It was dark but for the stars twinkling above. Crouched behind a tree, her muscles were tight and she was ready to run. She clenched her teeth to stop them from rattling through cold and fear, and looked all around to see if he had found her. Her heavy breathing rumbled through the silence and buried the rustling leaves under a blanket of sound.
Crack. A twig snapped in the near distance.
She whipped her head around, her eyes wide as a deer’s, and gasped gently. She couldn’t see him, but she could sense him, she knew he was close.
“It’s time to go,” a voice screamed in her head. “NOW!”
She sprang up and dashed through the trees, her feet pounding through the mud.
Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud.
She looked over her shoulder and caught a glimpse of him, his angry eyes, his wild hair, his mouth open and ready to roar.
“Don’t think you can run from me forever!” His booming voice shook the forest and she whimpered.
“Don’t look back,” the voice in her head whispered. “Just keep running. You’ll be safe soon, you just need to keep going.” The voice urged her on, pushing her harder and faster than ever before.
As the wet branches and leaves scraped across her face, her tear-stained cheeks began to sting. She inhaled sharply. It felt like she had been running forever, that he had been chasing her since the dawn of time, but in reality, it had been minutes, maybe even seconds.
The cold air tore at her throat as she heaved for breath. Gasp.
“Keep going,” the voice said. “I know it’s hard, but keep going.” It was the voice of her saviour, the guardian angel who followed her, helped her, was with her every step of the way. “You need to turn left now, down through the trees and you’ll come to a river.”
“I can see you,” he bellowed with anger and rage. “You’ll never get away from me!”
She sobbed as she turned sharply left and slid down the blanket of wet leaves that covered the incline. This wasn’t her first job, but it was the first one that had gone wrong. She knew she had made a mistake as soon as she saw his face – she’d never get away with this one and the replica handgun she had would be of no use. She was only stealing because she had to in order to survive. She didn’t mean to hurt anyone and she certainly didn’t want to get hurt herself but now, getting away unscathed seemed unlikely.
“He’s almost on you, you’ve got to hurry up if you’ve got any chance of getting away!” That voice again. She didn’t know who it was, or where it came from, but she didn’t have time to question it. She was just thankful that it was there, an unknown friend at her side.
She saw the river in the distance and risked a glance over her shoulder. He was closer than she thought, but she still had a chance. She felt a surge of energy as the voice silently willed her on. The voice didn’t want to see her fail, the voice that knew she had done wrong but didn’t care, that voice that never left her.
With renewed vigour, she ignored the burning pain in her chest and the snivelling cries that came involuntarily out of her mouth, and on she ran. The river was close now.
The noise of the rushing water filled her being. She couldn’t hear him anymore, she couldn’t hear her breathing, she couldn’t hear the voice. All she could hear was the water, and the call of safety on the side. The cool spray from the river hit her face and she almost smiled. Almost, but she wasn’t safe just yet. She loped down the bank but yelped as she caught her foot on a gnarled and tangled weed. Terror took over her body as she slipped and fell down the riparian –
“The rip- what? Riparian? What the bloody hell is that when it’s at home?” the voice cried. The girl landed in the water with a thud and a splash. She shook with shock and cold and fear, and from this new tone the voice had taken.
“Where’s my dictionary?” the voice exclaimed.
She looked up as the river dried around her and found herself, instead of in a forest full of pain and fear, in front of a roaring open fire. She held her breath as she stared at her surroundings and gawped. The warmth of the fire sank into her bones and she let out a little snort of surprise and wonder, her eyebrows somewhere near her hairline.
“Riparian, riparian,” the voice said as it looked in the dictionary. The voice was an elderly lady who sat on a large comfortable chair, surrounded by soft cushions and with her legs curled beneath her. A steaming cup of hot chocolate at her side was swirled with squirty cream. The girl looked on in awe and astonishment.
“Ah, here it is. ‘Riparian: relating to the wetlands adjacent to rivers and streams.’ Ah, okay.” The woman took a sip from her chocolate and licked the cream from her lips. She picked up her book once more and as she found her place again, the girl felt herself being pulled back to the cold and dangerous river bed.
This story is dedicated to Bibiana Krall, who sent me the prompt: ‘riparian’.