Tessa had been afraid of it most of her life. For as long as she could remember, she’d gone to bed dreading nightfall, looking under the bed, double-checking her nightlight.
As if a lightbulb the size of a lit match could possibly banish her nightmares.
But tonight, she prayed for the blackest of nights. For the moon to stay hidden behind the shifting clouds. For the shadows to make her invisible.
The darkness had changed sides. Head spinning, lungs screaming, she ran into its embrace. What had once been her greatest fear could now be her savior. Her miracle.
That’s what it was going to take to keep her alive until the sun rose.
“Tesssssa.” The voice floated over the forest. “You can’t get away.”
Where is he?
Evergreen boughs grabbed at her arms and scratched her face as she plunged through the forest like a panicked deer. Her heart beat with the frantic staccato of a prey animal. She slowed, her body protesting the abuse of little-used muscles. She passed the scorched carcass of a burned tree. Its blackened branches pointed upward like a charred hand reaching for the sky. She ducked behind the shelter of a towering oak. Bark scraped her back as she pressed against the trunk and listened.
Where did he go?
A mosquito buzzed around her face. To her right, she could hear the sounds of the forest that surrounded Scarlet Lake. The stillness of the night sharpened her senses. Frogs croaked. Crickets chirped. An animal, small and light, scurried through the underbrush nearby. The air was thick with the scents of pine, lake water, and fear.
Not for the first time, she wished she could shrink and disappear into a rabbit hole.
Hoot! An owl landed on an overhead branch.
Tessa startled, a gasp slipping from her lips. She covered her open mouth with a hand. Liquid dripped over her fingers, and when she lowered her hand, it came away wet with tears—and blood. She touched the corner of her mouth, where his fist had split her lip. Other parts of her face and body ached from what he’d done in the clearing before she’d managed to land a kick to his groin.
Then he’d dropped her, and she’d run. Blindly.
The owl took flight, slow flaps of its wings sending it soaring through a break in the canopy. The clouds parted, and moonlight shone through the opening. For a few seconds, the raptor was silhouetted against the inky sky. And then it was gone.
Sliding down the tree trunk, she sat on her heels and huddled.
Despite the coolness of the September night, her lungs burned as if she’d inhaled gas and swallowed a flame. She panted; the sound echoed in her ears and seemed loud enough to carry a mile through the trees.
He was going to hear. She was out of shape, and her mad sprint had taxed her lungs. She hadn’t gotten far. He had to be close.
The drumming of her heartbeat muffled his voice. She couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from.
She pressed her lips together, but her lungs demanded more air. Red rimmed her vision as dizziness enveloped her. Opening her mouth, she kept her breaths shallow, hoping, praying her ragged gasps weren’t as loud as they sounded echoing in her own ears.
Maybe he’d gone in the other direction.
Her breathing eased. Her legs began to tremble from the cramped position. She’d partied in the clearing countless times. But everything looked the same in the dark.
She’d lost track of her location.
She glanced around the trunk. Twenty feet ahead, moonlight cast a trail in silvery shadows. Was that the path that led to the main road? Beyond the narrow break in the foliage, the trees closed in, and darkness smothered the forest.
Sweat ran down her spine and pooled at her lower back, soaking the waistband of her jeans. She squinted. What choice did she have? She couldn’t stay here long.
He’d catch up with her.
He’d kill her.
But in order to run, she’d have to come out from behind the tree.
Where is he?
No matter. She had to keep moving. If he hadn’t caught her yet, he soon would. There was no way he’d let her go now. Why had she trusted him? Because he’d said he loved her?
He wasn’t capable of love. She’d known it in her head, but her heart had wanted to believe.
And now the truth would kill her.
At the beginning of the evening, she’d considered walking into the cold lake and putting an end to her misery. But now that death was breathing down her neck, terror had taken over. Her survival instinct overrode any fears about her future.
I don’t want to die.
Her last words to her grandparents had been angry. She’d lied to them. If she didn’t make it out of this, that argument would be their final memory of her. They weren’t perfect, but they loved her. Now there’d be no way for her to say she loved them back, that she hadn’t meant what she’d said, that she’d been upset about the mess she’d made of her life and she’d lashed out at them.
She wouldn’t have a chance to say she was sorry.
She had to get away. She had to live. To apologize for hurting the two people who loved her the most. She pushed to her feet. Her thigh muscles shivered, and her head swam. Instead of running all out, she picked her way to the trail. With no idea where he was, the less noise she made the better. If she didn’t know where she was, maybe he didn’t either.
Underbrush snatched at her bare legs as she stepped onto the path and eased into a slow jog. The packed dirt under her sneakers felt familiar. She rounded a bend and quickened her pace. A twig snapped, and she bolted like a rabbit. A cloud drifted in front of the moon, dropping a shadow across her path. Tessa’s foot caught, and she fell. Pain zinged through her kneecap as it struck an exposed tree root. On hands and knees, she paused, catching her breath and swallowing the terror that clogged her throat. Tears ran down her cheeks.
She got one foot under her body and stood. Forcing her shaky legs to move, she stumbled up the path and drew up short as she recognized the scorched tree. She’d run in a circle. She stumbled as she realized she was headed back toward the clearing.
The rustle of dead leaves echoed, loud as a crack of thunder.
Please. Please, don’t let him catch me.
Tears blurred her vision. Swiping a hand across her face, she cleared her eyes, then broke into a weak run.
A shadow stepped out from behind a fat tree. She skidded to a stop, the worn soles of her canvas high-tops sliding in the dirt.
Her bones trembled as she stared up at him. He wasn’t panting or sweating or the slightest bit out of breath.
And she knew. The truth struck her like an open hand against her cheek.
She was going to die.
Panic wrapped around her neck and tightened its grip until breathing was as hard as sucking air through a straw.
“Did you really think you could get away?” He shook his head.
She turned and ran, blindly shoving at the branches in her way. She couldn’t outrun him. She was tired, and he was fresh. Her breaths dragged in and out of her lungs in ragged gasps. Behind her, his footfalls were even and sure.
She burst from the woods. The lake glimmered in front of her. At the edge of the dark water, a thick patch of cattails waved in the breeze. The ground was soggy underfoot as she bolted into the thick stalks. One thought dominated her brain:
The wet ground pulled at the soles of her sneakers, the squishing sound betraying her. A hand shot out and grabbed her bicep. He dragged her toward him.
“No.” She pulled back, dropping her butt toward the ground.
But resisting proved as futile as it felt.
She opened her mouth and let out a wild scream.
“Shut up!” He struck out, the movement of his arm quick and sure.
The fist connected with her jaw. She blinked. The cattails around her blurred.
She’d been right all along. The dark was not her friend. It would not save her. It was an abyss from which she’d never emerge. Never again.
This was the end.
She fell to the marshy ground. Above, cattails waved against the night sky. Then a figure was silhouetted. Something metal glinted in the moonlight and pain sliced her into pieces.
The world faded into a cold and dreaded darkness.