I had another dream, Dad. It's the same one I've been having for a while now. I woke up an hour ago I think, but it's so late, and I'm so tired, I can't keep track of time. I do know that I'm not in the house anymore. I'm with a man I don't know in his pickup truck, sitting in the passenger seat with slouched shoulders and my hands tucked between my legs. My lips are smeared with Mom's lipstick, my cheeks pink with her Maybelline blush. I'm sorry that a smudge of it got on your favorite hunting jacket.
I stare out the window as this man drives me farther away from home, and all I can see are the streetlights as they flash by like neon comets. I'm tired now, a little scared, and I hold back a sigh as I rest my head against the seat. The road continues to quiver beneath me.
That girl was in my dream again. I think she gets more beautiful each time I see her. Although what's beautiful about her, I'm not quite sure. Her looks I guess, but there has to be more to it than that. I've tried mentioning it before at the dinner table, but that's completely useless. Brad just laughs and says I'm not supposed to be into girls at my age, but what does he know? He's into women like Mom, not girls like Lindsay from summer camp or Kelly who used to sell us Girl Scout cookies. He doesn't know anything about them or anything about me. Even if he did, he's still, as you would say, a few French fries short of a Happy Meal, so really, what the heck does he know?
This girl is different. She doesn't bug me like the other girls I know, the ones who write my name in their notebooks a hundred and four times with those stupid, curly hearts everywhere. She invites herself into my dreams where I have nowhere to run or hide. Not that I'd want to though, not from her. Not even if she too wanted to write my name in her notebook a hundred and four times with those stupid, curly hearts. Her company is actually enjoyable, and it's been nice to have on those cold nights whenever I feel alone. But I don't think I'm ever alone anymore.
~ * ~
I met her once before she died. It was only once, before my last name changed to Brad's, back when we still lived in the house you built before I was born. It was a late afternoon in early fall. I'm pretty sure it was a Saturday too since Brad's younger brother, Tyler, came to visit. He was there to help us pack for the move to Albany, but to me, his real purpose was to just be a jerk. I remember this because he swiped the Cheerios box right out of my hand that morning and started pouring his bowl before a crumb ever reached my own.
"What's up, squirt?" he asked. No remorse for snatching food from a child's mouth or anything. He even had the courtesy of putting it back in the pantry on a shelf I couldn't reach.
"Cool." That was his only response as he poured the last of our milk into his bowl. I wondered at that point if single-word answers were all his brain could come up with. That and the fact I didn't really answer his question. Wouldn't surprise you either if you saw how Brad acts sometimes. Doofus must run in that family.
"Weren't you supposed to leave before sun up?" I asked.
"Yeah, but I didn't sleep well last night, so I'm leaving later. Had this crazy dream where this girl whacked my head off with a wrench and put it in a birdhouse. Try sleeping after that."
"I'm sure you did something to deserve it."
Tyler just smirked and shook his head. That has to be my biggest pet peeve: when people disregard what I say probably because I'm just a kid. Sure the age thing gets me out of "liking girls just yet," but it gets annoying. I'm just glad you never did that, Dad.
"Don't be such a grouch, kid," he said with another mouthful of cereal. "It's not like your old man died from a wrench to the head, so lighten up, will ya? Brad said something about alcohol poisoning or something like that, right?"
I lost my appetite after that.
I grabbed my coat off the rack, pulled it over my pajamas, and decided that having breakfast anywhere else would be better than having it there. He just shrugged me off when I left, even when I slammed the door so hard on my way out it caused him to jolt and spill milk on his letterman jacket.
I didn't see this of course, but I like to think that's what happened.
That incident is what led me to her. I was starting to regret not changing into warmer clothing when a sound caught my attention from the woods. Not the usual sounds like chirping birds, rustling leaves, or even gunshots in the right season, but something more like music. It was so faint, I'm actually surprised I even heard it. I wasn't ten minutes down that old, paved road to town when it happened too. You know the spot, Dad: the bend in the road where you can't see the house anymore, just a few feet from the bridge over the creek. Curiosity got the best of me, and I strayed off the road to investigate.
They always said I was my father's son.
I found her a good mile out in a gathering of knotted oaks, orange and yellow with hints of brown for the season. A simple, battery-powered stereo was nestled at the base of a large girthed tree, and out of the speakers came unfamiliar lyrics, rhythmic in its melody yet interrupted by purrs of static. The song playing I would later come to know as Don McLean's "American Pie"—apparently the only version worth listening to according to people I've asked.
And there she was: dancing in circles before the stereo and hopping along on her tanned bare feet, arms spread out as if she wanted to fly. In out-of-style cutoff jeans and a two-sizes-too-big winter coat, she sang along to the lyrics in sharp, short-winded breaths. Her long, red hair wrapped about her like a large ribbon, and I swear it could have burnt the low hanging branches the way the sun lit it like fire.
It wasn't me who made the sound but some critter that snapped a twig causing her to look up. Her feet stopped moving, as did her hair that barely moved a strand minus a few that heaved along with her panting. She stared long and hard at me; I stared long and hard at her. Well, probably as long as two kids can before getting tired and wanting to sit down. I wouldn't call her a kid though. She was probably about twelve or thirteen judging by the braces on the top row of her teeth. Her face was smitten with rosacea, a dark blush covering each of her barely visible freckles. When she finally moved—first between the two of us I might add—she sat down on a log by the stereo, shut it off, and motioned for me to come over.
"It's alright," she said with a smile, "you don't have to keep staring like that. I don't bite."
My legs moved of their own free will while my mind still questioned if I should join her or not. It was too late for second thoughts when I soon found myself sitting near her on the log. I looked over at her brown eyes that seemed to light up when she noticed the green dinosaurs on my pajamas. A giggle escaped her plump, pink lips, followed by a half-hidden snort. It made me chuckle.
"I like your pants, kid," she said.
"I like your pants too," I responded.
She patted the spot beside her, and I scooted closer as she eyed me over.
"What's your name?" she asked.
Judging by her wider smile, she got a kick out of my name. "Clifford? Like the big red dog?"
"No, like my Dad."
"Oh, so Clifford Junior then?"
"No, just Clifford."
She nodded to herself. "I like that. You're not attached to anything that way. You're your own person."
"I would be anyhow, wouldn't I?"
She scoffed. "Not unless your Dad thinks you're going to be just like him when you grow up. That's why he named you after himself right? To be a copy?"
"I don't think so..."
"Well does he have you follow him around everywhere and do everything the way he does?"
"No, not anymore."
She paused and shifted around on her seat. "Really? How come?"
"Because he died."
She didn't say anything after that, which was fine with me; I didn't want to say anymore either. Instead, she turned the music back on and continued to dance as if I wasn't there. I felt a bit awkward watching her to be honest. I wondered if I left now, as quiet as I could, would she notice I wasn't around anymore? Home life's become that since you left, so it's where my mind goes the second I'm being ignored.
When I stood from the log, she snapped around and stopped her dancing again. "Why are you leaving?" she said, her voice urgent.
"You ignored me." I was frozen mid-stand.
"So it's rude, and I want to leave."
She returned to shut the music off and push on my shoulders to sit me back down. "You're like me, aren't you? You want people to notice when you're not there, so you want to run so far somewhere you don't care where you end up. That's why you're here right? In the woods by yourself in your PJs?"
"I guess, but—"
"I was in my backyard when I ran away," she went on. "My Dad came out and started yelling at me that I couldn't be on my tire swing anymore. Said it was for kids and I should be studying math or something."
"So I just stayed anyway, and you want to know what happened? I was on that swing for another hour, and he didn't even notice. He only noticed in the first place when he happened to see me swinging, but as soon as something else caught his attention, he forgot all about me."
"Okay. I'm sorry, but—"
"That bugs me so much. I just got fed up with it and ran off up here. So is that what happened to you? Who made you upset to run off out here? What did they do?"
Quiet. Oh, can I speak now? I thought.
"My stepdad's brother," I said, "but I live around here anyway, so it's not like I was running away mad or something. I just didn't want to be in the house anymore, so I went exploring sort of."
Her face fell at this. "There are houses around here?"
"Yeah." I pointed the way I came. "Walk that way for a bit, and you'll find mine."
She turned her head to look, as if she could see my house from where we were, and turned back, giving me an upsetting look. "So, this place is familiar to you? Nothing new or special?"
"You're new. What are you doing out here anyway? Just dancing?"
"Yeah, I had my radio with me at the swing, so I grabbed it up and took it with me. I wanted to run somewhere, and I ended up coming here," she sat beside me before picking up the stereo and settling it in her lap. "I'm happy I brought it along. I'm like the people in that song I was just listening to. It's my favorite." She patted the top and stroked it like a cat.
"What's that mean?" I asked. "How are you like the people?"
"It's because the song means death is going to happen, and even though we know it's coming, all we do is live our lives waiting for it to hit us."
"That's not happening to me." She brushed off my question and smiled at me the same way the girls from school did, only she was older and it felt more...appealing. "I have a plan to break it," she continued, "death that is, and it's going to happen soon. I almost feel sorry for the rest of the world I'll leave behind, but it's their loss for being stupid."
"What are you going to do?"
"You know what black magic is?"
"Yeah, Halloween's coming up and—"
"Forget the holiday and listen to me okay?" she snapped.
I felt frozen.
"You want people to listen to you, right? Well I'm the same way, so listen."
I apologized with a slight nod and shut my mouth.
Again, to be honest, I don't remember even half of what she said to me from that point on. I wish I did, so I could tell you word-for-word her idea of eternal salvation, but I thought she was crazy and just running off on tangents at the time. I just nodded and listened while a few words got repeated like black magic, dolls, swings, and death. I'm sure if Mom knew I was talking to someone like that, she'd kill me, but what she won't know won't hurt her. Kind of like when you and I would light things on fire just for the fun of it, and she'd ruin it by sending me to my room and yelling at you for another hour afterward. We'd still do it when she was out, and I always looked forward to breaking the rules that way. It's funny how memory selection works sometimes, seeing which ones your brain thinks are the most important to remember.
"And that's what I'm going to do," she said louder than before.
The increase in volume took me by surprise, and I shook my head a little to wake up from my daydream. She stood over me, a toothy grin stretching from ear to ear, as she waited for a response on my end. I stammered.
"That sounds great." I tried to smile. "You're really smart...eh..."
"I'm Anneliese." She held her hand out for mine and gave it a good shake. "It's really nice to have someone listen to me for once. Did you like my plan? Does it sound good? You can tell I've done my research on it, haven't I?"
"Yeah, yeah, you have. It's great."
"You don't think it's weird?"
"No, I think it's wonderful." This last thought just came out of nowhere, completely missing a vocal filter somewhere. "I might want to do it too it's that good."
Her mouth widened in astonishment before she pulled me in for a tight hug.
"Oh would you?" she squealed. Her embrace was so tight I could barely mutter a response. "I knew you and I were just alike."
I coughed out once and felt instant relief when she let me go. Not for long though, since she pulled me back in afterward to plant a kiss on my lips. I grimaced and tried pushing away, but I tripped over a gopher hole and fell backwards into a pile of leaves. When I finally scrambled to my feet, I only caught a glimpse of her half skipping, half running off in the opposite direction from my house. Then she was gone.
Her body was discovered Thanksgiving Day.
~ * ~
Brad moved the family to our new home outside Albany when the story hit news stations. We were still in the middle of the move in, and I was in the middle of a ham and cheese sandwich myself when the footage came up on CNN. It was hard to hear since the movers were bringing in the last of our things, but I did my best to concentrate on the coverage. I left the last bit of the sandwich abandoned on the plate as I fixed my gaze on her name written in bold white letters. They didn't show her body, but they flashed her school picture beside her name. They also showed the tree on the hill where a man hunting with his daughter found her hanging by a branch in the early morning. The noose was taken in as evidence, as was a smaller noose found hanging beside her, but there was no evidence of another body.
While the reporter spoke, they flashed images of people praying by the tree with a large pile of gifts building up by the trunk. There was a shot of my old neighbors paying their respects by a collection of candles before the image cut to a man sitting in the studio. His face was red, and it was hard not to notice the quakes in his voice.
"She just hadn't been the same since her mother died a few months ago," he said to the anchor. "It was very hard on the both of us for a while there, and I tried my best to be there for her as a father, but I don't think it was enough."
He had more to say, but Mom appeared behind me and shut it off, pointing her duster in my direction.
"Lunch was over ten minutes ago, mister," she warned. "Be a man and do your share of work around the house. Don't make me remind you every other week."
I nodded and picked my plate up from the floor.
When she left the room, eyeing me on her way out, I dropped the plate off in the kitchen and headed upstairs to finish unpacking my toys. The newscast was all I could think about, and if you want to know something interesting, the tree where they found her was same tree you used to take me to when I wanted a better view of Glenmont. I really miss that hill now that I think about it.
And I was right. According to the report, she was thirteen.
I didn't start having the dreams until the following week. Just like the others, it began with Anneliese and I in the woods dancing and singing around her stereo. All the dreams began that way before we moved on to do other things. Sometimes we had picnics, other times we went sailing, and once we climbed a mountain full of goats. Other people joined us once in a while, like a pair of Chinese twins, a bank accountant, a gray-haired woman on roller skates, and once an erratic blonde Irishman. They were all exciting, and each dream was always something different. I looked forward to them whenever I fell asleep. But everything changed one night in December when things took a turn for the strange.
"I can visit you at your new house now," she said to me on the log, a slight echo in the background. The trees around us shifted in a breeze I couldn't feel.
"You know where I live?"
"Yeah. It took me a while to find it, but I did. I went to your house, the one you pointed me to, but it was empty. I went to all the schools in the area, and I finally found you just last week when you were getting on the bus. It was quite a walk to get to where you are now. I waited a day and got underneath the bus to follow you home, and that's how I got here."
"You followed me?" I smiled. This was like something out of one of Mom's romance movies I imagined.
She nodded. "I'm outside your window now. Wake up and let me in please. It's very cold."
And that was the end of the dream.
Sure enough, the next morning when I pulled back the curtains in my room, there she was in the window. Not in a body like a normal person's body, but a doll made in her image. It stared up at me with a pair of tiny, black orbs made of plastic with thin, red yarn for her hair. Instead of a jacket and shorts, the doll wore a simple, navy blue dress with a white-laced collar to match a thick, silver thread sewn in for the mouth. A pair of felt arms were pushed up against the glass, her face tilted up, asking—no, wanting—to be let in.
I didn't hesitate to twist open the lock.
I slept with her every night since then. At first the feeling of felt rubbing against my neck frightened me, and I would wake up in shock to find the doll still as a grave beneath my chin. Only when I'd close my eyes again would it move. It took a while, but after a few weeks, I got used to it and liked it. I dreamed about her every night. It felt good.
April came. The first night of the month I went to sleep with Anneliese's' doll coiled in my arms and had my last dream.
"You can join me, you know," she said across the tea table. "You'd like that wouldn't you? To be somewhere new, somewhere special?"
We sat in a garden gazebo drinking afternoon tea when she brought up the idea. I put down my cup and curled up on the chair. "I guess I would, but aren't you with me now?"
She shook her head with a sad expression, tilting her head at me like I was a lost cause. "No, Clifford. We're still apart, but I made you something so you can be with me. You want to be with me, don't you?"
I never noticed before, but dimples form on her cheeks sometimes when she smiles.
"That's great. Whenever you've gone to school, I've worked on it. It's finally finished and ready for you."
"What is it?"
"It's a surprise, but you have to promise me something," she leaned in. I leaned in as well. "Do exactly what the paper says, and everything will be all right."
The next morning, I sat up in bed and waiting for me at the edge of my footboard was another doll holding a piece of folded paper. Like Anneliese's, it wore a navy blue uniform with white lace and had light peach felt for the skin. Two matching eyes stared at me from across the space, but the yarns of red hair were gone, replaced with short, light brown strands. Across his face was a thick black thread, sewed in a twisted smile that made my heart skip upon seeing it, but only for a beat.
The letter that came with it was not written in handwriting but ransom style with cut out letters from magazines and newspapers. They were the instructions from Anneliese.
1. You were born from a male and female, so wear clothing from your mother and something of your father's over it. Your stepdad's can do if you don't have anything of your real dad's.
2. Wear make-up for feminine beauty and wear shoes of a grown man for strength. You'll need them where I am. Remember?
3. Go to a sacred place. You don't have to find one; I found one for you. Where I died, that's where you go. I'll explain when we're together.
4. You must take your life on this Earth through something you once took joy in. I told you once I liked to swing, so I hung myself. You're a smart boy; figure something out.
5. Kill your doll through the same means you kill yourself. I hung my doll beside me. Don't worry about harming it. As long as you die with it, it will be protected from anything. I already laced it with the spell to keep your eternal life. I've made it easy for you.
That was all she wrote. No explanations, no hint of what's waiting for me, not even suggestions on how I get to that hill from Albany either. I folded the letter and pressed it to my chest, staring out at the morning sun behind the curtains. I could feel her staring me down from my pillow, and I decided I didn't want to keep her waiting.
When night fell, I got out of bed and went into Mom's room to take your hunting jacket from her cedar chest. I slipped that on over her favorite cocktail dress still laying on the edge of her bed. She and Brad were watching a movie downstairs while I applied her make-up and put on four extra pairs of socks to fit your boots better. I didn't bother looking down the staircase for them. Instead, I headed straight to the dolls and stuffed them in my backpack along with lighter fluid from the garage, a box of matches, and some loose paper by my desk.
Luck had it Brad chose my room to be the one over the garage. Getting out was simple enough, just a quick jump to the lower roof and slide down the gutter from there. When I checked Anneliese's note in the light of the lamp at the end of the street, I started racking my brain for answers to my questions about her instructions. I had a few questions myself, and I wished I had waited another night to clarify with Anneliese as to what it all meant. I regretted not listening more closely to what she was saying back in October.
As I walked out onto the deserted highway, her letter got that much harder to read in the dark. Several cars passed me without a look back from their drivers, but I didn't care. One stopped and a woman wearing a cross around her neck asked if I needed a ride home. I told her no, that I was fine and wasn't supposed to take rides from strangers anyway. She drove away with a confused, almost sad expression, but I still didn't care as I came up to an intersection.
What do I do now? I thought. Was Glenmont to the left, right, or straight ahead? I timidly looked into my backpack for a map I knew I didn't have, but I didn't know what else to do.
A pair of headlights brightened behind me when I stood back up. I turned and held my hand to my eyes as it drew closer, squeaky brakes filling the air as it did. When I heard it stop and park beside me, a man rolled down his window to ask what a girl like me was doing all alone on the road this time of night. I wasn't interested in him at first until I saw the woman on the cover of a magazine on his dashboard. She had the same red hair and speckled face as Anneliese. I looked the man straight in the eye, and he nodded as he clicked open the passenger side door for me.
~ * ~
The comets have stopped shooting now, and the truck's stopped moving too. It's gotten even darker, and I can't see my reflection in the window anymore. The road's gotten bumpier, enough to bounce me a few inches from my seat and toss my hands from their place in my lap. I stare out the windshield not at the road, but a path of uneven dirt. I recognize this area. We're here. The tall trees from my memory surround the truck on all sides, and I can hear the paper map being taken off the dashboard and stuffed up into the visor.
After that the engine shuts off, and the headlights go out with it. Silence. Not even a cricket chirps. I'm afraid to break the peace to thank him before going on my way, and it feels like an eternity before something happens.
I feel a rough hand run up my leg, and instantly my thoughts go blank. I look down to see the faint outline of a dirt-caked thumb begin to caress my thigh, and I shiver at the touch. I scoot closer to the passenger side door, and his grip tightens beneath my dress. This causes me to let out a squeak I tried hard to keep in. In the silence, it sounds louder than it should, and I feel anxious when I hear him shift on his seat. That too is amplified in the tranquility.
The only thing I can do is concentrate on the crushed beer cans that keep the cigarette buds company on the floorboard, but what can I do? What am I supposed to do? I have an inkling I should know, but nothing's coming. I hear the fabric of his seat squeak again as he moves his weight closer to me, and I don't have to watch him to know what he's trying to do. I've walked in on Mom watching those kinds of movies before.
I can't breathe, and I sniff once, getting hit with a wall of whiskey, tobacco, smoke, and pork.
"Hey," he says, a grunt forming somewhere in the innards of his throat. "I say, you hear me, girl?"
He gets closer, and his hand is moving up. I can't stand it anymore. I forget why I'm here. I want to cry for Mom. I want to go back and stay in bed tonight. There are so many things I want that I can't have.
I'm brought back when I feel the side of his index finger graze against my private parts. My body freezes, my eyes dart up to attempt a look at his face. Expecting something else, he goes in for another feel, touching my sensitive area again that makes me jump and turn away. Immediately, I whimper and reach for the door handle, shoving my full weight against it to get as far away from him as possible. The truck illuminates with the overhead light as the door swings open and I tumble down into a puddle of frozen mud. I roll onto my back and look up at the man pulling himself into the passenger seat the way an octopus pulls itself out of a hole—tentacles first.
I scramble up and touch the jacket pocket and feel there's something hard inside it. Then I remembered that Mom never cleaned it out; she wanted to preserve it exactly as you had it. I can't help but sigh in relief toward the stars. Thank you, Mom.
The man opens his mouth to say something, but I'm quick to the open the flap and pull out your hunting knife. It's the VERYLION, model VL10-DE2802 from China, black with a blade of steel and aluminum for the handle. See, I do remember what you teach me. I hold it firm with both hands and point the blade in his direction. I stand my ground, my eyes fixed on him, as I slowly back away into the dark woods behind me.
The man only stares at me with a blank expression, and when I reach my fifth step back, he spits to the ground and slams the door. The headlights kick in; the engine starts up. I back into a tree and watch as the truck pulls out and drives back down the path we came, bouncing along the terrain. The red taillights vanish from sight, and only when the echoing sounds of the motor are gone do I fall to my knees and gag.
That too is amplified.
~ * ~
The clouds disappear by the time I retrace our past steps and get to the edge of the hill. He dropped me off in the clearing by the end of the creek, so I've been trekking uphill for a while now. There are a few pieces of yellow police tape still scattered about when I come into the area, but the tree is bare from it. All that remains there are old teddy bears and burnt-out candles. Anneliese's name appears on many of the posters in sharpie marker and glitter with messages from strangers who claim to miss her. If only they knew what I did.
I kneel under the high branch where Anneliese was found, and I try to get a sense of where I am and what I'm doing. I stare out over Glenmont nestled in for the night. A bell goes off somewhere below, and it tolls five times. One, two, three, four, five. I imagine Anneliese counting down before stepping off the branch those many months ago.
I try to focus on my work. I unzip the bag and bring out both the dolls. I set mine beside my leg and take the time to stare into the eyes of Anneliese's doll. They're only pieces of plastic, the size and shape of a little ladybug, but I can sense something moving inside them. I shift the doll back and forth between my hands, and I know it's following me with its gaze.
"Hey..." I whisper. The wind blows and I hear a faint giggle. I smile and position her against the tree like a queen on a throne of roots. "I'm with you Anneliese," I whisper again. "I'm with you."
I turn my back to her and begin to pile the collection of posters at the edge of the hill. I throw in the teddy bears too along with the paper I brought from home and some wooden rosary beads I found wrapped around one of the old candles. I pull the match box and lighter fluid from the backpack and begin to light my fire.
Anneliese liked to swing. I liked to play with matches.
When the flames get high enough to cover my body, I sit down beside Anneliese's doll with my own doll secure in my lap. I stare into the black eyes of my doll that stare back up at me, and I can't help but pity how they look dead from where I'm sitting. I turn to the doll beside me and smile as I brush my thumb against the hairs of red yarn. I am with her.
Summoning as much strength as I can, I pour the remaining lighter fluid in sprinkles across my body, and hope it's enough to catch. Tossing the empty canister to the ground, I hold my doll to my chest and walk over to the fire, ready. I stare into the flickering flames of my coffin, breathing deep to prepare for the final plunge, when—
What am I doing?
I'm going to be with Anneliese, aren't I?
The wind stops blowing, and I take the time to look down at myself.
I'm in a dress, Mom's dress, with make up, hunting boots and your favorite jacket with a creepy doll with a creepy smile pressed to my ribcage, all in the middle of the night.
I whimper and step away from the fire, the doll shaking in my arms.
I don't want to do this anymore.
The wind picks up, howling through the trees, and it causes me to scream and shove my doll into the flames.
Hot tears well up in my eyes as I watch the fire swallow it whole. My throat is clenched as I let out another hoarse cry and begin to furiously wipe away the lipstick and blush, staining the arm of the jacket with it. An ember jumps toward me and engulfs a small patch on the sleeve. I rip it off as fast as I can and throw it to the ground while I tear away the black dress and kick off the boots. I'm beginning to feel cold with the harsh breeze but still warm with the fire. I take another look back as the felt starts to burn off the doll, the orange light flickering in its beady eyes before they too succumb to the heat.
Then I remember I'm being watched.
I turn around to the tree, but the light of the fire shows she isn't there. She is gone. Not fallen over, but gone. I hear a giggle behind me, and I whip around to see the fire is no longer burning. It's been put out, reduced to nothing but white, chalky ash. My light is gone with only smoke rising from the charred remains. I collapse beside them and try my hardest to soak in any warmth left from the cinder, but I'm still cold, half-naked, and terrified beyond all belief.
Thankfully, the sky starts to lighten up as I wrap Mom's dress around me like a blanket. I'm nervous as I search all sides of me for Anneliese's doll but see nothing. I check the backpack where I stored the knife, but there's nothing there. I shuffle back to the lingering warmth of the circle and stare into it, not knowing what I should be focusing on: the fact Anneliese is gone or the wellbeing of my toes and fingertips that are beginning to get numb.
The wind blows something up from the debris while I think this over and lands it right in my lap. It catches my attention, and I pick it up to see what it is: the long, black thread Anneliese used for the mouth of my doll.
The sun peaks over the horizon along with the sounds of engines going off in the town below.
I close the thread in my hand and lie with it in the dirt. It takes only a short while before the tears show up, and I just curl up tighter and let it out. My eyes burn with the tears and exhaustion, and already I can hear the maniacal fits of giggles around me in all directions. I cry louder as police sirens kick in from Glenmont, but they're hard to hear over the laughing. It echoes around in my head, even when the source disappears from the scene as something scampers away into the woods. But I don't stop crying. The sirens get louder.
Oh, Dad. Are you proud of me now?