Josephine stepped out her door, and a crisp wind tugged at her dark curls. The late afternoon sun intensified the trees’ rose gold tones. The forest seemed to hold its breath in anticipation for the night ahead.
The entire town of clover took part, but the seniors were always in charge of preparations. It was a rite of passage. This year it was Josephine’s turn. She quickened her pace when she remembered how late she was.
“Jo, over here!” Josephine turned her head in time to see her best friend, Kelsey, running ahead. She laughed and followed after her.
The dappled light shifted quickly. When did she get so fast? She’s so far ahead. She pushed herself to run faster, but Josephine couldn’t seem to catch up with her. She halted only a moment to catch her breath. When she looked up, Kelsey was long gone, and so was the path.
She didn’t bother searching for the luminaries lining the pathway. They wouldn’t be lit for hours. Turning around, she began retracing her steps.
Her mind wandered as she did. It became a haven for plans and a flurry of thoughts. When she finally turned her attention back to the present, she was more lost than ever. Her fingers were growing numb, and the forest was quickly growing dark.
An uncharacteristic rage overcame her. She screamed. She screamed louder than she ever had before. It wasn’t a call for help. It was pure frustration.
When she realized what she’d done, she clamped her mouth shut. Josephine glanced around, but there was no one there to offend. It had felt really good, so she did it again. She felt a lot better until she heard the crackling and crunch of leaves behind her.
She turned quickly. Standing there was a thin man. He was covered head to toe with mud. It seemed to be caked-on him in sections. Random leaves and twigs, stuck to the mud, and twisted in his hair. Pale skin peeked out, from beneath the dirt. He cackled loudly before charging at her.
Something shifted inside of her and reverberated outward. It echoed beyond her body. Before he could reach her, the man burst into countless embers, their light crackling and drifting toward the sky. With no consideration for direction anymore, Josephine ran. She ran and ran until light began to show in the distance. She hoped it was the clearing.
Josephine pressed through the tree line and found herself standing before a large bonfire. It was ten times larger than the bonfire that they built for the Singing. It billowed, as a thick branch collapsed into the scorching flames. Josephine stared at it, hypnotized.
“So you killed him, then? Well, that’s lucky for you.” She was instantly dis-enthralled. For the second time that night, she whirled around to confront a stranger. “No need to get defensive with me. I don’t mind that he’s dead. He’s not really dead. Nothing really dies, now does it?”
Josephine didn’t know what she meant but was far too overwhelmed to ask. “I just want to go home. The Singing is bound to start before long, and I haven’t even dressed yet.” As the words left her mouth, Josephine considered how trivial she sounded.
The woman cocked an eyebrow and smiled as if she knew. “Well, you’ve done your part for the night, and the autumn songs must be sung. Follow me.” Josephine looked at her hesitantly, but the lady only laughed and walked into the night.
Despite her reservations, Josephine walked back into the darkness. The lady’s dress seemed to twinkle in the dark. It was a subtle beacon, leading her forward. Josephine wondered if she should feel regret for whatever she’d done, but didn’t feel anything at all. She said he isn’t really dead. Whatever that means. A shiver ran through her as she walked onward.
They stopped after a time, and the woman turned toward her, holding a slip of fabric in her hands. “You’ll need this.”
Josephine reached out and caught a pale dress. Warily, with an eye on the stranger, she changed out of her clothes. The dress slid over her body in one smooth movement. It shimmered, even in the darkness. It was paper-thin, yet warmed her better than the layers she’d worn all day.
She reached to pick up her jeans and realized that all of her other clothes had disappeared. “What the…?” She swept her hands over the ground desperately, but the woman only sighed.
“Don’t worry. It’s all back at your house. It’s the least that I could do, since you did my job for me tonight. Come along.” She walked forward with purpose.
Josephine seethed until the lights began to show through the trees. The town bonfire came into view. She turned to thank the stranger but found herself alone. The drums were already beating a steady rhythm. She took a deep breath and entered the fold. She quickly found her friends.
“Where have you been? We did everything already, and it’s about to start.” Lara hissed angrily.
“I got lost in the woods.” Lara rolled her eyes and motioned for Josephine to take her place. “Where’s Kelsey?” She whispered as she scooted next to Lara.
“She’s checking on the feast preparations. She’ll be right back. She’s been here since noon.” Josephine felt her body run cold, with those words.
She remained paralyzed until everyone was assembled. Then something in the air shifted, and she with it. As one, they lifted their faces to the bonfire and to the sky.
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