Light filtered in through my closed eyelids. Sounds of sirens screamed, slashing at the soft hum of summer as three police cars whooshed past. My stomach flipped. I cracked my left eye, then my right and became keenly aware of stillness all around me. Judging by the temperature and the moisture in the air, I knew it had to be early morning; just past dawn. I pressed my hands onto the pavement and eased myself up slowly. My head was pounding. I brushed my hair out of my eyes and took in the sweet smell of honeysuckle on the cool breeze. I stared up into the dusty purple morning sky and noticed there was still one bright, fat star visible. I scrunched my eyes and tried to remember feeling hopeful enough to make wishes. Then it slowly came back to me. The airy texture of nothing. The feeling of pulling. The momentum of running. The aching in my thighs. The burning in my lungs.
I looked around, trying to get my bearings. Although I hadn’t left my house in months, I knew our small town like the back of my hand. I was at the corner of Baker Street and Ridley Place. Maybe three miles from my house, nearly at the edge of our town. I had to get home. I started walking slowly, wincing at the pain in my calves. My feet, covered in blisters, were stinging with each step. I tried to think back to the night before, how I was so overcome with grief, I must have hallucinated, or had some kind of a breakdown. I thought back to Marlowe, her constant begging.
“Let’s just get you some help,” she said, her arms firmly around me. “Please.”
“Help with what? There’s nothing anyone can do, they’re dead. He killed them.”
“……yeah, and you saw it.”
Her words were like gunshots. They echoed.
As I walked, the sun climbed higher in the sky. The world was quiet except for the hum of crickets and bursts of swirling, screeching sirens, which kept my throat tight. It reminded me of being alone in my house with my parents, the tinny smell of blood in the air, the silence broken by whaling sirens in the distance. I was there, firmly planted on the ground, face buried in the carpet, but I was gone. The version of me who cared about girls, baseball games, and summer vacation had been murdered alongside them.
I took a deep breath and tried to map my route home. I thought about cutting through the woods, avoiding the street altogether. The idea of passing parks and baseball fields, places where I’d done the bulk of my growing up sounded like something I shouldn’t be doing after a breakdown of this magnitude. If I cut through the woods, I’d only have to pass one landmark. That I could handle.
Just as I moved to step off the road and cut into the woods through a barely-visible entry point, I heard a distinct rustling sound just beyond the brush. It sounded like digging, then soft whining. I inched closer and noticed slight movement, then craned my neck to see around the trees. There, in the distance, cowering behind an old hickory tree, was a tan, shaggy dog with wiry hair.
As I stepped carefully toward him, I felt my heart sink. He looked exactly like our neighbor’s dog, Arthur, who I’d grown up playing with. I remembered how his butterscotch colored coat smelled—like dry leaves and mud—and how he’d bound into our yard to play fetch with me or to wrestle. Every night when he’d run home to be with his family, I felt pangs of sadness and maybe even a little resentment. On the day Arthur died, I sat in my treehouse and cried for hours on end. Eventually, my mom bribed me to come down with a slice of her hot apple pie. I remember the pie tasting different that day; as if the sadness left my mouth sour.
I carefully stepped toward the dog who slinked back as I approached. But as I got closer, his posture eased, his body relaxed, his tail wagged hard. In an instant, he launched his body at me, pouncing on my chest, causing me to topple backward. He licked my face so intensely his rough tongue even made its way into my nose for a brief moment. As he leaned himself against me and nuzzled into my neck, I inhaled. His scent was earthy—familiar. Frantically, I searched his neck for his collar, and feeling the worn leather between my fingers, ran my hand along its edges until I felt metal. I pulled the tag away from the dog’s neck so I could get a better look. There, etched in the worn brass was the word—Arthur.
Startled, I nudged the dog off and pushed myself backward. Undeterred, he pounced on me again, licking my face, wagging his tail, resting his chin on my chest. I stood, pushing the dog off, yet he stayed glued to my side. My mind raced, turning the absurdity of the coincidence over and over. I let my hand rest on his head as I thought; his hair even felt the same, soft and curly, like slick coils of ribbon between my fingers. I wondered if my neighbors could have given him away all those years ago. I’d heard of dogs coming back to their homes from miles and miles away. Or maybe he ran away, got lost, and they didn’t want to tell me. But more than ten years ago? How could he have even have survived that long? I looked down at him, searched his coat for grey, looked for mats, signs he’d been living in the woods, but I saw nothing out of the ordinary.
“It’s not the same dog, idiot,” I said to myself aloud. I ran my fingers through his fur once more, and started to walk toward the woods. The dog stayed by my side, pressed against my body. I shoved at him and pointed to the road and yelled, “Go home!”
He stared up at me blankly.
“Home! Go home!” I yelled again.
He continued to stare.
I picked up a stick and waved it, getting his attention. His tail wagged, he sat, his tail wagging. “Ok, go get it, boy!” I yelled. And launched it into the air. He took off after the stick, just like Arthur used to. As he paced the space beside the road, I pushed branches and sharp prickly leaves out of the way, and entered the thicket alone. I needed to get home and call. . . someone. I felt fear swiping at me, breathing down my neck; there was something very serious wrong with my brain. There had to be.
As I walked, I was struck by the kinetic energy in the air. Something was different about today. The forest was buzzing as it did sometimes before a big storm. Just as I banked left at a cluster of pine trees, a pile of branches and sticks leaning against the thick trunk of a towering oak tree caught my eye. Acorns and feathers were scattered around the outside of structure, which was lined with a circle of rocks. It looked like a fort put up by neighborhood kids—the kind Marlowe and I used to make when we were little, where we’d run off to anytime her dad got to drinking. Once, we snuck out early in the morning, each with a homemade bow and arrow that we’d constructed after reading The Boxcar Children. We planned to hunt turkeys, cook them over an open fire, and start a new life together among the trees.
We lay silently. The air was cool, the ground was wet and mossy, the shelter smelled like young wood and stale, wet leaves. Just as the sun was beginning to peek over the horizon, the peepers and crickets who sang all night seemed to drift to sleep, giving way to a chorus of birds. The sound of a stick breaking beneath the foot of a creature echoed. Margot carefully turned her head toward me and winked. I knew we wouldn’t shoot an arrow that day—she was in it for the living, never for the dying.
I walked past the blind and toward the edge of the woods. There, milling about, was an older gentleman. He paced the space between the forest and the fence of the yard that backed up against the woods. I stood and watched for a moment as he peeked over the fence, looked back and forth, and muttered something to himself before resting his head in his hands. I wondered for a moment if he was planning to break in, but as I squinted to see him more clearly, he was in a robe and slippers. I wondered if he’d locked himself out somehow, or maybe was looking for a lost pet—Arthur? It didn’t matter though, I had to get home. I had to get into my bed. I had to pull the covers over my head. I had to get to the place where my parents smell still lived.
I skirted past the man and continued along the edge of the woods until I reached the elementary school, which I had to pass to get back to my house. I took a breath, stepped onto the well-groomed grass of the field and walked. Every step was laced with memories of soccer games, gym classes, games of freeze tag and red rover. It never ceased to amaze me how, in the shadow of death, nostalgia stopped being bright and bold. Everything in my past was black and white.
As I moved, I noticed a small girl alone, swaying gently on a swing. There were no parents in sight; she sat there alone in silence. Something about her actions, the way she sat, tracing small shapes in the dirt with her feet looked wrong. I closed my eyes and tried to force myself to keep moving toward home. I was in no shape to help a small child. But something stopped me—the little girl’s energy simply didn’t fit—like a puzzle piece jammed into place. I turned to face her, dust rising from the shapes she was making with her toes.
“Hey!” I called out, “Are you okay?”
She didn’t answer, she simply looked up and tilted her head.
“Hey, kid? I said, are you okay?”
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” she said, averting her eyes.
“Fair enough.” I put my hands in my pockets and continued, “How about you don’t talk to me, you just answer one question: are you lost?”
“You know,” she said, chewing her bottom lip, “the swing set used to be over there.” She pointed toward the side of the building. She was right, the swing set had been behind the school, but that was years ago. They’d moved it even before I got into Kindergarten when they built a brand-new playground.
“That’s true. Did your mom tell you that?”
Her brow furrowed, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, how do you know it used to be over there?”
She looked away, back toward the spot where the swing set once was. She was silent again.
“Listen, can I help you find someone? Can I call your mom?”
“I guess I should be going home,” she said standing.
“Look, I can’t just let you walk alone. Can I walk behind you, just to make sure you get there all right?”
She brushed off her dress and started to walk, her long blond hair rustling in the breeze like tree leaves. I followed behind her, keenly aware that anyone who saw me following her would think I was about to do something awful. Yet, it seemed the town was still asleep. We walked silently, her black shoes making soft clicking sounds as she walked the path to her house, as if she’d done it a thousand times. Every once in a while she’d stop and stare at something, the library, a store, a stop sign. Then we’d continue on in silence.
Finally, we reached a house not far from my own. The lawn was perfectly manicured, the bushes sculpted expertly. The house was immaculate, as if someone routinely scrubbed and buffed every inch.
The girl walked up the walkway and took the steps to the house two by two. I stood on the sidewalk and watched as she reached out her hand and tried the knob. The door was locked, so she stood on tip-toe and rang the doorbell. The door opened to reveal a man who looked to be in his early 60s. His face was drawn into a deep frown, his brows knitted together. As he locked eyes on the girl, he recoiled.
“Daddy?” she said.
He clenched his eyes shut, rubbed his brow and bent at the knees. He opened his eyes, reached out and touched her hair. His face broke into a wild expression, his mouth opened as if he intended to scream but nothing came out until he managed, “Julia?” Then he yelled again, “Julia!”
A woman appeared in the door in a nightgown, a pair of glasses resting on her nose, a newspaper in her hands. Her gray hair was wild, her eyes wide. She let out a whaling sound—a noise so haunting, it could hardly have been human.
Just as she fell to her knees, hugging the girl, cradling her head against her chest, I felt a pressing against my legs. I looked down to see Arthur standing against me. His full weight pressed against my lower half. The blood rushed from my face, my hands became coated in sweat.
Something was happening.
Special thanks to @autumjademonroe for your suggestions!
Next, we need to decide what Gunner finds when he arrives home:
A) His parents sitting in the garden, surprised that they’re back.
B) His parents milling about the house as if nothing happened.
C) His parents back, and tension is mounting. His mom had bought their way into the H3VN dimension without his dad’s knowledge.
Vote in comments on Tiktok or drop me your original ideas via comments or DM! I’ll credit anyone whose ideas make it into the narrative!