Dimitru tried to comfort her, but his heart pounded so hard in his chest that she felt it on her back. And his hands trembled almost as much as her own. Unable to just stand there any longer and do nothing, he swore and released her. He snatched his gun from the floor and went to the window. “Someone’s out there. There’s got to be someone behind this. Someone’s trying to scare us.”
Maria saw the still-burning log she’d used earlier. The floor beneath it was blackened and smouldering. She grasped the firebrand and held it before her. She glanced in every direction, unsure where the next attack would come from. Fear ruled her brain. She was terrified and her mind screeched at her, telling her to flee at all costs. But there was nowhere to go. They’d thought the cabin a refuge and now it was a cage, trapping them.
Dimitru, looking out the window, started and instinctively raised his gun. “Something’s out there.”
“I want to go home!” Maria whimpered.
From outside in the night, from a direction that neither could pinpoint, came the coldest and most evil laughter that Maria had ever heard. Wicked and carefree, it filled her with foreboding.
“Dimitru…!” Maria sobbed, shaking with terror.
“It’s ok, Maria,” he told her, gripping the rifle tightly in his hands. He was trying to be brave, but his face was pale and his eyes were filled with worry. He moved towards the door. “It’ll be all right. I love you. I’ll protect you. I promise.” He reached for the door, hesitated, then seemed to find his courage and grasped the handle. He slowly pulled the portal open. The creak of the hinges cut through the night. He stood there, pointing the rifle out through the open doorway, waiting for something to come at him. Nothing did. He took at cautious step forward. Then another. He glanced over his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Maria. Everything’s going to be ok.” Then he looked out into the unnaturally foggy night and raised his voice. “I’m not scared of you. Whoever you are, come out! Show yourself! You can’t scare us. You-”
Something reached down from above the door, grabbed Dimitru by the hair, and plucked him up and out of sight.
Maria tried to scream, but though her mouth opened and her throat constricted, no sound came out. She trembled so hard that the firebrand dropped to the floor. Staring at the empty doorway, she hugged herself and rocked back and forth, silently screaming for the man she loved.
A shot rang out from on the roof. Ceiling beams creaked. Dimitri cried out in pain once, then twice. Two more shots sounded. Something hard hit the roof, sending bits of dust down around Maria’s head. Then, there was only silence.
Maria waited. The firebrand on the floor petered out. Blood dripping down the chimney became too much for the fire. Without fresh wood to feed it, the flames dimmed and left the interior of the cabin nearly as dark as the world outside. As if in sympathy, the candle by the bed flickered and puffed out.
Something heavy tumbled down the roof and fell to the ground on the other side of the cabin with a soft thud.
Maria didn’t move. She waited, then begged. “Dimitru. Please come back,” she whispered, tears streaming down her face. “Dimitru. Please.”
The night was silent. Then came a faint scratching of motion and a voice, barely loud enough to hear.
Fresh tears burst forth as Maria recognized Dimitru’s voice.
She sobbed. He must be hurt. And he was calling for her. She shook her head. She didn’t want to go to him. She wanted to crawl under the bed and hide. She wanted to force the sun to come up and for all of this to be nothing more than an awful nightmare. She wanted to run home to the safety of her mother and father’s house and never leave.
“Ma…ri…a…” His voice sounded weaker.
Maria felt something tug her chest. She loved him. She was terrified, but she loved him and he was hurt and he needed her. She needed to go to him. She looked about and saw the poker from the fire. She took it and made her way to the door. Still trembling, she peeked outside.
She could barely make out trees in the blackness. The fog made it a starless night. Dimitru’s voice came from around the corner. Hesitantly, she stepped outside the cabin, brandishing the poker at whatever might be waiting for her. Her instincts warred within her. Some wanted her to turn back around and hide in the cabin, even though she knew that it wouldn’t keep her safe. Part of her wanted to flee for home. But Dimitru needed her. It took everything she had, but she focused on that. She focused on her love and it gave her strength, gave her courage. She rounded the first corner of the cabin, then the next.
Dimitru lay crumpled against the back wall. His mouth moved, but he no longer had the strength to call her name.
Maria rushed to his side. She squeaked as she saw the blood on his neck and two puncture marks where something must have bitten him. She dropped the poker and grabbed him, trying to haul his heavy body up, willing him to move. But it was like something had drained all the energy from him. His body was limp and useless.
Slowly, his eyes focused on her. “Maria…” he breathed.
She leaned forward. “I’m here. I’m here, Dimitru.” she sobbed.
Maria blinked through the tears. “No. I can’t leave you.”
Cruel laughter peeled through the night, chilling Maria to the bone.
“Run…” he begged her.
Maria turned and fled with a sob of despair. She ran as hard as she could. Her young legs stretched out and she pushed herself faster than she’d ever run before. Rocks, twigs, acorns, and other detritus sliced the soles of her feet as she ran, but she didn’t slow. The pain only fuelled her mad panic. Tree branches whipped past her face, scratching her delicate skin. Her heart pounded and her lungs burned with effort and tears streaming from her eyes blurred her vision, but still she ran. Until she could run no more.
Winded and legs burning, she slowed and fell to her knees. Gasping to recover her breath, she pictured poor Dimitru in her mind sobbed.
A twig snapped in the darkness.
Maria didn’t dare to look. She stood and ran again. She tired and slowed because the distance was far, but she tried so hard not to stop moving, lest whatever was chasing her caught up.
Evil laughter echoed through the forest. First it came from behind her. Then from her right. Then from her left. She was surrounded!
Maria felt terrorized beyond all thoughts but one: home. Home. She needed to reach home. She’d be safe if only she could return home, to the safety of her family’s four walls and locked doors and her father and his guns and the light and the fire and – Maria stumbled from exhaustion.
Her toes slipped under a root and down she went, her hands and then her face plowing into dirt and old leaves below a tall, thick oak. As her chest hit the ground, it compressed, forcing all the air from her lungs in one great rush. She lay there, stunned, gasping for breath that wouldn’t come, using lungs that wouldn’t work. She struggled to breathe as precious seconds passed. At last, her diaphragm relaxed. She inhaled deeply and a sense of relief warmed her. For a long moment, she lay there, spent, the danger forgotten.
Something cold and firm lightly pressed into her shoulder. A palm. Fingers. But as chilled as those of a corpse.
Maria went still. Something moved behind her. It pressed up against her head. Then a voice, the same voice that had laughed before, whispered in her ear. It whispered an old children’s nursery rhyme, but murdered all kindness in the words and filled them instead with malice and hunger and promises of death.
“Are mama o fetiţă, cat un ghemotoc. Are mama o fetiţă, cuminţică foc.” Mommy has a little girl, small as a ball of fur. Mommy has a little girl, and she’s a very good girl.
Fresh tears burst forth. Maria sobbed and buried her face in the soil. She was covered in cuts and dirt and blood and she shivered uncontrollably from fear and pain and exhaustion. But the moment her attacker’s creepy hand pulled away, she was up and running again.
The forest passed in a blur. The fog was gone now. In fact, she could see more than before. The sky was no longer black, but a dark gray. Dawn was coming! Maria stumbled and ran, weaving her way clumsily through the forest. With each step, the world seemed to grow brighter and it gave her hope.
Then as if by magic, she saw a light ahead of her. As she grew closer, she saw that it was a bonfire, her father’s bonfire, the one outside her family’s home. Joy bloomed in her chest.
Her father’s strong voice rang out in the night, “Maria!”
Maria wanted to call out, but she was running so hard, and was so out of breath.
“Maria!” her mother shouted, voice filled with both anger and concern.
Maria tried to cry out, but she was too tired. There wasn’t enough air in her lungs. But she was close now. Close enough to see her father standing at the edge of the forest. Close enough to see her mother standing in the doorway to the kitchen. She was almost home. She smiled and reached out. “Pa-”
Someone grabbed her from behind and yanked her to a complete stop. They thrust her up against the tree like a rag doll. Her feet touched only air. She hung there, helpless, heart racing, bound in place by hands as strong as iron.
Two burning eyes, red and utterly terrible, appeared before her. They were impossibly large. They drew her in as if consuming her very soul, intent on burning her alive. She caught a flash of white fangs just before they pierced her throat.
Maria tried to scream, but nothing came out. She felt warm liquid trickling down her neck and instinctively knew that it wasn’t sweat; it was her blood. She heard the creature sucking it up, eagerly guzzling her life force. She tried to fight back, but it was like pounding her fists on stone. Her arms grew weaker and her body grew colder and colder. Finally, her limbs fell limp, all energy gone. She could do nothing but hang there in his devilish grasp as he drank from her, as he consumed her.
The night began to deepen once more. At first she thought it strange, knowing that the sky should have been growing lighter with dawn’s approach. Then she realized the truth: she was dying.
The mouth at her throat relinquished its bite. The ice-cold hands released her body and she fell to the forest floor like a sack of soft potatoes. Maria tried to focus her eyes. There was her father, only a dozen steps away. She could see the concern on his face. She could see his love.
A hand, pale of skin and with nails like talons, reached down and plucked something from her body.
Something fluttered to the ground in front of her. Slowly, her vision refocused on it. It was the newsprint that Dimitru had given her. Poor Dimitru. She could just read the big, bold letters of the title through smears of her own fresh blood. London.
And then she saw no more.