Driving around without a map at weekends was their thing. They liked to follow the road randomly, following signs for odd place names, stopping for stale crisps in strange little pubs where yokels looked sideways at them. Lanes could lead nowhere or to soulless hamlets comprising of nothing but holiday lets or could suddenly emerge onto a main road heading into a busy tourist resort. They discovered tiny coves and ribbon bestrewn trees; the glint of sea to the south, mild or furious; the lushness of farmland to the north, undulating over the outlines of hill fort terraces and diving into ripe valleys.
By sunset they holed up in what passed for civilisation, eating in buzzing restaurants, clubbing if they felt like it, eventually snug in their own weekend flat overlooking the bay.
It was always Sean who drove. Nicole was look-out, spotting silly place names, pointing out the locals. This was the first time she had driven here at all. And it was night. And she drove blind.
He shouldn’t have done that.
It was miles before she could see properly. Even without the tears, all she saw in front of her was the scene playing over and over; all she could hear were the words.
He shouldn’t have said that.
The roads twisted in the darkness under trees and up over the downland. Bend after holloway after turn after hill after valley.
You need to stop.
Nicole pulled up, got out of the car and suddenly nauseous, vomited into the verge.
After a while, she found something to clean her face. Her hands shook and she wiped them down her jacket, down the legs of her jeans.
Stop thinking about it.
Nicole felt an unease crawling up her spine. She was suddenly aware of the antiquity of the land. All land is ancient, but some land has never forgotten it. She did not know where she was. She went to reach into the car for her phone to find out, but she felt uncertain of making any movement, even turning round. Especially turning round.
Were the steep cliffs and the rolling sea over the hill to her left or right? The night’s clouded blackness was sucking at her, but Nicole knew if she could will herself to get back into her car and drive, she would eventually find … somewhere.
On either side the land rose in defensive ridges. Cold air rolled down them and Nicole, hugging her jacket around her, forced herself to look properly. She was being ridiculous. They were just hills, it was just a road. Nowhere is far from anywhere and the car’s tank was full. It was just the argument still flashing through her mind. Reiterated vicious words interrupted her ability to think, to try and recognise something.
Why are you on your own?
Shh – I need to concentrate.
Slowly, Nicole made herself turn around. Behind her the road curved away into invisibility. She had stopped near a small grove. A few leaning stones, smoothed by time and innumerable hands, were mantled by an oak while yews stood guard on either side. There was barely enough light to make it out but it was vaguely familiar. In daylight it had had a primitive charm. They had fooled around it, pretending to push the stones over and stage-whispering nonsense had acted out… She had lain down in that dark centre and Sean had pretended….
Was that only today?
No, yesterday. It’s later than you think.
Nicole looked at her barely visible sweating hands and wiped them down her jeans again. Her thoughts became more insistent.
He shouldn’t have said that. He shouldn’t have done that.
What are you going to do now?
She rubbed her eyes and shook her head. She had to keep moving. As Nicole turned back to the car, there was a flicker. Had she been here so long with the lights on and the door open that the battery was draining? She hesitated, but the beam of the headlights and the glow of the interior remained steady. A fox must had run across. Or something. Instinctively she opened the passenger’s door, ready for Sean to ask her what had taken her so long and then she saw her bag on the seat and remembered.
You could stay here.
Why would even the notion of remaining in this place cross her mind? Why was she talking to herself?
You should stay here.
The lights flickered again and this time she was watching. Not a fox. A person, people. They were walking towards her and she wanted to back, sweat chilling on her face, but could not move. Her thoughts became louder.
Look round, we’re waiting.
Not her thoughts. Had any of them been her thoughts? She turned and saw them: more people emerging from the grove.
You were here yesterday. You mocked us. You pretended to draw blood yet left the ground thirsty.
“We didn’t mean to make fun of anyone, we didn’t know anyone was watching.” Nicole argued weakly. But wasn’t that when it started? Hadn’t that been when their mood soured?
The people had not moved but seemed to be pressing in on her. She reached for her pocket, and stopped. Appalled at herself, she balled her right hand tightly instead.
We know what you’ve got.
“It was …” she started.
It was what? It has been in your heart for a long time. We just showed it to you.
“If you want blood,” Nicole said, reaching into her pocket again, “here….” and threw the knife into the centre of the stone circle. She was shaking uncontrollably, tears ran down her face and soaked the collar of her stained jacket.
The people were coming closer, herding her into the grove. One leaned in and stared intently. All Nicole could register were the eyes: no whites, no iris. Voids. The soft cold voice burned in her head:
You will stay here. It said. His blood is not enough.
Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission