My body revolts against everything - running, shadows, exhaustion, fear. It twists and bends inside, writhing as I sprint for what feels like my life. I try to convince myself that this is a nightmare - only a means of getting from life into death. But it is hard to forget that this could be the rest of my eternity. A milieu of nightmare after nightmare.
I feel the gravel give beneath my toes, and a jolt of extra adrenalin pumps like uncomfortable tingles through all my muscles, reminding me to stay upright. I am in line with the fading of the lights, and behind me an awful howl begins. It starts off like the wailing of wind against windows and grows to the kind of screaming you cower from. My back knots at it, and I feel a different sort of breathlessness clutch my lungs.
The thought skitters back and forth, running circles across my brow beading with sweat. I reek of fear. My mouth tastes like desperation. I look forward, beyond the lights parallel with me, and know the running won't ever stop. My body already thrums, muscles straining to keep up with my use of oxygen. I can feel my energy depleting with every breath.
I want to see something loom out of the darkness - anything at all. Something to signify the end in an endless vortex of dark.
But there is nothing.
And, I realize, that is most likely the point.
Gasping so hard I feel I might choke up my lungs, or feel them burst one by one inside me, I stumble to a halt. The lights wink out, all at once. As abruptly as it began, it stops.
The howling ceases, too.
The touch of fingers at my back draws away.
I shut my eyes because it doesn't matter whether they are open or closed. I force myself back to my knees, and roll forward over them until I am curled on my side, knees hugged as close as possible to my chest.
I force my breathing to slow.
Count the beats of my heart thundering through every limb.
And then I stretch out onto my back.
When I open my eyes, I don't scream. That, I know, is the point.
I chose fear, not death.
I draw in a slow, trembling breath, and stretch my hands and toes as far away from one another as is physically possible.
"You win," I whisper into the black.
The screaming starts again, and bodies fold over me, reeking of death. I press my lips together. Their sticky carcasses blend into mine, and I cannot tell who is me and who is them and I want badly to be out from beneath their sweltering, clammy heat and their hot, stinking breath but I can't I can't I can't -
It all disappears.
I jerk upright, scratching at my arms and legs and chest, moaning incoherently until hands - very much alive hands - curl over my shoulders and guide me onto my feet. I twist, and press again into the chest of the man I came here with.
"Please," I gasp, clutching the folds of his shirt. "Please don't make me do it again."
He releases one shoulder to tilt my face up to his, and he looks delighted and sad, the expression warring for dominance until delight wins out and spreads like the sun over his features. My heart drops.
"Can't you feel the adrenalin?" He asks me, voice a few decibels higher than a whisper and coaxing.
I choke on a sob and grip his shirt harder, catching the skin beneath.
His exhale ruffles the matted hair on top of my head. He combs his fingers down my back, up and down up and down. My muscles tighten with every loop until I ache with it.
"This is fear," he says, settling his hands at my lower back. "You chose this." I look up again, to plead with him, but his face has become implacably hard. "Don't tell me you'd rather have death."
I make a soft, beseeching noise.
He smiles, cupping one hand against my cheeks, and lowers his forehead to mine. "Then you'll stay." His smile grows wicked. "Just like all the others."
I keen, and he dissolves under my hands. I stagger forward into a different landscape, and scramble to stay upright, lifting my eyes to a scene that looks as peaceful as home felt. I am a thousand times more wary of what it harbors than the others.
Swiping at the tears rolling down my cheeks, I try to find what terror lies waiting here for me. But nothing looms over the horizon, and no corpses lift out of the grassy earth. No blood rains down from a cloudless sky, and no monsters prowl circles about me.
I am alone.