The mud sucked at Cherry’s feet as she slipped through the thicket of willow and alder. Did she lose the wight that had been calling out her name? If so, it wouldn’t stay lost for long. Somehow, the creature had known she’d taken the old trail south. Surely it would hunt her down again.
Cherry would only be safe once she found a good place to hide, but she couldn’t let the wights drive her away from Leo. If she hid here, she’d be stuck in unfamiliar territory with no food or clean water. She wouldn’t find a warren nearby, not where it was so marshy. The wights would easily wait her out, making her situation more precarious than before.
Her limbs felt heavy after her desperate run, but she didn’t dare rest. She needed to find her way quickly and quietly, not just to the stadium, but past that to where Leo lived. She looked again at the clues he’d written for finding his burrow after the sports arena.
A wizard was also there enjoying the view, and he invited Peach to come stay at his home nearby. He even had an extra guesthouse for Peach to stay in. When Peach woke up the next day, she was almost to her friend’s house.
Cherry swallowed. She could still do this. Sure, the letter sounded cryptic, but Leo wouldn’t lead her astray. The stadium had to be near someplace that looked like a wizard’s home with a guesthouse. Maybe it was something… weird? Colorful? Grand? Hopefully Cherry would see it without climbing to the highest bleacher.
She didn’t have to worry about that now. She only had to focus on her next step: seeing past the tree canopy. She pushed further into the thicket, heading to where the willows thinned and the cattails thickened. Her shoes soaked through with brown marsh water, and the odor of peat filled the air. A rusted sign had sunk into the ground near a creek bed: Speed limit, 10 miles per hour. To think that once, someone had been concerned with that.
Through the trees, Cherry finally spotted the blue landscape of… the lake? No, the body of water was too small for that, but bigger than the Cut. A bay. She scanned the shore for a landmark. The stadium! She let out a breath. It loomed large and close, on the same shore she stood on. The only thing between her and her destination was a small channel.
She squelched closer to the channel and began wading through a layer of creeping yellow primroses floating in the water. The waterway was larger than she’d thought, maybe too deep to wade across. Not only that, but it was filthy. Her shoes were already disgusting; did the rest of her have to be disgusting too? And she was covered in cuts. What if one of them became infected? There was no helping it now. She had to try.
She stepped further, and something upstream caught her eye: a bridge. Cherry rolled her eyes at herself; of course there was a bridge. Hundreds of thousands of people used to inhabit the city; they built bridges over everything. She pulled herself out of the muddy stream and headed up toward the crossing. The small foot bridge was a little mossy, but thankfully the planks didn’t feel ready to give way yet.
On the other side was a narrow road, tucked safely between the maple trees along the shore and several large university buildings. She walked down the road, feeling dwarfed by the huge brick structure next to her. Even the steam pipes trailing from top to bottom were much bigger around than she was. How many people had it taken to construct this one building? Would humans ever be capable of such feats again?
She walked past the brick building, and the stadium came back into view, putting the brickwork to shame. The structure was impossibly big, with bench after bench ascending into the air, too far for even the most aggressive vines to reach. Cherry could scarcely believe she’d sat up there with her parents long ago. They’d been joined by tens of thousands of other people, all there to watch thousands of graduates in identical robes and silly hats line up for their diploma. A marching band had filled the stadium with music. Her brother had walked up to the podium, and she’d cheered, making as much noise as she wanted.
Cherry turned the corner into an adjoining parking lot, and somehow, the commencement crowd was there. New graduates with purple sashes and swinging gold tassels laughed and hugged each other. Several of them lined up with their diplomas before them, smiling wide as their friends and family held up their phones for photos. Nearby, a mother with salt-and-pepper hair put a lei of white flowers over her daughter’s shoulders.
Cherry lurched back, her eyes tearing. It was just like her brother’s graduation. A wave of nostalgia enveloped her, and the colorful scene rippled slightly. Cherry blinked, trying to clear the teary haze from her eyes. The glow at the edge of her vision didn’t quite fade, but that was okay. She could just relax, feel the sun on her shoulders and the weight of her school bag on her back. After all, she was here to celebrate. Her brother was graduating with honors, and he’d made so many friends along the way.
“Would you like a lei, dear?” The mother with salt-and-pepper hair smiled at Cherry, creating crinkles around her warm brown eyes. “Unfortunately my son wasn’t able to make it today, so I have an extra. How about you take it?”
Cherry smiled at her kindness. “Thank you. I’d love one.”
“Here.” The woman stepped closer and held out the lei.
The orchids’ velvety petals gleamed in the light as their gentle perfume wafted over Cherry. She reached for the lei and hesitated. Her brother was allergic to fragrances; it could give him a headache.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the woman said, pulling the lei back. “How about some balloons instead?”
Cherry rubbed her eyes and looked around. The crowd seemed sharper. Where was her brother? And her parents? It felt like forever since she’d seen them. She scanned past the parking lot, even as she dreaded what she’d find. The stadium sat empty. The roads lay open and quiet. The people around her chuckled and cheered, but beyond them, the world was dead. It had been that way for a long time.
“Poor thing, you’ve had a rough time, haven’t you? Why don’t you come sit down with us?” The woman held out her hand. “We can call someone to find out where your family is.”
“You took them,” Cherry spat at the wight.
Cherry set her gaze on the far side of the parking lot and made a run for it. She’d been lucky so far. Her thoughts on graduation had prompted the wights to mimic a crowd they didn’t have the numbers for and offer her flowers she couldn’t accept. But they wouldn’t fumble again, and as long as she was in their sights, they would only grow in size and number.
She reached the end of the parking lot and ducked behind a knobby stone sculpture, but there wasn’t much cover otherwise. The cedars here were sparse and the seedy grasses too low. Past the trees, the overgrown lawn ended in a fence, and then… open air. Cherry ran to the fence. On the other side was a steep slope with water at the bottom. She’d finally reached the Cut, but if she didn’t carefully inch her way down the ivy-covered incline, she might tumble and hit her head before she fell in the water.
She gazed several hundred feet uphill along the fence and spotted an old lift bridge spanning the Cut. Cherry could run for it, but she’d be out in the open for longer. If the wights gathered too fast, they could trap or overwhelm her. She looked back to the stadium parking lot. The crowd was already larger, and it was ambling toward her. Did she hear a trumpet? That didn’t matter. The wights were too numerous, too powerful. She’d have to forget the bridge. She’d circle north and find someplace safe to hide, even if it wasn’t where she wanted to go.
She stole a last look at the old bridge, guarded on either side by a small, archaic-looking tower. Towers. That’s what Leo meant by the wizard’s home! Wizards were supposed to study in lofty towers, and since the bridge had two of these towers, one was a guesthouse. He wanted her to cross to the south side of the channel here.
Wights or no, Cherry was getting across that bridge. She ran for it.
From the parking lot behind her, the notes of the trumpet picked up, then a tuba and several flutes joined in. Drums set a beat. It was a marching band, a form of celebration that hadn’t existed for ten years. Cherry didn’t look back to see it.
Her legs shook and she had a stitch in her side, but Cherry reached the bridge. On the other end, a couple wights milled about, disguised as a pair of parents with a small girl holding on to a large yellow balloon. A day before, Cherry would never have stepped on a bridge with wights on it. But now wights were everywhere; she would run past them and keep going. Once she got to the other side, she would find someplace to hide, knowing Leo couldn’t be far away.
The marching band grew louder, and with it, the noisy chatter of the crowd. There were more wights behind her than before, many more. Her feet pounded onto the bridge’s metal mesh, following the faded yellow line of the roadway. On the far end, wights disguised as people were pouring onto the sidewalks. They stopped and loitered, gazing toward Cherry and behind her, like they were awaiting a parade. A man in a striped costume handed out blue and pink cotton candy. The sweet scent reached Cherry even though she was still fifty feet away. She imagined the cloudy sugar melting on her tongue. No! Think of Leo.
Cherry pushed herself even harder, gasping with the effort. She had to ignore the dancing sparklers and the scent of caramel corn, ignore the giggles and protests of wide-eyed children, ignore the glitzy costumes and… Was that a horse? Think of Leo. She would get across the bridge and reach Leo. She would give him the blackberries and the journal. They would celebrate the moon festival together.
A woman pushed a hotdog cart in front of Cherry. She dodged left, and her foot caught on the edge of the sidewalk. She hit the concrete hard, scrapping the heel of her hand and banging a shin.
“Are you okay, miss? Let me help you up.” A sandy-haired boy offered her a hand.
A warm glow washed over Cherry. How courteous this boy was, especially for someone his age. Not that she’d seen anyone his age for years… and she still hadn’t; he was a wight. “Get away from me!”
The boy raised his hands and took a step back. Cherry pulled herself onto her aching feet and limped toward the far end of the bridge. But the crowd was too thick, parade-goers lined up end to end, holding hands even.
Back the way she came, the band had just stepped onto the bridge. They were packed tightly together, brushing the audience watching on either side as they marched. Cherry was trapped. The wights had only to close around her. Even if the charm didn’t overwhelm her – and it could at any moment – eventually she would touch one of them. With a single touch she would be gone forever. It was inevitable.
Unless she jumped off the bridge first.
Cherry wove around someone making balloon animals and a couple setting up folding chairs. She grasped the bridge’s railing and gazed over the edge to the tiny ribbon of water deep in the valley below. Her chest tightened. Oh god, it looked so far away. Could she live through that?
It was that or let the wights take her. Cherry put a leg over the railing.
“Please, miss, you don’t want to do that,” said the sandy-haired boy. He took a step toward her.
“Okay, we’ll stay back.” The woman with the balloon animals held her hands up in surrender. “Just don’t rush. Let’s talk about this before you hurt yourself.”
Everyone on the bridge was staring at her with glistening eyes and wrinkled brows, like they were scared for her. Their outlines softened as Cherry felt the heat of their affection easing her aches and pains. Surely these wonderful people couldn’t all be wrong; she must be making a terrible mistake. Her memories of crouching in burrows and creeping through brush ran together and faded. Maybe she’d dreamed those lonely years. If she wasn’t sure, shouldn’t she choose the reality she wanted?
Cherry took a last look north toward the vacant stadium, where her family would never be again. A cold weight sank into her chest. Her vision cleared, and the burning of her scraped shin and hand flared back to life. Beyond the railing, the canal and bay slept quietly: urban waters without a single boat. Cherry hadn’t dreamt the Departure. She had to jump now, before all the voices crying out for her convinced her otherwise.
She put her other leg over, so she was sitting on the railing. She swayed in the high breeze. The water was so far below, so small. Be brave, Cherry. Now jump!
Cherry launched into empty air. The wind screamed, and her cap flew up and away. Her jacket flapped as the machete’s sheath slapped her side. The water smashed into her. A chilling gloom swallowed her whole, pushing her down, down, down, until she met the bottom.