It lives in the cramped spaces between shadows in the rear-right side of my brain, just behind my ear. It wanders relentlessly, scratching along the pink, fleshy walls of my mind with its unkempt fingernails, shouting obscenities at other thoughts as they travel across lobes and cortices. It vomits poison and corrupts my mind with whispers of death. It reminds me how his blood felt running down the back of my hands. How my knuckles tore as they raked across his cheekbones. How his tooth cracked loose from his gums, and the muffled gargle as he choked on it. It laughs and calls me a coward for running away.
The wind rustles through the pines, dances into my ears, and carries the vile voice away. It’s quiet here. My thoughts are my own.
The fire pops, and a fleet of sparks takes flight, dancing across the night sky. Fireflies follow suit, taking the initiative to investigate the imposters. I readjust a log when the fire dims. It roars to life again and illuminates the decayed insides of the cabin around me. The wooden frame has long since rotted. The stone floor and sections of the wall are the only signs that this was once a structure of some sort.
Muren, my Norwegian Elkhound, refuses to step through the threshold of these ruins, insisting instead on patrolling the perimeter.
I lie back, using my sweatshirt as a pillow, and watch for hours as the flames dance like springtime wildflowers until their petals wilt and fall and all burns to ash. The sun peeks over the treetops and reaches through the canopy with pale fingers of morning light just as the last ember dwindles.
Time to go home.
Birds chime in the new day like church bells, but I still feel heavy with the burdens of yesterday. The walk back is a habit now, following the trail worn by my feet alone. This is a thick part of the mountain, made thicker with countless stories and a dark reputation. Few dare walk it.
Dad sits on the front porch sipping his coffee when I step out of the forest and into the yard. He doesn’t look up from the ground as I come near, doesn’t shift or show any signs of surprise or anger. “Get inside and get washed up. You’ve got an appointment with Dr. Hague before school.”
My parents think I’m crazy. Everyone thinks I’m crazy. It’s hard to blame them, though. I kind of am.
The chemical stink of artificial lavender burns my sinuses. It’s meant to foster calm and encourage me to share openly, but I can’t get the taste of it off my tongue.
“What makes you say that, Clen?” Dr. Hague’s voice has padded walls. “What makes you think people fear you?”
The quiver in their lips as they ask me stupid questions. “I don’t know. Just a feeling, I guess.”
“Is that why you run away?”
“I don’t run away. I just need to take breaks sometimes.”
“Breaks from what?”
I stare out the window at the passing school buses and laughing kids with books tucked under their arms. Packs of them, like roving bands of scavenging coyotes.
Dr. Hague, the school psychologist, observes me like an anthropologist studying apes in the jungle. He wants to ask me about the fight with Jefferson Hewlett, but he doesn’t bother. I’ve been seeing him long enough that he knows I won’t talk about it so soon.
“How are things at home?” Dr. Hague attempts a change in direction. He’s trying to throw me off guard.
“Fine.” But I have an impeccable defense.
“How did your parents react this time?”
“How does that make you feel? That you can run into the woods, disappear for days, and your parents welcome you back as if nothing happened?” His stare is forceful and constant. I sink under the weight of it.
“I need to get to class.”
I wash my face as soon as the session is over, trying to scrub away the smell of therapy before school.
I stand still and invisible in the dull, gray hallways as the horde of apes and coyotes bustles past. They pick fleas out of each other’s hair and nip at each other’s heels. I stand on the periphery, hoping they all just pass me by.
One of them veers off course, working his way through the packs straight toward me. He towers above the rest, the tallest sophomore in school. He’s broad and blond and has a permanent glint of mischief in his grayish-blue eyes.
“You’re going, right? I know you have this mysterious loner persona that you love to project, but this party is going to be epic.”
Oliver Niels seems to be the only one who’s never felt the need to run from me or throw things at the back of my head. He’s been my sole friend since second grade.
“I’m not feeling it tonight, Ollie.”
“You’re never feeling it, Clen. I think you were born without whatever part of your brain actually feels it. Or maybe, I saw this special on the Discovery Channel once about a guy who got in this serious accident, banged his head real bad, and all of sudden spoke in a British accent. You ever experience any head trauma? Seriously, if I wasn’t your friend, you’d never come off the mountain. You’d be a hermit, grow a huge, gross beard and eat squirrel stew. There’d be legends about you. The Hermit of Mount Bannir – died sad and alone with squirrel on his breath.”
Ollie’s voice fades away like a passing echo when I have to venture into the horde to get to class. Cologne and scented body lotions coat my nostrils, and my throat closes from the olfactory assault. The chatter grows to an indecipherable roar of voices that crashes down around me like a relentless wave. Ollie’s voice sounds far away, like he’s yelling at me from the beach as I’m dragged out to sea.
A thick mane of black hair slaps me in the face as it passes. The sweet, natural smell of it lingers. I meet one set of eyes among the hundreds swarming like bees around me. As pure and green as the first leaves of spring. The deafening roar dulls to gentle whisper.
Temporarily blinded by the rare shimmer of beauty among the streaked linoleum and concrete walls, I crash into Silas Conroy, my forehead bloodying his lower lip.
“The hell, Kiernan! You looking to get dead?” Silas snarls like a rabid dog, tagging the wall with red graffiti. His black hair is shaved on the sides, giving him a short Mohawk. His left ear is mostly missing, just bits of jagged scar tissue. His eyes are dark and shallow.
Something hisses in the base of my skull. It’s a cold tickle, a drop of ice water that flows down the length of my spine. But it’s still quiet enough that I can ignore it.
“Easy, Silas.” Ollie steps forward to shield me as I pick up my books. “It was an accident.”
“Protecting him is an accident, Niels. You should side with your own people.”
“You aren’t any kind of people I would claim as my own.”
“I still owe you big for what you did to Jefferson,” Silas snarls at me. “Your bodyguard won’t always be around to protect you, Kiernan.” He cackles like a hyena as he saunters off.
Ollie lifts me off the floor like he always does.
The beautiful green eyes disappear among the horde.
Lunch is a wretched ordeal as usual. I slide my tray along the counter, the lunch ladies looking on like hair-netted prison guards. They heap scorn on my plate, piled high atop a mountain of gritty mashed potatoes.
Kids stack their books in empty seats as I pass. I know I’m not welcome at any of their tables. They all know I’d never dare attempt to be in their company, but they do it anyway, every day, just to make it painfully clear. There’s a small table in the back corner, by the garbage cans and emergency exit. It smells and the bitter wind howls through the doors in the winter. That’s where I sit.
I eat fast so I can leave before the rest. If I’m here when they scrape their plates, I’m likely to end up with creamed corn all over the front of me. The lunch monitors herd us out the side doors to the athletic field to mill about for a mandatory twenty five minutes of fresh air. I shove my hands in my sweatshirt pockets and head straight for the tree by the road. I sit in its shadow, hidden from the late spring sun and the spiteful sneers of my peers.
The crowd immediately divides in two. Half of the field is black hoodies, gauged ears, and work boots – kids from the Pines. The other half is skinny jeans, nice watches, and gelled hair – kids from the Village. They’ve hated each other for as long as I can remember. Not just the kids either. Everyone. I don’t live in either neighborhood, which only means I’m equally hated by both.
Dr. Hague is on monitoring duty today. He wanders down the center of the field, scratching his chin and nodding. He starts for me, knowing I spend this time under my tree and not among my peers as he prescribed, but thankfully, thinks better of it. Being seen with the school shrink would do nothing to improve matters. Instead he makes for a tight circle of kids on the Pines side of the field emanating the faint smell of cigarette smoke.
As I watch him scold and lecture, a rock hits my shoe. I don’t need to look up to know who it is.
“What do you want, Silas?”
“You’ve got debts, Kiernan. First, you lose it on Jefferson. The kid damn near choked on his own tooth. Then you bloody my lip because you’re too stupid to watch where you’re going. Time to settle. And Ollie ain’t here to save you.”
“Leave me alone.”
“No, I don’t think I’m gonna do that.” Silas grabs me by the collar and rips me from the pleasant shadow.
The whisper in my head becomes a harsh cry, demanding that I retaliate. I try to take steady, even breaths, to keep my heart beating a normal rhythm. Dr. Hague said that will keep me calm. Then my feet leave the ground, and I’m weightless for half a second before crashing back to earth. All my calming breath is forced from my lungs. The harsh cry becomes a vicious growl.
A circle quickly forms around us. Kids from the Pines and the Village alike gather to watch my humiliation. I’m the great unifier.
Pressure builds behind my eyes. Dr. Hague says I just need to concentrate. I can’t let it control me.
“What? You aren’t gonna go all ape nuts on me like you did Jefferson?”
“You’ve got anger issues, Silas. I know a good shrink who could help you out with that.”
Silas cocks his arm back, ready to split my skull with a wicked punch.
“Enough,” a commanding voice orders. Dr. Hague pushes his way through the circle. “Everyone inside now! Silas, to the principal’s office. Clen.” He shakes his head, sad and disappointed. “Get to class.”
I’m the only passenger on my bus. The school repurposed a utility van specifically for me. Kids point and chuckle when I get on, but their voices die when the door closes. The drive is quiet.
I stare mindlessly out the window as we drive through town. Ellis is a boring, little hole in the world carved out of mountain and forest. It’s bordered in the north by the Tear of Heaven, a massive glacial lake, and surrounded on the other three sides by the Moreau Mountains. Town is divided in half by the River Skye, which flows from the Tear of Heaven all the way down to Hudson City – Lakeside Village on the east, everything else on the west.
The engine groans and sputters as we climb Mount Bannir. Sal, the bulbous driver who smells of beef jerky, curses his misfortune at drawing the short straw of school bus routes. He pulls to a stop at the end of my driveway, a dirt road that seems to have no end. It twists and turns until it is swallowed by the dark of the dense forest. Sal won’t drive in there. He dismisses me with a guttural grunt.
I’m thankful for the walk. The forest swallows the light and, with it, all the anxiety that’s built up in the back of my mind over the course of the day.
“How was therapy?” Mom asks as she slides dinner in the oven. Dad suddenly shifts uncomfortably and hides his head in the fridge.
Mom stiffens. Her hands become tightly clenched fists inside her oven mitts. “That’s all I’m ever going to get from you, isn’t it?”
“I need to take a shower.”
“Safe to say you’re grounded,” Mom calls as I walk away.
“Fine.” I set my bag in my room, gather some clean clothes and make for the bathroom. I stop at the top of the stairs when I hear the hushed whispers.
“We can’t keep doing this, Clark.” Mom’s frantic, on the verge of either yelling or crying. “He was gone for two days. Sleeping out in the woods somewhere. We had no way of knowing whether he was even alive or not.”
“Muren was with him. He was fine, Sarah.”
“He is not fine. He attacked somebody. And we just send him off to that doctor like it’s going to fix something. This is not a problem Dr. Hague can fix.”
“We don’t have any other choice.”
“Yes, we do,” Mom snaps. “If you would just talk to him, tell him…”
“No,” Dad declares curtly. “We made a decision. We need to stick to it.”
Mom’s feet pound angrily on the floor as she storms off. Dad curses under his breath.
My parents are in bed early. The tense night of passive-aggressive scowling and openly aggressive yelling must have tired them out.
I cautiously open my bedroom window and scale down the pine tree next to the house. Ollie is waiting for me at the end of my driveway.
“Well, look at you,” he says as I climb in the passenger seat. “You showered and even brushed your hair. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were looking forward to this.”
“You don’t know any better. I couldn’t be looking forward to this any less.”
“Don’t be such a sad, old man. You might as well slip on some loafers and a sweater vest, talking like that. Read a romance novel. Eat a sleeve of saltines. I know deep down somewhere in that dark pit of despair you call a soul there is a tiny flickering light. And do you know what that light is?”
I immediately regret getting in Ollie’s car. “No, nor do I care.”
“Youthful exuberance. Passion. A desire to grab life by its delicates and howl at the moon.”
“I’m not grabbing anything by its delicates.”
“I’m talking about living!” Ollie throws his arms toward the sky in an exaggerated, theatrical gesture. “Tonight you’re going to do some living. You’re going to talk to pretty girls, maybe tip some things over. You’re going to act reckless and swear and yell and at no point in the night will you use the word nor. You’re going to act like a real sixteen year old, not the angst-ridden, chiseled jaws you see on the CW. We’re going to the Raveyard.”
The Raveyard is a local legend. One of the original settlers of Ellis, Abigail Moreau, lived alone, in the mountains. One year, crops failed, livestock disappeared, houses burned down, and people dropped dead for no apparent reason. The townspeople accused her of witchcraft. They marched up there in true angry-mob fashion, pitchforks and torches in hand, and killed her. They named the mountain range after her. It was the least they could do, I suppose. Now she’s said to haunt Ellis, looking to exact her ghostly revenge. The Raveyard is a large clearing in the woods where Abigail was said to bury her victims. Now it’s a place to party.
“Whatever.” I hunch down in my seat and pull my hood over my head. Let’s just get this night over with.”
“That’s the spirit.”
The Raveyard is only a few minutes away from my house, in the foothills of Mount Bannir. Ollie turns down an old logging trail that empties into the large clearing, slowing to a crawl as his car jostles over roots and rocks and holes in the ground. I take one long, deep breath, like it’s my last taste of air before diving deep to the ocean floor, and get out of the car. The infinite weight of the sea presses down on me. I cling close to Ollie. He’s my only lifeline, my only source of oxygen while navigating the dark trenches so far below.
The heat of their stares pales that of the raging bonfire. The salty sea water is like acid on the burns. I’m so distracted by the pain that I don’t notice the riptide until I’m already caught up in it. I reach back for Ollie, but he’s pulled in a different direction, one with straight black hair, eyes that smile and skin like the failing light of morning. I’m churned and battered against a/the craggy shore as the sharks circle round. My lungs burn and scream. My head fills with plankton and algae that feed off the soft tissue of my brain. I’m spit out the other side, gasping and broken.
I collapse against a tree and cling to it, desperate for a new lifeline. The smell of the smoke, pine, and birch fill my nose. The crackle of the kindling as it splits and burns rings like a song in my ears. I run my hands across the rough bark, tracing each crack with my fingers. Its sap sticks in the hair on my knuckles. I picture the perfect green eyes that passed too quickly. Eventually, the sound of voices fades away. The stink of cologne and anxiety disappears. The world disappears.
“Are you sleeping? We’ve been here, like, ten minutes and you’re sleeping against a tree. Have you even tipped anything over yet?”
“Ollie, can we just…” As I slowly open my eyes, reluctant to let the world back in, I see that he isn’t alone. The girl that pulled him to a different shore smiles kindly, her soft, dark eyes beaming from behind her raven bangs.
“This is Suzume Akamura,” Ollie declares with an oafish smile. “Su, this is Clendon Kiernan.”
“Hey,” I choke out, recognizing her from school. She’s a freshman.
“Hi.” Her voice is smooth and steady. “How’s it going?”
“Umm, good?” I reply, cautious and confused. Ollie glares at me, silently demanding I be cool.
Su fidgets with her hands. “I’ll be right back. I need to let my friends know where I am.” She disappears around the other side of the fire, her steps gaining more confidence the further away from me she gets.
Ollie pinches the bridge of his nose and shakes his head in exasperation. “Could you be any more awkward? It only takes you two words to send someone scurrying away. You’ve talked to other people beside me before, right?”
“She’s from the Village. I thought you kids from the Pines weren’t allowed to talk to them.”
“I can talk to whoever I want.”
“Hey, it’s your feud. I just don’t want to go out like Mercutio.”
“Romeo’s best friend. Got killed because of the Capulet-Montague feud? We read it last year in English.”
“How do you pass classes?”
A familiar raven-haired boy marches toward us from the edge of the Raveyard. He’s thin and wiry. He’s a junior, I think. His dark eyes are like empty holes in his head.
“Where is she?” he demands. “Where is Su?”
I lean in close to Ollie’s ear so only he can hear me. “See? This is what I’m talking about. I’m not dueling anyone.”
“Hey, Yori. Su is around somewhere.” Ollie scans the crowd with his hand to his brow, like a sailor taking stock of the sea.
“Stay away from my sister, Niels.” Yori doesn’t seem to mind that he barely comes up to Ollie’s shoulder. He puffs out his chest and huffs authoritatively.
Ollie leans back casually with his hands tucked in his pockets, impressively letting Yori’s obnoxious commands roll off him. Others aren’t so passive.
“Problem?” Brian Till, a boy from the Pines, steps forward. Till rivals Ollie in size, but has none of his restraint.
“None of your business,” Yori spits.
“I think it is,” Till growls and crosses his arms, threateningly flexing every muscle he can.
Others gather around, anticipating bloodied knuckles and broken faces. The crowd erupts, hurling curses and insults like monkeys with their own feces.
The capillaries in my eyes pulse with steadily building intensity. The pressure pushes outward on the fissures in my skull. The rumbling voices bleed together and fade away. The hateful whisper in my head is the only sound in the world.
I hum a song to drown it out, but it devours the music like a rabid dog. I try to push it out my ears, scrape it off my tongue, swallow and digest it. But it won’t quiet. I step back from the crowd and dissolve in the darkness at the edge of the forest. It wraps around me like a snug blanket. I run and let my feet take me where they want to go.
The whisper soon quiets, and I hear the crickets and cicadas and the crunch of the ground beneath me. The soft plodding of my feet on dirt and leaves turns to the course grinding of crushed stone. I’ve stepped into another clearing. My stomach tightens and twists in knots, and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as a cold shiver runs down my spine. A haunting and familiar feeling creeps over me, like a wave of spiders. The core of me goes cold. Every breeze is a whisper telling me to leave. Every little noise is the ground telling me it doesn’t want me here.
The moon creeps out from behind some clouds, illuminating the jagged tree line at the far end of the clearing to show that it’s not trees at all. It is the charred husk of an old house. The roof has collapsed. Only small sections of the walls are still standing. Everything inside is cinder and ash.
“Clen? Where’d you go?” Ollie calls from behind me. “Sorry about this,” he says quietly to someone else. “I think he’s got a touch of Social Anxiety Disorder or something.”
“Sorry about my brother,” Su replies. “He’s a jerk.”
They stumble out of the forest. Yori follows close after, still making demands.
There’s something strange about this place – something both comforting and terrifying at once. My brain is adrift in a pool of déjà vu. It feels like I exist in two worlds at the same time, and, with each blink of my eyes, I am transported from one to the other. I am standing in an eerie clearing in the middle of the woods, terrified out of my mind. Blink. I’m playing at a home I know well, comfortable and safe. Blink. I exchange unpleasant, untrusting looks with people I’ve just met. Blink. I’m surrounded by friends as close as family. Blink. Darkness. Everything is covered in darkness and fear. Blink. The fear swims in their eyes, now just black, empty orbs. Blink. Emptiness.
I flash from one world to the other so fast that I lose track of which one is real, which one is mine.
Like there’s a rope tied around my insides, I’m pulled toward the house. The icy feeling in the center of my chest spreads throughout the rest of my body, chilling my blood and bones to the marrow. I stumble a few yards from the wreckage, tripping over an unseen object. A Nintendo DS. I pick it up, and a current of electricity shoots up my arm. My muscles spasm, and a vivid scene of anguish flashes through my mind like a bolt of lightning.
The world around me changes. The house is whole again. A young boy stands in front of it. Veins pulse violently in his neck as he screams from the very pit of his soul. Tears stream down his cheeks, but evaporate before they reach his chin. Then the world erupts in fire, and ash blots out the sun. The boy disappears, swallowed in flame. As the world I know returns, I find myself screaming for the boy, reaching out for him.
Ollie rushes to my side, again offering a hand to lift me off the ground. “He’s freaking out. We need to get out of here.”
The fires burn hotter behind my eyes.
“No,” Yori says. “We need to get out of here. You two need to stay away from us. He’s clearly insane, and I don’t trust you.”
Hot flames dance on my skin and smoke fills my lungs. The smell of blistering flesh sets acid churning in my stomach.
I feel death in the air. Cold. Absolute. It’s inside me, scratching at the lining of my stomach, clawing its way out. The beating inside my skull grows faster and stronger, like a dozen horses racing around a track, feet and hearts pounding. They round the last turn. Their muscles explode like gunfire. Pound, pound, pound. The animal sounds mix in a chaotic symphony of noise and agony that crescendos as they reach the finish line. Pound, pound, pound.
It whispers in my head. A vile hiss from a wretched little snake.