The Dreamers and the Penitents - Krzysztof Spadło - ebook
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The Dreamers and the Penitents is a collection of ten stories whose action takes place in contemporary times. However, the world presented has a duplicitous face, bleak and unknown to most. How can you know that a man you just walked past in a store or on the pedestrian crossing isn’t the one who had invented a time machine and is now planning to go back in time to change humanity’s fate? Or maybe a boy running across from you with a baseball cap rakishly askew isn’t someone completely different than he appears to be? Maybe he hides a terrible secret?



The newest book by Krzysztof Spadlo is a must-read for fans of the paranormal, horror and science-fiction stories.



Krzysztof Spadło

Krótka notka o autorze... z takim zagadnieniem zawsze mam problem. To zdanie poniżej najbardziej mnie charakteryzuje:
Krzysztof Spadło - łowca wrażeń i kolekcjoner miłych wspomnień, któremu pisanie sprawia frajdę.



Strona autorska: www.krzysztofspadlo.com

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Krzysztof Spadło

Dreamers and the Penitents

KRZYSZTOF SPADŁO

Dreamers and the Penitents

© Copyright by Krzysztof Spadło & e-bookowo

Cover by: Marek Purzycki

Translate by Katarzyna Szuster

ISBN 978-83-7859-090-3

Wydawca: Wydawnictwo internetowe e-bookowo

www.e-bookowo.pl

Kontakt:wydawnictwo@e-bookowo.pl

Wszelkie prawa zastrzeżone. Kopiowanie, rozpowszechnianie części lub całości bez zgody wydawcy zabronione

Wydanie II 2012

Konwersja do epub Agencja A3M

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BEAST OF BURDEN

Today’s July morning was the harbinger of a scorching day. The rays from the rising sun cut the air sharply like buoyant golden strings, and over the azure sky one couldn’t spot even a shadow of the slightest cloud. The fiery sphere was climbing higher and higher over the horizon with each minute, and dealing its pleasant warmth, it reached with jaunty blaze the darkest nooks to offer the world a longed for joy of life.

The roofs of houses, the trees’ leaves, bushes and sweeps of grass, showered in the morning dew, were glittering with thousands of tiny specs, giving out the impression of minute movement. One could be tricked into thinking that somebody, in a miraculous, even magical way, sprinkled the whole area with fine, starry glitter.

The forested terrain located on the city’s outskirts was enveloped with thin mist. Milky wisps hovering just above the ground floated unhurriedly, wandering around shrubbery and boughs, as if wanting to hide their mysteries away from the busybodies’ eyes.

Strzelce Opolskie, still immersed in sleep, was wrapped in all-embracing quiet. The only sign of life was the birds’ morning chirp; although sometimes you could also hear the invisible wing carrying into the air the characteristic rattle of a rushed train, somewhere off afar.

Like any day, the church bells sounded at exactly five thirty, calling for the morning mass, and their sonorous peal resonated nobly across the whole environs. The city’s streets were slowly starting to vibrate with life. People hurried along in different directions to their everyday tasks and duties, a whirr of speeding cars gradually amplified an increasing haste.

Routinely at six, the silence of the prison walls was pierced by the scream of the alarm clock, waking up the convicts.

Here, in a hermetical world, each day was like a copy of itself. The pattern engraved by iron regulations created a monotonous reality. The reality of this world.

It was coming on 7.15 am.

On the prison’s parking lot six yellow-green buses, the property of the penitentiary, stood ready to depart. In each, aside from the driver, were six armed guards and twenty eight convicts dressed in steel-gray uniforms. A moment later, an imposing steel entrance, suspended from above and slotted into tracks below, opened with a loud rasp. The noise of the splayed gates startled a flock of pigeons sitting on the nearby roof. Horror-struck birds sprung up in panic and, nervously flapping their wings, they circled the skies and glided towards the city.

The buses, one by one, slowly drove away, leaving behind a wistful fortress of redemption, and smoothly melted into the world across the other side of the wall. Some of the prisoners, as if they were tourists taking part in an exotic excursion, devoured with their eyes a landscape that was gradually changing over the course of the ride. Others, however, with longer “tenure” than their inmates, were watching with calm, impassive eyes, at the bottom of which lurked sadness and a longing for freedom.

The motorcade split up at the next crossroad. The first four vehicles went straight ahead, and the two remaining ones took right, and having disappeared behind the turning, they scudded down the outskirts of Strzelce Opolskie. Heading towards Krapkowice, after a few minutes of driving, the signs marking up the city borders flew by. Now the asphalt ribbon of the highway coiled up against scenic fields and woods, immersed in the July morning sun. Leaving behind a small village, Kalinow, two miles away, the vehicles turned into a forest road. Pushing down a bumpy route leading deep into the woods, they were embraced by quiet and a pleasant coolness. Here you could clearly see how the trails of sunlight were breaking through the trees’ branches, and finding a bit of space here and there, like daggers they sank in the thick undergrowth. The wildlife was still asleep, held at a standstill. The sound of the engines and the stink of fumes struck that natural peace like a rock in an unbroken sheet of water, and all the animals and forest imps scurried away and hid in the green thicket.

After fifteen minutes’ driving the buses stopped on a small clearing, just before a railway embankment that ran along the forest. The vehicles’ tires splashed with dew shimmered with steel-black shine.

For a few weeks a cheap labor force had been brought to this place. The convicts had been doing toilsome, monotonous work at the renovation of the local railway route. The work itself wasn’t so hard, besides the space, the forest, the immense sky... breathing freely, you could almost smell the scent of longed-for freedom.

The convicts got out slowly, without haste, and arranged themselves in two lines in front of the cars. The guard of the highest rank got onto the embankment, stood astride, glanced at his watch, spat racily and said in a loud voice:

– Alright, bad-asses, it’s eight. We’ll have a break around noon. A short one, true, but we’ll have a break, the hell. Unless you won’t deserve one – he stopped talking for second, and a bitter grimace crawled on his unpleasant face, a grimace that was probably trying to be a smile. With irony in his voice he finished: – So don’t let me go on and on, you know what you’re to do! As for myself, while wishing you gentlemen a nice, pleasant and fruitful work, as always I’m appealing to what remains of your degenerated minds and ask you, let me stress it again – ask! – that you behave nicely and decently, as befits good hillbillies. Amen.

The jailer, clearly amused and proud of his short speech, turned energetically on his heel and added over his shoulder:

– Forward!

The men in prison dungarees moved ahead sluggishly, without rhyme or reason.

The guards standing in a group, a little farther away to the right, were listening earnestly to a story and suddenly burst out laughing sonorously. Chaos, disarray, lack of vigilance, just that allowed a short moment of general disorientation. An opportunity. A one in a million chance. How long could it last? A few seconds? Maybe less? How long? The reaction of one of the convicts walking in the second row wasn’t planned at all. Spontaneity. A primitive sense got the upper hand over the reason. An instinct. The man slowed down slightly, squatted down, judged the situation with a quick glance and darted in a swift motion back towards the closest vehicle. When falling to the ground, he helped his body take a turn and hid behind an inner part of a wheel. An instinct, again. While hiding, he tensely watched the guards starting to form a sprawling line and drawing a slight semicircle, they closed this pathetic procession. Gray gravel dumped on the embankment rustled peculiarly under the walkers’ feet.

His heart was pounding like crazy, he couldn’t control his hastened breath and felt a cold sweat covering his body, inside his skull a thousand exploding thoughts. He dug his fingers deeply into the ground, clenched his jaws until he felt pain, his neck and shoulders seized by a burning cramp. One, two, he made it! He took a breath! He took a few deep breaths and out of the blue, all tension went away on a dime. He had an overwhelming feeling that what he could see now was happening in an unnatural slow motion. The picture reaching his brain reminded him of action shots moving sluggishly. The figures were pacing slowly and it felt to him like ages before they disappeared behind a wall of trees.

He was still motionless. Subconsciously, he waited to see panicked guards coming back within seconds. He imagined he’d hear their furious screams, patter, he’d see faces lusting for blood, blood and humility. He listened. Nothing. Silence. Only the pleasant murmur of the forest.

He crawled unhurriedly towards a free space between the buses. Gingerly, he lifted himself onto his feet and froze like a rock. He held his breath and pricked up his ears. Still nothing. Silence.

“What to do?! What to do?! – scurried through his mind. “Fuck, what to do?! What have I done?! Fuck me! What now?! What now?! No, I have to come back! I have no chance! I’m coming back and that’s it! Fuck! God, I hope it works! I hope it works...”.

Silently, he immersed himself into the green thicket. Now there was no coming back. It’s done! He bet his fate on one card. He was treading cautiously, watchful not to step on some rotten branches or twigs. Slowly, foot by foot/yard by yard, he was moving deep into the forest. He halted. Looked behind. The cars were vanishing behind the leafage. He stood. Stood and listened to any noises that could be a sign of his disappearance being noticed. Nothing. Silence and the woods. He took a deep breath, turned on his heel and sprinted ahead, moving his legs as fast as he could. The crack of breaking twigs under his feet wasn’t leaving him. He used his hands to clear his way across thick shrubs and brambles, which were smacking him like whips across the face and torso. Racing as hard as he could, like a rock sprung from a slingshot, he tore across the wilderness. He ran in zigzags between trees, with long leaps he skipped natural obstacles, not minding the blackberry shrubs tearing his calves – despite him wearing long pants – they were ploughing his flesh. He ran.

The forest undergrowth was changing with each moment. Thick scrubs disappeared, looming behind, so as to come back like a drawn curtain three hundred feet away. Like a wild animal, the man sprinted at a murderous pace and, like a precisely shot bullet, he was flying through green barricades of bushes. He chased mercilessly in pursuit of imaginary freedom. Each breath, each step was like a grand song of liberty. Previous thoughts and doubts were left somewhere behind. “Farther! Farther from here! Forward! Run!”– was all he could hear and all he could believe now. The rest didn’t exist.

Minutes piled onto more minutes. He was already far away. Safely away. He lost a track of time and space, but most importantly, he still had strength left.

He ran. Ceaselessly. He had to run.

From time to time, when he’d have a feeling that fatigue was bursting his lungs and knocking him off his feet – he’d slow down. He’d move then in a slow jog to regenerate at least a bit of his lost strength, to gather up some energy and again launch ahead. Rest was out of the question, a moment of weakness could cost him a lot. He had to struggle with his own might.

The sun was already high up. The forest’s structure had changed drastically. The shrubs appeared only in very small clusters, and the sprawling area was covered with pinewood, scarce tufts of grass and moss and conifer needles, which made running so much easier. Ahead the terrain was turning slightly into soft hills. Running them up, each couple of feet the man was losing his strength and dexterity. However, what an amazing feeling when he reached the top, and then hurtled down with impetus. Still, all that cost him a lot of effort.

Streams of sweat were coloring his prison dungarees with wet stains.

When he was running down again, his feet suddenly got entangled in a web of shrubs. He collapsed face down. The power of the impact bounced his body off the ground, the fall was so abrupt and unexpected that he didn’t have time to react and he tumbled down perilously. At some point he felt his right leg smacking inertly against the hard bough of a tree with great force. He heard the sound of tearing fabric and simultaneously he felt a shooting pain right below his knee.

Ignoring it, he pulled up his leg and clutched the hurting spot with both his hands, as if counting on their miraculous effect, he lay motionless like a stone. He didn’t even budge. With effort, he stifled a scream awakening in his throat, he clenched his jaws and panted furiously to fight off this terrible feeling. Then he fingered something sticky, glanced down and saw a sprawling blood stain. A throbbing pain was jerking his right leg. Only after a few minutes he tried to get up. Slowly, he heaved his body up. Took a few steps. Halted. Pain. He looked around. The terrain was open, he had to hide. Wherever. On his right side, some three hundred feet away, a curtain of leafy trees and bushes spread. Limping, he aimed in that direction.

He tore through the bushes. A little clearing was covered in dry, sun burnt grass. He sat in a shade, leaning against an ancient birch.

Profuse sweat was flooding his eyes and forehead. His leg hurt. Badly. In every inch of his body he felt a hastened pace, and with each heartbeat the wound spat out a solid amount of blood. First he took off his sweatshirt, then rolled up his pant leg. The thing hurting so much looked nasty. A long cut two and a half, maybe three inches long, fortunately not too deep. The wound’s gaping sides had slightly curled edges that menaced with fleshy maroon strands. “Fuck” – he thought – “this is what you call bad luck!”.

He snatched the sweatshirt’s corners and, in an abrupt move, he tore a long strip of fabric. He made a temporary tourniquet. He waited a little, shifted his leg. It still hurt but at least it stopped bleeding so amply. “That’s good, that’s good...”.

He was exhausted. He slid his body a little to the side and lay on his back. He breathed steadily and deeply. Tried to think about something pleasant. The time flew by. White clouds rushed by the wind against the azure sky were also flying. Fatigue did its job. His eyelids suddenly appeared so very, very heavy. The runaway convict let go without any inner struggle.

*

It was slowly coming up on noon. Czestochowa was steeping in the sun. The swelter pouring from the sky and the stuffiness pestered everyone. On the promenade leading towards Jasna Gora swarms of people crowded around benches tucked away in the shade of broad trees. Cafe tables with outspread umbrellas were set up from across shop-windows. Pounds of ice cream and seas of chilled, refreshing drinks were being sold. In that weather business blossomed.

In one of the houses’ courtyard at St. Wawrzyniec Street was the headquarters of a company rendering transport services. A small signboard on the shabby front wall of the building read: “Dewilski-Trans. Domestic and International Transport Services”.

A young woman with long, ebony hair, pulled back in a pony tail sat at the desk and with a bored face browsed the colorful pages of a chick magazine. It was pleasantly cool inside the office. A slight flurry of wind was getting in through a cracked window. The flaps of Venetian blinds swayed faintly.

A phone rang. The secretary, not turning her sight away from the magazine, lazily reached out her hand for the receiver. The slender fingers with exceptionally groomed fingernails, stroked with dark pink polish, wrapped around the plastic handle.

– Dewilski-Trans. Good afternoon, how may I help you? – after awhile she put through an extension number and spoke with a velvety voice: – Boss, it’s for you. Number two.

A few minutes later an aluminum door separating the rooms swung open. A man standing in it couldn’t be more than thirty five. He was dressed in a light, sheer button-down shirt and fair, linen pants. His slender, elongated face, a frown and prominent cheek bones accentuated his sharp features. At first glance he didn’t appear very friendly.

– Miss Bozena, could you please check who’s available today – he spoke with a cheerless voice, and his question sounded more like a typical military order.

The woman at once started typing rhythmically with the tips of her seductive fingers, hitting the keyboard of a computer in front of her.

– There is only Grzegorz in the database – she responded after a few seconds.

– Fine. Get him here.

A metallic burgundy Volvo truck was slowly pushing though the crowded streets of the city center. After around twenty minutes it arrived. A drowsy St. Wawrzyniec Street was shrouded in the shades of ancient chestnuts. The driver pulled up the car by the curb and smoothly jumped out on the road, shut the booth’s door with a swing.

He could be in his mid-twenties. With black, cropped hair, the back and the sides trimmed almost to the skin, hazel eyes, dark complexion and an athletic body – he must have broken many females’ hearts. The youngster was dressed in a red leotard sleeveless shirt and tight jeans. He had a sizable color tattoo on his right arm of a dancing native Indian.

– Hi, Bozenka – he said, closing the door behind him. He paused, took a slightly grotesque pose, winked flirtatiously and added, adjusting his tone of voice: – You’re looking pretty good today, baby doll!

– Grzes, will you cut it out? – she said and pointing her head towards the door, she added:

– Maybe you’ll sell something nice to el jefe, cute country boy?

– Man, women can be so nasty – he snarled, faking indignation, and started towards the aluminum door.

In the office there was a large desk, a coffee table, two armchairs and a closet. An outstretched, enormous car map of Poland hung on the wall. The men shook each other’s hands.

– Is your car in order?

– You bet!

– I’m not gonna bet, I asked you a simple question, didn’t I?

– Yes, the car is in order. She works perfect.

– OK, here’s the thing – they approached the map. – You’ll go this way...

The Volvo’s engine whirred grimly. The driver shifted to first gear, the machine slowly starting spat out a puff of black fumes and the smoke dissipated instantaneously into the air. Scudding down Czestochowa streets, the truck pushed for a road leading to Lubliniec.

Out of the blue, mighty gusts of wind rushed in. The trees’ leaves rustled ominously. White masses of puffy nebula appeared out of nowhere in the sky. Each minute brought more stuffiness. The sun kept hiding behind the clouds. The wind blasted. Whirring around the streets, it spun clouds of dirt and dust into the air, jerked at passersby’s clothes and tangled their hair. Far on the horizon you could see a dark smudge of wooly clouds, encroaching from the east. Swallows glided like crazy just above the ground. The birds, the stuffiness and the approaching murky glow could mean only one thing – a summer storm.

*

A spacious office with white walls was decorated in a modest, austere way, perfectly reflecting the owner’s character. A fifty-year-old, tall, strapping man with grayish hair and green eyes was dressed in a well-fitting gray suit, a white shirt and a matching tie. He looked noble and he yielded an equally noble function – he was the warden of a penitentiary in Strzelce Opolskie. The guards, the other staff of this institution and the prisoners called him among each other the Chief.

Always calm, composed, never letting himself get carried away by his emotions, he represented a genuine example of a sober and reasonable thinking. He also gave off that impression right now, though inside he was probably seething with anger.

He paced the room with stiff steps. You could tell he was thinking intensely. One of the two men standing by the door clearly felt like dissolving soundlessly into the air. He was the officer responsible for the group working in the forest that day.

– How could you let this happen! – the Chief’s rough voice sounded like a thunder. – It only shows a lack of discipline and acting against the rules, both by you and your men. Nothing more, nothing less! Congratulations. Good job!

– But War...

– No buts! That’s it! – he almost screamed, cutting him short. – You made a reprehensible mistake! Right now you’re free, so please carry out your routine tasks. The consequences will be drawn out later!

The guard vigorously turned on his heel. Leaving the room, he felt on his back the stern, piercing look of the furious warden.

– In ten minutes I’d like you to bring me a cup of strong coffee, the runaway’s files and do check in about the actions you’ve undertaken.

– Yes, sir! – the other man replied officially.

A fine aroma of brewed coffee wafted in the air. A secretary standing by the desk reported to the Almighty, while giving him a gray folder:

– The Provincial Headquarters have been notified. The local police stations within thirty five miles have fortified their road inspections. We’ve faxed the wanted’s image, each police officer in our province has it. We’ve also added a psychological portrait. If we don’t manage to catch him within forty-eight hours, we’ll be forced to give a standard announcement to the local press, radio and television.

The gray A4 folder, laying on a shiny top of the desk, included all that related to or might have related to the man who was today’s hero of the day. A longer while had gone by before the Chief reached for the files, at that moment realizing that his secretary was still there next to him.

– I’m sorry, I wandered off. You may go.

– Affirmative.

– Right, if something comes up, notify me immediately.

– Affirmative.

The door shut with a subtle click. “Affirmative! Affirmative!” – he echoed in his mind. “Where the hell did he learn that »affirmative«?! Affirmative this, affirmative that...goddamn it. Affirmative my ass.”

He opened the folder. The photograph placed on the first page showed the face of a young man with no expression whatsoever. An ordinary, normal face, low forehead, dark blond hair, dark eyelashes around gray eyes. The face of fifteen thousand men around the age of thirty. The warden stared astutely for almost five minutes at the color photograph. The eyes. Yes, that was it – the eyes. There was something in them – that something. Something that’s hard to put a finger on, something... strange. Some sort of coldness radiated from them, some dark secret.

He started reading. Unhurriedly, he followed with his eyes the rows of sentences. “Benedykt Jozef SKOCZYNSKI, nickname BEN or BENEK”. “Well, maybe not too original” – he thought – “but it’s always better than Shorty or Bubba”. For accuracy’s sake, it should have said: artistic nickname. That would have been more suitable as Ben was a real master of cutthroat crafts. He had abundant experience just for one man. Hardly any old offender could boast as stormy a criminal past. Starting with petty theft and burglaries (in his teens), through brawls, fights and disturbances of all kinds, to serious assaults and robberies. It was more than obvious that the justice system had an almost magnetic effect on him. It pulled Benek at every corner, at any time of day and night, wherever he was. Whenever he showed up, there was serious trouble. He was often present in courtrooms, mostly as the leading star. You gotta say – the boy had persistence and character. He did stints one by one. A fascinating continuity. Somehow this grand re-socialization couldn’t get him around. Not one bit. Well, when a criminal nature and a peculiar hobby have the upper hand over reason, then… But the day came and our toyboy scored twelve years. That was three years ago, and to be precise three years, seven months and sixteen days. Just bad luck. Or maybe destiny or God’s punishment? Ben aka Benek really met the wrong kind of people in that dodgy time. Amateurs, bunglers. This is what brought poor luck to him, which a judge later measured off with a lapse of twelve years’ penance. Armed robbery, theft, arson, mutilation. The offenses went on and on. Because of his rich history he couldn’t plead for a more lenient sentence. In the twenty-seventh year of his miserable life he got twelve long years in prison in Strzelce Opolskie.

The warden went through the file’s content twice. “Tragic” – he thought – “to flush your life down the drain this way. How do you become someone like that? How? Where do you go from there? What do you aim in life? Crystal, 100 percent pathology. Tragic”.

Chief rested his neck in his interlaced fingers, stretched out his body comfortably in the armchair and stared at a white wall above the door. He sat like this for a longer while, then glanced once more at the files. Opened the page where psychology experts had drawn up his so called psychology portrait. He browsed through some excerpts – “...aggressive, impulsive... his erratic behavior can jeopardize others...treating violence as a basic response... mental illness is definitely out of the question, has a complete control over his actions… ”.

After that there was only some typically medical jargon.

The prison’s staff gossiped like crazy. Everyone was taken by this scandal, finally something was happening. Never mind the problem that arose, what counted was that something had blown up this morbid monotony of everyday life into shreds. The news was swirling within the walls like a boomerang. Someone added a word here, somebody else three words there. The penitentiary was on fire.

*

Ben came round. He opened his eyes and saw birch leaves dancing against the sky, swayed by the wind’s gentle moves. The first thought that boiled in his mind was: “I NEED TO DRINK! A year’s life for a glass of beer!”. The sun rays gently caressed the bare parts of his body. It was awfully hot. Single puffs of white clouds were slowly drifting in the sky. Way up he noticed a silhouette of a plane, from down there it seemed smaller than a pinhead. The silvery machine left behind a trail of hot air. “This is real freedom!” – he thought, for a second envying the pilot this real solitude in the boundless skies. He lay stretched out for a few more minutes, ruminating. Time flew by.

He sat up. Looked at his wound. It seemed much better. The sun must have healed it nicely as a huge blood clot had been formed. He bent his leg a few times. In a few spots a fresh, soft scab cracked instantaneously and small glossy dots appeared there, glistening with bloody slime.

“I wonder what time it is?” – crossed his mind. “And I wonder if they put two and two together? I guess so, what’s gonna happen to me when they get me? The hell with them! It was worth it! It was worth it if only for those few moment alone in the woods. For the remaining nine years I’d be bouncing off the walls... Anyway, what do I have to lose?! It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be, as the old slyboots say. Fuck it!”.

He got up. His mind was working fine now, he already knew what to do. He looked up again. Considered the direction. He had to go west, only there could he count on his buddies’ help. If, God willing, he made it to the place he had in mind, there was a big chance of success. “OK, let’s cut the crap! Time to go!”.

He slowly moved ahead, sinking into the woods. It was terribly hot. To a large extent the trees’ branches prevented the sun rays from entering. He walked at a pace he could afford right now. To run was just a fancy dream. Still every step brought immense pain to his leg. Visibly limping, he hiked restlessly.

When everything around is green-brown, it’s easy to lose a grasp of directions, and walking for the sake of walking didn’t make any sense right now. He made sure that he was advancing in the right direction all the time. His mouth felt dry, he could taste his swollen tongue sticking to his palate. From time to time he picked a leaf and tried to chew on it. The thirst burned like fire. Suddenly, he halted, held his breath and pricked his ears. The sound was getting closer. A train! Somewhere around here! The wheels’ clatter rushed by some five, maybe six hundred yards ahead. A railway route ran in the middle of this bloody forest! “Dear God, thank you!”. He smiled under his breath, swung his hand as if in a you-can-only-die-once gesture, and limping, he started ahead. To meet the unknown.

After a few minutes he spotted in the green the metal threads of tracks glistening in the sun. It seemed that he either had gotten lost and swept a wide semicircle, or the rails somehow curved a little to the left on the way. He could only hope it was the latter.

Hidden in the thicket, he walked stealthily along the embankment. At least an hour passed before he heard the familiar thud for the second time. The train was going in the same direction as Ben. He skulked in the shadow of branchy bushes and waited. A green locomotive pulled a long string of tankers. It was going slowly, and a rhythmic clutter of the wheels pierced the forest’s stillness. When a third of the rolling-stocks had gone past the spot where he was standing, he took that chance right away. He sprung from the bushes and limping, got on the embankment. Another car was approaching. With a swift move, Benek grabbed a metal railing separating the cars and deftly jumped on, positioning his body in the right spot. It took only a couple of seconds and you could have guessed that this man had been practicing the art of hopping speeding trains all his life. The tankers are made so that there are guard-railed landings at their ends, no one knows why, but now they were a blessing. Thanks to that facility, Ben could have a good look to the left and right of the depot and keep control over the changing landscape. Until now, as far as he could see, both to the left and right, there was nothing but woods. “It’s good, it’s all good. I am a lucky bastard after all!” – he thought pleased with how things turned out.

After around fifteen minutes of a carefree ride the green thicket started to recede with each yard, until it stopped short altogether. Farmland appeared, sprawling up to the horizon. On the far right he caught a glimpse of the emerging tops of rural buildings. When the moving depot leveled with them, with a feline dexterity, he jumped off running and softly hit the ground among the wheat spikes.

*

A burgundy Volvo raced at a full speed along the bypass, skipping the center of Lubliniec. The driver ran the vehicle with polished practice. He was pushing for Opole.

The clouds’ somber onset coming from the east carried the element of a storm. Murky sounds of thunder reached from afar, gusty wind charged with full force and mercilessly jerked the trees’ boughs in all directions. The first raindrops splashed on the truck’s windshield just before the town of Dobrodzien. Every second the asphalt road shone more with blackness. It seemed as if the monstrous storm chased the speeding car. The wipers cleared the rain off the windshield, making it harder to see. The driver held the black rim tightly, at the same time slamming the gas pedal all the way. The engine roared like an enraged beast.

*

Ben squatted down by a fence at the back of a homestead located on the village’s outskirts. Hidden in the shadows of fruit trees, he anxiously inspected the terrain. In the yard just behind the fence, some ropes spread across the trees were heavy with a load of airing laundry. He didn’t notice any movement in the part of the courtyard visible from that spot. It seemed that all the livestock was locked up, and the owners were gone. “What about the dog?”. He took his chance. With one leap he jumped over the wooden fence, ran towards the laundry, and with an energetic gesture grabbed the hanging pants, a shirt, and a cotton diaper, then he immediately turned back. He hurriedly started to take off his prison rags. Suddenly he heard the whirr of an approaching tractor. It was being driven by an elderly man. He was just five yards away to Ben’s left and was slowly disappearing towards the wheat fields.

The clothes were still a little damp. He used the diaper to dress the wound. The navy blue jeans fit him perfectly lengthwise, though they were a little tight in the waist. He masked that tiny drawback with a red-and-black checkered flannel shirt he let out. Kneeling by the fence, he folded the gray, torn dungarees into a cube and stuck it under his pit. He went out on the village road. With a slight limp, he walked calmly past the last houses. A corner was near. Every now and then he glanced back discreetly to see the disappearing village. He reached an intersection. The road to the left led to Izbicko. He knew more or less where that was.

Looking like a seasonal worker, lightly hunched, he strolled on the side of the road. Little rocks, gravel and sand gave out a peculiar gnash under the sole of his shoes. The village was left somewhere behind the bend. He didn’t even pay attention to its name. Maybe because he didn’t feel very safe yet.

He looked at the fields of colorful, fragrant crops, whose ears rippled like the sea with each gust of wind. Snow-white swirls of clouds floated across the azure sky, now and then the sun would hide in their shades. It was awfully sultry, dry and warm wind blew jauntily, there was something in the air, something wet.

“It’s good, it’s all good” – he comforted himself in his mind. “But what next? If only I could get to Klodzko. Yeah, yeah, but how the hell am I gonna get to Klodzko?! Goddamn it, I have to make it now! I do! There’s no other way”. Klodzko was a real pass to freedom. He had buddies there, friends from the clink, they’d help him. That’s the unwritten law in the underworld. Besides, they owed him, ancient times, but if need be, he’d freshen their memories.

That moment he heard the rattle of a car approaching from behind. He halted. Outreached his hand in a typical hitchhiking gesture. The impeding Golf slowed down. The driver inspected the man in a flannel shirt, and after a few yards he stopped the car.

Ben, limping, ran up towards the car. The road was clear all the way. Opening the door, he noticed that the driver was still a boy. He couldn’t be more than eighteen. What happened next lasted only a few seconds. An animal instinct took over.

The clenched, right fist of Benedykt landed with great force in the middle of the youngster’s face. This one, unexpected blow was quite enough for the vehicle’s owner to black out. Just in case, only as a preventative measure, Ben grabbed a handful of the boy’s occipital hair and banged his face forcibly against the steering wheel. A gush of blood from his nose and mouth spattered the dash-board. The car’s idling engine whirred steadily. The assaulter quickly circled the car, opened the door and dragged the inert body out. He pulled it up to the shoulder and hurled it in a nearby ditch like a sack of potatoes. He leaned over the unconscious man and started searching his pockets. He found some documents and a wallet with money. He was about to get in the car and drive away, when he heard a quiet moan. He ran over to the ditch. In the bloody face of the young man he saw open eyes, which were full of utter surprise, fear and a plea for mercy. Standing astride over the lying figure, Benedykt Skoczynski, without a second’s thought, lifted his right, hurting leg and with full force landed his heel in the middle of the boy’s face. Due to the crashing blow there was a hollow snap of breaking nose bones. Their sharp splinters must have punctured the sockets and softly sank in the brain pulp. The stroke was lethal.

Ben jumped in the car, flung his prison gear on the passenger seat, shifted to first gear and stared abruptly. The sun peeped out from behind the clouds, a fiery symbol of life. The raving wind, the freest and the most immortal of all, wrapped the world round with its breath. In short convulsions, the last sparkles of a youth’s life were burning out in the roadside ditch. It’s so easy to kill. A blue Golf, driven by the executioner, darted down the black ribbon of the road towards Izbicko.

*

The burgundy Volvo stood for nearly an hour on the parking lot of a roadside restaurant. The truck’s driver had a satisfying meal and now, drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette, immersed in his thoughts, he was looking out the window. Letting out puffs of smoke, he watched the blue-gray wisps slowly drift over the table, disappearing into the air. “Human life” – he thought – “is like cigarette smoke, just as faint. Man shows up, develops, grows, lasts, until one day, suddenly, bam! – dies just like that. The body goes underground, exists there for awhile, then starts to decompose, rots and… vanishes. But however you look at it, it still exists, it is somewhere, though in a different, slightly smaller form. It’s the same with smoke. It vanishes into the air, disappears, you can’t smell it, you can’t see it, but it’s still there. So instead of saying: »I’m livin’ it«, you should rather say: »I’m smokin’ it«...”.

It was raining cats and dogs. Dark, wooly clouds rushed grimly above the ground. The wind was going crazy, orchestrating its mad symphony. That was only the beginning.

The driver took the last sip of his coffee. The cup’s bottom was covered with black grounds. He ordered the same again. “You call this coffee?!” – flashed through his mind, when he stared at the steamy wisps of the pitch-black drink. “They used to make real coffee. Not that dishwater like now”. He lit another cigarette. His thoughts wandered around without any purpose. He pondered over everything and nothing, he reflected about life and death, went back in his mind.

“I like my job” – he admitted to himself. “It fits my needs. I know quite a few fellas that would like to wear my shoes, quite a few. That’s a sure thing. A mission inspired by Lord’s grace. Praise be to Him! When did it all start? I can’t say exactly now. Ages ago, bloody ages. Some memories are starting to get mixed up, memory fails, but who’d remember it all...”.

He was sitting comfortably, smiling to himself at the thought of some more interesting events from the past. When he was killing his second coffee, the air got torn by a dreadful thunderclap. A bright flash and a simultaneous horrendous peal were a sign that it was time to go. He glanced at a clock hanging over the counter. It was three thirty. “The magical hour has struck. Time to go”.

He settled cozily behind the wheel, started the engine and pulled out. After a few minutes he had the pedal to the metal.

The rain was pelting down. Behind the truck, a spattering trail of sand, gravel and rocks tousled from the wet road’s surface and intermingled with water drops, scudded under the wheels’ momentum. The cab’s interior blasted with the roar of loud sounds of depressing music, spat out from forty-watt speakers. Outside blue and gray clouds spread out to the horizon were chased by the raging storm. Roaring thunderbolts pierced the dark sky like monstrous flares of camera flashes. In the element’s epicenter, the russet Volvo hurtled down the middle of an empty road leading to Opole.

*

Benedykt glanced at a clock located on the dash-board. It was past three thirty. In his mind he cursed all living things, because he’d been stuck for over fifteen minutes in a never-ending line of cars, torpidly crawling through the center of Opole. He forced the right of way at the nearest crossing and turned right. He caught the lights, then forked off to the left and parked just behind a yellow van. He reached for a plastic bag at the back seat, put the prison dungarees inside, browsed through the stolen documents and wallet. He found almost three hundred zloty. He put the money in his pants’ pockets, and threw the leather case in the plastic bag. He got out, locked the vehicle’s door, started ahead and got rid of the bulging bag on his way.

Hunger was pestering him, after all he hadn’t had anything to eat since morning. A shrunk stomach demanded some liquids and food. Walking by a market, he popped in the nearest bar. He had a sizable portion of grilled sausage, flushing it down with a local microbrew. He savored the golden drink, thinking about how he hadn’t tasted that great flavor in many months. He ordered one more beer.

Time was pressing. On his way to the parked car, he visited a pharmacy. He got bandages and a bottle of iodine.

Walking down the street, he noticed municipal police officers next to the Golf.

– Holy fuck! – he nervously grumbled out through clenched teeth.

The car had a clamp on the back wheel, the patrol were jotting something down in their notepads. Only now did he spot the no parking sign, under which there was a note: “With the exception of the Establishment of the Residential and Municipal Administration, Downtown, Opole”. Automatically he made a turn back and took the nearest street.

Slowly, without hurry, immersed in the crowd, he walked down the promenade towards the bus station. He strolled and thought. Thought. Thought…He went past a mall’s widely open door. He bought a loose navy blue nylon track suit, a large t-shirt, a pair of socks, sandals and the cheapest travel bag. In the man’s toilet booth, located on the first floor of the pavilion, he dumped the stolen clothes and tossed them in the bag. He rinsed the wound thoroughly, disinfected it with iodine and dressed it properly. Finally, he looked and felt fine.

“Now it’s easy breezy, all I need to do is buy a ticket and adios!” – he thought, looking at the station’s building. “He’s leavin’, leavin’, on that midnight train to Georgia...” – he hummed joyfully in his mind.

He was just passing by a taxi stand, when he spotted a police patrol in the corner of his eye. An inexplicable sense of panic seized him. He appeared calm, but his anxious eyes searched for any point of reference. Across the road he saw a large sign showing the city’s map. Controlling his emotions, he tried to gather his thoughts and make some reasonable decision. His head was on fire. “Fuck me! I’m not nearly as shrewd as I thought I was! What’s my problem?! Instead of staying away from places like that, I put myself in this shitty situation! What an idiot! Will they look for me at stations? Of course they will, that’s the first thing. What an asshole! What should I do?! What should I do?! Hit the road! That’s right! Or is it?! Fuck! No, maybe, they’ll just surround the main stations, if they do at all, but I could slip through the smaller ones...”.

The patrol entered the building. After awhile Benedykt was already calm. Hitchhiking. That’s the only reasonable solution. He glanced back one more time to be sure and started in the opposite direction. He stopped at the corner by a kiosk. He bought a car map of Poland. When he was standing at the stop, waiting for a suburban bus, he concluded that it was awfully stuffy. He was sweating. He hadn’t thought about that earlier; he had the impression that he was hot because of fear. He looked up. Grayish tangles of clouds glided westward. “It may rain”. He came back to the kiosk and bought a mackintosh for a few zloty.

After twenty-something minutes of a dreadful ride, he finally reached the outlet of an E-40 route. Standing on a two-lane road’s shoulder, he waved his hand energetically to get a ride. Cars of all kinds of marks flew by.

A dark brown Opel pulled over. There were two men inside.

– Good afternoon – he said. – Perhaps you’re heading for Nysa?

– No, not exactly – replied the passenger next to the driver. – We’re pushing for Wroclaw. But hop in, you can pop out at the junction.

He didn’t even have time to settle comfortably, when the driver started with a screech of the tires and momentarily reached a speed prohibited on that section of the road. After about fifteen minutes, Benedykt thanked the two strangers politely. Getting out, he peeked at the car clock. It was coming up on six.

He crossed the over-pass and minced slowly down the shoulder. Now he felt safe. Far away from the clamor of people and busy streets, self-confidence returned like a pleasant memory. Although the pain in the leg was bugging him, he marched on persistently. Only when he left behind the last houses, did he appreciate how in an open space the wind was giving vent to its strength. Blowing in all directions, it tugged at the branches of roadside trees and hummed ominously. The sun, tirelessly making its way to the west, played hide and seek behind large, white clouds. A gigantic, dark smudge was gliding from across the way, grimly hovering on the horizon. An unstoppable element was approaching. Time and again, Ben could hear the thumping sounds of thunderbolts. He looked in that direction. The sight of the auburn skies was impressive, almost fantastic. “Hopefully, it’ll go sideways” – he thought with hope and fear.

From time to time, hearing the whirr of an incoming car, he halted and reached out his hand in a characteristic gesture. So far he’d been out of luck, merciless drivers rushed ahead, not paying him any attention.

At the next turn on the side of the road, colorful sheets of fields and meadows sprawled instead of trees. One, maybe two miles ahead the black belt of the highway was embraced by the woods. Ben hastened his step a bit, he wanted to get there as soon as possible, because the wind was starting to be too much. It blew like crazy.

*

The storm started out of the blue, immersing Opole in the jets of pouring rain. Streams of rapid water came down the streets. In no time huge puddles were forming. Every now and then a bright, blinding flash tore out of the russet clouds and almost simultaneously a horrendous peal pierced the air. Rampant wind was overturning cafe umbrellas, linen shop adverts were flapping, jerked by the sudden gusts.

The burgundy truck sped across the Province capital. The driver, agilely maneuvering the vehicle, tried to get to the E-40 broadband road as fast as possible.

Ben was just in the middle of his way to the forest, when nature started presenting its might to the meager world. Because who could possibly stop rain or wind? What human power could do that? The runaway convict paused for a second to put on his mac.

The Volvo approached the intersection at full speed. Getting on the over-pass the car slowed down a bit. The rain jets pelted the cab’s metal roof. The wipers were working at full capacity, but still the visibility was terrible. The storm and the truck hurled at the same speed and in the same direction, as if… they were one.

The highway curved slightly to the left where the stretches of fields ended. There was a spacious rest stop, probably meant for a parking lot.

Although it was still two hours to sun set, grim duskiness reigned this land. The wind howled widely, pouring rain lashed with jets, horrifying bright blue thunderbolts like knives pierced the angry heaven’s leaden depths with a tremendous clap.

Ben shivered with cold. He was about to cut and run to hid in the nearby forest, when he glanced once more over his left shoulder and spied two approaching lights, he took the last chance. Standing in the middle of the parking-like lot, he held out his right tightened hand and a perked up thumb. “Have mercy, man! Take me away from here!” – he yelped in his mind. The Volvo was hurling at a terrible speed.

Suddenly a sedan driving in the opposite direction showed up on the bend. There were two young people inside, a man and a woman. The first one was driving.

Sharp ripples of rain pelted down from the sky, the wind blew with a horrendous force.

The sedan’s passengers noticed a silhouette of the man waiting on the road.

The right indicator of the truck pulsated with an orange light. The whopper was slowing down a bit while approaching the parking lot. The Volvo’s driver gazed at the person getting soaked with a weird smile. A fuming cigarette drooped nonchalantly in the corner of his mouth.

– It’s time, Ben, it’s time... Daddy’s coming for you! – he drawled under his breath.

The truck was drawing near.

– Look, the guy’s in luck – said the man to the woman. She, tossing her head, glanced back. This very moment a fiery glare and a deafening thunder shook the area.

– Oh, my God, no! – the woman’s piercing scream frightened the driver. Panicked, he anxiously slammed on the gas pedal. The car sprang ahead like a bullet, the driver pressed violently on the break and then he lost control over the vehicle. The car swerved sharply, went into a skid, got turned once, twice, the third time and stopped abruptly across the road. By a hair’s breadth they didn’t land in the ditch. The man, trembling with nervousness clenched the wheel’s rim with sweaty hands. The woman was weeping hysterically. They were both looking back with terror at the parking lot thirty yards away.

The burgundy Volvo vanished behind the bend in the jets of pouring rain.

*

– Thanks a lot, man – said Ben, genuinely pleased, clumsily taking off the plastic coat.

– No problem – the driver replied and added in his mind: “That’s what I fucking do”.

He reached for a pack of cigarettes and offered it to the passenger.

– No, thanks, I don’t smoke.

– Where are you headed?

– Where it’s not raining, but specifically to Kudowo, Klodzko, those areas.

– Well, it’s your lucky day, my friend, I’m driving this baby straight to Klodzko.

– Great – replied Benedykt and checked out the tattoo on the driver’s right arm. After awhile he remarked in admiration, ogling the colored beauty: – Nice tat. How much was it?

– Almost two hundred. I like it, too.

Each mile brought a clearer sky. The rain was subsiding. The truck sped, winding on the tires a dry ribbon of the asphalt road. The storm was left somewhere behind. The men had a casual conversation, a small talk typical for the journey.

The engine’s monotonous whirr and the pastoral landscape sprawling around started to have a drowsy effect on Ben. The fiery sphere was slowly approaching the horizon.

The driver glanced at the passenger with a corner of his eye and smirked under his breath. A lightly gaping mouth, closed eyelids and a swaying head were a sign of him being blissfully asleep.

Ben woke up. He felt rested. Vivid neon lamps of a gas station were hurting his corneas. A few yards away he noticed the young driver talking by the gas pumps to a man in the coveralls of a BP employee. He got out of the truck, straightened himself and stretched out lazily like a cat. There were three of them. No cars, no people. Nobody.

– Just a second, we’ll be on our way – said Grzes.

– Sure, take it easy...

The man in blue coveralls gazed at the runaway convict. Their eyes met. “Gosh, don’t you have a face only a mother could love… yak… ” – Ben thought, scanning the stranger’s features, which surely weren’t a sight for sore eyes.

Before too long the Volvo got on the smooth surface of the highway.

– How far is it? – he asked.

– Not too far, soon we’ll get there…

– And where are we now, roughly?

– Closer than we were before – replied the driver, looking weirdly into his eyes.

It made Ben feel uncomfortable. A sort of normal answer, but somehow stupid, and besides, that clown-like look… That discouraged him from any other sort of conversation.

In the dark blue sky tiny specks of stars were glittering. This foreboded a warm and calm night. The highway was straight all the way ahead. Far on the horizon a sanguine glow from the setting sun’s rays shimmered.

The vehicle hurled in the middle of the road, lighting it up with the halogens’ glare. Suddenly in the growing dusk and the headlights’ yellow flux, Ben spied on the right shoulder an old, dilapidated billboard. It hung crooked, only holding on miraculously on one, rusty hook, driven into a crumbly wooden pole. Its letters, discolored from the rain and faded from the sun, stopped being legible a long time ago.

When they were driving past it, something jerked the vehicle violently. The front shock absorbers bent all the way down with the front suspension, and then bounced back ferociously, throwing the cab up.

This moment Benedykt felt some invisible power driving him into the seat with tremendous force. Every inch of his body, each muscle, tendon, the marrow of his bone was pierced with a biting, ice-cold pain. He wrenched his convulsively tightened neck, clenched his teeth and eyelids, and only managed to release the air from his lungs, simultaneously with a heavy, guttural moan. The pain was excruciating, almost beyond human endurance. A total shock took any sort of awareness away from Ben, leaving him only with unearthly agony.

He was slowly regaining his ability to think. He concluded that his body, his own body was refusing even the slightest movement! He felt like a dummy! Some fucking, paralyzed dummy! Only his eyes and mind retained their natural capabilities. It was all utterly terrifying. Somewhere inside his skull a thousand panicking thoughts yelled out: “What happened?! What’s going on?! What’s with my body! What the fuck...?”. When he realized what his eyes were seeing, an explosion of thoughts suddenly died away. Fear and uncanny panic filled in his heart. “Jesus Christ...” – he whispered in his mind.

The truck hurled at full speed. The crimson sky seemed to be on fire. Outside, up to the bounds of the horizon, sprawled a brick-red plain. A soulless, grim waste. Singular skeletons of dry, stunted and deformed trees together with boulders’ dead shadows menaced with their ugliness. The sight reminded a cinematic, nightmarish vision of the Earth after a nuclear cataclysm. It must have been scorching, because whenever you looked, the air was trembling.

With a considerable effort he gazed towards the driver, but what he saw was beyond his wildest dreams. No, it wasn’t the same guy who was sitting behind the wheel a few minutes ago. It… it wasn’t even human! It didn’t have a normal body, but some slimy brown and green shell. Maybe the posture seemed human, but it was actually a repugnant creature.

The quasi-face of this thing looked hideous. A chunk located where a head should have been was torn with ulcers, covered with black and yellow discharge. Out of flared up nostrils oozed gooey mucus. It slowly flowed down a swollen upper lip and in the form of rotund drops and gunk running with thin threads, it dripped down. Deformed, bulging eyes seemed as if they were going to pop out of their sockets. A horridly bloodshot, blistered mouth held a livid-purple tongue inside. The right side of the quasi-face, almost completely devoid of a cheek, was covered with a rusty bristle. A tall, wrinkled old walnut-like forehead turned on the left into an egg-shaped, lamed tumor, starting just above callous eyebrows. The temples, the occiput and the top of the head-like form were covered with long, coppery threads tied back in a pony tail. The monster’s silhouette reminded one of a bodybuilder. A stocky neck proceeded gently into muscled shoulders. The arms and the hands looked as if they had just been taken out of a red-hot stove. Bright orange mucus glistened in narrow slots between the cracked fibers of his body-like mass. The steering wheel seemed like a miniature toy in the hands of the driver.

Moist, bloated stains showed in all the sweating places on Ben’s clothes.

“No, this is not happening! It’s a fucking, ridiculous nightmare!”.

That moment the beast turned it’s head to him and spoke with a voice that rumbled as if it were coming from a deep well:

– Oh, what now? Are you trying to comfort yourself, sucker?! Cheering yourself up with some cuddly thought?! Haven’t you ever heard that you need to pinch yourself to find out?! Hmm?! Never?!

Ben stared at him terror-stricken.

– Are you deaf?! I asked you a question! – the beast roared. – Well, haven’t you heard it before?!

The paralyzed man nodded.

– That’s better. Much better... But you know what? I have a huge, huge heart and, since we’re pals, I’ll do you a favor and help you to understand that everything around you is actually real.

When