Short story from Chris Butler

The Chase

A fall afternoon. On an empty road, surrounded on both sides by thick pines. Nothing above but gray clouds. Nothing below but gray concrete. There is no wind. No birds signing. No sounds at all, except the scraping of the bottom of a small child’s worn shoes against the concrete, and the click and clack of her mother’s high heels stepping from heel to toe. Heel to toe. 

Both dressed in white, buttoned-down shirts, with short black skirts, cut just above the knee, the little girl and her mother walk down the road. She reaches up to grab her mother’s swinging hand, but can’t touch it. It is too high. Her little legs speed up. Her mother’s hand is swinging too fast for her outstretched little hand to grasp. She calls out, “Mom”. Her mother’s long legs stride longer and longer. Her little legs try to keep up. The little girl’s walk becomes a slow jog. She’s still extending her hand, still unable to reach. Her mother’s arm swings like a pendulum, with no signs of slowing. She jumps with her little legs, but still cannot reach. Her mother’s body begins to pull ahead of her daughter. She calls out for her mother again. “Mom.” The little girl’s slow jog speeds up. She jumps up, and down, up and down, reaching for her mother’s swinging hand. “Mom!” She calls again. The mother’s stride widens, the distance between them grows slowly, like the long, black strands of hair on the back of her mother’s head. The little girl cries out, “Mom!” But the mother does not turn around. She does not slow down. Her feet seem to be moving more quickly than before. “Mom!” The clicking of her heels, heel to toe, heel to toe, sound like a clock being winding forward, each second getting faster and faster. “MOM!” The little girl cries out for her mother to turn around. Her mother is too far ahead of her to reach with her short arms. And her clicking heels smack the pavement to a faster rhythm. Click clack. Heel to toe. The little girl’s jog accelerates into a slow run. “MOM!” She jumps with her little legs, her little hands unable to reach her mother’s pendulum arms connected to her swinging hands seemingly reaching the sky. Her mother’s legs move away from her, quicker and quicker with each step. Her lungs are pumping, as fast as her beating heart. The little girl starts to run after her. “MOM!” She cries out to get her attention, to make her slow down. To make her turn around. “MOMMY!” She can no longer see her mother’s heels, clicking over the curve of the road. The little girl runs as fast as her little legs can move her.  But she is still falling further and further behind. “MOMMY!” She can longer she her mother’s long legs. The clicking accelerates as if her mother is running. Click clack. Click clack. Heel to toe. Heel to toe. She can no longer see her mother’s hips. “MOMMY! MOMMY!” Her little legs are getting tired. The clicking sounds merge into a single click. “MOMMY!” Click. The little girl stumbles to the pavement. She skins her knees. Two thin streams of blood flow down her little legs. Tears flow into raging rivers down her cheeks. Sitting in the middle of the road, she looks up to see her mother’s long black hair disappear over the curvature of the earth. She cries out with her last, exhausted breath. “Mommy…” But her mother is out of sight. She no longer hears the clicking or clacking of heels. She hears silence.

The twenty something woman awakes in her bed, trying to chase down her breath. She is drenched in a shivering sweat from the feverish dream. Her long black hair has soaked her white pillow. She controls her spastic breathing, slowing down the pounding heart in her rising and falling chest. Her hands, clenching the edge of her bed, slowly release the python grip around the threads of the white sheet. She swings her feet onto the floor, the tips of her toes exposed to the cold, hard wood. She has calmed herself down enough to place her heels on the floor. She gingerly stands, stretching both arms over her head, then allowing them to fall to her sides. She steps, heel to toe, towards the faux oak dresser next to her bed. She pulls out a pair of white cotton panties, a pair of short black running shorts and a pair of ankle high white socks. She slides open the drawer below it and removes a white tank top. She dresses as she always did, from the bottom to the top. She remembers her dream wasn’t just a dream. It was a memory. The last one she has of her mother. On the small desk next to her dresser, she snatches her phone and a pair a white earbuds. She slips into her pair of white running shoes next to the front door of her tiny apartment. She pauses. She forgot her keys. She walked back to her desk and scooped them into her palm, each key settling between her fingers. She jams them into the pocket of her running shorts. She spins in a complete circle, making sure nothing else was forgotten, that nothing else what out of place. She returns to the door, and steps outside to the cool morning.

The sky is gray. No birds are chirping. She inserts the buds into her ears, scrolling along her favorite running playlist to pick a track. She settles on a song simply because it matches the rhythm of her run.                

She began jogging down her street. Surrounded on both sides by small, two-floor apartment buildings, each with one small window and a door facing the road, and a second level with two large windows with blinds closed. Painted in monotone colors, most of them gray. It always makes her claustrophobic on cloudy days, surrounded on all sides by shades of pale gray. She runs all the way to the end of the block, where the road met a dead end. There are tall pines, in the middle of which was the opening to a hiking trail, worn down to the ground by the residents of the neighborhood who allowed their children to explore nature, who walked their dogs and the bored housewives or househusbands who walked themselves.

She runs along the trail, following the splats of white paint marking the bark on the trunk of each tree every twenty feet or so. The markers gave anyone on the trail a small sense of safety and security that they couldn’t possibly get themselves lost, so long as they followed the marked trees. Her eyes stare at each marking of white paint as she passes it, then focuses down the trail onto the next splatter of tree graffiti. She peers up to see the usual bluebirds singing their morning songs. The same two bluebirds who perched on the same tree branch to greet her every time she ran and who were never disturbed by her regular appearance. As she runs underneath them, they fly away. She looks back down at the next marking. She doesn’t notice anymore birds along the path. Or squirrels. Or anything. The forest in front of her feet is empty. She turns down the music in her ears and hears the distant thudding of footsteps behind her. They are keeping pace with her. She no longer listens to her shoes go from heel to toe. She begins running a little faster. The footsteps are not only keeping pace, but they are speeding up. Before she realizes, none of the trees’ bark are marked with white paint. She had veered off the trail. But she couldn’t stop to figure out where her feet led her astray. The stamping feet were getting closer. She tries to peer down to her phone while keeping one eye on the dirt in front of her, changing the function from the musical playlist to make a call. She dials the 9, and then the first 1. The stamping feet sound as if they were right behind her. Whoever’s arms they are attached to are just close enough to reach out and grab her. The phone falls from her grasp, hanging onto the chord connecting the phone to the earbuds still in her ears. It drags along the ground behind her. She bolts through the trees to her right, her arms wailing to push the low hanging branches away from her face. She ran and ran. Heel to toe. Heel to toe. She snaps fallen twigs and crunches dead leaves beneath her feet. She hears the same snapping and crunching behind her, two feet still in pursuit.

She runs as fast as her legs can move her. Her legs scratch against the deceased branches on the ground. Her arms scrape from the living ones hanging from the trees all around her. Her years of cardiovascular training on that trail were increasing the distance between her and the stomping feet behind her. She approaches a thick pine tree, and she performs an evasive maneuver, pressing her back against a thick trunk, separating her from the direction she was running towards. She faces away, closing her eyes in hopes she lost the impending footsteps. She holds her hand over her mouth to muffle her panicked breathing. The stamping feet passes by her, slowing down to a jog, before coming to complete stop. She holds her breath. She closes her eyes. The footsteps then speed up and move in the direction she was headed, away from her. She waits for a few eternal moments. She picks up her phone, still dangling from the chords in her head. The screen is cracked into spastic spider webs. She slowly pulls the buds out of her ears, stuffing them both into the pocket of her shorts. She removes her keys from the other pocket, intertwining each one between her fingers around her white, tight fist. She runs in the opposite direction, as fast as she can. Her legs burn, rubbing against each other fast enough to start a forest fire. But she forces them to keep moving. She hurriedly looks at each passing tree, hoping to find a white mark of paint. Tree after tree, the bark is a barren dark brown. She comes upon a small clearing. The forest in the distance appears to be hundreds of feet below her. She stomps her heel to come to a stop, but below her feet is solid stone. Her upper body lunges forward, overseeing a cliff with a straight drop down. She nearly loses her balance and falters forward, but her feet keep her planted in the rocks. Under her accelerated breaths, she hears the stalking feet approaching behind her, then coming to a stop. She slowly turns around to see a towering figure, with a white buttoned up shirt, a short black skirt and high heels. The figure stands in front of her, the face obscured by a dark shadow. Her eyes frantically dart to the left and to the right of the figure. She realizes that if she is to attempt to run around the figure, she would be quickly and easily grabbed. She slowly steps backward, until the backs of her running shoes are at the edge of the cliff. The figure is motionless, face still obscured. She inches back until her heels teeter over the edge. Then the figure steps forward from the shadow into the sunlight. She freezes with crippling fear. “Mom?” The figure, an older woman with long locks of dark hair descending from the top of her head, extends her left arm. The same arm from her final memory. She extends her arm, reaching out for the long, soft fingers that she remembers so vividly. Her keys fall from her opening hand, jingling against the stone underneath her toes. The fingers seem to extend from the knuckle, coiling at the joints, reaching out for her. The figure rushes towards her with arm outstretched. The figure’s hand pushes her chest. She totters for a moment before her balance is lost. The young woman falls over the edge, screaming “MOMMY!”. Her cry echoes all the way down. Then silence.  

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