Mary waved to Jack from outside her car. It had gotten a bit darker and the rain began to fall in a more steady rhythm, but he could see her from the living room. He waved back to her and felt the burden of loneliness settling in his belly.
Mattie hadn’t appeared in the house yet and he had no great expectation that she would anytime soon. He had tried to go outside, maybe find her by the swings—it had always been her favorite thing in life—but Mrs. Bowman said it was too wet and cold out.
“Everything will be fine, Jack,” he heard her call to him from behind him. “The other kids will be home soon and you’ll be able to meet them, then.” He could only look at her and remember the words of his sister.
Stay out of the dark …
“Why don’t you run your bags upstairs to your room,” she said, walking across the room. “It’s the last one down the hall … I’ll have a snack waiting for you in the kitchen.”
Jack picked up his bags—one in each hand—and headed for the stairs. They were big and wooden and as old as the house itself. The boards creaked under his feet with each step, sending a chill down his spine.
The landing at the top of the stairs was bathed in darkness. It loomed there like a black cloud, settled around a mountain peak. He heard the rain against the roof and nothing more. There were no horrible groans or growls, but he still felt fear.
Stay out of the dark …
There was nothing there—he was sure of that—but he stood still, frozen in the middle of the staircase. He wished his sister was there, wished he could have asked her what she meant. Stay out of the dark …
“Jack,” Mrs. Bowman called from below. He turned to see her, watching him. “Is everything alright?” He shook his head. “Are you afraid of the dark?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. She smiled at him, still a toothy grin. She flipped a switch on the wall and the lights hummed overhead. When he looked back at the landing, there was truly nothing there, just as he had thought.
“There you go,” she said. Jack continued to walk up the staircase, one creaky step at a time. He dragged his bags behind him, thump-thump-thump up the stairs.
The hallway was thin—like most things in old houses—and it stretched far into the back. The walls were papered with floral decorations and there was a light at the end of the hall, sitting on a small table.
The hallway wasn’t completely dark—but it still had its points, where shadows festered. He walked the hallway, slowly dragging his bags behind him. The light at the end flickered once in a while and when it did there was a slight noise—like a sigh.
Flicker-flicker-flicker … sigh … sigh … sigh. He froze in his steps, midway down the hall. The light flickered more and more and Jack’s little chest heaved in terror as his heart dashed in his chest. At the end of the hall he saw something.
In the seconds that the light came on, there was a boy there—roughly his age and size, but his hair was blonde—unlike Jack’s—and he had a sinister smile. Then the light would flicker and he was gone. Jack dropped his bags, tears peeking at the corners of his eyes.
Stay out of the dark ….
The words were as fresh in his ear as if his sister had just muttered them. The flickering boy seemed to linger there, making no movement towards Jack in the shimmering light, yet that smile seemed to come at him. It can’t be real, he told himself, trying to steady his mind. Nothing is there!
There was a loud stomp-stomp behind him and the lights flickered no more. He turned and saw Mrs. Bowman, she didn’t seem as cheery as before. “You okay?” He nodded to her. “This house is old and likes to play tricks,” she said, trying to smile. “When the lights flicker … which they will … just stomp twice and they normally come back on.”
He would have to remember that … remember to tell Mattie if and when he saw her again. Mrs. Bowman watched as he collected his bags once more and wobbled down the hall. Even with the lights completely on, he could hear the shadows sighing at him.
* * * *
The light was gray that came in through the window in his bedroom, but it was enough to keep the room lit—with the aide of a small lamp. He sat at a desk near the window, coloring in a book Mary had given him. It comforted him, the little act of dragging a crayon across the pages.
Even before the accident, if he was alone and feeling scared, coloring settled his mind. He was pretty good at it, too. No matter how scary this new place was, his coloring book reminded him of Mary and the kindness she showed him.
He was coloring a picture of a dog wearing a fire helmet—planning to give it to Mary when she came to visit—when he heard the noise of children outside. Peering out the window, he could see five children walking up the long driveway. There were two big ones, two his own size, and one that was a bit younger.
The biggest was the loudest by far, nearly shouting as they came up the hill. Jack set his crayons down and went out of the room. He was weary of the hallway, but the lights did not flicker this time. He raced down the hallway, not wanting to hear the sighing darkness.
He stopped at the top of the stairs when he saw Mrs. Bowman standing below. She gazed up at him with a look of disgust on her face. “We don’t run in this house, Jack,” she said, her voice more stern than her face appeared. “There are rules … and they must be followed.”
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. She held her gaze on him and he slowly walked down the steps. He stopped in front of her and she squatted down.
“It’s okay … this time,” she said, shinning her teeth at him once more. “It was my fault … you weren’t told the rules … It’ll take some time to get used to it around here.” She was gripping his arms again when the door opened and the children came in.
They seemed less happy now that he saw them up close. The five of them seemed like different people all together. “Jack,” Mrs. Bowman said, turning to the others. “These are the others … I’ll leave you with them so you can get to know one another.”
Mrs. Bowman stood and walked out of the room, disappearing in the dinning room. The air was still as she left, as if they were all holding their breathes as she went. “Running?” one kid asked—one that seemed about his age.
“Yes,” Jack said, a look of surprise on his face.
“It’s the first rule any new kid breaks,” a second said. A couple of them chuckled as they set their bags down to hang up their coats and scarves. Then they all picked up their bags again and headed upstairs with them.
“You coming, new kid?” the first asked again as they continued on. They all marched upstairs, taking great care not to run. Jack watched as the light failed to flicker once more.
The oldest, a boy of thirteen, went into the first room on the left; the second oldest, also a boy and eleven, took the room on the right. There were two girls amongst them, one being ten and the other six, and they shared a room that was across from the large bathroom.
Then they came upon Jack’s room that he shared with the boy that was his age exactly—only a month apart—named David. He showed him where they are supposed to keep their back-packs, tucked neatly under their beds.
“We have to do our homework right after school,” David explained. “But it’s pretty easy … most days, Ms. Jacobs hardly give us any.” Jack sat there on the edge of his bed, looking out the window at the coming dark.
“You’re pretty quiet, huh?” Jack, shrugged his shoulders, mumbling something. “First time in a foster home?”
“Yeah,” he said, softly.
“Don’t worry,” David said, standing in front of him. “It’s not so bad here … sometimes, on the weekends, Mr. Bowman takes us to the park or the movies … something fun like that. They’re not all bad … they’re just strict.”
Jack smiled at him, feeling a bit more at ease. “You just have to follow the rules … and I’ll help.”
“Thanks,” Jack said to his new friend. David left then, heading to the bathroom.
“The line gets long after school … it’s a long bus ride,” he said, then Jack was alone. He felt less alone—however—than he had when he first got there. All of the kids seemed nice, though he still had to meet them.
He looked out the window once more. There in the fading light, he saw her. Mattie seemed sad—standing there alone—and Jack felt guilty for the moment of happiness he just had. She waved to him from the yard and he waved back.