“I think I’ll go finish my book,” Charlotte said, and disappeared around the hedgerow. She stomped a bit too heavily on the gravel, and the screen door cracked as it swung shut. Jack’s mother’s voice drifted faintly across the yards, and he didn’t need to be able to make out the words to know she was asking if Charlotte was raised in a barn.
“Very subtle, your sister,” the girl said. She leaned back into the truck, and resumed struggling with the box.
That finally snapped Jack back from his thoughts. He stepped into the truck, squatting down and lifting the box. He grunted.
“What the heck is in here?”
“I think this thing weighs more than you do,” Jack said, shuffling down the ramp. The girl picked up another, smaller box, and followed Jack. He stepped aside at the bottom of the ramp, hitched the box up to settle his grip.
“Follow me,” the girl said.
They crossed the yard, picking their way across the overgrown walkway to the porch. The steps creaked. The planks of the porch creaked, too. The front screen door made something like a squeal and a shriek as the girl toed it open.
The neighbor’s farmhouse was slightly larger than the Jacobs’ next door. The family room and dining room were separated by a foyer, from which the stairs climbed. It also continued back, where it opened up into the kitchen.
“This way,” the girl said, and started up the stairs. She stayed close to the wall. “Don’t use the bannister. It’s loose.”
Jack leaned against the wall for balance as he made his way up the stairs. Like his house, they curved before reaching the top landing, and three doorways lined the upstairs balcony.
He glanced at the door as the girl opened it, saw that it was a plain, solid door, in need of a good sanding and repainting. There were no signs of of extra locks attached to the outside.
Her room was about the size of his sisters’ but looked smaller. Stacks of boxes lined one wall, flanking a large bureau. A large four-posted bed stood in the corner, and a huge roll-top desk took up another corner, nearer the window. The boxes were all labeled in a neat, squared-off hand: A. BEDRM. The row of checkboxes printed on the side were darkened in accordingly. Jack set his down among the rest of the boxes marked “BOOKS.” He noted there were more boxes in that stack than there were in “CLOTHES” and “PERSONAL EFFECTS.”
“Sorry about the mess,” the girl said, putting her own box down on the bed, next to a box marked “CLOTHES.” It was open, with half its contents strewn about the floor. Now that he had a chance to look, the girl appeared to’ve dressed that way as well: throwing on whatever was available.
She wore dark jeans and hiking boots. One boot was laced with a hot pink shoelace, the other neon green. Her pale green tee shirt was mostly covered beneath a pocketed vest that hung halfway to her knees. Various buttons and pins decorated the flaps that held bulging pockets shut, decorated with hearts or peace-signs. Others had sayings on them like “If at first you don’t succeed, sky diving is not for you,” and “Archaeology is ruinous work.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jack said. “I’ve seen worse.” He’d made the mistake of asking to borrow a book from Hannah before one of the dances at the middle school. He wondered if his sisters had left anything in the closets on hangers, or if they’d just piled it all atop the beds and most of the floor.
They descended the stairs in silence, and an older man looked out from the archway to the right of the stairs, from what would have been the dining room.
“I thought I heard voices,” he said. He was tall, maybe a little taller than Jack’s father, with dark hair and a round face. His pale blue eyes were nearly lost behind thick rounded glasses in heavy black frames. He was a bit round in the middle, too.
“Jack, this is the Professor.”
“How do you do, Jack?” the man said, holding out his hand. Jack took it, and his teeth rattled a bit as the man pumped his arm up and down. “Pleased to finally meet you. Beth talked about you the whole way back from the train station.”
“She did?” he said.
“Oh, yes. It’s a brave thing you’ve done, my boy. Very brave indeed.”
“It is? What is?”
“Come on,” the girl — Beth — said, tugging on Jack’s sleeve. “Those boxes aren’t going to move themselves.”
“It was nice meeting you!” Jack said as he was hustled out the door.
* * * * *
She turned. “Yes?”
“That’s… short for something, isn’t it?”
He drew in a breath, and she turned the rest of the way, putting a finger across his lips. “Don’t,” she said.
“You don’t remember. That’s all right. It happens. But don’t ask. Not now. Not yet. It’s too soon.”
He frowned, but nodded, slowly.
She took her finger away, smiling.
She started walking again. “Come on,” she said, extending a hand.
Jack took it, and she tugged him across the yard. Towards the woods.
He glanced over at the truck.
“Don’t worry about that,” she said. “It’ll sort itself out.”
“But you just said—“
It was the same tone his mother used when he was treading too close to certain lines.
“Where are we going?”
“I want to go someplace, but I don’t want to go alone. Will you come with me?”
The far side of the neighbor’s yard — Beth’s yard now. Or the Professor’s, at any rate — sloped slightly uphill and was lined with mostly young trees. There were gaps aplenty between them, beyond which spread a long, narrow clearing. Several stumps dotted the clear space, and Jack remembered that his dad and a couple other neighbors up the road had to clear away a couple of trees that had fallen during a winter ice storm. They hadn’t needed firewood for nearly two years.
At the far end of the clearing, a stream trickled along the edge of the woods. The bank was low and broad and stony, meandering along the border with the woods before it wound around beneath the drainage channel under and alongside Route 3. The stream started several miles the other way, where the hill climbed mores steeply around what used to be fields behind the properties. The water bubbled up from a fissure in a rocky wedge that seemed to’ve been cut from the hillside by some giant’s axe. Jack and his sisters had been there a couple times, before Charlotte and Hannah’s schoolwork had begun eating into so much of their afternoons.
Beth stopped along the rocky bank of the stream, looking up and down it’s length.
“It’s changed,” she said.
“It’s always been like this,” Jack said. “There’s a narrow part up here, before it bends.” It was his turn to guide her.
She took the lead again, once they’d climbed up the bank and made their way back into the trees. It was darker here, a cool, relaxing green-tinged dimness. Jack was familiar with several of the trails, recognized the first three or four branches that the girl followed as they wound their way through the trees. She would slow, glance briefly down each pathway, and then pick one, seemingly at random.
When they came to the two twined trees, she veered right, rather than following the trail’s curve to the left. They had to push through overgrowth, and the leaves whipping in his face forestalled any questions Jack wanted to ask. Just when it seemed they were totally lost, they stumbled into another clearing, though much smaller than the one at the edge of the forest.
He’d been here before, though not while he was awake. He glanced up at the trees.
Beth squeezed his hand. “It’s all right. It’s daylight.” She guided him down the slope, began walking along the low stone wall that Jack had tripped over in his dream. He probably still would have tripped over it, were she not guiding him.
“What is this place?”
“It is — used to be — a church.”
Jack slowed. “In the middle of the woods?”
“It wasn’t always,” Beth said. She looked down, kicked at the leaves.
Jack tensed, expecting her to break a toe against the wall.
Leaves and clods of dirt flew away from a gap. Jack gave an experimental kick, then another until he struck the other side of what must have been a doorway. He leaned down, brushing at the stonework. It was caked with the layers and layers of decomposed leaves, half buried in dirt. He wiped at the dirt, then realized that it wasn’t soil that stained the rough-cut masonry.
It was soot.
Beth took several steps through the doorway. She glanced this way and that, walking slowly up what must have, at one point in time, been the main aisle between pews. She even genuflected before she stepped across the aisle. She held a hand out, a bit higher than waist level, as if she were dragging her fingers along the back of a pew. She must have reached the end of the row, because her hand dropped, and she turned a slow circle, glancing upwards. At stained glass windows, Jack wondered. At the crucifix? Maybe a choir loft?
Beth gave a sigh and a little bit of a shiver, then walked back over to Jack, ignoring the pews this time. She held her hand out to Jack, he took it, and they retraced their steps in silence.
“Thank you,” she said, when they reached the stream.
“For… not asking your thousand questions.”
Jack shrugged. “You looked busy. Besides, it was sort of… peaceful there.”
“When the sun is up,” she said, nodding. “Can you… keep that place a secret?”
“Who would I tell?”
“And… please don’t go there alone. Not even during the day.”
“Okay. Um… what about, you know… dreaming?”
“You won’t find your way back there,” she said. She laid her hand on his chest, right over where the ring hung against it. “I promise you.”
The ring felt hot when she took her hand away, and his chest tingled where her fingertips had rested.
* * * * *
“Do you want to come over for dinner? You and the Professor?”
Beth slowed. “Oh, I don’t know. There’s still so much unpacking.”
“What happened to ‘it’ll sort itself out.’?”
Beth’s eyes flashed, a flicker of temper burning in them, and then she smiled, laughing. “I’ll ask him. You should probably get home.”
Jack looked up. The afternoon sun seemed a lot lower than when they’d entered the woods.
She squeezed his hand again, and then let go as she climbed the front porch steps. Without a heavy box in her arms, they didn’t make a sound.
Jack walked across the yard. The yellow truck was there, but the ramp was tucked back in, the rolling door shut and padlocked.
Charlotte was sitting on the porch, and she stood up, spreading her arms across the posts that flanked the steps.
“Not so fast,” she said. “Inspection, first.”
Charlotte looked at one cheek and then the other. She sighed, stepping aside. “I’m disappointed,” she said.
He glared again, and walked into the house.
Ellie was planted in front of the TV, watching cartoons. Hannah looked up from a book, then buried her nose back in it.
Jack went into the kitchen. His mother was stirring something in one of the pots bubbling away on the stove.
“Hey,” Jack said. “Can I help?”
“Sure you have the energy for it?” his mother asked.
“I… um, yeah.” He wondered just what Charlotte had told his mother.
She stepped away from the wooden spoon. “Make sure that doesn’t stick.”
Jack stirred, slowly. It was a thick, rich mushroom gravy.
“And yes, the Professor and his daughter are invited to dinner.”
Jack nodded. “What happened to settling in?”
“Settling in is hard work. Builds up an appetite.”
Jack’s stomach growled. He looked up at the clock. It was nearly 5. Had they been in the woods that long..?
“It was nice of you to help them.”
“I didn’t mind,” Jack said. He wondered again what Charlotte had told them. Or rather, what she hadn’t told them.