PART FOUR | (READ PART THREE)
I met a boy in the moods.
Well, not so much met as crashed into. He had been running. I had been running. And objects in motion stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside source. We were each other’s outside source. We had not seen each other. We slammed right into one another. My back still hurts from hitting the ground, and my legs ache from all the running we have done.
It is not morning anymore.
The sunlight has warmed into a honey afternoon.
Summer heat creeps up our legs and makes us sweat under thick cotton t-shirts. The boy walks ahead of me. We came upon a cabin in the woods and he said he knew it. He said he knew it meant that we were almost home. I have not thought about home since I left it this morning. Now, I cannot stop thinking of Mother in the window. She was red-faced angry. Raw-throat angry. The more I think about her the more I do not want to go back.
But when the boy says home, he means his home. He means a house on Verbena Drive. I don’t quite know where that is but I hope it is far from Mother. I hope it is far from her rage.
“Are we going the right way?” I ask the boy.
“You tell me,” he says, because I have been marking our path by scraping bark off of the trees. I look around and all the trees I see are untouched. I touch the closest one. I peel away a strip of its bark and let it fall to the floor.
“We haven’t been here before,” I say.
“Then we’re going the right way,” says the boy.
“We could be going deeper in the woods,” I say.
“I don’t think we are,” says the boy. I want to believe him. I don’t want to believe him. I want to escape the woods. I don’t want to go back with Mother. I think about following him all the way to Verbena Drive. I think about Mother finding me there. I think about running as far as I can. I think about never going home. “Where did you come from?” the boy asks me.
“Home,” I say.
“No shit,” he says. “I mean, what are you doing out here?”
“That’s not what you asked,” I tell him.
“It’s what I meant,” he shrugs.
“I saw you walking alone,” I tell him. “You shouldn’t go in the woods alone.”
“Because of the stories?” the boy asks.
“Mother says the stories aren’t real,” I say, “but the woods are still a danger.”
“My dad said that, too,” the boy says. “Kinda.”
“Is it true?” I ask. “That the stories are all fake?”
“Truth?” he asks.
“Truth,” I say.
“I don’t know anymore.” We return to our silence. He walks two steps ahead of me, and I keep tearing bark from trees. The woods make all their sounds: the birds shaking the leaves, the wind weaving through the branches, the skittering of little animal feet across the ground. The boy turns his head at every sound. His breath hitches up in his throat each time he does.
“What was chasing you?” I ask him.
“I don’t know,” he says.
“An animal?” I ask.
He stops in his tracks. He looks over his shoulder. He says, “That.”
I turn around, but I do not get a good look before the boy grabs my wrist like he had when we met and begins to run. I stumble. I almost fall but I catch myself and his hold on me keeps me moving. I scramble to fit my feet beneath me and force my legs to run. I try to look behind us, but I can only see the blurry trees and the shape of some strange shadow moving through them. It is animal. It is a tree. It is a person. A person. A girl. It is a girl.
“Who is that?” I shriek, but the boy does not answer.
We run and we run. The girl runs after us. But she doesn’t run. She glides. She floats. Her hair is a wild mane around her face and her mouth is open in an angry, animal snarl. She flits behind one tree and appears behind one three trees ahead.
“Keep running!” the boy yells. He darts between the trees, too, like he’s trying to shake her off our tail. We run and run and run. My lungs burn. My legs burn, too. My whole body is on fire but I will not let it stop. I cannot stop watching the girl. She screams and it is the loudest, most awful thing I’ve ever heard. It makes my ears ring.
“What is that?” I yell.
“We’re almost there!” the boy says. I do not know where there is, but when I look ahead I can see the thin gold line of the forest’s edge. We are almost out. I force my legs to go faster. We are sprinting. The girl is, too; or whatever her strange version of sprinting is. She is not winded like us. She does not look tired or red-faced or sweaty.
She is close. She reaches out a hand and her fingernails look like jagged claws. She grabs for me. She scratches my wrist and I scream, and the boy pulls me forward and shoves me at the treeline.
We stumble into the light like newborn deer.
I fall onto my knees. I am breathless. I am bleeding. There is a cut along my wear the girl scratched me. The red leaks out. I stare at it, wide-eyed.
The boy is doubled over beside me. He is breathing heavy. I listen to his breaths and I try to calm my own. I look back at the woods. I cannot find the girl in them. It is as though she has vanished - as though the dark has swallowed her whole.
I look down the street. We are where we began.
Mother is standing on the lawn with the phone to her ear. My heart jumps back into my throat. I feel my chest go tight. This time, it is my turn to grab the boy’s wrist. “I need to go,” I say, and then, “We need to go.” because, surely, if she sees us together she will have his head, too. The boy gasps. He tries to pull away, but I hold on as tightly as he held me and, again, we run.