The Mysterious Place
Before I was allowed to go to Will’s house, my mother made me take our empties to the bottle depot. I loaded up five garbage bags into the back of my wagon, and carried the last one. it wasn’t a very great fashion statement. When I got to the little white garage that had only been transformed into the bottle depot a few months ago, my shirt was stained and my skin was sticky with juice. As I stood in line, a woman with six kids came to stand beside me. I glanced passively at them. They were all boys except one, and I think there were at least two pairs of twins. The mother was kind of pretty, in a tired, middle-aged kind of way, and the kids, who were all under seven years old, stood silently. This struck me as odd. They looked like little soldiers.
“Excuse me,” said the woman, and I realized I was staring. Blushing and mumbling something, I tried to turn away. “No, wait,” she said, shifting a box of empty glass bottles from one hip to the other. “Are you from around here? How old are you?”
“I’m twelve,” I said, kind of confused. I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, especially not tell them how old I was.
She looked relieved. “Would you like a job?” she asked me. “Babysitting my kids? I really, really need a babysitter for my kids.”
“Um, ok…I just need to ask my mother, I guess.” Now I was even more flabbergasted. How did this woman know I wasn’t going to kidnap them or something? And wasn’t twelve kind of young to baby-sit kids from ages two to six? The woman’s name was Rebecca Hammond, and the kids were, in order from youngest to oldest, Rivka, Cameron and Colter, Joseph and Josh, and Daman. They all had blond hair, brown eyes, and woeful expressions. Graham was so different from them that I had no idea how to deal with them, so I just said hi, and we all looked at each other wearily. Mrs. Hammond told me she lived on Richard’s Street, just one block away from mine. Convenient. She said that she would pay me ten dollars an hour if I would just watch them twice a week, and that I could even do my homework and stuff because they were easy to amuse. To me she seemed a little bit desperate, which made me even more suspicious.
She gave me her phone number. Here, since everyone’s home number began with the same six digits, they gave you the last four. “Eight-three-oh-seven,” she said. “And yours?”
“Nine-nine-forty-eight. How many hours would I be working?” If I even took the job.
“No more than two after school,” she assured me, offering me a tired smile.
I made twenty-five dollars off of the bottles. I put the money in my pocket, said good-bye to the Hammonds, and went home to tell my mother that some random lady wanted me to look after her sad looking kids. she took it better than I thought.
“It will be good work experience for you,” she declared. “It might even teach you some responsibility.” This she emphasized with a hard look. “Tell Mrs. Hammond that you will take the job. And then you can go over to your friend’s.”
I would start work tomorrow. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
When I pulled out of my driveway on my bike and turned right, following the directions Will had given me over the phone, I noticed that the family I had noticed having a barbeque all those weeks ago were having a garage sale. The money in my pocket made its presence known. The only person there was a girl about my age, sitting behind a table that had a cashbox on top. She greeted me.
“Hello. My name is Haley, and I’m your neighbour,” I said as a cursory response.
“I know,” she replied, “I’ve seen you around. You’re Abigail Foreman’s cousin, aren’t you?”
“I’m Jocelyn Everence.” We smiled at each other, and I awkwardly appraised the items on the tables. The conversation stopped here. I could hardly look at the girl. Even though she had shoulder-length black hair and Annabelle’s had been blond, something in her eyes reminded me of my friend. My eyes welled.
“Do you know what year this was made in?” I held up an old dictionary that was peeling and yellow with age. it was the most beautiful thing I had seen. I could tell many people had used it many times. Mothers whose children asked them questions like “What does reliquary mean? How do you spell hypochlorous?” would send them to go look it up. There was even red underlines and writing in the margins.
“No,” she admitted. “But it’s a dollar if you want it. It was my grandmother’s. Or great-grandmother’s…I don’t remember exactly.”
“I’ll take it.”
I was at Jocelyn’s cashbox table, and I handed her my five dollar bill. As she took it, she glanced over my shoulder and her face drained of colour. “What’s wrong?” I asked, looking too. Three boys were walking in, all gangster-like, and I recognised one of them as Preston from the party. He was smiling oddly.
“Hey, Josie,” he said, his voice mocking. “What’s all this?” he brushed his hand over a china teapot, and the way he touched it made me want to snatch it away from him. I decided immediately that I didn’t care if Preston was Abigail’s gentleman. I didn’t like him. not one bit. The two boys were silent. He was the school bully, the tough guy around here, and they were just his sidekicks. Jocelyn was frozen, eyes unblinking as she looked at them. moving so swiftly that I almost missed the movement, Preston knocked over the table, sending everything crashing to the ground amid the shattered china and glass.
“What the heck?” I screamed, opting for a stronger word but too stunned to find one. “What did you go and do that for?”
Preston just laughed and hooked his thumbs in his pockets, strolling out as if he had only wanted to take a look. One of his henchmen picked up a little china doll’s teacup, the only thing that had survived with just a scratch. Enraged and confused, I turned to Jocelyn.
“Why did you just let them go?”
“What did you expect me to do? in case you didn’t notice, they’re bigger than us.” She was still kinds of pale, and I’m sure she wanted her voice to sound defensive but she only sounded meek and defenceless, as though she had told herself this many times. Shaking my head at her, I bent to pick up the broken dishes. “Are you going help?” Then I could finally, finally get to Will’s house. the door at the back of the garage leading to the house creaked open, and a small, elflike woman poked her poofy greying head through, eyes widening when she saw the mess.
“Jocelyn!” she exclaimed. “Was it Preston again?” She nodded, bending so that her hair hid her face. I heard the woman sigh as though she were losing her patience, but decided to let it go. “Thank you for staying to help,” she said to me. “I’m Lucy, Jocelyn’s mom.”
“Nice to meet you.” Finished with the task of cleaning up, I brushed off my hands and grabbed my dictionary. “Thanks for this—hey, what’s that?”
Up on the wall there was a beautiful painting of a black and blue butterfly the size of my head, so detailed that it looked three dimensional. When I took a closer look, I saw that it was actually real.
“My mom makes them,” said Jocelyn, taking it down off the wall for me to take a closer look. It was a gilt frame, blue with gold edges. The poor butterfly was trapped in the glass, pressed so tightly that I wondered why its insides didn’t pop out. Mrs. Everence said that they sucked the insides out with a needle. I admire its iridescent blue markings laid against the silky black wings. Behind it was a rainforest backdrop, painted with vibrant colours that made it pop. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t see it as a dead butterfly. it still looked alive, somehow. Like an old silver wedding band in the flower bed near our house, or a watch with no cover. If this ever got buried for some reason and someone dug it up a hundred years later, the frame would be rotting away and the butterfly would still be there, timeless and beautiful.
“Would you like to see some more?” Mrs. Everence asked, looking delighted that I was so interested in her art. Why not? It wasn’t like Will had been expecting me at a certain time.
Behind the table was a box, filled with little boxes. They were about the size of my fist, with little gold hinges and clasps, of all different colours. They had glass-framed lids, and in the glass of each was one tiny butterfly, most of them rich brown and smoky grey.
She pointed to the giant one in the gilt frame. “That one Sam—that’s my husband—found in the rainforest off the coast of Paraguay, but we get these ones around here.” a little shiver went through me as I realized again that they were real. No matter how nice butterflies were, I would be incredibly freaked out if I saw one that huge just flying around. It made me wonder how big all the other insects were. The caterpillars for those butterflies must have been huge.
“Do you guys travel a lot?”
Jocelyn made a face. “They do. I always have to stay home and watch my little brother.”
“Same. how old is yours? Graham is turning two in October.”
“Nicholas is turning four in a few weeks. When they grow up maybe they will be friends!” She liked to think about what her brother would be like in the future too. The smile we shared secured the bond between us.
“I have to go,” I told her. “But you should come over sometime and you can meet Graham. They could meet each other!” I could just see it now. She nodded, sad eyes sparkling darkly, and put the box of boxes away. I was almost laughing as I pedaled off.
Frank had been livid that I was allowed to do what I wanted so soon after being grounded. He thought that it was supposed to be some gradual thing, when technically that would mean that I would still be grounded. Have I said before that Frank makes no sense?
Will’s road was one block away, and the street turned into a gravel road. The relentless sun and only occasional tantrums of rain had browned the grass, only the trees retaining their bright emerald colour. The beryl sky countered the dying grass, making everything balanced and summery again. Mountains stood watch over the little valley town, their gentle old faces encouraging me to appreciate the natural beauties of the world. The fact that they were so close was always a topic for concern. I was terrified of rockslides, though Frank said they weren’t that close.
The road went on for a little bit before I turned right, went down another dirt road, and crossed a wooden bridge over the river. The water rushed faster here. At the end of this road, which apparently was actually Will’s driveway, was a Victorian house surrounded by flowers. I smiled, shaking my head. There was a short tree tunnel that obscured the view for a few seconds, and then it was there in all of its broad-expanse glory. Will was sitting in a swing off to the side, reading a book. There was a small grey bird dog at his feet. He glanced up, breaking into a smile.
“Hi, Haley! You came.”
My bike dropped to the ground on the side of the driveway. “Nice house,” I commented.
“You like it? Want me to show you around?” I looked up at it doubtfully. It was just so old looking and elegant. I didn’t want to track dirt inside. Will didn’t seem to notice, just ushered me inside.
The foyer was spacious, leading directly into the gigantic kitchen made of dark wood with a stone fireplace that had once been the stove. The living room was furnished with black sofas and armchairs, a low glass coffee table and a gigantic flat screen TV. The modern touches to the otherwise museum-like decor were a clever contrast. On the second floor that opened up from a spiral staircase was also spacious, painted my favourite shade of rich sky blue. There was a floor-to-ceiling window at the end, with another living room that was the same style as the one downstairs, except there was a bookcase behind the arm chair and the window replaced the TV. Stairs led up to a Jacuzzi bathtub in the bathroom, a shower that looked fit for royalty. You could tell that this bathroom was mostly for Will and his father, with all the Irish Spring and Pro-Glides scattered neatly (if that’s possible; the arrangement looked homey is all) on the black marble counter. Will showed me his room, which was almost as big as the living room in my house. The comic books and sketchpads strewn all over the bed and desk were the only thing in disarray. He had the cleanest bedroom of any boy I had ever known. I think I was expecting drawings to adorn the walls. There was only one of his, framed, hanging near the window that looked out over a manicured hill rolling gently downward.
“I keep most of them in my sketchbook,” he said, indicating the dozens that were lying on the bed. “Um, this sketchbook,” he added sheepishly. This time I recognized the one that had fallen out of the tree.
So that was Will’s house. Boy, did he have the good life.
“I get it all when my dad passes away,” he said proudly. “I plan to turn it into an art studio. Or no, not an art studio, a tourist attraction…what do you think I should do with the place?” The thoughtful look on his face amused me.
“Well, gee, I don’t know. Whatever you want, I guess.” A glass chess board hanging on the wall beside his doorframe caught my attention. Everything caught and held my attention, including the way Will’s chocolate hair was stuck up all over his head, as what was beginning to seem like always. He was kind of cute, I admitted, stopping right there. I would not even go there. Abigail’s wrath was like my second or third conscience.
I found it sort of improper to be in a guy’s room, so I quickly asked where the mysterious place was. He closed the door to his bedroom after tucking the sketchbook under his arm and stuck a few pencils in his pocket, and we headed outside. The bird dog, who Will introduced me to as Rosalia, walked sedately beside us.
“I didn’t see your dad anywhere,” I commented as we strolled through the garden. “Is he around?”
“No. He went to town. We kind of thought you would be here earlier…you want to stay for supper?”
The invitation touched me. “I want to, I’m just not sure if I can. Probably.” Unless Frank had his way, which he usually did to protect his fragile feelings.
The garden path curled around back to the house, but we left it and cut through a sunflower patch, into the forest. The smell of moist earth was welcome. Sunshine was limited here, making me shiver, and it was mostly pine trees, which leant the air an even darker and moodier look.
“I hate these woods.” This was an understated version of what I was thinking.
The shadows reached for me like gnarled old hands, and I pulled away instinctively. Boy, this place sure was creepy. Rosalia paused in her regal stride to look at me quizzically, big brown puppy dog eyes intelligent and beseeching. “I think Rosalia is reading my mind,” I announced after a few seconds of eye-to-eye conversation with the dog.
“And what are you thinking?” asked Will. that was something my mother often asked me, and it annoyed me to no end. With Will it was different.
“Just about The Place,” I lied. “Is it haunted?”
He shrugged. “I think it might be. You never know.” He looked so serious for a moment I actually felt chills. He grinned. “And there it is.”
My stomach formed itself into multiple knots. It was a burnt out shack, only part of the front wall left standing. The empty windows that had a direct view of the ghastly trees behind were like looking into the eye sockets of a corpse. I cringed. I thought that maybe we should turn back; I thought I would choke. My reaction seemed to make Will feel better, at least.
“Are you scared or something?” he asked, nudging me forward. Rosalia turned her head to look at something, and she growled low in her throat. The hairs on my arms stood at attention. Any romantic thoughts about Will quickly disappeared. Like in the trees when he had drawn the bear, the only thing I could think was that he must be crazy. There was no other way he could so bravely step onto the charred threshold of the old dead house. there was nothing I wanted to do more than flee. It was like the shack cast its melancholy shadow over the entire forest, making it seem darker and deadlier. It made the trees grow black and my blood run cold.
Will kicked a blackened something or other out of his way and turned the melted knob of the door. it fell down, black dust swirling up. I coughed.
“Was that really necessary?” I demanded out of nerves. It wasn’t really his fault, I guess.
The inside was worse, if only because of all the ordinary, everyday things that were now black and crumbling, strewn all over and forgotten like last year’s news. There was a coffee table and one legless chair, a wooden cabinet with broken dishes inside. I wouldn’t even need to dig. I didn’t want to imagine the people who had once used these things. It was too sad.
“What happened here, anyway?” I whispered, the weight of it pressing down from the empty blue sky.
“A fire,” said Will.
This brought me back to attention. “Well, no duh! I meant, do you know what caused the fire?”
“No. I didn’t ask. It was probably war, though.” He looked pained. “Do you think they got out okay?”
I shuddered again. “Of course they did. We didn’t find any bones or anything,” I replied nervously. Didn’t find any bones yet. I picked up whatever would fit in the messenger bag I had brought. It was a present from Jose for my twelfth birthday. I picked through the rubble carefully, cautious of broken glass. Will sat cross-legged on the step, drawing intently. One thing was for sure, he definitely wasn’t hard to figure out. Smiling teasing and drawing were basically all there was to him. In my mind, anyway.
Eventually I dug up the book. With a cry of triumph, I showed it to Will. I hadn’t known I had been looking for it, but as soon as I saw the smooth, only slightly charred cover, I just knew that it was why I had been forced to move here, why Will was so compelled to bring me here, and why the menacing shadows had kept everyone else out for who knows how long. The feeling of mission-accomplished was that deep.
“There’s something written on it,” Will said, brushing soot off with his fingers. “Victoria Channing. Is it a diary?”
The question put a damper on my mood. “Yes, it’s a diary,” I said, trying not to sound like I thought he was stupid. Which I kind of did. “it could tell us what happened here!”
“How so?” he asked cautiously, not wanting to get snapped at again. I sighed nonetheless.
“Maybe the Channings had some long-standing enemies who torched their house out of revenge and malice, or maybe it will tell us that she was irresponsible and often forgot to turn off the stove or something! it could tell us everything!” And not only that, this was exactly what I was talking about: an actual link to the past. Not just me picking something up and making up a story. This was a story all on its own! I realized then that I had just been sitting there holding it all this time, and that maybe I should open it if I wanted to find out something juicy.
The book was completely blank.
Frantic, I flipped through until the end. There was not one thing there, except a date on the very first page. 1942. I stared at it, disappointment setting in. “There’s nothing here!” I cried in despair.
“Well, that’s disappointing,” said Will cheerfully. I glared at him. “Can we go home now? My dad should be home soon, and my great-aunt is coming over and you can meet her too if you stay!”
“Will! this is serious! How can you think about food in the middle of a crisis?” Tears stung my eyes.
He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “don’t you want to meet my great-aunt?”
I threw up my hands. “Not right now, not really!”
“You don’t want to meet Victoria Channing?”
You could have heard a pin drop. “What?”
“My great-aunt. That’s her diary, and I was thinking that maybe you would want to meet her since you’re so upset. Don’t you want to?” He was too innocent looking for his own good. If I was a lioness or something, I would have eaten him. Better than that, I would have fed him to my cubs and used his bones as toothpicks.
After looking at him for a few more moments, a tiny smile cracked my lips. My efforts to control it backfired, and pretty soon we were both laughing out loud. “I really don’t believe you,” I chortled as we walked back to his house.
“You should have seen your face! as a matter of fact, here you go!” He thrust his sketch book at me, open to a page that was filled with me digging in the ashes. “Okay, so it’s not really what you looked like when I told you that Victoria Channing was my aunt, but I still think it’s nice.”
“Can I have it?” I asked breathlessly.
He hesitated. “Well I…I guess.”
I kicked my brain. “No, never mind, I shouldn’t have asked.”
He looked relieved. “Okay. I really like that one of you. I’ll make a copy if you want.”
My foot caught on a log that magically appeared out of nowhere, and Will managed to catch me before I fell. “You should walk straighter,” he suggested.
I ignored his ribbing. “Do you have more pictures of me?”
This time it was him blushing instead of me. “Yeah, actually I do. Are you mad?”
Was I mad? No, not really. Actually, I was kind of flattered. For some reason, I wondered if he had drawn any pictures of Abigail. it was one of those things that you just don’t ask, but I did anyway.
His face went blank. “Abigail. Not my favourite person in the world…she asked me to draw her once, and I was like, no. I hate it when people ask me to draw things.” At that moment, we both looked back at the old shack, and I could see he had an idea. I sighed dramatically and sat on the ground beside him. When he was finished, he showed me the reconstruction of the little wooden cottage in the trees, brand-new and shining in the sun that seemed like I could actually feel its warmth, in the darkness of the real life forest.
Too bad about Abigail.