Morning dew clung to the towering conifers as the jogger’s footsteps pierced the forest. Damp air and thick fog devoured the pounding noise until it was nothing more than a whisper of spongy sneakers bouncing lightly against the narrow dirt path. Brooke adored the lovely isolation, despite the eerie atmosphere. Most morning exercisers avoided the secluded trail that wound uncomfortably near the cemetery, but she found peace there, amidst the silent headstones. Blond tresses sweeping back and forth across her shoulders, she arbitrarily shifted to the left at a fork in the path. It wasn’t her usual run, but the heightened beat of the next song thumping against her eardrums through electric blue headphones urged her to push further. She was free, unbound by routine.
Today would be different.
Three extra miles had been tagged onto the journey, Brooke guessed by the amount of time she’d been taking her detour. The trail was narrow and crowded with foliage, and thankfully completely deserted, saving her the awkward process of having to dive into a bush to make room for oncoming foot traffic. Rain from the previous evening pooled in potholes, and she made a point of stomping through them to cool off. Although she knew she’d regret it later, once her body returned to its normal temperature and picked up on the brisk 60 degree-high day, it didn’t matter at the time.
A shallow trench ahead of her took up the entire path and was filled to the brim, reflecting a flock of passing geese and overhanging pines in the dark puddle. She accelerated, heart leaping with childish excitement as she aimed her next steps.
Her foot broke water with an audible splish as she savoured the moment, little droplets of mud and water clinging to her ankles. In the midst of her bound, something tickled her cheek and clung, and she pushed past it, as if breaking a spider web. The subtle feathery touch brushed her knee as well, and then her elbow. Adrenaline flooded through her in the fraction of second she had to imagine what sort of monstrous arachnid had such a vast domain, but there was none to be found.
The solid, dusty ground did a poor job of breaking the contact her knee had with it. She tripped over the empty trench, a good foot deeper than it had been, and crashed to the ground with a yip and a groan after impact. She lay where she fell, wincing and absorbing the remaining waves of pain as they came, pulsing underneath the skin on her knees and the raw, gravel-bitten palms of her hands.
She didn’t remember falling so far; it seemed like she was in the air for too long. Dusty fingers felt her temples and cheeks, and she hissed when fingertips found the raw scrape. Shakily, she stood and slowly brushed herself off, knees weakening as she looked around.
Everything was gone. The conifers, the birds, the grass. The sky was a sickly grey, and path no longer wound around a pond, but circled around rows of tall, rectangular buildings with abandoned cars parked alongside them, all caked in dust. She gritted her teeth, frustradedly trying to decipher any logic out of her location, out of how she had fallen there. It looked the same, but not quite. Which was it? Brooke took a step forward, testing how easily she could walk. Her left knee bore the brunt of her collision, blood trickling all the way down to her socks. It stung when she walked, but nothing felt broken.
The quiet was a deafening static that promised nothing, nothing for miles and miles. She clenched her fists, resisting the urge to scream at the emptiness, to cry and beat her fists against the dirt until anything about where she was made any kind of sense.
“H-Hello? ...Hello?” Her voice was trembling, and after a few minute’s hesitation she approached the front door of one of the buildings. Her knuckles lightly tapped on the metallic surface, and when that produced no result, she pounded, showering the cracked pavement with dirt that collected on top of the door frame.
Several windows were broken, and some other doors were ajar, but Brooke was too frightened to explore indoors. She had been running, she recited mentally, and it had been November 4th, 2011. She had been a few miles from home. She’d blinked, and bam, somewhere else. Brooke turned back to the trench and knelt down to inspect it, to run her fingers along the curves of it. It was the same trench, the same spot, the same trail.
Her heart thumped frantically as she reached for the thick elastic band around her arm, securing her phone. She peeled off the Velcro and unlocked the touchscreen, dialling home frantically. A robotic female voice responded.
“This number has been disconnected or is no longer available. Please check the number and try your call again. Error report 564.”
She hammered in her boyfriend’s phone number. Nothing.Then her mother’s. Her sister’s. About two thirds of the way through her contact list, she was on the verge of tears. One last number, she reasoned, and phoned her father.
“This number had been disconnected or is--” She ended the call and took a deep, trembling breath. The thin layer of sweat was making her shiver, and she could feel the chill of the air all around her.
Somehow, it was still morning. A hollow breeze rolled an empty bottle along the broken concrete as she stared at the phone, trying to understand. She dialled 911.
There was a ring tone. She wanted to screech with joy, but it felt wrong in the middle of the stone-dead silence. It rang another time, and there was a click. She could hear breathing on the other end of the line, but the receiver didn’t speak.
“H...Hello? Please, I need help. I don’t know where I am. I’m not sure what’s happened to me--” The male voice on the other end cut her off with a distant chuckle and a murmuring, as if he was speaking to someone else. She strained to make out the words, and as she tried to listen, it occurred to her that she could be dreaming.
“Hello? Help me, please!” she whined, sure that emergency services wouldn’t ignore her in reality. It wasn’t possible.
“We got another one!” the voice was still addressing someone else. “Stay right there.” The voice commanded, and hung up immediately.