“Only 1,125 steps. Google says that’s how many
are in half a mile. Specifically, it says there are 2,250 steps in one mile,
but even I can divide by two.” Anything to keep my mind occupied. Why did I go
this way? Why didn’t I take a ride? Jake offered. I declined. Stupid.
Wait. What was that?
“One thousand one hundred twenty-five
I pause. I look around. But I won’t look back.
Never look back. The rhythmic thump, thump, thumping in my ears is normal. Any
sound in the woods at night will get your blood pumping. I’m not chicken. I’m
not. This is basically cardio for the faint of heart. That’s all.
Of course, I look back. In a dramatic, whirling
rush, no less, as if I can scare away anything skulking behind me with a mere
glance. Fun-size candy bars in my pumpkin-shaped bucket swish, then settle.
Nothing is there. Naturally. “Turn around. Just keep walking. Only 1,100 more
steps.” I’m not very good at this.
“One thousand one hundred steps.” It drew closer, breathing in the faint trail
of chocolate fragrance that lingered in the air. Although intriguing, candy was
not on the menu.
The night air is cool. Perfect for a long walk
home. Pressing on through the fog, it settles on my skin like the denser,
chillier counterpart of twilight’s dew. The fog is a blessing. I don’t need to
see too far ahead. I know my way.
Another snap, another pause, and another look
around. But not back. Not this time. What was that? Probably a squirrel. Or a
raccoon. “Or a wildebeest!” I laugh, mimicking Jake’s warning about critters of
all shapes and sizes in the woods. "Keep walking. Only 1,000 more steps.
Give or take.”
“One thousand steps.” Closer still.
The woods are beautiful this time of year, and
this time of night. I distract myself, or at least I try to. Spanish moss
bundled heavy on high branches trails down toward the powdery dirt of the
footpath. Elegantly primitive.
Lights shine through the trees. Tiny lights.
“They’re not eyes. They’re porch lights.” I hope. Do porch lights ever blink?
Not until Christmas, they don’t. Just keep walking.
I pause again, this time to focus on a new
sound. Not a snap. Not like a broken twig under someone’s foot. What
that? But it stopped. I swear it had a certain
cadence. Like footfalls on the soft dirt. Do not look back.
I look back. But of course, nothing is there.
Nothing but the lights through the trees. Moving branches. That’s it. That’s
why the lights seem to flicker. Keep walking. It’s not too much farther. Home
is on the other side of the fog bank. Only 900 more steps.
“Nine hundred steps.” Ever closer. A ragged claw reached out to
catch some trailing moss and pull it down, softly rustling the branches above.
I stop again, looking up and around. Was that a
bird? After fumbling through a pocket for my phone, the bright flashlight only
serves to blind me, glaring and reflecting against the fog instead of piercing
through it. “Useless.”
What is it about the woods that
them so scary? I try to mentally talk myself down as I pocket my phone
and continue the seemingly endless walk. Logic. That’ll work. I haven't been
eaten. Does anybody actually get eaten in the woods? Is there a tribe of
cannibals in East Glen that nobody has ever seen? A nervous laugh is all that I
can manage. I’m really not very good at this.
Dust from the powdered dirt had made its way
into my shoes. Intolerable, even
I’d really rather be home. It’s not the best time for sensory issues to
overtake logic, but you can’t exactly plan for these things. A crooked tree on
the edge of the path makes a perfect leaning spot to pull off one shoe, shake
it out, and then repeat with the other. Retrieving the happy-faced pumpkin full
of candy from the ground, I set out again.
“Ok!” That was a little too loud, so I tone it
down. “Onward and forward.” It’s something my dad used to say. “Where was I?
Oh, yes — 700 more.” Keeping myself company, said aloud as before, ticking down
steps like mile markers on a road trip.
“Seven hundred more.” Much closer. A quick
swipe of a claw barely missed the girl who pushed herself off her resting spot
on the tree trunk.
That rush of air against my neck is not my
imagination. That’s real. I spin around to face nothingness yet again. Only
fog, trees, and . . . two sets of footprints in the dirt? But those can’t be
footprints. They’re too big. Logic.
A quick scan of the trees on both sides of the
path reveals a lot more of nothing. I fumble for my phone, nearly dropping it. It
proves as useless as before,
offering only blind
ing light that makes the thick, dense fog worse instead of better. Maybe
I should call Jake.
I touch the screen hoping for service that
never reaches this far. No bars. That figures. But I keep hold of my phone, a
tether to the outside world, and up my pace. Another 600 steps until home. Then
500 steps. Don’t stop. Then 400. I’m at a solid jog when, focusing too hard on
the path ahead, I trip. Just like in the movies. And I tumble. Just like in the
movies. At least I’m not running in high heels and my underwear.
I can't do much besides sit for a moment,
examine my wounds, and wallow in my own stupidity. Dusty dirt caked into
bloody, skinned palms is the opposite of a good time. A glimmer strikes my
peripheral vision. “My phone!” The small bit of available moonlight reflects on
the shattered glass. I pick it up anyway, get to my feet and put it back in my
The creature stood tall, muscular shoulders
back, misshapen head high, sniffing the air. The smell of blood landed in its
nostrils like a succulent appetizer for the starving. Control proved difficult,
but it still did not entirely give the game away. The hunt was nearly over, but
it would not end here.
The candy is a loss. Happy pumpkin head lands
on the side of the path where I kick it. Whoa. Am I dizzy? I am. But I hadn’t
hit my head. The circling sensation disorients me. Around and around. But I’m
not the source. Maybe the wind? There is no wind. The distin
f not being alone here is more than I’m willing
to sit with for long.
“In 300 more steps, I will be home.” This time,
I say it nearly under my breath. Reorienting myself in the right direction as
the fog thickens around me,
I clench my battered fists and run. Hard.
“Three hundred steps.” Heavy thuds pounded the
dirt path, half as often but covering more distance than the girl’s frantic
pace. Closer, ever closer.
The smell of fresh blood
served as fuel. Birds shook loose from their nests and flew. Forest
critters scurried back deep into the woods.
Home! The fog finally relents as I clear the
edge of the woods. The porch light beckons me on. Through the gate. Up the
walkway. Past the pumpkins and mums and onto the bottom step. I reach into my
pocket, cringing as the denim scrapes against my injuries. I find the key.
The foul breath and cold, slithering lick that
traces along my neck are real. Oh, God. Don’t turn around.
With only five steps to go, I turn around.
Cover Image credit: Carole Conner