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Return to the woods

18TH OF JULY

Samantha


The jump to consciousness only takes a fraction of a second. It’s like being immersed in the deepest sleep, dreaming about a gorgeous guy I just met while on holidays, and then boom! The alarm rings and I'm back in the hostel’s bed, no guy next to me.
How much of what happened last night was real, and how much was part of this muddled up dream? My head hurts slightly, and I take a drink of water from my bedside table before going over to wake Emma.
“Em, wake up!” I say as I shake her slightly.
Em tucks the covers higher up her head as she moans.
“C’mon you lazy ass! Let's get going! We have a long road ahead.”
“But it’s cold!” Em’s voice comes out muffled from under the covers, so I go over and take the covers off in one quick motion. “Heeeeyy!!”
She hugs herself tightly and I can see she’s getting goosebumps straight away.
“You won’t be cold anymore if you get changed. I really want to spend some time in the Redwoods after we drive around the lakes, and I don’t want to arrive in Turangi at night, so we gotta move! Today's going to be one big day, lots of activities, so chop chop!” I say as I head back to my bed and fix the covers. We're leaving this room today, so I want it to look tidy.
"What you want, is to spend one long day with Tane!" Em says in a mocking tone.
I turn around and hit her with a pillow. Does she have a point? I know I’m eager to see him, but at the same time, I’m not sure what to expect once we meet again. It makes my stomach churn a little to think about it.
"Oowww!" She complains, but after another groan, she gets up.
We're both ready in record time, and within half an hour we are heading downstairs to the reception area to wait for Tane. We have our bags with us, which we'll leave on the boot of the car all day.
"Morning," the gentleman at reception says as soon as we approach.
"Morning!" We reply both at the same time, and then we giggle like we're 12 years old all over again.
"Here to check out? Your friend was down here earlier, he already paid for his room," he says. "And he left this for you." He adds as he hands me over the car keys and a note.
I shove the keys in my pocket as I unfold the little note. There's only a bunch of simple words scribbled in a rushed handwriting.
'Family business, you can have the car today. I'll find you later.'
That's it. Maybe he does not care after all.
I'll find you later.

✢✢✢
Emma

The day is cold and the air is filled with moisture; I'm sure it’s gonna rain before the day is over.
I take another sip from my hot chocolate and lean back on the bench as I admire lake Tarawera, the last one on the itinerary.
“Pretty damn cold today, isn’t it?” My voice sounds cheerful enough despite the weather.
“I know,” Sam says. She's hugging her cup of chocolate with both hands, her eyes lost in the distance.
She hasn't said that much all day, I expected us to have the best day ever driving around the lakes and all, but after Tane bailed on us this morning, Sam seemed to shut down a little. We've been to four different lakes, driving around the whole bloody town, and she’s been making little jokes here and there and smiling for the pictures, but I’m not sure she’s fully with me.
I don’t really know what happened between them, but Tane better make up for this, or he's going to hear from me.
As we head back to the car, I nudge Sam in the shoulder.
"Do you want me to drive?" I ask.
Sam shrugs the question away. “I don’t mind."
“Well, you drive then." I say, hoping that will keep her mind a little occupied at least.
I sit on the passenger seat and cross my arms over my chest, pouting a little as I glance at her sideways.
Sam’s silent for a moment, looking at the windscreen, and then at me. I know she can feel me staring. "Sorry if I’m being a grump,” she says after a moment, and I’m so glad she read my thoughts. “I don’t know what came over me, I’m ruining a perfectly good day just for…” she trails off, not finishing her sentence, but she doesn’t need to. I know what she means, as well as I know she won’t admit she’s disappointed that Tane bailed on us like he did.
“I know, you’re just a bit... distracted due to a certain friend of ours.” I say in a question tone, mocking her a little.
"Oh, really?" she asks, and I can feel the happy Sam slowly coming back.
“Yes, really, you look like a sad lovebird right now!” I laugh a bit, hoping she’ll bait on the joke.
"Hm! Says the one that’s been texting and smirking at her phone all day!" She counterattacks.
Oops, she noticed? I punch her in the arm and look out the window, dramatically wiping my hair as I turn my back to her and cross my arms over my chest.
“I have no idea what you're talking about,” I say with a smirk, just happy that my friend is laughing and joking again as we drive off the car park.
“Who are you texting with, huh?,” she asks as she takes the turn towards the Redwoods and pokes my ribs with a finger.
“Still don't know what you're talking about,” I reply, and I can hear Sam laugh under her breath. She knows I will tell her about it when I’m ready, and I love her for not pushing it.

✢✢✢
Samantha

I’m walking slowly through the woods, letting the energy of the Earth fill me up. I listen to the birds chirping, to the rustle of the wind and the crunching of the leaves under my feet. I know Em is only a few steps behind me, but at the same time, I feel like I'm the only soul in this land.
We walk in silence for a long time, too stunned by the beauty around us. There’s yellow leaves from the vines that wrap themselves around the tree trunks, moss covering every surface, and the greenness of this wet forest just beams with life. It was later than we planned when we got here, but we wanted to walk around Redwood so badly, that we decided we would do it regardless.
Even if it means driving after nightfall to get to our accommodation in Turangi tonight.
“It kind of seems like we’re the only ones here.” I say after we’ve been walking for over an hour.
“I know,” Em says as she nods. “I was expecting more people, but the parking lot was almost empty. I guess it might be ‘cause of the bad weather. I don’t know why people are so scared of getting rained on.” She says with a shrug as she zips her raincoat all the way up.
We keep walking around, following the track. Everything is so beautiful, that I can’t even be annoyed with Tane anymore. I felt so puzzled all morning, just stressing and going down a spiral of dark thoughts, but I’m telling myself that was the old Sam. That was Samantha Sky, the one that was always anxious about everything, the one with existential doubts and crippling anxiety. I want to be a little bit more Samantha Tutaki Sky now, a new version of myself. I’m choosing a new beginning, one where I can control my emotions, one where I can be braver, take chances.
I grab a hold of my Koru and trace a thumb around the spiral. I know it’s one thing to think about it, and a whole different one to actually take action, but I know this is only step one, there's a long journey ahead. I will be braver, I tell myself as I kiss the pounamu before setting it down.
After another hour goes by, the clouds start filling up the sky, and the woods become a little darker. We twist and turn through a narrow path downhill, starting to head back towards the car park, slipping a bit in the wetness of the soil.
As we keep going downhill, I get an unsettling feeling, like that prickle on the back of my neck all over again. I think I see something moving in the corner of my eye, so I look to the side, but there’s nothing there. We keep walking, and then I feel it again, sense it again, and I turn around. There’s nothing there. Am I being paranoid?
I rub the back of my neck, and remind myself I said I’ll be braver.
“What do you keep looking at, Sam?” Em asks from behind me. “You’re kind of spooking me.”
I slow down my pace so she catches up to me, I hook my elbow in hers, and start walking a bit faster. A uncanny feeling sets over me, so I lower my voice to a whisper.
“Em… I have this weird feeling... like I’m being watched or something.”
Em stops on her tracks, and turns around to look at me with her eyebrow raised.
“What? Like there’s some kind of wild animal out there or something?”
I shush her and push her so we keep walking.
“Don’t stop moving,” I say as I move more on instinct than logic. I have this gut feeling that we should just keep going, there’s something screaming at me to get the hell out of this woods as soon as possible.
“Sam, you're kind of scaring me, are you alright?” Em asks as she quickens her steps too. She’s got a concerned look on her face, and I can't stop thinking that there’s something I’ve been keeping away from her, something that I now realise I need to let out.
I’m not sure about anything anymore, maybe I’m going crazy. But right now, I feel like a prey. I look down to my palms, and the vision of blood dripping from my hands is there again, haunting me.
“If I told you something crazy,” I say with a shaky voice. “Would you believe me?”
Em looks at me without stopping, keeping up with my pace.
“I trust you with my life Sam,” she says after analysing my face for a while. “You’ve never lied to me in your whole life. Now talk to me, what’s going on?"
I take a deep shaky breath, and I realise I’m ready for it. Em is probably going to think that I'm crazy, but I need to let it all out.
“I've been having some kind of... visions,” I say almost in a whisper. “Or they may be flashbacks, I’m not sure."
The last word is almost silenced by a loud thunder that makes me shake to my very core. I jump a bit, and when I look to the side, I see Emma staring at me intensely.
"Are you serious?" She asks. "What kind of... flashbacks?"
How am I supposed to explain this?
“About the accident...” I say, thinking about how to keep going.
Em is silent, waiting for me to explain myself, to find my words. But I forget all about it as I feel like the sounds of the forest intensify around me, and I can suddenly hear every rustling of leaves, every snapping of twigs under my feet and even the sounds of running water close by. It makes me feel small, and powerless.
But there’s something else, another sound carried by the wind. It sounds like whispers, and it sends shivers up my whole body. I rub my arms trying to get rid of the sensation as another thunder rolls, this time a bit closer.
In that moment, we reach a huge clearing, the path continuing somewhere on the other side, marked by a red triangle stuck to a tree far away that I can barely see. I look at Em, and realise that she’s still looking at me, waiting for an answer. But I seem unable to use my words, to talk about the blood, the sounds, the screams that now haunt me.
As Em takes one more step towards the clearing, a thunder rips the sky and the rain starts pouring down in bucketloads.
“Fuck!” she yelps. “Come on!” She screams over the sound of another thunder as she starts running towards the tree line on the other side, urging me to follow.
But I’m rooted to the ground, unable to move. I look down at my boots, and I swear I can feel roots growing from the soles of my feet, linking me to the Earth. Another lightning strikes close by, making me look back up. That same human shape is in the sky again, the one I saw from the plane.
"Come on!" Em yells from halfway across the clearing, looking back over her shoulder.
The sound of another thunder shakes the world, but I can't move. I’m rooted to the forest. I am to stay here forever.
"Sam! Hurry the fuck up! Come on!" Em's voice barely reaches me from the other end of the clearing. She looks like she’s uncertain, about to come back to get me as she stands by the tree line, looking back and forth between me and the path ahead.
I concentrate on her small shape in the distance, thinking about how she'll come back for me if I don’t hurry, how she’ll surely risk herself for me, and something finally snaps up inside my chest. I take a tentative step, and then I run towards Em as fast as I can, half slipping in the mud.
The coldness of the rain is sending shivers up my spine, but I keep running, suddenly terrified but eager to get back to the car. My eyes are mostly focused on the ground, making sure I don’t trip with anything, and when I finally look back up, I realise I can’t see Em anymore. As I finally make it back to the tree line on the other side, my hair is dripping with water, getting in my eyes and making it hard to see. I wipe them with the sleeve of my jacket, trying to clear my vision, but everything is soaked and it’s not much help.
I start running through the path, which starts up wide but narrows quickly. A few meters in, I slip and end up face first into the mud. I struggle to my feet as fast as I can, the floor drenched with water now and everything being ridiculously slippery. A fast flowing river is starting to form under my feet.
"Em?!" I yell tentatively as I start trotting again, but another thunder cracks the Earth and covers my voice. “Em?!” I try again.
I can’t see anything ahead since the path is so narrow, and it twists and turns every couple of meters. Adrenaline is pumping through my body as panic starts to settle in. My heart is racing wildly, and no matter how much I tell myself to stay calm, the reality is that I’m terrified.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck." I mutter as another thunder hits somewhere that sounds too close, way to close.
I keep running and slipping, running and slipping. The downhill path is getting more pronounced and I find it hard not to end on the floor every other minute.
Then a deafening noise throws me back onto my buttocks as a huge tree falls over just in front of me, covering the whole path.
"Oh Gods, oh Gods, what the fuck is going on?" I mumble. "Emma!" I yell as loud as I can. "Emma!" I scream again and again until my throat hurts.
“Oh, please, someone help me,” I whisper as tears run down my face and mix with the rainwater.


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