The first time I saw the black-haired boy lurking in the moonlit Hollow, I thought he was a ghost. Maybe it was his pale skin, or the haunted look in his eyes, or the terrifying scars that totaled one side of his face. Or maybe it was the fact that I’d never seen a stranger in The Hollow even in daylight, much less in the eerie dark of night.
I crept toward him, freaked out by the image of his whole, perfect face flickering in front of his damaged one. It shocked me that he couldn’t hear the insane pounding of my heartbeat — that he didn’t realize he was being watched. I should’ve turned and run home. But I had to get a closer look at this guy who could sit in the heart of The Hollow without it messing with him — as if it were nothing.
“Hello?” I said, my voice cracking.
He jumped up. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to…” He pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head. Tall and skinny, with straight dark hair, he looked like Victor from Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.
“It’s okay,” I said, unsure why he was apologizing.
He turned his face from me. “I’ll go,” he replied, scrambling up the hillside toward the little western town of Hell’s Hollow.
“You don’t have to,” I called, which seemed like a weird thing to say to a stranger, a guy no less, in the woods in the middle of the night. But it didn’t matter, he was gone.
I looked at the spot where he’d been sitting, the center of the energy spiral. It had been years since I’d tried what he’d done. Cautiously, I placed one foot into the depression in the ground, felt the buzz. If he could do it, I could.
I sat down in it. The energy of The Hollow whirled into my body. Like a twister rising up, it battered me from the inside out, as if in another minute it would blow out the barrier of my skin, and I would explode into a million pieces in the sky. I scrambled away from the ravine and the twisted juniper trees that surrounded it, retreating to my giant sequoia, where I imagined roots growing from my feet and spine into the earth, planting me, grounding me, draining the excess energy from my body.
How had he sat there as if it were nothing? Most guys couldn’t even stand to be in this forest, much less the center of The Hollow. Something was strange about him. Besides the scarring on his face, his hands looked messed up — rough and ridged like tree bark. And he’d been wearing clothes that made no sense — a turtleneck and sweatshirt, jeans, and socks without shoes — while I wore a nightshirt and shorts, a light hoodie and flip-flops.
Where did he come from? Where did he go? My thoughts distracted me from the reason I’d found myself down there during the night yet again. I closed my eyes, breathed in the crisp mountain air, and soaked in the mellower part of The Hollow energy. Calm settled over my body, replacing the fears that had run rampant while sleep had played hide-and-seek with me.
As a raccoon hobbled toward me, I held my breath. Without my permission, the energy of The Hollow raced through my system. I could see the animal’s wounded paw and superimposed on that I could see the same paw whole and healed. A tug from deep inside pulled at me to place my hands on the poor thing, to relieve him of his suffering. But Mom’s voice rang out in my head: Forbidden.
Through my mind passed the images she’d shown me over the years of all the horrifying diseases I could get from touching wild animals – rabies, Lyme disease, hookworms, roundworms, ringworms, leptospirosis, tetanus, scabies, encephalitis, tularemia … Enough! And she wonders why I have trouble sleeping at night.
I struggled to clear my mind, reminding myself that I didn’t touch anything, that I didn’t succumb to the pull to let the power use me, that I would not end up sick, or worse, at Meadowland with Gran and Auntie MK, hearing voices or staring at the ceiling.
The raccoon whimpered and hobbled away. And guilt crushed my chest until I almost couldn’t breathe. But I had no other choice.
I didn’t know why the tugs from these creatures had begun nagging me at night in a way they never used to, why it was becoming so hard to ignore them.
I rested my head against the enormous tree trunk. Now that the raccoon had wandered off, I’d begun to feel sleepy. I should have gone home. But being close to the energy of The Hollow soothed me, brought a peace I could never find anywhere else. And so I dozed.
The tapping of a woodpecker over my head nudged me from sleep. I woke up hungry, my neck sore from sleeping in an awkward position. There was no sign of the black-haired boy having been there. Could I have imagined him?
I jumped across The Hollow, avoiding the most intense area, and walked through the juniper trees, past the oaks and up the path toward town. Like always, I pulled my headphones out of my pocket and plugged in to my music on the way. It helped block the tugs. I knotted my messy hair into a ponytail, so Mom wouldn’t comment on how disheveled I looked.
Where the path ended behind the library, I noticed a footprint. But I couldn’t tell in the dry dust if it was shoed or not. It could’ve belonged to anybody.
The one traffic light on Main was blinking red again. Old Myra Clay walked along the sidewalk, stopping every few steps to set down her groceries and shake out her arthritic hands. I went and picked up the bags for her and turned back toward her house.
“Why thank you, Seraphina,” she yelled, as if she thought I couldn’t hear her.
I pulled out my earbuds. Mom’s voice telling me it was rude to have them in when someone was trying to talk to me nagged inside my head.
“It isn’t every young person that would stop to help an old lady with her groceries. I don’t care what they say about you, I think you’re marvelous.”
“Just because you don’t talk incessantly, and disrespectfully, I might add, like the rest of them doesn’t mean you’re strange, that’s what I say. I think you’re simply well mannered and thoughtful. Nothing wrong with that. Though I will say your clothing seems less than appropriate. If I didn’t know better I would have guessed those were more for sleeping than wearing about town.”
I carried the bags up the three steps to her front porch, then zipped up my sweatshirt to look more “appropriate.”
“I’d invite you in, but I’d hate for Old Abe to scare your socks off.” She winked.
“I wouldn’t mind,” I said. I would’ve killed for a peek inside to see if the ghost she always talked about really existed. I wondered why in the early years after her husband’s death, the spirit had supposedly moaned for months, when now all he ever did was crash around from time to time, as if he and Myra were drunk and dancing. Maybe he’d finally accepted his death and learned to enjoy the afterlife.
“If you’d like to wait here, I could get you a coin for your troubles,” she said, unlocking the deadbolt. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen anyone other than her use a lock.
“That’s okay,” I replied, heading back down the stairs. A quarter wasn’t exactly going to make a difference in the savings ‘jar for a car.’
“All right, then. Just remember I offered. And the next time you see me, don’t be too shy to say hello!”
My stomach growled as I headed uptown. It didn’t take long for the sun to heat the morning air in the Sierra foothills. So by the time I reached the bakery I was sweaty.
Stepping inside didn’t help much, the heat assaulted me, like when you open an oven door. My mouth watered at the scent of cinnamon sugar. The tinkling of chimes above the door caught Mom’s attention. She looked up from behind the counter with a smile that brought out the crows’ feet beside her hazel eyes, then scowled when she noticed my nightclothes, as if the sight of me were physically painful.
“You were out early this morning,” she said, her voice falsely cheerful, hiding an edge of disappointment, or more likely embarrassment. More and more, the strands of gray in her auburn hair were showing. I used to love when people would comment on how alike we looked. When had that changed?
“Hot enough for you, Seraphina?” George McGraw asked, adjusting his cowboy hat over his thinning gray hair and scratching his bulging belly. “Clarabelle, be a doll and bring me another one of your delectable bear claws, please. You ready for another, Bennett?”
Mom handed me a plate on which she already had a bear claw waiting. I passed it to George. Then she set a cinnamon bun still steaming from the oven, its icing oozing over the sides onto a dish in front of me.
Bennett Taylor reminded me of the snakes he handled, long and wiry. He waved George off. “I’ve had my fill fer today. It’s time fer me to be headin’ out anyhow. The church bells are actin’ up.” I couldn’t imagine why Bennett had decided to stay in Hell’s Hollow. I knew he’d gotten stuck here when his car had stalled out on his way from West Virginia to San Francisco. But I couldn’t figure out what would make a person stay here forever when they had the choice to leave. It wasn’t like there weren’t other forms of transportation.
“You might as well forget about those bells,” George called after Bennett. “They’ve had a mind of their own long as I can remember.”
Astrid West, who’d been sitting at a little white table in the corner poring over a tarot card spread, pushed aside chairs on her way over to me. Her reading glasses magnified her uptilted eyes. “Sera, what have you been doing? Your aura is sparking like lightning!”
The image of the black-haired boy popped into my head and I blushed.
“Should I be concerned about where you were in the middle of the night?” Mom asked, pushing my shoulders back to make me sit up straight.
Astrid rushed back to her table. “I’m going to do a Celtic cross for you. Don’t go anywhere.” She shuffled the deck and started dealing cards across the metal table in a rush.
“Everything okay?” Mom murmured.
I nodded while I pulled apart the sticky bun, licking the goo off my fingers, trying to figure out how to ask what I wanted to ask without arousing suspicion.
“Want to tell me why you’re out here in your pajamas?” Mom asked.
I shook my head, kept eating. She brought me a glass of water, extra ice the way I liked it.
Finally, I asked her. “Is there anyone new in town?” I could almost feel George’s ears straining to hear my whisper.
“No,” Mom said. “Why do you ask?”
I shrugged. I certainly couldn’t tell her.
“Oh this is interesting!” Astrid called across the room, pulling a pen from above her ear under her frizzy brown hair. She scribbled notes on a legal pad. “Very, very interesting!”
“I heard some of the kids are heading into Sonora to catch a movie. Wouldn’t you like to join them?” Mom asked me.
I gave her a half-hearted smile instead of the normal daughter she wanted, then turned to go as Melody McDowell came in.
“Hello there, Seraphina,” she said, tossing her bleached bobbed hair. “The kids are loading the truck to go. If you hurry you might catch them. Want me to call out to Mason to wait for you?” She looked at my clothes. “I’m sure they could hold on while you run home and change.”
I flashed her a fake smile and ducked out. It wasn’t like my nightshirt and shorts were super flimsy or anything. They basically looked like shorts and a T.
“Still not much of a talker, huh?” I heard her saying to Mom in that way that a pretentious parent of an overachiever might talk to the parent of a local druggie, neither of which fit in this scenario. I could feel her eyes on the back of my head, staring at me like I might be crazy, or contagious.
In the street, the town’s teenagers were piling into the back of Dakota Larson’s pick up. I stopped to scan their faces, searching for the black-haired boy.
Sierra Gutierrez caught my eye from her spot between Cheyenne Trilloti and Mason McDowell. Maybe she mistook my looking for the mystery guy for a desire to join. “You could come,” she called. Then, realizing her mistake, she lowered her head, hid behind her long dark hair. My skin got hot as I waited for the fallout.
Mason laughed. “You!” he shouted, gesturing at me. “Could. Come.” He waved his arms around and yelled the words as if he was trying to communicate with someone who was deaf and stupid and non-English-speaking.
Sierra covered a smile and slapped him playfully. I hated that it still hurt when she went along with their teasing.
“Why is she in her pajamas?” Cheyenne whispered. “That girl is such a freak.”
Sierra’s brown eyes stuck to mine.
Why should it bother me if they thought I was weird? Friends weren’t such a big deal. Not that kind of friend anyway. I trudged across the street.
The truck stalled. Dakota cranked the engine until it flooded. The kids hardly noticed. Finally, it turned over and then they were off, screeching down the road. And still Sierra’s eyes held mine, as if she were offering some silent apology for wanting to be like them.
Astrid came running out of the bakery, nearly tackling me in the street. “Oh good. I caught you. I had to tell you. The cards warned of darkness, of strangers, and … of danger. Be cautious, Seraphina. Keep your eyes open for signs.”
My stomach did a little flip. Should I be afraid of the dark-haired guy? But there was something about him — this stranger, who could sit in The Hollow without any negative effects. I couldn’t stop wondering who he was and why he’d been down there before daylight.
The next few nights, I barely slept. The tug from a wounded animal down below refused to let up. Usually it passed after a little while. The animal moved on, or it… I didn’t want to think about that. It’s nature’s way, let nature work it out, Mom always said. But something about the way the tug pulled on me lately was making it awfully hard to wait around for nature to do its thing.
One evening when Mom had settled onto our old-fashioned couch with a book, I found I could barely stand the feeling of the pull any longer. I tried to ignore it like I was supposed to, turned on the TV to tune out the gnawing need. Nothing held my interest. Nothing could dampen the roar of the pull from down below.
“That’s some awfully fast surfing,” Mom said with a smile.
I’d been changing channels without even paying attention to what was on them, trying not to notice that the tugs from The Hollow were becoming harder and harder to resist. It was like if my mom was bleeding beside me and instead of calling 911 or looking for band-aids, I just sat there watching TV. It felt insane.
Finally, when I couldn’t take it any more, I grabbed my bag with my sketchbook and pencils, threw in a couple of bars of dark chocolate and headed for the door. I figured maybe if I went down there, sat closer to the power source, it would drown out some of the need.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Mom asked.
“Down below,” I mumbled.
“Seraphina, you know I don’t like you hanging around down there by yourself at all hours,” she said.
I nodded, but it didn’t really matter what she wanted. She didn’t want me to have the stupid sensitivity in the first place, but that didn’t mean it was going to go away.
“Are you shielding?” she asked me.
I shrugged. I never used to have to shield much at home. The thick layer of energy I surrounded myself with acted like armor when I went into town, blocking out the tugs from anyone who might be sick or wounded. But at home, out at the edge of the wood, I’d never needed to put up more than a thin film of protection to block out the pull of any wounded animals that might be nearby.
“Sweetheart,” she said, “You are following the rules, right?”
“Yeeessss,” I said. “I’ll just, you know, get some fresh air.” I always followed the rules. She should know that.
“You mustn’t let it control you,” she said. “And don’t stay out there too long. It’ll only make it harder in the end.”
“I might stay for a little while,” I said. “Sketching.”
She sighed, giving in. “Take your cell at least.”
“Why? It won’t work near The Hollow,” I replied.
She looked concerned, but didn’t say a word. What could she say? She knew it was true. And it wasn’t like she had any useful advice to offer. Other than the basic shielding she’d taught me when I was three — the building up of energy from deep in my belly that filled and surrounded me, creating a barrier between me and the world — she didn’t know any better than I did how to lessen the effects of the pull.
I walked cautiously into the forest, noticing for the first time that I could tell the animal in need was bigger than a raccoon. I didn’t want to spook it. To be on the safe side, I thickened my shield — surrounded myself with energy to block the intensity of the animal’s pain as best I could, even though it didn’t seem to be working too well.
Just as I came through the deadened wood into the green of The Hollow, I saw the dark-haired boy. He was sitting right in the middle of the depression in the ground as if it was no different than any other spot in the forest. When he saw me, he froze, spooked, his eyes widening. I figured it was only seconds before he’d take off.
“Don’t go!” I said, though Astrid’s warning echoed in my head.
He was up, looking around like a cornered animal.
“I won’t hurt you.” I raised my hands like I was in a hold-up, wondering how someone as small as I was could possibly scare him.
He ducked behind an oak, breathing hard. “I know,” he said from behind the tree.
I didn’t move, though my heart raced. He peeked to see if I was still there. I tried to stay as still as the tree trunks.
“Stay back.” He sounded stressed. “You didn’t see me.”
“I didn’t see you,” I agreed. “Can you stay a little while, though? If I promise not to bother you?” As if to prove my point, I inched over to my giant sequoia, sat down on a bed of fern-like needles, and took out my sketchbook.
He slipped around the oak he’d hidden behind and dropped to the ground, put his face in his hand.
I tossed a dark chocolate bar in his direction. “Feel free to eat it,” I said, “if you’re hungry.” He looked waaayyy too skinny.
“Is that chocolate?” he asked, as if it were a blue diamond. He seemed tortured, like he wanted the chocolate, but was afraid to take it.
“Go ahead,” I said. “It’s fine.”
He hesitated, then snatched it and went back to the tree, ripped open the wrapper and gobbled it down like poor Charlie from The Chocolate Factory.
“Thanks,” he whispered, looking as if he’d just killed a man for a candy bar.
“Have another,” I said, offering it to him. Anybody who needed chocolate that badly should have more.
Why was he acting like it was such a big deal? “Are you sure? I don’t mind. My mom keeps the house stocked with chocolate at all times. So feel free.”
He hesitated, then gobbled down a second one.
“Want to take another for later?”
He shook his head, looking away.
“Okay, I’ll save it for next time,” I said.
He shifted nervously. “I shouldn’t be here.”
Though he looked about my age and was easily as tall as my tallest brother, he seemed younger somehow, so scared, scarred.
I drew his hands in my sketchbook, hoping he couldn’t tell that my own were shaking and sweaty. “I’m Sera,” I said, wanting him to stay long enough that I might find out more about who he was, what he was doing there, and why I cared so much.
“Sarah?” he asked.
“Sera,” I replied. “It’s short for Seraphina.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Why?” I repeated.
“Um, you know, like a nickname?” He didn’t reply. Where was this guy from? “What’s your name?”
He looked behind him up toward town.
“I won’t tell anyone,” I promised.
“Zachariah,” he said softly.
“Zachariah,” I said, thinking it sounded old fashioned. “And no one calls you Zach?”
He shook his head. “Just Zachariah.” But he had a funny look on his face, like he was struggling to remember something.
“I’ll call you Zach,” I said, feeling sad for him without exactly knowing why.
“I’ll call you Sera,” he replied.
I smiled. I was dying to ask him where he came from, what his story was, what had happened to his face and hands. But I didn’t dare.
“Sorry,” he said.
He pointed to his scarred face. “It’s gross to look at.”
I shook my head, didn’t know what to say. It did look awful, painful, horrific. But it wasn’t looking at the mess of it that upset me. It was the horror of imagining what might have caused it. I was tempted to ask how it happened, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It seemed too intrusive. And I also wanted to tell him that superimposed over that mess, I could see his whole face shining as it should have been and that it was beautiful. But I couldn’t tell him that either.
“I have to go,” he said. “I should … get back.”
“Get back?” I asked. Get back where? Was someone waiting for him?
He nodded without explanation.
“Will you come again?” I asked, feeling my heart sink.
He shrugged. “Probably. Bye, Sera Seraphina.”
“Bye, Zach Zachariah,” I said, smiling.
I sketched a little longer, sorting through images of disease in my mind to see if any of them matched up with his face and hands. It was late. I knew I should head back so Mom wouldn’t worry.
And then a shudder passed through my body. And I realized: the tug of something needing me in The Hollow had disappeared along with Zach. The wounded animal keeping me awake every night was the dark-haired boy.