Along the path of Mortimer Forest, Ella ran to lose the oily stalker, but he kept catching up to her. He approached her again. “You don’t have to be afraid of me sweetheart. I won’t hurt you,” he said.
Ella hurried her pace. “Sorry, I don’t have time. I’ve gotta get home to finish my term paper. I’m still in high school. If you don’t stop bothering me, I’ll call the police.”
“Oh, that’s the sorriest excuse I’ve ever heard, ‘‘ he said. “Homework is what Sundays are for. Come on we’ll spend some time together. Have a little fun. Besides, there’s no reception out here.”
“Leave me alone,” she shouted then sprinted around a corner and went off the main trail. She wandered for a while to lose him.
She realized she was lost, and now the sunset had begun. She went to put on the pink sweatshirt she had tied around her waist but realized it was gone.
The forest became pitch-dark. Ella used the flashlight on her iPhone to help find the way. A familiar hill hinted to her that she was close to the path. A short time later she found the main trail and found a clearing.
She stepped outside of the woods to the sight of something that confused her. It was light again after being dark moments earlier but why? She didn’t know.
Before she knew it, an arm grabbed her from behind and threw her to the ground. She struggled with the perpetrator, but he was stronger. Her screams were muted by his palm. She recognized him as the stranger from earlier. Without a moment’s notice, he vanished and the scene around her changed. A blast of heat hit the back of her neck and burned her. A bright orange lit up behind her and the forest was in flames.
In the distance, three figures started to walk in her direction. She recognized them as they got closer. It was her family. They stared blankly ahead, not even noticing her standing beside them. Ella called out: “Mom, Dad, Wes.” They walked past her without acknowledging her. “What’s the matter, can’t you see me standing here?” Not one of them turned around to answer Ella.
The landscape metaphysically was different than before: the grass was a web framed metal with meshed wires protruding beneath it; bluestone walls sprouted up on all sides, a steel roof covering above her. She was inside now but didn’t know where. The room contained beds attached to the walls where mechanical humanoids lay. She approached one of them and touched it. The face of it morphed into her own.
The next thing Ella remembered she was in bed, screaming in terror. She sat up and wiped the sweat from her face.
A familiar face rushed into the room. It was her nanny, Nina Richardson. Nina walked over and soothed Ella. “You alright child, she said. “I heard that scream. Another nightmare.” She hugged Ella tightly. “Stayed up late watching bad movies again, right? I keep telling you those horror movies are terrible for your mind.”
“No, it wasn’t anything like that Nina. I was up late in a Zoom call with my friends. Ava mentioned a story she heard on the news. A girl from Mortimer disappeared.”
Nina rested her hand on Ella’s arm. “Don’t worry child? You got me and Wes here with you?” Ella looked up at Nina and smiled.
“I’m guessing my Mum and Dad left already? What time did you get here?”
Nina walked to the doorway and looked back at Ella. “They left early, around four A.M. this morning. I got here at three.” In her hand was a scrap of paper. “They gave me a list of chores for you two.” Nina sniffed harshly and raised her eyebrows in alarm. “Gotta go now. Bacon and dippy eggs burning. Oh, by the way, make sure you clean these muddy footprints.”
Muddy footprints? Ella thought. It wasn’t a dream then. Somehow it didn’t seem vivid or hazy enough to be one. And those strange visions. They too seemed real. As for her pink sweatshirt, she wished to put it on to get rid of her arm’s goosebumps but it was gone now, and she was sure she wore it to bed last night.
A short time later, she received a group text from Rose and Ava about their Saturday plans.
She was glad to have real mates from Sherfield High after only being there a year. Her father had a position as a Lieutenant in the British Armed Forces, and they moved frequently. It had been hard to find steady mates everywhere else, but this little crew surprised her.
Some time ago a few of the more popular girls came over to the locker room at gym class to mess with her. Rose and Ava came over to stick up for her. To her surprise, they had listened and backed off.
When she finished her morning chores; she texted back and forth with Rosie and Ava. Rosie would be at her house to pick her up in ten minutes. She said goodbye to Nina and stepped outside and waited under the porch’s sunlit portico.
Not more than five minutes went by before they arrived. Rosie pulled up in her Kia Picanto.
Ava turned and offered Ella her vape. “Nina watching you again I see.”
Ella nodded. “Yep, the folks are gone for a weeklong conference in London. Combat Support week ya know. Same ol’ rubbish month in and month out. Kinda getting old if ya ask me.” Ella sniffled and wiped a tear from her eye.
Ava handed Ella a Kleenex. “We can talk about something else if you’d like. No makeup to smear today El?”
“Rarely wear it,” Ella said.
“Wow! Look at the natural beauty,” Rose added. “Careful, makeup might damage your face.”
“Well, I’m allergic to a lot of it so back off ok,” Ella said then laughed.
“I haven’t started that Term Paper for Ms. Greenwood’s class,” Ava said, changing the subject.
“Oh, don’t remind me of that,” Ella said. “I haven’t started either.”
Ava sighed. “I’m always waiting til the last minute.”
“I think we all do that,” Rose added. “Look, we’re almost there.” Rosie pulled off to a side road to the left. They were on a dead-end road, deep in the woods.
Ella looked bewildered. “What are you doing Rose? She said.
They all stepped out of the car and walked past the start of the trail. “The girl from the story we talked about last night was last seen around here. Her family told police that where she said she was going, Ava said.”
“Such a damn shame,” Rose said. “If they catch the guy who kidnapped or killed her, I hope he gets life.”
“I dreamt I was here last night,” Ella said. “Not too sure it was a dream though.” She went on ahead and the others followed. A short way ahead Ella noticed something on the ground. “My pink sweatshirt,” she cried. “I wore it to bed last night. It wasn’t just a dream.”
“Are you sure?” Rose asked.
“Positive,” Ella said. “A man was stalking and bothering me.” I ran from him and lost my sweatshirt. It had to be around here that I dropped it.”
“I think you’re mistaken,” Ava said. “When did you come here last?”
“The other day right after school,” she replied. “But I wore it last night.”
Ava winked at Rosie. “Sleepwalking, missing time, alien abduction, it could be any one of those right?”
Ella gritted her teeth and made a fist. “You watch yourself blondie. I’ll slap the taste right out of your mouth.”
“Stop!” Rose shouted. “Let’s not argue. We’re all friends. We all have better things to do.” The two hugged and apologized as they returned to the car to get back on the road.
After Rosie found a place to park the three of them searched the various shops in the center of Reading until lunchtime came. The three girls got food at an eatery called Garden Variety and sat at an outdoor plaza. Ella noticed the man sitting beside them, staring at her but the others didn’t, and she didn’t mention it. The man appeared to be in his mid-forties, short and plump, receding hairline, a hard wrinkled face, and beady eyes.
When the girls left the cafe, he followed behind them. They made their way to one last store; a women’s clothing shop called The Hub. They spent some time browsing the store and carrying on about how well they did or didn’t like the clothing or whether or not they thought they were too fat for it. Ella noticed the man had followed them inside the women’s store. It was the same man from last night or maybe it was a brother close in age. The man realized she’d noticed him and left quickly. Ella hurried the others so they could leave. While they finished up Ella went inside the washroom and told the others to meet her at the car.
She heard someone come in a short time later. Someone whispered: “Ella are you in there?” Her fingers trembled. She peered through the crack in the stall and saw the man. My God, Ella thought. He followed me in here. Slowly, she reached inside her purse and grabbed her mace.
“I have a mace and I’ll use it if you don’t go away.”
“Calm down, it’s me, Mason,” he said. Her stomach churned.
“How do you know my name you creep? Get lost or I’ll call the police.”
Mason knocked again. “I’ll wait here all day if I have to. I’m not going to leave without you. Your father needs to see you.” She stood frozen. His head poked through the bottom of the stall and he made his way inside. She stomped on his head and maced him. He scrambled in agony and held his face. She dashed out of the store to the sidewalk.
Outside she caught a glimpse of Ava and Rosie leaving in the Kia. She sprinted to try and catch them. “Hold on,” she shouted. They just looked at her with bewilderment and took off. Maybe if they stuck together that man wouldn’t have gone after her. She was alone now. Suddenly, arms reached out and constricted her as she was bearhugged from behind. She struggled and screamed but couldn’t get away. A back kick to Mason’s nether regions would help free his grip. She instinctively reached for her purse but realized it was still in the bathroom. She rushed inside the shop but was stopped by the tall, pretty, high-heeled female clerk. “Stand behind me,” the clerk instructed. She waited for Mason to approach the two of them then tased him. He struggled on the ground writhing in pain. She told him not to move or he’d be tased again.
The police arrived about a minute later and arrested him. Soon after the event, Ella was approached by a policewoman who’d arrived in a separate car. She comforted Ella with an afghan and said: “I’m Detective Allison Hayes, Reading Police Dept. I’ll take you to the station so you can give a statement on what happened. “Are you here with anyone? Allison asked. “You’re not by yourself this afternoon, are you?”
Ella made eye contact with Allison. She figured the woman to be in her late thirties. She had medium-length brown hair and was attractive. She felt a warm and welcoming connection with her right away.
They rode to the police station together, making small talk along the way. Inside they sat in an interview room. Allison gave Ella a cup of tea. “How old are you, Ella,” Allison asked.
“Just turned eighteen last week.”
“Really? Happy Birthday! Of course, this means you aren’t required to have your parents present during your statement, but you do have that option. Would you like me to give them a call to come down to the station?”
“You can’t. They’re out of town. Won’t be back until next week sometime.”
“Okay. You sure you don’t want us to at least call them? I think they’d like to know if their daughter is attacked.”
Ella shook her head. Don’t worry about calling her or anyone else. I’ll take care of it as soon as I get home.”
“You’re tough Ella. You remind me of me when I was your age.” Allison handed the form to Ella and instructed her on filling it out. Allison spoke with Ella about the incident more intimately to help relieve the trauma. Ell admitted she was still a bit shaken but would be ok. She had a good relationship with Nina and felt comfortable turning to her for anything.