Into The Forest Written by Andrea Mara
The dashboard burns my feet but I hold them there, waiting for the heat to dull. I feel Jim’s headshake more than see it. I know he’s smiling.
Turning up the air-conditioning, I glance in the rear-view mirror at Conor. Cheeks red, eyes glazed over.Are we there yet, I think, on his behalf.
Jim nods towards a dark patch, just visible on the horizon. “That’s it – not long now.”
I hug my knees to my chest then stretch them out again. Two hours is feeling like ten. Halfway here I had suggested a pit-stop for coffee but Jim had said we should keep going. I’m the instant gratification girl to his rock of sense.
The car slides to a gravelly stop. There’s a truck at the forest entrance, its occupants nowhere to be seen. We get out and stretch our legs, and as Jim helps Conor out of his car seat, I walk over to a signpost.
Camping and campfires: permit required during deer-hunting season (March 3rd to April 5th)
“Jim, do we have a permit?” I call back to him.
“No, we don’t need one.”
“But it’s deer-hunting season – it says we need permission?”
“We’ll be fine. It’s just a standard notice – there are no deer here as far as I know.”
I look at him but say nothing. We’re here now, and he’s probably right. He unloads the car, and we start walking. Into the forest.
The smell hits us straight away – pine needles and dirt. We pass patches of lush grass where the sun makes it through the treetops. We crunch twigs underfoot, keeping to the well-worn path for now.
“Can we eat now mom?” asks Conor, less than five minutes into our journey.
I turn and smile. “Sure, you pick a spot.”
He points to a grassy patch just off the path. “There, the sun is shining on it, and it’s just the right size for our blanket.”
When we sit, it feels colder. There’s no breeze, no noise. Just the slight chill that comes with not moving.
“Maybe we won’t walk too far this afternoon,” I say. “We could set up camp here?”
Jim grins. “Are you getting scared?”
“No, but it looks dark further down the path – the sun isn’t getting through at all.” “Fair enough. There’s a clearing about half a mile further along – it’s bigger than this, so there’ll be more room for a camp-fire beside the tent. I promise you it won’t be too dark. I know this place like the back of my hand, remember?”
I nod. We stop talking, and eat the slightly soggy sandwiches. Silence, save for the rustle of wax paper and an all-seeing breeze high in the treetops. A cloud passes the sun and the clearing turns grey. I pull my jacket and my son closer.
“Should we get going?” I ask. Jim starts gathering the remaining food into the cool-bag. Conor is shivering, and I’m regretting putting his light spring jacket on him.
I hear a crack. The sound of a twig underfoot, coming from a little way back along the path. Then footsteps, louder and closer. I wait, holding my breath. I see a flash of red. A man in parka, and a dark red hunting hat. A rifle slung over his shoulder.
He stops, just ten feet away. He stares. Jim nods at him. I want to smile but I can’t. More noise now, a crashing, faster sound. The hunter turns to look behind. A Rottweiler rushes through the trees, hurtling to a stop beside his master. They stare at us. Drool drips from the dog’s jaw, his eyes never leave us.
I pull Conor to me, and swallow, waiting. Jim clears his throat. Then the hunter starts to walk again, never taking his eyes off us. The dog follows. They pass just six feet from where we’re sitting. Jim nods again, then turns to the picnic bag, deeply engrossed in its remaining contents.
The hunter is out of sight now, but we wait. The noise of breaking branches and panting dog grows fainter. Still we wait.
“Can we go now?” Conor asks. “To set up the tent?”
My skin is lighting up with hot prickles of something I can’t quite explain. I want to go back to the car. I look at Jim. His head is down; he’s tying the strap of his rucksack, not meeting my eye. He feels it too; I know he does. But somehow I can’t say it. It’s foolish. We’re here now. What reason to turn back? A man and a dog? I say nothing. And we continue into the forest.
At the bigger clearing, we set up camp and light a fire. We cook supper outdoors, and wrap ourselves in blankets as a chill falls. Orange sparks shoot towards the darkening sky. I sit leaning against a tree and Conor falls asleep in my arms. Jim goes into the tent, looking for his phone. The crackling of burning wood is the only sound.
“I can’t find it,” Jim whispers, crawling back out. “Can I ring it with yours?” I pass him mine and we both wait for the sound, bracing ourselves for the ringtone that will cut rudely through the quiet night air. But nothing.
“The battery must be gone.”
“Do you need to call someone?” I ask.
He shakes his head and sits back down beside me at the fire.
“No, just wanted to know where it was. It’s fine,” he says. We sit watching the flames. I feel my eyes closing.
A loud crash jerks me awake. My head is pounding. Disoriented I look for Jim but he’s not sitting beside me anymore. Cold filters through my veins. Conor stirs in my arms, and I pull him close, shushing him quietly. A crash again. Someone is coming our way. Where is Jim? I can’t move. I look towards the tent. Iforce myself to crawl to the zippered door, pulling Conor with me. The squeal of the zip makes me jump. I can’t see anything. I can’t breathe. Then I feel a hand on my face, and hear Jim’s voice. “What’s wrong – Libby, are you OK?”
I sink back on my heels, still holding Conor to my side. “I heard a noise, someone’s coming, and I couldn’t find you,” I whispered, glancing behind me. Campfire glow and blackness. Not a sound.
Jim pulls me into the tent. “I’ll go have a look,” he says, crawling out past me.
“Jim! Just stay here,” I plead, but he’s gone.
I climb into my sleeping bag, bringing Conor in with me. I wait. Conor is asleep again. I pull out my phone and click onto Twitter for distraction. I scroll, not reading, just waiting for Jim. A headline stops me.
Police search for suspect off Highway 68
I click through to the story.
The hunt continues tonight for a man wanted in connection with the disappearance of teenager Kelly Weston. The sixteen- year-old went missing on Wednesday night, and due to the volume of blood at the scene, it is believed that Ms Weston is seriously injured. Following a tip-off, police are searching a wooded area off Highway 68. The suspect is believed to be armed – civilians in the vicinity are urged take extreme care.
Jesus. My head feels hot and light.
“Jim,” I call, my voice hoarse. My whispered shout is swallowed by the darkness. I crawl out of the sleeping bag and push open the flap of the tent.
I’m looking at nothing but the dying embers of the fire – I can’t see beyond. I hear a dog bark, low and menacing. My breath comes quickly, everything is heightened.
Someone’s coming through the undergrowth. I freeze. My thoughts are no longer straight. I’m conscious only of Conor behind me in the tent. I need to stop whatever is coming. I brace myself. A shadow gathering substance comes
“Libby, what are you doing out here?”
I half-stumble, half-roll back into the tent, and now I’m crying. “Where did you go? I couldn’t find you!” I whisper.
“You know where I went – to see if everything was OK – you’re the one who heard a noise? Libby, what the hell is up with you – why are you so spooked?” “He’s a kidnapper, or a murderer – the hunter guy. And you went after him. I didn’t know where you were…”
“Who’s a kidnapper – what?”
I hold up my phone. “See? He’s kidnapped a girl, or probably killed her and they just can’t say that. And we’re here in the middle of a forest with no way to get help, and we’ve put Conor in danger, and…” I burst into tears again, proper, heaving sobs.
Jim is still reading the story on my phone. Finally he looks up. He’s going to tell me not to be silly, that I’m letting my imagination run away with me. But when he speaks, his voice is quiet. “Let’s go,” he says.
“Really? Now?” I ask. Fear replaces relief. Now I want to be talked out of it – to be told that I’m being foolish. But Jim is packing up. I sit for a moment, then start packing too. Neither of us speaks. I’m listening for outside noise, packing faster and faster.
“We need to wake Conor,” I say.
“Don’t – I’ll carry him.”
“But we have to take down the tent – he’ll wake then anyway.”
“Leave the tent,” says Jim.
Leave the tent? I’m numb. Blood is roaring in my ears.
“Jim, did you see him? The hunter? Did you see something that makes you think he’s the guy?”
Jim looks at me, about to say something, then he shakes his head. He leans over to gently lift still sleeping Conor, then crawls out of the tent. I follow. We don’t speak. We start walking. I dare to look back once. Our small tent sits lonely in the light of the dying embers.
We’re back at the car. The reassuring sight of the silver sedan gleams in the moonlight. I want to cry. We made it. The truck is still there too. I fumble for the keys in my bag. Panicking. But Jim has his, and unlocks the door. He puts Conor in the seat and our bags in the boot while I quickly buckle myself in. He pulls the driver door closed and starts the engine. Our headlights light up the truck. Jim reverses quickly onto the highway and pulls away, building up speed and we leave the forest behind. My breathing finally slows. I look in the rearview mirror – Conor is still asleep. In the safety of the mile or so that lies between us and the forest, I’m wondering if we overreacted. I turn on the radio to see if there are any updates.
“Police are continuing to search highway 68 for a man wanted in connection with kidnapping and assault on Kelly Weston. The suspect is wanted for questioning on eight murders of teenage girls over the last decade in the Freemont and surrounding areas. He is travelling in a silver sedan, accompanied by his wife and three-year-old son. Under no circumstances should he be approached.”
Confused images hurtle through my brain. I shake my head, trying to order them. I turn to Jim, my mouth open ready to speak. He stares at the road ahead. Arms dead straight, hands gripping the wheel.
“Jim?” My voice sounds strange to my ears. “Do they mean us – have they somehow mixed us up with the hunter?”
Jim turns to look at me. But it’s not him – I’m looking into the eyes of a man I don’t know at all. Blood roars in my ears. My head feels light.
He turns back to the road and drives on into the darkness.