By Anne Jackson
I’m falling. Spiralling out of control in the breath of a scream that splits the darkness, jagged edges scraping across skin. I cry out but no-one hears. Darkness is empty, and tears are falling in splinters of crystal bright like glass that cuts my eyes. Shadows are chasing. I’m falling. Towards the rocks below. I wake in a cradle of shame. Drenched in sweat, hot and shivering.
Mum bangs on my door.
“Ashley, open the door. Let me in! Are you alright?”
“Are you having nightmares again. Talk to me.”
I huddle down under my blankets, wrap their heat around my damp and sticky skin, keeping quiet, hoping she’ll go away. I don’t want to talk. Don’t want to go over the same things, hearing her say it will be alright. She doesn’t understand. Nothing will ever be alright. I’ll always be me; always be different.
“Bring a bottle, something strong. And a torch.” Jess had grinned, like cold stretching in her skin, her eyes snake dark. “6’oclock at the carpark. They lock the gates. Everyone’ll be gone. Don’t be late or you’ll get left behind.”
When Jess asked me if I wanted to go to the lookout at the National Park, I just stared at her. She’d never really talked to me before and I didn’t like her group much. I almost said no, but then Thomas smiled at me. He was standing behind her and his smile washed over us like a swirl of summer, warm and bright.
I’d just moved house and school, had no nearby friends, and I really liked him. I wanted to get to know him. Even if it meant being friendly to Jess. “Yeah sure,” I said, trying to play it cool. Thomas smiled, “see you there”. The words dripped off his tongue like honey, sweet and full of promise. My stomach flipped with a tremble.
I paced round my room telling myself not to go. It’d be dark in the park after 6, full of shadows, and I didn’t know the trails like they did. And I shouldn’t drink with my new meds. It could make the anxiety worse. Make me see things.
But as it got closer to 6, I kept seeing Thomas’ smile.
Maybe I could just have one drink, I thought. Just to fit in. Yeah, it’ll be ok, just one drink’ll be ok.
The trail was really steep. I was at the back, Jess in the lead, with Thomas in front of me, holding hands with Sara and Danielle. We passed the whiskey bottle, but I only took a mouthful. The ground was slippery with muddy puddles, and loose stones rolled beneath my shoes. I kept my head down, watching carefully where I put each foot.
Suddenly I looked up, realising I was alone. I couldn’t see or hear anyone. They’d disappeared.
Up ahead the trail turned. The ground on my right fell steeply and on the other side spindly trees reached out of the scrub, looming over the path as if barely holding on to the soil. Dead, blackened branches sprawled towards me between jutting outbreaks of rock. I turned to see how far I’d come. The sky stretched out, lengthening over the top of dense bushland. The trail wound, small and spindly, down between the trees. In the distance the fog of the city burnt golden red, as the sun sunk below the edge. My heart began to pound. I looked over the side. It would be so easy to slip. There was no-one to catch me. Silence hung between the darkening branches.
I had to get out of there. Get home. Get safe. I started to run, sliding down the trail. I could hear laughter behind me. I thought they were laughing at me. Heard their voices sharp and spiky.
“Ashleee! Ashleee!” It was like a taunt. “Where are you going? What are you scared of? It’s just a bit of fun?”
I couldn’t stop. Shame was eating me up, gnawing at my stomach, but my head kept telling me to run. That I wasn’t safe. I slipped in the mud, skidded and fell, grazing my hands. I swung my torch around, beating back the shadows.
Finally, I found the car park and huddled up under the shelter, pulling my knees to my chin, breathing deep, slowing my heartbeat like I’d been shown.
Jess’s voice came down the trail, and I set off alone, out of the park. I didn’t want them to see me.