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 in its momentary vacuum 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 after unwittingly catching a lift in the truck bed of the wife of the prison guard who had furnished him the tools to help him escape. 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.
And here he was now, shivering in a culvert, it would seem, many miles from anywhere. Though the forces that be would be coming to this way soon, he should be safe to wait out the rest of the night here and rest before figuring out exactly where he was going, what he was doing, how he was to stay ahead of the law.
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 the solitary cell those days or weeks or perhaps another life ago, when a shadowy presence hung over him and held him frozen as he lay in his bed under that light that they never turned off. Perhaps this same presence that was crouching in wait in these close confines with him, a blackness, a coldness, an insidious absence, a shadow of some other self on which the sun had set.
A high-pitched, whimpery sigh escaped his mouth as though he were deflating, and the fact of this sound jarred him somewhat 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, and with the sudden infusion of air into his lungs he inhaled in relief, he 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 glass of his prison-cell window, at the dried blood soaking through the dressing he’d applied, 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? What was ahead of him? A highway with a police roadblock? A ticket back to prison with cops snickering in the front of the car, teasing him as they drove him back to the next umpteen plus years of his life confined again to prison? 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. Frightened and in pain, he jumped into the running water, slipping and sliding among the boulders and tumble of mossy logs and branches. The water burned his legs and feet with a thousand needles of cold. It seized his breath a moment. 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 like an old-time river steamer puffing and churning 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 as though to lend a hand; and he pulled himself up, straining, with the handful of birch vine, and he managed his way across, over to the other side of the rapids, and he disappeared through an opening in the tangled bush and was again enfolded in the spiny embrace of the forest.