Daniel and Laura's travels end abruptly when they are thrown off a night train in the middle of nowhere. To find their way back to civilisation, they must hike along the tracks through a forest...a ...(more)
'If we don't find her after ten minutes, we should go back, mark the place and go and get help. I don't want us to get lost here,' I said. 'Do you agree?'
Something rustled in the foliage to our left and Laura gasped and grabbed at me, almost knocking the torch from my grip.
'Yes, I agree. Ten minutes.'
I pointed the torch along the path. We could see about ten meters ahead of us; beyond that, the unknown. Except, of course, my rational brain reminded me, it would just be more path, more forest. Nothing more. Imagine this is a summer day, I thought, that bright sunshine is streaming through the foliage, dancing on the path. Cute animals peek out from the branches, flowers prettily adorn the path. It's just a big wood. But it didn't work. Instead of dancing sunshine, I saw creeping shadows. There were no cute animals, only the yellow eyes of hungry predators. The pretty flowers were poisonous: deadly nightshade and foxglove. Fallen berries were dotted here and there on the path, and I imagined that they too were poisonous.
I took a deep breath, calming myself, and we walked on.
'Alina,' Laura called. I echoed her, feeling a little foolish, worrying too that if there were bears here, our voices would attract them.
Something dashed across the path in front of us, caught in the beam of light, and we both jumped.
'Jesus,' Laura breathed.
'A rat,' I said. 'I think.'
I looked behind me, swinging the torch, trying to memorize the point at which we'd joined the path. I turned my eyes skyward, hoping to see the moon, or the glow of a star, but the leaves above were too dense. As we walked, I could hear noises in the shadows, small animals and birds, the creak of an ancient tree as the wind stirred it. Laura's hand was warm and damp in mine, but my whole body was cold, mottled with goose bumps. I tried to speak but my mouth was too dry. My chest felt it was about to burst open.
'I think we've gone in a circle,' I said. 'We've been here before.'
'We can't have.'
But I was sure I recognized the spot on which we were standing, that the edge of the forest was very close. The urge to flee, to turn and abandon this crazy search, was almost impossible to resist. Maybe she had got lost, had found her way back to the track, was waiting for us there now.
I was about to suggest that we go back and check when Laura said, in an urgent whisper, 'Look!'
Something lay on the path ahead. It was immediately obvious what it was, but I had to stoop to make sure, picking it up and holding it out to Laura.
It was Alina's boot. Black, leather, the zip half undone.
'Oh my God.'
I swept the torchlight in a circle around us, searching for the other boot, but it was nowhere to be seen. I opened my mouth to say that we really needed to fetch help, when Laura gripped my hand and said, 'Did you hear that?'
But then the sound came again, faint but unmistakable. A human cry.
'Oh fuck,' Laura said.
'We have to go back . . .' But Laura was already moving forward, jogging along the path, and I unstuck my feet and followed her, both of us speeding up as the cry came again, closer this time. As we ran, taking a new, more uneven path towards the source of the noise, the forest seemed to close in on us, and in my nightmares now, when I dream of this scene, I see faces in the trees, laughing mouths and cruel eyes etched in the bark, mocking and jeering at us as we ran slowly forward.
And, then without warning, the path ended and we emerged into a large clearing. The ground was flat, stretching the size of a football pitch, the odd tree dotted here and there. Each of these trees was bent, leafless. Dead. And at the centre of the clearing, making me blink and stare stupidly, half-convinced I was hallucinating, was a house.
'What the fuck?' I said. Laura and I turned to stare at each other.
The house had three storeys and a flat roof, dark windows and a wooden door. It was impossible to tell how old it was, but the word that sprang to mind was ancient. As old as the forest itself. And like the blackened trees that stood hunched in the clearing, the ground around the house seemed dead, the grass tinged grey in the weak moonlight.
Lights flickered in the windows. Candles, I realized. Like the light that glowed in the hollows of a jack-o'-lantern.
I knew, with every instinct, every scrap of learned and inherited knowledge, that this was a bad place. That we needed to turn around, right now, and get away. That we shouldn't take another step towards this building, should not pass through that door, must not go inside.
But then we heard another cry, a strangled sob from inside those stone walls, and as the silence descended again, Laura and I walked towards the house, towards the door, as if our legs had a will of their own.