Substitutes are the worst obviously, but this one wasn’t so bad. She was pretty, for one thing, with a snub nose and eyes sort of permanently smiling at you. And she was pretty nice, without being goopy. She just seemed regular. We liked her.
Especially I liked her. Our regular teacher doesn’t really like me very much, but the substitute did.
She was there the week we presented science projects.
My friend Mariela went before me. Her project was on lobotomies, where they stick a needle in your eye to kill a bad part of your brain. Or it turns out now they do it in surgery, but in the past they used to stick a needle through your eye into your brain. And this is not like a hundred years ago, but even in the 1960s and 1970s! Gross.
My project was “Extraterrestrial Life—ALIENS AMONG US.” The title was kind of corny because obviously there aren’t real aliens. But some people think there are alien microbes around. In fact some people think that’s actually how life on earth got started even, maybe—some alien microbes landed here and life started growing from them.
“So maybe life just came raining down on us from outer space,” I said at the end of my presentation. “And maybe that’s even still happening now.”
Then I curtsied, which is ridiculous, but whatever, I just did it to show I was done. The class clapped for me, and when I passed her desk to sit down, the substitute leaned toward me.
“I think you’re righter than you know,” she said, and smiled.
The final bell rang, so we packed up to go home. I was kind of glowing. But the substitute stopped me at the door.
“Got a second, Aisha?” she said. “I loved your project. Lovely work. Let’s talk a bit more. Maybe we should consider this project for the district science fair.”
I have always wanted to be in that big fair, and I had worked so hard on this project. I know it sounds stupid, but just, I was excited. I pulled a chair up to her desk and sat down.
“Why do you think alien microbes might still be visiting?” she asked. Her long red nail was sort of drawing along her grade book, like she didn’t notice it. Her eyes were on me, warm and brown. “What do you think they want?”
“Oh, well,” I said. I was stumbling a little because I wasn’t sure what she meant. “They’re just microbes so . . . I don’t think they want or don’t want things.”
When she smiled, her eyes crinkled in such a nice way. “What about Noah’s presentation, though?”
Noah had done his on toxoplasmosis, which is where cats spread this microbe around, and when mice eat the microbe, they start liking cats and being super friendly to them. It’s like this bug whispers in their brains that Cats are the best! No reason to be afraid of cats!
And once they stop being afraid of cats, well, they’re a lot easier for the cats to catch. Which is convenient for the cats. But it’s bad for the mice they kill and eat.
The substitute was leaning over me now, looking at my presentation on my school iPad. Her hair was touching my hair. She put one long pretty finger on my iPad, like she was about to make a point about something there.
I felt weird, like she was too close. Her arms were making a cage around me. And she had pushed in so that my chair was scootched all the way to the desk, so I couldn’t even slip down. My heart started beating a little hard, like it was scared for no good reason. She’s nice, though, I told myself. She’s really, really nice.
She put her lips close to my ear, so close I could feel that the lips were smiling. Then long and slow, with a long, raspy breath, she whispered: “I’m not really nice.”
I didn’t feel anything going in my ear except breath.
I didn’t feel a worm or a bug or anything.
But something must have gone in. Something did go in. What went in me? I don’t know. Maybe it was a microbe.
All I know is now there’s something that’s not me inside my head.
At first I hardly noticed. Our regular teacher came back the next day, and she wasn’t as nice, and she said my science project was Nonsense and not only would I not be going to the district science fair, I would have to start all over with a new idea just to get a passing grade. I couldn’t believe it.
And that same day, this thing in my head started doing things. But it wasn’t me.
I had to go to the library to find a new topic. They let me on the computer for twenty minutes to google around about it. I didn’t really have any ideas.
But then all of a sudden, I did. Or this thing in my head did, this thing that wasn’t me. It made my hands type out “Dr. Cynthia Weinstein new vaccine” in the google box. Which, I have never even heard that name before. And something came up! I was so freaked out from my hands typing on their own I almost got out of the chair, but my body stayed where it was and made me read the first article. Which was hard because it was pretty sciencey, but apparently this Dr. Weinstein had invented a flu vaccine that she said would prevent not just this year’s flu, like most vaccines, but all flu, ever. You take this vaccine once when you’re a kid, and never get the flu!
At first other scientists had said it couldn’t be. But I guess now some were coming around. It was a Debate in the Scientific Community.
Yeah, that would be good for a science project. But: I didn’t want to do a science project on something my hands typed out without my permission. So I tried to get up. But my body stayed sitting. It turned to the librarian, all straight and proper, and this thing in my head said to the librarian, “Miss? I wonder if may I print this article, please?”
Who talks like that? Not me. Not me.
When the librarian gave it to me I rushed out words in my own voice, saying I felt sick, really sick, I had to go home. She called my mom, and when Mom came and saw me, the madness fell off her face.
All the way home I tried not to talk, in case the other voice came out.
For the next week, I fought with the thing in my head. It wanted me to do my science project, but I wouldn’t. I stayed in my room playing Minecraft instead. I stopped looking in the mirror, because when I looked in the mirror I saw my eyes were half scared and half hard and angry. The scared part was me.
But even though I tried, that thing got better and better at using me. It made me hold the back of my neck stiff and hard, so it ached at night. It wouldn’t let me just do things, he had to be mean about it. It talked with my mouth, it sounded fake. It answered in class in its stupid prissy voice and made everyone hate me, even my friends.
One night I before I went to bed, I saw the article. I didn’t want to see it, it was scary, so I flipped it over. But when I did I saw something, and I picked it up after all. The microbe this doctor wanted to use in the vaccine—the name of it, a long scientific name, sounded familiar. I went to get my old science project on the aliens. The thing in my head didn’t WANT me to, it made my fingers so stiff I had to pushed on the iPad with flat fingers.
It’s getting stronger.
But I found the presentation. I saw where that name came from.
It’s one of the microbes this one scientist thinks is alien.
I looked again at that article the librarian printed out. It had a picture of Dr Cynthia Weinstein. And her face had that same look I see in the mirror. Her eyes were scared, with something hard and angry standing behind them.
The microbes want me to do my science project on this new vaccine, I thought. Because they want everyone to take the new vaccine.
Because then everyone will be like me.
I am hardly myself any longer. The words I say are almost never mine. How can’t everyone tell it’s so fake?
But they can’t, even my mom can’t. I think they think I’m the fake—but it’s not me! It’s these imposter microbes or aliens or whatever!
HaHA laughs the imposter. When something wasn’t funny.
While I’m writing this, the imposter in my head says SHUT UP, SHUT UP, STOP. It’s angry.
I have an idea how to kill him, while I can still control my body a little. But will it kill me, too?
My idea is that maybe I could I find the exact spot in my head where the imposter is, and stick a needle in there and kill it. Like in a lobotomy, only I’m not killing MY brain, I’m killing this bad thing inside me.
Supposedly you can do it through the eye. I imagine a long knitting needle sliding in, and part of me is afraid, and part of me is furious and happy.
And I don’t know which part is the me part.
I’m going to kill that lying thing before it destroys me, before it destroys the whole world. While I’m still here to know I’m not that thing, I’m going to kill it. I’m going to kill it. I won’t be a mouse in love with a cat.
And I’ll tell the world, I’ll tell Dr Cynthia Weinstein, I’ll tell everyone how to stop the aliens microbes, and I’ll make them believe me.
I hope it works
Not a lot of exciting things happened in Bucky Creek, and not a lot of bad things happened either, at least none anyone talked about, and that was very disappointing to Jeanie Kramer because she wanted to catch a murderer.
Jeanie Kramer was eight, and a liar. If you asked her what her name was she would say it was Stella Goldfish, and if you asked her what grade she was in, she would lower her voice darkly and tell you she didn’t have time for school because she was a private eye, and if you asked her where she was going so quickly with mud all over her front and a dripping bag in one hand, she would wave you close and tell you that she had just solved a hot case and there were six dead bodies lying in the streambed at Willow Crossing, and she was on her way to fetch the police.
The truth of the matter was somewhat different: Jeanie had never actually seen a dead body, at least not a human one. The six she had found in the stream-bed were rats that had been surprised in their holes by a flashflood and washed out, all matted fur and yellow, translucent claws. Jeanie had never put anyone in jail either. Her only case so far had been finding old Mrs. Brodzinksi’s cat in the storm-drain, and then running all the way back to Mrs. Brodzinksi’s house and waiting on the rickety porch until Mrs. Brodzinksi came home and telephoned the fire department. But – and Jeanie was quite firm on this – none of that mattered. Just because something wasn’t true now, didn’t mean it would never be true. She would be named Stella Goldfish one day. She would be a detective, and if people laughed at her, well, they would just have to solve their own murder cases.
* * *
Her way to achieve her goals, she had decided, was to catch a killer. Murder was the worst sort of crime you could commit. Even the word sounded dreadful – MURDER – all red and raw and awful. So it stood to reason that if you could catch a murderer you had to be pretty bright. You had to be fearless and brave and better. Jeanie had already imagined many times a scenario in which she found one. They were either great grizzled men with beards, or shivery, wild-eyed women in nightdresses, or sometimes a pumpkin with a knife. (Jeanie didn’t quite believe that last one, but she had dreamed about it one night, and had henceforth always regarded pumpkins with suspicion).
In Jeanie’s daydreams, she would leap onto the scene just as the murderer was about to commit his dastardly deed, and then things became rather fuzzy, but they usually involved the murderer tripping, or Jeanie using a crossbow to shoot him.
Jeanie didn’t have a crossbow in real life, and she didn’t know what she would do in the case that there was no fortuitous clumsiness, but that wasn’t the point. When you got into tough situations, either things went your way, or they didn’t, and Jeanie felt they would go her way, because why would things go well for an evil bearded man or a crazy lady?
* * *
Jeanie’s parents were not best pleased with her pastime. Neither was her older brother, who wore spectacles and ratty sweatpants, and always seemed to find something wrong with everything Jeanie did. He often gave her long speeches about the ill-effects of having morbid interests, but whenever he started on those Jeanie made a point not to listen to him.
At breakfast, her father would look over his newspaper at her. She hardly noticed, was usually busy reading How to Sharpen your Powers of Observance in 10 Simple Steps, whil her eggs grew cold and congealed in greasy puddles on her plate. He would say, “Jeanie, I think if you found a murderer, you wouldn’t know what to do with him,” at which Jeanie eyed him sharply over the top of her book and said, “It might not be a ‘him’. Ladies kill people, too, sometimes.” At which point her father lost all interest in the conversation.
* * *
Jeanie and her parents and her dull brother lived outside a town that was very small, in one of those brown, scraggly states that no one really talks about except to express dismay at their voting habits. Her house was out on a long stretch of highway, and there were fields around it for miles, no trees, just lots of brown dead grasses, waving like so many dry, thin dancers. Sometimes Jeanie would sit in the yard and peer out toward the fluttering brown sea and imagine what might be going on in there, or just beyond the horizon-line.
It was lonely out here. It was lonely in Bucky Creek, too, because it took ages to become friendly with people. Once you did, you started to wonder whether you really knew them, or whether they simply knew you.
The Kramers had moved into the house about two years ago, after Jeanie’s parents became convinced the city was too dangerous to raise a family. Jeanie had not been happy about the move. The Kramer house was a low, one-story get-up, with a few shingles missing and a screen-door with a too-quick spring that snapped shut on your heels if you weren’t quick enough. There was a patch of lawn and a few dark bushes and a creaky swing-set and not much else. It was exactly the sort of house, that, when you pass by on a long road trip, you wondered with a pang of pity what sort of sad, going-nowhere people must live there, and sometimes when Jeanie walked home she thought the same thing.
She had not been as keen on murderers as a six-year-old as she was now as an eight-year-old. It had happened slowly. The kids at school were farm kids who had so many brothers and sisters they didn’t need anyone else. They didn’t have time for games, and they talked about livestock a lot. None of them really liked detectives. And Jeanie had decided that if she couldn’t fit in, she had to stand out wildly.
She got used to the town. She got used to the library. The house wasn’t so bad on closer inspection, and once you stepped safely through the screen door it was actually quite homey; it had a TV and running water and all that, which some people maybe would not have guessed at first glance.
But there were no murderers. Jeanie had checked. She had even checked the shed far out in the fields behind the house. It had looked very promising, but had proved to be empty.
* * *
Jeanie made a sign and colored it yellow and put it in the driveway. It said, “Stella Goldfish, private-eye, 2$” and unfortunately that had not turned out well. Her brother had laughed uproariously when he saw it, and Jeanie had stared at him, confused, because she thought it was a good sign. When he had calmed down enough to speak, he asked, “What happens when they pay 2 dollars? Do they get to keep you? There’s a no-returns policy, I hope?” And then he started laughing again, and Jeanie shook her head and furrowed her brow and said, “No, then I solve their cases, duh.” But her stupid brother hadn’t stopped laughing.
No one responded to the sign. Maybe the people in the cars driving by laughed, too, when they saw it, or maybe they saw the house beyond, and the brown fields, and had that twinge of pity, thinking, “What sort of sad, going-nowhere people live here?” And it made Jeanie angry because she didn’t want to be a sad, going nowhere person. She wanted to be someone. She wanted people to stop laughing, and she wanted to do something brave and wonderful like Arthur Conan or Nancy Drew. No one ever laughed at them, did they?
And then one day, not to be deterred, Jeanie put on rain boots and a red raincoat and took the bus into town.
* * *
Jeanie went to the library. “Hello,” she said at the desk. “I need some books about murder.” The librarian was a nice-looking person with frizzy hair, who said, “Oh, you mean mysteries. Well, I don’t know if they have murder in them, but let me find you something.” She came back a few minutes later with three small, bright books that had children in sneakers and flashlights on the covers, and titles with exclamation points.
Jeanie looked at the books and looked at the librarian. The librarian smiled at her, waving the books encouragingly. Jeanie sighed. She knew the librarian meant well, but she also knew that these were not the sorts of books she needed.
“Can I look around?” she asked, and the librarian smiled and nodded.
Jeanie found a section on forensics, some illustrated volumes on crimes scenes, and one book full of glossy pages of photographic evidence. She had just gotten comfortable at a table under a window with a large stack of books, when the librarian swooped in out of nowhere and said, “Sweetie, I don’t think these books are good for you right yet,” and started gathering them up and putting them back on shelves before Jeanie could even open her mouth.
Jeanie watched her, annoyed.
“If you really want something on the subject, how about trying these books!” the librarian said cheerily, and set down a few old-looking books. “There’s some tingly local stories in them and you’ll get some history, too.”
Jeanie blew a strand of hair out of her face and picked up one of the history books despondently. She began to read. The history book was surprisingly good. It didn’t tell her the really necessary things, like how victims were identified when they had been dead for a while, or what the police did when they knew someone was guilty but he wouldn’t confess. But there were nuggets here and there that intrigued her. It seemed that this particular county, with its brittle yards and ochre-colored houses, had just as many terrible people as anywhere. The difference was simply that they lived very far apart from one another, and no one ever spoke of the bad things that happened. They knew. Everyone knew. But they didn’t tell outsiders. They didn’t tell book-writers; they didn’t even tell the police necessarily.
Jeanie read about a few cases the book-writer had been able to glean – a woman who drove off a bridge, and a man who stayed in his house so long that when they found him he was covered in dust and cobwebs, still breathing, because his dog had brought him sparrows and blackbirds to eat. Jeanie’s eyes grew wider and wider as she read, and the clock ticked, and the shadows grew longer. The librarian came by once or twice just to make sure she was okay, and probably also to make sure Jeanie didn’t make a run for the Criminology shelf.
And then Jeanie saw it, and her skin prickled. Murder. Murder right here in town. She shivered.
The Raincoat Killer: 22 years ago, in the sleepy town of Bucky Creek, a shocking murder tore through the community. An entire family slain. Remains never found. Perpetrator vanished without a trace, presumed dead. All that was recovered from the crime scene was a shred of plastic, probably belonging to a raincoat.
Jeanie’s heart squeezed. She was suddenly glad for the librarian hovering around and shelving books and making friendly, normal noises. The murderer had been identified immediately, but somehow before the police could arrest him he had gone into the grasslands and no one had ever seen him again. They found some evidence later, but no one ever found the remains of his victims. The murders had taken place in one of the houses in Bucky Creek, and it was still standing, and there was a black-and-white photograph of a knife that-
Jeanie closed the book with snap and looked over at the librarian, who was humming and flipping through a notepad, casting Jeanie nervous glances. Jeanie sat very still, breathing shallowly. Then she scooted off her chair and hurried out of the library.
She didn’t think about what she had read. She was not even sure she had read it. It was half in and half out of her brain, and somehow it was in just enough to disturb her a lot. She thought of the murderer, imagined him a man with silvered glasses walking along the street in his gray raincoat. She thought of the nice people who stopped for him, and she wondered where they might have gone had they not stopped. It made her feel cold and sad and hollow.
She thought about going home, but she felt she ought to investigate now. She was closer than ever. A murder had happened right here in Bucky Creek and no one had ever solved it. One part of her, deep, deep down, was telling her she shouldn’t go snooping anymore, and she wasn’t sure why because it was all she had wanted to do for years now. She wasn’t afraid, not of murderers. But something told her she might be afraid of this one.
* * *
She wandered all up Bucky Creek’s main street, then down its only side street, one called Peachtree Drive, even though there were no peach trees and probably never had been. She peeked in windows and crept over scraggly lawns, quiet and sharp-eyed. She looked everywhere for clues. She saw bad things, that was for sure, things no one should really see, garbages full of glass bottles, quiet fights, and whispered words behind a wood-stack. But it was not enough, and it wasn’t what she needed. After a while, she went to Mrs. Brodzinski’s house and stood with a stick, banging it against the mailbox post. She saw old Mrs. Brodzinski on her porch and walked over. The woman was crying, her white hair stuck to her face.
“Why are you crying?” Jeanie asked, peering at her from below, and Mrs. Brodzinski’s head came up with a start. She didn’t answer, just stared at Jeanie, wide-eyed.
“I miss them,” she said. “I miss them so much.”
“Oh, kiddo,” said Mrs. Brodzinski. “What do you want? Why d’you keep coming ‘round here, causing mischief?”
Jeanie wandered off, but she couldn’t get Mrs. Brodzinski’s words out of her head. It wasn’t mean, the way she’d said it. It was so sad.
* * *
Jeanie went to the bus stop and waited for the bus to take her home. It was a gray, windy evening. She sat down on the bench next to a woman who was chewing gum and flipping through an envelope of static-y, freshly developed photos. The woman smiled at Jeanie, but Jeanie didn’t smile back. She was busy thinking. The police had never caught the Raincoat Killer. Ever. They never found all his victims. This was her chance. She would search the town far and wide, look into windows, use her very sharpest observational skills. She would find him. . .
But what Jeanie didn’t know was that she already had. A third figure was waiting at the bus-stop. Behind the bench where Jeanie and the gum-chewing woman sat, behind the glass of the bus-stop’s wind-break a huge, gray man loomed. He had hunched shoulders and a great, gray coat with a piece missing. She looked back in that direction several times but she didn’t see him, right there on the other side of the glass, standing among the wet leaves and shrubs that grew close and tangled behind the bus-stop.
* * *
Jeanie shivered one last time as the bus pulled up, and climbed in. She didn’t see the figure behind the glass flicker, like film, skipping frames. As the bus took her out of the town and down the road, she thought she saw someone there on the shoulder, blurred by the windows. But the bus was going fast and it was getting dark and she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just a friendly farmer. She did think it was watching her, though, standing still, eyes following the bus as it passed.
She had to walk the last distance from the bus-stop to her house. She got off and started along the ditch next to the road. She didn’t even bother going into the house, which was oddly dark for so late in the day. She went around the back, and pulling her raincoat around her, hurried into the fields. There was that shed, far out back. She had investigated it before, but had she dug in the dirt floor?
She walked through the brown grasses, poking along with her stick. The wind flittered through the top of them. Faraway she heard crows calling, and suddenly she wondered if there was not another sound, a drifting, sighing sound a few feet away in the sea of brown. But she ignored it and began humming, walking, humming, poking with her stick. It was a big field, but Jeanie always kept a compass with her, and she knew which way was home. She walked until she came to a tiny clearing, where there was a twisted black tree. She stopped and stared up at it. The brown grass made a clearing around the tree, and she saw the tree was full of blackbirds, silent, watching her. She crept around the tree and kept going into the field.
And all at once she stepped out from a particularly high clump of shrubs and found herself face-to-face with the shed. She dropped her stick and hurried toward it. It was small, leaning, almost tipping over, its back facing a ditch full of stagnant water, an old creek-bed maybe, overgrown with brush.
She pushed open the door. It was dark in there. The air smelled old, wet. She felt suddenly sick and giddy. . .
She knelt down on the floor, scratching in the dirt. She did not see as the gray figure came and stood in the doorway behind her. She found a bit of a flannel shirt, a hammer, a ring . . . and all the while the figure in the door stood, motionless in that wrinkled gray raincoat, eyes hidden behind silver glasses. The door began to close with a creak.
Jeanie looked up with a start. She didn’t look over her shoulder, but suddenly she felt very cold. She knew, she just knew that the ground under her was a lacework of skeletons, a white tangle of bones extending into the earth. And she knew there was someone behind her.
“Who are you?” she asked, without turning. She kept her voice steady, but her heart was going off like a jackhammer.
The figure didn’t answer. The door was almost closed, the faint gray light from outside becoming narrower and narrower across the floor. Jeanie turned her eyes downwards, watching the triangle turn to a thread. Her breathing sped up.
And all at once the huge man turned and shrank, and his coat wriggled, and then it was a child, standing there in the shadows, her back to Jeanie.
Jeanie stood up and spun.
“Who are you?” Jeanie shouted. “Are you-“ She cleared her throat and said loudly, “Are you the Raincoat Killer?”
The other girl began to whisper. Her face was hidden in the shadow of her coat’s hood. Her hands were clenched at her sides. “Your brother is so annoying. So is Mrs. Gilthrope. They’re all so stupid and mean. They laugh. They laugh at you. Gacker-gacker-gacker.”
The girl made a hideous noise, dry and chittering.
“What are you talking about?” Jeanie asked. Something was wrong. This was not how murder investigations went. Who was this girl?
“They all know, Jeanie,” the girl said. “The librarian, Mrs. Brodzinski, that woman on the bus. They see you, but they never talk about it, because nothing bad ever happens in Bucky Creek.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” whispered Jeanie.
“You know. Truth is, Jeanie, you don’t need to go looking for bad things in other people’s yards, because, oh, there’s plenty in your own.”
The girl dropped to her knees and scrabbled wildly at the dirt floor, scabbed fingers clawing at the earth. There were the bones, peeking out, almost gasping for the air, white, white, white in the darkness. . .
A pair of spectacles. Ratty sweatpants. A wedding ring. A brother, a mother, a father, rumpled under a thin skin of earth. And far out in the fields another body, one no one had ever found, even though her coat was bright red, like a stoplight.
“No,” said Jeanie Kramer, putting her hands to her ears. “It’s not me. It’s not me.”
The shed door crashed open. The girl was gone. Jeanie chased her. Back, back through the fields, past the tree full of black birds. Jeanie’s head was buzzing. In the distance – the direction of the house – she heard a sound, a clattering, maybe voices, but it was being drowned out by the cloaked hum inside her skull. She ran faster, faster, and she could have sworn she heard screams, the screen-door snapping open-closed-open-closed as people ran through it in a panic. . .
She arrived at the house. All was silent. There was the girl again, standing still, looking down at the bare earth at her feet. The knife was still in her hand. Jeanie tackled her and the blade spun away, and she ripped the hood from the girl’s head. It was like a string had been cut, like a door had been battered down inside Jeanie’s head.
It was herself she was looking at. Jeanie Kramer, in her favorite red raincoat and muddy galoshes. Pasty and wide-eyed, her lips blue, her skin pocked with black, turning to decay, like old china.
Six dead bodies in the stream-bed at Willow Crossing. The spout of a hose pressed to the black, wet dirt, to the mouth of the warren, rats squeezing out, gasping for breath and then washed away. She had gathered them up and took them though the town, a lonely, desperate ghost, looking for anyone who would listen to her, listen to her whisper about how someone had murdered, someone awful, not her, not her, someone worse.
Why do you come around here causing mischief? What do you want?
She wanted so much. She wanted someone to know what she had done. She wanted someone to find her bones and bury her. She didn’t want people to forget her. She wanted to be a detective. . .
The house was so quiet. The knife was nowhere to be found.
Slowly, Jeanie rose to her feet. Her knees were muddy. Her fingers were red.
“I caught one,” she said crazily, and wandered down the driveway. It looked for a moment as if she were wringing her hands, her dirty fingers pinched tight around each other. But then it became clear that she was gripping her own arm, guiding herself along. “I caught one!”
She stumbled into the road, and then she began to run, on and on along the chipped yellow line. Cars passed her – a sad little ghost in a red raincoat – and the tall grasses began to dance, their scaly heads whispering in the wind, and behind, the house shrank and darkened, a black memory swallowed whole by the gathering dusk.
* * *
Back in town, the librarian opened a book to replace the checkout sticker. The dedication quote caught her eye:
How comforting are our neighbor’s evils, distracting us ever from our own.
Well now, what have we here? A new story, collected from the adventures that have kept us so long away? By carrier pigeon and smoke signal, letters in the sky and messages sent on the wind, your four Curators have kept in contact even as we each traveled to the most far-flung, forgotten corners of worlds both real and decidedly not. We always knew we would return, and that our joyous reunion would be alight with tales of the things we had seen. Stuffed to the gills with cake and thrilled to all be in the same place again, we held our curious new treasures up to the light and debated where each might best fit in our Cabinet. Now, you might well imagine that on our journeys we encountered all manner of people, creatures, and objects, most–if not all–of which were not at first what they seemed to be. For that reason, our newest collection is on the theme of imposters.
Please, do enjoy.
The car pulled up outside a tiny house on a narrow street in a small village. None of it was familiar except Evie’s grandmother, already waiting on the front porch. Evie waved through the window and smushed her face up against the glass as her mother parked in the driveway. Grandma June waved back, a smile eating up all the wrinkles on her face.
The moment the car stopped, Evie yanked off her seatbelt and jumped out, running up to get her hug. Grandma June gave her lots of hugs in the week or two they spent together every summer, but this first one was always the best. Soft and squishy and perfumed with roses and talcum powder.
“Hello, my darling,” said Grandma June, squeezing the very breath out of Evie. “How are you today?”
“Good,” gasped Evie. Grandma let her go, and together they waited for Evie’s parents to join them with Evie’s small, green suitcase. Her mother had originally picked out a pink one, but no, Evie had wanted the green, the color of the apple skins that littered the kitchen counter while the smell of baking pie filled grandma’s house. They always baked a pie on their first day together, and they’d eat it with ice cream for dinner, making a pact not to tell Evie’s parents that there hadn’t been a vegetable in sight.
The pie had fruit in it, anyway. It was healthy.
But it would be a different house this time, a different kitchen counter. Grandma June used to live in a city almost the same size as the one Evie lived in, but a few months ago, she had decided the hustle and bustle was more than she could take in her old age. She wanted quiet, she said, and to go to the shop for milk without a thousand people getting in her way, or huffing rudely because she wasn’t quick on her feet anymore. She had moved while Evie was still in school, so Evie had stayed with her best friend for several days while her parents had helped Grandma June move everything she wanted to keep to this tiny house.
“You planted your flowers,” said Evie’s mother to her mother, pointing at the beds below the porch. “They look beautiful.”
“Thank you, dear. Couldn’t live without them, wherever I am.”
“Are you settled in?” asked Evie’s father. “Enjoying it here? It’s very quiet, isn’t it? We didn’t see a single person on the way through.”
“Oh, yes,” said Grandma June. “Quiet, for certain, but I was after quiet! I do have a new bridge club here with some lovely friends, and a very nice young man comes to cut my grass, though I tell him every time that he’s not to touch my flowers, and the sweet people at the grocery store know my name and fetch the things I can’t reach. Now, will you stay for a drink? We could have it out here,” she said, pointing at the wicker furniture. “It’s such a beautiful summer day, I made lemonade. Mrs. Hill down the road gave me lemons from her tree.”
“I’ll get it,” said Evie’s father, patting his mother-in-law on the shoulder. “You sit down.”
“I’ll help,” said Evie. She wanted to see inside the house. Grandma’s old house, where she’d lived with Granddad before he died, had been big and tall, full of so many rooms that Evie had always been able to pick which bedroom she wanted to sleep in on the trip. This house was only one floor, Evie saw that from the outside, and when she stepped in, she could see practically the whole place from the front door. A kitchen was to the left, and a living room to the right, and ahead was a hallway with two bedrooms and a bathroom leading off it. It was very different, but it smelled like Grandma, all roses and talcum powder, and that was the most important thing.
A big bowl full of green apples sat on the kitchen counter. Evie smiled to herself.
As was tradition, Evie’s parents stayed for a drink and a bit of a rest after the drive, then they kissed Evie and Grandma June goodbye and got back in the car. They would go home, back to their jobs, leaving Evie and Grandma June to get up to whatever mischief they could find to get into. Evie was the only grandchild, so she and her grandmother had all of that special kind of mischief to themselves, just between the two of them. Grandma June had taught her how to knit, and bake, and play chess so well Evie could beat her father at it now, and she was only ten. They did all kinds of fun activities together. Besides making apple pie, the other thing they’d do today is choose a book from Grandma’s shelves, and spend evenings taking turns reading it out loud.
First, however, there was some housekeeping to do. They put the empty glasses in the sink and then Grandma June showed Evie her new bedroom, the empty chest of drawers into which Evie could unpack the clothes from her little green suitcase. All right, so she didn’t have bedrooms to choose from anymore, but she recognized the furniture from Grandma’s old house, and there, in the middle of the pillows, was an old, threadbare stuffed elephant. At home, with her parents, Evie swore she was too grown up for stuffed animals, but it was unthinkable to sleep at Grandma June’s without Henry. Evie looked forward to seeing his ragged trunk every summer almost as much as she looked forward to seeing Grandma June.
They put away Evie’s things and returned to the kitchen, where the bowl of apples waited. While Grandma peeled, Evie mixed together the butter and flour for the crust. The oven heated up, slowly warming the room around it on an already warm day, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It felt cozy, it felt like living inside all the happy memories Evie had of Grandma June, even while they were making a new one.
“How was school, my darling?” Grandma June asked, using a very sharp knife to slice the apples. “I’m not sure your letters told me everything.”
“It was okay,” said Evie. She stabbed at a particularly stubborn chunk of butter with the end of her wooden spoon.
Sometimes, Grandma June knew Evie better than anyone.
“Well,” said Evie, “Beth wasn’t in my class this year. I missed her. I kept getting paired up with Melissa Jones for projects, and she hates me. She pinched me all the time when Mr. Watson wasn’t looking.”
“Did you tell your parents?”
“No,” said Evie. Some things she just didn’t want to tell them, she didn’t want to worry them, but it was safe and warm here. “It’s all right now. Hopefully she won’t be in my class when we go back to school, and Beth will.”
Grandma June nodded in time with the slicing knife. “You are a little ray of sunshine, aren’t you? Always looking on the bright side. You get that from me. Which reminds me, we’re going to have tea with a friend of mine tomorrow. I’ve been telling her all about you since the day I moved here and she was the first person I met in the street, and she’s simply desperate to meet my little Evie.”
“That sounds fun,” said Evie. “Have you made many friends here?” She didn’t want Grandma June to be lonely in this new place.
“Oh, yes,” said Grandma June. “In a small place like this, you get to know everyone in the blink of an eye, and heaven forbid you have a secret! Tell one person, and five minutes later everyone’ll know it.”
“That’s not nice,” said Evie. “People shouldn’t tell other people’s secrets.”
Grandma June chuckled. “They’re not really secrets. It’s nice to feel welcomed here, part of the community. It’s much harder to feel like that in a big city.”
It was time to assemble the pie. Soon, the smell of it cooking wafted through the small house, making Evie’s mouth water.
They ate it for dinner, its warmth melting the scoops of ice cream Grandma put on top of both their slices. Evie licked her plate clean, and Grandma June pretended not to notice. Full and happy, they curled up together on the same flowered sofa that had been in Grandma June’s old house, with a book from the same bookshelves. When the sun set outside the picture window and the room grew dim, Grandma June switched on a lamp and they kept reading until Evie’s eyelids began to droop and she yawned between the words.
It had been a long day, what with packing her little green suitcase and the hours in the car, plus the happy ones with Grandma June since she’d arrived. Evie climbed gratefully into bed, hugged Henry the elephant to her chest, and fell into a deep, long sleep.
Morning came, Evie’s first full day with Grandma June. After breakfast, Evie put on her shoes and took Grandma’s hand as the two of them headed off to see the village. Everything was new to Evie, the shops and little cottages and pretty squares, laid with grass and flowers, ringed with wrought-iron fences.
“Where is everybody?” Evie asked. It had suddenly occurred to her that there should be people about, running errands or simply strolling along in the summer sunshine, as she and Grandma June were.
“Oh, here and there, I imagine. You must remember this isn’t the city, my darling. Not nearly so many other souls here. Can you hear that?” Grandma June tilted her head and closed her eyes.
Evie copied her, but she couldn’t hear a single thing. “I can’t hear anything,” she said.
“Exactly!” said Grandma June.
A bird chirped from a nearby tree, breaking the silence.
“Well,” said Grandma June, blinking, “if it’s people you want, let’s go call on Mrs. Watson, my friend I told you about, remember? Since my company isn’t good enough for you.” She winked to show Evie she was teasing.
They turned the next corner, into a winding lane lined with houses. There was an old, crumbling church, too, with crooked headstones in the churchyard, but the bell in the tall tower was silent.
“June!” A door two houses down opened and a woman stepped out onto the front step, waving. Grandma June waved back, leading Evie to the garden path that ran up to Mrs. Watson’s home.
“You must be Evie,” said Mrs. Watson, coming down to join them. “It’s so nice to meet someone I’ve heard so much about!”
Evie focused her eyes on the little diamonds in the print of Mrs. Watson’s blue dress. “It’s nice to meet you, too,” she said politely, though she couldn’t say she’d heard much about Mrs. Watson. Only that she was one of Grandma June’s new friends here. Mrs. Watson looked to be younger than Grandma; her hair was blonde instead of white, and she had fewer wrinkles, but Evie loved Grandma June’s wrinkles.
“Well, come in, come in. I’ll put the kettle on and we can all have a nice chat. I just might be able to find some cake, too.”
That made Evie smile. Cake was always a reason to smile. Mrs. Watson gave her a knowing look, and Evie relaxed. It would be nice to meet Grandma June’s new friends.
Inside, the house showed a different sort of taste than Grandma June had, or Evie’s parents had. Everything was sleek, modern, in black or white or gray. Evie was slightly afraid to touch anything, and the sofa she perched on was stiff and uncomfortable.
A kettle whistled, plates clinked together. Mrs. Watson came in with a tray, laden with a clear glass teapot and china plates as white as bones.
“Now, Evie, tell me everything about yourself that June here has forgotten to mention,” said Mrs. Watson, handing Evie a slice of chocolate cake. “Oh, and don’t worry a bit about the crumbs, that’s what vacuum cleaners are for. Now, I want to know all about you.” Mrs. Watson leaned forward, her eyes bright, curious.
Evie’s face flushed with warmth. Um. She never quite knew what to say in these sorts of situations. Her parents had friends like this, too, who wanted to seem interested in Evie but weren’t very good at being normal about it. Adults could be very strange sometimes. “Er. I like to read?” she said, as if she wasn’t sure herself. “I play the piano, but not very well. I don’t like broccoli.” That wasn’t everything, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Well, you’re delightful,” declared Mrs. Watson. “And you’re very pretty. Do all the boys at your school chase after you?”
Evie blushed even more deeply and shook her head. Grandma June laughed. “She’s far too young for that kind of thing, Marilyn. Plenty of time for that later.”
“But you and I are running out,” said Mrs. Watson. “Which reminds me, I caught that Mr. Lee at the post office giving me the eye the other day.”
“Oh, did you, now?” asked Grandma June.
Evie ate her cake, being careful of the crumbs. Whatever Mrs. Watson had said, she didn’t want to make a mess. As she chewed, she looked around the room, but there wasn’t very much to see. A few glass vases that were quite like the teapot, really, and a shiny gray bowl filled with odd white sticks.
Grandma June was laughing as she and Mrs. Watson discussed some man at their bridge club. Evie frowned. She’d never seen her grandmother like this before, and it hadn’t been so very long since her grandfather died. Grandma June couldn’t have forgotten him already, could she?
Evie sipped her tea through a frown and waited for the two of them to finish talking. Which, finally, they did.
“We’d best not take up all of your day–you need to go to the post office, after all,” said Grandma June, winking.
“Thank you very much for the cake,” said Evie.
“My pleasure, my dear. Do call on me again before you go home, will you? It’s so nice to have visitors.”
Evie nodded. Time had passed curiously in the house; it felt as if they’d been there ages, but when she checked her watch, it wasn’t even lunchtime yet. Perhaps this was just the way of sleepy little villages.
“Let’s go home a different way,” said Grandma June, taking Evie’s hand. All the quiet, tree-lined streets looked nearly the same to Evie, but she trusted that this was not the way they had come. She could sort of understand why Grandma liked it here, it was indeed very peaceful. The village was surrounded by rolling fields, over which, in the distance, a summer storm was brewing, the clouds dark and coiled, ready to strike.
Evie stopped. All right, not all the houses in the village were the same. That one was strange.
“Who lives there?” she asked, pointing. It sat in the middle of a huge lawn, far back from the road. Weathered shingles threatened to fall off its jagged roof at any minute. Its porch was rotting, sinking into the ground, and starving ivy crawled across the dark red brick.
“Why, every village has to have a creepy old house. Where else would the monster live?” Grandma June laughed. “Oh, darling, I’m teasing. It’s empty, so far as I know. Shame, isn’t it? It’s a lovely old place.”
Evie wasn’t certain about that. She thought creepy was truly the right word.
They made it home before the rain, and sat reading as lighting flashed and thunder crashed and drops pelted the window. When Evie’s stomach growled–the cake had been a while ago, and breakfast a while before that–Grandma June made them sandwiches. Evie didn’t worry about getting crumbs on the sofa this time. Afternoon turned to evening, with dinner and more of their book. This was how Evie liked Grandma June, settled in a cozy living room, just the two of them.
And so the new routine of their summer visit began. Every day, after breakfast, they would leave the house and go for a walk, dropping into the shop to buy milk on their way, or stopping to speak to the rare people they encountered on the street, on errands of their own or walking their dogs. Everyone they met already knew about Evie, and she had to keep coming up with things to tell them about herself. She was nine years old, she wanted to be a librarian when she grew up so she could read books all day, she liked butterflies but not caterpillars. It was certainly different to the visit they’d had only last year. When she’d visited Grandma at her old house in the city they had gone exploring, of course, but to zoos and museums and art galleries, and in a place with so many people they’d almost never run into anyone Grandma knew. Here, though it was so quiet, so seemingly empty, everyone they did meet knew Grandma, and she knew them.
And Grandma June was different, too. Evie couldn’t quite put her finger on how. Perhaps it was, simply, that the setting was new, and so Grandma June was a little bit new, too.
But she was still Grandma June, with her books and apple pies and roses and talcum powder, and that was the important thing.
Evie awoke, Henry the elephant clutched to her chest. It was still dark in her room, and she checked her watch on the nightstand, pressing the button on the side to make the little screen light up. Just after midnight. She didn’t know what had woken her, maybe there’d been a noise outside.
Her heartbeat sped. Maybe there’d been a noise inside.
She froze under the covers. If she lay very still and held her breath, she’d be safe.
But she couldn’t do that. Grandma June was old. What if there was someone in the house? Evie had to protect her. It took all of Evie’s might to force herself from the bed, her bare feet silent on the carpet as she crept into the hallway. Moonlight shone in through the windows, the curtains open everywhere because it was supposed to be safe here in this little village.
Inch by inch, she moved toward Grandma June’s room. The door was ajar, and it pushed open without even the hint of a squeak.
Grandma June was a lump of shadows and blankets in the bed. Evie tiptoed across the floor until her knees touched the mattress.
Grandma June rolled over, and the moonlight hit her face.
Evie’s hand flew to her mouth so fast and so hard she hurt herself as she tried not to scream.
“Good morning, my darling. Did you sleep well?”
Evie rubbed her eyes. “Yes,” she said softly. The nightmare was over, but it had felt so real at the time. She’d never had a dream like that before, where the feeling of being awake and terrified had lasted for hours, all the way until dawn. Now, in the bright summer sunlight of morning, she wasn’t sure whether she’d left her bed at all. She didn’t think she’d ever sleepwalked before.
It had felt so real. She stared into her bowl of cereal, but all she could see was Grandma June’s face…or rather, the blank, featureless mask where her face should have been, lying against a ruffled, rose-printed pillow. It had looked like a face Evie might have sculpted from clay in one of her art classes, smooth and unwrinkled, with little marks from her fingernail for eyes, nose, mouth.
“Are you sure, my darling? You look tired. Perhaps we’ve been adventuring around the village too much. Shall we stay home today?”
Evie shook her head, clearing it of the horrible lingering nightmare. “No,” she said, squaring her shoulders. She’d had bad dreams before–none like that, admittedly, but she’d had them, and they always wore off. No reason to ruin a perfectly good day. “No, I’m all right. Let’s go for another walk.”
“As you wish,” said Grandma June, her smile making all her lovely wrinkles deepen. Evie breathed a sigh of relief. Everything was back to normal, the nightmare was fading already.
They went to the street where all the shops were, and stopped outside one whose entrance was nearly blocked with plants and flowers. A man a little older than Evie’s father waved through the window, and Grandma June pushed open the door.
“You must be Evie!” said the man, smiling down at her.
“Evie, this is Mr. Patel, who helps me find the perfect flowers for my garden.”
“And for you, young lady, I have these,” said Mr. Patel, moving to a nearby table and picking up a pot of the most beautiful lilies, striped with orange. Evie startled. Grandma June must have told him those were her favorites.
“Thank you,” said Evie.
“We’ll plant them this afternoon,” said Grandma June. “Now, Mr. Patel, about my roses…”
Evie wandered around the shop, barely listening to the discussion about how best to keep pests away from Grandma’s perfect flowers. The scent in here was almost overwhelming, but in a good way; she breathed deeply and inspected all the different plants, orchids and sunflowers and spiky little cactuses. The memory of the nightmare was almost completely gone now, but a new thought had replaced it. She thought she might know why Grandma June seemed a little bit new here.
“Do you talk to Mr. Patel about flowers a lot?” asked Evie when they were back out in the street, cradling the pot of lilies in her arms.
“Of course,” said Grandma June. “That was the first thing I did when I moved here, found someone who could help me with everything I needed for the garden.”
“And you talk about the man at the post office with Mrs. Watson.”
“Among other things, yes, but I do believe you’re right, she’d like to find a new husband, that one.”
“And at the grocery store, you told that girl which was the best flour for pie crusts.”
Grandma June gave Evie a look. “And with you, I’m Grandma June,” she said, smiling. “You’re right, you know. I’ve noticed it more too since I moved here. We are all different people to different people, does that make sense? We make friends for all kinds of reasons, and together, all those reasons make up an entire person, like you, or me.”
Evie thought about this for a minute. She had her very best friend; they always went to the library together, but at school, she played hopscotch or tag with other kids. And she thought her next-door neighbor was annoying because he was younger than her, but when he invited her up to his treehouse, he was sort of all right. Those were all different parts of Evie, but they were still all Evie. She was just seeing new sides of Grandma June, here in the new village with all her new friends.
That made sense. Grandma June always made the world make sense.
The sun shone on them all afternoon while they worked in the garden, planting and pulling weeds, spraying water from the hose. Tired and muddy, they ate dinner on the porch as the sky darkened and, in the distance, a light in the empty, creepy old house flickered on and off.
“Did you see that?” asked Evie, pointing.
“See what, my darling?”
Evie blinked and squinted. She was sure she’d seen a light in the topmost window, just visible over the roofs of the other houses. But it was off now.
She shook her head. Maybe it had been a reflection, or a firefly.
That night, the bad dream came back.
It was Evie’s last night with Grandma June. Part of her was sad, and part of her was not. The part that was sad would miss the reading, the gardening, the walks and apple pies. The part of her that was not wanted a good night’s sleep in her own bed, where she never had that dream. Every night since the first time, she had dreamed of waking up, getting out of bed, creeping to Grandma June’s room, seeing the featureless, clay-like face on the pillow. And every night, she had stopped herself from waking up Grandma June in the dream, afraid of what might happen if she did. Would Grandma wake up in real life? Would Evie? Would both of them scream at once?
Moonlight shone in through the windows. The carpet was soft under Evie’s toes. She was asleep, she knew it, but she had to follow the nightmare through to its end. Grandma June’s bedroom door opened without a squeak, and the terrifying, blank face slept on the pillow.
It was her last chance.
Evie reached out her hand.
The voice filled her head, and the room, but it did not wake Grandma June.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” it said.
Evie did scream this time. And it did not wake Grandma June. She wheeled around, peering into the shadowy corners. A ghostly, wispy shape hovered in front of her, its face as blank as Grandma’s.
“It is so lovely to finally meet you properly,” said the shape. “Of course, I have been meeting you in all manner of ways for two weeks now. Evie, who loves lilies but not broccoli, and reading but not the girl who pulls her hair at school.”
Evie’s heart hammered in her chest. This was a nightmare. A very strange nightmare. She just had to go back to bed.
Her feet wouldn’t move. “Who are you?” she asked.
“A good question,” said the wispy thing. “I am everyone. Do you remember the conversation you had with your grandmother? With me? We are all different people to different people. You, my darling, are a prism, each facet of you casting a new rainbow to the chosen few who see it.”
Evie’s mouth went dry. She had to force the words out. “What do you mean, the conversation I had with you?”
The shape shimmered in the darkness. And there, standing before her, awake and smiling, was Grandma June. The Grandma June behind Evie in the bed rolled over and muttered something in her sleep. The shape shimmered again, and there was Mrs. Watson. Again, and there was Mr. Patel from the flower shop. “I had to learn everything I could about you,” it said. “All the different things you’d tell different people, that together make up who you are. Only then could you become part of me.”
And there, in front of Evie, was Evie herself.
Evie, the real Evie–for she was real, wasn’t she? Real and asleep and having the most terrible dream–closed her eyes and ran, stumbling blindly from the room, crashing into the wall, feeling her way to her own bed. She clutched Henry the elephant to her chest and refused to open her eyes until the sun was high in the sky.
Slowly, she made her way to the kitchen. Grandma June smiled at her over a chopping board piled with strawberries.
“Good morning, my darling,” said Grandma June. She looked like Grandma June, sounded like her, smelled like her, roses and talcum powder.
It had all been a nightmare.
“Good morning,” said Evie.
“Your parents made an early start. Eat up your breakfast and pack your case, they’ll be here soon.”
“Okay,” said Evie.
She waited on the porch for the familiar car, glancing between the road and all of Grandma June’s flowers. Her little green case sat beside her, and Grandma June was in one of the wicker chairs, sipping at her tea with a smile. The moment the car came into view, Evie jumped up and ran down to the driveway.
“We missed you too, Evie-girl,” said her father as he climbed out and gave her a big hug. “The house is too quiet without you.”
“We won’t stay,” said Evie’s mother to her mother, “we’ll let you have your quiet back, I can only imagine how busy this one has kept you! Come for a visit in a month or two.”
“I will,” said Grandma June, kissing Evie’s mother’s cheek. “We’ve had a wonderful time here. I’m already planning all the things we’ll do next summer.”
A sick feeling filled Evie’s stomach, but she forced a smile and nodded. She might have the nightmare here again, if she came back. She might have it at home, but she didn’t want to think about that. She hugged Grandma June goodbye. It felt like Grandma June.
Evie buckled herself into the back seat and waved as the car pulled away. She twisted to look through the rear window, at Grandma June still standing on the porch.
With Evie, right beside her.
Do you hear, dear reader, that mournful wind in the hallways of our once busy abode, the insects in the walls, scuttling to and fro? Or perhaps you saw the hastily painted sign on one of our many front doors, or peered in a window and glimpsed the layers of dust on the furniture. We have not dusted in a while, we know. In fact, we are all off adventuring in the wilds of various Continents, and are hardly ever in, except to snatch up the odd satchel of ruby-dust, or a brass periwinkle machine, or other such necessities.
In short, we are on a brief hiatus from our storytelling and cataloging duties, and will announce our re-opening when we have returned to the Cabinet hale and healthy. In the meantime we wish you all the very best on your own curious adventures, and hope you will return to us, in time, for our new crop of shivery and downright bizarre tales of a brief and sinister nature.
They’d started late. The baby had spit up something, so they waited to see if he was sick, but he wasn’t. So they left anyway but not On the Dot of Six like Dad had said. A lot later.
The van sped down the highway, then rolled along blacktop roads, then crept down a gravel track crowded by dark trees. “It’s not the end of the world if we don’t finish the hike,” Mom said. “If it starts getting dark, we can just turn around.”
Dad didn’t say anything.
Toni sat in the back by the baby, watching him kick at the air. She had a new backpack with her own bottle for water, her own small flashlight, and purple plastic binoculars. She wore a hat, and her face was smeared with sunscreen. She was excited.
Now the van pulled up by a tiny log building. A smiling woman in a ranger hat stuck out her head, took some money, and handed Dad a trail map. Then she glanced at her watch, and her smile faded a little. “Now you be sure to get back before dark,” she said.
“Oh, of course,” said Mom. Her long hair was tied up under a wide-brimmed hat.
“Late start, so that might mean turning back early,” said the ranger.
“Nah, we’ll make it,” said Dad.
“But if we don’t, we’ll turn back,” said Mom. “I mean right? It’s not a competition.”
“That’s the right attitude,” said the ranger. “Ten years ago, when I was new at this job, a family like yours went out on this hike. But they stayed out after night fell, and”–she glanced at Toni, then leaned in and lowered her voice. Mom’s face became a worried frown.
The ranger straightened and smiled uneasily. “Anyway,” she said. “Made a big impression on me. So just make sure to get back before nightfall, all right?”
“Sure,” said Dad. “And if we don’t, we have a flashlight.”
“I’ll leave a light on for you,” the ranger said. She smiled as if she had made a joke. But Toni thought it wasn’t a real smile.
The beginning of the hike was all trees and going down and down for a long time. The air smelled woody, fresh and alive. Dad carried a pack with sandwiches and insect repellant and water; Mom carried the baby on her back.
The next part of the hike was long grass and yellow and pink flowers and a flat trail. Toni liked that. They walked a long time. Then came a bad part of the hike, which was more trees, thicker and older ones, and a trail that went up and up forever.
Toni didn’t like this part, but you Shouldn’t Complain. Once they stopped and ate tuna fish sandwiches.
After a while, their shadows got long, and the birds woke up to dart and sing around them. Mom said, “I wonder if we should turn back.“
“We’re almost there,” said Dad. His eyes were bright. He was looking ahead, and not looking at them.
Mom jogged to catch up with him, bouncing the baby on her back. Toni heard her say, “But remember what the ranger said about . . . ” She couldn’t hear any more.
Dad was wrong, it wasn’t almost, it was a long while yet. In that long while, as they trudged on, Toni watched her parents’ shadows grow spindly-tall and monstrous. Even the baby’s shadow-arms were long and thin, waving on the green and yellow grass.
Finally they came to an enormous lake, gray in the slanting light. “This is it,” said Dad.
“I’m gonna take off my shoes and socks and put my feet in!” said Toni.
Her mother looked hard at her father.
“Ah, I think we need to head back right away, buddy,” Dad said. “The walk took a little longer than I thought. We want to get back before dark.” He looked at her mom, and his look said Sorry. “We should probably head back right now, actually,” he said.
“But I’m hungry,” said Toni.
“Grab an apple and eat it on the way.”
They walked down and down, and they walked flat, till Toni was tired of walking. The shadows went away, and the light turned clear and strange, then dim and dimmer. Then light was hard to see in; then it was almost gone. The birds went away.
When they came into trees again, the light was gone.
Dad switched on his flashlight. “Well, now we’re in for it,” he said, in a voice like a joke. But no one laughed, and after a while he said, “We’re fine, you guys. Come on. It’s the same place we just walked through, only now it’s dark. It’s the exact same place—it wasn’t scary an hour ago.”
But it was scary now. The night had fallen on them, the night held them in its black jaws. Far above, wind rushed through the tops of trees like a long sigh, then went silent. The flashlight played ahead of them, worrying in all the corners of the trail as it ran down and down and down.
At least it isn’t the going up part anymore, Toni thought.
“Toni?” said her mother suddenly.
“Stay right by me,” said Mom. “Hold onto the strap of my pack and don’t let go.”
Toni watched the patch of light running along the ground ahead of them like a ghost.
“Should we sing?” said Mom.
No one answered. The night was like a black wool blanket wrapped all around them.
The ghost-light raced up the path, growing smaller and smaller. “I can’t move that fast with the kids,” said Mom. “Slow down.”
“Hang on,” said Dad. His voice was farther away. “I think I heard something.”
“Don’t go far,” said Mom. “We shouldn’t separate. Remember what the ranger. . . besides, we need the light.”
“Not going far,” said Dad.
“Toni, hold onto that strap,” said her mother.
The light was a small bobbing thing now, a glowing apple far up the path. It moved to the left, played against trees. Dad’s voice: “I just want to see—“
The light went out.
There was silence.
“Honey?” said Mom. Her voice was high. “Anything wrong?”
“Steve?” she called, louder.
Silence, except the night insects, and the sighing, invisible wind.
“Steven!” she shouted.
The backpack strap yanked out of Toni’s hand; she heard steps, running along the dirt. “Mom!” Toni called. She was too afraid to move. The steps stopped. There was a long silence. They listened to each other breathing hard.
“Toni.” Mom’s voice, finally. “Do you still have that flashlight?
Toni kneeled down to open her backpack, feeling around blindly inside. By the time she had it in her hand and the pack shrugged back on, the warmth of Mom’s big, safe body was at her side. They found each other’s hands in the dark, and Mom clicked the flashlight on, shone it around. It only made a little egg of light, compared to Dad’s, but it was something.
Together, Mom and Toni and the baby walked a few yards in the darkness, calling for Dad. The toy flashlight ran a dot of light across the trees, then along the ground among the trees, where it picked out bark, a leaf, a black shape, a stone. They walked and called for a long time.
Mom told Toni to wait for a minute with the baby while she walked off the trail. Toni sat on the ground, holding the baby’s soft, drool-wet face by her own, and closed her eyes. “Keep talking,” she said.
“I’m here, it’s fine, I won’t stop talking,” said her mother from the trees.
After a while, Mom came back, with a new, darker silence around her, and put the baby on her back again. Together they walked down the dark trail. “We’re getting help,” said Mom. Her voice came fierce out of the dark above Toni, like she was arguing with someone. “We’re getting help, people with big lights and megaphones, people who know this area, who can help find him.”
Their feet crunched over stones. Even walking down as they were, it was hard to keep up with Mom right now. “Is he dead?” Toni asked.
“Of course he’s not dead,” said her mother sharply. “Why would you say something like that? He probably just twisted his ankle or something.”
“Then why doesn’t he answer us?”
“Are you holding on to that strap? Hold tight. Just hold tight.”
It had been hot in the day, but now the cool wind felt around your sleeves and collar for a place to slip in. Toni felt like her eyes were as wide as they could go, but still she saw nothing at all, unless she looked up and saw stars.
They walked for a long time. “Mama, I’m really tired.”
“Honey, I can’t carry you both.” The sound of her hiking the baby higher on her back, tightening the straps.
Then the flashlight went out.
“It doesn’t matter. It wasn’t enough light to make a difference anyway.”
The cold air felt clammy on Toni’s faces. She zipped up her jacket higher. “Mom. What did the ranger lady say about that other—“
“Oh, nothing. Some old story. Keep up, honey. We’re going to walk a little faster. Are you holding onto the strap?”
Toni was starting to feel confused about up and down, ground and sky. The black trees were closing in around them, with their insect whisperings, with their low, scary night-bird calls.
“Look!” said Mom.
Toni looked. Far ahead, in the black distance, was a tiny glowing light.
“We’re there!” said Mom. She sounded like she might be crying a little. “We’re there, that’s the ranger station, we’re almost there. As long as you have something glowing to walk toward, you’re all right. So we’re all right.”
The baby, who had been so good all day, started crying. But at least that silenced the trees, the birds. They walked toward the glow, hearing only their crunching steps and the baby’s sobs.
Toni’s shoe came loose. She bent down in the dark, feeling for the shoestrings, pulling them tight across her foot.
Abruptly, the baby stopped crying. At that same moment, Toni realized she had let go of the strap.
“Mom?” she said.
First she said it in a small voice. Then she said it louder, in case Mom hadn’t heard.
But there was no answer, only insect whispers and animal breaths and the sighs of trees.
“Mom!” she screamed. She screamed it again. She screamed for her mother, over and over, eyes closed tight, shoe untied, feet planted on rocky dirt she hoped was the path. Toni screamed for her mom until she could only whisper, but she kept whispering, she wouldn’t stop, she whispered against the dark.
She opened her eyes and saw that tiny glow down the path.
As long as you have something glowing to walk toward, you’re all right.
She walked again, blind in the breathing dark.
Getting help. People with big lights and megaphones. I will be the one who saves them.
She looked up between the waving shadows of tree and saw the trail of wild, cold stars. She looked back at the glowing light.
“Mom?” she whispered, over and over. “Mom?”
Or they’ll be there, and they’ll save me. Someone will save someone.
Toni walked toward the light, down and down the sloping trail. Sometimes her path wavered, so that she stumbled against a tree or brush, but then she straightened herself again. Once she stumbled over something soft, too soft for the rough forest, but she didn’t stop to pick it up.
Didn’t stop to find that it was shreds of a baby blanket.
As long as you have a something glowing to walk toward. As long as, as long as.
The cold hand of the wind slipped around her throat. A rock sprang up in front of her foot and she slipped and fell, tumbling down the sloping trail.
Toni sat in the blackness, crying a little, holding her hurt knee, thinking.
The trail was going down. But when they had started the trail, they’d been going down.
So if they were nearly back at the ranger place, the trail should be going up.
So why was the trail going down? she wondered. And if wasn’t the ranger station, who was making that light?
As if in answer, the light grows larger. The light is walking toward her now, brighter, bigger by the second.
And with the light comes a sound, a terrible sound, a sort of gurgling moan, half like a laugh, half like a strangled scream.
Toni’s almost blind again now, not from dark this time, but from the light in her eyes. But before she goes quite blind, she sees something behind the light. Three tall, black figures are coming toward her, elongated as afternoon shadows. The creatures are reaching out towards her with their long, spindly arms, making raspy growls in the back of their throats, gurgling, laughing, strangling back their own excited screams.
Mom, Toni whispers, as the long, thin arms snake towards her.
But then it’s dark again.
And then it’s dark forever.