Down to the Woods – M.J. Arlidge

She reached out, but found only emptiness. The silky fabric was cool to her touch, which confused her. Where there should be a warm, sentient being, there was just … a void. Unnerved, Melanie Walton hauled herself upright. Immediately she regretted it, her burgeoning headache slapping into her forehead. Every time she and Tom went camping it was the same. Plans for a relaxed, restrained evening soon gave way to unbridled hedonism – a roaring fire, loud music, then the inevitable bourbon-fuelled sex. In truth, Melanie wouldn’t have it any other way – she could still feel Tom’s presence on her skin, which made the emptiness next to her even more confusing. Their tent was old and cramped – a poky two-manner Tom had picked up in a clearance sale – and Melanie was used to having her fiancé’s reassuring bulk next to her. True, he snored, but the bourbon helped block that out and she loved the feeling of the pair of them snuggled up together under the stars. Usually the thought made her smile, but not tonight – as she craned around to peer through the darkness, the sight of Tom’s empty sleeping bag confirmed what she already knew. She was alone. Darting a look to her right, she saw that the tent flaps were open, swaying gently back and forth in the breeze. Immediately she felt a stab of irritation – it was just like Tom to stumble off to the toilet block and forget to close them. She’d taken him to task about it before.

She wasn’t naturally fearful, but they weren’t the only people on the campsite and anyone could wander in. The fact that a zippedup tent provided little protection against a determined intruder was beside the point – she just didn’t like the idea of someone being able to see into their little sanctuary. Melanie stayed seated for a couple more minutes – listening for signs of Tom’s stumbling progress, rehearsing a good-humoured barb for his return – but it remained doggedly quiet outside. Cursing, she gave up the wait, tugging on her jeans and flip-flops before crawling out of the tent. It had been a warm summer’s day, but the cool night air made her shiver as she emerged from her cocoon. It caressed her shoulders and neck and she wrapped her goose-pimpled arms around her as she scanned the campsite. Earlier the place had been lively – it was the first sustained period of good weather and dozens of campers had abandoned Southampton to pitch tent at this New Forest site – but now it was deathly quiet. All that could be heard was the murmuring of the breeze and the occasional satisfied snore. ‘Tom?’ Her gentle plea drifted away on the wind. Where was he? Often during his night-time sorties to the ablutions Tom would hum to himself, the refrain of earlier tunes cannoning around his brain, but tonight she could hear nothing.

Nor was there any light coming from the toilet block. ‘Tom? Are you there?’ Louder this time – her anxiety overcoming her fear of disturbing others – but still there was no response. Was he playing a trick on her? Waiting to jump out and surprise her? It was not his style – normally he was dead to the world at this time of night – but what other explanation could there be? ‘If this is supposed to be funny …’ She was careless of her volume now. She just wanted to find him, give him a bollocking, then return to the tent. Their night, which had been so pleasant, was swiftly turning sour. ‘I mean it, Tom. If you’re there, if this is some kind of trick …’ Her voice quivered, distress and fear mastering her. If it was a game, surely Tom would have brought it to an end by now? He wasn’t cruel or hurtful. He was sweet, loving, kind … ‘Please, Tom. You’re scaring me,’ she continued, tears pricking her eyes.

‘Where are you?’ But her words fell away, dying quietly in the darkness. 2 She crept through the gloom, taking care not to make a sound. The terrain was unfamiliar and she had to tread carefully to avoid a bed post, a chair, some discarded clothing. She suddenly realized that she was holding her breath. Stupid really, but if it lessened her chances of detection, so be it. She was determined to escape unmolested. Bending down, Helen scooped up her underwear, her clothes and finally her biking leathers. These were the hardest to slip on discreetly – they were old and battle hardened, creaking noisily as they encased her. But the well-built man slumbering peacefully in the bed a few yards away seemed not to notice. Exhaling a sigh of relief, Helen took a couple of quick steps towards the bedroom door, grasping the handle gratefully.

‘Jane?’ Helen stopped in her tracks, then turned slowly. ‘Early start. Sorry …’ If he saw through her weak lie, Daniel didn’t show it. Running a hand through his tousled hair, he gazed at her happily, memories of an enjoyable encounter still fresh in his mind. ‘So … can we do this again some time?’ ‘Sure thing.’ It was said too quickly, sounded unconvincing, which was stupid, because a part of Helen would have liked to spend another night with this attractive stranger. Things had been so turbulent recently – the inquest into DS Sanderson’s death in action and Helen’s subsequent (in her view unwarranted) exoneration – that it had been liberating to cut loose for a night. She had met Daniel at a new club off Lime Street, singling him out as the only person there strong enough and brave enough to give her the pain she craved. Their session had been unremitting and gratifying and it was no surprise to Helen when they tumbled into his flat shortly afterwards. Nor, depressingly, was her desire to flee, as soon as their encounter was over.

‘Can I get your number then …?’ It was said casually, but did Helen detect a firmness behind the request? A desire not to be treated as a one-night plaything? Helen hesitated before responding. She wasn’t sure she was ready to go there and, besides, handing over her personal details would reveal that she had been lying all night – about her background, her job, her name … ‘Jane?’ His soft voice cut through her absorption, underscoring her mendacity. And perhaps if they had had this conversation in bed together, naked and intimate, she might have confessed, might have been persuaded. But here she was, dressed in her battle armour and ready to go. ‘I’ll see you at the club.’ Daniel knew it was a brush-off and, to his credit, didn’t challenge her as she slipped from the room. Angry with herself, Helen marched away, her pace rising with each step. Having done the deed, she just wanted to find her bike and go home. But even as she charged along the corridor, familiar doubts, familiar questions confronted her. Busy as she was, committed as she was to leading Southampton’s Major Incident Team, there was no denying that she was lonely.

She needed a release, she needed company, she needed life to counter the darkness that consumed her, within and without, so when it was offered to her, why did she push it away? What was wrong with her? Why did she always run? 3 He crashed through the undergrowth, tearing wildly at the foliage. Pain coursed through him as the thorns ripped at his skin, but on he went, charging blindly forward. He had no sense of where he had come from, nor where he was heading, only the conviction that he had to keep going. He was dressed in boxer shorts and T-shirt, but even these flimsy garments conspired to frustrate him, the gnarled bushes catching at the fabric, tugging him back towards danger. It was as if the forest itself were his enemy tonight, but fear drove him on and, summoning his strength, he burst forward once more, emerging from the dense foliage onto solid ground. For a moment, the way seemed to open up for him – was that a track ahead, amid the gloom? – and he took full advantage, sprinting away. But as soon as he did so, a savage pain tore through him, bringing him to an abrupt, juddering halt. He had been making good progress, but suddenly realized he was unable to put any weight on his left foot. Casting an anguished look behind him, Tom bent down to examine his sole. To his horror, he saw a large, jagged thorn – an inch long at least – embedded in the soft flesh.

Already the skin was puckering up, pink and angry, as blood oozed from the deep wound. An anguished whimper escaped his lips, but he swallowed it down. He dared not make a sound. Gritting his teeth, he fixed his fingertips around the end of the thorn. A silent count of three, then he tugged hard, ripping the thorn clean out. Another gasp of agony, then a brief rush of relief, before a dull, nagging pain reasserted itself. Could he walk on it? Could he run on it? It seemed impossible, given the pulsing ache, but he had to try. Scrambling behind a gorse bush, Tom scanned the woodland around him. He was out there somewhere … the question was, where? Tom had been fleeing for ten minutes, maybe more, and his pursuer had been a steady presence all the while, dogging his footsteps. Occasionally he heard him – the snap of a twig, the rustle of a bush.

Sometimes he glimpsed him – a tall, shadowy figure – but it was his presence he could feel the most – malevolent, menacing, relentless. Suddenly, movement to his left. Tom turned sharply … but it was just a small rodent darting across the forest floor. Turning his gaze back to the murk in front of him, he screwed up his eyes, peering into the darkness for signs of his pursuer. But he was nowhere to be seen. The forest was quiet. Part of Tom still wanted to believe this was all a bad dream, that before long he would wake, restless and hungover, next to Melanie. He knew, though, that this was too vivid to be a dream. But how was that possible? How could he have ended up here? He had gone to bed happily drunk, next to the woman he loved … and he’d woken, confused and half naked, in a strange part of the forest, a shadowy, hooded figure ordering him to run. Breathing deeply, Tom tried to calm himself.

If he was to survive, he would have to be smart, to make the right choices. Swiftly, he cast around him – hoping to make out his pursuer, but also searching for an escape route. Some sign as to which way to run. There was a faint track behind him, but there was also something that looked like a path a short distance away to the right. Which one should he choose? How could he be sure that either would deliver him to safety, when he had no idea where he was? There was no sign of the campsite, any habitation, indeed any human presence nearby. Could he even be sure he was still in the New Forest? Panicking, he flicked his gaze between the two paths. He was suddenly gripped by indecision, aware how costly the wrong choice would be. He didn’t know why he was being hunted, which way he should go, nor what kind of agonies lay in store for him. All he did know was that death was stalking him tonight. 4 A piercing scream rent the air.

It was shrill, agonized, fearful, jolting Charlie awake. Immediately, she was on the move, but her body struggled to keep up with her brain and she half fell, half stumbled towards the door. Pulling it open, she hurried across the darkened landing, pushing into Jessica’s bedroom. Her daughter was sitting bolt upright in bed, her eyes wide with terror. Stricken, Charlie went to her, wrapping her arms around the petrified four-year-old. ‘It’s ok, sweetie. Mummy’s here.’ An elbow flew out, catching Charlie in the neck. Stunned, she gasped, robbed of breath, as her daughter thrashed in her arms. ‘No, no, no …’ Jessica moaned, seemingly determined to fight off her mother.

‘Jessie, it’s me. Everything’s ok …’ But tears were already filling Charlie’s eyes. The shock of being struck mingling with a profound sense of helplessness. Things were very far from ok. This was the fifth evening in a row that Jessica had suffered from night terrors. ‘She all right?’ Steve had now entered, looking bleary as he stumbled towards her in his baggy pyjamas. Charlie didn’t trust herself to speak, so simply shook her head. Steve joined them, wrapping his arms around the frantic child. Gradually, the struggling subsided, Jessica’s eyes slowly drooping, and eventually she allowed herself to be lowered onto her bed. ‘I want to go to sleep now,’ she announced drowsily, turning away from them.

Still shaking, Charlie pulled the sheet up around her shoulders, tucking her daughter in. Incredibly, Jessica was already asleep, slumbering peacefully as if nothing had happened. Charlie’s nerves were still jangling, however, and she remained stooped over her child, as if expecting her to rear up again. ‘Come on, let’s go to bed.’ A gentle tap on the shoulder, nudging her towards the door. ‘She’s fine,’ Steve persisted gently. ‘Let’s get some sleep.’ ‘Two minutes.’ He padded away. Charlie suspected he’d swallowed a sigh, which she was grateful for.

She couldn’t handle any censure right now – she felt bad enough as it was. Each night was the same – an episode of unmitigated terror, then hours of peaceful sleep. In the morning, Jessica had no recollection of the night’s events, nor any explanation of what had scared her. In snatched moments at work, Charlie had trawled NHS websites and family health guides, trying to get some information on the causes of Jessica’s nightly anguish. But guidance was scant and far from reassuring – the terrors seemed to have no obvious cause, nor a proven way of making them go away. At some unspecified point they would just stop. Charlie had her own suspicions regarding the cause, however. Jessica was nearing the end of her first full year at school and, while things had gone well initially, recently she’d started complaining, attempting to wriggle out of going to school by complaining of tiredness, even illness. Perhaps she was telling the truth – it was exhausting for a nursery child to move into full-time education – but Charlie couldn’t help wondering if there was more to it than that. Was it a problem with the teacher, Mrs Barnard, whom everyone thought strict? A friendship problem with one of the other children? Was it even possible that Jessie was being bullied? The clock ticked loudly on the wall.

Looking at it, Charlie was surprised to find she’d been standing there for over ten minutes. No doubt Steve would be getting irritated – though he loved and supported Charlie, he always accused her of overthinking things. He was probably right, annoyingly, but she couldn’t help it. They could have held Jessica’s start back a year, but had chosen not to. This was partly because she was a mature girl who’d seemed ready, but also to make their working lives easier. Had they made a mistake? In trying to make things better, had they ended up making everything worse? Jessica hadn’t mentioned any problems at school, so Charlie was left to guess at the cause of her disquiet. For the first time since Jessica was born, Charlie felt powerless to help her. Which meant they probably had many more nights of agonized screaming ahead. Looking down at her daughter, slumbering in the bed below, Charlie suddenly felt tearful, anxious and scared. 5 He remained frozen, gripped by fear.

His pursuer was now just a few feet from him. Torn as to what to do, he’d remained hidden in the sanctuary of the gorse bush, ignoring the persistent prickling from its numerous spines. He’d continued to scan the gloomy forest, debating which direction to head in, when suddenly the shadowy figure had emerged from the darkness, heading in his direction. Instinctively, Tom had tried to make himself smaller, curling up into a ball. But his pursuer continued his steady progress towards him. Half of Tom wanted to close his eyes, the other half knew he had to keep them open. He had to know if he’d been spotted. So he kept his gaze fixed on him, finding, then losing him amid the trees. On he came, looming ever larger, like some figure from a grotesque nightmare. Reaching the bush, the figure paused.

Tom wanted to scream and shout, to bellow out his fear and alarm, but he reined in his terror. He had been holding his breath for over a minute now – his lungs were heaving and he was desperate to breathe out. But his lips remained clamped shut, his nostrils clenched, fearful of emitting even the tiniest noise. Should he be discovered now, there would be no hope for him, trapped as he was in the bush. Ten seconds passed. Then ten more. Then the figure turned, looking straight at him. Tom braced himself for a bark of triumph, for a sudden lunge towards him, but to his surprise his pursuer now moved on, padding away from the bush, spying out the forest for his prey. Faint with relief, Tom held his breath for a few more seconds, then exhaled, releasing the trapped air slowly and silently. He counted another minute, watching the figure disappear into the forest, then eased himself onto his feet.

Casting wary looks around him, he pressed down on his left foot. Pain seared through him, but he swallowed it down. If he was to escape this ordeal, he had to move fast. He headed for the faint path he’d glimpsed earlier. Perhaps the moon was emerging from behind the clouds, perhaps he was becoming accustomed to the darkness – either way he could now make out his way more clearly. To his enormous relief, the path became more defined and he stumbled along it, half running, half limping. Inexplicably, he wanted to laugh, a sudden burst of optimism and relief threatening to erupt from him. Dismissing this crazy thought, he ploughed on, treading quickly along the path, taking care to avoid the fallen thorns and shadowy rabbit holes that punctuated the track. He was making solid progress, putting good distance between him and his pursuer, but now he slowed. The path, which hitherto had seemed well defined, suddenly petered out.

Sweating, he looked left and right. Nothing, nothing, nothing … Closing and opening his eyes, trying to quell the panic, he tried again. And this time he made out something to his left. It wasn’t a clear path, but seemed to be some kind of continuation. The bushes had been flattened, a few flowers trampled … He moved on, following the outline of this track as best he could. He lost it, hesitated, then found it again. Over and over again this happened – his flight which had been swift up to this point was beginning to falter. And now, once again, he lost the path all together. ‘Shit, shit, shit …’ He breathed the words, hoping they would soothe his pounding heart. But fear was assailing him, making his limbs shake and his brain ache.

There had to be a way out of here. There had to be a way … Desperately, he surveyed his surroundings. Was that another path off to the left? He didn’t really want to head in that direction, but what was the alternative? Stumbling through bush and briar, frightening the wildlife and drawing attention to himself? Even as he thought this, a pheasant took flight nearby, calling out in raucous alarm. This decided him and Tom plunged towards the path. He was careless now of the pain in his foot, sprinting as fast as he could down the flattened track. Yes, this was more like it. This was a proper path that would lead him to safety, back to normal life, back to his beloved Melanie … With each step his speed increased, adrenaline driving him on. He would be ok, he would get out of here. Then he would finally be able to make sense of this nightmare. All he had to do now was keep going.

He rounded a bend, hoping to find a widening of the path, a light glimmering through the trees, anything. But instead he skidded to a halt by a large gorse bush. Faltering slightly, he stared at it. It looked familiar and, yes, there was a tell-tale stain of blood beneath it. This was the same bush he had sheltered in earlier. He had just run around in a large circle. A twig snapped loudly behind him. His heart in his mouth, Tom turned. He knew what he would find, but still the sight took his breath away. The hooded figure was now just twenty feet from him, blocking his path.

‘Please … I haven’t done anything …’ His pursuer took a step forward. Then another. As he did so, the moon broke free of the clouds, illuminating the hunter, who now came to a halt just short of his prey. ‘Who are you? What do you want from me?’ He screamed his question, but the figure didn’t react. Screwing up his eyes, Tom strained to make out his pursuer’s face, to understand what evil he was facing, but he could discern no human features at all within the hood. Only darkness.

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