I shift my weight from foot to foot, waiting outside the library. There’s a bench by the entrance, but I’m too nervous to sit still. It feels strange to stand outside the building without going in, but today I’m waiting for someone. I can’t believe I’m doing this, I think, reflecting on the events that led me to my current situation. After my mother lost her job, she had some sort of early mid-life crisis and decided to pursue a long-time dream of hers: running a Bed and Breakfast. So we moved from Chapel Hill to Wilmington, from a tiny apartment for just the two of us to a big old house that my mother is planning to remodel. Honestly, I was a bit excited about it. After not fitting in very well in middle school, I was ready to make a new start at a high school in a different city, far away from all of my so-called middle school friends. John T. Hoggard High School has a strong arts program too, which I appreciate. I’ve only been here a few months and I’ve already made a friend, Sandra, who loves cats and fairytales as much as I do. At first, I thought the house where we’re living was pretty cool: a late 19th or early 20th century mansion. Then weird stuff started happening. First it was the usual things, the sorts of things that can be explained away—strange sounds at night, things going missing and turning up later in random places—then the less usual things—stuff getting damaged or tossed around, things falling off of shelves. I didn’t want to say anything to Sandra, because I was afraid she would think it was ridiculous, but finally when she asked why I was so tense I told her, “I think my house is haunted.” Actually, I was surprised by her reaction. She seemed interested, but not disbelieving, or even particularly surprised.
“Things like that can definitely happen,” she told me, “when I was in elementary school, in High Point, our house had a ghost cat. It would move things around, bat people’s watches under the couch and stuff like that. I couldn’t really see it—just out of the corner of my eye sometimes, or as a shadowy shape for a moment when I first entered a room, but there was this kid in my 4th grade class who could really see it clearly; my parents wouldn’t let me get a pet, so I used to invite him over to the house sometimes so we could play with the ghost cat.” She laughed. “I even bought some cat toys for it.”
I laughed too. “Are you sure you weren’t just imagining it, because you wanted a pet?”
She shook her head. “The kid I told you about, the one I knew back in High Point, I found him again. Apparently he’s in Foster Care and he gets passed around a lot; right now, he’s living with a family a couple houses away from mine. You can ask him about the ghost cat, if you want. Even better, why don’t you ask him about your ghost? Maybe he could help you out with it.”
I’m such an idiot, I think. There’s no way this guy will actually come, and if he does, it will probably just be to laugh at me. I bet he and Sandra are just playing a big joke, seeing how gullible I actually am. I look down at my sneakers, frowning at the grass stains on the toes. Maybe I should just go home.
“Hi,” a voice interrupts my thoughts and I look up. A boy is coming up the sidewalk toward me, cheeks flushed and slightly out of breath, as if he had been running. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” he says, as he comes up to me, holding out his hand to shake. “Ashlynn Peters, wasn’t it? I’m Aidan.”
I grasp his hand automatically, hoping that my face is not registering the shock that I feel. It’s him, I think, panic rising within me as I am suddenly flooded with memories of feelings and actions I had tried to bury in my past.
It is probably one of the things I most regret. When I was in the sixth grade, I had a crush on one of the boys at my school. I was never in any classes with him, but I saw him in the hallway and he had gym class during the time I had my English class, so if I sat by the window I could watch him on the days the gym class did outdoor activities. He was short—about my height—with gray eyes, and mousy brown hair. I thought he was incredibly cute, but I was too shy to talk to him. The other kids picked on him a lot. They called him a crybaby, but mostly they said he was weird and crazy. They said he would act like he could see things that weren’t there, like pointing out a design on a blank rock or running from monsters that didn’t exist. At the time, I was a bit of an oddball myself, although I tried to hide it. I was probably the only person my age who still believed in fairies, although I never mentioned it to anyone, and I was convinced that I had seen one once when I was little, in the garden. I wanted so badly to talk to him, to find out if he like me too, to be friends—and maybe more than friends—but I could never quite get up the courage. What if he said ‘no’? What if he thought I was silly? What if he laughed at me? What if he said he didn’t like me? I was terrified of rejection—not only the act itself, but the rumors which would spread throughout the school—so I remained silent.
Then one day, I had a sleepover with another girl from my school. We did not know each other well, but my mother and her mother were business acquaintances, so I was trying my best to be polite and make a good impression, all the more so because the girl was popular in school and I wanted her to think well of me. Somehow, the topic of conversation shifted onto boys that we liked. At first, I felt too shy to say anything, but she pressed me. “Come on, just tell me his name. You’ve got to have someone that you like. Who is it? I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
Finally, I told her. I was afraid that she might laugh at me, but she didn’t. Instead, she went back to talking about herself.
“I want to be a psychiatrist when I grow up,” she told me. “That’s why I love listening to people talk about their problems and stuff. All my friends say I’m a good listener. You have to be a good listener to be a psychiatrist. That’s why I’m trying to get as much practice as I can now. And, of course, a psychiatrist has to be good at keeping secrets as well. You’re not allowed to discuss the things you talk about with one patient in front of anyone else. It’s called confidentiality. So, if you ever have any problems or anything that you want to talk to someone about, you can come to me.”
“Okay, thanks.” I believed her. I trusted her. I found myself talking with her about things that I had been too embarrassed to mention to anyone else. Things like how, when I grew up, I wanted to work in a historical re-enactment place like Colonial Williamsburg, or how much I loved fairy tales and wanted to study history and literature because I liked reading and comparing all the different versions of each story, or how much I loved drawing and how I wanted to become a children’s book illustrator someday. Somehow, I felt comfortable about talking to her about these personal things. Because, after all, she had told me about her dream first, and besides, who could be more trustworthy than a future psychiatrist?
The next day after school, waiting at the bus stop, a group of girls started talking about him. “He’s so weird,” one of them said, “always acting like he sees things that aren’t there.” “He probably does it to get attention,” another girl said. “I mean, it’s not like he stands out otherwise, is it?” They laughed. I felt uncomfortable. I wanted to say something, to make them stop, but I was nervous. “Maybe he’s crazy,” one of the girls said. “Maybe he really does think he sees things.” “No way,” someone else said, “don’t people like that have to be put in a special hospital somewhere? “Maybe he was,” she said. “Maybe he ran away.” She made a sudden lunge toward her friend, who squealed. “Ooh, scary!” They all giggled. I could feel my fists clenching. I had to say something.
“Hey!” I started. Their faces turned to me.
Then one girl said, “Oh, that’s right. Ashlynn has a crush on him. Isn’t that right, Ashlynn?” They all giggled again.
She told. I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. She said she wouldn’t tell anyone, but she did. She told them how I feel about him. What else did she tell them? Did she tell them everything? I could feel the heat rising in my face. “Don’t be stupid!” I said, more loudly than I need to. Loudly enough that other people—who had been ignoring the conversation—turned around and looked over at us to see what was going on. “There’s no way I could like a freak like him!”
I didn’t realize he was within earshot until he dashed past me, pushing through the people crowded at the bus stop and running off down the sidewalk. As he passed me, I saw that his face was streaked with tears.
The next day, I looked for him, but he didn’t come to school. He wasn’t there the day after that either. When I started asking around, I found out that he had moved to another town. I knew the things that happened were not entirely my fault. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that if I had stood up for him that day, instead of trying to save myself from being teased; if I had been a bit braver; if I had not been too scared and embarrassed to talk to him, maybe to try and make friends; then things would have turned out differently. During the years since then, I tried to put the incident out of my mind. Life went on, and I had lots of stuff to keep me busy. Still, I could never quite rid myself of my regret of what I did that day, and what I failed to do in all the days leading up to it. I wondered if he still remembered that incident and if he hated me because of it. I wished that there was some way that I could apologize to him, but I told myself that I would probably never see him again, that I didn’t even know where he had moved to, and that the best I could do was to vow to myself that never again would I allow myself to simply be a bystander in a situation where I saw bullying.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me,” I say, dropping his hand. “I was actually a bit nervous that you wouldn’t show up.” I giggle nervously and hate myself for it. “I mean, ‘my house is haunted;’ it’s the kind of thing you think when you hear a weird noise in the middle of the night, but it sounds so stupid when you say it out loud.” Calm down, I tell myself, you don’t know it’s him. All right, so he has the same name, but there are lots of people named Aidan. So what if this person looks a bit like that boy in sixth grade? It’s been three years since then. Who knows if he even looks like that now. Even if he does, I’m sure there are lots of people with brown hair and gray eyes, who are short and slightly overweight, …and who can see supernatural things. The problem with lying to yourself is that it never works. I know it’s him. He’s even wearing the same type of clothes as the boy I remember: a baggy sweater over a button-down shirt, and a pair of pants, all in neutral colors, with a backpack crammed so full of stuff that makes me wonder how he can stand up straight.
“Still,” I continue, “When Sandra told me that you played with the ghost cat at her house, I thought that, maybe if you could see ghosts, you could tell me what I was dealing with.”
He frowns slightly at the mention of Sandra, then smiles. “I’ll do what I can. First, I need you to tell me exactly what it was that made you decide the house was haunted.”
I can’t handle this. I need to leave. There probably aren’t any ghosts in my house, and even if there are, I’ll figure out a way to handle it myself. Only I can’t come up with a good excuse to break off a meeting which I initiated. Besides, I’m pretty sure my house is haunted. So instead, we sit down on the bench by the library entrance, and I find myself talking, telling him all about the strange noises in the night, the things that fall off shelves when no one is in the room, the pages torn out of my favorite poetry book, the stuff from our packing boxes thrown around the room. “It’s just my mom and I living in the house,” I finish, “and I know that neither of us is doing it, so that means there has to be something else in there with us. It’s an old house; there’s no telling how many ghosts could be living in it, and at least one of them is making clear it doesn’t want us there.” I shiver in spite of myself, imagining a vengeful spirit rifling through my things, hovering over me while I sleep.
“Does your mother think the house is haunted?” He asks.
I shake my head. “I don’t think so. Even if she did, she would think a ghost adds character to the place; she doesn’t realize this thing could be dangerous. I mean, it’s already being violent with our stuff, it’s just a step farther for it to start being violent toward us.” I pause, realizing how ridiculous this all sounds. “You don’t believe me, do you?” I ask. I half-want him not to believe me, to tell me that I’m imagining things, or even just to laugh. For so long, I thought that if I ever saw him again, I would apologize, but now I just want him to go away, to disappear back into my past with all my other embarrassing middle school moments.
“I think you’re telling the truth,” he says, smiling. Then his face takes on a more serious expression. “As for whether or not there’s really a ghost in your house, I’d have to go there myself to check. Isn’t that why you wanted to arrange a meeting with me?”
I nod, standing. “Do you want to come over to our house right now? Or should we arrange to do that another time?”
He stands too, smiling. “Now is fine. James—the son of the family I’m staying with—has tutoring Friday afternoons, so I’d just be in the way if I went back to the house.”
When we get to the house, Mom is sitting at the coffee table in the living room, doing paperwork. “Who’s this?” She asks, when we come in.
“My name is Aidan,” Aidan says, holding out his hand. Mom shakes it. “It’s very nice to meet you Ms. Peters.”
“Aidan goes to my school,” I tell her. “We’re going to work on an Algebra project together.” I glance at him and he nods. “He was pretty interested in the house when I told him about it. Is it okay if I show him around a bit first?”
Mom nods. “Go ahead. I’m afraid it doesn’t look the best right now, though,” she tells Aidan. “We just moved in a couple of months ago, so we haven’t had much work done on the place yet.”
He smiles. “That’s alright. I’m interested in history, so I’m pretty excited to see this place the way it is.”
We walk throughout the house, from the first floor to the top floor, going into all the rooms. He even goes into places that I haven’t been in, like the cellar, and the attic. In every room we visit, he looks closely at the walls, ceiling, and floor. Often, he taps the wall, then pauses, as if listening for something. I show him all the things we’ve unpacked so far, the two rooms we’ve set up as bedrooms for Mom and I, the kitchen which Mom has already started to outfit with stainless steel appliances. I point out all the places where strange things have happened. As we pass the bookcase, a book suddenly falls out of it, thumping onto the floor. I jump.
“See!” I hiss, pointing. “It’s things like this. There’s no way that thing just fell on its own.”
Aidan nods, his eyes narrowing slightly as he stares at the bookcase. “Hmm. I think I might have an idea about your ghost,” he says, “but I still want to see the rest of the house.”
As we move throughout the house, Aidan’s attention focused on inspecting all the rooms, I begin to feel slightly more relaxed. He doesn’t seem to recognize me; he acts as if this is the first time we’ve ever met. The more I think about it, the more I realize I was stupid to expect anything different. I never spoke to him back then; we never had any classes together; the only reason I knew his name was because I had a crush on him and made a special effort to find out.
When we finish inside the house, he wants to look around outside, but Mom calls out to us from the living room, where she is sitting at the coffee table doing paperwork, “I know you’re excited to show him around, Ashlynn, but if the two of you are going to work on a project, you need to go ahead and get a start on it.”
“We’ll make it quick,” I call back, “I just want to show him the garden.” There’s not much outside the house; perhaps the grounds used to be more extensive, but now there’s just a small lawn—where grass pushes itself up through the sandy soil in scraggly tufts—and in the back of the house, a patch of weeds that used to be the kitchen garden, and an old well. “This is where they used to get the water for the house,” I say, pointing at the well. “It was closed up when we came here; Mom went ahead and had workers open it up again, to see if it was still usable, but it’s mostly dry now, and the little water there is brackish.”
Aidan nods, his eyes moving from the well to the rocks and pieces of brick scattered around it. “Thank you for showing me around,” he says. “I wish I had time to look around out here more closely, but we should probably get back inside and work on that project before your mother gets upset.”
“You know, you don’t actually have to help me with my math project,” I whisper to him under the pretense of reaching for a marker. We are sitting on the floor of the living room, a piece of poster board and a package of colored markers laid out between us.
“It’s fine,” Aidan says smiling, looking up from my notes. “I’m actually pretty good at math. Besides,” he adds, “I don’t really like lying to people.” He smiles again. “I think the way you made a picture of a cat with the functions is pretty cool.”
I hate myself for it, but I find my heart beating faster when I’m near him, my eyes drifting back to him even though I’m trying to focus on my homework. I keep noticing little things about him that I like, like the way that even when he is serious, a smile flashes in between each of his sentences, like a lizard darting between rocks. My stomach clenches. Has he gotten even more attractive since middle school, or was it because I always watched him from a distance that I never noticed he was even cuter up close? I can feel my chest tighten. I can’t do this. I can’t be so close to him. I feel so guilty and nervous it makes my stomach hurt. I have to apologize to him, I tell myself. I’ve been waiting for years for the chance to tell him I’m sorry for what I said to him back then. Only, I’m not sure how to bring it up. What would I say? ‘Remember in sixth grade when a girl called you a freak? Well, that was me, and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.’ Like I could ever say that to him. I should just forget about it. That was three years ago. If he doesn’t remember, then there’s no reason for me to hang on to what happened back then.
Mom glances at the clock and frowns. “It’s getting to be a bit late; do you want to stay for dinner? You can call your family and let them know.”
I glance at Aidan. He nods. “Thank you, Ms. Peters. That would be wonderful.”
“This is delicious!” Aidan says, smiling. “Thank you so much for inviting me to stay for dinner, Ms. Peters,” he says, “you really are a wonderful cook.”
Mom’s smiling too. It’s just the two of us most nights, so I know she appreciates having someone else compliment her cooking.
“I’m glad you think so,” she says. “I always cook too much, so you’re welcome to have as much as you want.”
All through dinner, Mom chats with him, telling him about her dream of opening a Bed and Breakfast, and he seems so interested and listens so attentively that she gets carried away and explains to him in detail all of the steps of her plan: the work that has to be done on the house, the paperwork that has to be filled out, advertising, hiring staff, and everything else. I’m a bit surprised at how easily he seems to get along with her. The boy that I remember from 6th grade was shy and quiet, often alone. Still, the more I watch and listen, the more I realize how good he is at arranging things so that the other person does most of the talking. We all talk and eat for an hour—longer than dinner at our house usually lasts—and yet, at the end of it, I realize that I still know almost nothing about him. After we finish eating, he helps to clear the dishes from the table, and he even helps wash them. Mom protests at first, but he insists, saying, “If I’m going to eat your food, the very least I can do is help you clean up from the meal.”
By the time we finish dinner, it is already dark outside. Mom frowns as she looks out the window. I know how much she hates to drive at night. “Why don’t you call your family and ask them if you can spend the night here?” She asks Aidan. “That way, you two can finish your project. It’s not a school night, so it shouldn’t be too much of a problem if you stay up a bit late, and I can drop you off at your house after breakfast tomorrow morning.”
He smiles and nods, moving to the phone with an easy speed that makes me wonder if he was planning this all along. If so, it makes me even more impressed with him, at that way he has of guiding things along his own channels while making them seem to flow along unplanned and natural.
Mom starts to fuss a bit as he dials the phone number. “Oh, dear, you don’t have your pajamas with you, do you?”
“He can sleep in his clothes, Mom,” I say impatiently, willing her not to ruin what now seems a perfect opportunity. “It will be all right for one night, and he can change his clothes when he goes back home tomorrow morning. We have extra toothbrushes and toothpaste in the cabinet, too, so he can use that.”
Mom nods. “That’s true.” Then she frowns again, turning back to him. “We don’t have a guest bed yet, but you can sleep on the couch if you want. Is that all right?”
He smiles and nods, holding the phone to his ear. “I can fall asleep just about anywhere.”
Mom seems unconvinced. Her frown deepens, and I can see the worry lines forming on her forehead. “It doesn’t seem right to make a guest sleep on the couch. Maybe Ashlynn or I should sleep on the couch so you could use one of our beds for the night.”
He shakes his head, still smiling. “The couch is fine. I am sure that it must be a great inconvenience for me to show up at your house like this and expect you to provide for me.” The phone call must have gone through, because his next words seemed to be directed toward someone on the other end of the phone. “Hello, Mrs. Stafford, this is Aidan.” Pause. “No, ma’am. Actually, I was wondering if it would be all right for me to spend the night here. Ms. Peters has offered to let me stay the night and bring me home in the morning.” Pause. “Yes ma’am; I told her that she was being very generous.” Pause. Is it my imagination, or does his face flush slightly? “No, ma’am. I’m doing my best not to be a burden to anyone.” “Yes, ma’am, thank you.” He hangs up the phone, and he is smiling again. “She says I can stay.”
Mom smiles. “All right. Ashlynn, go ahead and get a blanket and a pillow for him and lay it out on the couch.” She yawns. “I had a long day, so I’m going to head off to bed. You two don’t stay up too much longer, okay.”
I wait until Mom has left the room, then turn to Aidan. “So. What do you think?”
He smiles. “I think your mother is really nice.”
I roll my eyes. “No, about the ghost.”
“Right,” his expression turns serious again. “I have an idea about that. Is it all right if we use a few things from your fridge?” Aidan asks.
“Of course,” I say, going over and opening it up. “What do you need?”
“Milk, to start with,” Aidan says, coming to stand beside me at the fridge. “Actually,” he adds, reaching past me to grab a bottle of cream, “this would be even better. Do you have a bowl to put it in?”
I’m a little bit confused, but I go to the cabinet and grab a cereal bowl, and he pours cream into it until it is half full. “Honey too, if you have any,” he says, “and bakery bread, not the store loaf bread.” I get honey from the cabinet and he spoons some into the bowl of cream while I fetch half a loaf of Italian bread, left over from last night’s spaghetti dinner.
What do bread, cream, and honey have to do with ghosts? I wonder. It seems more like the sort of thing people would leave out as a gift for the fairies. Fairies! Surely he couldn’t think that… No, obviously what my mother and I are dealing with is a ghost. So what is he doing? I follow with the bread as he walks slowly through the house holding the bowl, staring intently at the walls. At last he stops by a place beside the bookcase where there is a large knothole in the wall and gently sets the bowl down on the floor, motioning for me to set the bread down beside it. “This is the most likely spot, I think,” he says, standing back and surveying our set-up.
The most likely spot for what? I wonder. “What now?” I ask.
“Now we wait,” he says calmly, “and possibly hide, or at least look busy.” He fetches a book himself from his backpack and sits down on the floor to read it. After a while, getting bored, I go and pull out my own book—the one with the page torn out—and sit down to read as well. It is quiet in the house, with the only sounds the ticking of the big clock in the hallway and the rustling of pages being turned as we read.
At first, I am a bit excited, waiting to see what will happen, but when we keep waiting and nothing at all happens, I begin to feel a bit foolish. I start to wonder if there really was nothing going on in this house after all besides my overactive imagination, and if perhaps Aidan really is a bit crazy. The idea that Aidan is in fact crazy gains even more force in my mind when—after half an hour of waiting with no results—he sets down his book and begins talking to the wall.
“I know you’re in there,” he says calmly, “and I won’t leave until I’ve had a bit of a talk with you, so you might as well come out.” He pauses for a moment, as if waiting for a response and then, when nothing happens, he begins talking again. “We fixed this for you, you know,” he says, gesturing toward the bread and the bowl of cream and honey, “so you might at least come out and eat it. It would be a shame to let it all go to waste.” He pauses again, but there is no response. “All right,” he says, reaching out to tear off a hunk of bread from the loaf and dip it in the cream. “If you won’t eat it, I will.” He puts the bread in his mouth and chews slowly, making exaggerated sounds of pleasure, like someone pretending to eat play-food that a little kid has ‘cooked’ for them.
I think again how weird all of this is, sitting next to a boy eating bread and cream from a bowl on the floor, while he talks to a wall as if he expects it to respond. I think that if Aidan is crazy, I must be at least half as crazy to be helping him in this, and because—even now—I am still looking on as if I really expected something to come of this.
When Aidan finishes his piece of bread, he reaches out his hand toward the loaf again, then suddenly stops, his hand halting in mid-reach, and then retracting, to lay again at his side. His expression changes, as if he is seeing and hearing something, although as far as I can tell there is nothing there besides the blank wall and the sound of the clock.
Aidan’s face flushes, but he says, in that same calm tone, “There’s no need for you to be rude. I only did it to get your attention, because I wanted to talk to you.”
I watch in fascination as a small piece of the bread seems to disconnect itself from the rest of the loaf and float through the air to dip itself in the cream. The piece of bread seems to hang in the air, growing smaller a little bit at a time, as if some invisible person were taking tiny bites out of it. I turn toward Aidan, opening my mouth to remark on this to him, but he is acting as though nothing at all strange is happening, his eyes fixed on the spot just beyond the floating piece of bread, as though he could see the invisible person eating it, and he continues his conversation. To me, only able to hear his half of it, it sound strange, like the one-sided snatches of conversation one hears when listening to someone else talk on the phone.
“Ashlynn called me over here,” Aidan says, “because she thought there might be a ghost in the house.
I watch as—the first piece of bread now gone—another piece of bread tears itself off from the loaf and dips itself into the cream.
“Not really,” Aidan says, “but I can see and talk to them, just like I can to you, so she thought I might be able to help her out. Only it wasn’t a ghost, was it? It was you who hid things and broke the plates and tore the pages out of that book. What did you tear the pages out for, by the way? Were you just playing another trick, or did you need them for something?”
“I can understand why you might be angry about this place being remodeled,” Aidan continues. “You ended up developing ties to the house, rather than the family, didn’t you? That’s why you stayed here even after they left, and you’ve had this place to your own for a few years now. Ms. Peters told me this place had been empty for a while before she bought it. You’ve done a good job taking care of it.”
Aidan nods understandingly. “I know; it’s nice to have your own secret place in a house, isn’t it? A place that only you know about; a place you can hide your special things, or a place you can go to when you want to be alone, or when you need to be safe.”
Aidan smiles, and, perhaps it is my imagination, but I think that I catch a hint of sadness in the smile as well. “The first thing I do whenever I get placed in a new house is to look for a spot like that. So, over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding all the little secret spots in a place. That’s how I managed to find your hiding place here.”
“I don’t think you should be so quick to make them your enemies,” Aidan says. “If Ms. Peters hadn’t bought this place, it would have been demolished completely, and I think there were plans to put in a parking garage. Ms. Peters appreciates this place the way it is; she only wants to make enough adjustments so that people can live here again. Of the two, I would say this is the option in your best interests. If you cooperate with her, things will go better for everyone. Ashlynn can’t see like I can,” he says, gesturing toward me, “but she believes, and I bet if you wrote her notes she would be willing to take your suggestions. Now that she knows who to thank for taking care of this place, she might even start leaving you some signs of her appreciation,” he gestures towards the bread and cream.
There is silence for a long moment, and I would wonder if whoever Aidan was talking to has gone away, except that his eyes are still fixed on the same spot, waiting patiently as if expecting an answer. I am torn between fascination with this half-heard conversation—it seems my “ghost” may have actually been a brownie-turned-boggart—and frustration with the fact that I have no role in the negotiations, even though this is my house.
Finally, there must have been an answer, because Aidan nods and smiles. “I’m sure there won’t be any problems like that.”
Aidan nods, turning serious again. “I thought I felt another presence here, when I was walking around outside the house, but I didn’t have the chance to investigate thoroughly. Where is it?”
“In the well?” Aidan says, as if repeating the phrase. “What kind of creature is it? The sort that likes blood?”
The sort that likes blood? I shiver. How can he say things like that so matter-of-factly?
A pause, while Aidan seems to be listening carefully. Then he nods. “I understand. All right, we’ll leave you in peace for now.”
“It’s a brownie, isn’t it?” I ask when Aidan turns to me, anxious to show that I know at least something about supernatural matters.
Aidan nods. “I don’t think you’ll have any more problems from him, as long as you mostly focus on cleaning the house and refurnishing it, rather than making any big changes to the layout of the place. He says there’s something else we need to worry about here, though. Apparently, there’s something living in the old well, the one the workers uncovered a few weeks ago. From what he says, it’s something fairly dangerous, and it’s been eating small animals—squirrels, seagulls, possibly a few dogs. On the way to your house, I noticed an abnormal number of missing pet notices. It’s probably trying to build up its strength so it can do something bigger.” He pauses. “You might want to have that well sealed back up.”
I shake my head. “Closing the thing up would only be a temporary solution. Isn’t there some way we could get rid of it?”
He frowns. “I’ll have to research this a bit, and I need to be at the house tomorrow and Sunday, to help out with chores, but I’ll come back here after school Monday and see what I can do.”
I nod. “Alright.” I hold out my hand, and we shake on it. His hand is warm, and his grip is surprisingly firm. Back then, I bet if I had asked him to be friends, he would have said yes. I drop his hand and mentally shake myself. You’re the one who hurt him, remember? You’re the one who pushed him away. You have no right to feel anything toward him besides guilt and regret. “I’ll see you Monday,” I say, getting up and heading to bed before either of us can say anything else.
I end up having to stay late after school Monday, and when I got back to the house, Aidan is already there. He is behind the house, consulting a book and making marks on the ground. I come up to him just as he finishes drawing a large circle on the ground in the area which used to be the kitchen garden. Dropping the stick, he starts rummaging in his backpack.
“Don’t step over it,” he says as I come towards him. “If you want to come into the circle, you need to go through there.” He points and I see that there is a gap in the line of the circle (so that it is really more like a U but with a smaller gap). I obey and he hands me a box of kitchen salt. “Here, pour this in the groove, but be careful not to get any in the gap. Also, stay on the inside or the outside—don’t even reach across the line.” He continues to rummage in the backpack, pulling out first a large black urn with a lid, and then a plastic grocery bag. From the grocery bag he takes out two packages of ground beef. Tearing open the first package, he squeezes the meat between his hands, letting the blood run onto the ground and soak into the soil. He walks around, covering the ground inside the circle with blood.
“What are you doing?” I ask. “It looks like you’re preparing to summon a demon or something.” I have a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, and for the first time I wonder if I was wrong to call him out here, if I was wrong about the kind of person that he is. Believing in ghosts and fairies is one thing, but it doesn’t’ mean I want to be involved in some kind of witchcraft.
He puts down the lump of squashed meat in the center of the circle and opens the other package. “It’s not so much a summoning as a dinner invitation,” he says, moving out through the gap in the circle and walking toward the old well, leaving a trail of blood behind him as he went, “and, hopefully, a trap. It’s not a demon either,” he says, “or at least I don’t think so. Demons are embodiments of dark emotions: fear, anger, jealousy, etc. A demon wouldn’t have any interest in eating squirrels or dogs, or in ground beef. I’m guessing that it’s probably some monster that started living in the well when it was abandoned and is angry that people have come and messed up its house; or it’s some sort of evil spirit that was sealed in the well and has now been set free; or it might be a water spirit—perhaps the spirit of the well—that’s been contaminated, in that case, it will probably be more interested in the blood than the meat.” He has made his way all the way to the well by the time he finishes talking and he now starts back toward the circle, making small balls of ground beef, and laying them along the path of blood as he goes.
“So, how exactly does this trap work?” I ask. I’ve already finished pouring salt around the circumference of the circle and am sitting on the grass outside it with the salt box on the ground beside me.
“Well,” he says, smiling, “it’s not a particularly refined or complicated plan. The idea is that the monster will follow the trail to circle. Once the monster is inside the circle, I’ll need you to close it off by extending the line across the opening and filling in the gap with salt. Then I’ll try to trap the monster inside this jar.” He points at the large black urn. “We’ll seal the lid on using this:” he gestures toward a battery-powered hotplate and a bowl containing what looks like a large lump of wax that he had pulled out of the backpack during his earlier rummaging.
I look at the urn and the wax doubtfully. “Is that really going to be enough to hold it?” I ask.
He nods. “I think so. The pot has protective symbols written all over it, and the lid as well. I made it in art class—I’m in Sculpture and Ceramics I—as my culture pot. I thought having something like this might come in handy.”
I briefly reflect on the kind of person who makes a jar for catching monsters as a project for art class. Then my mind shifts back to the thing that it’s supposed to be focused on: the task at hand. “What about the wax?” I ask, looking at it doubtfully. “Is it really going to be enough to keep the lid on with a monster pushing on it?”
“I think so.” He’s busy cleaning off his hands with hand sanitizer and a wad of fast-food napkins. As he wipes the blood off his hands, I notice for the first time that he has a Band-Aid on his right index finger. “I put pieces of Communion wafer all through it, so it should be pretty strong against supernatural things.”
Again, I feel mildly shocked, trying to imagine someone taking some of the Host from the church and using it against monsters. It seems somewhat sacrilegious, but thinking about it I remember that Van Helsing did a similar thing in Dracula, using the Host against the vampires, and when I read it I had not seen that act as sacrilege. When I glance back over at Aidan, I see that he has taken the Band-Aid off his finger, revealing a small cut which—now that the Band-Aid has been removed—is bleeding. He has removed the lid and is running his finger around the rim of the urn, coating it with a thin layer of blood.
“What are you doing?”
He glances up briefly, then turns back to the urn, moving his finger over the mouth of the container and squeezing it so that blood drips into the urn’s interior. “I’m providing an incentive for the monster to go into the jar,” he says. “According to what the brownie said, it should be attracted to blood, and things that are attracted to blood tend to be especially attracted to my blood.”
Personally, I feel like that remark deserves more explanation, but he’s already moving on.
“Really, it would be best if all of this was my blood,” he says, gesturing toward the circle and the path leading to the well, “but I didn’t like the idea of cutting myself to get it.” He smiles again. “I happened to cut my finger opening a can yesterday, and it hasn’t fully healed yet, so hopefully we’ll at least have enough of my blood to get the monster into the jar.”
“What now?” I ask, when he finishes with the urn.
Aidan looks over at the well, then up at the sky. The sun has just started to dip closer to the horizon, but there is still at least an hour of good daylight left. “It probably doesn’t like to come out in the daytime,” he says, as if half talking to himself, “but we’ll need the light to work with. This might be close enough, though, for it to come out if I can get it angry.”
“Get it angry?” Maybe it’s just me, but somehow that doesn’t seem like a good idea. Does he even know what he’s doing? My stomach begins to tie itself into knots. What have I gotten myself into?
Aidan nods and starts to collect the rocks and pebbles that litter the yard. “I’ll just give it a bit of an incentive to come out.” He throws a rock at the well. “Hey!” He shouts, so loud that I jump. “I know you’re in there. Come on out and get me!” He throws the other rocks at the well, one by one. Most of them just hit the side, but a few of the pebbles skitter over the edge and fall down into the hole. “Come on!” He yells, grabbing some more rocks and stepping closer to the well. “You like blood, don’t you? Why don’t you come out and try mine? You hate having people mess with you, right? Come out and make me go away!” He throws a few more rocks at the well. A particularly large one goes over the edge, and I can hear it hitting the sides of the well as it goes down. Tonk, tonk, tonk, tonk, and then silence. Aidan freezes, and I can see his mouth briefly form an “O,” staring at the mouth of the well. I follow his gaze, but I can see nothing out of the ordinary.
Aidan drops the rocks he has been pelting the well with and starts sprinting toward the circle, a look of fear and tension on his face which seems incongruous to the situation. At far as I can see, there is nothing threatening here, only a ripple in the grass like a slight breeze. The balls of meat on the ground remain completely undisturbed. Then he is inside the circle, shouting at me to finish drawing the circle and fill it with salt. I pick up the stick and scratch in the rest of the line, then slosh the salt over it, catching his tension in spite of myself.
So far, it’s looked surprisingly unbelievable, like something form a movie or a dream, or watching a child play at being chased by a monster. Yet as soon as the circle is completed, I can suddenly see the reason that Aidan was acting so urgent. Inside the circle with him is a huge dark shape made of what looks like thick smoke, and as I watch it coalesces into a monster, a creature with long misshapen limbs like half-burnt tree branches that end in sharp claws. It has no eyes, but large nostrils flare at the end of its snout as it sniffs the air, and a vast mouth opens revealing rows of teeth like shards of broken glass. In the first shock of seeing it, I leap back and almost drop the box of salt.
In this moment I realize, for the first time, the difference between believing in something and living it.
I watch, gape-mouthed, like an idiot while the monster lunges at Aidan, teeth gnashing, claws raking the air. He ducks and dodges between its legs, grabbing a handful of the raw meat, he flings it at the creature’s back, and it jerks around as the meat bursts against its skin. I can see it snort in annoyance, but there is no sound. Then it lunges at him again. Aidan ducks and dodges, throwing meat and kicking up dirt, his attacks seeming to have no effect beyond making the creature angrier. Is he provoking it on purpose? Why? The creature makes another lunge and its claws scratch his shoulder, tearing the fabric of the sweater. I see Aidan wince, but I cannot tell if he is bleeding. Then the creature is on top of him, and the two of them are a blur of claws, teeth, and flailing limbs. Aidan must be fighting back with surprising success, because the creature does not immediately shred him to pieces as I had expected. They move too quickly for me to really see what is happening, but I can tell that though the creature slashes at Aidan with its claws and snaps at him with its teeth, the blows seem to fall mostly on his arms and legs, as he shields his head and torso, and every now and then the creature jerks slightly as if he had landed a blow in return. At one point, Aidan pushes the creature away from him with enough force that it falls backwards, but instead of falling onto the ground, half-in and half-out of the circle, it seems to strike an invisible barrier in the air at the edge of the circle and bounces back, as if the line we had marked was actually a glass wall. In the brief moment of reprieve, I can see Aidan bent part-way over, panting, lines of red seeping through the slashes in his clothes. Then it is on top of him again, their two bodies transformed into a battling blur that moves around the circle, ricocheting off the sides. I stay frozen in my spot, still clutching the salt box, transfixed by the sight of what is occurring. I’m standing still, but I can feel my heart beating like a rabbit’s. The drama in the circle plays without sound, as if the barrier blocks the passage of everything but light. At last the movement within the circle slows, and I hold my breath, half-expecting to see Aidan on his last legs, about to be eaten. Instead, as they come into focus, I see Aidan standing above the open urn, trying to shove the creature into it with both hands. The thing has reverted back to its shadowy state, and I have to fight back a laugh as I am struck by the ridiculousness of what looks like a person trying to stuff smoke in a container. Although Aidan seems to have the upper hand, the creature is still putting up a great deal of a fight, sending out smoky claw-tipped tendrils that slash at his arms and face as he leans over the urn. Even after it is completely inside the urn and Aidan has pressed the lid down on top of it, it continues to fight back, rocking the urn back and forth, so that Aidan has to half-lay on top of the lid to hold it closed. He turns towards me, his mouth moving as if he were shouting something, but there is no sound. For a moment I stare at him in confusion, then with a start I remember. The wax! I was supposed to heat it! I put down the saltbox and hurry over to dump the wax into the bowl on the hotplate, turning up the heat to melt it. I glance up at Aidan helplessly, biting my lip as I switch my attention between his struggles with the urn and the slowly heating wax. I’m such an idiot! How could I just stand there watching when he was counting on me to do this! What if that thing gets back out of the urn because I’m taking too long in getting the wax to him? Finally the wax is semi-liquid. I snatch the bowl from the hotplate, too desperate to worry about hurting my fingers, and run towards the circle. When I reach the edge of the circle, however, I strike the invisible barrier and bounce back, barely managing to keep the wax from spilling. I look at Aidan, his whole body tense, completely focused on the struggling urn, and bite my lip in frustration.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” I snatch up a stick from the ground and scratch at the edge of the circle, then scuff at the line with my sneaker until it is blurred and the salt scattered. There is a feeling like my ears popping, and I can suddenly hear Aidan’s heavy breathing and the sound of the urn thumping itself against the ground. I rush to Aidan’s side, holding out the bowl of wax. I’ve never done anything like this, and I want to pass the task off to him, but he obviously has his hands too full with the urn to handle anything else. I still have the stick in my hand, and now I dip it in the wax, using it to smear a layer of wax around the crack between the lip of the urn and the lid. When I finish the first layer, I add a second, then a third, but Aidan puts out a hand to stop me before I can do anything more.
“The top,” he says, gesturing, and steps back so I can pour the rest of the wax onto the top of the lid, watching as it drips down to cover the sides. The urn has stopped rocking, and is now standing completely still, giving no sign that there is a monster inside it.
Aidan flops down on the grass, his chest heaving as he gasps for breath, and I sink down beside him, sucking my burnt fingers. Neither of us speaks. My mind is still grappling with what I have just witnessed, trying to make sense of the events which have just occurred.
“What was that thing?” I’m trying to think back to all the fairytales and legends I’ve ever read, but I can come up with nothing that would be a match for what I have just seen.
He shakes his head, still breathing hard. “No idea. …Troll?”
“That thing was terrifying. And to think that it was in our well,” I shiver. I look at the urn: lumpy and slightly lopsided, it looks like nothing more than a B- Freshman art project. “I can’t believe you made that in Ceramics class.” Or rather, I can’t believe that an urn someone made in Ceramics class could be strong enough to contain a creature as large and fierce as the one I just saw go into it.
“Yeah.” He smiles.
I turn back to him, my eyes widening. Now that I’m close, I can see how much the monster actually hurt him. There aren’t any scratches on his face and torso, but his sleeves and pants-legs are heavily scratched and blood seeps through the tears in the fabric. “Are you alright?” I ask. It seems like a stupid question, but I don’t know what else to say. “It looks like that thing got you pretty badly.”
He sits up, rummaging again in the backpack to dig out a first-aid kit, then pushes back his sleeves to examine his arms, using napkins to mop up the blood, then cleaning the wounds with antiseptic wipes. “It’s alright,” he says, “most of the cuts are relatively shallow; nothing that would require stitches or anything like that. It was just going by scent, so I managed to dodge a fair amount of the time.” He smears antibiotic cream on the scratches and sticks Band-Aids on the smaller ones, using gauze and bandages for some of the larger cuts.
I want to help him, but he seems to be handling everything so well on his own that it feels awkward to offer, so I just sit there and watch him. I had not noticed earlier, because of all the new scratches, but now that the blood is cleaned up and the wounds covered, I see that his arms are crisscrossed with the pale lines of old scars.
“Honestly, I’m glad it wasn’t any worse,” he says, rolling up his pants to start on his legs. “I’ve never done anything like this before, so I wasn’t sure how everything would turn out. Normally, if I know there’s something like this in the area, I’m trying to avoid it, not seek it out.”
This was the first time he’s done something like this? Then how did he know what to do? Was he just making things up as he went along? And how did he get all of those scars? Do things like this normally just come up to him and attack him? That thing was a troll? I thought trolls only came out at night, or else they got turned into stone. And why did that thing only come after him, and not me? There are so many questions I want to ask that my throat gets clogged with them and nothing comes out. Instead, I stand and start cleaning things up. I don’t know if he has a specific way he likes to pack things, so I just pile everything beside his backpack: the bowl with its reside of wax, the hotplate—checking first to make sure it’s turned off, the book, the box of salt. I hesitate beside the urn. “Can I pick this up?”
He glances up from applying Band-Aids to his legs (there are fewer scratches there than on his arms, but still plenty). “I hope so. I’m not sure how heavy it will be, but hopefully it won’t be too hard to lift, or I won’t be able to carry it.”
I stifle a sound of exasperation. “I mean, is it okay for me to touch it?”
“It should be. The urn’s made to keep whatever’s inside from getting out, so it shouldn’t be able to hurt you, and it’s not like you can mess it up just by touching it.”
“Alright.” I put my arms around the urn and lift it, surprised at its lightness. After Aidan’s words, I had almost expected it to be heavy, but it feels as if there was nothing at all inside it. If I had not just seen the monster enter it, I would have assumed the urn was empty. I feel a momentary temptation to break the seal and open the lid to check, but I resist it, instead walking over to the backpack and setting the urn down beside it.
“What now?” I ask as Aidan finishes his legs and puts the first aid kit back in the backpack.
“Now we just have to get rid of the trap before it attracts anything else,” he says. He picks up the grocery bag and starts scooping the raw meat off the ground and putting it into the bag. As he moves, he scuffs the ground with his shoes to get rid of the symbols in the dirt. “When I’ve cleared the area, go back over it and pour salt on it,” he says, “to purify it. That should keep other things from coming over out of curiosity.” He makes his way along the path of blood to the well, picking up the balls of meat as he goes. Reaching the edge of the well, he peers down into it. “This is dry, right? You might want to pour some salt down here too, to keep anything else from deciding to come and live in it. Or you might just want to fill it in.”
“Thank you,” I can’t look at him when I say it, so I keep my eyes focused on the salt that I’m pouring. “You’re pretty good at this,” I add, continuing to talk just to fill the silence, to make my expression of gratitude seem less intimate and personal. “Maybe you should do this sort of thing more often, even make a business out of it, like Ghostbusters.”
I can tell by the way his shoulders stiffen that it’s the wrong thing to say. He’s silent for a moment, and then he says, as if he’s choosing his words carefully, “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
My mind goes back to 6th grade, to the kids taunting and teasing him, “Weirdo,” “He’s crazy,” then, like always, I hear my own voice “There’s no way I could like a freak like him!” I’m sorry. But I can’t say it now any more than I could then. “Oh,” I manage, lamely, and change the subject. “What are you going to do with the monster?”
He frowns. “I suppose I’ll have to find a place to release it. It will get angry if I keep it in the urn too long, and it would be bad if the urn broke and it got out by mistake. I’ll have to find a place where there aren’t many people, and where there are some abandoned constructions or some caves that aren’t inhabited.” He pauses for a moment, thinking. “Maybe I could get Ms. Thompson—my social worker—to bring me up to the mountains to visit Granny’s grave. I might be able to drop it off somewhere up there.”
“Ok.” I’m not sure what else to say. The salt box is empty now, and I occupy myself with flattening it out to put in the recycling. Aidan comes over and starts repacking his backpack. It’s over. The words repeat themselves in my head like a warning or a lament. It’s over, and he’s going away, and even if I see him at school, it won’t be the same. I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. I have to say it now, I tell myself. I’ll never get a chance like this again. “I’m sorry.” I have to say it. I have to tell him. Otherwise it’ll be on my conscience forever. I clear my throat once, twice. “You can stay for dinner if you want,” I offer.
He shakes his head. “Thank you, but I should get back to the house and change before anyone else comes home. It would be bad for people to see me like this,” he gestures at his torn and bloody clothes.
“Right.” I nod, feeling like an idiot. I clear my throat again. “Well…I guess I’ll see you around.”
He smiles. “I hope so.” He walks away down the street and is gone.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper to the grass-stained tips of my sneakers.