A wet tree limb smacked my face; feet sucked on moist earth with each step.
Sunlight flashed through the treetops and vanished just as quickly, a giant strobe light in the sky, as I ran forward.
Just breathe, I told myself. Stop running, and just breathe. They won’t find you now.
It took a while for my legs to respond to my mind’s plea. At last I stilled, muscles quivering, the adrenaline rush gone and weariness setting in. My daytime desk job had not prepared me for this; my body was not used to the exertion. I struggled to control my breathing, suddenly lightheaded and faint, clutching a tree to keep upright. I collapsed into a sitting position on the ground, rough bark scraping my back, and let my mind wander.
I remembered awakening early this morning, coated in sweat, scared of something but not remembering what. I’d gotten up, gotten dressed, and was just starting to get myself some breakfast when my phone rang. Unknown name, unknown number. I picked it up. "Hello?"
"You have something we want, Elizabeth Jones. Meet me at Shinbone Road in Bushman’s Woods at noon. Bring the picture."
"What picture? Hey, who is this? Is this some kind of joke?"
"We do not joke around, Ms. Jones. Bring the picture, and come alone. You do not want to bring the police into this. If you disobey in any way, we will kill you, and that is no joke. If you doubt us, look outside your front door. Noon, Shinbone Road in Bushman’s Woods. Be there." The line went dead.
I stared at the phone in confusion. Picture? What picture? I couldn’t even remember the last time I took a picture, other than a selfie every blue moon, and what could they want with those? I’m not even particularly pretty. I flipped through the pictures on my phone. Nothing interesting. I would have shrugged it off completely had not I stepped out the door and almost stumbled over my cat’s dead body. He’d been shot multiple times. I’d never heard a thing.
After recovering from the shock of my discovery, I sat down to think. They must have the wrong person. Of course! How many Elizabeth Joneses existed in the world? It was obvious to me that they were looking for a different Beth Jones.
It was also obvious to me that they meant business, and I had no doubt that they would come after me if I didn’t show up, right person or not. I had to meet them in Bushman’s Woods, wherever that was, at noon and somehow convince them they had the wrong woman. It was the only choice. I could only hope they’d listen.
It had taken me a while to find the meeting place, as I’d never been in this neck of the woods before, so to speak. When I showed up, they didn’t believe me, and they were mad as rabid dogs that I hadn’t brought the picture they wanted. When the guns came out and lead started flying, I dove into the woods and ran for my life.
Now I was completely lost, but that didn’t matter to me nearly as much as the fact that I had perhaps lost them. A strange feeling was nagging at me, a sense of having been here before. Bit by bit the answer came to me. That nightmare that had awakened me this morning… I had seen these woods in my dream. I’d been running through them… As hard as I tried, I could remember no more of my dream than that. Something bad had happened, but what?
Suddenly distant rustling and shouting met my ears. I leapt to my feet in a panic. I hadn’t lost them. There were still coming for me. I resumed running, blindly surging to I knew not where. I zigged and zagged, trying to throw the pursuers off my trail, trying to confuse them so that they’d start following some deer path instead of my own. I’d given up on trying to conceal my footprints, finding the unsuccessful endeavor to be a worthless waste of time. Every tree and bush looked the same to me, and I had the sensation that I was running in circles, but I continued on. The rustling was growing louder, closer. I staggered to a stop when I found myself standing at the base of the tree that I had been resting against only a short while ago; my imprint in the wet leaves and moss was distinct. Somehow I had gotten turned around, and was running toward my pursuers rather than away.
Quickly, I turned and ran the other direction, making my own path through the brush and briars, hoping that would slow them down. Instead, it seemed to just slow me. My pants and shirt and the skin beneath was being ripped and torn to shreds, but I pushed forward, fear of death keeping me moving. Suddenly, my hair snagged on a thorny branch. I pulled on it, but that seemed to only tighten the snag. I began picking at it, trying to untangle it, but was making little headway. They were close now. The rustling of their boots stomping down the undergrowth made my soul shudder. I began thrashing wildly, trying to tear my hair loose from the bush’s demonic grip.
"She’s that way," a man’s heavy voice shouted. I could almost see them now.
I gave a sudden yank, falling into the brush as my hair tore loose and I was set free. I staggered to my feet and began to run, when a barrel-chested man with an evil sneer stepped out in front of me. I swung around, to see another man with weapon drawn block the way behind me. Trees and brambles fenced me in on both sides. There was nowhere to run, no way to escape.
The man wiped blood from a long briar-scratch on his face, stared at the red on his hand, then looked back at me.
"You’re dead," he said, aiming his gun.
My eyes opened wide. Bang, bang, bang, the bullets entered my body, piercing flesh and breaking bone. I fell to the ground, darkness clouding my vision. I remembered then how my nightmare ended; it all came back to me in a flood. I let my tense muscles relax as my life-blood seeped back into the earth from whence it came. The pain was excruciating, but it did not last long as I faded into death.
I awoke with a jolt, drenched with sweat, a scream yet on my lips. Shakily, I arose. Why did this horrible nightmare continue to haunt me? Every night, it was the same. Suddenly cold, I clutched my arms tightly around me, and after a moment I began to get dressed. I was glad it was only a dream. As I sat down and poured myself a bowl of cereal for breakfast, my phone rang.
It fell to the floor through limp fingers, where it lay pulsing with each ring.