Tessa had been afraid of it most of her life. For as long as she could remember, she’d gone to bed dreading nightfall, looking under the bed, double-checking her nightlight.
As if a lightbulb the size of a lit match could possibly banish her nightmares.
But tonight, she prayed for the blackest of nights. For the moon to stay hidden behind the shifting clouds. For the shadows to make her invisible.
The darkness had changed sides. Head spinning, lungs screaming, she ran into its embrace. What had once been her greatest fear could now be her savior. Her miracle.
That’s what it was going to take to keep her alive until the sun rose.
“Tesssssa.” The voice floated over the forest. “You can’t get away.”
Where is he?
Evergreen boughs grabbed at her arms and scratched her face as she plunged through the forest like a panicked deer. Her heart beat with the frantic staccato of a prey animal. She slowed, her body protesting the abuse of little-used muscles. She passed the scorched carcass of a burned tree. Its blackened branches pointed upward like a charred hand reaching for the sky. She ducked behind the shelter of a towering oak. Bark scraped her back as she pressed against the trunk and listened.
Where did he go?
A mosquito buzzed around her face. To her right, she could hear the sounds of the forest that surrounded Scarlet Lake. The stillness of the night sharpened her senses. Frogs croaked. Crickets chirped. An animal, small and light, scurried through the underbrush nearby. The air was thick with the scents of pine, lake water, and fear.
Not for the first time, she wished she could shrink and disappear into a rabbit hole.
Hoot! An owl landed on an overhead branch.
Tessa startled, a gasp slipping from her lips. She covered her open mouth with a hand. Liquid dripped over her fingers, and when she lowered her hand, it came away wet with tears—and blood. She touched the corner of her mouth, where his fist had split her lip. Other parts of her face and body ached from what he’d done in the clearing before she’d managed to land a kick to his groin.
Then he’d dropped her, and she’d run. Blindly.
The owl took flight, slow flaps of its wings sending it soaring through a break in the canopy. The clouds parted, and moonlight shone through the opening. For a few seconds, the raptor was silhouetted against the inky sky. And then it was gone.
Sliding down the tree trunk, she sat on her heels and huddled.
Despite the coolness of the September night, her lungs burned as if she’d inhaled gas and swallowed a flame. She panted; the sound echoed in her ears and seemed loud enough to carry a mile through the trees.
He was going to hear. She was out of shape, and her mad sprint had taxed her lungs. She hadn’t gotten far. He had to be close.
The drumming of her heartbeat muffled his voice. She couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from.
She pressed her lips together, but her lungs demanded more air. Red rimmed her vision as dizziness enveloped her. Opening her mouth, she kept her breaths shallow, hoping, praying her ragged gasps weren’t as loud as they sounded echoing in her own ears.
Maybe he’d gone in the other direction.
Her breathing eased. Her legs began to tremble from the cramped position. She’d partied in the clearing countless times. But everything looked the same in the dark.
She’d lost track of her location.
She glanced around the trunk. Twenty feet ahead, moonlight cast a trail in silvery shadows. Was that the path that led to the main road? Beyond the narrow break in the foliage, the trees closed in, and darkness smothered the forest.