“I can feel you, but I can’t touch you,” I whispered, extending an open hand to the empty space in front of me. “Where are you? Who are you?”
“Right here, my love,” came a whispered reply.
It had been my voice that had awoken me to the scent of pine trees spanning as far as I could see, which wasn’t more than a few feet with a sky lacking moon or stars or any explanation for the bluish-gray hue of night lit without them. Only moments before, I was certain someone was standing beside me. The sensation of fine hairs rising on my neck traveled the length of my arm in response.
At first glance, the space around me appeared gloomy, as if I’d been caught in a shroud of soupy, black fog. I rubbed the blurriness that plagued my pupils while considering if I’d been drugged and dumped in a forest. That notion seemed as ridiculous as the reality that faced me now, but it was the only plausible explanation for how I’d gotten here. The last memory I had was the high-pitched beeping sound of an alarm and heaviness in my body just before falling into a well of darkness. I stood alone in the emptiness of the forest for another moment before starting off with no particular direction in mind.
“This is madness,” I said to myself.
After hiking for what felt like an hour, I gave up trying to recall just how I’d arrived. My latest struggle was trying to keep from screaming out in fear. My heart echoed the call as it began to race at the thought of never finding a way out of this obstacle of gray and green.
Stuff it, Sara.
I’d learned long ago the best way to escape a difficult situation was to think one’s way out. Giving in to the easy wave of panic that threatened to crash over my senses was a sure death sentence. My foot caught at a tree root that had risen above the dirt path and twisted slightly. I fell hard, landing on my hip and forearm. A curse slipped from my lips. I needed to find higher ground. From there I might find city lights or a campsite to suggest some direction to go. I’d settle for any sign of life right now. I rubbed my ankle and pushed myself up.
One lousy survival class was all I had under my belt, pressed upon me as a New Year’s resolution by a friend who insisted on having a partner. “Maybe it’ll come in handy if you ever try camping,” she’d joked. I never thought I’d actually have to use it.
A drop of cold sweat rushed down my back, sending another chill through me, as though an icy fingertip teased along my spine.
My memory seemed intact. I began ticking off each one from a mental checklist. My name is Sara Forrester. I’m thirty— no, thirty-one, just last week. I’m a psychiatrist with a successful practice. And I have zero interest in committing to that kiss-ass Tyler Mason no matter how close or how wealthy our families are. He was nothing more to me than a family friend who lately had been pressing for more of my time and attention.
What was my last memory before the alarm bells? I shook my head as a vague thought attempted to push through. I was supposed to attend the benefit for the Forrester Foundation with Tyler. Did I go? I couldn’t remember. Just the way I couldn’t remember how I’d arrived in a damn forest. Could Tyler have had anything to do with me landing here? Not likely. He wasn’t capable of doing harm to me. I was sure of it. It wasn’t because he cared enough, though he pretended a good game. There was too much financially for him to lose. But at least there was a chance he would pull a search party together. Maybe.
I pressed on, forging through soft ferns, over boulders, and past a thicket of constant trees, while a nagging feeling that I wasn’t alone picked at my conscience. It’s nothing. But I could sense the presence of someone lurking in the shadows. My eyes argued against the sensation, not finding a shred of evidence to prove it. I could panic but I wouldn’t. I was a survivor, having come through a lot worse than this and at a much younger age. A whisper of white fog brushed between the trees immediately in front of me. I whirled around, following it with my eyes. It returned this time, slowing its pace. I held my breath as my heart began to pound heavier, until it was the only sound I could hear. In the transparency, the image of a face transformed in the mist, taking in my appearance much as I was of it, until the entire ghostly figure flitted away. That was the confirmation my eyes needed to prove I wasn’t alone.
“What the hell is this place?”
The sensation of watchful eyes from somewhere in the darkness remained. But this time the hairs had not risen on my arms with the fleeting image.
I despised a coward and suddenly remembered I had nothing to fight with, save whatever jiu jitsu I could remember.
“Why won’t you face me?”
I was losing it, shouting to nothing in the depth of darkness to rid a feeling. If I was meant to die, better to get on with it. As if in answer, a piercing pain shot through my head and I closed my eyes, pressing my palms to my temples.
Behind my eyelids, I saw the image of a group of five, maybe six people with swords, battling fiercely against a cloud of black that swept in multiple directions. I couldn’t make out the faces before the scene began to fade. Another immobilizing pain ripped through my head and sent me to my knees. This time the world spun around me and my stomach began to dance into nausea. I swallowed it back, as the hairs rose up my arms and neck. I opened my eyes and was startled to see the figure of a man squatting beside me.
“Jesus!” I gasped, extending an arm behind me to prevent falling backward. “What the…? Who the hell are you?” The pain subsided, and I stared, frozen with fear.
Few features were visible in the dim light. His wavy chestnut hair hung at his shoulders. But it was his eyes that held my gaze. They were blindingly white, like the headlights of an oncoming car at night, leaving me unable to read anything in them.
“I don’t want to frighten you,” he said, extending a hand slowly toward me as if approaching a scared animal.
I was, I supposed, as frightened as I’d ever been. Fear kept me immobile, while a little voice in my head screamed, Move! I let out a small breath I realized I’d been holding in one gasp. He smiled past closed lips.
“Will you take my hand?”
“No.” My voice was almost a whisper. “Who are you? What do you want?” I began inching backward ever so slowly, as the signals from my brain strained to reach my muscles.
“Does this help?” He brought a hand over his face for an instant, and when he removed it, the blinding white in the irises of his eyes had been replaced with a beautiful shade of cobalt blue. I stopped my backward retreat and rested on my bum. The only slight distance between us was that of my knees pulled up to my chest.
“I won’t hurt you. Please, take my hand.”
I cast a cautious eye at him and his open palm. If I was going to die, it was either alone in a forest or quickly by the hand of someone else. I made my choice for the latter, turned my head, and closed my eyes.
His gentle grasp enclosed my hand and he didn’t move. “Sara,” he said, waiting for me to look at him. “I know you’re scared. I can feel it. There’s no need to fear me.”
I breathed in an ounce of strength and turned to face him. “I don’t know how you know my name or how you got here. Hell, I don’t even know how I got here. And I definitely don’t want to be talking to people I don’t know, unless they can tell me how to get home. Can you do that?”
“You’re not going to die here.” He paused, stroking a thumb over the tops of my fingers, unsettling me further. I tried to pull my hand free, only to find his grip tighten slightly in a squeeze before releasing it. He stood, as I pushed myself up, brushing remnants of dead leaves and a few pine needles from the knees of my pants.
“It’s surprising that not a single recollection of who you really are has returned since you arrived,” he said, eyes fixed upon me. He folded his arms and leaned against a nearby tree. “And I suppose if you don’t know who you are, you wouldn’t remember me, either,” he said, more to himself than to me. His eyes narrowed, and his head tilted slightly, as though I was a puzzle he was trying to figure out. “I find it fascinating.”
The fear he was going to kill me disappeared like a fallen leaf in the wind. “Oh, I know who I am. And you’re right, I don’t remember you because we’ve never met.”
He laughed lightly. “We have a long way to go.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“Not yet but soon.”
Before I could argue, he took steps to meet me, standing a few inches taller than my own five foot ten. “I’d like to put at ease all of your worries and provide answers to your questions, but I cannot. Not yet.”
“And why not?”
His eyes softened with a look of understanding but remained fixed in a penetrating stare. “We must adhere to a sequence of events previously planned by the Alliance. You do remember the Alliance?”
I shook my head. “What are you talking about? What Alliance? Who are you, anyway?” I began to wonder if I was hallucinating. His index finger traced my jawline, causing me to stiffen.
“Never mind. You’ll remember.” He paused. “You’re a skilled fighter, Sara.”
He turned, took a few steps, and stopped, glancing over his shoulder. “And you are in your right mind. Perhaps open it a bit wider to other possibilities.” And with that, he proceeded in the opposite direction, disappearing behind the trees.
I glanced around, turning in a full circle. “Are you kidding me?” I asked up to the sky. I finally find someone who might have the answer to getting out of here but doesn’t even tell me his name, and then he’s gone. Frustration rose to the surface as my eyes began to fill with tears, but I forced them away, faced with the need to focus. My life depended on it. No time for fear.
Okay. Just think for a moment.
I surveyed my surroundings. The tall clusters of pine and maples seemed familiar enough. Still, I was fairly certain I wasn’t anyplace I had ever been. The strange visitor and apparition had already convinced me of that fact. The fear of being lost and facing possible demise rose to the surface, refusing to be ignored and threatening to make me fall over the teetering edge of sanity. There was enough light to see several feet ahead and behind me, outlining a path. Judging by the fading shades of darkness in the sky, I guessed the time to be somewhere around nine p.m. But who really knew? I continued pushing through the brush, climbing higher over the enormous rocks as though they were a rigid team of defensive linemen intending to hold me back.
The incline was growing steeper. By the way my muscles were straining, I had to be edging toward the summit. It was unusual that my breathing did not change from the exertion, nor did I feel any fatigue from the higher altitude. I was certainly no hiking expert but worked out enough to know that trekking across a mountainside was no easy task. Instead, I moved with little effort, feeling almost weightless.
Every detail of the environment began to sharpen, as did my awareness of the complete stillness that settled around me. I couldn’t hear anything now but the crunch of my own footsteps over the dead foliage covering the rocky floor, until I stopped to listen. There was no breeze that should have been present at this altitude. Silence echoed in my ears. As if to fill the void, a faint ringing crept into the space. I sat down, sinking my head into my hands as tears began to well. I was as alone as I’d ever been or ever imagined anyone could be.
Don’t lose it. Just hang on. If there’s a way in, there’s got to be a way out. The tears dropped one by one down my cheeks, dampening my shirt in dotted patches. I pulled my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around them, brushing the wetness from my cheeks.
“I’ve got to clear my mind,” I whispered. “There must be a rational explanation.”
It was possible I was in the Adirondack Forest, a six-million-acre parcel of forest, wetlands, and streams that included areas of human settlement. I was bound to find a trail leading to civilization eventually.
“Even if you were in that forest, why is there no moon, no familiar nighttime sounds?” I asked aloud. “Why am I dressed in this unfamiliar clothing?” I glanced behind me. “And men with pure white eyes don’t come out of nowhere and talk to you.” I sat for several minutes, staring into the darkness, wondering if the man was indeed a figment of my imagination. The fresh scent of pine needles and musty dead leaves rose up through my senses, reminding me how real this environment appeared.
All I wanted was to leave, to go back to my comfy home on the outskirts of New York City and to what was familiar, not to be captive. With that thought, I shifted abruptly to my feet. A crunching sound. Footsteps? Not mine. The fact that I saw no one didn’t stop me from quickening my pace in the opposite direction of the sound.
The feeling of being watched had returned. Had it ever left? Was I being tracked? I shot glances on either side of me. No one. Still, the footsteps could be heard, urging me to move faster.
I shot a glance upward. Twinkling lights? Why hadn’t I seen them before? Was that a small house? In the trees? I continued my race forward, my feet grateful for the less rocky and root-filled terrain. The pounding of my heart and sweat-soaked shirt the only proof I was running for my life. But from what? Why?
I risked slowing my pace, as the trees began to thin, welcoming a deep breath at neither hearing nor seeing any sign of the owner of the footsteps.
To my surprise, lit cottages were sprinkled about. Tiny tree houses with roofs covered in moss. A small sense of relief came and went. Was this find good or bad? My heart skipped a beat, uncertain if it should gear up for fight or flight.Return to Book Page
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