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I DIDN’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT DEATH UNTIL I began studying philosophy. That was how I learned the truth about Descartes, about the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, about my past. My mother used to tell me that matter was neither created nor destroyed, only transferred. She was filled with old theories that she would make me recite back to her, as if she were trying to tell me something about the world but couldn’t find the right words. I never gave them much thought until she and my father were killed, but by then it was too late to ask what it had all meant. It wasn’t until I enrolled at Gottfried Academy that I began to make sense of who I was and what I was fated to become. But first, let me tell you about the peculiar circumstances surrounding the death of my parents. Because it was their deaths that set off the strange chain of events that led me to where I am now. And because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my first year at Gottfried, it’s that sometimes you have to look back in order to understand the things that lie ahead.
The Encounter in the Woods
MY PARENTS DIED ON A HOT AUGUST evening. It was my sixteenth birthday, and my best friend, Annie, and I had snuck out to Santa Rosa for the day to celebrate. We took her car and spent the afternoon at Buzzard’s Point Beach, tanning, flipping through magazines, and walking along the jetty. Around five o’clock, just as the tide began to come in, we packed up our towels and headed home so we’d be back before our parents returned from work.
Annie was driving, her long sandy hair fluttering out the open window as we sped down Prairie Creek Drive. It was a scenic road that started at the coast and wound inland, meandering through the redwood forest. Annie didn’t want to drive through the national park; the route was narrow and dark and gave her the creeps, but for some reason I felt that it was the right road to take. After ten minutes of convincing her that it was the fastest way back to Costa Rosa, she complied.
“So when are you seeing Wes again?” Annie asked me, adjusting her sunglasses.
Wes was a senior, tall and smart with perfect teeth, the captain of the soccer team, and the only guy in our high school worth dating. Unfortunately, all the other girls felt the same way. They followed him around in groups, giggling and trying to get his attention. I would never be caught dead doing that, partially because I thought it was pathetic, but mainly because I didn’t have time. I had lacrosse practice, homework, and a part-time job. And although I was decently popular, I had never been the outgoing type. I liked to pick my friends, opting for quality over quantity, and since I spent most of my time outside working or reading instead of socializing, I always assumed that Wes didn’t even know my name. So when he asked me out, I was speechless.
“Saturday, supposedly. But he said he would call me this week and it’s already Thursday.... Maybe he changed his mind.”
Annie rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course he’ll call.”
I hoped she was right. I worked at a farmers’ market on the weekends, manning a fruit stand. Wes had stopped by two weeks ago and asked me to help him pick out apples for his mom. He was completely lost when it came to fruit; there are so many different kinds of apples, he told me, running his hands nervously through his hair. Afterward, he asked me to the movies, and I was so surprised that I dropped the bag of apples, letting them roll about our feet. Ever since our date I hadn’t been able to think straight about anything except for the buttery kiss he had given me in the darkness of the theater, his lips melting into mine with the taste of popcorn and salt.
I shook off the thought and shrugged. “I don’t even know if he likes me that much,” I said. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
“Well, I think you guys are perfect for each other,” Annie said, leaning back in her seat.
I smiled. “Thanks, An,” I said, and turned up the radio.
We’d both had a crush on Wes for ages, but Annie would never let it come between us. She was the beautiful one, modest and graceful with a gentle personality that was easy to love. I, on the other hand, was impulsive and skinny, and wished that I could be more like a character in a novel, so I would finally stop blurting out the wrong things at the wrong time. My brown hair was wavy and had a life of its own, with sideswept bangs that had seemed like a good decision at the time, but never stayed in their proper place once I left the hairdresser. I preferred outdoors to indoors; running to walking. As a result, my knees were always covered with Band-Aids, and my cheeks were sun-kissed and sprinkled with freckles.
The road grew narrow, making sharp and unexpected twists and turns as we drove north into the redwood forest.
My wet hair dangled around my shoulders, and I ran my hands through it while it dried in the warm California breeze. Ancient trees lined the curb, and the sky began to turn an ominous shade of red. That summer, the weather had been strange and unpredictable, and after a day of blue skies, clouds were beginning to hover on the horizon.
Annie slowed down as we rounded a bend. The car smelled of sunscreen and aloe vera, and I was prodding my cheeks, inspecting my sunburn in the visor mirror, when I spotted the car. It was a rusty white Jeep with a roof rack, parked on the shoulder of the road, by a cluster of trees.
I sat up in my seat. “Pull over,” I said.
“Pull over!” I repeated.
Annie pulled in next to the Jeep just as the remains of the California sun folded into the clouds. “Is that your dad’s car?” she asked, taking the keys out of the ignition.
“Yeah,” I said, confused, and opened the door.
“Why would it be here?” Annie asked, slamming the door.
I had no idea. He was supposed to be at work. He and my mother were both high school teachers in Costa Rosa, almost an hour away from here. Cupping my hands, I peered into the Jeep. It was empty, with objects strewn across the seats, as if my father had left in a hurry. The giant trunks of the redwoods stood a mere ten feet away, creating a boundary between the road and the forest beyond, which was quickly being swallowed by darkness. I reached into Annie’s car for my jacket and pulled it on.
“What are you doing?” Annie asked apprehensively.
“He’s got to be in there,” I said, and made for the edge of the forest.
I stopped. “Maybe he went...hiking. They do that kind of stuff sometimes on weekends.” I tried to say it with conviction, but I didn’t believe it. “I’m just going to check it out.”