The whine of cicadas in the nearby trees wasn't the most romantic background music, but in that moment, Maya Reynolds didn't care. She was mostly preoccupied with the girl who was kissing her. Their sunburned lips were rough and hot when pressed against each other, and Maya wasn't sure why she was so excited about the feeling when it wasn't even all that pleasant. Almost her entire brain, though, was enraptured and dizzy, drowning in blissful thoughts of holy shit, I'm finally kissing Liz.
The other part of her brain was very, very concerned that someone would see them, and eventually, that part won. Maya pulled away, and the girl in front of her opened her eyes and looked away. "Sorry," Liz McIntyre said, pushing sweaty blond hair behind one ear. "Maybe we shouldn't do that here."
"But..." Maya shook her head, trying to convey bravado. "It's fine! I mean, the others could be nearby, so if you want, we could..."
She stopped, unsure of how to phrase her idea without it coming across as suggestive - and even more scandalous than a simple kiss behind the dugout. All of the fans had disappeared, since their game had gone more quickly than most, but even the trees had ears at York County Senior High. Rumors could fly quicker than her best fastball.
"I mean, I guess, I'm glad you told me you... like me," Maya murmured, her face growing hot again.
Liz nodded. "I'm glad I did, too."
"You're so brave."
Grinning, Liz reached back to fix her ponytail, as if searching for something to distract herself with. "Nah, I mean... you made it obvious you liked me back," she said, her grin widening, "So thanks for that."
Maya opened her mouth to protest, but stopped as she heard voices growing closer. Liz whirled around and stood up, clearly trying to act natural. Along the treeline, shadows approached, and Maya stood as well.
"C'mon, I need water," Liz mumbled as her grin receded.
As they meandered toward the school, Maya realized her face was still burning, but her heart had never been lighter.
They went their separate ways soon after, and by the time Maya got home, she wanted to talk to Liz again. They had been best friends for years, becoming nearly inseparable through middle school, and hardly a night went by that they didn't talk on the phone.
Now, of course, things had just gotten complicated - and her stomach flip-flopped as she realized they probably needed to talk about what had just happened.
She called Liz's house, but no one picked up. She left a short voicemail, trying to sound casual, and returned to her homework.
There was no response that night. Maya tried to brush it off when she went to school the next morning, nearly skipping to the bus stop in the early spring air. She forced herself to focus on homework on the bus, since she hadn't managed to get it done the night before thanks to her nervously-fluttering heart.
Liz didn't show up by the end of homeroom, though. It was unlike her to be sick and not let Maya know; their text messages were limited, but Liz would usually save them for early in the morning when calling would be a nuisance.
Maya glanced up and down the hallway between class changes, scanning the familiar faces. Her heart rate doubled as she wondered if someone - a student or a coach, possibly - had seen them kiss the night before and had told Liz's parents. Though Liz had never mentioned her parents being conservative, it was well understood that in South Carolina, one was better off being closeted until able to finish school and move out.
And if Liz's parents had found out, how long before Maya's parents were told?
Maya spent the rest of the school day with her fingers intertwined in her lap, thoughts racing. She would have to go to Liz's house after school and check on her. Surely the natural thing would be to swing by and check, since it was on her way home anyway, she told herself. It was entirely possible that Liz was just sick, but at least then Maya could sleep a little better.
The minute the final bell rang, Maya sprinted out the door, nearly tripping over her cheap flats as she hit the pavement outside. She ran halfway to Liz's house before realizing it was too far to comfortably run - she would have to walk, or jog at best.
By the time she arrived, the sun was dropping low in the sky, and the beginnings of blisters had formed on her feet. Liz's living room light was on, and the garage door stood open, despite the gentle rain that had started to fall.
Maya stopped some distance away and watched as the front door opened. A man in a dark suit emerged carrying a duffel bag and a purple purse. With a heart-stopping jolt, she recognized them as Liz's possessions.
She stepped closer and opened her mouth to call out, but stopped as a second man in a suit came out of the house carrying a large suitcase. Fear sank into her heart. What could possibly be going on?
Maya saw Liz's father step outside and say something to the man with the suitcase, but he seemed to receive no reply. The men in suits walked to a black car parked in the street and put the luggage in the trunk before slamming the trunk lid with a thunk that echoed up the street.
As Maya took another step closer, one of the men turned and stared at her for a long moment. Terrified, she began crossing to the other side of the street, hoping to convince them she was going somewhere else. Her legs shook as she stepped onto the sidewalk across from the black car.
She turned her head slightly to try to look inside the car's windows, but they were tinted too dark. Even if Liz was in there, she wouldn't be going away forever, she told herself. There was nothing to worry about. There was no way Liz's parents would let their precious only daughter disappear. Maybe there was a family emergency of some kind, Maya told herself.
If that was the case, though, then she should call out and see what was going on.
Coward, she told herself as the men in suits closed the trunk of the car. It wouldn't be that hard to just ask them where Liz was, right?
But as she opened her mouth one last time, the suited men jumped into the car and sped away, tires slipping on the wet pavement. She watched as the car turned left at the stop sign, toward the interstate that would take them wherever they wanted.
She turned back to Liz's house, where Liz's mother had also appeared at the door. The older woman's hands clutched a tissue, and as she raised it to her face, she paused, seeming to catch sight of Maya.
Maya felt her own eyes well up with tears as she charged across the road and up the McIntyre's lawn. "Where's Liz?" she asked, her voice shaking.
Mrs. McIntyre smiled, but it was clearly forced. "We're dealing with a family emergency, is all," she said, sniffling. "I'm sorry if you were worried about her today, dear."
Maya stared down at her feet as the words echoed in her head. "When will she be back?" she asked. Her voice wasn't her own; it felt like someone was forcing her to speak, but she knew she had to ask.
"It's complicated. She needs to be away for a while, but rest assured, she's fine," Mrs. McIntyre replied. "Go on home, okay? I'll make sure she calls when she comes back."
Her face was strained and pale, and Maya knew that prying would grant no answers. In all her years of being over at the McIntyres' house, Maya had never seen either of Liz's parents in such distress - or so tight-lipped. Something horrible was happening, and no matter what Maya said or did, it would bring no answers or solace.
She nodded, turned around, and jogged back down the street, struggling to see through a sea of tears.
Three days later, Maya glanced around homeroom to see that Liz was still absent. That made four days in a row - and while her parents had been excusing her absences, there would be consequences from the school after a fifth absence. She sighed and crossed her arms as the bell rang and her teacher brought the class to order.
"First order of business: get your permission slips in to me by tomorrow! I'm still missing a bunch!" her teacher said cheerfully. "Second, I've been told that Liz McIntyre is changing schools, effective immediately. I have no real details, but her parents have reassured me that she's fine. You can probably give her a call or email her, if you want..."
Maya stopped listening, despite the reassuring tone of her teacher's voice. Deep down, she knew there was little point in letters or calls. Whatever had happened, Liz was gone, and no one was about to tell her why.
Whatever had happened, it didn't have anything to do with the kiss between them the day before Liz disappeared - right?
Chapter 1: Silent Dreams
Three years later
“As a precaution, Coach Warner has canceled tonight’s softball practice because of the ongoing police investigation in the woods behind the field. On that same note, students are forbidden from going into the woods until at least tomorrow, possibly later.”
At least two students sighed, but Maya wasn’t one of them. She stared out the window, brow furrowed. Practice being canceled was annoying, but it wasn’t nearly as much of a problem as the incidents that had been rattling her town.
Multiple people had sighted someone lurking in various parts of town wearing some kind of mask and tattered clothes. For weeks, the police had written it off as a childish prank - the kind of thing someone would do in boring Hazeltown, South Carolina. Two days prior, though, a girl from the nearby junior high school had disappeared. Her cell phone had just been found in the woods behind St. Michaela Church, which ran adjacent to the high school’s softball field.
That, of course, had put the entire school on edge. Several girls in Maya’s class looked around at each other. Their teacher, Mrs. Adams, wore a furrowed brow above her thick glasses. “I encourage everyone to go home well before dark tonight,” she said as she looked up from her computer screen. “I’ll let you all know of any other announcements from the Dean on this matter. And please, if you see or hear anything, report it to the police immediately.”
The bell rang, but the usual clamor of screeching chairs and chatter was subdued. Maya grabbed her book bag and waved at one of her teammates, a petite, red-haired girl. “Rachel, do you wanna go ahead and work on that paper tonight?” she said.
Rachel nodded. “Cool with me. Might as well get it over with.”
“Cool. I’ll text my mom.”
They walked to their lockers, chatting amiably while half-listening to the whispers around them. Maya couldn’t remember a time when her classmates had looked so concerned. Their unease, though, was nothing compared with that of the teachers, who watched over the hallway with frowns and narrowed eyes.
Maya cringed as she realized that she hadn’t felt so uneasy since Liz had disappeared three years prior. There was something sinister in the air, but she couldn’t put her finger on what was happening. The uncertainty made her pause and glance around before opening her locker door.
She snatched her softball practice bag from her locker and followed Rachel to her house, which was barely ten minutes from the school. The warm spring air was enticing, as if Mother Nature was oblivious to the evil in the air, and Maya wondered if it might be worth it for them to work on their essay outside.
Then she saw the three police cars parked on Rachel’s street, by the far western edge of the woods that butted up to the school. Maya sighed and followed Rachel inside, knowing that there would be no way to concentrate with the world around them so on edge.
Two hours later, Maya looked up from her notes to see the sky outside turning lavender. “Shoot, it started getting dark fast,” she said, rising and grabbing her bags. “Can we work on this tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I’m down. We can probably finish it then,” Rachel said as she looked up from her computer. “Do you want a ride? Mom will be home in twenty minutes or so.”
“No, I’m barely a ten minute walk from home. It’s fine,” Maya said. She stepped around the cluttered living room and waved over her shoulder. “See you tomorrow?”
“Yup! Walk safe!”
Maya waved goodbye and stepped outside, where the evening air had cooled off significantly. She swung her softball bag over her shoulder and jogged down the street, knowing that her mother would start to worry before too long.
The front yards and driveways of Hazeltown were full of shadows, and she kept her pace as fast as possible. Though the community was friendly and cheerful, she knew she was on her own if the culprit behind the disappearances decided to come after her.
She wasn’t scared, she told herself as she rounded a corner. She had lied to Rachel; home was really over fifteen minutes away, but she usually didn’t mind the walk.
Now, though, she glanced over her shoulder every twenty steps and jumped at every unexpected noise. She should have asked for a ride, she thought as she nearly tripped over a crack in the pavement. The thin sliver of moon rising in the sky wouldn’t be enough to light the way within a few minutes.
She sped up as she approached the woods at the edge of a nearby park. The trees towered over the road, casting spindly shadows over everything. Beyond the woods, a solitary light shone through the trees; Maya recognized it as the floodlight outside of the recreation building.
With no warning, the light was joined by a bright orange flare blossoming in the woods. Maya stopped, heart sinking. It looked like a small explosion.
But there was no boom, and no roar of flames. She rubbed her eyes, thinking she had to be hallucinating. It was like watching fireworks without the tell-tale pops and bangs accompanying the light show. Why would there be a wave of fire dancing in the woods in the park, anyway?
And why was it still so deathly quiet - no voices; no sirens; nothing to indicate that anything was wrong aside from the glow of flames? Even the ever-present chatter of the cicadas had faded from a drone to a whisper.
She dropped her softball bag on the ground and rummaged through it until her hand closed around her bat. With her other hand, she reached for the cell phone in her back pocket, and felt somewhat reassured when she found it still here. Her legs shook slightly as she charged into the woods, using the bat to sweep aside leaves and cobwebs in the darkening twilight.
The snaps and crackles of twigs beneath her feet went silent. She stopped, puzzled, before taking a few tentative steps forward.
She tapped her bat against a nearby tree, but it made no sound. Angry red flames still glowed some fifty feet in front of her, but there were no other clues to tell her if someone was nearby dealing with them.
She couldn't make sense of it - the silence, the fire, or the nagging sense that something was horribly wrong. It was surreal, like an eerie nightmare fueled by stress and an overactive imagination; the kind of vision one would shake awake from and ponder for a long while before falling back asleep.
Something caught her eye to her left, and she stepped backward, bringing her bat up between herself and whatever it was. Ten feet away, two figures slowed to a stop as they stared straight at Maya.
And they looked very unhappy to see her. The woman on the left opened her mouth to say something, but closed it again as she reached for something in the pocket of her shorts.
The girl on the right, though, looked familiar - too familiar, Maya thought. The girl had light brown hair in an angled bob, and in the dim lighting of the woods, her facial features were hard to see.
Even in the orange glow, though, her hazel eyes shone like pale oceans. Her lips moved, and though Maya could hear only silence, she knew the girl was asking:
Those confused eyes belonged to Liz. A new, edgy haircut couldn’t disguise the features that had barely aged in three years.
“Liz?” Maya yelled, though no sound came out. “Liz, what the—”
The woman on the right grabbed Liz’s arm, and as Liz turned away, Maya felt herself pulled back to reality. Still puzzled by the source of the fire, she turned to look at the flames just as something dark darted between herself and the blaze.
Whatever it was, it was tall, and the shadows it sent through the forest caught Liz and the other woman’s attention. They whirled around and ran toward the creature, and Liz gave only a brief glance over her shoulder at Maya before devoting her full attention to the matter at hand.
Maya, though, was staring at the beast that had appeared. Its silhouette seemed to grow, but even with the flames illuminating its deep red skin, she couldn’t tell what it was. It was like a giant, hairless dog - surely someone’s idea of a ghastly prank.
Wings sprouted from its back, spreading against the flaming trees like petals on a morning glory. Liz and the woman stopped before it, seeming to decide their next move. Seconds later, more fire appeared, radiating out from the two and surging toward the creature.
Maya had seen enough. Whatever it was, she had definitely just witnessed something more dangerous than she could handle.
Though her heart was screaming at her to stay with Liz, she turned and ran, tripping over bushes and branches as she sprinted back to the road.
Chapter 2: Disappearing Act
The entire way back to her house, Maya glanced over her shoulder every ten or fifteen steps, terrified of someone possibly being on her tail. Eventually, she realized that she could hear again; the surreal silence of the woods had been replaced by the sound of her ragged breathing and her shoes slapping against the pavement.
Every time the wind blew and the shadows shifted, she felt her heart leap into her throat, threatening to suffocate her. She considered calling her parents to come pick her up, but decided against it. She didn’t want to put them at risk - not when she was close enough to home to make it on her own.
But by the time she reached her front door, her legs were shaking, and she was so out of breath that she grew faint as she climbed the front steps. Softball wasn’t much of an endurance running sport, and she was only good at short sprints.
She looked back over her shoulder one last time before fumbling with the doorknob and yanking the door open, ignoring her parents’ puzzled stares as she stumbled into the house. Once her softball bag and bat were in their proper place in the hall closet, she went to her room, closed the door, and buried her face in her hands.
She fought hard to stifle her sobs, not wanting her parents to come up and ask what had happened - because she didn’t even know what had happened. What was that thing in the woods? And why was Liz, of all people, somehow involved with it?
Liz, who had barely changed in three years. Liz, who still had her unmistakable hazel eyes framed by the longest lashes Maya had ever seen. Liz, who surely couldn’t be involved in fighting anyone or anything. In their nine years of schooling together, Maya had seen Liz get in a fight exactly once - and Liz had ended up running away, unwilling to hurt the bully who had started it in the first place.
Her phone buzzed, startling her, and she fumbled with her backpack zipper for several seconds before pulling it out. It was an incoming call from a North Carolina area code.
She hesitated before accepting the call and pressing the phone to her ear. “Hello?”
“Hey. It’s been a long time.”
Maya pulled her knees to her chest. The voice was deeper than she remembered, but she still recognized it. It was quiet and laid-back, always in stark contrast with Maya’s perpetually cheerful tone.
“Liz?” Maya whispered.
“Yup. How are you?”
For a long moment, Maya considered demanding an explanation immediately. She deserved to know what the hell she had just seen, and why Liz was involved, before letting Liz back into her life.
But that urge was overwhelmed by relief. Whatever had just happened, Liz was okay.
“I’m good. School is the same. We won our pre-season game last week.” Maya paused, chiding herself for commenting on such trivial matters when there were much more important things to discuss. She had slipped into her old habits: when they had talked on the phone after an extended absence, like if one of them had gone on vacation for a while, they usually caught up via phone the night before returning to school.
“Good!” Liz replied. “I thought I saw you out and about but I didn’t get a chance to say hi. What else is—”
“Where have you been all this time, Liz?” Maya said, her voice rising in pitch.
“Out of state. Family stuff happened.”
It was a clipped, distant answer - uncharacteristic of Liz, Maya thought as she frowned. “Okay, you know that’s not a good enough answer. I got really worried—”
“I don’t have enough time to talk about that,” Liz interrupted. “I think you know what this is about. First of all, you didn’t call the police, did you?”
Maya mulled over her options for replying. It might be worth it to tell Liz what she needed to know, and then hopefully get something in return. “No,” she replied.
“Good. I mean, someone called the fire department and all that, but I think you’re the only one who saw us—” she paused, and Maya’s heart skipped a beat at the unnatural emphasis on ‘us’— “so that makes things easier.”
Sweat had broken out on Maya’s forehead. She knew it - she had definitely seen something she shouldn’t have. Though she had felt guilty for leaving Liz behind earlier, that feeling faded as Liz cleared her throat and continued: “Can we talk about this? Like, meet in person, catch up, maybe get some explanations out of the way?”
Maya took a deep breath, trying to fight back her rising temper. She did not like being played, and right now, she sensed that Liz was definitely trying to pull something. “And why would I do that? What are you into, Liz?” she said. “I’m scared. You know that. What if that thing shows up? Give me some answers and maybe I’ll consider it!”
The words left her mouth, and for a moment, she regretted them. Liz started to say something, but stopped. Maya could hear fatigue and disappointment on the other end of the phone, and she considered chiming in with an apology.
“Maya, if we don’t meet voluntarily, my employer is going to come after you. It’s only a matter of time on that one. And while they won’t harm you, they…” Liz trailed off, the way she often had when they were freshmen, and Maya’s heart twinged. “They’ll make your life a little more difficult to make sure you never repeat what you saw.”
“But why would meeting with you be better?” There was a long sigh on the other end of the phone, and Maya clenched her teeth. “I need answers before I go anywhere with anyone,” she continued.
“Maya,” Liz said softly, “I need you to trust me—”
“Why? You just pulled a disappearing act for nearly three years, and now you’re running around with freaks and now someone else has disappeared and—”
“Dammit, you think I wanted to disappear?” Liz snapped.
Maya ended the call and turned off her phone, her fingers shaking with rage. There was no point in trying to reason with her. If Liz had nothing to offer but excuses and bogus answers, then she was going to get nothing but Maya’s silence.
She heard her parents moving around downstairs, and considered going and telling them what had just happened. She sighed and decided to keep it to herself, though. It was better to keep her cards to her chest for the moment - especially if there was a good chance her parents wouldn’t even believe her.
She tiptoed downstairs, grabbed her bat from the hall closet, and went back upstairs to jump in the shower. The cold sweat that had covered her body had made her feel alien, and she shuddered as she wondered what would become of her if she ever saw that thing again.