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By My Side: One

She runs. Her legs ache and tremble and beg for mercy, but she staggers on. Spindly branches reach for her in the darkness, scratch her face, her arms. Vines seem to slither around her ankles, trip her, drag her down, but still, somehow, she staggers on.


Away. Just away. She doesn’t know where she’s going, can’t see a thing, doesn’t even know where she started. She just has to get away.


Her foot twists on a thick, uneven tuft of grass and she tumbles, sprawls on rough, frosty grass, feels ice seeping through her dress. She freezes. Did she scream? 


She doesn’t think so, but her throat feels tight, raw. An echo of a scream pierces the darkness. Hers? Or maybe it’s a screech. A fox. A bird of prey, circling overhead, just waiting for her to give up.


A twig snaps nearby and white hot terror trickles down her spine. 


Run, run, run.


No. He’ll see her if she runs. It’s not dark enough. He’ll chase.


She can’t outrun him. Not again. 


Her lungs are burning, every fibre in her body drained. She’s shaking. Fear, cold, exhaustion. They’ve all melted into one. She holds her breath, trying to make herself smaller, willing herself to melt into the shadows.


She can sense him. He’s on the grass now, his footsteps silent. But she can feel the evil. Smell him. His hunger is palpable, filling the still air like smoke. He’s getting nearer.

She can’t run. She can’t escape. He’s going to get her.


★ ★ ★


It was just a date. Nothing more, nothing less. Entirely standard behaviour for adult human people. 


Isla sighed and made a face at herself in the mirror. She had put on too much eyeliner. Thirty-two years old, and she'd never quite cracked the smokey eye thing without making herself look like a four-year-old who raided her mother's makeup bag.


She grabbed a cotton wool pad and wiped the whole lot off. She would just go au naturel. Start as you mean to go on and all that. No point in fooling him into thinking he'd bagged himself some sophisticated sexpot only to disappoint him when she farted in her sleep or something.


Not that there would be any sleeping shenanigans tonight, she reminded herself firmly. Jaggy nerves fluttered about her tummy. Not tonight. 


She hadn't shaved her legs, just to make sure. Au naturel was one thing, but even she wouldn't get herself into a situation wherein the poor boy would wish he'd brought a lawnmower. A bit of fuzz would keep her sensible even if she got carried away.


Isla gave herself a rueful stare and reapplied her eyeliner, carefully this time. Just a wee bit. Understated and subtle. Or at least, a bit less like a panda who'd had a rough night. 

She would have the one drink and stay entirely sober and sensible. Two, at most. Bottled beers. The kind that was flavoured with apricots and waterfalls or something. She could never drink those fast because they tasted horrible, so there was little chance she'd accidentally find herself steaming. She would sip her wanky beer and make polite conversation. Before she knew it, it would be all over, and she'd be back home in her jammies with tea and toast and crap telly. 


Then she could tell Najat at work tomorrow that she had done it; she'd gone on a date. She had rejoined the human race and could now be considered perfectly normal, thank you very much. She would add, almost as an afterthought, that it was hardly her fault he was a boring arsehole she never wanted to see again. Najat wouldn't bug her about her love life for half an hour, maybe. If she was lucky. But it would be half an hour of peace, and that would be something.


Isla forced herself to take a deep, calming breath, the way she was taught. In through the nose, all the way down to the very depths of her tummy, and slowly, slowly all the way back out. She felt her ribs expand and contract, and then her fingers fizzed with pins and needles, and she had to grab the bathroom sink until the wave of lightheadedness passed. Maybe there was such a thing as breathing too deeply and calmly.


She was, of course, being ridiculous. People went on dates all the time. Right this very minute, folk were on dates all over the city. Staring into one another's eyes over expensive wine in Merchant City bars. Trying in vain to bowl sexily at Glasgow Quay. Walking for miles along the river, barely noticing hours slipping by as they blethered about nothing. Normal people. Engaging in unremarkable, bog-standard, human mating rituals. 


Though thinking about it, maybe dates weren't as typical as they once were. These days, wasn't it all about swiping and booty calls and dick pics? Isla glanced at her phone. The only text she had from him confirmed what time he'd come round for her. Perfectly polite, even verging on formal. Not a single picture of his willy. Maybe he didn't fancy her. Maybe she should be insulted. 


Shouldn't he be here by now? She glanced at her phone. Seven minutes past seven. That wasn't late, exactly. Was it? He seemed like the punctual type. The standing-outside-the-door at 6:59 type. That was one of the many reasons she'd insisted to Najat that he wasn't her type. 


'Does he not seem like the kind of guy who irons his pants?' she'd muttered darkly as the door of the laundrette swung shut behind him. 


Najat handed her a basket of clothes, still burning hot from the dryer, to fold. 'Ach away,' she laughed. 'Worry about getting his pants off before you worry about whether or not they're ironed or not.'


Isla had been busy trying not to cringe as she reached for a pair of jeans at the top of the basket. Although they were demonstrably clean, touching strangers' clothes gave her the heebie jeebies. She wasn't exactly cut out for a life dedicated to laundry, but she was lucky Najat had given her a chance. And then several more chances. One of these days, Najat's loyalty to Isla's mum would wear thin, and she would sack her. Isla wasn't sure what she would do then.


She wasn't exactly overflowing with career options.


'There's a lot worse things men do with their pants than not iron them,' Najat added cheerfully. 


'I thought you were trying to talk me into dating again?'


And after all that, Isla got him all wrong anyway. It was now eleven minutes past seven and he wasn't there. He wasn't punctual. He probably didn't iron his pants.


Unless they had agreed to meet somewhere and she had forgotten? Chills cascaded at the thought of him standing awkwardly at a bar, pretending to fiddle with his phone, wondering where she was. No — he'd definitely said he'd pick her up at home. It was right there in his text. Said his mum had a thing about how gentlemen pick a lady up from home. Isla thought it mildly weird he was planning their date to please his mum, but then she ticked herself off. Najat said young women were too quick with the ick these days, and she was right. 


It was sweet, she thought now, peering out the window for any sign of him on the street. You were supposed to like boys who're good to their mums. Weren't you?


The buzzer went, and Isla jumped a mile.


★ ★ ★


The moon came out as Isla and James left the pub later that evening. The Campsies were silhouetted against a purple sky in the distance. Frost crunched underfoot, and a memory popped into Isla's mind of her asking Auntie Mae if it was true that frost twinkling in the moonlight was a sign the fairies were out at night. Mae replied that was a load of shite, which just made Isla believe it all the more.


James smiled and Isla felt a wee flutter in a bit she was really regretting not shaving. Maybe it didn't matter. Maybe he was one of those guys who didn't mind. Her friend Janice insisted guys who weren't fussed were better in bed anyway, and the great tragedy of life was that you never found out which was which until after you'd put yourself through the torture of a wax. Isla was so lost in thoughts of unkempt fannies that she jumped when James's car beeped.


'You planning on staying in the car park all night?' he asked. 


Was she imagining the tiniest touch of impatience in his voice? Of course she was. He'd been perfectly lovely all night. She was standing about daydreaming in a Baltic car park, he was perfectly reasonable for wanting to get in the warm car.


'Sorry,' Isla muttered. She scuttled for the passenger seat. When he picked her up earlier he had opened her door, and she couldn't help but notice that this time he already had his seatbelt on before she even sat down. Don't be so judgmental, she chided herself. She didn't go for all that chivalrous nonsense anyway. She was more than capable of opening a car door.


Before she even had a chance to click her own seatbelt on, he'd reversed out the spot so fast she was yanked against the headrest, and zoomed onto Kirkintilloch Road.

'Alright, Speedy Gonzalez,' she said, forcing a grin. 'Gonnae slow down a bit?'


The road glistened with frost. The car's wheels lost traction for a second as he slammed the brakes on at the Torrance Roundabout, and Isla's heart leapt into her mouth. 

'You Cinderella or something, needing to get home for midnight?' she added, forcing a smile. 'If you're planning on turning into a pumpkin, I'll drive.'


"You're not driving my car,' he said shortly.


'Then could you drive at a normal speed, please?'


He pressed his foot on the accelerator, and nerves prickled down Isla's spine. What was he playing at? He'd practically been Prince Charming all evening. Isla had been dreading telling Najat that she'd been right all along. Attentive, interesting — he had even asked her a question or two! She'd actually caught herself starting to tell him about her parents before she stopped and abruptly changed the subject. The whole poor wee orphan thing wasn't the right tone for a first date.


'James, I'm not kidding —'


Isla swivelled in her seat to face him. Icy chills dashed over her and blood pounded in her ears. It couldn't be. 


'James, slow down,' she snapped, fear making her voice sharp.


Isla's hands cramped and twisted into fists as she tried to get hold of the torrent of thoughts careening through her brain. Pull yourself together, for goodness sake. His profile was silhouetted in the orange glow of streetlights.


It couldn't be.


Her foot twists on a thick, uneven tuft of grass and she tumbles, sprawls on rough, frosty grass, feels ice seeping through her dress. She freezes. Did she scream? 


She doesn't think so, but her throat feels tight, raw. An echo of a scream pierces the darkness. Hers? Or maybe it's a screech. A bird of prey, circling overhead, just waiting for her to give up.

A twig snaps nearby and white hot terror trickles do

wn her spine. 


At the next roundabout, James glanced at her. 


'Are you being serious? I'm not going that fast, am I?'


His voice was distant, distorted, echoing.


Run, run, run.


No. He'll see her if she runs. He'll chase.


She can't outrun him. Not again. 


Her lungs are burning, every fibre in her drained. She's shaking. Fear, cold, exhaustion. They've all melted into one. She holds her breath, trying to make herself smaller, willing herself to melt into the shadows.


She can sense him. He's on the grass now, his footsteps silent. But she can feel the evil. Smell him. His hunger is palpable, filling the still air like smoke. He's getting nearer.

She can't run. She can't escape. He's going to get her.


'Isla?' James frowned, casting her a curious glance. 'Are you okay? You seem a bit —'


 Answer him. Don't make him suspicious. Don't make him angry.


They stopped at a traffic light. A red glow flooded the car, casting shadows on James's face, making him look — 


Isla swallowed a whimper. 


'I — I have to —' She fumbled at the door, her fingers thick and clumsy. The car was too hot. 'I need air. I need to get out.' The door handle released. The shock of freezing air snapped her back to life. 


'Isla — what are you doing? Where are you going?'


'I'm going to be sick —'


She lunged for freedom. The seatbelt yanked her back — she gasped, a strangled scream.

'Isla. Get back in the car. What are you —?'


His voice was sharp, commanding. Cruel. How could she be so stupid?


'Hold on a minute — let me pull over at least —'


She managed to unclick the seatbelt and half-fell from the car.


A bus slammed its horn, screeching to a halt. The driver, angrily gesturing. Isla staggered to the verge and puked on the pavement.


'Ahh that's boggin' 'shouted a voice. A group of teenage kids at the bus stop stared at her in disgust. One of the lassies stepped forward, concern in her heavily lined eyes.


'Are you okay?'


'Get away fae her, Caroline! You'll catch something.'


'Shut it, you,' snapped the lassie. Caroline. 'Do you need some water or something?'


Isla shook her head. Found a tissue in her bag to wipe her mouth. 'I'm fine. Is there a police station nearby? I need the police.'


Caroline looked at her dubiously. 'Aye, it's in town, just opposite the train station. It's a wee walk, though.'


'I'll manage.'


Isla pulled herself to her feet, brushed herself down. Somewhere behind her, she could hear Caroline having a go at her boyfriend for having the empathy of a tree. Isla started to walk towards Bishopbriggs. 


It wasn't until she passed the Eagle Lodge where Najat's posh sister had her thirtieth wedding anniversary do that Isla realised James had drove off and left her on the side of the road. He shouted at her to get back in the car and then he —  


He must know. A cold cloak of fear settled over her. He must have seen in her eyes that she recognised him.

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