The raindrops pitter-pattered overhead and the perfume of copper percolated throughout the tent.
Jill wasn’t sleepy at all. This doesn’t feel right, she thought. She propped herself up on one elbow and looked over at Tommy, who appeared to be in a very deep sleep. He snored.
“Tommy,” she whispered in the gloom. “Hey. Tommy.”
The quiet, heavy breaths continued.
There was no answer.
Jill reached over and gave him a gentle shake.
“Mmmph?” came the response.
“You awake?” she asked him.
“Am now,” slurred Tommy. “Whassit?”
Jill hadn’t thought this far ahead. She couldn’t quite articulate what was wrong, only that something was wrong.
“I-I don’t know,” she said at last.
“Aight.” Tommy had already begun the descent back into his slumber.
She furrowed her brow and thought. “We shouldn’t have left him,” she blurted out, at last. “Shouldn’t we have helped him, Tommy?”
Tommy’s sleeping bag rustled in the darkness. “Mmh? Nah.” He cleared his throat and tried to enunciate. “No. Just a crazy homeless dude.”
“But he was bleeding. He looked hurt. We should have helped him, Tommy.” Jill sat upright in the darkness as the shower overhead grew heavier.
Shhhh, said the rainfall against the material of the tent, Shhhhhh.
“What should we have done? He could have hurt us, Jill.” After a heartbeat, Tommy added, “He could have been dangerous.”
“We don’t know that!”
“Exactly. We don’t know that. It’d have been a gamble, and I’m not risking your life, or my own, to help someone who could kill us… He only had a few scratches on him, anyway.”
A silence fell between them. The storm overhead continued to hush their quarrel. Shhhh. Shhhhhh.
“Tree people,” Jill said. “That was what he was saying, wasn’t it? Tree people.”
“Oh, don’t pay any attention to that, Jill,” he said, not unkindly. She could make out his smile in the dusk. “Like I said, he was crazy. Crazy. He was probably on something or had something wrong with him. Anyway,” Tommy said after a pause, “he was going past us, right? That means he was running out of the woods. Someone’s bound to find him on the road. Either they’ll help him, or they’ll call the police or someone and then they’ll help. Either way, he’ll be fine.”
The way Tommy spoke did soothe her disquieted mind. A little.
She couldn’t stop her thoughts. They drifted to Tommy’s earlier remarks that the forest seemed bigger and denser than last time.
“Get some sleep, Jill,” said Tommy, and he leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “We’ve got some beautiful hiking trails to see tomorrow. You’ll need your energy.”
Tommy lay back down and rolled over.
Soon after, he snored again.
Thirty-seven minutes later, when Jill had been dead for almost half an hour, Tommy ran for his life through the thicket. He prayed for an opening in the canopy above.
He gripped the little plastic device as the rain pelted him.
Tommy ran blindly through the trees.
He was right, his mind screamed, the crazy old dude was right. Sweet Jesus, he was RIGHT. Tommy wished — oh, God, how he wished — he could go back in time and listen to the guy. And if not to him, then at least to Jill. Poor, sweet Jill whom he had loved. Jill, who had recognised something was off.
He ran — he knew not in which direction. Tommy only knew he had to run.
All around him, things moved. He couldn’t see them, oh no. He could feel the disruptions and disturbances as they woke and shifted and stirred in the night. Tommy could hear them, too. Great groaning, grousing sounds. There were also cries and shrieks. He had never heard anything like it.
Tommy ran. Faster than he ever had in his life. He had to break out of the treeline at some point, right?
Or you’ll just delve deeper into the woods, whispered a voice in his head.
He ran and he ran. Branches reached for him, tore at him, but he burst through them at a sprint. A painful stitch throbbed in his side.
Tommy dashed until an above-ground root caught his foot. There was a hollow snap in the nocturn and his ankle twisted. Tommy cried out, tumbled, and caught a mouthful of mud.
Tommy lay there as his foot throbbed in agony. He sensed movement writhe around him, at the periphery of his vision. He rolled onto his back.
A small patch of clear sky above him. The stars twinkled overhead.
Tommy lifted the flare gun — surprised he had not lost it — and aimed the orange pistol at the heavens. He squeezed the trigger.
A package of purple-tinted fire erupted from the barrel, propelled upwards in a spiral. Its beauty dazzled in the encroaching blackness.
Tommy watched. He smiled as the firework shot into the night.
And then something that looked like a branch lashed out of the canopy and intercepted it.
It whipped the flare downwards. Towards him. Tommy was too defeated to move, but the part of the brain concerned with preservation dumped a hefty dose of adrenaline into his veins. He rolled away and tore himself up in the undergrowth as he scrambled.
Had it been earlier in the summer, the flame may have ignited the underbrush. As it was, the flare hit the ground with a squelch and began to dim as it sizzled in the drenched vegetation.
Tommy stared at it, dumbstruck. The brightness burned his retinas. What now? What now?
All around him, he heard the rustle and crack of the trees.
The flare dimmed to a small glow. Tommy’s eyes were seared with the afterimage of what could have been his salvation.
A ripping, tearing sound erupted behind him.
Tree people, echoed the vagrant’s voice. Tree people.
Tommy clenched his fists and readied himself.