The boy found the stick at the edge of a creek between his street and the woods and knew from the way it stood, smooth and straight in the grainy mush, that it was special. It had not been there the day before. The boy stood behind the picket fence of the Braun Street ghost house and watched the old swing rock into a lull. The house, glazed over by a bleak, country orange looked out into the settling afternoon and offered no remarks.
He whistled the beginning of his favorite song again and again, starting over if he missed any notes. It was a glad little tune, and although he did not know its name he always asked his father to play it on mornings before school. He spun the stick in his hand. The boy hoped to bless it with bathwater and a prayer once he got home.
The boy looked back from the fence and towards Edwin’s front door, hoping he would not see him rumble out of his house and onto the street. Today he had taken the far sidewalk and run past Edwin’s house, eyes on the concrete. Edwin’s parents let him drink Coca-Cola for breakfast and play in the rain, and the boy did not understand how Edwin’s mother never called him in for dinner or drove him to school. The day before Edwin had been outside in his yard, poking at ant piles with a pencil. The boy had wanted to show someone the dam by the river, and although Edwin was a little mean, he was strong enough to carry some bigger rocks that the dam still needed.
They hopped over a root and onto a grave of leaves. Snapping a weed under his foot, the boy cleared a branch from his face and pointed at the timid stream whispering between the rocks. Edwin stumbled behind him and made a horrible noise, like an angry vacuum cleaner, and stomped his foot into the mush.
“You said it was a river!”
The boy didn’t understand. It was a river. There was flowing water and dragonflies and, on sunnier days, the tadpoles shot out of the moss and nibbled on the floating leaves. It didn’t have to be big to be a river. As long as there was life in it and it was deep enough to walk into, it was a river.
Edwin pointed at a small dam in the stream that rose neatly over a glassy, bronze puddle. The boy had spent a whole Saturday picking out the smoothest stones in the woods. He found crickets and worms under the stones and promised to make them a great lake in return. He found the best branches around a log and alongside them, hundreds of gray, spindly urchins that had fallen from the trees. The boy took his things to the base of the stream and built his dam for all the tadpoles and dragonflies and leaves and, maybe one day, even real fish. He had come to visit it for the past two days and watched the trees above him waver on the surface.
“That’s my dam.”
“I’m gonna tell my mom you said that!”
“You’re lucky I’m your friend.”
Edwin ran to the edge of the stream and stood over the dam. He studied his face and leaned over to see if he could find anything else. Then, scraping his breath, he spat out a pale, foamy glob.
“Hey!” The boy stood in his place, hands crawling towards his pockets. “Stop! Please. Please stop!” Edwin laughed and spat again. The boy watched the spit spin and spread through the water.
The boy balanced himself on his toes and peered over the picket fence and into the yard. The swing whined for him. He planted his elbows between the spades and studied the swing’s slow, perfect movement. It reminded him of his father’s breaths when he’d nap on Sundays after lunch, with an issue of Time magazine rising and sighing over his chest. A crow dropped onto the yard, scanned, and left hastily.
The peeling old house did not intimidate the boy as it did his friends. It summoned in him a vague feeling of home, as if he had lived there before and had taken baths and eaten soup there. He could imagine its familiar smell although he could not find any wisp of it in his memory. The house had become the focus of his bike rides around the neighborhood since last Halloween, when his mother sharpened her pace past its chipped and sullen fences. Its windows whispered secrets to him and although he could not express them, even to himself, he cherished the private colors that they ignited within him.
The next night, after asking his mother about the house, she took a few breaths and placed her hands on his chest.
“Not all families love each other. Sometimes they treat each other badly.” She grazed through the roots of his hair.
She pressed her hand over his hair and pushed it down, sliding her hand back to his neck.
“Some families just don’t love each other.”
The boy’s mother sighed and leaned away, dropping her hands to her lap.
“Your Popo was their dentist so he knew them well. He gave the girls their braces and fixed their cavities.” She kissed the boy’s forehead. “But their daddy drank very much. When you’re a grown up it’s okay to drink grown-up drinks—but only a little bit. Their daddy drank very much and would get angry at the mommy and the girls for no reason.”
The boy sat up against the headboard.
“Then they all stopped going to church and no one from the neighborhood really saw them anymore. One of the daughters put her things into a backpack and ran away one morning and no one ever saw her again. And one day their daddy drank a lot and fell asleep in his car and almost hit another car but ended up falling into a little canal off the side of the road. After that the mommy was very upset and she left with the other daughter for another town far away.” She kissed the boy’s forehead again.
“And the daddy?”
The boy’s mother opened her mouth and said nothing. She squeezed his palm and kissed his knuckles. She smiled but the boy knew that smiles were only real when people smiled with their eyes. Her eyes looked worried. He held her hand tighter.
“What happened to the daddy?”
The boy’s mother smiled again without her eyes and placed her hand over the boy’s chest.
“Their daddy stayed in the house and kept drinking. And one day his body could not take any more drinking so he passed away.”
“By himself? In that house?”
She looked over him and into the headboard.
“Yes, sweetheart. But that’s only—”
“He died all alone?”
“Yes, but that’s why it’s important for families to love and take care of each other, so we can be there . . .”
Her voice began to float away and blend with the whir of the fan. The boy felt heavy in his insides, as if he had just swallowed a cloud. He imagined the father’s ghost, all alone in that house, floating among the rooms, wailing for his family to finally come back. He could see him tired and crying, checking his watch and looking out the window like his mother would when his cousins came over for Easter.
“Sweetheart, you know I would never let that happen to you. You know that, right?”
Her eyes sharpened, like she had just seen a killer clown.
“Do you understand, honey? I would never, ever let that happen to you, or your father, or anyone else. This just happens when families don’t love each other. You trust me, don’t you?”
The boy nodded again, confused by the glaze over her eyes. He knew that he would be okay and that his mother would always love him, even if he died one day. He also knew that the ghost in the house would be okay and that one day the family would come back and the ghost would go back to being a person and the grass in their yard would come back, too. But the boy didn’t know why his mother’s grip trembled over his own and why her breath shook through her gown and into the bed. The boy thought that heartbeats made people real, but now, in the dry, distended moonlight, his mother’s heartbeat frightened him and he wished it would slow down. Hurriedly the boy kissed her hand.
“I love you, sweetheart.”
The boy felt like his river when his mother said she loved him. He loved his mother and had wished to marry her until his father laughed and patted his back, telling him that he would have to find a pretty girl of his own to marry. But the boy wanted to feel like a river and when his mother passed by to say good night was when he felt most real, like his spirit slept the whole day and only then rose to burn through his fingers as he played with her hair as she leaned over him. But the way his mother spoke now worried him as she lay next to him, her hair flooding over his chest.
“You know that your guardian angel is always there for you, right?” He could feel her heartbeat knocking on his belly. Maybe her heartbeat was looking for his.
The boy nodded and kissed her head, hoping that she would feel better. If he kissed her and held her hand she would be okay again. He asked about the daughter who ran away, and she said that she did not know her well. The daughter was much older and went to the high school, but was known for wandering the trails behind the neighborhood and playing her guitar in the yard, singing for the neighbors and the dogs. His mother said that her voice was the best in the church choir and that she was very pretty and had hair like a mermaid. He loved reading about mermaids and hoped to take to the sea one day when he was old as his father and find one to marry.
His mother’s sleeping breaths whistled toward the moonlight as he wove through her hair. Her arm slung over him and dangled over the edge of the bed. The boy thought that his mother was the prettiest girl in the world. He loved her hair and her face and the way she loved him. But the boy kept wondering about the mermaid girl and her guitar and imagined that she never wore shoes and that she was out somewhere in the night, maybe even in the woods, walking barefoot across his river. The boy counted his mother’s breaths and thought of the mermaid girl until she appeared to him, singing.
He imagined her skin glowing in the darkness and that they’d kneel together to pray a Hail Mary every night. For weeks she’d take him to the ocean when his parents fell asleep and they’d swim and see dolphins and coral and all the other mermaids with soft voices. She’d teach him how to breathe underwater and talk to fish, and once the moon sank in the sky, he’d take her back home and hide her in the bathtub where she would wait until he returned from school.
He made many names for her and changed the color of her eyes and drew her in the back of his old notebook so no one else could ever find her. He felt her living in him when he was at school and at the grocery store until, after Christmas, he had forgotten her song.
The boy, touching the gaps between the fence posts, felt that this house was more of a home than his own. The yard was wild in a way his was not. The boy felt this in the space between his stomach and his heart, where he imagined the cove of his soul. Thumping his belly with the magic stick, he opened the chipped gate and entered the yard.
The tree on which the swing hung was strong and gorgeous. Its branches looked like the arms of God. He looked up into the twining wood, making out shapes and words like “why.” His neck began to hurt and he looked again in front of him, approaching the creaky swing as if it were a sleeping wolf. He reached for the worn chain and caressed it carefully. The rust nibbled at his fingers. He gripped the chain and pulled. The swing wobbled and stayed in place, squealing frailly. Exhaling, he sat on the swing and let the breeze push him toward the house. He pointed the stick up and closed his eyes.
The house held itself upon a worn gray patio, the color of a summer day hesitating to rain. Several isles of peeled wood lay scattered across the patio. The door, guarded by decrepit, uneven columns, was battered and its hinges bent. Even if it was open, the boy had a bad feeling about going through it, for he was sure he’d find a killer clown or maybe even the lonely ghost. The boy hopped off the swing and headed towards the backyard holding his stick like a sword. His palms began to sweat.
The sky was sliding into a thick, bloody pink, dripping its tired hue over the remains of the back garden. Between the clumps of dirt lay a few scattered cactuses. The boy squatted to examine the dusty soil, sifting with the stick for new stems or seeds. Finding nothing, he held his palm steady over one of the cactuses, a stout, proud plant, hovering just enough to avoid a prick. He walked through the weeds, hearing the first crickets chirp near him. A tennis ball lay cracked and gray, nestled between several tufts of wild grass. He left it as it was. The boy followed the patio to the back of the house. One of the windows hung open, revealing an incredible darkness. His heart rolled down like a ball towards a gutter. He dragged his hand over his shirt and gripped the stick with the other.
Although the window scared the boy, the secret feelings that the house whispered slowed his heart. The stick would guide him and keep him safe. The house made him feel in ways only his mother’s voice would when she sang to him or when he would thank God and the Angels for so many things at once that he felt full and no longer human. The boy knelt into the grass, kissed his stick, and stepped towards the open window.
The glass on the window was riddled with dust. He impaled the dark with his stick that he swung between the frames and into the house. Feeling nothing, the boy climbed onto the sill and slid over, tapping the floor with his magic stick.
The house smelled of forgotten fruit and of the old library by the town plaza. The boy trudged through the darkness and the odor, following a single, tepid stream of light. There was not much daylight left now and the boy’s mother would be out looking for him at any moment.
Chairs without tables were strewn throughout the house. A box holding a hump of clothes sat tucked into a dark corner. A floorboard screeched at the boy and he jumped, nearly dropping his stick into the murk.
In the dark, the fireplace looked like a face. The boy wondered if that was where the old ghost waited and whether it was he who left the window open for the boy. The boy poked inside the hearth. The ash smelled like Thanksgiving and, closing his eyes, he imagined the ghost and his family having a big dinner together and eating lots of mashed potatoes.
The ceiling rose and folded above him, high like the one at the movie theater. He felt safe in the house now and was sure that if there were a ghost, he would be nice and happy to have a visitor. If the ghost really missed his family he could use the boy’s stick to bring them back. All he had to do was kiss it and whisper his wish and his family would come back right away. The boy would just find another one at the creek tomorrow, and maybe one day he’d come back to see if the ghost had used it. He spun a circle with the stick, brought it to his chest, and set it on the floor.
The boy looked back at the open window, watching the light thin and recede into the yard. It wouldn’t be long until dark. He stepped towards the window, keeping his eyes on the stairs. Whatever flowed from the house, the boy felt that it came from upstairs.
He ran up and, expecting to fall through the loose floorboards, leapt onto the second floor, stumbling onto a musty red rug. The boy stood up and followed it, passing the empty rooms and walls. He turned into a dead end—an empty bookshelf stood against the wall like a thick scab. He approached the bookshelf and ran his hands through it, even though he could now see that it held nothing for him. He skimmed the surface of the three shelves twice. He felt something in the right corner of the bottom shelf.
He drew it out carefully and rushed to the closest window. Turning it under the ebbing light, the boy squinted into his palm. It was a piece of yellowed, brittle paper, faded under various smudges of muck and, elegant and swooping in the bottom corner, “Tamalpais, 1973.” Tenderly pinching the top of the paper, he flipped it over. The boy’s soul swung.
It was a picture of a young woman, and immediately the boy knew that he loved her. She stood at the edge of a lake under a morning sun. She wore jeans and a sand-colored shirt etched with vines and petals. The boy turned the picture, hoping to somehow see the shape of her feet. Her collarbones curved and melted into her warm shoulders, her neck hiding half of itself in the flow of her mermaid hair. Her brows stood thick and woven like his mother’s and her eyes, ardent and hazel, looked out of the picture and into the boy as if she knew that the photograph was for him to find.
The boy loved her and fought to remember her name. The picture crackled in his hands as he stared back into her face, attempting to recall her name, her voice, her song, and embarrassed by the sudden awareness of his actions and thoughts, the boy descended swiftly into numbness, only to surge again at the sight of her face. Her name hung on his tongue like a forgotten prayer and he could not find the strength to muster through to it.
The light was almost gone now and the thought of curfew dug into the boy’s heart. He imagined marrying the girl by their river in the woods and pictured his lips on her forehead. He imagined the joy of tangling his fingers in her hair and the prospect of her forgotten name. He kissed the photograph.
The boy’s mother called him from the street. Swallowing, he galloped down the stairs. He hurdled through the open window and hustled out of the yard, nearly tripping into the wild grass and its million singing crickets. He heard his mother call again. He ran forward and stopped under a street lamp and glimpsed the girl once more. Bringing the photograph back to the cove that could no longer hold his soul, he ran towards his mother at the end of the street, burning through the asphalt night. He had remembered her name.