She felt as if she’d been running all of her life.
Melanie stared through the windscreen at a long stretch of empty road lit up by the puddle of her headlights. Here, high up in the forested hills, she didn’t expect to see many other drivers anyway, especially at this time of night. Stark patterns of trees that lined both sides of the road lit up as she passed by.
Above the tree line, a moonless backdrop of stars brought back memories of when she’d last travelled this road. Happier times, not long after they’d first met. He was such a sweetheart then, she was naïve, so trusting, her heart easily won.
He drove the old pick-up Ford that he used for work and they made life plans, laughed and swapped jokes, and shared a bottle of strawberry wine. Were there any signs even then of how it would all turn out? She wasn't sure.
She sighed and reached for the radio. Her hand hovered above the dial for a few moments and she snatched it back. She wasn't much in the mood for music, preferring instead the restless rush and rumble of the road beneath her wheels – an uneasy rhythm that matched the flow of her thoughts more closely than any kind of music would have done.
The abuse began almost as soon as they were married. He changed on that day, seemed to lose his way in life, lost his job over some drunken argument. After that they survived in mobile home squalor – her bringing in a small amount of money as a part-time waitress – him lounging about half dressed all day either drinking at home or at local bars.
Then the petty fights started – over money, her smoking, his drinking, her family not doing enough to help, his family doing even less. Christ, it even got to the point where she dreaded her shift coming to an end and having to return home.
She shook her head. How long did she put up with it? How long had she allowed her life to become a daily cycle of misery? She felt the familiar rise of self-pity, the beginnings of a dangerous downward spiral that threatened to plunge her back down into a deep well of depression.
She fought the feeling, her hand instinctively fishing for the bottle of diazepam in her handbag, which lay open on the passenger seat. Giving a fierce shake of the head she pushed the drugs aside and, instead, pulled out a packet of fags. With practiced movements she took out a ciggie and placed it between her lips. Then she pushed in the lighter on the dashboard and chewed impatiently on the cigarette filter until the lighter clicked out again. She lit the thing and took a deep drag to calm her down, the tip glowing as she inhaled.
She let out a long controlled stream of smoke. That helped. She tried to take her mind off things, tried to concentrate on the road.
The first time he hit her . . .
She blinked away the tears.
. . . was an open handed slap that came from nowhere. The shock of it was worse than the pain. She’d sworn blind that she was going to walk out and leave him.
But they were both drunk that night, he’d fallen apart in tearful regret, they made it up in the bedroom and, by the morning, she’d forgiven him.
She shook her head, what a complete joke that was. After that it all became a routine – his drunken aggression, the make-up sex, her forgiving him – it was a pattern that she endured and he seemed to enjoy. She wore sunglasses to hide her black eyes, made up stories to explain the bruises on her arms.
His drinking increased, his violence became worse until, one night, he stopped using his fist and started laying into her with a lamp-stand.
She woke up in hospital, with stitches in her head and a husband who, on one hand was begging her forgiveness, and on the other, threatening to kill her should she get the police involved.
That scared her – really scared her.
But that was last week. Earlier today, she was scheduled to leave the hospital, and she’d made damned sure that she checked out an hour before he was due to come pick her up. She’d left by a side door where a pre-booked hire car sat waiting for her.
Originally, she’d played with the idea of dashing back to the caravan for her stuff, then changed her mind. Even the thought of meeting up with that insanity case twisted her guts with fear.
So she’d driven away with just her handbag (filled with tissues, cigarettes, diazepam and some loose change) and the clothes she’d checked in with.
As she’d sped away from the hospital she knew she only had one destination left open to her, and she took it. She was going home – not the caravan that felt more like a prison, but her parent’s house, the place where she was brought up.
She’d stopped visiting two years ago, a fight over her choice of husband finished their relationship (they knew what she was getting into, even if she didn’t) and they’d not even spoken since. For her father that chance was now lost forever. He died of a heart attack last year – no one saw it coming, here one day gone the next. The family had tried to find her to let her know, but she was off the radar and never found out until she contacted her sister, by then it was all too late.
She gripped the steering wheel in self-loathing until her knuckles cracked. Christ, she never even found a chance to send flowers. But, she intended to make it up to . . .
Suddenly, a ball of light shot out of the trees and across the road.
She pressed hard on the brake and screeched to a stop.
What the hell was that?
She stared at the place where she thought the light had entered the trees, her heart skipping along in her chest. She couldn't see anything so she switched off the headlights. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust but, though see could make out the pale tree trunks next to the road, beyond that there was nothing but darkness.
She wound down the window, the air outside had a cool chill and smelt fresh – it always did up here. She looked and listened but still couldn't see a thing. The only sound she could hear was the soft purring of the engine.
Winding the window back up she sat in the car and realized she was trembling; the unexpected shock of the event had unnerved her. Her cigarette was still glowing in the ash tray and she took another deep drag on it to tray and calm down, the glow of the tip reflecting in the windscreen.
A movement outside, imagined rather than seen, made her sit up. She put the cigarette back down and waved away the smoke for a better look. Was something moving around out there – she couldn’t tell. She went to turn the headlights back on . . .
And leapt off her seat as another ball of light flashed right across the top of the car, the light raced away through the forest weaving around trees as it went. She slammed back into her seat gasping for breath and gripping the steering wheel for dear life, her heart hammering like a demented snare drum.
She fought to control both her breathing and her thinking. As an adult she rarely ever visited the forest, but as a kid, her father used to take her out on hikes and, apart from fireflies she was pretty sure there was no night flying birds or insects that looked like that.
So what was it then? She went through some possibilities: ball lightening (she’d read something about that). The cloudy patch of starry sky put paid to that idea. She also remembered reading something about aliens and balls of light, or was that something she’d once seen on TV?
She felt a chill creep across her skin. Aliens? Was it possible she’d just had ‘first contact’ or something?
Whatever it was, one thing was certain – it was time to get the hell out of there. Her hand hovered over the headlight switch. She chewed her lip and stared into the forest trying to find a place where that flare had gone. There, deep in the dark, a dim glow of light began to pulsate through the trees.
Her hand slowly pulled back and she continued to watch, her thoughts racing. Whatever was out there didn't look to far away. She turned her attention to the rear view mirror hoping to see another car, someone else to share this with. Nothing. The road was empty for miles. She looked ahead, nothing coming the other way either. Turning her attention back to the light in the forest she thought she saw a flicker of movement.
A sense of excitement and curiosity began to creep in and push the fear away into a corner. Surely, she wasn't planning to just drive away from the chance of a lifetime? She weighed up the risk. At her best guess the nearest town was still an hour’s drive away. By the time she’d told anyone and got back here this thing could be long gone. She stared at the light a little longer then made a decision – Christ, it wasn’t as if she couldn't use a little excitement in her life. She’d creep in just enough to take a look then creep back out again.
Acting much braver than she felt, she fished round in the glove compartment and found a small torch. She turned off the ignition and, keeping as quiet as possible, eased open the car door and stepped out into a night that was strangely still and quiet.
She switched on the torch and the dimmest of yellow light pooled onto the road at her feet. Cursing the flat batteries, she gave the thing a shake, the light improved and she walked to the line of trees. She hadn’t taken more than a few steps into the forest before the torch flickered a few times then gave out altogether.
Disgusted, she flung the thing into the undergrowth, grimacing at the crash it made as it hit the ground. She froze and stared at the arc of light that, now she was within tree cover, seemed to light up a lot more than she’d expected. In fact, it was just enough for her to leave the torch and pick her way towards it.
She crept forward trying to make as little noise as possible, all the while reassuring herself that this wasn't crazy, though she failed to convince herself that it wasn't downright stupid – and dangerous. But, deep inside, she just knew that if she drove away right now, she would spend the rest of her days wondering what the hell this was.
Melanie was the first to admit being a natural born coward but she also had a powerful curiosity and hey, it never did any cats any harm did it? That didn’t mean she wasn’t scared though but there was plenty of cover from shrubs and she carefully crept from one to the other.
At first, all she could hear was the low rustle of leaves beneath her feet but, after a while, she started to pick out the faint strains of, what sounded like flutes or a harp or something.
The music, for that was what it was, became steadily louder as she got closer until eventually, she came to a dense thicket of scrub, taller and thicker than the rest. The strength of light and music told her that the thing she’d come looking for was just on the other side.
Well, she’d come this far. The lattice of leaves and branches offered excellent cover but was too thick (and noisy) to push through. Crouching down on all fours she crawled beneath the lowest branches until she was able to ease apart the final layer of leaves and peer through.
She looked in on a large forest clearing. In the centre of this, not more than twenty paces from her, was a group of about thirty of the strangest beings she’d ever seen. They stood only as tall as her waist and wore dresses of fine gossamer. Their tresses of long golden hair flowed round them as if a strong wind blew across the clearing even though the night was still.
With a shock of recognition she immediately knew what they were – the graceful butterfly wings sprouting from their backs was a dead give away.
The fairies danced round the clearing looking like a storybook illustration that had sprung to life. Each glowed bright honey, but within the glow were pastel colours of pink and blue and green. None of them were playing instruments and the music seemed to emanate from the very air around them.
It took her a moment to realize that the fairies were, in fact, dancing round a large moss covered rock lying flat and embedded in the forest floor. Then she noticed a line of standing stones at the far end of the clearing – three tall sentinels that seemed to be silently watching the fairies as they danced.
All of a sudden the music stopped. It was as if someone had just flicked a switch. The fairies stood frozen in various postures of dance, all faces turned towards the standing stones. Then, with a flurry of movement, they all ran together to chatter amongst themselves in hushed excited tones. The huddle of fairies separated and two of them grabbed the arms of another and led her over to the flat rock where they lay her down. One of them fanned out the fairies long golden hair while the other positioned the legs so they hung over the edge. Once done, they ran back to join the others where they stood and stared out towards the forest.
The silence hanging over the clearing settled into a hush of expectation.
A flicker of movement caught Melanie’s eye and a creature stepped out of the forest into the clearing – a curly headed man with a pair of small horns sticking out of his head. He was naked to the waist with a body sculpted from solid muscle. She stared at the lower half of the thing in disbelief. From the waist down he was covered in dense curly wool and had cloven feet. In between his legs hung a stunning set of *, both covered in the same curly hair. Another of the creatures stepped out behind him.
The fairies gave a cry of delight, and one of them ran over to the fairy laid out on the rock and pulled her dress up over her waist, beneath which she was naked The fairy ran back to join the others. With a kick in the stomach, Melanie could guess what was going to happen next.
The male tipped his head to one side and studied the scene; he turned back to his companion and said something in a deep growl that made them both laugh. Turning back he stepped forward. The fairies pulled back, though they seemed more in awe than afraid. The male walked up to the fairy laid out on the rock. She grabbed her long thin legs beneath the knees and pulled them right back. The male, the God Pan, or whatever he was, stared down at her offering. He breathed deeply and tipped back his head. He said something to the other fairies and they answered him like the tinkling of so many bells.
The male nodded * censored*.
Melanie felt like an intruder, like some dirty voyeur who shouldn't have been there. But the intensity of the scene kept her rooted her to the spot, chewing her lip, empathic to the sensations that the fairy must be feeling. *censored*
The fairies watching all sighed in unison. Melanie, realizing she’d hardly been breathing, did the same.
Suddenly every face in the clearing swung in her direction. Eyes golden and dark piercing the very spot where she was hidden.
Christ! They've heard me. Breathless with panic she tried to back up through the scrub. The twigs caught in her clothes and hair, snagging and tugging as if the vegetation had suddenly grown tiny hands.
She fought with it, snapping twigs and slapping leaves out of her face. Managing to pivot round, she crawled forwards to the edge of the thicket, all the time fighting the undergrowth as it tried to stop her. With a final wrench she tore herself away and stood up.
She started to run, but her eyes were not yet adjusted to the dark and she took two steps before tripping over a tree root. Shouting, close and just behind, got her quickly back to her feet. She stumbled as fast as she could through the darkness, her outstretched hands feeling out the trunks of trees and branches. It all seemed too close together and, for a horrible moment, she thought she was in a different forest.
A ball of yellow light shot up to one side of her, then another. They gave enough light to see a way through and she started to run. The balls of light flashed round in front of her – the fairy inside clearly visible within the honey glow.
A noise from behind caused her to turn round. There just a short way behind came one of the goat-footed men.
She spun back and dodged round the fairies. Another shout this time much closer caused her to tense mid-stride. Moments later a hand of iron grabbed her shoulder and shoved her to the ground. She fell with a thump hard enough to knock the breath from her lungs.
She flipped over and stared up into the face of the horned man. Up close, he presented a terrifying sight, his brow was deeply furrowed and his eyes shone red with rage. He shouted at her in a language she’d never heard before.
“Look, I'm sorry,” Melanie started. “I didn't mean to —”
He stopped her flow with a single shouted word. All around them glowing balls of light, each containing a female fairy, gathered round them until it seemed as if the entire forest was filled with Chinese lanterns.
Melanie looked form them back to the male. He held out a palm then cupped it. From somewhere above them golden smoke began to flow down in to his cupped palm until the entire hand was glowing with a golden light. Above this the eyes of the man flickered as if fires burnt deep within them.
He shouted something else, and then pulling back his arm flung the handful of smoke into her face.