The Obsession

By: Nora Roberts



She didn’t know fear, though she’d never gone this deep into the woods—it was forbidden. Her mother would tan her hide if she got caught, so she wouldn’t get caught.

Her father moved quick and sure, so he knew where he was going. She could hear his boots crunching old dried leaves on the skinny trail, so she kept back. It wouldn’t do for him to hear her.

Something screeched, made her jump a little. She had to slap her hand over her mouth to muffle the giggle. Just an old owl, out on the hunt.

The clouds shifted, covered the moon. She nearly stumbled when she stubbed her bare toe on a rock, and again she covered her mouth to smother her hiss of pain.

Her father stopped, making her heart pound like a drum. She went still as a statue, barely breathing. For the first time she wondered what she’d do if he turned around, came back toward her. Couldn’t run, she thought, for he’d surely hear that. Maybe she could creep off the path, hide in the brush. And just hope there weren’t snakes sleeping.

When he moved on she continued to stand, telling herself to go back before she got into really big trouble. But the light was like a magnet and drew her on.

It bobbled and shook for a moment. She heard something rattle and scrape, something creak like the back door.

Then the light vanished.

She stood in the deep, dark woods, breath shallow, and cold prickling over her skin despite the hot, heavy air. She took a step back, then two, as the urge to run fell over her.

The click came back to her throat, so sharp she could barely swallow. And the dark, all the dark seemed to wrap around her—too tight.

Run home, run. Get back in bed, close your eyes. The voice in her head pitched high and shrill like the cicadas.

“Scaredy-cat,” she whispered, clutching her own arms for courage. “Don’t be a scaredy-cat.”

She crept forward, almost feeling her way now. Once again the clouds shifted, and in the thin trickle of moonlight she saw the silhouette of a ruined building.

Like an old cabin, she thought, that had burned down so only the jags of foundation and an old chimney remained.

The odd fear slid away into fascination with the shapes, the grays of it all, the way the thin moonlight played over the scorched bricks, the blackened wood.

Again she wished for morning so she could explore. If she could sneak back there in the light, it could be her place. A place where she could bring her books and read—without her brother nagging at her. And she could sit and draw or just sit and dream.

Someone had lived there once, so maybe there were ghosts. And that idea was a thrill. She’d just love to meet a ghost.

But where had her father gone?

She thought of the rattles and creak again. Maybe this was like another dimension, and he’d opened a door to it, gone through.

He had secrets—she figured all adults did. Secrets they kept from everybody, secrets that made their eyes go hard if you asked the wrong question. Maybe he was an explorer, one who went through a magic door to another world.

He wouldn’t like her thinking it because other worlds, like ghosts and teenage witches, weren’t in the Bible. But maybe he wouldn’t like her thinking it because it was true.

She risked a few more steps forward, ears cocked for any sound. And heard only the thunder, rolling closer.

This time when she stubbed her toe, the quick cry of pain escaped, and she hopped on one foot until the sting eased. Stupid rock, she thought, and glanced down.

In that pale moonlight she saw not a rock, but a door. A door in the ground! A door that would creak when opened. Maybe a magic door.

She got down on all fours, ran her hands over it—and got a splinter for her trouble.

Magic doors didn’t give you splinters. Just an old root cellar, or storm cellar. But though disappointment dampened her spirits as she sucked her sore finger, it was still a door in the ground in the woods by an old burned-out cabin.

And her father had gone down there.

Her bike! Maybe he’d hidden her bike down there and was right now putting it together. Willing to risk another splinter, she put her ear to the old wood, squeezing her eyes tight to help her hear.

She thought she heard him moving around. And he was making a kind of grunting noise. She imagined him assembling her bike—all shiny and new and red—his big hands picking the right tool while he whistled through his teeth the way he did when he worked on something.

He was down there doing something special just for her. She wouldn’t complain (in her head) about chores for a whole month.

How long did it take to put a bike together? She should hurry back home so he didn’t know she’d followed him. But she really, really, really wanted to see it. Just a peek.

She eased back from the door, crept over to the burned-out cabin, and hunkered down behind the old chimney. It wouldn’t take him long—he was good with tools. He could have his own repair shop if he wanted, and only worked for the cable company out of Morgantown to provide security for his family.

He said so all the time.

She glanced up at the snap of lightning—the first pitchfork of it—and the thunder that followed was more boom than mumble. She should’ve gone home, that was the truth, but she couldn’t go back now. He could come out anytime, and he’d catch her for sure.

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