Twisted Knickers

 A Date with the Muse

I’m a writer. At least, that’s what I tell myself. I even have a Muse and everything. She murmurs in my ear and tells me I’m brilliant, even when I’m not. Usually. When she feels like it.

My Muse is a demanding little soul. Temperamental. Sometimes she’s chock full of ideas she can’t wait to share, but sometimes she gets cantankerous, withholding her largesse, scurrying about like a constipated squirrel, and I can’t get Word One out of her. Just between us, I honestly believe my Muse is bipolar.   

D’you know, I even have to bribe her? I can’t just sit down like any normal writer and write. No, I have to prepare tea for her, then watch it go cold as she skips just out of reach, playing hard-to-get. When even multiple cups of tea don’t tempt her, I’ve learned to entice her with a timer. 

My Muse adores timers. Addicted to ‘em. She prefers a cheap kitchen timer over any other kind. Once the countdown starts, she becomes loving, generous and downright clingy, spewing verbal diarrhoea directly into my brain. The words spill out of my fingertips onto the keyboard where they perch mischievously on the screen in black and white, daring me to highlight them for copy-and-paste.   

Sometimes, though, the precious words disappear without warning. On these occasions, my Muse turns on me, throwing tantrums and unjust accusations, scowling and sulking in the corner and pitching the odd useless word at my head. Sometimes she won’t relent for hours, even days.

During each of these regrettable incidents, I ask her oh-so-politely if she’ll come out and play.

“Play-dates are fun,” I say.   

“You’ll like it,” I say.   

“Here,” I say, “have some tea.” And I put the steaming cup where she’ll be certain to find it.

Dealing with her is a lot like taming wildlife. Muses are extremely skittish. You have to be ever so patient. You must wait for them to make up their own minds, to approach you, to trust you. You can’t rush them, but when a deadline looms, that’s not an easy task, and I’m not the most patient of writers.

Finally, though, there’s no choice but to bring out the big guns. Bribery and corruption. My Muse can be bought, the shameless little minx. She has no morals.

I creep into the kitchen and pluck the timer off the back of the stove, set it for 60 minutes, and slink back to my desk. In silence, I sit at the computer, my finger poised over the timer button as I glance towards her corner. She pretends to ignore me, but her colour’s rising and her breathing’s getting short. Just for fun, I take my finger off the timer and position my hands on the keys as if waiting for that first tiny glimmer of inspiration. She springs up, furious, ready to storm out, but immediately, I hit the start button and the countdown begins.

I settle into my chair, fingers on the keyboard once more, and I don’t peek at her again. You can’t look directly into their eyes, you know. They’re such shy little creatures; they find it threatening.   

I continue to ignore her, but in my peripheral vision, I detect a slight movement as she inches closer to my shoulder. Then my fingers start typing, the words hesitant at first. Ideas come haltingly, a single word or two, a vague, amorphous concept, but I can tell my Muse is warming up as we learn to trust each other again. Soon, disconnected notions begin to coalesce, and a story takes shape in my mind.   

My Muse is still tentative, but at least she’s willing to try. Once the timer ticks off ten or fifteen minutes though, we’re back in sync, fellow adventurers on a captivating quest, overjoyed to be on the same page, treasuring our time together and enraptured with the magic we create as we build something that’s never existed before.

The ideas come fast and furious now, tripping and tumbling over one another, eager to be included. The screen fills with words, sentences, paragraphs, ideas and storylines all tangled up, thrilled to be brought into the light. They’re still somewhat bewildered, uncertain of their new reality, but that’s okay. A little revision will civilize them and prepare them to face the world.

We’re deep in Flow now, both of us intent on the fledgling story before us. A living current of understanding, connection and love pours through us, from my Muse through my fingers to the words on the screen and back again, the gestalt driving and uplifting us all. We’re in the Zone.

Then, like an electric shock, the timer goes off. We emerge, my Muse and I, stunned, disoriented and severed from the words on the screen, amputated from Flow. But she’s still in fine fettle and reluctant to leave, so I make her another cup of tea and we reset the timer for another hour. Once back in the Zone, we embark anew on our compulsive pursuit of the ever-elusive masterpiece.

Until next time.   

Like a perpetual motion machine, today, tomorrow and every other day, she must be coerced, romanced and paid in the only coin she recognizes.

I’d like to believe it’s love, the relationship we have between us. I’d give anything to commit to her unconditionally, but who am I kidding? I have to pay her, the heartless bitch. I pay her in the many cups of tea going cold; I pay her in the innumerable ticks of a cheap kitchen timer and I pay her in my own blood, sweat, and tears.   

And we all know what that makes her, don’t we? She’s a harlot; a hooker; a whore. A prostitute disguised as a loving partner. A controlling, self-indulgent, codependent narcissist who helps me out only when there’s something in it for her.   

And God help me, I can’t live without her.



Sunlight shattered as glass splintered the stony shadows at her feet. 

“No!” Jeri dropped to her knees in a futile attempt to halt the inevitable as the precious vaccine vanished into the thirsty soil, its only remnant a sharp, medicinal smell.

Oblivious to her distress, the cacophony of the camp continued, muted by the plague, though in the distance soared the treble voices of those few children as yet untouched by illness.

Jeri’s current predicament was only just. She’d broken the rules; gone outside regular channels and bribed her way into the refugee encampment. 

And for what? The single vial of vaccine she’d smuggled out of the clinic lay in glistening shards on the dampened stones, the sun-sparkle of its shining fragments mocking her high-minded intentions. She had no recourse now but to return the way she’d come.

Careful not to miss any, she collected the pieces of glass, if for no other reason than to prevent the barefoot children from cutting their feet. Poor little tykes had enough to handle without that.

Jeri critically scrutinized the soiled handful of chips and splinters, but not a single drop remained. A tightness in her chest made breathing difficult, and tears pricked her eyelids. For a moment, she knelt, gathering the strength to stand, then her trembling hands wrapped the pieces in a handkerchief and tucked the little bundle in the right hip pocket of her scrubs.

She dragged herself to her feet and gazed despondently around at the encampment, trying not to breathe in the stench of disease and concentrated humanity. Sand and dirt coated everything with shades of brown. Taupe tents and clothing, brown skin, sand, and rocky soil. Her white skin and blonde hair set her apart, her clean scrubs the only spot of colour, bright blue, printed all over with cartoon penguins. People sat or lay listlessly, many of them gazing the thousand-yard stare of hopelessness. Most would not make it past the next day or two without help, without the precious vaccines held in two climate-controlled warehouses not five miles away, destined for those who could pay for them. 

Not for these poor wretches, thousands of them crammed into a square mile of packed earth, hemmed in by barbed wire, with no trees for shade, no clean water and only open pits for a latrine. Mocked and derided by the callous high-rise politicians who decided their fate. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right!

Back home, she’d wept at the nightly news reports that told of refugees fleeing the cities to avoid the plague, of countless children orphaned and dying. Thank all the gods she’d received her shot early on.

Jeri had always believed in paying her good luck forward and she wanted… no, she needed to help. The same news reports that described the devastation, also told of the Red Cross’s urgent need for qualified nurses overseas. Without hesitation, she’d volunteered to come here. Filled with altruism, compassion and hope, she’d requested and been assigned to vaccine detail, in this oh-so-foreign land where even the language was different. 

But now, what was the point? 

Nothing was the way she’d expected. Reality beggared description. Television reports had only scratched the surface of the refugees’ desperate predicament and Jeri was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster, merely a small, ineffectual cog in the juggernaut of despair. 

If she’d understood the full extent of the region’s devastation before she arrived, perhaps she could have better prepared herself. But she hadn’t. 

Deprivation didn’t begin to describe the reality. Only a tiny percentage of the supplies shipped from home ever made it to the internment camps, and even those had to be smuggled in little by little. With millions still to be vaccinated, it was an impossible job. What could one person do in the face of such staggering odds? Rumour and disinformation abounded, and Jeri no longer knew what to believe.

That very morning, the preposterous story had made the rounds of the clinic again, only to be brutally suppressed once more by the politicians who demanded the community be levelled. After all, dead refugees were much cheaper to deal with than living ones. The exhausted troop of doctors and medics at the clinic labelled it an impossibility. Merely a groundless message of irrational hope. But the idea simply wouldn’t die.

And yet… wouldn’t it be great if it were true? A healer, they said, who could prevent or even cure the plague by the laying-on of hands. 

Later in the day, an elderly interpreter at the clinic had become hysterical, refusing to accept his shot. The old man had kept shouting something that sounded like, “Fix!” Maybe the guy believed Jeri wanted to drug him. It didn’t make much sense, so she’d backed away, vaccine in hand, as he ran off still shouting, “Fix! Fix!” 

And so, in the confusion following the old fellow’s precipitous exit, Jeri broke the rules. She “liberated” his vaccine. The paperwork had already been filled out, so why not? No-one would even know the vial was missing. And if, by any chance, the rumour was true, maybe she could find a way to make sure this legendary healer, at least, might be saved. One good person who put others first. One who shared her own need to serve. If only she could find them.

At the end of her shift, when the light slid sideways and the afternoon waned, she’d crept out of the clinic and bribed her way here, into the camp. She prayed one of the ramshackle hovels along the main thoroughfare might reveal the answer. There had to be something behind all the tales of this legendary healer, one who could slow or halt, even turn back the relentless avalanche of disease and destruction that was the plague. There must be a kernel of truth to it. There had to be.

She’d held the vial tucked out of sight, under her watchband. And when she’d unstrapped the watch to bribe one of the guards to let her into the camp, she’d hidden the vaccine in her waistband. But, then, sun-blinded, she’d stumbled over a mound of trash, crying out in horror as the precious vial slipped out to shatter on the stony soil. 

Her quest was finished before it began. She had no idea how to reach the one she sought. She didn’t speak the language and didn’t even know what the healer looked like. And, in her clean, coloured scrubs, she stood out from these pathetic refugees, conspicuous, someone who didn’t belong.

Jeri never saw the stone that hit her.

What happened? Where am I? Nauseating darkness spun round and round behind Jeri’s eyes. Blood in her mouth tasted of copper. The stench of the camp sickened her with every breath. 

A savage headache ricocheted inside her skull. Pain throbbed and pounded behind her eyes. 

And…Why’s it so dark? She couldn’t see! Oh God! I’ve gone blind!

After several desperate attempts, She opened one eyelid, then the other, and finally the dreadful vertigo subsided. 

She was lying on her left side on a bundle of rags in one of the larger tin-roofed tents. She winced and lifted a hand to touch the sizeable lump on the back of her head. Her hand came away wet, her hair sticky with blood. Her shoes were gone, and her documentation.

Out of the hovel’s Stygian gloom, an accented voice spoke. 

“So, you are awake now.”

“What…” she croaked. Coughed and tried again. “What happened?” 

“The gang. The mens think you rich woman. Take your papers, your shoes. Sell for food. Others bring you here to me.”

The vicious headache just wouldn’t quit. Jeri strove to make sense of the words, force them to mean something rational.

 Then, “Why you?” she asked.

“I am one who decides.”


“What to do with you.” 

Why should anyone need to do anything with her? Why would they even want to? As soon as the headache backed off, she’d just get up and leave, right? 


But as reason gradually returned, so did comprehension. And with it, fear. Jeri’s mouth went dry and she edged away from the voice. 

Once again, she whispered, “Why?” but heard no sound besides the susurrus of nearby breathing. 

Oh my God! What had she done?

This was a different country, a different world, a world where everything was about survival. A world with different rules. Rules she’d broken.

People went missing all the time here. Her safe little life back home hadn’t prepared her for the stark reality of the camps. 

What had she been thinking? In a single rash act, she’d thrust herself into circumstances where she had no autonomy, no agency or control, where she was entirely at the mercy of others. Others who probably didn’t have her best interests in mind — more likely hated and resented her for her pampered background.

For the first time Jeri understood the reason for the clinic rules, rigidly enforced for the safety of the valuable medical personnel.

She was an idiot! If only she’d listened. 

Like a kick to the gut, terror overwhelmed her. Her pulse went into overdrive; sphincter muscles clenching in an atavistic attempt to tuck her nonexistent tail underneath.

“Who are you?” she cried. “Are you the healer? The Fixer?”

Silence, save for the other’s breathing and the faint camp sounds beyond the tent’s walls.

Jeri struggled to sit up, her weakness making her clumsy. No restraints prevented her, though the ungodly headache remained, pounding like some relentless New York jackhammer.

The murky darkness inside the hut was stifling, making breathing difficult. She blinked, trying to distinguish the other’s appearance, but the best she could manage was an impression of a smallish person, with a high-pitched, childlike voice, yet the voice conveyed a powerful sense of command and authority belonging to someone much older.

“So what happens now?” she asked, and took several deep breaths. She had to gain control of herself if she had any hope of getting out of here, but for the moment, she must accept that her future was out of her hands. 

“When can I leave?”

“You cannot leave.” the voice replied, a cell door slamming shut.


“No!” she cried. Adrenaline hit her in a rush and she reached towards the sound of the voice. 

“I can’t stay here! I have to get back.” This couldn’t be happening. There had to be a way.

“You no have papers,” said the voice, unmoved by her fear, her need, or even by pity. “This is why I must decide you.”

Jeri slumped, tears brimming. 

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she moaned. “I came to help, but it’s all gone horribly wrong.” 

“Help, how?” asked the voice.

It was a chance, albeit a slim one; the next few moments might very well determine her fate. Jeri straightened, sniffing back tears as she collected her thoughts

“I’m a nurse at the clinic,” she began. “I’m vaccinated and can’t catch the plague. It’s my job to make sure the vaccines are properly administered.

“This morning, one of the interpreters at the clinic appeared terrified of the vaccine. He swore he didn’t need it — said a healer had already “fixed” him, but my co-workers all think it’s a scam. Either they’re like the doctors, overworked and exhausted, or they’re in league with the politicians who just don’t care because there’s so much money to be made. 

“Everyone says it’s fake, that the healer’s only pretending to have some kind of special power to combat the plague, with no medicine and no medical training. They believe that even if there is such a person, they’re doing more harm than good.”

Jeri rose to her knees, her urgent words tumbling over each other in her desperate need to convince the other.

“Look, I thought I could help. I don’t think it’s a scam. I think it’s real. I brought a vaccine to make sure the healer’s protected.” Her pleading voice broke. “But I screwed up, and now it’s all gone.”

Jeri wiped her eyes. As proof of her words, she pulled the soiled handkerchief out of her pocket and offered it to the other. 

The boy, for so it was, tugged back the ragged curtain. Bright, golden sunlight shone sideways into the tent and glanced off the shattered pieces of the vial. Jeri raised her gaze to the child’s face, appalled to see it covered with the plague’s distinctive pockmarks. The little body was bent and bruised, open lesions evident across the twisted torso. Her heart went out to him. Oh! That a child should have to endure so much! 

The boy secured the curtain and turned to lift the largest piece of glass from her hand. He hesitated for a moment and glanced at Jeri’s face, then deliberately pricked his finger. 

As a bright bead of blood welled, a ruby jewel on the small fingertip, Jeri gasped and stretched to touch the boy’s hand, intending to blot the blood. He evaded her and reached toward her head wound. Blood from his vial-pierced finger mixed with hers.

She cried out as a brilliant light exploded in her mind and the hut vanished. 

Everywhere, people fled screaming, though she knew not what they feared. As if observing a video documentary, she could do nought but watch as people were imprisoned, tortured, enslaved. Vision after vision assaulted her senses. Every evil thing that people have done to each other across the centuries, every nightmare that people have suffered throughout history, all tormented her with their unendurable pain and anguish.

And yet, she did endure. Gradually, the images slowed to a trickle as understanding emerged. 

These were the child’s memories. This child, appearing in many guises throughout mankind’s long history, had done its best to alleviate the pain of others. Compassion made manifest. The opposite face of evil. The indomitable spirit of love that can be found in all people, even the most reprehensible.

 This tortured boy’s body was merely the latest incarnation. By taking the pain and disease of others unto itself, the child saved them. “Fixed” them. By the laying-on of hands, they were healed of the desire to do harm. Not all of them. Never all of them. But enough that hope remained for the rest.

But there was a cost. Always, there would be a cost because there must be balance. For every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction. That is the law.

For how long had this child carried the burden? Perhaps days, perhaps centuries. Always, there have been uncounted stories of the martyrs, the ones who take on the evils of the world to spare the innocent. They are the responsible ones — the ones who see man’s problems and try to fix them, all the while knowing that their chance of success is infinitesimally small.

And now it was Jeri’s turn. 

Oh, she could turn away. She would face no recrimination, no judgement, no blame. She could turn from this geas and let the child continue to endure, its broken body a graphic illustration of mankind betrayed. The current plague and the avarice of the penthouse politicians were none of her doing. The torment of the people wasn’t her fault. It’s just how things have always been. Way of the world. Not her problem. 

She had the option to refuse the responsibility, just as we all do.

But in accepting, she would take on all the world’s agony for as long as she could manage, or until she could find another pure soul, one with the courage to keep trying in the face of impossible odds. 

She blinked.

Once again shrouded in the darkness of the hovel, Jeri drew a deep breath as the child’s small hand slipped to her shoulder. 

Gingerly, she touched the back of her head and felt no bump, nor even blood to show the place of injury, her headache gone as if it had never been.

“Oh!” she breathed.

For the first time, the boy smiled, then took her hand. 

As they stepped into the slanting sunlight of early evening, the child stood straight and tall. All evidence of plague and injury was gone, his skin unmarked by the open sores so conspicuous mere moments before. A delighted smile crossed Jeri’s face. Against all odds, she’d found the one she sought. 

The child led her to another derelict shelter comprising tattered blankets stretched over a low framework of branches barely tall enough to clear the wretched body lying inside. 

Jeri stiffened as she recognized the man. No longer the charismatic figure she’d watched on the nightly news reports, he had once been powerful, the leader of his people. Even now, an elusive impression of strength and purpose remained, much diminished by weakness and disease, the telltale lesions of pestilence covering his body, and a subtle dark aura surrounding him. Without help, he would die, and soon.

The child dropped Jeri’s hand and turned toward her, his gaze intent, his unasked question as clear as if he had shouted it aloud.

Nodding once, she dropped to her knees and held the man’s haggard face in her hands, drawing pain and illness from him by the sheer power of her will, extending to him the protection of her own health, immunity and vitality. When the dark aura around him cleared, she sat back on her heels, drained. 

It was done. The leader would mend now. He would rise and do the work for which he was born, and he would bring his people out of this place. 

She turned to speak to the child, but the boy was gone. 

In his place stood a slight blonde woman wearing a stunned expression and clean, brightly coloured blue scrubs printed with cartoon penguins.

“You wait,” Jeri said to the woman and stood, turning to the leader, who tossed aside a ragged blanket and rose from his pallet. 

“Take this good woman to the gate. Guard will listen to you. Will let her out.”

“Yes, Fixer,” he said.

The nurse’s eyes filled with tears. “Thank you,” she whispered. And placing her hands together, bowed in an attitude of profound gratitude.

Jeri nodded.

The leader escorted the woman away as Jeri turned back to the encampment, bathed in the rich light of the setting sun.

There was much work to do.


The Clearing

She was running, running. “Faster!” she cried. “Faster, faster!”  Shrieking with laughter and delight, she flew through the air.

Then the screaming started. Sirens sang their urgent song. Now she rode in a fairground bumper car, all flashing lights, colour and motion.The earth moved and lights streaked past overhead, a rhythmic flash, flash, flash. ‘Way off in the distance, a voice called out for someone named Nora. Golly, I hope they find her. I hope she’s okay.

Wish I knew what happened. Can’t breathe — like an invisible boulder’s sitting right in the middle of my chest. I guess it’s leftover from…something. Can’t remember. Something bad. Something really, really bad. Gotta open my eyes. Where am I? 

Weird. She lay flat on her back in some kind of forest. Shadowy, forbidding. 

What forest? Jeez, brain fog! I can’t seem to put two thoughts together to make four…um…forest. Wait! There’s no forest on campus. 

Off in the distance, unintelligible voices shouted. 

Shut up so I can concentrate! What happened? Was there an accident? Why can’t I remember? Oh, wait. Running. I was on my way to school. Yes, afternoon math class. I hate math. What good is math to an English major? Running late. Late for class. Yellow light. Should I run or should I wait?

She had to find her way out of the forest and get to class. Mustn’t be late. 

But the quaking earth beneath her only picked up speed and the noise crashed around her, sounding at the same time both nearby and far away. The boulder on her chest exploded, plunging her into the dark.

She opened her eyes. She was lying on her back on the ground.  Oh, for Pete’s sake, it’s the stupid forest again. Lifeless, blackened trees loomed over her, resentful, as if blaming her for their death. Am I lost? Yeah, that must be it. Lost in a dead, black forest. And how the hell did that happen?

The occasional furtive glimpse of the gibbous moon played ‘tag, you’re It’, with the clouds racing by overhead. Trees crowded in from all sides like a mob of bullies intent on their prey. Malevolent, evil, their sharp, spiky branches poked and prodded from all directions, urging her to move. I guess I’m supposed to be the prey. The forest floor writhed and gibbered with a horrid life of its own, making her skin crawl. Don’t touch me! Can’t you see I’m sick? Or something. 

Dizzy and weak, she shrank from it and tried to sit up, but her arm couldn’t support her weight and she fell back with a thump. Maybe if she simply lay quietly, the forest would forget she was here and leave her the hell alone. 

Where had this awful weakness come from? She still couldn’t catch her breath, and her headache was out of control. I need help. Yeah, find the voices. Have to find the voices.

All around her, bushes squirmed and flailed. God, they’re gross. Like evil worms, or slimy tentacles. And they stink. Like blood or dead things. The thought of touching them sickened her, but she had to touch them if she wanted to get up. Gagging, she pulled her sleeves down around her hands and grasped the nearest one, staggering as she hauled herself upright. It wriggled in her grip and the instant she regained her feet, she thrust it away with a shudder.

Dizziness swooped in, assaulting her in a whirling tornado of vertigo so intense, she struggled to remain standing. She held her head in her hands, moaning until the vertigo subsided. 

When it finally receded, she straightened and turned in a circle to get her bearings. Where were the voices coming from? No matter which way she faced, she couldn’t figure out where they were loudest or closest. They seemed to be all around her. Murmuring, chatting. Even laughing. No single direction gave her a clue which way to go. But she had to find them. She had to get help. And to do that, she had to set out. Just pick a direction and start moving.

But…keep away from the horrible trees. They didn’t want her here. Hell, *I* don’t want me here! She drew in her elbows, avoiding the branches, and bent over, making herself as small as she could, holding her elbows tight to her sides.

 Each time she tried to take a step, the trees crowded together, an enemy gauntlet blocking her, twining naked branches behind and to either side. They twisted and turned, obstructing every route but the one they meant her to take. Resigned, she chose the path they ordained. 

She set out, every footstep a struggle, using her hands only when she had to catch her balance, stumbling over stones, plummeting into holes, and falling over logs. One particularly vindictive root reached out and grabbed her ankle. 

She lost her balance and landed hard on a rock. Her leg shattered, a swift and savage blaze of pain, and she tumbled sideways to the ground, her mouth stretched in a silent scream. Frantic, her fingers searched for damage, but found nothing. No blood. No break. No injury. She curled herself around the pain, and lay weeping on the blackened turf.

I’m gonna die here, all alone in this stupid, ugly, Grimm’s fairytale forest. God! What’m I gonna tell my parents when they ask me where I’ve been? If I ever see them again. If I ever get out of here.

But as the pain slowly subsided to a sporadic throbbing, her resolve returned. Gotta keep moving. Sooner or later, someone would show up. They had to. Someone would help her get home. And to hell with math class. 

She dragged herself upright once again and started limping forward. She’d discovered that as long as she complied with their goading, the clustering branches would leave her alone. A small victory, to be sure, but better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. She was grateful.

At unexpected moments, the dizziness would return, washing over her in slow, swamping waves. Her immediate surroundings would fade through a fog of semi-consciousness, like some narcotic dream, and then, without warning, reappear with preternatural clarity. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth with an unnatural thirst.

After hours of wandering around, Yeah, probably in circles, she reached the edge of a babbling brook. Babbling? Oh, for the love of little green apples! Now I’m thinking in clichés. I *hate* clichés. I’d be lucky to get a C-minus on *this* paper.

The little stream ran clean and clear, its water pushing back the darkness along its banks, a welcome freshet in the midst of her nightmare. She stooped to drink, but the branches reached out and pulled her away. 

Figures. Damn trees have it in for me. They probably conjured this up just to torment me. Still, maybe I can follow it downstream. Maybe it’ll lead to civilization. 

Her knee continued to pulse and ache with an intermittent, syncopated rhythm that made no sense. Sometimes rapidly, like a machine-gun, sometimes an occasional jolt. She couldn’t do anything about it, so she ignored it except when it made her stumble, more of an annoyance than anything else.

Typical! The only thing missing now is rain or sleet or some other form of meteorological discomfort. Oh, and lest we forget the rustling in the undergrowth…can’t have a proper nightmare scenario without that.

Right on cue, the thicket to her right…rustled. Something snorted, as if testing the air for scent. Something big. Probably hairy.

Oh, c’mon…seriously?? Another cliché? I don’t believe this. 

This couldn’t be real. None of it. Chances are there was a cave or cellar somewhere nearby. Some suspicious place meant to trap your typical horror movie heroine. A haunted house, maybe, to complete the scene. All clichés firmly in place. 

Perfect! Down to a freakin’ D-minus now. I can’t even come up with something even vaguely original. Brain-dead! That’s what I am. Brain-dead.

Okay then… 

None of this is real, so why not just let the scene play out? 

Then one of the distant voices called out.

It sounded like, “Get to the clearing.”  

She turned towards it. 

But, hang on…wait just one minute.

Could she trust it? Did the voices offer a way out of this madness, or were they part of the nightmare? Were they imaginary, like the trees and the heavy breather? Or maybe they were the trees. 

Dizziness swirled and swooped, a vertiginous whirlwind playing with her perception. If she could only put two sensible thoughts together for a minute, she might be able to figure it out.

A wet drop landed on her head and ran into her eye. Then another, and the wind picked up. The moon continued to play tag among the clouds and the temperature dropped several degrees. 

Oh, crap! Right on schedule. Perfect! Wet and cold, added to fear, added to clichés. Could the stupid situation get any more Hammer Films than this? 

Soon, the forest resounded with the rush and rustle of the rain. 

Several yards away to her right, the shrubs parted and a large shape appeared briefly. Yep. Hairy…good guess. A glimmer of moonlight glinted off…

Uh oh…

Fangs! Long, sharp ones. 

OhMyGod! What if it *is* real?

She gasped and stumbled away, along the bank of the stream, searching for the clearing, no longer impeded by the surrounding trees and shrubs.

The back of her neck tingled. It was coming. Through the dark, through the wind, the large…thing…followed as if keeping pace, stalking her. Or herding maybe, taking over from the trees. When she tried to cross the stream, a low growl sounded. She shuddered. Just how close was that thing? And what exactly was it? 

Urgent now, the voice again cried, “The clearing”. 

Up ahead, a break in the leafy canopy hinted at an open space. Despite the stabbing pain in her leg, she staggered the last few yards towards the break in the trees. She chanced a look behind her, finding nothing but trees and darkness. 

Relief came with a choked sob. Somehow, she’d escaped. If she could just get into the refuge of the clearing, she’d find her way back. She’d be safe. She turned back, heedless of the repulsive vegetation, and pushed through the undergrowth. 

Something hit her hard from behind, and knocked her off her feet. A creature out of her worst nightmares flipped her over and began mauling her about, its jaws clamped firmly on her knee. At the blinding pain, her own breathless screams echoed in her head, yet she heard nothing beyond the animal’s rumbling growls. And the voices. Frantic, desperate, they urged her to fight back.

A rush of adrenaline surged and time slowed to a crawl. She beat at the beast with fists and feet, but it had her pinned. Then it started dragging her back into the undergrowth, away from the glade. 

It can’t end this way. She’d come so close. Dammit, it will not end like this!

Once again, the voice shouted, “Clearing!” very close now.

At the sound, the beast released her and screamed a blood-curdling yowl into the wind and rain, rejecting the voice’s authority.

For a brief moment, she was free. She sat up and faced the nightmare. One chance. She had one chance only. The clearing lay directly behind her; the creature roared its frustrated fury into the dark. 

Make eye contact. Face it down! She forced herself to back slowly along the ground, crab-walking inch by inch towards the dubious safety of the clearing, but the beast stayed with her, glowing yellow eyes glaring into hers.

Step by step, it padded forward until the giant claw-tipped paws were mere inches from her toes. The beast crouched to spring and she made her move. She lashed out with her good leg, catching the creature smartly on the nose. The force of the kick shoved her backwards through the scrub and she tumbled into the glade. 

The beast shook its head and sprang for her throat. Oh God! This is it! And she closed her eyes.

The voice called, “Clear!” one last time, and she convulsed. 

“Got a pulse!” someone shouted.

Everything hurt. Her palms stung and throbbed; she had the mother of all headaches, and her knee screamed its agony.

Bright lights, the smell of blood and disinfectant, and a ring of masked faces surrounded her like the trees of the forest. 

Nora had never felt safer.