Prologue

"Itku pitkästä ilosta."

 

"Isabelle!"

He had no idea what he had done this time.

It was possible she had simply decided to go off by herself to the small river just inside the eastern treeline to bathe and, as a result, to become instantly awake after their late night of satellite watching. The water in these streams appeared to be of a special Southern type that did not freeze when it reached 0°, but kept on flowing and bubbling well past -30°. Each time he had leapt into one, taking a break from their hike to 'cool off', he had literally felt his heart stop. Stop and only start up again after painful seconds trying to drag air into his shocked-empty lungs. He knew it was silly, but he wondered if water that cold, coupled with the extreme heat of a long hike in Summer, could actual kill him. Or her.

He had mentioned this to her on the second day of their camping trip, but she had only laughed.

"Isabelle?"

It was just as possible, though, something quiet and unwelcome whispered to him, that he had done something to annoy her. That he had said something wrong. Again. And that she had gone off into the woods the be angry and alone, not wanting him to be able to find her. Not wanting him to be able to try to work it out.

No. He pushed that thought away. That's not how it is now.

Six months ago he would have known this scenario to be the case. Their relationship had already been sliding for many months and around the middle of January everything finally broke apart.

The bad months after she had moved out of his flat and gone back to her family in Versailles had forced him to realize three important things. One, he was at least as much to blame for what had happened as she was, this mainly resulting from being 28 years old and not ever having bothered to stop acting like he was 17. Two, he loved her more than he had ever realized or understood. And three, he sincerely wanted to grow up, even if he had to do it without her.

The truly amazing thing was that in their time apart she had come to almost the exact same realizations.

This had led, at first, to oblique inquiries from shared friends, then to tentative phone calls, and on to dating again, and finally their patience and hard work had brought them here, to this week-long camping and hiking trip far out in the middle of the most beautiful forest he had ever seen. A week that had, so far, been as close to perfection as anything he had ever experienced.

Which was why he did not really believe that she was off sulking alone in the forest.

"Isabelle!"

The meadow where they had made their camp the night before was large, easily 300 metres across. They had pitched their tent near the very middle of it to better see as many of the billions of stars as possible, and the moon's entire journey above them, and even to catch glimpses of the satellites, bright and fast and almost not there at all.

Sitting in the entrance of the tent lacing on his hiking boots he called her name again. He had a strong voice, the kind that carries to the far side of a room, even in a whisper, and he knew, absolutely knew, that she should have been able to hear him. And that hearing the concern in his voice, she would have called something in reply.

He started out walking to the East, toward the bend in the small river that they had both bathed in yesterday when they had found this meadow and the white-hot sun was just past directly overhead. Something was growing in his gut, though, something that made him quicken his pace and begin to jog, then run, toward the river. It was the same hollow feeling that he had felt often as a little boy, laying in his bedroom at night on the ground floor of his family's small house outside of Reims, hoping beyond hope that nothing, not a ghost or an alien or a bad man, would press its horrible face up against his window overlooking the garden. It was the exact same feeling that he had felt once or twice as an adult; each time when he had been alone in his flat and had begun to feel with an unaccustomed certainty that there was someone else in there with him. Hiding. Waiting.

He had been able to reason these feelings away as a adult, never letting them reach the point of the extreme physical signs he had read about when he had researched 'panic attacks' on the web.

"Isabelle, vous m'entendez?"

As he ran full speed up to the bend in the river he somehow knew, with a small part of his mind that was still rational, that this time he was fully and completely in the grip of panic. The heart-attack pain in his chest and his gasping (failing) attempt to draw air into his lungs seemed familiar, but he could not focus enough to realize the parallel. Then a wave of something that felt like a giant fist squeezing his entire body, from his head rolling all the way down to his ankles, brought him to his knees.

It was only then, from that low vantage point, that he saw her foot, no longer a part of her. And the blood.

It was an act of grace - although, in truth, the thing was not capable of comprehending that concept - that it killed him before he realized what he had seen.

~~~