Amelia braced both hands against the fallen tree trunk that wedged her tight against the ground. While Edward pulled the handle at the top of her pack, Amelia pushed herself back as hard as she could, but it was little help. She was stuck just below her ribcage, with the loose, peeling bark of the tree only a foot from her face, so she couldn’t get much leverage. She and Edward both stopped struggling and stood panting for a moment, then their blood went cold as a horrible shriek pierced the air again. That thing had to be just over the hill. Edward looked back fearfully, then turned to Amelia, adjusted his glasses and gave her a little nod. “We’ve got to get you out of there.” He grabbed her pack and pulled, Amelia pushed back against the tree with her arms and dug her boots into the ground, trying to get some traction. She moved up a few inches, and then slid back again when Edward let her go. “No good,” Amelia was starting to panic. She couldn’t stop imagining it moving up the side of the hill where they had just been, reaching the top and starting down toward them. Amelia blinked fast, trying not to cry. She didn’t want Edward to know how afraid she felt, but her little brother was focused solely on getting her unstuck.
“We’re working against gravity,” he said. “And your pack is stuck on something,” Edward yanked on the straps. Amelia couldn’t see what he was doing, but she felt Edward tugging at her pack. “It looks like a root, and it’s snagged good.” Amelia tried to sound calm, “Edward, please hurry?” Edward quickly unzipped her pack from the top and pulled out the gear bags that held her food, her rain shell, a waterproof bag with matches and spare underwear, and a compact camping mattress. Amelia typically left the last three items in the backpack, so they were always ready to go. With this bulk out from under her, Amelia had some wiggle room. “Can you get your arms out of the straps now?” Edward loosened the nylon straps all the way and Amelia held up her arms. Edward pulled on the handle at the top of the pack, which slid up slowly at first, then came off with a sudden jerk and Edward stumbled back. He hopped up quickly, dusting himself off, and then he put his hands on Amelia’s shoulders. “I’m going to push you down now. Ready?”
The tree root that had caught her pack was now digging into Amelia’s shoulder blade, but she looked up at Edward and nodded, “Yes.” “OK — on three.” As Edward counted down, Amelia took a deep breath, let it all out, then tried to pull herself under as Edward shoved with all his might. Amelia turned her head to one side; her cheek brushed the underside of the trunk as she slid under and through to the other side. Amelia rolled and sprang up from the ground. She was dirty, but ecstatic, and the kids couldn’t suppress a muted Yes! of triumph, cut short by another sound from the ridge behind them. This time, it wasn’t the forlorn cry that chilled them before, but a dreadful rasping laughter that rattled out like a long, rusty chain.
Edward bent to pick up the scattered gear bags holding Amelia’s food and camping gear, but Amelia reached over the fallen tree, frantically grasping at her brother’s arm. “Leave it — we have to go! Now!” Edward didn’t protest, but he still grabbed the nearest bag and then scrambled over the log; Amelia practically dragged him over and then they flew down the hill, sliding, half-falling, dodging trees and trampling the scrubby undergrowth. Edward slipped down, but kept going, like a skier regaining his balance on a steep slope. Neither of them looked back until the headlong flight ended suddenly when they were pitched out onto a narrow trail. It was only a few inches wide — what Grandpa Lockheart called a goat path — little more than a single rut in the forest floor. The children paused, breathing hard, and looked at the trail winding through the forest ahead of them. The trees around them were now mostly oaks and other hardwoods. They were out of the oppressive gloom of the evergreens, there was more underbrush, but the oaks were tall and there was no sky visible overhead, just a diffuse green-hued light.
Edward and Amelia stood on the path and looked in both directions. “Which way?” Edward gasped, wiping his forehead. To their left, the path went more or less straight and level for at least twenty yards before the narrow, sandy trail turned gradually out of sight. To the right, the path took a sharp turn just ahead to go around a huge oak, and there was nothing visible beyond. Behind them, not far up the hill, the children heard a whoosh and a crash, as though something big had collided with a tree up the hill, or landed in it. The thing in Amelia’s mind took on a frightening new shape — Could it fly?
“Em,” Edward said nervously, “Which way?” Amelia bit her lip. The thing was directly behind them, they could go either way without being blocked, but what if they ran the wrong way, deeper into the forest? Amelia looked both ways again. “I think it looks brighter this way,” she said, pointing to the left.
“Toward the light sounds good!” Edward set off running, and Amelia was right behind him. As they skidded, sliding around the big oak, there was another crash close behind them, and that horrible laughter again, chasing them down the path that Amelia prayed was leading them out of the forest, as her mother promised. Amelia forced herself to watch the path ahead as it twisted along among roots and fallen branches. She had an awful feeling that if either of them fell — well, it must be close behind them now.
Edward and Amelia splashed and stumbled through a shallow creek filled with algae-covered rocks. On the other side was a steep, muddy bank, laced with the exposed roots of trees growing on the slope above. Edward scrambled up, then slipped and slid back to the bottom, his sandals gouging out furrows of dark earth. Amelia got behind him and tried push him up. “Not far now, Edward! It’s definitely getting lighter,” she said, hoping to convince both of them. “We’re going the right way!” Over their scuffling, Amelia thought she heard something coming down the trail behind them — a scraping sound, branches snapping? Amelia didn’t look back as she moved Edward to one side and rushed up the bank like it was the vertical wall on the school obstacle course. Fueled by fear, she clutched for a root growing down from the edge of the bank and hauled herself up, then turned and lay on her stomach so that Edward could reach her hand.
Edward took three big steps back to the edge of the creek, then flung himself up the bank, stretching his arms up as far as he could. As Edward grabbed Amelia’s wrist with his right hand, the awful gibbering cry drowned out the sound of their struggling, and Amelia’s mind went blank with fear. She looked down at Edward and saw the same horror on his pale, upturned face; he grabbed her wrist hard with both of his slender hands. “Edward!” Amelia didn’t dare look away from Edward’s face, but from the corner of her eye, she saw something — foot, a claw –pushing through the branches on the far side of the stream. Amelia screamed. Adrenaline took over; Edward kicked and Amelia pulled, her brother was able to push one foot against a root and then he was up and over. Edward and Amelia rolled away from the edge of the bank in a tangle of limbs and then scrambled madly to their feet. They were on a much wider path now. It was more like a dirt road with well-worn double ruts running through the grass along a wide aisle cleared of trees and brush. Above the path, the sky was clear, but dim, though it seemed bright after the darkness of the forest.
Edward and Amelia didn’t slow down. They turned left and ran, ran, following instinct and gravity as the path sloped gently down under their pounding feet. The children both stole glances back at the gap in the trees where they had scrambled up the bank, but nothing came through the shadowy opening to pursue them. Just as the path curved and the end of the woods came into sight in front of them, Amelia thought she heard the same whooshing sound as back at the bottom of the hillside. She looked fearfully at the dark, swaying branches of the trees to their left, afraid of what she might see there. Then they burst out into an open field of rippling, waist-high grass and saplings. It was a beautiful sight. Edward and Amelia both staggered to a halt and turned to look at the forest behind them.
“Em,” Edward panted, “What the heck was that thing?”
Amelia shook her head and tried to banish the mental images she had made of it from her mind. “No idea? You?” Edward was very seldom without an idea; he leaned with his hands just above his mud-smeared knees for another moment, then straightened up and said, “Except for that horrible laughing,” he shuddered, “I would guess a dire wolf — the Haunted Forest is full of those,” he said, as though he were talking about weeds in a garden. “Or a barghest — a kind of spectral dog,” Edward was used to adding explanations of things that shouldn’t require them; his big sister was not much of a reader.
Edward was still mulling over the possibilities as he watched the tall, green grass ripple in soothing waves. Amelia squinted up at the sky and checked the time on her phone. “Edward,” she said, looking up where the morning sun was low on the horizon, “Doesn’t it look kind of dim out here to you, for this time of day? There’s not a cloud in sight, but the sun just doesn’t seem that bright.”
Edward, his mental catalogue of beasts interrupted, followed his sister’s gaze. “You’re right, Em. It’s almost like there’s an eclipse or something, but there’s no shadow on the sun, it’s just kind of…dim.” Edward and Amelia shrugged and chalked this up beside the other weird things they already experienced today, then started walking. Grasshoppers buzzed away from them in all directions, and a meadowlark’s clear, cheerful song helped banish the gloom of the woods and the thing they had encountered there. Other than the strange light, the atmosphere in the meadow was very pleasant — not too hot, and much less humid than the day before at home. Lately, it hadn’t felt cool in the attic even though the big fan ran every few minutes. Their cousin, Amy, who owned the bed and breakfast, brought a dehumidifier up to their apartment. That helped, though with the dormer windows open, it was a losing battle against the damp air that was constantly circulating through the attic. By mid-morning, the Lockhearts usually headed out for one of the places they could enjoy air conditioning and not spend any money — the public library. Edward never got bored there, but Amelia thought she would have gone crazy, if not for her phone. Her two best friends had been out of town for most of the summer — Jenna was at church camp, and Kat was staying with her grandparents in Atlanta, but at least she could text them, and look at their pictures of people actually having fun on summer vacation. People going to normal places, like the beach, and Disney World.
After a few minutes of following the road through the tall meadow grass, Edward and Amelia topped a slight rise. Looking down, they could see the green hills rolling gently into a small town about a mile away. They could see dozens of houses with stone walls. Some appeared to have thatched roofs, others wood or slate shingles. There was a wall of large grey and black rocks that seemed to encircle the whole village. Parts of the wall were topped with wooden poles and stakes, and there was a wide wooden gate standing open to the same road they were standing on now. Another wider, more well-used road converged with this one not far outside the gate. Smoke curled from a few chimneys, and cows were grazing just outside the walls. A small farmhouse and a wooden barn were surrounded by a palisade of pointed stakes that looked like small trees, cut and sharpened, their bark left intact. “This doesn’t look like anywhere I know around Kirksville,” Amelia said with a frown.
Edward shook his head. “I’m pretty sure it’s nowhere in Burroughs County, or even in the state.”
Amelia tended to agree, but she still asked, “What makes you so sure?”
“It just feels different — the weather, the sun,” Edward said. “And look around us,” he spread his arms. “Do you see any cars? Power lines? Any concrete or asphalt anywhere, or even a gravel road?” Edward was right, and Amelia looked more closely at the town below. “No cell phone towers, billboards, neon signs, street lights,” she said. “No trash anywhere, either. Not so much as a soda can.” As they watched, two people came walking through the gate, leading a large cart pulled by a mule. Amelia squinted at the strange scene below.
“Maybe this is an Amish community, or something,” she said. Edward looked at her skeptically. “Well, that’s not a bad guess, Em,” he said, trying to be gracious. “But even the Amish make limited use of generators, solar panels, that kind of thing. There are these little shacks called ‘phone shanties’ where they can go to use a community land line, and…” Edward realized that Amelia was giving him the How do you know this stuff? look. Edward shrugged. “If you’re interested, the History Channel has an app, you know,” he said with mischievous glee.
Amelia stuck out her tongue, and Edward looked back at the scene below them. “Anyway, this place is practically medieval. It’s just like a walled town from the Middle Ages.” Edward took a drink from his canteen and slowly scanned the horizon, where distant mountains rose like blue shadows. “I think we’re a long way from home, Em,” he said, passing the water to Amelia. His sister took the canteen, drank from it, and then sighed. “A very long way,” Amelia agreed.