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Like most of my peers, I earned my driver’s license at the age of sixteen. With that, of course, came the desire to use it; to see my town and the surrounding world for myself, and to go places, do things and be someone. Being young, however, I didn’t have much of a plan, and driving without aim would be little more than a waste of gas, in a time and place when gas prices were less than favorable. Because of that, I wasn’t quite the explorer I had imagined myself being. That is, not until I began my morning routine at least.

I was never weak, by any means. I took martial arts, and pride myself in being able to personally kick the collective daylights out most of my male friends. Despite that, I wasn’t the strongest either, and a recent pandemic and extended lockdown had left me a bit more out of shape than usual. This combined with the recent desire to impress a girl pushed me to find some way to get myself into shape. The trouble was, I had tried regimens and schedules in the past, but nothing ever seemed to stick. You could reasonably chock that up to my own poor attention span, to be honest. Because of that, I was looking for some creative ways to stay in shape while also having fun. The main problem was that my previous exercise routines always seemed like chores, which never failed to deter me.

That was when it hit me. My town was surrounded by dry, stony hills and mountains on all sides. There was no shortage of trails nearby, and despite my poor physical shape, I was indeed an enthusiast of the outdoors. A daily hike up a nearby hill, I resolved, would be the perfect solution to my problem. I could enjoy some time in nature and slowly work myself into shape--two birds with one stone. So, from that point on, I rose first thing every morning and drove a couple minutes down the road to the foot of the nearest trail.

The first time climbing that mountain was a huge breath of fresh air. I felt that cool spring morning breeze, and I saw the waist-high yellow grass swaying in the wind. I heard my feet stomping against the thin dirt trail, and the sound of birds chittering nearby. It felt like heaven. I remember reaching the top of the hill, out of breath and sweating all over. It was an uncomfortable reminder of just how unfit I was, but was quickly swept away as I began to take in the view. From the summit, I could see almost the entire town below. It hit me then. Now that I was sixteen, that entire town was open to me. It felt huge and miniscule simultaneously, as I also considered the size of the outside world.

That changed everything. Suddenly, I was outside daily. Not only was I getting stronger, but I was thoroughly enjoying every single moment of it. That hill almost became my home away from home, in fact. Every day I’d stomp my way to the top, only to make my way back down again. All the while, I listened to the noises of the mountain. There were very many of them, in fact, there were more than one like myself might initially expect. I doubt I’ve even heard them all.

Every time I walked, I would listen for these noises, and associate them in my mind. Every time I heard a new one, I would search for it and record it in my mind, now knowing that much more about the hill. There was the soft rustling that the tall grass made each time a breeze blew through. There was also the sound of birds chirping and calling out to one another--probably the most common sound. Sometimes I would hear the faint scuttling of a lizard that had been basking on the trail until my clumsy footsteps had frightened it off. Sometimes it was that, but with a rabbit instead. As rabbits are larger, their noises were louder, and I learned to tell them apart without too much difficulty. I also heard odd clicking noises coming from the bushes or trees. I never found any birds to associate them with, so I instead decided that they must have been produced by bugs of some sort. Noises were what made that hill come to life, in a way. Even when I couldn’t see the animals that lived nearby, I could hear them, which still gave the surrounding area an air of life.

One day, a day I won’t soon forget, I was walking along the trail when I heard a new noise. It was midday, and the sun was shining strongly. I almost refused to hike in such heat, but I had made a commitment and vowed to follow through. I was halfway up the steep and strenuous trail when an unnerving sound reached my ears. It was a loud, dry, rhythmic rattling noise that started and didn’t seem to stop or even break for a second. I had never heard it before in my life, yet it put me on edge. There was something deep within me that instinctively knew what that sound meant, even if it didn’t register in my mind. The one thing I knew was that I was in immediate danger. I froze, not daring to venture any farther up the trail. Instead, I slowly began to back away, never once turning my back on the noise.

I knew that sudden movements would be foolish, so I forced myself to remain calm, despite my fear. As I backed away, the noise grew faint before stopping altogether. I calmed down, but knew that it would be foolish to finish the trail. Instead, I turned and slowly walked away, my ears now searching for any similar noises. I knew I was safe now, but that feeling of unease never truly left me, and every time I hiked after that, I was more wary than I was before.

That was my first time encountering a predator. That type of encounter--that type of noise--is one that leaves a lasting impression. Even when the creature isn’t large enough to eat you, knowing that something with the ability to severely wound you lurks just out of sight is a terrifying feeling. Back then, I didn’t immediately register that a rattlesnake was making that noise, or how close exactly it was, but I knew just from that sound that the best thing to do was to simply back away. Predators are frightening creatures, and their presence should put anyone on edge. Healthy fear is a wise thing to have.

Of course, I did continue hiking after that. One snake wasn’t enough to make me give up on my workout. But as spring turned to summer, and the days grew hotter and brighter, hearing that rattling noise became more and more common. Sometimes it was softer and at a distance, but sometimes it was so close that it seemed to flood my ears. Now, the hill had more than one trail, and I was perfectly able to take alternate routes. After a while though, I grew sick of that and decided to remedy the situation more properly.

I began hiking early in the mornings, or later in the evenings when the temperature cooled off. My logic was that, since snakes are cold-blooded, they’d be less active at the cooler times. And, well, it did work. At least, it did for a while. I must admit, I grew especially fond of the evening walks. Feeling the temperature gradually fall and the light slowly dim was relaxing. I could hardly get enough of it. One night, however, you could say that I jinxed myself.

One evening, I set off as the sun was setting. There was a slight breeze, and the temperature was fair. I would even go so far as to say that everything was perfect. As I walked, I noted every sound. A couple of birds chirping. A rabbit scuttling into the bushes. Two rabbits. Then three. Crickets sang out both in large choirs and as stunning soloists. By the time I reached the top of the hill, the sun had gone down almost entirely, and looking at the town below was like looking at Christmas lights. It was stunning. I couldn’t help but smile to myself. The rattlesnakes may have forced me to walk later, but I realized that it had been well worth it. This was so much better than any midday hike could ever hope to be.

After around ten minutes of gawking, I decided it was time to head back to my car and get home. As I did, I realized the trail had grown dark, and seeing it might be a little tricky. Of course, that was no real issue, as I had become well-acquainted with the trails by this point, but it still made me just the slightest bit easy. I began my descent, but something seemed off. There didn’t seem to be anything outright wrong, but it felt like something was missing. Then it hit me: I could feel the eyes of something watching me. I couldn’t tell where they were or what they belonged to, but I could feel something eyeing me.

I began to quicken my pace as a pit formed in my stomach. It was just a hunch, but my instincts were telling me to flee. As I moved, I realized something else. The crickets, the birds and the rabbits were gone. They made no noises. All was dead silent. As soon as I realized this, my heart rate began to rise. I was no expert on wildlife, but I’d been told in the past that when the creatures around you go silent, that means something else is out there. Something predatory.

Suddenly, running seemed like the worst possible idea. Instead, I had to move slowly and calmly. I could not afford to agitate whatever was crouching out of my sight. As I moved though, I felt my body tremble and my breathing become uneasy. This wasn’t like what I felt near that rattlesnake. Snakes don’t normally prey on humans, and will normally only bite if they feel threatened. This was something else. I was being hunted. It was deliberate, malicious and filled with killing intent. I tried to be calm, I really did, but I found myself hyperventilating. I was certain that I could hear a very soft shifting noise out in that grass, and I was certain that with every breath I drew, it crept ever so slightly closer.

I was halfway down the hill, and beginning to lose my mind. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps some part of me realized that I could be mere seconds away from death, and wanted to avoid that. As I desperately attempted to calm my breathing, however, something new emerged from the grass. It was the sound of soft breathing, no more than five feet away from the sound of it. It was somewhat raspy, like whatever it was hadn’t had a drop of water in decades. That was a new noise.

As soon as I heard it, I stopped holding back. I tossed away all reason and ran. It was too close. I couldn’t let it creep any closer. I had to run while I still had that option. Running downhill is a poor idea, but I was desperate to escape. I know that it may have been the most moronic thing to do in that situation, as most predators tend to be able to outrun their prey, but I was in a frenzy and could no longer be stopped.

While I ran, I could hear something begin to moan. It was a bizarre call that was neither human nor beast. It croaked out with a low, dry voice and began to rise in both tone and volume. Soon, it had reached a high-pitched shriek that seemed to split the night. Like I said before, it wasn’t human, but that was no animal either. At least, it wasn’t one I’d ever heard anything about before. That voice seemed to awaken something, however, and I soon began to wish that I’d just stayed put and stayed calm.

As that strange sound rose to its climax, more voices seemed to join in. I couldn’t tell where they were coming from exactly, but they were all around. Each voice started at the same exact pitch, rising until it matched that of the leader. They started at different times, staggering the noises, and it seemed like a new one was joining in every second. The noise was constant, as though they had no need to take a breath at all. I opened my mouth to yell in terror, but I couldn’t even hear my own voice over the sounds they made. Those voices seemed so full of rage, yet I didn’t understand why. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend them. The only thing I understood was that the amount of danger I was in had just increased tenfold. This was most certainly a new noise.

They seemed to be everywhere. With every stride of my desperate attempt to flee, more and more voices joined in, seemingly growing increasingly close. I was almost to the bottom of the hill now, and only had to run a hundred or two feet before reaching the trailhead where my car was located. At that point, the screams were flooding my ears, seemingly right behind me and right at my sides. I couldn’t tell if they were running, or if they were staying put and letting their cries disorient me. As I ran, my vision began to blur, and everything around me seemed to bend and warp. I’m not sure if this mirage was an effect of the screams, or if it was simply my own fear. I realized that I was teetering, slowly losing balance.

Suddenly, a sharp pain shot through my leg as something slashed at my right ankle, then at my calf. I screamed again, but of course, it was inaudible compared to the cacophony that surrounded me. Then something nailed my left hand. I’m not sure if it was a fang, a claw or something else entirely, but it hurt. With those sudden attacks, I felt myself lose what little was left of my balance, and my body tumbled into the dirt trail. I tried to scramble to my feet, but everything was moving so slowly, like forcing my way through a pool of honey. It was almost like running in a dream. I managed to make my way to my feet again, but everything had blurred and warped to the point where I could hardly discern what was around me. I felt dizzy, like I would collapse again at any moment.

The pain in my arm and leg felt like it was spreading, working its way through my entire body. Everything felt surreal but that pain. Up ahead, not fifty feet away, I was able to make out the trailhead I was almost free. Something latched onto my back, but I managed to shake it off. It had been the size of a medium-sized dog, but with six long fingers at the end of all four limbs, and bare skin that was like ice to the touch. I didn’t get to see it, and I didn’t want to. As I got it off, another leapt on, screaming in my ear and momentarily deafening me. Once more, I was able to shake it off, but not before something sank into my shoulder. I think it was a sort of mouth, but with long, thin teeth like sewing needles. They sank into my skin without resistance, but seemed impossible to remove. When I did throw it off, I felt it take a small chunk of flesh from my shoulder as well. It hurt like nothing before.

Then one grabbed onto my leg. With my free foot I aimed a kick, which seemed to break its body with relative ease. It crumpled up and released its grip, and I kept on running. I passed the trailhead and headed for my car, stumbling again as I attempted to reach for my keys. I pressed the unlock button, slid my thumb through the key ring, and reached out for the door handle. As my fingers wrapped around it, I felt several more latch onto me and attempt to drag me away.

I yanked the door open, kicking and thrashing wildly as I forced my way free of the creatures and into the car. As soon as I was in, I slammed the door shut, locked it, inserted the key and started the car. As I flicked on the headlights, I saw several dark shapes scatter, adamant on avoiding the light. I put the car in gear and began to drive, while thousands of six-fingered hands slammed and pounded on all sides of the car. I could still hear the shrieks outside, constant as ever.

I turned on the radio, switched to the loudest rock song I could find, cranked the volume as high as it could go (which, mind you, was quite high) and fled that neighborhood at nearly forty miles per hour. I heard thumping noises as the creatures were thrown off. The music was blasting so loudly that I could no longer hear their screams. I had probably permanently damaged my hearing, but that meant nothing to me in the moment. I didn’t even bother to look at the things. I didn’t want to know what I’d see.

Still feeling dizzy and dream-like, I guided my car clumsily down the road. My whole body was in pain. Somewhere along the line, I swiveled into the wrong side of the road and smashed into the side of some Volkswagen. Everything was a blur as the police questioned me. As my parents lectured me. The pain in my body was all I could feel. The blurred, warped shapes and colors were all I could see. I could only hear soft, muffled noises, no matter how loudly anyone yelled. At that moment, I just wanted to die.

Nobody was killed in the accident, and I don’t feel like recalling the specifics of what happened after. My body is scarred where those things bit and clawed at me, and black spidery lines mark where the pain seemed to crawl. Over a couple days, my vision returned to normal, but my hearing was never the same. Even now, I’m almost completely deaf. It’s a bit of cruel irony, really. I had fallen in love with the noises on that hill, but now I’ll never hear a new sound again.

I no longer hike there. I no longer hike anywhere, for that matter. Nobody questions me when I stubbornly refuse. I never go out at night anymore, either. I did once, and that alone scared me away from it. Well, for a year or so, at least. Whenever I went out at night, no matter where I was, I began to hear those screams again. They would start low, then begin to rise. It shouldn’t be possible. I’m deaf now. But that never stops them.

I regret everything, now. I regret so much as stepping outside. I’m miserable, and nobody can console me. Do you have any idea what it’s like to live without noise? Especially when you can vividly remember every sound from when you could still hear? It’s disturbing, to say the absolute least. Doctors tried everything, of course, but nothing worked in the end. It’s utterly miserable.

After a while, I craved noise. I listened to it every chance I got. Even though all I could hear was those screams, after a year or so of avoiding them out of fear, I began to seek them out of desperation instead. Every night I began to wait outside for those cries. I smile as I listen, their voices growing ever so closer. Once I see the shadows moving in the dark, I go inside, my deaf ears still ringing. That’s the only thing that gets me through the day anymore. Knowing that at night, I’ll be able to hear something again.

That’s why I’m outside writing this. The screams are getting louder and louder, and I see shapes shifting in the dark. I think they’re coming for me, but I never really knew if they would kill me, or if they just wanted to taunt me. Maybe I’m just going insane. Nevertheless, I can’t go on like this. I think I’ll wait for now, and see what they do. Before, I was too scared to find out, but not anymore. And if these really are my last moments, well… at least it won’t be silent.