I was out of breath and completely lost in the impossibly dense forest. I was panting so hard, drowning in this endless sea of trees. I stopped running for a second to shift up Emily who was slipping down my back. The little girl was still crying, her arms tightly wrapped around my neck. I awkwardly wiped the burning sweat off my eyes on my shoulder but more dripped down my forehead straight away. I was quite literally steaming in the cold night air.
A branch snapped behind us, making me jump. Before I could think, the unearthly howl resonated through the woods once more. How could they move so fast!
Emily gripped me hard, nearly choking me.
She cried out my name, the terror just too clear in her voice.
“It’s OK, baby girl,” I whispered as I forced myself to run again. “We’re going to be alright. Just hold on for me, OK?”
Emily nodded against my back.
It was a lie.
I knew that whatever was following us was getting closer. I tried to relax my wrists, my arms aching from carrying the six year old for so long. In the back of my mind, the pain reminded me that I wasn't asleep, that it couldn't all just be a nightmare. I pushed the thought away; there wasn't time for this now.
I sped up, careful not to slip on the wet leaves which lay into a sleek mat in the bushy undergrowth, reflecting the occasional ray of moonlight which made it past the heavy clouds. I was well aware by now that I could not outrun them.
Not whilst carrying Emily.
I looked around desperately but I was only met by impenetrable darkness. I randomly made a sharp left turn, and then swerved right. The smell of damp moss suddenly faded, and the stench of decomposing rot overwhelmed us once again. I tensed up, my pulse pounding loudly in my head. They were so close! I glanced over my shoulder. Trees, everywhere, just trees! In this green maze they could come at us from anywhere.
“Look!” Emily exclaimed painfully in my ear.
I lifted my head. In the distance, I spotted it.
I stared at the white flicker, still unsure whether it was real or if I was hallucinating from the exhaustion - but the light did not budge.
I had found hope.
But it was too late! I was already moving as fast as I could. The howls started again in the thick-smelling air. I needed to think. I needed to do something. We would never make it this way.
“Emily,” I panted, hurrying blindly through the now pitch black forest. “At the count of three, you’re going to get down and we’re going to run as fast as we can toward that light.”
Emily nodded silently, her head softly bumping between my shoulders. I could feel her shaking through my raincoat. In a brief moment of lucidity I realized just how surreal being chased through the woods in a red hooded coat was. Maybe one day I'd even laugh about it. But not tonight. I grabbed Emily’s hand and began counting.
I bent backward to drop the child, keeping her hand safely in mine all the time.
As soon as her feet touched the ground, I took off for the faint light in the distance, dragging the little girl behind me like a rag doll. A deafening stampede immediately broke all around. They were coming for us!
My lungs were ripping up my chest, each breath piercing through. Too soon, Emily’s fingers slipped out of my hand. She was slowing down, wheezing painfully.
“We’re almost there!” I encouraged brokenly.
But she was spent, tumbling more and more. I could hear them behind us, getting closer each time she fell.
We were the prey.
We were surrounded.
I screamed my rage into the night. I found the strength to turn around and pick Emily up in my arms one more time. The trees shattered all around us, an explosion of leaves and trunks as our hunters tore through the woods. They were done playing now, I noted grimly. I raced on. The effort was brutal. I bit my lower lip and tasted metal in my mouth.
A tree broke in half and fell right in front of me, only nearly missing us. I dived to the left at the last second and smashed my shoulder into another trunk.
My muscles were begging for me to stop. I kept running, shards of bark flying everywhere.
I needed to reach the light. Nothing else mattered right now.
The clouds briefly parted and I stopped abruptly. The trees were gone. There was nothing more ahead. Standing on the edge of a precipice on a bare stretch of grass, I’d found my beacon, my hope - a couple of dusty lamp posts. There was nowhere to go now. We were cornered. I paced up and down the abyss before us, Emily completely silent in my arms, and despair overwhelmed me for the first time. I reached to the two old lamps which were somehow still burning atop crumbling piles of stones. I was shaking, scrutinizing the void as hard as I could as if will alone could somehow save us now - and maybe it did. The silhouette of a hanging bridge materialized in the dim light, swaying in the cold salty wind. My brain also finally registered the heavy silence. I let Emily down on her feet, taking in the quietness.
Something was wrong.
A high pitch scream cut through the deafening thuds of my heartbeat. I froze. Who else was here? I looked to the forest, unable to move. Could I help…? I refused to think. I couldn't go back in there. The trees grew taller, their shadows even somber than the night. I shook my head. I could not go back there. I… No. I had to help Emily first. This thought was my life line and I desperately hung onto it.
Emily grabbed my wrists, her tiny icy fingers burning on my skin. I couldn’t leave her alone. She was just a baby. I had no idea what awaited on the other side of the bridge. I trembled. A drop of cold sweat rolled down my red-hot back. I took Emily’s hand and turned away from the tree line. My thoughts were a blur and I was seeing stars. Without looking back, I marched onto the bridge holding on tight to the little girl, a choking lump in my throat. I was drowning. A series of excited screeches echoed across the woods and I sped up. Despite myself I listened intently, for what I didn’t know. I didn’t dare to look at Emily. The silence stretched. I couldn’t find the air to fill my lungs. One last shocked scream rang through the night before another wave of howls and screeches shook the forest. There was something different this time, though. Was I imagining it? Frustration? The silence rushed back in to fill the darkness.
Whoever that was, it was too late for her.
The night engulfed the two of us. My heart was not so loud anymore, not so fast anymore. The wind was swirling around us, making the bridge wave threateningly. I moved so slowly now, keeping only one hand on the rope which ran the length of the bridge, the other one firmly holding Emily's. My mind was empty. One step after another. We continued crossing the endless bridge without a word, the silence only occasionally broken by Emily's faint sobbing and the rushing of the waves far below.
Two flickers of light finally appeared far in the distance. We had made it to the other side.
“Listen to me baby girl,” I spoke softly to Emily. “We’re nearly there. We’re nearly there.”
Emily looked up to me, her eyes red and confused. I was beyond drained and I could not begin to imagine where she had found the energy to carry on.
“We’ve almost crossed the bridge. You’ll be home soon.”
“Home?” the child repeated hopefully.
“Yes,” I replied with a smile she missed in the dark. “I promise you’ll be back home in no time.”
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