I don’t know why I turned around.
I should have continued trudging along the riverbank, my trainers becoming filthier with each step as the mud squelched over them, and my head bent against the wind, and never looked back.
But the scream that echoed through the valley, causing nesting birds to flutter into the sky, squawking, seemed to sink into my bones. It was as if it was my own scream that I heard, which of course was impossible. And who knows what I was going to do.
I could see the smoke in the distance, curling into the sky and I knew, I could almost smell, the pot roast that would be waiting for me.
“Late home again,” Maud would tut as I pulled off the trainers, a frown between her eyes as she noticed the muddy footprints I’d bring with me, before starting to carve the meat.
But I turned around anyway, even though Maud would sigh about another meal wasted, even though saliva was running from my mouth and dribbling onto my chin.
The sky was beginning to darken, the dark reds and pinks from the sunset, shining over the treetops as I watched my feet carefully. I knew every rock and pebble that the water splashed over, every fallen tree but you never knew what else was out there.
There was a legend of a monster that only came out after dark, that would chase and confuse the person, and then trap them before, well, who knows, the inevitable I suppose.
I’d never seen or heard anything, and I’d been there a while but there was always the odd camper who seemed to go missing.
One day, they would be fishing on the river’s edge, their bare feet dangling in the water, their rods resting next to them, and then the next day, their camp site would be empty. The tents would be zipped up and, sometimes, the campfire would still be smoking as if they’d just put on the last log and then ducked behind a nearby bush, but no one would ever find them.
Slowly, I followed the river as it wound its way between the hills, even humming quietly so I didn’t notice the deathly quiet that seemed to be pressing from all around me.
The leaves of the nearby trees seemed to be darker and thicker than normal. And the birds were no longer chirping.
A cold shiver ran down my spine.
I could feel a pair of eyes staring at me. No, more like sense them staring at me.
Squinting, I stared at the closest tree but either there was no one there, or they were just staring back at me.
“You’re cracking up,” I said to myself, hoisting my backpack higher up on my back and tucking my thumbs under the straps, comfortingly.
Another scream echoed through the valley.
It was louder than before and so close, I jumped backwards into the river, ignoring the cold water that drenched the bottom of my jeans.
A cool breeze swept over me even though the leaves stayed still. I could feel goosebumps erupt over the bare skin of my forearms.
“This is stupid,” I muttered to myself. “You’re an adult. You know this area better than anyone. There’s nothing out there; no bogeyman waiting in the dark.”
Rubbing my hands along my arms, I mustered all my courage and yelled,” Whose there?”
There was silence and then, a sudden rush as something ran away from me, branches swinging and snapping as something moved away from me as fast as they could. Leaves flew in all directions and small pebbles rolled away as if something was kicking at them.
I couldn’t help it.
But whatever it was, it had been there watching me.
How long had it been watching me?
I didn’t care about whoever or whatever else was out there screaming. I had to get back home. Home to Maud, and the pot roast, exactly where I should have been all along.
Blindly, I ran back along the river’s edge, tripping and stumbling over the fallen trees and the rocks scattered around.
The sky was now a dark bluey- black, with stars scattered across it like a painting. Normally I’d be gazing up at it, marveling at the history, trying to spot a shooting star, hoping to make that wish. I’d have given everything at that moment for a shooting star.
Breathless, my breath freezing in front of my face, I tripped over a large branch, I’d been meaning to move it but hadn’t had the time, and landed on my hands and knees on the pebbles.
Swearing, I scrambled up, wincing as I wiped my palms against my jeans, and stumbled on.
I could no longer see the smoke curling into the sky.
Surely, I couldn’t have gone that far? Surely, I wasn’t lost?
There was a loud splash behind me as something started to close in on me.
Spinning around, I could see the dark silhouette of somebody standing in the water.
Bigger than me, watching me.
Tears blinded me.
Hastily I wiped my hands across my face, smearing my skin with my own blood.
“What do you want?” I whispered, my nose starting to run.
The silhouette stayed still. I could sense it was waiting for me to move.
Slowly, my feet feeling numb, I stepped away from the river and scrambled over the rocks towards the trees.
What was it doing?
I didn’t want to, but it was almost as if I had no choice. I looked back.
There was nothing there.
It was just me in the dark, shaking more than the leaves around me.
I forced myself to breath, my knees felt shaky.
Maud. I had to get back to Maud, and the pot roast.
But the trees all looked the same even though in the daytime, I knew everyone of them, almost as if I knew their souls.
A twig snapped behind me.
And a smell of something rotten wafted over to me.
My stomach clenched as if I wanted to vomit.
My breath seemed to hover in front of my face.
Slowly, I turned my head.
And then I screamed as darkness surrounded me.
My screams will be echoing forever through the valley.
If there’s one thing you should never do alone, in the dark, on the winding river, is turn around.