It was like it had been pointed straight at me. The pain was intense, I could easily have been blinded. My eyes were shut tight now, but I could still kind of see something. A blurred glow floating and drifting right in front of me. Locking them tighter eased the pain, yet the image remained, and my eyes stung. But I was still alive, and by the sound of the steady breathing next to me, so was Alex.
I checked again. This time carefully squinting against the blinding brightness. Daylight split the sky as the sun’s glare ricocheted off a distant blade of ocean and sliced its way through the foliage. The stillness and silence around us was broken only by the sounds of nature: dewy droplets splattering through leaves on trees as feathered predators sprang from branches, wings stirring the cool misty air; scattered bursts of movement from the tangled shrubs below acknowledging the threat from above, and that sanctuary should replace the urge for food.
I was groggy and nearly awake now. Our immediate surroundings were barely visible through the beads of condensation trickling down the windscreen of our stationary car. Both front seats were reclined, jackets slung from single shoulders as our covers. Knees tucked in tight, ensuring the makeshift beds accommodated our exhausted frames. As the temperature gradually rose, Alex remained oblivious, still in a deep sleep.
I pulled down my sleeve to cover my hand and wiped away some of the condensation. The car was a mess, the battered wing mirror on my side attached but only just, its mirrored glass – a spray of shards still held in place by the casing – reflecting a shattered world outside. Along one side, the daylight revealed badly damaged body panels, brutally gouged scrapes and slashes of red. The rear screen was heavily frosted and the fresh morning air spiralled in through a tight cluster of perfect circles.
A narrow opening at the top of each side window drew the air through the car, creating a gentle but crisp breeze across my face. On the back seat lay a laptop bag, cables and notebooks poking through the yawning zipper; next to it sat two rucksacks, smothered with discarded clothing.
Adding new tones to the disrupted silence, a solitary farm vehicle rounded the bend near the wooded rest area where we were hidden from view, the grinding rhythm and mechanical beat more insistent than the sounds of nature, which hadn’t been enough to truly break our peace before. Another thudding sound, dull and heavier, increased the volume further; it came from above this time, passing over us before quietening and drifting away.
With a snorted intake of breath I writhed, muffling a cough, and shuffled round to face Alex. Propping myself on one elbow, I checked on my sleeping driver while still squinting against the sun’s early rays.
The first couple of gentle nudges did nothing. I tried a hushed and hoarse prompt.
“Alex.” Still no response.
Another attempt, this time with a gentle shake to the shoulder. “Alex, come on, wake up.”
A result, slight movement, then a sudden panicked awakening. Body remaining still, head turning side to side, squinting and recognising our surroundings before relaxing again. A contrast to my own awakening, and no doubt fuelled by flashbacks of last night’s escape and the events that came before.
“You okay?” I said, blinking and rubbing the sleep from my eyes
“I think so. Are you?” groaned Alex, curling up and retreating beneath the jacket.
I yawned, rubbed my eyes and pulled the jacket away again. “Still alive, but I reckon we’ve got to get out of here pretty soon. Come on.”
Our wakening was confirmation: the hunt was on again. Alex sat upright, stretching as the seat back straightened, flicked the ignition key a single turn and pulled the wiper stalk. The windscreen cleared in one sweeping movement. We were safe for now, the location was rural and quite remote, but we’d be obvious strangers to people with local knowledge, especially to anyone who was urged to talk.
We took a good look around outside. The damage to the car wasn’t really a surprise; we were lucky to have made it this far. Following a quick stretch and a slug of water we discussed our next move over the roof of the car. I pulled out my phone and scanned my social media and messages as Alex climbed back in and turned the key again.
“Here’s our answer, Joel,” said Alex, pointing through the steering wheel at the dials as I clambered back in. “We won’t get far on what’s in the tank.”
Early morning chatter had filled the car with our sleepy odour, but neither of us were too bothered by this; we were used to each other’s company by now. Lowering the side windows a little further cleared the air, and we scanned the immediate area for anything that might be a threat or require avoiding.
“I think that’s our best option,” said Alex, pointing at a distant coastal village we could just make out through the trees. Alex knew the area well, so I wasn’t about to argue.
I closed my window and rubbed my hands together. “Go for it, if you think we can fill up there and maybe find a place to eat, or even just buy some stuff,” I said, placing my hand across the heater vents, nudging buttons until the lights all glowed red.
Alex fired the engine, an acoustic alert pinging a reminder as the tyres slowly crunched across the gravel rest area. Seat belts quickly connected, behind our backs to enable a quick exit, halted the warning signal. Escape took priority over safety on this trip.
We joined the coast road with a brief and rasping wheelspin. The engine growled, and a spiralling plume of exhaust fumes billowed, followed and disappeared as we left the sanctuary of the woods behind us and set off in search of food and fuel.
We made our way towards the village and Alex slowed down as we approached signposts, carefully checking junctions for any hidden surprises. I looked upwards through the side window, then leaned forward, searching the sky. An aircraft, probably a helicopter, was just visible low in the sky in the distance and seemed to be heading towards where we were going. Alex had dropped the speed and was rapidly switching attention between the empty road ahead and the approaching airborne traffic. We watched as it hovered, then moved with purpose along the route we would eventually take as we neared the village.
“Not sure about this,” I said, glancing at Alex. “We got away with it last night because it was dark, but I’m thinking this is more than déjà vu.”
“Yes, me too,” said Alex, quickly changing gear and accelerating hard. “Let’s get out of sight until we figure out if it’s him. He can’t set it down easily with all these trees around anyway. Keep your eye on it.”
The car lurched forward as we headed for cover. Eyes fixed on the helicopter and road ahead, we skidded to a halt in the damp shadows of a bridge arching over our route. The dull thudding beat gradually increased in volume; we couldn’t see it but we were sure it wasn’t an airborne sightseeing trip that was hovering above us.