Something woke her up.
It was the middle of the night and it took a moment for Kara to realise that it was the new pressure of her cat pressed against her leg, purring, that had brought her back to consciousness. Smiling sleepily, she reached down to pet it in the dark of her room but paused before reaching her hand out completely.
There was a warm fetid smell, like wet dogs running wild. She held her hand suspended above the cat, trying to identify the origin of the unpleasant smell. It made her uneasy; like the memory of something yet to happen.
To settle the unease the smell has aroused, she reached out again to the comforting feel of the purring cat. But as she pet it, the fur and rotting flesh came away in her hand, pulling off the mouldering corpse with sickening ease.
Her dream screams woke Kara in the conscious world, still in the dark, and still choking on the screams that she had started in her dream. After several shuddering deep breaths, she realised that the wet, gamey smell and the warmth against her leg had followed her out of her dream and into her damp, rocky alcove. That’s when she screamed, screamed for real, and startled the animal that was now sharing her small, damp shelter from the pounding rain.
The frighten animal lashed out and sunk its teeth into the fleshy calf of her good leg. In pain and terror she kicked out with her other leg, the leg where the ankle did not just feel broken, but shattered. As it connected with the haunch of the animal, driving it from the cave, she nearly passed out from the electric bolt of pure pain that snaked up her leg and spine to nestle at the base of her skull. But her survival instincts kicked in and kept her conscious; if there was one animal out there in the dark seeking shelter, there could be more. She would have to keep her guard up and protect herself.
Once Kara felt more in control, she gingerly felt down her left leg to the bite on her calf. Although the pain caused her to wince as she touched the swollen puncture wounds, she was relieved that there wasn’t more blood. But she knew that if someone didn’t find her, and find her soon, that loss of blood or shock would likely be the least of her problems. She sat up, eyes glassy and wide in the dark, holding her leg and trying hard to not think about how quickly rabies could work its way through her bloodstream.
Two nights ago Kara had headed out for a run in these woods, not five miles from her home. As she thought about that, it added a degree of ridiculousness to her situation. You always read how this kind of death is made all the more tragic because it happened so close to home. But she wouldn’t allow herself to think of that. To think of death. To lose hope. Not yet.
She had worked late and it forced her to head out a little later than she usually would. But the light was still good, the sun hanging heavy and golden just above the trees to the west. It was her favourite place to run and her favourite time to do it. A well-maintained but rarely used path through the woods near her home, with a thick dusty forest on one side and a dry ravine to the other. At this time of day it was cool enough to run, but light enough to do so safely.
Lost in the motion and her music, Kara overran the point at which she should have turned around to ensure she didn’t get trapped out here after dark. Instead she carried to the five kilometre mark, auto-piloting to the point where she habitually turned around.
When she saw the small, red trail marker, she snapped out of her reverie and cursed herself. In the time it would take her to run back to the car park it would be nearly dark. And with the storm she failed to take notice of moving in quickly; it definitely would be dark long before she made it out of the woods.
Unnoticed by Kara, the sky had taken on a hurtful, purplish cast and the wind was picking up, causing the trees to whisper with secret forest gossip. As she turned to start her long run back to the car, the first rain started to fall, heavy and pregnant with the promise of a good soaking.
It was going to be a good storm, moving fast. Flashes of lightning threw the ragged, rocky crevasses of the ravine at the trail’s west side into sharp relief. The rain started to fall in earnest, getting in Kara’s eyes and stinging her skin as the wind blew it hard against her face and shoulders.
What happened next was more difficult to recall. It must have been the shock after the fall that muddled her memory. The dark skies, the forest groaning as the wind pushed through it and the oppressive sound of the thunder made Kara feel uncharacteristically skittish and apprehensive. A tree must have fallen onto the path. It is the only reason she can think of; a tree must have fallen onto the path and she over-corrected to avoid it and fell over the edge of the ravine.
She had no recollection of the fall at all. She must have passed out, although she doesn’t remember that either. But she must have, because she remembered waking up. She woke at the bottom of the cliff, shaking and in more pain than she had ever been in before.
As she became aware of the various pains in her body she started taking stock, feeling every scratch and bruise and almost admiring the tight pains in her ribcage that came and went with every shallow breath she dared to take.
The worst was her right ankle. She tried carefully to stand on it despite how much it was paining her even without moving. She knew that if she couldn’t even stand she would have no chance of ever getting out of this ravine, out of these woods.
The pain was so intense Kara couldn’t even get beyond putting her good foot down and pushing up slightly from the ground with her hands. Even crawling was going to be an exercise in sheer will and determination to get through the pain. The exertion of moving just a couple of feet towards the cliff face exhausted her and she gave up, panting, lying on her back in the muck and crying into the rain.
Once the pain subsided slightly she assessed her situation. The edge of the trail was only twenty feet or so above where she was lying. With her ankle in the state it was in though, it might as well have been two hundred feet; there was no way she was going to be able to climb up it. Her only hope was that the trail was not as disused as it seemed – she had only ever come across other people a handful of times when running it – and that someone would be able to find her.
The more immediate danger was exposure. It was now fully dark and raining hard. Kara was already shivering and cold from the pain and shock. She looked at the cliff face and saw a small alcove where the rocky overhang would protect her at least somewhat from the storm. With her face set against the pain, she crawled into the small cave and, unmindful of what she may be sharing the space with, fell asleep almost immediately, exhausted from the pain and the fear of what had happened. And the fear of not knowing what was going to happen next.
That was two nights ago. That same fear gripped her now as she stared out into the dark, straining to hear if the animal she had kicked would return.
It was impossible to know how much time was passing in the darkness outside of the cave. She had just started to relax when she heard something else, something bigger than whatever had crawled into her shelter earlier that night. Something that moved with little fear or stealth; something that was moving in her direction.
She held her breath and stared with her eyes wide. She felt no pain as every cell in her body strained for silence. Strained to be undetectable to the animal moving outside. Strained to not call attention to herself, trapped in her small cave with no possible retreat.
That’s when she saw the huge shape of the animal. Black fur against the black rocks at the bottom of the ravine. Black outlined against the black of the sky. Black outlined against the black of her future. And she saw as it slowly, slowly but relentlessly, swung its huge head in her direction. And although there was no light, she saw the eyes seek her out in the dark.
Her heart was bursting in her chest, her breath rapid and painful as Kara watched the animal turn and move towards her, deliberate and taking its time as though it could smell that she was injured. That she was trapped. That she was easy prey.