The raindrops pitter-pattered overhead as the rich perfume of copper percolated throughout the tent.
Jill wasn’t sleepy at all. This doesn’t feel right, she thought. She propped herself up on one elbow, and looked over at Tommy, who appeared to be in a very deep sleep. He was snoring gently.
“Tommy,” she whispered in the gloom. “Hey. Tommy.”
The quiet, heavy breathing continued.
There was no answer.
Jill reached over and gave him a gentle shake.
“Mmmph?” came the response.
“You awake?” she asked him.
“Am now,” slurred Tommy. “Whassit?”
Jill hadn’t thought this far ahead. She couldn’t quite articulate what was wrong, only that something was wrong.
“I—I don’t know,” she said at last.
“Aight,” said Tommy, already descending back into his slumber.
She furrowed her brow and thought. “We shouldn’t have left him,” she blurted out, at last. “Shouldn’t we have helped him, Tommy?”
Tommy’s sleeping bag rustled in the darkness. “Mmh? Nah.” He cleared his throat and tried to enunciate more clearly. “No. Just a crazy homeless dude.”
“But he was bleeding. He looked hurt. We should have helped him, Tommy.” Jill sat upright in the darkness, as the shower overhead grew heavier.
Shhhh, said the rainfall against the material of the tent, Shhhhhh.
“What should we have done? He could have hurt us, Jill.” After a heartbeat, Tommy added, “He could have been dangerous.”
“We don’t know that!”
“Exactly. We don’t know that. It’d have been a gamble, and I’m not risking your life, or my own, to help someone who could kill us… He only had a few scratches on him, anyway.”
A silence fell between them, whilst the storm overhead continued to hush their quarrel. Shhhh. Shhhhhh.
“Tree people,” Jill said eventually. “That was what he was saying, wasn’t it? Tree people.”
“Oh, don’t pay any attention to that, Jill,” he said, not unkindly. She could tell he was smiling slightly, in the dusk. “Like I said, he was crazy. Crazy. He was probably on something or had something wrong with him. Anyway,” Tommy said after a pause, “he was going past us, right? That means he was running out of the woods. Someone’s bound to find him on the road. Either they’ll help him, or they’ll call the police or someone and then they’ll help. Either way, he’ll be fine.”
The way Tommy spoke did soothe her disquieted mind. A little. But she couldn’t stop her thoughts from drifting to Tommy’s earlier remarks that the forest had seemed bigger and denser than the last time he had been here.
“Get some sleep, Jill,” said Tommy, and he leaned over and kissed her softly on the forehead. “We’ve got some beautiful hiking trails to see tomorrow. You’ll need your energy.”
Tommy lay back down and rolled over.
Soon after, he was gently snoring again.
Thirty-seven minutes later, when Jill had been dead for almost half an hour, Tommy was running for his life through the thicket, praying for an opening in the canopy above.
He gripped the little plastic device in one hand, as the rain pelted at him horizontally.
Tommy was running blindly through the trees.
He was right, his mind screamed, the crazy old dude was right. Sweet Jesus, he was RIGHT. Tommy wished – oh, God, how he wished – that he could go back in time and listen to the guy. And if not to him, then at least to Jill. Poor, sweet Jill whom he had loved. Jill, who had recognised something was off.
He ran – he knew not in which direction. Tommy only knew that he had to run.
All around him things were moving. He couldn’t see them, oh no. But he could feel the disruptions and disturbances as they woke and shifted and stirred in the unfriendly night. Tommy could hear them, too. Great groaning, grousing sounds. There were also cries and shrieks. He had never heard anything like it.
Tommy ran. Faster than he ever had in his life. He had to break out of the treeline at some point, right?
Or you’ll just delve deeper into the woods, whispered a voice in his head.
He ran and he ran. Branches now seemed to be reaching for him, tearing at him, but he burst through them at a sprint, a painful stitch throbbing in his side.
Tommy dashed until an above-ground root caught his foot. There was a hollow snap in the nocturn as his ankle twisted, and Tommy cried out in pain as he went tumbling, catching a mouthful of mud.
He lay there for a second as his foot throbbed in agony, sensing movement writhing around him, just at the periphery of his vision. He delicately rolled onto his back.
There was a small patch of clear sky directly above him. The stars twinkled overhead.
Tommy lifted the flare gun – he was mildly surprised that he had not lost it – and aimed the small, orange pistol at the heavens. He squeezed the trigger.
A package of purple-tinted fire erupted from the barrel, propelled upwards in a spiral that was dazzling and beautiful in the encroaching blackness.
Tommy watched, smiling as the firework shot vertically into the night.
And then something that looked like a branch came lashing out of the canopy and intercepted it.
The flare was whipped downwards. Towards him. Tommy was almost too defeated to move, but the part of the brain that was concerned with self-preservation dumped a hefty dose of adrenaline into his veins, and he rolled away, tearing himself up in the undergrowth as he scrambled.
Had it been earlier in the summer, the flame may well have ignited the underbrush, but as it was, the flare hit the ground with a squelch and slowly began to dim as it sizzled pathetically in the drenched vegetation.
Tommy stared at it, dumbstruck. The brightness burned his retinas. What now? What now?
All around him, he heard the rustling and cracking of the trees.
The flare quickly dimmed to a small glow. Tommy’s eyes were seared with the afterimage of what could have been his salvation.
A ripping, tearing sound was slowly erupting behind him.
Tree people, echoed the vagrant’s voice. Tree people.
Readying himself, Tommy clenched his fists.
6th August 2019
Written for the August 2019 #BlogBattle