“It is reported that a house owned by Adolph Wollmer, situated one half mile south of Tess’s Corner in the town of Muskego, Waukesha County, is haunted. It is perfectly quiet around the house until the dread hour of night approaches when it is suddenly illuminated . . . Distinct sounds of footsteps are heard pacing the floors, and doors [swing] . . . to and fro . . . yet no object is perceptible. This scene is of very short duration, lasting one or two minutes only, and is repeated several times during the early morning hours.”
– February 5, 1886, Badger State Banner, as quoted in the book Wisconsin Death Trip
I knocked on the door of the big, dark house. It had steep steps up to the front, but no porch to sit on in the summer, like ours had. Wasn’t summer now, anyway.
The door knocker was shaped like a bear, turning to look at you, jaws open and snarling. It was heavy.
I waited. I watched my breath make warm puffs, watched the puffs lose heart and vanish in the cold air. February is the worst month, at least in Wisconsin, and I’ve never been anywhere else. It’s the shortest month, but it feels like the longest, ‘cause it’s been cold so long, and it’s so long to go before even a hint of spring and warm. And the snow isn’t pretty anymore, in February, only gray slush, all icy-dirty, with horse dung on the roads.
The door swung open to a teenage girl. She wasn’t a maid, for she wore a long green silk dress with dark flowers, banded at the ribs and falling in pretty cascades. I wish my mama still wore pretty dresses like that.
“Yes?” she said, looking sharp at me, but not too sharp.
“I read your house is haunted,” I said. “I read it in the paper. I’m good at talking to spirits, I am. Ma says I am. So I came to see if I could help.”
And that was partly true, about why I came. The other part, I just wanted to see people. I just wanted something to do in the long February, to get me out of the house, where it’s so lonely since Caroline died, since my mother stopped coming out of her room, since my father began staying at the bank till I am asleep and leaving before I wake.
Of course Caroline always wants to play. And I love her, and I’m glad for her. But sometimes I am lonely for a living friend.
The green-dress girl stood staring at me for a length of time, like deciding something. Then she said, “Well, come in, if you’re coming in, it’s far too cold to leave the door open.”
I was glad to be in the warmth of inside, for I had hitched a ride part way with the milk wagon, but mostly walked the seven miles to get here.
I was glad of the warmth, but at first the inside wasn’t glad or friendly. It was dark, dark all over, with the gaslights timid and dim against the dark wood.
The one bit that seemed like light, more real than the gaslight or the frosty window, was all the paintings on the walls. The walls were hung all over with great strange paintings, mostly of ships. They loomed out of the darkness, these paintings, glowing gold or silver-gray.
“Wait here,” said the girl, pointing to a bench by the stairs.
I sat and tried to warm my toes by rocking them back and forth to crack the ice on my leather boots. Across from me was a framed photograph of a man with an old-fashioned necktie and eyes pale as glass.
The wind rose up, snapping and gnashing outside the door, and I thought, I made it just in time. That’s a blizzard-sound.
“You’re getting water on our floor,” said a voice above me. I looked up. On the stairs behind me, about halfway up, sat a boy about my age. He wore a dark wool suit, three silver buttons, a little dark tie, and short pants and high stockings. His leather boots were polished and supple, not like mine.
“Well where should I sit, then?” I asked. “The girl said to sit here.”
“That’s my sister Tillie,” said the boy. “Sit by the fire in the next room, and I’ll sit with you, and your boots will dry.”
As I arranged my boots before the fire, in my much more comfortable chair, he spoke again: “What’s you’re name?”
He was in the chair across from me, sitting importantly, like a man already for all he was but my size. His face was pale and his eyes were big and dark as if something had just shocked him terribly, but his voice was calm.
“Abigail,” I said.
“Eddie,” he said, and we sat in silence, but for the restless, rising wind outside.
Now a woman came, out of the kitchen, perhaps, as she was a bit floury, and wiping her hands on a floury cloth. She was pretty, curly dark hair loosening around her ears, and her bodice was tight and red beneath a white apron, the skirt falling in swags and folds to the floor beneath it. She smiled. “Well, my girl,” she began.
The boy interrupted her. “Her name is Abigail, Ma. She’s come about the haunting.”
By the time I’d explained about the spirits and that, the wind made it hard to hear, and the window was all excited with whiteness. “Whatever your powers with spirits, sweet Abigail,” said Eddie’s mother, pushing her hair from her face with the back of her wrist, “you will surely spend the night tonight. Ach, your parents will be frantic.”
“I believe they won’t,” I said. “Since my twin died, they aren’t very noticing. Once last summer I made a camp near the river, to pretend to be the Roman army. I stayed for three days. And they said nothing when I came back.”
It had been Caroline’s idea, being the Romans. At night we looked at the million billion stars together and picked out the few constellations we knew, and then made our own.
“Child,” said the woman, and how her eyes changed, like my mama used to look at me when I was sick or hurt. “I am sorry you had such a loss, and that your parents . . . well, they must be grieving, too.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But Caroline stays with me, mostly. She makes the wind in the leaves or under the roof into words, or the kettle bubble is her laugh, like that.“
“And that’s how you contact spirits,” said Eddie.
“Yes,” I admitted. “It’s mostly only Caroline I contact. But she tells me things sometimes, about the others where she is.”
A great stamping came from the back of the house, and a teenage boy’s half-deep, shouting voice. “Alma wanted to stay out! She’s a fierce one, no mistake. You should have been a boy, Alma.“
“I wouldn’t want to be a dirty BOY, Rudy,” was the indignant reply, from a girl younger than me, I guessed.
Their mother was already hurrying back toward the voices, murmuring, “Ah, they’ll wake the baby!”
Soon she was calling us to supper, and there was roast chicken and lovely warm potatoes and turnips, and rolls fresh from the oven, and baked cinnamon apples for dessert. And the four older children laughed and talked and teased, and the mother corrected them kindly and laughing herself. And she let me help feed baby Clara with a spoon, and Clara laughed and grabbed my nose with her porridgey fingers.
As we all helped clatter the dishes clean, I thought, I love it here, and I do not want to leave. I love this whole houseful of family—except where is the father?
“My father won’t be coming home tonight, no more than you will,” said Eddie. I looked at him sharp, in case he read my mind, but I didn’t think so. He put down the dish he was wiping. “That means I can show you something. Follow me.”
As we climbed the stairs, I felt so happy. This family, warm and alive: my heart drank them up like water.
But then I heard a whisper in the whistling wind: It’s dangerous here, said Caroline.
“Why?” I whispered.
It’s dangerous here, she whistled more loudly. Oh Abbie! Go home! He’s mad!
“But who is?” I said, bewildered
Eddie turned around to look at me. His big, dark eyes. Then he turned around to climb on.
We came to a long hall with many doors, but Eddie said, “Higher.” The stairway became narrow and cramped, twisting around, then so low we had to duck our heads. Finally, we came to a door we had to kneel to go through.
And then we were in a room full of light.The high windows were blank with snow, but all over the room, on easels, leaning against the wall, were enormous paintings of light: summer light, gold and full of itself, yearning autumn light slanting away, spring all pink-fresh, like eyes just opened. And winter light, the paintings had that too, they showed how it hangs still and silver-gray around you like a heavy coat.
Eddie was looking at me.
“Did you make these?” I said.
“And the ones downstairs?”
“No. My grandfather painted those. He died before I was born.”
“Yours are as good or better,” I blurted. I am a blurter at times. “Yours should be hanging beside his.”
Eddie watched me with his big dark eyes, but something softer in them now. He said, “My father does not wish me to paint. I paint here in secret. Well: it is not so secret, for my mother knows, and I think Tillie suspects. But they do not tell.”
The canvases glowed around us like stolen pieces of days. “Why doesn’t he want you to paint?
“His father went blind. They say that’s why he went blind, from all the painting. He went blind, and then he went mad, and then he died, when Father was Rudy’s age. And so he . . . ” he hesitated “. . . he is not a bad father, he is a kind father in many ways, but he forbids me to paint. He means it well,” he added, and his eyes clouded with so much pain then it was hard to see.
“It’s wrong and a shame,” I said.
A gas lamp on the stairwell sputtered and coughed, and I heard Caroline’s whisper: It’s something about the paintings.
Then we were called down for bed.
Their mother put Alma in with Tillie and let me have Alma’s room, apologizing it was so small. I said I loved it, so snug and pretty and well-arranged, and Alma, who had been looking rather cross and rebellious, smiled.
In the dark, I lay listening to laughing whispers down the hall, and doors opening and closing soft; and once something heavy fell and Tillie’s voice came floating out, “If I get up I’ll be cross, so don’t make me get up.” Then all was silent.
And I thought: I love it here. I love it more than at home with Caroline. It felt disloyal to think it, but think it I did. I didn’t want to know about hauntings and madness, I didn’t want to talk to spirits, not even my sister’s. I wanted to stay here in the arms of this kind mother, these happy children.
Abigail, Caroline whispered in the wind.
“Don’t,” I said, and pulled the covers over my ears.
Abigail! Her whistling, hissing voice held a curious hurt. Abigail? You don’t love them more than me?
I pretended I couldn’t hear her. Under the covers, my body settled and softened. I thought of the strange and lovely paintings above and below me, and then even those sank from my mind, and I fell asleep.
In my dream, my sister whispered my name in my ear, over and over, and I wished she wouldn’t. I could feel her cold, damp fingers pressed against my head as she whispered my name, over and over, Abigail, Abbie. Her voice sounded cold and damp as well, and the whisper came again, over and again, more urgently, every time, and then she was screaming, right in my ear, ABBIE! ABBIE! WATCH OUT!
I sat straight up, awake.
My room was full of a glowing yellow light, brighter than any gas lamp, bright as the brightest day.
But the house was silent. Even the blizzard seemed to have calmed.
I slipped to the floor in bare feet to see where the light came from. I pulled open my door and stepped out.
The whole hallway was full of the golden light, and the stairwell, too; it seemed the whole house was full.
Then, without warning, every door in the hallway swung open, swung wide. Then every door, all together, slammed shut, hard. Then they blew open again, as if from a blast of wind, and slammed shut together again. Then a third time—even my own door, which was torn from my fingers and banged shut, once, twice, again.
And now the wind howled and screamed outside like a patient at an asylum, and thunder cracked—thunder in a blizzard!
And out of the howling, my sister’s voice sang a terrible song: It is he! He does this! He calls for light! ‘Light!’ he screams, ‘Light! Give me light!’
And I knew that wasn’t Eddie, who now stood like the rest of the family in the hallway, staring wildly around. Below, something glass shattered, and I heard the mother scream.
“Tell me something more about him!” I called out to Caroline.
Curly hair, she sang with the wind, and low brows, but handsome, only his eyes are strange, pale as blue glass, and staring.
I thought of the photograph I had seen in the hall, and I shouted “Eddie! Come!” We stumbled down the stairway on cold bare feet.
Below stairs was as brightly lit as above, as if the the sun were inside with us, and the wind screamed in agony. Their mother crouched against the stairwell, bent over her baby, shielding her.
I pointed at the photograph, shouting over the wind. “Caroline! Is it him?”
It is! she howled among the snow-howls.
“That’s my grandfather, the one who was the painter,” Eddie shouted. He grabbed my arm. “What does your sister say?”
HE CALLS FOR LIGHTS! Caroline cried.
“But the lights are on, sir!” I called into the wild wind. “It is as bright as day in here!”
Now the wind stopped, like a caught breath. In the silence I saw Rudy and Tillie on the stairway, eyes enormous, Tillie with Alma pressed against her side.
Then the the thunder CRACKED, like the roof itself had split apart.
And in that same instant, all at once, every painting on the walls crashed to the floor. The ones along the stairways hit the steps, bounced on their corners, and Rudy cried out and held his own arm. One nearly struck Eddie as it slammed down, but I pushed him out of the way.
Eddie’s mother, still shielding the baby, screamed “Children! Take cover!”
Now again the doors banged again in unison, once, twice, three times, and again the wind wailed.
“Caroline,” I cried above the moans, “how can we help him?”
EDDIE, Caroline howled.
All the eyes in the room widened, and the mother looked up, and I could see: they heard her.
Then, all in one gust: He wants Eddie to paint. That’s what he wants. He wants Eddie to paint for him.
A pause for the smallest of seconds. Then Eddie turned and ran up the stairs, past his huddling sisters and brother. We heard his feet thudding, flying.
And the light subsided, inside the house, from brilliant gold to softer white, to dim gray, to gone.
And at the same time, the wind outside subsided into softer sobs, then long sighs. Just before it faded altogether, I thought I heard the wind say, and not in my sister’s voice but in a man’s voice, older and sadder, Let him paint. Let him paint. Let him paint.
The next day, the father came home to find doors splintered and split and his own father’s paintings in broken frames leaning against walls every which way. I saw his wife pull him aside, and they spoke behind a closed door for a long time. I listened for any shouting, as at my house, but there was none. He came out, looking pale, and called for Eddie to join them.
And later, when Eddie emerged, he was smiling, and for the first time his eyes had lost their pained and haunted look.
The father leaned down to me. “Thank you for helping my family,” he said. “You have my gratitude, and if ever we can help you, we will. You have a second home here.” He glanced out the window, then smiled at me. “When I’m more certain that the calm weather will hold, I’lll horse up the sleigh and take you home.”
But I did not want to go home. After breakfast, as the others picked through the wreckage below, I ran to my room and said to Caroline: “I want to stay.”
You don’t love me any more, she hissed in the gaslight.
“I love you. I will never leave you. But I can’t have only you, it’s too lonely.”
I have no one but you, and it’s enough for me.
I was stubborn. “I’m going to ask to stay.” And I made my bed up as neatly as I could, and straightened my frock, and dabbed off the bit of turnip juice, and combed my hair, and started down the stairs.
The gas lamp spoke again. Wait, Caroline hissed. I will help. I will tell you a true thing that will happen, and when you tell Eddie, he will be so grateful, he will persuade them you must stay.
“Caroline!” I cried softly. “Thank you, beautiful sister.”
But when she told me the true thing to tell Eddie, my heart quailed. I wasn’t sure he would be so grateful. But Caroline promised, so I turned around and went back up the stairs, and burst into Eddie’s painting-place, and told him what Caroline had said.
His face went white, and he ran down to his parents. I followed partway and stood on the stairs to listen, but I heard almost nothing.
“Caroline?” I whispered. But she didn’t answer.
The father emerged with a new face, cold and stern. “We’ve had enough of your games, miss,” he said. “Snow or no, I’m taking you home, and you’re not to come back. You understand? Never. Put on your coat.”
All the long ride home, he said not a word. “Caroline?” I whispered into my wool scarf, so he couldn’t hear.
The wind breathed, It’s better this way. I love you more than they ever could.
So I never went back to the warm house with the laughter and the paintings of light. And I only saw Eddie one other time, almost two years later, when what Caroline had said came true. I ran most of the way there, to see if he saw now that it was no mean trick, it was true. To see if he would be my friend again.
The house was full of people. I searched through crowds of black silk and black wool to find him. “Eddie!” I cried when I saw him.
But his wet eyes went dark, and he pointed and shouted “Get out! Get her out! Get her and her ghost sister out!”
And a very large woman in rustling silks grabbed me hard by the arm and pulled me right out the front door. “How dare you, child,” she said, puffing. “How dare you come upset the boy on the day of his mother’s funeral!”
And she slammed the door against me.
I don’t know why he was so upset with us, I’ll never know why, I guess. Eddie’s mother did die. It’s not like Caroline wasn’t right.
Dear fellow Curators,
I came upon the following snippet and of course had to do what I could to discover the truth behind the story–which is never really what we read in the papers, is it? It took some trickery, more than a few potions, and much more time in a diving bell than I’d ordinarly care to spend, but I think I have unearthed the tale.
Hoping you’re all well,
He could not precisely remember the sensation of warmth, but he could remember that there was such a thing, and that was somehow worse. So, too, he couldn’t remember his name, but he remembered that he had one, once.
He could not remember how long he had been in the water.
His eyes worked well in the murky gloom, even if his mind did not. Inside the cave which he had made his home, chasing out several schools of fish in order to make room, he could see his long, slithery, scaly tail. If he concentrated, he could flick many gills that ran down the length of him independently of each other.
That was getting easier. With each day he had to think less and less in order to swim swiftly through the waves.
But he wanted to think. He wanted to remember. He had to.
And he couldn’t just stay in the cave, neither. If he did, he’d never escape the cold. Every day—though it was impossible to tell whether it was day or night so far below the surface, it was simply morning whenever he awoke—he would flick his gills and swish his tail and rise, up, up, up.
George always fished in the same spot. It was a good spot, and he knew some of the older fishermen looked upon it with envy, but there was rules about that sort of thing. Unwritten, because not all of ‘em could use a pencil, and unspoken, because some things just didn’t need to be said. A person’s patch was their own, even if the exact water in it wasn’t the same one day to the next. The spirit of the water was the same, and that’s what mattered.
Course, thinking that things like water have spirits is where trouble always starts.
For now, however, George was untroubled. The sun shone, turning the water into a thousand crystals far as the eye could see, the fish were biting, his belly was still full from a good breakfast.
“Morning, Georgie,” said a voice behind him. George turned on the slippery rock but kept his line steady in the water. It was Old Lewis, who had been old for so long the wrinkles were as much part of his face as scales were part of a fish.
“Morning, Old Lewis,” said George. “Shouldn’t you be off on your boat? I’ll beat you at the count if you don’t get a move on.” The count was a daily ritual, as each fisherman brought his catch to market, hoping to be the one who’d caught the most. It’d been George a few times since he’d started back at the start of summer. The fishing rod had been the only thing for his dad to leave him when the fever’d done its final, deadly work, but that was all George needed. The rod and the patch. With those, a boy could make a life and grow as old as Old Lewis.
“Not today.” Over Old Lewis’s head, clouds had moved in across the sky, but there were still large patches of blue. “Won’t see none of us out today.”
“Why not?” George asked. “Doesn’t look like a storm to me. I’ll get my share of fish and all yours besides.”
“So he didn’t tell you,” muttered Old Lewis under his breath. His old bones creaked as he settled himself next to George on the slippery rock. “Your dad should’ve had a word with you about this day, lad.”
The water rippled. The breeze wandered through the trees along the shore as if whistling for a lost dog. It was another day. George had fished a hundred of them this summer.
Today was the hundredth, in fact, if his sums were right. He had learned his numbers with scales and eyes and fins, and he was good at them.
“We do not fish today,” said Old Lewis. “The seas and lakes and rivers are good to us, and we must in turn be good to them. The spirits who watch from the depths deserve a day’s rest in return for the food they put on our table.”
“Oh,” said George. “Superstition.”
“Aye, and you’d be wise to listen to it.”
“Yeah? And what if I don’t?”
Old Lewis’s bones groaned again as he stood. “Well, then I suppose we must all make our own mistakes in this life, Georgie. But if you pack up your gear, you can come lunch with me and the others.”
For months, George had been waiting for this very invitation. Pride warred with the ever-growling stomach of a young boy. He could stay here and fish, he could show ‘em, but he might never be asked this again. A sign he belonged, that the others saw him as one of their own.
Quickly, he stowed his line and worms, the little box of buzzing flies that some of the nibblers loved and which he trapped with the help of a large spider that lived in the corner of his room. He followed Old Lewis to the hut next to the market in the middle of the village where all the fishermen gathered. Inside, a table was laden with breads and pickles and butter and huge platters of pink-fleshed trout, cooked crisp on the outside just as George liked it. Hands clapped his shoulders as he was guided to a seat that must once have been his fathers.
“Tell me what happens if we fish today,” he said again to Old Lewis, but his voice carried along down the table, and each of the fifty men their put down his fork.
“Terrible things, boy. Terrible things,” said a voice from the shadows.
“Terrible things,” chorused the others.
The cold and dark were terrible. The beast swam through the water, holding on to the few memories he had left. Close to the surface, he kept watch for a lure, a fly, the shadow of a boat. So far, he had seen nothing at all, not in all his time in the water. He knew they must be up there, but he could not see them, or smell them.
He had to find someone. He had to bite, to allow someone to catch him.
As he had caught the last one. He remembered it rising from the waves under the sunset, smiling with a huge mouthful of teeth, joyfully thrashing its fins. Not a fish, a monster wrinkled as Old Lewis, eagerly snapping at George’s lure.
Around him, the waters sang, voices in his ears, the spirits of the seas and oceans and rivers. Today was the day the fish swam safely. Today was the day an enormous sea serpent would try to be caught.
But there were no lines, no flies, no feathers. He swam around the shores, eyes peeking above the surface to the land all around, empty of a single soul. Silent.
Abandoned by those who had heard the warnings.
I wake covered in ice. It crusts my lips, hangs in silvery pins from my sleeves, turns the crimson velvet of my coat gray and frosty. My gaze twitches to the left, to the right, my eyeballs shifting with a delicate cracking sound beneath their sheen of frost.
I am sitting at a table. A feast is spread before me, and the lace at my throat seems to strangle me, stiff with cold. Moonlight streams over my shoulder, glimmering on the silverware, milky through the window-glass.
I cannot recall where I am. I cannot recall who I am. Not even my own name.
Again I twitch, fissures opening in the frost on my back and across my shoulders. I am on a ship. I must be. I see the curved walls, the iron stove, bolted securely to the floorboards. I am in the captain’s dining room. Ice covers the rich fruits before me, dusts white the cornucopia of apples and cherries, walnuts, lemons, plums, like crystal sugar. The carved ham is furry with cold, the dark wood of the walls and the furnishings dulled, as if viewed through a gossamer veil.
My eyes swivel downward. A book lies open beneath my fingertips. It is the captain’s logbook, though I am certain I am not the captain. It lies open to the final page. My fingertips stick slightly to the parchment. I do not trust myself to move, but I turn my eyes downward further and read the words that loop, thin and spidery, across the page:
August 17th, 1674
This weather is cursed. It is deepest summer and yet there is only wind and sleet and misery. It is that thing’s fault. They said: you shall be quicker this way. They said: two trips in the time of one, you will be rich! But they lied. They wished to be rid of it. We will be lucky if we survive the month.
I cannot have a moment’s peace. It follows me everywhere, and I hardly dare venture on-deck, for the looks I receive from the crew are black as hate. They blame me, though it is not my fault.
I must end this. A monster walks in our midst, silk-tongued and smiling. I am the captain. I am the captain! I will end this, I swear it-
The writing halts. The next page unfurls, blank and empty.
The words sink slowly into my sluggishly awakening mind. And suddenly I recall dates, names, images, all in a sharp, painful flash: I am on-board the Homunculus, voyage 834 across the Northwest Passage from China to London, carrying a cargo of tea. I was the physician. Or was I simply a passenger? I still cannot remember. And I recall nothing of a monster. Somewhere in far off days I heard tales of such things: kraken and sirens and shape-shifting birds who fly down from the sky wrapped in feathers, but land on the deck dressed in a waistcoat and silver-buckled shoes. Mayhap we have been accosted by one such. Mayhap it is still here.
I am beginning to thaw. Water pools on my cheeks and drips from the end of my nose. My hair crinkles, falling in frozen strands across my forehead. I stand, releasing from my wooden chair with a crack, and look around me, hunched, shivering.
All is silent. Across from me, at the other end of the table, a figure sits – a great dark form, stiff in his chair. He too is frozen. It is the captain. The writer of the warnings. His plumed hat is pulled low, a wide black brim hiding his face.
I move slowly around the table, and I see he is holding a flintlock, clenched in his lap, his finger already hooked around the trigger. I look into the captain’s eyes. They are wide-open, stenciled with delicate patterns of frost. But beneath it I can still see the rage: the hate.
I shudder and circle slowly around the back of his chair. A cabin boy sits in the corner of the room, curled up as if he sought to hide from something. His eyes closed, stitched up with snowy lashes. I look again at the captain, terrified. A single pearl of water forms upon his nose. Stretches. Drops.
He is thawing too. His eyes twitch toward me.
I jerk back, ice cracking up my sleeves, rattling to the floor in shards. I do not know why I fear him, but I do. There is something unnatural underway here, something too dreadful for the minds of man. I hurry for the door, stagger down a short passage, burst out onto the deck. . .
The entire ship is wrapped in snow, emanating like a starburst from the room I have just left. The masts are broken. Men stand on the deck, leaning over the edge, and though their mouths are wide and their eyes open, their tongues are covered in snow, and icy barbs extend from their backs in whatever direction the wind blew. Something knocks against my foot. I look down and see it is a leg, a gray stump upon the deck. I peer upwards.
His name was Cowlick. The man in the crow’s nest. I remember him, too, now. He is still there among the rigging – all of him but his leg – swinging in in the wind like a gruesome flag.
Fear grips me. I run to the balustrade, peer over it into the mist.
A wind is whipping about my ears, and as the ice on my clothing melts it begins to freeze me anew, bitterly cold. The ship is becalmed, stoppered up in a cracked circle of snow and ice. Beyond it I see the black waters of the ocean, ice caps rearing up like drooping nightcaps.
What has happened here?
A sound reaches beneath the wind and into my ears, the creak of wood. I do not know where it comes from, but it fills me with dread. And then, through the mist, I see a light approaching, a lantern, perhaps upon another boat.
I cannot remain. This ship is cursed. Perhaps they will take pity on me. I snatch up a coil of rope from the deck and loop it around the mast. I clamber over the balustrade, letting myself down the side of the ship. The beads of ice in my hair knock against each other like wind chimes, stiff ropes of grease and cold. I reach the snow, stagger, and begin to run toward the edge.
“Hello?” I call out. “Mercy! I am shipwrecked!”
The light in the fog continues on its course a moment, and the water laps gently inches from my feet. Then the light pauses, turning, and begins to slide toward me. It is a ship, then, and they have heard me. My heart hammers against my ribs. The ship emerges from the fog, a great sodden boat, greenish at first, the single lantern creaking like a single golden eye from its figurehead. The figurehead is a woman with the head of a wolf, teeth bared, eyes narrowed. I watch the boat approach, see figures darting on the deck, leaning over the balustrade. The prow of the ship strikes our little shelf of ice and rocks it. Behind me, the Homunculus creaks, shuddering. I fall to one knee, my hands burying themselves in the snow.
“Take the rope!” someone shouts. The ship is towering over me, a monolith of black shuttering out the moon. In the next instant, the knotted end of a coil strikes me in the face. I snatch it, my fingers trembling. I let it pull me toward the edge, and then I kick my legs out and begin to make my way up the steep side of the ship. I look back over my shoulder. The Homunculus looks like a child’s plaything, forsaken. Something is stirring on her deck: a figure hulking from the aft tower, spinning, staring about him across the deck.
I hear a voice follow me up, a deep rumbling.
“Hurry!” I shout up, and my voice echoes in this forsaken expanse, a tiny, high screech. “I beg you, hurry!”
The rope begins to jerk upwards faster, pulling the wind from my lungs. I reach the railing and arms loop over it, dragging me onto the deck. Faces peer down at me, awed and frightened, and I wonder if it is from my appearance that startles them, or that I am alive at all.
“What happened?” they ask me, and I know my eyes are wide, fevered, but I cannot help it.
“We must get away,” I hiss. “Leave here!”
The captain, a young fellow, flint-eyed and strong-jawed, eyes me a moment. He snaps something over his shoulder in a language I feel I should understand but do not entirely.
The boat begins to creak. I hear the water giving way against its side, cradling us and carrying us away. I drag myself to my feet and peer over the railing.
“What year is it?” I ask over my shoulder.
“1699,” the first mate replies, perplexed. “April.”
1699. We have been drifting, frozen across the ocean, for thirty long years.
A gap of water is widening between the boat’s prow and the ice-shelf, and a figure approaches across the snow, that huge black shape from the ship’s dining room. He is stumbling slowly, leaning upon a bit of broken mast. The fog is beginning to close again, the little silent island of ice losing itself again in the darkness. The captain waves his flintlock and I hear a call through the wind, a desperate, small cry.
“Faster!” I shout over my shoulder. “Away!”
I see people moving on the Homunculus’s deck now, hear the wail of Cowlick as he wakes without his leg, and hear the captain screaming: “Save us! Leave the wicked creature! He will be the end of you!”
But the crew of this new ship does not hear them. The fog closes and they are gone.
I turn away, slumping against the wood. Beneath my coat, I notice that there my red slippers are oddly turned, as though my feet have been broken, my ankles grotesquely bent. I draw out my hand from beneath my arms and I see feathers where fingers should be, fruit for nails, twigs for bone, wax for skin. I blink, shut my eyes tightly. When I open them, my hand is that of a man’s again. The captain is watching me.
I watch him back, memories flooding like dark water across me, a storm of roiling clouds through my skull. Does he suspect what I am? Ah well. I am good at surviving. I sat in the dining room of the Homunculus and read the captain’s scribbled words, and when he entered, trembling, he pretended he did not know. But I did. He wanted to shoot me, to be rid of me, and I could not allow that. There was a white flash, a flood of ice spreading away from me, freezing everything living upon that boat, and everything not, for 30 long years.
The young captain is still watching me, his eyes sharp. I smile at him, my lips flicking back across my teeth.
I do so enjoy traveling.
I’m not a nature person. I should say that right up front.
Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate nature. I recognize its importance, and I enjoy that it’s there, looking green and fresh as I stare out the window during algebra class, hating life.
(“Nell? Nell. Aren’t you paying attention?”
Obviously not. “I’m sorry, what was the question?”
Giggles. An aggrieved sigh from my poor, aggrieved teacher. I couldn’t care less what they think. I’ve got a novel in my lap, my index finger marking my spot. The open math textbook on my desk is just a farce, and we all know it.)
Where was I? Oh, yes. Nature, and how I appreciate it well enough.
The thing is that I’ve never much seen the point of going out into nature. All that’s there to find are mud and bugs and dead, rotting things. Is it interesting and pleasingly tidy that said dead, rotting things actually fertilize the ground and help new things to grow? Certainly. Good planning, there.
But I’ve never been the type to go hiking or camping or jumping off piers into lakes. Truth be told, I’m not even a fan of picnics. Why would I want to sit there worrying about ants and bees and inconveniently timed gusts of wind while I’m trying to enjoy my food? It’s just not practical.
And yet . . . well, it’s funny. Not the picnics thing; this other thing.
It’s funny because lately I’ve had this itch to explore the woods behind the school. Not for any particular purpose, at least not as far as I’ve been able to tell, when I’ve stepped back to examine this desire. No, I would simply like to walk about in the trees and see what I can see. I’d like to wander and traipse.
The itch resides in my heart, curled up dark and tight. The itch has a particular feeling to it, when I block out all other thoughts and focus on it. It’s a feeling like being pulled. Like a whisper you have to lean closer to hear. The itch . . . itches. Not like a feather tickling your foot or a stray strand of hair against your cheek.
No, it’s more like an itch from a crusty new scab.
I would like to scratch it.
The first time I go into the woods, I’m mostly thinking about how stupid I am. I have my phone, and it’s fully charged, but no one knows I’m here—not that there are many people I could tell. There’s Mom, and Dad, and Mrs. French next door, but that’s about it. Mom doesn’t like to be bothered until she’s had her first cocktail, and Dad doesn’t get home until nine o’clock, and Mrs. French will be too busy watching the news while on the phone with her sister, so here I am, going into the woods with the peculiar feeling that if I disappeared, no one would know for quite some time, and even then, my disappearance would not affect many people.
Perhaps I should feel a bit desolate at this thought, but I don’t. In fact I feel rather exhilarated. I feel something like freedom, I think.
The itch in my chest unfurls.
I walk for some time before I find her. The air in the woods is still and cool, which is a nice change from the world of my school. All those children, whispering and laughing, glancing and touching, sweating and stinking.
“All those children”—as if I’m not one of them. Well I am, of course, but none of them read like I do, and I would wager ninety-nine percent of them care about things I do not care about, like school dances and the Top 40 hits and sneaking kisses in stairwells.
I would also wager that none of them feel this itch like I do. They wouldn’t be able to stop talking long enough to hear it, scratching its tiny-legged way into their hearts.
That is what the itch has started to feel like now—now that I’m in the woods, I mean. It feels like a fuzzy, many-legged creature, burrowing its way inside me, digging deeper as if searching for the source of my body heat.
I come to a stop in a clearing of sorts, tangled with undergrowth. Gnats hover in hazy clouds, lit up by the sunlight shifting through the canopy overhead.
I pull aside my shirt and scratch with one fingernail the spot in the center of my chest beneath which the itch stretches and curls. Scratching my chest does not help, but my fingernail leaves behind a stinging red mark, and that seems to please the itch.
The itch grows. It now feels as though it extends from my sternum up into my throat. Not by a lot, simply a tickling tendril, seeking.
And that is when I see her.
She is a girl, perhaps a little older than me, but the sunlight hits her square in the face, and it is impossible to read any lines in her skin that would tell me such things.
She pauses mid-stride, like a grazing deer who thinks she has heard a hunter. Her body is slender, her hair is a pale golden color, and the way she holds her hands and wrists reminds me of a dancer.
The itch in my chest burns. Writhes. Tugs.
I try to say hello, but my mouth is full of weeds. I find myself reaching for the phone in my pocket, and I manage to snap a picture before she turns and runs away—or, that is, it seems as though she must have run away, but I did not see her go. One moment she was there, and the next she was not.
It is only then that I realize the forest is completely still. No wind moves the leaves. The grass is dense and black. I hear no birds or crickets, not even the sounds of traffic speeding down the nearby highway.
It is night. How is it night?
I turn and run, and I do not stop until I reach my home a few blocks away. Mom has fallen asleep in front of the television, and Dad is warming up something in the microwave. I slip upstairs unseen; he probably thinks I am already asleep, like the good, boring girl that I am.
Only when I am in my bed, cocooned in my quilt, do I take my phone from my pocket. I find the picture of the forest girl, and stare at it, hardly breathing.
I am a terrible photographer, it seems. The photo sits there in my hand, unremarkable. The sunlight that had bathed the girl’s ivory skin in a soft wash of gold looks dim, watery. The forest itself is bland, flat. The girl . . . where are her dancers’ wrists? Her arms hang there, awkwardly. Her cloud of hair is not a cloud but a thatch—dry and lusterless.
I press the phone’s screen to my chest, and press, and press. The edges of the phone dig into my skin.
I am a terrible photographer, but then, I was startled, wasn’t I? I was overwhelmed. I have never seen such a beautiful girl in real life, so naturally I wasn’t prepared to photograph her the way she deserves.
I will go back tomorrow, after school. I will return to the same clearing, with its weeds and gnats, and I will wait until she comes back. The girl, that is. She will come back, if the itch in my chest is any indication.
Every time I think of her, the girl, the itch in my chest gives a throb of affirmation. Yes, it says to me. You must go back.
The next day, algebra drags on for what feels like eons before the bell rings and we are released into the bright afternoon.
I go to my locker, stuff my things into my backpack, and head for the trees as quickly as I can without looking desperate. It’s not as though anyone could be watching me—no one ever does, for I am not the sort of girl worth looking at. That isn’t me fishing for pity, either; I’m perfectly happy with myself and my life, but I know my place in the world, which is more than most people can say.
Still, you can never be too careful. And besides, I find that I don’t want anyone knowing I am here. The forest girl is my secret, and mine alone. I would like to keep it that way.
As I walk into the forest, the sounds of the outside world fade away—no cars, no birds, no planes overhead. Certainly no laughter or playful screaming from my fellow students in the school parking lot. Here, beneath the trees, there is only the sound of my own heartbeat clogging up my ears.
And the slow, scratchy pulse of the itch below my breastbone.
It seems to me that the woods must be much larger than they appear to be from the outside, for already the bits of sky I can see through the trees is purple and soft. The light that does make it through is dim, bruise-colored. Have I been walking for hours? Before I reach the clearing, I know it is near. I know this because the itch flares up, pulling me onward. It feels like I have eaten something too spicy, and my body is rebelling. For a wild moment, I experience an image of myself, digging my fingers into my own chest, peeling aside the skin and scooping out the itch until the entirety of it wriggles in my palm like a fistful of hairy worms.
When I reach the clearing, she is there. My smile is skin-splitting. It’s only the second time I have seen my forest girl, I know this. And yet it feels like I have been waiting all my life to find her, that this is a moment of long-awaited reunion.
She is even more beautiful today than she was yesterday. Her dress is soft, sheer; the fabric looks as though it would slip through my fingers like water. It reveals things to me that are embarrassing, impossible—long legs and soft curves. I don’t think she’s wearing much beneath that gown, and I can feel myself blush. Her body is so completely unlike my own. Since starting middle school, I have examined myself in the mirror, many times, to try and understand what is happening to my body, why it looks nothing at all like the bodies I see on magazines, in movies. I am stubby and awkward; I have acne, and my hair doesn’t ever seem to sit quite right.
But everything sits right on my forest girl. She ducks her head out of the sun, only slightly. I see the curve of her smile and her wide eyes. She opens her mouth, and out comes a sigh.
The itch inside me darkens, twists.
I fumble with my phone, my hands clammy around it. I try to snap a picture, but my forest girl won’t stop moving. There is something unnatural about her movements—she jerks and darts like a creature would, not as girls do. Come to think of it, there is something unnatural, too, about the slim length of her neck and the shape of her ears.
“Please,” I whisper, stones weighing down my lips, “hold still, for just a second. I just want . . . I just need . . .”
“What will you give me for it?” Her voice cuts through the clearing, the lazy fog of gnats, through me like lightning.
The itch jumps up into my throat. I swear I can feel legs tickling the back of my tongue. Something is inside me, and for the first time I wonder if I should be concerned about that, but then the itch heightens, deepens, blazes.
“For . . . a photo?” My voice is awful, croaking. It isn’t good enough for her, but it is all I have.
My forest girl cocks her head, laughs. Her only answer.
I hold the phone between my cheek and shoulder, rifle through my backpack. Mom gave me a bracelet when I turned thirteen, an elegant charm on a silver chain. It was her grandmother’s, and then her mother’s, and then hers, and now mine. I remove it every day before gym; it is the only pretty thing I own.
I hold it up for her to see; dangling, it turns, catches drops of sunlight and spits them back out. I creep forward, place the bracelet on a snarl of twigs. They’ve choked the dandelions beneath them half to death.
I crouch there, like people do in church. When I glance up at my forest girl, she is smiling, a crescent moon made of teeth. It is, I suppose, an acceptance. I could cry at the sight; she is an angel, and I have made her happy, I think. My bracelet will sit on her dancer’s wrist like liquid moonlight.
Trembling, I raise the phone and snap a photo. When I lower the phone, she is gone—and so is my bracelet.
When I leave the forest, it is night again, and once more I am able to sneak into my room without my parents noticing anything is wrong. Of course they wouldn’t. That morning before I left for school, I switched on my bedside lamp. I wrote a note—Gone to bed early, headache—and taped it on my door and pulled the door to.
I suppose they fell for it. If they even bothered to check the door, that is. We long ago reached an understanding, my tired parents and I. I take care of myself; they work and keep food on the table, and then come home and fall asleep in front of the television. This arrangement suits me well enough. I like being left alone.
In bed, I check my phone, and must wipe sweat from my face before I can see the photo properly. I ran hard back home from the woods; I ran all the way, faster than I thought I could run.
But the photo, this second one—it’s all wrong. It’s even more wrong than the first. I peer closely at it, my heart a thudding weight.
My forest girl’s slender lines are bulbous, twisted. Her hair is the color of dust. Her arms and legs are too long, a disproportionate length that makes the lines of my bedroom shift and seem mutated, like I have been looking at the world all wrong, my whole life, and these lines—my forest girl, deformed and crooked—is what the world is, truly.
Her face is the worst thing—one eye larger than the other, teeth stained and misshapen. She leers, quite frankly. Her gown is a mesh of weeds and dirty cloth, her skin a sick white, drawn tight across her bones like a dirty canvas.
But this isn’t right. I know it isn’t. My forest girl is a wild creature—a doe, a bird. She is beautiful and light-footed. My phone must be defective. Of course. Yes. The lens is dirty. There is a glitch in the programming. I go to my computer, check for updates. I turn the phone on and off. I delete from it everything I can—every app, every stupid selfie I’ve tried to take with my sleeve falling off my shoulder and my lips pursed seductively. You’d think I could figure out how to pose like you’re supposed to, how to make myself look appealing, but whatever the secret is, it eludes me.
I delete photo after photo of myself—lumpy, frizzy, forced—with tears and sweat stinging my eyes.
And yet, still, the photo remains the same: My forest girl, warped. False.
I fall asleep in a tight ball, my phone pressed to my heart, the true image of my forest girl appearing behind my closed eyelids. I keep it there, falling in and out of sleep with the sound of her sigh echoing through my half-dreams.
The itch continues unwinding itself. I feel it skittering down my skin and into my toes. Burrowing there. Waiting.
I kick off the covers and twist, scratching and scratching at my chest until I break skin and blood gathers beneath my fingernails.
The next day, I return. Of course I return. My forest girl is a pearl, a diamond, a goddess. I must photograph her as she truly is so that I may carry her with me, always. Who knows if she’ll stay in these woods for much longer? Maybe someday I’ll wake up with a quiet, still heart. An ordinary heart, as I once had. The itch will be gone, and so will she.
But that can’t happen yet, not until I manage my photo. It won’t happen. I forbid it from happening. Others must know, others must see what I have seen. There is a girl in the forest, and she is more beautiful than any of you will ever be, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much make-up you apply, no matter how many designer clothes you buy and prance around in. And she’s not yours. She is mine. She chose me.
She has been waiting for me, I think. When I appear in the clearing, sweating and panting from my mad dash out of school, my forest girl turns to face me. I blink, and she smiles. I blink again, and she is right in front of me, cupping my cheek with a cool hand. My bracelet is a line of light around her wrist. The tips of her nails press into the skin beneath my jaw, and I begin to shake.
I have never felt love before, but this must be it.
Stupidly, I raise my phone. “Can I try again?”
She cocks her head. That same, moon-shaped smile. “What will you give me for it?”
My legs feel ready to collapse. That bracelet was the finest thing I owned. I search the contents of my backpack, and as I do so, my forest girl scrapes her nails across my scalp, sifting through my hair. I wonder what she’s looking for? I almost laugh, and then, with the next breath, I feel ready to start crying. Textbooks, spiral notebooks, change from lunch.
My pocketknife. Dad gave it to me when I started walking to school. “To defend yourself,” he said to me, “in case you should need to.” Then he ruffled my hair and went on his way. The microwave beeped, his leftovers ready and steaming.
I flip open the pocketknife and stare at the blade. I have never used it before; when Dad gave it to me, I rolled my eyes and tossed it into my backpack and forgot about it. We’re not supposed to bring knives to school, but it’s a small school, and I’m a no one, and so who cares, really? No one would think to search. No one would think to search me for anything.
Except for my forest girl. She continues combing my hair with her fingers, her nails dragging trails across my skin. What is she looking for? Will she find it? Whatever it is, I hope I have it.
The itch inside me darkens, a black bloom spreading through my lungs. My chest is on fire; my lungs are twin nests of bees, buzzing.
My forest girl stares down at me, tips up my chin. Her eyes are dark as the night above; it is night, and she is waiting. I have never seen anything so beautiful as the pitch pools of her eyes, waiting.
I am alive. I am awake.
I drag the blade across my palm. As soon as I am finished, my forest girl grabs my wrist, yanks it toward her mouth. She laps up every drop of blood, her teeth grazing my fingers, and when she has finished, and I stand there, cold and dizzy, I snap a picture, even though there is no light, and I can’t possibly have gotten a decent image.
“Did you find it?” I whisper to my forest girl, but she has left me, and the trees around me are made of ink and shadows.
Back home, my parents are laughing in front of the television—sitting side by side, miraculously. I pretend that I have come down from my bedroom for a drink of water, mumble something sleepy at them, return their I love you sweeties with I love you toos.
Upstairs, in my bed, I drop my phone three times before I manage to open my photo library. I nearly drop it again when I see my forest girl staring back at me from the latest photo—a grinning, pale wraith. She is made of sharp lines and swollen limbs. Her teeth are sharp, her eyes are all black—no whites around the edges. Her ears are too long and too sharp, jutting up from her head like a bat’s might.
Her jagged smile mocks me. I throw the phone across the room. “That’s not her!” I try to yell, but it comes out a harsh whisper. “You’re a liar, you’re lying!”
The phone hits the wall and bounces to the floor. I crawl to it, not caring when the carpet’s fibers make my palm sting. Frantic, I pick up the phone, check it over. No cracks; nothing shattered. The photo remains, this perverted echo of my girl, my beautiful girl.
I drag myself back into bed and cradle the phone in my hands like a baby. I do not sleep—I know this, I remember how long the night felt, how many hours I lay there, sweating, nearly hyperventilating, digging the heels of my palms into my eyes so that maybe I would stop thinking about her, how beautiful she looked in that still clearing where the only sound is her breathing and my breathing and the ever-present hum of buzzing gnats—I remember all of this.
But when I wake up in the morning, my sheets are stained with blood from the patchwork of scratches across my chest. Red marks from my own clawing fingernails.
The itch snakes through me, still—heart to limbs, heart to belly, heart to tongue—like a spider with its pincers in my gut.
I don’t go to school the next day. Are you kidding me? What’s the point? There is no point, not to anything but her.
The itch tells me so, and I agree.
Instead I wait until first Dad and then Mom leaves for work, and then I raid everything—their dressers, Dad’s armoire, Mom’s nightstand, her jewelry cabinet. I grab bundles of cash, diamond earrings, Grandpop’s pocketwatch, my great-aunt Willa’s rosary. Everything pretty, everything that glitters.
None of it is good enough for her, but it will have to do. I will get a photo of her, to keep with me always. I will get it if it takes all day, and all night. All the days, all the nights. I will get it if it requires I offer her everything I own, everything my parents own. One photo for each shining, polished piece. One photo for each crisp, folded twenty.
Before I leave the house, I go to the bathroom to find fresh bandages for my chest—and then stop, and change my mind, leaving them open and raw. I change into a tanktop so my forest girl will see them better.
They might please her.
I open and close my palm, making the cut sting and weep. With each clench of my fist, the itch beneath my skin pulses.
Perhaps it’s just my excitement talking, but I think that the itch, whatever it is, is ready to come out.
When I reach the clearing, I am lightheaded, my mouth dry. I should have brought water on such a hot day, and who knows how much blood I lost—was it only yesterday?
My forest girl waits, perched on a stone, looking bored. When I enter the clearing, she straightens and smiles. She opens her white arms wide, welcoming me.
Grinning, giddy, I dump everything in my backpack onto the forest floor—every last dollar, every last jewel—and step back, pleased with myself.
My forest girl rises from her perch like a queen, her gown trailing the dirt behind her. She inspects my offering, sniffs, glares up at me.
I hold up my phone, hopefully. “I only want a photo of you,” I whisper.
She stares at me, waiting.
I hesitate. “It’s because you’re so beautiful. I can’t stop thinking about you.”
One corner of her mouth curls up into a smile. She approaches, wraps me into an embrace that feels like one of those dreams when you can simply push off the ground and fly. “Me?”
Surrounded by her touch, I understand how miserable my gifts are, how inadequate. I flush and gulp down tears. “I’m sorry. It’s all I have.”
My forest girl kicks the gifts aside. The pile of trinkets topples, scatters. “I don’t want them,” she whispers against my ear.
“But it’s all I have!” I am sobbing now, like a little kid with no self-control. I try to hide my face from her; I look terrible when I cry, swollen and splotchy.
“Not true,” my forest girl says, her voice teasing me.
I quiet, grow still. The itch inside me builds and builds, and I realize with this light feeling—a puff of air, a flood of warmth, a sigh—that the itch is not something trying to get out.
It’s something trying to get in.
And the scent of my itch, the feel of it, the taste of it, tickling my tongue—it’s her.
“Me?” I gaze up at her, and I can feel my face morphing into what is no doubt the soppiest, most ridiculous smile there has ever been, but I don’t care, for now I understand, and the itch inside me becomes the sun, burning bright and steady. “You want me?”
“Only you,” purrs my forest girl, tracing the lines of my face with one sharp fingernail. “But you have to say it. You must tell me you’ll do it. You must—”
“Take me,” I blurt out, eager and stupid, grinning and beaming and ready to come apart from happiness. “You can have me.”
Her eyes glitter, shift. She holds out one finger, warning me, teasing me. “Just one photo,” she reminds me.
“And it will really be you this time, in the photo?”
“My true self,” answers my forest girl, her voice a fall of rain, and it is mine, she is mine, she is all for me.
I nod, fumbling with the phone, and as soon as I snap it, as soon as I press the button and lower the phone, the itch inside me bursts.
I fall to the ground, blinded by darkness, choked by it, burned by it. My skin is on fire, it is made of bugs—swarming, pinching. I crawl through it, scratching myself, clawing at myself, and when it is over, I feel that the itch is now a chain, wrapped around my heart, wrapped around my wrists, my ankles, pinning me—pinning me to her.
She yanks me up into her arms, and her skin is cool, still. It soothes me, and I think I may be drunk. I have never been drunk before, but you hear things, you know, in a school full of deviants.
“Try to run,” she hisses against my cheek, “and you’ll feel much, much worse than that.”
Run? I would never run. Not from her. I think that, my thoughts slow and muddy, even as I look up and realize that my forest girl is gone, and it is a creature now dragging me across the mud, toward a fat tree with an opening at its roots. Its claws dig into the soft skin of my upper arm. With each tug across the dirt, the itch through my blood tightens—her chain, woven through me. She grins, her mouth full of fangs. She rips me to my feet with one fierce yank of her arm, and the itch stabs my chest; the chain tightens.
“See?” she growls, her misshapen face hovering over mine. Her pointed ears. The sharp lines of her face. She is not a creature of my world, and I love her for it. There is a part of me that screams how wrong this is, how in danger I am, how she is evil, how I do not love her. She tricked me, she tricked you!
But I am well aware this part of me will soon die. Even now, the itch wraps around that frantic voice, choking away its air.
“Mine now,” she tells me, and I nod, letting myself be dragged across the tree roots into darkness.
“Yours,” I whisper, and the bark tears at my flesh, and we are below, now, in her world, where it is all darkness and unnatural heat, and the shadows shudder and laugh, and the only thing I know is her arms around me and the itch wrapping its coils around me, darkening, darkening—
“Do you think she ran away?”
I roll my eyes. “Where would she go? And with what money?”
“Maybe she stole her parents’ credit cards or something.”
I roll my eyes again. There’s a lot of eye-rolling whenever Darren Wyatt’s around, but I’m not the kind of person to chicken out on a dare, so I’ll have to put up with him. “Maybe.”
“Or maybe she’s still hiding somewhere, trying to freak everyone out.” Darren snorts. “Maybe she’s, like, spying on us all, watching the town go crazy looking for her—”
“Just stop talking, okay? You’re annoying the crap out of me.” Which is true. But more than that, talking about Nell while we’re searching the woods—the same woods into which Mr. Elliott saw her disappear the day before last, while we were all stuck in first period—just seems . . . I don’t know, like bad luck. Speaking ill of the dead and all that. Not that Nell is dead. She could be, obviously, but no one’s saying that out loud yet. At least not around us kids.
Darren mutters something at me, but he can insult me all he likes, as long as we just get in and out of here as quickly as possible. I’ve done stuff before—broken into cars, shoplifted, the usual. Petty stuff. I’ve even gone into these woods before, when Darren and I tried the cigarettes he stole from his mom’s purse.
But the woods are different now. I’m sure it’s just the knowledge of Nell’s disappearance playing tricks on my brain, but still. I don’t want to stay in here any longer than I have to. I hope we find something soon, or at least come up with something we can take back to the guys, something to scare them and start a nice, juicy story.
It’s like the trees were listening to me, because maybe thirty seconds after I think that—I hope we find something soon—I see it: A rectangle of turquoise, lying in the dirt.
I pick it up, and Darren looks over my shoulder. “Dude. Nell’s phone? Do you think?”
“Maybe.” I turn it over, press the home button. I slide my finger across the screen to unlock it, and it doesn’t ask me for a passcode, so the photo shows up immediately.
Darren curses and jumps back. I fling the phone away, and it flies into the dirt.
We stand there, breathing hard.
“What was that?” Darren asks, and when I head for the phone, he grabs my arm, squeezes tight. “Josh. Don’t, man. Evidence, right? That’s some freaky . . . don’t, okay? Leave it.”
But I can’t help it. I have to see it again. I pick up the phone, touching as little of it as I can. I turn it over, and there it is—the monster, staring at me from the last photo Nell took. It’s pale and has long, pointed ears. Its mouth is wide, huge, fanged; its body is all wrong, long lines and sharp bends and swollen joints and what looks like infected cuts.
As I look at the photo, it feels like something crawls into my chest, sliding into it like a worm. It stays there, sticky and fat, like I’ve eaten too much, like I’ve eaten something bad.
There’s a sound, behind me—Darren, running away. “Forget this, man!”
And another sound, in front of me. A flash of white.
I whirl. I think, for a minute, that I see a girl—barely dressed, delicate, beautiful. My chest twists, and my body moves, like it’s ready to run after her. I breathe, I blink, and she’s gone.
Was she there at all?
I tuck Nell’s phone in my pocket and turn to head home. Out of nowhere, the thought comes to me that I should come back. Not today. Maybe not even tomorrow. But someday. Someday soon, I think. I’m distracted by a million different things, but I definitely should. Come back, that is.
Something must have bitten me. A mosquito, maybe. There’s an itch on my chest, and I scratch it, and call after Darren. “Darren? Come on, dude, don’t be such a baby. Seriously? There’s nothing here but trees.”
I found the photograph deep in the woods, half-hidden in a rough porridge of dead leaves and dirt and bits of wet bark. It was a damp, chilly day, and my dog and I had been walking for an hour or two. I swung my black stick as we walked. I’m an old man, and old men like sticks.
I have a little habit of collecting discarded things I find: letters, homework assignments, notes passed in class. Once I found a whole notebook someone had been keeping as a diary. It was half-waterlogged, the fat blue ink had run, the pages were dirty-wet and stained, and person who wrote it was alternately hopeful and heartbroken about a boy.
But this day it was a photograph I found. It’s odd to see a photograph in the woods. It’s such a made thing, a human thing. Coming across an old black-and-white photo on a carpet of dead leaves, while the trees loom around you, watching—it’s like finding a broken doll sitting up against a stump, staring at you.
I picked up the photo and carefully brushed the dirt and leaves away. It was old, almost as old as I am, perhaps. The paper felt soft and thin, as if it had been handled many times over many years.
All the more surprising that someone had thrown it away. Or had it simply been lost? How did it get so far into a forest, on an old path I have walked since childhood, where I rarely see another human being?
I looked again at the photo’s deep blacks and soft grays. It showed a little boy in shorts and a shirt wearing old-fashioned brown leather lace-up shoes and white socks.
I had a pair of shoes like that myself as a boy. So the photo must be old, as old as I.
The boy is sitting in a square stone frame—perhaps a doorway or large window, in an apparently abandoned, crumbling building. The ledge, if it is a ledge, where he sits is thick with dirt and dead leaves. A single bare branch protrudes into the picture from the upper left.
Behind the boy is darkness and stone.
The strangest part is that the little boy is wearing the mask of an old man. It is a full head mask, and much too big for him, a man’s head sitting on the shoulders of a boy. The old man of the mask is wrinkled and balding with thick white eyebrows, but he doesn’t look unkind.
And in his hands, the boy holds a little-boy doll.
I stood in the forest, among the whispering leaves and murmuring branches, among the scents of mulch and mushroom and earth, looking at the photo. It was . . . beautiful is not the right word, perhaps, but compelling.
It was hard to take your eyes off it.
Rusty gave a sharp bark. We had been standing still a long time, The gray clouds above us no longer looked inert, but ominous, heavy and dark with something. A cold wind came up, and the smell around us changed to rain.
I tucked the photograph in my jacket pocket, and we turned back towards home.
Over the next few days, I found myself drawn to the photo again and again. My old fingers traced the lines of the stone that framed the boy. I looked more closely at the doll he held—even got out the magnifying glass I must use now for reading the warnings on medicine labels.
That doll, that doll. Something so familiar about that doll. Did I have one like it, as a boy?
There was something familiar about the whole scene, to be truthful.
Or was it only now becoming familiar, because I had looked at the photo so many times?
One day a repairman working on my balky furnace noticed the photo on the table where I had been studying it the night before.
“That’s crazy,” he said.
“Was that you, some Halloween or something?” he asked.
“Yes, it was me,” I said. “But it wasn’t Halloween.”
After he left, I asked myself over and over: why I had said it was me?
But wasn’t there a time when I was wandering my forest path until it took me to the old, abandoned mill, and wasn’t there a man . . .
The mill. That was where that photo was taken, I was almost sure of it. The old abandoned mill. I’d forgotten it existed, if it did still exist. Hadn’t it been torn down years ago? Surely it had been, to build some new something or other, a strip mall or a hospital or a school?
I put the photograph down. I made my dinner, a small baked potato with cheese, and went to bed, thinking.
The next morning, I shaved myself carefully. In the mirror I saw a balding man with a wrinkled face, thick white eyebrows, not unkind.
Then Rusty and I set off, I carrying a bottle of water in one pocket and a sandwich in another, for it might be a long walk out to the mill.
Not the mill, of course. Where the mill used to be. The mill was gone, it was long gone, I was sure it was.
It was hard to remember the way, after all these years. We walked for hours, Rusty and I. As the sun began to drop away, he whined and tugged at me to come back, come back. I made many wrong turns and had to double back often.
But in the end, we walked through a brambly thicket across our path, and found it: the old abandoned mill, favorite lonely playground of my boyhood. The great thick stones of it, each huge square a half-ton at least.
I walked around. The sun was low in the sky, all the colors were clear and strange. I had walked too long, I would have to walk home in the woods in the dark. Rusty cried at my feet.
In a great square opening that had once housed a grain chute, now long gone, a little boy sat.
Yes of course, that’s right, I thought.
He wore shorts and old-fashioned leather lace-up shoes with white socks. In his hands was little-boy doll. He turned it idly, back and forth in his hands.
I wish I had a camera, I thought. Oh but wait: I have my phone.
I pulled out my phone and found the right little colored square to touch. The camera sprang up, and I took the picture. I thought the little boy didn’t notice me. But as I brought the phone down and looked up, he was looking straight into my eyes.
It’s dark now. Rusty is pacing fearfully, up and down, up and down.
I am sitting, now, on the ledge where the little boy sat. I am looking on my phone, at the photo I took. I can’t stop looking at the photo I took.
Because something went wrong, when I clicked that picture, the boy must have moved, or the camera must have double-exposed, can phone cameras do that?
In the picture, the little boy’s head has been replaced by what almost looks like a great mask, that covers his whole head, and is much too big for him: a mask that almost looks like me.
I sit leaning against the stone, knees up, looking at the picture of the boy in my hands, just the way the boy in the photo looks at his boy-doll.
I sit here, an old man holding a photo of himself as a boy, wearing a mask of himself as an old man, who is holding a doll of himself as a boy. I sit here, I sit here.
And there is no one in the world, now, but me and all my many selves.
Somewhere a dog is barking, over and over, trying to get my attention.
But the sound is getting farther and farther away.