This story is by Josie L and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
The outside air is brittle with cold, all the more sharp after the stuffy warmth of my apartment. The familiar dark odours of burnt toast and stale incense are driven from my nostrils as the frigid air reminds me that ice does indeed have a scent. Even two weeks ago, I would have welcomed it, would have scaled the oxygen into my lungs and relished it, felt invigorated. After last night though, the wind is a hangover. My insides contract as the world freezes into sharp relief. I am to meet the beast again.
It has been stalking me for five days now. Might as well have been five years. Each morning as I wake, I notice I am smaller, somehow, not just frightened but reduced. It steals a part of me every day. And it’s not like I was that grand to begin with. My job was a throwaway – now it’s my salvation – and up until my stalker arrived I had spent all my free time drinking too much, eating too little, and working on the story it’s taken me too long to write. But I had some semblance of sanity, was mildly happy on good days and only partly incapacitated on the bad ones. But then my vision started to shimmer. And my sanity was lost.
I should have acted on it before, confronted it, maybe. I should have told someone; I would have been believed in the beginning, perhaps. I should have done something – anything – before it got bigger. Because now, what was a grey haze encroaching on the edge of my vision has morphed. And even though I can’t face it, can’t force my eyes to look, I see it for what it has become. A beast. A writhing, pulsing, screeching, beast.
The first day it came to me there were only shadows, like pencil smudges, closing in. Now there are tendrils too, reaching out. At first, it had murmured to me, half finished sentences and violent mumbles in a sea of static. It tempted me then as it does now, growing furious at each rejection. Yesterday, it bellowed, a holler so dark I felt my internal organs buzzing. I had felt it first that day, was overtaken, suddenly, by dread and horror and maniacal, furious panic. The rush of adrenaline as my reflexes kicked in reminding me of the time I nearly killed myself slipping from the edge of a cliff. The ground had fallen out beneath me, my pathetic heels slipping on the gritty surface and plunging me into nothing. I was convinced that I was about to die. Somehow, miraculously, after a lifetime’s worth of flailing, I found my centre of balance. Sitting back against the rock face I’d felt the quaking of my limbs and the heartbeat in my face, pulsing so violently my eyelids were twitching. I had abandoned my city on some kind of creative mission, assuring myself inspiration would come if I removed myself from the mess that was home. I felt so stupid then. The mess had followed me like it always does, clinging to my synapses, and all I could think was how typical it would be for me to die from my recklessness, slaughtered by my clumsiness, bewildered, sweaty and alone.
Every day now, that rush again. And I know, just as I did that day on the cliff, that my death will be my fault, my slip of judgement, my invited slaughter. I must not look at it. I am sleepless and clumsy, a mess of limbs propelled through the fetid air. In my haste to not see, my body collides with a discarded shopping trolley, plunging me to my knees. The beast smells ugly; its scent catches up with me as I swat the gravel from my ruined stockings. It has never been so close before and my periphery writhes in murky darkness, dull like lead and just as sharp. Every day it gains ground, beckoning me, and I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had looked at it, that first day? It sounds livid now, like a child stamping his feet, only much, much, bigger. I can’t look, even though I want to, more than ever before. I fight against the wrenching of my sight as the amorphous mass marches on, leaving me trapped by the limits of my courage. A man is belting down the sidewalk and for a moment his panic emboldens me. Does he know it’s here too? He glances at his phone. My hope sinks.
My mind flickers forward to a block away. Work. My throwaway salvation. It will take three minutes from here to be granted eight hours of sterile, prison-like security. I pick up the pace, ignoring the burning in my knees. If I can make it there, I can figure out what to do. I can make it go away without ever having seen it. I have to.
But now, again, the familiar pumping in my skin, the twitching of my eyelids, the crawling in my veins. And again, I refuse to look at it. I refuse. I’m moving even faster now. Like a marathon runner pelting the ground, my breath comes out in gusts, and I match the strides of the thing that stalks me.
There is nothing I can do. I see that now. It’s moving too deliberately. If this is a hunt then it is nearing the close.
My eardrums pop as the air pressure shifts. The swirling, animal howls of fury ebb back into a cold silence. I stop moving, sweat prickling. The corners of my brain tickle with anticipation. All the shopfronts blur into darkness as the smudges at the corner of my vision silently engulf the world. There is nowhere I can turn, everything is subsumed. I turn to the presence looming menacingly, silent for the first time in days.
I face the beast.