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2/Left For Dead

“Jess?” A familiar masculine voice catches up with my brisk pace. “Hey!” Gage, a former classmate, huffed matching my slowing pace. I couldn’t help the broad smile imitate his infectious one. Gage and I clicked right away at the beginning of the semester. He opted for night classes half way thru after a conflict with his work schedule. My arms wrapped him up in a quick side hug which he returned almost immediately.

“You switching to the dark side with me?” He leaned in with a conspiratorial nudge.

“What, did you miss me future hubby?” His elbow to my arm accompanied a dry chuckle. Our back and forth had always been natural since the moment we met.

“Of course wifey. God I’m so happy your taking night classes now it’s so boring without you.” A moments pause and I knew what he was going to ask.

“It’s only for tonight. I missed the test this afternoon and Mr. Hedrick gave me the option of taking it tonight or taking an F. So guess which one I picked?”

“Why’d you miss class Jess?” I didn’t miss the worry in his voice.

“I’ve been having these weird dreams lately. And if that’s not bad enough I’ve started sleep walking. My mom thinks it’s stress but with these dreams...”

Gage cocooned me into his arm. “Hey it probably is stress I mean it’s finals. How about we go to the party tomorrow to celebrate surviving this hell week?”

“Maybe. I miss mom. This is my last test I was kind of hoping to leave tonight.”

“Ok. It won’t be the same without you though. I’ll be there in case you change your mind.” Gage grabbed for the door while throwing a wink my way.

Forty-five minutes into the test and most of the students were finished and gone, including Gage. Another half hour and I was the last one in the room. I was running on two protein bars and three hours sleep. Factoring in that it was nearing 11:30pm, my brain just wanted to quit and take the F.

As I turned in my paper, Mr. Hedrick sighed dramatically and took out his umbrella. “It looks like you finished just in time Ms. Staise. Be safe getting home.” His pointed look out the window gave me pause. It was about to storm and from the looks of it, it was a doozy.

“I will. Thank you Mr. Hedrick.” He led me out and locked the room behind us. The middle aged man juggled the test papers into his briefcase while trying to open his umbrella in the hallway. My pockets were empty except for my keys to the dorm. Testing week prohibited student’s cellphones and bags into the classrooms.

An odd sensation pricked at my skin once I stepped outside. Instead of relief I was on edge and irritated. The sky had yet to open its frozen flood gates but the electricity in the air, the premonition of it, was thick. It was December, but we were far enough south that snow wasn’t guaranteed.

My footfalls were a little more than a jog. My thoughts clouded with this spontaneous and unprecedented feeling of restless unease. I hadn’t noticed my slight jog turned into a deadpan run until I was gasping at my door, key already in the lock. My roommate was already asleep so I tiptoed into my bed too exhausted and confused to change into night clothes. I kicked off my shoes and sent a quick text to my mom that I was invited to the party tomorrow. My eyelids drooped before she could reply and sleep blinded me in minutes.

The faceless man haunting my dreams for the past week stood before me once again. We stood in the middle of a hurricane, darkness consuming us both. The wind deafened his words and the rain left his details blurred. His outstretched hand grasping for me, but it didn’t bring fear to me only, curiosity. I took countless steps toward him, only for his figure to retreat further into the storm. My name, disfigured in a scream whipped around me.

A crack of thunder jolted my body awake. Dry lightning illuminated my surroundings just enough for me to know I was deeper in the woods than I’d ever gone before. The forest was pitch black under the new moon. Trees surrounded my lone figure for as far as I could see. The campus lights should be illuminating a path back. Instead, darkness engulfed me. I had to be miles away for the darkness to snuff out the college flood lights.

My hand reached for my pocket only to feel empty space. I was lost, without knowing how much longer the darkness would consume me, no phone to call for help and no shoes to protect my feet from the slippery Earth.

My surroundings were deadly silent, except for the groaning of limbs and occasional crack of thunder. My body trembled in shock as weak gasps for help escaped my paralyzed mouth.

“Help?...Anyone?” It was too quiet to do any good. I didn’t have the strength to scream until I saw a lump move on the other side of the tree before me. My scream was louder than the storm for a brief moment.

My reaction triggered the lump to jump in surprise but nothing else. A few minutes of the standoff gave no indication of what it was or what it wanted. Bravely, or stupidly, my foot inched a step towards the object. Lightning streaked across the sky. A boy? Another step. Thunder shook the trees. Another step. Lightning. Blood.

Without another thought, my body dove to the injured boy. I lightly touched his skin and could make out where the blood was seeping from. At my touch he groaned. My thoughts were miles ahead of my hands. Stop the bleeding, elevate, rain. Seriously? A down pour dropped like a blanket from the sky, which drenched us both in seconds. With no direction it was almost hopeless to make it back to the dorms. The limited light from the sky was nearly useless in the thick of the rain and forest.

“I’ll find us shelter!” My voice was drowned out by the storm even to my own ears. I hooked his arm over my shoulder and guessed a direction.

Sliding through the forest on mud caked feet I’m proud to say I only fell a few dozen times.

This boy had to weigh more than me by at least double. Maybe he was one of the football players who threw the parties out here. He could’ve been a freshman like me and just gotten lost. But how did he get so hurt? I didn’t get a good look at his wounds but it felt like three lines down his shoulder and back. Sticks? Claw marks?

By luck, illuminated by the next strike of lightening I saw what looked like an opening to a cave. I trudged forward hoping it was deep and unoccupied. Thick trunks blocked most of the entrance, but the opening was enough to get one person thru at a time. The cave was dark and I was no survivalist but we were both shaking from the icy rain and there was nothing to do but try.

I laid the boy down away from the growing puddle at the entrance and with each brief strike of lightning my hands twisted and gathered as many dry branches from the trunk blocking the cave as possible. I stacked the pile of twigs in the middle of the shallow cave and felt around for rocks. With trembling hands I struck the two rocks together. I had no idea if this would work but one thought pushed my movements forward. “We won’t die here.”

The rock in my left hand crumbled to dust. I set out for another one and continued striking the two rocks together. Nothing. Even I knew that this was wasted time. My eyes fluttered to the boy who I assumed shook as vigorously as I did from the cold.

“Why didn’t I join Girl Scouts?” I threw the rocks in frustration. With my arms crossed and knees huddled up in a ball I talked to myself.

“C’mon Jess, if cavemen can figure it out so can you. I just need to get us warm, dry our clothes, and wait out the storm.” My thoughts trailed off and I didn’t notice the silence until a noise disturbed it.

Two beady eyes blinked from the darkness outside the cave between branches.

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