The tall grass brushed his ankles as he walked forward through the plain. He could not stop moving or it would catch up, and he did not want that again. Henry Perkins had not seen the thing in a long time now, but it always caught him if he stopped long enough for something significant; a nap, a meal, even a decent breather.
His sandals had worn down to flat paper on his feet, every rock could be felt on his soles. This could not go on much longer, and he had no idea how to stop and patch his shoes. He was running out of cloth to bind his feet, and his legs were tired. Sweat poured down his forehead and stained his back, soaking into his shirt and causing it to cling. The satchel (for he refused to call it a purse) hung on his left, but he would soon have to switch sides. His shoulder had begun to ache with the weight of it, and last time he had checked there were bruises forming.
He looked again to either side of him, checking to see if any new landmarks had presented themselves. The plain stretched as far as the eye could see. There were no trees or buildings, no hills or mountains. Nothing. “There is nothing in the desert,” he thought, “…and no man needs nothing.” A film reel spun in his head, the words mocking him as he cast around for anything to tell him where he was.
He turned back and continued his trudge. He had slowed, but as long as he did not stop he should be fine. The creature had an uncanny knack for knowing when he stopped, and it seemed to only appear when he felt at ease. It was as though his comfort drew the thing, and his anxiety was all that kept it at bay, his need to continue putting distance between them the only thing that kept him safe. He remembered his mother’s stories from his youth, stories of the evil ‘harlequin’, the trickster demon who terrorized his victims with lies and deceit to bring them to a demise of their own making rather than simply gutting them. Sitting in front of the fire, letting her fib to him as he ate it up from the book of stories her grandmother had read from him, the frightening creatures and legends had chilled him, burning into his brain.
He could not, however, bring himself to call the creature a ‘harlequin’. The thing that followed him was not tricking him, it showed no qualms with causing physical harm, but he could not help thinking of the stories all the same. He used them as fuel for his fire, driving him onward at a pace that should no longer have been attainable. Each time he would slow Henry forced himself to remember his mother and her strange tales, and he found strength anew.
His arm hurt again. His left arm. Glancing at it, at the red soaking through the yellow-stained bandage, filled him with worry. He could not know how long it had been since he had last allowed the creature to catch up as the sun never set and time could not be measured by days, but it had been a long time and he felt the bleeding should have stopped by now. He wiped his forehead and began to rummage through his small pack. His medical supplies were running low and would need to be more carefully conserved but this could not wait.
He stopped and immediately sank to his knees. He listened hard for a moment, holding his breath to keep from adding to the sounds that might drown out the creature. The wind in the grass was louder than one would think, and he ground his teeth in concentration. Nothing but the wispy rustle floated in the wind and he knew he had a few moments to try to patch himself.
He whipped the bandages from his pack and placed them on the ground, reaching to pull the box gauze and his roll of tape out. He had been using a duct tape as no other means of securing a bandage had been provided, and it had been serving as a makeshift brace as well. He stripped off the stained cloth and cast it aside, already ripping the strip on another pack to get at the new patch for his arm. He opened his canteen and looked inside. The water was low, but he had enough for a small wash. Dumping the contents onto his arm, he watched as the blood ran down and the full extent of the damage emerged from the gore.
It was a deep wound, but not so deep that it should still be gushing like it was. He dried it with his shirt, hoping against hope that it would not get infected. Several places on it were already crusted with blood, and he knew he would have to start using grass soon. He probably should have used it this time, but it was too late for that now. He slapped the patch on it tight and allowed it to stick to the open gashes, felt the sting as the fibers connected. He winced in pain and reached for the duct tape. He had secured one side of it when the sound broke over the empty fields.
The howl was distant, but near enough to be heard and that was troubling. He swung about, sticking his head up above the grass just enough to look around. He could not see anything, but that did not mean the creature was not hiding just out of sight. He returned to his work, haphazardly twisting the roll of tape around his arm as quickly as he could. He pulled the roll to his teeth and tore at it, ripping through the stringy bits and tearing it away. He quickly pulled two small lengths to put on the sides and hurried to stow the equipment back in his bag. He shoved them in and rose to a crouch, looking back once more.
Far off, in the distance he saw a small, black shape. It was not moving quickly, but it was making a beeline straight for him. He stood and began walking briskly, patting his pack to make sure everything was secure. He felt the journal, the medical equipment, the small box of crackers that he had rationed so carefully, and realized he had forgotten something. His canteen was not in the pack.
All hesitation abandoned him, he turned and raced back, eyes on the ground to find his water supply. He saw the abandoned, sweaty bandage and knew he was close. He fell to the ground, his hands running over it as he crawled around looking for his water. He reached into a cluster of thick grass and his hand gripped the canteen. Throwing it in his pack, he stood up and looked back at the creature. It was much closer now.
Henry Perkins ran for it.
* * *
It is New Year’s Eve, and Henry Perkins is as happy as he has ever been in his life. The apartment party he has found himself at is full of people he does not know, many he does not even recognize, but he finds that he does not care in the least. The noise thunders around him, pulsing in his ears, and the conversations are loud and blending into that mass crowd noise as he they often tend to do at parties like this. He is drunk off his ass, and he carries his plastic cup with tequila in the bottom loosely in his hand. The room spins, but he has a point to focus on away at the other side of the room. Standing there, elegant in a long black dress that has made her the envy of her friends, is Sarah Cranston.
A shoulder bumps him and he turns away from his shining star to see who has collided with him. It is the man who owns the apartment, the one who invited him to this crazy shindig, Terry Daniels. The man turns to see who he ran into and a smile breaks out on his face. “Henry!” he exclaims, and he feels himself being wrapped in a strong embrace by Terry. The bear hug is nice, and they are both so far gone that it feels natural.
Terry pulls back first and laughs. He leaves an arm around Henry and turns him to face the cluster of women on the other side of the room. “Whaddaya see over there, bro?” he shouts into Henry’s ear with a sly smile on his face. “Could that be a gaggle of geese you stalking there?”
“I was going to go talk to Sarah,” Henry answers.
“Sarah?” Terry bellows, and he slaps Henry on the back so hard he drops his nearly empty cup. It rolls away and is lost in the cluster of people. “Sarah? You sure, compadre? She’s the classiest one in the group. Now me, I’d pick something more along the lines of that one right there.” And Terry points to the blonde standing a few steps away from Henry’s beloved.
The woman is showing all she has to offer. She has made up her big, green eyes. Her dress is short and she is nearly popping out of the top of it. She laughs, and Henry has to admit it is infectious. “Sure,” Henry replies, “if you like them that easy.” At this Terry doubles over with laughter. It takes him several moments to stop. “Bro, you damn well bet I’m into that shit if they’re that easy!” he roars. The blonde moves over to talk to Sarah, and Henry sees his opportunity.
“Let’s go,” he says.
“Now?” Terry asks.
“Yeah, let’s do this. You grab the blonde and do your thing.”
“Which would leave Sarah all for you.”
“Well fuck yeah, man, let’s ride!”
And with that Henry and Terry are moving through the crowd, ducking and weaving through the mass of bodies and conversations that mean nothing to them. They have each chosen their targets, and Terry rarely fails his friends. Henry’s heart is thundering away and his palms grow sweaty. He wills himself not to stutter, to get nervous. He forces himself to remain steady, tries to think of something to say. And then there they are, standing in front of the girls. The women look up at the two friends expectantly, Terry swaying a little and pulling Henry into his stagger. They laugh, and the girls laugh, and suddenly everything is ok.
“Henry! Terry!” Sarah shouts, and she hugs them each in turn. Terry’s big, red face is gleaming. This has always been his greatest strength. He is a wonderful writer, a fantastic cook, and has gleaned a significant amount of wealth leasing property. He has a lot to offer, and it has become very easy for him to charm the women he meets. He eyes the blonde, up and down, and she flushes a bright red and smiles shyly. It is a put-on, and everyone knows it, but Terry sees his chance to score and immediately moves in.
“And who,” Terry says, “is the sexy thing you’ve brought to my apartment?”
“Jenna,” the woman laughs, and she extends her hand.
“Jenna? Well, nice to meet you Jenna. I’m Terry, the little scrote here is Henry.”
Henry shakes her hand as she greets him and then turns to Sarah. She smiles at him and hugs him a second time, her arms wrapped around his neck. He can already hear Terry offering to walk Jenna away to get another drink, and when Sarah releases him they are alone at last. He glances around and sees them walking away, Terry’s arm around Jenna. The big man turns back, winks, and gives him the thumbs up. Sarah does not miss this.
“So…you need him to get me alone?” she asks, and he blushes. “Sorry,” he says, “I wasn’t meaning to interrupt.” She laughs and leans into him. He puts his arm around her and she puts her drink up to his lips and tips it, pouring a sweet concoction down his throat. He swallows and smiles at her. “Thanks, Terry knocked my drink for a loop back there and I lost it.”
She takes a swig of her own, downing the rest of the cup’s contents. “No problem,” she says. He opens his mouth to speak, but before he can get anything else out the music stops. The party stops. He turns, and sees Terry turning up the television mounted above his fireplace. The ball is dropping.
The crowd shouts, counting down from ten. The sound is deafening, and Sarah has joined in. Henry smiles, joy swelling inside of him. He turns to her and opens his mouth to shout something as the countdown nears its end. She looks at him and puts a finger to his lips. “Shut up, Henry,” she says. And her fingers lace through his hair.
The crowd is deafening as they shout their adulation. And Sarah is kissing him. He is lost in it, with loud cries welcoming the new year all around them. It is the best moment of Henry Perkins life, and he will cling to it like a talisman. As Sarah leads him away from the crowd, away from the noise, to Terry’s bedroom and a night of loving passion, he smiles and cements it in his memory.
Sarah is still kissing him. She has locked the door and thrown him to the bed. They are embracing, undressing each other, and it is pure ecstasy. She smiles down at him and tells him how long she has waited for this, how much she has loved him. And he tells her how much he loves her as well. And they entwine.
As she sleeps next to him, her soft breathing a choir in his ears, he thinks about what he will say to Terry in the morning. And he realizes Terry will not care, he will have taken his own conquest on the couch after the crowd dispersed, and that the big guy will just be happy for his friend. He holds tight to the feeling he has, and rolls over to put his arm around Sarah as he falls into his own drunken slumber.
This is the last thing that Henry Perkins remembers before the plains.
* * *
The heat had been surprising. His shirt long gone, discarded in the field with his now empty canteen, he stumbles on in the now baking swelter. His sandals are scraps now, the straps swinging on his ankles, but he kept them anyway. He did not want to give them up, and even the illusion had helped. Henry gave up trying to patch them, he was far more frightened of the creature than cutting his feet, but he still liked having the feel of something on his feet. It made him feel at home.
The grass was thinning the further he went. He could see it out ahead of him, the slowly receding turf becoming sand, littered with stones. Henry had grown worried at this because he would no longer be able to hide. Not that hiding had helped any, but it had felt safer when he had to stop and patch his arm or take a quick breather.
As he set his first step on the fine sand his foot burned, the sores on the bottom of his foot singing with it. He cried out and fell to his knees. They singed, but they were not as bad as the soles of his feet. He crawled forward on his hands, a knuckle-walking quadruped hurtling forward through the desert that spread out before him, hulking along quickly. He glanced behind him.
A rainbow shimmer on a sleek, black surface slipped out of the grass and began to move forward. The creature was too close now, the claws ramming into the sand with such piercing force that he could hear it each time, a sifting sound that was a tiny bit louder with each movement. Henry pushed on, moving more swiftly now. His skin was burning on the sand, already he could feel blisters forming and wished he had not cast away his shirt, the fabric now seeming useful instead of a blazing hot prison.
The roar. The roar was right behind him now. He lurched forward and a claw entered his calf, the sharp pain stinging through his entire body. He shuddered up and down, screaming. Blood leaked out to boil on the sand, hissing as it struck the ground. The creature began to drag him backward towards the grass. He tried to roll over, his muscles searing in his leg with the pain. The ever-moving skin of the creature was more like a shell that had been soaked in oil. He wondered if there was toxin in the claw, the arm continuing to bleed as well as his leg now. There would be no escape this time, though, for Henry. Flesh sizzling on his back, he slid back toward the grass.
As the grass slid back up on him ne felt cooler, more clear-headed. He looked up into the eyes of his attacker. At least, what he assumed were the eyes. The creature had no face, or at least not what one would traditionally consider a face. The skin swirled and shimmered, always moving, and the eyes might have been part of that. The head looked like stretched, starved skin with a mouth that puckered and sucked as though it was trying to breath through plastic, the film over its mouth wheezing with the expansion of its lungs. It raised its other claw, the black and needle-like point shining. Then it swung down.
As it swung he experienced his final moment, the claw following down as his brain died. Henry remembered everything, in flashes and glimpses, and they began to flash before him. An image of Terry, upside down in his vision as he held Henry’s legs so he could do a keg-stand. His parents, fighting as he watched from the top of the stairs to see his mother sock his father in the jaw. The tip of the claw pushed forward, nearing the center of his brain. Henry’s first beer, his favorite movie, a time he spent in silence at a bar with a friend while they read pleasantly together, all these images flashed before his eyes as he shut down, the blood running down the side of his head and leaking his memories on the grass.
As it reached the center he was granted one last vision, a woman he could not ever forget. Henry thought back, feeling the life he has lived come to an end even as he was granted a final vision of wonder, of joy. He remembers the first time he was truly excited, that he felt a rush as Sarah reached out for the first time, touched his arm, and said, “Can you tell me where to find Bio 365?”