01 Nov Empty Spaces
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"Empty Spaces"Written by Katherine C.
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Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
Anne was new to the city, and she knew without a doubt that it wasn’t the place for her. She was used to winding country roads, gentle breezes on the porch, and the rustle of the wind through the trees. Here she was simply surrounded by angry drivers, angry cyclists, angry pedestrians, smog, car horns, bus horns, train horns, and the unshakeable shadow of looming skyscrapers. In this giant city, she was beginning to feel terribly claustrophobic, and the ink on her lease was barely two weeks old.
She trudged home through the crowded streets with an armload of groceries weighing her down. It was the middle of summer and suffocatingly hot, and the heavy bag clutched to her chest didn’t make matters better. Neither did the fact that she lived on a fourth story walkup. She made it safely—the bag did not burst—and she sighed into the artificial cool of her air conditioned apartment. While she begrudgingly filled her empty cupboards, her mind wandered to her porch back with her family in the tiny little town she called home. Cold lemonade and a gentle breeze always made up for almost any day, and while she didn’t have fresh lemons, she did have a jar of powdered drink mix that could possibly do the trick. Her groceries stored away for later, she pulled down a glass and mixed up some lemonade, topped with two ice cubes that began to melt as soon as they left the freezer.
Anne settled into her chair by the window, gazing out at row upon row of windows from so many other apartment dwellers. Her view wasn’t great, but at least she had more than just a single alley. Her window looked out across the street and, if she turned just right, she could see down the road a few blocks before the building faded into indecipherable blobs of brick and glass. She gazed out the window, daydreaming about lives playing out behind all those curtains and blinds. She considered the dull monotony of family life, the thrill of single adulthood, the terror of paying bills each month, other potential tragedies, dramas, and comedies all around her, all to the quiet soundtrack of ice clinking in her glass.
As she sat perched in her chair, her eyes eventually drifted down towards the street, meandering along the road until they met a park. She had seen the park on her way to and from work for the past few weeks, but did not think much of it. It was tiny, crammed between two buildings to meet some city ordinance for green spaces. She sat on the fourth floor looking down, she saw how overgrown it looked, the tree branches knotting into a thick weave above the ground. It was so dark in there, but subtly tempting. From here, it looked cool and quiet; it was an oasis in a sea of humanity. As Anne reflected on the park, a tiny voice whispered that it was always empty. She had never seen a soul resting on the wrought iron bench beneath the leafy shade, no matter how hot it had been. The flowers and bushes remained undisturbed around it. Though Anne had not been in the city long, she had learned that anywhere that was always empty, be it a restaurant, convenience store, or even street, usually meant there was a reason for it. But, this was just a park, right? And she hadn’t heard any nefarious stories about the dealing in this park. Maybe people around here were just too focused on their cell phones, cable TV, internet, and hustle and bustle to take the time for such a moment of quiet and solitude. She would go to the park and rest, simply listen to wind in the branches and relax under that shade. It would be nice and cool and peaceful. No one would—
Anne was halfway to the door with her keys in her hand before the sharp chimes of her phone brought her out of this daydream haze. She didn’t even remember getting up and putting on shoes, but here she was. She made a mental note to get some more sleep and turn the AC up a little more as she answered her phone.
“Hey, sweetie. Just calling to check in on my big city girl!” Her mom chimed in through the line, her voice taking a sweet singsongy lilt as she talked.
She plastered a smile on before speaking.”Oh, hi mom. I’m doing fine.”
“And how’s the job? Your apartment?”
“Everything’s great, mom. Still getting to know my coworkers and got most of my stuff unpacked. Just settling in.”
“You aren’t getting homesick, are you?”
“No,” she lied, “Not yet. But I’m sure I will once things calm down.”
“Oh, I’m sure things are just so exciting now. I wish I had such an opportunity when I was your age. You know your dad and I are so proud of you, moving to the city all on your own. I always knew you would make something of yourself.”
“I know, mom.” Her lips smiled as her eyes grimaced. “Say hi to dad for me.”
“Oh, I will. Talk to you later this week, honey! Love you!”
“Love you, too, mom.”
Anne punched the button off and tossed her phone onto the table. “Yeah, mom, everything is fine. Except that I’m miserable,” she muttered to herself, dropping her keys back into the bowl as she sunk into her chair again. Not that she could tell them that. She didn’t want to disappoint them again. They needed her to be the one to escape the claws of small town life, and she couldn’t let them down. Eventually she would get used to this life, right?
Anne sighed and picked up her book from the table, settling in for another evening alone in the sea of millions.
A few more weeks passed and Anne realized that, no, she probably wasn’t getting used to this. Time had passed and she had only grown more and more tired of the daily trudge, the impersonal nature, and the constant noise and motion of city life. She wasn’t made for this environment, and the sinking strands of depression were slowly dragging her down.
The park came to her mind more and more. She had watched it, asked about, and even dreamed about it. No one did anything besides shrug and look at her like a loon for asking such a question, and so finally, one weekend when she had simply reached her breaking point, Anne grabbed her book and made the trek down to the little oasis.
It was bigger than it looked from her apartment. The trees were tall and heavy with leaves, creating enticing patterns of dappled sun beneath their shade. There was a small bench near the entrance, mostly overgrown at this point by the vines and bushes behind it. Bees hummed among the flowers as birds chirped shrilly in the branches. Anne sighed and smiled for the first time in a week.
Her first spot was on the bench, but she was disappointed to note that the sounds of traffic still intruded into this quiet space. A path behind the bench caught her eyes, and while she was certain it couldn’t go far before running into the building behind them, she gave it a shot. It wrapped around behind a couple of the towering trees to a small clearing in the bushes. The sun was warm, the shade was cool, and a gentle breeze created moving patterns of light and shadow. Anne sat down, content with the dull whisper of traffic now, and began to read.
She didn’t notice herself growing tired, nor did she remember setting aside her book, but before too long Anne awoke in the dark to silence. The trees still swayed overhead, but she could hear nothing else. Anne shot to her feet, clicking the light on her watch to see that it was well past ten. She must have slept for hours. Gathering her stuff, Anne quickly marched towards the entrance, mentally berating herself for being so stupid. She walked along the path, past the trees, towards the bench up front, through some bushes, beyond the trees, and froze. In front of her only lay more trees, stretching impossibly far back. She began to wonder if she had gone the wrong way, but even then this block couldn’t be that wide. Anne began to make her way to the side, stepping through the bushes and underbrush that were now thicker than she remembered. Sooner or later she would have to this the side of the adjacent buildings.
Fifteen minutes of walking later found her only more stuck. When she looked up, she couldn’t see the buildings standing on either side. She couldn’t see any buildings, only the trees and the pale moon in the sky above. She could feel panic creeping into her body, slowly taking hold. Eventually, she felt her legs begins to run, hoping to slam headlong into a brick wall soon enough. She stopped when she ran out of breath, still without any idea where to go or what had happened.
In the quiet, she could hear only her panting. Only her panting and a steady whisper of feet through the underbrush.
Anne froze, her eyes darting from side to side hoping to find some branch swaying in the wind or some small animal scuttling through the bushes, but she could see nothing. The thought of looking behind her nearly propelled her to sprint again into the murky dark of the forest, but she maintained some composure. It was probably the wind, she calmed herself. Just an overactive imagination after being away from the country for so long. You forget what the woods sound like at night. She turned slowly. Maybe an alley cat wandered in and was looking to beg some food. Maybe—
She froze, her eyes locked on the person crouching no more than ten yards away, watching her. In the dark, it was hard to tell anything about him (or her, she mentally corrected), but she got the unsettling sense she did not want to know more. Then again, this person was the only contact she had right now, and she was tired of being lost in this park somehow.
“I’m lost,” she called out. The shadow smiled, and stood up, moving into the dim moonlight. It was certainly a man standing before her, but there was still something unsettling.
“I just came for a read, and I guess time got away from me. Could you point me to the street?” Even as she asked, she realized how ridiculous such a request was. After an hour of wandering around, she hadn’t found an exit. This park was not that big, but there was no rational explanation she could hold on to in this storm of confusion.
He smiled wider and stepped forward. Now Anne could see him more clearly, and she immediately took a step back. The first shock was that he was naked from head to toe. The next was the state of him. His flesh was red and raw, traced with the pearly patterns of a severe burn. The burns looked fresh, as she could see the blisters clinging to his skin, ready to burst. Where there weren’t burns, he was covered with scratches and deep cuts, all mottled together in a pattern of dried blood, pus, and mud. He grinned. Anne ran.
She ran faster than she thought she could, ran until her feet were weary and her lungs were bursting. And then she kept running. She glanced over her shoulder, only to see this hideous man charging after her, loping along the ground like some kind of animal as he chased her. She screamed, hoping someone might hear her and find some way to save her from this strange madness, but her cries merely echoed among the looming trees. They were silent in response, providing no aid, and seeming to grow closer together as the branches whipped at her face and roots leapt towards her fleeing feet. Finally, she stumbled. It was bound to happen as she grew so tired, but even as she splayed across the ground, Anne tried to tell herself such a thing had not happened. Even as she felt his fingers grip her arms and turn her over, she imagined she was still running and fleeing towards the safety of city lights.
He looked down at her, his eyes clouded over. The scent of rot and decay clung to him, overwhelming Anne in a wave of purification that snapped her back to the scene at hand. She fought against him, kicking his leg and watching as a large portion of the muscle tore away like tissue paper. He did not flinch or move, but studied her. She tried to wriggle away, to free her arms, but nothing helped. He simply looked at her and opened his mouth.
What came out was not a voice, not a sound like has ever been heard in this plane of existence. It was some terrible screech and clamor of voices, all combined into one unintelligible cry. He threw his head back with the force of the vocalization, and Anne watched as blood flew from his lips, landing with soft drops on the ground.
Anne screamed as well, redoubling her attempts to fight. His skin peeled away beneath her hands, blisters burst on his skin as she kicked and fought, but he never moved. It was only after a few moments of struggling that Anne saw other shapes looming between the trees, loping closer and closer with softer screeches of their own. They surrounded her, drawing in tighter and tighter like a noose around her neck.
Anne screamed. The trees were silent. They feasted.
Next time you make your way to a city and look for some peace and quiet, just remember, if a place in the city is frequently empty, be it a restaurant, convenience store, street, or yes even a park, there is often a reason for that. A very good reason.
Credit: Katherine C.
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