by Megan Russo
The park was on the edge of the town, far from any curious passersby, but close enough to be able to see the faint outlines of the illuminated buildings in the distance. Jen was silent, annoyed that she had been crowded in the back of a van next to her mother, forced to listen to the others chatter with an uneasy energy instead of being at home in her bed. She watched the trees pass as a blur as their van climbed the twisting road to the hilltop, eventually pulling into the empty lot outside of Ault Park. The group huddled together, passing out flashlights; the crowd of thirty people had begun to prepare.
Jen had never imagined this day would actually come. Her mother had talked about it for so long that this moment felt more like a dream. Her body was tired, and unwilling. She assumed that she would have been more excited for a night like this, but she wasn’t. Jen moved sluggishly, her mind clouded with disbelief as she watched the others frolic and skip joyfully toward the large pit in the center of the clearing, arms already full of firewood. Her frustration grew more and more as she struggled to keep up. The firewood heavier in her arms with each trip to the pit.
Jen decided to take a break, wandering away from the group and taking a moment to try to wake herself up more. She wanted to be in the moment. She wanted to share the happiness that the others had − why was her body trying to hold back now? Jen toyed with her flashlight, shining it up at the stars that seemed to slowly blink out as the night sky emptied. Before she had time to question anything, her mother’s voice cut through the quiet.
She turned sharply, the older woman beckoning for her to return as the low chanting began and the grass trembled with a sudden chilled breeze. She hadn’t even heard the other woman approach.
“Jennifer, they’re starting without us,” Her mother said softly, one finger urging her daughter back.
Jen nodded, crossing the road and allowing her mother to wrap an arm around her shoulders, guiding her back to the the pit. The chanting was louder and the fire had grown larger.
After an hour of waiting, Jen left the ritual circle without a word. She felt ill, her face hot as the flames danced in the pit, seeming to get closer and closer with each repetition of the chant. The shadows of the others stretched endlessly across the ground as she made her way back to the van, annoyed that she had been convinced to do something so foolish. Her fingers touched the door handle of the van when the light from the fire went dark and the chanting stopped. Jen turned sharply, but the group was gone. The new man by the pit stood motionless, head craning upward. The stars were gone from the sky.