Leaves crunch beneath the soles of Adelaide’s boots, each step grinding them into the earth. The scent of mud and wilderness hangs in the air, heavy with the remnants of the early morning drizzle. Above her, birds chip, adding their voices to a round of song they only seem to know. The breeze hums through the sparse leaves, rocking the branches to and fro.
On her left, a twig snaps and the noise calls her back to a story her mom had once told her of a man who fell out of a tree, irreparably fractured his neck, and now haunted these very woods.
Nearly every time her family’s minivan left the driveway, her mom regaled her and her brother, Mike, with tales that made their hair follicles rise into tiny hills on their skin. The wisps of wind that weren’t simply air, but gods murmuring in the ether. The mirror that in the night became a portal to hell with the utterance of a name thrice. The slight roll a car made when in neutral on a backroad, which didn’t come from a disruption in the grade of the cement, but child ghosts emerging from cornfields to give the bumper a push. The forest, which wasn’t filled with animals, but angry souls looking to suck the life force from your flesh and bone.
Hold your breath as you pass the cemetery so your breath couldn’t be snatched from your lungs. Avoid the cracks in the sidewalk so Mom’s back didn’t shatter. Never cheers with water unless you want to wish death on those around you. Each choice they made, even the smallest of them, was loaded with meaning and consequence.
As she got older, Adelaide’s belief in such things had waned. Why let fear of the things she couldn’t see supersede the things she could see and feel with her own senses? After all, the latter had much more power to destroy and corrupt.
It’s this realization that lets her recognize the snap as coming not from some spirit, but something alive, and small, and non-menacing. With a look, she confirms that she’s right, as a squirrel skitters over the detritus of fall before springing onto a nearby oak. Its leap doesn’t get it very far, just onto the base of the bark. The squirrel’s stomach is too full of winter preparations to allow for any more height.
Adelaide’s own body is weighed down by her obsessive preparedness, the nylon straps of her JanSport digging into the valleys of her shoulders. That morning, she crammed everything she could into the bag: clothes, her childhood stuffed rabbit, Ziplocs of food, toiletries, and whatever else she needed to survive until the zipper’s seams were one granola bar away from exploding open.
With gentle fingers, she skims the swollen blotch to tuck her hair into her hat. It will be the last bruise that ever blooms on her face, she tells herself. She will not let herself become one of the tragic characters of her mom’s legends. She will not fall victim to her dad and his scare tactics any longer.
While in their youth, her mom told the stories in fun, her dad manipulated them into parables, sowing fear into their world, so he became the only safe place any of them could run.
But that place wasn’t very safe, even less after the clot in her mom’s brain made her a tool of his submission. He wasn’t comforting, but constricting, choking. His voice, his touch, his presence made her feel like she was swallowing gallons of acid.
But how could she leave her mom? Or Mike? He would come after them, torture them to torture her. All escape routes were blocked. So, even though she didn’t believe in them, she hit his drink with a glass of water in “cheers” and called up whatever other superstition she could in the hope that the omen would take. But, they never did like she knew they wouldn’t.
The second his knuckles collided with her cheek bone for speaking over him once, though, the only option she had left was to get out. As soon as her dad’s Ford pulled out of the driveway, Adelaide kissed her mom’s cheek, her mom’s response a blank stare at the television playing The Price is Right. She hugged Mike tightly, whispering that if she escaped, she’d come back for them. She closed the door with as much noise as a hushed breath in case her dad could hear her miles away.
As quickly as she can, she moves through the woods, dodging rocks and downed trees. She wants to get to the next town before the sun leaves her view. She needs to put as much distance between herself and home as possible.
A crack of a branch sounds from behind her, echoing out across the dirt and dying grass. This time, she knows it’s not an animal. The sound was too loud, made with too much force and weight.
Adelaide turns her head just enough to glance over her shoulder and lock eyes with the man, still and imposing, on the edge of the tree line. Just like her mom had described.
Every drop of her blood feels as if it has stopped flowing in her veins and gone colder than the wind.
“Adelaide,” he calls.