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Everything was darkness, pain and fog. Eric drifted through an icy, black void, lost in the crushing depths of a vast, stinging ocean, his thoughts tossed in the strange currents, scattered and broken, grasping at desperate fragments of confused questions churning in the murky waves.
What happened to him? Where was he? Why was he in so much pain?
Slowly, he clawed his way back to consciousness and struggled to open his eyes. He was lying on the cold, damp ground, his face pressed against the bare earth, the smell of dirt, dead leaves and blood filling his nose.
This wasn’t how he usually started his morning. Call him a pessimist, but this felt like it was going to be one of those days.
He tried to move his arms and felt a sharp, jarring pain in his left shoulder that jolted him a little more awake. His eyes fluttered open, but they didn’t want to focus. The world around him was a cloudy blur of mottled shadow and churning light. Again, he felt as if he were deep underwater, peering up through murky fathoms.
His head was pounding. There was a throbbing in his left knee. It even hurt to breathe. With a painful grunt, he lifted his head and blinked away the tears in his eyes. Some of the haze peeled away, revealing those imagined deep-sea lights to really be a canopy of bare tree branches looming over him and swaying in the cold breeze.
A forest… But why was he in the woods? He hated the woods. Bad things tended to happen to him in the woods.
He blinked again, trying to clear away more of that haze, but not all of it was in his head. The day, itself, was gray and gloomy. There was a cold and haunting mist hanging in the air.
A crow was perched on one of the branches, staring down at him like a tired cliché of an ill omen, its head tilted to one side as if it were as baffled about how he’d ended up here as he was.
What the hell happened to him? The last thing he remembered was…
He closed his eyes and groaned. What was the last thing he remembered?
Again, he moved his arms. Again, his shoulder cried out in pain. But he managed to plant the palms of his hands against the ground and push himself up.
Above him, the crow spread its wings and took off into the sky.
The conference. He was at the teacher’s conference. In Oshkosh.
He drew his knees up beneath him, grimacing at the pain in the left one as he settled his weight onto it. Then he coughed and the motion sent shockwaves of pain through his chest and left side.
This wasn’t the sort of thing that usually happened at teachers’ conferences. He was fairly sure he was missing something here.
Reaching up with a shaky hand, he felt a shallow gash on the side of his forehead. That was where the blood was coming from. It’d run down his face, matting his eyebrow and covering his cheek. But it didn’t seem to be gushing. Hopefully he wouldn’t need stitches.
He sat up and looked around, trying to blink away more of that confusing haze.
He was on his way home. He remembered that much. It wasn’t morning at all, but late afternoon or early evening. But…how did he end up out here? And for that matter, where was his vehicle?
He blinked hard and then turned and looked behind him.
His silver PT Cruiser was there. It was mangled up among the tree trunks, utterly totaled.
His heart sank at the sight. He’d had it for six years now. It might not have been the coolest of rides. Karen was the one who picked it out. She thought it was cute. But they brought it home brand-new from the dealer with only twelve miles on it. And he’d taken good care of it, too.
Now it was gone.
It felt a little like losing an old friend…
He closed his eyes again and lowered his head. Was it his fault? Did he fall asleep? Did a deer run out in front of him? He didn’t see any other vehicles. He hoped to God no one else was involved.
With a loud and painful grunt, he rose to his feet and staggered a few steps toward the destroyed Chrysler. It was funny, he was never quite sure what to call the thing. The dealer told them it was technically classified as a truck. But calling it a truck seemed a bit pretentious. The same with just calling it the “Cruiser.” Like he was trying to lump it in with those souped-up Chargers the police used. But it didn’t feel like just a “car,” either. And it certainly wasn’t a van or an SUV.
He stood there a moment, his eyes closed, swaying a little on his feet, just letting himself breathe. His head was still foggy. It was difficult to think straight.
Forget the stupid car. (Or truck or whatever it was…like it really mattered anymore…) Right now, he needed to clear his mind and focus. It was getting late. And the sky was gray and dreary, as it’d been all day, meaning it’d be dark early. It was a rather warm day for late January, much warmer than it’d been the past few days, but it was still cold, only a few degrees above freezing. And it was only going to get colder as the night dragged on.
He opened his eyes and stared at the remains of the vehicle. Then he frowned. He turned and looked back at the place where he woke up. It was at least fifty feet away. Was he thrown that far in the crash? No… That wouldn’t be possible. He knew he was wearing his seatbelt. He always wore his seatbelt.
Again, he turned and looked at the mangled wreck in front of him. It was crumpled and folded against the trees. Between the impact and being thrown fifty feet, how was he not dead?
That couldn’t be right. Maybe he’d climbed out of the car, dazed from the crash, and collapsed over there. It made more sense than being thrown clear of the crash in spite of being properly buckled in.
He started walking toward the wreck again, his mind racing. Then something caught his eye, something hanging out of the open door. He paused, confused. Was that a sleeve? Was someone there?
But no one was with him when he left the conference…
He was startled by the sudden and ridiculous idea of walking up and finding himself still in the car, his body mangled along with the wreckage, his eyes lifeless and glazed.
Was it possible? Could he be dead?
No. That was stupid. He wouldn’t have such a headache if he were dead.
He walked up to the crumpled door and peered inside. It was his sleeve. More specifically, it was the sleeve of his jacket, which he’d taken off before leaving Oshkosh.
“Get it together…” he muttered, running his hand through his hair.
He reached through the broken window and grabbed the jacket. Then he shook off the broken bits of safety glass and put it on.
His chest still hurt on the left side. He felt it when he raised his arms. Had he cracked a rib? He hoped he didn’t end up spending the night in a hospital somewhere. That’d be annoying. Fortunately, the pain in his shoulder and knee seemed to ease a bit as he moved around and loosened his joints. His hand hurt, too, he realized, although there weren’t any injuries that he could see.
Glancing back through the broken window, he saw that the airbags had deployed. Maybe those had hurt his hand. At the very least, they probably explained how he survived such a gruesome-looking impact.
The fuzziness in his aching head was starting to clear up. But with this clarity came another bizarre realization.
He turned all the way around, scanning his surroundings.
Where was the road?
He turned around again, scanning those same surroundings a second time, and then a third, as if he were merely missing it. There was nothing but hazy forest in every direction. He couldn’t hear any traffic.
How could he have run off the road if there wasn’t a road?
There wasn’t even any clear path by which he could’ve driven to this spot, much less fast enough to have done this kind of damage. He saw no tire tracks. How did he end up here? It didn’t make any sense.
None of this made any sense.
He leaned against the mangled fender and closed his eyes again, trying to think through the headache.
Then he looked up, his senses finally returning to him. “Isabelle!” he gasped. She’d know what happened. He reached for his phone in his front pants pocket, but it was gone. “What…? No!” He checked his other front pocket. His back pockets. His jacket pockets. He leaned into the driver’s window and searched the seats, the console and the cupholders. Then he pried the door all the way open, wincing at the awful sound of grinding metal and cracking fiberglass, and looked in the floorboards and under the seats. Finally, he turned and scanned the ground between here and where he awoke.
He had it when he left the conference. He was certain of that. He’d called Karen from the parking lot to let her know he was on his way home. He was fairly sure he remembered returning it to his pants pocket.
But the rational part of his mind told him that if it was here and it still worked, he’d hear it ringing. Isabelle would’ve heard him and called before now. In fact, thinking more clearly about it, she should’ve been calling him from the start, trying to wake him up while he was lying unconscious on the ground.
But then where had it gone? It couldn’t have just disappeared.
He turned and searched the vehicle again. He wanted to believe that it was just turned off. Or maybe the battery had died. He only had to find where it fell and plug it into the travel charger. The car battery would probably still be good for that. But he knew better. He always kept it on when he was traveling. Karen insisted. And it was fully charged when he left the house that morning. And he’d kept it off all during the conference. It was either gone or broken. Those were the only possibilities that made any sense.
And he hadn’t even begun to process the fact that his wallet seemed to have gone missing as well. Had he been robbed? Maybe someone witnessed the accident, pulled him out of the wreckage and then relieved him of his valuables. It’d be a dick move, to be sure, but it was a scenario that at least made some sort of sense, he supposed.
He stood there a moment, still leaning over the driver’s seat, still trying to make sense of it all. Then he glanced up at the darkening sky above. There was a flashlight, spare batteries and a first aid kit in the glove box. He reached over and retrieved them, then stepped away from the wreck and filled the empty pockets of his jacket.
This was bad. The PT Cruiser was destroyed. He had no idea where he was, or even where the road was. He’d lost his phone, so he wasn’t going to be able to talk to Isabelle or call for help or to look up where he was. And he had several injuries that seemed minor, but probably should be looked at.
Absently, he dabbed at the gash on his forehead again.
“What the hell happened?” he muttered to himself.
The forest, not surprisingly, offered him no answer.
He wandered off a few steps and then sat down on the cold ground again, wincing at the pain in his ribs and rubbing at his aching hand. Then he withdrew a disinfecting wipe from the first aid supplies he’d stuffed in his pocket and began cleaning the blood off his face while he went over the facts in his head, one by one.
An accident was one thing. It happened. And the phone could’ve fallen somewhere and broke. Or he might’ve dropped it while stumbling around in whatever unremembered haze carried him to the place on the ground where he eventually awoke. Or it could’ve been stolen with his wallet. Even some memory loss wasn’t unexpected, given that he’d hit his head somewhere along the way. (He should probably have that looked at sooner than later.)
It was the road. That was the part that didn’t add up, no matter how he approached it.
He tried to remember the events leading up to the accident, but it was pointless. His last clear memory was of driving down the highway. He recalled nothing odd at all. Traffic was fairly light. The roads were damp, but clear of ice. It’d been drizzling off and on all day. Given the current light, that must’ve been at least an hour or two ago.
He glanced down to check his watch, as he’d been doing all day, only to remember that it was still at home. The battery had gone dead on him the day before and he hadn’t had time to buy a new one.
Just his luck…
He was starting to have a bad feeling about all this. Or, more precisely, he’d been having that bad feeling this whole time and was starting to run out of excuses to keep trying to rationalize it away.
Something weird was going on. And if he could talk to Isabelle, she’d probably confirm it for him.
What happened during that missing time? And what was he supposed to do now that he was here? Wandering around blind didn’t seem like a good idea. With no idea which way the nearest road might be, he’d only end up more lost.
Maybe he should stay close to the vehicle for now. He’d have the best chance of being found that way. Isabelle would’ve informed Karen of his accident as soon as it happened. And Karen would’ve dispatched his brother, Paul, to come searching for him. By now, he’d almost certainly be following Isabelle’s directions to the last place she knew him to be.
At the very least, he could just take a moment and rest and let his head clear a little more.
But then something strange happened. Stranger, even, than waking up in the middle of the forest without his phone, wallet, memories or even the road that brought him here. Strange, even by Eric’s warped standards.
The wind abruptly died away and every branch and twig became unnaturally still. An eerie silence fell across the forest, leaving not a single sound but the pounding of his own pulse in his ears. At the same time, an intense and irresistible panic began to rise from deep inside him. Inside his bruised chest, his heart was suddenly racing. He jumped to his feet and turned around, his eyes wide, convinced that he wasn’t alone.
Something was here. He was immediately and absolutely sure of it. Something was watching him. Something in the forest. Something dangerous.
He turned the other way, scanning his surroundings, trying to find the source of this awful feeling. Beneath his shoes, the crunching of the leaves sounded as loud as gunshots in the eerie silence, and the noise he made only intensified this bizarre terror.
He needed to get out of here right now.
He didn’t think about which way he should go.
He just ran.