Constantine's skin crawled. He could hear the sounds of the woods all around him. The trees creaked, their leaves rustling and crackling together. Creatures moved, snuffling and shuffling through the undergrowth.
Something creaked above him and Constantine whipped his head up expecting to find himself in the midst of another swarm of bats. The moon was a sliver above him. The top edges of the trees danced beneath the fingernail of light, but he did not see any other shapes in the dark sky.
Constantine looked down at Aspen. His fingers were clenched in the cloth of her dress, catching a few strands of hair. He was sure he was pulling, but his fists remained closed. She was still, her breathing had evened, but if he let go of her for even a moment she could bolt into the woods. There was no way to tell if she was really asleep, though her breathing was so quiet he could hardly hear it over the noise of the dark woods. It was more easily marked by the faint change in the shape of her shoulders when she sucked a breath in.
A twig snapped and Constantine whirled, almost losing his grip on Aspen. His legs tingled, numb from being kept in the same position for too long.
He opened his mouth to call out and demand if someone was there, but no sound came out. He was trembling.
"Constantine, what are you doing out here still? It is late."
Constantine stared into the woods. The voice was intimately familiar. "Mom?"
"Of course, silly. Come on, let's go home." Her voice was soft and gentle. It reminded him of a day when he had fallen out of a tree and come home crying. She had settled him in her lap, dismissing the nurse, and spoken to him in just that tone until he had been able to stop crying.
He looked into the trees. The voice could have come from any direction. He could not distinguish anything specific.
"Mom?" he called again. Constantine was ashamed of the way his voice peaked, as if he were a terrified child.
Aspen stirred; she really had been asleep. She batted away Constantine's hands. "You're pulling my hair."
Constantine ignored her, dumping her out of his lap unceremoniously to stand. His knees wobbled. He searched the woods with his eyes but he could not see her. Surely she had brought a lantern?
"What are you doing?" Aspen was on her feet, hands on her hips. Her hair stood on end in places and she did not look pleased about how she had been awakened.
Constantine hushed her.
"Constantine, let's go." His mother sounded impatient, her voice sharp.
Looking into the woods, Constantine could faintly make out a figure.
"Come on, child."
Constantine walked toward the figure. She was not lit very well, but perhaps she had kept the lantern mostly closed.
"What are you doing?" Aspen grabbed his arm. "We can just go into the woods, it's the middle of the night - we'll get lost."
Constantine glared at her. "My mother's right there, clot-pole. We won't get lost."
"Your mom?" Aspen surveyed the surrounding trees. "Where?"
He gestured at the figure. "Right there, can't you see her?"
The figure in the trees shimmered as if it was moving farther away. Constantine had to squint to see it clearly.
"Constantine," his mother called. She sounded angry. He could hear footsteps receding away from them.
"Coming," he called, trying to tug Aspen with him.
She dug in her heels. "Who are you talking to?"
"My mom - didn't you hear her? I don't think she's happy we've run off."
Aspen's gray eyes were grave. Constantine could just make them out in the girl's face. Her mouth was invisible in the half-light, but he was sure she was frowning. "I don't see anyone."
"She's right there," he pointed again. The figure was nearly invisible, but when it called out to him again its voice was loud and commanding.
"Come on, we have to follow her,"
"I didn't hear anything," Aspen protested. Her fingers dug into his arm.
"She's right there - we have to follow her,"
"I don't see her," Aspen's voice was high-pitched. "I'm not going out into the woods just because you think you see someone - I don't hear anything."
Constantine jerked out of her grasp. "If you want to stay lost in the woods, do it. I'm going to follow my mom."
He strode out of the clearing in the direction he had seen the figure. He resisted the urge to turn and see if Aspen had followed him. After a moment he heard tentative footsteps behind him. Constantine let out a sigh. He had been worried about leaving Aspen by herself in the woods.
His mother was hardly visible beneath the shadow of the trees. She was moving quickly.
"Mom," he called. "Wait, I can't keep up."
She did not slow. Constantine tripped over a fallen branch, stumbling forward to catch his balance. Aspen bumped into him. She grabbed his arm; her fingernails dug into him, even through the cloth of his shirt sleeves. "I still don't see her," she whispered. She sounded terrified.
"Well, just follow me." Constantine forced himself to sound confident. "I can see her."
Constantine tried not to run. He did not want to look lost or out of control. Aspen stumbled over every shrub that they passed, slowing him down anyway. The figure of his mother faded in and out of his sight. She did not turn back to him or speak to him.
They gasped for collective breath. They seemed to be going nowhere, the trees all looked the same and, in the moonlight, every bush seemed a formidable foe. Constantine found himself supporting Aspen as they struggled to keep up. Was the house really so far away? Constantine could not remember. Perhaps they had wandered much farther than they had intended.
Notes: This is extremely embarassing, but yes, this is all I have. That's why I gave myself 20 days. I have yet to find my path through this story . . . Looks like I'll need the full 20 days.