“Maddy!” I hollered. “C’mon! We have to go now!”
I stopped moving to to listen. There was nothing. Well, there were a few birds singing somewhere in the distance, and the scrabble of claws against rough bark. But there was nothing to tell me which direction my little sister had headed. No cracking twigs or rustling leaves or muffled giggles.
“Madeleine, this isn’t funny.”
Something that might have been a laugh sounded from the right. It sounded again–this time from the left. It could have been a laugh, but it also could have been rusty bedsprings, tossed out in the woods with the rest of the forgotten junk.
My sweat-damp hair clung to my neck and moisture trickled down my spine, but I shivered, anyway, goosebumps peppering my skin. Whatever the noise had been, it definitely wasn’t a seven-year-old girl.
I crept slower now, moving quietly through the trees, following the barely visible deer path and searching for any sign of Maddy in that ridiculous red and white polkadot dress she’d insisted on wearing. The one with the red satin sash around the waist. Instead, all I saw was an endless sea of green and brown. Trees and bracken. Leaves and brambles.
I was far enough away from town that I hadn’t stumbled across any other trash piles. And I hadn’t seen an empty beer can or liquor bottle for what seemed like ages. The forest was darker here, letting in very little light through the shifting leafy canopy above.
Movement up ahead caught my eye. Movement and a flash of red. “Madeleine Margaret, get yourself back here right this instant, or Mama’s gonna ground us both!”
I moved faster, breaking into a run, as the trees became sparser. That creaking laugh that might have been a person or might have been the scrape of rusted metal sounded again as I emerged into a clearing.
An old woman, tottering on a rickety wooden ladder was stretching up to reach a branch in the tree above her. Now that I was still, I could hear slight flapping sounds. Ribbons of every color and length, snapping in the wind. My gaze drifted back to the old woman who was humming to herself.
Dread crept over me like a shadow, chilling my blood as it moved sluggishly through my veins. She was tying a knot in a long red sash.
The woman stared down at me, eyes milky blue. “And what have you brought for my tree?” she asked, her voice like scraping metal.