This week’s special Crack by Rinoa Cameron is a dark story delving into a land of multi-headed monsters plaguing a desperate man on the run for his life. Will Max make it?
There's only one way to find out ...
*A word of warning this tale contains scenes of gore and some strong language.
On-the-run-Max was at it again, and this time more than debt, obligation, and dodged responsibility set him in motion. No doubt months of shredded, hidden letters played their part. The bailiffs’ arrival sure hadn’t helped. But he’d always thought Emily would stand by him. Never in a million years could he have predicted she’d follow suit and run straight into the arms of his very best friend.
A tear slipped from his eye and he wiped it away, determined the fear, hurt, and betrayal wouldn’t catch him. Nothing ever caught him, not while his feet could carry him away from Emily and Dave and their sordid affair, away from his repossessed house with the yellow tape stamped on the door, and away from everything he’d failed to accomplish.
His unchartered flight paused at the door of a tumbledown barn with a ‘keep out at all costs’ notice suspended from a nail. Max knew the area had a bad rep, but the place appealed to him, anyway. Running was all well and good, but he’d give just about everything he owned – which amounted to the clothes on his back – to lay his head down. Just for an hour or so.
He tried the barn door with a weary hand and gave a little smile when it creaked open on rusty hinges. He stuck his head inside, saw a solitary cow penned up in the corner, one or two chickens pecking at an almost empty trough, and a big mound of dry hay with his name on it.
They’ll never know, he promised himself, as he crept inside and curled up, hopeful sleep would deliver a temporary getaway. His eyes closed to welcome the prospect. A few seconds later a shotgun blast raged through the barn.
Bits of wood rained onto his shoulders. He leapt to his feet to find a pair of smoking barrels pointed right at him. The gun nestled in the grip of a wrinkled old man whose mouth cracked at one side allowing a river of drool to drip down his chin. One of the old man’s eyes squeezed shut.
Max didn’t wait to see more, he did what he did best and legged it.
The shotgun roared behind him, blowing a hole in the side of the barn. One more boom and the old man bellowed, “Get on after him, boys.”
Max fled with five men – two skinny, young guys and three mammoth giants – hot on his tail. Two fields and a desperate plunge into the surrounding woodland failed to shake them. Their red faces, open mouths, and clenched fists stormed towards him, complete with the promise of a bloody good arse kicking.
Shit they were close. The two skinny guys raced out in front as the three bigger men lumbered behind, snatching up sticks, lumps of mud, and whatever else they could launch into flight.
Max skirted the trunk of an oak, tripped over, hit the ground, and yelped when a rock bounced off his shoulder. A chunk of wood sailed past his right ear, followed by a crud-encrusted trainer. A brief hands and knees scramble escaped a second rock, then he found his feet, ducked another missile, and made for the trees.
On the run again, his mind taunted his hopeless efforts. Story of your life.
“Get back ‘ere, you!” an angry voice yelled.
“We’re gonna fucking bray ya.”
Whoops and hollers licked at his heels as thundering feet drove him on. He stumbled through the brush to the top of an incline, grabbed a protruded root to keep from toppling backward, and found himself perched on the lip of a cliff.
A sheer drop of white, chalk walls sliced the ground where the jaws of the very earth waited with teeth like jagged shards, a gullet of wide open space, and a stomach of thick foliage.
With no other option, Max spun on his heels to face the oncoming herd as they crashed to the foot of the incline.
“You’re gonna dangle by your guts, boy.”
The two skinny young guys didn’t stop. Their spindly limbs carried them up the muddy wall faster than the three bigger men who slipped and pounded on the ground, huffing and puffing, angry eyes fixed on Max in his precarious situation.
One step back and he’d plunge straight down. Step forward and they’d grab him. Stay put and they’d get him anyway.
Barrier of trees.
The smaller of the skinny guys made it to the top and stood there, arms outstretched, lop-sided grin.
“Gotcha now, fuckface.”
Left, left, l-e-f-t!
The other skinny guy cut him off and the three big men beamed from halfway up the incline. They grinned with out-of-breath, kick-this-guy-from-here-to-slurping-food-through-a-straw triumph.
“Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.”
“Gonna kick the snot outta ya.”
Max raised his arms. “I’m sorry, I mean, I wasn’t gonna—”
The two skinny guys attacked. Max yelled as they grabbed his arms, shook himself free, then screamed. His flailing fingers grasped thin air, a second before his body plummeted.
Air rushed through his ears, up his nose. Tears leaked from his eyes. His teeth gritted and spittle raced over his cheeks.
His flight ended. He smashed into something hard, tore through something softer, and finally bumped to a stop on something wet. Mud squished against his face as his chest sang with brief pain before everything went numb.
He rolled over and lay on his side, waiting for some sort of sensation to prickle his senses. Nothing at first, then waves of pins and needles rode in to bite every inch of him.
His eyes snapped open, and he screamed.
A body lay a few feet away in a crumpled heap, limbs tied in knots, head lolled to the side, neck bent at an impossible angle. A hole had been punched in the back of its head, blood oozed all over the dirt.
Max stared at the mangled corpse until his scream rasped dry in his throat. He was about to shout again when he spotted a second guy strung up in the branches of a nearby tree – moaning and groaning, feet twitching as he hung there.
Max’s mind reeled. The two skinny guys must have fallen and—
Now look at them – a splattered windshield bug and a human piñata.
He turned from one to the other and craned his neck to peer up at the overhanging trees that loomed above him. They swayed as though shaken by utter dismay and his mind was quick to agree with them.
He was lucky to survive; lucky he could open his eyes to marvel at his miraculous good fortune; lucky his bones weren’t splintered and his brains plastered in a thick lumpy soup on the ground.
He looked back at the two skinny guys – boys really. Shame he couldn’t say the same for them. Still, they were after him, weren’t they? It was their fault. Not his. They shouldn’t have been chasing him in the first place.
He nodded to confirm this and was amazed his neck didn’t throb in protest. It felt numb. So did the rest of him – except for the pin and needles. He guessed the pain would come later, once the shock gave way.
Part of him wanted to stay here, curl up and give up, but he couldn’t do that. Not on-the-run-Max. He rose to his hands and knees, flexed his wrists one at a time, rolled his ankles, and pressed his tingling fingers to his ribs to check for breaks.
Nothing stabbed or screamed for mercy, even his shoulder, which had smashed something hard for certain, only hurt the slightest bit.
He took his head in his hands and thanked God, or whatever entity had blessed him. Although blessed wasn’t really the word. He’d only wanted a quick nap, somewhere he could lay his head down to escape inner torment, and now he was at the bottom of a cliff with a dead guy and one who was—
“Ugh, help me.”
Max gasped. Christ, the corpse was talking now.
“Pl ... ease, help me.”
But it wasn’t the corpse – course not, ya daft prick – it was the one moaning and twitching in the tree. The skinny bloke who ... wasn’t dead yet.
Max was on his feet in a second, on his tiptoes, reaching and straining and saying, “Hold on, up there. I’ll help you.”
What the fuck are you doing? A voice from his screwed up head demanded. This twat was trying to kill you! Forgotten those rocks and stones and “We’re gonna kick the snot outta ya” already? He’s no better than the rest of them.
Max pulled his hand back a second before it could lock into the outstretched mitt of the strung up boy.
Just leave the fucker. Leave him to rot. Get your own back for once – he deserves nothing less.
“Please, man.” The boy spoke through busted lips, his downturned face bloody on one side, his free arm – the other of which was snagged and tangled in the bough that held him – waved in front of Max’s nose. “Ya gotta help me.”
Max drew back. “Why should I?” Anger grew in the pit of his belly. Years of being fucked left, right, and centre, and now, finally, a chance to turn the tables. “If we hadn’t fallen, you’d have slung me down here anyway, wouldn’t ya? And you wouldn’t help me, would ya? No. You and your buddies would climb all the way down here and—”
“No, man, honest. We were just gonna rough you up a bit – scare ya – nothing like this.”
Max reached his hand out, deciding to help after all, but the sound of rolling thunder above him snapped his head about in time to see the first rocks scuttle down the cliff-face and collect in a heap where the grass started to sprout.
“You down there, you’re dead, you’re fucking dead!”
The remaining men were coming down the cliff. Two of them were a quarter of the way down, one shaking a fist, the other working his way along a crevice. The third man, closer to the top, was screaming, “Dead, fucking dead!”
Not yet I ain’t.
But it wouldn’t be long if he didn’t haul arse. They were mad at him before, now one of their boys was splattered all over the foot of the tree, the other hung up and bleeding, begging for help while Max in his infinite wisdom decided to leave the poor kid hanging there for some ill timed vengeance.
“We’re gonna nail your arse to that tree.”
Max didn’t waste any more time. He turned from the boy’s frightened, pleading face and ran, jumping the corpse of the other guy in the process. An argumentative voice inside screamed he should have helped the kid, after all, Max’s shitty life wasn’t the kid’s fault. Not to mention it might buy him a little charity. Surely they’d go easy on him if helped one of theirs. But it was too late for that.
He raced for the trees that populated the basin. How long the valley was, he’d no idea. But it had to end somewhere, and when it did, Max would be out of there before those guys even touched ground.
Let them climb down and help the boy. Why not? All’s well that ends well – boy gets saved, and Max makes a clean getaway to find somewhere safe to lick his wounds.
Same as always.
A branch lashed his face, knocked him to the side, and changed his course. He spun – one-eighty, three-sixty degrees , who knew? Whatever, he didn’t stop. He brought his arm up to shield his eyes and pounded on.
“What’s your hurry, Maxie?”
The voice stopped him in his tracks. “Who said that?”
Far off yells of, “You fucking bastard!” replied. But they seemed a hundred miles away. Not like this voice. It was much closer.
“Who said that?”
Max glared from side to side – trees, trees, and nothing but trees. “Where are you?”
Fingers wrapped Max’s shoulder and he jumped in the air. “Whoa, what the fuck!”
“Don’t matter how fast you run, you know. No one can run forever – not even you.”
Max skirted backward, swivelled, and came face to face with—
It had no face. A featureless shadow stood before him.
“No point running. It’ll get you in the end.”
Max screamed and tried to wrench its hand away. It wavered and its grip tightened. The black of its oily flesh simmered like warm casserole, seconds later the back of a head appeared – the head of the splattered skinny guy. The one dead at the foot of the tree, bloody hole in the skull included.
Fear attacked and Max matched it. He slapped the impossible vision, fell on his arse and sat in bewilderment as the head swivelled like a spinning top – around and around and around, until a brand new, yet terribly familiar, face appeared.
Dave’s face. An unwelcome blast from the horrible past he’d been trying to run from – the man who took Emily.
The fear evaporated and Max bristled. His teeth ground together as distant images flashed through him – the mate who hugged him, the friend who said not to worry, the buddy who fucked everything, literally.
“Always more fish in the sea, pal,” Dave was saying.
His skin split and one of his eyes leaked multicoloured liquid down his wax-work cheek.
“She never loved you anyway.”
Max’s fist mashed Dave’s soft, squishy head. Smack! He socked his ex-best friend in his goddamn runny eye. “Shut the fuck up, just shut your fucking mouth!”
“Max!” Her voice – his once-upon-another-time Emily’s voice – stopped his second punch mid-throw.
Max jumped backwards, shaking black goo from his knuckles, as Emily and her blonde ringlets confronted him. At first he saw compassion, but then her doe eyes hardened and that frost he’d come to know of late descended on her softness.
“Run, Max. Run away like you always do.”
He shook his head. “I won’t run this time.”
She gave a cold smile. “It’s too late, Max.”
She bubbled. Her button nose blew up like a water balloon and popped with a terrible splat. Tiny droplets of black oil pattered Max’s skin.
Emily was gone, so was Dave. The two fragments of his broken life dug the knife in and left Max alone with the slimy, faceless thing, that fast became an ever shifting blob, conjuring his every painful, skilfully evaded memory.
The wrinkled face of his sadistic mother glared out with the terrible shark eyes she wore whenever she beat him. Then Mister Grey, the dreaded chemistry teacher who always kept him after class and instructed him never to tell. Next the giant head of the mongrel mutt who mauled him, blazed, teeth bared with slathers of saliva dribbling from its jaws. After which, the copper who pummelled him into confession, the judge who sentenced him to two years, and cellmate who made the most of those two years, came and said their piece. Then, finally, the old git who shot at him earlier that very same day gave an ugly snarl and shouted, “Get on after him, boys!”
“No!” Max screamed. “It’s not real!” He swiped at the changing, morphing creature that mimicked a lifetime of the eluded pain and failure, determined to escape it again – to run like he always did.
It can’t be, logic dictated. It just can’t.
And yet, even as his fist sank into to gloop, more images, more illusions and farcical imaginings rose to pick at the threads of his fading disbelieve.
The thing grew. A dozen or so additional necks sprung from its stubby, hunched shoulders, and Max found himself outnumbered.
A big round, oil-like ball rolled around him with over a dozen heads – each a part of Max’s unfortunate on-the-run life. His mum and her shark eyes sat front and centre, Mister Gray and his secret meetings to the left, that yapping mongrel mutt to the right, and in the back with their lips open and long, reptilian tongues intertwined, Dave and Emily swayed together amid of the sea of pain, spewing their poison into the mix. Just like when—
Max shook his head, certain these things couldn’t exist. They were madness from the fall. Impossibilities brought to life by shock.
They’d disappear when ...
The heads rose on thin, wire threads like fat daisies on flimsy stalks. They tied themselves in knots, darted at each other, and crashed together in a big synchronised head-butt.
The heads bounced off each other, bobbing and reeling as though dazed, before turning their eyes – their marble glazed eyes – onto Max, who stared at the twelve or so faces that danced before him.
He rubbed his eyes to try and smear the image, but it didn’t fade. “You’re fucking dead,” multiple voices cried in unison. “You down there, you’re fucking dead.”
The heads bared needle fangs and snapped forward on their ropey necks like hungry dogs on a leash. They gnashed their teeth as four clawed limbs sprouted from the oil ball’s base and the whole thing moved.
Max jumped back to avoid one of the heads as its teeth chomped together inches from his nose.
“Ya gotta help me, man.”
Max ran – certain he’d gone mad, or was dreaming, or both – he spun on his heels, ducked a low branch, jumped a fallen log, shot through the trees, and ended up straight back where he started.
He saw the tree where the boy had been splattered and the other guy hung like a beaten piñata, but they weren’t there anymore.
Piñata guy was being carried by his comrades. He hung limp between their arms, not moving. Two other men stood by the tree. They worked near the trunk, hoisting and securing something to one of the branches.
“Help me!” Max screamed. “Please, help me.” He didn’t care if they hammered him into a bloody pulp, didn’t care if they kicked his arse from here to next month; he just wanted to experience something normal. Something that confirmed multi-headed monsters posing as his life on a stick couldn’t be real.
The men turned but didn’t look towards him. They started to trail after their kin.
Max ran after them. He raced past the tree, desperate to cling to this sign of humanity, no matter how grubby it was, but stopped mid-stride.
A guy hung from a branch, suspended by a length of dirty rope tied round his wrists. Blood oozed down his chest in slow red rivers that twinkled in the dying sun. His head drooped on a snapped neck, chin nestled on his collar bone.
“You’re gonna dangle by your guts, boy.”
Why would they do that to their friend?
Why would they string up one of their own? Surely they’d carry the unfortunate man back. Why take one and not the other?
He turned to look at the fading party of men and gasped – the suspended, abandoned man was the one killed at the foot of the tree, but he was not the second skinny guy as Max had thought.
Five men left. Three big giants, two of whom carried the skinny guy who’d crashed in the tree. The other plodded beside the second skinny guy – the second skinny guy who should be dead but was walking unaided into the distance.
Impossible, unless ...
He never fell in the first place. But if skinny guy number two survived, who the hell was left tied to the tree like a hunk of butchered meat with blood dribbling down his chest?
“Nail your arse to that tree.”
Max strained to see. His feet travelled uninstructed while the rest of him tried to hold back. He already knew, didn’t want to, but found his trembling hand lifting the dead man’s head.
It raised on a snapped neck with a—
And everything made sense.
Max staggered backwards, pierced by the stone of his own lifeless eyes set in the mashed canvas of his own bloody face.
“You’re dead! You’re fucking dead!”
He fell into the arms of the monster which caught him and held him so the pain of his life could smile at his capture. Dozens of the faces he’d run from and evaded grinned as the flesh on their brows boiled. Eyeballs burst, noses melted, lips swelled into sausages and their every feature distorted into a runny, disjointed watercolour.
They had him forever now.
And on-the-run Max couldn’t run.