The Hollow Road

There is a forest far from here. The trees that grow there are huge and old, they reach up, and like accusing fingers they point at the fat clouds above them. Clouds that now burst.

The sky spits rain, each drop is like a bullet fired down from the heavens. Leaves are lashed and battered, the forest is blown into chaos.

Between the trees there is a sudden darting shape; a silhouette against the fading light. The shadow’s name is Michael and he is doing what he loves best. Pace after pace after pace after pace, he is racing the rotation of the Earth. The mad beating of his heart matches the slam of each foot as it hits the ground. He has been running for hours now, the world rolling away beneath him.

The drums are sounding.

The wind suddenly picks up and pushes him on, formless hands pressing formless fingers into his aching back. He surges ahead, but his legs are tired, against his will they give way and he falls, crashing head first in to the sodden ground. He lies there, listening to it as it thunders through the trees towards him.

He hears a voice. A whisper. A memory.

He remembers…

It had been one of Michael’s infamous dinner parties, held this time, for himself, his wife, and his best friend Gabe. Michael was enjoying one of his rare nights off work.

Gabe held his empty glass out to Michael. “Fill it up Mike?” Michael stood and shook his head. “I’ve got something better.” He hurried from the room, his voice carried through from the kitchen. “I’ve been saving this.” Michael’s wife, Peggy rolled her eyes. There was the sound of a cork being popped, a cry of pain, then excited footsteps returning. Michael entered and revealed a bottle with a flourish.

“This, lady and gentleman, is ‘Le Vin Du Chemin Croux’ straight from the darkest depths of France.” He poured them each a glass then raised his high in a toast. “To culture!” He tipped the wine into his mouth and showed his appreciation by gargling and swilling it through his teeth and cheeks. Peggy was appalled. “Don’t you dare spit that out!” Michael quickly swallowed, he watched eagerly as Peggy and Gabe both sipped at their wine. Peggy was the first to speak. “Excellent Michael, it tastes like cider.” Michael laughed. “I’m not joking.” Peggy took another sip and pursed her lips in disgust.

Michael’s mouth fell open. “Do you know how much that cost me?” Peggy’s face darkened and she raised her eyebrows. “How much?” Michael just stood there, he had no words ready to save his neck. His mouth flopped open and then snapped back shut. Peggy shook her head. “Oh just sit back down Michael!”

Michael took his seat and an awkward silence followed. Gabe was the first to find his tongue, he finished his mouthful and leaned over the table towards Michael. “I found you a new track.” Peggy shot Gabe a sly look. “Have you ever heard of The Hollows?”

Michael shook his head and listened intently as Gabe told him of a run that would take him up through the hills and the forests, into the dark heart of nature. It was a run that would take him out through the pines to a place where spirituality and physicality would combine to elevate the human to a heightened awareness of misery and pain. “Some people have reported having visions. Premonitions.” Gabe paused for effect then laughed and leaned back in his chair. “They say they’ve seen the future.” Michael’s eyes lit up. “You’ve got to do it!”

Gabe had eventually left, the moment that the door had closed behind him Michael and Peggy had started to argue. “What are you doing with your life Michael?” Michael couldn’t answer; he didn’t know. “You spent how much?” Michael had sunk deep down into his seat as Peggy’s words washed over and smothered him. “What’s wrong with you?”

That night, as he listened to the endless snores of his wife, Gabe’s words had begun to dance through his mind. The Hollows. It was something new to break up the never ending days of work, something to hold at bay the bitterness that grew inside him like a cancer. The wind in his hair and the air upon his skin, surrounded by nature. Away from the complications of civilisation and technology, how man was made to be.

He sat up and set a reminder on his phone to email Gabe first thing in the morning and then lay back down. When he closed his eyes, he could see his feet hitting the earth, the sunlight through the leaves, the softness of the ground, a darkness in his periphery…

Sleep consumed him.

One week later, he had unleashed his surprise upon Peggy. Once she had eaten the meal he had prepared, drank the wine he had bought, taken the bath he had run, and relaxed from the massage he had given, he had proposed his idea. He had expected some sort of protest, but his well prepared counter argument hadn’t even been needed, she had agreed instantly.

His days became dreams. Before he knew it, Michael was sat in his car speeding away from home, Peggy and Gabe happily waving him off.

He could already feel it, the future lay ahead, it was waiting for him and here he was, head held high, racing to meet it. He had stopped at a hotel that night and spread out on the bed like an angel. A whole bed to himself, it was the best nights sleep he could remember.

In the morning he had handed the key back to the receptionist and for a second their hands had touched and she had looked into his eyes and smiled.

From a perfect moment had been born a perfect memory and it was one he had kept close to him all day. He’d been re-living it; her smile, her eyes, the smallest touch, her brown hair, when his car had suddenly been ripped from the road. There had been a screech of tires, a sudden awful pull of inertia, the shriek of twisting metal, the shattering of glass…

But that was the past.

This is the now.

The rain is subsiding; the skies have finally called a cease-fire. Michael lies in a puddle, his eyes half-open. Water runs into his mouth and rolls down his throat and he chokes. He thrashes for a moment then groggily forces himself up on to his hands and knees. His spine bends painfully as he retches and coughs up the muck from inside of him.

When there is nothing more left within, he stands on legs that shake and with muddy fingers he wipes the dirt from his lips. He lifts his head, blinks and looks around, unsure of where he is. Trees surround him, their branches reach and run and spread like nerve endings across the sky.

As Michael looks around, something in the trees moves, a heavy snort and the scent of stagnation and filth washes over him. Something watches, something dark and ugly and foul. Something that smiles as if it knows what’s to come.

Michael is exhausted but he forces himself to run again. He runs for minutes and he runs for hours. He runs until he can feel it gnawing at his heels, threatening to take him down. He runs until he cannot take another step but he knows that if he falls he will never get back up, and so he runs until his knees burn and his ankles feel as if they will snap. He runs until his lungs ache, and he runs until he cannot breath. He runs because he can’t stop…

He runs until…

The world suddenly opens up before him. Michael digs his heels in as he sees the cliff edge racing closer. He slips and falls and hears the crunch of an ankle but panic holds the pain at bay. His legs slip over the edge but Michael digs his fingers into the ground and momentum pulls him no further. He lies where he is, staring up away from the world. Numb.

The drums…

He sits up, his calves hang over the edge of the cliff, he looks like a child sat on a swing. It was right behind him now, the sound so loud that it was no longer audible. It was just a wall of pressure, pushing and pressing at the flesh of his back.

Michael grit his teeth, the future raced towards him, dirty and loveless and hollow. Michael pushed himself forward. “What’s wrong with you…” A voice from the past. “…what’s wrong…” Michael knew what the future held. “…with you…”

Michael fell.

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