Ever since my mother disappeared I always sensed I was being watched. Tonight, that usual sensation taunted my mind. I looked out into the dark forest, trying to see beyond the glowing campfire. I could see nothing, but I felt someone was out there, watching me.
Always watching me.
“Sophia, you alright?” I heard dad’s throaty voice from across the campfire.
I tore my eyes away from the mocking darkness and looked over to dad. His eyes, as blue as the day’s sky, looked at me with a certain concern that had not left him since mom’s disappearance. He was once a man of many smiles - wrinkles around his eyes showcased years of bliss - but that happiness faded last year. An unrelenting sadness for his lost wife and an overpowering worry for his two kids consumed him.
“If this is too much for you, we can always drive home.” The idea of returning to our safe haven was tempting, but I couldn’t ruin our first trip in nearly a year.
“No, I’m fine,” I said as my eyes briefly wandered to the darkness. “Just not used to being away from home. But I like it.” I didn’t want dad to worry. He already worried too much. He was always worried.
Dad didn’t often let my brother, Bobby, or me leave the house. My mom went missing one day on a trip to the grocery store. Her car was found, and so were signs of struggle, but we never caught a suspect. Dad lived in constant fear that the person who took her would come after us. Because of this, we were home schooled for the last year. Bobby and I had been getting antsy recently. We needed to leave our house. So, dad finally planned a camping trip for us in the Catskills, a week before we returned to school.
It was nice to have a little get away from that house, which wasn’t just a safe haven but a place of constant sadness. And we were all happy on this camping trip, just like old times. We joked around the campfire and we all laughed earlier when I tripped and fell during our hike, even dad. I had a nice gash on my knee from that embarrassing fall, but to see us all laugh again? Worth it.
We had been living in an isolated depression for so long that we all needed this getaway. I could never let my immature fear end something that taught us to smile again.
In a week I’d get to return to high school back in New Jersey for my junior year. It would be Bobby’s first year of high school. He was definitely ecstatic. We both were. We needed a change in the lives we led for the past year, and this camping trip was the perfect way to kick start that change.
Finally, the Ballance family was going to return to the world. The fun we had today showed that us returning wouldn’t be so bad. We were mending after mom disappeared. We could do this, together.
I had to admit a part of me wasn’t sure if I was entirely ready to return to the world. Not only did I suffer from an acute form of social anxiety, I would be the disturbed girl-who-lost-her-mother student. I only had one friend in that school, Angelica. She was a social butterfly. Me on the other hand? Not so much. I wanted to make more friends in the school, but how could I when I was returning as the troubled student? I was coming right out of a year in hiding and everyone would know.
Even Travis, my crush since sixth grade. I wondered how he would look at me, the recently home schooled odd ball. God, going back to school was going to be so hard. Thank god I had Angelica.
“Are you sure?” He asked, still weary.
“Yeah, positive. I’m actually just distracted by the moon. You know I love a good moon.” That was a complete lie, but I noticed his shoulders relax a little.
He grinned, but his grin didn’t meet his eyes. Then he looked up. The moon was strong, using all it’s might to try to peek through the dense forest. It hardly penetrated past the treeline.
“I believe it’s a full moon tonight.”
“Ooooo,” Bobby chimed in with his teasing voice. “Don’t all horror stories begin with a good full moon?”
“Shut up, Bobby.” I said, giving him the stink eye.
He let out a haughty laugh and coolly flipped his beach blonde hair from his face. “You’re just scared of all the beings that can come out during a full moon, aren’t you?” He wasn’t wrong there. My eyes flickered to the darkness once more. I was scared. But I would never admit that.
“Also it’s Rob, not Bobby. C’mon Sophie. You know this.”
“It’s Sophia,” I corrected him in return. When he was younger our family always called him Bobby. Now that he was finally going to high school he decided Rob was a more suitable nickname for his age. Unfortunately for him, I couldn’t shed Bobby from my vocabulary. Mom always called him Bobby, why take that name away? I didn’t understand.
I would hold onto every memory of mom if I could. I never wanted to forget her playful smile or sweet singing voice. And I would never get rid of a nickname she created for me. If we forgot about her nicknames for us, what would we forget about next? Would we continue to forget about her, piece by piece, until there was nothing left to forget? That idea destroyed me.
The name ‘Bobby’ was going to stick.
“It’s a good thing you two are going to school in a week,” dad chimed in, scratching at his graying beard. “I think if I keep you two home any longer one of you will kill the other.”
I snickered and Bobby smirked. Dad was probably right. I loved Bobby but a year confined in the house with him was really driving me stir crazy.
“Kill my sister? How could I kill little Sophie?”
I rolled my eyes. He always called me little Sophie since his growth spurt two years ago. “I’m older than you,” I reminded him. I was constantly reminding him anymore.
“And smaller. A.K.A. littler. How tall are you now?”
5’2 but we weren’t going there. Everyone in my family was tall. Except me. I had assumed puberty was going to hit me late, but I never hit a growth spurt and now I was sixteen. I didn’t even grow boobs. Perky Angelica had them, why couldn’t I? Thank you poor genetics. “Sorry I’m not six foot like you.”
“And I’m sorry you’re missing the other half of your body.” He laughed so hard he snorted. Boy was he getting a kick out of this conversation.
Before I could respond dad put our conversation to an end. “Alright, alright. I think it’s late enough. Let’s all get to bed, we have a long day planned tomorrow.” We did have a long day. Dad planned white water rafting for us, which I knew was absolutely exhausting. But it would keep our minds off mom, which was the point of this entire trip - wasn’t it? “You two have your own tents so take this opportunity to separate before any blood is spilled. Sound good?”
“But dad, blood is never spilled.” Bobby laughed at his sarcasm. We were known to fight one another on more than one occasion. It would make mom insane. Our fights were probably the reason for her graying hair.
I internally grinned at the memory of mom livid, pulling her hair out, as she attempted to stop our little wrestling matches. Oh, how I missed her.
And yes, I actually beat Bobby several times. Even after his growth spurt. I have a keen sight at night whereas he can hardly see a thing. I almost always won in the dark.
“Off to bed we go,” dad said, ignoring Bobby’s joke. He brushed off his jeans and came to a stand. “You’re going to wish you got an early night come tomorrow,” he said when the two of us did not move and only continued to stare at one another.
I sighed. It was actually more of a sigh of exhaustion than disappointment. I supposed I was tired. “Alright, night guys.” I stood and walked over to my tent.
“Night dad, night sis.” Bobby called after me. I waved back to them, which was probably pointless. I was too far from the firelight to be seen by them. There was something about camping in the forest that made seeing at night virtually impossible. A blanket of darkness hid me from a world only several feet away.
But that same blanket hid others from me.
At that thought the hairs on my arms stood upright and fear penetrated my mind once more. I twisted my head in every direction. I could see nothing. “I need a flashlight,” I whispered to myself, keeping my hands in front of me until they came in contact with my tent. In a hurry, I shakily unzipped the tent and crawled around inside until I could find a flashlight.
When I found it I fumbled with it in my hands until I clicked in on, holding my breath as I did. When the light illuminated my tent I flipped my head around, sending streaks of my wavy ash hair in every direction. I expected to see a face looking in through the opening to the tent.
But there was nothing there. Nothing but my obsessive fear. “Just your mind playing tricks on you,” I whispered to myself. After several deep, calming breaths, I acquired the courage to walk out of my tent. I really needed to hit a bathroom.
I walked toward the stream that ran near my tent. Above the stream was an opening in the treeline which allowed the moonlight to glisten against the water below. I looked down to the water, adoring my reflection. In the water, a dark shadow of myself looked up to me, the moon encircling it. It really was magical.
A certain thrill drummed inside me. There was something about the stars, a dark sky, and a glowing moon that exhilarated me. The night held bewitching mysteries.
The only issue was that after my mom’s death the night began to terrify me as well. Darkness was always my friend. Come on, I could beat Bobby in a fight because of my keen sense of sight in the dark. So why did I become so frightened by it?
I kicked off my brown hiking boots and dipped my toes in the water, sending ripples against the moonlight. Just as I did I heard a crack in the night. It was as if someone stepped on a branch. “Bobby?” I asked, flinging my head around. There was only silence. “Don’t play with me.” My heart thumped in my chest and my breathing became ragged. “I’ll call you Rob all day tomorrow if you don’t scare me now.” I tried to bargain with him.
Still, no response.
I was probably just overreacting, as usual.
Calming myself, I looked back down to the water and stared at my reflection. That was when I noticed two silhouettes looking back at me. Someone was standing next to me.
I held my breath, freezing in place. I couldn’t feel or even hear the breath of the person standing next to me. But the water didn’t lie. Someone was there. So close I could touch them.
Why couldn’t I hear anything?”
“B-bobby?” I asked, my lips quivering. Slowly, I moved my head to the side until I could see who was standing next to me.
I let out a shriek when I noticed a pair of red eyes looking back.
My screams were lost when a piercing pain shot through my neck, draining me of my consciousness.