Rebecca’s heartbeat drummed in her ears as she flew past the trees and bushes. Her attempt at noiselessness was futile; leaves and sticks crunched beneath her as she darted farther and farther into the woods. The rays of a late-afternoon sun streaked through the branches of trees towering overhead, threatening to expose her.
She slid down a small incline and fell on her back at the bottom, tumbling directly into a stream. Standing and shaking water from her hands, she delicately tiptoed her way across and began climbing the opposite incline. Grasping at tufts of grass to pull herself up, she clung to a large boulder near the top, heaving herself on top of it. Leaving a wet streak behind her, Rebecca edged across the boulder, jumped down into the grass below, and bolted into the woods ahead.
Her pursuer lagged behind for now, but he’d soon catch up. He always did.
Crouching behind a bush, she slowly peeked around the branches. Not a soul was in sight, at least for now. Taking advantage of her solitude, Rebecca pushed the boughs apart and squeezed between them. The foliage bounced back into place, enclosing her inside.
She reached out and parted the branches near her eyes. The sun was going down now, and twilight would soon set in. The darkness concealed Rebecca, but he’d surely adapt quickly. The conditions wouldn’t work in her favor for very long.
As she predicted, a lone beam of light swept over the forest.
He was here.
Rebecca quickly withdrew her hand and settled back into the brambles. The thorns dug deep into her arms and back, and her right leg started to tingle; it’d fall asleep shortly.
A twig snapped. Leaves crinkled and crunched louder and louder as her pursuer tiptoed closer and closer to her hiding place. The beam of light wafted to a nearby tree, and Rebecca pulled in one last breath to hold for as long as she could. Her heart pounded in her ears; if it beat any louder, it’d give her away.
The light swiveled away from Rebecca. However, her relief lasted only for a moment, and her stomach flipped over as a familiar item appeared at the base of the bush.
The heel of a Nike tennis shoe.
From its position, Rebecca surmised that the owner stood with his back toward her, swinging his flashlight in the direction he faced. Sweat beaded on her forehead and trickled down the side of her cheek.
A sudden crack and suppressed yelp echoed from the east section of the woods, and Rebecca’s nemesis bolted toward the sound, undoubtedly to catch his quarry unawares. Rebecca released the air she held hostage and clamped her hand over her mouth to stifle a whimper. After a moment, she again pared the branches and peered into the darkness.
The flashlight continued its sweep of the land, but this time from approximately 30 yards away. Thorns clinging to her T-shirt and jeans and tearing at her bare arms, Rebecca rolled out of her hideaway and swept her hair from its clutches. The bush had served her well for the moment, but her adversary would surely return.
Pulling leaves from her hair, Rebecca stumbled away from the bush and sidled a nearby tree. She swiped a hand over the scratches on her arms; though she could no longer see, her fingers didn’t detect too much blood.
Without warning, the flashlight beam glided out from behind Rebecca, illuminating her tree and its surroundings. She inhaled sharply and clutched the bark behind her. The light was still far away, but he was heading this way once more. She needed a better hiding spot.
In the glow of the flashlight, Rebecca spotted a hollow log about a yard to her left. It’d be a risky move, but she couldn’t see another option. As the light flitted past, Rebecca sneaked out and carefully stepped toward the fallen tree. Glancing behind her, she watched the beam begin its return; she’d be sighted soon.
Ignoring the leaves crunching beneath her, she propelled herself forward and dove into the open end of the log without a moment to spare. The flashlight swept past the log, and Rebecca heard footsteps recede to the west.
She sighed and sunk back into her wooden shelter, allowing herself a moment’s relaxation.
A hand suddenly clamped itself over her mouth, and Rebecca gasped as her heart dropped into the pit of her stomach. She flailed out to detach herself from her captor when a familiar voice hissed in her ear.
“Rebecca, stop! It’s me! Calm down; it’s me!”
Rebecca stopped struggling and the hand dropped. She grasped her chest and let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, Mickey! You scared me!”
“Shhh!” He grabbed her arm and pulled her in closer. “You’ll give us away!”
A scream pierced the night, followed by a sadistic laugh. Paralyzed with fear, she managed to whisper, “Who do you think that was?”
“It sounded like Jenny.” Mickey gulped audibly. “He must’ve found her.”
Rebecca’s heart sank. “Do you know if he’s found Roscoe yet?”
“Well, I think that loud crack earlier was him. There’s no way he could’ve escaped after a noise like that.” Mickey pulled his hand away from her arm. “Why is your arm wet? Is this blood?”
“Yeah, I hid in a thorn bush for a while,” Rebecca replied. “It’s not too bad.”
“Shh, shh!” The pair froze as footsteps retreated swiftly to the north; he was closer now, but moving in the opposite direction.
Rebecca shifted her legs toward the opening in the log. “We can’t both stay here; it’s too dangerous. We have a better chance of making it if we split up. I’ll go.”
“Are you sure?” Mickey’s voice shook. Rebecca hated leaving him, but she knew it was safer for both of them this way.
“Yes. I have to.” She grabbed his hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I’ll see you later, okay? We’ll make it. We will.”
Rebecca released his hand and slid out of the trunk. She slowly rose to her feet, keeping a careful eye on the light bouncing in the distance, and swiftly tiptoed away.
Rebecca pushed farther south, taking refuge behind a tree every few steps. Mickey’s log was no farther than twenty yards away by now; hopefully she’d draw the pursuer away from him. The least she could do was give him a chance.
The beam of light returned, now shining directly southward. Rebecca threw herself to the ground and wriggled to the nearest tree. Dirt clung to her palms and forearms, and she swiped a hand down her ruined jeans. She pulled a stick from the laces of her damp tennis shoes and sat back, listening intently.
A soft sigh of relief had scarcely escaped her lips when a crazed cackle rose through the night, sending a chill down Rebecca’s spine. The laugh was followed closely by a panicked shout that Rebecca recognized all too well.
Mickey. The solitary word echoed through Rebecca’s mind as she took in a sharp breath.
She stood up, ready to turn back and defend her friend, when Mickey’s voice rose once more, cracking through the sky like a bolt of lightning.
Without thinking, Rebecca sprung upwards, grabbing the lowest branch of the tree and swinging her body up. Her shoes, slick with mud, scrabbled against the bark as she clambered on, barely stopping to breathe or even take into consideration how much noise she was making.
Rebecca climbed higher and higher.
I can’t give up.
As she ascended, the branches grew thinner and the foliage thicker.
I can’t let him win. Not again.
Leaves tugged at her hair and her wet T-shirt clung to her frame.
I won’t give up.
Rebecca mentally dug in her heels and lifted herself up one more time. Sweat plastered her hair to her forehead as she settled into the arms of a limb near the top of the tree. Gazing downward, the darkness seemed to engulf her; the beam of the flashlight was no longer visible.
Rebecca began to breathe deeply, attempting to lower her heart rate. He can’t find me up here. I’m safe.
She raised her eyes to the clear night sky and released a soft gasp into the air.
The vast expanse above her instantly negated the danger below, and Rebecca was lost among the stars. Caught up in the beauty above her, she reached up as if to seize a souvenir from the sky.
The sable canopy, pinpricked by speckles of light, enveloped her in its mystery. The stars twinkled and winked down at her, as if to say, It’s all right; you’re safe here. We’ll take care of you.
The moon softly wrapped Rebecca in its warm glow. The sentry of the night stood fast, constant, ever faithful to the solitary queen ruling from a lofty throne of wood. Do not fear. I will protect you as long as my gaze falls upon you.
The queen extended her hand toward the sky, as if to stroke the knight’s cheek but too distant to do so. Devoted knight, will you forever be companionless? Your lonely loyalty has been this way far too long.
The moon smiled knowingly. Dear queen, the sentry mused, how can the moon be lonely when it dwells among the stars?
Rebecca jolted out of her reverie and wrapped her arms around the trunk of the tree.
Another crack, and her grip jerked loose.
No. No, no, no, no, no.
A final crack, and Rebecca fell.
She plummeted downward through the branches, arms flailing and grasping for something, anything. Her left arm managed to snag a lower limb in passing and she lurched to a stop.
Rebecca heaved her right arm up and scrambled against the trunk for a foothold, gasping in pain. She reached for the branch above her and lost her grip once more, sliding down the trunk of the tree and landing squarely in a bush at the bottom.
The sound of crunching leaves and snapping twigs echoed across the forest as Rebecca rolled off of the bush and onto the ground. Footsteps reverberated through her skull as her head rested against the dirt. She carefully blinked her eyes a couple of times and eventually focused in what she could see of the four faces above her; a bright light flashed directly into her eyes.
Mickey knelt in the dirt next to her. “My goodness, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. Just banged up,” she whimpered as Mickey helped her sit up. She held her hand up to shield her face from the blinding beam.
“Ben, get that out of her face.” Jenny pushed his arm down and the beam refocused on the ground at their feet.
“You sure you’re good?” Ben crouched to meet Rebecca’s gaze.
She began to dust the leaves and sticks from her hair. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“In that case…” Ben reached forward and tapped her elbow. “Got you.”
“That’s not fair!” Jenny whined as Ben let out the creepy laugh that had become the song of the night. He turned around and blasted his flashlight directly into Roscoe’s eyes.
“Well,” Mickey reasoned, pulling Rebecca to her feet, “he did find her last, so she technically still won.”
“That’s not how hide-and-seek works.” Roscoe batted Ben’s flashlight out of his hand.
“Whatever. Anyways, it’s late. My parents are going to wonder where I am.”
The group began their journey back to civilization, climbing over Mickey’s log and passing Roscoe’s tree, pointing out their hiding spots and laughing at each other’s stories. They soon slid down the embankment to the stream, and Rebecca pointed out where she had fallen into the water.
Ben shined his flashlight down at his own muddy jeans and laughed. “Me too!”
Soon the forest broke into Jenny’s backyard, and the teens paused before parting ways for the night.
“Do you guys ever think that we take this game too seriously?” Roscoe mused aloud, rubbing a bruise on his elbow from his own fall.
“Nah,” Ben scoffed, positioning his flashlight under his chin and illuminating his nostrils.
“You just like being creepy and scaring everybody,” Rebecca retorted, and Jenny loudly agreed.
“Hey, that’s what makes it fun,” Ben argued. Mickey elbowed him in the ribs, and the teens bid each other goodnight.
Rebecca began her walk home, just a few houses down. Her wet sneakers squished on the pavement and her arms and back ached, but she hardly noticed.
Pausing by the side of the road, she glanced back down the way she had come, and, in the moonlight, caught a glimpse of the shadowy figures of Mickey, Ben, and Roscoe as they made their respective journeys home. Jenny stood at the doorway to her house, keeping watch over her friends to ensure their safety. Rebecca turned her gaze upward and smiled contently.
How can the moon be lonely when it dwells among the stars?