The hounds were snapping at his heels.
They were vicious, murderous beasts. Their grotesquely misshapen teeth were green and jutted far outside their mouths. Throbbing internal organs clung to their distended bodies and oozed a red putrescence. They seemed ravenous in their thirst for his flesh and pursued him in great, breathtaking leaps through a charred and lifeless landscape. Purple storms of color flared around him.
He was running for his life. Occasionally, one would catch up to him and wound a leg. The pain was intense. He would batter the animal with a few desperate blows and continue to run. However, there was no escape from them. They never seemed to tire. On the other hand, he felt like he had been running from them for years. Every inch of his body throbbed with excruciating agony. He could not keep going much longer. His mind raced with thoughts of them overtaking him and eviscerating his flesh.
He woke up. His frantic eyes stared upwards as he gasped for air. He was in a large tent illuminated by an opaque twilight and a foul odor clung to the air. He briefly convulsed and felt a cold layer of sweat covering his entire body. His heart was racing at a furious clip. Though his thoughts were scattered, he sensed the presence of someone next to him and slowly rolled his head to the right to look. His friend, Walter, was huddled in the rear corner of the tent and looked at him in astonishment.
“Fuckin’ Christ, you scared the livin’ shit outta me, Johnny! What the fuck is wrong with you?” Walter asked.
Walter was in his late forties, but looked ten years older. He had a face scarred by ancient pits of acne and covered by a ragged, patchy beard and mustache. He was thin, looked malnourished and his arms looked like loose, fleshy spools of rope. His gray hair was thin and matted down to his head. He looked very sick and very drunk.
Johnny’s thoughts had gained some semblance of order. He ran his hand slowly over his face and sighed. “Sorry, man. A nightmare.”
“I’ll fuckin’ say. You started thrashin’ ‘round like crazy!” He paused for a second and looked at Johnny gravely. “I’m kinda glad it happened though. I was havin’ a nightmare too and you woke me up.”
“Is there any of that bottle still left? I need a fuckin’ drink. I’m startin’ to shake already.”
Walter nodded. “Yeah, little over half.”
Walter reached inside a nearby backpack and pulled out a half-gallon of vodka. This was the solvent of choice, the poison that scoured away the crime of their birth. He handed the bottle to Johnny. Johnny unscrewed the lid and used both hands to hoist the bottle to his mouth. He felt the liquor reach his stomach and relax his overworked nervous system. He passed the bottle back to Walter. He took a drink from the bottle before putting the lid back on.
“You got any tobacco left?” Johnny asked.
Walter nodded. “Want me to roll it?”
“Yeah, man, if you would. My hands are shakin’ really bad. I’d just fuck up the paper.”
Walter reached into the backpack once again and brought out a tattered Ziploc bag full of rolling tobacco and a package of rolling papers. He reached inside the bag and pinched out some tobacco. He looked at Johnny before rolling the cigarette. Worn down from days of drinking, both men were teetering on the edge of a toxic abyss and Johnny looked particularly worse for wear. His face was pale and puffy, and dark rings had formed under his bloodshot eyes. His balding head glistened with sweat in the dim light and his bloated stomach heaved erratically in an attempt to regulate his breathing. The smell of alcohol not only lingered on his breath, it came from every pore of his body. He was obviously a very sick man.
“What kinda nightmare was it?” Walter asked.
Johnny’s face went pale and his eyes widened. “It was fuckin’ horrible. These hounds were chasin’ me and bitin’ me. They were turned all inside out and I could see their insides. They had horrible teeth and they would bite and tear at me every time they caught up to me. They were like demons.”
“Damn. I have nightmares too. I was havin’ one when you woke me up.”
“What did ya see?”
Walter finished rolling cigarettes for both of them and handed one to Johnny.
“I was in a strange house built outta human bones. I was lost and these horrible fuckin’ faces and claws would come out of the walls for me. They were snappin’ at me and talkin’ to me.”
“What did they say?”
Walter took a long drag from his cigarette. “They screamed I was scum and deserved to die like a dog in the streets. They told me they’d get me and I was gonna die soon.”
Both men fell silent again.
“It was so real, man. Swear to Christ, every time those dogs bit me, I could feel it. I mean, really feel it.”
“They were just dreams, man.”
They became silent. What more could be said? They were two sick, dying men living in a tattered tent. Their tent was in a wooded area within a large city. A railroad switchyard was nearby. Beyond the wilderness were the lights of another world but, despite the proximity of civilization, they were not part of such things. Their isolation was total. The bottle and its attendant fever dreams was life. Their families were long gone. They got by as such men get by; scraping for metal and aluminum, day labor or petty theft. Anything to finance their descent into the void.
“I heard voices too, Walter.”
“Voices?” Walter asked incredulously.
“Yeah, the hounds were talkin’ to me.”
“They talked about us and said they were gonna eat us alive.”
Walter felt a chill pass over his body. It left him profoundly unsettled to have been a part of Johnny’s nightmare.
Johnny took a couple of short drags from his cigarette. His eyes were tense and restless. “Yeah, both of us.”
Walter shifted uneasily. “Well, it’s just a dream, like I said. I’m gonna get another drink. You want one?”
“Yeah, I sure need one.” Johnny replied with a whisper.
Walter took a long drink and passed the bottle to Johnny. Once more, Johnny steadied the bottle with both hands as he took a drink. Afterwards, he looked at the bottle with resignation and weariness.
“Is that all we got left?”
Walter frowned and nodded. “Yeah. But we got a little money left from yesterday.”
“Enough for another one?”
“Yeah, I think so. What time ya got?”
Walter shrugged. “Shit, man, I don’t fuckin’ know. Lemme find my watch.”
Walter searched through his backpack for a few moments to no avail. “Motherfucker! Where is that damn thing?” He sighed loudly. His frustration sprung full born from the dread they both feel at the idea of running out. They had been drunk for two weeks and their withdrawal would be tortured.
“Well, ya know, ain’t been that long since the sun went down. So I imagine it’s eight, maybe eight thirty. Plenty of time. We didn’t pass out too long.” Johnny said. “I need that bottle, man. I don’t feel right.”
“Alright, man. Lemme roll a couple of cigarettes for the trip, and then we’ll go get another jug. I don’t wanna run out either, man.”
“Yeah. I think I’d fuckin’ die, man, I really do.”
There was a heavy quality to the nighttime air that seemed to slow everything down. Their tent was placed in a tiny clearing amidst many tall, robust oaks. A small footpath led from their camp towards the railroad tracks. However, the sky was a black, starless vault and the darkness they faced was total. The only sound that punctuated the dark was the sharp crackle of dry foliage under their feet. With no light to guide them and an inability to think straight, they staggered into the wilderness baffled and desperate.
“We missed the trail! I can’t see anything!” Johnny shouted.
“We’ll find our way. I ain’t very steady though and I can’t hardly see.”
“You and me both. Just take it slow, okay?”
They wandered recklessly through the darkness. Increasingly, the trees seemed to leer over both men like implacable sentries crowding their perspective. They stumbled over fallen tree limbs, lost their balance in hidden dips of the earth, and vines and overgrowth alike smacked them in the face. Nevertheless, they plodded onward with purpose, but without any particular design.
“I’m scared, man. Ain’t no light at all.”
“Man, I don’t think there ever is ‘round here.” Walter replied with a barely audible mutter.
Johnny suddenly froze. “Walter, did you hear that?”
“That sound! Shhh! I think somethin’s followin’ us!”
“I don’t hear nothin’.”
Johnny sighed and shook his head sadly. “My head’s a mess, Walt. I wanna sit down for a while.”
“Okay, no problem.”
They sat down and fell silent for a moment.
“How’d we get like this, Walt? I’m scared and my head’s all fucked up. Shit keeps movin’ ‘round on me.”
“We’ve been drunk for two weeks runnin’, man. Hell, I don’t even know what day of the week it is.”
“I’ve been seein’ things for days, man. I don’t feel right in the head. If it wasn’t for you bein’ ‘round, I’d think I’d gone fuckin’ nuts. And it’s gettin’ worse.”
“Those fuckin’ dogs. Insects as big as fists. Colors seem all fuckin’ weird and, I’ll tell you, the air even smells funny.”
“What? The air?”
“Yeah, smells like the whole world has gone rotten.” Johnny replied with terror in his voice. He reached inside the backpack once again and removed the half-gallon bottle of vodka. He took a couple of drinks from it and passed it to Walter.
“Tell me again what those hounds looked like, Johnny?”
“They were horrible, disgustin’ things. They were turned all inside out and this red slime covered ’em. They had fur, huge deformed teeth, and big heads. And when they talked…” Johnny’s voice began to tremble.
“What? What about it?”
“They sounded like you and me. They told me they were coming for us both and we couldn’t escape them.”
Walter lit a cigarette with shaking hands. “Maybe we should go back to the tent and lay down. Worry about getting’ a bottle later. I don’t think it’s more than nine o’clock, we’ve got six more hours ‘fore the liquor store closes.”
“I sure wouldn’t mind layin’ back down. I can’t think straight. I’m scared.”
“We ain’t got nothin’ to be scared of, Johnny, it’s all in yer head. ‘
“Let’s just go back to camp, okay?”
“Okay, man. we’ll turn around. I don’t think the tent’s far.”
With that, the two men turned around and tried to walk back the way they came. The tepid breeze that slid through the dense wilderness was not comforting. The tree limbs clashed and rustled in the wake of its secretive current.
“Walter, I’m scared.” Johnny said. His voice trembled with uncertainty.
“What’s scarin’ you now, Johnny?”
“We ain’t findin’ our way outta here and I feel really weird. I keep hearin’ things, man. HEARIN’ THINGS, MAN!” His voice strained with mania.
“There ain’t nothin’ out there, Johnny, I’m tellin’ ya.”
“Walter, don’t tell me that shit, I’m hearin’ what I’m hearin’. There’s somethin’ fuckin’ out there!” There was rage in his voice now. He was convinced that something was stalking them both and would no longer broker any disagreement.
“You’re losin’ your mind, Johnny. I’m tellin’ ya, we’re just fucked up and lost. We’ll figure it out.” Walter tried to remain patient. He knew Johnny was sick and out of sorts. His own condition was marginally better.
“DON’T YOU TELL ME I’M LOSIN’ MY MIND, MOTHERFUCKER! I KNOW WHAT I’M HEARIN’! MAYBE YOU’RE A PART OF ALL OF THIS!”
He’s lost his fuckin’ mind, Walter thought to himself. “Johnny, let’s just sit down again and see if we can get our bearings.”
“Yeah, you motherfucker, let’s sit down.” He was no longer screaming, but his voice had taken on a sinister edge nonetheless.
Walter sat down on the ground and Johnny practically collapsed beside him. Without a word, Johnny found the half-gallon bottle of vodka and took a drink from it. He sat the bottle down in front of Walter. After a few seconds, Johnny’s entire body began to shake. At first, it was merely a tremor, but soon reached a feverish pitch. He began to writhe wildly.
“Johnny, what’s wrong?” The sudden outburst terrified Walter. He reached out and wrapped his arms around Johnny’s emaciated frame in an attempt to stifle the convulsions.
“It’s gonna be alright, man, it’s gonna be alright! Just hang on to me!”
However, Johnny could not stop shaking. With a sudden surge of energy, he pushed Walter away and began to scream. He leapt to his feet and staggered blindly into the darkness.
“JOHNNY! WHERE YOU GOIN’? COME BACK!”
Johnny did not respond. All Walter could hear was Johnny crashing through the woods as he ran away. The sudden silence that came next was disconcerting. He felt utterly helpless as he walked in the direction Johnny had fled calling out for him in hopes that he would answer.
Out in the dark, Johnny waited. The hounds had come again and, if they found him, he would fight. They would not take him without a fight. He knew now that Walter was helping them as well. He wanted to lead him to some place where the hounds would be waiting. Johnny’s mind turned as his eyes scanned the darkness for any sign of his foes.
“JOHNNY! WHERE ARE YOU?”
He could hear Walter coming. He would not allow Walter to reveal his hiding place. He would not permit Walter to lead him to the hounds. He would protect himself at all costs.
“JOHNNY, WHERE ARE YOU? LET ME HELP YOU BACK TO THE TENT, MAN!”
He was only a few feet away. Johnny silently reached in his pants pocket and pulled out his knife. He opened the knife with an innocuous click. He would put an end to Walter’s attempts to murder him. He leapt out of the darkness with startling speed and plunged the knife repeatedly into Walter’s back. A warm spray of blood splashed onto his face.
Walter collapsed to the ground and landed on his back. Johnny jumped on top of him and clutched a handful of his hair. With one decisive slice, he slit Walter’s throat from ear to ear.
“YOU WON’T BRING THEM TO ME, YOU BASTARD! YOU’RE TRYING TO KILL ME!”
Then, out of the darkness, the hounds came again.