I open my eyes to find myself standing alone on the docks of Rockport Harbor. Even though I haven’t been here in years, I instantly recognize it. Rockport was my home. The first fourteen years of my life were spent in the same small house. It’s the first thought that crosses my mind; I want to see the house I grew up in. And I want to see Hook on the porch steps waiting for me.
A strong gust of wind sends a flurry of flame orange and burnt red leaves scattering from the tall trees across the street. I hug my arms tight against my body, but despite the fact I have on jeans, a leather jacket and my favorite pair of heavy, black boots, the wind still cuts me to the bone. My hair is uplifted in the gust, a fiery swirl of red locks that clings to my cheeks.
I turn my back toward the trees and face the water. Every single port on the docks is empty. No boats, no people coming out of the small restaurants and nearby shops. No cars on the street. Not even a single bird chirping in the distance. Nothing but the sound of the water lapping against old wood.
Something flashes in my peripheral. A white glimmer across the surface of the water, there and gone in between a blink. It appears and vanishes so quickly that it might not have been there at all, but I walk to the end of the dock anyway. Arms still wrapped around me, I gaze down into the abyss. I lower myself to my knees and lean forward. The worn, splintered edges of the pier dig against my palm as I peer over and gaze into the water.
I extend one hand outwards. The gentle tide murmurs against my palm. There is something underneath that I need. It whispers through the waves, soft and coaxing against my skin. I dip my hand under, submerged up to the wrist, and my fingertips graze something soft. I try to grasp it but my fingers fumble aimlessly, unable to find an edge.
Then it finds me.
Something latches onto my arm and pulls me forward. I yank my arm back, struggling against the force beneath the water. I use my other hand and tug against myself free, but I’m no match for the monster below. A single gasp fills my lungs before the water closes over my head. A volcano of white bubbles and waves erupt around me, rushing up my nose and burning the back of my throat. Trapped air burns in my chest as I twist and turn, trying to break free from whatever has a hold of me, but every movement only drags me down further.
Blackness ebbs at the corners of my vision. I look up through the mass of hair twisting above me; at the surface, a dim veil of light sifts through the currents, just enough for me to see my clenched fist inches from my face. White, bony fingers grip my wrist.
The pressure in my chest explodes. Desperation pries open my mouth. A rush of water fills my lungs, and I try to force it back out with a muffled scream.
A scream that should have killed me, but instead ends with cool air hitting the back of my throat and my eyes opening to trees the color of fire. Their strong, curved branches twist overhead, forming a canopy of leaves ablaze with autumn. Through them, I catch shards of a bright, cloudless sky.
A sound startles my attention and my eyes drop. No matter which way I turn, the labyrinth of tree trunks extends infinitely. I turn in a slow circle, hearing the same crackling sound somewhere off in the distance, but there is no discernable difference in any direction. Dizziness starts to swell in my head, and I suck in my sharp breath to steady myself. I force my gaze to my boots, black and sharp against the shriveled orange and burnt red leaves that coat the ground.
An ember falls beside my right toe, flickering against the dead leaves. The crackling becomes louder, like a plane approaching, and when it finally peaks, it’s directly overhead. I look up. The leaves are all rustling together as their tips are consumed by flames. Embers fall off and drizzle down like rain, and I take a step back each time one lands near my feet. I bring my hands to my head, worrying about my hair catching fire, while tearing my eyes away from the burning leaves every few seconds to try and find an out.
The trees begin to crackle as their bark splinters, and the woods around me are quickly filled with a flittering haze of thick, black smoke.
My vision blurs as the smoke beckons tears. The breaths I’ve been trying to hold onto all shoot forth in a gasp as a branch overhead groans and lands in front of me with a surge of streaked flames. I start to run. I fling one arm up over my face, trying to shield my eyes and mouth from the smoke, but I realize as I run blindly, weaving through trunks and stumbling over the uneven earth, is that there is no heat in this fire.
The charred, sizzling air is just as cold as it was when it silenced my scream. Lowering my arm and slowing to a jog, I blink a few times and the tears that run down my cheeks soon dry, leaving me with perfect vision. The leaves around me are still ablaze, but there’s something wrong with the fire; the embers falling from the trees are so slow that they trickle like rain drops down a windowpane, each one that hits the ground more liquid than fire. The flames that scorch across the fallen leaves beneath me move in slow waves.
The trunk closest to me bursts into flames with a sizzling roar. I jump back, tripping over my feet, and land hard on my back. A sharp pain shoots up my spine, but it barely registers as I squeal and try to scramble back to my feet. I push my legs up, but then realize my entire right arm has landed in a patch of flames. I wrench it back so hard that my shoulder pops, but pain doesn’t register; I’m too amazed by the fact my skin is unmarred, the leather of my jacket as smooth as ever.
The smoke is thicker now; the woods cast black in a shifting veil of midnight. I gather to my feet and start to walk instead of run, this time staring straight into the dancing flames around me and finding shapes in their movements. Their swooping arches curve like spines, and I try to follow their length to the top, seeking out their faces, but they span the length of the trees and there’s no way for me to see their end through the plumes of smoke.
My lungs should be burning, but the air is easy to breathe. My breath emerges white as snow then dissipates into the swirling black clouds around me. My fingers brush against fire as I walk, but I feel no pain. I even extend my hand outwards and run my palm along the burning wall of trees as I wander deeper into the woods.
The forest of fire ends abruptly. One step is all it takes for the fire and smoke to disappear and everything around me to resort back to its normal form.
Ahead of me lies a towering, decrepit house. It’s mounted on top of a massive deck, connected to a rotted staircase that sags to one side. All of the windows are blown out, but I notice the ones on the second story have thick wood boards nailed over the gaping frames.
I look over my shoulder, almost eager to find the fire again. Silence hums through the air, but there’s an energy to it that causes my heart to pick up. My fingers twitch at my sides, so I curl them into fists and cross my arms as I walk forward. The thought of resistance briefly crosses my mind, but I don’t stop. There’s nowhere else to go but inside. I fixate on the crunch of twinges and leaves beneath my boots, anything to disperse the radiating echo of the silence, but the charge in the air grows stronger with each step.
The staircase is rotted out, the wood soft and eaten through with mold and splintered along all sides. I drop my arms and grip the reclining, glancing up at the decrepit fence that encircles the deck and trying to calculate whether or not I could manage the jump should the stairs give out beneath me. My boot practically sinks into the wood as I test my weight on the first step. Then I take another. The entire house groans, but this isn’t the expected creak of unlived walls and rotted wood. The sound that emanates from inside is familiar, human. The realization lodges deep in my throat as I ascend the stairs: I am not alone here.
The stairs shake as I reach the top, and just as I step onto the jagged wood panels of the deck, the entire staircase collapses behind me. I stare down at the crumbled heap of wood, at least six-feet below me, my heart starts to throb as I wonder how I’m going to get out now.
The only way out is through, I tell myself. From the looks of where I stand, this was the back of the house, which means there has to be a front door on the opposite side I can take to safety.
Safety from what?
I don’t want to answer my own question, so I clench my jaw and walk straight into the blackened pit of the house.
The ground is littered with shards of broken glass, and the slants of sunlight that cut through the window frames reflect off the pieces, casting rainbow shadows across the walls.
There is a thump overhead. One at first, followed by a series of slow, methodic beats. Footsteps. I make my way through the remnants of the empty room and pass through the collapsed remains of a kitchen before facing another set of stairs. These seem much sturdier, but there is no way to see what lies at the top of them. The footsteps grow louder, closer now.
There is a door frame to my right, and through the dimness of the room it adjoins to, I see a glowing rectangle of sunlight. The front door hanging wide open. I immediately run forward. The slam of my boots over the dirt-caked wood floors shakes my entire body, and the footsteps upstairs grow faster in response. My mouth is dry, and I can barely force down the lump of fear that’s swelled in my throat. I refuse to look over my shoulder.
Keep running, I tell myself. You’re almost out. You’re almost safe.
But the door moves further away with each step. I start to sprint, pumping my arms at my side and feeling my chest starts to ache from the strain of my shallow breaths, but the faster I move, the farther it slides until I am left staring down the mouth of a pitch black tunnel.
I stumble to a halt, gazing down the corridor and feeling like I’ve just barely missed the edge of a cliff. The footsteps have stopped. Taking a deep breath, I force myself to turn around, expecting whoever was upstairs to be right behind me. There is nothing but the staircase glaring me down.
It’s as if I never moved.
The ascent is slow and silent. The hallway upstairs is narrow but filled with a surprising amount of light. But this light isn’t natural. It’s too deep and red, like a dark room. It moves in waves, shifting over the walls with a constant throb of heat that clings to my skin.
I take a few steps forward and glance at the walls. There are three doors on each side, all closed. I try the one closest to me. The doorknob is scorching hot and I yelp in pain, yanking my hand back and watching as the metal disintegrates into ash.
I slip off my jacket and wind it around my hand. I feel too exposed with my bare arms uncovered, and I feel a strange sensation crawl across my skin. It’s the same energy I felt walking into this place; the charge of particles too heavy to contain themselves, and now they’re skittering across my arms and down my spine. I shudder once but focus on winding the leather sleeves of my jacket over my unburned hand. I try the door across from me. Hot, and even though it doesn’t reach the skin, it still dissolves into nothing after wards.
The same process goes on for the next two doors and just as I reach for the third on my right, the sound of soft crying freezes my hand midair. The jacket slips from my hand and I move forward in a rush, following the sound of the noise as if my life depends on it. Footsteps that are not my own begin to shake through the hall, but they aren’t coming from behind me. I look straight ahead, pause, and the footsteps stop too. I take another step. Another tap against the wood emanates.
A whimper hits me off to the right and when I turn my head, I am in front of a closet that did not exist moments earlier. It’s too short for the wall and looks misshapen, the corners warped around the edges, melting into the plaster. The doors are the kind that slide open, all white and wood slits.
A jolt of recognition makes me take a step back. I know this closet. It’s the same one Hook shoved me in years ago.
But someone is inside, someone small from the sound of it, and what if they’re trapped too? I can’t run. There are two doors left to try and something tells me that their knobs are going to fall apart just like the others. I have to do something else.
I extend my hand, fingers shaking.
The hall is silent. The footsteps are gone but the cries are growing louder.
I grip the edge of the door and with a deep breath, pull it to the side.
I see…nothing. Nothing but a dark shelf cluttered with jackets, boxes and bottles I can’t make out. Then I drop my gaze. Then I see her.
The little girl can be no older than four, her knees drawn to her chest and bony shoulders sticking out like bird wings. A veil of hair so blond it’s almost as white as the flimsy sundress she has on obscures her face. She continues to cry. She doesn’t see me. It takes me a few seconds to find my voice. The shaking in my hands has made its way into my throat.
“Are you okay?”
Her head shoots up and a pair of piercing gray eyes locks on mine. In an instant, the air is snatched from my lungs and a searing pain shoots through my chest, making its way down my spine. My limbs fall useless at my side, but every muscle is rigid, so tight that I can barely think straight through the pain. I know that face. I never saw it that young, but I know that face. Those eyes stared into mine a hundred times, always speaking what the lips could not. Her name bubbles up inside me. I try to choke it out, but the ability to speak has been stolen. I am left paralyzed, my bones screeching against whatever force she has me under, and in one blink, the little girl has vanished and is replaced by the monster I remember.
Blackness envelops her eyes and she smiles, blood pushing through the gaps in her teeth. She does not speak aloud, but her voice is as loud as my own thoughts in my head.
“He got me.”
She raises her hand and with the flick of a wrist, my body is wrenched sideways. I am facing the end of the hall, the walls engulfed by flames. Everything has disappeared, and the heat that evaded the flames in the woods has returned here with vengeance. My blood feels like it’s boiling beneath my skin. I blink — the only movement I can muster — and find myself a few feet away from a shadow of a person, their face nothing but a swirling mass of black smoke. Mabel laughs, and I can hear the blood gurgle in her throat. The sound fades and my vision falters for a few empty seconds as whatever hold she has on me is released and I collapse.
A wispy hand appears in front of my face.
His voice is clear even though he has no mouth to speak.
“Luna.” He purrs my name. The razor-sharp edge of his smile scratches through me. I extend my hand toward him. The last thing I see are his fingers closing over mine.