Introduction: Today’s story got away from me a bit, to the extent that I had no idea how to end it. You know, everyone slags off Stephen King for his endings, but they are really hard. There’s a reason I tend to just kill everyone. Anyway, there is something in this idea, and it may well be one I return to in the future. At the moment, this is all you’re getting.
Autumn has always been my favourite time of year. The nights grow longer, the jumpers thicker and long walks in the woods stomping through leaves make me smile. It’s the perfect atmosphere for stories and hot chocolate or nights in a warm pub, laughing with friends.
All of which made the fact that I was spending a precious weekend driving across the country infuriating. The last thing I wanted was to attend this stupid conference in the middle of nowhere. However, a blank mind when the boss asked whether I had anything on had been tantamount to volunteering. So, here I was, off to a cheap hotel and a few days of mind-numbing boredom. Yay.
It was all enough to put a woman in an awful mood and an hour of driving along country roads trying to find the damn place wasn’t helping. Why did they insist on having these things in the arse-end of nowhere? Did they think that putting it in the countryside would trick people into thinking they wanted to be there? Because, news flash, no-one wants to spend several days discussing team building and synergy even if there are a few trees about. I’m still not entirely sure I know what synergy is and someone says it twenty times a week.
As I peered out of the car window, praying that a sign would pop-up out of the woods to inform me I’d reached my destination – the sat nav had decided it wanted nothing to do with this long ago and phone signal was a no go – I would happily have punched my boss in the face. What I didn’t want was to hit someone with my car, which nearly happened when she stumbled into the road.
‘STOP! Please, stop!’
‘What the fuck!’ I slammed on the brakes, skidding to a stop just in front of her. ‘Jesus Christ, what are you doing?’
‘You’ve got to help me, someone is chasing me, please.’
This wasn’t asking, it was begging. I’d never heard someone so desperate before and a quick look at her showed a young woman covered in scratches, blood all over her arms and a wild look in her eyes.
‘What? Who is after you? What is going on?’
‘Please, there isn’t time, you’ve got to help me.’
She was staring around frantically, looking like she expected someone to appear at the side of the road any second now, ready to butcher her like a bad slasher film. It was beginning to look like I didn’t have a choice.
‘Fine, get in, quickly.’
Still sobbing wildly, she practically dove into the car, barely giving me time to unlock the passenger door.
‘Drive, please drive.’
‘Okay, okay, I’m going, but you’re going to have to explain this.’
‘I will, we just need to get away from here.’
As I drove off, I couldn’t help keeping my eyes on the mirrors, checking behind me to see if anyone appeared from the woods, but there was nothing.
For the next five minutes she sat in the chair, twitching and staring over her shoulder, searching the road for a sign of whoever was after her. It was only when she started to calm down that I dared question her.
‘So, are you going to explain this?’
I got a sob in return, which wasn’t much use.
‘How about we start at the beginning, I’m Carole, who are you?’
‘That’s a pretty name, now why have I just saved you from the side of the road on a cold Autumn’s evening?’
I’ll admit that I wasn’t displaying much of what you might call tact, but I’d already been in a bad mood, and this young woman was making things weirder.
‘Someone was chasing me.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘It wasn’t someone you knew?’
She shook her head, and as I glanced at her I realised for the first time that this girl couldn’t be much older than sixteen.
‘Do you live nearby?’ My tone noticeably softened, and I was surprised when I got another shake of the head in response.
‘How did you end up here?’
‘I don’t know, I was just walking, then he jumped out, so I ran, but there were no woods nearby, so I don’t know how I ended up in them and, it just, it just makes no sense.’ It tumbled out of her in a torrent, and for the first time, I noticed that her accent was Scottish.
‘Where were you before?’
‘Walking home from Sophie’s house.’ It was such an everyday answer that it caught me off-guard, leaving me flummoxed for a second before a weird follow-up struck me.
‘Where does Sophie live? I mean, what city? What city do you live in?’
She looked at me like I was insane before slowly answering, ‘Glasgow, why?’
I took my time replying, trying to figure out if this was some elaborate game or not. ‘Glasgow is a long way away.’ That seemed like a safe answer.
‘What? Where are we? Like Falkirk or something?’
‘No, em, you’re in England. The south of England to be exact.’
‘What? No, I’m not, stop talking bollocks.’
She was starting to panic, and I couldn’t blame her. The poor thing had been chased through the woods, and now she had a crazy person telling her she was hundreds of miles away from where she started.
‘I promise you, I’m not. Look, I’ll show you on the sat nav.’ I started stabbing at it, trying to make it work, but as far as it was concerned, we were no longer on Earth. ‘Okay, that’s not helping, but I promise you. Last I checked we were somewhere near Hereford.’
‘Bullshit,’ she almost snarled, staring out the window. ‘Where’s the signs? I ain’t seen one since we got in the car. Where are you taking me?’
‘I’m not taking you anywhere, you can get out whenever you want.’
‘I don’t want to get out, what if he’s still around?’
‘We’ve driven miles since then, you’ll be okay.’
‘Have we? We’re still in the woods, aren’t we? What the hell is going on?’
I was beginning to realise that she was right. We’d been driving for over ten minutes, but there was no sign of the trees around us coming to an end. In fact, now I thought about it, was there even supposed to be a wood here? One that the road went through the middle of? She was spot on about the signs too, I hadn’t seen one in ages.
‘Have you got a phone with you?’ I was also starting to panic, but I kept my voice steady.
‘Of course,’ she pulled it out, ‘but it doesn’t have any signal.’
‘Shit, what the fuck is going on?’ I leaned forward, peering out of the window and down a road which seemed to go on forever, straight without a single turn off. ‘Something weird is happening.’
‘Look, I’m as confused as you, okay? Remember who stopped in the middle of nowhere to let you into their car? Me, so stop being a little shit.’ She lapsed into a moody silence, which I took as acceptance that I was right. ‘Now we just need to-‘
Something had run out in front of the car, rolling over the bonnet and vanishing somewhere over our heads as we both let out a scream.
‘Fit the fuck wis that?’ The girl shouted, her accent doubling down as we skidded to a stop, my foot almost going through the floor I’d slammed on the break so hard.
‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’ I could feel a panic attack building as this day was spiralling away from me.
‘What, why me?’
‘I’m not getting out of this car.’
‘Yes you fucking are, we’re going out together.’ I still didn’t even know this girl’s name, but she was the only friend I had right now, and like fuck was she getting to wimp out on me.
‘Fine, but if it fucking attacks me I will throw you to it in a second.’
‘Ditto.’ We still sat there for another five seconds, bracing ourselves for it. ‘On the count of three, okay?’
‘One,’ I reached out to grab the door handle, ‘two,’ my fingers tensing around it, ‘three.’
We burst out at the same time, turning as we went, both terrified and desperate to see what lay in the road.
‘Holy shit,’ it slipped out of my mouth without me being able to stop it, ‘is that, is that, is that-‘