A stuttering gasp inflated my lungs and brought me back to consciousness. It was immediately followed by coughing as dust and dirt entered my body. I panicked as I realized my eyes were open, but I couldn’t see anything. I lifted my hands above me and was met by a sturdy force. Judging by the hard surface on my back I quickly concluded that I was trapped. I tried to calm my racing heart, but it was hard when it seemed like I was literally in a coffin.
I kicked out only to feel the same solid force. My breath was coming in short bursts now and I knew I would pass out again if I didn’t get out of here. I kicked harder while also pounding above me.
“HELLO?” I screamed out in a dry, throaty voice I hardly recognized as my own. I wondered how long I was asleep. Or how I even got here for that matter. “IS THERE ANYONE OUT THERE? PLEASE!”
I strained my ears to listen through my strangled breathing, but I heard no movement let alone any kind of voice. I groped around in the dark looking for something, anything to help me get out of here. That was when my hand touched something. A metal tube just above my head. I wrapped my fingers around it and pulled it one way. When that didn’t budge I tried the other way and felt it start sliding. There was a click and I laughed in relief. I shoved my hands forward with more force than I probably needed and the coffin, or whatever it is, lifted open.
I sat up, gripping the sides of my coffin, and let myself just breathe in the cool, crisp air. I was finally starting to calm down now that I was no longer trapped. Although, as I glanced down at my impromptu resting place, I realized my escape was due to a latch INSIDE the box. Yes, a box. Not quite a coffin although it might as well have been. I crawled out of the box and slowly stood up on wobbly legs.
I realized why no one had heard me as I looked around, spinning in place. I was in a forest…but, not?
The trees were the biggest I had ever seen. Even craning my neck didn’t allow me to fully gauge its full size. The thick roots ran wild, intertwining with the plants that grew all around me. They weren’t quite as big as everything else, but they were still a good bit larger than I was used to seeing when I strolled in the woods surrounding my small town in Vermont.
Speaking of…was I still in Vermont?
“We’re not in Kansas anymore…” I murmured under my breath, having to squint my eyes slightly at the sun streaming through the trees. Judging by the position I’d guess it was about midday. On what day? Why couldn’t I remember where I was or how I got here?
I tried to pause and remember but it was like a large portion of my memory was just cut out from my subconscious. I glanced down at what I was wearing. Skinny jeans, a sweatshirt over a tank top, and sneakers. My clothes. So why couldn’t I remember putting them on?
I then remembered my phone. I patted around for it, but it wasn’t in my pocket. I looked back in the box, but it was empty. I shut my eyes and took a deep breath. Great. I was pretty sure I was kidnapped by the shittiest kidnappers in the world. Or maybe this was all a sick joke. I knew a few people that would go a long way to hurt me, but could even they be this elaborate?
Other than feeling stiff, I didn’t appear to have any injuries. I guessed there was nothing left to do but walk. Into the giant fucking jungle of mystery. I looked around the coffin-box one last time in case I missed anything. It was just a human sized box laying on the ground. With a latch on the inside. Like whoever put me in this wanted to make sure I had a way out.
What the hell was going on?
I tucked my long blonde hair behind my ear, only just now realizing it was left to hang freely down my back. I couldn’t remember the last time I took it out of its tight bun. It was the only strange thing on my person, but in comparison to the rest of this insanity I didn’t think much of it.
I picked a random direction and started walking. My footsteps echoed around me as they stepped on leaves and foliage. It made me notice how quiet it is. No sounds of birds chirping in the trees. No chittering of insects in the grass. It was all very eerie, and I felt a chill crawl up my spine.
Against my better judgement, perhaps just to hear any kind of sound in the silence, I raised my voice to a shout.
“Is anyone out there? Please!” The sound of my own voice seemed to resonate around me. I got the sudden sinking feeling I made a huge mistake and I could feel my blood quicken.
Then, there it was.
My ears picked it up before my other senses did. It was subtle at first. The sounds of leaves shifting and branches breaking. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I realized it wasn’t small. Something very big was smashing through the forest somewhere behind me and it was gaining ground.
I didn’t hesitate anymore. I picked a direction and took off. I let my instincts and legs carry me far away from here. I hadn’t run track in quite a while, but it was still second nature to me. I thanked my lucky stars because I had a feeling my increased stamina and speed would be the thing that saves my life.
I treated the obstacles in front of me like hurdles, jumping over overgrown roots and ducking under branches. I tried to follow the narrowest paths I could without being slowed down. If this thing was as big as it sounded maybe it would get stuck. But that didn’t seem to be the case as it only sounded like it was getting closer despite my best efforts.
My coach used to tell me to run like my life depends on it.
I never thought his advice would be so literal.
My panting was getting frantic and I knew I would be caught if I let myself give into panic. Just when I thought this was all hopeless and I was surely dead, I almost ran into something. Or SOMEONE.
A scream escaped before I could stop it and I could tell he was freaked out too. His hands were on my shoulders to steady my shaking frame.
“Whoa! What the fuck is going on?” His deep voice held a tone of panic he was trying to hide, but I had no time to explain or calm his worries. Hell, I don’t know if I even could.
I grabbed one of his calloused hands off my shoulder and gripped it tight. “We need to run. NOW!” I commanded and started running again, feeling relieved when he didn’t protest and ran by my side. My sweaty hand was still in his and I didn’t know why, but in that moment, I didn’t care. I was holding the hand of a stranger. A boy stranger.
Why not? Just another weird-ass thing in this weird-ass situation. Why the HELL not?
He was doing a good job keeping up with me, but I could tell he was fading fast. My mind raced almost as fast as my legs. What was I going to do if he collapsed or couldn’t keep going? Was I just going to leave him and save myself?
No. NO. NOT an option.
The thing was almost upon us and the boy holding my hand was having trouble catching my breath. I was just working on the courage to accept my fate when I heard running water. It was all the warning I got before a steep drop came into view.
I dug my heels into the ground while simultaneously shouting, “Stop!”
Thankfully it didn’t take him much as he was already slowing down. We scraped to a stop just by the drop off and peered down. A small waterfall led down to what looked like a lagoon.
“We can make it.” The boy told me between breaths, turning to look at me with piercing blue eyes that looked almost gray.
I automatically took a step back. “What? Are you crazy-?”
“We don’t have a choice!” he gripped my hand tighter and jumped without a second thought, leaving me forced to follow him. My heart jumped in my throat, preventing me from even screaming as I fell through the air like a majestic eagle on drugs.
It just barely crossed my mind to hold my breath before my body met the cold stinging slap of the water. I was only stunned for a few seconds before my legs once again gained a mind of their own and pushed me to the surface of the water. I gasped, coughing slightly as some cool water splashed onto my tongue. I kept my head bobbing above water and frantically looked around. I couldn’t see the boy. Sometime when we hit the water he had let go of my hand. Or was it when we were falling?
I was exhausted and quickly paddled over to the shore, which was thankfully not too far away. I dragged my drenched body on the rocks, letting my breath calm down while also keeping an eye out for my unexpected companion.
I had just made the decision to go back under and look for him when he breached the surface a few feet away from me, coughing worse than me.
“Are you okay?” I yelled over at him as he swam over to sit beside me, spitting out the water. His dirty blonde hair covered his face and he took a second to push it to the side. Something prickled at the back of my memory. I knew him. I knew I knew him. But for the love of god I couldn’t place him.
“Yeah, I think I’m okay.” He finally answered me after he settled down.
“Oh, good!” I said just before slapping him across the face.
“OW!” He held the side of his face with an indignant look. “What the fuck-?”
“Yeah! WHAT THE FUCK? You could have killed us! We didn’t know how deep the water was or if we would make it.” I pulled my soaked hair to the side and squeezed the water out of it the best I could.
Asshole’s frown deepened. “Um, in case you didn’t realize, we were being chased by who the hell knows what. I made a choice and, oh look, we’re not being chased anymore! You’re welcome.” He stood up and started stomping away.
Through everything I completely forgot the reason we jumped in the first place. My gaze shifted to the spot where we jumped. What looked like the tip of a tail flickered out of my vision before I could get a better look. A shudder ran through me and I don’t think it was from the now chilly breeze.
I jumped to my feet and jogged to catch up with Asshole. “Hey! Asshole! Where are you going?”
He didn’t look back at me. He just kept a steady pace forward. “I’m getting the hell out of here.”
My eyes widened as hope filled my chest. “You know how to get out of here?”
Asshole stopped and glanced at me with an almost sheepish look, before masking it with resolve. “I’ll figure it out. If you walk in a straight line long enough you have to get out of the forest eventually.”
“Or we’re just walking deeper into it.” I pointed out, crossing my arms.
He rolled his eyes at me. It caused me to notice a thin white scar just under his left eye.
“Alright, princess,” he said with sarcasm dripping off his tongue, “since you seem to know everything why don’t you lead the way out of here?”
I didn’t like this guy. I didn’t like his superior attitude. With absolutely no idea what I was doing, I puffed out my chest and walked with faux confidence past him. “Fine. And my name isn’t princess. It’s Caitlyn.”
I could hear his footsteps behind me as he followed. I waited for him to return my introduction, but none came. I glanced back at him with a raised eyebrow. “Would you prefer I just keep calling you Asshole?”
There it was again. That fucking eyeroll. It made me want to slap him again. “It’s Will.”
“Alright Will, how- “
My question faded into the sunshine as a long, haunting growl tore through the air around us. It was like nothing I ever heard before. It wasn’t human…but it wasn’t entirely animal either.
I looked over to Will for confirmation that I wasn’t going crazy and he heard it too. I could see his obnoxious resolve had been shaken. I should’ve been smug about it, but I was scared.
Where the hell were we?