Sweat pours off my brow, my already weak legs growing heavier until they give out, sending me sprawling into the dirt. Scrambling through the leaves, I heave myself up in time to meet her scream. It floods the forest, sharp with fear, and is cut silent by a gunshot.
"Anna!" I call out desperately. "Anna!"
There's no response, just the fading echo of the pistol's report.
"Thirty seconds," I mutter. That's how long I hesitated when I first spotted her, and that's how far away I was when she was murdered. Thirty seconds of indecision...thirty seconds to abandon somebody completely.
There's a thick branch by my feet, and picking it up, I swing it experimentally, comforted by the weight and rough texture of the bark. It won't do me very much good against a pistol, but it's better than investigating these woods with my hands in the air. I'm still panting, still trembling after the run, but guilt nudges me in the direction of Anna's scream. Wary of making too much noise, I brush aside the low-hanging branches, searching for something I don't really want to see.
Twigs crack to my left.
I stop breathing, listening fiercely.
The sound comes again, footsteps crunching over leaves and branches, circling around behind me.
My blood runs cold, freezing me in place. I don't dare look over my shoulder.
The cracking of twigs moves closer, shallow breaths only a little behind me. My legs falter, the branch dropping from my hands.
I would pray, but I don't remember the words.
Warm breath touches my neck. I smell alcohol and cigarettes, the odor of an unwashed body.
"East," a man rasps, dropping something heavy into my pocket.
The presence recedes, his steps retreating into the woods as I sag, pressing my forehead to the dirt, inhaling the smell of wet leaves and rot, tears running down my cheeks.
My relief is pitiable, my cowardice lamentable. I couldn't even look my tormentor in the eye. What kind of man am I?
It's some minutes before my fear thaws sufficiently for me to move, and even then, I'm forced to lean against a nearby tree to rest. The murderer's gift jiggles in my pocket, and dreading what I might find, I plunge my hand inside, withdrawing a silver compass.
"Oh!" I say, surprised.
The glass is cracked and the metal scuffed, the initials SB engraved on the underside. I don't understand what they mean, but the killer's instructions were clear. I'm to use the compass to head east.
I glance at the forest guiltily. Anna's body must be near, but I'm terrified of the killer's reaction should I arrive upon it. Perhaps that's why I'm alive, because I didn't come any closer. Do I really want to test the limits of his mercy?
Assuming that's what this is.
For the longest time, I stare at the compass's quivering needle. There's not much I'm certain of anymore, but I know murderers don't show mercy. Whatever game he's playing, I can't trust his advice and I shouldn't follow it, but if I don't... I search the forest again. Every direction looks the same: trees without end beneath a sky filled with spite.
How lost do you have to be to let the devil lead you home?
This lost, I decide. Precisely this lost.
Easing myself off the tree, I lay the compass flat in my palm. It yearns for north, so I point myself east, against the wind and cold, against the world itself.
Hope has deserted me.
I'm a man in purgatory, blind to the sins that chased me here.