NaNoWriMo: Day 30 Aaaannnd done!

Epilogue

The whistling of the tea kettle brought me back to my senses. I shook my head, stopped looking out the window at the blue house next door, and turned the gas off. Then I poured the steaming water into my mug, and dropped a pouch of mint tea in it. I tied the string around the handle of the mug, as is my habit, and let it sit and steep on the countertop.

I hadn’t realized just how much of my childhood I had forgotten, how much had slipped through the cracks, and never resurfaced. How could I have gone through the rest of my entire childhood and adult life with that just stewing in the back of my mind, unaddressed and unnoticed?

I picked up my mug, and took a sip. The tea was still too hot, and burnt my lip, but I swallowed it down anyway. It was good, refreshing, and it warmed me up from the inside, as it settled in my belly.

I never did see Ms. Cleary again, I realized, standing there with my tea. The last that I saw of her she was walking into that house, and closing the large, sliding glass door. She must have moved out, though, because I remember having other neighbors, many, in fact, in that old blue house next door. None of them ever stayed more than a year, either, and most moved out after several weeks, or months. My parents would say that it was because they didn’t like the location, or got a new job, or were short on money and couldn’t afford the mortgage, but I always thought that it was haunted, and that there was some ghost or ghoul living inside of it, that drove everyone out.

It occurred to me then that that was how I had transformed, and distorted my memories of the house. I came to believe that it was haunted, and even then, remembered pouring salt around my house in a circle, so that I could keep any ghosts from coming in to get me. But all along it had been the opposite. The details were all there, they were just mismatched and scrambled. It made me wonder as to exactly how many of my memories were in this skewed state. Were these the only ones, or was I still not remembering more, even now?

I stared out the window again at Ms. Cleary’s old house and yard. What had ever happened to her? Where did she go to? I remembered the days after with astonishingly sharp detail in the moment, but as I riffled through them, like flipping pages in a photo album, I did not see any picture of her leaving, or moving out. She had just been gone. I’m sure that if she wanted to, she could have flown away, in the middle of the night, and left with no one being the wiser. But maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe she hadn’t made Owd Hob disappear, but just thrown him into her home, and then gone inside to grapple with him again, a battle that perhaps had ended with the destruction of the both of them. Maybe she had been pulled inside of that house, and been lost from this world forever. The only thing I was certain of, was that I would never know, and could never be sure of what exactly happened to Ms. Cleary, or the one she had called Owd Hob.

Or could I?

After a long drink from my mug I set it down on the counter, and went to grab a jacket and shoes. I was still in my pajama pants, and an old t-shirt, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t that cold out, and I wouldn’t be gone for long. I made sure to shut off the porch light before leaving.

I slipped out the door, closed it quietly, and  crept over to the hedge, and moved along it to the end of the yard, turned back around, and came back up the yard next door. The night was cooler than it had been earlier, and the air humid, from the rain. I didn’t know who still lived on the street, and did not want to be recognized or seen, sneaking around the neighborhood. Up above me the moon shone light down, peaking its glowing white face from behind a thin layer of cloud.

There was no car in the drive of Ms. Cleary’s old place, and a ‘for sale’ sign staked at the edge of the lawn, so I assumed no one was at home, and that the house had still never changed from what I remembered it to be. I passed the tree where I had first seen Clara sitting, up in one of the taller branches, wearing her overalls and smacking gum. That was how I would always remember her. When I reached the wooden gate, it was unlocked. I pushed it open, and the hinges creaked, and groaned in protest. They had probably not been oiled in years, if ever. I stepped into the garden, and it was nothing like the way I remembered it just moments before.

The whole thing was like a barren wasteland, and there was more dirt in the yard than grass. It looked like a vacant lot, the kind kids would play baseball and soccer in, and kick up dust as they ran around. A few weeds rose above the flat land, and were especially clustered around the cement porch, poking through the cracks that had developed over time. They were the only life in the entire yard, and even they were wrinkled, and dehydrated, although it had only just rained. It was as if there was something underneath the ground; something with an unending thirst, that sucked up every last drop, and left no water for anything else to live off of.

I walked into the middle of the yard. the ground was damp from the rain, but already drying faster than it should have been. My sneakers left tracks in the ground behind me, and I stopped in the very center, where I remember setting down my dead uncle, and watching as he came back to life in front of my very eyes.

It all seemed so surreal and impossible now, as an adult. I had lived my whole life up until now, not believing in magic or monsters, or ghosts, or anything out of the ordinary. By the time I reached a certain age I had stopped believing in all that nonsense, and grown up. It was only for stories and daydreaming, and only existed in our heads. I began to start convincing myself then that what I had remembered in one long flash of recall, had been some sort of delusion, or hallucination. Maybe I was still grieving over my dead mother, and my mind had not yet moved on. It seemed by far more likely than the possibility that all of those impossible things that had happened to me were in fact real.

I knelt down, and wiped my hand along the wet ground. It felt like damp sand, drying out in a hot sun. I stood back up, and made to leave. I didn’t know what I had expected to find there. Not a thing had changed since I left for college, and I had not come back in all that time in between now and then.

And then I heard something, and it was very faint. So faint, that I almost did not hear it at all. It was a wandering, wavering humming tune, low and distant, and muted. It sounded as if someone were standing just on the other side of that glass door. I turned toward the noise, and walked up to the glass door quickly. The humming did not get louder or softer, but rather stayed where it was, at that annoying, just out of reach level, where I could hear it, but not all of it, and some notes were still lost in the wind, or the scuffling of my feet.

I was up at the sliding door, with my face pressed against it, and my hands cupped around my eyes, trying to see in at who was humming. But there was nobody there. The place was completely empty, and it did not  look a thing like I remembered Ms. Cleary’s kitchen looking like. There was a counter built into the wall, and a refrigerator, along with an open space where a table could go. But there was no wood-burning stove, no jars along the walls, and no Ms. Cleary sitting there humming, and waiting for her apple crisp to warm, as I’d thought, and secretly hoped. But the humming was still there, only it actually was growing fainter now, as if whoever had been doing the humming had walked away, into another room of the house, and was walking down the hall.

I backed away from the house, and shook my head, turned back around, and walked away. There hadn’t been anyone humming, I decided. It had only been the wind, or some combination of other sounds, along with my own deep desire to actually hear something, and confirm the wonderful but impossible things that could never have happened.

I went through the squeaky gate again, and back around the hedge that separated the two yards. I went inside, turned the porch light back on, and returned to my mug of tea. I had not been gone long, and it was at the perfect temperature. Not too hot, but still far from lukewarm. I brought the tea with me into the living room, with all of my still packed boxes, and sat down in the middle of them, opened the one closest to me.

I reached my hand in blindly, and grasped around for something to pull out. My hand brushed something cold and metallic, and I grabbed hold of it, and brought it out.

I didn’t remember packing it, but there it was, solid, real, and unchanged by the years: the rusted iron key that Clara had given to me as a child.

NaNoWriMo: Day 29

Chapter 15

 

Cold, wet drops smacked me on top of my head, dampening my hair, and a flash of lightning tore across the sky, followed several seconds later by the rumbling of thunder. The rain was only coming down half-heartedly, in a thin drizzle, but soon enough the ground was slick, and my shoes slid as I held onto my uncle’s feet, wrapping one arm around each ankle, and walking between them, as Ms. Cleary dragged him along by the shoulders. His butt sagged to the ground and dragged along it, making one long track, that I stepped on either side of as I walked.

We set him down in the middle of the garden, on the damp grass. His white shirt was wet and stained with  blood, that ran together to make the white bits pink. Ms. Cleary lowered his head , and stepped back.

I stood there and looked down at him, and I was sure that he was dead. With the boggart gone, his face seemed more like I remembered it, and, while I was never the best of friends with my uncle, we had just been getting to know one another better, and I had thought things could be okay between us. Now, there wasn’t any way that that could happen. I’d lost another member of my family.

Ms. Cleary closed her eyes and bowed her head, and started humming in a soft, low tone. She hummed a wandering tune, with no real melody or theme to it, and it varied in both pitch and rhythm, and seemed to hit every possible note and tempo. She sped up and slowed down whimsically, and the tune bounced between minor and major, not lingering long enough in either to be characterized as mostly happy or sad in quality.

The pitter-patter of raindrops on leaves matched Ms. Cleary’s rhythm, and the branches and flowers swayed in the wind, each bobbing along in their own way.

As I watched all of this, the colors of the garden all began to fade. At first I just thought that it was getting darker, and that the sun was going down, but then I noticed that neither Ms. Cleary or my uncle had been changed, and when I looked down at myself, saw that I looked no darker than I had a moment before. But the vibrant purple of the lavender buds, and the bright yellow of the daffodils were being drained away, as if someone had a vacuum that sucked away color, and was aiming it at each and every plant in Ms. Cleary’s garden. And all the while, Ms. Cleary continued to hum away.

Then my uncle’s foot twitched. It was the smallest of movements, just the involuntary tensing up of the leg that caused it, but it was a movement nonetheless. I stared in wonder, as tiny streams of yellow light curled out from beneath the ground, and flickered and twined up and down my uncle’s body. They were each like miniscule sparks of electricity, that sizzled and traced lines up my uncle’s chest, and through the hole in his abdomen.

More and more of the plants in the garden were withering, and growing dry, and the more they did so, the more sparks flew out from the dirt and onto my uncle. Remembering the incident with the snail, the tiny flicker of hope in my chest blossomed into a roaring bonfire, and I knew my uncle was saved. The garden had healed the snail, at the cost of a few dandelions, and I realized then, with a pang of guilt, that Ms. Cleary knew exactly what was happening, and was fully willing to sacrifice every living thing in her precious garden for my uncle to come back to life.

Everything around me was shriveling and shrinking, and crunching itself down into dust. Soon, I could see clearly the boundaries of the yard, the fence, the sliding glass door to the kitchen, everything. The jungle of leaves was melting away before my very eyes.

When I looked back down at my Uncle Martin, his eyes were open, and he was breathing long, deep breaths. He looked at me, and his eyes were full of questions.

“Wha–” he began, but Ms. Cleary cut him off, kneeling down low beside him, and placing a finger on his mouth.

“Shhh,” she said. “Just lay back, and close your eyes. Everything is going to be all right.”

And he did, almost immediately, as if he had no choice in the matter. A glazed-over look came onto him, and he yawned, and smacked his lips, and fell into a deep sleep. He looked content and at ease, with not a care in the world.  Every so often, a snore escaped.

By now there were no more plants in the garden. Everything had collapsed, and all that remained were dried up twigs and grass, brown and dead, and already decaying into the earth.

“Thank you,” I said, and hugged Ms. Cleary as hard as I could, burying my head in her dress, and blinking back tears. “I’m sorry about all of your plants.”

She patted my head, and said nothing for a short while. The rain had stopped, and the storm was passing. I could still hear the rumbling of distant thunder, but it was further away now, and moving on.

Then, “Don’t worry your little head about the garden, child. These things happen.” She said it like it was a simple truth, like stating that the sky is blue. “When he wakes up, he won’t remember any of this, as he shouldn’t. Your mother will forget as well, and in time, you will too.”

I stopped hugging her, stepped back and looked her in the eye, and shook my head. “No I won’t,” I said. “I’ll never forget any of this. How could I?”

Ms. Cleary shrugged. “Time happens. It stretches and warps things, and most of what you do will get swept under the rug, and you won’t even think to think of them again. They’ll just be there, inside, and if you remember them at all, you’ll remember them as foggy dreams, or things you’d only just imagined.”

She then started walking back to the glass door, as if that was all that had to be said.

“Wait,” I said. “What happened to Owd Hob? Is he gone forever? What did you do to him?”

She stopped, and turned to look at me, sized me up, as if trying to decide whether or not she was going to tell me the truth. “He’s not gone, no,” she said at last. “But so long as you never come back to this house, he’ll never be able to bother you again.”

I paused. “But,” I said. “but what about you?”

Ms. Cleary smiled, and wrinkles swallowed up her eyes. “Oh, don’t you worry for a second about me. I’ve never been better. And there are far worse things that have happened in my lifetime. This one will not be a smidgen of trouble.”

And then Ms. Cleary turned her back on me. I watched her hobble her way to the door, slide it open, and disappear inside.

As soon as the door had closed, my uncle’s eyes popped open again, and he sat up, and looked around, confused and disoriented.

“Wha happened?” he asked, to no one in particular. Then he saw me, and his eyes lit up with recognition, and he smiled. “Hey buddy. Did I fall asleep, or what?”

I smiled. “Yeah, just for a little while.”

He stood up. “Well,” he said. “We should probably get going, get you back to your mom. It’s almost dinner time, I think.”

We walked out of the yard together, and back to my house. He did not remark on the strangeness of taking a nap in the neighbor’s yard, and neither did I.

My mother was no longer lying passed out on the porch, but was inside, and putting the finishing touches on a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, with garlic bread. No one mentioned anything odd about the day, and when my mother and uncle talked to one another, it was more polite, and guarded, and she didn’t touch him on the arm, and paid far more attention to me at the table, than to him.

After dinner my uncle stood up and stretched. He thanked my mother for the meal, but stated that he should really be getting back home, and get some rest before work in the morning. They did not hug, or kiss, and before he left he ruffled my hair, like he used to, and said he’d be by the next weekend to help me get that treehouse started. Then he walked out the door, and backed the green truck out of the driveway, and took it off down the lane.

The rest of the night seemed so normal that it was almost surreal. I helped my mother wash the dishes and pack away the leftovers from dinner, and then we both sat in front of the television, and watched several game shows together, before she told me that it was time to brush my teeth, and get ready for bed.

Already the events of the day were fading away. I tried my best to hold onto them, but it was like they were tied to a string, and every time I reached out to touch one it was plucked away, by some invisible hand on the other end. Eventually I only found it tiring to try, and stopped trying to remember all together. Things were good now. That seemed to be all that really mattered, when I thought about it.

When I tucked myself into bed that night, and turned out the light, there was little on my mind. I thought that tomorrow I’d ask my mother to take me to the library, after she got off from work, and pick up a new book. Maybe a ghost story, or another fantasy adventure one. I pulled up the covers, and snuggled my head against my pillow.

And later this week, my uncle would come over, and together we’d work on that treehouse he had promised me.

NaNoWriMo: Day 28

I floated in nothingness. I tried to raise my hand to look at it, but could not see it, and felt nothing there. There was a buzzing, static hum in the air that surrounded and absorbed me, until I lost all sense of where I was, and drifted. Thoughts moved around through space, swirling in the black, and I could not tell if they belonged to me, or someone else. Maybe some version of a boy that was lost and scared, but I did not recognize who he was, or if there was really anyone there at all.

It was unpleasantly warm, the air stifling and muggy, and I felt as if I were choking, and could not breathe. Everytime I tried to, it only felt like I was sucking on a velvet rag that was shoved in my mouth, and down my throat.

Other than the mild discomfort, it was almost something like sleeping, almost like how I imagined death would be like. This was it. The end of the line. Nothing and nothing, forever. But if there was nothing, and I was dead, how was I thinking these thoughts? I tried to follow a line of logic, but could not keep more than one thought from creeping into my mind at a time. They were frayed, and disconnected. Random spurts of memory and feeling. A snapshot here, a fragment there. Images of a man vaguely familiar to me, getting into a car and starting it. Pangs of sadness, a tugging at my heart. A picture of a ruined birthday cake, candles smashed in and crooked, frosting smeared, the number seven on it warped and smudged. I wondered who it belonged to.

Then back to nothingness again, and it stayed that way for some time, I was not sure how long it was. It could have been seconds or minutes, or days or years. But however long it was, eventually, I heard something. A voice. It spoke through the darkness, ringing loud and clear, like a shot through the night.

“Hold on to yourself, boy.”

It was the voice of Ms. Cleary, and then suddenly, I came back to myself, was no longer slipping further away, and into the dark. My mind clung to those words, and repeated them over and over, like a mantra. And every time I repeated them, I heard her voice again, and I could see her face, and knew that she had arrived at last to help me. But she was too late. There was little she could do to help me now. It was over. But still I repeated the words, and still, I held on to my hope. That was all that I had left then. All that I was.

Then, a pinhole of light. A faint star in the distant black, light years away from me. It flickered and shone, and was growing, gradually. I could see nothing else, just the blinding white light, or the suffocating black sea, there was no in between. The white light grew and grew, until it enveloped me, and swallowed me whole, and I was forced to stare into it. All the while, I repeated the words of Ms. Cleary in my head. Hold on to yourself, boy. I knew, that if I ever stopped listening to those words, and did not repeat them to myself, I would be lost once more, and never be able to find my way out.

Suddenly I was cold again. I could feel. I raised a hand to my face, and saw it there this time. Light pooled outward from my hand, and when I looked down, I saw that it was coming from my entire body. I glowed, and shone, with a light that blended into the dazzling whiteness around me.

As I stared closer at my hand, trying to see the point where the light from it stopped and the whiteness began, it started to blur, and vibrate, making a small, humming noise. The humming grew, and turned into a large, thrumming rattle, that shook my whole body. I was jolted upward then, one great shake up, and then back down. Again, the jolt, but this time larger. The third time, I felt something like a hand grabbing hold of the scruff of my shirt, and yanking me up and out. The whiteness vanished back to its small dot, then briefly, I was in the dark, until at last I was being coughed out, and thrown up, onto the grass and out of Owd Hob.

Ms. Cleary was there, and already at my side, and she was holding me. Owd Hob was crouched on the ground just above me, on his hands and knees, and panting.

“I told you, this is it,” she was saying to him. “You’ve done what you came for, what I brought you here to do. Now get!” I could hear my uncle behind me, no longer frantically scooting away. His breath was harsh and ragged. It came slow, and was unevenly spaced.

Owd Hob snarled. “You can’t stop me, wench! You have no power to send me back.”

Ms. Cleary hacked back something in her throat, and spit it on the ground.

“Maybe not,” she said. “But I don’t have to.”

Owd Hob lunged forward, and then there was a sound of a thousand whips all cracking at once, and he was flat on his face, on the ground. Another crack, and he was lifted up, and into the air, laid flat, wis arms and legs out. Then with a slow, grinding sound, he was stretched out. He made a sound like screeching tires and power tools, whirring and screaming in pain. He was stretched, further and further, until he was so thin and so fine, that he was not much else but a line.

Ms. Cleary was standing now, and her hands were held out, fingers twitching in the air. The line wiggled, and contorted, and then flew, straight as an arrow, and through the walls of Ms. Cleary’s house. And then there was silence, and Ms. Cleary lowered her hands. She looked down at me, and smiled.

“It’s okay now boy,” she said to me. “It’s over.”

I had no energy at all, and felt as if I were only a cloud of smoke, that could be blown out into nothing with the wave of a hand. It was then that I realized that I was still gone from my body, but it was only a passing thought, as weariness overcame me, and I fell back. I felt my eyes closing, and then a sudden rush of motion and wind.

I hit the ground hard, as if I had fallen straight down, and landed on  my back. The breath was knocked out of me, and I gasped, strained for air. My eyes teared open to the sight of trees and branches above me, and a dark, cloudy sky. I was back in the forest. Back in my body, at the fairy ring.

I struggled to my feet, and managed to stand still, and steady, hold my balance. I felt dizzy, and slightly nauseous. I picked up the mirror from the ground, looked into it, and thought of Ms. Cleary.

She was kneeling above my uncle, staring down at him. He was gasping for breath now, and looked very pale. She cradled his head in her hands, and was speaking so softly, that I couldn’t hear what exactly she was saying, or if she was saying anything at all, and not just mumbling to herself.

My uncle’s eyes were foggy, and distant, and seemed to be looking just over Ms. Cleary’s shoulder, and into the mirror, as if he could see me watching him. There was blood running down his chin, from out of his mouth.

Then Ms. Cleary spoke.

“You should come now,” she said, and I knew she was speaking to me. “And fast. We need to move him, and I can’t do it by myself.”

I was taking off then, down the path and through the forest, as fast as my legs could carry me. My knees pumped up, and my mind was focused, and centered. I tore through the winding path, holding tight to the mirror in my hand, cupped it like a football to my side. I broke through the line of trees, and out into the field, speeding ahead now that I could see the fence across the meadow.

When I reached the fence I jumped up, and clung onto it like Spider-man sticking to a wall, and clambered up and over it as fast as I could carry myself. I held onto the mirror the whole way, and was careful not to drop it, and when I swung over to the other side I dropped down, nearly the whole ten feet, and stumbled on the ground, and fell. Then I was back up, and running again.

Ms. Cleary was still there, kneeling down next to my uncle. His shirt was covered in blood, and his hands were clasped over his stomach. His eyes were open, but they looked glassy, like they weren’t really seeing anything. Ms. Cleary’s face was grave, and she barely inclined her head in acknowledgement at my arrival.

“Come on, and help me lift his legs,” she said to me. “We’ve got to get him into the garden.”

I walked around the side of her, and she stood up. When I grabbed onto my uncle’s legs they were stiff, and cold. She and I carried him around the hedge and through the fence, and an awful stench followed us as we brought my uncle into Ms. Cleary’s garden.