~ a short story
Strolling back from the store, the bottle firmly in his grasp, Max could hardly wait to return to his nook. Some music, maybe an old film. This night was his own and the bottle of wine now swinging by his side was a key piece of the equation. Chardonnay, he didn’t even know the name, he chose it based solely on the label art. No bag, he carried the bottle like a carpenter’s hammer. It was the only thing he purchased, the only reason he was out this late at all.
The humid air made him sweat and grip the bottle harder and think. He was still about ten minutes from home base. Walking alone, at night, his mind always drifted to the worse case scenario. He swiveled his head around. Not many people out right now, not in this part of the city. He couldn’t help but ponder the scenario in which he is accosted by someone in the dark: what would he do? Fight or flight? Thinking on it, it would have to be flight. He was in shape, but of slight build. Why chance trying to overpower someone? What if they had a weapon? He believed, or rather knew, his great advantage to be speed. He could run. When the adrenaline kicked in, he was confident he could outrun most anybody, even a madman probably. That was how he would play it. Of course, he would need to see the threat before it was close. That’s why he considered it so important to keep his head on a swivel. If the mugger or the murderer got the jump on him, then it could all be over before he even started the engine.
He turned a corner. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a lone figure. Someone sitting on the bench maybe. But when he looked back over his shoulder there was no one there. Just the bench. He upped his pace. In fact, it was eerily quiet on the streets this evening. There was practically no one, and even though it was late that did seem unusual. Some people took these streets to head downtown and into the bars for a night on the town. It was around the time some people might be returning or heading out for last call. But there was no one. Just him and his bottle.
Now he was about 5 minutes out. Waiting at a crosswalk, no cars coming through. He looks both ways and started to cross. Hairs on the back of the neck flaring, he sensed something. Turning quickly to the side and then behind, he saw nothing. Back across the street something moved. A man stood in the street, suddenly unmoving. He’s tall, wearing all black, head down. Stilled, the figure faced towards him. Heartbeat quickened, grip tightens.
He begins to jog down the parallel street, his route just changed. Keeping his eye on the man in the street for several moments, the shadow doesn’t move but its head does. It turns and continues gazing at him while he gets further and further away. Two twin suns, tiny and eternal, look upon him. Panic settling in, now he turns and runs.
His adrenaline is flowing full force, his mind is racing faster than his feet. Wanting to move quicker than his body allows, he almost trips over himself. He hears something behind him again, it is close. He doesn’t have the time or the courage to look back. He continues to run. And he still holds the bottle, a death grip. It’s weight gives his run a satisfying momentum.
He turns at the next stop light, glances into the street and sees no oncoming traffic. Before he takes a second step, the man is in the crosswalk ahead, directly in his path somehow. The glow of the streetlight basks him in an unearthly glow. The figure walks at him slowly. With horrific and sudden realization, he can’t move. Something like this has never happened in his life. He is struck with a fear so great that he is completely immobilized. Unblinking, he watches the shadow man’s approach. The figure doesn’t even seem to be in a hurry, he approaches at a modest pace. He still cannot blink. In the light of the street’s embrace, he can only make out the silhouette of the figure. A faceless monster. His heart beats out of his chest while he thinks inexplicably of the bottle in hand, the warmth of the hearth waiting back home, of his own mortality.
The streetlight backing the shadow flickers and cuts out. He falls backwards as the man disappears. He looks frantically but somehow there’s no one around him in the darkness any longer. Eyes wheeling, his body is moving again again, running away from this place, his possible tomb. A near death experience emboldening, his feet carry him over block after block. He should almost be there. Breath comes only in spurts. The running sustains from fright. Blood pumping at maximum, he doesn’t stop running for a long time. In his dashing daze, he soon realizes something is wrong. Around him the shadows beckon. The buildings, the streets, the trees, he doesn’t know where he is. Lost.
He hears something, behind him, something getting louder. He keeps a jog, eyes flashing toward any familiarity he can draw up, not even willing to contemplate the return of the shadowman. Continuing to turn corners, there’s nothing he recognizes. where am I? where am I? what do I do?…
A shadow appears on the street before him, he cuts through a back alley, hoping it’s a shortcut. But it’s not. Dead end. Moving so fast, he doesn’t even notice the high brick walls now surrounding him. Too late. He turns around quickly to get out of the alley, but the silhouette is already there. It stands in the glare, waiting. It doesn’t approach, just stands.
Seeing its presence again here, trapped before its chasing, something deep inside him said that it watched. And hungered.
The young man tried to steady his breath. He thinks and thinks, the standoff grating his sanity. Of a way out, a way to defend himself. The shadow’s shoulders begin to heave, a strange sound emanates from its mouth. Heart beating with a velocity untested in his short life, he reactively presses his toes to the soles of his shoes and tightens his knuckles in an attempt to brace his wild nerves. The bottle! He still has it in his right hand. Forgotten, but his hand never did.
The shadow moves in. The speed and ferocity is nearly blinding. The young man follows his instincts and dives to his left while bringing the bottle up and around with his right. He delivers it with everything he’s got. It smashes full force into the shadow’s face. He hears the gunshot sound of the shattering upon impact. The wine splashes all over his arm as he continues his roll out of the way. The bulk of the shadowman lumbers through, past him.
Staggering back against the wall, he hears something terrible. An inhuman roar, a pale descriptor. Seated in terror, he watches and listens. Smoke emanates from the twisting and crackling shadow now sprawled onto the ground. But the sounds dominate his attention. An unbearable and agonizing scream summons all his attention. He stares breathlessly at the figure writhe and crumple on the ground. It isn’t long before there’s no more sound at all, save for the hiss of steam emanating off what is left of its mangled form.
“For them, wine is as deadly as holy water.”
A voice proclaims from the opening of the alley to his left. Slowly he stands and looks out into the glaring light. There is a man in a coat. He wears a hat and smokes a pipe patiently, eyes closed for a moment, then intensely open and staring directly at him. He slowly walks towards the young man, arm outstretched. He is human; a relief washes over Max’s whole soul.
“My name is W. Are you alright?” the elder said with sincerity. His accent the young man cannot quite place. It is from afar in the world. He took the hand, the older man’s grip is steely strong.
“I would say you are lucky to be alive, but you showed great resolve.”
The old man looked at the shadowman nearby on the ground, sizzling away into nothingness.
“Not many people that have encountered one of them have lived to tell about it. You are the first I have seen in a very long time. Tremendous potential.” The old man smiled. “But of course, it isn’t by chance our paths have crossed this night.” The coated man turned as he spoke, tipping his cap.
“Come, Maximillian. I have much to explain and you have much to learn if you seek to.” The old man walked slowly out of the alley and towards the light of the street.
Max took a deep breath, smelling the aura of the wine all over his shirt. No longer squinting against the glare, no longer hesitating, he followed him. ~