All of Us
by Kathleen Naytia
Issue 9: Alternate History | 1,944 words
British Library digitized image from page 274 of “When Life is Young: a collection of verse for boys and girls”
Lara listened intently to the sound of cracking and snapping in the distance. She’d noticed the sound a few hours earlier coming from various directions. She comforted herself by deciding it was the wind having its way with stray twigs and weak branches. Her father hoped for rain to accompany their travels. Though it would be uncomfortable, it would keep anything wild from lurking. “Er’thing hides when Mother Nature gits riled up,” her father repeated while planning their trip.
He’d studied multiple maps to find the best migration routes. They’d spent the day following his least favorite route, which cut through wilderness along a narrow path. Her father thought it would be the most convenient and allow for quicker arrival to the nearest Virginia town. The town where they’d catch the Miracle Bus straight to New Jersey. After a full day of walking, Lara expected fatigue to take her completely, but the sound of the wind beating against their homemade tent and the crack, crack of branches was making sleep impossible.
“You all right over there?” her father asked in barely a whisper. The sound of his voice, velvety and slightly hoarse, gave Lara a bit of the comfort and safety of home.
“Yeah,” she replied as her heart thumped a little louder with each snap or crack that broke through the darkness.
“No need tuh worry,” he began explaining. “We’ll catch that bus an’ be in New Jersey by end of day tomorrow. Then we can stay in a room for the night an’ head to your Aunt Mini and Cousin Bobby by nex’ day.” It was as if his fatherly intuition had told him Lara needed the reassurance.
“You think it’s really jus’ wind out there makin’ all’at noise?” Lara asked.
“You let that Bobby git tuh ya,” her father let out a throaty chuckle. “That cousin uh yours don’t know what he’s talkin’bout.”
Just a few weeks earlier, Bobby had troubled Lara with stories of people who didn’t make it through the migration. He and Aunt Mini had found work in New York the year before and traveled on the Miracle Bus to safety. He said there were tales that went as far back as the first wave of travelers right after the war when the country was split in two by a signed agreement from Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. According to the agreement, the Confederate States of America was to release slaves slowly in a transitional process allowing for a period of adjustment for both the whites and the “freed slaves.”
Once freed, many traveled to the United States of America in search of true freedom and opportunity. The first wave of travelers made their way out of the South on June 19, 1865, and more than one hundred years later, Lara and her family were part of the final groups to leave. Leaving was supposed to be quick and easy, but the CSA wouldn’t have that.
Bobby told Lara all about the travelers who never made it to their destination because of what some said were the hands of local white men bringing their journeys to an end. Others thought the trouble was from the wendigos lurking in the wilderness. And many thought the unsuccessful travelers were victims of a curse set forth by vengeful whites who wanted the trees to do the killing for them. It all scared Lara so bad she begged her father to spare some of their small savings on tickets for the Miracle Bus—the only mode of transportation for the last forty years that would take Black people into the USA. Her father gave in, only to have them miss the last bus out of their small Virginia town while he packed and repacked to be sure nothing was forgotten. Their impatience meant they would travel on foot to the next stop.
Lara started to laugh at the ridiculousness of her fears. Her thinking was interrupted by the tapping of water droplets against leaves.
“Seems like the rain came tuh look out for us aftuh all,” said her father.
“Yeah, I guess so. But I still won’t git no sleep wit’ all this noise,” said Lara.
“That’s all right, you can sleep on the bus.”
Everything seemed to calm. The air felt cooler with the rain. Lara welcomed it. For an hour, all things were silent save the water tumbling through the trees and pounding against their old tent. After the rain ended, Lara thought she might actually get some sleep. Even the wind settled and allowed the night to sing its own song of crickets and owls.
Crack, crack, snap. It started up again. The sound of the wind having its way with the twigs and branches, only the rain had left, taking the wind with it. Lara turned in the direction of her father but couldn’t make out the deep brown of his skin in the dark of their tent. Snap! It was the loudest yet. Crack! The sound was moving closer, getting louder, not just because of the distance. Lara could hear tearing and crushing as if whole bushes and trees were being torn in half and cast aside. She twitched at her father’s rough calloused hand finding hers.
“Maybe it’s jus’—” she started, only to be shushed by her father.
The noise had found its way to their tent. Lara looked through the thin fabric expecting to see the silhouette of a man, but there was nothing. They were supposed to wait another year, but the murder of Dr. King meant the CSA would be even more unsafe for Negroes, and their journey even more harrowing. They expected to see white men, to have to outrun horses and dogs, but that’s not what they saw mingled amongst the trees.
The noise seemed to multiply and move with astonishing speed, creeping and cracking from the left side of the tent, then somehow snapping and moving straight toward the front and back simultaneously. Lara squeezed her father’s hand and grew concerned when he squeezed back.
Her head whipped to her father’s direction as he sat straight up from where he lay. She turned hesitantly in the direction she knew he was facing. A silhouette began coming into view. It seemed to unfold slowly in the light of the moon: a long figure, its legs spread wide and bent at an unnatural angle, arms stretched the entire length of its body, back bent into a mountainous hump. The creature, barely moving, stared at their tent. The moon glowing behind it made it appear hallowed.
Lara’s hand throbbed as her father squeezed tighter, but she couldn’t find it in herself to scream or pull away. The zipper along the front of their tent slowly began to rise without a hand touching it. The creature looked on, its warped body rising and falling with each breath. Lara and her father remained still. They clutched their tattered blankets in one hand and held onto each other with the other. Lara’s chest struggled to keep up with her breathing. She thought she might burst if she sat there any longer waiting for that thing to get her.
“We have tuh run, daddy,” she said.
The creature slunk down on all fours.
“No. Lara, it’ll kill us,” her father replied.
The zipper reached the top of the tent.
“It’ll kill us in here. We don’t need tuh make it easy.”
The flaps of the tent began to open.
She shot out through the opening. From the corner of her eye she spotted an oblong head moving to face her. She headed straight for the greenery and away from the creature with her father’s voice at her back. With only the moon to light her way, she moved faster and faster. Wet leaves and branches whipped at her legs, arms, and face. What the moon illuminated her speed blurred. She could only make out shades of green and brown. She was afraid to look back until she heard what sounded like bushes being trampled by something behind her. She thought her father had run out with her. She turned hoping to see his muscular figure coming up behind her. Instead, she found the same stick-thin monster, slinking like a cat, with the hump of its back raised high above its head. Its limbs twisted to and fro as it moved. It seemed to enjoy itself, taking its time. Finally, it quickened and launched itself forward to pass her.
Before she could look away, the creature was in front of her. It stood on its legs, body stretched to its full height, head brushing the branches of the trees. The hand, which seemed to Lara a silhouette of knives, was raised high waiting to strike.
“LARA,” her father’s voice rang out from the dark behind her.
She tried to stop running and, instead, slid on wet leaves and mud to fall right at the creature’s feet. Lara closed her eyes and thought of what the thing might do to her, to her father. Her cousin and aunt safe in New York came to mind. She thought something this awful had to be a curse because nature would never produce such a monster. She opened her eyes in time to see her father swing a log as big as her own body into the creature’s side. With a grunt, it stumbled back. Lara’s father swung again, this time sending it to the ground. He hit it once more, smashing what might’ve been a torso. He grabbed Lara by the arm, barely allowing her feet time to touch the ground, and sped off in the opposite direction.
They ran for as long as they could, every snap putting speed back into their tired steps. They ran until the sun began to peek over the trees, their muscles and joints pinching and stinging. They ran straight to where they would catch the Miracle Bus. Half limping but still running, they made it just as the bus pulled up to load a group of passengers.
“Step on up,” the driver sang as he opened the door. “Have your tickets out.”
Lara’s father patted his pockets as his face emptied of all color. They’d left everything behind. Every carefully packed item that only yesterday her father had thought too important to go without. Lara stepped on the bus, ready to plead their case.
“Wait a minute. No ticket, no ride,” the driver exclaimed as Lara climbed on the bus.
“Please sir, we lost our tickets in the woods,” Lara began. “S—Somethin’ came aftuh us, we had tuh run, we left everything behind.”
The driver looked from Lara to her father. Wet and torn clothes, barely able to stand. Lara could only imagine what he was thinking.
“I heard ‘bout them woods, ‘specially round these parts, close tuh the edge uh the CSA. Ya’ll come on an’ git ya’selves a seat.”
Lara and her father stepped on the bus and took the first couple of seats they could find.
“Them stories is the whole reason we got this here bus line tuh begin wit’,” the driver continued.
Lara and her father flinched at a pair of hands reaching over the side of their seat. It was a little boy holding a plate of food wrapped with a piece of thin plastic. She looked behind him to a woman nodding for them to take it.
“Go ‘head. We packed plenty,” the woman said.
Lara took the plate and mouthed a weak thank you. As the driver pulled off, she and her father dug into the food, tears streaming their faces.
Kathleen Naytia is a Bronx born writer of speculative fiction. She is the creator, producer, and co-host of the Loud in the Theater podcast. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram (@kathleen_naytia) avoiding her thesis/novel.