Moments pass. Fear passes. Elena notices that the wall behind her has grown damp with moss. The bricks now replaced with cobbles of stone. She notices her shoes are dark with dew. She is hesitant to look up. The air is fresh; the angle of the sunbeams that thread through the haphazard canopy of trees, the beads of dew on wide blades of forest green grass and the clean air, unlike stale wisps of turgid city air, lets Elena know that it is morning.
The therapists all suggest deep-breathing. And that’s what Elena does now – deep, regulated, meditative breathing. The air is so crisp that the depth of Elena’s breathing almost hurts.
After moments of stillness, Elena slowly straightens her back against the moss riddled wall, and braves a glance to where the dark shag of matted hair, ichor stained teeth and soulless eyes had been. The Jackal isn’t there.
Elena’s forehead and t-shirt is damp with sweat. The seat of her pants is sodden with dew. At least Elena hopes it’s dew.
Elena recognizes this place. She comes here to run. Lassellsville State Forest. How did she get here? Had she been sleep walking? Sleep running perhaps? But it is a drive away from town. How on earth did she get here?
She stands too quickly and a fuzz of kaleidoscope shapes crawl in purples and reds across the top of her vision. Other than the scuttle of small creatures amidst the undergrowth of foliage, and the chirpy refrain of birdsong, Elena is alone. For now.
The earth beneath her feet is soft and, cautious of foot placement, she meanders between the glistening bark of trees into a grassy opening. The canopy of the forest above diffuses the sunlight into dappled emerald light. The opening is much like a rib cage of trees, their gnarled roots coiling both above and below the morning kissed grass. Their trunks arced outwards from their base, then back in again, all reaching together at the vertex of the canopy. On the other side of the opening a white stag stands. Its dark eyes, softly survey Elena before it disappears into the gentle shadows.
Elena pauses to reflect on the dream. It was becoming hard to separate dreams from reality. Had she returned home from her run last night? Had she just kept running in her sleep? Had she run here and then fallen asleep? What was she running from? What was that, that thing?
‘Where am I Jack?’ Elena says, ‘I didn’t expect to come out here.’
A sudden recollection of ichor stained teeth sends her heart racing. Beyond the ribs of the opening, the shadows suddenly seem darker. The shadows seem to be reaching for Elena. Unsteady on her feet, Elena drops to a crouch, trimmed nails set in soft sod to stabilize her stance. Again, a wash of clear kaleidoscope crystals limit her vision.
‘Are you okay doll?’ The voice triggers memories. Memories of boat trips on the Thames, of beach holidays in the Keys, of lounging around at home watching films, of food fights, of sex, of smiles and of love.
Struggling to look beyond the shifting sea of shapes that blur her vision, Elena peers up to where the voice comes from. At first she sees Jack. But as the haze fades, she is heartbroken to see Thomas, the bartender from Jack’s old local.
‘Jesus. Elena? Is that you?’ Thomas helps her to her feet, ‘God almighty, we’ve gotta get you to hospital. You’re burning up.’
Run Elena, Run.
‘No, no. I can’t go there.’ The words sound alien to Elena in her panic. Her voice is deep and sharp. The consonants sound like they are said, a slapped tongue through gritted teeth.
‘The police were at your house earlier, what’s going on? Is this to do with Jack?’
And Elena is running. Running and running but going nowhere. The ribcage opening is expansive, and the edges are forever further away. She stops and looks back. There is Thomas, his hand on her elbow, as if she had gone nowhere. His index and thumb pinch her joint, and she is sure she is bruising under his grasp.
‘Thomas, Thomas, let me go.’
The sun is switched off.
The opening is stained red. Light permeates crimson leafs and dust motes float in the golden streams of unsourced light. The grass at Elena’s feet is ashen, and as she shifts her feet, the tiny blades crumble to dust.
It’s all in your head. It’s all just your imagination. None of this is-
“Oh sweety, it is completely real,’ a saccharine soft voice spoke.
Elena spins. Behind her stand two hers. One eyeless. One tongueless.