I never wanted to come back home.
Reachwood Forest still waits here over a decade later. Trees cut through the suburb, growing too close together in the steep ravine. Tangled branches cast shadows deep enough and dark enough to make me shiver and roll up my window. Nothing has really changed. The streets still bear the same names, leading up to the opulent houses at the top of the hill. The same wealthy families still live there, overlooking the neighborhood and the forest below.
“Are we going to be there soon?” Marjorie fidgets with the sleeves of her jacket. Nearly fourteen-and-a-half years old, but she hasn’t learned how to be patient.
“We’ll reach it in a few minutes.” My hands grip the steering wheel tight. Marjorie slouches down in her seat as the manicured lawns pass by outside.
“What’s wrong?” she asks when I pick at a half-healed scab on the inside of my wrist, teasing at its raw edges. The quick twinge of pain brightens the edges of my vision.
“Nothing. I’m just wondering what everyone will think.”
Thirty-three years old, nearly broke, in the middle of a contested divorce and retreating to my childhood home with my daughter until I get back on my feet again. I can hear the whispers already as the scab cracks open, exposing the soft new skin beneath the surface.
“Who cares?” Marjorie says. Her nails tap against the screen of her phone as she texts the friends she left behind at home. “It’s not like they know anything about you anymore.”
I steer into the still-familiar driveway and park the car. Marjorie leans forward in her seat to study the house we haven’t visited since she was a baby and asks, “This is it?”
“Yeah. We’re here.” I flinch as my phone vibrates on the dashboard.
“It’s so small—not like our house.” Marjorie curls her hands in her lap. Her fingers pluck at the soft-knit hem of her pastel sweater. “I want to go back.”
“I know. I want to go home too, but we’ve got to get through this, okay?”
Marjorie doesn’t say anything. We sit together in silence as a song plays on the radio. Some bubblegum pop ballad I probably liked back when I was still in ninth or tenth grade.
The house hasn’t changed. Two stories tall, it rises from the dirt to throw its shadow over the car. Not a single leaf out of place in the neatly trimmed hedges lining the driveway. The lawn stretches out in front of us, clean-cut and immaculate. Flowers unfurl in brilliant bursts of color in the garden.
“I thought Grandma and Grandpa were paying you to fix this place before they move away.” Marjorie shuffles her feet. “It looks okay to me.”
“They hired someone to keep the yard looking nice. It’s probably a mess inside,” I say, picturing my parents’ faces as I unbuckle my seatbelt. Marjorie frowns when I pick at the scab on my wrist again. The new wound oozes clear fluid.
The empty house sits like an open secret in front of us, windows wide enough to allow any curious eyes a glimpse of the rooms and hallways inside. The song on the radio ends and the announcers switch to the latest local news. Another child lost in the forest—vanished from the path. Sometimes the missing children return home again.
Sometimes they never come back.
From VICIOUS CREATURES. Used with the permission of the publisher, Scarlet. Copyright © 2022 by Ashton Noone.