Quiet footsteps and hushed voices passed down our street, knocking gently on doors, afraid to break the sleepy peace within. Behind them followed a wake of dread that settled like cement into the heart of anyone who heard the news.
“Been there a few days…”
“Just barely started to rust…”
“Looks like an accident…”
“Still looking for the body…”
I was supposed to be asleep when they knocked on our door. I hardly dared to breathe as I counted my father’s footsteps in the hallway of the floor below, heard the bolt flick back and the wind suck in from the humid night outside. Then there were low voices, too faint for me to make out any words. I could tell by the way my dad shut the door that whatever he’d heard wasn’t good. He closed it with a heavy finality, like it was shutting out innocence which, in a way, it was. My father’s sigh breathed upward through the house, reaching me and trying to tell me what he had to say before he ever got to my room. He knocked on my bedroom door and each rap was like an electric shock coursing through me. When he entered, he didn’t seem surprised to see me sitting up, wide awake. He came across the room and sat on the edge of my bed, making a crater in the mattress into which my leg rolled to rest against his side.
“I have some bad news, son. They found Andi’s bike in the creek. It was around the bend at Two Point—seems it was there for a couple of days. There’s still no sign of her, but things don’t look too good. We’re going to have to prepare for the worst, okay?”
I could say nothing. What words would be adequate? Thankfully my father didn’t seem to expect me to speak. He ran his fingers through my hair, and his eyes seemed old. He stood and left, and when the door latched, I lost myself to cold, biting tears.
The sky wept dark and gray over a crying town. Everywhere I went, faces wore the same shocked, distant expression. The whole world seemed to be moving through a dream, everything slow and impossible. Whispers followed me as I passed.
“There goes her friend…”
“Can’t even imagine…”
Each hushed voice struck me as though it were a scream. I wanted to turn around and prove to them all that I didn’t need them—that Andi didn’t need them—but every time I kept my head down and walked on.
Her desk sat empty at the center of our classroom. Someone had brought a flower from home and laid it on top. The sight of those silk-white petals nearly broke me in half.
When school ended, I ran—down the street, through dripping alleys, away from the eyes and the voices and the pity that dogged my footsteps. I ran until I came out of a narrow street into a space beneath open sky at the edge of town. For a moment I looked around in confusion, trying to figure out where I was. Ahead of me was a field of wind-rustled grass leading to the edge of a darkening wood. Then I was struck by a sickening realization.
Those were the woods leading to Two Point.
Part of me wanted to turn and run. Part of me was terrified, screaming, begging my legs to move, to carry me away, take me home, hide in the dark recesses of my grief. That all went away when I saw Andi walk out of the woods.
She ran straight for me, her smile more beautiful than I’d ever seen it, thin arms waving to me, beckoning me forward. I didn’t hesitate. We collided, stumbled, and fell into the grass, rolling over and laughing loudly. I ended up on my back, staring at the sky and feeling her hand in mine. Her straw-colored hair floated down to tickle my face. We lay there together and breathed clouds of vapor into the world above.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? It’s been over a week—no one’s seen you. They sent out people to search and everything. Hell, they found your bike in the creek last night. Everyone thought you were dead.”
“Yes, your bike. What’s the matter with you?”
“My bike!” Her voice turned suddenly panicked, and she stood up. “I left my bike in the woods!” Facing the trees, her eyes darkened, and her mouth turned into a gentle frown. “Come on!” She said to me and began to run.
“Andi, wait!” I yelled after her, but she didn’t respond, so I gave chase. She moved effortlessly into the forest, dodging undergrowth that snagged at my clothes and pulled me back. My breath tore out of me, leaving my chest raw. I struggled to keep her in my line of sight as she floated into the trees ahead of me. A branch appeared in front of me, too late for me to dodge it. It whipped across my face, leaving a red streak of pain and a warm trickle of blood that rolled down to my open mouth. I ignored it and continued running. The forest grew denser—I could no longer see Andi ahead of me. Frenzy pumped through my limbs, urging them forward. Suddenly I entered a long, narrow clearing. Below me I heard running water—Two Point Creek. I stopped and scanned the woods around me, desperate for some sign of Andi. A few yards to my left, across the narrow gulch, I caught a flicker of movement, a tattered sneaker disappearing behind a small clump of pine trees. After a breath of hesitation, I leapt over the creek and stumbled after her. I reached the trees, ready to find Andi laughing at my desperation, but there was no sign of her. “Andi!” I called out. No response. I felt a knot forming in my throat. Why had she left me? I sat down heavily on the blanket of half decayed detritus that coated the forest floor.
That’s when I saw the dirt smeared hand reaching out to me from beneath the nearest tree, and the matted hair that even through a week of mud still shone the color of straw.
It wasn’t until days later, after my fever-dream escape from those woods, tear-stained hours of seeking help, trying to make the world understand, that I realized what Andi had done. She needed someone to find her, and during that final chase through the forest, stumbling through darkness into a new hell, she said goodbye to me, and to the past we’d known together.
The first draft of this story was originally posted on reddit.com/r/writingprompts