Nathan was drowning.
He knew he was because he’d drowned before. Seven years old and he had bounded to the beach, desperate to keep up with the elder cousins he idolised. It took twenty minutes for him to get into trouble while he watched the other boys slice surfboards into deeper and deeper waters.
It was only after he’d grown bored playing alone and tried to swim for the shore that he realised he wasn’t strong enough to escape the sea’s currents. Time after time he crawled up the pebbly beach only to be dragged back by the surf. Pebbles sliced across his hands and chest, dragging him under and sucking his small body further away from land. Panic consumed him with every breath of the ocean, every crescendo of the rocks as they hurtled down towards him, every wave that pummelled him below the writhing surface. His body was betraying him, his legs weak, lungs burning for air, desperate for light and space and land.
Now he was drowning again. Yet it wasn’t the sea that was crushing him, but the crowds he had been a part of just an hour before. The current swept through the mass of bodies swearing allegiance to the band conquering the stage. Wave after wave of limbs pulsed and pushed and pounded as the crowd obeyed the beat.
Bodies slammed into his chest this time, sweaty and exulted, thrusting into the earth. Nathan didn’t notice their rapture or scowls as he pushed through them with weakening arms. He saw nothing through his stinging eyes, heard nothing but the crack and crescendo of the beach hurtling towards his unprotected body.
Terror strengthened his aching limbs. His fear of the dark eyes that pursued him was enough to keep his body moving, keep running, keep going despite the fatigue dragging him under, and the pain that still flamed in his lungs with every gasp.
When he was seven, he had been saved by a stranger. A passer-by who had dragged him out of the sea’s clutching grasp to the horrified relief of his cousins. This time Kassie was his lifeline. Her small hand gripped his with an urgency that rooted him to the Earth when he wasn’t sure if he was alive or dreaming, running or standing still. Disconnected from everything around him, he focused what was left of his senses on that tight, cool grip.
Dimly, he was aware that Kassie was leading him to safety. Two, three, now four times, she’d darted suddenly to the side, swerving away from those pursuing eyes or ducking under a grasping hand moments before Nathan had even noticed them appear. He was convinced there wasn’t just one attacker, but an army. Again and again they materialised no matter how fast the couple ran. Each time Kassie skidded to a halt, pushing, shoving and screaming at Nathan to run the other way.
He followed blindly, not really knowing if half of the men he saw were genuine, or just phantoms haunting his bewildered mind. He felt unreal, his senses still clouded from oxygen deprivation and the dim, distant realisation that he had almost died.
Slowly, he began to notice that the waves battering him had begun to diminish. People stood close together but not close enough that the couple couldn’t weave between them instead of barging them out of the way. The crowd still moved with the beat but the fervour wasn’t as extreme here, the music losing its command at the edges of the crowd.
The promise of space, blessed breathable space brought an instant clarity to his vision and strength to his body. He ran with renewed desperation, gradually noticing the clawing ache of his muscles and the wheezing of his chest. His eyes locked onto a gap in the crowd with desperate relief. Finally, he could see the horizon of grubby outdoor toilets, parched grass and the huge archway in the distance that was their escape. As soon as he saw a chance at freedom, he knew what was to proceed it. Two identical men stepped calmly into the gap, staring at their targets through the long curtains of black hair obscuring their faces.
Something close to a sob escaped Nathan’s throat as he saw them. His legs tried to slow, ready to collapse on the ground where he was, cry out his last breath and let the things take him.
But Kassie didn’t stop.
As he started to slow, she squeezed his hand tighter until he was sure he heard the bones crunch. Her fearlessness twinged the last of Nathan’s remaining courage and he ran with her foolishly, charging towards their enemy together. The men made no move to defend themselves. They simply cocked their heads and watched baffled as their prey smashed into them, hurtling all four into the air. Only just managing to raise his hand in time to protect his face, Nathan slammed into the hard earth, his skin burning with the friction as he tumbled across the ground.
Around them, bystanders dived quickly out of the way with startled yells as the mess of bodies exploded suddenly into the dusty grass. Nathan didn’t notice their stares, nor the friction burns across his arms and knees. Instead he rolled over to embrace the sky he had never thought to see clearly again. It swept open and vivid above him, the intensity of the sunset finally succumbing to the dark blue of night. So suddenly still, he could almost feel the spin of the Earth beneath him as the skies stretched out and away.
He tilted his head to search for Kassie, not noticing the tears that were carving clear paths on his grubby skin, yet she was already scrambling to her feet, oblivious to the beauty of their escape. Then his eyes noticed the thing sprawled behind her, snapping and jerking with fury as it fought to find its feet.
Nathan rolled over quickly and reached out, desperate for the bright burst of hope that blossomed with the grip of her small hand. He only managed to brush her fingers before he slammed back into the earth once more as his leg was pulled out from beneath him. Twisting onto his back, he kicked out blindly, managing to connect with the chin of the man grasping at his ankle while trying to pull himself backwards out of reach.
He was too slow, or the creature was too fast because suddenly Nathan was screaming out in pain and revulsion, staring down at his own blood smeared across another man’s chin as the thing tore furiously at his ankle with teeth and nails.
It raised its human face and a triumphant growl escaped the back of its throat, worming passed white teeth staining red. It was an it now, Nathan realised with a horrified sob as he stared back into the thing’s wild eyes, recognising nothing human in its gaze.
Trapped in that gaze, he’d forgotten about the other creature until it was charging passed its brother towards him. He watched helplessly, screaming for what had to be the last time before his throat was ripped out.
Then Kassie was there, standing between Nathan and his attacker. His scream turned into a gurgle of horror as the girl rooted herself directly in the path of the rampaging monster. Yet Kassie didn’t seem so small from this angle. She was all he could see, tall and beautiful as she stared down the thing and flung her hand out in front of her. Nathan almost expected sparks to erupt from her fingers, instead just a word was flung from her lips.
Nathan glanced up in disbelief as the young, naive dreamer he was so desperately in love with transformed into a stranger. Wide eyes narrowed in fury, her smooth pale face became ancient, arrogant. Disdain was chiselled into her features with the curl of her lip and the contempt in her gaze. Nathan was at once awed and terrified.
Her attacker obeyed. Dust billowed across Nathan as the thing scrambled to stop its momentum. He flung his arm up again to protect his eyes and heard the creature slam into its brother, instantly dragging the weight from Nathan’s searing ankle.
Kassie stood above the dust, a triumphant smirk on her face as the creatures sunk their heads into the ground, averting their eyes from hers and whining. Another sob shuddered through Nathan’s chest though he wasn’t sure why.
Noise was erupting around him, but he heard nothing, felt nothing. His senses were paralysed with pain and confusion as his world, so uneventful, so predictable, spun away from him dizzyingly.
Kassie was pulling him up with both hands. He stared at her blankly. She was speaking but he couldn’t hear her. Yet her eyes were hers once more, young and afraid, just like his, though whether her fear was genuine, Nathan didn’t know any more. He stepped forward with his injured leg and instantly collapsed. Kassie fell with him, catching herself to gracefully kneel by his side. She was still speaking to him but pounding in his ears continued to silence her.
Turning his head, he glanced at the mess of limbs behind him. Twisted together so closely, Nathan couldn’t tell whose limbs were whose as the things rolled over and over, snapping at each other’s throats. Each time they tried to pull themselves up, they jerked the wrong limb and fell heavily to the ground.
Nathan started shaking, not entirely sure whether or not he was laughing, but tears streamed down his face nonetheless at the ridiculous sight of these stupid beings who had seemed so utterly terrifying a heartbeat before.
“Nathan,” he heard at last as he bent over double, his stomach hurting almost as much as his bloodied ankle and gasping lungs in his hysteria, “Damnit Nathan!”
He was wrenched around to face two startlingly blue eyes nestled in a furious face. But this was a furious face he was used to. The face that proceeded an argument about travelling or the time he’d overslept and missed his window to buy them Glastonbury tickets.
“Get up you idiot!” Kassie snapped at him.
“What for?” he managed to gasp.
Kassie wrinkled her nose and her lip twinged with disdain once more. The look sobered him instantly, realising once again the power of his fear of losing this maddening, mysterious girl that ordered him about in a way he secretly adored.
“Get. Up.” She ordered this time but Nathan was already scrambling for a footing. She helped him by pulling his arm across her shoulders and sharing his weight.
“You stopped them,” he gasped, wincing as he tested his injured leg without falling this time.
“Not for long. They have more than one master. Move!”
“What?” he panted, but she did not explain herself, only dragging him until he shuddered into a limping run.
Behind him, the things snapped, rolled and spat at each other. Yet with every passing moment they peeled themselves apart like glue, stretching thinner and thinner. Nathan fixed his eyes to the grass before his feet, letting the rest of the world blur into grey – he didn’t want to see them snap apart.
With his vision fixed to the ground, he didn’t notice Kassie veer away from the gate that was their only exit until they started passing the wooden stalls offering food, clothing and cheap tattoos. He didn’t dare to question her this time, though he knew there was no way he could scale the tall fence that surrounded the compound. Saying nothing, he kept running, trying to ignore the disturbing warmth of the blood seeping into his new trainers.
They passed the face-painting stall he had scorned at just hours earlier when Kassie had excitedly deliberated between the opposing designs of flowers and skulls. The butterflies she had chosen still glittered optimistically on her cheek, somehow staying put despite the glisten of sweat that covered her features.
As he glanced towards her, a bolt of terror slammed through him. Without looking, he knew the things behind him had resumed the hunt. A forgotten part of him had woken up, gradually at first then with a sudden terrible force, as if his nature suddenly remembered what it was to be hunted.
Somehow, he sped up and Kassie grunted with approval as she easily matched his pace. As they neared the fence, Nathan flung his head over his shoulder and regretted it instantly when his eyes found the two black shapes charging up the hill side by side. Yet, they were still just shapes, too far away now to catch the couple before they reached the edge of the compound.
They were going to make it.
Nathan knew it was a mistake the second the thought flickered into being. As he twisted his head back around, a shadow darted into his peripheral vision. Incredulous, Nathan almost stopped running, sat down where he was and had a tantrum when he recognised the form of the man-thing in front of them, trying to cut off their escape. There were three of them. Of course there were. Kassie didn’t let the despair reach his legs, she squeezed his hand and twisted them around a group of sunbathers. She hadn’t turned her head yet somehow she knew about the third creature. It was running from the gate where Kassie had known it would be waiting for them. She knew what they were thinking. She would save him.
He continued to tell himself that even as Kassie snatched her hand out of his grip and sped up. Gaping at her back in betrayal as he fell behind, he almost didn’t hear the order thrown over her shoulder.
She twisted left and sprinted for the long hut that served as a bar, running past a twisting queue of thirsty revellers. Nathan stared in disbelief as he realised what she was about to do. Moments before she crashed into the low metal safety barrier guiding the queue, she leapt up to meet it, landing her foot on the top and using the momentum to dive for the roof of the bar.
Exhausted bartenders scrambled forward for a better view as Kassie gracefully pulled herself up. She stood on the bar, flicked her hair from her eyes and stared at Nathan expectantly.
She had to be kidding.
Kassie’s free-running prank earned applause, whistles and the resigned sigh of a nearby security guard, though at the sight of Nathan bounding towards them, the bartenders quickly scrambled backwards again with pale faces. He tried to speed up, but his limbs weren’t responding. With every step the ground turned to treacle and he felt the ghost of a hand reaching for his unprotected back.
The guard stared at him in dismay before breaking into a run to head him off. Not truly understanding how his relaxing afternoon had led him to being chased from three different directions at once, Nathan leapt desperately at the barrier, narrowly avoiding the security guard’s outstretched fingers.
The barrier held stubbornly for a moment before it tipped sickeningly under Nathan’s weight and crashed onto the floor, pulling over every fence attached to it. People squealed in dismay as they were flung over with them. Yet, Nathan found his mark and threw himself towards Kassie.
He hurled towards the bar and smacked his chin against the edge. Scrambling to find a grip, he heard another crash as something else hurtled into the chaotic pile of bodies beneath him. He didn’t have to listen for the snarling and snapping of teeth to know what it was.
In the moment before he fell back to the floor to lie sprawled and defenceless as three creatures from hell ripped him apart like an extra in a monster movie, that glorious cool hand grasped his. Kassie grabbed his arm with her other hand and dragged him up. He made it onto the makeshift roof on all floors, fingernails breaking against the cheap MDF which bowed ominously under them.
Wordlessly, Kassie helped him to stand and then jumped the short distance to the fence, now easily within reach. Climbing to the top took seconds before she was diving gracefully to the ground on the other side, floating through the air to land in a perfect roll. Nathan paused long enough to let out an exhausted sigh before he followed suit, hurtling into the fence with a sickening rattle. He clambered awkwardly over the top and scrambled down the other side halfway before falling the remaining distance with closed eyes and a grimace of pain already prepared on his face.
Moments after he had hit the ground, the fence shuddered in pain as three blurry figures slammed into the other side. Nathan scrambled backwards until he hit Kassie’s legs behind him. The things, for they were undoubtedly no more than things now, hurtled themselves into the fence with savage fury. Nathan reached above him for Kassie’s hand automatically, his eyes flinching under the terrible growling of the animals before him.
Nathan felt Kassie hold her breath behind him. Like him, he was sure she was praying that the things didn’t remember they could be human and simply climb over the fence. Over and over again the three creatures threw themselves into the wire, picked themselves up and dived towards their prey that was so tantalisingly close.
Finally, one of the things threw back its head and gave a screeching howl of rage that slammed into Nathan’s heart. It echoed over the thousands of people enjoying their weekend, cutting through the most powerful crescendos blasting from the stages far behind them. Snapping one last time at the metal for good measure, the things turned as one and sprinted back towards the gate on all fours, drool dripping from jaws that weren’t human.
Kassie pulled Nathan to his feet gently. Pausing only to glance at each other’s eyes, they turned without speaking and started to run once again towards the car park, side by side.
Nathan was close to fainting by the time they reached the car. He was dimly aware that he wasn’t supporting his own weight anymore, though he didn’t spend the time wondering how Kassie could possible be dragging him on her own. He found himself drifting away, his thoughts floating aimlessly in the darkening sky, far away from his jerking, stumbling body.
The car was cool against his cheek. He didn’t remember reaching it. Painfully, he dragged his hand up to the door handle. It was important to get inside but he couldn’t remember why. Fingers scratched at the plastic but the door wouldn’t budge. Someone was yelling at him. Kassie. He tried to listen but he could hear nothing but the endless pounding and the voice in his head yelling ‘you almost died, you almost died’ over and over.
Kassie was groping at his trousers, at least he thought she was, his eyes were closed now, maybe they had been before. Keys were dragged from his back pocket clumsily. Keys. Of course.
He almost giggled at his foolishness, but couldn’t quite find the energy. Soon he was manhandled into the vehicle and fell gratefully into the passenger seat. By the time the car rolled across the grass to hit the tarmac with a scream of speed, Nathan was unconscious.
It was hours later when his eyes snapped open with the dreadful realisation that Kassie couldn’t drive.
That didn’t seem to have stopped her though, he realised as he forced his bleary eyes to drag the world into focus. They were pulled into a petrol station, close to a neon bright shop. No, he was. Kassie was nowhere to be seen.
That forced clarity into his vision. Still crumpled into the passenger’s seat, he twisted himself around to search for her and regretted it immediately. Everything hurt. Groaning, he pulled himself upright and finally took stock of himself. Crisp bandages sliced across his grubby skin though the pristine trainers he had been so proud of the week before were now coated in blood and turned a mucky red-brown. His sock was soggy.
Flexing his foot was a bad idea. Screwing his eyes shut instantly, he took deep breaths and concentrated on quelling the sudden nausea. At least he could move it, he told himself, even if it meant vomiting. Eventually the world righted itself again as if it were a ship tilting on the crest of a wave, not knowing which way to settle. Carefully, he opened his eyes.
The world was much darker than he last remembered it, which was probably a grace considering how much his head was screaming at him. The clock on the dashboard told him it was well passed midnight. If it weren’t for the pulsing ache in his ankle, and those crisp white bandages itchy against his skin he could have convinced himself that everything that night had just been one crazy acid trip.
More slowly this time, he turned his head and looked around him. An open First Aid box was thrown on the back seat, its contents spilt across the floor. Kassie had clearly patched him up before she’d left. He looked down at his leg again and tried not to focus on the dark stain spread across the car’s carpet beneath him. At least he’d stopped bleeding now.
Long moments passed and Kassie didn’t return. Wondering whether to wait or go looking for her, Nathan bit his lip and stared into the darkness beyond the windscreen, ignoring the familiar fear that was building up inside him. What if she’d left him here? Parked the car in a random service station and hitched a ride elsewhere. He’d never know where she went.
As he pushed his door open heavily, the sounds of a motorway snapped into his awareness. At least she’d not left him in some isolated village. By the time Nathan had dragged himself out of the car and was bent over the bonnet gasping and coughing with pain, he’d not noticed the familiar figure walk slowly from the bright service station towards him.
“You shouldn’t be standing,” Kassie reprimanded quietly.
Nathan jumped violently and had to scramble for the door to stop himself from falling. Relief flooded through him as he gaped at his girlfriend standing awkwardly across the bonnet, a breeze ruffling the plastic carrier bag in her hand.
“I thought you’d left,” he smiled with relief. Kassie didn’t respond.
She looked away and his eyes followed hers, glancing around the petrol station when he couldn’t think of anything more profound to say. There weren’t many cars around, despite the dull roar of motorway nearby.
“Where are we?” He asked quietly as the minutes dragged on.
“Near Luton, I think.” Kassie replied calmly, continuing to stare at him with her head cocked to the side.
“Oh,” Nathan replied awkwardly before remembering with a jolt how they’d got here, “You can’t drive!”
“Clearly, I managed.” Kassie sighed sarcastically.
“How? You don’t have a license!” He snapped out in a harsh whisper, though they were the only ones in the car park, “Or where you lying to me about that too?!”
Kassie stared at him in silence.
“Jesus wept, Kassie!” He continued, shouting now, “What would have happened if you’d got pulled over? They would have arrested the both of us! Though how you didn’t crash and kill us both, I don’t know!”
He panted heavily in the quiet, instantly worn out from the effort of his anger.
“After everything that you’ve seen tonight,” Kassie responded slowly, her voice lacking the dark anger he was used to, “that is what you’re angry at.”
Nathan opened his mouth but didn’t know how to respond. How did you respond after surviving an attack by transfiguring men-monsters?
Kassie rolled her eyes at his goldfish face and pulled open the car door.
“Get in,” she ordered.
Nathan did as he was told, falling into the car awkwardly. The rumble of the M1 diminished instantly as his door snapped shut. He sat in silence as Kassie reached into the plastic bag and pulled out a bottle of water. She swigged half of it down before silently offering it to Nathan.
“I don’t think I want to know what happened,” he eventually mumbled.
Nervously, he glanced up at Kassie’s eyes. Her face could have been carved out of marble, but he detected something like disappointment in her gaze. Regardless, she pulled out a chocolate bar from the bag and passed it to him.
“Eat this,” she commanded, “you lost a fair bit of blood, you need some sugar.”
Doing as he was told, Nathan pulled apart the wrapper and bit into the chocolate, tasting nothing. He felt oddly ashamed, though didn’t know why. He didn’t know why he felt a lot of things around her.
“How bad was it?” He asked quietly.
“It could have been worse,” she shrugged, “though you should probably see a doctor tomorrow. I forget how fragile you are.”
“I’m not fragile!” Nathan snapped back, finally feeling his frustration build, “I ran all that way on it didn’t I?”
Kassie glanced at him again with a sigh. Something about the way she had said it made Nathan wonder whether it was just him she was talking about.
Not responding again, Kassie reached for the ignition.
“What are you going to do now?” Nathan asked, not able to bear another silence.
“We’re close to London. I can leave you there and make my way to the airport on the train or something.”
“You’re not leaving!”
“And you’re not coming with me, are you?” She replied coldly.
Nathan dragged his hands across his face, feeling the grime gripping to his day old stubble. He couldn’t believe they were about to do this again.
“Look, I just, I can’t do this right now. I’m so tired.”
Kassie stared at her hand, still resting on the key dangling below the steering wheel.
“I have to go Nathan.”
“Not tonight, please,” he begged, “I have friends in London, we can stay the night and talk in the morning. Just stay the night, please.”
Kassie sighed deeply, turning to look at his pleading face. Nathan couldn’t imagine how pathetic he looked in the orange glow of the car’s light, his face pale behind the dirt and mud smeared across his skin, his eyes shining with desperate tears. He couldn’t have felt further away from the pristine girl beside him, who somehow still looked perfect despite all they’d been through that night. Butterflies still chased each other across her skin.
“Okay,” she sighed and twisted the key.
Nathan’s eyes closed in relief as the car rumbled into life.