Ruben ran through the forest. It was the dead of night. He had seen somebody trespassing from his bedroom window. They stood there, on the edge of where the property was lit: in the shadows, near the forest. No discernable traits. No telling if it was a man or a woman, or even if it was something that could be a man or a woman. It only stood there, watching the house. When it glanced upwards, towards Ruben’s window on the second floor, Ruben shuffled out of sight. He stood in his shirt and underpants, pressed against the wall beside the window. He looked around the room. In the corner was a baseball bat, from the summer he had feigned an interest in athletics.
Ruben shrugged. It was good enough.
With armament in hand, Ruben walked down the stairs, each step creaking in a familiar way. When he reached the bottom, he ducked and crawled to the living room window. He crouched under it, taking shallow breaths, quick ones. Ones that didn’t hurt the tattered skin of his chest, and didn’t let him get too lightheaded from the pounding blood in his eardrums. Ruben shot his head up to the window and then pulled it back down, only enough time to get a snapshot glance of the figure. But it saw Ruben. It saw Ruben, and it was turning away, back towards the woods. Back to where it could hide until the right time to strike. Until Ruben was asleep, unable to defend his nephew and his sister.
Ruben locked the front door behind himself as he left the house.
He ran through the woods. He could hear the trespasser’s footsteps right ahead of him—he could hear the breathing. The frantic gasps of air that were not so incidental as an animal, but not so calculated as a human. Ruben swung his bat, and it cracked against a tree, and the trespasser let out a shout, and that one did sound like something a human voice could make, maybe, if it were scared enough. But Ruben continued to chase, bat left behind in the dark, fallen from his hands after the ricochet.
Ruben had senses about the woods in the way some people had senses about the city: knowing how to walk through crowds; knowing what parts of town to avoid; knowing which people walking down the street were lunatics. Ruben had senses about the woods, and as he gave chase, he noticed that there was another presence keeping pace behind him. A shadow to Ruben in the already dark forest, feet bolting off of every mound of dirt he did, and avoiding every fallen branch with the same careful footsteps.
And god, was Ruben exhausted already. Already he couldn’t find the breath—already he was cheating his skin to fuel his lungs. He could feel his scar tissue stretch and fall back, and stretch again, only further this time, and it stung.
Ruben tripped. Pain hit him in the face and torso. The trespasser got away.
And then there was the monster behind him. The one that had not tripped over the same gnarled root that Ruben did. The one that had followed all the right steps and missed the bad ones. It had caught up with him. He couldn’t stand. His kneecap was broken, shattered, obliterated, out of commission, fucked.
Duke Cane appeared from the shadows. He held a claymore of a knife, and he was furious. Ruben tried to crawl away, but Cane picked him up. Ruben rose off the ground, kicking with his good leg, but none of his hits made a difference to the giant. Cane pinned Ruben against a tree. Ruben saw the glint of the knife, and he looked down: he saw it this time, entering his chest, this time not with the intent to maim, but to kill. This time, cutting out Ruben’s heart.
Ruben fought back. He put both of his hands against one of Cane’s, the one that held the knife, and Ruben pushed. God help him, he pushed against the hilt of Duke Cane’s claymore.
But then it was over. Duke Cane dropped Ruben to the forest floor, not because Ruben had won, but because it was finished. Duke Cane loomed over Ruben on the ground.
Ruben felt damp leaves against his cheek. He reached up, to touch one of them. To hold something before he died.
Ruben woke up slowly. He didn’t jump, startled by the fact that he had died again, in another nightmare. It was getting worse. There was getting to be less of a difference between his nightmares and his waking world. Ruben laid with the side of his head on his pillow, damp with sweat. Between his fingers, he toyed with a bit of the cloth from the pillow case. He felt it aggressively, until he’d forced it to stop being a leaf out in the forest. Until he’d made himself understand that he wasn’t really dead. Ruben woke up slowly. And when he got out of bed it didn’t feel real. In his head, he was going back down the stairs to chase the faceless trespasser all over again. He didn’t look out of any windows this time. He focused on one thing.
In the basement, he turned on the light. The art had been put away. In unpacking and repacking the canvases earlier that day, Ruben had found something. In the trunk in the basement in the corner, Ruben found firearms. Two of them were hunting rifles, which had belonged to his dad. The other was a twelve gauge, which Ruben’s mom had got to defend the house after dad left.
Ruben walked back up the stairs with his shotgun, holding it with intent. The butt of the gun was firm against his shoulder, and he pointed it around every dark corner. His finger was already pressing the trigger: it was only a question of whether or not he would press it a tiny bit harder.
When Ruben had breached and cleared his room, he was tired again. Lightheaded. He laid back down. He would wake up the next morning with marks on his cheek, from where the metal had reached through his pillow and bit him. But it would be worth it, for the comfort.
© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 2015