Pete’s night at the pub with his old school friends had brought the usual mix of nostalgia, laughter and awkwardness. Now living in the city, it was great to return – occasionally – to his home village in the countryside to catch up with everyone. Sure, most of them were the same. Same jokes, same haircuts, same lies. But the familiarity was comforting. The devil you knew didn’t tend to disappoint you as much as the devil you didn’t.
He left the pub two large whiskeys and a tequila shot after last orders. The route along the country lane to his parents’ house took thirty minutes by foot. He’d done this walk many times in the past – both in the daylight and at night. It was a journey he was very familiar with. At this time of day, he would be unlikely to see anyone. An odd car might pass, but the village where his parents lived was full of young families and retirees; no one who would be out at this time.
The night sky was slightly overcast, and a crescent moon peeked between the clouds to provide just enough light to navigate the country lane without need for a torch. As thelight ebbed and flowed with the moving clouds, features of the land faded in and out of view stretching long shadows across the vast emptiness of the surrounding countryside.
Pete was a good level of drunk. He was in a zone that told him he’d made a good night of it but not so much that he was ill and struggling to walk. He needed to drive back to the city in the morning and a minimal hangover was preferred. Most of the gang had been on good form. There were some passive aggressive comments aimed at Pete and his lifestyle in the city. This was not unusual. Pete accepted the envy about the fact that he had escaped the place. But it wasn’t a discussion he wanted to get into. It wasn’t something he could argue for or against. Some people chose different paths for their lives and it took them in different directions.
As he walked along a long straight stretch of the road, revisiting earlier conversations from the evening, he thought he could make out something heading towards him on the other side of the road. An animal perhaps? It was as tall as a horse or a cow, but its body was not as long. At least not from Pete’s perspective. It walked more like a person. A person hobbling. As it came closer, Pete recognised the shape of a man’s head. The man wore a flat cap and a long coat. He appeared to be carrying something. Yes, over his shoulder he was carrying a sack. Also, he was making a noise with his mouth. The man was mumbling.
Pete refused to feel concern – this was the place where he had grown up. His family knew everyone in the area. He himself knew each step of this country lane as well as anyone. Besides, there were many more reasons to be concerned about encounters in the city. There was no reason for him to feel any worry at all with this situation. This was likely to be a farmer or, worst case, a harmless poacher returning home with his spoils. But still, something made Pete feel very uneasy. As the tall man with the sack on his back strode closer, Pete sensed something bad was about to happen. He slowed to a snail’s pace and watched. He clenched his hands like fists in his coat pockets.
The tall man continued to walk along at pace despite the hobbling. Perhaps it wasn’t pain that made him walk like that. Perhaps he had a prosthetic leg. Maybe he had a misshapen foot.
The man had now almost reached Pete and Pete felt like he was on the edge of a precipice. He held his breath expecting the tall man to pounce in his direction. But as he continued passed him, he realised this wasn’t going to happen. Pete turned his head and watched as the man flew past him. He hadn’t clearly seen his face. Yes, he did have something on his back. A sack and – although he wasn’t certain – it looked like the sack was moving, like there was something alive trapped inside. He probably was a poacher.
Pete watched as the tall man walked away, mumbling as he did, along the road until he was somehow enveloped by the darkness. The clouds had moved in over the moon again.
Pete exhaled, unclenched his fists, and picked up his pace. What a strange experience, he thought to himself. That would make a perfect post for his Twitter account. His friends in the city would find it hilarious. He reached around into his back pocket where he normally kept his phone while out and about, but it wasn’t there.
Damn it, he thought, he must have left it in the pub. No, he took a selfie with the guys after leaving. He must have dropped it on the way. Somewhere. He pondered for a moment what to do. He looked forward towards his parent’s house and then back at the road he had walked down. He would have to go back. He turned around and started retracing the steps he had taken back along the road. No one would be around to pick it up; if he was able to see it in the dark then he should be able to get it back without any trouble.
Pete had now walked at least half of the way back to the pub and there was no sign of his phone. He was tired but his gaze remained focused on the ground along the side of the road. He was so lost in his search that he failed to notice the return of the tall man. The first thing he heard was the mumbling and there he was, almost on top of him. The man was now on the other side of the road and came straight towards him. Instinctively, he jumped out of the way and fell to the floor, watching as the tall man hobbled passed him. This time, he was able to glimpse more detail of the man’s face. His skin looked pale and withered in the moonlight. The tall man, however, took no notice of Pete and continued on his way.
Shocked, Pete thought for a moment and called out to him.
“Mate, sorry. You didn’t see a phone on the road as you walked, did you?”
The tall man appeared to slow momentarily, and he tilted his head.
“I think I lost my phone on the road somewhere,” Pete said again.
The man snorted before shaking his head and then bounding off into the direction from where he had come earlier. Paul dropped his head and sighed. A thought came to him and he looked back at the tall man. He was no longer carrying the sack on his back. He now carried the empty sack by his side. Whatever was in there earlier was no longer there. Pete didn’t think the man seemed like the type interested in a new smartphone, so he considered that he had no reason to doubt him. He got up and continued with his search.
A further few minutes up the road back to the pub, Pete heard a noise coming from the hedgerow. At first, he paid little attention to it, assuming it to be a bird or a sheep in the field. But then the rustling was followed by an odd high-pitched noise that sounded like a chortle. Pete examined the hedge and expected to see a goat. It was dark at that moment, but he saw enough to make him weak at the knees. Through the branches and leaves, he saw speckles of red flesh and one bright pale-yellow eye. It was near the ground, suggesting the creature was no bigger than a sheep or a goat. It blinked and then Pete heard the laughing sound again. He stepped back, uncertain of what he was looking at. No animal looked or sounded like that. This thing was something else.
Screw the phone, he thought, this was too weird. Pete started to walk away in the direction of his parent’s house. Behind him, he heard something being called out. He couldn’t understand what was said. The words – if they could be called words – were unfamiliar. It was a language that he had never heard before. It sounded old. The voice itself sounded guttural like it came from the creature’s throat.
His fast walk became a run and he heard the creature call out the same words again. Pete ran as fast as his drunken legs could carry him. He became aware that the creature was following him. It was chasing him in the field, alongside the road. No matter how hard Pete pushed himself, the creature kept up. It continued to call out the words that Pete couldn’t understand, like it was taunting him. Like it was playing a game with him. Hunting him for fun.
The pace was becoming too much for Pete to sustain. He was out of breath and his legs were on fire. As he looked around to see if he could locate the creature, his foot caught on something and he tripped headfirst into the ground.
As he blacked out, his lips mouthed the words, the hunter has me.
The first thing he sensed as he awoke was the stuffy and putrid warm air around him. It stank of rotting flesh and faeces and urine. His body felt trapped against a rigid surface. He opened his eyes to find that he was inside a large dark room, which slowly rocked from side to side, like he was on a boat. Slivers of light shone in and he could see shapes and shadows squirm in the half light. There was moaning coming from somewhere. The moaning grew louder and emerged from different directions. There was more than one other person suffering inside this room. In fact, there were quite a few. Finally, his eyes were able to focus and he recognised what he was looking at. In front of him were piles upon piles of bodies. Some were living. Some were evidently not. What pressed him up against the hard surface were other people – many of them stacked on top of each other. Piled like they had been haphazardly dropped into a… wait, he thought. With all his strength he pulled his hand away from his chest to feel the surface he was pinned against. His fingertips felt a coarse woven fabric rigid from the tension of the weight it carried. He was inside a sack.