it. There were two sets, one beginning from the being’s brow and extending back, with only a slight curve inward toward their tips. Perfectly symmetrical. The second pair came from just behind its cheeks, and curled over like the horns of a ram. Like some horrible helmet. They were blood red and shined with polished brilliance, reflecting the light from the sun glaring down on them. Robert tried to swallow, but he couldn’t.
He and the shadowy demon flew at each other, alone together on this stretch of highway. Heart pounding in his flesh, he stared at the face of the darkness. The smile stared at him harder than the red eyes that sat above, unblinking. The teeth were perfectly straight, sharpened to points. So symmetrical. Robert was paralyzed, he could feel his eyes bulging out of his head at the horror. Smiling ear to ear, the mouth wrapped around its black head. It tossed back, laughing wildly at everything. Shadows whipping around like tentacles flapping in the wind. So close now! Robert could not move, and he felt that he was watching himself from somewhere deep within his body. Like those terrifying dreams we have from time to time, a strange cursed passed down through history. A sensation of paralysis and gripping fear that may permeate into our waking state. A brush with hell.
Numb to the world, he could not feel his hands clutching the wheel. He squeezed so hard that pain echoed in his metacarpals; bones that broke when he was a kid and never quite set back right in his hands. He stared at the being bearing down on him with intent to kill, and he thought of Linda. His wife’s face blinked into his mind, a breath in his ear, the smallest whisper. A reassurance. The words that were whispered are words we all wish to hear, the most comforting phrase a person can know. These are, all at once, words of forgiveness and trust, loyalty and joy. Words that are as old as humanity. Words necessary for life to continue:
“I love you.”
At the moment before the impact, time slowed down. All in one second he stared, noticing the being reaching out for him, one arm stretching out with onyx claws. Within this moment, the claw melted into a black-gloved hand. It was rising to shield the face of a human in black, slamming into his car. The creature had abandoned this husk within a fraction of a second. The man was tossed into the windshield, tumbled over the roof, and thudded on the road behind Robert losing control of his car. Slamming into a tree, he managed to slow it down enough that he wasn’t knocked out, while protecting his head with his arms. He always wore his seat belt, and it cut into his chest with burning force. The horn exploded past the ringing in his ears, droning out into the sky. The car was totaled, at least beyond what Robert could repair. Bleeding and groaning he spilled out of the car onto the grass.
He managed to get up, his left leg shouting out in pain to his brain. Both the motorcycle and his car were wafting black clouds of smoke lazily into the sky. Finally, the car horn was fading down into silence. Robert limped over to the man in black, laying face down in the middle of the road. Blood pooled underneath him, thick and almost reflecting the serene sky above. His head was cracked open, and Robert remembered something similar from when he was a child.
The memory rose to the surface, where back in his home town where he was teased by a bully, and Robert challenged him to a bike race down a steep hill. Robert was eager to put that giant of a kid into his place. The bully naturally accepted and rode to the appointed place. Robert prepared by going home for his favorite shirt, and he made his way there. But not before his mom made sure he ate a big lunch. She thought he was just going to play as usual, and he needed the energy.
The sky now was the way it was then, blue with only a whisper of clouds high in the sky. They were like white feathers up there in the light blue hue. Robert won that race, but his opponent had lost in the worst possible way. Halfway down, he lost control of his bicycle and toppled head first onto the asphalt. The blood was thick, and almost reflected those celestial feathers hanging in the blue. The smell was the same too. Copper laced with something else. That big lunch his mother made for him – salami on rye – made a surprise appearance that day. As if on cue.
This day though, his stomach was cast iron. He did not feel queasy at all looking down at the dead man. Relieved, he began to limp away down the long highway flanked by trees. He was hungry and tired and his body ached with every step. Birds called out their songs to the sky, intermingling with a wind that traced its way through the trees. The breeze was cool, and he raised his face to the sky for a moment before continuing his walk. He felt like some great weight had been removed from his shoulders.
His leg had mostly stopped bothering him, and sticking to the shade he began to walk briskly down the road. Nervously he hummed to himself as the trees helplessly listened.
After what seemed like forever, he happened upon a small town. It was the type you always pass on the way to somewhere else, and if you blink twice you’ll miss it. A gas station, a diner, and a small motel were the only establishments that he could see. All of them seemed very old, like folks haven’t passed through in a long time, and it was only by the grace of God that they managed to stay open. The gas station was the first he came upon, a place named “Jim’s”. A small mechanic’s garage was attached, where a man was underneath a black sedan that looked completely shot, and a small truck was parked next to the wall outside. Robert swallowed, and hoped this fellow took credit cards.
“Hey there!” Robert said amiably, walking up to the mechanic now rolling out from under the car. Tools were littering the ground, grease seeming to cover everything.
“Hey there, mister. How can I help you?”
“You must be the Jim. I’m Robert, Robert Lowman. Call me R.J.,” The salesman in him was coming out again, and he smiled at Jim’s face covered in the grime of hard work.
“Say, does that truck happen to be for sale over there? My car just got wrecked a ways up the road, and I have to get somewhere.” Hiding his unease, Robert was in a hurry to escape for a while. He needed to get away from the eyes of strangers. He felt extremely paranoid even talking to this man for a moment.
How does the darkness find me?
“Actually, I have been trying to get rid of that thing for a while. Some guy came here, asked for it to get repaired, and then just disappeared. Strangest thing. So yeah, you can have it budd — er — R.J.!” Jim was visibly pleased with how has day was turning out. He was thinking of maybe getting his son that bike he wanted. Robert moved in with a fair offer, uncaring of running his credit up. Thoughts of holding her in his arms again made financial worries seem distant.
“Sure thing, sir!! Thanks for not low-balling me. Let me get your information then I’ll get the keys.” Jim wiped grease from his hands onto the grease on his overalls, and the exchange went quickly. Robert was eager to get on the road again. He was completely exhausted and felt that he would fall asleep if he kept his eyes shut longer than a blink. Hopping in the truck, he put the keys into the ignition and the engine just made a strange clacking sound.
“Starter’s out? That’s strange… I just replaced that the other week. No matter, should have another one in the back somewhere. I’ll get it swapped right away.” It turned out that he did not, and after looking for several minutes apologized and said that he ordered one from a store up the road. They were going to drive it out in the morning, so Robert was stuck in this glimpse of a town. Robert normally would have felt frustrated or angry, but he knew he did not have the time for that. Walking toward the diner, he could swear that he could feel the man began to be framed by swirling shadows. He whipped his head back around and looked at a normal Jim walking back inside his shop. Trees stood tall around the town, and stared at Robert, who shivered as he began to navigate around rusted out cars with tall grass growing out of them. An ancient refrigerator was yellow in the partial shade, patterns of leaves dancing across its door.
Better get some food to go. Can’t spend too much time near people, obviously.
The diner was almost as dirty as the garage, and he would never have eaten here if he was not starving. When he grabbed the door handle, he also grabbed a fat round roach that crunched in his hand. Normally it would have startled and made him disgusted. Today, he just wiped it off on his pants and walked inside the restaurant. He could feel the eyes of patrons looking him up and down, and he buried his anxiety with the perpetual smile of a salesman. He ordered a burger, fries, and a Coke from a bubbly young waitress with bouncing brown curls. Sitting at the counter, he tried to read a newspaper someone had left behind but could not focus with the eyes tracing over his body. Suddenly he stood up, deciding to wait outside for his order. The uncut grass was safer company than that of strangers.
Finally the girl came out to him, white teeth shining with youthful optimism.
“Have a great day, sir!!” He took his bag and walked to the motel without a thank you or hesitation, taking long strides. A nervous pace like walking through a parking lot late at night. Crunching through some grass for a few seconds, he stepped onto the pavement of the motel’s modest parking lot. It looked like it was well taken care of, unlike the rest of the town. Freshly swept and windows washed, and a clean bell tingled in the air as he walked into the small office. An old man tended the counter, and cheerfully greeted him.
“Hello! My name’s Don French, and this has been my family’s motel for a long time. You look like you could use a good night’s sleep!” He gave a strong chuckle despite looking very frail, his white hair thin on his head. Wrinkles carved strong lines all over his face.
“Hey Don! This place is a sight for sore eyes indeed. Got a room?”
“I got a whole bunch! Let me get your card and information here,” He said with a smile. Soft music buzzed from a radio that seemed to match Don’s age. Robert scribbled his information with intense speed, his hand aching from the tenseness of gripping the pen. The exchange was quick, both men practiced in the process of buying and selling. A few smiles and a key let Robert into a motel room, with a very comfortable looking bed that Robert knew he could not sleep in. He promised himself to not even touch it, no matter how inviting it was. Even the smell wafting up from it – fresh linens – could not coax him into its soft promise of comfort. He understood that even a wink of rest would fling him into a river of oblivion, filled with its currents and eddies and sharp rocks.
Robert stared out the window, looking outside on a world that appeared bent on catching up to him somehow. A strange chase that was chilling to think about, the darkness hiding in the universe itself searching everywhere all at once for a single man. Could the plaster in the walls sense him? The lamp, or even the light itself that radiated from it? The shadows that stood tall on the wall behind him?
“We are everywhere.”
Robert tried to think which word of the phrase was the most horrifying. “We” implies numbers, possibly great ones. A whole team of shadow beasts with some devious objective. “Are” cements the fact that they exist. And reinforces the “we” from before, and with confidence. And “everywhere”? Well… One finds it easy to think of those implications. Robert’s legs twitched with an anxious tic.
The wind blew briskly outside as the sun drifted lower in the sky. Shadows cast from the trees grew longer, and darkness crept over the land. Robert’s stomach rumbled, and he appreciated it. The hunger should help keep him awake. He played a tune with his hands on his knees, an ancient rhythm that has been played time and time again by those familiar with struggle, or with a battlefield. The beating of drums that came from his hands was the song of nervousness, of anxiety and a lingering fear. It had played in the hearts of those who have stared death in the face, and lived. Lived to know that one day they would have to raise their sword again against that Black — the Nothingness. Raise their sword and watch it disintegrated by the scythe of Death as it cuts down to push them into the darkness of Shakespeare’s “Undiscovered Country”, from whose borders no traveller returns.
But Robert’s tune was somewhat different. He had the knowledge that there are fates worse than death. The madness that he had felt in those spaces of time, those places darker than black. The whispering tongues that wagged in the darkness. A place that ripped and pushed into his mind and abused his senses with overwhelming inputs of emotion and physical horrors. Madness. Robert shivered, and tapped his hands harder, faster.
He had to stay awake. He had to make sure his wife was safe.
It was going to be a long night, he mused.
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