Kieran would be there. That’s all I needed to hear to follow Skye down the sinuous path through the dark forest. Leafless dark oak trees with twisted trunks and tangled branches loomed above us. Vibrant orange mushrooms popped against the otherwise dreary backdrop. Loud caws from screechy crows pierced through the still, humid air.
“Are you sure this is the way?” I asked while flipping on my flashlight. The beautiful bright blue of twilight darkened the deeper we penetrated the thick forest, and my eyes played tricks on me. Shadows darted behind trees and crawled into stumps.
“It’s not much further.” Skye smacked her arm and when she pulled her hand away, a thin smear of blood remained. “Should’ve brought bug spray.”
“I think I have some.” I rummaged through my bag that contained a bathing suit, towel, a book, water bottle, phone, and makeup until I found the bottle.
“Why did you bring a book to a party?” She asked while watching me.
In case I get bored. I hate parties. “I always have one on me, so I feel naked without it.”
“Whatever, weirdo.” She grabbed the bug spray and drenched herself in the slightly sticky poison. When handing it back to me, she added, “Maybe you shouldn’t use this. Nothing kills the mood like getting a mouthful of this stuff. Even with the Prince of Darkness.”
I rolled my eyes and sprayed. “It’d never get that far.”
“Not with that attitude.” She pulled her waist-length blonde hair up into a ponytail. “Then again this whole place is kind of a mood killer. Who picked it?”
“Probably that true-crime fanatic, Chris. I bet it’s haunted or something. Maybe one of those places where all sorts of people go missing.”
Skye turned to flash me a devious, dimpled smile. “I heard it’s a full moon too, Birdie. We’re in for some fun.”
“Hey, what’s that?” I pointed my flashlight on a strange lump. As I stepped closer, I saw and heard flies buzzing around it. Then the distinct smell of death filled my nose. It was a raccoon with its stomach clawed open. The face twisted in a frozen snarl with its fangs protruding.
“Ew! Gross!” Skye yelled and jumped away. She flailed her arms like it would make the whole thing disappear.
I wished I could take a picture of the body, but I knew that would look creepy. There was something intriguing about it. I stepped away trying to look as disgusted as she was. Trying to look normal.
In the distance I saw a yellow flicker, and as we got closer, it grew into a dancing bonfire. Chris preached to the group like a park ranger warning of nature’s hidden horrors. My eyes searched for Kieran first. I saw his shoulder length dark hair, and the orange glow of the fire reflecting on his dark, tanned skin and scars. He wore a black hooded sweatshirt and blank pants like he always did, but this time he wasn’t wearing black lipstick or eyeliner like normal. His hand held someone else’s. The woman next to him was so skinny her bones jutted out, and with her pale skin she looked like a skeleton. She wore a long black dress that blended with her long black hair. Her cheeks seemed slightly sunken in, like she was malnourished, and it may have been the lighting of the fire, but her eyes looked like dark, empty pools.
“Guess he brought a date,” Skye whispered with a sympathetic look my way and light nudge of my shoulder.
“It’s fine. I’ve got you,” I said and put my arm around her shoulder. She put hers around my back and we walked together to the fire.
Chris smiled to acknowledge our presence and then continued his tale. “So, you see this lake behind me is really quite special. First, I’ll start with my favorite story about the Marsh family. Jonas Marsh brought his wife and five children out here for a camping trip. None of them made it home. He chopped up all their bodies with an axe and scattered the pieces across the lake. Then he went into that cabin over there and hung himself…”
I couldn’t focus on Chris’ sinister stories. My eyes kept returning to the interlocked hands across the fire. What did she look like through his eyes? What things did he notice first? What’s her personality like? It’s hard to imagine when she stares blankly into the fire looking like a corpse, but I found myself wanting to know everything about her. I noticed a red glowing vial hanging from her neck. It wasn’t glowing before, so why now? Solar power doesn’t make sense because it’s been dark for a while and she’s in front of a bright fire.
“There’s also a lot of mythology. A big lake monster…” Chris droned on somehow uninterrupted.
I looked around. Ten of us sat around this fire, staring unemotionally into the flames. Did anyone care what Chris said?
“We should play a game!” Finally, someone interrupted this. His name was Eric, and I didn’t particularly care for him, but at least he put a stop to Chris.
“What kind of game?” Chris asked.
“Truth or Dare!” Skye yelled and then gave me a look that filled my body with dread. She’s up to something.
“I have an idea,” Chris said.
“Go for it,” someone said. Since I didn’t know everyone there, it was hard to pinpoint.
“Birdie, this is for you.” Chris pointed at me.
“Got to pick on my twin.” He pulled up the collar of his sunflower-yellow polo, and I glanced down at my lemon-yellow dress. Both us came as little rays of sunshine. How ironic.
“I dare you to take the rowboat out on the lake. You have to get to the center before you can come back.” His grin showed he found this very amusing. Maybe if I listened to all his stories, I’d understand why. I didn’t fear any of that stuff, so this was a piece of cake.
“Wait,” Skye interrupted. “I think someone should go with her. She doesn’t know how to row a boat.”
Thanks a lot. She’s right though. I don’t.
“It’s easy,” Chris laughed. “But go with her if you’re brave enough.”
“No, way. I’m weaker than she is. I think…. Kieran should go. He’s good with boats, right?”
Really subtle. “It’s fine. I can─”
“Sure, I’ll go,” Kieran said.
“Be careful of the lake monster.” Chris tried to make it sound spooky, but he only sounded cheesy. “Keep an eye out for dead bodies.”
When I got a good look at the boat, I wasn’t sure it would even float. The wood was old and moldy. There were some holes and cracks. It looked ancient. Still, we pushed it out and jumped in. I sat on one bench pulling the bottom of my dress over my knees. He faced me and rowed.
“So, is that a girlfriend you’re with?” I asked. My heart raced and I looked out into the dark water. The moonlight created a stripe of sparkling white diamonds across it. I liked the sound of little waves slapping the boat.
“No, we’re just…hanging out.”
“Oh, well she seems cool.” I twisted my fingers together.
“Yeah? What’s so cool about her?”
I wondered if he knew I liked him and was playing some sort of game. If so, I wouldn’t fight for him. Relationships shouldn’t be a competition.
“I’ve never talked to her, so I don’t know. I like her style I guess.” I did. She looked on the outside like I felt on the inside. There was a darkness in her, like there’s a darkness in him and something about that pulled me in. I connected to it. “How’d you meet?”
“At a vampire LARPing thing.”
“There’s nothing cute about it.”
“Ah, a serious vampire. Do you drink real blood? I’d offer mine, but the mosquitoes have tainted it.”
“No. That’s…” He shook his head and looked disgusted. “She’s more into than I am. But…I don’t think we’ll work out. Probably end things tonight.”
“I think I’m growing out of it all. It was a fun escape. Now it feels like time to face my demons and grow up or whatever.”
“Grow up? Why do that?” I teased, but there was some truth to it. Growing up wasn’t so appealing when you never felt like a kid to begin with.
“I’ve started wanting different things, I guess. There’s a comfortable familiarity to misery, but it’s good to pull away from it too. Find someone who pulls you out of it. Someone happier.” He looked in my eyes with this sort of hopeful, longing expression that burned my cheeks and forced my eyes to break contact.
I wasn't exactly sure what he meant. “Right. Well before you go all grown up, humor me with one more childish act.”
“We need to prank Chris. Make him think something happened out here.”
Kieran leaned in closer. “You don’t think anything will happen out here?”
With his face so close to mine and the bright moonlight, I could see the playfulness that twinkled in his eyes. I felt a strong magnetic pull towards his lips. I imagined kissing him a million times. When it happened, this strong feeling of connection would ignite between us and that feeling of belonging I desperately craved would sink into me. I sensed he’d understand everything I needed him to, but I knew I needed to resist. He came here with someone else, and now it didn’t feel right. I bit my lower lip hard until I tasted the metallic blood taste.
“We could splash around and scream or…look at that.”
A blue glow surrounded the boat, like a bucket of that stuff inside of glow sticks was dumped into the water. He looked over the edge and into the water, the blue reflecting on his face and making his eyes sparkle. It felt romantic in a way.
“That’s so creepy,” he said. Then the glowing circle darkened and turned to purple, then blood red. All these little balls popped up. Hundreds of veiny eyeballs. “What is this?”
As if answering his question, a gust of wind blew through and the temperature dropped like thirty degrees. I rubbed my arms and shivered. I looked over and saw a dark figure in a tattered cloak standing on the water. The figure waved a bony finger beckoning us closer. The boat pulled towards it. Kieran turned, saw the figure, and then rowed frantically in the other direction. It was no use. Our boat spun rapidly and flipped a few times. Like being trapped in a washer machine we spun all around and then were spit out.
We crawled to the nearby shore soaked. We saw a fire but instead of our friends, creatures sat around it. They looked like shapes molded from sticky black oil. Their mouths open to reveal rows and rows of sharp needle teeth. I grabbed Kieran’s hand and pulled him to the woods. The tree’s branches twisted down to grab us. My heart pounded with fear or maybe exhilaration? A giant stepped forward. His body looked like a twisted oak, but he had the head of a man with a long gray beard that fell like a willow tree.
“Where are we?” Kieran cried.
“Where you’ve always belonged,” the old tree man said reassuringly.
Thousands of spiders crawled across the ground. Well, spider like things. Their legs were sharp like little knives and their bodies were glowing red balls.
Kieran turned to look at me with his eyes wide. “We need to get out of here.”
He grabbed my hand and turned to run, but I pulled my hand back. He looked confused for a moment. I could see the fear in his eyes as a tear glistened down his scarred cheek. Behind him golden light stretched through the trees highlighting a path. The look in his eyes shifted from fear to understanding to sadness. For the first time, I felt like I was truly being seen.
I looked at the tree man and a sense of peace overtook my heart. Letting go of Kieran’s hand, I reached out my arms and tattered-cloaked ghostly figures returned my embrace. As each one touched me, jolts of energy sparked through my veins and I felt a satisfying warmth flood my body.
“Welcome home,” they whispered. It felt like stepping out of a dark hiding spot into the sun. It felt like pulling off a mask. It felt like I belonged.
Kieran eyes darted between me and the well-lit path. He reached out for me once more, but the spiders jumped up, climbing my body, and scared him off. They left a blood trail, but it didn’t hurt. He hesitated, gave me a pleading look, and then ran. He’ll be back. I tilted my head up and a tiny smirk stretch across my lips.
The spiders pulled a thorny crown up onto my head. Slimy worms massaged my feet. I felt so loved. They directed me to my throne. There was a déjà vu like familiarity to it. I was finally home.