The hounds snap at his heels. Their jagged, fungus-green teeth jut far outside their mouths and throbbing internal organs cling to their distended bodies. They claw at his body and pursue him in long gallops under a stormy, purple sky. One hound wounds a leg and a bubbling stew of vodka and blood erupts from the gash. The pain cuts and burns like flaming glass, but he cannot stumble. They never tire, but if he falters or slows, they will eat his flesh. He cannot keep going much longer.
He wakes up. His wide eyes stare upwards as he gasps for air. An opaque twilight fills the tent and a foul odor fills the air. He convulses and feels a cold layer of sweat covering his body. His rapid heartbeat rattles his chest and his head feels like a rough, heavy hand is pressing down on his skull. He senses someone near and rolls his head to look around. His friend Walter huddles in a corner of the tent.
"Fuckin' Christ, you scared the shit out of me, Johnny! What the fuck is wrong with you?"
Walter is in his late forties. Ancient acne scars dot his face and his long arms are loose, fleshy spools of rope. The gray hair matted to his head looks like a sticky smear of paint.
Johnny runs his hand over his face and sighs. "Sorry, man. Nightmare."
"I'll fuckin' say. You thrashed around like crazy." He pauses. "I'm glad it happened though. I had a nightmare too and you woke me up."
"Any of that bottle left? I need a drink. I'm shakin' already."
Walter reaches into a nearby backpack and pulls out a half gallon of vodka. This is the solvent of choice, the poison that scours away the battery of their birth. Johnny unscrews the lid with shaking hands and raises the bottle to his lips. He swallows three mouthfuls before he feels his body relax.
"You got any tobacco left?" Johnny asks.
"Yeah. Want me to roll it?"
"If you would. I'd just fuck up the paper."
They smoke silently. They tumble in a toxic abyss, head over feet, and their dizzy descent brings them to the brink of death. Johnny is pale and puffy. Deep grooves of shadow surround eyes like ditches and his bald head glistens with sweat. Walter's stomach is bloated and distended. Alcohol squeezes its way out of every pore of his body and smells like rotten cabbage.
"What kinda nightmare did you have?" Walter asks.
"It was fuckin' bad. These hounds were chasing me and biting me. They were turned all inside out and I saw their insides. They were like demons."
"Damn. I hadda nightmare too."
"What was it?"
"I was in a house of bones. Faces and claws were comin' out of the walls and faces talked to me."
"What did they say?"
"They said I was scum and deserved to die. They said they'd get me soon."
Walter says nothing. They live in the woods near a railroad switchyard and the whine of a train whistle punctuates their silence. The living room lights of distant houses tatter the dark around them.
"I heard voices too." Johnny says.
"Yeah. The hounds talked to me."
"What did they say?"
"They said we were gonna die."
The chill covers Walter's body. It is unsettling to have been a part of Johnny's nightmare. He takes another long drink and passes the bottle to Johnny.
"That all we got left?" Johnny asks.
Walter frowns. "Yeah, but we got some money left from yesterday."
"Enough for another one?"
"Yeah, I think so. What time ya got?"
"I don't know, man. Let me find my watch."
Walter looks through his backpack and sighs deeply. "I can't find my watch."
"Well, it ain't been that long since the sun went down. I think it's eight or somethin'. Plenty of time still. I don't think we've been passed out long."
"I know we need more. That's all I know."
"Yeah. I don't feel right." Johnny says.
"Let me roll a couple more cigarettes for the walk."
Their black bodies strain through the humid nighttime air. Their tent is in a tiny clearing and a small footpath leads to the railroad tracks. The only sound they hear is the soft crackle of dry foliage under their feet.
Johnny's breathing is frantic. "We missed the trail! I can't see anything!"
"It's okay, we'll make it. I ain't very steady though."
"Me too. Just take it slow, okay?"
They walk into trees, stumble over fallen limbs, and step into hidden holes. The vines and overgrowth alike smack their faces. Johnny thinks about his dream and a cold fist clutches his body.
"I'm scared, man. Ain't no light at all." he says.
"I know. There's no light anywhere."
Johnny stops and his head twists from side to side. "Walter, did you hear that?"
"That sound! Shhh! I think something's following us."
"I don't hear anything."
Johnny sighs and shakes his head slowly. "Let's sit down for a minute. I can't think straight."
They sit down and take another drink. A hot blast of nausea wracks his body. He hands the bottle back to Walter and lays back on the ground.
"I feel sick and see things movin' all around me. I feel like I can't breathe sometimes."
"Man, we've been drinkin' everyday for a week. I don't even know what day of the week it is."
"I've been seein' things every day lately. Insects as big as fists, weird colors."
"We're gonna be okay, man. You just need another drink and it'll make you feel better."
"The whole fuckin' world's gone rotten." Johnny says.
They quietly pass the alcohol back and forth. A black, scalding cloud blooms from the bottle but the men do not see it. Its oily gurgle clots their minds, peels away muscle and fries their nervous system. Nothing escapes its gelatinous reach.
"Maybe we should go back to the tent and lay down. We can worry 'bout getting a bottle later. I don't think it's more than nine o'clock, so we got six more hours before the store closes." Walter says.
"I need to lay down. I can't think straight and I'm scared."
"We ain't got nothin' to be scared of, Johnny. It's all in your head."
"Let's go back to the tent, man, okay?"
They are carried back to their tent on a covert breeze that causes the tree limbs to rustle and clash. Milky pinholes of light from lightning bugs wheel all around them. Johnny is having trouble catching his breath and his steps are small and poorly timed.
"There's somethin' out there, Walter. I can hear it." Johnny hisses.
Walter stops and turns to Johnny in the darkness. "There's nothin' out there, Johnny. You're hearing things."
"DON'T TELL ME WHAT I'M HEARIN' OR NOT HEARIN'! I KNOW WHAT I'M HEARIN'! MAYBE YOU'RE WITH THEM!"
Walter lays his hands lightly on Johnny's chest. "Man, it's going to be okay, we just gotta get back to the tent."
Johnny sighs deeply. "I gotta sit down."
He collapses onto the ground and hunts for the bottle. The longer it takes to find the bottle, the more frantic he becomes. When he finds it, he jerks the bottle out, unscrews the lid, and gulps down a rattling mouthful of vodka. A few seconds pass and Johnny's body begins to shudder.
Walter clutches him in a tight embrace, but cannot subdue Johnny's shaking. Johnny grabs him on each side and pushes him away. Walter lands hard against a tree and watches Johnny's shadow vanish into the darkness. All he can hear is the sound of Johnny crashing through the wilderness followed by an alarming silence.
"Johnny, come back!"
Walter struggles to his feet and starts running after him. Johnny is crouched behind a hawthorn bush and can hear Walter coming. The hounds are here and, if they find him, he will fight. They will not get him without a fight. He knows that Walter is helping them. He is leading him into a trap. Johnny's eyes skim the dark in search of his attackers.
"Johnny, let me help you, man! Where are you?" Walter cries out.
Walter is only a few feet away. Johnny reaches into his pocket and touches his knife. The blade pops out with a soft click. He will kill Walter and the hounds. He sees Walter a few inches away and leaps out from behind the bush. He plunges the knife deep into Walter's back again and again.
"Johnny, no!" Walter screams.
Walter tumbles over and lands on his back. Johnny jumps on top of him and grabs a handful of his hair. With a quick slice, he slits 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 for him.