This is part of a series. Please read them in order:
There was a comment in the last post that made me remember an event from my childhood that I always took as odd but never considered it to be related to any of these stories. I know now that it is. It’s funny how memories work. The details might all be present in your mind, though scattered and disarrayed, and then a single thought can stitch them back together almost instantly. I never thought of these events much because I was focused on the wrong details. I went back to my mom’s house and went through my old childhood school work looking for something that I think is important. I couldn’t find it, but I’ll keep looking. Again, sorry for the length.
Most old cities and the neighborhoods in them weren’t planned with the thought that the population would begin to grow exponentially and it would have to be accommodated. The layout of the roads is generally originally in response to geographical restrictions and the necessity of connecting points of economic importance. Once the connecting roads are established, new businesses and roads are positioned strategically along the existing skeleton, and eventually the paths carved into the earth are immortalized in asphalt, leaving room only for minor modifications, additions, and alterations, but never a dramatic change.
My childhood neighborhood must have been old, then. If straight lines move “as the crow flies” then my neighborhood must have been built based on the travels of a snake. The first houses built must have been placed around the lake and gradually the inhabitable area increased as new extensions were built off the original path, but these new extensions all ended abruptly at one point or another – there was only one entrance/exit for the entire neighborhood. Many of these extensions were limited by a tributary which both fed and drank from the lake and passed right by what I came to call (and have called in these stories) “the ditch.” Many of the original homes had enormous yards, but some of those original plots had been divided, leaving properties with smaller and smaller boundaries. An aerial view of my neighborhood would give one the impression that an enormous squid had once died in the woods and some adventuring entrepreneur found the corpse and paved roads over its tentacles only to withdraw his involvement and leave time, greed, and desperation to divide up the land among prospective home-owners like an embarrassing attempt at the Golden Ratio.
From my porch you could see the old houses that surrounded the lake, but the house of Mrs. Maggie was my favorite. She was, as best as I can remember, around 80 years old, but despite that she was one of the friendliest people I had ever met. She had a head of loose-set, white curls and always wore light dresses with floral patterns. She would talk to me and Josh from her back porch when we were swimming in the lake, and she would always invite us in for snacks. She said that she was lonely because her husband Tom was always away on business, but Josh and I would always decline her invitation because as nice as Mrs. Maggie was there was still something a bit odd about her.
Every now and then when we would swim away she would say, “Chris and John, you’re welcome here anytime!” And we could hear her still yelling that when we were walking back into my house.
Mrs. Maggie, like many of the older home-owners, had a sprinkler system that was on a timer, though at some point over the years her timer must have broken because the sprinklers would come on at various points during the day and often even at night all year. While it never got cold enough to snow very much, several times each winter I would go outside in the morning to see Mrs. Maggie’s yard transformed into a surreal arctic paradise by the frozen water. Every other yard stood sterilized and dry by the biting frost of the winter’s cold, but right there in the middle of the bleak reminder of the savagery of the season was an oasis of beautiful ice hanging like stalactites from every branch of every tree and every leaf of every bush. As the sun rose it reflected off and each piece of ice splintered the sun into a rainbow that would only be viewed briefly before it blinded you. Even as a child I was struck by how beautiful it was, and often Josh and I would go over there to walk on the iced grass and have sword fights with the icicles.
I once asked my mom why she left it on like that. My mom seemed to search for the explanation before she said,
“Well, Sweetie, Mrs. Maggie is sick a lot, and sometimes when she gets really sick she gets confused. That’s why she messes up yours and Josh’s names sometimes. She doesn’t mean to, but sometimes she just can’t remember. She lives in that big house all by herself so it’s ok if you talk to her when you swim in the lake, but when she invites you in you should keep saying ‘no.’ Be polite; her feelings won’t get hurt.”
“But she’ll be less lonely when her husband comes home though, right? How long will he be away on business? It seems like he’s always away.”
My mom seemed to struggle and I could see that she had become very upset. Finally she answered,
“Honey . . . Tom’s not going to come home. Tom’s in heaven. He died years and years ago, but Mrs. Maggie doesn’t remember. She gets confused and forgets, but Tom’s not ever coming home. If someone moved back in with her she might even think it was Tom, but he’s gone, Sweetie.”
I would have only been around 5-6 when she told me that, and while I didn’t understand it completely, I was still profoundly sad for Mrs. Maggie.
I know now that Mrs. Maggie had Alzheimer’s. She and her husband Tom had had two sons: Chris and John. The two had worked out payment plans with the utility companies and paid for Mrs. Maggie’s water and electricity, but they would never visit her. I don’t know if something happened between them, or if it was the illness, or if they just lived too far away, but they never came around. I have no idea what they looked like, but there were times when Mrs. Maggie must have thought Josh and I looked like they did when they were children. Or maybe she saw what some part of her mind so desperately wanted her to see; ignoring the images transmitted down her optic nerve and just for a little while showing her what used to be. I realize only now how lonely she must have been.
During the summer after Kindergarten, before the events of “Balloons,” Josh and I had taken to exploring the woods near my house, as well as the tributary of the lake. We knew that the woods between our houses were connected, and we thought it would be neat if the lake near my house was somehow connected to the creek around his, so we resolved ourselves to find out.
We were going to make maps.
The plan was to make two separate maps and then combine them. We would make one map exploring the area around the creek near his house, and make another following the outflow from my lake. Originally, we were going to make one map, but we realized that wasn’t possible since I had started drawing the map of my area so huge that the route from his house wouldn’t have been to scale. We kept the map from the lake at my house and the map from the creek at his house, and we would add to each when we stayed the night with each other.
For the first couple weeks it went really well. We would walk through the woods along the water and pause every couple minutes to add to the map and it seemed like the two maps would come together any day. We had no equipment needed for the job – not even a compass – but we tried to make due. We had the idea to impale the earth with a stick when we had reached the end of a venture so that if we came upon the stick from the other direction the next weekend we would know we had joined the maps. We might have been the world’s worst cartographers. Eventually, however, the woods became too thick near the water coming from the lake and we were unable to proceed further. We lost interest in the whole project for a bit, and reduced our explorations significantly, though not completely, when we started selling snow cones.
After I showed my mom all the pictures I had taken home from school and she took away my snow cone machine our interest in the maps revitalized. We had to come up with another plan. Although I didn’t understand why, my mom had placed what I considered to be extremely severe restrictions on what I could do and where I could go, and I had to check in frequently if I went outside to play with Josh. This meant that we couldn’t stay in the woods for hours and continue to look for a new path. We thought that we could just swim when we got to the cutoff in the woods, but that clearly wouldn’t work since the map would get wet. We tried going faster when we were coming from Josh’s house, but we eventually ran into the same problem. Then we had a brilliant idea.
We’d build a raft.
Due to the construction in the neighborhood, there was a large amount of scrap building material that the company would set in the ditch to keep it out of the road and offsite since they no longer needed it for building. We original conceived of a formidable ship complete with a mast and an anchor, but this quickly diminished into something more manageable. We set aside the wood and took several large pieces of Styrofoam that were backed with foam board and tied them together with rope and kite string.
We launched our vessel a little down water from Mrs. Maggie and waved a farewell to her as she motioned us to come back her way. But there was no stopping us.
The raft worked very well, and while we both behaved and spoke as if the functionality of the raft was a given, I know at least I was a little surprised. We each had a fairly long tree branch to use as a paddle, but we found it was easier to simply push against the land under the water than actually use them as intended. When the water became too deep we’d simply lie on our stomachs and use our hands to paddle the water, which still worked – albeit less well. The first time we had to resort to that method of propulsion I remember thinking that from far above it must have looked like a colossally fat man with tiny arms was out for a swim.
It actually took us several trips to get the raft to the impassable patch of woods that marked the farthest we had made it. After we had come up with the idea of marking the ground with the stick, we had taken to running through the woods until we got to the stick and then, as carefully and precisely as we knew how, charting our course. This meant that the impasse was actually quite a bit away, so to sail from around my house all the way to the blockade in the woods was taking longer than expected. We’d sail for a bit and then dock the raft, and then next time we’d run through the woods to the raft and go a little farther.
We continued this well into first grade. Josh and I were assigned to different Groups that year so, since we didn’t really see one another during the school day, our parents were more willing to let us hang out all weekend each week. What’s more, Josh’s dad had taken on a lengthy construction job that required him to work over the weekends, and his mother was on-call, so this meant that Josh would stay at my house most every weekend for weeks on end.
We should have been making excellent progress, but when we finally made it to the impasse and had the opportunity to explore past it we couldn’t find a place to dock the raft. The woods were simply too thick, and the water had eroded the land to the point that there was nearly a two-foot rise of earth over the tributary which exposed the twisting and damp roots of the trees above. We’d have to turn back every time and leave the raft at the same thick of trees that prompted us to build it in the first place. Even worse, winter had arrived, so we couldn’t justify leaving the house in our swimsuits; we were getting nowhere – we always had to come home before we could gain much ground.
On a Saturday, around 7pm, Josh and I were playing when one of my mom’s coworkers knocked on our door. Her name was Samantha, and I remember her well now because I would propose to her a couple years later when I was visiting my mom at work. My mom said that she had to go to work to fix a problem that had arisen and that she’d back in about two hours. Her car was being repaired so she’d have to ride with Samantha, but I gathered that the problem was the Samantha’s fault and discussing it in the car was why it would only take two hours. She said that under no circumstances were we to leave the house or open the door for anyone, and she was in the middle of explaining that she would call every hour when she got there to check in, but she ended that statement prematurely when she remembered that our phone had been turned off for delinquent payments – this was why Samantha had just come by unannounced. She looked me dead in the eye as she was closing the door and said “Stay put.”
This was our chance.
We watched her drive down the serpentine road toward the exit, and as soon as the car rounded the last visible bend we ran back to my room. I dumped my backpack out while Josh grabbed the map.
“Hey, do you have a flashlight?” Josh chimed.
“No, but we’ll be back way before dark.”
“I was thinking just in case, we should have one.”
“My mom has one, but I don’t know where she keeps it . . . Wait!”
I ran into my closet and pulled a box down from the top shelf.
“You have a flashlight in there?” Josh asked.
“Not exactly . . .”
I opened the box and revealed 3 roman candles that I had taken from the pile that my mother had amassed for the 4th of July that past summer; along with a lighter that I had managed to take from her some months before, this would ensure that we at least had some light if we needed it. This was a little bit before I had been given an opportunity to be afraid of the woods at night, so it wasn’t fear that motivated our search for a light source – only practicality. We threw it all in the backpack and bolted out the backdoor, making sure to close it so Boxes wouldn’t get out. We had one hour and fifty minutes.
We ran through the woods as fast as we could and made it to the raft in about 15 minutes. We had our bathing suits on under our clothes, so we stripped off our shirts and shorts and left them in two separate piles about four feet from the edge of the water. We untied the raft from the tree, grabbed our branch-paddles, and cast off.
We tried to move rapidly to reach a point beyond the contents of our ever-expanding map, as we didn’t have time to waste seeing old sights. We knew that we were slower in the raft than on land, and that we would be in the raft for quite a while after the cutoff since the woods were too thick to walk through and there wasn’t a place to dock; this meant that we’d have to ride the raft back to the original docking site even if we found a new place to dock it further ahead.
After we passed the last charted part of our map the water began to get really deep and eventually we could no longer touch the bottom with our tree branches, so we lay on our stomachs and paddled with our hands. It was getting darker and as a result it was becoming harder to distinguish the trees from one another, and we were both becoming slightly unnerved. In the interest of making good time we were paddling fast with our arms, but this caused a lot of noise as our hands repeatedly confronted and then broke through the water’s surface tension. During these periods we could both hear the crunching of dead leaves and the snapping of fallen sticks in the woods to our right. As we would slow our pace and quiet our actions the rustling in the woods would cease, and we began to wonder if it was really ever there at all. We didn’t know what kinds of animals resided this far into the woods, but we did know that we didn’t wish to find out.
As Josh amended the map that I was illuminating with the lighter we were suddenly confronted with the fact that the sounds were not imagined. Rapidly and rhythmically we heard
It seemed to be moving slightly away from us, pushing through the woods just beyond our map. It had become too dark to see. We had misjudged how long the sun would linger.
Nervously, I called out.
There was a brief moment of breathless tension as we lay static in the water. This silence was suddenly broken by laughter.
“‘Hello?’” Josh cackled.
“Hello, Mr. Monster-in-the-woods. I know you’re sneaking around but maybe you’ll answer to my ‘hello’? Hellooooooo!”
I realized how stupid it was. Whatever animal it was, it wouldn’t respond. I hadn’t even realized I’d said it until afterwards, but if anything was actually there I obviously wouldn’t get a reply.
Josh continued, “Helloooooo,” in a high falsetto
“Helloooo” I countered with as deep a baritone as I could manage.
“’ello there mate!”
“Hel-lo. Beep Boop”
We continued mocking each other, and were in the process of turning the raft around to head back when we heard,
It was whispered and forced as if it were powered by the last breath in a pair of deflating lungs, but it didn’t sound sickly. It had come from the spot just off the map, which now sat behind us since we had turned the raft around. I slowly shifted on the raft and faced the direction of the sound as I fumbled with the roman candle. I wanted to see.
“What’re you doing?!” Josh hissed.
But I had already lit it. As the sparking fuse sunk into the wrapper I held it toward the sky. I had never actually shot one of these myself and thought to just use it like a flair in the movies. A glowing, green orb rocketed out toward the stars and then quickly extinguished. I lowered my arm more toward the horizon; I could remember that there were several colors, but I couldn’t remember how many times one of these fired before being depleted. A second ball of red light burst out and fizzled above the trees, but I still saw nothing.
“Let’s just go, man!” Josh pressed, as he turned to face the direction back home and began paddling desperately.
“Just one more…”
Lowering my arm directly at the woods in front of me another red ball of fire was launched from the tube. It traveled straight ahead until it collided with a tree, briefly exploding the light in a much greater diameter.
I dropped the firework in the water and watched as one more struggling fireball burst free only to quickly die, suffocated by the water. As we began paddling in the direction toward my house we heard a loud and unconcealed rustling in the woods. The breaking of branches and the trampling of fallen leaves overpowered the sound of our splashing.
It was running.
In our panic we jostled the raft too violently and I felt one of the ropes under my chest loosen.
“Josh, be careful!”
But, it was too late. Our raft was breaking. Before too long it had completely fallen apart. We each held on to a separate piece of Styrofoam, but the pieces weren’t big enough to keep us completely afloat, and our legs dangled beneath us in the winter water.
“Josh! Quick!” I yelled as I pointed at the water right next to him.
He scrambled, but it was too cold to move quickly and we both watched as the map floated away.
“I’m c-c-cold, m-man.” Josh shuddered, dejectedly. “Let’sss get out of the w-water.”
We approached the shore, but each time we attempted to pull ourselves up we’d hear the frantic rustling thundering toward us from the woods just above. Eventually we were too cold and weak to even try anymore.
Steadily we kicked our legs and found ourselves nearing the dock site. We toppled off the debris and tried to pull it on land, but Josh’s piece slipped away and floated in the direction of the lake. We took off our swim suits and were desperate to get into dry clothes to shield us from the biting chill of the air. I slid my shorts, but there was something wrong. I turned to Josh.
“Where’s my shirt, man?
He shrugged and suggested, “Maybe it got knocked into the water and floated into the lake?”
I told Josh to go back to my house, and to say that we were playing hide and seek if my mom was home. I had to try to find my shirt.
I ran behind the houses and peered out over the water and scouted along the shoreline. It occurred to me that with any luck maybe I could find the map too. I was moving pretty fast because I needed to get home, and was about to give up when my concentration was interrupted by a sound coming from just behind me.
I whipped around. It was Mrs. Maggie. I had never seen her at night before, and in this poor light she looked exceedingly frail. The usual warmth that wrapped her manner seemed to have been snuffed out by the chill. I couldn’t remember ever seeing her without a smile, and so her face looked strange.
“Hello, Mrs. Maggie.”
“Oh, Hi Chris!” the warmth and smile had returned to her, even if her memories had not. “I couldn’t see it was you in the dark there.”
Jokingly, I asked her if she was going to invite me in for a snack, but she said maybe another time; I was too busy looking for my map and the shirt to really engage her, but she sounded happy so I didn’t feel bad. She said a couple other things, but I was too distracted to pay attention. I said goodnight and ran down her driveway toward my house. Behind me I could hear her walking across the frozen yard, but I didn’t turn around to wave; I had to get home.
I made it home a couple minutes before my mom did, and by the time she came in Josh and I had already changed clothes and warmed up. We’d gotten away with it, even though we’d lost the map.
“Couldn’t find it?”
“Nah, but I saw Mrs. Maggie. She called me Chris again. I’m telling you dude, just be glad you’ve never seen her at night.”
We both laughed and he asked me if she invited me in for a snack, joking that the snacks must be terrible since she couldn’t even give them away. I told him that she didn’t and he was surprised, and now that I had time to think about it so was I. Literally, every time we had seen her she had invited us in for snacks, and here I had, albeit sarcastically, invited myself, and she said no.
As Josh talked more about Mrs. Maggie I suddenly realized that the lighter might still be in my pocket and that it would be disastrous for my mom to find. I grabbed the shorts off the floor and padded my pockets; I felt something, but it wasn’t the lighter. From my back pocket I slid out a folded piece of paper and my heart leapt. “The map?” I thought. “But I watched it float away.” As I unfolded the paper my stomach turned as I tried to understand what I was seeing. Drawn on the paper inside of a large oval were two stick figures holding hands. One was much bigger than the other, but neither had faces. The paper was torn so a part of it was missing, and there was a number written near the top right corner. It was either “15” or “16.” I nervously handed Josh the paper and asked him if he had put it in my pocket at some point, but he scoffed at the idea and asked why I was so upset. I pointed toward the smaller stick figure and what was written next to it.
It was my initials.
I shook it off and told Josh the rest of the conversation between Mrs. Maggie and I. I had always attributed the odd exchange to her being sick until revisiting the events in my mind all these years later. As I think about it now, the feeling of profound sadness for Mrs. Maggie returns, but it is augmented by a looming feeling of despair when I think about why she said “maybe another time.” I knew what she had said, but I didn’t understand what it meant that night. I didn’t understand what her words had meant weeks later when I watched men in strange, orange suits bio-hazard suits carry what I thought were black bags full of garbage out of her house, or why the whole neighborhood smelled like death that day. I still didn’t understand when they condemned the house and boarded it up a little while before we moved. But I understand now. I understand why her last words to me were so important, even if neither she nor I realized it at the time.
Mrs. Maggie had told me that night that Tom had come home, but I know now who had really moved in; just as I know now why I never saw her body brought out on a stretcher.
The bags weren't filled with garbage.
Written by Dathan Auerbach
Originally Appeared: Nosleep