This short story was written as an exercise to flesh out some of the characters in the novel I am writing. It may or may not be included in the final work.
Friday, June 8th, 1990
“We’re here,” Sophia’s mother said, gently touching her shoulder. Sophia woke slowly, lifting her head from the window of the passenger seat and tilting it toward the clock on the car’s center console. She squinted for a moment, then rubbed her eyes before the green blob of light became a readable LED display.
“Geez, Mom, it’s already tomorrow,” Sophia mumbled, still groggy.
“I know, honey. But we have to do this tonight. Come on.” Elizabeth Harris stared at herself in the rearview mirror, gazing into her own tired green eyes. It took a moment to convince herself, but eventually she unbuckled her seatbelt and got out of the car. The forest preserve parking lot was empty, save for them, and Elizabeth made sure to park as far from the area’s lights as possible. She opened the trunk and took out a leather handbag, which she slung over her shoulder, then walked around the car to the passenger door and opened it for her daughter.
Sophia looked up at her mother through overgrown chestnut bangs. “Is it going to hurt?”
Concern washed over Elizabeth’s face. She walked to Sophia’s side and knelt on the asphalt beside her. “Not a bit,” she said. “I promise.”
“It’s okay, Sophia. Everything will be fine. Come on.” Elizabeth stood up and gestured for Sophia to follow. She got out of the car and quietly shut the door behind her. The pair walked out of the lot, away from the forest preserve entrance, and instead headed toward the street. On the sidewalk that ran perpendicular to the lot’s entrance, two figures stood beneath a streetlight. The first, a man, was tall and looked muscular even through the charcoal suit he wore. The other, a woman, was of average height and build. She wore a pale blue summer dress.
As she walked closer, Sophia asked, “Is that Kai and Cheryl?”
Cheryl waved as Sophia approached them. Her strawberry blonde hair was pulled back in a pony tail. “Happy birthday, Sophia,” she said. “Thirteen, huh? Almost in high school.”
“And it’s almost time for summer vacation,” Kai added, “You must be very excited.” He grinned. Sophia liked it when he smiled; the white of his teeth and sclera seemed to glow against the darkness of his skin and irises.
Sophia tugged on her left arm with her right. “I guess.”
Kai turned to face the street and looked over the area. The road was empty. He began to cross the street and gestured for the rest of the group to follow. Without turning around, he asked, “Do you know why we are here?”
“Mom said it’s a secret. But it’s important.”
“Indeed.” Kai stopped upon reaching the other side of the road. He stood before the woods, waiting for everyone else to make their way to him. “Within this forest is one of the oldest cemeteries in the region. Nearly two decades ago, several years before you were born, your parents discovered something here. It’s how we met them, and it’s why we will always be a part of your lives.” He looked at Elizabeth. “You won’t need your tools,” he said. “Leave your bag here.”
Kai waited for Elizabeth to hide her bag in the brush, then led them into the woods. The light of the full moon made the forest easy enough to see in, and light from nearby street lamps filtered in, reminding Sophia that she was never far from the road. Just the same, she felt uneasy. Her eyes darted to the source of every rustled branch and snapped swig. They continued deeper into the trees, until only the moon lit their way.
In the distance, Sophia saw an ethereal green light. She froze. “Where are we?”
Elizabeth put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “We’re in Bachelor’s Grove,” she said. “Like Kai said, it’s one of the oldest cemeteries in the area. It’s also… believed to be one of the most haunted.”
“I want to go home.”
Kai stopped, but did not turn around. Instead, Cheryl turned to the child. “As long as Kai and I are with you, Sophia, no harm will come to you. I can promise you that.”
Sophia held up her right hand and stuck out her pinky. “You swear?”
“I can promise you, Sophia, but I can’t pinky swear. Kai and I can’t touch you.” She paused. “Well, we can, but you wouldn’t like it.”
Kai began walking. Cheryl followed him. Elizabeth guided Sophia forward.
“When your father and I were still dating,” Elizabeth said, “we we came here one evening to see what all the fuss was about. Everyone heard rumors about paranormal sightings and satanic rituals. We had to see it for ourselves. We snuck into the woods after dark, on a full moon like this one, and made our way to cemetery.”
There was a rustling in the brush nearby. Sophia’s heart skipped a beat as a coyote shot out from the thicket, darting past her and into the shadows.
“This land is more than just a graveyard,” Cheryl said. “It is a flux point. You can find them all over, but this one is particularly powerful. That is why there are so many paranormal incidents.” She gestured to the glowing light. “It’s easier for people to see the otherworldly here.”
“We are bringing you here to help improve your perception,” Kai said, “To help you better understand the world as it really is, not as you have seen it.” He stopped walking. “We’re here.”
Sophia examined the environment as best she could. It was a small clearing, with just a few grave markers. Many of them had been damaged by time or vandalism.
“I can barely tell it’s a cemetery.”
“No one has been buried here in some time,” Cheryl said. “Between delinquients and families moving their ancestors to more modern plots, this place has been largely abandoned. Now, the place you see is more a home to transients and thrill-seekers than the bodies originally interred here.”
Kai slowly circled a tombstone before coming to a stop. “Here.” He beckoned for Sophia. She approached him carefully. As she did, he knelt down. “Look into my eyes. What do you see?”
She concentrated for a moment. In the inky darkness of his pupils, she saw flecks of white light. “I see stars,” she said. The deeper and longer she looked, the grander they became, until it seemed she saw every galaxy in the universe. Sophia felt a light pressure in her forehead and blinked. The universe disappeared.
Kai reached into the pocket of his slacks and drew out a slender bracelet. “This is for you,” he said, and presented it to her.
Sophia took it. The bracelet was heavier than she expected. It was hard to make out in the dark, but she could see intricate lines criss-crossing its outer circumference. She unlocked its clasp, and it opened on a seemingly invisible hinge. When she put it around her wrist, it drew itself closed. After it shut, the clasp seemed to disappear into the adornments. She looked up at Kai.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It operates as it should. Lay down here.” He gestured at the ground.
Sophia looked at her mother. “Don’t worry,” Elizabeth said. “It’s going to be okay.”
Despite her hesitance, Sophia did as she was told. The bracelet Kai gave her suddenly felt cool against her wrist.
“Perception is a wicked thing,” Cheryl said. “Look at the sky. What do you see?”
“Trees. Some stars. The big dipper, I think.”
“What else do you see?”
“Do you see the molecules that make up the air you breathe? Do you see the galaxies whose light has yet to reach you?”
“But you know they are there.”
“You cannot perceive them, and yet you know they exist. Just as you cannot hear the electrons around you vibrating, or feel infrared light. You have limits. In this location, at this time, these limitations are less pronounced. Perception is flexible.”
“Close your eyes and listen,” Kai said.
Sophia did so. For a minute, she heard nothing. Then, a quiet whisper, the voice of a young girl, barely audible: “Hello?”
Sophia’s skin prickled from a sudden chill, and her eyes shot open. To her left, a child stood beside a tombstone. Despite the darkness, Sophia could see her clear as day. She couldn’t have been more than eight. She wore a simple, pale blue dress. She knew without realizing how that it was what she had been buried in.
The girl turned to look at Sophia. She’d expected to be horrified, but there was nothing ghoulish about her. She smiled meekly.
“I’m Alex,” she said. “Are you dead?”
Sophia looked at her mother, then back at Alex. “No,” Sophia told the ghost.
“I am.” Alex walked to Sophia’s side. “I don’t remember when I died. Or how.”
“The last lingering remnants of a child’s consciousness,” Kai said. “Spirits like these are everywhere. You can’t see them, but they are. The light of a full moon shining upon a flux point is enough to help you perceive them.”
Alex looked at Kai, then at Sophia. She furrowed her brow. “You’re the first person to see me in a long time,” she said. “I miss talking to people.”
Sophia sat up. Alex sat beside her. “I’m sorry,” Sophia said to the ghost. “You must get lonely.”
Alex opened her mouth to speak, but then recoiled in terror. Sophia turned to see what set her off and froze. At the edge of the clearing, just beyond the tree line, a figure stood. It had the profile of a man, but his eyes glowed a faint red. The two barely-visible points of light in the darkness seemed to define him.
Sophia forced a question: “Who is that?”
“He’s one of the bad ones. They make other people hurt.”
Sophia turned to look for her mother, but Elizabeth was not where she stood minutes before. Sophia looked back at the thing in the trees. It was cautiously moving toward her. She shot a glance at Kai and Cheryl. They did nothing. The pair of them expressionlessly stared at the creature that wasn’t really a man, completely emotionless. They weren’t scared. Sophia could tell. It didn’t make her feel any better.
The creature grew more brazen as it approached Sophia. It spoke. “Hello? Are you lost, little girl?” It tried to sound concerned, but Sophia was not fooled. His pupils burned brighter. “Let me help you.”
Sophia tried to put on a stern face. “Go away.”
“You’re here all alone in the woods,” the thing said, moving ever closer. “Where are your parents?”
“My mother is here,” Sophia said. “Leave me alone.”
“I don’t see your mommy.” The thing inhaled deeply, then grinned. “I don’t smell her, either.”
The thing stood over Sophia. Its pupils were even brighter now. Sophia could almost feel the heat of them on her skin. Faster than Sophia could react, it reached down to grab her. She swatted at its arm. It was firmer and stronger than anything she’d ever felt. It locked its hand around her wrist with a iron-firm grip.
“I’ll take you somewhere,” the thing said. “Don’t worry.”
Sophia struggled to hold her ground and tug her arm free, but it was to no avail. The thing lifted her off her feet like she weighed nothing. She looked at Kai and Cheryl in desperation. They remained motionless. Defeated, she looked at Alex.
Something in the girl’s face changed. She charged toward the creature and flung herself at its torso. The thing lost its balance for a moment. Alex wrapped herself around its leg and shouted, “You can’t have her!”
The earth around the thing’s leg rumbled as thick grass rapidly sprouted from the dirt and wrapped itself around its foot. It tore free, but the plants redoubled their effort. The portion of its leg that was occupied by the ghost child was quickly entangled in weeds. It dropped Sophia and swatted at the growth that bound it, tearing it almost as quickly as it spread.
Elizabeth came charging from the darkness, then. She gripped identical daggers in either hand, and swiftly swung them one after the other at the thing that tried to take her daughter. It recoiled in terror as one of her swipes connected. It tugged furiously at its leg, trying in vain to break free. Elizabeth plunged a dagger into its chest, and it collapsed. Alex let go of the thing’s leg, and the plants that wrapped it withered immediately. She moved to stand between Sophia and the creature.
Elizabeth kicked the creature and rolled it onto its back. “Sophia,” she said, “this is an estrie. A person so corrupted and out of control that they ceases to be human.” She took her second dagger and drove it into the estrie’s throat, pinning it to the ground. Sophia winced.
Elizabeth placed a foot on the estrie’s chest and pulled the first dagger from its body. She stabbed the ground beside the corpse several times to loosen the dirt, then shoveled it into the estrie’s mouth. “You have to keep them from taking another breath, or they’ll get up again.” She packed the earth tightly into its maw.
Elizabeth pulled her second dagger from the estrie’s throat and stood up. She glared at Kai and Cheryl. She pointed a dagger and the former. “You told me not to bring weapons. You promised me she would be safe.”
“She was. Alex protected her.”
“You expect me to believe the spirit of a confused little girl can stop something like that?” She moved her blade from Kai to the estrie.
Cheryl walked from Kai’s side and knelt beside the estrie. She placed a hand on its head. It almost immediately turned to ash. “We expect you to trust us, Elizabeth. We have given you no cause to think otherwise. If you had not intervened, Alex’s growth would have crushed the estrie in a matter of minutes.” She gestured to the ghost, who still stood at the ready, between Sophia and everyone else.
“She’s an old spirit, and more powerful than she looks,” Kai said. “An old soul, like your daughter.”
Elizabeth looked at the ghost.
Alex turned to face Sophia. “If you let me,” she said, “I’ll protect you.”
Sophia looked confused. “I can’t stay here for the rest of my life.”
“That’s what the bracelet is for,” Cheryl said. “To bind her to you. Sophia, if you want, you can communicate with Alex even after leaving. Your perception will be forever changed after tonight. You won’t always be able to see Alex, but you will be able to sense her.”
Elizabeth took Sophia’s hand. “When your father and I came here, years ago, an estrie attacked us. We tried to fight it off, but it kept getting back up. We were sure we were going to die. It knocked your father unconscious, and came for me. It swung at me, and the whole forest shook. A gust of wind knocked the estrie off its feet, then another, and another, and another, until the estrie ran away.” She absent-mindedly toyed with one of the rings that adorned her fingers. “Your father and I didn’t want to drag you into this, but we couldn’t let you go out into the world without knowing just how dangerous it is.”
Behind Elizabeth, a pale, almost invisible figure appeared. It was a tall man, but more detail than that Sophia could not make out. Elizabeth turned and smiled at the spirit. It seemed to smile back, then faded away.
“We don’t know his name,” Elizabeth continued, “but he has watched over us since that night.” She glanced at where the estrie once lay. “He protects us as we try to make the world a safer place for you and everyone else.”
Sophia looked for Cheryl and then Kai. They were gone.
“They do that,” Elizabeth said. “It’s in their nature to be mysterious.”
“They aren’t people, are they? But they aren’t ghosts or estries, either.”
“Your father and I call them angels, but never to their faces,” Elizabeth said, smirking for a moment. “We want you to be able to protect yourself. And, when you are older, if you want, you can help us hunt the things that strike at us from the shadows.”
“And Alex can come with to protect me?”
“Yes, for as long as you two are in accord.”
Sophia smiled at the spirit. She smiled back. The bracelet on Sophia’s wrist grew warm, and Alex grew faint, until she disappeared entirely.
“It’s getting late,” Elizabeth said. “Your father is probably beside himself with worry. Let’s go home.”
Sophia walked out of the clearing with her mother, and Alex, and the ghost with no name. The sounds of the forest didn’t bother her anymore.