by Alison Clifford
He stumbled over a small rock lying on the road. The surface had been smooth so far—a soft coat of earth, compacted down by wheels that had passed, and sandy in the centre. Each side of the road was boarded by a small ditch—only a few centimetres deep and easy step over.
That’s if the traveller wanted to leave the space of the road for the thick undergrowth barricading the virgin forest from the man-made clearing.
The man looked over his shoulder, wiping beaded sweat from his forehead, and then quickened his pace. There was no sign of them yet, but they would come. He listened for them, trying to keep his pounding heart, echoing in his ears, and his breaths as quiet as possible. Would he hear them from a distance, or would the thickness of the forest around him muffle their approach? He had no idea, and he certainly had no time to think about it. He needed to be gone.
He rounded a sweeping corner and saw the forest thin out on one side. This was his opportunity to escape the confines of the road and vanish. He shuffled on, trying not to leave tell-tale signs of his progress by keeping to the harder surface. The less chance they had to find his shoeprints, the better.
He drew alongside the thinned undergrowth and after throwing another fast glance over his shoulder, considered his options. The road was a trap. It went one way with no forks or junctions. If he stuck with it they would find him eventually. He had to leave the road.
Was the clearing was too obvious? They would see it too and would almost certainly search it for signs of his passing. But it was his best bet of escaping their pursuit.
He glanced back one more time and stepped over the ditch. He carefully pushed into the thinned undergrowth, the fresh, sharp scents of the forest intensifying now he was within it. The plants around him scratched at as his skin, tangling in his clothing, but he made it out of sight of the road in a short time and then paused. He looked back at the way he’d come. This was as bad as staying on the road! Small branches on bushes had bent as he’d passed and the tiny plants that formed the ground cover had been flattened. The damage to the plants would lead them right to him. He had to think fast.
Could he go up? He looked at the trees within his range of sight, but their trucks were smooth, the first branches starting several metres from the ground. Stopping to hide wasn’t a part of the plan either—he had to keep moving. He listened, but there was still no sound of pursuit. He continued his path through the forest. At least in the thick undergrowth he had a chance of hiding.
He took another step forward, carefully moving the brittle branches of bushes aside and avoiding the tiny plants at his feet as best he could. Another step, and another—it was painfully slow progress. He looked back, pleased to note his passage was less obvious this time. Gaining confidence, he continued to creep his way deeper into the forest.
The ground under his feet began to rise—not dramatically, but telling him he was starting to climb the hill the road had skirted. He looked back where he’d come from. The plants looked undisturbed to his untrained eye, and he was satisfied those coming after him wouldn’t be able to track him now. He stopped to rest, standing beside a giant tree. He leaned back against it, allowing his weary body to enjoy the support of the solid trunk. A bead of sweat trickled down between his shoulder blades as he plucked at his shirt to pull the damp fabric from his skin, allowing cool air in. The sounds of the forest surrounded him as he closed his eyes and he listened, searching for the noise of engines. Nothing. Or wait…there was something different—water.
He opened his eyes, pushed off the tree, and listened again. It was definitely water—not a gentle trickle, but something bigger. The waterfall! A grinned—surely the first time since he’d started this hellish journey. He hadn’t realised the road had taken him so far into the forest, but it was definitely the sound of water rushing over rocks, like a violent downpour hitting the ground outside his home during a storm. Home. What he would give to be sitting down in the comfort of his own house. He shook his head. Now was not the time to dream of what might be. He was hot, tired, and needed a drink, and he knew where he could get one.
He set off in the direction of the sound, moving cautiously as before. The sound of rushing water intensified until he could see the trees thinning ahead. The air had changed as he drew close, a dampness teasing his now parched throat. A few more steps and he broke from the forest and into a clearing.
“Congratulations!” a voice called, followed by a smattering of applause. “You made it to the camp without being found!”
The man grinned. “By luck rather than plan,” he admitted. “I thought the waterfall was further into the forest.”
“Well, you made it here before the others, so I pronounce you the winner of our getaway adventure weekend!”
“Thanks!” The man walked towards the small group who had greeted him. “Now, where’s the beer?”
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