Cecelia pushed open the door to her home, happy to be returning to the warmth of the house. She stepped inside and hurried up the stairs, stashing away her snacks before her father and brother could steal any. She looked out her window at the fading light of the sun streaming down through the trees, and observed for a second as the wind blew through the canopy of leaves, causing swaying shadows in the dappled light on the forest floor.
Ever since her mother had left the picture, Cecelia had learned to appreciate all the little things in life. Warm hugs from her family, for example, or the tastiness of a marshmallow evenly roasted over a campfire. The sounds of the waves lapping at the beach, petting a dog, stargazing… all of it. She had learned to appreciate all of it.
Cecelia felt goosebumps traveling over her skin as she thought about all the good things in life. There was so much to enjoy and so much to see and do. There was no way she could possibly do it all, of course, but she liked to make it her mission to enjoy as much of it as she could. It was nice that way, and she knew deep down that if she lived life to the fullest, she would be happier in the end.
“Dinner!” her father’s voice rang from downstairs.
Cecelia turned and quickly began to make her way out into the hallway, hurrying down the stairs and sitting down at the dinner table, where Leroy was already sitting. The smell of mac-and-cheese wafted through the air, and a grin spread across both siblings’ faces as they made eye contact. Mac-and-cheese was a family favorite, and it was their dad’s special version; boxed mac-and-cheese mixed in with American cheese that made it extra tasty and cheesy. The two had grown up on it together.
Their father placed down their plates in front of them, and Cecelia greedily dug in, shoveling the cheesy pasta into her mouth. It tasted so good.
“Cecelia, slow down! You might choke!” Leroy yelped, looking at his sister with wide eyes. He hated how much of a worrywart he was being, but he couldn’t help it. He cared about his sister, and it was his job as her older brother to keep an eye out for her, even if the age difference was only by a year.
She paused and looked up at him, flashing him a sheepish smile. Their father chuckled, observing his two children. “You two are so silly sometimes,” he said fondly.
“Ya think?!” Cecelia joked back, lightheartedly sticking her tongue out at her father. “We got it from you, y’know!”
He leaned back in his chair a bit, faking being thoughtful. “Why yes, I suppose you did…”
The three of them ate in silence for a few minutes before the silence was broken again by the kids’ father. “How were your days, you two?”
A jolt ran through Cecelia’s body, and she had to physically bite her tongue to keep herself quiet. She had almost blurted out about the figures she had seen and what the book had said about Oakwood. She sat, deathly silent, trying to calm down from the close call.
Luckily for Cecelia, Leroy served as something of a distraction. “My day went great!” he chirped, suddenly more full of energy than normal. “I read about the local museums in that travel pamphlet you bought awhile back! Could we go?”
“NERD!” Cecelia teased him, before noticing her volume was higher than it should be for a dinner conversation. She shrunk back in her seat, feeling a bit embarrassed. “Whoops. Sorry, Leroy.”
Brad looked up from his dinner, glancing at his two children. “Well, sure! What kind of museums do they have?”
In her head, Cecelia prepared for what was presumably going to be a very long, tedious dinner conversation. Her brother could go on and on about museums if he felt like it.
“Well,” Leroy began, “There’s the little art museum downtown, the town history museum, and the natural history museum, though maybe I’m forgetting more.”
Oh thank goodness he’s kept it concise, she thought to herself, I don’t have to hear every single little detail like last time.
Their father nodded. “Is there any one in particular you want to go to first?”
Leroy shook his head, spearing some mac-and-cheese and putting it in his mouth.
“How about you, Cecelia?”
She thought for a second, trying to figure out which one sounded best. It wasn’t necessarily that she disliked museums, but Leroy always made the family spend an obscene amount of time there, and she wanted to make sure that her choice was at least tolerable. Finally, she opened her mouth. “How about the natural history museum?”
There might at least be some cool fossils or taxidermy there.
Leroy didn’t protest, so their father took it as a sign that they should go there. “Natural history museum it is, then!” he said with a warm laugh, as though he had somehow made a dad joke instead. It was the kind of life that made Cecelia smile. The kind she had heard a lot when she was little. Before, well…
She preferred not to think about it. It only ever made her angry, anyways.
“Personally,” Brad began, “My day went wonderfully as well! I met the next-door neighbors, though I think they might be a bit… y’know,” he made a circling motion in the air by the side of his head.
“What do you mean?” Cecelia asked, tilting her head to one side in confusion. Was he calling the neighbors crazy?
“They just said some odd stuff about strange creatures in the woods. Crazy lunatic tomfoolery, I assume.”
Her heart dropped in her chest. Odd stuff? Strange creatures in the woods? No. No. No, it couldn’t be.
Cecelia sunk back into silence, listening to her dad laugh at the neighbors, thinking it was all a joke. Leroy laughed too, then asked something about school, but she wasn’t paying attention anymore. Her head was spinning. She hurriedly finished her mac-and-cheese, then stood up, quietly excusing herself from the table as she took her plate to the kitchen and placed it in the sink.
Before she knew it, she was upstairs, all showered and ready for bed and scrolling through her phone, looking at memes and laughing a bit every time she came upon one she liked.
Her father knocked on her door, startling her slightly. “Time for bed, Cici.”
“Aww, c’mon Dad! Just a little longer?”
He sighed. “It’s eight pm, sweetheart. Put your phone on the charger and get some rest.”
She obeyed, plugging her phone in and turning off the lights, cuddling up underneath her sheets. The house downstairs still needed more unpacking, but here in her room, everything was unboxed and in its proper place. The bedsheets were warm and cozy, and as she pulled William close to her chest, she took a second to appreciate how homey her room felt. It was as if she had lived there her whole life already, and she had no trouble drifting off once her usual sleeping mask was on her face.
At least, she’d had no trouble drifting off until she woke up at one in the morning.
Cecelia wasn’t sure exactly what it was that woke her. She didn’t feel like it could be the new house, that was for sure. It felt too much like a home already for the true novelty of it to wake her up like this. It had to be something else.
She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was, yet again, off. And it wasn’t that weirdly pleasant off she had felt earlier in the day when she had just arrived at the house. It was more like that sense of fear she had felt earlier, when she had read the book. A cold, creeping form of instinctual dread that told her to be on high alert. That told her something was wrong.
It was then that it reached her. A sound. The sound. The one that simply must have been what had woken her up. An eerie “oooooooooo” sound like the howl of a wolf that quickly grew in volume until it became more like a scream akin to that of a dying animal. Then, it quieted back down again, ending in sort of an “aaarrrrrr” noise that she didn’t think she had ever heard before.
Cecelia started with the logical explanation. Coyotes. It had to be coyotes, or maybe a neighborhood dog. That was the only thing it could reasonably be. In fact, it was the only thing it could be, period.
Except it didn’t sound like coyotes. Or a dog. Or anything she had ever heard before, for that matter. It was new, and scary, and she didn’t like that one bit.
To distract herself from the newfound fear she was feeling, she picked up her phone and turned it on, trying to find something to distract her from the sound outside until it went away. Mobile games or videos, mostly.
She started with some funny animal videos, keeping her hand over her mouth as she watched, making sure to stifle her laughter as cats failed to complete jumps across the room and dogs stole socks, amongst other animal shenanigans. After that, it was onto some toy customization videos, a process she had never tried, but always found entertaining to watch nonetheless.
She watched as someone customized an old Barbie doll, sewing custom clothes for their creation and rerooting the hair in new colors. By the end, it had wide, borderline anime-style eyes, black-and-gold hair, and a white ball gown with gold accents. Something beyond just a toy now. A work of art.
Cecelia didn’t know how much time had passed, but eventually the noise stopped, and her heartbeat returned to its normal, calm pace. She put down her phone, feeling drowsy again, and one blink later was back to sleep, sinking into silent, peaceful darkness.
Author’s note: Apologies for how short this chapter is! I’m still very much getting the hang of writing this, but fear not! I’m improving. Stay tuned!