he woods were so much darker than she’d expected.
She stopped, enormous black trees looming overhead, mysterious sounds — bears? wolves? — emanating from the endless forest that surrounded them.
“Maybe this was a mistake,” she told Darrell.
He was already twenty steps ahead of her and it took a moment for his footsteps to stop their crunch-crunch-crunching through the deep dry carpet of dead leaves. Finally, he turned to face her.
“Well, of course it was a mistake,” he said. “We never should have left town. We shouldn’t have left the church in the first place.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, raising her arms and letting them flap back down at her sides. She wasn’t accustomed to second-guessing herself, or apologizing. “I guess we should just go back.”
“Go back? We can’t just go back! There’s no way we’ll find our way out of here at night.”
She sank down onto the leaves, let herself flop onto her back and stare up at the starless, moonless sky. The ancient running shoes she’d found in the charity bin, so comfortable when she first put them on her feet, were now rubbing and chafing, worse than nothing. The old man pants kept falling down, and the shirt smelled like her grandfather, before her mother and Jimmie Sue gave him a bath. She wished she could call her mother to come get her right this very minute. But while her phone still had juice, they were too far from anywhere to get a signal.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Darrell said.
“I can’t go on. I’ve got to get some sleep.”
“Are you crazy? You can’t sleep out here in the woods. You’ll get eaten by something.”
“I don’t care,” she said. “Anything would be better than just walking walking walking till our feet fall off. We’re probably going to get eaten by something anyway.”
As if on cue, there was a crackling in the bushes not that far away, then the sound of running footsteps as loud as a grown man’s. She scrambled to her feet, heart pounding, hands covering her head as if something might leap down on her from the sky.
“Come on,” he said, reaching out toward her. “Let’s just keep going.”
She let him lead her through the trees, branches scratching her face, bushes slapping her legs. She willed her feet to keep moving while she let her eyes drift closed, her brain take flight to some other place, beautiful, peaceful. Her whole life seemed beautiful and peaceful compared to this: She saw herself sitting in the Cafe Pure with Hugo, holding hands as the sun dipped over the Canal St. Martin. Or sitting next to her father in a Parisian movie theater, laughing idiotically at The Nutty Professor. Or even gathered around the big dining room table in Hot Springs last Sunday, eating her mother’s lemon cake.
Why oh why hadn’t she appreciated all those moments more, taken any one of them and frozen it, lived in it forever, instead of always stirring things up? Why did she always push for different, instead of appreciating the perfection of everything just the way it was?
“Ssssssh,” Darrell said, stopping short.
Her eyes popped open. Had she actually been speaking out loud? He pointed. There, in a clearing ahead, was a little house.
It looked like the cottage of The Three Bears. Or of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. Whoever lived there would undoubtedly welcome them in, feed them tea and cookies, give them a warm bed to sleep in until morning. Practically whooping with joy, she pushed around him, took off at a run.
“Stop!” he yelped, lunging after her and grabbing her shirt.
“What?” She tried to tear the shirt from his grasp.
“We have to be careful,” he said.
“You’re paranoid,” she told him.
There was no car in sight, no smoke curling from the chimney, no lights shining from the windows.
“There’s no one here,” she said. “Let’s just go in.”
He hesitated, looking toward the dirt track that passed for a driveway, leading not, as she might have guessed, to a nearby road but back into a forest as deep and dark as the one they’d just come wandered out of.
“I think we should get out of here,” he said. “Follow that road and see where it takes us.”
“I’m too exhausted,” she said, moving toward the house. “I need to rest before I go another step.”
She tried the door to find it was locked, and then peered in a window, seeing only blackness inside. When she turned back toward Darrell, he was already headed down the track. Obviously, he expected her to scurry after him. But there was a stone lying on the ground. She could pick it up, smash the glass, reach inside, unlock the window, let herself in. Then Darrell would have no choice but to come back. And even if he didn’t, she could rest here by herself till morning, then figure out what she was going to do next.