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While it was still dark we took turns to keep watch. Steve pulled together a schedule that assumed one or more of us might want to try sleeping at some point.
Fat chance of that.
We waited. We were too tired to talk, too wired to do much else.
I chain smoked through the rest of my cigarettes, Mike did the same with his rollies. There was a good, dank haze around the campsite for those last dark hours. Jo might’ve napped against his shoulder. Whenever I thought she’d drifted off, I caught her looking back at me. Once or twice she managed a wan smile. It looked painful. I felt confused. I’d rather she hadn’t tried.
Ewan and Paul kept the fire going. They threw just about everything we had onto it. The night was cold on our backs and I could feel the skin on my face singe from the heat. The circle of light bloomed out a little further, cutting into the darkness.
Steve sat on his own, scribbling into a small notebook.
When the sun rose, it was a little after 7 o’clock. In the half an hour or so beforehand, mist started rolling down the sides of the valley. By the time the sky became blue, we were sitting in a knee-high soup of it. I think we were all glad. It meant we didn’t have to look at the blood any more.
I heaved myself to my feet grunting like a 50 year old and staggered around in still-wet socks and boots to the edge of the site. The others lined up either side of me, staring out over the field. The mood was grim. I felt like some battered soldier looking out over no man’s land. The world around us was terrifying now. The valley cutting down towards us was a wall keeping us in; the forest around the field seemed to stretch on forever. Anything could be out there.
We all knew it.
“We’ll move in teams of two. One person to act, another to keep watch,” said Steve, flipping his notebook shut and slipping it into a pocket. “One team will go to the car. That will be me and Mike.”
Mike didn’t look thrilled at the prospect of leaving the camp, but he didn’t say anything. I suppose it made sense. Me and Paul were both on edge and – as Steve’d probably noted – a liability. Paul wouldn’t be able to function without Ewan being around, plus Ewan had – by default – become the cook. Jo was, well, Jo. Maybe he didn’t have much faith in her to watch his back, or maybe he thought Mike was the more reliable option.
“You two,” he looked at me and Jo. “You will take down everything. You will pack up only what’s necessary. Make sure to look through anything Gerry and Lucy brought with them. Paul and Ewan will plot a route to the nearest town or village that isn’t that one, and prepare provisions.”
I could see them fidget.
“Wouldn’t groups of three be safer?” Jo ventured.
“A group of six would be safest, but we don’t have the luxury of time. We need to keep moving.”
She pursed her lips. None of us were happy, but no one else jumped up to suggest an alternative. I think we were glad to have someone thinking for us. I know I was.
Sir, yes sir. Want me to do some push ups while I’m at it? Think we’re going to get out of this one alive, sir?
Paul and Ewan got to work. Mike filled a plastic bag with empty bottles and, after some thought, grabbed a pen knife Ewan had been using to open up food packets. Jo paled.
“You don’t have to do this.” I heard her say to him.
“I don’t know what else to do,” he said.
“We don’t need to fight. We can just run. Now.”
“We don’t know where we’re running to.” He kissed her. “We’re only going over there. We’ll be back in a few minutes. Besides,” he leaned in. “I reckon I can run faster than him.”
She choked a laugh. “Not funny.” They kissed again, then Mike ambled to where Steve was waiting.
Jo watched them walk away, wading through the mist until they crossed the gate and disappeared from view.
“You alright?” I asked Jo as we went into the closest tent and started pulling things together.
I could see her hands shaking. “Not really,” she said. “You?”
“I wish I was back at work.”
I upended a backpack. I didn’t know whose it was, but guessed it didn’t matter.
“You and Mike are good together,” I said eventually.
“He’s a good guy.” She emptied out another bag. “When we get out of here, I’m going to marry him.”
Despite everything, it still felt like a punch in the gut. I rubbed my sternum, evoking the ache from a few hours before.
It was irrational and stupid. I hadn’t expected Jo to be here this weekend. I certainly hadn’t expected to run across a sunny meadow with her, scooping her into my arms with the promise of loving one another for ever and ever. Somewhere in the years that passed, I’d even forgotten about her once or twice. I guessed it was this whole set up – the camping, the drinking – that put me back seven years. Less than 24 hours ago it had certainly felt like that.
People are strange, aren’t we? Of all the things I could’ve been getting fucked up about, it was the years I’d wasted. It was an on/off relationship that barely qualified as friends with benefits when we were younger and less fat.
She was looking at me.
“What’s on your mind?”
“How much booze we’ve got left.”
I straightened up. She was smiling at me again. This time it was genuine. It was a little bit sad.
“I recognise that look on your face,” she said. “It’s the look you used to get when Becca was around.”
Wow, Becca. I had completely forgotten about her. I used to trail after her like a puppy in my second year. For months, I’d been unbearable. Even Paul had snapped at one point and told me to do something about it, or shut the fuck up. He was sick of me pining and wanted his friend back.
By the time I’d set myself on asking her out, she’d gotten herself a boyfriend. Or maybe I’d waited until she got a boyfriend before I’d decided that it was time to ask her. I knew I didn’t have to do it then, like spending a few hours working yourself up to having a shower, only to have a shit fit when someone else has the nerve to go in before you. I remembered feeling betrayed. I felt like she’d torn out my heart and taken a steaming shit on top of it even though I’d given her no indication of how I’d felt. It was just one step on a long road of me being completely incapable of sorting my shit out.
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s the look I get when I’ve got trapped wind.”
She laughed. “Whatever it is, it’s a good look on you. You stop frowning. You don’t look so hard.”
“Well, I am pretty hard. I’m nails, me. Could win any fight I wanted.”
“Of course you could, darling.” She patted my shoulder. “Just not this one.”
I didn’t know if she was talking about that thing, or about her and Mike.
Either which way I felt pretty fucking helpless. More baggage to escape with, I guess. It was starting to get heavy.
I think we did a pretty good job, all told. We split out whatever resources we could find between the available backpacks. After a bit of hand wringing, we left out the sleeping bags. We figured that if we got moving soon enough, we’d find civilisation – the not crazy variety – before night came. Sleeping on the fells wasn’t something we wanted to consider.
Steve and Mike completed their reccy without incident. Turned out that Steve didn’t have a suitable hose for siphoning. Instead, they’d brought back a half-full plastic jerry can. There was some debate over whether or not we’d actually be able to use it. In the end, we left it in the outhouse. Jo and I hadn’t exactly left room for incendiaries in the backpacks, and no one fancied dragging 5 litres of highly combustible fuel around. Plus empties, plus rags. You know, just in case we fancied making incendiaries while being chased up a fucking mountain.
Paul and Ewan topped up the bags with food and pump water. No one was going to gripe about it now. Better diarrhea than death.
“The closest village – other than that one – is 5 miles north as the crow flies,” said Paul when we were kitting up. “The route to walk is more like 7 miles, and that involves cutting down into the next valley over and up the other side.”
“There’s a main road 5 miles north east,” said Ewan. “We can make it there in three hours if we don’t stop. It’s still a hard walk, but not as bad as the alternative.”
Paul folded the map. “If we get the main road, we can flag down a car or a bus. Ride it to town. Get signal. Find some sign of civilisation and get help.”
My feet started aching in anticipation.
Steve nodded. “Good. Okay.”
“We still need to walk through the forest. And make it out of the valley,” said Mike.
“That’s unavoidable. If we keep moving, we’ll be home free by lunchtime.”
And we set off.
We were twenty minutes deep into the forest, heads down, no talking, when our progress dribbled to a stop.
“What’s the hold up?” asked Steve from the front. His voice was low and quiet. We passed it down the line until it reached the end: Jo.
“I heard something,” she passed back.
“All the more reason to keep moving,” said Steve, taking a few steps further up the path before stopping again when we didn’t fall in behind him.
“Did no one else hear that?”
We shook our heads.
“It sounded like a moan,” she said.
“So? We know there are people out there.”
“What sort of moan?” asked Ewan, edging towards her. The group started to coalesce.
“I think it was a person. They didn’t sound well.”
Mike peered off through the trees. “We should see what it is.”
“No, we keep moving.”
“Someone’s hurt. It might be Gerry, or Lucy.”
“Or one of the people that attacked us last night fell and broke their neck. I’m not going to risk mine.” Steve made his stand.
I took half a step towards him. Paul did the same. We wanted out. Jo, Ewan, and Mike staked their claim towards the back.
“We need to stay together,” said Paul. “We can’t risk splitting up. We’re almost out.”
“Five minutes,” Jo insisted. “It’s coming from over there. It can’t be far. We can’t just leave them.”
“It might not even be a them,” said Paul, reaching for her.
“Five minutes. Sorry.” She slipped off and into the trees before we could put some sense into her. With a flash of light on her purple hair, she vanished into the undergrowth.
Paul opened his mouth to call after, then shut it.
Mike shed his backpack. “She can’t go on her own. We’ll be back – wait for us,” he said as he went after her.
Ewan looked between where’d they’d gone, then back to Paul. Pain was written across his face. He was visibly shifting his weight from one foot to the next.
“We can’t split up,” he echoed sounding lost. He looked young, younger than he was.
Paul tapped a fist against his leg. His jaw was clenched again. He looked ready to sling the rest of us over his shoulders and sprint the rest of the way himself. I was ready to let him.
“Fine,” he sighed, angry and disappointed.
He and Ewan took off their backpacks and dropped them into the mat of wilting, brown bracken either side of the path. Ewan tucked the others nearby, kicking leaves over them for good measure. They took one another’s hands and started off the path. It would’ve been sweet – beautiful even in a fairytale sort of way – if they weren’t fucking idiots.
“Don’t do this. We’re so close. You’re going to get us all killed,” Steve hissed, but they’d gone too far to hear him. It was amazing how quickly they’d all vanished in what little remained alive of the forest.
Then there were two.
Steve looked at me. I looked at him. Of all the people in the world that could’ve been left with an iota of sense between them.
“We’ll be out of the forest in another twenty minutes,” he said. “Let’s go.” He made to leave, then faltered again when I didn’t follow. At this rate, he was going to make it out on his own, one stilted step at a time.
“We should wait.”
I expected him to huff a bit then pull something out of his arse, straight from the SAS survival manual. I could see us spending the next few minutes rigging some sort of shelter or cunning traps. Maybe he’d suggest improvising some ghillie suits and flanking the path, ready to launch ourselves at whoever or whatever might try to ambush us. Either which way, I thought it might involve string and branches and maybe chopping up leafy undergrowth to provide camouflage.
Instead, he said: “Don’t be so bloody ridiculous.”
I blinked in surprise.
“We press on. If they make it out, they know the route to follow. We’re sitting ducks here.” His judgement was, apparently, final.
Once again, he’d hit it out of the park. I wonder if it was a burden being so fucking right all the time.
I let my options sink in. It was quiet. It felt like everything was holding its breath.
The path we were following was clear enough. It led straight up. Less than half an hour of walking and we’d be in the open. We wouldn’t be home free, but at least we’d have visibility. Whatever it was that might be after us, we stood a better chance of surviving it if we could see it coming. I didn’t think we’d be able to outrun a gang of insane locals across the fells, or anything else for that matter. But something – something primal – told me that we’d be better off out there than where we were. This forest wasn’t safe for us. We weren’t meant to be here.
Either side of us were dense, naked grey trees reaching up to a canopy of skeletal branches. It was a minefield of trip hazards and would be too easy to lose sight of the path with a mess of trunks obscuring line of sight. Daylight overhead was washed out; it did enough to dapple the floor – a network of roots, bushes, and leaves.
I couldn’t see or even hear the sounds of my friends making their way away from us. The forest had swallowed them whole. If I went in, there wasn’t much chance of me being able to find my own way back out.
“Then I’m going after them,” I said at last.
“No you won’t. You’ll come with me.” It was a factual statement. No room for doubt.
I raised my eyebrows. I wanted to leave – to carry on up and out of this fucking place – of course I did. But I’m an indignant, stubborn sort of dick when I’m up against it, and Steve had only just edged into the category of people I didn’t want to see hurt. He was rapidly dropping down the ranks.
I frowned. “You said it yourself: this place isn’t safe. We’ll be hidden if we leave the path. We can’t stand around like lemons, so I’m going over there.”
“You’re not the type.”
“I know people like you. You’re not the type.”
He blindsided me with that one.
“You don’t know me,” I said, louder than I really should’ve.
He folded his arms. There was that teacher I hated all over again. There was the bully looking to remind me that I was weird, that no one liked me, that I was set to fail. There were all those Fs despite the fact I’d actually fucking tried. There was the failed degree and with it, the sense of self worth.
“Paul warned us about you before the weekend. I know enough. He said you don’t play well with others. That you’re a selfish arsehole. That you coast your way through life, and that one day you’ll completely run out of people to blame that on. He didn’t even expect you to show up.”
Maybe he knew me after all.
For a moment, he had the audacity to look benevolent. He pressed his lips together and extended a hand to me like he was Jesus fucking Christ offering to show me the way. “You can come with me and survive. We stand a better chance together. We can take turns keeping watch. Or you can self-destruct and go after them.”
It was the most sincere I’d seen him. I saw someone who had spent a life striving to achieve, and felt he could do the same for others. Maybe there was a tragic backstory in there, maybe there was just a self-help book taken too far. In other circumstances, maybe I could’ve gotten to know him better. For a moment, I caught a glimpse of the human being under the upholstery.
It was, honestly, disgusting.
“Get fucked, Steve,” I said, flipping him off then booting my backpack into the undergrowth.
He started to shout after me then cut it off in a sharp yap. Angry as he might be, he didn’t want to risk giving away his position. There’s a good, pragmatic little megalomaniac, I thought as I crunched off.
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