Note: This chapter contains descriptions that may be triggering for some people.
The ravine was as creepy as I had imagined.
It was shrouded in a thin layer of fog that poured eerily onto the rugged, gravel road, clustered between rock formations and ridiculously tall trees that cast deep shadows on the valley below. Everything in here was dulled - birds’ chirping, colours... Even the temperature seemed lower than it should have, causing goosebumps to rise on my arms.
I treaded apprehensively deeper into the ravine. The gravel crunched under the soles of my trainers, its sharp rattle pierced through the otherwise muffled sounds of nature.
Emmie was nowhere in sight. Truthfully, it hardly surprised me at this point, and yet I still looked around, fooling myself into believing that my friend would unexpectedly pop out from behind some giant rock.
What showed up instead was much more horrific.
At first, I didn’t recognise the shape for what it was. Though the fog was rather thin, it was still obscuring my senses. So, for a second there, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. That is, until I came closer and couldn’t deny what I saw anymore -
I had no idea how I knew it was her. From the way her body looked, it was a miracle I identified her at all. She had her limbs bent at the humanly impossible angles. Her spine was curved and severely humped as if some brute, internal force tried to shape it into something new. Adding to the whole picture of gruesome was her face, stuck in the middle of being human and something else entirely. With elongated jaws, tiny patches of fur here and there, and a scream of terror as well as pain frozen on her face forever, Stacy looked more like a monster than my chemistry lab partner. Wild animals had already started buffeting on her. She was missing chunks of flesh, blood had soaked the soil around her, and scraps of her clothing were scattered almost everywhere.
It was atrocious. I couldn’t comprehend it.
My mind went blank.
I felt bile rising in my stomach, and I leaned onto the nearest rock, almost immediately puking my guts out. My body shook uncontrollably while cold sweat gathered on my forehead and neck - its tiny droplets making their painfully slow way down my spine.
I closed my eyes, unable to get the horrendous image out of my head. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. No way in hell something like this was possible...
My phone started to ring, disrupting the pervasive silence. With shaking hands, I dug it out of the pocket of my Jean shorts and automatically clicked the receive button.
“Gemma, where are you? What’s wrong?” Bennett seemed alarmed.
I had no clue how he got my number or what made him call me, but, at that time, I couldn’t care less. Sudden rasps started to shake my already shivering body as I finally decided to break down.
The words burst out of my mouth in a heartwrenching sob:
“T-There’s a dead body lying in the middle of the woods and... Oh, God! I think it’s S-Stacy...”
“Whoa, Matthews. What are you talking about? What body? Where are you?” Bennett asked, obviously concerned.
“I-I-I’m at the ravine by the Azure Lake,” I said through my clogged throat, sniffing. “I was supposed to meet Emmie here, but she didn’t show up. But Stacy’s mauled body did, and it is lying in the middle of the road...” I rambled, scalding tears streaming down my cheeks. “A-And some animals had already fed on her... But she doesn’t look like Stacy, b-but... Oh, God... There’s so much blood...” I hiccuped as the words got stuck in my mouth.
“Okay... Right... Gemma? Can you go back to the beach and wait there for me?” Bennett was surprisingly gentle.
“B-B-But Stacy...” I stuttered.
“My dad is already on the phone with the police. Just please go back to the beach and wait there. Can you do that, please?”
I nodded my head in agreement but then realised that he couldn’t see me and said instead:
He let out a quiet sigh of relief.
“Great, just walk there and don’t turn around. We’ll be there shortly...”
I did just that.
There was no telling how long I sat there waiting for police to come while leaning numbly on a tree trunk. The sun was scorching my arms and legs, and yet I was cold inside, shocked and feeling sorry for what happened to Stacy.
I still couldn’t believe it.
Bennett approached me first, warily, as if he was rounding a wounded animal. Seeing how I wasn’t particularly reacting to his presence, he sat next to me and gathered me in his strong arms. I let him. My head fell on his broad chest, his musky, masculine scent surrounded me, and the steady rhythm of his heart calmed me down a bit. I could finally breathe a little.
Two men, I didn’t notice until now, loomed above us - one police officer and a park ranger in his green uniform. Both of them had solemn expressions on their faces and seemed familiar.
The park ranger crouched in front of me, and my eyes wandered to the H. Bennett weaved with yellow thread on the polo t-shirt he wore. Somebody put a blanket around me.
“Gemma, could you tell us how did you find the body?” Mr. Bennett asked gently.
My eyes wandered up to his forest green ones but dropped after two seconds - his gaze was too intense for me to hold. So I focused on the man’s face instead, noticing a slight, grayish stumble, square jaw, and a scar that marred his left cheek. I had to admit, Mr. Bennett was quite attractive for a forty-something-ish-year-old.
“Matthews?” It was Bennett now, his hot breath on my ear.
Oh, so we were back to that.
For some strange reason, him calling me by my surname again made everything appear a little more normal. Come rain or shine, Bennett didn’t disappoint.
I ran a shaking hand through my hair, pulling on some tangled locks. I opened my mouth and tried to recall the events, however, the words failed me. My eyes welled up for the millionth time today, and I shivered. Bennett began running circles on my back - his warm hand steadying me - and I gulped the clog away.
“I was supposed to meet Emmie here at noon.” I started. “She asked me yesterday to come to the ravine. She wanted to tell me something...” I took a big breath, bracing myself. “I didn’t see her, though. I ran a bit late, so I ventured further into the ravine, thinking maybe she was there... a-and S-Stacy was laying there j-just like that...” My voice broke. “W-What happened to her? She doesn’t look human anymore... H-Her body...”
Mr. Bennett and the policeman exchanged quick looks.
“Thank you, Gemma... ” Mr. Bennett interrupted me soothingly. “We don’t know anything yet, but I promise you, we are going to find out,” He added solemnly.
He seemed sincere, nevertheless, I had this strange impression he knew exactly what was going on and wasn’t going to share. Not with me anyway.
“Zack here will take you home,” Mr. Bennett nodded at his son. “Thank you... I know it was hard. You did great, go and rest. We’ll contact you if we need anything more...”
“What about Emmie, though? What if she comes and sees...”
“Don’t worry. My daughter’s at home, safe,” The police officer chimed in, smiling bitterly. That was when I realised why he seemed familiar. If I weren’t so messed up at that moment, I would definitely connect the dots earlier - he and Emmie looked much alike. They had the same dark brown, almost black eyes, thick, raven black hair, and tanned skin. “My daughter caused you so much trouble. I apologise.”
I simply nodded, feeling relieved that Emmie had been spared from all this shit.
Bennett stood up with me still in his arms. I immediately rushed to get on my own two feet, embarrassed. He didn’t protest, but I could feel he was a tad more reluctant than he should have.
Or I was imagining.
“I’ll take Gemma home. See you in a bit,” Bennett bid the men farewell, and we left towards the parking lot.
I led the way while Emmie’s cousin was a breath behind me. Begrudgingly, I had to admit I enjoyed Bennett’s company. His calm presence soothed me and my jumbled nerves. It made all the things a bit more bearable, as strange as it sounded to my ears. But I wasn’t going to complain. I needed what I could get not to drive myself insane. So I simply closed my eyes and basketed in the feeling.
It was so fucked up.
After a short while, we ended up in his black Cherokee. I was still trembling when I fastened the seatbelt, and once the car hit the road, cold dread started to pool in the pit of my stomach. I fisted my hands on my tights.
Bennett gave me a side glance.
“What’s wrong? Despite the obvious...?” He asked, surprising me.
When and how did he start paying so much attention to me, I wasn’t sure. Nor was I sure if I liked it.
I let a long breath out.
“I don’t want to go home...” I said after a pause. “My dad’s at work, and my mum’s away for a trip, which means I would be alone... And I reaaally don’t want to be alone right now,” I admitted pathetically, feeling angry for myself for being such a wuss. But I couldn’t help it. If I were alone, nothing would distract me from going back to the ravine and visualising the whole midday over and over again.
Bennett’s eyes bore into me, swapping from cyan blue to ice-blue back to cyan blue again. There were so many emotions swirling in them, yet, I could only name one.
“I swear, I’m gonna kill Emmie...” He mumbled to himself as he squeezed the wheel with so much force, his knuckles turned white. With a practiced move, he turned the car around. “It’s decided then. We’re going to my place. You can hang in there however much you need.”
I shouldn’t have agreed.
But I only learnt it afterwards.