A scream pierced the quiet of the night, reverberating through the twists and turns of the tunnel and finding my ears. Jolting right out of a deep sleep, I was on my knees in seconds. Crawling towards the mouth of the cave, I cocked my ears. Had I just heard what I thought I’d heard?
No… I haven’t seen people for months. Not since the last helicopter came in the spring. My gut twisted at the thought, and the fear in my blood was momentarily cut through with sadness. I would never get used to that, how they came every day for so long, sent search-and-rescue teams around the clock… and one day, it just stopped.
And I was proclaimed dead. Blinking rapidly, I shook off my bitterness. There was no time for that. I had to focus. I primed my ears, and for a moment, all I heard was the sweet silence. The only noise was the chatter of the crickets and the hoot of the owls in the humid summer air.
A faint series of cries and shouts slashed through the silence. Oh no. Oh no. Scampering out onto the grass, I surveyed the clearing. The moon shone high in the sky, casting a silvery glow onto the trees. Branches that would be unthreatening in the sunlight now looked like spindly claws reaching out into the night.
Adrenaline rocketed through my veins, surging through every limb and leaving behind a tingling sensation, like a warm buzz in my blood. My heart hammered my rib cage. It was nothing… my ears playing tricks on me. I reassured myself. Don’t worry, Kate, go back to sleep-
Another guttural shriek pounded through the dusk. I hated to admit it, but my ears knew it instantly. Human. It had been so long since I’d heard a human voice that I almost thought I never would again.
Scanning the sky, I saw a wisp of smoke curling into the night. I imagined a small campfire, and some teens around it (based on the screams). To my concern, I also imagined maroon blood spattering the grass.
My mind chugged ahead, but there was no time to think. I had to act. Adrenaline surged through my legs, and I sprinted off in the direction of the smoke. Someone out there was getting attacked. Or even worse, murdered.
The sharp tip of the axe pricked my throat- and all I saw was the killer’s eyes gleaming with fury as I was whisked away into Nick’s arms. His muscled biceps strained under my weight as he staggered ahead. Gripping him tightly, I began to come awake from my shock. I knew Nick couldn’t do this much longer, and the murderer was hot on our heels as he carried me off in a lopsided run.
I noticed Marie in the blur, lifting Jade up and over her muscular shoulder and taking off at a quick, jaunting pace, Jade’s head lolling back and forth against her back. Thomas had recovered from his trip and scampered over the log, jetting ahead of us in a labored sprint.
Through the indistinct haze of trees and grass, I managed a glance at the killer (who was a good distance behind us). The man’s pale blonde hair shone in the moonlight, almost platinum in color. The rest of his body was a vague silhouette moving through the undergrowth.
I remembered with a shiver seeing his eyes as Nick had tackled me away; their color masked by a sheen of cold, hard fury and a feral hunger.
I looked up at Nick, my friend, my crush, my savior. Sweat scintillated on his bronzed skin, sparkling under the starlight; I could feel his chest rise and fall with each racketing breath.
“Nick, let me off. I can run now,” He regarded me dubiously for a moment, then seemed to remember that I had been a star athlete on the track team. Concern still glittered in his eyes as he scanned my face, his emerald-green eyes tracing my neck. Reflected back in his eyes I saw the smooth skin of my throat, slashed through by a small, jagged slit that dripped crimson blood.
“Are you sure?” Nick asked softly. I nodded, and concealed my wince of pain. Barely breaking in stride, he let me go and my shoes pounded the dirt. Snap! A stick cracked beneath my feet as I took off into the night.
The moss sprang me ahead, and I resummoned the speed I’d had in track. A jolt of adrenaline surged through my veins, and the heat rushed through my body like a wave, flowing down through my legs and rocketing up into my arms. Awakening the fire in my soul, each step adding gasoline to the leaping flame in my soul. Every stride brought more and more speed. The wind whipped in my ears, and silky strands of my hair flew behind me like a banner.
Soon later I had passed everyone completely, so much so that when I looked back, they were just hazy figures in the distance, blurring together with the pines. Despite the raw intensity of the moment, a smile spread across my lips. I was running again! Actually running, like I had done so long ago in track! Free and wild and running!
The glorious moment fell away as I heard a shriek ringing in the night. And I spun around to see Marie shielding her sister, the murderer holding his silver axe high over his head… Nick too far away to help, Thomas too fatigued to move, Jade lying limp under Marie’s protective arm. He primed the gleaming blade, strong shoulders tensed in the motion. Ready to swing. Ready to kill.
Following the screams, I ran silently through the trees. With no autumn leaves or snow to crunch underfoot, my sneakers made no noise as they hit the dirt. The woods were deathly silent for a single moment, and I saw them at last.
Time stopped at once, and the scene froze around me in vivid color, like a painting. Two older boys, one buff and bronzed and the other thin and lanky. I noticed the tall girl first, just a silhouette in the moonlight with a curvy hourglass figure and long hair blowing in the wind. Finally, I saw the two girls. One lie limp against the dirt in a ruined red kimono, her inky black hair splayed out around her like a halo. The other kneeled above her, holding out a protective hand and closing her eyes… and standing above them in mid-swing, a man with an axe, his eyes locked on the girls with a raging anger.
The moment leapt back to life. Before my brain could process what to do, my heart did. I charged the killer with all the force of a thousand winds. He didn’t notice me until it was too late. Barreling into him, I took him down. The axe spun from his grasp, flying away across the mossy ground. The lanky redhead picked it up feebly, then meekly handed it off to the gorgeous brunette girl.
The killer stood, glaring at me with wild-eyed anger. Grabbing me by the shoulders, he dragged me backwards and looped a strong arm around my neck. My blonde locks swung around me and I clawed at his hands, trying to free my neck. He squeezed harder, and spots danced across my vision. I gasped and wheezed, but I was losing air fast. Think, Kate, think! God darn it, think!
So I did what I think any woman would do in this situation. I threw my leg up and thrust it where the sun-don’t-shine.
The killer instantly fell to the ground, moaning in pain and holding his groin. Vehemence was pouring out of him, forming an aura of sheer hatred and violence. With a grunt, he began to lunge for me- and the girl brought down the axe over his head in one fell swoop.
With a sickening crunch, it was over. I looked away. I didn’t need to see the aftermath. I could imagine it just fine.
Nick and I held hands as we walked away from the dead man. Guilt wracked my body, but I also felt a nagging sense of pride. That man would have killed us all, no doubt. Regardless of the guilt, I reminded myself that we were lucky to be alive.
All six of us returned to the fire silently, Jade still slung of Marie’s shoulders, where Nick was the first to break the silence. He looked over at the grimy girl that had saved us with wide eyes, saying simply, “Thank you. None of us would be alive if not for you.” The girl smiled ruefully. She was younger than us, and looked to be around high school age. Her tangled blonde hair fell to nearly her hips, and she was covered from head to toe in mud and grit.
The only glimpse of skin was around her face, where some pale skin showed through the dirt and leaves. Her deep brown eyes shimmered with mystery. The girl cleared her throat, as though she hadn’t spoken in a while. I shared a confused look with Marie. She shrugged, staring at our strange savior.
“It wasn’t a problem. It’s not like I could just stand by and watch you die,” the girl said in a clear, silvery voice, straightening her posture on the log. I noted that her arms were finely toned and muscled from what looked like heavy lifting, and I could see her abs outlined under her grimy cotton shirt. No wonder she had taken down the murderer.
I raised a hand in greeting.
“I’m Tara. This is Nick, Marie, Jade, and Thomas.” I said shyly, pointing at each member of our group. Silence enveloped the night for a moment, and she appeared to be thinking hard about a proper response. I raised a brow, and she hastily said,
“Sorry. I’m, uh, not that used to…” Her eyes widened like a deer in headlights under our stares. The poor girl looked frightened to death! She took a deep breath, finishing with,
“You can call me Kate.” I smiled in a way that I hope looked sympathetic. It must have worked, because her face softened slightly and the edge of her lip quirked up in an awkward grin. “So, what bring you guys out here?”
Why are you out here, covered in mud? It looks like you’ve been living in the woods for months! I thought. But it’s not as though I was in any position to pass judgement on Kate, after she had saved Marie and Jade from their untimely deaths.
“We’re students at Appalachian State College. This was our camping trip. We live out in Sapphire Peaks. Ever heard of it?” Thomas asked. Something flashed across her eyes, a pain that was deeper than the Mariana Trench and a sorrow unknown to the loneliest wanderer. She gave us a sad smile.
“Yes, I used to live there. Once,” Kate whispered softly. Nick nodded, obviously puzzled but not pushing the subject. “Anyway, enough about me. What are we going to do with the… dead guy?” We all shifted uncomfortably on our log seats. The fire flickered softly, gold and red tendrils licking the night sky.
“I propose that we hike into town. Call the police once we have good signal. They’ll come down here and take away the body and identify him.” I said solemnly. The words were alien and foreign in my mouth… then again, I’d never cleaved someone’s head with an axe until today. Everyone nodded, and we all stood, except for Kate.
“We’re going to start hiking. You are coming, right?” I asked her. Kate gazed up at me with wide, pleading eyes. Then, quickly diverting them to stare down at her feet guiltily.
“If you cared even a little about me, if you want to pay back your debt… leave me here. Don’t mention me to the police. Don’t say my name or anything. Act as though I was never there. I-” Her voice broke. “Just- just don’t. Please. If you have to, look up the name Kate Paxton once you have internet. You’ll figure it out. Just please, please don’t tell them,” She begged softly.
Nick grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly. I turned and pecked him on the cheek, letting the warmth flow through my body and give me strength. Give me the strength to leave a girl alone in the woods on her request.
When his mouth spread into a toothy grin, the sweet heat expanded and my heart clattered in my chest. That was all I needed.
“I promise we won’t tell. Not ever,” I smiled at her. A rosy color came back into her pale cheeks, and she nodded gratefully. Glancing over at Nick, I saw the glitter of joy in his emerald eyes once again; the world fell away and my stomach was barraged by a storm of butterflies. Things would turn out okay, after all.
All five of us began our trek into the woods. Right before we entered the thicket, I looked back over my shoulder to say some final goodbyes to the strange girl that had saved us all. The coals were glowing under a pile of ash, and the logs sat around it in a ring, completely and totally empty. Kate was gone.
I smiled, and from that moment on, never looked back. Nick and I chatted as we walked hand in hand, laughed when Jade finally woke up. Taunted them when Thomas kissed her and she forgot all about fashion for a single minute that day. I imagined Kate was out there somewhere, gazing up at the glittering stars and feeling like a hero, knowing she had saved lives that night.
Yes, I thought to myself. Everything will be alright.