She stopped in her tracks to listen and heard the noise behind her for a second time. There was no mistaking the soft, steady paddle of footsteps. Someone was following her.
She didn’t dare look back. Instead, she started off again down the narrow, asphalt trail through the rows of eucalyptus trees, keeping her eyes trained on the clearing fifty yards ahead. She’d taken this shortcut through the woods enough times to notice the yellow distress box mounted on a metal pole at the south entrance. When she pressed the silver dollar-size, red panic button in the center an alarm would sound, and she’d be connected directly to the University Police Department. All she had to do was reach it.
Frightened and vulnerable, she conjured up the comforting image of her parents, then imagined, with chagrin, what her mother would have to say about her taking a midnight stroll through the woods alone, after all the safety lectures she’d received before shipping out to college. You shouldn’t have stayed out so late. You should have let someone walk you to your car. You should have had your cell phone out and ready, instead of buried at the bottom of your backpack. But this wasn’t the time to dwell on her mistakes. She needed to stay alert, focus, if she wanted to escape her predicament.
She thought it best not to let whoever was following her sense her fear. Yet, despite a concerted effort to stay calm, she felt her gait quicken involuntarily, keeping pace with her accelerating heartbeat. The steady, almost painful, beat in her chest drove her forward in a race-walk toward the post. She could see the yellow box now, illuminated by the glowing light atop the pole. Thirty more yards and she’d be there.
The goal in sight, she decided to risk it and broke out in a sprint. Instantly, she heard her pursuer do the same, the heavy pounding of rubber-soled feet disrupting the surrounding silence like a series of sonic booms that exploded in her head. Breathing heavily, she inhaled the heady, pungent aroma of the oily eucalyptus into her burning lungs, hastening her nausea, nearly to the point of vomiting. Still, she powered forward. Fifty feet, forty feet, thirty …
Twenty paces off she experienced a rush of elation like she’d never known, a euphoric sweep of relief that gave her the sense of soaring. Charging for the post, she stretched her right arm forward to punch the red panic button, but then an altogether different force sent her flying backward. Her attacker had her by the coattails, and when she started to scream he threw them over her head, muffling her cries. In the pitch dark and suffocating, all she kept thinking was, This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening!