Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mourning Run

The empty playground sent a shiver up and down my spine. Fog was blanketed over everything, giving the swings and jungle gym hazy outlines reminiscent of my childhood nightmares. Only the topmost stairs of the slide were above the blanket of mist that turned that joyful place of daytime into an early morning haunt. As I jogged past on the route I'd chosen, I tried to keep my eyes from the place. Something about the absence of laughter made turned the playground sinister. It didn't help that the playground belonged to a private school and the whole grounds were surrounded by a wrought-iron fence and twisted old trees that look grandfatherly in the afternoon. The trees and fence had stood together so long that many of the trees had grown around parts of the fence, the bars of the fence wrapped with the very bark of the tree. The roots of some of those ancient trunks stretched almost to the road on the opoosite side from the bulk of the tree. But the amiable daytime apearance of the trees was absent in the morning fog. Now they leaned over the fence, protective of the grounds behind them at the same time they leered ominously at me. I couldn't run fast enough to escape the invisible eyes of those trees.

The unfamiliar road I was on proved to be my enemy as surely as the trees were. I'd like to say I only stumbled, but it felt more like the pavement slithered up and held my foot fast, drawing me down face-first to the road. Time slowed as I fell, the grass of the nearby residential front yards passing by blade by blade, the road coming up to meet me at the same frightful leisurely pace that tarantulas walk-- the assured pace that states that no matter how hard you try to struggle or run away, you will be caught. Until that moment, I never knew what it was like to feel hunted.

My muscles refused to obey me as I tried to scramble to my feet. There was no pain save the wrenching of a slightly twisted ankle and the burning of numerous scrapes and cuts of my skin from the impact. No bones felt broken, no muscles burned or ached. My body simply would not respond as I wished it to. Against my will, I remained flat on the road, unable even to flip over onto my back. I could feel eyes on me, sense it approaching, growing closer with each hurried breath that escaped me.

The same moment I felt a cold finger brush the back of my arm, I heard the first giggle, high and soft, like a little boy hiding and watching his prank-trap sprung. The laugh itself lasted only a second, but the echo of it lingered, bouncing between my ears like a disturbed nest of mosquitoes in my head. The cold finger that brushed my arm became a freezing hand that gripped me above the elbow, making the blood from wrist to shoulder run frigid. A miniscule shriek escaped me. I felt my body giving in as the hand tried to flip me over. All I could do was think of resisting and hope my muscles would remember that it was me they were supposed to listen to.

My fingers dug into the road, looking for purchase, something to hold on to so I couldn't be flipped over. I could feel the skin on my fingertips tearing on the pavement, my fingernails chipping and breaking and tearing. Somehow, I got enough of a hold that I could resist being flipped by my attacker, though this sudden control of my hands was a strain to maintain. What energy reserves I had left were draining rapidly; my breathing was coming out laboriously-- like I'd just finished a mile at a dead run.

Only when my hands decided again to betray me and I felt myself flipping over did I realize my eyes had been clamped shut for the duration of this attack... since I'd first heard the giggle. It took all my will to reopen them and face whatever it was that was looming over me. The second I pried my eyelids apart and saw the first splinter of light, the giggling began again. It started with one, that same high but quiet giggle, the unmistakable sound of a mischievous boy anticipating his fun. That giggle was joined by a girl's overjoyed squeal, and another deeper young man's, the uncertain forced chuckle of a shy boy, the uncontrolled laughter of a girl who's heard a funny joke. It became a chorus of laughter, the deepest boys' voices cracking on occasion, suggesting to me that none of these voices I was hearing were any older than perhaps thirteen. They were all children.

My eyes took far too long to adjust to the early morning light. I could still feel the cold grip on my arm, but there was nothing above me, no person to explain what had just happened. Were I not still hearing the giggles and feeling the band of ice around my arm where I was still held, I would think I was imagining things.

Though there was no wind, the fog was drifing up out of the playground, coming up across the street and curling around my toes. Even through my shoes I could feel the slight chill damp of the mist clashing with the warm sweaty wetness from my running. Beneath that layer of wet, I cold feel my skin was clammy and breaking into patches of goosebumps. My arm was suddenly freed from the cold clutches of whatever was holding me. Just as if I had been held by something solid and visible, the abruptly-released skin took an even deeper chill in the new exposure to air. Not even half a breath later, both my ankles were seized in frosty hands. I call them hands... tendrils would be more accurate.

This attacker I could see. The curling fog itself wrapped around my feet and ankles and tightened like a pair of translucent nooses. Like a bungee cord, the tendrils seemed to stretch before the pull on them turned into a drag on me. My muscles still ignoring me, I was slowly pulled toward the fence that enclosed the playground. I had no more choice in the matter than a stuffed bear has being dragged around by the toddler who takes it everywhere. Over the pavement, across a grassy ditch and the semi-dried mud at the bottom, more grass. Even though I couldn't control my muscles, I could feel the friction, the texture of each different surface I was unwillingly pulled deeper into the giggles. The sound washed over me, scalding me one moment and freezing me the next.

As I came closer to the bars of the iron fence, I braced myself for the impact, fully expecting to wind up with at least one fractured-- if not broken-- bone. It's not that it was pulling me fast, but it was insistent, using a strength far more than I would have expected from a weather occurance.

But the impact didn't come. My legs first went through the bars, then my hips, chest, and head. And when I say through the bars, I mean through them. Not through the narrow space between a few bars, but between the bars themselves. Once I was through the fence, I felt my ankles were released.

In a warm rush that made me feel nauseous, I became aware again of my muscles. My fingers wiggled. My shoulders rolled. I swallowed. I screamed. Frantically, I got to my feet, using tendons and muscles that were stiff and resistant. The laughter came to me, flowing on a newly-risen wind that traveled over the empty playground. In the haze, the indistinct outlines of the seesaws and slides were joined by darkening shapes of small people. The jungle gym was teeming with them-- ants crawling all over a drop of melted ice cream. Shapes dangled from the monkey bars and sat on the balance beam, hung upside-down from a suspended bar and went back and forth on the swings.

Like flicking a switch, all heads were turned towards me where I stood, and out of each head-shape, two pinpricks of light appeared, shining yellow through the haze. Silence fell, broken only by the thudding of my heart. Then came yet another giggle, a soft chuckle that stabbed me like an icicle. I turned and fled.

The eyes and the laughter followed and surrounded me, pressing down on me from all sides like a pile of blankets too heavy to shift off myself. I forced my way back toward the fence, straining to make my way through air thick as cream. My legs were stiff; I wasn't even sure I was bending my knees anymore.

When my first finger touched the icy iron of the fence, the giggle became screams, shrill and agonizing. My ears felt like they were bleeding. I forced one heavy, resisting leg over the top of the fence. And stopped moving altogether. My legs had both fused together and gone soft around the fence, molding to the iron bars and then again coming solid around them. My bones went rigid, my knuckles white with the strain of my grip on the top of the fence. I couldn't release them. My mouth was frozen open in a scream, but even my vocal cords had gone too solid to move. I couldn't budge.

I felt rather than saw the changes happening in my skin. It was growing rough and hard, textured to be the perfect climbing surface for squirrels and a desirable perching place for birds. The hairs on my head meshed together into wide, flat bits and strained toward the rising sun. The light faded from my eyes. I took my last breath as the screaming turned back into laughter and then faded with the rest of the outdoor sounds of morning. I couldn't hear anything, or see, or breathe. I felt the wind pick up and rustle my leaves. The other trees did not speak, but I understood them. The children needed shade and protection. The day children needed shade, and the night children needed our protection. They could never have enough. In a few hours, the school buses would arrive.

I got the idea for this short story during, of all things, a morning run. There's a private school not far from the apartment with these very trees. At 5:48 am, it's pretty creepy there. Glad this didn't actually happen.

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