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You Can Run
A horror, fantasy version of the queer writer experience by Jodie Baer
Not again, Ella sighed as the familiar ping of her phone chimed. She knew based on the sound that it was a shift request, the particular notification she’d assigned for the app now a nuisance more than anything. Four years post-university and she was still working three jobs, unable to find paying work in her field but still needing to earn enough to pay the bills.
She unlocked her device with a well-practiced swipe, seeing the notice from the cafe she worked at. Last-minute sick coverage needed for tomorrow’s open, it read. She noted the current time -1:20 AM - and tapped “Accept” with a grimace. The 6:30 open time left her with less than 5 hours’ sleep, but she couldn’t pass on the extra earnings. Living in Roncesvalles wasn’t cheap, a fact her parents often reminded her of as they tried to persuade her to come back home to save on rent.
Her laptop - a graduation gift to herself, meant to help further her writing career - glowed a soft blue, the laugh track on the sitcom she was streaming muffled by the mountain of blankets on which it rested. Ella set her alarm for 6, conditioned over years of practice to know this would give her just enough time to whip through her morning routine and make it to the cafe. These days, the computer was used more for Netflix binges and less for creating, Ella having acquiesced to the idea that her years of study were no more than an interesting talking point at parties.
She set the stream to a comfort show, lowering the volume as she laid her head down to rest. Her mind wasn’t tired but she knew she needed to get to bed. Before long, the familiar hum had her drifting off, the heavy sleepiness setting in.
Ella came to with a start, surprised by the chill she felt on her bare arms. Did I leave the window open? She blinked, eyes coming to focus on the scene before her - not her small brownstone’s bedroom, but a dark, empty forest.
Trees stood bare-branched against a cold moonlit winter night, no trace of humanity in sight. Ella shivered as she registered the hard snow-covered ground beneath her, her thin cotton shorts and oversized t-shirt inadequate protection against the outdoors. She shook her head vigorously, a trick that normally roused her from these dream states, but her surroundings remained the same.
She picked herself up, rubbing her arms briskly to try to generate heat. Clear that her mind wasn’t ready to reenter reality she began to walk, hoping that the movement would help keep her warm. “This is one realistic dream,” she thought out loud, “I guess that edible hit a bit harder than I thought.”
The crunch of her footsteps echoed through the stark landscape, bouncing off tree trunks, reverberating in a way that made it sound like she wasn’t alone. What if I’m not? Anxiety crept in and suddenly Ella was keenly aware that the hairs on the back of her neck were standing on end. Brushing it off as a physiological reaction to the cold, she pressed on, the soles of her feet beginning to burn with each tread.
Unable to dismiss the creeping feeling of being followed, Ella’s intuition began sounding a shrill siren. Something was out there, and it was coming for her. Instinctively, she picked up speed, trying to convince herself the change of pace was logically the best way of staying warm and nothing more.
Her legs churned beneath her, propelling her in the direction of the full moon in the absence of any other clear markers of safety. Her mind filled with a deep sense of dread that compelled her to keep moving, pinching her arms sharply as she moved in hopes that her brain would get the message and allow her to awaken from what had morphed into a nightmare.
Something primal told her not to look back, to keep her eyes ahead. Branches whipped and scratched at her bare limbs as she navigated through a densely clustered copse of trees, growing clumsier as a deep prey-fear shook her whole body. No matter how fast she ran, she could feel something always right behind her, matching her pace.
Panicked and fleeing, Ella made a small misstep, tripping over a branch and crashing to the frozen earth. She squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself for the attack, knowing it would only be a matter of time before she’d reach her demise. Five, ten, fifteen seconds passed - nothing. The forest around her was still and silent.
Emboldened by her unexpected survival, Ella braved a look behind her. A mere two feet away stood a dark, shadowy figure, no taller than herself, with red slits for eyes. It had a malevolent, disembodied quality to it, but did not seek to move, only tilting its head with a puppy-like curiosity as Ella propelled herself backwards on her hands to make more space between herself and the creature.
The shadow-being closed the gap between the two smoothly, maintaining a soul-piercing gaze at Ella. Ella stood up in preparation to flee and the shadow pulled itself taller, mimicking her. She ducked, covering her face with her arm; the shadow contorted into a similar figure. It mirrored her every movement, always approaching but never touching her.
At this distance, Ella could see the shadow-being dripping a dark ooze onto the snow, fear and anxiety washing over her in a nauseating wave with each droplet that hit the ground. Seeking to put distance between herself and this thing, she began running again, her head spinning as she tried to comprehend what she’d just seen. This scene seemed to dance in its own realm between reality and dream state, textured with all the sensory elements of real life but void of the sense of agency. The deep fearful ache felt vaguely familiar to Ella, a portion of her mind unable to stop thinking about where she’d felt this before as she ran.
“You’ll neverrrrr escaaaaaape meeeee,” the shadow-demon hissed, the sounds permeating Ella’s ears like knives. This phrase struck a blow in an all-too-familiar way, echoing through her skull and reverberating off her existing fears and insecurities.
Desperate to escape, Ella tried to will her legs to move quickly, wishing desperately for some reprieve, a break in the trees, a streetlight in the distance, seeing nothing but forest.
Hypothermic lethargy setting in, Ella felt a sleepiness blanketing her, her legs slowing down as though they’d been filled with wet sand. Her eyes began to falter, lids threatening to drift closed. Every inch of her body was plagued with an unshakable exhaustion as her mind screamed at her to move, escape, do anything.
Darkness closed in around her as she slowly melted to the ground, fear sounding alarm bells internally as her body conceded to its winter subduer. Why does this feel so familiar? she thought, as her perception faded to grey.
Ella woke with a gasp, sitting bolt upright in her double bed, still gripped by the fear-soaked bizarreness of her last memories. Her phone sounded its gentle wakeup song, the time glowing alongside the early morning sunrise that had just begun outside her window. With a deep exhale, she dismissed the alarm and began moving about her room, taking note of her cafe apron slung over her desk chair, her stack of well-read novels reaching from floor to windowsill, the string of fairy lights that framed her headboard, all anchors to what now seemed like a tenuous reality.
She moved around the room preparing for work, unable to banish the trepidation, still on hyper-alert. “It was just a dream,” she told herself, shaking her head once again to release the stuck thoughts.
Ella slumped into her vanity seat with the heavy exhaustion of the underslept, picking up her brush and running it through her hair. As she moved to set the brush down, she noticed a series of thin scratches running across her hand, just like those she’d felt as she fled through the dream forest the night before. Worry furrowed her brow for a moment before she dismissed the unrealistic thought, choosing to focus instead on the breathing exercises her therapist had prescribed for moments of unease.
She reached for her mascara, uncapping and drawing the wand to her eye. In a sinister flash, her reflection was eclipsed by the shadowy demon of her nightmares, red eyes burning embers right through her as she sent the brush flying in a startled gesture. She looked behind her and saw nothing but an empty room, her heart beating as if it were trying to escape her ribcage.
“It was just a dream,” she whispered to herself this time, still unable to allay the anxiety, unsure why it wouldn’t just leave her alone.
Ella looked at her phone, realizing she was behind her already-tight morning schedule. Swallowing her fear, she picked up her bag and apron and headed out the door without another look back.
Jodie Baer (she/her) is a multidisciplinary bisexual writer who has won awards for her research and technical works. Jodie’s writing frequently touches on the mental unease and emotional tribulations of pushing back against heteronormativity, and the beauty that can be found in truly embodying oneself.
Copyright © 2023 by Jodie Baer
Published by Orion's Beau
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