∙ Chapter One ∙
Frankie held a piece of paper over the tombstone and rubbed his unwrapped crayon across it. Blue wax highlighted the chiseled lettering underneath, gradually revealing “Jeremiah St. John. Born September 17, 1764. Died Aug-”
Snap. His crayon broke in two.
“Stupid crayon,” Frankie grumbled, throwing the broken crayon to the ground. Frustrated, he sat back on his heels and wiped perspiration from his face. It was a warm day in New York’s oldest cemetery. Sunshine cast a golden glow on the graves and carefully manicured landscaping, making the cemetery seem a rather happy place. This annoyed Frankie even more. He had been excited about this school field trip to learn about some of the early citizens of the city. Visiting an old creepy cemetery could be awesome! What if they saw an actual ghost? But here he was, baking in the sunshine, with a broken crayon, and no ghosts in sight.
He looked around at his classmates. The nuns’ sober warning about respecting the graveyard had fallen on deaf ears. Children ran over grave mounds and giggled loudly, gleeful to be away from the confines of the classroom walls. He saw his twin sister, Elise, who, in stark contrast to those around her, was making a solemn face at two gravestones with lambs on top of them. She put her hand on one as if to comfort it.
Frankie refocused on Jeremiah St. John’s headstone. Dead people were boring; at least if they weren’t ghosts, that is. He thought this tombstone might be more interesting because they shared the same last name, but it was still boring in the end. St. John wasn’t Frankie’s real last name anyway. He and Elise were only two years old when they had been found at the Catholic orphanage, left without any known history except their first names, which were scrawled on a torn section of the Sunday paper. They weren’t even placed in a basket like he’d read about in stories. Nine years later, and he still had no clue where his last name derived. He guessed the nuns at the children’s home gave them the name of St. John in honor of their favorite beheaded saint. At least he knew how that guy died. These tombstones didn’t offer up any juicy information at all.
Sighing heavily, Frankie stood, deciding he’d rather sulk in the shade of the creepiest thing in the cemetery: a giant, old tree. As he walked toward it, he could see it was misshapen. The trunk grotesquely wrapped itself around a large stone that jutted out from the ground. Gnarled roots at the base of the tree roused his curiosity. He imagined finding a snarling predator hiding in the roots’ hollows, its lips curled back from glistening teeth, with razor-sharp claws the size of human fingers, its body crouched and ready to pounce on its next hapless victim. Suddenly, the stone within the roots caught sunlight at just the right angle, blinding him for a second. As he blinked his eyesight back, he noticed it wasn’t a grave marker. No hint of writing was on the stone, yet it looked tall and important amidst the twisted roots of the tree. Peering around the trunk, Frankie discovered more trees beyond this one, trees that looked even older. Who knew New York had a forest? Frankie thought, intrigued. There was Central Park of course, but that didn’t count.
Mesmerized, Frankie ambled toward the woods, its thick, quiet darkness seeming to call to him. Fallen twigs cracked under his feet as he walked through the dense forest, and more than once, low branches snagged locks of his curly hair. He had to take unusually high steps to clear some of the undergrowth, but Frankie hiked on, fascinated by the untouched land that edged so close to the city. He looked all around the sun-dappled landscape. There was no sign of any development. No apartments, no shacks, no roads. Trees muffled the constant drone of ever-present traffic, and the silence was unsettling.
He turned with a start as some hidden creature scurried under the leaf litter behind him. Startled, he instantly became aware that he couldn’t see his classmates. How long had he walked? It seemed as if he had only taken a few steps, so he couldn’t have ventured too far. Deciding that he needed to rejoin the group, Frankie retraced his steps along what he thought was the trail he had walked through earlier. Midway, he stopped and listened. Everything looked different from before. He thought to follow the noise of the other kids goofing around, but he heard nothing.
Not a sound could be heard, except his shallow breathing and the occasional rustle of leaves in the breeze.
“Ok. This is interesting.” Confused and with panic gathering in his chest, Frankie hastened through the forest. As the sun crawled down between the tree branches, he realized it would be dark soon. How had that much time passed? It was mid-morning when they arrived at the cemetery.
This wasn’t the first time Frankie had lost track of time. Once before, on a school outing to the seashore, he had been trying to dig crabs out from their hiding places in the rock jetty when he heard people shouting his name. The nuns ran up to him and said they had spent the past hour searching for him. They had even called the police. He swore that he had been near his class the entire time. No one believed him.
Now he was sure they would think he had run off again, and he’d be in deep trouble when they found him this time. That is if they actually did find him.
He came across a shallow cave, more of a hollow, at the base of a small cliff with tree roots clawing across its surface. Daylight was fading. Soon, he wouldn’t be able to see where he was going. He decided to take shelter in the cave until someone found him. He hunkered down on the damp ground just inside the cave mouth. He figured that if he concentrated on the sunset, he might manage to ignore the fear spreading through his body. Though dread continued to creep over him, it still did not eclipse the thrill he felt from this new adventure.
Frankie tried to pinpoint the moment when the sun officially set, but the tree line hid the horizon. Night swept through the forest and replaced light with a thousand scurries, flutters, groans, and growls. Glancing around wide-eyed, he wondered how many creatures lurked in the black recesses, watching him, waiting. He leaned back against the cold wall of the cave and pulled his legs into his chest. Setting his chin on his knees, he peered blindly into the darkness. He felt the darkness return his stare.