Not for the first time, I'm flirting with insomnia. I have to be at work in seven hours and I really shouldn't be sitting in the park at 2 am. I let out a frustrated huff and watch as cigarette smoke trails out of my lungs and melds into the stagnant mist.
Everything is damp and cold and I can feel my hair curling in the still air. I should sleep. I'll have to wear makeup to work tomorrow. It'll require setting my alarm a few minutes earlier, but if I don't I'll look like death warmed over. It's a bad idea to look sickly when you work in food service. It puts the customers off. I kick my feet at the dirt in annoyed frustration.
I know what has put me in such a funk. I've been trying not to think about it, but it is still the reason for my middle of the night emo-kid-smoking-in-the-fog routine. I've been having nightmares. I'm a little embarrassed to be so rattled by bad dreams, but they've been kind of horrific; giant figures leaning over writhing bodies, cities burning, end of days, the whole shebang. Every time I've closed my eyes this past week I've woken up with the echoes of the shrieks still ringing in my ears. Maybe I've been drinking too much caffeine.
I flick the stubby end of my cigarette into the wet grass and rub my hands together, trying to ward off the cold. I can see my breath. April in Georgia is never this cold, even after a heavy rain. I pull my jacket close and stand up. There is a winding sidewalk along the perimeter of the park and if I follow it, it eventually doubles back past my house. My parents' house. Maybe walking a mile or two will help make me tired.
A noise catches my attention. A frantic, slapping echo reverberates over the street and off the side of the nearest house. Someone's running? The "park" is just a big, flat field with a few trees at the far end and old brick homes lining the edges. Sound carries strangely over too flat of ground and I can't pinpoint where it's coming from, but I know it isn't some late-night jogger. These are the heavy footfalls of someone running wildly, as fast as they can force their legs to go. I turn around too late, and he nearly collides with me. His labored breathing and wide-eyed stare are all I can process. What is happening? Before I can even start to speculate, he grabs my hand.
"What?" I feel like I've missed the movie and walked in on the last five minutes. I do know whatever's going on is serious. The look on his face says that well enough.
"Run," He manages to sound forceful despite being out of breath. He lets go of my hand, nearly throwing it back at me. There's nothing else to be done, so we take off. I cut across the field. Screw the meandering sidewalk, I'm going home. The stranger falls into step behind me. I don't know where he thinks he's going, because I'm certainly not letting him into my mom's house in the middle of the night.
People are right to use the phrase "smoker lungs". They just don't work quite right, but fear is an excellent motivator. I cover the quarter-mile distance in record time. The stranger is right beside me, and I can't move fast enough to outrun him. In the distance I hear squealing tires. The sound makes my insides twist uneasily.
We reach the street in front of the house. I make for the door, but my running partner grabs my arm again.
"Not the house. They could see," Gears are turning in his head. His eyes lock on my beat up truck parked on the side of the road, "Do you have your keys?"
"Listen, buddy-" I gasp, sounding peeved.
"For your own safety, get in the truck," He speaks almost in a growl, his face radiating fear and desperation as if it's the most important thing in the world that I believe him. The sound of cars is getting closer. Call it panic, I guess, but I pull out my keys and sprint to the truck. I climb in, and he's in the passenger seat almost instantly.
"Take the next right and stay off the main roads until we can get to the highway," We're in motion before he finishes speaking.
My radio is whispering the local classic rock station; as we turn onto the side street he flips the sound off. This fool touched my radio. No one touches my radio.
"Hey," Not exactly clever, but it conveys my annoyance.
"Shut up, I'm listening," Rude and panicked. This is not the night I signed up for, but he has a point. I see headlights in the rearview back-lighting a house in the distance. I lean on the gas. We are getting the hell out of here.
I've been driving ten minutes, taking every back way I know and speeding for the record books. We're halfway across town and not far from the interstate. I blame the adrenaline. I'm beginning to wonder if allowing a strange man in my car was a good idea. It's exactly the boneheaded thing I shout at blonde girls in horror movies for. It seems less dumb when you're scared and running, but what had we been running from? Just because I'd heard a car in the distance didn't actually mean anything. My mother's voice drifts through my head.
"Fear makes fools of us all."
There is a cold, sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach. What would my mother say if she could see me now? I have an absolute stranger in my car. A potentially unstable stranger that has a strong case against him already, now I'm thinking about it. Utter panic fills my insides like ice water. There is a can of pepper spray in my glove compartment; my dad put it there in case of emergency. Unfortunately, my glove compartment is a bit of a reach for me and right smack in front of this possible lunatic. Shit.
On the other, slightly more rational, hand I've been alone with this guy for almost fifteen minutes now and he hasn't tried to ax-murder me yet. In fact, he'd seemed quite concerned for my safety. I peek at him as discreetly as I can.
He looks to be about twenty three or twenty four, just a little older than me. He doesn't look outwardly crazy and his short blonde hair, plain white t-shirt, and jeans give off a clean-cut vibe. If he is crazy I'm in a lot of trouble, because his muscular build is apparent through his shirt and his bare arms are definitely strong enough to snap my neck if he felt so inclined. I want him out of my truck.
"Do you need me to drop you at the police station?" That seems rational. No need getting dragged into whatever he's tangled in.
"The police can't help. Just get to the highway and I'll tell you what exit," He's still shooting nervous looks behind us. It's making me jumpy all over again.
"Lookee here, I don't know you. You're lucky I didn't just run into my house and lock you out. Now tell me what the hell is going on," My voice was supposed to sound authoritative but instead sounds squeaky and scared.
"What's going on is we are trying not to die. We've lost them for now, but we need to get to a safe-house before they find us."
"If you've gotten in trouble with the mob or drug dealers or whatever, that's not my problem. Last I checked no one was trying to kill me, so if you don't mind-"
"Check again, lady, cause all it takes is one of them seeing what house we ran to and your whole family is gonna be on their list. And drug dealers? Really? I don't do drugs," He sounds a little offended.
"You could have fooled me! Running like a bat outta hell in the middle of the night! Getting me dragged into your problems."
"Alright. We can keep arguing, which accomplishes nothing, or you can drive where I tell you to go. I'm gonna be honest; if you don't help me I'll be dead before the end of the night," There's a brutal earnestness painted across his whole face. The guy's persuasive, I'll give him that. I've never hit a squirrel on the road, much less allowed a human being to be hurt. A whole chorus of voices in my head are telling me to kick his ass out of my truck and drive like hell until I'm home, but my insides are whirring against the idea. I have no real reason to believe him, but I've already driven this far.
I sigh, suddenly quite ready for sleep, "How far?"
His eyebrows twitch, showing his surprise for a nanosecond. He lets out a deep, relieved breath, "Ten minutes. Central Columbus."
"Then we've got ten minutes. I deserve to know what I'm saving you from. Talk," I sound tired. I am tired. We're on the on-ramp for the interstate.
He runs a hand through his short, blonde hair, "I don't think ten minutes will be enough."
"Then talk fast."
He laughs, "The more I say, the less you'll believe me," He goes quiet, probably waiting for a reply. I just shoot him a dirty look. Hopefully he'll get the point and continue with whatever cockamamie story he's got in mind, "Do you have any religious views?"
"What? Tell me why someone's after you, not what church you attend."
"Hey, you asked for an explanation and you're right, you deserve one but things are... complicated. Most people wouldn't believe it, so I had to ask."
"So skip the leprechauns and give me the basics," Spare me the drama of your life.
"Alright. There are...bad things around here, bad people too. I'm part of a group trying to get rid of the... bad. Not everyone likes that idea; hence the running and chasing."
"So you're either an exterminator or a vigilante. Did I catch the gist?" He's laughing, but I can't find anything funny about this.
The road. There's something massive in the road ahead.
"Shit!" He shouts and throws his arms up defensively in front of him. I spin the wheel hard, barely missing the monstrous dark shape. I crane my neck around to look behind us, "Now is not the time to sight-see, get this bucket moving!" He yells.
I drop the pedal to the floorboard. The engine screams and wheezes as we lurch well beyond the speed limit, "What was that? What the flying fuck was that?" My voice is a terrified screech.
He stares at me, astonished, his pale blue eyes so wide open they threaten to fall out of his skull, "You saw that?"
"How could I not?" I'm hyperventilating, "Was that a person?" I grip the steering wheel tighter, trying not to shiver, "It was way too big to be a person."
"That's what's chasing me. Just keep driving and no, it wasn't a person," He's shouting.
"Then what was it?" I'm shouting. Anywhere above 80 my truck turns into a rattletrap, bumping down the road, windows about to shake loose or burst. It makes conversation at a normal volume impossible.
He seems to have composed himself a little, "You really saw it, didn't you?" He stares me down with half a confused smile forming on his face. I nod angrily and it seems to snap him back into the serious not right of the situation, "Would it make you feel better if I said it was a bear?" It was about the size of one of those monster grizzlies they show on nature channels, but bears are a rare sight in Georgia and unheard of in a town the size of Columbus.
"Don't bullshit me right now," I'm still struggling to bring my voice down from dog-whistle pitch. He sighs and replies, but the rumbling of my pickup drowns his words. "What?" I shout over the roar.
"It was a demon."
This dude is a lunatic. An absolute, genuine, screaming on the subway crazy person, "Right. A demon. Will we be seeing Godzilla and his giant robot friend Maurice tonight as well?"
"It was a demon," He repeats in a matter-of-fact tone.
"I swear I will throw your ass out of this-" An ear shattering blast from behind leaves my threat hanging unfinished. I don't look back. I can't look back. Red light leaps out of the darkness behind us. The muscles in my leg are stuck stiff against the gas pedal but we've already buried the needle. The metal frame creaks and the engine strains as we barely remain in front of the blaze overtaking the road.
"Take this exit!" He shouts, a hint of amusement in his voice. I follow his directions without slowing down. We careen down side streets and climb curbs whenever he tells me to turn. I'm amazed the truck hasn't flipped yet, "Almost there! Two more blocks, it's on the right!" He's pointing and shouting, straining against his seat-belt as if he can will us to get there faster.
In a last burst of speed I let out a terrified, adrenaline fueled scream.