Running was all that Natalie Tunstall knew. From the moment she could walk she was running. Across the garden, throughout the house and, when the time arrived, on the track. There is a certain thrill, Natalie believed, that came with stretching her legs and pumping her arms, feeling the momentum pulse through her like a bullet travelling in the air. If adrenalin was the hormone released when she crossed the finish line, then Natalie was a self-diagnosed 'adrenalin junkie'.
Sunday mornings meant a back-breaking run that lasted until vision became blurred and headaches transformed into unbearable migraines. Neither of Natalie's parents were religious. So while her opposition were sitting in pews listening to recycled sermons, Natalie was putting in extra miles. Nobody was forcing her to run on her scheduled rest day, but favouring Jefferson's Park over the silk sheets of her queen sized bed was the reason Natalie had made the State Championships for the third time.
Both her parents claimed Natalie's competitive edge was from their own side. The reality, Natalie was the offspring of two of Portland's best doctors. Her father, the best psychiatrist in the State with countless awards under his belt. Her mother, the private hospital's chief surgeon with the lowest mortality rate. Her mother was a God, the ground she walked on was worshipped by hundreds. Natalie was far from book-smart, severe dyslexia had forced her parents to realise that an Olympic medal was the only thing she had going for her. Which was why seventeen year old Natalie Tunstall was running in the thick woodland known as Jefferson's Park at eight AM on a cold November Sunday morning.
The high-tech running watch that was strapped securely to her wrist beeped for the fourth time. 'Four miles,' Natalie thought to herself as she pumped her arms up a steep hill. There was no designated path in Jefferson's, just a strip between some trees slightly more worn than the rest. She always stuck to the path for both her mother's sake and her own. Off path could mean hidden holes and animal crap, neither were something Natalie wanted to end up stuck in.
The frosty morning air and the damp ground caused Natalie's pace to be slightly slower than normal, the cold air and the early start did not result in peak running conditions, but that did not mean that Natalie had any intention of turning back.
An out of character branch snapping caused her to dig her heels into the ground and stop. Nobody walked through Jefferson this early. Turning around Natalie scanned the trees that seemed to be engulfing her. She was still on the trail, but a nagging thought told her that perhaps the trail was not the safest place to be. This park was like Natalie's second home, even if she ended up deep in the forest she would still manage to find her way home.
Brushing the breaking branch off as just an animal, Natalie took off again on her run. Before her watch had the chance to beep a fifth time there was another sound.
It was a sickening sound as it felt so close. Stopping again Natalie's heart rate began to speed up and not because of the exercise. She had always loved the solitude of running, but at that moment all she wished for was a friendly face. The face of her brother Jonny, who would be coming home from college soon for Christmas break.
Jonny was the golden child, he was star of the soccer team, straight A student and was currently attending Harvard Law. He was an arrogant know-it-all, but Natalie knew she could out-run him any day of the week.
There was a sudden second sound, but instead of a twig snapping it was the slight sound of the crunching of frozen leaves. It sounded so similar to a foot, a shoe stepping down and Natalie would have once again assumed it was only an animal of it had not stopped after just one step.
Natalie stood in absolute silence. She did not breath, she did not move, she stood completely still. Her eyes scanned around her and she could not point out any current threats, but the sound, the foot step, had almost certainly come from behind her. She dared not turn around for fear of what she might see. Panic rose and suddenly every nerve in her body was alert. She wasted no more seconds as she took a deep breath and ran.
Natalie ran like she had never ran before, legs sprinting, arms pumping, mind racing. She hopped over branches wasting no time to side-step them. She cut corners and she ran along the trail. There was no way of telling whether the noise she could hear was the pounding of her heartbeat or the sound of heavy foot steps racing behind her. It dawned on Natalie that if someone was following her, then they must have been watching her for some time. What are the odds that a random person would be strolling around Jefferson at eight AM on a Sunday morning. She opted not to dwell much on the thought of some creep spying on her. But figured that they could possibly know the direction she was most likely to run in. So Natalie did something that she had never thought she would do, she veered left and jumped off the trail into the tree line.
Natalie knew the direction which her house was in, she knew where the spare key was hidden, in an old jam jar hidden in her mother's flower bed. But Natalie also knew that nobody was home, and nobody would be home until much later. Her mother was at the hospital and her father was at a conference on the other side of the country. That scared Natalie.
Darting left and right to avoid trees and ducking for an occasional low-hanging branch, Natalie felt as if she had the upper hand. Refusing to slow her pace besides the new terrain, she continued to pump her arms, stretch her legs and attempted to keep her breathing steady, but that was much easier said than done.
But Natalie did not see the small stump that was over drown with Ivy, she was looking straight ahead, planning on making a direct right hand turn soon to bring her back to the direction of home. But her foot hit the stump and there was no way of breaking her fall. Pain shot from her ankle, to her hip, along to her hands before she hit her head off the frozen forest floor. Dazzled for a moment and stunned by the momentum behind her fall, Natalie rolled onto her back and began to sit up. Her hands was recovering quickly and she could not help but place one palm to her forehead. The scarlet colour that painted her pale skin was a shocking contrast. Her ankle was hidden beneath her jogging pants, but already there was a deep red seeping into her socks.
The realisation of why she was running so wildly dawned on her. Natalie looked up but could see nobody, for a moment she thought she was alone but a distant yelling from an unfamiliar voice spiked worry. She turned on her knees and bit her lip at the sharp pain in her hip. But deciding she was too young for a hip replacement she refused to look. Placing her good foot on the ground she regained her standing position but running was no longer an option with her ankle. The voice was joined by a second and was coming closer and closer. Bracing herself on a near by tree Natalie began to make her way right, aiming for her house.
Her ankle dragging behind her caused such excruciating pain, but Natalie bit her lip and did not make a sound. Anything could give away her position, but she had nothing to hide the ruby red trail she was leaving. Like pebbles leading her hunters way to her. Gritting her teeth Natalie soldiered on. She had made it this far, she could go farther. But her injury was like a cookie trail and her hunters could now see their prize.
"Over here!" A deep voice called out.
More than one set of feet were thundering towards a Natalie who was now reduced to crawling away. She dropped to the ground as she heard a pair of lungs breathing heavily right above her. Natalie rolled on her back and looked up, tears in her baby blue eyes. Staring down at here were two tall figures dressed all in black. One had menacing laughing eyes, the other was glaring venomously.
The one with the laughing eyes crouched down so his face was inches from her own. A sneer appeared on his dirty face and Natalie watched as he smirked at his prize.
"You will be perfect," Natalie hardly registered the words the man said to her before a piece of damp tissue was placed over her mouth and nose. Gasping in panic was the wring this to go as her vision instantly became clouded before she fell into a pool of darkness.