One of my favorite pastimes is writing fiction. Last year I published my first work of fiction, When I Could Stop Time. I’ve posted the first half here so you can take a look and decide if you like it. If you’d like to continue the second half is available on Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/When-I-Could-Stop-Time-ebook/dp/B009U1DVZQ
WHEN I COULD
By Jeff Gillman
Copyright 2012 by Jeff Gillman
All rights reserved
This book is, in large part, about a girl named Patty Cox. This fictional Patty is loosely based on a real girl (of a different name) who I knew throughout my school years. The real Patty wasn’t pretty, but she wasn’t unattractive. She wasn’t smart, but she wasn’t an idiot, either. She was just socially awkward. Not in a terrible way; she simply didn’t know how to deal with other kids, or with adults. Patty could be teased or pushed, taunted or tripped with impunity, making her an easy target for any middle-school troll looking to boost his, or her, ego. She never fought back and always offered a satisfying response to any taunt, usually something like an abrupt, “You’re being childish!” Teachers never saw anything, and Patty never told. Needless to say, no one wanted whatever it was that afflicted Patty to rub off on them, so she spent most of her middle and high-school years friendless. Despite all the crap that Patty suffered through, I still remember her walking down the halls with a smile on her face.
In the seventh grade, I signed up to act in a play, as did Patty. I played a villain while she played a character named Frankie. Other than that, I don’t remember much about the play, including its title. On the day we performed, the auditorium was filled with sixth graders. They watched and laughed and clapped at all the right parts. Everyone remembered their lines, and we all considered the performance a success. When it was done, we received a standing ovation (or at least that’s the way I remember it). After the curtains closed, I remember Patty jumping up and down with a ridiculously big grin on her face as she held my arm. I pulled away, fearing that someone might have seen and made the mistake of thinking we might actually be friends.
After I pulled away, Patty didn’t know what to do. She didn’t have anyone else to jump with, so she stood there jumping by herself, little hops on the tips of her toes. She was happy with a happiness that was meant to be shared, but the cliques had all formed around themselves and nobody was left to share with. Just me, and I had made myself unavailable.
That’s the thing I think about most—pulling away. It was a defining moment in my life. And yet, it isn’t a way that I want myself defined.
After high school, I didn’t think about Patty much. When I did think about her, I figured she went to some local community college or maybe got a job. I thought she’d be just fine and high school would turn into a bad memory for her like it did for a lot of people. Maybe she’d even get married and have some kids. It was a nice life I had built for Patty.
Then, about twelve years later, after I was through college and graduate school and had found a good job, I was told that Patty had passed away soon after graduation. There was never a husband in Patty’s life. No college. Nothing to help erase the past. Like everyone else, I have my share of regrets, but even after twenty years, one of those that bite deepest is how I couldn’t share just a little bit of Patty’s joy after that play in seventh grade.
The Georgia asphalt shimmered in the summer sun, transforming the elementary school parking lot into a miniature ocean. Sweat began to bead on my forehead as soon as I turned the engine off, the AC a distant memory even before I cracked the minivan’s door. I walked to the back and lifted the door handle.
“Mommy, I’m scared,” said Elise as I fumbled with the buckles of her car seat.
“What if the big kids are mean?”
“The big kids won’t be mean.”
“What if the teacher doesn’t like me?”
“The teacher will like you.”
“What if I’m the smallest one in the class?”
“Then you’ll be the smallest one in the class.” I slid the last buckle out of its slot and pulled my daughter from the tangle of nylon constraints. Bob thought she was ready to come out of her car seat and move up to a booster. I thought we should give it a few more months. “You’re going to paint and draw and maybe you’ll even learn something.”
It was odd to hear any fear in my daughter’s voice. Over the last few weeks we’d been talking up the whole kindergarten experience, and Elise seemed to be buying into the hype. She was getting excited about meeting new friends and a new teacher, playing games, working on puzzles, and doing all the other things we’d promised. And all without Mommy and Daddy!
“Turn and smile.” I brought my camera up to eye level, flashing a big, phony smile in an attempt to seduce Elise into doing the same. It didn’t work. It never did. She didn’t like to smile on command, and no whacko mommy act was going to change that. At least I had the sense to snap the picture before her neutral face slid into a pout, or worse. She pulled her chin tight to her chest, looking at me through the bottom of newly trimmed brown bangs. I loved the shirt and little skirt I’d made her wear, a gift from my mom. Precious. Mom would be disappointed if I didn’t send a picture.
“Will you come with me, Mommy?” I looked towards the big double doors that led into the building. My chest tightened.
“Please, Mommy? Just for today?”
What could I say to that? My daughter’s first day of kindergarten. How could I not walk her to her classroom? I reluctantly took her hand and walked her to the front door of the cozy two-story brick building. Inside, the halls teemed with children figuring out where they were going, while a few overmatched teachers tried to help. At least the school was air-conditioned. There were just a few bedraggled parents like me in the halls. At the entrance to one classroom, a mother was trying to convince a pretty blond-headed girl with tear-stained cheeks and a big red bow in her hair that she should cross the threshold. It wasn’t going well. I felt a tug at my pants. “Ma’am, do you know where Ms. Kearney’s class is?” asked a boy a year or two older than Elise. I flagged down a teacher to get him pointed in the right direction.
As we neared the kindergarten, a bell sounded and the halls cleared rapidly as kids raced to their rooms. I reached down and gave Elise a hug outside the door. “Ready honey?” I asked. Before she could even answer, a short heavy-set woman appeared from inside. “That bell means it’s time to get to class,” she scolded, taking Elise’s hand and leading her into the classroom while actively ignoring my presence. Sweet. As she crossed into classroom, Elise glanced back at me and waved. I waved back, and that was it. Her first day of school had begun. I stepped slowly into the hall and hoped she wouldn’t cry.
Without Elise beside me, the school seemed bigger. I looked down the hallway, now nearly empty but still somehow daunting. Almost twenty years since I’d been in a school, elementary or otherwise, and still the ubiquitous fluorescent lights, green cinderblock walls, and black and white floor tiling looked exactly the same as I remembered from my school days. Even the cafeteria smell, that odd mix of vinegar and bleach, was the same. I wondered if all public schools built over the last fifty years or so would bring back the same memories this one did.
I’d had nightmares leading up to this day. And not just because of Elise. At night I’d been waking up in a cold sweat, images of unfinished homework, lost classes, forgotten locker combinations, and….other things racing through my mind.
I guided the minivan through the familiar neighborhoods between Elise’s school and home, but at the overpass I missed my turn and found myself on the interstate going south. Perhaps it was because my mind was a little scattered, what with my little girl going to school for the first time and all, but I’m one of those people who thinks that things happen for a reason, so I decided to follow the road a little ways. It would clear my head. That’s what I told myself, anyway. I didn’t need to pick up Elise for six hours, and a minor detour wouldn’t cause a problem. Besides, I really didn’t want to go home to an empty house. Not right then. Bob knew how anxious I was about taking Elise to school, so he might call, but if he didn’t reach me at home, he’d just try my cell.
Then again, he probably wouldn’t call.
I emailed the picture of Elise to Mom while I was driving, struggling to work out the proper balance between keeping my eyes on the car ahead of me so I didn’t ram into it, and spending enough time on my iPhone so the screen wouldn’t go blank. After slamming on the brakes for the third time it finally occurred to me that I was an idiot and pulled over to the side of the road to accomplish the task. And, as the semis whizzed by, I realized where I was going. It didn’t come as an epiphany, just a realization that if I kept traveling in this direction, I’d eventually reach the old neighborhood.
Not just the old neighborhood, the old school.
It had been too long.
I’d always said that I’d go back and make things right, but I never had. Maybe now was the time. It wouldn’t take too long. I’d still be able to pick up Elise without too much worry. I put my foot down on the gas a little more firmly just to make sure. I flipped the radio dial looking for something good, finally settling on a station calling itself Classic Rock One – Oh – Something-or-another. The Moody Blues transitioned into Def Leppard, and the lyrics of Foolin’ filled the cabin. Not my usual fare. Who was I kidding? I hated the damn song. I started to reach for the dial, but somehow stupid 80s music felt appropriate, so I brought my hand back to the wheel and let it be.
I pulled off the highway a little over an hour later, finally cruising to a stop in an empty parking lot in front of a high school. It was the same basic shape and size as the school where I’d just dropped Elise off, but a little older and more poorly kept, just a two-story brick building with a flat roof out in the middle of nowhere. The spotless patches of brick on the front were a ghost of the bright white letters that once spelled out Hancock High. Chains wound through the handles of the front door.
How long had it been closed?
I hadn’t been keeping up with the old neighborhood for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was this school. I looked around from inside the minivan. At least someone was cutting the grass and keeping weeds out of the parking lot. No spray-paint, broken windows, or any other obvious vandalism. It must not have been closed for too long then. Few houses could be seen along the road, and the closest structure was an old rundown shop named Lena’s that might or might not still be in business.
I got out of the car and began walking around the school, keeping a few yards between myself and the walls. Twenty years. A long time to be away, but even closed up everything seemed more or less the same. I walked closer to the building, noticing the chipped brick and pocked concrete. I peered into some windows on the west side. The classrooms were cleared of anything useful, including lights. I turned and looked across the landscape. Down a grassy hill, the swamp with its ancient trees remained undrained and undeveloped, but I couldn’t quite see the tree I was looking for. Assuming things hadn’t changed too much, it was set a little bit too far back in the muck and mire to pick out easily from this vantage point, or from any of the first-floor windows. Before I walked down the hill, I needed to get my bearings. I went back to the car, took a jacket out of the back seat, and came back to the west side. I wrapped the jacket around my hand and paused. I’d done so much damage already. Did I really need to add breaking and entering to the list?
I put my fist through the window, just like I’d seen in the movies, punching the glass as quietly and unobtrusively as I could. It really wasn’t that hard. No cuts, but I did need to spend some time prying shards out of the window’s base so I wouldn’t spear myself.
Squirming into the classroom, it occurred to me that Mrs. Lloyd would never approve of this. I chuckled to myself as I imagined her having a cow as a middle-aged woman tumbled into her spotless classroom. That was good. This wasn’t the room I needed, but at least I knew where I was. I stood up. The classroom door was open, so I entered the hallway. Light filtered through the remaining glass in the windows and touched the floating dust particles. The room seemed lonely without posters and papers. Like a hollow shell. I wondered if the building would ever be used for anything else, and if so, what? Storage? A Kmart? I turned to the right, and there was the stairwell leading to the second floor. Up the first flight was the mural of the first moon landing. It looked the same now as it had when I was a kid. Books were knocked out of my hands right here on this stairwell. I remembered climbing back down that first flight picking up papers as if it were yesterday. It wasn’t a good memory, but not as bad as some.
I stepped out onto the second floor. After so many years, it took me a minute to figure out which of the rooms would have the best view, but only a minute. Mr. Turner’s classroom was the fifth along the west-facing wall. Art. I loved art. Everything was as it had been, minus the easels, desks, books, and kids, of course. Even the paint on the wall was the same color. Had this place ever been repainted? I bit my lip and made my way slowly to the windows. The swamp was straight ahead and as wild as it had ever been, maybe more so. The trees had grown, and some that I didn’t remember were now prominent. It took me a minute to remember everything, putting it all in its place in my mind, but there, set back into the swamp a few yards, the big oaks still stood, and the one I was searching for still looked like it had its lower branches –though I couldn’t be entirely certain with the shade from other branches hiding much of the swamp’s interior. I’d know for sure soon enough. I fixed its location in my mind and went back down to the first floor to slither out Mrs. Lloyd’s window.
I think that, for most people, life happens gradually. Sure, there are forks all along their life path, but the forks tend to be small, and the paths eventually lead to roughly the same place. But for some people, it’s different. These people can point to a certain point in time when their lives were changed, moved off of one track and onto another so violently and irrevocably that the end of the path doesn’t remotely resemble what it should have been. Something like winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed. That’s where this story starts, with that point in time where my life was shifted onto a different track. One where it didn’t belong. It was early 1980. Practically ancient history now, but I still remember that day in January like it was yesterday.
“Mommy! Mommy!” I screamed, the witch from Narnia close on my heels. No one came, so I screamed again. “Mommy!” I knew the nightmare was over, but the fear remained. I kept my eyes shut to protect myself. A large hand clutched my shoulder though the blankets.
“What’s wrong?” asked my father in a loud whisper.
“I want Mommy.”
“Because she wears those crazy earplugs so she can’t hear me snore. More screaming, and I’m sure you’ll be able to wake her up, though.” I knew it wasn’t an invitation, but considered it, all the same.
“Daddy, I had a nightmare and I can’t sleep. Can I get into your bed?”
“You’re eight. Aren’t you getting a little old for this? The nightmare’s over, why won’t your bed work?”
“If I go to sleep again the nightmare will be back and the witch could get me.” My father, obviously impressed by my logic, turned his head to look at the clock.
“It’s 5:30. Tell you what, instead of fighting about it, let’s just get up and have an early breakfast.” He smiled. It was January and the house was chilly. My long pajamas made static sparks as he pulled me out from between the sheets. “Quiet now!” he whispered. We made our way to the kitchen using comically exaggerated tiptoe strides. I loved it when it was just me and Dad. With his work schedule, early mornings were just about the only time I could have him all to myself.
“So what’ll it be, Lizzie?” he asked.
“Eggs and toast.”
“What kind of eggs?” he asked, turning the stove on.
“Scrambled.” He pulled an egg carton from the refrigerator, opened it up and handed me four. I took the eggs from his hand one at a time and placed them into a small dish, then proceeded to crack them into a frying pan already murky with melted butter. Dad relentlessly swirled a spatula along the bottom, careful not to let the eggs stick. After adding the salt, he handed me two pieces of bread. I squeezed past him and put them into our toaster. Dad was a hard guy to get around, especially in our little house. I would say that he had the shoulders of a linebacker, but that wouldn’t be the truth. He had the shoulders of an offensive lineman. That’s why he was recruited all the way from Wyoming by Georgia Tech, and, in a way, that’s how I came to be, since that’s where he met Mom.
The way he told it, Dad was a good football player. Really good. And from the old films he showed us, he was telling the truth. He was big, strong, and fast. On the football field, his job wasn’t to throw the ball, catch it, run with it, or even kick it. Instead, it was his job to protect his teammates who did all of those things. He always told me that what made him good wasn’t being big and strong, though anyone who knew him knew that he was. It was that he cared about his friends. He said that protecting them was the most important thing he could do. He played hard every play of every game of every year because he didn’t want to see them get hurt.
Dad was set to make lots of money after college, or at least a whole lot more than he earned as a high school teacher and football coach. But all of his size and speed didn’t mean anything after a big defensive lineman destroyed his knee. When Dad got injured, he knew football was over for him and that he’d need to learn to make a living with his brains instead of his back. He also knew he wasn’t the brightest guy in the world, so he had to get some help or he’d just be a big fat good-for-nothing. Those were his words, not mine. Worse than that, it meant he needed to study more to get better grades. That’s when he met Mom. She was his tutor back then. They used to joke that he found her on a bulletin board. He said he fell in love with her from the first time she walked into the library because of her long blonde hair, pretty blue eyes and smile. She said he fell in love with the idea of a free tutor.
I’d love to look like Mom, but I got my dark curly hair from Dad, along with some of his size. Mom’s the petite cheerleader type. I’m not. I’m almost, but not quite, thin, and a little too tall. I did get my eyes from Mom’s side of the family though, where grayish eyes are the norm. When Dad first met Mom he had to pay her for helping him with his classes, but she got to like him and, sure enough, she tutored him for free. Soon they started seeing each other for more than homework. Then they got married and he took her away from the Warm South and back to his home state in the Frigid North. At least that’s the way Mom said it happened, and as far back as I can remember, Dad never contradicted her.
The eggs were ready in a few minutes. Dad slid the greasy yellow pile out onto our plates, added a slice of well-buttered toast, and poured a glass of milk for me and some coffee for himself. Then we sat and ate. We talked about all of the normal things that fathers and daughters do. We covered my school and my friends. I liked math and Rachel Leander; I didn’t like English or Reggie Bartholomew, or any other boy, for that matter. We also talked about going to Disney World in a couple of years. We’d been thinking about a trip since I was in kindergarten, but we decided at that breakfast table that it was time for something more than just talk.
After a while Mom and Davey came in. Dad got up to cook them something, too. Poached eggs for Mom and more scrambled for my little blonde-headed brother. His hair color was like Mom’s, but the style, high and tight, was all Dad. He was big for his age. A kindergartener, he was often mistaken for a second grader. He’d just decided that eggs were better than cereal the week before, and now he ate them up almost as fast as Dad delivered them, gulping down a tall glass of orange juice to speed their journey to his stomach. After we’d eaten, we watched a few minutes of the morning news before Dad had to leave for work at West Central where he taught social studies and coached the football team.
As soon as we heard the engine turn over in the garage, Mom, Davey and I ran to the front window to wave. We always waved to Dad when he went to work. Fresh snow sat on the ground, reflecting the bright morning sunlight. The trees were coated in it, too, and the whole world shimmered and blazed like a winter wonderland, making it tough to keep your eyes open without squinting. Dad slowed the old blue Plymouth down as he turned onto the road in front of our house and waved back.
Davey and I stood out in the snow until the bus came. I climbed on board and sat with my friend Michelle Clark, who told me all about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. She was one book ahead of me in the series, and I always wanted to know what would happen so I could be ready.
When the bus stopped, we all hurried out –Davey to his kindergarten and Michelle and me to our third-grade class. I sat at my desk, did math problems, ate lunch, had recess, and did all the normal things that a kid does when they’re in school and eight years old. It was fun, and it was comfortable, and between that and my home, it was my life. Then the last bell rang, and I hurried out of the classroom, the hall swarming with kids like me heading to the buses.
“Elizabeth! Elizabeth Jenks!” I turned and saw Mrs. Good fighting through hoards of escaping children as I passed the front office. It wasn’t surprising she knew my name. It was a small school and the principal knew every kid in every class. But why was she calling me? I’d hit Debbie with a swing on the playground today. But it was an accident. Had she heard about that? I was prepared to defend myself.
“No bus for you today, young lady, your mother’s coming,” Mrs. Good said as she took my arm and hurried me through the throngs of children, offering no chance for questions. Davey was already there waiting for us when we arrived at the office. He looked happy as a clam.
“Just sit there,” said Mrs. Good, motioning to the couch where visitors usually sat. It was green and plastic and made fart noises when you bounced up and down like Davey was doing. Strange that Mrs. Good wasn’t stopping him. “She should be here in a minute.”
“Why is she coming?” asked Davey, his bouncing forgotten for a moment. I wanted to know, too. In all of my four years at the school, my mother had only come to pick me up twice. The first time because I stayed after school to practice a skit. That was in the first grade. And the second time just a few weeks ago because I’d gotten sick and puked on Margaret Jones’ back on my way through the lunch line. She’d been kind of upset about that.
Mrs. Good sat down across from us in a wooden chair. “Your father had an accident on his way to work, so your mother wanted to pick you up to go see him.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’ll let your mother explain when she comes,” she said gently.
“Is he OK?” I felt very grown up asking the question.
“Let’s just wait for your mother.”
“Mom!” shouted Davey. My gaze shifted from Mrs. Good over to the doorway.
“Get your stuff together. We’re off to the hospital,” said Mom before she’d even reached the couch where we sat. We knew Mom’s no-nonsense mood and hurried to obey, picking up our backpacks while Mom thanked Mrs. Good for catching us before we got on the bus, then she took our hands and hurried us outside to the station wagon. We knew better than to ask questions until we were buckled in.
“What’s wrong with Dad?” I asked as Mom slid into the front seat.
She cranked the engine and began backing out of her parking spot before she answered. “Nothing to worry about.”
“There was a little accident. Someone ran into Dad’s car on his way to work. He’s fine. I’ve been there most of the day. There’s nothing for you to worry about, I just wanted to pick you up so you could see Dad before visiting hours end.” She turned to face us and smiled reassuringly. “We’re just going to visit with him for a few minutes and then go home.”
“If he’s fine, why can’t he come home with us?”
Mom spun the wheel hard, turning onto the road. “He probably could, but he’s feeling tired, so they’re going to keep him overnight. They’re afraid he might have a concussion. That’s where you hit your head really hard. He’s had them before, when he played football. They just make you dizzy and tired for a while, but they go away.”
“Have you ever had a concussion?” asked Davey.
“Then how do you know they go away?”
“Because that’s what your Dad told me, and I believe him.”
It wasn’t a long ride to the hospital. Mom asked us about our day and told us how nice the hospital was. She told us that Dad’s car was wrecked but that we shouldn’t worry because we had insurance to cover things like that, and then she had to explain insurance “Now don’t you go upsetting your father when we get in there,” she said as we pulled in. “He’s been through a lot and he doesn’t need the stress.”
We stepped through the sliding doors at the entrance and Mom started to lead us towards the back. But before we could get there, a nurse came from behind the front desk, telling us to wait while she got the doctor. We sat down in the waiting room. Mom picked up a magazine while Davey and I grabbed some cars out of a toy bin.
The nurse came back a moment later with the doctor in tow. I didn’t like the way he looked. My doctors smiled all the time. This one wasn’t smiling. In fact, he seemed kind of grumpy. He ignored Davey and me, walking right by us on his way over to Mom.
She put down her magazine, “Is Patrick all right?”
“Why don’t we step over here a moment?” he replied, guiding Mom off to a corner of the waiting room where it was difficult to listen in on what they were saying. I could see the doctor was explaining something to my mom. I moved a little closer. His hands flew all over the place while he talked, to his head, his side, his back. I overheard something about surprise and bleeding, and then something about a spleen. I’d never heard that word before. He shook his head. Then Mom’s hand went to her mouth and she started to shake.
Davey and I watched helplessly as Mom collapsed onto the floor, the arms of the doctor barely slowing her fall. We tried to get to her, but a couple of nurses intercepted us, guiding us out of the lobby and into a small adjoining room. I’m sure they were trying to be gentle, but I wanted to stay with Mom. I have no idea what I yelled, just that I did. They tried to comfort us, but we wouldn’t have any of it. It seemed like forever before my mother came in to tell us that our father was dead.
The days leading up to the funeral were busy ones. My mother’s brother, Uncle Will, came up from Atlanta to stay with us, and Dad’s five brothers and sisters and our cousins came into town from the four corners of Wyoming. During the day everyone made a point of keeping us busy so we couldn’t dwell on what happened, but it was tough to sleep at night, and when we woke up in the morning Davey and I found ourselves curled up with Mom more often than not. Sometimes we didn’t even know how we got there.
At the funeral, I sat between Mom and Uncle Will while Mom held Davey in her lap. It was like a long church service where everyone was there just to talk about Dad and what a wonderful guy he was. They let anyone who wanted to talk about Dad come up to the front, so other teachers from his school came up along with his principal and brothers and sisters. The captain of the high school team came up too, but he couldn’t get though his speech without crying, so he wasn’t up there too long. Another player finished it for him. Some of Dad’s friends from Georgia Tech were there too, and talked about how tough he was and what good things he did on the football field–how he always protected his friends. One friend from Dad’s high school said that he was the best person he’d ever known.
It was nice to hear so many people say nice things about my Dad, but it also made it worse in a way because it made me think about all the good things we could have done if he were still here. Mom wasn’t in any shape to say anything, but I wanted to, and I told her so. She let me go, but when I was actually in front of everyone, I had the same problem as the team captain, and I couldn’t do much besides cry and walk back to my seat. Still, I thought that was better than saying nothing. At least I’d tried. Uncle Will gave me a hug and put his arm around my shoulder, telling me that it was all going to be OK and that he would take care of us in Atlanta. At the time, that didn’t seem very likely to me, but, then, I think I’ve always been a little naive.
After the funeral, I sat on the cold steps of the church while Mom shook people’s hands and got hugged. I knew I was supposed to stand next to her, but I didn’t feel like it, and no one was forcing me. It was mild day for January. A day we might have gone skiing. I sat by myself and played with the handkerchief someone had given me after I’d tried to say something up in front of the church. I didn’t know who, so I couldn’t give it back. I felt a little guilty holding onto it since it wasn’t really mine though, so after a few minutes I put it down.
As I sat there on those steps, my mind kept resetting itself, constantly thinking about what we should be doing with Dad instead of attending his funeral. I couldn’t control it, and it hurt so bad I wanted to scream, but I was too old for that. I wouldn’t scream, or cry. Just sit. The crowds leaving the church thinned slowly until only family was left. Uncle Roy, the oldest brother, now that Dad was gone, came and picked me up, carrying me to the car to be driven home. There was some kind of to-do at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, but Uncle Roy drove me home instead so I could sleep. I was glad. I didn’t want to see anyone. Didn’t want to hear any more about how sorry they were. I just wanted my Dad, and if I couldn’t have him, then I’d rather be alone.
They say that the toughest time for the family of someone who dies is right after the funeral because suddenly you have nothing to think about except the person who died, but that wasn’t true for Mom, Davey, or me. We were so busy the next six months that sulking was almost impossible. Mom had us back in school a week after Dad died. Things were different though. She wouldn’t let us ride the bus, instead carting us back and forth in the station wagon. And she stopped taking Davey to his skating lessons and me to my gymnastics class. She didn’t like us to go outside much, not without her there anyway. The sledding hill down the street was off limits, and so was the playground.
Lots of my friends started calling me over to play, maybe to help me feel better. But Mom didn’t like the idea of us being watched by anyone but her, so the answer was always the same: we were too busy. Even when it was my Uncle Roy. You might think that made for a depressing life for a young widow and her two kids, but the truth was we didn’t really have time to think about it. At home, Mom was on a mission to get the house ready to sell. First, she made us clean all the rooms and then we had to help repaint them. We sold or gave away all of Dad’s things and then we started doing the same thing with everything in the house bigger than a microwave. When spring came, we had to paint the outside of the house, too. Then we had to paint the fence. Meanwhile, we sorted through all of our belongings that we hadn’t sold, deciding what to keep and what needed to be tossed. It felt like forced labor. Mom wouldn’t let us rest, while she planned our trip away from the Frigid North.
It was no secret that Mom hated Wyoming. She hated the winter and everything that went along with it: the icy roads, the cracked lips, the heavy coats. She hated the absence of a “real” city, and she hated that the winter was too long to grow what she called a “real” garden. The only reason she was there was because of Dad. When he was alive, she’d talk with Uncle Will every week or so and ask about the want ads in the newspapers to see whether there was a job Dad could apply for in Atlanta, and then she’d tell Dad about it over dinner and encourage him to move us all back. Half the time it seemed like she was joking and half the time we knew she was dead serious. Dad loved Wyoming, though, and wouldn’t be blasted out with dynamite. But when he died, there was no reason for Mom to stay. After the school year ended in June, we knew we’d be going live with Uncle Will in a distant little suburb of Atlanta. After all, Mom had been telling us about it every day since the funeral.
Before my father’s funeral, the only memory I had of Uncle Will came from our visit to Georgia when my mother’s parents died in a car accident. That happened when I was six. Before they died, Granddaddy and Grandmama would come up to Wyoming from Georgia twice a year, but Uncle Will was never with them. Not as far back as I can remember anyway. He would send us nice presents for Christmas and our birthdays, though. One year, he even sent us bikes.
When we flew into Atlanta for my grandparents’ funeral, Uncle Will met us at the airport and drove us to Hancock where he lived next door to my grandparents and down the street from the church. I remembered him as tall and almost as big as my father was, starting to bald, with a mix of brown and grey hair that made him look much older than my mother, though I knew he was born only a couple of years before her. After the funeral, when we flew back to Wyoming on the airplane, I asked Mom why she was so small when her brother Will was so big. She said it was because he worked out a lot when he was in the army—said it was all he did while he was there, and that he’d been in there for a long time. I asked what he did now, but she just shrugged and said that he didn’t do much. Dad snickered and said Uncle Will lived off Uncle Sam. Then Mom gave him a dirty look and that was the end of the conversation.
It was strange to think of going to live with someone we’d only seen twice before. Mom said he was family and he was a great brother who loved to do fun stuff. And he’d seemed nice at Dad’s funeral. But what did we really know about him? What if he didn’t really want us there? What if he was some kind of monster? The possibilities were endless. Before bed every night, I’d try to scare Davey with horror stories of Uncle Will the vampire or Uncle Will the werewolf. Sometimes he’d shake under his covers for hours and I’d need to get into bed with him to calm him down. Truthfully, more than half the time I did it just because I didn’t want to sleep alone in my own bed. We tried to talk to Mom about all the possible incarnations of Uncle Will, but she just told us to shush up and get busy cleaning so we could sell the house and be on our way.
We piled into the car on a warm Monday morning. When we arrived in Atlanta this time, it wouldn’t be on an airplane, it would be in a Dodge station wagon pulling a U-Haul trailer, our only entertainment the car’s AM radio and each other. Mom in the driver’s seat and Davey and I in the back. But not all the way back. We couldn’t curl up behind the back seat like we did when we went on vacation, there was just too much stuff piled back there.
Mom cranked the car and we were off. Grandma and Grandpa were there along with Uncle Roy, Uncle Rick, Uncle John, Aunt Rita, Aunt Jill and all of their husbands, wives and our cousins. The car crunched through potholes and weather-warped blacktop as Davey and I watched out the side windows, our family getting smaller and smaller as we drove away. Then we turned a corner, and they were gone.
We pulled off the highway on the way to the interstate, taking a small, barely paved road out to the church. Dad was there now. We stopped for a few minutes to say goodbye. We knew he was in heaven, but it still felt good to stop and let him know we were off on an adventure, but that we’d be back to see him again. Mom spread out a little breakfast picnic with hard boiled eggs and orange juice. We sat in a circle, just the three of us, Dad’s headstone filling the fourth space. We sprinkled pepper and salt on our eggs and drank orange juice from little bottles, just the way we used to do it when Dad would take us for long bike rides. It almost felt like we were eating together as a family again, if we didn’t look too closely at that fourth spot. Then we got back into the car, and the feeling was gone.
Most kids probably would have been pretty upset if they were leaving everything they knew behind them, but I didn’t feel that way. Not really. And I knew Davey didn’t, either, because he’d told me. Sure, we would have liked to stay with all our cousins, and sure, we were nervous about living with our Uncle Will. But we knew something was wrong and we needed to leave to make it right. Every morning for the last six months I’d woken up expecting to see Dad, only to realize a moment later that I wouldn’t. Never again. Every night, Davey sat in bed waiting for a story. Dad’s job. One that I’d taken over, with mixed results. So was taking us on bike rides or to the park. Mom had taken his place as best she could, but we all knew it wasn’t working. Mom hadn’t smiled or even said anything nice except when she was talking about going back to Georgia, so the move would be a good thing, maybe even make us happy again.
“Mom, what is there to do in Georgia?” asked Davey.
“Anything you can imagine. There are zoos and forests and swimming most of the year. The beach isn’t that far away, so you’ll get to see the ocean for the first time. Georgia’s a great place to live.”
“What’s Uncle Will’s house like?” I asked.
“You saw it once when we went to Grandmama and Granddaddy’s funeral. It’s a big old house; Uncle Will lives there now. Lots of room for us and all our things.” Mom turned the radio down a little. “It was what they call a plantation house. The owners of the plantation, your great, great grandparents, ran all of the fields. When I was little, my mama, your Grandmama, used to tell us that when she was a little girl she used to stand at the back door, and for as far as she could see there were nothing but fields that her Daddy owned.”
There it was. I could see the hint of a smile on Mom’s lips. Not really a smile. Not yet. But the promise of one. “Just cotton or sometimes peanuts, and the workers pulling them all up. Everyone busy trying to get the crop in. By the time I was born, the house was all that was left. The cotton wore out the land though, and Granddaddy just wasn’t that good at adapting when things went bad. Now all you can see from the backyard are houses.”
“Is there a swimming pool?” asked Davey excitedly.
“Not unless Uncle Will put one in recently.”
“I don’t think so.”
“It doesn’t sound like much fun,” Davey pouted.
“You know, the last time I made this drive was before you were born, Elizabeth.” Mom changed the subject.
“Of course. We were just married, and decided to have our honeymoon on our drive from Georgia to Wyoming.”
“Was it fun?”
Finally Mom’s mouth twisted into a full smile. “It was nice, just him and me enjoying the ride. It took us about four days longer than it should have. We saw everything that was worth seeing between here and Georgia. And some things that weren’t worth seeing.” She laughed a little. If going to Georgia would make Mom laugh a little, then this trip would be a good thing.
Our first day on the road wasn’t too painful. Mom told us more stories from Georgia. Some we’d heard before and some that were new. Stories about the big old house we were moving into and how regal it was. How all the other kids in town would come by just to have the chance to look through the rooms, and how there was no better place to play hide-and-go-seek in the entire world. She talked about the horses they used to keep and the dogs and cats, and how they’d bring home ‘possums and snakes, and how, once, Granddaddy’s hound dog got bit by a rattler. Mom always had a noticeable accent, but as she dug into her memories, it became thicker and thicker, her “you guys” transitioning into “y’alls” and her “I thinks” to “I reckons.” We told her she sounded like Scarlet O’Hara from Gone with the Wind and she laughed. She liked being compared to the heroine from her favorite movie.
That first night, we pulled into a hotel in Nebraska with a pool and an attached restaurant. We ate burgers and fries for dinner, and then had a swim before bed. Mom even got into the water with us to play Marco Polo. We wanted to go back in the water the next morning, but Mom wanted to get on the road early. With nothing to do, Davey and I spent most of the morning napping and listening to whatever radio stations Mom managed to find. She made frequent stops for coffee, and we had a picnic lunch by the side of the road. As we drove through Missouri, we stopped and ate some of the best barbeque we’d ever had, and halfway through Tennessee, Mom pulled over to a scary looking roadside stand and we tried hot boiled peanuts for the first time. She said they were pulled fresh from the ground and boiled in a pot of salty water for days, which didn’t sound very appetizing. But when I finally got up the nerve to put them into my mouth, they were nothing like what I thought they’d be. Worlds different from the roasted peanuts we were used to. Davey called them soggy peanuts and wouldn’t touch them, but I thought they were the best thing ever and finished most of the bag by myself. Mom pulled over for a second bag after we finished the first.
The morning of our third day on the road found us cheering as we drove over the Tennessee-Georgia border. We were ready to get out of the car and into a real house. After that first night, the hotels we stayed in were better suited for rats than people. The car stunk like us, and Davey and I were getting edgy from not having anywhere to expend our energy. We pulled into Uncle Will’s driveway around 3:00, none too soon, as Davey was just starting to complain that he was feeling carsick, something that had stopped our progress the second day and done nothing to improve the odor inside the car. When Uncle Will saw us, he jumped off his rocking chair on the huge front porch where he’d been waiting, and ran out to greet us, his smile as big as a whale.
He hugged Davey and me as we stepped out of the rear doors and then sent us up to the house. “Get yourselves inside and have some sweet tea!” He called as walked around the car to meet Mom, motioning us up the shallow hill to the huge white house at its crest. It had been a warm drive without benefit of air conditioning and there wasn’t much we wanted more than a cool drink. “It’s in the refrigerator,” he yelled as Davey and I barreled towards the front door, racing as fast as we could go. Coming from Wyoming, I didn’t know what sweet tea was exactly, but anything with the word sweet in it sounded good, and I was thirsty. I got to the door first but Davey tried to butt in front of me as I opened it, so I pushed him down. He got up fast though, and I had to scramble to get inside before he did.
Our sweet tea mission was immediately forgotten as we burst into what had been my grandparents’ house. I remembered it was a huge house, but my memory was of something from Gone with the Wind, and this house wasn’t that. It was still huge, with a pair of spiral staircases in the foyer leading up to a balcony on the second floor overlooking the front entrances, and ceilings around twelve feet high with halls leading to both the right and left on the upper and lower floors. But instead of the elegant emptiness that I remembered, the place looked like a museum. There was stuff everywhere.
“Having a tough time finding the kitchen?” asked my uncle as he stepped in, Mom beside him. Davey and I had hardly moved an inch since we’d entered the front door. We were having a tough time finding anything at all. Almost every inch of wall space was covered with either a painting or a hanging rug. Along one stairway there were swords and pictures of men on horseback, on another a drapery with a waterfall and trees that were blooming. Pedestals with statues of all shapes and sizes on them were scattered across the floor, the most common theme being short fat men who were sitting cross legged, but there were also elephants, sword-wielding soldiers, and even houses.
“Yes,” I answered sheepishly.
“What have you done to this place?” asked Mom in a flat tone.
“You like it?” responded Uncle Will as he guiding us down a cluttered hallway that ended in a kitchen encased in windows. The kitchen was about three times as big as the one in our old home, with a refrigerator that looked large enough to fit our whole family inside. Behind the sink, a little goldfish swam in a big bowl with the name Henry written across the front in magic marker.
Mom held her tongue for a few moments as she tried to come up with something to say. “It’s different.”
“Women love it.”
“I doubt it.”
My Uncle shrugged, “OK, maybe they don’t love it, but they do find it interesting.”
“Where did you get all this crap?”
“Crap?” Uncle Will pretended to look offended, but we could see he was just fooling. “It was in my old place, in storage. I never had the room to lay all of it out until I moved here.”
My mother shook her head “What a shame.” She picked up one of the little fat man statues. “I didn’t know you were a Buddhist.”
“I’m not, but where I found them, a whole bunch of people are.”
My Uncle shrugged again, “Thereabouts.” He turned to the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher, pouring the contents into glasses already on the counter. It was like iced tea, only sweeter. I sucked it down like a Hoover sucks dust bunnies. Uncle Will refilled my glass without asking. “Good stuff, huh? You won’t get that up north.” I nodded and drank some more. “Now we’ve got to get you into your rooms,” he said, and looked at my mother. “Donna, I’ve got you back in your old room. I’m in Mom and Dad’s room now, and for these two,” he motioned towards us, “I’ve got that pair of connecting guest rooms set up. Will that work, do you think?”
“I think that’ll be fine. Better than having them separated. I think they’d like to have the option of crawling into each other’s bed instead of mine, and I know that’s what I’d prefer.” Mom turned to us. “Want to see your rooms?” she asked. We did, so she and Uncle Will led us back to the foyer and up one of the staircases, then down another hall to two bedrooms joined by a door. Unlike the rest of the house, these rooms were empty of any excess decoration. Just a desk, a bed, and a couple of chairs in each.
“I’ll start moving your stuff in, and you can unpack.” Uncle Will said to Mom. Then he motioned for Davey and me to look out into the hallway. “Go check everything out,” he said to us. “This is your home, at least for a while. Twenty-six rooms, and that’s not including bathrooms or closets. Get to know them all.” Davey and I, motivated by three days of being stuck in a car and fueled by sweet tea, didn’t need to be told twice.
We stuck our heads into one room after another wondering what we would find. Each of the main hallways had guest rooms spaced out along their lengths, including the rooms that were now ours. The two lower hallways ended in the kitchen and a large living room while the two upper hallways ended in smaller hallways that branched off to the right and left. Those little hallways were the best because the rooms along their lengths each contained a collection more spectacular than the last. In one room, we found rugs with crazy flowing patterns and symbols that we didn’t understand. In another, we found more of the fat man statues that Mom called Buddhas, some made of green rock, some of white, and others of stuff we didn’t recognize at all. Another room was filled with small houses. Houses on pedestals, houses on the floor, on the desk, on the bed. Some painted and some unpainted. They looked like doll houses, but there were no dolls. There was even a room full of plants at the end of one of the small upstairs halls with all manner of flowers and leaves.
“Hey kid!” yelled Davey while I was looking through a pile of walking sticks. He was standing in front of a large window.
“Get out of here!” yelled Davey again. Looking out the window I could see a skinny girl with frizzy brownish hair walking along what appeared to be the edge of our yard.
“I don’t think she can hear you.”
“She isn’t supposed to be here.”
“You don’t know that.”
“This is our house!”
“Actually, it’s Uncle Will’s.”
“But it’s ours now, too, Mom said so!” Davey could be stubborn when he wanted to.
Uncle Will came up behind us and looked out the window to see what we were arguing about. “You’ve been in here for the last hour. Why don’t you go outside and introduce yourselves?”
“What should I do with this!” shouted Mom as she lugged a huge box of who-knows-what down the hall.
“But Uncle Will, we’re just starting to find the good stuff, and she shouldn’t be here, anyway!” complained Davey. I figured I’d let him do the whining since he was so much better at it.
“Well then, why don’t you go see whether that little girl wants to find any good stuff with you?” said Uncle Will. He sounded like my Dad used to sound when he was busy and didn’t want to argue.
“But Uncle Will….”
“Will, what’s going on?” asked Mom as she walked into the room.
“There’s a kid outside. I was just telling Elizabeth and Davey to go meet her.”
“Are you sure that’s OK?”
Uncle Will gave my Mom a tired look. She responded by turning to us. “Go ahead, but don’t leave the yard, OK?”
“Yes, Mom,” we answered in unison.
Davey and I took our time meandering through the house on our way out the back door, kind of hoping the girl would disappear before we got there. But it didn’t work out that way. She was standing by a bird bath at the end of a little stone path that led from it to the house. Davey and I walked along the house’s periphery, neither of us really looking at the girl, although we knew she was looking at us. When we reached the end of the path, we stood there awkwardly for a moment, looking at our feet.
“Are you going to talk to me?” asked the girl when the silence became unbearable.
“No,” said Davey, who could always be counted on for honest answer. The girl shut her mouth and kicked at some of the gravel around the base of the birdbath.
“Do you live here?” I asked. I felt like I had to say something after Davey had been so rude.
“Up the road. I was walking and saw the moving van and thought there might be someone new moving in, so I came over, and now I’m here. My name’s Patty. What’s yours?” Words rolled off her tongue at about a mile a minute. Now that we weren’t looking through a window, I could tell she was about my age. She wore a pair of beat-up blue jeans and a light blue tee shirt with big yellow flowers on it, but her most distinctive piece of attire was a pair of old glasses that were too big for her face and made her eyes seem like saucers. From her back pocket hung a rag doll dressed in calico with brown hair made of yarn, a pair of button blue eyes, and a smile that was sewn on with thread so red, it almost looked like she was bleeding.
Patty walked over to us. I hadn’t noticed before because she hadn’t been moving, but she walked funny, like one of Davey’s wind-up toys that had been wound too tight and then let go. Each motion was a jerk, her body moving as quickly as possible and then stopping as the next motion began. It was kind of funny to watch, but I was polite and didn’t mention it.
“My name’s Elizabeth and this is Davey. We’re from Wyoming.” I figured that would be enough information to get the conversation rolling.
“Wyoming? Where’s that? Does that mean you’re Yankees? You sound like Yankees.”
I’d never been called a Yankee, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. It didn’t seem like a term of endearment. When Mom had called Dad a Yankee she had always been upset with him about something. “What does a Yankee sound like?” I asked.
“Not very nice.” She screwed up her nose. I decided to let the insult slide this time.
“What do you do for fun around here?”
“Walk around. Climb trees. Lots to do.”
“Are there any other kids around?”
“Some. I don’t see them much. Just once in a while.”
“So, do you want to play?” I asked. Patty smiled at that.
“Inside? There’s nothing to do out here. Y’all don’t have a jungle gym or a slide or a pool or a trampoline, or anything.”
I thought about it for a minute. It was true, there wasn’t anything fun out here. Mom had told us to see if the girl wanted to find any good stuff, and there sure wasn’t any outside. “Come with me!” I ran into the house, Patty and Davey in tow. Uncle Will was sitting on a couch inside as we tumbled in the door. I guessed Mom was probably off somewhere putting stuff away.
“We’re going to explore your house, OK?” I called to Uncle Will.
“Sure,” answered Uncle Will, “Have fun!” Then, a second later, “Wait!”
“What?” I asked.
“First, it’s our house now, and second, who’s your new friend?”
“Patty, Patty Cox,” said Patty; the words flying off her tongue couldn’t get into the air fast enough.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you Patty,” said Uncle Will as he rubbed his chin. “So you want to explore, huh? How about a little game to see if you can find all my hidden treasures?” We loved that idea. Treasure was always a winner, and hidden treasure was even better. Uncle Will spent a few minutes writing down a list of things for us to find and sent us on our way with a promise of special prizes if we could find everything he’d written.
“Was that your Dad?” asked Patty as we started walking down one of the halls, “He seems nice.”
I started to answer, and then my throat closed up. “That was my Uncle Will,” said Davey.
“Well, your Uncle’s nice.” She turned to me. “I thought it was your Dad because your eyes look exactly like his. Kind of a weird grey color with little green and brown bits.”
“Oh.” I answered. I looked more like Dad than Uncle Will.
We went from room to room trying to find the things Uncle Will had on his list. Some we’d already found on our earlier expeditions, like a walking stick with a bear’s head and a house with red doors and high walls, but some we had to search for. A sword with a red handle was mounted high on a wall in one of the downstairs bedrooms, and an old rifle was in the living room. We had the hardest time finding an orange bowl with pictures of flowers, but Patty finally found it in the kitchen on a counter above the sink. Pretty soon there was only one thing we hadn’t found, a small red cart. Davey, Patty and I decided to pretend we were the Mystery Incorporated Gang and split up to search. Davey was Shaggy, Patty was Velma, and I was Daphne. I asked Patty whether the doll in her back pocket could be Freddy, but she told me that her name was Sally and she couldn’t be anyone else. She picked up a dead cricket she’d found by a radiator and dubbed him Scooby. Scooby rode in Patty’s other pocket. Davey ran down one hall and Patty another while I headed back to the living room.
We’d been through the living room before, but only quickly. It was huge, larger than any other room in the house, and filled with everything imaginable. It wasn’t exactly cluttered, but it wasn’t exactly orderly, either. It seemed to me I ought to be able to find a red cart here, even if it wasn’t the red cart Uncle Will meant. I started my inspection by the fireplace because I thought maybe the cart could be used to carry wood for the fire, but I didn’t find anything there, just a wide assortment of pokers. All of the firewood was gathered in two metal bins. I dug through the piles a little just to make sure there was nothing there. The mantle above the fireplace held tiny statues, snow globes, and other assorted items, but no red cart. Next, I searched some old chairs and on top of and underneath a coffee table without luck. I looked on top of a roll-top desk pushed up against the wall. Nothing.
Uncle Will had told us everything would be out in the open and we wouldn’t need to open any drawers, but he might have made a mistake. I’d found this to be a common problem with adults. The roll-top slid open smoothly, but there was no cart inside. There was, however, a small house there. It was painted black and just a little bit bigger than a shoe box. It looked a bit like the houses we had seen in the other room earlier, just smaller. Still no dolls, but there was furniture. A bed, some chairs, a tiny table. Very cute. There was a small upstairs and a downstairs, and closed doors that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. I started to pick it up to take a closer look, but footsteps running towards me made me think twice.
“Elizabeth, we got it!” yelled Patty. “It was in a bedroom upstairs!”
“It was me, I found it!” complained Davey, close on her heels and upset he didn’t get to announce his find first.
“Good work, Shaggy!” I told him. We gathered up our piece of paper and put big pencil marks beside all of the things we’d found. Uncle Will wasn’t on the couch where we left him, instead he was walking along one of the upstairs hallways with Mom.
“Did you find everything on the list?” asked Uncle Will as we caught up to them.
“Yes sir!” answered Patty.
Mom looked at me. “Aren’t you going to introduce your new friend?” she asked.
“Yes ma’am,” I answered. “This is my new friend, Patty Cox.” Patty stuck out her hand, fully extending her arms and fingers, a huge grin plastered on her face.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, ma’am. You have a lovely daughter and son,” said Patty as they vigorously shook hands. I could see Mom suppressing a laugh.
“OK, then,” said my uncle, “We’ll take a little break and get y’all some prizes.” He led us down the stairs and into one of the smaller rooms with rugs. He walked over to a corner of the room and, pushing aside a rug, opened the top drawer of a small bureau that I hadn’t noticed before. From inside, he pulled out a pair of dolls and handed them to Patty and me. They were made of wood and were clothed in dresses made of silk. Mine wore green and Patty’s red, and both wore those circular hats that look like they’re made out of straw like you see Chinese people wearing on TV. Long, black, braided hair that felt as if it came right from the barber shop stretched from the tops of their heads almost to their feet. Then Uncle Will closed that drawer and opened the one below it. He pulled out a small oval contraption and unfolded it to reveal a white handled pocket knife. He handed it to Davey who barely had a chance to grin before Mom snatched it away.
“But Mom!” Davey complained.
“You’ll get it when you’re older.” She closed it and stuffed it into her pocket before turning to Uncle Will. “Perhaps in the future you could ask me before you give my children weapons?”
“Sorry, I didn’t think.” Uncle Will seemed more amused than chastised. He turned back to the bookcase and opened yet another drawer, pulling out a small brown horse with a white tail. He smiled. “Here you go, and I’m sure I’ll be able to convince your mother to give you that knife in no time.” He looked over to my mother, “On with the tour?”
“Do you kids want to play?” We all shook our heads. We wanted to be wherever Uncle Will was. If we didn’t think he was cool before, trying to give Davey a real honest-to-goodness knife sealed the deal. “Well then, come on,” he said as he strode back into the hall.
“I collect stuff, always have. You know that. Now, it’s how I make a living.”
“I thought you lived off your army pension,” said my Mom.
“Sure that helps, but I left early, so I didn’t get a full pension, and look at this place!” He swept his outstretched arm in a wide arc indicating the whole house. “A military pension barely pays the bills, so I do a little import-and-export to make ends meet.” As he finished the sentence, he entered a room filled with odd paintings. “In the army it was my job to find stuff for people. Whatever they might need or want. And not everything came from Uncle Sam.” He winked, “When I left Asia, I kept the lines of communication open. It’s turned out pretty well for me.”
“The house is full of junk.”
“Junk I can sell,” insisted Uncle Will.
“How much do you actually sell and how much sits around doing nothing but collecting dust?”
“I’ll admit, it’s slow right now, but overall it’s a net gain, at least at this point.” Mom looked doubtful. We left the room and went down another hall, into the room with the small houses.
“Now here,” said my Uncle, “is the best room in the whole house.” He rested his hand on one of the miniatures. “These are spirit houses, from Cambodia and Burma, mostly. If you put one of these on your property, you’ll make spirits that might normally cause trouble for people more content. They can hang out in the house, sniff some incense, look at pretty flowers, whatever, instead of causing problems.” He winked at us. “In theory, it reduces the risk of something bad happening. Usually people consult with a priest to figure out the right place to put one of these houses in their yards.” He smiled. “I’ve been doing my best to get to know all the Brahmin Priests in the Atlanta area. It’s a pretty small community, unfortunately.”
“Uncle Will?” I asked.
“The house in the desk in the living room, is that another spirit house?” Uncle Will looked at me out of the corner of his eye.
“Now, how did you find that?”
“When I was looking for the red cart.”
“I see.” He furrowed his brow. “Yes and no. Let’s call it a spirit house with benefits.”
“Something you got from your friends in Asia?”
He laughed. “Yes, something I got in Asia. Not sure if you could say I got it from friends.”
“Can we play with it?”
“But it’s the only house with any furniture!” I persisted.
“There are a few of these spirit houses you can use for your dolls or whatever, and I can buy or even make some furniture for them, but that house downstairs,” Uncle Will shook his head, “that’s a valuable old piece—one that you’ll need to leave alone.”
“Will you show it to us sometime?”
“Sure thing,” he said dismissively as we exited one room and entered the one beside it. “Now this,” he said while sweeping his arm upwards, ”was the sword of the great Kubla Kahn.”
“Where?” asked Davey.
“Right here,” my uncle said, motioning again, and then simply pointed up to the ceiling. We hadn’t noticed before, but hanging from the light fixture was a massive sword.
“That was really Kubla Kahn’s?” I asked.
“That’s what the guy I bought it from said.”
“Who is he?” Patty asked.
“You don’t know who Kubla Kahn was?” My uncle shook his head “That’s terrible! What are they teaching you in school? He was the most powerful leader ever–ruled Mongolia and China. Killed and tortured his enemies. Feared by everyone. Tried to invade Vietnam once, that’s where this sword is supposed to have come from.” Uncle Will gave us a lopsided smiled, “It’s amazing that it’s in such great condition after 800 years.”
I was skeptical, but Davey’s wide eyes showed he was eating it up. Patty gaped at Uncle Will, dumbfounded.
“Patty, what time do you need to be home for dinner?” asked Mom.
“We eat around five.”
“It’s four thirty. It might be best if you got on home so your mama doesn’t worry.”
“But I’m having such a good time here,” she whined.
“Well then, what’s your phone number? Maybe I can call her to ask if you can stay a little longer.”
“I don’t know, ma’am.”
“Don’t know your own phone number?”
“Well then, I’m sorry to say this, but I think you better get on home for now.”
“Yes ma’am” Patty said dejectedly and started towards the door, then thought better of it and turned back towards us. “Can I come by again?” Words raced off her tongue.
Mom smiled “Anytime.”
“Why not? And bring your phone number, so I can call your mama if I need to.”
“Can I bring Scooby too?” she asked pulling out her dead cricket.
“Maybe you should leave that at home.”
“Yes, ma’am! Thanks! See ya’ll later! It’s been fun! Can’t wait for tomorrow!” called Patty, her voice fading as she ran downstairs.
Our first few days in Uncle Will’s house were spent organizing, which is to say Davey and I spent the time running around and getting into trouble while Mom tried to put everything into its appropriate place. Uncle Will had been living by himself for a long time and we could tell it drove him a little insane, worrying about someone else’s things besides his own—putting things one place and then moving them somewhere else for someone else’s convenience. But he was patient, almost to a fault. Whenever he got upset or annoyed with Mom, or us, he’d just take a deep breath and walk into the living room, and then everything would be fine again. He did most of his work at home and made no secret of the fact that he’d like to see Mom get a job. He said it was to keep her busy, but I suspected it had just as much to do with keeping her out of his hair.
Not too long after we got our stuff moved in satisfactorily, as Mom put it, she started to go out looking for work. Cranking up the station wagon and driving around the neighborhood to see what was available, and picking up newspapers so she could look at the want ads. She had worked as a nurse in Wyoming up until I was born, so she figured she could find something along those lines quickly now that she was back in the South, and she was right. Pretty soon after she started her search, she got a job at the local hospital working odd hours. Since Uncle Will worked at home, he usually got the job of watching us. He was on the telephone a lot, contacting potential clients and trying to sell stuff, so, more often than not, we were left to our own devices. But once every day or two he’d get an order and call for us to help. He’d get a box, some string, and some newspapers to package whatever it was that he’d sold. Davey would crunch up the newspapers and shove them into the spaces between the object and the box, I’d tie the string at the top and, if Patty was around, she’d help with the tying by putting her finger on the knot as I pulled the string. We tried it the other way around, but Patty wasn’t a very good knot tier. Her shoes fell off constantly. She said her mom tied them once in the morning and they would either stay tied for the rest of the day or they wouldn’t. At first I thought it was a joke, but after a few days I knew it wasn’t. Patty’s shoes were consistently either untied or tied with such strange knots that her mama probably had to cut them out when she got home. While we worked I’d ask Patty questions about school here in Hancock. Patty was going into the fourth grade, same as me, so she knew all the teachers and everything, but when I asked her about the kids she never said too much.
Patty always came after lunch, and then she’d stay until right before dinner. We played tag and pirates, Kubla Kahn and hospital. Outside, we hunted crickets and grasshoppers, putting them into little cricket cages that Uncle Will said were from China. Sometimes we picked flowers from the yard and gave them to Mom who always gushed, and once we found some mole crickets, which really impressed Uncle Will. He said to catch as many as we could and he’d give us a penny apiece for them. Patty, Davey and I each earned a nickel on that deal, each of us putting our crickets into our own cricket cages. Patty almost had to give her nickel back, though. When she found out that Uncle Will was going to throw the crickets down the toilet she wouldn’t let him have them, but instead of taking the nickel, he just laughed and told her she could keep the nickel as long as she let the crickets go somewhere besides our house. She told us the next day that she’d let them go near hers.
The best games by far were those that included the spirit houses. We loved to take them out and put them different places, pretending to make towns and villages. We used the dolls Uncle Will gave us along with some Barbies I’d brought from our old home in Wyoming. They were families or cowgirls or even space aliens on distant planets. Patty always carried her rag doll, Sally, with her, but she never took her out of her pocket for the spirit house games. When I asked her about it she told me that Sally was Sally and she didn’t want to be anyone else.
Uncle Will was true to his word and made furniture for some of the houses. He carved branches from a tree that had fallen in a storm outside the house by using his pocket knife, practically a carbon copy of the one that was supposed to be Davey’s. He even let Davey and me do a little bit of the carving ourselves, as long as Mom wasn’t around. We had to mend more than one finger on the sly.
“Oh my God, They’re so big!”
I winced as Mrs. Kurtz pinched my cheek. She’d just let go of Davey, who’d hit the floor running. She was a big woman in every sense of the word, and I found it hard to believe she’d ever been a cheerleader alongside my mother in high school. Mom had told me that this was the girl at the top of all the pyramids. I thought she looked kind of like a pyramid all by herself, albeit a short one, with a tiny little head and wide body. I wasn’t sure if I could even tell what she really looked like—she wore so much lipstick and powder. She lived in the next town over with her husband and three kids, and when Mom had decided we were moving back to town, Mrs. Kurtz was the first person she’d called. After three weeks, they’d finally come over to visit.
Mrs. Kurtz was sure we’d all get along famously. I had my doubts, and I think Mom did, too. But as usual she was trying to be the proper Southern lady, and so she’d invited everyone over. All three of Mrs. Kurtz’ children were boys. Within three minutes of entering the door, her two oldest had separated themselves from us and were standing in a corner talking to themselves and pointing to all of Uncle Will’s things. They seemed particularly interested in the mounted swords and guns. Practically teenagers, they’d said maybe five words to Davey and me between them.
“So, what is there to do here?” Ryan asked Davey. He was Mrs. Kurtz’s youngest, and was going into fourth grade, just like me. Our towns shared a school, so we might even be in the same class. I liked Ryan’s outfit. Blue jeans, a white shirt and a tan vest. They matched his dirty blonde, straight hair in a way that reminded me of Bo from The Dukes of Hazard. He was the biggest nine-year-old I’d ever seen, but not big like Mrs. Kurtz. He was solid.
“All kinds of things!” said Davey, happy to have someone a little older than himself pay him some attention. Patty and I tended to avoid the games he preferred.
“Why don’t you show me?”
“OK,” agreed Davey happily, rushing off towards the family room, Ryan close on his tail. “First let’s see my cars!” I followed a little more slowly, curious what Davey would show him first. I wished Mrs. Kurtz had a daughter, too.
“Ouch! Knock it off!” called Davey from across the room as I entered. It hadn’t taken Ryan five minutes to shove his wet pinkie finger into Davey’s ear.
“Sorry,” said Ryan flatly, a look of innocence on his face. “It was an accident. Now where were those cars you were going to show me? Matchbox cars are great!”
Davey was only too happy to forget what Ryan had just done. He loved Matchbox cars and you could feel his excitement at being able to show them to someone older who actually cared. Patty and I played with the cars sometimes just to make him feel good, but we really didn’t care. He turned around and started hurrying towards the shelf where Uncle Will let him keep his favorites. Then, suddenly, his little feet weren’t moving anywhere. From my vantage point near the door I could see Davey’s underwear pulled out the back of his pants. Ryan holding on as Davey tried to move.
“Whoops! Sorry about that. Your underwear was sticking out, so I was just trying to stuff it back in.” Still the innocent face. In fact, there was a look of concern on it, almost as if he were really and truly worried that Davey’s underwear might have been sticking out. I watched Ryan with fascination as my brother reached into his pants to reorient his underwear.
I stayed where I was, not exactly hiding, but mostly obscured by a plastic plant that stood in the doorway. I watched as Davey and Ryan started taking cars off the shelves, running them along the floor as they did. After a few minutes, Davey ran off to get a set of plastic tracks for the cars to glide across and he and Ryan set them up. After a few minutes, the tracks had the cars running off a chair, over a pillow tracks, and onto the floor. The track finished in a pile of other cars where they would crash. Judging by their reactions, the crashing was much more entertaining than the actual driving. Davey went to send another car down the track while Ryan waited at the bottom. While Davey was paying attention to his car I saw Ryan slip something into his pocket. It looked like one of Davey’s favorite cars.
“Hey, what are you doing with that?” I asked, stepping from the cover of the plant.
“What?” said Ryan.
“That!” I walked over and pointed to Ryan’s pocket.
“That’s my pocket.”
“I saw you put that car in there.” Davey looked at his pile of cars.
“I didn’t put any car in there.”
“Yes you did! I saw you! Just give it back!”
Davey inspected the cars on the ground while Ryan and I yelled. “Where’s my dragster?” he asked.
“I didn’t touch your dragster.”
“I saw you put it in your pocket.” I knew I was in the right.
“What, this pocket?” Ryan pulled his pocket inside out. There was nothing there but a hole.
“Then it fell down your pants. Let me see.”
“Mom! Mom!” called Davey, practically in tears. It only took Mrs. Kurtz and my Mom a second to come into the room. Mom ran over to Davey right away and picked him up.
“Mom, he took my car!” Davey cried.
“I didn’t do it!” yelled Ryan. “Look!” he pulled out his pocket again. “There’s nothing here.” He gave Davey a sour look, “And I don’t like being called a liar or being told to take off my pants.”
“It’s in your pant leg! You’re the liar!” I yelled back. I went over to grab his leg to show Mom, but Mrs. Kurtz took me by the shoulder.
“If my son says he didn’t take anything, then he didn’t.”
“But I saw him!”
“You need to apologize to Ryan.”
“I saw him!”
By this time Mrs. Kurtz’s two older children had come in, smirking.
“Elizabeth!” yelled Mom.
“He took Davey’s car—I saw him slip it into his pocket.”
“Maybe we should leave,” said Mrs. Kurtz.
“Oh Kathy, I’m so sorry,” said Mom.
“You really should teach your children some manners,” replied Mrs. Kurtz, exasperated.
“Are you perfectly sure your child didn’t take Davey’s car?” asked Mom.
“Boys, we’re leaving,” said Mrs. Kurtz as she gathered up her brood. She scooped up Ryan by his upper arm, lifting him clear off the floor. I wouldn’t have guessed by looking at her that she had that kind of strength. They crossed the room, moved out into the hall, and then exited the front door. Ryan and his two brothers had wide smiles plastered on their faces. I would swear they were enjoying it.
“Excuse me,” said Mrs. Kurtz, remembering her manners as she pushed past Patty, who had suddenly, almost magically, appeared on the front porch. It was the first time I’d heard Ryan laugh. He nudged his brothers.
“Look, it’s Pat-my Cox!”
“What?” one of his brother asked.
“Pat-my Cox, my favorite person in the whole school!” yelled Ryan into Patty’s face. I could see her eyes go dark and the edges of her mouth fall as she backed away from him. Mrs. Kurtz made no indication that she’d heard anything as she bustled by off to the street. Mom looked disgusted, Ryan’s older brothers were trying unsuccessfully to stifle their laughter. Ryan leered back at Patty as he walked away. She looked like a wilted flower under his gaze, and he seemed to enjoy it. Head down, Patty pulled Sally out of her back pocket and held her. It was the first time I could remember seeing the little doll anywhere besides her back pocket.
We stood at the door watching as the Kurtzes piled into the car. Mom went back into the house before Mrs. Kurtz even started the engine. One of Ryan’s brothers sat in the front seat while Ryan and his other brother sat in the back, Ryan on the side closest to us. As they drove off he held something up to the window. I couldn’t be certain, but it sure looked like a Matchbox car.
Fortunately, Mrs. Kurtz and her brood weren’t our only visitors. We attended the church down the street and, once the neighbors knew there was a new face in town, we had no end of houseguests, even though, according to Mom, Mrs. Kurtz was probably propagating rumors. But then, Mom said, Mrs. Kurtz had always been known as a terrible gossip and no one really trusted her anyway. Some of the people who visited even remembered Mom from when she was little and would tell us about what a wonderful girl she was and how I was just like she had been. I knew it was a lie since I looked nothing like my Mom, but I appreciated their attempts to be nice anyway. Mostly the visitors were older, with more than a few grey hairs. Mom classified them as friends of our grandparents. Some came by with children, but we’d never see them more than once or twice. We met some kids through church school though none lived close enough for us to see too often. Besides, we had Patty. After what Ryan had said to her, Mom promised we’d never have to see Ryan again in our house.
People didn’t stop by just to welcome us to town though; there were also plenty of visitors for Uncle Will, usually a woman from across the block or a neighboring town. A Margaret or a Jennifer, or a Karen. They would come to the front door and ask about seeing his collections. Sometimes they’d know what they wanted to see, but more often they wouldn’t. They’d just walk through the house with Uncle Will while he told stories about all the different statues and swords. Sometimes they’d even buy something. Davey, Patty and I would follow along, spying, trying to stay out of sight while they went from room to room looking at rugs or paintings. In a house like Uncle Will’s, it was easy for a clumsy fourth grader, her frizzy haired friend, and her little brother to stay out of eyesight for half an hour or more. Even when we were detected, the women with Uncle Will usually found us “delightful.” If they had any candy or gum, we’d usually get some.
Every tour Uncle Will gave was always just a little different than the last. First he’d show the guest his bonsai trees near the entrance, then he’d take them one way or another depending on what interests the person had, if she had any at all. Off down the left hallway if she liked pictures, or the right if she wanted to see foreign cooking utensils or whatever. They always ended in the same place though, the living room. And the last thing that Uncle Will always showed them was the little house inside of that roll-top desk. The desk had remained open after I’d found it that first day, but Uncle Will let us know repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that we were absolutely not allowed to play with that house on account of its, as he put it, “historical value.” To me it didn’t look any different than the other houses we played with, but we always respected Uncle Will’s things, and so we left it alone. Mostly.
The tours took about an hour, and, at the end, whoever was visiting always seemed tired. That’s when Uncle Will would introduce her to my family—if we hadn’t already been discovered. Sometimes they’d stay for lunch or dinner, but usually the tours took so much out of them that they’d leave almost right away, which seemed just fine with Uncle Will.
Mom was nervous about Davey and me hurting ourselves that summer, just like she had been in Wyoming, but with her job she couldn’t be on top of us all the time. Still, we weren’t allowed to go anywhere without her or Uncle Will with us. I envied Patty her freedom. Her Mom and Dad worked and her Grandpa came over to watch her during the day, but he let her do pretty much whatever she wanted.
It might seem that it would be tough to get bored in a huge house like my Uncle had, but the truth was that without someone to share it with, it probably would have gotten pretty dull pretty fast. Sure, Davey was there, but he was my brother and sometimes got in the way, particularly when Patty and I were trying to play with our dolls in the spirit houses.
On sunny days we’d usually start outside, playing tag, looking for frogs, or throwing around an old Frisbee. Sometimes we’d convince Uncle Will to bring out one of the spirit houses and we’d pretend it was an old house in the middle of a forest. The dandelions would be trees and ants and grasshoppers would be dogs and horses, if they were willing. As the hot afternoon sun wore on we’d go inside and explore the house. One excursion into the depths of a closet revealed Uncle Will’s old military outfits, and next to that, some old camping gear. Once we found it, there was no doubt we needed to use it. Patty had never been camping out before. I had, once, with my Dad the year before.
When I asked Mom if we could go camping, she wasn’t excited about it at first. She said it would be a pain, and that it could be dangerous with wild animals and such, but then I told her that’s what I wanted for my ninth birthday, and Uncle Will told her he’d keep an eye on us, and she said OK. She probably would have given me anything I wanted for my birthday that year since she felt bad because I didn’t have any friends in Georgia yet. Besides Patty, of course.
Since Mom wouldn’t let me go anywhere, we decided that the best place, and really the only place, to camp would be in the backyard. Patty didn’t know if her mom would let her stay overnight, but Mom called her up to ask, and Patty’s mom said yes. So, the next Friday, the day before my birthday, we got our things together. I asked Mom to make Davey stay inside while Patty and I camped. He was a little upset about it until Uncle Will promised that they could sleep out together the next night, and it didn’t hurt that Mom said he could sleep with her if he got scared because I wouldn’t be in the next room. Uncle Will loaned us his gear and showed us how to set up the tent. He also showed us how to start a fire without matches or a cigarette lighter. We put some paper and small branches into the middle of a ring of stones, and Uncle Will made sparks fly onto it by knocking a rock together with a knife. Once the fire was really going, we roasted hotdogs and marshmallows. I liked mine just a little bit warm and kept them at the edge of the fire pit, Patty said she liked them the same way, but she constantly put them into the fire to speed up the process, where they’d invariably catch fire and she’d end up picking off the blackened crust.
We brought our dolls to camp out with us too, and took turns pretending one was Cinderella dancing at the ball until midnight while the other person had her doll pretend to be an evil stepsister. As soon as the sun started to go down, Uncle Will came out and told us we needed to get to sleep. He shooed us into the tent and put out the campfire with some water, saying that it was better not to have an open fire near the house, and it was plenty warm out anyway, which it was. Patty and I snuggled down into our sleeping bags, excited about the next stage of the campout. We kept the door of the tent closed up to try and keep the mosquitoes away.
“What was your Dad like?” asked Patty as we lay down, finally settled.
“He was the best Dad ever. He was a football player and he was a great cook and he was a high school teacher and coach,“ and a million other things. Now that I was thinking about him, it was hard to explain what he was like. There were so many parts of him that I couldn’t describe.
“What did you do with him?”
“Everything. We went camping last year; we were supposed to go to Disney World next year.” I thought for a minute, “I guess my favorite thing to do with him was to go for walks, though. We liked the forest trails best. He’d tell me about trees and stuff. It was fun.”
“I wish my Dad did stuff like that with me.”
“What do you do together?”
“Nothing. Watch some TV on Saturday, maybe.”
“Don’t you love your Dad?”
“Sure I love him, we just don’t do much.”
“Do you ask him to do stuff with you?”
“Not usually. What would we do?”
I thought about that for a minute. “I don’t know, go to a game. I went to all of the games my dad coached. Go for walks. Lots of things.”
Patty was quiet for a few minutes. I figured she was probably trying to sleep, so I closed my eyes. I heard her roll over in her sleeping bag.
“Elizabeth, do you have a lot of friends?”
I opened my eyes and rolled over, propping myself up on my elbow to look at her. I thought about her question for a second. Sally lay beside her. Both of their heads lay on a light blue pillow that Uncle Will had brought out earlier. “A few, but they’re all in Wyoming. Do you have many friends?”
“Sure, but just at school. They make jokes about my shoelaces and glasses and even my name sometimes. Like Ryan did.”
“That’s what your friends do? Doesn’t that make you feel bad?” I asked. It didn’t sound much like friendship to me.
“Sure, but that’s how kids play,” she said confidently. “Besides, I always have Sally. She’s never mean to me.”
That wasn’t how my friends and I played in Wyoming. “I kind of like the way we play better.”
“That’s because we’re like best friends, I think. Best friends are different than just friends.”
“I’m glad we’re not just friends. That doesn’t sound like any fun at all.”
A smile appeared on Patty’s face and she seemed restless. I could hear her legs moving back and forth in her sleeping bag. Suddenly she popped out. “Elizabeth? I got you a present. Can I give it to you tonight instead of tomorrow?” she asked as she shoved Sally into her back pocket.
“Sure!” I sat up excitedly, looking towards Patty’s overnight bag to see what she’d pull out.
“Out here,” she zipped open the tent’s flap and stepped outside. “Follow me.”
I stumbled out of my sleeping bag and stepped outside expecting Patty to have something hidden behind the tent. Instead she started running over to the neighbor’s yard. After a moment’s hesitation I followed, too curious to restrain myself. We’d been dressed in pants and shirts since that’s what Uncle Will told us he always camped out in.
“Where are we going?” I asked Patty as soon as I caught up to her.
“To a pond down the street,” she replied.
“Why couldn’t you just bring my present here?” Mom didn’t let us wander too far from home, so when we’d gone through the backyard we were already beyond my usual wandering range. The full moon provided plenty of light for us to see by, so there was no need for a flashlight.
“I wanted to show you where I got it from.” Patty kept to the trees that separated one property from another, jumping from one group of trees to the next. Pine trees felt the safest with dense foliage that camouflaged us completely. Patty’s frizzy hair flew wildly in the light summer breeze and her oversized glasses transformed her into a crazed owl on a quest.
“Patty, where are we going?” I insisted, as I caught up to her under a peach tree in someone’s backyard. I was starting to get a little anxious this far from Mom and Uncle Will.
“I can’t. Not yet.”
“But how will I know where to go if I lose you?” I asked nervously, a little scared to be so far from home without an adult.
“You won’t lose me,” said Patty as she reached up and snagged a peach, eating it quickly as she ran to the next tree, and then tossing it aside. It was hot and sticky out and my clothes were damp with sweat.
We flew from property to property, crossing roads and creeks with abandon. One lawn bled into another and I couldn’t see our house at all. Nothing looked familiar. When we’d started running we’d been near big, pretty houses. Now we were near smaller houses. Then we ran through a trailer park. Patty made so many twists and turns that there was no way I could find my way back. Never. I tried to keep up, knowing if I lost her I’d never make it home. I wondered what Mom and Uncle Will would think if they came out to check on us and we weren’t there. “Patty, we’re going to get into trouble.” I said to my friend as we panted below the trunk of a tall pine.
“There. That’s where we’re going,” said Patty. I leaned over to see where she was pointing. The tree where we crouched was on top of a small rise, near a house in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t know how we’d gotten there and I had no idea how long we’d been running. Patty’s finger pointed to a little lake, more of a pond really. The moon reflected off its surface. All across its length, lightning bugs dove and darted, more than I’d ever seen in my life. They moved almost as one, like waves of light.
“That’s amazing.” I breathed, forgetting about how sticky and hot it was outside, and how much trouble we would soon be in if my Mom came to check on us in our tent where we were supposed to be.
“Come on!” Patty raced down the hill and I was hot on her tail, never taking my eyes from the light show. When we got to the edge of the lake, Patty slowed down, carefully making her way through the muck along the edge of the lake. The grass was tall here, almost up to our chins. We pushed it aside, water lapping beside our feet as the bottom of our shoes grew heavy with mud.
“Here,” said Patty.
“Here, your birthday present. Happy Birthday.” We had reached a small grouping of large rocks. Patty climbed on top and reached her hand into a small crevice, pulling out something wrapped in construction paper. Whatever was inside shone through. I thought it must be some kind of flashlight at first, but the light wasn’t a steady glow. She handed it to me and I gently tore the paper off. As the paper fell away, I saw that it was a mason jar, and zipping around inside were more fireflies than I’d ever seen in one place in my whole life. I had no idea so many could be in one little area. There must have been a hundred in that little pint jar.
“It’s like you caught the stars and put them in a jar.”
“You like it?”
“Yes,” was all I could say.
“Good.” We sat there for a minute just watching the little lights flitter and flutter behind the glass. I looked at Patty’s face. It glowed with pride. It must have taken her hours and hours to catch all of these little bugs. It was the best present ever. I couldn’t wait to show Mom and Uncle Will.
“We need to get back. Uncle Will’s probably going to check on us soon, and we’ll be in big trouble if we’re not there,” I told Patty.
“Then we’ll need to let them go.” She said sadly and reached out for the Mason jar.
“That’s my present!”
“But they’ve been there for a whole day. If we don’t let them go they’ll die.”
“They look fine, though. And you weren’t going to give them to me until tomorrow anyway.”
“But now you’ve seen them. It just wouldn’t be right.” She shook her head and reached for the jar. I held onto it for a second, then reluctantly let her take it. She unscrewed the top and the lightning bugs streamed out, blinking their good-byes. Patty and I waved as they left, then Patty handed the Mason jar back to me.
We started to walk back towards home. Patty led the way, darting from tree to tree just as we had to get to the pond. Before we knew it we were back among houses. Porch lights lit the streets.
“Go, Jimmy, go! Get him,” someone yelled in the distance. Patty heard it, too.
“Let’s find out what’s going on!” Patty whispered to me excitedly, running along the edge of a hedge. I wanted to go home with my Mason jar, but I didn’t know the way. I followed hesitantly, my heart beating so fast I thought the whole neighborhood would hear.
“No, not there!” the voice yelled again. It was a kid’s voice. Maybe someone our age? A few houses away I could see the flood lights of a small house. Patty and I crouched down behind a small bush.
“C’mon. Let’s go see,” said Patty, edging forward. I reluctantly followed.
“Do you know who they are?” I asked.
“Maybe, I hope not.” She nudged ahead. I couldn’t ask anything else for fear of being overheard.
As we approached the house we could see a bunch of kids running around near a swing set and a little playhouse. They swung flashlights around, apparently randomly, racing around the equipment. We approached slowly, moving from tree to tree, trying to stay hidden. Finally we settled down behind a thick hedge very close to what I thought was the edge of the backyard where they were playing. We sat there for a few minutes, just watching, I pretended I was a spy, gathering information from the enemy. It was fun in a scary sort of way, knowing we could be caught.
Patty tugged at my sleeve. “They’re my friends from school. Let’s go.” Still sitting, she turned her body as if to go.
I watched a girl shine a flashlight on another who was running across the back yard. The girl caught by the light screamed and then raced after a boy who was trying to hide behind a tree too narrow to conceal him. “If they’re your friends maybe we could play. It kind of looks like fun.”
“No, we can’t. Let’s go.” Patty stood up and started to walk away. A stray beam of light hit her in the back. She kept walking. I stayed in the bushes.
“Hey, who’s there?” called a voice. Patty turned around, trying to shield her eyes from the light with her hand.
“I know you!” another shrieked. I was still in the shelter of a pine tree. No one could see me.
“It’s Pat-my Cox,” said the first voice. I could see him now. It was a boy about my age. There were probably five kids in all.
“I was just walking by,” said Patty, as she turned to face them while walking slowly backwards.
“I thought we told you that we don’t want you here, Pat-my Cox!” shouted another girl’s voice.
“Wait! Watch this!” called the first girl as she ran around Patty to block her from leaving. “Pat-my Cox, what’s three times three?”
“Leave me alone!” said Patty and tried to push past. I tried to shrink even further into the shadows.
“Come on Pat-my Cox, what’s three times three?” yelled a boy. Patty tried to push around the girl again. One of the other boys ran over to help.
“Just let me go!” yelled Patty. One of the kids was keeping a flashlight on her face. I could see it glowing bright red. I stayed behind the hedge, scared of what might happen if I came out.
A door on the back of the house opened. “Is everything OK out there?” called a man’s voice sternly.
“Everything’s fine Dad!” called the girl blocking Patty.
“No sir it’s not!” called Patty, her voice cracking.
“Play nice! I don’t want to have to call anyone’s parents!” Said the man with finality. He sounded serious and I thought for a minute he might come outside, but then the door closed. The boy and girl who were beside Patty pushed her down. Patty tried to get up, but the boy sat on her chest, shoving her arms out of his way as she tried to push him off.
“You want to leave? All you need to do is tell what three times three is. Come on Pat-my Cox, just like school,” said the girl laughing. “Have you ever got a question right?” The other kids came over. I stayed hidden, so frightened I thought I’d cry.
“I don’t know! Let me up!” screamed Patty as she twisted to try and get the boy off.
“Try a different one. Something easier” laughed a boy. “Two times three. Come on, you look like a professor with those glasses, you should know everything. What’s two times three?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” screamed Patty. This was apparently the funniest thing any of the kids had ever heard. Patty kicked and struggled. The other kids helped to hold her down.
I couldn’t watch anymore. I ran out from under the pines away from the kids, frightened of what they might do if they saw me, but no one noticed. They were too busy with Patty. At first I thought I’d run home, but I had no idea where to go. I needed help.
I circled around the house next door and came to the front door of the house. I rang the doorbell. A woman opened the door.
“Yes?” she said politely.
“Ma’am, there’s some kids in the back of your house hurting my friend.” I said quickly.
“Who are you?” asked the woman “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”
“No, Ma’am, I’m Elizabeth Jenks. Please Ma’am, really, they’re hurting my friend.”
“I’m sure they’re just playing. Why don’t you go back there too? This is where all the kids seem to congregate.”
The woman sighed. “What’s your friend’s name again?”
“Patty Cox.” She looked at me as if I were crazy.
“Is that the Patty Cox who lives over on Cedar?” she tsk-tsked with her tongue. “Bless her heart, that little girl tries so hard. It’s a shame she’s so backward.” She smiled at me. “It’s nice she finally found a friend.” The woman obviously did not understand the situation.
“Ma’am, please!” I felt myself starting to panic. What would happen to Patty if this lady didn’t help? Would I need to call the police?
The woman rolled her eyes and closed the door on me. A moment later, I heard the sliding door on the back of the house open and some yelling. I stayed on the porch, and soon the woman reappeared, guiding Patty around the edge of the house by her arm. She was covered in grass stains and there was a smear of dirt across her glasses.
“I think you better take her on home,” the woman said to me.
“Get along, then.” Patty and I started walking down the lamp-lit street silently. Patty kept her head down, looking at the pavement. We’d need to sneak into the back yard, hopefully Uncle Will and Mom hadn’t come out to check on us in the tent. If Mom saw this, we might never be allowed outside again.
Suddenly, Patty turned around and raced back towards the yard where we’d just come from. I hesitated a moment, but I knew I couldn’t find my way back without her. I was more scared of being lost than of those kids.
As I followed Patty into the backyard I saw the kids were already leaving, their backs disappearing into the night as they walked to their own houses. Once again I heard the glass door slide open and shut, and then the flood lights went off. Patty was on her hands and knees in the grass, searching for something in the moon’s dim light.
“Patty, what’s wrong?” I whispered as I fell to the grass next to her. She didn’t answer, just kept scrabbling around in the grass. I started looking, too, I just wished I knew what it was I was looking for. “Patty?” I asked again. “Come on, we need to go home.” But she kept going through the grass. It was hopeless. I stood up and stepped away, walking over to the hedge where we’d hidden before, just in case someone came outside.
After a while I saw Patty take something carefully from the grass and place it into her back pocket. She started to walk towards the street, not even looking back to see if I was following. I’d never seen her walk so slowly. I didn’t need to hurry to catch up.
“Why did you do that?” I asked. She didn’t answer.
“Patty?” I was reaching for her shoulder when I saw a strand of brown yarn and a blue button peeking out from between her fingers. Sally’s body, still in its calico dress, rode in her back pocket. Long dark streaks started to appear on Patty’s face as tears turned the dirt to mud.
“Patty, are you OK?” My hand finally reached her shoulder.
Patty reached up, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. Muddy streaks turned to broad blotches. “They weren’t really being mean. That’s how kids play. I’m just too sensitive.” She said it as if she were reciting something someone had told her. “I don’t always get things right at school, and they think it’s funny. That’s all.”
It was on a day towards the end of the summer when Mom was off working, a day when Patty hadn’t come by and Davey was taking one of his rare naps, that I found myself playing in the room with the spirit houses. I’d gotten it into my mind that I wanted to put some of them in the living room and make a whole neighborhood with streets and churches and everything. The room where the houses usually sat was too cluttered and there wasn’t nearly enough room for roads and such. The living room, on the other hand, was the only place in the house where there was enough open floor space to spread the houses out and make a proper town. Uncle Will was off on the other side of the house putting together something or another that had come in the mail, and I figured he wouldn’t mind if I moved everything into the other room without asking. The spirit houses had always been fair game as long as I was careful.
I started by taking one of my favorite houses down off a low shelf. It was bright red with fancy columns and doors and even some glass windows. I carried it to the living room and then picked out another of my favorites, a small one-story blue house that was just the right size for the doll Uncle Will had given me. I positioned it across the way from the first house, their front doors facing each other, and then went back for another. Soon I had a whole street of houses set up, but I wanted more. There were still three houses in the room, but they were either too big to carry or they were connected to a pedestal which made them too heavy for me to dare try to move by myself. I could have gotten along fine with what I had, but for some reason I felt I needed at least one more house to serve as the church, and I only knew of one place to get it. I went over to the old roll top, and began to take out the house to place on the floor as my church.
The house wasn’t nearly as easy to handle as I’d guessed. At first glance it just looked like a small doll house with immaculately carved furniture, so I thought it could just be picked up and placed down like any ordinary toy house. But when I actually had it in my hands, I discovered it was much heavier than I’d expected, more like metal than the wood it was made from. And the edges of the house weren’t as smooth as they appeared either. They were actually quite sharp, especially at the bottom where I held it now. Any other sensible child might have quit at this point, realizing that the house wouldn’t be moved easily, and that their uncle, the owner of the house, didn’t want them to touch it. But I was stubborn and, despite the strain that it took and the pain in my hands, I lifted that house out of the roll top, twisting it as I did to get better leverage. As I was lowering it to the floor the edge of the house started to cut into my left hand, causing me to lower the whole thing more rapidly than I’d intended. I ended up dropping that side the last few inches to the ground. I hopped down onto my stomach to inspect the damage. Nothing was hurt. Some of the furniture in the house had moved, but nothing I couldn’t fix. I shifted the spirit house into position. Now my little town had a church, and no one would be the wiser.
“I don’t remember saying you could touch that,” said Uncle Will as he walked into the room. I’d been so worried about hurting the house I hadn’t even heard his footsteps, and for the first time since we’d come to Georgia, he didn’t sound happy. His face was red and his brow furrowed. I’d never seen him look like this before. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing, I’d just needed a church. My eyes started to sting.
“What were you thinking?” he continued as he got down on the floor to take a closer look. Then he looked at me and sighed. “We’re going to need to clean this up. Why don’t you start moving the furniture back where it was.”
Tears were starting to flow now, but I didn’t want to disappoint my uncle, so I stated to put my hand into the house to push the furniture back where it belonged. “Wait, just a minute,” he said and lifted the little house back onto the roll top. When it was back I put my hand inside and touched the bed to slide it back where it belonged. It didn’t move. Then I felt my Uncle’s hand on my shoulder. “Let’s look a little closer to see what the damage really is,” he said, and peered into the small house.
“What a mess,” said Uncle Will as he gazed about him. I sat on a floor in exactly the same way I’d been sitting on the floor of the living room a moment ago, but I wasn’t in the living room. I was…in another room. Red walls surrounded me. I glanced around. Much of the room was taken up by a huge bed, but there was also a small round table with a white tablecloth and a couple of chairs around it. There was a pair of easy chairs nearby, and a few doors lined the walls nearby. Everything was in disarray. It wasn’t like any room in Uncle Will’s house that I’d ever seen. Or like any other place I’d ever been for that matter. Completely enclosed without a single window, it was difficult to tell where light was even coming from. There were no obvious lamps or lights of any kind. Scattered across the floor were knick-knacks, probably from the many shelves along the walls. Too petrified to cry or move, I just sat there.
“OK Elizabeth, enough sitting around. You and I have to clean this place up.”
“What?” I asked, shocked by Uncle Will’s apparent indifference to the fact that we were no longer in our home.
“Clean this place up. You dropped it. It’s a mess, now you need to help me clean it.” I stared at him. He couldn’t be serious.
Uncle Will knelt down beside me and spoke to me slowly, as if I were two years old. “This is the house from the roll-top desk. You dropped it. It is a mess. We will now clean it.” He stood back up, lifting a small golden figurine from the floor as he did so, and handed it to me. “Go pick up these statues and put them onto the shelves.”
“But I don’t understand….”
“No, you don’t. And you won’t next time either,” he sighed deeply. “Probably more trouble than it’s worth bringing you here, but you’ve made a mess and I thought it might be less effort to have you help me clean it up than to do it myself.” I knew I’d done something terrible, but I didn’t really know what. I definitely didn’t understand my odd punishment. Uncle Will turned to me. “Look, just pick everything up, I’ll explain as we go.” He began to pick up chairs and I started, slowly, to pick up the scattered statues. As I lifted them one by one and put them on the shelves, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful they were. Most were small, no bigger than my hand, some no bigger than a finger. Those that weren’t gold were made of red, green or white stone.
After we worked for a while in silence, the red color left Uncle Will’s face and he seemed to relax a little. “So, you’re a little confused about where we are.”
“Yes, sir.” I answered, though I hadn’t really been asked a question.
“This is my little safety deposit box. I put all of my most expensive stuff right here.” I’d heard of safety deposit boxes before. Mom had one at the bank. It’s where she kept the diamond necklace Dad gave her for their tenth anniversary. “How did we get to the bank?”
“No, sorry, we’re not in the bank.” Uncle Will shook his head while picking up another statue that had rolled under the bed. “This is that little house that sits on the roll-top desk, and it is time.” He pushed the bed back against the wall from where it had shifted.
“It is time?” I asked, certain I’d misheard.
“That’s right; this house gives me the time to do anything I want.” He motioned towards a wall. “Could you pick up those pictures over there?” I walked over to a set of fallen pictures to comply, realizing as I did that the walls were only bare because pictures had fallen, not because of a lack of wall hangings. I started to pick up the pictures looking for glass from broken frames, only to discover that they didn’t have any. “Noticed the Plexiglas? It’s not as nice as real glass, but this happened once before. Real glass made quite a mess all over the hardwood floors, so I replaced it.” He sighed as he picked up two pieces of a statue. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t protect everything that way.” He set the broken figurine down on the table and then reached down, straightening a rug on the floor.
I was unimpressed. “This isn’t much of a house. There aren’t even any windows.”
“No, it’s not. But it does have its benefits. What you see when you’re outside the house is only a mirror of what’s going on inside, and not a very accurate one at that. It’s very difficult to move any of the furniture around when you’re outside the house. It all sticks as if it’s glued to the floor. Unless you’re the Incredible Hulk, it can only be moved from the inside, which is why I told you never to mess with the house, because it takes so much effort to fix. It would be great if you could remember that.” He looked at me with something like remorse, “but you won’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“You won’t remember after we leave this room. It’ll be as though this never happened.” He picked up a wide vase to inspect and set it back down. “Outside time stops when I’m in this room.” Apparently happy with the placement of the vase, he walked over to one of two doors along the far wall. “Now this is going to be a mess,” he said, opening it. I could see as soon as the door opened that clothes were all over the floor along with a tangle of wire hangers. Uncle Will pointed. I knew what to do from there.
“Time stops?” I asked.
“Stops dead. Nothing, and I mean nothing is going on outside of this room. If there’s a glass falling off of a shelf in the kitchen it’ll be in midair right now and will remain that way until we leave here. If there’s a nuclear bomb detonating over our heads we’ll be safe until we go back out. But there’s a catch. When we leave it’ll be like you never even came in. You won’t remember a thing. I will though.”
“I won’t remember this?”
“Nope, not at all.”
I thought about that for a minute as I picked up wire hangers. “Will you tell me about it? That I was here? So I can remember?”
Uncle Will shook his head. “No.”
I was a little hurt. “No? Why? That doesn’t seem very nice of you.”
He shrugged. “What would the point be? You’d just want me to prove this place existed, and then I’d bring you back here and then we’d leave and you wouldn’t remember. I know what I’m talking about, I’ve tried it before. Like I said, pointless.” I thought about that for a few minutes. It made sense in a weird sort of way.
“So how come you remember?”
“Because it’s mine. This place was built for me.”
“It was a trade.” We finished cleaning the closet and stepped back into the hall. Uncle Will opened the second door and started to climb the steps behind it. “Come on, upstairs.” I followed a few feet behind. The stairs were made of hardwood, just like the lower floor. At the top was a second room, a little smaller than the first but just as messy. Instead of a bed there were weights and bars lying all over the place. “It’s tough to find time to work out. With your Mom working I need to spend time with you and your brother now. That doesn’t leave much time for me, so I’ve got this little setup. Now it takes me no time to exercise. Literally.”
“What did you trade to get a place like this?” I asked. The smile on Uncle Wills face faded.
“Something that I wasn’t supposed to.” He began to pick up papers from the floor. I started to do the same, my initial fear almost completely gone. “It’s not something I talk about, even though no one would remember. It makes me look bad, and I don’t want to look bad in front of the people that I bring here.”
“All those women…” I started to ask. Uncle Will waved his hand, brushing my words aside.
“They wouldn’t want to know. They like the fantasy, the adventure. They want it to be like one of their crazy romance novels.” He looked over, staring at me for a moment. It made me uncomfortable. “You might be the only person I’ve brought here who actually wants to know the truth.” He brought his hand to his chin and smiled a sad sort of smile. “I’ll tell you, but only because I know you won’t remember.” He put down the papers he was holding.
“During the war I spent some time in Cambodia.” I’d never heard of Cambodia before. It must have shown. “A little country right next to Vietnam, where most of the war went on,” my uncle clarified. “While I was there, I met some people. A few still sell me stuff. All of those spirit houses come from them. Anyway, I loved the spirit houses, so I was always asking for one that was bigger or better or more elaborate than the last. They would always sell me what they could, but they’d talk about this one master craftsman who could make me something like I’d never seen before. Supposedly he lived deep in the jungle and I could only see him if he wanted to see me. No amount of prodding could get them to take me to him.” Uncle Will stopped talking for a moment to clear his throat. “Well, one day I was picking up a house from one of the usual places, haggling on a price. We were going back and forth pretty good, when this little guy walks in the door. The guy I was talking with just stopped dead in the middle of conversation and left the room. In the middle of a sale! Just like that! I had no idea what was going on. Then the little guy walks over to me and tells me that he can give me the most wonderful house I’ve ever seen. But he doesn’t say spirit house. So I ask if it’s a spirit house, and he says it’s even better. Naturally, this is something that I want, so I ask him what he wants for it, and he tells me.” Uncle Will stopped talking and picked up a few small weights that must have shifted when I moved the house.
“Uncle Will, what did he want?” I asked, suddenly very curious about what Uncle Will might have offered for the obviously magical item I was standing in.
“He wanted something that I was in a unique position to provide.” He shook his head. “It kills me that I gave it to him, but I did. I knew the war was ending soon. Still, it wasn’t right.” There was a long pause. Uncle Will didn’t seem to want to continue, but I was curious.
“What was it?”
Uncle Will looked up from his weights, resting his eyes on mine. “A Starlight scope.”
“A secret weapon that wasn’t really that secret. Everyone knew we had them. The Vietcong sure did.” He shook his head again and clarified “It’s a machine that fits onto a rifle. They cost a fortune, and only a few soldiers carried them. They’d let you see at night. Even if it was pitch black outside, if you had a Starlight scope you could see anything, and if you could see it you could kill it.” He let out a breath. “I was the person in charge of them. They were my responsibility. Anyway, it wasn’t hard for one to become ‘lost’ when a patrol didn’t come back one night. That lost scope found its way to the little man. Once he had it he came to find me. Made me stare at myself in a mirror for a while, then he put the mirror inside the house and it was mine. The end.”
I wondered where the mirror was. I didn’t see one anywhere. But now wasn’t the time to ask I didn’t think. Uncle Will seemed so sad. I knew I should say something. “Thanks for telling me the story.”
He reached back down and picked up some fallen weights. “I’ve never told it to another person. Not even any of the friends I’ve brought here before. Not that I’ve brought too many.” He arranged some more figurines on a shelf. “Funny I decided to tell it to a little kid. But what the hell?” He stood up, walked over to the door and started down the steps.
“Uncle Will, we’re not done cleaning up here yet.”
“Close enough. Let’s go.” I followed him down the stairs. When we reached the ground floor Uncle Will put his hand on my shoulder, looked over at something on the wall and everything changed.
“Good, looks like you’ve got it all set up,” said Uncle Will from behind me. I was standing in front of the roll top looking at the house. It looked perfectly and properly set up again. I looked up at my uncle.
“Are you feeling OK?” he looked at me strangely. All I could remember was dropping the house on the floor and Uncle Will coming in, lifting the house back onto the roll top, and then telling me to clean it.
“I feel fine.” I looked at the house. I didn’t remember straightening it out.
And then I did.
The bus dropped Patty, Davey and me off at our house. School was back in session, and Patty took every opportunity to go anywhere but her own home. She liked it when the bus cruised by her house and she could get off with us. It wasn’t a bad house to look at really, just kind of small, and her parents both worked so they were never at home to see her anyway. I didn’t even know what they looked like. I’d never been invited over. And since Mom didn’t really like me being away from Uncle Will or her anyway, it was kind of a moot point. Uncle Will said Mom was nervous about losing one of us the way she’d lost Dad. Maybe that was the case, but I couldn’t help thinking it would have been nice to go over to Patty’s house, or anyone’s house really, just for a change. But I didn’t want to upset Mom, so I didn’t ask.
Mom was started to act the way she had when we were in Wyoming, back when Dad died. Except that now she always seemed worn out. It was kind of ironic really, she wanted us close, but mostly she was too tired to deal with us, so Uncle Will ended up being our supervisor by default. He always did his best to keep us entertained, but he didn’t always have a good sense of what kids actually do for fun. Helping him wrap his merchandise just didn’t have the same draw that it had had over the summer, and we weren’t enamored with the idea of cooking, mending fences, or vacuuming for fun either.
A few weeks after we’d arrived in Georgia, Uncle Will did put up a badminton net so we’d have something to do outside. Usually we ignored it, but on that day Patty and I slapped the shuttlecock over the net for a couple of hours. Or, to be a little more accurate, I slapped the shuttlecock over the net while Patty gamely slapped at the air, tossing the shuttlecock back to me after the red tipped missile hit the ground on her side of the net. Then, after it got too dark to see, we went in and played with the spirit houses while Davey zipped has cars along the hallways, seeing how far he could get them to go before they crashed into a wall. Apparently it wasn’t the most exciting game though, because before Patty and I knew what was happening he’d started zipping his cars into the spirit houses, knocking over dolls and furniture and ruining the finely planned wedding that we had set up. We were less than pleased when the best man was run over by a school bus.
Uncle Will came downstairs to find out what all the yelling was about and to tell us to tone it down, but Davey just ignored him and he had to come back again a few minutes later. Patty and I asked Uncle Will if he could find something for my brother to do so we could play without him, but he didn’t have any ideas, so in the end we just had to put up with Davey and his cars, incorporating vehicular homicide into the wedding ceremony as a matter of course.
And that’s when it dawned on me how useful Uncle Will’s little house could be. My own little hideaway with no pesky brothers allowed. Not that I didn’t love Davey of course, I just needed to get away every now and then. And with the house, he’d never even know I was gone!
I sat under my covers, dressed in jeans and a black tee shirt, reading a book with a flashlight. I hoped that Davey wouldn’t barge into my room like he had the past few nights. He still got scared sometimes. Nightmares, he said, but he could never remember what they were about. Normally I felt sorry for him and let him crawl under my covers, but tonight I didn’t have the time.
Uncle Will always went to bed late. I usually heard his door close around midnight or so. Sometimes it woke me up, and sometimes I was up anyway because of Davey. Mom was working the night shift, so she wouldn’t be home until about seven o’clock. Plenty of time to figure out how to get inside the house. I had left my door open to make sure I could hear what was going on in the halls outside.
At twelve fifteen, I heard a door close. Uncle Will was in bed, and Davey hadn’t come into my room. I gave Uncle Will ten minutes to fall asleep and then crawled out from under the covers, slipping out of my room and into the hall. I stayed on my tiptoes, being careful not to make any sounds that might wake someone up, wincing at every creak of the floor, praying that I wouldn’t step on one of Davey’s cars.
I stepped into the living room. The moonlight cast shadows across Uncle Will’s odd possessions making everything look ghostly, with all the normally bright colors faded to shades of grey. A desk lamp brightened the room, bringing the colors back and making the whole endeavor seem much less frightening. I walked over to the roll-top desk to get a better look at the house.
It only took a glance from Uncle Will to get in, so I figured I should be able to do it the same way. I knew exactly where he stood and how he shifted his head. I copied his motions as precisely as I could, right down to the odd grin he usually wore. Nothing happened. I tried again with a more subtle expression. Still nothing. This was going to be harder than I thought.
I examined the house more closely. It wasn’t like a regular dollhouse with a complete front and open back. The outside of this house was mostly black, and there was one large rectangle cut into each of the four walls on both the bottom and top floors big enough to reach into. I could see doors along the inside of the house with no corresponding doors on the outside, so it looked like they were just for decoration. The inside of the house was painted a bright red, which was similar to, but definitely not the same as, the red that I remembered when I visited the house with Uncle Will.
I leaned in closer, looking for any finer details I might have missed. Inside there was the bed, a table, and some chairs. They were pushed off to the side. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed the miniature weights on the second floor before. After going over the whole structure with my eyes, and with the exception of the papers, statues and paintings, everything I could now see in the house matched what I remembered seeing inside, except for one thing. On one of the doors I saw a mirror that I was sure wasn’t there before. I wondered if it might be the mirror that the man in Cambodia put in there for Uncle Will and, if so, why it hadn’t been there before. I stepped back to the position I had seen Uncle Will take while getting into the house and tried looking at all of the pieces of furniture in turn, starting with the mirror.
This place was definitely not as easy to get into as Narnia. Maybe I needed magic words or something? I started to think of things that I might try chanting, and then I noticed it.
There, on the side of the wall, was something I hadn’t quite seen before. Beside one of the large openings was a small black square that wasn’t quite the same shade of black as the rest of the exterior. It almost looked like the house had been repaired, but as I continued to examine it I found that, when I looked at it from a particular angle, it transformed from flat black to opaque, and then, as I continued to move my head, perfectly clear. But the angle was awkward and hard to maintain, much harder than it should have been. Now that I was paying attention, it was almost like something was trying to push my eyes away, to keep me from seeing…something.
I examined the limited view I had of the inside of the house through the square. I could see an edge of the bed, a door. My eyes felt as if they were being pushed away from something again. I tried to look at whatever it was, but couldn’t. Then I realized that I should be able to see the new mirror from this angle. Then I did.
And then I was on the other side.
The room was exactly as I remembered it, except that it wasn’t an absolute mess: the bed, the table and chairs, the doors, the shelves and knick-knacks. All as I remembered, but the new mirror I’d seen was conspicuously absent. Standing there in Uncle Will’s private spirit house, I felt like I was stealing cookies from the cookie jar, scared of someone walking in on me while doing something I shouldn’t be. I didn’t want to get in trouble. I remembered what the house did and why I was here and the feeling started to recede. No one would walk in on me. No one would find me. If there was something falling to the floor somewhere in Uncle Will’s house right now, it would keep right on falling until I left this house.
I relaxed and started to look around as if I had all the time in the world, which indeed I did. The house was illuminated by soft light that came directly from the ceiling. I hadn’t noticed that before. Practically no shadows crossed the floor, except perhaps under the bed with its dust ruffle and the table that had a long linen tablecloth draped across it. I noticed that there were also some wine glasses on top of the table and made a note to myself to be very careful not to knock them over. That would tip off Uncle Will that I’d been here for sure.
I went to the closet and looked at all of Uncle Will’s clothes on hangers. Nice clothes mostly. Suits, ties. Something I thought looked like a tuxedo. I closed the door and walked over to the shelves with the statues. They surrounded the room. I picked up a few. It was obvious, even to a fourth-grader, that they were a step above most of the stuff Uncle Will shipped off.
Next I turned my attention to the other door and the stairs behind it leading to the second floor. Besides the well-used weights, there was another door and a desk. The door led to a closet filled with granola bars, Cokes, and wine bottles. There were also glasses and plates and some sweat pants and tee shirts. The desk had some papers in it, none of them particularly interesting.
I don’t know how long I spent looking around the house. At that time, I wasn’t sure anybody could ever know exactly how long anyone stayed in the house, but, confident that I wouldn’t be caught doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, I stayed until my curiosity was satisfied. That was when I started to worry. Just a little at first though. Watching Uncle Will enter the house, I’d developed a pretty good idea of how to do it myself. Getting out of the house, on the other hand, was something entirely different. I’d only seen Uncle Will do it once. I looked at the wall in the same way I thought I’d seen Uncle Will do it, but the living room did not materialize around me. I looked at the pictures on the wall. I removed the pictures from the wall and looked again. Nothing. I tried to feel with my eyes to see if anything was pushing them away. Nothing. Then I started to stand in different places. I started with the place where my Uncle and I had stood, or at least as near to that place as I could remember. Nothing. Then I moved closer, and further away. Still nothing.
At first the failures didn’t bother me. An hour or two of trying to solve the puzzle of how to get out of the spirit house was kind of fun and exciting, like a game being played for real. But soon it began to dawn on me that no one would ever come to help if I couldn’t figure out how to solve it. If I couldn’t get out of this house by myself, I was doomed to stay here forever. I could be ninety years old and still no one would know I was here. Maybe Uncle Will would come in here next time and find a pile of bones and that would be me. I sat down on the floor and began to cry, feeling very sorry for myself.
With no one to appreciate my tears, the waterworks didn’t last very long.
By this time I was starting to feel hungry. If I had been outside the house for as long as I’d been inside, it would probably be breakfast by now. I went upstairs and ate one of Uncle Will’s granola bars. He had dozens. I doubted he’d miss one. And if he did, who would he think took it? If I was here for very long, I might eat a whole lot more. I finished and walked down the stairs, shoving the granola wrapper into my pocket as I went.
As I stepped down off the last stair on my way into the lower room, it occurred to me that there was one problem with everything I’d tried to that point, and that was the simple fact that Uncle Will was almost two feet taller than me. How could I grow two feet quickly? It didn’t take long to figure out. I took one of the chairs from the table and placed it in the same spot where Uncle Will and I had stood when we exited the room the last time. From here I could see a square of red on the wall between two pictures that was just a little less glossy than the wall around it, and, when I looked at it in just the right way, I could see through it and into the living room beyond. It was as if I was a doll in a dollhouse looking out into the big world. I kept my eyes focused on the world outside through the square for just an instant.
And then I was back.
I found myself standing in exactly the same position I had contorted myself into when I entered the house. I wondered briefly what Uncle Will would think when he found his chair out of place. He wasn’t the most organized person, I doubted he’d notice. Next time I’d try jumping. I looked at the grandfather clock against the wall. I hadn’t looked at it right before I went in, so I couldn’t know for sure, but I didn’t think a minute had passed. As I made my way back to my room I pulled out the granola bar wrapper I found in my pocket and threw it into the trashcan at the top of the stairs.
The swings were mostly empty. I leaned on one of the posts supporting the crossbeam. It was a chilly October morning and dew covered the whole set. I didn’t feel much like swinging. I stared blankly across the school playground while Laura Jergin swung back and forth beside me.
“Can you believe that Ryan actually went with his bothers to the shore all by himself?” she asked.
“Pretty cool,” I replied. Laura was the coolest kid in class, and everyone knew it. She had pierced ears, wore earrings and necklaces that were made of real gold, and she even wore eye shadow. Compared to her, the rest of us were mere girls. And now she was talking to me! I tried to think of something interesting to say.
“Have you ever been to the shore?” I asked. I felt stupid as soon as I said it. Laura rolled her eyes at me. Lame question.
While I was berating myself, Patty sat on the swing next to Laura and began to tilt her body back and forth to get it moving, dipping her head way back as she moved forward and then tucking it in tightly as the swing started to move backwards. But her timing was off by half a second or so and the swing wasn’t moving like it should. Laura turned to her nonchalantly “Don’t sit next to me.”
Patty complied, moving down a few swings. Laura looked up at me. “Sit here,” she said, patting the seat of the swing that Patty had just vacated. I complied.
“Can you believe her?” she asked. “Why would she think I want her next to me?” she shook her head.
“Maybe she just wanted to swing?” I answered before I even knew what I was saying.
Laura laughed. “Right, she just wanted to swing.” She reached over and patted my head, still laughing. “You’re funny.” I didn’t know what to do, so I just started to kick my feet to get the swing going. Back and forth. Laura swung beside me. We watched the boys play tag by the jungle gym.
“You’ve got Jimmy germs!” Ryan yelled as he slapped Robbie Sack across his arm. I’d avoided Ryan as much as I could since that day they’d stopped by our house, but he was in my class, so most of the time there wasn’t much I could do. Robbie took off running after a group of kids near the teeter-totter. They always raced away from Ryan just a little faster than they raced away from everyone else. Ryan jogged after the group. Laura followed him with her eyes. Ryan was good at the game, even if he did play nasty. A tag from Ryan was as likely to mean a nuggie as a tap on the arm.
You could always tell who was on the bottom of the totem pole by whose germs were getting passed around by the person who was “it”. Today it was Jimmy; yesterday it had been Patty. It hadn’t been me since the first week of school, thank goodness. As the token Yankee, I was easy to pick on at the beginning of the year. But as the weeks went by, other, easier targets had presented themselves and I was left more or less alone. If I could stay close to Laura I might never have my germs traded again.
The bell rang, signaling us to come inside. The recess ladies moved to the edges of the playground to bring in the stragglers. Laura and I got off of our swings and all of the boys trading germs tried to get in one last no-give-back before they went inside and the teachers wouldn’t let them play anymore. I didn’t notice what happened to Patty. I was concentrating on figuring out how I could get Laura over to my house to show her my spirit house. It was the coolest thing I owned and I knew she’d be impressed. Patty was always impressed, every time I brought her into the house. Too bad she forgot about it after we left.
Then again, maybe I needed to find a different way to impress Laura.
“Laura, I love your earrings, are they really gold?” I asked. She slowed down to let me catch up.
“Well they’re not plated like some other peoples earrings.” She looked over at Patty, who had apparently tripped herself as she dismounted her swing and was now rolling in the sand trying to disentangle herself, and laughed.
I laughed with her.
I sat on the hardwood floor working on my math problems. High school was tough. There was a good hour’s worth of work sitting in front of me, and the problems were due in half an hour – and part of that was the ten-minute bus ride into school. That was OK. I never did my work on the bus, or at home for that matter. Not for the last six years or so anyway. I did my work here, in the spirit house, right before I rushed out the door. It took less time. Less real time anyway. Between band and whatever sports or clubs I wanted to do, there just wasn’t that much time for homework without the house. I’d heard Mom say she needed twenty-five hours in a day. That was about right. If I was to put a number on it, I’d say that one of my usual days had about twenty-five or twenty-six hours in it, sometimes more depending on what I wanted to get done. I didn’t know exactly how long I stayed for any individual visit because I never wore my watch in the house. It needed to be reset every time I left, making it more trouble than it was worth.
I’d tried taking other people into the spirit house since the day I first figured out how to use it, and I’d quickly discovered it was a complete waste of my time. First, it scared the crap out of them, and then, after that, they’d be banging off the walls, all excited at the cool little secret that we had, which was fine right up until we left the house and they forgot everything. At first, I’d try to get them to remember, and then they’d tell me I was a weirdo. So I’d take them into the house again and they’d be scared, and then they’d believe me, we’d have a great time for a while, and then we’d leave and the cycle would start all over again. It drove me crazy, and after five or six times with Patty and Laura, never at the same time of course, I’d had enough. I just considered myself lucky neither of them told Uncle Will what I said about the house. I guess they just thought I was playing.
After I finished all of my homework I looked at the red square and let myself out. I was tall enough that I didn’t need a chair anymore, which made things a lot easier. The living room hadn’t changed over the last six years except that Uncle Will had sold some of his stuff and purchased other “inventory.” The business was going well and he was making good money. At least that’s what he told us.
“Lizzie, don’t forget your lunch!” yelled Mom as I was walking to the door. It was nice having her home when Davey and I went to school. She worked for a general practitioner now, Dr. Bender, so her hours were pretty normal. Nine to five. She was usually home right after Davey and me on normal days and a little bit before me when I had band practice. Mom was still having the same issues that she had been ever since dad died, but they seemed more under control now. She wasn’t well, but she was better. “Thanks Mom.” I took my lunch and ran out the door to meet the bus.
First period math. I handed in my homework and went back to my seat as the rest of the class trickled in. This was my homeroom, so I was always the first one in. With my choice of seats, I sat near the back by the windows. Mostly anonymous. Laura Jergin, my best friend, sat behind me in the last row.
“Did you hear what Ryan did last weekend?” she asked.
“No, what?” The truth was that I really didn’t care about Ryan and hadn’t since I’d met him six years ago, but it wasn’t as if I had a better topic to discuss.
“I heard he stole a six pack of beer from the Piggly Wiggly!”
“Oh yeah? Did you see it? It was probably a six pack of Fanta.”
She kicked the back of my chair in response. How I wished I could be like Laura, with her perfect blonde hair, petite figure and her pretty little nose. You’d be hard pressed to find a deer with eyes as round and trusting. She had so many friends that she couldn’t walk three steps down the hall without being attacked by someone or another. She reminded me of my Mom. Everything about her screamed cheerleader. Everything about me screamed future librarian. Our last names meant we were always in the same homeroom together, and, despite her somewhat vacant appearance, Laura was always in the advanced classes, in large part because of the time I was willing to spend helping her out, or, if the situation required it, give her a few answers. There was a reason she always sat behind me.
“Elizabeth, could you grab my history book for me before class today? I have a paper I need to spend a few minutes on.”
“A paper or a guy?” I got another kick in the back for that question. “Sure, no problem.” Our lockers were next to each other’s too, and we knew each other’s combinations, so we could leave notes or collect home work for the other if she was sick or on vacation. Or if she just wanted a few more minutes to spend talking to a guy.
Mr. Koslowski slapped his desk a couple of times with the flat of his hand to get our attention. Algebra. The most boring subject in the world. I let my eyes wander outside as he scratched numbers across the board. The windows faced the athletic fields on this side of the building. I could see kids running around the track surrounding the football field, practicing for the mile run we had later in the year. Anyone who didn’t make it in less than nine minutes would be doing nothing but running the rest of the year in what we all called remedial gym. I hated running.
“Ouch!” Jason Wren whipped his head around to look behind him, holding one of his ears. Twenty-five pairs of eyes turned to see what happened. A smattering of laughter followed. Tall and gawky, he did look a little bit funny twisted in his seat looking backwards like that, his overgrown brown hair mussed up on top of his head. He had nice green eyes though.
“Is there a problem?” Mr. Koslowski didn’t look very happy.
“No, sorry.” Jason turned his head back towards the front of the class. Every day it was the same thing. Ryan would do something to somebody and get away with it: flicking an ear, knocking someone’s books out of their hands. Cheap humor. He always sat in his seat looking as serene as you please, never laughing at his own jokes. He was much too cool for that. Laura looked over at him and smiled. She thought he was hilarious. I smiled too. Better to smile now than to have the joke be on you next time. Ryan was an ass, but he was a popular ass, and he was no idiot. I turned back to the window.
Time spent watching the morning gym class was always time well spent, today more than usual. There was no way I was running in useless circles around a cinder track. Everyone was allowed to miss one class per semester if you forgot your gym clothes or felt sick or something like that. This seemed like a convenient time for me to forget my shorts. I told the gym teacher, Mrs. Booth, apologizing perhaps a little too profusely for my forgetfulness, and climbed up into the bleachers. Laura would have liked to join me, but she’d already “forgotten” her clothes once this semester. Square dancing. I’d have skipped too, but I’d been having my tonsils taken out at the time, so that was a freebie.
“I heard it’s gymnastics next week. That might’ve been a better time to forget your sneakers,” Jason said as he climbed into the bleachers and settled down behind me. I noticed that his ear was still red from where Ryan had flicked it.
“For your information, it was my gym shorts. And why’d you forget your sneakers if you hate gymnastics so much?”
“Because I really forgot my sneakers.”
I didn’t have a clever response, so I shrugged and we sat and watched as the class circled the track. The fact that the two classes were combined meant that Mr. Dawson, the boy’s gym teacher, was absent. A few kids were taking it seriously. Most jogged. It was better to pretend to put in some effort than to actually expend any. Mrs. Booth yelled at the walkers with an irritating high-pitched voice that made my teeth vibrate.
“Ouch!” said Jason for the second time that day, this time sympathetically. I followed his eyes to the far side of the track. There was a cluster of unwilling runners distancing themselves from a lone student lying flat on the running surface. It wasn’t hard to figure out what had happened. The lone student had been, inexplicably, putting some effort into the run and had tried to pass through a pack of students on the far side of the straightaway. Irritated that anyone could take the exercise seriously, someone had tripped her. Jason and I winced as the poor unfortunate pulled herself up off the cinder track. She’d be pulling little rocks out of her knees for a week. She started running again, facing us as she rounded the far turn.
It was Patty.
“She’s going to do it again,” said Jason. He was right. She was going to run through the pack again. I tried to see if I could pick out individuals. Jim was out there, not a terrible guy. Laura was there too, plus a couple of other people I couldn’t identify offhand. And, yes, there he was, Ryan, and along with him his buddies. George Worth, without his shirt, which was the way he liked to be whenever possible, showing off his swimmer’s physique, and Gary Smith, a little rotund, a little dull in the eyes. He was a year older than most of us because he’d had to take kindergarten over. Or so I’d been told. Great, just what Patty needed. I looked at Mrs. Booth. She was busy yelling at a couple of loafers. Patty entered the pack just as they reached the near turn, hitting the dirt soon afterwards.
“What a glutton.” Jason tittered in disbelief. I looked away. “That was smarter,” he said a moment later.
“She swung wide instead of running near the infield.”
“Ready for that test today?”
“Yeah, I spent last night with pictures of skeletons. You can’t imagine the nightmares I had.”
“No worse than mine. Another A?” I felt my face flush.
“Maybe. We’ll see. Except for last night I didn’t have much time to study.” Not true, but what could I say? That I had more time to study than I could possibly want?
Jason nodded, his eyes following another group of runners. “I’m getting tired of this,” he said. “Want to get out of here?”
“Out of here, maybe down to Lena’s? Get a Coke?” he said, referring to a little convenience store a quarter-mile up the road. I’d never considered going to Lena’s during school before.
“Like this,” he said, and slipped down through the space in the collapsible bleachers. I was torn. Mrs. Booth was still yelling at somebody or another, and she didn’t take attendance when the class ended, but what if we weren’t back in time for my next class? What would the punishment for something like this be? Worse than detention, for sure. Suspension? Expulsion? It beat watching Patty getting tortured. I found myself slipping down through the seats to join Jason.
The bleachers were on the other side of the track from the school. Jason moved quickly through the supports to the fence that surrounded the athletic fields. The seats shielded our movements as Jason found a hole in the chain link just big enough for us to crawl through. He went first, and then held it open while I crawled through. The road was only a few yards away. We were free and clear.
“You’ve done this before?” I asked as we walked down the road.
“Yeah, really. My brother told me about it before he left for college last year.”
“Yeah, he is.” The road curved to the left, and soon we could see Lena’s coming into view. As we drew nearer, I couldn’t help but worry that this would end badly. I looked over at my partner in crime. Fifteen, dressed in jeans and a light blue jacket over a black t-shirt, he oozed confidence. Yes, this was definitely a lot more fun that watching people running around a track.
Jason opened the door for me and we went inside. There was hardly anyone there, and the few who were didn’t seem to know or care about us. I recognized the guy behind the counter from school. I thought he’d graduated last year. He didn’t seem to have any problem with us being there. I started to feel more confident. Jason bought a couple of Cokes. We went outside and sat on the bench to drink them while quizzing each other on bones, and then I listened to stories about his three older brothers, all of whom seemed to be interested in doing anything to get out of school, from the escape technique we’d just tried to taking syrup of ipecac in the middle of woodshop. He made them seem like Greek heroes. It made me wish I had older siblings to tell me useful stuff, and I promised myself that Davey would know all the ins and outs of high school before he got there. Sitting there at Lena’s talking with Jason I felt like the Queen of the World. Too bad gym class was so short.
We left Lena’s a few minutes before gym was supposed to end, getting to the front doors of the school between classes, and blending in with the other students as they moved from one class to the next. I couldn’t believe how easy it had been to skip school, and with no repercussions! I practically danced to English.
I walked into our house after band practice exhausted, but elated. “Lizzie?” called Mom when she heard the door close.
“In a minute,” I answered, racing up to my room to put my books away. I was full of energy. I wanted to tell someone. Needed to tell someone. But I didn’t think they’d appreciate my skipping out of school to go to Lena’s with a boy. Even a cute boy. I set my books and flute on my bed and changed into a sweatshirt.
I came back down the steps and walked into the kitchen for dinner. Davey was already there, along with Mom and Uncle Will. Dr. Bender, or Bill, the doctor my Mom worked for, was also there, his body stretched out in a chair. He wasn’t exactly fat. Husky might be a better word, with slicked-back black hair, he always seemed just a little too relaxed to me. He did have a nice face, though. He’d be handsome if he’d just lose a few pounds. I didn’t exactly dislike Dr. Bender, but he made me uncomfortable. Davey and I had a little saying, “Bender knows best,” because, for anything you could mention, Dr. Bender would know more than you. If Davey were talking about how great Corvettes looked, Dr. Bender would be explaining their engine displacement. If I were discussing band, Bender would be telling me how he used to sing opera.
“So,” said Mom “I have some news.”
I could tell by the way the corners of her mouth twitched she was trying to suppress a smile, but the news was too big. It must be good news.
“Great, what’s going on?” I replied. I thought I knew. We’d been talking a lot about Dad recently. It was all part of Mom’s ongoing therapy for the depression that she just couldn’t quite seem to overcome despite the drugs and twice-a-week group sessions. We’d been discussing the things we’d planned on doing with Dad before he’d died. Disney World was on top of the list. I’d try to act surprised. I was getting a little old for Disney, but it would still be fun.
“We’re getting a house!”
OK, that was not what I’d been expecting. Davey and I sat there stunned. We didn’t get it.
“But…we have a house,” said Davey.
“No, we live in Uncle Will’s house. He’s been wonderful, but it’s time for us to have our own place and to let Uncle Will do his own thing. It will be just ours, and it will be right in town!”
“But I don’t want to go to a different school,” I said. My excitement crashed slowly into a brick wall.
“Don’t worry, the house is in the same school district. In fact, the only thing that’s going to change is that you’ll be closer to the school than you were before. You’ll barely even have a bus ride.”
“And your mother will be a short walk from the office, so she won’t have to drive anywhere,” said Bill, whose grin mirrored my mother’s. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I was pretty sure I didn’t like it.
“Do we get to see the house before we decide?” I asked coldly, the happy excited feeling I had when I came home now completely gone, “or has this all been arranged behind our backs?”
“Dr. Bender owns a house next to the clinic that he rents out. The former tenants decided to move, so he’s decided that, as a favor to me, he’d let us buy the house from him. This is a kindness that someone is showing us and you need to be more appreciative.” Her smile was replaced by a glare. She didn’t seem pleased with Davey and me, but what did she expect? We loved Uncle Will and we loved this house. Why would we want to move?
“This is a great house, and a great opportunity for you guys to get out on your own,” said Dr. Bender. He turned to face me. “Especially you, Elizabeth. There are more kids your age around, and school’s nearby. You could almost walk home after band if you wanted to.”
I composed myself for a moment, thinking about how to respond. “Dr. Bender,” I said, “I do appreciate that you’re trying to do something nice for us, but I think we’re getting along just fine here, thank you.” Then I looked directly at my mother. “Uncle Will has shown us kindness too, and he’s family.” I said it a bit too loudly, punctuating my point by standing up and walking out of the room. No one tried to stop me. I think they expected Davey and me to be excited by the prospect of our own house. Guess again. I knew I’d be in trouble later, but I didn’t care.
I stomped up to my room and lay down on my bed wondering if I’d come on too strong. They say you catch more flies with sugar than vinegar, but at this point I knew that I was stuck with whatever the vinegar had caught. Oh hell, what would I do now? I couldn’t tell Mom the truth—that I really didn’t care that much about moving, but I just couldn’t leave the little house in the roll top behind. Without it, I didn’t know what I’d do. It was strange, but now that I considered it, I was practically addicted to it. I had absolutely no idea how I’d go about finding enough time to do homework without it. And what about those nights when I couldn’t get to sleep, so I popped into the house the next morning for a quick nap? And the days when I just needed to get away from everyone? This was a disaster. I rolled over and gazed out the window. It was a cool fall night and the yard was wet from a light rain earlier in the evening. A light breeze drifted through the screen in my window.
There was a knock at my door. “Not in the mood,” I yelled, with as much venom as I could muster.
“When can I come back?” It was Uncle Will. I should have known Mom wouldn’t come. I punched my pillow, got up and opened the door.
“What is it?”
“Can I come in? I promise it won’t take long.”
“Sure.” I sighed, trying to make it clear I didn’t really want him there, but I stepped out of his way as he entered the room.
“I like what you’ve done with the place.” I hadn’t considered it before, but Uncle Will probably hadn’t been in this room since we first came here. He looked around now, picking up some of my old stuffed animals. He touched a frame with a picture of Mom, Dad, Davey and me from Wyoming. “I told your Mom that you can stay here for a while if you like.”
“Told your Mom you could stay here. I don’t know why you’d want to stay. I’m no cook like your mother, this house is further from the school, and as far as I can tell you don’t have any close friends nearby anymore since you stopped hanging out with Patty, but if you want to stay here for a while, you can.”
“Thanks, Uncle Will. Let me think about it.” It sounded better than moving, but I didn’t like the idea of being without Mom and Davey. There was another knock at the door.
“Hello?” That was Mom.
“What is it?”
“Can I come in?”
I really didn’t want her here, but what could I say? “Sure.” She came into my room and stood next to Uncle Will.
“Your behavior was uncalled for.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I know. I’m sorry.”
“We’re a family, we talk things out. We don’t yell and scream and slam doors. And you will apologize to Dr. Bender.”
“Yes ma’am, I know, I was wrong to do it. It’s just…I love this place, I don’t really know if I want to move.”
“I know.” She opened her mouth as if she were about to scold me some more, then abruptly stopped herself. She paused, visibly trying to relax. “Uncle Will told you about his offer?”
“And what do you think?”
“Do I need to decide right now?”
“Of course not, Lizzie. The plan is to start moving next week. Give yourself that time to think about it. And even if you decide you want to stay here for a while that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t move right in with us whenever you wanted.” Nice words, but the look on her face told me that she wasn’t happy. I knew she wanted me with her wherever she was. It was like fourth grade again.
“What about Davey? I can’t believe he’s excited about moving out.”
“He’s not, but he has quite a few friends who live around there, so I think he’s looking forward to having them within walking distance. I’ll bet some of your friends live close by too.”
“He could bike to see his friends.”
“He could. He does.” Mom agreed and left it at that.
After algebra the next day, Laura told me I looked like I was going to kill someone. I told her about Dr. Bender’s offer and moving with Davey and Mom. “That’s not too far from me!” she said, after I revealed where the house Bender wanted to sell us was located. It was something I already knew. “When are you moving?”
“I haven’t decided that I am moving yet.”
“Why wouldn’t you? That old house you’re in now is a monstrosity and your Uncle is a weirdo. This is so exciting! We’ll be able to see each other every day!”
“What’s up?” A new voice. Preoccupied with my own problems, I hadn’t noticed that Jason was standing next to me.
“Oh nothing,” said Laura while turning her shoulder, making it obvious that he wasn’t invited to our private conversation. I felt differently.
“I might be moving.”
“Closer to the school. Down near Dr. Bender’s office, if you know where that is.”
Jason shook his head. “No, but closer’s better. Less time on the bus. That’s a good thing.”
“Sure,” said Laura, a little more tolerant of Jason now that he was taking her side.
I looked at Jason “You’ve got older brothers. You get driven to school anyway.” I said.
“Sometimes, and sometimes they forget me, or leave me here as a joke. Benefits and drawbacks.” Laura nodded knowingly. She had an older brother too.
I looked up at the clock. The conversation had run long, and now I couldn’t make it across the building in time for art. “Call me tonight! We’ll talk!” said Laura as we split up. I didn’t have a prayer of making my next class on time, but I rushed just the same. As I sprinted down the quickly emptying hallway, I nearly collided with someone else rounding a corner.
We didn’t see each other at school much anymore. We were in different places most of the time. I was in the advanced classes, and she was in the remedial. Gym was just about the only class where we were together, but I actively avoided her there. Not hard, since it was arranged alphabetically. I didn’t dislike her, but she was socially toxic and I didn’t need the drama.
“Sorry,” said Patty as we both skidded to a stop.
“It’s OK.” I started to walk by without further comment.
“Wait!” called Patty before I could extricate myself. “It’s been so long since we’ve seen each other.” She seemed oblivious to the fact that the bell would ring in fifteen seconds. “Can I stop by tonight?”
Under more ordinary circumstances I would have created an elaborate excuse for why she couldn’t, but I was anxious to get to class. Mrs. Lloyd wasn’t the forgiving kind. “Fine,” I said, keeping it short. I raced down the hall, practically careening off lockers in an effort to make class on time, still missing the bell by another fifteen seconds and earning my very first detention for my efforts.
What would we do when Patty came over? I thought as I sat through a lecture on the history of Europe. We’d drifted apart so much the last few years. We were never in the same classes, and she wasn’t in any of the extracurricular activities I was. In fact, I didn’t think she was in any at all, mostly because her parents wouldn’t pay for things like instruments or new shoes. Besides, she was so uncoordinated it was a joke. We’d had fun that first summer. I still kept the Mason jar from our hike. But every summer after the fourth grade I’d attended two or three sleepover camps. I even celebrated my birthday at one every year. Mom’s psychiatrist Rich had recommended them to get Mom used to us not being near her constantly. I hadn’t told Patty where I’d gone that first summer, and I’d heard from Uncle Will that she’d come by every day for a week waiting for me to come home. Then, when I did come home, she’d wanted to play, but I’d always have something else to do. Usually with Laura. So as time went on, she’d come by less and less frequently until eventually she’d stopped coming by at all. We just weren’t that compatible as friends. We didn’t have the same interests.
True to her word, Patty came by that night. She came to the back door just like she had when we were in fourth grade. It was six, and we were just finishing dinner. I was more than a little sorry to leave any of Mom’s fried chicken on my plate.
“Hi, Patty,” I said as I opened the door.
“Hi, Elizabeth,” she answered. There was a brief, uncomfortable pause.
“So,” I said, breaking the silence, “what would you like do?”
“Maybe take a walk?” I’d been afraid she’d want to play with the spirit houses and dolls. A walk would be a great, and probably wouldn’t last too long.
“Sure,” I said, “but it’ll have to be a short one. I’ve got a lot of homework to get done for tomorrow.” Never mind that I could finish it exactly zero minutes before I got on the bus tomorrow morning. We started walking down the road towards the church. It was a beautiful warm fall day; we wore light jackets, but could have gotten by with short sleeves. I kicked at the pebbles in the road as we went along, not really wanting to be there.
“This will probably be the last time we get do something like this.” I said in a melancholy voice that wasn’t indicative of how I felt.
“We’re probably moving. Some doctor my Mom works for is selling us a house, so she thinks it’s time we give Uncle Will a break, move out, and let him do his thing.” I started to quicken my stride.
“So, then, I won’t be able to come by anymore?” There was an honest to goodness look of sadness in Patty’s eyes. Why? We hadn’t really been friends for five years or so. What difference would it make if I weren’t here?
“You could still come by; I’m sure Uncle Will wouldn’t mind.”
“But you wouldn’t be here.” This was killing me.
“You haven’t come by in years.” Her eyes told me I’d said the wrong thing, but what was I supposed to say? She was the butt of everyone’s jokes and I wasn’t going to screw up what little popularity I had by spending any more time with her than I had to. Besides, we’d grown apart.
“That’s because you’re always busy. I used to ask you a lot, but you always had something else to do. And then I stopped seeing you so much, and then…” she shrugged. I noticed that her mouth was open and that she was starting to breathe hard “Could you slow down?” I forced my steps into a slower rhythm. “I see you in the halls, but you never look back at me.”
“I do a lot of things at school. I’m in the band, I have a lot of friends. I don’t spend that much time at home anymore.”
Patty’s face turned from sad to confused in a heartbeat. “I have plenty of friends, too.”
What friends? Those kids that made fun of her all the time? Did she really think that was friendship?
“Are you sure those are really your friends?”
“What else would they be?”
“They make fun of you. Why do you put up with it?“
Patty looked at me strangely. “Friends tease friends all the time.”
“It goes beyond teasing. Being knocked over in gym? That was mean.”
“It was just kids being kids. That’s what they do.”
“It’s not what kids do to kids, Patty!” I yelled. “ It’s what those people who you’re calling your friends do to you, and it’s crap! You don’t have to put up with it! Tell them to go to hell, fight back! Something!” It was the first time I’d ever yelled at Patty. She took it well, but then that’s what I’d expect. She got yelled at all the time. Other kids yelled at her to tease her, teachers yelled at her to do better. Everyone yelled at Patty for one reason or another. Except for me. Until now. We walked in silence.
“I couldn’t tell anyone to go to hell,” said Patty after a moment.
“No?” I asked noncommittally, my anger and frustration spent.
“But I am going to do something.”
“It’s my birthday next week.” That’s right, it was Patty’s birthday. Not that I kept track of when her birthday was, it was just something I knew somehow. Probably from some conversation years ago. She reached into her back pocket and handed me a folded up piece of purple construction paper. “My parents said I could have a birthday party. My first one!” An unrestrained look of joy crossed her face. I unfolded the paper. It was an invitation, homemade and covered with glitter describing a party at Patty’s house a week from Saturday. It promised games, cake and ice cream.
“I think it might get some of my friends to be nicer. You’ll be there, right?”
My mind went squishy. What was the proper response in this situation? I didn’t want to say no outright, but this wasn’t the type of social event I’d been waiting for to boost my status either. “I don’t know, my Mom’s going to expect me to help move that day.” Not the best answer, but it was all I could come up with on short notice.
“Oh,” was all Patty said. I kind of wished she’d be more insistent that I come, preferably in an obnoxious or irritating way. Or said something like, “Oh, that’s OK, plenty of other people are coming.” Or even “Suit yourself.” But no, all she said was “Oh.” Now I felt guilty.
By that time we had reached the church at the end of the street. “Ready to go back?” I asked.
“I thought we might go a little farther?”
“Where would we go?”
“Maybe to that pond where all the fireflies are.”
I turned around. “I don’t think there’s enough time for that. I’ve got a lot of homework to do. You must, too.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” She said, reluctantly following me back towards home. The rest of the walk back to the house was silent. I felt worse and worse with each footstep I took, kicking pebbles by the side of the road. Patty joined me; whenever she missed one she’d circle back to give it a couple of whacks, her lack of coordination resulting in a dance that might have been comical if I’d been in the mood to laugh.
“But if you don’t have to help move, you’ll come to my birthday, right?” she finally said as we walked up the driveway towards Uncle Will’s house.
Way to make me feel worse. “Sure. If I don’t have to help move, I’ll come.”
“Sure.” It was a lie. But it was a little white lie, one I could take back later, if I needed to.
Ryan laughed. He stood in the middle of a group of ten people or so. Laura was showing them something. I stepped off the bus but didn’t join them. If Ryan hadn’t been there, I might have, but as it was, I’d just as soon avoid the group. I saw Jason about to enter the building and sped up a little. He saw me and slowed down.
“Not much,” I said as we synchronized our steps.
“Decided whether you’re moving or not?”
“Not really, but I’m getting there.”
“I’d move if I were you.”
“The house is going to be a lot smaller than the one I live in now.”
“But you’ll be closer to the school. If you wanted you could bike in.” That would certainly be better than the bus. But I might need the bus to get my homework done now. I still hadn’t figured out how things were going to work without the house.
“Maybe, or maybe I’ll just pretend to bike in to school and spend my days at Lena’s. Want to join me?”
“I’d love to!” It was a dumb joke, but we laughed anyway.
“How did you do on that biology test?”
“Not so well.”
“Don’t worry, it wasn’t that bad.”
“No, not that, I forgot my purse on the bus!” I ran back outside to the loading area. Jason followed. Fortunately, mine hadn’t left yet. “I think I forgot something,” I called to the driver as I raced up the steps.
“Hurry up! I’ve got to let the other busses in!” He yelled, obviously annoyed at being held up by a clueless teenager. My eyes scanned the seats along the aisle. It didn’t take long to find it, wedged up against the seat and the side of the bus. It must have fallen off my shoulder when I slid out of the seat. I reached in, snagged it, and ran off the bus. The driver closed the doors and drove away from the loading zone.
“Got it?” asked Jason.
“Yep, right here,” I raised it for him to see. Over by the corner of the school I saw the group with Laura and Ryan breaking up. Laura tossed something into the gutter. It started to move, carried by the water from last night’s rain towards the drainage grate. I stopped and stood watching as it floated along, getting caught up in old candy wrappers, leaves, and paper scraps. It looked oddly familiar. I walked over and flipped it up with the tip of my sneaker before it could make its exit into the sewer, soaking my foot in the process. Purple with glitter.
“Did you get one too?” said Laura laughing. I thought she’d gone in. “Can you believe it? As if!” I spent a few seconds looking down at that little slip of purple. Inconvenient images of the summer before the fourth grade crossed my mind.
“Yeah, I got one.”
“It’ll be so much fun! Cake and games. Maybe pin the tail on the donkey!” I might not count Patty as a friend anymore, but Laura was taking this a little too far.
“You don’t have to be a jerk about it.”
“Come on! I’m not being a jerk. Why would I go to her party? We’re not even friends! She’s a retard!”
“But did you really need to tell Ryan? Now he’s going to be all over her for the next month, teasing her about that party. Don’t you think she has enough problems?”
Laura turned her head to look at me out of the corner of her eye. “It’s just a joke. What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing, I just don’t think you needed to show Ryan.”
She started walking into the building “Maybe not, but maybe you should remember who your friends are.” She said over her shoulder as she passed through the double doors.
“Wow, she’s…something.” Jason was still standing beside me. I’d forgotten he was there.
“Yeah, she sure is.” We walked into the building and headed for our lockers.
I was having a tough time making my decision and I told Mom as much. She wasn’t pleased, but I didn’t realize how upset she was until the next night. I was sitting in my bedroom, actually studying for a change, when there was a knock on my door. I opened it up and there was Dr. Bender.
“Mind if I come in?” His face told me he really didn’t care if I minded or not.
“I’m kind of in the middle of my homework.”
“It’ll only take a minute.”
“Come in then.” I tried to sound polite but exasperated.
“Your mom asked me to talk to you,” he said as he sat on my bed in his usual relaxed style. He looked around my room. It made me uneasy. “Nice place.”
“The Beatles?” he said nodding towards a poster.
“Aren’t they a little before your time?”
I shrugged wordlessly. I didn’t think he was here to discuss my musical preferences.
He sighed. “Not much for small talk? That’s OK, me either,” he continued, not waiting for an answer. “So let me cut right to the chase. It means a lot to your mom to have you live with her. She’s been through a lot the last few years.” He leaned forward, a look of concern crept onto his face. “She’s had to raise you and your brother alone, put in a lot of hard hours being a mother and father, a lot of hours working a tough job, and now you’re rejecting her.” He said, punctuating the word rejecting by stabbing his chubby finger towards my face. He didn’t seem mad, just determined to make a point. I started to protest, but he waved my words aside. “No, no. I know you’re not actually rejecting her, but that’s how she perceives it. Look, you’re her family, and that’s all she has right now, and you need to know that I think it’s likely that she might become more severely depressed than she already is. She’s already being medicated to straighten this out, but that might not be enough. “
Not what I’d expected. His words made me think back to the months after Dad died. That had been a tough time. I didn’t want to go through it again. But who was Bender to decide whether my mother was depressed or not? I was her daughter.
“So you think she’s going to become severely depressed? How would you know?” I asked, curious.
He shrugged, “I don’t know anything for sure, but as a doctor, I’ve seen it a lot of it in middle-aged women from broken homes. Kids to take care of, no husband. Rejection from one of the children can be the last straw. The parent doesn’t think they care anymore.” He shook his head, his eyes distant as if he were recalling a terrible memory. “Look, hopefully it would never get that far. Like I said, right now I’m just concerned about depression and what it might do to her, to you, and to your brother. It’s an insidious beast and it bites deep. It may take years for her to recover. Being near me is going to help because I’ll be able to help guide her, but she’ll need help from you, too.” He nodded, as if to himself. “But that’s Dr. Bender talking.” He smiled and leaned back on my bed, “Let me talk like Bill for a minute. Would you mind that?”
I sure as hell would. “No, I guess not.”
“As Bill, I think you’re a great kid and I’d love to have you living next door.”
“Didn’t you know?” I hated his grin, it was so unnatural, like the wrong cheek muscles were being flexed. “I live next door to that house. I didn’t just buy it because it was near my clinic, I bought it because I wanted to make sure I had good neighbors.”
“I’m glad to hear that we qualify.”
“Don’t be patronizing.” He studied me quietly for a moment and then went back to his Dr. Bender pose. “What is it going to take to convince you that this move is for the best? For your mother, for Davey, and for you?”
A spirit house of my own maybe? “Could I have more time to think about it?”
He shook his head. “Time is getting short and you’ve had plenty of it already. Look, let me sweeten the deal for you.” He reached into his back pocket. “You’re a teenager, you’re going to be driving soon. You’ll need a car, gas money. What if I threw in twenty dollars a week spending money? ”
“Have you talked to my Mom about this?”
“This is just between us. If your Mom thought you were moving because of money, that wouldn’t convince her you were sold on the idea. It’s got to seem like it’s because you love her.”
“Where’s the money coming from? Are you going to increase our rent?”
“No!” he seemed horrified. “This is because I care about your mother, because I want her to be happy. That’s all.” It really did seem like he was being honest, and suddenly I felt terrible, like I was the cause of all of Mom’s grief.
I’m embarrassed to say it, but he had convinced me. It just made sense. I’d be helping Mom; I’d be staying with my family. I’d also be able to keep an eye on Bender. His offer of money didn’t feel right though. I needed to do this for Mom, not money.
“OK, I’ll move, but the money just doesn’t feel right.” I gave my head a little shake. “Why don’t you keep that?”
He gave me an oily smile. “I was really hoping you’d say that. It shows me that you’re serious about your mother’s health, not your own pocket. But I insist. Look, we’re going to get to know each other pretty well, and I think it’s important that I put some trust in you.” He put his wallet back in his pocket. “I tell you what—think of it as an allowance. No strings attached. We’ll start the week after you move in.” What could I say to that? It sounded like a good deal. I didn’t like the guy, but I couldn’t say he wasn’t trying.
It was a relief to have Dr. Bender out of my room. He made me nervous. I stretched out on my bed, consciously avoiding the warm spot left by my recent guest. I reopened my math book and started to work through the problems, reasoning that I might as well get used to not being able to do any work in the spirit house.
“Elizabeth! Telephone!” called Davey from downstairs, just as I was transitioning from math to social studies. I got up from my problems and raced down to the kitchen to pick it up. “It’s a boy,” said Davey, trying to embarrass me as I took it from him. I gave him a little shove, just to let him know I didn’t appreciate it.
“Hi, Elizabeth.” I recognized that voice right away. It was Jason.
“Hi. What’s up?”
“Not much.” There was a brief uncomfortable silence. I couldn’t tell from the way he said it whether it was my turn to speak or whether he still had more to say. He answered my question a split second later. “Actually, there is something I needed to talk about, and I’m hoping you’re the right person.”
“What’s that?” Now I was curious.
“You’re a friend of Patty’s, right?” Like that was something I’d admit.
“Um, not exactly. I’ve known her since the fourth grade. I wouldn’t call us friends, though.”
“Close enough.” Was he teasing me? I couldn’t tell. “You might want to tell her cancel the party.”
“George mentioned to me that Ryan was talking about how funny it would be if he showed up, that’s all.”
“When were you talking to George?”
“Yesterday, at swimming practice. I didn’t talk to him so much as overheard what he said.”
“And what did he say?” What a nightmare. Patty was screwed. Even if Ryan and his friends kept it to a minimum, throwing toilet paper over trees and spraying shaving cream on the sidewalk, it would still be a disappointing first party for Patty, especially considering the number of guests who’d attend. You couldn’t have friends if you hung out with Patty Cox.
“He thought it would be pretty funny.”
“Nice friends you’ve got.”
“Look, don’t give me any flak. I just swim with the guy,” said Jason, obviously a little bit irritated. “I think Ryan’s going to do something stupid. That’s all. I wouldn’t care except that it gets ridiculous after awhile. Pick on someone your own size, you know? You remember what happened at Julie Ann’s last year?”
I did remember. Julie Ann Rogers had a huge Halloween party the year before. About half of our grade was invited, and most came. Julie Ann was a popular girl. Ryan hadn’t been invited. He went anyway, and Julie Ann didn’t have the heart to tell him to go away. He’d clogged the toilets with toilet paper, put rotten apples into the bobbing trough and spiked the punch with alcohol, bringing the party to a screeching halt when Julie Ann’s parents found out. Of course, he never admitted to any of it, and no one could prove it was him, but anyone else wouldn’t have been able to resist bragging. And bragging just wasn’t the way Ryan worked. “Yeah, I know. Thanks, Jason. I don’t think there’s anything I can do, but I appreciate it anyway.”
“Do you think anyone’s planning on going? To the party I mean?”
“I don’t know. I doubt it. It’s not like Patty has any friends. Would you go if you’d been invited?”
“No, I guess not….” I could tell he was thinking through his answer. “Then again, I might. I’d never tell anyone, and I’d deny it if Patty ever did, but I might. The crap she goes through. It’s just too much.”
It wasn’t the answer I’d expected. I managed a weak “Yeah.” Did he know I’d been invited?
There was a pause on the line. “That’s the reason I called, to see if you could do something. I just get tired of seeing it.”
“You’re a nice guy, Jason. I’ll try.”
Another pause. “See you tomorrow?”
“Yep, see you then.” I forced myself to maintain a pleasant tone as I hung up.
This was wrong. Patty just wanted to have a party for the first time in her life. Would this loser really do something so despicable? And what was I going to do about it if he did show up?
Wait a second—was I really going to the party? Hell, I’d told Jason I’d try to do something. What would he think of me if I didn’t?
I was going to stop Ryan. And I was going to go to that party.
Now I had to figure out how.
I sat in one of the recliners and looked at the red walls. Maybe I could just spend the rest of my life here and avoid it all. Really. I could use up the rest of my years between now and the party without ever reaching the date of Patty’s birthday. Of course, I was assuming that I aged when I was in the house, but I thought that was a safe assumption, especially considering how old Uncle Will looked. He probably had five or ten years spent here instead of the real world and it showed. Or maybe I could go to the party as an 80-year-old? The thought made me giggle. What would Patty think if I showed up wearing a pair of Depends? What would Ryan think if he showed up and some 80-year-old that looked like me started yelling at him?
Then I asked myself another, more important, question: what would happen to a person I brought here if I left? Would they age so much that they’d be dust by the time I came back? I didn’t think so. Everything in here always looked just like it did the last time. Even the granola bars.
In my mind, a plan started to form.
I stayed up late that night, but not too late. Uncle Will wasn’t keeping the crazy hours he used to. I arrived downstairs around eleven. First I went to the kitchen. There, above the sink, was Henry, the friendly kitchen goldfish. He was fifth to bear the name since I’d come to Georgia. If he died, no one would be surprised.
“Mind if I use you for a little experiment?” I asked Henry as I took down his bowl. I carried him over to the spirit house to see how he liked it. We went inside together, but I left alone, waited a minute or two, and then went back in. When I arrived there was Henry, happy as could be, swimming in circles. Not too much time must have passed in here. But how long did goldfish live? I’d heard they could live for years. Was Henry a year older than when I’d set him down inside the house? I figured he probably would have starved to death if that were the case. Still, better to be safe than sorry. I put Henry back above the sink and took a watch that I never used out of my bureau and a penny out of the change bowl, then I went back into the house, spun the penny on the floor with a flick of my finger, dropped my watch, which read 11:23, and left. The next morning, first thing, I ran to the living room and into the spirit house to do my homework. The penny was still spinning, and the watch still read 11:23.
At first the experiments had me excited about the possibilities, then it occurred to me that I had no idea whether what I’d observed worked on people the same way it worked on goldfish and pennies. I needed to find out, and I knew just the person to help me.
“Davey!” I yelled. What are little brothers for after all? “Davey, come here. I need your help for a minute.” He ran into the living room, out of breath. He was so loyal I couldn’t stand it.
“What is it? What do you need?” I grabbed his arm and then I looked at the house. Suddenly we were in a red room. Davey’s eyes got wide. “What th…” he started to say as I let go of him and looked out into the living room.
Standing outside the spirit house it suddenly occurred to me that Davey might be able to use the box exactly like I could. We were brother and sister after all, and if he could use the house he might spoil my whole plan. It also occurred to me that experimenting with my sibling might not have be the most sisterly thing to do. I went back inside, suddenly panic-stricken at what I’d done, fearing I’d find a skeleton instead of a brother.
“…e heck is going on?” he asked.
He’d been stopped in time.
Exactly what I’d hoped for.
“What do you need me for? What’s with all the yelling?” he asked as we plopped back into the living room.
“Do you remember anything about a red room?” I asked. He looked at me kind of funny, pulling his arm out of my hand.
“You called me down here for that? What red room? Where? Back in Wyoming? We had a red bathroom there. Right?”
“That’s it, that’s where I remember it from!” I said, trying to contain myself. I hadn’t killed my brother, or made him any older as far as I could tell, and, just as importantly, it looked like I was still the only one in the family besides Uncle Will who could use that house.
Since the fourth grade, the number of visitors who came by to visit Uncle Will had been steadily decreasing. I don’t know why exactly, maybe it was because he was getting older, or because he was spending time with us. I suppose it’s possible he was bringing other people in during the day while we were at school or work, but I didn’t think so. I also knew that he’d joined a gym in town, so he was using the equipment in his little hidden gym a lot less. It was at the gym that Uncle Will met a girl named Sharon. Since he’d met her, there hadn’t been a single visit from another woman. All of this pointed to one thing—Uncle Will was using the house less. It was a perfect time for me to borrow it. Just for a night.
For my plan to keep Ryan away from Patty’s party to work, I had to move the house somewhere where I could use it without fear of it being seen or being questioned by other people. It had to be a place no one else would find but would be convenient for me. And it would be best if it were a spot where Ryan wouldn’t mind visiting. That’s when I started thinking about school.
The school itself would be a terrible place to hide the house, of course. Too many people walking around. At first I thought I might wedge it into the school’s ceiling, but I’d seen the custodians taking apart ceiling tile to fix leaky pipes, and I couldn’t risk that. But, even if I could manage to get into the ceiling to hide it, how would I go about accessing it again? I could always put it in my locker, but I’d need to store it sideways and everyone would see it there, raising some interesting questions. Besides, how embarrassing to have a dollhouse in your locker.
Then I thought of places around the school but not necessarily inside it. Maybe the parking lot or the athletic fields? Neither really had a place for it. For a short time, I considered the broadcast booth on top of the football field bleachers, but then I dismissed it. Too many people out there and someone might notice something different. If they did, it would be gone forever.
I even asked Uncle Will about where to stick the spirit house by pretending to be doing a project about them for school. He was only too happy to tell me all about them. He had stories and useless information about all of his treasures and loved to share it with us whenever we asked. It had been a while since I’d asked about anything though. Spirits liked the sun, he said, and so their houses should never be shaded. Useless information, really. I already knew that the spirit house worked in the shade since I’d used it inside our house so much. Not a sliver of direct sunlight ever hit that spirit house and I could still use it just fine. But I hadn’t seriously considered leaving it outside in the elements before. That part of Uncle Will’s story might be useful. I needed to take a closer look around the school.
The Saturday before the party, and the move, I told Mom I had a special band practice at the school. It wasn’t far, maybe a thirty-minute bike ride. I’d done it a few times before, so I knew she’d be surprised, but not worried.
The school itself was deserted. I checked the front doors, but they were locked. I walked over to the athletic fields first, but saw that the soccer team was practicing. The fields would have to wait until last, after the players had gone in. I started to circle the building, scanning the landscape for a likely spot to mount a small house. No place was jumping out at me screaming, “Stick me here!” Until, that is, I walked over to the west side of the building. The swamp. At first, the wild area down the hill from the school didn’t look too promising. Nothing but old trees, willows, rushes and various weeds. But maybe that was the kind of place I was looking for. I walked down the hill in a straight line from the middle of the school’s west-facing wall. Off to my right I saw an old birdhouse along the edge of the swamp where the rushes met the grass. I looked inside but didn’t see any birds, or any way to squeeze Uncle Will’s house inside so I decided to check out the swamp itself. As I stepped into the rushes two things became obvious. First, there were a heck of a lot of mosquitoes down here, and second, it was wet. I wasn’t a huge fan of getting covered with water or mud, and I was certainly no fan of getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. But, I thought I’d seen something promising while walking down the hill and I’d need to get a few yards in before I knew if it would work.
I pushed the greenery aside, forcing my way through to an old oak. It was huge, at least as wide around as four of me. Up near the top was a squirrel hole. I briefly considered climbing up to the top and then stopped myself. There weren’t enough handholds and I was no squirrel. Time to move on. I walked to the next tree. My pants were now soaked up to my knee. I hoped the ride home would dry them out. What would Mom think if she saw wet pants? Maybe I could tell her I’d gone after a stray kitten or something. I looked up into the oak’s branches. Nothing. Nothing on the next two trees I looked at either. My pants were damp all the way to my waist now as water wicked up my jeans. It was getting uncomfortable and I was starting to think that I’d like to start riding home. But then I saw it. A place where the house might….just might….fit.
I walked up to what was, perhaps, the biggest oak in the whole swamp. It was a few yards in, deeper than I wanted to go, and I was getting eaten alive, but it looked so right. It sat on a slight rise. Even though it had been raining the last few days, the ground around the oak’s roots was dry. There were two incredible branches reaching out from its trunk, and at the base of one of these branches was a huge hole. I wondered briefly what had happened for this hole to be there, quickly deciding that it really didn’t matter. I went over to the hole and cleaned out an assortment of old leaves and a little bit of rotten wood. A few bugs too. The opening was such that the house should just barely fit inside. The upper portion of the branch would cover the whole top to keep most of the rain off, and I could easily camouflage the front of the house, though I didn’t think that would be necessary. Who came down here anyway? I put my head next to the spot where I estimated the house would sit. When I looked out towards the school, I saw that the limb of another oak blocked the line of sight to the lower classrooms, but not the upper classrooms, at least not most of them. But could I even use the spirit house from that distance? I had no idea.
The ride home only half-dried my pants, but Bill was there to keep Mom occupied, so she didn’t even notice when I came in. I went upstairs, changed into a fresh pair of pants, and came back down to take a closer look at the outside of the spirit house, unconcerned that I’d run into Uncle Will since I knew that he and Sharon were off on some kind of date. After I’d satisfied myself that the house would fit into the tree, I went to the kitchen to get myself something to eat before dinner, easily finding a box of Ritz crackers and peanut butter that fit the bill. I felt better after eating about twelve. One good thing about Bender was that Mom never noticed when I spoiled my dinner anymore.
As I walked out of the kitchen to go up to my room, I found my mother lying on the couch with her head in Bender’s lap, watching TV. I’m pretty sure they didn’t see me, and I sure wished I hadn’t seen them. I didn’t mind that men came by to see Mom, she’d broken us into the reality that she might have a boyfriend again by having one guy or another over for dinner every few months. I knew she had every right to have men who were friends, or even boyfriends. But it still hurt me to think anyone could take Dad’s place, and it was certainly Dad’s place, not Bender’s, to hold Mom’s head.
“Hey, Lizzie,” said Bender. Lizzie? Who the hell told him he could call me Lizzie? Mom? If so I wasn’t too pleased. The name Lizzie was for Mom, Davey, Uncle Will, and, of course, Dad. I grunted back in response.
“Hi, Sweetie,” said Mom as she lifted her head from Bender’s lap. I wondered if she cared whether I noticed or not.
“What are you guys up to?” I asked as sweetly as I could.
“Nothing. Just some TV and packing.” I looked around; there were a few half-filled cardboard boxes on the floor. “How was practice?”
“Fine.” I wondered if they’d noticed that my flute case never left the hall by my room. Probably not, since they hadn’t mentioned anything yet. “How much packing until we’re ready?”
“Not much.” Bender stared intently at the television. “Hey Donna, could you get me a beer?” Mom gave him a smile and stood up. “Sure, just a minute.”
With Mom down the hall, Bender turned his gaze from the television to me. “How about you? All ready to move?”
“Yep, planning on it.”
“Good, because I’m looking forward to having you there.”
“I’m sure it’ll be very nice.” I hadn’t even visited our new house yet.
“Oh, it is. I’ve had it fixed up for you. Even added a security system.”
“Great.” Why did we need a security system? What did we have to steal?
Mom came back a second later with Bender’s beer and I decided that was a good time to excuse myself. I went back into the living room and studied the spirit house again, trying to reassure myself that it would work just fine. All I needed was another excuse to get out for a few hours.
I tried to block thoughts of what Uncle Will would do if he found the house missing, but they just kept creeping back. Besides the house itself, I had no idea how valuable the statues stored inside were. I was beginning to think taking it might not be such a good idea. If he found it missing I’d be blamed, and I’d deserve it. Still, I felt committed, and my plan had a reasonable chance of success. And it was for Patty, damn it. If something did go wrong, I had a story concocted about how I accidentally broke it when I was playing and how I had thrown it out — and how sorry I was. Yes, it was a ridiculous story, but that’s how my mind was operating as the details of the theft worked themselves out in my mind.
Friday, the day of the heist, and the day before the party, was also the warmest day of October thus far, despite the fact that it was the last week of the month. It bordered on uncomfortable. Uncle Will was out of town at some Buddhist convention up in Charlotte that day and the next. I had all the time I needed. He’d left the night before, so as long as I was smart I didn’t think I’d have any major problems accomplishing my laundry list of goals. I had woken up early after telling Mom I was biking into school again for a special fundraiser for the band. I told her we’d do some baking in the school kitchens in the morning and then sell brownies during lunch. She asked if she could contribute and I said sure, so she gave me a ten-dollar bill. I’d need to find a way to get that to the band or I’d feel guilty later. She didn’t specifically ask for any baked goods, so I figured I’d tell her I’d eaten them myself if the question arose.
That morning Mom got up even before I did to make me some cereal and then went back to lie in her bed a little longer. She’d been up late last night taking a few things from Davey’s room over to the new place. Mom and Davey would move tomorrow. I’d move Monday after school.
I went into the living room with my oversized duffle. First, I popped into the house and took out most of the statues Uncle Will had been keeping in there, carefully recording where they were on a piece of paper. I didn’t trust my memory. It would be easier to keep them together if they were in my room upstairs. They’d be all over the place if I left them here. The furniture would move for sure, but hopefully it wouldn’t be so bad I couldn’t put it back together later. I was particularly concerned about the weight equipment, so I committed the location of all the weights to memory. I didn’t need to be as exact with them as I would with Uncle Will’s figurines. There was no single weight greater than forty-five pounds, so I could move anything I had to.
I hadn’t lifted the house in six years, but I still remembered how heavy and cumbersome it was. Fortunately I’d grown stronger, and so the weight of the house wasn’t quite such an issue this time as it had been when I was in elementary school, though its mass still seemed out of proportion to its volume. It fit reasonably well into the duffel along with all my usual school work with only a few bulges here and there. Strapped to my bike rack, the whole mess was unwieldy, but not unmanageable. I’d be able to keep the house upright for the trip.
With the extra baggage it took about five minutes longer to get to school than it should have, but I still got there about a half hour before the first bell. Busses hadn’t started coming in yet and teachers were just starting to arrive in the parking lot. I rode my bike out on the grass, gliding down the hill and keeping my eyes to the trees as if I were looking at birds, just in case anyone was watching. It wasn’t the best excuse, but I’d been studying up on birds the past couple of days. I could make it work if I had to. Who wouldn’t bike down to the swamp if they thought they’d seen a broad-winged hawk?
When I’d ridden as close to the oak tree as I could without getting my tires wet, I took the duffel bag from my bike and removed the house. I hoped to dodge around the really wet spots, but that turned out to be largely impossible. At the tree, I wrapped the house in aluminum foil to protect it from any unexpected rain, except for the window, which I’d need to be able to look through, of course. I angled the window so that it faced the second-story classrooms by using some twigs as wedges. Looking towards the school now I knew there was no way I’d be able to see inside of the house from that distance. What would I do, then? I decided not to worry about it yet, I was too invested in this plot. I had no choice but to try.
I walked my bike to the front of the school, chaining it to the bike rack before I went inside. The busses were coming in now. I rushed upstairs to the bathroom to change my pants—this was, fortunately, a problem I’d foreseen—and then went to the art room, one of the west-facing classrooms on the second floor. This was the only classroom where I could gaze out the window for a few minutes without being disturbed. Art was also the only class I had on the second floor of the west-facing wing.
Some older students, probably seniors, were there, busy looking at work that they’d dried in the kiln the previous night. They looked at me briefly as I came in and then got back to their projects. I pretended that I was studying some paints over by the windows and then looked out towards the swamp. I’d kept the location of important landmarks like the bird house, and other trees near the swamp border in my mind, so I didn’t have much difficulty picking out the tree where I’d placed the house. At first it was difficult to find the limb where the house sat through the greenery, the shade dappled interior of the forest camouflaging things worse than I’d anticipated, but after staring for a moment I was able to pick out the spot where the house should be. As I’d feared, I couldn’t actually see in. I concentrated my gaze on the spot, willing myself to see the window and the mirror, but nothing happened.
The classroom was starting to fill up as students made their way to homeroom. From the increasing volume of chatter I knew I didn’t have much time. I looked over at the clock and saw Mr. Turner come in. He looked back at me curiously. I only had art twice a week and I didn’t have any current projects to be looking at. He had to know that. I looked back outside and tried to put everything out of my mind except the house, thinking back to that first time I’d ever transferred myself in. I’d felt my eyes being pushed aside by the house. I just needed to feel my eyes being pushed. I concentrated as hard as I could.
I felt something. There. No, not enough. I simply couldn’t focus at this distance.
I turned. Mr. Turner was looking out the window beside me. “Yes?”
“What are you looking for out there? Homeroom starts in less than five minutes.” He motioned to the clock.
“I thought I saw an egret,” I said. It was the only bird I could think of on such short notice.
“Well here, have a quick look and then get to homeroom.” He undid the cabinet below the windows, pulled out a pair of binoculars and handed them to me. “I spend some time watching the birds down by the swamp, myself. It’s actually a wildlife refuge, did you know that?” He looked at me curiously, “I’m a member of the Audubon society here. Is that something you might be interested in?”
“No sir, I just wanted to see the bird, but thanks!” I didn’t want to be rude, but I couldn’t waste any time. Not until I got into the house anyway. I lifted the binoculars to my eyes and took another look.
“No problem, feel free to borrow them anytime, but please put them back where you found them.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, binoculars pressed against my face. The house wasn’t quite in view, but I could feel my eyes being moved. I fought the force trying to push them aside—just like I’m in the living room, I told myself.
And I was in.
The bed was shifted a bit, and the table. There was nothing here I couldn’t fix. I was glad I’d taken out the statues; they would have been a real mess. I ran upstairs out of excitement rather than any need to run. I had all the time in the world now. The exercise equipment had moved too, but it wasn’t bad. I could fix this. I cheered quietly to myself. This was going to work. It had to work.
At one-thirty I stood outside the art classroom. There was no class scheduled here for the next hour and Mr. Turner was on late lunch duty. He’d be there for the next ten minutes or so. I had a class across the building in just a few minutes, but I was going to be a little bit late. I was prepared to accept the consequences.
Ryan was walking down the hall by himself. I’d figured out his schedule over the past week by following him around and asking Laura a few well-placed questions. He always went to the upstairs bathroom before the next class, so I knew he’d be walking down the hall, but all alone? I didn’t think I’d get this lucky. I wouldn’t need to separate him from anyone, and I was relieved. I changed my plans slightly.
“Ryan!” I said as breathlessly as I could.
“What?” he didn’t sound as if he cared that I was breathless. Jerk.
“Come over here! I think there’s a hawk outside the school!” He walked up next to me and put his arm around my shoulder.
“A hawk? That’s awesome. Is it eating a cat or something?” What was that smell?
“Do you smell that?”
“That smell? Like in science when we’re sterilizing something…”
Ryan’s eyes got big “You smell it? Dammit!” He took his arm from my shoulder. “Thanks for the warning.”
“What is it?”
He looked at me as if I were crazy. “It’s nothing, forget it. Just getting ready for the game tonight.” He started to walk back down the hall. I’d lost him. Then he stopped. “Hey you don’t have any gum do you? Something minty?”
I hadn’t lost him, now was my chance. “Yeah, sure. It’s in the art room, in my purse.”
“You’re a life saver.” He turned around. It was now or never. I put my hand on his shoulder as we entered the doorway of the art room, raised the binoculars, and looked.
As Ryan took inventory of his new surroundings his face twisted in confusion. I was gone before he made its first 360.
It wasn’t on the news that night or in the paper the next morning. It must have taken his parents some time to figure out he was gone. I wasn’t worried, though; I knew where he was. I wasn’t quite sure how I’d be getting him out, but I knew I could think my way through that little problem by the end of the next day.
Patty opened the door and clapped her hands together with glee. She wore a pink dress with a long skirt and short sleeves with plenty of ruffles and frills and I couldn’t help but smile. “Elizabeth, thank you so much for coming!” she said excitedly as she took the gift from my hands. Before we even stepped in the house she’d already ripped the wrapping paper off. Inside she discovered a light blue blouse that I’d gotten for Christmas, which was a little too small for me. She smiled from ear to ear, declaring that she’d wear it every day. I hoped not.
Apparently remembering that we were still on the front porch, she grabbed me by my arm and pulled me inside to take me on a tour of her house, “before the other guests arrive.” First, we saw the living room where her father, a fleshy round-faced man dressed in an old white t-shirt and stained jeans, sat smoking and watching a Charlie’s Angels rerun on TV. He glanced at me briefly and managed a weak smile. The look on his face told me he’d be happier when I was gone. Next, we saw the combination dining room and kitchen where colorful balloons floated over a card table decked out in a pink plastic tablecloth. Sitting on top of the table was a huge rectangular cake that looked like it could feed forty people.
“Wow, how many people are you expecting?”
“I don’t know. I invited about twenty. A few called to say they couldn’t come, but a few didn’t so they might be here later,” she said with a huge smile. This girl was seriously disconnected from reality. I’d been fifteen minutes late when I came to the door, but I kept that to myself. On the invitation, it said the party was supposed to last for three hours. I’d told Mom to pick me up after two. One-and-a-half if she wasn’t too busy unpacking at the new house.
“Mama was going to lead the games and cake cutting, but she got nervous when she heard the doorbell ring. She’s been that way for a while now, since she lost her job down at the plant,” said Patty by way of explanation. “She’s in her bedroom, but we could start anyway. She might come out later.” As she was talking, Patty was already pulling games from a cabinet. There was Life, Scrabble, Monopoly, and even Candy Land. I pointed to Life.
“How about this?” I asked, pointing to Life. Patty agreed. We played the game for over an hour. She won, but didn’t gloat. After that we played a quick game of Scrabble, which I won. Then Patty put the games away and asked if I wanted some cake and ice cream. I said sure. She started to cut.
“Hold on, where are the candles?” I interrupted.
Patty looked at the cake. “I didn’t think of candles.”
“You’ve got to have some candles for your birthday! It’s your sixteenth, right?”
She looked crushed. I should have kept my mouth shut. I looked around to kitchen. “You don’t keep any candles around in case the lights go out?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“What about your Dad, do you think that he might know where some candles are?” Patty looked at her father, then reluctantly walked over and bent her mouth down to his ear. He shook his head, then reached over to a coffee table beside the couch and grabbed a pack of cigarettes. He handed her two. She stood up, eyes pointed at the floor.
“That’s so cool!” I said, trying to prevent any waterworks. Patty perked up. We put the cigarettes on the cake and tried to light them with her father’s lighter. They wouldn’t ignite, so Patty pulled them out and handed them back to her Dad, who put them both into his mouth and inhaled deeply while touching the lighter’s flame to first one and then the other. They glowed rather than flamed as Patty placed them back into the cake. And then, for the first time, her father got up from the couch and helped me sing Happy Birthday. Blowing the cigarettes out turned out to be a little more than Patty could handle, so her father pulled them off the cake and smoked them down before giving them to back to her to snuff out on a plate. Then I cut the cake carefully, so as to avoid ash coated sections. Hygienic issues aside, I must admit it was good.
Mom picked me up after two hours, just as we were finishing the cake. I saw her pull up to the front of the house where she gave a little honk to get me moving. Patty was reluctant to let me go, but the promise of a get-together sometime next week helped ease my way out of the house. I wondered how many people at school would know I’d been to the party.
One. Jason. I didn’t think I could deal with anyone else. “Since I was the only person who came, maybe we shouldn’t tell anybody about the party,” I told Patty. “We wouldn’t want to make them jealous.”
“But there’s another hour, maybe someone else will stop by? Maybe they had something they needed to do and they’re planning on coming late.”
I nodded knowingly. “Maybe, but if they couldn’t make it we shouldn’t rub it in their faces by telling them what a good time we had. That would just be mean.”
Patty’s face became solemn. “You’re right. Thanks,” she said sincerely. I nodded and smiled, feeling good about myself. I was almost home free.
On the drive home Mom said the unpacking was going well and asked why I didn’t stop by and help them out? I would have liked to, especially since I needed to get my room ready for the next day when I was planning to move, but it would be better to let Ryan out. I hadn’t had a chance at the party to figure out exactly what to do with him and I was starting to get a little bit nervous. I told her I had some homework that I needed to get done today so I could spend all day tomorrow studying for the test.
I walked in the front door knowing that Uncle Will would probably be back around eight, but maybe as early as six, so I couldn’t waste time. I’d figure out what I was going to do about Ryan on my ride back over to the school. Maybe I’d let him go in the swamp, or the side of the building. It would need to be somewhere where he’d normally expect to see me, since I’d need to be there to take him out. He’d be very disoriented if he weren’t outside the art room though. Maybe I could knock him out and pretend he’d been hit in the head somehow? Like by a tree branch? This was turning out to be complicated. Maybe I could just leave him inside.
I opened the door to the garage to get my bike, and there was Uncle Will’s jeep. And beside the jeep was Uncle Will, sitting on a chair next to my bike, reading a magazine.
“I figured you’d be out here pretty soon.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Maybe you could help me out with something.” He walked over to his jeep, entering from the driver’s side and reaching over to the passenger’s side to pull something out. My jaw nearly fell onto the floor.
It was the house.
“I was looking at this and found something that I don’t remember putting in here. Want to see?” Now I couldn’t talk. Or move.
“Come on, it won’t bite.” He motioned for me to stand beside him. I walked over slowly and looked at the little house. He’d taken the aluminum foil off. It seemed none the worse for wear after spending a night wedged in a tree limb. At first glance, everything looked as it should.
It struck me like a hammer. There, on the first floor, was a doll. Uncle Will saw that I’d seen it and raised the house a little bit higher so I could look more closely. It was different than anything I’d seen in Uncle Will’s house before, and he did keep a lot of dolls. It had short blond hair, a grungy green shirt, and jeans. Unlike most dolls, which have oversized heads or floppy arms and legs, it was shaped almost exactly like a person.
There was no doubt it was Ryan. I never thought about it before, but of course, since almost everything else in the house was visible on the outside, Ryan should be too. Which wouldn’t have been a problem except for….
“So I got home a little early from the convention, and then I got a phone call from the mother of one of your friends. Apparently there’s some kind of phone chain going on looking for a kid from your school. Seems he went missing sometime yesterday and no one can find him. His name’s Ryan.” He looked at me, gauging my reaction. “He was supposed to meet some friends before the Friday night football game, but he never showed up.” He’d seen the guilt in my eyes. I knew he had. “Any chance this little guy’s name is Ryan?”
I didn’t want to answer, but I knew I didn’t have much choice. I wasn’t getting out of this one. All of the self-righteous good feelings I had from being at Patty’s party were long gone. “Yes, sir.”
Uncle Will set the house down on the ground very carefully.
“You know that you can’t keep him here, right?”
“Care to tell me why you did this?”
“Yes, sir.” and for the next ten minutes I proceeded to tell my Uncle about Patty and Ryan, and the kind of person he was and how I’d needed some way to keep Patty from coming to any harm. And about how Patty needed a friend sometimes.
After I was done, Uncle Will sat quietly for a moment, considering my story.
“Do you think that excuses this?” he asked slowly. I thought of how happy Patty had been when I came to her party and how terrible she would have felt if Ryan had managed to spoil it. I thought of the difficulties Ryan might have for having one of his days disappear.
“Yes, sir.” I answered.
He nodded solemnly. “Then we have a lot to talk about.” He picked up the house, placing it back into the jeep before climbing in himself. “I need to get Ryan someplace where he can be set free. You wait here. I’ll be back in an hour or two.” He turned the keys and the jeep roared to life. “Where did you snatch him from?” he asked over the noise from the engine.
“Second floor art room. Room 234.”
“Got it.” And with that he sped off down the road.
I contemplated running away from home for about half an hour, and then decided I was better off facing the music. Hopefully it would be over soon. I knew I’d never get to use the house again, but that probably didn’t matter much since I was moving out of Uncle Will’s anyway. I found an old tennis ball lying on the garage floor and went outside to toss it against the side of the house, waiting to discover my fate.
True to his word, Uncle Will came back in about an hour. I was still tossing the ball, absorbed in my thoughts. He parked in the garage and then stepped out, motioning for me to throw him the ball, which I did. We threw it back and forth for about ten minutes before either of us spoke.
“What did you do with Ryan?” I asked
“Put him into an unlocked closet kitty-corner from the art room.”
“What’s going to happen to him?”
“No idea, but I don’t think he was in any shape to know what was going on, anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think he has some problems. He had a half empty bottle of vodka in his backpack, and from his breath I think he’d been drinking before you whisked him away.”
I’d figured it out for myself by that time, still, Uncle Will sounded like he thought he was telling me something I didn’t know—might as well let him finish. “You’re kidding.”
“No, and if he’s lucky, he’ll think he blacked out because of the alcohol and lay off the stuff for a few years. But who knows?”
“So he passed out when you went to get him?”
“No, I had to help him along with that a little. When I was in the house, I fed him some sleeping pills, told him they’d transport him out.” Uncle Will shrugged, “I guess they did, when it comes right down to it.”
“Will he be able to get out of the building?”
“Sure, I left the closet unlocked along with the front doors.”
“You broke in?”
“Only to the closet. I think the cross country team was off on a run or something, the doors to the gym were open so it was pretty easy to get in the building.” I threw the ball high and hard. Uncle Will turned around and ran a few steps to catch it over his shoulder like a football. “Since you were the last person he spoke to before his memory gaps, he might have some questions, but you’re a bright kid, I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble answering them.” He threw a line drive so hard it stung my hands. I dropped the ball. “Now here’s my question to you, when did you figure out how to use my little spirit house?”
I stooped to pick up the ball and threw it back, trying to get the same velocity Uncle Will did and failing miserably. “When you took me there.”
He looked at me incredulously. “You expect me to believe that? You weren’t even in fourth grade!”
“You told me some things I didn’t think you wanted anyone to know. Besides, I didn’t remember I’d been into the house. Not at first anyway, it took me a few minutes.”
Uncle Will caught the ball and, instead of throwing it back, he held it tightly. “How much have you been using it?”
“Maybe an hour or two a day.”
“That’s too much.” A look of concern appeared on his face, “You’ve figured out what the house does right?”
“Sure, there’s that, but it steals your life too. You know that? Time in the house isn’t extra time, it’s redistributed time. If you ever wore a watch into the house you’d notice that the hands don’t stop when you go in. Time doesn’t stop for you in there; in fact, it reduces your life span. Think about it, if you go in there for two-and-a-half hours every day that’s like reducing your life span by ten percent. If you were going to live to be a hundred now you’ll only live to be ninety.”
“I kind of figured.”
“From looking at you.”
Uncle Will grimaced, then nodded. “Good, then you’ve learned an important lesson.” We threw the ball back and forth quietly some more.
“How did you find where I put the house?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
He looked thoughtfully at me for a second before he answered, “Then this is the first time you’ve ever used the house outside the living room?”
“OK then, let me explain. As long as it’s not too far away, fifty miles or so, you’ll always get a feeling in the back of your head if you look towards it. It’s the opposite of that pushing feeling you get in your eyes when you look through the portal.”
“Yes, portal. That’s what I call the spot where you look into the house to get inside. Anyway, when you’re trying to find the house, you need to consciously feel for it pulling your eyes towards it. If you don’t feel for it, you’re likely to miss it.” He held the ball. “Go ahead.” He encouraged, but I was already trying. I looked towards the garage and, sure enough, I could feel it in the back of my head, like a magnet lightly pulling on my consciousness.
“I feel it.”
“Then you’ll never lose the house again.” He tossed the ball back to me. “That’s why I keep my best merchandise there. If a thief ever stole it, I’d still know right where it was. There are other reasons too, the most obvious being that no one else is ever going to get in there. Except for you, of course.” He winked. “By the way, you wouldn’t know anything about some missing figurines, would you?”
“Yes, sir!” I ran up to my room to get the box with Uncle Will’s statues. When it was in his hands, he opened it, looking over his treasures briefly to make sure nothing was missing or broken, then we went back outside and into the garage. He pulled the house out of his jeep for the second time that day. He looked at me thoughtfully.
“Think I could find another spot for these figurines?”
“Like maybe that room you’re moving out of?”
“I guess so, but why bother? The house works great, and it’s safe.”
“You know,” he said with the house still in his hands, “The man who gave me this said I’d be able to hand it down to my offspring.” He tapped it lightly with his forefinger. “But I don’t have any, and I doubt that will change in the future. It’s not hard to figure out that this house is the reason why you wanted to stay here instead of moving in with your mother, so why don’t you take it? Best of both worlds.”
“But Uncle Will, I…”
“I don’t need it anymore,” he interrupted. “It’s making me too old to enjoy my life. For me, time in the house is time lost.” He carefully enunciated each word of the last sentence.
“All the women…”
“Were a waste of time.” Uncle Will finished my sentence “I was showing them something fantastic and romantic and they loved it, but they couldn’t remember it, so ultimately, it was a waste of time. What if I’d taken them to a restaurant or a show or something they’d remember instead of dragging them into the house? Maybe I’d be married and have kids.” He looked away from my eyes. I thought a look of sadness crossed his face, but he composed himself too quickly for me to be sure. “Sharon’s the best thing that’s happened to me, and it’s because she’s real and has nothing to do with the house.” He tapped it, “I’m giving this to you because I think you can learn to handle it, and because you’re probably the only person in the world besides me who can use it. You,” he pointed at me, “need to take a lesson from my experience. This thing can screw up your life. Use it wisely,” he said, his voice suddenly softening. “And remember this. There’s more to the house than you know. It’s very dangerous to put it into the sun, so keep it indoors, or, at least in a shady spot. Go slowly while you’re learning, and I’ll be there if you need me.” With that Uncle Will handed me his spirit house.
“I thought you told me before that spirit houses were supposed to be put into sunlight?”
“Usually they are, but not this spirit house. Not yet.”