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Her senses registered everything slowly, taking in the details one by one, like when you first wake up from a dream. The smooth, almost slippery texture of grass between her fingers. The soft, quiet breeze whispering secrets in her ear, making the hair stand up on the back of her neck. The coolness glazed onto the atmosphere, chilled from spending hours under the night sky. Like all summer nights, the breeze was just chilly enough to prickle her skin and raise goose bumps on her arms. It kept her on edge, awake, like a live wire under her skin. She took a deep, steadying breath and took refuge in the familiar smell of rain and freshly mowed grass. There was something else too. A sickly sweet perfume intermingled with the fresh scents. It was grotesque, unwelcome, a bad omen. It didn’t belong. Something else caught her attention, though this one was more intriguing than repulsive. There, in the distance was a soft, twinkling something. She focused on this detail, the small, shimmering light just yards from where she sat. It was no farther than half a football field away, and gave off an oddly eerie feeling. She shivered involuntarily. Though she was drawn to the unusual light, she couldn’t shake the ominous feeling of danger it gave off, as if something, or someone, was hiding behind it.
She stood up as if in a daze, her whole being focused on that point in the distance. It was as if it held some unknown meaning, some overbearing truth that she longed to uncover. Fate had arranged for her and only her to find it. It was silly, she knew, but somehow the light was meant for her. Ignoring the uncertainty welling up insider of her, she carefully ventured out towards the beam, suddenly thankful for the padding of grass muffling her footsteps. Though she seemed to be alone for the time being, the darkness made it impossible to know if that was truly the case. She tried to ignore the panic rising in her chest, tried to take in her surroundings once more. It was obvious now that she was in a field, though how big of one was still unknown. There were no landmarks she could orient herself with; no houses or trees or lampposts.
The panic was now rooted in her chest like a weed, squeezing her heart so hard that it beat two-fold. As a small child, she had felt this same certainty of an unknown presence many a time. It would be after a nightmare, as she huddled in her bed, the covers drawn tight over her head as she tried to build up the courage to go wake up her mother. The complete and total darkness that caged her into her bedroom had always felt impossibly wide then. Though it would seem foolish in the morning, in the moment, she was always positive there was a ghost or demon lurking in the shadows. It was enough to keep her glued to her mattress, shaking in terror.
She was only a few yards away from the mystic glow now, and could just make out the glassy surface of a lake. The beam danced directly at the center of the water, casting streaks of light across the surface. Her first thought was that the strange brightness must just be a reflection from the moon. There was just one problem; there was no moon to speak of. She had learned about this in her elementary school science classes, the way the moon disappeared every once in a while, and then began again as a thin crescent. Still, she couldn’t help but search the skies in hopes that she had merely missed it before. Looking back at the glossy surface of the water, she could see how tremendously desperate she had been to think it was the moon, how much she longed to find meaning in her unusual situation. This light, though circular, bore no other resemblance to any reflection she’d ever seen. It was too bright, too strong, and didn’t have the warm, golden glow she so loved. No, this light had a strangely cold intensity, like the bones of a skeleton, only brighter.
“Emma. Emma!” The voice was coming from somewhere deep inside the murky depths of the lake. It was slow and drawn out, but not at all distorted by the water. It rang clear and high in her ear, menacing, a warning or a threat. She could see something stirring just beneath the surface, causing ripples in the black fabric that moments ago had been so still. Though logically shock, and then possibly fear, should be her first reactions, Emma felt neither. Her previous panic melted away, leaving only a fierce curiosity. It was the same as when she had first spotted the mysterious glow. Just like the light had been meant for her to find, this voice was meant for her to hear. There was nothing to do but listen.
All survival instincts gone, she kneeled down on the frozen bank of the lake, digging her hands and knees into the icy soil. She searched the inky waves for another movement, straining to hear the voice call out her name again. A flash of something sickly pale, a drop of light broken off from the sphere, flashed before her eyes, vanishing just as quickly as it had come.
She knew she should be scared, knew she get up and retreat back into the field she had come from. This was ridiculous. She was in the middle of an unfamiliar countryside, crouched beside an ominous lake, trying to hear voices and see figures that only she had witnessed. Wasn’t hearing things a bad sign, not something to be sought after? She should try to forget the voice, leave it alone, assume it was just her imagination acting up. No amount of self pleading could make her come to her senses though. The fear that had plagued her since she first arrived in the middle of this cold and dreary wasteland had all but gone. Instead she was left with a burning desire to seek out the voice and the strangely skeletal flash she had glimpsed that so much resembled the effervescent sphere at the center of the water.
She leaned farther out from her post on the side of the lake, searching, ignoring the protest of her frigid palms braced against the bank. Her nose was now mere inches from the black surface. “Emma!” The voice was more urgent now, but less threatening. It had lost some of its original vigor and ferocity. Where the first one had taunted her, dared her to try and find it, this new voice just came across as annoyed and impatient.
Suddenly, she was falling. The murky water swirled away, as if it had been a bathtub and someone had pulled the plug, leaving a blinding whiteness in its place. The field closed in on her, clean-cut white walls rising from the ashes of the once vast space. The frozen bank fell out from under her feet, taking the sickly sweet odor with it. Instead of staring into the depths of the deep, looming pool, Emma found herself face to face with Ms. Hatcher.
“For goodness sake, Emma! What do I have to do, get a bullhorn? You’re late for breakfast.” Ms. Hatcher was a permanently gloomy woman. Permanently angry, permanently severe. She even seemed to have a permanent frown on her ugly, thin lips. Not once in the fifteen years she had lived at Ms. Hatcher’s under foster care had she once seen the woman smile. Instead, she preferred to stare down her pointed, crooked nose at everyone she encountered, managing to scowl and glare at the same time. Everything about Ms. Hatcher, from her strict demeanor to her frumpy wardrobe screamed strictness and severity. Emma thought she could be greatly improved by a little color. She never failed to dress in a pressed black suit, with angular, pointed black heels. Now that she thought about it, everything about Ms. Hatcher was angular. Her thin, sharp elbows, her bony knees; even her jaw had a harshness about it. The only thing about her that wasn’t pointed was her hair. The thin, salt and pepper strands were pulled taunt into a perfectly circular bun at the back of her head.
“You overslept. All of the girls are waiting for you. Come down immediately.” With that, Ms. Hatcher turned on her heel and strode out of the room, slamming the door so that the old hinges gave an unsatisfied squeak. Ms. Hatcher’s clipped vowels and short, commanding sentences used to make Emma jump. Now, they were almost humorous. How could someone stand to talk like that, as if they were a voice recording on a telephone? It was completely mental.
“I’ll be down in a minute!” Emma called after her. She was annoyed with Ms. Hatcher more than usual this morning. That dream had felt so real, so important, and she had been so close to discovering the secret of the lake. What was it that had called her name? And the light, what was that about? She traced the tiny patterns of flowers on her bedspread as she tried to recall the strange place. It was maddening how dreams slipped away the moment you woke up, like sand running through her fingers. No matter how hard she tried to hold on, it continued to avoid her grasp.