Chapter 1 1
A WARM SUMMER WIND pulled at Charlie Lewis’s hair as he navigated his way through the thick woods, each of his steps cushioned by the dewy grass that blanketed the narrow trail beneath his feet. An errant branch reached for his face, like the curled fingers of some terrifying apparition. Charlie did his best to ignore it, ducking below the leaves. He was determined not to let anything slow his progress, break his will. His nerves were sparking off like fireworks on the Fourth of July, but he pushed the fear deep down. If he turned back now, he knew he’d never forgive himself. The air was humid, mossy and moist in his nostrils, even though it was only the first week of June.
Three days earlier, Charlie’s summer vacation had officially begun. Usually, this was his favorite time of the year—the pressures of school dwindling in the rearview mirror, months of science camps, swimming pools, and slumber parties with his friends ahead. But at the moment, memories of summer and school were far from his thoughts. Charlie had been moving through the overgrown forest for what seemed like hours, tripping over roots and careening through dried-up streambeds, and every step seemed to take him farther away from the warm, comforting world he understood, of science and history and logic, and toward something else, something dark and confusing and scary—
And suddenly, right in front of him, there was a flash as bright as lightning, so stark white that it made him blink and stumble. In that first split second, eyes watering, off-balance, Charlie still had the presence of mind to reach for his camera. He had been carrying the darn thing around for days—an old digital point-and-shoot model that he’d found in his dad’s desk drawer—and was sure this was the right moment to use it. No one really used these types of cameras anymore, unless concerns of electromagnetic waves were involved…. He hurriedly snapped open the lens cap and hit the tiny black plastic button on the top, attempting to turn the old beast on—
He had pushed this button so many times before and had always heard the familiar beep of the camera going on. How could it fail him now?
He squinted down at the camera’s casing and realized the LED light wasn’t on.
He quickly reached into his pocket and dug out a spare battery. He ripped the compartment open, tossed the dead battery to the side, shoved the fresh one in, and hit the button—
And again, no beep, no LED light, no power. How was that possible? One burned-out battery okay, maybe. But two?
Charlie looked up from the camera, bewildered, when just as quickly as it had come, the bright light was gone, the forest once again plunged into pitch-blackness. Charlie blinked several times to adjust his eyes. Still nothing. No light, no shadows, just ebony sky above. An overwhelming, enveloping darkness, one that was almost liquid, like oil blanketing everything—
And then, from somewhere ahead, there was a sound. A rustling, tree branches being pushed to the side, something moving along the ground, through the trees. Toward him.
Charlie froze. He had hiked these very woods before, a year earlier, on a camping trip with his dad. Normally, sounds in the woods didn’t scare him. But this rustling—scraping, even—was something different.
It certainly wasn’t his friends, three of whom he knew were somewhere behind him in the forest. He’d foolishly sprinted ahead when they’d first arrived—his eagerness, curiosity, and yes, disbelief at what they had found over the past few weeks getting the better of him, spurring him to take unnecessary risks—and now he regretted not pacing himself so they could keep up.
And then suddenly the sound stopped, and a strange, burning-plastic smell filled the air. Charlie coughed, momentarily choking, and just as he was about to turn around and sprint back the way he’d come, the bright light exploded in front of him again.
Charlie gasped, falling backward for a second, then caught his footing and peered through the trees. Everything was suddenly visible.
He could see in that instant that ten yards in front of him there was an opening in the woods. The opening was circular with a perfect ring of trees surrounding it, and in the center, Charlie could make out a formation of rocks, also in a circle, mimicking the trees.
“Wow,” Charlie whispered. What the heck was he looking at?
Without thinking, he lifted his camera, flicked the switch… but it was still dead.
Charlie steadied himself, then shielded his eyes with his hand, trying to get a glimpse at what was creating the incredibly bright light. But before he could see anything, the brightness flashed on and off again, like a lightning storm; then the forest was enveloped in blackness. Charlie kept his eyes open, his neck craned. But there was nothing but blackness, and in that moment Charlie realized:
The moon and stars had disappeared too.