Even when she was young, Sonya had never been afraid of the supernatural.
It wasn’t that she had been a fearless child—she’d shrieked like a banshee when a centipede had found its way into her bedroom. It was just that there were so many real horrors to choose from. She didn’t need to make up impossible stories to be afraid.
As she aged, she came up with her own approach to managing fear. If fears were a problem, and problems were made to have solutions, then she could figure out a fix for every terror.
She was afraid of bugs, but bugs could be quashed in a manner of seconds by a nearby shoe.
She was afraid of this monster, too, but it could be dealt with the way she approached all fears. This bug would just require a bigger shoe.
At least, that was what she intended to do, if she didn’t get lost along the way.
These were not the hiking trails she usually followed, created for easy navigation through the vast Washington forests. She knew those trails well, how they curled around looming oaks and would angle upwards as they approached the mountains.
Her makeshift route was less reliable. Thick, throned weeds ripped through her jeans and left tender red lines on her skin. The ground was uneven, and patches of loose dirt threatened to send her tumbling towards the ground.
The autumn months were chilly in the northwest, but a cool sweat gathered at the back of her neck as she struggled to move forward.
She rested one palm on the handle of the small wood axe that hung from her belt. Soon, night would fall. Only in the shelter of darkness could she finally seek out her fiend.
Only then would she be able to introduce it to her blade. It was nearly midnight when she first spotted the beast out her bedroom window.
She had tried to leave the beast alone in the hopes it would stay peaceful. With each sleepless night that passed, though, the beast got braver. It would creep out from behind the line of trees, getting closer to her home with each moment, until she could make out the fine details of its appearance in the moonlight.
It was a shape carved from matted flesh and fur. She watched its labored movements, so angular it was almost uncomfortable to look at. It was like a wolf created by a person who had never seen one before.
Large as the brown bears that lived in the forest but much more compact, it towered over her. She stared down at it with an obsessive disgust that wouldn’t let her turn away. Its teeth shone white as it smiled back up at her and in its eyes was something much more intelligent than she’d seen from any other animal.
Its presence felt like someone knocking on the door of her brain. Sonya would grit her teeth and shut her eyes, desperately trying to shut it out, but it was no use. The sound got louder with each passing moment until it reached an ear-shattering screech as the door swung open. Instantly, her head flooded with thoughts that weren’t her own. She could hear its thirst for blood and see it tearing her family limb from limb. The image stayed with her long into the day.
With every night that passed, it moved closer to her home. Sleepless nights became muddled—she couldn’t tell if days or weeks had elapsed—but she knew this: the creature sat just beneath her window, grinning wider than she’d ever seen it before. There was nowhere else to go the following night but inside.
When light broke that morning, Sonya didn’t waste a beat. Pushing aside her abandoned school bag, she found her hiking pack. She stuffed it with anything she might need—a first aid kit, a thermos for water, and a map of the forest. When dusk fell that evening, the beast would return once more to make its kill. Sonya intended to stop it long before that.
By noon, she was prepared to leave. Her father was gone, having left for work hours in the early hours of the morning, but her mother remained. Sonya found her in the kitchen, preparing lunch.
When Sonya was very young she had attempted to live off peanut butter sandwiches. For months she refused to eat anything else. Though her mother had insisted she extend her palate, she often agreed to slather some peanut butter on white bread in exchange for a few moments of silence.
In the years since, Sonya had grown out of her obsession, but on occasion, at the end of a particularly difficult day, her mother would serve sandwiches once again and Sonya would be as in control as when she was a child.
Lately, it felt like Sonya had been having a lot of peanut butter sandwich days.
Her mother had a plate waiting for her on the table. She was tempted to sit and eat, but stopped herself.
She could save the sandwiches for tomorrow when things were ok again. For now, there was work to do.
“I’m going for a walk,” she’d said, shifting her pack up on her shoulder for emphasis.
Her mother turned to face her, warm brown eyes tinted with something uncharacteristic Sonya couldn’t quite place.
There was something distant about her. Sonya could make out the dark dots scattered along her complexion and yet she felt as if her hand would go straight through the freckled skin if she tried to touch her.
Then, it was gone. Her mother was solid again, just like always.
“Alright,” her mother responded. “Do you have water?”
Sonya nodded. “It’s in my pack.”
Her mother smiled, satisfied. “You have fun, then. Be safe—oh! And take the sandwiches with you. In case you get hungry.”
Sonya did as she was told.
Outside, a few birds sang softly as she started walking. She stopped by the shed where her father stored firewood. An axe was lodged in the stump of a tree and she pulled it free, putting a cover on the blade and strapping it to her waist.
Sonya quickly found that the creature’s tracks weren’t difficult to follow. They seemed deeply ingrained in the dirt, as if this path had been walked a thousand times.
She followed its trail deeper into the trees for hours with no sign of the end. Cold wind pushed against her back, making her feel as if she was frozen solid. She shivered against its push, but she kept moving.
The tracks led into the middle of a small clearing now. The golden sun flashed through gaps in the skyline with a brilliant brightness as it fell through the sky. In the slanted light, she looked for more tracks to tell her which way to turn next. Her breath caught in her chest when she realized there was nowhere else to go. The tracks ended here.
All that was left was to wait.
She found a rotting tree trunk to sit down on and rest her exhausted legs. From its place on her belt, Sonya freed the axe and removed its cover. The sharp steel of the blade caught a ray of sunlight, reflecting it back up at her and leaving her temporarily blinded. She pulled the nearly empty water canister from her pack and took a swig. She could practically hear her mother nagging her to stay hydrated.
Her stomach made a low growl. The sandwiches her mother had made were still sitting uneaten in her pack. The hunger was beginning to get unbearable, but when she moved to get out her delayed lunch she couldn’t bring herself to open the Ziploc bag.
She’d save them for later, when things were fixed.
The sky turned intense shades of pink and purple as dusk fell until, finally, the sun was nowhere to be seen. The darkness of night had arrived. Sonya’s grip around her axe tightened as she rose to her feet.
She saw the faint outline of something inhuman within the trees. It inched towards her, the slow, jagged movements reminding her of fracturing ice sheets.
Up close, with the moon illuminating the world with eerie light, the monster was taller than her by at least a foot and the tufts of red flesh that peeked through its fur were even more gruesome. She met the gaze of its yellow eyes, trying to appear more fearless than she felt.
“Why have you come?” it asked with a tilt of the head. She noticed with a shiver, though, that the movement in the creature’s jaw didn’t match the sounds at all.
Sonya nodded her chin in the direction of her axe. “I wish to end this.”
Unfazed by her threat, it settled on the forest floor. “If that is your intent,” it said, “then might I ask for something to eat before you chop me to bits?”
Sonya hesitated as her gaze slipped over to her uneaten lunch. It seemed only right to grant it a final meal before the slaughter. After all, it did not choose to be an animal seeking prey. That was simply its nature.
She opened the bag and took the sandwich from its wrapper. Tearing it in half, she set a chunk just in front of the creature.
Glancing down at the piece still left in her hands, she felt as if a weight had been lifted from her.
She wasn’t sure if that was for better or for worse.
The monster hummed as it watched her but Sonya did not meet its eyes. She kept her gaze glued to the food in hand, as if it might disappear the moment it left her line of sight.
“Why have you come, Sonya?” it repeated. “Did the other children not go to class today? Why did you stay behind?” Sonya frowned. “I can’t go to school,” she explained. “They want me to have time.” It was not from lack of trying, on Sonya’s end, either. She had attempted to return only a day after her leave began.
She’d only lasted an hour before the school called her father to bring her home. She wasn’t ready, they had insisted. Maybe they were right, but that did not ease the way it stung.
“Do you think she is disappointed?” it asked.
She squinted, confused. “Who?”
“Your mother.” Sonya thought of her mother in the kitchen, preparing sandwiches. She had always been impressed with Sonya’s dedication, but here she was, in the middle of the woods rather than continuing her studies.
“Maybe. It’s hard to know for sure.”
She didn’t mention that, sometimes, not knowing was the hardest part.
“I’ll fix it, though. I’m fixing it,” she continued.
The monster’s smile widened and for a moment it seemed to shift in the moonlight. Its grin was mocking. “Little Sonya, always trying to fix things . . .”
Sonya tried to swallow her fear but her throat was too dry. Her voice wavered when she spoke. “What are you talking about?”
“What about stale bread?” it asked.
Sonya gaped at it. “Pardon me?”
“You can’t fix stale bread, can you?” it repeated, motioning down at its half-eaten portion of her sandwich.
“Oh.” Sonya glaned down at her own piece. She hadn’t tried it yet. She lifted it to her lips and took a bite. The monster was right — the bread was firm and tough in her mouth. “No, I suppose not,” she replied, eyebrows drawing together. “I didn’t want to waste them . . . I shouldn’t have waited so long.”
They had just been made that afternoon, right? She’d thought they’d last.
Then again, time was difficult these days. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep. Perhaps it was just her own childish denial. Whatever the case, days blended into weeks the way silent lecture halls felt louder than football games.
How much time had passed since that conversation in the kitchen? Had it ever happened at all? It was hard to know for sure.
“Sonya,” the creature said and Sonya’s eyes tore up to face it, “why have you come?”
She still gripped the axe with an unwavering ferocity. In her other hand was the sandwich, old and ruined. Her eyes burned.
Why did it keep asking this? The wood axe fell from her palm as she spoke.
“I thought it would be easier.”
The monster took a step towards her. “And was it?”
She stared at the ground. It was cold in Washington this time of year, but not quite far enough into winter to warrant turning on the heater. Her family lived by the woods, which made firewood easy to find. Sonya’s father would take the tree axe and chop branches off to fuel their hearth. It was a quick way to save money.
The morning things went wrong, she and her mother had both complained of a headache before she left for school. Must be something in the air.
Her father had gone to work an hour before. Neither had thought much of it when Sonya left for class, fireplace ablaze and her mother left alone.
Sonya had been more concerned with her with memorizing vocab words for the day’s quiz. That was the kind of worry that was easy to stomach.
She preferred it to what came next.
When she returned home, her mother had been asleep—an odd activity so early in the day but nothing to be concerned of.
At least, until her mom wouldn’t wake up. Things happened fast from there—she dialed 911, paramedics came, her father left work early.
But Mom never did wake up.
Perfectly healthy mothers were not supposed to die of CO2 poisoning before their daughter was accepted to university. There was no vengeance to be had, no corrupt society to blame. No monster to slay.
Sonya had never been afraid of haunted houses or horror movies, but she was afraid of freak accidents that took parents away from their children. She was afraid of not being able to save the people she loved and afraid this was something she couldn’t fix.
Black formal wear, a church she only went to on the holidays, and an open coffin. Even then, her mother looked so alive.
Back in the woods, she wanted to put an end to this creature. To return home, and see her mom’s smiling face, but what is done cannot be undone.
“I don’t think anything can make this easier.”
The beast shifted again, its smile so large now it was almost blinding. It grew and throbbed as its form became completely unrecognizable, and Sonya wondered if this thing had ever existed in the first place.
Maybe it was just a cruel trick of the sleep deprived mind created to solve a problem that had no real solution.
The horrific, in-between state it was stuck in now was nothing short nightmare fuel, but she could not bring herself to scream or run. What was this in comparison to the truth that awaited her at home?
Bright light began to peek through the pink, rotting flesh, so strong that she was forced to look away.
And then, a moment later, the light was gone, as was the creature it had engulfed.
Sonya picked up the remains of the last peanut butter sandwich her mother had ever made.
There was nothing comforting about being alone at night in the depths of the forest, but there were times when comfort had to be put aside to make room for sorrow. Sorrow, that filled her lungs like dunes of heavy sand. She was a child again, dependent and unsure. She was angry at fate for being unfair, and scared, so scared she would never move on. She would be consumed entirely by this despair.
She understood why children made up scary stories now. At least, at the end of the day, there was solace in the knowledge fiction isn’t real.
She wasn’t sure how long she spent sitting in the dirt but she knew it was long enough for grime to get stuck under her fingernails. It was also long enough to realize that closure didn’t live in the forest.
She’d found some acceptance, though. That had to be worth something.
Her trip home was smoother than the approach. She was still cold and hungry, but her mind was far away from her body. She stumbled out of the trees and into the yard to find her father worried and waiting.
Only in his warm embrace did she finally collapse.
There was something missing in her now, the same something that caused the kitchen to stay empty for days on end, and it was a hollowness that would not be filled by a few hours in the woods.
But life went on, as life tends to do.
With time, the hollowness became more bearable. It was present when she returned to school, present when she received her acceptance letter and there was only one smiling face instead of two. Present, yes, but she was learning to manage.
“Sonya,” called a voice from the kitchen. “Come on in. Dinner’s ready.”
“Coming,” she answered, pushing a math assignment to the edge of her desk.
In the kitchen, her father was hard at work. He’d been a miserable cook before they’d lost Mom, but both of them had made adjustments. He was really getting the hang of it, too. It’d been two weeks since they’d eaten out—a new record.
She pulled up a seat at the table just as he put down his latest creation. Her chest grew tight as soon as she saw them: Peanut butter sandwiches.
Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw something almost familiar moving outside the window. Taking a deep breath and relaxing her shoulders, she smiled.
“Just like the ones Mom used to make."