The Shadow People
By Mark Piggott.
The trailer had been left a few hundred metres off the highway close to the Russian border. Why the huge metal box was concealed by bushes was a mystery to Niko. The road was barely used; the crossing hadn’t been manned for months due to some protracted pay dispute. Every week or ten days he would get a text: early next morning he’d drive his cab north to the designated spot, attach an unmarked container to his truck, and take it to whichever port, industrial unit or hidden warehouse his faceless paymasters directed.
As someone used to the southern climes of his country Niko found the northern latitudes hard; as Christmas loomed the hours of daylight in this region dropped almost to zero. For a few hours the sky would assume a dark blue tint then it would be gone, replaced by the endless night.
The endless night: the endless forest. On these quiet back roads, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town, it was possible to drive for hours without once seeing the distant flicker of headlights through the trees or bouncing off a sky so black and unyielding it looked and felt like a vast coffin roof.
Niko pulled into the lay-by and opened the cab door. It was way below zero, too cold for snow, so cold it hurt his brain. Zipping up his padded jacket and pulling on thick ski-gloves he jumped down from his cab to the metallic road, slamming the door again to keep in the heat.
He looked round and shivered. There was nothing to see, even the closest trees were indistinct from the night; the road he stood on was as dark and featureless as the permafrost in which it was carved; and tonight the stars were hidden behind a great snow cloud which refused to yield.
No signs designated this border between Europe and Russia, no street lights, no fence, not a single sign of human habitation, just this dark grey rectangle on hydraulic stilts, the dimensions of a sea-container, containing the fridges from China his bosses wished transported across the top of the continent to the little port where they had bought off the officials.
The silence was ghastly: no rustle of leaves, no birdsong, no other traffic. Was he being watched by the Russians from across the divide? It was possible; but he was efficient, desperate, he always delivered, probably they’d uncoupled the container and driven across the border to the corrupt hotel they used as a staging post without looking back.
Not a sound, apart from the noise made by Niko as he attached the sea container to his cab, applying the dog clips, connecting the air taps and electric cables. As he went round to the rear of the grey trailer and released the brake he thought he heard a low moan from within the corrugated box.
Shivering he went back to his warm cab, fired up the engine, which sounded unhealthy, slipped into first, carefully pressing down on the accelerator until he felt the trailer shift into step behind, its great weight making the steering wheel heavy in his grasp.
When Niko had first been summoned by the gang he had driven his cab all the way up to Murmansk, and had no desire to go there again. On the Finnish side of the border the roads were better but emptier than the Russian side, which teemed with cops, robbers and robbing cops.
As he reached the main road and manoeuvred the load Niko was about to switch on his satnav when he remembered the Mafiosi’s warnings: with GPS they could track you from space, and if he was stopped he was all on his own. There was nothing to connect him to his pay-masters, only a bulging bank account and a well-fed family far away south.
On a long straight section of road he inspected his map: thirty kilometres to the nearest junction, three times further to the first named village. Trees danced at the periphery of his vision, rushed past into the gloom. Then, to make matters worse – consumed with worry he had slept poorly for days – it began to snow, light at first, then heavy, dancing in his headlights until it seemed his windscreen was being attacked by billions of fireflies.
Niko tried his radio: nothing. All he could hear was his own engine, disturbing whatever monsters lurked in the night, and occasionally that strange low moan from the sea container he pulled behind him.
Having studied folklore and myth as a young man before the booze took over everything Niko was well-versed in stories of the woods: of Baba Yaga and the hairy-handed hitch-hiker, the head banged on the roof by the escaped lunatic, and older stories, those terrifying tales which had been sanitised by Hollywood yet still frightened his daughters when he read them aloud at bedtime.
The snowflakes were making strange shapes in his headlights, dancing and flickering like pirouetting ghosts: now Niko recalled the legend of the shadow people, strange apparitions from unmapped dimensions who stalked lonely people lost in the woods with malevolent intent.
Sometimes – at a dip in the road, or as he rounded a bend – he fancied he saw them, dancing, gesturing, sometimes just standing, watching him with blank faces; he slapped himself in the face and swigged vodka from his flask, singing a rowdy folk-song to keep the terrors away.
Once the terrors took over out in the woods, Niko knew, you were finished; even if you were found alive, which was unlikely in these temperatures, you would be insane, burbling about strange lights and the sinister aspect of branches, the way the trees conspired to send you round in circles until your wits ran away forever.
Rounding another sharp bend Niko slammed on the brakes: a terrible face filled the road, dark, pre-historic eyes staring into his own. Niko laughed aloud: it was just an elk. The huge beast lumbered off and he tried to start the engine: nothing. He tried again: nothing, just that clearing of the throat, that dry dusty cough of an engine in trouble.
Another moan came from the container: something or someone was banging on the metal. He knew he couldn’t run the risk of opening up, whoever was in there might overpower him or run away into the woods, he would have no cargo to deliver to the port and just so he realised the importance of this load the Russians had texted him a photo of his children’s kindergarten.
Looking in his wing mirrors he saw shadow people moving strangely towards the cab with blank faces and malevolent auras. His blood chilled, heart stabbed. With shaking fingers he twisted the key: this time the engine fired up and he pressed on the accelerator, stalled; unable to risk another look in the mirror he tried again and the truck finally lurched forward.
Putting his foot down and shifting carefully up through the gears Niko drove through the forest, still too afraid to look in his mirrors but slowly regaining his wits, doubting now what he thought he had seen emerge from those dark woods. He forced a laugh: he was too old for this, he’d tell the Russians this was his last trip.
Once he had put down a few kilometres he tried to light a cigarette. The match head skipped off the rough edge onto the passenger seat: his newspaper flared up. Shouting with fear Niko tried to open the passenger window to cast the paper away but the flames spread too fast. Slamming on the brake Niko grabbed the fire extinguisher from behind his seat and pointed at the fire: nothing but a hiss as the last dribble of foam spat out.
Opening the door and jumping down from his cab Niko backed away, watched as the fire engulfed the cab: now he heard the moans turn to screams. The banging on the walls of the container grew frantic, the booming on the metal so loud he couldn’t think: all he knew was if he opened the rear door of the trailer whatever was inside would get him, and so he backed away from the truck and into the flat white field beside the road, luminous even in this vast darkness, fingers in ears to block out the terrible sound.
As he backed away, and flames from the truck burned holes in the night, Niko realised this wasn’t a white field but a frozen lake, surrounded by silent larch trees. His ski boot broke through thin ice and the water beneath was so cold he cried out.
The snow continued to fall and gave the scene a nightmarish quality: Niko saw shadow people dancing amid the smoke, within the flames. The rear door burst open and people emerged, men, women and children, wrapped in orange flames; they raced out across the lake towards him, fiery arms out-stretched, and Niko retreated further, unsure now who was ghost and who was human, smelling burnt flesh and feeling the iced water beneath his feet, and the ice that separated him from death and ignominy began to creak, to melt and fragment.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 29th, 2012.