The Sleepwalker

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.”

“But…”

“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.

October Stories #4: Regret Won’t Die

Here it is, folks – the final post in this limited series. For the others, go here, here, and here.

I’ve really enjoyed sharing these incomplete snippets! It’s intimidating to post things that are unfinished and largely unedited, but it’s also sort of freeing. It’s a good reminder that, when it comes to writing, something is better than nothing. You can’t build sandcastles without sand. Just getting something down on the page is the most important thing.

This particular piece is more a pre-writing exercise than anything, creating a character and a history to build on, inspired by a trip I took (I think I was on it while I was writing this) to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I imagined this story as a psychological mystery/thriller, with a ghostly component. I liked the idea of exploring regret and isolation, of looking at how running away isn’t a solution, and how old hurts and bad thoughts, unchecked and pushed away, can be debilitatingly toxic.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! I’ll try to think of some others I can put together in the future. In the meantime, thank you for reading! (And check back on Wednesday for a complete short story for October. It’s going to be a good one!)

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Laura Fuller had always envied her cousin’s hair. Lyla Henry had deep auburn hair that glowed copper in the sunlight, and bright green eyes with fiery gold flecks. Laura’s own hair was dull blonde, almost gray, and her eyes were brown. Just brown. Lyla’s alabaster skin shimmered like a pearl. Laura’s was tawny, always tan, even in winter. 

One night, when Lyla and her parents had come for a visit, Laura had teased knots into Lyla’s hair as she slept. The next morning, Lyla had sniffled, resigned, as she watched the tangled mess fall to the floor, lobbed off with kitchen scissors. One summer, as they lay on a blanket under a blistering hot sun, Laura watched as Lyla’s milky white skin turned deep purple.  She’d replaced Lyla’s sunscreen with coconut-scented lotion. Laura broke Lyla’s glasses, put baby oil in her shampoo, sprinkled pepper in her soda. Any petty, unkind thing. When Lyla cried, Laura smiled. 

When Laura learned that Lyla’s parents had died, and that Lyla would be coming to live at her own house, she spent the whole night outside wrapped in a blanket, lying with her back on the ground and her feet propped into the tire swing, staring up at an unfriendly moon in an angry sky threatening rain.

Laura believed that we must be born with the ability to hate, because she had hated Lyla, who was chatty and funny and kind, for as long as she could remember. Next to Lyla, she felt dirty and clumsy. At sixteen, Laura could muster only mild sympathy, and a bit of ruthless satisfaction, knowing that Lyla had nothing, no parents and no home and no love.  And for that, she felt awful all over again. Why had Lyla been born gentle and beautiful, while she had been born bitter and spiteful?

Lyla settled in quickly, but she cried into her pillow at night when she thought no one would hear. She shared Laura’s room, and the day she moved in, she made Laura a throw pillow with lace and sequins to put on her bed. She’d sewn a picture of the two of them into the stuffing, and made herself one to match. Lyla helped Laura’s mother with the dishes after dinner, and swept every other day. Laura seethed, and spent hours reading books and lying in bed. Lyla exceled in school, made a large group of friends, and went to the movies every Friday. She put a picture of her parents on her bedside table, and kissed it each night before going to sleep.  Laura hid the picture under some blankets in her closet. While Lyla searched, Laura stepped outside to watch the birds in the garden.

About a year later, Lyla didn’t come home for dinner after studying with friends at the library, Laura felt relieved to have one night alone. When the police found Lyla’s hat and gloves in a ditch the very next day, Laura worried, and cried for Lyla for the first time in her life. When her mother hosted a funeral service, with a casket filled with Lyla’s favorite books and photos, and the pillow she’d sewn to match Laura’s, Laura spent the night again wrapped in a blanket in the garden, with her back on the ground and her feet propped into the tire swing.

********

Laura and Lyla were connected, had always been connected, born two days apart to two twin sisters. When Laura had fallen and scraped her knee, Lyla’s had scabbed over. If Lyla should happen to trip on the stairs, Laura would stumble. And when Laura felt angry and hateful toward Lyla, Lyla would stare into Laura’s eyes with a deep ache in her own.

On the night Lyla disappeared, Laura dreamed of wind and weeds. She dreamed of dirt and dark. In the wind she heard howls, and in the weeds she smelled blood. When she did wake, twisted in a heap of blankets on her bed, she heard only the sound of crickets and clocks, the quiet, calm noises of an old house, and she knew that her dream was real. Laura felt empty and incomplete, as if a part of her was missing, gone, murdered. Whoever had taken Lyla had taken a part of Laura too.      

The police never arrested anyone, and they never found Lyla. Laura spent the next two years, until she turned eighteen, haunted by bad memories. If she found a copper hair strewn across her pillow, if she found a picture of Lyla and her parents in a desk drawer, if she felt someone behind her walking in the woods, or gentle hands on her back as she brooded in the tire swing, Laura feared that Lyla was there, or had been there. Laura became so apprehensive and nervous that any drop of hatred in her body dried up, became hard and heavy, sitting in her chest like a stone, growing mossy, dark black with mold. Some days she could smell damp on her breath, the earthy mushroom scent of that jagged rock in her core, odious and acrid.

********

On the day she turned eighteen, Laura purged her room of all signs of Lyla. Any picture, any stuffed animal, any book or belt or piece of jewelry. She stuffed the pillow Lyla had crafted into the bottom drawer of her dresser. She put fresh yellow roses on Lyla’s empty grave, and promised that she would never worry about a breath on her cheek in the night or a presence behind her as she walked. She went to college, and spent the next four years practicing forgetting her cousin. But she felt the stone in her gut dig deeper, carve out a larger cavity, and sink into her, heavy and unbreakable.  She wondered again why she had been born only to hate and hurt.      

********

Out of college and living at home, Laura began again to feel the breath on her cheek as she slept.  She dreamed only bad dreams, and spent her days groggy and silent. When she found an old picture of Lyla lying on her dresser, she knew Lyla lived in that house still, and was watching.

Laura moved, when she was twenty-two, across the country, to a sparsely populated island on the eastern shore of Virginia. She lived with an acquaintance of her mother, who was elderly and needed help with housekeeping and grocery shopping. She settled into her small bedroom, into her routine of housework and errands, and thought very seldom of Lyla, or of the stone still nestled inside her. She wrote editorial columns and feature articles for a local paper. She learned to bake soufflé and to play piano. She read at night on the porch, and listened to the distant clamor of gently crashing waves. 

She made friends with the locals and spent quiet evenings at the table playing cards and eating cookies. Sometimes, in between sleep and wake, she dreamed of Lyla humming, or sometimes, whispering.

Find me. I’m here. I’m not gone.

October Stories #3: A Little Christmas

*For the first two posts in this limited series, go here and here.*

I’ve been working on some version of the story this scene comes from since 2016. It’s a story about a house, a family, a legacy, and what it means to come home again. I don’t know why I’ve never finished it. I suspect it’s a bit too close to my heart. I’ve loved and hated writing it, and it’s given me more trouble than it will perhaps ever be worth. We’ll see.

Enjoy this bit, though, and be sure to check back next week for the last October Stories post! (And thank you for reading!)

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The dark tree limbs meandered like streams against a bright midnight sky, black, gnarly rivulets creaking with the howling wind. Tall grasses, waiting to be baled into winding bundles of hay, swayed back and forth. The craggy fields sat silent, waiting for the promise of Christmas snow. How many years since Tess had seen a winter in this hollow? 

Eight Christmases away, eight in the bustle and traffic and lights of the city, attending party after party and trying to build some reputation in the world. Wrapped tightly in a sturdy handmade quilt, Tess certainly didn’t envy the partygoers now.

As she sat, alone except for Charlie, in front of the glimmering embers of the fireplace, she thought of all of those wasted holidays. How many red velvet cakes had she missed? How many cups of Christmas custard? How lonely, now, the last Taylor woman, waiting along with the empty fields and valleys for that first flake of mountain snow.

From somewhere in the belly of the house, Tess heard a step, a sigh, the creak of a door upstairs. Perhaps not so alone, she thought, and scratched Charlie’s wrinkled head.

“Charlie,” she whispered, watching his ears perk up and his eyes remain closed. Did he feel it too? This was home, and you’re supposed to be home at Christmas. Even the house, standing tall and dark and steady against the winter wind, seemed content to have a Taylor home.

October Stories #2: Final Wishes

*If you didn’t catch the start of this limited series, check out this post: October Stories #1. If you did and you’re back for more, welcome back, and thank you!*

A few years ago, I had a weird dream. This happens frequently, but my dreams usually aren’t vivid enough to warrant writing them down. This dream was different, and it inspired me to start the story I’m sharing today. I think about this one from time to time, but I’ve never come back to it. Maybe one day.

Anyway, enjoy! And come back next week. 😉

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To anyone else, the door at the end of the hallway was just that – a door. And not a very interesting one.  It was regularly tall, wooden, with panels in the standard places, and a simple brass doorknob. No light peeked out from underneath it, and the usual person looking at it would think, quite reasonably, that it opened to a narrow set of stairs leading up to a dusty old attic filled with boxes and crates brimming with the collected junk of a thousand yesterdays.

Sara Smith, however, and despite her entirely common name, was not a usual person. And her parents knew it.

All parents think their children are special. “Jack rides his tricycle faster than any other boy on the block,” a parent might say. “Yes, well, Jane is already writing in cursive and her fingers can barely fit around the pen,” another might reply.  

Sara’s parents, sitting in the parlor with other families sharing lunch or tea, would change the subject. “The weather’s been lovely this summer,” they might suggest. Or sometimes, “I hear the spring festival this year is supposed to draw twice the normal crowd.” The conversation would then move on toward topics unrelated to children and their small but noteworthy accomplishments, at least for the next several minutes, and Bill and Anna Smith would look at each other and breathe two syncopated but inconspicuous sighs of relief.

Because Sara Smith was not a usual child. 

Her birth was normal enough, if a bit early. She’d been a normally happy baby. She’d even liked prunes, though when her mother thought of that now, she wondered if it might have been the first sign that something was not quite usual. As Sara had grown, she’d hit her milestones right on schedule. She learned to babble and then to talk, to crawl and then to toddle and then to walk and then to run, to sound words and then to read them, and she’d even broken her arm trying to climb a tree when she was five. She liked unicorns, princesses, coloring books, and, much to her mother’s dismay, the color pink. 

One night, when Sara was six and three months, and playing in the nursery her parents had set up in the bright, airy attic of their quaint, cozy house, her mother had come up to check on her. In between giggles, she’d heard Sara talking. 

“My mommy says it’s good to be helpful and to share.”

Silence.

“I don’t know how, but I’ll try.”

Silence.

“You’re welcome. I like your necklace. It’s shiny.”

Silence.

“Sara,” her mother called, “who are you talking to?”

“The nice old lady,” Sara replied. “She wants me to help her.”

“With what?” Anna Smith was proud that her daughter was playing at helping.

“She says she’s not alive anymore and her son is sad and I should let him know that she’s okay and that the combination to the safe is seven seven three nine. That’s a really big number, isn’t it, Mommy?”

“Yes,” Anna replied, “it is.” She didn’t know what else to say.

Looking back, Bill and Anna Smith always thought of that moment as the one that changed everything, because it was the moment they knew that Sara, their happy, normal, freckled, giggly daughter, could see ghosts.

Sara Smith was not a usual child. And to anyone else, the door at the end of the hallway was just a door. But to Sara Smith, it was the entrance to her very special workshop.

October Stories #1: A Spooky Prologue to an Incomplete Tale

I love a good ghost story. When people ask me if my house is haunted, I’m always just a little disappointed to say, “No, I don’t think so. Probably. Most of the time.”

Since it’s October, I’ve been thinking a lot about ghost stories. I actually think a lot about ghost stories a lot of the time. October just gives me a convenient excuse to let my weirdo flag fly. I think a lot of people think about ghost stories, because ghost stories are, at their hearts, human stories. Whether they’re psychological, tragic, uplifting, or frightening, ghost stories are fundamentally human. Most of us are curious about what will happen to us when we die, and ghost stories give us a tangible, palatable way to explore that curiosity.

I write a lot of ghost stories. Or, I should say, I start a lot of ghost stories. I seldom finish them. But I thought it would be kind of fun to share some of these abandoned pieces with you, for the month of October. Expect a post each week this month (four total), starting today, with what I thought might be the prologue to a ghostly murder mystery, inspired by my own longstanding (and admittedly strange) hobby of reading palms. A prologue is, so far, all it’s become. But I hope you enjoy it, fragment though it may be, and come back in the next few weeks for more.

*And a disclaimer – many of these are old, some of them are unedited, all of them are incomplete. Writing is messy work. But it sure is fun. And if you particularly like one of these, feel free to leave a comment! Maybe you’ll inspire me to get back to work on it. So with that in mind, into the ghostly ether we go!*

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In my dream, I’m trying my best to ignore the sounds of someone crying in the room outside the kitchen. My mother is at the stove, worrying over the kettle, and I’m putting two tea bags into a chipped mug I got out of the sink. I take the mug over, and she pours the water and walks away, and then I’m alone and waiting to be allowed in my own living room again. Customers don’t like children, I’ve been told, and I can’t read yet anyway.

I know this is a dream because I know what happens next, but I never see it. Before the preacher slings the hot tea in my mother’s face for what she’s told him, before he slams the door and says we’re both damned to Hell, before my mother comes back into the kitchen to wipe her red, burned cheeks with a dirty dish towel, and before she tells me that a fortuneteller’s life is no life for anyone, I will wake up. 

I’ll startle out of sleep and my hazy mind will muster whatever sense it has in the middle of the night to remember that my life is different, that I have built a better future, and that my mother has been dead for three years. I will remind myself that I haven’t read a single palm since the accident, and that it wasn’t my fault.

This I will tell myself over and over, “not my fault one, not my fault two,” counting my own reassurances the way that other people count sheep, until I fall back into an uncertain sleep and dream, again, of subtle lines in rough hands and the dangerous secrets they whisper to the few who can hear them. I will see my mother’s face, her wide green eyes sad and certain, resigned to the fate that I’ve read for her, my first and last paying customer. The lines will tell you everything, she reminds me, even if you’re not ready to listen. I’ll wake again and remind myself that I’m not listening. Not anymore. Not ever again. 

This life might be no life for anyone, but I don’t know if it will ever let me go.    

Magic Hour

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.

Magic Hour

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.

“Why?”

“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?”

I don’t know.

The Day Thomas Leonard Came Back

We found him in the creek.

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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.

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The Bridge

“You do it.”

“No, you do it.”

“You big baby.”

“That’s mean! You’re always trying to scare me!”

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!”

Goose Creek

“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.

The Green Man

The woods 2

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.”

“Excuse me?”

“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 woods and moon 3

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.

Something Borrowed

The war raged and ravaged and tore at the outside world for a year before the draft.  The whole country watched grainy news footage of dusty, decimated cityscapes and bleeding, wide-eyed children waiting for treatment in makeshift hospitals.  It all felt very far away, before the draft.  After, no one could run far or fast enough.  The draft would catch up with you eventually, if you were a healthy young man without connections.

Nick Keene had been running his whole life, and he was an expert.  He’d started the day his mama killed his daddy in their kitchen.  In the high heat of a Deep South summer, Nick had watched the whole thing, had seen his mother plant a knife deep in his father’s potbelly, had seen his father drop, bleed, and close his eyes a final time.

“Nicky,” his mama had implored him, wringing her bloody hands around a ratty dishtowel. “Nicky baby, you gotta say you did it.”  She stepped over his daddy’s body, not even cold.  She put those stained, raw hands on his shoulders.  “You tell’em you did it.  Ain’t nobody gonna put a baby on death row.  You love me, don’tchu baby?”

He did, in the deep, whole, unconditional way that only children can love, but he ran.  He ran and ran until he reached the next state, and then he kept going.  He missed his parents, his life, his home, but he never looked back.  He was twelve years old, and he’d been running ever since.

********************

Nick Keene became Nick Keys, shirking the weight of a family name and a desperate guilt he couldn’t bear to carry.  A string of low-paying jobs took him all across the country, but hard luck followed him everywhere.  He fell out with a girl in Omaha after she lost their baby, crashed a car working as a chauffeur in Los Angeles, lost all his money teaming up with a card counter at the tables in Atlantic City, broke a toe on the docks in New Orleans.  Whether it was something big or something tiny, Nick couldn’t catch a break.

Things had started to change in Kentucky.  At twenty-one, Nick made his money playing music with another runaway.  Tommy Flint was the best guitarist Nick had ever seen, and he often wondered why Tommy had never been discovered, especially considering that Tommy’s ex-partner, Rocky Rush, had.  Rocky’s music topped charts all over the world.  Nick was jealous, and knew Tommy must feel the same, but together, he and Tommy had styled themselves Flint and Key, and they were pretty good.

Two guitars

They hitchhiked when they had to, and took night buses when they could.  They’d stay a little while in a town and then move on.  Nick didn’t know what Tommy was running from, and Tommy didn’t ask about Nick’s past, and between the two of them, they had enough suffering and fear and bad luck to write ten albums worth of songs.  Good songs, songs that made money and got people talking.  Nick figured it was only a matter of time before the right person heard the right one, and they’d be set up for the rest of their lives.

On the night Nick got his draft notice, they sat across from each other in an almost empty diner after a bar gig, splitting a Hot Brown and cold pie over steaming cups of dark black coffee.

“What’ll you do?” Tommy asked.

“Shit,” Nick replied, and took another bite of pie.  “Shit,” he said again.  The white lights overhead suddenly felt too bright, and Nick rubbed his eyes with the calloused fingers of one hand while he considered.  “I have to go see my mama,” he finally said.

“I didn’t know you had one,” Tommy retorted, in a mild attempt to lighten Nick’s mood and the terrible enormity of the situation.  They both knew the draft was a death sentence.

“I didn’t come from nothing,” Nick said, and put three dollars down on the table.  “Everybody has a mother.”  He got up from the vinyl booth, heaved his guitar case over his shoulder, and walked out, leaving Tommy behind him.

“Now, wait,” he heard Tommy plead, shocked and distressed in a way that warmed his frightened heart.  “Don’t go off alone.”

Nick just kept walking.  He heard the door jingle as it closed behind him.  He’d never been good at goodbyes.

********************

It took three weeks to make his way home.  When he got there, robbed of his guitar at a bus station in Tennessee and sick from hunger, Nick found his mother in the graveyard, six stones down from a tall magnolia tree.  He found his father, too, not far away, but he lingered by his mother’s plot, scooping the creeping weeds away with the toe of his scuffed brown boot.  He leaned over and ran his fingers along the carved letters of her name, Judith Keene.  She’d only been gone for a month.  He’d only just missed her.  She’d never tried to find him, and he’d never come back to her, not in nine years.  He’d never even written her a letter.

Nick walked from the cemetery to the house where he grew up.  He stood on the sidewalk, just out of the glow of the one leaning streetlight, and stared at the final ruin of his childhood.  The bungalow sat empty and dark, covered in an impenetrable curtain of thick kudzu.

“You’re Nick Keene,” someone said from behind him.

Nick turned, but didn’t step into the light.  “What do you know about Nick Keene?” he asked.

A woman took a step towards him, coming into the halo of bright yellow light, and smiled.  She was a knockout.  Bright auburn hair, ivory pale skin, dressed in a dark blue cocktail dress.

“I know you’re him,” she answered, “and I know you’re hungry.  Come on with me and we’ll get you a sandwich and something to drink.”

She turned and started walking, and Nick followed.  He was hungry, and she was offering.

“Who are you?”  He caught up with her, looked at her delicate profile, and realized she couldn’t be much older than he was.

“I was a friend of Judy’s” she said.

“You knew my mother?”  Nick couldn’t recall that his mother ever had close friends, or any friends at all.

“I did her a favor once.”

“What kind of favor?”

The woman didn’t answer.  Nick wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.

“Where are we going?” he asked instead.

“My place,” the woman answered.  “Everything else is closed.”

“Why’re you helping me?”

“Well,” the woman stopped, “the way I see it, you have no past, not anymore.  And if you’re back here, that probably means you don’t have much of a future, either.”  She looked him right in the eyes, and held his gaze.  “You get drafted?”

Nick looked down at the pavement.  “Yeah,” he answered.  “I wanted to see my mama one last time.  I wanted to make things right.”

“Then the least I can do is feed you,” the woman said, and started moving again.

Nick followed, and lost track of time in the humid night air.  He thought they might have gone about a mile, into what was left of downtown with half of its boys away at war, when she walked around the corner of the bank and unlocked a side door.

“Here we are,” she said.

He followed her up a set of narrow stairs and into a large apartment.

“How long’s this been here?”  Nick looked around him, at the expensive furniture and the tall windows.  “I don’t remember this being here when I was a kid.”

“Sit down,” the woman said, and motioned to a leather armchair in the corner.  “I’ll only be a minute.”  She walked towards what Nick assumed was the kitchen, and turned the radio on before stepping out of site.

Rocky Rush’s caramel voice flooded the space around him.  Nick wondered what his life would be like, if he’d been discovered like Rocky, flown off to Hollywood or New York to record music and become famous and live secure and safe for the rest of his life.  All it would have taken was one moment, one right moment in front of the right person.

“Lucky bastard,” Nick grunted.

The woman came back with a plate of club sandwiches and a rocks glass full of something brown and syrupy. “That’s what you want, then,” she said, “to be up on stage, to be a star.”

Nick considered.  He took a bite of food, and a swig of what turned out to be good whiskey.  His throat felt warm.  “I want enough money to live in a place for more than a few weeks.  I want a job that won’t end when the project’s done.”  His voice started to quiver.  “I don’t want to go and fight and die in a country I don’t care about.”

“Your mama didn’t want to die, either,” the woman said.  “She told me so herself.  Said she’d do anything to stay free and alive.  She missed you, though, towards the end.”

Nick realized he’d finished the whiskey.  The woman took it and poured him another, standing over him after handing him the glass, swaying lightly to the rhythm of Rocky’s minor key love song.

“Do you play music?”

“I did,” Nick said.  He told her about Tommy, and their time together and their songs.  “But somebody swiped my guitar outside of Memphis,” he finished.

“That’s too bad,” the woman said.  “Luck’s a funny thing, isn’t it?”  She sat down beside him, nestled herself right against his shoulder.  “I bet you’re every bit as good as Rocky Rush.  I bet he just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Nick said.  He’d finished the second glass by now, and felt himself getting tired.  He felt tired all the way to his bones.  He leaned his head back.  The woman snuggled in closer.  He could feel the silk of her hair against the skin of his neck.  “Lucky son of a bitch.”  Nick closed his eyes and sighed.

“You want it, don’t you?  Just a little bit of his luck.”

Nick didn’t reply.

“To be a star?”

“I do,” Nick said quietly.

“I thought so,” the woman said, and kissed him lightly on the lips just as he drifted off to sleep.

********************

Nick woke up alone, with a painful hangover and a heavy ball of dread and fear in the pit of his stomach, and no memory of how he’d come to be in the empty attic above the bank.  He remembered, though, that he was going to war, and that his mother was dead.  He had no past, and his future was a pine box six feet under the cold ground.  He stood up and made his way down the stairs and into the bright sunlight, each step taking him closer and closer to what he knew would be the end.

The closest military induction center was four towns over.  Nick walked in and gave his name at a small desk in the front.

“Keene?”

“Nicholas Keene,” Nick replied, and gave his birth date as he presented his draft notice.

The lanky soldier behind the desk looked through every piece of paper in sight, and then said, “Hang on just a minute, a’right?”

Nick waited.  The soldier came back empty-handed, and told him there must have been a mistake, and that he was free to go.

Nick figured the mistake was on their side, that it would catch up with him eventually, but he went, and he used what little money he had left for a bus ticket that would take him as far away as he could go.  On the bus, he sat down beside a paunchy older man in a khaki suit.

“Hey, I know you,” the man said.  “You’re Nick Keys, aren’t you?”

“Who’s asking?”

The man reached into his pocket and presented Nick with a crisp white business card.  “I caught your act in Louisville a couple of months ago,” he said.

“I know your name,” Nick said.  He couldn’t believe it.  “You’re with Columbia.”

“Sure am.  Just down here to see some family, and then I’m heading back up to New York.”

“Oh,” Nick said.  He waited, hoped, the man would say more.

“You here alone?” the man asked.  “Where’s your partner?  You two were dynamite together.”

“He’s still in Kentucky,” Nick answered.  “I’m on my own,” he added.

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” the man said.  “Are you interested in being a solo act?”

********************

Rocky Rush died in the war a year later. That he had even been drafted surprised his many fans and broke the hearts of thousands of teenage girls.  The shock of his death started a movement among young people all over the country to hold the government accountable for allowing so many young men to die in a conflict many of them didn’t even understand.

Nick played his first sold out show the night he heard the news.  He wrote a song about Rocky, once he was back in his dressing room and three beers deep.  It hit number one, and stayed there long enough to break a record.  Nick Keys, the runaway with no home and no family, was a star.

********************

Tommy Flint sat at the bar of a dive outside of Cincinnati, hunched over in his threadbare coat with one hand resting on his tattered black guitar case.  He downed a shot of the strongest thing the bartender had on offer, and hummed the chorus of Nick’s latest hit.  He laughed, low and bitter.

“That lucky son of a bitch,” he said.

“Who?” a delicate female voice answered back.

“Nick Keys,” Tommy answered, with a little less enunciation than he’d like.  “He was my partner,” he finished, and held up his empty glass for a refill.

“Oh?”

Tommy lifted his head and turned to see a striking young woman with auburn hair and ivory skin, wearing a blue cocktail dress.

“I met him once,” she said.  “I did him a favor.”

“He was a good guy,” Tommy slurred.  “Better than all of’m.”

“I’m sure you’re a good guy, too,” the woman said.  “And I’m sure you’re just as talented as he is.  He probably just ended up in the right place at the right time.”

“Mmhmm,” Tommy replied.

“Luck’s funny that way, isn’t it?”

She held up her hand to signal the bartender, and ordered a champagne cocktail.  “This round’s on me,” she told Tommy.  “Is that what you want, then?  To be on stage?  To be a star?”

Tommy downed another shot.

“Just a little bit of his luck,” the woman purred.

“I do,” Tommy answered.

The woman leaned over and kissed his cheek.  “I thought so,” she told him.