Sunday, September 24, 2017

Short Story Sunday: Night Song



Every Sunday (okay...most Sundays), I will post a short story for your enjoyment and/or derision. All feedback is welcome and appreciated.


For Madeline, there was no better therapy after a long day than running through her neighborhood’s nature trail, especially at night. A moonlit sky, soft earth beneath her shoes, and the chorus of insects and swamp creatures filling the crisp autumn air calmed her nerves better than any glass of wine ever could.
She knew that jogging alone after dark wasn’t the safest activity she could choose, but it was something she'd never felt safe doing back in the city. Now that she’d made enough money to move out to the suburbs, however, the risk of being mugged was significantly less. In fact, the only other people she ever seemed to encounter were neighborhood teenagers clumsily making out with each other by the dock.
Madeline still kept her eyes and ears open, though, as much for her own protection as to take in the beautiful night song that nature seemed to be singing just for her. The harsher chills of fall didn’t hit the coast of South Carolina until much later than most areas, meaning that the insects and creatures normally driven into hibernation or death by winter’s preamble were still alive and well. Frogs croaked, crickets chirped, and cicadas did…whatever they did…all coming together to create a symphony far more beautiful than anything on her iPod. The only sound bold enough to intrude upon their performance was the rhythmic crunching of her shoes over the gravel-lined trail.
The mix of endorphins and natural beauty had made her nightly runs a ritual of serenity she rarely missed. But now, with the southern-tempered fall season, it was like a full recharge for her soul. The pulse of the forested swamp and the perfectly cool-but-not-too-cold air breathed much needed life into her spirit after hours of staring at a computer screen.
So when the night creatures’ performance came to a sudden and jarring halt, the silence caused Madeline to freeze in the middle of the trail.
“What the hell?” she whispered, peering back into forest.
Madeline waited a moment before gingerly moving her left foot in front of her right. As if in response, a lone cicada called out before quickly going silent again. She waited for another chirp to signal that everything was back to how it should be, but the only rival to the alien and unsettling silence was the beating of her own heart inside her ears.
After waiting a few more seconds, Madeline began to move forward again, measuring each step while shifting her eyes from one side of the trail to the other.
“This is stupid,” she thought, painfully aware of how loud the crunching gravel beneath her shoes had become. “Just because the critters went mute doesn’t mean I have to be quiet.”
Madeline stooped over, picked up a nearby rock, and tossed it back in the direction from which she’d come. After the stone skipped into the woods, she was answered by nothing more than continued silence.
“Okay, I’m not the damn Orkin Man!” Madeline bellowed at the empty path behind her. “You guys don’t have to stop your conversations on account of me walking through your turf!”
Madeline chuckled to herself, amused and a bit embarrassed at her attempt to engage insects and amphibians in confrontational dialogue.
“Guess it’s going to be a few cold ones and a movie tonight,” she whispered. “This stroll through the woods just went from relaxing to all types of creepy.”
After throwing another rock down the path for good measure, Madeline began jogging at a much brisker pace in the opposite direction. Before the inexplicable silence had descended upon her, she’d nearly made it to the end of the trail. Fortunately, it still wouldn’t take very long for her to get back home from there. The path led through more wooded areas before opening onto a bridge that crossed a large creek running through the neighborhood. After that, it was less than a mile of well-lit and unwooded lawns to reach the welcome safety of her home. It was strange to think of her nightly jogging path as something to be scared of, but the purposeful silence in the air that evening was more than a little unsettling.
As she neared one of the trail’s intersections, the sudden chirping of a lone cricket caught Madeline by surprise. She attempted to turn towards where the sound came from, but more chirping immediately added to the first one, this time from all directions. Before she could turn back to where she’d been facing, the cicadas and frogs joined in, as well.
At first, the returning sounds brought a welcome wave of reassurance. The night song of the swamp creatures had begun again, reducing their brief silence to an inexplicable anomaly. But as their song continued, it grew much louder than she’d ever heard before. After a few moments, the familiar, soothing cadence morphed into an almost physical presence, pushing in on her so hard that it became difficult to breathe.
Madeline clutched her hands to her head and continued jogging, then sprinting towards the creek bridge. Behind her, the ground felt as if it were actually shaking from massive wave of sound, turning into something much more tactile and close. The crunching gravel under Madeline’s feet was muted now, its rhythmic grinding washed away in a sea of agitated croaks and chirps. The night song's volume became so powerful that even the sound of her heart beating inside her ears disappeared. All Madeline could hear now was the relentless buzz of life that seemed to be closing in on her with every passing second.
Realizing that her hands were doing nothing to dissipate the noise, Madeline pulled them away from her ears and focused all of her attention on running. The shaking ground beneath her feet was making it difficult to keep her balance. When she stumbled and nearly fell into the dirt, something that looked like a long, hair-covered arm flashed by her right shoulder. Madeline's brain didn’t have time to process what the appendage had been connected to, but something primal and terrified inside of her instantly concluded that the entity was not human. Perhaps it was the abnormally fast speed with which it shot towards her shoulder—or maybe it was because the hand which she momentarily glimpsed had only three fingers, each with a thin black claw extending out from it. But Madeline did not have the current capacity or focus to process what was chasing her. All that mattered was getting out of the woods and back towards in the light.
As she rounded the last turn before the bridge, the chirping and croaking became so oppressive that it felt made her ears feel as if they were bleeding. Something warm and hungry began to breath down her neck. The night song was in sync with whatever it was pursing her, pulsating in time with the hot gusts of air that rhythmically blew her hair forward and in front of her face.
For the briefest of moments, Madeline decided to give up. The hot breath on the back of her neck was joined by something tacky and wet, dotting her elbows and stringing onto her waist. It burned, but not like fire or acid. The heat enveloping her was fatigue, radiating over her entire body like a drug that wanted to pull her mind under her fear and into a starless abyss. 
Just when Madeline legs began to give out, the crunching gravel beneath her feet was replaced by loud clacks as her shoes smacked across a wooden bridge. The sudden change in noise awoke something inside her. She was so close--just a few yards from being out of the woods and into the neighborhood. Madeline pushed towards the brightly lit street ahead. She wasn’t sure why her mind had convinced itself that being among the other houses would lead to safety, but her legs refused to entertain the debate, pumping with all their might in a desperate bid to flee the woods.
As she neared the end of the bridge, something wet snapped against the side of Madeline’s left cheek while an insect-like appendage began to wrap itself around her stomach. Bristling fibers grazed back and forth along her back, moving in manic synchronicity with the night song that now dominated the air. As the fibers got closer, something with the texture of moist leather clamped onto Madeline’s shoulder, pushing her down while simultaneously pulling with all its might to pull her back. Madeline gritted her teeth, closed her eyes, and pushed even harder towards the tree line.
The sound of wooden bridge gave way once again to gravel, the trail finally depositing her between two houses that ran up against the property line next to the neighborhood club house. As the nearby refuge of street lights blurred in a wash of sweat and tears, the sensation of countless tiny legs exploded across Madeline's back. After letting out a desperate gasp, she pushed the sensation to the back of her mind and sprinted past the final tree before diving toward the first street light. After a hard landing onto a freshly cut lawn, she immediately jumped back up and prepared to scream with whatever voice she had left--or to fight. But when Madeline whipped around to face the trail , there was nothing there but empty woods and deafening silence. No cicadas, no crickets, no frogs, and nothing trying to run her down. All that remained of her horrifying pursuit was the beautiful fall night and the manic beating of her heart.
Madeline immediately pulled out her phone and dialed 911. She breathlessly explained to the dispatcher that “someone was chasing me through the Hamlin Subdivision nature trail,” even though her description didn’t come to close to portraying what she’d actually experienced. After giving the dispatcher the address of the house in front of her, Madeline hung up and ran towards it. Despite being more scared than she’d ever been in her life, a small part of her was still embarrassed about knocking on a neighbor’s door (and one she had never met, no less) a little after 10:00 PM.
But when a kind and concerned looking woman greeted her, Madeline instantly burst into tears. This brought the woman’s husband and two children rushing to the door, as well. The entire family took her into the kitchen, where she was provided with a blanket and a glass of water. Through violent sobs and sips, she told them with the most believable version of her story that she could come up with on the spot. There was no mention of the night creature’s cacophony of angry sounds, nor did she mention how the thing that had been chasing her was almost assuredly not human. 
As the evening wore on, Madeline’s confusion over what she’d experienced slowly turned into genuine skepticism. She knew that something had been chasing her, but maybe it really was just ‘some psycho drugged out of his mind’ like the father had suggested. When the police arrived, she gave them the same story she’d told to the family, once again omitting any mention of night creatures or an inhuman pursuer. She stayed up with the family a while, telling them about herself and where she was from. The children instantly latched on to her, their adoration laser focused on the person who’d given them an excuse to stay up late on a school night. Once the police left and she’d calmed down a bit, the mother gave Madeline a ride home along with her phone number, earnestly requesting that she call if any sort of threat (or even simply the specter of fear) made her unable to remain inside her own home.
After giving the woman and hug and heading inside, Madeline began to feel the full emotional and physical toll of that night’s events. She decided to forgo her nightly shower, figuring that having to wake up a few minutes earlier for work and washing her current bed sheets was a perfectly fair price to pay for immediate rest.
Before allowing her eyes to close and letting the world to fade, however, she decided to call her best friend, Mandy.  She wasn’t sure why; it wasn’t like she could explain to her what happened any better than she’d be able to for the family or the police. But the desire to reach out to someone she could trust was urgent enough that even her extreme exhaustion couldn’t fight it.
“Maddy?” Mandy asked after picking up the phone on the second ring. “Why the hell are you calling me at 1:15 in the morning?”
“Cause I knew you’d be up,” Madeline responded, much more tersely than she’d intended.
“Well excuse me for not having a job like yours where I’d have to be there at 7:00 AM,” Mandy shot back. “And it’s not like I go out drinking every night. Sometimes it’s fun to just stay in and binge some Netflix.”
“I got attacked tonight, Mandy,” Madeline blurted out.
“Holy crap Mads, are you alright?” Mandy asked, her voice now filled with concern.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Some psycho chased me through the nature trail during my nightly walk. I got away from him though.”
“Why didn’t you just kick his ass like that one guy downtown from a few years ago?”
Madeline paused for a moment, considering the possibility of telling her most trusted friend in the world what she’d been through that evening—and if she would even be willing to believe her. “My mind just wasn’t in that mode. I think he might have had a weapon on him or something, anyway, so I just got the hell out of there as fast as I could.”
The rest of the conversation involved more questions (“What did he look like?”, “Did he say anything?”, etc.) that Madeline quickly deflected. It made her feel terrible to lie like that, but even if telling the truth was an option, she only had a vague idea of what the “truth” actually was, anyway.
“Hey Mandy, I’ve got a weird question,” Madeline said before hanging up for the night. “Did the insects and frogs tonight sound really loud to you?”
“I guess,” Mandy replied. “No louder than usual, though. Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” Madeline said after a moment. “I guess everything just seems louder when you’re running for your life from a maniac.”
After promising to call Mandy first thing when she got up in the morning, Madeline put the phone down and peeled off her sweat soaked clothes. After tossing them haphazardly onto the floor, she climbed into bed and pulled the sheets up around her, letting the sound of them sliding against her skin melt her consciousness into a blissful state of exhaustion-fueled slumber. But just before her eyes could flutter into a deep sleep, something outside her bedroom window grabbed what little of her waking attention remained. The street light that stood on the corner of her street had gone out, plunging the world around her into night’s natural darkness. The augmented blackness was almost immediately followed by a small chirping sound.
Madeline’s eyes popped open as a multitude of croaks and chirps grew in volume, slowly surrounding her home…

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