by CC ACROPOLO
Bobby ran it all off, the stress, the lessons and the pressure, all of it. Run. Every day, two circuits of the forest, ninety minutes, without fail. At the end of the first lap he eased down, sipped from his water bottle and put his hands to his knees.
The hassle of the working week seemed to channel out of him, a virus sweat out through exertion. Even as his body pumped, he felt his mind settle and clear. It felt good. He let himself take a look out to the sprawling fields before he got going on the second lap.
In amongst the tall grasses were boxes. How had he not noticed them before? Bobby counted them. Twenty-two boxes exactly. Surely that couldn’t have happened overnight. He thought how ugly they looked in amongst the scenery, as if they had simply landed, alien, from some far off place.
Bobby flinched and brushed against the nearest tree. He looked up to find a man standing a few feet away. The man was perfectly still. The stranger did not move when Bobby righted himself.
“Honey?” Bobby made sure his voice remained steady, not wanting the man to see how unnerved he felt.
“Bees,” the stranger said. The man’s voice was flat, even though he grinned. It was an empty, ugly thing. A smirk, not a smile, Bobby thought. It seemed more like creases and flaps rather than genuine emotion. It looked manufactured, as if the man had studied other people and copied the mechanics of the action.
“There must be some money in that, huh?” Bobby said just to say something. Suddenly, he wanted to get going. He would shoot the breeze with anyone but there was something in this man that unnerved him, whether it was the grin or the stillness. There was something off in the way the man held himself.
“I’m not interested in money,” the man said, the grin falling away. I’m not interested in being here, Bobby thought.
“Well, I’d better…” Bobby said and made a point of stretching out. The man motioned to the boxes. The suddenness of his gesture, the speed, took Bobby by surprise.
“It’s the study I’m interested in,” the man said and brought his arm back to his side. “I like following the reactions.”
“Sure,” Bobby said, not understanding a word the man said. Some of the weekday stress seeped back into him, making him ache. There was something wrong with the whole set up. The weekend was not the time to talk shop with a babbling lunatic. Bobby straightened up. Reactions? Bobby wondered what the hell that meant. Something in the back of his mind fizzed with a low sense of danger. Bobby looked back to the man. He suddenly became aware of how tall and strong the stranger was now that they were face to face.
“Twenty one boxes of life,” the man said, clearly disappointed by Bobby’s response. “Everything, stored and contained.”
“Right,” Bobby said, and forced himself to look back to the field, feigning interest. There was something jarring and slowly clicking in Bobby’s mind.
There were twenty two boxes.
There was no sound.
Bobby didn’t know much about honey, but he knew that bees buzzed. He swallowed hard and at that moment, that exact moment, the twenty first box rocked from one side to the other.
“I have a schedule,” Bobby mumbled, backing away. The man did not move.
“Me too,” the man said, finally. “I have a schedule.”
Without another word, he turned and pushed off on his heels, not jogging but sprinting into the track. The water bottle slipped from his grasp but he didn’t stop, not even for a second. Even as the fear rode through him, Bobby’s mind raced with a thousand thoughts. That must be some big ass bee to rock that box, he thought wildly and almost burst out laughing. He accelerated, his heart jack hammering in his chest. He risked a glance over his shoulder, saw nothing and kept going.
He must have followed me, Bobby thought. Had he positioned the boxes just so Bobby would see them? Maybe the man was just lost and lonely and looking for company.
There was too much sharpness in the eyes and too much precision in his movements. There was emptiness in him that Bobby did not trust. It didn’t come from what he lacked but what he was concealing. Bobby had met men like that in life, who positioned people to fit a certain purpose. Back in offices and parties, it had been unnerving. Here, in the open, it was terrifying. Bobby kept pushing forward, checking and double checking. There was no sign of the man giving chase. Bobby calculated he was fifteen minutes from the clearing. As he pushed on, something else nagged in the back of his head, something other than the possible psycho trailing him. Something, something…
Twenty two boxes.
There was a slim to no chance that a man on his own could shift twenty-two boxes if they were carrying…cargo. A branch broke overhead. There was no way the man could have overtaken Bobby. The man wasn’t working alone. That scared Bobby but not as much as the other, more terrifying thought that burnt into Bobby’s mind.
Why was the man talking as if one box was empty?
Bobby broke back into a sprint. Another branch snapped to his left and then to the right. How many crazies could there be in one forest? Bobby fought the urge to laugh again. Hell, maybe there’s twenty two! His mind was wild fire burning with shock and panic. This didn’t happen, Bobby told himself, not in real life.
He tore around the next corner and the main road came into view. Branches kept snapping but Bobby pushed the noise from his mind. The clearing edged closer. Bobby was now flat out sprinting, knees to chest, and was now a matter of moments from the road and the world.
Bobby heard a ‘whoosh’ sound and then felt complete and utter lightness in his body. It was as if his body had capsized itself. One minute it was there, one hundred percent pushing and then…nothing. The next few moments were a blur of sound and motion. It was a tangle of falling, crushed leaves, tightening rope and the forest shifting from a friendly ally to a cruel trap. Everything settled around, him even as Bobby lay suspended in the air. I was there a moment ago, he thought. The blood rushed to his head, flooding his mind. Everything in him began to pound.
The branches kept snapping. Two shadows appeared just out of Bobby’s eye line. On the path, Bobby could hear the stranger trudging methodically towards him. Everything in Bobby’s body felt shallow and shattered. The man drew up to him, his face in line with Bobby’s. Upside down, Bobby saw the man’s mouth. The curve of the man’s lips and his exposed teeth finally made sense to Bobby. It was not a man trying to smile at all. Instead, it was an animal, its teeth bared.
C.C. Acropolo is well known at parties, pubs and night clubs the world over. He mixes an excellent Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster and strives to keep his writing skills and bar tending skills pretty much on par with one another.
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