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When the house key clicked in the lock, Diane hesitated. With Tom’s departure, she had hoped that the house would be empty of both the quick and the dead. No such luck. Instead of the reassuring sight of the cluttered hallway, the long corridor appeared distended, as if viewed through the wrong end of binoculars.
Driving home from the airport, her husband safely dispatched, Diane had assured herself that the house would be just as they had left it. Gremlins wouldn’t have come in to scour the place, top to bottom. That, at least, was true. The place still had a comforting lived-in look: a pair of winter gloves abandoned on the floor, a ring of keys dangling off of the hook. But there was a subtle difference. She had returned as a voyeur, a visitor. She was uncertain where to sit and when the boy would appear.
“Come, come,” he would call, and disappear around the corner. But he was dead, how could he call her? Where would he take her?
It was the spectre of death that triggered his appearances, perhaps because death reminded her of his accident, but his visits were less disquieting with her husband nearby. Tom had a way of scaring off night demons and overpowering uncertainties. When he was present, the boy slipped around the corner. With Tom gone, the shadow of death – of her mortality – hovered in the wings.
“The test results are not definite,” the specialist had said. “There are a few more things we can try.”
But the doctor’s troubled eyes contradicted his reassuring words. As he spoke, she had felt the boy’s feathery hand on her shoulder. If Tom had known about the call for further tests, he would have found statistics to prove all would be well, and then cancelled his flight.
“What do they know these doctors, statistics can be manipulated any which way,” that was his response to her father’s prognosis, but her father had died.
Dropping her purse near the door, Diane slipped off her jacket, hung it over the other jackets on the newel post and drifted into the living room. She picked up the empty coffee cup from the table near Tom’s chair, leaving his frayed slippers where he had abandoned them. The day before, they had made a special trip to buy replacements so as not to embarrass him in front of his Middle Eastern hosts.
“What do you think?” he had laughed, shuffling around the house, “My poor old slippers did good duty for 15 years only to be chucked out the door now that I get this high paying contract. What about loyalty?”
She felt loyal to the boy. How could she ignore him? Perhaps she was the only one who kept him alive. His parents would be long since dead.
The sun was streaming in the windows but in witness to their early morning departure, the lights were blazing throughout the house. Diane drifted from room to room and switched them off, banishing the shadows into the corners. On reaching the kitchen, she plugged in the kettle. Tea seemed in order, something to lift her spirits. When she had known the boy, she had been too young for tea.
The cereal box had been left on the counter, the top open. She carefully closed it and put it back in the cupboard wondering if she should throw it in the garbage. She didn’t eat cereal and it would be stale by the time Tom got back. Then she chuckled to herself; maybe the boy would eat it. Her attempt to lighten the mood failed; the house had taken on a disturbing character.
Previously when home alone she had known that other people –
her husband, her son, or her sister – would soon return, or could be back on short notice. By now, Tom was too far away to come home in under 24 hours. Even had she called and confessed her medical concerns he could not perform miracles. And her horror was not of death, but of the slow demise with excruciating interventions her mother had suffered.
Later that evening, standard procedure, Tom phoned to report a safe arrival, “The Eagle has landed,” he said jovially although his job was far from dangerous. “So you’re there?” she said. “Well, of course, I am,” he said, still angry that she had refused to go with him: her pretext an incomplete project. She had promised to join him when she could. “I’ll worry what you’re up to,” he’d insisted. He didn’t mean an affair, that was not their style. And after all these years he had forgotten about the boy.
She had only talked of the ghost boy once, years earlier when she and Tom were in the first throes of love and shared intimacies into the night. It has seemed imperative that her lover understood about the boy as part of understanding her, but she knew he hadn’t. Then, as now, Tom had nodded and rubbed her back but filtered what she said into need-to-know and eccentricities.
Much as Tom pleaded, she had refused to make a plane reservation. Already the question of the boy had begun to haunt her: she had sensed he was carrying a message she needed to hear. It reminded her of when he had told her not to climb the tree; he looked out for her. Maybe he was saying that foreign country is not for you, stay with me here. (If Tom were in danger, the boy would have signalled her not to allow her husband to go.)
Over the years, Diane had wondered if she held on to the boy because he was from a time when she lived in the moment, oblivious to future possibilities and pitfalls. A time when she jumped from bed on a ripe summer morning and refused to come in from play on a bitingly cold winter evening.
The boy had lived and died in primary colours over 50 years earlier. He had been blond and powerful that last time she saw him, perched above her in the tree. She had been a grade six student on her way to school – seven blocks from her house, all uphill as she complained to her mother. As usual, she was trudging along slowly, doomed to arrive late and to find all the other children tucked into their classrooms.
A shortcut took her across an open playing field and then up a steep bank to the playground. That day, along with her crumpled schoolbook, she carried a bag of empty egg cartons, which she had belatedly brought for the school fundraiser. When she reached the last turn, she saw the older boys, all perched in a large tree. They were hunkered against the sky like birds of prey.
One of the boys called to her, “It’s too late to bring in those cartons. They don’t want them.” Then like cawing crows, they had all joined in, urging her to climb up into the tree and give her donation to them.
She stared up at the eager faces; some were patting branches nearby invitingly as if they had been awaiting her arrival. She held her bag close to her uncertain what to do. “No,” shouted the fair-haired boy, the one who died. “They’re just teasing. Don’t climb the tree; it’s dangerous. Run to school, the bell is going to ring.” Flushed warm by his attention, she had taken his advice.
A week later he died. Her memory of how and why was fractured, like a mosaic. Bits and pieces, perhaps factual, that she has put together to explain things to herself. From whispers in the school hall and at her home, she learned that he had fallen from a tree unto the cement patio in his back yard. His father had seen him fall.
Word of his death has churned her stomach and worried her into the night. It was more dramatic and significant than anything else in her life. They had shared a secret: they had touched but he had gone ahead.
After his death, his family moved away. Six months later, her family moved out west, but the memory stayed strong. Over the years, like a watchful brother, the boy had followed her. Even as an adult, after a busy day running errands, meeting deadlines, celebrating holidays with Tom and her son, late at night when things were quiet, he sometimes appeared: young and hopeful. She had struggled to unlock his name. It was a common name, she was sure.
Now fifty years later, he had moved in. When she entered a room, she could feel that he had just left. When she glanced out the back yard, the back gate moved slightly. She could hear his laughter, the confident cheering voice before the silence.
She was not frightened, only curious. She wanted to ask him how he died, that simple. As if, when you get to a certain stage and all the housekeeping is done, the tasks of being a mother and a wife, a neighbour and an employee, you have to ask a few questions before you call it a day. You have the time.
These were thoughts she could never share with Tom. She felt more connected to the boy than she did to her husband, who had been trying to contact her. Preoccupied with her future, she neglected the persistent daytime phone messages. She and her husband had drifted apart; what more could she say to him?
This was their first spring in the new house – the house that was to herald the rebirth of their marriage, a new start – and Tom was in another country and she here with the boy.
They had moved in at Christmas. Now that the snow had melted, she could have her first view of the back garden. Pulling a sweater around her shoulders, Diane stepped onto the back porch careful to avoid slipping on the wet wood. It was a glorious day, the birds in full chorus and the sun poking through the clouds. She leaned her head back to feel the warmth, and there it was. An apple tree, its welcoming arms open just within reach of the porch.
High in the branches, within arms length, was a bird feeder. “Are you going to feed the birds?” said a small voice. Yes, she thought. She’d do it. She would climb up and get the feeder, clean it and fill it with seed.
She clambered unto the porch railing and leaned forward. It was a stretch but the birds were calling “come up” just like the boys in the tree had, and this time the boy was joining in encouragingly.
She hadn’t climbed a tree since she was a child. Before the boy had fallen, climbing trees had been her passion – seeing the world from on high: what power, what wonder. She knew why the boy had climbed the tree in his yard; it was there to climb.
She pulled off her shoes and grabbed the porch post; it would not be difficult. Danny, the name exploded in her mind that was his name – Danny.
Here she was. In her prime, her body still free and agile; not like her mother’s contorted body at the end, constrained by laws and interventions. Diane clasped the damp branch; this was the very tree. She would join the crows, sitting above, waiting. She would fly again.
Melodie Corrigall is a Canadian writer whose stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Toasted Cheese, The November 3rd Club, FreeFall, Six Minute Magazine, Subtle Fiction and Switchback (https://melodiecorrigall.wordpress.com).