Heavy pants of deprived lungs and the crunching of wilted leaves beneath pounding feet were the only sounds in the woods. The night was cool with the beginning of autumn and the promise of rain hung in the air like a thick fog. Behind the dark storm clouds, a full moon stared down into the dense forest, watching disaster unfold with neither judgment nor condemnation. Clothed in a tattered silk slip, she ran swiftly downhill around the sprawling trees, ignoring the prick of thorns and broken twigs as they impaled the soles of her feet. Through the dark, as she ran faster and faster, her eyes narrowed and caught sight of the faint flash of headlights in the distance; she stopped.
The unpaved roads of the uncharted Oregon wilderness threw dirt into the air behind the spinning wheels of an unexceptional, black SUV. The high beams of the vehicle were the only light, aside from the faded gleam of the moon, on the entire mountain, most of which had been deemed unlivable by the groups attempting to preserve the wildlife native there. People didn’t go there, unless they were lost or trying to travel from Greyson, the town at the top of the mountain, to Herkan, the town at the bottom of the mountain. Most people did not take this path, as it was almost too narrow to accommodate larger cars and at night it was nearly impossible to navigate. A paved road on the other side of the mountain was most often used for travel.
In the SUV, Peter turned the radio back on to avoid the conversation he knew the woman in the passenger’s seat would be bringing up at any minute; the conversation that he so did not want to have right now. They had been lost for hours now since their departure from the airport and he had used that as an excuse to avoid all manner of speaking for a while, but it was inevitable that Charlotte would try again. He knew the signs. She had been chewing her bottom lip consistently for the last ten minutes, her breaths got a little deeper with each passing moment, and she had opened her mouth to speak, closed it, and sighed at least six times since the last time they had passed a street sign. It was getting on his god damn nerves.
“Pete,” she finally murmured with another quiet sigh, but he ignored her. She waited. Her irritation erupted in a fervent whisper. “Peter, don’t you fucking ignore me!”
“Shut up!” he ordered loudly. “I’m so sick and tired of your whining!”
“Shh!” she hissed. “I swear to God if you wake up the baby I’m gonna—”
“You’re gonna what?” he snapped. “Jesus Christ, Charlotte, you’re all talk and you know it! Just shut up and let me fucking—”
He was interrupted by the unmistakable shriek of a baby’s cry from the backseat. The scowl Charlotte shot him was murderous, but he didn’t really care. Apparently, Charlotte’s ire at the baby’s waking only served to fuel her fire against him, because her voice rose to screaming as well. “You asshole! Look what you did!”
“I said shut up, you worthless bitch!” he finally roared, filling the entirety of the car with his bellow.
Charlotte went silent.
The baby cried on with no comfort. Charlotte’s quiet sobs mingled with the child’s. “You’re sleeping with her, aren’t you?” she whimpered, wiping away the trails of blackened tears from her cheeks.
He rolled his eyes. “Don’t be stupid, Charlotte.” Of course he was.
He watched his wife calm herself down, looking between the road in front of him to her shaking face. She stared forward, seeming to be completely unaware of the screaming baby in the backseat. Her impassive face took a turn for the fearful as she screeched, “Pete, look!”
Pete’s foot stomped on the break before his head could whip around to find whatever she had seen to startle her. The car lurched to a halt. “What the—” he snarled as he looked up from the steering wheel. His throat closed up at the sight before him, feeling Charlotte’s face match his own beside him. The baby cried on.
About a foot away from the front bumper, a girl stood shaking in what had once been a white silk slip. Her hair was long and matted with dirt and blood, sticking it to the concave angles of her slim face. Her feet were bare and the front of her dress was caked with what could only be an explosion of blood. Her face was unrecognizable through the layers of grime. Behind the dried blood stuck to her head, her sweat-slicked face was warped into a permanent grimace of terror.
In her hand, she held a knife, drenched in fresh blood.