‘Hey, is that you?’
She peered hopefully into the darkness, her heartbeat already quickening.
No reply. Something rustled in the undergrowth; a mosquito whined. Disappointed, she shifted her position on the old temple wall and hugged her knees. Not a footstep after all. Just some night creature. Well, he’d warned her he might be late.
Wait for me, though! Wait for me, Jess, and I’ll be there …
She allowed herself a little grin. Of course he’d be here. They were like two magnets. He could find her instantly, in any crowd, any classroom, and he wouldn’t lose her now, even in the dark. She’d scold him lightly for being late, and his laughter would make her heart turn over, just like his beautiful voice.
I love you, Jess. Don’t laugh. I swear it.
No boy could fake it so well. Especially not him. He’d be here.
Frowning, she held up her wrist to the moonlight to peer at her watch. Ten minutes had become twenty. So what? It wouldn’t feel so long in daylight. It wouldn’t feel so long in a crowded noisy bar. Here in the eerie shadows of the ancient temple ruins it was easy to get spooked, that was all.
Slipping down from the wall, she stamped her feet, rubbed her arms. Goosebumps all over them, though she wasn’t cold. Another mosquito buzzed in her ear and she slapped it angrily. Gotcha.
OK, she was starting to get cross now. A bit late didn’t mean he had any right to leave her standing here in the darkness. For thirty minutes now! This was supposed to be a romantic stroll, not a test of her nerves.
Best to let herself get mad at him, though. If she didn’t get mad she could be pretty frightened, alone here in the silent shadows. Or not so silent. Her head snapped round as a dead branch cracked, as leaves rustled. That was one big rat. She shivered.
She’d liked this place in the daylight. The green lushness of jungle, gigantic roots embracing crumbling beautiful walls, warmth and life and mystery. It wasn’t so great in the dark, in the shifting moon shadows that made a monster out of every massive tree, a stalking horror out of every unseen animal.
Time to go. He’d had his chance and all he’d done was make a fool of her. Boy, was she going to give him an earful … She began to walk purposefully, then stopped. Uh-uh, she wasn’t going towards the oversized rat. Shivering, swallowing hard, she took two steps back and turned.
Rustling. Creaking wood. That would be the wind.
There wasn’t any wind.
Another huge rat, then, in front of her. Fine, she was going to have to go past it, but it would run as soon as it heard her coming. It was only a rat, for God’s sake. Or a snake. Or …
Oh, just go, Jess!
She’d taken one more step when she caught the movement. That was no rat, and no snake. It was big – as big as she was. A shape moving swiftly in the hanging tangle of leaf and branch. She stepped back, and back again. It moved. Towards her. There was breathing, soft and confident and human.
‘Is that you?’ she called. ‘Hey! Quit fooling!’
‘I mean it! Quit it!’ She tried to make her voice angry, but it trembled, high-pitched. ‘It’s not funny.’
That sound: it might have been rotten wet leaves, stirring as a creature passed through. Or it might have been laughter, breathy and low. It couldn’t be him. Couldn’t. Anyway, there were two of them. She felt the other approaching from her right, slow, menacing. Once more she tried to shout, but when she opened her mouth all that came out was a gasp of terror.
She turned and broke into a stumbling run. It was so hard, in the darkness, keeping to the tracks. Vines and leaves slapped her face, branches tugged at her, roots snatched at her feet. Was this the path she’d taken to get here?
Path? It wasn’t a path. She’d lost that, and run blindly into the trees. Her heartbeat was thunder in her ears but still she could hear them behind her, or perhaps she could only sense them. They were behind her, alongside her, herding her. What a stupid notion. But they were. Herding her …
She slithered down a low slope, scrambling over a massive root and tucking herself into the space behind. Biting hard on her knuckles, she tried not to cry. OK, she wanted to be back at home now.
Mom, this is crazy. Not real, so you can come in and wake me up now. Dad, go on and laugh at me, tell me I dreamed it. Scoob …
Scooby. She remembered him almost bursting with pride as he waved her off to her thrilling new school: ‘Bye, sis!’
‘Bye, little bother! Oops – little brother!’
Giggling. Waving back.
Was that a sound? She breathed hard. Above her, ancient temple buildings were outlined in silver moonlight. A tree root wrapped round a pillar like the arm of a lover. Like his arm.
Where was he? What happened to him?
Roots, tendrils, branches: they snaked into the ancient walls, choking, hugging, strangling. Something moved in the foliage by her ear and she almost screamed, but clamped a hand over her mouth just in time. This was stupid, she thought again. Crazy. If it wasn’t a dream it had to be a prank. A dumb prank.
Her body didn’t think so. She was drenched in sweat: from the humidity, from running, from terror. A mosquito hummed again, and she slapped her hand against her face, suppressing a shriek. It was only an insect. Something far worse was lurking in the ruins. Hunting …
Don’t panic, she thought. Stay cool. There were thick entangled vines behind her, and the black maw of an ancient door, its wood long rotted away. She backed into the space, kicking frantically until the slimy leaves inside half-covered her, no longer afraid of rats or snakes or even spiders. Nothing scared her any more.