The Clever Girl

I started this story last year in August. It’s about a girl trapped in her small town; trapped in ways that get deeper and darker as the story progresses. Since it’s a horror story my goal was to finish it in time for Halloween. I finished the story in September, but I wasn’t happy with it. It just didn’t click. My writing partner, Amy, made some very good suggestions, so I went back and rewrote it from scratch, changing the voice from third person to first (because Clara likes to talk), and in the process lengthening it from 8k words to 18.5k.

The second version is better in practically every way, but I’m still not sure about it. Amy thinks I should open it uneven more and involve more characters; stretch it out to the size of a movie or even a novel. I’m not so sure. I wanted this to be short and sweet, or more like short and dark, but the story didn’t lend itself to that size a telling.

Give it a read and tell me what you think.

For those that are family, you might recognize the town where Clara lives. Buzzard’s Roost was the town where George Tolladay was born. The town is long since gone, but the setting was perfect for my needs; what better place is there for a horror story than a ghost town?

 

The Clever Girl

I had gone with some friends to see Pink. Somehow we’d scored tickets right up front, and we were having the best time, laughing and singing along. Then out of the blue she called me up on stage to sing a duet with her, which is weird because everyone knows I can’t sing a note. She didn’t have an extra microphone so she gave me an axe, which was also weird. The axe worked but was kind of awkward because it had this heavy cord attached at the bottom of the handle. I had to hold it with both hands because the cord weighed so much. Every time I took a step I had to drag this cord after me, like I was dragging a heavy chain. We were singing was Just Give Me a Reason. At big part in the end we were standing in the middle of the stage with our backs turned away from the audience. She spun around to sing her part without a problem. When it was my turn I wasn’t so lucky. Somehow the microphone cord from the axe had crossed over my shoulder, so when I turned around the cord cut across my neck. Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. I opened my mouth, but no air would come out. I tried to pull the cord away but the other end was stuck under a huge speaker. It was so embarrassing. The music kept playing, everyone was looking at me, expecting me to sing, and I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t talk, couldn’t do anything.

That’s when I woke up. Sure enough, pulled tight across my throat was the Beast.

I should probably explain that the Beast is the name I use for my hair. I call it the Beast because it is long; long as in long enough to sit on. But the Beast is thick; thick like a wild thorn bush, thick like string, no thick like spaghetti. We’re talking thick thick. Sometimes I swear it’s so thick that there’s bird’s nests up there, or a bee hive, or something. People call me treetop because I’m tall and skinny, but mostly because I have hair that is closer to foliage than fur. Its like it’s a tree up there or something. It’s weird. Definitely weird.

Anyway Momma is always braiding the Beast. It’s the one thing I can do with it that doesn’t make it worse. It’s so thick that if I leave it unbraided for more than five minutes it will tangle. And the tangles the Beast makes are legendary. They get so large people would pay money to see them, at least that what my big brother Will says. Imagine the Gordian knot–you know that famous knot that Alexander The Great cut instead of untying like he was supposed to–only make the knot red and attach it to the head of a skinny girl. That’s how crazy they get.

I keep asking Momma if I can cut the Beast but she always says the same thing. “But honey, your daddy likes your hair long.” And that’s the end of the argument. Anything Poppa likes, goes. My friends think Momma is that way because Poppa is in a wheelchair, like she’s all guilty or something. But I know Momma. She’s not guilty. She just loves Poppa. Really loves him. Like maybe loves him too much, loves him. My friends all think it’s sweet, but when you see it all the time it starts to look kind of creepy.

So every night before I go to bed, and every morning after I wake up, Momma has to brush out the Beast. When she’s done she carefully braids it until I have two thick hunks of hair hanging from my head. She ties each braid down with three rubber bands–we’re talking the thick rubber bands they put around Sunday newspapers–and two long ribbons. Even then the Beast manages to escape, which is how I wake up every morning. Some strands will pull lose and the next thing I know they’re wrapped around my ear, or my elbow, or sometimes even my throat. Everyone in my family says the Beast has a life of its own. You better believe it.

So my last normal day started out like it always does; Momma called me down after my shower so she can do my hair. “Girl I swear,” she said to me while she’s pulling out a minor tangle. “You better marry a man who’s strong as an ox. No one else will have the strength to pull a brush through this hair.”

Only today was slightly different. “Make sure to eat your breakfast early sweetie,” she said to me while she was tying the last braid. “Your Poppa has a doctor’s appointment in Red Bluff this morning, so I need you to walk your brother to school.”

But Momma,” I said because no sophomore at Buzzards Roost High wants to walk their kid brother to the Junior High school. “Can’t Charles walk on his own?”

Charles is my little brother. He’s nice and all, and whip smart, but he always has his nose in a comic book and when he walks he gets all turned around. Poppa says, “Charles couldn’t find his way out of wet paper bag,” and he probably right.

Momma looked at me. “You do what I say. I got to take your daddy to the doctor, and sick people have priority around here.”

Yes, Momma.”

Now give your daddy a kiss and run along,” she said, handing me my brush.

Poppa was already in his outdoor chair, and he was showered and changed, that meant Momma must have got up extra early to clean him before the rest of us got up. I gave him a kiss on the cheek and he said, “How’s my favorite girl,” which is his favorite joke. “Poppa, I’m your only girl,” I said, and of course he laughed.

This morning he smelled of soap and sweat, but not too badly. At least he had’t started drinking, yet.

He gave me a hug and I went into the kitchen to pour a bowl of cereal. Charles was already sitting at the table eating his sugar cereal and reading Captain Avenger or something. I said, “Hello,” when I came in the door but he didn’t look up.

When we were done eating my older brother Will came down stairs with his hair looking like a short blonde version of mine, only his was splayed out every which way, like he had slept with his head in a blender. He was so groggy he walked right past us to the coffee pot before he thought to say good morning.

Will was like that in the morning. He sometimes wears a shirt that said, “Instant human. Just add coffee.” For him it’s true.

So while Will was still taking his first sip I called out, “Momma, can Will take Charles instead?”

Take him where,” Will said just loud enough that Momma couldn’t hear.

Guess?” I said quietly back.

His eyes glazed over for a moment, then he said, “No way. I have to pick up Eveline.”

Mom called out from the front room where she was putting our backpacks together. “I’m afraid he can’t dear. He has to pick up Eveline this morning.”

See?” Will whispered.

But Momma,” I said. “Eveline lives right next to the middle school. Will could drop of Charles super easy.”

It’s not up for discussion,” Momma called from the other room, which meant your father has decided.

Okay,” I said starting to feel the old anger rise. It was always like this. Once Poppa has decided something, that was it. Case closed. There was no discussion. Unlike, say, a democracy where the people actually have a voice, we live in a dictatorship. I knew if I focused on it would only make me more angry, so instead I decided to do something positive.

I ran up to my room to drop off my brush. My room is a typical teenager room. I have an old four-post bed, a dresser for my clothes, and a small desk (which Momma calls a secretary) to do my school work. I’m a huge fan of Pink, so my desk is surrounded by photos of her. Above my desk running along the wall at eye level is a whole series Shaker pegs, each one about a foot apart from the next. Hanging on these pegs is my ribbon collection. It started with a pair for every day of the week, but grew larger when Momma discovered you could have custom ribbons made that said things like “State Champion: Spelling”. I had two pair of those, plus about a dozen more pair for winning the County and Northern State Regionals. Momma had them made every time I won. Blue for first, gold for second, red for third. There used to be a lot more red and gold ones, but I had to put them in a drawer to make enough room. Now there’s nothing up there but blue ribbons, except for the pair Momma got me when I won the state championship for a second time; that pair is purple. Ribbons aren’t as nice as the trophies they give, but I can’t bring trophies home. Poppa wont allow them in the house. Even when Will set the state record for total passing yards last year Poppa made him leave his trophy at the school. Poppa’s weird that way.

I took a moment to touch my favorite photo of Pink. It was taken at a concert in Frisco when she first started out, and no one knew her from Adam. Whenever I’m angry at Poppa I like to look at it. It reminds me that everyone starts small and has to grow into their greatness. I may just be another girl from a small town, but someday I’m going to be much, much bigger. I also like to rub the photo for luck. So far it’s worked.

I took a few seconds to look at all my ribbons, picking out my favorites, remembering the words I spelled to win them. L-O-G-O-R-R-H-E-A or A-U-T-O-C-H-T-H-O-N-O-U-S. More than anything this helps me calm down. All that victory, all in one place, and all of it earned by me. No one can take that away from me. No matter what. Not even Poppa. It made me happy again to see them. Like walking onto a room full of friends.

I took a deep breath to center myself, like they taught us in gym class, then I picked up my backpack and ran down the stairs. I hustled up my brother Charles, grabbed his things, and we headed out the door. It was a half mile from our front door to the highway, and then another quarter mile beyond it to the school. If we didn’t get moving we’d both be late. When we left Will was still staring stupidly over a mug of coffee and Momma was fussing over Poppa’s hair.

Not much else happened on my last normal day. The only thing that really stood out was after school. I was going though my locker picking out the books for homework when suddenly I noticed Eveline looking over the top of the door.

I looked up and said, “Hey Eve.”

Hey Clara,” she said.

I waited for her to say something else, but she didn’t. She didn’t walk away either. She just stood there with her arms across her chest looking really uncomfortable. That’s when I figured something was up.

See Eveline was my brother Will’s girlfriend. They’d been going out since last Easter. She was tall and pretty, and had beautiful short blonde hair. It was all straight without the least trace of a curl, which she often complained to me about when my bother wasn’t around. “I’m so tired of my hair,” she would say. “Its got no body like yours.” I would have traded the Beast with her hair in a heartbeat.

I saw Eveline often as she was always at our home. Poppa liked her, which wasn’t much of a surprise, even grown men like pretty girls. But Momma liked her too, which is more rare. She tended to sniff at Will’s girlfriends like she was looking for rotten meat in the trash. Even Charles liked her, and he hardly talked to anyone. But I liked Eveline because she was from out of town. She grew up in a little town north of Frisco, and went to The City often when she was young. Just hearing her stories let me know there was life outside of Buzzard’s Roost, which had to be the smallest town in the entire planet.

But there was a problem. See she was a Senior and I was a Sophomore, and she was also dating the school’s quarterback, who was practically the most popular guy in town. So while at home we often talked or did our homework together, at school she barely noticed me. Not that I’m complaining, I’m just trying to make things clear. She was used to the rarified air reserved for the pretty and the popular. Girls like that don’t hang out with geeks like me.

So seeing her stand over my open locker with her arms crossed and not saying anything, well it didn’t take a genius to realize something bad had happened on Mt. Olympus.

I closed my locker and stood up with my books. Stepping closer I saw she looked like she was on the verge of tears.

C’mon,” I said pulling her hand, taking her out of the corridor and back behind C building where nobody could see you. When we got out of sight she started to cry. I made encouraging words and patted her back until she eventuality stopped.

When she was done I handed her a tissue, which I keep in my backpack along with everything else I might need. She blew her nose in a way that was truly outstanding, and then wadded up the tissue in her hand. I handed her another one so she could dab her eyes. Crying raises hell on eye make-up unless you buy the good stuff.

When she was done I asked, “Do you want to tell me, or are you good?”

To her credit she took me seriously, and gave the question some thought.

I think I need to talk about it. Do you mind?”

I shook my head, but the hesitation must have shown on my face.

Look if you’re too busy,”

It’s not that Eve. Its just I wanted to get a start on homework, and if you’re going to cheer practice…”

I think,” she said. “I think I’m done with practice for the day, maybe forever. I don’t know.”

Wow. Really?” I said. Eveline wasn’t one to be so dramatic. If she said she was done with something she usually was.

Do you mind if I walk you home?” she asked.

Not at all. C’mon.”

So that was how I learned she had broken up with Will. Now not all of it was a surprise. I mean Eveline was a pretty girl and she got along with the other gods of high school, but underneath all that she was also really smart. I know because she helped me with my homework about as much as I helped her with hers. So while she was pretty sharp my brother just isn’t that way. I mean Will’s nice and all, it’s just he doesn’t go for all that intellectual stuff. Playing football and cutting down trees, these are the things he like to think about, and not much else. I figured Eveline would eventually grow tired of him, and I wasn’t disappointed. But what surprised me is what she told me next.

I’m thinking of moving to Frisco,” she said.

What!”

It turns out Eveline had an older cousin who lived in a rent controlled apartment walking distance from San Francisco City College. The cousin was loosing a roommate so she was looking for someone else to move in. Over the last weekend Eveline had gone down to see the place and had fallen in love with it. She’d come home convinced it was her big chance. “You have to see it, Clara. It’s so pretty, and the school is so close.” It was the most enthusiastic I had ever seen of her. Her eyes glowed as if was suddenly alive. She was electric.

I was so full of excitement for her I almost missed what she said next. “There’s another room.”

Uh huh,” I said nodding my head.

No, Clara, there’s another room.”

Huh? Wait, what?”

She smiled. “There’s another room that’s going to be open, next fall.”

And?”

Well, are you interested? I mean you’re always talking about wanting to move out.”

I stopped. I mean I literally stopped walking. I’m not sure, but I think my head might have exploded for a moment. Maybe it was only a little explosion, but I felt something.

Are you asking me?” I said in total disbelief.

She smiled like she had just won the lottery. “Uh huh.”

Are you positive?”

Uh huh.”

Oh Christ,” I said. “I mean I can, but I can’t. I mean I don’t know. I mean what am I going to tell my mom?”

Whoa,” she said putting up her hands. “I know it’s a lot to take in, and you’ll have to get your GED and such. And you’ll have to convince your parents. But we don’t have to solve all that today. The important question right now is just this: Are you interested?”

Yes!” I said jumping up and down. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

The rest of that day was a bit of a blur. Eveline and I agreed we’d keep our idea secret for now. I tried hard not to let my excitement show, but it’s hard to fool your parents. “Is something up?” Momma asked at the dinner table. Will sat staring into his plate and not talking. He’d been real quiet since he came home from practice. I was sitting across from him trying to keep my legs from shaking.

No Momma,” I said. “Why?”

Well, you seem awful pleased with yourself this evening.”

I thought for a moment then gave her an excuse. “Oh, we had a pop quiz in history today. All about politics in the Roman Empire.”

And did you do well?”

One hundred and ten percent,” I said.

So you got the extra credit too.”

Yes,” I said giving her a big smile to make it look like I was excited about my history grade.

Did you hear that dear,” Momma said to Poppa. “Our girl just hit one out of the park in her history class.”

That’s nice,” Poppa said, not looking up from his TV program in the other room.

Oh, you and your TV,” she said shaking a finger at him like she was angry. It was a scene that they played out at the dinner table almost every night.

She turned to me. “Never mind what your Poppa has to say. That’s great, sweetie.”

Later that night after Momma and I finished up dishes I saw Will trudge up the stairs as if the whole world was resting on his shoulders. He was taking this break-up pretty hard. A part of me felt sorry for him, but the other part was secretly thrilled. All I could think about was that apartment in Frisco and the whole wide world around it. Imagine an entire city of people who had never heard of Buzzard’s Roost!

Little did I know that it would be the last time I’d see my brother walk up the stairs.

***

I was woken up the next morning by the Beast. This time it was a clump of hair that had crossed my face and wrapped around my opposite ear. Every time I moved it pulled tight across my eye like a cobweb. Yuck. Then I remembered my conversation the day before with Eveline, and the apartment waiting for me in Frisco, and suddenly the Beast wasn’t so bad.

While Momma was braiding my hair that morning I couldn’t help myself. No one else was around so I said, “Can I ask you something Momma?”

What dear?” she said as she pulled a clump of Beast into a tight wrap.

Would you be upset if I was to move out of town?”

She stopped and leaned back a little as if to get a better look at my face. “What makes you say that dear?”

Nothing,” I said trying to sound casual. “I’m just, you know, wondering. I figure eventually to go to college or something. After I graduate,”

Well, we’d have to see what your dad says.”

I put my hand on her arm. “Just you, Momma, what do you think?”

A flush came over her face. “Well, I…” She looked around the room as if there was an answer there for her. “I… guess I’d have to think on it some.”

Thank you Momma,” I said patting her arm. “You just take your time.”

She looked away for a second, and then real quiet she asked me, “Is there something I should know? A problem with a boy or something?”

I felt a flush come over my face. “Nothing like that Momma,” I said sounding more shocked than I wanted to. How could she think that about me!

Then I saw the relief on her face. “As long as you’re sure.”

I’m sure, Momma. About that I mean. Definitely sure.”

Okay.”

She finished up the last braid and handed me my brush. “Now go on up and get yourself ready,” she said. “And wake your brother again for me. I swear that boy is gonna sleep through his own funeral.”

Okay Momma,” I said. “And thanks.”

Thanks? What for?”

For listening.”

But you didn’t say anything,” she said with an exasperated smile.

Yeah, well, thanks anyway.”

She reached up and rubbed my shoulder like she did when I used to cry. Then she gave me a pat and I went upstairs.

Will’s bedroom is right next to mine, so after I put my brush away I went into his room. He’s decorated it in American Teenaged Male Disaster, which is my term for tossing everything in the room like it was the inside of a clothes dryer. “Hey,” I said giving his arm a shake. “Momma says it’s time to get up.”

He opened his eyes like two slit and looked around the room. “Wh-what?”

Rise and shine, brother mine. You know. School.”

Oh,” he said covered his face with a hand. “God, I don’t know if I can get up.”

He sounded genuinely tired, like he had been up all night partying with his friends again. This was something I had no sympathy for. Self-induced pain is the stupidest kind, and you can quote me on that.

Suit yourself,” I said as I went back to my room.

The last thing I remember from that morning was Momma calling up to him. “You’re going to be late for school William Frederick Barton, if you don’t get your butt down here right now.”

Momma was mad, I could tell, but we were going to be late if we didn’t leave soon. Charles and I grabbed our backpacks and got in the car. Momma yelled up at Will one last time, and then she drove us to school.

I was in math class when I found out something was wrong. Mrs Rolff had been putting some problems on the board when suddenly there was a strange noise in the room, a ringing. Everyone looked up. I don’t think any of us had heard it before. “What is that?” people were asking. Mrs. Rolff started digging under a pile of old papers. After a moment she pulled up an old style phone. I didn’t know the classrooms even had them.

Room 7, Mrs Rolff,” she said with a smile when she put the phone to her ear. Then her smile dropped to a frown. “Uh huh. Yes, okay,” she said. “I’ll send her right away.” Then she hung up.

Everyone was looking at her when she turned around. “Clara,” she said. “They need you in the office.”

I started to get up and head for the door.

Uh, you might want to take your things,” she added.

When I was finished loading my backpack she said, “Don’t worry about homework for tonight, Clara. It’s not that important.” Everyone in the room laughed. I lead the room in completed homework assignments.

It was a Friday afternoon and school was about to let out. There was an excitement in the air, even in the empty halls. You could tell. The game that night was against Whiskey Town, and everyone was gearing up for it.

I walked into the office and there was all this bustle and energy. Everyone was moving and excited, everyone except Mrs. Tomkins, the school secretary. Her face was pale like she had seen a ghost. “Oh you poor thing,” she said by way of a greeting, getting up from her desk and giving me a hug. In my mind I was thinking What in the hell!!! Then she said, “Your momma called. Your brother’s turned sick.” She gave a pause before continuing. “She needs you to pick up Charles on your way home.”

I nodded wondering what all the fuss was about. I didn’t understand what was making Mrs. Tomkins act so funny. Then as I was making my way out the door I overheard Mrs. Tomkins whisper to Mr. Shane, “…that’s the second time, in the same family,” and suddenly it all clicked.

They called Roost Specific Polio, or RSP for short. Some folks said it was caused by a virus, others said it came from a bacteria. When I read that trees communicated to each other via spores in their roots, I thought it might be caused by a fungus. There was even a psychologist in Red Bluff who claimed it was mass hysteria. Doctors were baffled. Specialists searched and searched. The disease seemed to leave no damage to the nerves or to the muscles, but once you caught it you never walked again. Never.

By the time I picked up Charles at the Junior High, everyone in town knew. Sheriff Johnston gave us a ride up the hill, and when we made our way to the top of the bumpy road I saw that our parking area was already full of cars. The grieving had begun.

The next few days went by in a blur for me. Practically everyone in town came by and dropped something off; a few meals here, firewood there, that kind of thing. All of it was very helpful I suppose, but also it wasn’t helpful. I mean all that food wasn’t going to make my brother walk again, and more wood meant more work for me, since I was the one who had to do the splitting. It was all very nice, and very kind, and it just about drove me crazy.

The worst ones were the folks who tried to cheer me up. They’d say the most inane things like, “You know RSP isn’t a death sentence,” or “Your brother will be getting around just like his old self soon enough.” But none of them ever had to live with RSP in their family. They didn’t know the dark side. The times that Poppa was mean to Momma, especially when he started drinking. They way she sucked up to him no matter what he said or how mean he was. All the doctor’s visits and the crying, all the meals you have to cook and the washing. Having someone with RSP in your family was a lot like a having a two year-old. Only one that didn’t grow up.

The other families with RSP were almost as bad. They’d come over all cheery, but pretty soon they’d be comparing notes, almost like they were bragging about who did the most extra work. And there was a whispering among those women, an expectation. Every time a girl would come over to the house their heads would turn, like they were waiting for something to happen. It was like they expected a third arm to grow out of her body. It was weird and also kind of creepy. But the weirdest part was when they talked about Eveline.

I hadn’t seen Eveline since the day before this all happened. Her absence in our house was almost as bad as the well-wishers. Everyone kept asking me about her, wondering when she was going to come by. They’d look at me as I was supposed to know. I guess I could have called her, but I don’t know what I would say. I mean she broke up with my brother. There was no going back on that. What did they expect of her? To come over and visit anyway? Wouldn’t that be a little weird?

And then there was the whole Frisco thing. I kept thinking about that apartment, about getting away. Every time I had to cook another meal or go and split some more wood I fantasied about what it would be like to live in a house where nobody expected me to work for them, and I could cut my hair any length I wanted. I had already looked up on the internet what I needed to get my GED. I met all the other requirements for the College. I might have to get a note from my parents because of my age, but I was pretty sure I could get Momma to sign one. I’d just have to wait for a day when Poppa was at his therapy or something.

But also I was afraid that if I talked to her, if I tried to tell her about what was going on with Will, that it would somehow burst the bubble, and she wouldn’t want me to go with her to Frisco anymore. I just couldn’t face that. So while I didn’t go out of my to avoid Eveline, I also didn’t go looking for her either.

So days went by and she didn’t show up, then weeks. Finally one Saturday morning after about three weeks there was a quite knock on the door. I opened it to find Eveline standing there. She looked terrible, like she hadn’t slept in weeks. She was thin, her eyes were red-rimmed from crying, and she had dark spots under her eyes.

Hey, uh, Eveline,” I said in surprise.

When she saw me her face did this strange dance of emotions; surprise, worry, a twisted smile of guilt, and then a wince of apology. All of this while the rest of her stood frozen to the spot. I understood in that moment all she had been going through. I put my arms around her in a hug, almost crushing the casserole she was holding in her hands, and then led her inside saying, “Hey everyone, look who showed up.”

Momma got up and gave Eveline a big hug while I took her casserole to the deep freeze in the garage. I came back to find her sitting in the living room. My parents were talking softly with her, the television muted in the background. They were trying to sound casual, but I could tell they were tense.

Poppa was saying, “Well, are you going to go up and see him?”

Eveline gave the barest of head shakes, like she couldn’t trust her voice to say no.

That’s okay, dear,” Momma said, patting Eveline on the shoulder. “It’s probably for the best.”

Nonsense,” Poppa said. “The girl came all this way, and it would mean so much to Will.”

But look at her,” Momma said to him. “The poor thing is obviously upset.” Then she turned to Eveline. “Maybe if you come back at a better time.”

This is a perfect time,” Poppa insisted.

But…” Momma started,

Poppa interrupted her with his Do What I Say tone, “I think it’s best if she went up to see him.”

Momma stopped, her mouth still open, then she kind of fell in on herself. “Its probably best if you went up to see him now,” she said. Momma had turned to face Eveline, but her eyes stared down at her hands.

I’d seen Momma switch sides like this hundreds of times, but for some reason this time it seemed especially cruel. I wanted to intervene, but I didn’t know to say. Eveline was obviously in a fragile state, anyone could see that. But I was afraid anything I said would harm my chances for that apartment in Frisco, so I stayed silent. Under the pressure the poor girl finally relented. When she walked up the stairs she looked terrified, like she was going to her own hanging. I wanted to run up to her and tell her she didn’t have to go, but I was too chicken. Then she knocked on his door, and entered, closing the door behind her.

There was a hush in the house, as if everyone was holding their breath, which made me feel sick. After a while I couldn’t stand it, so I went out to split some wood.

After a long time Eveline came back out, only this time she was a different person. Oh she looked the same. Actually she looked better. She was smiling, and happy. But there was something wrong about her too, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

She joined us over supper, just like old times. Momma had baked Will’s favorite casserole, and helped me carry him downstairs so we could all sit around the table. Everyone was acting as if Eveline was now a part of the family. Like she and Will had never broken up. It was weird. Like she had gone up into that room a single girl and come back down Will’s girlfriend.

Near the end of dinner Momma had asked Eveline if she wanted seconds on the casserole. Momma was just being polite, everyone knew Eveline didn’t like the dish. She’d replied “No,” but then a strange look came over Will.

Of course you want some more,” he told her, using the exact same tone of voice Poppa used with Momma. “It’s my favorite.”

I do?” Eveline said sounding confused. Then she looked over at Will like she had no control over her face. Like she was a robot or something.

Momma was saying, “It’s okay honey, I was just kidding,” but Will interrupted her with a “No, Momma. You worked hard over this casserole. Eveline needs to appreciate it.”

Then Eveline suddenly was all smiles again. “I’d love some more casserole,” she said sounding cheery and holding up her plate. “After all, it is Will’s favorite.”

At that moment I think my blood turned to ice.

Over dessert Eveline mentioned renting a house nearby and getting a job. Suddenly it dawned on me what she was saying.

Wait a minute. You’re staying in Buzzard’s Roost?” I blurted out before I could think to stop myself.

Well, sure,” she said like it was the most obvious thing in the world. I wanted to scream, “But what about Frisco and the apartment?” but everything seemed too fragile then, like anything I said would shatter things further.

Around 11:00 it was time for Eveline to go home. Momma was tired and Will wasn’t ever going to drive again, so I volunteered to walk her home. It was cool night, the air brisk, but not too cold. The roots that covered our driveway and pretty much every other place on that mountain, looked like writhing fingers on the road in the light of the bobbing flashlights. Eveline was full of excitement and energy, but also something else. Something I couldn’t understand, so finally at some point I plucked up the courage ask about her cousin’s apartment and ours plans for Frisco.

Well, obviously we’re going to have to give those up,” she said sounding very much like a teacher giving a lecture at school.

Give them up?” I asked, my heart skipping a beat.

Well, yeah. I mean they’re nice dreams and all, but it’s time we lived in the real world, and not some fantasy.”

So everything you talked about, everything you said, sharing an apartment in Frisco, that was fantasy?” I was pretty upset. I wouldn’t be surprised if I squeaked.

We were now stopped outside of her house. The lights were off so we were trying to keep our voices down. The moon was mostly full and it gave everything around us a hazy glow.

Look,” she said with a little bit of sympathy to her voice. “Your brother needs me. You understand that don’t you? I can’t go on like it was before. I have to make new plans. I have to plan with him now.”

What is wrong with you?” I said, “Ever since you came over this morning you’ve been acting weird.”

I had to grow up, Clara. That’s what’s wrong. Maybe you ought to do the same.”

I left her there on her porch, not even waiting to make sure she made it inside. Momma would be mad if she found out, but I didn’t care. Had the whole town gone crazy? I didn’t know what to think.

I remember the walk back home because it seemed like those damn roots were trying to trip me at every step. God I hated Buzzard’s Roost right then. My one good chance of leaving this town had been spoiled by my brother and his stupid disease. I was so angry I think I stomped on every root in the road. I wanted an axe right then so I could chop down every damn tree I could find.

By the time I got home, the anger had burnt itself out of my system. Walking up the drive I was surprised to see the kitchen light was on. Momma likes to turn in early, even on the weekends, so it was a shock to see her sitting up at the kitchen table. She had a cup of tea in front of her, and she had draped an old blanket around her shoulders for warmth, though it wasn’t very cold in the house. She was staring out the window, sitting perfectly still, which isn’t like her. Momma is always up and doing things. Seeing her not moving felt strange, wrong, like she had become a statue or something. I noticed the tea in front of her had grown cold.

I said something to her, but she didn’t respond, so I walked up behind her to see what she was staring at. Looking out I noticed there was nothing to see. The light in the kitchen turned everything outside the window to black. All you could see in the glass was Momma’s reflection.

Gazing at her reflection I noticed for the first time that Momma looked old. It was like the Momma I knew, the one I’d always thought of as young and pretty, had been taken away, only to be replaced by a much older woman; a woman with wrinkles and dark lines under her eyes. Here I had been all worried about myself and my future, and I had totally forgotten how hard these past few weeks must have been on her. To have her husband and then her son become disabled before her eyes, and she the only one doing the work of nursing them.

I laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, soft as a sparrow landing on a branch. “Are you okay Momma?”

She gave a slight start, like I had interrupted her thinking. Slowly she looked up at my reflection in the glass and gave a weak smile. “It’s okay, pumpkin. Just tired, is all. Your father had a hard time going down tonight, carrying on like he does.” Which is what she said every time Poppa drank too much. Then she snuck one of her hands out from under the blanket to pat mine which was resting on her shoulder. “But thank you for thinking of me,” she said before she adjusted the blanket tighter around her shoulders.

Momma, I think you need some time away from here. Don’t you? Get out, get vacation time on your own. You’re always waiting on Poppa hand and foot, and now you’re helping Will. Why don’t you go off with Carol and take that cruise like she’s always talking about? Charles and I can take care of Poppa while your gone. I’m sure we can get Aunt May to help, and Eveline will pitch in.”

Momma shook her head, “You know I can’t do that, Pumpkin. I can’t leave your Poppa with someone else. He’d only carry on worse than he does.”

Yes, Momma, but what about you? What about your needs? You need to carry on to, don’t you think?”

Momma smiled at that. “Thank you, pumpkin, but don’t you worry. I’ll get my time, soon.”

I knew what she was saying was a lie. I could feel it. But it was strange because I could also feel the uselessness of trying to convince her differently. Uncle Bob used to always say, “Things are the way they are.” I never really knew what he meant until just then.

So I bent down and gave Momma a hug because I knew there was nothing else I could do for her. I held her tight and rubbed her back, like she used to do for me when I was small. It felt funny and good at the same time. Like I was trying to squeeze the love I felt for her, and all of my concern, trying to push all the good things into her and maybe drive out the bad. She rested her head on my shoulder, just for a second, and for that tiny moment I felt like I had given her a vacation. It made me wish I could do it all day.

I started to let go of her, slowly like, when suddenly she clamped her hand onto my arm. I was so surprised I automatically tried to jerk back, but she held onto me with an iron grip. All the cleaning, all the times she helped Poppa out of bed, or out of his chair, or even all the times she helped him over the toilet; all of that had made her hands real strong. When she held onto you, she held.

I’d been kneeling over her so we were close already. I looked into her face and all I saw there was a fierceness. It was strange, like Momma had become a wild beast. “Promise me,” she hissed her face all intense, “you’ll leave this town. Leave it and never come back.”

Huh?” I said surprised.

Promise me!” she demanded, tugging on my arm with each word.

Uh, okay Momma,” I said, shocked at her sudden change. I almost never saw Momma mad, let alone angry like this. I didn’t know what had come over her, but it was scary. I was afraid if I didn’t say the right thing she might bite me. “I promise,” I managed to add.

Then just like that she let go. It was like my words had flipped a switch. Suddenly she was back to her same old self. I backed away slowly, not sure what else to expect. She turned to look out the window, staring into the dark as if nothing had happened.

Goodnight pumpkin,” she said sweetly. “Be sure to turn the light off on your way out.”

I turned off the light, leaving her sitting in the dark, and made my way quietly upstairs, making sure to miss the two steps that creaked. Then I climbed into bed and curled into a ball until the sheets got warm. By that point I was so freaked out, after a day full of things to freak out about, that I really didn’t know what to feel. I fell asleep almost instantly, but I did not dream.

***

I got up early the next morning. For once the Beast didn’t wake me, my own worries did. I dressed quietly and put an old scarf around my head. Outside it was so cool you could feel the kiss of the coming winter. The air was crisp, and the ever present roots on the ground were starting to get stiff like they were preparing for the coming blanket of snow.

The Jenkins’ had been kind enough to drop off a cord of wood, when they found out about Will. They’d dumped it up behind the old barn near where the splitting log was. Will used to be our log splitter–Momma not having the time and Poppa not being able to stand–but now that he was sick someone else had to do the work. I’d always liked the feel of swinging an axe. Don’t ask me why. There’s something about the smashing of big logs into fireplace-sized pieces that is deeply satisfying. I know everybody else thinks it’s not a girl thing, but who do you think splits the wood for window Johnston and Martha Fields? As Momma would say, “That wood ain’t gonna split itself.”

Plus splitting wood is a good place to think.

A lot had happened in the past few weeks that I didn’t understand. What had happened to Will? Why had Eveline changed her mind? Why did Momma freak out like she did last night? I felt like I was about to take a midterm test for a class I’d never signed up for, and had never learned its name. I didn’t even know what I was supposed to study. So I put on some gloves, picked up the heavy splitting axe, and started working on the pile.

Momma came and got me around 8:00. That’s when we had our breakfast. I’d made the start on a pretty good pile by then. When we finished eating I did the dishes, and showered off the sweat I’d just earned. Then I started in on my homework. English was boring so I finished it first–some essay on a book we’d just read–but my math homework was giving me fits. The book was looking like it was written in Egyptian or something. The formulas were just not making sense at first. I was used to that. Usually I found if I just kept plugging away at a problem eventually I’d find a way to understand it. That, or I’d look online. Unfortunately our internet connection was buggy that morning, the videos kept taking hours to download.

I was about to go see if Charles was hogging up our connection–he liked to read online comics and that meant huge downloads–when I heard a car drive up. I looked out my window to see two of Will’s friends, Jack and Dan, get out.

Jack was the funny one, always telling jokes and goofing off. In looks he was the exact opposite of Will. He was dark and lean compared to my brother’s fair and thick. He was always ready with a story or another tall tale, and his eyes always shined in the telling. He played wide receiver with the same carefree grace that he told stories, slipping and sliding between defenders effortlessly staying one step ahead.

Will’s other friend, Dan was everything Jack was not. He was short, broad, and fair. If Jack was like a dancer skipping around the tackles, Dan was like a bulldozer crashing through the middle. He was less fast than fearless, and tended to solve problems by plowing into them head first. Will used to say that on running plays he would hand Dan the ball, and hope the other team was smart enough not to get in his way.

Sunday was the only day the team didn’t practice. It was their one day to sit back, relax, and not have to worry about football. So what did they do? They came over to our house to talk about football, because apparently if you can’t do football at least you can talk about it. Boy logic, go figure. The three of them had been doing this little ritual since about forever, sitting in Will’s room watching the Niners on Will’s little TV, and basically talking crap. You know, like boys do.

At least they didn’t let Will’s RSP keep them from a perfectly good male bonding ritual. That was something to appreciate. Jack and Dan may act like hicks, pretty much like everybody else in town, but they were good friends to Will, and I appreciated that.

The sound of their voices rushed into the house long before they did, and it proceeded them up the stairs and past my open door into the mess that Will called his room. Momma had taken Poppa to a new church over in Redding, and Charles was in the living room quietly reading his comics. The house had felt wonderfully alone and peaceful until the boys had come. Now with all their noise and energy it felt both annoying and exciting at the same time.

I set a piece of scratch paper in my math book to mark my place and closed it with a slap of frustration. Outside my window the color of the sky looked cool and tired, like someone had bled all the summer out of the sun, and it needed a vacation in Florida to recover.

It was Will’s voice that I heard first. “Someone at lunch said you were going to The House.” He didn’t have to explain what The House was. Only the old witch house was called The House.

Maybe,” Jack said, “maybe not.”

So you’re not going?” That was from Dan, who tended to view everything in black and white terms.

What I’m doing,” Jack said testily, “is asking around. Getting to know my options.”

Options?” Will said.

Sure. Look we’ve all heard stories about the place. Every Halloween we used to dare each other to run up and knock on its door. Do you remember that?”

Did you ever do that?” Will interrupted.

What?”

Knock on the door.”

I did,” Dan said as if it was an everyday occurrence.

No!” the other boys hooted in reaction. “No way!”

There was quiet for a bit. I could tell Dan was shrugging his shoulders, using his silence to dare you to challenge him.

Will broke the quite first. “Was it scary?” he asked sounding much younger than his 17 years.

There was more silence, then Dan said something just loud enough that I had to strain to hear him, “Maybe.”

Really?” Jack said. I could hear the respect in his tone. “You went up and knocked on the door? What’d you do after? Run right back?”

Maybe,” Dan allowed.

All three of them laughed. Then the room went quiet again. Normally I don’t like to pry, but for some reason I found myself leaning against the wall so I could hear them better.

Again it was Will that broke the silence. “So why are you going?”

I’ve got my reasons,” Jack said.

There were more hoots from the boys then Dan said, “Dude, just ask her out.”

Yeah, well the problem is, she’s got this older brother, see, who guards her like a bank vault.”

Oh.”

Yeah, he’s not the kind of guy one can just run around, or like Dan here, run right though.”

So what are you going to do?”

Punt,” Jack said.

Punt?” Will asked. “Going to The House sounds more like a Hail Mary.”

They all laughed at that. But it was a nervous laugh.

But here’s the funny thing, there are all kinds of stories about the old witch house, I know cause I started asking around, but they all have these a few things in common. In every story the man has to come at midnight, but only on a night with a new moon, which is kind of weird.”

Its darkest,” Will said.

What?”

A new moon means there’s pretty much no moon, so less light.”

What are you, an astrologer?” Dan asked.

Its astronomer, you idiot, and to answer your question, maybe.”

They all laughed at that, and then the room fell silent again. The boys voices had been bright and loud when they had come in the house, but now they were low and private. I had to lean forward to hear better.

So what else?” Dan asked.

Well, if you want your wish granted you have to give her something like a gift.”

A gift?”

Yeah, but it’s a special kind of gift. Every story I’ve heard says the same thing. The gift has got to be rare, it has to be important, and it has to be something you’ve earned.”

What?” Dan said. “Like a car or something?”

That’s stupid,” Jack said. “How would you get it into her room?”

Her?”

The old witch, dummy.”

Oh,” Dan said. “How about your grandpa’s watch?”

It has to be valuable.”

Oh, how about a ring?”

I thought of that. The problem is I don’t have one.”

Hum,” Dan said. Then after a moment added, “So what are you gonna take?”

Dunno.”

A trophy,” Will said softly.

What?” Dan asked.

Nothing,” Will said as if he suddenly wished he hadn’t spoken.

What?” Dan said again, but Jack reacted differently. “Oh,” he said in a knowing way.

What?” Dan asked again, this time sounding exasperated. He uses that word a lot, I thought.

Nothing,” Jack said.

Oh c’mon guys,” Dan pleaded, but neither Will nor Jack said anything.

I heard a large huff of exasperation, and after that uncomfortable silence. Then outside there came the sound of a truck coming up the drive. It was Momma and Poppa back from church. Apparently the boys heard them too. I heard Dan and Jack start to stir. There was talk about lunch and needing to go home. I could hear them pacing by the creak of the floorboards. By the time they were coming down the hall, I sitting back in my seat and had my math book open again.

I heard Jack and Dan start down the stairs, but something about the sound of their feet tugged at me. When I looked out my door I saw the reason. Dan had gone down the stairs, but Jack was standing in my doorway leaning against the frame.

Hey,” he said when he saw me notice him. “How’s it going?”

Good,” I said guardedly, not quite sure what he was doing. I was used to being treated like a little sister, especially by one of Will’s friends. I didn’t know what to say when one of them treated me like a regular human being. It was awkward.

Working on our Algebra homework?” he asked nodding towards the book.

Yes,” I said lifting up the corner so he could see the cover.

Is it hard for you?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Kind of.”

Jack looked down the stairs. We could hear Dan stomping around down below. He must be in a dark mood. “You coming?” Dan called up.

Just a sec,” Jack yelled, then he turned back to the room.

Well, I gotta go,” he said.

Yes,” I said, thinking that was the most obvious thing Jack Parker had ever said. The silence stretched on for a moment and it occurred to me that he might be expecting me to say something else, but I couldn’t figure out what.

I’ll see you at school then?” He said it like it was a question.

I bit down my first thought which was not kind, and chose instead to answer “Yes.”

Dan yelled from the outside, “I’m starting the truck.”

Jack glanced down the stairs and then back up again. “Bye,” he said and gave a little wave like kids do.

I found myself waving back, although I couldn’t say why, then Jack bounded down the stairs fast and light, like he was running an open field under a flying ball. He was out the door and in the truck before the screen door had closed.

I sat looking at the empty doorway and wondered, What the hell was that all about?

I got up and walked to my window. From there I can see…. Well, practically everything.

If you think of Buzzard’s Roost as a giant bowl, then our house sits up on the rim. We’re on the West shoulder of Speckerman Mountain, which is one of three mountains that overlooks the town. Down to the center of the bowl you can see where there used to be a mill pond. South of the pond, where the supermarket sits now, used to be the main building where they rough-cut the logs before shipping them by wagon down to the valley. The pond got smaller and smaller until 10 years ago they finally filled it with dirt for a development. I remember skating there in the winter, back when I was small. Now there’s a few new houses, and a bunch of unfinished concrete slabs to mark the spot. Progress.

The only better view of the town is a little further up Speckerman Mountain on its eastern slope. There’s a pocket up there on a ridge that is protected from the weather yet has a spectacular view on all sides. It was on this site, back when Buzzard’s Roost was just a spot to gather lumber, that the company’s foreman, Christopher Evans, decided to build his home. Unfortunately for him, his fortune was tied to that of the lumber company. When the company went out of business during the great depression Christopher Evans lost it all. He packed up everything he owned, or so rumor goes, and headed south for Sacramento, leaving behind the one thing he could not move, his grand two-story Victorian home. Today we call it the old witch house.

The only other thing of note in our little town is a strange grove of trees endemic to this area. They’re called Squaw pine, or the Squaw-Hair pine, so named because their dark roots–which grow everywhere and are constantly underfoot–were thought to resemble the hair of the Native Americans women. At least that’s what the early lumberjacks liked to think. This particular type of pine tree grows only around this town and nowhere else, which has made for some pretty big fights. The environmentalists want to use the Squaw Pine to declare our little bowl a National park, and the loggers want to continue to pull out as much timber out if it as they can, for as long as possible.

Naturally these things make their way into our culture by the stories we tell. A tree with unusual roots becomes part of an “indian curse,” complete with stories of and ancient indian burial ground and promises of vengeful spirits from the dead. An abandoned house becomes the lair of a witch, who not only has magical powers, but is also acts as a quest for local men to test their bravery. All you need is a sword stuck in a stone or a magical armoire to complete the picture.

Why we humans need to turn ordinary things into fantastical ones I’ll never know. I remember my dad saying he used to be able to see the old witch house from here, back when he was a boy. When I look that direction now all I see are trees and sky. Yet growing up there was always stories about the place. The witch would come down, they’d say, to take away children who are bad. Why do adults make up stories like that? When I was a little girl I was sure the old witch was gonna get me in my sleep. It used to scare me so much that I would go to sleep with a double blanket over my bed, and had Momma tuck it in super tight. I couldn’t sleep if even one part of it was pulled out. Like a tight blanket was going to keep me from her claws. One time when I woke up with the Beast wrapped around my neck, I thought the witch had a hold of me. I screamed so loud Momma said I woke up the neighbors half a mile away. She was so furious I thought for sure she was going to cut my hair after that. But Poppa said no, and that was that.

So when I hear stories like this I just want to scream, “C’mon people! It’s the twenty-first century for god’s sake! We don’t have to believe in children’s stories any more!!!”

But I don’t ever say anything like that. For one thing, no one would listen; I’m just another teenaged girl living in the sticks. But also I have a problem in that I’m way too shy. Momma says I need to work on that, the shyness that is. “How are going to find a nice man if you can’t speak your mind?” she says.

How do you respond to that?

I want to say, “How about if I don’t want a nice man, Momma? What do you think about that? What I want is to get as far away from here as possible. Far, far away. I can find me a nice man, after I go to college.”

Of course I don’t tell her that. I’m far too chicken. But one of these days I’m gonna. I swear. If I ever get out of here, that is.

It was a week later when Jack came by after school. I was sitting at my desk writing a paper for English when I heard him step inside the front door and call out, “Hello Mrs. Barton. How are you?” A few minutes later I heard his footsteps as he ran up the stairs. He stopped outside my door as if he was about to say something. I could see the tips of his cowboy boots out of the corner of my eye, but I forced myself to not look up. Since Will had become sick, Jack’s attempts at conversation with me at school kept starting up and dying like a fire that wouldn’t light. Rather than be bothered by it I started to feel sorry for the boy. Here he was, fearless on the football field, but still couldn’t figure out how to talk to a girl. Ignoring him was easier than showing pity, at least that’s what I told myself. After a brief wordless moment, Jack quietly slipped down the hall to Will’s room where he was finally able to loosen his tongue.

I was so focused on my paper that I lost track of how long the two boys chatted. Finally, when I was sure I had an essay good enough to turn in, I set my pen down and listened. Jack had started by pacing the room, telling football stories no doubt, loud enough for the neighbors to hear. Now though he must be perched on the side of Will’s bed. The bed kept creaking every time he shifted his weight. It was a sound I had grown up with as my brother had always been a restless sleeper. Now I sometimes woke up because he didn’t make any noise, if that makes any sense.

I heard a creak and then Jack said softly with a voice used to calling across an open football field, “So you did it, didn’t you? You dog.”

Will said something in reply, but I couldn’t hear it.

Jack spoke again. “Yeah I saw her at school yesterday, all happy and shit.”

Then I realized they were talking Eveline. She had taken to coming over at the house most afternoons. As Jack had said, she was indeed all happy and shit, trading in her talk of tattoos and college for marriage and kids. Everyone in town marveled at her transformation except for me. I liked the other Eveline better; the one who smoked cigarettes and listened to punk rock, the one I was going to share an apartment with in Frisco. The new Eveline bothered me. She didn’t seem real. I think I was the only one in town who missed the old Eveline.

Will mumbled something too soft for me to hear, but I did hear Jack’s reply.

The girl? Well, lets just say the older brother is no longer a threat.”

Faintly I heard Will say, “You gonna finally ask her out? You’ve been talking about her for weeks.”

Naw,” Jack said, “that part hasn’t been going to well, so I’m switching to plan B.”

Will said something, but it was too soft for me to hear. Jack replied, “Well let’s just say it involves a dark night, the old witch house, and a foolish boy.”

You gonna do it?” Will said, both surprised and maybe a little happy.

I’m fixin’ to. Next Friday is the new moon. I figure it’s my best chance.”

That’s not a good idea.”

Why not? It worked for you. It worked for Mr. Hatchins. It worked for them others. Hell, it even worked for your daddy.”

But Eveline and I, we was already together. This girl doesn’t even know you exist.”

Oh she knows me, alright.”

She does?” Will said. Even through the walls I could hear his disbelief. “You gonna finally tell me who she is?”

Well…“ Jack said, then there was a long pause as if he was picking his words carefully. ”Lets just say come next week there’s a good chance you and I are going to be brothers.”

Brothers?”

Well, more like brothers in law.”

Will was silent as he tried to work out Jack’s meaning, but I knew exactly what he meant. The words hit me like an icicle hammered into my heart. Suddenly the small hairs on the back of my neck started to rise, and I could hear the pounding of my heart in my ears.

I heard Jack get up. “Well, I gotta go. The game tomorrow is going to be tough.”

How’s Pete doing?” Will asked. Peter Jennings, a sophomore, was the new quarterback.

Oh Pete’s okay. Not too bad. Not as good as you, though. I have to run a bit more to get under the ball. But otherwise he’s a good, you know, for the team and all.”

Jack opened the door. “Anyway, I’ll talk to you later.”

The rattling of Will’s doorknob sort of clicked in me. It was like I’d been trapped by the horror of what Jack had said, and then suddenly I was free.

Will said goodbye, and Jack started down the hall. Quickly I pulled my chair away from the wall and set it in front of my desk. Then I sat in it leaning over my text book as if I was engrossed in my homework. I heard Jack walk up to my door and stop. I thought he was going to say something but I couldn’t hear too well over the pounding of my heart. I tried very hard not to move. I wanted to scream and then run away so badly. It was hard to sit still. Jack stayed for only a second or two, though it seemed like forever, before he headed down the stairs.

Once he was out the door I started to shake. After a minute I forced myself to get up and see if he had really left or not. From the faint light of the porch I watched him walk down the root covered driveway until he faded into the darkness. Only then did I feel myself start to calm. After a while my heart went back to something like a normal, and my breathing relaxed. Then I sat back down in my chair to think. What was it Jack had said to my brother? “Why not? It worked for you.”

I’d never much given thought to the stories about the old witch house. Small towns carried stories like dogs had fleas. But I was starting to see a pattern, a pattern that wasn’t just a story, but was part of something more.

What if they were true?

Will was easy enough to work out. He’d gone to see the witch for the purpose of keeping Eveline. Judging by her sudden change of behavior I’d say it worked.

Poppa was something else. I knew my parents dated in High School. Over the mantel, centered in the mirror, was a photo of them back when they were the homecoming King and Queen. Momma looked so young and pretty in her cheerleader outfit. Poppa was tall and handsome in the old football gear. I remember my Uncle Ray once saying something about them breaking up. This was back when they were first married, well before Will was born. I don’t know what they had fought about, but I do know Momma had gotten mad enough to move back in with Grandma and Grandpa, and there was talk of a divorce. Obviously something had happened to make her change her mind. I didn’t know what it was, but I was pretty sure it happened right around the same time that Poppa got sick. Coincidence?

Lew Hatchins was another matter. He owned the hardware store downtown. I’d been in his store countless times. It was one of the few stores still open on main street. It seemed like no matter how bad the economy got, people needed things from Hatchins Hardware. Lew’s son, Harvey, did most of the work now but you still saw Lew there in his wheelchair chatting with the customers. I knew Lew had RSP, like Poppa, but I had never connected them or the other victims of RSP together. Had they all gone to the witch house at midnight on the night of a new moon? The idea seemed ridiculous, and yet I remember rumors that Hatchins Hardware was about to close, and that was right before he got sick.

But…what Jack said about being Will’s brother-in-law, well that gave me the chills. I mean I didn’t mind Jack Parker. He’s reasonably good looking, and he is smart, at least smart for a small town. But he was also very much a small town boy, and I wanted more than that, so much more. Did he really think he could get me to change my mind by going to see the witch?

Why not? I thought. It worked for Eveline.

I could feel the chills go down my spine. Was I really going to be trapped here my whole life, forced to love a man I didn’t even like? God! That thought gave me the shakes. Best not to dwell on it.

Instead I looked out through the darkness for the old witch house. Was that a light I saw? No, it was just a distant leaf reflecting our porch light. It was quiet out in the woods. When I stared at the place I swear I could hear a sound, like someone faintly whispering in my ear. It creeped me out, so I got up and closed the window.

Then downstairs I heard Momma called up, “Super’s on the table.” I came down the stairs and took my normal seat. Eveline was finishing up a plate to take up to Will’s room. I hadn’t heard her come up the drive, so she must have been down in the kitchen helping Momma while Jack was here. Sitting with my family, eating chicken straight from the oven, it was easy to forget all about the whispering. I could tell myself I was just being silly. But was I?

After the dishes were done, and everything was put away, I took a quick shower and then lay down on my bed to relax. The photos of Pink I had taped to the ceiling stared back at me. Pink who lives in a distant town with short hair and doesn’t have to worry a crazy witch (which may or may not exist), or a boy who is trying to make her stay in her home town. Looking up I realized Pink was as far from me as Dorothy was from Kansas. I had opened my window again and the cold air on my legs and arms made me shiver. Then as I started drifting off to sleep I heard a faint sound. It was the whispering coming from the woods. I got up and closed the window, but in the dark I could hear the witch speaking and it scared me into stillness.

***

I guess it’s fitting that I woke up the next day with the Beast tangled around my neck. Momma had to spend an extra 10 minutes getting out the knots so she could braid it. I gritted me teeth as she pulled and cursed, pulled and cursed. While she worked I closed my eyes and imagined her like a lion tamer stuck in a room full of lions with only a chair and a whip. “Crack. Get back you Beast or I’ll give you one on the snout. Crack.”

What in earth are you smiling at,” Momma said in real life. She did not sound happy at all.

Nothing, Momma.”

Well, it better not be nothing. Your hair is not a laughing matter.”

Yes, Momma.”

I managed to keep a straight face while she finished the second braid, then head still smarting from all the tugging, not to mention the constant weight of two 10 ton cables hanging from my head, I made my way down the driveway stomping on every stupid root that tried to trip me.

The only good part of the day so far was my ribbons. Momma had picked my purple ones, the ones I got for winning the state spelling bee last year. Normally having them in my hair was enough to make me feel better, but not today. I don’t know if anything could make me feel better after what I heard last night.

Since I hadn’t got much sleep last night, I was having a hard time staying focused in class. Twice I had teachers call on me and I didn’t know answer. That has never happened to me before. One time I didn’t even know what the teacher was talking about. It was like everyone had switched to speaking French in my world history class. In English, my teacher Mrs Franklin asked if I was okay. I could only duck my head and apologize.

Fortunately it was a Friday and a game day, so the last third of school would be taken up with pep rallies and such so we could all show our school spirit. It was while I was waiting in line to go into the gym that it happened.

Carl, Martha, Big Mattie, and a couple of others were standing around. We were waiting for the crowds to go in because we like to be the last ones in the gym. Don’t ask me why, its just kind of a thing we do. We’re like the unofficial geek squad, and besides eating lunch together its about the only thing we do together. Mattie was going on and on about me falling asleep in class today, but I was listening with half an ear, because, hello, I’d fallen asleep in class today. So while everyone else was laughing I was zoning out.

See right next to our gym is the trophy case. It’s full of all kinds of trophies. Big ones from winning state championships, and little ones for individual effort. It’s a familiar place for my family. The Barton name appears often inside. Its nice to look out and read your name, knowing your bother, your Poppa, or a distant cousin had done something extra special. So while they were joking around I stopped to look for the familiar trophies.

That was when I noticed that Will’s trophy was missing. He got it last year. I remember when he won it because it had been such a big deal. It was for the most number of Passing Yards in a single season, or something like that. I remember it was a state record. Now the trophy was missing. I could tell because you could see the little clean square in the middle of the dust from were it used to sit.

Right next to it was a matching trophy for the most number of Received Yards in a single season. That was Jack Parker’s trophy, my brother’s best friend and his favorite receiver. The two were such a matched set, or so the joke went, that they even made their trophies the same. Only Jack’s trophy was missing too.

Way back when Will had first gotten sick I remember him talking with Jack and Dan about the witch. Jack had mentioned that you had to bring something to the witch to get your wish; something valuable, something rare, and something earned. My brother had suggested, “A trophy.”

Now that I was looking at the space where the trophy had been, correction, where both trophies had been, I felt goosebumps go down my back, and the hair on my neck started to rise.

There was a part of me that wanted to go into full on panic mode and start yelling out loud, “I know how they did it! I know how RSP works!!!”

But I didn’t. Instead something weird happened to me. It was like all the stupid petty things of the town, all the dumb things they said to us girls, all the small ways they tried to make you stay; it was like all of that stuff had built up and built up until it was a big ball of disappointment, and frustration, and anger. Most of all anger. All that stuff had built up into this huge ball. So when I noticed the missing trophies, and I knew what they meant–knew that my brother Will had hijacked Eveline’s life for his own selfish ends; knew that my father had done the same to my mother; knew that Jack Parker intended to do the same thing to me–when I understood all of those things, it was like that huge bubble had burst inside of me. And when it burst it left my mind perfectly clean and sharp, like a thousand pieces of glass.

It was weird. I mean I’m the kind of girl that has a hard time speaking up for herself, and it takes me forever to order food at a restaurant, but at that moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

And I did it, which was even more surprising.

Hey Carl,” I called out, not even bothering to look around. Carl was one of my geek friends. He was smart, and thin, and most importantly of all, carried with him this huge pocket knife which he kept incredibly sharp. At school everybody knew he had the knife, but no one said anything because they also knew he would never use it. Carl was also a pacifist.

Yeah,” he called back from the line.

You still got that knife?”

He looked around like he was worried we might be overheard. Even though everybody knew he had the knife, he still liked to pretend it was a secret. “Uh, yeah,” he said softly. “Why?”

Can I barrow it for a second?” I asked.

Sure. What for?”

To stop an ancient indian curse.”

Awesome,” Martha Jones said, but the rest of the geeks went silent. Carl looked at me to see if I was kidding. My face was perfectly calm. I know because at that moment I felt absolutely nothing. “Okay,” he said, and he handed me his knife.

As soon as I had the knife in my hand I turned and started walking away.

Hey where are you going?” he asked.

I turned my body around but kept my feet moving, so I was walking backwards when I spoke. “To bargain with the old witch.”

Huh?”

Never mind. I’ll tell you when I get back.”

And that was the last I ever saw of them, at least face to face.

On the way into school that morning I had been working out my odds of leaving this town. The math was starting to look grim. Real grim. Seeing Jack’s missing trophy, knowing that night there was going to be a new moon, and knowing first hand what the old witch was capable of doing, I figured if I didn’t do something for myself then, as in right now, than this time next week I’d be washing the butt crack of a paraplegic boy and mooning over how pretty he was like a lovesick cow. And I would never, never, get out of Buzzard’s Roost.

It was that last part that was totally unacceptable.

So I figured the only way I could save myself was to head the enemy off at the pass. That is to go see the old witch myself, before Jack Parker did. I mean why should the guys get all the fun? Besides I figured if Poppa and Will could ask for unending love, and if Lew Hatchins could keep the customers always coming to his store, then it should be a synch for a witch that powerful to give me a one-way ticket out of this town.

All this I had worked out in my head, but truth me told I was too scared to do anything about it. I’m not one of those girls known for acting out. But seeing the missing trophy did something to me. I don’t know what. Made me angry I think. But it also made everything crystal clear.

Since it was a game day it meant everyone in school was at the rally. I had the halls to myself. Once I passed the corner of the gym the sounds of the band and the cheering started to fade until the loudest thing I heard was the sound of my own shoes echoing down the empty halls.

Just as I was about to leave the school I noticed a huge paper banner put up along the corridor by the pep squad. Our football team, the Buzzards Roost Lumberjacks, were playing the Burney High Tigers that night, so the banners said things like “Cut Down the Tigers,” and “Timber!” But the reason I stopped at this banner was because it had an axe in it. Someone had cleverly attached a full sized axe to the wall in the middle of the banner. I looked around to be sure the hall was empty, and then walked up to it to take a look. Sure enough it was held on with a couple of long wire ties. A few quick twists and it came free in my hands. On the backside was a Hatchins Hardware price tag. Well, it looks like I now owed the school $16.99.

I smiled as I put the axe over my shoulder. I gave it a pat and said, “You my friend are my insurance policy.” I figured I could always bring it back when I was done. I was even hoping I wouldn’t need it, but in the mean time I have to say it felt good to have it in my hands just then, familiar.

The trail up to the top of Speckerman Mountain runs near the school. Before long I left the sounds of the rally and the town behind as I made my way deeper into the woods. I noticed the trail was in fairly decent shape. I could see lots of signs of human life. An old beer bottle here, and broken branch there. There were plenty of foot prints still visible in the dirt. The trail up the hill was a popular place for kids to go when they wanted to drink and get a little bit rowdy. As I climbed higher the trail narrowed and there was less trash and foot prints, until by the time I was near the top it looked almost like a game trail. Then it made a tight turn through some thick brush and emptied into a clearing. I’d never been up here before in broad daylight, so the first thing I noticed was the lawn. At night the clearing had looked like a meadow, but in the day light I noticed there wasn’t any tall weeds, like a typical meadow, nor did I see any sign of a stream or a pond. It was all short grass. Exactly like a lawn. Across from me, right in the middle of the grass, stood a large two-story house.

I looked around. Except for a few scrub jays, which you could hear everywhere in these hills, I was alone.

From a distance the house looked tall and impressive, but as I got closer I began to notice all the details. At one point it must have been surrounded by bushes or small trees. Over the years these trees, most of them Squaw Pines, had grown until they surrounded the house. Perhaps surrounded isn’t the right word. It was more like they invaded the house, and in many areas replaced it. Standing in front you didn’t see most of this as the porch was largely untouched by the trees. Out there all you saw was wood so dark and crusty with age that there was very little sign it had once been painted. But once you stepped through the opening for the front door the trees began to take over.

Creeping past the door, I stepped into darkness. I thought at first the windows were covered by thick shades, until my eyes adjusted and I saw the windows had long ago been smashed. Branches from the trees outside had grown in through the broken glass working their way into the room blocking every window and covering the ceiling above in a fine mesh of branches. On the floor roots had grown in until they covered the old planks in a thick and twisty carpet. It felt weird stepping on the roots. They could support my weight easily enough, but walking on them felt like I was walking on someones fingers.

Outside the woods had been full of noise–the swishing or the wind as it worked its way thought the branches, the harsh call of a scrub jay, or the dry crunching of pine needles underfoot. But inside the house the sound seemed to stop, like the forest was holding its breath. Then softly I heard a noise. It sounded like someone breathing, only it sounded wrong; like rush of a thousand insects inhaling and exhaling, or the sound of a strong wind blowing through a distant pine forest. I couldn’t quite tell, but one thing was for sure: There was nothing about that sound that was the least bit human.

I looked around the room and almost immediately noticed the pattern. There simply was no other way to describe how the roots and branches grew. If you looked up close they twisted around the floor and ceiling in a seemingly random way, but when you stepped back it was obvious they were all growing towards something. It was a simply a matter of seeing where they went. Following this pattern of roots and branches I moved slowly towards the center of the house. There the pattern lead upwards to an opening on the second floor. After a moments hesitation I started up the stairs, marveling at the branch covered photos I passed on the walls. Peering between the wicker lines I saw a photo of the house and how it must have looked 100 years ago. A family was standing in front. There were 7 or 8 people but age and the darkness of the hallway made them almost illegible. I could make out a single child who must have been a girl based upon the two thick braids that came out of her head, but that was about all I could see in the dim light.

At the top of the stairs the house opened to a hall fronted by several rooms. A strange light filtered into the hall from a hole in the roof above. Down the hall I spied the outline of an ancient toilet with roots growing out of the bowl. Good thing I don’t have to pee, I thought to myself as I looked around. Only one of the rooms lay open. The others were covered by a thick pattern of tree limbs and roots. “Well, that makes it easy,” I said as I stepped towards the only open door. “I’ll take what’s behind door number one.” It came out more like a squeak, but at least I was speaking. Just before I entered the room I set the axe down, leaning it up against the wall. I figured there was no sense in trying to bargain with a witch if I was going to start the conversation with a threat.

As I stepped through the door I could tell there was something different about the room. Unlike the rest of the house, there were several pieces of furniture in here. As my eyes adjusted I started to make out details. To my right was a dresser that looked to be hand carved out of pine. To my left was a grand canopy bed, like the kind I always wanted. Thick drapes hung down from the canopy and were decorated with an intricate pattern. They surrounded all of the bed except where they were drawn back for a single opening in its center. The window was full of thin branches that swirled and twisted around each other as if they were fighting to get in. Only tiny cracks of light made it past them, but it was enough to see that the window still had all of its glass. The window was slightly open at both the top and the bottom. This offered just enough room for the slenderest of branches. Even than the branches entered the room in droves as they flowed up the ceiling or down to the floor, merging with the branches that came out of the hall, circling the room in a crazy quilt of wicker. Strangely, in here the branches stayed small and light, keeping themselves right next to the surface. There were no stray branches hanging down, or roots rising up that they might trip an unsuspecting walker. In this room at least they remained in check.

I heard a rustling sound from within the bed’s canopy so I stepped closer for a look. As I approached the bed I noticed the pattern on the thick drapes wasn’t an ancient tapestry of some sort, but the tiny inter-twinings of thousands upon thousands of small branches, all twisted and whirling together until they grew into a pattern that was beautiful and yet decidedly un-human. Tiny flowers of a color that looked to be cornflower blue grew here and there, and were so expertly woven into the fabric of the twigs that you almost couldn’t see them. On the bed I could make out what I had thought to be a rich blanket. It turned out to be woven out of the same tiny branches as the drapes. If I looked closely I could see where the branches for the blanket and the drapes curved up from the twigs on the floor, and down from those on the ceiling.

I heard more rustling from within the bed, when I saw movement I stepped back, suddenly afraid. I had come here expecting to find an ancient woman, but whatever was in that bed wasn’t human.

Then I heard a voice like the rustling of a thousand tree branches rubbing against each other. “Who’s there?” it called from the gloom in a voice that could never come from the throat of a human.

I was at that moment entirely and completely terrified. The rage I had felt that morning seemed a distant memory, and suddenly I was too afraid to move. I’m quite sure I would have stood there mutely forever if it hadn’t been for my mother. She had relentlessly drilled politeness into us kids, and even in my terrified state I found myself automatically saying, “Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but I was hoping to…hoping to….”

And that’s when my brain kicked in. How exactly does one approach a witch when they want to make a deal? It’s not the kind of question one sees in books on manners.

You came here to bargain?” the voice whispered in a thousand tiny swishes.

Ye, yes, ma’am.”

The bed creaked. A shape moved out of the darkness and into the opening of the drapes.

She was a woman, or she looked like one. That much I could make out in the gloom. Her face wasn’t just old, it was ancient. There wasn’t a square inch of her skin on it that wasn’t cracked with age. She was so wrinkled even the creases had creases. She wore what looked like a dress, but could easily have been more of the twig fabric that covered the canopy and the bed. It also was covered in tiny blue flowers. I couldn’t see much of her hands. The sleeves of her dress came down so low, but what I did glimpse looked more like twisted roots instead of fingers. Her eyes shown brightly, but were set so deep into her face that I couldn’t follow their movement. They could have been two colored marbles for all I could tell. But it was her hair that surprised me the most.

Coming from her head where these strange twisted clumps of hair. I’d only seen them on TV, but I knew what they were. They were dreadlocks. Each lock of hair was as thick as a man’s thumb and twisted in dark and light grey threads of hair, except when I looked closely they didn’t appear to he clumps of hair at all, but looked exactly like roots you see from the ever present Squaw Pine. The dreads grew up or down and eventually were lost to me to the dark of the back of the bed. I got the feeling they didn’t just hang there, but were attached to the twig fabric, or maybe I should say the twig fabric was attached to them. Tiny blue flowers were braided into her hair much in the same way Momma braided ribbons into mine.

The old woman leaned forward and looked at me as I was looking at her. “Ah,” she said in that rustling voice, “it’s the clever girl.” It sounded not as much as a surprise, but as an affirmation. I noticed her mouth didn’t open when she spoke. The sound seemed to come from deeper in her chest.

Yes, ma’am,” I said, not feeling all that cleaver at the moment.

Why did you wake me in the middle of the day, child? What is it that a clever girl wants?”

To leave,” I said.

The old woman smiled with a thousand creases. “You can leave any time you want. There’s nothing keeping you in my home.”

Not from here. From the town. From this whole area.” I made a big sweeping gesture with my arms. “I want to leave Buzzard’s Roost, and not have to come back. Not for any reason. Do you understand?”

The skin around her eyes squeezed in as if in thought. “Hum,” she rustled to the sound of branches slithering and sliding, caught up by the meaning of my words. “An unusual request, but this can be done. What have you brought me as payment?”

This,” I said as I pulled out Carl’s knife.

The old witch’s reaction was telling. She didn’t move, nor did her face change expression, but I could hear the branches on the bed behind her move and shift, and I could feel a vibration in the air as if all of the branches in the house, which is to say all of the house, was vibrating.

I pulled outwards on one of my braids with one hand, while bringing the knife up under it with the other, laying the blade close to my head with the sharp edge facing up. Slowly I applied upwards pressure into the hair with the knife, being careful not to cut my ear. The blade was so close to my ear that the knife made a crunching sound as it cut through the hair. Almost as if The Beast was speaking to me like the witch. When the knife cleared the braid, I quickly switched to the other side. Another smooth pull and I soon had both braids in my hands. They were still largely held together by the purple ribbons. They may not be trophies, but they were the next best thing. Will wasn’t the only one in the family who was a state champion.

Here,” I sad tossing them on her lap. “Something rare, something valuable, and something earned.”

I had been so focused on cutting off their braids that I hadn’t paid attention to the old woman. I looked up to see her mouth twisted into an “O” of surprise. Then she let out a keening wail that shook the entire house. “Noooo!”

Only then did I realize that a witch who’s hair grew to cover an entire house might not exactly be a fan of haircuts.

In a flash a thin branch came out from the drapes and slapped my hand holding the Carl’s knife. I heard it clutter to the floor in a dark corner. As I watched, the thin branches of the carpet surrounded the knife and pulled it under. I felt a tickling on my feet and looked down to see tiny tendrils reaching up and wrapping around my shoes. I tried to lift a foot, but it was literally rooted in place. I tried my other foot and almost fell over. The carpet of twigs on the floor was alive now with waiving tendrils. If I fell down I was pretty sure I would never get back up.

The front door slammed closed. I felt the vibrations carry through the twigs as much as I heard it. That crazy breathing sound I heard when I first came in the house became louder now and faster. The old woman looked at me, her eyes glowing with hatred. She appeared like she was about to tell me something, pronounce some grand fate. Somehow in my terror managed to find the strength to tear my feet up from the living carpet, and scramble out of the room, lifting my feet high over the grasping tendrils like I was running on hot coals.

I stopped as soon as I entered the hall. The stairway which had been a large tube surrounded by thick branches was now closed off into a giant tangle of vines. Like they had dropped down from the ceiling into some crazy kind of security system. The hallway on either side of me was the same tangle.

The breathing sound was louder out here. I stood there stunned, too afraid to move, and watched the branches slowly crept towards me from all sides.

I looked back to the room I had come from. The carpet inside was alive with waiving tendrils. I looked down and noticed they stopped right at the doorway. Then I noticed the thin vines holding the tendrils in the bedroom lead out to thicker vines in the hall. The axe still rested where I had leaned it against the wall, so I picked it up and took a hard swing at one of the thicker vines on the floor. When the axe bit into the root the old woman let out a scream.

I quickly cut the remaining vines on the floor, noting that the tendrils in the room they supported drooped and fell soon afterwords. Looking up I saw a couple of similar vines feeding up through the top of the door to the ceiling. I stepped into the room just enough, and by flipping the edge of the axe around was able to awkwardly chop the upper vines. Only then did I fully step into the room.

A few tendrils tried to trip my feet, but now that I knew what to look for I quickly followed up any movement with a quick cut to their roots. Before long the room had become still, and so had the house.

In the quiet I noticed the old witch. She laid on her back on the bed, which now looked like a like a pile of dead vines and not the fancy bed I had first seen. I could hear her labored breathing as she lay there. Her lungs sounded dry and old, like an old leather bellows that leaked with every push and pull. She was breathing so hard her toothless gums, now black with age, had pulled back into a twisted grin revealing the world’s largest overbite. Her chest heaved up and down struggling with the effort, but was obviously not up to the task. I could see the color leaving her face. Her hands lay at her side clenched into fists.

You,” she hissed between gasps. “You!” If she had more to say I never heard it. She looked so pitiful that I was tempted to use the axe to put her out of her misery, but when I raised it up all the small flowers on the bed shot out a jet of pollen that instantly caused me to go into a fit of sneezing.

I left the room again barely able to see between the sneezing and my watery eyes. The hallway had opened some, and I could tell the roots or vines or whatever were no longer under her control. Still clutching my axe I crawled and sneezed my way down the stairs, dripping snot as I moved. I made my way across the living floor room and out the front door, which was now open again if only a crack.

The light outside was blinding when I stepped onto the porch. I almost collapsed right then and there. The adrenaline from my fight with the witch had left my system and I felt tired and listless. Instead I forced myself down the steps, blocking the sun with my free hand, and quickly headed across the meadow towards the relative dark of the woods.

I stopped only after I reached the far end of the clearing, past the meadow that was cut short like a lawn. There at the edge of the woods I took stock. I was covered in tiny branches and pieces of bark, my knees and elbows were scraped and scratched, snot still dripped down my nose from whatever it was the flowers had shot at me, and I was dirty from head to toe. Still I had faced the old witch in her lair, and I had lived to tell about it.

I looked back at the house, which no longer looked menacing, just old and disheveled, and I let out a whoop that echoed through the trees. It felt really good so I let out another, then another. Then I opened my throat and yelled. “Take that you damn witch! You’re not keeping me in this town!”

I gave one last whoop of joy, wondering if this is what my brother felt when he threw a touchdown. I felt like I had just scored a hundred touchdowns, a thousand! This was so much better than winning spelling bees. It made me wonder if I should try out for the football team next year.

Looking away from the house I could just make out the town below laid out before me in its large bowl. I instantly understood why Christopher Evans built his house here. It was a lot like the view from my window. Not quite as nice but pretty darn close. The sun was just starting to drop over the shoulder of Speckerman Mountain and the light from it gave everything a rosy tint. Down below lights were just starting to come on in the town even though up here it was still bathed in light. Silly as this might sound, it was beautiful.

As I started down the trail I kept catching glimpses of Buzzard’s Roost through the trees. At one point I stopped at a stream to wash the worst of the dirt off my face and hands. By then my nose had stopped running and I was feeling pretty good, although very tired.

All down the trail to the town seemed to reveal itself like a child playing peak-a-boo. I’d go through a stretch of woods, round a corner, and there it would lay in all its splendor. Every step that brought me closer made me feel like I was one step closer to home. It was the town I always wanted, the place I always needed. By the time I reached the high school it was fully dark and I couldn’t think of a single reason why I should ever leave Buzzard’s Roost.

It was my home.

The dark got deeper as I slowly climbed the long road to our house. As the light faded so did my energy. Each step away from my town was harder than the last, every time I turned away I felt like I was leaving behind my best friend. The last stretch of our driveway felt torturous. I was leaving my love of my life. I was never going to see it again. I was doomed to be torn away from it, forever alone.

How I finally reached the house I’ll never know. The porch light was on and everyone inside was all excited. Will was on his feet, and everyone was helping Poppa take his first steps in 18 years. It was like the best party ever, only I couldn’t bare to look at them. The love of my life was right behind me and I was walking away from it. All I could do was trudge to the top of the stairs and enter my room. I immediately crossed to the window and threw it open, letting in the cool air. I gazed down upon my love, my life, and felt a deep, deep contentment.

I heard someone enter the room behind me. It was Momma. “Honey, are you okay? Your Poppa is standing!”

Yes, Momma.” I said. I could hear the concern in her voice, it was just, I couldn’t look away.

But….” She took a step closer. “What happened to your hair?”

I cut it Momma.”

But why!”

Finally I turned to look at her. “I beat the witch Momma. I killed her. I think. But I definitely beat her.”

The witch?”

The old witch, at the Evens place.”

But that’s just a story, pumpkin, and besides look at your clothes. Your arms and legs are all scratched. You look like you crawled through a bramble patch.”

I had to smile at Momma’s description. It was a good metaphor for what I had done. “Bramble patch,” I said, “something like that.”

Momma looked back at me with confusion and worry so plain on her face it was as if she had written the words there. I wanted to explain to her about metaphor, but a strange fatigue came over me. A tiredness like I’ve never felt before. It was like all of my bones had suddenly decided they were going to turn to jello.

Are you sure you’re okay, honey? You look pale.”

Just tired,” I said, although it came out sounding like a slur. “Is…all.”

I made my way to my bed, moving backwards because I found I couldn’t bare to look away again from my lovely home town. Momma took my arm and helped me lay down.

Need to sleep,” I slurred as I slowly fell backwards. “Need to….” I was out before my head hit the pillow.

Two thing happened after that: I slept and my hair grew.

The sleeping was caused by “the waisting disease” which is the name they used for whatever it was I got. I spent most of my time in bed, eating just enough to stay alive, but not one bite more. I grew thiner and thiner, while The Beast grew longer and longer. At first Momma tried to brush the Beast and braid it like she used to do, but eventually it got so long and so difficult that even she had to give up. While I was sleeping the only thing that would wake me for sure was to block my view of the town out my window, or to attempt to cut my hair. Even entering the room with a pair of scissors would set me off.

The Beast grew in piles and then in drifts like snow, until it fell off the bed, gathered on the floor, and then slipped through the floorboards into the house itself. While this happened, the house grew darker and darker. It had never been in great shape, and now with only casual care, it fell into disrepair. Our garden became a jungle, the forest reclaimed the barn and then most of the house.

In the beginning I woke up maybe once a day, but after a while the intervals between waking grew longer and longer. Each time I opened my eyes more and more time would have passed. I slept for weeks at a time, then months, and finally even years. I slept though the school year, slept through Eveline moving to her cousin’s apartment in Frisco, I slept through my parent’s divorce and Momma moving out, slept through the worst of my dad’s drinking, and even slept through his funeral. I slept through the day Will moved out, and the day Charles finished high school. I slept through the day he left town to work for a gaming company in Sacramento. I slept though the countless nurses that came and went. Every time I woke it seemed a new one would be there. I got to the point where I could no longer remember their names. When I was awake I learned to quit asking what had happened outside while I slept. Each time I asked the outside world seemed more and more unreal, while my dreams became more and more real.

Eventually the money ran out for the nurses. By then I wasn’t eating at all, and yet continued to go on dreaming.

Through all of this it was my dreams that kept me going. In my dreams I grew until I surrounded the lives of the people of my beloved town. I could see into their houses, look into their rooms. At first it was just a few homes, but slowly, inch by inch, the dream expanded until finally there wasn’t a house in the whole valley I didn’t know. Their worries were my worries. Their joys were my joys. I saw their lives, felt their pain, thrilled when they found new love, cried when someone died. My love became my life, my dreams became filled with their dreams, until there was no point that they and I were not linked.

Then one night, on the night of a new moon, I dreamed of a desperate young man. A girl he loved had left him and he was frantic to get her back. At the darkest part of the night, while everyone else in my town was asleep, I felt him climb my hill, stepping on my many roots, until he entered my house. Then he climbed my stairs, and walked into my room.

Then I woke up.

END

 

Almost new, and getting better.

I just finished up a story called The Clever Girl. I’m really happy with it as it represents a huge step forward in terms of my writing process. I wrote the story and finished it. Then working with my writing partner completely rewrote the story, going from 8k words to over 18k in the process.

For the past year and a half I’ve been deconstructing my writing process, really trying to find ways to envision my work better. It’s been a long struggle, and quite a bit of the past year has been grim in terms of how I felt about my work. But all the hard work I believe is starting to pay off. I have a new found respect for the “work” or writing, and I find I am no longer trying to just rush through a story. Instead I am actively looking for ways to make it better and better.

It is exciting, and yet far lest hectic. Less happy teenager and more happy adult. Anyway, we’ll see what Amy says. Fingers crossed.

The Story Within The Story

I had the most wonderful of experiences the other night, of all things while coming home from work. It really is a fun story, but to tell you about it I need to explain a few things for those who do not live in Los Angeles. Please bear with me as I set up the story.

For starters, the first thing you need to understand about LA is that we love our stories. Between the film industry, the television industry, the gaming industry, the music industry, and even our growing fine arts industry (because it is an industry) there are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people living in LA who create the stories we use to entertain ourselves. We all work to make the stories you like to read/see/play/buy. Just to give you an idea of the reach of these various entertainment industries, consider the block where we live. Its a solid middle to upper middle class neighborhood in the middle of the valley.  On this small block of 18 houses lives an advertising guy (me), an actor, a television director/writer, a explosions/special effects expert, a mid-level manager who is also a screenwriter, an advertising director/producer, and an accountant. All of us making money as a result of our participation in the entertainment industry. That’s 6 out of 18 houses that get their money from entertainment.

But its not just a money thing. We also consume the stories we help to create. We read books, watch movies, binge watch TV shows, listen to albums, play games, all of these things and more. We do this because the creative process is not a one-way experience. It requires input to maintain itself. So we consumer what others make because it drives us to make more and better work.

So we make stories and we consume stories. But there one more way we interact with stories, and this is by far the biggest and most important one; we become them.

For example, consider the lowly film school graduate, of which there are legion in this town. She comes to this city to learn how films are made, and in the process of her studies will make some films herself. She will become an expert at the various directors and their schools of filmmaking, she will consume art films, and foreign films, and even begrudgingly tent-pole films, and she will always be working on her own small projects. She’ll be writing or directing or producing, or editing, or even just holding the microphone on someone else’s movie. She’ll be involved in something. Why? Because this is how one moves up the ranks of filmmaking. But there’s one more point here about her experience, and its the most important part. During all of this schooling, and work, and part time jobs, and driving all the fuck over town, and holding cameras or microphones, she will also be dreaming. And what she dreams of is a very specific story, the most important story of all, the story within the story; the story of her success.

Success stories are by no means limited to film school graduates. They are essential to every person who comes to LA to make stories. Everyone you meet who works in the various entertainment industries will have one. Mind you, success stories are not just limited to these industries, one might say they are endemic to ALL humans. But the success stories that are endemic to those working in entertainment are very specific, and all follow the same trajectory. They are all the Horatio Alger variety. A lowly filmmaker comes to the big city, works hard, receives a lucky break, and creates a piece of art so explosive and so important her pin is forever stuck onto our collective cultural map.

So endemic are such success stories that down here we don’t really talk about them. They are simply assumed. If you come to LA to be a (fill in the blank) you come here to fulfill your success story. Everyone gets that. Mind you, we do other things. We all come down here to work, and we work on something, because lets face it, someone has to pay the rent. But under all of that work and hustle is a story, and its such a powerful story that it gets girls and boys living in far off places to leave the comfort or their well-known worlds and travel to a city full of dirt, and crime, and cars (dear God do we have a lot of cars), all in an effort to fulfill that inner story. To take part of a larger story. To become a story itself.

Think about it. Who is Tom Cruise, or Oprah Winfrey? Who is Steven Spielberg, or Jean Cocteau? Who is Beyoncé or Tom Waits? Who is J.K Rowling or China Miéville? These are not people to you. You do not know them. You don’t really know almost anything about them. So what is it you do know? Their story’s. That’s it. When you read about them you’re not really reading about the person, you’re reading their story. When you watch Tom Cruise act, you don’t really think you’re seeing the real man behind the face. Or when Beyoncé sings about loosing a lover you don’t really think she just broke up with her husband do you? No. Do you really think that when Sting has a few beers with his mates they call him Sting? Of course not. We all get that we’re experiencing a story, that the person we’re looking up to is not really a person but a construct. A thing. That thing then is a story. And not just a story, a myth.

So we’re not just talking story here, or even story; we’re talking myth. Myth is the underlying story to this town, it is the gas that moves the cars of our collective egos, and you cannot understand this town or its people until you can understand that.

With that in mind, I will now begin with my story.

The other night I was coming home from work. It had been a long 10 hour day at the office. The kind where you eat your lunch at you desk because you’re working against the clock. We finished up at 8:15, but I stayed longer to eat dinner. (For those that don’t work in the industry, yes they often buy you dinner, but only because they need to to keep working). So at about 8:45 I requested an Uber ride. Within minutes my driver Fabion (call me Fob) showed up at the building near LACMA and the Tar Pits, and we were off for the valley. As with happens with Uber, the service will often see if they can double up on the ride. In this case Uber told Fob to pick up a guy named Dave in West Hollywood. So maybe 10 minutes later were stopped at some intersection in West Hollywood on a street covered in two-story apartment buildings dating back to the 30s and 40s. Suddenly the back door opens (I’m a front seat kind of guy) and not one but two men get in. They are Dave and his best friend Brent.

Dave and Brent are highly sociable, so we’re not even 100 feet into our trip when one of them says, “Hey front seat, what’s your name?” Before long we talking and carrying on like you do with strangers who are affable. Its the verbal equivalent of smelling each other’s butts to see what you’re made of. In this town it means talking about the entertainment industry, which really means talking about your dreams. Except, as I noted above, we don’t really talk about our dreams as they are implied in every conversation. So instead we talk about what we’re working on, which is a nice round about way of talking about your dreams without really stating them. (I know, its weird, but its how this town works. If you openly tell people your dreams you are immediately seen as a tyro, an amateur. You are a rube, and so wet behind the ears that no one except other rubes will believe in your success story. And everyone knows success stories have to be believable to work. That how they roll. So the serious professionals don’t talk, they do.)

Normally this is not my favorite topic of conversation. Probably 90% of the work I do is on television shows or movies that are so boring or so minor that you will have never heard of them, and unless you are a deep insider you will probably not care. Mind you, the checks go into my bank account the same as those from big name movies, but the social cachet I earn from the work, that is to say my rank as a “player” in this town, is not strengthened by such meager projects. So when people hear what I do for a living and immediately follow up with, “What are you working on,” I usually have to mumble something sad and pitiful sounding. But as it happens, right now I have a couple of nice aces in my hand thanks to some friends who called me in on a couple of tent-pole movies. All that to say I can do some serious name dropping.

On this particular occasion I really didn’t have to do that. Not 30 seconds into a description of one of the pieces I did for Jurassic World, we came to the corner of Hollywood and La Brea. High in the sky on that corner is a 14 x 48 billboard I did for the upcoming Will Ferrell series called Ferrell Takes The Field. So all I had to do was off-handedly say, “Oh that’s one of my pieces,” and I instantly tripled my street cred. Boom.

But, as I was about to discover, I was soon to be outgunned. Not only outgunned, but totally blown away. And completely and incredibly happy to be so.

Dave and Brent it turned out, had some street cred of their own. And it wasn’t that weak ass, second-hand shit I was passing out either. It was the pure thing. The Real Deal. The stuff that dreams are made of. We’re talking pure, 100%, USDA, success story. And it was joyous to behold.

Dave and Brent, it turned out, had just made a big pitch that day. They’d walked into a room full of 8 or 11 Television Executives (each with their own big salaries and fancy new cars) and ha d sold the shit out of their TV comedy series. “Basically,” Brent said, “we did 30 minutes of intense stand up in the biggest room we’ve ever played.”

“Yeah,” Dave added, “I’m not kidding when I say this. It was the most important room I’ve ever walked into.”

The two writers were roommates and had been busting their asses for the past three and a half months, working hard every day, coming up with every funny and off the wall idea they could throw into their show idea called Manhood. Then when their agent had scored a meeting they went in and sold their idea. Sold it hard. Sold it successfully too because they left that room, some 45 minutes later with a huge check and a contract to write a pilot. They had three months to write the Best Pilot Ever, and deliver it with another pitch to the same executives. If that went over well then they’d be given and even larger pile of cash and they would actually film their pilot. And if that worked, well the network might just buy their series. And then they will have made it. If the series sells. If the people watch it.

So it was a big day for them. They had made the first step on the story of their success, and they were full of the same excitement and energy as if they had won the lottery, which is a very real sense was what they had done. They had won the story lottery, and they were on their way up, because that’s how stories work. Whether it would take them up to the rarefied air of stardom, or down the wicked road of perdition, no one can say. But they were on the first step, and ready for the next.

But dig this, Here’s the crucial part. They were not just making stories, they had now become one. Their success had become a story of its own, independent of their actions. A story that would ripple that night through family and friends, and slowly in ever wider circles throughout the industry. Even to such far flung places as your mind, for this very thing you’re reading right now is essentially a ripple of that larger story wave. That night when they talked about their work they were speaking success story, in its purest form. Straight from the story mines of heaven and drenched in the beautiful humility of luck.

See they didn’t have to talk about their dream. They just talked about their work, and the dream was inherent in the work. Which is the best story of all.

And deep in the middle of they telling, drenched in the beauty of their own success story (which they were obviously editing as they went because that’s what good writers do) there was also the tinniest glimmer of humanity, and all because I threw in a wrench into the gears. See these type of success stores are wonderful and all, but they are often way too impersonal. And I don’t like impersonal. I like to travel with real humans and listen to real problems. So while they were going on about the room and the show, I asked them a crucial question. “Did you call your mothers?”

“Well,” they said breezily because they were still caught up in the success, “We called our agent first, and then our partners.” Then their tone changed, and a bit of the real boy came out from behind the successful men, “But yeah,” they admitted, “we called our mothers.”

So after they left (Fob dropped them off at a bar on Ventura) he and I just sat there silently the rest of the way to my house. All we could say was, “Wow.” Nothing else would do. It was an incredible experience, and we both felt deeply lucky just to be near it. We had seen a success story, just at the moment of its birth, and it was a beautiful thing to behold. I hope their mother’s are proud.

 

Bad Writing Advice #1 On setting goals for your characters

Rule #1 in a non-existent series of bad advice for writers.

When you (as a writer) introduce a character to a reader, it is like introducing them to a new friend. But that character won’t really become your reader’s friend until you give that character a goal. Once you give him or her a specific goal to direct their actions–they need to avenge their father, they need to kill a monstrous whale, or even they need to get home to their family–it is at that point that the reader will start to anticipate that character’s actions. And that is the point of stories. We live to anticipate.

For example: If you are playing a game of chess only a few minutes of your game time is taken up with the physical movements of the pieces. This is true even of a game that lasts for hours. The vast majority of your game consists of watching your opponent and anticipating both their moves and your own. And it is in this watching and predicting that we take our enjoyment. In short, the enjoyment of the game comes from the anticipation.
In the same way, a reader will enjoy your story as long as they can anticipate your character’s direction. It doesn’t matter if they anticipate wrongly (indeed there are many good reasons to mislead your reader) what matters is if they can. Objects and obstacles only enhance the experience of the reader. They love to see the impossible pulled off. But they need to know what to anticipate, and if you don’t provide that (in terms of a clearly defined goal for your characters), then you’ve failed.

 

The other time travel story

I’ve been working recently on a time travel story. Its the one I finished last week, as least finished the first pass. (as I’ve discovered, the first pass is only the start of a story.)

So last night I had a dream in which I was telling someone about that story. And then I told them about the other time travel story I had written. The second one was completely different from the first; different protagonist, different plot, different everything except perhaps they both exist in the same fictional universe. It sounded really cool, better and shorter than the first one.

When I woke up this morning I realized I had yet to start on that second story. Probably because I hadn’t even thought it up yet. Even now all I can remember is that I thought it was really fun, and it featured a female protagonist. In my dream the story seemed completely familiar, exactly like any story I’ve written. I could tell right away it was one of “mine.” Only of course it has yet to be written.

So was it dream from the future? What do you think?

At least its a start

If you look carefully behind the dangling participle you can see the remains of a theme that was hastily ripped out in favor of a scene about flowers.

If you look carefully behind the dangling participle you can see the remains of a theme that was hastily ripped out in favor of a scene about flowers.

I just typed the word “End” at the bottom of a story. Its not the end of the story, there’s a lot of work still to go with this one, including finding a title I like, which is exceedingly rare for me. But overall I’m very happy with the story, which is the important part, and I’m raring to rip it open and dissect its structure like a crazy 19th century scientist waving a scalpel and a thesaurus.

Now I need to find a way to celebrate.

 

Finding the voice for a character

I’ve been working on a novel of late, trying to piece it together. I’ve had the story in my head for quite some time, but my regular way of writing wasn’t working for it, so I thought I would attempt a new direction. In the process I realized I really didn’t understand the antagonist. Oh I knew who the protagonist was, and had a pretty good idea of his story arc, but the antagonist, the bad guy, well I didn’t have a clear picture of him.

So first thing this morning I opened up my word processor, like I normally do, and thought maybe I’d let him speak for a moment, to see if he had something to say. And let me tell you, he had something to say alright.

To give you some context, this story takes place near a thin spot in the Stratum, which is a placeholder name I’m using for the line that divides the souls of the living from those of the dead. The antagonist is giving a speech, or more accurately he is monologuing. To whom I don’t know yet. I don’t even know if I will use this at all. But he sure is a poisonous little creature, as you will see.

* * * * * * *

“I can see them. Everyday. They fall down here like a rain. ‘If only I had known,’ they say. ‘If only someone had told me,’ they say. They wear their regret on their sleeves like a badge of honor. A hundred clueless people a day. A thousand. They slough off your big cities like dead cells washed off a body. They fall down upon us by the thousands, by the millions.

“Do you have any idea how many people die in a big city each day? Do you even have a clue? In places like this where the Stratum is thin, they crawl across your soul like worms crawling over your skin. Each one complaining about their lives, like they didn’t know, didn’t understand. Each one acting as if they were ignorant of the fine print on the contract.

“But that is all so much bull shit. You know. All of you. You know. You just don’t want to deal with it. Reality gets in the way of your precious little lives. You don’t want to face the uncomfortable truth that you might end you existence one day because it will get in the way of your shopping, or of your stupid entertainments. It will spoil your precious plans to see the football game on Sunday. And God forbid your precious plans get spoiled over a little thing like death.

“And so you come down here complaining about the end of your days, poisoning the air around here with the last foul stench of your humanity. And then you move on, because it’s the other thing you do after blaming everyone around you for your own stupid ignorance. You leave. All of you. You go through the last door and fall into the river Styx, forever forgetting your lives, your loves, your regrets, all of it.

“But your passing leaves behind a cloud. A sickening smell. A stench. A miasma of regret. A pollution. And it clings to the underworld, and all of us who live in it until we are drenched in your decay. We are covered in your stupid shit. All because you don’t have the balls. You don’t have the cojones to live your lives like you know you should. To face your fate. You don’t have the guts. None of you. You’re all a bunch of spineless worms. And you come down here and think its okay to smear all of your stupid crap on us before you go.

“Well, I’m done with that. Done and past done. No more are we going to take your shit. We’ve had it. We’ve had enough. Which is why we’re here.

“There’s a crack down here, a weakness. And it happens to be in a thin spot of the Stratum, a place where the souls of the world and the underworld rub together. Well we’re going to hammer that spot. Hammer it until it breaks. Until it shatters into a million pieces. And all of your foul smelling regrets–the ones that have accumulated over the passing of millions of souls–will be released back up to the living. All of your sickness, your foul pollution, is coming back to you. Each of you. By a thousandfold.

“I hope you choke.”

Early 2015 clean up

Sand at Palm Desert

Sand at Palm Desert

L.A. is a desert. A desert with water. An ancient ocean-bed, dry and long buried, suddenly thrust back to the surface.

At any time, day or night, if you listen carefully you can hear the sound of the ancient sea, lost amongst the cacophony of millions of automobiles whooshing past or the harsh dry winds called the Santa Anas. The sound comes from the ghost of an ocean or some vast inland sea, calling up from the long dried mud on its bottom, begging to be wet again, to be submerged.

And the land responds. You can hear it whispering in the hot dry wind, or catch it rising slowly from the hot flat stretches of cement.

It says, “Never.”

It says, “No.”

It says, “Leave us alone.”

It says, “Goodbye.”

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

This morning I was going over my notes from the past year, many of which I wrote on the way to work and hadn’t yet integrated into my stories. I got in the habit of using the Notes App on my phone to write down ideas as they come, and then later integrate them into my flow. The entry above was one of the things I put down, way back on April 16 of last year.

Going back over them this morning was deeply refreshing. I kept finding these unexpected ideas and many of them were very good. It was a nice affirmation. One of those, “Oh yeah. I guess you can write after all,” moments.

Last year was not a good one for my writing. I really got bogged down in a lot of stuff which was all useful, but difficult to get through. Sort of a winter of discontent. Some things are like that; they are simply difficult to get through and there’s no easy way to get around them. There’s no shortcut. Grief is one of them. I supposed a long illness like cancer would be another. To get better you simply just have to keep going until you break through.

So I’m slugging away hoping to break through. Hopefully we’re near that point. I don’t know. I just keep putting my nose to the wheel and try to learn as fast as I can.

A ghost story

Canteen

The other day in preparation for a hike, I got out my old camping gear, including a couple of canteens. One in particular dates back to 1981. Its an old army surplus canteen I bought for my first class in college. Alas the cover for the canteen was in poor shape, so the canteen stayed home. Later the next day I broke out the sewing kit and made some repairs; reattaching the belt loop which was about to fall off, fixing up the wool felt lining which had fallen into pieces, and tightening up the corners so the canteen fit more snugly.

Just as I was finishing up, I flipped the canteen over and saw on the bottom the initials PJ. And that’s when I knew I was in a ghost story.

You see, back in 1991, which was a few years after I moved to LA, I hit a point in my life where I seriously crashed and burned; loosing a friend and a girlfriend in a one of those big dramatic messes that seem to come with youth. When the fire finally went out I found myself broke, and renting a room in Sherman Oaks from a man who ran a dance studio. For about a year I lived in that place and slowly rebuilt my life from the ashes.

My next door neighbor in that place was a newly single mom with three bright boys. Over the course of that year the mom and I became close, and I began to see the boys often. At a very dark time for me they were the bright spot of my life. The oldest boy, PJ was about 10 at the time. He was kind, and smart, with a ready smile and a passion for jumping into things. So when he went on a camping trip with his school I was happy to lend the use of my canteen for the journey. His mom, being especially good at motherhood, was careful to mark his initials on the bottom of the cover, and thereby guaranteeing, by some inexplicable rule of the universe, that the canteen would never be lost. Hence the PJ.

And that’s about it for the story. Time went by and I moved on. I stepped out of the nice safe shell I had built and slowly stumbled into adulthood. The mother eventually remarried a wonderful and talented man, and the boys grew older. PJ went to a nice private high school, and did quite well. He gathered around him a collection of friends who were kind and bright and fun. He was by all accounts the kind of child any parent would be proud to have. My last strong recollection of him is talking math with him and his friend who only ate cheese pizza and was about 20 times better equipped for the conversation than I was.

If by wishing we could make things happen, then I really wish I could end this story here. PJ would quietly move on into that nebulous and shiny land that people go to when they exit your life. The same place one wishes upon ex-girfreinds, distant family members, and former workers. The land of happiness, and wealth, and opportunity. But, as I suggested in the title, this is not a happy story. This is a ghost story.

They say marriage changes things, and its true. Only sometimes the things it changes are not the things you expected. My friendship with the boy’s mother, which had limped along for years and had every indication of lasting longer, did not survive my marriage. I say this not as something I wished for, or even something I liked at the time, but something that happened. Nor was it the only thing that fell from my former life to make room for the new. Maybe a bigger man, or a wiser man could have walked that path. All I know is I couldn’t or didn’t. Alas, along with that friendship went my ties with the boys.

But friendships are tricky things, and once someone has burrowed their way into your heart they leave connections behind like a spider’s web that tug and pull long after they have stopped being the center of your life. While you may stop seeing a person, you will still be connected to them indirectly through the friendships you once shared together but now maintain separately.

Thus it was that I still heard about PJ from time to time. I learned that he graduated from high school, that he had in interest in music, and that he apparently showed some talent as a music producer. Then one day that spiderweb of connections was tugged, the various strands tightened, and just like that PJs bright shiny future ended.

I was a car that did it. A drunk driver if I recall correctly. It happened right across from his high school. He was 21. And. Just. Like. That. He was gone.

I may have got the details wrong. It was some years ago, and like I said, our connections were indirect. But still, the results were the same. He was gone.

At one time I was quite close to PJ, but now, some 23 years on, I find I cannot recall much about him. When he was young he liked Transformers, and had a fondness for video games. He was at times fiercely protective of his brothers, but at other times was happy to use his larger size against them. He liked to play, and could be strongly competitive, but he also had a big heart and a ready laugh. Even now I find I can recall his laugh quite well.

And that is largely how I remember him. In my mind he is still the boy he was when we met. He is still in that nebulous fog all kids exist in until they grow old enough to discover their future selves. Because to me he hadn’t discovered his future self yet. To me, all his futures remained unmapped, and uncertain. Not that these things didn’t happen. I just never saw them.

In a happier story, the one without a car crash, PJ would now be around 33. Old enough to start getting serious in life. Maybe marry, maybe see a therapist, maybe start a family of his own. Old enough to grow up into a interesting adult, and surely PJ would have been an interesting adult. Many of the people I count myself lucky enough to work with are about that age, and I like to think that in that happier story I would one day run across PJ at an office and share old remembrances. Maybe we would have lunch together, tie up some loose ends, reconnect in ways that are healing and less painful.

But this is not that kind of story. This is, as I said, a ghost story.

There is a hole in my heart from a boy who is no longer a boy, and who is no longer there. There is no future I can connect him to so he can safely move on, and no past I can remove him from without also destroying myself. Thus he sits. A hole that cannot be removed nor repaired. A wound that cannot be healed. In short, a ghost. Perhaps he is only my ghost, which would be a much nicer ending for his friends and family, but a ghost none the less.

So when I flipped over that canteen cover, and saw his initials on the bottom, all of this came to me in a flash, like a wave that rolled over your head and buried you in the bottom of the surf. Because this is not a happy story. This is, as I said, a ghost story.