Chasing Shadows by Donald D Shore
Chasing Shadows by Donald D Shore
Heading east on the I-40, crossing the endless sea of desert and flat-topped plateaus rising like tombstones across the bronzed New Mexico valley, Dan’s eyes fell to the temperature gauge on his dashboard. The needle had fallen deep in the red.
He slowed down, knowing it was too late.
Steam blew through the car’s hood misting the windshield and the engine seized with a violent rattle. Dan pulled the dying car off to the side of the road. He shouldn’t have pushed so hard. Doing eighty across the summer desert was asking for it, especially in his old Buick.
The door slammed shut behind him as he got out of the car. He searched the endless, unforgiving sky above him for a salvation he wouldn’t find. The only thing offered in those blue heavens was the scorching heat of the afternoon sun.
Dan reached in through the window to pop the hood latch and went around to the engine. The ruptured radiator had shot its load across the engine, leaving white calcium deposits on hoses and belts and things Dan had no name for. He wrapped his shirttail over his hand and twisted off the radiator cap. Steam seeped out with a quiet vacuum hiss. Inside, the tank was dry darkness perfumed with the scent of ruin.
The only thing to do was to keep moving, like he had been. Put distance between them. He reached into the car, opened the glove box, and took out a nickel plated thirty-eight. He slipped the revolver into the back of his waistband and started east, putting one foot in front of the other. They would find the car. His scent was all over it. And it wouldn’t be hard to figure out which direction he had gone.
They were close. He knew it. He felt them. After they caught him, they would go after Mary and Bobby and there would be nothing he could do about it. He would tell them where they were. He would tell them everything, just to make the pain stop. He would betray his wife and child. There was no doubt. He couldn’t let it come to that. He had to keep moving or use the pistol to end it here and now.
With the sun out, Dan knew he was safe from the shadows. If he put enough distance between himself and the Buick, he might lose them for a while. But when night fell again, he needed to be somewhere. Somewhere out of the desert. There were too many places for them to hide out amongst the cliffs and mesas, the arroyos. Caves and other dark places where shadows dwell and travel. Once they know where to find you, they move through the night, home in on your heart and mind as if they were warm, pulsing beacons. They find you and do things to you.
Putting one foot in front of the other, Dan walked across the blistering landscape. Waves of heat rose from the asphalt, blurring the horizon in shimmering waves. He held his thumb out as he followed the black ribbon stretched across the desert. He knew what he must look like. Dirty, covered in sweat, his face etched with the fear that never left him. Only hope kept his arm out and his thumb extended. Hope someone would stop. Someone who wasn’t a cop. A cop would ask questions. Run his name. Bring him in. Lock him up. If a cop stopped, he’d use the pistol on himself. It was the only way.
The desert didn’t care how how desperate Dan was to keep moving. The heat was like a heavy weight pulling him down. His feet dragged against asphalt. He stumbled over the toe of his own shoe. He licked the sweat from his lips with a dry tongue. It occurred to him he might die out here, in this sundrenched wasteland.
The shadows would know. They would end their search for him and go after Mary and Bobby. Do things to them. Dan put one foot in front of the other and kept moving.
The truck’s grinding engine carried across the empty desert from a mile away. Dan stood, waited, watched with wary eyes as the truck grew slowly from a bug-like speck into a primer-spotted, rust covered work truck. The truck’s backend was loaded down with junk metal, old tires, all manner of useless, abandoned trash. Through the grime covered windshield, Dan saw the driver had a gray sandy beard. Thin hair spilled out the sides of an old ball cap. Beneath the bill, his skin was weathered from a life spent in the desert. He had the eyes of a man constantly searching for something beyond what he could see.
“That your Buick back there?”
“Yeah. Radiator blew.”
“Climb in,” said the man. “I’ll carry you down to Fallen Springs. There’s a shop down there. They can send you out a tow.”
“Great.” The truck door groaned with reluctance as Dan pulled it open. “Thanks a lot.”
“No problem. A man can die out here pretty quick.”
“Good to meet you, Dan.”
Dan climbed in, bouncing on the worn-out springs of the truck’s bench seat. They shook hands. Fred’s hand was callused, grease stained. Working man’s hands. Fred shifted the transmission into first gear and the truck rolled back onto the smooth pavement of the interstate.
The pistol poked Dan in the back as he leaned into the seat and watched the sun painted desert of New Mexico roll past him. The breeze felt good against his face.
“Get comfy. ‘Bout an hour drive.”
“I appreciate it.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re lucky I drove by. You never would have made it out there on foot. Sun would have baked your bones into the sand. Seen it before. You’d be surprised how many bodies are lost out there in that desert.” Fred offered Dan a smile and turned back to the road spilling out in front of them. “Jug of water on the floorboard. I keep it for emergencies. Help yourself.”
Dan nodded. He was exhausted. The walk in the desert had taken it out of him. Maybe it was the last weeks of his life catching up to him. Maybe it was everything. He found the clear plastic jug on the floorboard and pulled it into his lap.
“That’s the one.” Fred smiled, nodding as he watched the road.
Dan popped the plastic lid off and put the jug to his lips. The water was warm but refreshing. He drank a quarter of the jug and started to feel normal again. He put the top back on and held the jug between his thighs.
“Always keep a gallon of water handy,” said Fred. “People breakdown out here all the time. The sun will kill you good as a bullet.”
Dan wanted to tell Fred the biggest danger didn’t come from the sun, but from out of the darkness. When the sun fell, the shadows came. Out there, somewhere behind them, the shadows were closing in.
“You alright there, Dan?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. Just tired.” The words felt strange coming out of his mouth.
“Drink some more water. You’ll be alright.”
Dan pulled the lid off and lifted the jug. It felt heavier.
“Where are you heading, Dan?”
East came out ‘eash’. Dan’s lips were numb, his arms heavy.
Dan couldn’t answer. Words were meaningless. He knew east meant escape, but the word itself had become foreign. Detached. He watched as the country outside the truck rolled past him. His eyes felt heavy. His body felt heavy. Sleep was taking hold and the more he resisted, the more powerful the urge became.
The radio came on. Pop music. Syncopated drums. Synthesizers. A girl group, singing push it. Push it real good.
Fred sang along and when the girls began to rap, Fred rapped with them. The jug of water fell from Dan’s lap to the floorboard. Water gurgled out, filling the ridges and valleys of the rubber floor mat. Fred’s bearded face stretched into a smile.
“Push it real good.”
“Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey.”
Dan opened his eyes. Paralyzed and drifting in the blackness of unconsciousness, Dan thought the shadows had caught up to him.
Dan craned his neck and found is hands bound with a length of chain suspended from a beam in the ceiling. Daylight spilled in through narrow slats along the walls. He was in a shed somewhere. Somewhere dark, shadows moving just beyond the light of a lantern and the bars of sunlight lacerating the small enclosure.
Fred stood in front of him, held something in his hand. Dan’s pistol. Sharp claws of fear crawled up Dan’s spine.
“What are you doing?”
Fred shrugged, smiled. The old man looked like someone’s grandfather. Maybe he is, Dan thought. This crazy old man could be someone’s grandfather. Fred held the pistol up for Dan to see.
“Nice piece, Dan.”
Fred laughed and set the pistol down on a metal table against the wall. Other tools were on the table as well. Tools with sharp edges.
“You a drifter, Dan?”
“Listen,” Dan pleaded, “we’re in danger. Both of us. I can’t stay here. They’ll come for me. If I don’t keep moving, they’ll catch me. And you.”
“No one’s coming for you, Dan. Your drifting days are over.” Fred’s voice was hard, his smile gone.
“They’ll find my car. They’ll track me here.”
“I took care of your car. There’s nothing but hundreds of miles of dirt roads and desert vistas out here, Dan. No one is out here except for me and you. No one is coming for you.”
“You don’t understand –”
Fred rammed a hard fist deep into Dan’s groin. The air went out of Dan’s lungs and his stomach lurched into his throat.
“You’re the one who doesn’t understand, Dan.” Fred took him by the hair and pulled his head back. “You will. You’ll understand real soon. I hope you last long enough for me. I haven’t caught a drifter in a long time. People just don’t trust random strangers anymore, Dan. I hope you’re a good one.”
Fred let go of Dan’s hair and moved to the table. The late desert sun broke through the cracks of the toolshed like long knives, illuminating the carefully laid out set of tools aligned on the small work table. Seeing those tools there, polished and shining, their razor edges gleaming to perfection, sent a shiver down Dan’s spine.
“They’re going to find me.” Dan’s voice croaked through the pain in his arms and chest, his burning groin. “They’ll kill you to get to me.”
Fred selected his first tool, a long-handled stiletto. He held it into the mote-filled light flooding into the shed and inspected its blade like a surgeon.
“You feel that?” Fred sucked his teeth. A serpent like sound. “The anticipation. It’s my favorite part of the game. Makes me tingle all over.”
“Jesus.” Sweat dripped down Dan’s body. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to cut you, Dan. You’re going to scream. You’ll scream for help. You’ll beg. You’ll try to bargain with me. I’ll let you, even though it won’t work. I’ll keep cutting and you’ll keep screaming. You’ll scream until your throat turns raw. You’ll scream until you can’t scream anymore. Then I’ll cut out your tongue. I’ll work on you some more. I’ll keep cutting until I get bored.” Fred chuckled. “It takes a long time for me to get bored, Dan. I don’t get to play very often, so I take advantage of every second.”
“Please, you don’t –”
He sliced Dan’s cheek with a smooth, fluid motion of the stiletto. Skin separated into a clean line. Blood pooled along the rift, then gushed down Dan’s cheek. A scream burst from Dan’s mouth. Fred licked his lips and smiled.
Dan’s screams poured out of the shed late into the evening. He rambled about shadow monsters coming for him until his strength gave out and his body hung limply from the chain as the shadows in the shed deepened.
The old man leaned against the wall and smoked a cigarette, relaxing in the aftermath of his ecstasy, as he stared into the darkness floating outside. Rivers and tributaries of blood flowed down Dan’s body to form a pool beneath his suspended feet. Fred tossed his cigarette out the door and turned toward Dan, smiling like an approving grandfather.
Fred stepped closer, gazing into Dan’s one remaining eye. “You were a fun one, Dan. I’ll give you that.”
Dan closed his eye, felt the pain wash over him, the warm blood flowing down his body, collecting into the pool beneath him. He let out a long even breath, not knowing if he would be able to draw another. It was dark now, and the shadows were upon him.
Let them come. He didn’t care anymore. He couldn’t run anymore.
Fred’s boots scraped against the floor of the toolshed. Dan’s eye came open. He watched, the world surrounded in darkness and blood, as the old man cleaned his blades, one by one, with a rag.
Dan slipped his blood-slickened hands through the chains looped around his wrists, freeing them. The old man hummed a tune as he wiped Dan’s blood from the blades of his tools.
The chain rattled gently as Dan worked it from the beam in the ceiling. A black inky mist swirled in Dan’s eye as he watched the old man’s back.
“Push it real good.”
The chain links clinked as Dan stepped toward Fred and brought up the length of chain. The old man turned, startled, and reached for Dan’s pistol left on the table.
Dan brought the length of chain down like a whipt, with a sickening smack against the old man’s head. Fred fell back, landing with his head and body outside the shed door, his legs curled, wrecked with spasms, inside.
Dan stood over him, straddled him, the chain dangling from his arms. He looked into the old man’s eyes. Fear danced inside their terrified gaze.
“I warned you.” Dan’s voice was like ice forming. He brought the length of chain up over his shoulder. “The shadows are here.”
Dan brought the chain down. He tasted the old man’s blood as it splattered against his face. He brought the chain down again and silenced the old man’s screams amidst a shower of tooth and bone. He brought the chain down again and again, until the old man’s face was obliterated.
Finally, Dan let the chain drop. It fell into a coil next to the old man’s body. He turned, picked his pistol up from the table, and stuck it in his waistband.
“I’m glad you came along, Fred.” Dan patted the old man’s blood drenched pants. He reached inside the pocket and fished out a ring of keys. “You made it easy for me.”
Dan felt the warm desert night air brush against his skin as he stepped out of the shed. Moonlight gently caressed the rust and primer colors of Fred’s pickup truck. Dan got in and started the engine.
Somewhere in the night, a little boy and his mother were hiding. Hiding from the shadows. Hiding from him.
Dan shifted the truck into drive and pulled out onto the highway, heading west.
Copyright Donald D Shore 2019