Sarah opened the door and glanced at the deep, black shadows in front of her. The forest. She had lived in the village all her life but she had always been anxious about walking by herself, at night, in the woods. She’d heard a lot of midnight stories about horrible things that had happened there. And tonight she would have to walk through to the other side of the forest and then along the road, to where her home – that she was about to leave soon and for good - was. She’d had a lovely evening with John, her future husband. The previous week John had proposed to her – he’d whittled into a piece of wood a miniature version of Sarah and hung the engagement ring to the sculpture’s neck before giving it to her as a birthday present - and they were both eager and excited about what would come next, the peaceful, fulfilling domestic life and all that. People used to say they made a lovely pair. And they sometimes felt like they were tiresomely and annoyingly perfect for each other, but in a good way, yeah, in a good way...
She kissed John and then said goodbye. He waited in the doorway for her figure to lose its colour in the velvet darkness of the night. Then she disappeared.
It was a dark night indeed, no moon, no stars. The wind was howling through the leaves, angrily. Sarah put on her headphones and searched for the ‘Man on Fire’ soundtrack in her MP3 Player’s list. ‘Una Palabra’. A feeling of restiveness made her turn off the music-player just as the song was reaching its dramatic moment. She stopped and looked around apprehensively. The old trees were taking human shapes! She smiled because it wasn’t like her to feel unsettled, not in there, amongst them, the comrades of her childhood games. But tonight was different and what she really needed was to hear the echo of her steps in the stillness.
She walked carefully, trying to pick her way between trunks and branches that the forceful wind had thrown on the ground.
“You’re pathetic!” Hearing her own voice echoing in the dark was strange and even more distressing. She kept on walking. To take her mind off the gloom that the forest had spread into her heart, she decided to plan – well, to fantasise about - her wedding. She imagined herself being married in that very forest, amongst the old trees; she, appearing as a goddess, in a virginal white dress, more flowing than walking...
She heard steps behind her, on the fallen leaves, and looked back, but could see nothing but trees winding angrily and chaotically. She took a deep breath and then shouted. “Is anybody there?” She waited for a while. No one answered. It must have been nothing more than a poor animal scared by the strong wind.
John took his brown-leather suitcase, switched off the light in the living-room and went upstairs. At twenty-two, he had done well for himself, restoring his grand-father’s shop and earning respect in the village. And the climax, he was to marry Sarah, the love of his life, his best friend and closest confidant, the amazing Sarah! He knew some of his friends were a bit jealous of his good fortune... Sarah, he loved Sarah... And, as he was taking out some files out of his suitcase and organizing them on the desk in his office, he thought of her contagious smile.
The wind slammed the window closed with such rage that the glass broke into tiny pieces. He cursed through his clenched teeth and went downstairs to find a broom. He checked his pockets for his mobile phone but couldn’t find it. He wanted to call Sarah to see if she was alright all by herself, in this kind of weather, in the woods. But he didn’t.
Sarah stopped walking and looked again through the emptiness around her.
“If there’s anyone out there, please, say something!”
She waited. Nothing. She started walking faster, almost running. Then she heard him, far behind.
The human voice frightened her, as up to that point she’d convinced herself that it was nothing but a lost, frightened fox. She started running. “I will not stop” she whispered, “even if I have to burst my heart running.” A branch with strong, sharp thorns cut her tights. There could have been some blood drawn but she didn’t stop to check. She was hot, drops of sweat wetting her forehead and bony cheeks. She clenched her teeth and kept on running. When she thought she was far enough, she stopped and held her breath. Her heart was beating so fast that she could hear it. But also... He was running too, now closer than before and towards her. She didn’t think any further but started running again.
“Stop!” she heard him shouting - a hoarse, breathless voice -, but she had no intentions to. “Damn, woman, stop running!” Sarah could sense anger in his voice and for the first time she cursed her stubbornness in not allowing John to drive her home. Fear was spreading through the woods like plague.
She turned her head while running. The man was behind her. He must be a vagabond, a homeless person living in the woods. Suddenly he launched himself into a lofty jump and landed right behind her, his hands on her shoulders.
“Stop, I won’t hurt you,” he shouted, but Sarah was wild. She scratched his face, ragged his clothes, tried to punch him, all the moves she had seen in the movies, as she had never been in a real fight before.
“You stupid woman!” cried the man, “I don’t want to hurt you!” But she couldn’t understand the meaning of his words. They were on the ground now, him on top of her, trying to keep her still; she, shouting and kicking, tossing and striking. Then he slapped her, hard.
“Stop it, I said!... I am not from around here, I got lost and I needed to ask someone for directions. And, as I’ve met no one else in the last four hours, I thought to catch up with you. I am sorry for scaring you...” and released Sarah’s arms. She looked at him, her eyes empty; her face expressionless. Why didn’t he answer in the first place? Why did he run after her? Why did he scare her like that and jump on top of her and pin her to the ground? She let her arms rest on the wet, cold fallen leaves and there it was! She grabbed the neat branch that providence had placed for her in that exact place and hit him hard, several times. She got up and started running again.
John couldn’t find his phone anywhere, but he kept bumping into his car keys. He would take the car and wait for Sarah at the other end of the forest. She’d arrive there in approximately ten minutes, he knew, because she always liked to walk cautiously, with no hurry. What a fool had he been to let her leave like that! But she’d had always been stubborn as a mule, no point arguing if she had made up her mind on anything. He threw his jacket on the other seat and got into his car. He put some music and the AC on and set off. The road was clear. He kissed his teeth in annoyance. It would have been nice to wait for her with a rose, he had roses at home, but he left in a hurry so he forgot. Twenty-two years old, and he was starting to forget things, who knew what could come next?
Sarah couldn’t feel her legs and she was sure some things had fallen out of her pockets, but she didn’t care. She could see the road now. She needed to turn left and then walk alongside it until she reached her house. Almost there. She must have put on quite a show, because ever since she hit the vagabond, he’d stopped following her. She kept on running all the way, just to be sure. Now she was just a few steps away and she let a smile light her face. “I got away...”
John was driving fast, listening to the radio and humming some old song he knew since childhood. He didn’t see her... but her lovely smile hit the wind-screen of his car and she looked at him for the last time, blood coming out of her mouth.