Darting around a huge boulder, Carly saw a hole in the roots of an ancient, gnarled tree. Knowing that was her best bet, she squeezed in, burying herself in the detritus of dead leaves, mud, and rocks.
It wasn’t long – maybe seconds – before she heard them coming. Shambling, shuffling footsteps on the forest floor. Entombed in her root sanctuary, she couldn’t see anything, but she heard them. Just one at first, unsteady, but inexorably moving onward, onward down the forest path. The one was joined by another, and another, yet another. All stumbling together over fallen logs and roots; struggling through the mud and slippery leaves. The sound of their feet almost had a rhythm to it. It could have put Carly to sleep, had she not been so terrified.
But then, all at once, they stopped.
There was no verbal command or shout, no gradual coming to a pause. This was an immediate halt. And silence. Until…
Jim’s voice rang out like a rifle, nearly causing Carly to cry out; her mind still muddled from fear and adrenaline. Maybe it was just a lucky guess by the silent horde, and one of them just happened to sound like Jim…
“Carly, um, we can see you. Burying your head under a tree doesn’t really make you invisible…”
Definitely Jim, then. Only he could be so condescending, and at a time like this! It was part of why she had dumped him last year. Or the year before that. One of those times.
“Carly, why don’t you come on out? We don’t want to hurt you.”
Yeah, sure, Jim, she thought. That’s why I’m hiding from all of you in this tree.
It was getting pretty cramped in there, though. Her left arm was wedged between a rock and a root, and she was losing feeling in her fingers. She tried to look around, but all she saw was dim, reddish light. She really hoped that it was her hair clouding her vision and not … anything else.
“Look, we don’t want to drag you out, but we will if we have to.”
Okay, if they really can see me, Carly reasoned, staying here isn’t really helping me. Maybe once I get out, and can get a better look at where all of them are, I can escape again.
She tried to calm her breathing, but she was still hyperventilating. And the fact that she had her head nearly buried in mud didn’t really help. She tried to call out to the horde, but was only able to manage a gasping gurgle. Instead, Carly freed her right arm, reached out from under the tree and waved.
Her left arm was still stuck, though. She shifted one way, then the other, but it wasn’t budging. With her torso wedged in under the tree, she couldn’t bring her right hand over to help free it. A detached part of her noticed that she was breathing harder again. Faster. She heard a rip in the fabric of her cashmere sweater by her left shoulder.
Dammit, she thought. No way I can return this thing, now.
She shoved her right hand out from under the tree again; this time waving, “Come and help me get out from under this tree, you miserable douche bags!” She wasn’t sure the last part of the sentence really translated all that well.
“Uh, okay, Carly. You’re stuck? We’ll help you out… And you can stop telling me that I’m ‘number one’, now.”
Oh, good. It did.
She pulled her arm back in and shifted again. Her ear was now in the mud, and she still couldn’t see all that well. She heard some muffled conversation, some of it heated.
Probably deciding who gets to gnaw on me first.
Finally, she felt hands on her legs, pulling. Another hand on her back, around her hips. She slapped at one that got a little too friendly.
“Sorry,” came the response. Bastard. Not like this is under the bleachers or anything.
Her arm was still in really tight. Every pull strained her arm even more. If it hadn’t completely gone to sleep at this point, she was sure it would be hurting like a bitch. The sleeve of her muddied sweater tugged and tore and finally gave way with a soft, slick sound and a pop.
And suddenly she was free. She slapped the rest of the hands away and dragged herself to her feet, propping herself against the tree with her right hand. Her left arm was still numb; she couldn’t get it to do anything. She wiped the mud from her face and looked at the mob surrounding her.
Okay, well, Jim and the other two guys. Who stood there, staring at her, jaws hanging open.
“Jim, really?” Carly sighed and said, “As far as angry mobs are concerned, this is really disappointing. Were you the brains of this operation?”
Or at least that’s what she wanted to say. What came out was more like, “Jinnnnee? Ryahhhnerrrsssihh. Braaaains- ghorgle.”
That’s weird, Carly thought. Usually, I’m much more artic-uh…speaking much betterish.
Jim finally shook himself from his daze and gasped, “Oh, God, Carly… I didn’t realize that it would happen so quickly…”
“Huh?” Carly said. This translated well.
Jim pointed at her left arm. Which was inconveniently no longer there. Carly stared at the tattered remains of the arm of her sweater, flapping in the slight breeze that had just picked up. She didn’t appear to be bleeding from what was left of her shoulder, but it still wasn’t a pretty sight. “Remember we were just in the library?” Jim spoke quickly. “And Doris the Librarian kinda…gnawed on you?”
A hazy series of memories flickered in Carly’s mind and began to work their way backwards. Running through the woods behind the school… Getting chomped on by the old lady in the library… Trying to find a place to hide from the hall monitors… Overhearing the school nurse saying that somebody was really sick…
Carly groaned, largely intentionally. Guess she was really off the cheerleading squad now. Fortunately, Cassidy still had that broken leg, so at least she wouldn’t be taking Carly’s place.
One of the other two spoke up. Carly dimly recognized Ramón, the school janitor. He was still inexplicably carrying a mop, and pointed the handle of it at her. “We should take her out an’ get movin’.”
Jim shook his head. “No, I can’t just…”
The third started speaking really rapidly, and in a language Carly couldn’t understand. She knew he was some sort of exchange student from Indo-… Indiana or something. Wait, Carly wondered, wouldn’t they speak American in Indiana? In any case, the guy was pointing that they should get out of there and leave her alone.
The three started to argue with each other. Ramón, a rather burly guy to begin with, clearly was getting the upper hand, with his mop handle poking Jim as an extra period at the end of every sentence. They were really going at each other and it was beginning to annoy Carly. They still had her surrounded, trapped against the tree, and … Carly was starting to get hungry. I mean, like, really hungry… It was unbelievable just how much she wanted to eat…well, just about anything right now. She was drooling.
Ew, gross, she thought, as she wiped her mouth with her remaining hand… That’s when she realized her jaw was largely gone, probably still stuck in the mud under the tree. She looked at the four in front of her.
Wait. Carly took a step back. Four? The fourth one wasn’t arguing. An old woman stood just behind the other three, who were oblivious to her presence.
Doris grinned a gaping, sneer of a grin at Carly and held a bony – literally – finger up to her lips, just as she had done so many times in the library to indicate that Carly should be quiet. She then realized that Doris was actually pointing at Ramón.
He was making some final point and went to jab the mop at Carly, and something… snapped. Instantly, she grabbed the mop handle with her right hand, swung it around, and rammed the head of the mop into the side of the foreign kid’s head. He went down easily. At the same time, Doris slammed into Ramón from the back knocking him to the ground.
Jim yelped and stumbled backwards. He was just about to run. Carly swung the mop around again, sweeping his legs out from under him. She flung the mop at the still body of the first kid, and leapt on Jim, straddling him as he struggled to get away.
She heard a snarl from beside her and saw Doris, already chomping away at Ramón’s face. Doris paused looked at the three prone figures and cackled, “Don’t you just love international food?”
Carly looked down at the face of Jim, staring up at her in terror, and thought, “Nope, I prefer American.”