Goldfinches and sparrows flit from branch to branch, filling the air with melodic choruses. Daylight warms Jayla’s face and rouses her from a deep sleep. She reaches for her plush blanket but collects something brittle and moist. Startled, Jayla opens her eyes and blinks to clear them.

Clasped inside the palms of her hands are bloodied pine needles and leaves. She looks upward and spots a giant, moss-coated oak tree towering overhead. Why am I outside? Jayla jerks her head left and right to survey her surroundings. Weathered gravestones protrude from the ground. A cemetery—why am I in a cemetery? Her eyes widen in fear, and she struggles to suppress the surging panic.

Jayla glances off to her right and spots a familiar row of pine trees. A slight sigh escapes from her lips as she realizes she’s within the confines of Corhollow Cemetery–the graveyard across the street from her neighborhood. How the hell did I get here?

She examines her body and gasps at the sight of stark red blood coating her shirt and arms. She presses a hand to her throat and finds a sticky mess of dried blood. Jayla yanks her hand away, fearful of removing any clotting that ceases the bleeding. Who did this to me? I need to get home! Oh, God–let Mom and Dad be OK!

Jayla shifts her gaze straight ahead, toward the cemetery’s front. She derives comfort in knowing her cozy house is nearby—inside the close-knit community.

Fearful of her attacker lurking among the trees, Jayla remains vigilant and glances around the cemetery. She moves with caution and edges toward Corhollow’s iron gates. Her footsteps amongst the dried leaves fill the air with crunchy, crackling sounds, and threaten to give her position away. She steps around the fallen debris when possible, and peers over her shoulder often.

Jayla scans each row of headstones as she inches her way toward the front. Feeling exposed in the open, she juts her head back and forth to keep watch on the tree lines for a hidden assailant.

Sunlight caresses her skin and warms her soul. She walks and wonders about the absence of visitors on the mild summer morning.

Jayla approaches the cemetery’s unpaved front access and halts; a strange murk awaits outside the gate. She tilts her head and gazes at the storm-like atmosphere that hovers above her small community. Something’s not right.

The dark presence and dense fog obscures the neighborhood and beyond, disallowing penetration of sun rays. Confused, Jayla steals another glance at the cemetery. Corhollow, unaffected by the impending storm, provides light, warmth, and a symphony of chirps.

A faint rustling noise startles Jayla. She tenses and jerks her head back toward her darkened neighborhood. Squinting her eyes to sharpen her vision, she searches for movement from a possible attacker. Unsure if the sound came from outside the cemetery–or from within, she circles in place to observe.

Jayla lowers her head and looks at her parted feet. Her left foot, placed inside Corhollow, feels toasty from the sun shining down upon her sneaker. Jayla’s right foot, positioned outside the cemetery, aches from the chilly temperature. Fog and darkness obscure the lower leg and shoe. Jayla shudders, and her hands tighten into balls. I just want to go home! I need to see if Mom and Dad are OK!

She lifts her head and fixes her eyes in the direction of her house. Jayla squares her shoulders, inhales a long, deep breath, then bolts into the unknown.

A cold mist fills her lungs, and frigid temperatures penetrate to the core of her bones. The eerie encroachment proves challenging to navigate as she scampers along. Jayla struggles but forces her feet to move through the murk, refusing to stop or turn back.

She makes her way along the neighborhood streets in search of the paved sidewalk. The haze camouflages several parked cars, causing Jayla to collide and stagger. Fearful of on-coming vehicles in the fog-filled streets, Jayla continues to inch her way toward the walkway.

Relief floods her when she finds the sidewalk that runs through the front lawns–a path toward her home. Jayla shivers and wraps her arms around herself. The persistent invasion of dampness to her lungs prompts a coughing fit.

Swish! Snap!

The mysterious sound startles Jayla, and she stifles the cough to listen. Movement in the hedge on her right catches her eye; she stares at the bush, and her heart pounds inside her chest. It shakes and sways before settling. Oh, my God! Someone–or something is in there!

Jayla slows her pace and contemplates stepping off the sidewalk to avoid passing the greenery. However, finding her way on the wide opened streets puts her at risk of getting lost–or getting hit by a car. She keeps her head turned toward the bushes, then forces herself to continue.

An exhale escapes her lips after she passes the mysterious movement. A short distance ahead, she spots a thick tree, hunkering low to the murky ground, its branches fanning. The sight makes her heart skips a beat. The massive tree holds a wooden seat that dangles from one of its chunky limbs. I’m almost home!

Grrrr. Grrrr. Snarl.

She flinches and whirls around to glance toward the street and spots a shadowy figure moving near the parked cars. Goosebumps crawl on her skin. It’s following me!

Jayla forces herself onward. She sprints for her home, and the soles of her shoes slap the pavement and echo throughout the fog. Indistinguishable figures squirm in the darkness and close in on her.

She reaches her house and stumbles up the porch. Jayla peers over her shoulder and spots a dark form coming toward her. Oh, my God! Her eyes remain focused on the advancing figure, but her hands tremble and fumble with the doorknob.

A burst of wind materializes and threatens to throw her off balance. She manages to remain upright while the sinister silhouette gets forced backward. Jayla gives the knob a forceful twist. It turns, and the door opens, allowing Jayla to slip inside and escape from the mysterious being. She slams the front door shut, presses her back against the barrier and lets a long sigh of relief escape from her lips. She hesitates, then calls out to her parents.

“Mom? Dad?” Her eyes search the entryway.

She’s met with no response but hears muted voices in the nearby kitchen. The soft chitter-chatter eases her nerves. Jayla lowers her head, looks at her bloodied clothing, and decides to head upstairs to change before speaking with her parents.

At the top of the stairs, Jayla slips into her bedroom and closes the door behind her. Bright yellow and orange painted walls comfort her soul. She looks at her peach paisley bedding, then glances at her shelf full of academic and sports awards. A smile grows upon her face. She walks toward her dresser and pulls out a fresh pair of jeans before heading over to her walk-in closet. Jayla selects a gray hoodie then slips into her clean clothing.

Before Jayla’s able to inspect her neck and wipe it clean, a muffled cry grabs her attention. She opens her bedroom door and sticks her head out into the hallway to listen. The weeping sounds come from her parent’s bedroom, so she heads down the hall, toward the double-doored room. Jayla eases the door open and finds her mother on the bed, sobbing.

“Mom? What’s wrong?” Jayla steps toward her.

Her mom ceases crying for a moment but offers no response. Jayla continues to walk toward her and spots an opened newspaper on the bed, next to her mother’s leg. Jayla bends to read the exposed article and her stomach sinks; a torrent of tears pour from her eyes.

“A Jealous-Stricken Teen Girl Kills Her Best Friend”

Jayla stumbles backward as recollections inundate her mind. Beth, her best friend‑angry‑jealous over Aaron, Jayla’s new boyfriend. Beth‑becomes unhinged. Beth‑chokes her with piano wire. Fading. Blackness.

Jayla’s legs wobble. She steadies herself and squeezes her eyes shut; sadness floods her. She realizes her mother cannot hear or see her as she no longer exists in the same world.

She lifts her head, and wipes at her eyes to clear her vision then notices her reflection in the mirror. Pasty white skin, a mangled throat, and hollow eyes stare back at her. I’m dead.

A hooded figure approaches from behind and startles her. Jayla flinches then spins around to face the man.

The grey-cloaked person raises a gloved hand toward her. His voice, though raspy, portrays tranquility.

“Make peace with yourself,” he begins. “Then, you must return to the cemetery. It is now the only place the sun will shine on you. Before long, your house will become shrouded in darkness for your soul, and you will become vulnerable to its creatures. Make your way back to Corhollow–or they will collect you. Let the wind guide you toward the light. It will keep the creatures at bay as you return.”

A visible mass of smoke materializes and engulfs the cloaked man. Her jaw drops, and she watches as the cloud dissipates. She realizes the veiled man has disappeared into the smoke.

Growls and snarls escalate in number and proximity, and Jayla realizes her time is running out. She kisses her mom, and whispers in her ear. “I love you, Mom. I’ll be OK.”

Jayla heads downstairs and into the kitchen. Her father sits at the kitchen table, speaking with his mother–her gramma. She wipes the tears from her eyes and bends to kiss gramma on her forehead then turns toward her father. Tears flood her cheeks. She steps toward him and reaches her arms around his neck.

“Love you, Dad—always and forever.” She recites a rhyme that her father asked her to say whenever she angered him or got into a bit of trouble. The chant always lightened their moods and produced smiles.

“Even if you’re a tad mad, you’ll always be my rad dad.”

She blinked the tears from her eyes, then turned to leave.

At the front door with a hand on the knob, she pauses for a moment. Jayla peers over her shoulder to steal one more glance around her house. She inhales a deep breath to ready herself.

Jayla opens the front door then sprints into the darkness, allowing the wind to guide her toward the light safely.