Her long, dark hair was blowing in the wind, visible even through the swirling snow. She stood on the shoulder of the highway in a jacket nowhere near warm enough for the night’s sudden snowstorm. The last thing I wanted right then was company, but I couldn’t leave anyone outside on a night like this. I stopped and lowered my window.
“Need a ride?”
“Yeah, thanks.” She opened the car door, brushing off snow, and then turned for a long look back into the woods before getting into the car.
I pulled back onto the snow-dusted highway and we drove in silence for several minutes, until she said, “Hey, for real, thanks. I thought I was going to freeze to death out there. I’m Amanda, by the way.”
“I’m Kayla. And it’s no problem.”
She had golden-brown skin and delicate features. Her long hair was now damp from melting snow, and she pulled it over one shoulder, absently combing her fingers through it. I cranked up the heat, and a smile of gratitude lit up her face. I felt warmer than the car’s struggling heater could justify. She turned to look out the rear window, then looked back at me.
“Where are you headed, anyway?” she asked.
“Um… I don’t know.”
“What does that mean? You’re just driving through a snowstorm for fun?”
I sighed. “My boyfriend kicked me out. Well. He didn’t say I had to go, but I could tell he wanted me to. He kept muttering under his breath…. Anyway, I couldn’t stay there, so I packed up my stuff and split. I figured I’d just drive south and stop at a motel when I got tired. It was a nice night until this storm blew up out of nowhere.”
“I hate the winter. I want to go live somewhere warm.”
“So, wow, one breakup and you pack your bags and skip town?” She didn’t sound judgmental, just curious.
“There was nothing keeping me there. I’ve never been good at making friends. And I lost my job last week – got canned for blowing up at my co-worker. Amanda gave me a sidelong look of concern, and I felt an irrational urge to defend myself. “She had it coming! She was always saying nasty stuff about me. Whispering behind my back.”
“Just like your ex.”
“I guess. Whatever. It was a shit job anyway. The customers were always in a bad mood. Stressed me out.”
She turned to look out the rear window again.
“How did you end up out here in the middle of nowhere?” I asked, suppressing an inexplicable shiver of anxiety. I turned my attention back to the road.
“I was... camping. When the weather took a turn for the worse, I tried to hike out, but got lost in the woods.” She paused, and then added quietly “I fucked up. This is my fault.”
“We all make mistakes.” I responded, trying to sound reassuring.
Another shiver of fear passed through me, stronger this time. I glanced in the rearview mirror. Nothing but swirling snow. But the feeling didn’t pass – it grew. My heart began to pound, and I sped up, despite the increasing snowfall.
Amanda had twisted all the way around in her seat and was staring out the back window.
“What, what is it?” I tried to keep the rising panic out of my voice.
“Just go, drive, faster!”
“There’s something back there, isn’t there?”
Her voice was quiet, hollow. “It’s following. It’ll just keep coming, forever.”
“What is? Tell me!” I shouted, but even as I spoke, my feeling of dread sharpened into something horrifying – a foul hunger, unimaginable cruelty. Intense terror, and laced through it all a twisted joy, as though something were basking in my fear, feeding on it.
I slammed the gas pedal all the way down, and the car leapt forward. My eyes were fixed on the rearview mirror, waiting to see… what? What could justify these feelings?
That’s why I didn’t see the tree.
I don’t remember the collision, just waking up with my face in an airbag and Amanda’s fingers on my throat, feeling for a pulse.
“I’m alive. I think.” I straightened up, wincing at the tenderness in my chest, where the seatbelt had caught me. The overwhelming fear was gone, as though it had never been.
“We have to get out.” Amanda’s spoke in the tone of someone who is determined not to panic. “I can smell gas.”
I smelled it too, pungent and penetrating. It wasn’t safe to stay in the car. I pulled on my door handle – jammed. Amanda wrestled hers open, so I crawled across the seats and out the passenger side. I got my winter things out of the backseat and then moved with her away from the wreckage. The car was totaled, no question. It was a miracle we could both walk away.
The wind whipped up, and the snow seemed to fall even faster. Our miraculous survival wouldn’t last long if we couldn’t find shelter. Amanda wrapped her arms around herself, bouncing in place to stay warm, and I felt a flood of concern for her safety, guilt for putting her in this position.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, loudly enough to be heard over the shriek of the wind. “I think I had a panic attack or something. I almost got you killed.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“I think we passed a gas station a few miles back.”
“We can’t go back that way.” She said it flatly, no emotion on her face.
I didn’t argue. We walked south along the shoulder of the highway, moving fast to stay warm. The snow was accumulating quickly, but still only ankle-deep. After what could have been an hour, we passed a turn-off into the woods, with a sign pointing us toward “Brightview Cabins”. Amanda pointed to the sign and I nodded – cabins meant shelter.
As we made our way down the drive, it narrowed into a gravel path, barely wide enough for a single vehicle. At first this was welcome – the trees that grew around and overhead blocked some of the wind and snow. But then it narrowed further, until I was pretty sure we had lost the road.
“I think we missed a turn,” I shouted to Amanda. We tried to retrace our steps, but couldn’t find the main drive again. Between the darkness and falling snow, I couldn’t make out our tracks.
Amanda finally stopped. “I need to rest.” She took my hand and drew me under a tree. Its low, overhanging branches kept off most of the snow.
I looked at her more closely – she was shaking, hard, in her inadequate jacket. Without thinking, I unzipped my coat and wrapped it around her, pulling her close against me. She stiffened in surprise, then relaxed against the warmth of my body. I felt warmer, too. Surprisingly warm.
Amanda rested her head on my chest, and I tucked my chin into her hair. I couldn’t help noticing how good she smelled – like herbs and woodsmoke. Her chest rose and fell in a sigh, and I half-heard her murmured words, “...tits may be perfect... not the time.”
I was about to ask her to repeat herself when she suddenly pulled away. She whirled to stare out into the woods. I felt it too, the rising fear, the rage, the sick hunger. It was faint, still, but getting closer by the second.
Amanda grabbed my hand and took off running. Despite my longer legs, it was all I could do to keep up. We ran hand-in-hand, dodging branches and bushes. Thorny vines tore at my pants. My unzipped coat flapped out behind.
We ran. The only sounds were our labored breathing and our feet crunching on the snow.
Still, the dread intensified. I kept looking back – surely whatever stalked us must be right there, right behind. Amanda didn’t look back. She stared straight ahead and dragged me onward.
Images flashed through my mind: Amanda, screaming. Amanda, writhing in pain. My own face, contorted in a rictus of horror. Each was accompanied by a stab of increasing terror. I heard myself sobbing, wondered if my heart was going to give out.
Then a crack rang out like a gunshot. I barely saw the falling tree before Amanda had yanked me out of its path. It crashed to the ground, showering us both in snow and pine needles.
And, again, the fear was gone.
We stared at the tree, at each other, out into the darkness of the forest. Amanda still held my hand tightly.
“What the hell?” I panted. “What the hell? What. The. Hell.”
“I’m not sure. I don’t… I don’t know.” Then she whispered “It shouldn’t be able to do that.” But her lips didn’t move. My thoughts whirled – was I going crazy? Hearing voices and hallucinating monsters? Amanda peered into my face. “Are you ok?”
The genuine concern in her voice slid under my usual bravado. “I don’t know. I don’t understand what’s happening.”
Her gaze was drawn to something behind me. She gasped, and I turned to look. It was a cabin.
We had to break a window to get in. It was a small, old building, just a few rooms, with furniture straight out of the 1970s. Everything smelled of mildew. But out of the snow and wind we were instantly warmer.
There was firewood by the hearth and food in the kitchen. By the time I had the flue open, a fire built, and a pile of kindling starting to catch, Amanda had laid out a feast – two cans of pork and beans and a half-full bottle of Jack.
We dragged the sagging couch as close to the fire as we could get it without setting it on fire, and settled in.
“There are about twenty cans of this crap in there,” Amanda said, gesturing with a spoonful of beans. “We can hold out here for a while if need be. No more of this, though,” she added, shaking the now somewhat emptier bottle.
“We’ll make do,” I said, settling back in contentment. “Between the heat, food, and booze, I’m starting to think we’re gonna live.”
Amanda got up to stir the fire, and then settled back on the couch, much closer to me. I felt a flush creep up my neck, and forced myself to look down at her. She met my gaze, and held it. Slowly, she reached out and took my hand again.
“Tonight has been an absolute nightmare,” she said. “But I’m glad I met you.” And then she kissed me.
Her lips were wind-roughened and warm, and she tasted like whiskey. I deepened the kiss, sliding my arms around her waist. Her fingertips brushed my face, feather-light. Then her other hand caressed my breast, and a sweet rush of heat spread through me.
The fire exploded.
Embers rained down on both of us and we leapt apart, frantically brushing ourselves off. Flaming bits of wood landed all over the room, and furniture began to catch. Amanda grabbed a rug and used it to smother the flames on the couch, while I ran around stamping nascent fires. Within a few moments, the damage was contained.
But Amanda stood with her hands pressed to her mouth, moaning “It shouldn’t be able to do this, it shouldn’t be able to…”
“What? What are you talking about?” I asked.
She stared at me in confusion. “I didn’t say anything.”
Incensed, I shouted “You did! You said ‘It shouldn’t be able to do this.’ And you said it before – you have to tell me what you mean!”
Amanda’s expression cleared, and she sat down on the scorched couch. She motioned for me to join her. “Please, sit, I’ll tell you everything.” I sat, and she stared at the remains of the fire for a long moment before speaking. “I’m a witch.”
“Ok.” I said, with only the barest hint of skepticism. After the night we’d had, witchcraft seemed downright plausible.
“I’ve been practicing for decades. I’m pretty good, careful… usually. Tonight I tried to do a spell. It’s the new moon, the dark of the year. A good time for banishings. I wanted to banish, well… trauma, I guess. I had a bad childhood, and I still live with the aftermath of that. Therapy hasn’t helped; prayer hasn’t helped.” She breathed out, half-sigh and half-sob. “I was just so sick of it. I wanted to feel normal.”
“So you did a spell to banish your trauma.”
Amanda nodded and cleared her throat. “It worked. Partly. I was able to gather those feelings, all those horrible memories, and separate them from myself, but I lost control. They coalesced into some kind of... being. A separate entity.” She was shaking, with fear this time, rather than cold. Despite my anger, I put my arms around her. She leaned into my shoulder for a moment. “The entity seemed like – like it only wanted one thing. To torture me. The fear and pain it was projecting into me… I couldn’t take it. I ran.”
“And that’s how you ended up on the side of the road?”
“Yes. I swear I didn’t know it would follow me. And I didn’t know you would be able to feel it too. No one else should be able to feel it, and it shouldn’t be able to affect the physical world. I didn’t understand what was happening, until just now.” She turned to look me full in the face. “Kayla, I think you have psychic abilities.”
I laughed. This was taking my suspension of disbelief too far.
Amanda continued, “Telepathic and telekinetic, specifically. You can feel my fear and pain when the entity is close. I think you’re the one who knocked over that tree, and blew the fire around. I suspect you’re also somehow pushing the entity away.”
“Listen -” I started.
“Think about it,” she said, “you assumed your ex and your co-worker were whispering about you, because you were hearing their thoughts. You got stressed out by angry customers because you felt their feelings as if they were your own. Just now, you heard what I was thinking, even though I hadn’t spoken aloud.”
I stared at her in dawning comprehension. “You really didn’t say that out loud? And earlier, when you said the thing about my tits-”
“Oh god!” She covered her face with both hands.
I laughed. “Ok, so, if I accept this, what do I do about it? Does it just mean I can’t ever be around people without hearing every bad thought they have about me? I can’t make out with you without burning the building down?”
“No, of course not! There are some very simple exercises that can help-”
She broke off and looked toward the door of the cabin. A moment later I felt it, too. The dawning terror, the rapidly rising rage. The entity had found us again, and it was approaching faster than ever. We barely had time to leap to our feet before it was upon us.
The fear and pain were worse than ever. I saw Amanda’s mouth open in a scream I couldn’t hear over my own. I doubled over, unable to run, trying fruitlessly to block out the cacophony of emotion. My heart raced, and I couldn’t seem to breathe.
Then I heard Amanda think “I can’t escape you, but I can spare her.”
Slowly, the pain receded and the fear faded. I uncurled and looked around. Amanda was gone, and the door stood open. The wind gusted in, carrying whole drifts of snow with it.
With a twist of pain that had nothing to do with the entity, I realized that she had run out into the blizzard to put distance between us, so that I wouldn’t share in her torment. She hadn’t even taken her paltry jacket – she would freeze to death in minutes. Unacceptable. I pulled on my coat and ran into the storm.
It was a total whiteout. When I held out my arm, I couldn’t even see my hand at the end of it. There was no way I could find anyone out here. Having gone a few steps, I wasn’t sure I could find the cabin again. I screamed Amanda’s name, but the howling wind whipped the sound away instantly.
I stopped moving. If I had psychic powers, now was the time to use them. I closed my eyes, and reached out, trying to feel something other than cold.
There! A sharp knot of raging emotions, not too far away. I ran toward it. As I approached, the rage and horror closed in on me again, but this time I found I could push it aside. It wasn’t mine. These feelings belonged to Amanda, who lay at the base of a tree. In my mind’s eye, I could see the entity crouched over her.
I could also see the barrier – a wall of pure, psychic force between Amanda and her demon, keeping them separate. Acting on pure instinct, I reached out with my mind, and tore the barrier away.
Amanda screamed. The entity roared in triumph, raising its claws and sinking them deep into her face and chest.
Then it faded away.
I ran to Amanda’s side. She was barely conscious, too cold even to shiver. I took off my coat and wrapped it around her, then carried her back to the cabin through the subsiding storm.