The night is normal. Nothing stands out. The air is cool, but not cold. Dry. Nothing exists to make anybody more or less attentive to the evening. There’s a party on one side of the quad which everybody is going to, including the beaming young lady. She’s four months pregnant, but staying in school despite the urgings of her family and fiance. They hadn’t planned to get pregnant so soon, but accidents happen, and she’s happy about it despite the little bits of stress that have now come into focus in not only her life but the life of her fiance. He worries he won’t be able to provide for the child, as he too is still in college. Though, he, unlike her, is in his last year. She is in her second. It won’t be so bad as he thinks, should he just slow down the thought process and allow for some rationality.
He left the party early this evening to study for an upcoming test, while she opted to stay and talk with friends longer. She’s a responsible mother, and stays out of rooms where there’s too much smoke. She doesn’t drink anything but juice, and her friends politely keep from forcing her to deal with not only cigarette smoke but the smoke of a joint that they’d decided to bring, opting to move rooms while the smoke it and rejoin her later. The conversation, despite the girl’s best efforts, remain on her and the impending baby. They’ve got a shower planned for her in the coming months, and they’re pestering her on the sex of the baby so they can amply plan. She laughs and tells them they don’t know yet.
The evening goes well, and she discovers that she’s stayed longer than she had initially decided to. But it’s alright because she’s not exhausted, just a little sleepy. She still feels good enough to make it across the campus by herself to the housing provided by the school. It’s more than a dorm room but less than an actual apartment, which is alright by her. The funds needed to run an actual apartment aren’t in the account, and they’ve been able to focus more on her needs and strange cravings. One of which, pickles and peanut butter, she feels rising in her again.
There’s a smile on her face as she says goodbye to her friends and the others that she doesn’t know, and it stays on her face as she makes her way toward the covered walkway that permits a bit of a shortcut from this side of the quad to the other, where she stays. Her step is light her mood is a good one. She knows that in a few months time she won’t be able to make parties like this one anymore and it will stay that way for a long time, so it’s good to get out and be with people.
The walkway is built of concrete and steel. It’s not fancy, but it does it’s job. It rises in a gentle slope over the sidewalks and pathways below, not good for getting to most classes, but provides a respite of having to walk in a circle around the center of the quad where a grassy knoll awaits and generally always holds a few people laying about. During the day it’s usually more packed as is the rest of the ground. The covered walkway is almost always empty. It’s so unused by the masses that the school has wondered more than once about tearing it down, but the cost of that is more than the cost of just leaving it and paying for the electricity for the bulbs that light it, so for now it stays.
The girl likes it because it lifts enough to provide a lovely view of parts of the campus, and because on nights when it rains she can keep dry from her side to where most of her friends reside. Tonight it’s used the same as if it were wet out. Mostly habit now, using the covered walkway. The glass isn’t new, but it’s clean. In places it’s so worn and scratched that you can hardly see out, but that’s rather atypical. At night, though, the lights create more of a mirror effect when you’re walking. To see out, one would have to stop and get close to the glass.
The closed in space makes for good echos. One footstep can be heard all the way to the other side if another person is using it. Tonight she hears no sound of anyone approaching. At the moment, the outside world is a mere backdrop to the thoughts she’s having of the baby inside of her and the happiness it makes her feel. It will be the first of a few, she thinks, she doesn’t want to just have one. It’s also good that her fiance feels the same way about children, something that they’d discussed as soon as they’d started dating. Not wanting to waste the time of the other or worse, fall in love and discover this huge rift. Other things are not quite important, such as politics and places to live, but they were discussed as well. The nature of them both is to have the future planned out as well as it can be, leaving room for error and drastic change.
A chill enters the air unexpectedly, though at first she doesn’t think about it at all. Many things could cause such a change, and it could be even that it’s not an actual change in temperature, rather her just noticing it. She continues on her way. By now she’s only one fourth of the way along, she’s been walking fairly slowly to not tire herself out. There’s also been no real need to rush. She crosses her arms over her chest and rubs at them to chase away the goosebumps that have appeared there. Suddenly, she realizes that she’s able to see her own breath. Not something that should be occurring this time of year, and she stops walking. A turn of her head reveals ice crystals forming on the windows around her. Further on it seems not to be happening, and indeed when she turns around, the windows behind her are normal as well.
It is then that she realizes that the silence around her is so deep that she is hearing her own heartbeat. Strong, and quickening it’s pace, her heart pounds loudly. Her pulse so strong that it’s nearly dizzying now. Her vision blurs slightly with every beat. She has to put out her hand to steady her, and discovers the cold windows. It does nothing for her heartrate as she snatches back her hand and pulls it to her chest again. Her hand is now as cold as the window was, in that instant she seemingly absorbed the ice into her flesh.
Wanting to get home, get warm, she begins to walk again. Slowly at first, and then faster, as a feeling of weight comes over her. Like there is something massive behind her. But when she looks there’s nothing. Still, her pace quickens more as her desire to be out of the covered walkway rises. A sense of panic begins to wash over her. Growing and deepening both.
She is no longer hearing the echo of her footsteps. In it’s place there is something else. Every time her foot touches down on the concrete, the feeling of weight increases. A sense of pressure pushes in on her. There’s no actual sound, just the idea that there should be. A silent and motionless earthquake happening each time. She slows her pace, and the matching absence of echo slows too. An experiment of irregular steps informs her that this lacking will happen each time.
Again she looks back, and again there’s nothing. The cold remains, and follows her from window to window. Leaving the last pair and moving on as she does. A glance in either direction shoots back the reflected face of somebody who looks like her but can’t be. The eyes are wide with fear, the face gaunt and hollow. The flesh has lost all indication of color. She knows she’s looking at herself but the knowledge only brings more horror. She’s sweating now, not much, just a light gleam to her skin. But it’s a cold sweat. A fear sweat.
She walks faster, and now she can actually hear the following anti-echo. Now it is not a match to her but directly behind. It is no longer what should have been an echo and has become a separate footfall. When she stops, it continues for a pace, and then stops too. She is being followed. But there is nothing there, still. Of course, this doesn’t help the rational brain at all, knowing there is nothing there and still hearing and feeling these movements.
Suddenly she feels that if she can just get out of the covered walkway that she’ll be okay. She just has to get to the end, and it will all be alright. As if it, whatever it is, can read her thoughts and knows that she has figured it out, it moves forward on her. She has not moved, but she hears the space closed with three heavy steps. Three heavy, slow steps. Deliberate. Challenging. As if to say, run, see if you can make it.
She can feel it breathing now. The feeling first, the hearing after. It moves a strand of her hair. Then she hears it. Low, deep. Raspy. Animalistic. The breath is moist and hungry. Warm. She cannot bring herself to turn around and look again, something telling her that if she looks this time, it will be there. From the corner of her eye she sees something in reflection. A dark shape. It moves, and is not her, but she can’t look. Fear prevents her from putting an actual figure into this nightmare.
She runs. Her first steps catapult her into a dead run. There is a second or maybe even two before she can hear those heavy footfalls behind her. In a run they seem bigger. It matches her a few feet behind. It feels like it’s gaining. The breathing doesn’t change. Doesn’t become more rough or ragged, not like hers has. She’s straining. But her life, her baby’s life, depends on her getting out of the walkway before this thing catches up. She must run faster to survive.
Her breath pours from her in white plumes, her heart pounds in panic. Blood rushes to her head and she can hardly think beyond primal urges. Her throat is dry, her lips feel like they’re cracking. She needs to stop and catch her breath but she cannot. If she stops, it will have her. She would swear she has felt it twice reach out for her. The first time just barely missing, the second grazing her. Claws, or talons, surely not ordinary nails, scrape her back in an effort to grab her. She urges herself forward faster, unable to physically manage it.
The end of the covered walkway looms in sight, but seems miles away at the same time. She can feel it’s want of her. Of the life inside of her. A hunger that tugs at her mind and urges her to stay. A feeling part of her wants to give in to. It would be easier to stay than to run. She could rest if she just stops. The only thing that keeps her feet moving is the mother’s need to protect her child. A burning inside that tells her if she stops all will be lost. She will fail.
Her back burns in the line where the claws have scraped. Her legs burn from the forced exercise that her body has grown unaccustomed to. Her lungs burn. Her eyes burn. All burning from different sources and in different ways, but burning none the less. She is hot where the air around her lacks heat. It has gotten even colder somehow and the cold makes her work harder to live. She catches brief frightful glances in the reflections of the glass of the plume of breath that follow her. Steady. Large. No effort from it like there is from her.
It begins to feel like she will never reach the end. Like the walkway will just stretch on forever until she is willing to give up. She doesn’t think she will last much longer at all, things going in the way that they are. Her body can’t possibly take it. She is muttering encouragements to her unborn baby, which she is just now hearing. Mommy will make it okay. You’ll be safe. She is saying it over and over again. Even now, hearing it for the first time, she knows she must have been saying it a while. She can’t stop herself, and instead decides to take comfort in her own words. If she is still able to speak, she is still alive and reasonably functioning.
She can feel it catching up to her. Closing the space between itself and her back. Again she can feel the breathing, distant still, but feeling it means that it is much too close for comfort. It seems it would just come upon her and enclose her. Wrap itself around her to finish it all. She can feel the pressure now on either side of her as well as on her back. A scream threatens to rip from her throat, but it can’t break free. The end of the walkway is mere steps away.
As she runs, it runs. She tries to redouble her efforts but finds herself empty of the strength and power it would take to actually do so. It feels as if the breathing behind her is becoming excited. Looking forward to it’s capture of her. One arm is already caught in what feels like an impossibly strong grip. Iron around her flesh. It is playing with her now. It has her, but it allows her to continue running instead of just jerking her back.
That is all she needs. She covers the last steps and bolts out of the walkway. The fresh air of the night is warm on her flesh. Unexpected. She closes her eyes to revel in it just as she realizes her arm is still in the vice like grip of her pursuer. She whips around, using her body’s momentum to break free. And in that instant she catches a glimpse of her tormentor. The figure itself is just a fleeting shadow. She only gets an impression of it before it fades from her view. A large, impossibly enormous hunched figure not standing at it’s full height, incapable of doing so because of the size of the walkway.
But the eyes. Those linger. Bodiless they are more frightening than if the body had remained a second longer and given her a better look. Like smoke, they are. Blood red smoke hovering there in the night. Alone. Glaring at her. Angry that she’d made it to the end of the walkway. Angry that she’d broken free. Hungry for her. She is unable to look away, heart pounding in her ears, she just watches. The eyes slowly fade from view, but not turning away. It feels as if the great figure is still there, standing at the end of the walkway, waiting for her to come back.
She turns toward home, shivering despite the warm night. She is unable to explain the experience to anybody. Unable as well to explain where the scratches on her back have come from. Or why she would never again for the rest of her time at the school, use the covered walkway.