[SFT] Chapter One

She yelled into his ear again. He was late, she screeched, and he had parked too far away. The man held the phone away from his ear for a moment and then replied calmly. Stop being hysterical, he told her – he had arrived. He tapped the phone off and slipped it into his pocket. Women. Shaking his head, the man shut off the engine, got out and slammed the door, then turned back to lock it. Cars stood still ahead of him, making it impossible to park any closer. Maybe he should have tried one of the cross streets. Oh well.  Unhurriedly, he looked to his left, up Broadway towards Times Square, and then at the setting sun behind him. He patted the roof of his car and began walking uptown. Shafts of light peeked through the buildings from the West; the sky above was pink. Ahead of him, lights began to flash and the faint sound of music wafted into his ears. He loved New York City.

It was chilly, so the man turned his collar up against the late autumn wind. With a finger, he pulled back the sleeve of his coat and checked his watch. It was a quarter to seven. He would make it, and probably even have time to stop for a quick drink before dinner. Yes – he would pay Hannah a quick visit at the bar before going to the show. Hannah was delicious and never complained.

Suddenly, the phone in his coat pocket rang, breaking the silence around him. Annoyed, he rejected the call and stuck the phone back into his coat. Veronica nagged way too much. He could probably slip away from her at intermission and pop over to the bar again to convince Hannah to take a small break. By the time he got back to the show, Veronica would be drunk, and he could take her back to the Crowne Plaza to enjoy the rest of the night in peace. She wouldn’t last long, and before she got yapping, she would pass out. Hannah, however, was different. She was nice. The man whistled tunelessly to himself, enjoying scenes of Hannah that played through his mind.

Pleased with his plan, the man focused on the street ahead. He could now just make out shiny limousines lining up along Broadway, the brown-tinged cabs resting in front of the theaters, shops and hotels. The dazzling ads on billboards and screens were lit up against a darkening sky, which began to wink with a few stars. He stumbled in mid-stride, and then abruptly righted himself. Darkening sky, already? The sun was setting unusually quickly. Looking up, he craned his neck to read the warped sign he had just passed. 30th Street. He stepped up his pace to brisk walk.  Around him, only his footsteps echoed on the pavement.

After a block, he heard the clang of metal and a groan. Nervously, the man turned to look around and started to jog lightly. The only visible illumination was coming from the bustling square far ahead of him – he couldn’t see anyone around. But the sky was dark. And he suddenly knew. He knew that he was late and that he had parked too far. Shit. He broke into a run. Two tall, thick, metal towers flanking Broadway came into view in the distance. The Gate. The vibrant, purple sheen of light stretching across them and rising into a dome above Times Square pulsated. People had begun to gather just behind the curtain of light. Shit. Fuck. Shit. In his head, a refrain of curses punctuated each breath.

He felt them before he saw them. It was cold, but sweat made his clothes stick to his back and his legs as he ran. Swearing at his skinny jeans, he risked a quick glance over his shoulder, and saw them. They were thick shapes darker than the night, approaching slowly. There were only three of them, but the man knew that one was enough. He began to sprint. Surely, he could outrun these idiot creatures at half speed. But he had heard the stories and he had seen the videos, and something deep inside and the frenetic motions of the people at the end of the agonizingly long street told him he should run like hell. Shitshitshitshitshit. He pounded harder, arms pumping, knees jarring at the impact of each fear-laden step. But now the taps of his Italian shoes on pavement were accompanied by rapid thuds. The thing was running after him.

There were probably less than ten blocks to go to get to safety – the man couldn’t tell by the useless fallen street signs in the darkness, and he had no time to check. He cursed himself. He had parked too far. The creature seemed to be closing in on him. He had been the fastest running back this side of the Mississippi River Bed. A giant crowd had now amassed behind the violet wall of light, and he could almost feel their collective anxiety. Surely, he could outrun these things. Perimeter Guards had appeared – they pushed back against the spectators, clearing a space for him. There would be a different kind of show tonight. He could be the first to escape.

A ringing pierced the air as he clattered through debris that cluttered the sidewalk. His phone. Damn Veronica. Taking a microsecond to shed his coat and fling it aside, he checked the creature’s progress. The thing had gotten much closer. In the glow of the Theater Square lights, he could now see the ugly, inert face, the flaky flesh and dirt-crusted, shapeless clothes of his thick-necked pursuer. It was catching up impossibly quickly. The man shuddered, but recovered and turned his full attention back to his 42nd Street haven. He set his jaw determinedly and picked up speed. Fourth and four with no time left. The sound of his ringtone faded, and there was only him and the endzone between the two pulsating towers.

He blasted through the city blocks, not quite winded yet. Heartened, he recognized the crumbling remains of an old building on the corner of 38th Street. Four blocks to go. 39th Street. 40th. He was flying. But the misshapen creature behind him was flying with him. It only seemed to speed up – ten feet now separated the prey from its predator. It was time for some tricks. The man was relatively light, and could take advantage of this. His heart hammered in his ribcage as he broke sideways, springing himself up onto the hood of an old, grey sedan that was parallel parked along the street. He pattered across the roof and jumped onto the next car, picking his way dexterously atop a pathway of vehicles. Car roofs yielded underneath his feet, but he was still zooming. One block to go. He snuck a glance behind him and almost lost his balance in surprise.

The creature had followed him right up on to the road of unfortunate cars. It was hammering away to close the distance between them, with apparent disregard for the vehicles it was smashing underfoot. Faint screams and shouts drifted out of Times Square, encouraging the man to redouble his efforts. Gritting his teeth, he took a gamble and slid down between two rows of cars, stumbling slightly then righting himself as he continued his desperate run. He needed this touchdown – his life depended on it. But the monster behind him continued to pound along the top of parked cars without flagging.

The block of cars ended abruptly with a barricade on 41st Street. Gasping for air now, the man stumbled over the low concrete into an open space that lay between him and safety. Along with the rush of blood to his head and his labored breaths, the man could hear the intermittent buzz of energy crackling between the two towers. He could also hear the roar of the crowd. A burst of adrenaline propelled him into the last legs of the chase.

Suddenly, a collective scream arose. The man was close enough to see people’s faces. A wave of dread rippled through the crowd. But he didn’t need to look behind him to see what was wrong. Sickened, he could hear the creature’s grunts of exertion, feel the tremors of its footfalls. He could smell the putrid thing. Fear gripped at his chest as the man raced down the final few yards to the 42nd and Broadway Line, heart clenched closed. He huffed and tore along the pavement, somehow finding an extra reserve within himself to run faster yet. With lungs burning and a few feet left to go, he launched himself with a giant, desperate heave towards the wall of purple light and the waiting arms of the Perimeter Guards beyond. The bright lights, glittering gowns and taxi cabs burst into all shades of their brilliant true colors as he sliced into his endzone for a touchdown. A deafening cheer erupted.

It was a glorious fast-forward moment in slow motion. The man saw himself on all of the enormous lit screens in Times Square, arcing into the safety of the protected zone as a blue-helmeted Perimeter Guard caught his outstretched arms and pulled him in. His glowing face was handsome and rugged. The crowd closed in. Photos flashed. He was the stuff of heroes.

Yet, watching himself live on a multitude of screens gave him the strangest sensation. He simultaneously saw and felt his foot broken by the crush of a meaty, flaky-fleshed hand. Then saw and felt himself dragged out of the arms of safety, back into the darkness. He could only guess that what he felt next was the creature biting into his ankle, because at that point, he saw nothing.

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