Background: A week or two ago I ended up in a discussion with Caroline Furlong on how to create tension in a story. Later I tried to come up with a simple ‘example’ scenario to illustrate my ideas. I ended up liking it enough that I turned it into a quick short, which I now present below. Enjoy!
Kathy turned slowly on the spot, shining her flashlight along the three diverging paths in the night-shrouded woods. Overhead the sky was a solid black roof, and the air was thick with the threat of rain.
How long was it since she’d left the roadhouse? An hour? Probably less than that, but certainly much longer than it should have been. And much too long to try to go back now.
Damn you, Cheryl, you stupid idiot! She thought.
The night out had been Cheryl’s idea. She was the ‘friendly’ one of the two sisters, and despite being three years older than Kathy, most people pegged her as the younger. She got carded everywhere she went, while Kathy never did. That wasn’t because Kathy looked so much older – she was twenty-five and knew herself to be attractive – but rather because something about her face and the way she carried herself made her appear mature and reliable.
And Kathy was mature. She had a good job and was already rising through the corporate ranks. She was confident, athletic, knew her own mind, and didn’t take crap from anyone.
A night out at the roadhouse wasn’t usually her thing, but Cheryl had wanted to go and had talked her into coming.
“After all that work, you need a night off!” she’d said. “Come on, we’ll go out, have some drinks, maybe meet a couple guys, it’ll be fun!”
She’d pressed her so insistently that, in the end, Kathy had given in. Truth was, she had been overworking herself lately and she did need a night off.
And it had been fun for a while. They’d had a few drinks (Cheryl had a few more), danced a little, chatted up the boys, and generally had a good time. A good time, that is, until Cheryl slipped off with one of her new temporary beaus. By then Kathy was getting tired, and since she always strictly moderated her drinking (she didn’t like to lose control of anything, least of all herself) she had just about reached her limit as far as alcoholic entertainment was concerned. She waited idly at the bar, chewing peanuts and dividing her time between half-heartedly watching the muted TV and talking disinterestedly with one of the men present.
Finally, when Cheryl had been away what seemed more than long enough, Kathy had gone in search of her.
It was then that one of the more alert of her recent acquaintances had told her that Cheryl had left with her new boy-toy a half an hour ago. Left not only without telling her, but more importantly without giving Kathy the keys to her car.
Since Kathy always drank less than Cheryl, the deal had been that Cheryl would drive them there – since she knew the way – and Kathy would drive back. But Cheryl had neglected to give her sister the keys when they first arrived, and had apparently been too drunk and too in love to remember to give them to her before she left.
Muttering curses against her older sister, Kathy had tried to call her cell phone. This had only yielded a flashing light and the muffled notes of an obnoxious ringtone from the front-seat of the car.
Left stranded, Kathy’s options had been to either wait for Cheryl to return – which she probably wouldn’t do until morning – or call her father to come pick her up. Her skin crawled at the idea. Her father didn’t approve of fun nights out, or his daughters flirting and drinking with strangers, or living on their own and chasing a good career, or really anything they did, it seemed. He was always on to her to ‘find someone who could take care of her’ and ‘settle down’. As if she weren’t an adult who could take care of herself! If he had to come and pick her up in the middle of the night from a bar, she’d never hear the end of it.
The man who’d informed her of Cheryl’s departure offered to give her a ride home, but Kathy liked the idea of accepting help from a strange man – even if he seemed decent enough – even less than calling her father. ‘White knight syndrome,’ she called it contemptuously. She could look after herself without depending on the kindness of strangers.
The bar wasn’t really that far from her apartment, say three or four miles in a straight line, and Kathy was an experienced hiker in good condition. She had decided she’d simply walk, taking a path that, she’d thought, led through the state park back to town, cutting off the better part of the journey by road.
Only, she was relatively certain that there ought not to be this three-way split in the path. And she wasn’t even sure what direction she was going anymore. Leaving the bar, she’d neglected to consider that she had no compass or map and only a vague idea of what direction town lay.
Kathy pushed a slightly-damp lock of chestnut-brown hair out of her face as she considered the three ways. It would help if she had some stars to guide her at the very least, but the stars were lost in the clouds. Clouds that promised rain.
She took out her phone and tried to bring up a map to give herself some idea of where she was. For what felt like several minutes, she watched the GPS app spin its loading wheel before showing the little orange arrow indicating her position…in the middle of a completely featureless blob of grey. The paths, apparently weren’t even marked on the app. Frustrated, she tried to zoom out and was met with the loading wheel again. At the same time, a roll of thunder sounded overhead.
“Damn it!” she shouted aloud, shoving the phone back into her pocket. “Cheryl, I swear I will kill you for this!”
On an impulse, Kathy decided on the left path. That way, at least, went roughly in the direction of the road (she was almost sure), so if the worst came to the worst she could at least find her way there and take the longer, but surer route. She thanked her stars that she’d never developed a taste for heels and had worn comfortable, high-top boots for her ‘fun night out’.
She hurried along the path as fast as the darkness and rough terrain would allow, for the path dipped and rose frequently, and tree roots cast jagged traps for her feet. Now and again she looked up at the sky to check if the weather had changed. A few minutes after taking the path, Kathy saw the woods about her lit up with harsh white light as lightning flashed in the distance. But it was some seconds before the thunder reached her, so the main storm was still some way off at least. Perhaps she’d get lucky for once that night and it wouldn’t come this way at all.
As she walked, Kathy thought back, trying to recall if the TV in the bar had said anything about a storm that night. She dimly recalled absent-mindedly watching a weather report during one of the idle moments….
Suddenly, she froze. For she had remembered something else: another scarcely-noticed television report seen that very night. She’d noted it, commented on it even, and then forgotten it in the light of subsequent events that had seemed so much more immediately important.
The pallid, thickly-spectacled face of a middle-aged man. The affectedly concerned expression on the muted anchoress’s face as she read the report, shown in black-and-white closed captioning along the bottom the screen that nearly, but not quite obscured the banner headline:
ESCAPED SERIAL KILLER AT LARGE.
Shit, shit, Shit, SHIT!
Kathy swung the light around the woods with a new urgency while her heart jumped in her chest. The oncoming storm ceased to be a factor in her mind as a darker anxiety rose to cast its shadow. How could she have been so stupid? A walk home at night, through the woods, alone…what was she thinking?
For a moment, she stood very still, trying to control her breathing as she swept the woods with her flashlight. The wind was rising, and the trees around her waved and clashed together. That was on top of the many scufflings and scratchings and similar sounds from the underbrush.
Like most people of her age and upbringing, Kathy had very rarely felt experienced genuine fear. Her chief references for being scared were things like watching a scary movie, or having a bad nightmare. Real, honest-to-God threats to her own life and safety had rarely, if ever come her way. The possibility she might meet someone or something in the darkness that would mean she would never see the dawn was completely alien to her experience, and the sick clenching of her stomach as this idea took hold made her almost too frightened to move.
Get a grip, Kathy, she told herself firmly. Escaped serial killer doesn’t mean he’s here, in this park tonight. He probably isn’t. He’s probably a hundred miles away heading for the border. That’s what escaped criminals do; they don’t hang out in the woods like Bigfoot. Besides, you can take care of yourself, whatever happens!
With such sensible reassurances, Kathy successfully reasoned herself into going on. The beam of her flashlight cast a narrow, yellowish glow over the path ahead, sending livid shadows up from every tree, rock, and root, shadows that wavered and moved unsettlingly as she walked. Every so often, she saw a yellow or green or red pair of eyes flash out at her from the darkness on either side, making her jump.
Squirrels and rabbits, she told herself. Keep it together!
The thunder rumbled again overhead. The first cold drops landed on her head.
Things had gone far enough. She didn’t know what help he could bring at this point, but she wanted to call her father. It would help to hear a familiar voice at least! And perhaps that way, when she did find the road, he’d be able to come pick her up. Kathy would almost welcome a lecture at this point, if only it meant she didn’t have to spend a moment longer than she had to out in this damned night.
She reached for her phone. Then stopped and began feeling frantically in all her pockets, the cold clenching in her stomach growing tighter. Her phone was gone. When she’d put it away at the crossroads, it must have caught and slipped out of her pocket, and she’d been too agitated to notice.
Kathy looked behind her at the long tunnel of rain-swept night. Should she go back and look for it? She could hardly stand the mere idea of it. Besides, it was already at least a quarter mile back.
And were those footsteps she heard behind her? Was that a shadowy figure she saw among the trees at the very edge of her flashlight beam?
Rationally, Kathy knew she was being foolish. There was nothing there, no footsteps, no shadowy figure. Escaped serial killers didn’t lurk in rain-swept woods waiting for unsuspecting victims to pass.
Rationally, she knew there was probably nothing to fear. But she ran for it nonetheless.
Heedless of the rain, her flashlight swinging wildly, Kathy fled along the path. Every waving shadow and flashing tree seemed to her disturbed mind to herald that nightmare figure with his pallid, evil face and thick glasses stepping out of the night to grab her. Her own breath sounded loud in her ears, and the rain pounded down harder, soaking her and seeming to drag her down, as if even the weather wished to make her sluggish and prevent her escape.
The path dipped and her pace increased. She felt herself losing control of her own feet as they tried to compensate for the rapid descent. Mentally, she yelled at herself to slow down, but too late. Her foot caught suddenly on a root and with a scream she pitched forward, trying to brace herself with her hands as she tumbled the rest of the way down the short slope.
She fetch up on the bottom in absolute darkness, having dropped her flashlight in the fall. Hands stinging, a twinge of sharp pain in her leg, Kathy rose to her hands and knees, an inarticulate sound of frustration on her lips. The pain was almost irrelevant: it was the fear and sense of urgency that gnawed at her and filled her mind as she frantically felt about for the flashlight with trembling hands.
“Come on, come on, where are you?” she muttered furiously.
Finally her searching fingers brushed against the smooth plastic handle and she seized it with an exclamation of thanks and flicked it on.
“No. No, no, no, no….”
Again and again she turned the switch from off to on, on to off. She tightened the cap and tried again. Nothing. It was broken.
With a furious, incoherent scream of despair, she threw the useless thing into the night. For a moment, she knelt in the pouring rain, hugging herself and shivering violently as she turned her head this way and that, scanning the solid night. It was almost completely dark, with nothing but the faint hint of deeper shadows to mark the trees. The steady tinnitus of the driving rain made her nearly as deaf as she was blind. If anyone was in the woods tonight, she would neither see nor hear them….
That means they won’t see or hear you either, she told herself. And why would anyone be out there tonight, unless they’re as stupid as you are? Get a grip, Kathy! The road can’t be too far off.
But for a while she stayed where she was, trying to muster the courage to press on into the darkness. Each breath seemed to catch in her throat, and every sound above the pattering of the rain made her jump.
Lightning flashed across the forest once again, sending coal-black shadows chasing behind trees. Kathy saw that she was still on the path, still going – she hoped – the right way.
With a burst of effort, she rose to her feet and began walking blind, hands outstretched, sweeping the ground before her with her feet. Every passing branch, every tree trunk that met her searching fingers made her flinch, but she kept going. There was nothing else to do.
Then, after what felt like hours, she saw light through the trees. Abandoning the path, she plunged through the trees, making straight for it, pushing her way though the wet branches. Cold water splashed up past the top of her boots from puddles that had formed from hollows between trees, and more than once she found herself caught up on bushes and branches and had to find another way through.
At last, though, the trees abruptly thinned on either side and Kathy found herself struggling up a steep bank beneath the faded glow of a street light veiled by the rain. She paused at the top, breathing hard and feeling relief flooding through her. She had found the road!
She set off walking as quick as she could with her hurt leg, but with more control now than when she had fled through the forest. No sense wearing herself out if she had to do this all the way home. Intermittent streetlights cast a ghostly sheen over the road, glittering against the infinity of raindrops that continued to pound down around her and glistening against the asphalt as if it were newly laid with tar..
After a few minutes, Kathy rounded a curve and with an exclamation of thanks beheld the neon glare of a gas station. The light in the little store was still on, harsh against the darkness and she fairly ran the rest of the way.
There were no cars at the pumps, and no one inside but the clerk, who was bending over a magazine on the counter. He looked up and started as she came in, dripping wet, covered in mud, and breathing hard, her face red with exertion.
“Jesus, are you okay?” he exclaimed.
Kathy almost laughed.
“I’ve had a rough night,” she said. “Do you have a phone I can use?”
He pointed silently to the public telephone that stood in a corner before the front window. Heart still hammering, but feeling the first pangs of relaxing nerves, Kathy dialed the listed number for a cab company with trembling fingers.
A half-hour later, Kathy stumbled into her apartment, exhausted, drenched, and filthy. Her hands were scrapped and raw, and her knee hurt rather badly from when she had fallen and from having walked on it for so longer after, but that didn’t seem to matter much compared with the relief of being home at last. She immediately went into the bathroom and took a long, hot shower. As she stepped out of it and into her pajamas, part of her wanted to go to bed immediately. Another part wanted to get the really stinging email that she meant to send to Cheryl off right now before she had a chance to cool off.
She wavered a moment, but in the end she decided that she would sleep better once she’d vented some of the anger that was searing in her chest. Now that she was through and her fears were over, Kathy felt a proportional degree of fury, made all the stronger for being mingled with shame at her panic of earlier. Really, how childish she’d been to lose her head like that.
She sat down at her desk, booted up her computer, and opened her email, her mind sifting through the many possibilities for verbally punishing her sister for this debacle.
But when she opened her email, she found a new message waiting for her. A message sent from her own account. Without thinking, she clicked it.
The email showed a large photo, somewhat blurry from the rain. A photo shot looking in through the gas station window. It showed herself on the pay phone leaning against the wall, looking absently out the window at the darkness while she waited for an answer, her soaking wet brown hair hanging limp about her flushed, tired face. Beneath the photo was a message.
“See you soon, Kathy.”