When Edward and Amelia woke up on Saturday morning, something very strange had happened. They weren’t in their twin beds. They weren’t even in the unfinished attic apartment where they lived with their mother — they were lying side by side on the ground, under a large tree in the middle of a deep, gloomy forest. They were, however, still in their pajamas. Edward sat up with a start and looked around for his glasses. Normally, his round wire frames were on the bookshelf beside his bed, on top of the stack of books he was reading, and it took Edward a moment to realize he was already wearing his glasses. “Where are we, Em?” His older sister mumbled something incoherent; Amelia was always half-asleep until after breakfast, and even now she didn’t seem to realize anything was wrong. Just like every other morning, the first thing Amelia did was to reach for her smart phone. She fumbled blindly to her left, where her bedside table should have been, but found her red backpack instead. Amelia opened one eye, then squeezed it shut again. “Oh, no.” She opened both eyes, sat up, and tugged irritably at the collar of the large tie-dyed shirt she wore to bed. “Where are we, Edward?” she groaned. Her brother shook his head, “I asked you first.” Amelia found her phone in the front mesh pocket of her backpack, she tapped it awake and blinked at the screen. The battery was charged, but there were no bars. “Well, I have no idea where we are,” Amelia sighed and turned the phone around to face Edward, “But GPS won’t help. There’s no signal.” Amelia looked up through the limbs that started some six feet from the base of the tree. It was very dark for 7:20 AM in June, but the evergreens surrounding them were big and close together, so only scraps of pale sky showed through the interwoven branches.
“More importantly, how did we get here?” Edward looked around at the dense rows of conifers all around them. Aside from an occasional clump of ferns, almost nothing grew on the forest floor under the thick carpet of fragrant brown needles. “Your guess is as good as mine, Edward,” Amelia said, standing up. “Probably better, since I don’t actually have one.” Faced with the incomprehensible, Amelia’s practical side took over — she grabbed her red backpack and started to check the contents. Edward, meanwhile, sat and pondered their strange new circumstances out loud. “Were we drugged and abducted? Do you remember anything after falling asleep last night? I don’t.” They stayed up late playing trivia with their mother, while they listened to what Amelia politely called Lucy’s “classic” playlist on the small external speakers attached to her phone.
Amelia stopped in the middle of unzipping the backpack’s many compartments. “I don’t remember anything weird,” Amelia replied. “Em,” Edward looked more serious than usual, “Do you think this has anything to do with Dad?” Amelia stopped rummaging in her pack for a moment and looked at Edward, but right now she just couldn’t process how their situation might be connected to their father’s unexplained disappearance. Amelia shook her head as if to rid herself of the thought, and went back to digging through her backpack. “All I know is there better be some shoes in here.” In one of the large compartments, Amelia found the well-worn hiking boots that normally hung from a nail in the wall beside her bed, as if she might need to reach up at any moment and put them on. The idea wasn’t that far-fetched, actually. In the three months since their father, John Lockheart, disappeared, his family had moved from their roomy old brick house on Dunbar Street, to a small hotel room downtown, to the attic over their aunt’s bed and breakfast. The children and Lucy lived there for free, which was generous, but the apartment had been fitted out for the college students who normally rented it. The bathroom was a tiny sink, toilet and fiberglass shower stall separated from the rest of the room by a curtain, the kitchen was a metal sink, a dorm-room fridge and a small microwave. There was a window AC unit, but there was also an attic fan, and they had to shout to be heard whenever the fan was running, which was often in the summer heat. They had all learned to sleep through the noise of “the wind tunnel,” but Lucy said she’d never be able to sleep in a quiet room again.
Edward ran both hands through his dark, wavy hair. “Do you think Mom could be here somewhere?” Edward sounded slightly frantic, and before Amelia could answer, he yelled, “Mom!” but the forest seemed to absorb the sound. “Shush, Edward!” Amelia hissed. Edward gave her a doleful look. “If she’s here, don’t you want her to find us?”
“I get the feeling we’d know if she were here.” Amelia looked around them in the gloom; the forest was very quiet, except for the occasional chirp of an unseen bird, and the sound of water running somewhere nearby. “And I’m not sure we want to attract any attention, either.” Edward sighed. “I guess you’re right. These woods are kind of creepy, like the Haunted Forest in The Shadow King.” Amelia lifted one eyebrow; Edward was reading his favorite fantasy series again this summer and he talked about the books constantly. In this case, she had to admit her bother was right — not that it helped them at the moment. Amelia was relieved to find some clothes in the compartment next to her boots, even though they had been wadded up in a ball and stuffed there. “Thank goodness,” she said, pulling out her orange peasant shirt, khaki shorts and a pair of mismatched socks. It was like whoever packed her bag did it while the attic was on fire. Amelia found her green plastic bottle at the bottom of the compartment, under her clothes. “We have water,” Amelia said, and clipped the bottle to one of the carabiners on her pack. Edward pulled out an old stainless steel canteen with a blue canvas cover. “Me, too!” Edward loved getting hand-me-down camping supplies from Grandpa Lockheart more than actual camping. “And some protein bars,” Amelia said, rummaging through her pack. Edward found the same. “Yep, three of them.”
While Amelia was shaking out her clothes, Edward found his green plaid shirt, brown shorts and Tevas. There was also a pair of matched socks; Edward always rolled each pair together after his mother left their clean laundry on their beds for them to put away. Edward never wore socks with his Tevas, which would have been middle-school suicide. Clearly, their mother had not packed these clothes. “Hey — turn around,” Amelia said to Edward as she started to take off her tie-dyed shirt. Edward turned his back to Amelia, took off the faded summer camp T-shirt and gym shorts he wore as pajamas, and got dressed as fast as his could. It felt like there was no one around for miles, but Edward still felt self-conscious changing his clothes outdoors. Edward sat down to pull on his sandals, and then checked the other backpack compartments and outer pockets to see what else might be stowed away.
As usual, Edward was taking forever to get ready — he was actually folding his pajamas before he put them in his pack — so after Amelia pulled on her boots, she walked toward the sound of running water. About twenty yards from the cedar tree, Amelia came to a small, but swift-moving stream, where clear, cold water rushed over a bed of smooth rocks. Amelia dipped her fingers in and looked up to see Edward walking toward her. “That’s really cold water, like snow melt.” Edward shrugged. “OK?” Edward was an expert on the plant and animal life of several fantastic worlds, but he was no outdoorsman. His excellent memory helped him to identify almost every bird and bush they saw on their hikes with Grandpa Lockheart, but when it came to making camp, fishing and cooking, or anything practical, Edward could be found sitting on his backpack with a well-worn paperback copy of Warriors of Shadowfell. Amelia crouched over the stream and told Edward to put his hand in the swift water. “You know of any snow-capped peaks near Kirksville?” Their hometown was in the foothills, but there was very little snow on the mountains during the winter, and none in June. “Oh,” Edward said, raising his eyebrows, “I see what you mean.” Small brown fish in leeward pools darted away as Edward and Amelia tossed a few small rocks into the the stream. Edward found a small, triangular rock, cleaned it off and and let it dry as he and Amelia walked back toward the cedar. His mother, who was fond of maps, had started a family project to make a map of the US out of found rocks –” It’s cheating to buy them,” Lucy said — and this one was a very good South Carolina.
Back at the tree, Edward decided to stow his SC rock, and as he tucked it in under his pajamas, his fingers touched something smooth and metallic. “My pocketwatch!” Edward said excitedly, holding it up for his sister to see. Amelia smiled as she watched Edward’s excitement. There was no chain, so Edward hung the watch from a white shoelace, and he carried it with him everywhere, despite his mother’s fear of it being lost or broken. The watch was silver and it looked quite old, judging from the fine patina of nicks and scratches on its metal surface, but the cover opened and closed with a satisfying click. Aside from being the last thing his father had given him, there were two very special things about the watch: first, it kept time perfectly, even though Edward had never wound it. Second, it had a window on the face that showed the phases of the moon — only there were two moons, one about half the size of the other, showing identical phases. John Lockheart called this “artistic license,” and said made the watch more valuable. Edward didn’t mind that the phases were a bit off, but it was odd considering how accurate the timekeeping had proven to be. The inscription on the back said, M LeGuin, Maker of fine timepieces. Inside the cover were the words Tempus Fugit. Amelia started to Google the phrase, but Edward already knew it meant “Time flies” from reading The Chronos Gates.
Amelia came over to stand beside Edward and give him a little hug. Amelia had almost three birthdays and four inches of height on Edward, but, if you asked Edward, he’d say she acted a lot taller and older than that. Amelia bent down to retie her boot laces; Edward was putting the watch in his front pocket when he saw movement at the edge of his vision. He looked up to see a crow, flanked by two black and white magpies, on a short cedar branch just above his head. All of them seemed to be watching him intently with their dark, shiny eyes. On a whim, Edward waved at the birds, and they cocked their heads at him.
Amelia stood up and stomped her feet to check the fit of her boots. She wished Edward had his boots, or at least real shoes, but that couldn’t be helped. “OK — let’s walk for a few minutes and see if we can find a road, and then we can take a break and have a bite to eat.” Amelia wouldn’t admit it, but this place made her uneasy, and she wanted to be anywhere else, as soon as possible. Edward seemed not to have heard her. “Hey, Em,” he said, tapping her on the shoulder. “Look at these birds.” Amela turned and looked over her brother’s shoulder where he was pointing at an empty branch. “What birds?” Edward looked back and scratched his head. “They were just there,” he mumbled. Amelia rolled her eyes. “OK — let’s get going.” Edward looked down at his pack and frowned. “I don’t really think we should, Em.”
“What do you mean?” Amelia said, impatiently, “Why not?”
“Well,” Edward said, not sounding entirely sure of himself, “They say if you’re lost in the woods, you should just stay put, right?” Amelia had thought about this, but she had made up her mind to go and didn’t feel like discussing it with Edward, but she took a deep breath and offered a reason. “Look, for all we know,” she pointed across the stream, “Right down there is a fire road, or a trail, or some railroad tracks we can follow out of here.”
“Yeah, and for all we know, we should be going in the opposite direction.” Now that he’d started, Edward was determined stay the course. “They say to stay put and make yourself as visible as possible from the air. They say to make a small fire with damp stuff to make a lot of smoke, and –”
“They? Who are they, Edward?” The fact that her brother was lecturing her on wilderness survival was just too much. “And all this advice from someone who can’t unzip his own sleeping bag!” It was a cheap shot, but Amelia was angry.
“Just because you’re a few years older doesn’t mean you know everything, Amelia!” Edward seethed. He only used his sister’s full name when he was put out with her. “And just because you’re older, and have a pink phone, doesn’t mean you’re in charge!” The fact that Amelia had a smartphone and Edward didn’t was a sore spot. He had argued that, even though he was eleven, he was way more responsible than Amelia was at thirteen. This didn’t sway his parents, who had maintained that thirteen was still a reasonable age for a smartphone. To make things worse, since last week, Edward’s old “dumb phone” wouldn’t stay charged anymore, but Lucy said they didn’t have the money to replace the battery.
“Oh, Edward!” Amelia fumed, then put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “Listen — this place gives me the creeps, and I’m not staying here, but you’re welcome to hang out under the tree and wait.” She turned to go, and then shot back over her shoulder, “And good luck building that fire, by the way! I’m sure Shadow Dorks is full of survival tips!”
When Amelia’s phone rang, she fumbled getting it out of her pocket and almost dropped it. She saw that there was no caller ID and there were still zero bars as she unlocked the screen and said, “Hello?”
“Amelia?” There was a lot of static, and her voice sounded strange, but it was definitely her. “Mom?!” Amelia turned in a circle, fending off Edward as he raced over and jumped up and down in front of her, reaching for the phone. “Mom! Where are you?! We woke up in the middle of the woods, and –”
“Amelia!” Her mother sounded frantic. Despite the poor connection, Amelia could hear the edge of panic in Lucy’s voice. Amelia stood still, and Edward stopped jumping. “Amelia — listen to me, sweetie. You and Edward need to keep moving — just get out of the forest as fast as you can.” Amelia felt a chill, and she looked at Edward; his dark eyes were wide, and Amelia tried not to show the fear she was feeling. Amelia hesitated, unsure of what to say that wouldn’t tip Edward off that something was wrong, but her mother didn’t wait. “Amelia, you and Edward need to get out of there, right now. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Amelia said, and swallowed hard, “But how? What do we do?”
“On the other side of the stream, there’s a big pile of rocks and a small rise starts up from there. Go through the trees, all the way to the top, down the other side and you’ll find a trail that leads out. Hurry.”
“Mom, can you see us?” Amelia looked around her at the dark rows of trees as if she expected to see her mother waving to them from somewhere close by. “How do you –” Her mother cut her off again, and her voice was quieter now, but it was shaking. “Amelia, please take Edward and just go.” Amelia felt a jolt of fear and adrenaline run through her; she grabbed Edward’s arm too hard and he pulled away from her. “Ow! What are you doing? I want to talk to Mom!” he said, and reached for the phone again.
Then, from deeper in the woods, back where the trees were darkest, Edward and Amelia heard a low, eerie keening sound, halfway between a howl and a mournful wail. The children froze. There was complete silence for a moment in the wake of that chilling sound, and then Edward and Amelia heard their mother shout, “Run!”
Amelia grabbed her brother’s hand this time, “Come on, Edward!” She didn’t let go as they splashed through the shallow stream and then toward the pile of stones that Lucy described. Amelia held the phone to her ear again, but there was no sound, not even static. “Mom?” But Lucy was gone. Amelia stuffed the phone back into her pocket and looked back at Edward; he was keeping up with her, but one of the straps on his pack was loose and it was sliding off his arm as he ran.
The incline wasn’t steep, but there were roots and large rocks in some places, so they had to slow down a little and pick their way up through the trees. When they crested the hill, Amelia paused and looked back the way they came, while Edward tightened up his strap and settled his pack properly. “What’s going on, Amelia? What did Mom say?” Amelia looked at her brother; he stared back and pushed his glasses back up his nose. “She said there’s a trail this way, and for us to get out of these woods.” The befuddled look that came over Edward’s face almost made Amelia laugh, despite the circumstances. “She knows where we are?”
Amelia shook her head. “She didn’t have time to explain. I didn’t even have a chance to ask here where here is, or if she’s still at home — in the apartment — you know what I mean.” Amelia refused to call the attic apartment “home.” When she and Edward were near their old neighborhood, they’d go out of their way to see the house on Dunbar. The last time they went by, the yard was overgrown, and the mailbox was full of junk mail, much of it addressed to John Lockheart. Amelia marched up to the real estate sign, pulled out the “For Sale” placard, and whipped it into the tall grass. Edward giggled and gave her a high five, even though they both knew it was just a matter of time.
Edward and Amelia both scanned the treeline once more as they started downhill, but the evergreens were too thick to see very far. “What was that sound, Em?” Edward said, glancing over at her. “Well, I’d say it was a coyote, or even a wolf,” she said, already looking for the path that should be at the bottom of the hill somewhere. “But since there are neither anywhere near Kirksville, it must have been a wild dog,” she concluded, not very convincingly.
“Or, we’re not anywhere near Kirksville,” Edward observed drily as he picked his way down the hill to Amelia’s left, falling in behind her when the way narrowed. This side of the hill was much steeper; the trees were not as large or close together, but the terrain was very uneven — there were dry gullies between large outcrops of boulders, and rocky shelves jutting out every twenty or thirty yards. Edward and Amelia didn’t talk for a while. They moved as fast as they could, both thinking about Lucy’s frightening message. Neither could guess what made her so frantic for them to get out of the woods, but it had to be related to that haunting cry. As Edward and Amelia made their way down, they had to hold onto branches and tree trunks on the steepest parts. At the edge of a large rock outcrop, Amelia was watching Edward instead of paying attention to where she was putting her feet, and her boot slipped sideways in a patch of loose stone. Amelia tumbled over the edge of the rock onto her side, then went sliding feet-first over the loose soil covering the the steep hillside, the world a blur of green and brown until she stopped abruptly, wedged into the space between a fallen pine and the stump that held the broken base of the tree off the ground.
“Em!” Edward shouted. Amelia heard scrabbling behind her; she craned her head back and saw Edward half-running, half-sliding down to her side. Amelia, breathing hard, checked herself for injuries — she felt some scratches on her face, and some scrapes on her hands were bleeding a little, but it all seemed superficial. “I’m OK,” she said, looking up at Edward’s worried face. However, Amelia was stuck tight under the fallen tree, with her backpack under her, and her chest pressed against the trunk. Edward was pulling on Amelia’s shoulder straps while she pushed against the tree when they heard the chilling sound again– a long, piercing cry of despair that rose to a scream and then died away. It was hard to tell if the tortured sound was animal, or human, or neither, but it was much, much closer than before.