She was so far past exhaustion that it took all of her effort to stay on her feet. Every step was an act of pure will, all she wanted was to collapse and let it be over.
But she had to keep going, had to force one foot in front of the other, ignore the pain. To stop would be to die and despite everything she wasn’t ready for that yet.
Everything hurt. Her legs ached, each step sending agony shooting though her. Somewhere during it all she had lost one of her shoes, had it been just this morning or farther back?
She remembered making it to the little house, the family suspicious until they saw the state she was in. They’d invited her into their house, tried to comfort her.
She remembered the mother helping her walk to the bathroom to take a shower and she vaguely remembered getting undressed and being given a clean set of clothes to replace the tattered, bloodstained ones that she’d arrived in.
Or had she imagined it all during her frantic effort to escape?
She was pretty sure that she hadn’t slept for days, not since the trucker had found her hitchhiking, lost in the desert.
How had she made it there?
He’d tried to help her escape, get her to the nearest town, to the house with the family, those poor people, on the edge of the town.
What had happened to the truck driver? He hadn’t been with her when she got to the town.
If the scattering of little buildings and trailers could really be called a town.
But there had been people there and so she’d assumed that she was safe.
Maybe she’d had a chance to sleep during her time with those people because she had the feeling that some time had passed.
Maybe more than some.
The sight of their two little boys laughing and playing had made her cry. Those children were so happy and she…
She’d never wanted any harm to come to them and had vainly allowed herself to hope that she’d managed to escape.
That she’d made it to safety.
The father had said that they didn’t have a phone, that there were no lines out where they were and that had made her feel safe.
If they were that far away from everyone else then maybe she could hide.
The man had still found her though.
Stumbling over the uneven ground she fell to her hands and knees and started crying.
It wasn’t fair!
None of it was fair!
What had she done to deserve this?
All she wanted was to be safe with her family and friends.
She could see their smiling faces when she closed her eyes, hear the laughter and sense of welcoming.
She missed it so badly.
All she wanted to do was lay down and rest, close her eyes and try to forget the screams.
The smell of blood and the sight of him standing there in the doorway of that little house.
A black shadow against the painfully bright light of the desert afternoon.
Somehow he’d managed to follow her all this way, but that was impossible.
The trucker, she remembered now that he’d survived when the truck crashed. Jackknifed, was the word the trucker had used, warned her about when he realized that her story about being followed was true, that the man was trying to run them off the road.
Or men. There might have been more than one.
Had she ever seen more than one?
They had no way of knowing that she was with him, unless…
The trucker had gotten on his radio, said that he’d picked up a hitchhiker, her, and that she was in bad shape. If they’d been listening in, waiting…
The truck had crashed, the trailer taking most of the damage, somehow not crushing them when the truck fell over under its own momentum.
She’d woken up to discover the world sideways, slowly realizing that she was hanging from her seatbelt.
The trucker had already managed to free himself and was struggling desperately to cut her free, urging her to run, to save herself.
She’d only known him for a day. No, slightly longer than that, she’d just been asleep for most of it, and he was willing to give his life to protect her from the man.
People were so kind.
He got her free, pulled her out of the shattered window, blood streaming down his face and arms, heedless of his own injuries.
He pushed her out of the way, urged her to run and then stood his ground.
The man in black was there, like something out of a nightmare.
When she’d thought that she’d finally escaped.
The truck driver tried to protect her.
That wonderful family, the people in that little town, a tight knit community that only happened in little, out of the way places like that, had all believed her about the man and tried to keep her safe.
She could still hear the gunfire, the screams of pain.
The trucker, she was sure, had managed to kill the man.
There had been a last, triumphant, shout.
She’d felt a surge of hope at that.
And grim satisfaction.
So she should have been safe with the family, safe to recover enough to find her way back to her own family, or have them come to her.
That horrible, faceless man should have been dead.
He should have been dead twice.
No, three times over.
There had been her first encounter with him after…
When had he first shown up?
In the hospital? A shadow that she’d thought was a hallucination?
That was where it had started, waking up in the hospital convinced that someone was standing over her bed, ready to attack her.
The shadow in the hospital had been different, she was sure of it, those horrible, blank eyes had been absent.
Glinting amber without a trace of humanity, far too large on a distorted face.
She’d fled from it though, out into the hall and she’d heard voices coming her way.
In that moment she’d felt terror like she’d never known before, a deep conviction that something was coming for her, something that meant harm.
And she’d been right.
After getting lost in the halls of the hospital, white and reeking of disinfectant that almost, but not quite managed to mask all the other smells, the ones that made her head ache and her eyes burn, she managed to make it to the parking garage.
That was when she’d first seen the man.
He’d shouted something, or maybe just made a sound of rage, and come for her.
He’d come for her and she’d been trapped, no way past him and too high up to jump.
There was a fight, shouting, but she’d managed to escape when a car went by, more people showing up.
The man was gone, but the doctors had wanted to sedate her.
They hadn’t seen him so they didn’t understand.
Didn’t believe her.
There hadn’t been any other choice.
That might not have been the man though, or maybe it had.
She knew that she’d encountered him on the bridge.
That was the first time she was certain of it. Before then it might have been her imagination.
Except she had no memory of how she’d gotten there or what had happened afterwards so it was hard to be certain of anything.
Why was it so hard to think?
A teenage girl, just a little older than her had seen her and stopped, had known right away that something horrible had happened and opened the door.
She’d climbed in and then somehow they’d made it to the bridge.
The man had been there, she was sure of it.
He’d mistaken the older girl for her. They both had dark hair and in a similar style.
The girl was dead, he’d killed her and was looking at the body with those horrible eyes.
It was like that book she’d read, The Mothman Prophecies, based on actual events.
After reading the book she’d told herself that it wasn’t actually real, that it was just an urban legend, but the man staring at the girl’s dead body was so inhuman.
He moved like a predator, not a person.
And he didn’t have a face, at least not one she could see, just shadow and huge, shining eyes.
The car had still been running and somehow he hadn’t noticed her.
Didn’t notice her as she climbed into the driver’s seat and stomped down as hard as she could on the gas.
That was where things got like a nightmare, where she was trying to get away, but wasn’t going anywhere.
The car was still in park.
Everything after that, until at least a day later, had been a fear filled blur, but she was sure that she’d killed the man when she ran him over.
That was why she’d kept going, not because there was anyone following her, she hadn’t realized that yet, not until the car ran out of gas and she’d been forced to abandon it and keep going on foot.
She was horrified that she’d killed a man.
Except she hadn’t.
The police had found her abandoned car and she’d fled deep into the brush on the side of the road, hiding in some thorny shrubs. Why she ran she didn’t know, looking back she should have gone to them, told them about the shadow man, but she knew that they wouldn’t believe her, that they’d take her away and keep her in place and he’d find her.
To stay in one place would be to die.
Until she found the right place, a safe place.
The town with the family had felt like a safe place and she’d allowed herself to relax, but she’d been wrong.
There had been a lot going on in her head, buzzing, whirling thoughts, but the only thing she knew for sure was that she had to keep moving.
Her life depended on it.
It had been late in the day, nearly night, and just starting to get dark.
That was why they hadn’t found her.
They’d walked right by her, no more than a few yards away, following some animal trail out into the wilderness, convinced that was the route she’d taken.
She’d waited until they were out of hearing range and fled in the opposite direction.
Because it was getting hard to see she’d noticed that there was a slope, but hadn’t realized what it meant until she miss-stepped when the pitch of the ground abruptly changed. She’d stumbled down a small incline into a creek.
No higher than her knees and barely moving, the banks were still too steep and slick for her to climb out.
So she’d been forced to press onward in the hope of finding some place where she could get out.
That was what ended up saving her life.
They came back to find her, but the banks of the stream were overhung with fallen trees and she was able to hide under one and once again wait for them to pass.
She wasn’t sure how long she spent in the stream, just that she eventually made it out and that was where the trucker had found her.
No, there had been a couple in a beat-up old car before that.
They’d given her a ride until something terrible happened.
She couldn’t remember exactly what though, because she’d gone for so long without rest, running on nothing but fear and adrenaline.
It was awful though, she was sure of it.
There had been so much blood, the woman screaming, the man…
Something had gone wrong with him.
It was after that when the trucker picked her up.
She forced herself to get back to her feet. If she didn’t the trucker’s death would be in vain, the same with everyone else who had tried to protect her.
She couldn’t let the shadow man catch her.
Couldn’t let them all have died for no reason.
Cuts on her palms and knees stung as sweat washed the dirt from them.
She stumbled, scrambled a few yards on her hands and knees, desperate to keep going.
Behind her she heard footsteps.
The man was still there, still behind her.
He wasn’t going to stop, not ever.
So she couldn’t either.
Lifting her head she screamed at the uncaring sky.
Why was this happening to her?
What had she done?
Was it because of what she and her friends had seen in the abandoned house?
They’d been exploring, out in the woods, walking, talking, joking and somehow ended up behind an old farmhouse. It was long abandoned, the barn collapsed in on itself and a little house off to the side in only slightly better shape.
Something had happened to her there, something that ended with her in the hospital, but it was all a blur to her, like so much of what had happened in the past few days.
Why was it so hard to focus?
Her head pounded and though it was late in the day, or maybe early in the morning, the light was too bright.
Rising to her feet she managed to make it to the top of the hill, stared downwards at the loose rock and dirt below. More open space lay below, no different from the ground she had already covered.
Nowhere to hide.
Too much open space.
All she wanted was to find some dark place where she could curl up and hide and wait like when she was a little girl in bed, under layers of blankets, waiting out a thunderstorm. Was that so much to ask?
Why had she come here?
She could hear them screaming, dying, trying to protect her. If only she’d been able to…
Clawing at her hair, matted with dirt and sweat and blood. Where had the blood come from? It wasn’t hers. Back at the little town, with the nice family. Someone had…not the man but someone…they’d…
The people were nice, trying to help her, trying to make things safe.
Then the man had come and…
Where was he?
She turned around, knowing that he wouldn’t stop until she was dead.
Or he was.
Her and him, alone.
She could kill him.
Her eyes hurt, her head hurt.
Even her teeth hurt.
Her mouth was dry, her lips split and she could taste blood.
Turning around she squinted into the distance behind her, expecting to see a black shadow drawing nearer.
He was nowhere to be seen.
Had she lost him?
The only movement was wind through the scattered patches of tall grass.
She gnawed nervously at her lip, spat blood and looked down at it, wondering.
Why was she bleeding?
Her hands were covered with cuts, from when she had fallen, but there was a shard of glass stuck in her palm. How had that happened?
The car accident?
Or was it with the nice family, when they’d locked her in the room after she…
They’d let her out though, or had she gotten out?
It didn’t matter, in the end they’d understood.
They’d been such a nice family.
In the end at least, even trying to protect her from the man, fighting tooth and claw to keep her safe.
The man was drawing nearer, a remorseless black shadow who would follow her until one of them was dead.
Killing was the only choice.
Then she would be safe.
She could go back to the nice family in their little town and finish…
And be safe.
There was a sense of finality to it, she would be safe there, hidden away. They would keep her safe, she would keep them safe and the nice family would grow.
Rage filled her at the sight of the man. He had chased her this far, ruined everything, killed the people who had tried to help her, tried to kill her.
The only way to end it was to kill him.
She could tell by the way he was walking that he was tired, all in black in the hot sun he had to be. It was the first time she had seen any sign of weakness from him and that weakness goaded her into action.
If he was weak she could kill him.
An awkward running start and she lunged at him, arms out stretched, hands ready to grab his throat.
Something hit her in the stomach, twice in the chest and she stumbled.
Fell to the ground and found herself unable to get up.
Her legs, tired and aching wouldn’t obey.
They didn’t hurt anymore, though she was too exhausted to care.
She clawed her way, forward towards the man.
If she could kill him then…
But it was getting hard to breathe. Her lungs rattled and gurgled and didn’t seem to want to pull in air.
Looking up at the man she saw that he was aiming the long, black barrel of a gun at her.
Dimly she realized that she’d been shot, but it she killed him there was still a chance.
She stared into the darkness of the barrel.
Her vision wavered, gray creeping in around the edges as the darkness seemed to expand into a great tunnel.
The darkness was safe and with a sound like thunder it rushed forward to meet her.