Madi knew those woods just as well as she knew her own bedroom. She’d been exploring the wilds all her life—the hollows where she chased squirrels, the muddy swimming holes where she cooled off on hot days, the brooks where she skipped stones on lazy afternoons—but the places she knew seemed a distant memory. Now—in the dark… with her father chasing her… with her father possibly wanting to kill her—nothing seemed familiar.
The ground dipped and rolled, and Madi tripped through the thickets as she pressed on at a breakneck speed. The darkness was as thick and syrupy as tree sap, and the sweet smell of honeysuckle was redolent of decaying funeral wreaths. She crossed a fallen, moss-covered tree and skirted a dry, winding creek bed. She wasn’t sure where exactly she was heading. She only knew that she had to get away… away from her father and all the other men and women who had gathered under the blight-ridden oak tree to proclaim her a witch and decide her fate.
“The girl must die,” they had said.
Hearing movement in the brush behind her, Madi quickly hunkered down behind a tree trunk to spy the source of the sound. Peering out from around the tree trunk, she saw nothing. But she knew that someone—something—scrabbled through the woods after her. She heard the snap of breaking twigs, the rustle of something passing through the underbrush, a stirring among the branches.
In the satchel at her side, the boy’s skin squirmed and wriggled as if wanting to crawl out on its own.
Madi clutched the bag tight, and the boy’s hide grew still.
She waited, holding her breath, watching.
Whatever it was, it loped through the woods in a kind of herky-jerky gait, stopping and keeping still for several seconds at a time, then lurching forward without caution. Something about its movement reminded Madi of a spider, lying in wait upon its web, still as death in anticipation of a fly crossing its path, then pouncing with ruthless speed.
Not her Pa…
At least, she didn’t believe so.
Whatever followed her, it moved like an animal—like a predator tracking prey.
And then, just as she thought she might have spotted a shadowy form moving through the brambles, the sound stopped. The forest was still once more. Madi’s eyes darted back and forth as she tried to once again discern the strange, crouched shape she had seen just seconds earlier. Whatever she had seen—or imagined she had seen—it was gone now. Shadows rushed in like black, freezing water to obscure Madi’s vision.
She was alone.
The voice, little more than a feeble hiss, came from the satchel, from the skin within.
“I know,” Madi said. “I know. You’re here, too, for all the good it does me.”
She wondered if maybe it was the boy’s skinless body that was following her through the forest. The thought did little to comfort her.
Knowing her Pa was somewhere out there, maybe not too far behind her, Madi didn’t wait long before setting out again. She knew he’d find her soon enough. Pa was an excellent hunter and tracker. He’d find her trail if he hadn’t done so already, and—
Startled by a sudden commotion, birds—sparrows and towhee—erupted out of the brush and took flight through the darkness. Something crashed through the trees. At first, Madi thought her father had found and was leaping through the foliage to grab her up. She realized soon enough, though, that the sound was moving away from her.
“Not alone,” the boy’s skin rasped once more.
“That was you,” Madi said to the haint, “wasn’t it? I mean, it was the other you. And it’s making another trail for Pa to follow. It’s covering my tracks.”
The haint released a rasping sigh.
“How did you… how did it know what I was thinking? How did it know I was worried about Pa tracking me?”
But the haint did not respond.
Confused and frustrated, Madi set out through the woods once more. Her surroundings grew more and more strange, more foreboding. The air smelled of rich, earthworm-ridden soil freshly turned for a crop, but Madi couldn’t imagine anything wholesome growing in this place. The trees were tall and twisted and clustered together in gnarled tangles, the trunks knotted with fat, black growths and veined with pale vines.
She moved past the trees the way a small child might move through a room full of tall strangers. She watched the them nervously, as if she feared they might reach out, snatch her up, and rip her to bits with their gnarly branches.
Her foot struck something hard, and she tripped, sprawling to the ground. The fall knocked the wind from her lungs, and it took her a moment to recover. She pushes herself up and brushed her hands clean. She looked to the ground, and saw a chunk of white rock jutting up out of the leaves and pine straw. Turning, she realized she had entered a small clearing, and she saw dozens of taller stones all around.
“Not alone,” the boy’s skin hissed.
Dozens of grave markers stood before her.
She had stumbled into a cemetery.