We lived in a quiet town - a small one too. There were only fifty or so kids in our high school class. Everyone knew everyone; there was nowhere to hide. When they said you could never go into The Escape, you obeyed, no questions asked.
The Escape - where do I begin? On the outskirts of town was a large wooded area that paralleled the highway. It was an appealing place for those who enjoyed the outdoors; I often found myself longing to enter its mystery, perhaps take a long hike among the trees. I never knew exactly why The Escape was forbidden - or how it got its name. Everyone asked, but there was never a clear answer. My mother said it was best not to know, my older cousin told me to mind my own business, my grandfather said to never trust the rumors.
Some of the kids in my school speculated about its history. They said that long ago, a family went camping in The Escape and never came out. Some say if you stand close at night, you can hear screaming. I had heard before that there are undiscovered species in it, witches that use dark magic, beasts that prey on humans, and an assortment of other tales.
When Ted Chapman suggested that we all go to The Escape that Friday night, we all thought he was crazy. “Absolutely not,” Erica Fischer said. “No way in hell,” said Justin Edgar. I nodded my head in agreement.
“It’s obviously all a lie,” Ted argued. “These people ‘round here just don’t want us to have any fun.”
“Or they’re just trying to keep us safe - you ever thought of that?” Erica retorted.
“She’s right,” Justin spoke up as he put his hand on Erica’s shoulder. They had started dating a year prior, and he always agreed with everything she said.
“Hallie, you’ve been awfully quiet. What do you think?” Ted asked with a presumptuous tone.
I swallowed and eyed them all nervously. “I’ve always been curious,” I mumbled quietly. That was my first mistake - succumbing to curiosity.
“See, even she’s on board!” Ted exclaimed.
I should mention here that I had never liked Ted, but he was Justin’s best friend, and Erica was mine. It was hard to escape him.
“Let’s at least get close to it? How bout that?” Ted begged. Erica and Justin looked at each other anxiously but eventually nodded in unison.
So, when Friday night came, we all made our way out to the highway, pulling over when we got close enough to the trees. We sat for a minute or so, the realization of where we were hitting us all. Even Ted seemed nervous. Erica was the first one to open her door, and Justin followed. Ted and I sat uncomfortably in the front seats but ultimately came out too. The coolness of the night hit us suddenly, and we all shivered in our coats. Ted locked his truck, then began walking closer to the woods.
“Wait, where are you going?” Justin asked hesitantly.
“Where do you think? I’m finally going to debunk this stupid myth. It’s just some trees!” He shouted as he walked backward into the darkness.
And then - he was gone. Just like that, he disappeared from our sight. He had entered The Escape. The rest of us stood there motionless and stunned. Justin called out his name, but he did not answer. He did not come out.
“I have to go in,” Justin blurted out.
“What?” Erica shouted.
“You don’t have to follow,” he said before running off to join his friend.
Erica and I looked at each other nervously. We remained outside The Escape for a while, just waiting, until suddenly a grinning Justin came back out.
“You guys - you have to come in. It’s all a lie! This place is amazing!” He didn’t even wait for us before running back in.
I started apprehensively toward the woods, but Erica was still not moving.
“Erica, your boyfriend is in there, he says it’s okay, don’t you trust him?”
She nodded, but something on her face told me that she held the most fear out of all of us.
We entered together; the darkness consumed us immediately, but we persevered and walked further. And then we saw it: the most beautiful place we had ever seen. It was a large clearing amid a wall of greenery. There was a small creek that ran through it, and the sound of trickling water calmed any anxiety that I had. But the most amazing sight was above us. All of our gazes were glued to a ceiling of stars that shone brighter than any stars we had ever seen before. I turned to Erica and was happy to see that a large smile was spread across her face. She and Justin took no time finding a small grassy area to sit on. They leaned into each other and admired the sky.
Ted and I were on opposite sides of the clearing, and we smiled slightly at each other as we took in our surroundings. I was surprised when he began walking closer to me.
“Thanks for wanting to do this,” he said. “I didn’t expect it from you, actually.” He laughed a little.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I replied lightly.
He shrugged. “I don’t know, I just always had the assumption that you’re not much of a risk-taker.”
I did not say anything back to him, just breathed deeply and looked again at the stars. I was not quite sure how much time had passed, but suddenly Ted spoke again.
“Where did they go?”
I looked at him curiously, then looked to where I had last seen Erica and Justin. They were not there.
“I have no idea,” I whispered.
“We should probably go find them, it’s getting kinda late. I told my parents I’d be home by one.”
I nodded and followed as he walked towards the edge of the clearing. We made our way through the trees, calling out their names as we wandered The Escape. There was no answer.
“I bet they’re just fooling around somewhere,” he said with a snort.
“You’re probably right.” I stopped walking and rested against a tree. Ted did the same. For some reason, I had forgotten why I ever disliked the person in front of me. After all, we were the only two that wanted to come to The Escape in the first place. I looked at him closer - he was actually rather handsome, with his dark hair and charming grin.
“Hallie Green, are you admiring me right now?” he teased.
I laughed, somehow not embarrassed. He walked over to me slowly, his eyes locked onto mine. As he neared me, he took my hand in his. I felt no nerves, no apprehension; maybe it was because of The Escape. His body came closer to mine, and just as we were about to kiss, we heard it: the screams.
“God, what was that?” Ted exclaimed.
My heart began beating faster. I removed myself from Ted’s proximity and looked around me in a panic.
“Do you think that was Erica and Justin?” I asked.
“It could be,” Justin said with a shaky voice. I had never seen him nervous before. “Stay with me, we’ll find them.”
I followed him as we weaved our way through the trees. My eyes widened when we came upon it again: the clearing. “But I could have sworn we were going in the opposite direction?” I said with a cracked voice.
“We were,” Ted whispered. He called their names again, but only silence replied.
I looked up at the sky - there it was again. I nudged Ted’s shoulder, “you think they look a little brighter right now?”
He looked up too. “Yeah, maybe,” he pondered.
And there we were once more, transfixed by a midnight sky. I walked a bit closer to the water and bent down to feel the temperature. I was surprised at how warm it was.
“Ted!” I called out, “The water is so warm, let’s dip our feet in!”
He did not answer, so I turned around to find him. I looked and looked, but he was not there. “Ted?” I yelled. I shivered and held my coat closer to my body.
Who else was with us? I thought to myself. “Erica and Justin,” I muttered quietly, “Erica and Justin.”
Ted - I had to find Ted first. He was alone. But what if Erica and Justin were both alone? I was alone. I looked up at the sky and smiled. The stars were so beautiful.
I told myself I should go find Ted, so I left the clearing and headed into the woods. I walked contently, listening to the hum of crickets and the rustling of leaves in the wind. I was in The Escape, and I liked it. I should come here again, I thought to myself. I could read books by the creek; I could paint the sky when it got dark. I walked a while away from the clearing, searching for my friends. “Erica, Justin, and…” I thought for a moment, “Ted! Yes, Ted - of course.”
“Ted!” No answer. “Erica!” Silence. “Justin!” Nothing.
I heard the sound of water from up ahead, so I continued, hoping that my friends were there. I jogged towards the sound, and my mouth dropped when I realized where I was. I had entered the clearing, the same clearing. “That’s impossible,” I said aloud. Was I just going in circles? It didn’t feel like it.
“Hallie!” I heard someone yell. I jumped, startled by the sound of my name. I looked around anxiously but saw no one. And then I heard it again: “Hallie!” It was a male’s voice. Ted? I looked up at the stars, then back in front of me. I saw him; I saw Ted on the other side of the clearing, standing, staring at me. “Come here! Let’s go!” he shouted when he saw that I had noticed him. He went off into the woods, and I ran to follow. But when I exited the clearing, Ted was nowhere to be found. “Ted!” I screamed. “Ted!”
It was hopeless; I sunk to the ground in defeat. I couldn’t see any of the stars with all the trees in the way, so I turned around to go back into the clearing. I walked, then walked some more, then walked even longer before realizing that the clearing was not there. Who was I looking for? Ted, I was looking for Ted. Already tired, I took a break and leaned against a tree trunk. I noticed some carvings in it, so I examined it closer. I made out the shape of a heart and two letters inside of it. It was an E and J with a plus sign in the middle. How cute, I thought to myself. I had never been in love before.
I began moving again in search of the clearing. I hoped that if I waited there, Ted would eventually show up. I found it, finally, and I happily made my way down to the creek. I sat by the water and ran my fingers through it. I sighed and smiled. I could stay here forever, I thought to myself. I laid down on my back and lost myself in the sky. So pretty, I thought. Maybe I was imagining it, but I could have sworn the stars were spelling out something - Ted? Ted… why did that name sound so familiar? I felt sleepy, and I missed my bed, so I decided to try and find my way out. I got up and stumbled; I was lightheaded. I made my way to the edge of the clearing, looked up at the sky one last time, and walked into the trees. I felt at ease in The Escape. I felt no fear.
I began to hear cars. I was getting closer to the highway. The coolness of the open night greeted me as I stepped out of The Escape. I breathed in the fresh air, then looked at my surroundings. I saw a truck - Ted’s truck.
Ted. Erica. Justin. Ted, Erica, Justin.
Panic set in. They were gone. I was alone outside of The Escape. The Escape - why did I agree to go in? Why did we go in? I reached in my pocket, relieved that my cell phone was still there. I dialed 911 without a second thought, my fingers shaking as I pressed the numbers.
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
“The Escape” were the only words I could utter through that phone. I fell to the ground, overwhelmed suddenly.
All I could remember were the stars, the water, the trees.
The clearing - I remembered the clearing so vividly.
I finally understood how The Escape got its name.