No matter how long he stared at the fuel gauge, he knew that it would not budge. Out here in the middle of the countryside, in the middle of a forest, in the middle of the track that doubled as a foot path and road, he was stranded in his brand-new Vauxhall, faced with a long walk.
He'd even forgotten to bring his mobile phone, so there was no way of communicating to anybody unless he walked to the nearest phone-box, or somebody was to pass by, which seemed unlikely, as for the past two hours he'd been driving, he hadn't seen a soul, not even a sheep or cow. He thought it ironic that he'd run out of petrol down a country lane. He knew it was an old trick that many people used. Suddenly ‘running out of petrol’ down a lover's lane was something his friends used to do.
Paul Barton was stuck here alone, with a diamond ring in his pocket for his girlfriend of four years. He was nervous. He had been driving from his mothers to her parents where she lived and would have popped the question upon meeting her. The fact he'd forgotten the mobile, and forgotten to refuel, he blamed on his fear of asking her. He didn't know why he was afraid. Perhaps it was her response.
Maybe she would reject him, and leave him, but that was worst-case scenario. He didn't think she would do that, at least not without a good reason. At 25, unlike others his age, he was ready to settle down, and he thought, and he hoped, he'd found the right person to do that with.
It was 1:30pm and the sun blazed in the sky. Through the archway of trees along the path, sunlight filtered through and dappled the ground, and his car. He knew he would have to get out and walk. There was nothing he could do here. He got out and locked it. There was nowhere to walk back to. He would have to continue onwards.
The path wound through the forest, deeper and deeper. Birds chirped somewhere in the trees and the leaves rustled slightly. He'd never felt so alone, so lost. He quite liked the solitude, and thought he may come back to it once he'd gotten home, but thoughts of it turning dark, and sounds from within the forest made him quicken his pace. He knew the path had to lead somewhere. When he usually returned from his mother's, it was along a traditional motorway route, but such was his haste for his response, he thought that this way would be a shortcut. Perhaps it was, but it didn't matter if there was no petrol in the tank.
He walked for at least two miles before something made him slow down and stop. It was footsteps. They seemed different, and he looked around into the forest and soon saw what it was that was heading right towards him. It was a horse. A huge black stallion that wound through the trees to his right. It soon walked onto the path and stopped before him. Paul could see that it was scrutinizing him. It reminded him of a horse that a medieval knight would ride. Its coat was sleek and shiny, its eyes black and piercing. It walked around him, still watching him, before it turned and walked back into the forest, out of Paul's vision.
He was still picturing a knight sat astride it when he thought: ‘Hold on, why is there a horse on its own out here with no rider?, and with no gear for it to be ridden?’. He looked around. Perhaps somebody was looking for it. There was no-one. He continued onwards and didn't think much more of it until he finally reached a small village where the path merged into a proper road.
He knew there was no point in ringing anybody. He needed a can of petrol, but he doubted that this place had a petrol station, so knew he would have to ask someone if they maybe had a spare can in their garage he could buy. He wandered around until he saw a man outside his bungalow, dressed in blue overalls, examining the engine of a land rover. Tools and engine parts were scattered all around him. Paul slowly approached.
"Excuse me," he said. The man stopped what he was doing and looked up. He nodded his acknowledgement. He must have been in his late forties. He wore thick glasses and his hair was greasy and matted, his face smudged with black. He wiped his hands on an oily rag.
"Sorry to bother you, but I don't suppose you have a spare can of petrol I could buy?"
"Sure," he said, nodding. He threw the rag onto the floor and walked towards a garage beside his house. He returned moments later with a full can and set it down, then held out his hand. "Call it a tenner," he said. Paul fumbled around for his wallet and eventually he handed him the money.
"You don't happen to know anyone who's lost a horse do you?" he asked. "There's one wandering around in the forest?".
Paul was irate, pouring the petrol in his car, and then slamming the door behind him. How could his time be wasted like that? He was nervous enough as it was with his impending proposal. The man had told him of Cherry and Jake, horse and owner, over four hundred years ago. For some reason, in the middle of the same forest, they became separated, and none ever found the other. Now, apparently, Cherry's ghost wanders the forest, still looking, but if she see's you, and you're not her owner, you do not survive long afterwards. Paul angrily started the engine.
In the morning, a man walking his dog found the car in the same place, its engine running, and behind the wheel, Paul staring at him with a blood-drained face and dead, lifeless eyes.
(c) John Jones