I ran. I could hear the screams somewhere behind me. Building. Erupting. My tennis shoes pounded pavement, crossing over the dirty path and into – trees. Scraping branches. Face. Scratch. Blood. Pine trees oozing sap surrounded me. A bush on the left... Path on the right? The moon hadn't been able to break through the cloud cover tonight, giving no extra light.
Heart. Flutter. Pound. Throb. Throb. Throb. I ducked into the bush on the left, finding a hole hollowed out inside. Perfect. I slid in, pulling my knees up to my shaking chest, trying to calm my breathing.
The screams would come closer in just moments, and I had to be silent by then. Still. If they found me, I would be hauled back into the midst of them – taken away, no longer able to be free. I had to stay free. I had to stay hidden.
The fingers of the bush closed around me. Scratch on my arm. I broke off the branch that had hurt me and tossed it to the mud a little below me. I scooted up a little, making sure to stay clear of any mud. I did not want any of that on me.
I traced the path I had run in my mind: I had hurried over the hill, and then found the path. The woods had loomed ahead, covering everything in even more darkness. I knew I could hide inside. I and I had.
An alternate escape. I needed another escape from the bush. If they were to come near, I needed to be able to run again – to stay away from the screaming. I squinted in the dimness, trying to see anything that might offer escape. Just beneath an unusually large branch, I saw a small hole. I could slip out and into – Squinted again. Beyond was another little path. A huge shape covered the area ahead of the path in a double shadow. A building? Out in the woods... a cabin maybe.
The screams grew closer, and then I heard the footsteps. The footfalls of a hundred feet crunching grass and twigs. They didn't care about hiding or being careful. They came straight into the forest, seeking. Searching. Footsteps: pound, pound, snap.
Dirt shook slightly beside me, rattling over my hands, clutching a huge root coming out of the dirt. The footsteps were almost here. And the screaming – louder.
And then I saw the lights. Flashing back and forth through the brush, searching. The nearest one was still about twenty yards away. If one of the lights found me... I dove for the hole, slipping through, one of the sharp fingers of the bush scraping into my back, leaving a gash – through shirt and into skin. I couldn't care. I had to move.
I kicked my legs to gain a little momentum through the hole and saw the lights nearing my original hiding place. Seconds away. Coat. Snag. Branch. I struggled with the coat, trying to break free and hurry on.
The screams filled my ears, and the footsteps slowed to dull patters. They knew prey was near. I ripped my coat from the branch, hearing a solid rip. I jumped up and ran, staying just beyond a circle of light coming right behind me. I crossed into the double shadow as the screams searched the bush I had called home in my minute of panic.
Faint light from beyond the clouds lit the side of the building. It was a cabin. Two windows on the west side facing the ocean a few thousand yards away. I crept up the steps to the porch. No movement inside. The first porch board creaked under my feet. I watched a light poke up back in the pine trees. It stared in my direction for a few seconds. I fell flat to the porch, breathing and feeling the wood scratch against my face. The light turned away.
I pulled myself up to stand. I brushed the dirt and tiny twigs still clinging to my jacket, feeling the blood trickling down my cheek. I limped down the porch, finding a bench a couple feet away. I sat.
I had escaped. I had found a way free from the screaming, from-
“So is this where you go every year during counselor hunt?”
A form stood at the bottom of the porch steps, staring up at me. I jumped from the bench, ready to run – to escape.
“It's me. Ben.”
I sat again. Ben. Junior higher. In my cabin. I waved him up. Even in the dim light, I could still see he was wearing the Pharmacy sweatshirt I let him borrow two days ago. His hair still hadn't been cut, and fell just past his ears in a floppy mess. His eyes darted back and forth, and he let out a huff of breath and smiled. “You know this is out of the boundaries, don't you?”
I nodded, letting out another long, held-back breath. “Are you... going to take me back?”
Ben smirked and shook his head. “No.”
I looked toward the woods some distance away, watching lights flutter in between the trees. “How did you find me, then?”
Ben laughed. “I followed you the entire here! You didn't hear me?”
“That is so crazy. I had no idea anyone was following me.”
Ben paused, shuffling his feet along the boards. “So...” Swallow. “Why haven't you really... been spending time with us and stuff?”
“Yeah, and stuff.”
The past few days. I hadn't really been as involved in my cabin of seven guys. I had spent most of my time with myself – in my car. Listening to “Real Life Fairytale” - the newest Plumb song – and eating sour skittles bought at the snack shack on the east end of camp. And then early that morning, all the guy cabin groups had gathered in the View Room – a large game room with huge windows facing the ocean – to play “How Well Do You Know Your Counselor?” Kyle Holmes would give us all a question that our students had to answer. “What's your counselor's favorite Ninja Turtle?” “What kind of car does your counselor drive?” “What's your counselor's favorite book of the Bible?”
My cabin had lost. Last place.
“I... don't know.” I stared away, at the dirt running alongside the porch, at the muddy road that led away from this cabin tucked into the woods. I glanced back at Ben, watching him rub his hands together. He didn't say anything.
But I knew. I knew what it was. “I hide.”
Ben slid both hands into his pockets. “What do you mean?”
“Man, this is hard.” I rubbed a hand on the now dried blood on my cheek. “I think I'm afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
I sighed. “I'm afraid you guys won't like me... And I hide.”
Ben squinted his eyes together, three rows of lines forming on his forehead. He sat on the bench in silence, taking in my words. I watched him churn through it, thinking. And I churned through them too. Thinking of how much I wanted to break through this hold on me – this chain that kept me so close to my car and music and skittles.
After we had sat for nearly a minute, a horn blasted in the distance.
“The game's over,” I whispered, watching lights flicker through the trees, screams and footsteps pounding away from us.
Ben patted me on the back, and we stood up, creaking down the wooden porch steps. “It's okay, you know.”
We walked down the path, no longer feeling the need to pound our way along.
“What?” I asked, stepping up to the bush. I pulled aside some of the branches so Ben could squeeze through. He hesitated, and then slowly slid his hands from his pockets and took hold of the branches.