I knew I was lost.
It was a stupid challenge, I had to spend a whole weekend off in the forest with nothing but what I could pack in a backpack. No one could go with me. And my cellphone had to remain off the whole time. So no GPS.
Now I was planning on just going ‘screw it’ and turning on my phone to get the guys to take me home. Alexa was really worried about me being on my own out here, that anything can happen once I’m alone. I told her to relax. As a kid I did a ton of camping. I knew I wouldn’t do anything stupid like leaving food in my camp or getting distracted and walking off a cliff or something.
Didn’t matter now though… since I was lost.
I’d just started pulling my phone out of my pocket when I heard laughing and chatter.
I nearly dropped it, grabbing wildly for it before finally getting a solid grip. I felt relieved though, if someone else was out here, they’d be able to point the way out. Lucky day! I pushed my way through bushes and trees, tripping over tree roots as I traced the source of the sound.
I stumbled into a clearing and into the party.
Least this place looked like a party. There had to be twenty, maybe thirty people out here. Tables were set out like a banquet. A few fiddlers were prepping their instruments. People were mingling and chatting over snacks and wine.
I immediately had the sensation I was intruding. Like this was something private. But then one of the women looked up from where she was sat on the grass. She smiled broadly and waved at me.
“Hey! We don’t bite! Come over, have something to drink!”
Human contact. I shouldered my bag and made my way over to her, plopping on the ground beside her. She giggled and tucked a strand of red hair behind her ear. My first thought is that I’d never seen anyone so beautiful on this entire planet. Her smile created adorable dimples in that round freckled face, and her green eyes that seemed wide with wonder.
She cocked her head to the side.
“Whatchu lookin at, silly?”
I cleared my throat and felt myself turn a little pink. I wasn’t a teenager. I could control my hormones. “Nothing. Uh, nothing.”
She giggled again before taking a bite from a pear. She swallowed before she said, “I’m Abigail. This is my husband, Gavin.”
I did a double take and sure enough, she did have a man sitting next to her. I’d been so distracted by her I didn’t even notice him. But rather than feeling a surge of jealousy, I felt like it completed this gorgeous picture. He was as handsome as she was beautiful, with a strong jaw and dark hair that curled over his forehead. He nodded at me, his expression stoic.
Abigail pressed a glass into my hand, the amber contents sloshing about. “Have a drink! There’s plenty to share!” She said.
I lifted my cup into the air. “To my generous hosts, then,” I joked before I tipped my head back and downed the glass.
I was surprised to taste apples instead of wine. Again, I felt no disappointment, the cool glass was far more refreshing than any alcoholic beverage. I lowered the empty cup and breathed out. I’d felt more awake than I had this entire camping trip.
I heard the fiddles sound and Abigail bounced to her feet. “Come on, let’s dance!” She pulled me to my feet.
I pulled back with a nervous laugh. “Uh, your husband’s right there, and I can’t dance,” I said. I seriously couldn’t. I had two left feet.
Gavin quietly snorted and gave me quite the look from behind his bangs. “You’ll have to learn then,” He said, looping his arm through mine.
I was pulled into a circle while Abigail take the other side. With a careful whine of the fiddle, everyone joined up and I was pulled into the dance.
The party goers kept up quite the pace. I was almost dragged along the ground until Gavin pulled me to my feet. “You can do better than that,” He scolded.
And soon, I found out I could. It took careful timing, but soon I was dancing my best with the rest of them. If you could call it dancing, it was more of a graceful leaping as we spun around in a circle around a bonfire. I had no memory of this bonfire being built, but as we danced around, the flames leapt higher and higher, gaining purple and green hues. The heat baked my face and singed my eyebrows, but still I danced.
But I began to run out of breath.
When did the sun start going down? I’d lost entire track of time. I was the only one starting to slow, everyone was still keeping up with the initial pace. I tripped and collided into Gavin, who grunted and pulled me back up. “We’ve barely started, Caleb. Keep with the pace.”
It hit me like a freight train that I’d never told these people my name.
I shook my head as I gasped for breath. Beads of sweat dripped from my head only to immediately dry in the burning heat, it itched terribly. “I… I need a break,” I wheezed. Gavin was pulling almost half my weight now.
I received no sympathy from the man.
“Dance or die. Your choices were limited to those when you agreed to dance with us.”
My stomach twisted and I looked back at Abigail, ready to tell her that her husband was fucking insane. But instead I was staring into wild eyes, unable to speak as she was pushing me along.
I tried to rip backwards, away from these crazy people’s arms. It was like playing Red Rover as a kid, when you linked arms so tightly so the other team couldn’t break your bond. I couldn’t get loose, couldn’t get free. So I had to keep dancing.
As the night dragged on, I began tripping up more and more. No one noticed my discomfort, except for Gavin, who would just pull me back to my feet and tell me again that I needed to keep dancing, I had to keep dancing with them. My muscles which were invigorated earlier were screaming in agony, they were ready to give out.
And they did.
It was strange, the sudden sensation of being unable to breathe. I dropped like a rock and hit the grass. I heard my pulse in my ears suddenly come to a stop. Everything spun in circles. The music picked up. I felt my body being lifted and carefully moved away.
I looked into Gavin’s periwinkle eyes, the ethereal being staring down at me… he almost seemed sad.
“You almost made it. If you’d lasted another hour, it’d be the dawn.”