A step. She crossed over from the safety of reality into a dreamscape. The world before her was cloaked and muffled by darkness. A blank and distant full moon was staring at the world from its perch, occasionally hiding behind the procession of clouds that marched across the night-sky. She turned her gaze first left, then right, as far as the eye could see. This was going to be one of those long, lonely walks, she assumed – by this point in her life, she was growing used to them. She set her bearing in direction of her destination – the main expressway in this area, situated a mile along this road – and began walking.
The sights before her were indeed something out of a dream. The sidewalk followed the incoming traffic road. Occasionally, she would see headlights approaching in her direction. Those lights would play with the shadows around her. Dark figures seemed to skirt around and behind the planted trees towards her right. At times, those apparitions seemed so real that she tried to follow their movement, but they always eluded her. When the incoming lights were really bright, the path before her seemed to disappear completely by the dazzle, and felt she was walking on nothing. When the car lights were still at a distance and she looked at them through the ochre haze of streetlamps, they resembled sunken jewels in a murky body of water – so tantalizingly close, yet forever out of reach.
Suddenly, she heard footsteps behind her. She stopped, and turned around. Perhaps thirty paces away, beneath the yellow glow of a streetlamp, stood a silhouette. From what she could discern, the figure appeared to be a tall, thin man wearing a trench coat and a low-drawn hat, both of which accentuated the gloom around him. He simply stood there, staring back at her. She had no clue about who he was or what he was thinking; she couldn’t make out his face. Trying hard not to think about the appearance of this strange man, she turned back and resumed her walk. Behind her, with a rhythm in tandem with her own, heavy footsteps started following her. With her breath stuck in her lungs, she quickened her pace on the dusty, uneven gravel path. She lost her footing occasionally and sharp pebbles stabbed her soles, but a certain maddening fear propelled her forward. She was trying her best to get away from him.
But it seemed to her that the fear wasn’t growing any distant. On the contrary, those heavy footsteps, quicker in their stride, seemed closer now. Then she heard whispers. The voice didn’t sound entirely human to her; there was a certain hollowness to it. The voice brought her words that slid off her conscious mind like water off glass, and scattered in the dark. But not before they made her feel pathetic. One word stayed with her: “prey”. It plagued her senses, made her panic, and threw her personal sense of security to the wind. With this same panic etched on her face, she turned back around. The man in the trench coat was still behind her and this time, a little closer. He seemed to be leaning forward, and she knew that there was a ghastly grin fixed on his face underneath all the shadows. She had to get away from him…and this nightmare.
So she crossed the road to the side of the outgoing traffic. She resolved to stop the next car that came down the road and hitch a ride to the expressway. When she got to the other side, she noticed that the man in the trench coat now stood parallel to her, still on the side of the incoming traffic. She tried to ignore his malevolent presence and resumed her walk. He kept pace with her. In the eerie stillness of that night, she could distinctly hear the thuds and crunches that his boots made on the ground. The sound was singularly menacing, and yet, it seemed almost natural coming from that evil presence. Claustrophobic, she felt an invisible cage slowly closing in around her, and all she could do was run in circles and wait. She turned to look at the road behind her, hoping to see a car headed towards her – some salvation from this terror. But her eyes only saw an empty stretch that was eventually swallowed up by the darkness. She turned back in time to see the man in the trench coat crossing the street, and heading towards her.
They say terror is the fear of something that lurks around the corner – close, but always just out of sight. Horror, on the other hand, is when you turn that corner, face the monster, and feel a “dead-weight-dropping-in-the-stomach” sort of realization and revulsion that cannot be synthetically recreated. She felt that weight and a horror beyond comprehension, although she could never put it in so many words. The man in the trench coat was half way towards her, when she began to run. By this point, her reason was exhausted and all she had was her instinct to bank on – the instinct told her to run like she was running from the Hounds of Hell. But it didn’t matter how fast she ran, because the thuds and crunches behind her were rapidly closing in. And the whispers…they started up again. Fear and survival dueled in an elaborate dance in her mind – each trying to overpower the other; to overpower her. Then, at last, she faltered. Unable to take it anymore, she stopped, sank to the ground and squeezed her eyes shut, awaiting her doom. It wouldn’t be long now, she thought. The man in the trench coat was really close…she could feel his warm, putrid breath on her nape. Holding her breath, she tried not to sob.
The rumbling of an engine jolted her back to her senses. A car had stopped some distance away from where she sat, and the driver was walking towards her, a look of concern on his old, withered face. She glanced around and saw no sign of the man in the trench coat. She looked at the path she had been walking on and saw her own footprints, solitary and followed by no other. There were no signs either that anyone had tried to make a hasty escape through the overgrown shrubbery nearby. Like a ghost, the man in the trench coat had vanished into thin air.
The old man who had stopped the car bombarded her with an endless series of questions about her state. She replied that a combination of fatigue, no proper lunch, and work stress had caused her to collapse; she would be fine after a good night’s sleep. She got into the backseat of the car and sank into silence. The old man gave her a worried look but didn’t pursue the case further. Soon enough, she was standing near the expressway. With a wave and a slight smile, she bid the old man goodbye and watched the car roll off in the distance. Then, with a sigh, she faced the road that she had walked that night…
There was something disquieting about the calm she saw there. A breeze rolled towards her, touching her face. But it was nothing like the late-night autumn breeze she knew so well, and this realization froze her heart in a horribly familiar way – this breeze felt a lot like an exhaled breath…a rotten, exhaled breath. It was then she heard the whispers again; they sounded distant this time, but there was an unholy glee in them:
“My prey. My darling prey. You thought you got away? No. I let you go. Because I know that they will never believe your story; who believes in ghosts and spooks anyway? What I do want, is to watch you squirm in your little prison, darling. And I want you to fear me more than anything else in the world. But don’t you worry your pretty little head…I will come for you. And that, is a promise.”