By Sam Burke (Sun Valley High School, Aston, PA)
The blood on the young girl’s hand startled her as she picked herself off the ground. The hole in her jeans was no more than a slit but that didn’t stop her from seeing the flawed skin. Cassie brushed her hands on her jeans and sighed at the stain. She tried to get her bearings. Trees towered around her, their red and orange leaves falling to the ground at her feet, but there was nothing else. The air was still and the forest was silent and for once, Cassie was entirely alone. She didn’t know what compelled her to argue with her mother, but she knew that’s why she was here- she was nothing but a runaway.
Twigs crushed from under her footsteps as she tiptoed through the brush. The sun would go down soon and Cassie was in desperate need of a way out. After wandering around and ending up where she started, she had to come to terms with the harsh realization that she was lost.
Cassie sat down and crossed her legs, bringing her head up to the sky in an attempt to hold back inevitable tears. Her dark hair fell in front of her face as she brought her knees to her chest. A small laugh was what brought her out of her bout of self-pity.
Hesitantly, she stood up and followed the sound.
“Is someone here?” she called out.
“You’re not funny.”
In a huff, Cassie retreated back to her spot near the branches but stopped short, nearly tripping again. Something stopped her. Cassie reached down and picked up the rusty, brass key and brought it near the light. It wasn’t like a car key or one to a house; it had an engraving on its front.
‘Find what lies beneath,’ the key read in old, cursive handwriting. Cassie took one more look around and laid her eyes on something she hadn’t noticed. There was a door about fifty feet away from where she was standing. She sprinted towards it and knocked. Hearing nothing, she tried to use the handle on the shed-like door but to no avail. It was locked. The memory of the key returned so she fished it out of the pocket of her hoodie and turned it in the lock. Cassie wasn’t sure what she’d expected to see on the other side, but darkness was the only thing that greeted her. She contemplated whether or not she should go in. The sun would go down any minute and the fall air would soon turn freezing and unbearable. She put one foot in and felt solid ground before putting the other one in and shut the door behind her. It closed with a slam, the lock clicking soon after. Cassie groped the wall with her left hand before falling over nothing and tumbling down what seemed like a steep hill. Her screams echoed around her as she plead for help but she was all alone. She had no one to save her.
Finally, Cassie stopped falling and landed in a clearing. There was early morning light surrounding the young girl, filling her dizzy head with confusion. This wasn’t where she had ran to, this was an entirely different place, along with a different season. The leaves were a bright green and birds happily chirped. Slowly getting to her feet, Cassie took a deep breath. A covered bridge was nearby, along with trees, but other than that, it was an empty field. The familiar, snide laughter was back. Cassie began to cry and to make matters worse, there was a fresh wound on her palm.
“Who are you?” a sharp voice asked accusingly. Cassie whirled around, expecting a large man, but instead her eyes met with a gnome-like figure that stood at no more than two feet tall. Cassie backed away, nearly tripping over her own feet, but the voice spoke again.
“Are you aware that it’s rude to ignore people, young lady?”
“You’re…you’re a garden gnome.”
“And you have no manners, but let’s not state the obvious, Cassie.”
“H-how do you know my name?”
The tiny man looked at her with confusion, cocking his head.
“You just called me Cassie,” Cassie countered. She began to wonder if she should make a run for the door but just as she was about to break into a sprint, the man opened his tiny mouth.
“Come with me,” he commanded. Cassie was appalled.
“I’m not going anywhere with you, you creep.”
“But what about your hand?”
She’d almost forgotten that something had torn her palm up, the blood slowly drying into a rigid, cracked line. It ached, along with the entirety of her body, but Cassie just stuffed it inside of her pocket.
“I’m fine,” she insisted. The gnome chuckled, his familiar, condescending laughter from before.
“I don’t know who you are or what you want with me, but I need to go, like, right now.”
“Can’t you stay? Please, Cassie! I just want to introduce you to the others then I’ll show you how to get back home,” the gnome begged.
“There’s more of you?’ she asked with shock. The gnome rolled his eyes and beckoned for Cassie to follow. With reluctance, she trailed after the small man through the brush in silence before the two approached a bridge. Cassie couldn’t see inside due to its cover, but it was wooden and looked rickety and treacherous. To make matters worse, the young girl had an extreme fear of heights. She was frozen when the gnome turned around, the annoyance evident on his wrinkled face.
“What are you waiting for?” he asked in a snappy tone.
“I can’t do this,” Cassie replied softly.
“Can’t do what?”
“I can’t meet your little gnome friends or cross some dangerous bridge or follow a two-foot tall man through an entirely different woods than the one I was in before!” she cried.
“And why’s that?”
“This isn’t real, that’s why!”
The gnome cackled at Cassie’s frantic state, holding his stomach as if his own laughter pained him. Cassie took off and made a run for the door. It matched the one she fell from except this one didn’t have a keyhole. She yanked open the door, entering the darkness for a second time that day.
“Hey! Get back here!” the gnome called after her but Cassie refused to listen. She heard the door slam shut, trapping her in the tight space. She whirled around and even in the darkness she could see the gnome’s highly irritated expression.
“You just don’t know how to listen, do you?” he berated.
“How did you get in here?”
“Oh, Cassie, that’s the least of our problems,” the gnome answered a question no one had asked. “We’re not getting out.”