Hunts by Night opened his eyes to the ember-glow light of the campfire on the darker side of midnight. There were voices close by–easy, unhurried, comfortable voices. One male. One female.
“But we were there too long.”
“Can’t do that again.”
“He’d catch us. Nearly caught us last time.”
“Couldn’t find mutton broth for the soup.”
He didn’t try to eavesdrop. He had dreamed, and what he had seen was plummeting back into his subconscious mind. Frustrated, he scrambled for it. It had been something important. There had been fire, he remembered that; great upward-rolling walls of flame, pale-edged against the clear sky of a summer day. Not fire. The Fire. Voices screaming and the shwickshh-shwickshh of the grass against his thighs as he ran for the treeline. Night. Nothingness. Loneliness.
“He struck me once. He thought I was reaching for a knife. I swore to God I wasn’t.”
“Of course I was. And he was twice my size. You don’t know what I would’ve sworn.”
“I don’t even know where you’d find that in this country. Back then especially.”
He had waited in the dark of the forest for someone who was supposed to come and never did. No one came. No one led him home, and he died there in the cool summer rains.
“Before I was born?”
“And I once saw Algiers. You were upstairs with your brother.”
That one cut through his disinterest. He could hear himself, a child, whining “But I want…”. His mother’s voice, laughing and wearily angry: “And I wanted to see Algiers”. What or who or where it was she’d never explained. He didn’t know what it meant, but he knew what she meant: quit complaining because no one gets what they want. It was her phrase, her defeated dream. The woman by the fire didn’t sound like her, but it was her.
“You can’t keep running, you know.”
“I’m not and never was.”
“He’ll catch you.”
“Dead man can’t catch me.”
“Exactly. He’ll catch you.”
An intense feeling of doom rushed over him. He should have listened from the start. This was what was important. Not this, but what it had already been said. He’d missed the important part trying to remember something he’d spent twenty years trying to forget. Stupid; he was blindingly stupid.
“Fire’s not as clean as you think, not if you don’t let it burn long enough.”
“Five cups of chicken stock, one of beef. That was the closest I could come.”
The fear was pinning him to the ground. He couldn’t see them, no matter how hard he tried to lift himself up and look. The man’s voice was muddy but familiar; his mother sounded drunk again.
“Pearl onions. Like he cared.”
“You can’t let him get him. That’s what he wants.”
“Dead men don’t get what they want.”
“Exactly. You can’t let him get him. That’s what he wants.”
There was danger. It wasn’t them. Neither would hurt him, but neither could defend him and he still couldn’t move. Drugged, he had to be drugged somehow. He tried to shake it off but that only seemed to make it worse.
“Are you awake?”
It was spreading to his lungs.
“Is he awake?”
He was going to die.
He gasped and shot upright, on his feet before he realized the pressure on his chest was gone. Triumph started, woken from her doze by the movement. “I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head in exhaustion and embarrassment. “Bridei, I’m sorry. I didn’t…I must be getting old. This never…”
“Who were you talking to?”
His mother stared at him. “I was asleep.”
“No, you weren’t. You were sitting over there talking to someone.” He pointed. “A man. Someone was here.”
“I was lying there listening to you.”
“What did I say?”
He thought. “You said…” He froze.
“You can’t remember.”
“It was just a second ago.”
“And you couldn’t move. You could hear us and you could feel us there, but you couldn’t turn your head to look at us. The minute you moved he was gone and I was asleep.”
Everything seemed jumbled. Night sat down, uncomfortable with the pity in his mother’s eyes. “Yes.”
“Hypnagogic hallucination. Sleep paralysis. Your body was asleep. Your brain was partially awake. It’s not uncommon to imagine a presence, hear voices, or feel unexplained terror.” She shifted, grimacing as she straightened into a sitting pose. “Oh, I am old,” she groaned, rolling her head in circles on her neck. “I used to get them all the time. There was this hotel we used to stay in with your grandparents, and every time we were there on a certain date….” She shook her head. “I don’t know why. It’s pretty much the same as those half-dreams where you fall and wake right when you’d hit the ground, physiologically. They’re just usually more vivid and terrifying. Some people get a sense of euphoria instead, but I’ve never had one of those.”
His mother snorted and closed her eyes. “Always. Especially when it comes to sleep.”
“Sorry I woke you.”
“I was having a nightmare anyway, I think.”
He laid back down, supporting himself on one elbow. “Ah. What about?”
“Nothing frightening, that was the odd thing. I was only afraid when I woke up. I was just….” Triumph clenched her jaw so quickly her teeth clicked.
“You were what?” The terror of his paralysis seized him again. “Ma, you were what?”
He knew the answer before she said it. “I was sitting by the fire talking to someone.”
She nodded. “Right next to…”
“Don’t.” She was staring at the bundle she’d left on the other side of the fire. He didn’t dare look, even though he knew nothing had changed. “Don’t.”