It started off as an exercise thing, but now he has no idea why he runs. His leg muscles are toned and immune to shin splints; his ankles work like the hinges of a medieval drawbridge.
There is a rhythm to the wind against his face, to the pounding of his feet on asphalt like the heartbeat of a ghost. He runs and he runs and he has no idea where he is going. Three days ago he tasted salt in the air, the perspiration of the Pacific at his back. Today he smells manure and diesel. A large tractor trailer with a milk company logo barrels by like a big silver bullet looking for a werewolf that isn't there.
He has no idea why he is still running.
There are blisters on his feet and he is certain that both socks are filled with blood. He can feel the broken flaps of skin that were once the balls of his feet rubbing against the blood soaked fabric. His eyes, lips and the insides of his nostrils are dry. His lungs are burning and there is the sensation of a weight that has sat upon his chest for so long that it has started to absorb into his skin, through his breastbone and into his heart.
Sometimes when the milk trucks go racing past, he thinks about jumping in front of one. Then maybe the running would stop and his muscles would get a rest in the ensuing explosion of calcium and Penzoil and New Balance.
He has been running for thirty weeks. He does not sleep. He only watches the world as it slumbers around him, clouds rising and falling and sprinkling stars like salt along the way. The night sky should represent rest, but it only urges him on. Run faster, it says. There is a maniac behind you.
Maybe that is why he runs; the maniac is surely still on his heels--the maniac he encountered on the corner three blocks from his home. The maniac had worn a sheet of black that covered his entire body, standing outside a bakery at 5 a.m. among the smells of baking bread and dawn. He had looked like a shadow. The man had reached out and touched him.
Is that why he runs?
Four days ago, he coughed out his tongue.
His calves are burning. The sun exchanges skies with the moon and another day begins. He keeps running. He tastes blood in the back of his mouth. His breath sounds like sandpaper dragging across shattered glass. A car passes and beeps its horn.
He raises his hand to wave and sees the decay on the underside of his forearm. There is no blood, only mottled gray splotches. It looks like mold on bread. This brings to mind the bakery and he peeks behind him to see if he is being followed.
The maniac is back there, gliding like a rogue shadow running from the sun. It runs without feet and points him onward. It then sinks into the road and leaves only the deserted Missouri highway (or was it Kansas or Connecticut or Calvary?) to show him where to go.
The laces of his shoes bounce up and down like the ears of a mauled rabbit. This scene looks familiar. He has been here before.
God, his feet hurt.
He coughs out his tongue; two days pass. A milk truck passes him, like a silver bullet looking for…
A car passes, beeps its horn.
He has run through this place before--always running, breathing electric pain, listening to the squishing sounds from his blistered feet in his soggy red socks.
He tastes the salt of the Pacific for several days. This is soon replaced by the wafting scent of manure and pastures.
He looks back and sees his companion, always pointing forward, always robed in black--a shadow cast not by light but by the absence of it.
He hears the approaching grumble of a milk truck as he brings his left foot up, right foot down, left foot up, right foot down…
He runs on and on.
Soon he will cough and his tongue will fall out. Then a car will pass, beeping its weak little horn.
He has been here before.
And no matter how hard he runs, he will never be faster than the shadow behind him or the truth it carries.
Barry has had more than 25 stories and poems included in online and print publications. His collection Debris is currently available through Library of Horror Press. He enjoys coffee, minimalist music and irony.