But the game wasn't over. Not for Trisha. It never could be; as time passed by, the memories of those nine days fighting for her life in those woods might fade from her consciousness, but they would never entirely be gone. They might drift back into the murky darkness of her subconscious, but that tough tootsie would always be there, waiting to remind Trisha of the horrors she had barely survived. Trisha may have left the woods, but the woods would never truly leave her.

Larry and Quilla sat silently together at her beside, each holding one of her hands. For nine agonising days they had been flung back together, their old differences cast aside as they were forced to face the awful prospect that they might never see her again. As a couple they had supported each other through the uncertainty and the fading hope. They had appeared together on national television, appealing to the public for information, and they had been told to prepare for the worst nearly a week ago, ever since the police had mistakenly arrested Francis Mazzerole. She had sunk further and further into depression, blaming herself for Trisha's disappearance, and he drank more and more. But they gave each other strength as their daughter stared back at them from TV news reports and the tops of newspapers, looking more and more like a ghost with every passing day.

Neither of them had given up hope, even when it became blind and desperate. In their ever-more plausible nightmares, they saw Trisha lying prostate on the forest floor, maybe hurt, maybe calling for them; or, even worse, they imagined that somebody had her. But they didn't give up hope. The girl that lay asleep in front of them was barely recognisable as their daughter, the story of her nine-day fight for survival etched on her face. Quilla had diligently sponged most of the dirt from Trisha's face, but a thin layer of grime remained, adding a little colour to her gaunt features. Hair, which had been blonde when Trisha had disappeared into the woods but was now the colour of mud, cascaded messily from her scalp, greasy and stuck together in clumps. Mosquito bites protruded from her skin like tiny volcanoes; they suggested Trisha was suffering from a premature, prepubescent bout of acne. To her parents, she looked like a starving peasant girl from some far-off, war torn corner of the world, the sort of girl who they would expect to see used in a television charity appeal for starving orphans.

Larry glanced at his wife. She was crying quietly to herself as she gently stroked Trisha's tiny hand with her thumb. There was something he wanted to say to her. He wasn't sure if it was a good time to say it, but nor did he know if he'd get a better chance.

"Quilla?" he whispered. She looked up at him. He hesitated for a moment, unsure of what exactly to say. "You know that night we stayed in that hotel together?"

Quilla nodded, and continued to stare at him. She wasn't entirely sure of what he was saying, and, in truth, Larry didn't really know what he was saying either. Uneasily, he continued. "Well... what did you think about... it?"

He reached over the bed with his free hand and placed it gently on his wife's. She sighed and shook her head. "Larry... it was a mistake. We should never have done it." she said, wearily. She pulled her hand from beneath his, and brushed a dirty strand of Trisha's hair away from her face. "I'd rather not talk about it, not here."

Larry reluctantly withdrew his hand from the other side of Trisha's bed. "I've missed you, you know."

"Not now!" Quilla snapped. She was more tried than angry; not surprisingly, she had barely slept for days, and still felt a lingering trail of guilt about that first night of the ordeal. For Christ's sake Larry, she wanted to say, Trish was out there alone in the woods, scared half to death, and we were doing it like rabbits! What do you expect me to fucking think about it?

Larry sank back into his chair at this point, feeling pretty guilty himself, cursing himself for picking the wrong moment. His ex-wife had barely been able to function for days, torturing herself for allowing Trisha to stumble away from the path. If only I'd paid more attention to her instead of arguing with Pete, she'd cried to Larry, she'd still be here if I'd been looking out for her. At first he had agreed with her grief- stricken self-recrimination, privately and bitterly, but as the days rolled painfully by, he had found he needed a shoulder to cry on as much as his ex- wife did. Ultimately, it wasn't about blame - it was about trying to draw enough strength from each other to cope.

Time passed slowly in that small side room, not that Larry or Quilla minded about that. They had not so long ago been discussing whether or not they should wait for Trisha's body to be found, and whether they would want to see it if it was recovered. Even though neither of them stopped hoping, they both knew after a week or so that they also had to be prepared for the worst. Being able to hold her warm, living hands was a blessing, and for most of that time both her parents sat in quiet ecstasy. It was inevitable that some of the pressure that they have both born the brunt of would escape from time to time, resulting in the occasional solar flare of tension and anger, but generally they were happy. As Quilla would say, and did say, they counted their blessings.

Pete, who had been sent to stay with Gramma and Grampa McFarland, came in to visit late in the afternoon. Like his mother, he had been shocked into guilt-ridden despair, and had spent most of his time over the preceding days alone in his room, silent but strangely tearless. Trisha's disappearance had made him see his behaviour with a new, grim clarity; his sister had been cast into a terrifying unknown because of his petulant selfishness. Like the rest of Trisha's family, he had aged over those nine days - but while that aging had manifested itself in a few more grey hairs and laughter lines in his parents, Pete had matured beyond his years. He had reluctantly attended school, and found that his peers' attitudes had changed somewhat. They weren't exactly nice to him, no, but they were certainly more civil, and some of the girls had even asked him how he was feeling. But he would have gladly have gone back to being called Compuworld if had ensured Trisha's safe return. Perhaps out of his whole family, Pete was the most overjoyed when she was rescued.

It was Pete who noticed Trisha stirring again, sometime in the long golden afternoon of that early summer's day. Quilla had reluctantly taken a break from her daughter's bedside and went back home to rest and change, and Larry was outside in the corridor being advised against getting too involved with his ex-wife again by his father. Pete was alone in the room when he saw his sister beginning to wriggle beneath her sheets, coughing and spluttering heavily as she did.

Trisha's sleep had been deep, but not entirely peaceful. Images had flashed before her, more like fragmented thoughts than actual dreams. Some were memorable and benign - she had particularly enjoyed pitching a Sony Walkman at hapless Walt from Danvizz - but most had passed her too quickly for her to comprehend them, leaving a darkly unsettling presence in their wake.

"Trish? Trisha?" Pete said, leaning over his sister as her eyes flickered open and shut again, barely perceptively.

Trisha was beginning to wake up now, but her already weak body had been drugged to help her combat her pneumonia, and she lay for a while in a semi- conscious haze, teetering on the brink between the darkness of dreams and the brilliant light of the world. It was like being submerged in dark, murky water, just beneath the surface of reality; she could see and hear her brother, but he was distant and distorted, an indistinct ripple that couldn't fully penetrate the gauze that stretched over her perception of the world.

A thought swam towards Trisha, fully formed and dangerous like an electric eel. You dreamt it, sugar. There was no guy with a gun, there is no hospital, you're still out here in the woods chimed a familiar voice from somewhere inside her head. Momentarily, it lit up the mental darkness. Trisha had imagined things before - singing Spice Girls songs with Pepsi, seeing that helicopter, those talks with Tom Gordon - in fact, she had long since lost track of the difference between reality and her own fantasies. Could the hospital have just been another cruel illusion? Alarmed, she quickly swam to the surface, and whatever might be waiting for her there.

The first thing that spun into focus was Pete's face, looming just in front of Trisha. She had seen him just a few days ago. He had been walking with her, and she finally turned around and told him to cut the crap, to stop arguing with mom, and to grow up. He didn't say anything back - he was nothing more than a product of her feverish mind - but his face was a picture. Trisha had laughed until she cried, albeit with a lengthy coughing fit between. She didn't know if he was any more real this time.

She was crying now, she could feel it. In that first moment after waking, she felt as afraid as she ever had been in the woods, suddenly convinced that this was nothing more than one last hallucination. Maybe it was her mind's way of letting her say goodbye. Trisha let out a small, painful sob as that thought pricked her.

"Pete..." she said, and heard a small rasp that resembled her voice escape from the back of her throat. "Is that you?" If it's not, I'll give up and die right now, thought Trisha. If her own mind could play such a cruel trick on her, she couldn't go on.

Pete smiled and nodded, his eyes gleaming with what would soon be tears. "Do you want a drink, Trish?" he asked her, his new found maturity still not sufficient to suggest anything better to say at an emotionally loaded time like this. After all, he was still the same inarticulate adolescent he had been nine days before.

Trisha nodded back, grimacing a little as she heard the familiar sneer of the tough tootsie once again. That doesn't mean anything - Tom Gordon spoke to you, Pepsi sang with you. Don't get your hopes up!

She was becoming more aware of her surroundings now; as Pete reached for a glass of water sitting on a bedside table she glanced around the room, looking for anything from the woods that her mind might have disguised as part of a hospital room. If this was a hallucination, it was the most lucid one that Trisha had experienced, and the first that wasn't played out against the backdrop of the forest. She began to realise that she was warm and comfortable, just like she'd expect to be in a hospital bed, and there were no butterflies in front of her eyes. Memories filtered through her tired brain, and she began to recall being on that ancient dirt road hearing the sound of a far off truck. Feeling that icewater in her veins and the stillness rushing through her body as she faced the thing that might have just been a bear. Hearing shots ringing out from behind her and turning around to see a man, a real person, running towards her. Could she have dreamt all of that?

Pete approached Trisha carefully with the glass. Using what little strength she had, she propped herself up laboriously against her pillows - not much, just enough so that she wasn't lying flat - and let Pete put the glass gently against her cracked lips. The water was cold, and soothed her flaming throat; it certainly seemed real enough. It was the first drink of clean water Trisha had enjoyed in a week.

When Trisha had finished her drink, she beckoned Pete closer with a slow, weak finger. "Pete" she croaked "could you do something for me?"

The all-new and improved Pete nodded.

"Pinch me." Trisha said quietly. Her chest felt lighter than when she had woken up in the hospital before (she was beginning to remember that now as well), but it was still an effort to talk.

Pete hesitated for a moment, perhaps thrown a little by his sister's request. Then, Trisha felt his warm fingers on her bony arm, and a short, sharp needle of pain as he managed to squeeze a small portion of flesh. She shuddered for a minute, but the stinging sensation felt good. If the old saying was true, that if you can feel a pinch you're awake, then she couldn't be imagining this; she must have made it out alive.

"Oh, Pete..." Trisha sobbed, the tears beginning to come again but born of sweet relief rather than fear now, "I thought I was never gonna see you again."

"It's alright, Trish, you're safe now. I love you." Pete said, a little embarrassed as he heard himself say those words. They didn't sound right in his wobbling, breaking voice, but they seemed like the right ones to use at that moment. "We all do."

Trisha coughed. It wasn't much of a cough, compared to the fits she had endured in the woods, but it still pulled heavily on her chest, and served as a reminder of how sick she still was. She still felt weak and feverish, and wasn't sure how long she could stay awake for. "How are mom and dad?" she asked Pete.

"Mom's just gone home to get changed, but Dad's outside. I'll go get him for you." Pete said, and disappeared out of the door.

Trisha protested weakly and in vain; she hadn't asked to see her parents - not that she didn't want to - rather, she wanted to know how they were. She wanted to know if this had finally scared them into seeing sense. She had been the Invisible Girl during the whole messy divorce, always staying out of the way and looking on in horror as her family tore themselves limb from limb, and part of her relished suddenly being at the centre of attention. The same tiny, perverse part of her that hoped they had suffered. The same dark region of her subconscious where that morbid tough tootsie dwelled, in fact.

The door opened softly, and Larry walked in. He approached her bedside slowly and reverently. "Hello, sugar." he said. "Did you sleep well?"

Trisha nodded her head, electing not to strain her voice. She studied her father carefully as he sat down next to her. Her mind was cast back to that day in his back garden when she had asked him if he thought there was a God. She remembered how old and afraid he had suddenly looked on that day. He still looked old - if anything, he looked even older - but now he didn't look quite as lost or dismayed. His smile seemed real now, as opposed to the painted-on grin he had worn on those Saturdays when his children came to visit.

"How's your throat, sweetie?" Larry asked.

"It's okay, I guess." Trisha croaked. It wasn't, not really, but she didn't want to have her father fuss over her. Not at this precise moment, at least. In truth, she was beginning to feel a little embarrassed at all the trouble she had inadvertently caused. "You gave us all a hell of a fright there, little lady." Larry said, carefully stroking her hair as he did. "Thank God you're alright."

(Trisha picked up on that, but didn't say anything. Like many people who have suddenly discovered religion at stressful times, Larry McFarland had decided at some point in the previous nine days that he had no use for an uncaring and unaware God that manipulated the world behind the scenes, and had traded his beliefs in for an omnipresent deity who did care for little girls lost in the woods after all. Who do you call when your Subaudible's busted? Dial 1-800-GOD.)

"It's going to be all right now Trish, everything's going to be all right..." Larry continued, but his eyes had assumed a glazed, faraway look. Trisha wasn't sure whether he was really talking to her or trying to reassure himself.

Pete returned a few moments later, clutching something wrapped in a paper bag. He held it with all the awkward care and loving attention of a young father with his newborn baby. "I brought this in for you." he said proudly, and pulled out Mona.

Trisha smiled wanly at the sight of her old doll. She remembered it as a symbol of her childhood, something from the distant past - it seemed strange to think that she had last played with Mona little over a week ago. It seemed even stranger to think she was still a child.

Pete came up to Trisha, as carefully as her father had (Trisha hoped that not everyone would do that; they were approaching her like she was a wounded animal, ready to turn and bite at any moment), and placed Mona beneath Trisha's sheets. With great effort, she wrapped her arm around the doll. "Yeah, baby..." she said weakly.

There were so many things that Trisha wanted to say to her dad, and to the rest of her family for that matter, but she was tired and her throat protested at the very thought of talking too much. So she just lay there, glad to be alive and in the company of her dysfunctional but loving family. Gramma and Grandpa McFarland came in and joined her father and brother. Trisha was pleased to see them both, but she was still physically and mentally exhausted. Eventually, her eyes became heavy, and she returned once again to the dark world of sleep.