Violet stood on the edge of the blackness. Her toe danced along the spot where grass gave way to forest. She’d imagined this moment for hours as she meandered through the day, oscillating between an anxiety that caused her foot to tap against the floor and an excitement that sent her heart racing. Now, as she faced the expansive darkness of the woods, Violet grappled with the same emotions. In front of her stood the thrill and danger of knowledge, of maturity. Behind her, the safety of innocence and childhood. She could only choose one. There would be no going back. Violet closed her eyes, breathed in deep, and stepped into the forest. The darkness instantly consumed her.
As a child, the night had terrified Violet—especially these woods. People told stories about them. Screams in the night. Strange happenings. And laughter. Not the kind of joyous laughter that accompanied birthday parties or children playing in the park, but a darker kind that filled all who heard it with dread. But those were just stories, Violet assured herself. She’d walked these woods in the daylight, sometimes with friends, sometimes with her mother, father, and sister. They’d discovered empty glass bottles and shell casings, remnants from hunters, most likely. But the gathering twilight always chased Violet away; she dared not witness what truly happened there when the sun disappeared. Except for tonight. Tonight, she had become part of the darkness.
Bushes to the right rustled. Violet froze in place, scanning the night for signs of movement.
“Drew?” she called out, her voice faint.
No one called back, except for a razor-sharp late autumn wind that cut through her. Violet exhaled. She’d probably just scared a possum or some other nocturnal animal. Shaking her head, Violet continued on her path.
She should have insisted he meet her at the edge of the woods. But that would have been risky. Someone might have seen them together if they met beyond the cover of the forest. The small town of Pheasant Ridge offered no anonymity. Everyone knew her there and, despite the town’s minimal population, prying eyes abounded.
Besides, Violet wanted to demonstrate her mastery of the night. She was not a child any longer. Of course, in Pheasant Ridge, the darkness was not merely a physical thing; it was a metaphor, a deeper spiritual reality. Darkness represented the sin that threatened to enslave their hearts and cast them into hell. But Violet had glimpsed the beauty that lay in the blackness, the beauty that pulled her now. Night no longer meant dread and fear but opportunity and freedom.
The sound of something crashing through the brush paralyzed her. This something was bigger than the sound before, perhaps large enough to be human.
“Drew? Is that you?” she called as the sound vanished and all became still again. “Please don’t scare me.”
Violet should have threatened to turn around and go back if he maintained this charade. That was the only leverage she possessed in this situation. Though Violet was about to trust this boy with something she’d never given anyone else, she still feared he might terrify her if given the chance.
But Violet didn’t turn back. Once again, she stepped forward into the deepening blackness. She tried humming a song—“Tell it to my Heart” by Taylor Dayne, one of the many that the local top 40 station repeated ad nauseam. The song didn’t fit the mood of the night at all, but its bouncy rhythm settled her nerves a bit.
Attempting to distract herself, Violet imagined how she looked stumbling through the woods. Would spectators have seen her as confident, self-possessed, rebellious even? Or would they have detected her uncertainty, no matter how much eyeliner and lipstick she’d applied to mask it? What would Drew see? Would he approve? She’d done her best to dress in a pleasing way. Perhaps he wouldn’t care, as his principal interest lay beneath her bulky yellow sweatshirt and turquoise leggings.
One thing was for certain: Violet knew what her father would see. His gaze would be at its most imperious and disapproving. He’d speak in terms of sin and judgment—both earthly and eternal. And though that thought brought a ripple of hesitation that disrupted her progress, it also caused a tremor of excitement. She was really doing this.
Those thoughts managed to take her mind off of the noises that occasionally broke the silence. She was near their agreed upon meeting spot: the ruins. The decaying stone building marking the old Harper homestead lay just beyond, at the bottom of a steep gully. She had to be careful, lest the slope sneak up on her and send her careening to the bottom.
A sudden cry sliced through the air. Violet jumped back, trying to pinpoint where the scream originated from. It was close, maybe twenty feet away. The scream was piercing. Guttural. Tortured. She jumped with fear, turning in a circle. Violet’s foot started sliding out beneath her. The gully. She cascaded down the slope, pulled by an inescapable gravity. Violet grasped the air, desperate for an anchor to hold onto but found nothing. She clawed at the ground. Her fingernails—painted a seductive red—scratched the rich, moist earth but failed to stop her fall. Still, she tried to dig her way up, even when her nails scraped against a rock. Finally, Violet surrendered to the inevitable interaction between her weight and the ground’s slope.
She tumbled to the bottom, rolling over once. Thorns pricked her arm and sticks stabbed her leg. Her head struck a rock, causing her to cry out in pain. At last, she came to a rest at the bottom. Violet reached for her forehead, gingerly running her fingers over the swelling bump. The scream had faded, but it echoed in her mind.
“Drew?” she said weakly, surveying her new surroundings.
In front of her lay the menacing silhouette of the ruined outbuilding of the Harper homestead. Even in the daylight, the structure spooked her. Now, the sight of it sent her scrambling backward in a crab walk. Her hand touched something different than the usual carpet of damp leaves, something vaguely warm and fleshy. Violet swiveled her head around. Something lay at the bottom of the gully. Something human. And something dead.
Violet released a cry of her own. But no one answered.
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