It looks like the place had been abandoned only yesterday. Everything still. Waiting. Silent. No popcorn can be heard popping. No children screeching as they get spun around on the tilt-o-whirl. No sticky fingers from too much cotton candy.
The child went missing almost 20 years ago. The last sighting of her was of a wide, happy grin and her parents shooing her toward some game or another. Just hoping for a few minutes of peace from their daughter’s endless energy. How could they know they’d never see her again? Of the news coverage and cameras that would follow them around for weeks? Of the devastating heartbreak, anger, and loneliness as one of them abandons the other to their grief?
The leaves being blown along the boardwalk sound like the pitter-patter of children’s feet as they run through the carnival games. I kick aside a hot dog wrapper and wonder how long they searched before they stopped looking for me. When did my stuffed animals get put into storage and then eventually thrown out? How long before their hearts stopped breaking every time they caught a glimpse of another happy child in her parent’s arms?
The memories distract me from my true purpose here. With a shake of my head I make my way to the park across the street. So many families. So many little girls. I straighten with purpose as I scan the crowd searching for the perfect one.
It was the same routine every night—walk the halls, check the stacks, and turn out the lights. When the last door was locked, she saw her tired smile in the glass. This night, her smile was too bright and her eyes crinkled where they shouldn’t.
The reflection wasn’t hers.
Everything’s going to be fine. That was her mantra. Whether silently or out loud, she repeated this phrase to herself at least a hundred times a day. It got her through morning rush hour, pointless staff meetings, or while running errands when she’d rather be taking a hot bath. Her life revolved around fine.
She knew her doctor was lying when he said the lump meant nothing. The procedures were routine. The medication was suppose to make her hang her head over the toilet for two days after every treatment. He told her everything was going to be fine.
She watched from afar as everyone nibbled on cake, awkwardly staring at each other as they stood around her living room. They had moved her furniture to make room for all the people from work who showed up more for the free food then any sense of mourning. The only tears came from her mother, who was burying her only child today. But the roses were lovely and it was nice to know that someone had cared. She would be missed.
The figure in the light at the end of the tunnel turned back to her, “See. I told you everything was going to be just fine.”
Her voice echoed off the staircase towards the glass dome forty feet above her head. The ghost took a deep breath, or what it remembered as breathing, and moaned loud enough to shake the antique picture frame off the walls.
The girl jumped. But, after a moment, she pushed back her shoulders and stopped her quivering lips. She finally took a step towards the formal dining room, still set with the family’s final dinner.
The ghost had to think fast. She was getting away. With a whirl wind of ether, he made all the glass in the china cabinet shatter and reign down in the little girl’s hair. She ducked, tightening her shaking arms around her head until the tremors stopped.
Again, she stood, squared her shoulders, and kept moving towards the forgotten door at the back of the house. A voice only she could hear called to her.
The ghost was running out of time. He stretched his mind back into a different life, found the right words, and scrawled them on the window pane above the kitchen sink. A warning to go no further.
The girl was not quite at the age of being able to read such words, or to understand their meaning. She shrugged her shoulders, took the key off the hook by the door, turned it in the lock, and tip-toed down the cellar stairs.
The door creaked shut behind her.
The ghost hung his head in shame. He had failed to save another one.
The reports trickled in slowly. First, it was whispers between strangers on the bus. Then it was all friends could talk about over their evening cocktails. It was stealthy in the way it took over our lives until you couldn’t turn on a TV or log into Facebook without hearing the latest news. The disease swept our country until almost no one was unaffected.
It was a disease that had plagued humans for as long as we can remember. It has come and gone throughout history. It has killed billions. There is no cure. Life-long friends turn on each other. It has divided families.
“Yeah, sweetie?” I reply distractedly as yet another report comes on.
The first thing she notices as she drives up the road was the great oak tree her great-grandfather had planted was gone. Instead, there was a stump surrounded by a chaotic array of wildflowers and a broken glider swing. The driveway was overgrown and riddled with potholes. It has been more than ten years since anyone came this way.
The house sits on the edge of picturesque wheat fields with a pine forest stretching for acres behind it. She remembered when she first drove past it in the backseat of her parents Chevy station wagon. They saw the rolling golden oats and the blossoming trees. All she saw were the foreboding shadows and the isolation. She didn’t take a full breath until they turned the corner and the plot was out of sight. Over the years the shadows only got darker.
She parks in front of the sinking wrap-around porch. The paint has been peeling since it was first coated on the tin siding. It was always a battle against the wind and the rain. Most of the windows no longer had glass in them. Her mother would cry if she could see the state of her favorite stained glass window. She could see the back living room wall through the holes no one had bothered to fill in. She turns around in time to see the deputy park his car next to hers.
“What are you doin’ here Kate? It’s been a long time.”
It’s been nearly two decades since she’d last seen the deputy. Make that sheriff now. The memories are not kind. He’s a little thicker around the middle and his hair is more snow than sand. His eyes are still crystal blue and granite hard.
“Would you believe I was just passing through?”
He follows her as she walks around the side the of the house. The garden resembles a swamp more than anything vegetables would grow in. The marks of running footsteps have been overgrown with prairie grass. She kicks a rock that somehow seems to be the source of my frustration. It’s better than kicking the real one. She’s trying to keep the memories at bay.
The first bullet missed the window but the second went thru the lower pane. Glass shattered all over the front porch swing. She was too young to realize how dangerous those small popping sounds were. She knew that when the black noise maker came out, daddy was mad. Those nights were long and sleepless. Mamma usually went to bed downstairs with blue and purple rings around her eyes. She was only seven when she first grabbed a dirty dish rag to wipe away her mother’s tears.
By the time she was ten she had become a master liar. She spun tales better than spiders spun webs. Fragile, works of art and no one bothered it for fear the truth would fall out.
She looks over her shoulder as the sheriff trips over what’s left of the old wood pile. She can’t breathe. The shed is a pile of broken rubble. One wall still stands. All that’s left of the door are the silver hinges that are dingy and blackened. She unglues her feet from the path and starts walking. She steps around the broken handle of Daddy’s old ax and stops to peer at the stain inside the open doorway.
“The least you guys could have done was clean up the blood.”