Oh goodness, how many times have I revised this chapter? I think it’s been changed around five times! And it’ll probably undergo more changes in the future. Ah, well. Enjoy!
Within a secluded forest of pine, tucked neatly away under rolls of dense fog, a humble yellow house sat at the end of a long driveway, bathing in the misty light of the full moon.
Though the house itself was shrouded in the shadows cast by its roof, a single lonely light shone from behind two glass doors, illuminating the grass behind the house with yellow warmth.
The room from which the light came appeared to be a study; a mahogany desk, lavishly finished, occupied the back of the room near the doors, and two soft empty chairs stared into a lively stone fireplace. There were bookshelves standing against the walls, and two more doorways leading into darkness. A pale yellow carpet with intricate designs made up the floor, and in the middle of it all was a girl.
With pale skin, red lips, and short black hair, she resembled Snow White, but looked to be younger; perhaps twelve or thirteen. Sitting upon the carpet, she counted with her eyes closed.
“…thirty one–,” she sighed, “–fifty two–,” she rolled her eyes, “–seventy three….”
The subject of interest skipped up to one hundred before finally rising from her spot in the middle of the study. Catlike, she stalked out of the firelit room, leaving no trace of her presence.
The girl came out of the study and into a hallway. Four dark doorways gaped open on either side of her, each one lining an entrance to an unknown beyond. Although the fire from the study lit the hall, it could not penetrate the shadowy twilight inside the rooms.
The girl passed slowly by three of the doorways, but, sensing nothing, turned to the fourth. She stopped, cocked her head, and listened intently through the gloom.
There was something breathing inside.
A lump, visible only by the moonlight drifting down from an overhead window, lay underneath a threadbare quilt upon a twilit bed. The girl hesitated before stepping across the threshold into the darkness.
As soon as she did so, a swish came from the hallway. With lightning fast reflexes, the startled girl whipped around, blindly extending her arms out of the dark doorway. They collided almost instantly with something warm and squirmy.
“Ow, Sophie,” moaned the warm squirmy thing.
Sophie–the black-haired girl–stepped out of the room, flipping a switch in the hallway as she did so. Light flooded the scene, revealing the wiggly thing to be another, shorter girl with stringy blonde hair and a mismatched outfit of red shorts and a splotchy blue shirt. The new girl rubbed her arm, which was stinging from where she’d been grabbed. “That hurt. And also, you cheated. You didn’t count all the way.”
“Sorry Lily,” replied Sophie, not really sorry at all. “I’m just getting tired of hide and seek.”
Lily snorted, positioning her blue headband to a more comfortable position. “Well, it’s my birthday, so you have to play. By my rules. And there’s only one round left, so don’t be complaining. Have you found Charlotte yet?”
Sophie glanced back into the bedroom she’d just been in. The bright light from the hallway made the conspicuous lump on the bed even more obvious.
“No, but I’m about to. Now, go sit down in the living room.” Sophie pointed down the hall for emphasis. “I can’t have any help. You made the rule yourself. And since we have to play by your rules…”
Lily rolled her eyes, but obeyed her own dictation. She flipped the lights off as she skipped away. Sophie then turned back to the bedroom where Charlotte was hidden, cringing at the sudden sound of Lily crashing into the movie basket by the T.V.
For goodness’ gracious! It was the second time she had done that in the same night: Lily was quite clumsy, and it only seemed to get worse with age.
Sophie smirked to herself and reentered the bedroom, swiftly pouncing onto the bed. She landed hard on the lump, and it shouted out in surprise.
“Found you, Charlotte,” Sophie declared, sliding back off the bed to allow her older sister to uncover herself.
Charlotte sat up, pulling some stray bits of red hair out of her face. “I thought you wouldn’t find me if I hid in the same place as last time.” Charlotte hopped out of the bed and messily tucked the quilt back into place.
“Your breathing gave you away,” Sophie told her older sister.
“Yeah,” Charlotte said, hardly listening. She was obviously already thinking about something else. “You know, while I was hiding I realized–“
“No time for that. Go tell it to Lily. I have to find Mom and Dad. I’m ready to be done with hide and seek.”
Charlotte nodded in agreement and left the area. Sophie followed suite; she had yet to search the living room and beyond.
Lily had just picked up the last movie and set the basket where it belonged next to the entertainment center when Sophie came into the living room. Charlotte was sitting on one of the couches, helping herself to the remains of Lily’s birthday cake, which sat on the coffee table along with some bowls of candy. Streamers hung from the mantle of the fireplace in the back of the living room, accompanied by festive balloons, which hung from the lamps.
Lily took a seat next to Charlotte. And suddenly appeared interested in something behind the couch. Sophie, standing by the T.V., couldn’t see what it was.
Lily looked at Sophie and mouthed ‘Daddy’, pointing behind the couch. Sophie nodded gratefully.
“Daddy, I found you,” Sophie announced, quickly joining him behind the couch.
He stood up, stretching his back as he did so. Sophie’s father had soft blue eyes, a brown beard complete with mustache, and a slightly disheveled (although he’d never admit it) balding head of hair. “Ohh, my back. Ah. One hundred rounds of hide and seek may have been…overkill.”
Lily grabbed two M&Ms and popped them in her mouth, grinning. “Hmmmm.”
Dad joined Lily and Charlotte on the couch, letting himself fall into the cushions. “Do you want help finding your mother?” he asked Sophie, putting his arm around Lily.
“No, thanks. I’ve made it this far. Might as well try to find her on my own.”
But finding Mom wasn’t as easy as Sophie had first predicted. She wasn’t in the kitchen, nor any of the bathrooms. She was nowhere upstairs; Sophie checked twice. She found herself asking for help from Lily, Charlotte, and Dad, and before she knew it, Sophie was downstairs in the basement, the place everyone had agreed not to hide in–since Lily was afraid of the furnace, of course.
“Mom?” Sophie called softly, padding down the stairs. She was beginning to feel worried–her mother wouldn’t break Lily’s rule. What if something bad had happened to her?
The basement was hot and musty thanks to its leaky walls and creaky old furnace. When Sophie’s family had moved in, they’d promised themselves to redo the basement—It was by far the most ancient part of the house, which was centuries old and had been remodeled just as many times. Obviously, however, none of the owners had bothered to upgrade the basement.
Likewise, the Conifers had been living here for three months, yet the basement was still full of unsorted moving boxes…and the furnace was still as inefficient as ever. (Winter had, so far, been unbearable.)
To add to the issue, there had been a lot of garbage leftover from whoever used to live in the house. Junk sat piled in the corner, hidden by drooping cardboard boxes, and an old, moldy green couch with chipped feet faced the wall like a fading homage to what had once been. Strange, colorful stains decorated the floor, and Sophie winced as her bare feet met damp, cool splotches of slime.
Whoa, Sophie thought after nearly slipping, I get why we never finished cleaning down here! It’s a nightmare.
Sophie gingerly approached the rotting sofa. Why her mother would hide down here she had no idea.
I mean, she has to be down here. We’ve looked everywhere else. Unless she’s outside, which I doubt. Or maybe she finally found that secret passage we’ve all been looking for.
(There wasn’t a secret passage. But Sophie and her sisters always wanted there to be.)
Sophie grasped the couch cushions and pulled them off, not believing for a moment she’d find her mother here. Roaches, moths, and centipedes skittered away as light flooded their haven, and Sophie recoiled in disgust. As expected, there was no sign of Sophie’s mother–but there was a strange box sinking into the mildew. Its satin finish was peeling from the ancient wood, and an antique latch with faded designs held it shut. Carvings of animals decorated the lid. It looked like it had been there for quite some time…
Curious, Sophie grabbed the intriguing little box to study later. But finding the box instead of her mother had made her stomach drop to her feet. If her mother wasn’t here, where could she be?
Sophie wanted to sit down and think. She was getting a worried feeling inside her gut and it was making her legs wobbly.
Without warning, there was a violent crash from above, and Sophie froze as dust particles rained down from above. She glanced upwards just as another crash echoed down into the basement.
Sophie’s heart hammered in her chest. She felt an insatiable urge to race upstairs and see what had happened–had the TV fallen over? Or maybe the fridge?–but something stopped her. A deeply buried instinct told her that something was horribly wrong.
Sophie blanched as she heard the basement door creak open. The footsteps that proceeded to descend the staircase were much too heavy to belong to anyone she knew.
Hide, ordered her first instinct sharply.
Sophie had a split second to react, so she acted on some animal impulse and jumped onto the couch, replacing the two cushions so that they lay snugly on top of her. She hated the way they felt against her skin–cool and slimy. It was a struggle not to squirm in disgust.
Sophie heard the intruder reach the bottom of the stairs. A static-riddled voice blared through what must’ve been a walkie talkie, but Sophie couldn’t comprehend its message. The man in the basement gave a gruff reply, paced the perimeter of the room, and began shuffling through the junk in the corner.
Was he a robber? Sophie wished she could’ve seen the man’s face, but her eyes were too full of the rotten undersides of the cushions. A slug dropped onto her nose, and Sophie cradled the box tighter, squeezing her eyes shut.
After ten or so minutes, the man spoke into his walkie talkie again. An annoyed-sounding voice responded, and the robber declared that it wasn’t his fault he was new. He promptly stomped up the stairs, and before long, all fell quiet.
Sophie let herself calm down until she stopped freaking out about the slugs all over her shirt and the robbers in her home. Finally, her instinct told her she could emerge.
Sophie kicked the cushions off as fast as she could, sat up, and set her grimy feet onto the ground. She cast a wide-eyed glance towards the staircase, heart racing, trying to decide if she should go upstairs.
Sophie started to stand…
Okay, now, do you have any idea what’s going on? ‘Cause I sure don’t.
Shocked, Sophie lost her footing, keeled over upon the slimy floor, and fell to her stomach, smashing her chin against the ground. Sparks of pain jolted through her teeth while the box flew out of her hand and skittered across the floor, unharmed.
“Who said that?” Sophie demanded breathlessly, flipping onto her back, confident that the speaker had not been her first instinct. First instincts didn’t have minds of their own, and they didn’t talk.
That would be me! chirped the voice, once again echoing through her mind rather than her eardrums. How strange…
“Now I know I’m dreaming,” Sophie declared, hesitantly hauling herself to her feet. She felt a little bit of relief until she realized how badly her jaw was hurting. Oh.
A coldness seeped into Sophie’s veins–worry, anxiety, fear, all in one. She whirled around the basement in wonderment, searching for the hidden speaker. Did it have something to do with the robber?
…I’ll take that as a no, then, the voice said, sounding dismayed. Sophie looked up and squinted around the basement. Where was it? Who was it? And did it have anything to do with the strange man that had invaded her house?
“What’s going on?” Sophie demanded, standing up and tugging at her ears as though something were wrong with them. “Who are you? Why are you in my house? And how are you talking inside my brain?” Her voice came out sharper than she meant it to.
Well, the thing is, I have no idea what’s going on. I came here just to see your house–
“To see my house?” Sophie exclaimed, whirling around in upset circles. She couldn’t pinpoint the speaker’s location. The voice came from no direction. “What in the–“
That part of the story doesn’t really matter, the voice replied hastily. Anyway, do you guys own a big white van?
“No,” Sophie replied, taken aback by the question.
Okay. Then I think your family has maybe possibly been kidnapped.
Sophie was silent for a few moments. Finally she spoke, her voice firm. “Is this a prank or something? Who are you?”
No, it’s not a prank. I don’t think. Do any of your family members have any enemies?
“Enemies?” Sophie echoed, taken aback again. “Not that I know of.”
Hm! Interesting. We’ll have to solve this mystery later. For now, let’s get you to safety!
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down,” Sophie demanded, still certain that this was not for real. “I need to see who you are first. Come on out.”
Already done! chirped the voice cheerfully. Sophie felt something tickle her bare feet. She looked down and nearly lost her footing in surprise. A tiny brown and white guinea pig was staring up at her. Its paws were on her toes and its nose twitched innocently.
“What–” Sophie blurted, backpedaling away from the rodent on the floor. “Get away from me! What are you?!”
Hey, wait, my legs are shorter than–oof! In its haste to catch up with Sophie, the guinea pig didn’t notice that she had stopped. It tripped over her big toe, wriggled around to get back on its feet, and stared back up at her with its little black eyes.
“Are you a talking guinea pig?” Sophie asked incredulously.
No. What makes you think that? Blink, blink went those little black eyes.
“You…are talking to me.”
I am not a talking guinea pig, the guinea pig protested, its leaf-like ears shaking. I can’t talk. I can think, but not talk. Yet. I’m learning though! Also, I’m technically not a guinea pig. I’m really a human.
Sophie shook her head. “Okay, fine. Whatever you say.” She bit her lip and glanced towards the stairs again.
So, don’t worry about your family. We’ll get them back for you pretty quickly, I think.
“Who’s ‘we’?” demanded Sophie, staring back down at the rodent.
Just the rest of us.
Sophie rolled her eyes. “And how are you going to get my family back? If they’re really–kidnapped…” Sophie frowned and glanced over her shoulder, where the stairwell loomed. The two loud thumps from before seemed to echo even louder in her memory, and Sophie’s awe at the–the telepathic guinea pig–swiftly faded as she took into consideration the implications of this conversation.
Well, there are others like me, and we can all turn into animals. So, we’ll just get a few dogs out here and they can sniff out your family! Don’t worry, it’s an easy fix. But just in case they come back, you and I might want to get out of the house and go to the woods, where it’s safe.
Sophie barely heard what the animal was saying. Even if she had been listening, she wouldn’t have understood. Her brain swirled in shock. The guinea pig claimed her family had been kidnapped.
Why would someone kidnap her family?!
And how did the guinea pig know?!
“How did you get into the house?” Sophie wanted to know. “Did the man put you here?”
No! exclaimed the guinea pig, sounding appalled. No, no, I was here for a different reason. And I’m glad I was! Because now I can help you! Come on, let’s get going. The guinea pig was already halfway across the basement floor on its way to the stairs. The box Sophie had found earlier was laying in its path, and the rodent didn’t detect it until it was too late.
The guinea pig righted itself, took a step back, and observed the box at a closer scale. Then it began to emit high-pitched wheeing noises that Sophie assumed meant it was excited. Oh my gosh! OHMYGOSH! Where did you get this?! The guinea pig began to run around the box in circles, squeaking excitedly.
“You mean that box?” Sophie asked, one eyebrow up, making haste toremove the box from the guinea pig’s vicinity.
Yes! This is so cool! How in the world did you find it?
“It was underneath the couch cushions,” Sophie explained confusedly.
Just hang onto that, and don’t lose it, ordered the animal.
“Okay, then,” Sophie replied, mystified. “What’s so important about it?”
The guinea pig’s ecstatic laughter echoed through Sophie’s mind. Finally it calmed down enough to breathe.
Oh, I’ll tell you all about it later. I think we should get out of the house now though.
“Okay,” Sophie conceded, finally deciding to follow the guinea pig. After all, what harm could one small guinea pig do? If ever she decided she didn’t trust it, she could just leave it behind. There was no way it could catch up with her, even if it tried, with those tiny legs. “I’m coming.” She wanted to learn more about this talking animal.
And in truth, Sophie was afraid of what she might find upstairs.
Sophie scooped up the guinea pig on her way to the stairs. This gesture seemed to make the animal very happy, and it snuggled into her side and began to twitch its nose very eagerly.
Sophie creaked up the basement stairs, her hands clammy and shaking. Here in her arms was a telepathic guinea pig, so real, so blatantly imposing its presence upon her. Here in her home had been a strange man, so sure of himself in his actions. The guinea pig insisted her family was gone. The man was evidence for that. But how could any of this be real?
Finally Sophie was there, at the basement door. It was opened, and beyond the doorway was nothing but silver moonlight and formless blobs of darkness that, by day, made up Sophie’s living room.
“I didn’t leave this open,” Sophie whispered, her voice barely audible.
Uh oh, responded the guinea pig, beginning to vibrate nervously in Sophie’s arms.
Sophie took a tentative step into the end of the hall. The shadows seemed to shift and bend to make way for her. She began to sweat, thanks to the burning heat of the rodent pressed against her chest.
Sophie’s feet made contact with something cold on the floor. It skidded away with a clattering that seemed to thunder through the empty house. “…Hello?” Her voice came out hoarse.
Sophie inched her way over to the kitchen, where there were many windows to allow moonlight in. What she saw made her her hopes shatter.
What Sophie had mistaken for moonlight illuminating the living room really belonged to the fridge, whose door had been thrown wide open and left that way. There was absolutely no food left inside–except of course that old, empty jar of olives that no one cared to throw out.
The pantry was in the same condition; many boxes of food had simply disappeared without a trace and broken jars of squash preserves splattered the floor. Sophie accidentally stabbed her foot on a shard of wet glass but took no notice of the pain as she wandered like a ghost through the wreckage.
She turned to see the living room and bit back a cry of astonishment. The couches had both been upturned, their pillows scattered about. Lamps, bookshelves, and even the TV lay broken across the floor. Shards of glass and DVD cases littered the ground like candy wrappers at a movie theater.
“Oh, no,” Sophie breathed, stiff and cold. “You were right. But…why would someone want to kidnap Lily and Charlotte and Dad and Mom?” She could not comprehend this terrible thing. She would not comprehend it. Surely none of this could be real…? But the argument was feeble in Sophie’s mind; of course it was real; the evidence was right before her eyes.
The guinea pig shifted in Sophie’s arms. I’m not sure. But I’m really sorry this happened.
Sophie felt a crushing weight around her shoulders. She was all alone now. Charlotte, Lily, Mom, Dad…they were all gone. As out of reach as the moon or the stars.
Then Sophie remembered the guinea pig she was holding. I’m not alone, she realized. The guinea pig had been telling the truth. How had it known? Sophie blinked and realized she didn’t care–She had no idea what she was going to do, but in this swirling storm of frightening events, the animal was the most solid thing she could latch onto.
And even if it was with the enemy—whoever that might be—at least it would lead her wherever her family had gone.
“You have to help me,” Sophie pleaded, holding back tears.
Of course I’ll help you! the guinea pig replied. I know of a safe place that’s fairly close, actually. I can take you there and get you some help.
“…O-Okay,” stammered Sophie. “Let–let me pack some stuff.”
Sophie placed the guinea pig, who informed her that its name was Leah, onto her shoulder, where it nestled into the curve of her neck. Making her way upstairs, Sophie then stuffed a few clean outfits and her stuffed velociraptor together into a pillowcase. Afterwards, she gathered her shoes and headed for the back door. Everything about the house gave her a terrible sense of foreboding. It was no longer a cozy dwelling. She felt like the shadows were chasing her, and she wanted to get out right now.
As an afterthought, Sophie returned to the study and grabbed a family picture off her father’s desk. She passed by the phone without even thinking of calling 911. Later, she might come to regret this action—but all her thoughts were focused on Leah, the talking guinea pig.
Sophie stepped outside and shivered as a cool breeze cut through her jacket. Although the first day of spring was due to arrive soon, the nighttime air still had an icy bite.
“Where do we go?” Sophie asked Leah.
First, climb over your fence. I have to go find my clothes.
“That makes no sense,” Sophie argued deliriously, because guinea pigs don’t wear clothes, right? She obliged nonetheless.
You can set me down here, Leah instructed after Sophie had clumsily scrambled over the backyard fence. Sophie reached up and lifted Leah off her shoulder, gently placing the rodent down onto the soft pine needles littering the ground.
“You’d better come back,” Sophie warned, having no idea where Leah would be going.
I will! Leah replied almost cheerfully, scampering off into the night. Sophie watched the little white spot on the rodent’s rump bound away until even that grew too dim to make out.
Sophie crouched against the fence and drew her knees up close to her chest, picking anxiously at the splinters poking through her grimy pants. She watched her breath billow out in huge bursts until, after many minutes had passed, she began to grow uneasy. Why hadn’t Leah returned yet? A cloud moved to cover the moon, which had reached the top of the sky. Midnight. Everything always went awry at midnight.
A few minutes later, the light returned, and Sophie was just about to head off into the woods alone–she had gathered up her pillowcase and everything–when she heard something moving deeper within the forest.
“L–Leah?” she stammered, heart hammering, fists shaking. “Is that you?”