The 4:40 a.m. drive to morning practice is long, and as I look out the window, the dim glow of street lights turns the trees lining the road into aberrations, twitching and pulsing with the wind.
As I walk into the pool enclosure to put my bag down before I trot to the gym, I can’t help but catch sight of the witch’s brew of the pool. Dead bugs and crumbling, crunching skeletons of leaves float haphazardly in the water.
“Really? Do you really want to be here? That looks cold, and practice is probably going to be hard,” whispers an inner voice that seems to resonate from the shadows, dimming the stadium lights of the pool. I shiver; it was feeling a lot colder all of a sudden. But at least the gym is warm, and as the swimmers filter in, my coach starts writing out the set on the whiteboard at the front of the room.
“Alright, everyone, run to the parking garage, up the stairs, across the top floor, down and up the stairs on the other side, back across the top, down the stairs and back to the gym,” he begins. As he continues to explain our complex workout, a web of shadows starts to expand across the room.
We trudge outside into the inky dark of early morning, legs wobbling at the thought of the stair sprint ahead of us. A clamp of doubt clenches my gut, and out of the shadows, I hear, “You won’t make it.”
I shake that thought out of my head and replace it with one of the songs stuck in my head, “Talk Too Much” by COIN. With each footstep, I hum an out-of-tune series of notes from the song, drowning out the shadow’s little whispers.
The jet-black sky turns into a murky gloom as we run toward the parking garage with its flickering orange lights hanging on the walls. All is quiet except the continual patter of footsteps on the stairs and the wheezing of a dozen fish trying to run out of water.
The parking garage run is a struggle, but as everyone starts the trek back to the gym, breathless banter breaks out, filling the damp, chilly air with gasping laughter. But shadows still stalk the group, slithering across the ground to lurk in the corners of the gym.
Reminded of the challenge set ahead of us, I notice the shadow tendrils reaching out, circling one of my teammates, engulfing her in a haze.
“I don’t want to do this,” she says, shoulders slumped in defeat before we’ve begun the main workout. Another shadowy arm reaches out and wraps around the teammates closest to the first victim, and they, too, start to whine. A tentacle starts to tickle my sneaker; I try to brush it off, but it wraps around my ankle.
Coach starts the clock, and we begin our 50 burpees. The shadows flit from person to person, a festering ball of darkness that latches onto each person’s head as it passes by. A third of the way through the workout, the gym is shrouded in a menacing dark mist. I focus on the 80’s music blasting from Coach’s speaker, the pulsing of the music starting to force the shadows back into the corners of the room.
“Come on, guys, halfway through!” someone shouts, and the shadows reluctantly retreat fully into their corner. A few whoops come from the crowd, no longer a flopping group of deep-sea fish but a group of athletes powering through a set.
The trees on my walk to school three hours later are blazing beauties, their leaves falling lazily in a shower of ruby and bronze. Nothing remains of the creatures I saw that morning.