June 6, 2005
Sophie walked slowly, aimlessly through the woods. It had been a little over a week since her father’s heart attack, two days since his funeral. Time alone was what she needed now, time to let her father’s death sink in, time to accept that he was, in fact, gone. No more Sunday dinners with a movie on TV afterward. No more lovingly teasing banter. No more comforting hugs. No more seeing the pride in his eyes, even though he’d never say it aloud. No more seeing the ‘I love you’ in his eyes or hearing him say it aloud.
She paused and brushed the tears away from her cheeks, took in a deep breath, pushed it out through her mouth slowly, listening to it whistle quietly past her lips.
Continuing on, she pushed thoughts of her father from her head, practicing for what would be normal for the rest of her life. She looked around at the trees, the patches of wildflowers, the chipmunks that scurried under piles of leaves as she drew too close to them. She listened to the chirps and squawks of the birds overhead, the rustling of branches as the squirrels made their way from tree to tree.
A few feet ahead she noticed a structure obscured by a copse of pine trees. Though she’d wandered these woods all during her childhood, she never came across this dilapidated house. Curious, she walked toward it.
It was obviously long abandoned. Little more than a shack, the wood siding was weather-worn to a brownish gray, and the small windows on each of the four sides of the structure were glassless now. The door, offset from the middle and balanced by the window set three feet from it, hung slightly ajar in the frame, the hinges barely holding it in place.
She pushed gently at the door at first, and when it didn’t budge, she gave it a shove. It scraped across the rotting floorboards leaving a semi-circle in the dust as it moved into the room. Sophie stepped over the threshold into the barren room that contained nothing but dirt, leaves, and the remains of animals’ nests in the corners.
In the middle of the main room there was a doorway that led to what looked like a kitchen. Sophie crossed the creaking floorboards creaking and stepped into the second room. It was empty except for a countertop set atop a bank of three cupboards, and a rusting woodstove in the opposite corner. Next to the counter was another door, though in contrast to everything else in the building, it hung on its hinges straight and the light blue paint seemed less worn, barely streaked with dirt like everything else. The doorknob even glinted slightly in the dim ray of sunshine that filtered through the window from the other side of the room.
Sophie reached out for the knob and spun it easily, the door swinging into the room with no resistance. Beyond the door was a staircase, built of simple boards, leading down to a basement. She felt a slight shudder run up her spine as she stepped toward the stairs, but her fear dispersed when a feeling of need overtook her. She was drawn to the basement, an unnamable force pulling her down the stairs and toward whatever it was that was down there.
After feeling her way down the steps, Sophie dug through her jacket pockets and pulled out a book of matches. She struck the sulfur-coated cardboard tip against the sandy strip on the back of the book and watched the dark room flare into view. She gasped when she saw the basement’s contents, still sparse, but definitely inhabited at some point. A high table was pushed against one wall and held four candles. Sophie made her way over to it and, lighting another match, touched the flame to each of the four wicks, casting the room in a yellow glow.
A desk and chair were set against the opposite wall from the table with the candles, and a bookcase overflowing with dusty volumes sat on the wall in between. Feeling drawn again, Sophie moved toward the bookshelf. She felt a shift in the air, a tightening of the atmosphere of the room as she stepped into the center. She looked down then, and noticed for the first time the marks painted on the floor.
It was a large circle, taking up nearly half the room, and just inside the white line of the circle were a series of symbols, all carefully spaced and neatly painted. She barely had time to spin in a full circle and take in all the symbols before her vision began to waver, growing fuzzy at the edges and wafting in waves like heat pouring off hot asphalt under a noontime summer sun. A stabbing pain began then, from the center of her skull, an icepick forcing it’s way out, then growing, spreading through her whole head, making her ears ring and her vision go dark. Sophie felt herself falling, felt her knees bending against her will and her head rushing toward the floor until everything around her went black.
Sophie could feel herself trembling as she rose back through the darkness to consciousness. She could feel cool air around her, a stark contrast to the warm, stifling closeness of the basement. Not yet able to open her eyes, she was confused at the difference. She was sure she was outside, not in the dank basement anymore. Although the sounds were different from the woods she’d been in, too. There were no birds, no rustling leaves. There was… traffic?
Confusion brought her further toward consciousness and she forced her eyes open. The sky above her was blue peppered with white clouds in amorphous blobs. Not a tree in sight. She turned her head to the left, saw grass. Just grass, for yards ahead of her. Turning to the right there was more grass, but beyond it, the familiar shape of a highway’s metal guardrail.