A swift twist-pull and the jarred door opened to let in a beam of light. Slipping through, Hesper eased it closed behind her, wincing as the duffel on her shoulder thudded against the greyed wood of the door frame.
Her parents were asleep.
From the corner of her eye, she had seen her father draped over the sofa like a puppet, sunk in the deep and easy sleep of one devoid of a conscience. Her mother’s sleep was permanent and had its beginning in the moments after Hesper’s birth. She slept on in her earth-caked slumber, in a grave unknown to her daughter and unvisited by her husband.
It was better that way. Her mother remained a faceless stranger from the past, capable of anything—even love—and too dead to contradict the fantasies of her that Hesper constructed. There was hope in wondering. There was relief in not knowing.
Though living, her father was a closed book. Long ago, she had been measured by the scales in his eyes, and she had failed the test for which there would be no redemption. Her comfort was in knowing that her mother had loved her more, if only because her father couldn’t love her less. She often entertained herself with daydreams of the life she might have had with her mother. Possibility was always more beautiful than reality.
Especially her reality.
Last night, the rain had bombarded the tired roof of her two-story home, and Hesper now surveyed the aftermath through half-closed eyes. The lawn bristled with dew and the sidewalks sweated in the sun. The driveway was warm and damp under her bare feet. She stepped over to the car, which squatted in the driveway like a toad. Rust dominated the small vehicle, almost covering more of the surface than the original kelly green paint. She shoved her duffel through the broken back-door window, which bared its shattered teeth. There the bag sprawled amidst piles of old newspapers, cardboard boxes, and fast-food debris.
Taking a deep breath of the humid air, she tipped her head back, opening her bleary grey eyes to the sky. The light cast spinning red spots in her vision, and she blinked rapidly to clear them. Her olive-green hair shifted on her shoulders.
The sky was the blue of wet chalk drawn across pavement. After a week of thunderstorms, the sky was scraped clean of clouds. The forecast called for scattered showers this morning, but on the question of rain, it was as if nature had given a noncommittal shrug, a universal “meh.”
Let it rain, Hesper thought, and jolted her head down as she heard the wet slap of shoes approaching. The broken glass of the car window caught on her shirt and she tore it free with unusual agitation. The popping rip of fabric did nothing to calm her nerves.
Closing her eyes and forcing her lips into a smile, she was able to hide her momentary shock. The steps were too casual and light to be her father’s. It was Anthony—the only other person who spoke to her without a reason. She turned to face him with her arms crossed.
“Hey Hesper. So your dad said you could come?”
Hesper grimaced. She had forged her father’s signature on the permission slip only to find that the school was not providing transportation to the annual high school camping trip. Heading the trip this year was Ms. Malthace, an English teacher who bore the hatred of the entire body of tenth graders, Hesper included. Ms. Malthace harbored a particular resentment of Anthony and Hesper, who had both failed her class—Hesper had failed for lack of trying, and Anthony had failed despite trying. From the first day, Ms. Malthace had mocked Hesper, chastising her for her habit of staring at the floor and for her clumsiness. After Ms. Malthace asked her why she had dyed her hair the color of vomit, Hesper never turned in another assignment. Nor did she ever respond to her teacher’s comments again.
Despite this, Hesper wanted the excuse of a school trip to get her out of the house for the time being. Begging effort from her father, however, was not going to be easy. She required her father’s car, her father’s time, her father’s duffel. She knew the debt and resented it.
“Yeah,” she said. “I can come.” Anthony had spoken in the expectant tone of one who was certain of a positive answer. Usually, telling people what they wanted to hear was the fastest way to bring a conversation to an end.
Anthony was an exception. “Can I ask you a question?” he asked, unaware that he had already done so.
“No,” Hesper said. One of her talents was knowing when someone planned on talking regardless of what she said. One-way conversationalists, she called them, and Anthony was a model for them all.
“Why do you always keep your eyes closed?”
Hesper twisted a strand of hair around a finger, feeling the tightness, imagining the hair as a vine against her dark skin, squeezing the blood from her fingertips. A similar tightness gathered around her throat as she retrieved the lies she had rehearsed from childhood.
“I know that you’re not blind,” Anthony pointed out. “You read aloud in History class.”
Impressive skills of deduction, Hesper thought sarcastically.
“And besides,” he continued. “You’re clumsy—sorry, but it’s true. Maybe you wouldn’t get bruised up so often if you looked where you were going.”
Hesper was willing to wait him out.
“Will you tell me what color your eyes are?”
Grey, she thought automatically. “Teal,” she said.
Anthony groaned. “Come on. I just want to know you better. Everyone else hates me right now.”
“That’s your problem.”
“Yeah, but it’s not my fault.” His voice dipped to a lower note. “I promise you, I didn’t hurt him on purpose.”
“I don’t care,” Hesper said.
“I know,” Anthony said, shifting his heavy shoes and gasping in pain. He had placed his hand against the car window without looking. “Ow. Do you think I’ll get tetanus from this thing?”
“Nice.” Anthony sighed. “Are you going to answer my question?”
“Sure,” Hesper said. “I keep my eyes closed because I hate seeing all the homo sapiens around here.”
“Me too,” Anthony replied. “That’s a kind of snake, right?”
“No, it’s Latin.”
“For human beings!” Hesper said, throwing up her hands.
“Oh,” Anthony said. “Does that include me?”
“I have no idea what that means,” he admitted.
“Well, I’m planning on biking to the campsite,” Anthony said. “But I’ll walk there if you want to come along.”
“I’m trying to save your life,” he replied. “Does that car even work?”
“If you need me to define a word, that’s not a good sign. Just think about it—”
“Hesper Morrow.” A quiet, warmly-dead voice called her from the doorway of her house. The longing that had creaked within her like a stepped-on stair settled back into place and she turned mechanically, eyes downcast.
“Come here,” her father said softly, and she felt the irrepressible pull of habit keep her walking toward him. She passed him and stepped into the house.
“Bye,” said Anthony.
Bye Anthony, Hesper thought as the door clicked shut behind her. Every muscle in her body tensed at first, but she forced them to loosen.
“Are you going to explain yourself?”
Crap. Her muscles braced again despite her efforts as she stood there, staring at his thick boots.
A muffled shriek escaped her lips as her head slammed against the wall. Her father’s hand clamped into her jaw and cheek. Don’t fight, don’t speak, don’t look, don’t… Her heart spasmed in sync with her thoughts.
“Open. Your. Eyes.”
His acrid breath assaulted her. He had been awake for a long time last night. Long enough to have had a couple drinks. More than a couple. His fingers moved up to her eyelids, tracing them.
“Who were you talking to?”
Hesper said nothing, shivering as the pressure on her eyelids increased. The silence stretched taut like a string about to snap.
“Damn you,” her father said, and a blunt object smashed into her jaw. Pain rocketed through her head and neck. He released her, blundering into the kitchen.
Hesper collapsed, gasping with relief. Remaining there, she listened as he shuffled around the cramped kitchen, poured cereal, and popped the cork out of another bottle. She heard him shift back in his chair, muttering oaths under his breath. Eventually they turned to choking snores. He sounded like a drowning man.
Her limbs uncoiled as she eased herself to her feet. She walked toward the door, her fingers tracing the wall on both sides of the narrow hallway. Faded roses spilled around her vision. The previous owner of the home was a lonely botanist whose skill in gardening did not translate into artistic talent. Her father’s house was a wonderland of floral designs on wilting wallpaper.
Hesper opened the door, slowly, centimeter by centimeter until she was out in the open air, and shut it gently behind her. Her cheek throbbed as she ripped open the car door and tore out her duffel. No more. She couldn’t do this anymore.
Time to go. Somewhere her father would never find her.
Wanwood. The forest that encompassed an area the size of the town, a nondescript strip of woodland on the maps of Pennsylvania. Untouched.
No one would exactly admit to fearing Wanwood, but there was a reason everyone gave it such a wide berth. The number of disappearances associated with that forest were substantial, and that was exactly what she was planning.
A final disappearance.