I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving with their friends and families. My story this week was based upon a short story prompt from a complete of weeks ago entitled "Pumpkins".
I apologize that I didn't get it out last Sunday as I was on vacation with my family. Hopefully everyone will enjoy the story, though. Let me know what you think! I appreciate all feedback!
"Jogging in the Shadows"
by James J Meadows III
Left, right, left, right…
Each foot fell in front of the other in an almost hypnotic rhythm as I raced down the dimly lit sidewalk on my nightly jog. I liked jogging at night. It was just about the only time when the temperatures were cool enough for someone to go jogging – unless you count the morning, which I don’t. There is no way I am getting up early to go running. No, I’m a night owl, and the night is where I feel at peace.
Over the bridge, past the small pond, and across the entrance to the apartment complex, I made my way along the well-trodden path. Soon, I found myself in a line of thick trees, which provided some protection for my eyes against the glaring headlights of the busy street they lined.
I couldn’t count the number of times I had run this path. Suffice to say, however, I knew the exact distance I was from my house during every piece of the journey, including what time I should be making and how much further I had to go. I knew its every feature by heart.
Over the cracked tile which wound around the ancient oak tree, past the park bench set just a few steps back from the trail, and past the old brick well at the end of the fence line.
It took me about five or six steps before I snapped out of my trance long enough for my brain to process what my eyes had just registered. There wasn’t a brick well on my run.
I turned around, jogging backwards for a few steps, and looked behind me. Sure enough, there was an old-fashioned brick well, with a wooden cover and an old bucket, sitting right in the middle of a small grassy area, which I knew was normally blank. Even more strange, sitting on top of the well was a jack-o-lantern, whose grotesque chiseled features, illuminated by the candle burning in the center, left an odd impression in my mind. Where did they come from?
I spun back around, resuming my jog as I tried to wrap my head around the weirdness of the situation. On the one hand, a well should not suddenly appear in the middle of a park where it didn’t exist before. Furthermore, it was the middle of spring. People didn’t light jack-o-lanterns in the middle of spring. Heck, it wasn’t even pumpkin season. No place would be carrying pumpkins this time of year.
At the same time, though, as I reminded myself, it was a public park, where kids host plays, residents put on shows and neighborhoods have their community events. The whole thing was probably just some sort of prop. I decided to take a closer look at it on the way back. After all, I didn’t get a good look at it as I passed in the dark.
Speaking of the dark, I glanced around. It was much darker than usual in this area. The lamp posts seemed to be out. I lifted my eyes to look at them. Sure enough, all of them were completely black, as though the area was experiencing a power outage.
I glanced ahead at the nearby intersection to see if the traffic signals were out also. Sure enough, they were out. And I mean they were out – not flashing red, like you sometimes see. They were completely black. This made me feel a little leery about crossing the usually busy intersection. Even at this time of night, the road was still fairly well traveled. It was then, I became struck by the sudden realization that I hadn’t seen a car in several minutes of running now, and the intersection was entirely empty.
If I was feeling confused before, I was totally unnerved now. I had a strong desire to turn back on my run. Still, I managed to suppress the desire. I was being silly. I was allowing my imagination to get the better of me. There was a reasonable explanation for all of this and there was no reason for me to abandon my run. I was only a couple of miles into the run anyway.
I was just crossing the intersection, when I felt a strange chill in the air. It was like running through an invisible wall of evil. The hairs on the back of my neck rose, like antennae picking up the dark broadcast of some sinister radio signal. My body involuntarily shuddered, goose bumps rising on my arms, and my footsteps faltering, as though drained of all strength.
Only my resolve to continue on my run compelled me forward, though at a much slower pace as I fought to force my legs ahead.
“Come on,” I muttered to myself, gesturing forward with my hand the way I always did when trying to encourage myself.
“Come on,” I heard the words echo in my head. Except the voice wasn’t my own.
It was a strange, deep, echoing voice, like one might hear when speaking to an empty stadium. Even more disturbing than the voice, was the strange impression that accompanied it: the impression of a presence, a vile-wicked presence, watching me, waiting for me.
This was too much for me. Without needing another moment of thought or reflection, I stopped and spun back the direction I had come. Maybe I was just imagining things, but I didn’t care. I was getting out of here!
As I retraced my steps across the intersection, I felt the strange chill wash over me again, like a gust of wind coming from behind. This time it brought more than just goosebumps. A strange vision filled my mind, a vision of a man – if you wanted to call it a man, perhaps ‘a thing’ would be more accurate – running just a short ways behind me.
The ‘thing’ was man-like with two legs, two arms and a humanoid body structure, yet it possessed no face, no eyes, and no features. Rather, it seemed almost like a living, moving shadow approaching from behind me. The vision brought an almost irresistible urge to turn around and look over my shoulder, an urge I fought to resist as some distant instinct, buried deep within my mind, seemed to come to life, mingling with my fear, urging me to run for all my life was worth and not to look back.
Of all the times in my life where I found a ‘second-wind’ none compared to the burst of energy I found now. My previously weary legs sprang to life, sending me hurtling forward.
“Come on,” the voice whispered in my head again.
With it came a fresh vision. I could see more of the creatures. Some of them seemed to be wearing clothes, hats, and various garments now, yet the figures inside them remained dark as the night. An eerie sinister energy seemed to radiate off of them. I picked up my pace, as much as I could with my heart already aching like I was running a marathon.
This didn’t seem to make a difference. Rather, they seemed to go even faster in response to my increase, steadily growing nearer to me with each step I took. As they approached, the visions grew more intense, their dark forms more clear and their evil aura more intense.
I ran harder, my legs and feet screaming in protest. Yet I didn’t dare slow down. I had to run. I had to get away.
The voice whispered more urgently, the words taking on an almost sinister delight, as though mocking me, or perhaps, inviting me to my doom. I didn’t care which. I just wanted to get away.
Then I saw it. A short distant ahead the well sat in the park with the bizarre jack-o-lantern on top, its grotesque candle-lit grin shining through the night. That was where all the strangeness began. Maybe if I could make it back there, everything would return to normal. It was a long shot. But at this point, it was all I had.
Straining with all my might, I sprinted toward the pumpkin, the black figures in hot pursuit; the vision growing ever clearer as they grew nearer. I was only a fifty yards away. They were getting closer. Only thirty yards away, they were practically on top of me. Only twenty yards away, I could see their shadowy hands rising. They were reaching out to me. Ten yards away, the nearest one almost had me. Five yards, his fingers were just inches from back.
I could feel him grab me. I could hear the vile voice laugh in my ears. He was pulling me backward!
With the last burst of strength I could muster, I threw myself forward, out of the strange grasp, and fell tumbling onto the sidewalk, rolling past the well and its wicked decoration.
Everything was silent. The voice was gone. I looked up and stared around me. There were no figures. There was no well. There was no jack-o-lantern. Cars were passing down the road, their headlights illuminating the dark street along with the glow of the fully illuminated street lamps.
For several minutes I lay there gasping for air. I could feel the pain throbbing from my knees and arms where they struck the pavement. At that moment, however, I could care less. I was just thankful to be alive; thankful to be safe; thankful to be away from wherever or whatever I was experiencing.
Still gasping for air, I rose to my feet, my injured legs shaky beneath my frame and headed home to chart a new route for my evening runs.