“Leave him alone!”
Ellie barreled after her older brother, lungs stinging as they sucked in cold air and boots slapping heavily against the wet ground. Ahead of her, autumn twilight revealed Jake’s back, caked with mud all the way down to his legs. He moved quickly, arms swinging in a snapping motion as he sprinted down the leaf littered road.
Suddenly, his whole body twisted, turning and disappearing into a field. Ellie let out a scream of frustration, skidding to a halt before darting after him. Long, wet grass beat against her shins and she almost slipped twice! They came out onto a grassy slope and just ahead of Jake, Ellie could see a small, black shape darting towards a copse of trees.
It wasn’t the cat’s fault, not really.
Dumb Jake hadn’t been paying attention and stepped on the poor thing’s tail, making it yowl and hiss in response. Her brother got a fright and fell backwards into a muddy puddle.
This wouldn’t have been so bad, if it hadn’t happened in front of Lucy Hartley, Jake's crush. Laughter filled the air. The black cat sat staring at the human boy in the puddle, green eyes eerily bright in the fading light. Instead of brushing it off, her brother had turned beet red and taken off after the cat with a yell of rage. Ellie ran after him, concerned about what he might do in his anger. The cat led them on a merry chase, right through the village and to the outskirts. They were surrounded by farmland, so Ellie thought Jake would give up for sure, but she was wrong.
Dumb Jake and his dumb temper.
Ellie followed as both vanished into the trees. It was darker, the barest peaks of the red sunset visible. She had to squint to see her brother now, almost skidding into another patch of mud as he weaved his way over fallen branches and roots, absolutely intent on his quarry.
Breathing hard, a stitch in her side, Ellie paused. She swallowed before screaming again for Jake to stop and come back.
Predictably, he didn’t listen and in moments both he and the cat were nowhere to be seen. Soon, the thumping of his movements faded away, leaving Ellie standing at the entrance to the woods alone. Behind her, the lights of the village twinkled against the darkening sky, the expanse of the field all that lay between them. It would be completely dark soon.
An unease filled her as she peered back into the gloom of the woods, feeling very unwelcome in the still place. Ellie had been in the woods around the village a hundred times, but never so late in the day. She opened her mouth to yell again for Jake, but the sound died in her throat. A coolness pricked at the back of her neck, sending a chill down her spine and she whipped around.
Nothing. Only the lights behind her and the darkness in front.
Biting down on her bottom lip, Ellie fumbled in her pocket for her phone. No signal. She switched it to torch mode and white light filled the area ahead of her as she took a few steps cautiously forwards. She kept her eye trained downwards, careful for outgrown roots hidden beneath piles of dead leaves or patches of slushy mud. She followed the route she’d seen Jake disappear in, ears pricked for any sound.
Time passed slowly, and yet far too quickly. All too soon, the sun had dipped out of sight and it seemed like Ellie was plunged into darkness, her only guide the light from her phone. Yet, the going was dead slow, her own breathing loud in her ears. There was no moon that night and not a star could be seen through the tree tops when Ellie spared a glance upwards. Behind her, the lights from the village were obscured completely by the trees.
Shadows danced and once she thought she heard footsteps following beside her. She froze and quickly waved her torch around, searching for the intruder, but finding nothing. The blackness beyond the stretch of her light glared at her daringly, even as it cloyed around her. waiting for her to lose her light.
It wouldn't have to wait long.
The battery display on Ellie’s phone read 12%. It wouldn't be long before the torch function ate up the rest of her battery. Panicking, Ellie wrestled her voice out.
“Jake! Jake, are you there?” she trailed off a little weakly.
“Jake! Jake, this isn't funny!” louder this time, her frantic yell was swallowed up by the woods.
She swung the phone in different directions, searching in the night as her cries grew more panicked. Why wasn't he answering? Why had he come out here? Why did she run after him? She should have just called Mum!
“Jake! Jake, you better-! AHHH!”
Two, glowing eyes stared at her in the torchlight. Ellie screeched, dropping her phone into the mud. It died almost immediately, the battery finally giving up the ghost. Her heart thundered in her chest and goosebumps erupted over her skin. What was there?
Her hand went to her mouth, covering the sound of her breathing and she started to back away, scrambling as her feet crunched on some rotting twigs. It was close to her. It was so close to her, she could feel its presence like a light brush on her skin.
Something touched her wrist.
“Woah! Woah! Ellie!”
She knew that voice.
“Jake!” she erupted with relief, gasping for breath, “Jake!”
She scrambled to get a hold of his arm, nearly crying.
“I’m here,” his voice was strangely firm.
“What about the cat?” Ellie blurted out, “You didn’t hurt it did you? You better not have!”
There was a pause.
“The cat is perfectly safe,” Jake sounded amused for some reason, “Never better, in fact.”
“Oh,” Ellie sniffed, blinking rapidly as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She could almost make out an outline of her brother, but little else, “I lost my phone.”
She heard him chuckle at her whine and let go of her for a moment. A few seconds later she felt him pushing something smooth and cool into her hand. Her phone!
“There you go,” he said pleasantly, “Best not lose it again.”
“Thank you!” Ellie exclaimed, relieved, “Do you have yours? My battery died.”
His hand wrapped around her own.
“I know the way,” Jake answered smoothly, “Let’s go.”
Ellie hesitated before letting him pull her along. The hand around her own should have been comforting, but it made the chill under her skin worse. As he tugged her into the darkness of the woods, Ellie couldn’t help but remember. The glowing eyes she had seen in the darkness…
…hadn’t they been Jake’s?