Crisp, brittle dune grass scratched against my jeans as I hiked up the slope. Molly followed behind on her leash, head down, her soft, floppy ears drooping even more than normal. I reached the top of the dune and scanned the horizon; nothing but more dunes as far as I could see in one direction.
Pale, sickly sunlight filtered through the thickening clouds that had drifted in from the coast in the last half hour. It didn’t look like rain, but a growing wind pressed my thin check shirt to my body and I hugged my goose pimpled arms across my stomach.
I glanced down at Molly, lying on her belly with her muzzle resting on her paws.
“Oh fine, you can go off the leash, just for a little while.”
Her ears perked up and she lifted her head, tail wagging. I unclipped the leash and she shot off down the dune like a greyhound rather than a border collie.
I followed her slowly, my legs already tired from the walk out here on the shifting sands.
I kept going, following the little dimples of her paw prints. After a few minutes I crested another dune and met a line of black stones stretching left and right. Locals called them the spectre wall and they encompassed a whole swathe of dunes. There were many legends and folk tales about the land inside; some just said the area was haunted, others that the dunes moved and changed, trapping travellers within.
In truth there was just some magnetic anomaly which confused migrating birds. If you took a compass over the spectre wall it would spin in circles. Even so, I rarely went over the line of dark, foot high stones. Something about the place gave me the creeps
I spotted Molly at the base of the next dune. “We’re not going that way. Come on.”
I needed to get home soon. My mother, bless her, had set me up on a blind date. Another one. For some reason she’d decided twenty eight was too old to be single. I didn’t mind. Much. The men she picked for me were all nice guys; grown up, sensible, doing okay for themselves and totally inoffensive. Otherwise known as boring. Their mild, vague charm usually provided adequate company for a single date, but no more than that.
Molly looked at me for a moment and then darted further into the dunes like we were playing a game.
“You… you know some border collies get to be sheep dogs because they are supposed to be very obedient and easy to train. Think about that you useless mutt!”
I stepped through a gap between the stones of the spectre wall, trotted down the dune and took off after her. Every time I reached the top of the dune she was waiting on the next, mocking me. I reached the top of a particularly steep hill and stood with my hands braced on my knees, panting.
“Molly, please just come here.” While it wasn’t like I was desperate to meet whoever my mother had found for me, I couldn’t stand letting people down.
I heard Molly bark and looked up. The sun was dipping low now and I squinted against the glare, even though the clouds softened and diffused the yellow light. A dark figure stood atop the next dune, motionless. Molly growled, low and menacing.
I strained forward, shading my eyes, trying to see the figure more clearly, but the sand under my feet shifted. I shrieked as I lost my balance and fell, rolling down the side of the dune. When I came to a rest at the bottom I lay there for a moment, gulping down air.
I looked up towards the figure and saw a small, stunted tree silhouetted against the grey sky. I rested my forearm across my eyes and took a moment to gather myself.
Warm, moist breath on my chin made me chuckle. I put my arms around Molly as she licked my face, checking I was okay.
“Come on, let’s go home.”
I clipped the leash back on and led her up the dune, heading back the way we’d come. We crossed one rise and then Molly started tugging me sideways, back into the dune field.
“No, this way, come on Molly.” I pulled her after me, ignoring her whining.
We kept walking and the dunes, with their clumps of crackly grass and a few tenacious weeds, began to blend into one indistinguishable mass. After twenty minutes I began to suspect I’d lost my bearings; the dunes weren’t that big and it shouldn’t have taken that long to cross them.
A dark shape appeared on the next dune. As we got closer I saw it was the same stunted little tree. How could I have gone in a circle?
Molly fretted on the leash.
“It’s okay girl. Look, we just need to head this way and stay in a straight line this time.”
I orientated myself with the tree to my back, facing the way I was sure we’d come in the first time and gasped. Another dark shape stood on the next rise. I watched it for a moment, not even daring to exhale. Molly growled.
Not a tree this time. The dark figure had the shape of a man clothed in a ragged, black cloak and cowl. I couldn’t tell how tall he was; the uniform, featureless dunes distorted size and distance.
I looked away for a moment and when I looked back the figure stood a few paces closer. My chest tightened and I clutched Molly’s leash until my hand hurt. Another blink, another pace closer.
I ran, stumbling down the unstable ground and clawing my way up the next slope. Molly bounded along behind me, yapping and snarling at the cloaked figure. My throat dried up from the parched air making me cough and my legs began to tremble from the exertion.
Drawing in air in ragged heaves I pushed myself on. Every time I looked over my shoulder I saw the spectre closing on me. Head down I scrambled up another dune and then looked up into the twisted, scrawny branches of the tiny tree.
A strangled sob rose in my throat. “Shit!”
Molly tugged me off to the side and I stumbled after her, knowing only that I had to keep moving.
On the next dune I caught my toe on a clump of grass and tripped. I tumbled down the slope, losing my grip on Molly’s leash. I closed my eyes against the flying sand and finally came to a halt at the bottom. Tears streamed down my face and I rolled onto my front, coughing.
Hands grabbed me around the waist and I screamed.
“Whoa, whoa, it’s okay!”
I looked round found a man in baggy board shorts and a t-shirt, and not a spectre in black.
“There was, I mean, I thought there was something, someone, following me,” I sobbed.
The man looked over my shoulder up the dune. “Well I can’t see anything. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, but… my dog.” I looked round. “Molly?”
“We’ll find her. What’s your name?”
“I’m Kevin. Are you local? Maybe you can help me. I got a bit turned around and I can’t find my way off this bloody dune field.”
“Me neither. I mean I am local, but I’m just as lost as you at the moment.”
He stood and offered me a hand to pull me to my feet. I brushed the sand off. I felt kind of silly now. The spectre haunting me must have just been Kevin and the low light made his figure look like a dark silhouette.
I followed him up a dune, grateful just to have some company in this uncanny place.
“Molly? Here girl.” I had no idea which way she’d gone, but she would be able to follow me more easily than I could follow her so she’d find me when she was ready to come back.
“So were you just walking your dog?” Kevin asked.
“Oh, yeah, I walk on the dunes every day but I don’t usually cross over the… I mean I don’t come this far down the coast. You?”
“My mates and I were surfing, I was going to pick up some food and thought I’d take a shortcut, the dunes didn’t seem that wide on the drive in. Not a very short shortcut in the end.”
He smiled and some of my tension melted away. We trudged up and down dunes, trying to keep the sun in the same position. After a few minutes I saw a familiar scrawny shadow.
“No way!” I screamed at the tree. “It’s not possible.”
Kevin ran his hand over the spiky little branches with their small leaves as if to make sure it was real. He scratched his head. “I don’t get it.”
He took his phone out and held it up.
“You won’t get a signal. There’s this funny magnetic thing, phones don’t work here.” I turned away and looked back at the dunes. “Maybe we could try…” The words dried up in my throat as a dark shape appeared a few peaks away, drifting lazily forwards. “Kevin, look.”
He looked along my pointing arm and frowned. “What is that?” He cupped his hands to his mouth “Hello? Can you help us?”
I moved closer almost using him as a shield and put my hand on his arm. “Don’t, we should just go.”
The shadow drifted closer until we could make out the flowing black rags that encased its body.
“Yeah, maybe you’re right.”
We picked a new direction, noted the position of the sun and broke into a steady jog. I called for Molly as we went but there was no sign of her.
The spectre followed, getting closer and closer. More dark shapes appeared on the dunes around us. My heartbeat thudded in my ears. Kevin took my hand to drag me, panting and wheezing up the steep slopes. My jelly legs barely had the strength to hold me upright, let alone keep running, but they did. I began to lose track of anything but putting one foot in front of the other.
“No. No, no, NO!” Kevin ran up to the lonely tree and kicked it viciously. “It’s not possible.”
I collapsed to the ground, gasping, and watched five cloaked black figures closing in on us. Kevin balled his fists and stood with his legs apart. “Whatever you guys want, just forget it! This whole dark robe thing is seriously lame.”
The leading spectre reached the bottom of the dune and looked up at us. It had no face under the cowl, just a black hole.
“Jesus Christ!” Kevin pulled me to my feet and pushed me behind him.
The spectre advanced and the air cooled to the point I could see little clouds form in front of my lips. I slid my hand into Kevin’s and squeezed it. He squeezed back.
The air thickened into a frigid soup that was hard to draw in. I clutched at my chest, eyes watering. The spectre reached out a hand of pale bone towards me and curled its fingers. The remaining air rushed from my lungs and I clawed at my throat. Kevin pushed me backwards, scratching at his own throat and chest.
“Leave… her…” He swiped at the spectre’s outstretched hand but his own passed straight through it.
As darkness crept in from the sides I heard a bark behind me. Molly danced on the next dune in her classic “follow me, play with me” way. I remembered her tugging on the lead trying to take me a different direction; maybe she could see through the illusion of this place. I pulled Kevin away from the spectre and pointed. He nodded and we both fought our way through the clinging, soup-like air until it began to release us from its grasp. I sucked in sweet cold air like a woman dying of thirst finding a clear stream of water.
The silent spectres pursued us as we followed Molly over and around the dunes. She stopped for us to catch up every few minutes. I had no strength to call out to her. Every morsel of air went to powering my failing limbs up the next slope.
The other spectres drew in from the sides. I could almost hear the whisper of the black cloth of their cloaks. My legs felt heavier the closer they came, like wading through syrup.
When I spotted the regular humps of the spectre wall on the horizon I nearly wept. “That’s it, that’s the edge.”
I took my eyes off the ground at my feet, so eager to reach the wall, and slipped. I slid down the dune on my belly, sand shifting under me like a conveyor belt taking me straight into the arms of the spectre.
“Laura. No!” Kevin skidded down the slope after me as I grasped at clumps of grass and tried to dig my feet in. I finally stopped and felt hard, brittle fingers close around my ankle. When I tried to scream the soupy air sucked the sound away like a vacuum.
My ankle burned in the icy grip, numbness travelling up my calf to my knee. Kevin grabbed both my hands and hauled me up the slope. I kicked out with my other foot and the spectre lost its grip. I couldn’t feel my leg at all.
Kevin half dragged, half carried me until we passed over the line between reality and the uncanny world of the dunes. The spectres fell back and their motions became jerky and agitated; robbed of their prey.
I collapsed into a puddle of aching flesh and trembling nerves. Kevin paced, looking back the way we’d come as Molly bounded up to me. Warmth slowly seeped back into my leg and the feeling returned.
“Are we safe now?”
“I think so.” I hugged Molly, rubbed her floppy ears and buried my face in the scruff of her neck. “Good girl. You are such a good girl.”
She broke away to sniff around Kevin’s shoes and then sat on her haunches looking up at him with her head cocked to one side. He patted her gently and her tongue lolled in a puppy grin.
I staggered to my feet. “I’m sorry, she’s a shameless flirt.”
“Oh yeah?” He gave her another rub around the ears and then stepped closer to me. “What about you?”
“I er…” I looked up and he stroked my hair from my face, brushing my cheek with his thumb. Funny how I suddenly couldn’t breathe again.