Well, I foolishly agreed to this Ray Bradbury writing challenge... doing one short story a week for a year. I haven't written much prose in the last decade, but my head is reeling enough these days that maybe getting some of the chaos outta there will do me some good. You're welcome to peruse the stories as they come, or write some of your own and provide me with a link.
I can't guarantee any type of quality or consistency, I wrote this first one just now and only proofread it for grammar, it's essentially a first draft and most of them probably will be. Hope you find this exercise fun, and selfishly I hope to benefit from it as well - it's a hornet's nest in this brain of mine, and need to be shaken loose every once in a while.
“Leaning Against A Tree In The Dark”
He ran but could not feel his legs. Nor could he see where he was going, the darkness was almost absolute in the moonless night, and the only sounds he could hear were the pounding in his head and heart and the rasp of his own labored breathing.
There was no way to tell if they were close behind, or if they had circled around him and were waiting ahead. His legs were shaking so strongly now that he couldn’t control his direction, so he stopped for fear of breaking one. If he broke his leg he was as good as dead. Leaning against a tree, he closed his eyes and tried to calm his breathing. It was difficult to do so quietly, but the idea of one of them hearing him cough or wheeze forced him to tremble silently. Breathe in. Breathe out. Don’t make a sound.
His heart pounded and now sweat began to pour into his eyes. He leaned into the tree and felt its bark with his trembling fingers, snapped off a small bit and put it in his mouth. He chewed this and it calmed him enough that he could breathe through his nose and listen.
The night was fairly silent. He looked around and saw darkness between the trees, which were dark too. Black shapes between blacker shapes, unmoving. The ground beneath his bare feet he became sensitive to, aware now of the quality of cool dirt, the few loose leaves and the hard root buried just beneath the surface. He rubbed a toe against the root and felt it connect to the tree he leaned against.
He was breathing more calmly now, and the pounding in his head and heart were still strong but he could separate them from outside sounds. He closed his eyes against the sweat and kept them closed, imagining himself as the center of a large circle of silence, expanding outward through the trees. Any sound caught within that widening circle would be made apparent to him. It was something he’d learned as a boy and never questioned its validity.
Their torches would be extinguished, this he knew. It’s difficult to see in the dark when you’re holding one, and they were determined to find him. His best chance was to hear them or their horses, that was his best chance. He expanded the circle of silence and heard bugs… buzzing around, close and far… he heard something rustle gently, feathers, not leaves… nothing else. Not the wind, or the leaves in the trees. It was as though the entire wood was holding its breath with him.
With a muscled forearm he wiped a thick sheen of sweat from his brow. They were either gone or very, very good at what they did. He had to assume they were still out there. He spit out the bark and touched the tree again, as if it was the sentinel keeping him safe and to depart from it fully would expose him.
It was a whisper, but it was so loud to him that it might have been in his own head. Silently he fell back against the tree, his eyes wide with terror against the dim dark. He did not respond or make a sound, he remained as silent and still as a stone.
“I’m talking to you. Don’t despair, I mean you no harm.”
He looked around, his heart and head pounding again. New sweat dripped into his eyes. His legs were shaking. He could not pinpoint the voice, it seemed to come from several places at once, and from no general direction at all.
“If you walk toward my voice I will help you. I can help you.”
He gulped, tried to focus. He closed his eyes and tried to extend his circle of silence. If the whisper sounded again there was a chance he could find its origin.
“You are going to have to trust me. You can continue to hide or you can step forward.”
It was no good, the whisper was elusive. There was no hint of character in it either, it was completely void of intent. He had learned to read the subtleties in the way people spoke, but he could not penetrate this whisper.
He decided to expose himself.
“Who are you? I can’t see anything!” His voice was coarse, even in whisper. It had been some time since he’d spoken a word to anyone.
“If you want my help you have to come to my voice.”
He fell silent again. He could no longer hide here. He had been found, by this… voice, this voice with no origin or intent… this utterly unreadable voice. Beyond the darkness were those that wanted to find and hurt him, this he knew. Also he knew that he could not outrun them forever. To trust this voice, this whisper, however, was beyond his capability.
“How do I know you won’t hurt me?” He whispered, gulping.
He wanted to laugh. He wanted to cry out, to strike out. What arrogance this voice had, offering nothing in exchange! Not even a platitude of helpfulness, just this cold statement! His hands were shaking, his heart was near exploding in his chest.
“Leave me alone,” he whispered to the dark.
“If you think you can do this alone, I will.”
He cleared his throat, tried to steady his heart.
“How do I know you’ll help me?”
“I told you I would.”
“That’s not good enough!”
He was met with silence. He listened for a rustle, a breath, nothing.
“Hello?” He said to the darkness.
“I won’t wait here forever. You make the choice. Stay here or come to me.”
He leaned against the tree, exhausted. He thought for a moment. He knew what was beyond the darkness, what waited out there in the trees. He knew what would likely happen if he continued on his own – failure and capture… defeat and death. Nobody beat those kinds of odds without a little help. And here was this… empty voice. Offering him help. This was one direction to which he did not know the outcome.
“You still there?”
He stepped forward.