It was just a hint of unease to start with, not much more than a tickle on the back of her neck. Tonia rubbed at the prickling skin and flicked aside the blond ponytail. She didn’t slow her pace but took the opportunity to glance at her wrist band. Doing well, up on yesterday’s time.
The regular beat of trainers on the pavement changed tone as she turned in through the big iron gates. Crisp leaves rustled underfoot and brought a smile to her face. Autumn, her favourite season, the smells, the chill and of course the rich colours of leaves on trees shutting down for sleep.
At this hour the park was almost deserted. She raised a hand in fellowship as a young man in shorts and a neon T thumped past. A couple of dogs chased sticks near the duck pond and the early sun sparkled on grey water. All as it should be, peaceful and right.
She was in the zone now and her mind wandered down familiar pathways, work, shopping, Dave. The image of her partner still snuggled under the duvet warmed her. They would have breakfast together later, she’d call at the bakery, buy rolls. The thought of a mug of coffee and hot shower, quickened her step a little. Twice round the park and then she’d head for home and Saturday stuff.
Now, even deeper into the rhythm she swept the thoughts aside and allowed the regular pumping of her legs and the singing of her breath to take over the world.
The path wound beside the playground, down towards the copse. There it was again, the thrill of apprehension, something in the quiet part of her mind pricked at her. She shook it away. It was daytime, it was a public park. There was nothing to fear.
The rustle in the leaves barely touched her hearing but something in the air clutched at her gut. She moved faster. She wasn’t going to turn round, there was nothing to be afraid if. The crack of a dried branch alongside drew a nervous glance. Movement in the shadows dried her mouth.
Unease caused her to change course. She would head back, towards the wider pathways. She would run to the far gate and then back out onto the pavement. In the growing swell of traffic she would be safe. She turned and ran across the wet grass.
The swish of feet behind her fizzed alarm through her blood, she acknowledged the feeling and picked up the pace, sprinting towards the railings and the south gate.
Her throat nagged at her for moisture and sweat trickled down her back, soaking the blue running top and dampening the waist band of her shorts.
Had she made an error of judgement? There was no-one here. This side of the park wasn’t popular with the early morning crowd, this was the football field. The boarded café and park-keepers hut waited for later visitors. She wanted to glance back but didn’t dare. While she stared ahead the threat wasn’t real, it was imagination. What wasn’t imagination though was the chain and padlock, the gate was locked and barred, the safety of the road unreachable. She swung away, back towards the pond and the shrubbery, her breath loud in her ears. She felt the stitch in her side and knew she was reaching a tipping point. She would have to run through the pain or stop and face the fear. Turn and take what was coming.
Back around the pond, over the playground, heading for home. Unable to resist any longer, she risked a glance behind. There was no-one there. She let out a gasp of relief, or irritation. What an idiot she was.
As he reached for her she was raising her bottle to glug water, a treat for her parched throat.
His arms went around her waist and dragged her from her feet. Her legs flailed. Before the scream left her throat he had a hand over her mouth.
She had always thought herself strong, fit. Against his brute strength, his size, she was next to helpless. Though she kicked and writhed he dragged her back into the shrubbery. Though she dragged her feet in the soft loam he took her.
This wasn’t happening to her, she was going home, back to Dave, taking him warm rolls from the bakery.
Her panicked brain tried to process the events but already it was over.
He didn’t take long, there was no finesse, no pretence that the act was anything other than what it was. He forced her to the ground and bent with her, threw a leg across to pin her struggling body to the earth. Now, as the truth dawned and absolute terror wrapped her around she stared at him with fear drenched eyes.
“Don’t, please. Don’t hurt me.” She bucked another time and kicked. Tears flowed across her face, “No, please don’t do this. Let me go, just let me go.”
He sat astride her body, and gazed down into her desperate face. He studied her as he would a puzzling stain on his clothes.
His head tipped to one side as he raised a knee to the centre of her chest and leaned on her with his great weight. Nobody heard her scream as the first of her ribs broke. She arched her body fighting the agony and nausea, she twisted and tried to draw in breath to scream again. He lifted a hand and swiped it backwards, her face whipped sideways as stars spun in front of her eyes.
He reached back now and drew the killing thing from behind him, from where it had rested tucked into his belt. He brought it round before her horrified eyes and turned it in the dappled light, smiling at the gleam and shine of it.
Darkness at the edge of the world promised peace and escape, she could go now. She could let it all go. She closed her eyes and felt the warm brush of his breath on her face as he leaned closer in a deathly embrace. So, this was to be it, the end. She had a moment of great sadness, it was so wrong, such a waste and a sob shuddered through her body.
The darkness swept her away and she fell into it. The pain receded. The weight on her body lifted and the fear dispersed.
“Come on now, come on. You’ll be okay. Can you open your eyes, can you talk.” It was odd she had expected things to be different from this. The voice sounded ordinary, the ground still felt hard under her back, her chest hurt, oh God her chest hurt. Shouldn’t that be all gone by now, that wasn’t fair, how could you hurt when you were dead.
“Come on love, open your eyes.”
She took a tiny painful breath. She opened her eyes.
The trees were still there. The sky was still there and peering down at her, a worried crease between his eyes was the boy in his neon T. His blonde hair was damp with sweat, a hopeful smile played across his lips.
“I’ve called for help. An ambulance is coming, you’ll be okay.”
“I didn’t catch him, sorry. I thought it best to stay with you. I saw him though, I saw him and it just clicked with me. I knew there was something off about him, I turned back but you’d gone over the field down to the other gate. Hey, you’ve got a good turn of speed.
The siren sounded in the distance as he took hold of her hand and Tonia closed her eyes and blessed the kindness of strangers.