Extract from Until She Sleeps

October 13th, 2000 • Posted in Extracts |

Nightmare

He ran, because it was all there was for him to do. He had a target in mind — somewhere in mind, somewhere buried beneath the panic and agony, and the disbelief that his Wednesday could possibly have turned into this — but for now he could only run, and if his flight took him anywhere near his target, his plan, so be it. He could not slow down enough to think, nor lessen his pace to allow his brain time to plan his route. All sense of where and when had vanished when the fire-dogs chased him from the field.

He enjoyed physical labour, even on days like today. It was extremely hot, true, but what always kept him going was the promise of a cool evening sitting outside the village pub, getting slowly drunk with his girlfriend, maybe picking up some fish and chips from the takeaway on the way home, then sleeping with the windows open and letting the cool night air soothe his burned skin and aching muscles. The same the next day, true, and the day after that, but he rarely looked farther forward than the evening. No great ambitions stole his time, no real aims to get anywhere other than where he was now today. He liked his life.

Which made it worse knowing that he was about to lose it.

The dogs had come just after his mid-morning break. He’d already dug out most of the soakaway, and the rest of the day would be spent lining it and filling it in with pea gravel. Then the growls had come from the trees, accompanied by a sound like fire eating at old, dried leaves. He’d gone to investigate, of course, because a fire out here could be devastating. It had been a long hot summer already, with plenty more dry weather to come.

Another growl as he approached. And still that crackling sound of fire.

No smell. No heat. Just the sound.

And then they had come. Three of them, flaming visions leaping between the trees, and through the trees, not touching an inch of bark with their fire, leaving nothing behind but a dissipating heat-haze in the air. They came straight at him. Fire dogs, he thought, not knowing exactly what they were, nor where that idea had come from. He turned and ran.

Snarling, spluttering, their claws spitting contact with the already melting Tarmac, the roar of flames their growls, their barks explosions as pockets of air erupted around him. He’d felt the skin on his back stretching as the heat came closer, and he’d put on a spurt of speed. The fire dogs dropped back for a bit then, but not for long, because however much manual labour he did during the day he ate and drank far too much at night. He could feel his love-handles jiggling as he ran, and his stomach and tits, and even though he was running for his life —

for his fucking life, from fire dogs, and just what the fuck were fire dogs when they were at home, and why him?

— still he felt vaguely embarrassed.

He’d aimed for the village. He needed help, and if people saw what was chasing him maybe they could do something. With a drought and a hosepipe ban? he thought, and maybe the heat had got to him, he’d been working out in the fields for too long, the sun had cooked the skin of his neck and shoulders and arms, there were no fire dogs, he should have been wearing a hat because his brain had cooked and now he was witnessing what carbonised skull contents spewed out.

Through the streets. People had seen him and offered a smiled greeting, but he’d run on, looking back over his shoulder now and then to see the flaming red, orange, yellow hounds chasing him. Sometimes they passed the people, sometimes they went straight through them, but they seemed to do no damage. Two kids in the square watched him and one of them glanced up as the fire dogs passed by, as if sniffing something in the air or seeing something high up in the clear blue sky.

Then he was in the lanes again, alone, and he finally realised just where he had to go. The pond. The lake, it was called by the villagers, but it was little more than a puddle fed from an underground trickle, somewhere for young kids to gather frog-spawn and older kids to skinny-dip and fool around afterwards.

Help me, help me, he thought, and suddenly his plea for help flew on ahead … because he hadn’t even seen the pond for a good few weeks, and it was just possible that it had dried up.

He ran. They chased. He dove over low hedges and dodged between apple trees, hoping that fleeing through one of the big orchards would slow them down more than him. The craziness of the situation barely even occurred to him, because escape and survival was at the front of his mind. Later, when he was sitting in the cooling evening outside the pub, he would look back and wonder just what the hell had happened to him today. He’d sit there with his fifth pint of Old Bastard, his girlfriend would gently touch the singed hairs on his arm, and he’d try to remember what the sun had done to him, what it had sent his way. Phantom fire hounds to chase him through the village and into the pond.

It could be dried up, like all those reservoirs on TV.

He was panting now, his chest hurt and his skin was slick with sweat. That made it cool at least; sweat being swept from his body as he ran kept some of the heat at bay, but every now and then the spitting and crackling would come that bit closer and he’d feel a shoulder blade or the back of a thigh heat up and blister.

And then the pond was there, and thank God for underground springs because it was over half full.

He launched himself straight in without pause. The water closed shockingly around him, winding him it was so cold, and he had sudden images of someone finding him floating here dead from heart attack. But he recovered quickly and held himself under the surface, hands wrapped in the weeds growing from the pond bed to prevent himself rising and offering his skin to the fire dogs.

Dogs, he thought, made of fire. He almost smiled. Almost. Because right then the sky above the pond lit up yellow, flames dancing in his eyes because the water blurred his vision so much. And any brief sense of victory or escape fled as the fire dogs came down into the water after him.

The coolness vanished, the heat came again, and it was suddenly hotter than it had ever been before.

He opened his mouth and screamed steam.

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