This story is by Jennifer Marshburn and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The too-hot, mid-morning sun seared the streets and sidewalks in McDowell Square. The captured heat from below warmed the marchers’ lower legs, while a cool, early-autumn breeze wafted gently across their bare arms, shoulders, and faces. Silvia giggled to herself as she realized she was jogging in step with the rhythmic chants from the gathering activists.
1, 2, 3, 4
We won’t take it anymore
5, 6, 7, 8,
No more violence! No more hate!
While Silvia watched maybe a hundred protesters or more marching through McDowell Square, she wondered why she hadn’t abandoned her usual route to avoid the crowd. Morbid curiosity, she supposed. Their chants seemed generic, but her experience told her, they were marching for women’s rights, or gun control, or voting rights. It seemed lately, there was always marching.
She continued to jog alongside the crowd, glancing at their clever signs and amusing T-shirts. It was the rhythm that made her want to stay with them. The steady collective voice worked like a metronome on her feet, gently pacing her morning jog. Most mornings, she was dragging – not working hard enough – but quickening her steps tired her out too soon. This consistency may help her finally reach her four mile goal.
At McDowell Street Park, she turned from the crowd toward the trailhead to a hilly, greenway. Her eyes stayed on them as she turned to enter the park, and she saw the group join another one already stationed at the edge of the square and chanting across the street at the convention center. Police stood casually in the blocked street, seemingly unconcerned but attentive. Just before the scene disappeared, Silvia caught a glimpse of something. It took her a moment to identify what she’d seen, or at least thought she’d seen. As the picture revealed itself to her like a watermark on her mind’s eye, her stomach turned. Was someone waving a Nazi flag?
As she continued on, an eerie feeling crept over her. She knew she was jogging in the opposite direction, but it seemed the chants were getting louder. As they grew, the sun seemed to shrink away behind the clouds and the trees hovered lower as though they were closing on her, not drawn in but pushed down by some force above. Unnerved, she made an abrupt turn in the direction of the Museum of Natural History. It was four blocks down from the convention center, and provided a footbridge from the park to the entrance on the other side of McDowell Street.
And still, the voices rose, no longer in rhythmic congress, but a discordant barrage of unidentifiable sounds, like a flock of thousands of angry crows talking over one another. When she emerged from the tree-covered path onto the footbridge, and saw the sun cowered behind dark-looking clouds, her ears were unprotected from the rising storm of the two sides lobbing indecipherable jabs at one another. She pushed on increasing her speed, and turning sharply out of the museum’s courtyard, away from the growing savage cries. The shadow that had seemed oppressively battening down the trees, was now rising above them, casting a cool contradiction to the midday sun.
Silvia’s heart was racing now; her mind working fast to find a solution to her problem – how would she get back home? The possible routes flashed across her vision as quickly as her feet hit the ground at a near-sprint. The crowd was getting bolder. On each side of the street, protesters and their antagonists were slipping further and further toward her, trying to sneak past the police presence that was woefully understaffed. There was still space between them in the street, but the police on each side had closed in, encouraging the bulk of the masses back. Drifters on each side, though, were unattended. Those that slipped away from the center, followed by officers trying to keep some order, had the effect of moving the whole group further east down McDowell, closer to Silvia.
It was moving away from the convention center, this monstrous rabble that was merging beyond the officers’ hold. Silvia chose to retrace her steps in the hopes that she would be able to drift away from the savage mob. It was clear now the police were not in control. The pack had a mind of its own, and had become more powerful than anyone could hope to tame.
Fueled by adrenaline alone, she ran back over the footbridge faster than she knew she could run to where the Museum of Natural History stood, with its Neanderthal models and mammoth likenesses, staged in the necessary chaos of hunting for survival. That is not what the gruesome thing outside its walls had in mind. It was chaos for chaos’ sake that this fiend desired – the anonymity of the masses, to get lost – become not one villain, but a mindless barbarian throng. Like a mammoth out of the ice age, without a concept of its size, but fully aware of its power.
By the time she got her feet back in the park, under the ominous shade of trees, the roars had spread. They seemed to be echoing all around her as if the beast was moving in. Behind the trees she felt some relief, though the constant grumbling and howling reminded her it was too close. She darted between trees and bushes, making herself a moving target, imaging how Jack must have felt running from the giant in hopes of escaping down the beanstalk. She had no beanstalk – no secret trapdoor that could serve as her escape.
Out of her periphery, she saw glimpses of the larger mob, and she knew she was just within its clutches. She could hear its gnashing from all sides. She emerged from the trees, into McDowell Square, and found the true behemoth had descended on her peaceful park and the damage it had already left in its wake.
Trash cans were thrown through the air scattering rubbish into a haphazard obstacle course. As the victims teetered and tottered, bloodied from heads and noses, they stayed where they fell when they tripped over the slightest paper cup. They always say when facing down a bear, play dead, thought Silvia.
Amid the chaos, perhaps she could slip past the vandals, undetected, back to her apartment. A baseball bat flew through the air too close for comfort, and she ducked, raising her arm for protection. She shrieked in pain when it came down with a crack.
Wincing at every movement and vibration of her footfalls, she pushed on with a greater urgency, cursing herself for screaming. Surely, the beast heard that. Blending in or hiding was no longer a choice. Her only hope of escape was to outrun a savagery that was larger, faster, and more inhuman than any living thing her wildest nightmares could have conjured.
Staying out in the open seemed the best course of action. If she followed too closely to the buildings, she could be easily cornered. She watched in passing as minions separated from the host, pouncing on passersby and clawing at the poor souls who lay writhing on the ground. She wondered where the officers could be, how the keepers had lost control of the zoo. She hadn’t seen a badge since the museum. She could expect no help from them. Were they just as frightened as she was?
Another cell split away, running past her toward an elderly man sitting on a bench in the center of the park. Silvia marveled that the man neither moved, nor protected himself, though he must have heard them coming. He must have seen the madness that was devolving around him. She wanted to stop and help him, as he was stomped and bashed to the ground, but her fearful feet pulled her away. She forced herself to look homeward, her last sight of the beating a glob of blood and tissue flying from the man’s open mouth. That was when she saw her building – the third floor where her apartment would tuck her safely away.
Then a sudden blast left a ringing in her ears. She felt dust and pieces of metal, plastic, and glass waft abrasively across her bare arms, shoulders, and face. It was angry before, the great devil that had been unleashed in the square, but worse now, it was frightened. Before she could get out of its path, the monstrous horde, unthinking and afraid, pushed her to the scorched earth. And while the scene dissolved behind her drooping eyes, she giggled to herself as she realized the same mob was running over her back in step with the rhythmic chants of that peaceful assembly from the morning.