Toby clambered and staggered through the final trees from the forest and back into civilization. The darkness of the dense undergrowth gave way to the banal, gray reality of suburban life.
As soon as he stepped, at last, onto the sidewalk, what had happened mere moments before did not feel real. Despite this, he ran. He ran and ran until his legs started to feel like jelly. He then ran some more and kept on running until he reached the road his home was on. As he reached that road, however, he started to think. His first thought was that he was definitely running for no reason. But immediately afterward, his second thought was that he could not run home without giving away where he lived. If he did that, he would never feel safe.
So he ran on, past his house. He ran like he did not know he could, until he reached a strip mall on the main road in town. At the roadside outside the parking lot, he stopped, and looked behind himself. He knew there would be nothing there, but it was still a relief when it was confirmed. He criticized himself for losing his sanity, and then started walking, out of breath, to the nearest shop. Better to be around people, he thought.
As soon as he was in the shop, though, he regretted it. Much like the forest’s trees before, he was now surrounded by high shelves, loaded with products, which affected his view. Like the sunlight through the canopy, the shop’s fluorescent lights cast an eerie glow over everything. The shelves were close together, less than two feet between each one. “Not like Walmart” he thought bitterly.
Toby decided to look at the shelves and pretend to be a shopper, and he acted as if he were a shopper, even though his mind was too frantic to even recognize the products. As he pondered a packet of ladies’ sanitary products, he heard something behind him. He looked, quickly, like a prey animal hearing a twig crack, only to see a shadow leave the end of the aisle. He decided to leave the store, and get back into the light and so he walked as quietly as he could towards the front of the store again.
“D’ya find everythin’ you need?” a teenager working behind a checkout asked.
Toby recognized the phrase as being one that staff were expected to say – he heard it every time he entered this chain. Toby looked over at the teenager, but he had not even looked up from his cell phone. “May as well be a robot” Toby thought. A shadow moved in the store behind the teenager.
Toby stepped out into the gray world again and headed back towards the road across the parking lot. He had felt safer there. As he reached the sidewalk again, he looked up and down the main street. There was not a single car in sight. This road was always in use. It always had a few cars on it, and was often snarled completely.
Toby started to walk back towards his home, regularly glancing behind himself and to either side. Still there were no cars travelling up or down the road. Toby wondered if he had forgotten about the Super Bowl, or some other major event. A traffic light flashed yellow, telling drivers to use caution at the intersection, but otherwise Toby could see nothing moving at all. He looked at the trees on the hills behind the strip mall and noticed that none of them were moving – there was no breeze.
Toby reached for his pocket to see if his cellphone had miraculously restored its battery but, as he feared, it still stubbornly refused to turn on. He heard his mother’s voice in his head “Be prepared, or you’ll regret it”. It had been twenty years since he’d last heard her say that to him, but she’d said it often enough that he often said it to himself before he went out. And yet here he was, no phone, no water, probably ticks crawling up his legs and being chased by God knows what. Worse, he was probably not being followed at all, just slowly losing his mind.
In the distance, Toby heard the long, ghostly whine of a freight train. It seemed to be a way off, but the track in town was one-way so Toby knew where it would be. At that, he ran again and, when he reached the track, he hid behind a bush.
Toby kept his eyes out, making sure what was chasing him had not found him. As the train approached, Toby tensed his muscles. The shadow approached, and Toby stepped in front of the train.
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