A/N This story was written in conjunction with my friend Stratiotes. We both had exactly the same outline, with the same basic events, but had free reign over our characters' thoughts, description etc. We thought it'd be interesting to have a close look at our different writing styles. See what you think of our individual efforts…
I'm late, I'm late, I'm late.
Chloe Templeton had been in the "zone", that blessed state where one's mind is totally focused, oblivious to any and all distractions from within and without, and able to work hard and long with complete clarity of thought. Experienced at one time or another by all hard-working students, times in the "zone" were generally acknowledged to be the easiest and most productive periods of study and thus eagerly sought. There were all sorts of books on self-study proclaiming ways to enter the elusive "zone". Ironically, it was usually only brought about by a close deadline, for pressure has a way of focusing the mind.
An undergraduate social scientist, Chloe had come to the computer labs that afternoon to do some important research online for a class project, having no Internet access at home. Work she had thought would only take a couple of hours had stretched on into the evening and she had ended up completely absorbed, making pages of notes and saving file after file of relevant information to her flash drive for use later at home.
Now, however, she was most decidedly not in the "zone". Instead she was hurrying through the labyrinth that was the Department of Human Sciences, barreling through double doors that protested her passage with indignant squeals of oil-starved hinges. Through the passageway. Down the steps, turn left. Another long passageway, then turn right at the end. Through the double doors and– She glanced at her watch. Three minutes. Come on, girl, or you'll miss it.
She was never late, not for the late-night bus, and with good reason. Her university town, while generally considered to be a safe place for students, was not without its unsavoury characters, two of whom had assaulted and robbed a student on his way home after a night out just a couple of months ago. The unfortunate victim was in her yeargroup and she had seen the bruises on his face, which were visible for weeks. She grimaced. She did not want that to happen to her. Usually she was very careful to leave herself plenty of time, aiming for the penultimate bus so that if for whatever reason she didn't make it, or the bus was early, she could always catch the next one. Tonight, however, Chloe had been sufficiently taken up by her work that she hadn't kept her usual check on the time, and so when she did finally look up at the lab's wall clock it took a moment for things to click into place. 11:55pm. Hang on, that means... Oh no, it's the last bus and I'm late! And so she had jabbed the keys to log off the computer, hastily gathering up her notebook and pen and shoving them into her small rucksack as she stood up and made for the door. A moment later she returned to the desk, yanking out her flash drive from the computer's front USB port, and set off again, fairly running down the hallway.
Two minutes. Please bus, be a little late for once. Chloe's legs burned with exertion as she made her way out of the Human Sciences building and hurried towards the bus stop. She berated herself for her carelessness. What an idiot. I should have set the alarm on my phone– no, I don't have my phone with me; it's at home sitting by my bedside, charging. Mistake number two. Okay, I should have brought my mobile phone and set the alarm. She noted the library ahead; the bus stop was just around the corner. Hearing the distinctive whine of the bus, she broke into a full run, her shoulder-length dirty-blonde hair bouncing about her ears. Chloe rounded the library, her feet thudding on the hard pavement, and saw the bus, its brake lights glowing dully... as it slowed for the turning 150 metres down the road. No! She let her momentum carry her forward a few more steps as she stopped running, and bent at the waist to place her hands on her knees, breathing deeply to catch her breath. She shook her head in frustration. I've missed it, by what, about 30 seconds? 30 seconds! If I had been just a little more careful, noticed the time just a little earlier and thus given myself just one more minute – or if I had even just run all the way, then... She broke off her train of thought. It was no good crying over spilt milk; what was done was done. She had missed the last bus, and she still had to get home. She couldn't call anyone to give her a lift; she'd forgotten her mobile, and besides, none of her friends had cars. No, she would have to walk – alone. She did not relish the thought. It would take 25 minutes, minimum, before she would be home and safe. She straightened and shrugged to herself, sighing. I guess I'd better get going. As the saying goes, the sooner I start, the sooner I'll finish.
Two minutes later found Chloe heading down University Hill towards the main entrance gate. I'll be okay, she reassured herself. After all, the crime statistics are in reality pretty low, so the chance of me being attacked on this particular night is minimal, right? Right. There's nothing to worry about. She shivered as a gust of wind caught her hair briefly, and drew her hand across her face to catch the errant strands and tuck them in place behind her ear. Well, at least it isn't raining. She looked up into the sky and smiled wryly. The cloud layer was thick tonight, a uniformly dark mass that stretched from horizon to horizon, blotting out the stars. Wouldn't that be fun, walking home in the dark with the rain pouring down and no way of keeping myself dry? She wasn't doing very well with remembering things today, was she? First her phone, then the time, and then she almost left her flash drive in the computer. Now she had forgotten her umbrella, too.
Leaving the entrance gate behind, she strode down the main road that ran parallel to the north-eastern edge of the university complex. She would cross at the island; even at midnight there were a lot of vehicles, and it was safer to cross the busy road in two stages. Upon reaching it, Chloe waited for a break in the traffic and moved to the middle. Then she looked left, and noticed a man waiting to cross the road further down. At that moment he looked to his right, in her direction, and then the man turned away as he stepped into the road, his face in shadow. Chloe blinked as she caught his glance, her focus on the traffic wavering for a moment, then shook her head to clear it and completed her crossing. I'll keep track of him, if I can, she murmured to herself. Better safe than sorry, right? Right.
Another minute's walk brought her to an adjoining minor road on the edge of "Studentville", the area of town where most off-campus students lived, and she took the opportunity to steal a glance behind her as she turned. The man was behind her, following the main road as she had. He's closer than when he first crossed, I think.Hopefully he'll stay on the road he's on. She shivered – not from the chill of the wind – and touched the backlight button on her watch. Eight minutes past twelve, not even halfway. Her eyes returned to the road, taking in the narrow, empty pavement that stretched dimly before her. She much preferred the open campus paths, all brightly lit and regularly patrolled by university security staff. A safe place to walk at night, certainly safer than this place, she reflected, and squared her shoulders in an unconscious attempt to physically shrug off the feeling of anxiety that had taken a quiet hold on her. It didn't work, and moments later her thoughts returned to the man she had seen behind her. I wonder if he's still behind? she thought uneasily. Well, there was only one way to check. Chloe pivoted midstride, her head snapping round to take a look down the road behind her–
– and saw him again, a surge of adrenaline making her heart rate jump wildly as she hastily brought her head back round. About six feet tall, slim, wearing a long coat with the collar turned up. Yep, that's him. She bit her lip, her thoughts racing. It was difficult to judge in the dim light, but he seemed closer than before, which meant that either he was just a faster walker than she, or... She didn't want to voice the thought, but couldn't help herself. Or he's following you. The idea frightened her to the core. If he got close enough to grab her arm from behind and threaten her with a weapon, or even just with physical violence, she wouldn't be able to resist without risking injury. She wasn't a strong girl. He could take her to a more private place and no-one seeing them would know; they would just look like a couple, arm in arm. So don't let him get that close, she told herself She increased her pace, easing into a faster, longer stride.
Chloe hurried on, her nerves raw with tension. She glanced at her watch again, noting how long she'd been walking and mentally going over the remainder of the journey she had to take to get home. To the end of this road, turn right, along that road to the end, take a right into my road, then home's just a little further down. A little under fifteen minutes or so. A thought struck her, and she scanned the other side of the road with keen eyes. Had she walked past it already? She found her target, a cry of triumph escaping her lips, and crossed the road. The public footpath would take her alongside the local wood that ran behind her house, cutting her remaining journey in half. Then she hesitated. It's dark, it's midnight, you're anxious enough as it is... and now you want to take an even less well lit pathway home? Are you mad? But, she reasoned, I'll be home in half the time! Chloe took a step down the path, then stopped. It's safer to stay on the road, she thought. It's better lit, there will more likely be people around... Yeah, but this way I'll be home sooner. I won't have so long for this bloke to catch up with me– She glanced down the road again. He was still on the other side of the road, but gaining with every moment she stood here trying to make up her mind. Aww heck, just get on with it! she told herself, and made her decision.
It was funny how different things looked at night. She had been along this particular pathway many times before and wouldn't have been in the slightest bit nervous had it been broad daylight. But now the long lines of dark trees on either side of the path took on a very different air. They seemed to be whispering among themselves as the wind made its passage, commenting on the frail creature walking beneath their bowed branches. Street lamps every two hundred yards struggled against the darkness, their spitting tubes casting dull, orange-yellow pools of light that threw eerie, flickering shadows on the ground. This is a universally stupid idea, Chloe! she thought to herself. Why didn't you stick to the road? She recalled her father's words of caution the day she had left home for university. Be careful, Chloe, whenever you go out, especially in the evenings. Try not to walk home alone, but if you do then stick to the main roads. They're well lit, and there are more likely to be people around who can help, God forbid, if you get into trouble. She bit her lip as she remembered his calm, grey-eyed gaze, his love and concern pouring into her. Oh Dad, she thought, her heart aching, I'm so sorry. Your silly little girl didn't listen to you tonight. You'd be angry if you saw me now, but I wouldn't care because the only reason for your anger would be your love. She sighed heavily, tears pricking her eyes. What I would give to have you here with me!
A sudden noise broke the night, making her jump. She looked round wildly, her pulse thundering in her ears, until her mind caught up with her body. It's only an owl, idiot! An unexpected chuckle of relief boiled up, but it caught in her throat as her thoughts took a darker turn, coming out as a strangled half-cough. What am I doing here? Jumping out of my skin at mere owls. Walking home in near-darkness, with no-one around. Being foolish. Yeah, that's right, being foolish. This is the kind of place would-be muggers love, Chloe! In fact, wasn't there a mugging here last year? Her anxiety surged as her mind supplied the answer and she stopped, closing her eyes tightly. She took a deep breath, willing her jangling nerves to still. Go back, girl, back to where there's more light, and people. Come on, you haven't been walking this path for very long. Take a safer route home; it's not worth the risk. Chloe nodded to herself, and opened her eyes. She turned–
–and stifled a cry of panic as her eyes fell upon a slim figure wearing a long coat with the collar turned up, his gaze connecting with hers. Her stomach lurched violently and she spun round, icy fear clawing at her as she hurried away. Oh crap, now what?! He's still behind me! She barely stopped herself from breaking into a run, the only thing preventing her doing so being the ugly thought that he would probably sprint after her if she did. Horrible images of his possible intentions flowed thick and fast through her mind and she gagged, the metallic tang of fear clogging her throat.
Chloe neared the end of the path – at last! – and turned into her road. Her leg muscles burned like wildfire as she hastened towards her house, tears blurring her vision. Keep going, you're almost there. She was too scared to risk another glance behind her and her lungs ached as she drew in great draughts of air, her heart hammering mercilessly in her chest. The rest of the journey seemed endless, her home inching towards her painfully slowly, but finally she reached her gate with a gasp of relief. The tiny front garden beckoned her with promises of safety and peace from the relentless fear of the last few minutes, and she turned onto the little pathway leading up to her front door with hurried steps.
The man looked up; he was close now. Just a little further. He quickened his pace, eager to reach his goal.
No lights could be seen in the house; evidently her housemates were either out for the evening or asleep. Chloe fumbled in her bag for her keys, mentally railing at herself for not having the foresight to find them earlier. Come on, come on! Her body tingled with nervous energy as she attempted to unlock the door, the keys clattering to the ground when her shaking hands lost their grip. Chloe yelped, frantically dropping onto her haunches to pick them up. She straightened, then gasped in horror.
He's right there! The man who had been behind her for over fifteen minutes was thirty feet from her house. Ugly thoughts crashed into her mind with sudden, brutal force, paralyzing her with visions of terror and violence. She couldn't run; he would catch up with her in just a few strides. All she could do was watch numbly as he approached, too frightened even to scream. This can't be happening to me. It's so unfair, she wailed to herself, I'm right by my door! Surely he wouldn't...
Abruptly her house hallway light blazed to life, the door opening to reveal her housemate Sara. Chloe's head snapped round, eyes widening in surprise and relief. She had obviously been wrong to assume that all her housemates were out or asleep. Not that that's a bad thing; with Sara here he won't att–
"Oh, hi Neil," called Sara with a cheerful wave, interrupting Chloe mid-thought. She whirled, her jaw dropping open as she saw the slim, tall man she had feared so dreadfully opening his front door the next house along. He half-raised a hand in greeting, mumbling a tired-sounding reply before stepping into his house. The door clicked shut. Chloe turned back to her housemate, her mind struggling to make sense of emotions that had been so unexpectedly thrown into disarray, and took a stumbling step into her own home. Sara closed the door behind her, a smile curling her lips as she glanced at her watch. "You've been out lat–" She stopped, taking in her friend's pale, drawn face and teary eyes. "Hey, you okay? What's wrong?" Chloe made a feeble attempt to smile and lowered herself to sit wearily on the staircase. The jittery, adrenaline-fuelled energy that had been coursing through her body for the last fifteen minutes was dissipating rapidly now that the perceived threat of danger had passed, leaving her completely exhausted. "I thought... I thought he... erm... that guy, he's our neighbour?" she mumbled.
"Yeah, he only moved in today," replied Sara. "I met him earlier this evening. Seems like a nice guy."
"Oh." Chloe leaned her head against the banister, closing her eyes as her body began to relax. He's your neighbour. Your neighbour! And to think that you thought he was going to... wow, how embarrassing. What an idiot you've been, girl! She laughed weakly to herself.
Sara cocked her head, puzzled by her friend's response. "Chloe?"
Chloe abruptly sat up, startled out of her reverie. "Eh? Oh." She waved a hand at her bewildered friend. "Never mind, I was just talking to myself. I think I need a coffee. Want one?"
A/N Don't forget to read Stratiotes' version!