Fear Itself

by Brittany Meyer-Strom
Oregon, United States
genre: Horror

Even wearing noise-cancelling headphones, the child’s shrill, singsong voice assaulted my eardrums.

“The wheels on the bus go round and round! Round and round! Round and round!” he shriek-sang.

The passengers on the bus were getting migraines, myself included. I could bear it no longer. I stood up—teeth gritted in a poor facsimile of a polite-but-assertive grin— and moved into the aisle.

The toddler and his parents sat about five rows behind me. The little boy, not a day over three, stood on the middle seat between his beleaguered parents who steadfastly ignored him. They sat on either side of the boy, their eyes latched on to their devices.

The child beamed as he belted out the familiar song. “Round and round! Round and rou—”

Suddenly he stopped, as though struck down midword. Everything happened in a strange slow-motion. A heavy, pervasive sense of doom crashed over me, the weight of unexplained terror very nearly knocking me off my feet. Bone-chilling dread threatened to consume me.

The little boy’s mouth dropped open in a silent, startled “O.” Both parents gasped. Their phones fell to the floor unnoticed.

Something terrible was happening.

The dark fingers of fear left no one on the bus untouched. The other passengers trembled in their seats, some sobbing, others rocking and holding their head in their hands.

The driver apparently still had her wits about her. She sent the bus swerving off onto the shoulder of the road. I staggered with the sudden movement, catching myself on an empty seat before falling.

“Everybody!” the driver bellowed. “Off the bus! Quick!”

It was a painfully slow mass exodus. Every step felt like I was treading through a sticky sea of molasses. I couldn’t move fast enough.

The dread lightened a little with every tortured step to the front door of the bus. I couldn’t bear to go through the back exit. The invisible cloud of doom lingered thicker there, paralyzing. I had to get away. Out in the open air where I could breathe and I could run.

“Go, go, go,” the driver urged.

My childhood home—my ultimate destination—was at least five miles away. I could make it there on foot. Just keep moving. Don’t look back.

If only I followed my own sage advice.

Behind the bus, traffic had come to a standstill. Cars stopped haphazardly—many on the road’s shoulder or angled as though their driver was trying to pull over but didn’t make it in time.

Not fifteen feet away, the family who’d been sitting behind me had succumbed to the dread. Three statues stood in their stead—a man holding his head in his hands, mouth agape in a silent scream. A woman curled up in a fetal position, her arms embracing a confused-looking child.

A heavy hand tapped me on my shoulder. I managed to look away from the familiar statues and turned to see the driver, shaking but still keeping her composure.


I ran.

I’d never been especially athletic, but desperation to keep the dread at bay fueled my feet. I ran and ran, taking only short breaks to rest and catch my breath.

The miles fell away. By the time I reached the streets of my hometown, my feet screamed in protest. I slowed to a quick walk.

Little had changed over the years. Wriggly’s Tavern stood on the corner of Main Street like it always had. The old Apple Marketplace hadn’t gone anywhere, but the pawn shop and the big-box electronic store on either side were new.

I power walked past the mini-mart and the park. The dread hadn’t touched this town yet. But things weren’t quite right. Where was everybody? I’d seen a few cars heading out of town but otherwise, the streets were quiet, empty, devoid of life.

Please don’t let it be too late. I was so close.

The two-story house boasted a sprawling front yard framed by the quintessential white picket fence. Fatigue threatened to take me down with every step, but now my end goal was in sight.

I didn’t even need to knock. My brother, Zach, flung the door wide open as soon as I stepped on the porch.

“You made it!” he exclaimed.

I bent down to better reach him at his wheelchair level. We hugged—hard. Matters were dire if my younger brother eagerly volunteered affection. In his nineteen years, I could recall him hugging me perhaps three times. He didn’t like to be touched.

“Glad you made it. You packed light.” He noted my lack of luggage. Unable to think up a snappy reply, all I could do was grin at him.

I stepped inside the house. Nothing had changed in the five years since I’d last been there. The same antique knickknacks lined the walls, and every surface looked impeccably clean.

Exhausted, I collapsed on the chintzy settee in the parlor.

“Mom and Dad?” I hesitated to ask.

Zach sighed. “They went into the city for supplies. Yesterday.”

My heart dropped.

“Have you heard from them?”

His silence was answer enough.

“We should go. We can outrun it,” I said.

“In this?” He gestured at his chair bitterly. “Our folks took the van.” They had a customized van with a ramp and space for Zach’s wheelchair. “Besides—it’s everywhere now. No one can stop it. There are worse places to be than home.”

“I’m exhausted,” I admitted.

“Let’s sleep on it,” Zach suggested. “Figure out a plan tomorrow.”

Assuming there was one.

Too tired to argue, I nodded my assent. “Tomorrow then.”

“Sleep well,” he said as he wheeled out of the room.

“You too.”

Slumber took me right there on the settee. I didn’t have the energy to stand and make it to the guest room.

I awoke the next morning to an empty house and a note taped to the front door: “Went out for a smoke. Be back soon.” Zach had scrawled down the date and time in the corner of the note. It had been written over an hour ago.

My heart plummeted to my feet. I hurried outside, terrified of what I’d find.

What I didn’t find was far worse.

Zach’s usual smoking spot near the end of the driveway was empty.

Trying not to tremble, fighting the terrible worry that assaulted me from all sides, I stepped out onto the sidewalk.

I knew Zach. He wouldn’t just sit there as the end of the world edged ever closer. When we were kids, I’d chide him for never being able to read through a whole book—he’d always skip to the ending, unable to wait to find out if the evil dragon fell in defeat to the valiant knight, if the good guys would conquer the evil baddies. Ever curious, irritatingly impulsive, Zach wouldn’t just sit and calmly have a smoke as the world slowly collapsed around him.

Sure enough, I spotted him down the street, parked on the side of the road, motionless.

“Zach!” I screamed.

In my heart of hearts, I knew it was too late. Heaviness and deep-seated fear slammed into me. I could turn and run. But there was only so fast I could go, only so far I’d make it before falling to the dread.

Every step I took toward Zach felt like trudging through a sea of viscous mud. My heart thudded violently in my chest. I had to see for myself. I couldn’t let him face it alone.

By the time I reached my brother, my breath was coming out in ragged pants. It was all I could do not to curl up in the middle of the street and sob.

“Zach,” I murmured.

He didn’t respond.

My eyes closed tight. I couldn’t bear to look at him.

I reached over and clutched at his hand. His fingers felt smooth and cold like polished stone.

Zach was right: in that moment, there was no better place to be than home.






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