The Invitation

Wait until the sun hangs low in the sky. Then invite her inside, and offer her a home.

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1. The Invited Woman

The leaves were cracked and sundried beneath her toes, spring giving way to autumn, life giving way to death. The sun hung low and burnt a brilliant orange in the sun, its dying rays painting the sky in scarlet hues. She stared directly into the blinding light, and she felt nothing.

There was a silence here that she hadn’t experienced for a long time, a nothingness that coated the air, making time incorrect. It made her footsteps slow and sluggish, like it didn’t want her to move. Like it wanted her feet to grow roots, and ground her in place forever.

The ghost of emotion pulled at her lips at the thought. She couldn’t stay. She had places to be. People to see. An invitation to accept.

She reached a hand up to her mouth, dirt-smudged fingers tracing the curve of the… smile. That’s what it was called. A smile. But it felt wrong on her. Her face felt more her own when it matched the nothingness of the air. She wondered if maybe, just maybe, it might be better if she return to nothing.

But she had been invited. A door had been thrown open. It would be rude if she refused.

If she listened closely to the air, she could hear them through the nothingness. Voices whispering in tones of excitement and fear. What if she doesn’t appear? What if she does?

No, she couldn’t refuse the invitation.

She didn’t recognise the forest, and yet her feet knew the path, as they always did when she was called. A frown creased her forehead, another emotion feeling strange and wrong on her face. She had forgotten that this wasn’t the first time an invite had been extended to her. So many invitations over the years, but all so far apart, leaving too much time in between for forgetfulness to set in.

Each one had led to disappointment, but maybe this time would be different. Maybe this time she would make it in time before they closed the door and revoked their offer.

The scenes of past callings flashed across her mind, deepening the wrongness furrowing her wrong. She recalled how she would see them, the faces at the windows of the home she had been invited to, the faces belonging to the bodies she had been offered to inhabit. But each time, the moment they saw one another, the doors would slam shut. The welcome lights would be extinguished. The offer would be withdrawn. Emptiness and nothingness would return to lead her back to the empty and nothing.

She was so tired of accepting invitations that only ever led to nothing.

The house appeared in the distance, the trees thinning as though parting just for her, clearing the way to the open front door. The sun had drifted beyond the horizon as the house came into view, and now the only light came from beyond that door. It was warm. The closer she got to the door, the warmer she felt, the more alive she felt. Life itself lay beyond that threshold, contained in bodies promised just to her.

Movement in one of the upper windows caught her eye, and her footsteps halted as she made eye contact with the face of one of her hosts. She smiled, and waved in greeting, the movement slowed by the nothingness. I’m here, she silently willed them to understand. I’m here to accept your invitation.

The face warped in fear. Their mouth opened in a scream.

Her own face crumpled, and she hurried through the thickness of the air, pushing through it in her desperation.

The screaming grew louder the closer she got to the house, to the door that still remained open. She could make it, if she just moved fast enough, if she could just cheat time this once, she could make it.

The door slammed shut. The lights extinguished. Silence reigned once more.

She swallowed, disappointment coating her tongue, as it always did. Her cracked fingernails curled into fists at her sides. This always happened. Why did it always happen? And how could she have dared to hope that this time would be different?

The emptiness came washing over her, wiping away the frustration, stripping her of the warmth she had felt for a moment. She turned her back on the house, on the hosts who now lay hidden behind closed curtains and doors. With a sigh, she began treading her way back to nothing.

Next time she would ignore the invitation. Next time she wouldn’t allow herself to be tempted.

This was a lie she always told herself.

***

“I saw her, Johnny! She was right there, in your driveway, waving at me! I’m not making this up, I swear.”

“Oh, come on, man. You didn’t actually see her. I’m not falling for it.”

“I swear to God, she was there. We shouldn’t have done it. We shouldn’t have invited her in. Oh my God, what if she had actually got inside? She would have killed one of us. She would have killed one of us and taken our bodies and-”

“Jesus, calm down, Liam! It was a joke, okay? Just a stupid legend made to scare kids. She’s not real, she was never here. The Invited Woman isn’t real. We won’t play again.”

“But she was there. She was right there…”

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