I watched myself turn away and begin to head deeper into the forest. Of course, I knew I was expected to follow. I didn’t need to be told.
As if beyond my own personal will, I felt my legs begin to carry me away from the group – away from safety. I kept my eyes trained ahead on the figure. Same clothes, same hair, same everything. I had the most remarkable feeling that I wasn’t following at all – I was retracing steps I had taken before.
I turned back to try keep eyes on the group, only to find that I was entirely alone. There were no stray flashlight beams to find me, no distant shuffling of leaves. Dead silence met me. Even the figure ahead of me made no sound as it moved. The sun was starting to set, casting the trees around me in a familiar dark blue hue.
Oddly, I no longer felt scared. I was calm. I had been here before.
And so, I pressed on.
The figure and I seemed to stay the exact same distance from each other, regardless of the speed with which I walked. Even when I’d slide down a small hill, or get stuck going up an incline, we remained fixed in how far away we were from each other.
Then, without warning, the figure was suddenly gone. It didn’t fade away, or dissipate like smoke in the air – it was simply gone. One minute it was there – the next…
I pressed on despite a sinking feeling beginning to weigh down my stomach. I seemed to have come back to my senses, and in doing so I realised I was lost. I had no fucking clue where I was. That was the trick with those woods; no matter how familiar they seemed, it only took one wrong turn to screw yourself over.
With a sudden spring in my step, I was no longer paying attention to where I was going. I found myself soon going from a full pelt sprint, to being sent face first into the dirt. Immediately, stinging pain came to my right cheek and my hands. I tasted copper. My foot had caught on something.
Slowly, feeling every nerve fire off in my body, I stood and spat out a mouthful of blood. Brushing the leaves and clumps of dirt off my shirt, I left trails of blood from my scraped raw hands. I’d done a good job of it, that was for sure.
I felt something lightly hit the crown of my head. A raindrop. Another storm.
Turning to see what I’d tripped on, my body seemed to just go entirely numb. My mouth was dried out, throat closing in.
An arm, stiff and purple, lay on top of a layer of leaves as if it were someone merely pulling the blanket back over themselves. Black tyre marks were branded on the skin – harsh bruises on otherwise perfect flesh. An accident. There had been an accident. I knew who it was. I did not need to see the face; I did not want to.
My knees shook violently as I felt myself step closer. My whole body threatened to give out, to allow me to just crumple up and stay there. I felt like a house of cards, slowly but surely coming in for a great crash.
A dull flashing light was going off near the body, buried beneath leaves. I knew that light. With untrustworthy hands, I gingerly reached into the foliage to retrieve a phone. The screen flashed with the ‘Find my Phone’ app, pinging that the person who owned the phone was close by. Slowly, I turned the phone over. I hadn’t needed to; I knew that phone. I didn’t want to look, but I had to.
A spiral sticker, stuck to the back of the phone. Worn, after years of being there.
Voices and footsteps came to me, getting closer and closer. I dropped the phone and looked up to see two shadowy figures moving through the bush, their flashlight beam jerking around violently. They sounded angry; they were arguing.
One of the figures stopped and I froze in turn, my heart pointing.
I recognised the voice. Of course I recognised that voice.
In a split second decision, I turned on heel and began sprinting through the forest once again. Leaves slid dangerously underfoot but I refused to stop. More than once I felt as though the ground itself was going to slide out from under me, but I would not stop.
I could hear someone else crashing through the trees behind me, desperate to gain on me. Even over the sound of the storm raging, I heard my name being yelled repeatedly. He knew. He knew that I had seen it, and that I had seen him.
The trees began to thin out, revealing a great beacon of light ahead. As I burst through the tree line, becoming soaked by the rain almost immediately, I saw where I was. Jon’s family home towered before me, with all the lights switched on and the cars gone. I knew exactly where I was. I knew exactly when I was.
I shuffled back towards the tree, no longer concerned with my pursuer. I knew that he would be gone before soon. That was how this story went. Looking up at the deck, my heart sank. There I was, looking out at the world while the world looked right back at me. I moved out into my own field of vision, powerless to it all.
They never found the body. I never told. What could I say? How can I explain what I’ve seen?
Especially when Jon’s never looked at me right again, even when he came to visit the hospital. He knows I know. And so we sit at a stalemate; victims of that year’s cairn season.