Keep on Running

Entered in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2018.

The desert just, sort of, keeps going. That’s the first thing you notice about it. Endless sand on the left, and endless ocean on the right.

Nothing can live here but the most resilient tufts of grass, soaking up what moisture they can get in the wind from the sea.

I had been on the bus since last night. I had seen the Sun rise over the desert, and it was once more beginning to set over the shimmering sea.

I drifted off to sleep for a moment, with my face against the dusty window.
When I woke up, the bus was pulling over at some run-down old outpost. There’d be an overpriced shop, and a restaurant, and some scummy toilets. The usual. There were no signs of life except a skinny dog with patchy fur and one eye, wandering aimlessly around.

The Sun was almost entirely below the horizon now, and Venus was gleaming in the clear Western sky.

Most of the passengers got off the bus. I waited for the man sitting next to me to get up before I followed. It had been 4 hours since the last stop, at another of these lonely stations, where the desert meets the sea, and I could barely move my legs.

I stood up, clumsily, and walked towards the door, stepping out into the cool desert twilight. None of the other passengers were out here. They must all have gone inside. I paced around the yard a bit, with the decrepit dog watching me intently from a few metres away. I walked round to the other side of the bus.
I recoiled.

Then I looked closer, to make sure I’d seen it right.

There was a pile of sand, that had been blown across the road. And, sticking out from it, a hand. A human hand, with the end of a black sleeve.

I shouted for help, several times. Nobody answered.

I walked over, tentatively. I reached out and touched it, quickly withdrawing my hand at first, and then going back for longer.

It was cold, and stiff.

I took a few deep breaths and started to brush the sand away.
It was the body of a woman, face down in the sand, dressed all in black. I turned her head to see her face.

I leapt back. I leaned in. It was. It was her. I ran. I ran back round and back into the bus. I’d be safe in there. I’d be safe in there. It wouldn’t be real when I was back in there. But it was. It was Caitlyn I’d seen. Her face pure white, her lips grey, her jumper stained with congealed blood, a deep, gaping ravine of blood right across her neck.

It can’t have been. It was three years since she’d died. But it was. It was. She was real. I’d touched her. I’d felt her cold, clammy skin.

I stumbled back to my seat, tripping over a bottle of water that someone had left on the floor without the lid screwed on properly, sending it streaming down the aisle.

There was nobody else on the bus. Everyone who had been here must have left, but I couldn’t see anyone else out of the windows. Just that stray dog.
My phone buzzed. With shaking hands, I took it out of my pocket, unlocked it, and read the message:

“Keep on running, keep on running”

I didn’t think there was a phone signal here.

There definitely wasn’t a phone signal here.

I threw my phone down the aisle.

I began pacing, up and down, up and down, up and down.

Where had everyone gone? Was I alone here now, trapped in this desolate place, at the ends of the Earth?

Then I saw it on the back seat. I saw the swarm of flies first. I walked closer. I could hear them, buzzing incessantly. I knew what it was. I knew what it was that I’d see there. I turned round, and walked quickly away. There it was again, right in front of me this time, in one of the aisle seats.

There were maggots crawling in Caitlyn’s eye sockets. Her hair was falling out, along with chunks of flesh. Flies swarmed around her abdomen, where worms were devouring her viscera.

I turned again and ran for the exit, to get anywhere away from this place. But I slipped, on the water I’d spilled earlier.

I landed next to my phone.

It buzzed again.

The screen was facing up. I saw the message.

“See what I became?”

I ran once more, staggering down the steps and out of the door.

The dog was gnawing on a bone it had found.

It wandered round the side of the bus, back where I’d found the first body. I followed it. I didn’t know where I was going. I just wanted to be anywhere else.
Where the body had been, there were a pile of bleached bones, again half-buried in the sand. In the bright moonlight, I could make out a skull, a few ribs, a few vertebrae, and a femur. That was all there was.

And there was a buzzing sound, on top of the mound of sand. I looked, instinctively, and against my better judgement.

I saw exactly what I’d dreaded seeing.

It was my phone. It couldn’t have been my phone, because my phone was on the bus, but it was my phone.

It was too late. I’d already seen the screen:

“See what you made of me?”

“What do you want from me?” I shouted out loud, into the salty wind.

Another buzz.

I tried not to, but I glanced down, and there it was again. My phone, with a message on the screen:

“Can you keep on running forever?”

The Experiment

“I want to show you a project I’m working on at the moment.”

The staircase wound up around the turret, its murky, twisting darkness ruptured by strips of blazing Sicilian sunlight through the arrow-slits. Frederick walked in front of me, his cloak rippling behind him as he negotiated the narrow and uneven steps.

“What is it?”

“You’ll find out.”

The Emperor stopped at a thick, dark door, where a Saracen guard waited, his weathered hand resting on his sword’s elegantly-crafted hilt.

“You see, I never managed to discover the language of Adam and Eve.”

I made a vague noise of acknowledgement.

“The problem is, when you deprive infants of all human contact, they don’t learn anything at all. They need to be shown attention and affection just to survive. So that one ended up as an abject failure.”

I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t really want to know what had happened.

The guard bowed. Frederick said something to him in stern and abrupt Arabic, prompting him to stand to attention once more. The King pushed on the door and it slowly swung open.

“My guards are all Saracens.” Frederick explained to me as we walked inside. “You see, the problem with Christians is that they’ll just do what the Pope tells them. He says I’m getting excommunicated and I’m taking them with me, and they’re gone just like that. I mean, it’s understandable. Nobody wants to spend eternity getting prodded by a demon with a pitchfork.”

My eyes wandered around the room, bathed in the Sun’s dusty rays. There was a row of books on a shelf at the far end, and there was a table with pieces of a huge range of plants lined up, most of which I’d have no chance of identifying. There was a row of glass bottles next to them, distorting and magnifying the light coming through them, casting it into golden patches on the back wall.

On another table, beside an unlit candle with stacks of old wax rising up and surrounding it, a book was open, written in black ink in a precise, practical Arabic hand. I could not read Arabic, but I could make out diagrams of lines meeting and intersecting with circles in deep, black ink against blotchy parchment.

“What I am working on has the potential to either prove or to disprove the very foundations of Christian thought.”

A lizard lay on the window-ledge, its tense and sleek body soaking up the Sun. Hearing our footsteps, it scampered adeptly up the wall and into a crack between two stones.

“This way.” The King of Italy said, briskly, leading me round behind a bookcase. A pale, greasy-haired servant boy was sitting, hunched over, on a low stool next to a large, oak barrel, with an array of ropes holding it firmly against the ground. There was a noise from inside it. Something scraping against the inside, and letting out a strange whimper.

“This is what I brought you here to see.”

“What are you keeping in there?”

“Take a closer look.”

I bent down towards the barrel. There was a hole drilled in one side of it, about big enough to fit two fingers through. I peered in.

There, faint in the dark, was grey and clammy skin.

As my eyes got used to the dark inside the barrel, I made out more features. There, naked and emaciated, crouched in the barrel, with his knees pulled right in under his ragged and tangled beard, was a man.

He slowly began to turn his face towards the hole, and I recoiled at the mere thought of those sorrowful eyes, pleading to be released.

“What do you think?” The King asked, smiling.

“What are you doing?” I responded.

The King of the Germans turned to the servant.

“How’s it going?” he asked

“It’s going fine.” The timid servant replied.

“How long do you think we have left?”

“I think it’s probably a couple more days yet.”

Frederick continued, casually turning back to me. “You see, my purpose is to observe the soul of a man.”

He saw my surprised expression and smiled to himself.

“To that end,” he continued, “a man, like you saw, is deprived of food and water. Lacking such necessities, after a few days, he will perish. At that moment, if there is a soul departing for Heaven or for Hell or for wherever it goes, it will be forced to leave through the small hole in the barrel. My servant will inform me when the moment is imminent, and I will be ready to observe.”

Frederick bent down and stared through the hole, with a big grin. There was an incoherent groan from inside, and the ruler of half of Christendom stood up once more.

“Make sure you keep watching closely,” he said to his servant.