21 Nov The Walk Home
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"The Walk Home"Written by Emerald Lee
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Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
My breathing is steady and shallow, the exhales causing slight disturbances in the fog around me, my shoes making a constant smack, smack on the pavement. The mist acts like a thin blanket, dampening my senses, making the world just a little quieter, a little calmer. All around me are the sounds and smells of pure, serene nighttime. To my left is the pond; ducks are huddled along the shoreline, sometimes ruffling their feathers or making a sleepy murmur. I just passed the campus daycare, the windows are all dark and the playground is empty; the swing creaks back and forth slightly… There must be a breeze.
I’m on my way back from a long night of studying. It’s around 2 AM, the cafeteria in the university hall is open all the time so students can study late for upcoming finals. I’m not much of a cram-studier so I’m way ahead and I don’t have any exams for a few days.
I should have made plans to stay at Erin’s place. She lives on campus in the dorms and she gave me a copy of her key (which is completely against the rules, by the way, but she figured I might need a place to crash if I ever got too drunk at a campus party), but I’m pretty sure she won’t appreciate me storming in at 2 AM when she, unlike me, has an exam in the morning. I brought the key with me in case I was too tired to walk home; but alas, coffee is a brilliant invention, and if anything I feel wide awake, so I silently review the topics I’m finished going over… Riemann Sums… multivariable integration… domain and range of a plane… oh shit, I forget how to find domain…
A noise. Just behind me in the bushes. A rustling. I turn abruptly and see… nothing. A rat bursts from the bushes and scuttles across the path. I chuckle at my paranoia and continue walking, trying to regain my train of thought… Forget it. I have plenty of time to study. I can relax and enjoy the serene walk home.
There’s a noise again; a rustling sound closer to my back. I don’t bother to turn around this time, knowing logically that the sound is likely attributed to some other small nighttime creature; but I hasten my pace a little bit, silently admonishing myself for being so ridiculous. I turn right onto a dirt path, my favorite short cut, which leads away from the edge of the pond. There aren’t any street lamps along this route, but it gets me home faster than the alternative. To my left are trees. Not a full-blown forest or anything, just some shrubbery planted on campus in an attempt to make it look prettier. On my right is a fenced construction site. The breeze makes an eerie sound when it blows through the skeletal frame of the unfinished building. Starlings are gathering in the trees just above my head, noisily expressing their distaste for my presence on their path. Their twittering and chattering is a comforting distraction from the eerie sounds emanating from the unfinished building beside me.
The fog has mostly lifted and I catch a movement out of the corner of my eye, ever so small, just beyond the fence of the construction zone; a fleeting shadow, like a piece of garbage blowing around in the open space.
I stop. For some reason I need to look; to see if maybe, just maybe, someone is in the empty building. Vandals? Maybe. I squint and move closer, grasping on to the chain link in an attempt to see into the dim area behind the boundary, but I see nothing. I shake my head and release my hand from the fence, causing a shudder to go through the length of it.
There! A figure! Sprinting between posts of the unfinished building! I know I saw it… but by the time I focus my eyes into the darkness, it has disappeared again.
Then a figure, graceful and ghastly all at once, other-worldly in some ineffable way, steps out from behind a pile of dirt into the open middle of the site and stares at me. Without being able to discern eyes, or any features at all, I know the figure is looking at me.
I startle abruptly turn away from the fence, and I start walking again, even faster now. I glance over into the construction site as I move, and the figure is still there… a distance away but walking in pace with me.
I speed up; the instinctive prickling sensation of ‘flight’ running up my spine and making my hair stand on end. Multiple thoughts rushing through my head. How many coffees did I have today? Am I hallucinating? Just get home, just get home.
When I glance again and the figure is gone, but the sick feeling of being followed is still in the pit of my stomach. I can see a light ahead and I know I’m almost to the street so I speed up another notch; almost to the safety and comfort of suburbia, almost in the warm glow of street lamps, almost past the looming construction site. I put my head down and walk even faster, my legs are burning and it’s everything I can do not to burst into a full-blown sprint… I look up to see how much closer I am…
And It’s there. In front of me. The figure is at the end of the path, standing under the street light. It’s watching me. Not quite human somehow…
I come to a halt. Now I know I’m in trouble. I stand there for a split second… It watching me, me watching It.
And suddenly, abruptly, like some horrible, inverted flash of lightning, the street lamp goes out and I’m plunged into darkness. I can’t see It anymore, but I’m not willing to believe It can’t see me. So I turn and I run.
The moonlight occasionally flashes between the trees, the starlings are gone, I can’t sense a breeze, I have no idea where I am on the path, and I’m scared. Terrified.
I can hear It behind me. A ghastly, curdled gasping sound accompanied by a pattering of the Thing’s footsteps. They’re getting closer… closer… CLOSER.
I’m still running but I shrug off my backpack, letting it fall to the ground and I glance back. In the flashes of moonlight, I see the Thing tumble to the ground, tripped up by my bag.
Definitely not human. I start running faster.
There’s the pond. I can see it, just ahead, the moon reflected in the still water. I reach my turn and get an idea; I sprint in the direction of Erin’s dorm building. I can still hear the Thing behind me, but it sounds further away now, I gained some distance when it tripped… I force my legs to go even faster. I’m panting and I can’t feel my legs… I run back past the campus daycare, back past the cafeteria, and I burst into the courtyard of Erin’s building, sprinting towards the light above the solid, steel door, already digging in my pocket for the key…
The key. Was it in my pocket? Or did I put it in my backpack?
Shit, shit, shit, shit… I’m at the door now, the Thing is behind me, I know it’s getting closer…
The light above the door goes out.
I fumble in the darkness, desperately digging in my pocket. The sounds of the Thing behind me are getting louder, and louder and…
YES! The key!
I’m sweating as I pull the key from my pocket and urgently feel around for the keyhole, oh god why did the light have to go out?
The key slides into the lock, I turn it, throw open the door, rush inside to the warmth of the lobby and slam the door behind me.
BANG. The Thing throws itself against the steel door.
BANG. BANG BANG bang bang bang!! A garbled cry of anger sounds from beyond the door and then there’s nothing… except what sounds like a… a chuckle? And then the Thing is gone.
I realize I’ve been holding my breath so I exhale.
There’s a sound behind me and I jump and turn around…
But it’s only Erin. “Morgan?” she says, and I begin to sob. I don’t ever cry. But I start bawling. “What the fuck? Okay, whoa, what the hell is going on? I heard banging, it woke me up and, well, obviously my room is right here, so I came to see what happened… Are you okay? Why are you crying? Is it that jackass of a boyfriend? I swear to god if he hurt you or something -”
Now I’m laughing. Why am I laughing? This must be what shock feels like.
“I don’t think you’d –” I stop to sob and giggle; Erin looks at me like I’m completely insane. “- believe me if I told you what just happened to me.” I start to turn hysterical. Doors in the hallway open and sleepy students peek their heads out of their rooms to see what the racket is.
“What the fuck do you think you’re looking at?” Erin yells at them, “Go the fuck back to bed! Fuck… people can’t just mind their own goddamn business.”
Her profuse cursing obviously worked because doors close again and everyone disappears.
“Uh, okay, well… let’s go into my room. My roommate is a psycho so she’ll probably have a shit fit but I honestly don’t give a fuck at this point. Since when do you cry? Okay – shh! Just get in here.”
She leads a hysterical me into her room and sure enough, her roommate, (I think her name is Sue?) gives us a dirty look and makes a show of jabbing her earbuds in and turning her iPod on loud, then rolling over and yanking the covers over her head. Erin rolls her eyes and flops down on her bed, crossing her legs.
“You want to tell me what the hell is going on then, M? It better be good.”
Sometime later, in the early hours of the morning following a long, incredulous lecture from Erin about the effects of staying up too late, plus a tangent lecture about how she, unlike some people, has an exam to write in a few hours, she banishes me to her dorm room floor with a blanket and a rolled-up hoodie for a pillow and demands that I go to sleep. Still convinced I hadn’t imagined the horror of the night, I grudgingly close my eyes, but flashes of the Thing’s face dart across my eyelids and I realize that attempting sleep is futile.
My phone had also been in my pocket rather than in my backpack, along with Erin’s key. I pick it up and seriously consider, for about half a second, calling the police. But what would I tell them?
The key, shit. What did I do with it? I feel around in the dark but I can’t remember where I put it in the flurry of action after I made it safely into the building…
Erin is snoring lightly and I figure she’ll stay that way for at least a couple more hours, so I resolve to find the key later, and in the meantime take advantage of residence facilities. Maybe after a long shower I’ll be able to convince myself I’ve imagined the whole ordeal, or wake up and realize I’ve been asleep in the cafeteria all this time, or maybe I’ll just feel a little bit less… crazy.
I quietly steal a towel from one of Erin’s drawers. It’s a good thing I know I can borrow her stuff without asking, waking Erin up is never a very fun activity.
I quietly unlock Erin’s door from the inside, since I can’t find the key and I don’t care to get locked out, and creep into warmly lit the hallway, tiptoeing my way towards the bathroom… and my stomach suddenly drops, like when you realize that you’ve forgotten to do something very, very important…
I realize with sickly understanding… I don’t know what I did with Erin’s key because I never retrieved it from the outside lock. The whole night comes rushing back to me… the darkness as the light above the door was extinguished… my panic to get inside to safety… slamming the door behind me… the horrible sound of the Thing chuckling…
There’s a step behind me.
The lights in the hallway go out.
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