by shukyou (主教)
In the dream, she’s always running.
Her bare feet hammer against the forest floor, its hard-packed surface overgrown with pine needles and moss. In the distance, the blast of a hunter’s horn rolls across the heavens like the world is ending. She has no idea what a hunter’s horn sounds like. She grew up in suburbia, in fucking New Jersey, for God’s sake. She knows what a fox hunt for the same reason every other American kid her age does, because they watched The Fox and the Hound when they were in the throes of a childhood Disney frenzy. She bets they don’t do that anymore. Isn’t it illegal now, or something? Because it’s cruel to the fox?
She is the fox now, and she is running. Her legs are nearly black with mud from when she has to dart along the muddy bank of the river. She knows it won’t work, but even as she knows this (because she’s done it again a hundred times, every night since this all began), she splashes thigh-deep into its icy grip. Some stones along the bottom are smooth, so slick she can barely keep her footing against the current; other stones are rough, cutting at the wet flesh of her soles. She needs that not to happen. If her feet bleed, it will be too difficult to run. And she needs to run.
In the distance, the hooves of her pursuers’ horses strike the ground like the blows of a hundred blacksmiths. (She has seen a blacksmith’s shop exactly once, on a class trip to Historic Allaire Village.) Why aren’t they upon her already? She can’t run faster than a horse. Ah, but she can maneuver more quickly, darting beneath branches too low for a rider to clear. That’s why they haven’t caught her yet.
But they will soon, if she can’t cross this river. No, she’s crossed the river already. Or is she thinking of when she crossed it the night before? Her lacy white nightdress (she sleeps in normal pajamas, boxers and a tank top, like a normal person) is soaked nearly to her waist, its tattered hem fluttering as she darts along the bank.
She knows, and does not know how she knows, that the pack of riders chasing her is led by one woman, a tall woman mounted on an elk (just like in those Hobbit movies, and she curses her brain for being a plagiarist), a white-haired queen with eyes like a storm. She does not know why the woman is after her, nor what will happen if the woman catches her. She cannot risk stopping to find out.
Branches of trees whip against her bare arms and legs, cutting sharp lines across her skin that blister and bleed. Tears prickle at the corners of her eyes. She wants to cry, but she cannot waste the energy.
“This way!” shouts a voice she does not recognize. Now that’s new. Or is it? Should she listen to it? Or is it a trap? Do you trap foxes when you hunt them? Or do you just run them ragged and hope your stamina outpaces theirs?
There is a cry from behind her, the ululating sound of a woman’s ecstatic shout. It is joined by hundreds of others — and now they’re beside her as well. They’re closing in. She thought she had a lead on them, but that is a lie she tells herself every goddamn night. She didn’t lose them at the river. She didn’t give them the slip by scrambling down a cliff face too steep for horses’ hooves. She didn’t manage to crawl through brambles too thick for a rider to navigate. She didn’t do any of these things.
“This way!” shouts the voice again. No, she’s heard it before, because every time she hears it, she has this same fight with herself about whether or not it is a trustworthy instruction. Last night she told it to go to hell. Tonight she listens, zagging right in what she thinks is the direction it came from.
It doesn’t matter. They are near. They can close the distance any time they want to. They are guiding her, herding her, pushing her in a direction she cannot resist. She plows ahead in a thoughtless panic, her arms out in front of her to protect her from whatever might lie in her path.
She knows she shouldn’t look back. You never look back. Her fifth-grade unit on Greek mythology taught her how you never look back.
She looks back.
The riders are all but upon her. Glancing through the trees, she can almost make out the figure of the woman on the elk, the leader of this mad chase. The image is distorted through the veils of hanging moss that cling to the low branches. She wants to see more clearly, because a small part of her mind tells her that she’s only afraid because her brain is filling in the gaps with her projected anxieties, and that nothing truly beheld can be feared. She wants to believe this is true even as her foot catches in a tangle of briars, pitching her forward toward what was once the ground but now is a cliff. Her momentum sends her straight over the edge, until there is nowhere to go but down.
“Motherfucker!” she swears in the instant before she hits the ground and wakes up.
“Do you think it, I don’t know, means anything?”
Bless Marci’s crystal-loving heart, she didn’t so much as scoff at Rachel’s question. “Dreams always mean something,” she offered, stirring the berries and yogurt in her smoothie into a uniform sort of grey. “How do you feel when you’re running?”
The day was unseasonably warm for November, so she and Marci had decided to take lunch together in the little park across the street from their office. While the sun did feel nice, the leafless trees kept making her nervous. Every so often she’d catch something out of the corner of her eye, sure it was the elk-riding woman or one of her other pursuers. It never was.
Rachel shrugged, picking at her cold pasta leftovers. “Scared, I guess?” she answered, because that seemed to her how she should feel in a chase situation like that. It seemed easier to explain being scared than it did being confused, or frustrated, or increasingly tired of whatever shit her subconscious was pulling. “I don’t know. Maybe–“
A bright smile popped across Marci’s face, one so sudden that Rachel truly believed for a moment there that her co-worker might have remembered some genius solution to this whole mess. But Marci just opened her purse and rummaged around in it for a moment before extracting a little rectangle. “I just remembered, I got you the card from my Botox guy,” she said, handing it over.
“Oh, right.” Rachel had asked for that, hadn’t she? She took it and was sort of embarrassed by her surprise at how boring it was: plain white typeface on glossy blue cardstock, with some swirls probably meant to represent vitality or perseverance or something. “Thank you.”
“I don’t know if he’s taking new clients now in general, but the receptionist is Shandra, tell her I referred you, and I’m sure she’ll be able to work you in.” Marci was in her early thirties, in the ‘my third twenty-ninth birthday!’ sort of way, and honestly, Rachel couldn’t tell if the Botox guy was any good or not, because she wasn’t sure Marci had any wrinkles to toxin out in the first place.
Seated on the other side of the decade, about to tip into her forties in a few months’ time, Rachel would give him a slightly larger challenge. “Thanks,” she said, sticking it into her wallet. She glanced up at the sky, watching as a few clouds rolled in over the sun. Without its persistent warmth, even a nice November day was chilly. “We should probably get back in.”
Marci nodded and started gathering her things, telling Rachel more about what a fun person Shandra was all the while, how her manicure was always amazing and sometimes involved rhinestone art on a few accent nails. Rachel tried to listen, she really did. But she was distracted by a woman at the edge of the park.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about the woman, except that she was standing by what Rachel assumed was a very nice motorcycle, from what little she knew about them. She wasn’t conspicuously dressed in “biker” wear or anything like that, studded leather or cut-off sleeves or whatever Rachel remembered from the two Sons of Anarchy episodes she’d half-watched. The woman did have on a leather jacket, but it was well-worn and bulky, function over fashion. She also had an equally functional near-buzz of a haircut, leaving her scalp plastered with short silver curls.
She was also looking at Rachel. There wasn’t any sense of ill intent to her observation. She wasn’t staring or making notes, cackling evilly at her new stalker’s knowledge. She didn’t seem to be making a private investigator’s attempts at disguising herself, either. She was just standing there, leaning against her bike, watching Rachel.
Maybe they knew one another from somewhere? One of her exes’ exes’ exes, maybe? Lesbian circles tended to run tight like that, after all, and hold long memories. Rachel raised a hand and gave a little wave, but the woman didn’t react. Great, she probably was looking at something else entirely, and Rachel had just made it weird.
Still, Rachel couldn’t quite get the biker woman out of her head. She did a quick trawl through some of her friends’ Instagram pages, to see if she could find the biker woman among them. Even among the photos of those who hung with slightly older crowds, though, Rachel couldn’t find a picture of someone with quite the right high cheekbones, the broad shoulders, the steely glare. If this woman was a friend of a friend, that friendship had happened out of immediate social media memory.
When Rachel left the building to go home, she found herself holding her breath as she stepped out the front doors, wondering if just maybe the woman might still be there. But of course, four hours later, she’d already long since taken off. The park’s little parking lot now held three cars and a van, and there were no leather jackets to be seen in the vicinity. Rachel was just having weird thoughts again, as weird as the ones that seemed to fuel her weird running dreams. Ignore them and they’d eventually go away.
The apartment was empty when she got back, which was the current state of things. Erin had moved out four months ago, and she hadn’t even really ever moved in; mostly she’d just kept some of her stuff there for a while, and when the last of it had gone, Rachel had known it was over for good. She’d had a cat she brought over with her sometimes, though, a black little soot sprite named Mr. Joe Bangles. Rachel mostly missed the cat.
With a sigh, Rachel flopped down face-first on the couch. It wasn’t even that it had been a particularly hard day at work, so much that all days seemed hard lately, especially when she found herself waking up every morning feeling like her restful sleep had been replaced with running a marathon. She was starting to suspect that she actually had been doing some advanced form of sleepwalking, a kind that involved getting dressed, going out for a multi-mile jog, and then hiding the evidence so spotlessly that her waking life would never know. But no, her fitness-tracking app showed that her nights were uneventful, if somewhat restless — just not the kind of restless that indicated full-on midnight exercise.
Maybe she should see a doctor about it. Or maybe she should order pizza about it. Both seemed equally valid lifestyle choices.
Rachel woke around 11:30 to realize that she’d fallen asleep on the couch mid-movie. Noises of multi-story living buzzed and thumped from outside the walls, but inside her apartment, everything was still. Her spine cracked as she straightened up from the strange, twisted position she’d slumped into mid-doze. She needed more sleep.
Sleep, though, would mean the running dream. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d really woken up rested. Maybe this was more of a physiological problem. Maybe she needed to cut caffeine out of her diet. Maybe she needed to do a sleep study. Maybe she had a brain tumor. In the middle of the night, in an apartment lit only by the soft glow of Netflix’s ‘You might also like…’ suggestion screen, all theories seemed equally plausible.
Fine, fine. She couldn’t just sleep on the couch in front of the television like her grandpa; her lower back would never forgive her. She hauled herself up and into the bedroom, where she very adultingly managed to brush her teeth and change into pajamas before falling into bed. Maybe she’d be so tired that she’d just shut her eyes and open them again come morning, with nothing in-between. That would be nice.
Of course that’s not what happens.
When Rachel was in her mid-twenties, her father had gone in to get some severe back pain looked at and returned with a stage four pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Rachel had been horrified to learn that he’d been experiencing strange symptoms for two years, but had just never managed to convince himself it was enough of a bother to worry telling a doctor about. She’d been baffled by the very idea that someone could have something so obviously wrong with them but not think it was worth at least mentioning.
Now she was starting to understand. How would she even start to explain things? She was sure that ‘I’ve been having freaky dreams’ didn’t rate high on any medical emergency checklist. At best, she might be able to hope for a prescription for something relaxing. Maybe Valium? Did anybody prescribe Valium anymore? Xanax? Medical marijuana? Not watching scary movies before bed? She felt like Scrooge, trying to rationalize Jacob Marley away. Maybe that explained the persistence of billionaires, that all the modern misers had access to so much moden medicine that they could avoid any ghost-fueled changes of heart.
She let these thoughts run around in her head mostly as amusing diversions. She did not go see a doctor.
She did, however, begin to hear hoofbeats on the train. Her first thought was that her brain had just fallen into the rhythm of the car’s wheels over the rails, so she turned up her music and jammed her earbuds in tighter. That didn’t make the sound go away, though; if anything, having her ears plugged just seemed to make the hoofbeats resonate inside her skull. She switched music stations, trying something ambient and percussion-less instead. It was no good. The beat operated independent of any musical rhythm, rising and falling without regard for its accompaniment. It sped up as the train picked up speed, then slowed as the cars pulled into their various stations. There, she said to herself, it had to be the wheels, plus her own fevered, exhausted imagination. It wasn’t anything at all.
Then she began to see things from the windows as she traveled. She came into work from far enough away that by December, she had to leave her building for her train stop before dawn, and didn’t arrive back until after well after sunset. She liked to find a seat at the window and watch the world go by. Even if urban-to-suburban gradient landscape wasn’t the prettiest scenery, it was still a nice window into the lives of all the other people out there. She’d always been a people-watcher at heart, and even when traveling after dark, the train provided that in spades.
Then she saw the woman waiting for the crosswalk, standing just under the streetlamp as the train rocked on by. Rachel caught only a glimpse of her, one so fleeting that she dismissed it almost immediately as a figment of her imagination, a trick of the light. But for a moment, on the corner of a perfectly ordinary street, she would have sworn there was a woman dressed in what looked to be a medieval hunter’s garb, a bow taller than she was in one hand, staring right at the train as it rattled on by.
She might have put it out of her mind entirely if two days later, she hadn’t seen what should have been a perfectly ordinary woman walking two dogs in the pink light of the early morning. Except she wasn’t a perfectly ordinary woman. Her clothes were riding gear, tall black boots and a foxhunt-red jacket. The two dogs strained at their leashes, lunging toward the train as though they could catch it. No one else seemed to notice or comment on her being there, and before Rachel could take a second look, the train was turning on its tracks, leaving the hunter and hounds behind.
And the dreams of course kept coming. Not all of them would end in catastrophes like racing off the edge of a cliff. In some, the river rose high when she was mid-stream, until its ceaseless current carried her away. Other times, she would disturb too many things in the forest while fleeing and get crushed beneath a falling tree or a rockslide. More than once, her ankle got caught in an animal’s burrow, snapping her leg in ways that still ached when she woke up, damn her vivid imagination.
Rachel considered telling Marci about what was happening, and resolved to do so if Marci ever brought it up again. But Marci never did, and Rachel couldn’t really blame her. After all, hearing about someone else’s dreams was already the most mind-numbing thing in the world; only a true glutton for punishment would invite such boredom into their lives.
What Marci did ask about was the Botox, which Rachel said truthfully she was still thinking about. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to do it; it was more that she didn’t want to need it. She wanted to not have the kind of face that made the people who saw it think, wow, now there’s a woman who needs Botox. It was shitty that she couldn’t, and shittier still that she had to care that she couldn’t. She just wanted to be imperceptible to anyone who might judge her. Was that so much to ask?
As she walked along the street from her job to the subway station, every time, Rachel kept her eyes peeled for the woman on the motorcycle. The best she ever got was seeing the occasional rider zoom along beside the rest of the traffic. There was no way to tell who they were, though; beneath their helmets, they could have been anyone.
“This way!” shouts the voice again, and this time, Rachel is surprised to find she can pinpoint its source. Or at least she thinks she can. Either way, she darts to her left, jumping over a fallen branch as she follows the sound. Maybe listening to it is a bad idea, one that will get her killed — but honestly, how will that be different from any other way the dream has ended? At least this may be something different.
As she darts between narrow trees, she hears hoofbeats approaching. Of course she hears hoofbeats; the riders pursuing her are a percussive storm. But no, these are different somehow. For starters, she can tell them apart from the others, like picking out the flute in an orchestra. For another, they’re coming straight toward her.
The dense thicket gives way to a clearing that Rachel stumbles forth into, gasping as she sees a large iron-grey horse approaching. Its rider sits atop it, looking commanding from her high perch in her black riding leathers. She pushes the hood of her cloak back to reveal–
“You’re the motorcycle woman,” Rachel says, half-startled that her subconscious decided to include that little detail. Well, Rachel supposed she’d been thinking about the woman a lot, so it made sense for her dreaming brain to weave those thoughts into its tapestry.
The motorcycle woman nods and leans down from her mount, extending her gloved hand. “More or less,” she says. Her accent is astonishing, some combination of musical vowels that Rachel thinks she’s heard on television somewhere before. Maybe Vikings? Talulah, Erin’s most immediate live-in predecessor, had loved that show, but she was also into that unwashed hipster look, and Rachel knows there’s no accounting for taste. Anyway, the motorcycle woman doesn’t look like she belongs on Vikings. With her close-shorn hair and her neck-to-toe leather outfit, she doesn’t look like she belongs anywhere at all, really.
Rachel looks at her hand, then glances behind her, toward the approaching hoofbeats. It’s strange to stand still, even for a moment. “Do I go with you?” she asks the woman.
The woman shrugs, looking beyond Rachel to the dark forest. “Or stay,” she says, again extending her hand. “Your choice.”
No choice at all, really. Rachel puts her hand in the woman’s and is immediately hauled up off her feet, into the air by limbs impossibly strong. Rachel feels herself tossed almost like a rag doll up into the saddle, until she finds herself seated in front of the woman. The saddle’s seat is just big enough for both of them to fit, with Rachel’s butt tucked tightly between the soft leather of the woman’s thighs. Rachel grabs the saddle horn for dear life as the woman gets one arm around Rachel’s waist. With the reins held tight in her other fist, she gives the horse a kick in its sides. The large, powerful animal begins to run with a thundering pace, its powerful strides keeping them ahead of the pursuit.
The woman seemed on the smaller side when Rachel saw her by her bicycle, but she’s tall enough to look over the top of Rachel’s head now as they ride, and Rachel isn’t short. Beneath them, the horse bucks and strains as it runs, seeming not to tire. Ahead they race as the forest closes in around them again.
Safe enough now for the moment, Rachel tries to catch her breath. “Who are you?” she shouts over the hammering of hooves.
The woman chuckles. “Kára,” she says. For some reason, Rachel can hear the accent over the first a, even though the way Kára says it, it doesn’t sound like her name should be spelled with English letters at all. “For now, anyway.”
“Why am I dreaming this?” Rachel calls back over her shoulder. She figured that as long as she’s got the attention of someone who seems to know what the hell is going on around here, she might as well make a play for some answers. Even if she’s really just talking to herself, because of course dreams don’t come from anywhere except inside the dreamer’s own head.
Kára’s laugh is musical and kind, but Rachel still can’t shake the feeling that she’s being made fun of somehow. “You think you’re dreaming,” Kára says. Even though Rachel feels herself shouting her throat raw to be heard over the noise of running horses, Kára speaks as though they’re having a conversation over coffee, yet every one of her words is clear to Rachel’s ears. “When really, you’re just waking up.”
Well, that’s just great, Rachel thinks with a scowl. Leave it to her own fucking subconscious to be full of unhelpful cryptic bullshit.
“It’s not bullshit,” Kára said. Great, so she can read Rachel’s mind now? “No,” Kára adds, her smug smile audible in her words, “I just know what you’re thinking.” That doesn’t make sense. What was even the difference? “There’s a great difference. You think I’m picking what you’re thinking out of your head. I don’t have to. I know it already. I’ve thought it too.”
Christ, Rachel knows she’s always been a tiny bit pretentious, but this is getting out of hand. “Is this a metaphor or something?” Rachel asks, trying to remember the English-class literary interpretation skills she’d crammed for the SAT and promptly forgotten afterward. That’s the right word, right? A simile uses like or as, and she sure as hell doesn’t like or as this situation at all.
“It’s the thing that you’re a metaphor for,” Kára tells her, which is somehow the most ridiculous bullshit thing she’s said yet. It slides straight on into horseshit, considering their ride. “But you can’t fight it, or it’ll run you down.”
Running her down is what it seems to be doing already, with no help from Rachel at all, metaphorical or otherwise. The pounding of the horse’s stride jars her every time the hooves strike the earth — isn’t this what saddles have stirrups for? like she even knows, she’s never ridden a horse in her whole waking life — and the only way she can wrap her head the sensation is to think that it’s knocking her teeth loose. No, it’s knocking all of her bones loose. The thunderous rhythm of the ride is somehow loosening the connective tissues of her whole body, blow by blow. She is filled with the sudden knowledge that the longer she rides, the less she’ll be able to hold herself together.
Kára nods, her cheek nuzzling Rachel’s wind-swept curls as she does. “You’re starting to understand,” Kára says. The hand on Rachel’s belly, the one not gripping tight to the reins, begins to slide up Rachel’s torso, up to her chest. Kára’s fingers are strong; they have to be, to keep a horse like this in line. They brush across the bud of one of Rachel’s nipples, which Rachel is shocked to find are already erect, standing in stark relief through the thin fabric of her dream-garment. Two of those beautiful strong fingers catch Rachel’s nipple between them, pinching it lightly in a way that makes Rachel moan.
As Kára touches her, Rachel becomes even more keenly aware of the pounding animal between her legs. She’s pushed up far enough in the saddle that not only is she gripping the saddle horn, but its hard leather rise has begun to rub against her clit every time she rises and falls. She’s not wearing any dream-underwear beneath her nightgown, meaning that the saddle is getting positively soaked. Kára only grins as Rachel realizes this, though, tugging a little harder at Rachel’s nipple. Rachel has slept with a couple people with pierced nipples, and every time she found herself wishing quietly that she didn’t already feel too old, too uncool for such a change. Now, though, she can’t help wondering if having them pierced, even just running little hoops through that no one outside her clothes would ever know about, would make her feel like Kára was touching her all the time. Or would make her feel like she’s worth being touched all the time.
No. Something about this thought is wrong — or, rather, something about this thought is so right that it makes everything else seem wrong. What the hell is she doing? Getting felt up on horseback? Dreaming of having her thighs spread? That isn’t something she gets to do. She’s long past the point in her life where she got to do shit like this, if indeed she ever even was there in the first place. It’s ridiculous. It’s terrible. She has to stop. Now.
Panicky, Rachel claws at Kára, pushing her away with such force that Kára shifts back hard in the saddle. That sudden motion causes the horse to snap hard to the side, then to rear up on its hind legs. Kára, the experienced rider, holds her place, but Rachel is thrown from its back, down the impossibly far distance to the ground. She hears the distant hoofbeats of the other riders, tireless, relentless in their pursuit. Then she doesn’t hear anything at all.
Rachel’s eyes snapped open, her heart pounding. What the fuck was that?
She needed to get out more. She needed to see people, maybe start dating again. How did anybody do that these days? Was there Grindr for lesbians? Sure, Rachel would just get on there and fill out her profile: Almost 40, never married, no children or pets. Job and hobbies unremarkable. If you are a very specific woman with a motorcycle and/or horse, message me. Yes, surely this was a foolproof plan.
The strange people became a more frequent occurrence. She saw at best maybe two a day, and never in the same or even predictable places, so she couldn’t even prepare herself. Instead, they flickered in from the corners of her vision, or passed at speeds to quick for Rachel to do a double-take.
Some of them quickly turned out to be obviously her imagination. For instance, she thought she saw one once perched atop a streetlight, perching like the falcon it had gripping one of its gloved hands. But by the time Rachel turned to really look, she could see that it was just one of the city’s tinsel holiday decorations, waiting until sundown when it would light up with festive cheer; a bird had indeed landed on one of its flatter surfaces, but it was a pigeon or some other city bird, not a raptor.
The others, though, did not disappear into more explicable phenomena. There were two together, standing side by side on a station platform that the express train zipped right on by, their ankle-length cloaks whipping in the train’s breezy wake. One was behind Rachel every time she glanced over her shoulder for at least a block. Others stood half-hidden by parked cars and public art, always on the far side of the street, always when Rachel was in too much of a hurry to stop. Trains and jobs didn’t wait for paranoid delusions, after all.
And yet, they felt so real that Rachel had dreams of confronting them, of walking right up to one and grabbing her by the shoulder and asking what the hell they wanted, why they couldn’t all just leave Rachel alone. In her mind, the confrontations were cinematic; there was even a swelling orchestral soundtrack behind her adding to the drama. In real life, she knew she’d never be able to approach a total stranger like that. She sometimes heard stories, especially from the older dykes, about getting accosted in public for butch haircuts or not wearing makeup or other violations of the social contract surrounding femininity. Rachel couldn’t imagine being one of those people who would bother a stranger in order to let them know she didn’t like their shaved head.
She knew that lack of assertiveness didn’t suit her well at her job, either, because she’d been to so many luncheons sponsored by women’s professional networks, where bright-suited women with powerful TV hairdos told all the women in the room they had to Lean In! They had to stand up and take what was theirs! They had to speak up for themselves in the boardroom! They had to shatter those glass ceilings! Rachel mostly went for the free food and the vain hope that someone in the room might send her Lesbian Eye Signals. No one ever did.
But Rachel wasn’t the type to Lean In, and she wasn’t the type to grab a stranger on a train platform to ask, excuse me, are you and perhaps several of your friends stalking me? So she looked straight ahead when she traveled and learned to keep her eyes down at the sidewalk or glued to her phone. If she couldn’t quiet her paranoia, she’d cut it off at the root.
The thought that she was going crazy crossed her mind several times. She dismissed it by reasoning that if she knew she were going crazy, then she wouldn’t be going crazy, right? Wasn’t that how it worked? She refused to do even a single Google search to confirm whether or not that was how it worked.
Instead, she stood in front of the mirror and bundled up all her long, curly brown hair in a ponytail. Maybe she should cut it all short, or even shave her head. She had scissors, and even a cheap pair of clippers under the sink, left over from college or something around then, brought with her through move after move because who threw away a perfectly good pair of clippers? Right now, no waiting. Ten minutes and it’d all be gone.
She sighed and let it fall around her shoulders again. No, then she’d just be herself, but with a bad haircut.
Rachel went to her window that overlooked the street below and sat beside it, watching the people pass by. Her eyes searched them for any sign of her strange … stalkers? pursuers? Well, whatever they were, none of them were there now. There were only average people, going about their business on a long winter’s evening.
If anything, Rachel’s main piece of evidence that she was crazy was, really, who the hell had the free time to dress up and go creep on a stranger? Who would coordinate all of it? If there was one thing Rachel knew from managing teams in an office setting, it was that putting together what was happening to her would be a logistical nightmare. She couldn’t even imagine the spreadsheet they’d have to make to organize it. All things being equal, the simplest explanation was that she was just making shit up.
Then an engine roar from a nearby intersection caught Rachel’s attention. She leaned as close to the glass as she could to see, but her breath fogged the cold pane instantly. Frowning, she scrubbed at the condensation with her sleeve and managed to clean it away just in time to see a motorcycle roll on down the street, its rider padded with heavy leather and hidden beneath a solid black helmet.
It wasn’t Kára. That would have been ridiculous. Kára was in her dreams. Hell, Rachel probably hadn’t even actually seen her that day at the park; she’d probably been imagining things already, before having any reason to question the world around her. Or she had seen a woman, and her subconscious had seized upon that for its raw creative material. Nobody else she imagined among the strange people looked like anyone else she’d ever seen in real life, but hey, there had to be an exception to everything, didn’t there?
Maybe Rachel should get a motorcycle. At least that way, if she was still herself afterwards, she’d be herself with a motorcycle. That’d be kind of cool.
With one hand, Kára always grips the reins. With the other, she pushes up the hem of Rachel’s nightgown, baring her thighs. Her hands are covered in the softest leather gloves Rachel has ever felt. They slip down beneath the lips of her pussy, pushing them back to get on either side of Rachel’s clit.
Rachel moans as she leans back against Kára. One of her hands grasps the saddlehorn for dear life; the other reaches back around Kára’s neck, clutching at the hood of Kára’s cloak for purchase. She knows that she should probably be more careful with her balance and supporting her own weight — they are, after all, atop a racing horse, and the terrain beneath them is hardly even, to say nothing of how she knows exactly how un-fun it is to fall from such a height. Yet Kára is as steady as stone, holding them both in place.
The pounding between Rachel’s thighs makes the sensations around her clit jolt through her whole body. Kára doesn’t even have to move her fingers much; she holds them in place as the driving force of the horse’s racing gait shoots the sensations right through Rachel’s whole body, setting her nerves alight. Rachel’s never particularly been one for getting penetrated, at least not on the regular, but she’s starting to see the appeal of losing herself in the sensation of the ride.
Was she even running before she got her? She can’t remember where the dream began. Are her feet muddy and scratched from the brambles of the forest floor? Or has she always been riding this horse, safe in Kára’s arms as they flee from whatever’s behind them? (And whatever’s behind them is still behind them, that much Rachel can tell even without turning around.) It’s too hard of a question to concentrate on as one of Kára’s fingers slips even farther back between her legs, teasing the damp folds of skin.
Kára’s body is practically armored in her riding leathers, especially compared to the flimsy shift Rachel has dressed in. Even so, Rachel can feel the shape of Kára’s body as she presses up against Rachel’s back. Rachel’s ass fits right in the open V of Kára’s legs, until Kára grips Rachel with her thighs as much as she grips the horse. They are as muscular as the rest of her, tight with the great strength it must take to control a mount like that, to say nothing of the ability to finger a partner while sitting on top of it.
This isn’t the first time they’ve done this, Rachel knows, even though she couldn’t say how many times it’s happened before. ‘How many times’ doesn’t even seem to be a concept that maps to what’s going on here. It’s happening because it happens. There aren’t quite enough verb tenses in English to express it. Or if there are, she doesn’t know them.
Rachel moans as Kára bends her head down and presses her lips just behind Rachel’s ear. Rachel gasps and clenches her knuckles so tight around the saddlehorn they almost begin to hurt. Nothing that should hurt here does, though. What should be pain instead becomes part of the landscape.
Kára’s gloved thumb continues to rub at the bud of Rachel’s clit even while her other hands slip back farther, deeper. Rachel doesn’t quite know how Kára is managing this particular contortion, but she doesn’t want to think about it too hard, because making sense of it might make it have to stop. Instead, she lets herself melt into the sensation. She has to trust that Kára knows what she’s doing. That’s what she’s done so far.
Gently, Kára leans Rachel back against her even more, sliding her hips forward, then slips one of her fingers inside of Rachel’s pussy. Rachel moans as the riding rhythm drives that finger into her. She reaches for Kára’s thigh for stability, using what leverage she has in the position to lift her hips from the saddle. Kára gets a second finger inside Rachel, holding her hand still as the rhythm of the ride bounces her deeper.
Rachel prides herself on a level of control, especially during sex. She sees no need to get into the kinds of theatrics found in porn, things meant more for show than sincerity. Thus, she knows she should feel a little self-conscious about the fact that she’s moaning obscenely every time Kára’s fingers push their way inside of her. She’s not even making words now, or really making much sense at all. She’s sure she both sounds and looks ridiculous.
Kára, however, doesn’t seem to care. If anything, Kára clearly loves how Rachel looks and sounds like this, for how much she keeps it up. Rachel can practically hear her grin widen every time Rachel makes a new noise. There’s no pretending that Rachel is above any of this, not with how Kára’s fingers are pushing inside of her, spreading her open. Kára’s lips continue to kiss at her neck, then come up to suckle at Rachel’s earlobe, flicking its soft curve with the tip of her tongue. Rachel wonders what it would feel like to have that tongue between her legs, working right along with those fingers, spreading her out and opening her up and giving her what she wants until she can’t pretend anymore that she doesn’t want it.
When she comes, it’s loud, crying out in a way that she’s half-amazed doesn’t startle the horse, even considering everything else they’ve been up to. But like everything else, it makes a strange, dream-logic sense. More than that, she’s … comfortable? Is that the word she wants? Yes, that’s exactly the one. She feels good inside her own skin again. It’s been so long she’s forgotten what it’s like not to be straining against the boundaries of her own life. The encircling force of Kára’s arms, the thundering rhythm of the horse’s gallop, the wind through her hair, even the feel of the earth under her feet — they are supports, not constraints. The dream has become even more familiar to her than her waking life, and in doing so, she has become strange to her waking self.
As she gathers her breath, she realizes that something is different this time. Something is new; something has changed.
It takes her a moment to realize what it is, but as she does, she’s gripped with a singular horror: They’re not running anymore. The horse has slowed barely to a trot and is turning back around. Instead of fleeing their pursuers, Kára has wheeled their mount so that they face one another. Instead of racing for their lives, they come to a standstill at the center of a large clearing.
Before Rachel can even think to panic or start working toward a way out, the trees before her seem to part. The riders filter in around her nearly from all sides, pulling their mounts to a halt just past the treeline. Rachel knows them, even though she’s only ever caught glimpses of them before. They are the faces that have followed her through the waking world these past few months, existing just on the periphery of her vision.
In the center, though, is the woman who has been leading the chase all along. Looking at her, Rachel realizes how mistaken she’s been. The woman isn’t riding an antlered beast; the woman is the antlered beast, mounted astride the tallest silver horse Rachel can even imagine. On either side of her head are two magnificent branching antlers, draped with moss and strands of what look like lace and pearls. She bears her head as though they are nothing, even though Rachel can’t begin to imagine their weight. Everything about her is the same bony pale: her hair, her skin, her eyes.
This is the Erlking, Rachel knows, though she doesn’t know what that word means or why it applies here. She looks ancient and ageless at once, as though she has shed the concept of time, and with it all the color her body might ever have held. As the hooves of all the other horses still around them, Rachel can hear the tinkling of tiny silver chimes strung through pearl strands.
With a strong arm around Rachel’s waist, holding her fast, Kára approaches the Erlking and dips her head in a long, reverent bow. “My liege,” she says. No, that’s not quite right. She says something else; Rachel just understands it as ‘my liege’. The conversation has moved back before the advent of any English Rachel can speak.
Rachel wants to be afraid, knows she should be afraid. She’ll start being afraid any minute now. Just as soon as she can stop staring.
The Erlking shakes her head, causing the leaves to rustle along with her. When she speaks, her lips do not move; her voice is the wind that moves the clouds across the sky: Will you run from us, or will you run with us?
Rachel doesn’t understand the question. Of course she’s going to run from them. They’ve been chasing her, for fuck’s sake. She has no idea what they’ll do to her if they get their hands on her, but she knows it’ll be bad. She knows this because…
Because it has to be bad. Otherwise why would she be running?
And, for that matter, why has Kára, so many nights her accomplice in her escape, suddenly betrayed her so completely to them? Rachel squirms in her suddenly too-tight embrace, turning around to see what Kára has to say for herself. She expects to find Kára either smug with the success of her deception or guilty for having abused Rachel’s trust so cruelly. She doesn’t expect to get waylaid wondering if Kára has always had those feathered wings stretching back from her temples, and Rachel just somehow hasn’t managed to notice up to now.
“Either way, you run,” Kára says to her, bending down to press a warm kiss the center of Rachel’s forehead. Then Rachel wakes up.
They were there the moment she stepped out the front door of her apartment building, standing on the far side of the street: two women, both dressed in cargo pants and heavy boots, both with short white hair. One held the leashes of three hounds that the other was hunkered down to pet, but as soon as Rachel exited the door, they both stopped what they were doing and looked directly at her.
Worse, as she went for the train station, they began to move with her. That had never happened before. She’d glimpsed these figures, but they’d remained in place every time, letting her move on. These two advanced, dogs straining at their leashes, mirroring her movements across the road between them. They weren’t even trying to hide themselves anymore, if they ever had been.
The dream hunt was here. It had spilled over into the waking world. She felt the same sensation wash over her as in the dreams, the oppressive fear that did not explain why or how, only told her that she had to move. Whatever was coming for her, she had to get away from it.
For a moment, she debated the wisdom of hopping on her usual train, since she would be trapped there at least until the next station. It was fast, though, far faster than she could ever be on foot. She held her breath and walked into the throng of fellow riders on the platform as slowly as she dared, letting them form a protective barrier around her. She scanned their faces to make sure, but they were all ordinary-looking commuters, dressed for a day at work, paying her no particular mind. Safe enough, then.
The train was still empty enough that Rachel could grab a seat in the rear-facing seats at the far front of the car, the section at the end with no windows to tempt her. She kept her head down, scrolling through her phone’s newsfeed without really reading any of the words. Deep breaths, in and out. She hoped she looked like someone having a normal, average panic attack, and not someone hallucinating a pursuit.
Except she didn’t think she was hallucinating anymore. Something about the women and their dogs had been too real, even more so than she’d experienced before. The others had existed at the periphery of her vision, flickers that could be dismissed as tricks of the light. But this? She had stared right at them, fixed her gaze on them for several seconds, and they had remained as steady as the world around them.
At the next stop, Rachel half-glanced at the rider who’d taken the seat facing her — then did a double-take to confirm she wasn’t mistaken. The woman sitting opposite her was dressed wildly out of style for an urban morning commute, with an embroidered blue silk tunic over bright crimson leggings and a snow-white turban. Where most other riders carried a bag or briefcase, she held a bow so tall that when she sat, its top curve bumped the overhead baggage rack. And she looked Rachel right in the eye.
Rachel swallowed hard. “Excuse me,” she mumbled, gathering her bag and trying to push out against the oncoming traffic, as though she’d nearly forgotten that this was her stop. There were too many people, though, so she settled for being pushed back toward the middle seats. That was all right; the next stop was only a few minutes away. She practically bored a hole into the back of the woman’s head, staring at her from across the car, but the woman never so much as turned.
At the next station, Rachel was prepared. The next train would be along in another fifteen minutes at most. Her coat was warm; she could wait. When the doors opened, she stepped off right after the conductor as the boarding passengers parted to let her out.
Shit, no. There were three of them on this platform, two blocking the stairs and the other hovering around the elevator, all dressed just wrong enough to catch Rachel’s eye, and all staring at her with the same fiery intensity. Thinking fast, Rachel hovered on the platform until the last moment, then darted between the closing doors of the next car. She took advantage of the now-filled car to stand in the vestibule. The conductor stood right behind her, seeming not to notice anything amiss. Rachel debated going to him for help, but decided it against it for the same reason she hadn’t told any doctors about the strange happenings: What would she say? Literally the worst thing she could accuse the archer of was bringing an unloaded medieval weapon onto public transit. And it was hardly a crime to wait on a train platform, or to walk dogs on a suburban sidewalk. At best, she’d sound insane. At worst, she was.
From that point on, the train was an express into Center City. Rachel tried to look at the other riders, but the car was far too packed for that. She clenched her fists at her sides and tried to breathe. They knew where she lived. That meant they knew where she worked. That meant they expected her to get off at her usual stop. She could fool them, then, by hopping off at the one before. It would be a long walk from there to her office, but she could manage.
The idea never entered into her head not to go to work. Of course she was going to work. She was a normal person having a normal weekday that she absolutely refused to let anything interrupt. If she let whatever was happening get in the way of her normal day, that would be proof that it was actually happening. And she didn’t want it to happen, so she was going to have a normal day. Just … one with a slightly longer foot commute.
When the train pulled into the university station, Rachel was off in a flash. She jerked her head from side to side, looking up and down the elevated platform, but everyone there seemed to be in the active business of either getting off or getting on the train. There were no strange women lingering there, staring her down. She’d done it! A huge wave of relief washed past her as she fell in line with the rest of the morning crowd going down the stairs to the street below. They were mostly students, chattering amongst themselves or bopping along with headphones over their ears. No one gave her a second look.
She’d never spent much time in this part of the city, but cities were grids. All she had to do was find a north-south street she recognized and follow it down until she found an east-west street she recognized. Eventually something would start to make sense. She just had to cross to the other side of campus, where she knew Broad Street cut through. That was a start.
Halfway across campus, though, that feeling began again. Rachel snapped her head back over her shoulder to see a woman standing on a second-story walkway, a cigarette perched in her hand. She might have looked almost normal, had she not been surrounded by a flock of grackles, more of the shiny black birds than Rachel had ever seen gather around a person. Somehow, they’d found her again. She had to go.
At least the cold explained why she was walking so fast. Of course no one wanted to be out in the chill any longer than they had to be. Hugging her coat tighter to her, Rachel took a detour around some construction, then changed direction suddenly at the end, darting into what looked to be the student center. Was the blackbird woman even following her? Rachel had no idea, but she wanted to lose her anyway. She just wanted them to leave her alone. Why weren’t they leaving her alone?
After leaving the student center through its far door, Rachel took a moment to orient herself before realizing she didn’t even know where to begin. There was a campus map at the other end of the walkway, though, so she made for it. Surely it would have some of the streets labeled. Maybe she could even flag down a cab and skip her dizzyingly poor attempts at urban navigation. Yes, a cab sounded like a good idea. It would have to be one already moving, though. She didn’t like the idea of staying in one place long enough for anything to arrive.
The small plaza around the campus map looked empty enough that Rachel made the mistake of letting her guard down. When she was no more than ten feet from it, though, something — someone — hopped up from out of nowhere to perch atop its edge. Rachel froze in her tracks, staring wide-eyed at the strange person. She recognized this as the one she’d mistaken for a holiday decoration, but which she could now see was a petite woman, barely larger than a child. Her hair was an electric, artificial lavender halo. Rachel had thought it was horrifying the way the other pursuers looked at her so blankly, until she saw this one smile.
No longer caring who saw her acting strangely, Rachel darted to the side, taking the nearest pathway out of sheer desperation. Her panicked breaths came out of her mouth in frosty plumes now. She no longer knew where she was going. She looked down at her feet, half-expecting to see them bare and caked in mud. There were rivers in the area, but none nearby. Still, maybe if she could make it to one of them, she could be free.
She could not remember feeling so helpless before in her life, neither awake nor asleep. The dream had been one thing, but part of her had always known it was a dream. This was real. Whatever was chasing her, she could not understand it, nor could she stop it. She could only run and hope that…
That what? That she had the strength to keep running her whole life? That eventually whatever had her scent would get bored and move on? That there was any way out of this other than barreling forward blindly into unknown territory, trying to outsmart a force she obviously couldn’t?
It was a testament to her frazzled state that nearly getting run over by a motorcycle was a nice change of pace.
Rachel jerked back, freezing in her tracks as the great bike screeched to a stop right in the middle of her path. She had a moment to realize that the rider’s helmet wasn’t entirely black; in the right light, she could see the etchings of wings along its sides, as though extending from the wearer’s temples. Then the rider removed it, leaving Rachel unsurprised to see Kára underneath.
Rachel wanted to feel relieved. Instead, she fixed her jaw. “You’re one of them,” she hissed.
“Of course I’m one of ‘them’,” Kára said, utterly unbothered by the accusation. “I’ve been one of ‘them’ all along.”
“I thought you were saving me from them!” Rachel pointed back behind her, hoping somehow the gesture indicated all the people who’d stalked her just that morning, those she’d seen and those she hadn’t.
With a quiet, indulgent smile, Kára shifted back on her bike. It became clear to Rachel that the seat was large, about the size of a horse’s saddle, and that Rachel herself would fit neatly in the space between the front console and Kára’s body, the same way she’d fit on the horse. It would take so little effort to fold herself into those familiar arms, to rest back against that strong chest.
But Rachel thinned her lips and shook her head. She could feel tears prickling at the corners of her eyes. “I’m not like you.”
“Of course you are,” Kára said with a laugh. “Or you’re not yet. But you could be. It’s your choice.”
Now that was a new thought. To this point, nothing had seemed much like Rachel’s choice at all. Even the way the dreams had started — she’d been running, and they’d been chasing her, and that had been all there was to it. It almost hadn’t even been enough to question, as answers had seemed less necessary than action. Reasons were for people who weren’t being chased.
But now Rachel’s feet were steady on the ground. “Why?” She gestured to the bike, to the people behind her, to the world in general. “Why are you chasing me?”
“You run from us or you run with us,” Kára said, echoing the Erlking’s dream-question.
That wasn’t enough of an answer, not by half. “But why are you chasing me?” Rachel repeated.
Kára shook her head. “We’re not.”
“Yes you are!” Rachel shouted, past the point of caring that anyone might overhear this bizarre and frankly nonsensical argument. “You were outside my house! On the train! Behind me just now! And you, you’re right here! Why the fuck are you chasing me?”
“We’re not!” Kára laughed as she shook her head. “We’re not chasing you.”
No, that didn’t seem right. They had definitely been coming toward her, the women with the dogs, and then there had been the one on the train car, and the freaky little one that liked to perch in places she shouldn’t be — and that was even without counting the dream pursuit that had gotten her dream-killed time and again. There was no way to write off their presence as mere coincidence. If Rachel was convinced of nothing else in the world at this moment, it was that wherever she went, these strange pursuers were on her heels.
“We’re not chasing you,” Kára said, extending her gloved hand. “We’re joining you.”
Rachel narrowed her eyes. No, that … that couldn’t be right. That wasn’t how it worked.
“Look,” Kára said, wiggling her fingers, “do you trust me?”
Rachel absolutely did not, especially not after their last encounter had ended in such sudden and sharp betrayal. She had no reason to think that this strange motorcyclist before her — one who could apparently read her dreams, which was fucked up on so many levels — had any good intentions toward her at all. It would be ridiculous to trust her and downright suicidal to accept her offer.
No, the smart thing would be for Rachel to stick her hands back in her pockets, walk around the bike to the road just beyond, and put this nonsense behind her. In fact, she bet if she stood her ground long enough, eventually Kára would put that helmet back on and ride away, taking everyone else with her. Rachel didn’t have to run from or with anything. She could learn to play possum, learn to stand so still that nothing could see her, like they said about the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. No more strangers watching from passing cars. No more hints of strange movement in the corners of her eyes. No more bad dreams. Eventually she’d even forget that there was anything to forget at all.
She put her hand in Kára’s and let Kára haul her onto the motorcycle.
This was ridiculous. She was breaking so many traffic laws by doing this, not least because she wasn’t wearing a helmet as Kára roared the bike forward into traffic. But then she glanced back and saw that Kára wasn’t wearing hers either. Instead, those wings were back, feathers pressed back against her scalp as the wind tore past them. Ahead of them, a traffic light glowed steady red, but Kára didn’t even slow the bike. The cars just waited for them as though expecting their passing all along.
The roar of a motorcycle was loud, shockingly loud, especially without a helmet to shield her ears from the wind. Yet despite its din, Rachel began to hear behind them the sound of more engines, followed by hootbeats and hounds and noises she couldn’t even identify. Difficult though it was from her position, Rachel looked back behind them to see that a crowd was gathering indeed. Some ran, their feet fleet enough to keep pace with the rest. Some stood in the backs of chariots drawn by strange beasts, like peacocks and tigers and even one perhaps powered by a litter of kittens? But most rode horses and other hooved animals, galloping their mounts through city streets at impossible speeds.
“Where now?” asked Kára, her lips soft against Rachel’s ear.
Rachel’s breath caught in her chest. “The river,” she said, though the wind whipped the words from her mouth almost as soon as she formed them. No, that wasn’t right — the wind was the words, carried back to all those who had ears to hear.
Grinning like the valkyrie Rachel now knew her to be, Kára gunned the bike forward and sailed down streets, past buildings, even over the tops of the cars in their way. No one in the city paid them any mind. Why would they? There was nothing about women like this worth seeing anymore, except among themselves.
As they raced along toward the water and whatever lay on its far bank, Rachel felt a strange sensation at the top of her head — two, in fact, one on either side of her skull. Instinct told her she needed to hold on to the bike, but her instinct was wrong. What was she afraid of, as petty of a thing as gravity? So she let go of the bike’s handlebars and reached up to run her fingers through her greying hair, feeling the first buds of pearl-draped antlers beginning to push through.