The door’s hinges squeaked and Claudio stepped into the bedroom. His footsteps made the floor creak, even when it was completely carpeted. Narcissus supposed he was wearing his sports footwear, the one he used for running. Claudio stopped next to the bed. He cleared his throat a couple of times. Then, he cracked his fingers.
“Cissus,” he said. His voice sounded tired and a bit irritated. “Cissus, get up already.”
Narcissus answered with a groan. He clenched his eyes, hard, and sank his face into the pillow.
“It’s time,” said Claudio. He raised his right leg and softly pushed his roommate’s body. His foot’s sole made contact with his lower back.
“Do not kick me,” babbled Narcissus.
“Don’t exaggerate, I barely touched you. Now, get up.”
“What do you want? It’s Saturday.”
“It’s training Saturday.”
“Well, good on you.” Narcissus curled up, like a woodlouse would. “Have fun.”
Claudio uncovered Narcissus. He pulled the blankets towards the foot of the bed and, to be sure, threw them to the floor. “We are running at the woods today, remember? With Mona and her roommate.”
“I thought that was cancelled.”
“You thought wrong,” said Claudio dryly. “Now get dressed, prepare yourself. If I come back and find you still lying here, I’ll throw a bucket of cold water at you. I swear,” he threatened while leaving the room.
Despite it all, Narcissus took his time. He had known Claudio for almost fifteen years and knew that it bothered him to be late to any date or appointment that he had. Without even having to look at the clock, he knew that Mona and her roommate would be arriving in half an hour or more. It was okay to be cautious, but Claudio was an extremist. There was plenty of time.
While he put on his tight pants and tied his yellow sneakers, Narcissus wondered why he had agreed to this madness. He had never liked running. Au contraire, it was a form of exercise that he despised and avoided like a vegetarian avoids meat. And now he had signed up to one of those cross country, fifteen freaking kilometre, races, which included obstacles and mud pools and punishment for not doing the exercises correctly or in the established time limit. Go run at the hill?, Narcissus asked himself. He had to be completely crazy.
But you had to feel like you were part of the moment, he recriminated himself. He had accepted to participate whilst drunk, in a party he and Claudio had organised at the flat. Now it was too late and he was hopping into the backseat of Mona’s red SUV, dragging not only his feet but every fibre of his body, smiling reluctantly and wishing to return to the comfort of his home as soon as possible.
The woods were some twenty-five, thirty minutes from the flat, on the mountain’s hillside. The more they approached their destination, both girls and Claudio got more excited about their training race. Narcissus glanced at his watch. It was almost nine in the morning.
“Cheer up,” said Claudio and hit him lightly on his right thigh. “The fresh air will do you good, and the more you train, the better you’ll do at the race.”
“I need no training,” said Narcissus laconically. “I’m finishing that race through sheer willpower. And with a better time than you.”
A sarcastic little laugh and then silence until they arrived at their destination. There were some worn-out wooden tables, and some benches that matched, five metres from the treeline. Mona parked next to them. Everybody got out and started with their warm-up and stretching exercises. The air was rather cold and the sky was overcast. Not a single ray of sunshine escaped the grey firmament.
Narcissus listened, but did not pay too much attention, to the way Claudio gave instructions. He did like to run. He loved it, actually, and constantly signed up to all kinds of sports events. To pay for getting tired, so that your legs, arms, and God knows what other parts of your body ache? I don’t even have a gym membership, thought Narcissus. After defining the route they were going to take, they stole into the unknown.
“I hope, for your sake, that it does not rain,” said Narcissus a couple of metres in.
“Just stick to running,” said Claudio. Then, he inhaled profoundly and exhaled with a big puff.
A few minutes passed. Narcissus seemed to have, after all, a good condition, and even though he had a constant buzz in his head, product of the lack of sleep and, possibly, last night’s alcohol, he was keeping Claudio’s pace. In reality, it was his ego that helped him run fast, to keep constant. Mona and her roommate started to drag behind. They weren’t so accustomed either, nor such fanatics, of running.
“Should we wait for them?,” asked Narcissus after noticing how far they had gone from the girls.
“No,” answered Claudio. His fierce gaze kept looking forward. “They’ll catch up eventually. If not, we will reunite at the end of the trail.”
Both young men, aged twenty-five and twenty-three, tall and with long legs that enabled them to give big strides, picked up the pace. In a couple more minutes, Mona and her roommate were out of sight.
Narcissus cussed himself with every breath he took, first because he hated running and, in a close second, because he was getting tired. Breathing proved to become more difficult, and he felt an acute malaise, as if he had a hole, on his side. He was about to let it go, to stop and watch how Claudio left him behind as well. Both heard the gut-wrenching scream, the kind that made blood run cold.
They stood still for a moment, as if they were anchored to the ground. No other sound disturbed the silence that fell upon them. Not even the sound of their panting and gasping seemed to reverberate in their ears. They jogged back, first slowly and then faster, until they found Mona’s roommate. They had almost recovered their breath completely.
The girl walked sluggishly, pressing her lips tight together. Her arms hung, rigid as steel bars, at the sides of her body. Her eyes moved rapidly from side to side, like the eyes of a little animal scrutinising the forest, making sure there were no predators nearby. Her neck didn’t bend and her head didn’t make it turn.
“What’s happening?,” asked Claudio. “Where’s Mona?”
The girl did not speak. She shrugged.
“Mona!,” shouted both young men, almost at the same time, using their hands to amplify the sound of their voices.
The girl kept on walking, slow but constantly. Claudio stopped her. He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. He asked her again about Mona.
“I don’t know,” she finally said. “I saw you ran faster, so I picked up the pace as well. A little after she got out of sight, I heard that scream.” Claudio noticed the girl’s uncontrollable shaking. He himself felt a shiver down his spine.
The three of them continued walking. Neither spoke, only Claudio and Narcissus took turns to shout Mona’s name. Echo didn’t seem to exist in that place, and that made them feel lost and lonely and most miserable.
They had almost returned to their point of origin. Now, the wind roared forcefully, silencing the shouts with which they searched their lost companion. The cold filtered through their clothes. They started to quiver and to rub their arms, trying to generate some heat.
“This isn’t working,” said Claudio, taking his hands to his mouth, blowing hot air from his lungs into them. The breath looked like a phantasmagorical apparition, going through his bones, muscles and flesh. “Let’s split up. We’ll cover more ground that way.” He cracked his fingers. They sounded like ice cubes bumping against each other. “God, I wish I’d brought a thicker jacket.”
Curious, thought Narcissus, already walking on his own. He hadn’t paid attention to the weather until Claudio mentioned it. It was midsummer and it shouldn’t have been that cold. Maybe this is the usual temperature at this God forsaken place, he thought. He laughed and smiled mischievously. Where is global warming when you need it?
He went deep into the forest and the mountain. In little time, his thighs began to complain. Narcissus snorted and yelled again. Then, he yelled one more time. He couldn’t hear the others anymore.
They had to find her. After all, they had arrived in her SUV and she had kept the keys. A twenty-five, thirty minute drive was much longer on foot. Narcissus stuffed his hands as deep as he could into the pockets of his slim jacket. He rubbed his fingertips together. Even though they were sweating, they were still cold. “Mona!”
How could she have gotten lost? What could have happened to her? Narcissus’ brain raced, trying to explain how the hell he had come to his current predicament. He analysed the facts he knew and something was not right, something didn’t add up. Why had she screamed as awfully as that? His nose started to run.
Narcissus looked at his watch and hid his hand again as fast as he could. He hadn’t registered the time, so he had to look again. Quarter past eleven. It was impossible that she’d gotten so far. He shouted, unenthusiastically, again. He shook his head. “Let’s split up,” he mumbled, mimicking Claudio. “Some leader, he didn’t even tell us to regroup by the SUV in twenty, thirty or forty minutes.” He started to make his way back.
He turned his head right and then left. There were a couple of little hills at each side of the valley. The view wasn’t spectacular but pretty tranquil. Calm and peace, ideal for a morning run until you lose one of your partners. He smiled again. Then, he heard the cry.
“Mona! Mona, where are you?” Narcissus couldn’t identify what direction the wincing had come from. It hadn’t been a shriek, nor a call for help. A strange sound, really, but who knows what level of desperation that woman has come to, he thought. “Mona!”
He pricked up his ears. He heard it again, distant but definitely approaching. Narcissus frowned and puffed. “Mona!,” he shouted, without conviction.
He walked faster. The wince was closing in. Idiot, he recriminated himself, that’s how the monster finds you in the horror film. But you go on, continue to shout your pathetic “Mona, Mona.” The wince became two, and then three. Now that it was closer, it sounded like a constant and guttural growl.
His jog didn’t last long. What he would almost immediately recognise as a hand, black, with rotten fingernails and covered by a layer of what appeared to be feathers, burst out of the ground and clung forcefully to his right ankle. The scream stuck in Narcissus’ throat, almost asphyxiating him. With eyes wide open, he kicked the hand with his left leg. He moved enough, he managed to break free.
He stood up. He looked ahead. Two more of those things came out of the shadows, cutting him off, acquiring defined, clear-cut forms, too real for Narcissus to bear. Their legs arched into brutal claws, and they had a humanoid body full of thick fur. Their skin was as black as charcoal, and a strange membrane hung from their arms, covered with more hair that clustered into little groups, giving the impression of being feathers. The beasts’ snouts were the worst, with a viscous protuberance similar to that of pigs. Dead eyes, like grey marbles that turned without control within their sockets, and large ears that gave them the appearance of having crooked, opaque horns. The hand that had grabbed him was now unearthing the rest of its body.
Narcissus’ nervous system generated a shock that flooded his entire body. He had opted for flight instead of fight, so he rushed towards the only way that was left. His legs filled with blood as he jumped over the beast that was still emerging from the ground. He ran, without looking back, towards the mountain.
It wasn’t just a sensation. He was being pursued. The strange beings started to go behind him, howling dolefully, clamouring for Narcissus’ life. He didn’t know it for certain, but the anxiety that he felt in his stomach assured him that it would be his end if he let himself get caught.
He turned his head. He could only see them through the corner of his eye. They gave long and potent strides, but they weren’t per se running. They flapped their membrane arms, treating them as wings, as if they wanted to fly. If they hadn’t had such a disgusting aspect, they’d even look like children pretending to be birds, raising their arms while they jumped and lowering them down to the floor at the end of their motion.
The sound that they made didn’t belong to a unique animal. It was an indescribable mixture that included tones from felines, wolves, bears and several birds of prey. They did their part. They kept Narcissus timorous. They kept the boy’s blood with that sweet smell--and flavour--of fear.
The road turned and twisted, not only from right to left but from top to bottom as well. The irregular mounds caused Narcissus a couple of slight slips, and the trees that were scattered about forced him to make small corrections in his direction every now and then.
He didn’t know how long it had taken him, if he had run for a long or short period of time. The river seemed dangerous, but only if you had time to think about its flow. Narcissus threw himself straightforwardly and got dragged by the current against a rock. He hit it with his lower back. He tried to scream, but the water gushed into his mouth and choked the sound. He didn’t have time to cough either, since his complete attention was focused on getting out of the water trap in which he had so lightly entered.
His arm strokes were non-effective, and his kick was nullified almost completely under the water’s pressure. He couldn’t hang on to rocks either, since his wet hands provided a weak grip. He seldom breathed, drinking more liquid than he’d like to. The only thing he could do against the water’s blows to his face was to clench his mouth and eyes. His hand felt something, a thin branch to which he clasped with all of his strength.
It was like climbing a rope. Narcissus managed to place his feet over a rock and keep his balance long enough to throw himself to land. He spat some water and wished to lay under the tree that had saved his life. He turned worriedly.
They were at the other side of the river. They had followed him, without getting into the water, throughout his passage. They screamed and shook excessively, taunting him. In different circumstances, Narcissus would have made them an obscene gesture. Now, he just jogged towards the mountain. The only thing he wanted was to get as far as possible from those things and forget them. The important thing was to survive.
Cold stuck to him like a tick. His wet clothes caused him a constant shuddering, and he felt as if his bones had swollen up and wanted to get out of his body. He rolled up his sleeves. Think about something else, do not concentrate on the cold, he told himself. He repeated it like a mantra, like a prayer. Abstracted, he advanced automatically, getting farther away from civilisation. He heard the scream.
“Mona?,” he whispered without thinking and immediately covered his mouth. It had been a woman, that was definitive. Narcissus shook his head and kept running. He feared he was hallucinating things. He smiled. As if the things that had followed him were not the product of a fever dream.
He heard another scream. He growled and covered his ears. He kept on going, cussing through his teeth. Then, he stopped. In the distance, a silhouette seemed to be waiting for him.
She was wearing an ochre dress, although, maybe, it had once been white. Where her clothes ended and where her brown skin began was difficult to distinguish, at least from where he stood. Black hair. She walked slowly, dragging her bare feet in Narcissus’ direction.
Without knowing what to say, he ran again. He babbled a couple of incoherent things under his breath before yelling. “Are you okay?”
The young girl didn’t answer. Her brown eyes, wide open, were lost. She wasn’t too tall, she’d barely reach Narcissus’ elbows.
“Are you okay?,” repeated Cissus. He already was a couple metres from her. “You can’t stay here,” he said, “there are things stalking--“
Her teeth were as sharp as needles, getting in and out as quick as lightning. The girl had jumped so fast that Narcissus hadn’t had time to think. She grasped his arm with both hands and started to lick the wound she had inflicted. The crimson of her tongue melted with the blood’s colour.
The eyes were the first to change, rolling to the back of her head and leaving the grey marbles that Narcissus had come to fear. The dress broke into hair, and into a pair of translucent membranes that went from her arms to the sides of her body. As if it was being burnt, her skin darkened until reaching a jet black tone. The snout and ears lengthened. Narcissus couldn’t see her feet, but he knew that they had also enlarged until turning into claws.
It was until her transformation completed that Narcissus tried to defend himself. He struck punch after punch between its eyes, feeling its fur slide between his fingers. The thing drove its nails into his skin and didn’t, not even for one second, stop caressing the arm of its prey with its snout.
More of those creatures approached, grunting, savouring the scent of blood that lingered in the air. Narcissus stopped hitting and started kicking. Two of his kicks connected with the beast’s torso, the third one on one of its wing-like membranes. It appeared to be a sensitive part of its body, since it loosened its grip. Narcissus managed to escape, he pushed the thing with the whole weight of his body, knocking it over, and kept running.
His arm stung. The blood that came from his wound was hot and sticky. He didn’t know why, but the sensation of that slimy liquid running down his skin made Narcissus feel nauseated. As he moved forward, the landscape changed. There were less trees and the ground became increasingly barren. The lack of obstacles let Narcissus turn his head, to make sure his persecutors were far enough. He had forgotten his fatigue completely.
The howling increased and decreased in a lugubrious sway. Narcissus glanced backwards. He turned without losing speed. He didn’t count them, but there were almost a couple dozen of those monsters, running after him. He picked up the pace. He cussed through his teeth. He tripped with the terrain.
He fell on his face and slid over the ground. Immediately, he turned over his back. He saw the stone that had made him fall. It was some kind of old, mould-ridden brick. He then looked up. The horde came towards him rapidly. He dragged himself backwards over his elbows, trying to get away, but he felt lost. It was the darkness that approached, black and implacable, ready to strip him of his life drop by drop. Narcissus was paralysed. He closed his eyes.
Other than those things’ bellowing, nothing. The only constant pain was that of his arm, but he felt no other pressure over his body. There were no hands touching him, molesting him, nor fangs piercing him. The foul texture of tongues over his skin was non-existent. Narcissus opened one eye slowly. The creatures yelled at him fiercely, but they didn’t get any closer. They had created some sort of fence around him, delimited mainly by stones like the one that had made him trip. Some of them were stacked over each other, the echo of vestigial walls of a long-abandoned house.
Narcissus had time to examine his wound. It worried him that it didn’t stop bleeding. He tore one of the legs of his pants and used it as a bandage over his arm. He pulled his stocking as far as he could over his shin and calf, trying to avoid the freezing cold weather. He sat on the floor and crossed his legs.
The grey sky still didn’t allow any ray of light to pass through it. Narcissus observed the creatures. He smiled for a moment. I am crazy, he told himself, while he pondered what type of monster sucked blood, couldn’t stand the sunlight and wouldn’t enter a property that didn’t belong to it uninvited. Narcissus burst into a strange mix of laughter and crying.
Time passed eternal. There were not many things that Narcissus could do. There was no food to silence his stomach’s grunts, and he could only rub his chest and arms when the cold turned too harsh. Minutes transformed into hours. Those things that Narcissus now called vampires seemed tireless, their screams suffocating his emotions and hopes.
Everything went completely dark come nightfall. He couldn’t see them, but knew that they could see him. Every time he cuddled on the ground, tired, hoping to, at least, sleep a little, the symphony increased in volume. He raised and rocked himself, sitting on the unwarming earth. Then, those things would shut up, challenging him to lie back again only to scream once more at the top of their lungs.
In the early morning, when tiredness was about to knock him out, they threw it at him. Narcissus didn’t see how they used their wings as buckets, bringing the water from the distant river. He just felt how it fell on him, like an appalling cascade of angst and desolation. The cold made him stand up and move, to run in place with the hope of generating some heat. He hadn’t slept last night, and now he was sure he wouldn’t sleep that morning. Thinking that he might never sleep again, Narcissus collapsed. He passed out.
He wasn’t sure if it had been the pain that woke him up. He doubted it, since he could barely feel his arm. He looked around him. None of those things seemed to be stalking him. I must be dead, thought Narcissus. Then, he looked up. Shunshine dazzled him.
He saw his watch. The face was scratched and had no numbers. He had hit it against a rock, or water had damaged it. “It doesn’t matter, don’t waste time,” he mumbled through his teeth. He rose up clumsily. He looked again at the sun and wished it shone more potently. He moaned. Could he make it? “Just do it,” he whispered. “Just run.”
His knees hurt but reacted to his command. His body responded and Narcissus picked up the pace. He heard those things’ growls, but couldn’t see any of them. He couldn’t identify if the sounds came from the real world or from his head. He exhaled forcefully and improved his stride. The only thing left for him was to carry on.
The wind rose and hit him like knives, burying in his skin. It also felt like breath on his neck. He didn’t want to turn. He pressed his teeth together and kept running. He apologised to his thighs, when they started to burn with weariness, and he asked his lungs for a little more effort when they caused him an acute pain on his side.
After a while, it occurred to him that he was running towards nothing. That his path was useless. They had arrived the day before, and Claudio and Mona and her roommate must’ve already been gone. He pushed those thoughts to the back of his head. It doesn’t matter, he told himself. If they’re not there, if that damned SUV is not next to those damned benches, I’ll just have to keep running.
Narcissus didn’t bump into the river that had dragged him the day before. He got scared. Was he running in a mistaken direction? He considered if it’d be convenient to stop and analyse his situation. No. The important thing was to keep moving. And I’m on the right path, he assured himself.
He couldn’t calm down when he finally saw the trees. In that moment, the yelling unleashed, resounding in his head to the point of migraine. Narcissus couldn’t run faster, but he kept his pace. He didn’t turn his head backwards, but he did upwards. The treetops flashed every now and then, like eyes that watched him for a second and then hid again in the foliage. He kept going for a while. In front of him, a red blur made his heart jump.
The tables and benches appeared behind the treeline. Next to them, Mona’s SUV. Narcissus bumped into the pilot door’s window, startling the young man and girls that were inside.
“Open up! Please, let me in!”
The lock made a nigh imperceptible sound when it unlocked. As fast as he could, Narcissus opened the back door and jumped into the vehicle. He gasped for air several times before being able to speak.
“Let’s go!,” he shouted, “let’s get out of here!”
Claudio, Mona and her roommate were staring at him. They asked him to relax, they told him to remain calm.
“Please, drive!,” shouted Narcissus again. Claudio was in the pilot’s seat.
Mona, who was sharing the backseat with him, put her hand on his shoulder and offered him a rehydrating beverage. Narcissus accepted it and drank it in seconds. However, he kept moving his arm, urging Claudio to drive on, knocking on his seat and kicking like a little boy throwing a tantrum.
“Take it easy,” said Claudio. “It’s all right, you are already here, safe, with your friends.”
Narcissus saw the tables and benches and trees. It seemed that none of those things had followed him. He looked at the sky and discovered that the clouds had blotted out the sun once more. “It’s hidden again,” he mumbled. “It won’t take long for them to arrive... We have to get out of here!”
“Take it easy,” said Mona. “It’s understandable that you are upset after being lost all night in the woods, but you are with us already.”
Claudio put his hand on his other shoulder, and Mona’s roommate put hers on his knee. Narcissus looked at the three. “What... what’s happening?”
“I twisted my ankle while running,” said Mona. “I tried to get to you but I fell on a ditch and hit my head. I fainted. That’s why I couldn’t hear your shouts, when you were calling for me.”
“Afterwards, when we finally found her, you got lost,” said Claudio. “We searched for hours, but you had gone too far away from us.” He smiled, showing his teeth. “And then we couldn’t reach you. You were out of our grasp.”
“Out... of your grasp?,” babbled Narcissus. He heard, clearer this time, the sound of the door locking. He tried to open it but it wouldn’t budge an iota.
The three hands that were still over his body started to develop a blackish colour. Their fingernails rotted instantly, their clothes disintegrated into fine hair. Narcissus writhed, but three more hands grabbed him. Their noses and ears expanded into snouts and horns. Their tongues were the worst.
The SUV tilted like a boat on the water. The pointy fangs punctured in three different parts of the body, creating sprays that stained all the windows. Except for the worn-out tires, now the whole vehicle was an intense red.
The screaming gave way to the moaning. Neither lasted for too long. The rattling on the doors and the screeching of the seat’s leather faded like the last note of a vinyl disc. In the end, one sound, similar to that of a liquid being licked, was the only thing that escaped between the cracks of the doors.
Among useless struggles, the three black bodies had fallen over Narcissus, sealing his end. Claudio’s voice, distorted and squeaky, uttered its last mock.
“Look on the bright side,” it said, “you ran the fifteen kilometres in record time!”
Short Story. October, 2015.