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.
It starts when you feel a little tickle on your right ankle. You’re lying on the couch, reading a book, and then this little . . . tickle. Small as a cat’s whisker.
But the cat’s not around.
It’s a good book, so you don’t think about it.
But then—ugh—you feel the tickle moving. The little tickle is climbing up your leg, right up onto your calf.
Too late, though. It’s already crawled up to your knee, the soft, inside part of the knee, and it’s scratching away there. You’re sitting up now, trying to sort of reach up inside your pants’ leg to get it . . .
. . . but now you feel another tickle on your collarbone, like something walking across your collarbone on tiny insect feet.
Ugh, GROSS. You reach to pinch it off, to get it off you, but it’s already scurried down lower, inside your shirt. And now there’s another one on your other ankle—no, that one’s fast, it’s already up your calf. And the collarbone one is already tickling down your breastbone, straight down toward your navel.
Now you’re on your feet, of course. The book’s on the floor half open, its pages bent. There are so many little tickles now—god, one’s in your hair—and you claw at your hair: get it out, get it out.
Then you realize that you said that out loud, you shouted it, actually, and you’re still shouting, GET IT OUT! GET THEM OFF ME!
Clawing at your hair, you grab one of the little creatures. YES. You GOT it. But did you get it? Or did it get you? Because you can feel tiny, clawlike fingers and toes clinging to your index finger.
So you look at your hand, at the thing that’s wrapping itself around your finger. It isn’t a centipede; it isn’t a roach; it isn’t a horrid little spider. It isn’t anything you’d imagined.
It’s a human sort of thing, but tiny, and dull gray all over, with thick black stripes, and hands and feet like little claws. It has a sort of face, with shiny black eyes like tiny stones in its head. And it’s wearing a tiny black hat.
You look at the thing. It looks at you. Its dark gray lips twist up in a grin, exposing little black needle-sharp fangs.
Then, without warning it scuttles down your hand and up your arm, inside your sleeve.
And now you scream for real.
Because you see them, now, you see them all: streaming out of the walls, marching out of that faint crack in the ceiling, pouring out of the stuffing of the couch you were just lying on so comfortably. They’re running toward you on their tiny feet, hundreds of them, thousands.
Why are they here? Who are they? You don’t know. And honestly, right now you don’t have time to think about stuff like that.
Because the one on your stomach is biting. It bites hard. It hurts so much, so shockingly much, the pain radiates from your stomach throughout your body like an electrical field. For a moment you’re paralyzed with pain, you can’t move, you can only feel the agonizing pain, and behind it the tiny claw-hands and claw-feet that scamper over every part of your body.
Now, on your thigh, another bite. At your soft throat: another bite.
You scream and scream and you run out your front door. HELP ME, you’re screaming. THEY’RE ON ME! THEY’RE BITING!
Screaming, you fall down on the street, rolling on the hard surface, trying to crush the horrid, grinning little biters. But it’s as if they’re made of rubber or something—they won’t crush. They spring right back, and dig back in with their poison-needle fangs.
Neighbors are out now, they’ve run to you on the street, and from the way they stop short, from their horrified faces, you have a flash of what you must look like: red face, bulging eyes, rolling on the street, screaming Stop them, it hurts, they’re hurting me.
The neighbors call an ambulance, of course, and the ambulance takes you away. The ambulance people say things that make no sense, and they don’t help you, they don’t get them off you at all.
You’re at the hospital, and your parents have come, and your mom is crying. But are they here right now? she asks, do you feel them even right now?
And you, clawing and slapping and flapping at yourself under the sheets: Yes, of COURSE they’re here now, can’t you see them, look, just LOOK.
And your dad says, really soft, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but we can’t see them. No one else can see them, kiddo. Don’t you think—
But just then one of them bites you extra-hard, and you scream, and the nurse comes running in. Now your dad is crying, too.
You pull up your shirt, for the millionth time that day, and scream, Look! Look! Will somebody just look? Look at them and look what they’re doing to me! You look down at your stomach, the writhing gray creatures with their little black claws and evil grins, at your skin with its swelling blisters and oozing sores.
You looks at your parents, you look at the nurse.
And your mother says wetly, through the tissue at her nose, But there’s nothing, honey, there’s nothing at all.
And the nurse says, I’ve got a sedative here, that will help, at least for a while.
And as the drug takes effect, you hear a voice saying—and is it your voice? it might be—saying, They’re on me, get them off . . get them off . . .
“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.
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.
The school had a story about a gift.
It was a square box, bigger than a candy box, wrapped in old brown paper—very old, greasy from thousands of fingers over the years. Two pink chrysthanthemums had once upon a time been pinned to the top, but long ago they had withered to the color of dried blood.
Every year, on Valentine’s Day, the gift would appear in a different student’s locker. Supposedly, at least. That’s how the story went.
And then that student had a choice.
He or she could leave the gift untouched and, at the end of the day, close the locker, spin the lock, and go home. In that case, the next day, the gift would be gone.
Or he or she could open the gift.
And in that case, the student would never be seen again.
Supposedly. That was the story about the gift. Some people said the whole thing was just a ghost story or something. Some people said it was a prank the older kids kept alive, or even one of the assistant principals? Everyone had a theory.
But supposedly, every year, some kid did actually get the gift. Every year, some kid would swear he’d found the gift in the locker under his sweatshirt—or some girl would say it was right on top of her biology book. And sometimes they’d even have friends back them up.
“But I didn’t open it,” they’d always say. “I mean it’s just a story, but why take a chance.”
Supposedly, the last time someone opened the gift was back in the 80s. One guy said his mother was actually at the school then, and knew the kid who supposedly opened it. And the kid really did disappear that Valentine’s Day, and was never heard from again, according to this guy, according to this mother.
Which is a lot of accordings.
Annie thought the story was probably bogus. It seemed like the kind of bogus thing they told the younger students to keep them in line, so they could laugh at you later.
One thing about Annie: she was as easy to scare as anyone, but she was a lot harder to intimidate.
And so on Valentine’s Day, when she opened her locker and saw a square box in a plain brown wrapper, with dead flowers pinned on top, at first she froze.
Then, inside the freeze, she started thinking.
Not that she really thought she’d disappear, or whatever. But on the other hand, what could be inside this box that would be nice? Whoever was playing this dumb joke wasn’t going to fill the box with iPhones or scarves or Playstation gift cards or anything a person would actually want. Best case, something would come sproinging out at her, if she opened it. Or it would be someone’s long decayed ham-sandwich, moldy and turning to soup—ugh, her stomach turned just thinking about it.
Annie started to close the locker, but a beefy hand held it open. She turned around.
“You got the gift,” Tim Bettner said. His mouth was slightly open. “Oh my god. Oh my god, you got it.”
Tim Bettner played on the football team, because he was huge, not because he was athletic. He was kind of a jerk and used to bully Annie in grade school. She lifted her chin.
“Did you put this in my locker?”
“Oh my god, you got the gift,” he said again. He wasn’t exactly the smartest person in class, either. His wet upper lip curled in an unpleasant smile. “You’re scared to open it.”
“No—“ Annie began.
“You’re so scared. Scared like a girl,” said Tim. He raised his voice. “She’s scared!” he called. The few remaining students in the hall glanced at them.
“I’m late to class,” said Annie.
“Late to scaredy-cat class?” asked Tim. His idea of a hilarious burn.
“Back off,” said Annie. She slammed her locker shut and walked away.
“Are ya gonna open it?” Tim called after her.
“I haven’t decided,” she said.
She strode down the hall toward math class, picking up speed to beat the bell. Just as she reached the door, she heard a voice, half-whisper, half-croon, from the far end of the hall, near her locker.
“Aannnniiieee,” called the voice, soft as a lullabye. “I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”
Her skin crawled. She shook it off. Tim, that stupid jerk.
Halfway through math, finishing up a pop quiz she hadn’t studied for, Annie had forgotten about the gift. She had just, with some reluctance, left the quiz on the teacher’s desk when she heard a voice outside the classroom door.
“Aannnniiieee,” said the voice, low and sing-song. “I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”
Annie felt her hands go cold and her lips go dry. She looked at the class, then the teacher, but they all had their heads buried in their work, except for two girls whispering near the back of the room. Annie walked over to them.
“Did you hear that?” she asked.
“Uh?” said the short one.
Sitting at her desk, waiting for her heart to calm, Annie thought to herself: I’ll show him, I’ll show him, He can’t scare me.
She stormed through volleyball, getting a shout of approval from the surprised coach. She steamed through American history. She had the last lunch period, and was always starved by the time it came around, but this day she stood in the cafeteria doorway, scanning the room for Tim.
The voice, the sweet, cajoling voice again, and now it was coming from behind her.
“I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”
Jaw set, Annie turned on her heel and walked back down the hall to her locker.
Five minutes later, Annie’s best friend Makayla, headed for lunch herself, saw Annie, facing her locker, working at something in her hands. “What’s up?” she asked. “Sit by me at lunch, I have GOT to tell you about—“
“Give me a second,” said Annie. “I’ve gotta do this so I can shove it in Tim Bettner’s stupid FACE.”
“Oh my god that’s what I was going to tell you!” said Makayla. “Tim Bettner’s not even here, he got sent home during first period science, he cracked his head on the corner of a cabinet, oh my god the blood, and he was crying like a—“
Annie’s busy, furious fingers were tearing at the package. “Wait a minute, what?” She turned back to Makayla. “But if Tim’s not here, then who—“ her fingers stopped.
But her fingers stopped too late. The box was open.
Later, over and over, to all the questions from laughing, shivering friends, then annoyed teachers, then anxious principal, then frantic parents, then police—all Makayla could say was that when Annie turned around, she had a box in her hands. Yes, she was sure it was a box, a box covered in torn brown paper, and yes it was open.
And then she was gone.
Yes, she knew what that box supposedly meant. No, she wasn’t playing games. Yes, she would like a kleenex. Okay, she’d start again.
Annie found herself in a vast, dim, empty place. It was cold. Across from her sat a small, pasty creature with tiny red eyes and a black hole for a mouth. The creature might once have been human.
“Who are you?” said Annie softly.
“I am the gift,” said the creature. His voice was like the creaking of a gate in the distance. Now his hole-mouth twisted into a terrifying parody of a sweet, relieved smile. “I was the gift,” he corrected himself. “But now you are.” His expression twisted into something like sadness. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I’m more sorry than I can say,”
“Why are you sorry?” asked Annie. “Am I dead?”
“Oh no, oh my gosh no, that would be so much better,” said the small, pale thing. “You’re the gift. You have one chance a year. One chance to make someone else the gift. Supposedly,” he said. “I mean that’s what I heard.”
Annie looked at him in disbelief. “Are you —you’re the last kid who opened the gift?”
The thing nodded.
“But you don’t look like . . . and anyway how could you . . “ Her lip curled up in disgust.
“Oh, I know what you’re thinking,” the creature said in his flat, tiny voice. “You’re thinking, How cruel, how could you be so cruel, to make someone else live this horrible fate.” He creaked in a broken-bird way that might have been a laugh. “That’s what I thought, too. You’ll see. You’ll see. Anyway,” he added. “You’ll have a long, long time to think about it. After what happened to you, it will be many, many years before anyone is brave enough, or forgetful enough, to open the package again. Thank you for being so brave.”
“But wait, though—“ Annie began.
A few drops of brownish fluid leaked from the creature’s tiny red eyes. “Goodbye,” he said, and crumbled into dust.
Annie sits alone in the vast darkness.
“I am the gift,” she practices saying. “I have a present for you.”
She practices making it sound nice.
She would have a long, long time to practice.