Beat. Beat. Beat.

Our feet pound harder than our hearts, here in the endless dark. Tinny club music becomes eerie, leering, surrounded by lush woods. Kathy’s dutifully built fire has dwindled to acrid smoke that we can’t see. But we keep dancing, feverish.

Never in my twenty three years has camping enticed me, and Jas and Kathy only mean as much to me as the crumbling terraced house we share. But guilt has been working as a surrogate for friendship long before tonight. For all of us.

Jas’ boyfriend of five years, Marcus, the so-called love of her life, finally left her. She complained that he accused her of cheating, something she wouldn’t dream of. When she told us, her tear-filled eyes dared us to call her on her lie. At the time, I was stunned into silence, indignant. Honestly, I was more impressed that she could commit to her dishonesty so strongly, even when she had nothing left to prove.

Kathy and I are barely more well behaved than Jas, but we’re better at recycling. We keep our dissatisfaction on the inside. We let it swirl endlessly around our bodies, instead of dragging it to some unsuspecting, mediocre man and letting it fester in front of him, hoping he’ll bear some of the weight, or help us throw it out for good.

Most of my life has been spent leaving messes for other people to clean up, and it got infinitely worse with these two to egg me on. I used to screw people over in an endless search for something that would satiate my desire. Now I just do it for fun. Kath has asked me plenty of times where my wanting comes from, I shrug off the question every time. I’m like a crack baby, pumped full of love in the womb only to be spat out into a world that swears up and down there’s none left. Whatever I’m missing is primal, biblical, I’m past the point of making it my possession. I need it to want me back. Jas understands this, she pushes the boundaries of her cruelty to push how far she can stretch the love she gets, praying that she’ll never have to watch it snap.

That’s why she’s plagued with heartbreak now. Paying penance, the elastic proved flimsy and useless. We thought it might be good for her, to hurt. That it might make her more like us. Ruthless. She’s tried, spent all month shedding thinly layered inhibitions, leaving no impulse denied. But when Marcus left, he took every ounce of her sense with him. Recklessness isn’t sticking in her bloodstream, but she keeps injecting it anyway. It’s hard to tell if she’s looking for distraction or destruction.

Her latest expulsion of misery requires the three of us, bloated with vodka and swaying in tiny frayed denim shorts. Next to us, Kathy’s car cools, the boot left open so our bounty of snacks can spill out, ready to be grabbed at a moment’s notice and inhaled with another swig of bitter alcohol. So deep into the night, the air is static and freezing, and regret pools in the centre of my chest. I chase it with an entire can of craft beer, the six-pack sitting in the boot a relic from our stint as groupies one choking summer.

Slowing down isn’t an option, because the alternative to delirious movement is a frosty damp. I can’t tell if it’s sweat or a light drizzle, but it realigns my mind and body to a stark, unfamiliar degree. None of us are dressed for the wilderness, and part of me hopes we’ll be chased back home by the cold. The night can only really end one way, and I would rather rub Jas’ back and hold her hair back in the dim yellow light of our bathroom than under the watchful eye of mother nature.

After a while, the music becomes background noise, its echoey thrum blending with the night time breeze. My feet ache, so do my temples, and I crave something warm, a gooey pizza or a mug of tasteless tea. When Jas asked me to come out, I wanted to say no. I’ve been telling myself lately that I’m different, less aimless and pathetic than the two of them, and I’d been starting to believe it. But when I thought of the pine tree scent and bumping along the road in Kathy’s car, my resolve disappeared, turned misty by the itch to get fucking plastered. Suddenly, it was being swaddled in a blanket alone all night that sounded aimless and pathetic. 

I stop dancing, but the woods don’t. The trees seem to lean towards me, their branches claw at the air as I stumble to lean against Kathy’s car. All night we’ve been babbling drunken nonsense to each other, but a weighty hush has fallen over us, even as the music plays on. Jas’ expression is crumpled, threatening tears, so Kathy suggests a lap of the surrounding  woodland to sober up, as if that will stop the crying. The car’s boot is still yawning open. I shut it. To keep myself pliant, I picture the sunrise, pale yellow and pink, closer to us now than midnight. As we walk the trees grow thicker around us, they become towering and solemn, like mourners at a funeral, watching as a coffin is lowered into the dirt.

We follow the light of Kathy’s phone torch, darting haphazard ahead while she tries to multitask guiding us and comforting Jas. The harsh brightness draws flashing figures into the shadows. My mind, still blurry and disconnected, turns them into things more monstrous than scuttling woodland creatures or malformed branches. I speed up to be closer to the others, an arm’s length between us. No one says a word, the only sounds are Jas’ sniffling and our damp converse pattering on softened leaves and dirt. My arms are pricked with goosebumps, and for the millionth time I regret coming out tonight.

We walk until we come to a clearing, and for the first time all night I notice moonlight. Everything tinted with cool blue magic, it’s easy for something reminiscent of love to bubble under my skin. These two girls have ruined me; I cannot blame them for my faults, only for making them stick. But just like everything I hate about myself, they’re still here. Here in the freezing dark, that counts for something.

Taking turns, we lean against the coarse trunk of a giant oak tree, its leaves shrouding us in shadow and its cool moss somehow soothing against my even colder arms. Jas is done crying, and through stuttering deep breaths is the ghost of a mischievous smile that promises: we are not going home.

The moon keeps its floodlight beam on us as we drunkenly giggle at each other. My head is fuzzy and warm, I feel fondness swim through the fleshy grey matter of my brain. I wonder why I was so reluctant to be with these girls tonight, why I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking of ways to abandon them. I think of all the time we’ve spent off our faces, taking our lives into our hands with chipped nail polish and crumbling them, like the plaster of Kathy’s bedroom wall. That awful room, which Kathy only took to stop me and Jas arguing, because she only knows how to placate, not problem solve. Jas, who’d thrown all my worst traits back at me during that argument. I’d done the same. We would spend the rest of our lives fighting like that without Kathy, our snotty wide-eyed child, racking her brain for ways to make the yelling stop.

From where I’m standing, I notice a glint in the trees, movement that disappears before I can give it shape, but lingers enough for paranoia to seep in. I blink it away. A long, slow, drunken blink. My eyes open only after I hear the crack, the sight of Kathy’s twisted slacken jaw at odds with the branch I imagined snapping. Her head is facing away from me and Jas, so our last image of her is her bleach fried braid coming apart at the seams and tiny beads of her blood sweeping through the air.

Before fear registers in my mind, my body stumbles forward to check on her. The thing that tore Kathy from her spot right next to us remains in the trees, and it’s only when I picture it tearing into her, bones poking out through neon green polyester and meat chunks on studded denim, that I allow myself to think it. Kathy is dead.

I don’t know if I’ve said it aloud, but as the words hang in my thoughts, Jas starts screaming. When she clings to me, I fight the urge to push her off, and we take off running, conjoined in a three-legged race back to our campsite, to the car. Kathy’s car. I feel more than hear or see the thing chasing us. It moves fast, eager. Hungry. As we crash through the woods I wonder when it knew we were here, when it decided it wanted us. Horror movie monsters flick through my mind: werewolf, zombie, burly faceless killer. None of them conjure even a fraction of the fear coursing through me now. We run in circles, the forest’s canopy blocking out moonlight, no phone torch as a darting north star. All that propels us forward is a primal fear. Totally blind, all we are running from is the feeling.

The woods feel endless, and I feel the shockwaves of my feet pounding against the forest floor with every frantic step. Jas still has a hand latched onto me, her grip tight enough to bruise, her acrylic nails threatening to break skin. Her panicked breath wheezes in my ear. She’s slowing us down. But it would be worse to stop, to pry her away from my body, so we keep running.

My chest burns, my legs burn, my entire body feels ablaze. I’m halfway to collapsing, and Jas looks worse. Panic, pain and confusion twist her face into something unrecognisable, every ounce of her usual self confidence being poured into forward movement. It seems impossible that we can keep going, and the campsite is nowhere in sight. I have a sneaking suspicion we’ve been going in circles, for what feels like hours. Every step could be bringing us closer to the thing chasing us, it almost makes me laugh. Me and Jas, hamsters in a bloodthirsty wheel, prey running right into the gaping jaw of its predator.

And then the ground is plummeting beneath us, or we are skyrocketing through the air. A branch snags my arm. It draws blood; the warm, pleasant sting of an injury I can handle. Then the wind knocked out of me, pine scent and something vaguely plastic filling my lungs. Jas’ breath comes in husky drags from somewhere nearby, but I ache too much to try and place her.

I can raise myself up on my elbows just enough to discover I’ve landed on an empty converse, its pastel coloured stripes stained rusty brown. Kathy’s body is nowhere to be seen, until I hear the shuffling of dirt. Adrenaline pushes awareness of my body, stinging and sore, to the back of my mind, and I turn to face the sound. Here is where Kathy has been discarded, torn and twisted, face down in the dirt. Jas has disappeared. Dumbstricken, the urgent stream of blood coursing useless through my body, I gaze out into the darkness. If she had been stripped from the scene, she would have done it the way she does everything else: loud and leaving chaos in her wake. A silent exit can mean only one thing. She left me.

The thought makes me spring into action. I dust dirt and mulch from my hands and take off, towards a cluster of trees that might shield me from the predator skulking around after us. The woods scratch at me, twigs and stinging nettles determined to slow me down. Intermittent footsteps rush alongside my own. My breathing comes in gulping heaves, I’ve been running so relentlessly that the edges of my vision feel hazy, somehow even blacker than the moonless woods.

Only when the lingering smell of smoke hits my nose do I allow myself to slow even a little. I grope around in the dark until I find the cool metal of Kathy’s car. I open the door, and then once, twice: the shriek of Jas’ name, drawn out till my throat feels shredded, burnt hot red. The empty space in front of me stays that way, there’s a pang of disappointment, guilt, but then I take it as a sign of mercy. As I fumble in the car, my blood beats insistent through my veins, prodding through my skin, pushing out the way barbed wire and tacky plastic jewellery press in. Still virtually blind, surrounded by darkness, the rustling trees must be imaginary, but it makes panic surge through me all the same. I think of their bodies, mangled and torn. I think of mine, vibrant and alive. The mesh of my top is matted and sticking to my skin, I imagine by blood instead of sweat. A whispered sob, sorry, and then a hand on the wheel. Looking up, I notice the sky is starting to pale, a weak, transitory blue. I start the car.