Darkness slowly embraced the world around us, casting shadows over all things, a cloak of safety to lose myself in as I ventured outside.
We’d checked the area as best as we could, and it was time for me to go.
Tears ran freely down Annie’s face as she said goodbye, her entire frame quivering as I wrapped her in an enormous hug. We parted and she stepped back reluctantly, shadows engulfing her as she retreated back into the doorway.
“A week.” Jay said quietly. He stepped forward and held me so tightly I was momentarily breathless. “Jesus. Be careful. We love you.”
“I’m coming back. No matter what.” Tears were coursing down my cheeks now. I tightened my grip on the shovel, gritting my teeth against the panic I could feel looming over us. “I love you both so much.”
Such few words, meant to say so much, but they fell flat. Jay and Annie were my entire world, they were the only things left for me to love.
And I was leaving them.
I wasn’t ready for this.
Time to go.
“See you in a week.” I stepped back from Jay, from Annie. Each step I took widened the chasm between me and everything I needed to survive.
I could have stood and just looked at them forever. They were as dirty and scratched up as I was, exhaustion and fear haunting their expressions as it haunted my own. They were thin, whispers of who they were before.
I wanted to remember how they looked before and how they looked now. In case this was it, in case this was the end of everything.
A fresh surge of tears escaped with a choked sob, and I turned away from them.
I started walking, away from everything, but maybe towards survival.
I thought sticking to the farmland was smart for now, keeping the highway in sight but using the wild overgrown land to shield me from anyone or anything. I tried to focus on my plan and not think about everything I was leaving behind. It was difficult to see too much this far inland, the moon hung high overhead but it wasn’t as bright or full as other nights. Through the shadows and my tears, I did more stumbling than walking, tripping over every unseen root or bump in the grass.
It was freezing out here, the ratty jacket I’d stolen doing little to keep the chill at bay. I could feel the cold tears glistening on my cheeks, see the puffs of breath disappearing in front of my face.
I stopped to look behind me. I’d told myself I wouldn’t, but I had to, just once. I couldn’t make the farmhouse out clearly anymore, and soon it would be completely out of sight. I savoured the final sight of it, wiping my eyes and taking in a huge gasp of cold air.
This was it.
I had no more time or energy to spend on crying or worrying. I had to control everything, plan ahead, get to town, search, and get out.
Get to town, get out. I chanted it under my breath, a mantra, something to push me forward. I pushed that last image of Jay and Annie to the back of my mind, my light, my beacon.
“Okay.” I muttered quietly, if only to the insects that hummed around me. “This is it.”
My eyes clear now, I exhaled slowly, calming myself down from the sobbing mess I had been only moments before. I steadied myself to take the first real step toward town. Once I took this step, I wouldn’t look back again.
I turned my back on the farmhouse.
My steps forward were brisk and determined now. On my own, I found I could cover ground quickly, without the need to stop and take regular breaks. I ran on desperate motivation until the farmhouse was well and truly behind me.
What had to be several hours in, I finally paused to take a small drink of water. I slid the bottle back in my pack, ignoring how little water any of us had. I couldn’t think about it.
I kept walking.
I was nearing the outskirts of town now, which meant the park and the creek. Invigorated, I check my surroundings. No sounds, no movement.
I dashed across the road, hunched at half height, my heart racing. I ducked behind a massive tree trunk and waited.
Nothing. Just the steady hum of insects.
I made my way slowly into the park, feeling an empty kind of joy when I heard its reassuring gurgle.
Trying to shake the feeling of being watched, I washed my hands and face and quickly filled the bottles I’d brought with me. They would add weight to my pack but who knew if I’d make it back to this creek, or another water source? I couldn’t take that risk.
My skin prickled as I put the full bottles back in my pack. My ears twitched, my eyes straining in the darkness under the trees.
I felt… Observed.
I zipped my pack up and slung it back on, picking up my shovel and gripping it tightly, ready. Nothing but the continuing hum of insects.
An insect buzzed around my ear and I swatted it away, my senses on fire. I was frozen by the side of the creek, every muscle poised, my eyes darting, trying to focus on something, anything that didn’t belong here.
A shudder slid down my spine as I let the panic overcome me, my breathing jagged and uncontrolled.
I let the world settle back around me, undisturbed, as I stood at the creek, afraid to move. Talking myself down, slowly.
Nothing here. Just me and the insects.
I’d checked the area.
I watched now. Nothing.
I was calming down slowly, but I didn’t ease the iron grip I held on my shovel.
Time to go again. Move, damn it. I was beginning to feel angry with myself for freezing.
I started to count under my breath. On three, I’d force myself forward.
There wasn’t anything here. I’d checked.
As I readied myself, as I silenced the panic within, I heard it.
A twig cracked behind me. Close. The snap was loud, crunched under the foot of someone. Or something.
I could feel the entire world spinning around me as panic screamed through me. I held the shovel ready and turned around.