Between Canvas Walls by Michelle Brett

The sweat became even itchier as it pooled in the center of Annie’s lower back. She clenched her teeth and breathed in deeply, willing the horrid sensation away. Instead, it only seemed to amplify it, making her fingers clench into claws. 

Trying to distract herself, she pulled the sleeping bag in tighter around her, even though she knew it would only make everything worse. Its down filling pressed heavily upon her, threatening to crush her beneath its weight, while the waterproof outer seemed to rustle with every movement of her chest. She had loved that sleeping bag once. She remembered how ecstatic she had been when she bought it and found out that it came in the same deep purple hue that matched her hiking pack. Now it just felt like a prison.  

Annie stilled herself, then tried to listen to the world outside. But no matter what she did, there was still the thumping of her heart that pounded against the insides of her head. It blocked out everything beyond her yellow canvas walls, almost as though it was her subconscious desperately trying to get her to stop, afraid of what she might find.

But she had to listen. She had to know.

Maybe it’s all over now?

The fire still crackled a few meters away, letting out the occasional pop, while crickets chirped in the surrounding grasses, unaware of the birds that would surely be watching overhead. Earlier in the day, they would have been such comforting sounds, being in the center of nature like that. Even now, the existence of such normality out there should have offered her some form of relief. But instead, it just highlighted what was missing. The conversations. The laughter. Even the terrible singing that had broken out while her friends danced around the flames.  

I can’t hear anything happening out there anymore. 

Annie felt a wave of hope flow through her, hitting her stomach and making it churn.

If she couldn’t hear anything, then maybe it meant that whatever had happened out there was done. Maybe she could leave her tent and run for it. She could get help. She could…what could she really do? Did she even actually know where she was?

The thoughts of doubt threatened to drown her and smothered all sense of possibility away.

Crack.

It was distant, yet still the high pitch tone broke through the air.

The insect’s chirping ceased.

Around Annie, the world seemed to close in on her, the walls of her tent getting tight. She forced herself to repress a shriek, then bit down on the edge of her sleeping back to help her hold back the tears. 

Shuffling. Dragging. A whimpering cry.

Annie begged to stop hearing. She wanted to be sucked down deeper into that sleeping bag that so recently had been so smothering, but that might now somehow protect her inside its oppressive cocoon.

But it didn’t and her ears, having caught the sound, refused to let it go. They traced it around her recollection of the campsite while her brain created vivid narratives inside her head.

An almighty thwack rang out. Two hard surfaces collided. It rippled into the night, reverberating through the thick evergreen trees.

Then the whimpering stopped.

It could have been anything. Maybe it’s all just in my mind. It could be a trick of the night.

But the images kept replaying, a horror movie with infinite ends.

There had been six of them. Maybe the others had escaped. Someone could be out there getting help right now.

They were all lies. She knew that. And even as she told herself them, they brought her no sense of relief. She just had to stay quiet. That was the only real way out. If she did, then maybe her tent would go unnoticed, maybe its garish yellow exterior would somehow be absorbed into the darkness of the trees. There was no real reason that anything out there would even suspect she was hiding silently inside. 

Time passed and outside, the natural world took over again. The crickets returned to their courtships, and the fire let out a loud snap.

Annie listened for a few moments, then pulled her mind away. With harmony returning beyond her walls, that sense of hope welled up inside her again. It made her feel sick. Quiet outside might mean her salvation, but what did it mean for her friends? Was she really lying in there, hoping they might fall victim to whatever was out there faster, if it meant she never had to hear the sounds of those guttural screams again, if it meant it could all be over and she could get free?

Annie pulled the bag even tighter until the cord almost cut into her throat. She tried to steady her heartbeat, certain that if she didn’t, its thumping would vibrate through the entire earth. Then she stared out into the darkness, only seeing through the canvas, the faint flickering of the fire’s light.

What had even happened out there? How did it all go so wrong?

When she had left them, they had all been sitting around that fire, laughing and flirting, condemning Annie to the role of third wheel. She had felt so angry at them then, but they hadn’t even noticed. So she retreated to her tent to just lie inside and stew in her rage. At some point, she must have drifted off to sleep because all she remembered was being awoken by the shouts, the struggle, then the screams.

So many screams…

Footsteps sounded. Heavy against the disturbed dirt of the clearing.

Annie forced her eyes closed and her body still.

No. Please, no. It was meant to be over. Please just go away.

Her ears listened, even though her mind didn’t want to hear. She only hoped that whoever they were, they were going the other way.

I’m not here. I’m not here. How could this be happening?

Sudden pangs of fury shot through her. None of this was fair. She hadn’t even wanted to go camping in the first place. She hated nature. She hated trees. She wanted her own bed. Her house. Her room. Real walls.

The crickets went silent again. Even the sounds of the fire seemed to dim. 

Annie opened her eyes and stared into the darkness, wishing, even though she knew it would be stupid, for some form of light. Just something that would be able to illuminate the shadows and scare the monsters away.

But the thoughts all disappeared as the clicking of a zipper reverberated into her tent.

Picture of Michelle Brett

Michelle Brett

Michelle Brett is a science fiction author, who occasionally delves into the world of horror.

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