Chapter 1

I didn't think towns like this existed—ones towered over by trees and drowning in blues and greens. Ones that make your hairs stand up. Ones that have pathways through the forest that lead nowhere. Ones that have a bizarre history bubbling under its surface. I thought such places existed exclusively on television screens and in the pages of my angsty, young adult novels. But as I watch it all grow in front of our car—the trees and the dull colors and the heavy clouds—I know that those creators got their inspiration from real places and not just their heads.

I can't help but press my hand against the window and wish to be exploring. My eyes bounce from the dark pockets of moss and rocks and brush to the glimpses of water just beyond the forest. The chilled coast reminds me of those many little rocks. When we would visit Grandma over the summer, I would flock to the beach but hate the pebbles. I never understood why it wasn't golden sand as it is at home. Its emptiness did excite me, though. At home, I would never have the beach to myself.

It's been so long. Mom said ten years. Taking it all in now, I can't help but scold young me for not begging to come back. Yes, California is the dream-land, but not for me.

"Wren, look," my mom says from the front seat. My eyes flock to her window. "Do you remember it at all?"

My Grandmother's house sits between two monstrous pine trees. There's a rope hanging from one of the branches and my mind clicks to when we built my swing together. I suppose the many years haven't tolerated it.

"Yeah, a little. The backyard has the clothesline, right? The one with the white poles. I used to climb it."

"Oh, right. I remember that." She glances at me. "You fell and scraped up your knees. The rest of the trip you complained about your knees and wouldn't go in the water."

My mom turns onto the driveway and parks next to my Grandma's car—an old Corolla. "Alright," she says. "We made it."

I sit back and breathe, "Finally."

"You wanna go in, say hi, then grab the stuff? She's dying to see you."

We get out of the car and ring the doorbell. The brick flower bed stretched along the house entertains me until the door opens.

"Oh my goodness! Look at you!"

Her voice sounds like my childhood. The screen door releases her and suddenly her soft arms are wrapped around me. "Hi, Grandma," I sing as she pulls back and studies my face. Her cool hands rest on my shoulders.

"Wrenley, you're so big now. Last time I saw you, last time you were, what, this big?" She holds out her hand near my chest. "What happened?"

"Ten years happened, Mom," my mother says and receives a tight hug as well.

"Aren't you two cold?" Grandma asks. "Come on, come on, I can put on the fireplace. You used to love the fireplace, Wrenley."

We sit in the living room as Grandma turns on the fireplace and grabs a plate of the lemon cookies I used to love. I take one and bite. Soft, thick, addictive—just as I remember.

"Are you ready for school, dear?" Grandma asks and sits.

"I mean, yeah. It's all very sudden, but I'm sure I'll be just fine."

"That's good. That's good. You know, it's the high school your mother went to."

I look to my mom and she smiles. "Oh, yes. How can I forget Waindale High School?"

"Why didn't you tell me?" I ask.

"It's not like there's another school I could have gone to, kid."

Grandma says, "Well, no, there's the privet school a few minutes away, but you went to the high school just around the corner. You can walk to school, Wrenley. It's just a, I don't know, five, six-minute walk."

"Back home, I'd drive her fifteen minutes to school," my mom tells Grandma. "This is a nice change, then, right? You don't have to leave early with me anymore, Wren."

I smile and take another cookie.

After getting our boxes and bags out of the car, I unpack my things in my new bedroom. My mother will be across the hall while Grandma's room is sat at the end. Being in a house with no men won't be anything new, but living with Grandma will surely have its differences compared to living with just mom. I've already been told to be quiet past ten o'clock when Grandma goes to bed. It's not anything catastrophic, thankfully.

As of now, I have my bedding and clothes and necessities such as toiletries and school supplies. Everything else will be arriving next week.

When I finish stuffing pillows into my pillowcases, I look out the window as it starts to rain. I'll have to get rain boots and an umbrella—things I've never had before. It's crazy thinking that on Monday I'll be at a whole new school with new people and teachers and rules. There's something refreshing about it, though. They're changes I'm welcoming with open arms. It's not like I left much in California, anyway. A friend or two at most. Charisma isn't something I have in abundance—instead, I specialize in being quiet and getting lost in my thoughts. My mom says it's because I'm all her and none of my Dad.

Don't worry, I'm not damaged. Dad left when I was just a baby. It's like getting my ears pierced as an infant; there's no pain that I can remember.

The next morning, I wake up to my Grandma watching T.V. as she drinks her coffee. Old game shows play on repeat. "Where's Mom?" I ask.

"Oh, she's just on the porch. She's on the computer, you know, working on her writing."

I nod and slip outside. I find my Mom sitting under a blanket with her laptop on her lap. There's a mug of coffee on the wicker table in front of her, steaming into the crisp morning air. "Hi," I say.

She peers up and pats the spot beside her on the patio furniture. I sit and she shares her blanket. "Are you working on the novel?"

"Yeah," she says. "Being in Waindale with the trees and the creepiness—it's helping."

My mom has been writing her second book for a few months while working a regular office job. Now that we've moved, she's left the office job and is focusing primarily on her novel. It makes for plenty of silent mornings and evenings, but I suppose I have Grandma to talk to now.

"I think I'm going to go for a walk. Explore this town," I say.

"Sure, just be careful. Stick to the paths because you can get lost, trust me. And don't go too far. I'll be here with Grandma."

I quickly get dressed in warm clothes—my old hoodie and a pair of jeans is the best I can do for now. After assuring Grandma that I'll eat when I get back, I slip on my shoes and hope that it doesn't start to rain.

"Here, Wrenley." I turn and see Granda with an umbrella. "Take this just in case, okay?"

"Okay, thanks."

It's a little cold and the ground is damp, but nothing ugly enough to stop me. I can finally walk through these giant trees and hopefully check out the beach as well.

Everything is a little wet. The concrete sidewalk is cracked and lush with weeds, and if I had rain boots, I definitely wouldn't be avoiding the puddles. A car will drive by every now and then, but such sounds grow distant as I turn onto one of the forest trails. The ground is spongy, sinking underneath my feet. My eyes roam over the protruding roots—some large enough to sit on. The people that live here must be tired of the rain and the cold and the darkness, but the smile that hit my face in the car yesterday hasn't left.

My fingers press into the moss that coats an ancient tree as I near the water. I can see speckles of deep blue through the green, and thankfully the path is taking me there. Just as the trees begin to thin out, something to my right catches my attention. Something coated in fur.

Leaving the path only a little, I step over roots and weave through bushes as I hear the delicate noises of what I'm hoping is a rabbit. I catch sight of the grey thing again and move slower. It has to be a rabbit.

The ground seems to get wetter the further I venture into the trees. Just as I am about to give up, the little rabbit shows itself down a dip in the forest. The path is just behind me, so I attempt to hike down the dip but end up sliding on my butt. My jeans soak up the dew and dirt as I let out a yelp. I mutter a few curses on the forest floor and try to wipe the dirt from my hands on to tree bark. Of course, the rabbit is nowhere in sight. "Just perfect," I murmur and rub my hands on my swamped pants. The mud weighs me down and makes my face scrunch up in disgust. I never had to deal with anything like this in California.

As I turn to somehow get up the hill, a noise makes my heart jolt. I look back and try to assume that it's the rabbit, but the twisted branches and grey clouds are making it hard.

The sound comes again, like snapping twigs and rustling bushes and howling winds all in one. I suck in a sharp breath as a dark thing lurks in the distance, only visible for a second. Spinning around, I claw my way up the hill and dash for the path. My shoes seem to cake on more and more mud the more steps I take. I try to kick it off, but it's like cement.

The dark thing flashes in the distance again—in front of me. My throat dries.

I run in the direction of the road. When the sound of cars reaches my ears, a spark of hope ignites. I carry on through the trees and soon hop over the wooden fence and trample onto the sidewalk. Scraping off the dirt from my shoe on the curb—once I'm free—I hurry home.

The clouds break and sunlight seeps through. In a few minutes, I'm charging up the porch steps and crashing into the kitchen where my mom and Grandma are. They're up at the sight of me.

"There was a bear," I shout and frantically shed my layers.

"What?" My mother leaves the table and comes to me. "A bear? Where?"

"I was walking on the path to the beach and there was this big dark thing. I think it was a black bear. Are there black bears?"

My grandma, flushed, says, "Why, there are black bears here. I should call the town hall. Usually they don't get so close. They need to put out a warning."

"Did it get close to you?" My mom asks.

"It was close enough to know that I'm there. I think it was stalking me. It was behind me then in front of me." I can feel the sweat on my face. "I ran back to the street then here. I could have died out there!"

My grandma grabs the phone and heads into the other room to report the sighting.

"I mean, thank god you're okay. They need to be aware of such things. There could be other people out there with that bear around."

I take a breath. "I need to shower. I fell in the mud."

"Okay. Give me your clothes, don't put them on the floor. Hopefully they have a warning out in a few minutes. Just, let's be cautious from now on, okay?"

I nod and hug her before really calming down in my steaming shower. As I scrub the dirt from under my nails, I can't help but contemplate all the possible outcomes of my stupidity. I have a new rule to live by; stay on the trail—things lurk in the darkness.

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