Her life, Elaine thought, could be measured in intervals between scrambles through rotting factories. She ducked around some pipes which the thing pursuing her could not possibly squeeze between, knowing it would only be a few seconds gained while the obstacle was smashed aside.
Precious seconds. Seconds matter. She could almost smile at the frustrated howl that preceded the clangs.
She spotted a rusted stairway leading up, perhaps out, which she hoped would bear her weight. She angled her flight toward it, and as she went she amended her wish. She hoped it would only just bear her weight, no more.
She glanced at her wrist, wondering how far dawn might be, but saw only the oozing scrape her watch had left before the strap let go, when she had been losing some of those precious seconds freeing herself from the wreckage of the police car. The cop had at least put up a decent fight, hadn’t just stood gaping in terrified amazement at the thing that had kicked his car into the ditch. Elaine had no idea what his name had been. She had given up on remembering details like that.
A lifetime of flight had kept her in good shape, although her knees flared as she bounded up the ringing stairs two and three at a time, without support from the dubious banister. She slowed on the landing, wary of the door after so many experiences, not wanting to add an injury to the night’s total by jamming herself against doors held shut with a chain, not wanting to find herself flailing out into an unexpected drop. She was almost surprised to find the door opening, its rusty hinges screeching but not resisting her, and the way clear onto the solid expanse of the factory’s roof.
She picked up speed, curving her path to race along the knee-high parapet. She muttered curses as she ran, seeing the distance to the tarmac below, unable to understand how the run through the factory had brought her so high. Was the place made entirely of ramps? Four tall storeys to the cracked pavement, a fatal height.
As she reached the half-way point in her run around the building’s perimeter, she slowed. There was no fire escape, no adjoining building to leap to, no way at all of getting off the roof except the fast way, or back the way she came.
The thought seemed to bring the slow thrum of heavy feet on the stairs within, a sound she felt in her legs more than heard over her own exhausted breathing. She stopped, a third of her route around the roof uncovered, but its unhelpful sameness plain from where she was. The point of the search switched from escape to weapon.
She remembered back to the beginning of this life-long pursuit, when she could rely on an improvised weapon no more impressive than a stove-length of birch. The thing that was labouring up the stairs now, making the whole building sing with its passage, had been a man then. A big man, to be sure, but no more than that. He had used tools and weapons to kill her friends, that long-ago summer night, and he had fallen to weapons. The clout from the split log had saved her from strangulation, and the shotguns of the belated sheriff’s deputies had put an end to his night of slaughter.
But then his body had vanished from the morgue, and her long nightmare had begun.
The sound of footsteps on the stairs had stopped. She scanned about the roof for anything that might be useful. This had happened countless times before, backed into a seemingly inescapable corner, only to see a crowbar where the first glance had taken in an empty tool-bench, or to spot a coal-chute behind a basement shelf. It was almost as inevitable as the reappearance of her pursuing demon. This time there was…
Elaine felt the vise of panic closing on her, an emotion she hardly encountered any more on these night-long chases. Fear was always there, running beside her as she fled through factories, disused schools, derelict ships, and all the other venues she had endured. The evolution of the pursuer, from masked man to hulking zombie to impossible mutation, had kept fear refreshed, but the regularity of its appearances had blunted panic after a few years. Until now.
The toothache screech of the door slowly opening filled her ears.
Elaine took her panic in hand. Why bother? What sort of life did she have, that she was so anxious to keep it? Two decades of watching friends and family die, of watching strangers pulled limb from limb for a mistaken charitable impulse. Two decades of workouts and martial arts classes, none of it doing any good beyond giving her a slightly better power of running away. Two decades of moving, to a new city, to a new country, to get away, only ever extending the interval between attacks at the cost of diminished funds and increased alienation from the people around her. All this she had endured, and if she escaped now, what improvement might appear?
She put a foot on the parapet. The decision was sudden, but she felt the rightness of it the moment it was taken. No more running. There was no question of simply submitting to the creature, not after all she had seen of its inventiveness when prolonging a victim’s agony, but she was finished with running from it. The quick way out beckoned.
She watched over her right shoulder for it to peer around the edge of the little penthouse which contained the top landing of the stairs. There would be a small satisfaction in seeing it realize it was frustrated at last, an irrevocable victory to cap the string of short-lived escapes. Pyrrhic victory, perhaps, but one takes what one can get.
The door squealed again, and thudded shut.
This was also, like panic, something she had gotten used to; the suspense, knowing it was nearby, waiting for it to pounce. It was worse when there was someone else with her, more usual in the early days than now, because so often that companion would not be convinced that there was a danger. They would fill their final moments with reassurances that all was well, it was all over now, and then they would be unseamed to shower across her. Alone, she was at least able to appreciate the still warmth of the predawn air and the beauty of the distant town’s lights.
It erupted through the roof, well off to the left, spraying tarred gravel through the air, swinging up through the hole it made with limbs that were equal parts spider and gorilla. It stood on the brink for a moment, rearing on one set of hind legs, not quite balanced even as it waved all its forelimbs defiantly at the heavens.
Elaine glanced again at the rooftop access. The pause on the roof had allowed her to get her bearings. A quick dart for the door, a leaping rush down the stairs, a slide down a chain, and she could race out the main door, slowing only to topple one of the jerry-cans of kerosene she had seen when she had come in. She was never without a lighter.
She shook her head. One foot still atop the brickwork, she tensed for the leap which would give her perfect freedom.
The thing dropped into a crouch, grinning at her with a face that was as much a parody of human features as the Hallowe’en mask it had worn at the start. She could hear the creak of its hide, the patter of its sulfurous slime, the crunch of the roof deck as it took better hold with its toes. It took a lurching step as part of the roof sagged under it, reeling left, opening the distance between it and her path to the door.
She did not move, other than to crouch a little more herself.
It took another pace, then paused, quivering, to look back towards the penthouse as if noticing the possible route to escape. The mockery of a head turned to face her again, its quasi-human features furrowing into a determined snarl. It took a careful deliberate step toward her, but also, slightly, to its right.
Elaine almost gave into the urge. The extra gap, the way its claws caught in the roofing, it was almost guaranteed that it would not catch her if she dashed for the door. Almost… but she was tired of playing this thing’s games. She was not going to change now. She looked right into its eyes, wanting to see that moment of understanding as she jumped.
It roared, surging into its lumbering, awkward run, all arms outstretched. It could never reach her in time.
She watched, even as she felt the tension in her muscles changing from potential to movement. The roof was dark, but the thing’s pale features were clear enough. What she saw there was not the anger or frustration she had expected to see and enjoy. She saw fear. She saw horror. The surprise stole some of the power from her spring, and she tumbled rather than vaulted over the parapet.
Panic came back to her at last, an atavism as old as her arboreal ancestors, from the sensation of the unsupported fall. The first breath of a scream passed her lips when she slammed against the bricks of the wall, the hard fingers of a huge hand closing on her ankle and stealing her from the drop.
Her head cleared as she slowly scraped up the wall. This was also not new, she realized. Her pursuer had saved her from other, less intentional falls in the past, grabbing for her at just the right moment. Almost as many times as it had tried to kill her, seemingly, it had shoved or chased her out of the way of some other, more impersonal, danger.
Her head passed the parapet and kept rising. The thing was making the deep watery gurgle that stood for laughter. It tossed her toward the hole it had made, and she landed in a skid that hiked up her shirt and ran gravel into her ribs, and she stopped just short of the edge thanks to a great splinter that punched through the sole of her shoe. When the thing rescued her, there was always a price in pain.
Pulling her foot free of the impaling spike, she rolled onto hands and knees, looking into the hole in the roof. The experience of years shone its light on two intact beams. From one, she could swing herself to a chain-fall, rattling down it to land almost beside the kerosene cans. The other she could just drop onto at the last moment in the thing’s charge, clinging to it as the monster sailed over her to land on the jagged machinery below where it might even stay until she could get the fire lit.
Precious seconds again. She could hear that it had already begun that charge.
She stood, crossed her arms over her chest, and stuck by her previous decision. She would not go for either beam.
The thing tore furrows in the roof at the end of the charge. It managed to stop, its face almost touching hers. It roared, its charnel breath a damp torrent across her cheeks, stinging her eyes.
Except… that same examining impulse which had made her hesitate at the parapet spoke inside her, pointed out that the beast had not roared. It has said “Graar!”
Elaine stood firm, her heels sticking out over the factory floor. Fear, her frequent companion, had not deserted her, but a glowing anger was rising behind it to make the fear thin and weak. Not, as had come to her before, anger at the loss and pointless death the thing had brought with it, but an entirely new sort. It was anger at realization come so late.
“No. No more.”
The thing leaned a little closer, examining her face. Her eyes began to water from its spent-match reek. Suddenly it reared, spreading the numerous fingers at the ends of its over-abundant arms. It said “Graar!” again.
She put her left foot out, a drop of blood falling from the hole in her shoe to add a different stain to the rusted cogs below, and she wobbled slightly as she balanced. “It’s over. Over.”
The thing subsided, rolling back from her as it sat, all those murderous hands dropping to the gravel.
Elaine stiffened her hand, on the edge of slapping it across the face, but that was too much like the status quo ante. Instead, she put her throbbing foot back on the roof and began limping to the door. A moment later, there was the scrape of bristles and talons as it started to follow. She whirled on it.
“Either I’m leaving or you kill me,” she shouted into its fangs. It raised three sets of claws. She stared unblinking into the pits of its eyes, and for the space of three breaths the tableau held.
Then she turned her back on it.
When she reached the brick cube of the penthouse, she looked back. The thing had crept closer, without the usual air of stealthy cunning. It moved like a whipped dog. It noticed she had stopped and held out the least misshapen of its hands in an unmistakable gesture of supplication.
She took one more step, putting her hand on the latch. Her whole adult life had included this horror, had been defined by it, and in all that time, the true nature of the relationship had never occurred to her. She owed it nothing but hatred, for all the pain and misery and death it had visited upon her.
And yet… there it sat, somehow pathetic in its shivering, stinking bulk. She had taken away fear’s power when she had resolved to die, and when she had become angry enough to live, fear had shrunk to nothing. She was finally able to think of something other than survival when in the presence of her nemesis. She was finally able to see the basic misunderstanding that had driven her life of flight, ever since that first night at the cabin.
That first night in the cabin, which she had for years believed was a mere accident of fate, sending a hulking lunatic to chase her from the cot she had meant to share with her first lover. She looked into this face, so like that Hallowe’en mask, and saw with clarity the scene that terror had veiled until now. She remembered Bobby not as a screaming boy, his final breath shrill as the machete twisted in him, but as he had been before that.
She remembered the unconvincing pleading and cajolery that veered into insults. The glances at his friends when he had thought she was not looking. The smirk when she had taken off her shirt. The horror of his death had clouded her memory, convinced her that there was love where she had been desperate for love to be, and this new-found clarity swept away the illusion.
The killer that became over the years a monster had not cut short her moments of happiness, destroying her loved ones as it did so.
It had come to her in her moments of shame, erasing those who might point and laugh.
Elaine went back to the dark form, sat beside it, took a loathsome hand in hers. It kept its face turned away. She had chosen to die and to live. She had understood her past, and had started to examine her possible futures. She sat, holding that gore-steeped hand until the dawn took it away from her, then stood to leave. She glanced from door to parapet and back. A smile on her face, she left the roof.
“Last Flight of Final Girl” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.