Stranger in a Strange Land
A groan of agony escaped Jake’s lips as he regained consciousness, unsure for a moment of anything but the pounding pain in his head. What day it was, where he was, hell, who he was, was pretty much anyone’s guess at this stage. For a blissful moment he had absolutely no recollection of what had led to him waking up feeling like the morning after a stag night.
A heavy stag night.
Suddenly he felt the beginnings of panic deep in his belly as he realised that he really did have no idea what had happened to him, nor how he had come to be here, waking up in pain…on a mountain path? Opening his eyes the merest fraction of an inch he could see that he was lying on what appeared to be a goat track with trees to either side, his head facing downhill so that he could see a dark blue ribbon of sea in between the treetops in the distance.
Confusion spurred his panic into overdrive as his mind tried desperately to make sense of what was going on; goat tracks had not, up to that point, been a major feature of his life.
Tasting dirt in his mouth he sat up and tried to spit. Vomit spattered the dusty ground as nausea hit his stomach while his vision blurred and his headache intensified. He retched painfully for a few more agonising seconds, his hands and knees digging painfully into the grainy dirt of the path as he struggled to control his heaving insides; his stomach finally empty, he collapsed onto his side, the taste of bile at the back of his throat. With his eyes closed to blot out the harsh light of day he took stock of his situation, the flames of panic growing hotter within him as he did so.
OK, he knew where he was meant to be, he was meant to be on his way back from the shop with self-catering holiday supplies; bottled water, beer, snacks, sun-tan lotion and the like. He could clearly remember leaving the tiny apartment he had arrived at the previous night with his wife, telling her he would be thirty minutes, tops, before climbing up the hill to reach the main road where the shops and tavernas were located. As his mind cleared a little he could even remember being in the shop, grateful for the air-conditioning in the already blistering midmorning heat, and thinking that it hadn’t changed much in ten years.
This was Jake and his wife’s second trip not only to the Greek island of Kephalonia, but also to the small town of Lourdas, and their first holiday alone together since the birth of their son Tommy five years previously. They had both been excited to return to the place where they had spent their honeymoon, and Jake had been keen to start their week the right way, with a fully stocked apartment. He had left Cara in bed to relax, promising that he remembered the goat-track shortcut to the shops and would be gone for no more than half an hour. For him to have passed out on their first day –
– of course, he’d simply passed out in the heat! No mystery, no need to panic, there was a simple, logical explanation, and it was merely that he had gone out without drinking enough water before carrying a heavy load in the heat. The relief washing though him served as a powerful painkiller, clearing his head enough so that he could open his eyes and cautiously sit up once more. This time the wave of nausea passed in just a few seconds, and his headache died down to a manageable background throbbing, mild enough that he could finally have a proper look at his surroundings. Yes, there was his canvas holdall, crammed with two-litre bottles of Aqua Pura, feta cheese, chorizo sausage and a six pack of bottled Mythos, the local beer. And there was his straw cowboy hat, a veteran of many a summer holiday, battered, worn and Jake’s favourite item of clothing. All as it should be, phew!
So, heatstroke. Mystery solved.
Feeling something tickle his foot he looked down and saw one of the huge black ants found everywhere on the island scuttling over his toes, unprotected in his flimsy flip-flops. Grabbing his hat from where it lay he brushed the insect away and scrambled to his feet, noticing as he did so that his shirt was sticking to his chest with sweat and that his legs were caked with dust. Just how long had he been lying there, he wondered? And why hadn’t anyone stopped to help him? True, the short cut was little more than a goat track, but it was pretty well used and never more than thirty yards from the nearest road. He looked up to judge the time by the position of the sun and realised suddenly that the view from the path wasn’t quite right. All of the vegetation he could see had a wild, untamed look, as though it had never known the pruning hand of man. The trees were too numerous, and much taller than he remembered, blocking his view of the sun, and even of the road at the top of the path. In fact, now that he looked at it more closely, the path itself was narrower than it had been when he had ascended, much more like an actual animal track than a shortcut for tourists. Feeling the beginnings of panic rising once more, he swung his holdall over his shoulder and began to walk quickly down the path, avoiding the puddle of vomit he was leaving behind him.
The heat was right, he knew that much. He was still sweating like a whore in church, so he knew it was still daytime in Greece, but what the hell was going on with the path? On his way up to the shop it had been a relatively straight track, perhaps sixty or seventy yards in length. Now it was twisting and turning, and going on for much longer than it should have. In fact, he thought after a few minutes of walking, he’d now descended far enough to have travelled his ‘short-cut’ twice over. Picking up his pace Jake began to first jog, then sprint onwards, desperately looking for the road that their apartment complex was on. As he ran his mind whirled, trying to make some sort of sense out of what was happening to him.
He could remember paying for his groceries and leaving the shop, he could remember that much, but then what had happened? How had he become stranded on this seemingly never-ending path? And why did he feel as though he had the mother of all hangovers? With his mind focussed on these questions it was inevitable that he would lose his footing sooner or later.
It turned out to be sooner.
Not only sooner, but at a bend in the track, so that as his left flip-flop skidded away beneath his foot, his forward momentum carried him headlong into a thorny bush, flip-flops, holdall, cowboy hat and all.
Jake let out a scream of pain, frustration and rage as the thorns ripped into his flesh, his thin cotton shirt doing little to protect him, only the skin under his heavy canvas shorts escaping damage. By the time he came to a halt he had flown deep into the undergrowth, the thorns lacerating him on his way through to a relatively clear patch of grass, nestled between thorns, thorns and more thorns. With the realisation that getting out of his predicament promised more pain than he had already gone through, Jake rose to his knees and gave full vent to his anger and fear.
A low growl nearby silenced him quicker than a black look from his wife, while simultaneously sending a shiver down his spine as his mind conjured up images of what that bestial sound could belong to. A wolf? A bear? A really vicious mutant rabbit? He really had no idea what kind of animals lived in Greece, and for the very first time in his life bitterly regretted his lack of interest in nature documentaries.
The noise had come from beyond the bushes on the opposite side of the clearing from Jake; the rumble of several answering growls nearby sent him skidding back on his haunches until his neck touched thorns. With cold sweat beading his brow he held his breath as the sound of movement approached the bushes across from him. Here in the undergrowth it was gloomy, the intense glare of the sun cut out by the dense vegetation around him, but a few shafts of sunlight still managed to spear down into the tiny clearing. One of these now illuminated the shivering of branches as something pushed though from the other side, continuing to let forth a rumbling snarl that was somehow both questioning and immeasurably threatening at the same time.
A nightmare visage poked its way into the clearing, seeming not to notice the sharp thorns leaving thin trails of blood as it pushed past them. Jake froze as the creature paused, bestial blood-red eyes scanning the clearing with an unnerving intelligence until they came to rest on the bloodied man in his ruined holiday clothes. Time seemed to stand still as Jake took in every detail of the monstrous face before him.
Monstrous was exactly the right word, for there was no shred of humanity in what he saw. Roughly half again as wide as a human face, the first things he noticed were the tusks, rising upwards from either side of the jaw. A filthy yellow, they were perhaps four inches long and looked wickedly sharp. The lower jaw jutted forward to accommodate them, giving the entire face a savage, bestial look. The nose was broad and flat, with what looked like a shard of bone pushed through one nostril, while the ears seemed no more than misshapen lumps of gristle stuck to the side of the head. The eyes were inhuman, piggishly small in the wide expanse of face, with blood-red irises and the gleam of a frightening, feral intelligence.
And the creature’s skin was green.
Not green as though it were a cartoon character feeling under the weather, nor even a vivid, Incredible Hulk comic book kind of green, but something in between, something much more disturbing, much more vital, much more real.
Jake felt his previous fear, a vague, formless fear of the unknown, of not knowing where he was or how he’d got there, fading away as it was replaced with a much more terrifying fear of the immediately known, biting deep into his guts with teeth of panic, urging him to flee while he still could, yet freezing his limbs in place so that all he could do was stare with dread at the monster before him.
For precious seconds neither Jake nor the beast moved; Jake was too scared to even blink, while the creature seemed more confused than anything else. Its head cocked to one side as it considered him, and once more it issued a questioning growl while a long string of saliva dripped down from a filthy tusk. Again, answering growls rumbled from nearby, compounding Jake’s fear, knotting his stomach and bringing the acrid taste of bile to the back of his throat.
A growing pain in his chest made him realise that he was holding his breath, and he became suddenly convinced that the creature would lunge forward and close those fearsome tusks around his face the very instant he attempted to breathe out. The beast was not five feet away from him, so close that he could now make out the horrendous reek coming from it and see the strand of saliva growing and lengthening as it moved towards the floor, still attached to the creature’s tusk.
A new certainty gripped him; when the spit hit the floor, he was a dead man. His eyes remained locked to the terrifying, alien orbs that were in turn fixed on his own, while his peripheral vision tracked the progress of the saliva and the pain in his chest rose to new and ever more unbearable levels.
The spit hit the floor.
The shit hit the fan.
The creature’s low growl became a deafening roar of rage as it attempted to lunge forward but was held back by the clinging branches of the thick bushes it had been peering through. Suddenly Jake found the will to throw off his fear-induced paralysis and listen to the more common-sense voice of his terror, which had been urging him to flee since he had first caught sight of the beast’s savage features.
Not even bothering to get to his feet he scrambled gracelessly backwards, never daring to take his eyes from his pursuer, still thrashing its way through the thorny bush that was preventing it from reaching its quarry. For his part Jake didn’t notice the fresh scratches he was receiving on his way back to the path, nor the sting of small rocks digging into his palms as he scooted across the ground; his fear was pumping enough adrenaline through his body that he probably wouldn’t have noticed if he’d been hit by a speeding freight train.
Feeling the sudden burning of the sun on his head and shoulders he realised that he was on the goat track once more, out of the shade of the wildly tangled thicket of thorn bushes. He also realised that his hat was no longer on his head.
His hat. His lucky holiday hat.
The cheap, battered, straw Stetson that Cara had bought him on their first holiday together, so many years before. Looking up he saw that it had been trapped by the thorns on his first headlong flight into the bush and now lay suspended on a branch, even more battered than ever before. Beyond the hat he could see that the creature had almost broken through into the clearing, and more than that, he could now see that it carried a crudely fashioned axe in one enormous, meaty hand. What looked like freshly-killed (and not well cleaned) animal skins covered the beast’s body, adding to the impression of barbarism and savagery.
Had he been asked thirty seconds previously if anything would delay him from fleeing as fast as possible directly away from this monster, Jake would have given forth a clear and resounding ‘No’.
Or possibly an incredulous ‘You’re shitting me, right?’
Thirty seconds previously he hadn’t been in danger of losing his hat. And his sanity. Right now that hat was, in Jake’s mind, the only link he had left to a life that was rapidly seeming more and more like a distant dream. A distant, peaceful dream completely at odds with the hellish nightmare of the past seven minutes that was so far the gruelling sum total of this new existence of his. A new existence that was proving impossible to wake up from, much as he wanted to.
Balls to it, if he was going to have to accept this terrifying new reality, he’d be damned if he was going to do it with sunburnt cheeks.
Moving quickly, before his brain could call him an idiot, he jumped to his feet and thrust his arm deep into the bush, acquiring a whole new set of vicious scratches as he did so, but more importantly feeling his hand close around his beloved Stetson. He let out a brief cry of triumph just as he caught sight of Pig-Eyes rushing towards him, having broken through the undergrowth at last. The triumphant cry changed to a panic-stricken yelp as he fell backwards to avoid the swinging axe of his assailant, at least having the presence of mind to keep hold of his hat as he fell painfully on his tail bone and saw the beast become tangled up in vegetation once more.
His enraged attacker, denied its prey yet again, began hacking viciously at this latest thicket of thorns, its rage fuelled by being able to see its cowering victim so close at hand. Jake wasted no time in scrambling to his feet and hurling himself down the path as quickly as his battered legs would carry him.
The coarse feel of mud beneath one of his feet, along with his ungainly, lop-sided gait, told him that he had left one of his flip-flops back in the undergrowth. He kept running for a few strides, wanting to put distance between himself and the nightmare behind him, but eventually he had to stop to take off his remaining piece of footwear, or else lose his balance and fall once more.
His sudden halt saved his life as a second creature charged from the side of the path, its own crude axe cleaving through the air where Jake would have been if he hadn’t paused to de-flip-flop. The beast’s momentum caused it to lose balance, tripping and falling face first to the dirt of the track, and for a second Jake wondered if it wasn’t a second beast at all, but old Pig-Eyes himself. They looked so similar, from the flat, brutish face to the squat, powerful body covered in bloody, unkempt skins that he wondered if his first attacker had simply given up on hacking his way to his prey and taken a different route through the undergrowth to get to him.
A triumphant roar from further back up the path soon convinced him that no, this was indeed a brand new Pig-Eyes, a Pig-Eyes that was now blocking his route away from the original Pig-Eyes, who by the sound of things had finally broken through the screen of thorn bushes to reach the trail and was now a very angry original Pig-Eyes.
Standing with a lone flip-flop in his hand, Jake found himself once again face to face with a monstrous-looking beast intent on killing him; this time, though, there was a distinct difference. This time he was on his feet, while the monster was on the floor. That moment seemed to stretch endlessly as Jake tried to decide what to do, frozen with fear. The sight of the creature on the ground, its eyes filled with pure, undiluted hatred and rage had turned his limbs to lead, while his mind raced faster than the wings of a hummingbird, unable to reach a decision on a course of action.
The fear of death was strong upon him, and that endless moment imprinted itself indelibly in his memory; the burning heat of the sun on the back of his legs, the sting of the scratches he’d picked up on his earlier fall, the fresh and vibrant smell of the olive trees to either side of him, the slight pressure on his forehead where he’d rammed his hat on slightly skewed in a hurry. More vivid than everything else, though, was the beast before him; from the sheer rage evident in every tightly coiled muscle, ready to spring, to the coarse black hairs on the backs of its broad, calloused hands.
Suddenly he felt as though he stepped outside of himself as his limbs began moving by instinct alone, as if a stranger was controlling every muscle of his body. Jake watched in slow motion as his left hand flicked his remaining flip-flop to the right of the beast before him, drawing its attention as his right shoulder dipped, allowing him to grab the strap of his holdall, miraculously still on his back after his flight down the path, before swinging it around his head once, twice, and on the third pass he stepped forward, bringing the bag crashing into the jaw of the creature on the ground just as it was swinging its gaze back to him.
A sickening crunch accompanied the sound of glass bottles breaking inside the holdall, while Jake saw the beast’s neck twisting to an unnatural angle as the light of life left its eyes. Where just a second before, a snarling, rage and hate-filled monster had turned Jake’s guts to ice, now a broken lump of flesh served only as an obstacle in his path to be hurdled.
He was a hundred yards down the track and moving quickly before he felt himself gradually regaining control of his body. His speed was high and he kept it up even through his amazement at his own actions, spurred on by the bellowing cries of several Pig-Eyes from the undergrowth all around him, including his first attacker on the path behind. A roar of sheer rage sounded and Jake knew for certain that the body of the creature he had killed had been discovered.
The creature he had killed.
Even the sound of the words in his mind was alien and strange, and as he ran he couldn’t help but let out a short, hysterical laugh, which quickly turned into a sob of panic. Everything was strange and alien, and had been ever since he’d regained consciousness. This morning he had been a man on holiday with his wife, his biggest fear a case of Delhi Belly from the local food.
Now he was stranded in a strange land, a land which looked like the world he had left, but which so obviously wasn’t. He had no idea how he had gotten here, nor even where here was, and he was being chased by a pack of Pig-Eyed monsters intent on killing him, even before he had killed one of their own.
Oh, and he’d lost his flip-flops.
He was fairly certain this qualified as the worst day of his life, undoubtedly and officially. As he rounded a turn in the path he decided it was actually the worst day of anyone’s life.
‘You have got to be fucking kidding!’ he cried in despair, dropping to his knees. He was at the end of the path, which was also the end of solid ground. A sheer cliff face dropped away before him, the sound of the waves below breaking on rocks reaching him even as high as he was. The drop before him was immense, at least two hundred feet or more.
Quickly spinning around, Jake looked desperately for another avenue of escape, to no avail. He could see the vegetation on either side of the track quivering as his pursuers closed in, and less than fifty yards from him up the path he could see his old friend Original Pig-Eyes with a pair of comrades-in-arms, moving fast. The three creatures were definitely cast from the same mould, their green skin seeming to turn black as they passed in and out of the shadows on the track, each carrying an enormous axe which seemed little more than a sharpened stone lashed to a thick lump of wood, though none the less deadly for its crudity.
The possibility of him overcoming them with his trusty holdall full of Greek Holiday Crap seemed more than a little far-fetched.
Knowing he had to make a decision Jake quickly reviewed his options, hoping against hope that another miracle would occur and his body would let him know what to do, and more importantly, would actually do it for him. No matter how hard he hoped, though, no sweeping sense of dislocation, no “out of body” experience-ness would come to him, and with a sense of resignation he considered his situation.
Behind him, the cliff and a fall to certain death.
To his sides, wild undergrowth crawling with homicidal monsters and packed with enough thorns to turn him into Swiss cheese. So, certain death again.
And in front, rapidly getting nearer, three more fearsome-looking, axe-wielding, saliva-spraying counts of certain death. Which left his options as death, death or death. But which death to choose?
Definitely not option B, he decided. He’d had enough of being scratched since he’d woken up to last him a lifetime, which of course looked as though it would be about another thirty seconds.
Option C? Butchered by pig-eyed, evil mini-Hulks? No thanks, and there was always the possibility that they wouldn’t kill him straight away, but leave him alive while they tortured, dismembered and ate him. He didn’t want to jump to conclusions about his attackers, but he didn’t think it was stretching the realms of possibility too far to picture them hunkering down around a fire for a barbecued leg of Jake.
Which left…Option A, a long fall followed by a very sudden stop. Before today his two biggest fears had been heights and drowning, but as they’d recently been surpassed by thickets of thorns and barbaric psycho monsters, certain death by a drop from height into water actually seemed quite attractive.
And he’d never thought he’d ever hear himself say that.
When Pig Eyes and Co were close enough that he could see the flaring of their snout-like noses, Jake closed his eyes, took a single pace backward and stepped into the void.
All that was left to him now was to wait for the end.
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