“I have to sit down for a bit,” I said to Aric and Xavier, after walking for a few minutes. My feet were sore and my legs were getting very shaky. “I have no idea how long we’ve been walking but if I don’t get to sit down this minute, I’m gonna fall over,” I said.
Aric came to a stop but moved a step backward, causing him to stumble on Xavier. “Look,” Aric choked and pointed to his right. I looked up and my mouth dropped open. I blinked once then twice, but I still couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Xavier cleared his throat and whispered, “A cottage and in the middle of a forest.”
“You did say that there are three cottages. That’s probably one of them,” I said with a trembling voice. Aric nodded while Xavier kept staring at the little wooden house.
Aric walked towards the cottage. “Wait! Where are you going?” I asked with a shaky voice. Instead of answering me, Aric kept walking until he was close to the cottage’s door. He raised his hand in a gesture to knock when a sudden cry broke the silence.
I gasped out loud and felt Xavier tense beside me. Aric backed away from the door and turned towards us. His eyes were wide with horror, and he shuddered as the cry continued. “Do you think it’s the baby?” he asked hoarsely.
I tried to form a response when the cottage door began to squeak, slowly opening. Aric, who was closer to the door, turned towards it slowly, with his fists clenched tightly.
Xavier put his hand on my shoulder. “Stay here. Let Aric and me handle this.” I nodded as I couldn’t find my voice to reply to him. Xavier walked passed Aric and stood straight in front of the door. He leaned in slowly and asked, “Is anyone there?” but there was no response.
Xavier touched the door, and it opened more widely. It was dark inside, and it looked abandoned. “Are you guys sure this is a good idea?” I asked, but my voice was barely audible. Aric moved pass Xavier and went into the cottage. I moved forward and stopped beside Xavier, who seemed to be frozen in place. I peeked inside and saw Aric inspecting the room.
“We need some light,” said Aric from the room.
“I have a lighter. Maybe we could pick up some broken branches and make a fire,” responded Xavier. Aric nodded his approval, and the two men began to scour the area surrounding the cottage for broken sticks and branches.
At first, I stayed rooted to the spot, but then decided to take a look inside the cottage. I couldn’t see much because of the darkness, but I did make out a fireplace to the left of the door in the corner. There was also a worn-out sofa in front of the fireplace.
“I think we have enough,” Aric said from behind me. I turned around quickly to see Xavier and Aric coming towards me with armfuls of dried branches and leaves. They came inside and went to the fireplace. After placing the branches and leaves in it, Xavier took his lighter out and lighted them. Soon enough the cottage was illuminated. The light casted shadows that made the cottage look scarier, but at least I could see the inside of the cottage more clearly. The old sofa was covered in dust. The shelves next to the fireplace looked burnt. There were some landscapes pictures hanging crookedly on the wall, covered with layers of dust. The floor was covered with dirt and leaves, and the tiles were broken.
I peered into the kitchen. The cabinets were old, the sink rusty, and the paint on the walls was peeling. There was a small round table and two chairs in the middle of the kitchen, also covered with dust and dirt. The cottage really was an abandoned home. It looked like no one had lived here for a very long time.
To my left was a closed door. I pushed it open to see a bedroom. The bed and the dresser looked old, same as the other furniture.
I jumped when Aric came over behind me to peer into the bedroom.
“Maybe we could clean the bed and sleep on it for tonight. I think all three of us would fit,” he said, sounding very tired.
Aric removed his jacket and used it to swipe the dust from the bed.
“Ah, there’s a bedroom,” said Xavier from the door, the same weary look on his face.
After cleaning the bed, Aric laid his jacket on the bare mattress and sat down on the bed. “Did you close the cottage door?” he asked Xavier while removing his shoes. Xavier nodded as he moved into the room. I sat beside Aric on the bed and removed my shoes. I dropped them on the floor, and tucked my feet under me before laying my head on Aric’s shoulder. I released a shaky breath that I had been holding for a long time and felt all my muscles relax. Closing my eyes, I surrendered to my fatigue.
A faint sound woke me from my deep sleep. I tried to move my neck, but it was stiff from my awkward sleeping position. I was stuck in between Aric and Xavier on the small bed. My head was tucked under Aric’s arm, and his right hand was over my head while Xavier’s legs were thrown over my hips. I would have laughed at our position if I hadn’t heard the sound that had woken me up. I tried to move my head so I could hear better, but Aric’s arm blocked me. I turned and shook Aric awake. His eyes flew open, and he blinked once, twice and then yawned. I shook him again, and he became instantly awake. He sat up straight and turned his head left and right.
“What? What is it?” he asked. He jumped off the bed and looked around the bedroom like he was expecting someone to jump and point a gun at us.
Xavier shifted beside me, and I heard him mumble something. I leaned in close and heard him whisper a faint “What’s happening?”
“I think I heard a noise.”
Xavier sat up beside me and rubbed his eyes. “What did you hear?” he asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“I’ll go check,” said Aric.
Xavier got out of bed and put his shoes on. “I’ll go with you.”
“No, you stay here with Alexia and close the door after I go out.”
Xavier nodded his agreement and did as he was told. After Aric left, Xavier came and sat down beside me. His arms came around me, and he rubbed my back soothingly. “As soon as the sun rises, we’ll leave,” he assured me.
“Mom is going to be worried.”
“Yes, but she knows you’re safe with Aric and me.”
“I just want to go home where it’s safe. This place is not safe. I told you it was dangerous. You thought I was paranoid.”
“I didn’t think you were paranoid. These things don’t always happen,” he argued.
“Can you explain what we saw last night? That monster?” I asked, my voice brittle.
Xavier looked unsure. “I don’t have an answer for that, Alexia. I’m as confused as you. It felt like a terrible nightmare, but I wake up and now I’m here in this cottage. I realize it’s not a nightmare.”
“I want to go home, Xavier. I really want to just forget this.”
“We’ll get there. I promise,” Xavier said with a hint of determination, his earlier fright forgotten.
I tried to move so I could see his face better when I heard a sound coming from the other side of the closed door. Xavier pried himself away and stood in front of me to shield me from whatever there was in the other room. The door opened and I saw with relief that it was Aric’s shadow. He came inside and closed the door behind him. He leaned against it and released a shaky breath.
“It’s safe. There was no one out there.”
Xavier visibly relaxed in front of me. I stood up and went over to Aric. I threw my arms around him and hugged him tightly.
“Can we go home?” I whispered in his ears. I was scared and tired of trying to be strong. I was also cold and frustrated. Although I didn’t know why I was frustrated. Aric rubbed his hands up and down my arms to warm me up.
“Maybe we should start heading ho —,” Aric’s stopped when we all heard a strange sound. It sounded like a voice. Xavier held his finger to his lips, and I held my breath.
I was trying to calm my breathing and beating heart to be able to hear the sound again. Then I heard Xavier suck in a deep breath.
“Did you hear that?” Aric asked.
“Yes,” Xavier whispered.
We’d all heard the voice, and to me, it seemed to say: “Go away before he finds you. If he does, you won’t be able to escape.” I took Aric’s hand and pulled him to the front door, where we both began to run.
“Alexia, wait! Xavier is still inside.” That totally stopped me in my tracks.
“Oh shit. No!”
We turned around and I was torn between running back to the cottage or running in the other direction. Both Aric and I breathed a sign of relief when we saw Xavier leaving the cottage. He ran up to us and bent his knees to catch his breath.
“Let’s go. We have to get back to town — fast.”
We decided to walk faster instead of running. It was still dark and running would get us into more trouble. I really didn’t want to trip and fall on that rough ground. We walked for what seemed like hours until the sun was rising. I looked at the sky and saw with deep pleasure the pale yellow of the sun mixed with the blue of the sky. It was so beautiful to finally see the daylight.
The weather was not as cold as it had been the night before, but it was still windy. The wind blew my hair and sent shivers along my arms and legs.
“I think I see something,” Aric said beside me.
“There. Isn’t that the town?” Xavier asked with excitement in his voice.
I let go of Aric’s hand and ran toward my escape. My safe place. A place that I would never leave again. I wanted to get home. Safe in my mom’s arms. She must have been dying of worry. I couldn’t wait to get to her.
When we got back to town, the few people in the streets turned around and looked at us. They were actually gawking at us. Their expressions were stunned. Well, of course they would be surprised. Xavier, Aric and I probably looked like jungle kids. Our clothes were torn and dirty from our scary trip into the forest. We didn’t stop but kept walking towards home. On our front steps sat our mothers, Xavier’s mom sitting beside my mom. Their heads were both cast down, so I couldn’t see their expressions.
Oh god, they must have been worried sick. I ran ahead until I was standing just in front of them. They still didn’t look up and I saw that they were actually both asleep. I knelt down and touched my mother’s shoulder. She opened her eyes and just stared at me. In the depth of her eyes, I could see the disbelief, sorrow, worry and shock. Mrs. Colleway, Xavier’s mom, raised her head too. She looked at me, and her face expression changed from sadness, to surprise then to disbelief.
I looked back at my mother and whispered “Mom.” I could only utter that one word. A big lump was growing in my throat. Tears welled in my eyes and their faces wavered in front of me. I shook my head and looked at them again. This time they were not looking at me. They were looking behind me. Mom opened her mouth to say something but no words came out. This was the very first time that I had seen, mom and Mrs. Colleway completely speechless. They looked at Aric, Xavier and I like we were some figment of their imagination.
I heard steps behind me. Aric and Xavier came and knelt beside me. Aric took Mom’s hand in his and gave it a squeeze. “We’re here,” he said. His voice cracked with emotion. His eyes full of unshed tears. I turned and looked at Xavier. His face was in his mother’s lap and he was whispering. It sounded more like a prayer. A thank-you to God for returning us back home. I felt my mother’s arms wrap around me. She hugged both Aric and me. She was on the ground in front of us. I could feel her body shaking. She looked up and her face was streaked with tears. She didn’t wipe them away. “Oh, my babies,” she whispered and hugged Aric and me again. Mom hugged us so tight that I felt the air squeezed out of my body. I was back home, in my mother’s arms. That was all that mattered.