a short story by Zhou Huibin
(1) A little book
“It was a dark and stormy night…” rolling his eyes and slamming the book shut, Metus looked up at the sky and pondered which author of so little imagination would still use such a cliché opening for his novel. Descending his vision down to level again, the sight that greeted him was that of a park trail, illuminated only by overhanging street lamps. The light from them highlighting the similar looking bushes and benches below them, making the trail seem to go on forever like a never ending mirror image into the darkness. To his right, the reservoir was still and looked as solid as the ground he walked on. Metus was a man of his age, a man prone to seeing individuality as his own virtue but hating his life for the long hours of monotonous work at a bank with little satisfaction, not that he would ever admit it to himself. He loved helping people with their finances or so he told himself behind a veil of denial and never having the courage to take the risk to live a more fulfilling life.
He trudged on through the park, feet dragging behind him. He was so tired, another eleven hour day at the office and he still needed to be back at work in the morning to try to ‘complete’ a never ending pile of paperwork. Which would probably only make a factional few in the company earn enough to make the boring monotonous work worth doing. He lived just across the park, a fifteen minute walk but that fifteen minutes had translated to hours more at work. This happened after Metus had overheard months ago in the stall of a washroom, his manager commenting on how lazy Metus was for leaving early from work, even though he lived so close. That ‘early’ was 6pm, the official time all of them had signed in a contract for their working hours to end. So now, peer pressured into proving himself hardworking, Metus was always one of the last people to leave the office even on half days. He sighed and looked at the book he had picked up at the lobby of the office, like most of his life, this too was a hypocrisy. Metus never liked to read, he merely took the books meant for waiting patrons of the bank at the end of a work day, so he could pretend to read it and would not have to look at others on the way home or waste his time with colleagues he did not care for. It was a small leather bound book just bigger than his hand and had an aged look to it with yellowed pages. The title of the book was embossed onto the front cover in the colour gold. It read ‘Choices’.
(2) Reason for the rain
Choices…, Metus was almost devoid of it. His life’s choices were dictated by everyone other than himself. The time to wake, what time he has to reach work, what is considered a successful life and even the age and time for him to settle down with a girl. He was just twenty five years old but his face already showed the stress features of a man much older. Staring at the book for a short while, his vision roved and saw that he was alone in the park. No sooner had he taken his next step, when the sky thundered loudly, illuminated arcs of lighting flashed in the distance and the rain started to pitter patter onto the ground. He was already running but within seconds, the rain was pounding with such fury that he could hardly keep his head up to see where he was going. Then in a moment of clumsiness, his left foot catching onto the side of his right calf, he tripped and descended onto the concrete of the park trail. He got off the ground cursing, its main focus was his manager for overloading him with work thus the overtime and in essence all to blame for him being caught in the rain. Wet and soaked already, he jogged quickly forwards, hoping to reach home and a warm shower. When suddenly, the road branched off into two paths, with wide eyes he thought to himself that this could not be possible. He had walked this path countless times and not once did he remember seeing or walking into branching paths. He did not seem to spin or lose his facing when he fell and neither did he think he had run far enough of a distance before he fell to run off the park trail he had used so often. What was happening and again, it was entirely his manager’s fault.
(3) Branching paths
The rain started to calm and thus Metus looked up to his left and right, both branches led to a Gazebo, both perfect shelters from the rain. The left Gazebo was well lit, white and looked all so safe but the trail beside it seemed endless. The Right Gazebo on the other hand was white but something must have been wrong with the light as it was dimly lit but he could just make out it’s trail led to the road in the distance with a street sign. It was too far for him to read the sign but he was sure that he could find his way home once he found his bearings. In fact it was one of his skills since he was a boy, although even he was not convincing himself in his current loss of direction. Looking in quick succession at both, he ran towards the left and the safe looking Gazebo, telling himself he could always go back the other trail when the rain was over.
Reaching the well-lit Gazebo, he sighed in relief only to be followed by a shout: “Why me!” waving his hands and stamping his feet in anger. There were so many others more deserving than him to have suffered this predicament and here he was. Then his right hand came into view and he saw that he still was holding onto the book from the office. Having nothing else to do but wait the rain out, he took a seat and opened the book to read. Not more than a paragraph in, he found out that the lead character in ‘Choices’ was also named Metus and he too was in a park. As he continued to read, he felt a sudden chill in his spine and his hair started to stand as if a small charge of a current was passed through him. The book was describing the exact events that had just happened to him in detail and was even describing his inner thoughts. He looked up and felt like a hundred eyes were on him, no longer was the Gazebo safe, every sound and shadow was a phantom and he felt trapped. His mind raced and he thought this must be a trick. Wait he thought, it had to be a trick, his hateful manager and colleagues must have seen the weather report and had purposely put the book there for him to pick up. Metus’s ire filled him and he started to hate again. “That had to be it!” He would show them tomorrow, he was going to kill someone! “CRACK!” The thunder sounded, it was the loudest one he had heard in his life and he found himself crouching with his hands over his head. When he finally lifted his head, he saw the book was lying in front of him open and on its last page, the only word that he could focus on was ‘Fear’ and as he reached for it, the wind howled and the pages flickered and landed on a page, whose only line again he could focus on was: “Look behind you.” Wide eyed and like an obedient dog, he turned his head.
The sight that greeted Metus was a silhouette, its limbs grasping the wooden beam it was squatting on. It leaned on its arms between its legs, leaving claw marks grouched into the wood. It seemed humanoid in shape, its skin black as sin but before Metus could view the creature in its entirety, it screamed a high pitched shrill aimed at the sky. Before he knew what he was doing, Metus did what he did best, he ran. He ran deeper into the current pathway trying to escape the hellish creature but behind he could hear it hop and jump out of sight of the light between the bushes along the pathway, leaving shadows in the corners of his eye.
The running continued and for how long, he could not tell, only that his all too deskbound body soon gave way even after the adrenaline of fear had given him added physical ability. He stumbled, slumped and soon was on the ground panting and clawing his way forward but the part that affected Metus most was the silence. He wanted to turn around, to assure the theory that the creature was not there but he was too scared to turn around. He thus lifted his head and as he did so, he froze, eyes widen in fear as much as surprise. Again he was greeted by the sight of the creature but this time it was standing in the middle of the entrance of the pathway, metres away. His eyes catching sight that he had somehow run in a circle back to the well-lit Gazebo. The creature’s head was lowered and could not be seen but its arm started to extend towards the other path and pointed with a clawed finger, saying with the same shrill voice: “Freedom.” Where the arm touched the light outside of the current entrance of the pathway, its hand started to sizzle and it winched in pain and quickly withdrew it from the light. So there Metus stood as though in thought but more out of fear than anything else. Then the fear was replaced by the realisation that all he needed to do was get past the creature into the protective light beyond and back down the other path to the road he recognised to…Freedom.
(5) A beginning or an ending
Metus willed himself to run but it felt as if he had no control of his body. He was clearly conscious and able to move his eyes but no matter how much effort he put to get himself to run forward, it would not listen. He tried picturing it in his head in minute details, pushing on the heel, swinging the arms and putting one foot before another but nothing worked. His eyes widened, is this one of the creature’s powers? He was paralysed and would be slowly clawed to death by it. He did not want that to happen and willed his mouth to scream…and it did. It then dawned on him that it was not the creature holding him back, only himself. The realisation caused him to take a step and with simple inertia, he started running, the feeling was exhilaration, he would make it and be free of this night, just a few more seconds. The moment he was within five paces to the left of the creature, it let off a scream. The scream caused Metus to fall to his knees and images of all the fears of the unknown future flowed into him since he was a child, the time he could have told the teacher he needed to use the bathroom when he was six but instead held it till he wetted his shorts in the class, the time he could have asked his high school crush Serene out when he was fourteen but never had the courage…all the way to the time he could have joined the theatre of dance instead of his current job. It was all the unknown future now and whether out of embarrassment, social stigma or job stability, he could now admit to himself that even if he had failed at making those decisions, he would not have regretted them, for at least he had tried. He found tears’ streaking down his face but still clear as day was the path to freedom, not more than seven paces away. He started to move but then he staggered, doubt again filling his mind. “What if this was a trick? What if there were more creatures out there?” In that one moment of hesitation, the creature lashed out, its claws tearing into Metus’s chest in four long deep gouges, blood spilling in forceful droplets at an angle and again, he ran away from the entrance, seven paces away.
(6) An ending
He was not made of sterner stuff, both in body and mind. All the excuses he made over the years, telling himself why he did not make all those decisions that could have changed his life was in the end, all out of fear. When it came to the natural response of ‘fight or flight’ for a decision that really mattered, he now knew he only ever responded with one answer. That was the easy route of flight. Then if it did not turn out right, blame others for forcing the decision on him. This entire realisation came with a torrent of self-loathing, so much so he could not keep his tears from blurring his vision as he ran, the tears mixing with the blood flowing down his body. It was then he saw under a street lamp, the little book ‘Choices’. It was open to the end page and if it really had followed his story, maybe he could read it to find a way out. He ran with grim determination towards it. When he got closer, he saw a head come out of the bushes looking down at the book. It looked familiar and had flowing long hair and gratefully was all too human. It lifted and to his utter surprise, it was his high school crush, Serene! She too had grown since high school but she was still as radiant as ever, her smile the same inviting one that got him to keep going to school even though he had to endure endless verbal and physical bullying daily. The same smile attracting him forward like a mirage of water in a desert.
A mix of emotion filled him and he ran towards the friendly face he had not seen since high school and leaned in to tell her to get away from the creature behind him. It was then he saw the head was not connected to a body, its face kept in eternal smile along with its death. The clawed hands holding the head hidden by the hair loosened its grip and the head fell. What then, Metus saw shocked him even more than the decapitated head. It was his own smiling face, except this time it was connected to a body, the body of the creature that had tormented and chased him. Metus could take no more and at that moment suffered a heart attack and died. The creature then proceeded to feed on his now lifeless body, his blood spilling onto the last page of ‘Choices’, hitting the perfect spot for a full stop for the last line of the book, which read: “and Metus, which in Latin stands for fear, was consumed by fear.”
Written by Zhou Huibin (Finished on the 05/08/2013) All rights reserved.