I snatched the drawstring bag off my head, forced my battered body to roll over and tried to catch any detail of the car as it sped away. The dust from its spinning tyres rendered everything a blur. Audi. Black.
My ankles and wrists smarted where the cable ties had cut into my skin. I pushed myself to my feet. My joints popped. I stretched my stiff legs until I could stand upright. Everything hurt. I could taste blood on my lips.
The two-lane blacktop stretched to the horizon in both directions. Rolling fields of dusty grass bordered the road, separated by low hedges, covering the landscape to the hazy limit of my vision. A scarecrow kept guard over the field to my left, the pathetic remnants of its stuffing hanging out of torn coat-sleeves. A rook flew from its perch on the figure’s tattered shoulder.
I couldn’t remember anything before waking up in the trunk of the car. I’d come to my senses in complete darkness, my breath inside the canvas hood making my face sweat. The rocking of the car made it hard to stop myself being sick. Not just the rocking. They must have drugged me. Where had they picked me up? And where had they dumped me? This could have been anywhere.
It was useless. I couldn’t even remember who they were.
I tried to brush the dirt from my battered jacket and looked along the road again in both directions, hoping for a clue. There was nothing, just the dead straight road running between identical vanishing points. The sky was cloudless, the air still. I was alone under the baking sun.
Yet I felt someone was with me. It wasn’t so much like I was being watched. Worse than that, it felt like someone had simply noted my arrival. Watching was no longer necessary.
The sun was at its highest and I could see no shade for miles around. It crossed my mind to wait until someone picked me up, try to hitch a ride to a nearby town, but I quickly decided I couldn’t stay where I was. Which way should I go? I glanced back and forth, suddenly indecisive, with nothing to guide me. But there was something: a piercing point of light on the horizon, not far from the road. A chance reflection from a distant window? It was something new, something suggesting civilization. I was glad to have something to break the symmetry.
I dropped the black canvas hood into the parched grass at the side of the road and took off my jacket. As I draped it over my arm a few seeds fell out of the inside pocket and scattered on the ground. I brushed them away with my foot and set off along the centre of the road, following an irregular crack that ran continuously along its length. I must have walked for an hour, my head down, limping more and more as an ache in my left ankle became worse with every step. I passed field after field on both sides of the road and never saw another soul. Occasionally I glanced up to see the point of light still burning on the horizon, unwavering. I doubted that it was a reflection, it was much too constant. The sun didn’t appear to have moved.
Another mile, possibly two, I trudged on. The heat was becoming unbearable and my pace had slowed. I was desperate for water and the taste of blood had returned.
Suddenly I looked up to see a woman walking towards me.
I stopped in my tracks. I should have seen her coming from miles away, but she was only a few tens of yards distant. She smiled at me, and when she did my heart pounded in my chest. She was blonde, so incredibly blonde that the sun burned around her head. She was wearing a red dress, split above the knee, and you carried a black and gold handbag. The clicking of your high heels on the tarmac pierced the silence.
You were only yards away now, so beautiful, still smiling, and yet looking through me. I tried to speak, but my throat was parched and no words came, only a terrible thirst. I realised I was panting. The patches of sweat beneath my arms suddenly felt cold against my skin. I watched you walk past, your hips swaying, you seduced me. I tried to let you go, but I turned. I let you go for just a few dreadful steps before I turned to watch you leave me. I turned, but you weren’t there. Frozen, I stared at the space where you should have been, but the road was empty. I whirled back around in a panic to see you strolling away. Click, click, your steps counted out time. Wasn’t that the way you’d come? Wasn’t that the way you’d always been, always one verse ahead of me? I glanced back over my shoulder, confused, and when I looked back: nothing. My head swam. I span, desperately looking for you, and the world span with me. The clicking of her heels slowed as I did, stopping as I came to rest, a Wheel of Fortune with only two possible outcomes.
I took a deep breath, and shivered despite the heat. I was completely disoriented for a moment, but the glint of light, my goal, my faithful companion, was still shining brightly on the horizon. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to be any closer. I turned to see if I could tell how far I’d walked, and my heart sank.
There was another light.
It shone equally brightly on the opposite horizon, a precise image of the first. Or perhaps it was the first. There was no way of knowing. The endless road bordered by identical fields provided no reference point from which to judge. I had only one choice to make: I picked a direction, gritted my teeth, and started walking once more.
There was little sense of progress, no sense of time. I went back to following the central crack in the road, head bowed, not looking too far ahead. Looking into the infinite was overwhelming. Occasionally I glanced up and tried to judge distance using the boundaries between fields. I set myself targets. Make it to the next hedge. And the next. Just half way to the next hedge then have a rest, take the weight off that ankle, take a break from the electric pain of every step. A hundred more steps. Fifty steps. Twenty. The targets got smaller, but no easier, and the light got no closer.
I couldn’t go on. I threw my jacket on the ground and collapsed. My whole body burned. I stared up into the terrible blue sky, and it seemed to envelop me, drawing me into its featureless void. Nobody dies like this, abandoned and pathetic on some generic American highway. My head fell limply to the side and I was about to close my eyes when something caught my attention. Something I recognised: A black canvas hood.
Laughter. Hollow laughter.
I crawled over to the verge and picked it up, grasping the rough fabric tight in my fist. Someone did this to me. I almost knew who.
I wasn’t beaten yet. I had to leave the road. I had to get away from that place. I grabbed my jacket and dusted it off, stuffed the hood into my belt, and stood up straight. Without hesitation I hobbled as purposefully as I could into one of the fields, down the slope of a small ditch and up the other side. The ground was uneven but soft. The grass felt lusher than it appeared from the road, and seemed cool even through my shoes. The field rose gently to a ridge, and I wondered what sight might greet me when I crested its top.
Every step took more effort than the last. I glanced back and guessed I was perhaps a third of the way up the field. I stopped to catch my breath. Was it my imagination or was it getting colder? The sun still shone fiercely overhead.
I steeled myself and went on for another minute or two, smiling at the imagined irony of reaching the top and looking down on a town, a bar, a motel. A hospital. Another break. I was exhausted, but I kept telling myself that a few more pushes would see me through. It was definitely colder now. A breeze had picked up, carrying with it the cries of a bird, and a faint humming sound.
I turned to look back at the road, and as I did so I started to shiver. My blood was ice, and cold sweat trickled down the small of my back. I tried to put on my jacket, but my limbs were heavy and lifeless, and I struggled to get my arms into the sleeves. A couple more attempts and I managed to stretch it over my shoulders, pulling a seam in the process. The wind made my eyes water, the sun blinded me. I took the hood out of my belt and put it over my head, fumbling to pull the drawstring tight around my neck.
All was darkness, and a hum that grew.
A sudden weight pressed into my shoulder. A scuffling sound, biting and tearing, and I could see once more.
A car came into view. Audi. Black. A man looking at me. And the rook flew from its perch on my tattered shoulder.