Followed?

Followed?

Nicola Ashbrook

Alina wades through the deep powdery snow, her snow-shoes crunch-mashing, crunch-mashing. It’s silent in the forest, save for her feet.

She knows this trail well, the pattern of Spruce trees like a 3D map to her. She stops to look at a lichen fluffing from an upper branch; to wonder at the path of a hare whose footprints have left gentle indentations. 

She approaches the old mill, hesitating in admiration at the rapids coursing beside it, as she does every day. There’s a straight line where the river ice turns to turgid water, as though God himself climbed down with his giant ruler to ensure an accurate edge. Alina smiles at the thought before continuing her hike.

At each pause to inspect the landscape, she listens for the silence. It’s there – her ears thrum with it. But the forest doesn’t feel silent today. She senses a presence behind her but can’t see anything when she turns to check – just her usual arboreal playground. 

She involuntarily speeds up, looking back more often, the frigid air nipping at her cheeks. Perhaps it’s a pine marten, she tells herself, or a wolf. Maybe even a lynx. The thought reassures her: those creatures are shy – they won’t approach.

Alina reaches a hillock, casting her eyes behind every tree. She shakes her head. She’s never doubted the forest in her life; never paid heed to the folklore, the rumours of a clawed beast.

The horizon pulls the sun from the sky, painting everything strawberry ice-cream. Alina looks heavenward at the candyfloss treetops. 

She marches on, using her poles for extra propulsion. A twig snaps. She hears the crunch of her steps duplicated behind her. She pauses, turns. 

Silence.

Light evaporates quickly at this time of day. Brilliant white fades to grayscale, shadows elongate and deepen. 

A giant wolverine, some say, whose eyes glow crimson. Others talk of a rabid bear, eight feet tall, salivating for flesh. 

Alina pushes on, her sense of unease magnifying. The stories cannot be true. The forest, her familiar friend, sweeps her forward – branches and roots, its fingers and toes – urging her onward. 

It’s true some tourists didn’t return after a hike last month, but they were likely ill-equipped for the temperatures; exposure’s a quick killer at twenty below.

The dusk closes in, liquid darkness running into the gaps between trees. Alina switches on her head torch, its beam casting a bobbing circle of yellow safety. Snow begins to fall again, juicy flakes tickling at her eyelashes. The flurry quickly thickens, softens the landscape, comforts her.

But the foreboding grows. A wisp of evil weaves between trunks, not just behind her, but sometimes to her left, sometimes her right: moving, surrounding, constricting. Alina inhales it. It metastasises, creeping to her most vulnerable corners.

She stumbles. 

The Kota is close now, Alina’s almost there. She’ll light a fire, drink her berry juice, eat her supper. She’ll feel safe. She speeds up, poles clashing with trunks in her haste. Her hand meets the worn handle, and her head whips backward, to check she’s really alone. 

The red eyes she fears do not stare back.

Alina goes into the Kota, prepares for dinner and sleep, while puffs of breath condensate on the windows and a thousand claws skitter the walls.

Nicola Ashbrook

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