Dad and I are still at the graveyard, but he started lightly snoring a handful of minutes ago. That he can sleep on the hard ground in a graveyard is a testament to just how overworked he is while his boss is abroad, settling their newest partnership for their firm. I really do worry about him. He already has a habit of getting sucked into his work, but now that he’s managing twice the number of accounts, I’m worried he’ll get sick or drop from exhaustion.
“You’re one to talk,” Phoenix says when he emerges from my mind.
“Can it,” I whisper-hiss, getting up and walking a little ways away from where Dad is resting. The sun is still high in the sky, and no one else appears to be here with us.
“Well, go say it somewhere else.” I walk deeper into the graveyard, admiring the headstones as I go. “I’m so not in the mood for a lecture today.”
“Fine, fine. I can tell when I’m not wanted,” he mutters, disappearing into the ether.
I frown, feeling like an ass. I didn’t mean for him to leave. I just didn’t want to have one of our explosive arguments today, not with Dad within hearing range.
Heaving a sigh, I continue walking until I reach the farthest tombstone, a weatherworn, beat-up thing. It’s so old, I can’t even read the inscription. A cloud passes under the sun, bathing me in shade and sudden darkness. I shiver, the hair on the back of my neck rising.
Feeling uneasy, I turn to head back toward Dad…and freeze. Soft whispers come from behind me, so many at once, I can’t tell what they’re saying. I hear a man’s and a woman’s voice, a boy’s and a girl’s. They all seem to speak at once, a static noise that makes my skin prickle and a bead of sweat drip down my spine despite the sudden chill.
Gulping, I force myself to face the forest’s edge again and stare in. I don’t see anyone, ghosts or otherwise. It’s just the blackness under the canopy of the trees, their leaves howling in the sudden wind. Lightning cracks across the sky and rain pours down, but I can’t seem to tear my gaze from the abyss just beyond the trees.
As if in a trance, I take one step forward, followed by another and another. I reach the first tree, my wet hair slapping my face as the wind continues to rage. Soon, all I hear is the cry of the wind…and the whispers, the insistent voices, getting louder and louder as I get closer. Twigs snap under my feet, and I stumble, shivering as I go deeper into the darkness. I know it’s midday, but it looks like night has fallen.
“Closer, closer, come closer,” the whispers seem to hiss.
“Samantha!” Dad calls, but I can scarcely hear him over the pouring rain, the wailing wind, and the loud, frantic whispering.
The whispering…that suddenly stops.
I stop too, blinking as if coming out of a dream.
Confused, I look around the small clearing. It’s dark as pitch, the shapes of the trees barely discernible in the faint lighting. There’s nothing but dirt and weeds at my feet, but it’s—
I stumble back, tripping over my own feet and falling on my ass. It’s not dark here, the ground itself is giving off a grim miasma…an aura. And as I stare at the blackest point, something rises up from the ground. My lip trembles and I whimper.
It’s head snaps around, it’s milky eye and cavernous socket staring at me, the rotten flesh peeling and oozing down its sunken and grotesque face. Faster than I can blink, it’s directly in front of me, the smell of musk and rot filling my nose. I can scarcely breathe, a scream lodged in my throat. It pulls its ragged lips back to grin, and my heart leaps in my chest when its hand reaches for me.
Right as it’s about to touch my face, it goes hurtling backward, the brightest light I’ve ever seen ramming through it. It’s so intense, I have to turn my head away and shield my eyes. A wail pierces the air, and I clamp my hands over my ears, a sob tearing its way from my lips. Whatever that thing is, I can sense its pain, can feel its fear…its anger, rage, and anguish.
It’s ravenous for revenge.
And when I stop sensing it, I finally turn my head back and open my eyes. I have to blink to adjust to the blinding light directly in front of me. No, not a light…a man. No again—not a man, a ghost. I’ve never seen one shine before.
He smiles at me, his amber eyes twinkling, and for a minute, I can’t breathe. Then he attempts to wipe away my tears, his incorporeal hands unable to help me. I hadn’t even known I’d been crying.
“Thank you,” I finally manage to say, wiping my face.
“Samantha!” Dad calls again, and my head whips around. “Samantha, where are you?”
When I turn my head back to the ghost…he’s gone. Him, and the malevolent spirit…and I realize that that was what the creature had been because, if it had been anything else, my mystery savior wouldn’t have been able to touch it, let alone hurt it. But the fact that it had anything akin to an aura when it was dead—that I could sense its feelings and smell its flesh—is beyond concerning. Whatever it was, I don’t want to be anywhere near this place any longer.
“Coming, Dad,” I shout, getting to my feet and running back the way I’d come.
I force myself not to look over my shoulder as I leave the forest behind.
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