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Authors: Mark Edwards

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BOOK: Follow You Home
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Chapter Seven

A
lina?’ I called her name this time. Then again.

Nothing.

Laura and I exchanged a look, and I stepped forward, laying a hand on the cool bark of the nearest tree and leaning into the dark space beyond.

‘Alina?’ I called. ‘Are you all right?’

Laura stood behind me, breathing heavily, audibly. My own heart was thumping hard in my chest, a cold bubble of air spreading through my body.

‘Where the hell is she?’ I asked, unsure if I was asking my girlfriend or the forest itself.

Laura called her name too, and her trembling voice bounced back through the trees, echoing and unanswered.

‘She can’t have gone in that far to have a pee, surely?’ I said.

Laura stared at me. ‘What if she went in and tripped over
something
? Bumped her head. Or . . . who knows—fell into a ditch or something?’

‘We need to take a look.’

Laura took a sharp breath. The edge of the tracks felt like a safe place now. But the forest . . . The black space beyond the line of trees. My whole body tensed up at the idea of going in there.

But we had no choice.

I switched on the torch and stepped between the trees, into the exact spot where Alina had entered. Laura followed, holding on to my arm.

Even here, just a few steps in, the atmosphere was very different from the relative safety of the tracks. The spiky lower branches of the trees reached out for us; shrubs seemed to grab at our feet. The torch picked out muted colours, dull greens and browns, among t
he black
, jagged shapes of the trees. Every dark space felt threatening, as if it contained and concealed something horrifying. My imagination filled in the details that my eyes couldn’t see, not just memories from a hundred horror movies and books, but something deeper in my brain, a line that stretched back thousands of years, fear of the dark woods hard-wired into me.

I shone the torch left and right, up and down, trying to
penetrate
the darkness, to kill it with light. I tried to take another step forward but my legs wouldn’t move. Instead, I pulled Laura back out to the tracks.

‘We can’t leave her. We have to go and look for her,’ Laura said.

I was sweating despite the chill in the air. I looked back at the forest. I didn’t want to go in there. My lizard brain was screaming at me:
Flight, not fight. Don’t go in there. Run away
.

‘What if it was a bear?’ I whispered. ‘Maybe that’s what’s
happened
.’

‘You told me they were extinct.’

‘Not extinct exactly. But rare.’ We both looked at the treeline.

‘We would have heard something,’ she said. ‘A scream,
growling
. . .’

‘How do you know what a bear attack sounds like? Or it might not be a bear—it could be . . .’

I couldn’t say the word that popped into my head.
A monster
.

‘Could be what?’

I was desperate not to go back into the forest, felt almost paralysed by a phobia I didn’t know I had. I had never been camping in the woods. Had grown up in the city, raised among concrete a
nd light.

But the way Laura was looking at me now was even worse than my fear of the forest. Disappointment.

‘We should go and get help,’ I said.

‘Help? That will take hours. We need to do something now.’

‘Or we should wait till it gets light.’

She looked up at the sky, the moon directly above us, casting lovely, reassuring light onto the tracks—light that would vanish the moment we entered the forest.

‘How long will that be? She could be in there, unconscious, in need of urgent medical help. Or maybe she’s trapped. She could have sprained her ankle. What if she trod in a trap, a snare?’ Like mine, Laura’s imagination was full of images from films.

‘Then why doesn’t she cry out?’ I asked. ‘Shout for help?’

‘I don’t know! But we have to try to find her. I couldn’t live with myself if we just left her, Daniel. Give that to me.’ She snatched the Maglite from my grasp. ‘If you’re too scared’—she spat the word—‘then I’ll go in on my own.’

‘No, Laura.’

She strode off towards the trees.

‘Come back.’ I lurched after her, catching her by the shoulder. She whirled around. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry. We’ll go in together. Give me the torch.’

‘Why should you—?’

‘Please. Just give it to me.’

I couldn’t bear the thought of not being in control of the light.

Holding the torch, with Laura grasping my free hand, I faced down my fears. I knew I was being stupid. In the daytime I would have happily run into the forest. We just needed to be careful, to watch where we were going. We would be fine. I repeated these words silently.
Fine, fine, fine
.

‘There’s a path,’ Laura said as we pushed through the first line of shrubbery, following the beam of the torch. She was right: there was a natural path among the trees, about a metre across. Perhaps Alina had found it straight away and decided to walk a little way along it in search of a good place to answer the call of nature. Though why she had gone more than half a dozen steps along it was beyond me. Although I was worried about her, I couldn’t help but feel angry too, for putting us in this predicament. Part of me wondered if she was trying to scare us. Or maybe she wanted to get rid of us, had decided that she didn’t want to spend any more time in our company. She might have ducked along the line of trees and re-emerged further down the track. We didn’t know her. Maybe she thought it would be funny to scare us, would be waiting for us in town with a wicked grin on her face.

‘If we don’t find her after ten minutes, we should go back, mark the place and go and get help. I don’t want us to get lost here,’ I said. ‘Do you agree?’

Something rustled in the foliage to our left and Laura gasped and grabbed at me, almost knocking the torch from my grip.

‘Laura!’

‘Yes, I agree. Ten minutes.’

I pointed the torch along the path. We could see about ten metres ahead of us; beyond that, the unknown. Except, of course, my rational brain reminded me, it would just be more path, more forest. Nothing more. Imagine this is a summer day, I thought, that bright sunshine is streaming through the foliage, dancing on the path. Cute animals peek out from the branches, flowers prettily adorn the path. It’s just a big wood. But it didn’t work. Instead of dancing sunshine, I saw creeping shadows. There were no cute animals, only the yellow eyes of hungry predators. The pretty flowers were poisonous: deadly nightshade and foxglove. Fallen berries were dotted here and there on the path, and I imagined that they too were poisonous.

I took a deep breath, calming myself, and we walked on.

‘Alina,’ Laura called. I echoed her, feeling a little foolish, worrying too that if there were bears here, our voices would attract them.

Something dashed across the path in front of us, caught in the beam of light, and we both jumped.

‘Jesus,’ Laura breathed.

‘A rat,’ I said. ‘I think.’

I looked behind me, swinging the torch, trying to memorise the point at which we’d joined the path. I turned my eyes skyward, hoping to see the moon, or the glow of a star, but the leaves above were too dense. As we walked, I could hear noises in the shadows, small animals and birds, the creak of an ancient tree as the wind stirred it. Laura’s hand was warm and damp in mine, but my whole body w
as cold
, mottled with goosebumps. I tried to speak but my mo
uth was
too dry. My chest felt it was about to burst open.

‘I think we’ve gone in a circle,’ I said. ‘We’ve been here before.’

‘We can’t have.’

But I was sure I recognised the spot on which we were standing, that the edge of the forest was very close. The urge to flee, to turn and abandon this crazy search, was almost impossible to resist. Maybe she had got lost, had found her way back to the track, was waiting for us there now.

I was about to suggest that we go back and check when Laura said, in an urgent whisper, ‘Look!’

Something lay on the path ahead. It was immediately obvious what it was, but I had to stoop to make sure, picking it up and holding it out to Laura.

It was Alina’s boot. Black, leather, the zip half undone.

‘Oh my God.’

I swept the torchlight in a circle around us, searching for the other boot, but it was nowhere to be seen. I opened my mouth to say that we really needed to fetch help, when Laura gripped my hand and said, ‘Did you hear that?’

‘No—’

But then the sound came again, faint but unmistakable. A human cry.

‘Oh fuck,’ Laura said.

‘We have to go back . . .’ But Laura was already moving forward, jogging along the path, and I unstuck my feet and followed her, both of us speeding up as the cry came again, closer this time. As we ran, taking a new, more uneven path towards the source of the noise, the forest seemed to close in on us, and in my nightmares now, when I dream of this scene, I see faces in the trees, laughing mouths and cruel eyes etched in the bark, mocking and jeering at us as we ran slowly forward.

And, then without warning, the path ended and we emerged into a large clearing. The ground was flat, stretching the size of a football pitch, the odd tree dotted here and there. Each of these trees was bent, leafless. Dead. And at the centre of the clearing, making me blink and stare stupidly, half-convinced I was hallucinating, was a house.

‘What the fuck?’ I said. Laura and I turned to stare at e
ach other.

The house had three storeys and a flat roof, dark windows and a wooden door. It was impossible to tell how old it was, but the word that sprang to mind was
ancient
. As old as the forest itself. And like the blackened trees that stood hunched in the clearing, the ground around the house seemed dead, the grass tinged grey in the weak moonlight.

Lights flickered in the windows. Candles, I realised. Like the light that glowed in the hollows of a jack-o’-lantern.

I knew, with every instinct, every scrap of learned and inherited knowledge, that this was a bad place. That we needed to turn around, right now, and get away. That we shouldn’t take another step towards this building, should not pass through that door, must not go inside.

But then we heard another cry, a strangled sob from inside those stone walls, and as the silence descended again, Laura and I walked towards the house, towards the door, as if our legs had a will of their own.

Chapter Eight

O
ut we came, bursting from between the trees, back onto the path, stumbling in the half-light, almost falling, one of us catching the other, stopping only to scoop up our backpacks from the edge of the forest.

We ran all the way into town.

We didn’t talk.

We didn’t look back.

Part Two
London
November 2013

Chapter Nine

I
sat on the chair in the corner of the bedroom and stared at the empty bed. The room was musty, stale, smelled of alcoholic sweat and dirty clothes which exploded from the overstuffed laundry basket. Used mugs and painkiller packets and unread books threatened to push each other off the bedside table.

Sometimes in the night I could hear something scratching and skittering in the walls. Rats, drawn to the spreading squalor? I needed to let some fresh air in, but the effort of doing this, of crossing the room and trying to find the key that unlocked the sash window, of forcing the frame open, was too much. Everything felt like too much effort.

All I wanted to do was sleep. I was exhausted, permanently j
et-lagge
d, with scratchy eyes and the clumsiness that comes with over-tiredness. I was forever bumping into things, dropping my phone, smashing crockery. I hadn’t been able to sleep, not properly, for three months.

The quilt was folded over so it appeared there was someone asleep in the bed. Not just
someone
. Laura. I could almost see and hear her soft breathing, the little snuffling sounds she made in her sleep. If I hauled myself out of this uncomfortable wooden chair and slipped my hand beneath the duvet I would be able to feel her warm skin, stroke her hair.

But the shape in the bed was not Laura. It was an empty space. A phantom.

Because Laura wasn’t here anymore.

She left in mid-October, six weeks ago. The day she went, I had been at a meeting that I had been unable to avoid. I would never forget the way that Camilla and Damien from Skittle had looked at me, as if wondering if the real Daniel had been bodysnatched, whether the person sitting in front of them with the chewed nails and the inability to form a coherent sentence was an impostor. I told them I’d picked up a nasty virus on my travels, was still trying to shake it off, which was a warped version of the truth. I wanted to tell them that the old Daniel, the person they knew, hadn’t returned from Romania. This was the new, diminished model.

Luckily, I wasn’t expected to do much apart from co-operate with their PR efforts. I’d been interviewed by a couple of journalists from
Wired
and some other tech magazine, who asked me lots of questions about the app I’d created and the deal I’d done. My app, Heatseeker, was due to launch in the spring. Until then, I had little to do, though I kept telling myself I needed to start work on something else. I was waiting for inspiration to strike.

When I got home, Laura was standing beside a black cab, the driver heaving her suitcase off the pavement.

‘What . . . what are you doing?’ I asked.

Laura blinked at me and got into the cab.

‘You all right, love?’ the cabbie asked. She nodded and he climbed into the driver’s seat.

‘Where are you going?’ I said, leaning through the window, fingers gripping the frame.

She took a long, deep breath. ‘I’m going to stay with Erin a
nd Rob.’

They were friends of ours who lived in Camden.

I could barely speak. ‘Why?’

She shook her head sadly. ‘You know why, Daniel.’

And then she had gone, the taxi accelerating through puddles, soaking an old woman on the other side of the road and vanishing around the corner.

I stood in the street for a long time, not aware of the rain until it dripped into my eyes and all I could see was a watery veil that at least, though it didn’t really matter, hid my tears.

I hauled myself off the chair and drifted into the living room, almost tripping over the recycling box that I’d left by the door, all the empty wine bottles inside it rattling and clinking together. This reminded me that I needed to do an online grocery shop. I only had two bottles of alcohol left in the flat, one of which was a litre bottle of Ouzo that Jake had brought back from a holiday in Greece a year ago. Poor Jake had been forced to endure several nights sitting with me while I got drunk and openly mourned my relationship. It was particularly frustrating for him because I wouldn’t tell him what had created the fracture that tore Laura and me apart.

‘It doesn’t make sense,’ he kept saying. ‘You guys were so good together.’

‘I 
know
.’

‘Is she seeing someone else? Want me to kill the bastard for you? Or put him in a song?’

‘There’s no one else.’

‘Then there’s only one explanation. The two of you have gone stark raving mad.’ He waited for me to respond. When I didn’t, he said, ‘Come on, you can tell me. I can keep a secret.’

‘Hah. Come off it, Jake. You’re the biggest gossip I’ve ever met. You can’t resist sharing a good story.’

‘I’m offended, Dan. If you tell me it’s a secret, I’ll keep it right here.’ He laid a hand across his heart. ‘I can keep secrets, you know.’

It had rained so much in the past few weeks that I had taken to glancing out the window expecting to see bodies floating past. While I’m not so egotistical as to think the weather is connected to my own life, it certainly felt appropriate. I had spent many days sitting in my flat watching the rain pummel the windows, people dashing from their cars in the street below, kids splashing in puddles while their soaked parents tried to drag them home. I wanted the rain to wash away the memory of what we’d seen and done. But all it did was cause the damp patch beneath the front window to bloom and spread, and give me a good excuse to stay indoors.

I entered the galley kitchen. One of the three light bulbs w
as de
ad but I hadn’t got round to changing it. I had a feeling that when the last bulb finally died I would come to rely on the light from t
he fridge.

I looked at my phone to check the time. Quarter to twelve. Too early to open the remaining Merlot. But I could have a glass with lunch. One o’clock was a more civilised time to have lunch, but noon was acceptable. I occupied myself for fifteen minutes watching a daytime TV item about a woman who believed she’d had a sexual encounter with a ghost, then returned to the kitchen. I wasn’t hungry and there was green fur on the bread. Could I have a glass of wine without food? I knew I shouldn’t but I could taste it, anticipating its bloody thickness on my tongue.

I poured half a glass, hesitated, then topped it up. Took it over to the sofa and slumped in front of the TV. An item came on about Center Parcs: a family walking through a forest. I snatched up the remote control and changed the channel.

If I could sleep, could get just one decent night’s rest, I was certain I would feel better, that I would be able to function again. This was one of the excuses I made for drinking, because after two bottles I would pass out. But an hour or two later, I would jerk awake, feeling like a nuclear bomb had detonated in my skull. The rest of the night would pass in a series of shifting hallucinations, some invented, some remembered, and I would try desperately to hold the door shut on my memories.

Sometimes they snuck through, as if revealed by a camera flashing in the dark.

Flash
. My hand on the warped wooden door.

Flash
. A face as white as bone, twisted in torment.

Flash
. Laura, stumbling on the crooked staircase.

I swallowed a mouthful of red wine. As it slipped down my throat I could see an image of my mum, shaking her head and saying, ‘This won’t do, will it, Daniel? This can’t go on.’

I yelled and threw the glass across the room. It shattered against the fireplace, dark wine splattering the walls like blood-spray at a crime scene, glass splinters settling on the carpet.

This can’t go on.

As I got to my feet, knowing that I needed to clean up the wine and the glass, a terrible weariness seizing my limbs as I contemplated it, my mobile rang.

The display read LAURA.

Eagerly, I pressed ‘answer’ and said, ‘Hello?’

‘Daniel? Are you OK? You sound . . . weird.’

‘Yes. I just . . .’ I laughed. ‘I dropped a glass. Of orange juice.’

‘Oh. Do you want me to call back later?’

‘No! I mean, no, now’s fine. Now’s great. What’s up?’ It took all my acting skills to sound normal.

Why was she hesitating? Was she about to tell me that she wanted to come home? Hope flared in my chest.

‘I’ve got something I need to tell you,’ she said.

‘What is it?’

Her voice wobbled. ‘I need to tell you in person.’

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