At around this time last year, I’d made up my mind to write twelve short stories for each month of 2020. The idea was that each story would have something to do with its respective month – inspired by a holiday, typical activities, the weather, etc.
I enjoyed the project so much that I’m doing it again in 2021. This year, I think I’d like to challenge myself to write twelve stories around a central theme. But I don’t know what that theme should be! So, I thought I’d reach out to you, wonderful readers, for your ideas and suggestions.
And to see if any of you would like to join me in my Short Story Challenge 2021. 😊 It’ll be fun!
So, what do you think my central theme should be?
If you haven’t read them and you’d like to catch up, here’s a list of the twelve stories from 2020. Some of them I really like, some of them could have been better, but either way, it’s kind of cool seeing all of them listed here. I enjoyed writing each of them. I’ve put asterisks by my favorites.
Glenmoor Farm glowed in the dark. At least, at Christmas it did. The farmhouse rose from the snow-covered ground into the night sky illuminated in twinkle lights. Inside, each sitting room overflowed with greenery and tinsel. The fir tree in the family parlor stood tall and proud and covered in red garlands and silver bows, surrounded by boxes of every size wrapped in delicate gold and white paper.
“I wonder what it’ll be like next year.”
Tara and Sammy sat scrunched together on the couch in the family room, sipping store-bought eggnog out of matching crystal goblets. The twins had spent every Christmas of their entire lives in this house, unwrapping gifts and smiling for pictures in this room.
“Is it our fault?” Sammy stared straight ahead.
“Every kid goes to college,” Tara answered.
“Yeah, but they never mentioned selling this place until we left,” Sammy replied.
“They probably didn’t want to worry us,” Tara reasoned.
“200 years. Our family’s owned this house for 200 years.”
“Minus two,” Tara said. “Remember they sold it and bought it back after the Civil War.”
“The shame of it!” Sammy giggled. They’d both heard the story growing up, of how their great-something grandfather had gambled away the farm and how his son had fought tooth and nail and pocket book to get it back. Now the fight was over, forever. “You really don’t think it’s because of us?”
“I don’t think it matters why.”
“I guess you’re right,” Sammy said, and shook her head. “I just can’t believe it.”
“I kind of feel like that’s adulthood.”
Tara and Sammy had gone away to college in late August, and they’d returned for their first break in October to the news of an imminent sale to one of the area’s major housing developers.
“It feels empty without you two,” their mother had told them.
“This was always our retirement plan,” their father had added.
Talking about it that October night, the twins knew they should have expected the news.
“There’re developers everywhere,” Tara had said. “They’ve been breathing down our necks for years to get at this land.”
“Suburbia calls,” Sammy had replied. “And we must answer.”
Now, home for their winter break, the twins had made plans to pack up their room starting tomorrow, the day after Christmas. They’d set the table knowing it would be the last time. They’d cooked oatmeal for breakfast in the brick kitchen fireplace knowing that they’d never see it again after this last holiday. And now, outside, they could hear family arriving on Glenmoor’s circular cobblestone driveway, the last any of them would pull up to the old big house with car loads of gifts and casserole dishes.
“Samantha,” their mother called from the foyer. “Sammy! I need you to park Art’s car.”
“Can’t park his own car,” Tara whispered, as they made their way to the front room. “Runs a bank, and can’t park his own car.”
“Everyone’s got their own talents,” Sammy said. “I am excellent behind the wheel.”
“You are not,” Tara said. “She just doesn’t want you near the custard.”
“Mean,” Sammy whined. And then smiled at her sister. “See you on the other side.”
“Well, this will be a memorable Christmas.” Sammy leaned on her cheek on her sister’s shoulder.
“If you mean because I curdled the custard, I will thank you to keep your opinions to yourself.” Tara gave the top of her sister’s head a playful smack.
“You did, though.”
“Yeah, and you dented Uncle Art’s car.”
“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
The remains of Christmas dinner lay in shambles on the dining room table, surrounded by dirty china and half-finished glasses of wine and water. From their hiding place at the top of the chestnut wood staircase, Tara and Sammy could hear the muffled, jumbled conversation of their family.
“Do you think the developer will keep the house?” Sammy sat up.
“It’s historic, right?”
“Do you think that’ll matter, though?”
“I don’t know,” Tara answered. “I don’t know what any of this will look like a year from now.”
The twins looked out of the showcase window in front of the stairs, out onto the meadows and pastures, and the barns and sheds that dotted the rolling property. They thought of the ponds and the corn fields, and the little forest of sycamores and ash trees they’d played hide and seek in as children.
“I guess they’ll definitely chop down the woods,” Tara said.
“I was thinking about that, too,” said Sammy. “And how they’ll flatten everything.”
The opening chords of “Oh, Christmas Tree” drifted up the stairs. The twins heard singing, mostly off key, and their father laughing, probably at their mother trying to plunk something recognizable out on the keys of the old church upright piano they’d inherited from some spinster great aunt who never left Glenmoor.
“Now we don’t have a choice,” said Sammy.
“Were you thinking of Aunt Alice?”
“Of course I was.”
“I was, too. How many greats is she?”
“I don’t know,” Sammy said. “Lots.”
“We should go down,” Tara said, and stood. “They’ll be opening presents soon.” She reached out a hand to her sister, and pulled Sammy up.
Sammy sighed. “Another teddy bear from Aunt Virginia.”
“We have an enviable collection,” Tara said.
“Lead on, MacDuff,” said Sammy.
“You know that’s a misquote, right?” Tara straightened her rumpled sweater as they both descended the stairs.
As the night wore on, the twins opened presents, sang carols, gave hugs, and benefitted from their cousin Leo’s sneaky plan to spike the cranberry punch. After everyone had gone and the house lay silent and dark, they crawled into bed and stared at the ceiling, trying not to think of what came next. Neither of them slept, and at just after 4:00 a.m., Tara broke the silence.
“Most people can park a car,” she said.
“Mom always told me I’m the special one,” Sammy replied.
“You’re certainly special, all right.”
“Glenmoor is special,” Sammy said. “Glenmoor’s probably more special than all of us.”
“Now why’d you have to go and bring it up,” Tara replied. “I was just about asleep.”
“I don’t know,” Sammy answered. “I just can’t get it out of my head. It’ll all be gone this time next year.”
Tara sat up against her headboard and pushed the covers off her pajama-clad legs. “Well, now I’m awake.”
“Sorry,” Sammy said. “I don’t think I could sleep if I wanted to.”
“It’s almost morning, anyway. Let’s go out for a walk,” Tara suggested.
“In the dark?”
“It’s not like we’re going to get lost.”
“Good point,” Sammy said. “Okay, I’m in.”
Both girls jumped out of bed, and bundled up in winter coats and gloves and waterproof boots. Out the door and straight ahead, they walked. They walked the whole property before the sun came up, and they met the dawn sitting in the garden, huddled together on a cold, black wrought iron bench.
Glenmoor Farm came alive with the light. Morning sunshine gleamed off the handmade single-pane windows, and bright red cardinals darted in and out of the scrubby, fallow bushes and brush. The snow in the fields and on the trees glistened, pink and golden, an expanse of glittering, white magic on the quiet landscape.
The twins looked ahead, each lost in the same thought.
“I wonder what it will be like next year,” Tara said.
Her hands are slick and shiny, covered in butter, and flecked with dark bits of thyme and black pepper. In front of her, a large, raw turkey, slathered and herbed and stuffed, rests in an heirloom roasting pan on a bed of onions and celery.
“We’ll tell them after dinner.”
His hands are clean, but he picks at a bit of dry skin around the nail of his pointer finger.
“There’s no possible way they’ll know, right? No way they could have figured it out?”
“I don’t see how.”
She steps away from the counter and he moves forward, lifts the roasting pan and places the turkey in the oven. Already, it looks perfect. Picture perfect, just like a Norman Rockwell painting.
“I’m worried,” she says. “I just want everyone to enjoy dinner. I don’t want drama.”
Bright sunlight peeks in through a window above the sink. The tiny kitchen feels alive with fragrance and clutter and heat. The oven’s been on for hours.
“I know,” he answers. “It’ll be fine.”
She sets a timer.
“Someone will complain that it’s dry,” she says. “Or that it’s too salty. Or not salty enough.”
“Someone could have volunteered to cook.”
“I volunteered, though, so it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s good.”
“No, I didn’t. This felt like something I could do. I like to cook.”
“This isn’t cooking,” he argues. He gestures around the kitchen, to the towering collection of pots and pans stacked on the countertops, and then to the stack of dishes already soaking in the sink. “This is forced labor.”
She looks over to the timer. She sighs. “I don’t want to argue with you,” she says.
“Then let’s not.”
“Okay, let’s not.” She checks a list she’s hung on the fridge. She’s worried over it for days, adding and then crossing out items. “I need to make the sweet potatoes. We have marshmallows, right? You bought them?”
“I don’t like marshmallows,” he says. “Who decided to add marshmallows?”
“I have no idea,” she answers, and adds “but I’m certainly not a better cook than they were.”
“You’re a great cook,” he says.
She smiles. “And that’s why you love me.”
“One of many reasons,” he says. He walks over and pecks her on the lips. “What can I help with?”
Together, they chop and roast sweet potatoes, and glaze them with maple syrup and Bourbon. She makes a green bean casserole while he sets the table. She’s crafted a special centerpiece, full of little orange and yellow pumpkins, gold ribbons, and cinnamon sticks. He positions it just so, with little tea candles all around to catch the light.
She comes into the dining room carrying a tray of crystal wine glasses, a wedding gift they only use once a year. She places one down at each setting.
“Thank you for setting the table,” she tells him. “It looks great.”
“Thanks,” he says.
She doesn’t reply.
“You did a really good job on the centerpiece,” he adds.
“Are we doing the right thing?”
He can hear an edge in her voice, a raised pitch, a thinness.
“We’ve talked about it for months,” he says. “It’s an opportunity I’m probably not going to get again. And you’re excited, too, remember?”
“I am,” she answers. “I really am.”
“The it’s the right thing,” he says, even and confident.
“But what if it’s not? What if we’re making the wrong decision?” She tightens her grip on the tray, now hanging lengthwise, covering her abdomen. Her knuckles turn bone white.
“Do you really feel that way? Or are you letting holiday stress get to you? Your family can be handful this time of year.” He crosses his arms, puts a hand up to his chin, shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”
“How could you even say that?”
“I’m sorry,” he says again.
“I’ve been agonizing over this. You know how hard it is for me.” She turns, sharp and intent, on one ankle and makes her way back to the kitchen.
From the dining room, he hears the loud clang of the tray hitting the counter. “I know,” he says, almost too quiet.
“And to bring up my family like that. How could you?”
He winces. He says nothing.
“My family’s lived here forever. No one’s ever moved away. No one. It’s just not done.”
He joins her in the kitchen, tries to catch her eye as she opens and closes drawers, pulls out one serving spoon after another.
“You know we’re close. You’ve known that from day one.” She leans over the sink, bearing her weight down on her hands, forcing herself to stay upright, focused.
“Your family will be okay. It’s a move,” he says. “It’s not a life sentence. We can always come back if we hate it.”
“You know as well as I do that you don’t want to come back.” She finally turns to face him. She sets her lips in a thin, tight line.
“That’s not fair,” he says.
“It’s true, though,” she replies, short and clipped.
“You were the one who told me to look for this job.”
“I know, but it’s not like you needed convincing.”
“You even chose the city,” he yells. He takes a breath, starts again: “You said you’ve always wanted to live in Chicago.”
“I know,” she says. “I know, you’re right.”
She checks the oven timer. The turkey’s turned golden. She starts to say how nice it’s coming along.
“I know you’re worried,” he says. “But we’ve talked about this.”
“I know. We have.” She bites a nail. “But I just feel like it’s the wrong decision.”
“You feel like that today, because it’s a holiday.”
“No, that’s not why.” She closes her eyes, opens them, knows they’ve gone hard and wide. “Don’t tell me what I think.”
“I’m not,” he says, gentle, patient. “But you were ready to go before today.”
Outside, the sun ducks behind a cloud, and against the window, they both hear the ping of tiny pinpricks of rain. The weather’s turned, but in their kitchen, things are still hot and close and heavy as a weighted blanket.
The timer sounds. He retrieves the turkey from the oven. They both watch as it steams, and she moves to cover it with foil.
“Then you haven’t been listening to me,” she whispers. There is nothing calm in that whisper.
“I have!” He raises his voice again. He doesn’t fight it this time. “I really have. I thought we were on the same page.”
“You hear what you want to hear,” she snaps.
“I hear what you tell me.”
“I tell you everything! You just don’t listen.”
They move all of the sides to the table, one after another. Warm casserole dishes, overfull gravy boats, all set up in the kind of perfect order of a magazine spread, each in its place and each place just right, with the turkey at the head, surrounded by fat sprigs of rosemary.
“You listen and filter out what doesn’t fit into what you’re thinking.”
“That’s not true,” he says.
“It is,” she counters.
“You know it’s not.” Quiet, defeated, deflated. “And if you really feel that way, I don’t know why you married me in the first place.”
“Sometimes I don’t either.”
“Do you mean that?”
She pauses, and for a moment, they both wait. Silence hangs between them.
She nods. “Yes,” she says. “Yeah, I think I do.”
He nods back, makes his choice, and answers. “Then we have other things to talk about.”
“I guess we do,” she says. She turns her back to him and walks out of the room.
He follows her out, walks into the living room and starts a fire for the evening. It roars to life. Later, after dinner, everyone will gather here to drink hot chocolate and play a board game, as they do every year. He’s always enjoyed the tradition.
Outside, a car door slams. Quiet conversation drifts up the walkway to the front door. He joins her in the foyer and plasters on a smile. It matches hers, bright and vibrant and convincing.
“I don’t understand how we got here,” she says. The smile doesn’t slip.
“I don’t understand why you don’t understand.” His mouth stays curled, like hers, tight and stretched and smooth. It shines like a scar.
The night we moved to Glenmoor Farm Estates, there was a windstorm. The biggest, loudest windstorm I’d ever heard. It shook the windows, rattled the plastic shutters against the siding, thrummed against the door frames and snapped and tore through the flimsy new-growth trees in our front yard. And it blew over the empty dirt field around us in gusts so ferocious and powerful it felt like a living thing. Like a monster, a giant come down from the sky to wreak havoc and eat humans and spread chaos and destruction in its terrible wake.
My dad tells me it was just a little wind, but I remember it differently.
I was ten when we moved in. I was “too old” to be afraid of silly things like wind and giants and the dark, but then, you’re never really too old to be afraid, are you? We’d been living in a row house close to the city. My little sister and I had shared one of the two tiny bedrooms, and when my parents found out that we would have a new baby brother or sister – it turned out to be both, and they’re too young to remember the move – they told us it was time for a bigger place. So off to the suburbs we went, the four of us soon to be the six of us, out into the wild, as far as I was concerned.
Our old neighborhood was tight, close, and full of other kids. We’d walk to the basketball court, or the pool, or just around on the sidewalk, and we’d bring frisbees and yo-yos and chalk and cards. We’d play and talk and hang out until dinner, or until it was time to do homework or chores. I knew my neighbors, all of them by name, and all of them knew me, and the busy streets felt alive and awake and real.
The new house was different. It sat on a quarter of an acre, massive to us, on a street called Ashwood Terrace. It had more space than we needed, a kitchen larger than our entire row house, and granite countertops. You could turn on the fireplace in the second living room with a light switch. Wrapped in neat, white siding with dark blue shutters, and a small porch at the front, it looked like a quaint little farmhouse straight out of a storybook.
But to me it felt hollow and huge, like a cave. And like a cave, I imagined it was the perfect place for something monstrous to hide, to wait for you and grab you and drag you away.
“You’ll get used to it,” my mom said, as she unpacked boxes in my new bedroom. “It’s just different, but it won’t feel different forever.”
“I promise. And please be careful not to talk like that in front of your sister. She’ll get scared.”
I was already scared. And it wasn’t just the house. The neighborhood was brand new, unfinished, and quiet as a graveyard. No cars parked on the streets, no kids running around to play with. No one had any interest at all in getting to know each other. Everyone just stayed in their houses most of the time, and no one talked to anyone else. I remember, once, trying to greet one of our very few new neighbors, a woman walking her dog near our front porch.
“Hello,” I’d called, and waved with the vigorous intensity only a child can muster for a stranger.
In reply, I’d gotten a stare. Just a blank, indifferent stare. And she’d walked away without even raising her hand.
Glenmoor Farm Estates used to be a family farm, an old one. The builders had demolished the old family home, the barns and sheds, had drained ponds and leveled corn fields, meadows, and pastures, and chopped down acres of forests. They’d eventually replace all of it with custom-built, luxury houses like ours, but they’d only finished six when we moved in, and the emptiness of it stretched out around us, an endless, bare landscape of brown dirt and blank space. I’d never seen the kind of dark it got at night, and in the dark, that empty space played tricks on me. Or, at least, that’s what my parents say.
It started the night we moved in, the night of the windstorm.
We were all tired from the day. We’d finished packing the last boxes that morning, had loaded the rented moving truck ourselves, and we’d spent hours unpacking. We didn’t have that much stuff, really, hadn’t had space to have that much stuff, and what we had didn’t come close to filling the rooms of the new house. But we’d all felt overwhelmed and exhausted by the time the sun went down. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – we couldn’t find any restaurant that delivered to our new neighborhood – and went to bed early.
The wind picked up as my mom and I made up my bed for the night, my first night in my own room, without my sister, in six years. I couldn’t remember a time without her crib or her bed beside mine.
“It’s loud,” I said.
“I know,” she replied.
“It’s really loud, Mom.”
“It’ll pass,” she said. “Just try to ignore it. All new houses have funny new noises.”
I stared out the window as I changed into my pajamas. It was dark outside except for the scant light from a full moon, veiled in thin, wispy clouds.
In the moonlight, out in the field behind us, the wind kicked up whipping curtains of dirt and dust. And something else, something like a figure, dancing, twirling and turning in quick, fluid movements. And that figure became two, and then three, and they linked themselves together and weaved and twisted and bent themselves into sharp, unnatural angles.
“There’s someone out there!” I pointed straight ahead. “Mom, there’s people out there!”
She looked out the window with me and said, “That’s just dust, honey. It’s okay. It’s okay to be scared in a new place.”
The wind blew again, a powerful, heavy gust, and I heard a scream in the distance.
“Mom,” I shrieked.
More screams echoed my own, high and sharp, like frightened children. Like me.
“It’s foxes,” my mom answered. “Remember we told you there used to be lots of foxes here?”
“It doesn’t sound like a fox. It sounds like a person.”
“Okay, bud,” she said. “I know you’re scared. I know this is different. But you’re going to have to be a big kid tonight and be brave. I promise there’s nothing out there. It’s just your imagination.”
She put a firm hand on my back and ushered me to the bed. She tucked me in, kissed my forehead, and turned off the lamp on the side table.
“Mom,” I said, “can’t I leave it on? Just for tonight?”
“Okay, sweetheart. But just for tonight.” She blew a kiss as she stood up and walked out the door, pulling it half-closed behind her. “I promise you’ll feel better in the morning.”
I listened to the wind for hours. Every time I closed my eyes, I imagined the figures dancing in their wild circle, or the screams that sounded like murder victims. I tossed and turned. I counted sheep. I finally drifted off at what I thought must be after midnight, and I dreamed. I dreamed of the dirt field in the dark. I dreamed of voices and dancing, and of foxes. And I dreamed of a white ball of light, a solitary flame out in the middle of the darkness, and the light wanted me to come to it, to meet it and to follow it.
I woke up to bright sunlight and a quiet, still morning. I pushed my covers away and lifted my feet out of bed. I saw brown smears on my new white sheets, streaks and spots where my feet had been. I lifted up one foot onto my knee, cradled it in my trembling hands. I think I knew what I’d see. The bottom of my foot was caked with dirt.
Looking back, I think that was the first night I sleepwalked. It wasn’t the last.
I told my parents over breakfast what I thought had happened. I told them about my dream and the dancers and the screams, and I showed them my filthy feet. My dad found a strip of jingle bells in a box marked “X-mas,” and he hung them on the door handle outside of my room.
“This way,” he told me, “if you open the door at night, we’ll hear it. Don’t worry, kiddo. If you sleepwalk again, you won’t get far.”
“But I don’t want to do it again, ever!”
“You’re just getting used to the new place,” he said. “I bet it stops as soon as you’re settled in.”
“But what if it doesn’t?” I bit my bottom lip, looked up at his face.
“Then we’ll take you to the doctor. It’s going to be okay, buddy.”
I didn’t feel like it was going to be okay.
Over the next week, we learned to live with the constant hum of construction noise. The rhythm of hammers and the keening of table saws became our alarm clock. Not that I needed an alarm clock. I didn’t want to go to bed at night, begged to sleep in my parents’ room, and I got up each morning as soon as I saw the first hint of sunlight.
“You’ve never been a morning person,” my dad said one day, as he drank a quick cup of coffee before work. “New habits for a new place, huh, kiddo?”
“Yeah,” I muttered into my cereal.
Down our street, yellow wood frames sprang up like weeds. Rows of bright green sod blanketed sections of the ground. The deep technicolor of the new grass looked wrong against the barren dirt behind us, but my dad said soon there’d be houses back there, and probably plenty of kids to play with, and that we were lucky to have bought in so early.
“We get to see it all happen,” he said, with a big smile. “We’re like pioneers.”
And I suppose we were, in a way. Out alone in this desolate landscape, waiting for the promise of new life and new adventures. I understand why it all made my dad excited. It made me uneasy, to look out my window and find only a dark, empty void.
For the first time in my life, I noticed dark circles under my eyes. I couldn’t focus on anything. I fell asleep at my desk on my first day at my new school. The teacher sent a note home, and my mom sat down on the edge of my bed that night.
“Do you want me to sleep in here with you?” She looked tired herself, and worried. A deep wrinkle carved itself into her forehead. She brushed a stray bit of hair away from my cheek.
“Okay,” I said.
“I know you’re scared, but you need to sleep. I promise nothing’s going to get you. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said again.
“Okay,” she answered back, and snuggled in beside me.
In the warm cocoon of her arms, I finally slept deep and sound for the first time in days. And I dreamed.
I dreamed of women in delicate white dresses. They swayed and whirled in a tight circle, their hands laced together, and they yelped and cried as they danced, and those cries became screams. Screams like frightened children. In the middle of their circle, the light shone bright and steady, and it beckoned me, called to me the way a mother calls to her children, welcomed me. And I listened. And as I made my way to it, the women stilled and turned, their eyes as black as the night around us, their mouths stretched into thin, hungry smiles. They waited. I kept moving. I needed to reach them, to get to the light. I needed it as much as air in my lungs and food in my belly.
I woke up to my mother’s arms around me, to her panicked face and her frantic cries.
“I woke up and you weren’t there! Oh, honey, I was so scared!”
We stood in the back yard, right at the edge of the grass. The field loomed in front of us.
My parents argued constantly for the next week. They tried to hide it behind closed doors, but I heard them.
“…need to see a doctor, as soon….” My mom.
“…going to be fine…settle in….” My dad.
“…not normal…not safe….” My mom again.
They compromised. They installed an alarm system. It would sound the second any exterior door opened, and it was loud. It hurt my ears when they tested it.
“If you sleepwalk again, you’ll wake the whole neighborhood,” my dad said. “And it’ll probably wake you up, too.”
We’d lived in the new house for two weeks at this point. All of our boxes were unpacked, and my mom had started filling rooms with new furniture, with decorations and pictures and scented candles. She’d chosen expensive curtains and had painted most of the rooms in warm, calming colors. To anyone else, it would have looked like a home. To me, it still felt foreign and hollow.
“We’re going to paint your room tomorrow,” she told me, on a Friday night after dinner. “I picked your favorite color, and I have a surprise for you, too.”
I crawled into bed that night wondering what the surprise might be. Maybe a TV. Or a bean bag chair. I’d always wanted a bean bag chair, and she’d always told me we didn’t have room. At least that wasn’t a problem anymore. I wonder, now, if she’d planned something nice all along, or if she was only reacting to how scared I was, how much I was struggling.
I turned my lamp off and closed my eyes tight. I willed myself to sleep. My mom had installed a nightlight to help me feel safe, and it shined steady, like a beacon. Outside, the wind began to blow. I kept my eyes closed, counted down from ten over and over, and eventually, I fell asleep.
And I dreamed. But tonight, the dream was different. The dancers stood straight in a line, their black eyes fixed on me, their arms outstretched and their palms turned up. The white light flickered in front of them, dim and uneven, but still calling, still pulling me in, beckoning me out.
I woke up in the field.
The women stood in front of me. They were there, and solid and real, and I knew if I reached out and touched them, my hand would meet solid, real flesh. And I knew that to do that would be dangerous, deadly even. The light went out, and they stepped toward me, reached for me with fingers as crooked and mottled as tree limbs. I could hear the wind blow through their hair, crackling, like dry leaves in the fall. I could hear something else too, something high-pitched, artificial.
The alarm. I could hear the house alarm, just faintly, but I could hear it. Home wasn’t out of reach, if I could just make my legs work. But I couldn’t. I just sat there, frozen, whether from fear or something else, something even more powerful, I don’t know.
The women moved around me, encircled me, and I screamed. I screamed and it matched the pitch of the alarm. They locked hands, began to sway and bend and stomp, and move closer and closer, until they became a wall between me and the world, between me and home. And as they danced, they hummed. The hum mingled with the sound of the wind.
And then it stopped. All of it. Arms wrapped around me, lifted me up.
“…scared us to death,” my father said. “Let’s get you inside and get you warmed up.”
Wrapped in his arms, my chin propped against his shoulder, I looked out at the field as he carried me home. It was empty, save for one wood frame, the beginnings of a new house, the first of many.
I didn’t sleepwalk after that night, and I haven’t in all the years since. The neighborhood grew, and more grew around it, and soon the whole area became a sea of roads and houses, of traffic and people and noise. There are no old family farms left.
I wonder, now, if it was all in my imagination. But it doesn’t really matter. The things we fear, and the things we remember, all of our stories, they’re real to us. Whatever happened to me, those first days in that new house, it’s no less real than anything else, and whatever it was, it didn’t get me.
My dad says the night we moved to Glenmoor Farm Estates, I scared myself into sleepwalking. I remember it differently.
I remember apple trees and shucking corn, and the smell of oil in a cast iron pan. A fine dust of white flour on the counter, and fried apple turnovers sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar at the center of a lace tablecloth.
I remember red and gold leaves, raked into thick pillars taller than me, and a woodpile at the bottom of the hill, stacked tight and high in advance of the coming cold.
And I remember my grandmother, her stubby, gnarled fingers, like knobby roots on an ancient tree, wrapped delicately around a tiny sewing needle. She made me a bright pink apron once, and I remember parading around the house in it, swooshing it around my hips like a ballgown.
There are things I don’t remember. I don’t remember the name of the family who lived down the hill, or the phone number I used to call to say hello to my grandmother after school. I don’t remember my grandmother’s face, though I recognize her in pictures, and I’d know her voice in a crowd even now. Some days, I don’t remember the names of my children and their children. Or so they tell me. And though I can play my favorite song on the piano, my own fingers now stiff and curved, I can’t remember the words.
Memories are precious things.
I used to spend whole days with my grandmother. We’d cook and talk, and she’d watch her gameshows. She’d tell me about when she was a girl, how she loved to read and play ball, how she was her class’s valedictorian, and how she always wished for a black-haired grandchild. My own hair was auburn. What’s left of it now whisps around my head in spindly gray spider’s webs.
One September day, just after the leaves had started to turn, my grandmother sat with me on her front porch. The air was still warm, but the breeze carried with it the bitter cold sting of winter. I must have been about seven. My grandmother had made us root beer floats and we were rocking back and forth in old wooden chairs, keeping rhythm with each other.
“How old are you,” I asked.
“Seventy-five,” she said. “I’m an old lady.”
“You’re not that old,” I answered. “Seventy-five isn’t that much more than fifty.”
“Well, then, I’m just over middle-aged,” she said, and laughed. She had a crackly, dry sort of laugh.
“Yeah,” I nodded, and dug my spoon so deep in my glass that root beer sloshed over the top and into my lap.
I can’t remember if the rocking chairs were painted red or white. I don’t know what happened to them after my parents sold the house. Maybe they’re still out there somewhere, rocking another grandmother and grandchild.
My grandmother died when I was twenty, and I have many more years behind me now. Time makes blank slates of all of us, slowly and meticulously, and unrelenting. Soon, like my grandmother, I will be a name in the family tree, a face in an old picture, a story or two at a holiday gathering, and people will argue over the details.
After I got lost driving myself to the grocery store one morning over the summer, my children hired a nurse to live with me, Heather, and she tells me not to worry about things like time. She says that I am strong for someone my age. She’s young, and once when I asked her, she told me she still remembers the name of her kindergarten teacher. I couldn’t remember something like that, even before I started losing pieces of my own story.
It’s September now, late in the month and early in the fall, and the leaves have just started to turn. I ask Heather every day to help me outside, where I can sit on my own front porch and watch as the wind blows them down.
Today, she’s spread a fleece blanket over my legs and she’s sitting beside me, reading aloud from my favorite book, Jacob Have I Loved. I can’t remember who wrote it.
“Heather,” I say, interrupting her just as they’ve discovered the sister can sing, “have you ever shucked corn?”
She folds the book up in her lap and says, “I don’t think I have. You can buy it from the store already ready to cook.”
I ask her if she can go to the store later and buy some corn that hasn’t been shucked. She says yes and goes back to reading.
Twenty minutes later, she leads me to my bedroom and I drift off to sleep. I dream of corn on the cob and of root beer floats.
My grandmother taught me how to pull corn off the stalk and shuck it. She taught me how to string beans and how to fry chicken and make biscuits so well that they came out golden and flaky every time.
Sometimes we’d make a batch of biscuits for no reason at all, and we’d eat them toasted and slathered with a thick smear of dripping yellow butter. This she bought from the store. I remember her telling me how to make homemade butter, once, but I can’t remember what she said to do.
I sent poor Heather to the store this afternoon with a grocery list a whole page long, but she didn’t seem to mind. She seemed happy, in fact. Maybe she’s relieved I finally want to do something besides stare out at the garden.
We’re in the kitchen together now, and I’m instructing her on how to mix the biscuit dough just right and how you need to salt each piece of chicken individually before you cover it in flour and crushed up Corn Flakes to fry it. I’m too weak to stand long enough to do it myself, and she’s being a good sport.
“We’re going to have a feast,” she says. She’s got flour on her chin and smudged just under her eye.
“This was just a normal dinner when I was little,” I say. “You should have seen what we used to put on the table every night.”
“You’ll have to teach me more,” she says, and I nod.
“I never could get red velvet cake right,” I answer. “We could try that sometime.”
“I’d like that,” she says.
She comes over to sit by me at the table, and she brings with her a package of four ears of corn, all still in their husks.
“Now,” she says, “you tell me what to do, and I’ll just follow your directions.”
I tell her the best I can, miming everything and probably looking silly, but she doesn’t laugh. She gets to work. Her long, slender fingers are quick and she makes the whole thing look easy.
“One day, you’ll teach someone how to do this,” I say. “You can tell them you learned from the second best.”
“I can tell them I learned from the best,” she says. “I’ve never met anyone better.”
She finishes cooking everything and we sit down to eat together. She tells me little things about her life, and I smile and nod and try my best to bite down and grab the corn off the cob with my teeth. Eventually, she cuts it off for me and I eat it with my fork. It’s such a small thing, but it’s one more. One more thing I’ve lost. I can’t remember the last time I could eat corn right off the cob. It was kind of her to let me try.
After dinner, Heather helps me to bed and sits down beside me once I’m settled under the covers.
“Thank you for sharing all those recipes with me,” she says.
I roll over on my side and close my eyes. She reads for a bit, her gentle, even voice almost a song.
I remember nights without street lights, with stars as bright as flame and a big, yellow harvest moon in the sky. I remember the bitter smell of wood fire, burning hot and steady in the old metal stove downstairs. I remember evenings spent playing Rook and drinking cold boiled custard.
I remember the rustle of the wind through the leaves and the stiff cornstalks in my grandmother’s garden. I remember her dented black mailbox, at the top of the hill. I don’t remember the address, but I remember the long walks up and down, my grandmother beside me, beckoning me to keep up with her. I remember complaining that it shouldn’t be so hard to get your mail.
Tomorrow I will ask Heather to pick up some green apples. We’ll make fried turnovers, and I’ll tell her how I learned to peel apples without a fancy peeler, and how my grandmother used to make jars and jars of apple butter and keep them on shelves in her basement, ready for visitors who wanted a little something sweet.
I will tell her these things, while I can still remember them. Maybe I’ll even ask her to write them down. And maybe someday someone will find them, and I will become a new memory.
All of my stories are a bit personal, in one way or another, and all of them have at least a kernel of truth or two. This one is special, because it’s extra personal, and because there’s a lot more than just a crumb or two of real life. I couldn’t think of anything else to write for this month. This is the only story that wanted telling.
“You really don’t have to do that, you know.”
Sara stood in front of the sink, peeling a peach. Sticky juice dripped down her fingers and into the basin. If she’d been smart, she’d have thought to get a bowl and collect it. Wasted juice made for a dry cobbler, and she would not be taking a dry cobbler to the funeral dinner. She’d rather turn up empty-handed than risk her reputation on dry cobbler.
“Sure, I do,” she said.
“I wish you wouldn’t,” said her mother, from her perch at the breakfast bar.
Really, Sara shouldn’t be cooking anything. As family of the deceased, Sara’s obligations consisted of weeping quietly, accepting condolences and awkward hugs, and finding a place in her grandfather’s tiny kitchen for the massive collection of casserole dishes and KFC buckets friends and neighbors had been dropping off for the last three days.
“It’s what I can do,” she replied. “And it’s what I want to do. Can you grab me a bowl?”
“You’re just like him,” her mother said, and passed a green plastic bowl over from the pantry. “You always have to be busy.”
“So, you’re saying it’s genetic?”
Sara could practically hear her mother’s eyes roll. She looked over and winked.
“Just like him,” her mother said.
“I’ll miss him.”
Sara’d been living in California for the last three years. She hadn’t gotten home as often as she wanted to, and when she heard her grandfather had died, it’d felt like a punch to the gut. When she moved, he’d been as hearty as ever. He’d refused to slow down. He’d laid floor tile and worked on old trucks and split firewood, and even now, she just couldn’t imagine him as a frail old man. He’d never even lost his hair, until cancer treatments took it from him. Sara dreaded old age.
“Let’s go outside once this is ready to bake,” she told her mother. “I’d like to enjoy the view for a little while before we head to the funeral home. It might be the last time I’ll see it.” She tried her best to hide it, wiped it away as fast as she could, but a single tear trickled halfway down her cheek. “I don’t think I ever realized how special it was.”
“Your grandpa used to say this was God’s country,” her mother said. Sara heard a sniffle and the rustling of a tissue. “He was proud of you. He wanted you to come home, though.”
“I’m sorry this is happening on your birthday. He’d hate that.”
Sara was grateful the cobbler was ready to bake. She shoved it in the oven and went straight to the door. She just needed a minute, just a second, to pull herself together. Outside, August heat radiated off every surface, and the humidity settled around her shoulders like a weighted blanket, close and heavy. Sara sat down in the porch swing and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, and another. She heard the screen door open and close, and then felt her mother sit beside her.
“I’m glad I get to share today with him,” Sara said, and opened her eyes, squinting against the bright morning sunlight. “I just wish none of this was even happening.”
“I know,” her mother said. “Me, too.” She took Sara’s hand and held it.
They sat like that, hand in hand, in silence, just looking out at the mountains in front of them, the fields and pastures, and the little church down in the valley.
“Do you remember when you locked your grandma out of the house?” Sara’s mother asked, and giggled.
“I don’t! I don’t think I ever did that. I wasn’t that mean when I was little.”
“Oh, you did,” her mother said. “And you told her she was old and you were new.”
“Oh, God, I did not!”
“You most definitely did, Miss Meanness,” her mother replied.
“I was a terrible child,” Sara admitted. “Do you remember the little girl who used to stay in the old house down the hill?”
“I used to go down and play with her. I can’t remember her name.” Sara thought about it, and couldn’t remember much, except, “the bats! There were bats in the attic and she used to talk about how she’d hear them in the middle of the night. They kept her awake.”
Sara’s mother didn’t reply.
“She had long dark hair and freckles,” Sara added.
“Sara,” her mother said, “no one’s lived in that house since I was in school.”
“Well, she didn’t live there all the time. She just visited family.”
“That house has been empty for years.”
“No,” Sara insisted. “No, I remember playing with her.”
“You must be thinking of something else,” her mother said.
“No,” Sara said. She thought of it again, the little girl and her pink bedroom, her tattered white curtains, how she laughed when Sara didn’t know how to braid. “No, I remember.”
The oven timer buzzed, pulling Sara out of the moment. She went inside. She had things to do. No matter what else might happen today, no matter how faulty her memory might or might not be, she would not let that beautiful biscuit crust burn.
After the funeral and the dinner that followed, Sara went back to her grandfather’s house with the rest of her family. The sun hung low on the horizon now, almost invisible behind the ridge line. She sat on the porch swing alone, rocking gently back and forth. The high heat of the day had broken, but she could still feel the dewy, warm air through her itchy funeral clothes.
She hated funerals. She hated everything about them. She hoped no one would ever plan a funeral for her.
“Just put me in the ground and drink some wine,” she said, out loud for no particular reason.
“You know this family doesn’t drink, right?”
Sara’s uncle walked out onto the porch and sat beside her.
“Sure they do,” she answered. “Just not in public.”
“Like all good Baptists,” her uncle added. “I’m sorry about your birthday.”
“Everyone’s said that,” Sara said. “It’s fine. I’m actually kind of honored to share the day with him.”
“When are you heading back?”
“A couple of days, I think.” Sara hadn’t checked her work phone since coming home. She didn’t know what kind of mess she’d walk back into. “I’m not sure.”
“We’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss y’all, too.”
“You can always come back. They’ve got newspapers here.”
Sara wouldn’t be coming back here to live, not ever. But she said, “I know. Maybe someday.”
Her uncle nodded and stood up.
“Hey,” she said, “before you go, can I ask you something weird?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Do you remember the family that used to live down the hill?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“There was a little girl, right? About my age?”
Her uncle thought for a moment. “Yeah, they had a little girl.”
“Oh, thank God. I thought I was crazy.”
Her uncle nodded. “I’m surprised you know that, though.”
“Why?” Sara felt a pang in her stomach, doubt or fear or something deeper.
“You never met her. They were gone before you were born.”
“Yeah, they lost her. She died in a car accident. They moved not long after it happened. Not sure where they went.”
Her uncle went inside, leaving Sara alone again, in the deepening dark. She looked down the hill, at the white steeple and the gray ruin of a house just visible in the last light of the day. And she remembered being down in the pasture, playing with a dark-haired little girl, spinning in dizzying circles and giggling so hard she got hiccups. She remembered her grandfather calling down to her, his gruff voice beckoning her back home.
“Sara,” he’d said, “get back up here! It’s not safe down there by yourself.”
Now he was gone, and Sara knew her family would sell the house.
“If we keep it, every time we walk in, we’ll just be expecting to see them and they won’t be there,” her mother had said.
Sara wouldn’t be back here again. This view, the porch swing, the mystery girl. None of it would belong to her anymore. She’d only have the memories. She supposed death was always like that, leaving you with questions and no one to answer them, with memories and no place to ground them. What a birthday present.
Sara stood up and stretched her arms. After one last, long look, she walked inside.
Somewhere in some universe, Joey still exists. I know, because I’ve seen him.
We always argued over where to go on vacation. I like exploring, adventures, and cold places. Joey always wanted to just relax, wind down, sit on a beach somewhere and do nothing. It drove me crazy. Every year, we’d take two weeks off and make a plan. Every year, we’d have a fight about the plan.
This year, I rented a beach house.
My therapist told me I never give myself time to slow down, that I hold myself to impossible standards, that I let other people do it, too, and I should be kind to my mind and my heart. My mother told me I’d lost too much weight. My friends needled me, every minute, to take some time for myself, to breathe and open myself up to my feelings, as if I needed a reminder of the aching, empty, endless, hollow void in my chest. And none of them offered to come with me, of course. Summer is family time, after all.
But I caved anyway, and I rented the beach house, because I missed Joey. And because I wanted to prove I could like it. And because screw him. And because it seemed like the best thing to do at the time.
The day I arrived, the cleaners were still there, finishing up.
“It’s a great house,” said an old woman with impossibly purple-gray hair.
“Looks like it,” I replied, because I’d only gotten one foot into the door.
“I hope you enjoy your vacation. I wish I could get away for a whole two weeks by myself!” She winked at me.
I didn’t tell her it wasn’t a choice.
When Joey and I had gone on our annual vacations before, we’d always looked for the smallest places we could find. We wanted to be close to each other, even though we weren’t very good at it. There was always conflict, by the end. There were tears and hateful words and, though we were both ashamed of it, sometimes a bruise or two. But we wanted to love each other.
I booked a six-bedroom monster with two kitchens and seven bathrooms at the end of an island, on an acre-wide plot of windswept sand dunes. I needed the space. My grief needed a mansion. It could expand to fill oceans. I wanted it to, and then I wanted to dry it up, burn it to ash, cast it out into the universe and finally be free. I wanted to wallow, and then I wanted to rise.
I stayed in bed for the first two days, in the cavernous master suite with the curtains drawn. I didn’t even turn on the TV. I just laid there, in the silence, in the dark. The blankets stayed crisp and straight, settled over me like a shroud. I was immovable, still as a dead body.
And then I pulled myself up, that third day, and ate a fried egg sandwich with extra hot sauce. Joey hated hot sauce. I dressed in a bathing suit that probably looked a little too young for me, and slathered on SPF house-paint sunscreen, and went to the beach. I was on auto-pilot, really, robotic, going through the motions. But I got myself out, and I set up my chair and my umbrella and I sat there, even though I hate sand and I hate hot weather and I hate the acrid smell of saltwater.
Eventually, with the sun low on the horizon, warm on my back, I fell asleep.
I thought it was a dream, at first. I woke up to a neon pink sunset and saw him there, in front of me. Standing near the water’s edge, in the ridiculous bright green swim trunks he always insisted on wearing, Joey waded into the surf up to his ankles, and turned around and smiled.
“It doesn’t get better than this,” he said, his voice as familiar, and flippant, as always.
I didn’t have time to reply. I blinked once, twice, and then the world around him seemed to ripple, almost flicker, and he was gone, like he’d never been there to begin with.
“What the hell?” I said out loud, to no one in particular. The moon was rising, and I was the only one left on the beach.
I think a weaker person might have cracked. You just never know how you’re going to react to something impossible, right? But this is what I did. I packed up my chair and my umbrella, I took myself back to the house, and I had a glass of wine and went to bed. I woke up the next morning, and went to the beach again, and this time, I brought a camera.
I don’t know what had possessed me to bring Joey’s giant Nikon camera with me in the first place. I’d just felt like I needed to, because he would have. I’m not even sure how it ended up in my closet, but I found it and packed it. He’d have been proud I remembered, and then would have begged me to please be careful with it, because it was expensive and I was clumsy, and there was no way I’d be able to afford to replace it.
I sat out there all day, sweating, itching all over from sand and sunscreen, listening to the incessant, thunderous, irritating roar of the ocean, until the moon sat high above the water. Nothing happened. Nothing. I don’t even know what I was expecting to see.
I threw Joey’s stupid, massive camera into the breakers.
The days passed in a boring haze. I did all the things you’re supposed to do on a solo vacation as a single woman. I sat by the water, I swam in the waves, and lost my favorite bracelet for my trouble. I shopped. I went out and had a few drinks at a local dive and shucked oysters with a fun group of drunk strangers. I even managed a one night stand. In his bed. Not mine. But it all felt worthless. I just kept coming back to that moment, at sunset, Joey looking back at me and smiling.
I’d spent so much time, in those first few months, trying to build my life back up, trying not to focus on Joey and the beautiful mess we’d had and what I’d lost. And here he was, invading my head, not letting me go, again, over and over.
My last day, I headed out to the water’s edge. I watched the gulls fly overhead and waited. I have spent countless moments of my life just waiting. How many of them, I thought, for Joey? He’d never waited for me.
I eventually drifted off, and woke at sunset, again. I looked ahead at the water, and he wasn’t there. I felt relief. Just a huge surge of relief.
But then fingers brushed mine, and I turned and saw him, reclining in a chair beside me, bathed in that same late evening light, gold and pink and almost too perfect to be real.
“We should go in soon,” he said.
“It’ll get cold once the sun’s down.”
“I’m not cold,” I said, just before he flickered and vanished.
“Fine,” I said, to the empty space by my side.
I still see him, every now and again. I can feel him. I can feel him breathing. I can feel the air move around him. I can feel the weight of him, the mass of him, the difference it makes in the world. I wish I couldn’t. I’d make it stop, if I could. I’d break free of it. It’s worse than losing him in the first place, and worse than living with him before that.
I never know when he’ll turn up. It’s always quick, at sunset, always just when the last light of the day glows bright and then fades. I heard someone call that magic hour, once. I thought it had something to do with photography. I wonder, now, if there’s more to it than that, and if that time between day and night, when the world shimmers, really is just a little bit magic.
Joey used to talk about all the things we’ll never learn, and all the things we can’t understand. Once, when we were together camping in Patagonia, he snuggled up beside me near the fire and looked up at the stars.
“Do you think we’ll ever really know everything that’s out there?”
“I think people smarter than me have tried and failed to answer that question,” I said.
“Yeah, but if you could have the answers, wouldn’t you want them?”
He was crouching low over the water just like we were, looking for crawdads. It was June, the hottest, longest day of the year, and he was just there, like he’d been there the whole time, only he hadn’t. Not five minutes ago. Not one minute ago. We were certain we hadn’t seen him, and all of us agreed. Just this little boy. Dusty blonde hair, lots of freckles, striped red shirt, white shorts. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. We weren’t, either, so that didn’t feel too weird, but the fact that none of us had seen him there earlier, we just couldn’t shake how strange that was.
He said his name was Thomas Leonard, and that he lived in the big house on Morrison Street. We told him the only big house on Morrison Street was torn down two years ago to build condos. He said his mom would be missing him, and he was already late for dinner, and he should get along home before Marcus Welby. We didn’t know who that was. We let him walk away. What else were we supposed to do?
We didn’t realize this kid was THE Thomas Leonard. Every kid in our town knows the name Thomas Leonard. He’s the biggest, saddest secret, the scariest bedtime story. Or, he was. Thomas Leonard disappeared fifty years ago.
It happened like this.
One day, Thomas Leonard tells his mom that he wants to go to the creek and try to catch crawdads with his friend. His imaginary friend. He hasn’t had an imaginary friend all that long, and his mom thinks it’s weird that he’d make one up at his age, but apparently he’s always been a lonely kid. She’d hear him in his room all the time, by himself, but not acting like he was by himself.
“You can’t be G.I. Joe ‘cause I’m G.I. Joe. You gotta be Mickey Mouse.”
And then silence.
“Fine. I’ll be Mickey Mouse this time, but next time, I’m G.I. Joe. You’re awful mean sometimes.”
Stuff like that. See? He was a weird, lonely kid.
Anyway, he asks his mom if he can go play in the creek, and she says fine, go, but be home before dinner, and please remember to wear your shoes back this time. He says okay, and leaves the house at about 3:00 in the afternoon. He never comes home.
They only ever found his shoes.
Everything changed after Thomas Leonard disappeared. The town installed street lights, for one. And they built this huge bridge over the creek, just in case Thomas drowned in three inches of water. And no parent ever let their kid go to the creek alone, not even fifty years later. People remember things forever in this town.
We all thought it was silly, how we had to follow rules just because some dumb kid probably got lost in the woods, like, almost 40 years before we were even born. It’s not like they found any evidence that Thomas was kidnapped or murdered or something. But every time we saw a missing kid on the news, some parent in some house would say, “It reminds me of Thomas Leonard.”
No one ever talked about him out in the open, but this was the town that Thomas Leonard made. The street lights, the bridge, the rules. We heard this rumor once that his mother paid for all of it, out of some family inheritance or something.
She goes up to the mayor one day, after Thomas disappears, and she looks terrible. She looks like she hasn’t slept in a year, which would probably be about right, actually, and she says, “As long as I live, this will never, ever happen again.”
And the mayor looks at her and says we’ll try our best, and about a month later the street lights go up.
Thomas Leonard’s mother lived in this town until the day she died. She sold her house and moved into a little apartment above the antique shop. She stopped going out in public. And about a month before the evening we found him in the creek, she died.
“So sad,” everyone said. “But at least she’s with Thomas now.”
We saw the procession for her funeral. It was only, like, three cars.
But everything she paid for must have made a difference, because there hadn’t been so much as a sprained ankle at the creek in fifty years.
The day we found Thomas Leonard, we’d decided to go out one last time, before we got too old. Kind of like trick-or-treating. No one went to the creek after they turned fourteen. It was considered childish, something you only did if you weren’t cool enough to do something else. We weren’t really sure what that something else was, because hanging out in the grocery store parking lot smoking cigarettes and listening to music from your car radio just didn’t seem all that cool.
So we walked down to the town square, and around the corner to the picnic pavilion, past the swings and down the hill, over the train tracks and across the bridge. We’d only been there for an hour or so when we saw him, and we talked to him for less than five minutes before he walked away. Sure, we thought it was strange, but it wasn’t until about fifteen minutes later that we made the connection.
We got ourselves together as fast as we could and went in the direction we’d last seem him walking. We made our way back up the hill and into town, and we didn’t see him anywhere. And nothing seemed wrong. Like, we asked everybody we saw, and nobody had seen him. A couple of people actually yelled at us for playing such a terrible joke. We started to wonder if we were crazy, because it was impossible. No one disappears for fifty years and comes back looking exactly the same. No one disappears for fifty years and comes back, period. But we knew we’d seen him. We didn’t make it up.
We started to wonder, though, if someone had played a prank on us. So when we got home, we Googled his name. And there was his picture, clear as day. The boy we saw was definitely Thomas Leonard. Without a doubt. Same hair, same freckles. We tried to tell people, but no one would listen. We went to bed thinking we’d seen a ghost, and that it was probably the weirdest thing that would ever happen to us, and that maybe we didn’t want to go to the creek ever again.
And then, the next morning when we woke up, we saw the news. We couldn’t believe it. Who would believe it?
See, on the same evening that we found Thomas Leonard, on the longest day of the year, at the creek down the hill from town, Rebecca Bishop disappeared. She’d ridden her bike down there alone right after we left. We’d just missed her.
It’s been about three months, and they’ve only ever found her shoes. She’s the new biggest, saddest, scariest bedtime story.
Maybe fifty years from now we’ll go back. We might be crazy, but maybe we’ll do it. Maybe we’ll all still be here, in fifty years. We’ll be old. It’s so long, and we make promises to each other all the time we know we won’t really keep. But maybe we’ll keep this one, and we’ll be there, at the creek, waiting for her.
Allie and Michael lay on their bellies, staring into the damp, moldy crawlspace under their red brick ranch-style house. They’d explored every other inch of the place, starting with the attic, over the course of the last week.
“It’s not my fault you’re a big fraidy-cat,” Allie said. She scooted forward along the bright green grass until her head and shoulders had disappeared into the dark. “There’s nothing under here except dirt and spiders.”
“I hate spiders,” said Michael, and shuddered. He sat up and brushed off his Yankees T-shirt. “I want to go home.”
“This is our home.” Allie emerged from the crawlspace with smudges of brown grime under her chin. “Dad got a new job, remember? We live here now.”
Michael’s bottom lip began to quiver. Allie put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed it lightly. “It’ll be okay,” she told him. “Don’t cry, dummy” she said, and stood up. “Let’s go have lunch.”
Allie and Michael grew up in the city. They’d lived in a cramped fourth floor walk-up above a bodega all their lives, and this new house in the country, with lots of windows and a wide-open yard, frightened them both just a little. It excited them, too. They’d never had their own rooms, and sometimes, at night when the unfamiliar noises got to be too much, Michael would climb into Allie’s bed, and they’d huddle together imagining car horns and sirens. Their mother had died in December, and their father had decided they all needed a change of scenery and some fresh air. Now, in May, a little more than a week after moving in, all three of them secretly missed traffic and crowds and hustle.
Their house sat on a dead-end, gravel road in a valley, surrounded by old-growth forest six miles away from a one-grocery-store town. Allie and Michael hadn’t quite worked up the courage to explore the woods, but they had spent time walking up and down the road, waving to the few neighbors they had and making up stories about them.
“Mrs. Roberson has an army of rats in her basement!” Michael didn’t like Mrs. Roberson. She had a cloudy left eye and a hunch in her back. She’d dropped off a broccoli and rice casserole for them, though, the first night they’d spent in their new home. Michael didn’t like that either. He hated broccoli.
“Heather Fields hit a boy with her car once, and she didn’t even stop!” Allie, who at eleven was all knees and elbows, and showing the first signs of acne on her cheeks, was just a little jealous of the beautiful, sophisticated sixteen-year-old Heather. She drove a red sports car and had offered to take Allie to the mall three towns over once school was out.
After they’d eaten, just past the high heat of the day, and with nothing left to uncover in their house and all of their toys still tucked away in boxes, Allie and Michael went for a walk.
Michael noticed the narrow dirt trail first.
“Where do you think that goes?” he asked, pointing into a dark canopy of tree limbs and thick vines, down a path barely wide enough for two people. “I never saw it before.”
“‘I’ve never seen it.’ Talk right, Michael.” Allie peered down the path herself. “Let’s go look.”
Allie dragged Michael along at first, keeping a tight grip on his sweaty hand, but he got excited and broke her hold when they found a long wooden bridge. It spanned about a hundred feet, over a slow-flowing creek and above a field full of yellow buttercups. Michael ran to the middle and looked down.
“There’s lots of dead trees down there,” he yelled back to Allie. “And there’s a snake in the water!”
“Don’t go down there,” Allie called to him, and quickened her own pace, careful not to step too hard on the old boards. “This thing’s really old, Michael. It’s not safe,” she said, once she reached him. “Let’s just keep going.”
The trail seemed darker as they walked on, the tree canopy closer, and all the leaves brittle and lifeless.
“Do you hear that?” Allie asked Michael.
“I don’t hear anything,” he said.
“Exactly,” she answered.
“Stop trying to scare me!”
“I’m not! I just think it’s weird.” Allie grabbed for Michael’s hand again and pulled him closer to her as they kept walking.
Ten minutes later, the canopy opened up to reveal a fork in the trail, and at its center, a stone farmhouse, tucked away behind two of the biggest sycamore trees Allie and Michael had ever seen. The house’s shutters were ragged, bright white that had gone gray, and its metal roof looked close to collapsing. On its rickety front porch, a gray-haired old man in faded denim overalls sat in a rocking chair. He stood when he noticed them.
“You two lost?” he asked.
“No sir,” Michael answered.
“We were just walking,” Allie added.
“Only people ever come see me are lost,” the old man said. He beckoned them forward with a paper-thin arm. “Sit with me a while? I just made some strawberry ice cream. Seems a good day for it.”
Allie and Michael looked at each other, and then up at the man, and walked up the front porch steps side by side. Allie sat on a whitewashed porch swing off to the right, and Michael on the top step.
“I’m Amos,” the old man told them.
“Allie Daniels,” Allie replied.
“I’m Michael,” said Michael.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Amos,” Allie added.
“Nice to meet you two, as well,” Mr. Amos said. “I’ll just step inside a minute and be back with some of that ice cream.” The screen door creaked close behind him.
“Is this okay?” Michael chewed at the nail of his pinky finger.
“I guess so,” said Allie.
“Dad always tells us not to bother grownups.”
“He invited us,” Allie reasoned.
Mr. Amos returned holding three ceramic mugs overflowing with ice cream, each scoop studded with bright red strawberries. He presented one to Allie and one to Michael, and sat back in his chair with his own.
“I always did love strawberry ice cream best,” he said. “You’re lucky you stopped by while they’re in season.”
“What’s that mean?” asked Michael.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
Allie explained that they’d just moved from the city, and that they hadn’t even started school yet, and that Michael wouldn’t know a fresh strawberry from a spaghetti noodle. “And mom always did the grocery shopping before.”
“Before what?” Mr. Amos asked.
“Our mom died,” said Michael.
Mr. Amos sat his empty mug down on the window ledge behind him. He shook his head and tucked his knuckles under his chin. “I’m real sorry,” he said. “My wife died about three years ago.”
“Do you live here alone?” Allie felt bad asking the question right after it came out of her mouth. “Sorry. It just looks like really a big house for one person.”
“I’ve been here a while,” he said, and got an odd sort of foggy look on his face. “Things never really were the same after she went. Seems like I used to live totally different.”
They all sat silent for a moment. Allie picked at a hole in the seam of her pink tank top. “Everything’s different now for us, too,” she finally said.
Michael, from his perch on the top step, slurped the rest of his ice cream down in one bug gulp, and said, “I don’t like it here. It’s too quiet and there’s nothing to do.”
“Well, now we got each other, don’t we?” Mr. Amos got up and clapped his wrinkled hands together.
“Really?” Michael’s eyes grew to the size of saucers.
“We could come back tomorrow,” Allie said. “We could bring some books and games and stuff. Have you ever played Crazy Eights?”
“I don’t reckon I have,” Mr. Amos said. He came around to collect their mugs. “But I still got room in this old brain for some new stuff.”
Allie glanced at Michael, and the two of them stood up in unison.
“We should get back home and stop bugging you for now,” Michael said.
“You’re not bugging me at all,” Mr. Amos said. He nudged the screen door open with his bare foot and stepped inside, clutching the mugs to his chest. “Y’all wait just one more minute before you leave.”
When he came back this time, he handed Michael an intricately carved little wooden fox. “I carved that when I was about your age,” he said, “from a sycamore tree in my back yard. Looked just like one of those before it fell down in a storm.” He pointed to the trees in front of the house.
“Can I keep it?” Michael stared down at the fox in his palm, and wondered just how long it took Mr. Amos to make it.
“I think you should have it,” Mr. Amos answered. “It’s meant for a boy, not for an old man. It feels like it’s been sitting here waiting for you.”
“Thank you,” Michael said. He looked at the fox one more time before stuffing it, as gently as he could, into the pocket of his khaki shorts. “Can you teach me how to make one?”
“I sure can,” Mr. Amos said. “Y’all come back and see me whenever you want.” He smiled at them.
“Thanks,” said Michael, and smiled back. Allie realized it was the first time he’d smiled since they moved.
“Thank you for the ice cream,” said Allie. “We’ll come back tomorrow, before lunch.” She paused. “If that’s okay,” she added.
“I look forward to it,” Mr. Amos said. “It’s been a long time since I had company. I think I’ll sleep real good tonight, now I’ve got two new friends to see in the morning.”
Allie and Michael stepped off of Mr. Amos’s porch and out toward the path. They turned around once, just before they reached the sycamore trees, and waved. The old man waved back, and, as they walked away, Allie and Michael never heard the creak of his screen door.
They went back the next day, carrying a cardboard box full of sandwiches, chips, sodas, and books for Mr. Amos, and a deck of cards, so they could to teach him to play Crazy Eights. They found the dirt trail, and crossed the bridge, but found no house at the fork in the path, and no sign that the house behind the sycamore trees, or the old man who lived there, had ever existed in the first place. In his pocket, Michael felt the solid weight of the little wooden fox.
The following May, as the school year wound to a close and Allie and Michael began to dream about summer and all of its promise and possibilities, they decided to look for the house at the fork one more time. They had to do it in the morning, because Allie had a sleepover later that day, and Michael wanted to meet some of his friends to practice for football. He’d be old enough to play in the fall, in the youth league in town.
They didn’t expect to find anything, and couldn’t explain how they’d ever found anything in the first place. None of their neighbors knew of a man called Amos, and all of them insisted there had never been a trail off of the road, or a bridge, or a stone farmhouse. The whole neighborhood, they said, had been carved out of the woods only twenty years ago. But Allie and Michael wanted to go back and see, for themselves, just in case, and so on a humid, overcast day, they set out looking for the trail. They found it, and the bridge, and the fork and the giant sycamore trees. Only now, instead of Mr. Amos’s stone farmhouse, there was a log cabin, and on its porch, a young man with dark hair in a plaid shirt rested in a red Adirondack chair. He stood up when he noticed them coming.
“You kids lost?”
Allie and Michael looked at the young man, and then at each other, and walked up the front porch steps.
Leland Foley always worked at night, when the little village was sleeping. In the forest behind the small collection of farmhouses and cottages, no larger than thirty households, he’d found his latest project. Among the dark thickets, surrounded by black branches stretched against silver-blue light, seated high and relaxed on his bright yellow excavator, he’d hack and push and dig and turn, and by morning, would survey his work with a proud grin and a cigar.
The night before the village’s annual Arbor Day festival, Leland worked. It had rained all week, and the ground beneath his machine was soft and pliable. The narrow river that wound through the length of the woods flowed high. A chorus of owls and crickets and foxes sang and cried, and Leland was glad the motor of the excavator drowned out the cacophony. Leland liked quiet in the woods, because it meant he could focus on the sound of making money. Every crack of every limb, each thud of a fallen tree onto damp earth, sounded, in his mind, like the ping of a penny dropped into a piggy bank.
He’d had a piggy bank, when he was a boy. It had been a gift from his father, who, as Leland had torn open cheerful red wrapping paper and clawed into a cardboard box to get at his birthday present, had imparted the wisdom by which Leland lived his life: “Bullshit walks,” his father had said, and placed a firm hand on his shoulder, “and money talks. Remember that, son.”
Leland had since grown up, grown nearly old, and had given the same gift and advice to his own young son when the boy had turned eight. Only he’d added, “Money means you can leave a mark, kiddo.” The boy had looked at him dully, attention already moved on to the next brightly-wrapped package, some kind of toy, probably. “You haven’t done anything with your life if you don’t leave a mark.” His wife, her hands crossed at the waist of her pink silk house robe, had glared at him across their heavy oak breakfast table, but had said nothing.
In the morning, Leland and his family would join in the Arbor Day festivities and plant a tree in the village square. His wife had insisted. “At least try to make them like you,” she’d nagged, and argued that everything would be easier if he was on good terms with the villagers. He did not look forward to the festival, but he would participate, if only for the photo opportunity. He had several acres to clear before then, and so he kept at work, lulled into an easy rhythm by the beeping of the excavator, thinking of nothing in particular.
At around 5:00, with only an acre or so left to go and the first gray light of morning on the horizon, Leland took a break. He climbed down and stretched his gangly arms and his thin legs. He walked around the work site and surveyed his progress, his tired eyes sweeping over the flattened landscape, visualizing what would come next. He’d already created a few nature trails, had made plans for a gazebo, a pond, and a tennis court, and would soon start clearing lots for large, luxury homes. Maybe twelve, he thought, or a few more. People would pay a lot to live in close-knit, characterful villages these days, and if no one else would take advantage of this free and empty space, then he certainly would.
He’d leave it to others, of course, to do the building, and he’d pay them well, with the profit from selling the timber. But the clearing, the earth-moving, that he liked to do himself, the product of his own labor. When this project was done, the village would be remade from a sleepy, old world hamlet into a new, modern, luxury community, one that he’d envisioned and created. He’d build a town for the twenty-first century, a legacy he’d leave behind for everyone to see. The villagers didn’t like it, had let him know and had complained to the local zoning board, but they would come around. And if they didn’t, Leland didn’t much care.
He walked forward a few steps, loosening his stiff knees, feeling the give of the newly turned earth beneath his heavy work boots, and saw an orange flicker in the close distance. It took a moment for him to process, but he realized he was looking at a campfire. And a campfire meant a trespasser. As quietly as he could, he made his way back to his SUV, a walk made longer knowing he wasn’t alone on his land, and grabbed the baseball bat he kept for self-defense. And just in case, he tucked his gun into his belt.
He snaked, quick and silent, towards the campfire, and saw a young man, probably not more than twenty, reclining against a tall ash tree, his head cocked back and cradled in his hands, his long legs stretched in front of him. He looked to be sleeping, but Leland approached him with caution. In the firelight, it was hard to make out details, but Leland thought he saw a shock of red hair, a crooked nose, and, a few feet away, stashed against a boulder, a blue backpack. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, the young man opened his eyes and smiled.
“Well, hello, sir,” he said, cheerfully. “What brings you to this neck of the woods?”
“I own them” Leland answered, flat and sharp, “and you’re trespassing.”
“Oh, I’m sorry about that.” The young man reached into his pocket and produced a tattered map. “I never could read these things,” he said.
“The highway’s a few miles east,” Leland told him. “You should move on, or I’ll have to call the police.”
“Sure,” the young man said. “Only you never answered my question.”
“What are you doing out here in the woods?” The young man stared at Leland with wide, curious eyes.
“I’m working” Leland barked. “And these woods belong to me.” He added, for good measure and to make himself clear, “So you’d better move on. Now.”
“Well, that’s silly,” the young man said. “The wood’s are no place for working.” He paused, thought for a moment, trained his eyes on the campfire. “Not for regular folks, anyway.”
“Yeah, well, regular folks have to work to make money,” Leland replied. “And you’re in my way.”
“I think you’ll find you’re in mine,” the young man said, quietly, and if Leland thought he perceived a shift in the young man’s demeanor, a sudden coldness in his speech, he couldn’t be certain. The young man looked up and added, with a bit more volume, “If the highway’s east, then I’d have to go through you to get to it.”
Leland had no answer to that, and said only, “I thought you were bad with directions.”
The young man leaned forward, began to shovel dirt onto the fire with his hands, and said, “I’m bad with maps, but I’m good with directions.” He stood and stamped on the smothered embers a few times, and then stepped away. He grabbed his backpack, hefted it onto his shoulder. “And I’m good with the woods. Seems like you are, too, in your own way. Or bad, depending on how you look at it.”
Leland said nothing.
“Let me tell you a secret before I go,” the young man said, and stepped in close. He leaned over Leland’s shoulder, his lips close to Leland’s ear. “You’re standing in a fairy ring.”
Leland looked down, and found that he stood in the middle of a small circle of mushrooms.
“And the moon’s full,” the young man added.
Leland looked up. Ten minutes ago, there’d been only clouds, but now, he could see the full moon, bright and looming in the lightening morning sky. And wrong.
The full moon wasn’t for another two weeks. Leland was nearly certain. He’d seen the information only this morning, when he looked at the weather.
“You should make a wish,” the young man whispered, and then laughed, loud and hardy. He stepped past Leland, close enough that his threadbare backpack brushed Leland’s arm, and began to trudge through the underbrush, whistling as he walked.
Leland watched him go, didn’t dare move until he was out of site. He went over their conversation in his head. And he thought, in spite of himself and for the briefest moment, of a wish. A wish to leave a legacy in these woods, to remake them. A wish to make a mark.
Leland’s feet began to tingle. He looked down again at the tiny, snow white mushrooms all around him, surrounding him on all sides, no higher than his toes. He began to feel stiff all over, and realized he couldn’t move his knees, then his elbows, and then his neck. Somewhere in the forest, he heard a fox scream. Or perhaps it was the high-pitched yowl of his own voice, just before his lips sealed shut. In his last moments, he thought of houses. Neat rows of cream siding on a flat, sodded landscape missing its carpet of deep green forest.
And then he didn’t of think anything at all.
In a little forest outside of a tiny village, near a serpentine slip of a river, stands a broad, dark-limbed tree that village children call “The Bad Man.” It is an ominous thing, all black knots and rough, prickled bark, with leaves like human hands. When the wind blows through its spindly branches, the villagers say it screams. The children insist that it holds the spirit of a greedy man who disappeared a long time ago, and they play a game to see who’s brave enough to touch it. The adults don’t say so, but they grow up believing it, and they avoid that part of the forest. The tree stands on its own, covered in a thick layer of black moss and poison vines, set apart from the ashes and sycamores around it. At its base rests a ring of white mushrooms. And high on its trunk, sticking out like a cancerous knot through the moss and vines, is an angry, twisted face. The villagers say it’s been there for a hundred years, maybe more, like a blight that will never heal.