Chapter 17 – Josh

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Josh

Branches whipped across Josh’s face and arms as he ran, continuing the frantic pace though his lungs and throat burned, though his heart screamed, until he crashed to the ground. Unable to pick himself up, he wrapped his arms around his head as though lying in the forest underbrush would hide him from his assailant.

For a few shaky seconds, nothing happened.

Trembling from exertion, from the threat of the chase, from nearly dying moments before, Josh listened for Demetri, although he couldn’t quiet his own gasping to make out an approach.

Whether from the cover of the trees, the waning of the day, or his own exhaustion, the sky darkened. A pulsing whine of insects replaced singing birds.

Lifting himself to lean against a tree, Josh took a glance in all directions. 

Nothing stirred; nothing made a sound.

He couldn’t be sure at what point Demetri stopped chasing him: if Josh had outsmarted the ax-wielding maniac, or if Demetri had simply turned back, his intent instead on easier prey.

Sophia.

Demetri would have known where to find her if he had indeed been outside that subway car. She would have stayed in place with the doors closed, or she would have hidden out in her room, where she had a locking door.

But she wouldn’t have.

She would have waited for me and gone to the lobby, to the door.

She’d be in the woods.

A crunch of leaves. Snapping twigs. Calculated footsteps appeared before the face did. With a renewed surge of adrenaline, Josh was on his feet and face planted into a tree. Catching himself, he ran a few steps before stumbling again to the ground.

“Josh?”

Josh turned over to see Ajay standing over him, a bruise on his face from where Demetri had hit him and fear in his eyes.

“I thought he got you,” Ajay continued, pulling Josh to his feet.

I —” Josh whispered, barely audible. “I don’t know where he is. Did you see —?” He coughed and gingerly rubbed his bruised throat.

Ajay held out his hands as he shook his head. “Last I saw of Demetri was — dishoom!” He pointed to his head. “When I woke up, I was alone. Kieron was still in the museum, on the floor.”

Sophia?”

Ajay didn’t answer.

Did you see her?

“She and Kieron are safe together,” Ajay said. “I don’t know which way they went, but they’re not at the museum anymore.”

You said Kieron was still on the floor.

“The museum floor. Inside, I mean. They left and I stayed behind to find you.”

The forest darkened by the minute.

Josh frowned. “We can’t stay out here. Where did they go?

“I don’t know.”

They wouldn’t have left us out here. They must have said something.” He paused when a tree rustled nearby. Wind? “They wouldn’t have sent you out here alone to look for me.

The wind died down, but something moved nearby. Someone whispered.

Though the cover of night hadn’t descended yet, it was too dim to make out distant shapes.

What do we do with them?” someone whispered.

Ajay’s eyes rounded to terrified circles, and he turned and ran.

Something heavy struck Josh over the head. Light flashed behind his eyes, and he sprawled on the ground as pain bloomed at the back of his head. Gasping, he cupped his hands over the spot that suddenly went supernova.

Two people stood over him: a man and a woman. The man ran after Ajay.

“What are you doing here?” the woman asked.

Josh took a trembling breath. “Erica?” He would have known her voice anywhere, his unrequited love, his rival, his musical inspiration, but the darkness befalling him inside and out obscured her face. She looked so much older, like a different person.

“How is this possible?” she asked.

But before he could explain anything or beg for help, everything went black.

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