I’m in a forest of thin trees, young trees, poplars. I can smell the green sap smell; sweet and fresh, I can smell the forest floor decomposing, it smells soft and brown; the air is still and cool. I’m not alone.
At first I’m not afraid, just alert, acclimating to the maze of slim, bare trunks, they feel like metal or paper or both as I step through them. I’m lost. I’m not alone.
I see it first in flashes, peripheral, like a memory at the edge of your vision, a thought that never quite forms. But there it is again, something moving in the trees, something I can’t see if I try to look at it. If I want to look (must I look?!) I have to look away. It won’t let me see it fully, or straight on. No, just a heart stopping glance as I hold my breath and try to see which tree it’s hiding behind. I’ve been here before. It’s following me. Stalking me. Hunting me. The silence of the trees is unnatural. No birds, no bugs, no toad or stoat or cricket to prove this forest is alive. I’m not alone.
I wait to hear a twig snap, or see it step out from where it’s hiding but I know it moves between the trees when I look away. It can always get closer, it can always find me, but still, my legs want to try to run. So I run, full tilt, and I can feel it give chase. The faster I go the closer it seems to get, I can feel it behind me, hot on my heels. It’s taunting me, its playing with me, drinking in my fear. The poles of the trees are an obstacle course and I run it as I’ve run it a thousand times before, with terror thick in my blood and panic pumping through me. It follows, it runs, it paces itself behind me; close enough to snatch me. It’s running me to exhaustion, it’s running me until I fall, it’s running me until I’m dead. I run and run and try to look back to see what it is, but it won’t let me look, so I run until I’m heaving and I scramble down a wet ravine (When did the rain start? When did the sun set?) and I feel it clawing behind me as I slide down the muddy banks. I can hear it breathing, I can smell its foulness, and just as I crash at the bottom of the gully, the storm above the trees flashes and splits the sky and everything is illuminated, ghostly pale, an army of poplars in the rain. I’m squinting to see it in the light of the lightning strike but it’s upon my before I can look and then it’s over.
I’m awake, in my bed, and I’m screaming. My own voice wakes me and the dream is gone. The creature has gone back inside me but it will find me in that forest again. It never stops, it never gives up. It never tires and I am never, ever alone.