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It was a starless October night and the moon was barely visible in the sky. The forest was pitch black, except for the occasional patches of moonlight shining through the tree branches. Crickets chirped, critters scuttled across dead leaves, and in the distance a coyote howled.
I leaned against an old tree trunk. It was cold and my white cotton dress didn’t offer much protection. I concentrated on the soft thud of my heart and whistling of the autumn breeze for comfort.
I wished every night could be like tonight. No bickering parents downstairs in the kitchen, no sleazy best friend telling me about the boyfriend I wished I had; just me alone in the darkness. Tears slid down my cheeks, even though I begged them not to. Don’t ruin the night, I told myself, but the tears kept coming.
Suddenly, footsteps pounded against the earth, scared pants slipped through some one’s lips as they ran towards me. I stood, using the tree for support. My legs felt like jelly and I couldn’t walk in a straight line. The footsteps got louder and so did the thump of my racing heart. A stranger appeared through a line of trees.
“Hey you!” I called my voice shaky from the crying. The stranger stopped in front of me. Shadows disguised most of his face, but his panic-stricken green eyes glowed in the blackness. “Are you all right?”
“They’re coming! Hide!” He was whispering and whatever he was talking about sounded urgent.
“What are you talking about? Who’s coming?” My voice was rising in frustration.
“Keep your voice down!” he said. The stranger spun around in an anxious circle, searching the darkness. “Go hide in the bushes. Don’t let them see you!”
“Don’t let who see me?” I was still speaking loudly.
“Over there!” The voice wasn’t mine or the stranger’s.
“Now you’ve done it!” The stranger ran his hand through his hair. “Go hide in the bushes! Stay out of sight!”
“You go hide in the bushes!” I pushed the stranger into a nearby thicket just as several dark figures burst through the trees.
“Where is he?” one asked. He seemed like the leader of the pack. They were all wearing black outfits and head dresses but he was the only one with a blue sash.
“Who?” I said innocently.
The leader approached me. He circled around me, touching my cheeks, shoulders, and hair with two fingers. “I heard you talking only seconds ago. Where is he?”
I studied the man circling me. He was twenty at the earliest. Even though I could only see his brown eyes I knew he wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger of the pistol in the holster around his waist.
“He went that way,” I said, pointing towards the opposite direction of his hiding place. My legs were shaking as the leader stopped in front of me. He was now so close I could feel his hot breath on my neck as he bent over beside me.
“Liar!” he whispered. The leader of the black clan swung his arm so his open hand made contact with my face. I gasped and stumbled over a few paces. “Now, tell me, where the hell is he?”
I tried to speak, to tell him another lie, but the words refused to come out. I was in shock and the left side of my face stung. The leader grew impatient.
“Fine, if you won’t tell me…”
A singled gunshot echoed through the forest. Everything moved in slow motion. I grasped my chest and whimpered as I felt the blood ooze onto my hand. I collapsed onto the cold ground.
I took slow, uneven breaths. My chest throbbed with every inhale and I heard myself wheeze every time I exhaled. Keep breathing, Kadence, I told myself. I tried to ignore the hot blood spilling from the hole in my body and the crimson drops that pooled around me. My legs started to go numb as if Death was overtaking my body feet first.
I coughed, which brought tears to my eyes. Keep breathing, Kadence, keep breathing! My vision blurred and I was shaking with pain. I wanted to cry and scream. I wanted to sink into the blackness where I would feel absolutely nothing.
Two hot fingers pressed against my neck checking for a pulse. Some one found me! I twitched my fingers trying to let him know I was alive. A blurry face appeared in my line of sight. I think it was the stranger.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” he assured me. I tried to nod but the movement sent me into a haze of unconsciousness.
My eyes opened slowly, as if they were stretching after a good night’s sleep. I was lying on my back staring up at the light blue sky in between leaf-less branches. Robins sang and something rustled in the leaves beside me. There was pain in my chest, but I couldn’t remember what was wrong.
I tried to sit up. Suddenly, my head started pounding and an invisible force pushed me back on the ground. Air became scarce and I gasped desperately.
“Whoa! Take it easy!”
Some one clutched my shoulders, helping me back down. My head rested into their lap. A hand brushed my brown curls out of my eyes. I gazed up at the face with curiosity. Dark brown locks of hair hung above his eyebrows and a soft smile toyed with his lips. He had eyes that practically glowed green and were kind and playful but twisted and dark at the same time. They were dangerously inviting.
“Who are you?” I asked.
The boy just looked at me and smiled. He was twirling a piece of my hair and seemed perfectly content to leave me guessing. I frowned, showing him I was not amused. He laughed.
“How do you feel?” he said a few moments later.
My hand immediately reached up to my chest. There was no longer a gaping hole in my body; a neat line of stitches replaced it. The excruciating pain had disappeared like it had never been there in the first place. Flashes of the previous evening flooded my mind. A boy sprinting from danger, my hands pushing him into the bushes and taking his place in the pursuit, the bullet piercing through my flesh—everything was coming back. The same stranger standing over me after I’d been shot, promising that everything was going to be alright—yes, it was coming back.
“Did you do this?” My hand was still tracing the stitches. The boy helped me sit up.
“It’s just a little trick I learned off the internet.” He gave a little half-smile. “If you start getting dizzy, lie down again, okay?”
I stared at him. Our eyes met and a million questions arose. The stranger must have felt the same way because his smile faded and he became lost in thought.
We stayed silent for several minutes. Occasionally, we’d exchange another glance, but it never lasted longer than a second. Eventually, he looked at me and asked me about myself. I started with my name, my full one—Kadence Maria Norfolk—and then I went on about my life.
“My parents are the worst,” I told him. “They fight all the time. I don’t think they even love each other anymore. They’re just staying together for me, which just makes it even worse. And my friend, Alicia, only wants to be around me when she breaks up with her boyfriends and needs some one to comfort her.”
“Can’t you hang out with your other friends?” the stranger asked.
“I don’t have any other friends,” I said weakly. There was an awkward silence, so I quickly changed the subject. “I have a cat named Merlin. He’s my best friend.”
“That’s cool…I guess.” The stranger avoided my eyes but I knew he was hiding his pity for me.
“It’s okay,” I said, “I know what you’re thinking. ‘Look at that girl, her only friend is her cat and her parents are idiots.’ I know.” The same angry tears from last night gathered in the corner of my eye. I stared at the ground near my feet.
“I’m sorry, it’s just—”
I kept staring at the ground. Anger welled up inside me but I tried not to show it. The stranger grabbed one of my hands. I met his apologetic glance.
“I really am sorry. I wish there was something I could do to help. I still feel in debt to you after you saved my life.” The stranger covered my hand with his other hand. “Do you forgive me?”
“Yeah,” I replied. I still had tears running down my cheeks. The stranger wiped them away with the sleeve of his plaid button-up shirt. “And you don’t have to feel in debt. You saved my life too, remember?”
The stranger let go of my hand. He reached out and brushed my face with his fingertips.
“So, what’s your name?” I asked curiously.
A new look crossed his face. It was a look of caution and uncertainty yet filled with an eagerness to share.
“What’s wrong? Is there a problem?” I glanced around anxiously.
“No, everything’s fine. I just…don’t think I should tell you much about me. I’m not like you.” The stranger buried his face in his hands. I wanted to hold him in my arms and soothe him, but I settled for a simple pat on the back.
“I don’t know what you mean. Why can’t you tell me your name?” My voice was trembling. The stranger was making me nervous. He didn’t reply.
Finally, the silence broke. The stranger spoke softly but clearly.
“I don’t go to high school. I don’t live in a house with a family. I’m not like you.” He lifted his head up and I could see how much he wanted me to understand.
“I would love to live anywhere that doesn’t have parents.” The stranger gave me another half-smile.
“You say that now, but you’d miss them when they’re gone.”
“Doubt it,” I muttered. “But, anyways, I have to call you something.”
“Why not just say, ‘Hey you, over there!’?” he asked.
“It’s just not the same.” I thought for a moment. “I know! I’ll call you Stranger.” I giggled, knowing that’s what I’d called him all along.
He chuckled too and then sighed.
“Alright,” he agreed. “I’m Stranger.”
I rested back down onto the brown leaves, smiling. It didn’t take long before my eyelids drooped and it was taking all my strength to not fall asleep. Stranger stayed beside me, watching me and fingering with the ends of my curls.
“Stranger, one more thing,” I said.
“Mhmm,” Stranger replied. The smile had completely returned to his face and as he spoke it touched his voice.
“How old are you?”
“Hmm, me too.”
I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Even though my eyes were closed, visions still appeared in my mind. Stranger lifted me up, carrying me through the forest like I was Sleeping Beauty and he was the noble Prince Charming. We traveled for miles, never pausing. Stranger seemed to never tire. The whole day passed and some of the night before, finally, Stranger stopped. Stars shone all around us and tonight the moon was brighter than it had ever been. I felt safe and comfortable in his arms and I wanted to call out to him as he set me down, but I couldn’t. Soft lips pressed against my forehead and then, he was gone.
I woke up with the sun. Golden rays of sunlight shone between the branches. A navy blue sky behind it brightened before my eyes. I looked around. I was still in the forest but not where I’d been the night before. Had my dream been real?
The trees had thinned and I could hear cars zooming along on a highway nearby. There was a dirt road that led to a huge mansion and then disappeared between the trees. I searched for Stranger, but he wasn’t there.
For a second, I wanted to cry. I was about to take off running when I noticed something else. Folded neatly on a pile of dead leaves was a note with Kadence Maria scribbled on the front. My heart almost stopped beating as I unfolded the scrap of paper.
Thank you again for saving my life. If it wasn’t for you, I don’t now where I’d be right now. I’m not sure how I’ll repay you but I know how to start. Here, right now, you are starting your new life. Don’t worry about the past—I’ll take care of it. I promise I’ll come see you. I miss you already.