Eli Constant sent me chapter one of her novel Sleeping in the Forest of Shadows. I couldn't wait to share it with you. But, remember, you can grab this novel and more in The Witching Hour Collection!
Excerpt of Sleeping in the Forest of Shadows by Eli Constant
Through the Glass
It calls to me. It is calling to me now.
The thing that has no face—that thing that is nothing, but is somehow everything—is hiding outside my window, far off across the field, past the fence, cloaked by the forest’s dark shadows. Once, some time ago, before my mother was forced to leave this home, it called to her. I don’t know how I know this, but I do. Now, I am here and I’m like her in so many ways. The same crow-dark hair atop my head, the same olive green eyes with rings of silver that are often obscured by my thick-framed glasses, and the same aristocratic upturn at the end of my nose—a physical trait that is infinitely unattractive in my opinion.
It thinks I am her. So, it calls to me.
But my mother was vibrantly alive and healthy and adventurous when she was my age.
I am not vibrant or healthy or adventurous.
I am crippled, wheelchair-bound. If I’m honest with myself, the voice that I hear in my head could be nothing more than the imaginings of a girl who has lost so much, a girl who has a great and terrible desire to be wanted. But something inside of me says the thing is real. So very, very real.
At nearly eighteen, I should be starting my senior year with all of my friends…with my best friend Charlie. Especially her. There’s so much that we’d planned to do together Senior year and now I’ve ruined that along with the laundry list of other things my touch has spoiled. I just could not bring myself to face that life with all its walking, talking, chatting students. The kids who thought life was about parties and books. Because I know the truth now. Life is not fun and games. It’s not about tomorrow. It’s a tragedy in which you inexplicably live when everyone else—all those who are better and kinder people than you are—die.
Sometimes, I wish I hadn’t survived, that I’d died along with my mother and father and little brother Toby. But I did not die. I’m very much alive and breathing. And self-pity is an ugly, ugly thing that keeps life at bay. That’s something I have to keep telling myself. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, Tilda. Other people have it worse off, Tilda.
I only listen to myself sometimes.
I only believe myself sometimes.
My life is loneliness, like I am still outside our home hoping the firemen will carry my family out and that they will be unscathed. But when they do carry them out, they are burned, blackened, unrecognizable, and they are dead. My eleven-year-old baby brother. I still see him in my nightmares—how his pajamas, several inches too short in the legs, are burned through in places to reveal flaking, charred skin.
Looking through the glass, which is bubbled and wavy so that the world outside is always a distortion of reality, I can hear my Aunt Jen yelling my name. Her voice is loud and threatens to ruin my connection with whatever lies beyond the wall of great pines and thick foliage. Real or not, the ever-strengthening threads that connect me with it are something I can cleave too, a tether of security as I stand on the precipice, my childhood behind me and the great chasm of adulthood yawning in front of me. Life isn’t always beautiful. No, sometimes it is a gnarly, thorn-bearing fruit that cuts the throat as you swallow. Reality is bitter and bloody.
A singular tear, wet and salty, escapes my right eye and crawls down my face. The slowness of its movement is nearly unbearable. I wipe it away with the corner of my shirt and stare at the woods, one part of my brain cataloging the details of the landscape as the rest of my mind wanders away to other things.
The bright shades of the emerald forest have just started changing, their tips becoming ochre and crimson. I do not look forward to the dull browns that will come after the fleeting and vivid shades of fall. Even though autumn has always been my favorite season, when I can hide my tall frame and thick hips beneath the folds of fuzzy sweaters and patterned scarves, I do not relish in it now. Besides, I am always sitting these days—my hips out of sight and away from scrutinizing peers with slim hips and perfect skin.
In my old life, the changing of seasons would bring Thanksgiving and Dad’s turkey; it would bring Christmas and decorating the tree. Toby would place the star atop the fir. That was always his job.
Truly, fall and winter hold little magic for me now.
Magic. As if there is such a thing. Magic can’t be real in a world where families senselessly die.
“Matilda Elisabeth!” Jen yells my given name, even though I hate it with a passion, and that hatred is what destroys the veil and disconnects the faceless thing from my mind. As its calling fades, I feel the hum of discomfort returning to my body. The siren call from the forest often makes me forget how much I hurt inside. The aching pain that swells so large at times that I think my chest will burst. “Tilda, seriously, come on! Your appointment is in twenty minutes!”
“Coming.” I don’t bother yelling back at her. The house is not gigantic; my voice carries easily down the hallway. I think Jen just likes raising her voice, hearing the octaves change as she gets louder. My responses aren’t always so calm; often, I scream back at her until we are both mad and brash things filling the house with discord.
It takes me time to move from the bay window seat to the wheelchair. I’m still getting the hang of it. Aunt Jen has picked me up off the floor more than once. I’m lucky the house is one story, that the doorways are wide—which is unusual in such an old farmhouse.
Despite everything, I love it here with Jen and I can’t imagine what would have happened to my mother’s family home if my grandparents had sold it rather than willing it to Jen. It was in poor shape and my aunt has put her life’s savings into restoring it the way it once was when she was a child—bright white siding, hanging flower pots screaming with irreverent color, hunter green storm shutters and even the rooster-shaped weather vane atop the roof. The only thing Jen hasn’t repaired is the fencing along the edge of the woods.
Several of the fence posts are crooked in the ground and the paint is peeling, but it is still white enough to be stark against the darkness of the thickly grouped trees in the forest. Sometimes, leaving something undone is a promise for tomorrow. It’s a stupid thing to think.
Finally, I am in the wheelchair, but I find that I do not want to move.
I hate to leave this room and reenter the world outside, because Jen has made my room so wonderful. It is my own little sanctuary.
The walls are a soft gray and the curtains are an ethereal, gauzy white embroidered with delicate ivory flowers. The chandelier above my bed is original to the house, but it has been restored so that the pale yellow flower sconces are sunny and re-glazed. Everything has been picked out with so much care—the paisley pillows, the pastel throw blanket, the faux fur rug that is so soft. I’ve felt the material a hundred times with my fingers, imagining how it would feel under my feet, imagining how my toes would sink into the luxurious fibers. It makes me sad that I cannot stand on it each morning after waking.
My room is the best room in the house really, the largest. Jen doesn’t want the room for herself; maybe she just feels sorry for me after everything.
When they were children, Jen and my mom shared the room—up until my mom was shipped off to boarding school at sixteen. My mother never explained why she was forced to go and Jen was allowed to stay. Maybe the room just reminds Jen too much of mom. Maybe it reminds her that her sister is dead. I find it comforting, because I can feel mom here. But I can also understand. I see the grief and pain in Jen’s eyes sometimes when she looks at me—how her expression goes blank because of how much I resemble mom. She’s called me Heather once or twice and she rarely comes into the room while I am here, like I am the ghost of my mother and seeing me in the room is too much to handle.
“Seriously, Tilda, come on!” Jen’s voice is louder and more insistent.
“It’s not like this is easy,” I mumble under my breath, trying to call up some angry, but I can’t really be angry, not with Jen. She didn’t have to give me a place to live, assume the burden of caring for a crippled niece, but she did. And she chooses to care for me every day. I half expect her to wake up one morning and have changed her mind.
As I begin to move toward the door, I feel a pressure in my stomach. A hook in my navel linked to a line that is desperately trying to yank me backwards—to the window, to the thing that is calling to me. I am connected once again. The call is getting louder. I’ve only been here a few months and each day the summons becomes more compelling.
My hands are already hurting from gripping the wheels of my chair and I’ve barely moved at all—just a few yards out of my room and down the hall towards Jen’s little art studio next to the kitchen. I know I need to get stronger, that recovery will be a long road. If I can recover. The doctors say there’s only a fifty-fifty chance that I’ll walk again. The beam that fell on my back was so heavy. I remember the sound my body made when it crashed into me and how it felt—that unsettling crunch as my body caved inward, the way the lower half of my body went numb after the initial sharp, excruciating pain.
My aunt is standing, still wearing her paint-covered apron and working on a large piece, the largest yet. It nearly blocks the longest wall. It’s a line of three robed figures and the only colors she is using are purple, blue, and white, but somehow she’s created such depth that the figures seem to walk off the canvas and come towards me. It touches me for some reason. I want to be one of them, a robed girl hiding me from the world.
But they are walking.
And I am not.
“Do you like it?” Jen says over her shoulder, not looking at me. “It’s almost finished.” She turns around, hands on hips, a satisfied smile on her face.
“Yeah. It’s nice I guess.” It’s such an understatement. I love the painting, but it’s so hard to be positive about things these days. “Why were you yelling at me if you’re not even ready?” I huff, rubbing the palms of my hands roughly to drive away the soreness.
“Because I can give you a rolling head start, take off my apron, put on my shoes, grab my purse and still beat you out to the car with time to spare.”
“I’m not that slow.” I grumble, not amused—but my aunt certainly is; her face is stretched in a self-satisfied grin.
“Don’t mumble.” Jen turns away from me and applies a streak of bright white next to a stretch of deep blue.
“I grumbled. There’s a difference.”
“Oh really?” She turns to me, cleaning her brush with a stained cotton cloth.
“If I mumble, it can be for any reason. Grumbling means that I’m mumbling because I’m unhappy, displeased, despondent or generally grumpy.”
“If you say so. Grumbling or mumbling or anything in between. How about we toss the ‘tude and get to your appointment.” Jen unties her apron, takes it off, and lets it fall to the floor. “How’s your bag before we go?”
Frowning, I feel the collection sack strapped to my leg. It’s still very flat. “It’s fine.” I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the catheter and waste collection set up, but it’s a fact of my life now. One of the many joys of paraplegia. Cringing, I place my still-throbbing hands on the wheels again and I make my way to the kitchen door—it whines like a dying cat when you open it, because Jen forgets to oil it, no matter how many times I remind her. I’d do it myself, but the spray is in a bottom shelf in the pantry—one of the only rooms in the house with a doorway too narrow for my chair.
We always enter and exit out the back, because that’s where the ramp is. Jen has taken to parking on the lawn by the ramp instead of the front drive. It makes it easier for me, but I always feel bad when I see where the grass is dying.
Things seem to die around me, especially things that I love.
And I love grass, as stupid as that sounds. I love the feel of it on my bare feet; I love stretching out on it beneath a warm sun, and I love the way it smells when it is fresh-cut. So, inevitably, all the beautiful emerald blades are turning brown. Because things that I love die. This is a fact that haunts me.