Dakota. Wake up.

My mother’s words were distant, like they were underwater. I was drifting in a swirl of memories from the night. Dinner and dessert at my favorite restaurant. Me hiding my face while the staff sang me “Happy Birthday.” Ivy and me rolling our eyes at my mom’s constant nagging over me finding a boyfriend. Dancing and drinks. It was the perfect twenty-first birthday, and I didn’t want it to end. I guess that’s why I kept dreaming about it, drawing out the night as much as I could.

“Dakota,” her voice cut into my dreams again, clearer this time. “Dakota, wake up. You have to wake up now.”

I kept trying to ignore her, but then she started shaking me. I jumped up in bed, blinking my eyes to adjust in the darkness.

My mother was standing by my bed with a strange expression. “Wake up, sweetie.”

Was I still dreaming?

She leaned over to my bedside table and flipped on the lamp. The light brought on another level of awakeness. This was real, and I started to panic.

“What is it?” I groaned, rubbing my eyes. “Is everything okay?”

My heart started pounding when she didn’t answer. Her eyes dropped to the floor, staring at nothing…but it was obviously something ominous to her.

“We have to go,” she said.

I kept scratching at my face, still half-believing I would wake up. Mom didn’t seem panicked. But she was definitely worried and anxious. Not the typical behavior for an emergency in the middle of the night.

“Go?” I croaked. “What are you talking about?”

She turned for my closet and pulled out my suitcase. “There’s no time to explain. We just…We have to go. You have to come with me.”

I sucked in a breath. I didn’t smell smoke. She wasn’t crying, so I assumed no one was dead or in the hospital.

“Mom, stop. Seriously, what’s going on? Is this some kind of birthday prank?”

“I wish it was,” she sighed. “I’ll tell you as much as I can on the way. But we have to leave. Our time is up.”

I knew I had to be dreaming, despite how real it all seemed. “Time? Up?” I crashed back down to the pillow and pulled the covers over my head tight. “Turn the light out.”

I felt a sharp tug to the covers just before they went flying to the foot of the bed. My mom leaned over me, firmly clutching my shoulders in her hands. Her face twisted into something more alarming, more urgent.

“I’m sorry it’s happening like this, Dakota. I’m so sorry. I wish I could say more. Pack your suitcase. We leave in an hour.”

“What the hell!?” I shrieked, realizing this was real and she wasn’t going to let it go. “Have you lost your mind? Go where!? I don’t understand what’s happening.”

“I know,” she frowned. “I’m sorry. Pack and meet me downstairs.”

She left me sitting there in dazed confusion. I wanted to roll it off and go back to sleep, but at the very least, my mom was experiencing some kind of breakdown. I crawled out of bed and put on a hoodie and some slippers. The whole time, I stared at the open suitcase on my bed. Go where? I kept asking myself, as if an answer would suddenly appear.

I shuffled down the stairs to find that every light in the house was on. I followed the clanking noises coming from the kitchen, expecting to find my mother there. But it was my best friend Ivy rifling through the cabinets.

“What are you doing here?” I groaned, rubbing the last of the sleep from my eyes. “I thought you took a cab home from the bar.”

“I did. But then I came back,” she said nonchalantly. “Don’t worry. I’ve got a pot of coffee brewing.”

My face twisted up with even more confusion as I tried to sort through the most important questions to ask first. “Have you seen my mom?” I asked finally. “She came into my room and woke me up saying really weird stuff. Something about there’s no time to explain and we had to go. Do you know what’s going on?”

“Of course I do, silly. That’s why I’m here.”

I nodded as if it made sense, but it only flooded me with more questions. “Uh-huh. Okay. But wait. Why are you here exactly?”

“All I can say for now is that we’ve got to get on the road,” she replied, digging through the drawers for the matching lids to the three coffee thermoses she had lined up on the counter. “I know it doesn’t make much sense now, but it will. Go pack your bag. We’ll be waiting for you.”

I shook my head, growing more frustrated by the second. “Ivy, stop,” I barked. When she didn’t respond, I went over and put my hand on hers. “Seriously. Stop and look at me. You have to tell me what this is all about. You two can’t just wake me up in the middle of the night and tell me to pack a bag and expect me to be okay without any explanation.”

Her eyes stared back into mine with a concerning seriousness. But after a minute, she forced a smile and shrugged. “Birthday surprise.”

My brow furrowed, and I kept staring back at her, waiting for her to cave in and tell me more. A strand of her short blonde hair slipped down into her eyes, and she blew it back up into place. Those blue eyes which I had known since we were kids. I trusted Ivy. I trusted my mother, too. But neither of them had ever acted so weird before.

It became clear Ivy wasn’t going to give me anything else to go off of. She acted so breezy, as if this was all just another ordinary night. I wanted to go along with it, but something in my gut told me to be afraid.

I hoped it was just my tiredness that made it all feel so scary and full of dread. I shuffled back towards the stares, grumbling, “Next time you two want to surprise me, let me get a good night’s rest first.”

I tried to take my best guesses at possibilities as I returned to my room and started aimlessly packing. A girls’ trip maybe? Had I mentioned wanting to go somewhere specific and forgotten? Was there some reason this just had to happen in the middle of the night? And on my twenty-first birthday, no less. After I had just gotten drunk in front of my mom for the first time.

Without knowing where we were going or why, it was hard to know what to bring. But somehow I managed to throw some essentials into my suitcase and head back downstairs. I was still half-expecting the house to be dark, for Ivy to be gone again, and for my mom to be fast asleep in her bed. That’s how surreal it all had been.

But the front door was open with Ivy and my mom rushing in and out of the house, throwing things into the trunk. As promised, Ivy delivered a thermos of hot coffee to me as she darted by.

“Here, I guess.” I held out my suitcase, which my mother quickly grabbed and ran out to the car.

Ivy kept her usual half-smile plastered on her face, acting like everything was fine. I wanted to take comfort in that, but the troubled look in my mom’s eyes prevented me.

With no one wanting to explain more, or even slow down long enough to say a proper good morning, I followed them out to the car and climbed in. Mom locked the house up and got into the driver’s seat. I caught a glimpse of that worried glare once more in the rearview reflection before we drove off.

“Okay, you got me out of bed,” I announced from the back seat, stretching my arms. “You dragged me out, suitcase and all. Now can someone tell me what the hell is going on?”

Ivy looked at my mom, but they both remained silent for a moment. Each second that passed without words intensified the uneasiness growing inside.

“We’re going near Lake Erie,” Mom said finally. “I can’t tell you much more than that.”

“I thought this was a birthday surprise,” I scoffed. “What kind of surprise could be waiting for me at Lake Erie?”

“Oh, it’s a surprise alright,” Ivy quipped, sipping her coffee.

“What’s that supposed to mean!?” They went back to giving me the silent treatment. “Okay. It’s official,” I laughed incredulously. “You’ve both lost it. Or I’m dreaming. Maybe it’s both. Maybe you’re both crazy and messing with me in my sleep and it’s all culminating in the most lucid, weirdest dream I’ve ever had.”

“It’s no dream,” Mom murmured.

Her tone put me on edge, making it hard to swallow. But I sat back and tried to drink my coffee. How bad could it really be? The odds of both my mom and best friend going certifiably insane at the same time seemed low. So I hoped I wasn’t at risk of them turning on me and murdering me before tossing my body into Lake Erie.

It was still pitch black outside as we drove. For the first time, I thought to check the time and saw that it was nearly 3am. The realization made my sleepiness set in all over again, but I resisted the urge to use my bag and jacket as a pillow. First, I had to scour through the news headlines. There were no national or local disasters, or any trace of news that could explain their behavior and this sudden middle of the night road trip.

Knowing the world wasn’t ending calmed me down some. I ignored the nagging thought that maybe it was ending and my mom and Ivy were the only ones who seemed to know it. I piled up some things to rest my head on and curled up across the backseat, quickly drifting back to sleep. It was the only thing I could do to escape the relentless unanswered questions.

Some time later, I woke up to my body being jolted forward into the floorboards. I groaned and rubbed my back, trying to sit up again.

It wasn’t dark anymore, but it wasn’t sunny either. Judging by all the trees and open highways, and the fog of snow over the mountains in the distance, I had to assume we were quite a ways out of the city by then. More of our surroundings became clear in my sleepy haze, and I quickly gathered that we were stopped right in the middle of the road.

I looked up ahead and saw the culprit. Standing right there in the middle of the road, in a perfect clear crease of the fog, was a wolf. Or at least I thought it was a wolf. I blinked and it was suddenly gone, but something had to make my mom slam on the brakes.

“Did you see that?” I asked, staring straight ahead with wide eyes. But all that was left now was snow and fog and pavement.

My mom reached to unbuckle her seatbelt, then for the door handle.

“Mom! No! What are you doing!?” My hand shot out to hold her back by her shoulder. “I think I saw something out there. A wolf or something. Don’t go out there. It’s not safe.”

She didn’t turn around, but her hand reached up to cover mine. “It’s okay.”

She pulled out of my grip and opened the door anyway. I whimpered through my heavy breaths, watching in fear as she walked out and vanished into the thick fog.

“It’s okay,” Ivy assured me. “She knows what she’s doing.”

“Great. I just wish I knew as much. I wish I knew anything right about now.”

The seconds seemed like hours as they passed while I waited to see if some sasquatch or wolf monster would devour my mom right before our eyes. I let out a sigh of relief when she reappeared again, unharmed. I caught sight of a figure standing in the haze where she had just been. I squinted to get a closer look, terrified to see the wolf again. But this time there was a strange man standing there, glaring right at me from the road. Maybe I hadn’t seen a wolf, and it had been him the whole time. I couldn’t tell up from down anymore.

“Were you talking to him!?” I asked urgently as she climbed back into the car, buckling her seatbelt. “Who is that!? It’s so strange. I thought he looked…different before.”

“It’s who we came to see,” she answered vaguely, putting the car back into drive.

“That’s it!” I cried. “This has gone far enough! Someone tell me what’s going on and why we’re here right now or I’m getting out of the car. I mean it.” After a moment of silence, I reached for the door handle just to show how serious I was. Of course I was in no hurry to throw myself out to the wolves…or whatever else was out there in the middle of nowhere. I could only hope they wouldn’t call my bluff.

“It’s your father,” my mom sighed.

“That guy on the road was my father!?”

“No. All of this has to do with your father…and where he comes from. Where you come from. I didn’t want it to be like this. I had hoped you would meet someone but…It’s too late now. Maybe they’re right. Maybe this is all meant to be. All I know is…I had to bring you here. Or the curse that would fall over us would be far worse than what waits for us out in those woods.”

I blinked once. Twice. Three times, letting the words sink in. But none of it made any sense, and once again I was crushed by more questions than I could put words to. Not knowing where to start, I sank back into the seat and waited to see what would happen next. What else could I do?