She should have been there first. Alone. This was her time.
The hike to the summit took thirty-five minutes. Slower than usual, but then she was out of practice. Work, family drama and a seasonal cold had all conspired to break her old routine. The path had been thick with mud, the soil churned by a myriad of walkers who had come this way since the monsoon conditions two nights before. Rain hadn’t fallen in nearly twenty-four hours now but the ground was saturated. Water permeated the dense woods, drawing out the essence of ‘eau-de-disinfectant’ from the giant fir trees, peppering the low grasses with an early morning dew. A fresh rock fall had littered the path just before the Halfway House. She slipped twice as she passed through.
Marie liked these early morning walks, climbing up as the new day came calling. The sun slowly peeked over the horizon, painting the sky with a slither of blue which would soon meld into the pink and orange hues of dawn. With the light came the early song of the morning birds, usually her only companions at this hour. On a clear day you could see for miles across the rolling Shropshire Hills. Way out west towards Wales and Caer Caradoc, or south towards Malvern. Today was no such day. Today the cloud hung low, streaming past and around her, chased away by the chill wind as though the devil were nipping at its heels. She pulled her jacket tighter, lowering her head as she made her way through the wall of cold air.
She hadn’t expected company. The weather should be keeping people tucked up in their nice warm beds. How typical, she thought, that someone else should be here already. This would ruin her one chance for respite in an impossibly busy day. She craved the solitude. To hear only the echoes of nature in an otherwise silent world. The simple, colourful melody of the morning bird song. The rustle of the wind amongst the leaves. The near silent truckle of the water that tumbled down the hillside seeking final refuge in the swollen banks of the River Severn. None of the raucous laughter of young children, the chatter and groans of ageing ramblers. No heavy footsteps of the early morning runners, or the barking of dogs so happy to be allowed to run free. All of this would shatter the tranquillity of her haven within the hour.
But this. This was her time
Marie had seen her as she came over the crest of the craggy rocks, their jagged edges and smooth plates providing safe passage through the crevice. The monstrous communications phone mast loomed to her right, masked only by a few trees, not enough to hide its ugliness. And in front of her, through the dim and misty light, she could just make out her seated form. She was resting against the small white stone monument which marked the summit. A drunk, she mused. Must have come up here in the dark after partying at the god awful club and fallen asleep. Absolutely crazy in this weather. She could catch her death, not to mention the danger she was putting herself in. Anyone could take advantage of her. Where on earth were her friends? So irresponsible to leave her alone like this.
As Marie moved onward, the wood lined hill path gave way to rock and gravel, patches of grass marking the edges like the static green landing lights along a runway. The steep incline was finished, the ground now nearly flat. A shallow rise and fall, barely more than a blip. A pothole.
As she got nearer to the woman, she could feel a stillness in the air. The chill wind settled for a moment and then blew a strange odour towards her. One which did not belong among the earthy scents of the Wrekin. It reminded her of the smell of iron railings during the rain. The smell of metal rusting.
She approached with caution. Daren’t risk waking her. Didn’t know if she would be violent. She looked young but from her scant clothing she could tell that she certainly wasn’t the kind of person she’d want to get into an argument with. As she stepped closer she also circled away, around the other side of the toposcope. She kept the woman in her sights, afraid that any sudden movement may wake her.
Marie paused to gaze out towards Ironbridge, to the imposing silhouette of the old power station. A dark patch spread out across the girls light grey jacket, catching her eye. It looked like … No. She shook her head. It couldn’t be. She had probably just been sick upon herself. Because she was drunk. Why else would she be asleep here? But it was so dark, much darker than she would have expected. It glinted a little as the morning light started to shine upon her. Dark and wet. Wet and red.
Marie stepped closer, moving around the concrete mound, edging closer to where the woman lay. No. Not woman. She was barely more than a girl. As she moved to stand before her, Marie knew. Her head shook again, her hands now joining the merry game. She wasn’t sleeping. Wasn’t sleeping at all. Her eyes were wide open. Open and glassy. Moisture clung to the tips of her dark lashes. Ran down a wound upon her right cheek. Her lips were blue, her mouth open, contorted into a grotesque smile. Her head sat a most unnatural angle. Now that Marie was closer, she could see clearly what it was that stained the girl’s jacket. What was so red. Dark. Glistening.
The birds fell silent. The chill wind stilled. Nothing moved. Even time seemed to slow to an almost dead stop. Dead. So very dead. She couldn’t hear a thing up here other than a dull and low groan. A groan which grew in pitch and volume.
A shrill cry now.
A scream, she finally realised, which was coming from her.
© Jen Lucas.